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Author: Ralph Gardner

Oh, Snow

Oh, Snow

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 I did something last week anathema to my nature. I tried to avoid the snow.

It was traveling from south to north and I was heading from the Hudson Valley to Vermont. So I tried to get ahead of it.

I was on my way to West Pawlet to interview my friend Angela Miller for a project I’m working on about people’s second acts.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that there are no second acts in American life. I beg to disagree. As we’re getting older and living longer, the landscape shifting under our feet and things like pensions becoming quaint anachronisms, second acts and even third and fourth acts almost seem required.

Angela’s case is slightly different. She’s managed successfully to juggle her first and second acts simultaneously. As a literary agent – that was her first act – and as a prize-winning goat cheese farmer whose Consider Bardwell Farm cheeses are featured on the menu at some of America’s finest restaurants.

But I can talk about Angela and where her drive and stamina comes from some other time.

The subject now is the white stuff. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding a childlike thrill at the news of a weather forecast that includes snow. As far as I’m concerned, the more the merrier.

I know not everybody shares my excitement because I frequently hear them complain about the snow. As if its just one more annoyance in a world filled with them – delayed trains, bad bosses, those chirpy robocalls – Hi, I’m Amy!” –that dupe you into believing you’re conversing with an actual, live human being.

Does anyone actually fall for that after the first ten words? Do they sit there chatting with the recording? Do they end up buying stuff?

But I digress.

My first childhood memory, at three or four years old, involves snow. I’m on my way home through Central Park at dusk. Walking beside my baby sitter who is pushing my younger brother in his stroller when it starts to snow.

I feel a combination of awe and well-being, a transcendent coziness knowing that home awaits with a warm bath, dinner and bed.

And deep into middle age that awe hasn’t dissipated. Neither has the desire to recreate, as often as possible, the winning combination of an outing in the snow followed by a warm bath.

I’ve made some adjustments, of course. I drink more scotch and less whole milk than I used to. But I continue to strive for scenarios with a high coziness factor.

That’s why it felt so unnatural to be fleeing the snow last Saturday afternoon.

Though, factually speaking, I wasn’t fleeing it. I was just trying to get a jump on it. There was a lovely feeling that it was nipping at my heels. Or at least my steel-belted radials.

Also, the forecast wasn’t for a blizzard, for whiteout conditions. In meteorological parlance, the National Weather Service was issuing advisories rather than warnings. The prediction was for a manageable few inches. Just enough to cover the landscape.

By the way, did anybody else notice those stripes on the roads caused by deicing trucks spraying some sort of liquid or chemical? Highway crews were doing just that as we headed up the Taconic State Parkway Friday morning and I also saw the stripes again on a local road in Columbia County.

Perhaps I’m just not that observant – I know I’m not that observant – but I don’t recall such precautionary treatments in previous years.

I outran the snow somewhere around Hoosick Falls and it was clear driving until I stopped for a restorative burger at the Burger Den in Cambridge, NY.

As I was preparing to pay my check a waitress looked out the window and announced, “It’s starting to snow,” without rancor and perhaps with a little of that childlike wonder I hope all of us share.

The future of this country, and this planet, it increasingly seems to me, will depend on the forces of awe and humility beating back those of cynicism and certainty.

I returned to my car and outpaced the snow once again, reaching Angela’s farm before it did. She wanted to get some fresh air and walk her dog Rambler, a good-natured mutt. Even though Rambler has an overly self-assertive habit of nudging you at the dinner table, as if to say, “Hey buddy — How about throwing some of that grub my way?”

We walked down a long dirt road, over a stream and past cornfields, as white tail deer bounded away in the distance.

It was beautiful even in the solemn greys and browns of late autumn. But as we turned back the flakes started to fall. We reached the barn, greeted by the farm’s herd of goats who seemed excited to see us.

I like to think it was less because they associated Angela with food, or because it’s still mating season and the musk of the farm’s bucks was in the air. Or even that they’ve finished milking for the season and their only responsibility is to take it easy and eat for two.

No, the reason for their enthusiasm is that it was the first snowfall of the season and these were French Alpine and Oberhasli breeds that welcome the cold weather. By morning the place would be covered in the stuff. With more of it in the forecast the days ahead.

Winter, happily, had arrived.

A Winter Memory

A Winter Memory

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With snow in the forecast, at least somewhere, and ski resorts already making snow (they’re making snow already, right?) I think back fondly to the family responsible for making me the proud intermediate skier I am today.

Their name was Tishman and they had a house in Warren, Vermont, located minutes from Sugarbush Mountain.

But the Tishmans, Jan Tishman in particular — I was sad to learn she died earlier this year — gave me a lot more than the courage to get down a mountain on two sticks. She also gave me a sense of myself.

But before I get to that I’d just like to say that I don’t think I’ve ever been colder than I was at fifteen as the Sugarbush chair lift crept up the mountain with the wind chill at around twenty below. I went to school with Douglas, the Tishmans son, for thirteen years, from kindergarten through high school.

They were members of the real estate and construction family and they lived in an apartment on Park Avenue that was profiled in the New York Times Magazine.

The elevator opened onto a Japanese inspired-vestibule with rice paper walls and a path of brushed pebbles. But the rooms that remain most vivid in my memory are the futuristic kitchen with its built in appliances and Jan’s bathroom.

