Sunday, December 20, 2009

My Holiday’s Better then Yours

Hanukkah has passed, and Christmas is less than a week away, with New Year’s Eve close on its heels. A powdered-sugar snow has sifted from the sky all day, leaving roads slippery but passable – needless to say, I am not on the East Coast!

I find myself thinking about the holiday season and what I know about it. The question is, which holiday? I know this seems radical, but Christmas is not the only holiday in December. For all my Christian friends, what a wonderful time. By all means, celebrate: sing carols, wish everyone a very merry, and shop ‘til you drop. But don’t forget that those around you may not share your faith. Don’t be defensive – just be aware and thoughtful.

I have friends and colleagues who celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid'ul-Adha, Boxing Day and Kwanzaa (but usually not all of them). Of those who are open about their beliefs, I enjoy celebrating with them. I am as delighted to be wished a merry Christmas as I am when someone calls out “Happy Hanukkah.” And I am very satisfied to be wished a Happy Holiday – that sales clerk does not need to know my personal beliefs, nor does he or she need to fear my reaction at being politically correct or not.

Here’s an idea. Feel free to wish those around you a Merry Christmas during the month of December. And, if you like, during Hanukkah, wish your friends a Happy Hanukkah. And so on – I don’t think that it’s terribly important that you share the same holidays or beliefs as the other person – what you’re honestly sharing is your hope for blessings, peace, joy and those other intangibles we humans so lust after.

At the very least, educate yourself about other cultures and beliefs. Doing so does not make you less of a Christian, but more of one.

To learn about Jewish holidays, visit:

To learn about Kwanzaa, visit:

To learn about other religious and cultural holidays, visit:

Monday, December 7, 2009

We did something different for the holidays this year. My extended family (parents, siblings with spouses, nieces and nephews with spouses or dates, even dogs) gathered at my sister's house for a holiday celebration - earlier than usual this year due to one person's work schedule. Generally we draw names from a hat in November and bring a gift for just that person. Then we also bring small gifts to tuck into stockings, although last year I brought collapsible camp chairs, which definitely did not fit into stockings.

Lately the quantity of stocking stuffers grew until we were back to the chaos of too many gifts to appreciate, and escalating costs for people who were struggling to make ends meet due to layoffs. So this year, we skipped the gift exchange and went for cookies instead.

Each family brought four dozen of a single kind of homemade holiday cookie. We arranged them on platters and then "shopped" from each others' offerings, filling our containers with a yummy assortment of goodies that we could then share in our homes or other holiday gatherings throughout the season.

It was fun - there were sugar cookies decorated with royal icing, "magic" cookie bars, oatmeal cookies with red and green M&Ms, peanut butter cup kisses, Kris Kringles with bits of candied cherries in the center, chocolate chocolate chip cookies, and stained glass cookies, with little heart-shaped windows made of melted Lifesavors candies. Oh, and there was fudge - technically not a cookie, but delicious all the same.

Here are some things I learned: we miss the point of Christmas or Hanukkah when we focus on gifts; my family are very competitive and there was whining about who did and did not "win" some prize ribbons provided by my niece; and we love to cook and to eat (big surprise).

We also gave a few gifts: three family members have birthdays within a week of the celebration, so we sang "Happy birthday," shared a huge cake ("three layers of chaos!") with super sweet frosting, and gave gifts. We had music, too - holiday songs and jazz, keyboarding provided by my dad and nephew, vocals by my mom and me.

When we left with full bellies, groaning about the condition of our tummies, we were happy and satisfied. And now we have a new holiday tradition - the cookie exchange - and will forgo gifting until the next generation of babies comes along. The holidays have evolved from object-obsession to gathering, talking, hugging, singing, laughing and eating together - accent on the "together." May your holidays be as cheerful and joyful as can be.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Sniff Test

I was thinking with my nose recently. I am visiting Battle Creek, Michigan, home of Kellogg Company - the Cereal City. On Monday morning I stepped out of my hotel and the smell hit me. It was like something wonderful baking. I was pretty sure my grandma was lurking nearby, pulling a pan of something golden and toasty out of someone's oven. Except for the fact that it was raining, I wanted to stand and inhale deeply...many times.

