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 hope I make you either laugh or cry--I'm happy either way.  Most of these columns have appeared in the Daily News of Newburyport and other newspapers. Hey, check out my family on the Fam page!  Toast, the cat with presidential ambitions, has her own page too.  She urges you to read it--or else.

All pictures are my own unless otherwise indicated.

Thank you for reading!

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The past is present 

(just add mules)

I've got a great friend named Marcy Miller in Tombstone, Arizona who lives on a small ranch with too many animals. We communicate frequently about our shared love for horses, books and art. It's fascinating to share details of our similar outlooks but different lives. Recently we exchanged emails about some recent difficulties and I couldn't help but recast them as they might have read during the 1800s, written by two sisters parted by fate, a continent apart. It doesn't hurt the authenticity that Marcy ACTUALLY has mules and lives in a wicked dusty place full of sharp things. First, the real (but abbreviated) emails, this one from Marcy to me:

Hiya Mal!

I don't know what it is about this time of year but every year I get so restless, I managed to re-aggravate my rotator cuff--and I'm annoyed with that, and while getting hay the other day with my best dog Ethan in the truck, I tried to roll the rear window down for him and it slipped and disappeared into the bowels of Chevrolet window hell. Ethan is notorious for leaping through windows - sometimes even through window GLASS.

This morning the wind REALLY hit. Dust, sand, tumbleweeds … and 30 mph wind. TOTAL apocalyptic vibe! Soon there will be rain, great thing to have when the truck window doesn't roll up. I finally received my final tax documents yesterday so will spend time getting the last of the tax stuff ready ugh.

The mules don't show any damage to their feet, so they have apparently survived the grain-overload incident. My elder mare Chica has been pretty lame. I figured it was arthritis but she has ringbone.

Well, if the weather cooperates I'll be back out there again trying to get some of the painting done … one-handed. I hope you are all well, love, Marcy

My reply to Marcy:


Super glad to hear from you because I was getting a bit worried. I'm so sorry to hear about the slipped window but more so about your shoulder. It's pretty much like a sick ward in this house, influenza type A. Doc put me on Tamiflu, don't know if it helped. David has a milder version, but still sick. So we are a matched pair in misery

Daughter Tess went to a convention in DC, saw cherry blossoms and politicians. Hugs to you and hopefully we all crawl out of our deathbed soon.

And now, my imagined 1800's version of our correspondence:

Dearest sister,

So many travails to tell of. Planting is nigh upon us, yet we are hardly able to manage, so distracted are our spirits. Our wagon has run afoul, and we are sorely tried without it. Our finest dog Ethaniel attempts to run off at every opportunity and without him we would be utterly lost, tho he is a Lunatic. The winds howl without end and the vision of our arid landscape is frequently obliterated entirely. We hope for rain, but that will bring its own trials. The Tax Man is coming and I am beside myself with the bother of it. The mules seem to have recovered from the Bloat they brought upon themselves by gorging, but the elder continues lame, she may be spavined. I carry on with the use of a single limb as best I can.

Hoping you and your dearest family members are keeping well, and you remain in my fondest thoughts, Marciellllah

And finally, my response to my sister in the farthest reaches of the western desert:

My esteemed one,

My heart breaks hearing of your woes, yet we are not without our own. David William and I have in turn succumbed to the Grippe, from which I have suffered most severely, racked with ague and fever. David William is also sorely affected, coughing piteously, just not as much as myself. I traveled to the Physick to procure some patent medicines but it remains to be seen whether they deliver the promised Relief.

Another ache for my poor heart is that our daughter Tessahh has traveled to Washington, DC. I can hardly bear to think of her there amidst that 'wretched hive of scum and villainy™' (Lucasfilms). I hear it is a most swampy and fever-plagued place, with rats approaching the size of humans on nearly every corner. I will not rest until she returns.

Our graves await us but would that we keep them waiting a little longer.


The more things change, am I right?

Marcy aboard Delta Dawn, one of her two mules

Marcy, pictured here not with a mule, instead with her donkey Odelia

The sewing tin

The metal tin is the perfect size and shape to hold a fruitcake, because that was its original purpose. It's round and smooth, about 6 inches tall. The cover is sturdy, with a white lip around the edge which snugs on and off with a satisfying little click. The background color is a light peach, circled with a design of differently patterned multicolor leaves. Etchings of flowing gold ribbon, pins, needles and a swooping butterfly adorn the top. But the crowning glory, the thing I loved so much as a child, is the bright pink velvet pin cushion that rises in a soft puffed circle from the middle of the lid.

This is my mother's sewing tin, that I spent so much time playing with and sorting through as a child. The one that sits before me now is not the one that my mother's hands actually touched. That doesn't matter.

Against the odds, through the miracle of the internet, I found the same sewing tin that I grew up with, that I was not able to take away with me when I had the chance. I should have known that there would be a final time that I would enter the house that used to be my mother's home. I should have paid closer attention to the small voice that tried to warn me, listened harder to catch what it was saying.

But I didn't, and the sewing tin was lost to me. I thought about it a fair amount over the years. My mother was no seamstress—we had a "sewing lady" for that, about whom I have written before. My mother would do small jobs, sewing buttons back on, patching little rips. Out would come the tin with the quietly colorful leaves on its side and the wondrous pink cushion on top. I would sift through the contents while she worked; the wooden spools of thread, the long yellow measuring tape, the buttons of different sizes and shapes scattered around the bottom. It was amazing to me that this container, so perfectly suited to its job housing sewing supplies, had once held a cake.

Fast forward to now. We have been without a sewing box since 2017, after moving from our previous house to the current one. We discarded or gave away many things before the move, and one thing that didn't make the cut was the unwieldy square box that I had received for Christmas around age 10 for my childhood sewing projects. It was a showy quilted design, bright turquoise, made of plastic and quite large. It was nothing like my mother's metal tin, with its smooth metal softness and beautiful jewel-tone colors. I used the turquoise box and never said a word, but when the time came I abandoned it without a backward glance.

That left us without any sewing supplies, however. "Did you really not bring your sewing box?" asked my husband, understandably perplexed. There is often some nautical thing, a sail cover perhaps, needing repair, and as a dentist he is highly skilled with a needle and thread or sutures.

"I never liked it," I replied, and left it at that. The few sewing supplies we accumulated resided in a Tupperware container that was missing a lid.

A couple of months ago, the little voice that I hadn't listened to years ago whispered something else; it said, try to find the sewing tin, the one you love. I listened this time. I tried a few google searches using the keywords 'vintage,' 'sewing tin' and 'fruitcake' but it wasn't until I added the words 'pink pin cushion on top' that I found it on Etsy. As far as I could tell, it was the same one. I was as sure as I could be with only a small picture to go by, but for $30 I was happy to risk it.

And when it arrived, it was like a small miracle. The same tin, and wonder of wonders, similarly filled with sewing supplies. No buttons, but we have the ones that were floating around in the Tupperware container, which is no longer needed.

I messaged the Etsy seller and told her that the tin was the same one my mother had and how much I was going to treasure it. She wrote back, saying "This makes my heart so happy."

The little tin has more than sewing supplies in it, it turns out. Though you can't see them, it has love and good wishes and joyful memories nestled in there as well.

Gratitude and good horses

It was just after we had reached the highest point on the Suicide Pass trail that I felt Chance, my mustang, begin to twitch, and then, horribly, to buck.

All riders know that feeling. The horse's tail begins to lash and his head jerks back, to drive off the biting insect that has honed in on his super-sensitive underparts. This is fine when the horse is grazing in a pasture. It's a whole different story when he's perched on a narrow cliffside trail and you're on top of him.

It was the last ride on our last day at White Stallion Ranch in Tucson.  What a wonderful week it had been. My daughter Tess and I were back for the first time since our initial visit when she was eight years old—17 years prior. The ranch seemed very much the same, with its low-slung casitas, towering Saguaro cactuses, and horses nickering in the distance. It felt like coming home.

Tess and I are both lifelong riders and after some thought we checked the "experienced" box on the riding level questionnaire. We were there to ride and were hoping for horses suited to our abilities. I had reason to regret that decision during my first ride.

Asha was a tall speckled grey and she was certainly an experienced rider's horse; blasting forward during the fast (canter/lope) portion of the ride, jigging nervously afterwards-- definitely more than I bargained for. "She's a great horse, and I'm not good enough for her," I told our wrangler when the ride was over.

I can't express the relief I felt the next day when my name was called as we waited at the corral and a smaller, dark bay horse with a wild mane and a long white brand on his neck was led up. The wrangler said "You're on Chance now, one of our mustangs. I think you're going to love him."

