Archive for December, 2014

Letter From New York 12 31 14 Some thoughts at year’s end…

December 31, 2014

Outside, the sun is setting and I am prepping for my New Year’s Eve – as probably are all of you. I am following what has become my tradition of the last few years and I go down to Hudson, have dinner at the bar at Ca’Mea or the Dot and then attend the Red Dot’s annual New Year’s Eve party.

To avoid all the dangers of driving on New Year’s Eve, I check into the Inn at Ca’Mea and make it a bit of a holiday. I don’t have to worry about driving and I don’t have to worry about other drivers.

As I was driving back home from checking in, the obituary writer for the New York Times was being interviewed on NPR. She posited that the industry hardest hit by deaths during the year was Hollywood, with many of the last that went through the old studio system passing away, such as Lauren Bacall and Shirley Temple, as well as those who went too young, like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams, both having so much left to give. And let us not forget Louise Rainer, who died this week, having been the first to receive back-to-back Oscars for her work in the 1930’s. She lived to 104. Today saw the passing of the great character actor, Edward Hermann, best known for his work in Gilmore Girls.

This last day of the year is a good one for contemplation. To think about the ones who have gone before us and to hold close to our hearts the good things that have happened. I find it a bittersweet day and not one I particularly like. That’s one reason I make a plan for New Year’s Eve and probably make one that is not dependent on others.

As I often do, I peruse the stories breaking around the world and the world is going on its drumbeat. 2015 has already begun in Australia. New York security is supposed to be tighter than a drum. A two year old accidentally killed his mother when he reached into her gun-loaded purse.

Out in Asia, bad weather is hampering recovery efforts for the AirAsia flight that crashed. The news is the news; often not much good is reported. But I like to remember that good things happen, too. My friend, Mary Dickey, brought me a Christmas gift today, a battery powered toothbrush, just the right size for my backpack. We share a passion for brushing. I’m taking it with me tonight.

It is that blend of good and bad that makes the world so interesting and so unpredictable as well as frightening. Nature plays with us. It will snow in California tonight, I understand.

Dark is falling on Claverack. The old year is ending. The new one will begin. May you all have the Happiest [and safest] of New Year’s!

Letter From New York 12 30 14 The changing landscape around us…

December 30, 2014

Just as I sat down to write today, a veritable herd of deer crossed the yard, followed by one straggler who was obviously hurt, bounding as best she could on three legs while the rest were far ahead. It was touching and I instinctively wanted to run out and see what I could do for her – but I wouldn’t know and she is now long gone.

The sun is setting in the west; today, unlike the days before, was bright and sunny with brilliant cheer, chill but definitely not Minnesota cold. My brother told me it would be seven below there this morning. I woke to twenty-seven degrees. All the snow is gone now; the world looks more like a barren fall landscape than a winter wonderland.

The year is ending and everyone seems to be coming up with a top ten list, some of winners, some of losers but magazines are counting. Deadline Hollywood came up with part of its top ten films, which included FURY, UNBROKEN, AMERICAN SNIPER and Rory Kennedy’s documentary, LAST DAYS IN VIET NAM. Four of the five were war movies, which seems to have been on our mind this year.

It’s not surprising; we have been living with war for a long time now. Afghanistan is formally over and done but there are still boots on the ground and NATO still has a presence. Iraq and Syria burn and we have, of course, the Boko Haram in Africa.

Steven Pinker, author of THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE, argues that overall violence is down from where it has historically been. This morning in The Times that sentiment was echoed with the caveat that because of Syria and Ukraine there has been an uptick in the last year but that there are “only” something like eleven conflicts happening when there used to be dozens.

Perhaps it just seems to be more to us in America because we have had Iraq and Afghanistan for so long and they don’t seem to be going away. We’ve had to face ISIS this last year, too. But all in all, over the course of my lifetime, it appears that overall violence has declined and while I find that hard to believe sometimes, the empirical evidence seems to point that way.

And that is good.

