Finding joy in a cold, snowy winter

If you want someone to blame for last week’s weather, look no further. For several months, I have been using all my mojo to call up a hale and hearty winter in Northeast Ohio. I began doubting my powers as we slogged through a muddy autumn and early winter. But then, success! A large polar vortex broke apart, sending one section straight down from Canada to the Midwest.

I feel most alive when outside on a crisp winter’s day. The air is void of pollution-trapping humidity and with each inhalation my lungs quickly warm frigid air. Bundle up to shovel, sled, cross-country ski or walk the dogs in deep snow, and soon clothes are coming off. Even on bitterly cold days, if the sun is strong and the wind low, it’s easy to stay warm.

Give me hard winters and mild summers over mild winters and hot summers. For when it’s hot, there’s only so much you can take off.

I suppose there are location-bound Akronites, here because of jobs or family. But I chose Akron and part of what I love about this place are the (typically) snowy winters. I lived in Columbus for 10 years where winter is six months of dreary skies from which white stuff occasionally drops and promptly melts. Freezing rain rules Central Ohio winters, and there’s nothing fun about freezing rain.

But snow, oh, my! In the snow belt across the nation, kids build snow forts and snow creatures (we had a 15-foot dragon one year) and enjoy pelting one another with snowballs.

Leif and Angus at the Sand Run Park sledding hill on MLK Day.

Here in Akron, we can do even more with our snow. The Summit County Metro Parks have sheltered fire pits at their many sledding hills and skating rinks. Granted, the skating rinks require more than snow, they need frigid temperatures, which is one more reason to call down a polar vortex.

We also have great skiing here. Sure, the slopes at Boston Mills and Brandywine aren’t the Rockies, but guess what? My kids can ski at resorts with large slopes because they learned how, starting at age 7, in the very affordable school ski programs BMBW offers. When Claude and Hugo each turned 18, I bought them their own downhill skis, which they’ve taken to various slopes across the country.

Beyond the fun of our wintry winters, they are also vital. Frigid temperatures are the bane of invasive species — both fauna and flora. Brown marmorated stink bugs, emerald ash borers, gypsy moths, hemlock woolly adelgid and more destroy trees and crops across Ohio.

Indigenous animals evolved with indigenous plants. When invasive plants take over habitats, they crowd out native species, thereby denying food resources to Ohio’s wildlife.

Like most invasive bugs, invasive plants also often originate from temperate climates and die back in cold winters. Japanese honeysuckle, bush honeysuckle and common privet are all invasive plants. So, too, is purple loosestrife, phragmites (common reed), garlic mustard, autumn-olive and more.

Many invasive plants were introduced by gardeners. These include ornamental pears and Buddleia, the butterfly bush, which does not feed the butterflies found in Ohio. Please consider removing cultivated invasive species from your gardens and replacing them with beautiful native plants (or even non-natives that aren’t invasive).

Fungus is another problem addressed by cold winters. Bat and amphibian populations have been devastated by fungal infestations due to mild winters. Who doesn’t love to hear spring peepers heralding the renewal of life each spring or watch bats swoop in the skies on a summer’s eve, clearing out large quantities of mosquitoes? I do.

And then there is my dark side. I derive a nearly perverse pleasure when imagining the death by cold temperatures of three of Ohio’s native pests.

Number 3: Poison ivy. After a stern winter, this noxious sumac is not so glib the following spring and summer. It stays where it should, in the darker recesses of wooded areas, rather than running amok as it will after a mild winter.

Two of my boys are terrifically allergic to poison ivy. Fun fact: pregnancy can change the immune system of women, including their allergy status. The visceral feeling of running hot water on a poison ivy rash is indelible. But I’ve not experienced it since the birth of my eldest child, 25 years ago.

Number 2: Ticks. After 2 consecutive mild winters, I found the blood suckers on my pets every month in 2018. Granted, I walk my dogs in woods and fields most days, but I pulled off ticks, which look like grayish kernels of corn after a day of feasting on a host, almost daily last summer. I found the last tick of the year on one of our cats on Christmas Day.

Number 1: Fleas. When I was a girl, I remember my mother whispering that one of our neighbors had fleas. She indicated fleas infest homes that aren’t very clean. It’s true I will never win the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for a spotless home. But a spotless home isn’t healthy either. Nor does the dirt bring the biting beasties inside. The pets do, particularly cats.

For many years, we had one cat. His name is Boggart, but I referred to him as “Last Cat.” Then, in June 2017, at the house where Max has his law office, a feral cat had six kittens under the front porch. We found homes for three and kept three.

Last summer, another litter of two kittens was born under the same porch. We were able to catch only one.

“I’m going to call him Cuddlebug,” said Leif, who is the only one small enough to crawl under the porch and retrieve kittens.

Our four recent additions to the family.

