Marilyn Archibald

I'm a mom who lives and writes on the north shore of Massachusetts.  I also identify as a cat on Twitter (toastcat4618).  I don't care whether I make you laugh or cry--I'm happy either way. The "What I'm thinking" section features shorter pieces.  And Toast, the cat with presidential ambitions, has her very own page.  She urges you to check it out--or else!

All pictures are my own unless otherwise indicated.

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Getting comfy in
uncertain times

It's hard to overestimate the importance of a well-padded derriere.

Shocked face emoji.

No, I have not joined the Kardashian Klan. I'm talking about my new sailing shorts. It's been a long and torturous road to get there, but all's right with the nether regions now.

You have to understand just how hard the seating is on our little racing sailboat, and how long some of the races are. As I've written before, this isn't heading-off-into-the-sunset-with-a-bottle-of-wine sailing. This is bare-knuckled combat, with friends turning to mortal enemies against the picturesque backdrop of Sandy Bay in Rockport, Mass.

We sail a 19-foot boat called a Flying Scot, and there's no cushioning at all. In addition, one's, er, hind end is often hanging ("hiking") off the side of the boat (the "rail") and that's not exactly comfortable either.

I actually bought these same shorts, called Zhik Deckbeaters, a couple of years ago. I tried them on and thought they were too small. Then I doubled down on stupid by wearing them on the boat and realizing that if I actually wanted to breath I needed a larger size.

Now it was too late to send them back, so I gave them away (sadly) and tried wearing my biking shorts, which were helpful but not great.

Then I bought some padded shorts that were designed for people who were ultrathin because of illness. These somewhat freakish things were padded on all sides and wearing them felt, well, horrible. Plus, my husband made fun of me. Back to the biking shorts.

Then this year Covid happened and the world turned upside down. One of the positives of this time for me has been an increased willingness to say yes to things I might previously have said no to or put off--improving the landscaping in my yard, for instance, or buying a new piece of patio furniture. Our lives have been changed and limited in so many ways it's no wonder that we're all looking for comfort where we can find it.

So I re-ordered the shorts.

It's true that I spent about twice what I would have if I had only sent the first pair back and not bought  the weird medical ones. That no longer mattered. It was time to admit defeat and get what I actually wanted and needed.

My new Deckbeaters are perfect. They're going to last for years. They're padded where they have to be, and grippy where they need to be. They keep me happy during the longest races and allow me to hike like crazy. We actually won a race for the first time in a couple years, and I fully credit the shorts.

Look at it this way. Every day we are told to buckle up and prepare for a rough ride. If that's true, then why shouldn't I be as comfortable as possible for the trip?

This article was originally published in the Daily News of Newburyport, Massachusetts


Small things are not 
forgotten in Rockport 

I like to joke with my husband that I married him for his cottage in Rockport, Massachusetts. He knows that I'm kidding because we got engaged three weeks after meeting each other and I hadn't even seen the cottage at that point. Still, I can't deny that my ears pricked up and my heart beat faster when I learned that he grew up spending every summer at his family's home in Rockport.

The house was a simple summer cottage for most of its history. David's grandfather bought it in the 1930s and we inherited it in 2001. Later we renovated the property to winterize it and add some needed extra space. We were careful to keep the cottage dimensions modest, and not to block our neighbor's view. The result was a place where our family could be comfortable but still cozy.

Much of the furniture and even the kitchen accessories date back to David's parents and grandparents. A little red antique desk, the braided rugs and the yellow ware bowls are all part of the eclectic mix that gives the cottage its charm. Though there are heart-stopping views around every corner in Rockport, many of my favorite things about the cottage and the town itself are small, personal things; for instance...

The mint in my front garden. It grows rampantly around the little stone pool that my husband built as a boy. I often cut a big handful and put in a tall glass on the edge of my sink. When I wash a dish or run the faucet I pinch off a leaf between my fingers and lean over to breath in the cold fresh scent.

A sign from the past. The blue and white sign says Straitsmouth Inn and beneath it The Golden Oar. It hangs in our narrow stairway and speaks to me of another era. According to the website Vintage Rockport, by Robert Ambrogi, the Straitsmouth Inn stood on nearby Gap Head from 1906 until it burned to the ground on New Year's Eve in 1958. We found the sign at a flea market in Somerville about ten years ago. Karma was obviously at work that day, leading the sign back to Rockport where it belongs.

Lattof Farm Anadama bread I start many mornings with a slice of Anadama bread from nearby Lattof Farmstand, where everyone goes for the best produce. The bread is light brown, a little sweet and redolent of corn meal and molasses. The loaves come out about 11:30 am, still warm, and are usually sold by noontime, but customers can reserve one if they pre-pay. I like mine toasted with butter and raspberry jam.

My (small) view. The water view from my cottage is a minimal one, hampered by trees, but it still makes me happy. I wake up every morning and look for the edge of the long breakwater in Sandy Bay, the wedge of blue ocean around it, and if I'm lucky, a glimpse of a lobster boat making its rounds.

Ghost writing. In the right light I can read the word "lemonade" engraved in the veneer of our old dining table, a remnant of when my kids made signs for their lemonade stand. Luckily I didn't think to protect the table, and now I have a permanent reminder of those wonderful long-ago days.

My shutter cupboard doors. These tall narrow shutters, with a cutout silhouette of a sailboat, used to hang on the cottage windows many years ago. When we renovated the house, I pulled them out of the basement and painted them a warm dusty red. Now they are the doors to my small pantry cupboard. I love the happy clicking sound the little drop latch makes when I open or close it.

The gift of ladyslippers. "Don't pick the ladyslipper! It's illegal!" That's what we would say to each other as kids if we came upon a lady slipper in the woods. Riding my bike last spring around one of Rockport's many quarries, I was stunned to find a patch of about 50 of them. If I hadn't looked down at that exact moment I wouldn't have seen this quiet gift of so many pale pink jewels.

Our lives are full of uncountable small things and little moments that can delight us if only we see them, smell them, taste them before they go. My small things are in Rockport. Yours are somewhere else. Small is big.

Keep looking -up, down, around or within- so you don't miss them.  

This article was originally published in the Lowell Sun.

Conquering uncertainty with cake­­­--and love  


We need all the comfort we can get these days.  That’s why, despite the subtropical conditions we have endured for much of this summer, I’m still baking.  Nothing beats the peace I feel when I’m kneading a batch of bread dough and most of me (and half the kitchen) is covered in flour.

I’m just a clumsy but passionate home cook, but I do have one recipe that people beg for, and that’s my mom’s milk chocolate cake.  It’s an amazing cake, tall and proud, silky smooth and feathery light.  I’m greeted with moans of joy whenever I show up with it.  

When I asked my mother where she got the recipe, she said airily, “Oh, from a cousin on my father’s side.”  However, later she mentioned that it was Tissie’s favorite cake, and her eyes filled with tears.  Tissie, whose real name was Gladys, was her beloved older sister who passed away before I was born. Making this cake is my way of keeping my mom’s memory alive, and feeling connected to the aunt I never knew.

The cake is often requested for birthdays, and has sported a lot of different decorative themes (pirate, zoo, ponies) over the years.  One notable version, made for my daughter-in-law’s 23rd, featured a large cartoon bat.  Laura and my son Hunt had woken up during a visit to our summer cottage with a bat whipping around their bedroom ceiling.  This was my attempt to inject a little humor into what was an unhappy few weeks for them.  The cake definitely cheered them up during their rabies vaccination ordeal.

My cake works equally well for graduations, such as the Survivor-themed creation we made for my son’s college graduation.  My husband did the decorating and created an amazing Survivor logo surrounded by the words “Outwit, Outdrink, Outspend.”   It was a little hard to tell, but the bleary-eyed graduate and his friends seemed to appreciate it.

A super-sized version also decorated by my husband took home top honors in a cake contest celebrating our town’s bicentennial a few years ago.  David copied the “Entering W. Newbury” road sign, and it was a dead ringer for the real thing.  We won Best Overall Cake, and got a nice certificate, a blue ribbon and an apron.  We also ate cake for weeks afterwards, but sometimes your have to suffer for your art

But in the interest of full disclosure I have to reveal a dark moment —the time I SOLD my mother’s cake recipe.  It was a episode of madness during the early days of EBay, when it seemed possible to buy and sell anything.  Why not a recipe?  I called it Miracle Milk Chocolate Cake and I got $10 for it  The shame still rankles.  How could I?  What was I thinking?  Why did I only charge $10?  These questions remain unanswerable, but I never did it again

I’m still not ready to share the recipe, still shaken by the EBay incident.  But that’s okay, because this is MY recipe, the one that connects me to my family and friends, past and present.  Many of you have your own touchstone recipe, passed down from your grandmother, cut from a magazine, or created by your own hands.  

So, whatever that special recipe is—whether it’s a to-die-for mac and cheese, a truly awesome pot roast, or the best Jell-O salad the world has ever known—it’s time to hit the kitchen and make it.  Nothing counters stress and uncertainty like cooking, especially when it’s a batch of your mother-in-law’s famous Snickerdoodles, made with love and shared with whoever it’s possible to share them with at the moment.

Forget the quarantine 15.  We’re all (getting chubby) in this together.

This article was originally published in the Lowell Sun.

Confessing my

#(un)popular opinions

Oh hey. Today is WednesSunTuesSaturday in the month of Febmarmaypril. The year is 2020-no confusing that. I always suspected that a year called 2020 couldn't be trusted. It just sounded too cool and futuristic to be possible, and it turns out I was right.

Everyone has an opinion about what should happen going forward, and there's a time and a place for that discussion. This is not that time nor that place. This is the time and place where I reveal my opinion about mocha frappes and other important topics. I offer both popular and unpopular opinions, and probably too many corona virus-related wisecracks. Ready? Here goes:

- West Side story is depressing.

-The word 'ginormous' is awful.

-The phrases "this uncertain/unprecedented time" and "we are in uncharted waters" have reached peak exposure and need to go away.

-Cheez-its are still the greatest crackers.

-Jazz is still terrible.

-There are Shaws shoppers and there are Market Basket shoppers.

-Market Basket is and always will be Demoulas.

-Frozen pudding ice cream is weird and has never been eaten by anyone under 80.

-Corn toasties with peanut butter are awesome.

-Dunks hot coffee isn't very good.

-Dunks iced coffee is nirvana.

-Dunks food isn't real food but who cares?

-Masks rule because you can pretend not to recognize people that you don't want to talk to.

-Tiger King was awesome but it seems like forever since we watched it.  It's been forever, right?

-Turns out knowing the day of the week is unnecessary.

-So is going to school, apparently.

-Bruce Springsteen was vastly overrated.

- "Jive Talking" by the BeeGees was severely underrated.

-No one has ever understood the words to "Stayin' Alive."  Son of a mother?  Mother's brother? Whatever.

-"Tuff Enuff" by the Fabulous Thunderbirds should be the theme song of the pandemic.

-Mocha frappes (you were waiting for this, you know you were) are the best frappes, but must be made with coffee AND chocolate ice cream NOT mocha chip because chips make them gritty.

-Flatten the curve, I mutter to myself, trying to zip my jeans.  Oh wait, that's not a thing anymore!

-There is such a thing as "dress" sweatpants.

-It's ok to wear the same clothes you slept in, as long as the stains don't show in your Zoom meeting.

-Local TV weathermen are annoying and get way too much airtime (this is from my hubs David, who has always had something against weathermen, don't ask me why).

-Ruffles are terrible, terrible chips.

-Sourdough bread isn't that good but--

-I'm a loser because I didn't create a sourdough starter during the uncertain and unprecedented time in uncharted waters.

And finally...

-It turns out that books and movies about pandemics are way more fun and exciting than the live theatrical version in which we are all currently starring. I don't recall buying tickets for this. Can I leave at intermission and get my money back please? 

Sharing the couch

By guest columnist Toast Archibald, a cat

Hello people. Toast here.

Many of you will remember me from my ill-fated presidential runs. My 2016 platform of #Make America late again should have garnered massive support. However, I lost after getting exactly one vote.

Bitter but energized by defeat, I entered the 2020 race because I had a fabulous slogan (#I'm with fur 2020), a huge ego and and most importantly, nothing else to do.

However, the endless hours traveling to campaign stops in my cat carrier wore me down. Actually, it wore my campaign staff down --they couldn't put up with my nonstop mewing anymore and resigned en masse, so I didn't really have a choice. And here I am, sleeping on a couch in West Newbury instead of sleeping on a couch in the Oval Office.

And now all of America has joined me on the couch, so to speak, and I'm not sure how I feel about that.

There are some advantages. When I am in the mood for affection, I can get it from up to three people here in the bunker formerly known as our house. The opportunities for chin and ear scratching are endless. I'm also shedding like crazy, so everyone goes around covered with cat hair and that's awesome.

However, the humans NEVER leave. They are always here, hogging my favorite comfy spots, making noise, watching TV, and generally getting in the way of my napping. I used to average 18 hours of hard sleeping per day, and honestly, I think it's down to 17 now. Maybe even 16 and a half. That's concerning.

I haven't even mentioned the trauma I have had to endure as Eloise, the world's deadliest cat, has moved back in along with the college girl. Eloise was previously nicknamed Meatloaf because of her heft, but she's shed some pounds recently so that's been shortened to Meaty.

Apparently Eloise/Meaty was suffering from body image issues, because now that she's lost weight she's actually a little less vicious than she used to be. Still, you don't want to get between her and the food bowl at mealtime and you definitely need to watch your fingers at all times. In a pathetic bid for attention, she spends a lot of time carrying cat toys up and down the stairs and crying loudly while doing it. What a showoff! However, she's helping to maximize the distribution of cat hair, so she's not entirely useless.

Speaking of hair, everyone knows that we cats have to lick ourselves to get clean. It's embarrassing, but that's just the way it is. However it has come to my attention that a few humans are currently putting their tongues in places where they very much don't belong-like in cartons of ice cream in stores. STOP IT NOW. Even Meaty knows better than this, and she's not that bright.

Now, back to my favorite topic, couches and sleeping. As we previously discussed, there are advantages and disadvantages to my people being sprawled on the sofa at all hours of the day. I have to grudgingly admire that much time spent in a prone position. However, to be clear, I am supposed to be the one in the prone position.

But though it goes against my selfish cat nature, I realize that we need to cut the humans a little slack right now because times are tough. So I'm calling on all of my fellow pets to show their people extra love, because they really need it. Dogs, give your owners all the snuggling, wriggling, happy doggy kisses and slobbers that you can muster-dial it up to ten. This comes naturally to you, and it's your time to shine.

And cats...well, even though it will hurt our reputation as aloof and independent jerks, let's prove that for at least this once we felines can make room on the couch and in our hearts for the humans. There are laps crying out for our furry selves, so go forth and sit on them, while purring loudly. The humans love that. There is one condition though-

We get to watch Tiger King

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News

Hungry for comfort

Breath deeply. What do you smell?