Now there is a pink tinge to the sky as the light of the day begins to fail; the bare trees claw the sky and make for a magic scene out the windows by my desk. It is a perfect time for contemplation and thought; soft jazz plays in the living room on Pandora.

Lights are beginning to come on around the neighborhood, soon the automatic lights will snap on as the dark descends.

As I sit in this bucolic setting, I say a quiet prayer for the families of the people on the lost Air Asia flight. Bodies and wreckage have been found; another Malaysian linked plane has been lost, the third this year.

My mind also goes to Alexei Navalny, the Russian dissident who was given a suspended sentence for fraud. Thousands gathered in Moscow to protest the sentence and he joined them and was arrested again. It is suspected he was given a suspended sentence to avoid his becoming a political martyr. Putin has taken on all the powers of the Tsar, Autocrat of all the Russias. He just hasn’t crowned himself. Perhaps before it’s done, he’ll follow the example of Napoleon and put the crown on his own head.

Ah, darkness has fallen. The automatic lights have clicked on. I must go and prep for dinner with friends, in the seemingly unending string of dinner and cocktail parties.

Tomorrow, I must make a decision as to which of the two parties to which I am invited I will attend to ring out the old and bring in the new. Not bad decisions to have to make.

Letter From New York 12 29 14 Solace in the countryside…

December 29, 2014

Yesterday was a chill, dark, grey, desolate sort of day; so dark it required lights to be turned on in the house early in the day. My mood seemed to match the day and I had to forcibly choose not to be as gloomy as the day.

It had been my intention when I got up in the morning to get myself to church but I dawdled too much and my window of opportunity closed. I simply didn’t feel motivated to move.

The day brightened when my neighbors, the Karics, phoned and invited me as well as Lionel and Pierre over for “wine and nibbles” at 6:30. Jim and Pat have the loveliest home on the block and set out a feast of nibbles and we chatted late into the evening, about all manner of things.

This morning there is a bit of blue in the sky but the early morning sudden sun is now hidden behind clouds. I have an agenda of things to do today, one of which is find a birthday present for Pierre. He turns thirty today.

This is an interesting time, this week between Christmas and New Year’s. Many offices are closed or people have taken the time off of work. It feels like a time poised between events, a slow moving week of rest and relaxation.

The NY Times had a breakdown of what Mr. Obama has been doing on his vacation in Hawaii, golfing six times and bowling once. He played golf with the Prime Minister of Malaysia, who is now home and having what must be a terrible time as another airliner has gone down in the region and is probably at the bottom of the ocean. Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia are all involved in what might be a hopeless search. The United States is on alert to help if requested.

Ah, the sun has come out and is casting a golden glow across the landscape out the windows where I am writing. My stand of trees glistens in the light. Squirrels are romping across the gravel drive, looking, it appears, for crumbs. It is another day in the country.

It is so peaceful here, in my little corner of the world. I know that the world out beyond ii is not peaceful but I find respite and solace in the quiet of my world.

Twenty thousand strong was the crowd that came out to say good-bye to Officer Ramos, shot down execution style in New York last week. Many of the police officers turned their backs on Mayor DeBlasio as he gave the eulogy. They blame him for having encouraged protests to the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, two black men killed by police officers earlier this year in separate parts of the country, one in Missouri and one on Staten Island, here in New York. The man who killed Officer Ramos and his partner said they were revenge killings.

The NY Times, which I check every morning on my iPhone, is full of things that are sobering. It always is. The world is a sobering place every morning and every morning this fall that I have been at the cottage, I find my solace in the rhythms of nature as reflected in my yard.

Letter From New York 12 27 14 Christmas is winding down…

December 27, 2014

For the first time in a week, there is music on in the house that isn’t Christmas carols. Pandora is playing simple classical music from the Romantic Period. It is a nice break.

