Saturday, November 29, 2014

Day Trip Diary: Ford Mansion, Jockey Hollow and Wick Farm in Morristown

My favorite historian, David McCullough, when talking about lessons in history that high school students should learn before graduating,  said to learn history through other means than books and teachers. Learn history through music, plays, architecture and by doing drawings, he urges. "Bring them into the tent not just because of books and quotations and dates and boring. Don't do boring. Because it isn't boring. It's about human beings."  Also, "Take them to places where things happened."
It is hard to believe that as a life long New Jersey resident, I never had a school trip to Morristown to visit Washington's headquarters at Ford Mansion or any American Revolution sites for that matter. Mr. McCullough wants to plant the seed early to sprout a love of history, but it is never too late for a seed later in life. His advice I believe applies just as much to adults.
Steve and I had a renewed interest in George Washington and the story of the fight for independence when we caught a marathon of the AMC series, Turn,  based on Alexander Rose's book, Washington Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring. I eagerly anticipate the second season in 2015.  

Back to Morristown. It was a mere $4 per person fee to visit Ford Mansion. From my New Jersey Day Trips guide from my local library:

"The winter of 1779-1780 was the coldest in a century. On December 1, 1779, General George Washington entered Morristown and took up residence at the house of Mrs. Jacob Ford, Jr. Meanwhile, 4 miles away at Jockey Hollow, 10,000 men chopped down 600 acres of oak, walnut and chestnut trees to build hundreds of huts along the slopes of the "hollow." Severe snowstorms hindered their work and delayed the supply of meat and bread they needed to survive. Starvation confronted the army, which also suffered from inadequate clothing, disease and low morale. So terrible was the winter of the Morristown encampment that many troops finally mutinied. But history books only tell you about Valley Forge. Why? Because New Jersey has simply never had a very good public relations person."

I thought of the comfortable headquarters here, compared to the primitive conditions of the troops endured at Jockey Hollow.


Pots ready for hearth cooking, and behind them candle making equipment. I think of the labor needed to produce everything from food to light. 
In the museum, a display on the "Ascendancy of George Washington." How much do you know about our first president? I was a political science major, and know some but not as much as I would like. It seems people in our age of access to so much information are more well versed in the doings of the Kardashians or other "reality" personalities.
Gilbert Stuart, a sign noted, "painted three portraits of George Washington from life and as many as hundreds more likenesses copied from them. This portrait is a version of one called the Athenaeum portrait."

A marker, "Taste for Refinement," talked about "the smoother a dish, plate or teapot, the more desirable it was to the genteel class, who imported porcelain from England and the Far East. Crude earthenware was more common in  colonial homes, but as the 18th century progressed, porcelain and china became available and affordable."
Take a look at your plates at home. Where are they manufactured? So many dishes today will bear a "Made in China" logo. Many of ours do. Steve's mother said she has a set of China from her parents no one wants and I said we'd happily take them, but as she lives in Arizona we have yet to make arrangements. I'd love having dishes with a family history.
A marker calls attention to the art of writing, including letters, logs and diaries. Do you write letters or record thoughts in diaries? My heart is so happy when I get a letter from my pen pal, and I consider my blog to be a diary. A friend suggested I print it out for Grace to read one day, and I love that idea. The film "Nebraska" had me thinking about how much our parents, who are such great shapers of our lives, are such mysteries to us. I hope Grace will know more about me reading this blog one day, and the early adventures we took her on.
A letter with wax seal from 1845 from Dolly Madison to Reverend William Sprague.
Think of all the things we have in our homes for babies today. We've had to make room in ours for Grace's crib, bassinet, changing table, bouncy seat, swing, dresser for her clothes and other items. Never mind her toys, books and such! My car contains her car seat, a pram and stroller. I suspect our grandmothers did just fine without so many things (never mind how much money they did not have to spend).
A sign on "Infancy and Instruction" noted, "Parents of all social classes provided their children with cradles, and a few with baby bottles. Cradles protected them from their homes' chilly drafts. As children grew older, they learned reading and catechism from primer books." Here, a mahogany cradle from Philadelphia, circa 1730-1760.
The New England Primer. I think a lot about language, as Steve so poetically put it, which is alive and changing.
David McCullough talked about the dumbing down of language in history textbooks, and how J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series defied the conventional belief that modern children do not like to read, doing so without dumbing down the vocabulary in the slightest. A topic around our kitchen table has been the dumbing down of American society. We have all this knowledge at our fingertips, but it seems to be more about distraction instead of education, and far too much fluff. As for our claims of valuing "education," it seems at times our society values competitive sports more. Thoughts?