“We’re not keeping him, Leif,” I said as we drove the kitten home to clean him up. Yet now there are five cats. (I swear we aren’t hoarders, but feel free to call us weird cat people. It puts us in good company.)

For several weeks last summer, the back of Leif’s legs looked like he had chicken pox, so dotted were they with flea bites. All of the over-the-counter flea treatments that worked in prior years failed. For three months before the first frost, I spent $140 a month on prescription flea treatments from our veterinarian. Those fortunately did the job, making them worth every penny.

So revel with me over the beauty, fun and environmental function of this glorious winter. And in wishing a frozen pox on our native pests.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, January 27, 2019.


The Golden Rule of Parenting: Just Show Up

When I met the big boys’ father in the early 1990s, he was a young architect. He worked at a drafting table with draftsmen’s pencils shaved into fine points with specialized sharpeners. I can still hear the whir of his leads spinning to precision, the mechanical sharpener held in one hand, the pencil in the other, white shirt sleeves rolled up just past elbows.

His blueprints were produced little differently than those of Howard Roark, as played by Gary Cooper, in the 1949 movie “The Fountainhead.”

Not long after our first child, Claude, was born, his father learned to draft in CAD, or computer-aided design. The pencils, sharpeners, drafting table and true blueprints became instantly obsolete.

Boston, 1995. I carried baby Claude, either in a backpack or a sling, throughout a city in which I knew nobody and where few locals were receptive to people whose ancestors hadn’t fought in the Revolutionary War. Three days a week, Claude’s father left extra early for work to receive CAD lessons from an officemate.

We moved back to Ohio soon after Claude began walking. In his home office, I watched my then-husband slide his mouse across a pad to open boxes on his computer screen, click and drag images around until buildings took shape.

Contemporaneously, hand-painted animated movies, many stunning works of art (see the opening scene of Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound”), gave way to the precision of computer-generated imagery. With every step forward, something must be left behind. Are today’s architecture students even required to draw by hand?

The boys’ father wanted to be an artist, like his mother. His father wanted him to be an engineer. The dilemma was solved when he decided to become an architect.

Like me, the boys can hardly imagine their father sitting down without him drawing with whatever was available, be it ink and sketchbooks or crayons and newsprint.

The boys went to schools in Akron that emphasize the visual arts, from the Waldorf School, which is why we moved to Akron, to Miller South School for the Arts and, finally, Firestone High School’s School of the Arts.

My sons draw both intricately and with the looseness of people comfortable doing so. Claude’s first major at the University of Michigan was art and design. The month before his first semester, I spent all my savings, about $5,000, buying the computer and software suite his program required.

Claude switched his major to English literature before I ever saw him working on computer design. Instead, Jules was the first of my sons who reminded me of watching my ex-husband design on the computer.

Working in the biology department at the University of Akron last winter, Jules developed, with much trial and error, a tool to extract pollen from the anthers of a specific plant. Once collected, the pollen grains were counted. After hand-drawing his ideas, Jules drafted them on the computer, using free software.

“Would you ever want to contact your father and ask him about computer drafting?” I asked Jules.

“No,” he responded promptly. “He’d just make it all about him.”

My ex-husband lives two states away. He never contacts the boys, even when he’s in Ohio. It’s been nearly four years since they’ve seen him.

Once there was a boy who could draw. His talent was innate but also influenced by spending time with his mother, a trained artist. Somewhere on his path to adulthood he lost his way, becoming less like his mother and more like his father.

Recently, Claude had the opportunity to pitch a brochure design for an Akron governmental office. He worked on it using the now-outdated version of Adobe Illustrator that was part of the software package purchased seven years ago for college.

Wanting feedback on his brochure from Max and me, Claude brought over his laptop the night before it was due. As I heated up a plate of leftover meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans for him, Claude’s program crashed, and he lost most of his work. Two weeks’ worth.

It’s happened to anyone who works on a computer. Re-creating lost work takes less time than generating it from scratch, but it still sucks. All I could do was make him a cup of coffee and sit beside him, starting this column.

There are many things I wish I’d done differently with my children. After our divorce, it became achingly clear that in choosing my ex-husband, I’d given my sons a parent who was little different than my own. With a few more years of therapy under my belt, I would have chosen differently, as I later did.

Years of trying to make a happy marriage without the essential ingredients left us empty-handed. But I’d do it again — all 15 years of futility — to have Claude, Hugo and Jules in my life.

The skills of my first three sons are an amalgam of their parents’. They draw as easily as their father, and work as hard as I do to write well. (Good writing is born more from determined tenacity than natural talent.)

The pre-verbal baby I carried around Boston turned 25 last week, on the 12th day of Christmas. I’ve always thought of him as my gift from the Magi. While I wrote on my laptop, Claude re-created his brochure with relative ease, occasionally asking me to look at his progress. He finished shortly before 1 a.m.

