I know exactly nothing about Buddhism, but my friend Jill does. That’s her beautiful daughter in the photo up there, standing next to former American Ballet Theatre principal ballerina Julie Kent, perhaps a little star struck. Dukkha, she explained, is the Buddhist concept of suffering, with an asterisk: it’s thought to have been mistranslated as actual suffering, when what it really means is thinking you’re suffering when you’re only inconvenienced or slightly unsatisfied. Like getting the grocery cart with the bockety wheel on it, and now you’ll spend the next half hour fighting the grocery cart around the store.
Annoying, perhaps, but suffering? You still have the privilege of browsing well stocked shelves of food which you will buy and then go home and enjoy, a privilege most Americans take for granted, anyway. You probably won’t spend too much time worrying about whether you’ve gotten the nutrients you needed today, while somewhere on the globe there’s no clean water to drink.
The Buddhists, Jill went on, maintain we add ‘extra’ to our dukkha by imagining our lives would finally be perfect if only we could accomplish <missing thing>. We’ve all experienced this, haven’t we?
In fact I’ve honed it to a lustrous sheen over the last five years of transition. There were plenty of sleepless nights at first, and no small amount of hand wringing and nail biting and wondering what would happen if and when the bank account was empty: these are the things that spawn action. There was genuine anguish to be sure, but probably never actual suffering. And my own landscape now is downright pastoral by comparison, a green hill dotted by black-faced sheep, and the occasional bockety wheel to keep me honest.
Seems that beautiful little ballerina up there, my erstwhile Knoxville Ballet School student, is North Carolina bound, finally getting her wish to enroll in full-time residential ballet school. I could not be happier nor prouder. It’s no small thing: Celia sailed over the talent hurdle, clearing it easily, the academic one a mere formality (quoting my beloved mentor: you can’t be dumb and dance). She has leapt into the world of pre-professional ballet training: the rest is up to her.
Hat tip to her devoted parents, who are moving heaven and earth (and experiencing no small amount of dukkha) to make this happen for their daughter, who by all accounts is giddy, as anybody in those pointe shoes would be.
Her mom explained the ‘extra’ she’s added to her own dukkha in all this is wishing she and her family had moved from Tennessee to North Carolina a few years ago, when they were actually considering it. But because this is an exercise in futility, she continued, she’s moving past it. She went on to list all the positives of this exciting new development, bockety wheels be damned.
There is food in the pantry and a dog dreaming on the floor—in Tennessee and in Vermont—and soon a Knoxville girl will enjoy complete classical ballet immersion in North Carolina: that’s close enough to paradise.
About a year or so ago my sister-in-law back ‘home’ in Tennessee observed an endearing habit in my brother. From an adjoining room she could hear him plunking out something on a computer keyboard. Only he was not typing the way somebody, you know, normal, would: his technique was more like firing off a weapon with each keystroke, with a final cannon shot for each period: pow! pow! pow! BOOM! It made her giggle.
Yep, I said, it comes from dad. I don’t know how I know this: I don’t have an explicit memory of dad typing this way, but he must’ve at some point. He has hands you could describe as athletic, I think, long, muscular digits with rounded fingertips. My brother has the same hands, and so do I. And not long after my sister-in-law observed my brother’s explosive typing habit, I realized I possess precisely the same disposition when it comes to typing. Nature or nurture—who knows? It’s clear the proverbial apples did not fall far from the tree.
I’m hard on keyboards, but I figure that falls comfortably and justifiably within the domain of a writer. I’m already on my second one in a tenure just under three years at the digital marketing agency where I work, which is also where I confirmed the typing technique lineage I already suspected: on a quiet afternoon (you could hear a pin drop) I realized the loudest noise in our becubicled open space was the sound coming from my fingertips. Bam-bam-bam-bam-BAM-bam-bam-bam! Over time I also realized the most percussive keystrokes occurred when I was trying hard to make a point—in a piece of correspondence, in content I was writing for a client, even in mere frustration after making the same stupid typo three times in a row—CAPITAL G, dammit! Pow! Somehow banging the keyboard extra hard seems meaningful and necessary, or cathartic at least. Maybe it’s simply passive aggression, I don’t know.
The reader can discern no proof of emphatic typing at the other end of an email, nor can the e-commerce consumer parsing through a product description or blog post. Once upon a time, gentle reader, the typewritten page might indeed have revealed the vigor of a keystroke, with inky letters imprinted deeply on a fibrous page like some ancient rune in bas relief. You could flip the page over and feel the words through the other side; I remember this phenomenon from any number of prep school papers I churned out in my youth.
The Anthropology Department at the University of Tennessee lies within the bowels of Neyland Stadium, in a long, curvilinear corridor that follows the exact contours of the stadium itself. It was still the men’s athletic dorm when my dad was a student there in the 1960s; the tiny dorm rooms were later pressed into service as anthropology professors’ offices, classrooms, and even laboratories. On any fall weekday afternoon during class one could hear the muted sounds of the Pride of the Southland Marching Band practicing on the field above
When I was clocking countless hours as an anthropology major there in the 1990s (and even a few a bit later as a graduate student in city planning), one could also hear the telltale percussive strikes of a manual typewriter issuing forth from a particular office filled to the brim with books, journals, files, and stacks upon stacks of papers: the beloved professor and mentor who sat behind the old desk in that office stubbornly refused to transition to the digital age when most of his colleagues had long abandoned the analog world (more recently he has relented)—I found this tenacity one of his most endearing habits among many when I was his student. That loud clackety-clack-clack reverberating through the department was reassuring: Dr. Faulkner is in the house.
I can’t say I miss the typewriter, however romantic it may seem as viewed through the lens of nostalgia, at least not in the way I sometimes miss the old-fashioned vinyl LPs that digital music plowed under decades ago. I could easily hop back on that bandwagon, as others have. But the typewriter’s limitations are simply too dramatic as held up against the word processor, and that gap widens all the time. I’d even wager our advancing digital devices may hasten our evolution as a species, outpacing any decent interval Darwin himself could have imagined (it’s a shaky assertion, I know).