Off to the Jockey Hollow visitors' center, where you can view a recreated military hut interior.
I considered the harsh realities faced by the soldiers: severe cold unimaginable to us, extended separation from loved ones, the violence they witnessed, and starvation. How long could you survive without food? That day, I had apple cinnamon oatmeal and coffee for breakfast, a pumpkin yogurt parfait and pear as a midmorning snack, for lunch a hearty lentil vegetable soup, raspberry rose tea and then an apple as a snack. By the time we got to Jockey Hollow, we got two small bags of trail mix at the visitors center! I don't think I'd last very long. Never mind poor, poor me when I have to take the dogs outside for 10 minutes in the cold to return to my snug, warm home. History puts everything into perspective.
David McCullough thinks if the founding fathers were to come back today they would be amazed  that the constitution and form of government they put into place still exists, and with our dentistry, medicine, our capacity to build, the speed of communication and travel, but would be disappointed about the role of money in our political system and they would find us "soft." I agree.
With Grace in the car, we took turns walking up the hill to see the recreated soldiers huts. We both remarked on the sense of peace we felt here walking along the trail.
A marker at the bottom of the hill notes the contributions of the sons of Ireland. "Seven out of the eleven brigades at Jockey Hollow were commanded by generals born in Ireland or had Irish parents. It is estimated that one quarter of the entire Continental Army was from Ireland."
"Saint Patrick's Day was the one holiday General Washington granted in the army in Jockey Hollow during the hard winter in 1779-80. He hoped that by recognizing the Irish holiday that it might further political unrest in Ireland."
I could have lingered for a long time at the Wick Farm, but dusk was approaching and the air was growing chilly. A sign here notes of the farm's importance in sustaining Washington's army.
I just recently learned that pie plant is also the name for garden rhubarb.
This marker for borage notes it flavors drinks and reduces fever. We've advanced so far in medicine, but I think too have strayed from the knowledge of the healing powers in our gardens. It's easy to take a pill, but is that always the best solution?
The garden was getting ready for its winter slumber. I already so miss going out in the garden with the baby. I had ambitious hopes for a vegetable garden this year, but with a newborn to care for it never materialized and we just had herbs and flowers. We're a little worried about air quality issues by us with a garden since a nearby quarry often pollutes our air. Where to go to that's clean and safe?
The sign for the smokehouse notes, "The farmer packed meat such as fish, chicken, beef and pork in salt to season and preserve.
The meat was hung from the rafters, below on the dirt floor. A smoky fire was built using wet hickory wood and apple tree logs. After several days the smoked meats were taken down ready to eat or be stored away for winter meals."  Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about her family smoking meat in the first chapter of Little House in the Big Woods, which was set a century after this time period. Fast forward about a century and a half later after that novel, think of how many advances we've made in not having to produce so much of our own food, yet also how far removed we are from where are food comes from. Both good and bad.
Do you know the source of your drinking water when you turn on the tap?  I think of how much bottled water is in our modern life, and all that plastic waste, so much not recycled. When I see this well, I think of Laura's chapter, "Fresh Water to Drink" in Little House on the Prairie in which she describes the laborious, dangerous process of building one and the rewarding results. "The water was clear and cold and good. Laura thought she had never tasted anything so good as those long, cold drinks of water. Pa hauled no more stale, warm water from the creek."
In our area, there is a multimillion-dollar plan to drain three reservoirs on Garret Mountain and replace them with concrete tanks.
Our local reported, "Adopted in 2006, LT2 is a rule that requires all utilities that store treated drinking water in open-air reservoirs to either cover those facilities or re-treat the water. The rule aims to protect water from fecal contamination by birds and wildlife." There are now it seems almost eleventh hour efforts to stop this project. Again, it seems how much we have advanced from with labor in getting water, but how little we think about this life-giving source we cook with, bath in, and lauder clothing in.

The rustic fence looks out onto the sleepy fields, with so many ghosts of the revolution. My visit here left me with so much to think about. You do not have to travel far or have a lot of money to have a rich and rewarding vacation. We had more to come...
We had a tired baby, so we ate at home. Inspired by the garden, an arugula, corn, pepper, tomato and cheese salad, on apple plates (thrifted from the Goodwill, and made in China, incidentally). I'm going to start using more of our blue and white antique dishes. Our vacation of day trips (often they were just afternoon trips) saved so much on dining and lodging. It's cosier in our own home with our dogs by our side anyway. There really is no place like home.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Confessions of a Recovering Consumer

Black Friday shopping spree? Hardly. My pile of donations for the Goodwill.

