Family Vacations: The Summers of My Discontent

Family vacations are dumb.

Nothing sends me into a tailspin faster than a technological mishap: this would include power outages and car problems, to say nothing of broken laptops. I’ve been in a tailspin since the first week in August, the week my shiny new laptop failed catastrophically on a Saturday morning, an incident that prompted a series of irritating phone calls and remote sessions with tech support, and no fewer than five trips in the car over an hour one way to try to deal, because we are underserved in Vermont. That’s more than a tank of gas and five days I’ll never get back again. This coming Saturday will mark the sixth. I remain skeptical at best, even with another new laptop in the offing: an evil vortex has settled in over me, ready to stir up trouble with any device I bring into this house, I am sure of it.

New equipment should not fail, tech support should be smart, and people on the other side of the planet who are enlisted to ‘remote’ into your computer, with your personal stuff on it and all, should not be loading weirdo media players in another language onto your laptop without your permission. I submit these are the folks who refused to do their third grade homework but still walked away with ‘participation’ ribbons, never learned manners but were coddled in the name of self-esteem boosting, and possess not one shred of respect for personal property, because if it’s broke you just buy a new one. I bet they leave crusty bowls of half-eaten ramen noodles sitting around at home. And now here they are inside my electronics doing god-knows-what, but failing miserably at fixing the problem I invited them in to fix to begin with. (You need more RAM. Wait—how could that be the case on a new laptop?)

How do these folks even get these jobs in the first place?

See? Tailspin. But I digress.

On a recent day trip over to neighboring Upstate New York to meet again with the homework slackers, HCB and I got to talking in the car as we are wont to do. We came around a twisty bend in a sleepy rural highway and crossed another busier highway to continue our trek, which took us past a lake dotted with docks where small watercraft are moored at the edge of unassuming vacation home properties; a single golf cart was sitting idle on a patch of asphalt near the edge of the lake, a beacon of leisure on this sunny summer afternoon. This tiny lake’s more or less a poor man’s paradise, cheerful nonetheless.

I never had the kind of camping experience you had growing up, I said aloud to HCB. I vaguely recall one summer when I was barely beyond my toddler years (maybe three) when my parents and I visited with my grandparents—my dad’s folks—at a place near Chattanooga called Camp Ocoee. I’m not sure we even spent the night. What remains in my head after all these years are washed out memories of rustic board-and-batten structures with wraparound screen porches and creaky screen doors. And my grandmother’s crafty ceramics class in one building. And dusty pathways, possibly a swingset, and a boy called Chris Cunningham who accepted my heartfelt passions only reluctantly. That is all I remember, and probably the only reason I remember any of it at all is the legacy of a few photos and some family folklore. (Chris: where are you now? Did you do your third grade homework, or did you get participation awards?)

I did not have cooties.

Camping was big in my family, said HCB, and he went on to describe it. The girls had better games, he said—they were more complicated and involved and fun. The boys were just idiots. Playing with the girls was your best bet.

I remember long car trips in the summer, I said, and always asking to get out of the car when we stopped at a scenic overlook or passed some landmark or monument. No, came the answer always.

I know why, I went on: it was my brother’s fault. He was a pain in the ass to travel with. We never made short trips—we were either eastward bound for Knoxville and Chattanooga all the way across the length of our squished parallelogram state from Memphis to visit family, or worse—to a remote Texas destination for a family convention tied to my dad’s work, which meant two solid days in a hot car to get there: the crayons always, always melted, and my brother always, always Crossed The Line in the back seat to my side, to purposely detonate the big sister bomb and then sit back and enjoy the explosion. This was to be expected of a seven-years-younger brother, but of course I could not appreciate that. If I were my parents, I’d want to get there, too.

Here is the truth about my brother in those days: he simply could not shut up. He sang to himself, talked to himself, and ran out of breath mimicking the noises of choo choo trains. Trains, for god’s sake. They were his everything.

The Talker

One time on the way home from a Texas vacation, my brother drove my mom to the brink of insanity with his ‘prattling,’ as she called it. We were in Arkansas, with Memphis squarely in the crosshairs by then, so close to home we could almost taste it. My mom had cleverly outfitted the back seat of the car with two vinyl shoe racks hung over the front seat headrests—one for my brother and one for me, a strategy she’d read about in a parenting tome. Mine was still fairly organized by the end of our vacation, stocked with a few new treasures acquired along the way, but his was chaos. Long weary of his toys, he busied himself with jabbering. The kid simply could not. shut. up.

THOMAS! snapped my mama about an hour away from our suburban home. SHUT YOUR MOUTH.

He complied, but continued to make all kinds of creative sounds with closed lips, including weird gurgling noises that required lots of spit.