Underscoring an important point—in the era of the typewriter and now—demands a classical command of the language, though, with judicious use of italics or bold-face type thrown in for good measure: doesn’t make a difference how hard you bang out your thoughts on the keyboard, as I am doing now. Either you know how to express them on ‘paper,’ or you don’t.
My devices at home are failing. My old Gateway laptop I procured just after I came to Vermont in 2012 is falling apart a piece at a time: it has given me almost five years of excellent service, and I paid nothing for it—old credit card thank-you points stepped in during a crisis, no complaints here. Back in the winter I bought a wireless mouse to make working from home a little easier (lots of tabs open at once, lots of clicking back and forth between them, but without the luxury of the two large desktop monitors I have at the office). And after I made that leap, my laptop mouse pad quietly died, almost as if it had withered from neglect before finally giving up. I felt a little bad about that.
More recently I realized the keyboard itself was on its last leg when the spring under the space bar broke on one end (the end that bears a visible thumb-shaped dip in the black plastic); the action on the other end remained intact, forcing me somehow into another quadrant of my brain when I typed. It was an awkward transition at best, but I made it work. A couple of other keys—important ones—threatened to fail, too: one simply cannot live without the commanding and affirming delete, backspace, and enter keys. And then last weekend the space bar finally gave up the ghost completely. I could lightly tap it and it still responded, sort of, but I worried it might decide to just keep on going when I touched it, reducing my writing to infinite empty space and no way to stop it. (In space, no one can hear you scream.) So I found a wireless keyboard to use for the time being, until I have time to browse for the perfect replacement laptop. This means my laptop is now effectively a desktop: I’m tethered to my desk if I want to write, just like I was in the analog age. (And anyway, my battery’s shot, too: I must stay plugged in all the time now.)
My shiny, new wireless keyboard is compact but fully loaded; I kicked the tires when I was looking, and the ad suggested it was made for people like me, slackers trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip. I paid almost nothing for it, which makes it sweeter still, of course. I think this proclivity to keep on going with the same old equipment fairly aligns me with my beloved anthropology professor.
Best of all, though, the keys are springy and loud, almost like an old typewriter keyboard—a very smart typewriter. BOOM! Anything for a good literary device.
Live your life, live your life, live your life.—Maurice Sendak
It’s Mother’s Day, a Hallmark-y holiday. Flowers will be dispensed, brunches eaten, and everywhere priests will stand at the pulpit and spin out sermons on the importance of mothers for the umpteenth time; they’ll repeat them next month but insert the word “fathers.”
I had a call from my twenty-something man-child early, early this morning—a video chat, because that’s how it’s done these days. He couldn’t sleep last night, he said. He is carless at the moment, and so he had spent hours looking at ads on craigslist. He was so tired he could lick the walls, he told me, but still could not fall asleep this morning. I said I had no idea what that expression means and we both giggled. And anyway, he went on, if I fall asleep now I’ll be wide awake at ten tonight. It’s no good. I just need to go find food.
Off you go, then, I told him.
Happy mother’s day—I love you, he said.
We’ll probably chat a couple more times before the day is over, unless he sleeps it away.
We are thick as thieves in spite of some mountains and valleys between us. He has figured out with impressive exactitude the instant I’m likely to pull into the driveway on weekdays—it’s almost like he can sense it somehow, even when my schedule is a little off. The phone on the passenger seat next to me lights up and chirps its familiar chirp, the one that says Hey-from-a-thousand-miles, pick up already.
And we are thick as thieves now in spite of the uncertain landscape five years ago, when I lived alone for a final difficult year in our big, old, Tudor Revival-style house in Knoxville, the house where he grew up, and where our family was coming unglued before our eyes. When the new world order emerged at the start of that year, I explained to my then-teenager he needed to go and live with his dad in a neighborhood just down the road, for so many complicated reasons: I tried to make them clear. It was late, I was tucked into bed (still on my side of it, the other side only recently empty); he was sitting cross-legged at the foot of it practically on my feet, like he might have done when he was five. We had a hard conversation.
During those long, empty nights the Blackberry sometimes chirped on my nightstand and often at odd hours. It was never bad news, just a heads up at an inappropriate moment: hey mom, I’m coming over to the house to get <thing>. <Person> is with me, but he’ll wait in the car so the dog won’t freak out.
Soon the car—his late grandparents’ Caddy that was his for the time being—would idle in the driveway just below the master bedroom window, and not long after I’d smell the stink, the secondhand tobacco smoke he now carried around with him on his clothing and person, and hear the death-rattle cough in a kid too young to sound so old. No telling where he had been nor where he was going in the late-night or pre-dawn hours. There was so much profound sadness wrapped up in these occasions I can still feel it now. (And I will forever associate the Blackberry ringtone with it.)
A few years earlier there was still a palpable tether between us. MOM! came crackling from a high-again low-again adolescent male voice, often followed by Where is my—, more a demand than a question.
And before that: Mommy! I need—, always delivered with a sense of urgency. I could not have imagined a time would come when I’d simply have to give in to worry and grief about the life choices this child was making; I could feel my bones beginning to age.
A day many years earlier found me sitting comfortably cross-legged on the floor with a toddler in my lap, in a playroom loft that would delight any child—a long, narrow, cocoon-like room with sloping cornmeal yellow walls meeting its flat ceiling, walls that follow the contours of the steeply pitched roof on the other side of it, a room warmed by the radiant heat in the slate roof tiles, a Hobbit-like space proportioned and cheerfully outfitted for a little person. The toddler surveys the raised highway we’ve built from an exquisite wood block set my Uncle Stan sent us, Matchbox cars in mid-commute, a few highway tragedies piled below it, while across town some cars are parked in front of the ice cream parlor, blissfully unaware of the carnage.
