adjusting to the new normal

It’s strange to realize that it was less than 2 weeks ago that the fallout from the Covid-19 really hit my state. I’d been watching it like storm clouds in the distance, but the storm was already here before we saw it.

Clouds over a parking lot a little over 2 weeks ago, when I was still casually running errands.
Yesterday, our governor announced that Massachusetts schools would not resume until at least early May, an extension of several weeks from the first statewide pronouncement. Many people (including me) are expecting that school likely won’t be back in session (at least physically) for the rest of the school year. Our school district, like many others, is working out a new system of remote learning. Both kids have been having assignments, and occasional virtual meetings with their teachers.
The kids and I started having our music lessons remotely this week. Both kids and I take violin lessons, both kids take piano lessons, and Phoebe started learning the guitar in the fall. I’m glad that our teachers are able to keep up their work.
These days I have even more (remote) meetings than ever, as I’m involved with multiple research and teaching projects. Plus I’ve started some volunteer work with a project to encourage green energy in my community. I’m busy with various commitments to each of the projects between meetings. I’ve been getting a bit more work done this week than last, but I continue to be distracted by the news. (I know I’m not alone.) Sometimes it feels odd to be pushing forward with projects when so much is uncertain about the coming months, but at the same time, it’s good to feel like work goes on.
I spend time talking with friends and family members every day, by phone, zoom or FaceTime. I’m having trouble finding time to check in with all the people I care about. (I owe responses to several texts, emails and at least one voice mail.)
I’m still walking the dog every day, and I’m grateful for the motivation to get up and get dressed early every morning. Plus I get to see the neighborhood. The dog is a bit uncertain about having the whole family home all day every day. His previous routine of napping on the couch for 5 hours after the walk is often disrupted by others using the couch. He’s a dog who shows his love through enthusiastic greetings, but he also likes to have his space. He’s definitely not a snuggler.
The dog in one of his alternate lairs when his favorite spot on the couch is occupied.
I drove for the first time yesterday in almost two weeks, to pick up a share of produce I got through at CSA. (Someone I know arranged for  a farm to deliver shares to her home in a neighboring town. We were able to get fresh produce and avoid being in a store, or within 6 feet of any other people.) I asked the kids if they wanted to come with me, even though they’d stay in the car. They both joined me, and it felt like a fun excursion. It’s so odd to think that my previous life involved me driving almost every day.
Carrots from the CSA farm share. Purple on the outside,  and surprisingly yellow/orange on the inside.
I have so many ideas for posts as well as creative projects I want to do, but the hours seem to evaporate most days. So instead of getting creative here, I’m just documenting. Because I know that this new normal is likely to change again.
And speaking of normal, my temperature has managed to stay basically normal the last couple of days. The low-grade fever went on so long that I was having doubts that the thermometer was working.
View from an afternoon walk.

Full of thanks (and full of food)

Today we celebrated Thanksgiving, which is a holiday bound in tradition for me. And much of that tradition involves food. Not just the eating of it, but the preparing of it, the serving of it, and the discussing of it. I love that we have this holiday which centers around spending time with family and friends, and about sharing a meal with them.

Thanksgiving always leaves me full of thanks and of food, but also of nostalgia. More than anything, I think of Thanksgivings past at my grandmother’s house. I remember setting the table with the special china, fancy glasses and candlesticks. I remember being shooed out of the kitchen so my grandmother could manage the entire feat of feast-making in her own way. (Also because her kitchen was tiny, and she didn’t want us in the way.) I remember enjoying so much of the feast when it came time to eat, pretty much loving all of it, except for the dreaded liver lumps in the gravy. (My grandmother would cook up and dice up the giblets, and toss them into the otherwise smooth and tasty gravy.) And I remember the extended time in the kitchen after the meal, typically with one or two other family members, hand-washing and hand-drying all of the dishes from the meal. (Because my grandmother’s house did not have a dishwasher. Also, my grandmother was happy to get out of the kitchen at the end of the day.) I usually got the job of drying. I can still remember the feel of the dishtowels in my hand, typically linen and worn rather thin from years of use, and getting more and more damp until finally you had to get out a fresh dry towel.

