Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy Mulligan!

It is 10:30 am on New Year's Eve. 

Being a sentimental sort of a gal, I do look forward to the New Year and the fresh start it offers.  Not the quit smoking and lose twenty pounds kind of fresh start.  Although years ago when I smoked, I did often quit for the New Year. 

No, I am talking more metaphorical here.  The symbolism of a clean slate.  Do Over.  Mulligan.  Pentimento.  Call it what you will.  I especially like that last one.  Pentimento.  Painting over what didn't turn out as you expected.  Not wasting time judging or trying to hide things, necessarily, just moving on without regret. I am ready.  Are you?

May your 2010 be filled with success, good health and all the joy your hearts can hold.  Many Blessings to you and to all belonging to you.

Happy, Merry, etc.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Didn't I come to bring you a sense of wonder?

I was in the supermarket this morning.  In the midst of the bustle the sound system played Christmas carol standards from Ella Fitzgerald and Dean Martin.  I rushed around trying to get the very last of my shopping done.   Then because I really needed it, the Chinese Dance from the Nutcracker began to play.  I stuffed my arms up into my sleeves and gave my best imitation of one of the Chinese mushrooms from Fantasia.  I know it is probably politically incorrect, but those little guys just make me want to dance.  And as I danced my way around the corner I ran into a man dancing the other way. We nodded to each other and kept going.  Don't you just love Christmas?

When I was in the 4th grade at Elrama Elementary School, my class made a field trip downtown to see the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater perform the Nutcracker at the Syria Mosque.  They did very little to prepare us in advance for what we were about to see.  In retrospect, that was the perfect approach.  We just got our permission slips signed and then showed up with our brown bag lunches and got on the bus.

Holy Cow!  The theater itself was fantastic, a grand building with sphinxes out front.  Sphinxes.  Imagine.  Nothing like that in Finleyville or Elrama, where we had come from.  We took our seats.  The auditorium was huge.  We all fidgeted and looked around at the murals and the chandelier.  Once the curtain went up I couldn't tell you what anyone else was doing.  I was levitating above my chair, dancing along in my imagination.  It was wonderful from start to finish.  I was the perfect age to absorb the wonder. And it still feels the same to me today.

Over the years I have seen countless versions of the Nutcracker, from professional productions to my niece's preschool ballet class.  It is really funny when they are in tutus and diapers.  I have seen the Harlem Nutcracker and the American Ballet Theater with Mikhail Baryshnikov and this afternoon, Nutcracker: The Motion Picture.  I stay away from the animated ones, because they are, frankly, terrifying. 

Whenever I see it or I hear the music, I am transported back to that day.

The Syria Mosque is now a parking lot.  That is too sad for words.

I have discovered that there are a few places around the US, particularly San Francisco and Chicago where you can dance along with the Nutcracker.  Imagine.  Next year I am going to dance it, even if I have to go alone.  I owe it to myself.  I owe it to George Balanchine.  I owe it to the world, really. 

Let me know if you want to join me.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Treasure Hunting

My friend, Liz, is an avid treasure hunter.  Not deliberately, but she is such a great observer that she can come up with just about anything while walking along the shores of Liscannnor Bay.  Unusual rocks, fossils or the fragile heart-shaped shells that float up on mounds of seaweed around Brigid's Day, there is always treasure on the beach.

A few years ago, one Easter Sunday, after a week of gales, she found a giant rope during our morning walk with the dogs.  It was at least forty feet long and about eight inches in diameter.  It was waterlogged, covered with sand and had the odd bit of fishing net and wood attached to it.  One end still had the original woven loop and the other looked as if it had been torn violently from its moorings.  In other words, it was fantastic.  We were overcome with that universal feeling that all treasure hunters get.  Possession!  We had to have it.  I didn't want it for myself but I was adamant that she got to keep it.

The trouble was that the car was almost a mile away at the cemetery and the only other way out to the road was through half an acre of ancient blackberry bushes.  With no other options, we proceeded to drag the rope down the beach.  We tried dragging it by one end.  It didn't budge.  We tried dragging it by both ends.  It buried its middle under a mountain of sand.  We settled on dragging it by the middle and that worked, sort of.  People passed us on their own walks. They stopped to review our work before continuing on.  "So.. you've got a rope, then,"  said one man as he passed as if it was a most ordinary occurrence.

It was tedious work and after forty five minutes of pushing, pulling and trying to coerce the dogs into towing, we agreed to call her husband for backup.  While we were waiting for Liam to arrive, a woman walked by with her three sons, the youngest of whom was about six.  The boys excitedly eyed the rope and asked questions about where we found it and what we intended to do with it.  They all helped us drag the rope, amid much giggling and speculation about what kind of ship it came from.  A pirate ship, it was decided, and we all agreed to return tomorrow to see if the rest of the ship floated up.  The boys worked hard, but they soon tired and went off with their mother to finish their walk.

