Friday, April 29, 2011

Old Mills, Balance, and Ingenuity

Below my house is a stream. On this stream once stood a mill. What remains, some 100 years later, are the fieldstone walls, lichen-covered and serving as lairs for squirrels and chipmunks. The magnititude of this project inspires me, as I think about the individuals who collected each of these stones from the adjacent field, transported them by hand, or by wagon, to this site, and then stacked them. There is no mortar, just good Yankee ingenuity. 

The mill foundation inspires me also because of what it represents. A time when people harnessed what nature provided to produce the power they needed. Their needs were much lower than ours are now, and the whole system seemed more in balance. They lived within their means to support themselves. 

Would I be willing to go back to cutting ice from a pond and storing in an ice house all summer for my refrigeration? Probably not. Could I give up my dryer? Yes. My electric oven? Rather not. I've reduced my consumption of electricity significantly, but I could do more. Even so, I am dependent on someone else to supply me the juice. 

When I sit by the stream and look at those stacked stones, which once held a wheel, which spun when the stream flowed, I think about the time when people both took initiative and accepted responsibility. Initiative without responsibility results in anarchy. Responsibility without initiative results in stagnation. We seem to have a bit of both today. 

Some believe we depend too much on our government, and yet, we have proven time-and-again that we need external controls, or at least guidelines. Just look at our recent financial crisis. Others believe that our government should (and will) provide a solution for every problem that arises. That is simply unrealistic. What we need are balance and ingenuity. The kind of balance and ingenuity that allows fieldstone foundations to remain solid for over a hundred years.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Buyer's Remorse

Buyer's remorse, according to the website,, is "an emotional response on the part of a buyer in a sales transaction, which may involve feelings of regret, fear, depression or anxiety. The word "remorse" derives from the word "mordere," to bite, sting, or attack, and suggests deep regret or repentence for a sin committed. Last week, I bought a new computer. Immediately, I began to suffer buyer's remorse. It's a familiar feeling for me. I tend to over-think problems, and then second-guess my decisions.

It wasn't the money. It was the notion of venturing into unfamiliar territory. Alone. I've been using a PC, and I bought a Mac. I didn't buy it at an Apple store, perhaps sales personnel are more helpful there. Or, maybe because Mac offers Applecare, sales staff are instructed not to give much advice. I signed the receipt, the guy handed me my new computer and sent me on my way. Now what?

Regret, fear, depression, and anxiety, that's what. What was I thinking, changing operating systems at my age? Technology terrifies me. Far from wanting the latest, newest, most complicated device, I want known, familiar, simple, tried-and-true. Remorse settled like fog. Remorse whirred distantly, like a sound I couldn't quite identify coming from a direction I couldn't quite place.

But, wait. What if, instead of simply staring at the box in fear, bitterly regretting my decision, berating myself for this impulse purchase, and allowing remorse to slowly drive me insane, I were to take the computer out of its box and turn it on? What if I were to navigate to the support page and actually read the instructions? What if I were to start... playing around?

Well, then I would have to release my feelings of remorse, as familiar to me as my old computer, and replace them with what? Feelings of excitement, accomplishment, and even a little giddiness. Seems like a reasonable exchange.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


The occasional patch of snow still litters our April landscape, reminders, like the crumpled cocktail napkins beneath the couch from last night's party, of a time past.

I'm not a winter person. I list among my favorite activities, walking on the beach and gardening. But winter has one great attribute: it's a time of anticipation. I can spend the whole of it looking forward to spring and summer.

Sometimes anticipation can be sweeter than the event itself. Consider the difference, Red Sox fans, between anticipating this year's opening day of major league baseball and the game itself. Spring is here now, and we've welcomed back robins, rain, daylight, daffodils, green grass, and the smell of fresh earth. Still ahead are apple blossoms, lilac, iris, peonies, roses, and lilies, fresh peas, basil, tomatoes, and sweet corn.

