After a drought, let there be a flood. Well actually not. In reality neither is an appealing option but I use the metaphor to witness the fact that I seem to be pedalling a rather large volume of twaddle this week. Two days on the trot after a post last Tuesday AND another on Saturday is unheard of chez Half Baked.
I have decided that Tuesdays for the foreseeable will be devoted to Taste. This will mostly be something edible, but some weeks it might be something beautiful. Always with the caveat that taste is entirely subjective. I do love cooking, I do love tinkering with interiors. I have had a food shop in my chaotically careening life and I have had a house-rescuing business for the desperate to sell and needing a budget savvy person to help them turn their sows ear into a silk purse. And right now, as seems to be a constant theme in my life, we are renovating our home. Actually strictly speaking two houses – the one in France which will again take centre stage when I resume the Coup de Coeur series and the one we live in, here in Massachusetts. Positively the potential for a frisson-making wave of excitement, no?
Whatever it is you can be sure it will eventually form an eclectic whole because I do not have a set taste either in food or in surroundings. I am influenced by many cultures and by many experiences. But there is one absolute. Life forced me to be frugal for a very long time and I am fortunate for it. The habits are ingrained and I am the better for it. So the food we make is not extravagant. I say we, because some of the delights I intend to entice you with are the work of HB² himself.
I have long expounded the good sense in eating food that is reared or grown as close to the ground I walk on as possible. I recently discovered when strolling back to my husband’s office after lunch with a table full of boffins and mentioned my theory to one of them, that I am defined as a locavore. I had no idea. I guess everything has a label in this hashtag day and age. Perfect I am not and here and now I do my best to adhere to my principles but I must admit that I do buy things that have been flown or trucked a pretty substantial distance to tickle my palate. When we eventually settle into retirement and a forever home, we intend to grow as much as we can, raise chickens and ducks and geese for their eggs and possibly sheep and goats for their milk so we can make cheese. HB² will have some vines and we will make some wine. For this reason we have to survive several years …. vines are not viable for a minimum of three years and most wine-makers will tell you that white varieties need five years and the reds seven. And a pig. The Brains thinks I am joking but there will be a pig. And that pig will never be eaten. Actually, when he was newly courting me and met my eldest daughter for the first time, she said to him ‘if you want to win mummy, forget diamonds and flowers. Get her a pig’. She was deadly serious. That’s the dream. For the moment we are here and after a rather faltering start I am ready to embrace all that this place offers. Which is much.
So there you have it. Let the feast commence. Next week … for now I need a lie down after this flurry of activity. And tomorrow, there’s even more!!
PS, the essential PS: The title is from Ricky Martin’s 1999 hit ‘Livin’ The Vida Loca’ which is an appalling attempt to link to my discovery that I identify as a locavore. Dreadful, no?
Here’s the man himself enthusiastically recanting the story of the devil-red lipped temptress who who forcibly enticed him to ‘live the crazy life’ which is the correct translation of the title. Absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the script. Poetic licence, please.
If you know me at all, whether in this place or, poor soul, actually and really in the flesh, you know that walking is a non-negotiable element of my life. No matter the weather, no matter the terrain, whether in town or country I walk daily and sometimes many times daily. It’s exercise, though I do other things in the pursuit of a fit and variously wannabe or actually sufficiently trim bod. It’s meditation – never having managed to sit still and contemplate my omming solar plexus for more than a fleeting matter of moments, I find I can switch my whirring brain off and enter another plane of consciousness which occasionally even unlocks a coherent thought when I walk. It’s relaxation – the time to allow oneself to just be and to saturate in whatever surrounds. I love walking in woods, in hills and mountains, on beaches, in fields and meadows, by rivers. I love to walk. The Bean and I walked literally thousands of kilometres in France together and savoured the times when HB2 was with us. When I was in the grip of my own bleakness, walking was my constant and in the end, I literally walked my way back to happiness.
At this moment, we are urged to get outside and walk as we self-isolate ourselves to flatten the virus curve in this deeply troubling and anxious reality we are all, together, living through. I am fortunate because I need no encouragement. Daily I am out with the dogs in tow or, more accurately towed by the dogs and now that HB2 is confined to barracks with me, he comes too. Some days we split up and take a pair of dogs each, some days we are a motley sextet. And the day I am about to share with you was a whole troupe day.
