It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? (June 1, 2020)

Morning, friends.  Another new week – it has to be better than last week, right?  These are awful times that we are living through right now, and I am privileged enough that for me the awfulness is just in the watching, and not in the living.  The senseless murder – because it was murder – of George Floyd is sitting heavily on my heart, as it is on many hearts.  Reading about his cry of “Mama!” brought me to tears, as someone who answers to that name.  And coming so soon after my running community mourned Ahmaud Arbery, I just don’t know what to say anymore.  I often find myself without words after these horrible crimes – not because I don’t care, but because I worry that my voice won’t add anything to the conversation and will ring hollow to people who are actually suffering, or that posting to a hashtag will come across as lip service and nothing more.  But that’s clearly not good enough, so I am trying to come up with words.  I’ve checked in on my friends who are people of color and let them know that I am here if they ever need me.  I’ve arranged another FaceTime play date for Peanut and her BFF, who is biracial.  And I’ve downloaded anti-racist reading lists, which include quite a few books I’ve already read but plenty more ideas, and donated to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.  (Here’s the donation page, in case you want to make a contribution too.)

Anyway, with that – I do try to keep politics and justice issues out of my writing here, not because it’s not important to me but because I like having this space as an escape.  So.  The hideousness of the world last week aside, how are you all holding up in week eleventy-seven bajillion of the age of corona?  We had kind of a rough week, even setting the state of the world aside, last week.  Nugget had not one, but two spills on the bike path: one when he and his sister were clowning around and she ended up plowing into him and knocking him over during a morning walk, and one when our bikes got tangled up together on Saturday morning.  (I took the brunt of that one, of course, and my hands look pretty bad right now.)  And the kids were sort of at cross-purposes all week; a lot of bickering between the two of them, and defiance directed at Steve and me if we had the audacity to say things like “Turn off the TV” or “Wash your hands, it’s dinnertime.”  At least the weather is good?

Reading.  Most of the week was pretty slow, at least as far as books were concerned.  (I read a lot of news coverage and opinion pieces, though.)  After finishing Austentatious, I tried to pick up The Heat of the Day, by Elizabeth Bowen – the last book off my library stack.  I got about a chapter and a half into it, and I can tell that it’s beautifully written and is going to be wonderful, but I also can’t seem to motivate myself to pick it up.  Instead of reading, I spent most of the week puttering around the house and scrolling on my phone – not at all satisfying, but my brain just didn’t want a book.  On Sunday, I had a sudden desire to dive back into the Lumberjanes world.  (A bunch of hardcore lady types solving anagrams, battling mythical monsters, and shouting out exclamations like “Holy Mae Jemison!” seemed like exactly what I needed.)  I ended up spending a chunk of the day with my face buried in the first three volumes, and I feel more excited to read than I have in weeks.  So that’s something.

Watching.  As with any light reading week, it was a heavy watching week.  We did a lot of family TV watching – including several episodes of Rock the Park, the penultimate Be Our Chef, and Ratatouille (twice).  Steve and I also watched two episodes of The Crown (we’re way behind, so no one tell me what happens in season three, okay?) and I spent an evening zoning out to the Pure Adirondacks channel on YouTube.

Listening.  Back on podcasts while running – I listened to two-and-a-half episodes of Another Mother Runner (on the future of races in the age of corona, tips for trail running, and long run routines).  The episode on the changes that are coming to racing was especially interesting, since I’m hoping to stick my toe back in the local race scene starting in the fall.

Making.  Not much this week, in keeping with a week in which I felt paralyzed by the state of the world and out of sorts by the state of my house.  I stayed up late baking bread on Saturday night, but I think that’s the only thing I really made this week – a few dinners aside.  Not much creativity around here at the moment.

Moving.  On the other hand, it was a pretty good week on the moving front.  I got in three runs during the week and a hike on the Patowmack Trail at Great Falls Park on Sunday.  Skipped a few workouts toward the end of the week, because I had another virtual 5K and I wanted to take some time off my last one, so I needed fresh legs.  I did skim off about a minute – not as much as I wanted to, but every step counts.  Aside from running, I didn’t do much; this week my goal is to get in at least two strength training sessions in addition to running.  I’m beginning to cautiously think about some goals for the fall and beyond, which feels good.

Blogging.  Going to be a fun week around here!  I have my May book list for you on Wednesday (sadly, it’s on the shorter side – especially for such a long month – since most of the month was a full-blown reading slump) and a post about quarantine silver lines on Friday.  Check in with me then!

Loving.  As the weather has gotten better and it’s turning into full summer here, I’ve been enjoying my outdoor spaces.  I hate going inside when it’s nice out, but with social distancing we are trying not to leave the house more than once a day.  So I’ve been spending a lot of time on my back patio and my front porch.  The chairs on my porch were pretty grimy after the winter, and I spent some time cleaning them up thoroughly – and now they’re my favorites (again).  I’ve been sitting out there with a bottle of water and (sometimes) a book, breathing the outside air, watching the birds and waving to my neighbors, and it’s been so refreshing.

Asking.  What are you reading this week?

