Sunday, December 27, 2009

Finally Boston

We’ve lived in New England now for almost exactly 2 months and have been in our house for about a week less than that. In that period of time I have gone to St. Louis twice to be with my mother and for Thanksgiving. I’ve unpacked and worked on finding things around Salem, New Hampshire. I’ve started to look for things to do in the area; I’ve prepared for Christmas and Hanukah and now I’m enjoying the company of my children and my husband as we wait to welcome in the New Year.

But, there is a very big city about 45 minutes south of here, and except for a few trips to the nearer suburbs for sushi and Chinese, I really haven’t been there at all. I keep saying I’m going to go, but it just seems like a daunting prospect. Do I drive and pay $30 or more to park for the day? Do I take the train? Do I take the express bus? I’ve managed to think up an excuse not to try it almost every day.

However yesterday we had our first tourist to entertain (Sarah)! So off to the city we went. It was easy to decide where to go. We let our individual needs, desires and curiosity determine our path. First stop was Faneuil Hall. It was easy to find and even easier to park as long as we were willing to pay the price, which we were. Lee wanted to look at a jacket in Orvis. He’s been pining after one in their catalog but doesn’t want to buy it if he can’t try it on first. Unfortunately the store didn’t have one either, so he left without making a purchase.

We walked around the hall and stopped into a few interesting shops, including a pewter store where we compared their wares to the items that we own. When we got married we asked for pewter instead of silver. I’ve glad we did because pewter doesn’t tarnish so our pewter service has stayed on display throughout our married life and doesn’t need anything except an occasional dusting.

From Faneuil Hall we walked over to the Boston Commons. Lee and I had been to Boston once before many years ago, before we were even married. It was in the spring I think and the city was green and beautiful. We followed the yellow “freedom trail” and walked all over the city, visiting all the historic neighborhoods. This time things were pretty cold and grey, with an icy wind. I was not dressed warmly enough. I had on a sweater and a down vest and gloves, but my arms and head were very cold.

From the commons we walked over to Chinatown. There were not a lot of people out but the shops were bustling. We saw roast duck in the restaurant windows, pork buns and other Chinese pastries, fish swimming sluggishly in their tanks. The signs were in Chinese and the language on the streets was mostly Mandarin. I pricked up my ears, hoping to hear a bit of Cantonese somewhere but no such luck. We are determined to go back for dim sum sometime soon.

Chinatowns make me feel happy and sad at the same time. They are ghostly reminders of a distant city that has forever captured my heart. I want to be reminded because I don’t want to forget, even though it hurts sometimes to remember.

From Chinatown we hopped on the ‘T’, Boston’s subway system, to head to Cambridge. It’s easy to use and the trains run frequently, even on a Saturday, but the cars are creaky and old. They have a bit of a historic look to them, which I guess is fitting for a city like Boston. Since Sarah had never been to Boston before we made sure to walk around Harvard Yard, which always looks just like a movie set to me. I halfway expect to see a young Meryl Streep walking out of one of the buildings or something.

The cold was really beginning to get to me, so we headed to a discovery of Daniel’s: a hot chocolate shop in Harvard Square. This place serves hot chocolate that is a little like drinking candy. We all got a small hot chocolate and after a couple of sips I wished I had gotten the demi. It was delicious but very, very rich.

One more subway stop to a place called Porter Squareabout which my Japanese manicurist in Salem had told me . A little bit down from the square is a place called Porter Exchange. Inside are a bunch of tiny Japanese restaurants and a shop selling various Japanese items. Apparently there used to be a Japanese grocery store too but it has just closed, which is a shame.

By now we were all thoroughly frozen and tired so we headed home. But I feel encouraged. I picked up a brochure for the Cambridge Adult Education Center and it looks like they might have some classes I would be interested in. I feel more confident about either driving and parking or trying the train or bus. I’m hopeful that this will be a turning point for me in the process of making this place my home.

I have to apologize for the lack of pictures but it was just too cold!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas and Hanukah

Like most American Jewish kids growing up in the 50’s every year in December I was envious of my Christian friends. Hanukah just can’t compete with Christmas no matter how hard it tries. Candles, latkes, driedles and all just can’t compete with Christmas trees, decorated houses and Santa Claus. My parents did a good job of making Hanukah special but it wasn’t the same, and we knew it.

It was impossible to avoid Christmas, of course. We’d usually drive around one night and look at all the lighted houses. And yes, I’d stand in line to sit on Santa’s lap. When it was my turn and Santa asked “and what would YOU like for Christmas little girl?” I wasn’t shy at all about telling Santa “well I don’t want anything for Christmas but I’ll tell you what I want for Hanukah!” and then I’d proceed to do just that.

Christmas day was always a little strange. Everything was closed and there wasn’t any school or work, but we’d all just laze around, and maybe go to a movie later in the afternoon or something. It was weird and a little sad.

When I was in high school we moved out into St. Louis County. There weren’t as many Jewish kids at my school and the Holiday Concert had more overtly religious songs. I was in the choir and I loved the music. I just really enjoyed this time of year and was happy to have any chance at all to participate in the festivities. I know it made my parents uncomfortable to have me singing all those Christian songs but I reveled it.

Then I grew up and met Lee and fell in love and got married. Lee isn’t religious but he loves family holidays, especially Christmas. There was never any question about whether we would celebrate Christmas or not. I was excited!

I loved having my own Christmas tree, baking cookies, opening presents on Christmas day. I didn’t dwell too much on what it was I was celebrating. I just wanted to have this special holiday with my husband, and later, give my kids a bunch of great Christmas memories, Santa Claus and all.

But of course having children made this all more complicated. I wanted our children to enjoy the traditions that came from my husband’s side of the family, but I also wanted them to know about their Jewish heritage. When they were very little this wasn’t very hard. We continued to celebrate the traditions of both Christmas and Hanukah. We did the big presents for Christmas, with Santa Claus. For Hanukah we lit the candles, sang the songs and had little presents. No problem!

But as they got older I started to realize that I needed to clarify for myself, as well as for them, what these holidays meant, both to us as a family, and to the world in general. They needed to know that to Christians Christmas is a religious holiday, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. They needed to understand that while we didn’t believe that Jesus was the messiah, he was also a very important historical and philosophical figure, and by celebrating Christmas we were honoring his birthday.

I also started to think about what these holidays mean to me. I figured out that I WAS celebrating something, or maybe several somethings. I was celebrating my family. I was celebrating the longing of the human spirit for peace on earth. I was celebrating the miracle of light, shining forth on the darkest days of the year. And I was celebrating the eternal hope within us all for brighter times and better days.

Although it’s good to have this clarified for myself, it’s still not easy sometimes being part of an interfaith family. My kids are aware of the conflicts and have struggled at times to identify who they really are. I have felt the disapproval of Christians who believe that only they should celebrate Christmas, and fellow Jews that look askance at any Jew with a Christmas tree! But I guess that’s just part of being alive, isn’t it? If I lived my life worrying whether my actions met with everyone’s approval I guess I’d just have to stay home in bed. Life is too short to worry about whether others think my family is celebrating these holidays the “right” way. We celebrate them the way that is right for us, and that’s good enough for me.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Thanksgiving 2009

I’m really using our Thanksgiving trip to Columbia this year as an excuse to try something a little bit different in my blog. Most of the time I am a story-driven blogger. My writing drives my blog. I don’t always use pictures in a blog post, and if I do, the pictures are there to illustrate the writing. I’ve never tried a post where the pictures drive the story and the writing is just there to elaborate on what the pictures already describe, but that’s what I’m going to do.

This first series of pictures was taken at Shakespeare’s Pizza, the night before Thanksgiving. I’ve written about Shakespeare’s before (click here to read that post). It’s the best pizza place in the universe as far as we are concerned. Apparently at least half of Columbia also thought it would be a great idea to go to Shakespeare’s that night. The wait for our pizza was an hour and a half! By standing there being indecisive for fifteen minutes we made the wait even longer. But eventually we claimed our table and started our wait.

