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Chandra's Blog




In Writing 101, I posed a question to my college freshman: what are you passionate about, passionate enough to stand up for? What do you care enough about to leave your warm cozy bed and sleep out in the cold?


For long moments, there were crickets in the classroom. And then came the answers:

1. Black Friday sales.

2. Money.

3. One girl said, "Well, I have never been camping, so I guess I would sleep outside to try camping."


Before you lose faith in the youth, when I tried to come at this same question from another angle, when I thought I had come up with something to ignite a fire under their apathetic butts--a hypothetical reinstatement of a mandatory military draft--their passion and patriotism floored me. I promise you, there is hope for the future.


But this isn't the point of the story. The point is, it made me think about what I would actually leave my bed for. I started posing this question everywhere: to my own kids at the dinner table, lying beside my husband as the snow fell outside our bedroom window, at dinner parties and coffee dates, volunteer groups and morning walks.

Each time I asked it, as the other person spoke, I learned something new about them. The answers have been both touching and telling.

                                                                                                                                                                                    I'll pose the question here, and maybe even challenge you to ask it yourselves. I'm not trying to start something political (the president I want to talk about on this blog is a fat cat for sure, but more of the white belly than the White House variety.) El Presidente













What do you care enough about that you would leave your warm cozy bed, that you would sacrifice your time and energy to stand for or against, in protest or support?









My father had a serious spider phobia, the source of many funny stories and practical jokes. 

My brothers inherited this phobia, and while I reserve the serious heebie jeebies for house centipedes, I am not a huge fan either. In 1998 I actually moved out of a cottage in Grand Cayman when a huntsman spider the size of my whole hand with her peach-pit-of-an-egg-sac moved in. You would have too.


Giant Hunstman Spider

Yesterday, my sister and I were finally going through the last of our father's things, listing and itemizing and donating. This task keeps falling off our To Do list, because once we are through all of this, the alligator suspenders, the tasseled loafers, the five gallon hats and the linens (that still, freshly-washed smell so much like him a year later Piper insisted I make them into her bed last night), the last physical vestiges of our will be gone, and that will be sad.


But we had promised my mom to get them out of her basement by the end of the school year, so we took the last of our kid-free mornings to conquer the task. I told Linden at the beginning that I was determined to stay lighthearted. We would not linger over photos or get depressed or bury our faces in his dress shirts. This was harder than either of us thought.




As I reached for one of his signature leather Orvis vests, I saw the most hideously huge wolf spider that skeeved me out so much I dry-heaved. So of course, I made my 7-months-pregnant sister deal with it while I filmed.

(I actually have made a lifelong practice of surrounding myself with people who do better than I would in a crisis.)

See below:




After he was safely relocated far far away from either of our houses or vehicles, after we wiped the hysterical tears from under our eyes my sister and I realized: somewhere, up in Heaven maybe, Dad is doubled over laughing.


Thanks for helping keep it light today, Dad. We miss you.



Chicken Wire

The Attack

Two days ago, while I was at the horse barn up the street, a fox killed 5 of my chickens, nearly a third of my flock. He started with Orphan Annie, a barred rock we adopted when our silkies hatched out their babies last summer. Next was Freaky Friday, our crazy-haired Easter Egger of two years, followed by my friend Michelle's Max and Freaky, canoodlinggorgeous silkie rooster Romeo, visiting as part of a genetics experiment.

J left the bodies in the yard, hoping to tempt him back, but when Foxy returned he grabbed Sunny, our gorgeous Buff Orpington instead, mauling but not killing her. Also missing at bedtime roll call were Cleopatra, our flagtailed, high flying Easter Egger whose eggs were the most beautiful green, and Eager, one of our ten week old Olive Eggers. RIP, dear creatures.



 Our yard looks like a duvet exploded and the remaining girls are pacing in nervous pairs and trios between the coop and our porch. We are sickened by the loss. Here at the Hoffmenagerie, our chickens are part of the family. (See this post about our Hoffmans Happy Hens and my foray into total birdnerdom.) They are also ridiculously spoiled. Eager and her agemates Bindi and Schpeedy were prone to pasty bum this winter, which meant Piper and Quinn frequently brought them in for a chicken spa, bathing, and then wrapping in tea towels and stroked to sleep by the fire. We knew every one of our casualties personally.


