Winging it

The busier we get, the more I don’t know.

Well, that’s not quite right. It’s not that the sheer volume of what I don’t know increases, it’s only that I become painfully aware of it. Every time I go to do something, I trip over it.

Take gardening. There’s so much to not know! It started in February. When do we put the lettuce seeds in? When do we start the kale and the collards? Where do we put the blueberry bushes? Do we fertilize the overwinter garlic and, if so, how? How deep do the asparagus go? How far apart do we put the potatoes?

There’s so much to not know!

This list goes on and on. I thought we learned a few things about gardening last year – start the beets right in the ground, put the cucumbers where they can climb, don’t plant anything in the dead zone just to the right of the garden – but it turns out there’s still plenty to not know.

Then there’s fishing. Where are the stripers? When should we go out for them? What kind of bait should we use? Is it warm enough for the trout in the pond? Are the scup here yet? Is a false albacore really inedible?

There’s also lots of miscellaneous stuff to not know. Why is the fuel filter on the boat filling up with water? What the hell’s the matter with the leaf blower? What kind of bird is that?

I don’t know plenty about chickens and about bees, about building a wood-fired oven and about growing mushrooms. The things I do know something about – nutrition, Victorian fiction, the New York City subway system – don’t seem to come into play.

Although I’ve spent a lot of time trying to learn the things I don’t know – by reading, by talking to people, by getting documentaries from Netflix – if I waited for definitive answers, I’d never get anything done. Spring, for me, has become the season of improvisation.

Back in New York, my mother knew a woman at her gym who had lived with her boyfriend for fourteen years, and was agonizing about whether she should marry him. Fourteen years, and she was still afraid she didn’t have enough information. Fourteen years! At the same gym, there was another woman who had met her husband on a blind date and gotten married, that night, on a dare. They’d been together thirty years.

We seldom get to make decisions with perfect information. Most things we do require a leap of faith. Sometimes you just have to say what the hell, and hope you’re not making a really big mistake.

The thing about our ventures here, though, is that it’s not possible to make a really big mistake. Marry the wrong person, it could be a really big mistake. Plant the potatoes too close together, it barely registers on the “mistake” scale. Nobody’s going to die on the table.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve developed a what-the-hell attitude toward gardening, or fishing, or beekeeping. I want my ventures to be successful, and the plants and animals in my care to thrive. But I’ve figured out that no amount of information will guarantee success in a world so variable. I devote reasonable energy to learning what I can, and then I take a guess. What the hell.

So far, we’ve had very few flat-out mistakes. The root beer, of course, was a total flop. Last year’s garden didn’t do so well, but that may have had more to do with the weather than with our gardening decisions. So far, we haven’t hunted anything successfully. The wood-fired oven is proving more difficult than I thought, but I think we’ll make it work in the end.

On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve had some smashing successes. Kevin’s chicken coop came out great. We’re very bullish on our dandelion wine. Our shiitakes are excellent, we’ve gotten much better at trout fishing, and we caught a bunch of lobsters last season. And the sea salt! Everybody loves the sea salt.

So, we planted the asparagus twelve inches deep, spaced the potatoes a foot apart, fertilized the garlic with greensand, put the blueberry bushes next to the porch, planted the kale and collards despite a frost warning, fished for stripers in North Bay with green Storm shad runners, got a new vent for the boat’s gas tank, and threw out the fucking leaf blower. We’ll see how it all works out, but I can tell you right now that nobody’s going to die on the table. Sometimes you just have to say what the hell.

Perhaps it was because I was emboldened by our successes, motivated by this season of improvisation, working on momentum from so many decisions, that I took a drastic step.

If there’s a bright line between harmless eccentric and certified crackpot, this probably pushed me over it.

I cut my own hair.

Kevin was perfectly ready to say what the hell when the decision was about the blueberry bushes or the shad runners, but he was a little concerned about this one. “You can’t cut your own hair,” he said when I got out the scissors. “It’s the first step to Creedmore.” But when I first got it cut short I didn’t budget for a monthly maintenance haircut, so there was no help for it.

