Monthly Archives: October 2012

Blackout Food


Well, here we are, in Sparkling New England.  And it’s nearly Halloween, which means…

…it must be time for a Natural Disaster!!!

Last year, we had the Great Halloween Blizzard of ’11.  Click on the link for an absolutely spell-binding first-person description of What It Is Like To Be Lost During An Unexpected Blizzard.  Then, gloat to yourself as you smugly think “At least I didn’t lose ten years off my life!!”  Be alert for incidents of “*****”  Those stand in for some of the most inventive and colorful profanity you may (or may not) have had the pleasure of witnessing (depending on whether you actually know me personally or not…this does not include my students, who have Never Had The Privilege, and won’t, because of, well, professionalism). 

The Halloween Blizzard actually struck on October 29, 2011.  A day that is burned into my memory.  I swear to you, I can remember every single second of that afternoon and evening.  Every one.

October 29 has the Distinction, not just of being an Anniversary of Natural Disasters of Epic Proportions, but of being my wedding anniversary.  I remember just as well every single second of the evening of October 29, 2005: my wedding.  I remember when the “bustle loop” ripped out of my custom-made wedding dress.


This is maybe not the BEST picture of my wedding dress, but conveys the Sense. Note the fabulous hat from Fleur de Paris, purchased shortly before New Orleans went under water from that bitch, Katrina.

I remember that, and I remember how one of our guests left a frickin’ lipstick mark on my cheek that lasted for 20 minutes, and 3o photographs, before someone thoughtfully wiped it off.  I remember what  an absolute brick my buddy Liz Zelandais was in fielding all of that last-minute crap from the vendors and guests – Lizzie, as the nuns would say, you earned some Stars In Your Heavenly Crown that night.  I remember that Roy was late to the party because he got enraptured with the sound of my singing voice floating upstairs.  I remember my Hair Goddess, Carrie, fixing things when it was time to change my hairdo.  I remember Susan and Margaret and Alex and Noah and Ilana and Dennis and Michael holding up the chuppah. I remember Roy’s best man, Theresa, standing by him when things got hairy.  I remember David Dunn Bauer delivering a talk under that chuppah that brought me to tears.  I remember Mark Kesselmann giving what was, perhaps, the Best Wedding Toast Ever.  I remember our ketubah, with egalitarian language, getting signed by the rabbi, and Greg Goodman, and Lenny Shoenfeld.  I remember getting the 7 blessings from Greg and Roxanne, Ellen and Catherine, Mark and Amrita, my mother, Roy’s mother, my sister Tami and Kate, Leda and Andy, and how Andy had to stoop down to reach the mike, and Gail and Lenny, and the sound of the glass under Roy’s foot, and the sound of the band, and Saul Gladstone hectoring our guests for failing to pay attention to instructions, and the way my stepson and his friend, and Roy’s friends, danced for us that night.  

And I remember that five people were late and missed the ceremony because it was snowing in Boston that night.

As they say in Jewish law.. three times makes a hazakah.  An action repeated three times can not be considered to be a a random occurrence but is, instead, an established behavior pattern, a manifestation of the very essence of reality.

I can’t tell you what a sobering thought this is. We’re in the third time right now.  Hurricane Sandy, and the other two fronts, are predicted to come together to make the Storm of the Century (and let me tell you, this is a Bold Statement for New England) and they are predicted to do so on our anniversary.

We’re screwed, according to Jewish Law.  What we can expect, until the End Of Days, is outbreaks of bizarre weather to “celebrate” our marital union.

So here we are, starting down the maw of Hurricane (or whatever they call it when the storm gets to New England) Sandy Plus Assorted And Miscellaneous Fronts.

School is cancelled, shelters are open, and all of that Good Stuff…lessons that were hard learned during Irene and the Halloween Blizzard last year (link included in case you missed it before).

This year, Roy had planned an Amazing Getaway.  He’d booked us into some insanely romantic lodgings in Shenandoah National Park.  He’d even, because is is awesome, booked me in for not one but two trail rides in the Incredible Splendour that is Shenandoah National Park. Because he knows how intensely, painfully, and immediately my longing to ride Huey The Wonder Horse is.  I was going to get to go on almost four hours of Horseback Goodness in one of the most Stunningly and Beautiful Spots on God’s Green Earth.

That is, until Sandy. Plus Assorted Fronts.

NOW the inn we were staying at is cancelling stuff because they’re pretty sure they’re going to lose power and get buttloads of unexpected snow…on the same not-quite-defoliated-trees that we had buttloads of unexpected snow on last year when I lost ten years of my life in ONE night..


Yeah, this kind of says what needs to be said about that Halloween Blizzard.

