March 22, 2021

Remembering Sandy Robinson

 

A wonderful lady and treasured friend passed away early this morning: Sandra Kay Robinson - Sandy to everyone who knew her - lost a near two-year-long battle with cancer.

Sandy installs Betty as GCFM President
I first met Sandy on June 2, 2015. I can say that with certainty because, the following day, Sandy installed my wife, Betty, as President of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts. Sandy was herself the newly installed President of National Garden Clubs, Inc. (NGC); the umbrella organizations for garden clubs across the United States and with affiliates throughout the Americas.

Sandy had progressed through the garden club ranks in her home state of Kentucky, then stepped onto a treacherous ladder that included a competitive, six-year ‘apprenticeship’ that culminates with being elected as national president.  The national president is the visible face of the organization, and the title comes with a back-breaking travel schedule: she is expected to visit all 50 states and a slew of South American countries during her two-year term.

Sandy at the Newport
Flower Show
The next day, I gave Sandy a couple of my books for her upcoming flights (over the next two week she would install half a dozen presidents).  She dutifully put them into her tote, and the look on her face was one that said, ‘Oh, my God, something else I don’t have room to pack…’. I imagined my precious books being abandoned next to air sickness bags on flights all over the east coast.

But something amazing happened.  Sandy read them.  And then passed them on to friends with glowing recommendations. I would begin to get notes from strangers in far-flung locations asking when my next book was coming out.

With Betty now going to NGC events and with me in tow peddling books, Sandy’s and my path crossed several times a year. I came to know a woman who both took her NGC role seriously, and who also took life with a large dollop of humor.  One of the perks of being NGC president is to choose a national theme (hers was ‘Leap Into Action’) and, along with that theme, to work with professional writers and illustrators on a children’s book.  Sandy had a life-long affinity for and fascination with frogs and so a wonderful book with an environmental theme was produced: The Frightened Frog. It sold extraordinarily well, including in Massachusetts. Sandy, in turn, was deluged with frog-themed paraphernalia, which both delighted and overwhelmed her.

David Robson and Sandy
at Coastal Maine BG
When I met Sandy, my writing and speaking credentials petered out at the borders of the six New England states. I credit much of my success beyond the region to Sandy’s speaking well of me, though she never saw a presentation of ‘Gardening Is Murder’ until I addressed the annual meeting of the Garden Club of Kentucky. It was my first talk in front of a group of people who had no frame of reference for New England gardening – or humor. Afterward, Sandy said I was ‘even weirder than (she) already thought I was.’

At Crane Beach
In 2019, Betty and I were able to reciprocate some small part of Sandy’s friendship. In June of that year, she and David Robson were invited to judge the Newport Flower Show. We invited them to come a few days early, allowing us to show them some of ‘our’ New England, including an all-day trip to the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden (she had seen it once before – for 40 minutes – as part of a whirlwind tour of horticultural sites), Crane Beach, Long Hill, and Farnham’s fried clams (even though she had a seafood allergy).

Her sense of humor
on display
That was also the last time Betty or I would see Sandy, though we spoke with her periodically. That autumn, she received her first cancer diagnosis. A spring 2020 speaking swing through the Midwest that would have included a detour to Kentucky to see her was scrubbed when Covid-19 reared its head.

She was a remarkable lady who leaves an enduring legacy. Since hearing the news of her death this morning, we have heard a cascade of remembrances of kindness, activism, friendship and, above all, devotion to the garden club community.

March 5, 2021

Getting the Gang Back Together Again

 

Medfield's Community Garden
For the past dozen years, I’ve performed an end-of-winter task that is equal parts sheer joy and pulling teeth: I’ve re-assembled an ever-growing coterie of vegetable-growing enthusiasts for the Medfield Community Garden.

If you take the responsibility seriously, managing any community garden is not for the faint of heart.  Managing one with 75 plots and 80 demanding gardening families is grounds for keeping a defibrillator close at hand, especially in an era when acceptable out-of-door activities are few and far between.

