Good Neighbors in Spades


Nana creating a new garden, circa 1920

Dear Nana,

I’ve been busy “Nanafesting” all week. That’s what we call it when we “manifest Nana,” usually in the kitchen. Seems like I’ve been cooking all week. I baked a cake for Jason’s birthday, made twenty sandwiches for Alisa’s moving party and five dozen chocolate chip cookies for Geoff’s birthday.

No, they weren’t as good as your cookies. No cookies ever could be. I’m still kicking myself for not paying better attention when you taught me how to make those extraordinary cookies. I could have at least written down the recipe!

For one thing, I’m not using butter these days. Was it sweet or salted butter that you used? Was the right kind of day rainy or dry? Did you use all brown sugar or half brown and half white? I do remember how important it is to cool the cookie sheet between baking, though. I can picture you putting it outside the back door on a cold day for a few minutes.

At any rate, it’s the thought that counts and my cookies were well received. The target of my affections felt suitably honored and the cookie plate was soon empty.

You would love it here. Our neighbors and co-workers are pulsing with good energy and generous to a fault. Bob and I do our best to keep everyone fed and happy and all their problems solved. It’s a lot like your neighborhood, the one where friends dropped by with garden produce or cake, where people had time for each other and shared the burden of life’s challenges.

Jason and Haruka left for Dallas yesterday, gifting us twelve pounds of tomatoes which I’ll be turning into sauce. I haven’t forgotten your sauce secrets; red wine, Italian sausage and beef stock, only I use vegan sausage and beef broth. Bob brought in a bucket of peppers, so I’ll be adding five pounds of green bell peppers. I’ve even got some celery to throw in!

I’ll use the sauce in baked ziti which I’ll bring to the Biofarm CSA dinner on Tuesday. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Piedmont Biofarm is one of our tenants at work and we get a share of their vegetables every week. It’s fun to take tomatoes from one farm (and garden peppers), turn them into sauce and share it with another farm. We like to keep it moving, spreading the wealth as it were. Surely we don’t have monetary wealth, but food and comfort are the real currency of life, and that we have in spades.


Sarah, Joe and the moving crew after unloading the outhouse

Alisa, her husband Chris and their three kids and extended family Sarah and Joe are a great addition to the ‘hood. They brought all kinds of animals too – dogs, chickens, rabbits, parrots and pigs! They’ve got a back-to-basics mindset which echoes yours. They even brought an outhouse. I know, I can hear you saying, “That’s taking things a little too far.” And they have big gardening plans for their new nine acre property.

In fact, most of our friends grow some of their vegetables out back. Back yard gardens skipped a generation or two but are now returning. It’s a good trend.

Well, thank you for teaching me how to be a good neighbor. What’s new in your world? I hope you are happy up there in heaven with Jesus, heh heh…

Love, Cookie

Postmistress Josie – Nature’s way of telling you to slow down

JosieI imagine every small town has their Josie, the woman (or man) who benevolently staffs the window at the post office, who recognizes everyone with unreserved kindness. Josie never hurries. Her speech syrupy, she savors each and every vowel.

Thirty-five years ago my economics teacher shocked the class by observing that “Death is nature’s way of telling you to slow down.” I’ve come to regard Josie as a less drastic reminder to take it easy. The line can be sixteen deep, but Josie takes her time. I start out at the end, fidgeting impatiently and eventually surrender to the lull in my needlessly hurried day. By the time I reach Josie, with her gentle, open face I’m tempted to ask her about her lilacs. She helps me put time into perspective.

The other day I was at Pittsboro Feed, paying for a bale of wheat straw and I overheard Christine telling another customer, “Josie’s got chickens, you can get them from her. Do you know Josie? She works the window at the post office. Stop in and she’ll get you fixed up.”

One of the things I dislike about living in the U.S. is how rushed I feel here. It’s part of our culture to be too busy for chit chat, too busy to wait in line. It’s not as bad down South here in the intimate ambiance of Pittsboro, but palpable nevertheless. “What if we lived in Boston?” Bob asks, reminding me to count my blessings.

