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She Saved Me with "Chocolate!"

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

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Ever need just a little something sweet to end your day, your dinner, or to reward yourself for hard work or garden labor? 

Ever crave chocolate? 

Yeah, me too. But being a caffeine sensitive person, I have had to severely restrict my intake of dark chocolate (bittersweet is my favorite!) or be doomed to stay up all night. I have to eat chocolate first thing in the morning to give the caffeine time to work through my system. And that's not when I crave it. I crave chocolate after dinner. Arrgh. Just when I can't eat it.

And sugar--sugar is my bad boyfriend. Sugar tempts and seduces me and then leaves me desolate and feeling cheap. Ugh. Sugar.

My best fren Shila is the same as me. Sugar can be our overlord if we allow it to be. 

I had hit my COVID high weight when the kids were here for spring break, baking up a storm and luring me to indulge in everything they can eat without consequence. Which is everything delicious and carby and sweet. By God, the minute they cleared out of the house, I was going to be GOOD. Out with the bread, the pasta, the rice, the cookies (ohh the cookies). Out with the cake, the pie, the cobbler, the CEREAL. In an ideal world, I would live on cereal. I would live on cereal in Heaven. 

Along about the same time, Shila also quietly decided she was going to take her life back from sugar. But oh, the cravings. So she got smart and found a recipe for something we call Carob Treat, and started making it. And I swear it has saved me. She came over for dinner one evening bearing a small container of it, and I realized my life was changing.

Carob is a magical plant I had heard of but paid no attention to. I figured it was good for dog treats, whatever. Chocolate--cacão--was the thing for me. But here's the thing. Carob tastes just like chocolate. And when combined with cacão butter, you CANNOT TELL IT ISN'T CHOCOLATE. Let that sink in. 

The other thing Shila brought that night was a small bottle of liquid Monkfruit Extract. Monkfruit is a Chinese fruit that is a zillion times sweeter than sugar but doesn't have the nasty aftertaste that Stevia (sweetleaf) does. Diabetics and other folks who have to restrict sugar intake know all about monkfruit. It was news to me. I find liquid monkfruit extract at my local GNC store. I haven't seen it online.

So here's a recipe for Carob Treat. Its base is cacão butter. I like to buy the wafers, because they're easy to measure. I order them from Amazon.  I usually order four bags at a time. Terrasoul and Mayan's Secret are the best brands I've found. Quality of cacão butter varies widely, I've found. Brand matters. You want smooth, white, highly aromatic cacão butter, redolent of chocolate. Avoid the cheap stuff--it can taste pretty soapy. 


Here's the carob powder I use. Best price is at vitacost.com



You're going to use nearly equal parts Carob powder and cacão butter. I use a little more cacao butter than I do carob powder. Let's start with 1 cup cacão butter wafers 

and 2/3 cup carob powder. (I know, this is less than that. I've improved my original proportions).

CAROB TREAT

1 cup cacão butter wafers

2/3 cup carob powder

6 healthy drops liquid monkfruit extract

1/2 tsp vanilla extract. Peppermint extract is good, too!

Melt the cacão  butter in a saucepan over low heat.

When it's liquid, turn off the heat and whisk in the carob powder. 

Add monkfruit extract to taste. For a cup of cacão butter, I'd add maybe eight healthy drops of monkfruit extract.

Now, while whisking, add vanilla extract to taste. **

Pour the liquid and still hot mixture into molds. I use silicone mini-ice cube molds. Refrigerate until hard.

**You can also add peppermint extract or whatever tickles your fancy. I have noticed that peppermint extract causes the cacao to kind of lump up and settle. But it's still delicious. 

The first batches I made I just poured into plastic takeout trays. That will make something more like bark, and you can bust it up. 



Chonk it in the fridge to harden. It'll take a couple of hours. Stop checking it!

 Pop it out of the molds and store in a jar in the fridge.   I keep mine refrigerated because the snap of cold chocolate (um, cacão and carob), suddenly melting in my mouth, makes my heart go boom. And cacão  utter has such a ridiculously low melting point that it won't hold up in high temperatures. So it's really much better served cold. 


