Monthly Archives: October 2012

I no longer hav a hart

One night, many years ago, when I was young and living in an apartment in Waltham, I heard a scrabbling sound. I searched the apartment and had just about run out of places to look when I thought to open the broiler drawer at the bottom of the oven. And there it was, a field mouse. As I remember it, the mouse and I both squeaked and recoiled, but maybe it was only me, it was a long time ago.

I do remember that it was too late to buy a trap that night, so my boyfriend drew a little picture of a skull and crossbones, scrawled keep out on it, and tacked it to the bottom of my bedroom door. The next day I purchased a Havahart trap and caught my mouse, alive and well. On my way to work I relocated him to Billerica and that was the last time I had to deal with a mouse in my own home.

The other weekend, I hosted a writer’s retreat at my in-laws house in southern Vermont. It’s an ideal spot for creating, with cozy nooks for writing and beautiful views for inspiration. It’s perfect in every way, except for the mice. If they stayed out of my way I would share the space with them, albeit a tad grudgingly. After all, this is a country house, in the middle of the woods, and it spends a fair amount of time uninhabited. Someone should make use of it. And there is ample evidence that the mice do. Fortunately, they are quite small so the – evidence – is proportionately small. When, however, a mouse has the audacity to run across the floor in full view of my guests, I have to put my foot down.

Normally, I happily bow to gender stereotyping and leave the mouse trapping to the men. On this particular weekend, though, I was the hostess and the job fell to me. I read the instructions and set a couple of traps. We had no peanut butter, which is what the trap manufacturer recommend using, so I baited the traps with a lovely quiche that my critique partner, Vicki, had made. In the morning, I came downstairs and Pamela said, “Congratulations. You caught a mouse. I left it for you.”

I threw a paper towel over the trap and mouse, and then picked it up by a plastic tab designed for just that purpose. I opened the trash can in the mud hall and held the trap over it. I had no idea how to get the mouse out of the trap. With my free hand, I picked up the instructions and tried to make out the small print. I may have been going into shock because I have no idea how I finally figured it out, but there was a quiet plop as the mouse fell into the can, and the trap lightened. I then gave in to a small post traumatic response. I pulled my chin in and down, shivered and shook my shoulders (you’d recognize the behavior if you saw it). Then I pulled myself together and returned to my colleagues.

Once the horror of what I had done subsided, I felt rather proud of myself. I had done what needed to be done, and lived to tell the tale. When I was young, killing a mouse would have been unthinkable. Now that I’m older it seems quite reasonable. The house really isn’t big enough for all of us.

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Impulse buying

I’ve been feeling a little out-of-control lately. I’m not sure what happened, but something went tilt and I’ve been compulsively eating caramel-flavored candy corn. It’s probably the fault of the Halloween season; it taxes my ability to resist buying candy, even though I spend the rest of the year practicing.

Most registers at my local Stop & Shop (or as my friend Rebekah calls it, Stop & Rob), have a rack of candy and gum conveniently positioned for impulse buying. If I’m lucky, I end up at the register that offers “healthy” distractions, like dried fruit and corn puffs in a can which interest me not at all. But it doesn’t really matter, because I’ve gotten quite good at restraining myself. Once in a while I’ll pick up a York Peppermint Patty and contemplate getting the sensation, but then cooler heads prevail and I put the patty back on the rack.

Unfortunately, impulse buying is not restricted to items placed strategically near the cash register. Frankly, those that are are typically small money, so while you might chide yourself afterwards it’s unlikely to rise to the level of full-blown buyer’s remorse. For that you need to dig a little deeper into your pocket. Like the time I bought a pair of three hundred dollar orthotic inserts from a chain called Good Feet.

