Vacation Hangover

“The best part of vacation is coming home!”

Or so say many of my friends on social media. But it turns out I don’t share that sentiment

I used to. When we lived in California, I enjoyed our time away, but coming home really felt like coming home, and I appreciated being back in our little apartment. When we lived in Utah, I liked spending a week or so in humid weather—or in the case of winter travel, in better air quality—but was glad to be back to dry air and the comforting embrace of the mountains.

Now that we’re in Massachusetts, the closer the plane gets to New England, the worse my mood becomes. It’s possible that this is because we’ve been visiting places I like—road trips to Acadia, Prince Edward Island, and Asheville, North Carolina, flights to Joshua Tree National Park and San Diego and Salt Lake City. But that doesn’t quite account for my dark mood.

Other people say, “I enjoy being away but after about a week, I’m happy to be back.” Not me, at least not since we moved to Massachusetts. Even after two weeks away I want to keep on traveling.

Maybe I have a travel bug. It’s possible. I’ve never had one before. I’ve had a moving bug, but moving is different from traveling. It’s possible I’ve caught a bit of a travel bug and just don’t recognize it because I dislike flying and don’t like hotel rooms.

But it’s also possible that I just don’t like Massachusetts.

If I don’t leave, I can manage it okay. I focus on the native plants in my garden and the birds and insects that visit them rather than on the suburban inability to walk anywhere and the fact that Chipotle is the best restaurant in town. I focus on spotting and identifying flora and fauna on our hikes rather than on the Lyme- and babesiosis-carrying tick population. I focus on staying home and taking care of our house and children and monarch caterpillars rather than on the aggressive drivers, potholed streets, and rude populace.

But when I leave, I remember that there are other places to live and that in other places, there are lots of friendly people, not just employees at Trader Joe’s. When I leave the East Coast, my shoulders relax. I breathe easier. I’m more apt to converse with strangers, and they’re more apt to converse back in a kind manner. I know this doesn’t happen everywhere and that part of it is a result of the places I choose to visit (and because I’m white), but that doesn’t change the exhaustion I feel being back in the place where my house is.

I know this is an unpopular view among New Englanders. Particularly those who are from here defend the region fiercely should anyone dare to say it’s not the right fit for them. They’re not rude; they’re straightforward! The drivers are only aggressive because there are so many on the road! Doctors really understand Lyme disease now—well, most of them, and it only takes them about six months to finally diagnose it, and only about half of the people I know have had it! And I believe that New England really is a welcoming place—to people who’ve been here since the Mayflower landed. But for those not from here, it’s tough to break in.

Despite the arguments to the contrary and despite my valiant and exhaustive (and exhausting) attempts to find a place here, Massachusetts just isn’t my spot. But it’s where I am for the foreseeable future.

And that’s why I’m in a bad mood when I get back from vacation.

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Strangely Specific

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“In Memory of Jacob, third son of Capt. Jacob Rice, died May 7, 1818 AEt. 9 yrs. His death was occasioned by the fall of a dung fork, one tine penetrating his brain.”

Whenever we walk through the cemetery, I make my way to this particular headstone. The inscription intrigues me. I can understand the willow tree, but I wonder what prompted Jacob’s parents—assuming they chose the inscription—to be so specific about the cause of the boy’s death.

Did Captain and Mrs. Rice, in their grieving, turn the event over and over in their minds until it just seemed natural to put it on their son’s gravestone? If this were the case, I would expect there to be more examples of specific gravestones, especially for children.

Could they have placed it there as a kind of public service announcement, a caution to other parents? Perhaps not; I suspect that parents in nineteenth-century New England were well acquainted with the dangers of agrarian life.

Maybe the dung fork was improperly stored by a neighbor, employee, or relative, and this inscription is there as a public reminder of this person’s negligence and its tragic results. Anyone who walked by the churchyard stone in the years that followed would know the story and wouldn’t need to see the name of the person to know about whom this message referred. It would be a quiet but very public shaming.

This last possibility feels particularly New England to me, but I don’t know if it’s the true story. The vital records available online record only that Jacob Rice died “of a wound in the head” at age 8 years 8 months and 11 days. It’s possible I could learn more about this incident if I went through town or church records (which I suppose at that time were the same thing), but for now I’m content to speculate.

The Bright Side of Winter

This is the time of year when I have trouble remembering all of the very good reasons that I don’t live in California anymore. To distract myself from California dreaming, I’m trying to focus on the pleasant things winter in New England has to offer, like…

Snow sparkles. (They don’t photograph well, but they’re probably my favorite thing about winter.)

