Archive for December, 2013

Autumn vs. Winter

An old barn in Evergreen Valley, Stoneham, Maine.  Speckled Mountain is in the background.


Lots. More. Snow.

Enjoying the beauty of winter in Maine!

This past snowfall was a very wet, heavy snow, of which you can see evidence by its weighing down this birch tree to form a perfect, beautiful arch.

This past snowfall was a very wet, heavy snow, of which you can see evidence by its weighing down this birch tree to form a perfect, beautiful arch.

Our street was plowed within one hour after the snow stopped falling

Our street was plowed within one hour after the snow stopped falling

The plow guy is in touch with street plow people so he knows when to come and do our driveway.  He usually follows right on the heels of the main road plow person.

Our driveway plow guy is in touch with street plow people so he knows when to come and do our driveway. He usually follows right on the heels of the main road plow person.  Beneath the house, on the bench, we’ve placed a 50 lb salt block, but so far no deer or moose have come to take a lick.

Little Pond

Little Pond

Little Pond

Little Pond

Little Pond

Little Pond

Wild turkeys foraging

Wild turkeys foraging


Our dog, Spencer, is dwarfed by the presence of winter on our driveway

Rachel the Pioneer Woman

On Friday I went to a local rural library in search of a particular book which the online catalog said was available.  I couldn’t find it in the shelves, so I asked the librarian for her assistance.  As she bent down to pull the requested book from the shelf, another book which had somehow been shoved behind it fell onto the floor.  On the front cover was an old sepia photograph from the turn of the century, featuring a picture of a very Jewish-looking woman.  Intrigued, I picked up the book from the floor, and with a quick glance, I said to the librarian, “Hmm . . . looks interesting.  I will take this book too!”

Little did I know how Divine Providence guided me to find this most unusual autobiography, translated to English from the original Yiddish.  Rachel is a young Jewish woman from a Russian shtetl, who agrees to marry a Jewish emigrant pioneer who is homesteading in North Dakota.  How this obscure book made its way to my little rural library in Maine is a mystery!  But “Rachel Calof’s Story” was so fascinating that I could not put it down and read it cover to cover in one sitting!

At the age of 4, Rachel’s mother passed away.  From that time onwards, it seems, life for her and her siblings was one of true misery.  The physical and emotional abuse they suffered at the hands of their stepmother and, later, other relatives makes Cinderella’s dreary pre-prince existence sound like a cakewalk!  The possibility of a shidduch (arranged marriage) to a Jewish man in the “goldeneh medina”  – – America – – seemed to be her only hope of escaping her cruel life in Russia.  Sadly, by agreeing to the match, she would never see her beloved, abused and sickly siblings again, a fact that tormented her for the rest of her life.

Despite a few misadventures along the way, Rachel finally meets her arranged husband-to-be when she passes through Ellis Island  — and thankfully, he does seem to be a decent fellow.  Coming from a village in Russia, she is overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of New York, so she doesn’t mind when her fiance tells her that they will be traveling by train to the then-new state of North Dakota, where he and his recently-arrived relatives would stake a claim and homestead land.  Who could imagine a Jew owning land and becoming a successful farmer in Russia at the time of the czar?  It sounded like a dream come true and Rachel decided she would do anything and everything necessary to make her future husband’s dream a reality.

After the long journey by rail and horse and wagon across the never-ending prairie, Rachel finally reached the patch of land that would be her home.  The year was 1894.  She was horrified to discover there was no home, and no money even to buy the nails, much less the lumber, to build one.  Instead, there were three flimsy 12′ x 14′ shanties  that housed her parents-in-law, her brothers-in-law and their wives, and an assortment of children.  (Later a prairie wind would upend one of the shacks.)  Winter was coming and there was only a limited amount of cow dung to heat their homes; but even with this there was not enough fuel to heat the three shacks, so the families doubled up in one of the shacks along with their shared livestock.    (They didn’t have money for a barn and if left outdoors, the chickens, oxen, and cow would freeze while standing in the snow.)

Rachel Calof does not whitewash the immense difficulty of living in such close quarters with her husband’s family.  Tempers flared; there was never enough to eat; children were sickly and suffered grievous injuries; the house was so dirty it was nauseating.  The utter lack of privacy was demoralizing.  “In those precarious winters of the first years when so many people, and animals as well, huddled together in a tiny space,” Rachel writes, “my yearning was not for a larger shack but rather for the dignity of privacy.”