It was designed like a Roman bath, with descending steps.

My brother Jamie, who was friends with Doug’s younger brother Andrew, recalls the time they stumbled upon Mrs. Tishman immersed in a bubble bath and reading Catch-22.

To my brother, that remains an iconic image from the Sixties.

But it wasn’t until the Tishmans invited me to Vermont that I developed my own relationship with Jan.

She could frankly be something of a taskmaster; Doug and his friends weren’t allowed to hit the slopes until they’d completed their chores.

All his friends, that is, except me.

What I quickly discovered is that if I hung out in the kitchen cracking jokes – think of Eddie Haskell of Leave It To Beaver fame — while Jan and her crew prepared for that evening’s dinner party I could avoid lugging firewood or even making my bed.

Back then Sugarbush was a watering hole for the jet set. And the Tishmans’ parties were well stocked with A-listers — from Johnny Carson bandleader Skitch Henderson to fashion designer Oleg Cassini.

There’s a memorable passage in Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus” where his awestruck protagonist describes the home of wealthy, beautiful, Radcliffe-educated Brenda Patimkin. “Fruit grew in their refrigerator,” Roth wrote, “and sporting goods dropped from their trees!”

Abundance at the Tishman home was similarly epic. I spent one Christmas vacation with them where the house was stacked high with festive holiday tins of cookies from William Greenberg Desserts, the Upper East Side’s least affordable baker.

And when I graduated from high school the Tishmans gave me a small blue box from Tiffany that contained a ceremonial gold key to their house.

But perhaps the most precious gift Jan gave me was her encouragement. I don’t think I’d heard of S.J. Perelman, the humorist and screenwriter who teamed up with the Marx Brothers, when Jan presented me with a volume of his work.

Perhaps she saw some potential there.

We last spoke several years ago when I tracked her down and called her out of the blue. She and her husband Ed had moved to Connecticut. She’s also survived by Andrew and her daughter Leslie.

Jan sadly informed me that Doug had died in a car accident a few years earlier. But she did so in a stoic way that masked her pain and made me recall the time that Doug and I were traveling through France fresh out of high school with a third friend.

Unable to find a room in the small town where our train deposited us, we’d unrolled our sleeping bags in a boxcar. Doug apparently didn’t find the accommodations up to expectations and soon left. I called Jan with some trepidation to report her son missing. But she took the news in stride. “If we don’t hear from him in the next 24 hours,” she stated calmly, “we’ll just have to call out the French National Guard.”

Fortunately Doug contacted her before the deadline. But her style was to pull out all the stops.

It also lent a gawky teenager the belief that if she respected you, you might one day make something of yourself, and even learn to ski along the way.

The Case for Crowds

The Case for Crowds

With holiday shopping season fast upon us, I’d like everybody to shop local –for entirely selfish reasons.

No, I’m not a main street merchant. I don’t have some charming storefront that sells bric-a- brac. Whatever bric-a-brac is.

Truth be told, I’m not much of a shopper, period. If the economy depended on me we’d be in a perennial Great Recession.

Advertising agencies would go out of business since I’m almost unpersuadable.

I’d don’t enjoy the ads on TV. I enjoy talking back to them.

However, I do love Christmastime. I love walking down Main Street in Chatham, New York; Warren Street in Hudson (by the way, celebrating Winter Walk this evening;) and Fifth Avenue in New York City, absorbing the energy. Window shopping.

Which explains why I’m planning to make a pilgrimage to Lord & Taylor this week, or next at the latest.

In case you haven’t heard, Lord & Taylor is selling its flagship store on Fifth Avenue and 39th street to WeWork. That’s a company that leases office space to small companies.

The department store will become one of those companies, renting back a quarter of the building and becoming a smaller – much smaller – version of itself.

It’s one more victim of the move by shoppers from brick and mortar stores to the Internet.

I can’t say Lord & Taylor’s demise comes as a great surprise. After all, I was one of their customers. And, as I’ve stated, I’m a lousy customer. I loved the fact that I could wander the store without a single salesperson ever asking whether I needed help.

And the end of all my wanderings might be to buy a 20% off flannel shirt marked down an additional 40%.

I grew up in New York City and my mother used to take me to places like Bloomingdales, Best & Company and Saks to shop for clothes as a child. Best and Company is long gone. Bloomingdales and Saks have gone high end. Apparently, that’s the only way to survive these days since the middle class has been hollowed out.

What that means, practically, is that if your budget doesn’t allow you to spend $50 on a bottle of bubble bath or drop several hundred more on a Hermès scarf you might want to go elsewhere.

Even Wal-Mart is trolling for the wealthy, ironically recently announcing that they’re going to start selling Lord & Taylor merchandise online.

I wish them the best of luck.

Once mighty Macy’s today is worth more for its real estate than its merchandise. It’s only a matter of time until its block-long store on Herald Square becomes a hotel or condos.

And what of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade? Will it be sponsored by Amazon a dozen years from now?

But retail storefronts are what make communities, large and small, major cities and small towns, not just livable but desirable.

I, too, love the convenience of shopping online. Even though I don’t do very much of it. But there’s really no substitute for squeezing the merchandise, for trying stuff on. I don’t see how you buy a pair of shoes without putting them on your feet. Or even something like a tennis racquet without swinging it.