Fresh bread. Ziti with roasted tomato sauce and a thick blanket of cheese. A British-style meat pie. Frosted brownies. AND my favorite new snack, homemade Cheez-its (yes, it's true, and no, I wouldn't kid about something like that).

We all need to take comfort wherever we can find it these days, and for me that means cooking. Lots and lots of cooking. Plump, golden-brown loaves from the oven, a batch of chocolate chip cookies-these things give me great satisfaction at the moment. And though plump and golden brown is probably going to describe ME when this is all over, I make no apologies for going full Martha Stewart right now.

I've been waiting for words to come to me before I write about what we are living through, because up to now they haven't. I've been struck dumb by what is going on. What happens on a Wednesday seems light years away from what happened on the previous Monday-and yet it feels all horribly the same. We're living in an actual zombie apocalypse Groundhog Day and it's not clear when we'll wake up. It feels like we have no control over anything.

But we still have to eat. And when life hands me Corona virus, I head to the kitchen, where I can at least control a batch of brownies. I've never been more grateful that I love to mess around with food. When I cook, my brain switches off and I focus on flour and sugar, which are major food groups as far as I'm concerned.

I feel especially proud that I can make homemade bread without even thinking about it. Bread baking has always been a pleasant diversion for me; now it feels like a mainstay of life. It feels like I'm providing. I use the no-knead method, which allows anyone with a pulse to make fantastic breads without the need to, uh, knead. (A current benefit to this method is that none of us could knead bread anyway, with these over-washed, dried-out, potentially germ-laden nubs that we used to call our hands hanging limply at the end of our arms.)

The gluten free movement has never been anything but an ugly rumor in our household, and we bake a lot, especially cookies. My husband's favorite recipe is for homemade Pecan Sandies, courtesy of Stella Parks' Bravetart.. I'm big on Salted Chocolate Chunk Shortbread, the New York Times version. The latter are what happens when regular chocolate chip cookies leave home, buy a fancy suit and invest in life insurance; chocolate chip cookies for grown-ups, in other words.

Obviously one cannot live by cookies and bread alone (although I'd be willing to give it a try). I've always enjoyed cooking dinner, and now it feels like the most important thing I do all day. We've got an extra member of the household right now (my 21 year old daughter, sadly ousted from college), so I get to feed more people, which I love.

Sometimes I follow recipes, more often I just wing it. The ziti I mentioned was an improvisation on a recipe torn from the newspaper years ago-I changed up the tomato sauce to reflect my current pantry stores, and used the cheeses I had on hand. Same for the meat pie-I subbed bison burger for the beef, and mixed it with fresh carrots, frozen peas and brown gravy courtesy of Heinz. Both were simple, beautiful and delicious.

And the homemade Cheez-its? Well, I am a Cheez-it lover from way back (Extra Toasty for me, White Chedder for hubs). With a lot of cheese in my pantry and too much time on my (nub-like) hands, I tried a version from Wow. Remember what I said about me ending up plump at the end of this? These things will be largely responsible if that happens. (The six boxes of actual Cheez-its that I bought in a shameful fit of hoarding are now gathering dust, and are available for donation if anyone wants them.  Some people buy toilet paper, some people buy Cheez-its.  Priorities, I guess).

Right now I wish you same kind of the comfort I find when I'm surrounded by bowls, spoons, pans and sifters. We'll go to Weight Watchers together when this is all over, but right now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a batch of brownies to put in the oven.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News


Just your average view in St. Thomas


Coming home to St. Thomas

My heart beat a little faster as United Flight 1519 approached the runway at the St. Thomas airport. My beautiful, beloved US Virgin Islands...what would we find there?

This was our first trip to the Caribbean since Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the islands in 2017. The USVI was slammed by both of the category 5 hurricanes within a two-week span. I had mourned with the rest of the world as the pictures and stories came out-at least 5 dead in the USVI, hundreds injured, houses vaporized, twisted wreckage everywhere. Nearly every bit of vegetation was destroyed-the verdant hills changed from emerald green to mud brown overnight.

Since then I have followed the recovery of the US Virgin Islands closely, especially that of a little hotel called Bolongo Bay Beach Resort. I fell in love with Bolongo the first time we stayed there in 2013-it's a small family-owned property on its own beach, with a secluded feel, low-rise buildings and a much-loved beach bar restaurant called Iggy's. Bolongo is the kind of place people return to again and again because it feels like home.

IrMaria, as the double hurricanes are called on the islands, wiped out Iggy's and left Bolongo's beach looking like an excavation site, but didn't leave property devastated like so much of the rest of the island. Hotel staff and recovery workers were housed there for a time after the storms. I contributed to the fund that the Doumeng family, the hotel's owners, created for its displaced workers. This did not go unnoticed. When we arrived at the front desk on this visit we were hugged and thanked warmly by managing director Richard Doumeng and his wife Katerina. They welcomed us like returning family members.

Other than the loss of Iggy's, Bolongo looks very much like its old self now. Iggy's is now called Iggy's Oasis and is housed in the main building around the pool area. According to Richard, plans are coming together to reconstruct it in its original location. The palm trees and flowering plants remain. The ocean is still turquoise and aquamarine. The Painkillers and Bushwackers are still delicious and deadly.

It's been a long road back for USVI residents though, and it's not over yet. Many of the St. Thomas's large hotels are still closed. When we talked with Richard, we heard about the frustrations, setbacks, bureaucracy, and red tape that he and everyone else have had to endure to get where they are today. In addition, according to a 2019 NPR report, there has been a "floodgate" of mental health issues among the islands' residents, many of whom endured weeks without power, running water or a reliable food supply after the storms.

In addition, not everyone who moved away from the islands has come back. Richard told us that his greatest difficulty has not been luring tourists back to the hotel but in securing the staff to work in it. "A lot of people went to stay with their aunty in Baltimore or wherever, and many of them remained there," he said.

It is a tribute to the hard work and dedication of the Doumeng family and its existing workers that hotel guests feel little difference in a short-staffed Bolongo-the rooms and grounds are just as lovely, and when breakfast is late one morning Richard himself swoops in, pouring coffee, apologizing for the delay, and giving everyone a free meal.

The island itself does not look much different than the last time I saw it. This is mind-boggling considering what the island looked like after the devastation of the storms. There are still houses without roofs, sunken boats, and abandoned structures, but far fewer than I had anticipated.

St. Thomas is not, and never has been, a sanitized Disney paradise. It has amazing charm and beauty at nearly every turn, and it also has trash, poverty and muffler shops. It's a multi-dimensional place full of real people living real lives, not always easily. It is scrappy and a little scruffy, which is why we love it and will always come back to it.

On the last day of our vacation we went for a sail on Bolongo's beautiful catamaran Heavenly Days. The sea turtles were elusive that day, but we swam with parrotfish, blue tangs, snapper and a resident barracuda that the crew affectionately calls Barry. After snorkeling we made our way to Honeymoon Beach on nearby Water Island, where we ate lunch, swam and sunned. Motoring back in a headwind along St. Thomas' southern shore, the boat came around a rocky cliff and there was plucky little Bolongo. I couldn't help but smile when I saw it-- I knew I was home.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News

The kids on a day trip to British Virgin Islands

What I'm thinking:

Using the good china

My Aunt Alice covered her furniture with plastic.

Kids today don't even know what I'm talking about, but anyone age 50 or older had at least one relative, perhaps even a parent, who covered their furniture with plastic. When we visited my aunt I would wander slowly around her living room, marveling at how untouched everything was. I sometimes sat down on one of the chairs and always jumped right back up again because I hated how my legs stuck to the plastic.

I never saw my aunt or uncle in that room. They were always seated around the little metal table in the kitchen, my Uncle Lenny in his wheelchair. I don't believe they ever went into the living room, not because Uncle Lenny's chair couldn't fit through the doorway , but because it was the "good room." I always wondered who was special enough to warrant a visit in living room. My aunt and uncle passed away years ago, and I'm not sure that special visitor ever arrived.

There seems to be a strong tendency not to use our "good" things--our mothers whispering in our ears not to ruin our "company" clothes or muddy our "special" sneakers. So we hold back from using them, because we want to preserve them for something even more special. But what are we saving them for?

Years ago, I read an article in which the author talked about people who never use their good china because they are preserving it for the next generation. She wrote "I've got news for you. Your daughter-in-law hates your china and will send it straight to Goodwill the minute you die." She recommended using the good china as often as possible and going to your grave with every last cup and plate broken in the service of a good time.

My mother gave us our good china when we got married. She was a woman who gave phenomenal parties and never cried over a broken dish in her life. So bearing all this in mind, my husband and I make a practice of using it--not every single day because we're lazy, but as often as possible for holidays and random events. We put it all into the dishwasher when we're done, even the Waterford crystal. Everything generally comes out fine.

And when it doesn't?

One less dish for somebody to send to Good Will.

This article was originally published in the Daily News of Newburyport in 2015 and rewritten in January 2020


Chatting with a cowpoke, 
thanks to Twitter

Twitter is my social media drug of choice. I have a Facebook account but I find Twitter more interesting for a number of reasons, one of which is that I converse and connect with people from all over the world. I follow people in Oman, Scotland, Mexico, and from around the US (including right here in Newburyport). We share news and jokes and pictures, and I get to learn about their lives and jobs in a way that I never could otherwise.

Recently I made the acquaintance of @Justacowpoke, and quickly became intrigued. He is a real-life cowboy, and I think it's safe to say that very few of us in this part of the world know any cowboys or what their job entails. I asked if I could write about him, and he very kindly agreed to answer some of my questions.

What should we call you?

Just call me Cowpoke, everyone else does. I'm 53 and I work in the feed yards of the Flint Hills of Kansas. I was born in Oklahoma and raised on a ranch. I left when I was 14 and later started working at feed yards. I've basically been doing this my whole life.

My job title is cattle manager. Cattle come to the feed lots after grazing, and then are sent from there for processing. My job duties don't really vary much, they mostly depend on the number of cattle in the feed yard. Late spring through early summer is the slowest time; we generally have around 3000 head in the pens during that time. Late July it starts to pick up, with yearlings coming in off the grass. The number of head will go up to 6500 or so.

Walk us through your day. My day starts at 4 am. I have my own place and ten of my own horses. I get up and feed my horses and the calves at home then I'll head to the feed yard and feed the horses I keep there, saddle them, and then eat breakfast. At first light I'll start riding the pens looking for sick cattle or lame ones, any that have problems.

After I'm done riding pens and gathering the sick cattle I drive them to the barn we use as the cattle hospital. I doctor them myself and make sure they are taken care of. Then I usually work new cattle, giving them their vaccinations and wormers and ear tags so they can be identified.

On days that we're shipping we have to get them down to the load-out and counted. Usually I will start loading them around 2 am.

I don't think of myself as having a job, it's just my life. Everyone I know in this part of Kansas is either a cowboy or a farmer. Most average people couldn't do this. You have to dedicate your life to it, because the cattle industry is 24/7. Cattle don't know what day it is, they get sick on holidays just like any other day. There are no days off, just off days.

What are your horses like? My horses are all cow-bred quarter horses that work for a living. I don't go pleasure riding like other people. My main mounts are named Naked, Afraid, Dirty and Nasty. I ride mares (female horses) exclusively because I find they have more grit than geldings. People who prefer geldings aren't smart enough to ride a mare, in my opinion. As far as a favorite, I don't really have one. They each have their own talents. Whichever one I'm riding that day is my favorite.

What's different about riding the feed lots? Riding the feed yard is a job that not many people want to do. It takes a different kind of cowboy. Most cowboys here are pasture or ranch cowboys. Ranch or pasture cowboys have more downtime. Feed yard cowboys are tied down to their jobs more. It's not easy for family time and that's why most of us are single or divorced. It's also a very physical job and I've been beaten up quite a bit over the years.

Have you seen any change in your industry in recent years? I haven't seen any real effect of attitudes against beef in my job. There's always a great demand for quality beef throughout the world, and beef by-products are used in many other ways and industries.

How does social media and cowboy life intersect? I myself only have Twitter and Instagram, which I don't get on very much. Twitter lets me converse and cut up with people everywhere, it's just something to take a break from life for a few minutes.

What would tell someone who wants to be a cowboy? In my opinion you are either born a cowboy or you're not. A cowboy is someone who's passionate and loyal about what they do. There are people in this world who don't even realize they're cowboys, and plenty more who think they're cowboys--­but aren't.

Final question-favorite cut of beef? A good ribeye.

Many thanks to @Justacowpoke for sharing with us. This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News


One last gift

December, 2019

My husband and my mother bought me a Christmas present together this year, and that wouldn't be strange except my mom passed away in 2001.

It's not really surprising that Jeanne got me a present from beyond the grave because she loved three things with an equal fervor—her family, Christmas, and buying said family Christmas gifts. If anyone could pull off giving a present 20 years after they've passed on, it would be her.

It was wonderful when I was little. I would wake up on Christmas morning to the most extravagant spread of toys, books and clothes imaginable. She (and Santa) bought my sister and I everything we asked for and plenty that we hadn't. But as I got older it began to feel like too much; too much for me, and too much for my kids when they came along.

Every year in November I would have "the talk" with her, thanking her for her generosity and asking her to please, please cut back this year. Every year she would agree. And every year there was the same enormous number of gifts under the tree. To her, Christmas wasn't Christmas without a living room absolutely filled to the brim with presents.

I honestly think she's been plotting and planning for the last 20 years about how to give me one last gift. This year she saw her chance when my sweet husband Davis asked me to look for a little something for my Christmas present, a piece of jewelry perhaps. He is a smart man who knows that gifts of jewelry for wives work out the best when wives do the shopping.

So, a wife on a happy mission, I went looking for a modest necklace of some kind. But when I happened to glance in the ring case at the wonderfully eclectic Market Square Jewelers in Newburyport, I saw a sapphire of a blue so beautiful, so clear and deep, that it took my breath away. Staffer Gail Hudson told me that the best Sri Lankan sapphires, like this one, are  the color of the evening sky right after the sun has set. I couldn't stop marveling at it.

But it wasn't a little something. It was a big something, and it cost more than I was going to let David spend on a Christmas present, even if he (wonderful husband that he is) said he wanted to. And that's when Jeanne saw her opportunity and sprang. Suddenly there she was, out of nowhere, whispering in my ear.

"You know they buy jewelry here as well as sell it," she murmured (she seemed to know a lot about the place). "What about trading in that old charm necklace of mine, the one that's been gathering dust in your jewelry box since I've been gone?"

I was surprised that my deceased mother was suddenly chatting me up, but I knew the piece she was talking about. It was a bulky chain with a number of gold charms on it which she never wore because it was too heavy. There was a biplane charm because my father had been a pilot, a sailfish, a globe, a set of keys, and an old-fashioned ski and boot, among others.

