Sunday, January 24, 2016

Darcy Daniels: My Most Helpless Moment

Darcy Daniels and her husband were living in my hometown of Randolph, Vermont, when their three-year-old daughter became critically ill. Today Darcy sits on the Family Advisory Council at Massachusetts General Hospital, teaches history at Mount Ida College, and writes a blog for parents of chronically ill children. The following post, used with permission, is from her blog Brave Fragile Warriors. 

By Darcy Daniels
As the mom of a chronically ill kid, there are things that get thrown at me all the time with doctors, nurses, school nurses, pharmacies, insurance companies, etc. My daughter takes a nice cocktail of daily medicines, along with blood sugar checks and other concerns due to her immunosuppression. Yesterday alone, I had two calls from the school nurse, two from the specialist’s office about prescriptions and appointments, another to confirm an ultrasound, and one visit to the primary care physician, for (of all things) a sprained knee. There are no breaks with this child. It’s a lot, and it can wear on you. However, I have grown as a person and a parent since Wendy was originally diagnosed, and sometimes when I’m feeling a tad overwhelmed, it’s helpful to visit my most helpless moment to see where I am today, how far I’ve come, how far we’ve all come.
Writer, history prof, mom: Follow Darcy on
Word Press at Brave Fragile Warriors.
    It was one of the first weeks that we were in the PICU of Massachusetts General Hospital. We had been transferred first from our local hospital to Dartmouth, and then transferred again to Mass General. Wendy was three and a half, and normally active to the point of hyperactivity. She was always running, always joking, always testing the limits of EVERYTHING including my sanity. Then her illness came and she was in terrible pain, she was dehydrated, her kidneys had shut down along with other organ failures. She was in really bad shape.
    Doctors came in and out, whole teams of them, explaining to us what was going on, what was happening, what they were trying, how long we would be there. It was terrifying and isolating and we had to learn a whole new vocabulary over night. I would stand at rounds and take notes, of the doctors, their names, their specialties, what they were saying, what I didn’t understand, and then after they left, I would sit down and google the terms and try and piece together what the hell was going on.
    It was like living in a nightmare.
    Wendy was largely unconscious, and had tubes in and out of her with medicines and different solutions. I had a flurry of emotions: fear, isolation, uncertainty, but the number one thing I felt was helpless.
    As a parent, I was used to calling the shots for everything (with my husband of course). What Wendy ate, what she wore, making sure she brushed her teeth, making sure she had the proper number of minutes for her time out. Worrying whether she’d make her milestones, if she was eating enough vegetables, you know the drill. Too many decisions that we as parents make ourselves crazy over, wishing there were a no-fail guide book to read and learn from.
    Likewise, every parent has felt helpless at some point. We all have to let our kids experience life on their own terms, and that means getting hurt. How many of us felt helpless when their kid rode with out training wheels for the first time? Sang solo in a musical production? Had to get vaccinations? Had a badly scraped knee? We are helpless because we just have to let the moment happen, but hopeful that it will go as well as it can go. That’s parenthood: responsibility, helplessness, hopefulness, angst and joy.
    Early on in Wendy’s illness was when I was the most helpless because I went from being the Primary Parent In Charge, to just sitting there while other people tried to save her life. I couldn’t do much more than answer questions, sign consent forms, try to make sense of it all, and hold her tiny hand. At some point, one of the nurses took pity on us and decided that we should hold Wendy, that it would be good for all of us if we could do this one, simple, thing. But it’s not simple with all the tubes and wires, all the timing, all the schedules.
    It took the nurse the better part of an afternoon to plan when to unhook, when to drain, when to unplug certain wires and tubes. Between rounds of dialysis, before labs. Slowly things were capped off and Wendy was ready to be held. They sat me in a chair and brought her the two feet she needed to travel from the hospital bed to my lap.
    Here is where the most helpless part kicks in. When they put Wendy in my arms, I was holding her with both of my arms supporting her from beneath. And I couldn’t help it, I started crying, out of the pain that she was suffering and the joy of holding her again, and the uncertainty of our future. The tears just ran down my face. But I couldn’t wipe them. They rolled down my face and splashed onto Wendy, and my arms were pinned beneath her. I couldn’t wipe my own tears and other people had to wipe them for me so they wouldn’t fall on my impossibly sick child and I couldn’t do anything about it.
    That was my most helpless moment.
    It is unlikely that I will ever be that helpless again, because I know so much more, can do so much more, and Wendy is so much stronger. But it helps to remind myself that even at my most helpless, that people were there to support me, and even at my most helpless, we all made it through.
    And we will again.

