Filed Under (my country home, rural life, rural living) by admin on 04-16-2008

The leaves of Zoysia grass (top) have the unfortunate characteristic of dying during the winter. A Zoysia lawn is brown for the first month or so of spring. My friend’s discarded sod on the bottom right is weed-free. It may never look as good as my kidney-shaped patch of Zoysia, but it smothered, perhaps, 130 dandelions like the ones on the left of the lower photo.

As I admitted in an earlier entry, I’m not fond of yard work. In fact, I mow the lawn only when its length threatens to choke the mower. There have been years in which I’ve fired up the mower only a half dozen times… though in rainy years, it’s been as often as weekly. After mowing, it’s a shooting match whether any other lawn maintenance happens at all.

My lack of interest in yard work led me some years ago to plant several hundred Zoysia plugs in the middle of my back yard. You might have seen ads for Zoysia grass. They promise a lawn so dense that the grass chokes out weeds. They promise green when other grasses are dying because of drought. They promise a lawn that endures cold winters and hot summers. They promise a lawn that you only need to mow a few times each year!

The product seems to have delivered: I now have a healthy, kidney-shaped patch of Zosyia grass in the middle of my back yard. It’s thick and soft and nearly weed-free. Thing is, it would take several thousand Zoysia “plugs” to plant the entire yard, and quite honestly, putting 600 plugs in the ground was not fun. I now officially offer the non-Zoysia area of my lawn as a test plot for Zoysia Farm Nursuries. Please, Mr and Mrs Zoysia, send a crew and demonstrate to future customers how easy it is to plant a third of an acre with plugs. In the meantime, most of my lawn is a mess with dandelions, crab grass, and bare spots.

Good Rural Living

In contrast, I have a friend who very much enjoys yard work. Several hundred square feet of grass in his yard had fared poorly through the years because it received almost no sun. This spring, he rented a machine that cleanly slices the grass—and about an inch-and-a-half of roots and soil—away from the ground. His plan was to load the old sod onto his pickup truck, and pay $24 per ton to unload the truck at a municipal dump. I figured to save him the dumping fee as well as some gasoline.

So, this morning I helped lift dozens of chunks of sod off the ground onto a pickup truck in my friend’s yard, and then lift it off the truck onto the ground in my yard. There’s a lot of slope in one corner of my yard, and for years I’ve wanted to add topsoil and level things out—but doing that is more yard work than simply mowing, so it wasn’t going to get done… until the topsoil practically fell into my lap.

The way we unloaded it in my yard, I don’t expect the sod will grow into a gorgeous carpet of grass—it will never match the Zoysia kidney about ten paces away. But the unplanned half day of yard work has gotten me closer to my dream of a level yard; if my buddy wants to replace the rest of his grass with new sod, my yard has a low corner waiting to hold the old stuff.

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Filed Under (rural life, rural living) by admin on 04-11-2008

If your school district can nab The Dallas Brass for a day, give yourselves time to promote the performance and sell tickets. For a show this good, you should have more people attending than just the parents of kids in the school band.

The music directors of the Lewisburg school district intercepted a musical ensemble that was traveling through our area. This group, The Dallas Brass, offers an unusual package: They schedule a day with the school system that includes several hours of rehearsals with the school band(s), and then an evening concert that includes the school bands for a small portion of the program.

The cynic in me expected a hack group of musicians who couldn’t cut it without obligating parents to pay to see their kid’s token participation. In part because of my cynicism, that’s how the show seemed to start. The performers were very capable and entertaining—they offered up some campy humor and impressive trumpet pieces. But I’ve heard a lot of good trumpet (just last year, one of the school band directors performed an awesome number), so they weren’t pumping me up toward a standing ovation. Things changed, however, partway through the performance when the group’s percussionist delivered a xylophone solo.

I don’t know virtuoso from hack when it comes to xylophone players. Heck, I can count on one finger the number of times I’ve heard a xylophone featured in a performance. So, if The Dallas Brass percussionist had been just good, the novelty of the experience might have made him great. But as I sat in the high school auditorium, I was sincerely impressed. Later, the ensemble featured a tuba solo that involved novel and clever technique. It had the audience laughing and excited, and again I was sincerely impressed.