The first picture features Blake, my fifteen year old nephew, hamming it up in a picture that was intended to be of Lee wearing his napkin prominently.  The second picture shows Blake again, in his gansta imitation mode, with his mother Mary, Lee’s sister. The final picture shows Sarah and Elsa (Blake’s sister). Sarah and Elsa just look normal, if slightly hungry.

The next set of pictures shows a series of very beautiful pies, taken on Thanksgiving Day. I’m not a cook, but I do make great pie crusts, and Mary wanted me to instruct her in the art of pie-crust making. I was not to actually MAKE the pies, just give direction, which is harder than you might think! Mary did very, very well however and I think everyone was pleased with the results. The first picture shows the three pies we had for Thanksgiving. Mary made the pumpkin and cherry; Joanne, my mother-in-law, made the pecan pie (without any assistance from me). The second picture shows a close-up of the cherry pie. Sarah and I took over the making of the lattice crust; it was just too much fun for us to resist. The third picture is a close-up of the pumpkin pie.

The next picture is my frustrated attempt to get a nice portrait of Sarah and Lee. Sarah is as photogenic as all get out. Lee CAN photograph very nicely, but for some reason he was smiling like Calvin that day. It took several tries to get a halfway decent picture of the two of them. “Smile!” “Smile NORMALLY!” “Now you’re not smiling at all!” Sigh.

On we go to the day after Thanksgiving. In Lee’s family this day is usually devoted to making Lep Cookies. We only made a ½ recipe this year, so we only made about 250 cookies. The full recipe makes 400-500. It still makes for an impressive sight. So these pictures show the table full of cookies, with Elsa and I admiring the cookies and one snapshot of me when it was my turn to roll out the dough. It takes a group of people mixing, rolling, watching the oven and removing cookies from the cookie sheets. I can’t imagine doing this alone!

The last picture heads us into the Christmas season I guess. Sarah and I both have J Crew coats. Hers is red and mine is white. Joanne had just knitted Elsa a red and white striped scarf that went beautifully with the coats. Sarah kiddingly suggested that we take our pictures together with the scarf wrapped around us both. She should have known better than to make a suggestion like that to her mother! I jumped at the chance provided by this unique opportunity and Sarah smiled gamely while questioning how much damage this picture would do to her coolness factor once it becomes my Facebook profile pic!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

American Bittersweet

American Bittersweet is a very interesting plant. I love the way the berries look like flowers with their little orange petals. It’s a plant I discovered back in my college days in Missouri. I would see it along country roads while riding my bike, or in fields while taking a walk. It looks best in the winter against a brown field or snowy woods.

A couple of weeks ago, when we were still in our closing-crisis on this house, I went for a run along the River Road in Andover. As I was jogging along what should I see but a Bittersweet plant! I was so excited; I made a note of its location so that I could go back and take a picture of it at some point. I knew it would somehow lead to a blog post.

Then I had to go to St. Louis for a week to check on my mom, and then I got caught up in all the work involved in settling into a new house. But on my to-do list the item “go take pictures of American Bittersweet on Chambers Road in Andover” still waited until I had time to execute it. And that time came this week.

One afternoon I hopped in the car and drove back to Andover. I turned onto Chambers Road and drove along slowly, watching for the Bittersweet, not sure exactly where it was located. But suddenly there it was! I jumped out of the car and started snapping pictures.

American Bittersweet has become relatively rare in the wild because people pick the seeds for propagation since the plants are so pretty and ornamental. And I guess its not that easy to grow from seed because you need both male and female plants in order to grow berries. But I think it would look very pretty against our rock wall in the back yard, so maybe I’ll order some plants in the spring.

I took pictures of another red berried plant as well. I always think of it as Bittersweet’s second cousin. It’s not as rare as Bittersweet and I don’t know its name. Its berries are pretty, but they don’t have those orange petals that I love. I tried identifying it online, but I’m not very good at that sort of thing. It might be a type of honeysuckle or maybe a cranberry? I see it around this area a lot. I think it’s another bush I’d like to acquire!

It makes me happy that northern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire have many of the same plants as Missouri. In fact, it’s interesting that Columbia and Salem are in almost the same gardening zones. Salem is listed as zone 5a, while Columbia is listed as zone 5b. I’m very curious to see what the winter is really going to be like. Will it be colder? Yes, a little. Will it be longer? I think so. Will there be more snow? Yes, and it will stay on the ground longer too.

This week Daniel has been taking the gps to work most days, leaving me to figure my way around Salem via googlemaps. That has actually been a very good thing. Despite getting lost a few times, I feel much more oriented to my surroundings now. And I’ve discovered that Salem is NOT all strip malls! It has a very pretty town center, just like all the other towns around here. I’m slightly relived to discover that I don’t need to apologize for the ugliness of my town while at the same time reveling in its status as a tax-free shopping mecca. New Hampshire’s lack of a sales tax, however, just means that they need to make up that revenue through other methods, which I discovered yesterday when I went to register my car. When all was said and done I paid almost $400 for my registration and license plates, and that wasn’t even for an entire year, since these plates will expire in July of 2010! Maybe the state motto should be “Live Free or Pay Through the Nose in Hidden Costs”.

The thing that is very different from Missouri is how all the little towns around here just run into one another. Driving around its easy to go from Salem to Methuen to Haverhill without ever noticing unless you see the ”Welcome to” sign as you slip from one town to another. It’s a little bit like the outer reaches of St. Louis County in that respect. Its country and yet it’s also an outer suburb of Boston. It’s kind of like it can’t quite make up its mind WHAT it is.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Old Age, Etc.

Everyone has to get old, if they’re lucky. Unless you die young someday your body is going to start wearing out. There are a lot of trite observations that have been made about this fact. “Old age is not for sissies” my mom likes to point out occasionally, when the betrayals of her body get the best of her. But I’m more inclined to think “old age is for everyone, whether we like it or not”. Courage has nothing to do with it, unless you want to think that courage has everything to do with living your life to the best of your ability.

When I was younger I would look at elderly people and seriously consider the possibility that they had never been young. I would watch someone white-haired and wrinkled slowly make their way down the street and find it impossible to imagine that they were once a teenager like me. And sometimes I STILL can’t really imagine that my body is going to wear out even though I know intellectually that it must.

Of course these thoughts are going through my head now because of my mother’s recent health problems. She’s had one setback after another in this latest round of illness, but I’ve watched with something close to amazement as she refuses to admit anything close to defeat and gathers her strength to try to regain her ability to walk and speak. If she has any say in the matter she’ll make it too. She’s not ready to leave this earth any time soon.

This reminds me of my grandmother, my mother’s mother, in some ways. Although Omi suffered from Alzheimer’s and was in a nursing home for many years, even when she was dying she didn’t give up easily. She fought for every breath right to the end.

So is this a family trait – this determination to survive no matter what? Or is this a simple fact of life for most people? People want to live and that’s all there is to it. They’ll fight for their lives even when they’re old and life is mostly painful and difficult. They’ll still cling to it, finding joy and comfort in little things, happy to awaken each additional day.

I watch my own signs of aging with a combination of amusement and occasional horror. I tell myself I don’t mind my grey hairs or wrinkles, yet I keep the grey hidden and apply all kinds of lotions to my skin to try to keep it young and supple-looking. I know that someday my body will begin to slow down and I won’t be able to do everything that I can do now, yet I pride myself on having run 2 half marathons in the past year and hate the thought of not being able to run any longer.

My mind is probably my area of greatest concern. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s and now it appears that my aunt (my mother’s sister) has developed it as well. My father had a form of dementia before he passed away. I clearly notice my mind’s failings and while I reassure myself that repeating stories and forgetting why I entered a room are very normal, I can’t help but wonder if they might be a sign of something more serious.

Writing all this down has been helpful to me in a way. This past week, trying to get my mother’s affairs in order and set things up so that she can leave the hospital when she is ready and go to a rehab facility has been both stressful and sad. I’m torn between wanting to be back in New Hampshire helping Lee get us settled in our new house, and feeling like my mother really needs me to be here with her in St. Louis. What does one do about an elderly parent that lives 2,000 miles away? At least I’m not in Hong Kong anymore!