Last night I read the following in Alexandra Fuller’s latest book, “Leaving Before the Rains Come.”

Time was the first thing I noticed about the United States. There seemed to be so little of it, and its unaccustomed short supply panicked me in the grocery checkout lines, during meals, and at traffic lights. I fumbled with my checkbook, I was unsure how to use credit card readers, I sat a beat too long at the intersection when red changed to green. I found time was jealously guarded too, as if to share any of it, or to take up someone else’s allocation, was the greatest crime. Ironically, it seemed obvious that most Americans had more time than almost any other humans in the history of the earth; they lived longer and more luxurious lives than had ever been lived before. And yet instead of slowing down to fill up all the space of their extra years, they sped up and up and up.

In Africa, we filled up all available time busily doing not much, and then we wasted the rest. We didn’t bother trying to hoard what could not be safeguarded, restrained, and stored.

Alexandra Fuller’s words fit my reality to a tee. Africa is full of Josies. The hardest thing about moving back to the States from Africa is trying to keep up with the snappier pace. Like Alexandra, I fumble in check out lines.

Those who buck the hurry up trend are regarded with annoyance and suppressed admiration. We’re jealous I think, of the people who refuse to scurry. This passage from “Horse Heaven” written by Jane Smiley 2000 has been stuck in my mind for years.

Once, when Rosalind Maybrick was still Rosie Wilson from Appleton, Wisconsin, on a school trip to New York City, she had seen a sight that changed her life….That was when things began to go wrong. The stroller caught something and began to fold. They boy began to cry. The driver opened the door and shouted angrily. “You gonna get off, lady? I got traffic here.”

The woman was magnificent. She adjusted her coat and her gloves before doing anything else. Then she righted the stroller. Then she picked up the boy. She adjusted her purse on her shoulder. Then she picked up the stroller. Then, very deliberately, holding up traffic all over Manhattan, she lowered herself and her things down the steps, pausing before stepping down onto the curb. As the bus pulled away, Rosie looked back and saw the women serenely strap the boy, who was no longer crying, into the stroller, then hand him a banana from her purse, then begin her promenade down the sidewalk. It was a riveting sight. She said to Mary, “Did you see that?”
“What?” replied Mary.
“That woman.”
“God she was rude,” said Mary.

And from that Rosalind knew that Mary would live the rest of her life in the Midwest, which she did.

Rosalind saw that, if you had enough self-possession, you could reconnoiter, plan ahead, take your time. It went beyond being careful. Being careful was something you did if you were in a rush. If you were self-possessed, you never had to be in a rush.

On Friday, I popped in to check my mail. Josie stood at the counter without any customers. “Hey Josie, did you manage to get your hay up before it rained the other day?” I asked. “Yep” she said with a smile, “the rain kept missing us for awhile there.” A woman appeared with a package and I motioned for her to step up, “We’re just chatting,” I said. The woman smiled and said, “Josie’s great for that, isn’t she?”

50 Million Casualties – Bird Flu Comes a Calling


As if we needed one more reason to boycott factory-farmed animal products, here comes another horror story. It all started earlier this year when the Department of Agriculture began issuing warnings to the poultry industry. H5N2 was knocking wild birds out of the sky, birds sick with highly pathogenic avian influenza. Within a few months, outbreaks began occurring in domesticated flocks.

In Iowa, avian flu spread wildly through tightly packed egg factories, prompting them to declare a state of emergency. Similar stories soon poured across the Midwest. In April, Minnesota lost 7% of its turkey production. To date close to 50 million birds have died of the flu or were killed to staunch the epidemic.