Audience response drew an encore for which The Dallas Brass had planned. They played a medley of familiar songs that it’s unlikely anyone would have spliced together. It was a great finish.

So, I left the show feeling quite differently from how I’d felt going in: The Dallas Brass had won me over. My only regret was that the event had not been well-promoted: the auditorium had had empty seats. It’s a shame that a show of that caliber hadn’t sold out… but then who would have expected it to be so entertaining?

Members of The Dallas Brass obviously had a great time performing. They explained that part of their mission is to try to turn kids on to music. They’re succeeding. After the show, my child who plays trumpet reported: “I know what I want to do for a living some day. I want to play in a group like that.”

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Filed Under (rural life, rural living) by admin on 04-07-2008

No one should ever find their ball resting in someone else’s spit puddle on a putting green.  In fact, your ball should never encounter spit on a green, on a tee box, or on a fairway.

As a kid, I hung with a bunch of other kids who gathered after school and on weekends in a park in our neighborhood. In my early memories, I was the annoying youngster for whom all the big kids only occasionally slowed down. Later, I participated as one of the older kids when we organized into a team and played baseball against another team that formed at a park down the street. It was on this team that I first encountered spitting as a bad habit.

One of the younger kids whose attitude far exceeded his ability was a spitter. (Amazingly, Microsoft Word thinks that spitter isn’t a word. Perhaps it can’t decide whether I’m referring to one who spits, or to something that is more spit than something else?) This kid spat on the ground at least once every two minutes.

I was both perplexed and aghast: Under what circumstance do you develop a spitting habit of this type? I figured the kid must have a glandular problem, and tried to ignore the spitting.

Then, one day I noticed that I had developed a similar habit—not as pronounced as that other kid’s, but I would spit from time-to-time when I was outdoors. It bothered me… it still bothers me: I don’t want to step in spit puddles, and I don’t want my butt to land in spit when I sit in the grass. So, I don’t want to be a spitter… but I am and I’m self-conscious about it.

This past weekend, I played in a golf tournament for which a computer made up teams. One of the players assigned to my team was a chain spitter. This guy spat several times on each tee box, perhaps a few dozen times from tee to green, and three or four times on the greens as he lined up his putts.

When my urge to spit is great, I indulge it only if I’m off the beaten path: never on a sidewalk or street; never in a park; and never where people are likely to walk or sit. The idea of spitting on a tee box or a green creeps me out: these are places where hundreds of people stand each day; where their equipment rests on turf; where their hands touch the grass. It’s not just inconsiderate to spit in these places, it’s offensive.

A bit more about being perplexed and aghast: Why do so many of us develop this urge to spit? Do the most out-of-control chain spitters have a constant need even while they’re indoors? Do they have spittoons placed strategically throughout their homes? Are chain spitters the least bit aware of their habit and just how unpleasant it is to the rest of us? Oh, what a bizarre vice.

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Filed Under (my country home, rural life, rural living) by admin on 04-04-2008

Up high in a building in Boston, you see city as if it goes on forever. Up high on a hill to which my family often walks with the dog, you can see buildings in the mist: a Lewisburg neighborhood.

The last day of my visit to Boston was a little awkward. Turns out Boston Billiards doesn’t open until 11:30, so my buddy and I had to kill about an hour near the establishment before we could play (we had snagged a parking space and weren’t going to give it up).

After several hours of billiards, I dropped my friend at his apartment, and headed downtown where I had hoped to scoop several dozen photos of Downtown Crossing, Chinatown, the waterfront, the North End, and Faneuil Hall. The late start at the pool hall made me late downtown, so I barely got beyond the financial district before my scheduled visit with a childhood buddy whose career has landed him in Boston.

This friend has a windowed office on the 31st floor with an excellent view of Boston looking west. Before we headed out, we poked into a few other offices so I could shoot the views North and East as well. Whenever I’ve visited a high-rise office, I’ve been awed by the view and have imagined how easily I could squander hours simply watching the city undulate.