Now, the only good thing about that Halloween Blizzard is 1) ultimately we were up in Vermont, which did not, mercifully, lose power and we were able to come into the Dead Zone with a tank full of gas, and 2) we found that we  are in fact on the same part of the power grid as the cop shop, because we were like the first people in town to get power back, and 3) this meant we were able to host other people who would otherwise have gone without the benefit of Central Heating and Hot Showers.  And those of you who are in the least bit familiar with “roughing it” know that hot showers are, in fact, the Currency Of Civilization. 

In this case, we were doubly fortunate, because the friends we hosted Had Connections.  And “connections” in this case means “supply of live-hunted game by-products”.

I have to tell you, if I need to pick who I’m going to be friends with, and have a choice between “guy who knows all the best restaurants in New York City” and “guy who shoots game and has venison and elk sausages” it’s going to be the guy with the venison and elk sausages…every single time.  I mean, Tripadvisor can go a long way towards the “knows all the best restaurants” but it requires a connection with a Generous Spirit AND a Hunting License to deliver the venison and elk.  This meant, last year, that someone’s misfortune became a collective gain.  Here’s how it happened:

New England Fall Storm Special
3 T butter (or margarine if you’re kosher, but yuk)
3 T (or more) honey (local is best)
about 4 C diced winter squash (whatever kind you have on hand…hubbard, acorn, butternut, delicata, pumpkin, it’s all good)
as much fresh thyme, stripped from the stem and chopped, as you can manage
salt and pepper
whatever ground-up game is needing to be used before it goes over

Brown the meat in a pan and remove to a dish. To that pan with the drippings, add the butter and honey and melt.  Add the squash, thyme, and salt and pepper. Saute over medium heat for maybe 10 minutes until the squash is starting to be done.  Add the browned ground meat.  Cook until done.  Inhale, because this dish is so unbelievably good you will THANK yourself that the power went out.

Now, here is the next awesome bit.

But before that, another picture from the Halloween Blizzard.  I need to get out more, because I know this place is in my ‘hood, but I can’t think of where at the moment.


You’d think you were in the middle of Rustic New England, but this must be within a mile of my house.

Hurricane Chili

YUM!  Five Star Award for Chili Recipes.  Great cold-weather dish.  Keeps will for several days in the refrigerator, and improves with age.
2 T olive oil
1 large yellow or white onion, chopped
10-12 large garlic cloves, chopped
3 lb. ground whatever-it-is-that-needs-to-get-used-SOON
5 T medium-hot chili powder
1 T ground cumin
1 T dried basil
1 T dried oregano
1 T dried thyme
8 oz. can crushed or diced tomatoes with added puree
1 can chicken broth
12 oz. bottle dark beer
6 oz. can tomato paste
15 oz. can dark kidney beans

Heat oil in Dutch oven over med-high heat.  Add onions and garlic, sauté until onions are translucent.  Add beef and brown.  Add chili powder, cumin, basil, oregano, and thyme.  Stir until fragrant.  Mix in crushed tomatoes with puree, broth, beer, and tomato paste.  Simmer on low heat until thickened, stirring occasionally, two hours. Add beans and simmer 5 minutes.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serves 8 to 10.


This should NOT be happening in my town before Halloween. Alaska, maybe. Western MA, no.


That Is Being More Like It!


I am being a Grumpy Horse lately.

I know what you are saying.  You are saying Huey, you are not needing to tell us that you are a Grumpy Horse.  We already know that!!

But I was being even grumpier than usual.  It is right that I am grumpy because I am all the time having to stand around in my stall.  I am not even being able to go in my private paddock a bunch of the time because I get in trouble if I race the other horses in the ring.  It is not being fair.  Also, the weather is doing that thing and making the Wild Horse Wind and ALL of the other horses, they are getting to race around!!!!  All the horses except me, Huey.  That is why I am being grumpy.

Then I am being even grumpier.  This is because the other day it was nice and warm and I was out in my private paddock and my stall was getting very clean.  And then guess who went into the ring?

Right.  It was Elvis.

Usually I am having to go into my stall when other horses go in the ring especially Elvis.  But this time I was out.  And I looked at Elvis going into that ring for a ride and I said Elvis.  You better get ready for some racing.  I am going to beat you some more!!  And Elvis said You are not, Huey.  And I said Yes I am, Elvis.  And he said No you are not.  And I was going to say Yes I am and I will show you that now!!! Something very bad happened.

Someone spoke.  It was the person who was riding Elvis, and that person said HUEY.  And that person said HUEY in that way that I have to listen to it even if I do not want to.  And I thought How can that person know how to say HUEY like that?  And then I realized who that person was.

Yes.  It was my rider.  And she was riding Elvis righ there in the ring in front of me.   And I rolled my eyes because I wanted to beat Elvis so bad especially since he had the nerve to carry my rider around in front of me.

But my rider who was on Elvis instead saw that and said HUEY.  And then she used some Bad Words.  She said HUEY.  If you try any of your Bad Word with Elvis while I am riding on him, I will Bad Word KILL you.  You will be One Sorry Horse!!!!  I MEAN that Huey.

