Friday, December 4, 2015

Town Scrum - Weston, MA

So, I may have to change my name after writing this blog. Possibly move out of town. Today I need to talk about the town meeting. Or as I like to call it, Town Scrum. I am no rugby fan but this is how I understand a scrum (after looking it up on my friend google): 

Scrum: (noun) an ordered formation of players... in which the forwards of a team form up with arms interlocked and heads down, and push forward against a similar group from the opposing side. The ball is thrown into the scrum and the players try to gain possession of it by kicking it backward toward their own side.

I will tell you why I consider town meetings a rugby match in just a moment. First I need to set the stage…ummm, field. Town meetings. I have never attended a town meeting in my life. Not even sure we had them in San Francisco, Burlingame, Evanston, Miami Shores or São Paulo which are the places I have lived in my "adult" life. Okay, possibly in New Canaan (where I grew up) which is really Weston in a different state, more pink and green, ACK stickers and twice our size. But I was 18 and didn't care about that stuff.

Town meeting is the legislative body of our town. Yep, it's up there front and center on this, our "Brief Guide to Weston Town Meeting Procedure". The brief guide is two pages long and has everything from how to participate in a debate (line up at the microphone) and how the voting is done (a display of official voting cards). It's like auctions gone wild. We got green voting cards at this last vote. I was going to take it home but it was collected by the powers that be. 

This particular town meeting was a special meeting called because of some pressing matters such as additional funding of a playground (now this is the ball that gets thrown into the scrum…wait for it), a new sidewalk to and from school so kids don't have to walk on the road, and appropriating spaces for "community housing" (who does not love this euphemism? I do.). 

Let me note that the latter item was "passed over" but I don't know why. It was not discussed in the meeting (okay the moderator did say why we wouldn't be talking about it but I didn't hear it). That discussion will not be a scrum. That will be a mosh pit. No one wants "community housing" near them. This is a blog post for another day.

So I got there about 6:50 for the 7 pm start and the high school auditorium was about a third full. It would become about half full. I did note that there was a demographic that I don't often see--older folks mostly (I have to watch it with this term now that I am middle-aged. Older than me. Retired perhaps) then a group of younger parent-types, some with kids in tow. Remember the 7 pm start. And kids' bedtimes, if you have kids. Kids who are not vampires. 

Stage set. 

First up was approving the budget. Quick discussion, over in about 10 minutes. Passed unanimously.  Passed because we were cutting money from budget due to a decrease in school salaries. I must investigate this one a bit. I abstained; I know nothing. 

Article 2 required a full hour. An hour to decide whether or not to increase the number of signatures needed to get an item up in front of town meeting. The petition was to change it from 10 signatures to 100. I am not going into why this measure was on the ballot here in town. I got the feeling it was a targeted measure to try to resolve an issue with one resident who keeps on taking up town time over wanting to take over her neighbor's house for a parking lot. I may have that wrong. Anyway I voted yes on requiring more signatures, but the majority said no, we like only 10 signatures because, as one gentleman commentator said "it can be really hard to get signatures with such a spread-out town and we're all busy." Yes, we are all busy. Why then are we taking an hour for all this back and forth? Sigh.

And then the heart of the heart. The scrum. Here goes. Article 3 was about Additional Funding for Lamson Playground. This will take waaaaaay too long to summarize here but the Lamson playground project has been around for a while apparently. We have one teeny-tiny playground in this town called Tavernside. It is literally at the side of a tavern (not in service--whoo, that could be a lawsuit!) and small though shaded and pleasant. My kids (age 9) term it as "lame". We've been once in the 18 months almost we've lived here. It is also along the Boston Post Road which splits the playground from the town green. There is some justifiable concern about getting kids in and out of the place without being smushed like bugs. 

Lamson Park would be our new playground. Right next to the town hall and on the other side of the town green (not on the Boston Post Road). The playground was approved in May 2014 before I moved here to Weston. I can only imagine that town meeting now that I know about this one. Playgrounds cost money: $225,000 in fact from the town budget, and $40,000 more was raised privately. I admit that this planning and designing of the playground has gone on without me paying much attention. My kids will be aged-out before this comes to pass--and frankly, my kids are open spacers. Free-rangers. Ticks in the woods. Playgrounds are for recess in their minds. 

I was aware of the battles in the background though. Revolutionary War has nothing on this. Well, actually it does, as I will tell you shortly (I really had no intention to go on so long but well, here it is). Plans were changed, trees are being felled, ziplines being added, a play structure that is visible from space (just kidding--but it's not necessarily small) and our Weston Town Crier added fuel to the fire by leading a September front page with "Most Expensive Option Chosen for Lamson Park". In case you were one of the last souls on earth to think the media is unbiased, guess again.
So the article at the town meeting was about asking for $25,000 more to make the park better. Safety was the number one stated change in mission. And so here we go:

The players: 
--Parent Team, mostly younger parents who wanted kids to have a safe playground
--Historic Team, mostly ummm seasoned individuals who don't want a playground at all at Lamson Park. 

There was probably a third team that was unorganized. A third team who said yep Lamson, but not the way it was proposed.
 But a third team ruins my analogy so let's leave them on the sidelines.

First up, a resident who explained the need for funds. This resident was a forward for the Parent Team-- he explained how wonderful the park would be and what a great community-building thing an integrated park and town green would be, not to mention that we'd have fewer issues with kids crossing the street and being smushed like bugs.  More funding was needed to address some new learnings about the property.