Darcy Daniels is the mother of two girls and a professor of history at Mount Ida College in Newton, Massachusetts. Her blog is called Brave Fragile Warriors. Check it out here.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Voices From Home: Two Weeks in Tuscany, a Year Germany, and a Great Dane Named Ivan

Addison in Cologne, Germany.
For several years now, I’ve had this crazy notion that involves arm-twisting folks from my hometown—as many as possible—into writing down their stories. My dream is a library of personal histories by, for, and about the people of Randolph, Vermont. I began working on the project a few years ago, and the upshot was Korongo, the publishing company that Patrick and I started in the back of his art gallery on Merchant’s Row. Then we closed the gallery and moved to France, and I set the dream aside. But dreams die hard, so recently—while enjoying another balmy winter in France but missing my hometown—I invited some friends with Randolph roots to write up a few stories for Sadie & Company. Daryl Grout wrote about Two Weeks in Tuscany that marked 32 years of marriage for him and his high-school sweetheart. Joann Farnham Magee responded to my request by sitting down and writing Ivan’s Story, a moving account of the months she spent trying to win the trust of an abandoned Great Dane—all last year I followed their encounters on Facebook. Sixteen-year-old Addison Blanchard-Rooney sent me a Letter From Germany, where he is spending his junior year. His letter was, by sheer coincidence, just what I needed—funny and inspiring, a reminder that discomfort can lead to surprise and even awe. For some reason, Randolph produces a lot of good writers. Iceland and Norway, too—must have something to do with long, dark winters. I am grateful to Daryl, Joann, and Addison for their contributions to Sadie & Company, and for helping to get my “Randolph story project” back on track.

Addison J. Blanchard-Rooney: A Letter from Germany

Can any of you recall a time in your life when you were puzzled about how to flush a toilet? Now, I’m aware that that’s a highly unorthodox introduction to any piece of writing, but really; please think on the matter. Does a solid memory not come to mind? For most people, that would make sense. However, that’s a good example of my reality lately. On September 5, 2015, I lived through this very moment. The day I moved to Germany. And that, my friends, welcomes you into the life of becoming an exchange student exactly as all of those brave enough to take on this endeavor are welcomed: that first moment, which in retrospect is the most raw combination of funny, embarrassing, and downright humbling.
  To begin more properly, I ought to introduce myself. My name is Addison Blanchard-Rooney, and I’m spending my junior year of high school near Cologne, Germany. I come from a small town in Vermont, and since that first memory of being confused, my life has been a mixture of adventure, new fun experiences, and eye-opening realizations, topped with silly foreign language faux pas, drizzled with deep conversation, and baked for an hour at 300 degrees. (Fahrenheit, mind you—even after nearly five months of being here I still couldn’t tell you that in celsius if my life depended on it.) That’s what I call the recipe of being an exchange student.
Up to now it’s been smelling quite good as it’s cooking. I haven’t tasted the end result yet; that part comes in July when I fly back home. But I already know of all the years I’ve cooked, while that may not be many, this will be the one to get a Michelin star.
  My daily life here leaves me with no complaints other than the odd half-rain/half-snow weather I’ve most decidedly not gotten used to after coming from my fluffy white winter wonderland of Vermont. I wake up and begin my day most mornings with some sort of German roll topped with varying sausages and spreads. My favorite is liverwurst. I like to remind myself that it’s similar to pâté, to feel fancy.
  I then walk to school, a 15-minute journey through the center of town, before getting to the third biggest high school in Germany, where I learn many things about history and German grammar and biology but where I also am asked by peers to say things like “Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitäten-hauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft” (to be fair, Germans can’t say it without reading it anyway) and if I like Donald Trump.
  So there’s the everyday life and there’s also the big “This is why I’m here” moments. Moments like dreaming in a foreign language for the first time and realizing you finally used a new grammar concept correctly in speech without thinking about it first. (This is hard. For instance, German has five words for “the,” and sentences look like this: “I want at beach swim go, because it hot is.”)
  There are the moments when your breath is taken away. This happened to me when I stepped into the main hall of the Cologne train station for the first time and stood like a deer in headlights as I looked up, awestruck as the Cologne Cathedral looming above me, its presence totally tranquil and beautiful but with mocking undertones making me feel ridiculously small and young. Never before was I put in my place by a building.
  There are also the more political moments, such as seeing first-hand how the refugee situation is actually being handled. For instance, just 400 meters from my house here, the city government is planning on building a complex for the refugees accommodating 800 people. While almost every individual I’ve met has supported the refugee issue, situations such as this, where the city decides to cram the people together whilst looking past the several zoning regulations about to be broken, really frustrate citizens. After all, Germans are very, very rule-and-order-following people. Just one more of the never-ending list of differences ranging from gender roles to pen styles to lack of bagger at the grocery store. And boy, do Germans love their sales at the supermarket.
  I don’t see a time in the near future where the surprises like this will stop coming, and I couldn’t be happier about it. That’s why I came here—to be immersed somewhere totally new. I finally am, and ladies and gentleman, I’m flippin’ loving it.
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Addison Blanchard-Rooney is 16, from Randolph, Vermont and currently living in Leverkusen, Germany. His interests span the polar opposites of more sophisticated things such as writing, traveling, cooking, and learning foreign languages, as well as being a typical teenage boy enjoying sleeping in, computer games, and Netflix. He hopes to one day work in international politics, journalism, and/or linguistics, and his bucket list includes skydiving, entering a pie-eating contest, and learning how to whistle. You can follow Addison's blog on Wordpress. 