A woodchuck hole in
one of our gardens
For me, the process began at the end of January with a review of the ‘Gardening Guidelines’.  Don’t try to impose ‘rules’ on gardeners. ‘Rules’ smack of dictatorships. ‘Rules’ are totalitarian. ‘Guidelines’ are things everyone can agree to do, especially if they fit on one page. As we do every year, Betty and I reviewed and re-wrote the Guidelines with a view to addressing things that went wrong in 2020.  For example, a woodchuck wrought destruction in one garden, so burying fences six inches was elevated from a ‘nice thing to do’ to something expected of every plot holder.  Because of overwhelming scientific evidence, plastic mulch (ground covers) went from being ‘discouraged’ to ‘banned’.

the Guidelines
Once the Guidelines were ready, I emailed those gardeners who had left their plots in good condition at the end of the 2020 season. I told them to read the Guidelines and, if they were in agreement with them, they could claim their old plots for a new year. That was on February 1, and I gave them to the end of the month to get a check to me.

That’s when the ‘special requests’ began flooding in.  Gardeners with half plots wanted to move up to full ones. Gardeners with full plots wanted to move to sunnier locations. Families that had co-gardened with other families wanted plots of their own.

Oh, and as all this was happening, the town asked how we could make the garden compliant with the ADA – the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Many community gardens allow
permanent fences, which inhibits turnover
While not an official requirement, our goal in the Community Garden is to bring in new blood each year. Too many towns, we found, have gardens that, intentionally or not, are essentially hereditary.  To us, that wasn’t fair and, to that end, we’ve expanded the garden twice and split large gardens in half.  Our problem is that people don’t want to leave and, as noted above, many of those half-plot holders want to move up to full plots.

In an average year, though, 15-20% of gardeners move from town, lose interest, or ‘age out’ (including children reaching an age that being with Mommy in the garden has lost its magic).  In 2020, roughly ten gardeners dropped out due to Covid concerns. Those plots were immediately snapped up by a dozen replacements. This year is turning out to be anything but average. The renewal rate from 2020 is above 90% which means, if we give the ten gardeners who want to move up from half plots to full ones, there isn’t any room for new gardeners.

ADA compliance will require we offer
some plots with beds raised to
wheelchair-accessible height
In the end, we had ten, 300-square-foot plots to offer new gardeners.  On the morning of March 1, I put out a single notice on Medfield's 'Concerned Citizens' Facebook page and had responses within 15 minutes.  By March 3 at 6 p.m., I had checks in hand for all ten gardens - and a waiting list for those who did not comprehend the opening sentence of the 'Gardening Guidelines' that plot assignments are not final until paid for.

And so, we’re trying to expand the garden yet again – add an additional ten full-size plots. Ground is supposed to be broken this month, but it’s weather-dependent and this has turned out to be a snowier-than-expected winter.  We're doing a final walk-through with the town's Conservation Commission next week and I am crossing my fingers everything goes as planned because I’ve also put out the word to prospective new plot-holders.  If it doesn't happen, I have visions of my head on a pike.

One option for compliance
The ADA compliance question is also turning out to be a surprise.  We cast a fairly wide net looking for examples to follow. Almost all responses we received were of the ‘What a great idea!’ variety, and a few added, ‘Please let us know what you do so we can replicate it’, which was an encouraging reply but not especially helpful. 

As it turns out, accommodating gardeners with disabilities has not been on many town’s radar screens.  We did find the gardens constructed as part of the Southwest Corridor project have special wheelchair-accessible raised beds, as does the Audubon Society’s Nature Center in Boston.  We’ve submitted a proposal to the Conservation Commission and, last evening, it was warmly received.  The timing is anything but set in stone but, once it happens, it appears we’ll be trailblazers once again.

February 17, 2021

Introducing my latest book: ‘Murder Brushed with Gold’

When I retired 15 years ago, I thought I’d try my hand at writing a mystery.  It took six months, and it taught me the difference between ‘thinking about doing something’ and actually doing it. That book, ‘A Murder in the Garden Club’ turned out to be very popular and, even better, gave me a cast of interesting and likeable characters whom I could incorporate into subsequent stories.

No suburban sprawl in Hardington

What I didn’t realize back then was one of my most important ‘characters’ was the book’s locale: Hardington, Massachusetts.  In other parts of the country, Hardington seems idyllic (except for all those murders): a small New England town, yet just a short commute to Boston. It’s a town without big-box stores or strip malls. It is surrounded by open space and has a near-four-century-long history. It’s the anthesis of the typical big-city suburb, where you know you’ve crossed municipal boundaries only because there’s another Home Depot.

Hardington and Medfield
are both southwest of Boston
Hardington is a lightly fictionalized version of the town my wife and I have called home (off and on) since 1980: Medfield, Massachusetts.  Medfield has just a handful of traffic lights and no streets wider than two lanes, yet it is just 17 miles from the center of Boston. It has about 13,000 residents scattered over 15 square miles. More than half the town’s land is off limits to development.

