Susanna J. Sturgis:

Heads up, mystery fans — Cynthia Riggs’s newest mystery will make its debut at the Artisans’ Fair this weekend: Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Ag Hall in West Tisbury. Murder on C-Dock is the start of a new series, set not on Martha’s Vineyard but on the D.C. waterfront, where Cynthia lived on a houseboat for 12 years while running a ferry boat company on Chesapeake Bay. (In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I edited the book.)

Shirley Mayhew and I are sharing a table at the Artisans’ Fair. She’ll be selling copies of her wonderful Looking Back: My Long Life on Martha’s Vineyard as well as daughter Sarah Mayhew’s gorgeous 2015 bird calendar. (Trust me, you want both the book and the calendar, and you can probably think of a few friends who would appreciate one or the other or both.) I’ll have copies of my novel, The Mud of the Place, which isn’t exactly new but holds up pretty well. At the next table you’ll find Cynthia and her books and also Lynn Christoffers and her Cats of Martha’s Vineyard. Do drop by!

Originally posted on Martha's Vineyard Mysteries:

MURDER ON C-DOCK cover mock up 2

Illustrations by Elizabeth Whelan

It was, quite literally, a dark and stormy night, when MURDER ON C-DOCK, my latest mystery, was conceived. At the time I wrote it, I was living on a houseboat in Washington, D.C., only a short walk from the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, where I worked. Living on a houseboat had been a childhood fantasy of mine, so after my divorce, I bought a 44-foot houseboat and lived aboard for the following twelve years

“What’s it like in the winter?” was one of the most common questions we liveaboards were asked.

“You want to be careful of your footing on the icy dock,” we’d respond. “The water is cold.”

But our boats were well insulated and warm, and on dark and stormy nights, dock people would gather on a neighbor’s boat with a jug or two of wine and talk river talk.

This particular night…

View original 1,347 more words

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Of Ice Disks and Statistics

Winter made a brief appearance this past weekend. When I got up, it was minus 6 Celsius, aka 21 Fahrenheit. (For a few months now, I’ve had a desktop widget that tells me the temperature in Celsius. I can now tell from a Celsius number whether it’s frigid, cold, cool, warm, hot, or unbearable. I can’t do conversions in my head, but I can do them with a calculator. This is progress.)

I was ready. There was water in Travvy’s outside water dish. It froze. Here’s what it looked like the morning of November 16:

20141116 close up20141116 disk one

By early afternoon the temp had been in the mid-40s (F; around 7 C) long enough that the disk had turned into a puddle under the chair. Sic semper gloria mundi, etc., etc.

Almost everyone around me was bitching about the cold, as though they didn’t live in New England and it wasn’t mid-November. Maybe the ice disk season was starting early this year?

Since I had a complete record for last year, I could look it up. Somewhat to my surprise, the first ice disk of the 2013/14 cold season appeared on November 20, 2013. I didn’t get going on ice-diskery till January of that year, so I can’t tell you about November 2012.

Four days earlier is four days earlier. Hardly enough to hang grand generalizations about the weather on. Yes, I could Google back a few years and ascertain the official November temperatures for Martha’s Vineyard, but (1) that wouldn’t give me the temperature for my deck, or tell me the water in an outside water dish would have frozen hard enough to make a disk, and (2) I’ve already made my point.

And my point is . . . ?

That facts come in handy. String enough numerical facts together and you’ve got statistics. Yes, I’ve grown up with the phrase “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” I’ve heard it attributed to Twain, Disraeli, and W. H. Auden, among others. Does it matter who said it first? I think not. Most of us know that statistics can be manipulated every which way, and that if what they sometimes do isn’t exactly lying, still it’s a far cry from the whole truth.

But statistics can keep us grounded in the day-to-day world, especially if we know what they mean — especially if we collect them ourselves. Our memories are creative. On one hand, that’s the wonderful thing about memory. On the other — well, we’re always saying things like “This has to be the coldest (hottest/wettest/driest) winter (summer/spring/fall) on record.” And it hardly ever is.

I know a few people on Martha’s Vineyard who’ve been keeping detailed records for years, decades even, about the weather, about particular ponds, about the produce of their gardens, and all sorts of other interesting things.  When controversy gets heated about one of those subjects — like the Mill Pond in my town of West Tisbury — the records become important.