It was Saturday and at weekends our often habit is to drive to one of our neighbouring towns where there is an excellent field complete with skating pond which is, of course, merely pond at non-frozen times of year. Skating on ponds is a feature of life here. It is not one I will be joining in with at any point forward except to watch and admire. Sliding sports and I don’t gel well. I am somewhat Bambi-like of limb and I blame my 6′ frame and attendant high centre of gravity for my decided lack of balance and grace. The fact that my neighbour is taller than me by a margin and skis with perfect ease and elegance is something I try not to be bitter about. That and her fabulous Titian curls. Enough already. We don’t harbour jealousy in this house.
Beyond the field is a large wooded hill. In this area we are rich in conservation land. This is one such place. And it is a dog-walkers delight. The first time we went, at the recommendation of one of The Brains’ colleagues I was absolutely astonished. There were at least twenty dogs frenziedly frolicking on the field and as I approached the pond I found at least twenty more submerged but for their heads and rudder tails all conjoined by a collective bliss etched on their various furry faces. We try and go once or twice a week for socialisation purposes. The dogs, you understand. Us, not so much though it can be pleasant to chat with familiar and unfamiliar folks about such contentious issues as what anti-tic treatment you favour, where to get the best and warmest canine coats to combat brutal New England winters, whether dogs really are smarter than humans and, generally confided in a whisper this one and received with a unified torrent of relief, how to tackle poo(p) eating. Thus, we pass most early Saturday and Sunday mornings. Of course, right now, we are observing our social distance and people are not standing in a friendly knot but rather spread out and using sign language and friendly smiles around the field. When we look back at this moment, we will laugh. We really will.
We turned off the road into the carpark at 8:30 prompt. There was a rather badly parked car which caused The Brains to have to swing wider than usual and utter an attendant pithy remark about the basic inability of people to display good sense, good manners or any ability to drive a car. I zoned the remark out and gave the most cursory of glances at the car and it’s driver sitting studying something in his lap. We parked, passed the nice man who gives up so much of his free time as part of the town conservation group to tending the area surrounding the field, let the dogs run on the field a while, walked past the pond and respected our social distance passing three different ladies on their way home after walking their own dogs. We took a turn round the woods – this takes about forty minutes. We could do a longer three mile jaunt but our dogs are not yet to be trusted and the long loop passes quite close to a road and several people’s back-gardens. Having lost them to an enticing barbecue early last summer we took a wise I feel, decision to wait a while before trying that circuit again off leash. And off leash is so much more fun for the rumbustious pooch-clan we nurture. Back at the field the dogs ran into the pond and swiftly out again …. it’s March and I can attest to the fact that water is at its coldest at this time of year having stress tested the theory some years ago by falling out of my sculling boat first in early January and then in late March. Neither was what could be described as a toasty experience but the later dunking took literally a whole day to get warm from afterwards. Well exercised, dogs were then leashed and walked somewhat serenely back to the waiting car.
As we drove towards the exit, HB2 exclaimed ‘that car’s still there’. He also uttered a mild expletive but I will draw a discreet veil over it. He then remarked that the brake lights were on, indicating that the car was running. Which seemed odd. I asked him to drive past it very slowly, a creeping and not at all welcome sensation beginning to manifest at the base of our collective spines. We did and I looked hard at the driver. His eyes half closed, mouth slightly open he looked as though he was examining a map. Eerily he had not moved. His complexion was what caught my full attention and the kilter of that semi-open mouth. It reminded me of my father the day he died. Into the road and I asked to turn back and look again. We did – me with rubberneck fully extended from the passenger seat. The disquiet crept ever more harshly into a consciousness that something really did not look, nor feel remotely as it should. A turn round the carpark and we drew up behind the car.
What follows I have replayed over and over and over again til my brain has wrung out. I know I will never forget it. HB2 approached the car on foot and spoke through the open window. And then he turned to me and mouthed ‘I think he’s dead’. I was out of the car and across the fortuitously placed right next door Fire Station forecourt with the speed, if not grace of a pursued gazelle. I rang the bell, the duty officer appeared and I gave him my best and most succinct account of the fact that there was a car with a man aboard who we believed to be dead. Longer story short, the first responders were there in seconds (they are conveniently right next door, remember), the police followed. The man was taken from his car. Attempts were made to resuscitate him. The two dogs sitting in the backseat remained still and were pathetically calm. They knew. Knew their master had passed. The policewoman who took our details and briefest of statements was despatched to an address to speak to his wife. We remained subdued and I suppose shocked for the rest of the day.
