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Author: Ralph Gardner

I Brake for Salamanders

I Brake for Salamanders

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 Spotted salamander
 One should always exhibit caution when driving at night. But especially during March and April in these parts. That’s when some of our favorite amphibians – though I should probably speak only for myself – can be spotted crossing the road to get to the other side.

And why are they crossing the road, you might ask yourself? And if you don’t you should because there are few things that rouse our spirits and redeem our natures as much as allowing ourselves, no matter the challenges of life, to remain susceptible to the marvels of the natural world.

They’re crossing the road to reach vernal pools to breed. Or perhaps returning from them since some frogs already appear extremely pregnant.

It’s actually a full-blown migration, though the critters rarely travel more than a few hundred feet; then again if you’re a northern spring peeper approximately one inch long and most at home in trees and underbrush dodging traffic on blacktop, a few hundred feet can feel very far and exhausting indeed.

And what are vernal pools, you might ask? As I did when I joined Arianna Ferrario of the Columbia Land Conservancy on a recent evening in the hope of finding peepers, wood frogs and salamanders and saving them from the vicissitudes of steel-belted radial tires.

So vernal pools are small, temporary, woodland bodies of water. And they constitute essential breeding grounds for amphibians because they don’t have to worry about being gobbled up by fish that, for obvious reasons, avoid bodies of water that all but dry up during the summer months.

Ms. Ferrario, a Conservation Easement Stewardship Assistant with the Conservancy, cautioned me that the conditions weren’t ideal when we ventured out just after nightfall because it wasn’t raining. Perhaps unsurprisingly, amphibians, who have an especially life-affirming relationship with H2O, prefer rainy nights to facilitate their odysseys.

However, the temperature was right: at or above forty degrees after sunset and it was moist, having rained earlier in the day.

Ms. Ferrario had also suggested I come equipped wearing a headlamp and a reflective vest, so I wouldn’t get pancaked by a pickup truck; to wit, become a statistic of just the sort we were hoping to help our toad friends avoid.

I did her one better, arriving with a spotlight that cast a powerful beam up and down our mostly deserted country road.

I recommend such a device to everyone. If you’re the type who fears there are creatures lurking in your woods, you’ll find your paranoia ameliorated when armed with a trusty rechargeable lamp approximately the intensity of those searchlights employed during the Battle of Britain.

Shining the spotlight also served to warn the few cars that passed us during our hour rescuing frogs and salamanders to slow down.

If any of them thought it unusual to happen upon pedestrians wearing headlamps, carrying clipboards and shooing frogs along a country road they didn’t let it show.

But if they had stopped what we’d have told them was that amphibians are declining around the world. The greatest threats to our local populations include habitat loss, pesticides, disease and, of course, roadkill.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Cornell University, in conjunction with conservation groups such as the Columbia Land Conservancy, has created a program where volunteers go out to amphibian migration road crossing in early spring both to catalogue the tiny, slimy beasts and move them out of harms way.

On the DEC website you can even download official Amphibian Migrations and Road Crossings Data Collection forms to enter information such as the current and past precipitation conditions, traffic volume, and, of course, the kind and quantity of salamanders, frogs and toads you encountered.

It wasn’t long before Ms. Ferrario and I spotted our first candidate, a peeper sitting in the approximate geographic center of the road. Ms. Ferrario, who grew up in Brooklyn and moved to New Hampshire where she earned a masters degree in environmental studies and conservation biology before migrating herself, to the Hudson Valley in November, did her best to determine which direction the pepper was heading and send him on his way.

Obviously, it would have been counterproductive to return him from whence he came, and probably also highly frustrating for the frog who’d just have to retrace his or her steps.

However, sometimes it wasn’t easy to tell.

Nonetheless, we rescued ten wood frogs and thirteen spring peepers.

It wasn’t until we were heading back to my house that we spotted our first salamander. He, or perhaps she, was a handsome dark grey specimen with bright yellow spots. And not small, either. Six inches or longer.

Ms. Ferrario took its photograph, explaining that you can identify individual salamanders by their spot patterns.

We found two more of them before the evening was done. However, no Jefferson or marbled salamanders, or for that matter, the garish reddish-orange eastern newt.

And while you may want to shield the tender ears of children, we also encountered four deceased wood frogs and two peepers, the animals probably having perished just in the amount of time we walked a half mile or so down the road and back again, undoubtedly to motorists, even though no more than three or four cars passed during our outing.

As I was saying, if you’d like to join the project you can find more information, as well as a volunteer handbook and forms on the DEC website.

You might even get to hold a salamander in your hand. They’re cute and slippery with dexterous little feet. I’d recommend the experience to anybody.


The Runway Less Travelled

The Runway Less Travelled

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Bibhu Mohapatra fitting a model

There’s a TV commercial from a while back – I can’t remember whether it’s for a car company, cigarette manufacturer, or Metamucil – but it shows a lone automobile forking off a busy superhighway and heading off into the wilderness.

It’s supposed to be a representation of rugged individualism and the ability to think for oneself rather than going with the crowd — again when it comes to choosing your next vehicle, smoke, or over the counter regularity cure.

I sometimes think of that commercial when I’m heading upstate from the city along the West Side Highway and leave much of the traffic, and what feels like the entire rat race queuing to get onto the George Washington Bridge, behind.