Our minuscule village is awash in the dappled sunlight filtering through tall trees just outside the big window on the gable end of the house. The toddler has a pacifier in his mouth—a “binky,” which he’s sucking furiously—loudly—deep in thought with furrowed brow, clutching a second binky in his tiny toddler hand which is lifted to rub against the tip of his nose. It is an endearing habit he will retain for a long time. If one of three big dogs happens to saunter through the room and upset the highway, the toddler will bellow gleefully at the calamity.
Meanwhile he tumbles out of my lap to improve some bit of highway infrastructure, muttering an observation through the binky still held tightly in his teeth in language sometimes only I can understand. Standing in the checkout line of a big box retailer a cheeky old woman will soon lecture me about allowing the little boy on my hip to suck on one of those things, they’re terrible for teeth, she should know, her husband’s a dentist. For once words will not escape me: I’ll square my shoulders and quip, Well you and he should be thankful for ignorant moms like me who send generations of business your way.
My child is clean-scrubbed; I’ve plunked him into a soapy bath for a half-hour of calming water play after his sticky, spinach-y lunch, which he was wearing on his face and in his hair a little earlier. Freshly dressed in a stretchy cotton outfit that smells of Dreft, he’ll sit in my lap again while I rock him in the sunny yellow bedroom three steps down from the Matchbox highway loft. Town improvements must wait until we’ve gone exploring with the Wild Things, supplying words for wordless pages—howling at the moon, swinging through the trees, tromping through the woods. There might be a nap set to sweet Celtic lullabies, but I know this child: he will fight sleep and probably win.
The irony of this does not escape me after our earlier conversation today. I was not “finished” with this young man when I left Tennessee for good. But I was also weary—nay, exhausted—and ineffective as a parent near the end: there were not enough restorative naps, for him or for me, to fix our big problems. I was powerless to put him in the tub, or to wash the stale cigarette smoke out of his skin and hair, or scrub the filth under his nails: he had to do it for himself, or not.
Parenting never ends. And sometimes I think I’ve been most effective as a long-distance mom: being available only at the end of an electronic device is a game changer, after all, and underscores the reality that I’m more than a door mat, or a lunch fixer, a changer of diapers, or a supplier of spare change, even though I have been all of those things and continue to be some of them. For too long these things defined most of me while I allowed what remained of me to languish. The day I opened the doors of my small ballet school in Knoxville a wise friend observed, Not a moment too soon. But really, that day actually came several years too late—putting my life on the back burner helped nobody.
The only piece of advice I ever give any new mom is simply this: being a good parent to your child is profoundly important, but never more important than being a good steward to yourself. We finally do what we can for our children, and sometimes that has to be enough.
Some forty years after its publication Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia is still considered a pivotal and authoritative piece of travel writing about this 400,000-square-mile South American region. Ferdinand Magellan called the tall aboriginals he encountered there Patagones after a mythic character, it is rumored, hence its name. Straddling two countries and claiming most of a vast mountain range, Patagonia is bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Atlantic to the east, and all but shakes Antarctica’s hand in its southernmost reaches; precisely where it begins in the north is arguable. My own ‘journey’ there began with a mammoth piece of content I’m writing for a client. But the very idea this delicious-sounding book existed prompted my off-the-clock quest for it.
That, together with a single glowing accomplishment: I managed to nudge my first-generation Kindle out of its long slumber, and after several hours’ worth of uploading no fewer than four system updates, finally pressed it into service once more. I like my old-style Kindle for its satisfying, clicky keyboard—the kind that talks back to you affirmingly—and for its Etch-A-Sketch-like screen that does not tire the eyes and overstimulate the brain at bedtime the way most devices these days do, so the experts say. I pat myself on the back any time I win a battle with technology: this one was measurable, rewarded by the instant, magical download of a new book.
In Patagonia is my favorite kind of writing, one thoughtful, descriptive essay after another, stitched together in a sensible way that takes the reader bumping right along for the ride across the arid steppe. Any gaps in Chatwin’s account he fills with ingenious turns of phrase and the quiet kind of humor that belongs to the English alone; stop paying attention for an instant and you’ll miss it. Chatwin is an exquisite storyteller and that is all, weaving illuminating bits of history throughout the 1970s landscape as he sketches it, staying true to his descriptive narrative style. It is a story we already know, of successful and failed European conquests, of aboriginal tribes whose temperaments vary from heroically savage to comically irreverent, of expats seeking freedom from persecution in the homeland. Europeans of questionable provenance insinuated themselves into this Patagonian landscape centuries ago as alleged princes and kings, so they claimed, bestowing fictional titles on the ‘Amerindian’ natives in exchange for land and wealth: you can convince any tribe of naked drunks to agree to a lopsided deal, went the thinking. Things never seem to work out precisely as one hopes they will; the natives have a way of skewering and roasting you on a spit when they come to and figure out what’s what.
I envy Chatwin’s excursion while my engine idles here in Vermont. Not that I have some unsated wanderlust: the idea of a Patagonia-style sojourn appeals, but I probably lack the constitution for it, to say nothing of the bank account. One thing is certain: my mood always hangs on the promise of what is coming, even if that is unclear. Lately ‘what is coming’ seems to be lollygagging along at an irksome pace, coming to a dead stop now and then to examine some inconsequential weed growing out of a sidewalk crack. (Even this spring’s arrival is maddeningly complicit in this plan, teasing us with minuscule bits of warm sunshine, but mainly handing us damp cold and grey days that linger like a tiresome dinner guest.) I need a trumpet fanfare, or at least some sign of progress where there is none, or so it seems.
Meanwhile, back in the tiny rental house at the end of a mountain road. Where the partial remains of two failed marriages collide with things that belong to someone else, the balance left to languish in storage. Where the kitchen counter doubles as a pantry. Where a single bathroom groans in protest every time a tap is opened. Where a timid dog retreats often to the security his cheerful yellow quilt-covered crate behind a sofa, a crate whose top doubles as an adjunct desk littered with receipts and file folders and Kleenex boxes and other objects—a broken antique sugar dish in a Ziploc bag (another casualty of too-tight quarters); a takeout menu from a local eatery; random USB cables; and a stack of newspapers eager to wrap and box precious possessions yet again. Nothing can be put in its place, for there is no place for the putting.