I cannot tell you how delicious, satisfying, fat-laden and sugar free this treat is. It has saved me. It isn't a low-calorie treat, but it sure is a low-carb one, and a sugar free one, and that's good enough for me. Fat isn't what makes people fat. Sugar is. And the taste and flavor of fine dark chocolate makes them happy. That I know for a fact!



So if you're up for a New Year's resolution you can stick to, try switching from sweet, caffeine laden chocolate to Carob Treat. And let me know how you like it!







Requiem for a Willow

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

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December 12, 2021--the next morning.

If there is an argument for starting and keeping with a blog, it’s the opportunity it gives you to go back in time, to read what you were thinking fifteen years ago. To pull up short with a start, realizing that you’re where you were wondering about ever being.


 And you can never imagine what will  happen to you, nor can you imagine how it will feel when it does. Here’s a historic post I want to hearken back to, because of what happened on December 11.

 

Written Aug. 21, 2006

 


Tree

It is foolish
to let a young redwood
grow next to a house.

Even in this
one lifetime,
you will have to choose.

That great calm being,
this clutter of soup pots and books—

Already the first branch-tips brush at the window.
Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.

Jane Hirshfield

We planted this willow tree when I was pregnant with Liam. It was about six feet tall, a slender whip, its small leaves backlit by the evening sun. We tried to plant it far enough away from the septic tank that it wouldn't dip in for a drink, far enough away from the deck so it wouldn't touch when it grew up.

We had no idea.

 

The willow is seven now, Liam is six. He is long and lanky. It is enormous. By next summer, we will be able to reach out from our deck and touch the willow's branches. I've no doubt it will be in the septic tank by then, too. It is full of birds and it buzzes with cicadas. It is a citadel of foliage, a city of birds and insects. It's a habitat on a trunk.


 


What a metaphor for starting a family, this willow tree. So much bigger, so much grander, so much more wonderful, so much scarier and all-consuming than you ever could have imagined. The willow overspreads half the back yard, at seven. What will it be at 25? Who will Liam, he of the wooden trains, be at 25?


                                                                           

    End of Post

 

 

So I asked, and how could I know then that this willow, then vibrant, healthy and seemingly intent on taking over the entire backyard, wouldn’t quite make it to 25? 

 

December 11, 2021. At 3 AM I was up, looking at a line of storms on the Weather Channel, stretching from Ontario to southmost Texas. I wondered what fresh hell was being unleashed in that swath. Seventy-six people would lose their lives in Kentucky, and three in Tennessee, from a monster tornado that barreled more than 200 miles in one horrific rampage.  I couldn't know that, but I knew this was a real stinker of a storm. It was lying like a nasty python, writhing a little, but not moving east much at all--just slithering away in place. 




I padded around the house, guided only by flashing lightning, in my age-old ritual of unplugging things. There’s lots less to unplug now that I don’t watch TV or have a landline or a fax or give a toss about my ancient stereo—let the lightning take it! I unplugged my laptop, looked for Curtis and couldn’t find him, which meant that he was probably in the basement clothes closet, like a smart dog. That was where I ought to be, I thought, but I dragged myself back to bed and fell asleep, to the distant rumble of thunder and the wind tearing at the useless, flapping weatherstrip in my bedroom windows. 

 

On this Saturday morning, I had planned to paint all day on a Christmas commission that’s been eating my time, but I couldn’t settle down. I was so nervous. The wind was wild, wild! and rain was going sideways.We'd been under barrage from the storm-snake since 3 AM, and it was nearly 12 hours later.  I put my car in the garage and did little things around the house. I looked at the radar again, to see this storm that wouldn’t leave us alone, and saw a perfectly straight line of orange, like a samurai sword, raking across the Midwest.



 And in the next heartbeat here it was, with a white-out of rain and the trees groaning and tossing. I ran from window to window checking on the greenhouse; I ran up to the tower, came back downstairs and it was there in the studio that I heard it. It was a soft fwumpp, not loud enough to jump up to investigate, but resonant, and I would glance out the south window, off the high deck, to see the sky, once blocked, suddenly opened out, and the great black trident trunk of the willow on its side, Just. Like. That. 


No fanfare, no crack, no crash, just a muffled sound like someone sliding a couch across carpet, and it was done.