Indeed, that’s the moment when it feels as if the weekend begins.

The Hudson Valley has its particular delights. But one of the most profound, particularly if the occasionally terrifying Taconic State Parkway is your escape route, is the feeling that you’re shedding the crowd and everything that goes along with it.

This stands in stark contrast to other destinations favored by city folk, particularly the Hamptons, which I enjoy in limited doses, especially to remind myself of what I’m missing. And what I’m missing includes the lavish traffic jams getting out there and many the same people one tries to avoid in the city.

I’m not arguing the Hudson Valley is some sort of social wasteland. Quite the opposite. In fact our social life upstate is probably more active than it is in the city. It’s just that, as with Metamucil, you can regulate it.

You can go out almost every night if feel like it or lead a hermetic existence. There are all sorts interesting people hiding out in these here woods – writers, artists, architects, even a smattering of celebrities – but you’d never know.

And did I mention fashion designers? They include Bibhu Mohapatra, a friend and Indian fashion designer, who has dressed the likes of Michelle Obama, Glenn Close, Viola Davis and Allison Janney.

I attended Bibhu’s recent Fashion Week show, packed with banks of photographers, preening influencers, the fashion press and, of course, long-legged models walking the runway in Bibhu’s latest collection. The scene couldn’t have felt further from the quiet retreat that Bibhu shares with his husband, artist Robert Beard, in Stuyvesant, NY.

I know as much about fashion as I do about string theory. But I’d describe his designs as influenced both by the audacious colors of his native India and haute couture, with a healthy measure of fun thrown in.

For example, the printed crepe dress and silk and wool cut-away jacket Michelle Obama wore when she stepped off Air Force One on a 2015 trip to India. The ensemble featured a giant flower that blossomed across the dress’s front.

But I was less interested in discussing Bibhu’s work when we got together for lunch last week at Pico de Gallo, a Mexican restaurant overlooking the Hudson River and an Amtrak train crossing in Stuyvesant, than I was the importance of his upstate home to his mental health.

Bibhu had just returned from Paris Fashion Week, where he’d shown his 75-piece collection, with a stopover in London for dinner.

“It’s not such a race,” Bibhu said of the tranquility he feels as soon as he sets foot in the house he shares with Bobby. “It’s you own little sanctuary to go in there and be who you want. I don’t shave for two days.”

Sometimes he’ll catch the Friday evening train and return to the city late Sunday morning. (Bobby notes ruefully that Bibhu has never spent a full, uninterrupted week upstate.) But even that limited amount of time is often enough to “clear the fog,” as he describes it, of the relentless demands on his time, energy and creativity back in the city. “Fashion in New York can be exciting,” he explained, “but also suffocating.”

Of course, the area is changing. Stepping into a Hudson bar last weekend shortly after he got off the train, Bibhu and Bobby ran into a couple of well know New York City fashionistas.

And if Bobby had his way, according to Bibhu, their weekends would scheduled as rigorously with cocktail parties and dinners as his weeknights are.

But the charm of the Hudson Valley, your sociable partner not withstanding, is that you can be as active as you want. Or not at all.

While the couple, as you may have gathered, doesn’t quite lead a “Green Acres” existence upstate they did have livestock, at least for a while.

“Seventeen chickens named after supermodels,” Bibhu reported. “Linda, Naomi, Claudia.”

When they were invited to dinner parties they’d bring fashion eggs, decorated by Bobby.

Unfortunately, poultry has a way of disappearing, turned into prey by those further up the food chain.

There were six hens after the first attack and then but one after the second.

Appropriately, it was Naomi, named after Naomi Campbell.

“The tough broad,” Bibhu remembered affectionately, referring both to the famously feisty and combative fashion model and also to his laying hen.

My Manager, George

My Manager, George

For reasons I can’t quite explain, I don’t regularly check out the obituaries in the New York Times but I do in the Columbia Paper, our local paper in Columbia County.

There’s something affecting learning about the lives of the beloved but sometimes unheralded – the schools they attended, the jobs they held, those they cared for and cared for them, their favorite sports or hobbies.

Those in the Times – the paid, not the news obituaries – tend to be a self-selecting crowd if only because a paid obit in the “Newspaper of Record” costs a couple of thousand bucks for a bare minimum of words.

It’s rare that I come across an upstate obituary of someone I actually knew since I’m a part-time resident. But I did a few weeks ago, of a gentleman I haven’t seen or spoken to in years but who I nonetheless considered a friend. As I suspect many did.

His name was George Palmatier and he was once the manager at the Grand Union supermarket in Valatie, NY.

George was into customer service well before it became corporate America’s mantra. He worked harder stocking the supermarket’s shelves than any of his employees yet he always had time for conversation.

He was perennially cheerful without being over the top. And it goes without saying that if there was something you couldn’t find George would find it for you. And if he couldn’t he’d endeavor to get it before your next visit.

George Palmatier was the personification of community. And his public service – I consider running a clean, efficient, well-stocked supermarket a form of community service – didn’t end when he left work for the day.

As his obituary noted he also led weekly Bible study classes at the Hudson Correctional Facility and he volunteered at the Ghent Food Pantry.

