My Favorite Brother

Even with five to choose from, it isn’t hard to pick my favorite brother. Johnny was my compensation prize for being dethroned as the only child and quickly became my best friend. Only fifteen months younger than I, he was my constant companion throughout all our early childhood adventures.

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The Cookie and Johnny Show 1958

But wait, Bobby could also be my favorite brother. He came along three years after Johnny, a cheery ray of sunshine with his bright smile. The three of us became inseparable, like a pack of puppies. I’m pretty sure Bobby was Johnny’s favorite brother too.

1960JohnnyBobbyCamille

The Three – Johnny, Bobby and Camille

Yes, I’d have to say Bobby was my favorite brother until little Jody arrived, a lovely child with a seriousness that bordered on divine. By now I was old enough to cradle the new baby in my arms and care for him like a little mother. I fell in love.

Joe began showing his adventurous side early on. Before he was two, he disappeared and was found several blocks away at the beach. After his second escape, my mother was forced to tether him to our back yard clothes line.

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Jody

Two years later, Mike appeared on the scene and soon became my newest favorite brother. He watched wide-eyed as the rest of us bounded around him, so fascinated he rarely cried. When Mom went to hook him up to the clothes line, he begged her not to, promising not to stray. There was enough going on in his own back yard to keep him entertained. I found his unique blend of humor and uncanny ability to express it through music, cartoons and water colors irresistible.

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Musical Mike with his ever impish smiling eyes

Nineteen and a half months later, James stole all of our hearts with his big, beautiful eyes. Another favorite brother had been born. When he was four and a half years old, James Taylor released Sweet Baby James. The lyrics “And rock-a-bye sweet baby James,” tickle my brain whenever I think of my youngest brother.

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Sweet baby James

Today, Johnny is still my favorite brother. Our earliest memories are so intertwined that we remain as connected as twins. And Bobby, with his unique blend of common sense and wry sense of humor is also my favorite. I’m looking forward to the annual road trip with my favorite brother Joe, who often tempts me into dubious adventures. My favorite brother Mike and I often delve deep into the mysteries of life over the phone. And I get so excited at the prospect of seeing my favorite brother James that I catch myself squealing like a little girl.

With five favorite brothers, I must be the luckiest girl in the world!

1989Brothers

James, Mike, Joe, Bobby and Johnny – 1989

Alone in the Woods

HeleninherKitchenDear Nana,

I dreamed about my girlfriend Ruthann last night and that made me think of you. Plus, I can’t think of a blog topic, so I decided to write you instead.

Ruthann passed away the week before Thanksgiving. I woke up thinking, “I need to email Ruthie” and then I remembered. That’s when I thought of you because you also have a habit of showing up in my dreams. Most of the time, though you show up in my day dreams.

Even though you’ve been gone for more than twenty-five years, you are still all around me. I can smell your legendary Sunday dinners in the utensils I inherited from your kitchen, and hear your voice in the jays and blackbirds that mimic the soundtrack of your yard. I see you standing in your red plaid flannel shirt whenever I pull on a piece of red clothing. I remember you telling me I looked great in red and so I have a lot of red clothes. So did you, by the way.

Anyway, beyond dreaming about Ruthann and thinking of you, here’s what’s going on in my life: I published my first book. I know! I always knew I would write a book, but didn’t think it would be this soon. And yes, I did say “my first book.”

I guess 60 isn’t all that young, but I didn’t think I’d write my first book until after I retired. These days, however retirement is a lost concept. Come to think of it, you really didn’t retire either. You just kept on cooking up those incredible meals into your 80’s. I’ve never tasted chocolate chip cookies like the ones you baked. Please whisper your recipe in my ear one of these days.

If the truth be told, I am as close to retired as I care to get. I’m involved in my community just enough to give me social legitimacy, leaving more than enough time for writing, cooking and walking in the woods. Oh, there. You popped into my head again as I thought about the woods behind your house. What a great place to play! All of us so loved our hikes up to the sand pits.

The_Sand_PitFrankIllo2000Did you know Frankie has not been up there in years? He says he wants to keep the image in his head of what it looked like when he was a kid. He even painted a picture of it from memory.

Anyhoo, as you used to say, when I was walking in the woods today, I took stock of my mental state. Okay, that’s a fib. I interviewed myself. I know it’s weird but sometimes when I’m alone in the woods, I talk to myself. It’s amazing what I learn by talking out loud. Come to think of it, I probably started this habit right after you died and I didn’t have you to talk to anymore.