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Meta-gingerbread house in the Festival of Trees gingerbread house competition. (I love tiny things and meta-things and baked things, and this hits all three.)

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Self-portrait. (I have an affinity for photographing my reflection in glass balls. Christmas provides many opportunities to act on this affinity.)

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Suburban sunrise. (In the summertime, I rarely get up early enough to see the sunrise.)

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Squirrel tracks. (I love cute little mammal tracks, and I’m such a poor tracker, I can only identify them if the animal making the tracks is making them in my presence or if the tracks are in a thin layer of snow. Even then, I want so badly to see skunk tracks that I think every set of tracks I see are skunk tracks until I get home and look them up. Squirrel feet are cute, too.)

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And those tempted to point out that sunrises, Christmas balls, and even gingerbread houses happen in California, too, please just hush; it’s a long time until spring.

Take a Hike! Wachusett Mountain

Every weekend, my husband says, “Let’s hike up Wachusett Mountain!”

And every weekend I say, “But we have this and this and that to do, and it’s going to be a long hike.” Or I say, “Sure!” and then we don’t get ready to go until noon and the kids are complaining. Either way, we don’t do it.

But then a couple of weeks ago we decided to embrace our nomadic lifestyle rather than fighting against it (more on that later). As part of this change in outlook, we’re taking a carpe diem attitude towards destinations and activities in our immediate area. Which means that this weekend we actually did hike to the summit of Wachusett Mountain.

Now, you folks out West aren’t going to think this is much of a mountain. With a summit of 2,006 feet, it doesn’t really compare to the peaks in Utah or Colorado or the Sierra Nevada. But it’s the highest in our area of Massachusetts, and it’s really nothing to sneeze at.

We began at Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary, a Mass Audubon sanctuary that we frequent for their great homeschooling programs and the large number of monarchs they host in their meadow. (“We” is me, my husband, our seven-year-old daughter, and our nearly three-year-old son.)

From the parking lot of the sanctuary, we took the North Meadow Trail and enjoyed the milkweed and the monarchs and cabbage whites and other various postman butterflies we can’t seem to identify until we turned off on to Chapman Trail. Chapman was mostly flat and rocky, as are most New England trails we’ve hiked. The last time we hiked Chapman Trail, it was muddy, muddy, muddy, but our extremely dry summer has left it parched. We still saw a few frogs along the trail—a spring peeper and a bumpy orange toad thing and a frog that might have been a spring peeper or a wood frog but which was too tiny (the size of my daughter’s thumbnail) and too fast to see for sure, and a few green frogs in Black Pond near the sanctuary border.

Black Pond

Most of the trail within the sanctuary borders was easily passable, except for a narrow stretch nearly overgrown with ferns (we called it Fern City because we’re a very creative family). It was easy to walk, but it wouldn’t have been very stroller-friendly. Our three-year-old walked part of it and the rest he spent either on his dad’s shoulders or in a mei tai carrier on his dad’s front (because after seven years of parenting, my husband still refuses to learn how to carry a child on his back).

Fern City

About 1.3 miles from the sanctuary, we passed into Wachusett Mountain State Reservation and Chapman Trail became Dickens Trail and then Harrington Trail. From the border, it was 2.5 miles to the summit.

It was at about this point that my seven-year-old really started complaining. She’d worn her trail sandals without socks, and she was starting to get blisters on her heels. We seriously considered turning back, but I bought us some time with a couple of band-aids while making a mental note to bring moleskin next time we went hiking. Or socks. Or both.

The trails in the state reservation were wider than those in the sanctuary until about a mile from the summit when Harrington Trail changed dramatically. All of a sudden, it turned into a Utah hike.

This is where I said, “This is supposed to be the trail?”

It became much more rocky and steep, making it necessary to climb and scramble over boulders. We had been hiking at a pretty leisurely pace and I’d barely broken a sweat despite my rather excessive hiking get-up (long-sleeved shirt, long pants, wide-brimmed hat…all to protect against sun and ticks and poison ivy), but this last little bit of uphill scrambling left me pretty drenched.

When we made it to the top, we were greeted by a welcome breeze and beautiful vista. We walked up to the observation deck from which we could see the Berkshires to the west, Mt Monadnock in New Hampshire to the north, and the Boston skyline way off to the east.

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The Berkshires (somewhere over there).

We had a snack, enjoyed the view, and I stole my son’s socks and put them on his sister’s feet (he wasn’t doing much walking anyway), and then we headed back.