Twelve Months of Trails: Difficult Run Stream Valley Park (Great Falls, Virginia) — May 2020

Mother’s Day 2020 dawned bright and sunny, if a bit crisp in the morning, and I had only one request – a hike, please!  Hiking has been a challenge recently: as Steve and I have lamented, now that everything is closed, it seems that everyone in the DMV has discovered our favorite pastime.  I mean, really: the trails used to be less crowded, didn’t they?  I have no problem with fellow hikers on the trail – indeed, I’m on record as saying I love seeing other folks out there enjoying public lands as much as we do.  But still, it’s hard to socially distance when everyone and their mom suddenly hikes.  Adding to the difficulty is the fact that the parks eventually recognized the issue and most of them are now closed.  (While the rest of the country looks at reopening schedules, our stay-at-home order in Virginia is continuing for at least another two weeks, maybe longer.)  So when I said I wanted to hike on Mother’s Day, I was aware that it might not happen.

But it did!  Big thanks go to Steve, who did the research and found a trail option and then a backup option.  We did end up going to our Plan B, but it ended up being great – we discovered a new-to-us trail that I can see us exploring a lot in days to come: Difficult Run Stream Valley Park.  The trailhead was easy to find, and there weren’t many people on the trail with us: other than a couple of single hiker/runners, two families and a group of mountain bikers, we had the place to ourselves.

Steve packed trail snacks: NutriGrain bars for each of us, and M&Ms for the kids.  At one point, Peanut started complaining of something “small and round” in her boot.  I told her to hang tight until we got through a muddy section and then we’d figure it out.  We squelched through the mud, then Steve turned her boot upside-down.  When the offending object toppled out of her boot, she gasped in surprise: “OH!  It’s an M&M!”  Hiking with kids, I’ll tell ya – it’s never dull.

Difficult Run was beautiful!  While I took in the peacefully bubbling stream, snapping away on my iPhone and my dad’s old Minolta, the kids were doing this:

Sitting in a mud puddle, poking tadpoles.

Got them moving eventually!

Eventually we came to a stream crossing.  It was about the time we wanted to turn back to the car, but we decided to cross the stream first, just for fun, then cross again and head home.

Daddy went first:

My turn!  View from the middle:

And of course, on the way back, we stopped and poked tadpoles some more.

So excited to live closer to trails like this one – and many more – this summer and beyond!

Have you been able to get out for a hike this month?

Themed Reads: For the Black Thumbs Amongst Us

I am a gardener in aspiration, but not in fact.  My next-door neighbor, Zoya, is an incredibly gifted gardener, and I often hang over the fence watching her putter about, moving plants from pot to ground to pot, pruning and adjusting and sprinkling.  She goes in more for flowers and greenery (whereas I am always struggling with vegetables and herbs) and her patio is a dreamscape.  (In case it needs to be said, the picture above: not Zoya’s patio.  That’s the Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace in London.)  Once Zoya asked me for advice on growing tomatoes, and I nearly fell over in shock.  More often, I’m the one begging for her wisdom.  For instance: I had a pot full of mint that died.  I meant to pull the dead roots, but didn’t get around to it.  The next spring, completely overnight, it burst with what appears to be mint… but not the same mint that died; it’s a completely different varietal.  This freaked me out to no end, and I asked Zoya if it was safe to eat.  She told me, “Don’t question it.”  My sweet sister-in-law, Danielle, confirmed over FaceTime that it seems to be spearmint.  But I’ve never planted spearmint.  The dead mint was a peppermint varietal.  How spearmint appeared, I can’t say, but the plant has been officially named “Jesus Mint.”  Needless to say, I’m still staring at it, afraid to eat it.

So now you know all my gardening secrets: I can’t do it.  Those of you who have been reading long enough to remember the Cayenne Pepper Incident of 2017 will not be surprised.  But the black thumb doesn’t stop me from wanting to garden, planning and planting and watching and grousing when nothing grows, and it definitely doesn’t stop me from reading about gardens that are more lush than mine, and gardeners with actual, honest-to-goodness green thumbs.  Maybe someday.  For now, for those of you who are garden cursed like me, here’s some inspiration:

Elizabeth and Her German Garden, by Elizabeth von Arnim – This is probably the quintessential garden book (is it a memoir? is it a novel? what is it, exactly?) of the early twentieth century.  Elizabeth was so ubiquitous at the turn of the twentieth that you can even spot – if you have eagle eyes and know what to look for – Anna Bates being given a copy of Elizabeth and Her German Garden in a country lane, in a scene in Downton Abbey.  (Don’t ask me what season; I can’t remember.  But the cover of the first edition is distinctive.)  Elizabeth von Arnim was an Englishwoman who married a German aristocrat, and her “Elizabeth” trilogy (Elizabeth and Her German GardenThe Solitary Summer; and The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rugen) follow the eponymous heroine as she putters about, cursing the inability of the Proper German Woman to get her hands dirty, enjoying the gifts of nature and avoiding her responsibilities.  There are many funny moments, some things that are sad, and a lot of gorgeous nature and garden writing.  If there is anyone to inspire you to go outside and wander around, it’s Elizabeth.  Of course, it helps when you have a massive country estate.