Earlier today I went off and had brunch at my friend Paul’s home over in East Chatham with his daughter and her fiancé. Good food, good conversation. Karen and Andrew went out on their quads and Paul and I reminisced. We’ve now known each other through twelve years and have a shared history; he has been a wonderful friend. We used to have a standing date for Saturday nights at the Dot until he began to spend less time up in Columbia County. His home is for sale here, part of his divorce settlement and should he buy another house it will be probably in New Jersey, closer to his daughter and her family.

They had been at my party last night and all of us were having a slow day. It was a good party and I was exhausted by the end of it, having been cooking and cleaning for three straight days – all of it pretty good, if I say so myself. The Christmas roast was not perfect but most of it was pretty darn good.

I have found myself very contemplative the last three days. It has been a joyous Christmas with good friends and I found myself also wanting more companionship than I have had recently. The cottage is a lovely place and I found myself wanting to share it over Christmas with someone. Perhaps it is a passing mood or an openness to something new in my life in the new year.

On some levels I am sorry to see 2014 go; it had some splendid times, like my train trip to Los Angeles with my friend Nick Stuart for the installation of our friend Eric as pastor at a church in Santa Monica, not far from where I had once lived. And though I sometimes want to stop the flow of time, I can’t. Each day slips away into the next, ferrying us into the future.

Perhaps some of my nostalgia is that I am also apprehensive about what will come in 2015. It is mostly a blank slate and I am getting itchy to be engaged again. It will be interesting to find out what it will be.

There will be no New Year’s resolutions. I will do my best to keep faithful to the ongoing resolutions of my life.

Keeping the news mostly at bay, I have celebrated the joys of living on earth, beautiful landscapes and good friends and have not let the news of the riven world disturb me much these days. I will pay more attention in the morning I am sure but in this little space that is “Christmas” I have attempted to focus on the joyful little things that make live sweet and wonderful.

Two thousand years or so ago, a man named Jesus was born and he changed history and created one of the great movements of all time. It has spawned great generosity and sad wars. But those were the men who came after him that did those things. He preached peace and forgiveness, which I am doing my best to remember this time of year.

Letter From New York 12 26 14 Another Boxing Day…

December 27, 2014

It is late at night, Boxing Day night, the night after Christmas. Tradition has it that it was the day the Lord and Lady of the Manor gave their servants presents in boxes. Or that it was the day young children went out with Boxes to collect alms for the poor. Whatever its exact origin Boxing Day is a holiday in most Commonwealth countries.

And often I have had Boxing Day parties. I think the first one was long ago when I lived in Los Angeles in an apartment on Plymouth Blvd. It was a great old apartment, Spanish style with a raised roof and beams. That was the first Boxing Day party I remember giving.

Today was the most recent. Friends, neighbors and a few friends of friends, a small but good group gathered tonight at the Cottage for the Boxing Day. A few martinis, a fair amount of white wine and some other drinks, mingled with some good food. And all had a good time.

It is the last of Christmas, 2014. Not a bad way to end the season. Now we are on to the New Year’s celebrations and a winding down of the year, getting ready for the adventure that will be 2015.

Letter From New York 12 25 14 A wonderful Christmas…

December 26, 2014

It is Christmas Day, a morning that came almost spring like in Claverack with temperatures in the mid-50’s. I woke this morning with a list of things to do as I am cooking again. Before ten this morning, I had a roast in the oven [foolproof, says the recipe] and was making asparagus soup.

At 11:30, Nick, his partner, Beth, and their lovely daughter, Alicia, aged three, arrived for our exchange of Christmas presents. They presented me with a new tablecloth and new flannel sheets for my bed, both things I needed. They were presented with a series of gifts and I learned Beth likes perfume. I gave her some and she was ecstatic. Note to self: perfume for Beth at Christmas. Nick liked the L.L. Bean fishing vest I gave him, as he is an avid fisherman as well as the wireless speaker for his phone, which he can use in the shop when he is working.

Alicia loved her Bunny Rabbit and named him Happy Rabbit and she liked her “Frozen” comforter. The names of the characters elude me but Alicia knows and that’s all that matters.