For ‘Murder Brushed with Gold’, I mined two nuggets of Medfield’s history.  First, for several years in the late 1800s, the town had a small artist’s colony focused on impressionist, plein air painting.  No less a figure than Isabella Stewart Gardner touted Medfield as having vistas comparable to Monet’s Giverny.  And, second, in 2006, AOL (then, a powerhouse internet service provider) tried to get permission from a judge to dig up a yard in Medfield. Why? Because the company believed a young internet spammer had buried millions of dollars of gold bars in his parents’ lawn. (There is some stuff you can’t make up.)

The roadside cottage still exists
I freely admit a soft spot for art.  It figures prominently in ‘Deadly Deeds’ and ‘A Murder at the Flower Show’. For my new book, I re-created that colony in the summer of 1889 and populated it with a mix of real and fictional artists. One of the real people is Dennis Miller Bunker, a gifted artist who died tragically young. One of his enduring paintings, which resides in the National Gallery of Art, is of a humble roadside cottage in Medfield.  I had a fictional artist, Alan Churchill Lawrence, paint a first version of it.
'The Pool, Medfield' by
Dennis Miller Bunker (1889)

Every good story needs a ‘heavy’, and mine is another fictional artist: Edward Merrill Cosgrove. He is already famous, powerful and wealthy with an oceanfront estate in Maine, yet he deigns to pay a visit to Hardington for reasons that become clear as the book progresses. 

After three days, though, two men appear at the boardinghouse’s door seeking an audience with Cosgrove. They do not get it. An agitated Cosgrove disappears for a day and, late that evening, Lawrence witnesses what he believes is the burial of the two men by Cosgrove and an accomplice behind the cottage Lawrence painted just a few days earlier.

'Gray Day on the Charles' by
John Leslie Breck (1889)
Lawrence knows Cosgrove is not a man to be crossed, yet he must be brought to justice. Lawrence adds a conspicuous spot of color to the painting and sends it off, along with pages from his journal, to his agent in Boston with instructions to find a way to get the material into the hands of the police.

Skip ahead 132 years. Liz Phillips (the amateur sleuth in the series) is accompanying her good friend, antiques dealer Roland Evans-Jones, to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts where, in exchange for having his painting cleaned, he is lending Alan Churchill Lawrence’s ‘Wayside Cottage’ for an upcoming MFA exhibition on New England plein air art colonies.  In MFA’s conservation studio and in the presence of the curator mounting the exhibit, the painting is taken out of its frame for the first time.  Out pops Lawrence’s journal, together with a plea by Lawrence to his art dealer for his help.

Isabella Stewart Gardner
as painted by Sargent
The curator immediately recognizes the journal as a powerful, historical artifact.  Cosgrove’s standing as the ‘Father of American Impressionism’ could be shaken to its foundation. She immediately sends PDFs of the journal to researchers for their comment.  Liz Phillips suggests digging up the site identified in the painting (the building still stands, little changed, from the time it was immortalized). Volunteers are recruited.  Detective John Flynn (the series’ other protagonist) gets involved to coordinate things. Hardington’s police chief even invites the media to record what is found.

Which, or course, is when all hell breaks loose. The heirs of Edward Merrill Cosgrove say the journal is a sensational forgery created by a publicity-seeking ‘used furniture dealer’. They demand the painting and journal be turned over to their experts for scrutiny.  And then, those volunteers at the wayside cottage sink their shovels down into the soil behind the wayside cottage… and strike something very unexpected.

Oh, and you’re only about a quarter way through the book.

How it all started

If you’ve not read the five ‘Hardington’ mysteries that precede this, you’ll find ‘Murder Brushed with Gold’ a satisfying stand-alone read with lots of humor, twists and turns; along with plot points turning on art, museum politics, robocalls, fractional jets, and some other things that would be spoilers to mention.

If you’ve kept up with the series, you’ll finally get Roland Evans-Jones’ back story, meet Liz’s daughter, Detective John Flynn’s wife, and get another helping of Felicity Snipes. And, for those who have been rooting for two lost souls to admit their attraction for one another… well, let’s say there’s some of that, too.

You can purchase print or Kindle copies of ‘Murder Brushed with Gold’ through Amazon, or print copies directly from the author at https://the-hardington-press.square.site/, or by contacting me directly. You can read the first chapters at www.TheHardingtonPress.com.