I had long ago taken from it the two charms that I loved and wear as pendants--a little medallion from an Italian cruise ship that my parents sailed on and a tiny gold box holding a dollar bill folded into a cube that fascinated me as a kid.

Would I be a bad daughter if I sold the others? They were special because they had belonged to her, but they had sat unworn for nearly two decades.

Jeanne piped up again right on cue. "Honey, you know I never liked that old thing!  It looked terrible. Now get my coat and let's go, before someone else buys your ring!"

So mom got her way about Christmas again. I took the necklace along with a few other old pieces and went back to Market Square Jewelers, where Gail meticulously assessed each one. We worked out the numbers and I bought the ring. My mother's charms went a long way toward defraying the cost, bringing it down close to the price of the "little something" I was originally looking for.

I always knew my mother would give me the moon if she could because she loved me that much. Well now, along with my husband, she's given me a little piece of the sky. And boy, is she smug about it.

Merry Christmas, mom—you sly devil, you. 

Jeanne, doing what she loved best

Making peace with my (enormous) Christmas tree

The tree towers over everything. The width of its trunk is nearly impossible to measure. The top is almost out of sight. Tales are told of this giant and people come to gaze in awe.

I'm talking about my Christmas tree.

The huge tree is my husband David's favorite thing. He loves hunting for it, decorating it, and hearing the gasps of amazement when people see it. He loves it because he loves a challenge, and an 18-foot Christmas tree is a challenge worthy of his talents.

I have no idea what it would be like to have a tree that fits through the front door without a struggle, and is easily tossed out after Christmas. Taking our tree down when the holidays are over requires two vacuums, a wheelbarrow, and power tools. David's New Year's Day tradition consists of watching football and dismantling the tree with a chainsaw while setting off all the smoke detectors.

Where does one find a tree this big, you ask? In the farthest corner of the Christmas tree farm, because dragging it to the checkout is part of the challenge. It's the tree that's been growing for years, the one that no one wants because it's too big. Cutting it down leaves my athletic husband winded. Lifting it onto the car is an event in the "The World's Strongest Man" competition.

A tree like this requires the largest possible stand bolted to a huge piece of plywood. Keeping it steady while wrestling it into the stand involves great struggle, potential injury, and language not suitable for children's ears.

Even when the tree is finally upright, victory remains elusive. The stand's screws aren't strong enough to hold the monster steady, so David uses pieces of wood jammed in next to the trunk to shim it. And, gravity being what it is, one more level of support is needed­-a rope from the very top attached to a (festive) block of concrete on the second floor.

Phew. But when all the grueling set-up is done and the tree is standing tall with lights and ornaments shimmering, it is spectacular.

And to my shame, I was a killjoy about the tree for a long time.

The difficulty. The mess. The scratched arms. The avalanche of Rubbermaid containers spewing Christmas stuff everywhere. I'm pretty even-tempered but the giant Sequoia in my living room always brought out the grumpy in me. My mother's nightmare was her orderly house "getting away from her," and I inherited that fear.

I complained about the selection of the tree ("Oh my god, not that one, it's too biggg"), the struggle up the back stairs ("I'm never doing this again! Never!") and the installation ("ARRGGHHHH!"). So Christmas tree day was miserable instead of fun and it was my fault.

A couple years ago I realized that I was acting like the Grinch. Why was I being a sourpuss about something that gave the love of my life such pleasure? So getting the tree was hard. Big deal. So the living room got messy. Who cared? None of that mattered compared to the joy my husband got from the whole process.

So like the Grinch, I changed. I'm not sure if my heart grew three sizes like his did, but it's definitely bigger. Several years ago we cut a tree on our own property (which is a former Christmas tree farm. Coincidence? Or something more?) and I enjoyed doing it. Last year the family went tree-hunting and I stayed home baking cookies-a win for everybody.

I vow to continue my truce with the giant Christmas tree because the tree makes my husband happy. And isn't making the people we love happy what Christmas is all about?

Now who wants to come see our tree this year? It's an absolute beauty, and boy, is it big.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News

Laughter, tears and mincemeat

Christmas is wonderful. Christmas is terrible. Christmas is a non-stop over-the-top buy-a-thon. Christmas is quiet moments and belly laughs with friends, and rapprochement with family members who don't normally speak. Christmas is crying children, forgotten batteries and "The Little Drummer Boy" for the 500th time. Christmas is the best time of year. Christmas is the worst time of year. Most especially, Christmas is memories, memories from our past and those made in front of our eyes, moment by moment. The memory of my mother cooking her mincemeat is Christmas in a single fragrant snapshot for me. The warm, spicy smell of it even half a decade later brings her to life again and I see her as she stirs and samples the bubbling mixture. I still make it myself, and it doesn't matter that no one else likes it (except for my 93 year-old father-in-law)-it's my mincemeat memory and I'll recreate it if I want to.

Every family has their own Christmas memory stories. Sometimes they aren't even our own memories, but feel like it because they have been shared so often. Like this one involving my parents..

The flying Christmas tree:

Jeanne and Stan are newlyweds in the 1950s, living in a little house in Reading. This is their first Christmas together, and my mother wants the house to be beautiful, and the tree perfect. As if I were there, I can hear the muttering and swearing as Stan struggles to get the large tree he picked out to stay upright in its too-small stand. Success at last, and now the ornaments are arranged, the lights painstakingly hung-those big chunky ones with the multi-color bulbs. My mother beams.

Suddenly-crash! The entire tree goes over. That's IT! In a fury, Stan opens the front door, picks up the tree, and heaves it out. There is much breaking of ornaments and a lot of crying by my mother. Chastened, my father fetches the tree inside, and round two commences. Heaven help us, the tree falls again. Out it goes, again. More crying, more swearing, and the tree, knowing that it cannot test my father any further, finally remains upright. Not exactly a silent night...

I was never certain how many ornaments and strings of lights were broken during the tree's multiple trips out to the front lawn, but my mother always told this story doubled up with laughter. We would laugh ourselves silly too as she described the tree sailing through the air, shedding needles and tinsel everywhere. I don't think I realized it at the time, but story really epitomized my parents' personalities: my father, the big picture guy with scant patience for details, my mother, patient, good humored and amazingly forgiving.

Rudolph, we hardly knew ye:

Now anyone can have a gargantuan Christmas display thanks to Home Depot, but in the old days there were only lights and the occasional plastic Frosty or Santa. One day, however, my father came home with a nearly life-sized white plaster reindeer. He unveiled it with the same air of excitement as Darren McGavin in "A Christmas Story" when he breathlessly pulls the leg lamp out of its wrappings. We kids went nuts when we saw it. With the help of some black electrical tape, Stan secured a single red bulb on the creature's nose and the deer became RUDOLPH. He stood proudly on our front lawn in North Reading, lit by a single spotlight. Our reindeer was the only one of his kind in town, and when the December light faded cars would drive by and pause to drink in his glory.

Rudolph hung in there for many years. He was joined by a second deer when we moved to North Andover, as well as a sleigh and a giant stuffed Santa. However one morning we woke up to find Rudolph missing, just completely gone except for his removable antlers. And despite the best efforts of North Andover's finest, and a front-page story in the Lawence Eagle Tribune (with a picture of my sister holding the antlers, looking mournful), he stayed missing.

My father never completely got over it, but I figured life went on, even when beloved plaster Christmas icons were stolen. I'd like to think that whoever took Rudolph got as much pleasure out of him as we did, but it was probably just some punk kids who took him and threw him in the woods. I prefer to remember Rudolph in his first incarnation when he seemed so magical to me-standing alone in front of the house I grew up in, his front foot eternally prancing, his red lightbulb nose shining out into the darkness.

Some Christmas memories are warm and filling, like a big piece of mincemeat pie. Some involve tears and raised voices and broken things. But time and distance soften the jagged edges and, like Christmas lights glimpsed through falling snowflakes, give even the difficult memories a gentler glow.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News

Archibald crew, Tufts University

The odd things for which I'm grateful

My lack of common sense: Every day I'm thankful that I wasn't thinking straight back in 1984 when I got engaged to someone I had only known for a month. I'm also grateful that my husband David was suffering from a similar lack of good sense when he proposed to a near-stranger. Almost 35 years later we still laugh at the same jokes, and squash up next to each other on the couch when we watch television. Sometimes you have to be thankful for pure, out-and-out foolishness.

Dirty Diapers: And strained peas on the wall (and the floor and the high chair, and wait, how it could possibly have gotten there?) A kid who believed sleep was optional. A house that generally looked like a bomb struck it. 

 When your children are young there are moments when it seems too hard to be grateful, when the diapers and the peas and the tears are too much. But those days pass, and the older you get the more you realize that dirty diapers and peas on the wall are the negligible price you pay for the privilege of being a parent.   It's 's a price I would pay a thousand times over (but I draw the line at being grateful for Barney the purple dinosaur.  Even a mother's love has its limits).

Being able to push a shopping cart: Nothing has given me a greater appreciation for the everyday miracle of mobility more than losing it because of foot problems. Using the motorized shopping cart at the supermarket is a humbling experience for someone used to racing through the store like a maniac. So now that things are better, if not perfect, I am profoundly grateful for every chance I get to push a regular shopping cart around by myself and ponder whether I need more eggs or if the cat prefers chicken or tuna flavored Fancy Feast.

Rushing into things: I put an offer on the house we live in now after looking at it exactly one time. I didn't even request a second showing. That was lunacy, but something told me that this was the place where I was supposed to be. And now every morning when I watch the sun rise through the big window in my bedroom or read the paper at my comfy kitchen island I thank heaven that I acted impulsively and without any regard for the possibility of a leaking roof or a radon problem.

Mr. Blackington's 7th grade geography class: Mr. Blackington was a terrible teacher but if I hadn't been stuck in his class I wouldn't have met the girl who sat behind me and became my best friend. Ditto for being chairperson of my church Hospitality Committee, where I met my other best friend when I recruited her for the thankless task of signing up volunteers for coffee hour. I'm so lucky to have found her, not least because she is one of the few people I know who loves cake as much as I do. I'm not sure she's forgiven me for sticking her with that coffee hour job yet, though.

Husbands and wives. Children and friends. Our health. Our homes. These are the things that matter, the things for which we are thankful. Sometimes they show up when you least expect them. Sometimes there is a roadmap to find them, and sometimes the roadmap blows out of the car window and you just barrel on and take the first exit you find. You may end up somewhere that seems terrible, like Mr. Blackington's geography class.

But always remember to look behind you.  Someone to be grateful for could be sitting there.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News, November, 2019


Sad women, harsh words

I used to know someone who turned every single conversation into an opportunity to criticize her husband. It was actually quite remarkable. There seemed to be no topic that couldn't be diverted into a complaint about him. I'm not sure she was even aware of how she sounded to others or how often she did it. It was obviously second nature to her, a well-worn track that she tread over and over without deviation.

I'm sure most people are uncomfortable with this, but I think I'm especially sensitive to it. When I was young my parents would sometimes leave us with our housekeeper when they traveled. Ruthie was a close family friend, perhaps my mother's best friend, and was incredibly kind to my sister and I. But when she stayed with us, I shivered whenever the phone rang, because if it was her husband on the other line her voice went from gracious to a snarl. The person I knew as loving and funny changed in an instant to someone who sounded frightening. I couldn't understand why she did this, and it made me sick to my stomach to hear it.

The grown-up me rails at her, and anyone, woman or man, who trash their spouse in public. "Do you have any idea what you sound like?" I say in my head. "If you're so unhappy, leave! Don't just complain endlessly to other people. You've got one life! Is this how you want to live it?"

My husband credits me with the enduring mantra of our marriage. It's something I said years and years ago, and it is this: it doesn't matter how well you treat everyone else in the world if you don't speak to and about your spouse with kindness and consideration. The woman who criticized her husband endlessly may have thought she was talking about HIS shortcomings but she was actually just painting a sad, sad picture of herself. 

Spirits roaming free

Gravestone in the woods, West Newbury

The familiar streets are black and strange

The air is sharp and chill.

Shadowed figures, half-seen, vanish in the dark.

It is Halloween and we are small free spirits roaming the night. Only the smallest children go with a parent, everyone else pairs up with older brothers and younger sisters and best friends. We are unsupervised and giddy with excitement, more than a little scared, although we won't admit it. The fear is somehow delicious, better than the candy we collect.

Halloween is still mostly for kids back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. My costumes are cobbled together from stuff in my mother's closet, or bought from Zayre's. They come with stiff plastic face masks, the kind you can't really see out of or breathe in. There are no giant blow-up Frankensteins or cute vampires waving and bobbing on front lawns. There is no shrubbery wrapped in fake green cobwebs or full-scale pre-made cemetery scenes. Our decorations are pathetic homemade scarecrows in lawn chairs or sheet ghosts hung from trees.

It is the first time we truly understand how different the world is in the dark. The neighborhood that we know so well in the daylight is strange new territory. The driveways seem longer and the distance between houses immense. The front steps and porches are welcome pools of light. We hang onto our younger siblings hands' and tell ourselves it's so they won't be scared.

Everyone talks about the kid who got a razor blade in an apple but no one know whether the story is true. We gorge on Sugar Babies and Milk Duds while we walk and don't think twice about it. No one checks our candy bags when we get home. The only worry is whether we brush our teeth before going to bed.

One year my best friend and I make a haunted walk in the woods behind her house. We force the neighborhood kids who participate to stick their hand in a bowl of Spaghetti-Os, which we call eyeball soup. We concoct a tale of an entire family buried alive, standing in front of a patch of dirt we had hastily dug up. Everyone is suitably frightened and one girl starts crying hysterically. We count this as a win.

Another time, while trick or treating, a friend and I dare each other to go up the back stairs of a house after no one answers the front door. It is pitch black and the steps are steep and narrow. We get to the top, clinging to each other, and knock on the storm door. There is a scuffling noise and out of nowhere, a cat screams down on top of us. We nearly fall down the stairs in terror, the cat plunging through the darkness with us. Candy spilling everywhere, we sprint away, shrieking with tears and laughter.

My best-or worst-Halloween scare comes in the late afternoon of October 31, 1970-something, at the old farm where I keep my horse. The property dates from colonial times and the barn is ancient and shadowy. I have been riding by myself that day and when I get back there is no one around. Everything is quiet, and the only sounds are the horses moving in the paddock. I call out but there are no answering voices.

The sun is low in the sky and the air is cool. I shiver in my thin jacket. Where is everyone? Is this a Halloween prank? Suddenly panicked, I get on my horse, bareback this time, and ride out again. I have never ridden so late in the day and my heart is hammering. Shadows are gathering beneath the trees now and the fields are nearly dark. I shout but still no one answers. It seems, for one ridiculous moment, that I am the only person alive. In the almost-dark I head back to the barn, trembling.

And now there are lights and people, my sister and friend and the barn workers. "We were here, what are you talking about?" they say, when I slide off my horse crying, demanding to know where everyone was. "We were right here all the time!"

