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.

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!

Notes from Madrid

I’m finally coming to the close of my period of schedule insanity. I’m not entirely done – the next two weeks remain unusually busy – but at least today marks my last planned travel for… well, ok I have another fun family trip planned April, but I don’t have to fly anywhere for a while.

After eating the last of my lemon meringue pie last weekend, I immediately turned to packing my bags for Madrid. I’d never been to Spain before, and the work agenda left little time for sight-seeing, but being in a new country is always a mind-opening experiencing. I ended up having several extremely fine meals, met many of the locals, and snuck in two museums after work on Thursday. Here’s what I learned:

Weird Madrid art and architecture
Weird Madrid art and architecture

My Spanish is pretty decent, but very rusty
I spent years learning Spanish in school. I never have had the chance to live for even a few weeks in a Spanish-speaking country to move the “fundamentals are good, vocabulary is decent, overall not half-bad” level of fluency I’ve maintained for years to a real fluency. In the last six or so years, since I started really trying to improve my career, I haven’t really maintained my Spanish at all. I was wondering how it would work out in Spain. In most of the traveling I have done, English is more than sufficient to the needs of the day. It feels like everyone speaks some English. Even in Mexico, when I try to open a conversation in Spanish, they take one look at me and reply in English. (Sometimes I get a pat on the head for being an American who at least TRIES to speak another language.) But in Madrid, while most of the people speak some English, my Spanish was totally useful. The first night I went out with my colleagues, my Spanish was better than the waiter’s English, and I translated for the table back and forth. It felt amazing to have it be so useful! During our meetings, most of the folks I was working with were Spaniards. Periodically they’d lapse into discussions on some arcane point in Spanish. Because I shared domain knowledge, I could often follow along, and understand. The longer I stayed, the more of our conversations were happening in Spanish.

The Museums of Madrid
Last night my colleagues left and I was by myself, finally done. In the heart of the city, I headed to a park plaza Google maps had shown me, with some museums mapped. The public artwork of Madrid is odd – combinations of ultra-modern, near-soviet brutalism and baroque ornateness all intermixed in a way that says the city was once richer than it is now. The larger-than-life art deco statues stand above reflecting pools that have gone too long uncleaned. The museums were fun. I am no great fan of Chagall, but there was a retrospective of his and I spent an hour in a dark, cistern-like basement carefully studying his works. I think he might amount to something if he ever learns to draw. (I jest.) All the museum notes were given only in Spanish. But I read them, and I understood them. It was an odd moment – feeling almost Pentecostal to me in the unexpected understanding as the words unfolded themselves to me.

I also went to an exhibit celebrating Cleopatra. I’ve seen better exhibits of Egyptian artifacts in Boston, London and Istanbul. (For that matter, in Vienna as well.) My favorite part of the exhibit was the retrospective of Cleopatra in artwork. Half the time she looks like some silly ninny who just provides an excuse for the artist to show boobs. But some of the pictures of her were resplendent in meaning. My favorite showed her dead – her face lying in shadows – but the pose of her body speaking volumes of both pride and despair. Again, all the text was Spanish, and again I found myself understanding it.

So much delicious in one place
So much delicious in one place

I’m glad to be an adventurous eater
Traveling in Spain is not hard. It was not at all like traveling in Africa, where every night you wondered what was going to happen, and cockroaches were the least of it. But on several occasions I found myself faced with a menu I couldn’t parse. (Menus are actually just about the hardest, since they use such arcane vocabulary – especially in really good restaurants.) I would ask what the most “Madrilleno” dish was (of a companion or a waiter) and then eat whatever they put in front of me. This week I had pig’s cheeks (I think), squid in it’s own ink, grilled octopus (twice) and a couple dishes whose provenance I couldn’t guess. Some of it was exquisite, and some was not to my taste. But I thought about how much more fun my life is because I am not compelled to be picky. I didn’t have to worry whether there’d be anything I could eat. I didn’t even have to limit myself to foods I could recognize from where I’d been before. I could pick the strangest sounding thing on the menu and say “That.” I am not sure how much pickiness is a choice, vs how much it is an inherent value. I’m just rather glad that I somehow got the version that lets me experience new things.

Water and wine are practically interchangeable
The water was super expensive and the wine was super cheap. On several menus, set up “price fixe”, you had your choice either of water or wine. That blew the mind of this Boston-based girl!

I’m really bad at a 24 hour clock
I thought I had an hour more to get to my gate this afternoon than I actually had. Good thing I’m obsessively early, eh?