Well, I do not want to be One Sorry Horse.  And I do not want my rider to Bad Word KILL me either.  So I said OK I will not try to race Elvis.

And Elvis said Hahahaa Huey.  You lazy horse.

That made me mad.  He is carrying my rider and telling me I am a lazy horse.  But I could not do anything about that because I did not want to get Bad Word KILLED by my rider.  So I said That is one funny looking saddle you are wearing Elvis.  It has bumps all over it.  And you are one silly looking horse wearing that lumpy saddle.

But he said You are right and this saddle weighs a ton. And your gigantic rider isn’t helping any either.  Leave me alone because I have to work Huey.

And I had to.  And I could not even go in my stall, or anything.

That is why I was very grumpy, and you can see, I am right to be that grumpy!!

Today my rider came and it was windy and I can tell there is going to be a storm and it makes me fidgety and I did not want to stand around for hours and get my tail combed or something else stupid like that.  But my rider said Huey there is a treat.  I was so grumpy I said I do not want a treat.  I am tired of apples and carrots and hay and grass.  I only want to run.

But then my rider said It is not an eating kind of treat Huey.  It is different.

So I said What is the treat, rider?  and I saw she had something behind her back.  Then she pulled it out, and I jumped up a little because it might be something scary, but it was not.

It was the lunge line.

I said What are you doing with that, rider?

And she said it.  She said We are going to lunge, Huey.

And I said We are going to lunge?  Really?  We are going to lunge??

Now, I know what you are thinking.  You are thinking, but you hate lunging, Huey. You said it is boring.

And you are right.  I do hate lunging and it is boring.  But it is not as boring as standing around in my stall!  And if I am lunging, do you know what that means I get to do?

Yes. I get to run.  I have not gotten to run in months.  Well, I have run a little bit but it always gets me in trouble and I have to stop.  But if I am lunging then I can be a running horse again.

So it made me happy.  I said Let’s go!!  But my rider said Ho, wait, I have to get all this gear together Huey.

I could not wait.  We went in the ring and I was as good and standing still for as long as I could, which was just about long enough for my rider to close the gate.  Then I took off and trotted.

It felt SO good to trot!!  I trotted some more!! And then I trotted lots!!!  My rider was saying something but I could not hear it.  I was looking all over the place and trotting.  Then I looked at my rider and she was making the Evil Look and pointing at my butt.  I said You want to play Hide The Hiney?!?!  NOW????!!??  And she made a noise like a growling bear and put a Stink Eye on top of the Evil Look so I stopped and putt my butt behind me.

She stood there for a minute, not telling me to do anything with her body, but giving me an Extra Strong Stink Eye.  I dropped my head and said What is it?

She said Huey. I was talking to you.

I said I know! But I could not hear what you were saying because of the sound from trotting!!!

And then she gave me a Super Strong Stink Eye and said Huey. I was telling you to WALK.

Walk?!?!  She wants me to WALK?!?!?!  It has been ages since I have gotten to go anywhere and now I am lunging and I am supposed to be WALKING??  What is the point of lunging if I just have to WALK?!?!?

I said But I do not want to walk.  I want to run!!

But she said Huey, you have not been getting to run in a very long time.  I know.  And you can run, but you cannot run if you are going to act like a loony and not listen to me.  You have to warm up first. Or you will hurt yourself some more!  By the way, how is your owie feeling?

I said What owie?

She made that noise like the wind in the leaves and said When we go next, you need to WALK Huey.

I said You are a Party Pooper.

But she just said You are right, and if you don’t start listening to me, I will Poop your Party right back into the stall.  Now.  What do you say.

And I said OK I will walk.  And I did.  I walked, and then she said what I was waiting for which was Trot! And I did.  And it felt SO GOOD that I could not help it.  I made a canter.  And I made one canter and that canter felt SO good that I could not help it either.

I made a buck.  And I made a huge fart too!!!!

But then I realized I was getting the Stink Eye again and my rider was saying Waaaaaalk and I remembered I would have to go back into the stall if I was not a Good Listening Horse so I did.    And then we went in the other way and I snuck in a canter and a buck, but that time I did not fart.  I guess all the farts came out the first time.  And when my rider said WALK I did.  And then it was over.

I said We are not done?  We just got here!

But she said We should not be doing this at all until the vet says OK, but I knew how crazy you were going and I thought it would be all right to try, but I am not going to let you do too much.  I have to go check your owie under those boots and if it is OK and it is still OK later today, maybe we can do this again soon.

That would be very good.  I even got enough of my Grumpy Bad Horse feelings out that I stood totally still while I got my leg hosed.

And then?

I got a PEPPERMINT too!!!

Getting to run AND getting a peppermint? This IS being a good day!! I hope that owie stays OK and I get to do this again soon!

Bob Vila, Where Are You Now?