Schpeedy, Bindi and Eager in the CHICU

This loss brought back an old debate to the breakfast table--should we pen our free-range girls? Originally, before I purchased birds, I did hours of research, ultimately deciding I wanted them to be happy, daylight free-range hens, able to wander our property eating bugs, scratching the mulch out of the landscaping, and drinking from the stream. Quality of life over quantity, which they have in spades.

However, chicken is on almost everyone's menu. J researched that humans consume 4 BILLION chickens every year. It's a risk; I get it. 

Seasoned chicken owners warned me that with this philosophy, I would need to be okay with predator loss. As a friend remarked, surveying the chickens dotting our grassy yard -- a wide open flat, surrounded on three sides by woods, brush and stream, "This is the kind of place where in a war, you would not want to meet your enemy."

Before this, I was mostly okay with the losses. Hayden watched everyone's favorite Esme get picked up by a hawk. Magda, Pai and Prima did not come home at night. Lucky was not-so. Fancy Pants admittedly hit us hard, so that J and I were out walking late into the winter night with a flashlight, hopefully calling. But our most recent loss was months ago--Bright, our young troublemaker rooster, picked up mid-crow on Christmas eve morning. Even then I thought, okay, foxes deserve a festive dinner too.


But I was not prepared for a slaughter of this magnitude, in the middle of a sunny spring morning, while Samps snored on the couch. Research revealed some disturbing discoveries: red foxes do attack in the day, especially in late spring when they are feeding babies, and again in August, when those babies are learning to hunt. They do not regard large dogs (like Sampson) as a strong deterrent, knowing they can outrun, cut and deke them. They will kill as many as they can in one attack, possibly returning for the carnage, limiting their exposure. And finally, once you are on their radar, they will return until your flock is gone.

 the girls gathering for breakfast of yogurt and granola

The Chicken Wire

I posted about our recent loss on my private Facebook group, Crazy for Chickens. Beyond sympathy and tales of casualty, what evolved has been fascinating--I'll call it the Chicken Wire. Local owners are using the thread to keep each other updated on Foxy's location.

--"He just left my house and headed your way, look out, Lori!"

--"I almost hit him dropping the kids at school this morning!" (We're all thinking, accelerate!)

--"Any sightings? He's usually stopping by around now."

--"I hear a ruckus at your place? Girls okay?"

Chicken owners are banding together, fortifying coops, exchanging articles and theories, methods of predator control. We are all trying to figure out how to keep our girls safe and happy, so we can return to our lives. This is the same community that has been rattled by far more serious tragedy this spring--cancer, suicidal depression and domestic violence. Perhaps after all this confusing devastation and heartache, it is comforting to rally around something more elemental, the natural circle of life?

Moving On

How will we go forward at the Hoffstead? Maybe we will pen our girls, though the night before our loss, our neighbors lost a staggering 28 out of 30 chickens in one enclosed attack. This also debunks my crazy chicken math that maybe if I just got SO SO MANY chickens, the losses woudln't be as hard to take. I'm visiting a friend's rotational pasture system this weekend for ideas. Our best silkie mama Nugget is sitting on 8 fertile eggs, so hopefully in a few weeks there will be some replenishment and new babies. My sister suggested not keeping them as pets, but instead just getting a large group of generic, high-laying Rhode Island reds. Unfortunately, I'm not wired that way. I'd find distinguishing marks and character traits, and secretly name them, and love them all anyway.

In the meantime, I think of my chicken friend Lori's wisdom, "If you want to have livestock, you have to be willing to have deadstock as well."

Today, I'm sticking a little closer to home with my girls, grateful to have my Crazy for Chickens community, watching over each other's flocks.

* *** *


Nugget mothers Lucy, Mrs. Judy and Rosa





Googling Old Loves

You've all done it. Insomnia leads to a benign browse, a quick PeopleSearch, and then ashamed, you clear the whole history, so as not to offend the sweet person sleeping there beside you, because, really, you are perfectly happy in this life, it was only that you... wondered. Where is he now?

[Do you know how many Neil Henry Murphy's there are in the world? Enough that I never found the rosy- cheeked Irish boy who cried when his aggressive iguana Boomer accidentally froze to death in the Cornell winters when the power went out. This was before we drank Guinness at Ruloffs, before he told me about his mother, before we kissed in the snow while Dakota ran circles around us at Plantations, before he read my journal, before we planned to move to Mexico after graduation, before we broke each others' hearts a little.]