Merry Hall, by Beverly Nichols – Speaking of massive country estates, meet Beverly Nichols – perhaps a rather salty successor to Elizabeth von Arnim.  Merry Hall is the first in a trilogy (followed by Laughter on the Stairs and Sunlight on the Lawn, and what is it with me and lightly fictionalized memoir-ish garden trilogies?) featuring Nichols as he purchases and renovates an old Georgian manor house and surrounding garden, attended reluctantly by the wizened and grumpy head gardener “Oldfield,” his cats “One” and “Four” and a cast of local eccentrics.  There is Miss Emily, who is always flinching and trying to buy vegetables from Nichols’ prolific kitchen garden; Marius, whose chief attribute is erudition; and Our Rose, a famous floral arranger who becomes Nichols’ adversary and bugaboo.  Nichols is at his rapturous best when describing his beloved flowers; his descriptions of lovingly brushing aside fallen leaves to reveal the first snowdrops of spring are gorgeous, for example.  He is definitely a mid-century writer and some of the writing is very much of its time – a.k.a problematic for modern readers.  (I keep considering whether to write a blog post about this sort of thing, and waffling, because I’m not sure I have anything unique to say about it.)  Ultimately, I enjoy Nichols’ voice and his garden writing enough to overcome the occasional jarring note, but the reader should not go in unprepared.

Life in the Garden, by Penelope Lively – For a more modern note, Penelope Lively’s memoir-ish (apparently all three of these themed books are memoir-ish) look back at the gardens of her life is gorgeous.  From the cover art to the beautiful prose – gorgeous.  Lively is a prolific and important writer of fiction (I read her astonishing Booker-winning novel, Moon Tiger, after becoming acquainted with her through this garden book) and she brings a writer’s sensibilities to the plant plot.  Lively writes of her childhood in Egypt, the gardens of her adult years, and the small London establishment of her current golden years, and sprinkles in sections and chapters about gardens in literature.  If you can tear yourself away from the stunning cover, you’ll find much to appreciate in Lively’s writing.

Elizabeth, Beverly and Penelope are definitely inspiring me as I mull over garden plans for my soon-to-be new place.  There’s a lot of potential but also plenty to be done, and where am I going to put the tomatoes?

Are you a gardener, or just a reader of garden writing?

It’s Memorial Day! What Are You Reading? (May 25, 2020)

Happy Memorial Day to my American friends – wherever you are, I hope you’re getting some fresh air, some time to connect with family (even virtually) and the chance to let off a little steam.  And of course, a huge THANK YOU to our military families for all of their sacrifices.  This is the home of the free, because of the brave, as we all know so well.  We appreciate you!

Memorial Day weekend is also the unofficial start to summer, of course.  Every year, I waffle between summer and fall as my favorite season.  I love them both, and this is the kickoff to the best half of the year for me.  Allergies are winding down, the heat is cranking up – bring it all on, I say.  I usually like to do something fun to ring in the season, but this year we’re sticking close to home for obvious reasons.  (Although my neighbors heard that I-95 was basically a parking lot, choked with people driving to the beach for the long weekend.)  It was a pretty low-key start to the season for us, and we’re mostly treating today as just another workday (although I think I’m going to take the day mostly off and take the kids off of Steve’s hands – he ran interference for me a lot last week, because I was busy with a court submission, so I’d like to make it up to him).  Anyway!  Saturday was HOT, at least in comparison to the few weeks prior – in the 80s.  We walked down to the waterfront and Steve and the kids played tag in Founders Park for a little while, and then the kids and I spent the afternoon on the patio.  I hate going indoors when it’s nice out!  Sunday was our hiking day.  We stopped off at our new house first, to drop off another trunkload of stuff (seems silly to go empty-handed!) and then explored some of the trails at Lake Fairfax Park.  I spent the rest of the day puttering around the house and got basically nothing done, so I guess that’s a winning Sunday?

Reading.  Another slow reading week, although the three books above make it look like it was a normal-paced stretch.  I finished Merry Hall midweek, then spent the latter half of the week and most of the weekend with The Boy Who Lost Fairyland.  Just one more book to go in the Fairyland series, although I’m reading it so slowly that I’ve mostly forgotten what’s happened so far.  Whoops.  Anyway, finished the weekend with Austentatious: The Evolving World of Jane Austen Fans, a loaner from my friend Susan.

Watching.  Same family watching streak – we’ve finished all of the available episodes of Be Our Chef, and are now waiting for the final two episodes of the season to drop, and we’ve also made our way through all of season six of Rock the Park.  The highlight this week was definitely watching Jack and Colton snorkel with manatees – and now I have a new bucket list item.  (Steve said: “You realize there would be other fish there too, right?”  I told him to shush his face.)

Listening.  A lot of this, for obvious reasons, on repeat:

Moving.  Not much moving this week, either.  (Not much of anything, huh?)  It was a superbusy week on the work front – I had a court submission to file on Friday, and that’s always a bit of a circus.  Most of the planned runs on my training schedule didn’t happen for that reason, which makes me sad.  I am always happier and more energetic and just have more to give when I take that time for myself and get some fresh air via my running shoes.  So I’m going to try to remember that for next week.

Making.  Well, there was a lot of work product!  That’s definitely making something.  And I was proud of what I did at work this week, so that is something.  I also FINISHED the last incomplete family yearbook – 2019.  Look at me go!  Something about dragging pictures around on Shutterfly is very soothing.  And I have big plans for reading through the whole series of my creations as soon as the last two arrive on my doorstep.  So the making was more keyboard-oriented this week, and less kitchen-oriented, although Nugget and I did whip up a strawberry yogurt cake on Saturday morning.  It came out tasting good, but the texture was way off – super dense and unappealing, in my opinion.  The kids disagreed, and they ate it ALL.  So at least it didn’t go to waste!

Blogging.  Got to make sure I get all my May content in, so I’m loading you up this week.  Themed reads on Wednesday – all about gardening life – and then a hiking recap on Friday.  Stop by!