I know this next year is going to entail a lot of trips to St. Louis and a lot of occasions when I will feel like no matter where I am I ought to be somewhere else. That’s okay. I have known for years and years that someday this would come to pass and there are many ways in which it could be much worse. But there are things I wish for. I wish that this next part of my mother’s life goes smoothly, that the choices we need to make are clear, and that we choose correctly. I hope she can be made comfortable and happy, no matter what happens next. And above all, I hope that she will be safe and pain-free. I’ll do everything I can to make this happen for her, but I know too that it’s not all in my control.

The most important thing right now is to take things one step at a time and try not to worry about what will happen next. I need to have faith that I will be able to handle this next step, and the one after that, and even the one after THAT. But, I only have to handle one step at a time.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Holy Cow!

We have just finished going through the house-closing from hell. We were supposed to close on our house in New Hampshire on Thursday. Wednesday afternoon at 4 pm Lee started getting phone calls from SIRVA (the relocation company) and our Realtor. The sellers had run into a problem with their bank and couldn’t get the payoff amount for their loan. Suddenly the whole sale was thrown into question.

Apparently (as we discovered later) the sellers had gone into forbearance. I had to look up what this meant. It means that they had decided to delay the payment of their last two mortgage payments and instead take them out of their payoff amount. There was no problem with their mortgage per se, and they had enough equity in the house. But by doing this they had thrown their mortgage out of the bank’s automated system. Not realizing this, they didn’t start asking for the payoff amount until a couple of days before the closing, and hadn’t realized that it was really going to be a problem until Wednesday. Add to that a messy divorce and some incompetent participants and we had a potential disaster on our hands.

We spent Thursday waiting by the phone. Late Thursday afternoon we decided to go ahead and do the walk-through at the house and sign all of the paperwork that we could without the seller’s payoff amount. At least that way if the amount came through in time we would be ready.

This was only the second time I had seen the house. It was strange to finally see it again. There are some really, really nice things about it, and some things I don’t like too. The main area of the house is just beautiful. The kitchen is huge, with lots of cabinet space, and the cabinets are really nice. The living room has beautiful French doors looking out over the back yard, an old stone wall, and the conservation woods beyond. The dining room is open to both the kitchen and the living room. The front walk leads to a BIG front porch. I love front porches and have always wanted to own a house with one and can’t wait to decorate it with furniture, etc. The master bedroom is spacious and has a FANTASTIC walk-in closet. There is a separate wing on the other side of the kitchen that includes a large laundry room and a room we are going to make into a library that can also serve as a second guest room. The stairwell that leads to the basement and the garage is just neat and different. The garage is huge, and there is a basement! And I’m sure once we move in I will discover other things that I love as well.

Now for the negatives. The master bathroom is small, with only one sink, a small linen closet, and no separation for the toilet. The guest bathroom has no linen closet at all. The area in front of the house is limited. There is a wetland in front of the house which we own and can look at and enjoy, but there are restrictions on what we can do with it. The driveway isn’t paved and right now it badly needs a load of gravel that will need to settle in until we can pave it next spring. The deck on the back of the house is ugly and we want to tear it out and redo that whole area. The lake is really nice, but the neighborhood and surrounding houses are kind of strange. Until probably ten years ago it was all little summer cabins and many of these cabin/shacks still remain, interspersed with nice houses like ours and other houses that can best be described as lower middle class. There seems to be some kind of boat yard storage area on one side of our property that we didn't notice until the leaves started falling off the trees! It’s a real mixture and will take some getting used to. The town of Salem is different from many of the other surrounding towns because it is a tax-free Mecca for Boston shoppers. A lot of areas look like a tacky strip-mall.

Okay, back to our closing saga. The pseudo closing was very depressing. We met the woman that was selling the house and her realtor. We could tell that the seriousness of the situation was just really dawning on them. The man was represented by a lawyer that came on very aggressively and seemed to have an attitude that suggested that if there was any delay in the closing she was going to figure out a way to blame it on us. The notary that conducted the closing was the most pompous self-important little man I’ve ever met. He was so irritating! He seemed to think he was the funniest person in the world, but none of us thought his jokes were humorous at all. Like many of the other people at the table he only slowly began to realize that this was not a very happy occasion.

Friday morning Lee and I started to plan what we would do if the sale fell through. The contract on the house expired at midnight on Friday. We had to move out of our service apartment on Friday. We had to cancel the delivery of our furniture and it went into storage in Boston. We moved into a Staybridge Suites. It wasn’t too bad – still had two bedrooms and a small kitchen. It would serve our purposes for a week or two if need be. We decided that we would start apartment-hunting if the contract fell through. And we weren’t going to give them an extension, but might propose another contract on Monday, but maybe not. We’d take our time searching for another house.

By Friday afternoon we were back in Salem. We went by the house to see if we had any mail. We worried about how long we should wait before we cancelled the utilities. We cancelled the Comcast installation. We decided we should go to the Post Office and put our mail on hold or get a PO Box for the time being.

I walked into the Salem Post Office and stood in line for several minutes. When it was my turn I went up to the counter and began discussing our options with the clerk. As we were talking Lee comes running into the post office waving his phone. The sellers had received a pay-off amount from the bank, at the last possible moment!

We went to a nearby Barnes and Noble, bought some coffee, and sat down to wait for another phone call. The realtors still needed to receive their copies of the final paperwork before we could meet them at their office and sign. At around 4 pm we got word that the paperwork was ready for our signature. We went over to the office, signed the papers, shook hands all around, and received the keys. We had a house!

Now today we’ll start going down our list of things we need to do before we move in. There’s some unexpected painting that needs to be done because the woman patched all the nail holes and unintentionally made a mess. We need to order gravel, plan where the furniture will go, decide about the purchase of a generator for the power outages that can occur during winter storms, go pick up our snow blower at Sears, order the new decking because the stuff we want is on sale right now, and buy a piece of baseboard that is missing in one room. I can also go ahead and do the remaining changes of address on our employers, credit cards, frequent flyer accounts, etc.

Now our furniture will be delivered on Tuesday and we will be unpacked on Wednesday, but Wednesday morning I will be on my way to St. Louis to see my mom, who is having a lot of health problems right now and has been in the hospital the past couple of weeks. I have definitely been thinking about my favorite John Lennon quotation these past couple of days. Life is what happens while you’re making other plans. Well, we’ve had a major “life” attack this past week!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Goodbye Austin

Here I sit in another service apartment, almost 8 months after we returned to the US from Hong Kong. This apartment is even more temporary for me than the last one (although Lee has been living in it for almost 2 months). In two days we close on our house in New Hampshire; in three days we start moving in.

I’m going to change the title of this blog. I don’t know WHAT I’m changing it to yet, however! But I’d rather just change the title than start an entirely new blog. This transition, from one place to another, and yet another, has gotten fairly tiresome in the past year. I’m ready to settle down in one place for awhile, make a house into a home, plant a garden, and get a dog and a cat.

But in the meantime I feel like I owe Austin more than just a fleeting “seeya!” before I plunge headlong into the end of a New England fall and straight into a snow bank! Austin has been part of my life in one fashion or another for almost 30 years. My sister and her husband moved here in the early eighties so that he could go to engineering school at UT. I know I visited them in Austin before I had Sarah, but a lot of those visits are kind of jumbled up in my mind. I remember a student apartment that must have been somewhere close to UT. I remember their very-long-lived cat, Otis. I remember going to 6th street and wandering in and out of various bars, listening to the music change and trying not to get lost in the crowds. I remember going to Amy’s Ice Cream, when “smushing” mix-ins into ice creams was a new and delicious idea.  I remember going to Las Manitas for breakfast, somewhere way out in the country for a family-style meal, Central Market for groceries.

Then we both had children and I started taking turns with each child. One year Sarah would come with me, the next year it would be Daniel. One time Sarah and I had to run through the Dallas airport to make our connection (this must have been pre-Sky Train!). I had her grasped like a football under my arm, a fellow passenger had me by the hand, and we FLEW through that airport, all the time Sarah quietly insisting “put me down, Mama, I can walk!” I didn’t even bother to argue with her. We made that plane, too!