February 2, 2021

Heart Attack Snow

This post was supposed to be titled, ‘Winter Wonderland’. It was envisioned as a full-throated, self-congratulatory, thousand-word essay about being environmentally conscious even as you deal with the reality of snow-swept New England winter landscapes.

Medfield was supposed to be squarely in the 'jackpot zone'
Instead, I’m reduced to distantly remembering I used to gladly pay a dime at my local 7-11 on hot days to slurp a cupful of the stuff I’m now shoveling; except, back then, it was enhanced by a squirt of sickly-sweet fruit syrup.

We had been promised this snow
for three days
You see, we had a nor’easter last evening and today.  The same winter storm (they have names now, this one was Octavia) that drenched California and fouled travel across the Midwest, re-formed itself as a low-pressure system off the East Coast and dumped a foot and a half of snow on unsuspecting Queens.  Octavia then sets its sights on New England.  As late as 5 p.m., as flakes were starting to fall at the Connecticut-Massachusetts border, the National Weather Service still showed Medfield as squarely in the center of the ‘jackpot’ zone of 12” to 18” of snow.

Abigail jumping at snowflakes
I am ready for that kind of a snowfall.  For somebody who did not see snow until he was twenty years old, I have adapted rather well to the notion that precipitation can come frozen.  I topped off the gas in our snow blower, positioned it at the front of the garage door, and settled in for an evening of the kind of satisfied anticipation that comes with being well-prepared.  The snow arrived along with gale-force winds, turning trees into works of art.  Our ten-month-old, Florida-born cat, Abigail, jumped excitedly at the snowflakes falling on the outside of the living room window, unable to comprehend what was going on outside.

At about 9 p.m., Betty tilted her head and said, “that sounds like rain.”

“Nonsense,” I replied, with the confidence of someone who believes an army of forecasters armed with the infallible European Weather Model cannot possibly get things even a little wrong.

But I, too, heard the tinkling sound of raindrops against the windows.  I went to the Weather Channel website and saw the three-hour 'up-until-now' loop of solid snow overwhelming southern New England; getting darker blue by the second.  But I also saw something disturbing: the rain-snow line that was supposed to be solidly anchored on Cape Cod was, instead, stealthily advancing ever further into the mainland.

I tapped the ‘future’ button.  Sure enough, we were turning green. The loop showed Medfield had nothing but rain in its future. Somewhere, 30,000 feet over our heads, the gremlins controlling the storm's steering currents had decided to have a joke at my expense. Except, to me, it wasn’t going to be one bit funny.

No asphalt, just a stone driveway
At this point, you are probably wondering to yourself, What’s the big deal? Be happy it isn’t all that snow!

The first problem is, our property isn’t equipped to deal with wet, heavy snow.

Six years ago, when we were planning our ‘dream retirement house’, we went all-in on creating a home that would be one with nature.  No grass lawn, no invasive plants or trees, and nothing that would cause excess water to roll off our property and into the town’s storm drains. To meet that last requirement, we eschewed the idea of your standard asphalt driveway in favor of one made of crushed stone, held in place by decorative granite curbing. Rain water, rather than rolling down the gentle slope of the driveway to the street, would instead pass through the stone and soak into the subsoil, recharging the reservoir of moisture for our garden.

I mounted our snow 
blower on skis
And, if it snowed, I was ready: I retro-fitted a pair of Rossignol skis onto our hardy snow blower so the maw of the machine coasted half an inch above the driveway and sidewalk surface.  It is, if I can allow myself a moment of immodesty, a stroke of genius. I may even patent it one of these days.

The second problem is, there hasn’t been a snow blower made that can deal with water-soaked snow.  Put any model out on a driveway, fire it up, and watch as the icy residue dribbles out of the blower like an 18-month-old disgorging unwanted Gerber’s Squash Delight. 

An asphalt driveway can be
scraped clean in minutes

A homeowner with an asphalt driveway can pick up the phone, call some Guy with a Snow Plow on His Pickup Truck, and pay whatever extortion is demanded. I don’t have that option: a conventional snow plow will simply take off a cubic yard or two of crushed stone along with the snow, and deposit it either out on the street or in our perennial beds. (And don’t give me that ‘Oh, the snow plow operator can keep the blade up a couple of inches’ stuff. The Guy with a Snow Plow on His Pickup Truck has a laser-like focus on the goal of being in and out of your driveway in three minutes, with his pockets stuffed with enough cash to take the family to Disney World.)