Indeed, as her youngest son Jacob writes of his mother in the book’s epilogue, “She seldom spoke of the past, but in the times when I observed her in those rare moments of introspection and reverie, I understood full well that this was private property, no trespassing permitted.  I believe that having been denied privacy for most of her years, she regarded the occasional opportunity for self-communion as one of the most prized attainments, finally, of her life.”

And yet, Rachel not only endured the many trials and tribulations she faced, she persevered and eventually triumphed, meanwhile raising nine children who miraculously lived to adulthood in a place where the simple act of giving birth was commonly a life-threatening endeavor for both mother and infant.

Rachel’s description of her eldest son’s bris is especially moving. It was a costly affair:  a mohel had to brought in from afar, and they had to prepare a festive meal for their guests with food they didn’t have and without the money to buy it.  But, Rachel writes,

. . . now suddenly a wonderful and spontaneous excitement seized us all, old and young alike.  For years, there had been little cause for celebration for any of us, and now it was as though a great yearning to be joyous, to reaffirm that life was worthwhile, was expressed through this (bris). 

When one reads about Rachel’s trials and tribulations of being a pioneer woman, one wonders how she found the strength to go on.  She concludes,

I had traveled a long and often tortuous way from the little shtetl in Russia where  I was born.  It wasn’t an easy road by any means, but if you love the living of life you must know the journey was well worth it.”

Over the Mountains and Through the Woods

Pine needles coated with ice

Pine needles coated with ice

Because of an ice storm that preceded Christmas, when my husband had two days off of work, our original plans for getting out and doing something nice were drastically altered.  Even though the roads had been sanded and salted, the previous day’s sunshine and then single-digit night temperatures assured the streets would not be safe for leisurely car rides due to a half-inch coating of ice.  Once again, the sun was shining, and the weather wasn’t too terrible – it was in the 20s which was sweater weather; we didn’t even need our down coats (this may sound cold if you are from the West Coast but believe me, you build up to the cold weather and sunny, windless 20 degrees practically feels like a Spring day during a Maine winter.  Which leads me to mention another amazing thing about Maine:  there is this sort of bravado culture amongst young people in winter, and it is not uncommon to see teenagers and twenty-somethings wearing SHORTS outside in the winter – – we saw someone last week doing this when it was 9 degrees F! – – just because they can.)

We live very close to the NH border, and the White Mountain National Forest abuts our property (most people do not realize that the White Mountains stretches beyond New Hampshire into Maine).  As such, wilderness is literally in our backyard.  In winter, there are many snowmobile trails within walking distance,  but because we are in a somewhat out-of-the-way location, they are rarely used.

We do not snowmobile.  Snowmobiles are quite expensive (about $10K – $12K new), and they are also pricey to rent ($165 for a couple of hours), so we haven’t even tried it.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from snowmobile trails!

A snowmobile trail is an official winter-only backcountry “road” that is maintained by snowmobile clubs or the State of Maine.  By “maintained” I mean that they have trail markers, plus signage telling riders how many miles it is to gas, food, lodging, or various locations along the way.  They are a narrow pathway (about 6′ – 8′ wide in our area) cleared of trees and obstacles.  These trails are found throughout the northeast and there are continuous trails that stretch hundreds of miles, all the way into Canada.  After a heavy snowfall, volunteers use expensive “snow groomers” to compact the snow and ensure that the trails are safe, removing debris such as fallen branches, and covering or moving protruding rocks if necessary.

Our dog Spencer watches the snowmobile trail grooming machine in Evergreen Valley

Our dog Spencer watches the snowmobile trail grooming machine in Evergreen Valley

They also place “caution” signs so snowmobilers will be made aware of stream crossings if there are no bridges (doable only if the water has frozen and is thick enough to hold the weight of the snowmobiles and riders).  But in my area, because these trails are so underused, they are perfect for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, since one rarely encounters snowmobilers.  (Skiing or snowshoeing would be downright dangerous on a heavily used snowmobile trail:  it would be like walking on a freeway between speeding cars).   They are rare in my area, but occasionally a Maine State Game Warden (that’s a back-country law enforcement officr) will patrol by snowmobile on the lookout for drunk snowmobile drivers (as well as snowmobile accidents and wildlife poachers).

Spencer on the snowmobile trail

Spencer on the snowmobile trail

Snowmobile trail sign in Evergreen Valley

Snowmobile trail sign in Evergreen Valley

The pre-Christmas ice storm spelled disaster for the snowmobilers.  The trails had just been groomed before the storm, and now they were too icy to use safely.  But for snowshoeing, these trails were a delight.  The snow was compacted so one didn’t sink down very far while walking, and the crampons of our Microspikes (sharp pointy metal blades that attach to the bottom of one’s shoe) gripped the ice tightly to make walking easy.  We decided to take a hike in our own backyard wilderness along these trails.  On Christmas Eve we went 3.5 miles; and on Christmas Day we ventured 4.7 miles.  I wore a long-sleeved hiking shirt with a light fleece jacket, leggings, hiking boots, crampons, a wool hat, sunglasses, and I carried trekking poles.  My husband (poor guy!) also carried a daypack in the event of an emergency:  water, flashlight/headlamp, topo GPS, toilet paper, Purell, a face mask, cellphone, chewing gum, first aid kit, fire starter kit, knife, hand-warmers and foil emergency blanket, multi-tool knife, ham radio and extra crampons and gloves.  We take winter preparedness seriously, even for short distances (we were only gone for two hours)!



Crossing a frozen marshy pond

Crossing a frozen marshy pond

We had a wonderful time.  There was no one else out and about (this being Christmas, after all) and the woods were quiet, cold and beautiful.  The ice that coated the tree branches glistened in the sun, looking like a million sparkling diamonds.  We came home to hardy, homemade soup and freshly baked whole wheat rolls hot out of the oven, and later, a wonderful, hot bath.  We still can’t believe how blessed we are that we are surrounded by so much beauty.  There is so much to do literally outside our front door, without having to drive anywhere.

Frozen pond glistens with ice

Frozen pond glistens with ice

Afternoon shadows on the snowmobile trail

Afternoon shadows on the snowmobile trail

Even though I am still very overweight, in terms of stamina and strength I am in the best physical shape that I’ve been in since my youth.   Here in the Maine woods, life is good!


Birch tree trunks along the trail look like patchwork quilts (click to enlarge)


Winter Laundry

20131225_133609Many people are surprised to find out that I don’t own a dryer – – by choice.

“How do you get your clothes dry in the wintertime in Maine?” they all want to know.

First, let me qualify this.  Most of the time, it’s just my husband and myself.  Two people do not create a whole lot of laundry.  I usually do only 1 or 2 loads a week.  That gives me several days to dry my clothes and linens if that should be necessary.  Also, I have plenty of things to wear (though we’re talking long johns, denim, fleece, and wool socks, not party dresses) so I never “run out.”

When 11 of my grandchildren came to visit me at the same time in Maine this past summer, the clothesline was ALWAYS occupied every single day that they were here, and I sometimes did 3 loads of laundry per day.  And when they left and I needed to wash 14 sets of linens and towels, I opted for the laundromat, although if I’d had a little patience to wait for sunny summer days (the forecast was for rain) I could have shlepped out this task over a number of days with just my washer and clothesline.

I find it especially relaxing and not at all tedious to hang laundry outdoors  (except at the height of blackfly season in May, when I must wear a bug headnet, have every inch of skin covered, and be doused in DEET insect repellant).  My washing machine is a second hand Miele, manufactured in Germany, but bought on craigslist on the cheap,  and it does a fantastic job of getting clothes clean using a minimum amount of water and energy.  But the really amazing thing is that on the final cycle, my Miele spins the clothes nearly dry at 1200 rpm.  So when the wash is done, the clothes are barely moist and drying takes only about 30 – 45 minutes on a sunny summer day.

Unless I’m desperate, I don’t even bother doing laundry on a cloudy winter day:  the sun is psychologically crucial to success.  But even that is not so bad.  If there’s rain, sleet, snow or clouds, I do my laundry at night, and put it on an indoor drying rack 4′ from the woodstove.  By the time I wake up in the morning the laundry is dry.  That said, I still prefer hanging the clothes outside – – the crisp, fresh mountain air makes the clothes smell so wonderful!  But in winter the timing can get tricky, and the hours of daylight are few.

For one thing, after a snowfall, I have to clear a path to the clothesline and then create a walkway underneath the lines, where I stand to hang the clothes.  Also in winter, it is essential to wear fingerless gloves because otherwise the skin of your fingertips can freeze to the damp clothes as you pin them on the line.  Wearing crampons on your boots is also helpful, lest the path you made through the snow the day before has meanwhile turned icy overnight.

In really cold weather, the wet clothes freeze hard as boards almost immediately, even as you’re putting them on the line.  You also need to work quickly so the damp clothes don’t freeze to one another as they lay in the laundry basket.  If you try to separate the clothes that freeze together you could literally break off a hard, frozen sleeve or pants leg while trying to separate them.