HCB erupted in giggles when I told him this story, and then started making his own version of close-lipped noises. Two peas in a pod, I imagined, while agonizing at the thought of traveling with not one, but three siblings in a closed space. Perish the thought.

For my part, I yearned for my bicycle and my neighborhood friends about a second after we reached our vacation destination. That bicycle meant autonomy and freedom, from boredom, from a brother who followed me around like my shadow, from tiresome grown-ups. You can’t escape any of those things on a hot summer vacation with your family.

But no, we never camped as a family, and we did not get out of the car much, because dad was hell bent on getting from point A to point B. The upshot of this for me is, I have no interest in camping, never have as an adult and never did as a parent myself, but I do love me a good road trip, especially off-the-beaten path trips into the American countryside, the kind that put you in the back yards of farmers, and take you down remote highways dotted with derelict billboards, leaving your imagination to reinvent a place that is no more, and anyway what happened to it and to the people who once worked there or patronized it? I can entertain myself in silence for a long time making up a story. Lately I’ve fabricated one closer to home, about some goings-on on the rural road where I often run: in short, I have invented an entire narrative to explain the activity I have observed on a particular property for the past few weeks. It involves tawdry behavior and a messy divorce and a property dispute and unhappy children.

You don’t have evidence for any of your assumptions, HCB tells me.

What’s your point? I ask. Give me my story: I am not hurting anybody.

He smacks his hand over his face and shakes it in disbelief.

Family vacations with a younger brother are bothersome and that is all. On that very trip—the one where my brother made the gurgling noises—he also spat out his chewing gum in my long, silky ballerina hair right as we were crossing the Mississippi River from West Memphis, Arkansas, into downtown Memphis, Tennessee.

I howled in agony, ruing the day he was born, gnashing my teeth and wishing I could tear out my hair.

My mom was at once horrified and delighted: she knew just what to do to get it out, and it involved peanut butter—she’d read it in that damned book, the same one with the vinyl shoe caddy tip.

Little brother, your sister has a blog: it’s payback time at long last.

I wish I had a laptop. Because I like laptops.

Nota bene: My brother is enjoying a long and successful career in the railroad industry. He is a hard worker and a problem solver, character traits for which he is beloved in the workplace. He also holds a patent for a piece of machinery that is helping revolutionize the modern locomotive engine.

An Evening of Ballet: Refueling at the Mothership

The Mothership

Last night we saw ‘big’ ballet right down the road in Manchester. It’s a rare thing in these parts, in this underserved and sometimes overlooked state of Vermont, where a tiny population can’t support big art, or even medium-sized art of this caliber. We got lucky this time. Billed simply as ‘An Evening of Dance with American Ballet Theatre & Friends,’ this mixed-rep performance was staged and led by former ABT soloist Anna Liceica, who also danced last night in a couple of works, including a variation from Michel Fokine’s Romantic-era ballet, Les Sylphides, and in her own arrangement of ‘Dance of the Hours’ from the opera La Gioconda. The rest of the cast were members of American Ballet Theatre and Pennsylvania Ballet (ergo the ‘friends’).

I met Anna a few summers ago when ABT & Friends came to the Lake Placid School of Ballet, where I had a guest teaching engagement. So it was nice to see her again and catch up briefly before she and the rest of the cast were whisked off to dinner at a patron’s house. And I loved meeting one Lauren Post in the flesh, a young dancer whose talent I spotted many years ago observing a morning technique class at a Youth America Grand Prix regional finals competition: it was a story I’ve carried around for more than a decade and finally got to share with her. (Plus, we are both Southern girls, so as Eloise would say, you can imagine….) And bending Sterling Baca’s ear for a moment was fun, a dancer I’d long admired in classes and demonstrations through various legs of teacher training at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre, starting in 2009. Anna, Lauren, and Sterling, and the rest of the talented cast danced beautifully last night to a reasonably full house. Will they return to Manchester, we wondered? Maybe one day, Anna said; they’d like to.

This evening of ballet—good ballet—dovetailed with my longing for a shot in the arm after a couple of empty ballet years, with only one other occasion to see this young dancer at Festival Ballet Providence in Rhode Island to break the silence. I still have a ballet tome rattling around in my head, and some day I’ll let it out. It’s all about expectations: what five-year-olds expect when they step into their first ballet classroom, what their parents expect when they write their first tuition checks—and what anybody should expect of the child who decides s/he wants this life professionally. It’s a long pathway from those baby steps to the moments that unfold on the stage as they did last night, one fraught with peril, as a friend would say. Professional ballet is hard on the body, and hard on the wallet in a cultural milieu where it’s not held in the same esteem as, say, professional athletics. Most young folks who take that leap of faith know they’ll be taking on extra work to survive in the impossibly underfunded arts world here: you have to really want it, and that may finally be the single most important ingredient for any gifted young dancer who seeks the stage.

