Four happy thoughts

1) Hooray for fathers!
For the first time in… maybe ever? I got to spend Father’s Day with the top 2 dads in my life. Both of them, I have great first hand knowledge, are superb dads. My father has always been a warm and loving presence. His bad jokes are legendary, his grounding in all the things I needed to know was thorough and he’s always the first one to lend a hand or solve a problem. He made it to every single one of my sports matches growing up – surely a purgatory when one’s daughter was a perpetual bench-warmer. He and my mother, in keeping with their generosity of spirit, drove out to Boston to help cover that awkward week where there is no child care. Thanks daddy!

The other father in my life is an excellent one. Adam spent his day like he does so many – teaching his kids, enjoying their company, spending time with them. He fixed Thane’s laptop (with several hours of labor) this morning. He is currently downstairs watching the Incredibles to prep for The Incredibles 2. He cares so deeply about his sons, and invests his though, labor, skills and heart into being the very best dad he could be for them, and I love him so much for it.

I hold a space in my heart today for that third missing father – Adam’s father. He lives on in story and song, but his daily presence in our lives is much missed. I’m sad that there are no new memories of him to be had, but I’ll cling to the beautiful ones I have.

We choose welcome

2) I’m really proud of my church
As many of you know, I worked really, really, really hard to help my church through the retirement of our pastor of umpteen years (his emeritus service is next week!), the death of our interim, and the really long hard pastor search. There were more than a few times when I wondered whether I’d completely burn myself out on this labor, and possibly have nothing left to stay with the church after I’d completed my work. But the last few months have been just a joy. Our music program, under the loving direction of my dear friend, has become a source of inspiration, enjoyment & pride. The music ringing from within that sanctuary seems like the sound of hope to me. That pastor we hired after long seeking has done me proud. Today’s sermon was truly excellent. On Father’s Day, we are remembering too those fathers at the American border whose children are being torn from them as they apply for asylum. But we, in our church, choose to welcome those immigrants instead, as much as we can. It’s remarkable to see something go from careworn and tired to joyful and vibrant, but that is my beloved congregation.

Preparing for kickoff on a perfect day

3) Stoneham Soccer
Have you ever encountered a group doing so much stuff right you can’t think of a single criticism, or improvement? As in the weight of my years, I come to understand how hard it is to do things well, I get more and more impressed with the group that runs Stoneham’s soccer program. It’s one of the most reasonable sports programs around, for cost. And for this modest investment, we get this amazing community. The refs are teenagers – and they’re 99% of the time treated with respect by kid, coach and parent. The parents are positive and yell out support and encouragement – not abuse. The coaches are all volunteers – a mix of parents and people who love soccer. Saturday was the end of year tournament and cook out. Seeing the kids play really pretty excellent soccer was awesome. Watching the community enjoy the games, their kids, the company of each other and the darn good and free hamburgers, hot dogs, watermelon & sodas. Well. Honestly, it restores a bit of my faith in humanity every time. It’s somewhat remarkable to see competence, good faith, great intentions and excellent skills all come together in something you can sign your kids up for.

Hanging on

4) There’s still one plum left
It even looks like a plum. It’s maybe the size of a cherry tomato. Despite the dour doom of plumdom, not all hope is lost for this year, yet.

What about with you? What fails to make the news, but brings joy to your heart? What has gotten better? What is excellent? Tell me!!

Three square meals a day

I’m usually pretty good with food for my family. Most of the time I cook a fair deal, and enjoy feeding people. I get a farmshare about a third of the year, which helps get the creative juices (by which I mean sheer panic) going. But I’ve been in a serious cooking rut the last few months. There’s the constant battle with the kids about what they will and won’t eat. (They philosophically know that veggies are good for them, but Grey’s current favorite food is the whitest of white bread with JIF peanut butter – which is basically peanut butter candy.) There’s the ever present time constraints. And honestly, I just got sick of all my recipes. I recently attempted listing them in a spreadsheet to see if there were any I wasn’t sick of, and there are 37 of them on my list. I’m sure there are more I’ve forgotten.