Then the moderator (the Ref?) dropped the ball into the middle of the scrum. Historic Commission, forward for the History Team, and Planning Committee, another forward, then linked arms and stated opposition to the ENTIRE park, not just the updated price tag. 

And then the Historic Team went big time: a Daughter of the American Revolution came up to speak.
I admit the existence of the DAR organization cracks me up. Seriously, what? So American. I guess it doesn't exist in many countries, such as Brazil, my foster country, since that would be a Daughter of the Really-Just-a-Peaceful-Split. DRJAPS. No.  And I guess I personally would be a Daughter-of-the-Dutch-people-fleeing-plague-there-in-the-1860s. Wow that is so not catchy.

Okay here is the explanation of the organization, from its site:
The organization Daughters of the American Revolution is a lineage-based membership service organization for women who are directly descended from a person involved in United States' independence.The DAR, founded in 1890 and headquartered in Washington, D.C., is a non-profit, non-political volunteer women's service organization dedicated to promoting patriotism, preserving American history, and securing America's future through better education for children.

Okay, keep this "non-political" organization part in mind. So the DAR comes up at the meeting and says she is opposed to Lamson Park in general because it is an important historical site. In fact when the new town hall was built in 1917 ("new" in Boston-type age) everyone was opposed to that, because it also took Lamson land.  She mentioned that Samuel Lamson was a colonel in the Minutemen and it was from this farm site in 1775 that he led the Weston Minute Men from the mustering site to the battle in Concord. Okay he was not a colonel in 1775, but that's quibbling with something that is frankly, cool. I am so wowed by where I live. The heart of US history (yeah, okay not native American history, I get that).

But I digress. DAR says that Samuel Lamson would NOT have wanted this park--she spoke almost as if she had known him (no, she was not that old). Then she goes on from this nice history lesson to say and furthermore, this site is probably "somewhat illegal" (her words) since Lamson stipulated that a structure should never be built there. I guess the jungle gym is a structure. Sigh. I would like to point out given my research here that Lamson had seven kids with one wife and three more with a second and I'm guessing the respective Mrs. Lamsons would have LOVED a playground there. Maybe not the zipline. 

Then a Parent Team forward came up and expressed why playgrounds are so important for the community building. Then a Historic Team came up and said she suggested we "build Disneyworld Weston at another time." Yes, I hummed "It's a Small World". I have to change the words. It's a small town after all…

For the next hour, the scrum moved up and back. One Historic Team player called the building inspector "full of baloney." One seemingly neutral player did make a statement on not being opposed to a new playground, but perhaps thinking of one that was in a less historic location--he suggested kids needed "lessons in cultural and environmental stewardship."  One lovely woman said she walked around the town green every day and did not want to be disturbed by the sounds of "screaming children." I'd like to editorialize that a bit more but right now I am trying to find out her address so I can send my 9 year old twins to play on her front lawn.  Just the part owned by the town.

Then my favorite comment of the night came from the next speaker who basically said that if you tried to preserve every supposedly historic site in eastern Massachusetts, you could not build anything ever. Also he said that he certainly hoped that the space would not be needed again as a mustering place, which made me laugh out loud. I got a couple of nasty looks from the Historic Team players on either side of me. I was afraid I would become the ball. 

Finally a vote was called. Full disclosure: I abstained. That will not make some of my friends very happy with me but I really didn't know enough to vote on more money. The cards were raised for and then against the article. The request for more funding failed. When it was announced at 9:10 pm, applause broke out from the Historic Team. The Parent Team (and abstainers--me) made a break for the door--I think less because they were angry but more because it was time to get the users of the playgrounds, those kids, to bed. 

My takeaway from this meeting is that our town has quite a rift between the parents and the historics.  Only time will tell if the parents can re-group and find a way to make their playground. No, I'm not getting involved. Except possibly on the task force for making votes in our town a little less biased to those who can be there at 7 pm on a work night. Let's make an app. 

What could possibly go wrong?

{Note: blog amended February 8, 2016 to reflect correct result. Thank you to my careful readers for the correction}

Monday, September 28, 2015

The upside of small town - Weston, MA

Wait, it's September 28 and I haven't posted in two months? Yep, true story. I can't possibly catch up now except to say here is how August and September went: kids camp, New Hampshire, Maine, soccer, Brazil, more Maine, PTO chaos, back to school, back to activities, homework, superblood moon...and that brings you up to date. 

Back to school means that crazy morning breakfast, get changed, get your stuff, get out is in full swing. Our bus stop (as you have met before here) is about three houses away, and across a dead-end street that we share with the next town over. As in it's Weston for about five houses, then changes to Lincoln town. With a separate bus route, residents who I largely have not met and maybe nine more houses. Lincoln's total population (without chipmunks and deer): 5,000. With deer and chipmunks: 300,000. Weston's total population (without Audis): 12,000. With Audis: 250,000. We are talking small town and smaller town.

But, there are two little issues with us sharing a street with Lincoln. One is their bus, or specifically their bus driver, who likes to drive as if he is testing the large yellow bus for stability. At 40 mph around the blind corner that is right above our Weston bus stop. The other issue is a dark blue Acura MDX (whose plate I have memorized) with a Meadowbroook sticker (that's a private school here in Weston) which also seems to always be late to school at 7:35 when 10 kids from age 5-10 are at our bus stop. No nasty looks will stop this dad. 