So, I was walking in the woods and I asked myself, “How are you today?” and I answered, “Pretty good” and I said “Well you sound kind of down.”
“I guess I’m feeling a little guilty.”
“How come?”
“I’m not working as hard as I used to.”
“Heh heh, I seem to recall you being resentful because you were working too hard, vowing to cut back on your responsibilities, and now that you’ve done that, you’re feeling guilty?”
“Yeah, I know. I guess if I have to choose resentment or guilt, I’ll go with the guilt.”

It’s not like I don’t do anything for anybody anymore. There goes your voice in my head again. Good point. Guilt is a symptom of a healthy conscience, so it’s a good sign to have a little twinge of guilt here and there. But no point in getting carried away.

Well, thanks for the nice chat, Nana. I do love you so!

“I still blame myself – for what, I can’t exactly say. I might as well condemn myself for choosing the wrong parents, or the wrong planet.”
– Sy Safransky, editor and publisher of The Sun

Not for Profit

You hear stories about people who chased their dreams and ended up with a pot of gold at the end of their rainbow. At the moment, we are not those people.

Shortly after Bob and I said our wedding vows in July of 1994 we created a mission statement which reads, “Team together to avoid negative influences and create a life of challenge and fulfillment by following our hearts.”

Over the next twenty years, we would weave in and out of fiscal security, jumping on lucrative opportunities when they fit our ideals, and pursuing unconventional lifestyles the rest of the time. The pursuit took us all over the globe, each move bringing us closer to paradise found.

So here we are today, living our dream, surrounded by people who share our values, all of us trying to eke out a life that doesn’t tread too heavy on the earth. It’s a struggle and a joy.

We have a sense of purpose, agendas that support local food and economy, and a richness of community that throws back to our grandparents’ era. We’re immersed in meaningfulness, but are all teetering on the edge of our overdrafts.

Maybe this is what collapse looks like, because I really don’t know anyone who is making buckets of money in today’s economy. Even my friends who have corporate jobs with health insurance and retirement plans are struggling these days.

If that’s the case, if the choices are sell out and flounder or stay true and struggle, following your heart is clearly the right choice.

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Friday Afternoon Club – because sometimes, you just have to party in a greenhouse.

 

Sharing

duke_university_chapelMy recent ruminations about sharing began with a news story about Christians and Muslims sharing a Christian chapel, bled into a story about the murder of three students over the sharing of parking spaces, and are permeated by the daily challenges of managing The Plant, a diverse eco-industrial park.

The art of sharing begins in childhood. As a short-lived only child, I did not have to share my parents or anything else until my little brothers began to arrive. I recall learning at school that if you had an apple and your friend did not, you should cut the apple in half and give them the bigger half.

At the dinner table, I learned to stay my appetite for second helpings until the boys had taken their share. Ditto for thirds. These early lessons explain my obsession with leftovers (no one else wants them, so they are mine, all mine!) and a tendency towards sneaky eating, resulting in a lifelong struggle with the scale.

In my professional life, the diverse hive of activity at The Plant is rife with sharing challenges. When the farmers build their Spring planting beds, tractors hurry back and forth across the main drag, leaving tracks of red clay on the asphalt. The winery fills the parking lot with polyester-clad tasters, industrial aromas of insecticide and biodiesel permeate the air, and the massage therapist strives to provide her clients a pleasant-smelling, quiet experience. On at least one occasion, a swarm of bees left the hives to colonize one of the offices.

It requires open communication and diligent surveillance to keep all factions reasonably satisfied when what one business needs to operate is in direct conflict with what another requires. Fortunately, we are all up to the task. Bob has helped this effort immensely by tackling the issues head-on and putting in place community institutions such as FAC  in his greenhouse. Friday Afternoon Club is the perfect way for tenants to unwind after a busy week, strengthen friendships and chew on the topics of the day.

Obviously small, communicative groups deal with diversity in the way that larger or more factionalized groups do not. The news is full of stories about failed relationships between families, neighbors, countries, ideologies and species. Human disregard for the other life-forms that share planet earth is the ultimate example of inadequate sharing protocols.

Last month, North Carolina’s Duke University made international news when they “canceled plans for Muslim students to sound the traditional call to prayer from the school’s iconic chapel tower amid threats of violence and a backlash from anti-Muslim groups, conservatives and Christian leaders.” Despite the chapel having been shared between Christians and Muslims for decades, apparently, broadcast prayers was over-the-top. Having lived with daily broadcast prayer in Africa, I was happy that line was drawn.