A thousand miles away from me a twenty-something also idles, waiting for his life to inch forward like Patagonia’s own Perito Moreno in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, the curious glacier that advances about six feet every day, calving building-sized icebergs into the water around it. Be patient, I urge, reminding him he could be doing things now to nudge his life forward, however glacial its pace seems to this restless young being.
I could heed my own advice in the place where I am treading water now, yearning for permanence and community and walls I don’t mind painting.
My friend Rebecca’s goat Darcy finally had her twins a couple of days ago. Rebecca, whose life and writing and cheese and food and photography are filled with so much inspired beauty. Were I a true Vermonter, I’d want to live like my friend Rebecca and her family, I think. But I believe that is called coveting thy neighbor’s oxen, if memory serves, and it surely applies to their goats, too (never mind that Rebecca and her family live a solid two hours from here: in these parts they still count as neighbors, and anyway I used to live much closer). But I will never achieve the ‘true Vermonter’ milestone measured any way you want to; my life is my life. I still draw inspiration from Rebecca, and from Darcy-the-Goat, who took her sweet time about kidding her twins, “chewing her cud like a bored receptionist chewing her gum,” wrote Rebecca. I think Chatwin and Rebecca must be related. Or maybe Darcy and the Natives.
Things never seem to work out the way one hopes they will, but they finally work out the way they must.
Spring comes to Vermont in fits and starts, coughing and sputtering like an old man in the morning. This year is no exception: the occasional raw, chilly day will spoil any ten-day outlook, just as the gnats do my early morning backyard excursions with Scout. What is the point of a trustworthy dog off leash, a condition that extends one the delicious privilege of a lingering walk with steaming coffee in hand, when one needs both hands to swat away the cloud? Just last week a faraway friend asked whether Vermont gets the black flies Maine has. Yes, but they pale in comparison to a little flesh-eating miscreant known as the deer fly, I opined.
Here is proof positive spring is springing, if it has not yet fully sprung: yesterday I had close encounters with a rawther large, furry spider I felt crawling on my hand just before it met a horrible end within the folds of a shirt; a classic ‘picnic’ ant navigating the contours of my ankle bone; one kamikaze moth in my face; and scores of tiny, miscellaneous flying insects. Poor Scout: I spotted two deer ticks exploring his canine cheeks for fertile ground during our Saturday morning run, pulled another one off a very sensitive part of his anatomy when we got home. Funny that not so long ago we had temps in the single digits: insect life in these parts is nothing if not resilient.
Meanwhile there is no stopping spring: every morning more tender, green foliage emerges from the trees, mercifully softening the landscape and editing out some local scenery we won’t miss all summer long and into the fall. And everywhere are bulbs blooming—daffodils, tulips, iris—and the tiny ferns that will soon carpet the woods, just starting to unfurl (the fiddleheads are a culinary favorite in these parts). A symphony of birdsong greets us at sunrise (woodpeckers on percussion), lingers throughout the day, and crickets chime in later on; cicadas would be nice, but are too smart for winters here. And the hungry, emaciated black bears are awake now, as seen in a trail of garbage strewn willy-nilly at the end of our road one morning last week—they’ll almost certainly be back in the coming days.
Yesterday we took my car through the tunnel for its springtime scrubbing, the annual cleansing away of the caustic chemicals that are part and parcel of winter travel; dad will chide me about this, my lazy car maintenance habits and the once-a-year wash “whether it needs it or not.” Last weekend we took Scout on a short outing to the Mile-Around Woods, where it is finally dry enough to walk without sinking knee deep into muddy trails. We meant to allow him some off-leash romping in a picturesque meadow at the top of the big hill there, but thought better of it when we observed a few others who had beaten us to the punch: it was the first gorgeous spring Sunday and nobody was missing it (Vermonters are fair-weather opportunists of necessity). This could not stop our fun on an exquisite day, if cut short by my bum foot, et al. I wore my camera around my neck to shoot the landscape as it is now, because it will look very different in only a few days; I managed to catch a single beautiful moment between Scout and The Chef, who despite his mild manners and generosity with tender, steaming bits of succulent chicken and fish, remains Tall And Scary to tawny little doggies.
Vermont spring, thou dost vex, but we are so glad you’re finally here.
For years growing up I believed the Edgar Allan Poe short story “Murders in the Rue Morgue” was in fact Murders-in-the-Room Org. I knew of it only because my mom loved to wax poetic about the 1930s horror film based on it. I imagined a bloody scene in a bedroom ruled by a wrinkly, club-wielding creature: in my immature mind’s eye he looked a little like an illustration from an early childhood tome of the bridge troll in “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.” While the movie sounded deliciously terrifying, my psyche was as yet tender and I was not keen to witness that kind of carnage on a screen.
Another memorable mix-up came from the father of my mom’s closest childhood friend, who loved to evoke a mystery character from his own past named “Fyeshadye.” Turns out we all knew Fyeshadye from a familiar childhood prayer:
Now I lay me down to sleep/I pray the Lord my soul to keep/Fyeshadye before I wake/I pray the Lord my soul to take
Fyeshadye’s creator and I were in good company, it would seem: the endearing Mr. Tumnus—inhabitant of Narnia, an invention of one C.S. Lewis—mistook the character Lucy’s provenance as Spare Oom, a delightful take on the “spare room” whence Lucy had stumbled from the wardrobe into Narnia.
In music this phenomenon is known as a mondegreen, a mishearing of a lyric that results in a comical misinterpretation of it. In 1988, “Bloom County” cartoonist Berkeley Breathed skewered presidential candidates Michael Dukakis and George H. W. Bush in a caricature showing each one’s take on the lyrics from “Louie Louie,” the Kingsmen’s 1963 party standard (you can imagine). Funnier still, though, was Bloom County character Bill D. Cat’s rendition of the lyrics, as follows (cue the familiar dah-dah-dah/dah-dah organ intro):
Louie Lou-i, ne ga go
Louie Lou-i, ne ga go
Ee fi li curl way fra nee
Ee cat-ta shi fo kra-see
Ne sait a shi auuuu lome
Ee newa fwo ma-make I ome
Ree nie (garbled) ail zee
Me tink (garbled) ee (garbled)
(garbled) dwee Li’l Friskies
Have any of these mondegreenian misinterpretations stuck in our language permanently through time? Writing about mondegreens in this New Yorker.com piece, Maria Konnikova submits they surely have (and don’t call me Shirley). It’s worth a gander if the evolution of the mother tongue interests you at all.