So, you will ask me: why do I not confront this mad Acura driver? Because, dear readers, (if I still have any after two months away), I am a CHICKEN. The thought of ringing a doorbell and saying "dear neighbor, could you please slow down?" makes me a little woozy with fear. What if he slams the door in my face? What if we start an enmity that does not go away for the next decade I plan to spend in Weston? Yeah, chicken.

I did write an email to the Lincoln bus company to ask that bus driver be counseled to slow down. That felt right to do: in writing and not anonymous, but without a door slammed in my face. So far, the driver has not seen fit to run me down and stick me in the grille. In actuality, the Lincoln bus seems to have changed times or routes as I have not seen it in the last week. Uh oh. Hope I didn't kill off bus service for the neighborhood.

So what to do about Mr. MDX? This is what I did. I called the town manager. And the town manager said to send an email to the traffic@weston commission which is populated by the police captain, and several other important members of the community. And I thought, okay, I shall do that and then wait for their response.

I sent an email at 1:13 pm. At 4:25 pm, I got an email back from Police Chief Michael Goulding saying they would get signage and patrols to try to fix the issue. Later that evening, I told my neighbors that I had done this and got an email back from one saying a patrolman had already stopped by and hung up the sign you can see in the photo above. The "SLOW" changes to a lighted-up picture of kids on a see-saw. Three orange cones further draw attention--it's right on the blind curve above our bus stop.

I am so completely impressed. The upside of small town is things get done. Quickly. Now the downside will be if I am caught speeding elsewhere in town and my name gets picked up as someone who has complained about others speeding! Fortunately I am more likely to be ticketed for driving too slow (yep, one of those looly-loos enjoying the ride) than too fast. 

I sent a thank you note to the captain. What a town. Let's see what Mr. MDX does now...

Friday, July 24, 2015

Things Are Seldom What They Seem - Weston, MA

So, it's been a year. A year since I began this repatriation journey. A year since leaving my home of six years in São Paulo, Brazil. The changes have been immense--stresses that I didn't know I had have melted away. Stresses I didn't know I would have have reared their sleepless-night-inducing heads. It has not been easy in so many ways; it has been so easy in other ways.

When we announced our move, most people said that repatriation would be much more difficult than expatriation. I don't believe that to be true. There are challenges both ways, but here "at home", I don't feel like I am facing it alone. Perhaps I am lucky for having found people with whom I can laugh or cry here, but all in all, things have been okay. More than okay. Slightly less than awesome.

New friends have helped immeasurably, yet I had forgotten how  long it takes to make friends in a new town, especially a New England one. Old friends have been invaluable--from unpacking to inviting us to their homes, to lending a sympathetic ear when I started sentences for the two-thousandth time "well, when I was in Brazil..."

So, I'd like to sum up my year--the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful... I don't know if it will help the repatriators who follow but it helps me realize what I have gone through.

The good

People. New Englanders take a while to know, but they are in fact wonderfully helpful, funny and genuine folks. If you do get invited for dinner, they actually want you to come over rather than just a "hey, we should do dinner sometime."  They are also used to be independent and self-reliant (yes, I had to give up a housekeeper) and will stand in for you as babysitter or driver if you are stuck. We've all been there. 

New skiers (mine) and new friends.

The ease of life. Case in point: our grocery store has everything here. Batteries, stationery, milk, vegetables, beer. It's all in one place. It's easy. Of course it's easier for me because I know brands and I know where to find them. I am from here. I get it. But in the grand scheme, what I mean here is that having your kids running down the street to friends' houses without a thought to safety is ease of life, not just groceries. They bicycle down streets with little risk to life and limb. Also yellow school buses. I love them.

The closeness of family. My brother lives 12 miles from me. My parents live a two hour flight from me. I am not saying we see them all the time, but it's a bit better than the distance we've lived at for the last 15 years (Brazil then Miami then Brazil again).

The comfort of my own language and culture. Not much I need to say here. The comfort of my own language means that I don't have to worry that I accidentally insulted someone by not calling them "Senhora" instead of the more casual "voce" in Portuguese. Or that "louco" or crazy in Portuguese is actually pretty strong and not a light-hearted American "You're crazy!" And yes, I get references to Dukes of Hazzard and the Brady Bunch--not so much the Pica-Pau Amarelo in Brazil. It's nice to be comfortable in my language and my bad 70s TV shows.

Being allowed to complain. I am not a Brazil citizen or passport holder. I cannot vote there. I was always pretty careful not to complain (much) about the politics because frankly I can't do much about it. I am a voter here. I vote every time I'm allowed. I complain and I try to change what I'm complaining about. It is nice to be able to vote in local elections again. And state. As well as federal. Beyond voting, if you are a "visitor" or "permanent resident" of a country, your criticism about it often chafes a native. I get it. 

New England. It's God's Country. It's the most beautiful place in the world in every season. It is. Don't try to fight it.

Coal. My rescue dog has filled a hole that a 14-year old labrador's death on June 14, 2014 carved in my heart. He is funny, he is bad, he is comic relief. We also have two fish and of course Haifa, the world's happiest and laziest labrador, who makes me smile just by existing.

