Run, You Fools

Image by theowl84

Now that I’ve finally run my first 5K, I have to say that I have a serious bone to pick with those couch-to-5K programs everyone gets so jazzed about. I just don’t think that they’re really all that great at getting you actually ready for an actual race.

Fortunately, I did not use a C25K to prepare for this particular race.

Now, maybe the whole C25K thing has worked out great for you in the past. Maybe it set you on the path to being a better runner, a better person, a better friend to small animals.

We are not here to talk about you.

In fact, on reflection, you might want to prepare yourself for a whole lot of unnecessary extrapolating from the personal to the universal. Because that is apparently how I roll. Up in here. Y’all.

So I imagine those C25Ks work just fine if you’re a lapsed runner, or a runner who just needs a tuneup, or a runner who hasn’t run with any specific goal in mind for a while.

If you’re a runner, basically. I’d be prepared to believe that they work for actual runners. Or a generally fit person, I guess. A person who does things. Outside. With an elevated heart rate. For fun.

But they specifically gear themselves towards couch potatoes, which in practice has tended to mean people like me, or people like the person I was not that long ago: Somebody who has never actually run.

And a person like that? I’m sorry, but that person generally needs a bit more time, preparation, and quite possibly therapy before they are ready for a race.

If you’re not me, and if you’re significantly less mentally ill than I am, less consumed by other people’s imagined opinions of you, not even a little bit driven by self centered fear, and you don’t spend time tending to raging bonfires of resentments at perfect strangers at the drop of a hat, a C25K might be just the thing. If you’re naturally non-competitive and easy-going, if you’re the sort of person who can lose at Monopoly and not want to knock the table over in a fit of frustration and rage, if you’re the type of weirdo who can fall down and then laugh at yourself. And mean it.

If you are that person, then I guess I salute you. But I also secretly resent you.

Me, I need to be at least moderately decent at a thing before I will try it out in public. And believe me, when it comes to running I am setting the bar here very, very low. This was no time for my usual “I need to be awesome at this before I will let you watch me doing it.” I wanted to finish without wanting to die, for instance. I felt I should be able to complete the course without wanting to physically assault any bystanders for coming across as even a little bit condescending when they cheered for the slow fat girl bringing up the rear. I hoped to cross the finish line before the last water station had been packed up into the back of some real runner’s SUV.

Those were my goals.

Last fall, I registered for a 5K based on the false premises of a couch-to-5K training plan. The run was scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend, but I knew well before the last day of October rolled around that I wasn’t going to be ready. Physically, mentally, spiritually. I’d been doing the training, but I was still getting shin splints and having trouble running more than two miles at a pop. And I was terrified by the idea of running in public. So when I was presented with the chance to go visit family for the holiday instead, I jumped. I bailed on the run without a second thought and concentrated on training through the winter instead.

Maybe I will just not be a racer, I thought. Maybe I will just run in private, alone, at dusk.

And that’s basically what I did. For months.

Until yesterday, when I ran in a real, live 5K in Hyannis, among people who knew me from real life.

A friend of mine, someone who (it should go without saying) is far more well adjusted than I am, suggested we run this race together. Her son-in-law works for the very worthy organization putting it on, and it’s one I like to support when I get the chance, so I said yes without really thinking it through. Bernadette said she’d be running with her grandchild in a stroller so surely I would be leaving her in the dust.

Oh, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

I can always drop out later, I whispered as I filled out the online registration form. It’s worked for me before.

But as the winter turned to spring, I continued to surprise myself by running consistently, and by consistently running faster to boot. Amazing. I began to feel like I didn’t actually suck. As much. Perhaps.

From November on, I’d faithfully stuck to a less race-oriented training plan, one designed to help you lose weight and gain speed. I lost fifty pounds. I found myself enjoying four mile runs like they were nothing, and looking forward to interval training days like they were a special treat.

Race day came. I didn’t back out.

It was a bit of a cool morning that day, with more than a threat of rain, so the crowds were minimal. Spectators were clearly going to be mercifully thin on the ground. Bernadette’s husband was going to be cheering us on at the finish line, but this was categorically Okay With Me, since Richard is a friend and I like him. I did not tell him he was an exception to a rule, but that’s sort of implied when you are my friend. In all kinds of ways.

