Thursday, September 25, 2008

First Guests

I'm a bit behind with my blog and have a lot of catching up to do, so back to the beginning of our country living. We bought the house on Friday, August 22nd. The very next Friday we had our very first overnight guest, Uncle Patrick. He's Tom's best friend, Mickey's uncle. Patrick was due to arrive on Saturday for Tom's birthday, but Patrick and I had been texting, plotting behind Tom's back. I knew very well that Patrick would be arriving in Sheffield on the 3:30 Peter Pan bus from Penn Station. Since my short-term memory is shot, I can't even remember what lie I concocted so that I could be in Sheffield to pick up Patrick without Tom, but it was all part of our elaborate plan. And since internet access was not yet hooked up at the house and since there was no way I was going to get away to shop, Patrick did my shopping for me. We splurged and got Tom a spa package at Mepal, an inn and spa in an old country estate not too far from our house. Picking up the gift certificate was on my list of things to do once I had escaped the house to pick up Patrick. After I had retrieved Patrick, we stopped at the Sheffield Farmer's Market in hopes of purchasing a strawberry rhubarb pie, Tom's favorite. Alas, all they had was apple, so apple it would have to be. Our last stop before heading home was the liquor store where we loaded up on intoxicants, including a bottle of really good wine called "Bitch". With a label like that we thought it had to be rot gut, but no, it was really, really tasty. When we pulled up in the driveway, Tom and Mickey were inside. I sent Patrick in first without me. Great surprise! Happy Birthday, Tom!

We had a great weekend. Friday night was all about grilling, enjoying beverages, and hanging out on the front porch. (Since my short term memory is shot, I'm making up the course of events from this point forward.) Saturday found a stream of visitors through our yard and house. We had Nicola, who went to Medical Center Nursery School with Mickey, and his brother Carlo and their parents, Sue and .... uh ... Sue's husband. Then, while we are all out on the front porch having lunch, a car that was driving by stopped in front of the house and emptied out into our yard and onto our porch. Turned out to be friends of Sue and they just happened to be driving by and just happened to spot Sue on the front porch. How weird is that?

On Sunday, we piddled around the house and then decided, too late at the last minute, to head up to the Dream Away Lodge in Lee, for a Vaudeville Circus with a bunch of wacky performers from New York City's East Village. Because we waited till the last minute to go, the circus was over by the time we arrived, but I hear it was whacked out and that Mickey could have been freaked. I guess they had a real live sword swallower that completely undid Rebecca's brother, Kevin. It was no big deal that we missed the show as we really went up so Mickey could spend time with Rebecca, who also went to school with Mickey at Medical Center. Hopefully, we will get to see them now and again as Rebecca's grandparents live in Lenox, several towns north, and her family visits them often. We had a great time strolling and lolling about the grounds of the lodge, a very hippy dippy kind of place, and everyone got to enjoy some Icees. The kids had their usual flavors, but we adults got to enjoy adult flavors like Mojito, Margarita and Pina Colada. Yum!

On Saturday, while I fixed breakfast, Tom, Mickey and Patrick hiked 15 minutes up into the woods behind us at which point they found foot prints that were not those of a house cat, so they turned around and came home. We haven't seen one yet, but I keep hearing stories of mountain lions around these parts (and moose!) On Sunday, we had more visitors. Rebecca and her family dropped by for another play date! Yeah! After they departed, I proposed that it was a perfect night out for a delicious family evening at Tanglewood. Tanglewood is one of my favorite places in the world. There you'll find gorgeous lawns and trees, dazzling stars, and the best music in the world. And you can enjoy it all from a simple blanket spread on the grass and strewn with cheese and crackers, fruit and sausages, and wine, wine, wine. And juice boxes. The concert was the closing concert of the season featuring jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard (who I did not know but now love) and his composition for trumpet and jazz orchestra, "A Tale of God's Will; A Requiem for Katrina." I'm telling you, it was a gorgeous evening in every way.