This is a tiny fraction of the what we've given away as part of a massive decluttering project since the birth of our daughter Grace in February. We have one floor of a two-family home, plus a large basement, one side of the garage and an outdoor space. In both the storage and living areas of the home, we have in short: way, way too much stuff. All of this stuff represents not just money wasted, but also time. Precious money and time to accumulate it all, and more sacred time to pass it on. We toyed with posting a few things for sale on Craig's List for cheap but got no bites, and I quickly decided it was not worth the time. My husband Steve held a garage sale many years ago and after bargaining with people over loose change his mantra is, "Never again!" This stuff also costs precious mental energy having it all around, and I'd rather have that negative energy out than the few dollars I might get from it. I just want it gone.

A large portion has gone to the Goodwill, some offered for free on Craig's List (everything from an elliptical trainer to baby clothes), and a wee bit thrown out, mostly things that were too damaged to give away. I would consider it an environmental and societal sin to throw it out when someone could use the items for a reduced or no cost, so we make sure it goes into the reuse market. I have considered, and still am, creating a separate blog to create a dialogue about and document the enormous amount of perfectly good items thrown out in our corner of New Jersey that we come across. A good portion of our stuff is curbside rescues.

A few years ago, Steve and I started taking regular Sunday drives to go to estate sales, where the entire contents of a house are for sale, usually due to a move or after a death of the home's owners, and once in a while when people are downsizing. When Steve was visiting a childhood friend in Iowa, his friend took him to an estate sale and planted the seed.  To write this entry, I reread a post I wrote on Thrifty Time Traveling at Estate Sales. I talked about a Singer sewing machine we bought, and I realized where it is: in an attic in a house we don't even live in, completely forgotten about, never used. That attic also has my old microwave stand from my first apartment we should give away on Craig's List. Who know what else is up there, wasting away instead of put to use by others? Do you have many items sitting around that could be used by passing them on?

I used to have a Housing Works thrift shop less than a five minute walk away from my former workplace in New York City, and while out on a Saturday to have lunch with my mom and food shop I would stop at local charity shops and/or garage sales when I passed them.

Thrift shops, garage and estate sales, and curbside rescues provided a host of cheap materialistic temptations that were often too hard to pass up. Part of the challenge of secondhand shopping is the need to make a quick decision, since you can't go back to a garage sale or a charity shop item might be scooped up by someone else. I am proud that our household is largely outfitted secondhand, but now strive for less. We acquired far too much of everything. How many charming dishes, bird knickknacks, garden décor and Eiffel towers do I need in my life?

I regret I didn't spend time cooking items for those pretty plates, gazing at the birds and not having dust accumulate on the ceramic versions, tending to my garden instead of decorating it, and reading my multiple "Learn French" books instead of buying so much Paris décor. I also wish I spent more of those estate sale Sundays on nature walks or in the park with the dogs. How much more enjoyable would it have been to treat myself to lunch once or twice a month at my favorite French bistro near my building or read on my lunch break instead of going to Housing Works? Since I am not in the city and have an infant to care for, no sneaking off to a bistro for mushroom ravioli and an apple tart tatin now (although that was also part of the rushed lunch schedule of New York City cubicle workers, which could be another blog post).

It is a struggle to try not to be hard on myself on the hours I spent accumulating and now passing on all this stuff. We were shopping the reuse market with what Steve calls "hobby money" but now as a stay-at-home mom, how I wish I had the money instead. But everything I did led to the magical moment Grace entered into our lives.

Visiting these estate sales, I also observed as a society, everyone has too much. Clothes in closets, some even with tags on them, not worn for decades, dishes, holiday décor, you name it. Basements, closets, and rooms packed filled with things. Have you ever seen the HGTV show called "Love It or List It" where buyers give a "budget" of tens of thousands of dollars to a designer to "upgrade" their home and also work with a realtor, and at the end they decide to "Love it" or "List it?" I have the same thought every single time: almost every homeowner just needs to declutter their home which they claim to have outgrown. The staged homes they see (even their own at the end) look so inviting because they are free of clutter.

I knew we needed to up the "Operation Declutter" campaign when Steve recently asked, "Do you think we need a bigger house?"

"No, we need to get rid of stuff," I said. We've been shedding possessions like the autumn leaves. I feel lighter each time donations leave the home.

Let's talk about the coveted "walk-in closet" so many women drool over on the home improvement channel. My large closet used to be crammed with clothing from estate sales, clothing swaps and thrift shops.  Not any more. In part, I no longer favor a lot of the vintage fabrics (i.e., polyester) and don't wish to dress like Mad Men's Peggy Olson since I'm not in a nice New York City office anymore. Looking at our coat closet, why on earth did I have four raincoats, three long, one short? I don't struggle with "I'll lose 10 or 15 pounds and fit into this again!" but do have this odd sentimental way of thinking, "I remember when I wore this top in the California wine country on our honeymoon." It's been a process. But I don't want a large, fussy closet of clothes I rarely wear.