When I opened a small ballet school in Knoxville in 2006 I aimed to swat away a few gnats, those tenacious myths that cling to ballet training in the guise of legitimacy. In short, I set out to teach the parents in my ballet school community how to be intelligent consumers of classical ballet: I urge ballet newcomers even now to ask questions, and look skeptically upon a school that can’t or won’t answer them—too many schools hide behind rules and regulations in the name of some imagined tradition. I can still hear my mentor Raymond Lukens’ words during the first session in ballet pedagogy training I ever attended at ABT, to learn the curriculum this very ballet mogul co-authored: never make a rule unless you have a reason for it. In my first year as director at Knoxville Ballet School a number of parents asked whether they could watch their child in class, for example. Yes, I said, that’s what the observation window is for. At <School X>, they would say, it was forbidden—we were never allowed to watch. One mom told me she was so desperate to see what was going on—and importantly, whether her child was enjoying it—that she lay down on the floor, nine months pregnant with her second child, to try to peek through the crack under the door. This is just silly, and that is all.

I understand the motivation behind the rule, within reason—parents can be a distraction to the learning process when they’re standing outside a window grimacing and gesturing in some indecipherable sign language to their little person, whose focus on the teacher is now lost. And in some teaching environments it may be appropriate—big, reputable ballet schools with high enrollment, for example, where inviting parents to watch presents a logistical nightmare to say nothing of the disruption to the learning process. Those schools have the luxury to say no legitimately, knowing parents will have the opportunity to see their children on the stage at least once (and often more) in the calendar year, and also in the classroom for observation on designated days.

But in my small, suburban school in Knoxville, Tennessee, I said yes: it was good advertising for the product I was purveying, and proof positive we were hard at work. And anyway, simply closing the curtains sends a clear message to an offending parent who is not likely to offend again. I once had a tiny, beautiful Chinese student who at first simply refused to participate unless her mother came into the classroom with her; she was five at the time and spoke no English. I unfolded a chair in the corner of the classroom; shored up by her mom’s presence, the child was content to participate fully with her classmates and by the end of the academic year had gained enough confidence that she finally asked her mom—in perfectly clear English—to stay in the lobby with the other moms. She went on to enjoy much success in her ballet classes and in the annual ABT Affiliate exams before her family returned to China. In the end, my class observation policy was never a problem; it is a single example of many where a silly rule masquerading as a cherished ethos has the potential to ruin a child’s chances for classroom success, to say nothing of leaving a sour taste for the art form in the mouths of her parents. I was able to position myself in such a way as to straddle the professional ballet world in which I had grown up fully immersed, and the real needs of uninitiated ballet parents and their young children.

Last night during intermission I spoke with a man from Boston, a balletomane I think it’s fair to say, who arrived late to the performance and wanted to know what he missed. That in turn led to a lengthy discussion about Romantic-era ballets, modern audiences, and a few unfortunate attitudes and practices that stubbornly persist in some professional companies even today—where the work environment has improved in most settings as compared with previous generations, but where a few antiquated and unhealthy practices are still tolerated in others. Turns out he’s a psychiatric therapist who treats lots of young dancers. I told him about my teacher training at ABT and explained to him that for the first time in the history of ballet training in this country a new curriculum has emerged that actually addresses the training of the whole dancer; this was music to his ears. It’s groundbreaking in a country where anybody can hang out a shingle and claim to know how to teach ballet—whether they possess the qualifications to do it, or had rather hide behind closed doors doing god-knows-what to vulnerable young folks, a phenomenon I’ve witnessed firsthand. It’s another truth we learned on the first day of teacher training at ABT: you need more professional certifications to give somebody a manicure in this country than to teach a child classical ballet. I think most folks would agree the stakes are higher for the health of a child.

But one other thing about this still-new training and curriculum I’ve been less successful explaining to parents, or to anyone who would listen: this is a big deal. No, really—not all ballet schools are alike (far from it), and most school directors don’t possess the constitution to subject themselves to scrutiny, to adhere to a set of high standards and then invite adjudicators from the epicenter of the ballet world to come and see whether the school is honoring them. This was finally the best answer I could ever give a parent who questioned why s/he should write a check for $50 at the end of the year for a ballet exam: because the exam tells all of us whether I’m doing my job well, teaching your child ballet—it holds me accountable—and this benchmark after all should matter to you a great deal. It was a simple line of reasoning and stated in those terms made undertaking the exams an open-and-shut case.