Coal and Lalo

The bad

Little bads: Nico breaks an arm two hours after arrival last year.
Life goes on for some friends you had expected to see. Case in point is one friend who lives exactly one hour and a half from here. I haven't seen her since last August. Not for lack of trying--her kid plays competitive lacrosse apparently every waking moment, she and her husband work full-time and she is trying to sell her business.  For other friends, I mistakenly thought that New York (where I'm from) is closer than it is. I don't mean miles. I mean life.

BH working more in Brazil and less here. When we moved, I thought BH would be more here and less there. That he would be six months in Brazil then join us here with trips back and forth twice a month. In reality, he is more there than here--he's a consultant and he has a great client. We all do what we can but being more alone that I thought I would be has been pretty tough.

The realization that the market went on without me. For the last six months, I have dabbled in trying to go back to work. On-ramping, as it seems is the catch phrase right now. I need to for my mind and to pay for lawn care, which it turns out is really expensive ;). While I have a great educational and work background, I've been out for a long time. It is really hard, for my ego and in general, to get back in.

Even though you can afford it, you need to watch out. When you live in a city as expensive as São Paulo and imported goods are outrageously priced, you may find yourself going a little crazy when you get back in the US. Yes, a lot of stuff is very cheap but it adds up. Case in point: my Honda CRV cost the equivalent of $60,000 (before bullet-proofing) in Brazil. For that money, I could buy a nice Acura MDX (actually for $20K less) brand-new. Should we have bought a brand-new car with all the other expenses of new house coming through? Not sure. We made up for it with our second car: a 2002 Acura TL hooptie which my kids prefer to the big car!

Snowmaggedon. Yeah, it wasn't that bad but just think about 110 inches of snow and no snowblower. I love winter, but let's get real, Boston.

Missing friends and family. Perhaps the biggest "bad". The joy of being a bi-country couple is that someone is always missing. I miss my stepkids Carol and Pedro (ages 20 and 23) who are moving along life's path at an accelerated pace. I miss my friend Pri who was always up for a coffee or a glass of wine and laughing about life. I miss my expat friends who could make me laugh about the craziness of our adopted city--especially Erica, Birgit and Virginia, but many others too. I miss the fazenda where we rented a house--a place so filled with beauty that it apparently stole it from other places. I miss carefree and friendly Brazilians--the ones I struck up casual conversations with about nothing and about everything. Taxi drivers, bakery helpers, cashiers. And finally, but not meant that way, I miss my crazy Brazilian in-laws: Marisa, Marco, Zoraide, Leo, Isabela, Julia...all of you. Please no one tell them I said so.

All in all, we love our new house and new life in the USA. I am not promising to stay here forever, but it is home now.  I am now on the local PTO board. I have been appointed to a town committee. I manage my kid's club soccer team. I am doing my best to participate and live here as fully as I did in Brazil. Because I think that is the trick to expatriation AND repatriation. Throw yourself fully in, participate and BE where you are. Yes, you can miss certain things about your life in the other place but in the end, it doesn't help your happiness.

I'm not happy every day here. Not even close. But I try.

Happy Anniversary, Weston! 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Off the Grid, or Life as it Once Was - Old Forge, NY

View at Flat Rock, a short trail to magnificent beauty

After a couple of July weeks of camps and carpools and organized life, as well as Brazilian and American visitors, we left last Saturday for a four and a half hour car trip to Old Forge, New York, in the Adirondacks region. 

In case any of my foreign readers are not familiar with the Adirondacks, they are 6.2 million acres of loveliness, about 40 percent of which is state-owned, and the other 60 percent privately owned but highly regulated by a state agency. Depending on who you believe (and you'd better swallow hard), "Adirondacks" mean "they eat trees" or possibly "porcupines" (I love you wikipedia!). It was only named in the late 1800s--before then it was known as "Deer Hunting Territory" which is the title now bequeathed on Weston, MA. Just kidding, bambi lovers. In any case, I want to encourage you to NOT visit so I can keep it to myself. No seriously, it's terrible there; please read no further.

I will not bore you with the travails of long trips with twin 8 year old boys. Suffice it to say that we were very happy to arrive at the gatehouse of the Adirondack League Club in Old Forge. But before I talk about ALC, let me tell you a little bit about how we were lucky enough to know about it. Because, you see, the ALC is the world's best-kept secret. Yes, I am telling you but only because I know that only my mom and BH actually read this blog. Okay, maybe not BH. Let me show you case in point on the secretiveness of the organization. This is their website:

That's it, that's all they wrote. Now here's what you need to know: it's a membership organization, they are preserving the wilderness (and have done so since the late 1800s) and you can't go without knowing a member (which we do). Lucky us.

So, getting back to how we got in. We got ourselves a little guest pass that carefully and largely spelled out the day we were leaving. Yes. We were just pulling in, and they were ready for us to pull out. We didn't take it personally. After passing through the gatehouse, we drove to the so-called Little Moose lodge to wait for our friends, who we will call James and Joyce since I have no permission to publicly name them and since they are off the grid for the next two weeks, I am going with a literary pseudonym. 

James' family have been members of the club since the 1920s and he is married to Joyce, a Brazilian and we have known them since our kids were in school together back in 2009. They are a fun family--early morning off-the-dock dives, letting my kids drive the boat (help!) and all games, all the time.

