A dry, hot summer

Mt. Rainier reflection panoramic. True color - no filter.
Mt. Rainier reflection panoramic. True color – no filter.

I’m originally from the Pacific Northwest. I was just home, and reveled in the depths of the blues and greens and whites of my mountain home. August adds a fourth color – the lions-mane gold of the grass fields baking in the summer sun.

The ruins near the river, where I used to adventure.
The ruins near the river, where I used to adventure.

But August in the Northwest is brief, and so much of the rest of the year I was trained to expect the muted grays and greens that are so much a signature of the region. You can go weeks with a fantastic view of Mt. Rainier, and never once see it through the clouds. I grew up with both times to go outside and venture down towards the creek to the remnants of a former era, and to plan to hole up in my room with a good novel and a steady rain tapping on my roof and walls. And the balance of my life tipped more towards novel-reading than train-track-travels.

I still look to rainy days as times of rest and contemplation. They’re times to shut off the extrovert and welcome the introvert. I crave that time to read, to think, to contemplate poetry, and to feel deeply. I spend my whole life talking and acting. I need time to listen and think. And I need rain to do so properly. (Although snow will do in a pinch, and fog can also fill in.)

But it hasn’t rained. This summer has stretched out hot and humid and gloriously summery. Night after night has been punctuated by the whir of the AC drowning out the sound of the crickets. The skies have gone overcast, but the rain has passed us by. In fact, my corner of the state is in an extreme drought – the penultimate level before you get classified as an exceptional drought. Trees are dying. Plants are withering. Grasses have gone sere. The land is baking under the heat.

The dying forests of California
The dying forests of California

And it’s not just Massachusetts. I went to California this spring – in what was supposed to be an El Nino deluge. I was shocked at what I saw. The air in the Central Valley was thick as sin and hung darkly over the even rows of orange trees. As I climbed up out of the groves to the woodlands, the trees stood stark orange corpses. The drought had claimed them, and was growing. The paths that should have been impassible with snow stood wide open in late February, up in the heights of the Sierra Nevadas.

Finally, I went home to Washington. The Evergreen State still surely holds it’s name. But drought was being felt there too. The burn bans were on. The firefighters were tense, waiting for the spark to begin their fighting once again. Even the lush lands of my youth are dry.

Then, down south, the word came that floods, unheralded by named storm, had swept over the same battered folk who had suffered in Katrina were being drowned again in the relentlessness of the water.

I feel the wrongness of the lack of rain in my own home, and where I grew up. I’m sure those down south are looking at their lands and wondering where the line is between land and water after all.

Humans have always felt powerless against the weather. It’s always been one of those factors outside our control – almost reassuringly so. I wonder if that’s not really at the root of why we have done nothing in the 30 years since we were told that our actions would change the weather. Perhaps we didn’t believe we really could change the weather? Perhaps we saw our actions as immutable as a rolling storm – nothing we ourselves could stand against. I understand, somewhat, why the world hasn’t come together to prevent our actions from changing the face of the world.

A dramatic representation of how normal has changed

But what I don’t understand is why we haven’t prepared for the change we know was coming. What do we need to do differently as the sea levels rise? Which cities need to be abandoned, or protected? What steps have we taken to resettle the inhabitants? What seawalls built? I’m frankly gobsmacked that massive new development has been done just bare feet above sea level, on fill, in the Seaport District of Boston. I’m not entirely sure all those buildings will even be finished before they’re swamped. Those future residents will at some point have a nasty surprise, but we pretend like that’s an unknowable future instead of the near-certainty it is. We know it will happen. We even have a good idea of when. We just want to pretend it won’t.

I desperately wish I know what I could do to fight this. The voices that have been raised to warn have been laughed down, and beaten down over decades. The small economies of a single household pale by comparison the the vast wastefulness practiced by others. Keeping the thermostat at 68 in the winter means literally nothing – taken by itself. I wish that I had solutions for this problem, like I wish I had for so many others.

But I will say this – do not be surprised. Our world is changing. The Northwest Passage has been created by melting ice. The seawaters are rising. The rains fall more in some places, less in others. If you will not work to prevent it – and we have not – then we must work to live in the new world we have created.

And every hot day without rain just reminds me of it.

Timon of Athens and the Happiness Exchange Rate

I mentioned earlier that the book “The Last Safe Investment” had raised two interesting thoughts (which is two more than is standard from that kind of book). I explored the idea of “Tribe” in my earlier post about how Stoneham is coming together to help a kid with autism stay safe. (Three weeks until the big day! Buy your tickets now, or donate online!)

The second interesting idea had to do with “the Happiness Exchange Rate”. The idea is this. Past meeting all your basic needs, the purpose of money is usually to make you happy. (There are plenty of exceptions.) But we don’t always think very carefully about the happiness per dollar ratio we’re getting. For example, a new car would make me happy. I don’t need one – both of my cars run fine and get the job done, but especially the older one is getting a bit junky. A Saturday morning sleeping in, drinking coffee in bed and reading a novel would also make me happy. One of these things costs $25k (minimum). One of these things might set me back $10 in the worst case scenario for the novel.