And love him I did. I felt like I won the lottery after our first ride. Chance was everything I was hoping for—sensitive and responsive, with a moderate canter and a loose-rein walk. I thought, this is a horse that's going to take care of me. Little did I know how true that would turn out to be.

Tess, too, had won the Mega-Millions in the equine lottery. Her horse Dondo was not only the cutest palomino either of us had ever seen, he was also "the horse that makes a lot of guests fall in love with the ranch," according to one of the wranglers. Well, there's a lot of reasons people fall in love with White Stallion (and go back again and again), but a horse like Dondo (and Chance, it turns out) was certainly one of them.

Our time was glorious, even if my legs and seat started to protest at the unaccustomed time in a western saddle. I had worried that a whole week with mom might be too much parent exposure for Tess, but we didn't have a cross word between us. The two of us had a wonderful time with the other ranch guests from around the world, and I got to meet my online friend Marcy from (semi)-nearby Tombstone who up to then I had only known via Twitter. We hugged it out in person, and discovered that yep, we were actual buddies who just hadn't met before.

And so back to that final ride on Suicide Pass. My heart skipped a couple beats when I felt Chance begin to buck. It was fairly small buck, but there are really no small bucks when you're at the top of a mountain.

"Stop!" I called out loudly. "Got a problem here!" The line of horses halted and the wrangler handed her reins to Tess and clambered back to where I was precariously perched on the edge of the steep trail.

"I see it!" she said, pointing. We both watched the huge bug fly up and then disappear. Chance jerked again and I could tell it was still biting him. "Let's keep going--let's get away from it," the wrangler said.

I nodded, my heart in my mouth.  We started moving again, and mercifully the bug didn't reappear. Chance gave himself a little shake and kept descending, placing his feet calmly and carefully. I rubbed his neck, and murmured my thanks to him.

Chance could have gone ballistic at that moment—most horses would have. Those little bucks could have been lot bigger. He could have thrown himself off the trail, or bolted, and believe me, either of those options would have been a bad thing. But he didn't. He took care of me. You can't ask more of a horse than that.

And so, during this month of giving thanks, I would like to declare loudly and to all who will listen, how grateful I am for so many things; grateful for my travels, grateful for my amazing family, grateful for my new and old friends, and especially--grateful for one very good horse. 

Two good horses--Marilyn on Chance, Tess on Dondo (photo by Carol Bachmann)

Marcy and Marilyn; White Stallion at sunset; desert dust on Chance (photo by C. Bachmann)

Come kayak with me

Normally I take you on a bike ride around Rockport at this time of year, but today we're doing something different. We're heading down to the water for a paddle in the kayaks, to get a more watery perspective on the world. How does that sound? Let's go!

Actually, we WILL start by hopping on the bikes but only briefly. The kayaks are stowed on Straitsmouth (pronounced Straights-Smith) Cove beach, and we cycle the quarter-mile or so down Marmion Way to get to them. My hubs David is carrying both both paddles, for which I'm grateful, as I tend to tip over and crash when I try to bike holding mine.

It's a grey and hazy day, warm with very little wind and flat seas--perfect kayaking weather. We drag the bikes off the road and onto the beach. They will be safe here. The kayaks are secured with a long cable and lock. We unshackle them and then we half-carry, half-drag them to the waterline. Kayaking from here is only possible during high tide hours. When the water goes out it's extremely difficult to get over the morass of slippery seaweed and rocks without turning an ankle.

But it's high tide now, and we easily launch the boats. When we bought them last fall we were very particular about the colors that we wanted—bright yellow and orange for both. The notion of a blue kayak seems crazy. With a small and vulnerable craft, why would you want a boat that blends into the ocean? Me, I want to be seen from space—or at least from a speeding 25-foot Boston Whaler that might be headed toward me.

Straitsmouth island is directly in front of us, with its small but beautiful lighthouse and keeper's home, now a museum. We turn away from it and head south to Loblolly Cove, staying close to shore. We haven't gotten to use the kayaks nearly as much as we had hoped this summer, with all the rain and bad weather. On previous outings I have struggled to be comfortable. Today though, I feel completely at ease in the boat--my seat and back firm, my arms paddling strongly.

To our right are the backs of the houses along South Street and Eden Road, and directly ahead is Thacher Island, with its iconic twin lighthouse towers, the symbols of Rockport. As we paddle closer they rear up in front of us, both majestic and eerie, partially obscured by fog. No matter how many times I see those tall grey towers standing guard, I am struck by their austere, otherworldly beauty.

We look at them with reverence for a good few minutes and then we turn and head back toward Straitsmouth, the current now pulling us along and making the paddling easier. The seagulls and cormorants call out from the rocky shore. I always think cormorants are an underappreciated bird. They are homely creatures but so agile—flying a couple feet over the water with absolute precision, then diving down and emerging, more often than not, with a fish in their mouths. I love how they extend their wings to dry them, perching on the rocks like ragged little scarecrows.

We are cautious as we approach the lighthouse at the end of Straitsmouth. There is natural jetty of large flat rocks here, and the waves often roll in as thundering breakers, sending white spray flying. We always skirt this area at a safe distance. It's a little frightening but exhilarating too.

I'm feeling the pull in my arms now as we round the side of the island. Here we see the full expanse of Sandy Bay and Rockport harbor, and on up the coast to Andrews point. There are just a couple of sailboats visible and no motorboats. The crying of the gulls and the waves are the only sounds.

And now we're nearly back, paddling hard to beach the boats as far up on the rocky sand as possible. Try as I might to stay dry, I always get my feet wet stepping out of the boat. We shrug off our lifejackets and pull the kayaks back to their berth among the thorny bushes and beach plums.

Will we get to paddle again this year? There's a hurricane churning in the Atlantic, and the certainty of cool temperatures just ahead, so maybe not. But I will hold onto the memory of this warm grey day, with the striking view of the twin lights and the feel of salt spray on my face. I will tuck it away safely until I can be back here again, to this, my most happy of places. 

I hate Pat the Bunny

There, I said it. And I'd say it again.

I also dislike The Runaway Bunny, and Guess how much I love you. Each of these books has bunnies in them, but I swear I am not anti-bunny. I am 100 percent Team Bunny. I dislike these books for various reasons, but it's not and never has been about the bunnies.

With my granddaughter Addie turning one, I am very much back in the world of children's books. Addie is an absolute book fiend, and it's wonderful to see her turning pages herself and cooing over the images she sees. She will also present you with a book, or many, and plunk herself into your lap.

But earlier this year, when we would sit on the couch together and plow through piles of books, I realized I just didn't have it in me to do Pat the Bunny anymore. Part of might have been the smell—those flowers the book demands you smell are gag-inducing. Maybe it was Daddy's scratchy face. Maybe it was the book-within-a-book, where bunny is sleeping but he looks, well, dead.

Maybe it was all those things but maybe it was me being 62 years old and knowing I don't have to read Pat the Bunny if I don't want to. I can foist it off, I mean give it away to someone younger, someone who hasn't read it (or smelled it) 975 times before. I've done my time with it, and now I'm on Pat the Bunny work release.

Realizing this was liberating. What else didn't I have to read? I had picked up a copy of Guess how much I love you at the Rockport transfer station free book hut, despite not much liking it back in the day. I thought I would give it another shot, and did I mention that it was free? One quick look and I remembered what I disliked about it. The father bunny keeps one-upping the child about how much he loves him, and even has to triumph over him when he is asleep ("I love you right up to the moon and BACK," he says smugly).

I understand that plenty of people read this as the limitless love of the parent for the child. I get that. But to me there is something unpleasantly competitive about the father bunny. He just has to win the love competition, even over his unconscious bunny child. I'm not having it. So there goes another book.

I have similar issues with The Runaway Bunny. The illustrations are beautiful and charming, but the mother bunny is absolutely suffocating. The little one fantasizes about going out in the world and having adventures, and every time the mother is there, in some form, to reel him back in. In the end he gives up and says something like "Shucks, I might as well just stay here." Great lesson—don't try to be independent and don't even think of leaving. Mommy won't let you—ever. Again, I understand if others interpret this as a mother's protective love, but I see it as throttling a child's independent spirit. There's another book down.

At this point I know you're asking what I DO like (and calling me a heretic, if not much worse). Well, for one, I like The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Even though I have also read this one 975 times before, I think I have an even greater appreciation for it now.