All parents have regrets. There is no perfect parent, and what child wants one? The first and last rule of successful parenting isn’t so much what a parent brings to the table, only that they come to the table. Not helicoptering, but simply showing up. Be present when your children need you, while also teaching them to become self-reliant.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on January 13, 2019.


Updates on popular columns from 2018

Reader response to my columns reads like the title of a country and western song: “Special girl, dogs and old cars.” Far and away, I receive more letters about our daughter, Lyra, and issues related to her Down syndrome than on any other subject. But readers also filled my email in-box over columns about our animals and, surprising to me, my 2003 Toyota Matrix.

As 2018 winds down, here are updates on some of those columns.

Dorothy and her 10 puppies.

Our dog Dorothy

We had not meant our house to become a cattery, but feral cats had six kittens under our porch in the summer of 2017. We found homes for three (including two adopted by our son Claude) and kept three. We already had one rickety cat, who himself had been born to a feral mother in 2001.

After a discussion last spring with our veterinarian, Dr. Julie Brown-Herold, we realized our 1-year-old German shepherd could not live in a house with cats. Dorothy, who regularly kills squirrels and chipmunks, relentlessly hunted the cats.

Finding a home for four cats is nigh impossible. Meanwhile, our small-animals menace is gentle with all humans including babies. My friend Sheri Brown, from whom I’d purchased Dorothy, re-adopted her.

The Browns (www.noblek-9.com) have 10 German shepherds on a large property near Alliance. Dorothy, who loves playing rough with the big dogs, is a happy girl. This month, she became a first-time mama and a good one, too. We watched her birth the first six of her 10 pups via FaceTime and visited them when they were 14 days old.

Some people believe it hard, even wrong, to resettle a pet in another home, because the animal would be bereft without its current owner. In my experience, this is not the case. Rescue animals, not all of whom are victims of abuse or neglect, regularly settle in to new homes where they are much beloved.

As with children, it is important to ask what is best for each individual, assessing the situation honestly and with as little ego as possible. Sometimes major changes, no matter how difficult, are exactly what is needed.

Lyra wearing her AngelSense

When Lyra runs

Running, without thought of destination or concern for safety, is a common and terrifying behavior in people with Down syndrome and autism spectrum disorder. I learned this soon after Lyra was born, but she never ran off. That is, until this summer when she did so three times in one week.

I received many letters, mainly from parents whose own children have run. They were grateful to see the behavior highlighted in the Akron Beacon Journal, educating the public about running and its prevalence with these diagnoses. Often, parents of children who run feel judged because most people do not understand how our kids can vanish in the blink of an eye.

One long email response came from a mother who ultimately placed her 17-year-old daughter in a residential facility. Beautifully written, I had tears in my eyes when I finished reading her story. This mom has since begun blogging and wrote a piece about her daughter’s running, which I recommend reading. (https://frommyperspective.blog/2018/11/14/about-runners-it-is-a-real-problem/)

As for Lyra, we now use AngelSense GPS. Lyra’s adopted grandpas, Bruce Stebner and Jim Mismas, paid for the device, which is little bigger than a Matchbox car. We attached it to a belt that Lyra, so far, enjoys wearing.

The more she wears it when home, the more information the GPS gathers. If Lyra strays from our yard — or even to the back end of our yard where we seldom go — Max, Jules and I receive a text notification from AngelSense. We can open the app on our phones and it will show us where Lyra is.

One woman wrote to tell me she installed deadbolts requiring a key to lock and unlock not only on the outside of the door, but on the inside, too. We now have the same type of deadbolt on our front door because Lyra was able to turn the interior knob of the original deadbolt. Our fear was even with the AngelSense, if Lyra were to walk out the front door, she could get to our busy street in the short time it takes AngelSense to alert us and for us to look at the app.

“Keep the car!”

Next to our girl who’s safely carried us far and wide.

That was the subject line of multiple emails I received after writing about my 2003 Toyota Matrix, which has 238,000 miles and needs a new battery, alternator and at least one tire.

These letters, all written by men, were full of fun stories with old cars. One told me of his 1999 Honda Accord, which has “been to 37 states, Canada, was parked for about an hour in front of Fats Domino’s house while I was inside with The Man, and has shared all sorts of other adventures which I can’t share since the statutes of limitations haven’t expired on some of them.”

I grin every time I read that sentence and realize I am not alone in anthropomorphizing my favorite vehicle.

While I certainly do not have enough money to buy a new car, I also cannot currently afford the repairs needed for my Matrix. I have decided to wait for my tax refund in February and then make a decision. I’m leaning toward repairing my girl, unless there is more bad news when I take her in.

Thank you for reading my column and keep the letters coming. Blessings to you all for 2019.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on December 30, 2018.