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Weekly Column

7/15/18: Some Night Magic  

There is something about the pre-dawn hours, some natural magic out there that always enchants me. I stare through the kitchen window at outlines, trying to separate myself from exactly what they represent. It’s more fun to simply sail on the garden’s silhouette sea.  

Long slivers of light emanate from the distant glow of the alley’s security lamp, which highlights the new, curvy wooden alley door seventy feet south of the kitchen.  

The big secret garden fountain, which dominates the area in daylight, seems slightly blurred and insubstantial in the dark. The clean pool water surrounding its base is utterly still. A single pale, floating leaf appears to be eerily suspended. 

The cool, still air is thick with anticipation, with promise, with scents that only a garden can create. An open window over the sink invites them to waft into this room to mingle with the rich aroma of Eight O’clock coffee and freshly grilled bacon. 

In springtime the energy emanating from the damp earth is almost palpable as my perennials push up through softened soil, impatiently waiting for Nature’s signal that it’s safe to display their glory. But now, in mid-summer, I sense a Pause, as though the garden were thoughtful; it is the apogee of the season, when growing things are exactly between coming up and going down. It is the beginning of Mother Earth’s slow, inexorable exhale.   

The tall, sheltering wall, vined and solid, like the one featured in the story of ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ (a brief, but frightening fantasy penned by the dour Victorian writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne), separates me from the unpredictability of the less ordered world that exists outside my garden’s gates.  

A black wraith-like cat silkily glides along the fence’s flat-board top; the creature’s head and long back form a nearly horizontal line finished with an exclamatory tail. It smoothly traverses the long, high planks, confident that his claws, youth and speed are at their apex. Full of hunter-lust, he soundlessly patrols the territory below.  

I let myself out. There is no moon.  No breeze. Just occasional cries or rustlings, as sleep-thick, light-responsive birds shift position in snug, still dark nests. That nearly invisible feline notes the most interesting sounds, and moves closer to investigate. 

My eye catches a tiny movement; it’s a mouse, standing alert in a newly weeded bed, nose twitching, whiskers at attention, probably smelling the cat nearby and high. His nose knows where not to wander. He begins to move in short bursts among the forest of huge lily stalks, foraging for mousie morsels, careful to keep owl-radar from locking onto his small body.  Enormous hosta leaves and house-shadow function as shields. 

In the alley there’s a scream; the neighborhood owl has snatched a life to fuel another life, as the world turns.  

Birds begin to tune up; their songs enhance the dawn and lift my heart. Seagulls shriek roughly as they fly high scouting for breakfast. Their presence always signifies that a large body of water lies nearby.  

All my life I’ve loved the coo of mourning doves; now their soft melody floats through the fresh, crisp morning air. I hear my late mother’s voice.  “They’re saying, ‘I love you...you, you’…”   

 Light begins to creep powerfully over the landscape, crisply defining colors and shapes. Car and screen doors open and close in our alley, human sounds that signify the start of a workday morning. A bicycle wheel’s whirr faintly shifts the air.  

With a flick of my finger, my garden fountains power up and burble gently. 

My coffee is cold; I’d gotten lost in thought, in sounds, in Quiet. It’s time now to center myself, organize the nascent day into minutes and hours-  time to make plans.  

A fresh new day, with no mistakes, has begun.

  

7/8/18: Twiggy's Story 

Lots of interesting people visit Sunnybank’s secret garden, especially during the Traverse City Cherry Festival. One man, especially, will always remain bright in my memory.  Tall, about fifty and in good shape, he rang the garden bell one mid-morning and wandered in-- wearing a smallish dog. 

A homemade open carrier was secured to his lederhosen-like suspenders. Comfortably arranged in it was a mostly brown fifteen-pound mutt with floppy ears who was fitted with a special harness secured to the carrier. White fur encircled one bright eye, giving him a clownish appearance. His nose twitched as he surveyed the landscape.  Though dogs are never allowed in the secret garden, I made no objection to this arrangement. 

The man sat down carefully beside me on the big bench, moved carrier with doggie inside onto his lap, and we exchanged introductions.  He was Jason, and his bearded charmer answered to Twiggy. 

“I found him late last year lying on a state forest dirt road miles from anywhere, and managed to get him to a vet, who speculated he’d been flung from a car. The poor guy had a broken back. I visited him every day while he mended. That took a month. I really admired his spirit.  It was ‘touch and go’ for a while, but he finally healed. Twiggy can walk, though it’s not that comfortable for him. He prefers to stick close to me, and is happiest up here, where he can view the world safely. I don’t mind toting him around; it’s good exercise.” He looked thoughtful. “I think the vet was right—he was abandoned, and the experience haunts him. He worries that it could happen again. Sometimes he has bad dreams.” 

He shook his head. 

“He was so happy when I kept coming back to visit that I had to adopt him. He chuckled. “Hell, he’d already adopted me! 

“The vet thought Twiggy was about six years old. In his opinion his age, plus his special needs, would have made placement unlikely.” He shook his head. “I knew what that meant...” 

The little dog looked up at his master and sneezed. 

“Things have worked out just fine. I make outdoor furniture at home, so we’re always together. He just curls up on his blanket and watches me work.  I named him Twiggy because he was so skinny, and was mixed in with branches and twigs when I found him.” 

Twiggy’s stumpy tail wagged. I stroked his head. But there was one particularly strange thing--every now and then during the narration he’d look up at Jason and howl softly. 
Not bark. Howl. 

“Why does he do that?” 

Jason thought for a bit.  “I think the bark was knocked right out of him when he was thrown away.  The vet guessed that he’d probably barked for help for days before finally giving up and howling, which is what got my attention when I drove by looking for fallen timber.  When he has something to say he howls, sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly. In all the time we’ve been together I’ve never once heard him bark.” 

A nervous rabbit peered out from between two plump spirea bushes. All three of us noticed. 

“He smells that rabbit, but in strange territory he’s never tempted to chase one. Moving faster than a walk is tough anyway, because his back is cockeyed. 