On Tuesday, ten miles away in nearby Chapel Hill, a dispute over sharing parking lot spaces led to the execution-style murder of three young students who happened to be Muslims. This story also received global coverage. I couldn’t help but sense a connection between these two indicents. The consequences for not working out problems, can be deadly.

As a result of these musing, I’ve come to two conclusions about sharing:
1. Keep it small because large groups don’t share well.
2. Communication and compromise are the keys to a long life.

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Friday Afternoon Club in Bob’s ginger greenhouse at The Plant February 13, 2015

Sources:

In Chapel Hill Shooting of 3 Muslims, a Question of Motive

Amid Threats, Duke Moves Muslim Call to Prayer

Free Kindle Version of Two Brauds Abroad

TwoBraudsBookFor a limited time, you can upload the free kindle version of the new book, Two Brauds Abroad – A Departure from Life as We Know It by Camille Armantrout and Stephanie De La Garza.

Available through Thursday at midnight Pacific Standard Time via Kindle USA or Kindle UK.

Two Brauds Abroad is a travel adventure about Camille and Bob’s year and a half in West Africa and Steph’s life traveling around Costa Rica, working with animals, house sitting and other ways she figured out for living on the cheap in a beautiful place. Part I is the story as told through actual correspondence interspersed with blog posts, photos and updated information. Part II is a primer on how you would go about transforming yourself into a world traveler with tons of tips and inside knowledge.

Even if you don’t have a kindle, you can download the free Kindle Reading app from Amazon. Please tell your friends about this offer. Our goal is to get our story out there.

And what a story it is. I won’t spoil it for you, but as you might suspect Steph and Camille face a lot of interesting dilemmas living in our host countries and being such good friends, they tell each other everything. If you have ever wondered what it might be like to live in Africa, or Central America, or love to travel, or just like reading other people’s mail, you will enjoy Two Brauds Abroad.

All the Fuss – passion, horses and the Super Bowl

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Bob and Jesse, 1992

Years ago I found myself standing amid a raging crowd, attempting to appreciate the finer points of car racing. It was an evening event, brightly lit, loud and confusing. It’s been too long to remember much more than the cloud of smoke that enveloped us, giving a supernatural quality to the lights. I recall struggling to get in the spirit of things, being overwhelmed by the noise, and feeling lost in the crowd.

Later at home, I looked in the mirror and noticed my face was covered with little black flecks which I guessed were either asphalt, or rubber, or a combination. I couldn’t help but wonder what all the fuss was about. Whatever had drawn the other people there that evening was eluding me, and that was the last time I ever ventured onto car-racing turf.

I never understood football either, but I can bring chips and dip and join in, cheering for whatever team my friends are rooting for. Ditto for other mystifying passions such as curling, pinterest, caviar, mountain climbing, organized religion, fishing and romance novels.

I find ways to pass the time during a football game. Often, pondering the similarities between gladiators and the grunting, heaving group of helmeted men scrambling on the field is enough to keep me entertained. I think about the cultural importance of ritual warfare, sometimes saying out loud, “This is a big deal! After all, our team is the only thing standing between them and our women.”

Once, during a televised match, I made a study of the advertising, discovering that 16% of the ads were for fast food, 25% about the television network and its programs, 9% for cell phones and so on. (Anatomy of a Ball Game January, 2006)

To be fair, most people don’t ‘get’ my obsession with horses, either. Every chance I get, I launch into a horse story, quickly losing my audience with terms like overcheck rein, navicular and grulla. It only takes about 15 seconds before my victim’s eyes begin to dart around the room, looking for escape exactly as I’ve seen many horses on the lunge line do.

I try to rope them in with the story about how Jesse liked to eat his corn across the cob, while Penny preferred to eat around the cob, but it’s too late. I can see they are already thinking about their new drapes or what their kid said on the way home from school.

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Mahlon, Camille and Bob toast the kick-off of the Bronco’s first game of the season on September 10, 2006.

The whole horse thing is about so much more than just riding, or shoveling manure. It’s about the bond between human and animal, the freedom of flying effortlessly across green pastures and the secret world of dusk and dawn when hungry horses lure you outside.

I love the gentle swish of tails on quiet summer afternoons in the shade of a big tree. I have idled away countless hours watching an ultra-soft muzzle maneuver wisps of grass into a giant mouth with 2,000 psi grinding capacity. The footage of Rembrandt’s gold medal dressage performance in the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games will always put a lump in my throat and no matter which handsome actor is galloping across the movie screen, I only have eyes for his steed.