I had discussed my misgivings about sideline cheering from strangers with my good friend Cindy, who is also a runner with a vaguely nontraditional body type and speed (though less so than me — she regularly manages to blend in with the norms and even passes as a real runner when she wants to), and she agreed that she would find some meaningful way to cheer me on that would be more seemly and appropriate to my delicate sensibilities.

I continue to have better friends than I deserve.

I spent some time in the days leading up to the race fantasizing about seeing her run the race a few yards ahead of me and gently poking any insincerely enthusiastic spectators in the side with a stick. A rounded stick, not a pointed one. I’m not some kind of animal.

The route itself was, of course, very flat and non-threatening. Welcoming, even.

Even better for a nostalgia addict like me, it wound past all of these Places Of Importance From My Past. So I was able, for the first mile, at least, to imagine my mom’s old friend Ruth Rusher cheering me on from her Ocean Street house, her crotchety old husband silently playing Go in the bay window overlooking the ferry docks. I was able to jog sedately past the Hy-Line office where Mom — a part-time tour guide during the summer months in the 70s — would go to pick up her paycheck, then treat us all to a special lunch at Kentucky Fried Chicken.

I thought nostalgically about deep fried chicken as I trundled ponderously on by.

Then it was on past my old friend Jay’s house. I used to visit him after work sometimes and watch him edit photos on his very expensive and elaborate computer equipment, inside his deeply crappy little apartment, and think about our priorities in life. Our choices. Jay died a couple of years ago. I think about him all the time.

I thought about him yesterday as I bounced sedately past the tumble-down boarding house where he used to live. He would have been profoundly skeptical about this whole running project of mine, but he would have kept these reservations to himself, in the spirit of friendship. Mostly.

Then it was on past the JFK Memorial Park, the one overlooking Hyannis Harbor, where I once posed for a picture with the young couple from Tehran that my family sponsored during some late-70’s burst of international goodwill. I sometimes wonder what happened to them, in the years that flew by since we all stood smiling arm in arm, my orange plaid pants flaring brilliantly in the summer sun.

I wondered vaguely what their names had been as I trotted on down the road. Weren’t they medical students? Did they end up in the States? Did they remember us at all?

After this, alas, the nostalgia parade slowly tapered off. My family never went to the beach that marked the end of the road, not as far as I know. But the smell of the fog off the ocean, mingled with the hot scent of warming asphalt and salt-steamed sand made me think about the northside beaches my friend Tina used to work at during the summers we were teenagers. I’d ride my bike with great exertion from my home on the south side (downhill from the north), and we’d sit at the entrance to some tiny, hot parking lot or another and inform a never-ending procession of tourists in cars that the beach lot was full. The beach lots, you should know, are always full.

She got paid very good money to do this. And she got a seriously enviable tan.

The race went on. I passed a few folks who had started out too strong. Their labored panting provoked entirely unwelcome pangs of sympathy in me. One or two of them rallied when they saw the slowpoke who was overtaking them, and they’d sprint optimistically ahead for a few dozen yards before subsiding again to the shoulder, hands on hips, heads bent, chests heaving. I’d overtake them again, and move on.

We wound slowly past well tended seaside cottages and their rambly little gardens, then turned left onto the road where we rejoined the walkers from the shortcut that had peeled them off from the main route a mile or so back. Round about Jay’s house, I think, was where we’d last seen them. I wasn’t really sure.

I passed more people. Middle of the pack walkers, families, groups of friends. Happy people with well balanced lives. None of them, apparently, thinking a single thought about me. Or my running speed. Weird.

I wondered what it would be like to be one of them.

I rounded the curve to the home stretch and picked up my stride. The finish line was within sight, so I hardly even minded seeing all of the fitter runners walking slowly past in the opposite direction, towels around their necks, swigging water from bottles with sponsor logos on them. I found I didn’t even mind it when they clapped and cheered for us, my little pack of grimly determined back-of-the-packers who had suddenly, inexplicably bonded together over the last mile or so. By tacit agreement, we all maintained our relative positions as we neared the finish line. I think we’d all had our struggles with the won’t-be-passed-by-fatties folks back there, and the last thing we wanted to do was surge haughtily past a fellow-sufferer in the final stretch.

This was how I felt about it, at least.

So I maintained my pace, waved and smiled to the cheerleaders, who were not condescending at all but were actually friendly and happy and sincere. It was weird. I… might have been wrong. About them, and about their opinions of runners like me. I will admit the possibility.