I spent much of yesterday and most of today preparing food and preparing the space to eat that food. (Our dining room had gotten rather buried over the past 8 months or so, but I was bound and determined to unearth it.)  We had a few guests (my mother-in-law, and a friend and her 2 kids), so there were eight of us. In spite of the moderate numbers, we had an immoderate number of food items on the menu.

Some of the dishes I prepared: roasted root vegetables, roasted butternut squash with shallots and cranberries, roasted dijon cauliflower, and vegetarian stuffing.
My plate. The plate itself is from our good set, a pattern that John and picked out when we had our wedding. I love using the good china for special holiday meals, because that is what we always did at my grandmother’s house. As for the food, the plate holds the 4 dishes listed above, plus green beans, mashed potatoes and vegetarian gravy, and cranberry sauce. 
Pumpkin pie. The dairy-free version that has become a tradition for me. I had delusions that I would have time to also make something like an apple crisp. Ha.

Now that the day is done, and I’ve turned in for the night, I am still feeling full from the feast (which was blissfully free of liver lumps). I am also feeling full of thanks for the bounty of our feast, for our comfort and safety, and for the people in my life who make my life so full.

Harvest Home

With the big changes that have happened in our family this past year have come smaller changes. For as long as I can remember, we have spent Thanksgiving down at my in-laws’ in New York.¹ It seems quite likely that we have never before had Thanksgiving here in our own house.

This year, as I said, things changed. Since she is no longer taking care of my father-in-law full-time, my mother-in-law is now free to travel. John’s siblings, who all 3 live in Texas for reasons that are still not entirely clear to me, invited their mom to spend Thanksgiving in Texas. This meant that, amazingly, we had no plans to travel ourselves for Thanksgiving. We would have the holiday at home.

While I have enjoyed the times visiting my in-laws for Thanksgiving, I was quite happy about the idea of staying home. I usually do all the cooking for our subset of the family for Thanksgiving anyhow, so that part was not a change. I was particularly happy about the idea of using our own dining room, and using our good china.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of holiday meals at my grandmother’s house. She had an extensive collection of china and serving ware, from a variety of family sources. The china cabinet covered one whole wall of the dining room in her house, with floor-to ceiling shelves hidden away by 3 wooden sliding doors. Setting the table with the fancy dishes was something of a cross between a ceremony and a reunion with much loved friends.

My children will never get to visit my grandmother’s house, but I am quite taken with the idea of starting the tradition of the holiday table here at home with them. (Holiday meals at my in-laws’ had become increasingly simplified and informal in recent years, with dinners typically eaten up in my in-laws’ bedroom at a card table.)

Today, we spent time clearing the dining room of the detritus of various projects, and we set the table in earnest: heirloom linen table cloth, cloth table runner and napkins, glass goblets, special silver, and candles. And, of course, the good china. We donned our fancy clothes and celebrated our bounty and our thankfulness for our family and our home.

The spread. Phoebe is here wearing a dress that had been my sister’s in the late 70s, and then my cousin’s.

Our turkey-less turkey day feast: Tofurkey with roasted root vegetables, stuffing, green beans. Not shown in this photo: fresh baked bread, cranberry sauce that Phoebe made, and mashed potatoes. Everyone participated in the preparation of the meal.

Our feast wasn’t entirely turkey-free: Phoebe made this little guy to grace our table.

Ready to dig in.

My pie. (With a rather sad frozen gluten-free crust, but the pumpkin part was very tasty.)

Hours later, I am still feeling full. And also rather fulfilled.²

¹ There may have been a few years when my work schedule interfered. I vaguely remember working Thanksgiving the one year I worked as a waitress, and then it’s possible that it was sometimes hard to travel on the day before Black Friday in the years I worked in retail. But even that was a long time ago, as I quit my retail job almost 14 years ago.
² But also somewhat daunted by the thought of all the hand-washing of fragile and heirloom dishes that is yet to be done.