You see, here we all are rightly gripped by the frightening developments all around the world as COVID19 cuts an indiscriminate and lethal swathe through populations and we forget, or at least I know I had forgotten that death being a part of life is happening all around us in the exact same way as it always has. The night before, Massachusetts, the state I live in, had reported it’s first death from COVID19. A man of 87 years old with previous serious health issues. A reporter stood outside his home, interviewed neighbours (he was lovely man, a Navy Veteran) and we all felt sad and our thoughts (and for some, prayers) went out to his family and loved ones. This man, who I believe, but must wait until autopsy results are released to know, must have suffered an aneurysm, had a stroke or a heart attack as he pressed the brake pedal approaching the junction with the road. He died the most unassuming of deaths. And he sat in his car as people drove past and walked past and tut-tutted because he was stopped in an awkward place for at least an hour and I believe probably an hour and a half. This was an older gentleman but not ancient, who probably thought it wise to take the dogs out early rather than risk meeting too many people at this time when we are told to keep contact to a minimum. I thought of his wife, who presumably thought he would be back with their dogs soon. Maybe she was making breakfast. Maybe she was tut-tutting that he was taking his time and then …. then, a police officer carrying the worst of news to her doorstep. And I thought of the policewoman and all the other officers the world over who have to break tragic news to people, to strangers. To witness and contain and comfort the rawest moments of shock and grief. I thought of the dogs. Sitting patient, loyal. Sentinels guarding their master. They knew. Dogs do. Their dignity would shame most of us. Death is a part of life. This man died the quietest of deaths. There will be no news story, no reporter urging us to send our thoughts and prayers. He was just an older gentleman who died. As we all will. My thoughts have been with his wife and his family whom I shall never meet. Their grief is just the same as the family of the first man to succumb to COVID19 in Massachusetts. The experience has left me a little altered. I suppose finding a deceased body on a routine dog walk is bound to do that. In writing this piece, I honour his life. I will never forget him though I believe I only ever passed the time of day with him. It was his car I recognised as familiar, not his face. And his dogs. Rest well, good sir. Find the place to nestle in the hearts of those that loved you and ease their pain over time as they learn to recognise that you are ever there, residing in that safe place inside them.
PS: As ever, a PS: The title is from Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Good Husband’ ‘to expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect’. It seems to me that none of us expected what has gripped the world we call ours and is running rampant and amuck amongst us wherever on the planet we live. Perhaps we should learn from this that we are not as advanced nor evolved as we pertain to be. And perhaps at the end of this, we might learn to be more compassionate, kinder, more decent and tolerant. And thus evolved, we might grace ourselves as having modernised our intellect a tiny bit for the experience. Stay safe, stay well, stay out of harms way and remember that eventually, for one reason or another, death will be part of our lives as surely as this virus will touch all our lives before it is done.
And for the sake of a little levity, here is Helen Shapiro ‘Walking Back to Happiness’ ….
I am generally an orderly girl even if that order seems somewhat chaotic to observers and right now I feel the extra need to have pegs to hang each day on. I also need to discipline my lawless approach to writing. For these reasons, I have decided to dedicate different days of the week to a variety of new ideas with the strong caveat that when the storytelling muse knocks loud that it will be move over whatever Beethoven is on the menu that day and make way for a bigger post.
Mondays therefore, henceforth and for the next while become the terrain of my motley mutts. Dog Days if you will. In due course, they may be allowed to write their own posts but in the interests of some propriety, I will take the lead and write each of their stories over the coming weeks.
Today is simply a little background to how on earth we managed to increase the poundage of our household canines by a factor of almost twenty. The poundage is the result of three newbies, not more, so I guess one might be credited with a tiny bit of sanity in the mayhem. Or not. Your choice on that one ….
The story starts in the summer of 2018. Our son was staying with us prior to moving to a new flat. He asked if we minded if he got a puppy. He wanted the companionship when living on his own and we readily agreed. Emilia is a cattle-dog cross who was found wandering in Oklahoma City. She duly arrived, aged about 3 months and The Bean swooned. This was astonishing. We had thought she would be reluctant to welcome another dog but since it was temporary I, in the driving seat being home all day, had been happy to roll with the punches. What a glistening silver lining that there was no antipathy and not even a brush of the boxing glove to contend with.
The love blossomed for two months and then it was time for son and pup to move to their new home. We waved them off and settled back to being just we three. The Bean descended into somewhat of a malaise. She clearly missed Emilia. It was tragic. She moped around pathetically and seemed to be a sleep-walking version of her former spry self. What to do? Never one to shirk from more dogs I set about persuading HB² that this was really and truly the moment to adopt a dog. He ignored me awhile, conceded that resistance was futile and acquiesced graciously. I smiled serenely.