When they left to go on to another grandparent’s home, I finished the asparagus soup and made acorn squash with butter and nutmeg. I boiled some baby new potatoes. When all was said and done, the roast was a little dry. The soup was terrific as was the squash. All in all, it was a fine Christmas Day feast, finished with pumpkin pie and French Press coffee.

A moment ago, Larry texted me they were safely home, and had had another wonderful Christmas. And it was a wonderful Christmas.

And I hope you had a wonderful Christmas.

Out there, the world is doing whatever the world is doing. I am not paying attention tonight. It is quiet and peaceful and, I think, safe here and I am rejoicing in that peace and safety because not everyone has that.

There’s not much I can change in the world but if I can add a moment of peacefulness to that world, I will. It is Christmas. Let us take the spirit of Christmas into the world every month of the year and make the world a better place.

Letter From New York 12 24 14 Free to celebrate Christmas…

December 24, 2014

It is Christmas Eve. To me, Christmas was all about Christmas Eve. It was the night when I was a child that my godparents and their brood arrived at the house and we opened presents, had a great dinner. They departed and then we opened the rest of our treasure trove of presents. And then, when I was old enough, we headed off to Midnight Mass at our parish church.

I’ve fond memories of those Christmases and so I always associate Christmas with Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day. On Christmas Day, we opened what Santa had left us, which wasn’t much. I always knew the big presents came from my parents. It didn’t bother me that much when I found out Santa wasn’t real.

I’ve been up since early this morning, cooking and prepping. I’m having my friends Lionel and Pierre, Larry and Alicia. We’ll gather at six for cocktails and then dinner and then they will head off to their respective Christmas services while I clean up and prep for tomorrow as I am cooking Christmas Day, too. And I’m giving a cocktail party on Friday night. And then, whoosh, it will all be gone.

All day I’ve been in a good mood, listening to jazzy Christmas Carols and cooking pumpkin soup and prepping sweet potatoes. The ham is in and cooking away and there is a wonderful smell to the house as you come in. In a few minutes, Lionel and Pierre will arrive and we will exchange presents and then Pierre is off to sing at the Catholic Church. Later, they will both sing at the Episcopal Church.

Tomorrow, in the morning, young Nick and his partner, Beth, and their child, Alicia, will come over. It’s a bit like extended family and their presents are nestled beneath the tree and it will be exciting to watch the almost three-year-old Alicia open her gifts. She is into “Frozen” [what three year old is not this year?] so I got her a “Frozen” comforter for her bed as well as a stuffed animal that needs a home and someone to love it and an ornament for their tree with her name engraved on it. It’s fun to shop for a wide-eyed little girl. It’s really the only opportunity I have to do it.

It is a grey, rainy day and, actually, quite warm. The temperature scraped fifty degrees this afternoon. It wouldn’t have surprised me if this were the kind of weather Joseph and Mary might have trudged through on their way to obey the order of Caesar Augustus to be counted. I’m not sure what the weather is like in Bethlehem this time of year so I did what anyone does when they want an answer to a question. I googled it. In Bethlehem it is fifty-five degrees and clear.

So not that much different, except we’re having rain.

Thousands are gathered there tonight for Mass. In Rome, Pope Francis prepares to say his Midnight Mass after giving his Curia a scathing review this week and while he calls for attention to the thousands of Christians displaced because of ISIS.

Christians are now, once again, probably the most persecuted of religions. They, and other minorities have had to flee their homes, where they have lived since New Testament times, because of the campaigns waged on them by the Islamic State.

In Africa, Christians are living in fear of Boko Haram, which is setting about to create its own Islamic State in Nigeria.

It is strange to think of Christians as being persecuted but that’s the fact of the matter. In some parts of the world where they are a minority, they are being relentlessly pursued.

It is a sobering thought as I return to my festive cooking. Everything at dinner will need to go like clock work because all my guests need to be leaving for their Christmas celebrations. And they are free to do that.