When Liam arrived, we had gotten about a third of the way to the cemetery.  "We'll have to saw it into pieces," he said.  "No. Please.  Anything but that," we cried.  He eventually came around to our way of thinking and we all continued pulling, pushing and dragging the giant rope down the beach.  Two hours after she found it, we rolled the rope into the back of the van, triumphant.


My eight-year-old nephew, Marcus, and I went geocaching a few weeks ago.  It is kind of high tech treasure hunting using a hand-held GPS and clues from an internet site.  It was our first time out so we didn't really know what we were doing but during the course of the day we managed to find three hidden treasures.  When we were tromping through the mud on the banks of the Monongahela River, Marcus found loads of treasure.  Not the treasure we were looking for, not right away.  He got a white rock, some sort of clam shell and a bottle cap.  He was so excited about seeing the bottle cap that he went in the water after it.  Eventually, we remembered what we were searching for and we located our first cache.  It was a great rush.  Now I know how the guys who raised the Titanic felt.


Liz called me from Ireland the other day to say that she'd found a message in a bottle.  Truthfully, her dog, Lily, found it. The note inside was from a man in Newfoundland, named Eugene.  Liz, being happily married, sent him a photo of the dog.  I wonder how he felt after putting his longing and loneliness into the bottle only to have the respondent be a border collie who likes to eat socks.


I pondered all of this as I was out walking the dog along the banks of the Monongahela this morning.   Is what we see as treasure and pick up or what we pass by unnoticed really so random after all?  If there was a message in a bottle floating here in the Mon, would I be able to pick it out amidst all the other litter?   

Eloise and I continued up over the hill past the Pony League field and as we crossed an area which must have been an old dumping ground for the glass factory before they made this into a park.  I looked down at something shiny peeking through the dirt.  I dug at it with a stick until it popped out.  I dusted it off on my jeans.  It was a green lump, as big as an egg.  I held it up to the sun.  "A giant emerald," I told Eloise as I slipped it into my coat pocket.

That's the thing about treasure.  There is always another one if you keep looking.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cupan Tae?

When I moved to Ireland I had a coffee habit befitting a woman who lived in a neighborhood with a Starbucks on every other corner.  And I had it bad.  I suffered severe coffee withdrawal in the first few days I was in County Clare.  At that time you couldn't really get a proper cup of coffee.  Even if you ordered one in a posh restaurant, chances are, you got a cup of instant coffee.  Higher end instant coffee, but instant nonetheless.  Blech!  I was devastated.  Coffee was the fuel I ran on.  As I worked my way through increasingly more stressful jobs, my coffee intake increased accordingly.  It was the fuel I ran on.  And I kept running.

Life in my little village didn't require that much extra fuel.  No one I knew had a life so complicated that they couldn't stop for a cup of tea.  If you met a friend on the street one of you would say 'Fancy a cuppa?' and you'd tuck in to Connie's crowded little cafe in Ennistymon, the Atlantic Hotel in Lahinch or on a fine day, the garden of Mary Gray's Doolin Craft Shop.  Or if you found yourself in Dublin, the little girl's tea party fantasy filled with fairy cakes, scones and crust-less cucumber sandwiches served to you on tiered trays to the overstuffed sofas of the Lord Mayor's Lounge at the Shelbourne Hotel.  When the tea arrived, you'd relax and catch up for as long as you had.  Tea always fits into the time allotted.

Tea in Ireland is not really considered an event but it is treated like one.  In keeping with the Irish tradition of chatty hospitality, when you arrived at someone's home before you found yourself a chair you'd hear 'Will I put the kettle on?'  And not any kettle.  They have fabulous electric kettles that boil water in two minutes.  Then the biscuits would appear, not the everyday plain biscuits but the 'just for company' biscuits.  If it was near the holidays, giant tins of assorted biscuits would be offered up to guests.

There are rules for the making of the tea.  I have had instruction from the best experts in the field. Liz's husband, Liam, got me up to speed on the proper method for warming the pot to improve the brew.  And Mary's Auntie Mary in Tullywinney gave me a piece of advice I will treasure always.  "Kathleen,' said she, 'it's not worth boiling the kettle if you're not going to drink it from a china cup." She was right. It just tastes better.'

After a few days at Auntie Mary's house, she began to treat me like family.  She asked me to fill the jug from the milk in the fridge.  She laughed at my surprise when I opened the fridge to find a bucket of milk sitting on the shelf.  On a dairy farm, they don't bother putting it into a carton.

When I moved back to America, I felt a few steps out of sync with everyone else.  One thing led to another and I started drinking coffee again.

Recently while I was visiting Washington I had the pleasure to see some of my favorite friends.  The pace of the place makes it hard to catch up with folks.  It was just lucky this time.  Everyone I wanted to see was available.  I had some lovely visits and I drank countless cups of tea.  A lovely Chinese green tea with a faint fragrance of damask roses with Juliet, iced tea with Renee, and my favorite Lapsang Souchong after an afternoon of crunching through the fallen leaves along the canal with Kurt and the dogs.  Each was an event, perfect in it's own way.