This set of jet lag was particularly devastating
Perhaps it was because I was still recovering from Piemas. Or I’d been knocked off an hour by daylight savings. Or I was still finding my footing again after 9 days on the West Coast. But this round of jet lag was BRUTAL. We took a redeye in from Boston to Madrid, but they turned the lights on for breakfast at what would’ve been my midnight and so I slept not a whit on the plane. When we got out of the airport, it was nearly 8 am local time, and we hadn’t closed our eyes for a minute. Then each night, between the end of the dinner and the beginning of the next days work there were not 8 hours to be had. Let’s just say that my phone wasn’t fully charged when I had to get up in the mornings. (Slow transformer, but still…) Madrid is a late-night city. The restaurants DO NOT OPEN for dinner until 8 or 8:30! The cafeterias didn’t open for lunch until 1 pm. So we had the worst of both worlds – a Madrid-centric evening commitment and an American-created morning agenda. (Ok, that was totally my fault.) There wasn’t really a siesta to make up for it, either. I wonder how long it will take me to get back to Eastern Time. Hopefully that’s a better transition.

Apparently the hot new sport in Spain is called Padel
I’m writing this sans internet on a flight (I KNOW! Can you believe they expect me to go SEVEN WHOLE HOURS without teh intarwebs?!) so I can’t provide links. But my sources inform me that a sport ‘Paddle’ is all the rage. It’s played on half a tennis court, with a net and a solid paddle. It has playable walls, like racquetball, but is played with a tennis ball and isn’t nearly as fast. And it’s so popular that the folks I was with had Paddle courts in their workplace. According to my reliable sources, it’s very fun but it’s not nearly as athletic and hard on the body as either tennis or racquetball, and you can have fun playing even when you’re older. You heard it here first, folks.

You can see the stadium on the right here
You can see the stadium on the right here

Speaking of Sports
It’s a small sample size, but I’d say the city is more into basketball than soccer (aka football). I was personally saddened by the fact that the Real Madrid playing on Thursday was the basketball team and not the famous football team. I would’ve risked life, limb and pocketbook to be in the stadium for a Real Madrid football game. I couldn’t even summon up an “eh” for basketball. Also, my cabbies upon learning I was from Boston kept going on about Larry Bird.

How many great cities have no great body of water?
As far as I could tell, Madrid has no major body of water in it. It was weird to be in a city where you couldn’t orient yourself to the water. Even humble Merced has Bear Creek. We were trying to figure out how many cities have a layout completely unaffected by a body of water. Las Vegas, perhaps? Santa Fe? Which cities can you name?

I’m not sure what Madrid is like
Sometimes I’d see a building of brutalist cinder blocks, ill-kept, and think of Athens. We’d pass a glorious baroque building (City Hall was particularly lovely) and I’d feel the ghosts of Vienna. The narrow cobblestoned alleyways reminded me of parts of London. But in parts of five days, I couldn’t really get a feeling for Madrid quo Madrid. All the people I met were imports from other regions of Spain. Around meal time glasses of vino, the unsuppressable longing for a home far away (far different) would start to echo across their voices. I still don’t have a feeling for the city, and I can’t tell if one will be granted to me retroactively or not.

Google Fi is awesome
This summer when we went camping in New Brunswick (or as I like to call it “The Trip Where Everything Got Mildew”) we more or less had to shut our phones off after we crossed the border. Verizon’s roaming rates were appalling, and without a do-or-die reason, we had to do without. But as I landed in Madrid and turned on my phone it politely informed me that except for some voice calling, all the rest of my data and text rates were identical to what I’d be paying at home. I did not have to figure out how to navigate a major modern city without a phone. I can never go back – it was so hassleless. I already loved Fi, but this really sealed the deal for me.

Thus the business is concluded. The meals are eaten. The journey home more than half-flown. I return to a more normal cadence and routine to my life (and not a moment too soon – this has been months worth of travel packed into only a few weeks!) I hope my family still recognizes me. I’ve missed them!

Winter Sports

This is why we don't wait for good weather to get outside
This is why we don’t wait for good weather to get outside

Last year, for a period of about two months, we could not take a walk. Every week we got pounded by another storm. Every week we’d laboriously clear the new fallen snow – moving it on top of the shoulder-high piles of snow that had already fallen. We struggled to make it to work. By the time the last foot fell, I was pretty sure that if another storm came it would be physically impossible to dig ourselves out – there was no where left to put snow. Everywhere we walked, we walked in narrow channels between vast and dirty snow banks. My awesome neighbors had a rotating potluck on storm nights so we could get out of our own walls, but eventually the entire world felt constrained and constricted. The walls seemed to compress under the weight of the frigid winter, as though it might finally crush us.

Family snow portrait
Family snow portrait

But some people seemed less claustrophobic. The skiers were ecstatic at the powder. The cross country folks went places they’d never gone before. The snow-shoers had the Fells to themselves. In the heart of this winter vice, we rented snow shoes to see if we’d like it. It was like taking the first deep breath for weeks, to get out into those woods again. My mother must have heard us gushing, because for Christmas this year we got the great gift of four sets of snow shoes, so we can break down those walls again.

