Monday, November 28, 2011

Gluten-free Thanksgiving Desserts

Dessert is a pretty important part of the Thanksgiving meal, even if you are usually too full to really enjoy it.  Because our guest maintains a gluten-free diet, I made it my goal to have most of the meal be gluten-free.  Pies present a real challenge, since it is the gluten in wheat flour which makes the dough stick to itself and be able to be flaky instead of crumbly. The freezer case at our supermarket had a frozen pie shell, and it would have to do for pumpkin pie.
For a second dessert, I made a gluten-free cheesecake.  No, plain cheesecake is not necessarily a traditional Thanksgiving dessert, but it is my husband’s favorite.  Since this is a rental house, we do not have access to my inventory of too many cake pans and are forced to make do with an inexpensive electric mixer and inadequate mixing bowls. We can report with conviction that it is even possible to make pies in cast-iron frying pans and they will be delicious.  
Our cheesecake cracked while it cooled.
I'm pretty sure a proper pan would have prevented it.
Gluten-Free Cheesecake
Cheesecake is pretty easy if you have an electric mixer of some kind, and the foresight to allow all ingredients to come to room temperature. While the 325°F oven preheats,  I put ½ a box of gluten-free graham crackers (about 6 oz.) in a re-sealable plastic (ok, Ziploc) bag and crushed them with a wooden spoon until I got bored. For future reference, I really should have crushed them completely.  To the crushed crackers I added 4 T melted butter and 2 T sugar.  I was supposed to also add ¼ t nutmeg, but I didn’t have any. This mess was pressed into the bottom of the cake pan. Well, ok, actually, we don’t have a cake pan right now, so we used a round 9”ceramic oven-proof dish with high sides.  I think we were supposed to refrigerate this while we made the cake filling, but we forgot to and it didn’t matter.
To make the filling, unwrap 2 lbs. softened cream cheese into a large mixing bowl (yes, Virginia, this is 4 8-oz. packages). Mix in 1 c. sugar. When combined, beat in 4 eggs, one at a time. (At this point there was cheesecake batter all over my shirt and face.)  Next, beat in 1 c. sour cream, 2 T cornstarch, and 1 t vanilla extract.
When smooth, pour into cake pan and bake for 45 minutes.
Make the sour cream topping by whisking together 1 c. sour cream, ¼ c. sugar and 1 t vanilla. At the 45 minute mark, take out the cake and gently spread as much of the topping onto it as you can.  Return the cake to the oven and bake for an additional 15 minutes. Turn off oven and leave cheesecake in the oven for 1 hour before removing.
Cool completely and refrigerate for at least 4 hours before serving.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

How to Make Gluten-Free Stuffing

In years past, I made a pretty traditional stuffing. Starting by sauteing onions and celery in butter, adding stale cubes of decent sourdough and home-made corn bread, then chopped parsley, fresh sage, salt and pepper, and moistened before baking with a lot of butter and turkey stock.  Depending on the guests, I have been known to chop the turkey liver and saute it with the onions.  
To turn this dish into a gluten-free substitute, I was pretty stumped. It turns out my local supermarket has a decent selection of gluten-free products, including a French bread.  Yes, the loaves were pale and suspicious-looking in a plastic two-pack, but made very realistic looking cubes. I also made cornbread, and the recipe follows. We opted not to stuff the bird and instead baked the stuffing in a casserole dish at 350F.  The stuffing was unremarkable, and yet perfectly delicious.

Gluten Free Cornbread
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Mix 2 cups Bob’s Red Mill Corn flour, 4 T sugar, 2 t baking powder, 1 t baking soda, and 1 t salt in a bowl and set aside.
Melt 1 T butter in a 10 inch cast-iron skillet.  In another bowl, beat 2 eggs, then add 1 c buttermilk, and 1/4 c melted butter. Add wet ingredients all at once to the dry and stir until just moistened. Pour batter into the hot skillet. Bake 20 minutes or until a wooden toothpick comes out clean. Serve warm with butter and honey.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

How to Brine a Turkey

I cooked my first turkey some time in college, when we stayed on campus during Thanksgiving break and used the dorm kitchen. I think I might still own the muffin tin I got in this era.  I really only manage to get excited about the holiday if I have guests, and this year a good friend was driving in from the Mid-west, bringing her dog as well.
As it happens, this friend eats a gluten-free diet. I have known her long enough to know that it is not a choice, like vegetarianism, but a medical necessity.  From my perspective, there were only two big changes I would need to make: stuffing and desserts. I also had to adapt the gravy and creamed spinach; I did not make gravy back in the dorm at Middlebury, but I do have a photo of successful gravy from perhaps 1989. It must have seemed a real achievement.  