But the trickiest thing is knowing when the clothes are dry, because they are so freezing to the touch one might mistake them for being wet, when really they are just cold.

So here’s the trick:   if they are soft to the touch, even if they are very cold, the clothes are dry.  If they are stiff, they are still frozen, and if they are frozen that means that there is still some dampness and moisture in them.  Dry clothes don’t freeze.  And here is another amazing fact:  you don’t need heat to dry clothes quickly.  Ever hear of “freeze-dried” produce or coffee?  The product is frozen in its “wet” state, and then the air is drawn out in a vacuum. The process of drying laundry on an outdoor clothesline in winter temperatures isn’t much different.  Once the wet clothes freeze on the line, the sunshine and wind and cold air draw out the moisture.  My laundry is dry in as little as one to two hours, even if temperatures are in the single digits!

Where “Customer Service” Is Not An Oxymoron

The degree of mentschlichkeit by complete strangers (the art of being a nice, kind, decent and upstanding person) found in rural New England never fails to delight and surprise me.

Conversely, I am sorry to say that when I return to my hometown on the East Coast, I am frankly astounded not only by the huge number of rude and unhelpful and apathetic people; but also how nice, normal people living there seem to think “that’s just how things are” and that they’ve become complacent and put up with such bad behavior.  They feel dread and defeat before they even go into the store!  (Not to mention the fear of being mugged in the parking lot.)  I will spare you the ugliness of my daily shopping travails in my home town, but I do wish to relate what is more typical behavior in New Hampshire and in Maine.

When you walk into a store in rural New England, whether it’s a mom-and-pop hole-in-the-wall or a Big Box store, you are greeted with, “How can I help you today?”  The thing is, they really mean it.

Too many times to count, I’ve asked a Wal-Mart employee where a certain item might be located in the store.  They will never say, “In Aisle 10.”  The employee will take you by the hand, smile, and actually walk you to Aisle 10, even if it’s at the complete opposite end of the extremely vast store, and even if they were busy doing something else at the time you asked for assistance.  Even if you insist, “Oh, that’s okay, you can just tell me which aisle it’s in,” they will say, “Oh, it’s no problem!  Let me show you the way!”

At first I was taken aback – – do I really look that old and helpless?  But I noticed that neither age nor gender is a factor.  This is just what they do.  The customer comes first and so does his satisfaction, even if the employee leading you by the hand makes a measly minimum wage and his prospects for promotions or long-term employment in that store do not look particularly bright.  And it’s not just a particular Wal-Mart (or Home Depot or Lowes, supermarket chains, etc.) – – it’s every single Big Box store I’ve been to anywhere in Maine or New Hampshire.  If the item is not on the shelf, they will voluntarily go to the back of the store and try to locate it for you, and if they can’t find it, they will check their stock list for current inventory and find out when a new delivery is expected.

While at Wal-Mart I loaded up on cereal.  One type had a peel-off coupon on the box cover saying that the manufacturer was giving a free pound of bananas for every box of cereal bought that had the coupon sticker.  Unfortunately, however, I was unable to make use of this coupon since this particular Wal-Mart was not a “super” Wal-Mart and they did not carry any fresh produce.

Once my purchases were made, I headed to Hannafords, a pleasant supermarket chain that is found throughout Maine and New Hampshire.  I put some bananas into my cart, and went in search of goat’s milk, which I digest more easily than cow’s milk.  Unfortunately, they were out.

When I got to the checkout line, the cashier asked the question that every Hannafords employee is trained to ask:  “Did you find everything you needed today?”

I joked in a light tone of voice, “I guess this is just not my day.  You seem to be out of goat’s milk.  And I just came from Wal-Mart, where I got a coupon for free bananas with my cereal, but because it’s not a “super” Wal-Mart, I was unable to use the coupon since they don’t carry fresh produce.”

The cashier stopped and placed a call to the dairy department.  “I’ve got a customer here who says we’re out of goat’s milk.  Can you please check and see if you can find some?”

Alas, they really were out of goat’s milk.  But the cashier felt so bad, that he said, “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do.  I’m not going to charge you for those bananas in your cart.  I feel bad that we didn’t have what you wanted, and I hope that next time you will shop at Hannafords as your first choice, before you go to the ‘other’ store!”

Okay, the bananas were not worth more than $.57.  But that’s hardly the point.  It’s clear all of these stores value their customers, and wish to have an ongoing and loyal symbiotic relationship.

I told my “free bananas” story to many of my friends from my hometown and they were shocked.  “That would never happen here,” they unanimously agreed.