Born in 1947, the obit also revealed that George had been employed by the Grand Union Company for 41 years.

It was a sad day when the Valatie Grand Union went out of business – the handwriting was on the wall as soon as a much larger Hannaford’s opened down the road – and George was reassigned to a distant Grand Union; at least too far for me to travel to conveniently.

I should probably also mention that I may have stronger feelings about supermarkets and the Feng Shui of supermarkets than most.

It probably has something to do with having grown up in New York City where, because of the limitations of space and the price of real estate, supermarkets – at least in the days before Fairway, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s – were supermarkets in name only.

The aisles are so narrow it’s difficult for two shoppers to navigate them simultaneously, even without carts.

But I remember the feeling of visiting my grandparents upstate and shopping with them at Hudson’s comparatively oceanic supermarkets. The sheer variety of things like breakfast cereals and sodas, cakes and candies, let alone the width of the aisles, was awe-inspiring.

Deep into middle age I haven’t forsaken much of that childlike sense of consumer wonder. I still experience something resembling well-being upon arrival at a well laid out supermarket.

My wife, perhaps because she grew up in the suburbs of Long Island, often prefers to wait in the car while I shop.

I suppose it also has something to do with the length of time I linger over the merchandise, unit pricing one item against another. But that’s for a different day and a different commentary.

However, I have to believe that a failure to experience joy in the supermarket shopping experience is evidence of a character flaw of some sort.

I’m not going to play favorite among our local supermarkets, though I have my preferences and opinions.

Yet as bounteous and generally eager to please as they are the old Valatie Grand Union remains my favorite. Obviously George and his welcoming smile was a big part of it, but not the entire reason.

I also consider daylight important and the Grand Union had a wall of windows facing east, if memory serves me correctly.

I can’t quite articulate why this should be important to me. You’re not going there for the view, obviously. But it’s possible to experience frustration claustrophobia and stress in a food store the size of an airplane hanger if it’s not orchestrated thoughtfully, if not necessarily lyrically.

It reminds me of casinos where the windows are tinted grey to dupe your senses into believing that it’s dreary outdoors and better to stay inside and keep gambling.

Speaking, if only for myself, a well and somewhat naturally lighted supermarket encourages you to shop; it adds an element of nature to what otherwise might seem a highly artificial environment.

Which may be why people like supermarket managers and cheerful checkout clerks you come to recognize play an out-sized role. They humanize the experience.

Yet none I’ve encountered has ever surpassed George Palmatier.

If one’s ministry can be said also to treat everyone you encounter with dignity, respect and an unforced smile, George practiced it every day.

A Singular Mother

A Singular Mother

Natalie Gardner, on the Eiffel Tower, 1940’s

My mother passed away a couple of weeks ago and the situation couldn’t have been kinder. I don’t mean her death. That was sad, remains so, and shall for months and perhaps years to come. But at 94 years old she’d lived a long and gracious life.

What I’m talking about is the circumstances and the affection surrounding her passing among her children, grandchildren and caregivers in the final days of her life.

People say you can’t imagine what the death of a parent feels like, especially your mother’s, until it happens to you. I suppose that’s true. You’ve known her longer than you’ve known anybody else; you’ve never known a world without her. And now that she’s gone all sorts of metaphors compete to describe her absence, none of them quite sufficient, precise or profound enough.

It’s the physical sensation that she’s gone, the realization that a protective membrane that stood between you and the world has dissolved, even if you long ago learned how to fend for yourself.

Fortunately, there are many things to take solace in – her memory, for starters. My mother, who was born in Europe and moved to the United States just before World War II, left behind quite a legacy. She could be maddening, stubborn and autocratic. But also absurdly generous and loving; her eccentricities were too many and varied to enumerate here.

But some of them were also so lovely and vivid – for example throwing a birthday party for her Boston Terrier in Italy every summer – that her grandchildren, who sat by her bedside in her final days, will be able to share her legend with their own children and grandchildren.

Her decline started several years ago when her sister and a cousin who called from Paris every day, often several times a day, passed away. It was disorienting for her, even if my mother denied it. She told me she didn’t feel sad because she refused to believe it.

That decision may start to provide a sense of the way she was able to inhabit a world of her own creation, as few could.

People felt sorry for her because she was bedridden. I was required to explain that my mother preferred bed, or prior to that her chaise longue, to any sort of exercise for most of her life.

She often told me she’d never been happier than in the last few years – kept company by her cat Cookie and Skippy, Boston Terrier #5 – and her devoted caregivers. Since she couldn’t get out of bed she no longer felt any social pressure to do so.

I’m not going to make light of the last days of her life. She went to the hospital with pneumonia and soon lapsed into semi-consciousness, if she was conscious at all.

But she died much the way she lived. When my daughters would visit her at home, they’d make themselves a drink, then join her in her bedroom where she’d interrogate them about their love lives.

There was no communications gap to bridge between her and her grandchildren. She often said she felt sixteen. And in her mind, if not her body, she still was.

She was above all a great romantic. My younger daughter Gracie got one of the last reactions out her a few weeks ago when Gracie told my mother, who often consulted astrologers and fortune tellers when she was younger, that she’d visited a astrologer herself. The astrologer told Gracie that she’d meet her husband this year.