Now let me explain off the grid. Cell phones don't work. There are no home phones. No internet, no TV, no nada except electricity and that depends on where you are whether it is generator-produced or not. As James said, if he ever had to escape the law, this is where he would go off-grid. I didn't think about that too much. I'm sure he meant it rhetorically.

So, since I want to stick in lots of photos to make sure you are all suitably envious of my life, here is the Little Moose Lodge:

There is not much "little" about it, really. Oh wait, I forgot. This is not the Lodge, it is the Summer House. Yes, this building is only used in the summer--it is not weather-proofed. So, they also have a Winter Lodge, which is right up the hill, and is used all winter long for those fans of snow sports and snowmobiling and freezing your toots off. 

Now this is actually a newer Summer House. The older one burnt down in the late 1940s to the great relief of the members of the Adirondack League Club. Why was it a relief? It was ENORMOUS! I saw a photo of it in the ALC photo book and it was basically a rustic wood castle, if you will. The upkeep was pretty spectacular for a then-800, now 400-member club. 

I've tried to search a map online to show you the extent of the 53,000 acre ALC property--actually two separate properties. It does not exist. You can find a map of Little Moose lake, and you can find one of the Adirondacks but you cannot find the lake where we were: Woodhull. Or Honnedaga which is the third lake. Oh okay you can but you'll have to squint here. We were at the lake far up to the left.

What's my point? My point is that two of these three lakes are motor-free. You may not jetski, you may not waterski, you may not motorboat. You get kayaks and guideboats and sailboats and standup paddle. That is all. On the lake where we stayed you are allowed to pass through with a boat (hence the prevalence of pontoon boats) but no zipping around with kids on innertubes. Boats are used because there is no road. None. The Adirondacks are QUIET. I like them like that. Please don't go.

Why yes, we do hunt here in the Addies
 The truth of it is that the inside areas of the Adirondack houses, cottages and lodges are places where you are more than happy to spend a rainy day. Well, okay, you are likely to have the head of some poor dead beast looking over you, but we're talking huge old stone fireplaces, large wood furniture, deep red-fabricked (may I, mom?) couches, rocking chairs and everyone's favorite, the Adirondack chair (well those are all outside but you get my point). Rustic charm. The charm that makes you want to buy the standing bear card holder or balsam wood garbage can before you come to your senses and realize it does not fit stylistically into your Colonial house in metrowest Boston. Though my brother has an Adirondack room at his apartment in Back Bay, complete with a half canoe bookcase. But I digress.

Rainy day great room at Little Moose Summer House. With dead animal over fireplace.

Bisby Lodge. Only place with wifi, 20 guys on the rocking chairs checking email

Boat House Bisby Lodge

Boat house Bisby Lodge: Lovely Adirondack Guideboats.

Where was I? Oh yes, so after meeting up with our friends, we had lunch in the beautiful restaurant on Little Moose Lake. In the summer house. And we didn't even have to pay!! No, that's not it. Members sign for the food like in a country club and then ante up later on. We hopped back into cars and drove twenty minutes to the crossing from shoreline to the house of our friends on Woodhull Lake. Or houses. Because everyone has a summer house (no insulation) and winter house (usually where the kitchen is and the family stays). 

I have to say that this trip was like going back to the early 1900s (if you forgive the two motorboats we used to cross over, oh, and electricity, whatever, come with me now). The houses are rustic and unapologetically so. The guideboat I would row around the island the next day was beautifully wood lined and graceful. Simple fun of jumping off docks into cold water. Building huge bonfires in firepits. Scrabble and card games. Hikes in the woods. Conversation and wine with friends. Fun with dogs.  And kids (yeah, almost forgot them). Life as it once was. And maybe should be for at least two weeks a year. 

Hard to get off the grid for two weeks or two months anymore. I would certainly like to try to again. We were there only four days--next year, I'm going for two weeks. Good thing James and Joyce don't know yet...right now, they're still off the grid. 

More gratuitous photos of my extremely awesome vacation:

Great room at our Summer House lodgings. Don't you want to read? Come on, rainy day!!

Bunk mates
Made for creaking back and forth on.


The four-bedroom summer house where we stayed

Dock at boathouse
And from a couple of hikes:

Woodhull Reservoir--reserved since 1870

Flat Rock trail. Mit Hund.

Hope you haven't read down to the bottom. I hope you hate this blog and the place. If you want more details about a stay there, the ALC is unlisted and off the grid. 

Me, I'm going back. Soon, I hope.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

New England does summer - Crane Beach, Ipswich

Green head (photo credit

New England in early summer is a true delight--warm days, cool nights, bright green trees and luscious flowering plants. And truly lackadaisical mosquitoes. Seriously, compared to Brazilian mosquitoes, the American ones are smoking weed and living life in the slow lane. Brazilian mosquitoes will bite you so fast you don't even know they're there until they buzz in your ear in a zzzzzzz of "got ya, sucka!" as they leave. American ones do not buzz in your ear. No, they circle for a bit, then sit their big butts down and drink a slurpee. They die in large numbers in our Brazilian-trained household--we are fast with a slap.

So, I've gotten to be a bit blasé about American bugs. Yeah, ticks are a bitch and I don't want lyme disease but in São Paulo's concrete jungle my dog got canine tick disease three times and here in the mecca of deer ticks, no one, not even me and Coalie the woods walkers, have gotten a bite. I am knocking wood on the dining room table at the moment.  