Then my sister and her husband moved out to Pflugerville in the late 80’s. I got a whole different perspective on Austin. There were highways springing up all over the place, and the traffic was terrible. Suburban Austin didn’t have near the charm of the older parts of the city, but I think part of the problem was that this one visit I came in October. The weather was hot and miserable, and the baby Jessica saga was on TV (remember the child that fell down the well? That happened in Texas). Every other time, I came in the spring, which is when Texas is at its very best.

In the early 90’s my sister moved to the neighborhood near 35th Street and Jefferson. It was a beautiful neighborhood. Her kids went to Briker Woods Elementary School. We went for walks on Schoal Creek, went shopping at the Arboretum, and visited the State Capitol.

Until the mid-90’s my memories of Austin are all happy ones. I don’t want to get into it here, but the late 90’s were not a happy time for my sister and her family. I have very sad and horrible memories of this time. Although it is not fair to somehow blame Austin for my sister’s problems, it’s only too true that my perception of this city is forever altered by the events that took place back then. So, when we found out that we would be moving here, my feelings were inevitably mixed. I was happy, because it was the start of a new chapter in our lives, one that we hoped would lead to new challenges for Lee and new adventures for the both of us. But I was worried as well, because of the unhappy events that had occurred here. Eventually the opportunities for Lee and the adventures for me all came to pass. We lived in Austin for almost 2 years before we moved to Hong Kong, and Hong Kong never would have been possible if we had not moved to Austin first.

During this period of time our house was burglarized. This experience left me shaken. I learned once again that my judgment was sometimes flawed and someone close to me was not trustworthy. It left a lasting feeling of being unsafe in my own home that lingered even after we returned to Austin from Hong Kong.

What will I NOT miss about Austin? I will not miss the endless summers. I won’t miss day after day of 100 degree plus heat. I won’t miss the giant cockroaches, or the scorpions, or the mosquitoes. I won’t miss the feeling that my liberal-leaning vote was irrelevant in such a conservative state. I won’t miss feeling like I live somewhere that I don’t really belong.

What WILL I miss about Austin? I will miss the wildflowers in the spring. I will miss the mild, pleasant winters. I will miss the friends I made. I’ll miss some of the great restaurants we found. I’ll miss the uniquely Austin music scene. I miss running on Town Lake. I’ll miss getting to go to ACL, mud, heat, dust and all.

When it’s all said and done, am I glad I lived in Austin, Texas for a time? I have to say ultimately – yes. Texas and I may have never meshed all that well, but that’s okay. Austin is part of who I am, and it seems like it was necessary for me to live there to complete a portion of my life. I’m glad I lived there and I’m glad to be moving on. I’m not sure what I’m going to do when I get a craving for Tex-Mex though…

Web images courtesy of (Amy's Ice Cream), (Las Manitas), (Texas road construction). The blue bonnets are mine.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Magic of Social Networking

Wilkes Blvd 1972

I've had the most interesting thing happen in the past few months. I'm trying to process it, because it really is pretty amazing. I had a large group of very good "hippie" friends...some of which I met when I was a senior in high school and others of which I met in college. They were all sort of interconnected. We drifted apart after graduation and I gradually lost touch with all of them. I would think about them off and on, wonder where they were, what had happened to some of them. They were mostly "back to nature" type hippies and not very involved in drugs (at least by those day's standards!).

Well, one of the girls had a letter to the editor published in the New Yorker (!) a couple of months ago and that seems to have started something. I went on a very determined search for her online and finally found her using LinkedIn. I sent her an email and she replied! From her I was also able to get in touch with her sister (they're only a year apart in age and so we were all friends). At around the same time another person from this group found me on Facebook and we started catching up. From him I was able to get back in touch with two other people from this group, and it appears that this is going to lead to finding even more of them!

I'm kind of in awe of this happening right now in my life. These people were a huge part of my coming-of-age-and-growing-up process. I'm very happy to have reconnected with them and it seems that so far the ones I've found are happy, healthy and doing well! It’s funny far it doesn't appear that any of them are living anything close to a hippie life-style. We’ve all become middle-class members of society! Our 40th high school reunion is coming up in 2010. They are seriously talking about finding as many people from this group as possible that went to Parkway Central in St. Louis County class of 1970 and encouraging them all to attend.

1969-70 was really a volatile year to be a high school senior. It was the year of the Moratorium (protest marches for Vietnam), the year we broke the dress code (all the senior girls wore pants to school on the same day; they couldn't send ALL of us home, so the administration just sort of threw up their hands), the year of all the demonstrations and strikes on college campuses across the country, the year of Kent Parkway some of the "hippies" in this group decided that they would run for school office. These were people that had never been involved in school politics before, but to many people they represented all the outcasts, geeks, dorks and ignored kids that were looked down on by the "good" kids (or that's how we felt anyway, I know now that's not really how it is, kids like me were just invisible)....anyway, they won - president, vice president, etc of the senior class; all the major offices were taken over by the hippies!

The kids that had always won those offices in the past were very annoyed. They complained to the administration, saying it wasn't fair since the people that won didn't "deserve" to win because they had never participated in school politics before, but the administration said they had won fair and square and let the results of the election stand.

It’s funny to think of all of us showing up at a class reunion. I remember the night of prom (none of us went), we were all over at one girl’s house, very aware that it was prom night. Part of me would have loved to have gone to prom, and I think that at least among the girls there were similar unspoken feelings. We laughed about going to where the prom was being held and “crashing” it. Back then it was unheard-of for anyone to go to prom without a date, and even more unthinkable for a girl to ask a boy out. I’m very glad that times have changed this situation for teenagers now.

Most of the people in this group went to college at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri. None of our parents had very much money so the state University was the obvious choice. By our sophomore year we were all living together in houses on a street called Wilkes Blvd. There we hung out together, rode our bicycles where-ever we wanted to go, smoked too much pot and dropped a little acid, and occasionally went to class.

As our college years continued, things began to change. People fell in love; some even got married. Some people started to excel in school and chose careers or graduate school as their next steps. It was harder for me in some ways. I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. I didn’t really want college to end. At the time I would have liked it if we could have gone on forever living on Wilkes and being college kids, but of course this could not be. Eventually even I made choices that took me away from Columbia, toward a new life.

Since this was before the age of email, some of us stayed in touch via letters and phone calls for awhile, but time and distance made this increasingly difficult. If not for email and Facebook I probably would never have talked to any of them again.

And now we are back in touch, exchanging emails and family photos. It’s kind of thrilling in a way. I’m so grateful for these tools that have reconnected me with old friends. Sometimes people kind of sneer at Facebook and other social networking sites. Granted they are a great way to waste time, and I’m certainly as guilty of that sometimes as the next person. But when something like this happens I find myself just amazed. Technology can be annoying at times, but it’s also magical. Our lives have been transformed by computers and I’m very happy to be able to experience its benefits!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Columbus Day in the Berkshires

When we visited Chris and Adrian on Long Island and in the Berkshire this summer they told us all about the Hancock Fire Department’s big snow equipment sale during the Columbus Day weekend in October. We decided that skis, outerwear, snowshoes and other snow season must-haves at ½ price or better were too good to pass up. So when we were deciding which weekend I should return for another visit it was easy to decide – October 8th-13th it was.

I arrived at Boston Logan on Thursday afternoon. Daniel picked me up, on the way to a job interview in downtown Boston. Things are coming together for him a little. He has a job at Banana Republic where he’ll pick up some hours and get some inexpensive clothes. The afternoon interview was at a temp agency. It sounds promising and hopefully will lead to something that will generate enough money for him to get his own apartment and start taking the classes he needs.

I was impressed at how easily he made his way around Boston. I am not at all ready to drive in downtown! The streets are really, really confusing and the drivers are aggressive. We parked in a parking garage near where his interview was going to be and decided to walk around a little since it was still early. We managed to get lost, just walking around the block, or so we thought. I don’t think there is a simple right angle anywhere in this town!