“Go on!” my mother exclaimed, surfacing from the haze that surrounded her final months.

As we kept vigil by her bedside at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, we were joined by nurses and doctors who came and went monitoring her condition and offering words of comfort, even though there wasn’t much they could do for her at that point except to make sure she suffered as little as possible.

The American health care system probably deserves the criticism it receives. But my mother’s care couldn’t have been more diligent or compassionate.

When the hospital realized she was too weak to go home, and even moving her to hospice was no longer possible, they provided her a private room so that we could all be together – my brothers, our wives and our children – even rolling in a tray of snacks and soft drinks.

As at least one of her grandchildren wryly noted that the setting wasn’t all that dissimilar from the one at home – my mother in bed surrounded by refreshments, conversation and love. The only thing missing were her pets.

Her funeral was as gentle and lovely as her life, framed by bouquets of yellow roses. I mentioned her eccentricities. One of them was the color yellow.

There’s nothing wrong with yellow. It’s a fine color. But my mother went overboard, painting entire rooms – not just the walls, but also the furniture and floors yellow. She said it was cheerful.

I gave one of the eulogies, my older daughter Lucy another, and Lucy’s cousin Emma a third. There was no dearth of anecdotes to draw from.

Gracie read a poem by Mary Oliver that ended the service on the perfect note. “When it’s over,” the poet wrote, “I want to say all my life I was a bride married to amazement.”

My mother was married to amazement almost to the very end. How many of us can say that?

Alpaca Fluff

Alpaca Fluff

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Suzanne Werner among her alpaca
 Empty nesters typically move from the city to the country in search of a quieter, more contemplative, perhaps even more sedentary lifestyle. Suzanne Werner is not one of those people.

A former C.I.A. lawyer – that would be the Central Intelligence Agency not the Culinary Institute of America – she and her husband Bob, also an attorney and an expert on money laundering who held senior positions at the Treasury Department and in the private sector, dreamed of lives that revolved around community, nature and animals.

“Do you want to open an inn, a bookstore?” Suzanne remembers asking her husband. “He made the mistake of saying yes.”

Only they didn’t open an inn or a bookstore. They started an alpaca farm. Oh yeah, and then they bought an existing alpaca products store on Warren Street in Hudson, NY, Spruce Ridge Alpaca, renaming it Fluff.

This is where I come in. I like to think of myself as something of a connoisseur of socks. And in my humble yet considered opinion, alpaca socks are some of the coziest, most comfortable I’ve ever had the pleasure to have worn. Just as caressing as cashmere but far more durable.

Suzanne concurred when I visited her on a recent sunny Saturday morning at Green River Hollow Farm in Hillsdale, NY. She shares the place with her husband, of course, but also with thirteen alpaca, a llama, a donkey, two Icelandic horses, and numerous chickens.

Before braving the outdoors to visit the animals I wanted to discuss her socks. Not hers but Fluff’s.

“People are crazy about the socks,” she confirmed, sounding somewhat mystified. “It’s a little bit of a cult item.”

She said she didn’t quite realize the passion socks could arouse when she bought the store last April from Steve McCarthy and Jeff Lick, owners of Spruce Ridge, an alpaca farm in Old Chatham; they also became her mentors, in both retail and alpaca husbandry. “’No, no, you don’t understand,’” she was told. “’People really like them.’”

She said she has customers who come in and buy $500 worth of socks. She stocked up last October – the socks are made in Peru – but had pretty much run out by the holiday season and had to reorder.

“I’m ordering all the colors in everything,” she promised.

I’d wanted to get together with her for a couple of reasons. I have a passing interest in alpacas – they seem somewhat otherworldly creatures; but I also wanted to lobby Suzanne to expand her sock color palate, if possible.

As soft and lovely as they are, in extra large they’re pretty much limited to the predictable colors – black, grey, red. Though the red is pretty cool.

But as Suzanne acknowledged unprompted conservative clothes sorts such as myself, sartorial stick-in-the-muds as it were, unleash their inner freak through their socks – purples, cerulean blues, pinks, yellows and stripes in various and sometimes counterintuitive combinations.

“People express themselves with socks,” the lawyer – she served as chief of the Chinese language branch of the East Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations – told me as she pored through her inventory on her computer. “We have extra large purple.”

I politely disagreed. I’d visited Fluff and lamented that while I’d spotted purple socks in ladies sizes there were none that catered to the oafish size 12 male foot.

But she was essentially correct as I confirmed last week when I combined a visit to Fluff with a tasty Neapolitan mozzarella di bufala pizza lunch a few doors down Warren Street at Oak Pizzeria.

While Fluff didn’t carry the purple dress sock they did in the thicker “sport” model.

I’m skeptical of thick socks; they make your feet sweat. But these garments were cloudlike; they felt like walking on air.

I’m not too proud to quote better, more poetic writers than myself, of which there are sadly legion. And I don’t think I can put alpaca’s magical properties any better than the label on the socks.

It reads, “The temperature difference between day and night in the Andes can be severe (up to 80 degrees Fahrenheit in a 24-hour period.) Alpacas have adapted to this climate by developing a fiber that can keep them warm in the freezing Andean nights as well as cool and comfortable on a warm day and scorching Andean sun.”