It’s hard to believe I’ve been disconnected from the ballet classroom since October of 2014; I’m lucky to ply my trade now as a writer, though, and enjoy it as much. One of my colleagues with classical ballet roots not unlike my own asked one day last week whether I miss teaching. I don’t miss the punishment to an ageing body, I told her, nor cobbling together freelance work to try to make ends meet. But I do miss the process of enlightenment, the priceless ‘Aha!’ moments in the classroom when you nurture along a kid who finally internalizes some thing she’s been struggling with, and the same moments outside the classroom, when a parent demonstrates a depth of understanding about classical ballet training in May s/he did not possess in September. And I miss the satisfaction of observing those parents sharing their wisdom with the new crop of parents who cross the school’s threshold the next September.

For now I’ll make my peace with the joy of watching a handful of beautiful dancers who finally came to town.

I leave you with excerpts of Alexei Ratmansky’s reconstruction of Marius Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty as performed by dancers from American Ballet Theatre in 2015 at the Guggenheim as part of the Works and Process series; Lauren Post dances Silver Fairy, seen in the opening on the left.

Vulgar Discourse: What Failed Words Say About You

Common Ass

By vulgarity I mean that vice of civilization which makes man ashamed of himself and his next of kin, and pretend to be somebody else.—Solomon Schechter

You already knew everything by the time you came home from college for Thanksgiving during your freshman year. You tossed your hair in a new and improved way—in fact all mannerisms were calculated to make everybody around you understand the cool, self-assured, grown-up person you’d become in the space of—what. Weeks? Amazing, this transformation. And you had new language and turns of phrase to show off, too, proof positive you were an adult now. They went over well with your dormmates after all, who also used them. The ladies who served your plate in the campus cafeteria on the other hand rolled their eyes at all of you, but you missed it, because a swagger tends to blur your vision.

And then using your new voice of bravado you said something vulgar and inappropriate to a family member at a Thanksgiving gathering, because along with the disappearance of your slightly younger and more childlike self, your brain-to-mouth filter had also taken its leave. Your mom kicked you under the table. Hard. The kick was a thoughtful gift, even if you couldn’t recognize it right then. It really was something to be thankful for on this day to celebrate gratitude, because in that moment she yanked you down from the clouds by your ankles and saved you from being insufferable for one more painful second.

Where-oh-where is Anthony Scaramucci’s mom?

A couple of days ago news broke that the second wife of the newly anointed Director of Communications for the Donald Trump White House—one Anthony Scaramucci—had filed for divorce after three years of marriage. This should come as exactly no surprise, gentle reader. Anthony Scaramucci, who is now a self-proclaimed expert on Washington because he has lived there for, I don’t know, a few hours. Anthony Scaramucci, who answered the call to the POTUS for which he’d been yearning, evidently, for quite some time.

It’s like being picked for safety patrol in the last week of fifth grade. The rising sixth graders are sick of it by then and anyway they’re headed on to bigger and better things next year; they’re more than happy to hand over their bright orange swag. But when the school authorities installed you in that lofty role, you felt powerful. Thing is, the instant you become a self-important and insufferable so-and-so in fifth grade, there are palpable consequences, probably coming at you from all angles: you might even be defrocked.

Anthony Scaramucci is certainly not above being defrocked, but his brain-to-mouth filter is gone, gone, gone. He’s a loose cannon with a shiny toy Twitter feed, not unlike the Commander-in-Chief who hired him. This New Yorker piece speaks volumes about him, mainly in Scaramucci’s own voice—not only laying open his difficulties with the King’s English, but also revealing his unhinged character. We should be concerned.

I recoiled in horror the first time my child tried on the word butthead; he was three. (We had the movie Babe to thank for it.) Nope, words like that are for people who have no other words to use, I told him. My strategy worked for a little while, until the next morsel of potty language came exploding out of his mouth. But all the cool kids say it. (Must make it okay.) Eventually the cool kids won, and my own kid had to figure it out for himself: people take notice of you when you’re vulgar—could be a good and powerful thing, or perhaps not.

Based on a BBC interview I heard one morning last week, sounds like Mr. Scaramucci is one of the cool kids. On the one hand you have to admire anybody who’s willing to stand up to questions from a BBC reporter. Those people get all up in your business, cutting you off right and left, often finishing an observation with a question only the Brits can make sound like politesse: But you said those words yourself in an interview just last week, Mr. Pants-on-Fire, didn’t you? It’s a rhetorical question—the inflection goes down and not up: you’ve simply underscored your point.