I love seeing the snow melt from our yard and the buds swell on the branches, love hearing the birds singing to find mates and building nests in the hedges. And, yet, when I see those few remaining patches of snow, I can't help feeling a certain sweet nostalgia for the pure anticipation of spring.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Persistence and Ingenuity

Below my feeder today are two mourning doves and one robin. On the feeder is one persistent red squirrel. Ours is a "squirrel-proof feeder," information that, apparently, no one gave to the squirrel. The slender metal perches are designed to give way when anything heavier than a sparrow lands there. It works, but not well. Bluejays merely grip more tightly when the perch dips and continue shoveling down seed.

The squirrel has a tougher time. He shinnies up and reaches across the narrow divide (about squirrel-sized) between pole and feeder and grabs onto the rim of a feeding port. Occasionally he misses, and his paw finds one of the perches, which releases, sending the squirrel plummeting to the ground. Deterred? Not a bit. Up the pole he goes again, cantalevering himself across the space, aiming again for that opening and the prize within.

Sometimes he remains like this to eat, awkwardly balanced between feeder and pole. Other times he reliquishes the pole and hangs from the edge of the hole by his front legs, wrapping his hindquarters under the feeder. Neither position looks comfortable. Neither looks elegant. But he sticks with it and gets the job done. Every day he shows up and gets the job done. There's a lesson in this for me as a writer. Some of this work may be uncomfortable and inelegant, but persistence (and ingenuity) pays off.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


My terrier Maggie is almost fourteen, quite deaf, and becoming incontinent. My rugs bear witness.

Maggie arrived when she was just nine weeks old, all needle-teeth and skunk-breath, and I dutifully crate-trained her. She took to it well. As she got older, I weaned her from the crate, so she could snooze unrestrained. The time has now come to reinstate the crate.

I set it up in my office and lined it with a foam pad, her favorite bed, and plenty of stuffies. Maggie looked on with deep suspicion. Next, I filled her plush fish with treats and put it in the crate. She sniffed, reluctantly entered, eviscerated the fish,and hopped out. I repeated the fish experiment the next day. She dragged the fish out and ate the contents.

I hate that we have reached this stage. Or rather, that she has. Fourteen years ago, she arrived, and I stared into those wild-dog-from-Borneo eyes, wondering what I was going to do with the little dervish that had taken over my house and life, disrupting routines, chewing furniture and shoes. And I knew that, more than likely, she would die before me and thus, someday, break my heart. Years passed, she grew up, we both aged a bit, and then, suddenly, it seemed, she was old.

Today she came into the office, gave the crate a doleful sideward glance and curled up on her old bed. (Yes, I've left the legacy system in place.) Why does she view the wire crate, once a safe haven, with such disdain?

Maybe Maggie views the resurrection of the crate as an unwelcome symbol (like those ugly safety handles that we are compelled to install in the bathrooms of our elders) of this sunset phase of her life, a phase that she would like to ignore or deny as much as I would.

Then again, maybe, like most of us, she is simply resisting a change that is being externally imposed. Had she been able to order the crate herself, choose the timing of its arrival, she might have warmly welcomed it. When she's ready, the crate will be there.

Meanwhile, I have taken up all the rugs.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Most of our snow has finally melted. The lawn looks rumpled and unkempt, like someone just awakened, hair in disarray. A doe is nibbling my barberry bush. I sit and watch her prune, partly because it's a job I hate and partly because I know she must be very hungry; she has just survived a very long, hard winter. The problem with letting her continue her grazing is that the barberry is next to my garden, where peonies, iris, and lilies, now push through the wet, heavy soil in search of sun. How is she to know which plants she can and cannot eat?

I debate whether to shoo her away, as I sit at my kitchen table trying to summon a metaphor for a story I am writing. It's challenging to live side-by-side with something--or someone--whose values and needs are different from your own. Having empathy, I realize, requires more than understanding. Empathy may require sacrifice.

I contemplate this as she continues to graze and I continue to search for a suitable metaphor.