So do the record keepers. The record keepers are often the ones who’ve been paying the closest attention, through all the years that for most people the subject was ho-hum and nothing to get excited about.

I can’t tell you much about Vineyard weather, never mind about climate change, but I can say with confidence that for eight consecutive days last February, the temperature on my deck didn’t get high enough to melt ice disks. And I’ve got a photo to prove it.

20140213 eight and co.

If I’d realized the string of sub-freezing days was going to go on so long, I wouldn’t have lined the disks up on the short side of the deck. Taken February 13, 2014.






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Pretty Good Day

Woke up this morning with Travvy curled up next to me and all sorts of wonderful novel-related stuff fermenting in my head.

Got up, fed Trav, brushed my teeth, zapped the last of yesterday’s tea, put the kettle on for a fresh pot, and settled into my blue chair to write all that wonderful novel-related stuff down.

Played Tom Waits’ “Get Behind the Mule” about 10 times while I was doing it. Here’s a link. You can play it too. Great song, and if there’s a definitive version this has to be it.

It was a misty but not moisty morning.

20141111 misty morning

Headed off to the laundromat with Trav riding shotgun. While the clothes washed, we strolled around the airport. Trav made friends with a taxi driver.

On the clothesline, long pants (4) outnumber shorts (2). Turtlenecks (5) outnumber T-shirts (3), and all the T-shirts are long-sleeved. The presence of shorts and the absence of long underwear say that it’s still mid-fall.

20141111 midfall

Decided that if I got any (paid) work done today, it was going to be an accident. Goofed off online instead, updated my bookshelf on Goodreads, and spent a couple more hours teaching myself Dreamweaver.

Travvy jumps.

Travvy jumps.

Packed Trav in the car and went off to play on the tennis court. After a long layoff, like 18 months’ worth, we’re again practicing Rally Obedience in a semi-systematic way. Trav loves to jump, and in between practice sessions I kick a soccer ball and he chases it.

Stopped for gas on the way home. Price per gallon: $3.799!!! Filled the tank for less than $50!!!! ($45.75!)

Stopped for milk at up-island Cronig’s. Travvy made more friends. Ready to drive off — was surprised when a white Toyota pickup stopped right in front of me and didn’t move. Guy got out of the pickup’s passenger side, scooped my wallet off the hood of my car, and brought it round to my window. I’d left it there while Trav was making friends.

Drove off thinking that the world was a pretty OK place.

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Swans Got Your Goat?

I. Goats

On our morning walk the other day, Travvy and I left the bike path, heading toward the West Tisbury School. Immediately I caught a metallic glint from the little meadow up ahead. We walk past that meadow almost every day. This was new. A little closer and it looked as though someone had scattered several big white rocks across the scrubby grass.

Travvy caught on before I did: goats. Goats are the newest rage of the organic, environmentally friendly agriculture crowd. Goats eat everything, including brambles and poison ivy. There are now at least three enterprises renting out goats to help with, as one company calls it, “goatscaping.”

Travvy wasn’t impressed. He bucked and plunged and howled like a banshee. With me holding tight to his lead, we made our way along the path till Old County Road was just a few yards away. Between us and it, however, was a problem: the electric fence — the glinting metal I’d glimpsed from the bike path — came right up to the path on one side. On the other side was brambly, wooded scrub. The path itself was less than a foot wide.

If Travvy hit the fence, so much the better. I just didn’t want him to push me into it.

Travvy got shocked, my left thumb got wrenched, but we made it through. When we got home, I was too ripped to call and complain: You bloody idiots, what were you thinking to bring the fence so close to the trail? I’d wait till tomorrow.

By the next day, however, the fence had been moved back from the path.

In the days since, Travvy has learned to keep his brain in gear while walking near the goats. An unwelcome intrusion has turned into a teaching opportunity.

Travvy checks out the neighbors.

Travvy checks out the new neighbors.