I did copious reading devouring books and articles and decided that The Bean should have a young companion, a maximum of a year old, and one that was no more than three times her weight thus no more than 20-22lb. A male would be better since bitch fights are always ugly in any context and it seems that pairing opposite sexes works better.
Here in Massachusetts we have very little issue with dogs being ill-treated or rendered homeless. Which is not to say none but relatively it is not a problem. Therefore, the majority of shelter dogs come up from Southern States. Sometimes this is because of inherent problems, sometimes it is because of natural disasters. But there is a plentiful supply. The first dog we applied for turned out to be one that would be put on a transport and sent to a collection point with numbers of other dogs. It’s a bit like a blind date crossed with a lottery. You arrive at the given time and the driver calls out your name and you meet your dog. No sending it back. You’re on your own. We were not confident that this would work not least because The Bean would have no chance to meet her potential housemate before being required to budge up and share her digs. We slid down the snake and went back to square one. Rather heavy hearted because Wilma did look like a lovely Beagle though older than we had ideally wanted. Next we turned to one of the local shelters. Now, in fairness, our timing was off. I was about to travel to Europe for ten days and The Brains was joining me for five in France. Naiveté is a speciality of mine and it didn’t occur to me that if we offered to pay for a dog and it’s keep that it would be a problem to keep it at the shelter til we got home. The shelter were not impressed when I emailed our delight with a brother and sister called Alexander and Anjelica and said we would take both. I’m not renowned for being able to make decisions between one thing and another. For this reason I am always last to make my order in a restaurant – I dither back and forth and eventually am forced by the collective irritation of whomever I am dining with and the person taking the order and the choice will be made by whichever point of the eeny-meeny I am at at that precise moment. This in part explains why we opted for both not one or the other. That and the site of them so clearly a pair of attached siblings. Anyhow, I got rather a brusque rebuff from the manager and got on the plane to London heavy of heart. I checked their website. One of them had been adopted. I remain convinced they should have gone together – they were so bonded. I cried quietly in my seat as I flew further and further away. The dogs, incidentally were estimated at a weight of 40lb each when grown. So each double what I had sensibly understood the maximum optimal weight for a Bean companion should be.
We returned to the US and I started the hunt again. Weeks past and I became a woman obsessed. By then, based on the two we had found, we had decided that it would be better for The Bean if we got two youngsters so that they could occupy each other when she was feeling her age and a little less affable. The Bean, you see, may look cute and harmless but many is the dog and human who have fallen foul of her less than even temperament. Bad hair days are unpredictable in world of Bean and we felt she would do better not having the pressure of always being spruce and polished. I must have looked at and enquired after twenty dogs but many were of the trapeze without a safety net variety coming straight to a carpark near you on a transport. Others on closer inspection were not the right fit. Maybe they were known to not be good with children for example. We have five children and it is inevitable that there will be tiny pitter pattering feet along the way.
And then I struck gold. A rather oversized crock of the gleaming stuff as it turned out. I found two sisters aged five months old and we went to the shelter, a different shelter, to meet them. Unfortunately they had been spayed that day and were not taking visitors but would we like to walk this one ….? This one was a red coated fellow with the most pleading expression and it was clear that he had decided we were to be his family. The following evening Red Boy met The Bean and duly bonded, we brought him home. But what of the sisters. Well – my husband pretends to be a badass but in fact is extremely soft and he whispered to me as I stood looking at their forlorn post operative forms on their little cots through the wire of their cages ‘we could take all three ….’
Most shelters would not have let us take two let alone three but we were interviewed, a stiff but fair interview. It felt a little as I imagine it might feel for a young man asking a father for the hand of his daughter in marriage. I have owned multiple dogs all at once and most of the many dogs I have owned have been rescued. That may have been a factor. Whatever the reason, they said yes. People might comment at this point that we have ‘sucker’ tattooed on our collective foreheads and that the shelter saw us coming but this is a highly professional place which has been a place of refuge and rehoming since 1961. We consider ourselves fortunate to have crossed their threshold and privileged to have been given the opportunity to adopt three needy souls. So the morning after we took The Boy home, we went back with Boy and Bean for the entire potential quartet to meet. It was deemed a success and paperwork duly done, we squoozed into our Mini Cooper and took our new tribe home. And the fun commenced but that is a story to be spun over coming Mondays.