Liberty!
Liberty!

2015 was also the first year that the Y offered ski lessons for the boys after school. They got picked up from the Y and taken to Nashoba Valley, where they were learning to ski like proper New Englanders. We signed them up again this year (with a ski group that doubled in size since last year!).

Then, this summer, came word that Stoneham Town Common would host a free, open to the public ice skating rink. For the price of a pair of skates, we could all glide around the common whenever we wanted, with our friends and families. Plus, Grey has started getting invited to open time at the Stoneham Arena (ice rink) on Fridays by one of his friends. When the local used sporting goods store announced they were going out of business, we quickly procured four pairs of ice skates.

So in the course of one year, we went from people with no winter sport proclivities to folks with snow shoes, ice skates and kids who know how to ski. (That’s what last winter did to us!) And now we find ourselves in our summer stomping grounds in the White Mountains. We have switched our regular tent for an unexpectedly swanky White Mountain Resort. I do not ski. I actually cringe if I start thinking too much about skiing, due to major knee injuries from the first and only time I went skiing. But Adam likes snowboarding, and the kids enjoy the slopes too. (Even if they do seem to be geniuses at losing ski gear.) So I’m enjoying hanging out in the resort and working on my book while the guys are skiing. (Edited: here are a few pictures I took!)

Well, at least that was the concept. In reality, it’s difficult to manage two not-strong-yet skiers simultaneously. Right now I have on my left a sweet little Thane-boy narrating the creation of Lego elements telling the story of Lloyd Alexander’s “Book of Three”, which he’s reading at the moment. Adam and Grey are skiing together. They’ll switch off in a little bit.

Brunch was tasty AND scenic
Brunch was tasty AND scenic

I’m enjoying the hygge of a mountain lodge. The scenery here is downright spectacular. The food is unexpectedly excellent. Last night, all the boys were asleep by 8:30. If the time spent skiing hadn’t gotten them to bed early, the hour the kids spent in the heated-to-99-degree pool while having a snowball fight would’ve helped them nod off. I wasn’t tired, though, so I got to spend two hours in front of the roaring fireplace working on my novel and listening to the guy behind me hold court for two hours. (I’m not sure anyone else in his party got a single word in that entire time.)

Of course, the hilarious thing is that this winter has so far been record-shatteringly warm. That ice rink on the common will open nearly a month after it was scheduled to. There hasn’t been enough snow to snow shoe on yet this year. In a Murphy’s Law moment, some of the heaviest snow of the year so far fell JUST as we were driving up here. I had an hour of white-knuckle driving of the highest degree. We haven’t gotten to try the rink yet. A repeat of last year is statistically unlikely, but it’s possible that this winter will be the inverse of last year’s unusual weather. (Of course, we’ll all remind you that the snow started after the Superbowl last year – it hadn’t kicked off by now.)

But when the snow comes, if the snow comes, we’ll be ready to enjoy it!

PS – Here’s a video Adam took of just how white-knuckle the driving was!

Christmas in a troubled time

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5

We have seen a great light
We have seen a great light

Growing up in the 90s set my expectations unrealistically with regard to how much tumult and warfare I might expect during my life. There was this brief shining moment where we hand only a few small combats going on – and those seemed from my privileged perspective to be minor and easily resolved. The economy was good, feminism was working, the Cold War had been won, we weren’t talking about racism (it seemed like a problem of the past) and we’d finally found a way to treat AIDS. Clearly everything was only going to get better from there on out!

I think I know the day I lost my innocence about that. I was in the car, driving to a special youth symphony rehearsal on the streets of Tacoma. I had NPR on, as I always did. I think both Car Talk and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me had wrapped up for the day. (I liked to joke I was getting my NPR PHD.) I was 17. And there was a breaking bulletin that Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated. Because I followed the news so closely and diligently I knew what that meant for the Oslo Peace accords. I – like so many others – originally assumed it was Palestinian terrorists. I still don’t understand why someone hated peace so much they’d kill their own leader. That moment both broke my heart and shattered my illusions about how the world was trending. It’s telling (to me at least) that it’s the moment where I remember where I was.

This time of year is one of my favorite times. I slow down from the insanity of my Fall and drink deeply of the music, the lights, the decorations, the crazy traditions we didn’t realize would become traditions the first time we did them. I look through a year’s worth of happy moments recorded on camera. I write my Christmas cards – each one a breath of prayer for the beloved person who will receive it (incanted several times as I address, write and prepare the cards). I buy too much stuff for my kids, and cuddle with my husband on the couch while we argue about whether the Kingston Trio’s “Last Month of the Year” or Roger Whittaker’s Christmas Album is superior. (Duh – obvious answer there!)