When I entered the Kellogg Company headquarters, the smell disappeared. I had nearly forgotten it when I left the building that afternoon, but there it was again. Stop, take a deep breath. A flood of memories, all linked to baked goods. The feeling was so overpowering, I ran into the nearest coffee shop and bought a pumpkin scone to savor on the trip home.

Smell can be a powerful force. It can trigger deep, strong memories and emotions without warning. I remember a stay at the Koehler resort in Wisconsin a few days before Christmas. The weather was strange - no snow, just an annoying drizzle. We checked in, then started across the courtyard to our room. Again - stand and inhale. This time, though, I breathed the intoxicating nectar that is cocoa. By the time we unpacked our bags, I was gripped by a craving for chocolate. We sought out the concierge to find out where the chocolatier was that was creating these wonderful aromas. He looked puzzled for a moment, then his face lit up. There was no chocolatier (rats!) but the gardener had just mulched the plantings in the courtyard with cocoa husks, the waste by-product of making chocolate. Alors! I was desolate...and desperate! Chocolate! I must have chocolate! Fortunately, it was the holiday season at a resort. I didn't have to venture too far to find some, but it was far inferior to what my imagination conjured up, based on the musky smell.

Think about it. What smells jog your mind or emotions? Does the smell of chlorine bring back memories of swim classes, or your mom doing laundry? What about the smell of baking or toasting bread? Fresh herbs? I can't just use fresh herbs when I cook - I must thrust my face into the leafy greenness and breathe. I can't walk past a pot of lavender without running my fingers through it like I was tousling my little boy's hair, then holding my hands to my face with a goofy smile, I'm sure.

You know what? I was going to talk about how bad smells can be equally compelling, but I won't. I'm having too much fun with the good stuff. What about bubble gum - the old Bazooka eraser-pink hunk o'stuff? or face powder - does it make you think of a favorite aunt? Mmmmm...

So this afternoon I pulled back into Battle Creek and when I opened the car door, I stopped and inhaled for a moment. Yes, I'm sure grandma is here somewhere, and I'm getting hungry again. I love this town!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Julie & Julia & Me

Yesterday I saw the movie Julie & Julia, the story entwining the lives of Julia Child, renowned American French chef (I mean, an American who was schooled in French cooking methods) and Julie Powell, a writer who never got off the ground until she decided to cook her way through Mrs. Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year, and blog about it. Julie was successful, in the cooking and the blogging and, eventually, the book.

The movie made me think about the types of work that really make me happy - cooking and writing. I have considered going to cooking school. The more I learn about cooking, the more I realize I don't know. That doesn't bother me, it excites me. It means there is so much I can learn.

As a cook, I am self-taught, including cooking shows and websites and books and just plain experimentation. My husband encourages me, because in almost 29 years of marriage, there have been only, by his count, two meals that were inedible, and neither of us remember them. There have been many good and a fair number of great meals, though, so I guess I'm still on the plus side.

There's something freeing about cooking for me. Often, I decide on the fly what I'm going to cook, and it changes as I go. I may stand in front of the pantry or the freezer, pondering the contents - what's there that I've forgotten about? Can I do something interesting with this? Hmmm...

When things don't work as planned, no worries. Sometimes I'm the only one who knows. My mom taught me that there are never lumps in the gravy, but there may be dumplings! If the sauce doesn't thicken, then call it au jus. As long as it is (1) not raw, unless that's the proper state in which to serve an item, (2) not burnt, unless you are torching a brulee, (3) hasn't been dropped on the floor, unless you are Julia Child - then serve it with your head held high!

Over time, I have developed a few fail-safe classics - tomato basil bisque (I know, it's technically not a bisque unless it contains seafood), pears poached in red wine (and its summer cousin, peaches poached in white wine), pasta with fresh vegetables and garlic, marinated flank steak. In fact, I always - I mean ALWAYS - keep canned diced tomatoes, fresh basil, minced garlic, evaporated milk and good Parmesan cheese on hand. You never know when you might need to whip up a pot of tomato bisque for unexpected guests!

Alright, I've convinced myself. I'll sign up for a knife skills class at the local cooking school. Let's take it one step at a time and see where this leads. I won't be dedicating my life to cooking my way through the recipe collection of, say, Alton Brown - that schtick has been done. But I may wax poetic about my culinary successes, and I'll share my failures, with a modicum of humor and a dash of salt.