Saturday morning's hike up the hill behind our house whetted our appetite for some real hiking, so on Monday (Labor Day), we headed out for some real hiking at Umpachene Falls about 15 minutes from our house. Really gorgeous.

Swinging before our hike:

Can you see Mickey and Tom?

Mickey's avante garde photo of Uncle Patrick:

After our hike, we went and had some lunch and then loaded Tom and Patrick into the car and drove them to the train station so they could both head back to NYC. Tom had to be in the city first thing Tuesday morning to teach at Pace University (he's reverse commuting till mid-December). The goodbye at the train station was the first time we sent Papa off to the City without us and it was not easy, especially for Mickey. Tears and trembling bottom lip. Dinner at McDonald's smoothed things over and then it was off to home where, by the time we arrived, I had a 53 pound sack of dead weight to carry into the house and put to bed.

It was a very nice weekend, and once the renovations are done and guest bedrooms put together, we look foward to showing off our home and beautiful part of the world to all of you, too.

Black-capped Chickadees

The state bird of Massachusetts is the black-capped chickadee, and we have plenty of them, but I didn't really notice any of them at first. Sitting out on the front porch I never really noticed birds in our yard. Given that the north side of the yard is the part of the yard I see mostly from the front porch, and given that the north side of the yard is more conducive to frogs and perhaps cranes, heron or turtles and alligators (you know, things found in a swamp), I guess it isn't surprising that I don't see robins fishing for worms. I do hear robins in the canopy surrounding the house, but I've never seen them. I also hear cardinals, but again, have never seen them. I do see the crows and blue jays, and I have seen a large brownish bird going after the crows, but because it is always going after them inside the woods, I can't tell if it is an owl, hawk or falcon.

I have found it disappointing that I don't get to see birds in my yard, so I decided to take some steps to make them want to be there. Well, one step. Food. Provide it and they will come. When my best friend, Kelly, and her husband moved from NYC to the suburbs, they bought a window bird feeder that attaches to the window with suction cups. I was so taken by this feeder because you could sit at breakfast and watch the birds come have their breakfast, too. (So, yet another reason to move to the country. I couldn't legally have such a feeder attached to my windows in NYC.) I finally found a window bird feeder at the hardware store on Main Street in Great Barrington; it was their last one. I already had bird seed at home, so Mickey and I installed it, filled it up and waited. And waited. No birds were visiting. Frustrating and disappointing.

The broker who assisted us in the purchase of our house gave us a very nice housewarming gift consisting of a garden basket with three hand spades, a hose, sprinkler, a sprayer, mosquito repellant sticks you set aflame in the yard, and a gift certificate to a lawn and garden shop. While putting the gift certificate to good use purchasing bulbs that I have yet to get in the ground and gravel to patch up the front steps leading down to the street, I found a bird feeder intended for cardinals. I also discovered there was a seed mix especially for cardinals, as well. Who knew. We bought both. We hung the bird feeder up in the spruce in the front yard and replaced the generic wild bird feed in the window feeder with the cardinal mix. It wasn't long before we had action in the spruce. (Click on the photo below to enlarge it so you can see our first visitor.)

The packaging the cardinal mix came in said to also expect to see black-capped chickadees and one other bird that I forget. While I have yet to see a cardinal, the chickadees emptied the hanging bird feeder in two days. Needless to say, there are slew of them. They are a fast little bird and they don't care if you're standing under the feeder or not. They'll come and get a seed or two as long as you stand still. Fun.

It was very exciting to finally have birds flitzing through the air above the swamp, traveling back and forth between the spruce and the over growth bordering the swamp. But still no visitors to the window feeder. I decided to let the hanging bird feeder run out completely in hopes it would force the now abundant flock over to the window feeder. I'm so smart.

So my next feeder will go somewhere on the south side of the house, using the same mix, in hopes of attracting the cardinals that I hear in the canopy.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Funny Ducks

Chickens are funny. Fact of life. Nothing is funnier. Well, maybe. I think ducks may be funnier. I never thought of ducks as being funny, but Groucho may have been on to something. I mean, he didn't have a chicken drop from the ceiling. His hit movie wasn't called "Chicken Soup". Ducks are funny. They have personality, which makes them funny.