But this year I have had more trouble than usual finding my Christmas zen. When it seems as though I might just slip into the joy of the season, there’s a bombing, a shooting, a story of refugees. We are deep into the volume of violence and war that seemed to start that November day in 1995. My spirit feels dry, my back hurts, and I can’t help but think that my sons will have a less innocent innocence than I got in my childhood. We never had an active shooter drill in our school. But Grey is the same age as the children gunned down in Sandy Hook who never got to walk to school by themselves.

As I was thinking through this depressing litany (which I’ve now shared with you – you’re welcome), I wondered if I was depressed. You know, the whole “usual activities bring you less pleasure”. Having carefully considered the question – I’m pretty sure I’m not. I’m just pretty sure that this is a time where a responsibly informed person can reasonably feel pretty bummed on a regular basis.

I was reading my usual list of advice columnists today, and there were two different letters from people saying that they were having a hard time enjoying life with all the suffering that was going on. That’s truly a pity – all our challenges included we have the highest standard of living for the most people that’s ever existed in the history of our species. I wonder if we’re designed to hope in adversity and worry in plenty. I know some people take social media holidays to hide from the onslaught – but I love the people I interact with every day on my many social media channels.

What can counter the malaise of being responsibly informed? One of the advice columnists recommended service to others. I think that’s a wise response. I also think that active gratitude can help. It really is hard to stay blue while you write your Christmas letters to the people you love. I have a hunch that exercise would really help me (I swear my butt hurts from too much sitting – yet all the things I really want to do involve sitting and most of them involve a computer).

Are you finding this true for yourself? Is this year harder to find the joy in? Is this just because I’m getting older and losing my sense of wonder? How do you push past trauma and horror and incivility and unkindness and find light and warmth and joy in the darkness? Where do you lift your eyes to see the light?

Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin.

– The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Bob Dylan
Read more: http://www.bobdylan.com/us/songs/times-they-are-changin#ixzz3WOWjRwf5

I was late with my blog post this week. It’s the first time this year I didn’t put up a real post on the right day, and I’m rather pleased that my scheduled posting time has worked so well. (And hey, I put up an “I’m not posting post” which practically counts.) And to be truthful, it wasn’t because things aren’t happening in my life, or because I ran out of time.

It’s because I didn’t know what to say.

Life goes through these long periods when you just don’t have much change. I’ve stared my Christmas update in the face many a year and wondered what I’d really spent the twelve months doing, other than slowly accruing happy memories – a accruative drip building the stalagmite of my life. And then there’s a period where woosh! Things change!

I’m in a woosh period right now, although a pretty minor one. The big change (not to leave you on tenderhooks) is about my job. Specifically, I got a new one. I’ll be leaving my current employer at the end of next week. I have a little time between (and an impromptu trip to Mexico for April vacation – woo!) and then I start a New Thing. I suppose that’s only one area of my life changing. (We’re not moving.)

In this blog, I very rarely talk about work. (I never want to wonder if my boss or client read something.) But I spend 10 hours or so a day on my employment – more time than on any single other thing I do except maybe sleep. I dream about work often. (Which I hate, by the way.) I try hard to not go to sleep thinking about work, but I fail more often than I succeed. And my labors (and my husband’s) make possible the rest of my life – my tithe at church, my farm share, my children’s carefree childhoods, trips home and on vacation, the pink house in which nearly everything needs to be updated or fixed… all of it. It matters a lot where I work, and how, and with whom. It matters how long my commute is, and how much I travel. It matters a lot whether I come home satisfied with the works of my hands (well, mind) or anxious and disappointed at my day’s labors.

Five years ago I made a big move. I have learned SO MUCH in those years. I’m stronger, more polished, better informed and more capable than I could have imagined. I also have some idea of how much I DON’T know (way, way more than I know!). I’m not sure you ever get over the anxiety of wondering if you’ll actually be any good at a new job. Five years ago, I truly didn’t know. But now, I’ve done this a few times. It’s worked out each time.

(Hmmmm this post is just as boring and vague as I was afraid it would be. Oh well.)

tldr;

I’m moving jobs. I’m SO EXCITED. I’m nervous. I’m thrilled beyond belief. I will miss my old work friends. I’m really going to enjoy the time in between. And hopefully it won’t mess with my blogging schedule too much!

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

Brenda’s Stoneham Selectman Voter’s Guide April 7, 2015

On Tuesday, April 7th 2015, Stoneham Voters will head to the ballots to select our town’s leaders. If my engagement with the Bikeway has shown anything, it’s shown how critical great town leadership is to improve the experience of living here.