How to Brine a Turkey
  1. Become aware that Thanksgiving is tomorrow
  2. Have already bought your turkey (important!)
  3. Realize you should brine your turkey
  4. Go to interwebs to get too many recipes
  5. Look at the weight of your bird compared to the weight of the ideal bird recipe is intended for. Attempt complex reduction of recipe from 20 lbs. to 14.31. Abandon attempt in favor of making the whole recipe.
  6. On Wednesday before Thanksgiving, dissolve 1 cup of salt in 1 quart of water in pot on stove. Heat to simmer, adding 6 bay leaves, 2 T coriander, 2 T black pepper corns, 1 t yellow mustard seeds.  Notice recipe calls for black or brown mustard seeds and wonder what those are. Fleetingly regret not finding fennel seeds and dried juniper berries at your store. Stir until salt dissolves and set aside to cool.
  7. Remove turkey from fridge and commence wrestling the wrapper off. Remove neck, giblets and organs from cavity (you can use them tomorrow in stuffing and/or stock). Wash turkey in sink unless you read something which says this makes an aerosolized spray of bacteria which settles on every surface of your kitchen, in which case you pass a hand of hopeful blessing over the bird.  Place bird in giant stock pot or brining bag.
  8. Add salt mixture to turkey, including an additional 3 quarts of water plus a bottle (minus one glass) of dry Riesling. Make a note to go buy more wine when you’re done.  Toss in 2 thinly sliced onions, 6 cloves of crushed garlic and a bunch of fresh thyme.  Tie bag shut and double bag. Place bag in cooler and cover with ice.
  9. Congratulations. You have now increased the room in your fridge by the size of your turkey. Drink that glass of wine in anticipation of going out and buying more wine.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Suburban or Rural?

On the discussion sites of licensed real-estate appraisers, they have a witty saying about how to tell the difference between urban, suburban and rural homes.  This witty saying involves standing on the porch (maybe naked) and peeing off the porch (or not) and whether anyone can see you and whether the police come if they are called.  Even though these postings come from licensed real-estate appraisers, I do not believe that this is how you determine if a community is rural or suburban.  
I have not yet decided whether I believe that North Salem, New York is suburban or rural. I struggle to describe it to people.  Efforts are clearly made by those in power in this community to emphasize the rural flavor of the place.  The North Salem Open Land Foundation, founded in 1974, protects over 900 acres of land here, through purchases, donations and the maintenance of conservation easements.  The Foundation is practically invisible in the community, but their efforts are not.
There are no sidewalks in North Salem, but I often see snakes sunning themselves on the pavement.  Many roads have no lines painted on them and no shoulders.  Some roads not wide enough for two cars to pass, and there are still plenty of unpaved roads.  I see hunters in our yard and in the post office.  The mailboxes are on posts here, and some bear the scars of people driving by and attempting to smash them.
Yet for all these rural features, there is no smell of cows.  Our next-door neighbor had  swimming pool water delivered, by water truck.  The other neighbor keeps a car in the driveway under a car cover.  Many homes have Invisible Fence installed to keep the dogs close to the house.  Even more have elaborate deer fencing and decorative fencing, two things I would not expect to see outside of the suburbs.  The community is served by hourly MetroNorth trains to New York City, even in the middle of the night.  The North Salem Architectural Review Board minutes include lengthy discussion of color and roof shape of a proposed installation of pre-fab pump house not visible from the road. 
There is decorative informational signage marking historic sites throughout North Salem. And there are BMWs.  But the one thing that convinces me that I live in a suburb is the regular presence of the North Salem Parking Patrol cruiser.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Why Groupon is Rubber Candy

Those of us who eschew shopping at the Big Box Stores feel good about supporting small, local businesses. We have our reasons: supporting the community, trying to buy locally sourced goods, energy savings, providing ourselves with a context for presenting more thoughtfully chosen gifts. What a cute idea is Groupon (and similar daily-deal coupon services)! You join their service for free, they send you deals via email, you go try fun new things like paddle-boarding, and the local paddle-boarding business has a new customer.  The elevator pitch is easy.
So easy, in fact, it raises my first objection: why them? Daily-deal providers like this are easily copied, and are being copied by local newspapers, local community shopping districts, and department stores. Groupon also gets to compete with Facebook and LivingSocial and the monsters Google and Amazon.  If you like one of these daily-deal services, there is no reason not to belong to all of them.
Last month, you didn’t get a facial. But this month, you have a coupon for it and you get a facial. You saved so much money with the coupon, like 30%! Except if you hadn’t gotten the facial, you could have saved 100% of the money you spent.
Oh, but now with all the paddle-boarding and facials, your life is better, right? At least until you use up the coupon and move on to something else. And it is at this point that I start thinking about Manny’s Facials Emporium and Elizabeths’s Paddle-Boarding Paradise, and the money they spent luring you in as new customers.  Manny’s appointment books are full of new customers, but they are receiving services at a reduced rate, making the amount of profit these new customers contribute to his business minimal. Most of the new customers will move along when they’ve used up the Facial Four-Pack Deal, because they belong to Groupon, and they’ll get another deal someplace else. Meanwhile, Manny’s devoted customers, who’ve been booking regular appointments for years can’t get the appointments they were able to get in the past. The waiting room is packed with new people, all talking about something called Groupon. The regulars perceive that others are getting special, new customer bargains, and once they get around to talking to the new customers, they’ll learn about joining Groupon and go someplace else (with a Facial Four-Pack Deal).
Over at Elizabeth’s, some of her regulars started complaining that all the best instructors are over-booked and no longer able to do make-up lessons. Elizabeth decides that her loyal customers need their own coupons, too. Suddenly Elizabeth and all of her instructors and staff, down to the janitor and the reservationist are working harder than ever and the business is making less money than ever.
Rubber candy looks amazing. It does not melt in the sun. You just can’t eat it.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why I Love Microsoft Paint