At least I’m not having to do this all with a video camera and microphone in my face.  On the other hand, the This Old House Homeowners don’t seem to be on the spot like this either.  Usually, they don’t seem to be living in the house while it’s being renovated.

When last we talked, Patching Dude was off to the store for more “mud” and was going to check in on the remaining 10% of pointy stucco-style texture on the ceiling.  I was holed up in my study finishing grading and some work for my class.  I did persuade Patching Dude to let me through the elaborate drapery of thin plastic so that I could access the upstairs of the house, which has the advantage of a world that 1) is not coated in a fine white dust, 2) has floors that can be walked up on with bare feet, and 3) does not require maneuvering through a Construction Zone in order to use the bathroom.

So there I was, relaxing alone with a journal article I’m reviewing, and enjoying the sounds of dedicated scraping coming up from the floor below.  And my, what sounds those were.   Virtually indescribable, those sounds.  I’ve just tried three times and haven’t managed to capture them.  If you imagine the sounds of fine porcelain saucers and teacups, with a few dinner plates here and there, being hurled onto a carpeted floor from eight feet in the air, I think you will have some sense for these sounds.  A sort of fragile, shattery, breaking, showering and raining down, sort of noise.

Then they stopped.  Then they started again, more lightly, and in an area that I surmised meant that Yes! The stairwell ceiling WAS going to be affected by this process too!

Then they stopped again.  I considered dozing off, but then I realized I was hearing two voices downstairs, which meant that Painting Guy (my contractor, where Patching Guy is his sub-contractor) must have returned from his other job.

The suspense was oppressive.  Especially because there was no real way for me to safely make my way through the blowing tatters of plastic without creating more of a mess than I already had.  And given how much of a mess there was, that’s a Bold Statement.

Just look:

That’s actually a six-foot tall window there at the end. And the door to my study. And TWO bookcases. And quite a lot of the stucco finish.

My oriental stair rug. I don’t know how the big chunks of finish made it all the way down, especially given the billowing plastic drapery.


You’d never know it, but this is ordinarily a spacious hallway with a wooden floor.

Anyway, eventually there came a knock at the door at the bottom of the stairs.

“Aah,” it was Painting Guy, “do yah have a minute?  We needa taahlk.”

What now, I wondered.

“Sure,” I said.

“Aaah, there’s a prahblem.”

Stap my vitals!  Another problem?  It can’t be.  Tell me it isn’t so.  Say it, and I won’t believe it.

“Aaah, yah outta come over here and have a lookathis.”

Sure.  I went over here, and took a look.

Quite a bit more of the, er, ceiling (for lack of a better word) was exposed in the 10% than we’d seen so far.  What we’d seen so far was stuff like this:

Old plaster, covered with a coat of calcimine, and cracked…when I got the bid from Painting Guy last month, I told him I expected that the REASON that half of the rooms have this finish and the others don’t is that the corner-cutting renovators had found Inconvenient Cracks and just plastered right over them instead of dealing with them properly.
Turns out I was right.


What Painting Guy had summoned me to inspect was a Whole Different Kettle of Fish.  This is what I saw:

I was pretty sure I knew the answer, but I asked it anyway.

“Good god, is that horsehair?”

“Aah, yah, prahbahbly.”

Back in the dawn of time, “plaster” was made of horsehair mixed with lime and slapped up over lath.  Some other stuff, too, but mostly horsehair.   I thought they’d moved to other things by the time my house was built, but evidently not.

I have the hair of dead horses in my walls.

I’m sure I’ll find that a little creepy, once I get a few minutes.

The contractors, Click and Clack together, chimed in. “Yah, when we scraped the finish off ovah heah, all thaht stuff just fell raht off onna the flahr.  You can see it, it’s a hahlf-inch a stuff that’s been slahpped up on these ceiling fah a hundred-twenty yahs.”

Why so it was.  When I swung around in the other direct, I could see it clearly.  Including the original slick of gypsum to finish it.  It’s about a half-inch of crap that’s been slicked over the original plaster over the last 120 years, and it’s positively geological in terms of identifiable strata.

The history of the world, in half-assed ceiling finishes.


“Yaaah.” <sound of throat clearing> “We gotta tahk about what to do nahw.  We can’t do any cheap fix on this cause it’ll just faahll raht apaht.”

“Yes, I understand this.  Half-assed work is what got us all here” and I swept the disaster area with a gesture “and I don’t feel like we should propagate that any further.”

“Ah, that’s good, becahse this is gonna mean cahst ovarruns.”

More cost over-runs?  Say it isn’t so.  Thank the lord this isn’t my first time around the block with this kind of stuff.

“What is it, exactly, that needs to happen now?” I said.

“Yaaah.  We’re gonna hahf to pull down the entiah ceiling here and replace it with drywahl.  We’re gonna hahf to pull dahn the entiah ceiling ovah the stairwell too.  Then we’re gonnah have to hang a new drywall ceiling, and then paint it ahl.”