I love how Eric Carle integrates numbers and days of the week with the types of fruit the caterpillar eats. The little munching holes that the caterpillar makes, which then appear on the next page, are wonderful. I also can relate to when the caterpillar goes wild and eats everything in sight, gets a stomachache, then eats "one nice green leaf and feels much better." I mean, who hasn't done that? And of course, most crucially there is the wonderful evolution--the crux of the book-- from tiny caterpillar into "beautiful butterfly."

Another personal favorite is I am a Bunny by Ole Risom (more proof of my bunny-loving creds). This is one I have adored since my own childhood. It's an oversized board book illustrated by the incomparable Richard Scarry, and it takes us through the seasons with Nicholas the bunny. Spring, summer, fall and winter pass as Nicholas shows us birds and butterflies, colorful autumn leaves and snowflakes. The cycle of the seasons is introduced at the end when Nicholas curls up snug against the winter snow in his hollow tree, "to dream about spring,"

You are absolutely free to disagree, and I hope you will let me know your own favorites or why I am absolutely wrong about everything and The Runaway Bunny is a masterpiece. For now, I'll just say Goodnight Moon.

Uh oh. You don't want to know what I think about Goodnight Moon

Dispatches from the USVI

Getting there: Hearing about other people's travel delays is as dull as hearing about their car troubles, or leg day at their gym. However, I will note that we did the classic "missed our connection at JKF,"  on our way to St. Thomas, which at least sounds kind of cool. If you're going to miss a connection, you might as well miss one there. A beleaguered Delta employee got us the last two seats on an American flight later in the day. She promised our luggage would be rerouted.

We were dubious but what could we do? On our way to the American terminal, located approximately 57 miles away, David just happened to notice the number of the flight we had just been on posted over a random luggage carousel. We stopped, and five minutes later our overstuffed bags appeared. If David hadn't casually glanced to his right at that exact moment our luggage would have joined the ranks of lost luggage everywhere, destined to sit forever in a dusty warehouse. And we would have been wearing "Virgins do it better" t-shirts for the next 7 days.

Mountaintop: One of my favorite places in St. Thomas is a crazy, football-field sized gift shop called Mountaintop, supposedly where the banana daquiri was invented. I'm skeptical, but the banana daquiris are so good that I'm not going to argue. It's located at 1200 feet, which probably doesn't sound that high, but if you've ever been to the Virgin Islands you know what the roads and hills are like—the switchbacks, doglegs, and corkscrews at every turn. In the parking lot on our way out we saw a couple of sad tourists whose jeep had given up the ghost right there at the top of the world. They were being attended to, appropriately enough, by something called Xtreme Towing. I can just imagine that call to the car rental agency…

Kekoa: We had an amazing day onboard the catamaran Kekoa, which has an incredible backstory—it's a hand-built boat, lost and wrecked not once but twice in its life, and brought back by the love and dedication of its builder/owners, brothers Jamison and Ryan Witbeck (there's a phenomonal Youtube video that tells this story, easily found by googling Kekoa, or going to Kekoa is as pristine and gorgous as the scenery around her, and we had a fantastic time sailing and snorkeling around St. Thomas and St. John.

Capt. Jamison, during his safety talk, asked guests to always have "one hand for the drink and one for the boat", and not to move around when the conditions were rocky. The guy sitting opposite us did everything he could to ignore this advice—repeatedly stumbling over everyone's feet to get to the rail for selfies, not holding onto anything as the boat was plunging through the waves. Was it so very wrong of me, then, that I secretly wished that his phone would hit the deck, skitter down the length of boat, and then—splash!—drop into the turquois blue waters? Sadly, this did not happen. Bad me.

Kayaking: We had another wonderful day kayaking to nearby Henley Cay, Scott Bay and Honeymoon Bay, around the north shore of St. John. At Henley I saw corals that looked something like they used to when I first saw them as a child--vibrant and colorful. The coral has taken a beating in recent years, both from the bleaching phenomenon and the hurricanes which have raked the bottom of the shallow waters and devastated the reefs. This trip was the first time in years that I have seen signs of recovery.

SHARK!!! Snorkeling off our resort, Gallows Point, we had a slightly heart-stopped encounter with what we later found out was a nurse shark. David saw it first, raised his head and said "Shark! There's a big shark!" I looked down somewhat frantically and there in the cloud of sand I caught a glimpse of a large grey head. Okay, enough for me, that's good, I saw it, let's go! We powered away as fast as our fins would let us and now have a story we can dine out on. The shark also gets larger every time we tell it.

The song of my people: I've never been one for Florida, because I truly believe it's heaven's waiting room, but this trip showed me St. John isn't far behind. Covid travel reluctance is very much over, and the island was filled with many others of a certain age. It was a little disconcerting to look around and see hordes of baby boomers, enjoying the same things I was. However, the island businesses need to make a living, and I'm glad that they are.

I'll always love you, Virgin Islands, and I'm happy (enough) to share you. Be well until I see you again.

Marilyn Archibald ( can be found in her kitchen trying to make banana daquiris like the ones they serve at Mountaintop and failing utterly.  

Scrapbooker 4 life

Right now my dining room looks like some kind of crafting blizzard has struck it. The floor is covered with sheets of paper of all sizes and small scraps are everywhere. The table is invisible under the boxes of supplies, mountain of albums, photos, tape runners, scissors, and guillotine-like trimmers.

Yes, I'm scrapbooking again.

I don't consider myself any kind of artist with a camera but I'm good at documenting my family's life and growth. When I discovered scrapbooking I was elated--it's basically crafting with pictures, using colorful or patterned paper to make interesting backgrounds and frames, hand-writing comments, arranging photos thematically. Your only limit is your own creativity (and your budget at Michael's Crafts).

I've been scrapbooking for nearly three decades. My albums are some of my most treasured possessions, the "grab in a fire" ones. I was introduced to scrapbooking at a workshop years ago. I was instantly hooked. Suddenly instead of just chucking pictures randomly into albums I could arrange them, curate them, use them to illustrate our life, events and travels. Finally, I had a way to utilize and make sense of all those pictures I had been accumulating.

Because admittedly, I am a bit of a photo nut, and for this I blame/credit my father. I can still see the long table in his basement, covered with mountains of pictures--loose pictures, boxes of pictures, albums of pictures (wow, sound like anyone we know?). My father took thousands of photos during his life, including vast numbers of car and airplane pics. I loved sifting through all of them, looking for the gems like those from his time in the Pacific during World War II.

But back to the workshop--I can still recall the simultaneous horror and thrill I got when the instructor put a picture in her photo trimmer and announced "It's okay to cut pictures," and then chopped away. CUT PICTURES? Are you kidding me? The reverence of treating photos like they were the lost Ark of the Covenant was turned on its head, and after that there was no stopping me.

My scrapbooking style has changed a good bit over the years. I am slightly embarrassed when I look back at my earliest album. Too cutesy, too many stickers, too many funny shapes. But that's okay. We all grow and change. I think my albums now look a little more sophisticated, but who knows? Maybe ten years from now I'll think differently.

Also, there was a time-we'll call it the Scrapbooking Dark Ages-when I gave it up entirely. For a while, maybe a whole decade, it seemed that paper pictures and actual albums weren't something to bother with anymore. Why go to all that work when everything was on your phone or computer? When you could make any picture a black and white picture or a sepia-toned one, or something that looked like Andy Warhol or Matisse had tinkered with it? It seemed my scrapbooking days were over.

And then, a few years ago, I heard their siren call again. I think it was at least in part because of my art classes, and rediscovering the joy of using my hands, of playing with paper and paint, of being creative. I realized I missed the tactile side of pictures and photography; actual pictures in an actual album, one you could hold in your hands. I remembered the many times with my kids when we were crowded around one or other of the albums, howling with laughter. I realized I couldn't give that up.

I didn't try to go back and recapture everything I had missed during the lost years when I started again (although our trip to Paris did make a very unchronological appearance). I remembered the words of my scrapbook instructor when she talked about how people were often overwhelmed with their pictures, not knowing where to begin. "Start where you are," she said. "You can't document your whole life at one time. Start where you are right now and go from there. Don't be afraid to take charge." Words to live by, in scrapbooking and in life.

I'm very much back at it now. My biggest problem recently has been how to manage the pics of the new grandbaby Addie, because they basically threaten to engulf the whole album and render it almost totally baby-centric. I'm trying to limit Addie pics to one spread per month (not easy, given her cuteness), with mandatory pages of other family and events in between. It's a happy dilemma but I've taken charge of it.