Up the street from us live five ducks, and whenever it rains you can count on finding them enjoying the puddle that forms in the middle of the street in front of their home. It's the silliest thing. They have no idea. They're kind of like sheep, but vain. Or stupid. Both?

It rains? There they are, silly as you please, splashing around in the puddle, preening, and generally getting in the way. Of course traffic, what there is of it, stops, and everyone just kind of waits. In the photos below I really dig the guy with the cigarette playing crossing guard. His name is Paul. He lives there in the yellow house (look at the slant his porch has!), but the ducks are not his. They belong to the owner of the house that is behind the yellow house. You can't see it in the photos. I guess there isn't a pond for them at home, so they make do when they can. I do enjoy seeing them. Maybe one day they'll come for a play date.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Soccer Saturdays

The other day, out of the blue, Mickey says to me, "Daddy, where is my new gymnastics going to be and when am I going to start soccer?" Well, Daddy didn't have an answer. And that is one thing about living in the Berkshires, it isn't easy finding on the internet everything you need or want to do. Talking to parents is not one of my strong points. Either I have nothing to say to another parent at all or I dry up very soon after a conversation starts. Something I have to work on. I guess. There are a couple mothers that always stop to talk to me, bless their hearts. So I have been trying to take advantage of such forced upon conversations to ask important questions like, "Who is your pediatrician?" and "Where do kids play soccer or T-ball?" T-ball starts in the spring and notices will go out to all the kids, so said Mrs. Briggs, the Kindergarten classroom assistant who overheard my question. Thank you, Mrs. Briggs. Dr. Heck will now be our pediatrician, if we can ever get Dr. Max's office to transfer over all Mickey's files. And soccer is played on Saturdays at 9:00 a.m. on the soccer fields over at Undermountain Elementary in Sheffield, the school Mickey will go to when he is in 5th grade.

The school grounds around here are gorgeous, aren't they?

Undermountain has after school programs, so he may have to go their sooner if I can't find a job that works around his school hours now. But I'd really hate to switch him out of New Marlborough as I think the small class sizes there will be to his benefit. But I digress.

Leaving the house at 8:15 on a Saturday morning is not an easy feat, especially when you factor in breakfast. Alas, I did not get much breakfast crammed down him, but off we went anyway. And all the drama about what to wear. But off we went anyway. And all the asthmatic coughing. Should we go or shouldn't we? Just bring the pump. And off we went anyway.

Not many were there when we arrived, so finding Coach Josh was easy.

After completing a brief sign-up form and forking over a mere $30 bucks, we were signed up for Soccer Saturdays through mid-November. Lord, I hope it doesn't snow till after then.

There is another coach, whose name I do not yet know, but he and Coach Josh are so great with these kids. Their instructions are so good and their delivery is even better. You'd almost think their lines had been written by some comedian, they were so funny.

And moments like this always provide a good laugh:

They begin with drills to warm up. Tap, tap, tap the ball with foot, which accomplishes what, I don't know. Running and kicking the ball, standing and kicking the ball, jogging around the field behind Coach Josh all serve to provide the parents with a good laugh. But the laughs really come once the scrimmages start. The kids are divided up by shirts and each team simply tries their best to get their ball into the correct goal. There are, of course, points scored for the other team because the little players forget which goal is theirs. As the scrimmages went on, the teams quickly dwindled. And there was one player who kept hogging the ball, and though he was tuckered out because he hadn't eaten enough breakfast, he kept going like the Energizer Bunny. No matter who managed to get the ball, this one little player always managed to get it back and score point after point. And to give him a challenge, Coach Josh jumped into the game to insert a little defense, or is offense? Coach Josh purposefully kept taking the ball away from ball hog to make him work a little harder since his teammates and rivals weren't giving him much to worry about. I'm talking about Mickey, and Papa and Daddy were so proud!