Would the new car make me four orders of magnitude happier than the lazy Saturday morning? Would it make me two thousdand five hundred times happier than that novel? If we factor in the obnoxiousness of having to deal with a car salesman, I think that on the whole I’d be LESS happy with the car than with the caffeinated novel consumption. So the amount of $$$ it takes for a unit of happiness is much lower for the novel than for the car.

The authors make the point, however, that we’re really bad about judging how these things stack up against each other. They tell the story of someone who spent $200k on a bottle of wine, and described the experience as “nice”. Give me a $10 bottle of wine and great friends over a $200 bottle of wine any day of the week!

These ideas of friendship and money (and using money to obtain friendship) were one of the great themes of Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens”, which we just saw in Ashland. (A trip that was, I think, an excellent investment per unit of happiness.). For those unfamiliar with the work, Timon was a leader of Athens and a purveyor of the best parties. He’d host his friends. He’d wine and dine them and give them rich gifts. He’d bail them out if they ever needed bailing out. The money flowed from his hands to his friends in an unending torrent.

Or almost unending. Athenian – and Elizabethan – economics are very similar to ours. If you spend more than you earn, you eventually run out of cash.

Timon assumed that his great generosity had bought him true friends, who would be as generous with him as he had been with them. When his messengers knocked on their doors, however, they were turned away with feeble excuses. The giving was a one way street.

The entire second act takes place on a rubbish pile while Timon rails at his erstwhile friends, names himself Misanthropous (hater of humans), and provides an army of invading Athenian soldiers (also rejected by an ungrateful Athens) the funds* with which to sack and raze the city, before he commits suicide.

Methinks that either Shakespeare (or his co-author Christopher Marley) may have had an experience that stung, somewhat. I suspect that one or more persons in the audience were red-faced at the incredible ingratitude on display.

One could definitely argue that the happiness exchange rate of Timon’s gifts was… poor. What he thought he was getting with his money was not in fact what he got.

Our vacation was rather indulgent. We ate some great meals, saw five great plays (“Great Expectations”, “A Winter’s Tale”, “Timon of Athens”, “Yeoman of the Guard” and a riotous “Twelfth Night”), spent some time at a great spa and got a lovely piece of jewelry for our anniversary. Having this sendup of spending in the middle of our indulgent vacation was both a timely reminder to remain moderate, and an interesting juxtoposition.

I think it’s worth thinking carefully about where our spending is habitual, where it FEELS like it will make us happy, and what actually makes us happy. Feasting my friends at my house makes me happy – although I don’t do so thinking that doing so “earns” me anything from them past perhaps their friendship. Hiking and camping make me really happy. Reading makes me happy, especially in cozy situations like around campfires or in cafes. Writing makes me happy. Playing board games makes me happy. I love singing. I confess to digging hanging around with my friends and maybe a glass of wine. For the most part, these are moderately priced things with great happiness exchange rates.

I really don’t want or need a fancy car (although as some point I’ll probably need a new car). I take no pleasure in expensive clothes. (They just worry me, since I’m guaranteed to spill something on them.) 70% of the time, I’m disappointed when I eat out. (I could make it better, the restaurants are too loud, they make me wait too long.) My tastes in wine or drink are moderate. Spending a lot on high quality options doesn’t make me enjoy them more. I should do less of these things, or avoid them altogether, since the happiness exchange rate is poor.

The book inspired me and the play reminded me nourish and flourish the activities that make me happy with a great exchange rate, and despite seeming like I “should” like other expensive things, to question whether they make me happier than other cheaper (and healthier?) options.

Does this concept ring true? What are some of your excellent happiness ROI activities? What things have you tried that have just turned out to be a waste of money? And what are the very expensive things that are totally worth it to you anyway?

*Which he ironically finds buried under the refuse heap where he’s sleeping.

Tribe

I recently read a book called “The Last Safe Investment: Spending Now to Increase Your True Wealth Forever” (by Bryan Franklin and Michael Ellsberg). The authors came and spoke at my place of work about their theses – and we had time for questions and answers.

The book had two interesting concepts in it, for thinking about. The first was about Happiness Exchange Rate. In my perfect world, I’d write a blog post dedicated to my thoughts on that topic, so I won’t go into more detail here. (In the actual world, you should probably just read the book to find out for yourself, because intended blog posts are a loooooong way away from reality.)

The second interesting concept was Tribe, and how a Tribe both helped you get money (which you could use to make yourself happy), it also just plain makes yourself happy.

This was a weekend for Tribe.

A small part of my tribe
A small part of my tribe

There are few things that make me feel richer than dwelling on my friends. This weekend, we held the first annual “Flynn’s Fiery Feast” – to provide that critical third gathering between Piemas and Mocksgiving. For those who don’t follow me regularly, those are two “made up” holidays in November and March where 30-40 grownups and associated children get together and eat a lot and play board games and enjoy each other’s company. The people represented are a venn diagram of several social circles: college friends, gaming friends, internet friends, church friends, family, neighbors and a small handful of coworkers. (It’s also fewer people than I’d like to invite, but after about 50 humans in it, my house is just too small to add more. Don’t think because you’re not at that party we aren’t friends – we are – the parties just can’t get much bigger.)

We laughed and joked and caught up and ate and played board games and sat around the fire and had an awesome time. I felt like Scrooge McDuck, swimming in his gigantic pool of gold, surrounded by a real wealth of love and warm feelings. And then my friends helped clean up before they left. Seriously, people. It doesn’t get better than that.