But to an outsider, horses seem expensive, smelly, dangerous and a lot of work. All this fuss for saddle sores, gnawed fence boards, vet bills, busted ribs and broken toes? No thank you.

At the end of the day, a passion can only be truly understood by those who share the same passion. The rest of us are sideliners. Today is Super Bowl Sunday, when more than 100 million people will watch the greatest football game of the year. The rest of us will bring the dip.

Published Authors

TwoBraudsBookThis year, both Bob and I become published authors. He co-authored Backyard Biodiesel – How to Brew Your Own Fuel with Lyle Estill, and I co-authored Two Brauds Abroad – A Departure from Life as We Know It with Stephanie De La Garza. Amazingly, Steph and I remain good friends as do Lyle and Bob.

When Bob and I repatriated from Ghana little more than a year ago, we received eager inquiries about our time overseas. I’d start to explain the experience but the subject was so broad, I would only touch on a few aspects of our adventure and conclude, “I could write a book.”

Which is exactly what I’ve done. It’s hard to imagine I’m even writing these words, but it is indeed true. You can buy my first published book in paperback at TwoBraudsAbroad.com or from Amazon.com in paperback or kindle. It’s a good read for those who like to travel, or enjoy reading candid letters, or memoirs, or are curious about what it might be like to move to Costa Rica or Africa, or are looking for some good travel tips.

My first book! This is a huge turning point in my life. I have always been a writer and long knew I had at least one book in me and now, I am an author. I’ve been writing since grade school. I was the kid who read voraciously, kept a journal and was the first to raise my hand when the teacher asked, “Who wants a pen pal?” I have a box of letters reaching back more than forty years and a beautiful shelf of journals I wrote while living in Belize, China, Guam, Nicaragua and Africa.

For the past year Stephanie and I fretted and edited until we ended up with what we feel is a pretty good picture of my life in Africa, her life in Costa Rica and our transition from American citizen to expat. We began by selecting 154,000 words in emails written back and forth from San Antonio, Texas to Moncure, North Carolina; from Kumasi, Ghana to Cocles, Tronadora and Turrialba, Costa Rica.

2BraudsIt’s been a long year. Steph and I spent a week together in beautiful Shenandoah country setting up the project. We carved out the fat, throwing out two thirds of the original material, added selected blog posts and photos, wrote a “how-to” section with lots of travel tips and finished with a 274-page book. Stephanie designed a dynamite cover. I dove into the formatting, and then reformatted for kindle. We adopted the word Braud (“fearless female; an adventurous, daring or independent woman.”)

Steph’s mother, Andrea Sutcliffe helped immeasurably. We chose to follow in her footsteps and go the self-publishing route. Andrea happily lent her years of experience as a writer, editor, and publications manager to “help birth our baby book.” Bob was also super supportive, reading through an early draft, offering frank advice and patiently waiting for his wife to resurface. Bob asserts that he is never writing another book again, but I see this book as just the beginning for me. (Sorry, dear!)

So now, when someone asks “What was it like in Ghana?” or “How was Africa?” I suggest they buy Two Brauds Abroad and read all about it.

Balanced on the Cusp of a New Year

BalancedWell here we are again, poised to launch into a fresh new year, in a perfect position to evaluate 2014 and set goals for 2015. With a glance over my shoulder, these were my high points:

  1. I co-authored a book, Two Brauds Abroad with long time correspondent Stephanie De La Garza about our travels to Africa and Costa Rica to be released this month
  2. I assimilated Bob’s Swiss boarding school experience via five days in Lugano at the Seventies TASIS Reunion
  3. I reintegrated into our relaxed little community in rural North Carolina without hiccup or blemish
  4. I assumed the role of property manager at The Plant and accomplished what I set out to do
  5. I lost that five pounds I picked up in Morocco

Peering straight ahead, here are my 2015 goals:

  1. Support my father’s transition into his 89th year
  2. Promote and sell my first book
  3. Figure out where I am and what direction I’m headed in the woods behind our house with the help of compass and topographical map
  4. Attract equines back into my life
  5. Cook one new recipe a month
  6. Exercise my singing voice

Let’s hear about your 2014 high points, low points, triumphs or notables and your 2015 wishes, goals and expectations.

Martha of Moncure

HousewifeEarlier this afternoon I found myself hanging over a porch railing with a staple gun, cussing at a holiday garland. It seemed no matter how I positioned the gun it refused to catch the end of the garland and secure it to the post. “Is this really worth it?” I hissed, “I mean, who do I think I am – Martha Stewart?”