PS, the ever present PS: The title is taken from ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’, Gail Honeyman’s brilliant debut novel. Eleanor is talking about her love of ‘Jane Eyre’ and gives special praise to Pilot, Mr Rochester’s faithful dog, remarking ‘you can’t have too much dog in a book’ – I am happy to paraphrase that as ‘you can’t have too much dog in a life.
I’m conscious that one moment I was here in this place and the next, just like that, I was gone. Vanished, and rudely, with no explanation.I don’t want to labour on about me – I never have in the past and I see no sense nor value in changing thatpracticenow.I simply have never found ‘me’ to be a particularly interesting subject and can’t think of a single compelling reason why anyone else would.However, I do want to provide some explanation for my evaporation before I start posting my customary drivel once more.
Exactly two years ago, this very day, I drove away from Grenoble, knowing that I would be flying to the US of almighty A to settle for the foreseeable future with my Husband (he of the lauded, virtually vaunted by me, two brains).It was what I had fervently wished for, wished with all my aching heart and now it was becoming a reality.But niggling my soaring spirits, was a looming disquiet caused by a spate of blogging friends receiving a poisonous mail from a woman who I could, but will choose not to, unmask.Suffice to say that her actionsquite literally unhinged me over the course of the following months and although I tried to write, tried to whistle while I worked out my new￼ and longed-for life, increasingly paranoia crept over me, self-doubt and self-loathing wrapped me as a strait-jacket and I shrivelled under the resultant and suffocating weight of what felt like the heftiest, most immovable shroud.
There were other factors – that ocean and the time difference conspire to make one feel very far away; this place is far more foreign to me than France ever was; loneliness a familiar but never welcome guest. But the gaping abyss into which I stared and felt helpless to tackle, was caused by a malicious woman whom I have never met. I am a forgiving soul.This made it harder.I choose to live by the words ‘Primum non Nocere’ or ‘first, do no harm’ and I don’t understand enmity.Many would, indeed have and probably still do, call me naive.I prefer it that way.I prefer to believe in the good, in the positive, in the decent, in the lovely.But it does mean that when caught unawares by the actions of a spiteful and vindictive person, I was entirely ill-equipped to deal with it. I know who you are.
But I, being the richest poor girl on the block am fortunate that I had the unerring and may I say remarkable love of a good man to support me as I first lay thrashing at the bottom of, and then climbed slowly out of, often slipping back and disturbing yet more toxic shale, the mineshaft I had tumbled into; that I found a wonderful and talented psychoanalyst to guide me through what turned out to be a mire of influences from the very beginnings of my tenure on this earth, the bevvy of issues, unresolved and packed in trunks to languish under the stairs, which every so often lurched out and knocked me sideways, the noxious flotsam and pernicious jetsam from my own clumsy attempts at living a decent life and a need to find the Me clamouring to breath the clean fresh air of a guilt free existence and to love Me so that I could, in turn, be loveable. It turned out that I had sorely neglected Little Miss Me, Me, Me and it was time to give her a spit and polish, a hug and a caress and to reassure her that I can be proud of who she is. That bit is a struggle but I repeat my mantra daily. Oh. And dogs. In a moment of what most would call low-level insanity, we adopted three dogs to join The ineffable Bean on the same weekend about eighteen months ago. I believe and The Bean has proved more than once in her life, that dogs are the greatest therapy to humans and, the need being great, the cure surely had to be plentiful. We don’t profess to be sensible, we understand it might be construed as excessive to increase the poundage of a canine entourage from 7.5lb to nearly 150lb overnight. But we aren’t hurting a soul and we have saved three harmless souls from a fate far worse than having to reside with us in perpetuity.
Now that I have dealt with it all, I am comfortable that, I am, as they say here, all set. Reset if you will. And what I emphatically know is that in order to be the person I am, the content version of her, that I have to write again. I have to do what comes naturally to me – plague the world with nonsense. And you, you if you choose to, can read it and your opinion will be valued, whatever it is.
Join me as I start spinning stories once more. I’m rather excited. I just couldn’t bring myself to enter the room, blinking wildly, mane on end like a wholly deranged, if recovering, nag. Well I could, but it didn’t seem decorous and I might as well at least pretend for a tiny while that I can be teeny bit refined.
PS. Because there must always be a PS: The title is taken from Shakespeare. Shylock to Antonio, striking his bargain as he lends him needed funds in his desire to win the hand of Portia. The woman I speak of hurt me mightily. I am not vengeful but a pound of flesh taken without the spillage of a drop of blood appeals. Pens and swords, eh?