Spirits roaming free, indeed.

This column is dedicated to my October birthday BFFs, L and P.  Love you guys so much it's scary.

The dying light

Summer was about...

Summer was about blueberries. I've written before about my mothers love for blueberries, and her passion for picking, cooking and eating them. We used to visit a cultivated patch of berries at the home of two little old ladies in North Reading near the center of town. They lived in an old white colonial shaded by big trees and surrounded by wild gardens. The ladies would give us plastic containers on strings that we could hang around our necks, and send us down the grassy overgrown path to the enclosure of berry bushes. We would pick bucketfuls of berries in the clover-scented warmth, surrounded by birdsong and the humming of insects. When we were done the old ladies would exclaim over the amount of berries we had picked and give us lemonade while we waited for my mother to pick us up. Later there would be pie, and possibly a stomachache.

Summer was about swimming with the horses. We would ride bareback to the basin of the Ipswich River in North Reading, which everyone called the Sand Pits. It was like a big beach, and we would gallop through the sand and swim the horses in the river. It's an amazing sensation when a horse's feet leave solid ground and they begin to swim, and you feel the power and flow of their muscles as they forge through the water. We would hang on to their manes and try not to fall off when they burst up onto the bank in a great lunging shower of water. Sometimes the horses would shake themselves like wet dogs, their big bodies shuddering violently and bouncing us to the ground in the process. I remember the delicious spicy smell of the sumac that grew there and the feel of warm wet hair against my legs as we rode home, the horses slowly drying in the sun. Heaven knows what the quality of the water was like back then, or what could have been lurking beneath the surface. We didn't worry about it.

Summer was about my mother's watermelon basket. She didn't carve a handle in it like people do now but the sawtooth edge she cut into the big watermelon half was amazing enough to us. We were mesmerized by the rainbow of fruit she put in it, cantelopes, strawberries, grapes, and of course, watermelon, all scooped perfectly round with her melon-baller. It was a masterpiece, and we lived for the one or two times she made it each summer.

Except in those days the milk came in bottles. Big, heavy bottles. And one time one of those bottles was slippery and I was in a hurry. The milk bottle came crashing down right on top of the newly made watermelon basket, and everything hit the floor in an explosion of milk, glass, watermelon and perfectly round fruit pieces. It was a sad moment and there was a lot of crying. After a period of recovery my mother made another one, less cheerfully this time and with a lot of stern warnings.

Summer was about biking. We went everywhere, on wide suburban streets and narrow twisting roads. Our favorite destination, a couple of hair-raising miles from my house, was Frank Mace's store. It was a package corner store of the old school variety, dark and dim, with worn wooden floors. There was the odd can of soup and a couple of stale loaves of bread, but it was booze, cigarettes, and candy that kept the place in business. Frank sold soda too (or tonic, as most everybody called it), and that's what we came for. It was kept in an old cooler filled with ice and freezing water. I would reach into the chilly depths and pull out an orange or grape Fanta in a glass bottle. The bottle was wet and the soda was icy cold and so good. We guzzled it standing on the dusty front steps. We bought Bazooka bubble gum too, hard as a rock and brutal on your teeth.

Summer was about Dairy Queen. DQ was only about a half mile down the street from Frank Mace's, but it was on Rt. 28 so we had to drive there for Dilly Bars, Strawberry Shortcakes, and dipped cones (the cherry ones!). They also had an early version of slush called Mr. Misty that was really weird. I loved the butterscotch milkshakes. Odd as that sounds, they were delicious, sweet and soothing, and I drank them often back when Dairy Queen was the only ice cream show in town.

Not along ago I stopped at the Dairy Queen in Salisbury and asked if they still had butterscotch milkshakes. The lady behind the counter said that they could make a caramel one, would that do? It would. It was sweet and soothing, just like my childhood favorite. I sipped it slowly as I sat in my car. It was cloudy and cold that spring day, but I was content--the milkshake in my hand told me that summer would soon be here.

Sometimes you can go home again, even if it's just for a moment.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News, July, 2019

Stitching a couple-and their families- together

Photo by Shelley Kooistra

At my son Hunter's recent wedding to his wife Laura in Rockport, one of the most important guests-the one with four feet and a tail-wasn't actually there, but he certainly made his presence known to everyone.

Stitch was in Michigan during the festivities, probably sleeping, but he was with us in so many ways during the four days of celebrations. He hovered over the proceedings-grey and white, skinny and scrappy-from start to finish, and his name was prophetic as two people and two families were joined together.

Stitch is 18 and has been with Laura's family-parents Shelley and Bill, older sister Lindsey, younger brother David-since they spotted him as a tiny baby near their cottage by Lake Michigan. The ailing kitten was rescued, brought back to health, and became a member of the family-a somewhat quirky one.

He was always more cuddly with the kids than the parents, and didn't seem to like men as much as women, which makes his affection for Hunter unusual. He loves water, and will jump in the tub after showers to get it. He demands that you turn the faucet on for him. He knocks glasses of water over to feed his habit. And his passion for milk is legendary. My favorite picture of him was taken right after Laura accidently spilled a gallon of milk in their long hallway. The picture shows a river of milk coursing down the wood floor, and there's Stitch crouched over it, lapping away, obviously in feline heaven.

Most recently Stitch went to live with Hunt and Laura in their Cleveland apartment while they attended medical school. I knew Hunter was serious about Laura when he showed absolutely no concern about the hair on his clothing that used to drive him crazy when it came from our cats. Stitch's hair was different, because Laura loved Stitch, and Hunter loved Laura.

I had the idea to do a painting of Stitch for a wedding gift several months ago, and asked for pictures of him from the kids under the guise of "he's so adorable I want to see more of him." I am an enthusiastic beginner and attend a weekly class at the Artists Workshop at the Tannery, taught by the talented and wonderful Pat Lutz. Pat guided me, encouraged me, and made me believe that I could actually produce something good.

I spent hours staring at the picture of Stitch as my painting took shape. I began to know his face, his paws, his furry chest intimately. I knew the black spot on his nose and the way the white blaze on his forehead curls up and to the right. And I knew, especially, the slightly sardonic expression in his eyes and his frank and level gaze, and worked hard to capture it.

The month before the wedding I went to extra art classes two and three times a week, and often despaired that I would ever finish the piece to my own satisfaction. But miraculously, the two final days of painting brought everything together. I finished it during the last minutes of the last class I could attend before the wedding.

I presented the painting to Hunter and Laura during a lovely dinner hosted by her parents at the house they were renting. The ecstatic surprise on both their faces made every minute that it took to create it worthwhile. The praise and admiration from her family and relatives, all of whom have know Stitch for nearly two decades, was an incredible bonus.

What I didn't know until the wedding ceremony was that Laura's uncle Bill, a Presbyterian minister who spoke during the service, was so stirred by the painting that he decided to revise the words he was delivering to reflect it. I learned after the wedding that he asked to borrow the painting so he could look at it while he wrote (his wife Kathy told me she was terrified that something would happen to it, a tree falling on their car while the painting was in it, perhaps).

I was stunned during Bill's homily when he reached behind the lectern and pulled out the painting. He spoke about how Stitch was basically on death's doorstep until he went to live in Cleveland with the two young doctors and how well this boded for their healing powers. I was blinking back tears by the time Hunter and Laura recited their beautiful wedding vows, and once again Stitch played a part, with Laura speaking of how she began to learn of Hunter's kindness by the way he treated her cat.

The young doctors are now in Minnesota to begin their residencies and Stitch is with them, well-supplied with water and milk and settled comfortably into his new home. They know that one day there will be a final goodbye. I can only hope that my painting will make that day just a little less painful. I hope that love-my love for them, their love for each other, and the love we all have for a cat who is so much more than just a pet-is what remains. 

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News in June, 2019

Photo by David Archibald

Mothers, sons, and the importance of potato chips

By Marilyn and Hunter Archibald

Today we have a guest columnist, the person who gave me my first big break and with whom I am more than happy to share the spotlight-my son, Hunter Archibald. Several years ago he created a blog ("harchieblog"), which covered breaking food news, especially as it concerned Doritos Locos Tacos.

His blog was wonderful, actually, extremely witty and engaging. I read every post, um, hungrily, and remembered the old days when I too wrote engaging things (or at least MY mother thought so. And the circle of life continues).

So like anyone wishing to get published, I sent an exploratory email accompanied by my review of Lay's Wavy Original Potato Chips Dipped in Milk Chocolate. And the editor, under the kind of duress only a mother can exert, published my submission. The rest, as they say, is history. Thank you, darling. I still owe you that carton of Doritos Cool Ranch, and I promise, it's coming right along. I thought my three or four faithful fans might be interested in this early writing, so as Hunter says below, without further ado, Harchieblog, featuring mom:

Reader submissions (literally my mom is the only person who reads this blog)

Posted on December 4, 2014 by Hunter Archibald:

I'm in a tough spot here. I received an email from my mom recently with an unsolicited blog post. Not sure how to feel about this. It is very nice to have engaged readers. It also likely means that the majority of my page-views are coming from my mom. Not exactly the lucrative age 20-30 male demographic.

We hear a lot of talk about "brand" these days. So much so that there are several levels of sarcasm built into the word at this point. Over the course of several months we have watched the harchieblog brand grow exponentially--you were with me in the Philadelphia Airport that lonely night and you were there every time I got a Panera 'You Pick Two'. I am hesitant to post reader submissions because I don't want to alienate the loyal harchiebrand I have accumulated.

This brings me back to my mom's email. In it she wrote, "You DO not have to post this if you don't want to, and I'm not going to besiege you with reviews. I just had fun writing this." Um...has a mom ever said something like this and not expected it to happen? I've had a couple other requests for posts--nothing eye-catching--but this is thus far the most compelling submission because of its completeness and mostly because my mom will be sad if I don't post it. My hands are tied. If the blog dies, it dies. Without further ado:

Product Review: Lay's Wavy Original Potato Chips Dipped in Milk Chocolate

Imagine the best milk chocolate you've ever had, melting on your tongue. Now add salt, and follow with the crunch of a potato chip. These are Lay's Wavy Original Potato Chips Dipped in Milk Chocolate, certainly one of the best snack foods available today. I don't quite understand how Lay's has pulled this off, because ruffled potato chips are a miserable old-school pretender bringing up the rear in the brave new world of artisan chips. However, enrobing them in chocolate that taste like the chocolate that you pick off of Dove Bars and eat by itself (which never tastes the same as Dove Chocolates, which are always a sad disappointment) brings them to a taste level one would not have though possible. In addition, the chips stay fairly crisp. Someone should win a Nobel Prize for this.

The chips are packaged in rather small bags, which I think makes sense. It would be very easy to devour an entire bag in one sitting, so snackers should be protected from themselves by limiting their access somewhat. My suggestion, if you can manage it, is to enjoy just a few with a glass of moderately good champagne, savoring the entire experience.

Oh heck, what am I thinking? Go ahead and eat the whole bag at once standing in front of the cupboard. We both know you're going to.

Marilyn Archibald, guest columnist

Hunter's review: B. It's not terrible, honestly. It reads too much like an English paper, but there are some bright spots, like the reference to Dove Bars. The choice of topic is solid, (those chips are fire, for the record.) I am also grateful for having a devoted reader. A page-view is a page-view, so thanks mom. Love you.

For the record, Hunter ended this blog post with a graphic of a jumping shark. Marilyn Archibald (, his mother, still feels that she only enhanced the harchieblog brand. 

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News, August 2017

Running hot and cold

Baby, it's cold upstairs.

Seriously, I mean it's actually cold. At the risk of being known as a total crank, I am admitting here and now that we don't use the heat on the second floor of our house. We also open the window before we go to sleep. That morning when it got to 12 below? It was a brisk 43 degrees in our room when we woke up. Believe me, you don't linger when it's time to get out of bed in temperatures like that. You move very, very quickly.

It's not that I don't like to be warm. I adore being warm. I keep a heating pad on the couch, and use it when I watch television. There's a corner in the kitchen that we all fight to sit in front of where the heat pours out of the register. I am the queen of hot baths, and in the winter I live for my heated car seats and, lord help me, the heated steering wheel (it came with the car, I swear. I didn't even want it!)

So why the polar temperatures upstairs? I'm going to let our guest speaker Herman Melville explain: "...if the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, feel delightfully...warm. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal." (from Moby Dick)

So, I don't sleep in a cold bed; I sleep in a warm bed in a cold room. Herman also says: "...truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast." Thank you, Herman, that was brilliant (but your books are mad long; have you thought about a little judicious editing? Just sayin').

I blame/credit my mother for this. According to her, as an infant I never slept so well as when I was swaddled warm and tight, napping in my baby carriage. Outside. In the winter. Can you imagine what would happen if you tried this now?

Me (sleeping blissfully): ZZZZZZZZZZ

The police (entering noisily): We've had a report of a baby left outside. Ma'am you're coming with us (hustling my mother out).

Me (woken up and brought inside): WAAAAAAHHHHHHH!

Of course, there are those who aren't completely onboard with the polar express. Among them are certain young people who occasionally live here and share our last name; okay, our kids. My older daughter raved enthusiastically about how warm the dorms were when she went to college. My son had the temerity to turn the heat on upstairs when he visited over Thanksgiving. My youngest grumbles and uses a space heater on her feet when doing her homework. She sleeps underneath a stack of comforters that would crush the average person. Hah, she's nearly eighteen, so the time she can call DCF on me is almost up. It's character building, kids.

I freely admit that my icy sleeping arrangements are not for everyone. And let's all agree right now that street folks should be inside when the weather turns very chill; cold isn't optional for them. However, I think the weather and news people have turned many of us into complete wimps when it comes to cold temperatures. "WE'RE DOOMED, DOOMED!" they roar when the temperatures hit negative territory. "DON'T EVEN CONSIDER LEAVING THE HOUSE! IF YOU HAVEN'T ALREADY WIPED OUT THE BREAD AND MILK AT MARKET BASKET, IT'S TOO LATE!" Doing a man-on-the-street interview during the recent cold snap, one reporter I heard sounded distinctly miffed that anyone was outside at all, let alone a few people who professed to actually like the weather.

Because, just like Melville said, it is the contrast that makes it enjoyable. Most of us never have to be cold if we don't want to. We can stay inside almost perpetually. The average winter jacket is warmer than what Sir Edmund Hillary wore to climb Everest. But it doesn't get below-zero cold around here very often or for long, and it is a opportunity to see what those temperatures feel like, to see how many layers you have to put on to be the warm spark in the arctic crystal.

I doubt I will convince others to emulate my sleeping habits, and that's not my intention anyway. Because fortunately, my soul mate and life partner, otherwise known as my husband, shares them completely. And so we sleep like rabbits in a burrow, warm and snug, our noses just a little chilled.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News 

Love for Lyndells

                                                                                                                   (stock photo)

How can I possibly choose?