Quick Home Organization Projects from American Hovel Magazine (with before and after photos!)

It’s been some time since I’ve posted content from American Hovel Magazine, the magazine dedicated to lowering neatness standards in the American home. The publishers have graciously granted me permission to reproduce one of the features from the upcoming June, 2013 edition.¹

Quick Home Organization Projects
Other popular home magazines are full of helpful hints on getting organized and staying clutter-free. The photos from these beautiful homes suggest lives of calm and beauty in which calm and beautiful people live and exude calm and beauty from their very pores.

People who live with Real Families and Real Clutter™, however, often find those home organization projects to be completely out of reach. After first sighing in envy at the neatly partitioned closets and gleaming clutter-free surfaces, real people will choke back sobs of despair when looking up at the disarray of their own home. They will then tear the pages out of the offending Magazine of Impossible Ideals, stomping them into a crumpled mess on the floor, and then drink vodka and/or eat chocolate until they pass out under their kitchen table.

We here at American Hovel know that feeling well. After recovering from our last magazine-shredding-chocolate-eating-vodka-drinking rampage, we solicited photos from our readers on their own home projects. You will agree that the scope of these projects is far more attainable. Share in the joy of being able to see a project from concept to completion in a matter of minutes, leaving you much more time to enjoy your vodka or chocolate with self-satisfaction instead of self-pity.

Project 1: Kitchen Counter
Competent cooks know the importance of clear work space for creating inspired and wholesome meals. This is why you so often have cereal for dinner.

Before: It’s covered with mismatched containers and lids, tools, toys, swag, and a basket full of lord knows what other crap. Problem: you can barely tell what’s what, let alone find room to make lunch.

After: Putting the dinosaur toy front and center focuses your attention on the dinosaur toy. Look at the dinosaur! Dinosaurs are cool. Raawr!

Project 2: End Table:
End tables can be beautiful accents to a living space, giving room for guests to set a drink. Assuming that you ever have guests, or that they could find room to set a drink.

Before: This end table is an elegant antique piece. The lovely wood surface is visible between sketch books and art supplies, various toys and craft projects (is that a paper Tardis?) and whatever the hell else is all over it. (Is that a jar of foot cream?) Problem: there is no real focal point. All you see is pile.

After: The robot Matrushka doll has been turned around and given a prominent place, using the lantern as a pedestal. The owl craft is now on top of the paper box. What once just said “pile” now says “pile with Matrushka robot doll and cheery owl.”

Project 3: Kids’ Toy Corner
You live in a reasonable sized house, without a dedicated play room for the kids. What you have is a living room which has a lot of toys in it. Often all over the entire floor. Sometimes the toys get “put away” into a corner like this one.

Before: The toys are vaguely sorted into bins and stacks. Some might find this level of chaos distracting,though, with all the clashing colors. Problem: There is no unifying theme.

After: Covering the pile with a throw quilt from a nearby couch turns the chaotic pile into a lump of pleasing simplicity. Further, it adds a feeling of warmth and comfort to the room. (Quilts are warm and comfortable, you know.)

Bonus idea: Put a stylish pony on top and it’s now Imperial Fantasy Mountain, a home suitable for the Princess of all the Ponies.

Project 4: Kids’ Craft Corner
Your kids love to do art, and you have amassed an enormous collection of craft supplies, not to mention a never-ending flood of projects and papers coming from their schools. You’ve started tackling this roughly 27 times over the past 3 months, using boxes to sort artwork, schoolwork, and other miscellany, but have been interrupted each time. The pile has seemed to explode and expand daily whenever you look away. (You look away as often as possible).

Before: A massive, heaving, seething pile of headache. Problem: the throw quilt from the couch is already in use in the living room, plus it’s not nearly big enough for this pile. Your king-sized comforter would do, but you’d have to go upstairs to get it, plus you’d be cold tonight.

