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“What is your favorite way to recharge when you feel drained of energy?”

There’s a reason this blog is called “Muttonings,” and there’s a reason I post as “Mrs. Mutton.”  It has everything to do with sheep, to wit:  Somewhere around 1977, I suddenly got into knitting in a big way.  Up to then, I had divided my time fairly evenly between knitting and cross stitch, but in 1977, my daughter was two, and the thought of those little fingers and eyes around sharp, pointy objects was too horrific to entertain; so I turned to the less-sharp pointy objects known as knitting needles, and for many years afterwards, knitting was my sole handwork.  In fact, my son, born in 1979, has never known me to do anything else.

In 1982, I became acquainted with the knitting philosophy of Elizabeth Zimmermann.  The woman was an utter genius at combining art, math, and practicality, and her chosen medium was wool.  Not just generic yarn – wool, “from the simple, silly sheep,” as she put it in one of her books.  It was largely due to her influence that I gradually became a Wool Snob, and began accumulating wool yarn to such an extent that my family teased that I was becoming a sheep.  These days I have stuffed sheep, pictures of sheep, sheep calendars, books about sheep…well, as you can see, the thing has taken on a life of its own.

So I am “Mrs. Mutton” (actually, that is the name of one of my stuffed sheep, who began life as “Ms. Mutton” of the famous brokerage firm, E.F. Mutton, until my husband rescued her from a life of Ms.-ery), and the odd pronouncements I mutter to myself have become known, locally, as “muttonings.”  All of which I offer as background to my favorite way of recharging when I am drained of energy.  Which is only partially with knitting.

There actually is something very, very soothing and mindless about repetitive hand motion.  Mind you, there is nothing relaxing about learning to knit; like any other unknown activity, it’s very stressful to learn.  But the rewards of sticking with the effort are completely disproportionate to the effort involved in learning the craft; you can actually knit your way to lower blood pressure.  And while your hands are occupied, and your brain either goes blank or focuses on the intricacies of, say, Aran knitting, other, more convoluted knots are unraveled.  I daresay that many a mental-health issue could be successfully treated by teaching patients to knit.

But as I say, recharging my personal batteries is a two-pronged process.  Knitting – or counted cross-stitch – is one prong, having something to occupy my mind that is completely unrelated to whatever it is that’s sapping my energy.  The other prong is classical music.

I’m not talking about the Bombast, or the Searching-for-the-Lost-Chord kind of cacophony that has become associated with classical music.  That stuff has its place (I guess), once you’ve become accustomed to the very different tempo of classical music, so much slower and more thought-infused than what currently occupies most space on the airwaves.  But if you want to relax, or if you’re really new to classical music, you want Baroque – Vivaldi, say, or Handel.  Or Bach, who wrote the music that is the title of this post, Sheep May Safely Graze.  Bach’s music covers every range of emotions, from utterly sublime to rollicking fun to just plain funny (his Coffee Cantata begins with a father grumping, “Ain’t it a fact that our kids give us a hundred thousand different kinds of heartburn,” or the eighteenth-century Germanic equivalent thereof).  And Vivaldi is such easy listening that a friend of ours once joked that “Vivaldi wrote the same concerto 425 times,” there being 425 works listed in the “Ryom Listing,” the most commonly used catalogue of Vivaldi’s compositions.

Knitting to the Oldies.  Works every time.

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Weekends being for free-writing in the NaBloPoMo world, I thought I’d take the opportunity to update folks on our latest home-improvement project.

Now that the kids are out of the house, we have been able to upgrade our property gradually over the past several years, adding porches front and back, updating the furnace, and most recently, putting on a new roof and upgrading the bathroom.  Thanks goodness for home-improvement loans.  All of these, I might add, were actually necessary upgrades; now that we are in our sixties, falls are much more of a concern, so the old back steps and front porch had to go (being made out of stone).  We have already seen significant savings in our heating bill from the new furnace – not an easy bill to trim in northern climates – and our roof would not have withstood another winter.

The bathroom was another matter, and not strictly speaking necessary.  What occasioned its remodel was the caulking around the tub, where it abuts the wall – the caulking was impossible to keep clean, and the hubster was constantly having to refresh it.  So when we contracted to have our roof repaired, he asked the contractor if he could do something about the caulking around the tub.  And the answer was…you should think about a new bathtub.