Reminds me of the way my mom used to interview me, only it was more like an interrogation, delivered through a lilting Southern tongue lacking any signs of politesse. (WHAT WERE YOU THINKING? Teenage subject begins to answer, cut off by, YOU WEREN’T THINKING, WERE YOU?)

But in his first-ever interview with the BBC’s edgy Emily Maitlis Anthony Scaramucci tells the world it’s okay to behave like an ass if you’re from Queens (all the cool kids are doing it). Ms. Maitlis’ question: Does having a ‘tough exoskeleton’ (Scaramucci’s expression) allow the President of the United States be rude to you? Scaramucci’s answer: You’re from Great Britain. I’m not from Great Britain. I’m from a town that’s right on the border of Queens. And the President grew up in Queens. Okay, so we have a little bit of a different communication style: it’s a little bit more direct, it’s probably less subtle and polite, but you don’t think politicians in your home town are hitting each other left and right? Now, they may be hitting each other in a more subtle way, but I sort of like the more open approach. One of the things I cannot stand about this town <he gestures to Washington over his left shoulder> is the back stabbing that goes on here, okay? Where I grew up, in the neighborhood I’m from, we’re front stabbers.

Two front-stabbing, language-deficient, peas in a pod, Mr. Scaramucci and his close buddy, Mr. Trump, the leader of the free world.

Here’s a snippet of that interview, should you doubt he actually said those words. The only thing missing is the orange swag (the swagger is intact) and the little blue beanie. Oh, and the only words this Southern girl has for Mr. Scaramucci, a girl who did not grow up in Queens, and is not one of the cool kids: Bless your heart.

The Boldness of Eccentricity: A Remembrance

Eccentric

The woman standing at the front of the classroom never suffers fools gladly. Instead she writes theorems on the green chalkboard rapidly, with her back turned to a roomful of privileged ninth grade girls at this pressure cooker prep school in Memphis, girls poised for success in one venue or another. She is lean, a smoker, but what flesh hangs from her arms jiggles as she writes. She begins explaining the theorem before she places the chalk on the board’s metal lip, and rubs the dust from her hands. She continues as she turns to face the class, some girls taking notes furiously, and focused, others silently chewing contraband Wrigley’s and watching the second hand on the classroom clock, one girl in particular routinely balancing on the back two legs of her chair—rearing back as this teacher will observe with disdain time and again over the course of years. There is nothing eccentric about her; you know where you stand with her, and that is all.

Questions before I continue? She is unamused, just doing her job. The bloom of youth is gone from her, not too long, but her jowls have already given way to the forces of nature—gravity is doing its own job on her.

I sit in my chair with all four of its legs planted firmly on the carpeted floor in this hallowed math classroom, sweating. Yes, yes, yes, the adolescent voice inside me urges, you do have questions! Shhhhhh!, I snap at it uncharitably. I fight back hot tears of frustration, my rational self growing more irritated with the rest of me by the moment. I am already lost in the first five minutes or so of the class.

Nobody raises their hands, nobody seems concerned. I have to sit on my own hands for fear some reflex within will throw one of them skyward, and all these judge-y eyes and ears will be where I least want them, on me. I don’t understand anything you just said! I scream silently. I will default to my time-worn strategy: maintain a cool exterior, pretend I understand, and then beg my parents for help later. This school is notorious for its academic standards, for its heaping piles of homework and high expectations. These girls will go on to discover new chemical elements; the ones who do not hold these lofty aspirations will at least possess a closet full of Lilly Pulitzer. Math should take a half hour tonight; now it will take three times that, and even I can calculate those repercussions in my head, factor in those variables with my daily ballet classes, chores, and the rest of my homework.

Two decades later in Knoxville I’ll pass the torch to my own child, who will struggle harder still with his mathematics; the bar will be set higher for him, not only because he attends a school of the same ilk, but because his brain is wired to make this—and everything else—more difficult for him. He will develop bravado to hide his confusion, and some of his teachers will misinterpret that as cheekiness. But his endearing personality will make up for so many of his shortcomings. On a sunny day in Knoxville, Tennessee, I will bake cookies with that boy and we will package them in a pretty basket and walk five blocks up the road to deliver them to an eccentric neighbor, because we want to.

Martin the octogenarian, Martin the flamboyant queen, Martin the proud subject of a cover story in the local indie newspaper, a story that celebrated a handful of the city’s eccentrics. When that paper hit the newsstands, something inside me jumped for joy: it’s high time to honor this man, I thought. We were neighbors, but we met at church a decade earlier; you could not sit anywhere near Martin and not notice him—if not for his unabashedly vibrant couture, then for his greeting during the exchanging of the peace, a ritual in the Episcopal church that happens just before Holy Eucharist: Peace, baby! exclaimed Martin in his unmistakable drawl when he shook hands with the communicants around him. Macular degeneration had taken its toll on Martin’s eyes, but he still looked right at you; one morning he told me I was gorgeous.

