Back to the New Normal

Blooming Epiphyllium Cacti

5 a.m. Tuesday.

The “nanny” watch buzzed on my wrist earlier. “Time to stand up!”

It must still be on UK time.

I guess I am still on Cornwall time.

It was a magical trip. (I think I wrote that already.)

From now on, Land’s End, The Lizard, Tintagel… will always be a part of me.

It is cold. 58 inside. 42 out. The phone says it is 34 in Frederick. Must be colder down in the valley.

I had a bit of concern for all the plants I’ve taken out since I got back. It would be a shame if any froze after I maintained them all winter.

Two of the epiphyllum cacti are in bloom.

Blooming Epiphyllium Cacti

I inherited them from Barbara Mertz. I’ve propagated a number of these and have given some away.

They look kind of ragged. But some sun and fertilizer will have them filling out and greening up soon.

Barbara… It is ten years since she passed. I still miss her almost every day. This weekend, I’m going to Malice Domestic. She will be honored yet again at that fan convention. I have to dress up, as I’ll be seated with her family at the banquet.

Life has changed so much in the past decade. Good and bad. Life has gotten much bigger in some ways. Smaller in others.

4 or 5 amaryllis that wintered over inside are sending up blossom stalks. I suppose that is reason enough to haul them in and out every year.

It is good to reclaim parts of the house I haven’t seen since last fall. Soon I’ll be able to lay down the handmade carpets I got in Turkey.

Now I need to start arranging the potted plants for the summer. Every time I go to the door, I am carrying a potted plant. Some are so heavy. I use wooden wine crates as “plant stands.” They create two tiers. And it is recycling… repurposing, so I don’t care that they look a bit… rustic.

So much is in motion. Winter things must be put away, so summer is able to come out to play.

(I wrote a poem about it. I’ll spare you and append it to the end.)

There’s little time for relaxing and inspecting the garden beds. I bought 30 bags of composted soil yesterday. I emptied about half of them into the new beds I made this winter. Odd, how the flattish stones echoed stone walls that are everywhere in Cornwall.

Cornwall-Like Garden

I wonder if I had some kind of memory, an ancient link, that guided my hands? More likely coincidence.

I’m babysitting the big dog, Giles, in thanks for having Merry and Pip watched while I was away. He was a good companion last night. Nice and warm, he pressed gently against me. I don’t think he moved. He’s a mammalian hot water bottle.

Monday was crazy. Suddenly, I am swept up in healthcare appointments. Crazy. I went in two weeks ago for a routine evaluation, and now I’m wearing a monitor for a week and having tests and blood drawn. No symptoms. Of course, I think the worst and worry that the horizon is closing in rapidly. If it causes me to clean up my act some, that is a good thing.

Yesterday, I canceled the trip to New York. Now I have appointments. It would have been too much. Plus, there are people I just don’t want to be around. There are friends I’d like to see. I’d like to go to the Morgan Library. But the city still has “COVID” in my mind. So many bad memories of those early days of fear and uncertainty. And now I read that the Waldorf may not be ready until 2025—or later.

I went to the grocery store yesterday. Wegmans, that upscale vast teasing place where everything looks so wonderful and desirable. I’m going on a health trajectory (vide above.) Sparkling water. Near zero calorie salsas. Heads of Romaine. I bought a small loaf of hard bread to dip in the olive oil I imported from Lecce, Italy. I guess that is kind of healthy—in moderation.

I just let the dogs out. I took out a plant with each trip. My big floppy wool socks went out as well. Big holes in the toes. I’ll compost them under some lilies. The earthworms will have them back into earth before too long.

Last night, I blew off the drive and landings and decks. They were covered in winter debris as well as 100,000s maple helicopter seeds. The sun is rising—peeking between the trees and amongst the greening leaves not fully filled out.