But I was definitely sick of all of them.

I trolled through my cookbooks looking for new or forgotten recipes, and considered how much things have changed. My earliest recipe book, the Whitehouse Cookbook, called for difficult to acquire ingredients. Like bear. Or possum. And it made rather large presuppositions about my cooking facilities – I have rather a dearth of earthen pits. But I have plenty of recipe books that lean rather heavily on cream of mushroom soup, as a genre. The cookbooks I got when I was first married, like Betty Crocker, still hold up in some arenas, but are on the whole more processed, less vegetably and not so healthy as I want to eat. (They’re tough to beat in the pie-zone though.)

So I ordered a bunch of new cookbooks, and complained on Facebook.

Whining

What I really want is a cookbook that does all of that:
– Pairs ingredients that are available together seasonally (like brussel sprouts and sweet potatoes)
– Uses the stuff I get a lot of (hellloooo kale!)
– Can feed between 4 – 12 people (the range of eaters at my table)
– Can be made in an hour or less
– Is healthy
– Doesn’t use extra weird ingredients (looking at you asafetida)
– That my kids will like
– That my husband will like

In this season of whining, my friends really came through for me. Prior to my Facebook posting, one friend sent me a free week of Hello Fresh, which did end up making two very tasty meals that fit all my criteria. I’d tried Blue Apron before, but found it really hard to work in a meal service PLUS a CSA. I think that I may sign up for another meal service in the fall when my farmshare is done.

Another friend actually found the right cookbook for me. Two of them actually. And she sent them to me, which was incredibly kind of her. My own explorations were not nearly so successful. They’re both from America’s Test Kitchen (as is about 70% of my in-rotation cookbook collection). And they look AMAZING. Nutritious Delicious seems very much a response to “oh crap, my farmshare sent me kale again”. I particularly appreciate the nutrition information, but sadly it doesn’t tell me recipe prep time. I’ve definitely missed a “simmer for two hours” instruction before in recipes, so I really like the prep time estimates, even though I always assume they’ll take a little longer.

A package waiting for me

But the one I’m *really* excited about is “Dinner Illustrated“. This is the cookbook I’ve been waiting for all my life. OK, for at least a few years. It’s done in a meal-plan style, where the sides are included in the recipe. All the recipes take an hour or less, soup to nuts. There’s step by step picture instructions. There’s a huge section of vegetarian recipes, making reducing your meat intake an appealing prospect. I was a little disappointed to see that it didn’t have nutritional information on the recipes. I don’t normally care, but my father is visiting me and he’s working on handling his diabetes with better nutrition. (Given my life at work is helping people manage their diabetes better, I’m fully in support!) So knowing how many carbs are in a recipe is important. But then I flipped to the back and discovered that there’s a full accounting of the nutritional information in a handy table, helping me find lower carb, higher protein options. FTW.

I just came up with my meal list for the week, and I’m very excited. Rut, busted.

All this made me feel happy and grateful for my good friends. It also made me remember to stop and think of how lucky I am. My oppression by the boredom of my favorite recipes, while a real problem for me, is the very best problem one can have with food. I can afford healthy food. I have easy access to a wide range of fresh ingredients. I have time to cook healthy food. I have a fully equipped kitchen, ready to zest, peel, slice, blanche and otherwise prepare healthy food – and I have all those skills to do it. (Although my knife skills are no better than meh.) I don’t need to consider any eating disorders. My family does not need a specialized diet – no food allergies or intolerances or religious restrictions. Then to top it off, I have friends who are able to help me out. Not for any dire need, but even for small things recipe malaise.

How fortunate I am. How easy it is to forget. So today, as I write out my grocery list, I am grateful. And remembering that the list maybe should include some of the things my local food pantry needs, too.

Come, Labor On

I’m chronically busy and oversubscribed. Like so many in this day and age, I have to fight the tendency to wear my busy-ness like a badge of pride, or a competition. The last week or so I’ve been particularly hard-working. I think a bit of that is a burst of energy from the renewal I got from camping. I now have the capacity to work just a little harder, so I’ve been tackling the small things and the backlogs that drain energy from the every day. Much of my weekend was given to the domestic labors and to do lists that eat at my conscience like a black stone dropped on a field of ice.