Which brings us to Green River Hollow Farm’s alpacas and how they fare in the Hudson Valley’s perhaps somewhat less temperate climate.

Suzanne told me they’re fine in the cold but added, “They’re not really. We bring them in the barn when it’s really cold.”

Indeed, her learning curve has included repairing electric water heaters.

We visited the barn and the doe-eyed South American camelids. They look so cuddly, like the life-size Steiff animals they used to sell at FAO Schwarz, that you want to hug them.

“They look cuddly,” Suzanne warned, “but they don’t really like to be touched.”

Among several rules I religiously adhere to regarding other living creatures is honoring the wishes of those who prefer not to be hugged. So I didn’t.

Suzanne told me among the gifts her alpacas bestow, besides supplying yarn used to make her store’s hand knits, is the sense of tranquility they lend to the landscape. “In the summer,” she said, “we sit on the porch and watch them move across our field.”

Under the protective eye of their donkey, Lulu, who polices the perimeter of the property while their llama, Trixie, guards the alpacas.

Ever wonder the difference between a llama and an alpaca? “She’s smarter, braver, ” Suzanne said of Trixie. “And twice as big.”

The Presence of Pets

The Presence of Pets

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There are words in other languages that nail aspects of the human experience and for which there are no English equivalents.

For example, “Shouganai” in Japanese, apologies for my pronunciation to any Japanese speakers. It roughly means something that can’t be helped so why worry about it.

Or “Komorebi,” another Japanese word. This one means the interplay of light and leaves when sunlight shines through trees.

Or “Mangata,” the Swedish word for the shimmering reflection of the moon on water.

Another experience for which I’ve yet to stumble across a one-word description in English or any other language, though that doesn’t mean it isn’t out there, is the subliminal presence of pets.

Last week I happened to be in city alone, without my wife or our dog Wallie.

I don’t mean to suggest I missed Wallie more. But her absence is felt more viscerally. Part of the explanation probably has something to do with the predictability of pets, the familiarity of their cadences. For example, the fuss they make when you walk through the front door.

That doesn’t mean my wife is unhappy to see me. However, I haven’t known her to drop whatever she’s doing to rush over and greet me.

But it’s not just the welcoming experience.

There’s a certain profundity about the presence of a pet even when they’re not doing anything. Sleeping, for instance.

It’s the companionship, the reassurance of another breathing soul in one’s life.

Maybe it has something to do with the essence of the relationship between a human and an animal since it’s largely non-verbal. It’s as much felt in silence as in sound.

It’s the realization that they’re going about their own lives as you go about yours in a shared space.

I suppose that applies equally to a human roommate. Perhaps the difference is that a pet is dependent on you in a way that a person, who can fend for himself or herself more or less, isn’t.

You know you’re responsible for their wellbeing so that even when you’re not engaged with them they’re subconsciously on your mind.

Yet that dependency, though to describe it as such denigrates the mutuality of the experience, that connection, goes both ways.

Wallie is never freer or seemingly more ebullient than when we’re taking walks in the woods. To travel the woods without her is a less joyous experience. Perhaps because she’s a hound, a so-called working dog, who feels she’s finally getting to exercise not just her body but also her destiny when she’s out there tracking down animal scents.

Her canter is a joy to behold. She can also accelerate approximately as fast as a deer and frequently does. It would be fun to pin a pedometer to her because I suspect that on our average hour-long walk she travels fifty times my distance coming and going, coming and going.

Her breed and breeding also likely has something to do with the peculiar mark she leaves on our lives.

She’s a Bracco Italiano, a gun dog, with the long floppy ears and folds of flesh reminiscent of a blood hound, but more delicate. She’s described on the American Kennel Club website as one of the oldest pointing breeds, developed in Northern Italy. Her mission in life is to identify prey and then retrieve it.

I don’t know how many other breeds do this: when you return home she greets you not just with a wagging tail but also with a gift in her mouth. A toy, a bone, a stolen sock. Accompanied by a low guttural sound that could be mistaken for a growl if you didn’t know her better.

She’s seeking acknowledgement for her offering. Perhaps because she’s a frustrated hunter.

I might have attributed Wallie’s peculiar behavior to her and her alone until we visited another Bracco and saw that dog behaved in precisely the same way.

But whatever the nature of that companionship Wallie provides, it’s felt as profoundly in the woods as in our apartment in the city or house upstate.

As I said, a walk through the forest is lonelier without her, even though she’s absent much of the time, off doing her own thing – sniffing, running, barking if she thinks she’s cornered a chipmunk in a hollowed out tree or the crevice of a stone fence, and most aromatically of all, shoulder diving into a pile of deer droppings.

I carry a leash to corral her when we’re crossing into the woods from one side of the town road to the other. But you can tell it’s a crushing blow to her ego. The compensation comes when you successfully navigate that passage, release her, and watch her bounding off into the woods again.

The word for that is freedom.

A Perpetual Valentine

A Perpetual Valentine

If a child were looking for convincing proof that magic exists in the world, and that one need never relinquish the passions of youth, that kid would have to travel no further than the local candy store.

During my formative years it was a place called Schwartz’s Out of This World Chocolates. And it was located in Manhattan on 72nd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues.]