[3/26/2015 10:39 pm: Edited to remove “pros” from Caroline Colarusso that are also shared by Erin Sinclair – see comments for details.]

Recommendations

Town Moderator: Lawrence (Larry) Means

Stoneham Selectman (2 slots):
1) Thomas Boussy
2) Caroline Calorusso

No recommendation (advise me!):
– Constable
– Housing Authority
– Planning Board

One of the great challenges I’ve realized lately is how hard it is to get information and form an informed opinion on local politics. There’s very little easily available information. If you don’t know where to go for what information there is, the problem is worse. This means that new folks to town, or people who aren’t amazingly well connected, either don’t vote, or don’t cast a knowledgeable vote on the election that may have the most impact on how they live. Will the town have a bikeway, or not? Will we bring more people to our downtown, or not? Do we build affordable housing, or do we lose some of our autonomy and have state oversight to guarantee we have affordable housing? How do we balance our tax base, infrastructure needs, education spending and other services? It’s local officials who decide those key issues.

I had tried to figure out how I’m voting in this upcoming election. The Selectman’s race is particularly a difficult one for me. I’ve had some personal conversations with some folks in Stoneham about who they’re voting for, and why. I should mention that my thoughts below are my private opinion, and not as well informed as I’d like it to be. I’m certainly open to corrections, amendments or additional thoughts from you – or the candidates – about the elements I’m thinking about. I really wish there were an independent, clear, easily accessible voter’s guide for Stoneham voters. As far as I know, that doesn’t exist. This isn’t that – this is my opinion.

The selectman’s race was one I thought a lot about. It’s a crappy job. It pays something like $3000 a year, requires considerable time and effort, and brings with it a ton of aggravation and abuse. One has to think through the motivations for why you’d do it. Idealism? Service? Love of power? Love of attention? Desire to change the town? Desire to help your friends? Family habit? Greater political ambitions?

Tom Boussy
Tom is the one candidate for Selectman I feel I can wholeheartedly endorse. Tom worked very hard on the Bikeway (before we brought 800 people to a town meeting to forcefully exert the will of the people). He’s energetic and enthusiastic about making the town a more awesome place to live. Tom and Anne Marie O’Neill represent the forward-thinking contingent of the selectmen (you know – the ones who DIDN’T vote against the Bikeway in the October meeting.) I feel like his motivations have to do with an energetic enthusiasm for the town.

The second selectman vote has been hard hard hard for me to decide. Frankly, I don’t like any of my option. There was a second vote (Devon Manchester) whom I was excited about. I heard (admitted hearsay!) that he withdrew because the State Republican Party told him if he opposed Caroline Colarusso they’d never support him again. I resent having my choices limited for me like that.

Robert Sweeney
I quickly ruled out Bob Sweeney as a choice. He’s definitely been one of the folks who has never taken a public stand against the bikeway, but quietly worked to make sure it didn’t happen. (Someone had to be working hard to make sure it didn’t happen!) He has been dismissive of other voices in the community, and has a tendency not to show up for his duties. He didn’t even show up for the televised Candidate Forum. No, thank you.

So now I’m down to two, and I have a number of pros and cons for each.

Caroline Colarusso
Pros:
– Spent time on the finance board, which is another thankless task

Neutral:
– Given the number of elections, it’s clear that she sees selectwoman as a step on a larger political path. On one hand, that means she’ll be posturing to make herself look good for the next run. On the other hand, it gives her a motivation to show up and do work.

Negative:
– I dislike that (assuming what I heard is correct) she used her position with the state party to remove competition in the race
– I am not sure she’ll be a strong advocate for new residents in Stoneham
– She keeps talking about taxes instead of services or growth

Erin Sinclair
Pros:
– Not an incumbent

Negative:
– She’s Bob Sweeney’s daughter, and if they’re both elected we’ll need to get a nepotism allowance for her to serve [ed. 3/26 see her note in the comment regarding this]. I don’t actually think the town needs MORE nepotism.
– She’s also a salaried town employee. That seems like a conflict of interests that would require special handling.
– When I asked what she’d done for the bikeway, she said that she was a “private citizen” and therefore hadn’t done anything. I am also a private citizen and I did do something, so I’m not super impressed with that answer. You can see my question and her response on her Facebook page.

Larry Means – Town Moderator
From what I’ve seen, Larry has done a good job in a very thankless job. His opponent has a platform of making passive aggressive jabs at Larry, and then not showing up for voter information forums. Not impressive. So I’m ready to vote for Larry!


So that’s what I’m thinking. I’d love your feedback. Who are you thinking of? Why? What did I get wrong? What resources did I miss that a Stonehamite should know about? How are you making your decision? Who do you recommend for the races I don’t have an opinion on?