Richard, the exempted friend, was the loudest one cheering at the finish line. Bernadette picked up her camera and snapped some shots of me crossing the finish line. I have no idea how she got the shutter speed fast enough to capture anything more recognizable than a speeding blur of muscle and sinew, but I guess I can ask her later.

My other friend, Cindy — the one who I’d hoped would run interference for me with a softly rounded stick — texted me just as I crossed the finish line.  Turns out she had chosen to eat a big, greasy breakfast in a window booth of a small roadside diner on the final stretch of the race. When she saw me coming, she says she briefly considered standing up and shouting something, but thought better of it, and took another bite of her donut. Then she picked up her phone to text me that she was thinking very warm thoughts about me. And about bacon. But mostly about me.

I got her text about five minutes later, after I’d gotten my water and had my picture taken and enjoyed the adulation of a handful of random strangers, none of whom irked me in the least. I even joined in with the clapping and cheering myself, hooting and whooping for the rest of the runners and walkers who came in after me, their smiles broad, their excitement undimmed.

In fact, it’s probably time to just come clean and admit that I had a freaking blast. I ran at a slower pace than you’re probably even guessing right now, a pace that is technically referred to as Slow As Heck, but I still managed to beat my goal time by several minutes. Which means that my average pace was a full minute per mile faster than I thought it’d be. Just about every other runner in the world would have surged right on past me — and did — but I beat my own expectations of myself, and not by a little bit.

And apparently that’s sort of what this running thing is actually all about.

I… might have been wrong. About it all. About everything. What? Stranger things have happened.

Like the way my name has magically appeared on the registration form for another 5K, one month from now.

How the hell did that happen?

team juliette

It Gets Better

Half Egg

I’ve been realizing more and more that when people ask me how I’m doing — just in the course of everyday idle chitchat — I have less and less of any real dramatic interest to report. I mean, at the risk of calling down every jinxy jinx in the universe upon mine unlucky head, let’s be honest. Things are going pretty great around here.

I love my job. I enjoy what I get to do, which is writing and editing. Most of what I write and edit is funny, lighthearted copy, which is generally my favorite sort of thing to write on a daily basis, since it’s kind of easy for me. And I’m kind of lazy, at heart. By which I mean I prefer to do things I’m good at, given the choice. And I get to work from home most days. I drive in to the big city a couple times a week, but the rest of the time I write funny, lighthearted copy from my couch.

This incredible lifestyle has given me the freedom of time and energy, physical and mental, to get my health in gear. I’ve been running for the last year and watching what I eat, and as a result I’ve lost 45 pounds. This is, as you can imagine, freaking awesome.

I live on Cape Cod, which I love. I grew up here, as longtime readers of my blog know (in somewhat excruciating detail), and although I moved back here 11 years ago with somewhat mixed feelings about the whole endeavor, I basically couldn’t be more ecstatic about the situation now. I love my tiny little house on the river where I can see the sun rise over the water in the winter when the leaves are off the trees, and I can see the lush leafy growth of a largely untouched swampy pine forest when they’re not.

I have a garden. I have friends. I’m less of a hermit than I used to be. I go out. I’ve joined a few groups and social circles that work for me on any number of levels.

Are there some less-than-great things scattered around my general landscape? Oh, sure. One of my cats died in October, my best boy, my favorite, my one true love. That was painful as heck. We still have his sister, who is also awesome, but who is now getting smothered by so much affection and care that it will probably be twice as crushing when she, too, shuffles off her mortal coil. That’s a problem. It’s not one I can solve, though. So maybe it’s better to call it a “situation.” It’s a thing. It exists. I miss my boycat something fierce, and my girlcat isn’t immortal. Alas.

I have too much debt and not enough cash on hand. But I’m better off than most — I don’t have kids, I don’t have a mortgage, I don’t have crushing amounts of student debt. But I still have lots of bills to pay, and that causes me some — I dunno. Discomfort? And not half as much as it used to. I guess I’ve just gotten used to having to pay bills all the time, and it grates on my nerves less and less as time goes on.

And, oh, you know, all of the usual crap. I’ve got my share of hypochondriacal woes, like these bumps on my head that I’ve had since I was 18 and that I occasionally convince myself are going to kill me in some unpleasant way one of these days. I’m not as good a friend or sister or daughter as I probably should be. I’m self involved and narcissistic and filled with pride and fear and grandiosity and resentments and bile. Some days are better than others. Some days I still feel that nameless anxiety creeping up from the pit of my belly and I forget what my magical incantations are to make it go away. Some days I replay in my head over and over and over again all of the stupid things I’ve ever said or done and why nobody is ever going to like me ever again once they realize — or remember — what an impossible jerk I am.