II. Politics

Elections don’t  bring out the best in me or my fellow USians. Regional and national ones are by far the worst. The 24/7 fearmongering and lies that precede them, the handwringing and gloating that come afterward — understandably we come to dread elections worse than visiting the dentist (which I did yesterday, so it’s on my mind).

donkeyLocal elections aren’t nearly as bad. Campaigning is minimal, it doesn’t go on long, and the chances are good that you know at least something about most of the candidates. Unfamiliar names you can learn more about by asking whichever friends, neighbors, and acquaintances you run into at the post office or grocery store. Infallible this method is not, but it has to be more reliable than TV advertising and robocalls.

On the national level, campaigns are the distant thundering of gods, demigods, and devils. Sorting out the facts from the distortions from the downright lies is a full-time job. I have no trouble understanding why so many people don’t vote. I’ve sat out a few elections myself. I think compulsory voting is a terrible idea.

“All politics are local,” as the late Tip O’Neill, a brilliant politician from my home state, used to say. Politics are about so much more than elections and politicians. They’re about how people arrive at decisions (or don’t) and implement them (or not). In our workplaces, homes, neighborhoods, organizations, and wherever else we gather, we’re doing this all the time.

III. Swans

So while the rest of the country is freaking out about fracking, climate change, income inequality, and the cost of health care, a big issue in my town is swans on the Mill Pond.

No, that’s not quite right. We’re freaking out about fracking, climate change, income inequality, the cost of health care, and all the rest of it, but we’re also paying attention to the swans on the Mill Pond.

Mama swan with cygnets, April 2014. Photo by Martina Mastromonaco.

Mama swan with cygnets, April 2014. Photo © 2014 by Martina Mastromonaco.

Joannie, our ACO (animal control officer), has long taken a special interest in the Mill Pond swans. This past summer one of the cygnets was badly bit by a snapping turtle. Joannie arranged for the cygnet, now named Rocky, to get veterinary care, and wonder of wonders, Rocky survived, thrived, and is now back on the Mill Pond. Many of us followed the story firsthand, by word-of-mouth, or on Facebook.

The Mill Pond is a scant few feet from the Edgartown Road. The speed limit, 25 mph, has long been ignored, and since the police station moved from next door up to North Tisbury, plenty of people think the speeding has gotten worse. Long story short, some of the cars have taken out swans and ducks trying to cross the road, so last month Joannie asked the board of selectmen if she, with the help of her husband, could put up a gate to discourage the birds from crossing the road.

West Tisbury being West Tisbury, one selectman thought that the town should pay for the gate. The board as a whole believed the proposal should be referred to the conservation commission and the historic district commission for their review. A local naturalist, whose surname, appropriately enough, is Pelikan, questioned the advisibility of encouraging the swans at all. Mute swans — which the Mill Pond swans are — are considered a non-native, invasive species. In Rhode Island, he said, feeding waterfowl is prohibited. He called the feeding and protection of the swans “puzzling” and “misguided.”

How, one might wonder, could so many of West Tisbury’s intelligent, well-informed, environmentally conscientious townsfolk possibly be supporting, actively or tacitly, a practice that Mr. Pelikan all but called irrational?

Interesting question. I’m pretty rational, but I love seeing the swans on the Mill Pond, I followed Rocky’s recovery on Facebook, and I often stick a spare dollar bill or two in the jar at the grocery store devoted to the care and feeding of the swans. As invasive species go, swans do nowhere near as much damage as human beings, but at the same time I suspect Mr. Pelikan has a point.

After every election, including the one just past, you hear plenty of people asking how any sane, intelligent person could vote for those jerks. The obvious implication is that those people are crazy or stupid. They, of course, are saying the same thing about us.

Day in, day out, I get to see firsthand how complex are the interests and emotions and priorities that go into even a very minor issue, like whether swans on the Mill Pond are a good idea. If I had to vote tomorrow, would I vote yes or would I vote no?

Most likely some people would be wondering how a sane, intelligent person could possibly vote the way I did.

Bobette and her brood, April 2014. Photo © 2014 by Martina Mastromonaco.

Bobette and her brood, April 2014. Photo © 2014 by Martina Mastromonaco.


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October License Plate Report

2014 sept license plate

Nothing new to report. The map at the end of October looks exactly like it did at the end of September. Usually the year’s last months are a bust, but having spotted Mississippi in September, I dare to hope that November and December might bring something new. Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, and either one of the Dakotas — where are you?