A nice cup of tea always reminds me that Life is good.  So I've put my coffee pot up on the shelf for a while.

Will I put the kettle on?

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Turfless - to be destitute of turf.

We woke at sunrise, the hound and I, and got dressed for our walk. The clear, bright Autumn Sunday with no wind blowing let the factory smells fade away, leaving only the crisp scent of the morning and the falling leaves.

As we stepped through the door, we each sniffed the air. Eloise chasing evidence of her arch-nemesis: Big White Cat. Me, searching for the smoke of a turf fire off in the distance. 3321.69 miles in the distance, as the crow flies.

The blue-gray smoke of a turf fire has the ability to cover time and distance. Cozy like oatmeal with a bit of cinnamon, or hot spiced cider and fuzzy slippers. Afternoons in front of the AGA in Ant's kitchen solving the problems of the world over pots of tea and McVitie's Ginger Nut bisquits. Waking up on a Sunday sofa covered in newspapers. It conjures warmth, shelter from the storm, lost places and boxes of old photos. Happiness with a tinge of longing, like most truly Irish things.

When I was packing to return to America, I stuffed the zippered pockets of my jacket with small bits of turf briquette before tucking it into my suitcase. Thanks Bord na Mona for making it so dry and portable. On days like this when I miss Autumn in Ireland, I light a bit of the turf in an incense burner and let the smell fund my memories.

When I lived in Ireland, I had a waxed paper envelope full of autumn leaves that I would take out of the drawer when I felt lonely for Autumn in America. In my mind's nose the red leaves always smelled a little spicier that the others.

There was a time in my life when I thought that all I needed to be happy was a little cottage by the sea with a turf fire and a ginger cat.

Hmm.  What was I thinking?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Maybe it's the sunstroke talking...

Disney World Orlando.  What an amazing place!

I have sunburn on my nose and blisters on my feet.  Lots of blisters.  There are little tiny geckos running around everywhere and while I think they are adorable, I am really hoping that one of them doesn't jump on me.

I was on safari in the Animal Kingdom.  I saw the Muppets in 3D.  I flew in a hang glider over the Golden Gate Bridge.  And I threw up after wobbling off of Mission: SPACE.  That wasn't one of the high points, but it was memorable.  I should have listened to the 4th or 7th warnings about bailing out if you are prone to motion sickness.  Who knew?  I do now.  In the future if anyone asks if I am bothered about spinning clockwise at the speed of light in a darked, enclosed space, I will definitely raise my hand and quickly step out of the queue.

I love amusement parks.  They're in my blood.  But I didn't expect to love Disney so much. The diverse cast of thousands went out of their way to ensure that the magic was seamless.  Litter was spirited away almost as it hit the ground. They have crowd control down to a science.  At times of the day when the queues for the most popular attractions are longest, suddenly a parade or street performers would appear. 

It was diabolically hot and outragrously expensive.  At times you really had to look to see where the attractions ended and the merchandising began.  There were far too few water fountains.  And let's face it, the heads on some of the Siamese Dolls in It's a Small World looked like they were about to fly off.   But what a wonderful place!  It's fantastic.  It's incredible.  If it is not the happiest place on earth, it deserves credit for trying.  I loved it. 

Just one thing though, I am more than a little creeped out that they keep taking my fingerprints. The nice young woman at the gate assured me that they deleted the information after the passes expired.  Can I get that in writing?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Vanessa vs. the Zombies of Bill Heffner Elementary School

Vanessa gave her mother one final spin to show off her meticulously mismatched outfit before planting a pink flowered boot on the first step of the bus. 

“Have fun, monkey butt,” whispered her mother. 

She waved goodbye and gave the driver a big smile as she looked for an empty seat.
When she was little, she always sat with her brother, but Billy was in Middle School now so she was making the trip on her own for the first time. He sure was a pain, but she kind of missed having him there. First day of school and all. You never know what to expect. 

Vanessa found an empty seat a few rows back. She patted her hair flip and slid across to the window. She turned and looked around at the other passengers. The bus was about half full. The last two rows were filled with 4th and 5th-grade boys, noisy as usual. The first two rows were filled with the shy kids and the little kids, not making a peep. In the middle, nothing but zombies. 

“OMG that is sooo cool,” cooed one of them as she examined the “I Y Hannah” bag carried by her seatmate. 

Vanessa rolled her eyes.

“Everyone knows you’re just jealous.” one of them said. At that, Vanessa laughed out loud. 

“Check this out.” declared another. “It’s a special one of a kind Hannah Montana watch. My mom got it online for my birthday.” She waved her arm in the air to give the others a good look. 

Two of the others were showing off their identical one of a kind watches.
“I guess one of a kind means that you have only one of that kind.“ Vanessa groaned to no one in particular. She looked down at her own oversized watch with the brightly striped leather band and smiled. 