I started down the mondegreen road after listening to a clip of Terry Gross’s interview with Merriam Webster editor Kory Stamper. What caught my ear was Stamper’s account of eavesdropping on her teenage daughter chatting with friends in the back seat of the car, talking in truncated cyber language the way teenagers do these days. In one example Stamper referenced the “A-F” usage that has come into common parlance as a modern-day vulgarity. (For the uninitiated, it’s a stand-in for “as f**k,” for example, We were hungry as f**k—it lacks imagination to be sure, as most vulgarities do, but you’d be hard pressed to find a contemporary American teen who does not use it, and I’ve come to prefer it over hearing the actual f-bomb.) Over time, Stamper observed, these kids further truncated “A-F” to simply, “affe” (pronounced like the second syllable of giraffe). Thus, We were hungry affe. Its fate as a future entry in Merriam Webster, perhaps, rests with Ms. Stamper.
I have been at the wheel of that carpooling car, also eavesdropping with interest. Nor has my fascination with this linguistic evolution ended in my post-parenting years: my own Millennial kid still introduces me to all kinds of stylized and acrobatic language at the other end of the thousand miles that separate us. Much of it eludes me until I ask, although I try to parse through it first to see if I can figure it out. One of my favorites is the phenomenon of pressing a noun into service as an intransitive verb. On a recent Sunday morning I explained I could not video chat with him because I was headed out the door to yoga. He messaged back, “Who TF yogas at 9:30 on Sunday morning?” This example includes still another iteration of the “A-F” vulgarity (using “the” in place of “as”), along with the noun “yoga” now morphing into an action word.
A more common evolution is the smooshing together of words, a phenomenon I struggle with professionally all the time. A case in point: am I a copy editor, or a copyeditor? Depends whom you ask. My copywriting colleagues ask me these kinds of questions all the time, and more often than not I have to survey the opinions out there in the ether before I settle on an answer. Call it verbal co-dependence if you will—one yearns for rules and directions, but often none exists. One thing is certain: our language is a living, breathing thing. And what logophile among us would not love a peek at the condition of the King’s English a hundred years hence?
I leave you with the actual lyrics to “Louie Louie” as written by R. Berry in 1955, along with the Kingsmen’s 1963 recording. And I defy you to recognize these words when you hear them:
Louie Louie, me gotta go
Louie Louie, me gotta go
Fine little girl she waits for me
Me catch the ship for cross the sea
Me sail the ship all alone
Me never thinks me make it home
Three nights and days me sail the sea
Me think of girl constantly
On the ship I dream she there
I smell the rose in her hair
(chorus, guitar solo)
Me see Jamaica moon above
It won’t be long, me see my love
I take her in my arms and then
Me tell her I never leave again
In my fledgling foray into photography I’m learning light is everything, especially when your equipment is limited to an oldish Nikon and a single lens; I can make do for now, and should until I know better. The light in Arlington Park on Friday afternoon was clean scrubbed and brilliant following a spate of biting days of cold rain interrupted now and again by noncommittal sunshine.
I love how the built environment leaves its thumbprint on the natural landscape—down below, at eye level, and even in the stratosphere; I found it everywhere Friday afternoon. The little park in our community is a study in contradictions, with fair-to-middlin’ athletic fields across the way from well maintained tennis and basketball courts, a scraggly but beloved municipal golf course, and playground equipment jettisoned from some from other era (it would not meet the liability threshold in most here-and-now realms), lain against the most modern of play structures. Around and through them all winds an appealing footpath whose winter wounds are now laid bare: it could use some mulch in the appealing stretch that parallels the noisy Battenkill.
As vibrant as the park feels with the emergence of spring and the arrival of student athletes and fair-weather takers, it is as barren and bereft of life in winter. And as insulated as it feels now against evil elsewhere in the world, I remain a little shaken by the arrest of a local killer in this park only a few weeks ago, nonetheless relieved he is caught. I keep to myself when I visit the park during the winter months, but my Southern self is more likely to say howdy to other friendly folk as the world awakens from its deep freeze. Meanwhile a sign in bold lettering reminds me of my status here. Scout does not share this notion with me: I am certain he feels ownership. Plus there might be squirrels and thus we have important business in the town park. Spring is still an adolescent and can be forgiven his early missteps, a most welcome visitor in these parts.
Like so many geographic place names in America, Taconic comes from a Native American word, meaning “in the trees.” I can think of no better moniker for the landscape that greets us each morning, but the daily commute frees one (if only briefly) from the confines of the woods which can at times overwhelm. In those moments the sky opens in the Battenkill Valley, flanked to the west by the Taconic Mountains and to the east by the western escarpment of the Greens, Vermont’s namesake mountains. However distant the Taconics or Green Mountains loom on the horizon along the stretch of Vermont’s Highway 7A between Arlington and Bennington, one can never fully escape that condition: living in the trees. The profound beauty of this landscape will catch in your throat when you first see it, but prolonged immersion in it stokes a hunger for the flat horizon, if only to observe more fully the movement of the earth against the night sky: the filtered view of it up through the trees is only a tease.