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Season of the Risk

Fall on Martha’s Vineyard: The days grow shorter, the leaves turn — and deer ticks make a comeback.

Ticks are part of the seasonal cycle here. The big ones, called dog ticks or wood ticks, are much in evidence from mid-spring to early summer. They’re big and they’re multitudinous, but they’re not the ones that everybody worries about.

During the summer, Trav and I don’t see many ticks. Summer is a PITA in many ways, but ticks are not one of them.

The deer ticks are back. It’s fall.

tick signThis “Caution! Deer Tick Habitat” sign just appeared at the state forest trailhead near the West Tisbury School. Such signs are common on conservation lands, but this one was new.

The media are in a frenzy about Ebola virus. I’m probably hopelessly retro to be thinking about ticks, but I’ve long been fascinated by risk — how we assess it and how we deal with it. In the decade just past, I wrote an essay, “My Terrorist Eye: On Risk, the Unexpected, and the War Against Terror.” It holds up pretty well.

On October 17, the Vineyard Gazette posted the obligatory story about Ebola prep: “Hospital Ready to Respond in Unlikely Event of Ebola.” The very first commenter took the paper to task: “Why in your reporting would you say, ‘ in the unlikely event’? No one knows that! People are here on M.V. after traveling the world. It is that unpredictable factor that makes preparedness all so urgent!”

Pass the word: “Traveling the world” does not put one at risk for Ebola.

Walking in the state forest, or almost anywhere else on off-road Martha’s Vineyard, does put one at risk for tick bites and the various tick-borne diseases. Lyme disease is nowhere near as serious as Ebola virus, true, but the risk is real. I know many, many people who’ve had it. Some of them are dealing with chronic Lyme, a condition that some doctors don’t believe exists. Considering that Lyme was identified almost 40 years ago, the lack of scientific knowledge about Lyme and other tick-related ailments is sobering.

About two months' worth of ticks, mostly courtesy of Travvy

About two months’ worth of ticks, mostly courtesy of Travvy

In the near vacuum created by scientific ignorance and medical skepticism, most of us get by with anecdotal evidence and personal experience. Those of us with pets have learned a lot from our veterinarians.

Mysteries abound. I had Lyme last year, I thought for the first time — but the ELISA test suggested that I’d had it before. Huh? I had no idea. Not only could I have Lyme without feeling sick; I could have Lyme without knowing it and it could go away without being treated. (See “Musing About Lyme” for some reflections on the subject.)

I go into the woods anyway. Every day, usually more than once, I go into the woods. With Travvy. Every month I treat Travvy with Frontline. From time to time I find dead ticks in my bed, where Travvy likes to sleep in cooler weather. When we get back from our walks, the ticks usually aren’t dead yet. I pick them off him with a comb and put them in the tick jar.

If I didn’t have personal experience to balance against it, I might pay more attention to the sign. “Don’t let ONE BITE change your life!” it says. One bite from a critter that is, as the signs and pamphlets like to say, “as small as the period at the end of this sentence.” Being an editor by trade, I have no trouble seeing periods, even though — unlike ticks — they don’t move around and I’ve yet to be bitten by one. It’s easy to get the impression that deer ticks are microscopic, as invisible as germs.

If all I knew was what I read on the warning signs and pamphlets — which are ubiquitous on Martha’s Vineyard — maybe I’d be more careful. I’d stay on the trail, use tick repellent, and put my clothes in the dryer for 20 minutes — if I had a dryer, that is. Maybe I wouldn’t go into the woods at all.

But I do. Every day and then some. Even after having Lyme once and maybe twice. Why? Well, it certainly helps that the news media aren’t spewing out Lyme horror stories 24/7. It helps that, though tick-borne diseases can be serious, chronic, and even fatal, I know plenty of people who’ve had them and most of them eventually get their normal lives back.

In my D.C. days, I walked, biked, and took public transportation all over the place. My suburban friends thought I was brave. I thought they were nuts. When I moved to a new neighborhood, I’d feel off-balance and uneasy — for about a week. After walking around for a few days, I began to sort out which sights, sounds, and smells were “normal” and which were out of the ordinary. The place became part of my psychic map. It felt like home.