Then today was a particularly rigorous day at work. Instead of writing blog posts, I should definitely be catching up on my backlog of unread emails. I had one of those days where you end the day with more unread messages than you start it – not a good feeling. And tomorrow will be more of the same, except capped by a (likely) three hour church board meeting (session, for the Presbyterians among you) in which I will remember that as chair of personnel I should probably, you know, do something.

And Mondays are a hard-working night for me. Adam has aikido, so the kids and I are on our own. There’s dinner to be arranged, recycling to be put out, the house must be prepared for the cleaners (so much less work than doing it yourself, but not no work. I go through the homework with Grey. I also needed to tackle the bills – a chore that has become less frequent with the advent of bill pay, but hardly absent.

As I loaded the dishwasher, I was thinking about one of my undone tasks. Adam and I need to revisit our will. I also need to fill out my care choices and end of life choices. I have strong opinions on my own funeral, which if I want them heeded I should probably write down in a place where my family can find them. The short version is that I’d like to be cremated and buried at the base of a fir in Wellspring’s dreampt of funereal forest – you can only learn more by talking to Sunny during a massage. For my funeral, I’d certainly want the hymn “Abide With Me”. I was contemplating what other hymns I can’t make it through without tearing up and “Come, Labor On” came to mind. (Not sure I’d want it for my funeral, though.)

It’s “a hymn of a certain age” – that age being one of my soft spots. There’s something about those mid-1800s hymns that hits me right in the heart. When I sing them, I feel like the rearguard of a dying era. I wonder if I’m the youngest person to know all the words to these old chestnuts, and love them dearly. At my funeral, will the congregation hearken back to a lovely old hymn none of them had ever heard before, as I did at my grandmother’s? The carillon in our town sing sweetly on the hour (or rather, five minutes before the hour) between 9 am and 9 pm. That bell and I have a lot of hymns in common, and it’s a moment of worship for me in those quiet hours when it makes it to my ears. I checked to see if Google Music had a version of this hymn. They do, but it’s a big choir-and-organ version, lugubrious and hard to hear the words to. I’m not a choir-and-organ Christian. I’m a piano and if we’re lucky one or two voices of harmony Christian. Most hymns I love, I cannot hear “properly” without just singing them myself.

I absolutely, positively cannot make it through this hymn without choking up. The whole hymn is about working. “Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain, while all around us waves the golden grain” and “No arm so weak but may do service here”. So totally Protestant Work Ethic FTW. But then, ah, the last verse. As with so many hymns of this era, the last verse hints to what happens after our labors cease. Here it is in full:


Come, labor on.
No time for rest*, till glows the western sky,
Till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie,
And a glad sound comes with the setting sun,
“Well done, well done!”

I totally teared up just typing that. I’d blame it on fatigue, but it happens every single time I sing this song.

When is the last time someone said to you, “Well done!” When is the last time you believed it when they said it? What would it mean to you if it was the person who’s approval you most sought – the hardest judge of you – who said those words at the end of your labors, and you really believed it? What would it take for you, yourself, looking back at your life at the end of all things, to judge for yourself that your work was “well done”?

I have no answers here, only feelings. There is honor in our hard work. There is much to be done. “Redeem the time; it’s hours too swiftly fly. The night draws nigh.” But make sure that the work you are doing is the work that will earn you at least your own “well done” when the long shadows over your pathway lie.

*We Presbyterians get a lot of sermons about keeping the Sabbath and the value of rest, including this last Sunday’s, all of which we sincerely agree with and completely ignore.

Something I’ve never done before

The older you get, the fewer things you get to do for the first time. I wonder how much of the perception of the speed of life has to do with that diminution of novelty. I can see it in even the difference between walking a path for the first time, and walking back along it. Anyway, on Saturday I got to do something new.