This is horrible on several levels. Egg consumers, especially bakeries and breakfast cafes are taking a hard hit as the price of eggs doubles. International exporters are losing money due to poultry bans from a dozen countries. U.S. Poultry farmers are starting over after being only partially compensated for the lost and culled birds. USDA officials are scrambling to determine how the disease is spread and there are murmurs of fear should the flu manage to jump species and begin infecting humans.

Not to mention the birds themselves; suffering and being put to death. No wait, that’s nothing new for them. The life of animals in Confined Animal Feeding Operations is so bad, that “premature” death is likely a blessing.

Bottom line, cramming thousands of animals into tight spaces is a recipe for disaster. To survive the stress of their environment, they are fed antibiotics and other unnatural fare. One whiff of virus and their immune systems succumb. This is no way to keep animals and a bad way to feed human beings.


Continue reading 50 Million Casualties – Bird Flu Comes a Calling

Oxycontin, the New Gateway Drug

RastaBabySometimes a news story piques your interest and you have to dig around a little. On my (ten minute) commute from work the other day, I heard an NPR story about a rise in heroin use sparked by prescription drugs. From meds to needles in 3, 2, 1…

Prescription drugs have long been a cleverly disguised problem, endorsed by the feds, enthusiastically promoted by their manufacturers and embraced by the public. Modern humans trust their doctors and pharmacists with childlike innocence. However, there is mounting evidence that “asking your doctor” may not be the safest path. In fact, your helpful little pain meds may lead you straight into heroin addiction.

Here’s the scene: you have experienced a painful recovery from an ugly mishap or life-saving surgery. Your prescription for Oxycontin is a god-send but sadly, you are left with persistent residual pain. Or, more likely, you are now chemically addicted and your doctor has moved on, denying you further refills. At this point, you will do anything to get another script.

As I dug around, I found one story about a woman who went so far as to have some of her teeth pulled to get more painkillers. Another documents the 5% decrease in emergency room traffic after they began flagging repeat offenders and denying them new prescriptions. Apparently, desperate addicts were showing up with fake symptoms, seeking medication.

But for all these med-dependant folks there is another route, one that is increasingly being explored by oxycontin/oxycodone addicts – heroin. No longer able to afford your med of choice or maybe unable to convince your doctor to continue scrawling their name on that coveted piece of paper, you look for an alternative. At 1/10th the price and readily available without the hassle of faking a migraine in the emergency room or having a molar pulled, heroin is an easy choice.

Alarmingly, heroin deaths are on the rise, tripling in just three years. With the increase is a shift in user profile from fringe to mainstream, young to older. These days police officers, teachers and nurses are showing up at the detox centers. Or on stretchers in the autopsy queue.

How tempting it must be to blame the increase in heroin addiction on the legalization of marijuana. And predictable. Oh, that evil cannabis… On the other side of the fence, studies prove that marijuana “can be effective as a substitute for treating opioid addicts and preventing overdoses.”

After looking at all these stories, one statistic unites them all – both opioid and heroin addiction are on the rise.  You get to decide if there’s a connection. As for me, I’m letting pot off the hook.

NPR: Emergency Rooms Crack Down On Abusers Of Pain Pills
NPR: How Heroin Made Its Way From Rural Mexico To Small-Town America
CNN: Heroin deaths up for 3rd year in a row
Washington Post: The rate of heroin overdose deaths has nearly tripled in just three years
Newsweek: Prescription Drugs Have Pushed Heroin Into the Suburbs
The Independent: Marijuana, heroin and meth spreading into Colorado’s neighboring states after legalisation of cannabis
The Week: Can medical marijuana curb the heroin epidemic?

Five-pound Spread

SquirrelFeederDamned squirrel on the bird feeder,” I thought as I got up to raid the refrigerator, “Always looking for easy calories.” Oopsy! Just like me.

You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I struggle with my weight. I’m a compulsive nibbler, a secret snacker; convinced that cold leftovers eaten over the sink have no calories. Like my father, I weigh myself every day, and like him I cut back on calories after slipping into the high zone. Unlike my dad, I graph my weight on an excel spreadsheet.