There was once a time when owning your own PC was kind of a big deal.  We had the earliest versions of the IBM PC and ran MS-DOS and had a monochrome monitor which was amber because the relentless trouble-shooter thought it was superior to green.  It sat on a metal desk that fit together with hand-tightened screws and had a section with an oblong cut-out for the continuous-feed paper to go into the dot-matrix printer from a box on the floor.  We bought a box of floppy disks for it, and you had to be careful with them because if they got bent they wouldn’t work.  The PC came with manuals that were held in little three-ring binders. I vaguely remember actually looking up things in the manuals, the way you might have looked in your car’s manual for information about what kind of tires you use or how much gas the tank actually holds.  Before there was the world wide web, there were local networks, like the one I used at the University of Utah, accessing it through our dial-up modem, but search engines were a few years away.
Instead of learning to write computer programs in BASIC, the generation just before me had to use punch-cards and main-frame computers. Instead of getting scientific calculators they had to learn to use a slide rule. We got the chunky TI-30s, with red LEDs. You could enter “07734” and say hi to the person behind you. I broke mine again and again, because they did not survive a fall from high school desk height.  I probably would not have made it through AP Calculus had we needed slide rules to compute logarithms. It was a pretty close call as it was.
I have been through many generations of TI calculators since then, and with every generation they make the appalling choice of changing all the menuing and key-strokes.  By the time I retired from teaching a few years ago (for the second time) I no longer taught students how to do things on their TI-86s; we would search the term together in real time on the SmartBoard, launch the giant calculator application, and punch it in.  I expect that Texas Instruments line of scientific calculators will go the way of the slide rule, having been absorbed functionally by laptops or tablets or smartphones. The savings in batteries will be significant. If any of my sons goes to business school, he will no doubt cover them in his strategy class, just as we learned of the sad decline of Kodak.
I remember the first version of Windows that we ran at home, and I remember playing Reversi on it. I also have vivid memories of drawing on the computer, using MS Paint.  Over the years, this little program has had only a few features added, so using it is like a trip back to the early days, with diskettes and DOS prompts.  It’s awkward and sometimes clicking the little paint bucket yields surprising results. It feels like drawing with crayons. All of my drawings with it are charmingly terrible.  Even a copy-and-pasted screen-shot done with Paint looks kind of crummy.  I do not think I have ever needed any help with it at all. With every new generation of Windows, Paint is still there, unchanged, untalented and unappreciated. By the time Microsoft sees fit to eliminate it for something better, it may be on a version of Windows I don’t buy, because I will have moved on to a Mac.   

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Why I Hate LinkedIn

Almost without exception, every one of my classmates from business school has a LinkedIn profile.  There is a reason for it: I know someone who added a number of skills to his profile and heard from a new recruiter within 24 hours. The latest wave of people requesting I add them as contacts is a group of young women who were my students in high school; they are now seniors in college, and someone in the career services office is doing her job, directing these soon-to-be-graduates to start building their networks.   You never know which friend-of-a-friend might make you a contact that wins you your next job. My business school peers keep their profiles up to date, and a small handful of them use it to let us know what they’re reading or which professional conferences they’re attending. Allow me to politely stifle a yawn.
Social networks in general are distrusted by some people my age and older, and I have plenty of friends who won’t have anything to do with them. Others perceive that people seem to like it and go ahead and join, only to wonder “what’s the point?” and never get around to turning Facebook into something they use. This is where I am with LinkedIn: I pretty much understand what it’s for, I joined without hesitation, I generally add people who request that I do (assuming I know them), but I don’t go there every day.  I have yet to perceive that I have gotten anything from my membership in LinkedIn. Wait: for a while there was a lot of regular email, featuring the promotions and new jobs of my classmates. I am happy for them, but I found it depressing. I changed my settings so I don’t receive updates anymore.  LinkedIn offers a dizzying array of settings for the annoying email membership will generate, and even if you limit it to weekly updates, it will be too much if you belong to any groups.
On LinkedIn, I cannot have my name appear as I prefer, with first, middle and last; it’s simply not an option. No doubt there are other women and men who find this frustrating.  I am allowed to create my professional “headline,” but must choose from a limited list of industries. What industry do you work in when you left education to get a new degree and are now unemployed? For a while there I used “Think Tanks,” because I thought it was cute.    These days, being unemployed is not very cute.
I do not have a picture on LinkedIn. I do not consider myself photogenic, and I do not have a professional looking headshot. Probably I should get one. I do not have a resume on LinkedIn. I have done a variety of things as an adult, and could easily generate three mostly different resumes, focusing on different aspects of my experience. I tend to need to tailor my resume to the role I’m applying for.   I do not currently have a job, and when I was actively looking, I checked LinkedIn regularly.
Facebook, for all its evils, especially its obvious desire to exploit its knowledge of my personal interests for its own monetary gain, still has enough appeal to me to inspire a daily visit. (If you know me, you know that “daily” is inaccurate, and might better be replaced with “hourly.”)  LinkedIn throws advertising at you, but from what I can surmise from its financial statements derives roughly half of its profits from its hiring services and the rest from marketing opportunities and premium subscriptions.  The platform remains consistent, does not add annoying features, and has not yet proved a breeding ground for dreadful spam postings when members’ profiles are hacked into. In these regards it is much better than Facebook.  Yet I still hate it.
Sometimes, Facebook makes ridiculous suggestions of friends for me, or advertises to me guessing that I am interested in Ugg boots or veganism or over-weight or single or Jewish.  LinkedIn also makes ridiculous suggestions, like to add “Geometry” or “Algebra” to my skills list. Do they also have “good grammar” or “proper spelling” or “biting sarcasm?”  When LinkedIn reduces my profile to a set of searchable key words, I am reduced, flattened, sampled from, and not fully represented. Facebook may violate my privacy, but at least my quilt-making pictures are all there, along with photos of grapefruit, horses, birthday cakes and sand castles.  I can enjoy a small victory on Facebook every time someone “likes” my status.
LinkedIn says they have one hundred thirty-five million members. Here is that number: 135,000,000.  If they can actually help me find a job worth doing, then I will stop hating them.  But I’m still pretty sure I won’t visit them every day.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Further Adventures Following the Snow Storm