On Saturday I learned that some friends were going to a paint and wine night and I managed to cadge an invite. Now, I was a band geek of the first water. When electives were coming around, there was absolutely no doubt which one I was going to sign up for. So I never did art in high school. Or college. Or, well, ever. In fact, my nascent art career was cut short with one of the more bitter regrets of my young life. I begged my parents for art lessons when I was about 9. I remember going to a stationer’s store (I’M SO OLD) and buying the pencils, the sharpener, the paper and the special eraser. I was out of my mind excited. The teenager who showed up was an excellent artist at the high school level. But I was so wound up and energetic that I was hard to teach. She got frustrated with me in that first lesson and never came back. I ended up having been taught one method of drawing fir trees, but with a far more useful life lesson: If you want to learn, you had better make teaching you be a pleasure to your teacher.

Painting with some friends – maybe next time we’ll do an all group outing!

My art skills completely stalled out at that level, and if you ask me to draw today, chances are excellent I’ll make a fir tree for you.

Intimidation factor: high

So when confronted with a blank canvas, I was unsure what the outcome might be. Complete humiliation seemed plausible. Fortunately, middle age also carries with it this glorious lack of caring about complete humiliation. I uncovered the paper plate with my paints. Our instructor was reassuringly clear. Plus, this was just the base layer. At this layer most of my mistakes would be covered later. I slapped on the paint with aplomb.

Base coat

Then things got more complicated. We had to make rocks! Worse yet, rocks that actually looked like rocks. Woe!

Rocks and hard to make clouds

Our last step was buildings. I have some regrets about the choices on the lights, but none about my lantern lit landing on the water, or the expressive stars I added.

I improved the clouds
My masterpiece

It was a really enjoyable experience. It required attention, but it was a different kind of attention than I’m used to having to expend. My hands and mind were busy, but it was rather restful to be busy with skills I knew I didn’t have on an outcome that didn’t need to make it past the garbage can on my porch. (Have no fear – Thane has claimed he wants it for his room so it’s not intended for the bin just yet.) I would totally do that again!

It’s amazing how slightly differently we can all interpret the same thing!

It takes my mind off the near-complete-loss of all plums currently bedeviling my poor tree. Next year…

On a sadder note

Bumpy roads and traditions

Here are the infallible Flynn Family Camping Traditions:

1) Stop on the way up at the Toys’r’Us (sadly likely last time) & Starbucks in Portsmouth
2) Late lunch at Miss Wakefield. One time, we forgot Grey’s old Kindle there on Labor Day weekend. They had it waiting for us Memorial Day Weekend the next year.
3) Camping at either White Lake, Covered Bridge or Waterville Valley campgrounds
4) Soccer at Almost There tavern. 100% of the time, Gerd will be there. If it’s slow, he’ll do magic tricks.
5) Dinner at Hart’s Turkey Farm. Order the poutine. Poutine is always a great choice.

Many great traditions include moose

This long weekend contained all of those ingredients. It was Waterville Valley, this time. In a rare moment of discretion and wisdom, I checked Google Maps to get a route from Miss Wakefield’s to Waterville Valley. Sure, it’s tempting to run the Kancamagus just for fun, but it’s also nice to get to your campsite before dark. Google directed me on a route I hadn’t taken before, likely some rural way cutting up Rt 25 (home to one of the scariest drives I’ve ever done in dense fog) up through byways to 49. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.

At first the route was captivating and charming in that old New England way with stately old houses, scenic fallen stone walls, beautiful vistas and ancient orchards. Then it started getting really rustic. Then it stopped being paved. At one point, bouncing along a rutted dirt road which had been one lane for at least the last two miles, tires tipping over the top of a hill whose other side I could not see, I began laughing hysterically with joy. THIS WAS A REAL ROAD (and it wasn’t my fault we were on it). I have gone years and years without getting to drive a real road in a completely inappropriate vehicle! I skirted massive holes, went over granite boulders, edged along with bare inches between my wheel and a dropoff and generally had a blast. There was that one minor issue, when whining in the back seat about hitting their heads on the top of the car made me slow down a bit and then I didn’t have enough momentum to make it up the hill. For a while, I didn’t quite have leverage to make it back down, either. Eventually I got myself straightened out. Of course, that’s when we saw the first other vehicle in half an hour. It was too narrow for him to pass me, and I needed a moment to figure out how I could move my vehicle aside before making another attempt at the hill – gazing at the ruts my previous attempt had made.