Joann Magee: Ivan’s Story

By Joann "Jo" Farnham Magee

It all started in early January 2015 when I found a Great Dane lying in a ditch near our home. As I approached him, he raised his head and hobbled to his feet. He didn’t immediately run away, but he made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with me. As I spoke softly to him he started to walk off, and that is when I noticed his leg wound, which was visibly open down to the bone. As I stood watching, he ran into the woods, where he had apparently been living for quite some time given his deteriorating condition. He was so thin and could not put any weight on the wounded leg. The next week or two I saw very little of him. He would go to our pond to drink and then run back into the woods, not giving anyone a chance to get close. My neighbor said that he thought the Dane had been dropped off, as no one in our area had a rental cabin or a large dog—and he has lived in the same place for over fifty years and would know. Mid January we had a light snowfall, and my husband and I went walking into the woods, following the Dane’s tracks in the snow. We were able to see all of his trails, which seemed to just circle around with no definite stopping place.

Lessons in Patience
In early February, while on a walk, I found the Great Dane’s hideout—his base camp area, which happened to be in the next pasture from our home. Since my first sighting of him I always carried warm hot dogs in my pockets whenever I went walking, for I never knew when I would come upon him. I had at this point named him Ivan, for it seemed like a strong name to me, and for him to survive in the freezing winter without food or a warm shelter was a definite sign of strength.
From that day on I started taking food to him twice a day, at the same time every day, sitting for hours through any type of weather, hoping to see him come to eat. It was a long process, which helped me find patience, which is indeed a virtue. Each trip to the pasture, about a quarter of a mile one way, I carried my sitting stool, my phone, my BB gun, a bowl with kibble, a can of dog food, baggies with warm hot dogs and chicken, and a feeding bowl—which happened to be an extra bowl I had for my heifer, Breaker, who I rescued when she was only two months old. I gave Ivan small portions of food initially, as I did not want to give him too much in case his system had a problem processing too much food too soon after having so little so long.
    Initially Ivan would appear, see me, then run away back into the woods. I was so tempted to just take him his food and leave, but I thought better of it, as I wanted him to associate food with me, to hear the sound of the can of food opening, to hear my calling his name and know I meant him no harm. Day in and day out I went, morning and night, regardless of the weather, to bring him food. His leg wound looked terrible, but it was no longer open to the bone. To aid in his healing I started putting an antibiotic in his food bowl inside hot-dog pieces.

Hot Dogs and Freezing Cold
After having Ivan see me each time he came to eat and my leaving trails of hot dogs and chicken that brought him ever closer to me, I was thrilled to see him actually leave the shelter of the wood line and come closer. I neither made any sudden moves nor spoke to him as he approached. I wanted him to know that I would not harm him in any way or make any demands on him.
    It was now March, and the weather was getting progressively colder. I would sit for hours in freezing rain, snow, and wind, with temps of a numbing 16 degrees down to zero. I wanted Ivan to know he could count on me to be there always. I found myself praying to the dog Gods for Ivan to surface and to eat. I found myself crying when he didn’t, for I wondered if my presence was keeping him away, thereby prohibiting him to get the nourishment he so sorely needed. Just when I thought he had moved on, he would enter the pasture from a different point. Sometimes when he saw me, he would leave only to circle around and come back from a different direction to eat—progress!
    The owners of the property where Ivan was hanging out were soon to be there camping, which I knew would scare Ivan away, so for the next two weeks, I kept moving Ivan’s food bowl closer to our pasture and away from the area where the owners would be camping. Ivan managed to find his bowl each day and gobbled down his food. A friend gave us a large crate to put in the field so we could make a shelter for Ivan to get out of the wind, rain and cold.