So now you know what I'll be dragging with me when the zombie apocalypse hits. I might be handicapping myself, because the albums are large and heavy, but you know what?

They're worth the risk.

Winter memories and Christmas wishes

One of the great privileges I have with my writing is meeting or hearing from people who have enjoyed one of my articles. Last January I made the (email) acquaintance of Marge O'Callaghan of West Newbury, who wrote to me after reading Dispatches from Midwinter, a column about the wildlife I see out my front windows. Her email to me was quirky and funny and full of beautifully observed details:

Your piece touched me because it is so much like what we look at every day in our backyard. We have a big bow window in the kitchen looking over a field and then woods. I have befriended a mother deer and her little one-they are quite tame and I can get to about a foot from them. We also see redtail hawks, many birds, and a crow that I have named "Jimmy" because I had a pet crow growing up with that name! I spend more time looking out the window then I do on housework...

Well, who wouldn't want to hear more of that? Marge and I became penpals and I asked her recently if I could share some of her thoughts and memories, including those about Christmas and winter in days gone by here in West Newbury. She kindly agreed. So without further ado, I present to you, our guest columnist: Marge O'Callahan:

We live on a lovely street near the downtown, and I have lived in this house for 81 years! It's an old salt-box that was built in the 1800's. My dad could never find much history behind this house, but we do know that half of it was brought down from Pipestave Hill by oxen and we can actually see where the existing house was attached to the Pipestave Hill one.

We went to Newburyport High School -- Pentucket High was not built yet.

We could look across the river from our backyard and see the cows on the hill over at Kimball's Farm. My mother-in-law always said it reminded her of Ireland. We also watched the cows over on Bailey's Lane - Baldy Merrill's Farm - from our front porch. That was a huge farm in its day and we loved to watch the animals being herded back into the barn.

In winter, if there was snow, and there was usually a ton in those days, all of "us kids" would go sliding out in the street. Some of the snowstorms back then were bad - I have pictures of my friend and I skiing off a mound of snow in our backyard like a mountain. In those days--the 1940s --we'd be lucky to have one car go down the street when we were out there.

We would spend the day making big snow-forts in the yard and have snowball fights with "another fort". We always made igloos in snowbanks, where we could sit inside, and of course snowmen, with hats and scarves! When we came inside our wet mittens and clothes were dried on a rack over the coal furnace, which took all day.

As for Christmas, my dad always cut down a pine tree in the field behind our house for our Christmas tree. I remember making Christmas logs out of cut-up birch trees, drilling two holes them for red candles. No one had a lot of money in those days and we had to make do with what we had. I recall my friend across the street spilling the beans about there not being a Santa Claus - or else I'd still think there was one and would be putting out cookies and milk still! HA!

One of the highlights around Christmas time was listening to Santa Claus on a Portsmouth NH station. On Christmas Eve my family always read "Twas the Night Before Christmas" which I still love to this day, along with "Snowbound" by John Greenleaf Whittier.

We kids would invent ways to amuse ourselves outdoors twelve months out of the year, whatever the weather. I think all of us growing up in West Newbury had the very best childhood possible.

How lucky we are to have someone who has lived here for her whole life share these memories of our beautiful and beloved West Newbury. Thank you, Marge, for giving us a glimpse of our town from days gone by. The very warmest of holiday wishes to you-and to all my readers. To paraphrase Charles Dickens and Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol, bless you, every one!

Stock image

A new baby, a family bond

The glorious heft of her. Her cheeks, almost comically kissable. The sweet milky smell of her head--oh heavens, the smell of her head and the softness as I graze my cheek gently along it.

Yes, I'm in love with my granddaughter.

I can't say I wasn't warned. Friends who have trodden this path before me told me what it would like--"You won't believe how you feel--It's incredible, almost better than having your own kids the first time around."

But their words couldn't prepare me for the intoxicating reality of her now that she's here, the dopamine rush I get when I hold her, feed her, nuzzle her neck. The strength of my feelings tells me that this is nature at work, the deepest, most hard-wired bond there is-the bond of family.

We learned Adelaide was coming last Christmas Day, when my daughter passed out customized lottery tickets, which, when scratched, revealed a baby was on the way. Amid the general happy screaming, one thing especially stands out in my memory-seeing my younger daughter's eyes brimming with joyous tears at the news. She was with us through Zoom, 2000 miles away, but distance didn't matter. The bond was already there.

My daughter Cam's pregnancy felt a little like a shared project. We have a family text thread, and no day goes by without some chatting, a few pictures, possibly some cat videos (too many from me, my kids would say). We-my son and other daughter, my husband and myself-- were able to share everything and cheerlead Cam (along with her husband Michael) the whole time.

I will always remember the moment the first picture of Addie came through. I almost threw my phone in the air. I think we all did. There she is. It's her, with us at last. Oh baby, we've been waiting for what feels like so long. Thank you for joining us, for joining this family.

The wonderful moments have come thick and fast since then. Gazing on Addie in person for the first time at the hospital. Watching my son and daughter-in-law hold her and feed her when they visited. Seeing my younger daughter cuddle her, just the way Cam cuddled the ten-years-younger Tess when she was born. And possibly more than anything, reveling in the beautiful, relaxed way that Cam and Michael have adapted to being parents.

And if babies somehow choose their families, baby Addie chose very wisely indeed--the bond is not limited to us, not by a long shot. She has a whole other set of family members to worship her-grandparents, an aunt, uncle, and 2 little cousins. When we gathered at a casual dinner on a beautiful fall night a month ago, the circle of love felt almost tangible. Addie was held by nearly everyone at some point in the evening. It felt important and right that we welcome her, all together.

We're not unique in this feeling, obviously. "It's the only relationship in which people are crazy about one another simply because they're breathing," says Dr. Arthur Kornhabe, author of The Grandparent Guide and founder of the Foundation for Grandparents. "Grandchildren and grandparents usually have an adoration and unconditional love and joy in one another's existence."

Susan Bosak, the author of "How to build the Grandma Connection," says that children with involved grandparents often have strong social and emotional skills, along with a heightened sense of family history and identity. In addition, she says, intense work commitments are often finished for grandparents, so they have time and focus to spare. And she notes that grandparents can share amusing or embarrassing family anecdotes that parents might not.

I can't wait to share anecdotes, embarrassing and otherwise. I can't wait to bake cookies, make mudpies, go to the beach. In the meantime, I will treasure every single moment and say an especially fervent prayer of gratitude this Thanksgiving day for my innumerable blessings.

Anyone know where I can get one of those "Ask me about my grandchildren" bumper stickers? Because I really, really need one.

Cam and baby Adelaide 

Playing, doing and cookie baking

What do cookies, ministers, art teachers and Nike have in common?  Wait, don't answer that!

Let me tell you.

A few months back I decided to learn one special skill in the kitchen. I've always been a fair cook and a decent baker, but I had no one skill that was exceptional. I've often been disappointed by fancy cookies decorated with royal icing-ones you might see at a wedding, for instance-- because, though they may look gorgeous, they are often hard and rather tasteless. I decided to see if I could create impressive cookies that were also, in a word, yummy.

So began my odyssey in the kitchen. I watched a lot of videos and read a lot of blogs. I spent too much money at Michael's Crafts. I went through 4-lb bags of confectioner sugar like nobody's business. I neglected mundane household tasks like cleaning because I was so engaged in trying the latest chocolate shortbread recipe.

I quickly learned that I liked doing animals the most and went from copying images on the internet to creating some of my own original designs. The day I piped a ruffly pink tutu (with sparkles) on a pig cookie was groundbreaking.

But wait-what does any of this have to with ministers, or, more oddly, Nike?

I'll tell you. For many years we sat in the wonderful box pews of the First Religious Society, listening to Harold Babcock, now emeritus minister of that church. And sometimes, after a few minutes, my husband or I would lean toward one another and murmur happily "Yes! It's a 'just do it' sermon."

"Just do it," as everyone in the world knows, is a Nike ad slogan. Like the best slogans, it echoes phrases from the past like "Live today for tomorrow we may die," and "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good"-phrases that instruct us not to delay what we can do and be until some mythical better time. Likewise, Harold urged us to embrace our lives now, because now is our only certainty. Trying new skills, doing good for others-he told us not to wait until tomorrow to act on these, but to start today. These were the "just do it" sermons that we loved.

Okay, fine, you say, I sort of get it. But what about the art teacher part?

Well. I've written about Pat Lutz, of the Artist's Playground before. Pat is that rare teacher who gives her students both skill and inspiration. She lectures only rarely, but somehow gives everyone in class exactly what they need. Her mantra is "Play! It's just paint, it's no big deal! Just play." These words let us get on with whatever we're working on, or try something entirely new, without stopping to doubt ourselves.