I had an epiphany recently. Admittedly, a very small epiphany. And it was this: just because something works elegantly is no guarantee that it’s going to survive.

I suppose it’s called evolution and it effects technologies as well as organisms.

Take newspapers. There’s no substitute for a physical paper. I mean, there is, of course. Which is why print journalism is dying.

But there’s no substitute for the lovely leisure of getting waylaid by five other stories while turning from the story you were reading on page 1 to it’s continuation on page 15.

That doesn’t happen when reading online. You travel only where you click.

And I’m sure there were dozens of other cultural high points that had their moment and then vanished from the stage.

I’m not much of a student of history. But I suspect Florence during the High Renaissance or even New York City in the Sixties, the 1960’s that is, were in some ways more civilized than they are today.

Actually, I know something about New York in the Sixties because I lived through it. And there were half a dozen bookstores within ten blocks of each other on Fifth Avenue.

They’ve all vanished, replaced by the likes of Abercrombie and Hollister.

What would you prefer? Leafing through an art book at Doubleday or Rizzoli or being bombarded by a remix of “Like A Virgin” at Abercrombie?

However, it’s apparently not all bad news. While the numbers are still preliminary this holiday shopping season has gotten off to a decent start. With both online retailers and brick and mortar stores chalking up solid sales.

But it’s inevitable that more and more business will gravitate online.

So it’s up to each and everyone of us to shop locally. We’re not doing so just for our friendly local merchants but also for ourselves. We’re striking a blow for civilization, the feeling of well-being that accrues to those who still regard shopping as a purposeful form of socializing.

Buying local helps define our humanity.

And what about the holiday decorations? Lord and Taylor’s Christmas windows, for starters. You’ll miss them when they’re gone.

It’s hard to hang tinsel from a website.

My Grandparents, the Forgers

My Grandparents, the Forgers

An antique lamp created by Myra and Ben Gardner
CREDIT RALPH GARDNER JR.

Last week I opened a drawer in the antique high boy in our front hall and found photographs I’d never seen before. They were of my father’s family, and they dated back to the 19th century.

If this were any other house and any other family the discovery might come as a revelation.

But ours isn’t like any other house. At least any other house that isn’t inhabited by hoarders.

I realize that’s a rather large claim to make, so let me offer an example. And if you think this also describes your home then I offer my profuse apologies.

Have you ever opened up a drawer and found it filled with cherub heads?

I thought not.

And I could name a dozen other curious objects taking up space.

Crystals.

Candlesticks.

Marble pedestals.

Inkwells.

Paperweights.

Vintage staplers.

There’s actually a rather straightforward explanation for this accumulation of stuff that possesses no obvious purpose.

My grandparents manufactured antiques.

You heard me. I bet you didn’t know antiques could be made. You probably thought they had to pass through history to qualify as heirlooms.

How foolish of you.

Allow me to take a step back and explain how my ancestors came to be in the forgery business.

My grandfather had a metalworking shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Among other things he manufactured lampshades – at least the infrastructure over which the fabric is draped.

When he and my grandmother retired to the Hudson Valley in the early Sixties, my grandfather brought one of the massive machines with him and set it up in a shed attached to the house.

They never consulted me so I don’t know when the aha moment occurred. But at some point they apparently realized that by combining a marble base, chandelier crystals, ormolu, occasionally decals, and a glass globe or lampshade they could create an object that vastly, or somewhat, exceeded the sum of its parts.

And they sold these objets d’art, as it were, at country auctions to which I sometimes accompanied them.

My grandmother was stone deaf and rather shy to boot. Yet she stood above the crowd hawking her creations. And when all superlatives had been exhausted, the auctioneer, standing at her side would add, “And it rings like a bell.”

The lamps didn’t make them rich. But it supplemented their retirement savings. And perhaps most important, it gave them something to occupy themselves in their later years, and something to do together.

My grandfather attended to the hard work of building the lamps and electrifying them. My grandmother employed her artistic talents to making them attractive and desirable.

We still have several examples of their labor.

I don’t know if that’s because they saved their best, most successful masterpieces for themselves. Or because they were mistakes that failed to sell.

It can be hard to tell the difference.

We also have legitimate antiques. The fakes blend in nicely with them. Or rather the real ones lend the fakes the veneer of authenticity.

It’s also possible that we’ve just grown blind to their bizarreness in the same way that the paintings that decorate one’s walls become invisible over time.

But that doesn’t completely solve the mystery of why, after all these years, we’re still opening drawers and finding unusual things, some of which obviously have nothing to do with making antiques.

I’ll give you an example: an ivory tusk – perhaps from a boar; it’s too small to have belonged to an elephant – discovered recently fit snugly into a silver holder embellished with Arabic script.

Or stick pins. One day I decided to see how many of them I could collect just searching through random drawers. I came up with thirty, some embellished with precious or at least semi-precious stones. And assembled them in kaleidoscopic splendor in a pincushion on our organ.

I have no idea where the organ came from either. And anybody capable of recalling its provenance is long gone.

An organ might qualify as an enhancement to any 19th century home. But how about the donation I made recently to the Columbia County Historical Society.

Two books found in our basement, each as big and thick as a side table, bursting with prescriptions, dating to the 1880’s from a pharmacy in Philmont, New York.

To the best of my knowledge, my grandparents were never in pharmaceuticals.