“I’d never considered having a pint-sized mutt. Bigger dogs are more my style. But he’s my buddy. We stay together, thanks to this carrier. He’ll climb out for his toilet, but he’s happiest right up against me. I can’t leave him home alone, worried I’d never come back.” He sighed. “I doubt if he’ll ever feel completely secure.” 

He fondled Twiggy’s ears affectionately. “He even sleeps at the foot of the bed. And he snores, which took some getting used to.  But, hey, maybe I do, too. 
All in all, I feel lucky to have him.” 

Bright-eyed Twiggy, riding high, front paws curling over the basket’s rim as the twosome left the garden, polished his black nose and nuzzled Jason’s neck. 
Henry David Thoreau once noted: the most I can do for my friend is simply to be his friend. 

Here it was, in its purest form. 

-- 

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7/01/18: Coping with the Furnace  

The last few days have been scorchers! It’s important to soak the ground very early in the morning, especially around sunnier, hot spots.  I have two grassy areas right at the huge maple’s drip-line, on the front lawn, that are yellow; put simply, I wasn’t watering nearly enough. The tree’s rootlets were stealing the lawn’s moisture. It looked half dead. That’s changed. Tripling hydration seems to be working. I see little green shoots amid the straw, but these 96-degree days are a reminder that constant, massive support is vital for garden and lawn survival. 

(How DO golf courses survive?) 

Bryn walks very slowly, panting. She finds the pavement too hot for comfort, so we stick to grass as she does her business and hurries back to cool Sunnybank House. 

I will close the garden during this intense heat wave. So many feet on the lawn in the main secret garden stresses the already gasping lawn, which, by the way, I always leave quite long- 3.5 inches. Keeping the edges trimmed neatens up the picture, without stripping the lawn of protection from the furnace. (Imagine being in the desert with a butch haircut, as opposed to having longer hair…)  

The big hydrangea and my thalictrum (a bog plant whose tall, completely hollow purple stems must stay filled to the brim with water to support the developing flowers) will need intensive help.  I’ve developed a new method of coping; a directional sprinkler will bathe them gently, but constantly, for the four hours the plants are under the spotlight; I think I can keep them alive. The best time to begin is very early in the morning.  Moisture penetrates, instead of mostly evaporating, giving me a head start.  

Have you noticed how water rolls off the parched garden earth, instead of sinking into it?  But because I’ve mulched deeply in June, this isn’t happening. NOW is when using cocoa shell mulch pays off. Water is completely absorbed by the soil underneath; my plants stay moist longer. 

There are two full months of flower-cheer left, IF the garden survives the next 3-4 days. 

I’ll keep you posted on how they, and I, have coped.  

 

6/24/18: Love, Lust, Hunks and Hooey  

My advice to girls is: first, don’t smoke—to excess; second, don’t drink—to excess; third, don’t marry—to excess. 

Mark Twain 

  

As I patiently weed in the secret garden, a young, handsome couple chatting with me suddenly link arms and say to each other, “Let's get hitched.” Turns out they’d dated only three weeks, but “sometimes you just know.” Hugging her, he proclaims, “You’re gorgeous. We’re in love. Nothing else matters.”  

Huh. Is it love, or lust? Only the “L” is shared. Lust is inadequate glue. Feelings often fall away because lovers try to bond forever using its cheap adhesive. Do these two really know each other? A chemical reaction—thumping heart, shortness of breath, weak knees—merely signals an overwhelming need to possess. (I sometimes wonder if people take longer to choose their cars than their mates.)  

“Wait a minute,” I joke. “What’s his favorite color?” Startled, she thinks hard, then gives up. “What is it, Jack?” We three laugh, but I’ve made a point. 

Today, as I line up at the grocery store’s checkout aisle I spot that rag mag, The National Inquirer, lying in wait amid candy and fluff, for bored shoppers to gasp at- and take home- its latest riveting news: a plump-lipped, paper-thin, top-heavy movie star has chucked her third husband for another, richer man.  
Marriage is really the only legal form of pickpocketing, I guess. 

Immediately after perusing that pronouncement I read that a hunky male rock star has traded in his current wife for a younger model with a more pleasing arrangement of facial bones, and—very important—longer leg bones.  
Jeez. 

Fans avidly follow these peoples’ confused lives via TV, the Internet, and similar tell-all magazines. Plastic surgeons around the country are busily re-sculpting perfectly good bodies to more closely resemble a star the client envies— a star who makes millions pretending to be someone he or she’s not. 
A visiting E.T. alien would throw up his tentacles in confusion.  

And why do folks wish to read about what he/she had muttered when dying, or which one has chucked whom for new ‘love,’ anyway? What’s happened to embracing some semblance of privacy? 

Lee Marvin, an oft-married actor, once commented that “if your house burns down, you gotta rescue what’s important: the dogs. They know all about loving, and are unconditionally faithful.”  

Unconditional love is allergic to “or.” (You’ll do this, think that, be this, gimme that, or, I won’t love you.) Most parents I know are experts at truly loving. (A few though, confuse mothering and smothering…) 

People today seem so cynical about relationships. “Never waste time crying over a divorce or dumped lover,” one wag commented wryly: “just yell ‘Next!’”  
A friend once commented that the only difference between a man and a municipal bond is that municipal bonds eventually mature.  
And how about the guy who wasn’t a bit impressed to learn that swans mate for life. “If you’re a swan,” he said smugly, “you’re probably not gonna find a swan that looks much different from the swan you’ve got, so why not mate for life?”  
Awww... 

The rules seemed so much clearer way back when. A half-century ago, fifty-year-old women wouldn’t dare have babies because they’d probably set them down and forget where they left them.  
Today, fifty- and even sixty- is the new thirty. Boundaries have faded. (Inseminated grannies have successfully given birth to their barren daughter’s baby...) 

Oh, boy... I read over my musings, ruefully.  I’m a pontificating old dear who still likes to recall one of (ageless) Zsa Zsa Gabor’s outrageous comments: “Of course I’ll return the ring, dahhhling—but I’ll keep the diamond.”  
But hey: when toupees are removed, when our teeth are in a jar and our busts come off with our bras, what then? Does love remain?  