 


I took a photo of it lying there against the sodden meadow and bruised sky and sent it to Liam and Phoebe and Shila and my three sisters. I had to share it with them first, the way one would share the death of a relative. I feel abashed even writing about it, knowing what happened in Tennessee, Kentucky, and four other states, but here it is, and I need to tell you about it.


 


The willow had cracked off at the base, but there was barely any root left. This was not a surprise. I knew it was dying, had known it for years. It had stopped growing. I used to have to trim it three times each summer so I could even mow under it without being strangled by its long whippy tentacles. I hadn’t had to trim those whips for the past four years. 


 

 

My first reaction was gratitude that the giant tree had had the grace to fall sideways, and not crush the deck or the house. After the hollow gut punch, I feel strangely numb about losing this tree. Maybe because I’ve been on deathwatch for so long. But mostly, I think, because I will confess that as a native plant enthusiast, I had never really wanted a weeping willow in the first place. Bill insisted that we plant one for sentimental reasons, because he spent his early years with one at the "Rickety House" in Pella, Iowa, where he was born. I was pregnant with Liam, due to burst in a couple of months, and his insistence wore me down. We went and picked one out at Thomson’s Landscaping. It was a whip about 6’ tall, probably a couple of years old. It had been a terribly dry summer, and there had been periodical cicadas in plague proportions, too.  I knew I’d be the one hauling hose out to it, and I’d be the one who picked up countless dropped limbs and mowed under it, too. But we had no sooner finished arguing about what was too close to the septic tank (My position: Any place you could pick is too close to the septic tank to plant a willow)  and finally dug the hole and stuck the whip in it, and stepped back to survey our work, than a palm warbler landed in it, wagging its tail! That makes it September, 1999, because September’s when the palm warblers come here. I remember the sun coming through the willow's leaves, and the bird’s tail wagging, and Bill and I took it as a good sign, a very good sign.

 

Liam was born only a month and change later, on November 8, 1999, and of course we called it Liam’s willow, and I became fond of it in spite of my misgivings about its eventual size and thirstiness. As he grew, long and tall and beautiful, so did the tree. It was a vireo magnet, the warbling and Philadelphia and blue-headed vireos catching in its branches during migration. 


Blue-headed vireo, 25 Sept. 2020. Immaculate bird. And I note that even the branch it's on is cracked.


The cedar waxwings adored it, swinging merrily in its flexible top branches, when it had them. Everything wound up in that tree, including the flying squirrels who sailed from there to the deck railing to skitter around and filch sunflower hearts from a feeder we used to keep there. 

 

My boy grew up knowing he had a tree that was special to him, and that is something, and if I regret losing it, it’s because of Liam. “This makes me so sad,” he responded to the photo I sent the day it went down. Me too, son. End of an era. But don’t take it as a sign. Weeping willows grow far too fast, and die too young. It’s just the way they’re built. 


 



I miss the surreal touch the willow lent to the landscape, especially when the gardens were in full, fantasy-land bloom (here, on October 8, 2021). This is one of my last photos of the tree, and you can see the dead top that tells you it’s not going to be photogenic much longer. Even the color of the leaves tells you something you don't want to know.


October 8, 2021


 

December 11, 2021

Change of seasons, change of backdrop, pretty draconian. 


Still, I’ve checked a few times, and my sadness on losing this tree is not even a pinprick compared to how I felt about losing the centurion red oak that guarded our mailbox. She fell on March 26, 2011.  The post is here. http://juliezickefoose.blogspot.com/2011/05/leaning-tree.html

 

That tree’s death heralded the end of an era, too. I can’t even begin to tell you what all fell with that oak. We were coming back from a huge recording session for our first Rain Crows album, “Looks Like Rain,” when we saw it stretched across the road. But it wasn't just the tree...absolutely everything was changing right beneath our feet. That tree, I wept over for days. I couldn't bear to look at its mighty trunk down on the ground. Strong, tall, beautiful, useful, still willing, but doomed by heart rot. I still grieve her loss, still miss her. What an incredible presence she had, a destination unto herself.



Then...my favorite photo almost ever


Now-thankful to have Curtis and this still-spindly oak child. 

The oak that sprang from one of her acorns is growing fast near the very spot she once commanded, and it is a beautiful young tree. I had to cut its protective tomato cage off --I think it's too big to be under threat from the township mowing deck now. Still too small to cast shade, it is hurrying to fill her place in the world. 