The snow was exciting and our house was warm once we made it in. Not long after, the power went out and we were plunged into darkness.  Snow makes things very quiet, and all we could hear was the sound of trees collapsing under the weight of wet,heavy snow.  It sounded like distant gun-fire.   
My husband, a computer scientist and electrical engineer by training, is a relentless trouble-shooter, and able to build fires in  less than optimal situations. It was necessary to liberate many armloads of firewood from our landlord's supply, next door, but it was an emergency and only October after all.  Who is ready for winter weather in October?  We were short on batteries, candles, and drinking water, too. But the relentless trouble-shooter kept the fires stoked, and went out for candles and drinking water, and we had a day and a half of comfortable in-house camping.
Monday was when there was no longer enough water in the toilets to flush them, and the relentless trouble-shooter took the train in to the city for work.  School was cancelled for lack of power. Our schedule was full of appointments in the city on Tuesday and Thursday, and NYSE&G was showing on its web site that our power would be restored Friday.  At this point, we decided that a hotel in the city with flushing toilets, hot showers, central heat, and room service was better than a cold house.  The dogs were dropped at the doggy-day-care center where they spent regular times during the summer, and they trotted in as if they’d been there just last week.  The cat, I am sad to admit, was left with three heaping bowls of food, four bowls of water, and our best wishes.  We drove to the city and handed off the car to valet parking.  
Our first order of business was getting a haircut for the son of the relentless trouble-shooter, and mid-town has a barber on almost every block. A decent haircut was obtained, along with several whispered compliments on the handsomeness of the son of the relentless trouble-shooter.  This was embarrassing. Worse, there were people in costumes on the sidewalks of Manhattan, because, of course, it was actually Halloween. 
By Wednesday, NYSE&G had restored power to half of the town, including the school, and students were expected back. I stopped by the house to check on the cat, and while he was a little chilly, he was in good spirits and did not seem distressed. Outdoors, I could hear the drone of the neighbors’ generators.  Our power returned Thursday, although our internet service was not restored until late Friday. 
I have spoken to the landlord about stealing their firewood, and placed an order for our own supply. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

An Account of our Adventure in the Snow Storm, 29 October 2011

We left the barn about 12:30, stopping for lunch and gas. I remarked that the gas station was full at every pump, but it seemed like a Saturday-thing, not a storm-thing. I suggested we stop at a grocery store on the way home since they are few and far between out here. Later, I would catch a lot of grief for making this stop. When we emerged from the store it was snowing hard, and we drove home on unplowed highways. 
There were three different jack-knifed big-rigs on I-84, and a number of slow-downs for these obstacles and an equal number of rolled-over passenger cars. Many people were able to drive skillfully in the snow, but there were notable exceptions. A woman in a rear-wheel-drive Lexus sedan was all over the road, passing cars and aggressively maneuvering for a better position until she hit a snowy uphill patch. As we passed her, she had begun fruitlessly spinning her tires and sliding backwards. It was not going to be ending well for her. Another car I remember passing as it was losing control was one of those tiny Honda mini-SUVs; this driver had obviously chosen the “no-traction package.” 
Everywhere I have ever lived people complain about the local drivers. In St. Louis, there is a peculiar rolling stop drivers employ at stop-signs. In Vermont, there were the Mad-Max style jacked up pick-ups you steered clear of. In Utah, there were unnaturally slow drivers, and a courtesy left turn that drivers would wave you permission to take at the beginning of the light's rotation. In California, there were those who would speed up as soon as you signaled, preventing you from moving into their lane. In Seattle, everyone complains that “people can’t drive in the rain” or “people can’t drive in snow.” I have lived in New York almost four months, but in that time I have driven over nine thousand miles. Drivers in the city are aggressive, but I find them largely competent and fairly predictable. Outside of the city, there seems to be a general disregard for staying in one’s lane or obeying the posted speed limit. Overall, I would say that people are not so bad at driving. No one is quite as good as they think they are, and other people are not as bad as others complain. 
Once off the freeway we had more real excitement to negotiate. Trees were losing their snow-laden limbs in the direction of least resistance, typically onto the road. In some places the limbs had not even fallen yet, but were bowed nearly to the ground under the weight of the wet heavy snow. There were downed power lines, and the most dramatic accident: a car, nose down in a road-side ditch, with a right rear wheel two and a half feet above the pavement.
Finally home, we found our unplowed gravel driveway was impassable due to the grove of bamboo planted at the top. It was pressed to the ground under the weight of the snow. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Actual transcript of chat help session with Comcast

