Life in death

On a coffee break last Sunday, we sat outside watching the goats in their temporary pen. Large logs from the dead portion of the maple tree outside our kitchen door remained where they’d fallen—the goats like to climb on them, and one long branch looks like a sculpture of a praying mantis. So we had not yet cut them up and moved them to the splitting pile. Half of the maple had been dead for some time, with branches breaking off occasionally during storms. A couple of weeks ago we finally had our former neighbor from Waterman Lake, Mark Krawiec, of Krawiec Tree Service, remove that portion in the hope of extending the life of the tree and avoiding a crash through our kitchen roof.

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Tree sculpture

A lot of movement on one of the dead logs caught our attention. Upon closer examination we saw several bugs with lacey wings, a long red body with yellow and black stripes, and a black 3-inch “tail” walking along the log. Each bug appeared to feel, with its front feet, tiny holes previously bored into the log. When it found the right spot, it would do a handstand, raise its body in the air, and angle its long “tail” down, drilling it into the log. Once in place, it formed a bubble or transparent sack with an egg, and this disappeared down the tail.

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Log with several wasps
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Megarhyssa macrurus
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Rearing up
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Egg

A search online revealed that these fascinating bugs are Megarhyssa macrurus, or giant ichneumon wasps (one description can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Megarhyssa_macrurus). The tail-like appendage is an ovipositor, used to deposit eggs on a host: larvae of the horntail wasp, which bores holes in decaying wood to lay its eggs. The Megarhyssa macrurus larvae consume the host.

No doubt our every step outdoors destroys some habitat unseen by us, however we now know that the dead logs are filled with life and so we will leave them until next summer, when the Megarhyssa macrurus emerge.

Rebuilding

With the arrival of Gus and Gwendolyn, our Oberhasli goats, I decided to return to Maggie’s Farm. To my horror, someone had hacked it, imbedding ads for Viagra, and jumbling the words I’d so carefully chosen. Thanks to my cousin Tom’s unfailing patience, we pieced it back together, and moved it to a safer platform. This involved me reading 221 posts, scrubbing the ads, and resurrecting the words and photos as best I could. Some were lost, but Maggie’s Farm has mostly been restored. The process forced me to revisit so many moments—some very sad, but on the balance, happy times.

Yesterday Tom, Diana, their girls, and my aunt and uncle came to see the goats (and us). My uncle suffers from dementia, as did my mother who died just over a year ago. Since I last wrote in Maggie’s Farm, we lost not only my mother, but our beloved dog and cat, Koa and Rebecca. Both animals died of cancer, within a month of each other in 2015. They have all left behind gigantic holes.

Life presents so many daunting challenges, I treasure my time with the people I love, and the creatures who steal our hearts.

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Oliver
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Luke
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Hazel
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Gus
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Gwendolyn

One holiday at a time

Last week Christmas arrived in New York City. Along Fifth Avenue, stores like Cartier and Harry Winston bejeweled their facades with festive, sparkling lights. The Plaza Hotel hung giant wreathes in every window. And Rockefeller Center erected scaffolding around an enormous Christmas tree in order to string equally enormous lights.

It is a collision of the seasons. Bleachers were set up this week in preparation for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. In Riverside Park, leaves are still on the trees—and still turning autumnal colors—having weathered a hurricane and a snowstorm.

I live in a perpetual vortex, forever spinning, and never entirely sure of the day, week, month or season. Contributing to my own muddle, last weekend Cherisse and I tagged our Christmas tree. The farm down the road where we get them every year has a dwindling stock, because the owner stopped planting new trees a few years ago. We knew that the number of suitably sized trees would be in short supply and so we tagged early (many others beat us to it). Two days later Cherisse picked up our annual turkey from Pat’s Pastured. The fresh bird is now in our freezer, eventually to be cooked into many different meals to enjoy throughout the winter.

First though, I will try to slow the clock enough to enjoy Thanksgiving at my aunt’s house, with my cousins (and their kids and new puppies!), and then move sedately onto Saturday Thanksgiving at my sister’s…I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

Ice skating

What you learn as a child must really be ingrained in your memory. On Friday I went ice skating with my sister, on a small outdoor rink in the center of downtown Providence. The day was sunny—a bit too warm for ice skating, but very pleasant. I last skated about 10 years ago, when the lake Cherisse and I lived on had frozen, so I took the first few laps cautiously. Soon the joy of gliding fast around a rink returned, and I remembered when my sister and I, much younger, tore around Lasker rink in Central Park, weaving in and out of the more sedate skaters.

Classics re-imagined

We’ve been enjoying the Bob Dylan tribute album, Chimes of Freedom, celebrating 50 years of Amnesty International (and raising funds). The album includes 76 tracks recorded by a highly diverse group of artists. Some of the recordings sound close to the original (“Subterranean Homesick Blues” by Michael Franti is a favorite), while others are not to my liking at all (Kesha’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”…what was she doing?). Others still have been re-imagined with satisfying results—true to the essence of the original, but made new (“It Ain’t Me Babe” by Band of Skulls).

Glee, my favorite television show, has been making songs new for three years now. Some results are disastrous but most are nicely done—and well appreciated by legions of fans that repeatedly send tracks soaring on the iTunes charts. Purists may express dismay at their versions of iconic music, but a musician friend observes that, at the very least, Glee is keeping songs alive for a younger generation of music lovers.