The trip back was faster and much less whiney. The trip up to the summit had taken three hours. (Yes, it took us three hours to hike 3.8 miles.) The trip back took just under two hours. We know this because our daughter timed our adventure with the purple stop watch she wore around her neck. Her dad said she looked like Flavor Flav.

This was early (just 13 minutes) into our hike.

We ran out of water and we nearly ran out of snacks. My legs were shaking from all of the downhill rock-hopping we’d done, we all had to use the restroom because there were none at the summit* and we’re not big on peeing in the wilderness, especially as well traveled a wilderness as the trail to the summit of Wachusett Mountain is.  We got into the car tired and hungry but proud of ourselves for finally making the 7.6-mile round trip.

I’m not sure, however, how long it’s going to be before we can convince our daughter to hike with us again. Looks like it might be a few more years before we’ll tackle an Appalachian Trail thru hike.

*UPDATE: When we hiked back up in September 2015, we confirmed that there are, in fact, port-a-johns at the back of the parking lot at the summit. I am told, however, that they are put up in spring and taken down in autumn and that the date isn’t the same every year, so if you hike in October, you might get to the top and find no port-a-johns. And of course, if you have a child who refuses to pee while inside a plastic box, there are still effectively no bathrooms at the summit.

Hike Anxiety

Mountain lion and deer tick images are in the public domain (via Wikipedia). I added the “<” myself.

Hiking in California or Utah, we risked meeting up with mountain lions. Hiking in New England, we risk encounters with ticks.

I’m much more anxious about the ticks than I ever was about mountain lions.

This might be because of the sneakiness of ticks. Pretty much if you’ve made it through your hike without seeing a mountain lion, you’re in the clear. You’re unlikely to find a mountain lion hiding between your toes or inside your ear after you’re home.

Ticks, on the other hand are not so straightforward.

You Win This Round, Walden

Walden
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m probably a horrible person who will never be able to fully embrace simple living because I can’t get through Walden. I know Thoreau has some gems in there, but they’re just hidden in the middle of so many words. I found it mind-numbingly boring.

I first started reading it to get a sense for New England when I discovered that we were moving here. I did the same thing with Wallace Stegner’s The Gathering of Zion when we moved to Utah and Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona when we lived in California, both times with great results. With Walden, however, I didn’t have such a great experience.

After a few months trying to trudge through, I decided to keep reading it because everyone says that you have to read Walden if you’re going to embrace the principles of voluntary simplicity. I disagree. I think something like Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity might be a better choice for someone hoping to get inspired towards simple living in the 21st century.

In the end, I decided to simplify my life by removing this book from my currently-reading list so it could no longer taunt me there. If you’re reading this review and have recommendations for books that will give an overall sense of the culture and history of New England (the stuff in the nearly 400 years since the Mayflower), please leave a comment.

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Back in Action!

You might not have noticed that we were out of action, but we were.

The record-breaking nor’easter that hit New England this weekend knocked out our electricity from 8pm Saturday until sometime while we were at dinner tonight (Tuesday). It got down to 51F inside our home. We usually keep it cool (62 during the day, my husband pushes for 58 overnight; I push back), but 51 is still rather chilly.

Back in North Carolina, there was an ice storm that left us powerless for a full week. It was quite a bit colder then, and our apartment had awful insulation. After two days, we could see our breath inside the apartment. We showered at my husband’s work, and I was glad to get back to my job, where I could buy cafeteria food. I was a vegetarian then, but by that point, even I was thrilled with the fat back they cooked with the green beans (good old Southern cooking). I wouldn’t eat marshmallow Peeps, but for some reason pork in my greens wasn’t an issue. (And that is not euphemistic.)

After the ice storm, we vowed that we would retain the lessons we’d learned while the electricity was out. We instituted a weekly tradition called “Cat and Candle.” It was a Sabbath of sorts during which we used no electricity except what was necessary for heat and hot water and to cook meals. In reality, I guess we just turned out the lights, lit candles, drank micro-brewed beer, and tossed fake mice at our cats. Even so, this lasted only about three weeks before we were back to taking electric lighting for granted.

During this recent power outage, we made similar vows.

“This will change everything,” we declared.

“Now we realize just how unsuited our suburban dwelling is for unfavorable weather conditions. We shall remedy this posthaste,” we further declared.

“We’ll run a gas line and get a gas stove. We’ll install a pellet stove in the place of one of our fireplaces. We’ll stop relying on our freezer and start preserving food by canning, fermenting, salting, and dehydrating,” we decided.

“At the very least,” we compromised, “we’ll look into getting a generator so we don’t freeze if this happens in February.”