Margaret > I need my phone number NON-PUBLISHED NOW
Edson > Hello Margaret, Thank you for contacting Comcast Live Chat Support. My name is Edson. Please give me one moment to review your information.
Edson > Thank you so much for this great opportunity for me to extend the many wonderful things from Comcast, Margaret. I hope you haven't waited so long to be assisted. How are you doing today?
Margaret > fine. new account. Need my number to be non-published immediately
Edson > That's good. Margaret, I see here that you want your phone number to be non-published. Are you referring to not having your phone number show up when you call out on the other ends caller ID?
Margaret > No. Non-published. Not available or listed, as it was with Qwest.
Edson > Thank you for clarifying. Margaret, I understand that you have a concern in having your phone number unpublished immediately. We appreciate your interest about it. I know that it is important to have our phone number not listed in any directories for privacy purposes.
Edson > Do not worry; as your service representative today, your satisfaction is my top priority. I will do my best so that your phone number will be unpublished right away, Margaret.
Edson > So we can ensure protection to your account, I will need you to provide me with the last 4 of your Account holder's SSN.
Margaret > ####
Edson > Thank you. I have pulled your account, please let me share with you one of features from Comcast, do you want to watch full TV shows and movies online? You can actually go to click . It's fun, entertaining, easy to access, and above all, it's free and is available to everyone 24 hours a day 7 days a week.
Edson > First of, please be aware that there is a monthly charge for having your phone number unpublished.
Edson > Please give me 2 minutes to check the rate.
Margaret > ok
Edson > Margaret, there will be a monthly charge that will be added to your bill of $2 for having your phone number unpublished. Would you like to proceed?
Margaret > yes yes yes please
Edson > Thank you. Please allow the system to process the order within the next hour to have your phone number totally unpublished.
Edson > Please give me 2-3 minutes to process the order.
Margaret > thank you
Edson > You're most welcome.
Edson > Thank you for waiting, Margaret. I'm glad to inform you that I have successfully added non-published on your account. Your number now will not be listed in any directories. Here is your the confirmation number for your reference: ###############
Margaret > thank you edson
Edson > You're most welcome.
Edson > Margaret, it has been my pleasure adding the non-published feature on your account as you have requested.
Edson > By the way, can I ask a little favor from you to answer the 4 question survey(YES/NO answer)? I promise that it would be really quick.
Margaret > Excellent. Stay dry. Be well.
Edson > Thank you. You can view the survey by clicking on END SESSION button.
Margaret > right on bro
Edson > Do you have any other concerns aside from your non-publish issue, Margaret? If there is, I would be glad to assist you further.
Margaret > nope Im outta here
Edson > Analyst has closed chat and left the room

Monday, October 10, 2011

Another Bird in the Chimney

This morning we had another bird in one of the chimneys.  This time, I could not figure out how to let it out until I went outside and saw there was a clean-out within reach on the deck. It took a few minutes for the bird to realize it could fly free, so I was not sure right away that I had done the right thing.  But then, just when I was unprepared for it, out came the bird.  It flew away in a rising arc.  There is still a huge mess on the deck, since about a quart’s worth of wet ashes and soot fell out when I opened the clean-out.  It may not have been opened before. 