But honestly, all of that pretty much pales in comparison with how bad things were once upon a time for me.

When I still lived in New York, and things were bad and (although I didn’t know it then, but) about to get much, much worse, I used to walk around the neighborhood and wish for three things. A car (I hadn’t owned one in years, and not by choice), a job (I was working restaurants and nightclubs at the time, and desperately needed to Get Out Of That), and a house (I was living in a rented flat that was nice enough, but I was yearning for my little house by the sea).

And look: I’ve got all that now. But that’s not even the best part. I’ve got my calm back. I’ve got my steady back. I’ve got my general easygoingness and even-keeledness that people used to know me for, back before. Before things got dicey.

I’m back to being me. That’s incredible. That’s insane. That’s great.

I’m not saying any of this to make anyone feel bad, or jealous, or high-fivey or group-huggy or whatever. I just thought it might be useful to somebody else, somehow. You know, if things are really spectacularly bad for you now, too, or if you’ve got a horrible suspicion that they’re about to get much, much worse, or if it’s just that that nameless dread still comes snaking up out of your belly sometimes, too, that it does get better. I mean, it can.

There are no guarantees. But such things are possible. Likely, even, if you know even one or two of the right levers to pull.

Even this much was way more than I knew, or even suspected, way back then. And I think it might have helped me out, a little, if someone had told me. I dunno. Maybe not. But it’s worth a try.

I mentioned in my last post that I used to write post cards to myself, back before we moved here. I wanted my future self to tell my current self that it was going to be okay, that she was waiting for me, and that it was awesome where she was.

Now I guess I want to do that for somebody else, too.

Also: If you’re already on this side of the fence, it’s okay to admit you’re happy. I know. It’s not really the done thing. In fact in many circles it’s considered to be in extremely poor taste.

Screw them. I’ll risk the faux pas. Just this once.

Quiet and Ready Enough

green silence

 

I read the other day about a church in England — an 11th century church in Sussex, it was — where the parish had recorded and then sold out of a CD they made of the silence that lives in their small village church.

That’s all. Just silence.

Apparently they set up some recording equipment and just let it run. You can hear some soft rustles, one or two discreet footsteps, but that’s all. The rest, as they say, is silence.

Of course, if you’ve ever spent any time listening to silence, you know that it’s never “just” silence. Silence isn’t actually the absence of sound. In fact, it’s those weird, indistinct noises unique to a place that, rather than disturbing the silence you might otherwise find there, somehow manage to give it a name. A density, a molecular mass of its own.

My tiny house on Cape Cod, for instance, has a very different silence than the silence that can be found on the bike path a mile away where I run. And these are both quite different from the silence of the ocean beach a short drive from here, where the murmurs of wave and wind can sometimes rise into an actual roar, yet still manage to sound quite undeniably like silence.

You’d recognize the silence of your childhood home. In a heartbeat, you would.

Before we moved here, I used to spend my vacations in this house. Not all of my vacations were on Cape Cod, to be sure, but this is where I’m from, and it’s where all my family still live, and so I came back fairly regularly for this and that as the years went on. And after a while, I started yearning less for my own bed in whatever adopted town I was living in off-Cape, and started wishing more and more that I could just stay. And it was the silence that I wanted to remember, when I left. I’d walk out into the road in front of the house in the middle of the night, sit down and stare up at the stars, and listen. Store up as much of the sound of this little plot of land as I could. Open my ears up wide and let the silence just pour right in.

When we did finally decide to move back here, after I’d been away for almost a decade and a half, and my father — whose house this is — had agreed to let us roost here on a more permanent basis, it took us about a year to tie up all the loose ends of our lives on the mainland before we could pack up the moving vans and make it official. By then I was flat-out desperate to be living here again. I took out a box at the local post office months before we moved. Every week, I’d mail my future self a post card from me-in-exile, apologizing for the delay and explaining just how hard I was working on coming back home. How much I was looking forward to seeing me again.

“Wish you were here,” I’d imagine me writing back.