I chauffeured my friend north and then west through commuter traffic that quickly revived my appreciation for rural life: on the expressway, I could see more cars ahead of me at any moment than I’d be able to tally on a drive from one end of Lewisburg to the other. After a pleasant dinner, way too little catching up with my friend’s family, and a short night on an inflatable bed in the basement, I made the six-and-a-half hour drive back to Lewisburg.

Turkeys

For the last few miles of my trip, I hopped off the interstate, and drove a more leisurely two-lane road. Whenever I drive, I glance at the trees and fields, watching for anything that might make an interesting photograph. As I passed a hedgerow about five miles from Lewisburg, I glimpsed a herd of wild turkeys near the top of a rise, and I pulled over to take pictures. Wild Turkeys don’t seem all too fond of me: they left in a hurry. I managed to shoot a few, but their mothers couldn’t tell them apart in my photos.

When I rolled into Lewisburg, time slowed just a bit. My family was still in school, the dog acted very happy to see me, and I was happy to see her. The grocery shopping hasn’t been done this week, and the recyclables are escaping from their bin. Most importantly: my wife has kept the kids alive. I’m glad to return to rural living.

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Filed Under (rural living) by admin on 04-01-2008

Much of Fresh Pond golf course in Cambridge runs along a city reservoir, and trees make effective barriers between fairways and adjacent roads; the course feels impressively rural. The view down the ninth fairway offers a stunning contrast; there are no high-rises near rural golf courses in The Valley.

I got to Boston on Sunday, March 30, and I haven’t spent enough time wandering around; I won’t before I head back to Lewisburg. On Monday, my buddies and I delivered a car to a garage that restores cars damaged in accidents. On the return, we stopped at a driving range, but found it closed, and so decided to grab lunch. Then we went to shoot pool, and finished with dinner at my host’s house in Brookline.

Today, we played nine holes at Fresh Pond Memorial Golf Course in Cambridge. This was my home course when I lived in Boston—I played many rounds there with my wife (before kids), sacrificed dozens of balls to the pond fronting the eighth green (and many others to the pond along the right side of the fifth fairway), and I scored my first sub-40 rounds. The course has changed only slightly, and the quality of my game today, no doubt, offended it.

I took a few hours to tour Boston and snap photographs. Unfortunately, by the time I started, it was rush hour, and I realized I wouldn’t have time for many pictures before needing to pick up dinner and head back to my friend’s place. I spent a few minutes along the Charles River in a park where my oldest son first swam, then I headed into Cambridge.

What a rush to drive again in Boston traffic! In Lewisburg, drivers are so “polite” that they wave and smile rather than take the right-of-way when it’s theirs. In Lewisburg, drivers come to a near stop in traffic before making a turn. In Lewisburg, drivers eventually get where they’re headed, but it never seems important to them.

Boston drivers are efficient: When it’s your turn to go, you go. When you’re making a turn, you maintain your speed and get as far left or right as you can so other drivers can get past you should you need to slow down. When you’re driving, you’re going somewhere and you’re getting there as quickly as you reasonably can.

I took a well-travelled shortcut and emerged on Mass Avenue at Porter Square. It was familiar, yet I almost didn’t recognize it! A T station has grown up, along with new shops and restaurants. Out Mass Avenue, I turned toward Davis Square on Day Street, noting that the Red Hen Pantry had changed its feathers.

A bowling alley where I used to shoot pool still stands; it was ancient when I lived in Boston, and is even more ancient today. A block away, Redbone’s still draws crowds for dinner. I bought ribs and chicken for seven, and then crawled back to Brookline along back streets in hopes of dodging peak traffic.

I’m a real sap about yesterdays: I love to reminisce. Certainly, nothing then was better than it is now, but I easily get lost in places and events that have already passed. The old haunts and back-street Boston in rush hour moved me in that way: I’m in Boston, and I miss being here.