Rising, I brush myself off.  Lots of weeds are banished, the temperature’s down a bit and- I may finally have sorted out what’s really important:  
I shall pursue and happily lust after flowers, and promise to love every single one I bed. Forever.

6/17/18: I Dream a Dream    

Dear readers, this column is a repeat of one I wrote a few years ago. This weekend is devoted to our 50th anniversary and my birthday- a big bash- leaving zero time for my usual reflections. I did tweak it, though... 

    

Lots of brochures and phone solicitations from aspiring politicians are starting to pour in, triggering a weird dream one night, where I find myself with the huge, temporary power to dee-cree American changes. And make one world change. 

It went like this:  

I (a little old lady who likes dirt and the stuff that grows in it) possess a smattering of hard-earned common sense, which has inexplicably morphed into a Marvel Comic-like ‘Power-To-Change-Things-By-DeeCree’. I could make massive political and social changes, implemented by my scrawled signature. Bling! All Dee-crees shall immediately become reality for the United States of America.  
(Oh: I’m allowed just ONE world-sized decree, though. See #8.) 

Here They Are. 

 

1.  Presidential campaigns shall last precisely six months.  

Candidates (representing a maximum of four parties chosen in state and local elections) will be granted a budget of one hundred million public dollars each- and not one penny more- to map out and present their platforms. All major television news stations, as a public service, will feature each state’s chosen candidates on the first Sunday of every month, for three hours. Voters will dine on the ‘meat’ of their debates, arguments and proposals, which shall be presented concisely. (A disinterested committee will fund each candidate’s submitted ‘vote-for-me’ ads, using the money drawn from the aspiring politician’s hundred million dollar fund. (No one has to be wealthy to run, or win.) 
The American public shall mine for talent and innovative ideas, and listen to- and debate- every debate. 

 

2. Candidates caught in a lie (via ads or out of their own mouths) shall immediately be eliminated from the competition. A committee of eleven respected people dedicated to Truth, Honor and the Reasoned Way, will thoroughly check their veracity, then decide, based on collected verifiable evidence, if a lie exists. (Note: solid, reliable politically untainted statement checks will make honesty popular again.) The committee shall be paid well for this service, which shall last the entire six months. 
Their decisions are final.   

 

3.  If one single ‘rotten’ ballot is discovered (ballots will be randomly reviewed to weed out dead voters and non-citizens from anywhere) then ALL of that particular county’s ballots shall be rendered void. Losing so many votes because someone tries to sneak in ringers would go a long way toward stopping dishonesty.  
If an idea cannot survive without cheating to promote it, that idea should be chucked out. 

 

4.  Part of the oath every elected official must take shall include these words:  
‘I am a public SERVANT, not the public’s Master. When a government fears the people, that is Freedom. When the people fear their government, that is Tyranny. Thus, the Lesson, repeated: I am a public SERVANT, not the public’s Master. The citizens I represent are my Masters.  

 

5. The nation’s press shall report only fact-based news of the day. The awful ‘filler’ inclusions of death and psychopathic horrors that greet a soul over morning coffee encourage depression and despair. (Dozens of instances of character assassination, bear-eats child, woman tortures horses/babies, etc, offered as a steady diet every single day encourage reader despair and poor mental health.) Only factual research for the most up-to-date information shall be printed.  

News readers shall read the latest regional, national and world news. Simply that.  

Condemnation, expressed horror over what is reported, etc, shall happen in a forum designed for that purpose. All statements and declarations of horror and disgust shall be based on factual knowledge, and not attributed to ‘unnamed sources.’ No implants of erroneous ideas of why a behavior happens- “ perhaps he’s beaten his children, so that’s why they dare not look up” is permitted. That is Malicious Gossip, junk food for unwary brains...  

 

6. The President and Congress shall serve six years, with no second term. Thus, their entire time in office shall be spent actually running the country, undistracted by fundraising or pandering to his or her base. 

All presidential decisions, congressional bills and subsequent votes shall be posted weekly, in plain English on one page, for the country to read. The author of the bill shall be prominently printed. 

No riders- ‘remora eel’ attachments- are permitted, ever. Only the bill, with a ten page-limit. The bill writers must KISS (Keep It Simple- Succinct). 

 

7. The very first word learned in school shall be ignorance - a big word (though not nearly as big as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious) but one of the most dangerous to ignore. Ignorant people, stuffed with ideology, religiously inflexible precepts, or just plain pigheadedness, regularly say and do awful, unthinkable things to other living beings. Children shall learn, for example, that not one single human being has ever been able to choose his or her skin pigment, height, eye color, hair texture, parents, sex, or place of birth. So, hating people for something they have zero control over is, by definition, the very essence of ignorance. 

(When one learns to reason, and becomes skilled as a ‘devil’s advocate,’ that is, a person who can grasp the other side of a plan, ideology, or platform to aid in understanding the other person’s reasoning, which makes it possible to minimize the number of times he/she makes an idiot of him/herself.  

Bonus: tolerance and flexibility are thus nurtured.)   

Information, gleaned from verifiable facts (never from consensus) shall be given out freely. Questions, especially at school, must be encouraged. (Teachers may never teach for tests.) When updated and verifiable data about any subject is discovered, students shall celebrate the updates. After all, a better, more complete grasp of ideas or theories is always a good thing. 
After basic reasoning skills are mastered, there’ll be more time to luxuriate in love, compassion, generosity, fellowship, fun, and the gentle art of accommodation and compromise.  

 

**8. THE WORLD RULE: There will be time to indulge in the things listed above because- Wars anywhere, big or small, will be extremely unlikely. Why?  
The sitting president, his/her staff and Congress shall physically lead any war they declare or provoke. 
*This same Dee-cree shall apply to every world leader- prime ministers, ayatollahs, mullahs, dictators, kings, queens, emperors, princes, etc., including his/her staff and their congress, politbody, rubber stampers or whatever these groups might be called. 

Put simply: Leaders, whether old or young, must lead- and fight- on the Front Lines. No desk warriors allowed. No excuses. 