To visit was to enter a felicitous alternate reality, a planet without hardship or heartbreak, a modest temple to pleasure. Its cases were organized with neat rows of candy, including a cornucopia of chocolate creams; I’ve yet to come across a better, lighter, vanilla cream. And then there were the store’s trademark red and white checked boxes loaded with their signature wafer-thin chocolate mints. These were delicate sandwiches of dark chocolate and green mint cream. And they suggested a sensibility no less exacting than Vermeer’s. That would be owner Al Schwartz.

When Schwartz’s closed its doors in the early 80’s it felt as if the doors to my childhood had also shut behind me; even though I’m happy to report that Mr. Schwartz’s family continues the noble tradition of candy making, now in its 79th year, in Carle Place on Long Island.

While nothing could quite replace Schwartz’s and that Mary Poppins sense of serendipitous wizardry, I’ve found a more than suitable upstate substitute. It’s called Vasilow’s and it’s in Hudson, NY.

Best of all, it’s apparent from the moment you set foot in the store that the Vasilow’s – Kate and Jim – have a sense of the responsibility that lies in their hands; to marshal the transporting power of a candy store, not just the smells and tastes but also the aesthetics, the theatrics.

It’s no accident that this commentary comes the week of Valentine’s Day. But the message that Vasilow’s, with its old-time cases and patterned tin ceiling, imparts is that treating yourself, as well as your friends and loved ones well, very well, should be a year-round habit, almost a regimen.

“People are happy,” Kate said of her customers and the sense of delight that enrobes them as soon as they set foot in the store. “They’re buying chocolates.”

Jim Vasilow has done his best to reproduce the candy store and soda fountain that his grandfather and great uncle, at the time recent arrivals from Greece, operated on Warren Street in Hudson from 1923 to 1969.

“When we had days off from school I’d help out at the store,” he remembers. “In my mind I was helping. I’m sure I was just underfoot.”

I neglected to ask him how much he was paid, undoubtedly in candy.

Among the memorabilia the resurrected Vasilow’s has collected are some of the original store’s signs – ice cream sodas were 35 cents – and a well-thumbed bi-lingual candy cookbook in both English and Greek.

There’s no soda fountain but I’m pleased to report that business is good even though Vasilow’s is ever so slightly off the beaten track. No longer on Warren Street but at 741 Columbia Street.

Kate described their customers as a lucrative mix of locals, weekenders and corporate clients. And it’s easy to understand why. I’d dropped by to purchase Valentine’s hearts for my family, the assorted one-pound box costing roughly half of what it would in New York City.

Jim got into the candy business shortly after getting out of the tool distribution business and “hating every minute of it,” he told me.

There was little of the original candy store left – just a couple of copper kettles and a few chocolate molds. He’s also recreated Vasilow’s inlaid tile floor. Most significantly, with his grandfather gone Jim had no guide or mentor to teach him how to master the art of making chocolates and candies. So he set out to learn, crisscrossing the country taking classes. The couple opened the reincarnated Vasilow’s in 2002.

Since that time tastes have changed. At first, Kate told me, they sold 70% milk chocolate and 30% dark. Those numbers have now flipped, dark chocolate considered a healthy treat. Dark chocolate is also part of the popular Keto diet.

I don’t see why one has to choose. While I also prefer a dark chocolate cream — the bitterness of the chocolate setting off the sweetness of the raspberry, orange or maple filling  — a milk chocolate cherry cordial overloads the brain as few activities that come without emotional complications can.

Christmas is the busiest season, with Valentine’s Day and Easter – Vasilow’s has a collection of bunny molds in various shapes and sizes as well as solid and hollow – coming in a close second.

They even have an older customer who returns once a year to have the same pound-and-a-half Valentine’s heart replenished for his wife.

“We’ve even done repairs,” Kate told me.

But only a fool would consider a candy store just for special occasions. While I’m not recommending it become a staple of your diet, it has a coolly efficient way of instantly helping life rise above the mundane.

Kate reported that their almond butter crunch and peanut brittle are very popular. And their chocolate truffles can be a charmed addition to a balanced diet. And if you’re one of those to whom locally sourced ingredients is important, I heartily recommend Vasilow’s cacao maple vodka truffle. It’s made from vodka from Olde York Farm Distillery in nearby Claverack, NY.

The Art of the Croissant

The Art of the Croissant

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This part of the world has a lot going for it: verdant nature, great vistas, a world-class river. But one of the areas where it cannot pat itself on the back is an abundance of good, let alone, great bakeries.

And when you think about it can a community, any community, describe itself as a truly civilized place without a storefront pumping out the transporting smell of fresh bread? Not to mention fine pastry?

The cookie aisle at the local supermarket will do in a crunch. But it really can’t compete with a well-crafted buttercream chocolate cake, a lively mocha éclair, or a warm sea salt chocolate chip cookie.

So it came as a pleasant surprise when, in 2016, the Bartlett House, an historic railroad hotel from the 1800’s in Ghent, NY was renovated and turned into a restaurant, café and bakery.

That’s the other thing about bakeries. They should be within easy driving and better yet walking distance. Not too long ago I asked a French chef how Paris manages to support a bakery on seemingly every block. His explanation was that people are loyal to their neighborhood bakery. That’s where they go to pick up their morning croissant and their daily baguette. In a way I suppose they see it as an extension of their kitchens.