In “thinking” about a new tub (for all of five seconds), the hubster decided what the heck, just have the whole bathroom remodeled.  It’s only 6 x 8 feet (very roughly, 5.5 meters x 7 meters) – the house was built in the 1950s, when large and luxurious bathrooms were the province of Hollywood stars.  So we knew it was a project we could afford.  The real problem was that everything was going to have to come out and be replaced, and we only have the one bathroom.

The contractor was phenomenal.  He cut the bathtub out – I still don’t know how he cut porcelain into thirds – and the new tub was installed the same day, which was the first day of the project.  The new “surround” – a special wall that resists moisture – went in at the same time, and I could see why he had recommended replacing the tub:  There’s a “lip” that curves up around the edge of the tub, and the surround slots into that lip, eliminating the need for caulking altogether.  Twenty-first-century bathing.

Every evening before he left for the day, he would reinstall the toilet so that we had something we could use.  The bathroom sink, well, that was another matter; it sat in our kitchen for the entire three weeks of the remodel, and we had to brush our teeth at the kitchen sink morning and night, which gets real interesting when the kitchen sink comes up to your chest (as mine does on me).  For shaving, my husband had a small hand mirror that he would prop up against the kitchen window.  The last time we lived this way was when we lived in a third-floor cold-water flat as newlyweds in Germany, and even then, he had a mirror in the bathroom for shaving.  (I used to pour hot water from the kettle into the sink so that he had hot water for shaving.)

The walls came out, too, in a complete gutting of the bathroom.  Fortunately, the weather stayed warm so that we didn’t need insulated walls – we’d have frozen, otherwise – and the electrician hooked up one light bulb so that we weren’t showering in the pitch dark.  Using the bathroom in the early morning, however, was another story; who wants to turn on a light bulb at 5:00 a.m.?!  And that’s where flexibility saved the day.

When he was finished showering in the evening, my husband would drape his towel over two nails that had been hammered into the frame around the window, and that served as our “curtain” so we had a modicum of privacy in the evening.  Before we went to bed, we’d remove the towel, which left the light of a street lamp shining onto the white surround, and provided us with just enough “light” that we could see what we were doing before sunrise.  Really, I don’t know how people managed before electricity – how did you see what you were doing when it came time to light the fire in the morning?!  I mean, even a nighttime candle would have burned down overnight, no?

We did a lot of laughing over these three weeks – we laugh a lot anyway at the vagaries of life, but when everything is topsy-turvy, it really helps to keep your sense of humor.  We did a lot of reminiscing, too, about our newlywed experiences, and my husband recalled the winter morning when he was shaving in that cold-water bathroom and looked up to see…snowflakes drifting down through the closed window in the roof.  (It was a rooftop flat.)  Compared with that, our current state of affairs was almost luxury.

But I won’t pretend I wasn’t ecstatic when the bathroom sink was finally hooked back up and I didn’t have to stand on tiptoes to brush my teeth.

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I was originally going to respond to the NaBloPoMo prompt, “Are you good at hiding your feelings, or is your face an open book?” but something else related to the topic of Masks has been on my mind lately, namely, do you hide from your roots?

There used to be an expression when I was young, “forgetting where you came from.”  It was used in talking about people with humble beginnings who had risen to great heights, like Donald Trump being from Rego Park in Queens, NY.  Rego Park is a nice enough neighborhood, but it will never have the same status as being from Jamaica Estates.  Or Gramercy Park in Manhattan.  One of the highest compliments anyone could pay such a person was that “he hasn’t forgotten where he came from”; to “forget where you came from” was despicable.

And it’s on my mind lately because I know two people who seem to have forgotten Where They Came From.  One of them is my own daughter, who has apparently decided that her parents are too ordinary for her to bother staying in touch with.  Or maybe it’s that our house, all 950 square feet of it, is too modest.  It may even be that she has unhappy memories of growing up among us, though that was never an excuse for blowing off Family.  Be that as it may, she recently acquired a hot-shot job with an international company that involves jetting back and forth across the Atlantic – I won’t say where – and other than apprising us of that fact (after telling her immediate world on Facebook), she hasn’t said a word to us about her life.  Or her husband, or their children.  The situation has gone on for so long that I’m not sure it can ever be repaired, and that’s not something anyone should be able to say about her children.