The snow was water-soaked
This morning at 6:30 a.m., I went outside in drizzling rain to survey the scene.  The gremlins controlling the steering currents were slapping their knees with laughter.  While safely-inland Wilmington, Massachusetts recorded twenty inches of white, powdery snow; Medfield had six inches of snow permeated with at least an inch of water.  

A gift from the town
And, of course, down at the intersection of the driveway and the street, the Medfield Highway Department had thoughtfully deposited a ten-foot-wide, three-foot deep, and two-foot-high plug of pure ice. All of it had to be moved... by hand.

We call it ‘heart attack snow’.  Every shovelful weighs about thirty pounds. You move it for an hour and then your right arm goes numb. Cue the EMTs.

Betty took the sidewalk and an area immediately in front of the garage.  I first removed the plug of ice and then started up the 90-foot-long driveway, being careful to leave a skim of ice/snow on top of the

The finished driveway, a crust of snow
crushed rock. Two hours later, we had a clean sidewalk and a wide-enough passage that we can get our cars out into the world if needed.

As Kermit the Frog once reminded us, ‘It isn’t easy being green’. 

I would add it is definitely hard work sometimes.  And maybe even good exercise.

December 20, 2020

The Cat Chronicles

 Day 15

This is the day, in what was supposed to be my new home for life, my humans went over the edge – around the bend – off the deep end with no life preserver.

My humans planted a tree in the house!
They planted a tree in the house.  No kidding.  A gigantic, touch-the-ceiling monster. It’s so tall I don’t think I could climb to the top of it even with a flying leap. Of course, it would be an interesting experiment…

They brought it into the house while I was sleeping. I smelled it before I saw it. And, when I did, I admit I freaked out.  I ran, I hid, and I took another nap. Later in the day, I went to see if it was still there.  It might have been a bad dream.

There's cold white stuff outside
Nope.  Still there.  Don’t ask me what kind of a tree it is.  I’m a Florida cat. I know six kinds of palm trees. I can tell you the difference between a jacaranda and a royal poinciana, and I’m only eight months old.  But I’m not in Florida anymore, and it isn’t just that three-hour plane ride.  There’s this white stuff all over the ground, and it’s cold (I put my nose against a window; a mistake I won’t make twice).

Day 16

This morning, they put lights on it!
This morning, my humans went even further over the edge.  They put lights all over the tree.  Hundreds of them! Give me one good reason why a tree needs lights.  It isn’t going anywhere and it’s not exactly a navigation hazard.  My two humans are going to be carted off to the loony bin and no one is going to feed me.  But putting on lights wasn’t the end of their lunatic behavior: they disappeared downstairs (I had no idea this place had a ‘downstairs’! But now I do…) and they came up with giant plastic bins that smelled… old.  They opened them and I smelled years of stuff.

Being just eight months old, I’m still getting the hang of this time thing.  I talked it over with some of the other cats in that hotel they had me in when I first came up from Florida.  They explained to me first you’re a kitten and then you’re a cat.  You’re a cat for, like, twenty years, with your muzzle growing whiter each year, and then

your time is up.  I asked how long humans lived and no one had a clue.  Assuming we all live the same number of years, I’m guessing (based on my male human’s gray hair) my humans are around 15 years old, which means in five years I’ve got to find some different humans to be my staff.  Except this pair is going to be in an institution just as soon as some other human gets a load of the tree they’ve planted in the house.

Oh, and after lunch, they started taking all this old stuff out of the boxes and putting it on the tree.  And, I don’t mean just throwing it on the tree.  There must have been six hundred gizmos in those two bins, and every one of them had to go in one certain place.  They even got all misty-eyed when they pulled out stuff.  I’m still getting the hang of human-speak, but they’re all
weepy and reminding each other about where they were when they got each of those gizmos (Harrod’s? Is that a human? A city?) Egypt? Amsterdam? What’s that?

The interesting thing is, every object they put on the tree smells different. I smell different times and places, but they’ve all been together for different lengths of time – as though my humans collected this stuff and saved it just to put on the tree.  How weird is that?

Day 17

This morning, they let me into the room where they keep the tree.  I think I finally get it.  For the first time, I got to really smell the gizmos (my humans call them ‘ornaments’). I smelled three things.  The first is where they came from, which I’ll probably never sort out.  The second thing is that they’ve been on lots of other trees before this one. I smelled a few ornaments that had the scent of more than fifty different trees.  So, this isn’t the first tree my humans have brought into this home.  I figure they bring in new ones – what? – once a year, maybe?

