A Dramatic Entrance 

Our farmhouse is old. 1830 foundation old.

The main part of the house, rebuilt in 1900, is a Cape. Of course it has a front door, but since it faces the street, and not the driveway, we barely use it.

Attached to the rear of the Cape is an addition, once a woodshed/tractor garage.  That structure is now a two-story wing with a new main entrance that leads to the driveway. The outside is lovely: classic portico, hanging pendant light, bluestone underfoot- then you open the door.

And it’s boring as dirt.

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You are greeted by a utilitarian closet at right, and an electrical panel at left. A commercial-grade recessed light is not flattering to the space or your complexion. No place to toss the mail, keys, or check lipstick before running late to an appointment.

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Last May, in a spring fit, I took down the closet doors to create an alcove, slid a chest from the dining room in on a blanket, added a lamp and mirror.

A MAJOR improvement, but certainly not finished. I promised the space: next month.

Here it is, nearly a year later, with one patch of snow still in the yard and the entry is just as I left it. I thought I knew what I wanted. Wall color that is light, bright, and spare. Something like this:

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Pretty. Pretty freaking boring. I realized that for the last twenty years I’ve been creating houses for other people, even though I lived in them. The whole time I was paying the mortgage on the first three houses, I was designing the remodels based on a future buyer. The future buyer isn’t a mysterious creature: give them classic, solid construction with quality fixtures, and you’ll sell in days. But, this time I’m not leaving. So, I sat down and thought: what do I want my entry to look like?

Dramatic. Rich with heritage and oozing history. Every real estate agent says upon listing your house, “Remove family photos.” This will be the opposite. Walk in my house, and even if the dog answers the door, my family are in your face.

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I’m going against traditional small space design protocol. Instead of light-bright, I’m going for English gallery. The whole space is 10 feet by 10 feet. Hardly a manor entrance. But, I have about fifty framed photos to crowd the walls with.

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I haven’t decided on a precise color, but the options all have a theme: blue-black, green-black, ooo…how about blackety-black? This is damn fun.

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Fear & Type A in Bucolia

Horse

That’s me. The me in my fantasy horseback riding lesson: like fearlessness and a hat with a feather would levitate me and a one ton animal off into space.

The happiness I courted was specific: to conquer a fear I’d been carrying around my entire life. But I didn’t just want to conquer it, I wanted to excel.

When I was a teenager, I attempted to conquer my fear of horses by riding.  Instead, I got as far as sitting on a horse for thirty seconds. He never even moved. That’s all I could handle. A week later, he threw his owner, who had been riding him for years. That settled it in my mind: some fears weren’t worth a crushed vertabrae.

And yet.

I’ve spent the last twenty-nine years admiring horses from the comfort of my car. Daily, I drive alongside rolling pastures that dot the Land-of-Bucolia where I live, watching horses graze and toss their tails. The horses seem small and manageable from a distance.

I’ve felt this way before. Several years ago I was riding a wave of successful newness: I’d moved and opened a business so why not try a triathlon? I ran, I rode my bike, and I did the breaststroke in open water while wearing unnecessary goggles and hair protection. Why? Because I never put my face in the water. I’m a quadruple Type A who needs to be in control all the time. And I couldn’t control what lived in the lake.

What if a giant barracuda swam toward my face? What if the Loch Ness monster grabbed my ankles and pulled me under? It didn’t matter that barracuda live in the ocean or that the Loch Ness is lake folklore of Scotland and I was swimming in dime-sized lakes in Connecticut.

Reason didn’t factor into the fear. But, when I mentioned to my friend Jane, an avid horsewoman, that I wanted to try horseback riding again, she said she had been intimidated at the beginning, too and now she loved it.

I wanted so badly to love it.

So last month I called a local stable, arranged for a $45 private lesson, and on the appointed day pulled on my boots. I drove confidently to the stable and instead of driving by, pulled my car down its rutted gravel road. I parked and strode purposefully to the barn, used my whole body to slide the heavy door open and then- I couldn’t move. There were horses everywhere. Being brushed, being washed, winying from their bays. They were huge with massive heads and I imagined a set of horse teeth taking a hunk out of my leg if I attempted to climb onto its back. I defaulted to my safety plan: talk my way out of the lesson, stay in control.

Newly purposeful, I walked carefully around horses to a woman with kind eyes. “Oh, Becky? She’s back through the ring.” I kept going, walking past jumping apparatus and sets of climb-on-the-back-of-horses stairs, to a tiny girl-sized woman.

“Oh, hi! There you are, let’s get Guennie. She’s super gentle and has been doing lessons for years.” I walked with her. This is the moment, this is when I’m going to say, Um- no thanks. I love my vertebrae. But I just follow to the tack room. What is wrong with me- say something!

The next thing I know, I’m wearing a helmet and carrying a saddle. Becky leads Guennie to the indoor paddock and I follow. Oddly, I’m patting Guennie on her mane. Now I’m babbling about the puppy I’ve been training, and now I am sitting on Guennie and don’t remember how I did it. Holy shit.