 

9. The first book read to toddlers- and to all new American citizen adults- shall be The Sneetches and Other Stories, by Dr. Seuss. Children will ponder Sylvester McMonkey McBean’s Star-On and Star-Off Machines, and who was what, and why it seemed important…. 

The other three stories, Too Many Daves, The Zax, and What Was I Scared Of? are- well, just perfect for helping to sort out life’s vagaries early. 

 

10. Everyone shall pay for doctor visits. Cash, checks and credit cards accepted. This method of payment is offered in hardware stores, clothing shops, food stores, airports, dry cleaners, etc. so everyone already knows how to do it. Just pull out the wallet and pay for the service. Second, third and forth party government bureaucrats are not allowed to interfere in a doctor-patient relationship. 

RESULT:  

The price of health care will plummet. 

One’s private health information shall once again be private.  
Comparison-shopping will blossom.  
Word will quickly spread as to which physicians, clinics and hospitals excel, and which are sub-standard.  
The price of every test, and all medicines, shall be posted. 

  

11. Congress: 

- shall NOT have a Separate, Special Health Plan. They shall receive precisely what they mandate for the rest of the country.  

- Terms shall last 6 years, with a good salary- better than what they’d been earning in their regular jobs, to compensate for uprooting their regular lives to serve in this way. A nice bonus at term’s end shall be awarded to those who have served their constituents with integrity and honor, and have not left Congress 1000% richer.  

  

12. All Americans shall purchase Mandatory Catastrophic Health Insurance to cover any medical disaster, using the money they earn. 

Anyone genuinely needful- people who just can’t pay for these awful health situations-either temporarily or permanently- will be assisted using a generous federal, state or local government fund set aside to fully cover their medical expenses. Prospective people in need will be carefully checked to root out fakers. 

  

13. Lawsuits shall be filed with great care. Frivolous filers will incur a mega-fine for tying up court time. If a civil lawsuit goes to court, the losing side shall pay both bills. Nonsense will cease as offenders’ wallets become emaciated.  

  

14. Elementary schools shall teach reading, mathematics, unredacted history, geography, English, logic (critical thinking) writing skills and a foreign language. A maximum of FIVE hours daily shall be dedicated to these subjects. Homework shall be rare, because home time shall be reserved for family interactions, after-school jobs, and play.  

Furthermore, the above subjects shall be offered all day. So, if a child is naturally most alert, say, after lunch, he/she shall attend school then, during their personal best learning time. No more dragging children out of bed at 6:00 a.m. to present them at school half asleep, unable to absorb facts. No more forcing a child to learn in the afternoon, if he/she is naturally most alert and receptive during mornings. Understanding circadian rhythms greatly helps a brain absorb knowledge.   

Parents may drop in anytime to quietly observe their child’s class, from a small one-way glass room, so as not to distract. Teachers, on the merit system, shall be tested periodically to insure professional competence, and to insure they teach only the subjects mentioned. Everything not academic shall not be mandated. Schools shall have sign-up sheets for sports, music, art, driver training, shop, etc. All are free. All shall be offered all day. 

Large bonuses will be awarded for teaching excellence, as determined by the learning demonstrated by pupils. Older childrens’ reasoned, written evaluations of their teachers’ performances at years’ end shall be encouraged. Constructive criticism especially from children, is always valuable. 

 

As chief Poo-Bah I make all this happen by signing a special paper- and Presto! The above dee-clarations become the new reality. 

Smiling, I sigh and drift off again, perchance to imagine even more improbable profundities- 

Dreams are still free, eh?

6/10/18: What Bryn Knows...  

Joe and I have shared the last 4 + years with our labradoodle, Bryn. She’s brought us much joy, and even more wonderment, truth be told. 

Bryn understands a lot of English- I mean sentences- whole thoughts- that Joe and I express in her presence. I notice her ears moving smartly toward us, even as she gazes contemplatively out the window, her back to us.  When we plan our day, including the fun stuff- biking, hiking, relaxing after lunch in the Commons forest alongside that wonderful brook, she’s all ears. After we tentatively settle on where to go with her, she’ll turn her head to look us straight in the eye.  
Her tail will move approvingly, just the once.  
She knows!   
How though, can we really be sure we aren’t deluding ourselves? 

After our daily meal she’ll allow a decent space of time to pass, then softly bump Joe. He’ll look at her; she’ll glance out the window, then back at him.  
‘Ready, Boss? Let's go...’ 
She’ll walk with deliberation toward the front hall where we keep her leash and collar, and sit.  
Yes, she knows.  
This behavior doesn’t happen when it rains. She’ll do her business, sigh and drag herself back inside to wait it out. 

After her early morning walk I’ll prepare her first meal. She’ll wait outside the pantry until I announce; “Your dinner is ready, and there’s a cookie in it...” meaning dried tripe, the lining of a cow’s stomach, packed with vitamins and minerals. (Thanks to its inclusion in her diet she’s given up the habit of occasionally eating other dogs’ poo. The tripe people had mentioned this benefit, and they’d been right.) She takes her tripe ‘cookie’ to the dining room and eats it quietly and with pleasure, before tackling her meal. (By the way, meals are always ‘dinner,’ even if it’s morning.) After finishing most- or all- of it, she’ll come into the kitchen, and bump me once.  

“Ah, you’ve eaten? Let me look.”  
I get up and do exactly that. Her gleaming bowl is almost always polished. (I don’t mind the odd little bit left in there to save until later. She’ll still get her treat.) 
“Well done, Bryn.” I’ll pull out a bully stick; she’ll sniff it carefully before escorting it into the dining room to eat.    

BUT. Sometimes she’ll test me. She’ll eat a few tiny bites of her meal, bump my knee gently, then sit expectantly, hoping for her bully stick. Bryn believes in dessert first. 
I say the same words as before.  
“Ah, you’ve eaten? Let me look.” 
I go look.  
No go. 90% is still in there. 
“Hmm. I guess you’re saving your dinner ‘til later, Bryn. No problem. But the usual rule applies: First, your dinner. Then your treat.  
I move back to the table to work. 