And he scores! (And he tugs.)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Harvest Supper

We love Mickey's elementary school. He attends the New Marlborough Central School which has only grades K through 4. After 4th grade he will attend Undermountain School in Sheffield. The bus now picks him up around 7:40 each morning. Once he goes to Undermountain for 5th grade he will have to be outside at 7:15. Eeek.

Each year NMCS hosts a Harvest Supper. The school has a garden which they use to teach the children about all sorts of things: growing vegetables, bugs, birds, and Native American traditions, among others. Each year the school children harvest the vegetables for the school's Harvest Supper. The vegetables are made into "Three Sisters Soup", which I believe has Native American roots. The children also prepare the corn muffins and they take turns hand churning the butter, which I gotta tell you I could have eaten by the handfuls. It was sooooo good.

The school is in the village of Mill River, one of the five villages that make up the town of New Marlborough. The school is very cute and is surrounded by gorgeous lands and trees. Can you imagine having recess in this setting:

The school is small. I think there are only 85 kids in the entire school. There are 14 kids in Mickey's Kindergarten class, 11 of which are boys. Can you imagine? Mrs. Lampman, the Kindergarten teacher, says it's a lively bunch. Can you imagine 11 of these in one small room:

Mrs. Lampman. Think Shirley Maclaine.

Mr. Maguire, the principal. Look familiar?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Salamander Crossing

While driving around here near our home we have come across a sign similar to your typical Deer Crossing sign that says Salamander Crossing. Actually, just north of our property is this catch-all sign:

I remember being on some road trip when I was really young and my dad pointing out a Deer Crossing sign which had a picture of a deer leaping into the air. I know it was a ploy of his to keep me focused on something other than creating utter chaos in the car, but to this day I still hope for and expect nothing less than scores of deer leaping across the road when I see those signs. I know I'm very lucky to have never actually seen leaping deer leaping, but I do enjoy seeing all the deer around here grazing quietly in the fields and woods. Just please be polite and use common sense when crossing in front my car, it's all I ask. Anyway, back to the Salamander Crossing.

I was sure the sign was a joke, but maybe not. But, you know, really. How on earth can I seriously be expected to see an itsy bitsy salamander crossing the street. Not with my eyesight! Although, this past weekend in the rain I was highly aware of all the little frogs leaping as fast as they could across the street as I sped upon them. I choose to believe I didn't hit a one of them. (I'm very good at deluding myself.) Anyway, back to the Salamander Crossing.

Frankly, until the other morning I couldn't even have told you what a salamander looked like. While waiting for the school bus, Mickey and I were tossing a Snurf football around and I nearly stepped on this little guy:

a red-spotted newt that apparently is common in these parts. I had Tom run in and get the camera and a jar to put him in and exclaimed "Show and Tell!" It was, in fact, Monday, Mickey's Show and Tell day, and I thought our discovery perfect, only, I really wasn't thinking clearly about sending a lizard in a glass jar stuffed into a wild child's backpack on a typical frenzied school bus. Luckily, the glass jar and lizard (are newts lizards?) arrived at school in one piece, but barely, apparently. We got a call from Mickey's Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Lampman, advising that Mickey strolled into her classroom with the glass jar tipping out of Mickey's unzipped backpack, threatening to fling itself onto the floor causing under chaos and confusion (my words, not hers). She went on to instruct us - I'm kind of embarrassed that she actually felt the need to instruct us - that glass jars in backpacks on school buses are not a good idea. And don't do it again. Although she appreciated the wildlife. The previous week we sent in a grasshopper for Show and Tell. And yes, in a glass jar. I wonder why Mrs. Lampman didn't feel compelled to call us with instructions on that day? We'll get it figured out one day. Honestly.