The thing is, once you’re away from an environment where bad behavior, cynicism and apathy are the norm in consumer relations, you begin to realize something:  you really don’t have to put up with it.  You do have a choice.  And if you can’t find a place where basic decency and respect reign, then it’s time to go elsewhere where people do act like mentschen.

Those places and the good people in them do exist everywhere, of course.   And yeah, I know what I’m about to say sounds harsh and snobby.  But it’s just so refreshing to not have to look very hard, and to live in a place where mentschlichkeit is the paradigm, and not the exception to the rule.


I recently “upgraded” (right now this word seems very much like an oxymoron to me) to an all-new computer and system, with all new software.  I am really struggling with it and feeling extremely frustrated by all the new features that are supposed to be “improvements”  over my old system.  Other than running very slow, I was happy with my old system, but in the field of digital photography there is something called “planned obsolescence” which means that your camera, the software, and your computer were designed to force you to buy all-new equipment every 2 – 4 years.  Talk about a captive audience!  I resent this expenditure very much, but worse, I am now forced to spend many hours learning a new system that I didn’t want in the first place!  (The new camera I bought as part of this package comes with a 250-page manual.  It’s more about engineering than taking pictures.  There are so many features and so many steps to be able to use those features, that you must either have a photographic memory (no pun intended) or keep it in “point-and-shoot” amateur mode lest you miss that once-in-a-lifetime shot.)

Currently I am “navigating” new versions of Photoshop and Lightroom, but to put it politely, I am very much lost at sea.  I called several of our local rural libraries to see if they have any books on this software to make my life easier.  (I also tried 4 book stores in North Conway, but they do not carry any computer-related books whatsoever.)

I live very close to several rural libraries.  The one nearest to me, only 3 miles away, is a former one-room schoolhouse in North Lovell. It is only open twice a week from 5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. and it draws two or three “regulars” who come more to shmooze in their thick Maine accents, than to read (in so doing, I have learned much about local culture; it’s extremely friendly and haimish – – the wood floor creaks; other than a limited amount of current bestsellers the rest of the books were last popular in the 1950s; they have a complete collection of Stephen King books, which is really more like a shrine; the small interior is so loaded with books that you can’t easily walk around; and they have free Wi-Fi.)  About 10 miles down the road is the Lovell Library, which is extremely modern thanks to a $750,000 donation by Stephen King.  There are also libraries in Bridgton, Waterford, and Norway in Maine, as well as in Conway NH (these are about a 20 – 25 mile drive but in these parts that’s considered local)..

None of the libraries had any relevant books, although I could have ordered older editions which don’t support the current versions I’m now using,  through an inter-library loan.  But for now it looks like I will be watching amateur how-to clips on youtube and buying books sight unseen from  I guess I should feel fortunate that living so remotely, the world (and its commerce) is literally at my doorstep with the click of my mouse (thank you, UPS).

That said, I thought you’d enjoy hearing about my conversation with a rural librarian on the phone.  The branch shall remain anonymous.

Me:  Do you have any books on Lightroom 5?

Librarian:  Never heard of it.

Me:  It’s a popular computer program for photographers.   I am hoping to find a book that will help me learn to use it.

Librarian:  Well, I’ve never heard of it.  And if I haven’t heard of it, we probably don’t have it.

Me:  Uh . . . would you mind checking?

Librarian.  Oh . . . okay.  Give me just a minute while I turn on the computer.

Wicked Cold

_1140067Is anyone reading this blog old enough to remember that “wicked” was the predecessor to “groovy” (and before that, “bitchen” which, I should add, was not considered a curse word)?

Well, here in Maine, “wicked” somehow never disappeared.  People say  “wicked fast,”  “wicked fun,” “wicked hot,” etc. to give emphasis to an adverb.  The town of Lovell, which is just down the road, even has a convenience store named “The Wicked Good Store.”

Fittingly, today it is definitely “wicked cold,” as you can see by the photo taken just after 7 a.m. this morning outside our porch.

Thanks to our woodstove and great insulation, we are warm and toasty inside, but I should add . . . we currently (no pun intended) have no power.  Luckily, our house runs primarily on solar/batteries, and we also have a propane-fed generator as a back-up to our back-up.  We don’t fool around!  (Our HVAC person told us that when he gets a call that someone has lost their heat in the middle of winter, he treats it as a 911 call – – it’s that serious.)

I’m not really planning on going outside today until it warms up to, say, -5 F or so.  Meanwhile the dog will just have to walk himself.