My feet were bothering me. A friend had recently told me that he had plantar fasciitis, and I’d developed a sympathetic case. The Good Feet store in Lexington had a big sign in the window that said “Plantar fasciitis,” so on a whim I stopped in. Now, I’m a tad nervous about inviting a defamation lawsuit, so I’ll try to stick to the facts, but I will say that this franchise ought to be illegal. In order to purchase these slightly molded, plastic inserts, which probably cost fifty cents to make, I had to sign a document that said I understood that they were non-refundable – for any reason. This was not a parenthetical comment at the end of the receipt; this was a separate document. The non-refundable policy was also prominently displayed at the cash register. It was the polar opposite of an impulse buy setting. It was the “anti-impulse buy.” And yet…

I wore those inserts for one day. They hurt my feet. I put them in a drawer for a respectable amount of time, and then I got rid of them. I’ve blocked how; Goodwill, garbage, I don’t remember.

Typically, I suffer buyer’s remorse after what I call a shopping accident, which is what I say I had when I spend too much money on something I need (or want). I could choose to remember the Good Feet debacle as the mother of all shopping accidents, but for some reason it haunts me as my most egregious impulse purchase instead.

It seems appropriate, during this season of haunting, to remember that humiliating experience and to ask myself how many bags of caramel-flavored candy corn I could have bought  for the price of those orthotics.

Volunteer vegetation

This is the second year that Andrew and Hannah have planted potatoes. We don’t have a dedicated vegetable garden so they picked a spot that looked promising and planted them right in between a couple of flowering, decorative plants in the front garden. As it happens, potatoes have lovely leaves and pretty flowers. To the unsuspecting, they looked like they belonged right where they were. The first year’s yield was quite impressive as you can see by this photo of a grinning Hannah.

This year, Andrew and Hannah added two more locations, but were a little disappointed by the crop. The potatoes were quite a bit smaller. But if we step back a bit, you’ll notice something interesting about this part of the yard. All those big leaves running along the side of the garden bed? Squash. They didn’t plant squash, but there it was. We thought it was a miracle – immaculate conception, squash-style. Only it wasn’t. It was compost.

We have a big plastic compost container in the backyard that gets fed all our vegetation and non-meat scraps, as well as all the clippings from Andrew’s pruning projects. It just sits there, quietly rotting away, and every once in a while, Andrew stirs it with a pitchfork looking every inch like one of Macbeth’s witches at his cauldron. Then, when planting season arrives, he puts a healthy supply of his home-grown compost in with the new bulbs or shrubs or what-have-you’s.

Last year, Andrew discovered a great recipe in The Boston Globe for pasta with butternut squash, shrimp, feta, and lemon. It was a big hit, and a lot of butternut squash seeds made their way into the compost bin. The rest, as they say, is history. We thought this was an amazing story and shared it with friends. It seems that this was not all that unusual an occurrence. They had grown tomatoes the same way. They called them their volunteer tomatoes.

Initially, we thought we had started a pumpkin patch. It wasn’t until the squash blossoms appeared that we realized our mistake. We watched the squash grow from tiny little knobs of green to large, light-orange gourds. Andrew nurtured them as carefully as anything he ever planted on purpose and last weekend he used our volunteer squash for our favorite pasta recipe. It was delicious.

We do, however, have quite a few butternut squash to use. I’m a little concerned that we’ll tire of our favorite dish long before the squash are gone. Volunteer squash, anyone?

Tooling around on a Segway

Right before her birthday this year, my mom bought herself an Android-based tablet. Had it not occurred to her, I asked, that that would have made a good gift for one of us to give her? She was genuinely surprised because in truth the answer was no, it hadn’t occurred to her. My mother is the consummate consumer, which does not mean she buys a lot; it means she thoroughly researches everything before she purchases – anything. I probably wouldn’t have gotten her one anyway, for fear of getting the wrong one.

Instead, I gave her an outing that I was pretty sure would appeal to her inner geek, a ride on a Segway. I considered renting one for a day and having it delivered to her house, but decided that it might be more fun if we did it together so I opted for a tour. The tour operator, Segway of Boston, works with the Museum of Science and tools around Cambridge where it’s legal to ride on the sidewalk.