Resources:
– Here’s a copy of the ballot for April 7th: http://www.stoneham-ma.gov/sites/stonehamma/files/file/file/april_7_annual_election_ballot_proof.pdf
– A number of the candidates did an hour long interview with Stoneham TV. Not mind blowing, but it gives you a good perspective on how they think on their feet (and who cares enough to show up): http://stonehamtv.org/ondemand

Tales from the heart of a blizzard

These are semi-regular updates from our snow day. Since I’m going to be getting cabin fever, the least you can do is read about it!

9 am – woke up to a windy, white world. It’s hard to tell with the blowing snow, but I’d say there’s considerably less snow than predicted. This looks more like 6 – 8 inches than 18. (Note the lower portion of the fence.) Not saying we should be having school today, by any means.

Everyone is now on a screen – Mom and Dad are working, Grey is on his Chromebook and Thane is watching Wild Kratts.

Backyard blizzard view

10 am – Adam made four hot loaves of fresh bread for our neighbors, to help keep starvation from the door. I invited the older kids over to entertain our kids with a rousing rendition of HeroScape. Then I realized that people probably needed to be able to, you know, get to our house. So I grabbed a shovel.

The snow on the stairs was taller than the door, but powdery and easily pushed aside. I cut my way to the road, noting that the front yard snow was waaaaay deeper than the back yard snow – the promised 18 inches at least! The snow filled it even as I cut it. I got slightly stymied by the plow berm, but then decided my friends have legs and they could step over it.

Great thing about elementary schoolers is that four of them are less work than two of them….

Snowstorms make getting to your neighbors a logistical exercise.
Snowstorms make getting to your neighbors a logistical exercise.

11 am – the kids read and played quietly for an hour, but then they spotted other little heads on the street, and booked it to get their snow gear on. Let’s all take a minute to appreciate having kids who can put on and take off their own snow gear without parental intervention… ah….

Now there are some hijinks next door that involve sleds and vertiginous drops. Despite the transport ban, the road is a bit busy for sledding. Adam’s taking his turn on the walks to try and stay ahead of the DOOM. (The sidewalk portion of what I shoveled had completely filled in. The walkway portion stayed bare.)

Little figures in the snow
Little figures in the snow

1 pm – We went out sledding at noon. The DPW was attempting to plow our street, which was a bad combination. They asked us to stop sledding, so we did. I took most of the older kids in the neighborhood, and they’re currently wreaking havoc in Grey’s bedroom. Grilled cheese for lunch!

Grade school neighbors
Grade school neighbors

2 pm – I found the snow from the back yard. It was all on top of the cars. A million thanks to both David and Tobin for the snow-blowing. The snow removal on this driveway is a classic reason you should never buy houses during glorious October weather.

There's a car  under there. Somewhere.
There’s a car under there. Somewhere.

4 pm – Nothing like a day at home with your children while trying to do a full day’s work to make you really grateful for school. It’s just about time to stop splitting my personality and being full time at home!

7 pm – Best possible way to end a snow day!

Potluck with neighbors
Potluck with neighbors

10 pm – friends have returned to their home and our house is returned to a semblance of order. And yet it snows.

Two decades of building a bikeway

Over 30 years of leadership is represented with these two gentlemen
Over 30 years of leadership is represented with these two gentlemen

Back in 1988, a few folks had an idea about turning an old rail line in Stoneham into a trail. It was a cutting edge idea, at the time – the rails to trails projects were just kicking off. But the land was publicly owned, and it seemed like a good idea. Twenty-seven years later, the plan has final cleared (almost) all the hurdles required to break ground. My own part in this saga was trivial from that big picture perspective, but it was extremely illuminating for me.

Looking from the outside in, it can be awfully hard to get a hook into local politics. For example, googling my selectmen before a vote revealed… pretty much nothing (fun fact – my blog posts are like time 20 hits on nearly all of them). You can find some general information on what they do for a living. One or two of them have campaign pages, which reveal, well, nothing. Without a hook into the community, it’s hard to tell the obstructionists from the development-happy, the cooperators from the blockers, the sensible from the selfish. It’s almost impossible to educate yourself to vote responsibly when neither you nor anyone you know has any insight into these candidates.

Then came the Greenway. This project was so incredibly clear cut, I didn’t need a 20 year Stoneham veteran to explain the ins and outs to me. The pro was that we had an amazing project on public land paid for by state funds and sponsored by MassDOT. On the opposing side we had… uh…. safety concerns (which were bogus – the crossings will be much safer with the new work to be done) and uh… … The funny thing was that despite voting down a delay of a vote, and then voting down the initiative in the October meeting, no one could or would articulate a real & compelling reason why they didn’t think Stoneham should have this awesome amenity. The reasons, I believe, were all buried in relationships, history and some selfishness on the parts of the businesses who had been using the land for years with little or minimal compensation to the public. (I’m left to speculate. Anyone who’d prefer to explain the real reason is free to leave a comment!)