On Friday Daniel and I went to the Rockingham Mall, right over the border in New Hampshire. I thought it would be bigger, since it’s something of a Mecca for people searching for sales tax free bargains. I went there to see if they had some J Crew coats in the store that I could try on (and they did). Daniel went to get a haircut. I did finally buy a J Crew wool coat. White, lined, mid-thigh length. It takes care of one of my coat needs – a nice coat to wear into the city when it’s cold but not frigid. Now I still need a nylon shell to wear over a fleece for hiking and other country pursuits. And I need a nice, long puffy down coat for city life when it’s really cold. Oh and maybe a sweater dress and some leggings…!

Friday evening around 4:30PM we piled in the car and started heading for the Berkshires. It was supposed to be around a 2 ½ to 3 hour drive, but it took us closer to 3 ½ hours. It was pouring down rain and the traffic was TERRIBLE. I think most of Boston was headed in the same direction. I was never so glad to finally arrive somewhere in my life. And I didn’t even drive…

It was great to see Chris and Adrian again. We were all starving to we immediately headed over to Jiminy Peak and the Powder Horn for dinner. We were so busy talking and having a good time that they had to kick us out so they could go home.

Saturday morning we got up early and headed straight to the sale. Well! Turns out that sale was worth the trip and then some. Everything we bought was new. Lee bought downhill skis and boots, cross-country skis and boots and snowshoes. I bought cross-country skis and boots, snowshoes, two sets of long underwear, a nice fleece and microfiber socks, all for less than 900 dollars! Now all I need to do is learn how to cross-country ski…

Saturday night Lee cooked dinner for the Alleys and us. He made a traditional Nill family dinner: Chicken a La Becca, Phil’s Green beans, bread and salad. We of course had to explain the story of how the chicken dish got its name. It’s a chicken baked with garlic, rosemary and canned tomatoes. A long time ago when Sarah and her friend Becca were maybe 7 or 8 years old, Becca and her sister Stephanie spent the weekend at our house. One night Lee cooked this dish and Becca really liked it. When she went home she asked her parents “why can’t YOU cook like Sarah’s dad?”! She got a dish named after her as a result!

The green beans (roasted with olive oil and balsamic vinegar) are a recipe from her father, Phil, so that’s two dishes named after the same family!

Sunday morning we went on a short hike, part of the way up Greylock Mountain, the highest point in Massachusetts. The leaves were just spectacular! New Englanders are justifiably proud of their fall foliage. We were impressed. The only thing was, after the hike we decided to take the road up to the top of the mountain for a cup of coffee. Apparently all those people we saw on the road from Boston on Friday evening had decided to do the same thing. We decided the coffee back at the Alley’s was perfectly acceptable instead.

Sunday afternoon it was time to head back to Boston. As we were leaving Chris and Adrian handed us a huge bag of apples from their apple trees. Hmm, apple pies and apple sauce!

Daniel was going to Cambridge to join up with some friends that were going to a concert Sunday night, so Lee and I decided we needed to go out to dinner in Boston. We tried a sushi place that was pretty good, but nothing incredible. We know there must be some really great restaurants in Boston; we just need to find them.

Today Lee and I drove around Salem, looking at a few of the nearby trails where we can run and ski. We found a really nice trail not far from the house that is part of the New Hampshire rails-to-trails system. I’m excited about that; it’s like the one in Columbia and will be great for long runs and cross-country skiing. Now I just need to find a place where we can rent skis for when visitors come.

OH! One more thing; our house in Austin sold today! Finally; we dropped the price once we had our appraisals from 3M and that’s all it took. That’s one worry put to rest. So, it’s back to Texas for one more week and then the movers come. I am SO READY!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

ACL 2009

Friday, October 2nd, 2009.
Jim the taxi-man comes and gets us at 12:30. I’m waiting excitedly in the dining room, looking at the street, like a little kid waiting for a birthday party to start! The traffic is crazy – we have to turn around and go the back way to the drop-off by Austin High School. But all is well when we get into the park. Gorgeous weather – the best they’ve ever had for ACL. Highs in the 70’s, sunny, puffy clouds.

First up Blitzen Trapper, a Grateful Deadish sounding band. This is our first introduction to the biggest problem of the day. The sound is loud, and the bass is overwhelming. And if you sit far enough back to not go deaf sound bleeds through from other bands. This is the first year we’ve ever noticed this. One of the great things about ACL has always been that there are so many choices and the stages are constructed so that sound-bleed has never been an issue. I don’t know if it’s the bands or the sound-systems or our ages but this year it’s noticeable.

We listen to about ½ of the Blitzen Trapper set, and unimpressed, walk over to hear Mishka instead. He’s a rockin’ reggae performer that is very enjoyable. After that we walk over to hear Jonell Mosser, a lovely Bonnie Rait-like singer. She’s got a really nice voice; sings creative covers. I wouldn’t mind hearing more of her.

Then it’s over to another stage to listen to Todd Snyder. He’s a hoot – clever lyrics, talking blues. I wouldn’t buy him though I’d go to hear him again in a second.

From there we go over to our old spot under the trees near the AMD stage. We plan on just hanging out, but we happen to be there for Phoenix, a French pop band. At first I’m only half listening but as their set goes on I realize I really like them. They’re good, and it seems like all 65,000 people at ACL agree. It gets crowded, REALLY crowded. Since we never stay to hear the headliners this is by far the most crowded I’ve ever seen ACL. I think this band might be on the verge of becoming the next Coldplay or something. Well if so I can say we saw them “when”!

Then it’s over to Xbox360 stage to listen to Raphael Saadiq. R&B with a beat. He’s fun but this is another thing about ACL. At some point I go into musical overload and really can’t process what I’m hearing anymore. That point comes sometime during Saadiq’s set. I know he’s good but I really don’t care. I decide I need a glass of wine.

Lee goes over to hear the Greencards (bluegrass); I stay on the west side of the park to listen to John Legend. He’s beautiful and his band and backup singers are polished and professional, but I’m too far back again and the bleed from the other end of the park is bad and distracting. I wouldn’t mind hearing more of him though.

After John Legend Lee and I meet at the Hudson Cone stand for dinner. Oh those shrimp and avocado cones….one of the best features of ACL is the food. It’s not just corndogs and fries at this festival. Local restaurants put on as good a show as the bands. Earlier in the day Lee and I split a small Amy’s Ice Cream…wow how we’ve changed….we’re just not used to all that butter cream and sugar anymore.

I’m ready to listen to Andrew Bird, except for the whistling he’s one of the best performers on Friday. He’s very good, violin, voice, everything. I’m going to buy more of him at some point.
Then Lee leaves and I stay. I listen to Kings of Leon for awhile but they don’t really hold my interest. I turn around and listen to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs instead. They’re more my style – I like Karen O’s kimono at any rate!

At the end Mel and Stan and I meet as planned. We walk into the Stafford Road neighborhood and Lee comes and picks us up. A good day…but I’m really tired and we all sleep soundly. I don’t know what today is going to be like. Rain, heavy at times is the prediction. We don’t plan on leaving for the park until around 2 pm, and we don’t plan on staying late either. Will we be okay with parkas and umbrellas? I sure hope so! I really want to see Bon Iver and the Decembrists, rain or no rain!

Saturday, October 2nd, 2009
Well the rains came just like expected. We wait until later to go to the festival this day. We went to Shoal Creek with Mel, Stan and their children Brett and Lindsay for lunch first. I didn’t vary from my favorite thing on the menu this time – Cajun Gumbo with their wonderful roux, smoked duck and andoille sausage. From there Mel and Stan drop Lee and I off by the Mo-Pac bridge because I want to hear Grizzly Bear and they don’t want to go until later.

Grizzly Bear is good, but I don’t take notes so my memories aren’t quite as detailed as what I had on Friday. I remember that I liked them, but not a clue what they sounded like! But in the back of my mind I know they’re a group I want to listen to again. We placed our chairs in a circle somewhat equidistant between the Dell and Livestrong stages. It started raining harder and harder. I had brought my Shanghai Tang umbrella. I worked well to keep most of the rain off. Lee just had a water resistant jacket with a hood and he got pretty wet. Vickie and Michele showed up at one point and donated a VIP rain poncho to him, and he was grateful. Even with an umbrella I got fairly damp at times. Water would accumulate in the seams and eventually drip through, on my nose usually.