The first half hour is for training. We watched a short video where an animated figure showed us all the things we shouldn’t do, lest we end up splat on the ground like he did. Then we were given a headset with an earpiece and a microphone. The receiver, clipped to our pocket, had a talk button on it. To use it, however, we’d need to take one hand off the handlebars, which was one of the no-no’s in the video. I resolved to keep my comments to myself.

The hardest part of using a Segway turns out to be getting on, rivaled only by getting off. Apparently Segways are never really at rest; they are always moving, like a horse that’s new to being under saddle. In order to get it to stand still you need to have it perfectly balanced. If you push the handlebar forward it goes forward, pull it back it goes backward. Fortunately, the Segway can’t smell your fear, and once on, it didn’t take long before we were all happily scooting around the practice area.

Then it was time to head out. The tour, led by a recent Skidmore graduate named Aaron, was a blast. He kept up an amusing and informative narrative. It wasn’t long before I was comfortable enough to use the talk button so I could let him know he was being appreciated. He took us across the Monsignor O’Brien Highway to North Point Park, a beautiful spot that we were told was created as part of the big dig. Then we went up to North Point Boulevard where they’re building the big skateboard park. After that, we crossed back over the highway and cruised down to Memorial Drive where he pointed out Beacon Hill across the river and told us about the buckets of tar that were lit in the event that the people needed to be alerted, hence the name. Next we rode into the MIT campus and paused for a break while Aaron showed us pictures on his iPad of famous MIT hacks. Then it was back to the museum.

When personal Segways were first introduced, they cost about $30,000. Today, you can get a new one for $6,000 and a refurbished one for $3,000 to $4,000. If you calculate how much you spend in gas to run errands around town, it might take a while to pay for itself, but what’s it worth to not have to actually walk when you take the dog out? For all I know, my mom is already doing the research.

The meaning of life

Last week’s blog post was so stupid that I thought I should atone for it by writing something serious, and what could be more serious than death? I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately because my high school graduating class has lost a number of people this year. I had a big class, almost 800, so maybe losing four or five isn’t that out of whack, statistically speaking, for my age group, but it sure feels like a lot. I’ve written about what a lousy system the whole birth/death thing is before, but this time I’m going to focus on what really bothers me, and that’s how we Jews are supposed to come to terms with death.

I know we don’t believe in an afterlife, but I worry that I missed something critical while doodling my way through Hebrew School that would have helped me understand how we’re supposed to deal with death and the associated grief, from a religious perspective. Of course, this needs to be framed by the fact that I’ve only recently graduated to agnosticism from my earlier stance as an atheist. Despite my position, I am jealous of those who benefit from the comfort that faith can provide. I admitted this bizarre dichotomy the other day, during a class called Judaism and Critical Thought, taught by my Rabbi, Rim Meirowitz. And wouldn’t you know, it turns out that Judaism offers coping mechanisms that even a non-believer can embrace.

Rabbi Rim explained that for Jews,”… life after death is found in the community remembering the deceased.” My first response was, well then, it’s not life after death is it? They’re just as dead. But Rim went on to explain that we create occasions to remember, like Yahrzeits (the anniversary of the death) and Yitzkor (a service performed four times a year). And just like that, I understood. We continue to honor and respect our dead for as long as we are alive.

I felt an overwhelming sense of relief; I felt comforted, like a person with faith. The most surprising part of this epiphany is that these things we do, Yahrzeits and Yitzkor, are not new to me. Each month the temple publishes a newsletter with the list of Yahrzeits, we recite the mourner’s Kaddish at services. Why did I never appreciate the power of these rituals before?

Rabbi Rim is a smart, well-read guy, so I’m sure he was quoting someone else when he suggested that faith is based on an individual’s willingness to create the meaning of life for him or herself, and then forget that they created it. I’m still not willing to take the next step and proclaim a belief in the one whose name we should not write, according to Jewish practice (and no, I’m not talking about Voldemort), but I do like the idea of constructing the meaning of my own life.

The act of telling stories about my life, my friends, people I care about, people who have influenced me, people I don’t know, gives my life meaning. Mind you, I don’t know what it means, but I’ve still got time to figure that out.