This all happened during a time when my kids and I were listening to an audiobook (in the car) about Laura Ingalls and her family traveling by covered wagon through Wisconsin and Minnesota over snow and iced-over lakes, fording swelling spring creeks, and camping out every night.

Listening to these stories put things into perspective.

We are not pioneers. We know that by this time next week, we’ll be complaining about slow internet connections and how far we have to drive for organic produce.

All weather-related lessons will be lost.

Even now, as the house warms and I hear the electric grind of the garage door opener, I feel the discomforts of the past several days receding. I try to alleviate my guilt by telling myself that the pioneers who suffered much more extreme privations would have wanted me to take for granted basic comforts. I bet they would have loved to complain about the free wi-fi at the coffee shop up the street rather than have their survival depend on how much wood they cut (with an axe they made themselves).

But what can I say? We are Americans.

Uninhabitable

Tonight, we had our first snow.

Now, I’ve lived in snowy places. Ohio. That was snowy. Salt Lake City. Heck, they had their first snow weeks ago. Even in North Carolina we had an ice storm that knocked out the electricity for an entire week, and two years before that, we had the Snow of the Century, which dumped 24 inches of snow in less than 24 hours on a state that has one snow plow and uses sand instead of salt.

But I’m really nervous about the New England winter. For one, it’s colder here. And there’s more snowfall. And the roads are crazy in the best of conditions.

And everyone keeps telling me how awful the winters are here. In Salt Lake City, everyone around me couldn’t wait for it to snow so they could hit the slopes. Here, even the skiers and snowshoers go on and on about how long and cold and snowy the winter is.

Even children’s books aren’t pulling any punches about New England winters. I was brushing my teeth the other night while my husband read my daughter’s cod book to her.

Yes, my daughter has a book about cod. It’s called The Cod’s Tale and it’s by Mark Kurlansky. Both of my kids love this book.

Cover of "The Cod's Tale"
Cover of The Cod's Tale

So, I was brushing my teeth and listening to my husband read aloud the section entitled “Winter in Massachusetts.”

“During their first two years in America, many Pilgrims starved to death,” my husband read. “Winter in Massachusetts was snowy and so cold that some Europeans believed this new land was uninhabitable [emphasis mine].”

Tell you what: this did not ease my fears.

So, I’m bracing myself for a crazy winter. Cod got the Pilgrims through, but in the intervening 400 years, they’ve been so overfished in the North  Atlantic, I don’t think I can depend on cod to see us through winter in this uninhabitable land.

Maybe falafel. And central heating.

The Dinner Party

Ever since I was a child, I’ve been intrigued by the question, “If you could invite anyone over to dinner, who would you invite?” I’ve always limited myself to living people because I’ve always thought that the shock of being raised from the dead would make any potential dinner guest less interested in being at the table. They’d probably want to be with their loved ones and not eating dinner with me.

When I was ten, I wanted to invite Cassandra Peterson (“Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.” What can I say? I liked horror films) and Robin Williams.

When I was in high school, Leslie Nielsen was high on my list.

In college, Gloria Steinem was on there.

Now in my mid-30’s, I’ve decided that I would love to invite “Weird Al” Yankovic and His Holiness the Dalai Lama over for dinner.

This might seem an odd combination, but I think they’d actually get along quite well.

They’re both quite eloquent and have unique perspectives on the world, which would make for very interesting conversation. They’re both very tolerant and soft-spoken. They both embrace the joy in their lives and seek to share it with others. I think they would both find my children entertaining and would interact with them compassionately.

I would, of course, also invite Al’s wife and child, if they wanted to come. Hopefully the three kids would get along well, too, since they’re relatively close in age.

The menu would be easy. They’re both vegetarians, so I could make my signature dishes, my vegetarian and vegan lasagnas, without further modification. I’m pretty sure neither of them drinks alcohol, though, so I’d have to decide if it was poor manners for me to drink wine with dinner (I’d probably err on the side of caution and abstain for the evening). But I do have a very yummy non-alcoholic punch recipe that I could mix up for the occasion so we could have something a little fancy to drink.

I think autumn would be a nice time to have them over. It wouldn’t be too hot in the house (no air conditioning + lasagna baking = sweltering in the summer), but it would still be warm enough to eat out on the sun porch where the only table big enough for a dinner party is located. I hear fall is a gorgeous season in New England, anyway, and it would be nice to provide a draw for them in addition to my lasagna.

I don’t know what questions I would ask them, but I’d kind of rather just chat rather than make it like an interview. Afterwards, if things went well, maybe they’d like to play Trivial Pursuit. It’s unlikely either of them plays euchre, but perhaps my husband and I could teach them, and we could all play that while we ate homemade vegan strawberry ice cream.