And then there were the family photos. I’m not talking about our family photos, mentioned above. These ones belonged to a different family.

They were formal portraits – from newborns to adults – taken by a photo studio in San Francisco. And since they shared the name Whittier – they were annotated on back — I decided to see whether I could track their descendants down through the Internet and return them.

I succeeded, discovering along the way that they were members of a wealthy Bay Area family that had been California’s largest paint supplier in the 1800’s.

What my grandparents were doing with them is anybody’s guess.

My hunch, based on accompanying my grandparents to those country auctions, is that they couldn’t resist the dollar box.

For those unfamiliar with this auction institution, one dollar bought you a potpourri of stuff, some of it more desirable than the rest.

I doubt any of it has much value – unless someone on eBay is desperate for a cherub head.

But they have an intangible worth. The house continues to surprise, the bright spirit of discovery runs through its ancient marrow, and my grandparents continue to live and breathe through all the stuff they left behind.

A Visit from Dr. Soot’n Cinder

A Visit from Dr. Soot’n Cinder

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Consider kindling – you know the stuff you start fires with – and its ability to sow marital discord?

What promoted me to do so was last week’s hard frost and a visit from our friendly, local chimney sweep – Dr. Soot N’ Cinder.

We happen to be fortunate in that we’re surrounded by trees and have an endless supply of twigs and fallen branches. That’s probably what compels my wife to use vast quantities of the debris to start fires in both our fireplace and wood-burning stove.

Before we go any further let me give you her argument for doing so, even though I haven’t consulted with her about it lately. She’d tell you that we have lousy wood; if we had better wood she wouldn’t need to be so profligately pyrotechnical with our sticks and sprigs.

My defense for being judicious with the use of kindling has the advantage of being honest and true. And I have Dr. Soot N’ Cinder to back me up.

Actually doctors Soot N’ Cinder – Kurt Straub and Bob Balfoort – because both of these able professional sweeps showed up last Saturday to service our flues.

And they attested to the quality of our wood, if only because the build-up of creosote wasn’t as epic as it might have been given how much time has transpired since our last cleaning.

But the main reason for my diatribe is that it typically falls on my shoulders, back and quads to gather the kindling and reduce it to convenient size. Because kindling doesn’t always come in those picturesque sacks of perfectly measured fat wood that places like L.L. Bean sell for an arm and a leg.

And speaking of arms and legs, both are required for me to split and splinter the limbs that fall from our trees, the effort often at peril to my own appendages.

I crack them with my hands, or, with thicker less cooperative pieces, leave them on the ground, step on them to hold them in place, and then snap them with ferocious force, or more than occasionally fail to do so.

All I’m saying is that gathering kindling isn’t as simple or atmospheric as it’s cracked up to be. It’s a precious natural resource and should be accorded respect. Kindling doesn’t grow on trees. Actually, it does. But what becomes of it afterwards is the result of human effort and ingenuity.

My argument is that its ability to get a fire going is less about quantity than strategic placement and its relationship to the logs it’s intended to ignite. And also to yesterday’s newspaper, which I use as a fire starter.

As you can probably guess, I could go on for some time about the right matches to buy and how nearly impossible it is to find strike anywhere matches anymore. But we’ll leave that for another day.

Typically, three connected pages of the New York Times are sufficient. In other words, six pages. But if my wife wants to go to town with the newspaper I’m fine with that. I don’t risk repeat shoulder surgery or rupturing my Achilles tendon scrunching yesterday’s Op-Ed page or the sports section into a compact ball of fissible material.

So it’s nothing short of sad and depressing to experience that sense of well-being that comes with knowing you have an overflowing basket of fresh kindling only to discover your spouse employed half of it to get her last fire going.

And it’s unnecessary because, as I said, doctors Soot N’Cinder informed me that even though we hadn’t had our chimney swept in years, and it was dirty and needed a good cleaning, the creosote buildup wasn’t staggering. We weren’t at imminent peril of immolating the house.

And why? Because we have excellent, seasoned wood.

The way the doctors work is that they remove the damper and thrust heavy duty metal brushes on poles up the length of the chimney, scouring the sides to rid them of creosote.

That’s a dark tar that coats the walls.

Or as Mr. Balfoort put it succinctly, “Creosote is a fuel.”

He also brushed the walls of the fireplace with a hand wire brush and then vacuumed up all the detritus using an industrial strength vacuum cleaner. He did a great job – both the fireplace and the wood-burning stove were spotless by the time he finished.

However, I was slightly disappointed that their mission didn’t require them to climb to the roof of the house. They also didn’t show up in top hat and tails.

Mr. Straub explained that the origin of that evocative dress can be traced back to England. “In the old days chimney sweeps were pretty much considered second-class citizens,” he told me. “In an effort to gain more self-esteem they’d find top hat and tails to wear.”

But Mr. Balfoort said that the profession has become increasingly scientific and high tech in recent decades. In fact, he has taken courses that touch on subjects such as chemistry and combustion, with the National Fire Protection Association, a trade group.

There was some debate between the sweeps about how often one needed to get their chimney swept, the estimates ranging from one year to every three to five years.

But I suspect we can get away with the longer time frame. Due to the quality of our wood and, of course, the excellence of our kindling.

Family Splitting

Family Splitting

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You might ask yourself, as I did, where’s the silver lining to having a two-hundred year old oak tree come crashing down on your pool house? Besides, luckily, being covered by insurance?