And now, I'm hungry!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Post-Walk Reflections

It's been a few weeks since the Breast Cancer 3-Day Walk. My blisters have healed as time has passed. I realize I need to record my thoughts about the event before time further gets away from me.

I walked further this year. I completed 50 of the 60 miles - a new record for me. Seventeen miles on day one, 19 on day two and 14 on day three. I could have done all 17 on day three, except the bone in my right foot (the fifth metatarsal, which has been broken three times and repaired with a screw) began to hurt early in the day. I jumped on a bus to rest the foot and resumed walking after lunch.

I met some wonderful people. Even with over a thousand participants, plus many volunteers, it's surprising how often you cross paths with the same people over the course of three days and 60 miles. Friendly walkers would pause to chat as they passed by me (everyone passed me by - I told people I walk slowly so they will feel like they are going fast).

Best t-shirt of the event. Hands down, the prize (which consists solely of my admiration) goes to the breast cancer survivor with whom I dined Friday evening. Her shirt read: "No, they're not real. The real ones tried to kill me." Last year's award went to a man with "Does this fanny pack make my butt look big?" on the back of his shirt.

Least favorite t-shirts. I'm sure it's just me, but I don't particularly like the team names and t-shirt slogans that use slang names for breasts. I grew up hearing these words as derogatory terms and to me they still sound like insults.

Favorite time at camp. It was wonderful to get mail at camp. Last year I didn't know people could send you mail until I got to camp. This year I made sure my loved ones got the mailing instructions. I got six cards and letters, which cheered me on and kept me going.

Least favorite time at camp. So I've just walked about 20 miles. Now I have to hydrate and refuel, then shower. The camp was set up with the various facilities at a significant distance from each other. Things seemed further away this year, and for someone with arthritis, walking 20 miles was enough. There were times I wanted to go to the 3-Day Cafe or the vendor tents, but just could not walk any more. Golf carts???

Favorite time on the walk itself. Knowing that someone you know will be waiting for you at a cheering station is incredible motivation to keep moving. My wonderful family and friends waited for me in sun and heat at four different sites on days two and three. Seeing them brought me to tears more than once.

Least favorite time on the walk. Rain! We started days one and three in the rain. It was funny, though, to see the lengths to which walkers went to keep their feet dry. I saw women with the tops of their shoes and socks sealed with duct tape, with their feet encased in plastic bags (inside their shoes), with plastic bags tied around their ankles. Me? I just walked and made sure to put on dry socks at midday.

This was a great experience. I honestly don't know if I can do it again next year. The physical toll on my body - the exhaustion, the joint pain - was pretty heavy. But I won't rule it out yet. I walked in honor and memory of a number of women - friends and the friends and relatives of friends. I was a walking memorial, and there's something holy about that. Few things in our lives can be seen that way. I will cherish the memories and the names.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Eve of the Walk

I should be asleep. It's after midnight - any sane person would be asleep, knowing she has to get up at 4:45 a.m. Knowing a full day of grueling exertion, walking 22 miles of concrete - the first leg of 60 total miles - awaits.

But I am awake, thinking of the first day of the Breast Cancer 3-Day, starting in the morning. I'm thinking of the women on my honor roll: friends and friends of friends, all facing breast cancer or surviving it or losing the fight. I've lost track of how many names are lettered on the sash I will wear - there must be 16 or 18 by now.

I keep repacking my gear, trying to weed out anything superfluous, winnowing down the weight of my duffel. I lay in bed and close my eyes. Instead of drifting off to sleep, though, I review the contents of my belt pack. Can I fit one more necessity in it? Is the disposable poncho good enough if it rains? Did I remember to pack sunscreen? Insect repellent? Ibuprofen?

My husband, my soul mate, is sleeping in the next room, breathing softly. He has supported my strongly held belief that I must walk this 60-mile trek again, raising money for breast cancer research, raising awareness and educating women and men about this horrid killer. I am very close to my personal fundraising goal...but just how close does that take us to a cure and prevention?