On the Public Response to Exuberant Behavior in New England: Week 45 Review

From Tucker at forgeover.com:

Stoke is an abundant force. It’s like love in that you can always make more. Endless supply meets infinite demand. This is a sustainable ideology.

via Shine Bright!.

This is a concept I buy. Get excited about something—genuinely excited—and that excitement rubs off on other people, they become more excited, and then you become more excited because they’re more excited. The “stoke” grows and grows as it’s shared with others. This is a big reason why my resolution for June is to “Share Happiness” by expressing my happiness more.

Even thought I buy into the concept, there are two main problems I have with this idea.

1) Whether it’s a learned behavior or just part of my personality, I don’t really get very excited about things. I’m pretty sure that getting excited about something just invites it not to happen, or invites it to happen, but invites all of the possible negatives that might accompany that outcome to actually happen. When I was expecting my first child, I remember telling my dad that in some ways it just felt like I’d always been pregnant, that everything in my life was leading up to this course of events. He said he was pretty sure I wouldn’t be so blase about it when the baby was actually born.

I didn’t really think of my reaction as blase, but I can catch his meaning: I wasn’t exuberant. I was feeling amazement for this miracle happening inside me, but I wasn’t expressing it. Frankly, I don’t really even know how to express exuberance and I mostly lack the confidence to try. Which leads me to the second problem I have with the “stoke” feedback loop:

2) When I try to express exuberance, people think I’m nuts. My kids are the canaries in the coal mine for “Mommy’s acting like not-Mommy.” When I try to act excited about something, they look at me sideways and back slowly away.

Other people have similar reactions when I become excited about something. The only thing I can figure is that, in order to express exuberance, I need to be really excited about something. By that time, perhaps my excitement is so great that it’s expressed with the fire of zeal shining through my eyes, and perhaps that resembles, just a little, something unnatural and not altogether sane (which leads people (not just my kids) to back away slowly from the crazy lady talking about her blender). I think of when I told people we were going to drive cross-country as a family with our cats. I would feel very excited about the trip (which went swimmingly, by the way), but the response I’d get would be, “Man, I wouldn’t want to do that,” and “Are you sure it wouldn’t work to fly?” I felt discouraged from feeling exuberant about the trip because my exuberance was met with such skepticism.

Here in Massachusetts, people seem to respond even more cautiously to my enthusiasm than they did in Utah. It’s possible that Utahans are more emotive than Massachusites and the flame of my excitement isn’t so shocking in Zion as it is in the Bay State.

A New England example:

I walked into a wine/beer/liquor store the other day (Friday). The guy across the way greeted me by saying, “So, would you like to try some wines?”

I quickly gleaned that there was some kind of wine-tasting going on (I’ve since learned that practically every wine/beer/liquor store has tastings of some kind on Friday afternoons, and sometimes on Wednesdays and Thursdays, too). My husband was waiting in the car with the kids because I was just going to run in for a bottle of wine, but I figured I had time to try one wine.

As I was sipping my wine, I smiled, reflecting on how long it had been since something similar had happened to me. I tried to explain this to the gentleman pouring the wine.

“We just got here from Utah two days ago. We only lived there three years, but it was long enough that I find it surprising when I walk into a store and someone offers me a glass of wine,” I said.

In a monotone and with no hint of a smile on his face, the gentleman replied, “Well, we’re very friendly here.”

I’m thinking that perhaps planning to smile and hug more might be ill-timed in relation to our relocation to New England.

This is even aside from the fact that I’ve got no one to smile at or hug, really, just yet, and that I don’t generally feel much like smiling or hugging. I’m feeling homesick for Utah and for the things that I know. I’m feeling cramped in our hotel room and discouraged that there aren’t more rentals out there for us.

Tucker asks in his post, “Let us know why you’re glowing, shining, going supernova.”

I feel happy sharing in Tucker and Victoria’s excitement that they’re just over three months away from their circumnavigation. But for myself, I’m having trouble seeing the shiny things in life right now. And even when I do try to see them, I’m afraid to take notice of them for fear they’ll disappear. It’s not a great place to be in, and I hope I can bring myself to celebrate even the tiniest things pretty soon.

Or perhaps this is just my time to mourn the loss of my home and friends and places I love. Maybe I just need to give myself some time before I push the smiles and hugs.

In the meantime, I can feel grateful for this, at least:

Sunset at Uhlman's Ice Cream, Westborough, Massachusetts.