On a good day, I look a little like Bob Dylan. On a bad day, I look more like a toilet brush. But, hey, nobody died on the table.

19 people are having a conversation about “Winging it

  1. I love the meandering way your writing gets to the point. I saw your picture and decided that I liked your haircut, and it turns out the point is you cut your hair and it didn’t kill anybody.

    I used to cut my own hair all the time, and I can tell you from experience, you’ll get better at it as you learn your head. A three-way mirror helps immensely.

    After wearing my hair long for years, I finally had it cut short about nine months ago. I wasn’t too thrilled with the second hair cut from same operator, so I went to see a woman in Portland whose work on an ex-coworker I’d admired. Prior to the haircut, I could make myself presentable by pushing my hair around a bit- after the haircut (for which I paid sixty dollars) I couldn’t do anything with it. I lived with it looking like crap for three days, and then asked my husband would he mind very much if I cut off this sixty dollar disaster. He was okay with that, presumably because my hair looked like crap.

    So- I am back to cutting my own hair, although this time without the benefit of a three-way mirror. It’s a little harder without it, and I am out of practice, but am I going to stick with it.

    The reason is the same this time as the first time long ago- I figure I can fuck it up for free.

  2. You and Kevin are trying ever so many things that are brand new to you, and of course not all of them are huge successes. How about a little encouragement from Machiavelli? “It is better to be impetuous than cautious, for Fortune is a woman.” (Hey, the guy was sexist as well as politically amoral.) “Being a woman she favors younger men, because they are less cautious, and more filled with ardor, and because they overcome her with greater audacity.”
    One of your brother’s aphorisms is something like, “Fortune favors the bold, perhaps because they meet her more often.” (Sorry, Aaron, if I didn’t get it just right. Lucky for me Machiavelli is dead.)
    Anyway, with all your projects you’re running out to meet Fortune every day. More of us should be doing it.
    BTW, I’ve been cutting my own hair for years. As Kevin will certainly say, “The nut doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

  3. Paula — I feel like I’m in good company now. Like you, I’ve gotten some really crappy haircuts (although, Vladimir, who cut my hair in New York, is a bloody genius). I really like the woman who gave me the last one, and I think it was a good haircut — it’s just that I have to get it cut frequently when it’s short and there some other things I’d like to do with that $50. I’m worried that, the first time I cut it, I’m at least working with a decent template, but subsequent cuts will go downhill. We’ll see. If you can do it, there may be hope for me.

    Mom — As it happens, the Flaherty family motto, going back centuries, is: “Fortuna favet fortibus.” Fortune favors the bold. It suits Kevin nicely, I think. Luckily, the Haspels don’t have a family motto. If we did, it would be something embarrassing like, “Pass the sausages.”

  4. Hi Tamar…

    First of all, I think your hair looks really cute! I mean, I don’t know you personally, but when I saw it I thought, “that’s so perfectly Tamar”. True story.

    Secondly, if we are tossing around mottos, how about this from Tennessee Williams …

    “Make voyages, attempt them, that’s all there is”.

    (That’s from Camino Real, a truly weird play I was forced to read in high school).

    I think I read that when I was about 17 but it stuck and those words ring in my head every time I get scared about how much I don’t know about what it is I am attempting to do. Or decide.

    In the past year, I have become a widow after 37 years of good marriage. The learning curve for living alone (for the first time in my life) and taking my own counsel on so many big things has been very steep, but I’ve learned that I know more than I think I do and that my own counsel can, in fact, be trusted. I’ve been astonished, really.

    I’ve always dreamed of living in Paris for a year but I am too old for that now so my first solo voyage/attempt takes me to Paris to live for a month, where I shall try to get by with my school-girl French, winning smile and NYC balls-up attitude. Am I scared? You betcha, But as you said, no one’s gonna die from my fractured French with a NYC accent!

    It’s good to know that you don’t know but, truly, in the end you know more than you think you do! Does that make sense?

    You and Kevin seem to be doing very well in your husbandry of your land and the creatures in your care AND you seem to be having fun too, so vu den? Relax, you’re fine. : )

    P.S. There is another Susan posting, but I am the, “wildlife report from NYC” Susan.