Loving.  On Friday night, I called up my BFF, Rebecca, to chat and catch up since it had been a minute.  I asked her what she was up to, and her response, in a nutshell, was: “Drinking mashed up mango with rum, reading declassified military documents from 1948, and trying to get to the end of TikTok.”  I’m not saying that my bestie is cooler than your bestie, but, well, do the math.

Asking.  What are you reading this week?

A Day In The Life, COVID-19 Quarantine Edition

Recently, I read a Washington Post article tracking a day in the life of a D.C. family with two working parents and two young kids, as they try to navigate this quarantine.  I almost didn’t finish the article, because it felt so familiar – but at the same time, it was a little bit comforting to see others in the same boat.  We are all dealing with this situation in different ways, and each facing unique challenges, and it occurred to me that it’s been awhile since I did a day in the life post on here.  While I am not sure I’m really going to want to remember all of these details… here they are.

5:55 a.m. I wake up to the sound of the kids’ voices playing either in Nugget’s room or downstairs.  Their “okay to wake” lights flash on at 6:00 a.m., which means they’ve ignored them.  Again.  I’m told these “okay to wake” lights are supposed to be miraculous for keeping kids in bed until they should be up?  Mine couldn’t care less.

6:15 a.m.  I tried to go back to sleep, but couldn’t.  I decide to forego any additional attempts at sleeping in favor of getting up before the kids’ play turns into squabbling and then fighting, so I get up and go looking for them.  They’re in Nugget’s room.  Peanut is chilling in a pile of his “lovies” and he’s jumping on his pillow.  Good morning.  We have another talk about respecting the “okay to wake” lights and then go downstairs to eat breakfast.  I start mixing up morning chocolate milks and taking breakfast orders while the kids dismantle the couch.  EVERY DAY.

6:50 a.m.  I’ve spent the past half hour running back and forth between the kitchen and the living room, bringing the kids their breakfasts as they watch TV and complain about what I’ve given them to eat.  (Stonyfield Kids organic yogurt, yuck-o.)  While they grouchily eat, I clean up the kitchen counter.  I like to work at a makeshift standing desk, but it tends to get heaped up with the daily detritus.  That’s definitely the case today, so I quickly put some things away, then start working on a memo that I really need to get out this morning.  Steve sits down at his laptop and starts work for the day, and I pound away at my keyboard while listening to the kids.

8:40 a.m.  I’m still working on my memo, but it’s almost time to take the kids out for the morning walk.  Steve and I are working in shifts during this quarantine, and I have the kids in the morning while he focuses on work, then we swap.  I still try to stay connected and check in when I can in the mornings, though.

8:55 a.m. The TV is off, and the kids and I both head upstairs and get dressed to go out for a stroll.

9:05 a.m.  And we’re out the door, only five minutes past my goal time!  This is pretty good for us.  (By contrast, the following day we did not get out the door until 9:35 – more than half an hour past the goal time – and only then after a lot of yelling by everyone.)  Nugget asks to walk to the waterfront, but that’s a pretty long stroll for their short legs and we have plans at 10:00 that we have to be home for, so we head for the bike path instead.  We walk to the end of the bike path segment nearest our house, then turn around and head back, with a few long breaks to explore the green space and check out some trees.  On our walk we discuss birds’ nesting habits, and how electricity works.

10:00 a.m.  Back from our walk, right on schedule.  I get Peanut set up with her math workbook and Nugget takes his phonics workbook up to his room.  Our 10:00 plans are a FaceTime play date with his buddy, D, from school.  So while Nugget settles in, I call D’s mom over FaceTime.

We catch up for a few minutes about work – we’re both lawyers, upstate New Yorkers, and Cornell grads, so we have a lot in common and love to chat with each other.  After a minute or two, I turn the phone over to Nugget, and D’s mom hands her phone to him, and the boys start a marathon FaceTime session in which I think they mostly talk over each other and brag about their toys.

Once the boys are set up and chattering away, I head back to the kitchen, where I divide my attention and my time between the memo I’m working on and Peanut’s math workbook.  I help her figure out the equations, then launch her on some word-focused activities (language arts workbook pages, followed by reading time) and keep working on my memo.

11:00 a.m.  I’ve been back down in the kitchen while Nugget is on my phone.  Peanut finished up her math, did some phonics exercises in her BrainQuest workbook, and read a few chapters in her current book (The Mystery of Mr. E, from the American Girl WellieWishers series).  She’s been complaining about being tired – no surprise, since I have no idea how early she got up and started playing; I jokingly offer her some coffee – so after she finishes her work she drifts off to lay down.

Meanwhile, Nugget is still on FaceTime with his pal.  He wants to watch his favorite show – Octonauts – but he doesn’t want to hang up, either.  So he suggests that D can watch Octonauts at the same time.  I don’t think Nugget has ever heard of a “watch party,” so this is just something he thought up on his own.  I’m duly impressed, and D’s mom and I fire up the same episode (The Octonauts and the Cookie Cutter Sharks) and press “play” at the same time.  Nugget settles in on the couch, which still has no cushions.  I don’t see how this can be comfortable, but I guess it is?

11:50 a.m.  Nugget has been on FaceTime for almost two hours.  I’m cutting him off!  We hang up with D and turn off the TV while Dad makes lunch for the kids.  I realize that I forgot to eat breakfast.  Whoops.