 


What will I plant where the willow was? I will think about that. Something native. Something I have always wanted, though I don't yet know what that is. A little grove of serviceberry? More persimmons? Another clump of birches? Something more monumental? Not a redwood, that much poet Jane Hirshfield and I know. Suggestions from tree mavens are welcome. 


I've got someone coming to deal with its enormous carcass, and I've asked them to bring a bulldozer, too. It'll be a heck of a day. I have visions of myself trotting in front of the Bobcat, pointing at things that need to be cleared out. There is so very much to do, and a dozer can do in seconds what would take me weeks to clear. I'm looking forward to that. But oh, Liam. I waited for you to get home. I needed another picture. 


Then...August 2006 


                        

and now (December 20, 2021). 


How he has grown, shooting past the railing he once stretched to reach. What he has faced in his short life. And what a beautiful soul he has in that strong lanky frame. Trees come and go. People do, too. He learned that far too young. 

I will plant something wonderful in that hole. It's a way to move on.








A Mighty Little Magazine

Sunday, December 12, 2021

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  I'd like to honor the magazine that has featured my writing and art for 35 years. It's quite a story.  Bird Watcher's Digest is still going strong. It was launched from a brave notion, using my late in-laws’ retirement savings as they stood in 1978.




Bill Thompson Jr. and Elsa Ekenstierna Thompson, with Pokey. Clearly not 1978; more like 2009 or so. This is the den where a magazine was born. Now they're both gone, and the den is, too.

  My late mother-in-law, Elsa Thompson, took up birding in her 40’s, and thought there should be a digest for birdwatchers, since there was nothing of the kind out there. What a cool idea! Circa

1979, I saw my first issue, featuring Roger Tory Peterson’s sooty terns, at Out of Town Newsstand in Harvard Square. Having only discovered that birding was a thing upon entering college as a lifelong but unconnected birdwatcher in 1976, I could NOT believe there was a magazine devoted to my passion! I remember standing there, reading it, marveling, and wondered if they would ever consider publishing my writing or painting. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t submit anything until 1986; I needed some time to hone my embryonic skills. Plus, the magazine’s interior was still being printed on newsprint when I saw it, and art looks ever so much better on glossy paper. 


My first cover, a stretching ruby-crowned kinglet, was published in 1986. Article after article, most illustrated by my watercolors, followed. I felt like the luckiest person in the world. 


 


My first 7 covers, spanning 1986-1992. I began writing for the magazine almost as soon as I started painting covers. The piping plover from 1988 has a big article about my work conserving piping plovers in Connecticut. There's a lot of personal history in these issues! To wit:


See that redpoll/junco cover, left, bottom row? Bill talked me into painting that for the Jan/Feb 1991 cover. He called me a lot more than he would have needed to, to get the painting over the finish line. By the time it came out on the cover, we were "talking," as my kids say.


 I didn’t meet BWD's (then) Managing Editor, Bill Thompson III until we collided at the World Series of Birding in May, 1990. We were married in 1993. Persuasive guy. 


                                        I look at this photo and think, "Wha ha happen?" 


There followed a series of covers. Below are ones spanning 1993-1999. 




And here's 2000-2011.



Bill Thompson III was Editor and Publisher until he had to leave us in March, 2019. Though Bill’s bank of knowledge and energy was irreplaceable, Editor Dawn Hewitt comes as close as anyone could to filling his Size 12’s. Wendy Clark has added her considerable vision and energy as Publisher. I do my best to lean in and help the staff with anything remotely sciencey, as well as with thorny bird ID’s and bird feeding/housing/gardening advice. And I read every issue for scientific accuracy as well as flow and typos. By the time the magazine goes to press, it’s been by several mighty sharp sets of eyes.

 

I write a column called “True Nature” for every issue, right alongside such luminaries as David Bird, Mark Garland, Alvaro Jaramillo, Al Batt and Scott Weidensaul. Iowa’s fabulous Diane Porter writes frequently for the magazine as well. I also have a column in every issue of Watching Backyard Birds, which comes out in the months that Bird Watcher’s Digest doesn’t. It’s good to write a lot; to have to have something to show for all your rumination. I love sitting down to write a column, to winnow out all the things I see and then gather a lifetime of observations, to knead them all into dough and bake it into a story for our readers.