The year Martin added us to his Christmas mailing list I felt privileged. There he stood on the cover of a card with his much younger lover, both bare-chested men wearing aprons besmeared with the statue of David, minus the head. It made you look twice: two ripped nude males holding hands—oh, wait. Very clever, Martin. That card was a gesture of trust reaching beyond the mere exchanging of peace.

It was not to be taken lightly: Martin had many more reasons to mistrust people around him. On one occasion he boldly put a question to a guest lecturer during the weekly education hour at our cathedral church—an hour programmed for reflection and inquiry, a thing Episcopalians pride themselves on. A church poster campaign at the time even trumpeted this cherished ethos, holding up the Apostle Thomas as an exemplar—it’s okay to doubt, and to ask questions—Thomas did. This lecturer, though, was unaccustomed to Martin’s unrelenting style and plowed over the question with an evasive answer. Martin stood up: I really want to know the answer! There was nervous tittering. Martin even giggled at himself. The lecturer kept on going. NO, Martin insisted. I REALLY WANT TO KNOW! I turned and looked at him, this bold eccentric, all around him people gazing at the floor in embarrassment, a few rolling their eyes. None of it was lost on a courageous and savvy, old blind man, who eventually fell silent and sat down while the lecturer kept going. I narrowed my eyes at the lecturer, thinking uncharitable thoughts: either answer the man’s question, you blowhard, or admit you don’t know.

Now I am sitting in Martin’s compact townhome’s tiny living room, where so much artwork hangs on the walls you’d be hard-pressed to find a square inch of empty space. Male nudes are everywhere, in any style you can name, even in the first-floor bathroom—a ‘lifetime supply’ an irreverent neighbor later observed. My boy and I sit here and eat cookies and pass a little time with an engaging person who reminds me of my beloved great grandmother, who would have applauded Martin’s tenacity that morning in church. Martin is a treasure, I am thinking, like my great grandmother was: each of them storytellers, each blind by the time they reached this milestone in their lives, each so courageous in the face of adversity. Wouldn’t it be something if their paths had crossed at some point, I think.

Later I spotted him walking down the gravel path on the main thoroughfare in our old neighborhood, a wide boulevard with a generous median. Hey, Martin, it’s me, I hollered. He recognized my voice. Martin, is that a flower pot on your head? He removed the upside-down basket with a wide lip on it and grinned and hollered back that it worked better at keeping the sun off his face than any of his other hats. You be careful out here, Martin.

Now I am worrying about him a little, an aged blind man walking alone in a neighborhood where traffic often moves too fast. Then I remember this is Martin-the-Eccentric, Martin-the-Fearless. Martin, who would never let a trifling thing like traffic, or judge-y church parishioners, or humorless math teachers—or blindness—stand in the way of his bold, adventuresome mind.

How to Live in a Summer Moment

Summery Radicchio

Summer is color at long last after months of a monochromatic landscape, not only the verdant carpet that defines our namesake Green Mountains in Vermont, but in what it yields: marbled veins and rivulets in crimson radicchio, the bitter leaf that will cavort a while later with exotic mesclun and mustard greens waiting patiently in their twist-tied bags at the farm stand, where I stop on the way home from work, where a cat wanders around while people are picking through vegetables, a cat who sometimes plunks down lazily on the rough-hewn floorboards and flicks the tip of her tail back and forth and forces patrons to queue up awkwardly around her at the counter. Everybody smiles. Cat, you know nothing of the alert dog waiting just outside these big, open barn doors in the back seat of my car, I think.

Summer is taking that dog outside to do his doings whilst contemplating words like curmudgeon, and unctuous, or unctuous curmudgeon, and then realizing you can’t really have it both ways because they cancel each other out, which is too bad because ‘unctuous curmudgeon’ rolls off the tongue in a pleasing way. Scout, you are an unctuous curmudgeon, I say, and he wags his tail at me.

Summer is listening to Miles Davis in the evening with plenty of daylight still filtering through the skylights above, wondering who stole my copy of Kind of Blue back in Knoxville years ago and wondering why I never replaced it. And thinking of all the music I said I’d collect through the years but never did, like Fleetwood Mac or Michael Jackson in spite of his weirdness, or any of a number of 1980s British Invasion bands whose over-produced music I loved in my twenties. And the Bach Brandenburg Concerti—I still have none of them after all these years. And by the way maybe it was the same person who stole the liner notes from my Paul McCartney USA tour video, which vanished around the same time as Miles.