Is it the white frosting, thickly layered and smooth but with a hint of sugar crystals, that I like the best? Or is the cookie, a small cake really, soft and plump, redolent of vanilla? Or could it be the chocolate frosting, dark and complex, also with a touch of crust that hits your tongue like a piece of good fudge? I can't possibly choose. It's the delirious combination of the three, the whole being greater and far more delicious than the sum of its parts. Eating it becomes an exercise in choice. Do you eat the chocolate side and then the vanilla, enjoying each on its own merits, or do you burrow straight through middle, getting a bit of both in every bite, letting the combination create a new flavor and getting frosting all over your face?

I'm talking, of course, about a Lyndell's Moon. You may know them as black and whites but Lyndells call them Moons and I'm not going to argue. You don't know Lyndells? It's in Somerville and has been around since 1887. There was another one in the North End for a time, but foolish tourists must have preferred the greatly overrated Mike's Pastry, because that branch closed. According to its website, Birger C. Lindahl, was a Swedish immigrant who arrived in America in 1882, changed the spelling of his name to Lyndell, and proceeded to bake up a storm. The bakery has had just a few owners since it opened, each continuing the tradition of homemade deliciousness for many decades. Lyndell's makes a whole range of baked goods, breads, cakes and the like, but I am completely stuck on the Moons. They make six combinations, with vanilla and chocolate frosting and gold or chocolate cake. That's six times the awesome, as far as I'm concerned.

Why do I love Lyndells Moons so much? There are lots of bakeries around with fancier pastries. What is it about this determinedly old-school confection that makes it so special? For me, a Lyndell's Moon is a true Proustian experience, transcending the cake and frosting itself and transporting me back to back to my childhood.

Suddenly I am eight years old again and hand in hand with my mother. We are in Wakefield, walking through the parking lot of my favorite place in the world, the Holiday Bakery. Up the brick steps and through the jingling glass door, and then...magic. The smell of good bread and cake just out of the oven greets me. There's always a crowd, so it takes us a few minutes to get to the front of line. I'm small and can't see around the other customers, but that just makes the anticipation a little sweeter. Finally it is our turn. I take a breath. The glass cases stretch out on either side of me, filled with pastries and cookies, breads and cakes.

What will we get on this visit? Will it be Clown Cookies, big sugar cookies shaped like gingerbread men, with frosting buttons and colorful ruffs on their hands and feet and hard sugar faces? Maybe it will be the Petit Fours, dense little cake squares enrobed with white fondant icing and decorated with frosting flowers. Perhaps it will be the Radio Bars, the name probably a corruption of radial, as in tires. This is a rectangular bar of chocolate cake with a ribbon of vanilla icing on top, covered with dark chocolate icing and finished with another stripe of white frosting (radial...get it?) These are transcendent, inducing a kind of chocolate euphoria long before the tiresome concept of 'chocoholic' was invented.

Maybe-glory of glories-we will get a cake. Is it somebody's birthday? We can only hope. As a child I almost always chose vanilla cake with white frosting and pink flowers. One year for my birthday we had a circus cake, with plastic animals and a little tent held up by straws. It might have been smarter to remove the circus tent before lighting the candles, rather than after, however. I remember the flames reaching almost to the ceiling, and lots of shouting.

But the cake...sweet but not overwhelming, with a fine crumb and a delicious vanilla flavor. And the frosting...satiny white and smooth, with crusty little ridges especially where it is piped in decorative swags around the top and bottom edges of the cake. The cakes come in big cardboard boxes, not plastic shells, and they are wrapped with red and white string that the bakery ladies pull from an overhead dispenser which always fascinates me.

And this is why I love Lyndell's Moons. A consummate pleasure in and of themselves, they let me taste again a long-ago birthday cake, hear the jingle of a bakery door as it swings open, and feel my mother's hand in mine one more time. 

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News, October 2015

Saving Jersey-and helping NEER

By Marilyn Davis Archibald

I first met Mary Martin in 2010 in the parking lot of the West Newbury Food Mart. She had her rescue pony Boo in a portable corral, and was passing out fliers about a horse rescue she was involved in called NEER, short for New England Equine Rescue. This was a pretty awesome sight to my horse-loving 12 year-old daughter. Soon Tess was volunteering at NEER. The stable was rundown, the fences more a suggestion than a requirement, but there was a feeling of warmth and purpose in the barn.

The volunteers at NEER cared for an assortment of horses, ponies and donkeys, some of which had been neglected or abused. Not long after Tess began volunteering, a scruffy Haflinger pony called Jerseygirl arrived at the farm. Haflingers are small sturdy horses of Austrian origin with a reputation for being headstrong.

Jersey had been rescued from a large horse auction in New Jersey, hence her name. She was not beautiful. She was as fat as a barrel and her tan coat was dull. And yet...there was something about her. A look in her eye. A hint of what she might become. Tess fell hopelessly in love with her.

So, Jersey became ours through adoption, and we quickly learned that the Haflinger reputation for being strong and opinionated was not a myth. Jersey thought nothing of barging through gates, fences, or stall doors. She would refuse jumps or buck just because she felt like it. But over the months, a different pony began to emerge. With Mary as Tess and Jersey's cheerleader, the hours of riding and training, good food and grooming began to pay off. The Jersey who emerged in the spring of 2011 with a dappled golden coat, who was trotting and cantering with at least some reliability (she could still be a devil, just less frequently), was a far cry from the nondescript animal that came to NEER less than a year before.

But for every lesson that Tess taught her, Jersey had just as many lessons of her own to teach. Lessons about persistence and commitment in the face of difficulty, lessons about believing in something when others do not, lessons about hard work and unconditional love.

These are the lessons that Mary Martin, now president of NEER North, lives every day. When the news broke several years ago that NEER would need to find a new location, no one believed that Mary would be able to acquire the farm on Ash Street in West Newbury that had been on the market for several years (myself included). The asking price was too high. A donor who pledged a significant sum had second thoughts. There were too many uncertainties for a bank to commit itself.

And yet, somehow, it happened. Those lessons about persistence and commitment, about believing in something when others do not, paid off. There may have been some actual magic involved too, but however it happened, NEER is now housed at 52 Ash Street in West Newbury. Lovely as it is, the property needs work and the foundation of the barn needs repair. It costs approximately $300 a month to care for each animal. Volunteers do amazing work, but it still costs money to rescue horses.

We no longer have Jersey, but she was re-adopted by someone who also believes the sun rises and sets on her. Before she was rescued, Jersey could easily have gone to slaughter. Instead she came to NEER and transformed several lives in the process. If this sounds worthwhile to you, please consider supporting the work of NEER with your tax-deductible donation. Yes, there are many charities clamoring for your dollars. But Mahatma Gandhi said that the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. Animals are not more important than people. But treating our animals well makes us better people, and maybe, just maybe, more likely to treat each other with kindness and love.

Jersey watches Mary Martin hanging her ribbons

House hunting from the comfort of my couch

If you are going to watch "House Hunters," "House Hunters International" "Beachfront Bargain Hunt," or any one of the multitude of real estate shows on HGTV or similar channels, there are three terms you must become familiar with:

-Price point

-En suite

-Subway tile

Price point: There are no prices anymore, there are only price points. Even when the word price would do perfectly well, everybody says price point: "What's the price point on this farmhouse style with the wraparound porch?" "Wow, that's a great price point!" or "Awww, that's way above our price point." There are no price ranges, there are only price points.

En suite: I thought bathrooms attached to master bedrooms were called master bathrooms but that just shows how much I know. Just as there are no prices, there are no master bathrooms, only en suites.

Subway tile: Everywhere, all the time.

To each his/her own: These shows follow buyers--sometimes an individual, usually couples, same or opposite sex--in search of a home, apartment, or vacation property. I love vicariously getting inside other people's houses and passing judgment on their awful taste in flooring or admiring their gorgous kitchen cabinets. I'm amazed that some people want to buy a (tacky) high-rise condo in Ocean City, Maryland, and jealous that others get a (stunning) beachfront property in Costa Rica. It's also fun to watch the transformation of shabby houses in the renovation shows, though I have to say I worry about what's going to happen when grey walls, giant clocks, stainless steel appliances, and granite countertops become passé.

Opposites attract: I have yet to see an episode of "House Hunters" in which the partners actually want the same thing. Nearly every episode features one person who wants a modern house close to the "city center" (another important term) and one who wants to live somewhere they can have land and raise alpacas. One person loves hardwood floors and the other is obsessed with carpeting. One wants an open floor plan and one wants walls. And always, one wants to stick with the budget and one is willing to blow it for the right house.

How it works: The format is that, along with a real estate agent, our intrepid house hunter or couple looks at three to four properties. We assume that they must inspect things like the boiler and the foundation, but on the show it's all about light fixtures and "flow." Our hunters also say a lot of the same things. When they go out the back deck, one of them invariably remarks "I can see myself grilling on this." Well, no duh. If there is a balcony off the master bedroom, you will definitely hear "I can see myself having coffee here" (how often this actually happen in real life?) If there is a nice view "it doesn't get any better than this." And at the end, when all the properties have been viewed, everyone agrees that "they have a lot to talk about."

Price point, continued: When our house hunters exceed the budget it makes me nervous. "You said you had a strict price point of $450,000!" I shout at the television. "You just moved and you don't have a job yet! That house is $550,000--do you know what your real estate taxes are going to be?!" Sometimes they listen to me, but not always, and I worry.

Americans abroad--not always pretty: My favorite among these shows is "House Hunters International," where an individual or couple (usually American but not always) is moving abroad. This show is great for many reasons, including getting to see beautiful international locations. In addition, it's fascinating because Americans want it all, and many properties abroad don't have it all.

These couples, just like the ones in regular "House Hunters," always want something completely and utterly different. The poor real estate agents listen to the wildly differing wish lists with frozen smiles, no doubt questioning their own career choice and wondering why Americans are so impossible. These overseas real estate agents are also more likely than the American ones to voice their real feelings, though they do it very politely-- "I think the wife is, how to put it, very picky," said one German agent of her client-snipe! Also, they don't hesitate to roll their eyes when Americans voice dismay at tiny European washing machines.

And finally: Even when it seems impossible, even when our buyers are unable to agree on the mid-century modern vs. the vintage craftsmen, even when she hates the laundry room and he loathes the electric stove, somehow they end up compromising. They select one of the properties, while having yummy looking drinks, and three weeks or months later, are as happy as clams (although the couple who went way over their price point for the Italian villa looked a little nervous). Do they all truly live happily ever after? We'll never really know, but they have their subway tile and that counts for something.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News

                                                   (stock photo)

All Aboard

by Marilyn Davis Archibald

WARNING: People who commute into Boston from Newburyport on the train every day should not read this column. "Dilettante!" I can hear them hiss. "Fair weather rider!" And those are only the names we can print. No, regular train riders should not read this column. Everyone else should, though.

To me, the train is nothing short of magical. It is Harry Potter-esque. I find it amazing that I can leave my car behind in Newburyport, and be transported to downtown Boston while SITTING THERE AND LOOKING OUT THE WINDOW. Okay, maybe I am playing with my phone too, but that counts as work. Doesn't Twitter count as work? Of course it does.

                                                              (stock photo)

So what if I didn't have to endure train travel during the snowy hell of the winter of 2015, when pack mules would have been speedier and more efficient than commuter rail? When I sing the praises of the train my husband just laughs and call me "Miss Public Transportation." Whatever. I just love taking the train into Boston, and it feels like an adventure to me because I don't do it every day. That's why I enjoy it. Familiarity hasn't had a chance to breed contempt.

I am always in awe of what a watery world we live in as the train pulls out of Newburyport and slices through the marshes. Acres of cattails, reeds and Phragmites, hummocky islands of trees, and water everywhere-in straight lines and in wide sinuous bends. Geese dot the landscape and I see a flock of turkeys dropping from the sky and landing, one by one. The sky on this day is grey and cottony. As we pass through Rowley I look for the cottages perched on the edge of the marsh, and wonder what it's like to live in the middle of that ocean of waving grass.

As we pull into Ipswich there are familiar houses and buildings, but I see them from a completely different angle than I would if I were driving. Nobody builds their house to face train tracks, so the view from the train is strangely intimate-you see backyards, not front yards. You see play sets and pools, back porches, barbecue grills, propane tanks, bicycles. You see tidy, and you see trashy, but you see real life.

Approaching Hamilton the landscape turns bucolic--horses, barns, miles of post and rail fencing, big houses, open fields. There's Patton's tank! We pass the Shoppes at Hamilton Crossing and I laugh as always at the extra 'p' and 'e'. (They aren't Shops, they are Shoppes). Before long we leave the fields behind and now we pass under route 128 and it's on to Beverly, then Salem. Salem Harbor looks cold and choppy today, with one lonely sailboat bouncing in the waves.

In Lynn the view is all red brick. The station is elevated and old mill buildings rear up on either side of the train. Now we pass the decaying hulk of Wonderland, the old greyhound track. The landscape is grittier now, and we see tank farms and transformers, power plants, smoke stacks, oil tankers, turbines. It's another kind of backyard, the infrastructure of energy and industry.

Approaching Boston, we get our first glimpse of familiar landmarks-the Bunker Hill monument, the Schraffts building, the Hood Milk smokestack. The Boston skyscrapers appear and then vanish as we pull into North Station, passing a string of graffiti-covered cars from an old Boston and Maine train parked on a siding, like something out of an apocalyptic movie. And suddenly the ride is over, and everyone is gathering their belongings and piling out. North Station is no one's idea of an elegant or sophisticated travel hub, but dank as it is, there is still activity and noise and motion.

And now, I am in Boston. I have been transported to an entirely different world. Yes, I am an absolute hick, I know-- I still get excited about being in Boston, especially when I am by myself and on foot. I feel like I'm getting away with something. I roam through Quincy Market and then head toward the Seaport District. I have a leisurely lunch with my daughter at Mario Batali's Babbo Pizzeria (Mario Batali!!). On my way back I detour through the North End, then wander into the gorgeous Boston Public Market, full of New England- grown and sourced foods. It's locavore in the extreme, and quite wonderful.

And finally, it's back on the 3:20 to Newburyport. I'm tired from the walk and it's wonderful to sit and watch the scenery. The ride is just as magical in reverse, because now we are going from city to country. The train rolls along and buildings, houses and businesses fade away, replaced by trees and fields. Now we are flashing through the marsh again. The train creaks to a halt and I get up. Most people have already gotten off at other stops. Only a few people are lucky enough to ride the train all the way from North Station to Newburyport, and I am one of them.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News


Tattoo you

So there we were, crammed into a tiny Montreal hotel bathroom-me, my bleeding husband, and two massively tattooed strangers.

I had first seen the men the previous day, when my husband David and I eased happily into the rooftop hot tub on our Montreal weekend adventure. I tried not to stare, but I had never seen tattoos like these before. Intricate artwork-faces, phrases, lettering-covered their arms, legs and chests, and crept up onto the sides of their heads. The level of detail was astonishing; stunning pictures blazed from nearly every inch of their skin.