12:00 p.m.  I finally got my memo out.  I was hoping to send it before the kids and I left for our morning walk, but that didn’t happen.  But it’s gone now!  It’s been a hectic morning of juggling the kids and work, and I need to blow off some steam.  Steve is taking over with the munchkins, so I hurry upstairs, throw on some running gear, and head out to hit the trail.  Now that it’s finally starting to warm up for the season, running at the hottest part of the day isn’t ideal.  But I’m squeezing it in when I can.  I head for the bike path and bang out a few miles.  The buff makes me feel like I’m being strangled, but I’m being a good citizen and wearing it anyway, pulling it up over my nose and mouth whenever I am near other runners, walkers or cyclists.  The bike path isn’t exactly crowded, but it’s definitely not deserted either.

12:39 p.m.  Back from my run, and back on the computer.  I have a long to-do list for the afternoon, with a few calls sprinkled between a bunch of tasks that I absolutely have to get through.  Steve runs interference for me (taking both kids for walks and facilitating more reading time for Peanut), as I did for him in the morning, and the kids mostly leave me alone.  I buckle down and power through most of my to-do list.  Nugget brings me Bear to say hello.  Peanut copies poems out of a few of her books and reads them to me, falsely claiming to have written them herself.  I gently suggest that we try writing a poem ourselves, but she’s content with plagiarism for now.

4:42 p.m.  Still working on my computer.  Peanut and Nugget wander into the kitchen.  Peanut asks for coffee (what??? – turns out she thought I was serious this morning when I offered to make her some) and Nugget tells me that Dad is napping in his room.  This seems far-fetched to me.  Steve is a napper, but this would be late for him.

4:50 p.m.  Steve comes downstairs.  It turns out he wasn’t napping; I knew it.  I quickly start dinner – putting a pot of red quinoa on to simmer – then get back to work and finish up a few more things before we start eating.  A colleague called while my phone was charging in the other room (Nugget burned through a lot of battery life during his marathon FaceTime play date and Octonauts watch party) so I return the call while fluffing up and seasoning the quinoa.

5:40 p.m.  Dinner is ready, yay!  I haven’t eaten a real meal all day, just grazed a little bit between calls, so I am hungry.  We’re having red quinoa, leftover tofu with taco seasoning, and steamed broccoli.

6:10 p.m.  Dinner went fast – I guess we were all hungry.  I clean up the kitchen, which is fast and easy tonight because Steve emptied the dishwasher and put the breakfast and lunch dishes away this afternoon – so all I have to do is load up the dinner dishes, press a few buttons, and then spritz and wipe the counters and table.  Keeping the kitchen clean has been a bit of a challenge – Steve and I both need to be on top of it – but it is such an important thing for my peace of mind to have a clean (or at least clean-ish) kitchen.

6:22 p.m.  Steve is upstairs helping the kids get into their jammies and brush their teeth before we watch a show as a family.  I should help, but – to quote Phoebe Buffay – “I wish I could, but I don’t want to.”  So I hide in the kitchen sending more work emails and looking for things to clean while I wait for them.  Eventually they come downstairs and we watch an episode of Rock the Park.  Nugget is a big non-fiction guy (books and TV) and he loves nature, so this show is his jam.  (It’s mine and Steve’s, too.  Peanut mostly just tolerates it.)

7:15 p.m.  We’re done with our episode of Rock the Park.  Peanut collects her good-night kisses, then heads to her room to read for awhile.  Nugget and I go upstairs and read his Lonely Planet Kids: USA’s National Parks book.

He wants to goof off and be silly, so I wander off downstairs.  Upstairs, I can hear him jumping on his bed and constructing an “Octopod” out of Legos.  He seems content enough, so I hide in the dining room and work on my 1,000-piece puzzle (almost done!).  Nugget summons me upstairs three times, just so he can tell me to “GO AWAY” each time.  Love you, too, buddy.

8:25 p.m.  Nugget asks me to come upstairs and sit in his chair while he plays.  I grab my book – Merry Hall, by Beverly Nichols – and follow him.  As soon as I sit down, he crawls into my lap with Good Night, New York State.  I read it, then he buries his face in my shoulder and passes out.  I used to rock him to sleep every night, but it’s been a few months since he sacked out in my arms like that.  I love it.

9:00 p.m.  I’ve been rocking and cuddling Nugget for more than half an hour and loving every second of it, but it’s time – so I reluctantly carry him to his bed, tuck him in, and tiptoe downstairs.  Steve is already on the couch playing a video game, so I open my book.  I have a hard time concentrating – it’s been a long day, and tomorrow is going to be another long day – and my attention flits back and forth between my book and my phone.  I scan Facebook and Instagram a little bit, get distracted by a Financial Times article about the federal government’s bungling of the COVID-19 crisis, go back to my book and eventually wander upstairs to read in bed.

10:13 p.m. I really wanted to finish this chapter, but I can’t keep my eyes open.  Lights out.  Another quarantine day in the books, another one just like it coming tomorrow.

These days are long, and they tend to run together.  We are definitely finding moments of fun and connection – and making them when we can – but there’s a lot of frustration, too.  I like to be present for whatever I am doing in the moment, and it’s hard to toggle my attention between work and the kids so much.  But it’s not possible to keep them separated right now, so I’m just doing the best I can.

How are you weathering these long quarantine days?