Whenever I read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, I too want to declutter. Remember Ma's cherished China Shepherdess? I love the idea of having this simple piece. Ma didn't have twenty dust collecting China Shepherdesses!

All said, I still pop by a thrift shop, though not as often. When I needed frames for pictures of Grace, I found them thrifted for $1. I stopped by a favorite, the C.A.T.S. Resale Shop in Westwood, New Jersey, when I was in the area this week, and picked up a beautiful Readers Digest book of "The World's Best Fairy Tales" for $1 which I can't wait to read to Grace. Books have always been my favorite thing to acquire secondhand, but I don't consider them a "thing" as more an "experience." I did take a hard look at my "to read" books and passed on so many to Goodwill. I think books are living things that need to keep breathing for the next reader. I'm keeping some, but not as many as I used to. I do love to support my local bookshops, and will continue to shop at them, though at the moment less frequently as I use my library more with our now one-income household.

Today I'm not thinking about shopping, I'm continue shedding. When I do, I'll stick to the resale market as often as possible, and also small businesses. I mourn all the trees felled for the store's advertisements for Black Friday. I don't know why they even say, "Black Friday." They should say perhaps, "Black November." Like the Christmas holiday itself, it's become devoid of the true meaning. I also wonder too about where all these goods are made, and what resources are being used from the earth to make them? Like where the Thanksgiving turkeys come from, an uncomfortable topic most don't like to think about. That's my retail food for thought this Black Friday.

Further Reading: My Blog Post , "No Mall for Me Today: A Black Friday Message"

Monday, November 17, 2014

Day Trip Diary: The New York Botanical Garden

"Lindy fell into step beside him. "I love your umbrella," she said admiringly.
"I bought it because it's cheery and it makes people look up. Have you noticed how nobody ever looks up?...Nobody looks at chimneys, or trees against the sky, or the tops of buildings. Everybody just looks down at the pavement or their shoes. The whole world could pass them by and most people wouldn't notice."  - The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles.

The Last of the Great Whangdoodles is a richly imaginative tale by Julie Andrews Edwards of The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins fame about a professor's adventures with three children, and I'll be remembering some favorite passages here. It was published in 1974, the year before I was born, but that passage seems even more relevant today with everyone is glued to a device and looking down, not up or around at their surroundings.

There is a Little House on the Prairie episode where Charles, beloved "Pa," is attempting to install a "picture window" in the little house by Plum Creek, but it keeps breaking during a series of marital spats between Laura and Almanzo, via doors slamming, getting crushed in the buggy and so on. I keep thinking of that term, "picture window," about the images we see through our windows, and how it stirs our imaginations. There is a commercial for a car that provides Wi-Fi, with two young children ready for their car trip each with their own handheld devices ready to look down. I think gazing out of a window is a lost simple pleasure in today's distracted world. When we were riding to the park, I loved observing the cheery autumn displays people put out: the scarecrows, the mums, haystacks and such. One porch (how I love front porches!) had a comforting red-checked table cloth that made my heart happy. Sitting next to our baby Grace in the car, my mom observed how much she likes to look around and can entertain herself. That's exactly what we want. No screen in front of her to mentally pacify her. We want to stimulate her senses, observing the glorious world around her. Have you taken time today to witness the beautiful world around you?

Steve, Grace and I viewed the stunning scenery at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, one of my favorite places in New York. Here is a frame made of branches in their Children's Garden, the picture it captures: the woods.

Before we started our visit, we stopped in their Pine Tree Café for nourishment. I had a hearty sandwich of portabella mushrooms, roasted red peppers, pesto, arugula and goat cheese, with an organic Earl Grey tea. I adore the earthiness of mushrooms, and the fragrance of bergamot from the tea. I always love eating and drinking the flavors of the garden, and it seemed even more fitting to do so here.

Taking the professor's advice, I looked up at this towering tree as we ate, as did Grace. I love outdoor dining.
This sign at the children's adventure garden nudges visitors to observe, explore, discover and connect, but adults (myself included) can use the reminder too. Let's vow to do these things just as often if not more in our daily lives as we do checking email or Facebook pages.

There's a scene where the Professor is outdoors with the children asking them what they see. The children hadn't noticed the tree trunks aren't just brown.