Or a huge limb from perhaps the oldest tree on the property call it quits across your front lawn?

The silver lining is that you have enough firewood to get you through this winter and perhaps a few more.

The issue has also become more compelling since we installed a wood-burning stove last winter, doubling the amount of wood we burn.

But how do you reduce all that fiber to manageable logs that fit neatly in your fireplace or wood-burning stove?

Because I’m about as talented with a chainsaw as I am at astrophysics or landscape painting. Which is to say, not at all.

I happen to own a chainsaw and have successfully severed limbs, fortunately none of them my own. But fear of doing so makes me think twice about attacking anything larger than a fat twig.

Certainly, I’m not going to take on the trunk of a tree whose rings date back to James Madison’s presidency.

So we hired a professional arborist to cut the trees in question to logs small enough that two grown men might lift them at only modest risk to their health.

But where do you go from there?

The answer is a log splitter. That’s how I spent most of last Saturday afternoon. Joined by my wife, Deborah, daughter Lucy and Lucy’s boyfriend Malcolm.

The device was delivered in the morning. And after much pulling of its starter cord and jimmying the throttle we managed to get it going.

The way it works is that you insert a piece of wood into the device’s cradle, pull a lever, and watch as the eight-inch wedge, exerting 28 tons of commercial grade pressure, cuts the log in two.

Repeat until the piece is the size you desire.

We developed quite the nifty assembly line where Malcolm, being a robust youth, at least compared to me, lifted and placed the wood – sitting in a pile and seasoning since last May — in the cradle while I did the hard, precision labor of working the controls.

Debbie and Lucy then piled the wood into the back of our SUV and drove it the hundred or so feet to our woodshed, where they stacked it.

Debbie has developed something of a passion for splitting wood with an ax. As a matter of fact, the book currently topping the best-seller lists in our household was given to her by Malcolm as an extremely thoughtful birthday present a few weeks ago. It’s title? “Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way.”

I haven’t cracked the spine yet. But I hear it’s riveting.

I’ve managed to sidestep any ax wielding chores because I tend to stay as far away from sharp objects as possible. And also because I had shoulder surgery a couple of years ago and, having done the math, decided to leave well enough alone.

But there’s something to be said for machinery. And there was no small satisfaction admiring the log splitter as it did its thing.

The employee of the local rental place who delivered the equipment warned against inserting your hand while it was operating. I could have guessed that, even though I’m an unschooled city kid.

And it seemed a lot safer than a chainsaw. After all, there’s a movie franchise devoted to all the ghastly ways you can harm yourself, or somebody else, using that piece of cutlery. The only limit is your own imagination.

If there was any risk involved, it arrived when we moved the log splitter, which conveniently comes with wheels, from one wood pile to the next. We had to pull it across the lawn and then down a hill because our car isn’t equipped with a trailer hitch.

It might have gone careening into the woods.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen.

Obviously, there’s a certain amount of heartbreak involved with losing heirloom trees. The oak that came down, perhaps a hundred feet tall, did so unexpectedly after a week of rain two summers ago. And when it did it revealed that it was rotten, quite literally to the core. But it would have been impossible to know that just looking at the tree.

The huge branch that fell across the lawn in front of the house belonged to an ancient maple – a tree that loomed just as large in photos we have of the house from the 1920’s.

It makes sense that there will be more such incidents in the future. And not just because our trees are reaching old age. With global warming well upon us, it seems to rain harder than it has in memory. And we can apparently also expect weather extremes of all sorts, including droughts. All of that will probably destabilize the landscape.

But there is some solace to be taken. You can turn that damage into firewood and know that your trees didn’t decay and die in vain. Their time had probably come. They lived longer than you or I ever will. And now they’re available to provide warmth on cold winter nights.

It’s a rather lovely form of recycling.

And I think we’re on something of a roll, even though we rented the log splitter for only forty-eight hours.

There’s so much other neat stuff available, according to the rental company’s flier: blowers and brooms. Brush cutters and stump grinders. Tillers, trenchers and sod cutters.

Our pioneer forebears — at least somebody’s pioneer forebears – would have been impressed.

Gone Beagling

Gone Beagling

Master Beagler Jack Kingsley and several canine members of the Old Chatham Hunt Club
CREDIT RALPH GARDNER JR.

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Last Sunday – the one with the high winds and torrential rains – might not sound like the best weather for beagling. That’s the sports where, to quote the website of the Old Chatham Hunt Club, the organization that sponsored the event, “a wily rabbit leads an eager pack of hounds through a whirlwind tour of the countryside.”

But the weather was decent, if not quite ideal, for several reasons.

The first reason is that damp weather is apparently better to allow the hounds to scent the rabbit. And, as it turned out on this afternoon, other woodland creatures, too.

The second reason is that the Hudson Valley is beautiful in mist. And one of the rationales for tagging along behind a pack of dogs through fields and woods, occasionally tiptoeing over downed trees and side-stepping underbrush, is because the enterprise constitutes a reasonably low impact form of exercise.

And the final and perhaps most persuasive reason for beagling is that it culminates not with the cornering of a rabbit – if the average bunny is less clever than Bugs it’s not by much; the sport is one of chase and rarely capture – but with a sumptuous tea with open bar at the home of a generous hunt club member.