Googling old loves is rarely a good idea, but this week, I did it again. A year of loss, coupled with a return to riding alongside my daughter, and grouchily crossing over to Forever 39 brewed a perfect interwebs search engine storm. Despite my loose grasp on basic math, I was riding a 25-year-old dressage horse and listening to two riders at the barn talk about how a horse there jumped until he was in his late twenties when it hit me: Twenty years ago, I sold Satch, the horse who saved me from the pitfalls of teenage girldom--eating disorders, Salem lights, overachieving, golf course drinking and late night boy's house drive-bys. When I went off to Cornell, Satch was seven. Which means this spring, with other racehorse babies, he will turn 27.


Which means he could still very well be alive.


Trial ride on Satch

Satch, a 3 year old, green broke, off-the-track Thoroughbred was for sale because he didn't particularly like to race. Which isn't to say that he didn't like to run very fast, or buck, or do both at the same time. Satch was 16.2 hands; at his withers, where the crest of the neck meets the dip of his back, he was almost as tall as the peak of my hairsprayed bangs. 

They say that when the trainers came to get him to race, he turned his back and gazed off into nothing out the half-door of his stall. He didn't kick or get mean, but he passively resisted, and I thought of Ferdinand the Bull in the childrens' story, sitting under a cork tree smelling clovers, because he didn't want to fight. 


I fell in love with Satch's earnestness. A little bit naughty, equal parts stubborn and curious, willing to try almost everything I asked of him*.

(*Except group riding classes in a ring)



With Satch, horses became my sanctuary, my reason to exit stage left when the drama of high school amped up, pull on my boots and shovel some grounding shit. Satch and his equine companions Star and Bailey were my ego-crushing, esteem-building, all-encompassing world for four years. We raced around cornfields, went midnight riding with boys, jumped over homemade cinderblock and PVC obstacles, competed, trailered up into the Catskills and as far as south as Tennessee. On hot summer days, I dragged Satch over to his pasture fence and used its rails to climb on his bare back in my bikini with a dog-eared novel. Sometimes I read on his sun-warmed back for hours while he grazed; sometimes he promptly tossed me off under the silver maples and then looked at me like, what?!


When I left for Cornell, my dad and siblings did a winter of feeding/watering and turnout, and then with  my impending departure to work in a Romanian orphanage, with my blessing, we agreed it would be best if they sold the horses.

Satch was sold with his buddy Bailey, a then twenty-something Thoroughbred/Clydesdale buckskin dinosaur that belonged to my father.  He went to a girl who was me, four years earlier, who needed a horse like Satch, a girl with time and devotion and ambition.

I went on to work with horses in the Caribbean, Spain and the Rockies. And while Satch was my exasperating, honest first love, it never occurred to me to look him up.

Until now.


Last week, I found an ISO Facebook group for people in the PA/NJ/DE looking for horses they have lost. You bet your lucky horseshoe I joined it.

I hauled boxes of old photos out of the basement during the recent snowstorm, the kids leaning over my shoulder and screeching in horror at our high-waisted stonewashed jeans, marveling how Epcot looks exactly the same as when their aunt was a baby (on a leash!), exclaiming over my mom's owl glasses, their grandfather's short-shorts, my feathered hair and a misguided stint into platinum blonde, their dad's boyhood curls/choir robe, and my untweezed eyebrows. [Hayden: Mom, if we EVER get stranded on a desert island, and we don't have tweezers, I'm going to make you some, because I cannot live with those caterpillars!]

With my trainer's wisdom that I should be prepared for whatever I learned, I posted these photos and this:

Trying to track down my childhood OTTB. We lost his jockeyclub records and tattoo number in a house fire so I don't even have those--I'm aware that this is a long shot. His barn name is Satch/Satchmo, he's 16.2, dark bay, no white on face, trace of white above both right hooves. He would be the ripe old age of 27 now. Purchased from my home in 1995 when I went to college. Earnest, affectionate personality, loved jumping and trails. I'd love any leads or stories from his life. Thank you!"

I know a twenty-year-old quest for a dark bay OTTB without his jockey club registry is like trying to find a seven-year-old girl who doesn't have a stash of rainbow loom rubber bands and pony club chapter books under her bed.

People in the group wished me well, and agreed that his kind eyes made the quest worthwhile. I whipped out my phone at every alert, but no leads.