The other is an old friend of my husband’s from grade school.  These two boys were over at each other’s houses every day, and were as close as brothers.  They stayed in touch through high school and college, and even after military service, for a time.  But military service seemed to change things between them, as (despite having a college degree before enlistment) my husband was assigned to the enlisted ranks, and this other fellow became an officer.  After the service, he and his wife had us out to their home a few times, and we had them to ours; they lived on Long Island, in increasingly tony neighborhoods, and we lived in Queens, not too far from where we had grown up.  He went on to a career in nuclear physics, my husband went into occupational safety and health.  And one day, this guy simply stopped writing, and didn’t return telephone calls.  We never figured out why.

Recently, my husband went to some trouble to look him up on the internet.  He’s now living in the Southwest – I’m being deliberately vague – but he has an important position in his community, and is very obviously among the ranks of the Successful.  My husband got an address for him and sent him a note, together with his e-mail address and an invitation to renew the friendship.  That was three weeks ago, and he hasn’t heard a thing.

Meanwhile, over on Facebook, I’ve reconnected with a number of people who are cousins, or friends of cousins, from the old neighborhood.  It’s so much fun to talk about the old haunts, to catch up on one another’s lives, to see what we all look like now – you can see the resemblance to who they were 40 years ago – just to reconnect.  When we are “together,” even via the internet, the masks come off, and we are still pretty much the same group who enjoyed laughs together, and shared the torments of Catholic school (about which we laugh, now).  Every once in so often, one or another of us will reconnect with yet another branch of the family, and the fun starts all over again.

I feel sorry for my daughter, and for my husband’s friend.  Sure, it’s nice to have the toys and props to impress your new friends – maybe – I mean, aren’t you always on display?  Don’t you always have to wear that mask?  When do you get to be yourself, to slip and say “cawfey” when referring to your morning beverage, instead of whatever pronunciation of “coffee” is locally acceptable?  Or talk about what it was like to move from a four-room railroad flat in Ridgewood to a single-family house in Maspeth?  (A railroad flat is an apartment with rooms just like a railroad car – you have to walk through all the rooms, even the bedrooms, to get from front to back.  A lot of Brooklyn and Queens apartments were railroad flats.)

Home has a lot of definitions:  Home is where you hang your hat, home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in, home is where the heart is – my favorite came from the German author, Max Frisch:  “Home is where we understand the people, and they understand us.”  Home is where you can take the mask off.  Home is where you came from.

Don’t forget where you came from.  The loss is permanent.

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“What is the first thing you see in the morning?”

The title of this post comes from an absolutely wonderful German folk song:

“Jeden Morgen geht die Sonne auf, in der Waelder wundersame Runde;/ und die schoene, scheue Schoepferstunde, jeden Morgen nimmt sie ihren Lauf.”  Loosely translated, “Every morning when the sun comes up, all the woods are filled with song; and the shimmer of a new creation, morning all too swiftly runs along.”  There are three more verses, but this post isn’t about those.

I am extraordinarily blessed to live, if not exactly in the country, in a rural small town.  It’s not as quiet as it was when we first moved here; too many people have discovered that they can drive to Boston from this part of the world if they leave early enough, and now our mornings, which used to ring with the moo of cows waiting to be milked, are filled with the swish of tires making their way to the nearby Turnpike, and thence to an interstate that will take them right into downtown Boston.

But it’s still quieter than when we lived in New York, almost on top of the Long Island Expressway, so the first thing I see when I wake up actually depends on the time of the year.  In the summer, my room is filled with a soft morning sun, and I can clearly see the icons that adorn my dresser across the room.  Now that it’s autumn, the sun doesn’t come up until after 6:30 a.m., so my room is filled with shadows.  From long habit, I feel my way to the windows and open the Venetian blinds, and the first thing I see out the window is – trees.  We have a yard full of them; no real flowers, outside of the “maybells” (lily of the valley – my husband prefers the German term for them) that encroach over the northern quarter of our yard, and as far as I’m concerned, they’re welcome to encroach all over the whole thing.  I love maybells.