The Classics Club Challenge: Mapp and Lucia, by E. F. Benson

Photo credit: britishheritage.com

Four books.  I’ve been waiting four books for this: the first cataclysmic encounter between Emmeline “Lucia” Lucas, Queen of Riseholme, and Elizabeth Mapp, doyenne of Tilling.  E. F. Benson’s series is popularly known as “the Mapp and Lucia novels,” but the two principals don’t actually encounter one another until the fourth book in the series, Mapp and Lucia.  Well – not exactly.  In Mapp and Lucia we learn that our heroines (or villainesses, depending on your perspective) have met once before, when Miss Mapp visited Riseholme for a day and attended a social gathering at which Lucia was also a guest.  But that’s the extent of their contact prior to this book – although they will become much better acquainted soon.

When Mapp and Lucia opens, we find Lucia bereaved.  Peppino – dear Peppino! – Lucia’s indulgent husband, has passed away, leaving Lucia in mourning at The Hurst.  Lucia being Lucia, she does mourning in excess; one would expect nothing less.  But eventually the Riseholmites begin to worry, and Georgia Pillson, Lucia’s faithful deputy, is dispatched to bring her back to the life of the village.  He does so – only too well – by informing her that there is to be an Elizabethan fete and Lucia’s frenemy, Daisy Quantock, is to play Queen Elizabeth.  This will never do, but when Lucia is offered only a bit role in the festivities she decides it would be better to save face by clearing out altogether.  As luck would have it, she finds a perfect excuse – a house for rent in the nearby town of Tilling, listed by one Elizabeth Mapp.  And just as easy as the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, Lucia has a change of scenery.

‘Well, Mapp, what luck?’ asked Irene.

Miss Mapp waited till Diva had shot in.

‘I think I shall tease you both,’ said she playfully with her widest smile.

‘Oh, hurry up,’ said Irene.  ‘I know perfectly well from your face that you’ve let it.  Otherwise it would be all screwed up.’

Miss Mapp, though there was no question about her being the social queen of Tilling, sometimes felt that there were ugly Bolshevistic symptoms in the air, when quaint Irene spoke to her like that.  And Irene had a dreadful gift of mimicry, which was a very low weapon, but formidable.  It was always wise to be polite to mimics.

‘Patience, a little patience, dear,’ said Miss Mapp soothingly.  ‘If you know I’ve let it, why wait?’

‘Because I should like a cocktail,’ said Irene.  ‘If you’ll just send for one, you can go on teasing.’

When Miss Mapp first receives Lucia’s inquiry, she considers it a coup.  Mapp is not vacating Tilling – just her house – according to an annual scheme by a handful of Tilling ladies to rent out their houses and move into one another’s homes for the summer, turning a tidy profit.  The success of the plan, year in and year out, depends on Miss Mapp, who has the largest house with the biggest rental income – Mallards.

Photo credit: gardenandtravelhub.com

(Side note: can’t you just see Lucia queening it in that garden?)  Mallards was not-so-secretly modeled after Lamb House, possibly the most literary house in the literary town of Rye.  It was E. F. Benson’s house, and before that, belonged to Edith Wharton’s on-again-off-again bestie, Henry James.  In a town that is lousy with literary landmarks, Lamb House (a.k.a. Mallards) is the perfect writer’s residence: as Benson so appealingly describes, in addition to its charming gardens it has a large window overlooking the street, at which the writer – or social coordinator – can sit and observe everything worth noting that happens in the town.  Indeed, there are many – many – conspiracies unwound and plots hatched while Miss Mapp and Queen Lucia, respectively, watch furtively out the window and spin their wheels.

Miss Mapp rents Mallards out and moves into Diva Plaistow’s house, who moves into Quaint Irene’s cottage, and so on and so forth.  When Lucia expresses an interest in Mallards, Mapp is delighted – not only can she take the newcomer for all she’s worth (jacking up the rent without telling her neighbors, in order to keep a bigger profit margin for herself), but she can use Lucia to bolster her own social credibility.  Mapp plans to take Lucia under her wing and be responsible for introducing the most fascinating new temporary resident Tilling has hosted in recent memory.  And of course, with Lucia looking to Mapp for direction on the Tilling social scene, Mapp will be the undisputed queen of the landscape.

There’s just one problem: Miss Mapp has not reckoned on… Lucia.

She turned her thoughts toward Elizabeth Mapp.  During those ten days before Lucia had gone to Riseholme for the fete, she had popped in every single day; it was quite obvious that Elizabeth was keeping her eye on her.  She always had some glib excuse: she wanted a hot-water bottle, or a thimble or a screwdriver that she had forgotten to take away, and declining all assistance would go to look for them herself, feeling sure that she could put her hand on the item instantly without troubling anybody.  She would go into the kitchen wreathed in smiles and pleasant observations for Lucia’s cook, she would pop into the servants’ hall and say something agreeable to Cadman, and pry into cupboards to find what she was in search of.  (It was during one of these expeditions that she had discovered her dearest mamma’s piano in the telephone-room.)  Often she came in without knocking or ringing the bell, and then if Lucia or Grosvenor heard her clandestine entry, and came to see who it was, she scolded herself for her stupidity in not remembering that for the present, this was not her house.  So forgetful of her.

There’s immediate friction.  Miss Mapp frequently forgets that she has rented out her house – and therefore doesn’t have a right to walk in and out with impunity – and often comes barreling in on Lucia without invitation.  (A terrible habit for a landlord.  I speak from experience.)  Lucia fixes that situation cleverly and to great comedic effect… but the result is that Miss Mapp sours on her tenant, and soon they’re entirely at cross-purposes.