By the way, the Old Chatham Hunt Club was established in 1928 and is one of the oldest in the nation. It meets on Sundays in October, November, December and March.

On this afternoon it was held at the home of Robert and Diane Peduzzi. The Peduzzi property has the benefit of one of the best views of the Hudson Valley and the Catskill Mountains beyond as well as acres of fields that make for easy walking.

They also happen to be neighbors of mine. So I could take comfort in the knowledge that if things went terribly wrong – for instance, if the cyclonic winds in the forecast splintered trees and power lines – I could return home and resume my typical Sunday afternoon ritual. That’s lunch accompanied by the New York Times, followed by a profound nap.

The hunt attracted about ten dogs and as many humans. A modest turnout, though given the weather nonetheless impressive. We were led by Jack Kingsley, a club member who was pretty much everything you could ask for in a field master.

Starting with a handsome craggy face and matching disposition, he rallied us with a tender disciplinarian’s touch to get going. The faster we did so – though he never explicitly stated as much – the sooner we could retire to the Peduzzi’s home for refreshments.

However, failure to participate in the hunt doesn’t disqualify one from joining in the party afterwards. I was told the club has something in the vicinity of a hundred members. And a majority of them seemed to show up for the post-hunt festivities.

But first we followed the hounds, a bunch of beagles whose subtleties of behavior and group dynamics are apparently a thing of discussion, beauty and endearment among the club’s members.

There’s also a “whipper-in.” That’s a staff member who is the eyes and ears of the huntsmen and huntswomen, making sure the dogs stay focused on their mission. He also blows a horn to gather the dog’s attention. I don’t know how persuasive that is, but it sounds highly evocative, making one feel themselves part of a ritual that dates back to Merry Old England.

And while these animals are highly trained they also happen to be dogs.

I know from personal experience that no matter how cooperative a dog – not that ours is – or how many treats you secret in your clothing, a canine that spies a squirrel or finds something olfactory to roll around in typically refuses to listen to reason.

The dogs seemed to scatter and reassemble on multiple occasions in pursuit of a scent. When they finally found one the braying was something to behold.

The rules of engagement, as far as humans are concerned, call for them to stand back lest they interfere with the work of the dogs. They’re not supposed to interact with the hounds at all.

This is because dogs tend to be friendly, social creatures and are slaves for affection. Given the choice between a personality-free rabbit and an engaging person they might well choose the latter.

Tea For Town

Tea For Town

Hillsdale, New York probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind as the setting for a Chinese tea ceremony. But Hillsdale is happening.

There’s the brand new Casana Tea House where the ceremony was held last week. And right next door, connected by new concrete sidewalks on both sides of Route 23, is Matthew White’s HGS Home Chef, a sparkling kitchen store with two teaching kitchens. And across the street is Mr. White’s Hillsdale General Store, hence the initials HGS, where you can appease your appetite for everything from clothes to penny candy.

The tea ceremony was conducted by Carrie Chan, the interior designer who created the teahouse. As she poured our first cup, a delicate jasmine tea, Carrie told us stories about tea ceremonies in her native Taiwan.

I don’t know about you, but the fragrance of jasmine tea reminds me of the Chinese restaurants of my youth. For all his or her merits, the average child isn’t a connoisseur. But there was something magical about jasmine tea, its ability to conjure up exotic places.

The beverage’s power was even more profound in adulthood, abetted by the Zen-like setting of light woods and Carrie’s calming personality. Each of us was offered a delicate, decorated cup on a slotted bamboo tray, the slots used to empty the remains of the liquid before we moved on to the next selection.

We began with a moment of meditation. But the space itself, where everything seems curated according to Carrie’s discerning eye, had a soothing, centering influence. And the ceremony, which lasted a full ninety minutes, was basically an extended meditation session.

We tried five teas in all, moving from light to dark.

These weren’t your average supermarket teas. They were hand-picked and some of them were expertly rolled into tiny nuggets. The resulting beverage was of exceptional clarity, a result of the quality of the tea and Carrie’s virtuoso brewing technique.

“You don’t drink the first batch of tea,” she explained as she poured the 198-degree water. It caused the tiny balls to blossom and explode with fragrance.

The first pour, she added, cleanses the tea before you drink the second and subsequent pours.

Chinese tea ceremonies tend to be social, even noisy events, Carrie said, remembering the ways her parents friends would come to their home for tea and lively conversation over lunch.

Japanese tea ceremonies on the other hand, which Carrie also conducts at Casana Tea House, tend to be quieter, more formal occasions.

But that Chinese combination of ancient ritual and hospitality was on full display this particular afternoon.

I was looking forward to trying new teas – though to be honest, my palate remains sufficiently juvenile that I stubbornly adhere to the belief that even the finest tea can be helped by a little sugar – but what I wasn’t expecting was all the great food.

There were matcha tea cakes to go along with the jasmine tea. And as we moved on to the next tea, we were served delicious vegetarian spring rolls with mashed potato filling and chicken dumplings, half steamed and half pan fried.

The tea was Golden Lily oolong from Taiwan. According to Carrie, the world’s best oolong comes from her homeland.

Carrie, who also teaches dumpling making courses next door at HGS Home Chef, had made the food, too.

I was encouraged to learn that since good tea can be expensive in China people will store their used tea leaves in the refrigerator and reuse them the next day.