The task is daunting...progress is slow, but there is progress being made. What can I do, besides raising money? I can learn and I can share what I learn. So here's what I know:
  • Nearly 200,000 women and 2,000 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009
  • Over 40,000 women and 440 men will die of breast cancer this year
  • Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among African-American, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Filipino women
  • The two most important factors risk factors for breast cancer are being a woman and getting older
  • Men with breast cancer often get treatment at later stages than women because they are less likely to report symptoms immediately, and this can affect their survival

Please learn about your risk and the signs and symptoms of breast cancer. Then share what you learn with your family members and friends. And if you can, please make a donation, however large or small, by clicking the pink box at the right or visiting http://www.the3day.org/goto/connie.walks. I know we'll all sleep better at night.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Joys of Being Owned by a Cat

We didn't see ourselves as cat owners. When we said a final goodbye to our dear canine friend last fall, my husband and I agreed to wait before bringing another pooch into our lives. We said we would wait until we had completed the three trips we had scheduled in the winter and spring, and then we'd see.

Then my friend's cat got sick while my friend was out of state, so we took Sabrina in and nursed her back to health. When it came time to send Sabrina back home, we had a tough time giving her up and our lives were a little less full.

So we put the word out to our friends at Love-A-Stray that we would consider rescuing a cat, but not just any cat. We wanted a female, spayed, front-declawed (please, no lectures) with a warm and snuggly personality. It wasn't long before such a kitty was found, and we had a new critter in our home.

Belle - her name was Jingle Bells, but that wasn't going to fly - rules our roost. Fortunately, she has decided - for now - to let us stay here too. She talks to me constantly, squeaking and chirping and meowing. She expects a dollop of wet food every evening and will chew me out if I'm late. She is fascinated by our bedroom, where she is not allowed, and plots how she will sneak in. She also plots how she will sneak out into the garage. It's not that she's trying to run away, it's just that she's not allowed, which makes it more attractive to her.

Belle especially likes to curl up on my lap and stare into my face. She's completely entranced with the laser pointer. She also likes the stick with the feathers and streamers and will carry it around with her, much like a dog.

Our lives have changed so much, but it feels so right to have a pet again. The house doesn't feel empty, I have someone to talk to (and who talks back), and Belle clearly dotes on me. At least she has good taste! She's a messy eater who hates to get to the bottom of the bowl, and given the chance, she will drink from the toilet. Other than that, we're delighted to have Belle in our lives.

Thinking about getting a pet? Please consider rescuing an animal through Love-A-Stray: Click here for more information.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Cutting the cord

So today we cut the cord...literally. We no longer have a landline - a standard telephone line - in our home. This has been coming for a while. We keep expanding our mobile services, relying more and more on the little hand-held device that is so addicting.

Then one day we realize that the only calls we get on the landline are solicitations - sales, charitable organizations, political canvassers...and my mother. For this we pay $45 a month?

Now that I thnk of it, my son has never had a landline since he went away to college and then moved on to real life. If he can do it, why not me?

Our phone service was bundled with cable and internet service. I was warned "That's what keeps your rate so low. If you 'unbundle,' the prices for the other services will go up." Imagine my pleasant surprise at our new rate without phone and dropping a few cable services we pay for but don't use. The bill dropped by about $80. Wow - I can think of a few other things I can do with the money!

So I called my folks and told them to please use my mobile number. Right away, dad calls the landline and notices that the voicemail is still intact. He also calls back, worried that I have forgotten and put my old landline number on the resumes I am sending out in my job search. I reassure him that I have thought of that and am okay. "Just looking out for you," he says.

So I'll pack up the phones and put them away for now. Let's see how we do with completely mobile communications. We may never go back.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Diary of an unemployed writer

Monday - first thing this morning I got the news: I've been RIF'd. Thank you, it's been fun, here's your box. No hurry. Take time to say goodbye, hugs all around, but be gone by the end of the day. I call my husband, my son. I go to lunch with a co-worker who is retiring at the end of the month. We commiserate about what to do next over wine and pasta. We laugh - drinking at lunch and back to the office! What are they going to do - fire us?

At home we sit down with the bills, analyze our income, the small severance amount, our meager savings. How long can we subsist on one income and unemployment? What bills can we trim, what extravagances can we do without? Time for an honest appraisal. I am giddy with weak gallows humor. I practice saying "Would you like fries with that?"