They finally thought they had thrown
enough gizmos on the tree
The third thing was the real eye-opener.  I’m not the first cat to have laid a paw on these ornaments.  Some of the ornaments have been sniffed at by one cat; and some by as many as three. (The three-cat ornaments are really, really old.)

I’ve got a lot to ponder here.  Maybe they haven’t gone completely around the bend.  Maybe this is one more kind of stupid human trick. Whatever it is, I’ll keep an open mind.  As long as the food keeps coming.

December 7, 2020

Abigail’s Resurrection

For twelve excruciating hours on Sunday, I believed I had contributed to the horrifying demise of an innocent creature with which my wife and I had only recently been entrusted. Because this is a Christmas-time story, I will say, up front, that this tale has a happy ending.

Betty and Brandy
circa 1980
My wife, Betty, is a cat person.  When I first met her in 1974, she was the guardian of Brandy, who had been born in her college apartment closet.  In order to date Betty, I had to have Brandy’s approval.  To marry Betty, I had to adopt her cat. Brandy lived a long life, following us from upstate New York, to Chicago, to Brooklyn, and to Massachusetts; never complaining about our seeming impermanence.

Alfie, circa 1993
Brandy succumbed to cancer at the age of 18 and, after a suitable period of mourning – and now living in Stamford, Connecticut – we adopted a seven-year-old shelter cat whom we named Alfred Lord Tennisanyone, for his ability to expertly bat small objects.  Alfie obligingly followed us to Virginia and back to Massachusetts. His specialty was finding odd places to hide.  When we moved into a temporary apartment in Alexandria, he promptly went walkabout and took an elevator to the lobby.  He charmed everyone he met, and his affection could be purchased by the highest bidder, preferably in the form of food. He developed pancreatitis at 16.

T.R., circa 2002
After another period of mourning, we adopted another shelter cat, this one from New Hampshire.  Though he was almost certainly a Red Sox fan, T.R. (Tabby la Rasa) was a one-of-a-kind homebody who cheerfully followed Betty around the house, laid at her feet, and slept at the foot of our bed, snoring like a sailor.  He lived to the ripe old age of 21 and even adorns the cover of one of my books.

That's T.R.!
After T.R.’s death, we elected to be a pet-free household for a period of time. Our travel schedules for both business and pleasure were hectic, and we reasoned a cat should not know his or her sitter better than Mom and Dad. After three years, though, I sensed we were both ready for another furry face in our family.  We would adopt a cat for Christmas.

That was when I discovered the rules had changed.  The Medfield Animal Shelter, which once had daily visiting hours for animals and humans to assess one another, now required an online application process including references.  Fortunately, one of our long-time members of the Community Garden is a foster parent for ‘hard-to-place’ animals, and could speak well of our prior stewardship.

Moreover, the supply-demand equation for adoptions had changed.  In Massachusetts, even feral animals are routinely spayed and neutered, then re-released into the wild.  As a result, there are few local animals available.  Instead, adoptable cats and dogs come from other regions.

Abigail Adams
Last Wednesday, our application having been vetted, we were invited to meet three cats.  All were from Florida; two had required just-completed major surgery.  We had our heart set on a domestic shorthair and there was an eight-month-old female tuxedo who peered at us with that ‘please take me home with you’ kind of look that melted your heart.  ‘Zoe’ has been born in April and surrendered to a shelter in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida.  She had lived with a foster family for a few months but, as we were told, there is no demand for shelter cats in south Florida but there is a continuing supply because pets are not routinely neutered. Thus, Zoe and her companions were put on a plane and flown to New England.

After a half-hour introduction, we said, ‘we’ll take her’.  She came home that same afternoon.

I suggested naming her Abigail Adams; both to honor an illustrious Founding Mother and because one of my favorite characters in my books, Liz Phillips, has a cat named Abigail.  As everyone who reads the series already thinks Liz is Betty’s crime-solving alter ego, I figured we might as well bow to public pressure. Betty agreed. We had our 'Cat Who Came for Christmas', albeit a few weeks early.