Living in a military community means high turnover in the school population. Vanessa was relieved when the bus stopped again and she saw a familiar, friendly face from her class last year. Relieved, that is, until she spied the Hannah Montana Metallic Denim Scooter with Glitter Belt. 

“Oh no. Not you too.” 

“I got a wake up call this morning from Hannah Montana,” she chirped as she approached the seat. 

“You need a wake-up call,” said Vanessa as she shoved her monkey backpack on the empty seat. 

At each stop, a few more passengers got on. Some were zombies, collectively sporting the entire Walmart Hannah Montana clothing collection. The rest were regular students buzzing with the excitement of the first day of school. The seats filled up until the one next to Vanessa was the only one open. 

She picked up her backpack, pulled out her iPod and cranked up “Funkytown” to drown out the incessant zombie chatter. She sat back and rocked her flowered boots in time with the music. 

At the last stop before the school, a tiny first grader got on and bounced into the empty seat. Vanessa recognized her from the Family Support activities on the base. 

The zombies, smelling fresh meat, hovered near the new arrival, flashing their Hannah Montana Thunder Velcro Sneakers and their Purple Pouchettes. 

The little one, not knowing any better, was mesmerized by the glitter of it all. 

“Be careful,” whispered Vanessa. “they’ll suck out your brain.” 

One of the zombies slipped a Hannah Montana lip gloss ring on the little girl’s index finger. 

“Go ahead. Give it a try. It’s Rockin’ Blueberry. My favorite.” whispered the Zombie. 

“Nooooooooo,” screamed Vanessa as she grabbed the ring and threw it out of the open bus window. “That’s how they turn you into one of them.” 

The zombies hissed at Vanessa’s declaration and slid back into their seats. 

As the bus pulled up in front of the school, the zombies packed their Hannah Montana notebooks, pencils and school planners back into their Hanna Montana Glam Glitter Backpacks and Canvas Guitar Sling Bags and started leaving the bus. 

One of them leaned into Vanessa as she passed and whispered, “Next time.”

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

You Want Pretty?

Oh man.  I finally did it.  I have been dancing around it for ages.  I spent twelve hours researching.  I collected six authentic recipes and three that were just silly.  I interviewed several people about their experiences.

Compiling all of this information, I waited until the time was right.  Today. Lunchtime.  I was hungry.  I had a few spuds from my sister's garden.  I was ready.

I reviewed all of the information about what could go wrong as I waited for the potatoes to steam.  No boiled potatoes in this recipe.  I got my equipment ready and made pesto from the last few basil leaves on my porch.  I have a few minutes so I toasted some pine nuts.  I poked the potatoes with a fork.  It was undeniable.  They were ready.  I nervously pulled out the ricer and quashed the spuds.  That wasn't so bad.  I beat the egg and mixed it through the potatoes.  So far, so good. 

I added the flour a tablespoon at a time to keep from adding too much.  This took forever.  For-ever.  I gently rolled out my snake.  Well--it wasn't so much a snake as it was an oddly-shaped floury gob.  Traditional recipes two and six cautioned strongly about over-working the dough.  I have a choice.  I work on the snake and have perfectly shaped gnocchi, however inedible.  Or I could break the rules a little and and go for something a little less traditional.

I carelessly ripped off pieces of dough and flung them into the boiling water.  Fabulous.  They floated.  I fished them out, drained them and tossed them with pesto.  I sprinkled them with cheese and the toasted pine nuts.  I opened my last Limonata.

I sat down at the table and looked to my bowl. In retrospect, I should have snapped a photo.   My first pesto-covered bite confirmed that they were indeed the best gnocchi ever.  So far anyway.   I may revisit that snake thing.

So there you have my gnocchi.  They weren't pretty.  You want pretty?  Call Sophia Loren.  These were perfect.  The perfect comfort food.  And in keeping with all great comfort food, I think I'm ready for a little nap.

Monday, September 28, 2009


I turn the key and step out onto the roof. Autumn blankets me as I settle onto the wooden bench.

I smile to myself as I put the key into my pocket. I borrowed the original years ago. Lied straight into the face of hardware store owner who questioned me about the ‘SECURITY KEY DO NOT COPY‘ markings on it. A little white lie, nothing sinister. Only self-preservation. Everyone needs a place of their own.

I lost the other one and I’m in big trouble, Mister. I could lose my job.

Tears welling up in my eyes. He nodded and turned to his workbench. When he finished cutting, he took the shiny new key and threw it on the floor. With the heel of his boot, he ground it into the cement. He flipped it over and worked the other side. Then he took some sandpaper and softened the edges and finished by rubbing some black stuff from a jar under the counter into the new scratches. It was aged well enough to match the original. Apparently, I wasn’t his first damsel in distress.

"There you go, hon. That’ll be $2.50."

Ten years ago, I could easily pull that off. My slow tumble into middle age makes the damsel much less convincing. No regrets, but as I am off into the unknown, it’d be a good skill to have.