As a teenager, I morphed from Twiggy-esque 12-year-old to plump 14, but quickly lost 25 pounds after I started dating, placing myself back into the fashionable underweight zone. Since then, my weight has been a yo-yo of highs and lows. I dance on the high side of BMI Normal, seldom resting in the coveted under-21 range. Of late, I’ve been stuck in a five-pound spread.

It irks me that I so frequently sabatoge my desire to eat sensibly. It’s not about the pounds, it’s my chagrin when I realized I just eaten something I wasn’t even hungry for or worse, the queasy bloat of an overloaded stomach. I’m smarter than this, disciplined in every other area of my life,  and yet I continually lose control when it comes to food.

Sure, sure – it’s understandable. Easy calories are everyone’s bugaboo. We’re genetically programmed to eat, and unprepared to deal with an endless buffet of rich food. My culture is lousy with food, it’s all around me and ridiculously affordable. You can’t walk into a room without some free treat staring you in the face. No one goes hungry in a country where the impoverished are obese.

“Better than Before” to the rescue! I just finished reading Gretchen Rubin’s chapter on loopholes and learned that I’m especially adept at “moral licensing” (I earned it), “lack of control” (I can’t help it) and “this doesn’t count” (cold leftovers, chips and dip, food no one saw me eat – you name it.) So much food, so many excuses! “My friend made this for me.” “It’s free.” “We’re celebrating.” “I’m in a restaurant.” “Everyone else is eating it.” “I skipped lunch.” “We’re on vacation.” “I’ve been working SO hard.” “Loosen up.” “I’m starving.”

My challenge is to spackle up those pesky loopholes by making it hard to do the wrong thing (padlock the refrigerator?) and easy to do the right thing (drink more water.) Other strategies include going outside before reaching for a snack, doing yoga before meals, and no desserts in the house, ever.

I raise a glass of water in a toast to my own resolve. Here’s to leaping over the cheap calorie trap. Here’s to mindful eating. Here’s to freedom from temptation, an end to squirrely behavior, and lowering my five-pound spread to the coveted 20 BMI zone.

Five Pound Spread  BMI Chart

Screen Test

Screen TestAs part of Self-Care month and inspired by Gretchen Rubin’s “Better than Before.” I decided to tackle the habit of staring at my laptop screen for hours at a time.

The first step was to get a feel for how many minutes, hours actually, I am tapped into my browser. This was easily done by opening my browser (I know!) and looking at history. Turned out I averaged four hours of screen time a day over the past week, a third of it after dinner.

“I’ll bet I can cut my screen time in half and still get my work done, keep up with my friends and read the news,” I said to myself.

Changing a habit always begins with a decision. I decided to stop using my computer after dinner by turning off my laptop before I ate.

The first evening, I glanced at my To Do list after shutting down my computer and nearly turned it back on when I saw the word “Write.” I wondered if I had enough willpower to open a document without also opening the browser. The little voice in my head chided my search for a loophole with “Screen time is screen time” and I left the laptop off.

That blog post would have to get written the old-fashioned way, with pen on paper. I started scribbling.

My father who is also a writer, told me years ago when I first began writing on a computer that he preferred to use his typewriter. It kept his mind sharp, he said, to have to think out what he wanted to say and write without editing.

I found myself feeling a little lost on my first day into my new habit. I actually had too much time on my hands. I wondered who I might be letting down by not checking my email at 8pm. I had gotten ready for bed, scoured the kitchen sink, taken out the compost, pulled some weeds and dead-headed the petunias. I flirted with laying in the hammock for a spell but thought it a bit too reckless. Besides, it was a chilly evening and I would have had to put on a pair of socks.

I’m optimistic about using my new-found time wisely. I believe my writing will improve and the weeds will suffer. The next step will be waiting an hour before turning my computer on in the morning. I may try writing in my journal while I sip my cocoa. Heck, I may even do a little reading.