Abigail came to our house as a frightened and disoriented animal.  A week earlier, she had been in a Miami-area apartment with a foster family and, likely, other cats (though the notes from the foster parents stated clearly this cat would be happiest as a lone animal in an all-adult household).  Then, she was on a plane, and likely not in Business Class.  Next, she was in a shelter in a (large) cage.  Abigail was understandably skittish, quick to bite or scratch, and constantly on the lookout for hiding places.  On her first full day with us, we spent two hours ferreting her out of closets; once memorably burying herself in a box of ribbons.

By Saturday, though, she seemed to have acclimated herself to her new surroundings.  She lay under a table while we watch a movie; she even made a foray into our bedroom after we retired, before determining that was 'too much too soon' on the familiarity scale.

Sunday morning, she was not in her sleeping tent (an Amazon box with cut-outs for seeing the surrounding terrain).  Abigail was found hiding in a closet and, once discovered, took off like a shot. I had promised to fetch breakfast from a favorite bakery in Wellesley.  Betty went out to the end of the driveway to bring in the newspapers.  When I called to say I was on my way home, Betty told me she had not seen Abigail since that lone encounter at 6:40 a.m.

The sink unit
We searched what we had come to think of as her ‘usual hiding places’ without success. We began to wonder if Abigail had somehow slipped out of the house when I went to the bakery and Betty gathered the newspapers. After breakfast, we did a more thorough search.  No cat.  We walked around outside – we had a Nor’easter on Saturday and there was a crust of snow on the ground and temperatures in the low 30’s.  No cat.

We then did a room-by-room search, taking apart cushions and tipping up every piece of furniture.  We truly scoured the house.  No cat.  I theorized Abigail might be hiding in the garage (what self-respecting, Miami-born cat would venture out into the snow?). Betty checked the basement, even though we were both certain the basement door was closed. No cat.

Cat's-eye view of the sink
As the afternoon wore on and the temperature began to fall, we made two more extensive circuits of our property, looking for where a cat might shelter. At twilight and exhausted, we took a nap.  Half an hour into the nap, I was awakened by what I was convinced was mewing and, running into our living room, was convinced I saw Abigail huddled outside at the door to our screened porch.  Fifteen minutes of frantic searching yielded no confirmation. I must have been dreaming.

We looked at one another and, for the first time, began to accept the terrifying reality that Abigail was lost.  She had insufficient fur or body fat to survive a New England night, and would be easy prey for the multiple carnivores that live in the conservation land behind our home. Our only hope was someone found her on the street, took her in, and would phone the animal shelter in the morning.

Feeling horrible and guilty for our neglect, neither of us felt like having dinner.  We read the newspapers and then books.  Around 8 p.m., sitting in our living room, we heard a noise; a ‘thump’ sound.  We looked at one another, and investigated every place we had previously looked. Still no cat. Maybe it was snow coming off the roof.

A 5"-deep cave
We returned to the sofa. Ten minutes later, another thump.  This was definitely from inside the house, and likely from our small upstairs which consists of two modest bedroom/offices and a small bathroom.  We re-inspected every space.  Then, on a hunch, Betty opened a small tightly-closed and never-used drawer under a sink. There, inside, was a trapped cat.  It had somehow launched itself into the drawer from underneath the sink through a hole a few inches on a side.

Last night, Abigail was officially invited to sleep on a blanket at the foot of our bed.  She declined, of course. For all we know, she was highly annoyed it took us so long to suss out her hiding place.  Over time, perhaps, she will come to understand humans neither possess supersensitive noses nor are mind readers.  But I’m not counting on a thank-you.

October 23, 2020

To Zoom or Not to Zoom, That Is the Question

Eight months ago – which now can be thought of as the ‘Before Time’ – I wrote about attending a talk by horticulturalist Dan Jaffe held at a garden club in a neighboring town.  There, in front of 35 or 40 people, Dan put on a virtuoso performance under the most unimaginable of circumstances: he could not project his presentation onto a screen.  Rather than cancel  as would have been his right (the club had promised a compatible projector), Dan pivoted to a different strategy: he pared his visuals to a minimum and walked the room, holding his modest-sized laptop for groups to see. 

I truly enjoy presentations
I was reminded of that talk twice this week.  Wednesday evening, I again watched Dan (doing a different presentation) speaking to a group numbering more than 300.  The presentation was via Zoom, a computer program that had become our de facto tool for education in a time in which we cannot assemble in groups.