Two weeks ago when the world was completely different, I’d lightheartedly hoped for adventure… a little controlled uncertainty. I’ve got a plan, a map and the number of Kurt’s cousin in Cahersiveen. I love the illusion of control! That was before planes began crashing into buildings and red-bereted soldiers with tanks and M16s patrolled my route to work. I’m not sure what I am looking for now.

I wrap my hands around my first cup of coffee of the day. I inhale its Costa Rican warmth and take a small sip.

Aaack! Too hot!

I knew it would be and went ahead anyway. Story of my life. I put the coffee down on the arm of the bench.

I look out over the misty Potomac River to where the mighty Three Sisters Islands hold their vigil over the City of Washington. The legend says that the islands sprung up at the place where three Manahoac sisters drowned while crossing the river to their lovers on the other side. A warning of the dangers of jumping in with both feet and both sisters? Or a monument to the importance of following your heart no matter what? Maybe both.

From his perch atop the neighboring USATODAY building, a peregrine falcon takes flight. He darts up and catches an air current high over Roosevelt Island. Wings straight, eyes forward he lets go and floats in ever-widening ovals. Willing to go wherever the wind takes him, he lets himself be carried and I, in turn, let him carry me. Around… around… around. Intrigued by his dance, the sun peers out, etching the horizon with the first scarlet cracks of dawn.

Alarm clocks wail. Newspapers land on front stoops. Lights go on. The city slowly awakens. I take another sip of coffee in my perfect solitude above it all.

My second day working here, Nelson Mandela walked up to my desk and shook my hand. I think I stayed out of fear of missing something. It took me a while to settle in, to fit in. Many wonderful things did happen to me here. I grew up, I grew stronger, I got on with it. And I stayed because I felt secure. Secure in the stress. Secure in the busy-ness of it. Secure in being needed. Now it is time for me to leave my nest on the 23rd floor.

The sun pushes through a crack in the horizon over Roosevelt Bridge. Drivers in their cars impatiently shield their eyes from the light as the red-gold dawn illuminates buildings on the horizon line one by one.

I open the paper bag and pull the crunchy caramelized top off of my perfect lemon poppy muffin. The Rastafarian baker calls it the Muffin of the Gods. Steam escapes from the center. Crumbs fall onto my scarf as I take a bite.
Life is good.

The falcon turns suddenly midair and descends toward Roosevelt Island and his unsuspecting breakfast.

My pager goes off. It’s time for my last day of work.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Transcendental Alimentation

As the warmth of Summer begins to fade and the garden gives up its last few treasures, I am trying to squeeze the most out of what is left. I had high hopes for the garden, but it all didn't go as planned. My inexperience and enthusiasm combined to create expectations that were tossed about by the poor weather and the blight that hit the tomatoes in our area.

When I started to plan the garden, I did so out of some necessity. Money being tighter than it was, planting a garden just makes good economic sense.

As I started checking out the seed catalogs (at what point did I turn into someone who looks at seed catalogues) and websites, I spied a tomato. That's how these thing always started I'd imagine. But it wasn't just any tomato. It was the tomato of my dreams. It was Pera d’Abruzzo, ripe, ridged and remarkably delicious. You can see a photo of it here.

I first met this tomato in a farmer's market in Venice. I bought it, tucked it into my backpack and headed off. Later, I was hungry and in need of a rest after walking for a few hours. I pulled the tomato from my bag, rinsed it off in the drinking fountain and sat down on a park bench on the island of Murano. I ate the tomato while sitting there looking out at the island of my dreams. As is. No frills, no fuss, no salt. It was perfect. The perfect tomato on the perfect day in the perfect place.

From there, I hatched my plan. Fortunes change and they change again and at the moment, I am not in a position to afford an Italian vacation. So I decided I would plant my memories of my Italian vacation. I splurged on $11 worth of seeds. My Pera d'Abruzzo, capers, Quadrato Rosso D' Asti peppers, basil Genovese and fiore di zucca (zucchini blossoms). I started them all in my sisters greenhouse. I coddled them and measured their growth and made great plans for our future together.

As time when on and the weather got warmer I planted them out in the garden. The bunnies made quick work of the capers. They didn't stand a chance, really. The basil and peppers flourished. The tomatoes had a promising start but to my great sadness were early casualties of the blight. I buried them in a black bag and moved on.

The peppers have appeared in all manner of dishes from sauces to bruschetta. They finished up last week. I ate the last one standing over the sink. The wonderfully abundant basil has been eaten on or with everything possible and have even made myself a year's supply of pesto for the freezer. It is getting sparse but looks like it has a few more weeks to go.

That brings us to the zuccas which quickly grew big green leaves and sat there. Big green leaves and nothing else. For weeks. Then the little buds started to emerge. And they just sat there. For days. Just when I was about to give up. They started to bloom. Six at once.