Learning how to mix colors, work with my hands, prepare a canvas-these skills were easily transferred from the art room to the kitchen. But it was Pat's voice in my head joyfully urging me to "just play" that really gave me permission to

immerse myself in my cookie making and to see every batch as something to learn from.

At the end of it all, Project Cookie was a success. It was an honor to make a whole menagerie of elephants, foxes, otters, and yes pigs in tutus, for my daughter's recent baby shower. The joy of sharing them with guests and hearing their kind words, was, well, the icing on the cookie.

The summer warmth has put the brakes on my baking, but I'll start again in the cooler weather. There's so much more to learn, but now I have a skill that I didn't have six months ago. Did I win a Nobel prize? Nope. Did I teach myself to do something that I can share with friends, family and cookie-loving strangers? I sure did.

If we're lucky we have people in our lives who tell us not to wait, who inspire us to try things, large and small, that we didn't think we could do. Thank you, Harold, thank you, Pat. Thank you for telling all of us to just do it, and to play.

Today, it's cookies. Tomorrow--the world.

Confessing to our Swiss Mistake

(after all these years)

We recently stumbled across a gloriously funny piece of writing titled "The Worst Mistake in Zermatt" written by someone who calls himself the Snowboard Dad in Europe. He described the day he drove into that Swiss city on purpose, and the toe-curling shame and embarrassment he suffered after doing this. Anyone who has been to Zermatt knows that you don't drive into car-free Zermatt, you park your car and take the train into Zermatt.

Well, anyone but us.

We too drove into Zermatt, 37 years ago this month on our honeymoon, but unlike Snowboard Dad, we weren't even trying to stick it to the man. We were just dumb. We didn't see the sign telling us that this was a Very Bad Thing to Do and Not to Do It.

It was about midway through our trip, which had been going splendidly, despite the fact that we were driving over and around 7000 foot mountains in something called a Fiat Panda, which was essentially a small and uncomfortable couch on wheels. I'm pretty certain that ACTUAL pandas have more horsepower and higher crash ratings.

We started our trip in the exquisitely beautiful city of Lucerne and then headed out to roam the country, stopping at other exquisitely beautiful places like Engelberg, Zurich, and St. Moritz. We drank a lot of beer and ate a lot of chocolate and endless plates of weiner schnitzel. We took gondolas and marveled at old swiss people with canes and crutches deftly navigating hiking paths that we could barely manage with our young, strong legs.

So, yes, our honeymoon was sublime until the day we drove right past the unassuming sign telling us NOT to drive into Zermatt. One little sign, for heavens sakes! It wasn't like there was a big gate that we burst through, Jack Bauer-style. Nope, we didn't even notice the sign, and (obviously) hadn't read up on this particular extremely important Swiss rule.

What a beautiful drive it was! We admired the sweeping views, and lack of other cars. At times it seemed like we were simply driving through green fields, untouched and lovely. "This is a major tourist destination," Hubs remarked at one point. "You'd think they'd have a bigger road."

Our idyll ended abruptly when we reached Zermatt. Suddenly, something seemed very wrong. Every citizen of Zermatt was pointing and waving at us. If we didn't understand what we had done wrong at that point, the arrival of the entire police force--complete with weird European sirens and lots of flashing lights--made things clear pretty quickly.

They took our passports and relegated our car to a lot on the outskirts of town. The hotelier at our place of lodging-Hotel Alex-wouldn't even look us in the eye. He obviously wished with all his heart that we were staying somewhere else, preferably Hell.

It took a lot of beer to overcome this public shaming, but we gave it our best shot. We tried not to let our status as public pariahs ruin our time in Zermatt. We did all the usual touristy things while trying to pretend we were invisible. This Swiss do not look kindly at rulebreakers or even those who want to eat breakfast at 10 am, as we found out one morning to our sorrow.

I don't remember how we got our passports back when it was time to go, but I do know that we roared out of town like Butch and Sundance once we had them. Okay, Fiat Pandas don't exactly roar, but you know what I mean. We haven't been back to Switzerland since. Honestly, I'm afraid to. I know our pictures are hanging in every post office in the country, a little faded but still there. Honestly, if it weren't for the brave confession of Snowboard Dad, I don't believe I would have ever gone public with this story.

All I can say is, if we disappear suddenly, you'll know that the United States has an extradition treaty with Switzerland. Looking on the bright side, if inmates in Swiss jails get a daily chocolate ration, it might almost be worth it.

Love and shortbread cookies:
Relationship advice from Marilyn

As longtime readers may recall from past columns, my hubs and I got engaged within a month of meeting each other. Hubs says it was three weeks, I say it was four weeks, so we split the difference and call it three and a half.

I cannot defend nor explain this. I'm not sure what I would say if one of my kids were to pull the same stunt (no worries; my kids think we were bonkers). We WERE bonkers. What the heck were we thinking? Were we insane?

Well, the answers to those questions are, respectively, who knows, and yes. However, we will celebrate our 37thanniversary in June. Neither one of us ever had a single doubt or second thought about whether we were doing the right thing. We had absolute blind, cockeyed--and as it turns out, utterly justified--faith that we had each found the right person for us.

We get along great. I make hubs his favorite orange cake, he makes Thanksgiving dinner for everyone (and the best gravy in the entire world). He understands my need for three bird feeders (each with a different seed), a suet holder and a heated bird bath. I indulge his passion for his 1967 Land Rover, despite the fact that it can go years at a time without running and has been known to catch on fire during drives. I learned to sail. He learned to tolerate long, bottom-numbing bike rides. We don't even fight about the giant Christmas tree anymore, and that was our only point of contention anyway.

So, with Valentine's Day upon us, I was thinking about my happy marriage, and love and relationships in general (also frosted shortbread cookies with pink sprinkles, but that's every day for me). Someone who got engaged in a month probably isn't qualified to give relationship advice, but I won't let that stop me. Hubs and I must have done something right, because we're still filing jointly. So, in that spirit, here are my top tips for marital success:

-Don't nag, bicker or criticize your spouse in front of others, and that includes your children. The kids learn enough bad habits from the Kardashians.

-Hand your spouse a cold beer, a hot tea or a warm chocolate chip cookie when they walk in the door after a hard day. Feed each other the cookie simultaneously if you both walk in at the same time.

-Treat your spouse better than anyone else in the world. If you and your sweetie are each other's most important person, everything else finds its proper place. Get t-shirts that say "We're each other's Number #1" and wear them often.

-Welcome the empty nester years, as your kids leave and create their own families. You've still got your main squeeze with you when the kids go, plus you can eat ice cream for dinner and run around the house in your underwear and no one else will know. Not that I would ever, you know, do that.

-Be with each other a lot (with a caveat). I'm not a big one for PDAs, nor is hubs (we're Scottish) but we spend most evenings hip to hip on the couch, reading and watching police procedurals on Amazon Prime. The caveat-when either of you needs alone, friend or stamp-collecting time, grant it generously whenever possible. It will come back around when it's time for that weekend in Vegas with your pals.

-Do not, to coin a phrase, sweat the small stuff. I pick up Hub's socks; he picks up my Kleenexes. It's a win-win, no one fusses, and the floor stays tidy.

Well, there you have it, my prescription for a happy marriage. Honestly, things haven't worked out badly in spite of us only knowing each other for a month.

Imagine what we could have done with two months?

Marilyn Archibald ( lives in West Newbury and believes in the old adage that the best way to a man's heart is through his stomach. Or anyone's heart, really.

This article was originally published in the Daily News of Newburyport, February 14, 2022

Dispatches from midwinter

Waiting for a warm day. Waiting for a really cold one. Waiting for snowstorms, waiting for snowdrops. Waiting for a taste of warmth in Florida or the islands. Waiting for the sun to linger, just a little longer.

The burden of the holidays is behind us, but so is the joy of them.  The extravaganza of Christmas is tucked in our memories like the ornaments and wrapping paper we store away for next year.  Welcome to midwinter. 

We are now in January, and the living is cold, or at least it was yesterday. The thermometer hovered between 6 and 9 F. There's been a snowstorm, so the ground is white and things look properly wintery. I was determined to get a little fresh air despite the bitterness, so I pulled on layers and headed out. A red squirrel ran along with me for a bit, leaping from branch to branch, stopping when he felt he was high enough and safe enough. I stopped and watched him while he chattered to me. Soon enough my toes reminded me that it was not warm out, so I nodded to him and walked on. The house felt beautifully warm when I came in.

Animals are everywhere.  As I was getting ready for bed the other night an empassioned chorus of coyote howling, yipping and baying came out of nowhere. It went on for about two minutes and ended as suddenly as it started.  Dispute settled, quiet restored, everybody back to their dens.

 I wonder if the deer heard it too.  My yard and the woods that surround it are home to a not-so-small herd of white-tailed deer. At least two bucks, several does and a couple of youngsters, brazen and beautiful, trek multiple times a day from our back woods to the front yard. They stroll down the driveway like they own the place--which they obviously do--before disappearing into the trees. They're terrible pests, but nature made them so lovely that it's hard to get mad at them.

We can't forget the birds. Some days, watching the feeders is the highlight of my day and filling them is my biggest accomplishment (let's not talk about this lack of productivity, okay?) The recent snow has brought male cardinals into their element; living Christmas cards lording their crimson glory over all the other birds. The currently shabby male goldfinches look on jealously, but they know their time will come and soon they will sport gorgeous yellow plumage

A gang of about a half-dozen bluebirds stopped by briefly the other day. They mopped up some seeds and took off without so much as a thank-you. I'm not bitter at all, no. Bluebirds are welcome anytime, even though the bluebird house we went to a LOT of trouble to put up never attracted so much as a single bluebird. So go ahead, eat my seeds, you freeloaders. Apparently this is a nice place to visit, you just wouldn't want to live here.

I've often wondered why hawks don't stake out the feeders more often because basically it would be like a drive-through meal for them. One smart hawk apparently got a clue last week. He hid in the holly bush next to my front window and exploded in a flurry of feathers onto a very shocked chickadee. I'm not sure how that ended because they both flew off so quickly, but hey, a hawk's gotta eat too.  And now I think I understand my bluebird problem.  Sorry guys--we'll relocate your housing in the spring and try again.

To bring everything full circle, as I write this there is a young deer outside my window, nibbling at that poor holly bush, sampling the spilled bird seed and the Market Basket popcorn I threw out yesterday. She's obviously had some trouble--her left ear is missing a big piece and she is limping badly. I let her eat for far longer than I should, certainly longer than was good for the holly bush, before tapping gently on the window.

Midwinter is beautiful, and sometimes cruel. A little kindness and a handful of popcorn can go a long way while we all wait for it to loosen its grip.

This article was originally published in the Daily News of Newburyport, January, 2022

Memento mori, everyone

Memento mori: Latin for "Be mindful of death", or more colloquially, "Remember that you have to die"

Well, that's a cheery thought to start the day! But it seems to me a bracing slap of reality does a body good once in a while.

I clearly remember the moment when I realized that my parents would die at some point. I was probably 11 or 12, sitting in a darkened movie theater with my family watching The Great Gatsby (the Robert Redford version). When Daisy Buchanan, played by Mia Farrow, accidently hits and kills Myrtle Wilson, her husband Tom's mistress, I suddenly went hot and cold and couldn't see the movie screen for a few minutes. Odd as it seems, both then and now, there was something about that scene that made me understand that someday my parents would be gone from me.

Perhaps my early realization of this truth shaped my equanimity toward my own demise. I drive my husband nuts by frequently updating our wills. I tell him where stuff is "in case I get hit by a bus." I demand all his passwords in case HE does. I get rid of things I deem useless so my kids never have to deal with a pile of junk when I'm gone.

Of course I sincerely hope to be around for a good long while, and do everything in my power to ensure this (health screenings, sunblock, seatbelts, etc.) but I accept that I'm going to die someday. News flash--so are you. We are all going to die someday.

There now, that wasn't so hard, was it?

So, having acknowledged this fact, the real question is, what do we do while we wait? In an excerpt in the Financial Times from his book "Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It," author Oliver Burkeman tells us to "stop trying to deny the undeniable, acknowledge...not merely that we might not get around to everything but that we definitely never will." But he cautions against "living your life in a white-knuckled panic" by self-consciously trying to squeeze the most from every moment, and urges "doing at least a little of what you care about now, as opposed to banking on finding time for it in the future, once the decks are clear and life's duties are out of the way...because they will never be."

"Do a little bit of what you care about now"--what a beautiful concept. It doesn't assume perfection or demand mastery. It is basically the Nike slogan-just do it.  It's a quiet call to action, an acknowledgement that we won't be around forever and we can and should focus on a few things that are meaningful, that we love, or that we simply want to try.

This is why, a few years ago, I walked into the Artist's Playground at the Tannery in Newburyport and announced to teacher Pat Lutz that I really, really wanted to learn to paint and would there be any way I could join one of her popular but usually filled-up classes? The stars aligned for me that day, and I was given the incomparable gift of a place in Pat's Tuesday morning class, something for which I will never cease being grateful.

Learning to paint was one of my "do a little bit of what you care about now" things. Yours will be different. We can't do everything because our time here is limited, but we can do some things, and we can, if we choose, start doing them today.

This article was originally published in the Daily News of Newburyport, September 2021

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. Also I'm 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. Suddenly I was thrown back in time to the days when my kids would jostle around my legs like sleek little otters, and a quarter for the vending machine was everything to them.

All parents know the siren song of gumball machines. They take our money 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 dreaded machines often enough, but right now, as I tear up by the automatic doors, I hope they remember some of the times that I did. A handful of Sweet-tarts, a little ring, a miniature Pooh-bear eraser--it's not that these things are valuable in the least, but that there was once a time when my children treasured them. I wish my wiser older self could go back and tell my impatient younger self to stop and enjoy those moments when a tiny toy made my children so happy.

Please understand that I love having grown-up children with their own fascinating lives. But every now and then, something like this will send me back in time to the years when my children's warm sweet limbs were always wrapped around some part of me. It feels like those days will go on forever, but they don't. Everyone tells you that that your kids grow up in the blink of an eye, but no one warns you that a gumball machine will make you cry about it.

My mother's meatloaf pan was another recent-and unlikely-- touchstone for tears. 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 never made meatloaf in any other pan.

Years later, after she passed away, I was at her home with her friend Ruthie sorting through her things. Ruthie picked up the pan and pressed it into my hands.

"You take your mother's meatloaf pan right now. This is yours," Ruthie said firmly. "Nobody else will treasure it the way you do." Both of us wiped away tears, and I hugged the pan to my chest. Whenever I make meatloaf (and that's probably more often than is strictly necessary), I pull out the pan and my throat tightens a little as I envision my mother as she looked on that Nantucket vacation, her platinum blond hair windblown and elegant.

Like the pan, the blueberry cookbook found its way to my house too but lay unused for a long time. I picked it up the other day when I was looking for a new 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 so unexpectedly was a gift, albeit one that choked me up.

Gumball machines. A pan. A little book, and an inscription. Small things like this unlock memories of people we love, those we see often and others who are no longer with us. And if a few tears fall, it isn't always because we are sad.

 It's because we understand so clearly at those moments how lucky and blessed we have always been.

This article was originally published in the Daily News of Newburyport

The knife-edge

Roses are still blooming. The deep blue hydrangeas have faded and their white, pink and mauve cousins now outshine them. The purple phlox is still standing tall and scenting the whole front porch with its gorgeous fragrance.

Fall flowers are clamoring for attention too--black eyed susans, sedum, asters and of course mums, lined up like soldiers at every farm stand and garden center.

Despite the summer-like beauty I see all around me, we are unmistakably on the march to fall. I leave a soft fleece close by now, to pull on as soon as I get up. The blue cotton blanket on my bed, folded and put aside during the summer's prolonged heat, is back. A strong cool wind was blowing through the open window as I fed the cat this morning, chilling my bare feet.

The cat knows. Normally she cries to go outside as soon as she finishes her breakfast, but this morning she is curled, sphinx-like, on the back of the couch. She is content for the moment to remain inside.

We are not done with fine weather yet. The sun will warm us up later. The cat will take her place on the stone wall. With luck, there are still a few hot days ahead of us, still meals to be eaten outside. The trees are still green.

But we are on the knife-edge right now, balanced between late summer and fall and very soon we will topple. The leaves will put on their gorgeous show and be done. The flowers in the garden will fade and disappear.

Right now everything is poised. Go outside and breathe it in. Sit in the grass. Store it up before it goes.

I'll be right beside you.

This column was published in the Daily News of Newburyport on September 11, 2019

Thoughts on kids and happiness

"I just want my kids to be happy."

How many times have you heard that? Or are you the one saying it? I hear it a lot, and when I do I nod and smile. But nodding politely doesn't mean I agree.

Wait, am I some kind of monster? What parent doesn't want their kids to be happy? Well, certainly no decent parent wants their kids to be unhappy, and I believe I am a decent parent. I suffer when my kids suffer. During times of great difficulty in my children's lives, the tightness in my chest sometimes made me wonder if I was having a heart attack. Romantic breakups, acne breakouts, college rejections, fallouts with best friends, desired jobs that didn't come through-I have felt the pain of all these things along with them. It's hard to see your children in pain, glorious to see them joyful.

Then why have I never said the words "I just want my kids to be happy"? Perhaps because it sounds too simplistic to me. If I were to reframe that statement in a way that captures how I really feel, it would read "I want my children to live in a way that maximizes their chances of achieving long-lasting satisfaction and contentment, with the strength to endure inevitable hard times." Wow, how catchy. Put that on a (very large) refrigerator magnet. But it's how I feel, and it's what I hope for them.

Just wanting happiness, only happiness, for children? That sounds like wanting them to sprout wings and fly. Happiness isn't a static state. It comes and goes. It isn't a given and it's never guaranteed. It starts with our innate personalities and is shaped by our actions. It's a wonderful byproduct of so many things in life, among them doing useful work, choosing and keeping good friends, mastering interesting skills.

I wonder if the notion of just wanting kids to be happy does them a disservice. Maybe instead we should ask ourselves if we have done enough to teach them that joy and satisfaction are earned, day after day, by the choices they make-- the jobs, the partners, the good decisions and the bad ones, the hard times and the wonderful moments? Have we done our best to instill resilience and tenacity in them? Have we required them to have jobs or do volunteer work, even as young teens? Have we taught them that things don't always go their way, but that they can and should try again? And have we done the most difficult thing of all, which is raise them to leave us at some point and make their own lives? If the answer to these questions is mostly yes- overall and generally, because we're not perfect-then I believe we have done what we could to lay the groundwork for happiness in our children.

Maybe saying that we just want our kids to be happy is a kind of shorthand, like saying "fine" when someone asks how we are, when the real answer is anything but. Maybe what most people mean when they say it is actually more akin to my clunky refrigerator magnet sentiment above. I hope so, because if happiness is our only goal for our children, then we have failed them.

Do we want our children to be happy? Of course we do. But I hope we want so much more for them than that.

This article was originally published in the Daily News of Newburyport, August, 2021

Stock image

Finding Covid Freedom

June 11, 2021

Freedom means different things to different people. For me, freedom means being able to walk either way down the cereal aisle at Shaws.

Reversing course because I forget the Maple Pecan Crunch, and turning around and walking the other way made me feel like Leo DeCaprio in Titanic with his arms out, exulting "I'm the king of the world!"

Similarly, at the Loft Outlet in Kittery right after Maine lifted its mask mandate, I took a picture of the sign on the door that said "Masks are not required for fully vaccinated customers" because it seemed impossible, too good to be true.

"No mask, really?" I uttered disbelievingly to the sales lady behind the counter. "No mask!" she replied, with a smile that I could actually see. I whipped off my mask and let out a whoop of joy.

In Newburyport the other day I chatted with the owner of a new business. We talked for a good five minutes and we weren't six feet apart. I learned about his other store, how excited he is to be in town, and how warmly the locals have welcomed him. When we parted we introduced ourselves.  He stuck his hand out and I took it. It felt revolutionary.

Is this what getting out of prison is like? I've been as Covid-compliant as required. I've faithfully done what was asked. The one time I accidently went into Michael's Crafts without my mask on was like one of those dreams where you're naked in public. I went hot and cold and rushed from the store, clutching my face.

But I am joyfully done, fully vaccinated. I feel like a golden retriever with my head out a car window, mouth open in a happy grin, ears flying. I have no underlying conditions that require me to continue precautions. In fact, I have often wondered why my none-too-sterile face covering, which spends a lot of time rolling around the back seat of my car, was ever enough to gain me entry into public places. Like everyone else, I look like I am heading into surgery. The reality of the hygiene of my mask is probably somewhat different.

There a lot of things out there that can, and ultimately will, kill us. We seem to have forgotten that we can die of things other than Covid. I managed to keep all of my medical appointments over the last year, but that's not true for many. The statistics I have read about the number of missed doctor's visits, cancer screenings, routine childhood vaccinations and the like are sobering.

Recently I calculated that I have about 7300 days until I am 80, barring an early departure. I may well live longer than that, but there are no promises about the quality of life beyond that point-nor any before it, for that matter. To the best of my ability, I intend to make every single one of those days count with my family and friends.

Covid prison didn't change me, but it certainly sharpened my appetite and appreciation for life. Now, if you will excuse me, I'm going to walk both ways down the cereal aisle just because I can.

This article was originally published in the Daily News of Newburyport, Spring, 2021

Living in the present, visiting the past

May 2021

How amazing is our memory? It can put up whole city blocks in an instant, and remove them just as fast. It can dismantle a building in the blink of an eye, and reconstruct one that hasn't existed for five decades.

This happens to me often, and especially when I drive along Haverhill Street through Reading, passing the former farms where I learned to ride. The barns are long gone now, and houses and tall trees stand in what used to be open fields. No matter-my brain still shows me the lush grass and the grazing horses. For a moment I see grizzled old Lester "Mac" McDonald, who ran a pony farm on the corner of Franklin Street. I hear Spot the Dalmation barking and see ponies drinking out of the old white bathtub under the barn, their whiskery muzzles dripping when they lift their heads.

Entering North Reading I mentally take down the Heav'nly Donuts and put up Sullivan's, an old-school breakfast place where my father would take us on Sunday mornings 50 years ago. I hear the slam of the screen door and step onto the wooden floor. I smell coffee and cigarettes, taste the butter dripping off the grilled corn muffin I always order.

Heading up Rt. 28 I dismantle the Stop and Shop and put up the Starlite Drive-In, climb into my pajamas and hang out for a moment with my parents while we watch a movie in the car and swat mosquitos. As usual, we pick a spot with a poorly functioning speaker, the kind that hangs over the edge of the driver's window and distorts sound beyond recognition.

I go on to pass two different buildings, still standing, that used to house my father's Wynn oil business. One is now a boxing gym, the other a dog rescue establishment. I mentally recast them and now I am out in the Wynn's warehouse playing hide and seek with my sister and best friend as we climb over the boxes stacked nearly to the ceiling. The pungent smell of motor oil hits my nose sharply in an unpleasant way. I'm not sure so much exposure to petroleum products is good for children, but no one seems to worry about it.

Heading north now, toward Andover, I rebuild the Howard Johnson's where Tokyo Steakhouse now stands. I slide into a booth-my favorite one in the corner- with my mother and order clam strips and the best coffee ice cream that's ever been made. When we leave I successfully petition for one of those round milk and white chocolate lollipops at the counter. It's delicious.

How lucky are we that these moments from times gone by are still with us, even if-like the smell of motor oil, like the taste of chocolate-they are sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet. I live my life firmly in the here and now, but I'm grateful that I can get a day pass to visit old places, see old faces, whenever I want. They are never truly gone from me if I can remember them.

The Dessert Years

March 2021

I have been thinking long and hard about this, and I believe I have come to a conclusion about at least one problem plaguing society these days, which is...

We don't get enough old-fashioned cakes and pies anymore.

Dessert is still with us, of course, but now it's all about tortes and sorbets and tiramisu and crème brulee--not a layer cake in sight.

Pick up any "ladies" magazine from the 1950s-Woman's Day is my favorite--and you'll see what I mean. Glorious illustrations of tall, mouthwatering cakes and towering fruit or cream pies entice you on nearly every page.

Benjamin Darling, in his book Cakes Men Like, calls the 1930s, 40s and 50s "the dessert years;" when companies competed for housewives' loyalty by giving away recipe booklets and commissioning artists to create ads featuring the stunning creations that could be made from their products.

Betty Crocker, of course, is front and center in these ads, helping housewives be both thrifty and successful in their baking. The Betty of the early 1950s is a severe looking gal with Marcel-waved hair sporting touches of grey. This is a woman who takes cake seriously.

An ad for "Easy! Economical! As-You-Like-It Cake" features Betty in 1952  showing off a gorgeous cake with three different frostings. In an early example of cross-marketing, here Betty promotes the use of Gold Medal Flour as a "cake baking secret you should know! From sack to sack, Gold Medal's baking quality never varies...substitute a less uniform flour and you'll waste ingredients, costing more." Cooks in the 1950s were ready for reliability and uniformity in their ingredients, and Betty was there for them.

And don't let that grey hair fool you--she could rock out when needed.   Here is the her eye-catching Colorvision Cake from 1955, a gorgeous study in pink on pink, creating by the "glamour trick" of adding "your favorite Gelatin Dessert" to one of her Party Cake mixes. She tops it with her Cherry Fluff Frosting and raves "our mixes give you real home-cooked tasting frosting!"

But baking competitor Pillsbury was not afraid to match wits with Betty.  Here they try for a seductive tone, pretty racy for 1953:  "His heart will go 'pitty pat' when you bake your man a peach pie like this," promises an ad for pie crust mix that features a juicy and glistening slice of peach pie. "Turn him loose on your pie-and watch the man get moon-eyed when he forks into the flaky, tender crust you're bound to turn out... pamper him, please him, with your homemade pie, tonight." Wait, are we still talking about pie?

Of course, too much pie and cake can lead to problems.  "WATCH OUT--abdomen sag is ugly and dangerous!" warns a 1951 ad for Spencer support garments. "A sagging abdomen is a dangerous thing to neglect... the functioning of every organ is impaired and even your personality suffers."

Why did I eat all that cake, '50s ladies must have wondered despondently.  But, no worries, Spencer had them covered. "The minute you put on your Spencer, you feel stimulating support! You'll look more alert and feel more alive! Send for your FREE 24-page booklet "

Desserts and girdles--we can relate to those right now. Raise your hand if you've just gone through your own version of a dessert year, and let me know if you want the address for Spencer's 24-page support garment booklet. I've already requested mine.

But while we wait...who wants some nice marble layer cake?

This article was originally published in the Daily News of Newburyport

A New Year's Resolution I can live with

January 2021

New Year's resolutions are usually concerned with losing weight, exercising more, and eating healthier. Most of them last about as long a plate of brownies in a kindergarten class.

I've never been one for New Year's resolutions, but this year seemed to demand something different. So, the other day, when I did what I've been meaning to do for a while--pick up trash around the reservoir near where I live--I had an epiphany.

I realized, as I used my nifty grabbing tool to load bottles and Dunks cups into a bag, that THIS could be my New Years resolution. One bag of trash, large or small, once a week, whenever possible. This was how I could make a immediate and visible difference in my town and community. Plus, it wouldn't involve giving up dessert.

Litter is a problem that will never be solved, only managed, and my personal opinion is that some states manage it better than my own, Massachusetts. Driving up to, around, and home from North Conway, NH last September, my husband and I were struck by how clean the roadsides were. It was notable, and equally notable was how different things were-in a bad way-- as we neared home. We were similarly struck by clean roadsides when we attended a wedding on the outskirts of Chicago a couple years ago. It made a very sad contrast to Massachusetts.

What I don't understand is why this is okay. Our state has natural beauty to match any other state in the country. We have antique homes and buildings to admire everywhere we look. We have quaintness and beauty coming out of our ears. And yet, many of our small roads and highways are strewn with trash.

I'm sad that we accept this, because we deserve better. Sometimes I think it's easier and sexier to focus on overarching global issues and miss the problems that are right underneath our feet, literally.

My town of West Newbury does a wonderful town-wide trash pickup every spring, but I'm ready to make that spirit a part of my everyday life. I'm done with walking past the gross, half-filled Gatorade bottle and waiting for someone else to pick it up. I am now that someone else.

I'm not making this a 24-7 job; I'm not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. There will be times when it won't be possible to pick up trash, and there are many places where it isn't safe or feasible to do so. Highways will always be out of our reach. But even picking up one cup or bottle when I can do so is something, and something is better than nothing.

When I posted a short blurb about this on my town's Facebook pages recently I was thrilled at the positive response, and am excited to hear that some folks are already doing this. I salute them and am happpy to join their ranks. I was also introduced to Plogging Newburyport, a local group that combines exercise with trash pickup.

Doing good for our communities and making the world a little more beautiful--without giving up butter cookies? Honestly, I don't know how anyone could resist.

This article was originally published in the Daily News of Newburyport

Music, moments,

 and memory

Every so often the world cracks open and shows us life with a beautiful clarity. Sometimes it happens because of the taste of a certain cookie, as Proust found out, or the sight of a newborn baby. Sometimes it happens because of a certain song.

We were in Scotland, on a long driving tour from Edinburgh to Loch Ness--a round trip of over 300 miles in one day. The scenery was spectacular, the boat ride on the Loch was a blast, and lunch was delicious. But once we turned for home it seemed like the ride would never end.

I squirmed in the stuffy darkness of the van and plugged in my earbuds. Shut your eyes by Snow Patrol (a Scottish, band, coincidently) came on. And it hit me-for no reason that I could define, except for the way the music made me feel--that I could just accept this moment, sore bottom and all. I would never be here again, in this place, at this time. Instead of wishing the ride would end, I could embrace the vision of my children, draped over each other like sleeping puppies. I could revel in the richness of my life. And that's what I did, and suddenly the ride didn't seem long enough.

Sometimes it's discomfort that opens-or shuts-our eyes, but sometimes we're lucky enough to go from joy to joy. Walking the white sands of Buck Island off St. Croix, I had such a moment. We snorkeled, swam, and then sailed for home, the trade winds filling the sails of the big catamaran. Music played, rum punch flowed, strangers talked like friends. One Day by Matisyahu, came on, with its stirring beat and lyrics of hope. I looked at the green islands rising out of the blue water, felt the warmth of the sun on my back, and told myself, hold onto this moment. Don't ever let it go.

And then there was the time we were running through Fenway Park, not late for a Red Sox game but actually running around the park during a Spartan Sprint. My husband and I had tried obstacle racing and were now hooked. That day we did pushups in the locker rooms, burpees in the outfield, two-footed jumps up the stairwells. The driving beat of one of my favorite songs "Counting Stars," by OneRepublic sounded as I reached the highest point in the stands. The green of Fenway and the scenery of the city unfolded all around me. The music was like a drug, giving me a great soaring wave of energy and burning that vision of Boston into my mind forever.

We don't get to feel like gods very often. It's rare when we can step outside of ourselves and truly know the exquisite joy of being alive. These stolen moments come unbidden. We can't will them, we can't create them. All we can do is listen for their music and do our best to forge them into the amber of our memories when they come.

A little love for late fall

This is a beautiful time of year.

Go ahead, call me crazy. Late fall doesn't have a lot of defenders. Very few people are likely to cite it as their favorite season. The foliage show is nearly over. The showy reds, the screaming oranges, are done. There is a lot of yellow, rust and brown.

Yes, there are leaves still to fall, but it happens quickly and the trees are increasingly bare. So much energy is spent on fall's gaudy brilliance, like a party months in the planning that is over too soon and leaves a messy house.

But trees don't need leaves to be beautiful. Bare and unadorned, they are stars without makeup, boiled down to their essence and spreading their true selves against the sky. Once the trees are bare it feels to me like nature has heaved a big sigh and leaned back, feet up, content to just let everything go. Without foliage or bushy undergrowth, the tree trunks and branches tell stories. Twisted limbs, holes made by animals, patches of copper-green lichen-all that was hidden is revealed.

The stone walls too come into their own now. Not the new walls lining manicured lawns but the old tumbledown columns of grey roaming the woods and running alongside of roads. Now we can see those walls, so many of them, meandering through the shallow woods, stopping and starting in seemingly random patterns. They too tell a story, of fields and pastures that existed where trees now grow, a story of farmers from the past marshaling the boulders dug out of the New England soil and giving them a job to do.

The wetlands, ponds and lakes stand in starker relief now that the green has gone from their shores. Bittersweet vines, invasive but beautiful, wind around old fence posts and stands of red winterberry and wild holly-- nature's own Christmas decorations put up early--dot the landscape.

Birds are easier to spot at this time of year too. Bright red cardinals and their more sober khaki-colored mates jostle for space at my feeders. Canada geese are so plentiful as to be pests, but a V-shaped wedge of them silhouetted against the sky still gives me chills. Lately I have caught sight of less common birds: colorful wood ducks paddling on the nearby reservoir, 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.

Very soon, all too soon, the snow will come. Some of us will head to Florida and the rest will stick it out here. But right now we are suspended in a moment. Look around, loosen your shoulders, and let out your own big sigh. 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.

stock photo

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

Don't you wish you had some right now?

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 threw 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 GoodWill.

This article was originally published in the Daily News of Newburyport

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


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-- 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 

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