The people on our mountain are a mixed lot. Kempt homes, immaculate wood piles, tidy gardens, and even a manicured lawn here and there where the limited sunshine has permitted one to grow and flourish to begin with, live in communion with backcountry landholders who seem not to care, or to worry too much anyway, about graffitied dumpsters and work trucks that should not be here to begin with, mud in lieu of lawn, and cars left to rot in situ, giving one pause to reflect on the oily soup that must surely leech from them into the ground water by way of any number of streams that finally flow into the nearby Battenkill. (I have been told these are the people you want as friends for their willingness to save you from your own stupidity when you put your car into a wintry ditch, or to deal with the rabid raccoon wandering in the woods.) Some of these folk were here first: it is their landscape, now governed by town rules to which the authorities seem content to turn a blind eye. About this time of year neighborhood creeks roar indiscriminately at all hours helping to mute the sound of heavy trucks, but in a few weeks will settle, becoming quieter still with the foliage that now waits with gathering impatience to explode from long-dormant trees and other flora. There is no way to filter the rusted out carnage when you pass through it on the way to your own drive—it is an exercise in gratitude for what you have—but the arrival of spring in earnest will try hard to help.
Our rough gravel mountain road turns to asphalt pavement for a few tenths of a mile before it drops sharply by way of a hairpin turn and finally meets Route 7A. Thence a couple of miles south into town proper, with a parallel railroad to the east and scattered housing, businesses, and the town park to the west: the accidental tourist will be tempted to stop into a likeable and accessible modern sugaring operation with adjoining shop and Norman Rockwell exhibit before venturing on into town.
Although Arlington was once the state capital, nothing much remains to suggest any kind of pomp that may have distinguished it as such, save the land markers on its outskirts. Aside from a few notable historic structures, this miniscule village is like any other in these parts, with two raggedy convenience stores, a smattering of family businesses, a vet and a medical clinic, the requisite town hall, an ancient and a modern church, and more recently an offending small box retailer of the variety one local suggested cries out, We need help here. It is too bad: we are not living in the glory days of this New England village, though there is yet life in it. (A recent infrastructure project missed its mark: opportunities were overlooked, perhaps not enough money in the till.)
A long stretch of lovely rural highway unfolds on the south end of town; heading south you can abandon ship and take a left turn onto Highway 313 to the newer Route 7, which has the feel of Interstate. It lacks the interest and character of the original, older 7A that parallels it a couple of miles to the west, affording a more intimate view of rural life in Vermont, far and above the best commute to Bennington in my opinion. Route 7A winds its way along the valley floor for several miles, hilly and curvaceous here and there, with two stretches in particular where the trees all but close in overhead: it is these two ‘tunnels’ that stubbornly cleave to packed snow and ice after a winter storm a while longer, when the rest of the road is long clean and dry.
Once through this pair of chutes, though, the heavens open again and Vermont country life can be observed as in a fish bowl. In the early morning children of all ages wait for school buses on the sides of the road, many in their own driveways. One ancient and curious barn stands half burnt, its thrifty (or uninsured) owner continuing for years now to use what remains of it, in no apparent hurry to rebuild. Wheat-colored fields, flat and rolling, will soon give way to a verdant carpet of new growth. It is along this stretch and on the approach to the hamlet of Shaftsbury one can see examples of early clapboard farm houses, barns, and other outbuildings, some lovingly cared for through the generations, nudged right up against the road: this mattered less when it carried unmotorized traffic. But when you park on 7A and step out of your car for a moment as I have done on one occasion, the cars ripping past in close proximity will get your attention: this is a fast moving highway in the here and now, however quaint the landscape.
Also on this stretch of road lies the turnoff to one of the best farm stands I’ve had occasion to visit during my tenure as a Vermonter. And just across from the turnoff a pair of cottage businesses and a farmhouse hawking fresh eggs on a sandwich board: $3.50 a dozen during the two-plus years I’ve made this particular commute, a piece of burlap occasionally covering the sign. At the top of the hill beyond it, the cheerful yellow-and-blue cottages of the Serenity Motel cozy up to the Governor’s Rock Motel, its namesake boulder rising from the ground on the edge of the road. A few tenths of a mile further south and this curvilinear road will lengthen straight as a pin on its way into Shaftsbury, losing elevation as it surges past a sizeable cemetery, a forgotten apple orchard, and a handful of quaint structures (one schoolhouse in particular speaks to me), before the highway slows to a crawl through town. Blink and it’s gone, the town Robert Frost surely referred to as the ‘village’ in his 1922 poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. And just beyond town the same poet’s house, standing proud in its dressed stone facade but beleaguered by sparring heirs, it is rumored, still worth a gander if you’ve never been.
You’re almost in the quirky town of Bennington at this point, one of a few in Vermont with any population to it but a victim of the slow economy in recent years and other afflictions seen here and elsewhere, with palpable signs of renewal to be sure. To the east is another chance to pick up Route 7 should you desire, but my journey at this point circumvents the town in the other direction, to the west, by way of back roads—pothole ridden, poorly maintained, but scenic enough. Winding around the pastoral entrance to Bennington College, the daily commute continues across North Bennington Road, picking up the Silk Road and passing through a beloved covered bridge. Middle- and upper middle-income families live here, an elusive population in Vermont: this is a picturesque neighborhood still flanked by the remains of farms. Silk Road eventually bumps into Vail Road to the right, Fairview to the left, but all roads lead to my destination. I veer left, where there is more of interest, in particular the Bennington Monument, a massive monolith towering just outside the car now but visible on the horizon from nearby New York; marking the Revolutionary War battle that was thought to have turned the tide of the war, the monument announces Vermont more impressively by far than placards elsewhere at its borders. At the base are situated large homes, elegant and historic, save one Walloomsac Inn that languishes eerily in its shadow, a bizarre structure that is the subject of rumors and legends.
I venture instead in the opposite direction down a semi-rural road, sparsely populated with appealing homes, finally reaching my destination: a nondescript corrugated metal structure, an unlikely venue for the creativity and industry that blooms in a petri dish behind closed doors at the top of a carpeted stairwell. Not far from civilization, the campus here is always windy (it defies you to breathe in the winter, lovingly caresses you in high summer), home to a small airport and a sizeable wetlands that supports all manner of wildlife—massive snapping turtles, various species of waterfowl, and a healthy deer population all live here. It is a pleasant terminus for a longish commute that is occasionally harrowing, mainly uneventful, and once in a while awe-inspiring: the afternoon sun slipping behind the Taconics sets ablaze the fall foliage on the western slopes of the Greens in colors the likes of which I have seen in no other place I’ve lived.