She’ll follow and summon a pathetic expression, knowing full well I won’t change my mind.  
I casually repeat The Rule. 

She’ll stand by me doing her ‘statue,’ in case I weaken. Not a whisker will twitch. She’ll remain motionless for perhaps five minutes... 
I continue to tap at my computer.  

The Boss had spoken. And that’s that. 

Ghost-like, she’ll finally give up and move back to her bowl to devour every kibble. Soon I’ll feel a second soft nudge. 
“Oh. You’ve eaten your dinner? Let me look.” 
I knew her bowl was empty; I heard it happen, but the ritual is important, so I’ll smile and say, “Good girl. I’ll get your treat.” 
I’ll produce a nice long stick from her drawer. She’ll sniff it, accept the gift and trot off to devour it. As she’ll begin moving away I’ll sometimes offer her a choice.  
“Do you want to eat it outside, or stay in here?”  
She’ll pause mid-step, glance outside, then toward the dining room, and make her choice. It could be either place.  

Her eyes, facial expressions and where she positions her beautiful tail, convey a mountain of information. It’s simply amazing  
1. how much Bryn knows, and expresses, and 
2. that I’ve managed to learn so many of her eloquent, subtle signals.  

We’re effectively communicating, any way you look at it.  

I think Bryn has a sense of humor, too.  
I rise very early- could be anywhere from 2:30 to 4:30 a.m. A sensible doggie, she’ll remain in her bed upstairs for another three hours or so before coming downstairs to begin her day. 

But that 55-pound canine can move as silently as a ghost.  
Sometimes she’ll come downstairs hours earlier than usual. Making no sound whatever on the creaky kitchen plank floor she’ll glide into the big kitchen, select a spot on my blind left side- and switch to ‘statue’ mode for as long as it takes. It might be an hour, if I’m deeply engrossed in what I’m doing... She is stone. 

It’s worth it, though, when I gasp, jerk in shock and eek out shaky laughter at finding her there, a mere inch away! (The first time she did this I nearly fell out of my chair!) Yawning hugely, she’ll pretend surprise at my surprise.  
Gotcha, Boss!  
It’s a hoot for both of us!

6/03/18: Thoroughly Watered!  

Last Sunday afternoon Bryn needed a shampoo; she’d run through the really dusty dog park in hot, dry weather, so her fur was dust-coated and decorated with dirt clods and twigs. In the garden I used the hose to wet her coat, soap her up and rinse her clean. It registered nearly 90 sunny degrees, so the cold water felt good. But- there was a problem. The hose yielded only a tiny flow. I found a kink, but after sorting it, the water’s volume was still feeble. Rinsing Bryn took much longer than usual. This reminded me of........ 
OH, NO!! 

With a thrill of horror, I dashed into the house and down the basement stairs. Disaster! Torrents of icy water were pouring from the southwest corner of the ceiling. An elderly galvanized pipe had burst some hours ago. Water was everywhere! I ran back upstairs and outside to shut off the faucet on the house wall, then close the lever leading to the hose. The peculiar vibrating sound radiating from the outer wall ceased. I flung on my wellies and thundered back down into the basement. Two inches of water covered the floor and everything on it. I rang Les, who came straight over and shut off the impossibly placed interior valve, which I couldn’t ever hope to reach.  
The flow stopped. 
In December of 2009 my mother’s cottage in England had flooded. Burst overhead pipes ran amok for two weeks bringing it to near ruin in 2009. I’d moved there for a total of 12 months in appalling conditions to renovate. And now, Sunnybank’s basement was drowned by a split overhead pipe. Rugs were submerged, or floating; boxes of office papers were ruined.  Three of the four rooms off the main area were soaked. Only the laundry room was spared, because we’d poured a 6” high cement barrier across the doorway, rather like a ship’s galley (because in the 1990s the city sewer overflowed in a storm and the entire basement was full of –well, poop. Never again. Our simple fix would stop poop from encompassing the entire basement.) 

Even the carpet in my little music room at the far end of the basement was completely soaked. The main area’s exercise machine, a large Victorian trunk filled with my music, a ten-foot long filled bookcase, thirty or so cans of half-filled paint, and 14 large cardboard boxes of dried food that would last for 25 years, were bottom-soaked. 

I shifted what I could, lifted porch cushions out of the water, and put things on the stairs or in the laundry, hoping I could salvage them later. Then, for nearly an hour, on hands and knees, I used my little shop vacuum to suck away water, but found I couldn’t get the lid off the machine to pour the collected water down the laundry room’s sink. I finally noticed the overfilled tank was spewing it out the other end, undoing all my work!  
Murphy’s Law (Whatever CAN go wrong WILL go wrong) was in full bloom. 

So I grabbed a sturdy kitchen broom to shepherd water into the tiny main drain, which was soon overwhelmed. Unable to lift the big waterlogged rugs, or hefty stored furniture, I rang Les, a dear friend. We managed to raise most of the really heavy stuff to push bricks underneath, but had to stop after an hour or two of hard work. We were knackered. I rang my insurance company, and they put me on to ServPro, a firm that sorts flooded homes so well that ‘it’s as though it never even happened.’ They came immediately, emptied as much water as possible with their big water-collecting vac, then brought nine huge fans down and set them up everywhere while a giant dehumidifier roared.  

Fortunately, there was no drywall down there, but lower brick walls were peeling paint, and the ancient cement floor oozed earth and water... 
It was too soon – and too late at night- 10 p.m.- to do a thorough damage inspection, so I told the men to go home. Memorial Day was hours away. There was nothing to be done until we got it dried out, so I’d see them Tuesday afternoon.  
For over 48 hours the fans roared; it was impossible to find a quiet place in the house. But they did make a difference.   

(The danger, of course, is the rapid growth of black mold. Fans help prevent this dangerous curse, so it’s essential to get them going right away. In England it took me two months to get the insurance company to respond. They simply ignored what was promised in their contract!! By then, though, black mold had covered everything, necessitating much more ripping out of walls. Only when I screamed at them in frustration, threatening a huge lawsuit, did they finally dump enormous fans outside the cottage in the middle of the night and stomp off. As they weighed more than I did, I couldn’t move them until I found help...but that’s another story. I don’t believe I’ve ever been so frustrated and outraged.) 