I scrambled for the perfect recipe. They all sounded so good. I settled on a filling of ricotta, garlic, basil, asiago and pine nuts. I washed and dried the blossoms and removed the fiddly bits inside. Using a baby spoon, I stuffed the blossoms with the mixture. I sealed them up and dipped them into a batter of egg, flour and sparkling water. Then, using skills I really didn't possess, I fried them quickly in olive oil.

When they were ready, I put them on a fancy plate, poured myself a glass of San Pellegrino Limonata and took it all outside.

It was magnificent. If I do say so myself. I took my first bite and I was transported from my back porch with its view of rust belt urban decay to the tiny cafe in the Canneregio where I tasted them for the first time. I felt the sunshine, smelled the sea air and heard Sarah Vaughan singing 'Someone to Watch Over Me" as I sat and ate them one by one.

As I took the last bite, the moment was broken by the whistle of an incoming train that deposited me onto my back porch.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Dog hair is a fact of my life. Long white dog hair, courtesy of my trusty pup, Eloise. It is in my carpet and in my purse, in my closet and occasionally in my refrigerator. I am used to it. The people around me are used to it and graciously pick the strays off of me when they spot them. I do what I can to get rid of it, but she always makes more. Always.

I try to brush her every day and she gladly gives up mounds of the lovely white fluff. I have made paper from it and used it to stuff her bed. Several weeks ago, I put a big poof of her hair out on the porch. Within a few minutes, the robin who lives at my house grabbed a big bunch and flew off. Two other birds joined her and they all made several more trips until they had taken the whole lot. I didn't think that much about it after that and headed off to work.

In the last few days the air around my back porch has been punctuated by the sweet noise of baby birds calling for food. Lots and lots of baby birds.

This morning as I was putting my tender young tomato plants on the porch for the day, I saw our robin. She had a long white hair stuck to her tail. I heard the call of her babies and I knew that somewhere in the eaves of my house, a few naked baby robins sit cozy in a big tuft of white hair.

Life is good.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


One Spring morning a long time ago when my mother was returning to the house after her daily walk to get the mail and the neighborhood gossip, the phone rang. It was the local Post Mistress. Her message was simple, barely audible over the shrieks of the other postal workers.

"Mrs. Mead, you must come here immediately. Your parcel has chewed its way out of the box and it's running around terrorizing our customers and staff." Then the line went dead. She tried calling back, but the phone rang busy.

A lesser woman would be intimidated by such a call, but not my mother. She'd have been the type to stand up during a bank robbery, cigarette in hand, and ask for a light.

She put on a nice dress and her red lipstick. She hopped into the Dodge Polaris and drove into town to see what all the fuss was about. When she got to the post office, there were a number of people standing out front trying to see through the plate glass window. She honked to move them out of the way and then backed into the parking space. She opened the trunk, just in case, then she lit a cigarette and headed in.

Pushing through the crowd, she took a peek through the glass before opening the door to find three postal employees and two customers standing on the counter. The phone was lying on the floor.

"It's over there." said the post mistress, gesturing to a spot behind the counter. There it was a 16 inch baby alligator. My mother walked over to it. It backed up a little and made a threatening noise. Then the she took a big drag of her Salem, leaned over and blew smoke into its face, disorienting it for a moment while she picked it up with both hands.

"Can you get the door?" she called to the folks just climbing down from the counter. "And bring the box, please."

She marched out and put the baby gator into the trunk of the car and closed it. The post mistress handed her the box. The return address was chewed away all except for the zip code 34747.

"Where is 34747?"she asked as she was getting into the car.

"Florida... Kissimmee, Florida." said the post mistress.

"Thank you." said my mother as she drove away.

She loved a good mystery and was determined to get to the bottom of this one. She used the smoke trick to get the baby gator back out of the trunk and into the bathtub. She spent the afternoon feeding him chunks of raw ground meat and planning her investigation.


The U.S. Postal Requirements for Live Animal Mailability

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Spring is here. I have it on good authority. Not the conventional good authority like groundhogs, daffodils or seeing the first robin that some folks like to follow. Real authority.

This morning as I walked with Eloise, I was delighted to see that the plastic snowman at the tree house is now sporting a pair of glittery bunny ears and the tree is covered with pastel eggs lights and fuzzy chicks. As I turned the corner on 9th Street, I spied a red pickup truck filled with giant snow snowflakes. It was leaving town.

You can't really argue with that kind of evidence.

Happy Spring!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Hangin' with my PEEPS!

I love Marshmallow PEEPS! And I am not ashamed to say it. That's the thing about PEEPS! You either love them or you hate them. I love them. Really love them. The sugary goodness--the exclamation point in the name--the sheer whimsy. What's not to love?

However, I am a purest. I like the yellow ones and preferably the chick-shaped yellow ones. They taste the best.

I don't need heart-shaped PEEPS! I don't go in for all that flavored business. Peppermint? Oh good grief. And frankly after the blue PEEPS! fiasco of 1998, I am a little hesitant to branch out into new colors.