I eavesdropped on their conversation and tried to figure out who or what they were. Runners in the Montreal Marathon? Hockey players? Roadies from the previous night's Maroon 5 concert? Stay away from them, I thought. I noticed the other people in the hot tub also sneaking glances and looking away. I averted my eyes and sank lower in the bubbling water.

The following day we had a food tour at noon, so a morning session in the hot tub seemed like a good idea while my husband went for a run. And there were the tattooed men again, just two of them this time, and unlike the previous day, there was no one else in the water but them. I hesitated, hoped they didn't notice, and climbed in. I closed my eyes and wondered why I hadn't brought my phone with me.

"Hey love, how are you this morning?"

I looked up and both men were smiling brightly at me. Well, it's a fact that no girl can resist a guy who calls her 'love,' tattoos or not. And so I made the acquaintance of Mike from Toronto, who introduced himself as a tattoo artist, and Todd, the owner of the studio where he practiced his craft.

They told me they were in Montreal on a boy's weekend arranged by Mike's pregnant wife. " She wants me to have a little time with my friends before the baby comes!" Mike gushed. "Can you believe a woman like that?" He added said he and his crew were staying at this particular hotel because the owner of the Airbnb apartment his wife had booked refused to rent to them when he saw their tats.

"People judge me, because I wear what I feel on my skin. They judge me all the time, every day," Mike said, his English softly accented. "I think you were also judging me yesterday."

My face flamed. I opened and closed my mouth, and realized I couldn't deny it. "I was trying to figure you guys out," I said truthfully.

"Excuse me, madam?" A hotel staffer suddenly appeared behind us. "Your husband has had an accident. He asked me to get you."

Mike was out of the hot tub before I could even react. "I am a certified EMT, let me help you."

"No, really, that's okay, you don't need to," I stammered, but Mike literally flew down the hall as Todd and I grabbed towels and ran for the elevator.

Downstairs the reception staff ushered us to a small restroom. David's eyebrows went up when he saw my companions. His face was bleeding and scraped.

Mike took David's chin gently. "Bonjour, my name is Mike. I am a tattoo artist and an EMT. You took a fall, yes? Does your head hurt?"

It turned out that David, blinded by the sun, had caught his sneaker on some construction debris on the sidewalk. "You didn't lose consciousness? You're sure?" Mike asked. "Okay, that's all I want to know." It was a amazing moment-all of us stuffed into the tiny bathroom, the men I had been fearful of yesterday looking at my husband with care and concern.

We thanked Mike and Todd, assured them we would be okay, and went back to our room. We cut our trip short, heading back to Newburyport and skipping the food tour-no Montreal bagels for me, sadly. I haven't totally changed my mind about tattoos-I still don't want one myself, even the small one that Mike promised me if I visited his shop in Toronto. But in the future I hope that I will be a little less judgmental about people who look different, especially people who choose to wear on the outside what they feel on the inside.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News.  Stock photo.

A little love for mid-winter

This is a beautiful time of year.

Go ahead, call me crazy. The middle of winter doesn't have a lot of defenders. Very few people are likely to cite it as their favorite season. The leaf show is long over. Christmas is in the rear view mirror. Not much snow has fallen (praise deity of choice here). There is a lot of brown.  Yes, it's been an odd winter, but so restful. It feels like nature heaved a big sigh and sat back, feet up, content to do nothing for a bit. So much energy was spent on fall's gaudy brilliance, like a party that was months in the planning and over in an instant. Snow is on the agenda, but the sky gods seem to be busy with other things, and will get to it soon enough.

The trees are mostly bare. But they are lovely. They are unadorned, unvarnished; stars without makeup. Trees don't need leaves to be beautiful. They are boiled down to their essence now, spreading across a grey or blue sky, simply themselves. Without leaves or bushy undergrowth, their trunks and branches tell stories. Twisted limbs, downed branches, holes made by animals, patches of copper-green lichen-all that was hidden is now revealed.

And we can see the stone walls. Not perfectly engineered walls lining manicured lawns but tumbledown columns of grey roaming the woods and running alongside of roads. Who knew there were so many walls meandering through the shallow woods, stopping and starting in seemingly random patterns? They too tell a story, a story of fields and pastures where trees now grow, of farmers marshaling the boulders so plentiful in New England soil and giving them a job.

The wetlands, ponds and lakes stand in starker relief now that the green has gone from their shores and the white has not yet covered them. We can see just how much territory the lovely but invasive Phragmites has claimed, as it towers over the prosaic cattail and crowds it out. Huge swathes of it wave seductively in the marshes, an elegant conqueror. There are a few milkweeds, mostly notable by their absence. When I was young there were masses of them, and we would open the pods and fill the air with their downy seeds. As if to make up for this lack, stands of brilliant red winterberry dot the landscape, nature's own Christmas decoration.

                                                 (stock photo)

Birds are easier to spot at this time of year. Though we see Cardinals all year round, they seem to come into their own now, living holiday cards perched on bare branches. It's hard to get excited by the ever-present Canada goose (how can we miss you when you won't go away, as my mother used to say), but think how we would value these birds if they were rare or endangered. They are spectacular, and a V-shaped wedge of them silhouetted against the sky still gives me chills, even if they are simply headed to a different golf course. Mallards are common too, but still charming. Before this pitiful little bit of snow fell, I was still riding my bike and I would catch sight of birds never seen here in years past: colorful Wood Ducks and the other day a Great Blue Heron, who lazily unfolded his wings when I approached and took to the sky, soaring regally in a circle and landing a short distance away, supremely unruffled. I read that some Great Blue Herons migrate south to places like Mexico and Florida in the cold weather, and some of them winter over here. Apparently there are snowbirds even among birds.

Very soon, all too soon, more snow will come. Many of us are probably suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Snow Disorder) after last year, and plenty will make like Great Blue Herons and simply head to Florida. But right now we are suspended in a moment. Look around and let out your own big sigh, loosen your shoulders and relax . There are no leaves to be raked, no gutters to be cleaned. The Patriots are in the playoffs. Enjoy the quiet beauty around you, all the more precious because it will soon disappear beneath a deep blanket of white.

Which will need to be shoveled.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News

I've got hygge, and you can too

Got hygge?

If not, then you need to grab a coffee, light some candles and listen up, because this Danish-inspired concept is all the rage at the moment. Pronounced HOO-ga, hygge is most often translated as cosiness and is said to be what makes the Danes the happiest people in the world, despite endless darkness and lots of crummy weather.

Danes say that hygge is a response to their challenging environment, an antidote to long dark days and stormy weather. In "The Little Book of Hygge," Danish author Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute (yes, that's a thing) describes hygge as way of taking moments of comfort throughout the day. For instance, Wiking says that taking a few moments to really savor a good cup of coffee or tea is emblematic of hygge, even more so when it is served with cake.

Well, he had me at coffee and cake. Turns out I was already doing hygge and I didn't even realize it! Archibalds bake, eat, discuss, and generally obsess over cake almost constantly, so I am already ahead of the game, hygge-wise. Wiking also recommends indulging in small amounts of good chocolate routinely. Check. Hygge is apparently not good for the waistline, but who cares? What's next?

Blankets. Wiking says that curling up in a small room under a favorite blanket or throw is hyggelig (meaning ultra hygge-ish) and the presence of pelts or reindeer hides adds an extra dimension. Hey, I am just crushing this! Every night I snuggle up in my cozy little den, on top of a long-haired sheep pelt, under an ultra-soft blanket, with a cat on top of me (extra hygge points for the cat). And in the basement we have a reindeer hide from Iceland on the wall. I don't know how much more hyggelig one person can get than that.

Okay, but here's a problem. Candles are an enormously important element of hygge for the Danes, says Wiking. The flickering, diffused light, the shadows they create-absolutely crucial to hygge. Darn, I'm going to fall short on this one. I have always considered candles small devices that may burn my house down, and the smell of them generally makes me sneeze. But all is not lost-good floor lighting (NOT overhead or fluorescent) and a fireplace are hygge too. Now I can explain to my husband why I yell at him if he turns on the overhead lights. He is killing my hygge.

I've also got these next items down cold, er, hot actually (warmth in general is a pretty big part of the hygge ethos). Soups and stews and dishes that simmer for hours, filling the house with delicious aromas are especially hyggelig. Baking bread doesn't hurt either, and sharing all of this with friends while candles burn and a storm rages outside is the ultimate. Well, my slow cooker barely get a rest during the winter months, I believe gluten is my friend, and I have had several dinner parties in recent months with my best pals, one of which featured candles. Sadly, there were no storms raging during any of them.

Wiking even goes so far as to compile a hygge emergency kit, so one is never far from hygge solace. He recommends, among other things, candles, chocolate, a blanket, your favorite book and DVD series, woolen socks, jam, and a notebook and pen for thoughtful, non-digital communication. In that spirit, my own hygge emergency kit will contain similar items, as well as a jar of Shaw's brand chunky organic peanut butter, Toasty Cheez-its, my favorite green sweat pants (the awful looking ones), all 9 seasons of 24, and both cats.

I think Hygge is sort of a Scandanavian version of our current American passion for self-care, except with less yoga and more coffee. But it expands and deepens the concept by emphasizing the importance of our connections with friends, along with its emphasis on the comfort of solitary moments, Nordic sweaters, soft blankets, and yes, chocolate. It's not about retreating from our lives, it's about taking conscious pleasure in the moments, small and large, that give our lives joy and meaning. In a recent interview with TODAY's Meena Hart Duerson, Wiking says hygge is "not (about) expecting perfection-and finding joy in the fact that sometimes this might be as good as it gets."

No wonder the Danes are happy people. Cake, chocolate, warm sweaters and snug socks, appreciation for both quiet moments and good times with friends-and gratitude for all of it. Sign me up, Danish people; show me the way. Because you obviously know that, like Carly Simon sang, these are the good old days.

Marilyn Davis Archibald ( wrote this while under a blanket with a cat on her lap during a raging storm. Okay, it was only raining, but really hard. And the blanket and cat part are true, I swear.  This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News.  Stock photo

Candy Wars

I ran over a Charleston Chew wrapper the other day when I was biking with my husband, and it seemed both surprising and absolutely appropriate.

Who eats Charleston Chews these days? How do they still exist? They were the worst candy in the Halloween bag, the one you couldn't trade for anything. "Remember how you were supposed to put them in the freezer?" David said over his shoulder.

"I know! So they could ruin your teeth even faster!" I yelled as I crunched over the wrapper. We were both laughing so hard we almost fell off our bikes.

But hold on a minute.

"I LOVED Charleston Chews," stated one of my best friends (her name is being kept secret for protection) when I asked her opinion about them. "They were one of the yummiest candies, and putting them in the freezer only made them better!"

So there you have it. Candy Wars. One person's reject is someone's else's favorite kind. Candy is freighted with meaning and memory; synonymous with enticement, temptation, reward. Are everyone's childhood memories as stuffed with candy as mine? Probably, unless their mother was some kind of carob-eating, sprout-growing Communist. I'm pretty sure mothers back in my day worried less about the candy their kids ate because they just worried less about their kids, period. Too busy drinking Martinis and smoking. Or maybe that was just my mother.

At least once a week during the summer my friends and I would ride our banana seat bikes for miles along narrow streets with no sidewalks to go to Houlihan's, a greengrocer in North Reading with the world's greatest candy selection. The candy was in tall glass cases, and the big draw was the rock candy, because Houlihan's was the only place we could get it. Scarcity made it precious. We loved the clear sugary crystals-it was like edible quartz, even though it was a little sickening when you ate it down to the string.

And speaking of sickening, remember candy buttons? Those multicolor little dabs of candy on the paper strips? Don't confuse them with Dots, the sticky gumdrops that were guaranteed to rip out your fillings. Candy buttons were bad-tasting little things that left your mouth full of paper after you peeled them off the strip and for some reason, ate them. Also sickening but incredibly alluring? Nik-L-Nips (I had to look up the spelling on that one). Nik-L-Nips were tiny wax bottles filled with colorful sugar water that we chugged like jello shots. They tasted awful, and the wax got in your teeth. Good times.

Tootsie rolls were everywhere in my childhood, and I don't know why because I never really liked them. I'm not sure people like them now either, because I certainly step over a lot of them after the West Newbury Memorial Day parade and candy-throwing extravaganza. Kids will hurl themselves in front of a fire engine for a Blow Pop, but for a Tootsie Roll, not so much. Tootsie Pops are better, especially the chocolate ones and the old television ad with the owl and turtle finding out how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop is the GREATEST COMMERCIAL EVER. Just saying.

Herewith, a list of my personal candy winners and losers in no particular order:

Sugar Daddies and Sugar Babies: Oh yeah. Delicious, caramel-y goodness that did very bad things to your teeth.

M & Ms: Obviously a yes. I didn't like the peanut kind until I got older; I was a dumb kid.

Milk Duds: Chocolate and caramel, meh (why did I eat so many, then? Ditto for Nestle's Crunch. I didn't even like them, but that never seemed to stop me)

Good & Plenty: Licorice coated in candy--Awk! Phoeey! WHY?

Wax lips: Again, why?

Bit-O-Honey, Squirrel Nut Zippers: The names are fantastic but I wasn't a fan of either

Turkish Taffy: Bad, but I ate plenty


Boston Baked Beans: Will someone explain this candy to me?

Candy cigarettes: Gasp. No story about candy from the sixties would be complete without candy cigarettes. They tasted terrible, but were fun to play with and pretend to, you know, smoke. Sorry, we couldn't resist the corporate control of our tiny minds. I read on Wikipedia that "candy cigarettes continue to be manufactured...and are now described as candy sticks, bubble gum, or candy." Candy described as candy... that makes about as much sense as real cigarettes.

These days I am not a huge candy eater. I prefer to invest my calories in homemade cookies or really good bread (no worries about gluten here, baby), and candy isn't a big temptation. The exception is Kit-Kats. I love eating them from the top down, layer by crunchy, chocolatey layer. One strip, I say. I'll just eat one. Okay, maybe two. Well now the whole bar's practically gone, so I might as well eat the third one...and the fourth.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News.  Stock photo.

Together then, together now

I clutched my drink and scanned the room nervously. Older men in baggy grey suits. Women with frosted hair in stiletto heels. Everybody talking loudly and too fast. The one cute guy across the room engrossed in conversation with someone else.

I groaned inwardly. What was I doing here? It was March 25, 1984. I was at Michael's on the Waterfront in Boston at a singles party sponsored by something optimistically called Together Dating Service. I was 23, working in public relations, and not meeting anyone. My father, always intrigued by the new, had suggested I try a dating service and urged me to go to their singles event at Michael's that night: "What do you have to lose? C'mon, check it out."

Eager to get out of the noisy room, I put my drink down (in those days you could do that) and headed for the pay phone to call my father.