This would be more accurate if it read “Abandon hope all ye who enter here without four wheel drive. I’m pretty sure it hasn’t been much changed since 1801.”

I pulled out my finest “Mountain Mom”. “Sorry, I’ll move aside. I need to plan my attack for the hill better. Google Maps didn’t mention this.” The gentleman in his ginormous 4×4 pickup turned white, “What, you’re on The Sandwich Notch Road by surprise! (He shuddered.) You don’t have four wheel drive, only all wheel drive?” We discussed routes for a moment in a swirling vortex of mosquitos. We agreed that my best bet was to take the outside corner. He said he’d drive it for me (“I drive this road all the time”) but… “I wouldn’t want to be responsible for damaging your vehicle.” I pulled my car, laden with bicycles, tents, NERF guns and terrified children out of the way. I didn’t mention that I don’t have all wheel drive either – I only have front wheel drive. Crappy front wheel drive. He passed me. My chicken family told me they’d meet me when I got to the top. I pulled back, gunned it, and made it to the top no problem. Eventually they walked back up to me.

Adam says I’m not allowed to ever drive that road again, unless I have a four wheel drive. Meanie! We totally didn’t die. Man was that fun.

It ended up raining less than expected this weekend, which is not to say it didn’t rain. It just didn’t rain *much*. Adam got to do a lot of rope and tarp-tying, which surprisingly makes him very happy. The boys went swimming in the river. Grey and I did some geocaching. We played a Cthulu game. There was laser tag and Nerf gun wars. The campfire was going pretty much non-stop.

We had four tarps up

Our middle night in, with freshening winds rising up the valley along the Mad River, Adam and I were just getting ready for bed when we heard this iconic creaking, breaking and crashing sounds. Very clearly a tree had just fallen, very nearby. We listened for screaming – none. We went to where we heard it and were assured everyone was fine. One person said, “It wasn’t as bad as it sounded.” When I went back in the light of day, I had to beg to differ. I didn’t take pictures of their camp site, but this was only a few feet from tents, tarps and cars where a whole family was staying.

The trunk had bifurcated and each part had fallen to the sides – twice as potentially deadly!
Easily fatal – times two

This was especially alarming to me since there was an already splintered pine tree very nearly overhanging our tent. This widowmaker was very stably caught in the Y of a very lithe and healthy looking birch tree – I couldn’t see how it could come free. But it creaked alarmingly in the winds. I would claim I couldn’t sleep soundly with it up there, but that would be an out and out lie. I think I might have been the most comfortable I’ve ever been in my life lying on that air mattress on Sunday morning.

Helpful ladder replacement

The boys were remarkably helpful this time. I kept having flashbacks to camping when they were like 18 months old and 4 and I had conniptions every single night trying to get them to sleep. But now they could start fires, they did the chores we asked (from carrying firewood to water to fetching – anything!) They were cheerful and helpful and kind and… they went to bed when they decided they were tired. It was amazing. I never dreamed this day would really come, but it did. All those years of effort have really paid off! Now to get them to like hiking…

Hiking to find a geocache

Top of Mind at the tipping point to summer

1) Bike to Work
This week was “Bike to Work Week”. My employer is big into Bike To Work week, and strongly encourages people to participate. It’s also pretty mellow on the “show up exactly at 9 and leave exactly at 5” scale (as long as your work gets done). So with the near-completion of the Stoneham Greenway, all the way through to Winchester Center, I reckoned just maybe it was time to give it a try. I’m pretty scared of biking in traffic. My sister had an extremely serious biking injury when I was in my early teens. Biking in traffic like a grownup seems terrifying. So I posted to an internal group that I was interested in participating (going from my house to Alewife and taking the T in), but asking for good route advice. I got excellent route advice, a t-shirt with a weird Illuminati-biking theme, the loan of front and back headlights, and a colleague who SHOWED UP AT MY HOUSE AT 8:15 to ride in with me and make sure I felt safe. The mind boggles that people could be so awesome, but it turns out that sometimes they are.