And then I remembered: my mother saves EVERYTHING. Every receipt, every canceled check, every scrawled note. BLESS HER HEART -- I climbed into the stacks over her desk, where there are literally dozens of meticulously labeled three-ring-binders and found it within five minutes: the canceled check with the name of the woman who purchased Satch twenty years ago. The woman's last name rang a bell--wasn't this the name of the local farm where Piper's classmates ride?

A speedy internet search confirmed the woman who purchased Satch is part of a multi-generational family-run-farm fifteen minutes from my house.

The email has been sent, with photos and as many details as I can spare. Hoping. For another lead. For a story from his life, to introduce him to my family... or anything.

Stay tuned.



1 January 2015 -- unfinished business

basement stairs, work in progress

A little less than a year ago, I started a beat-the-winter-blues project of painting our plain wooden basement stairs. I picked tangerine, colbalt, turquoise and cream, colors you might find on Scandinavian folk art ponies. Cheerful colors. I did a combination of freehand and stencil, with my phone on speaker, passing the time chatting with my dad as I went. Somewhere between the third and fourth step was March 28, the day my dad did not call for the Morning Report.


After that, I stopped painting the stairs.

Every time I go down to shake my sleepy new teenager awake, fetch a roll of paper towel or some spare hockey equipment, I see this half-finished project, and it drives me bonkers. So I doggedly move -finish basement stairs- from 'To Do' list to 'To Do' list each week, but the prospect of sitting there painting without my dad's virtual company is too much.


When I look around, I see dozens of half-completed projects from this year. Most recently, the Christmas eve pajamas I was sewing for the guys in my life sit in a flannel jumble, waiting for hems and elastic, right next to the school pants that need a button and the jeans that need hemming. There are my dad's old clothes that I mean to sew into something memorable for my siblings and half-siblings. Come to think of it, I meant to do the same with textiles of my grandmother's, and Cherry's too.

My studio looks like the fallout from a paper airplane dogfight. My laptop and phone both teeter on the precipice of electronic disaster, waiting for me to back things up. And don't get me started on what's going on in my iPhoto, my dropbox, and the junk drawers in my kitchen.


On this blog alone, I have seventeen unfinished posts from the last year. There are those celebrating my boys' transitions to teendom and double digits. Ones about my full-circle return to horses (after a fifteen-year-hiatus, they are back in my daily life), and literature, (via my teaching position at Bryn Athyn College). I wrote one celebrating Piper overcoming her accident last summer and continuing to ride horses, compete, and win. I have several love song posts--poetic tributes to my husband, our beloved Hoffmans Happy Hens, and El Presidente, the feral fat cat we acquired from my dad in April. And of course, I have my attempts at probing into the pain of losing my father--a blog post called Mixed Nuts, with his famous holiday nut recipe, and photos of me unintentionally doing my best grumpy cat, sulking in the back of family gatherings, aching with the gaping lack of his presence.

And then there's one addressing the mentally-unstable woman who mined my old blog posts, and used information gathered there to attack the foundation of our family. (For the record, she didn't even chink our outer walls.) But the experience definitely made me pause before hitting Submit, time and time again, questioning how much of myself I was willing to put out there.

On my laptop's writing files, I have the unfinished manuscript of Wellspring, which went out as a partial this past summer to a very short list of editors. Most of them asked to see it finished, and instead I walked away from it.

And I have the outline of the new story I dreamed that is so close to my heart, so tender and important I'm not even going to share the gist of it or working title. It feels so critical and lovely I remain a little paralyzed at the start gate, hoping my skill is up to the task of its telling.

But 2015 is a blank page, waiting for that story to be written, for my loose ends to find their loopy mates and be coaxed into sloppy, finished bows.

So this year, I resolve to finish the things I have started. No more excuses--oh my Dad died, my husband travels more than he is home, I started a teaching job, I'm riding/working at the barn, my kids play on all these hockey teams and we have practice in New Jersey three nights a week and league games in Long Island, and I have to be home in time to let the chickens in,  and, and, and --BASTA. No more. If I truly want to honor the memory of the man we all miss so keenly, then I resolve to live his motto, and carp them diems.

 * *** *

 How about you? What are your resolutions for the new year?

Christmas Eve, wearing the bracelet, holding on to my figurative daggerboard, and looking ahead to smoother sailing.