"Dad, this is horrible!" I grumbled. "It's a bunch of old men. I'm leaving as soon as I finish my drink."

"Okay, fine. At least you tried it."

I squeezed back through the crowd and reclaimed my drink, glancing around one more time. Suddenly the cute guy I had seen across the room was next to me.

I don't remember the first thing we said to each other, but I know I found out that his name was David and he lived in Arlington. He was currently finishing a degree in public health. "I do a little dentistry on the side," he added.

Visions of illicit back-alley root canals flashed through my mind.

"Um, what? Do you have a license?"

David laughed and explained that he was in fact a dentist, but working part-time while he pursued his second degree. Well, it just so happened that my public relations job was at the Boston University School of Dentistry. I dealt with dentists and dental things all day, every day. I spoke dental fluently.

We talked for a long time at the restaurant, and then went out to my car and talked some more. It felt like we needed to catch each other up on everything that had happened in our lives before that evening. We talked about our families and where we went to school and what kind of restaurants we liked. We found out we both preferred coffee ice cream to chocolate, and ginger ale to Coke. He told me he spent every summer in Rockport and we figured we had probably walked by each other on Bearskin Neck at some point. Stunningly, we found out that we both drove Triumph TR-7s (among the weirdest and least reliable cars ever built, but their advertising slogan was "The shape of things to come." How appropriate).

We wandered around Quincy Market and into the now defunct Crickets for something to eat. I kept sneaking glances at his button-down shirt, khakis and topsiders and thinking, I know you. You're my person. You're the one, and now you're actually here.

We got ice cream (coffee, naturally) and wandered back to my car. We held hands and my heart soared high over Faneuil Hall. I slowed my steps so that the walk would take as long as possible and I could hold onto these moments between everything that came before and all that lay ahead.

We announced our engagement a month later. Yes, you read that right-a month. My mother said afterward that she suspected that something was up from the expression on our faces when we walked into her house that morning, but thought we had bought some sort of exotic animal, a goat perhaps. My father's first response was a phrase that can't be printed in a family newspaper, but started with "You've gotta be..." However, he recovered his composure quickly, and soon champagne was flowing.

My father was right. I had nothing to lose that night, and what I gained was my whole life-a husband who is my best friend, three amazing kids, and 34 years of shared coffee frappes.  

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News

The other side of Rockport

This is how lucky I am. I get to spend lots of time in Rockport (Mass, not Maine), thanks to my husband's grandfather, a man I never met but to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude. He bought a little cottage there back in the 1920s. I married into it, and although it was NOT the reason I wed my husband (see my previous column about how we decided to get hitched in three weeks), it certainly has been a fantastic perk. This cottage, updated and made slightly bigger in recent years, is pretty much my favorite place in the world, and Rockport is my favorite town. Most tourists only see Bearskin Neck when they come to Rockport. That's a shame, because although the Neck is marvelous, Rockport has so much more to offer. Lately I have been exploring Rockport by bike, and making amazing discoveries, so let's go for a ride, shall we?

We start by heading down Old Garden Road. Old Garden borders the ocean, and there is a lovely little beach just down the street from our cottage. Sadly the beach was almost unusable all summer because the sand, which migrates in and out, was hit particularly hard by last winter's brutal storms and just didn't come back in. So right now the beach is nearly all rocks with just a little sand but this doesn't stop the divers, who come here by the dozens.

Up a little hill now and around a corner and we are on Atlantic Ave. We get our first glimpse of Rockport harbor, Bearskin Neck and Motif #1. The Motif is our Eiffel Tower, our Leaning Tower of Pisa, our Grumpy Cat. This little red fishing shack is said to be one of the most painted buildings in the world, hence its name. It was destroyed in the Blizzard of '78, but was rebuilt and lives on to be photographed, painted and selfied by artists and tourists alike.

Now we turn right on Main Street, and continue through the heart of Bearskin Neck. We won't go right down to the newly reconstructed breakwater at the moment, but turn left instead, passing the Shalin Liu Performance Center with its spectacular floor to ceiling windows overlooking Rockport harbor. We take a right and pass Front Beach, quiet at this time of year but with a few hardy souls enjoying the early fall sunshine. A little further on we whiz by Back Beach, a long sweep of rocks with just a little sand at the far end and a spectacular view of both Bearskin Neck and the open ocean surrounding it. This is also a favorite spot for divers and is where the giant tower of wooden pallets is set up every year for the 4th of July bonfire.

We are on Route 127 now, passing Granite Pier on our right and taking a left up a quiet hilly street, through a gate and into the woods. We have left the ocean behind and are riding on wooded trails, sometimes smooth dirt, more often loose gravel and rocky outcroppings. It helps to have a bike with wide and knobby tires and that's what we've got. Suddenly you see it-Big Parker's Pit, the first quarry on our ride. It's a huge expanse of water, closely ringed by trees and surrounded by towering granite walls at the far end. In summer the voices of swimmers and the sounds of splashing float across the water. Colorful towels are laid out on the flat rocks.

The trail borders the quarry's edge, far enough away to be safe but close enough to be exhilarating. We pass another quarry, even bigger than first. A spooky, long-abandoned granite building stands guard among the trees, an enormous relic of Rockport's quarrying past. On either side of the trail the woods are littered with giant chunks of granite and huge dips in the ground where rock was dug out.

Out of the woods now we find ourselves on quiet Pigeon Hill Street, home of Rockport's famous Paper House. This is an actual house made of rolled up and shellacked newspapers, begun in 1922 by Elis Stenman, a mechanical engineer. It's a little underwhelming when you actually get inside of it, but how many other towns can boast a house made of paper that has been featured in Ripley's Believe it or Not?

We could go much further, but today we will turn around here. It's into the woods again, headed back around the other side of the quarry. We have to be careful-it's a steep downhill with big granite outcroppings and loose rock everywhere. We are rewarded further on with smooth dirt trails and deep green overhanging trees. Now it's back to pavement. We whiz down Beach Street, through town again, and home. Are your legs tired? Maybe a little, but it's so worth it, to see the other side of Rockport.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News


There is a hashtag on Twitter right now called #Confessyourunpopularopinion. People post things like "George Harrison was better than John Lennon," "I hated 'La La Land," "Flat soda so yummy," and "Pumpkin pie is terrible"-opinions that are thrillingly contrary.

Even though we live in the Era of Massive Oversharing (EMO), this is not the same as actually daring to think or feel differently-and admit it. How often do we nod our heads in agreement with someone else's opinion, while thinking exactly the opposite? A lot, that's how often. How many times have we praised the latest sushi restaurant, when in our hearts we are crying "But it's raw fish!" TOO OFTEN!

It's time to change that, right here, right now, and I am taking the first courageous step. I am confessing my #unpopularopinions in the newspaper for all to see. Strap in, people, and prepare to have your worlds rocked:

--"Game of Thrones" is unwatchable.

--Hummus is the worst, followed by white bean paste with oil. You're not fooling me, white bean paste. You look like butter, but you're not.

--Butter is awesome.

--Turkey is better than chicken.

--Pink Floyd is overrated. If I never hear the annoying opening bars of "Money" again, it will be too soon.

--Bob Dylan can't sing, I hate the song "Sympathy for the Devil," and everything by Lou Reed is bad.

--"Battlebots" and "Gold Rush" are the best shows on television, possibly the best shows ever.

--Italian deserts are not good. I'm talking to you, ricotta pie. You too, tiramisu. Also, why are the cookies different colors and shapes, but all taste exactly the same?

--Adele is shrill and hard to listen to. "Rolling in the Deep" is her only good song.

--Cape Ann is better than Cape Cod.

--Raisins are the worst.

--Hence, oatmeal raisin cookies are bad.

--July 4th is better than Christmas.

--Jazz is annoying.

--Gluten gets a bad rap. Except for the poor folks who have Celiac Disease, everyone else should stop hating on gluten and go buy themselves a warm, freshly-baked baguette and eat it slathered with butter (see above about butter being awesome).

--Twitter is > Facebook and breaks up fewer relationships.

--Fancy European buttercream frosting tastes like sunblock.

--Which means that old-fashioned bakery frosting, the kind that gets a little crusty and is described as "so sweet it makes your teeth ache," is awesome.

--Disney characters are depressing.

--Mindy Kaling is overrated.

--All foods are better toasted, many are better well-done, and a few are better burned. Everything is better warm.

--Adults who make duck faces or stick out their tongues in pictures should be banished to Siberia.

--Cats are better than dogs.

--Crab is better than lobster.

--Lobster mac and cheese has to go.

--Bread the band was the most underrated group of the 1970's, and the song "Baby I'm-a want you" should be played at all major sporting events.

--No one has ever enjoyed the second half of the "Nutcracker," they have only endured it.

--Brunch should be banned because it confuses the entire day's meal schedule.

--Tortilla chips hurt your mouth.

--There's a place in this world for Indian pudding.

--"Angela's Ashes" was unreadable.

--"Casa Blanca" is overrated.

--Peter Tork was the best Monkee.

--Chips and crackers are better in small, crushed-up pieces, and no one can blame you if you lean on the package to make them that way.

--Fake Halloween spiders are really scary and should be illegal.

--Smelts are yummy.

-- "My Way" by Frank Sinatra has been played enough. Actually, that goes for most Frank Sinatra songs.

--Ditto for "Somewhere over the rainbow."

--Singing "Happy Birthday" is painful.

--The term "baby bump" should be outlawed.

--Petunias are lame flowers.

--Lentil is the worst soup.

--Wheat Chex is the best cereal.

My husband David Archibald also contributed a few #unpopularopinions, which I air here even though I disagree vehemently with several of them:

--All foods are better cold.

--Fresca is the best drink, pie is the best desert and sea salt is just salt.

--Oatmeal raisin cookies are the ultimate cookies

-- Fall foliage is simply dying leaves and is therefore depressing.

--Crème Brulee is bad, chocolate pudding is good.

--Babybel is the greatest cheese, now and forever.

OMG, we both feel so good now. #Confessingyourunpopularopinion is incredibly liberating. It's not about being argumentative or disagreeable (my husband and I have opposing views on oatmeal raisin cookies, yet somehow our marriage still works). Instead it's about letting your freak flag fly and proclaiming to the world, that yes, you love Grape-Nut ice cream and you're not afraid to say so.

This article was originally published in the Daily News of Newburyport.  Stock photo

Dispatches from Scotland, September 2018

Let's talk about haggis : Scotland is a world-class eating destination. There are incredible restaurants and amazing chefs at every turn, offering Scottish lamb, beef, freshly caught wild game and fish, ethnic food of every stripe, and endless vegan and vegetarian options. There is also lots and lots of haggis, which Americans tend to freak out about. But not us. We have probably eaten more haggis than any other US citizens, so we were well-prepared. Like the Scottish rain, haggis is pretty common, so you might as well learn to like it. I'm only sorry I didn't get to try the deep-fried haggis balls I saw advertised at one restaurant, and yes, I really mean that.

Speaking of Scottish rain...: Of course, the hardest rain we encountered fell during our day-long bike trip around Edinburgh. It rained intermittently throughout our trip (with occasional gorgeous peeks of sun), but the really serious stuff was reserved for when we were exposed to the elements and less than halfway through our ride. Perhaps the haggis gave us strength, but we just pulled up our hoods and followed our tour guide Ricardo (who was Italian, go figure) for miles as we wended our way around an incredible network of bike lanes, trails and city streets. Humble brag here-we made it up and around the gorgeous Arthur's Seat, the extinct volcano that looms over Edinburgh, without stopping. Ricardo was impressed.

The big reveal: Our trip was actually planned around an event related to Outlander, the epic television series based on the bestselling books by Diana Gabaldon. We were attending the Highlander Fling, created and organized by Scottish actor Scott Kyle. Scott plays Ross, a blacksmith and one of the loyal followers of Jamie Fraser (portrayed by Sam Heughan, the show's lead actor and global heartthrob). We're fans of the show and I follow Scott on Twitter.

(Me, checking my Twitter feed last winter) "Hey, do you want to go to an awesome party in Scotland on September 15?"

David: "Cool."

Getting there=half the fun: We did go to some trouble to get there and crossing the Atlantic was only half of it. The Fling was held in a little town called Glenrothes, Fife, about 30 miles from Edinburgh, a trip that involved a train, a confusing bus, and finally a cab ride. We had no idea where we were going, but thanks to ScotRail, Google Maps and dumb luck, we made it.

Our first ceilidh: The Fling took the form of a ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee), a traditional event featuring a bagpipe and drum band, step dancers, and couples dancing in lines and rings. The dancing was interspersed with poetry, singing, and set-pieces. In addition to Scott, a number of the actors from Outlander were there, including Jay Graham, (an unnamed Highlander who plays one of Jamie's men), Romann Berrux (young "Fergus"), and Stephen Walters ("Angus"), among many others.

Attendees came from all over the world, although American women were heavily represented. Obviously many of the men wore beautiful kilts, but just as striking were the women wearing incredible handmade "Outlander" style dresses. There was haggis, naturally. Scott and all of the cast and crew couldn't have been more welcoming and it was great to learn about the various charities that the Fling events help to support.

Try not to burn down the hotel: The next morning, sleepy from too much ceilidh, I didn't read the large sign at the buffet that said NO CROISSANTS in the conveyer belt toaster. The flames were impressive, much like those that burned down Jamie Fraser's print shop in season three of Outlander. I was mortified and thought I would be replacing an expensive Scottish toaster, but all was well once things cooled down.

The adventure continued: The bus trip to some of the Outlander filming locations was billed as the Hangover Tour, but we had been quite abstemious the night before, so no headache for us. Scott Kyle and Jay Graham came along, as well as tour guide Catriona and Scott's mom Joyce. We visited the little town of Falkland, which stands in for Inverness, and castles Doune, Blackness and Midhope, which all have starring roles in the show. The scenery was spectacular, but more memorable than anything else was the warmth, humor and camaraderie of our Scottish hosts. They were utterly down to earth, and made everyone on the bus feel like a friend. Plus, seeing Jay, a bearded mountain of a man in full kilted regalia, putting his giant sword in the bus's overhead compartment, was itself worth the price of the tour.

A word about Scottish desserts: People in the UK understand the importance of dessert. Why can't America have slices of coffee walnut layer cake and caramel shortbread available on every corner like the Scots do? I'm not even going to tell you how many sticky toffee puddings I had because I'm bad at math and can't count that high.

New friends, an amazing ceilidh, long chats in pubs, ancient grey stone and brilliant green fields, a little haggis and a lot of sticky toffee pudding-that was my Scotland. And it's the one place in the world that no one asks you how to spell Archibald.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News.  Photo credit-unknown

One wave at a time

There is nothing like crewing on a 19-foot racing sailboat in three-to-five foot swells to truly concentrate the mind.