Commuting clothes

It took a surprising amount of mental energy. It also took about 2 hours each way, so that’s unlikely to become a regular thing. I thought a lot about what I was going to do, how I was going to do it, and what I’d do if it didn’t work. It was a really novel experience, and I was interested to see how much my mind was engaged and excited by the novelty of it. I was also surprised and pleased that I wasn’t all that physically wiped out by it (except for mebbe that last hill on the way home). I’ve been in better shape lately – we’ve been running a loop with the bikeway as well which is close to 4 miles and I set a personal record best time & personal record longest run last week.

There was this moment, as I spun through brand-new asphalt on the not-quite-yet-finished bikeway where I really really enjoyed the fact that it exists at all. The community came together and made this thing happen, which was not easy. My first post about it was five years ago. Since then there have been Town Hall Meetings, letters to the editor, phone banking, cleanup days and patient and concerted effort to make it happen. It’s astonishing to think that after so long, the efforts of the good-hearted people of Stoneham are bearing fruit, but here they are!

2) Plums
Speaking of bearing fruit, I’ve been more than a little obsessed with my plums this year. The point at which you’re putting a space heater out for a fruit tree, you have crossed some important line. However, I’m happy to say that they’ve made it the furthest this year in the history of this benighted plum. There are hundreds of tiny little fruits. Most are the size of a lentil, but there are one or two that are the size of really small olives.

I’m excited to learn what disaster can kill fruit at this stage! I’ll let you know.

There are a couple hundred plums, but these are the biggest

3) Attic Renovation
I’ve been getting strong pressure from maternal sources to post an update in the attic situation. Here’s the album where you can watch the whole thing progress. We have the electric & plumbing in, as well as a lot of the framing. Almost all the demo is completed (or was, until we increased scope like the home owners we are). The inspection has been done. There’s a bit of waiting for the next step – we need to put in the new windows, but they’re on order and won’t be ready until early June. We also need to get the HVAC in and all hooked up. We opted to go for a bigger unit so we can drop some cool air in summer down to the 2nd floor and actually get it to be a comfortable temperature – sandwiched between two zones. We also had to put in new hard-wired smoke detectors for the whole house to bring it up to code, and bring in a new electric bank. Once we have HVAC & windows in, we’ll do closed cell insulation from the bottom of the walls to the tip top of the roof. We’ll need to vacate the house then for a day. But that’ll be the biggest tipping point – then we can start doing finish type work like, you know, walls & stuff.

I reckon the project will be done by early August, if I’m lucky.

4)Time with my boys
I got to go to Fenway on Thursday night for the makeup game from Patriot’s day. It was so perfect. The weather was ideal. The game was excellent (and we won). It’s an interesting moment when you learn that your child is really good company. We had good conversations, we were game-watching-compatible. On the walk back to where we parked, he didn’t like how someone had bumped up against me, and then protectively took the spot between me and other people. How quickly we go from protecting them to them feeling protective of us. He’s still not bigger than me, but that will not last long.

Just as I took this picture, the Sox hit a home run

In the same vein, every year for Mother’s Day we go to the Arnold Arboretum for the Lilac Festival. And every year for many the boys have climbed these ponderous birch trees with tempting limbs and I’ve taken their pictures there. This year, we arrived to find a denuded slope. I never thought that the grand trees my boys climbed on would not outlast our Mother’s Day tradition. I will admit tears welled in my eyes. I’m grieved for the magnificent trees that were lost (although I’m sure the arborists did everything in their power to save them). But it was this shocking moment to discover that we are all now old enough for things that were traditions to come to final endings. It’s astonishing enough to have sufficient tenure to parenthood to have traditions in the first place. I feel very unready to have traditions end.