 


2013-2020.



35 years after that first little kinglet was published, I’ll have my 30th cover on the May/June 2022 issue! I've got something published in most issues, and I still feel like the luckiest person in the world to be affiliated with this magazine.


Here's the body of work as it stands...well, just the covers I've painted over the last 34 years. The articles and columns in many other issues are legion.



Here's last year's contribution--a yellow-billed cuckoo, guarding her enormous blue eggs. I also wrote the cover article and species profile for that issue. This was my 29th cover since 1986.  Cover #30, for July/August 2022,  is already in the planning stages, featuring one of my favorite small birds. 



It’s pretty darned amazing that Bird Watcher's Digest is still humming along, cranking out excellent content for its beloved and very loyal subscribers. Chalk it up to love and sheer will. Thanks to the Plague, most of the staff has been working from home since spring 2020—another thing that amazes me no end. HOW CAN IT BE 35 YEARS???

 


 

Publisher and Publisher Emeritus. Both worked their entire careers putting out the best bird watching magazine ever.


Thank you very much for your indulgence. I hope you've enjoyed this retrospective--color, bird painting and a whole lot of love.


 

Enter Flag

Sunday, December 5, 2021

11 comments





I wrote a blogpost with lots of video of a certain tufted titmouse doing all kinds of hopeful things: picking at terrycloth out of boredom, glugging down a big chunk of hard boiled egg yolk all by himself; picking up some special food I made for him out of a dish. And then everything suddenly went south and the next morning his head was upside down, and he was helpless again. Nothing I did made any difference. I kept feeding him and gently manipulating his neck, hoping to ease him out of it, but he faded before my eyes. He had a seizure and died at 8:14 AM on December 3. It was hard. I was very sad. I was mad at myself for telling you all his story before I knew how it would end. I'm not usually that rash. I usually protect my readers from the worst stuff. I wanted to spread some joy, that this little bird was going to have a fighting chance. And in the end, he didn't. That's how it goes in rehab, and especially with head trauma. Recovery is anything but certain. Those birds that hit your window, lie there for awhile, and fly away? There's always more to the story, and sometimes it's a story you don't want to hear.

Early that morning, right at daybreak, I was sitting in my recliner, staring out the window at the slowly lightening meadow. I was putting off checking on the titmouse because he'd been noticeably weaker when I tucked him in the night of December 2. I didn't even want to peek at him, so I sat and wrote in my journal and watched the meadow taking shape in the rising light.

And a doe came walking across the meadow, along the edge where I stop mowing the yard. I grabbed the living room binoculars (there are also bedroom binoculars, kitchen binoculars and studio binoculars--lots of binoculars) and studied her. I recognized her face instantly. My God, it was Flag!

                                                                             29 Oct 2017

Now, it was too dark to get a photo, but my binoculars picked up every detail as I scurried from window to window. I will say I recognized her from the first glance. The first thing I noticed were oversized buff eye-rings. The next thing I noticed were her smallish, rounded ears. I checked her body type: long, with rather short legs. Then I checked her bib--large but indistinct. Oh my God, she had big white flashes between her toes--bigger on the hind feet! It's Flag-it's Flag!! The last thing to check was her tail. When I finally got a good look at it, it was pale red on top, with no black on it--which is unusual. Put those six features together and my often muddled but occasionally marvelous brain spits out one answer: It's Flag!

                                 

                                                                           1 Feb 2017

It was Flag. I had not the slightest doubt. I had not seen her since March 2018! Where had she been?

        

 6 Mar 2018--the last time I saw her.

She'll never tell. Flag is very special to me. She is, as far as I know, Ellen's last surviving offspring. Ellen was the crooked little doe I followed for nine years. Ellen was killed by an arrow right along my driveway early on the morning of November 2, 2016, wasted, left for me and the coyotes to find.

Her twin fawns, Pinky and Flag, were only five or six months old. God bless Buffy for taking them on. Buffy had been Ellen's closest companion; I always suspected she was Ellen's sister. 

Here's Buffy in back, and Flag in front. 