I used to think about this house at night, sit and think about how still it must be right now, the canvas-covered chairs in the living room lying empty and waiting, the knotted pine walls softly lit by the floor lamp that was always left on. I used to sit in my apartment in upstate New York, trying to imagine how the silence would be sounding here at that moment. Remember the way that the wind had roughed up my ears the last night I’d sat here, arms wrapped around my knees, my butt getting cold from sitting on the rise in the road between house and woods.

Of course now I know more about the different silences of this house. I know how the owls take up residence outside on warm, moonlit nights, conversing for hours about their murderous plans. I know how distant, yet close, are the calls of the coyotes that roam the streets at night, sending the squirrels who sometimes nest in the crawl space under my bedroom into paroxysms of fear and dismay. I know that the hum of the refrigerator would not have kept those canvas chairs company on those long-ago nights, as it was always prudently unplugged, its door left a careful two inches ajar by my father when the house lay empty. The mutterings of my cat as she grooms, the rumblings of the tea kettle as it cools, the incense on the mantle falling from ember into ash — each of these is part of my own contribution to the silence that lives here now, the silence that enshrouds me and warms me like woolens, that cools my skin like cotton sheets on a hot summer night.

I learned the other day that my grandmother’s chair sat where I sit now, every day and every night, working or reading or knitting or typing. It’s my favorite spot in the house, tucked by the window beneath the floor lamp that always stays on and warms the knotted pine walls. I expect that the silence she heard here is quite different from the silence that keeps company here now.

I’ve lived here ten years now, and still I sometimes feel like it’s my job just to listen to the silence of this place, writing it all down in my head so that its stories are all heard. So I stay up late at night, listening, waiting, taking it in.

Taking all of it in. Getting all of it down.

Black Eyed Pea Soup

black eyed lady soup

It was my college girlfriend Tekla who first introduced me to the concept of eating lucky food on New Year’s Day. She was a farm girl from Connecticut, and she had very fixed and radical ideas about how one should comport oneself in the kitchen. And pretty much everywhere else. But we won’t go into that right now.

She was, in fact, an excellent cook.

It was Tekla who first inspired me to become a vegetarian, Tekla who introduced me to the Moosewood Cookbook, Tekla who brewed up mulled cider in winter, lemonade in summer, and gallons and gallons of tea all the year long.

As I was an impressionable young thing at the time, I went along for the ride.

She lived in a second floor apartment in Northampton, on a quiet side street about a mile out from the center of town. It was an easy, though a generally snowy and cold walk from the bus stop at the Academy of Music to her house, past a little road called Olive Street which we invariably called Oh! Live! Streetto her house on Harlow Street, which we inevitably referred to as the street of harlots.

Ah, youth.

Winters were colder then, as I’m sure many of you will recall. But it never took long to warm up after an icy walk from town to her house, where the fireplace was always lit and the kettle nearly always on the boil. She had two housemates, both fairly older than us, both just as fond of tea. And the pantry was always well stocked.

Northampton itself had been a culinary eye-opener for me, even before I’d met Tekla. Northampton gave me my first taste of basil pesto, roasted red peppers, really good bread, homemade pasta, gourmet pizza, a real tamale. And while we’d try to cook something creative out of Moosewood or The Silver Palate, more often than not we’d end up trundling back downtown for a slice, or a burrito, or whatever a college student’s budget might allow.

That was the thing about those vegetarian cookbooks: You never had on hand the things they seemed to take for granted you would. Even Tekla’s well stocked pantry tended to be bereft of the sorts of arcane ingredients those recipes called for. Ersatz staples, we called them. Arrant knaves of the kitchen.

So on nights when it was too cold to venture forth into the night, or our wallets wouldn’t stand for it, or we just wanted to stay inside by the fire, it was most often a big pot of soup that would get summoned together from whatever she had lying around.

The making of soup follows a basic, reliable pattern. Oh, sure, there are some fancier soups that might call for fancier methods, but in general you can get some fairly spectacular results with just the usual drill of the same simple steps.

These are:

  1. Saute a mixture of onions, carrots, and celery in some olive oil or butter. Insist on referring to this mixture as mirepoix at least once while you are making it, just to remind yourself and your guest that you love obscure words of great specificity.
  2. Add stock and the main event of the soup, whatever that might be. We were vegetarians, so this was usually beans or rice, plus some seasonally appropriate vegetable to act as the star. Very good mushrooms, for instance. But these days (as a lapsed vegetarian, as I have lapsed in so many things), it’s just as likely to be cubed chicken meat or shredded cooked turkey.
  3. Bring to a boil, then simmer until you can’t stand it any more. Season to taste and serve.