The owners of this house say they cleared a field by hand, found an old barn and had it dismantled, and built a large, casual family home to suit their tastes.  Many interior surfaces are wood, and a lot of that is antique.  There are two wood-burning stoves in the house, and an old-fashioned oven of the kind people would have used about 100 years ago.  
We are renters.
Because it is built around the frame of an old barn, the walls of this house enclose a huge interior space: four stories.  From the outside, it is barn-colored and large.  From within, a mix of old and new, all thoughtfully and carefully chosen like something my mother would have done.  I think my mother would have really liked this house, and I can hear her voice in my head, telling her friends at work the story I am about to relate to you.
Afternoons here are long. Someone finishes school early, and even if we have to go back to hand in the forgotten Math 8 Maintenance #3 Assignment (not because the backpack was disorganized but because it was hard to find because it was not printed on the special Math 8 yellow-colored paper), we are here, doing homework or eating snacks or staring at each other or turning the pages of The New York Times by early afternoon.  If we wait for the man who commutes by train to his job in The City, we might not eat dinner until 7:42 or 8:05 p.m.  During the day, the Red Barn House is filled with light by design (it’s the careful fenestration, don’t you know?). Once the sun goes down, it’s pretty damned dark.
One of us is reading Tom Sawyer for school, and enjoying it quite a bit.  It is an engaging read, and hard to interrupt for snacks or staring or The New York Times. I decided to give the new squeegee a try while the sun was shining and my work might yield visible results.  Again the dogs did a lot of watching, and so did the cat, but there were no pet escapes this day.
At some point we were sitting near the stove snacking and turning the pages of The New York Times, and there was the distinctive sound of a live bird in the stove pipe.   The curious adults of the house have already seen for themselves that birds have come down the stove pipe before, since there is a dead bird in a pan inside the stove right now.   But this was our first live bird-in-the-house experience.  I heard the bird scrambling in the stove pipe. I think I said aloud, “A bird just few down the chimney.” The cat came flying at the stove, but we had not yet determined how it was to be released. 
I found a little clean-out hatch, but before I opened it, I locked the pets in a bathroom.  I opened the hatch, and waited.  After about an hour, the pets were unhappy and vocal about it. I reasoned that the bird was not smart enough to come out the way I had provided for it to come out.  I got busy doing something else, and when I heard the thumps and the scrambling pets, it took me a second to realize what it was.
I summoned every bit of help I could get, locked the dogs in the bathroom again, and interrupted Tom Sawyer to get some help with the cat.  The cat is pretty fat, so he was not very hard to grab.  The bird had flown upstairs and was sitting, wild-eyed and panting, legs askew on the sill of a window which cannot be opened. We opened another window and using the screen as a tray and a vacuum cleaner attachment as a prod, offered the bird a chance at freedom.  The offer was accepted, and suddenly all the excitement was over.
The lease of this house came with a few unusual stipulations, including the requirement that we employ a specific housekeeper.  She is good-natured and pleasant and does a good job, so we are happy to pay for her services.  We would have been happy to hire her had we been asked, and I am still puzzling over why it was felt to be necessary to legally compel us to do so.  Another day I will write about this more, but for now I am still wondering about it.  The next day when I spoke to the housekeeper about the bird in the house, and she told me that she had two birds in the house this summer, both times they came down the other chimneys, the one that caught a bird today.
I think when I see the owners, I will mention this, because from the ground the tops of all three pipes appear to have features which should prevent entry by birds, and clearly those features are disabled or not working.  

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Oh, Deer

The house we are renting has large windows, and the windows want washing, inside and out.  First I wasted a whole bottle of Windex and a whole roll of paper towels, having poked around in the closets looking for a proper squeegee, and finding none.  The dogs watched me going at the windows the whole time. I thought I was being interesting. It was the deer in the yard, though, that was the interesting part, and as I came in, out went Captain for a long, deer-chasing romp.
Later, I made for the closest hardware store I know of, in the near-ish town of Cross River. The hardware store makes keys, sells paint, and has the parts of your running toilet that will make it stop running. Like so many of the small hardware stores you find in strip-malls, it’s packed to the rafters with merchandise. I always find that you walk in and ask the guy behind the counter. Don’t bother looking for yourself. I was shown a few options, and picked a squeegee for which one must provide a handle. The clerk found a couple of possibilities for the pole, none of them perfect, but he did secure the pole to the squeegee with a screw, charging me for neither the pole nor the screw. Along the way, I got a bit of history (the upstairs of the store used to be the screening room of the old movie theater), and some predictions for snow this winter.
In Westchester County, deer (and black bear) can be hunted only by bow, and the season is from October 15th to December 31st. I have already met one man who has permission to hunt on this land.  The deer here are certainly plentiful, and a danger to motorists. I see them every morning when I walk the dogs to get the paper, all day when I look out the windows, every afternoon when I walk the dogs on the road, and every day when I am out driving.  There was a large doe killed recently on Cat Ridge Road, where I walk.  One of its hind legs was broken in the accident, and stuck out from its body at a disturbing angle. It happened on Friday night, and the carcass had been removed by Monday midday. Scavengers had only just started to make progress on it.
The deer here in Westchester seem well adapted to seeing people and cars and trucks, and give everything a good, long, dumb stare before walking or running away.  There is a group that I have seen grazing dully at the margins of the Taconic Thruway near Lagrangeville. The speed limit is 50 mph, but many people seem to take that as a polite suggestion, like flossing daily or changing your smoke-detector batteries twice a year. The one thing that seems to make deer try to leap high and run fast is my knuckleheaded dogs; they charge at deer, barking furiously in frustration, running as fast as they can with no plan for maneuvering over the stone walls that the deer hop over without much visible effort.  Maybe if deer made more noise I would respect them more.
My landlord informs me that he likes seeing the crows and ravens and vultures and eagles that come if the bow hunters leave the entrails after gutting a deer.  As a dog owner, the possibility of my dogs getting into rotting deer entrails is pretty scary, but it is not nearly as scary as the prospect of preventing any and all Vizsla escapes from October 15th to December 31st, from dawn to dusk.  I am pretty sure that Vizslas look as much like white-tail deer as any dog can.  