Most of the daffodils are gone. They left early this year. Only the Pheasant Eye variety remains. Now come the bleeding hearts. (There’s a near hedge of them about ten feet from the steps I walk down every morning.) Huge! Columbine. Ferns are unfurling their croziers. Hostas are sending twists from the earth then opening their giant leaves.

I’m glad I’m not going away. There’s so much to see and do here. I’ve been away so much this year. I’ve seen (and discovered) so many great books since last fall at Oxford where I saw so many unbelievable treasures. The New York show would be anticlimactic in some ways.

So much. So much. So much…

Where to start?

Where did I leave off?


Friday was the last day. We would drive from St Ives to Heathrow with some stops on the way. Duncan would pick us up at 9. I had my last “English Breakfast.” I eschewed the huge melange that traditionally has beans, grilled tomato, black and white pudding…

“Two eggs turned over and two slices of bacon.” I made my own toast—running the brown bread through the conveyor toaster twice. There was a language barrier on what to call the fried eggs. “Over easy” or “sunny side up” were met with blank stares. I never learned the proper Cornish terms. My loss.

Last English Breakfast

I’ve never found English bacon in the States. I should look into importing it.

Everyone everywhere was unvaryingly genuinely warm and cheery in Cornwall. I hope some of it rubbed off.

“Good morning!”

I’m pretty sure our room—an odd set up: small bedroom, smaller bedroom, tiny bathroom all in a line above the rocky coast just a few feet below—had once been a fisherman’s hut or something similar. The path wound down from the modern main level via several sets of stairs. The final steps to #17 were carpeted but were very uneven. A couple were much taller than the others. I guessed they were stone—old stone—underneath. But it was one of the most memorable rooms I’ve ever stayed in. Certainly not fancy. The waves from the Celtic Sea crashing on rocks just below the windows and the view out to the distant lighthouse will stay with me.

Up, up, up steps and a winding hallway to the main level, which must have been built on top of something much older. Out and up more steps to the upper street, where we were to meet Duncan.

The first stop was Godrevy Lighthouse—the same lighthouse that was on view in the distance from St Ives. I’d watched the sun rise above it earlier that morning. Virginia Woolf visited here and used this as the model for her 1927 novel.

Godrevy Lighthouse

From there, Duncan drove us past towns like Gwithian, Portreath, Perranporth and Newquay (pronounced “newkie.”) There’s poetry in the land for certain.

Our next stop was another grand country estate—Lanhydrock. It was another cool brilliant blue-skied day. I had chosen, serendipitously, a wonderful time to visit Cornwall. Rhododendrons were in full bloom, as were many other spring flowers. There was a self-guided tour through the mansion, and photos were permitted. My favorite was, of course, the library.

Through the leaded windows, the formal gardens were on display, albeit distorted.

Lanhydrock Garden

I saw many amazing varieties of tulips in the various gardens we visited. They almost made me wish I could plant them. Sadly, while daffodils are not edible, tulip bulbs are delicious to deer, squirrels…

They had a charity used bookshop in part of the carriage house. There was an “honesty box” to collect money. It made me think of some of the untended old book barns in the Maryland countryside where you would put money in a jar or through a slot in a metal box. It was so long ago… a different era.

From there, Duncan volunteered to take us down to Fowey Hall—the long time home of Daphne du Maurier—but what he wanted to show us was “Toad Hall.”

Fowey Hall

Hmmm… what do you think?

One last stop on the way back to Heathrow was the Jamaica Inn. It is now a touristy stop just off the A 30 with a hotel and cafeteria and gift shop and wax figures from the novel (or movie.) But it still has the bones of its history as a smugglers’ den. And the pub retains an ancient feel. There’s a du Maurier “museum” but I had a cask ale instead.