Brazilian ants are not to be trifled with either; one took out a large chomp of one toddler son's finger tip and others crawled out of an ant hill and up a kid's pants leg until you could hear the screams down the block.  The bites can itch and burn for days. 

Yesterday morning, BH and I decided that we wanted to have a beach day today. A one-day trip, hopefully not more than an hour and a half from home. My parents had toddled off to Martha's Vineyard with my brother's family so we were, I suppose, feeling some summertime envy. I remembered that a neighbor had gone to a place called "Crane Beach" a few weeks ago, and I decided to check in for advice on parking and distances. 

The neighbor answered my text with advice to arrive by 10 am but to call first. That it was green head season and I should ask the beach operator how bad they were.  And I said "Ack, wtf are green heads?" And her answer was "When they land on you and start sucking your blood, blood-curdling screams will echo on Mars." And I thought, holy crap, what are these suckers?

Green head.

I looked them up here and saw that these are nasty inch-long beasts with green eyes which give them the green head name. They live in the salt marsh (and are also known as salt marsh horseflies) that is near Crane Beach, then come out in the first weeks of July and suck every living beach goer dry. This was not something I was looking forward to, given my past experience with the borrachudo at BH's family beach. Have I mentioned these evil things? They are tiny, so tiny you never see them before they bite you HARD, then the bite itches for about a week. No kidding. That long. They are the pestilence of São Paulo state beaches. 

So I was worried. Unfortunately I told my kids I was worried. And so they worried. I decided I would check with another friend who lives in Falmouth, MA about beach conditions there "Kim," I texted, "there are green heads in Ipswich, how are things down there at the Cape?" And she answered "Green heads are around but I haven't noticed them on the beach. Rumor is stinging jelly fish though." And I thought to myself, WTF New England????? I get through Snowmaggedon and slow spring mosquitoes and ticks and traffic and general New England CRAP and now you have Bugmaggedon for July? Oh, all right, stinging jelly fish are not bugs. Thank you, editors. Menace-maggedon. Let's not even get started on the great white sharks spotted off of Cape Cod. 

We, intrepid world travelers that we are, decided to risk it. We hopped in the car at 8:30 and got to the outskirts (read: the salt marsh) at Crane at 9:30 am. As we waited to pay our entrance fee, a number of buzzy beasts attacked the car. My kids squealed like it was Hitchcock's The Birds. Yep, I had stressed them but good. We parked the car in row six (that was one busy beach) and as we were getting out, two green heads flew in. They are not quick. I killed them with a flip-flop. My kids were impressed by my kung fu moves. 

The pretty Crane Beach. Minus buzzy things.

Crane Beach is pretty awesome. Like a Guarujá awesome, if you are Brazilian. Like a Key Biscayne beach awesome, if you are American. Wide beach, filled with colorful umbrellas and lots and lots of people. Great soft sand, not too noisy, kid and adult friendly. No waves. FREEZING cold water. I will never ever complain about Guaecá again. I could not feel my toes thirty seconds after walking in, and had to slap them back to life after getting out. Dang, New England beaches are not for the weak.

Ah, back to Bugmaggedon. Well, they are annoying, I will give them that. There were not many--of course we were tri-layered in Deet, OFF, sunscreen so they were probably a little taken aback by us. And they are slow and large. Infinitely more killable than borrachudos in Brazil. Not nearly as painful and not at all itchy after the bite. I took one bite on the ankle--it felt roughly like a needle being quickly inserted and then it felt like the slap that it took to kill that slow-moving buggo. No itch. So, no offense to my well-meaning neighbor, but that bug is an amateur next to the South Americans. A CONCACAF bug playing with Libertadores teams.

Yeah, at noon more came out and we did eventually leave when we got tired of slapping our legs. Surely the season gets worse as the sign at the gate reads "Green head season. No refunds." So, they will cause pain, just not yet. To the Brazilians.

Happy Summer!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Angels on ATVs - Mount Watatic, MA

Photobombed view from the top of Mt. Watatic
When BH and I wanted to get out for a hike this past weekend, I sent a note over to my brother who has lived in Boston for the last 18 years or so. He's a hiker and an adventurer and knows the area from Maine to Connecticut extremely well. He suggested one of three mountains to hike with the 8 year old kids, the most appealing of which seemed to be Mt. Watatic.

Mt. Watatic sits between the towns of Ashby and Ashburnham in central Massachusetts. Its peak is about 1800 feet above sea level, and the "standard" hike is around 1.1 miles to the top with about 500 feet in elevation change. I say "standard" because we found ourselves on a much longer hike--but I get ahead of myself. 

Saturday was a gorgeous day with high wispy clouds and a 70ish temperature. We hopped in the car--me, BH, the twins and our 2 year old rescue dog named Coal. It was to be Coal's first hiking adventure outside our conservation woods and we were prepared with a leash, his water and lots of treats. For us and for him. 

It took us about an hour to drive to the trail head. Most of the ride was the through woods and dale, with an unfortunate 20 minutes through trafficky, construction filled Fitchburg. The trail's parking lot was full so we parked on the main street (not recommended with little darty kids), loaded up two backpacks and hiked in. 

For the number of cars, we were expecting lots of people on the trails. But given that Mt. Watatic is on the 22-mile long Midstate Trail, there were more than a few people who had clearly hiked in on days previous and taken off for New Hampshire. We were passed by one enormous backpack laden group then a few trail runners and a few hikers we met going up and down. The trail is not too challenging at first, then slowly gives way to steep root-and-rock-filled slopes--how the trail runners did that without breaking an ankle, I will never know.