Bryan and Michael say in there book that a Tribe is key to wealth – not only because it gives you the happiness that you’re theoretically trying to get enough money to have, but because it can help you in a thousand practical ways. And I’ve seen that play out for myself. Perhaps the tightest Tribe in my diagram is a group of moms who get together about once a month, and chat often on Facebook. This group of ladies is mostly just for fun. We do talk about parenting books, and exchange ideas about how to make our lives and the lives of others better. We support each other in fitness, borrow each other’s steam cleaners and babysitters, and know we can put out an all-call for whether someone has condensed milk handy (so we don’t have to go to a store and interrupt our baking).

Stuffing eggs for an egg hunt
Stuffing eggs for an egg hunt

But we also provide a backstop for each other whose depth may appear hidden. One of our moms’ husband was in a near-fatal car accident. For a few weeks, we delivered home made, love-stuffed meals and snacks. As you read about last week, one of our moms needs to raise $15,000 to get her son a service dog. The fundraiser is being led by the other moms, bringing together pretty amazing skills and collaboration. For a few months our regular chat is being replaced by party planning, and no one has said anything but “how can I help”? It’s this amazing sense of knowing that someone has your back (especially with little family in the area), to have a group of people like this.

Bryan and Michael describe a Tribe this way, “Tribe is simply a networked group of friends bound by their caring for one another and for a similar aesthetic for life. But when a group of friends become networked – when each knows the other – something else, not available from simple friendship, emerges.” (The Last Safe Investment, Franklin & Ellsberg, p. 277) They talk a lot about how important it is that the relationships are not “hub and spokes”, but a matrix of connections. They talk about how key shared values are to a tribe. And they go WAY FURTHER from my happy groups of friends to actual communal living.

They also have a Silicon Valley-esque focus on entrepreneurship. I asked when they gave their talk if this sort of group of people wouldn’t have the effect of compounding inequality. (Rich people with rich friends would be richer. Poor people with poor friends would not.) They assured me their Tribe cut across income. (In retrospect, however, I’m curious if it cuts across class. I wonder what degree of disparity in educational attainment and opportunity a Silicon-Valley-based-tribe actually has. Not, mind, that my Tribes are that much more class diverse.) They also talk a lot about how creating repeated opportunities for people to come together can create Tribe. (Which was actually my proximate cause for finally getting around to scheduling the long-contemplated third holiday.)

Coming out of the book talk, I started chatting with my coworkers about the topic, and realized something.

Quick: describe a group of people who have relationships with each other (not around a central figure), who come together very regularly, who cut across generational & class lines, who support each other, and who have strong shared values.

Does that ring a bell?

I realized, in that conversation, that the Tribe is the Church. That hole left in society when people walked away from both theology and communal worship is a gaping one, and it needs to be filled. It makes sense that groups and ideas like this one would be developed to plug the gap. But I also think that maybe churches need to see themselves a bit more like Tribes. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we saw ourselves as a group of people who come together because of shared values to support (and enjoy) each other, and then to turn our collective will towards service towards each other and the world? When we say “my Church” – how many of us imagine the building? The steeple and communion table and pews? Instead, it would be awesome if we thought of that great cloud of friends we have in the church. Take Jesus and the disciples – there was a Tribe to be reckoned with. (And they didn’t even have a building!) The early church actually did take it all the way to communal living. I think that as a congregation we can aspire to that same sense of joyful security that I get when I think of my friends.


Do you have a tribe? Who do you lean on in times of trouble? What do you do to build up your connections? I’d love to hear how this concept looks from your point of view!

A happy home

It’s been a very busy summer indeed. I spent 90% of this weekend driving to or from Camp Wilmot, where I either picked up or dropped off my eldest child. We also did an outing with Adam’s company at the Boston Aquarium, made pesto, went swimming at Good Harbor beach in Gloucester (more driving), watched the new Ghostbuster’s movie (which was thoroughly enjoyable), attended a Mom’s Group fundraiser planning meeting (more later) and caught a lot of Pokemon. (Currently level 15 – go Mystic!)

A happy camper
A happy camper

Not on this list: blog posts and/or laundry.

Also, I think I might be getting sick. At least, I feel like crap. My neck is killing me, and that’s giving me a headache, and my stomach hurts. And I’m just as busy at work as I am at home.

So, of course, I’ve been thinking a ton about my house’s history.

The story of how this transpired is a small town story. Debbie Sullivan, proprietess of The Book Oasis and a friend of mine, posted on Facebook that she had a new book in on local history. Now I am on my way to owning every book on local history that’s been published (working on it, at least), so I figured I’d better get it while I loaded Grey up on some books from his summer reading list. Thus did “Stoneham’s Great Fires and Tragic Events: 1806 – 2016” by Chief Raymond L. Sorensen, Ret. end up in the bag of books in the back seat.

Somewhere just south of Concord, New Hampshire, a voice emerged from the back seat. “Mom,” said the fine young man being sent off to build character, “Our house is in this book.”

Maturely, I responded, “No way! Get outta here! Our house? What’s it say?”