Not quite the same thing

5) Finding my feet again
Every year for Mothers Day I write my mother a letter about how things have been in the past year. Last year I wrote a letter that talked about how overwhelmed I was, especially with huge projects like the pastor search and kicking off the attic project. I added a few things to my tally during the course of the year, the largest of which was probably getting a new job. But slowly slowly slowly, since about January, I’ve been unburying myself from the accumulation of things that needed to be done, and shortening that infinite to do list. Clearing out the attic in preparation for our project was a huge one that I suspect added a lot to my anxiety. Things have been getting crossed off. I’m starting to arrive at a point where I almost feel like I can actually rest without guilt, sometimes. Of course, there’s always more to-do list to go, and I haven’t fulfilled every promise I made for “after we hired a pastor”. But I’m closer, and that’s really reassuring.

So that’s what’s up with me. What’s up with you?

Stoneham Town Meeting: Monday May 7th

Update : it was a packed and passionate house and a we’ll run debate. The vote was a close one. At the end, I’m glad to report that fiscal responsibility prevailed and the article was voted down. Phew! We heard from the town accountant that this might have made the high school three million dollars more expensive. Yikes!!!

Tomorrow is a big day in the town of Stoneham. We’ll gather in Town Hall, as we have for nearly 300 years in various buildings, and make decisions about our community. First, a few facts and links:

  • All voting citizens of Stoneham are welcome. Non-citizens may attend, but need to sit up on the stage, since most votes are voice/hand votes. The meeting is at 7 pm on Monday May 7th 2018 at Town Hall in Stoneham (tomorrow!)
  • If you’re wondering what we’ll be talking about, here are all the articles
  • Supplemental materials can currently be found on the Town News Page
  • If childcare is a problem, the fantastic Stoneham Rec Department is offering childcare during the meeting so all parents can attend!

The biggest question on the docket for our joint decision is whether to use our rainy day funds to temporarily cut our trash fee – Article 22. Here’s the text:

Article 22

We’re likely to talk about this for an hour or two (these are not short meetings) and it’s almost certainly going to be one of the first things we talk about. I estimate we’ll probably vote on it between 8:30 and 9 pm. This is a complicated issue, so I wanted to provide my view (shared by every board in Stoneham) that we should VOTE NO ON 22.

Here are my key objections:
1) Using reserves to pay for recurring expenses may negatively affect our bond rating – which may make it more expensive or impossible to build a new high school.

2) Not having a rainy day fund may lead to nasty consequences for the town if there are any unexpected costs, or drops in revenue.

3) The downsides seem long term and serious. The upsides seem temporary and small. I’m afraid this will overall increase the financial burden on Stoneham residents, when effects on our bond rating are considered.

4) I’m unclear on who has provided the funding for the serious mailing and phone banking campaign in favor of this article. Does someone have something to gain? What and who?

Here are some more notes on those high level thoughts

1) Paying for recurring expenses with savings
State guidelines advise that the town should have 3% to 5% of our operating budget in Free cash each year. That is a target between $1.98m to $3.3m in free cash each year. If we were to approve this article, we would have only $328k. (See the analysis here.)

There are some real and serious consequences to this kind of budgetary move. Our neighbors over in Lynn just learned this the hard way. This proposal effectively makes the mistake that Lynn is trying to recover from, and may lead to statements like this “The negative outlooks reflects our expectation that the city will continue to be challenged to effectively match recurring revenues with recurring expenditures”. With this proposal we’re paying for recurring expenditures NOT with revenues but with savings.

2) Not having enough savings set aside for even a mild shower, never mind a rainy day
Selectman Colarusso’s previous actions have already dropped our safety net for any issues with water in sewer from 2.24 million dollars in 2014 to as low as
$23,955.72 on April 9th – a 10th of the recommended amount (and not nearly enough to pay to fix a water main break).

Currently our housing market is strong, and our tax revenues are strong along with it. The regional economy is doing well. I know many people’s well being has not risen with those macro trends, but there is every reason to believe that at some point in the future there may be a correction in the housing market, or a challenges in the larger economy. When that day comes, our town will have already frittered away our flexibility and savings. That may mean we would have to make immediate cuts in safety, education or critical services if at any point our revenues falter at all, or if there’s any unexpected costs. As any homeowner has experienced, if you don’t have a little extra set aside to fix a roof or a small leak, it can lead to much larger and more expensive long term consequences. The same is true for towns.