I’m not even afraid. I am comfortable. I do what Becky says and steer Guennie in circles around the paddock. I learn to stop her and when Becky asks me to stand up in the stirrups and let go of the reins, spreading my arms wide- I do it, and I’m pretty sure I yelp. I sit down and somehow I’m cantoring and then I’m learning to post: up, down, up, down, one, two, one, two. It’s all going great until I start wondering what I would do if the horse bolts, or if I pulled the bit too tight, or what if. . .

“Hey,” Becky says, holding the reins and looking me in the eye, “The people who have the hardest time horseback riding are the Type A ones.”

I laugh out loud. And then I stop thinking about all the things that could go wrong and I just enjoy myself. When the lesson’s over, I help brush Guennie and Becky says, “People think that with horseback riding, you’re 80% in control. That’s wrong. The horse is 80% in control and if you’re lucky, you get 20%.”

Standing in a barn with mud up to my ankles, leading Guennie back to her stall, it hits me that maybe I don’t have to be in control all of the time. Maybe that was my real lesson.

And I drive home, into the sunset.

 

 

 

 

This is What Democracy Looks Like

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When I boarded Skedaddle bus number 6661 from Hartford’s Trinity College at 1:15 AM on January 21st, I wasn’t expecting to be handed a cookie. It was chocolate chip, homemade and delicious. As the bus pulled out of the parking lot the other riders and I got comfortable for the six-hour ride to our nation’s capitol, ate our cookies and let out a collective “Whoo hoo!” This was just the first of a smorgasbord of experiences to, from, and at the Women’s March on Washington.

I wasn’t going to D.C. only to march as my own response to the hateful, misogynistic, racist, divisive call of rhetoric from our now 45th president, I was going to D.C. to talk with other marchers for inclusion in an essay I will be writing for PAGE literary magazine.

The day of the inauguration I drafted my questions. Sitting at my kitchen counter with my pen, paper and pre-march sustinence of tea and chocolate, I watched and listened to Trump’s bleak inaugural address. My questions, it turned out, were easy: “Why are you marching?” “Will your involvment encourage future civic involvment?”

By the time my bus arrived in D.C. I had interviewed two women: one upon boarding while nibbling our cookies and one hours later as our bus drove out of the Baltimore harbor tunnel and into fog.

By the time my bus departed D.C., I had marched, chanted, posed for pictures, taken pictures, and interviewed four more women, not including the four women I spent the day with- who two days ago were acquaintences and are now friends.

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I have enough material for a book series never mind an essay.

I’m just beginning to digest the smorgesbord. After a late morning breakfast and the best shower ever, I spent the majority of today watching video of yesterday’s rally speakers and spoke by phone with a graduate school friend who was also at the event to compare notes. I’ve reviewed my little red notebook and disciphered my interview short-hand while my memory is fresh.

In my notebook I recorded my talks with a nurse, a professor, a town official, an immigant, and an elementary school teacher. All women, but from different economic classes and a huge arrary of life expererience. We gathered with over 500,000 others to march, to support, and chant together. There was a rhetorical call and this was our action response.

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In my first chant of the day a single voice called “Tell me what democracy looks like!” And we responded: “This is what democracy looks like!” The signs were up, the mood was up, my head was up.

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I will begin the essay this week, digesting, interpreting, and finally writing my impressions. It would be a lie to say that I know exactly what that essay will look like. But I do know this: my experience at the Women’s March in our nation’s capitol was similar to the cookie I was handed when I first boarded the bus: homemade, homegrown, and even more delicious.

Whatever Sprinkles Your Donuts

 

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Gigi has a hangover.

New Year’s Day, 2017! You: New! Improved! Ugh.

After a late night (early morning) of celebrating, I snuggled with Gigi on the sofa and turned on the TV. In about ten seconds the “lose weight” ads started. I’m so over it.

Christmastime media tells women to bake it, New Year’s Day media tells us not to eat it.

At this very moment I am eating a Deluxe Hershey’s Kiss. I peeled back the gold foil wrapper and enjoyed. I don’t feel guilty about it and I don’t wish it was sugar-free. As a mother, I have enough guilt to fill a Hershey’s factory, so I certainly don’t want to eat my guilt. I’d rather look it square in the eyes of my three sons (have I doled out love equally?) and the garden I planned on whipping into shape but ended up neglecting as other things took priority. Like sleeping.

You know, you’ve just got to do what makes you happy. And things that make us happy change. So this year, instead of seeing flaws, I’m seeing possibilities for happiness. If I’m going to eat a donut, it better be slathered in sprinkles, as if it were covered in all the stars in the sky.

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A Little Sparkle (even from teenagers)

 

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Neighborhood Christmas

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This is how it is: I’ve been in my new old-house neighborhood for over a year and I know exactly three neighbors. I do, however, know all of the dogs. I blame hats.

My neighbors and I approach each other with short, cold-weather greetings like: “Morning!” “Don’t worry, he’s friendly!” and “Which house are you?” We are covered from hat to boot with only our noses exposed.

Once, taking my English Springer puppy Gigi on a longish walk two miles up our long rural street, a woman in a sprawling colonial opened its front door and hollered from atop her hill, “Hello! Is it very icy?”