For my suburban friends, most — sometimes all — of the sights and sounds came from the newspapers and, especially, from TV.

Which is where most USians are getting most of their information about the Ebola virus. There’s better information out there, but it’s a little harder to find and it takes longer to digest. I have plenty of personal experience with ticks and Lyme disease. I don’t have personal experience with Ebola. I hope I never do. But I have access to the accounts of people with extensive knowledge of Ebola and personal experience as well.

It makes a big difference.


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God Bless the Grass

Remember how it looked early in the month? My neighbors had to put in a new septic. The little deck outside my studio apartment gave me a front row seat.

October 9, 2014

October 6, 2014

This is how it looked yesterday, from the same vantage point — outside my neighbors’ kitchen. That hole in the middle is, we think, going to be a pond. Despite the rain we’ve had recently, there’s still no water in it.

October 24, 2014

October 24, 2014

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow,” I thought. “Beneath the crosses, row on row . . .” It’s not the antiwar poem I remembered. Its Dead want the living to “take up our quarrel with the foe” — to replenish their numbers in the ground, pushing up poppies.

“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” is an antiwar song, but there’s no grass in that one either.

While walking along Pine Hill with Travvy, I listened to my boots. (That’s a blatant steal from a Pete Morton song. It’s on his album Swarthmoor.) My boots were saying “Dum dum da DUM.” Pretty soon I was singing along: “God bless the grass . . .”

I love the song, but I was shaky on the words. Here they are.

God Bless the Grass

Notes: words and music by Malvina Reynolds; copyright 1964 Schroder Music Company, renewed 1992. People often think of this as an ecology song, but Malvina wrote it after reading Mark Lane’s comments about the John F. Kennedy assassination.

God bless the grass that grows thru the crack.
They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back.
The concrete gets tired of what it has to do,
It breaks and it buckles and the grass grows thru,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the truth that fights toward the sun,
They roll the lies over it and think that it is done.
It moves through the ground and reaches for the air,
And after a while it is growing everywhere,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the grass that grows through cement.
It’s green and it’s tender and it’s easily bent.
But after a while it lifts up its head,
For the grass is living and the stone is dead,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the grass that’s gentle and low,
Its roots they are deep and its will is to grow.
And God bless the truth, the friend of the poor,
And the wild grass growing at the poor man’s door,
And God bless the grass.


And here is Malvina Reynolds (1900–1978) singing it. (In case you were wondering why my Subaru’s name is Malvina Forester, she’s the one.)



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Old Boots, New Boots

old & new boots

Old boots passed their prime at least a year ago. They leaked. Duct tape didn’t stick. They needed to be replaced, but other needs were more pressing.

All winter I wore my higher, warmer boots. They don’t leak. Long about late April, when those boots got too warm for walking in, it stopped raining on Martha’s Vineyard. I went back to my old boots. Boots don’t leak if it isn’t wet.

Besides, I hate to throw anything out.

As fall got under way, it started raining again. I had to skirt the big puddles on the road, and even then my socks got wet. I had plenty of work. Money was coming in. The time had come.

This past Monday I went up to SBS. This is where Travvy’s food, treats, and toys come from, but they carry other stuff too. Like boots.

I sat on the wooden floor and tried on boots. Several pairs. The fourth pair was Just Right. That’s them in the picture. You can’t see my feet because my feet are in the boots. They’re happy. They’re dry.

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Out of Sight? Not Quite

I lived in Washington, D.C., for 11 years and loved it. All those years I hardly ever thought about where my drinking water came from or where my trash or sewage went.

All that changed after I landed on Martha’s Vineyard in the mid-1980s. Before long, the phrase “sole-source aquifer” had entered my working vocabulary. An aquifer, says the American Heritage Dictionary, is “an underground layer of permeable rock, sediment, or soil that yields water.” “Sole-source” means there’s only one of them. All the drinking water on Martha’s Vineyard comes from that one aquifer. Screw it up and we’ll be importing water from the mainland. Sort of puts environmental squabbles in perspective, doesn’t it?