After: Move a couple of things around and call it a day. Then stop looking at it. You have more important things to do. Go have some good quality chocolate or a strong drink.

Can you spot the difference?

We hope you have enjoyed this American Hovel Magazine feature. Please feel free to contribute your own organizing project ideas and tips.

¹Note: American Hovel Magazine is a completely fictitious magazine that exists only in my head on and on the pages of this blog. I was flattered to hear that a friend of a friend actually once hunted for the magazine at news stands a few years ago, after seeing my cover. Perhaps the magazine will come to life one of these days, but for now I will just have to live the dream of living in that dream world of clutter. For back issues of American Hovel Magazine, please visit the archives:


Water is essential to life on earth. Living in the developed world, I am lucky to have easy access to clean water. I know that too many in the world don’t have this luxury. Water is necessary. Water is precious.

Water is also trying to kick my butt.

I have refrained from sharing here the soggy details of my recent battles with water, in its various forms. Sure, I started a post about waking up to a steam-filled basement and a geiser of scalding hot water shooting from our hot water tank, and thoroughly soaking through a stack of dozens of boxes of books and papers and mementos, but I figured I’d spare you the damp whining. And then there was the follow-up post (that I also didn’t share) about how that incident, what with the water running for X number of hours in the night, had killed of the pump to our well and another water tank to boot. After all that, the dozens of leaks that our kitchen faucet sprang, spraying a shower of water each time we had to wash dishes or fill the drinking water pitcher, seemed quite minor. Almost cute. I hadn’t even gotten around to griping about the water we’d had leaking in through the windows over the winter, due to ice dams on the roof, and all the trials of dealing with more snow than we’d seen in the past several winters combined. What fun was all of this? I decided to move on to other things.

But water was not done with me yet. You may recall that this weekend was the dreaded yard sale. I dedicated practically my whole week to purging cabinets and closets and piles of things. I signed on to the town’s group listing. I planned. I publicized.

Then come Saturday…it rained. A lot. It was a cold, wet, rainy, wet, dreary, wet day. There was lots of water. It was wet.

Did I mention that it was wet?

I ended up having the sale on our front porch, with lots of things still crammed in boxes. I didn’t even manage to bring out everything that I’d purged from the house. It didn’t really matter that much, as traffic was slow. Only the really hard core bargain hunters, and some people coming to haggle over the last bits of baby gear we had. People enthusiastically bought a few items that I could have thrown out, and quibbled over a dollar or two for things that were worth 20 times as much.

As low as my expectations were, I wasn’t counting on the rain. What’s more, I’d signed up to have Sunday be the rain date in the town listing, so that more-or-less meant having the sale both days. And today was rainy too. (But I just worked on packing and re-sorting things, anyhow. Only one person came the whole day, but at least he bought a few things.)

The weekend wasn’t a total loss, but I still have my work cut out for me. I have to make arrangements to donate, sell, or otherwise dispose of all this remaining stuff. I blame the rain.

And would you believe that tonight I discovered a new leak in my basement? I can’t tell yet whether it’s water coming in from the rain, or from the plumbing.

All of this has left me feeling very stressed and cranky. I need to unwind. I’d think that a hot bath might be a nice calming thing, but who knows what perils would await me. Would I shrivel into a giant prune? Slip climbing out? Get washed down the drain?

Now excuse me while I get something to drink. Usually, I mostly just drink water. At this point, however, I’m not sure I should risk that much contact with the plumbing. I’m pretty sure that beer is safer.


I’m working myself up for something for something that scares me. (And no, it’s not turning 40.) What’s funny is that in telling a friend about it over the phone, somehow I managed to give the impression that I was trying to tell her that I was pregnant. (I’m not.) Though I suppose it is a kind of nesting. Or maybe anti-nesting. We’re going to have…a yard sale.