"The trunk of that one is copper and smooth, and that one is grey and rough. Those dead leaves are a russet color, aren't they?" He told them to look under a hedge, "Can't you see the cluster of red berries hanging under the tree? The children looked closer. Suddenly, as if the focus were being changed on a camera, the red berries came into view."
"There aren't many people in this world who know how to actually look. Usually one glance is enough to register that the grass is green and the sky is blue and so on. They can tell you if the sun is shining or if it looks like rain, but that's about all. It's such a pity, for there is texture to everything we see, and everything we do and hear.

"As each day passed, the children's ability to look, listen, feel, taste and smell improved immeasurably."

Looking around, I too found whimsy is everywhere here, a sense of play and fun that children and animals instinctually know the importance of, but we get too jaded or forget to make time for in our adult lives. Maybe that's why I was drawn to children's stories even before having a child, which serve as a portal to that magical world.


This pumpkin carving was so fitting for my alien-obsessed husband who had us visiting Roswell, New Mexico, and Area 51 on our American Southwest road trip.
"The professor taught them the wonders of music; not only instrumental music, but the music of running water and the sighing of the winds, the hum of a city and the song of the birds."

I think of how nature provides for so many species and its magical healing properties.
How did the first people unlock these wonders? This fascinates me.

A sign marked this spicebush, which it says turns a bright yellow in autumn, and "migratory birds gorge themselves on the red berries, which are rich in oils that provide concentrated stores of energy. Native Americans used spicebush to treat several illnesses, including coughs, arthritis, and measles. Early settlers called it feverbush and used a drink made from the bark to control fevers."

"Oma says, when we were put on earth a really long time ago, each person came with a plant to heal all the troubles that come later....We've got Indian balsam, sage, wild rose. We've got juniper berries and honeysuckle. All of them do something different inside, heal things." - Brindle 24, J.J. Brown

A sign here reminding us to be good caretakers for our Mother Earth and her forests, as she takes such good care of us through all nature provides.

In the gift shop, I spotted this enchanting seed collection. Every garden does have a story. I cannot wait to plant seeds with Grace and watch them grow. I think this makes a great gift idea too. Check out the seed collections from Renee's Garden.

A marker tells us of the allure of roses. I love that they both stimulate the eyes and senses, not just smell but taste too. I still recall a mint and rose water drink I had at The Girl and the Fig restaurant in the California wine country, and a rose tea I sampled in San Francisco's Chinatown. Smells, taste, sights - all tap into our memory banks, serving as time machines to bring us to another place and era.

I can almost smell the fragrant tea roses looking at this photograph.
Just beyond the garden you hear the busy hum of life outside the gates. I want to linger as long as possible in quiet places, even if they are just in my memories.
We were here for the Kiku or chrysanthemum exhibit that ran in October, which was exquisite.
Artfully crafted bonsai trees. 
Looking at the water lilies always reminds me of my magical day here with my mother to see the Monet's Garden exhibit.  
Poetry lined the walkway to the exhibit space. Here is a haiku, a "traditional poetic form of three lines with a syllable count of five-seven-five in the original Japanese," a marker noted.
Here, a tanka which has five lines and syllable count five-seven-five-seven-seven in the original Japanese, reflects on recapturing youth. 

I saw a cartoon recently where the doctor tells his patient, an old man, that while he still has the same aches and pains, the good news is he is still around to complain about it. So very true.

Thinking of my time here, I reflect on the life cycles around us. Some just a brief season, others, like the trees, whose lifetimes will go on far beyond our own. I consider too our youth-obsessed culture which focuses not on the magic and wonderment of youth but simple vanity. I will never understand our fight against wrinkles and gray hair.

Natalie Merchant, a favorite singer/songwriter/activist, said so wisely in an article in The Buffalo News, "Aging in this culture is not dealt with very effectively. There is wisdom that can only come with experience. Instead of seeing aging as decrepitude and decay, we can see it as something beautiful and natural. You know, I dyed my hair forever, but recently, I stopped dying it altogether, and now I'm fully and completely gray. I had to learn to embrace that."

Having a child reminds me about the fragility and preciousness of life. We are so grateful when we come home with Grace that she is safe and sound and at night putting her to bed that we have been blessed with another day with her. Looking at my dogs I think of their shorter life spans compared to our own human ones and remind myself to make the most of my time with them too.

I'm reading aloud to Grace E.B. White's classic, Charlotte's Web, which speaks to me so much about friendship and the mystery of animal communications and the strong desire of all species to live, love and bond. Charlotte weaves words into her web and the minister declares "the spider's web proved that human beings must always be on the watch for coming of wonders."

Let us always be on the watch for the small wonders each day, and to be grateful for the seasons and time in the gardens of our lives.