So in this complex community, I finally had a touchpoint. Using information available to me, I could see that the Greenway was good. This provided me the entryway into understanding more about the town. My involvement started out very lightly. In 2011 I walked the Greenway route. In May of 2013 I wrote about the project. In a sign of my outsiderness, I tried to reach out to the Selectmen using the publicly available contact information (which was rather unsuccessful). Then this fall, at the request of a friend, I went to the Town Hall meeting where the vote was both delayed and denied.

I was shocked into action. The excuses for failure were SO LAME. And they looked very much like they were going to successfully kill the project. I spoke at the meeting, and came to the attention of the advocates. Coming back from that meeting, I wrote a letter to the local newspapers. I reached out to the supporters, and helped collect signatures for a special town hall meeting. I engaged in the ad hoc group that pushed to get out the vote over a one month period. I walked door to door with my kids. I cold called 200 likely voters (a more pleasant experience than usual, based on the fact that 99.8% of the town thought the Greenway was a great idea). I called for the vote in the special Town Hall meeting, packed to the gills with hundreds of usually unheard residents who had answered our calls to support the project.

The townhall meeting felt like a movie where the hard work all pays off in the end
The Town Hall meeting felt like a movie where the hard work all pays off in the end

My portion of the effort was definitely at the eleventh hour and much less than that of others, but when the time came for drinks afterwards, I got the invite. I sat at a table of people who had poured years, tens of thousands of dollars and their hearts and souls into making the town a better plan to live, with no ulterior motivation. There was elation. There was exhaustion. There was a vague sense of unease that the opposition might find one more thing we hadn’t known about or thought about to block the project. I looked at those people, still struggling to put faces and names together, and settled into my place in the community.

Many things have come from this effort. The largest, of course, is that we now have a Greenway (assuming nothing bad happens from here on out). We have invited many residents of Stoneham to their first ever Town Hall meeting – hopefully some number of them become more engaged in guiding our community. I hope that the older entrenched interests in the town have realized that there are many more people in Stoneham than the handful of hundred who have historically done so much for the community, and that our planning needs to take both new and old residents into consideration. And I – I hope that I and my neighbors become more engaged in the town. Finally, enduringly, I have made some new friends in this adventure, who may be my friends in this great town for years to come.

What about you? Do you understand how your town ticks? Are you a voter? How do you figure out how to vote on local issues? How does a stranger come to become a local in your community?

Five key tips to travel like a pro

The other day I went on a business trip with a young lady who didn’t – as part of her job – go on business trips all the time. She was super excited about the whole thing. The novelty of flying, the eating dinner with the client, the spending the night in a hotel all by herself. Her degree of enthusiasm shocked me regarding my degree of cynicism.

The author, in a random hotel room in…. Philadelphia I think.

Business travel has some similarities to backpacking. People who don’t do it are amazed by the concept. But when I’m actually on the trail (in the airport) I know that I’m still a rookie. Do I travel a lot for business? My “deal” with my husband is that I travel, on average, once a month. I’d say I might be traveling a little more than that these days. Once every three or four weeks I crawl on a plane and go somewhere for a day or two. When they posted a description for my job, it said 50% travel. I have worked with people, though, who spend 3 or more days a week, every week, on the road for work. (That might be listed as 80 – 100% travel – the folks who travel the most are project consultants who will spend ~5 days a week, every week, in a city which is not their own. That’s folks like Accenture & Deloitte. They also tend to work 90 hours in that week and have a massive burnout rate.)

I know I have a ton yet to learn about how travel best, but as I drove from the Richmond International Airport to the corporate business parks in Glen Allen, I thought that maybe you, dear reader, might benefit from what I have learned so far.

Rental Cars
This was probably my biggest rookie mistake. You might have rented a car at an airport once or twice. You take the shuttle to the rental car center, stand in line, answer mysterious questions about levels of insurance coverage and take a bet on whether you’ll have enough time between meeting and boarding to refill the tank. I once got into a situation in Los Angeles with Hertz where it took me almost 2 hours to finally get a car – and that was after a long transcontinental flight, with several hours of driving still in front of me.

But that’s how it works, right?

No. It is not. My dearest business partner, after he got done guffawing and making fun of me for such a rookie mistake, explained. Many rental car companies have a second method – a premier method. I now use National (I’m part of the Emerald Club). I make a reservation ahead of time. Then I walked directly out to a row of cars, decide which one I feel like today, climb in and drive off. I stop at the gate on my way out to give them my license. All the rest of that stuff: gas fillups, insurance etc… is just on record. It takes minutes.