Unemployment, day one. Thought I would sleep in, but my internal alarm wakes me at 6 a.m. Showered and dressed (no jeans!), have breakfast while reading the paper. I can't believe we put the Sunday classifieds out with the recyclables on the tree lawn! Set up the home office, the dedicated email account. Call the outplacement company. The return call is from a former co-worker from the 1990's! It's a small world after all. They can't get me into the program until the middle of next week, so I'm on my own until then. Cancel the fitness membership - walk for free or workout for $45 a month? No brainer. Also cancel the holiday weekend at Put-in-Bay and save about $500. Looks like we'll stay home, grill some burgers, maybe paint the bathroom. Whoopie! Eating at home saves money but more work. I start straightening and cleaning - not going crazy, just doing a couple of things like mopping the kitchen floor, clearing the kitchen counters. Bake some cookies - chocolate chip/pecan.

Unemployment, day two. File for unemployment - online, while on a conference call for a volunteer organization. Everyone shares their concerns and best wishes. Start a list of each call and e-mail contact I make, with notes for following up. Update my resume - takes me forever to figure out where I saved it from the last time. Well wishes continue to pour in from colleagues, relatives. Cancel the land line phone, which we had planned to do for weeks but never got around to it. Reduce our cable TV services. Never watch it anyway. Clean some more - scrub fingerprints from door frames and light switch plates. I now know what my cat does all day...sleep in my desk chair. She insists on sharing it with me, squirming between my back and the chair back, pushing until I scoot to the edge of the chair. Well, one of us was comfortable. I struggle to print business cards and waste most of the card stock because I can't get Publisher to adjust properly. I get twenty nice cards and a stack of off-center ones that I will reserve for updating family with my new address, and maybe for dropping into "free lunch" jars at restaurants. Go to dinner with friends, using a coupon to save $5. More where that came from.

Unemployment, day three. My cat now thinks I will be here every day. It is no longer a novelty to have me around, and she is bored with me. There's a professional association luncheon today, so I dress up, taking care with hair and makeup. Except only about 20 people show up because of the holiday this weekend. Still, I pass out a bunch of the few perfect cards from last night (and get a compliment on how well-designed they are!). Get a spam e-mail for a scam headhunter web site - Google it and delete it. Apply for my first opening since losing the job. Receive career advice from half a dozen people, most of it conflicting: Target large corporations; no, target small companies; no, target non-profit organizations. Hang out your own shingle. Take on freelance work. Take some time off and relax, but don't waste any time in this economy. Hold out for the money, perks, title, whatever; no, settle for less and you can work your way back up. Leftovers for dinner - getting two meals out of last night's dinner. I hate leftovers.

Everyone marvels at how calm and self-assured I seem, but in reality, doubts linger. I hear of people out of work for years. No medical insurance for years, forgoing needed treatment for serious conditions. I start to think about looking for work teaching cooking or selling fabric and crafts...and it's only day three! Good grief!

I promise not to turn this blog into a day-by-day, blow-by-blow description of the ups and downs of job hunting. Hell, even I wouldn't read that. Three days of self-pity is enough. Let's move on.

