Christmas cookies the kids can roll and the adults will eat

The winter solstice party was cancelled on account of winter weather, and the world failed to end after all, so we spent Friday evening at home decorating sugar cookies. My nine year-old art director had just received a new box of extremely fancy cookie decorations from her grandmother, and so each batch, two cookie sheets’ worth, took nearly an hour.

“You know, in my day, we only had the red sugar and the green sugar.”

(Pause for dramatic effect.)

“If we wanted white, we had to use salt!”


You can’t tell the birds anything

Spring is entering its second act. The bluets are fading, the last of the dogwood flowers fluttered off today in the downpour, but the trees all have their leaves, the birds have paired off and spread out to claim their nesting spots, the robins to a poplar, the jays to the brush in the woods, the wrens to the sheltered cap of the propane tank. This is what the wrens do, year after year. You leave three-quarters of an acre of open woods and they nest in your propane tank, when they don’t claim the shelves in the shed.

The cardinals have been courting for weeks, a big scarlet male bringing food to a female — the one who broke her leg last summer as a fledgling and has survived the winter darting back and forth to the feeders and now, it seems just possible, is going to beat evolution and reproduce. The Little Lame Cardinal, balancing one-legged on the edge of the birdbath, nesting in the bay laurel, passing on her clumsy genes, and also her plucky ones. Winning! That’s the thing about nature; you can’t predict it. You can identify grand strategies and see broad sweeps and make educated guesses about generalities, but you can’t predict the details. The details are the good stuff. The stories are in the details. You think you know how they end, but sometimes nature likes to play little jokes on itself, and all you can do is wait for the punchline.

Beet greens

Originally published in The Northern Agrarian, May 2008.

When I was young my parents tended a small garden: Peas, tomatoes, lettuce, parsley, zucchini, beets. All this in the small backyard of a small house in a medium-sized northern town, sheltered from a major highway by a cinder-block laundromat. My mother pickled beets, canned apple butter and pear preserve, baked wheat bread twice a week. A cry of rebellion against the confines of urban life, I might say, but my parents are not the cry-of-rebellion type. When I was seven we moved to the country, to a bigger house with a vast backyard in one of the most fertile patches of land on the planet. That first summer they planted a big garden, maybe too big. I grew a dozen ears of corn. Zucchini swelled. Groundhogs descended. The following year they never got around to the tilling, and they never gardened again.

Over, gracefully

Hiking the hills above the Eno River. By a stream that feeds the river the long stem of a wildflower, heavy with blossom after a sudden rain, hangs in a gentle arc a foot over the path. Sadie pauses to sniff. She could go around the errant stalk or shove its petal-weight aside, but she hesitates a mere moment before leaping like a cat, quickly, delicately, her basset legs splayed briefly along the curve of her body, the flower undisturbed.

Feynman, heavier built, could never have lept a twelve-inch obstacle from a standing start, but could she, ever the showman, she would have glanced up at me afterwards to make sure I’d been watching. But from Sadie there is no glance, no need for my applause. She lands with less drama than her bulk would imply and trots on, nose to the ground, content, her moment of grace meant only for herself.

Pretend men tell no tales

The Monkey hands me a beanbag.

“Um, thanks.”

“It’s a flyer,” she said, and bounces off to the living room, where she has arranged a dozen of her stuffed animals on chairs and the couch. She places a beanbag in front of each animal.

“I’m passing out flyers to all my animal friends,” she explains, in case I hadn’t figured this out on my own.

“That’s great, honey,” I say, wondering where my daughter got the idea to pass out flyers, hoping that she is playing political activist and not Jehovah’s Witness or guerilla marketer. “What do the flyers say?”

She stops and looks at me with as much disdain as a three year-old can muster. “Pretend things don’t say anything, Dad.”

Fair enough.

We like to dance real slow

The Monkey likes to watch basketball with me, or rather she likes to be in the same room while I’m watching basketball. Or football. She is only vaguely aware of who is playing, unless it’s the Philadelphia Eagles or Carolina basketball—though during the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament I can’t claim much better for myself; I frequently have to Google a set of initials before remembering which university it stands for. On Friday I asked her whether we should root for Memphis or North Texas; she considered the matter briefly before saying, as if pronouncing judgment on a fine wine, “North Texas, I think.” Then she returned her full attention to her Leapster, which binged its approval and cheerfully inquired whether a sea turtle might be larger than an orca.

The point isn’t the particular sport, or which teams are playing or who happens to be winning; it’s the experience of watching together. It would be male bonding if she were male, but hey, it’s the twenty-first century, and we could just as easily be watching women’s sports.


This morning I was standing in the frozen-foods aisle of the Asia Market, puzzling over which brand of vegetable gyoza I bought last week because the packages all look the same to me and I can’t read Chinese, when the Monkey burst into song. I found this somewhat disconcerting, because she was singing in Chinese, and I don’t speak Chinese, and I had no idea what she was singing about.

Passings, and cheese toast

My grandmother died this morning. To liven the mood I shall tell a story.

When I was about five or six years old, my parents drove me down to the beach for the day where my grandparents were camping. We had lunch, and I (and everyone else) was asked whether I wanted ham and cheese, or peanut butter and jelly. Peanut butter and jelly, I said.

Then lunch was served, and I received a piece of cheese toast. Bread, with cheese broiled onto it in the toaster oven so that it was melted and brown. You know what I mean.

But I asked for peanut butter and jelly, I said to my father.

He explained that the cheese toast was a first course, and then we would have our sandwiches.

A first course. My grandmother was fixing lunch for eight or ten people in a camper, and she was serving a first course.

In a camper.

Because, by god, we will be civilized human beings and we will do things are they are supposed to be done.

She was not a gourmet by any standard — her mashed potatoes could cement a house. Nor was she an adventurous eater. She once told a story about eating dinner at a Chinese buffet: normally, she said, she didn’t like Chinese buffets, but this one didn’t have so much Chinese food, and so it was pretty good.

But when she made dinner, good heavens, she made dinner. We had hors d’oeuvres and first courses and half a dozen side dishes and dessert, and a jello salad for every month of the year. There was a precision to her meals; she had a set of rules, and she followed them. No one else cared whether she followed them or even knew quite what they were, but she did it this way because, to her, that was how it was supposed to be done.

Given my propensity to gravitate toward the opposite of what I think I am supposed to do and my continual need to try new things — not to mention my deep love of Chinese food — one might assume that my grandmother and I didn’t have a lot in common.

But watch me get ready for a dinner party or a holiday meal or even the odd Wednesday supper, plan every detail of multiple courses, spend days prepping and cooking, and there she is. Working through me, her spirit inexorably in my genes. Running back and forth to the kitchen getting everything right while the guests are arriving, then stuffing them until they beg for mercy and wonder why in hell I don’t just sit down already.

Because, by god, we will be civilized people, and we will do things are they are supposed to be done.

I hope that wherever she is, they are doing things the right way.