Getting Closer
By the second week of March, Ivan felt comfortable enough with my presence and me hanging around, that I started talking to him, sometimes singing (which I found may have been the cause for him not to appear for two days). I wanted him to get used to me and my voice.
After a lot of coaxing and my gentle voice, he did come up to me and gently took a piece of hot dog out of my hand, but he would immediately cringe and back away, sometimes growling or barking. He would whine while approaching as if to ask me not to hurt him if he came closer, but in no way was he ready to trust me completely. I did not attempt to touch him, as I think that would have taken us back several steps. Both morning and evening meals I would see Ivan go into the crate to grab pieces of hot dogs and chicken I had put inside, but he would not use it as a shelter. He would go back into the woods almost immediately after eating. Then one day toward the third week in March he came and sat beside me and nudged my pockets, as he could smell the hot dogs I had buried in there. I told him I was going to pet him, and although he cringed when he saw my hand, he allowed me to pet him for several minutes. I spoke softly to him and continued for about the next half hour. It was almost dark by then, and I told him I needed to go home and that I would see him tomorrow.

A T-bone Steak
March was a very cold month for anyone to be out sitting in a pasture—or for finding shelter if they were a stray dog. The temperatures ranged from zero to 17 degrees, with freezing rain and snow hitting my face as I waited and waited for Ivan to appear. My husband kept texting me to see if I was okay and asking how much longer I was going to wait. I think at one time I had waited up to six hours for Ivan to make an appearance as I sat freezing on the little stool I carried with me. Just as I was about to leave and trudge home, feeling totally defeated, he would come out of the woods and bark at me, which I assumed was him either saying “Hello” or “Are you still here?”
    The next morning, as I fixed his food bowl, he came to eat, and then just started barking at me loudly and lunging at the same time. This went on for about 40 minutes nonstop. My husband heard him from our house and was worried that I was in danger. I assured him I was fine and that Ivan just had a lot to say. While Ivan was barking at me I would just gently say, “I know, it’s terrible what someone did to you. I would never hurt you.” He was so loud that my pet heifer, Breaker, came running across the pasture to see if I was all right. I had brought Ivan a T-bone steak bone, and after he had finished barking I gave it to him. He immediately carried it to a spot near the fence and devoured it. Breaker, along with some of the younger bulls and heifers who had joined her, stood watch over him to make sure I was okay.

A Miracle—and a Setback
On March 20, about three months after seeing Ivan for the first time in the ditch, the most miraculous thing happened. I was putting Ivan’s food in his dish and I called for him, saying, “Ivan, breakfast!” and he immediately came loping out of the woods, whining, with his tail up and wagging. He started eating while I still had my hand in his food dish stirring the combination of kibble, hot dogs, chicken, and antibiotics. After he was finished he came to sit beside me, and after a few minutes I asked if he wanted to walk with me a bit. I got up and started walking away. I looked back, and Ivan was following me. I walked along the creek and around into the pasture with Ivan following behind me. I went back to our feeding spot, collected my things, and said, “I am going home now. Do you want to come with me?” and off I went. Ivan was right by my side, and I would stop every few feet to hug him and tell him what a good boy he was. We made it all the way home, but when we got into our yard, Ivan panicked and ran off. Thinking I had moved too fast and expected too much, I was devastated. To watch Ivan run back into the woods broke my heart.

A Disastrous Date
The following day was another huge progress report. At 7:30 a.m., I went as usual to feed Ivan, and after a great bonding experience he again followed me home. He sat with me outside, and when my husband opened the door to come outside, Ivan was very protective of me and barked and lunged at him. I told my husband to go and get a warm hot dog and come out slowly and offer it to Ivan, which he did with great success. We then opened both doors of our house, and Ivan went in one and came out the other about ten times, until he felt certain he was not going to be trapped. Within 20 minutes Ivan was stretched out on our living room floor.
  We had plans to go to brunch with a friend, and when it was time to go, much to my surprise Ivan jumped in the car over me and decided he was going to go too. He would not come out of our car, as if to say, “No, you promised you’d never leave me.” It absolutely tore my heart to pieces to take him out of the car and drive away. My heart was wrenched out of my chest when I looked back and saw Ivan running after our car. I did not want this to happen after working so hard to get him to trust me. I twitched all through brunch and couldn’t wait to get home to Ivan. Everyone was telling me that this was a good thing, that Ivan would know I would leave and come back, but I was panicking thinking that I had totally blown my one chance to finally get Ivan to trust me completely. Sure enough, we get home and there is no sign of Ivan.