Summer is reminiscing about a highfalutin event my ex and I once hosted in Knoxville, a fundraiser for a local historic landmark where I’d worked as a young student of archaeology. And now years later I was somehow on the board of trustees feeling like a fish out of water and this enormous white event tent was pitched on our sprawling corner lawn shaded by massive, centuries-old hardwoods, a tent filled with tables and white wood folding chairs and people dressed to the nines and a sommelier going on about what they would be drinking that evening, and making Kir Royales for everybody all night long while they were writing checks. And thinking I knew on that night how the rest of my life would go. But in that moment, I am thinking I’d rather have a trowel in my hand and dirt under my nails than wear this tailored linen dress. Or stand at the barre breaking in a new pair of pointe shoes instead of wearing too-tight sandals on my own front lawn among people whose names I won’t remember and who know nothing of me.

And here I am two decades later in Vermont, longing for a summery Kir and making one for the first time in as long, with cheap cassis and even cheaper chardonnay. And it is better than I remembered.

And then reading about how to make a perfect Kir after I have already made and drunk one, I marvel at the snobbery out there in the wine-y ether, and about how you’re supposed pour in the cassis first so that it mixes perfectly with the wine, taking care it’s not too red—and instead I pour it in last, and carefully, to try to make it separate from the wine in the glass on purpose like a dessert parfait, because it did that by accident one time in Knoxville and it became a science experiment to try to make it do that again and again; my archaeology colleagues would appreciate the layers that recall stratigraphy in the soil.

Summer is eating lobster and filet because they were on sale and because I live with a person who knows how to prepare and cook them, and also greedily gnawing on our corn on the cob from a local farm, which if we’re being honest pales in comparison to what I grew up eating. And sneaking a small bite or two to Scout-on-the-sofa between us while we enjoy this rare surf-and-turf supper and binge watch the final few episodes of Six Feet Under on a Friday night after a difficult work week, and laugh and cry at the hilarity and sadness of mortality and at human frailty in general. And then we decide to save the last episode for later.

Summer is rooting for the lightning bugs in the woods when darkness falls at last, whispering that their homies down South would love to meet all three of them, and wondering how in this far-north destination they could ever overwinter in the first place.

Summer is anticipating a trip down South in September when it will still be plenty hot, and pretending I’m running on a gravel road in North Carolina where my erstwhile family’s erstwhile vacation home languishes in legal limbo, and comes unglued at the seams a little more with each passing Appalachian freeze and thaw cycle. I pretend I’m already on vacation before I run around the corner with Scout in this mountainous Vermont neighborhood and remember I am not.

A robin red breast will sit on the gravel road in the summer in Vermont with his back to you, statuesque, giving you the impression—however fleeting—that you can have him. Your lift your tawny ears, furrow your wrinkly brow, and stiffen your body at this delicious possibility. The prey drive in you engages at the precise moment he takes flight. Away he goes, and with him your resolve, which evaporates right off your muscular neck, moving first through your collar, and then all the way up your leash where the human hand on the other end of it feels it waft away, the human who has reminded you time and again you’ll never catch a bird.

But you are here to remind your human to live in this summer moment.

Rainbows and Unicorns: Trolling for Utopia

Just, Verdant, and Peaceful

If an alien visited earth and happened to tune in to any public radio station in America he might get the impression we’re building Utopia somewhere. The adverts for the corporate and foundation sponsors promise all kinds of rainbows and unicorns—equality for all, an end to hunger, obliterating disease everywhere, stamping out global violence, et al., and don’t forget my personal favorite: building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. Really, it’s a parade of the best answers to those Huge Questions beauty pageant finalists are asked. And what is your hope for the future, Miss Maple Syrup?

They’re all pretty dang lofty goals. But most of the slogans include the word ‘helping’ or similar somewhere in the language, always the participle form of the verb, meaning there are no guarantees in life, and we might not find any rainbows or unicorns at all in our Utopic world, and anyway it’s a process (ergo, the participle). Or maybe it’s on the rest of us to achieve the verdant world, but they’ll help us. Or if we’re being a tad cynical, they will help achieve the verdant world in spite of us because we (or maybe the non-public-radio-listening among us) have made the world, you know, less verdant.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not agin’ any of it. All of it is worthy and important and I hope like heck every one of those foundations finds or makes the rainbows or unicorns or clean water or peace or the verdant world they’re hoping for. I wish them well, I’m all for it, and I’ll help if I can. Meanwhile most of us, self included, have less alluring-sounding and more immediate concerns, like paying the light bill.