So, after I pick this salamander up and handle him and give him to Mickey to handle, I go inside and Google salamanders in Massachusetts. It seems that our salamander produces toxic skin secretions to ward off predators. Nice. Apparently I don't have to worry about the newt being poisonous as long as we can keep it out of everyone's mouths. Or is it everyone's mouth? Every mouth? Mickey's mouth.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Few Deer Neighbors

Our house is located on what used to be called Main Street, I believe. At least, I have seen it referred to as such in various publications. Whether you call it Norfolk Road or Main Street, it is ultimately the main street of the village of Southfield. There's not much to the village of Southfield but a couple hand fulls of very old homes, a new house or two, a store converted to a bakery and restaurant, a church and an antique center which used to be the Turner & Cook Buggy Whip Factory (Cook, as in the builder of our house). And surrounding our quiet village are lots of woods and farms. And in those woods live lots of animals. On a recent trip up through the woods, we came upon various shaped and sized piles, evidence that various animals had recently walked the same woods. We're not quite up on our piles of animal poop, but there all sorts of creatures living around us. Just the other evening, a friend of our next door neighbors regaled us with stories about a 350 pound bear who drags her trash into the woods each morning. And she lives about 2 miles down the road. Surround by the same woods that surround us. Fun.

The other evening upon our return from doing laundry in town - how I hate not having a washer and dryer at the house - Mickey and I spotted three deer in the vacant lot abutting the swamp in our north yard. They stuck around for these few fuzzy pictures. It was actually darker out than these pictures show, but the miracle of computers allowed me to shed a bit more light on our exciting subjects.

Monday, September 8, 2008

And so it has begun . . .

For years I dreamed of owning a big old house with a wrap porch and a huge yard that could accommodate a pool, a vegetable garden and lots of flowers. And maybe some chickens. This dream began a very long time ago, long before Tom and long before Mickey.

There were two big old houses in my childhood, one belonging to Grandma and Grandpa Foon, the other belonging to Grandma Stover. There was something soulful about those two houses. Everyone loved being in them, and everyone felt loved being in them. As un-fancy as both houses were, they meant so much to everyone. They were home to everyone, not only to the grandparents who lived there. Whatever the occasion, being there was something special. It wasn't just the houses, of course, but it wasn't just the grandparents in them either. It was both together that was special, as if the two were one. Even though the grandparents had to move from these big old houses, they took the houses with them somehow. Something about the soul of those houses, the connection always remained. Perhaps the soul of the houses came from their souls. Nonetheless, those houses remain very real members of our family.

Until somewhat recently, I had recurring dreams about living in an old house. Often, the house in my dream was Grandma Stover's old house at 12 North Boeke (what I find interesting is that both grandparents' homes were on Boeke, though blocks apart). The house in my dreams was usually a dream version with floors and rooms and porches and yard that existed only in the dreams. In these dreams the house was never mine, it was always occupied by someone else, but I always found myself looking for ways to enter the house and to look around. Once inside, I was never happy with the way the house was being cared for. Plots ensued to take possession of the house and do things my way. In my dreams the house never became mine, although I was sometimes successful in making changes. I'm sure Freud or Jung would have something to say about these dreams.

And then along came Tom, and then Mickey. When life was just Tom and me, the waking house dream was still there, but when Mickey came along the dream became more intense. Everyone said that once a child arrives, your priorities change and come into clear focus, and boy, did they. I didn't want to move from NYC and apartment living just for me, but for Mickey and Tom, too. Mickey is such an outdoor kid - except he's afraid of bugs - and I wanted him to be able to have a great big yard in which to run and play and kick and slug balls without worrying about the balls going over the fence into someone's yard. And I wanted Mickey to go grow up somewhere without the pressure of big city living and all the expectations and pressures that come along with it. I mean, I want the country schools to expect big things from him, and Tom and I will, too, but I find that so much pressure to overachieve exists living in and around the City that it's so difficult to be be yourself and to achieve what you're really meant to achieve. It can make you crazy. I want Mickey to be able to be a kid and to find his path without so much craziness and pushing.