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Filed Under (rural living) by admin on 03-31-2008

In most cities you can find pool halls, as well as nightclubs with pool tables. Boston Billiards in Boston (I’ve also played at Boston Billiards in Danbury, CT… go figure) is an attractive, full-featured nightclub that could swallow from five to ten rural Pennsylvania pool halls.

I still have friends in Boston, and I don’t see them often enough. Conversations I’ve had with some of them lately led me to feel strongly that I needed to visit. So, on Sunday, I made the seven-hour drive.

These friends are people I met originally at a pool hall named Sully’s. We had gotten to know each other during long nights at the table, and our relationships had grown beyond Sully’s. It seemed appropriate, then, that when I checked in with one of them from an hour outside of Boston, he told me he’d meet me at Boston Billiards, an establishment just beyond right field of Fenway Park.

Amazingly, there is a pool hall within fifteen minutes of Lewisburg; it’s in the even smaller town of Northumberland. It houses, perhaps, five tables, and is among the most stinky one-room establishments I’ve ever visited: there is no smoke-free law in rural Pennsylvania, and for some reason, pool players who smoke need to do so when they’re playing pool. Pretty much the only reason to visit this stinky pool hall is to play pool.

In contrast, Boston Billiards is not really a pool hall—it is a night club with pool tables. I counted close to 50 tables… but along with them are dining tables, a dance floor, large (and small) televisions, a full bar, restaurant service, semi-private rooms (with pool tables), video games, and a pro shop. Best of all: Massachusetts doesn’t allow smoking in public buildings; there’s no need to shower and change clothes just because you spent an hour shooting pool.

The “nightclub with pool tables” phenomenon started about when Hollywood released the movie Color Of Money. These were a great innovation: Here was the classic nightclub scene for those who enjoyed it, and something interesting to do there for people who felt awkward and disconnected in a traditional nightclub. Management of the best of the nightclub pool halls understands pool enough to cater to shooters. But the worst nightclub pool hall I’ve visited (a place in Chicago) had not one device players could use to keep score—and they claimed no one had ever asked.

Boston Billiards understands players. I and my friends stayed from 1:00 PM until about 6:00. We’ll be back again in the next few days, but it won’t be enough.

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Filed Under (my country home, rural living) by admin on 03-28-2008

The 9-month-old, shriveled ornamental cherries at the end of our driveway attract Hitchcockean numbers of hungry robins when winter holds on past the end of February.

Migratory birds apparently don’t have the inside track on knowing when spring-like weather will start. Some years, it comes as early as the first week of March. Other years, it doesn’t come until April. The birds arrive pretty much at the same time each year.

This year, robins arrived from the south as usual in the last week of February. Snow still covered the ground, and it was very cold. I imagine that from a robin’s point of view, arriving in Lewisburg in February seemed like a huge mistake.

During warm weather, when I see a robin eating, it’s almost always eating worms. Though, just before our blueberries are ripe enough for human consumption, robins pluck them from the plants. I also remember as a kid seeing robins in my dad’s strawberry patch—presumably, snacking away. A Google search reveals variety in a robin’s diet: insects and fruit of all kinds. But it’s hard to imagine any of that being available in the snow and cold of late February… except for the ornamental cherries.

There’s an ornamental cherry tree nearly on the property line between my neighbor’s and my driveways. In late spring, gorgeous flowers cover the tree, and when the leaves drop away in the fall, bunches of tiny cherries cling to the ends of the branches. With the extreme cold and late-season snow, quite recently that tree was also covered with robins. There weren’t just a handful of robins; there must have been fifty or more kicking about in the tree. Apparently, in the absence of worms, caterpillars, insects, and fresh fruit, dried up ornamental cherries are good stuff.

The snow has melted, there has been another storm, and the snow has melted again. In fact, the lawn is starting to turn green, and there are worm castings between the blades of grass. Judging from the lack of robins in the tree, there is more interesting food available than nine-month-old dried up ornamental cherries. Maybe next year the robins will wait until mid-March to return from the south. I’d wait until May.