Friday, October 7, 2011

Safety Patrol

I try to get out for a walk every day.  There is an almost-three-mile loop from my front door on a country road with neither stripes nor shoulder.  The town speed limit is posted as 30 mph. This is loosely interpreted as whatever speed you will go.  Most cars seem to be aware of me and my leashed dogs, slow a bit (though never a lot), and give us room.  I have only had two scary encounters so far, the first happening during the first week of school.  It was a woman with a blond ponytail who drives a black BMW SUV and since she was on the phone she never did see me or my dogs. The second was this week, when the FedEx ground truck went by so fast Captain dove into the drainage ditch at the side of the road and cowered there, crouching.   
I do see other walkers, mostly women, sometimes with dogs and sometimes chatting and walking vigorously in pairs. There is one young woman who walks down the middle of the road, and who was not wearing shoes the first two times I saw her.  She has long, straight brown hair and bangs and large eyes that don’t look at you.  She wears clothes I can only describe as completely ordinary. But then she doesn’t have shoes on. With her is a dog that I would call a tan and white pit-bull mix. It wears no collar, and she carries no leash.  We saw them the very first time we went for a walk. The dog is out of control but friendly. The woman doesn’t really talk, not even about the dogs.  I gave her a nickname: Gandhi, pronounced “Candy.”
Two days ago, the dogs and I headed off to check the road-kill (which is another story completely), but found the road was blocked for repairs.  Yesterday, I passed the repair crew, and we exchanged smiles and nods. Cherry sneezed at the smell of the hot asphalt, and I got a chuckle out of that. But that day, we headed down the road past the stable with the intention of turning back at the half-way point.  I was thinking about the Haves and the Have-Nots on this road (which is also another story completely), when the vet pulled out onto the road next to me after a call to the stable.  He pulled up alongside of me and warned me, with concern in his voice, to look out for a pit-bull which is being walked loose and has been allowed to chase horses. “Don’t want it to be a problem for you.”

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


If you take the Harlem Line on MetroNorth and get off at Purdy’s, there is a town up in Westchester County called North Salem. This is no real town in the typical sense of the word, but a town in the sense of a corner of a county. A map shows spots like Grant Corners and Peach Lake and Salem Center. When you drive around (and if you have anything to do at all you will be driving around), you see signs that say Waccabuc (which is fun to say silently to yourself) and Golden’s Bridge and Cross River. The signs are the official green road signs, so I presume they are intended to inform, but I find them very confusing.  The only way they make sense to me is to view them as labels, as if the section of the road requires a branding strategy, so drivers will never mistake it for another stretch of competing road.  Old Salem is not to be confused with South Salem, Katonah is not to be confused with Bedford Hills, and so on.
I think that places which can be reached by a commuter train are probably suburbs, even if there are dirt roads and tractors, which I consider to be two of the tell-tale signs of a rural area. I see more SUVs here than I do pick-up trucks, and the cyclists wear shiny spandex.
Having been here less than a week, I know no one here but the realtor who arranged for the rental, and the three administrators I spoke to in an effort to enroll my son in school. I have a P.O. Box, which I check every day and it is almost always empty. One day  I did have one piece of mail: it was from the U.S.P.S. informing me of the failure of the change-of-address I attempted from our prior address. It seems the temporary apartment in the city is a business, and only they can forward my mail. I also noticed the other day that the post office hours have changed to now include an hour’s closure for lunch, from 1:15 to 2:15. This lunch closure is perfectly timed to coincide with the end of school at 2:10, so that it is impossible to check your mail on the way to school: it must be checked after. 
The timing of the afternoon school pick-up always sends me into a panic, since it is a full fifty minutes before it ever occurs to me that I might need to go pick him up and eighty minutes before what I consider to be a reasonable time to end the school day. I usually emerge from my mid-afternoon stupor at 2:15, realizing I am already late. Soon, I should look into the yellow school bus thing, since it seems to be an option. Sometimes I follow them all the way in to school in my efforts to deliver the boy by 7:28 am. 
I am not the only mother that drives her child to school here, nor am I the only one who picks up after. A line forms at pick-up time, starting by 1:45. Few parents interact with each other at all in this line, and while I have been tempted to introduce myself to the driver of the next car in line, I have not done it yet.
Monday mid-day I took the dogs for a walk. We got a good long look at a huge turkey vulture pecking at a carcass in the road and spied quite a lot of chipmunks. It was a beautiful late summer day. We were passed by a few cars. For the first time since we’ve been here, I felt like it might be tolerable to be here for a few months. 
Within a quarter mile of our rental house, we passed a woman with a small dog on a leash. Her dog grew noisy and excited about my two, and I offered to come over and introduce them, since mine are “friendly.” “Friendly” is a password among dog-owners which I have come to understand to mean “my dog probably will not try to rip your dog’s head off, probably,” or “my dog will jump on you and leave muddy foot-prints on your jeans.” One of my “friendly” dogs has a history of being quite nasty to other dogs, and it has only been since she spent three days a week at doggie-day-care in New York City that I have re-assessed her ability to greet other dogs reliably. 
The dog we met was feisty and full of himself, which no one finds surprising in a small fluffy dog. My dogs were polite. His owner and I chatted briefly about dog temperaments. I introduced myself.
As it turned out, I was introducing myself to my landlord. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