‘Things are beginning to move, Georgie,’ said she, forgetting for the time the impending tragedy.  ‘Nightmarches, Georgie, manoeuvres.  Elizabeth, of course.  I’m sure I was right, she wants to run me, and if she can’t (if!) she’ll try to fight me.  I can see glimpses of hatred and malice in her.’

‘And you’ll fight her?’ said Georgie eagerly.

‘Nothing of the kind, my dear,’ said Lucia.  ‘What do you take me for?  Every now and then, when necessary, I shall just give her two or three hard slaps.  I gave her one this morning: I did indeed.  Not a very hard one, but it stung.’

‘No! Do tell me,’ said Georgie.

There are skirmishes, even battles.  Lucia often prevails, but Miss Mapp scores her share of points, too.  (Mapp, it turns out, is a much more formidable opponent than Daisy Quantock.)  The characters in Tilling take sides, and it appears the entire town will soon be at war.  Miss Mapp has one consolation: she’s only rented Mallards for the season.  When August comes, Lucia will take herself, her piano-playing, her faux Italian speaking, and her eccentricities back to Riseholme.  Right?!?!

‘Mapp, there’s news for you,’ said Irene, remembering the luncheon-party yesterday.  ‘You must guess: I shall tease you.  It’s about your Lulu.  Three guesses.’

‘Not a relapse, I hope?’ said Elizabeth brightly.

‘Quite wrong.  Something much nicer.  You’ll enjoy it tremendously.’

A look of apprehension had come over Elizabeth’s face, as an awful idea occurred to her.

‘Dear one, give over teasing,’ she said.  ‘Tell me.’

‘She’s not going away at the end of the month,’ said Irene.  ‘She’s bought Grebe.’

Blank dismay spread over Elizabeth’s face.

‘Oh, what a joy!’ she said.  ‘Lovely news.’

But here, again, Mapp does not reckon on… Lucia.  After one final triumph in Riseholme (I won’t tell you what it is, because it’s absolutely delicious and you should read it for yourself) Lucia determines that she has no further heights to which she can aspire in Riseholme.  In short, she’s won.  And an energetic woman like Lucia is not content to simply rest on her laurels.  She needs something in which to interest herself – a challenge.  Having vanquished Daisy Quantock and conquered Riseholme once and for all, Lucia turns her attention to Tilling and Miss Mapp, and she decides to take up residence… permanently.

Photo credit: The Independent

(Fun fact: there is a recent – 2014 – TV adaptation of the books, in which Lucia is played by the fabulous Anna Chancellor, who memorably portrayed megabitch Caroline Bingley in the ultimate adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, the 1994 BBC miniseries starring Colin Firth, and who also happens to be a six-times great-niece of Jane Austen.  I have not watched it yet, because I want to read through all of the books first.  But it’s on my list.)

Hijinks ensue, as you can imagine.  Parties are given; plots are hatched; social calamity is skirted and averted.  (There is also an amusing side plot in which both Lucia and Georgie worry that the other is falling in love with them, unrequited.)  There are battles fought, won and lost, over that precious commodity – the recipe for Lucia’s famous Lobster a la Riseholme.  (It is Tilling custom to freely share recipes.  Lucia doesn’t seem to understand that, and Miss Mapp cannot, simply cannot, abide this failing.)

And the Lobster a la Riseholme proves to be very important indeed, as it prompts the ultimate calamity when Mapp sneaks into Lucia’s new kitchen to steal the recipe on the day after Christmas.  I won’t tell you what happens, except to say that it is both thrilling and slapstick.  And I’ll tantalize you with this tidbit, which is sure to intrigue:

Again Georgie uttered woe like Cassandra.

‘There’s something coming,’ he cried.  ‘It looks like a raft with its legs in the air.  And there are two people on it. Now it’s spinning round and round; now it’s coming straight here ever so fast.  There are two women, one without a hat.  It’s Them!  It’s Lucia and Miss Mapp!  What has happened?’

What, indeed?  You’ll have to read to find out, and to find out whether Mapp and Lucia ever bury the hatchet.  Whether they do or not, the reader knows they won’t be able to bury it very deeply.  And that’s lucky for us, because there are two more books in the series.  I, for one, cannot wait to return to Tilling and witness the next skirmishes in the Mapp vs. Lucia war.  Since we all have to choose sides, I’ll come forward and admit: I’m with Lucia.  But really, I’m just in it for a good show, and that’s guaranteed.

Luciaphiles, unite!

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? (May 18, 2020)

And so begins another week in quarantine.  What week is this?  Nine?  Nine thousand?  I don’t even know anymore.  I know there are some areas that are cautiously beginning to explore the idea of opening back up, but that’s not really us yet.  The Virginia stay-at-home order goes through June 10, summer camp is officially cancelled, and this interminable time is continuing to stretch on with no end in sight.  This week was kind of rough.  I had a lot to do at work and it felt like my to-do list just kept getting longer and longer.  Every time I would check an item off, three more tasks would find their way onto the list.  The kids were at cross-purposes all week long and all weekend too, and I have neither the energy nor the patience to deal with their shenanigans.  I’m just… tired.