As he read, my heart fell. In September of 1948, the charming pink house I love so much was home to one of the town’s great tragedies of the century. Three children were killed in a fire. Right here. The book focused on the effects this had on fire department funding. (Spoiler alert: the Fire Department asked for 10 additional firefighters but only got 6.) But my mind kept going back and back. What were the children’s names? How did the fire start? Where did they die? Did the family lose all their children, or did any survive? Most critically, was my son ever going to fall asleep in this house again? (Am I?)

I used the Google search engine. Nothing more than was in the book. It was time for the heavy guns. I sent a note to the lady who embodies the Stoneham Historical Commission. While I worked, she and the reference librarian pulled microfiche (a skill I do not possess) to find what was in the newspapers at the time, while she also looked at finding their graves. I feel a great desire to visit their grave, and tell these children I’m so sorry that this happened to them, and that we’ve loved living in their house.

The story unfolded through the day, and my goodness, is it a sad one. The oldest boy and youngest girl survived, with both parents. There was a oil stove explosion, and the accelerant closed off the staircase. They only got out through windows, and just barely that. Neighbors brought ladders. The time it took to hook the engine up to the hydrants was too long. Three of the children did not make it out. Two died that morning. The third died at the New England Sanitarium a few days later.

The town rallied, though. They came together. They raised money for the family. (One guy raffled off a bat signed by Babe Ruth, which would cost a pretty penny today!) They worked hard to support the family, and make sure this didn’t happen again. According to Mr. Sorensen’s book, “Citizens demanded a hearing, ‘not to condemn the fire department,’ they said, but to find out what went wrong.” And when they figured out they didn’t have the right equipment or personnel, the bought and hired the right amount. It’s the same small town where I’m connected to the book store, the historical commission, the library. It still feels like that rallying community.

I’m thinking about reaching out to that oldest son. He was 12 when his home burned, and his sister and two brothers died. He still lives in the area, as do the rescued baby and some more siblings added later in life. He’s 80 now. I would love to sit down with him and get an oral history. I do really wonder whether he’d be happy to tell the story of those lost ones, or if reliving what must be the worst day of his life is a cruel thing to ask him to do. I find myself wondering if his family knows the whole story. Is it lore among them? Or is it hidden? They’re very local – do they ever drive past my house and cry? Do they remember? Or do they try to forget? Do you think I should try to reach out?

I must say, I’m really surprised to find this out, nearly nine years into owning this house. We knew there had been a fire. It came up during the disclosures and home inspection. But it looked small. See – here you can see where they whitewashed the black scorch marks in the attic. The inspector assured us it was minor, and had no structural impact.

The charred part of the attic
The charred part of the attic

But I was mystified about why one of the unfinished attic spaces had one single, lone scrap of wallpaper – in a room where the roof nails stuck through perilously. How do you put up wallpaper, and not, I dunno, put in a ceiling to prevent you from splitting your head open on a nail?

The only wallpaper scrap
The only wallpaper scrap
Why I wouldn't consider this a finished space...
Why I wouldn’t consider this a finished space…

It becomes clear. This was finished. And it all burned that night in September. And our plan is to finish it again, and live up there. This time with one key addition:

One of these suckers in every room
One of these suckers in every room

6 reasons I like Sportsball

Among the people I spend time with, referring to a game is as likely to be about 7 Wonders or Fate as it is to be about baseball, or basketball. In fact, depending on the precise people, it’s considerably more likely. During March Madness, all my office could talk about was Google’s AI going 4 of 5 against a Go champion. Sometimes, friends or acquaintances of mine disparagingly (or bemusedly) refer to whatever big sporting event that’s going on as sportsball, they seem so indistinguishable.

I’m not an obvious target for breaking from this culture, and liking sports. My favorite kinds of music are mid-century American folk, pre-baroque early music, and opera. I read science fiction and fantasy primarily. I have a 15 year career in software. I got my degree in medieval studies. This is not a profile that screams “I can correctly identify offsides before I see the flag go up”.*

But here it is, Sunday night. Game of Thrones is on, but I’m 100% tuned in to the Copa America finals, really hoping to see Lionel Messi do to Chile what he did to the US in the semis. I’ve loved the summer of soccer, although I admittedly only really watch the international tournaments. I listen to or watch at least parts of probably 80 baseball games a year. For the last several years, I’ve watched almost every Pats** game, and as many Seahawks games as I could catch. And it’s not because I love my husband who loves sports. In fact, he doesn’t like anything but soccer. He calls the baseball broadcasts “the voices in my head” and only goes to a game in person because he likes the hot dogs.

So why do I like sports? What makes it worth spending two or three hours on the couch?

1) You can connect with so many people
I started my sports interest in 1995, with the amazing Seattle Mariners team. Everyone around me was talking about the Mariners. Very few people were interested in talking about Seattle Opera’s superb staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which is what I was excited about that summer. As a supercilious 16 year old, I did of course feel superiorly artistic. But also a bit lonely. At some point, I decided I would open-mindedly investigate this whole “baseball” thing to see what it was all about. And it was amazing! Suddenly, these people with whom I felt like I had nothing in common became friends. I could say, “Did you catch the game last night?” and then we could talk about the game last night. It opened up this huge point of connection, which was my primary goal. It was almost heady, how being interested in what other people were interested in made them more likely to talk to me… or even to like me.