“I see.” I said. “The whole ceiling here has to go, does it?”

“Yahh, saahry abaht that.  It don’t sound lahk yer too surprahsed though.”

“No, I’m afraid I’m not surprised at all.”

“Aahn theah’s more.”

More?  I can hardly wait to hear this.

“This wahsn’t exahctly in aahr schedule.  I’m not gonna just leave ya hahngin like this, but it’s gonna be a litttle hahd to schedule.  I think we cahn get ovah heah to pull the old ceiling out tomorrah, and then hahng the new one on Wednesday, then paint on Thahsday.  I don’t suppose you know what the paint is.”

“There,” I said, “we are in luck.  Cedar Keys from Benjamin Moore matches this wall color.”

“Ah, great! Lemme go run the numbahs.  Dammit, my battery just died.  I gotta go to thah van. Be right bahck.”

And he was.  The original estimate was about $650.  The new situation added about $1,500 to that amount.  I was right on the money when I developed my Pre-Contracting Estimate of a three-fold increase in scope and price.

Well, it looks like the plastic shrouding is down for the night.  Time to pull down the artwork and move the furniture.

I wonder where the cat is.

This Little Piggy Stayed Home.


I love my house.  I love it a lot.  And that’s good, because if I didn’t…

It’s probably best to start at the beginning.  In the beginning, there was a mill owner.  And the mill owner decided it was a good idea to construct some dwellings for his management and their families.  And he had built a block of three-story-plus-basement row houses, decked out in the current fashions of 1895.

And it was good.

I know it was good because I am actually in possession of (as the lawyers insist on saying) a photograph of the house taken in 1900.  There’s a proud gent standing on the wooden sidewalk next to the hitching post by the front porch.  The woodwork I know and love is beautifully in evidence, too.

Fast forward sixty years and more and the mills are gone and the mill management is gone, and my adopted town is sliding into decay like so many other New England towns did at the time.

Add another twenty years and my entire street has turned into the town’s last stop on the way to the grave.  The Victorian houses that line both sides of the street are known primarily for 1) being dangerous, and 2) being the best place in town to go buy drugs.  Mine is a crack house that is home to uncounted drug-addled criminals and vagrants.

It’s a flop house.  A squat.

Another 15 years and the town has revitalized due to the vision of several business people with unusually long sight.   It’s now the regional arts, culture, dining, and shopping center with an entirely vibrant downtown…scarred only by the presence of the crack houses on my street.

Some equally long-sighted real estate speculators assess the “bones” of a bunch of the buildings, and find them good, despite decades of neglect and abuse.  And they start buying up the properties and evicting the crack heads, junkies, and letting the leases expire for those who actually possessed a rental contract.  And as the buildings empty of their former tenants, the speculators start systematically fixing up the buildings.

The people that renovated my house did a great job in some important ways (like installing central air and preserving original woodwork and doors) as well as some not-so-great jobs (cheap windows, cheap cosmetic finishes, cut-rate work on the new roof).  All in all, I’m deeply grateful for them, because now I have a Victorian with original features and woodwork AND central air conditioning.  The windows I can live with for a while.  I just enter into all of those drawings you see for “Free Windows!” It means I have to put up with an endless onslaught of commercial sales, but I figure, it’s worth it for the long shot.  In another few years, I’ll take some action.

What’s going on right now, though, is a matter related to the “cheap cosmetic finishes”.  All of the rooms in my house have high ceilings.  On about half of those, the finish is nice and flat and painted white.  On the other half, it’s nasty looking stucco.  Some of it is the blown-popcorn finish.  On others, it’s a layer of plaster that was textured into random little points with a trowel.

A month ago, Roy called me at work to let me know that “the ceiling had fallen in”.  As I later discovered, what really happened was that a piece of the textured finish had dropped off the ceiling.  The day had been extremely humid, and the house opened to the elements, so I assume that moisture had something to do with it.  I rang the painting contract we used a few years ago for some exterior work, and had him out to get a bid.

He looked at the second-floor hall ceiling where the finish had come off.  It was his opinion that some more of the finish was going to come off, but most of it was probably rock hard and melted for eternity with the underlying ceiling plaster.  I’d been kind of hoping we could just strip the lot off, but he felt that No, this wasn’t going to be feasible.  He suggested the Monstrously Expensive Option, which involved joint compound or mud or something slicked on over the textured surface until it was flat, and then paint that flat surface.  Then he suggested the Way Less Expensive Option, which involved pulling down the loose finish and patching it (preparing the surface properly, this time, first) with more textured stuff.

I went with Option 2, and the Painting Guy showed up with his Patching Guy this morning to start work.  Painting Guy’s work shouldn’t be coming in until tomorrow, so he’s off at some other work site.  Patching Guy started with some repairs in the bedroom that – thank heavens – turned out to be minor.