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Filed Under (rural life, rural living) by admin on 03-27-2008

I encourage my children: when someone insists on treating you irrationally, walk away. I walked away from schoolyard playground bullies decades ago… at least some of them left the playground: they keep turning up in other places.

The City Slipper column (back issues appear at: www.cityslipper.com/archives) is about the differences between urban and rural life. This blog is about the day-to-day of country living, the point being to get us better acquainted. So, while I’m usually reporting on the minutiae of my family’s world, occasionally I’ll digress into experiences that have shaped my relationship with creation. When I want to share something that goes far afield from the day-to-day, I’ll throw that onto the More Reading page. But that’s not today’s topic. Here it is:

I recently crossed paths with a man who put me in touch with a question I’ve been trying to outgrow since childhood: Am I on the wrong planet?

I tend to consider my words and actions carefully before loosing them on the world; I prefer not to offend people without cause. If I would be offended by someone doing or saying something to me, then I’m certainly not going to say or do that thing to someone else. Conversely, if I would take no offense from an act directed at me, I figure it’s pretty safe to commit the act toward others.

So, I did something in a social situation that, had anyone else done it, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought; it was entirely harmless. However, this man I mentioned (with whom I’d interacted casually over the course of several months) was very upset by my commission. His reaction was so over the top that I thought at first he must be joking; it quickly became clear he wasn’t.

But that wasn’t the most troubling issue. What puzzled me is that this older adult started calling me names. Realizing I had offended him, I apologized and explained that I had had no idea what about my actions had been so troubling to him. I asked several times for some clarification, and I apologized a second time. His only response was to be derisive and to continue calling me names.

I was back in the schoolyard playground where bullies irrationally abuse people who simply want to get along. The same playground where I first asked that question: Am I on the wrong planet?

I want to live on a planet where, when adults make innocent mistakes, other adults forgive. Where, when someone offends me, I can help them to understand why I was offended… and then move on. I want to live on a planet where people put in more energy trying to get along with each other than they do being spiteful and unpleasant.

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Filed Under (rural life, rural living) by admin on 03-24-2008

One upshot of my week as Supreme Commander is that I ended up cleaning the stove so it wouldn’t be outstandingly gross for the appliance repair guy. I pulled it out of its alcove and degreased every visible surface. If you’ve never pulled your stove out of its alcove, trust me: there is stuff stuck to it that words can’t describe.

My wife made slugs seem lively. Since last Monday, she has been in bed, or in her easy chair in the living room. A nasty cough and sore back muscles had made sleep difficult, and a fever had sucked away her will to do anything. This made me supreme commander of the household.

I’m already supreme commander of the kitchen—when my wife went to work as a school teacher, I wrested control of the cooking gear and the weekly grocery shopping. But as my wife’s motivational crisis unfolded last week, I took near complete control of our little world (she was in no condition to contest my coupe).

As supreme commander, I tried to keep things running smoothly for everyone. Of course, the cooking and grocery shopping had to continue. But now there was the certainty of cleaning the kitchen each night. Under normal circumstances, I clean the kitchen several times a week—but my wife has been bigger about doing it than I tend to be. Last week, I owned the nighttime cleanup.

I also owned the morning school preparation. It’s not huge work, but lately I’ve lost the up-at-dawn habit, so getting up to pack lunches for the kids and get them to “early morning” rehearsals when necessary cut an hour or more out of my sleep schedule. The trips to my wife’s school to drop off stuff the substitute would need to teach class each day ate up time I might have spent writing.

Kids continued to have places to go in the evenings. By Tuesday, I’d already messed up some of that, but we made it to all events through the rest of the week. I felt some guilt abandoning my wife on Friday, but it had been several days since she’d been even the least bit scintillating, and I suspect she hardly noticed she was alone when I took the kids for a trip around central Pennsylvania (see the March 21st entry for a report).