No York, No York

Of course you walk or ride the subway in this city. Or you take a cab or a bus. People live far away and ride the train in to the city every day.   It is thrilling to step on a Metro North train on a platform in sleepy suburban Bedford or White Plains or Rye and step off in Grand Central Station in the heart of bustling mid-town Manhattan.  Even closer to that too-good-to-be-true feeling is taking a comfier, quieter, and more expensive Amtrak train from Rhinecliff to Penn Station, with a view of the Hudson almost the whole way.  Some activities, though, require that a person still own a car. Owning a car means that a person needs parking.
Because we live temporarily in mid-town Manhattan, we had a number of options for choosing a garage, since there are a number nearby. We chose a 24-hour garage, since those that do not carry this designation are not open on Sundays.  Based on the number of cars that magically appear on our block on the weekends, when I guess it is legal to park on the street, I have reason to think that there are people who use these Monday-Saturday garages, and move their cars Saturday night and then again before 8 am on Monday morning. After six weeks of living here I still do not understand the parking rules for the streets of Manhattan.  Whatever the details of the parking rules of Manhattan streets, they are neither easy to find out nor easy to follow.  Apartments, too, have rules like this, like 28-day lease cycles, or pet weight limits, or condo owners who can sell the unit out from under you, or co-op boards that can turn you down as a resident because they don’t like you.
Our car is monthly parker number 58. When the car is parked, it is sometimes spirited to a deep parking dimension, and notice of needing the car must be given the night before. Calling an hour in advance of needing one’s car is only sometimes considered enough notice, and I was told last Tuesday, when I called and said I need the car at 1 pm that I couldn’t have it. I then asked for 2 pm, which was granted after the fellow on the phone consulted with someone else. For this level of service, we pay $375 per month.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Our Irene

Sunday evening we made it home with equal parts of technology, stubbornness, and the kind of stupidity that is sometimes called courage.  The cat was soon sprawled on the table, having finally stopped meowing. The dogs were twitching in their sleep on the couch, dreaming of the lightning and thunder they heard that morning, or all the dogs they played with, or whatever things dogs dream of.
We had had weekend plans for a while, and went ahead, leaving a day’s more extra food for the cat and warning the dog kennel that our dogs might need to stay until Monday.  Even though cats are independent, I felt a little sad and worried about the cat, all alone in the apartment, and I did wonder about the consequences of the power going out, high winds, and flooding.  A few weeks ago, we had been invited to spend the weekend upstate with new friends. Now, the weekend had nearly arrived and (then) Hurricane Irene was approaching. The media presented scary scenarios involving 120 mph winds whipping through the tall buildings of Manhattan, flash-flooding in the streets and blocks of power outages. Upstate with new friends seemed like a better option than riding out the storm on our own in a tiny, temporary apartment.
Friday afternoon, after dropping the dogs at day care, we headed out around 3 p.m., but found gridlock within blocks of all the Manhattan escape routes. We let the GPS navigate and we made our way north, taking two hours to get out of the city and up onto a freeway.  Arriving after dark, we had a nice dinner and rushed to bed. 
Saturday was pretty nice weather-wise, although very humid, and our hosts provided pleasant and comfortable array of food and activities. Sunday morning, we slept in a bit, but woke to house-shaking thunder and lightning.  Soon we found the storm had been downgraded, and we put on our gung-ho caps and decided it would probably be okay to make our way back to the city.  Had we been paying attention, we would have also learned that people in Columbia County had been asked to stay off the roads.
We drove from Chatham, New York to Pine Plains, hoping to arrive in time for our usual Sunday riding lessons. It was raining really hard the whole way, but it was not windy, and the roads were mostly empty.  I think most people had more sense than we did. 
The further we went, the scarier it got.  We saw drainage ditches overflowing with fast-moving water, ponds that had doubled in size, roaring creeks and rivers, and standing and flowing water on roads. Within ten miles of our destination, we drove to a spot where the Taconic State Parkway had just been closed.  It was flooded on both sides with the scary brown water you never want to drive across.  The gung-ho caps were flung off, and we started arguing about how to proceed.  I am always very stubborn about turning around, but not turning around was not an option.  We turned around.  Then, we took the first safe-looking road we could find to get off the Taconic, and let the car’s GPS do the rest. The barn was damp and drippy but still had power.  I think they were somewhat surprised to see us.
After riding we visited our oldest son at Bard College, where classes were scheduled to start Monday.  While much of campus has no power, his dorm room was an exception as of yesterday.  There was still a lot of water everywhere, and some downed trees.  We tried to leave in time to make it to Manhattan without it being completely dark. The GPS had to re-route due to traffic information four times, and we made it to the city with only a few scary moments.  It was just getting dark, but our power was on.  The only casualty of the storm we saw in our building Sunday night was the elevator, which we already did not trust.  It was parked on the ground floor, with the mysterious letter “C” where a number should have appeared on the panel. The light was on in the elevator car, and the door was opening and closing, opening and closing.