3) We want to build a new high school
There is a lot of serious discussion about building a new high school in town. Our existing building is profoundly challenged to meet the needs of our students and ensure that kids coming out of our town are well educated and ready for the world. We will need to borrow the money for such a major expenditure (especially if we spend all our savings). The cost of borrowing may go up if we are considered a poor credit risk (like Lynn). If we end up paying a higher interest rate because of our fiscal irresponsibility, the overall cost to the residents of the town of Stoneham may very well be far more than gets returned in trash fees, temporarily. It’s like going on “holiday” using a credit card with a 22% interest rate.

4) This just doesn’t make sense. So why did so many people get letters and phone calls supporting it?
I do not understand why so much money was sunk into campaigning for an article that I think will hurt this town. It makes no sense. If you want to help residents pay their bills, that money would seem much more useful in creating a fund to assist residents & help directly. I’m especially confused since Selectman Colarusso’s last campaign to cut water fees led to such a painful and negative outcome with our Water and Sewer board. That entire experience seemed really negative for the people of Stoneham, with unexpectedly huge bills taking people who plan carefully by surprise. I have not heard any discussion about why the outcome would be different this time.

Every single board in town (Finance Committee, School Committee & the other four selectmen) have taken votes recommending against this article. Across the 22 members on those resident board and committees, only one voted in favor of this article: Selectman Colarusso. Given that lack of widespread local support, I find it hard to believe that Stonehamites are making political donations to support a campaign to spend our reserves. If they are, let me recommend that a fund to help folks pay for their bills would be way more effective in supporting their neighbors.


So please, come tomorrow to Town Hall. Ask your questions. Read the materials. And come vote!!


In trying to be ready for this, I made a Freedom of Information act request for data on both the Trash Fund and Water and Sewer fund. There wasn’t as much information as I hoped, and it is a bit hard to understand, but here’s what was provided to me.

You can see all the documents I’ve been using in this Google Drive folder.

Hi Brenda,

The Town Accountant Dave Castellarin doesn’t have balances for the water & sewer enterprise funds. From what the Budget Analyst said to me it’s like taking a snapshot of a point in time and it wouldn’t be giving you a true balance. The Town Accountant told me that it’s something he calculates at the end of the year. I did ask them if they could write something up to explain it to you and hopefully they will get that done.

The first two attachments are the worksheets that the Town Accountant had shown the Board of Selectmen at their March 6th meeting. He also used them at the meeting the Water & Sewer Review Board held when they recommended the increase. He doesn’t have anything with projected balances for the water and sewer enterprise funds and it sounded like he wasn’t comfortable creating that. The Budget Analyst Al Rego emailed the trash balance to me this morning:

As of today, April 30th, the current balance of the trash fund is $144,861.86.

He also forwarded a spreadsheet which he said showed the impact of Article 22 to the free cash. Not sure if that was the type of impact you were looking for but it’s attached as copy of book 1.

I asked the Selectmen, Finance Board and School Committee if any presentations were done for them and the answer from all three boards was no. I have attached minutes that the School Committee gave me because they discussed it at their meeting in early April.

I will point out to you because I’m not sure if it’s been mentioned publicly that Town Meeting does not have the authority to grant a “Trash Fee Holiday”. This article would possibly pay 1.1 million for trash from free cash but it would not do away with the trash fee. The trash fee is by the vote of the Board of Selectmen. They are the only ones who can put it in place, take it away or change the amount raised.

Hopefully what I have sent will be helpful. If you have questions on what you are looking at you can try reaching out to the Town Accountant Dave Castellarin at dcastellarin@stoneham-ma.gov or Budget Analyst Al Rego arego@stoneham-ma.gov . The telephone number for accounting is 781.279.2690.

Let me know if you need anything else.

Maria