Two Long Days
That evening I took Ivan’s dinner at the normal time and there was no sign of him. After sitting until dusk, I again walked home dejected and feeling guilty. I could not wait for morning to arrive. I was up and out by daybreak with Ivan’s food. It had rained all night and was extremely foggy, and a torrential rain was still coming down, with heavy wind and freezing temperatures. I sat and waited. And waited. No sign of Ivan. I cried hysterically, texting my husband, saying I had blown it, that it was all for nothing, that I had totally blown Ivan’s trust. My husband told me that everything would be fine, to be patient, to not give up.
    I sat in the freezing rain for five unending hours of crying, feeling defeated, feeling devastated for Ivan, feeling like a failure, and feeling like a total jerk but knowing I would not go home until I absolutely had to when it got too dark. As I sat there with my head bent to keep the rain and wind out, I heard a whine, and I look up and Ivan is coming through the woods to me. This time, instead of going immediately to his food dish he comes to me and pushes into me. I hug him and cry some more. After he eats, I say, “Let’s go home, Ivan,” and he follows me. We go inside, and Ivan immediately makes himself at home. He lets me give him a bath, as he is covered with pine tar and caked mud. He lets me towel him off, and then we snuggle on the sofa. My heart is swelling for the amount of courage it took for Ivan to make the ultimate sacrifice to trust me.

Love and Gratitude
Every day Ivan was with us was one of great joy and love. He went everywhere with me and for a couple weeks would never leave my side. If I got up to leave the room he was there with me every single time. He loved riding in the car, and he loved going to Home Depot every day on our way to work. He loved walking and did beautifully on a leash. He was my “Baby Boy.” Ivan had many trials and tribulations to overcome. Our visit to the vet found he had arthritis, a degenerative disease in his hind legs which would eventually paralyze him, and several other small issues.
    He was almost ten years old, which is amazing, as most Great Danes have a life span of six to eight years. His wound was inoperable, as it had been too long since the initial injury, so it had to heal from the inside out, which takes a long time. Ivan also had to have a cancerous growth removed from his lip, which was benign. He was also bitten by some sort of snake in August, and the bite became infected and had to be lanced. The poor guy just couldn’t catch a break.
  His bad leg started to swell in October, and he began limping badly, some days being much worse than others. We took him to the vet for an X-ray and received the worst news ever. The X-ray showed Ivan’s leg was riddled with a very aggressive bone cancer, leaving very little bone in his leg. The vet said an aggressive cancer at this stage had undoubtedly metastasized into his lungs, and at best Ivan had only a couple of months remaining and that those months would be spent in excruciating pain. The remaining bone was so brittle and thin that his leg could fracture in any given second, so the vet strongly suggested we get Ivan out of pain.
    We made the decision to have Ivan put down right then and there, which was not an easy decision to make, yet at the same time it was the easiest decision to make. Ivan had suffered so much already before I found him. We had a wonderful seven months with him, during which he taught us so much and gave us so much love. We could not make him suffer any longer.
    Ivan passed away with his head in my lap and my love for him bursting through every fiber of my being. It was an absolute honor and a once-in-a-lifetime experience to have had the opportunity to go on this journey with Ivan, and I will forever be grateful for it and for Ivan.
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Joann Farnham Magee is a native Vermonter who married her high-school sweetheart—she and Ridge will celebrate 46 years together in November 2016. Jo is a pencil artist, an LP vinyl-record collector, a mother, a grandmother, a Harry Potter fan, an avid reader, and a golfer. She loves to travel and to go back “home” to Randolph, Vermont.
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Joann sent me many photos of Ivan, spanning their entire journey together—more than I could fit into a blog post. So I put them into a slideshow, and Joann did a voiceover. I think my favorite image is of the two of them fishing in a nearby pond. —Sara Tucker

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Daryl Grout: Two Weeks in Tuscany

The town of Portovenere, in Cinque Terre, is a stopover on this self-drive itinerary, which begins and ends in Florence.
By Daryl Grout