Monday, March 30, 2009

On Holiday in the Big Easy

New Orleans! The very name conjures up visions of brightly colored beads and feathered masks, the sounds of trumpets and drums and saxophones. I have been in the Big Easy for four fun-packed days. Let me tell you what I've learned so far.
  1. This city is always just one heartbeat away from a party. Other cities say they know how to party, but this town leads the pack.
  2. Old style dixieland jazz can peacefully coexist with new age rock. I sat listening to a jazz quintet at the Maison Bourbon. In between jazz numbers, we could hear the rock stylings of the band across the street. Funny thing is it seemed right.
  3. Women clad only in bra, thong and black high heeled boots should not bend down to pick up whatever they have dropped - let it lie! 'Nuf said.
  4. Anything tastes good smothered in powdered sugar. A hot beignet with plenty of sugar for dipping is pretty darned close to perfection. And every bakery has a sign claiming to have the best beignets in NOLA. It could take weeks to taste-test every one.
  5. The party doesn't stop just because the power goes out. When a transformer blew up a few days ago, putting much of the French Quarter in the dark, the party moved into the street. You couldn't get a frozen daiquiri, but the beer was still cold if you could pay cash.
  6. "Gaytown" is quieter, nicer, and cleaner than much of the rest of the French Quarter. The African-American cross-dresser stood in the center of the street, shouting "Welcome to Gaytown!" He was very cute (pert!), as was the window decorated for the gay heritage parade - complete with about 15 Ken dolls in drag!
  7. New Orleanians (don't really know how they refer to themselves) treat their sports teams like anyone else - love 'em when they win, bitterly complain when they don't. This goes for college sports. We saw the Tulane Green Wave fall to the Houston Cougars...but it was a perfect day for baseball.
  8. A $6 beer doesn't taste as good as a $3 beer - paying through the nose gives it a bitter aftertaste. However, Cafe du Monde recently raised the price of a cafe au lait - from $1.35 to $1.82.
  9. Playing an instrument on the sidewalk does not make you a street musician - you still must be a musician. Every instrument can be found - guitar, sax, double clarinet, cello - even a wild group of youngsters playing percussion and brass - they sounded like a high school band let loose without a conductor - having a ball, and please drop a buck in the cardboard box at their feet.
  10. New Orleans is the only major population center I have visited that does not hide its poor. The NOLA you see is the NOLA you get - it's all out there, with no apologies.
  11. An informal tour through the lower 9th ward with a colleague left me speechless and in awe of our human arrogance. Rebuild if you must, but do so with the lessons from Katrina in mind - build raised houses, not on slabs.

More to come later...on cooking classes and voluntourism. Y'all come back!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Welcome to the family!

Parenting is rough. You start out with big plans for the future, but also with trepidation. Are we crazy, bringing a child into this world?

The excitement mixed with fear eventually gives way to fatigue, swollen ankles and heartburn. Then one day the child arrives, and you are awestruck. Soon you will be tired again, and then by turns exasperated, delighted and tired (oh, I already said that). Life will never be the same, and for most of us, that's a wondrous and great thing.

And while this little red-haired, pink-skinned, chubby-cheeked wonder is growing, you think ahead and begin to have hopes for his future. You hope he does well in school, has a best friend, finds a skill and a passion. And you hope he finds love.

No matter what you do - how many parenting books you read, how firmly you maintain discipline, how open and accepting and loving you are - there are no guarantees that this baby will have any of those things, or be the person you think he will - or should - become. You do your best, say your prayers if you believe in God, and try not to get in the way as he steps out as his own person.

My little boy is now 25. He did well in school. He had - has - best friends. He found many things that he is good at and passionate about. And now, he has found love. He and his girlfriend announced their engagement last week, to the great delight of my husband and me.

Sometime in the next couple of years, I will gain the daughter I have always wanted. And at some point after that, my son and his wife will experience the awe and fear of parenting...and the cycle will begin again. I am happy and excited, and from here, the future looks incredible.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Ode to Tea

Is there another drink - or another food - that is a soothing, welcoming, warming or comforting as tea? I have yet to find one, and frankly, I am not actively searching for one.

When I am blue, hot tea cheers me. When I am upset, it calms my nerves. When I am hungry, hot tea with Splenda TM keeps me from snacking.

When I ache, a cup of hot tea soothes me. Somehow, it braces me when I am tired and yet is a calming influence before bed.

Yes, like most Americans, I enjoy iced tea, but I use it as a hydrator - it quenches thirst and is tasty, but it is not the mood enhancer that the hot version seems to be.

My tastes trend toward black teas - darjeeling, oolong, orange pekoe - and almost never include green tea. Give me a cup of Earl Grey, with its floral aromas, or either English or Irish breakfast tea, strong and sweet.

Lately I have come to enjoy chai (of course, with Splenda and skim milk), even though spiced teas have never been attractive to me.

I like some herbal teas as well - rose hips, lemon and lemon grass, for instance. But hold the chamomille and the peppermint - smells like grass to me.

Ahhh! Here's a cup of darjeeling, lightly sweet, in a hand-painted ceramic mug (I know, because I painted it). I can feel tension draining away and a smile returning to my face. There's a pot of homemade beef vegetable soup simmering on the stove, snow is lightly falling and there is still a hint of daylight at 5:15 on a January evening. Hard to imagine a life any better than this.