The most problematic part of the weather ended up being at our feet. I had decided on flip flops, thinking that wet tennis shoes would end up feeling pretty unpleasant. At first this wasn’t too bad. Yes my feet were wet, and covered in grass, but it wasn’t cold so it was tolerable. Later on, however, was another story.

We stayed in our circle of chairs through a band called Mute Math and another called Citizen Cope. I enjoyed Citizen Cope, enough to want to listen to more of him at some point. When he was almost finished with his show I decided I wanted to try to get up closer for Bon Iver and bid farewell to the chair circle. We agreed that I was on my own at this point, since the rest of the group wasn’t sure they would stay in the rain for much longer.

I edged my way closer, keeping my umbrella up and trying not to get in anyone’s way. I made it close enough to hear the show well, but not close enough to see much more than the video screen.

Bon Iver was surprising in concert. I’d read an article about him (Justin Vernon) in the New Yorker and on his albums he doesn’t have a band, he plays all the instruments and does all the harmonies himself. But of course on stage he had to have a band. He also changed his arrangements a little, adding some electronic flourishes and even rocking out upon occasion.
His songs are beautiful and his lyrics complicated and mysterious. He’s got a limited repertoire though. His last album came out in 2007 and it doesn’t seem like he has much if any new material yet. I wonder if he is working on things that aren’t ready yet or has just written what he has got to write and that’s all there is?

After Bon Iver I decided to get something to eat. I would have liked to have heard The Levon Helm Band, but I wanted to hear The Decembrists (and stand up close) more so I knew I would have to get a place to stand early.

I wanted a P.Terry’s veggie burger for dinner, and so did a lot of other people. The line, although long, moved quickly. The biggest problem was at our feet. The beautiful grass which had held up so nicely on Friday didn’t handle the rain and those thousands of feet so well on Saturday. In many places it was quickly returning to mud. This was a problem with flip flops. At first I thought people were stepping on my heels but then I realized that the mud was sucking at them and almost tearing them off my feet with every step. I tried taking them off and walking barefoot, but then I had the muddy, nasty things in my hands, so I just put them back on my feet and walked carefully.

Back to the Dell Stage I went veggie burger in hand. I inched my way up as close as I reasonably could. I had a really decent look at the stage, if I managed to avoid the tall people that inevitably decide they need to step to the front. There was also a hue and cry against umbrellas up close and I complied once the show started. I got out my trusty white running hat with the flap to cover my neck and a bill. This kept my head reasonably dry.

The Decembrists put on an AWESOME show! He has a new album out and he has incorporated two women vocalists into his act. One of them has a beautiful low voice and on her solo just stole the show. The other had a high, pure voice, an angelic face, and a shimmery white gown! I’ve heard some of his new songs and they are great. Once again, after hearing him live I know that’s one album I’m going to buy for sure. Lee makes fun of me for liking him. He finds him pretentious and yes, his lyrics are over the top sometimes, but I love the stories he tells. They excite my imagination and I often find myself daydreaming about them after I have had him playing on my IPod.

I enjoyed day two very much, in spite of the rain. Today (Sunday) we’re heading to the park early. We want to catch Black Joe Louis and the Honey bears at 12:30 and the B-52’s at 2 pm. After that it’s the Heartless Bastards and then home. Pearl Jam plays tonight at 8 pm. They have a new album that is currently the number one album in the country. I’d really like to hear them, but right now, even after 3 cups of coffee I’m pretty tired. I’m a little apprehensive about the mud too. It could just be a quagmire by tonight. And Lee has a 7AM flight to catch tomorrow morning. All that probably adds up to me not going. I hope it doesn’t end up being like Coldplay four years ago, where we left and I spent the next year regretting it.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sunday dawns without rain. Yay! It appears that the rain has moved away from Austin. It’s cloudy, not too hot and we’re ready for the B-52’s! We decide that we don’t need chairs today. It’s going to be muddy, so we go for old tennis shoes and clothes that will wash easily.

We head for Zilker earlier than we have on the other days. There’s a soul band called Black Joe Lewis and the HoneyBears at 12:30 that we want to hear on the AMD Stage. We get right up in the “no chairs” area and figure out that if we stand against the edge of the sound booth there is a small metal walkway all around the booth. We can stand on this walkway and don’t have to stand directly in the mud. We can put our bags down without getting them muddy and we can lean against the booth too. This is a good deal. The mud is viscous, gooey and a bit smelly too. It’s just nicer to not have to stand directly in it.

The Honeybears are lots of fun, but I’m restless, so I volunteer to go get our lunch. I want barbeque from the Saltlick and Lee gets a steak frites sandwich from Aquarelle. Mine is good (I get it with cole slaw right on the barbeque) but Lee’s is REALLY good. Steak thinly sliced, some kind of creamy sauce and spicy French fries right on the sandwich. He has a little trouble getting his sandwich back from me after he offers me a bite!

Then we have an hour in-between the Honeybears and the B-52’s but we don’t want to lose our spot so we decide to just hang out. I entertain myself taking pictures of all the darling Wellies trouping by. I used to see these colorful rain boots in Hong Kong sometimes and I would think people were crazy because when it rains in Hong Kong it’s usually hot and muggy as well. Rubber boots in those conditions would be extremely uncomfortable I would think, but today at ACL they’re a must-have fashion item it would seem.

Finally, the B-52’s begin their show. First thing – hey, they’re old! They’re at least as old as I am, and I’m charmed by the sight of wildly dressed women grooving onstage in their signature beehive hairdos! I just feel kind of proud of my cohort there for a moment – their arms aren’t flabby, their gowns are cool and their makeup is out of this world…and they can still really, really sing. Roam Around the World, Love Shack and other songs that sound vaguely familiar are a treat. I bounce around and clap and sing along with the best of them.

After the B-52’s we bid farewell to Mel and Stan. This was their first ACL; I hope they had fun. We want to hear the Heartless Bastards, so we head gamely over to the Dell stage. Oh my…on the higher ground the mud isn’t too bad, but as we come down the hill by the big tree there’s a river of mud at the bottom. We walk through it and attempt to find a place to stand that isn’t too disgusting. The Heartless Bastards are good, but as we stand there I start to realize just how tired I am. I look over at the Livestrong stage, where Pearl Jam will play tonight. I think about how much farther I would need to go into the sea of mud before me in order to hear or see anything. Three days of walking, standing, and dancing, in sunshine, rain, and mud have taken their toll. I’m ready to go home and Lee is agreeable so we leave, and I know then that I’m not coming back tonight.

As always ACL is just fun, fun, fun. This was an unusual year. Held later because of a bye week for UT football, it was cooler, but going later into the fall in Austin always means there is a higher risk of rain. It was nice to not have to deal with 100 degree temps though. And the music was good, very good. I have a huge list of performers to listen to in more detail and like most years I would imagine that I’ll end up with several groups that become my favorites that before this weekend I had never heard of before.

Going to something like ACL keeps me young and at the same time makes me feel old. I was really tired after the festival this year. The bands seemed louder too, loud enough that we employed the use of ear plugs, which we haven’t done before.

I hope the grass recovers, and I hope it doesn’t rain next year. And I hope this isn’t the last ACL for us.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


You’d think that now that all the angst and uncertainty of this past year were over that I would be happy and content; doing my part to see that this house in Austin sells and preparing for the big move. Well, yes I’m doing that; I keep this house uncluttered, tidy and clean and make myself scarce whenever a realtor wants to show it to a prospective client. I’m making lists and doing whatever it is I need to do from this end to prepare for the move. But really, there’s just not that much to do here right now. The only reason I’m here and not in New England is because somebody really needs to keep this house occupied while all our possessions still reside here. And so here I sit.

I’ve always been good at occupying myself, no matter what the situation and now is no exception. Besides the eternal house-cleaning and the basics of cooking and errand-running I spent the 16th through the 21st of this month in St. Louis with my mom. We celebrated Rosh Hashanah together on Saturday. I did some work to clean up her office and get some of her paperwork filed. My mom does a very good job of keeping track of her affairs but she truly hates organizing things and putting them away, and at 81 years old she’s not going to change any time soon. I created an “in box” for her and just said “if you don’t feel like filing things put them here and I’ll be happy to file them the next time I’m in town.” It’s a lot better than sorting through five years of randomly filed papers!