Then I move from the east window to the north window, and when I open that, I see my next-door neighbor’s house.  It isn’t a show-place by any means, but it reminds me how blessed we are to have good neighbors next door to us, quiet folks about our age with a similar outlook on life.  Good neighbors are a gift from God.

When I make my way into the kitchen, usually the first thing I’ll look for is a light in the windows of our neighbor to the south – a convent.  It’s actually a novitiate for the Daughters of Mary, Mother of Healing Love, and if I can see a light in the window, somehow it’s reassuring to know that the girls have survived the night and are not in any trouble.  Just as our neighbors to the north have our backs, it just seems right that we should keep an eye on these girls and make sure they are okay.

After that, I like to stick my nose out the back door and see what the temperature is.  We have a thermometer next to the back door – it’s been there since before we moved in, and frankly, it looks like it – and it’s not the most accurate tool on the planet, but at six o’clock in the morning, it does its job.  (It’s really only inaccurate in the afternoon, because our driveway is a sun trap and the thing registers about 15 degrees hotter than it actually is.)

Then – assuming I’m the one who’s up first, which isn’t always the case – I put the hot water on for coffee, and head into the living room for my morning prayers.  Coffee per se is my husband’s job; he makes better coffee than I do, and I can’t think why, because I’m the one who taught him how to make coffee.

That first look out the window at my world fills me with peace and strength to begin the day.

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Question:  ”How much of the world have you seen?”

Answer:  Not as much as most people.  I mean, one of my brothers has been to both Germany and Ireland – his wife has relatives in Germany, and his son was doing an internship in Ireland, so both visits weren’t as expensive for him as they would be for us, since he had family to stay with.  Another brother was in the Navy, so he did get to see a lot of port cities.  My daughter travels regularly to Israel, now that she works for a company based there, and trust me, the Middle East will never be on my bucket list, so I don’t envy her.  My father was also in the Navy, but that was during the Second World War, so I don’t imagine he got to see much of anything, and my stepfather was in England and France during that same event.

But my third brother, my sister, and my son have never been outside this country, and although my mother lived in San Francisco for a time, she never left these shores, either.  Whereas I, as most people know by now, lived in Germany for three years, along with my husband, and I must say that although we never travelled outside that country, we did cover it top to bottom, and in retrospect, I’m glad we didn’t do the Tourist Thing.  There’s nothing like actually living in a foreign country to broaden your horizons; not only do you have to learn to get around foreign streets, which is true any time you set foot outside your hometown, but if you’re going to live there for any length of time, it’s a good idea to learn the language and the social customs; and once you do that, you’re never the same person you were.

It’s true that I would have liked to see Amsterdam.  And, since I spoke French at the time, it could have been fun to travel at least to Alsace-Lorraine, where some of my ancestors came from.  Someday I would dearly love to see Russia, and that part of Germany that was behind the Iron Curtain when I lived there, especially Eisenach, the birthplace of my bud, J. S. Bach.  And I’ve always wanted to see Japan; I love Japanese culture.  Here’s the thing about Someday, though:  Your world does necessarily shrink as you grow older.  You just don’t have the stamina you did at 30 or 40.  So the likelihood of my going anywhere outside the country dwindles with every passing year, and frankly, at this point, I’m just as glad to skip the horrors of the TSA.  Domestic travel is tough enough.

Domestically, my life has been pretty much limited to the East Coast, although I did spend three unforgettable years (hard though I’ve tried to forget them) in West Virginia.  New York is on most people’s bucket lists; I was fortunate to have been born and brought up there, so I spent nearly thirty years “wak[ing] up in the city that never sleeps.”  There actually are portions that do sleep, by the way.  Some people claim that Queens County, where I grew up, never woke up.