Dan’s topic that evening was about incorporating native plants into landscapes.  He has dazzling visuals for his presentations and he possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of his topic.  But his hour-long talk was marred by technical glitches beyond his control: video freezes and audio that was often hard to hear.  At one point, his audience got a tour of Dan’s home as he moved from an office/study to sit adjacent to his router in a different room.  Further, Dan's slides aren't especially compatible with a small computer screen (see the photo at right).  Most of his slides contain multiple images, which look fine when projected on a six- or eight-foot screen – but were difficult to absorb on a 14-inch monitor.  And, without a laser pointer, deciphering which cultivar he was discussing was sometimes problematic.  Also, in the February presentation, Dan was interrupted every few slides by questions from the audience, which added to everyone's understanding of the presentation, and had the added benefit of forcing Dan to slow down. On Wednesday evening, Dan fairly raced through his slides.  All in all, it wasn’t a disaster; just a disappointment. 

Many of Dan's slides incorporate
 multiple images - hard to see
on a small screen
I can feel for Dan Jaffe because, this week, I did my first Zoom presentation.  It was a fund-raising project for the Central Atlantic Region of National Garden Clubs.  Mine was the kick-off talk of a four-day, seven-speaker event that likely raised close to $10,000 for scholarships.

As much as I genuinely enjoy speaking to groups, I have turned down several dozen remote speaking opportunities since Covid-19 became part of our national language.  I did so because I did not think I could do justice to an audience.  Mine is not a set of canned presentations; a group of lectures that never need vary.  Rather, I continually ‘read’ my audience and adjust as I go.  As a result, no two audiences ever see and hear exactly the same talk. Also, my subject matter is tailored for a live audience.  It is intended as entertainment; to make people laugh (and laughter is infectious), and is ‘educational’ but certainly not 'education heavy'.

Zoom has become the de facto
tool for enabling meetings

In agreeing to do the presentation (the organizer was exceptionally persuasive), I knew I needed to re-think many of my visuals for ‘the small screen’.  I also would need to tailor the talk for an audience that would be viewing in Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland (among other states). I also rehearsed multiple times (including in a Zoom call with the conference organizer) and mastered (or so I thought) Zoom’s screen-sharing options.

Those requirements paled next to the elephant in the room: that I would be unable to see or hear my audience.  In my ‘dress rehearsal’ with the organizer, we were one-on-one and I could see and hear her reactions.  I could also see myself.  I knew if I were properly positioned within the camera’s frame and could judge whether my gestures were appropriate. I also had that wonderful crutch offered to all users of PowerPoint: a miniature image of my next slide alongside the current one. When you see a presenter doing effortless segues between topics, it’s because of that ‘preview’ pane on his or her laptop.

A speaker's best friend is the
preview pane (in the lower
right) showing the next slide

All of that disappeared when I presented at four in the afternoon this past Monday. I logged on half an hour early but quickly discovered the ‘dirty little secret’ of Zoom: unless you’re the host (as I had been in my rehearsals), you a) can’t see yourself, b) can’t see or hear your host or the audience, and c) don’t have access to that preview pane.
  All I saw was my presentation and a small black rectangle with my name in it, where everyone else would see me speaking.  My audience, according to the Zoom counter visible to me at the bottom of the screen, was 133 strong.  Were they laughing, or were they going to the sideboard for another glass of wine?

I calmed down after a few slides and blew only one transition.  But, in my own estimation, I did a mediocre job.  I move around a fair amount and use hand gestures a great deal.  Because I could not see myself, I rigidly stayed in one position and minimized gestures.  I also went too fast (I know this because Betty kept holding up a sign that read SLOW DOWN!!!!).

Afterward, the organizer offered praise and said comments from attendees were uniformly positive.  I respectfully disagree.  I think I gave the audience less than half of what they deserved.  They got a well-rehearsed talk but there was no spontaneity because I couldn’t see or hear their reactions.  It was a two-dimensional talk that lacked depth and shading.

I enjoy connecting with my
audience (and, yes, selling
 books)

I realize I also failed in one other way:  When I present, I am invariably one of the first people to arrive (I even help set up chairs).  I speak to members as they come in.  I join conversations.  Sometimes, when it is a group with spouses, I even seed the husbands with the answers to arcane horticultural questions, then ask those questions before or during my presentation.  This pre-meeting chatter helps me to better understand my audience, with or without the mischief.

I haven't done a live, in-person presentation of any program since the first week of March - more than 40 presentations have been canceled.  While I miss those audiences, based on my Zoom experience, I'll wait out the pandemic and hope clubs remember me in 2021.