Susan and I land in Florence on Saturday morning, October 9, two days after celebrating our 32nd anniversary. Arriving at the Hotel Monna Lisa on the narrow Borgo Pinti, the first thing we notice is the immaculate streetscape—new paving blocks designed to match seamlessly with the water-worn stone of medieval times. After checking into our palatial room in the Renaissance-era mansion, we are soon wandering in a light rain the glistening streets of this magnificent UNESCO World Heritage city center.
    We are immediately drawn to the dominant Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore with its iconic Brunelleschi Duomo. Guidebook photographs have only hinted at the splendor of this structure (reinforcing the maxim that travel is a necessary). After circling the neo-gothic exterior, we merge with the tourist flow and find ourselves at the symbolic center of the medieval Italian Renaissance—Piazza della Signoria and the adjacent Loggia dei Lanzi, Palazzo Vecchio, and Galleria degli Uffizi.
Sabinae Raptae by Giambologna, Loggia dei Lanzi.
    Following the path of Lucy from Forster’s A Room With a View, we cross the Arno River on the Ponte Vecchio with its famous Corridoio Vasariano (where Medici would travel unseen between Palazzo Vecchio and their Palazzo Pitti residences). Turning right on Borgo San Jacopo, we stumble upon delightful Ristorante Mamma Gina for the first of many delicious meals featuring fresh pasta and the colorful cuisine of Tuscany.
    Sunday dawns sunny, prompting us to avoid weekend museum crowds and hike into the hills above town. We arrive first at the Giardino delle Rose, then climb higher to take in the views at San Miniato al Monte with its statuary-filled hilltop cemetery. After strolling a surreal cypress glade, we fall in with an American student out on a day-hike. She persuades us to keep walking past the Torre del Gallo, where we find another amazing meal and spectacular views at Trattoria Omero. Feet aching, we meander along villa-lined lanes to the Forte di Belvedere entrance to vast Giardino di Boboli before stumbling home to an early dinner and a jet-lagged bedtime.
    Tuesday is Chianti day. We splurge on a driver, leaving early in a black Mercedes for UNESCO-favorite San Gimignano, famous for its 14 surviving medieval towers. Our driver, Francesco, smartly dressed in tie and Euro-cut jacket, is worth every penny, correcting our pronunciation and filling our heads with information at every stop.
    We stop in Castelinna for lunch at the subterranean Via delle Volte, then move on to scenic Radda with wine tastings at Volpaia and Castelvecchi. Dinner at Antinori’s Badia di Passignano is a mindfulness moment, best meal of our lives, each course accompanied by amazing Tuscan wine culminating with a sublime Solaia 2012.
    Our final day in Florence begins with early reservations at Galleria dell’Accademia to view Michelangelo’s David. Afterward, I run excitedly over to Paolo Sacchi Libreria Antiquaria to pick up souvenir books: an 1869 edition of Dante’s Divina Commedia—Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso. While Susan attends a cooking class, I tour the Uffizi Gallery enjoying the classics—Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and Titian’s seductive and daring (in 1538) Venus of Urbino.
A Walking Tour of Florence
No trip to a famous city is complete without some flânerie. Here’s a walk through the heart of the city that avoids motor traffic and pesky tourist bottlenecks:
    Borgo Pinti south to a right at the piazza onto Borgo della Albizi. Street names will change but stay straight through the massive arch at Piazza della Repubblica until the charming square at Via de’ Tornabuoni. Take a slight left onto Via della Vigna Nuova past the Paolo Sacchi bookshop (Dante) to a left onto (so appropriate) Via del Purgatorio. At the dark intersection of (lol) Via dell'Inferno, pass through the archway, then left into paradiso at the magnificent Piazza Santa Trinita.
    Enjoy the piazza, then look to the left of the Roman Colonna della Guistizia for Borgo Santi Apostoli, a classic stretch of shops, restaurants, and medieval alleyways, emerging finally on Via Lambertesca at the Uffizi. At the northern center of the now familiar Piazza della Signoria, find the narrow alley to Via dei Cerchi to a right onto Via del Corso and home.