Anyway, ServPro’s equipment roared. The men returned Tuesday afternoon to monitor progress, and decided the fans/dehumidifier should keep working for another 24 hours, just to be sure.  
But then (there is often a ‘But then,’ courtesy of Murphy) on Thursday, the music room’s white Berber carpet’s center had morphed to a rusty, ugly red. The vivid stain (maybe from the pad, or emanating from mineral deposits in the ancient cement floor) was huge- as big as a six-foot circle. The guy sprayed something on it. Voila! The ‘blood’ began to vanish- and we began to cough. I backed out, gasping, and went upstairs, but kept coughing. He did, too. Something in that spray had irritated our lungs.   
He eventually left, after saying we’d know in a few days whether such a big blemish would stay gone. I doubted it.  

So then, I decided to do a load of laundry. In stocking feet Thursday late afternoon, I brought down the filled laundry basket, took some minutes to maneuver the full basket past heaps of stuff blocking the laundry room’s raised doorway---- and found myself wading through icy water! That floor was thoroughly flooded, too! A 9x12 indoor-outdoor grass ‘carpet’ was trying to float, and two huge old wooden cabinets were standing in an inch of water.  
And it was rising.... 

I let out wails of despair. This was a blow. WAY too much bad stuff was happening too fast. 

Here’s the skinny. The ServPro techs had set the drainage hose for the dehumidifier down into the deep laundry room sink, but at some point it had managed to dislodge itself and slither to the floor. All the water drawn from the main basement’s wet air emptied onto that floor. Cursing Murphy, I stuck the hose deep down in the sink again and weighed it down with a wet towel. 
ServPro came soon after, acknowledged they’d messed up by not securing the hose, and so would not charge to put that room right.  
OK. These things happen. 
But now I was frazzled to breaking point. 

But Murphy wasn’t finished yet. No sir. 
For almost 40 years I’d kept a $1,000 deductible on our house insurance.  But now, when I rang to confirm that all was well in that regard I was horrified to find that our actual deductible was $4,818.00!!! 

Why? In 2013-14 the insurance company had included an extra notice in the semi-annual bill, that, unless they heard from me, the deductible would be raised to 5% of the value of our home. Here’s the thing: every regular monthly bill – phone, water, heat, light, etc. includes reams of extra paper crammed with various ads, notices, privacy assurances, and various legal blah-blah, all of it delivered in very fine print. Rarely bothering to read those tiny info junklets, I just recycle the paper. So, of course, I didn’t notice that an important part of my insurance policy was different.  

To be fair- I’ve saved a good deal of premium money during the four years that have passed- until this disaster, so I hadn’t noticed, up close and personal, the radical change. Now, faced with such a huge deductible, I canceled the claim. This bill would not be quite that expensive, but it would be a big bite out-of-pocket. I rang the insurance people to ask that they get rid of that enormous deductible and put it back to $1000,00. I would pay the higher semi-annual premiums.  
But. This must be submitted to The Committee, who might well deny my request to change back. So I wait. 

Meanwhile, one basement fan still roars; the air is too moist, my nerves are frayed, and my temper is noticeably shorter. Life is a trial right now. 

But (Take that, Murphy!) there are huge bright spots. One is upside down in front of me, twitching and paddling as she dreams. Bryn-dog is the essence of quiet cheer and pure love. She brightens every aspect of my life. There is Joe, the love of my life for 52 years. There is my beloved secret garden, with all its nooks, crannies, and little delights. Spring has arrived, and there are fresh babies of every kind to love and admire.  

When I have the sense to take in these ‘calmers,’ they raise me up as high as I care to be...

5/27/18: That Sinking Feeling…  

A passionate reader, I recently learned an astounding fact about England’s ancient churchyards. Bill Bryson’s fascinating book, At Home, A Short History Of Private Life (Doubleday, New York, 2010) offers an earthy revelation. 

Bryson, a prolific, popular author, lives with his family in an old parsonage in Norfolk, England. One day he and his archeologist friend Brian looked out his second story window at the gently mounded landscape surrounding the medieval church just outside his home. Brian remarked that there are 659 ancient village churches in Norfolk, alone; all seemed to be sinking, as he put it, “like a weight placed on a cushion.”  

Are they, really?  

This church’s foundations, he pointed out, were at least three feet below the churchyard. When asked the reason why, Bryson had no clue.  

His friend commented that the church wasn’t sinking; the churchyard had risen. Bryson, when asked to guess the number of souls likely buried there, thought there’d be eighty? A hundred? 

“I think that’s probably a bit of an underestimate,” Brian replied, with an air of kindly equanimity. “Think about it. 

A country parish like this has an average of 250 people in it, which translates into roughly a thousand adult deaths per century, plus a few thousand more souls that didn’t make it to maturity. Multiply that by the number of centuries that the church has been there and you can see that what you have here is not eighty or a hundred burials, but probably something more on the order of, say, twenty thousand.” 

This was, bear in mind, just steps from my front door. “Twenty thousand?” I said. 

He nodded, matter-of-factly. “That’s a lot of mass, needless to say. It’s why the ground has risen three feet.” He gave me a minute to absorb this, then went on. “There are a thousand parishes in Norfolk. Multiply all the centuries of human activity by a thousand parishes and you can see that you are looking at a lot of material culture.” He considered the several steeples that featured the view. ”From here, you can see into perhaps ten or twelve other parishes, so you are probably looking at roughly a quarter of a million burials right here in the immediate landscape— all in a place that has never been anything but quiet and rural, where nothing much has ever happened.”   

Heavens! For forty years I’ve enjoyed these lovely, peaceful places, but never questioned why British churchyard landscapes always— well, billow. (American graveyards are mostly flat; we are, after all, a very young country.) 

I’ve enjoyed pondering local churchyard epitaphs not yet claimed by earth, time and weather. Occupants composed a few of them. Usually, though, family and friends ventured thoughtful, and sometimes humorous comments that often date back centuries.  