The soup I made last night follows the same basic plan.

Apparently it’s customary for black eyed peas and kale to represent prosperity in the new year, but as I was raised to consider prosperity to be rather suspect a thing to have, or even yearn for, I tend to think instead in terms of luck. I’ve since overcome my aversion to prosperity as a worthy goal, but I still believe that it’s best to be vague about your wishes and allow fortune to decide the proper course for your blessings to take. After all, if I’d gotten what I was wishing for ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago, I’d be in a right pickle now, and no mistake.

It wouldn’t be right to call this recipe “Tekla’s Black Eyed Pea Soup” or anything of the sort, since I don’t have any scraps of paper with her scrawl on it, specifying ingredients and cooking times and serving sizes. But for obvious reasons, I’m still going to claim her as this creation’s most powerful influence. After all, if it weren’t for her, I might never have known that I should be eating certain foods on certain days of the year to ensure a healthy, happy, and prosperous new year.

I’m in her debt for one or two other skills, but we’ll leave it at soup for now.

Black Eyed Pea Soup

(to bring luck and/or prosperity in the New Year)

Ingredients

1 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

3-5 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 1/2 c. onion, diced

3 slices (about 2.5 oz) bacon, sliced into ~1 cm wide pieces

1 c. carrots, diced

1 c. celery, diced

1 c. green pepper, diced

1 bunch kale, washed, stems removed, and thinly sliced

32 oz (two cans) cooked black eyed peas

64 oz chicken stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Saute garlic and onions in olive oil over medium heat until onions are translucent. Add bacon and cook until bacon is crispy. Add carrots, celery, and green pepper and cook for about 5-8 minutes longer, until the carrots are just tender. Add beans and stock. Bring to a boil, then simmer for about 15 minutes. Skim any foam from top of soup. Stir in kale. Simmer another 10 minutes. Season to taste and serve. Makes 8 servings of about 2 cups each.

 

 

Birch Bark Christmas

My neighbor has a birch tree in her front yard, and it makes no sense at all.

birchy

Birches aren’t the kind of tree you’d associate with my little town on Cape Cod, and they’re certainly not the kind of tree you’d associate with the low-lying, south-facing, wind-battered street that I call home.

No. People like us, what we have are scrub pines. We’ve got yards jammed up tight with pine trees, which means pine needles, which we never rake, because what even would be the point? That high canopy of pine would just send another shower of needles raining down on our heads as soon as we were done. And anyway, pines help the rhododendrons bloom pink in the spring. Good old pine. It’s what belongs in a yard like mine.

Of course folks like me who have piney yards do not, it hardly needs saying, have lawns. Because lawns like to be cared for, and they do not like pine. They like an environment that around here can only be brought about by artificial means, which means a fair bit of work for only a very little bit of pay. What I’m saying is that they’re high maintenance features, lawns. And folks like me do not go in for high maintenance anything at all.

Piney people are just different from lawn people. And we do not mix well.

I hardly need to tell you that my neighbor has a lawn.

Oh, you wouldn’t know to look at it now, of course. Right now it’s December. And in December all you can see in my neighborhood is a few dark spikes where last year’s beach roses were, and beyond that maybe a few old black seed heads bobbing around where last year’s daisies bashed around in the sun.

And on top of it all, there’s pine.

No, the lawns of my neighborhood are sleeping right now. The landscapers have been sent over to rake and to tidy, but nobody’s been around since hurricane season wrapped up. So things have kind of mellowed out around here. These days, you can look out your window and know right away who pours too much chemical nonsense on their lawn when they open up the house every spring. That peculiar shade of green has just got no place in a December lawn, and everyone who sees it knows it.

Of course those kinds of neighbors never actually see their lawns in December. They’re off home somewhere. Off-Cape. Away.

Lawn people. What can I say.

But these lawn folks have birches, and I noticed that straight away. As soon as we moved here ten years ago, I noticed those birches next door. Fact is, they reminded me of a bunch of birches I slept in once, back when I was a kid doing school stuff in Banff. We’d been camped up high on a ridge one night, all open and exposed to the sky, on account of there having been bear warnings posted in every other fit place to camp overnight. Only problem was, that summer was all about the storms at night. Every night for weeks, we’d seen the worst kind of lightning storms and flooding rains come pouring down through the gullies past our snug little tents.