Oh, I had such high hopes, when one day on my lunch break, I saw them on the shelf in the CVS. They called to mind an Easter morning many years before when I found a tiny bright blue peep huddled next to the chocolate bunny in my basket. A real one. Alfie. I know what you are thinking, but that was before it was discovered that injecting dye into an incubating egg was incredibly inhumane. And to his credit, he did grow up into a chicken, until the cat got him.

When I saw the pack of blue PEEPS! on the shelf in the CVS, I had to have them. I brought them back to my desk and ripped open the package. I bit into one. Bleeech! Not only did the taste wrong, but my lips were all blue during the afternoon staff meeting. I tossed the rest of the package in the trash, brokenhearted.

While I was living outside of the US for a few years, one of the things I missed most at this time of year was my marshmallow PEEPS! My niece, Danielle, horrified with the lack of proper American Easter treats, always good for a package or two. Once she made the mistake of writing PEEPS! on the customs declaration. She told me they were on the way and I waited and waited. They never made it to me. Can you imagine? Stealing a person's PEEPS right out of the post. However, the Irish customs officials assure me that they are very close to making an arrest.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Hint of Green

This time of year in the west of Ireland, there appears a shade of green that is present at no other time and, I'd like to think, at no other no other place in the world. It shows up at the moment when the winds are high and the sea grows wild and fierce, fighting with the land for the control of the season.

It appears, not so much as a colour but as the intention of a colour, overlaying all the trees and hedge rows. The hint of green. Pale green. Transparent, opalescent, tender, baby green. It is barely discernible in the last long gray of Winter but it is there if you look. It holds the promise of things to come.

This morning as I was walking the dog past the tree house, I saw that the Christmas tree was now decorated with shamrock bulbs as I had hoped. The plastic snowman's little red beret was gone and his white bulb was replaced with a green one. Bright green, Kelly green. A green that I'd like to think appears at no other place and time. It is there if you look, cutting through the daylight savings time darkness and offering the promise of things to come.

Monday, February 9, 2009


I look up toward the onion domes of All Souls up on the hill, but they are missing. I peek down the street at the impressive wall of fog. It reveals, at most, 20 feet in front of us as the pup and I begin our walk. The town materializes slowly as we go. The dog doesn't seem to notice. I find it a little disconcerting.

This place is no Brigadoon, appearing out of the fog once every 100 years. It is stuck in the past, but more recent. It stopped marching forward when the mills started closing in the Mon Valley in the early 1980s.

The truth is that I haven't really bonded with this place. It's not the town's fault. I am sure it's doing its best. It is a way station, the place where I live while I am planning for the next part of my life.

We pass the senior citizen's apartment building, conveniently located across the street from one of four funeral homes in the town. Each window of the funeral home holds a single electric candle, They beckon like the old Motel 6 ads. We'll leave a light on for you!

Eloise picks up the scent of her arch-nemesis, Big White Cat. She pokes her head onto the porch of his house and he dives onto the railing and over the fence. She sniffs the vacant air for a moment before moving on to something else.

On the right is the tree house. I call it that because there is an artificial Christmas tree on the porch. It's been there since the week before Thanksgiving. I keep waiting for it to disappear into storage until next year, but instead it keeps evolving.

The original Christmas ornaments gave way some time around the third week of January to a flurry of black and gold football-themed ornaments honoring the Steelers Super Bowl bid. This morning it has erupted into a vision of romance with miniature paper cupids and a shiny heart garland. I am hoping shamrocks will be next. There is a certain consistency to it that I find comforting.

The columns in front of the public library appear through the mist. Originally the town's post office, this grand structure was erected by people who thought very highly of this place and its prospects for the future.

Further down, an elaborately carved stone porch curves around the corner. An aluminum siding covered addition sits on top at if it were dropped there by a big wind.

We continue down the street past several empty shop fronts. Some have Steeler posters and terrible towels in the windows. We may be down, but we still have the greatest football team on the planet, they announce.

We pass the men's coffee shop and the owner waves. I see him every morning, but we have never spoken. He waves. I wave. That's the whole transaction.

We round the corner past the art shop and head down Fifth Street street. As we pass under the eagle on the First National Bank building, bits of the fog break apart and turn to snow flakes and land on our faces.

The aroma of wedding soup from the old Italian restaurant swirls around us as we pass. Lovely. Nothing like wedding soup. I am famished.

We head for home and breakfast.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

It's La Dolce Vita, Santonio!

As I pull up, there are dozens people in the street in front of my house. I high-fived a few fellow fans on the way to my front door. The crowd is cheering, cars are honking and there is an occasional firecracker off in the distance.

Here in the Mon Valley, we don't have a lot. The economy is bad, jobs are scarce and frankly, the water tastes funny.

But one thing we do have is the Steelers. We have the Steelers and giant inflatable lawn ornaments.

Life is Sweet!

Monday, January 26, 2009


My friend, Mary, is fond of saying 'sometimes your heart gets broken and sometimes it gets broken open.'