About halfway up the steepest part, I noted that Coal was not making his usual happy jangling noise. His happy jangling is provided by his town rabies tag and his name tag making a pleasant bell tone that serves to warn all chipmunks and other rodents of his approach. I looked to see that the ring had broken open and both tags were gone.

The kids were surprisingly uncomplaining--they are not so patient with hiking. One wants to GET THERE RIGHT NOW and the other likes to pick flowers and make fairy houses. We finally broke free onto the summit where Coal romped and played with another black rescue dog, we picnicked on salami sandwiches and trail mix and watermelon and Coal photobombed the only photo that would propose to show the skyline of Boston, which you could indeed see in the distance.

At the top of the hill, I also noted a huge stone with beautiful inscriptions about how the mountain had been saved from development. My favorite lines were about the "mountain that lived" and now was "holding us up to meet the sky." Good stuff. And we were to learn more when our adventure continued.

Now as we are standing around on the summit, my cell phone rings with an unknown number. I pick up and the person says "Do you have a dog named Coal?" and I say, why yes, I do. And the person on the other end says that he has found Coal's name tag. I say I'm all the way up the mountain. And he says he's all the way down the mountain. And so he says that he will leave the tag for me on the great steel post in the parking lot. So I'm happy.

Since it only took us about an hour to climb the hill, I look at the book (Best Hikes with Dogs Boston and Beyond) and it shows that there is a way to do a loop back down to the parking lot rather than scrambling back the way we came. Cue suspenseful music. I admit that following directions that were exactly this "From the gravel road, watch for a trail that veers to the left, following an old stone wall," was not my finest choice. Especially because New England has a looooooooot of old stone walls. And there were no blazes or trail names.

So we load up, find what seems to be trail by a stone wall, and head down. Later, much later, at home, I now come to believe that we actually followed down one of the old ski slopes. Yes, Watatic used to be a ski mountain--more on this one soon. 

BH is following our progress with his map function on the phone. He keeps saying that we are heading too far north. Given this map in the book, I say "no, honey, we have to head north to get the trail west to loop us around back south." I generally have an excellent sense of direction. I was pretty sure I was right. BH was not going to argue any more with me.

The map. See the summit lower left? I tried for a loop. Not a great plan.
We keep hiking. I let Coal off the leash since he hasn't had a chance to do his stuff, and he disappears. Twice. The second time for ten minutes, and the kids begin to panic so we put him back on leash. Then we start hiking over biting ants and the kids start getting upset. So we go faster. And pass by another stone for Mt. Watatic that lists a whole bunch of names of people who donated to save the mountain. I of course think this is a good sign--since we MUST still be on the mountain. But we're not.

We also see some old abandoned machinery a pond, and then we are seemingly at the bottom of the hill. If you look at the map above, we are actually at the point of the triangle at the top of the page. In the end, it turns out that we are in New Hampshire.

At the bottom of the hill, we decide we would find a trail to get us back south. We are now following BH's RunKeeper app. The kids are beginning to suspect that we are lost. They are right. Another 20 minutes walking and we see a tiny seemingly abandoned cabin in the woods. As we start bushwacking through the woods, an ATV (those little four wheel drive golf carty things) comes up the trail and pulls up to the cabin.

I am elected spokesmodel to ask for help. I walk towards the woman who hops off the ATV and call out (trying not to scare her) and say "help, we are lost!" And she comes over and says "yes, you are. And the only way back is up and over Nutting Hill (at this point, the kids screw up their faces like they might cry) or I can take you back to my house which is about six minutes from here and then drive you back to the parking lot." 

The offer of rescue was so spontaneous and generous that it took me a minute to even register it. Here was a woman, in the middle of her Saturday afternoon visit to her cabin, who was going to drive two 8 year old kids in an ATV back to her real house. BH, Coal and I would follow along behind. ATVs don't go so fast. I am afraid I did not thank this New Englander quite enough.

She loaded the kids into the ATV, hopped on and talked with them all the way back to her house. We met there her slightly less talkative but just as helpful husband who mentioned that they rescue a hiker group per week. They just appear out of the woods having gotten lost on the way. Signs they put up are stolen by ne'er do wells. So they just pop the hikers in their car and take them back to the trail head, 10 minutes away by car.

Diane, as it turns out her name is, pulls out her large SUV, puts down the seat and a towel for Coal, and loads us up for the drive around the mountain. And she tells us more of the story of Mt. Watatic. Later I would find out that we were talking to one of the names on the stone--one of the people who had worked hardest to save that mountain. 

The old ski resort. Novice through Intermediate. Photo credit:

Gravel road to right. photo credit:
Mt. Watatic had indeed been a ski mountain in the early 1940s, closing in the mid-80s due to competition and its location which is rather hard to get to. It was simply abandoned with the base lodge eventually being burnt by vandals. You can read a very interesting story about it here. Later, the top of the mountain was bought by a cell phone company which were the folks who built the gravel road that we started on at the top--cutting through the slopes forever. And there was further talk of re-opening the ski mountain or making a huge adventure park at the bottom. 