The village of Barga in the province of Lucca.
Cinque Terre
Day 6–9. On Thursday, we say good-bye to Florence and rent a diesel Audi for the remainder of our exploration. First stop is Lucca, known for its preserved Renaissance fortifications encircling the old town. With ramparts converted to bike paths and parkland (Florence tore down their walls to make a ring road), I’m surprised that Lucca is still waiting on the UNESCO tentative list.
    North of Lucca begin the Apuan Alps, our next destination. We pass the famous Ponte della Maddalena on our way to the lovely (and pleasantly deserted) village of Barga. Running late, we don’t stop in gritty Garfagnana but opt to navigate the winding Parco Alpi Apuane route to the coast in daylight.
    Our final destination today is Grand Hotel Portovenere in the Cinque Terre region, and we manage to score Room 214 (terrace with harbor view) for Susan's 55th birthday weekend. Remnants of Hurricane Joaquin are hitting Europe this week, and high winds cancel Friday water taxis to the Cinque Terre villages. Instead we relax and spend the day eating fresh seafood and exploring the cliffside village of Portovenere.
    Water taxis resume on Saturday to northernmost Monterosso. We manage to backtrack on a crowded train for a spectacular lunch atop wave-battered cliffs at Vernazza, but by afternoon Cinque Terre transit systems have been overwhelmed by an influx of pushy cruise-ship passengers seemingly determined to selfie all five villages in under four hours.
    Unfortunately, the worst is yet to come. The next morning we arrive early in Pisa, parking in a massive bus lot pockmarked with grimy facilities. Unfriendly trolley drivers herd us toward the UNESCO sites. At the far corner of the Field of Miracles a large crowd has gathered, nearly everyone jockeying to get illusion-photo selfies holding up the leaning tower. A clever group has assembled on the opposite corner to push over the leaning tower. Needless to say, we can't flee Pisa fast enough!
    Thank the Etruscan gods for Volterra, our next stop. A quiet and carefully preserved mountaintop village, the town might want to reconsider its UNESCO petition (or perhaps the UNESCO committee should rethink Pisa’s designation). Regardless, we enjoy the Porto dell’Arco, Etruscan museum, and Roman amphitheatre, leaving us in a much better mood for our upcoming week in Tuscany’s Val d’Orcia.

Etruscan tombstones, Montepulciano.
Val d’Orcia
Week 2. Arriving in the rural town of Pienza, we’re a bit nervous about what we’ll find at the Agriturismo il Macchione, but our fears are unfounded. We’re given a huge suite on the upper floor of a restored farmhouse amidst some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet. Francesco, the young proprietor, runs an olive oil business just down the road, and Susan is thrilled to get a tour and some fresh-pressed Fattoria Fregoli 2015 harvest.
    Agriturismo is the perfect word to describe Pienza’s appeal—the old town is a fifteenth-century UNESCO gem, but tourists can still find farm-town politeness while shopping for groceries or filling up with diesel. Residents’ biggest concern is that a movie starring Dustin Hoffman filming this week in the Pallazzo Piccolomini will spotlight the town for more bus tours next year.
    Our first day-trip takes us just down the road to San Quirico d’Orcia, a via Francigena pilgrimage town with hilltop gardens hidden behind well-preserved ramparts. Next stop is Montalcino, an Etruscan hilltop town best known for Brunello di Montalcino wine. We love this town! Or should I say, We love Brunello (brownish, smallish Sangiovese grape). After tasting several Brunellos at Drogheria e Locanda Franci, Susan orders a case on the spot. Later we have great fun climbing the fortress ramparts enjoying the best views and prettiest town of our entire trip. Or has the wine influenced our opinion? We must revisit soon to clarify!
The view from Castello Vicchiomaggio, in Chianti.
    We next visit Montepulciano (of Vino Nobile wine fame) and Siena, but both towns disappoint; they feel surprisingly gritty and jaded by tourism. We do the necessary tower climbs and take some pictures, then add the towns (alongside Pisa) to the been-there-done-that list.
    Our final day in Val d’Orcia takes us south to where Dickens wrote about a lovely road between the towns of Sarteano and Cetona. Our driver, Francesco, has also recommended a “Slow Food” restaurant in Sarteano. Well, the views do not disappoint, the hilltop towns are charming, and our lunch at Osteria da Gagliano becomes a keepsake memory of traditional decor and cuisine.
    With some daylight remaining, we opt for one last guidebook town and head out for Radicofani at the base of Monte Amiata, climbing to the windswept Fortezza di Radicofani. The drive home along tree-lined SP53 to enter Pienza from the south completes our loop with possibly the most classic of Val d’Orcia scenic routes.
     Friday finds us closer to Florence (for an early Saturday flight) in Greve, after stopping again in Radda for gifts and travel-wall souvenirs. Our hotel, the hilltop Castello Vicchiomaggio, has a Shangri-La quality about it, leaving us with one final magic moment before returning home.