The business partner who laughed at me has upped his game, though. Now he just takes Uber everywhere, and doesn’t bother with pickup or dropoff.

Security
When I travel overnight, I have four things that go into the bins in security: my laptop, my toiletries, my shoes and my wallet. Here are some keys I’ve found to never being slower than the person in front of me:

  • Always, always wear slipoff shoes. Wearing boots or even tennis shoes is a mistake. I prefer to wear slacks with socks so I don’t end up standing barefoot in the security line, but flats will do in a pinch.
  • Don’t keep your toiletries in your Dopp Kit (what my family calls that back you keep your toothbrush and hairbrush in). Keep them in a ziplock bag in the outer zippered pocket of your carryon, so you can just slide it in and out.
  • Don’t bury your laptop under anything else.
  • Pay attention to whether you’re Pre. Increasingly, they’re putting more people through the lines where you don’t have take anything out or off. This only helps you if you’ve noticed in time to skip the long line.
  • No sequins. I have this shirt I like to wear with a peacock feather done in sequins. (Saying that it sounds appalling. I swear it’s not that appalling.) But when I go through the body scan with it, I light it up like Christmas. Patdown time! You need to build a travel wardrobe of clothes that are comfortable, washable, professional, good looking – and don’t have metallic bits. This isn’t as impossible as it sounds. I like Dressbarn for helping me find qualifying outfits.

    Points & Perks
    I avoided signing up for frequent anything miles because I know myself well enough to know that I’ll never get around to figuring out how to use them. The few times, in the past, I’ve tried, my one or two trips a year were laughably short of earning me anything, and definitely not worth the aggravation. But now that I’m travelling all the time, I think it might start to add up to something meaningful. The best programs are the ones that have both points for tomorrow and perks for today.

    In terms of perks, business travels are notoriously not price sensitive. My company pays for my travel, and doesn’t really case as long as I keep it within approved ranges. So offering me $10 off a rental car doesn’t actually encourage me to do much. But offering to make something simple, fast or comfortable counts for a tremendous amount.

    Hotel Loyalty
    There are two kinds of enterprise sales people at my company: Marriott people and Hilton people. (OK, they’re actually all Marriott, and fanatically loyal.) These companies make things better & better for you the more you stay with them. I have both sets of rewards (diluting the value of both – conveniently…) As an example, if you’re a Marriott Gold member, you get invited to the Concierge room. There’s late night snack food there, and a free breakfast in the morning. The non member people are downstairs paying $18 for their omelets. Way faster to zip through the buffet and grab a water on your way out, without having to pay. If you’re a platinum member – a coveted status – the hotel may be full for other people, but not for you.

    Also, just so you know, business travelers never, ever, ever check out of a hotel. (I apparently get laughed at a lot when I travel – this was another moment.) Just leave your key (and your tip!) on the table on the way out. Your receipt was likely under your door in the morning.

    The loyalty programs work together, so you are going to want to see if you can’t line them up. For example, as a Hilton person, I’d have a combo of Jetblue – > National -> Hilton family of hotels. This allows me to earn more points for the travel I’m already doing than if I just mixed and matched.

    I’ll let you know how to claim the points as soon as I figure that part out.

    Consistency & GPS
    If you’ve ever been in an airport and watched a business traveler, they often look extremely confident. They’re walking fast, roller bag trailing behind like a patient puppy, eyes on the horizon. “Wow, they really know this airport well!” you think. Ha. They’ve never been here before. But there are two things that make this possible: consistency & GPS.

    Every airport:

  • Has a bathroom right after you get through security and in baggage claim (business travelers never ever ever ever ever check a bag unless they’ll be gone more than a week)
  • Has ground transport next to baggage claim
  • Has a rental car facility where all the rental companies are (this may either be in the airport, or accessed via shuttles).

    When you get off the plane, you immediately walk in the direction of the sign that says “Baggage Claim”, stopping at the first bathroom you see. When you get closer, you start looking for rental car center. It’s always clearly marked. When you get to the rental car center, you follow the signs for your particular company. The closer you get, the more information on what you need. If you watched me landing in Richmond yesterday, you would have thought I knew exactly where the car was I was going to drive and had been there a thousand times before. It was the first time – I just knew what signs to look for.

    Once in the car, the hard part is trying to figure out how to drive it. (I drove a Prius this time. To my great surprise, I hated it. It beeps when you’re in reverse!) Plug in your phone, pull up the appointment for your meeting, and launch your GPS. I had no idea where I was or where I was going, but I got there in good time.

    So, does it sound glamorous and fun? Is there anything here you’re glad to know? Is there anything here I’m completely missing?