Back in harness

For the past two weeks, the good folks who run the Village News have kindly run “classic” columns in this space.  There were reasons for my absence – technological, weather-related, family, etc. – but the best and simplest explanation is that I went through a phase where I couldn’t face “the blank page.”   

(Yes, it was really a “blank screen,” but the expression survives - as does “hang up” with reference to cell phones,  or, really, any telephone that isn’t mounted on the wall).

This year has gotten off to an odd start.  First, there were two week-long trips to Seattle – the first being something of a mission of mercy.  There was a flurry of family business, all revolving, more or less, around Mom’s gently drifting into the never – land of extreme old age.

And, speaking of flurries, there was the sixteen-inch snowfall which stopped Staunton in its tracks for several days.  

All these unexpected events, at what’s usually the quietest time of year, have been most instructive.  On any number of fronts, I’ve had to adapt, and thus learned useful lessons.

For example, since my first Seattle trip was largely devoted to helping a friend recover from a serious bout of pneumonia, I wound up doing a good deal of grocery shopping and cooking.

Now, I do this at home, too, but – like my father before me – I basically regard food as fuel.  I can happily live on the same basic diet – day in, day out – for months.  

My friend demands a bit more variety.  Being an actor, she’s on a budget, but she likes to experiment.  So I had to try some new things.  

One great lesson was that I could prepare a variety of filling meals using the “home-made” coconut curry chicken soup from the local grocery store.  I got so hooked on this soup that I found myself craving it when I got back to Staunton.

The problem being, of course, that this particular grocery store doesn’t exist in the Shenandoah Valley.

So I did a bit of internet research and decided on a Whole Foods recipe for a coconut curry shrimp soup.  Unlike a lot of the recipes, it only called for fourteen ingredients, so I picked up what I needed, made a few changes – mainly, substituting chicken for shrimp – and waited for the world to turn white.

Then, I spent one snow day making the first home-made soup I’ve ever attempted.  

Let me just say this:  That soup is now a regular item on my cold-weather menu.  In fact, since it has a good deal of natural sweetness – one ingredient is a whole butternut squash – I imagine it would also be excellent as a chilled soup for summertime.

We’ll see.

Another thing I learned – or rather, re-learned – was the joy of a good, brisk walk.  Staunton is a very walkable town – if you happen to be a Sherpa – but its terrain has this strange, Escheresque quality:  No matter where you are, and where you want to go, it’s mostly uphill.

And so is the walk back.    

Over time, in cold weather, I’d gotten into the habit of driving – even for short trips.  But in Staunton, plowing the streets – in residential neighborhoods – means running the plow once down the middle of the street and piling snow up against the parked cars.

Being reluctant to shuffle off this mortal coil so young, I excavated my car over several days – with two or three short bouts of digging each day.  In the interim, I walked everywhere.

The one time I actually moved my car, I returned to find that some shameless, fatherless trifling ne’er-do-well had claimed my painfully-shovelled space.   So – when I finally managed to regain that haven – I left my car there until warmer weather cleared the rest of the street.

In the meantime, I walked.  And that’s started to feel pretty good.

Finally, during those snow days, I read a great deal.  For sheer fun, I spent a few delicious days rediscovering the silly brilliance of P. G. Wodehouse – tearing through three novels and eleven short stories from the Jeeves and Bertie canon.

Being a fan of Downton Abbey, I checked out Snobs, a witty novel by the series’ creator, Julian Fellowes.  Imagine a sort of Pride and Prejudice for the 1990s.  Downton fans will surely relish Snobs.

Most important, I spent several days with the fourth of six volumes of Winston Churchill’s magnificent The Second World War.  It’s my third time through – I first tackled the series at the University – but this is the first time I’ve been able to see exactly how relevant Churchill’s times are to our own.

I’ll develop that theme in a future column.  

For now, it’s good to be back – facing the blank page and, for this week at least, winning the battle.

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