Now, Buffy's in the lead. See how Buffy's legs and pelt are suffused with ochre? She was buffy all over, hence the name. 


                                                                             29 Oct 2017

This is my earliest photo of Flag, 14 Dec. 2016. What jumps out at you? For me, it's the white between her toes. What a gift that little marker is. 

                                         

Her twin brother, Pinky, had white toe flashes too.

          
         12 Jan 2017

By October 18, 2017, Pinky had grown his first spikes. You can see the pink nose for which I named him. 


I lost track of Pinky after that fall, as one loses track of bucks. It's not that I wasn't looking for him...it's that he never turned up again.  But Flag, being a small doe, survived. 

                                                                            17 Oct 2017


                                                                         9 Dec. 2017


                                                                              11 Dec. 2017

Here are those small rounded ears, that unmarked tail showing well. 



                                                                            17 Jan 2017

She reminds me so much of Ellen in these shots. Man, I miss those deer coming around. 



                                                                             4 Nov 2017

To have Flag come walking through the backyard, on the very morning when another soul had to leave, was such a gift. I had bonded pretty fiercely with that titmouse, and I was determined to see him through. I thought what I'd be seeing him through to was release, but it didn't work out that way. So it goes some of the time, too much of the time. Seeing Flag helped so much. She spoke of  persistence against all odds, of hope, just as my own hopes were being dashed. 

17 Oct 2017

Look at what remains, she said. Look at all you still have that brings you joy. My mother and brother and Aunt Buffy are gone, but I'm still here. I have fawns you haven't met. And that might have something to do with the cur-dog you brought here, mightn't it? 

                                                                            30 Jan 2018

Yes, Flag, it might. I am going to keep watching for you, as I have every sunrise since I saw you. Like seeing a ghost, it was. I need a fresh portrait of you, little short-legged Garbo among does, small like your mother and your aunt, and so dear to me. Oh my gosh, I have just noticed the two small white dots atop your shiny black nose. I've looked, and they're in every photo. Attention. Attention. Attention. Nothing is too small to notice. Everything is important, everything is a clue.

I came in from a long morning of sawing sumac and hauling honeysuckle around 11 AM and was out on the deck tracking  Curtis when a big chocolate-colored buck emerged from the newly cleared area. Nice to have a way through the honeysuckle, innit? I had neither binoculars nor camera, and I raced through the living room, cursing, to get the closest pair of bins. The living room binoculars had migrated to the foyer. One can't have too many strewn around the house... I knocked over a hand-made end table in my rush, atop which, as it happened, was a box with an antique porcelain elephant inside.  (I had to stop to laugh for a minute while writing this; it's sooo Zick.) The table and box went flying. All this I noted as I streaked past, but Job One was to get the binoculars. Nothing else mattered. Happily, neither the table nor the bubble-wrapped elephant in its box were hurt in the least, while I have another spectacular bruise forming on my thigh, to join the bruises already there, from the butt ends of branches and cruel rose canes that I fight every morning in my "daily practice" of mano a mano combat with invasive plants. By the time I raced back, jumping over the fallen table, binocs in hand, the buck had leapt across the meadow and was but a dark tail disappearing into the pines. See, that's what deer do to me.  They make a blur of me. I want so badly to know them better, to trace their arcs, as I traced Ellen's and Buffy's. I will knock myself silly in pursuit of knowledge like that. And the only way to get it:  Be. There.

As I sit here writing, I'm thinking of a bit of Robert Frost's poem, "Birches:" 

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.

One of my eyes is indeed weeping from a twig's having lashed across it open. (God, the beauty and precision of Frost's wording).  It hurts, but I expect it'll be all right. The other eye isn't weeping; it's watching five brand new blue jays who have come to the yard at long, long last. They've finally arrived, weeks later than usual, and it's time to pile up the cinder blocks and build a new Cyanocity jay feeder for them. Hope I don't drop a cinder block on my foot, but I hold the possibility open. 

Right off the bat, I don't recognize any of them, but I'm peering, Popeye-like,  at the camera playback and sorting through each tiny feature, because this is how we learn.


                   

  For those who wonder, yes, Flag is named for the fawn in The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. A formative book among many formative books. I might have identified with Jody, who raised Flag, just a little bit.

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