A very hot topic at the time was the formation of the Martha’s Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District (MVRDRRD — the acronym resists pronunciation so successfully that it’s generally referred to as “the District”). Within a year or so, I was talking trash like I knew what I was talking about.

“Refuse” means “trash.” “Resource recovery” means recycling. A big issue was what to do with the trash that couldn’t be recycled and was filling up the six town dumps, which we were supposed to call “landfills.” Once the decision was made to ship the nonrecyclables off to SEMASS, the big incinerator in Rochester (Mass.), the landfills officially became “transfer stations,” but nearly everyone I know still takes their trash to the dump. The recycling shed at the West Tisbury dump is the Dumptique. “Landfill-tique” and “transfer-station-tique” are almost as unsayable as MVRDRRD.

“Refuse” doesn’t include sewage, but within a few years I had a nodding acquaintance with that subject too. The downtown areas of the down-island towns — Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown — are now “sewered,” but most Vineyard residences and businesses have their own septic systems. Those septic systems are underground and out of sight so in theory it would be easy to forget about them, but in practice it isn’t because they come up in conversation a lot. Someone is always having their septic tank pumped out; a former hairdresser’s husband is in the pump-out business; and when you hear that so-and-so is dealing with a failed septic system, you offer your condolences.

Here’s a handy guide to how septic systems work.

All of which explains why I’d have a hard time living in the big city again. Once you’ve started thinking about where your water comes from and where your trash and sewage go, it’s hard to stop. Thinking about water, trash, and sewage in a place with fewer than 20,000 year-round residents is manageable — barely. Thinking about water, trash, and sewage in a place with 600,000 year-round residents? The mind boggles.

So when my neighbor-landlords had to have a new septic put in, I offered my condolences, but I also had a great view from my deck. John Keene’s crew and their machines arrived last Thursday. Here some of what I saw.

big hole

This is just the beginning. Watching the interaction among the men on the site made me wish I didn’t work solo. The precision of the big excavator is as impressive as its power. When it shook the dirt off the huge stump it had just pulled from the ground, it reminded me of Travvy shaking a squeaky toy. But it also plucked shrubs and small trees up so delicately that they could be replanted when the job was done.

I want to be a heavy equipment operator when I grow up.

Excavator at the brink

Excavator at the brink

All that dirt had to go somewhere. Some of it came back later. The contractor’s shop is just up the road — close to my town’s dump, as a matter of fact — so it didn’t have far to go.

moving dirt

Half of the concrete container that will hold our wastewater and sewage is lifted into place. Behind the excavator and off to the left you can see the deck I watched the proceedings from — when I wasn’t circling the lawn to get a better angle. My internet and phone were disconnected for the duration — the cable crosses the lawn that was now a big pit — so while the work was under way I made several trips next-door to use my neighbors’ wi-fi.

lifting septic

Having watched the excavator uproot a huge stump and shake it like a dog’s toy, I did not want it to go after the little building I live in. My apartment is on the second floor. My bathroom, whose services are being improved by the new septic, is on the first. Luckily the companions of the big beast have trained it well.

staring contestdigging

Most of the cement tank is now underground. See those R2D2-looking creatures on top? That’s how the tank can be pumped out without digging up the lawn again.


Before the hole can be filled in, the town’s health agent has to inspect the new system and give his approval. Here John Powers checks out the dimensions of the distribution area. Note relative size of person and pit.

health agent

health agent 2Now the dirt comes back, some of it anyway. The hole is filled in, the surface graded, and the small trees and shrubs replaced in their original locations. The machine that chews big stumps like candy is astonishingly delicate when it comes to smoothing and replanting.


Before the digging started, a couple of frogs lived in a little plastic pond above where the cement tank now is. One of the girls next door has been asking her parents for a bigger pond. The new pond is bigger than anyone expected. There’ll be room for more than frogs in this one.

new pond

Now I can’t pass by a yard without wondering what’s underneath it. Out of sight, yes, but not quite out of mind. See why I’d have a hard time moving back to the big city?



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September License Plate Report

Around the end of July I start to resign myself: This could be it for the year. August brought nothing new. That practically confirmed it.

Then around the third week of September I spotted Mississippi, one of the top 5 hard-to-gets. Now anything is possible. Five more to go. Bring on October!

2014 sept license plate

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