Bartlett House is an approximately five mile, ten minute drive from our house. In a rural community such as ours that’s the equivalent of next door.

But just because a new bakery opens near you doesn’t guarantee it’s going to be any good. I flatter myself that I know my baked goods but I’m far from a snob. My standards are high but not effete. I haven’t met the cookie, cake, or come to think of it pretty much anything else that couldn’t benefit from a generous layer of frosting, a downpour rather than a drizzle.

So when the Bartlett House opened I would have been satisfied if they’d produced a dependable cake and cookies. It came as rather a shock when I bit into their croissant – it looked authentic sitting there on the café’s scenic counter but looks can be deceiving – and discovered it the equal of the best Parisian croissant.

In other words a full-bodied sensory experience, a celestial butter delivery system, an elegant invitation to unite it with a helping of excellent strawberry or raspberry jam as quickly as possible.

Whether a croissant should also be slathered with additional butter – I think it should, but as you’ve probably gathered by now I see little benefit in self-deprivation – is open to spirited debate.

But their croissant was flaky on the outside with a cloudlike interior and the sort of locally sourced fresh ingredients that, when bonded through a process that seems as much alchemy as chemistry, gets the brain firing on all cylinders; that reminds you that for all our woes and missteps humanity is a rather noble experiment.

And I haven’t even mentioned their pistachio croissant. As described to me by chef Cody Fitchett and Alina Roytberg, one of the co-owners of the Bartlett House, that dopamine engine starts its day as a classic croissant, gets cut in half, slathered with pistachio cream and simple syrup, and baked again.

It’s probably best avoided if you suffer guilt and sweat calories. But if hedonism is a cornerstone of your personal worldview it’s well worth a detour.

I’ve also discovered that the bakery does special order cakes, such as a lethal looking dark chocolate cake with hazelnut buttercream.

I frankly had reservations about helping to publicize the Bartlett House. It’s popular enough, especially on weekends. In the past I’ve had to call ahead to reserve a croissant or two against the heartbreak of showing up in late morning and discovering them all gone.

But the staff assures me they rarely run out any longer and are actually ramping up production to supply a new project of Ms. Roytberg’s and her partners Lev Glazman and Damien Janowicz – the soon-to-open Maker Hotel in Hudson, NY.

Ms. Roytberg and Mr. Glazman are also the co-founders of Fresh, the natural beauty products company. I bring this up only because they seem to have an eye for quality, the ability to set and achieve lofty goals, and most important from my point of view, Ms. Roytberg’s frequent travels abroad have afforded her the equivalent of a PhD in croissant  appreciation.

Bartlett House’s croissant production is actually a four-day process. On Day one the ingredients are measured. Day two the dough is mixed (the formula seems a one-to-one ratio of dough to high fat content European-style butter) and then allowed to freeze overnight. Day three the dough is shaped into croissants. Day four it’s baked and shared with the Hudson Valley’s discerning clientele.

I’ve also discovered they freeze nicely, though obviously nothing quite compares to the lightning in a bottle experience of starting your day with a perfectly rendered fresh croissant.

Snow Day

Snow Day

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Snowstorms are more complicated than they used to be. I’m not referring to the weather, though that, too. I read that because of global warming we can expect more balmy winters, or at least balmy Decembers, followed by blizzards and bone chilling polar vortexes, or is it vortices, later in the season.

No, the complication I’m speaking of is going on Facebook or Instagram and having to suffer photographs and commentary from your friends and acquaintances of them lolling on the beach in Belize or floating on their backs in Cozumel.

Perhaps the problem is that I’m a bad person. I should be happy for my friends that they’re enjoying themselves and getting a tan while I fret that, after the snow ceases and the wind begins to howl, the electricity is going to go out and the pipes freeze because yet another season has passed that I’ve failed to invest in a generator.

I’m confident that the only reason they’re posting images of azure seas and golden sunsets, sometimes filtered through the prism of a pina colada garnished with a cocktail umbrella, is because they want to share their happiness and because they know their friends will be just as joyous and fulfilled living vicariously through their adventures as if we’d boarded a plane ourselves and were buffeted by the welcoming breezes of the Bahamas.

Did I mention that I’m not such a person? I’m the envious sort. Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy for you that you afford a bike trip through Thailand and sticky rice with the locals. But I would prefer it were me.

Does this make me petty? Perhaps it does. However, in my own defense when I travel I try to keep it to myself. Of course, I have no control over what other family members post. But my particular conceit is that people who didn’t get their first passport stamped and boarded their first airplane yesterday don’t need to brag about it.

Actually what you just heard is a long-winded introduction to testifying that while I’m no more immune than the next guy to feelings of superiority on the charmed occasions when I’ve been swimming with colorful parrotfishes in the Caribbean knowing it’s blizzarding back home, there are few things that fill me with the anticipation of knowing that I’m available for a good snowstorm; that one promising a foot or more of precipitation is on the way.

As it was last weekend. If global warming has any positive consequences it’s this: after a non-eventful, almost non-winter weather-wise through Christmas and New Year’s, I was chaffing for a good old, honest-to-God Snowmageddon. Not one where the lights go out, of course, or a foot of ice sends tree limbs crashing through the roof but just about anything else.