I’ll let you know how it goes. But I’ll probably tell you to your face rather than post it on my facebook.

Mastering Underachievement

“Sigh…” I thought as I surveyed half a dozen used coffee cups at Betty’s Diner on a winter morning in 1976. As the dishwasher, it wasn’t my job to clean the tables, but the waitresses were hunched over their coffee and cigarettes at the counter, and it was only a matter of time before another flush of truckers pulled in for breakfast. I was only 22, hardly old enough to boss the help around so I didn’t say anything. I bussed the tables and slid a rack of cups into the washer. It seemed like I’d been doing other people’s work all my life.

If you’re reading this post, you may have already embraced the concept of self-care. Perhaps you’ve always known it. Perhaps you were born knowing how to take care of yourself. You didn’t need the flight attendant telling you to “secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.” Perhaps your tendency for self-preservation came with your first breath; a survival instinct as automatic as your heartbeat.

Not me. Caring for my own needs did not come natural. The first time I heard the term “Self-care” I snorted and thought to myself, “I’m not sick! I’m not an invalid that needs to be ‘taken care of’.” Self-care – it sounded so…Selfish. In my hubris I thought, “I’m the care-TAKER; I don’t need taken care OF!”


Working on self-care with Jesse in 1999

It took a long time for me to realize that not everyone is wired like me. I assumed others saw the same un-done tasks as I did, and couldn’t understand why they didn’t feel an urgency to get them done. My inner voice had an under-current of resentment as I took care of things that no one else wanted to do. It wasn’t until reaching my fifties that it slowly dawned on me that I was an overachiever.

Even more startling, I realized that I didn’t need to bend over backwards to earn my keep. Much of the work I had burdened myself with was driven by an undue sense of duty and responsibility. My expectations of myself were much higher than what others expected of me. I began hearing my resentment for what it was – a gentle nudge to throttle down. I now pause to reassess my actions whenever my inner dialogue begins with “I’ve love to do this but I can’t because I have to…”

It doesn’t matter where my sense of responsibility comes from (being an oldest daughter with six little brothers) or how long it has been in play, or how much I imagine others depend on me. Every time I step in to solve someone else’s problem or clean up a mess they left, my irritation tells me I am on the wrong path.

I’m learning to walk the line between contributing and enabling. And I find that others happily step up to the plate when given that opportunity. Since removing my barriers to self-care, I’m getting good at asking others to pitch in, and at staying my tongue before saying “yes” or offering to solve someone else’s problem.

Although I worried about becoming lazy and selfish or about getting kicked to the curb for not pulling my own weight, this has not happened. In fact, I’m still getting just as much done. The changes I’ve made are transparent, no one has accused me of being an underachiever, and I’ve never felt happier or more relaxed!

Author’s Interview!

MicheleMy first Author’s Interview! Thank you Michele!

Michele has done a lot for the local writing community and Not only do Michele and I both love to write and blog, but we share the same birthday. Check it out:
Friendship and Travel for Two “Brauds” Abroad: Author Interview with Camille Armantrout

Seeing and Sawing

Seeing and SawingOne of my happiest memories of late was the time Tami and I went over to Rock Ridge Park and tried out the new playground equipment there. The see saw was our favorite. The feeling of being up in the air, looking down at the other, and the next second looking up from our seat on the ground was intoxicating. We laughed and laughed.

Not long after that, Lyle bought Tami a see saw which he placed beside her swing set at The Plant. Because it takes two to operate, I have yet to try it out or see it in use. But every time I look at it, I remember the fun I had at Rock Ridge.

The See Saw is a fitting metaphor for the ups and downs of life and relationships. As Tami and I traded places that day, we talked about how we balance out our spouses and vice versa. When one of us is anxious, the other assumes an air of calmness. If I worry, Bob assures me everything will be alright. When he runs out of social energy, I step up to represent the Trouts. Naturally, we do the same for the people around us. When you walk into a room and sense tension, it’s natural to try and lighten things up. We are social animals, after all.