In St. Mary’s churchyard in Ross-on-Wye, one stone displays two hands, palms up. It reads: 
She Gave With Her Hands. 

This one, in Cornwall, remembers a tin miner: 
Gone Underground For Good 

And, etched in marble in 1690, a droll farewell to a friend who could afford good food: 

Here lie the bones of Joseph Jones 
Who ate while he was able 
But once overfed he dropt down dead 
And fell beneath the table 
When from the tomb to meet his doom 
He arises amidst sinners 
Since he must dwell in heaven or hell 
Take him- whichever gives the best dinners 

Finally, I offer some last words of my own regarding those countless graves embraced throughout the centuries by the rising ground:  

So many dear souls have abandoned their bones  
To fly to heaven’s glory 
Tho’ Mother Earth hath reclaimed their stones- 
God always knows each story.

5/20/18: Continental Differences  

As I work in Sunnybank’s secret garden pulling little weeds that constantly try to establish, I often ponder the sometimes startling differences between the European and American way of life, just to keep from perishing from boredom. 

A German friend who’d married an American and relocated here would nervously creep up to signaled intersections for months, horrified by our heavy, dangling stoplights, which sway on windy days. Even a year later she still hadn’t fully adjusted. In Europe, traffic lights are bolted onto sturdy poles on streets’ edges. The American arrangement seemed irrational to her, especially in “tornado alley,” because the heavy streetlights are unguided missiles in high winds.   
Tornadoes are vanishingly rare overseas. 

Dry cereals seemed to her like eating colored paper. She couldn’t bring herself to try cornflakes with milk.  In Germany, a slice of bread and coffee or tea starts the day; the big meal happens in late evening.   
Here, most restaurants serve all day long and offer endless coffee refills. In Britain, one pays anew for every cup. 

In England, renovating my cottage in 2009, I’d often forget the time, immersed in a task that required my full concentration. But then, at around 2:45, I’d realize I was ravenous.  There was no food in the cottage: heck, there was no kitchen. It needed a complete redo after being ruined when overhead pipes had burst in record cold weather-- so I thought: ‘I’ll pop down the hill to the Axe and Cleaver and indulge in a pub lunch!’  
But then I’d realize I was well over an hour too late! From 12 to 2 o’clock restaurants and pubs offer hot food. The cook, hired for just those times, cleans up right at 2 o’clock, and then goes home for the day.  
Restaurants open again after 5 and remain open until 9 or 10:00 p.m. I eat one meal, usually around midday, so losing track of time over there carried a stiff penalty for me.  Apples, or cheese and crackers, tightly sealed in a tin that even clever rodents couldn’t open, were a comfort when I forgot the time.  

One miserable afternoon early in the renovation I really needed a decent meal; I popped into a local hotel nearby, explained my circumstances, and asked for a sandwich, and tea.  The receptionist discussed this shocking demand with staff at length, and with much waving of hands before they were finally persuaded to bring me a tiny ham and cheese sandwich and a small pot of tea.  The bill for that scant fare was a whopping 21 pounds.  (Thirty-five dollars) Horrified, I inquired why.  “Madam,” the desk clerk said stiffly, “food is served beginning promptly at noon; staff are not accustomed to feeding people after 2 o’clock. Come back at 6 for our evening meal.”  I felt about an inch high.  But I knew it would be useless to show anger.  I paid the extortionist price, but never went back there. 

The Brits love their dogs and their pubs. Pubs in Britain have generous windows and lovely, truly ancient interiors. Their thick, deeply worn, blackened wooden floors and ceiling beams might be over 800 years old. Flower baskets hang everywhere. Often, pubs come with a resident ghost.  

Families enjoy steak and kidney pie, or fish and chips or stew, or steak or lamb, as well as fancier meals. Children and dogs are welcomed. They sit or lie quietly at their owners’ feet at the bar, or at their tables, content to wait for as long as their masters wish. Mostly they snooze, or enjoy pats from patrons. And sometimes fries (called chips) might slip off plates and land under delighted canine noses. 

Here in America, there are no cheery pubs; instead, we offer windowless, secretive bars, many of which are dark and broody inside. Having loved the real thing for 50 years I can never go in them. (Dogs, children and families are rarely found there.) 

When I visited Paris many years ago, leashed dogs would enter various little shops with their owners. Nobody thought a thing about it. I never witnessed an unruly dog in a shop. They just kept quiet and padded along, sniffing delicately. 

In France, women frequently wear only swimsuit bottoms. When traveling through France in the late 1980s Joe and I would bike along lovely streams bisecting the countryside, and noticed everyone from very old grannies to lovely women and girls enjoying the briskly flowing streams. Most were topless.  Men of all ages, and boys who were often naked, thought nothing of this. Everyone sat on blankets spread out on the grass to enjoy lunch, all the while keeping a sharp eye on littler ones splashing about in the shallows. It was close to 100-105 degrees every day during that July and August, so, during the intense afternoon heat, villagers would abandon field or housework and gather wherever there was water to gossip, nap, and chat. Though initially startled we soon adapted, and, like the French, ignored the nudity.   

British cars are 98% standard shift models. People are nearly undone when confronted by automatic shift cars. They find them too difficult to manage. One of the workmen offered to move my (automatic shift) car so he and his mates could unload timber to renovate our flooded out cottage. The guy unraveled when he tried to back out, and then drive it forward. He had no clue how to proceed, and got out cursing and flinging his hands, so I had to take over. The workers were incredulous that I would want to drive such a complicated car! 
I found their shock fascinating.  
Personally, standard shift driving is much more complicated to learn. It’s all about coordination. 
With automatic shift cars, though, all one does is press the ‘Go’ pedal or the ‘Stop’ pedal. With the right foot.  
That’s it. 
When I travel there and need wheels, I must reserve an automatic shift vehicle from car rental agencies. And, this, of course, means paying extra, partly because it can take a good while to find such a car. I like ‘automatic’ because I tend to gape at the scenery- Britain is gorgeous- and refer to maps. Thought I drive standard shift perfectly well, I like to keep tasks simple, especially when driving on ‘the wrong side of the road,’ which requires great concentration. 