But, today I will finally be able to put the people names with the dog names and all of them into the landscape of our old logging woods neighborhood because today is the Neighborhood Christmas Party. Of course I’m expected to bring something. I only remembered this fact a couple hours ago and as I write this, my last batch of something is in the oven and the party starts in 50 minutes.

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In my perfect week-before-Christmas dream I have hours to sit with my dessert cookbooks contemplating options while I drink a pot of tea. All the handmade by me Christmas presents are already wrapped, shovels are greased and ready by the door, and I know exactly what I’m wearing to every Christmas party.

In my reality none of these things is possible because I spent all my time reading Drew Magary’s Hater’s Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalog aloud to anyone in the house.

With the few hours before the party that I was going to work on my manuscript (memoir-in-it-seems-forever-process) instead I pulled my trusty Hershey’s Homemade cookbook from the kitchen bookshelf.

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I bought Hershey’s Homemade in 1991 by sending an envelope to the Hershey Company with three cocoa powder proofs of purchase wrapped inside a check totaling $1.50 for shipping and handling. I was a newly engaged college junior with a chocolate addiction. That my fiance (now my husband, Greg) didn’t (and still doesn’t) like chocolate didn’t even enter my mind. If I was going to go through the effort to bake, I was going to bake what I liked. Today, 25 years later, my eyes fell on this recipe:

Black Magic Cake

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup buttermilk or sour milk *
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup strong black coffee OR 2 teaspoons powdered instant coffee plus 1 cup boiling water
  • 3/4 cup HERSHEY’S Cocoa
  • 1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour

Directions

  • 1. Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour 12-cup fluted tube pan, two 9-inch round baking pans or one 13x9x2-inch baking pan.
  • 2. Stir together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt in large bowl. Add eggs, buttermilk, coffee, oil and vanilla; beat on medium speed of mixer 2 minutes (Batter will be thin). Pour batter evenly into prepared pan.
  • 3. Bake 50 to 55 minutes for fluted tube pan, 30 to 35 minutes for round pans, 35 to 40 minutes for rectangular pan or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes. Loosen cake from side of pan and remove from pans to wire racks. Cool completely. Frost as desired. Makes 12 servings.
  • * To sour milk: Use 1 tablespoon white vinegar plus milk to equal 1 cup.

This was the “bring something” winner because I happened to have all the ingredients. But the presentation of the cake in the cookbook was a little wah. . . wah. The photo showed the cake baked in a rectangular sheet pan and frosted.

It was clearly a time for my grandfather’s Jell-O molds.

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My grandfather was a professional baker who died when I was six. I’m lucky enough to have one of his commercial mixers as well as an assortment of individually-sized Jell-O molds. I can’t stand Jell-O so I use the molds for individual cakes.

I made Black Magic Cake as directed and poured into my molds. I greased and floured the tins which was a mistake. A good deal of the flour stuck to the tops of the cakes when they were turned out onto the cooling rack. For the second batch, I only used Pam.

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The solution for the mistake cakes was to brush off as much flour as I could and apply powdered sugar through a sieve. Presto.

The remaining cakes I whisked confectioner’s sugar and milk, used the whisk to flick-drizzle it onto the cakes and added a garnish of a single blackberry and blueberry each.

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Wow. These look better than I hoped. I feel very generous in a Christmas-y way, letting anyone other than me eat these. Watch out neighborhood, here I come!

 

Christmas in a Jar

I am beginning this blog post from the check-out line at Michael’s craft store. It’s a line that rivals only the infamous line at Barnes and Noble on Black Friday. My craft store line has snaked from the registers past Christmas bows and wrapping paper into the serious art isle whose shelves include empty canvases, cold-pressed papers, and watercolor paints in cabinets under lock and key. I’ve moved up and now stand next to intricately designed coloring books for adults.

Why would I put myself through this? Pinterest. It’s all Pinterest’s fault. A couple weeks ago I came across this image:

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Image courtesy Under the Sycamore

. . . and I was smitten. I’ve loved miniatures forever and used to have a dollhouse.

But my dollhouse is long-gone and a few years back, I gave the dollhouse furniture away to a friend with two little girls. My boys were more interested in other toys and I wanted the miniature beds and bureaus to go to someone who would enjoy them.

I don’t have the time for a dollhouse now, but a miniature Christmas world in a jar? I think I can swing that. The supplies are few and directions simple: pour the snow (Epsom salt) into the bottom of the jar, add figures, and ta da! It’s Christmas.

Down in my scary basement, I have about fifty old glass jars. I try never to go down there. It’s got a dirt floor and stone walls. Snakes have been known to make it home. I made my husband bring about ten of the jars upstairs. Then he cleaned them (OMG)!

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So, here I am in line, holding some cute little trees, a couple reindeer, and some metal house ornaments. Finally! Once I get home I realize the tin houses are too big for the jars. No prob. I repurpose some glass vases and now, twenty hours later- it’s instant Christmas.

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I have just enough Epsom salt leftover to soak my feet.