Think about it. If the allure of the tropics is measured in trappings such as palm trees and water the color of breath mints what we’re known for up north besides, of course, flinty self-reliance born of an often hostile climate, is the ineluctable beauty of falling snow and, once the sun returns, the way that source of warmth, light and life glints, jewel-like off freshly covered fields.

And there’s skiing, obviously. If adrenalin happens to be your thing it’s far easier to access bombing down a mountain than it is lolling by a swimming pool at Atlantis.

I’m not referring to their ten-story Mayan waterslide. But, again, speaking only for myself, my idea of exotic travel doesn’t include a waterpark, no matter how over-the-top or ubiquitously advertised.

Indeed, I can’t think of anything more delightful than the anticipation I feel with a major snowstorm on the way. I know that not everybody shares my sense of childlike wonder. For many it’s a nuisance, especially if they have to commute.

But part of its magic is that it serves as an enforced time-out from the pressures of the modern world. Being snowed in focuses one on life’s more subtle pleasures, things like a good book, a roaring fire and a late season football game if the electricity doesn’t die and I manage to survive accessing my roof and satellite dish to exfoliate it of the snow and inch-thick ice.

Among the actions I undertook ahead of last week’s storm was frequently to check the weather starting several days out and purchase a snow shovel at Lowe’s with one of those bent, ergonomic handles.

I also took a warm bath after checking the weather radar one more time and watching the blue mass on the screen, signifying the approach tempest, inch ever closer. There’s nothing that connects you to the cozier, more visceral memories of childhood than a bath as night falls and with it the first flakes heralding the oncoming storm.

The Newspaper of Record

The Newspaper of Record

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 The writer’s father and brother in the 1970’s

 I was filled with sadness the other day when I got off the phone after cancelling my 94-year-old mother’s New York Times subscription.

Some of my response has to do with her decline. She no longer reads the newspaper as she once did from cover to cover every day. Now, when I go over to her apartment I see the Times sitting there untouched.

But my emotion extended well beyond my mother’s current health issues. Every family has threads that weave themselves into a tapestry – where they came from and where they settled; births, deaths, jobs; triumphs and setbacks; perhaps a larger than life parent or grandparent whose influence reverberates through subsequent generations.

In our family one of those threads was the New York Times. I recall how my father read it every morning. Sitting at the dining room table, the paper – back then the format was wider than it is today (in 2007 it cut its width by an inch and a half) – was spread out in front of him like a map of the world.

My hunch is that some of that was habit that came from having worked at the Times in his youth and reading the night owl edition hot off the presses. He started as an office boy for publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger in the early 1940’s and was rehired after the war where he was assigned to the newspaper’s Paris and Frankfurt bureaus. Returning to New York, he worked on the paper’s picture desk. He left the Times in 1955 to start his own advertising agency.

But he never lost his affection for the newspaper, nor the habit of starting off his day with it. In our family it was as much wallpaper as newspaper, the backdrop to our lives, delivered to the front door each morning. My father would no sooner neglect the paper than he would forget to wear a raincoat and galoshes in a downpour.

And that reverence for the Times filtered down to me. I can’t remember when I started reading the paper in earnest. It might not have been until college. But the die had been cast years earlier.

And it wasn’t just about maintaining tradition. It was the notion, if transmitted only subliminally, that responsible citizenship – not even responsible citizenship; it was more like good hygiene – required one to stay abreast of the national discourse.

I’ve written for the Times over the years. I was proud when I became a stringer for them in college, even earning a few bucks. And I well recall my excitement and pride standing in their newsroom and being handed a printout by an editor when my first byline appeared in 1994.

I have photographs of my father in that same newsroom on West 43rd Street, though it had changed beyond recognition over the years, the noise of typewriters and newswires replaced by the near silence of computer keyboards. Not to mention that in 2007 the newspaper migrated to Eighth Avenue and a modern office building opposite the Port Authority bus terminal.

Even when I went to work for the Wall Street Journal as a columnist – a newspaper whose reporting is as good and in some areas better than the Times – my affection and loyalty remained with “The Gray Lady,” as the newspaper is affectionately known.

And how could it not? While I was named after my father my youngest brother James was named after Times columnist James Reston.

I don’t remember my mother being quite as focused a reader as my father, but she must have been. Naming my brother after James “Scotty” Reston was her idea. And when my brothers and I were born the Times ran small announcements, paid I assume, and not entirely uncommon in those days.

I suspect my parents felt that our delivery wasn’t complete until the Times was delivered the next morning, heralding our arrival in the “Newspaper of Record.”

When my father, who was also Horatio Alger’s biographer, died in 2005 the Times ran a news obituary. I knew it would have meant a lot to my dad.

Journalism has changed a lot in the meantime. By the time the Times crosses our transom I’ve already read many of its stories online. Sometimes I don’t even crack the physical newspaper.

Among the reasons I don’t cancel the print subscription is inertia, habit, but also a small sense of well being, that no matter how disturbing the news, seeing it organized and prioritized by the Times’ editors in black and white offers the confidence that order will triumph over chaos, that corruption will be called to account.

That explains some of my sadness regarding my mother. Once you stop reading the Times in our family it feels as if you’ve bowed out of the conversation.