In Britain one sees long aisles in grocery stores big and small, which hold hundreds of stacked eggs nestled in cartons. They are never refrigerated. I was openmouthed- and yes, horrified- the first time I saw this, but, thinking about it, I couldn’t remember that newspapers had ever reported people sickening or dying because of this practice. Still, it seemed unsafe. All sorts of bacteria might grow inside a room temperature egg. I constantly wondered how long the ocean of eggs on those shelves had been sitting there. How could one keep track?  

Properly attired men fishing for trout in lovely streams wear suits, vests and ties, and, of course, chest-high boots, and a special woven basket is strapped to their shoulders to hold their catches. It was those tweedy suits that always grabbed my attention. Who would think?    

Part of visiting another culture is learning to adapt- and even to appreciate- these intriguing continental differences. 

5/13/18: Weather- or Not 

What odd weather we’ve been having! First it was really warm, and then, suddenly a big wind blew in a bigger snowstorm and icy air, and then, it rained; all the snow went the way of all things...  

Here it is, May 11, and we are greeted by freezing weather again, after days of delightful warmth. It’s 26 degrees in Grayling! Anyone who planted annuals recently will be upset: they don’t survive this sort of shocking change. Just before this sudden turnaround, a huge wind had taken down power lines, branches, and even trees, here in TC, and in southern Michigan. The power was out for a good while in Saginaw; school was canceled. 

Even the birds, who wake us every day with cheery chirps, were dead quiet this morning, too busy trying to keep their eggs from turning into lumps of ice to sing, or defend their territory.   

I remember other years of weird weather, too. 

Saginaw, March 10, 2012, 2:30 a.m.  Joe and I were asleep in our small 1870s brick farmhouse where we’d raised our two children, and where he still maintains his cardiology practice three days a week. Because he was covering Covenant Hospital that weekend I’d driven down to Saginaw to be with him. 

‘Wah! Wah! Wah!’ Our alarm shrieked, rudely signaling its switch to battery power. We shot out of bed and into a pitch-black world. Looking out our bedroom window we realized everyone in our area had lost electricity.  

Uh-oh. Could another storm be approaching? A dangerous one had hit the Tri-City area at dinnertime. The Weather Channel had confirmed a tornado in the northern part of Saginaw, exactly where we lived. Massive lightning had continuously ripped the black sky: a 30-second mega-wind had followed. Then – nothing. The main storm had roared by not two miles east of us. At bedtime the weather was calm.  

Sleep was impossible, so we dressed and drove into town for coffee and light, and recalled another terrifying Saginaw weather event 32 years earlier. 

August, 1986. The afternoon sky, dressed in shades of sickly yellow smeared with green and black, looked decidedly ill. An eerie quiet blanketed the three acres of wooded land surrounding our home. Birds and insects were mute.  

Nervously we gathered our two young daughters and went inside. Ten-year-old Jen watched the sky upstairs while my husband monitored the TV. Five-year-old Lisa soothed our skittish puppy in the kitchen. 

Suddenly- a huge WIND screamed in. Large trees moaned under the assault. Windows rattled. County sirens wailed. Joe ran out, looked up and his face registered shock. Dashing inside he yelled, “Basement! NOW!”  

We snatched up the children, grabbed the pup and rushed down there. 

Seconds later there were tremendous BOOMS!! Then, loud CRREEAKS! Large trees were splitting, groaning, and falling. One truly deafening CRACK!! Lightning had struck the huge elm near the living room. (The pungent stink of roasted sap would linger for days.)  Then, THUMP! THUMP! Over and over. Trees and chimney bricks were falling, flying off… going… gone. The wind raged and howled for another age--- 

An eternity later, it was over. Calm reigned. Only persistent rain remained. 

Our house had survived. But our vast, treed lawn had completely disappeared under a carpet of huge, flattened trees. What an incredible sight! Nobody said anything. We simply stared, blown away. Sixty- three downed trees tidily faced east, showing what tremendous straight-line winds can do. Rain and dime-sized hail still pummeled shocked leaves. Weirdly, two giants elms very close to our home had toppled mere inches from it. Parallel to it. But, incredibly, not on top of it.  

Some mortar-weak, heavy chimney bricks had been ‘shuck-plucked’ gone, like random kernels of corn pried off a cob.  

I wish I had a nickel for every gawker who drove by for the next three weeks. We’d be rich. It took five full days for a crew of ten men armed with chainsaws and tree-eating machines to clean up. Other people lost entire roofs: cars and sheds were overturned or crushed. We’d experienced an EF-1 tornado.  

Just two years later, in September, it began to rain. Hard. Steadily. It stopped 32 days later. Much of the Saginaw valley area within a couple of miles of the Saginaw River was under water. Frantic sandbagging commenced half way through the deluge as everyone tried to help the residents save their homes nearer the river. Our efforts didn’t help much. Our home was completely surrounded by foot-deep water. Buck, our Golden Retriever, jumped into it from the front porch and swam to the road 150 feet away. I will never forget that amazing sight. 

It took a week for the river to retreat. Lots of people lost everything. Our basement had just been redone to create better drainage; we had only an inch down there. 

In 1953, when I was in elementary school, a twister dropped briefly into Saginaw and inhaled our apple tree along with various dish-y clutter from our dining room table, which it also tried to suck through the partially open window. Then that EF-5 monster roared south to flatten Flint, where 113 people were killed. 

Ten years ago, here at Sunnybank House in Traverse City, I hastily herded six garden visitors into the kitchen one biliously dark afternoon. Everyone watched a funnel cloud form as it moved west to east- but not touch down- just south of us. It was unnervingly close! 

So, during this weird, hot-and-cold spring I’ve begun monitoring the weather at bedtime, just to make sure we are up-to-date on forecasts. 

I’ve seen, first hand, how quickly people can be snowed in, or their homes drowned in waay-above-flood-stage river water, or how everything can be blown away in mere minutes.  

Michigan weather: if you don’t like it, wait fifteen minutes.