I was also able to see how much pain her hip is giving her. Around 8 years ago she broke her hip when my father lost his balance and knocked her over. The hip joint was surgically repaired but it’s always been somewhat painful and it’s gotten much worse. She’s going to a surgeon October 8th and I'm prepared to hear that she’s finally going to have to get the hip repaired again or even get the joint replaced.

When I got back from St. Louis I had to buy a car. The week before Daniel left for Boston with Lee he was in a car accident. A lady pulled out right in front of him (while talking on a cell phone no less) and he ran right into her. Thank goodness no one was hurt, but they finally determined that the Hyundai was totaled. This turned out to be really great news in a way because they gave us $6,000 for it which was WAY more than we would have ever gotten for it on a trade-in or if we tried to sell it ourselves.

Lee did the research online and sent me five or six cars to look at. A few of them were in Austin, but if they didn’t suit I was going to have to go to Houston. I bought the second car I looked at, a Subaru Legacy All Wheel Drive Sedan. It’s a really nice car, blue, with a tan interior. It’s a 2008, but it has a fair number of miles (37,000) because it was a rental car. No matter, it drives really nicely and doesn’t have a scratch on it. I’m happy to have a nice car to drive again!

But now, here I sit. Frankly I’m bored! I’m eager for Lee to show up Thursday night, for Mel and Stan to get here, for ACL next weekend. I’m eager to go up to Boston again the weekend of the 8th through 13th of October to see the fall colors and drive to the Berkshires to buy ski equipment! I’m READY to pack up this house on the 19th and 20th and drive to Boston. I want to close on our new house, move in, and start the next part of my life.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Boston House-Hunting

Saturday, September 5th, 2009

I can’t believe we’re going to get to live in New England! My favorite book as a child, Understood Betsy, by Dorothy Canfield, is the story of a little girl that gets sent from some unnamed big city (probably Boston) to a rural area in Vermont to live with her cousins, and in a loving environment learns self-reliance and confidence. She overcomes her fear of dogs (dogs terrified me as a child), gets her mathematical confusions corrected, takes care of a younger child, learns about humor and making maple sugar. She experiences snow, country roads, train rides and driving horses. I was enchanted and ready to move there immediately!

I’ve never lived on the east coast, except for a year in DC when I was in 5th grade. I’m excited to be near New York City, and only a short train ride away from downtown Boston, yet in an area of charming New England towns, filled with history.

But finding a house we like is going to be a challenge. We’d love to live in one of these little towns that are within a reasonable commuting distance to Lee’s job. Yesterday I went out with our realtor and looked at houses in Andover, North Andover, North Reading, Boxford, Newbury and Newburyport. All of the towns are just as cute as can be, but the housing is all over the place. If we had more money to spend we could definitely find a dream-house, but we don’t. If we were willing to do major renovations to an older house we might end up with something amazing, but that’s something of a shaky proposition. So far the house in our price range that meets all of our wants and needs is elusive.

I did get a much better picture of this area yesterday. Today we’re going to look at some additional towns as well – Haverhill, Chelmsford, and a couple of towns in New Hampshire – Salem and Windham. There are some nice lakes up there that would meet Lee’s desire to live on water. We’re going to look at some building lots, and there’s a house in Newburyport that from the outside looks amazing and is in a great location.

I asked our realtor a lot of questions yesterday about winter (November through April), amount of snow (about a foot of snow on the ground through much of this time), snow removal (efficient and fast but you’re sick of shoveling by March), commuter trains (hub and spoke system goes to most northern suburban towns). Mentally I’m making notes to check out the Newcomer’s Club and the League of Women Voters in these towns.

Monday Morning, September 7th, 2009

We looked at the house in Newburyport on Saturday. It’s a great little house, in a wonderful location, but it’s not perfect. It’s not a true open design (there’s a wall between the kitchen and the living room). The kitchen isn’t perfect, although it will do. It doesn’t have a gas line to the house, so it’s a real fireplace and an electric stove, but we’re investigating if a gas line could be run to the house. It doesn’t have air conditioning (!) but it doesn’t sound like that’s really an issue up here except for maybe 3 weeks out of the year. It has a really nice yard; it has a beautiful deck, a great master bedroom, huge walk-in closets, plenty of storage, and nice bedrooms upstairs. I think we would be all over it, except for the price. It is at the absolute top of our price range and we have no idea if they would come down much, if at all.

Then yesterday, while our realtor was taking the day off, Lee and I drove around on our own for hours. We drove past a lot of houses up in Salem, New Hampshire and found three we want to go inside on Tuesday. One is really beautiful and right next to a lake, but doesn’t have its own lake access. It’s way out in the country too. The other two are right on lakes. One looks too good to be true for the price, but doesn’t have a garage. The other one has a one car garage and would probably need work, but definitely has potential. All the prices are much more reasonable, but we are back to country living and I’m just not sure what I think about that any more. They are all easy commutes for Lee, but Salem isn’t nearly as charming from what I can see as Andover or Newburyport.

Monday Evening, September 7th, 2009

Sunday we found a house in Andover that we want to see. It’s in a very pretty part of town and looks beautiful from the outside. The pictures on the internet look great, but you can never really tell from that. It has a pool, which seems kind of stupid here. AND the name of the street it is on is Penni Lane! That’s going to be an issue; we were humming or whistling Penny Lane for hours yesterday!

We also drove over to Newburyport again and stared at the house we like there. We drove through downtown Newburyport and over to Plum Island to eat lobster rolls at Bob’s Lobster House. The weather was absolutely perfect – blue skies, temps in the high sixties. Then we drove through the tourist part of Newburyport, right by the ocean. It would be an amazing place to live, and now it’s clearer to me why the price of that house is so high. If Lee could stand the commute (probably 35 minutes each way) it’s by far my favorite town.

Then last night we drove over to my Cousin Mark’s house in Newtonville, near Boston College. Mark and Amy, his wife, are both doctors. Mark is around six years younger than me. They have three children. One is a sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis; one is going to be a junior in high school and the youngest is a freshman. They are really nice, down-to-earth people, and it will be fun to live close to them. We went for a walk in their neighborhood after dinner. We could hear the Boston College soccer team playing a game as we walked through the woods near their house.

The Boston Marathon passes close to where they live so we walked over to the Johnny Kelley statue. Johnny Kelley is famous. He ran the Boston Marathon a record 61 times, won twice, placed second 7 times and in the top ten 18 times. It is actually two statues, one showing Johnny as a young man and one as an older man, both as runners, raising their arms in victory. The statues are at the bottom of Heartbreak Hill. Heartbreak Hill comes at miles 20 and 21 in the marathon, a point where many runners hit the “wall”, meaning that glycogen stored in their muscles has become depleted. When I think about how tired I was at 15 miles and try to imagine getting to 18 miles and reaching a hill like that it’s not a pleasant thought! I ran yesterday for the first time since coming here and I felt fine, no aches and pains, which is encouraging. When I start training again for my next race I’m going to build in more recovery time after long runs. Galloway says as you get older you need to do that, and now I’m convinced. I’d like to try training for some shorter events though – 5 and 10Ks – before I attempt another long event. And I’m not so sure about training here in the winter anyway.

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

Well, it’s Tuesday morning, and we’re meeting our realtor again at 10 am. We’re going to tour the house in Andover we found yesterday and go back to the house in Newburyport again. Then we’re going to tour the three houses in Salem and Windham and then we’ll make our decision and make an offer. I have a feeling we’ll make an offer on the house in Newburyport and use one of the other houses as a backup.

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

Isn’t it funny how things work out? The house on Penni Lane was a complete bust inside. The lakefront properties in Salem and Windham were total rehabs and when it came down to it they were just more work than we wanted to take on. We made an offer on the house in Salem last night. Inside it was absolutely perfect. The kitchen is a dream; the open floor plan is just what we wanted. The master bedroom, bath and closet are wonderful. It has two additional bedrooms and an office, a formal dining room, large doors and windows leading to a deck in the backyard. It has a gas fireplace, and a fire pit out back. It’s shielded from the road by woods, and the backyard borders conservation land. It was built in 2005, so it’s almost new. Yes its out in the country, but it isn’t very far to the cute towns nearby. And it’s close to the train or bus to Boston proper. The Newburyport house is the backup if for some reason this one doesn’t work out.