But bears had forced us to less snug quarters, and we knew we’d be getting wet. And sure enough, by midnight that night we we’d been nailed.

The next night we just ignored the bear warnings and camped out in the birches. Lower down the mountains, where other animals might be, but where there was cover enough to shield us from the storm. But the storms never came that night. And I couldn’t sleep. At first, I was waiting for the rain. But then I noticed the trees.

Those birches.

Man. Can I tell you.

I fought off sleep that whole long night just so I could listen to them chattering away to each other, those hundreds on hundreds of tall swaying trees, birches that crackled like crickets; chirped, like castanets.

Like castanets, I tell you.

I made it till just before dawn. And the next day we broke camp and moved on.

Ever since then, I’ve sort of noticed a birch. So when we moved in here and saw that lonely pair of birches planted too near to the roofline of our neighbor’s house, I knew that they were there. I marked them. And I felt like they’d marked me, too.

That fall, the house was sold. The new neighbors had to put in a new septic tank, and our little postage stamp lots don’t leave much room to mess around with things like trees and garden plans when you’ve got a backhoe waiting on you.

One birch came down. One birch remained.

The new neighbors put in a lawn above where the fill over the leaching field went. It wouldn’t do well, not on a piney street like ours, but what can you do. You can’t reason with lawn people. It’s just the way they are.

I can’t say I’m surprised they turned out to be lawn people, of course. They were from away. And they mostly stayed away, as it transpired, tooling down the Cape from whatever western suburb they hailed from year-round. We’d wave from our driveway if they happened to be in town. But such folks come and go, you know. So it pays to wait and see if they’ll last a while before you spend too much time being outgoing and such. Anyway, I could see the way they were looking at my piney yard in the fall. Their little gloved hands twitching around the handle of their freshly bought rakes, just dying to come over and “lend a hand.”

Lawn people.

That Christmas I was laid off. Actually, I’d been laid off since Labor Day. So any savings I’d had from the summer were long since spent, and there wasn’t really anything left for Christmas. I’d managed to get a tree, thanks to a friend. And another friend gave me a tree stand, and a skirt. But I had no money for ornaments. So it was a pretty sad little tree when we first put it up.

That was okay, though. I was just glad it was Christmas. I’ve always liked Christmas, say what you want. Seems to me that any time of year when people are forced to think more about others than they do themselves, and to spend a little bit more of whatever they’ve got most of — money, time, a little thought and care — on their families and friends than on themselves, that can only be a good thing.

Nothing wrong with showing kindness to each other. It just doesn’t always come naturally, that’s all. Sometimes you need a certain time of year to remind you to be that kind again. And some people are just built with their kindness on the outside, and some of us keep it buried further in. Christmas just makes you try a little harder, that’s all.

But this Christmas was hard. I don’t mind telling you I was poorer then than I’d been before or since. And I like the look of a plain tree as much as the next one, but I also wanted some adornment on that tree, I did. Wanted it bad.

So I went outside and looked at that birch tree. Silly old thing. What’s it doing out there in the middle of that lawn, anyway?

The neighbor’s house was dark, and there wasn’t any fence to climb. Just a sharp, dark line on the snow-dusted ground where the smooth, raked mound of their not-quite-a-lawn met the raggedy unraked realms of my own. It was still all woods between our houses and the rest back then, too. So there was nobody to see when I stepped over to a birch; nobody but the moon, and I suppose an owl or three.

The pale sides of that birch glowed in the smooth December dark. I came up alongside it and rested my palm on its shank, feeling the sleepy rise and fall of its cellulose lungs. A few curled pieces of discarded bark crunched under my foot, and I slid my hands down to scoop up what was left.

Birch bark falls in long, lanky sheets if you’ll leave it alone long enough. And those lawn people had done that much right, at least; they’d left well enough alone long enough for that birch there to shed its winter nighty and leave it at my feet like linens, like fresh linens in the snow.

I picked up what I could, laying bits of bark into the pockets of my coat until I felt I’d gathered up enough. Then I went back inside and hung little curled bits of birch bark all over my little pine tree, and sat around for a while, inhaling their mingled scents.

That night when I lay down in bed with my window open, there were owls chatting up a storm. There are always owls around here, I guess. But when I fell asleep, all I heard was castanets.