Next week Cherisse and I will see Richard III with Kevin Spacey. This play is performed in modern dress (as a rule, not my favorite interpretation). Some productions do pull this off, for the very reason Shakespeare’s plays are still performed regularly 400 years after he wrote them. They are timeless stories with themes that still resonate. So really, why not modern dress, if the director captures the heart of the play? One of my favorite movies is Henry V. Kenneth Branagh, very early in his career, created a powerful film packed with action, intrigue, love…and in the process made Shakespeare accessible to many new audiences. Some liberties were taken: scenes from Henry IV (the previous play in Shakepeare’s chronology) were interwoven to provide background for some of the characters. It worked.

PD James has received great critical reviews for her latest mystery, Death Comes to Pemberley, which picks up the lives of Jane Austen’s characters a few years after  Pride and Prejudice ended. PD James’ book stands on its own, so you can read it without knowing Jane Austen. For lovers of Darcy, Elizabeth, their families and friends, however, the book is a treat; it captures Austen’s style, embodies the spirit of her characters…and fills in more of their lives, without artifice.

Aside from the pleasure of encountering old friends in new settings, I think it’s a comfort to know that great works can live on in fresh ways. Both evolution and immortalization.

Sundays and newspapers

Sunday morning breakfast was a highlight growing up. My father and I made pancakes (Aunt Jemima’s). After we all ate, my father would read us a story.

I still enjoy Sunday mornings, and usually Cherisse makes something special, like pancakes or waffles (no mixes though); or I might make blueberry muffins and scrambled eggs. Recently we resurrected an old favorite from the Silver Palette cookbook—Bismarcks (although our version has a lot less butter…see Recipe tab).

After breakfast we read the Sunday newspapers—the Providence Journal and, thanks to my mother, The New York Times.

Last night we watched a fascinating documentary about The New York Times, called Page One. I’ve loved newspapers all my life. In high school I worked on our school paper, The Issue. In a journalism class we took a trip to The New York Times offices. The most memorable part was seeing the massive printing presses—at the time they were in the basement of the old building on 43rd street. I have yet to see the Seven Wonders of the World, but I would stack those presses against the other marvels.

For two summers—before I started college, and after my freshman year—I had an internship on the Shoreline Times, in Guilford, CT. The staff was small, which gave me great access to the editors and reporters, and great opportunity. I started on obituaries and wedding announcements—rewriting releases to fit the paper’s style. Eventually they sent me off to cover town council meetings, and some “fluff” stories that are the heart and soul of small town papers. In those two years, many talented people took me under their collective wings, and I loved every minute of it.

Page One takes you inside The New York Times over the year WikiLeaks broke, with fantastic interviews of David Carr and other editors and reporters as they cover breaking stories…including the demise of newspapers across the country, faced with dwindling advertising and proliferating alternative media outlets. The movie is as thrilling as any action film, and rekindled my passion for newspapers. More than that, it left me grateful to the brilliant people who put together the paper of record. There have been plenty of tense moments in my career, when I’ve had to make major decisions quickly. But those stresses seem laughable in comparison to the decisions made daily by the reporters and editors at the Times—how to cover, where to place (or whether or not to publish) stories that will be read by millions, and could possibly change the course of history.

Toward the end of the documentary, Bill Keller, then executive editor, said “news organizations that deploy resources to really gather information are essential to a functioning democracy. It just doesn’t work if people don’t know.”

One of the greatest gifts

People have been talking about Tebow for a while now, but it was Frank Bruni’s column two Sunday’s back that got me interested. He—and the game—didn’t disappoint. The Pats are an excellent, seasoned team, and the final outcome was no surprise. For the first quarter, though, the Broncos emanated a confidence that had them powering through all obstacles, time and again. Tebow made some fantastic plays (and made Brady look almost effete) but it was the entire Broncos team working as a cohesive unit that was so impressive to watch.

Self-confidence can carry you far. On Friday morning I went to a talk at my old high school: David Karp, former Calhoun student (his mother is a teacher there), spoke with the Head of School, Steve Nelson, and answered students’ questions. David (now 25) launched Tumblr, the hugely popular blogging platform, in 2007. Throughout all of his answers, David was charming, disarming, articulate, and very smart. Clearly he had the intelligence and vision to take an idea and transform it into a company. But he also had the support of his family, friends who served as mentors, and the self-confidence to try.

Calhoun as a school excels at building confidence in its students—this was true when I was a student, and from all evidence, is true to this day.  The teachers nurtured creativity, and encouraged students to try new things. (My senior year I co-taught a history class to ninth and tenth graders; a big step for a painfully shy kid. I, too, had the benefit of supportive and enthusiastic parents.)

Promoting self-confidence in young people might be among the most important and valuable gifts a parent or teacher can give. Once successfully rooted, self-confidence can weather many storms. Of course, hard work, perseverance, intelligence and luck are also critical…without these, self-confidence means nothing; it is the combination that works. As Frank Bruni said, in talking about “a gift for winning”: “This gift usually involves hope, confidence and a special composure, all of which keep a person in the game long enough, with enough energy and stability, so that a fickle entity known as luck might break his or her way.” People thus blessed can achieve amazing things.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/11/opinion/sunday/bruni-tim-tebows-gospel-of-optimism.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss