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OK, I admit it was a typo, my title from blog before last. I really DIDn’t mean to type “DYI.”

But as often happens, the fingers precede the brain.

DIY-ing this patio, walk, and landscaping may do wonders for household budget, but possibly at the cost of “Doing Yourself In.”

2900 pounds: that’s the weight of a single pallet of the pavers we’re putting down. We bought five. Over the last week, I unloaded all of one and got down to the last rows of the other four. That is, loaded them into the cart, wrestled it down the hill to the house, unloaded it so James could set the pavers in place.

tommy james patio


A “Heads Down Job,” Tommy explained to me, is one where you do just that: grit your teeth, put your head down, and get on with it, little comfort or perks involved. Yup. Well, at least I had music: “Les Miz”–most appropriate. “Jekyll and Hyde,” with the amazing Australian baritone Anthony Warlow playing that doctor/monster, and if you haven’t heard him in Jekyll or any of the Australian Opera Company’s productions, you’re missing a treat. And of course, hip-hop “Hamilton,” which I wrote about a few weeks ago.

Thank God for gravity: the cart pulled me down the hill, rather than me having to push it. (Though it had a tendency to want to take off in its own direction on the curves.) Thank God also for gloves, though it was so cold I was wearing two pairs.

But the real thanks goes to Tommy, who gave us a week of his time to do the heavy digging which would have taken me three times as long. And to Marshall, who spent much of his Thanksgiving break planting shrubs. And yes, Charlotte-fans, she toted some of those pavers as well. 



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Do we appreciate our children enough? I’m learning….


My Heart Bleeds Bright Orange

I wish I followed football. I really do. Then  New Year’s Day would have some sparkle to it. As it is, I’m riding on the energy of my Vols-fanatic family to ease the slow drain of joy as the holidays ebb away.


Hurrah for Epiphany next week, which at least means I can keep the tree up and the candles lit a little while longer.

But the cookie platter is down to one last piece of pound cake and a few crumbles of gingerbread.

And no reason to bake more since the house is emptying out, the kids preparing to go back to their lives.


So thank goodness for those solid banks of bright orange t-shirts as Vols fans cheer on their team in the Outback football

Never my favorite color, especially after growing up in Knoxville where it’s as prevalent as pink dogwood, today it brings a needed glow to this final day of the holidays when the temperature and my mood hover somewhere in the grey mid-30s.UTAs does the sight of the entire winning team swaying to the Pride of the Southland Band as it belts out the Tennessee Waltz.

45-6: I’d dance, too.

Perhaps that would warm life up?

What do you do to make this transition easier?


The Long and Winding DYI

Are we out of our minds? Why would a full-time, overworked attorney for DCS and his non-green-thumbed, non-handyman, several-chronic-illnessed wife take on the landscaping of their entire homesite?

A home currently encircled by deep clay ditches (“just call me moat”) dug by guess-who, awaiting the purchase and carting in (us again) of large shrubs and groundcovers.

With winter finally deciding to show up so everything we dig is wet and heavy and…oh, this is going to last from here to eternity, and there are times I lean on my shovel ready to rest for at least long.

Today’s project was moving gravel from its massive pile down to the in-process walkway. Shovel from pile to truck. Shovel from truck to cart. Shovel from cart to walk, which had first to be laboriously hacked out of hard clay, then tamped down and covered with landscape cloth.

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This is not fun.

Why are we doing it?

Well, no one else has volunteered.

But really, it’s no more insane than anything else we’ve done with our lives. Homeschooling in an era when no one did, for instance, in a town where no one did, and continuing on with it despite financial bare-survival and some in-house obstacles that would have felled Paul Bunyan.

Moving to undeveloped mountain cove land to raise said children, garden, goats and chickens, decades before online farmers’ markets and locavores were even dreamed of.

The children? They turned out great. So what back then sometimes felt like an insane commitment to homeschooling was maybe not such a bad idea after all.

Maybe in a year? two? I’ll be saying the same of the landscaping project.






The Nature of the Penny

Penny Book

I’m in the last third of Canadian author Louise Penny‘s 11th Armand Gamache mystery set in the idyllic hidden village of Three Pines. “The Nature of the Beast” again lets us spend time with that gentle, wise Chief Inspector, his younger colleague Jean Guy, and the various friends and personalities who make up the tiny village which, like Brigadoon, can’t be found on any map.

Like all of Penny’s fans, I couldn’t wait for this one’s publication. I’ve read and re-read the ten earlier books, and was eager to immerse myself in her world again, and if you haven’t discovered her, I highly recommend you do. Start at the beginning, and know that in each subsequent book, the character development grows more intense, the plots more rich and satisfying.

If you have read her, I wonder if, like me, you’ll be a bit puzzled by this new book. Penny has never been afraid to expose the evil that exists in the individual heart, to have the incorruptible Chief Inspector fearlessly tackle corruption at the highest level of his department or government.

In this book, though, she flings us into a kind of James Bond-ian situation which sits a bit uneasily with this reader, at least. It seems so unlikely that it’s almost comic-bookish. Or maybe I’m just really out of touch with the modern world.   bond

Meanwhile, all the familiar faces are here: the gay odd-couple, flamboyant Gabri and trim Olivier, who together run the Bistro, where villagers gather daily for cafe au lait, croissants, and meals so appetizing they could come straight out of the pages of “Gourmet.” The retired-but-still-analyzing Myrna, whose bookstore seems more like cozy library than sales place. Clara, the brilliant artist, cookie crumbs or croissant flakes ever in her hair. And of course the aged, crazy (or maybe not) poet Ruth and her  pet duck, walking into anyone’s home and business any time day or night and making herself at home. Especially with their liquor.

But even these haven’t, so far for me, come as alive as in previous books. They almost seem more types than creatures, even if the ‘types’ are categories unique to Three Pines.  I’m reminded of Agatha Christie’s emphasis on plot at the expense of character development.

Finally, Penny’s long-entrenched habit of concluding a conversation or character’s train of thought with witty, often poetic, comment has become almost annoying, a bit like the “ta-dum!”, “so there!” drum crash at the end of all too many Broadway (and other) songs. I find myself wishing her editor had suggested she limit these omniscient insights to a single character, most likely the wonderful Gamache, instead of having them stray so randomly onto almost every page.

Anyone else notice this? or am I just being picky? Because it’s so much easier to comment on and criticize than to create. And I, for one, hope that Louise Penny will long continue creating.

And now, enough commenting on someone else’s work and back to my own…

woman writing

Of Plaid and Polka Dots

Have you found yourself becoming one of your parents yet?

A professor of electrical engineering with a Phd from Harvard and a past that included work at Oak Ridge National Lab in its earlier hush-hush days, my very bright father became, as time went on, increasingly, well, eccentric. After a sabbatical abroad in the early 1970s, he let his engineer crew cut grow out to an unruly pepper-and-salt mop, kind of a cross between Einstein and Colonel Sanders. Which became a subject of much let’s call it dissension on the home front.


He also took to wearing my brother’s cast-off orange plaid shorts, one of my mother’s more unfortunate purchases. Throw in one of the elderly white t-shirts which may or may not have had holes hither and yon, since true child of the Depression, throwing anything away truly pained him. (Another way of saying he didn’t.)

Do you start to get the picture?

As a young teenager, I looked on this with horror. So you’ll get a better appreciation for my dismay at realizing that there are a lot of days I dress somewhat the same. James and I are in a never-ending process of digging out the clay and mud from what will be, if we live long enough, a patio. Work I do in a pair of sneakers so old they’re more hole than shoe. And one of the many t-shirts I inherited from my oldest son, some of which are in that gloriously soft state that only comes with age. Which may or may not have a hole or two here and there. And– a truly horrific pair of magenta plaid shorts I picked up at Goodwill years ago in a moment of true insanity.

I didn’t grow up in the Great Depression. Yet it also pains me to throw things away when there’s a possibility they might someday come in handy.

 (Did I mention that on muddier days, I add my new pair of boots from Tractor Supply? They’re black, with colorful polka dots like the  kind you’d find on birthday wrapping paper. Cute, but– with purple plaid?)

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So, there it is. Late middle age eccentricity repeating itself.




Looking Beyond with Unbound

FullSizeRender (2)Way back when our kids were small, and managing on a single paycheck felt particularly painful (I don’t claim it’s any easier now) it dawned on me that compared to most of the world, we were extremely well off.

I wanted our kids to realize this as well. Which would take a little effort, since from their viewpoint—compared to friends and acquaintances, that is—, our rental house and battered belongings looked decidedly Goodwill. (Well, they were.)

I wanted us to look beyond: to families who would view our threadbare sofa as a luxury item, never mind its tendency to leak stuffing when anyone sat on it. To children who would delight in the fact that yes, we were having beans for supper AGAIN, because they would be delighted by the fact that we were having supper at all.
(Bureaucrats call that “food insecurity.” I call it hunger, and no child should have to endure it.)
Not that our kids ever complained, though there were occasional comments about the minuscule size of our elderly television. They didn’t even ask for candy when we checked out at Kroger. (Well, they knew better: though I do remember my baseball fanatic toddler having difficulty leaving behind a certain big orange plastic baseball bat–in fact, I’m not so sure we left that bat behind when we left the store….)

308926_10100383332730025_734996296_nBut I had a horror of raising kids who took things for granted.

So I found CFCA–Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, and we began sponsoring needy children around the world.

CFCA—now called Unbound—works particularly hard to foster close relationships between sponsor and sponsee.  We were able to trade frequent letters, photographs, cards and drawings, and through these and Unbound consistently providing information about each child’s country and “project”, we felt like we really did have children around the world: in our case, Africa, India and Central America. Children who were receiving education, clothing, health care, food assistance, because of us.
We’ve always sponsored one child for each of our own, and back almost two decades ago when we started, asked for children whose ages matched those of our own three. Because of the flow of letters, all of which I’ve kept in special files, we’ve been able to watch as “our” girls grow from cute little ones to strong, beautiful women.  One child who was nine when we began writing to one another is now in her last year of college, training to be a lab technician.



We learned a lot about other cultures: our African “goddaughter”, for instance, lived in a mud hut with grass roof, her mother cooking in one of two pots over an open fire. I remember the letter in which the girl thanked us for giving her a new pot for Christmas, which helped put our home Christmas into perspective. A year or so later, she thanked us for the gift of a goat, which would provide the family with milk and cheese. (She wrote a few months later to tell us one of their neighbors had eaten it….)
We’ve always sponsored girls, because I had the notion that female education might be a last priority in some societies. I like the fact that Unbound maintains mother’s groups in its projects, and that the women come to believe that they CAN change the outlook for their family, that it nurtures community.
Nowadays, you don’t even have to have to buy airmail stamps to stay in touch. Unbound lets you send e-letters and upload photos. They also have a feature where you can go online and from pictures and a brief history, choose your own child, young adult, or elderly person. They have an unbelievably small administration/promotion budget, (A+ from Charity Watch) which means that almost all of the dollars we send go directly to our children and their project, and the monthly cost to us per child seems amazingly low.
Do I sound like I’m pushing Unbound? Well, I guess I am. I love getting letters signed “your loving child.” I love the fact that somewhere “over there”, another family is aware of ours. I love the fact that half a dozen girls–and their families–have had their lives changed because of us. I love that our eldest son and his wife have their own sponsored child now.

Unbound, which is working with over 300,000 sponsees in 21 different countries, has a waiting list of over 1,000 children and elders who have been hoping for sponsorship for over a year now. (Pictures of some of these can be found on Unbound’s website, I wish you’d talk with your family about the possibility of taking on another member….

Whatever DID Become of Eeyore?

eeyoreGreat, just great.

As if it’s not bad enough to see the world darkly when everyone else seems to be viewing it through spandex-hot-pink-colored glasses, I just heard that according to a new study from an epidemiologist at Harvard’s School of Public Health, people with chronic depression have a 66% great chance of stroke than other people. (I almost said, than “normal” people, thus contributing to our cultural prejudice against those who suffer “mental” illness. . . .)

For those of us who struggle against chronic depression, even those of us who use every tool in the arsenal against it  (and yes, I include heavy-duty exercise, therapy and pristine nutrition in that toolkit, as well the usual pharmaceutical aids, so please don’t tell me it will disappear if I go gluten-free) this is just one more burden to tote.

Bad enough that it’s one of those invisible illnesses which our society makes almost impossible to use as explanation when its presence puts the kibosh on some scheduled activity. (“But you don’t look sick!”)

Bad enough that some of us battle such persistent internal “demons” that simply smiling can sometimes seem an effort as great as climbing Mount Everest.

everest 3

(I use the phrase “internal demons” advisedly, given statements like the following which a dear friend with bipolar disorder was handed: “We don’t believe that’s a real illness. You just need to pray harder.”)

Bad enough to have an illness which most people aren’t comfortable talking about, which apparently still conjures up ominous images of locked wards, barred windows and straitjackets. Even in this world where a description of every inch of one’s digestive tract makes the list of acceptable topics at friendly dinner parties.

Now the medical world is predicting what our old(er) age may very well look like, and it’s not a pretty picture.

Now that’s depressing.