Forget yoga or meditation. You have to be fully and immediately present while pulling in the jib and hanging desperately onto the lines so you don't flip backwards into the ocean. Lost your house to foreclosure? Just won the lottery? Believe me, you won't be thinking about either one of those things when seven other boats are coming at you and you're climbing up waves that look like the movie poster for "The Perfect Storm."

Okay, I exaggerate, but these were challenging conditions for me. It was the second day of the 2017 Wife-Husband Championship at Sandy Bay Yacht Club, Rockport, Massachusetts. Does the name of the event sound a little old-fashioned in this day and age? Possibly. But when I looked up the description of this type of regatta on the Flying Scot Sailing Association website, I read that the crew for each boat shall consist "solely of a helmsman and his/her spouse," and if everyone can get over the use of the term helmsman (helmsperson?), the race is fully inclusive. There was much joking about divorce attorneys waiting on the dock for incoming boats.

Several of the skippers in the regatta were women; however not on our boat-I'm the crew, and perfectly fine with that. My husband David has been sailing forever, and I'm a relative newcomer. I swore off sailing (and swore quite a bit at him) when he took me out in similar big-wave conditions about 15 or so years ago, and it frightened me so much I said I would never go out again.

Well, never is a long time, and I've gotten back into the boat, bit by bit, as the kids are generally not around to serve as crew anymore (I'm convinced that one reason sailors have children is to assure themselves of readily available crew for a few years). David also said he wouldn't yell, and he has pretty much kept that promise. I've only sailed in one other competition (a previous wife-husband regatta at Massapoag Yacht Club in Sharon, Mass.) but am starting to be more of a regular in the Sandy Bay weekend fleet races.

And familiarity is breeding a little bit of comfort, as I literally learn the ropes. Because that's what I do-I handle ropes, sorry lines--uncleating the jib from one side of the boat, then scrambling over to the other, pulling that line in and cleating it, filling the jib sail with wind as David sails the boat and deals with the mainsail. I also help to watch for about oncoming boats (often in hysterical fashion, but I've mostly stopped screaming "WE'RE GOING TO CRASH!"). In addition, I steer during downwind legs when David handles the spinnaker, and hang off the rail when instructed.

And we were sure hanging off the rail that day. The wind wasn't screaming, but it was plenty gusty. The higher the wind, the more the boat heels over, and the more its sailors need to counterbalance by putting their combined weight as far as possible in the other direction. I didn't even look up as we left the mouth of the harbor, just concentrated on my lines as the boat began to roll and churn through the waves. My stomach was knotting but I couldn't look down forever. As we headed toward the start of the race I raised my head and realized there was only one option, and it wasn't crying like a baby. It was to do exactly as I had been trained, because under these conditions our safety depended on it. There could be no messing up today, because there was an actual chance of capsizing. I had to make these waves my (note to editor: substitute phrase "little kitty cat" for b- word rhyming with witch).

And that's what I did. I tried not to anticipate the waves but to look past them and pretend that they weren't there. There was only one tangled line, and though my heart was in my mouth, I drove the boat as David wrestled with our big skull and cross bones spinnaker. I kept telling myself that once we were done, the rest of the day-heck, the rest of the week-was going to seem incredibly dull. As I noted before, there is nothing a like a little terror to increase mindfulness.

Well, needless to say, I survived and yes, the rest of the day was a little dull compared to that. We didn't win the race but we came in second in the Challenger division and I won my first sailing trophy. Our beautiful new sails from Ryan Malmgren of Mad Sails might have given us a boost as well-thank you, Ryan! We made some new friends and I thought for a brief moment that maybe a new boat would be kind of awesome (then slapped myself in the face before mentioning this to my husband). I used to wonder why we didn't have the kind of sailboat on which you just drank wine and looked at sunsets. But I think I'm pretty happy with our Flying Scot now, and Patriots-like, I'll just keep doing my job on it.    

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News and the Gloucester Times.  Photo by Beth Leahy                                                 

Gumballs, meatloaf--and grateful tears

A gumball machine made me cry yesterday.

A bank of gumball machines, actually, in the exit area of Shaw's. I've walked by them a thousand times, but they blend into the scenery. I'm also usually fighting with an overloaded shopping cart.

But yesterday I glanced over and there they were. This time I really looked at them, with their capsules full of colorful goodies, and I was thrown back in time to the days when my kids would jostle around my legs like puppies, and a quarter for the vending machine was everything to them. All parents know the siren song of gumball machines. They take our change and give out trinkets and candy. It's nice that charities get money from some of them but they're still responsible for a lot of supermarket meltdowns.

My kids would probably say I didn't hand out money for the gum machines often enough, but I hope they remember the times that I did. A handful of Sweet-tarts, a little ring, a tiny Pooh-bear eraser--there was once a day when these things were dear to them.

I love having grown-up kids with their own fascinating lives. But sniffling in the vestibule of Shaws, I wanted, just for a moment, to go back to a time when my kids found joy in those gumballs and little rings. I wanted to go back to a time when their warm sweet limbs were always wrapped around some part of me. Caught up in the comedy/drama of raising small children, when life can go from happy smiles to a screamfest in a matter of seconds, I didn't truly believe those days would ever end. But they did. And there I was, years later, blinking back tears next to a gum machine.

I also recently cried over my mother's meatloaf pan. It's a handmade earthenware loaf pan, pale yellow with mushrooms on the side. I bought it for her birthday many years ago when we were on a vacation in Nantucket.

I spent hours in one of the downtown shops picking out exactly the right thing. Nothing seemed good enough until I found the beautiful loaf pan. At the last minute I added a little cookbook called "The Country Art of Blueberry Cookery" because my mother adored blueberries. She loved both gifts and always used that pan for her meatloaf.

She passed away too soon at 78 after suffering a traumatic fall. After the funeral her friend Ruthie and I were numbly sorting through her things. The house felt so lifeless without her. Ruthie picked up the loaf pan and pressed it into my hands.

"You take your mother's meatloaf pan right now. This is yours," Ruthie said firmly. "Nobody will treasure it the way you do." Both of us wiped our eyes, and I hugged the pan to my chest. Whenever I make meatloaf I pull out the pan and my throat tightens as I envision my mother as she looked on that Nantucket vacation, her platinum blond hair windblown and elegant. It didn't seem possible to me then that there would ever be a time that she would no longer be with me.

The blueberry cookbook found its way to my house too but lay unused for a long time. I picked it up recently looking for a muffin recipe. When I saw the inside front cover a small shock ran through me. There in my mother's looping cursive were the words "Nantucket, Mass, July 23, 1975." Coming upon her handwriting was a gift, albeit one that choked me up.

Gumball machines. A pan. A cookbook, and an inscription. Small things like this unlock memories of people we love. And if a few tears fall, it isn't always because we are sad. It's because at those moments we understand so clearly how lucky and blessed we have always been

  This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News

Dispatches from Iceland, December 2016

I'll pass on the rotted skate: We can't say we weren't warned. When our tour driver picked us up at Keflavik airport upon our arrival in Reykjavik, Iceland, he told us we would be smelling something... unique as we walked around the city. December 23, he told us, is called Porlaksmessa, and is the day when Icelanders flock to the stores to do their last minute shopping and then gather with family and friends to intentionally consume skata, fermented skate. The dish positively reeks of ammonia, and our driver confirmed that after the traditional dish is consumed, the traditional laundering-or burning-- of the clothes begins. We certainly smelled it as we walked around the snowy streets, and I can attest that the odor will never be mistaken for that of cinnamon buns.

Rescue me (and everybody else): We took a offroad superjeep tour to the edge of Rangarpin Eyestra on our second day in Iceland and it pretty much blew us away. The sun shone for the first and only time during our trip, rising slowly and hanging low in the sky, bathing the mountains and snowy plains in pink and gold light. Our superjeep was a massive modified Nissan, with enormous tires, and our guide was Halli, the most skilled driver in Iceland. As we roared through rivers and blasted though snowbanks, Halli rescued three other drivers, pulling out a rope and hauling two Land Rovers and another superjeep out of the snow and icy water. "People always help each other out here," he told us. We learned later than official rescue could easily take a day, and spending a night in a stranded vehicle under arctic conditions is not considered an emergency. Even on the main roads, sideways vehicles were a common sight; we saw at least ten. "We always say the most dangerous animal in Iceland is a tourist behind the wheel," Halli chuckled.

Wasn't it dark? Yes. The sun rose about 11 am and set at 3:45 pm. Most of the days were cloudy, with active snow and rain, so there was a lot of grey. But the better to appreciate the bright shops and Christmas lights on Laugavegur, the beautiful main shopping street

Icelandic food, round two: We had dinner on December 23, at Perlan (the Pearl), a huge revolving domed restaurant. Skata was not on the menu, thankfully, but that didn't mean we got off lightly. I have to admit we acted like typical American tourists, giggling hysterically as we worked our way through endless fish offerings, lots of reindeer, beef tongue, deviled egg with eel and whale carpaccio (made from non-endangered Minke whales, I read later), among many other dishes. We were all more than a little queasy by the end of the meal. Was it the revolving restaurant or the reindeer?

And so this is Christmas: Feliz Navidad sung in Icelandic is confusing.

Horsing around: No visit to Iceland is complete without riding the furry little Icelandic horse, the pride of Iceland. I have ridden Icies in Vermont, and am familiar with their special smooth gait known as tolt. But riding one in Iceland, on Christmas, in the snow, over lava fields? Priceless. It was amazing to visit a place where there are horses everywhere (90,000 throughout the island, one for every three Icelanders), and riding is considered an important sport.

Happy eggs: Our hotel was incredibly charming, and breakfast was amazing. Every evening a basket of delicacies would appear in our fridge-fruit, cheeses, sliced meats, yogurt, skyr, nutella, jams, butter, and hard-boiled eggs with happy faces on them. Then in the morning a bag of fresh warm bread would arrive, hung on the door handle. The coffee was strong and delicious, and we feasted happily in our little kitchenette every morning.

Our last day in Iceland--out of the death-cab, into the maelstrom: Buffeted by fifty mph winds, our minibus rocketed through the driving rain along the slush-covered highway, passing every other vehicle in its path. I closed my eyes and thought darn, I'm going to die and my last meal was herring. Somehow, shaky but alive, we arrived at the Blue Lagoon spa, but for me worse was to come. The Blue Lagoon is the Icelandic version of Water Country, but with geothermally heated water and no slides. I'm not big on public pools at the best of times, and getting into my bathing suit with thousands of other people in a freezing cyclone didn't really work for me. However, my girls loved it, and roamed all around the grottos, even getting algae-silica facial masks. They certainly got their kroners worth; me, not so much.

Sadly, vacations end, and we bid Iceland goodbye, vowing to come back during the summer someday. And so, home to Boston, where I will never complain about short, dark winter days again. Right now the sun rises here about 7-ish and sets at 4:30 pm, and shines most days. People, that's practically tropical!

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News

My birds: talking with their mouths full

My addiction started with one feeder and a bag of birdseed. It all seemed so innocent. No one tells you it will be like this--adding feeder after feeder, trying different kinds of seed, pondering the various types of suet cakes. Now I understand the feelings of a women I know who, when she speaks of squirrels raiding her feeders, has a warrior gleam in her eyes. Now I get it.

I do my bird watching from the comfort of my dining room. The cats and I have comfy, front-row seats to all the colorful drama at my (four and counting) feeders. There are so many big personalities flying in and out that I can't help putting words in their mouths, er, beaks...

Northern cardinal, male: I am the true celebrity around here, never mind what you've heard from the other birds. Have you ever seen anything more beautiful than my gorgeous red plumage? Anywhere I sit turns into an instant Christmas card. Watch me sit on this evergreen (sound of cameras snapping). Oh, this is even better (sits on birch, more sounds of cameras snapping). Told you!

Northern cardinal, female: (rolls eyes) I don't know if you've noticed, but you're not exactly unique. There's a lot of you around these days. Personally, I think my own khaki-colored feathers and orange beak are quite attractive, but I have to admit, we ladies are absolute suckers for your bright red coat.

American goldfinch (male): Excuse me, you guys, but you want to talk about breathtaking plumage? Take a look at us now that spring is here, despite the fact that it's currently snowing. Have you ever seen anything so traffic-stopping as my brilliant yellow body with the cool black accents? No, I don't think you have. Now would somebody mind filling my feeder with Nyger seed? Yes, I know my pals and I go through a lot of food, but we're worth it.

American goldfinch (female): This just shows the unfairness of life. The boys get to be all showy, while we girls have to settle for plumage a lot less inspired. I know it's all about attracting us gals and I should feel grateful that the males go to so much trouble, but just for once I'd like to wear the fancy clothes. That's it, I'm going to Marshalls. Anyone want to come with?

All the female goldfinches: Wait up!

Mourning doves: Coo-ah, coo coo coo. Everybody listen to us, everywhere and all the time. You cannot escape our song, even though you turn up your Spotify playlist to dangerous levels. We'll still be here when you're done. Don't mind us, we'll just hang out here in our unassuming way, pecking away at the ground under the feeders. Coo-ah, coo coo coo. Gets in your head, doesn't it?

Red-bellied woodpecker: The rest of you can argue amongst yourselves, but there is no doubt who is boss around here. I'm pretty big and I have the most spectacular red crown and black and white barred feathers. And stop calling me Red-headed woodpecker-that is an entirely different bird! I know it's confusing, but if everyone would just consult their field guides we wouldn't have these issues. Gotta go now, there's a suet cake with my name on it.

Eastern bluebird: (shows up out of nowhere, sits on a branch looking spectacularly blue and orange)

Other birds: Oh great, look who's here! If it isn't Mr. Celebrity! We're here, day after day, week after week. You show up once in a blue moon, pardon the pun, and everyone goes all gaga. The human put up a house JUST FOR YOU last year, and you never even went near it. Bet she runs out and buys mealworms now.

Me: (sees bluebird, has mild heart attack, runs out and buys mealworms)

Mealworm 1: (from a plastic container in the refrigerator): Our lot in life is not a good one. Let's start with our name--mealworms. That's right, our destiny is right there in our name. We're thinking of hiring a rebranding firm. Meanwhile, can you shut the refrigerator? You're letting all the cold air out.

Mealworm 2: Are you kidding? It's freezing in here!

Eastern bluebird: (leaves after 30 seconds, not seen again)

Mealworms: HA!

Black-capped chickadee: Hey, small is the new big. We're tiny and adorable, with our chunky black heads and teensy bodies. Did you know that we are the state bird of both Massachusetts and Maine, as well as the provincial bird of New Brunswick? Beat that, you bigger birds! Although to be honest, we feel the picture of us on those "Massachusetts Welcomes You" signs does not do us justice. Could someone please have a word with the governor?

So many birds, so little column space. I haven't even mentioned Tufted titmice or White-breasted nuthatches. Sorry, guys-next time. Now if you will excuse me, the feeders are empty (again) and it's time for another run to the bird store.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News