Then we settled in for the 6-hour drive to the airport. Stonehenge is just off the highway, so I got to see it after all. I’ve never gone to Heathrow from the outside before. It is a very dystopian place. You have to pay about $400 in taxes just to land there—by far the most expensive airport in the world. I’m not sure why unless it is because they “can” charge that much. There were electric signs giving notice that there is now a 5 pound charge to “drop” someone off there. Duncan had trouble finding the new Hilton that was semi-attached to Terminals 2 & 3. My son helped with his phone, and eventually, we were guided through warren-like passages and roundabouts to a brand-new, dreary slate-gray, apparently windowless edifice that looked from the outside like something from Blade Runner. There, we said goodbye to Duncan. I wanted to tip him in cash, but my money was no good. Really. The bills I had from pre-COVID were obsolete. We could supposedly exchange them at a bank, but there aren’t many banks left in Cornwall. Odd, I’m sure I spent some in London and Oxford last fall. Well, I’ll just have to go back.

Duncan and Tour Cornwall did a magnificent job. My son did as well. He chose the hotels and some of the itinerary that he knew I would like to see. Duncan did a great deal of research seeking out literary connections. He was surprised we weren’t interested in Doc Martin or Poldark sites. Apparently, they’re very popular with tourists. I’ve never watched either. Perhaps I should. He worked incredibly hard. Incredibly. I felt sorry that they had to drive all those hours back to Cornwall.

All the hundreds of miles on narrow lanes, ancient walled hedgerows looming above a couple feet away on either side—it was wonderful.

I bought some Harrods English Breakfast tea in the airport to refill the vintage “look” tin I’d bought on some trip. The flight back was smooth. Regretfully, I wasn’t inspired to write much during my enforced confinement. I binge watched Back to the Future 1, 2 and 3. They were fun and hearkened back to a different, more innocent, era.

It was good to get back into my own bed on Saturday night.

It is Thursday. Early. The day is just a dim glimmer on the horizon. But birds brighten the morning twilight with their songs already. Blue jays arrived this week. Their formal attire belies their rowdy ways and raucous cries. They’ll crack sunflower seeds all day on the porch roof below my windows.

Quite a different week back here in Maryland. No ocean roar or ancient sites.

Sunday was books.

Carts and carts laden with books, herded together, awaiting my attention.

I spent the day seated on a stool, so I could face the titles straight on, my nose only a foot or so away. I removed the good ones and set them in boxes for the stores or in yellow plastic tubs for Madeline and Annika to research. Most slipped out easily, grasped between fingers and thumb. Some, too heavy, were two-handed books. One side finished, I would spin the cart around and start on the other. When that cart was done, my thighs pulled me to rise. I slipped a slip of bright goldenrod paper under a book on top. “BBTF” it read. It will be pushed northwards where unwanted books will be salvaged by Books by the Foot. I pulled or pushed or struggled the next cart into place and sat myself before it.

“What’s this?”

An old clamshell case with leather labels on the spine.

“Common Prayer. 1727,” one label read.

“English Binding,” said the other.

Why spend so much to protect such a thing? Common Prayer books are common. This one wasn’t that old. Often I find them in pieces.

I lifted the lid and golden light poured out. Was it a “cottage binding”?

Common Prayer 1727

And the pages were red lined… “ruled in red.”

Common Prayer 1727

“Ahhhh…” A masterful binding done by hands nearly 300 years ago. A precious nugget found among the flotsam and jetsam.

I smiled at the find, the “rescue”, and set it aside.

Good work. It would have been lost forever—oblivion—had it not come here—the factory I’ve invented with the help of many wonderful people over decades.

So the day went. I finished after five and went home spent. It felt like 11 or 12. I was on English time still.

Monday, I got caught up on paperwork and then headed for the doctor’s to get a monitor put on for a week. Then to the lab to have blood drawn for two doctors. Then to Lowes for 30 bags of composted soil to fill the new gardens. The grocery… The day was eaten up by errands. It was a relief to go home and play in the garden. The bags had gotten wet and were heavy—maybe 60 pounds each. I set them in the beds over the rock walls and sliced them open with a box cutter. There’s so much to do. I need to transplant more bleeding hearts—white and pink, redbuds, ostrich fern, lungwort, hellebore, trillium…

It is hard, but like books, it is good work—satisfying.