2) It turns out sports are interesting
Chances are good you have one of two reactions to that statement.

    a) Well duh
    b) I doubt it

But the reason that millions of people spend time, money, energy, passion and attention on sports is because they’re fascinating. I think of them like the best poetry. The form is known – like a sonnet. You know that a sonnet will be ABABCDCDEFEFGG. You know the form so well you don’t even have to think about it. But like poetry, each expression of that form is profoundly unique. All the best sports have uncertain outcomes. The only way to know what will happen is to watch the game, even if probabilities and prognostication seem to point to certainty. It’s like poetry of human accomplishment, in opposition to other striving humans, written out for you in real time.

3) You get to feel strong, conclusive feelings
You can be dumped in the pit of despair, but no one actually died. You can exult in the height of exultation. (But you did not actually win the lottery.) You can have aching, edge-of-seat uncertainty for an hour or two, when you wonder if you have any underlying heart conditions. That uncertainty is always resolved at the end. Most entertainment is designed to help us feel things we don’t usually get to feel (and often don’t want to feel) in the day to day course of our lives. Movies make us feel, love, admiration, fear, joy, terror and disgust. Sports can do the same, but in a way that seems less scripted or constructed. We do not feel those emotions on behalf of others, but rather for our own selves, and in community with those around us. No one knows ahead of time which feelings they’ll feel. That’s a powerful catharsis, with a firm and absolute ending point.

4) You join the shared memory
We’ve had to redefine communal memory several times in the last few generations. For the generation prior, it was the shared tv shows on the few networks. Before that, the radio shows. Before that, it was likely more fragmented with stories being told in communities about those communities, that people would share and retell across time with other people who remembered them as well. In an increasingly fragmented world, where we have neither shared history nor shared media, the biggest sporting events are something of a touchpoint. In Boston, “Where were you when the Sox won the World Series?” is likely to get as many stories (well rehearsed, usually) as the still-annual “Where were you when the towers fell?” They make you feel like you belong.

5) It provides a brief break from reality
Do you know what word WASN’T spoken during the broadcast tonight? Brexit. I work hard to stay well informed. I read and listen to a reasonable amount of news. But sometimes I like to have media that allows me to dip in and out (so not a gripping novel), that involves people talking, and that isn’t as depressing as the Dead Sea.

6) Legitimate excuse to sit on the couch
Maybe this is just me, but if I can do something “later” I often don’t do it “at all”. But with sporting events, it’s really really best if you watch it when it’s live. And that means I get to sit still and relax. I don’t live a life conducive to relaxing. If I wasn’t watching the Copa America*** tonight I probably would’ve done the dishes, worked on the attic project, cleaned the living room and then fallen into bed exhausted. Instead, I got to sit with a friend on the couch with no demands. It was brilliant.


What about you? Do you love some sports? All sports? No sports? Do you think sports are silly? Do you follow them passionately? Have you learned over time to see the point in them?

*New skill. Won’t lie. I just figured that one out this summer.
**Having acquired the skills and background in just the last few years to find American Football really interesting, I have decided it’s not a sport I can feel really good about watching. The recent findings about the way football destroys both mind and body of so many of the players makes it feel too much like a blood sport – like I’m a Roman in the coliseum. I’ll still come watch with you if you invite me (and I’ll probably enjoy it), but I decided to take it off my calendar as an event I’ll pursue of my own interests.
***I still can’t BELIEVE that ending!

Charlestown End – The Old Burying Ground

Jacob Gould's Grave
Jacob Gould’s Grave

The Old Burying Ground in Stoneham was opened to visitors today. For years it’s been opened on Halloween weekend – at the exact same time as the town trick or treating. So I haven’t been able to go. But I’ve been falling in with the historical crowd lately, and they realized that we parents love history as much as our kids love candy and were awesome to set up this great second session this year.

Familiar faces
Familiar faces

My trip to the Burying Ground this last Halloween kicked off an extremely fun month for me. I was doing Nanowrimo with a friend. I saw this amazing tombstone with its rich old story of Jacob Gould “barbarously murdered by ruffians in his own dwelling” and I looked it up on Google. Google books led me to more of the story in Silas Dean’s gossipy 1843 history of Stoneham (which is right there an argument on how awesome the internet can be!) and I went down a monthlong rabbit hole of local history and lore while I wrote a werewolf book about the strange misadventures. I had an absolute blast, although I sadly have not finished the book.

I did learn what they found when they opened the three crypts. New life goal: be there when they open one of the three crypts.

Rare to get a government tombstone for a nurse
Rare to get a government tombstone for a nurse

They had three reenactors there, all of whom were excellent. One played the role of a Civil War nurse (who apparently had to be older than 30, of high moral standing, and rather plain). She told the story of how Hannah was buried in sight of the house she’d grown up with, across the alley on Oriental Avenue. And I stood there, in ground set aside at the turn of the 19th century where were buried Revolutionary War heroes, slaves, native Americans and pilgrim-folk and I thought about what it is to be at home.

He could have seen Shakespeare's plays as a young man.
He could have seen Shakespeare’s plays as a young man.