A few weeks ago I started asking myself what were the high and low points of my day. My email buddies are happy to play this game with me even though it isn’t easy to come up with the answer right away. After a little thought the answers do come, though and they are often surprisingly little events. One one day, for example, my low point was being lost in the morass of QuickBooks payroll hell and the high point, the moment after when I walked outside to bring in a handful of Spring flowers.

My high points can be something someone said, a gift given or received, a small epiphany or a breath of sweetly scented Spring air. Perhaps it’s enough to take note of the high points. Maybe trying to recall my low points is just looking for trouble. But I think it’s important to look at both. Not only does it give me a yardstick with which to measure my days, they balance each other out.

Everyone who has ever played on a see saw has reached that moment when the rhythm of ups and downs becomes too predictable and so they sit on the ground for a few extra seconds, their partner on the up side. For a moment, being stuck on the high side is a pleasant surprise, and then the smile begins to fade. Life is not meant to be lived perpetually up or down. We crave the movement between the two. Without one there would be no other.

Staying Safe

StaySafeI had to laugh when my co-worker asked me, So, what is there to be scared of?” I had been telling him about my year in Belize and he was entirely in earnest with his question. “Nothing.” I said lightly.

During our time as managers of a remote lodge, Bob and I frequently met guests from the developed world who were apprehensive about everything from snakes to drinking water. It was our job to assure them that they were safe. Trying to put it into perspective we would ask, “Have you ever been in a car accident or know anyone who was in one?” We’d point out that the odds for becoming a highway casualty far outweigh those for getting snake bit.

We live on a short stretch of road with a speed limit of 45 mph, 10 miles per hour lower then the rest of Hwy 1012. This piece of road is striped to indicate two passing zones, one for south-bound traffic, followed immediately by a passing zone for traffic traveling north. A few years ago Tami discovered that if you get hit trying to turn left in the passing zone, you are both the injured party and at fault.

Before pulling out of or back into our driveway I hold my breath and tuck my tongue safely behind my teeth. The unmistakable squeal and thud of wreck sends us scrambling and we’ve played the role of first-responder three times over the past six months.  Our neighbors are also quick on the scene and the running joke between us is, “We’ve got to stop meeting like this!” Afterwards, I email the traffic engineer at the Department of Transportation (DOT) and ask them to consider re-zoning it to no passing. No luck so far.

When we returned to the States from Nicaragua, we noticed a ubiquitous new phrase. At first, I bristled when grocery cashiers sent me on my way with a casual, “Be safe!” This must be a reaction to the 911 attack, I thought. How myopic to think that we, of all people, have anything to worry about. Here we are, perched on top of the world’s resources with every imaginable safety net installed.

And yet…

Sunday found us on our back porch with a happy group of people, filling plates with potluck food when we heard the familiar thud of an accident. I set down my plate and ran to the road, hoping to find a mere fender-bender but when I arrived I saw Bob, who I last saw napping, leaning into the window of a truck. Someone was still inside!

So I dialed 911 and began answering questions. Was the patient breathing? I didn’t know. I walked over for a look and to my horror recognized the driver as a friend who had intended to join us for dinner. The dispatcher’s patience was commendable. Several times she reined me in with, “Okay, I’m going to ask some questions and I need you to answer.” I made it through the call, but not with flying colors. This was too close to home for comfort.

After I got off the phone, Haruka and I held each other in a long embrace. My neighbor Jimmy grinned wryly, saying “We have to stop meeting like this,” and I waved to his wife across the street. The ambulance quickly arrived and whisked our friend away. Everything turned out as well as could be expected. The truck suffered much, much more than the human. My contact at DOT will look into our piece of road again, and the State Troopers who wrote up the report promised to keep an eye on our stretch of road.

Still, the whole affair had a sobering affect. As much as I dislike the phrase, staying safe actually has meaning when the danger is right outside your door.