We have now been in this house over 12 years. We had a lot of stuff when we moved in. Then we bought a lot of stuff. Then we acquired a lot of stuff, antiques and small heirlooms, from both of our families. And we had a wedding, for which people gave us stuff. And we had 2 children, who also led to the acquisition of stuff. All of these things add up to way too many things. While we’ve given away much of our baby gear and baby clothes, and donated many other miscellaneous items, the rate of things leaving the house has not managed to keep pace with the rate of things coming in. The time has come for something drastic.

Our town has an annual “progressive” yard sale. Sadly, this does not refer to the politics of the town, but only to the concurrent timing of the yard sales and group listings. This morning I dropped of the registration form to get our house listed in the flyer. The deed is done. People are going to show up at our house a week from tomorrow, and hopefully they will leave with stuff.

I’ve never orchestrated a yard sale. We had a few moving sales when I was growing up, but I was never in charge. I’m a little overwhelmed.

Hold me.

falling down on the job

I’ve been sitting here working, denting my usual spot on the couch, starting to fall asleep, and thinking I should go to bed. Then I had that moment of panic when I realized that I hadn’t blogged today. Happily, it wasn’t even 11:00 yet when I noticed. So, here we are, with another lackluster post.

But here are some photos from after the tree work was done.

Last night, the guy who did the tree work told me that the big tree next to our house was over 100 feet tall, and was over a 100 years old. I hadn’t realized it was so old. (Or so tall, for that matter.) I’m really sad about it, and keep questioning myself about whether getting it cut down was the right thing to do. Obviously whoever built this house made an effort to keep the tree when the house was built, since our house is only about 30 years old. At the same time, I don’t see how we could have left it. It was too tall to maintain, and overhanging the house. We had to have people climb it in the past to cut back the limbs. We had multiple recommendations to have it removed, and there has been so much damage to the back of the house due to over-shading.

As you can see, it’s not like our yard is now totally bereft of trees. I just feel bad about the whole thing.

can’t see the house for the trees

We can see the forest, all right. It’s right on top of us.

Below is our neighborhood, as seen from above. See the houses and driveways? Those are our neighbors. See the dark blotch right in the middle of the picture? That’s where our house is. Honestly, there’s a house in there.

Image from Google Maps.

When we bought our house, over 11 years ago, one of the selling points for me was the heavily wooded neighborhood, and the heavily wooded lot. I like trees. I wanted to live with trees. And the trees around our house are beautiful. We have towering oaks and maples, with a few other types that I could probably identify if I bothered to look them up in the tree field guide I bought so many years ago. (Or maybe I did look them up, and have now forgotten.) Our house is on a bit of an incline, and the trees continue down the hill behind the house. The result is that our upstairs windows look right out into the treetops. It’s a bit like living in a treehouse.

The trouble is, the trees keep growing. And some of them are really close to the house. This has become an issue over the last 3 or 4 years. The house just isn’t getting enough sun for things to dry out regularly. And when you live in a wooden house, this is a problem. We’ve had issues with rot and mold, and have had to replace doors and soffits. Our gutter fell off rather dramatically a couple of years ago. We’ve had to be vigilant treating our house for carpenter ants.

Tomorrow, someone is coming to take down some of the trees. I’m glad that we’ll finally be dealing with the issue, but I’ll be sad to see some of them go. (Actually, I’m not planning on watching–or hearing–them go. We’ll be getting out to avoid the noise and the stress.)

This oak tree is probably just over 4 feet away from our deck. It’s probably a good 50 feet tall now. (Yikes!)

Looking up at the oak tree from our deck (which is one floor above the ground).

The back of our house, again from the deck. I think that gutter is a good 25 feet above ground level. As you can see, the trees are taller than that.

Holding myself accountable (Petroleum junkie, part 3)

A view from the train on one of my recent commutes.

The deal with resolutions is that we tend to start off full speed, full of enthusiasm and, well, resolve. Before long, however, both enthusiasm and resolve tend to wane.

Last month, in large part in reaction to the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster and my increasing awareness of abuses perpetuated by the petroleum industry, I resolved to decrease my own personal dependence on petroleum. I followed up with a list of specific actions, and specific goals. Among other things, I had committed to tracking much of our fuel consumption.