I was surprised by that.  With This Old House, I just assume that any job I get bid out is going to turn out to be 3 times as big once the [contractor type] gets [into or through, or removes some surface element] and sees that [whatever we thought was the problem] is just scratching the surface.

So I was surprised when the bedroom patching job stayed small.  The Patching Guy had pulled down the loose texture in the hallway and had mudded it and was letting it dry in preparation for the surface treatment which I think involves standing there and sucking a trowel onto the surface and then pulling it down so that the surface turns into little points.  And I had to take off for an appointment.

“I’ll be back in about a half hour” I said.

“Yah! No prahblem!” he said.

Now, from here out, it’s going to be helpful to hear this conversation in your head.  And to do that with greatest accuracy and effect, you’re going to have to slap a minor Texas drawl into my words.  And the Patching Guy?  Sounds like Nahm from This Old House.  Or, if you’re more into cars than construction, Click or Clack from Car Talk.  Take your pick.

I came back, happily, with a latte, thinking that this job ought to be done for the day in just an hour or so.  I jingled into the house and put down my things.  I heard footsteps coming down the stairs.

“Ah.” he said.

“Uh-oh,” I thought.

“Yep?” I said

“Ah, we’ve got a little bit of a prahblem.” he said.

“Oh?” I said.

“Yah.  It’s a uuuuge mess upstahs.”


“Yah.  I stahted to put the textuah dahn, but when I stuck the traaawl to thah ceiling and pulled it down, the rest of thah finish stahted to come dahn too.”

“What? You mean the texture that didn’t come down before is coming down now?”

“Yah.  As soon as I get it aah little wet, it’s just faahlin raht daahn.”

“Oh. Let me see.”

Sure enough.  There’s the parts that have been patched, and the rest of it’s just peeling right off.

“Looks to me like you’re going to have to take the rest of it down.”

“Yah.  There’s gonna be cahst ovah-runs, just needed you to know.”

Well, Color Me Surprised.

A cost overrun?  On a repair? For This Old House?  Because someone cut a corner when they renovated?

No. Tell Me It Isn’t So.

So Plaster Guy removed quite a bit of furniture, swathed everything in plastic – which is rustling in the breeze just like a cheap tent in a tropical storm – and has been cheerfully pulling down 90% of the rest of this crappy finish.  The question is whether the other 10% will come down obligingly, or whether I’m going to have to have the entire damned hall ceiling re-textured.

Since my preferred outcome from the start has been “Lose the textured ceiling” (it’s not an Original Detail) I’m not totally unhappy with this evolving circumstance.  I WILL be unhappy if the remaining 10% is glued hard to the substrate.  Plaster Guy is concerned because if he gets in around the top of the stairwell, it might make the textured finish come off the stairwell too.

“Fine” I said.  “If it does, that will just save me some hassle down the road when it starts falling off anyway.”

Plaster Guy has gone off to the hardware store for more supplies.  I am anxiously awaiting the outcome of the Remaining Ten Percent. In the meantime, here are some pictures from a hiking trip we took at Tyringham Cobble last fall.

Bird House



Tyringham Valley

Tyringham Valley

It’s hopelessly charming, isn’t it? AND it has horses.

Going Out Into The World


I’ve been so tied up with 1) Huey, 2) Huey, 3) getting a cold, 4) teaching, and 5) Huey lately that I haven’t had much of a chance to get out and really enjoy the New England fall.  Roy points out that this has not been helped by the fact that we’ve had some kind of record-setting rainfall this season.  Which is true.  Under items 1, 2, and 5 (above) I spend plenty of time fretting over Huey’s penchant for slurping out of mud puddles instead of his nice, hygenic water buckets.  This, mainly, because there’s so blasted many mud puddles.

My consolation here is that even if I could ride the Wonder Horse right now, I still couldn’t…because of all the rain.

With any luck, this will translate in a month or so to all the snow.

That time is getting closer with every passing day.  I thought I’d be all horked up over having to not be riding Huey all the time due to snow and ice…but hey, I can’t ride him anyway.  Or not yet, at least.  I almost hate to jinx things, but that leg swelling is coming down at an increasing rate – if it continues on <sound of knuckles thumping wood> next week at the same rate it declined last week, I’ll be calling the vet to come perform the follow-up ultrasound.

The possibility of lunging begins to assert itself.  Huey usually hates lunging, because, of course, it is boring…but my guess is that he’s passed that Critical Threshold of Boredom and that even lunging will be looking good to him about now.  Especially since he’s lost 1) his nighttime paddock-ranging privileges (holding too many early morning romping-and-bucking parties and getting the Senior Citizens all riled up and 2) his daytime hanging-out-in-the-paddock privileges when someone is riding in the ring.  Apparently the Wonder Horse started hiding in his stall last week, whilst peering around the corner and waiting for some poor lesson horse to come trotting ’round the bend in the ring, at which point Huey would shoot out of his stall door and pound down to the end of the paddock like he was erupting from a starting gate.  Thank the lord that of the two horses (that I know of) he has done this two, one of them was being ridden by his owner at the time, a girl with a very great deal of riding skill…and the other one was the ultimately bombproof boost-him-into-a-trot-with-a-stick-of-dynamite lesson horse.