So, sometime last fall moving from the city became imminent. We debated whether we should move to Delaware County, just north of the Catskills, or whether we should move to the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, where we had visited at least once a year for the past seven or eight years. We were leaning heavily toward Delaware County (my old boss has a beautiful farm there) and had actually fallen in love with a beautiful old farm house on 8 acres that had been completely and beautifully renovated. Then, in January, the brochures for Tanglewood, Jacob's Pillow and Berkshire Theater Festival started arriving and we looked at each other and said "What are we thinking?" And there the debate ended. Our new home would be in the Berkshires.

Meanwhile, we tortured ourselves with electrical updates and full scale painting in our NYC apartment to prepare for its eventual sale. We listed the apartment mid-March without a home to move to. I scoured the Berkshire real estate websites and multiple listing service. The available housing was quite different than what we were used to in Delaware county where great old houses for sale were plentiful. In the Berkshires there just wasn't much in the towns that interested us. Eventually, I spotted an old house in January, but the price was just a bit too high and I vowed not to fall in love with it until I knew we were actually closer to selling our apartment. My neurosis won out and I did fall in love and the house became the wallpaper for my computer at home and work and I even stored a photo of it on my Blackberry. Eventually, the price on the old house came down and soon after we began receiving offers on the apartment. By now I was not only in love, I was obessesd and we hadn't even set foot in the house! Once we had an accepted offer on the house we made an appointment to finally visit the house. We brought along our neighbor Nancy for another set of eyes and opinions. The broker we chose to work with showed us seven houses that I had chosen from various websites as possible contenders. Our tour started and ended with my obsession, and only one other house on the tour was a possible contender, but it was on a busy loud road and the lot was just too small.

Because of a "water condition" in the north yard and the overall condion of the house - it needs EVERYTHING - a lowball offer was submitted and the negotiations began. Eventually, a "meeting of the minds" was reached, to use a real estate phrase, and the house would be ours.

Our attorneys and brokers were great and everything fell into place. The movers came and moved us out of our apartment on Wednesday, August 20th. We closed on the sale of the apartment on Thursday, August 21st and on the house on Friday, August 22nd.

The house is great. It needs everything, but it is great. Just like my grandparent's old houses, the house has soul and it feels so good being here. I envision us living here for years and years to come.

There's so much to tell you about this old place, and I will get to it all eventually, but I'll start with the "water condition". When you walk out into the north yard, the ground at first feels very spongy, and as you venture deeper into the yard, your feet sink deeper into the ground and water bubbles up around your toes. We don't have a complete and official diagnosis, but what we know is that the water table around here is very high. Case in point, just down the street from us is Berkshire Mountain Spring Water, a water bottling company akin to Poland Spring or Evian. They essentially are bottling and selling the same water in which our yard is awash. If you venture up the the hill and through the wood behind our house, you find yourself slogging through even more soggy ground and trickling streams. We are learning that there are things called French swales, curtain drains and other means of remedy which will try this place out.

Many people give names to their country homes. Around here, some famous names are The Mount (Edith Warton's home), Blantyre, Cranwell and Bellafontaine, living its life now as Canyon Ranch. My friends Patricia and Karl called their home in New Preston, Connecticut "Lilac Hill". So we decided our little country estate needed a name as well. Once, when I was still hell bent on owning a bed and breakfast, Tom came up with a great name for our B&B as we drove past a cooking shop called "Two Good Cooks." We had just bought a rug for our apartment dining room that was festooned with roosters. "I think you should call your B&B Two Good Cocks," and, of course, I screamed! It was so perfect! So, we tinkered with names for our country house such as "Three Good Cocks" or "The Cock House". The house was built by Howard A. Cook, so there was a play on words going on there, but we really couldn't take our silliness seriously. Then, after watching water gush through our stone walled basement and seeing our north yard become even more swamp like, it hit me. We'll call our idyllic corner of the world "Soggy Bottom". At least for now. One day, hopefully, the yard will be bone dry. But until then, and at least for a catchy name for this blog, "Soggy Bottom" it will be.