Not that there weren’t bright spots in the weekend.  Saturday was a particularly nice day.  I shirked the work that I knew I should be doing, and we escaped for a hike at another park near our new house.  When we decided to move, I figured we would spend our last few months glued to our current neighborhood, wanting to experience it in full before we left (not that we’re going far, just to the neighboring county – the better public schools are the motivation for the move, plus we’ve outgrown our place).  But it hasn’t worked out that way, and we’ve found ourselves driving over to the new house three times in the past month – checking on the place, making lists of things to do, wandering around and discussing where to put the furniture – and then heading out for a nearby hike.  Even though I know we’re going to have years in which to learn every inch of our soon-to-be new community, there’s not much going on in our current city neighborhood right now and we just find ourselves piling into the car and driving west more often than not.  Anyway, this time we hit up Seneca Regional Park, which has a huge network of trails that I can’t wait to explore.  We hiked down to the Potomac, just a bubbling brook way up here.  And even though the parking lot was packed, we barely saw another soul – perfect.  When we got home, Peanut asked to bake cookies, and we whipped up a batch of Dorie Greenpsan’s “perfect chocolate chip cookies,” which we shared with the neighbors during a 6:00 p.m. porch party.  Neighbors from all up and down the street were wandering around, holding glasses of wine, sharing some connection and conversation from a responsible distance away from one another.  We enjoyed talking to a few different neighbors (although only our beloved Zoya and Robert, next door, got cookies).  So that was Saturday.  Sunday was… kind of the anti-Saturday.  It was grey and windy, we all felt lazy, and the kids stayed in their pajamas, watching TV and bickering all day.  I escaped for a 5K run – the second in my Another Mother Runner virtual race series.  But that was the only time I got out of the house.  Once again I did no work, and felt guilty – today is going to hit hard.

Reading.  Another slowwwwww reading week.  Trying to stay on top of everything else that I have to do is leaving me with next to no energy and certainly no concentration to spare for a book.  I finished Jane Austen at Home early in the week – after twelve days reading a book that would normally take me about three.  And I spent the rest of the week plodding through Merry Hall.  I thought I’d knock off the entire trilogy in a week – ha.  Both good reads, but nothing is going quickly for me right now.

Watching.  With that reading being limited, watching is definitely taking more of a front seat right now.  We’re trying to keep the kids up later, in the (probably vain) hope that they will sleep later in the morning.  Part of the strategy has been to find a couple of shows to watch together as a family in the evenings.  We’ve settled into a routine of one episode of Be Our Chef on Disney+, followed by one (or more) episode(s) of Rock the Park.  I am especially tickled that Peanut is getting into Rock the Park.  I figured Nugget would, since he loves both non-fiction (shows and books) and nature, especially national parks.  But Peanut has also fallen for the show, and both kids had me laughing the entire time we were exploring the trails at Seneca Regional Park on Saturday, as they hiked along chirping “This is how we rock the park!” and “If we can do it, so can you!”  (If you watch the show, you’ll get it.)

Listening.  No podcasts this week, actually!  I waded through my iTunes library and re-made my old running playlist – it’s a very weird, eclectic mix but it totally works for me.  It opens with “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas, transitions into a live concert version of R.E.M.’s “Living Well’s the Best Revenge” and then meanders through some eighties music (“1,000,000” by R.E.M. and “99 Luftballons” by Nena) some Glee soundtrack standbys, and a lot of bass-pumping rock, and finishes with “Eye of the Tiger.”  I’ve run through it more times than I can count this week.

Making.  In addition to the aforementioned chocolate chip cookies that Peanut and I baked on Saturday afternoon, I am pleased to report that I’ve finished my 1,000 piece Cornell puzzle!  (Quarantine so hard…)  Pic above for you to admire; sorry about the glare.  It was the best I could do.  I also finished up another family yearbook – that much closer to having our complete history as a family captured, all the way back to our wedding in 2005.  I started making family yearbooks in 2014 and have made one every year since, although 2019 is still in progress.  We’ve enjoyed them so much that I went back and created yearbooks covering 2005-07 and 2008-10; this weekend, I finished 2011-13, so once I wrap up 2019 I will be up to date!  This is huge, friends.  I didn’t actually order the 2011-13 yearbook; they’re so expensive that I always wait for a 50% off deal, and right now the best deal is 40% off, which is not enough of a discount.  Soon, hopefully!

Moving.  Once again, another week in which I missed my scheduled cross-training day, but got all of my runs in – including a 5K on Sunday.  This was the second in a series of four virtual races from the Train Like a Mother Club; each race includes a medal with one letter (L, O, V, and E, and they will make one big interlocking medal at the end of the series) and this was race “O.”  I ran down to the river trail and took in the views and the breezes coming off the Potomac during my run.  Saturday’s hike was the other workout of the week; we hiked down and then UP a big hill, so I definitely felt it.

Blogging.  Another Classics Club review coming atcha on Wednesday, and then a day in the life post on Friday, showing you some of what we are up to in this very weird and anxious time.  Check in with me then!

Loving.  Our porch party was so much fun!  We mostly talked to Zoya and Robert, our favorite neighbors, over the two porch railings separating our space from theirs.  But we chatted with a few other neighbors, too – comparing notes on upcoming moves (our street is breaking up, y’all – sob) and complaining about our shared least favorite neighbor, who smokes a cigar on his front porch every night, causing windows to slam down all up and down the block.  (We call him Sir Smokes-a-lot, and he is definitely a notch in the not going to miss this column.)  Peanut wore her cheetah ears, I hung over the railing and drank boxed wine (or “cardboardeaux” as my coworkers and I call it) out of a Yeti wine tumbler, and we all toasted Robert’s son, who recently graduated from a very prestigious university up north.  I have been feeling very isolated, and it was good to get outside and do some socializing over the porch railing.

Asking.  What are you reading this week?