Daryl Grout and his wife, Susan, grew up in Randolph, Vermont. They are now grandparents and live in Brooklyn.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

How Not to Make a New Year's Resolution

Rotary phone with earpiece. The thing that looks like a tiny
 condom is to put on your finger so you don't break a nail.
When it comes to self-improvement, I am a maniac. My efforts take the form of resolutions, which I make not only on New Year's Eve but daily, hourly, constantly. Last week, I resolved to whittle down my in-box from 16,000 emails to zero. The first day I made great progress, reducing the total to 777, mostly by diverting the stream into folders, including one labeled "Reading stack," which is, of course, a form of procrastination, since I am really just shuffling things around and will eventually have to dive into the reading stack and start reading. Or not. This morning, I eliminated one email. Here's what happened.
       January 2, 2016, 8 a.m. Before tackling my in-box, I compose a top-priority email to my friend Sian, apologizing for missing our planned New Year’s Day walk in Fontainebleau Forest. I didn’t forget that we were supposed to walk; rather, I got my days confused. I was in Paris, on my way to my in-laws to eat oysters (more on that in subsequent post), when I said to Patrick “What day is it?” and he said “Friday,” and I said, “Shit. I was supposed to walk with Sian today and I’m an hour late.” “Call her,” he said. We were at the Gare de Lyon, on our way to the metro. He handed me his phone, since mine was at home, on a shelf in the kitchen, where it always is. After much fumbling with my American-issued smartphone, which I only use as a camera (I wanted to photograph the oysters), I managed to locate Sian’s number, a miracle. My smartphone isn't smart enough to call anybody in France, however, so I read the number to Patrick, who dialed it on his phone and handed the phone to me. By now we were on the subway, speeding toward Issy-les-Moulineaux and the oysters, and I could hear nothing. Was that a voice on the other end? “Hello?” I said, tentatively. Still nothing intelligible, so I ended the call.
     Back to this morning, the day after the missed rendezvous. In my apologetic email to Sian, I use the word “phonedicapped.” Then I pause, and in that split-second pause, my to-do list gets hijacked.
      Phonedicapped, I say to myself. Is that a word? Hmmm. I google it. One result. Google is puzzled: “Did you mean handicapped?” Is phonedicapped not a real word? This could make me famous. I google “new words 2015” and check the Oxford English Dictionary. Not there. I scan the OED list of new words for 2015: crowdsource (hmm, the prissy OED is a bit late on that one), hyphy (what’s that?). The OED website won’t let me look up words because I'm not a subscriber, so I google "hyphy." Suddenly I am reading the lyrics of Keak da Sneak’s “Super Hyphy.” "Something went off in my head on my strap/But I'm smoking purple sipping 'yac." I am in way over my head.
     On the positive side, I have just increased my vocabulary and a door has opened to a foreign world, the world of Oakland rappers. On the sinister side, I am blowing an entire morning on stupid shit.
     But there is hope. Maybe I can turn “phonedicapped” into an essay and post it on my blog, which is, I must admit, sadly neglected, owing to many mornings such as this one. (Another resolution: revive blog). Then the next person who googles phonedicapped will find Sadie & Co., and pretty soon I will be famous.
      I suddenly remember a family artifact that my husband showed me the other day, when he was rummaging in a drawer in his mother’s apartment, where we now live. “Can you guess what this is?” he asked, offering me a pearly stick about three inches long with an emerald-colored stone embedded in one end. I couldn’t. "It’s for dialing a rotary phone. It was my mother’s. So she wouldn’t break her fingernails. She kept it in the rotary dial."
     I take a picture with my smartphone of the rotary dialer. Then I wonder what it is called. Back to Google. I discover Wikihow instructions on how to dial a rotary phone (really? instructions? maybe it's only logical if you're over 60), but nothing resembling the artifact in question. Now I am deep in the land of getting nothing done, the land where resolutions get derailed.
     I call to my husband, who is in the next room: “Come look at these images of French telephones from the 1950s; they’re on my computer screen.” He does. “Which one most closely resembles the one you used to have?” He identifies one with a funny appendage, which he explains is an extra earpiece, “so that you can listen in stereo.” Fascinated, I ply him with questions, and he tells me that his parents got their first phone in the 1950s and that the number was POR-2438. I write it down.
      I now have 776 emails in my in-box. My accomplishments for the morning: unearthing my husband's childhood phone number from the burial pit of memory, composing one email, deleting one (Bernie needs more money), and reviewing my Facebook page, where I discover a very interesting video about dance therapy that makes me want to be a dance therapist. It would be a good way to counteract all these hours of sitting at a computer keyboard, which is unquestionably bad for my health. Why not? Most of my clients would be at least as old as I am, probably older. I have enough contacts in the acting world so that I might even, with hard work and a little luck, become a famous dance therapist. A dance therapist to the stars, one with her own reality TV show. Something to add to my to-do list.