Carrie told us you can brew the leaves up to five times.

This came as good news since I’m a skinflint and also because I’ve always suspected that discarding a tea bag after a single use was a tragic waste.

I was somewhat embarrassed to admit that Earl Gray is my favorite tea, suspecting it might be considered déclassé among true connoisseurs. But Carrie said it also ranks among her favorites. Casana Tea House even makes its own blend, mixing tea with buckwheat flowers.

In fact, our next tea was a robust Earl Gray.

Bolstered by her support, I asked her opinion of not just sugar but also milk in tea. To my mind, there are few things more civilized than an afternoon cup of tea with milk joined by a buttery cookie.

Carrie concurred, even though she wasn’t willing to unequivocally condone the dipping of the cookie in the tea.

Indeed, Casana Tea House will soon be offering a proper British afternoon tea with mini salmon, ham and cheese and cucumber sandwiches, as well as scones and Japanese tea cakes.

Perhaps the tea house’s best deal is a pot that customers can refresh as often as they want, lingering the entire afternoon over their computer, or better yet a book.

Doubling as decoration are shelves filled with clay teapots and cups, works of art in their own right.

Carrie employed one of them to brew our next tea. It was a Pu’er (pronounced purah), a dark tea, that comes from Mainland China. And it came in a condensed loaf that Carrie chipped away at to separate the leaves.

She explained that the Chinese are competitive when it comes to their clay teapots, the shiniest of them suggesting generations of use. Indeed, she poured the dark tea over the pot to enhance its luster.

I was happy to see that our final tea was a return to the start of our journey. It was a jasmine, but even more fragrant than the first. And in brewing the tea, a jasmine flower popped from the binded bulb of leaves.

Call it was a figment of my imagination if you want, conjured from the intoxicating fumes. But I have witnesses.

A Bittersweet Season

A Bittersweet Season


Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

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  • Ransom Hall, Kenyon College
    Ransom Hall, Kenyon College

I shouldn’t be talking to you right now. I should be at parents weekend. That’s where you could have found me on this weekend, or thereabouts, for much of the last decade.

We have two daughters, both now beyond college. They attended the same school in Ohio — Kenyon College — but there’s a five-year age difference so they didn’t overlap.

That adds up to eight years dodging the tractor-trailers on Route 80 from New York City, across the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey, through the entirety of Pennsylvania – it feels a lot larger and longer than it looks on a map – and finally into the Buckeye State.

So it seems strange, slightly disorienting and not a little melancholy not to be on the road at this moment.

There are those who will dismiss my lament as a case of Baby Boomer helicopter parenting. And perhaps they’re right.

My mother and father attended parents weekend at Middlebury College, where I went, on two occasions: the first time and the last time. It was freshman year and I have the photos to prove they were there, and not having a particularly good time.

In one of them my mother is wearing a fashionable suit, my father a double-breasted navy blazer and tie. They look like unrepentant city folk photoshopped onto the Vermont countryside. And their grim expressions suggest they have no clue what they’re doing there in the first place.

The second image shows them from behind stumbling through the field where the photo was taken, undoubtedly vowing never to return, at least not before graduation.

Our parents weekend experience with our own children was entirely different and altogether more life-affirming. Starting with the drive.

There was something Zen-like about the ten-hour journey, especially across Pennsylvania. It’s beautiful in the colors of autumn and feels like one giant straightaway when you set the SUV to cruise control.

And while challenging to your backside, what propelled you was the knowledge that at the end of your trip awaited a smiling child, genuinely happy to see you.

There are several plausible explanations why our parents weekend experiences were so radically different and more joyous than those of my parents’ generation.

I don’t think they loved us any less. I know they didn’t. But I suppose the generation gap was more pronounced back then. Their music was different than ours. Their vices, too. Or rather, my parents had none to speak of.

To paraphrase a classic line from Robert Altman’s movie “Nashville” – though searching for it online I see it attributed to Dean Martin — the way they felt when they woke up in the morning was as good as they were going to feel all day.

When we arrived at Kenyon, on the other hand, it was typically with a bottle or two of wine in hand, our children joining us for cocktail hour. My feeling is that if you expect your kids to act like adults it doesn’t hurt to treat them like responsible adults.

From there we’d head to dinner, our options extremely limited. Kenyon’s campus is commonly rated as one of the most beautiful in the nation. But the picturesque main street of Gambier, Ohio, where the school is located, consists of little more than the college deli, bookstore, the Village Inn restaurant and Wiggin Street, a coffee house.

But we didn’t feel deprived in the least. The food at the V.I. as it’s known, was good, the prices laughably reasonable if New York City is your frame of reference.

The following morning we’d head off to class with our daughter. I’d be lying if I said they didn’t suffer some mortification to have us sit in. But at the price of college tuition these days, they could stuff their pride while we got some indication of the education our money was buying.

A road trip to Columbus was usually indicated. Having attended small, rural liberal arts colleges ourselves – my wife went to Denison, also in Ohio – we could appreciate that college can occasionally feel like prison; seeing the same faces and eating the same food day after day. So leaving the campus behind feels like a temporary furlough.

Somewhere in there we’d manage to wedge a second cocktail hour, this one including our children’s friends and their parents in our daughter’s dorm room. This served the purpose of making you feel part of an informal community. It also gave us confidence that our children’s friends weren’t criminals or drug addicts, and led to several lasting friendships with fellow parents.