I confess.  I was a Bad Horse Mom, because when I heard about all this, I laughed.  I couldn’t help it.  Naughty, wicked boy.  Hahahahah.

Even as I was envisioning the excited contretemps that would ensure if some other horse did this very thing when I was riding Huey in the ring, I still couldn’t help it.

Huey, I said, hahahaha…you REALLY should not…hahahahaha…do that kind of thing.  That was VERY bad of you.  Hahahahahaha.

Like I said, Bad Horse Mom.

Anyway, this weekend the rain finally cleared off, and really cleared off – so we had blue skies and everything – for more than one day.  This must be some kind of record in the last six weeks.

And thereupon, we set out briefly to See The World.  Amazingly, the incessant rain has not managed to utterly destroy the fall colors.  It just hid them.  With sun on them, the leaves are wonderful.  All bright gold and red and orange fluttering against the bright blue sky, all glowing and translucent where the sun falls through them, and shaded to a moody darkness of their brilliant colors in the shade.

Our rovings yesterday took us to the Strawbale Cafe.  One of the things that New England has it all over Texas with is Agri-Tourism. There is some agritourism in Texas.  Just not a lot of it.  After all, there’s minimal charm in 8,000 acres of beef cattle grazing on scrublands, or a patch of sorghum that is 3 miles on every side.

You just don’t get that kind of large-scale agriculture in New England.  In New England, it’s hills and rocks.  Mostly, it’s both.  Anything that isn’t hills and/or rocks is ponds, lakes, streams, rivers, and wetlands.  Houston and Boston notwithstanding, it’s now generally considered to be a Poor Idea to drain off a wetland and erect a city on top of it.  A lot of the land is arable…but not on a profitable large scale.  The results is a proliferation of what I can’t help thinking of as Pocket Farms.  Farms small enough to fit in your pocket.  Lots of them are owned by the same families who first tilled the land back in ’77.  1677, that is.  The rest appear to be owned by hippies – both the old 1960s kind, and the new kind, who went to expensive private schools like Hampshire College and are doing things Scientifically…with horse-drawn plows, pigsties churning compost out of slops and used bedding from the horses, companion plantings for pest control, and things like that.  Stuff that is a really good idea, but which cuts into the kind of profits that a huge corporate farm wants to see.  Or is, otherwise, unworkable for a gigantic farm.

Because farming is one of those things that is subject to massive economies of scale, what this also means is that it’s very difficult to make enough money to keep a household on if you’re relying strictly on the vegetables you plant on the farm.  You might say “Oh, have cows” but dairy farming is an insanely hot button around here.  For good reasons, I’m given to understand, although I don’t have a terribly clear grasp of those issues myself.

So what happens here is that “farming” gets expanded a bit beyond the meaning it’s had other places I’ve lived, where it’s mostly about the crops.  Farms that are mostly about meat are “ranches”.  Not “farms”.  So I’m talking about “farms” here.  Farmers here do plant plenty of crops, and often sell direct to the public through farmer’s markets, or, more frequently, farm stands (a subject on which I’ve posted in the past). But the summer is just a small piece of the farm.  In the spring, a lot of it is maple sugaring.  That pretty much gets done when the weather is too cold to even think about planting, even if the ground wasn’t too soggy to take the tractor out in the fields anyway.

You don’t want to compact the soil, after all.

So the first “crop” of the year is sap coming out of the trees.  There are maple sugaring operations all over the place here.  Can’t swing the proverbial cat without hitting one.  Any large tract of deciduous trees you see, you inspect a little more carefully, and you’ll find lengths of plastic tubing strung below the branches.  That’s to make it easier to get the sap out, because the need to haul massive tanks of sap out of a forest that is planted on a rocky hill presents certain…challenges.  Challenges that are met by ATVs, in some cases, and horses in harness in lots of cases, and for the big-time operators, by networks of plastic tubing strung out all over the hillside.  This isn’t your Little House on the Prairie sugaring operation, with wooden buckets, you know.

Somewhere in there, some brilliant souls regarded the problem:  farms that are too small to take advantage of economies of scale + short growing season for crops + people who are passionately attached to the land + gorgeous scenery that contributes materially to the scale problem.

And to this calculation, they added in the final element:  proximity to major population centers full of people who can’t wait to leave and then come back and who have plenty of money to spend.

And the result of this formula is Agri-Tourism.

In the summer, it’s farm stands and CSAs, but mostly, it’s growing things.  In the fall, it’s Pumpkin and Harvest Festivals and Hayrides and Haunted Corn Mazes and Pick-Your-Own-Apples and Cider Donuts and Hot Cider and Smoked Meats.  And the larger farm stands erupts in decorations and out-of-state license plates.