Of Mice and Men

A full tray of D-CON is about to replace an empty one.  I have spared my dear readers a picture of the dead mouse!

A full tray of D-CON is about to replace an empty one. I have spared my dear readers a picture of the dead mouse!

After driving through the night, we arrived in Maine on Sunday at 7:30 a.m.  Once inside, we were greeted by three totally empty trays of D-CON (mouse poison) and one very dead mouse (my husband had the unpleasant task of removing it).   A propitious start, I thought.

I’m always a little on edge when I walk into my house after a prolonged absence . . . especially between seasons, when there are extreme temperature changes.  Once the wildlife know we’re gone, they are only too happy to “house-sit” in our nice, cozy abode while we’re away.  Intruders of the non-human variety can mean anything from beetles, flies and wasps, to rodents,  porcupines, raccoons, fishers, or even bears.

When our house was being built, shortly after we installed our garage door, a very determined mouse gnawed at the hard plastic and rubber weather seal at the bottom, breaking it and creating a glaring point of entry.  This kind of damage was not covered under our garage door warranty, and repair would be expensive, since they’d have to take apart the entire door in order to replace the weather-stripping.  We decided to live with it, and try to fill the hole with spray-foam insulation and steel wool.

Meanwhile I took no chances, even though I didn’t really have a mouse problem – – yet.  I put trays of D-CON throughout my house:  under the kitchen cabinets, behind the microwave,  in our basement under our food storage shelves, and at the bottom corners of the garage door.  We do a visual check for possible mouse infestation each time we return to Maine from our home town, especially since that time when my husband went to use the bathroom upon arrival – – and found a dead mouse in the toilet. (We now make sure we keep the toilet lid closed before we go away.)  Once we noticed that the tray of D-CON behind the microwave oven had been delicately noshed, but no further signs of mice or their droppings were discovered.  (I should mention at this point that when our grandchildren come for the summer, we remove all the trays of D-CON for safety’s sake.)

This time, though, I had a feeling that mouse presence would be worse, because the house had been vacant for 3 weeks and outside it was terribly cold.

Sure enough, all the trays of D-CON inside the house had been ravaged.  One small dead mouse was on the floor next to our food storage shelves.  Fortunately, the food was completely untouched (I store large, emergency-sized non-perishables such as grains, flour, nuts, seeds, condiments, etc. in glass jars and industrial-strength sealed plastic containers that are inaccessible to non-humans).  Unlike rats (thank heavens we don’t have those!) mice desiccate and are odorless after death, but even then it is unusual to find a deceased one out in the open.  I only found a couple of random mouse droppings.  But the hole in the bottom corner of the garage door is a little bigger so it looks like we will have to have that weather-stripping under the garage door replaced professionally, after all.

The problem with finding evidence of a mouse is that, left unabated, they multiply rapidly. (You can click here to see what happened to our pop-up camper when it was taken over by mice two summers ago.)  I couldn’t be sure it was “only” one mouse, even though at present there was no evidence of more.  This meant an unplanned trip into town to buy more D-CON, a drive I was not enthusiastic about doing after being on the road for the past 10 1/2 hours.  After all, I had loaded the car with groceries from our home town so I wouldn’t have to do shopping for a week.   But with predictions of a snowstorm headed our way the following day, it was now or never, so we did make the 45-minute trek into North Conway.

But before setting out, there was even more important business to take care of:  getting our house warm.  We cannot simply turn off the heat when we leave, as the pipes will freeze, but we do set the thermostat very low so we won’t go through too much (expensive!) propane while we’re away.  When you’ve been driving through the night, the last thing you feel like doing when you come into the house exhausted and cold is building a fire and puttering around to keep it going.  I’ve learned from experience that before we leave Maine, I layer kindling and firewood in the woodstove and close its door, so all I have to do when I return to Maine  is open the woodstove door,  light the pre-prepared wood with a match, and an effortless fire awaits.  Even with the hottest of fires, though, it takes hours to bring the indoor room temperature from 45 degrees F (!) to 67 degrees F.  But by now I have the routine down pat and make sure that longjohns/leggings, sweaters, gloves, hats and coats are close by.

Suddenly we realized that we had forgotten to replace the screen panels on our porch with plexiglass ones.  We use our  porch, which is located just off the kitchen, even on sunny winter days, thanks to its ideal southerly location.  In the summer, the porch is shaded by trees and the cool breezes flow pleasantly through the screen panels.  In late autumn or early winter, once the leaves have fallen and the outside temperature cools, we replace the screens with plexiglass.  The southern exposure of the porch means that the sun shines on the plexiglass panels on a sunny day, and through this “passive solar” heat our porch can often reach temperatures of  60 – 65 degrees F on a 20 degree F day!