It was a very hard decision to make yesterday. Emotionally we were so drawn to the town of Newburyport, but the price and the commute were daunting. And although the house in Salem is out in the country it’s very close to the practical necessities of life – groceries, gas, malls, etc. And New Hampshire has no sales tax and is just a less expensive place to live. I’m really okay with the decision today. But we’ve got to wait and see what happens with the offer before we get too excited.

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

Well I’m on the plane back to Austin, and we have a house! They accepted our offer yesterday. They ended up going down $15,000 from their asking price which is fine with us. We have a contingency to make sure that the area designated as “wetlands” in the front portion of the property won’t prevent us from paving or even moving the driveway in a year or so, but other than that we are moving to New Hampshire and the closing date is October 30th.

Yesterday I took Lee to work and then did a lot of investigative driving. I drove all around the little lake where the house is located. I was looking for good places to jog. On our side of the lake there are cute little lakeside cabins next to houses like ours and a few McMansions. The roads on this side of the lake have little traffic so it will be great for walking and running. I can probably figure out a 4-5 mile run on our side.

To go all the way around the lake is around 7 miles, but there’s no way to avoid running on busier roads with poor shoulders at some points so I doubt that I will do that very often. I’d like to find an area with hiking or biking trails for longer runs. There must be someplace like that not too far away, but I don’t know where that is, yet.

The lake (I think its name is Arlington) has private beach clubs. If we join one of them we can use it for swimming and small craft boating. I saw some people using kayaks on it yesterday. Lee could get a small sailboat – a Hobie-cat or a sunfish, but nothing with a keel, because it’s pretty shallow. He was talking about a small ski boat, but we’d have to find out the rules for motor boats. I kind of hope motor boats are not allowed; I like the quiet!

There is a place in Salem called the Town Forest, and I drove to it as well. It has trails that can be used for hiking, biking or cross-country skiing, but not running (too rugged). It’s very close and will be a nice place to go sometimes.

Then I investigated both the bus terminal and the closest train station, for trips into Boston. The bus terminal is very close, maybe 5 minutes from the house. And non-rush hour the bus is only around 35 minutes to Boston. Its more expensive than the train, but not by much. There are two train stations I can try. I drove to the one in Haverhill, around 15 minutes away. Even though the train is cheaper, it takes longer and you have to pay $4 to park, so the difference ends up being not that great. I’ll have to check out the station in Lowell and see if it is more convenient. I’ll probably try all these different modes of transportation. I don’t think I’ll drive into the city very often, unless I have visitors like my mom that can’t do much walking.

There’s a Newcomer’s Club in Andover, maybe 20 minutes from the house. That will be a good way to make friends in the area. I’ll also look for a book or gardening club at the local library in Salem or Andover. I have lots of friends on the East Coast but I need to meet new people in the immediate area too. After all I need ladies for lunch dates, shopping, walking! I have so many different kinds of interests…it just depends what’s available and excites me once I’m settled. I have moved enough by now that I know there’s no telling what that might be!

I intended to take lots of pictures this week, but really fell down on the job. We were just working too hard on the task of finding a house for me to be very creative. It’s too bad; the surrounding area is beautiful, the little towns are charming, the moon was full and lit the night with an unearthly glow, the leaves are just beginning to turn. Ah well. I’ll be back here in mid-October and it will be a more relaxed visit, with more time for photography.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Rain and House-selling and Swimming

We’ve been having a terrible drought in central Texas. They’ve gotten very little rain this year, or the year before I believe. We flew over Lake Travis on our way back from Portland and it looked like the moon – a deep crater with a little bit of blue water in the middle surrounded by brown clay in every direction. Strange islands have appeared in the middle of the lake where no islands ever were before. This is the worst drought in this area since the early 1950’s.

Days without rain in Missouri used to make me anxious because I always had a garden back then, and no sprinkler system. I would worry about the vegetables and flowers and the lawn, and it was a pain dragging the hose around and trying to keep things alive. Plus, since it’s a state with a lot of farming I would worry about the farmers too. I know things are really bad here, but I don’t seem to be as worried. I may just be getting old and complacent. The City of Austin has water restrictions in place but we live in Travis County so we aren’t affected.

We’re at over 60 days of triple digit temperatures too, which is just amazing. Almost every afternoon this week storm clouds begin to gather and it seems like the entire city cranes its collective head at the sky, willing those clouds to produce some moisture. But every day they dissipate, maybe raining briefly in an isolated neighborhood, but not enough to make any difference in the drought.

Yesterday afternoon the clouds got really dark and it began to thunder and lightning as well. As we were busily completing the paperwork to put the house on the market it started just pouring buckets of rain! We were all so excited; we just stopped what we were doing and watched it rain. We had over a foot of water in the creek in our front yard! It was great. However some of my friends tell me that it didn’t rain at all in their area of Austin. Too bad. And really, we could use a month of rain like that so don’t stop your rain dances just yet.

So the sign went up this morning and the house is officially on the market. Daniel and I are sitting in a coffee shop right now because we’re already having our first showing! We’ve got another scheduled for tomorrow morning too. Wouldn’t it be great if Lee and I could continue our house-selling luck and get this one sold quickly? Our first house never even went on the market before it sold, and our second house sold in a week in a bidding war. This one is priced to sell, but the market is still pretty weak. We shall see. If it doesn’t sell 3M will buy it, but then we have to wait sixty days, and I want to go ahead and move to Boston!

Because my legs are still slowly recovering from the half-marathon I thought maybe I would try something else besides walking on my cross-training days. Hmm, what about swimming? There is a nice public pool close to our house and they have lap-swimming every weekday from 8am to 10am so I decided to give it a try. I bought some goggles and I was ready to go.

The pool is called Deep Eddy Pool. It’s close to Town Lake and is the oldest public swimming pool in Texas. It was a WPA project. It’s not round, like the pool in Fayette, Missouri, but it’s from the same era. Here’s a link describing the history of this pool. .

Anyway, it turned out that Deep Eddy was closed because their pump broke due to the storm last night. Oh well I thought, I can go to Barton Springs. Barton Springs is another Austin landmark. Check out this link: It’s really an amazing structure. It’s a natural spring that is always 68 degrees, year round. It’s open for free swimming from 5am to 9am every morning so I still had time. I drove there, parked and walked inside. The last time I had been to Barton Springs was the first time we lived in Austin, before we moved to Hong Kong. We went to ACL that year and because of hurricane Rita skirting the city to the east, the heat in Austin was horrific, even for central Texas in September. One afternoon we decided to skip the music and walk over to Barton Springs to cool off in that icy water. All I remembered was how cold and how good the water felt.

As I walked inside I realized that I had forgotten how big and how strange Barton Springs is. It’s truly huge, maybe 5 times as big as a normal swimming pool. Reading about it online lets me know that it is actually 1/8 of a mile in length and 150 feet across at its widest spot. And it’s NOT normal. Although it has concrete sides and concrete steps to enter the water, the bottom is natural materials. Some places its rocky, but other places there are wavy plants growing below. There’s a current too, so it’s harder to swim in one direction and easier to swim in another.

I adjusted my goggles and entered the water. I don’t know when the last time was that I attempted to swim for fitness. Boy was I out of practice! I have a decent crawl, but 30 seconds of the crawl left me gasping and disoriented. I had to use the breast stroke instead a lot. I kept trying to use the crawl for a little while. Part of the problem is Barton Springs is so big that you don’t get a break like you usually do swimming in a regular pool. The cold and the current probably had an effect as well.

I only swam for around 15 minutes and then it was time to get out because the free swim was over. It’s just as well. I think swimming is a good cross-training exercise; my legs are less sore today. I didn’t have to take Motrin at all. But I’m going to have to work up slowly to 30 minutes of the crawl and it would be easier in a smaller (and warmer) pool like Deep Eddy. I hope they get their pump fixed soon!


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