I was motivated and went through boxes of old papers seated on a pillow on the floor in the “Great Room.” Much of it is stuff from the era of the “Move” and the couple years of recovery and settling in after.

There were some good times followed by terrible times followed by weird times followed by COVID…

Tuesday, I treated myself to Southern States. It is a throwback institution in Frederick, unchanged by the boom that has happened around it. It still caters to real farmers and horse people, but its clientele now also includes gardeners and pet people. The cages with the baby chicks and ducklings all had “sold” signs taped to the glass. COVID had more people growing their own food. Raising poultry has continued. Maybe the price of eggs has something to do with it. I was there for tomato and pepper plants. The market packs are up to nearly $5! I picked out mostly single plants for the warehouse gardens. I also bought a 5-pound bag of seed potatoes. Why? I don’t know. Seemed like a good idea at the time. I have a garden bed designed for vegetables on the mountain. It has lain fallow for some years as the food plants do so much better at the warehouse. There is so much sun there.

When I got back to the warehouse, I checked in with Annika to see if she had found anything exciting.

“Not really…”

On the way out, I glanced at one of the carts she had created for people in data entry who have special training to put “better” books online. I recognized the big fat Borges’ Obras Completas (Complete Works.) There was a “Signed” slip sticking out the top of it?

Borges' Obras Completas


I never thought to look… one of my favorite authors touched this—old and blind. What is it with blind writers?

I’m glad Annika found it.

Borges' Obras Completas

When I got home that night, I carried out the rest of the potted plants. Well, the upstairs ones. I haven’t started on those downstairs.

5 a.m. Friday

The early dark morning is a very contemplative time.

The last couple of weeks have been strange—stranger than most. A new leitmotif appeared and has dominated the symphony of my life. It might go away. I’ll find out more later today when I consult my new doctor after lunch. Suffice it to say that I’m learning more about myself than I knew before. Most of the information comes from my new constant companion, the Apple Watch Series 8 on my wrist. It records much of my life that I knew was going on but took for granted. Blissfully ignorant. Heart rate, sleep (REM, Core, Deep), Active Energy (“You burned more calories yesterday than the day before.” 619 vs. 461…) The watch transfers all the data to my longtime companion—the iPhone. I can take EKGs with my watch. (All normal for two weeks.)

The watch just buzzed. “Time to Stand.” During the day, it will occasionally vibrate and tell where I am with my daily activity goals. (I didn’t program any goals.) “You’re 300% over your goals for the day” (for different kinds of activity.) I’ve got to figure out how to turn that off.

No longer are “steps” the only thing I check out regularly.

My new nanny.

I feel great. I have changed some things for the better. Will I maintain them? I think so.

Scared straight.


Where do I go from here?

Venice. Sometime in May… LOL.

What should I do differently?


I meet with the lawyer at 10. The second warehouse building has a lease to review. If it goes through, both buildings will be fully leased before they are completed.


This week another giant crane is on site. It is reaching over the fence to my dockyard and lifting roofing materials that we stored there since early last year. Up, up, up. It swings them over and sets them on the roof of the new building. Men in DayGlo-yellow vests unstrap the block and tackle type straps. There must be a dozen or more up there—45 feet off the ground.

Construction Crane

I don’t like heights. The huge sheer cliffs above the sea in Cornwall? I stayed back a few feet.

Cornwall… A week ago, I was in another world and time.

Mid spring. It will rain all day. Cold mornings. The heater in the car is turned on. Warm afternoons. The drive home has air conditioning.

Last evening, I unloaded another pickup load of bagged soil. I hope my watch—it tells time too—approved of the workout.

Unbagged Soil

I sliced the bags open and spread the soil out.

A new garden bed. A blank canvas. What shall I paint? I’ll get out my palette. (Not “pallet”—the wooden things we move books around on. Or “palate”—how I love good food and drink… in moderation.)