It’s terribly quaint.  Even if you don’t like quaint you like this.  It’s impossible not to.  Even jaded high school students.  They like it.

In the winter, it’s sleigh rides and cross-country ski trails and jams, hot chocolate, and pies.

In the spring, it’s the Sugar Shack.  A slap-dash farm structure with a full-service kitchen, a staff of the farmer’s family members and close personal friends, folding tables and chairs or picnic benches, dishing up hot farm breakfasts – eggs, bacon, sausages (and because this is New England, veggie sausages too), and – most importantly – french toast. pancakes. waffles.  Why most importantly?  Because somewhere on the property, somewhere you can usually go and hang out while you’re waiting an hour for a table, is the farmer and what she or he is doing is boiling the sap.  There’s a massive metal evaporator, usually open to the air so you can look at it, sitting on top of God’s Own Wood-fired Oven – and cords of wood stacked ten feet tall right outside the door.  And that evaporator is chock full of maple sap.  And it’s boiling.  And out the end is coming maple syrup.  Which is making its way, with some delays for stuff like cooling off and bottling, onto the tables in the dining room.

Yes.  The Pure Hell of the New England Mud Season is more than compensated for by the fact that you can drive down a country road, park it at a table with a red checked plastic table cloth, order a $5 breakfast, and when your cup of coffee arrives…you can pour freshly made maple syrup into it to sweeten it up.

Really.  Life doesn’t get better than this.

The fresh maple syrup is, of course, also for sale in little handled pots right next to the cash register.  You can buy it and take it home.  And nearly everyone does.   The bottles are a standard type, in standard sizes…and built to fit right into the shelf on the inside of your refrigerator door.

I remember “maple syrup” when I was a kid.  It wasn’t any damned maple syrup.  It was maple flavored syrup.  No one had real maple syrup in the kitchen.  Couldn’t get it, for one.  And if you could, it was priced in the same tier as truffles.  The kind that come from the ground, not the kind made of chocolate.  Unaffordable to the upper-middle-class household.

Maple syrup.

I think I had that stuff maybe 5 times in my life before I moved to New England.  I didn’t think I liked syrup.  What it is really, is that I don’t like fake maple syrup.  I’m happy to pour the real stuff into my coffee.  And on my waffles, but only if I’m having breakfast at the Sugar Shack.  I do, however, love to cook with the stuff.  I made a turkey brine a few weeks ago that required an entire pint of maple syrup.  Even here, that’s a bit decadent.  In Texas, it would have been unthinkable.  (It was good, by the way…)

Ah.  Maple syrup.  Sugar Shacks.  At the end of every sugaring season, everyone says things like “Wouldn’t it be great if we could do this all year long?”

And the family that runs the Strawbale answered that call, and said “Yes.”  And now, we can get the Sugar Shack experience (sans live evaporators) in the fall, and winter, and summer.  Heavenly.

While sharing these thoughts with the proprietor, I managed to pick up some Highly Valuable Information…beyond the operating hours of the dining room.  The proprietor had a sense of history about the region, and the aforementioned passionate attachment to the land…and because of this, he was able to tell me why I have to do a new plaster repair every. single. year. in my house.  Fortunately, the guys at This Old House gave me a great line on plaster repairs, but really.  Annually?  The house was built in 1895.  Surely it ought to have finished “settling” by now.

But no.

And apparently, this is because my entire town is built on a hundred feet of silt.  And the elevated railroad bed right across the street that carries freight trains loaded with coal and scrap iron is also sitting on a hundred feet of silt.  Evidently, this entire area was a massive lake at the last ice-age, and silt was carried in off the surrounding hills and mountains, and laid up, right as rain, for my house to get built on and settle every damn time a train goes past.

I had wondered why, when the trains go by, the house quivers like it’s got a small earthquake under.  It’s the remarkably fluid properties of silt that does it.

I had wondered why, before we got the ancient cracked cement sidewalk out back replaced with a big gravel bed, every time we had a big rain I’d get water and silt washing into my basement between the gaps in the fieldstone walls.

It’s all on silt.

The guy I was talking to offered the insight that our downtown is low-rise (pretty much no more than 4 stories) because you have to drive piles so deeply to hit bedrock that it’s just not practical to do it.  He also observed that when the municipal parking garage three blocks away was being built, every time the pile drive nailed one of the supports, the entire downtown area quivered like a bowl of jello.

That must really have been something.

The things you learn from striking up casual conversations.

At least now I know that the incessant plaster repairs are not because of some structural defect in the house.  And I also know that there are not ever going to cease.  I might as well buy stock in Big Wally’s Plaster Magic right now.

Here are some pictures from our visit to the ski hill on Columbus Day.  Y’all come back, hear?