But we’ve lived in New England for over thirty years, now – first Boston and now New Hampshire – and although it will never be Home in the sense that New York is, I’ve been happy here (especially in Autumn).  However, the most interesting aspect of living here has been the cultural differences; despite its still being on the East Coast, and only 300 miles from New York City, some of the cultural norms are frankly bizarre, by New York standards.  One idea that floored me when I came across it was the notion that it’s somehow “racist” to ask people where their ancestors came from; in New York, everybody wants to know where you’re From, and I know people who can recite every iota of their ancestry (me being one of them).  Another one I’ll never get used to is this Tailgating thing; apparently, according to my aunt who was a native Mainer, people actually get on your bumper for a reason:  They’re  hinting that you should speed up.  In New York, tailgating is rude, and I’m considering a bumper sticker that would read:  ”WARNING:  I brake for tailgaters.”  (Not to mention the other, and apparently more common, meaning of tailgating, partying out of your car at a sporting event.  I’ll never get used to that one.)

And the ubiquitous bumper stickers/car decals, “Yankees Suck.”  Um, I think the problem with the Yankees is that they don’t “suck” – there’s a reason they keep defeating the Red Sox.  Nevertheless, I do understand the sentiment, and even sympathize with it, being a Mets fan.  New Englanders have been without a National League team ever since the Boston Braves pulled up stakes and moved to…where was it, anyway?  I know they were the Atlanta Braves for a time, but they moved from someplace in the upper Midwest, then moved back there after Atlanta.  Anyway, somehow, it’s inconceivable for New Englanders that you can be from New York and not be a Yankee fan, and I have a lot of fun with that.

Bottom line:  No, I haven’t seen that much of the world.  But I’velived every place I’ve been.

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Lunch

I have a relatively minor but important indulgence:  I eat lunch out almost every day.  It’s ironic that the importance of Lunch Out escalates during Orthodox fasting periods, when we’re supposed to be saving money for almsgiving, but there it is:  I find other places to cut back so I can give alms, but Lunch Out is critically important at such times, since my favorite cafe is the only place I can get a veggie burger on a bun.  I could cook a veggie burger at home, true.  But in this household of two, plain bread gets moldy in no time flat; I hate to think what would happen with burger buns, being consumed at the rate of one per day.

There is the added attraction of my “branch office.”  When I tell my husband I’m going to my “branch office,” he knows where to find me if he feels like joining me:  At Cafe on the Corner.  Before he retired, I used to be able to sit at the desk in the office in peace, paying my bills, writing in my journal, keeping my life on track.  Now that Himself is home all day, he spends a good chunk of it on line, doing heaven alone knows what, and I am desk-less.  At Cafe on the Corner, I can snag a large-ish table and spread out, day planner in one corner (I am one of those Paper dinosaurs), stacks of bills-to-be-paid and bills-to-be-mailed in another corner, and lunch in front of me; eventually, the empty dishes and the pile of bills will swap places.  I keep stamps and address labels in my planner, and my tote is large enough (and with pockets enough) that I can carry around a Paid stamp with me.  Being organized with “Office Tchotchkes” makes me feel Productive.  Once a secretary, always a secretary, I guess.

Recently my husband and I were discussing my odd little habit of Lunch Out, and I mentioned that when I was young and single, I had always eaten lunch out.  “Didn’t you ever pack a lunch?” he asked, surprised, and I had to think about it for a minute.  I knew that I had never packed a lunch; now, why?  Then it dawned on me.  “Sweetheart, anything I had brought into that house for lunch the next day would have disappeared overnight.  There were three hungry teenaged boys in that house, and they’d eat anything not nailed down.”

This is the difference between Only Children and Children with Four or More Siblings.  Only Children are accustomed to being able to put things in one place and being able to find them again several hours later.  Children with Four or More Siblings know that there is no such thing as A Safe Place.  The thought of leaving a cookie unattended “until we get back from a walk,” as my husband once did when we were visiting his parents, is enough to send someone like me into paroxysms of laughter.  So is the concept of Packing Lunch.

So, all these decades later, I find that I draw a blank when it comes to Making Lunch.  Sandwich meat between two slices of bread, OK.  Tuna mixed with mayo between two slices of bread, OK.  The ubiquitous peanut butter and jelly sandwich, OK (somewhat — I’m allergic to peanut butter, but I get the concept of it).  A can of soup, OK.  Every day for six weeks, not OK.  Throw in a fasting period, and I panic.  No meat, no dairy?!  WHAT?!?!  What do I do with this?!