The weekends also included the obligatory play, dance performance or art show, some of them including our children, and a breakfast or lunch in the student commons. The facilities are a lot swankier, boasting a lot more glass, vistas and salad bar choices, than in my day.

To our children’s credit, they didn’t let our presence inhibit their social lives. After we left for the night, returning to whatever inn or occasionally distant bed and breakfast had availability, they’d go out and party with their friends. Miraculously, they’d manage to be reasonably presentable and coherent the following morning.

Parting was always bittersweet. But far less so knowing that our daughters were happy and in good hands – their own, their professors, and those of their loyal friends.

Every stage of life has it charms. And the challenge is to find those of the phase you happen to be in. But college presents a rather singular, inimitable  experience – both as a student and a parent. However, I fear I might be pushing my luck if I showed up at some future grandparents weekend ready to party

Visiting Consider Bardwell

Visiting Consider Bardwell

I don’t know if it’s a sign of the growing sophistication and success of their operation, Obama era rules and regulations, or a combination of the two; but on a visit last weekend to the brining room at Consider Bardwell, our friend Angela Miller’s prize-winning goat cheese farm in West Pawlet, Vermont, I was required to scrub down and suit up almost as thoroughly as if I were about to perform open heart surgery.

My wife and I visit Angela and her husband Russell Glover at their 300 acre farm — its house, barns and creamery sit in a small, peaceful valley on the New York-Vermont border – every year in early October.

The trip has much to recommend it.

For starters, it’s pretty much a straight shot up Route 22 from Columbia County. The two-hour ride alone offers the benefits of a more ambitious road trip. It might be an exaggeration, and a cliché to boot, to say it feels as if you’re stepping back in time.

But you do feel as if you’ve finally escaped New York City’s powerful gravitational pull. There are farm stands but few stores and, remarkably, not a single strip mall.

What catches the eye are broad fields that stretch to rolling hills that were starting to show the colors of autumn.

There are no traffic jams. However, you frequently find yourself part of a caravan behind some slow moving car or tractor. But that’s therapeutic, too.

It’s the universe’s way of telling you that you’re on vacation – even if it’s only an overnight – and that it makes no difference if you arrive at your destination three minutes sooner or later.

After traveling through towns such as Hoosick Falls and Cambridge one makes a right turn at Salem, New York and crosses the border into Vermont. It seems as if the landscape changes as one does – becoming subtly more dramatic; the hills steeper, the valleys more like hollows – but I’m not sure how much of that is real and how much a figment of your imagination because you’re primed for adventure.

We typically arrive, and not by accident, in time for cocktail hour. Then sit around the kitchen table – it overlooks a pond busy with mallards and herons –while we catch up on developments at the farm. Angela’s a literary agent when she’s not making cheese. Russell is a Cambridge University trained architect (as in Cambridge, England not Cambridge, New York.)

We paired white wine, and in my case single malt scotch, with a selection of cheeses. They included Dorset, a washed rind raw Jersey cow cheese that had a nice seasonal pungency, and a talented blue cheese that remains in the testing phase. The news of the farm often includes sketches of managers, farm hands, cheesemakers and interns – a cast whose personalities seem more vivid set against a backdrop of nature and the farm’s herd of Oberhasli goats. The cows belong to two neighboring farms.

Angela and I wrote a book together called “Hay Fever.” It involved the ups and downs of starting a goat cheese farm from scratch when your original plan was simply to purchase a retreat where you could do the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in peace.

But Angela quickly discovered that her personality required more energetic challenges. She also learned that the farm she bought had been the site of Vermont’s first cheese making cooperative in the 1800’s.

At the time we wrote the book in 2010, Consider Bardwell was making about 35,000 pounds of cheese a year, if memory serves me correctly. These days they’re up to 120,000 pounds and can be found on the cheese plate at some of the country’s best restaurants – among them 11 Madison Park, French Laundry, Jean-Georges and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

But the biggest difference is that today the farm is a fine-tuned machine (to the extent that any farm can be said to run smoothly, given the vicissitudes of the weather, cheesemaking and animal husbandry.) And Angela doesn’t routinely have to rise at 5 a.m. to milk the goats and carry bales of hay as she once did. There are other people to do that.

But she was tasked Saturday afternoon, and I offered to help, with moving a couple of dozen wheels of Slyboro, a raw goat milk cheese washed in hard cider. It’s named after Slyboro Cider House in Granville, New York.

We were transporting it from the salt brine bath where it had soaked overnight onto drying racks. It would then age in one of the farm’s five caves for two months.

When we wrote Hay Fever, Consider Bardwell only had one cave.

There’s also a new dumbwaiter that Russell designed – it transports the six varieties of goat and cow milk cheeses from the aging rooms to the caves – and that saves the staff visits to the chiropractor.

We also managed a short walk before it started to drizzle. And then it was time to leave – but not before stocking up on cheese, fresh chickens at a neighboring farm, Sissy’s Jams at the nearby Dorset Union Store, and enough hot fudge sauce to last the winter at Mother Myrick’s, a confectionary in Manchester, Vermont.

We might have been disappointed if our goal had been to witness Vermont’s foliage. We were probably a week too early for that. But the trip had enough other compensations that we hardly noticed.