Letter From New York 12 23 14 The Eve of Christmas Eve

December 24, 2014

It is the eve of Christmas Eve and I am freshly back from my friends Lionel and Pierre’s where I had a wonderful Shepherd’s Pie. They will come tomorrow at three for us to exchange presents and then again at 6 for dinner. I am cooking pumpkin soup, a salad of haricot verte, followed by ham, yams, asparagus and other things.

I have spent the whole day shopping for the next three days as I will be cooking for the next three days. I have organized menus and purchased food and prepped as best I can for the Holidaze.

In the background Christmas sounds are playing. I have a couple of presents left to wrap but I’m done. And I’m glad I’m done. It feels good to have organized it all and to have it all [almost all] wrapped and underneath the Christmas tree.

It all feels good. The chatter of all the troubles in the world seems far away.

Who knows the reason the Internet in North Korea went down? Was it a “proportional” response on our part or was it just an accident? I don’t know though I am suspicious.

It might have been the Chinese, who seem to be getting a little annoyed at the North Koreans. Not a good thing – the Chinese are about the only people who actively prop up the North Koreans. Oh, sorry – Putin has invited Kim Jong-un to Russia.

But Putin has his own troubles. The falling price of oil and the collapsing ruble and those pesky sanctions against him are causing a bit of a free fall in the Russian economy.

THE INTERVIEW, the silly movie at the heart of so much controversy, may actually get a limited release in some movie theatres. Something praised by the White House. Congress would like to have some screenings so they can see what all this ruckus is about and they might get it in the New Year.

Outside my window, at the desk where I am writing, Christmas lights burn.

On Friday, I will have a “Boxing Day” party. It’s the day after Christmas and according to some, it was the day the servants got to celebrate in England after having spent the last couple of days dancing on the whims of the Lord and Lady of the Manor.

It was also, according to legend, the day children in England went around with boxes to collect alms for charity.

But, whatever, the day after Christmas is Boxing Day in the Commonwealth countries and I have given many a Boxing Day party and this year will be doing one for about twenty folks, neighbors and friends, a chance to continue the celebration of the Holidays.

I shopped for that too, today. Never in my life has my grocery basket so overflowed! Never have I been so grateful to gather together the elements of celebration. It feels good to be gathering folks to the Cottage for the Holidays.

I love bringing people together at Christmas; it is a natural outgrowth of my upbringing when it seemed that every Christmas our house was full of friends and relatives, celebrating and feasting.

So let us celebrate and feast! Let us sing the songs of Christmas. Let us drink [carefully or take a cab!] and make merry. It is Christmas.

Letter From New York 12 22 14 On Christmas Quiches…

December 23, 2014

Today was devoted to Christmas quiches. Somewhere along the line it has become a Christmas tradition that I make Christmas quiches for my friends and neighbors and so today I made them, eighteen in total, supported by the faithful Nick. Since early this morning I was prepping for the day, slicing ham, dicing mushrooms, shredding cheese, steaming asparagus, putting together all the various things that were to make up this year’s Christmas quiches.

Christmas is upon us. I have a couple of presents to wrap but other than that I am done. It feels good.

It doesn’t look like it will be a white Christmas here in Claverack. Probably very damp but not white. And that’s okay. I celebrate that it’s not Minnesota cold. But then Minnesota is not as cold as it used to be.

In fact, according to some, Minneapolis is going to be a very temperate place in the next century, the product of climate change. Wine growing regions are moving north.

These are extraordinary things, this shifting of climates. It is all changing. The old timers here tell me that winters here in Claverack are nothing like they used to be – oh, so much milder. I always say that winters here are the way we hoped winters in Minnesota would be but never were.

It is a tolerable winter.

So we won’t have a white Christmas but we’ll have the spirit of a white Christmas even if it is not.

My car is full of quiches, ready to be delivered tomorrow. I feel a bit like Santa. Instead of a sleigh I have a red Toyota Prius and I am Santa like as I drive through Columbia County dispensing my bounty.

The first reviews have been good and I’m glad. Of the eighteen quiches three went home with young Nick and he texted me that they were great! And I’m glad.