That is when the towns and residents (and Diane, it turned out) sprang into action. From wikipedia: 

In 2002, prior to development of the communications tower, the mountain was purchased for $2,500,000 by the Ashby Land Trust, the Town of Ashby, the Ashburnham Conservation Trust, the Town of Ashburnham, Mass Dept of Fish and Wildlife and Mass Dept of Conservation and Recreation... The purchase resulted in the permanent protection of approximately 281 acres (1.14 km2) of the mountain, including the summit, as conservation land.

Diane dropped us back at the trail head parking lot (where I found Coal's tag waiting for me) and sent us off with a trail map that she said would keep us from the madding crowds. My son Nico gave her some wildflowers he had picked, then we thanked her again, and she drove off home, possibly to await her next lost "city folk." 

We learned more than a little on Saturday about the history of Mt. Watatic (Algonquin for "wigwam place" by the way) and the people who care for the mountain and those who get lost on it. Angels on ATV.  

Monday, June 15, 2015

Truly Madly Deeply - Lincoln, MA

Sadly, my readers, I must confess that I am an addict. I am an addict of breathing in green leaves, sometimes dried, sometimes fresh. And yes, the white stuff too--it makes me giggle crazily as I sink into the maddening piles of it. And the worst of it is that while I love to share my addiction some days, mostly I prefer to feed it alone. 

My addiction is not, of course, to drugs, but to a place once called Preston Woods, now called Beaver Pond conservation area, or by me: "the woods."  A place conserved and managed by the Lincoln Land Conservation Trust and cared for by members of the community (both Weston and Lincoln townsfolk mostly). A place so magical in every season, it is truly addictive.

Trail markings
 Yesterday afternoon I was crabby. In frustration, BH (Brazilian husband) asked "what is going on?" And before I even answered, he figured it out-- "aha, you did not get into the woods today." And he was right--I was missing my woods walk. It is a walk I take, in some variation, every single weekday after my kids go to school. On weekends, I can't get out and both Coal, my 2 year old dog, and I are somewhat crabby about it. I do love my kids truly madly deeply but I also need the woods. It is hard to explain the feeling of absolute joy I get from these trails, leaf-covered, quiet, calming. It is a drug.

John Muir understands me, or perhaps it is I who understand him when he says: "I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out I found, was really going in." The woods are a place for introspection, for wonder, for true quiet. Going in.

Foggy? Rainy? No problem!
Today is pouring rain but it stopped me and Coal not one bit. On went the waterproof pants and jacket, the duck boots and into the woods for my favorite 3-mile hike. On days when I have other morning appointments, I frequently take a shorter and hillier 2-mile hike--each trail is delightful and each day brings us something new. Today, for instance, a brown toad rushed so fast across the wide trail even Coal was taken aback and slow to react. And new tiny white flowered plants are lining the trail where they had not been a week ago.

I have lived in three places that have what I'll call marginal seasons...San Francisco, Miami and Brazil. SF seems to have foggy season and golden season when the dryness browns the hills. Miami has pleasant season and freaking hot season. Brazil has more variety but no snow, to the great relief of many of my warm-weather fan friends. New England has 365 seasons, sometimes all in one day.

Every day there is something new to look at in these woods. Fall is my favorite of course as the trees compete to out-beauty each other.  The smell of fall is indescribable-- a mix of memories, trodden leaves, crisp air and pumpkins. Seriously. The woods put on an incredible huge last party and this is the season when I most run into people on my walks. Who can resist autumn?

Winter was alternately gorgeous, forbidding or comical. Making the first footsteps on a fresh snow = priceless. The crunch, the absolute silence except for the calls of the chickadees or the haunting warning cry of the red-tailed hawk. The lakes frozen tight, the bareness of the trees, all somewhat lonely and scary... until I fell off the trail into a 2 foot drift and could not right myself--my laughter echoing in the trees.

Lady's slipper - beautiful, short-lived, rare
Now spring with its frenzy of growth, leaves popping, new tiny flowers sprouting and dying back on a weekly basis. Lily of the valley, lady's slipper, ferns, and my old friend poison ivy. All reaching and dancing in the dappled springtime sun. One morning I was greeted by a cacophany of spring peepers from a vernal pool--so loud my dog Coal stopped, head cocked, to assess the level of danger. The people are back and I often have to share my woods--with Steve and his grey Weimaraner, or a foreign gentleman with a small terrier that romps and plays with Coal, or horse-back riders and others. But rarely do I run into more than about 3 people on the whole loop. 

The also-rare Haifa, my senior dog
Summer is but a week away and I have yet to experience that season in the woods--we arrived at the end of summer last year. I'm looking forward to it.

Yesterday at a Lincoln Land Trust event on caterpillars, I picked up the Trust's 2014 annual report which contains photos and an article about the Preston family and their land grant. One of my favorite signs in the woods is dedicated to Jean Wood Preston who is honored for sharing her "perennial joy in nature." Her daughter Katherine is quoted saying "My soul was set on its journey by Lincoln--its fields and woods and streams and ponds -- and the people it nurtured."  (you can read the full article on page four here).

I would like to think my soul is also set a journey here--it starts with three miles and ends truly madly deeply in my love of this place. Thank you, Lincoln Land Conservation Trust, the Prestons, and all those who preserve nature. It is the best addiction.

These two photos are from the same spot on Stony Brook just below Beaver Pond. One in January 2015, the other in May. Perennial joy, indeed.