  5. The Haspel family motto, going back several years, is: “shekat v’ohchail”. Hebrew for, “shut up and eat.”

  6. Rick — Yeah, you laugh. You and Annie.

    Susan — First off, I’d know you anywhere as NY-wildlife-report Susan. Your comments are very distinctive. Second, I’m very sorry to hear about your widowhood. I can only imagine what it’s like going it alone after such a long marriage. I think it’s absolutely groovy that you’re going to Paris — and I have to tell you that I got by in Provence with way less French than you’ve got, and it was wonderful. I learned to start my interactions with a sheepish “Je sais seulement trois mots au Francais,” and they’d count on their fingers and say “c’est sept!” and we’d be off to the races. I hope freedom to do some of the things — to make the voyages — that you never did, as well as learning just how well you can function solo, is some consolation for losing a huband. I hope I don’t have to deal with widowhood any time soon but, if I do, I hope I can do it with your spirit.

    Dad — Like I said, any Haspel motto is bound to be embarrassing.

  7. Thank you for your sweet words, Tamar.

    I will take your advice on the French and hope when I return that I can say with Piaf, “Je Ne Regrette Rien” !

    Your wild-life report:
    FOUR peregrine falcon chicks at 55 Water Street! The falcons have nested there for years, so perhaps you or Kevin already know about them. Reports from the Daily News say that the brood, hatched less than a month ago, is “very healthy”. As they are an endangered species, (sort of like the Wall Street guys they hang around with), this is good news.

    You can follow them at

  8. I like the haircut – Laurie Anderson-esque – and it really suits you.

    I’ve been cultivating my what-the-hell attitude recently because I’ve had to, Mike’s been so busy I’ve had to do a lot of new and untried jobs on my own (like the fencing). I’m sure next time I’d do some things differently, but you’re right, no one died and I’ve gained so much confidence from just doing it.

    When I get a bit anxious I still run to the library for the comfort and safety among all those books, all those answers just waiting to be uncovered. Research…ahhh….

    Gardening is the elusive skill. What works this year may fail next year because of weather, pests, disease, cultivar, rotation. On the up side, seeds usually find a way to grow regardless. As a gardener my two bits of advice are: Feed the soil & Never let a weed see Sunday (hoe at least once a week). What I’ve learned from your family is Shut Up and Eat. Genius!

  9. Peter — Thanks. I think I just chose my epitaph: “Better-looking than Bob Dylan.”

    Sarah — I love getting the NYC wildlife report! I didn’t know these falcons when we lived there, but now I do! (Although the url is: )

    Jen — It’s a little dispiriting that I’ve learned from you how to break a broody hen, catch a crow, hunt rabbits from a truck, and autopsy a chicken, and all the wisdom my entire family can collectively muster is “shut up and eat.” But I do like the thought that you’re out there across the pond, winging it along with me.

  10. Tamar, I think you look beautiful. Take pride in that biggie fish you landed not so long ago, take pride in the garden you are about to grow and give extra love to the man who lives in a dual world.

  11. i have SEEN the haircut (while eating the keepah. or… a keepah. also: rhubarb!) and its perfectly adorable. particularly when tamar does not have that look on her face;)

  12. But honey I don’t care, I aint in love with your hair, and if it all fell out, I’d love you anyway.

  13. Marilyn Baker says:

    Cutting hair is something we can ALL relate to; growing our own food, not so much. Anyway, next time you visit Mom and Dad, I will be happy to send you to my $20 haircutter. As good, if not better, than the $90 haircutter I used to patronize (rarely). And, in the spirit of thrift, you can get to her on the bus.


  14. Amanda — Why thank you. And I only make that face when it’s appropriate.

    Husband mine — Nobody says it better than Randy Travis. Vice-versa, baby.

    Marilyn — I’ll definitely take you up on that offer!

  15. The haircut is good. Lisa also cuts her own hair, and mine too, what little is left of it. Whether this puts you any further from Creedmore I leave for you to say. The aphorism runs, “Fortune does not favor the bold; it only encounters them more often.” But Mom had the gist.

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