But because we had neglected to do the switch-over before returning to our home town, we were now faced with unscrewing the screen panels and screwing in the plexiglass panels in 22 degree temperature!  Needless to say that although we worked quickly, we were forced to seek shelter indoors in between each panel installation to warm our hands (gloves were too bulky to handle the tiny screws).

Taking down the summer screens...

Taking down the summer screens…

. . . and putting up the plexiglass panels

. . . and putting up the plexiglass panels

We had planned our departure from our home town carefully.  Since a snow storm would hit the East Coast on Sunday but not reach Maine until Monday, we decided to leave right after Shabbat, on Saturday night, and drive through the night.  We figured that if we could fit in a nap after davening (religious prayers at the synagogue) and lunch on Saturday (not an easy feat considering the short hours of daylight), we’d be rested enough to travel the distance to Maine, especially if we could  alternate the driving between us.  An added bonus would be the lack of traffic at night, but unfortunately we hadn’t counted on New York’s perpetually jammed George Washington Bridge (with the rip-off toll price of $13 for the “privilege” of traversing it) being busy even at midnight.   But once we managed to get out of New York the rest of the way was quick and uneventful.  Indeed, the very next morning our home town experienced a huge snowstorm even bigger than predicted, and the entire New Jersey turnpike was hazardous  with snow, ice, and accidents, so our timing had been perfect.

That same snowstorm finally hit us today.  I did manage to trek 3 miles in the woods with my very enthusiastic dog in the morning, while the snow was still sparse.  I walked with trekking poles in case it got icy in spots, but this turned out to be unnecessary.  The temperature was 22 degrees, but I was wearing layers and a down jacket and in reality I was a bit too warm.  At least now my cheeks have a rosy glow.

Instead of attending to work responsibilities (I have several clients waiting on photos), I spent the morning cooking enough food to last for the next 2 days.  I made a hearty vegetable soup, some butternut squash, sweet potatoes, lentils, beans, and a large tub of yogurt – – all “stick to your ribs” kinds of food for the coming cold spell. (Forecast for Wednesday night is 3 degrees F and 0 degrees  F Friday night.)

After heating 1/2 gallon of milk to the foamy stage and letting it cool slightly, I added a few tablespoons of yogurt to the milk and stirred well.  Then I poured this warm mixture into a bowl, covered the bowl with a plate, and wrapped it in a beach towel for extra insulation.  Usually I let the yoghurt ferment in the trunk of my car on a summer day, but in winter I put the bowl on a trivet on my wood stove.  After about 8 hours the yoghurt will solidify to the proper consistency.  I then let it sit overnight in the fridge to firm up some more.  The next day I will spoon it into a large glass jar and enjoy.  This is about a 1-week supply.

Homemade winter yogurt:  After heating 1/2 gallon of milk to the foamy stage on my regular propane range and letting it cool slightly, I added a few tablespoons of  plain, store-bought yogurt to the milk and stirred well. Then I poured this warm mixture into a bowl, covered the bowl with a plate, and wrapped it in a beach towel for extra insulation. Usually I let the yogurt ferment in the trunk of my car on a warm summer day, but in winter I put the bowl on a trivet on my fired-up wood stove, since our indoor room temperature of 67 is not warm enough for the yogurt to culture properly.  After about 8 hours the yogurt will solidify to the proper consistency. I then let it sit overnight in the fridge to firm up some more. The next day I will spoon it into a large glass storage jar.   I like to use the yogurt to make smoothies, or to eat 1 cup plain with 1/4 cup of raw oatmeal and frozen blueberries mixed in.  This makes about a 1-week supply.

Nature or Nurture?

The last two weeks in my home town I’ve been cleaning out my house.

Discarding tangible “stuff” that is a microcosm (or is that macrocosm?) of who you are and from whence you came is completely emotionally exhausting, thrilling, and terrifying.   I have dozens of boxes full of tens of thousands of loose photo prints, photo albums, negatives, and slides of family members, from sorrowful sepia portraits of impoverished great-grandparents left behind in tsarist Russia, to oodles of shots of my grandchildren participating in all varieties of childhood activities.  I have a hundred magazines and newspapers and journals containing articles I wrote over the past three decades about every topic imaginable, from Jewish culture to pop culture; health issues and political interviews;  travel; camping;  extreme sports; and weird museums.  All of these my husband is dutifully scanning and documenting.