Many of the people lying there were not Stoneham born. They came from England, Wales, Africa… or as far as from Maine or Connecticut. They came to a frontier town, or a sleepy bywater. They came to a new place and built a place for themselves there. When they died they consigned their remembrances to the uneven soils of this burying ground. Hundreds of years later, we walk by twice a year to greet them. And where they were strangers to me last October, as May came I greeted them instead as friends.

Mt. Rainier
Mt. Rainier

My heart has long lain in the rugged stark mountains of the West. It’s a land that feels as though history lies lightly upon it. The stories of the people who first lived there have never been told to me. The stories of my people are short – the town I grew up in is just over 100 years old. There are residents who remember the first people there. But for most of my life, I’ve been FROM Washington.

I think that may begin to be changing. I’ve lived in New England 20 years. Sixteen of those have been in Massachusetts, and eight of THOSE in Stoneham. How can I turn my back on Deacon Silas Dean, Jacob and Polly Gould, Benjamin Gerry, Elizur Wright, Parker G. Webber and the cast of folks – brave, strong, moral, funny and complicated who have also moved here from elsewhere, and made it their home? Fortunately, the question of home is not one you have to put exactly one answer to on a form. We may come from many places. But as I learn more here, meet more friends, run into more people at the store, and walk even the graveyards with familiarity, I find myself more and more at home.

This creepy cherub is totally judging me.
This creepy cherub is totally judging me.

Enjoy all my pictures from the day at the graveyard!

Ruth Evelyn Jones, 1923 – 2016

The last time I saw my grandmother
The last time I saw my grandmother

In the years of the roaring 20s, Chester Finley and his sharp-eyed, capable wife Frances Finley were married. They had two young, bright sons – close in age – followed by a daughter Ruth. As young boys her brothers Russell and Richard started acting strangely. At the ages of about five and three (I think?), they stopped walking, stopped talking. They died not long after. I remember Grandma Finley showing me the pictures of them, dressed in their Sunday best, lying still in their coffins. She wept, sixty years later, for their lost beauty. What peace there might have been in that midwestern home was shattered. Frances – so strong and capable – could not bear the death of her sons and left her husband and quiet young daughter while she stayed with her parents. When I think about my grandmother, I think about this formative time. She rarely – never – talked about it. But I imagine that little girl with her patient, grieving father, and her lost brothers, and her missing mother.

I was told this story because there was a chance that the sudden lost of those two boys was a genetic flaw (four trouble free generations later, we suspect it was some sort of environmental poison they got into). Indeed, my great-grandparents never bore another child. They adopted Walter to help with the farm. Walter was mischief personified (from what I could tell) – a happy go lucky child in a serious family and it was my grandmother’s job to keep him out of trouble. Some jobs are impossible.

We gathered together for her 90th birthday
We gathered together for her 90th birthday

When the second world war put lie to the hope that the first had been the “war to end all wars”, Ruth was a young woman in a small midwestern town. The story here is shrouded, but my grandfather Virgil left for the war (he was a baker on the European front – but even the bakers saw some things that marred memories) with an understanding with one young woman. During the war, he and my grandmother (from the same small town) exchanged letters. After the war was over, the two of them got married. We have a beautiful hand-colored photo of them beneath a grape arbor, him in a dark suit and her wearing a simple white dress.

I have a story from her in a letter I cannot find (I probably put it somewhere “safe” – curse my bones!), where she talks of the post-WWII housing shortage. They lived those first year in a house that had been custom built for what she called a “midget couple” who had made their living in the circus. Grandma said she could cook dinner while sitting on the bed. I really wish I could find that letter.

In her own words… “Grandpa and I were not Christians when we were married. In our hearts we knew we would always feel unfulfilled as we were living. Then in January of 1948 our Wesleyan Church had a revival and we recommitted our lives to Jesus. Larry was born two months later – into a Godly home! We never looked back.” (April 11, 2006)

Larry Marcus was followed by Kathy Frances, who was followed by Renee. Each child was given the middle name of a grandparent, until they got to Renee. My grandmother could not stomach “Blanche” as a young girl’s name, even in the middle! (The result being that I don’t know Renee’s middle name! Edited: My mom says it is Evelyn, which was Blanche’s middle name!)

In 1954, the whole extended family moved to California in “Grapes of Wrath” type moment. (Well, everyone but Walter as far as I can tell.) They lived in a little house in Turlock California, with a big family and big garden. Brian Chester – the last of the children – joined them. My grandfather worked at an asphalt/construction company in accounting, and in 1963 my grandmother went to work, first at Farmer’s Insurance and then in the Merced Schools library.

At my parent's home
At my parent’s home

My grandmother described the home in Turlock, “Your Grandpa and I loved fixing the house on Locust Lane in Turlock (My mom says the house in Turlock was actually on Mitchell St, but we may need a family conference to get this all right). Grandpa hired a carpenter to put in metal liners in two deep drawers. One drawer held 25 lbs of flour, the smaller one, 10 lbs of sugar. He put lazy susans in the corner. Grandpa bought a big electric stove – the oven held 6 loaves of bread. Oh, did I bake in those days. We had an acre of land with lovely walnut trees and two apricot trees. My folks, the Finleys, lived in a trailer next door. Grandpa Finley irrigated the whole acre as it was needed. What a wonderful place for the children.”