Twenty miles door to door, about a half hour or so in the car: it is not a bad way to spend a few moments most days. Seems the mountains of my erstwhile home in Appalachia have followed me here: the Vermont landscape connects me unexpectedly to my Tennessee roots via the daily commute.
No one in the South ever asks if you have crazy people in your family. They just ask what side they’re on.—Julia Sugarbaker
I chide my twenty-something for goading me to watch horror films with him when we’re together. Twice he succeeded some years ago, once for The Ring (do not go there, gentle reader), and again for The Strangers, which is less horror than psycho thriller; these victories have fueled his hope for the future. I was talked into The Strangers because of its cast (could any Liv Tyler movie be all bad?), but by the end felt so wounded I’ll never revisit it, ditto the Merle Haggard standard “Mama Tried,” spine chilling now thanks to the movie. The Strangers came into our living room on the heels of an especially horrific week in my erstwhile family life; I watched it with my boy on the sofa next to me because it felt like the right thing to do at the time.
But I digress. I’m not a fan of horror because of its lingering effects: being deliberately scared seems emotionally expensive, damaging, and pointless. A friend once made a similar observation about sadness—there is so much of it everywhere in the world, why on earth would you want to provoke it on purpose?
I can think of some occasions where you should. The Holocaust Memorial Museum is an example, a reminder of an important chapter none of us should forget, ever. Going demands an emotional commitment—a willingness to embrace melancholy for the rest of the day anyway, and most likely longer: you will not emerge from that experience and then shout, Who wants ice cream! (And I would urge any family touring our nation’s capital to save it for the last day if it’s on your itinerary.)
We dipped into sadness Friday night, although I’m not sure we knew we were headed there at first, HCB and I. He brought home Manchester by the Sea after I mentioned I wanted to see it. Somewhere I’d watched the trailer or part of it, where a reluctant uncle found himself the unexpected guardian of his teenage nephew, and I somehow concluded this would be an uplifting and redemptive story. And I’d heard a scene on NPR that felt tragically comic, about frozen chicken and a frozen human corpse and the well-intentioned uncle trying to navigate his way through a teenager meltdown. At least it struck me as comic at the time.
Manchester by the Sea is instead a tragedy through and through—Shakespeare would be proud. You can find situational comedy in it to be sure; catharsis saves us in the end, because life without it is unthinkable after all. But stylistically you’d probably call this movie realist cinema, after the painting style where the artist leaves little to the imagination, exposing the subject unapologetically and without romantic flourishes (the movie’s score is haunting, at least). Or if you likened it to architecture you might call it brutalist.
The real genius of Manchester by the Sea lies in its character development. We understand the protagonist Lee Chandler because we’ve met him: the quiet apartment building maintenance man in Boston (could be anywhere), a working class hero wound tight as a drum, volatility simmering just beneath his calm demeanor. The movie wastes no time revealing this character trait. But as flawed as he is, you still find yourself in his corner, proof positive of a plausible and vulnerable character well played. Nor is Chandler merely flawed, he is ruined, the cause of ruination revealed to us over the course of the movie in a series of artful flashbacks. Casey Affleck’s portrayal of Lee Chandler is brilliant: you can’t avert your gaze for the duration.
An undercurrent of substance abuse weaves its way through the plot, too, the scourge of our time. But the story is finally less about the physical and emotional consequences of addiction than it is about unbearable grief and damage to the human spirit, so profound in this character he is finally too frail to fulfill his emotional obligations to the people around him—he is damaged beyond repair.
The movie resonated with me more now than it might have five years ago, before I moved to New England and got the lay of the land, and observed the palpable effects of a failed economy (worse here than down South) and the loss of manufacturing jobs in the region. There is also a vulgarity in the common man here that would make even my endearingly shameless Irish grandmother blush were she alive today: if you do not know these people personally, you’ve at least stood shoulder to shoulder with them in line at the grocery store. Dropping the F-bomb is a way of life in some New England towns (Vermont is no exception), and you’re well advised not to ask anybody to put a sock in it, like I nearly did one afternoon at a local discount store before I thought better of it.
‘Crazy’ (or neurotic, if you prefer) is a trait that lies on a continuum from manageable to psychotic, but that most of us possess if we’re being honest, even if we’d rather not shine a light on it. There is a kernel of truth to the quip about Southerners parading around crazy and handing it a cocktail instead of hiding it in the attic. But in the Northeast, at least as portrayed in Manchester by the Sea, we understand the kind of crazy that comes after an unthinkable tragedy strikes for which there is no one to blame but yourself, can only seethe beneath the surface, erupting now and again in bits and pieces—in coarse language, in the occasional barroom brawl, and in frozen chicken mishaps, like a fault line belching out small tremors: at some point it will snap, as surely as a damaged soul somewhere beaten down by life will finally give up.
Most of us who’ve had time to live a little understand this story and know firsthand about permanent emotional damage—nobody is exempt from the human condition. But can there be a yardstick to measure the damage? High blood pressure? Cancer, or some other insidious disease? Years shaved from one’s life, which was so full of hope when it began? Or does significant emotional damage simply make you go mad over time? And if you did find a benchmark to measure the damage, how to fix it? There is no surgery, or neutralizing tincture for some kinds of crazy. But maybe there is more healing after all in parading it around than in hiding it in the attic.
Manchester by the Sea is worth your while if you’re willing to devote an evening to a little thoughtful sorrow; I suggest salty snacks and a good bottle of wine to soften the blow.
Nothing like a good ballet school audition to remind you you’re not at the center of the universe.
This is not a bad thing. It had already dawned on you years earlier in a classroom full of young ballet hopefuls when you did not get the instructor’s attention you so felt you deserved one afternoon. And later when the short-tempered Armenian-born artistic director of the ballet school and company blew his lid around 9 p.m. when you and your third-grader colleagues were being mindless and silly instead of focused, when he was running the same Nutcracker scene for the umpteenth time in rehearsal. (You could not help yourself at that hour past your bedtime, nor could he.)