This morning, my dog and I were walking in the park along the Monongahela River. The snow was falling in big fluffy flakes that stick on your nose and linger a moment before melting. Ours were the first footprints in the snow. I always love that.

Normally, we play a little frisbee in the mornings, the pup and I. Frisbee is her favorite, but today she was not having it. There were other distractions.

There was no wind and the still, cool air held a web of invisible trails too good to pass up. She led, I followed. She picked up one that took us in a loop-de-loop through the Pony League field and off under the fence where we picked up another more interesting trail that took us over to the giant pile of bird seed barely visible under the snow. Leaving that, we moved in a zigzag up through the parking lot to the pavilion perched on the bank of the river. One of my favorite spots for breakfast.

I sat on the picnic table and pulled a peanut butter and jelly sandwich out of my pocket.

A tug and eight barges filled with coal passed out of the lock and into a small lane cleared by traffic on the opposite side of the river. Our side was frozen. One solid sheet as far as I could see in either direction.

Twelve Canada geese marched back and forth on the ice honking taunts at the dog who was busy ignoring them. The canvasbacks sat quietly watching in parties of three or four. Two stark white domestic ducks wandered up furtively like out-of-towners looking for directions.

The coal-laden barges made small waves as they passed. I sat admiring the scene, a snapshot of my life. Frozen in place while the world passes by on the other side.

The small waves built momentum and slapped against the edge of the ice slab, sending a tiny spray up at the edge. The ice appeared to be holding its ground, or its water. Then a crack, like a gun shot, sped diagonally to the shore. The dog moved in under my feet. Another split a party of ducks in two. One quacked as he fell into the water, forgetting for a moment that he could swim. The little white ones flew off to the safety of the shore.

The ducks and geese flew in all directions while the waves hit the smaller slabs of ice into each other. They cracked and popped until the once solid sheet was in small pieces which slowly merged into the flow of the river and floated away.

So much for feeling sorry for myself. Time to get on with it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


A few months ago, I was sitting in the Monongahela Aquatorium with my family. It was my first real American 4th of July after living out of the country for six years. The threatening rain had passed us by and the skies cleared.

We had funnel cakes and frosty cold Coca Cola as we waited for the fireworks to start. The bleechers filled up.

The DJ called a limbo contest to entertain the waiting crowd. Kids were foisted by their parents onto the stage to compete. Others played in the mud by the river.

When the fireworks started, my young niece climbed onto my lap to get a better view. The DJ played a mixed collection of patriotic music. John Phillip Souza, et al. Not my style really, but the fireworks were spectacular.

Then the music changed to Ray Charles singing "America, the Beautiful" as the finale began. As I sat watching the fireworks and the perfectly perfect small town America crowd, I tried my best to conceal my tears.

"Why are you crying, Auntie?" asked my niece.

"Because this is so beautiful and I am so happy to be here." I answered.


All I can say is this, today, even when watched on TV from my living room instead of from the Mall as originally planned--this is a million times better. I am crying my lips off and truly grateful to be watching from this side of the ocean. It's good to be home!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

This Explains Everything...

I believe with reasonable certainty that I read an article on the National Geographic website this morning announcing that excess consumption of coffee can cause hallucinations.

The link, according to the little red bird hovering over my desk, is

Holy Cow. This explains everything.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Since returning to America a little over a year ago, I have been spending quite a bit of time thinking about home.

Yesterday, the anniversary of my mother's death, had a spark of realization, something I had never seen before.

With her final heartbeat, my sense of home was changed forever. For the first 19 years of my life, I never questioned what or where home was. Once she was gone, home was no longer home. The house in the Mon Valley was still there, but the home was gone.

I left the Mon Valley as if someone was chasing me and headed out into the world.

The place where I receive my mail has changed with my changing fortunes over the years, from college dorms to city row houses to a brief stint in a dark squat in a very, very scary neighborhood to a posh fifth floor apartment in Washington, DC to a little cottage by the sea in the west of Ireland. All of these places felt like home for a while.

I lived with roommates, housemates, a boyfriend. Mostly, I have lived on my own. Presently, I live on my own in an orange shag-carpeted apartment back in the Mon Valley with my border collie, Eloise.

I know that this isn't the last stop on my journey. Honestly, I have been thinking lately that if Eloise and I could arrange to spend six months or so living in a second floor flat with an iron balcony overlooking a lesser canal in the Cannareggio in Venice, I would be the happiest person in the world.

But still it might not feel like home.

When I left the Mon Valley many years ago, the Steelers were winning. This place is joyous when they are winning and it permeates everything.

Yesterday, as I drove to work, the Steelers Polka played on the radio. I recalled an image of my mother--hair in curlers, sitting at the kitchen table, cigarette in one hand, cup of coffee in the other bopping along to the song on KDKA radio. My feet moved in time with the music. I know the words. I didn't know I knew the words. I smiled in spite of myself.

I don't know where home is yet, but somewhere in the deep recesses of my soul I have the urge to polka.