Wednesday evening, I split and stacked all the firewood remaining in the barn.

Stacked Firewood

It’s been a couple of years since the gravel floor of the building has been clear. I’ll cut and stack more wood in the coming months. It is a contemplative thing to do. The wood will warm me a second time in the iron stove for a couple of winters.

Putting things away.

Order out of chaos.


The watch just buzzed on my wrist. “Time to Start Your Day?”

I’ve got to turn that feature off.

Oh! We made The New York Times today.

“Go Ahead, Judge This Book by Its Cover…”

Of course, it is just a few lines about Books by the Foot. BBTF is only about 10% of our business, but it looks like it will be my “legacy.” LOL…

I’ll try to get a print copy for next week’s story.

My doctor said all my tests were normal! The a fib was likely an anomaly after I was injected with a stimulant.

But he wants me to…

Putting Winter Away

Spring rushed in
It is flying by
Brilliant colors fleeting
as flowers come and go

But winter lingers
Here and over there
A scarf and gloves
set aside one icy day

Blankets are folded
and put on a shelf
Boots and coats
are closeted away

Wood fire ashes
spread on the garden
Logs stacked high
for months to dry

The potted plants
are trekked outdoors
There to face
warm sun and summer

Putting winter away
its heaviness behind
Then calling to summer
“Come out and play”

4 Comments on Article

  1. Gregory commented on

    Nice blogpost, Chuck. Cornwall sounds wonderful. I have three comments.

    First, I’m concerned about all this compost—30 X 50 or 60 lbs???? Are you really unloading all that yourself? Please be careful, or get someone to help you. You don’t want to keep doing heavy lifting until something snaps and you then discover that it’s too much. I’ve tried to cut back on the heaviest loads I used to handle, to head off disaster before it happens (not always successfully).

    Second, I don’t think your iPhone will have any clue about your carrying plants or bags of compost, so it will sadly undercount your calories. I have been telling myself this ever since I started to check those things. Even “stairs” (climbing hills, etc.) seem to be undercounted.

    Third, you can still find honesty boxes (though not usually called that) in farm stands around New England. People put out their produce or eggs, and you pop money into a box. Indeed, some serious farms sell cheese from refrigerators and meat from freezers in a purely self-serve manner, and you leave a check in the box with the exact amount. I guess people are honest enough for it to work.

    Thanks for an interesting post!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks Gregory.
      All excellent comments.
      I avoid “crazy” lifting. But I still enjoy “work”.
      Logs, mulch, plants, books …
      Yes. we have some farm stands that rely on honest patrons.

      I appreciate your writing and commenting!

  2. Dave Raedy commented on

    I found my way here via that nytimes article — what a welcome surprise that the Wonder Book mentioned is in fact the same, but apparently greatly expanded, Wonder Book I spent so many hours in as a teenager in Frederick in the 80s. (And what a good idea to rescue those otherwise discardable books by selling them by the yard…). Looking at my bookshelves, the first two random ones I see are books I bought from you at the Route 40 location — War and Peace still has a “Wonder Book And Video, 1306 W Patrick St” bookmark in it, and I doubt I would have to look far to find a “Book Alcove” bookmark. So many books I’ve lugged across the country and back for decades. Congratulations on such a remarkable run so far! That mention in the nytimes is certainly *not* your legacy!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      I am so happy you saw that article!
      Wonder Book survived the bookstore purges of the late 90s and early 2000s by embracing internet sales and growing rather than contracting. I think 98% of the bookshops in the DC region went dark in those years
      It has certainly been quite a journey.
      The blog is searchable and if you have interest you can find how wonder Book “rescued” Book Alcove among other stories.
      (There has been a new story every Friday since July 2017!)
      Your name looks familiar and I bet I waited on you as I worked the counter in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s.
      Thank you so much for reading the stories and writing!

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