Archive for December, 2013

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.

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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!