I’m just now getting to stored boxes from my deceased parents, which  include amazing revelations about them both (it turns out that my mother, who throughout her life complained about how stupid and inadequate she felt, was a National Merit Scholar, junior high school valedictorian, and captain of her debate team (who knew!?); my father was friends with actress Mitzi Gaynor and served as her legal counsel, and was qualified to argue cases in the US Supreme Court; he survived unscathed through hundreds of beach landings in the South Pacific during WWII as a Lt. Cmdr of a fleet of LCIs, as well as a kamikaze attack, only to be hit by a streetcar in San Francisco during his discharge from the Armed Forces and was confined for months to a wheelchair in a veterans’  hospital there).

I was my father’s only child and there is nothing of mine he did not save.  Hence I have every bit of correspondence we exchanged (he was a workaholic and rarely home when I was awake, so we used to exchange notes (example, age 4:  “Dad, I am so angry at you I don’t even want to give you a kiss!”; at age 9, I wrote an “Amicus Curiae” brief in third person arguing in legalese why I deserved a raise in allowance).  In my visits to his office I was given free rein to record my thoughts on a Dictaphone (a needle scratched into a piece of cylindrical celluloid, to be played back at a later date on a special machine); one such celluloid recording is labeled “my daughter’s  thoughts on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy” — I was 6 1/2 years old at the time.  My parents also saved every single report card from nursery school through high school (I confess I was not a stellar student and rarely worked to my potential, according to my teachers’ comments).

There are two things I find most fascinating:  the observational essays I wrote as a pre-teen and teenager are still entirely relevant today (why I loved my parents; an analysis of their marriage (I was a precocious little brat!); what life was like in Israel before the 1973 Yom Kippur War; why Judaism was important to me; and, perhaps even more unsettling, the realization that for better or worse, the person I was at the young age of 4 years and 2 months, based on my preschool evaluation, is basically the same person that I am today.

According to that report card, I was “physically agile and active; good in both small and large muscle control;” I ate “well” and “willingly and enthusiastically participated in all activities, especially music and stories and craft work.”   As part of a group, I “got acquainted with others with self-assurance, enjoyed one ‘special friend’ but could include others if necessary”; usually preferred to lead, and reacted to other children in a “friendly but sometimes indifferent manner.”  Under “temperament” I was “sociable and flexible, sometimes critical; but popular with the children.”   According to my father, in a series of letters he wrote his parents when I was ages 2 – 10,  I left my socks and shoes discarded all over the house.  I had many interests but lacked the staying power and self-discipline to develop expertise or finesse.  I was highly opinionated.  Whether it was a game of Candyland or a school debate, I hated losing so much that rather than possibly win at something, I avoided all forms of competition in any subject.

Fifty-two years later, I am still all of the above!

Every person is given talents and weaknesses, good traits and bad; we were designed to be dependent on others’ talents where we are lacking so we can learn and practice give-and-take, cooperation, humility, gratitude and love.  But what if we have a natural propensity for a certain character weakness – – for example, anger, or inappropriate compulsive or immoral behavior?  Are we forever doomed, or is it possible to change negative character traits and flaws that are inherent and seemingly genetically programmed within us?

According to Jewish philosophy, using the Torah as a moral compass, it is our life’s task to overcome character flaws and to constantly strive to better ourselves.  It is no coincidence that much of the Bible reads like a soap opera; not one of the people mentioned in the Bible is free of sin or the temptation of sin; indeed their “saintliness” is more a result of the toil required in changing  and overcoming their “natural” negative traits into genuinely positive ones; growing and developing via a string of disappointments, trials, tribulations and joys, into the leaders they eventually become.  We vicariously experience their successes; equally we mourn their failures; but they are “real” so that we, too, can empathize and emulate  them and at the same time realize that positive change is not out of our reach nor impossible, no matter how formidable.

Living in Maine I have consciously and conscientiously  made several positive personal changes within myself, yet reading that nursery school report card was certainly humbling.  I still  have so far to go – – so many things to work on and improve about myself and in my interaction with others.  I realized this:  I guess, ideally, we’re never “done” and perhaps precisely this  – –  more than any other reason – –  should be our motivation for wanting to live a long life.

As I read my parents’ words and reflect on the legacies contained in the myriad of cardboard boxes, I hope that my own “stuff” will be a sort of legacy for my own children, both the good and even the baggage, from which they will grow and develop and soar.

P.S.  Still working on picking up my socks!