Film director Robert Altman tried to illustrate this ballet condition in The Company, a plotless 2003 indie drama that trudges on unrelentingly to its final unsatisfying scene. It owes whatever wider appeal it might have enjoyed (if any) to headliners James Franco and Neve Campbell. The Company at least gifts the balletomanes among us a few lovely Joffrey Ballet performances in classes, rehearsals, and on the stage (hence the title) between its other tiresome and self-indulgent scenes.
And it does shine a light, however dim, on an irksome problem that persists in the ballet world, a thing that raises hackles and occasionally inspires serious discussion: the antiquated directorial practice of addressing company personnel as boys and girls, instead of men and women (or ladies and gentlemen), or occasionally more endearingly but still too childlike, “babies” and “dears.” The tone is not always sweet: you can discern the meaning in its delivery, like when a rude sibling blurts out something inappropriate at the holiday dinner table and a savvy aunt responds, “Well, bless your heart.” Makes you feel “dear” right down to your socks, doesn’t it?
The tone of the delivery was something else slowly dawning on your third grade self in ballet class, especially since your mom danced in the company and you watched rehearsals all the time: you had a full frontal dose of it—ballet directors could be brutal. The beauty of this arrangement, perhaps its salvation, was that ballet directors could also make you pee yourself laughing, because they often muted the decorum filter, to everyone’s amusement. Many still do; it takes a “big” personality to fill those shoes.
After the filming of that movie Robert Altman observed he’d never directed a group of people so pliant and obedient (I’m paraphrasing). He went on, You’re on set and say to nobody in particular, where are the dancers? And all of a sudden fifty of ‘em are right there—actors are nothing like that.
Sounds like a compliment, unless he was suggesting dancers are all a bunch of lemmings; I have known a few lemmings in the ballet world, only they’re called bunheads.
Michael Maule died last week at 95: he was one of the first people to help me understand I was not at the center of the universe, in a most polite and humane way. Anything but a lemming himself, Mr. Maule possessed an impressive pedigree on Broadway and in ballet, but by the mid-to-late-1970s when I knew him he was the distinguished director of the National Academy of Arts: it was an unlikely school with a star-studded faculty in Champaign, Illinois, operating in the 1970s, limping along financially towards the end of its life before it finally folded for good around 1978.
I would meet Michael Maule at a school audition when I was 12. But because I attended the school only in the summers and he occasionally took time away from his teaching post then, I remember him mainly as the man who gave the audition classes, together with his colleague and school administrator Mary Moore, a woman who possessed exotic red fingernails and wore the best costume jewelry ever: Ms. Moore was the antithesis of the gauzy, pastel ballet world I knew, a quality that demanded one’s full attention. The pair toured the country recruiting kids to the school; when they announced a stop in Memphis my ballerina mom informed me I would be there.
And so I was, neat as a pin in my plain black leotard with a number pinned to the front, my hair shellacked into a perfect ballerina bun—a veritable bunhead. It would be my first residential performing arts school audition, for the only residential school I ever attended, but by no means my last audition class.
However well my mom prepared me for that experience, I could not have been fully prepared for the scrutiny to which these two kind people were about to subject the young auditionees in that classroom, a space long familiar to me but now commandeered by aliens: Mr. Maule with his exotic accent (South African born, of Scottish lineage), and Mary Moore with her distinctly metropolitan demeanor. They called us in one by one to stand in front of them. Please take first arabesque à terre, Ms. German. (Snap, went the Polaroid.) Thank you. Please stand in first. Thank you. Please give us battement tendu à la seconde, thank you, arms in seconde. (Snap, snap, whisper whisper.) Thank you. Please lie on your back in “frog”—place the soles of the feet together. (What the hell? Somebody is manipulating my legs and hips, there is more discussion.) Thank you, Ms. German. Please take your place at the barre.
A few weeks later came the acceptance letter together with the audition evaluation in multiple pages, an “x” marking the spot in one of three columns (excellent, fair, or undeveloped/needs improvement) next to every movement under scrutiny. Sometimes the “x” was typed a little clumsily between the two columns, a reminder that a scoring rubric can’t tell the whole story. But the best part was Mr. Maule’s thoughtful essay in which he shone a light—the brightest one—on every inch of me: who among us does not relish a story written with us as its main character? I remember the best and the worst of it: tightness in the hips, extension of the legs not where it should be for my age, weak pirouette on the left. But then: “a lovely arch was noted in the feet,” pointe work was “stronger than average” for my age.
So it was true: I could go on living with myself, warts and all. Mainly, I was one dancer of many with some gifts, but much work still to do. As always it remained up to me to determine my own destiny, however lemming-like my behavior at 12 or 13. Mr. Maule helped me understand that lesson through his kind smile that day, and on a few more occasions before everything was said and done.
But Michael Maule also unknowingly prepared me for an especially brutal audition in Toronto, Ontario, before the legendary Betty Oliphant at my mom’s own alma mater, Canada’s National Ballet School (in a weirdly ironic plot twist, it would be Neve Campbell’s alma mater, too). That audition was for the academic year ahead and did not go as I hoped: the school had room to take only two girls in my audition class of about 15 or 20. Ms. Oliphant was an observer that day, one of many adjudicators who sat at a long table watching the class; candidates were eliminated in rounds.
I made it through to the final round of cuts, but was let go just before pointe work, something I was keen to demonstrate, shored up as I was by Mr. Maule’s words; afterwards I tried hard to fight back tears, but Ms. Oliphant sprinted over to speak to me and my mom, the woman she’d taught ballet as a girl, and who in turn was now teaching me. She placed her arm around my shoulder, looked me square in the eyes and said, Continue your studies and please come back to us.
Without hesitating I quipped, Thank you, I am going to the National Academy of Arts in Champaign, Illinois.
My mom could not have been prouder of me that day: most assuredly not at the center of the universe, I was undeniably in command of my own destiny. Thank you, Mr. Maule, wherever you are.