Part of why I am sharing these details here is to maintain my resolve. I will cut down on my fossil fuel consumption. But the will may need continued prodding.


Tracking electricity usage was painless, thanks to my electric company listing kilowatt hour usage by month for the past 12 months. Tracking was painless, but the results were painful. I thought we were more moderate electricity users, but we are on the high end for our region. Our usage for the last 12 months averaged 921 kwh per month. While the average US household uses 920 per month, our state only averages between 500 and 618 kwh. (The second number is from a spreadsheet available from this site with usage by state.)

While I haven’t yet measured the electricity usage of specific items, I have rounded up the following suspects: lights and fans left on unnecessarily, and electronics. I think our past tendency to leave our stereo/home theater receiver on was a drain. We also have a lot of computers, including one large one that has been acting as a server, for a while for John’s work, but mostly as our electronic media repository. We have now gotten into the habit of turning off stereo and video equipment when not listening/watching, and John has set the server to power down at night. We have become more vigilant about turning off lights, fans and air conditioners when we leave rooms, as well.

The good news is that our usage is showing a downward trend. Our July statement showed 854 kwh compared to last July’s 946, a decrease of over 9%. June showed a 20% decrease over last year. (I have no idea why our usage was particularly high last June. 1063 kwh. It wasn’t air conditioning, as that was a cold and rainy month. What on earth were we doing? Giving each other electric shocks?)

I finally got around to signing up for one of my electric company’s renewable energy options. I have yet to get a bill showing the new rates. The cost by wattage will increase, but I’m hoping that our efforts to reduce usage will offset this. We shall see…

Heating oil

Tracking heating oil was more annoying, as I had to go through my bills month by month. (There’s no summary of deliveries.) Deliveries are also somewhat irregular, in both timing and amount, so when I found that I was missing a statement, I couldn’t really guess how much oil was delivered that month, or be certain that oil was even delivered that month. I finally came across the missing bill (helpfully mixed in with phoebe’s art papers), so have added that to my spreadsheet.

While I haven’t found great sources it looks like the average US household using heating oil uses 730 gallons per year, and in the Northeast US is 822 gallons. It looks like we have had 785 gallons delivered to our home in the past 12 months, which puts us slightly lower than the average for our region.

I can’t tell yet how much our usage is changing, but I think I have reduced my hot water usage. The real chance to improve, though, will come in the winter. With that in mind, I have contacted a company that makes storm windows that may work for us, which should significantly reduce the winter draftiness of our house.


Gasoline was the hardest of the three to track, since we don’t tend to file our receipts. I did go through our credit card statements for the last year, and logged all gas station transactions. I only have dollar amounts, not gallon amounts, but this at least gives me a general sense of frequency of filling the tanks. My sense is that we have filled them frequently. I haven’t really worked out the estimates of how frequently yet.

I’m happy to say that I have taken the train to work much more often. This is easy to track, as I bought a 12-ride pass on June 8th, and have used all 12. Each of those saved me about 35 miles of driving. I’ve even gotten a second 12-ride pass. In fact, due to slower summer schedules, I’ve only needed to drive into work maybe 3 times in the last couple months. (Plus there have been a few trips for recreational reasons.)

Other stuff

I have been doing pretty well with buying local food. I found a place to buy eggs that is only a couple of miles from us, and finally found a farm stand within 10 miles of our house. (I just don’t understand how local produce can be so hard to find in such a rural area. Gah!) We also managed to go blueberry picking a few times at the place down the road…before they abruptly closed for the season. (No!)

I have been doing a good job with reducing our use of new plastic containers. I have used my stainless steel water bottle regularly, and (aside from when I was travelling) have only resorted to buying bottled water a couple of times.


There. That’s the skinny on my recent efforts to reduce my fossil fuel gluttony. If anyone has actually read this far, you deserve a prize. Like maybe a big, fat virtual hug from me.