The young family years are filled with tales of camping trips to Yosemite, grape arbors, camping cookies and gardens. My grandparents were, from that revival in 1948 until their dying breaths, extremely faithful and devoted Christians, following a Nazarene theology. They supported the building of a new church, and my grandfather was the church treasurer. (He actually had an office in the church, which I remember being very impressed by.) It was a very strict practice (no movies, no rock music, no face cards, no dancing – certainly no alcohol or smoking or indecency). This made for quite a culture clash with the ’60s, when the older children were teenagers. If there was a saving grace in that conflict, from what I can understand, it is that my grandparents were willing to live by the strictures they preached. There’s an old joke that you should always invite two Nazarenes fishing with you. If you invite only one, he’ll drink all your beer. Your beer would have been more than safe with my grandparents, I think.

My grandparent's home
My grandparent’s home

Around the time I was born, they moved as a family to a trailer park just off the freeway in Merced – my grandparents and their parents in trailers in the same park. My grandmother describes meeting me, “For some reason, I often think of you the very first time I saw you – at 6 months of age – at the airport. I as holding you while your mother and Grandpa collected luggage. Several people came up to us and commented on how pretty you were. You had such a dear perky way about you!”

We lived with my grandparents for a year, after we came back from Zaire. I turned four in their home, and remember it well. It gave me a familiarity with my grandparents I was lucky to have. I remember sitting for lunch at the long dining table, with the cold cuts and breads beautifully presented. Dessert was often sliced nectarines, or cottage cheese and jam mixed together.

My grandmother was very interested in people, and in their stories. Her letters to me are full of updates about the family, her neighbors, and friends of friends. (I always tried to write really newsy letters back so her letters to OTHER people could be about me.) She was very a very good cook, and preserved food. I remember an abandoned apple tree in a neighbor’s yard. She spent hours and hours laboring over a hot stove turning bushels of apples into applesauce.

BLTs for lunch - I remember this from my childhood!
BLTs for lunch – I remember this from my childhood!

She lived a life tending to others. I remember her as a caretaker to her mother, her mother-in-law, her great-aunt, her husband. When they left, she tended to the only-slightly-older folks around her.

When your grandmother dies, even at age 93, people often express their sympathy. I have often replied that in her death, my grandmother realizes one of her fondest hopes. One of her last letters to me, written in a hand turned shaky and short by neuropathy, ended with this joyful anticipation “I often think of heaven. It seems so close, so real. I often think of the loved ones who are already there. So if I don’t see you all again, let’s make a promise to meet in Heaven. Eternal joy! No more separation or pain! Bliss! I like that word. Much love, Grandma Jones”

—————————————-

I have created a shared album of pictures of grandma here. I’m pretty sure I’ve got some details that are missing – I’d love to hear the family stories!

The measure of wealth

As any economist could tell you, there are a lot of ways to measure wealth. There’s your net worth (the value of the things you own compared to the amount of money you owe). There’s your current earnings. There are your projected earnings. (That’s probably a better way of evaluating someone graduating with with a law degree, for example, than net worth is.) I’m sure there are a bajillion other ways: months without income until bankruptcy, ability to survive layoff, projected age to retirement, etc.

Another form of wealth
Another form of wealth

As the holidays draw to a close (even if you wait until epiphany, or count orthodox Christmas), I often find myself reflecting on my wall o’ friendship, and procrastinating from taking it down. I’ve noticed the cards seem to come later every year (I’m part of that trend – I think I mailed my last set on the 23rd!), and I get more New Years cards than I used to, but I love looking at them. Sometimes I take them down and read the notes inside them again. Every year I bundle them in a big bundle and save them. They’re in stacks in my attic, right next to the snapshots of my kids and school pictures.

The truth is that, quite unexpectedly, I find myself rich in friendships. I didn’t anticipate that, as a young girl. We moved a lot. I attended 6 schools by 6th grade. (I did that math when I was very young – I think I count church kindergarten in there.) I didn’t exactly have boatloads of friends waiting for my call. My best friend when I was Grey’s age wouldn’t acknowledge me at school. I, um, didn’t blame her. I wasn’t sure I’d admit to being friends with me either, if I was popular. I wasn’t a very easy kid to be friends with, I suspect. I reveled in being weird. It made me sad, sometimes, but there were books. My memories of childhood are mostly happy ones.

But then I stayed in one place for a while, and gradually learned how to not be quite so weird that people wouldn’t want to admit knowing me. (Or rather, how to keep the weirdness but lose the obnoxiousness of it? Maybe?) Then after learning how to be a friend, I got a fresh start. Man, college was the best.

The moon is hatching, and we're earth's last best hope.
The moon is hatching, and we’re earth’s last best hope.

And since I left college I’ve… accumulated friends. We’re still playing weekly (well, kind of weekly) role playing games with a friend whose name was picked off a bulletin board in a gaming store. (The gaming group has survived four children, and we’re delighted that a fifth has joined us. All boys.) I’ve made some relationships in church that are about ready to drive. The process accelerated vastly when I moved to this house, and there were a bunch of us the same age with kids the same age and we really got along. And then one of your friends introduces you to their friends. It’s been astonishing and wonderful.

I was thinking about what that flowering of friendship really means. Sometimes, when I’m staying out too late and consuming less-than-healthfoods with my friends, I wonder if friendship is bad for my health. But studies show that friends reduce your risk of dying prematurely, or that absence of friends increases it.