Ironically, Martha Stewart made a career of home making. But I never wanted a career. In high school I toyed with the idea of becoming a graphic artist but that didn’t happen. In lieu of college I took off across the country with my thumb in the air.

I loved messing with horses but didn’t aspire to reach the Olympics. I was content to know I could take my faithful horse, Jesse to the mountains and place his feet precisely where they needed to be lest we tumble off a narrow bridge or shale ledge. I read countless books and we practiced dressage for hours in arenas, fields and pastures. By the time he was six I had a couple thousand hours in his training and yet we never stepped foot in a show ring.

Joy of Cooking taught me how to cook in the 70’s and Raquel Welch how to stay fit in the 80’s. I happily drew and wrote for myself, no audience required. I found competition unnerving and avoided situations requiring panty hose. Obviously, I wasn’t career material.

Raquel WelchInstead, I made a career of living well. I chose order over chaos, fresh air to board rooms and routine over novelty. You could say I was a slacker or lacking in vision but I’ve chosen a lifestyle that suits me.

Happily, Bob is on the same page. He appreciates the restaurant quality meals night after night, nestled in our comfy chairs watching Netflix. We get excited about tackling a new yard project and line-dried bed sheets, sourdough pancakes and a walk in the woods. “We’ve become my Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Hank,” he says, “Set in our ways.”

Bob has never pressured me to get a “real job” preferring to shoulder that burden himself. I’m extremely grateful for the life we have put together for ourselves and find it challenging enough, what with uncooperative garlands.

I think you get the picture so I won’t belabor my point. Besides, it’s time for me to get in the kitchen. Those Christmas cookies aren’t going to make themselves and neither is that pot of borscht!

Unexpected Dividends

plentylyle1Most folks who stay in one place long enough already know what Bob and I are just now finding out. If you build social capital with a particular group of people, at some point you can expect dividends.

Wikipedia describes a dividend as a payment made by a corporation to its shareholders, usually as a distribution of profits.

As children we were taught to give freely of our time and energy and so we did. We were also taught to expect reciprocation and fair treatment from others. What we didn’t learn was what happens if you live long enough in one particular place.

Shortly after my sixteenth birthday my parents moved for the eighth time. We had lived in one place for seven years where I felt at home and accepted, even though I had arrived there as the new kid on the block when my peers were already nine years old.

It was a sad day when I said goodbye to my two best friends. We wrote letters but lost touch when I began moving around the country. This was long before cell phones and social media. I left home within a year and fled town the next year to drift west, catching rides with my thumb and sleeping on floors.

Bob also had a socially fragmented childhood. His family moved to West Africa when he was nine and he was packed off to boarding school in Switzerland a few years later. After graduation he picked a university with mountains and stayed put for twenty years. He was better than I at keeping his friendships intact and routinely talks on the phone to his school mates from Ghana, Lugano and Colorado.

After Bob and I met we started flying again, living for a year in one spot, six months in the next. We spent four years on Maui and then dove back into our travel spree.

PlentyThree years later we settled down in Pittsboro, North Carolina, a place so community-minded they created their own currency which they aptly dubbed The Plenty. We had found our people and decided to take the plunge. Making a commitment to our new community, we began proving ourselves in the same way we have done everywhere else. “Always take the high road” is our mantra and we strive to give without expectations. It’s sobering to realize how many social capital accounts we’ve started and left behind.

After four and a half years in our new idyllic paradise we came unstuck again and found ourselves abroad. But this time we decided to keep the house and return home. I type that tentatively because the concept of home still eludes us. When you’ve been homeless these many years, it’s hard to say the word with conviction.

We returned a year ago and were immediately struck with how easily we slid back into step with the people we’d left behind. I picked up my phone and had a rolodex of tried and true resources at my fingertips. Around town we encountered twice as many familiar faces as not. How humbling it was to realize these seemingly unearned profits were coming from social capital we’d invested more than a year before.

When I shared this with my sister-in-law Darla I discovered she was well aware of social capital dividends. She lives with my brother John in a small town where her parents, their parents, her children and grandchildren have forged an incredible legacy of respectability. How amazing it must be to talk with someone who knew your parents or do business with someone you played with as a child!

Now it’s our turn. After all these years of investing in community we have finally arrived at the pot of gold. Everything is so easy these days that we feel like we’re coasting when in reality we are just not starting from scratch, not having to prove ourselves to a fresh set of people, not investing energy and walking away from the rewards.

For the first time one of our social capital accounts is distributing dividends and that’s something to be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!