Then things really tanked: I started cleaning a kitchen cabinet, which meant throwing out outdated cans and boxes, and stacking the good items on the counter. Then, through her mucous-induced haze, my wife requested crafts supplies for a project she hoped to teach in school on Monday… and one of my kids got invited to lunch on Saturday (the Von Trap family from the high school musical had a reunion). Our neighbor called and asked us to walk their dogs on Saturday night and Sunday… a minor distraction when the household is running normally. Turns out their new puppy didn’t want to befriend the intruder who couldn’t remember its name; it took an hour for the dog to warm up to me before I got a leash on it.

So, on Sunday the kitchen counter was buried in food products, and I danced around it as I stuffed and roasted a turkey for our Easter dinner. But to keep myself centered, I carried 47 tons of dirty clothes downstairs, sorted them, guessed which settings to use on the washer, tried not to shrink or melt anything in the dryer, and folded 45 tons of clean clothes (with that many clothes—and kids—you wash out at least two tons of dirt… never mind the weight of the socks that never make it out of the laundry.)

With about twenty minutes of roasting to go, I put a pot of potatoes on the stove to cook, and the stove went blooey. In fact, the burners and the oven died; nothing was cooking.

The neighbors were still away, so I finished cooking the turkey there. I cooked vegetables in our microwave oven. The meal was ready only forty minutes later than planned, and it was all reasonably edible. Even my wife remained upright long enough to dine… and she went to school this morning; I hope she can remain upright until the dismissal bell rings and then some. I’m ready to relinquish command.

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Filed Under (rural life, rural living) by admin on 03-21-2008

Visit Hershey, Pennsylvania for a world-class amusement park, a classic golf course, outlet store shopping, and headliner performances. Don’t go out of your way for the free “Chocolate World” attraction that explains how Hershey makes chocolate; singing cows make the experience rather silly. I’m sure it would be way cool to tour a working chocolate factory.

The kids had the Thursday and Friday before Easter off from school. I’d been trying to conceive of an overnight or a day trip that would be very inexpensive, yet fresh. Inexpensive immediately rules out movies, shows, museums, amusement parks, and zoos… unless you drive to Washington DC where taxpayer money has funded many fascinating attractions you can visit for free. Driving to DC and back makes for an exhausting day, so I opted for an all-Pennsylvania experience.

We travelled a two-lane country road that took us through Centralia. That’s the semi-infamous town—now abandoned—that sits on a burning coal vein. The road detours around much of the town, but there is a cemetery where you can turn out and drive past barren home sites smoking with fumes from the underground fire. The wind chilled us quickly, but I squatted for a moment and held my hand about an inch above a smoking mound of soil; it felt pleasantly warm… and was quite sobering.

We continued our drive to Hawk Mountain, a preserve over which thousands of hawks migrate each year. In the visitors’ center, we learned that ignorant people used to sit on Hawk Mountain and kill thousands of hawks each year. Efforts of naturalist Rosalie Edge ended the slaughter and created the first ever raptor preserve. We’ll return in September to walk the trails during the peak migration season.

From there, we drove to Cabela’s outdoor outfitting store. This wasn’t about shopping. Sure, at Cabela’s you can find just about any outdoor equipment related to fishing, hunting, camping, and cooking. But more than that, the store is a shrine to hunters. There are impressive aquaria holding fish you might catch in central Pennsylvania. There is a long wall of mounted heads of game animals. There are exhibits of mounted animals from several climates. There is an exhibit of antlered deer with details about what made each newsworthy when it was killed. People who fish and hunt owe themselves a pilgrimage to a Cabela’s store. Ours was more of an anthropological look at the culture.

We toured for nearly two hours, then had lunch (Cabela’s has a decent restaurant inside), and finally headed into Hershey to visit the free Chocolate World attraction. This is an automated ride with narration that vaguely explains how Hershey makes chocolate candy… it’s really quite silly. It ends at the entrance to a “chocolate mall” where you can buy what must be any or every candy product that Hershey manufactures.

We had a nice time, though we logged close to three and a half hours of driving. On a warmer day, we’d skip the indoor attractions, and visit hiking trails and parks; I’d rather see critters roaming in the wilderness than stuffed and mounted in an outdoor outfitting store.

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