It is satisfying to give gifts that were made in my kitchen. It feels like a throw back to Christmases past, when gifts were made at home and shared with friends and neighbors – not an orgy of mall shopping or online binging. Though I have to say, thank God for online shopping! Most of my gifts came through online buying rather than personal shopping. So much more convenient!

Most of the presents I am giving this year have been purchased online and shipped to me. The convenience is staggering. And then, in the name of my family, I made a donation to the USO.

Most of us Tombers don’t really need anything so I gave to a cause that I thought really needed something. I haven’t always agreed with our government’s military decisions but I support the men and women who have answered the call and gone and fought for us in our foreign adventures.

I can’t imagine anything harder than spending Christmas in a foreign land without your family and friends. So I tried to do something about it by donating to the USO.

Christmas is upon us. Tomorrow I will go and do a massive Christmas shop for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, both of which will be celebrated here at the cottage with old friends.

May all of us be celebrating those days with old friends and loved ones.

Letter From New York 12 21 14 Io, Saturnalia!

December 21, 2014

There was a light dusting of snow when I woke this morning, just enough to return a little Christmas magic to the countryside. It was a usual morning for me, coffee and the NY Times and some household chores. Right now I am doing a load of napkins in the washing machine so I have an ample supply for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinners.

Things have been organized to go to the cleaners including a couple of tablecloths that need pressing to bring them up to Holiday snuff. Recipes are scattered across the dining room table to put together the shopping lists for the next few days. Everything is humming along.

Household cleaning is scheduled for Tuesday and the marathon of quiche making will happen later today and tomorrow. Marcel, Lionel and Pierre’s poodle, is sleeping on the settee by the front door, quietly waiting for them to come back from church. Jazz versions of Christmas carols play on Pandora.

It’s a pretty good day at the cottage, a soft, sleepy sort of day.

While wanting to shut the world out this morning, I didn’t do it. The NY Times beckoned to me too much and I curled in bed with coffee and my iPad to read the major stories of the day.

They’re not very Christmasy.

A man who had posted on social media that he was out to kill some policemen gunned down two police officers in Brooklyn in an execution style killing. He had just shot his girlfriend in the stomach, who will live. He headed to New York from Maryland and had committed the murders by the time the warnings came to be watching for him had arrived. He said they were retribution for the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. He then committed suicide in a subway station.

Kim Jung-un, the North Korean dictator, is threatening us. I’m not sure exactly what he’s threatening us with but he is threatening us. He’s not happy the United States doesn’t want to take him up on the offer of a joint investigation of the Sony hack. So he is threatening us with mighty mischief.

So, the world is still a pretty bleak place out there but Christmas is arriving and thoughts of the Holiday fill the world. Thank goodness!

“Io Saturnalia!” used to be the greeting that filled Roman streets during the weeklong festival they celebrated in the middle of winter, starting around December 17th. They exchanged presents and ate and drank to excess. Sound familiar? Christians co-opted the festival in the 4th Century AD, turning it in to Christmas. Since some Christian historians believe that Christ was actually born in the spring, early Christians moved the date up to coincide with the popular Saturnalia.

Our Puritan forefathers didn’t celebrate Christmas. Apparently you could get in a lot of trouble with them if you had any parties around December 25th. It was a very naughty thing to do.

But the Puritans couldn’t hold down a good party; Christmas became legalized in the 1680’s and America was off and running in making this Holiday uniquely its own. It was a frenzy of gift giving, not to everyone’s appreciation. People were lamenting the commercialization of Christmas back in 1904. People have been lamenting that ever since.

This year I have pulled back some and focused on a few good friends and relatives. I make quiches for other friends and my neighbors. It feels good to be simpler this year. It feels good to be giving presents from my kitchen.

There was, of course, splurging on a few people. For them, I managed, I think, to find things for them that would both be useful and, hopefully, treasured in years to come.

I’d like to think my Christmas gifts would speak to the recipients in years to come, fostering enjoyment and recollection even when I am not present in person.