And then there are the more immediate advantages. I met a mom once or twice in a gathering of moms. In December, her husband was injured in a serious accident that killed the other driver and critically wounded one of his friends. This amazing group of moms banded together to deliver two week’s worth of dinners to her and her family.

A friendship catalyst
A friendship catalyst

The funny thing about being rich in friendship is that the more of it you have, the more of it other people have too. It’s a lot like love that way. Spending it just creates more of it. The modern world seems poorly set up to create deep and lasting friendships (at least judging by the number of lonely people in the world), but the optimist in me thinks that with some sort of catalyst, friendship-creating-reactions can spread. It’s hard to see friendships (especially those tough ones that cross some boundary, like race or generation or political belief) as anything but a net good to society.

So, do you want more friends? Here are some of the ways I’ve seen people become close friends:

  • Strike up a conversation in a park. (Seriously.)
  • Invite someone you like to dinner. Give them a specific set of three different days, and ask if they need any accommodation (food preference, only drive during the day etc.) If they’re interested in being friends, they’ll either accept one of the three days or counter with a different date. (And don’t be too offended if they’re not willing to get closer. Sometimes people don’t have the energy to spend on new friendships.)
  • Throw a party and mix multiple different “sets” of your friends. One of my bestest friends became my friend because another friend begged an additional invite to a party I held. And this also helps your friends make more friends, which is a kindness.
  • Put your name on a gaming store wall as adventurer seeking game!
  • Bring your neighbors cookies. Knock on the door. When they’re on their front porch, strike up a conversation.
  • Throw a block party.
  • Get involved in a local project. (I made some great friends by being active regarding the Bikeway!)
  • Join a workout group. (OK, this one is just theoretical. I’m not a workout group kinda girl.)
  • Order more Christmas cards, and send them to people you wish you knew better.
  • Exchange contact information with those parents you end up chatting with when you pick your kids up. Then schedule something with them.
  • The internet. I made some dear, dear friends online. I still feel much more connected to people on Facebook than one might think!

    How about you? What are some of the crazy ways you’ve met people? Are you overwhelmed by an over-full social docket, or is there room for a few more busy Friday nights?

  • Hygge

    I read an article in that beautiful late-December period when the media writes thoughtful, long-form articles about things that aren’t breaking news. The article described hygge. The word is a Danish one, pronounced “hoo-geh” (according to my Danish friend) and it means well-being, or maybe coziness. It’s a concept or value that the Danes consider a key part of their culture. In reading through what it means, I realized that it is both a value that I treasure and a place where I fall far short.

    Cozy time by the Christmas tree
    Cozy time by the Christmas tree

    What is hygge to me? We don’t have a fireplace, which is tragic. Fireplaces are practically automatic hygge. Hygge is sitting on the couches and reading books together on library/pizza night. Hygge is a lit Christmas tree. Hygge is sitting on the front porch and working on my book. Hygge is hanging around someone’s kitchen with my neighbor-friends and catching each other up on our lives. Hygge is sitting with my son at Kushala Sip. Hygge is lighting the candles on either side as we sing “Silent Night” together on Christmas Eve. Hygge is when you can’t move because you have a cat on your lap. Hygge is when you’re in the kitchen, light on your feet, making food to feed your friends. I think that any time that is improved by lighting a candle is hyggeligt (rough translation: hygge-time!).

    While I was working on my novel (update: still in progress, added a few thousand words this holiday), my beloved husband expressed that he missed spending time with me. Specifically – although he didn’t use this word – he missed the cozy time we might spend together watching a show or playing a game. I found writing to be a solitary, consuming task and my partner in life missed me when I was being solitary. He missed being hygge together.

    There are of course precious moments in life that aren’t hygge. This weekend we went for a glorious hike along the turgid banks of the Saugus river, finding signs of beaver in the glazed snow. It as astonishingly lovely and refreshing… but not hygge. There are great adventures we pursue. I find, as I prepare to return to work, that the appeal of a difficult task to be well done with hard work is considerable. I like to work hard on things where my hard work leads to a great thing. That’s great – but not hygge. Most of camping is not hygge, but there’s that moment sitting around the fire when the entire world is about 10 feet in the radius of flickering orange tongues of flame, and the call of the loon wafting over the right shoulder that captures the very heart of the feeling.

    Fire's burning - gather round
    Fire’s burning – gather round

    In thinking about this, I’ve come to the conclusion that many of my most precious moments are these moments. They’re when I feel connected to my loved ones, myself… and even my God. They make my heart well over with joy. And yet I’ve taken them only as they come, taking them as a gift of chance. As I grow older, I look with greater skepticism on waiting for life to shower me with bounty. I prefer to create environments where the fruits I would grow can flourish.

    So… I don’t have a SMART* New Year’s Resolution this year. Instead I have an atmospheric one. I would like to create more opportunities for hyggeligt with the people I like best. That will, ideally, show itself as more reading on the couch, more sitting together to watch the snow fall, more lying in bed next to my husband and listening to the rain fall.

    What do you find hygge? And what are your plans for the new year?

    *Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely – if you really want to change something about yourself, finding an expression of your intention that matches those criteria significantly increases your odds of being successful.