Lunch Out as a mental-health concept, that’s what.  Me and my paperwork.  Me and a book.  Being Among other people without having to be With them.  And the possibility of a chance encounter, on a cold and dispiriting rainy afternoon, with the distinguished-looking retired federal agent who has shared my home for over forty years — Yes!  Geezer Trysts!  It’s all good.

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The wild weather patterns of the past few years continue, and we have been hit with our first major snowstorm — in October.  October, 28-29, to be exact.  Complete with blizzard-like conditions, winds howling between 30 and 60 mph, and, in this part of the world, the inevitable power outtages.

We are blessed, my husband and I, to live on a street called Main Street.  Now, if you saw what constitutes this particular Main Street, you could be forgiven for laughing all the way back to your hometown.  Our town has the “distinction” of being a regular destination for rubes, as in, “You gotta see the night life in X!”  So we regularly get people driving through here, especially in summer, asking us (as we mow the lawn), “Where’s downtown X?”  “Well, buddy, this is it.  Ya see the post office down the street?  And the little circle with the flagpole and the flowers in it?  That’s downtown.”

The other annoying thing about living “downtown” is that there’s a biker bar just up the street, and in the summer, the Thundering Hordes come roaring through on their de-mufflered machines, all day long.  I’m not the only one who wonders why it’s OK for bikers to roar all over New Hampshire, while car drivers can be ticketed for doing the same thing, but I think I’m the only one who supposes that local law enforcement has been instructed not to annoy a major source of revenue.  Bikers bring a lot of money to this rural state.

However, winter or summer, there’s this to be said for living on Main Street:  When the hurricanes or blizzards rage, as both have done this year, and our power goes out, we’re among the first to get it back.  I think it has a lot to do with the fire station that’s just up the street (opposite end from the biker bar).  Even though they have a backup generator, it runs on diesel fuel, and there’s only so much diesel that the City can afford to buy.

So this time, we were without lights and heat for “only” 18 hours.  Last time, during Hurricane Irene, we were without power for ten hours.  But there was a time, not all that long ago, that we were without power for three days, and that was in the middle of winter.  We were very fortunate that our house only got down to 50F; others we knew were at freezing before their power came back on.

Still others we know never felt the cold, and relied on oil lamps for lighting; they use wood stoves.  We used to have one, but found it inefficient, and got rid of it when the pipes failed and smoke began to fill the basement.  I’d consider a pellet stove so that we could at least have heat; but the other factor to consider is the refrigerator.  We began our married life in Europe, so I got into the habit early of buying only what we need for each day, and generally that works well for our needs; but especially if you are expecting a snowstorm, the tendency is to buy ahead, in case you can’t get out for several days, and then when your power goes off, you’re stuck with all those groceries.  Coolers can only hold so much, and last for so long.

Not to mention being incommunicado, which wasn’t as much of a problem when we were newlyweds in Europe and had neither television nor telephone.  We had each other (cue the Kitsch music).    😉    But now we are old, and while we still have each other (thankfully), we also tend to get nervous about being totally out of touch.  After all, a fall at this point in our lives could kill us.

So we are now looking into the other backup plan observed by most of our neighbors:  a generator.  Nearly everyone else on the block has a little portable genny that runs off gasoline.  My husband, son of a fireman as he is, has a horror of flammable liquids around the house.  We also have an alternative source of fuel to tap into:  We heat our house with natural gas, where most of our neighbors use oil or the ol’ reliable wood stove.  So we’ve been looking into a whole-house generator  that can be hooked up to a natural-gas outlet, one that would provide us with power for nearly all our major appliances as well as lights.  Considering what you need to be able to run — furnace, water tank, refrigerator — it hardly seems worthwhile to look at anything less than a whole-house unit.  (We don’t have a huge freezer, not being inclined to deer meat, and I refuse to countenance an air conditioner for the 2-3 weeks we would need it.  This is New Hampshire, for crying out loud.  Fans work fine.)

Whole-house units are not cheap.  But neither is peace of mind.  And at this point in life, peace of mind wins out.

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