There are no guarantees in life—that’s a reality I can work with. It’s also a message I’ve been trumpeting, whispering, texting, and beaming via telepathy, to a certain young person in the hopes it will sink in, even in some small, imperceptible way that gives me exactly no satisfaction for a long, long time. It’s a painful process, like watching a plant grow without the benefits of time-lapse photography to reveal an inkling of evidence something’s happening. You may as well make yourself comfy, because you’ll be sitting there for a while—and you might want to take something now for the headaches ahead.

When the unicorns elude you, as they are wont to do, it is time to make a plan: that has been my mantra for this young person for the last five or so years, with this addendum lately: all work is noble work, and that certainly includes washing cars on a hot tarmac, even if somewhere inside your head an annoying little troll keeps whispering, you’re too good for this.

Nope, you’re not, nor am I, nor is anybody. The economy gets to decide that, together with some other important adjudicators, like edumacation, for example, and able-bodiedness. But you’re still the boss of your destiny: if you are unhappy with the situation as you find it, you have the capacity to change it. If you imagine yourself a victim of external forces, coupled with a stubbornly held conviction the world owes you something, you will never improve your destiny. Once you embrace this idea, the rate at which you move forward is directly correlated with the measure of your personal dissatisfaction with things as they are. (Maybe not directly correlated, but it sounds good, anyway, and I think there is at least kernel of truth to it.)

I accept that the landscape is different for young folks now than when I was growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s. When I was in elementary school I had friends who earned a respectable amount of pocket change for ice cream from their newspaper routes. One summer I made enough cash babysitting to make a dent in my summer residential ballet school tuition. I could not wait to leave home at 18 and get my grown-up life started. And I cobbled together enough resources working part-time retail jobs to help pay for my in-state college tuition, books, and living expenses, with extra help from back home to be sure. Soon after college I made fast work of paying off a small student loan with a minimum wage job while I was figuring out my Next Big Plan.

No retail job can accomplish all that for a kid these days, and I recognize it. And the reality is, fewer young folk are able to leave the nest as I did at 18, or maybe they leave it and come back to it for a while before they finally launch in earnest. Remove the college education variable from that equation and it’s harder still for a young person to achieve independence. I really do get it.

I still cling to the notion that hard work is noticed and duly rewarded, and for most of us the only way forward. With rare exception there is no magnum opus, no single stroke of genius, no get-rich-quick scheme to jettison one to the top, however the top looks. There is only hard work. As renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp observed, Mozart wrote a lot of music, and some of it was exceptional: significantly, he wrote a lot of music. Prolific author Nora Roberts opined there’s no such thing as writer’s block: there is only writing, or not writing. Speaking as a writer, I think she’s spot on: to write requires writing, even badly. But maybe one day you’ll write something brilliant that earns accolades; and while you’re working on that the rest of what you write will help pay the light bill.

In the beginning, accolades bear an uncanny resemblance to the minimum wage you receive for washing cars on a hot tarmac.

Take your dissatisfaction, goes my message, whatever it is—being snowbound for days on end with young children as Nora Roberts was when she started writing, or merely the irksome boredom of living as an adult at your dad’s house (be thankful for the roof over your head)—and make your next move. Always show up to work eager and on time. Go the extra mile and come in on your day off if you’re needed—you’ll earn a reputation for being reliable and hardworking. And be helpful and polite—people will notice. All these things will add up, and soon you’ll find yourself rising above the rest.

That has been my message more or less, and there are signs, however minuscule, it’s finally getting through to someone heretofore of little faith.

But I’d also add this, to anybody still listening: never completely ignore the trolls, and keep on searching for the unicorns—one day you might find them.

Deer Flies and Summer Storms: First Day in July

Second Day in July

Cool air washed clean by the rain that came before it makes the deer flies retreat: that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

There was only steam yesterday, July 1st of 2017. Frontal boundaries on the afternoon horizon stood in stark contrast against menacing, billowy black storm clouds floating above them and clearer skies below. In the distance torrential rain fell in wide, sloping columns, dragged by the advancing atmospheric energy across upstate New York, thence over the border and into Vermont. Somebody somewhere was getting soaked.

Earlier we had gotten it, Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I. First the rain fell against the car windshield in minuscule beads, fragrant, benign, even friendly: call it a pleasant early summer shower. Then with gathering momentum the droplets splattered against the glass intentionally, like an irksome child testing his boundaries. And with no warning at all this erstwhile innocent morphed into an angry faerie changeling with fists raised, pelting the car in a full-blown tantrum, the land around us inundated. Windshield wipers dialed up to ‘stun’ threw rain off the car as we barreled down the bumpy road, dodging puddles right and left to keep the wheels attached to the pavement. I might have pulled over.

You could just say it was pouring, HCB will opine later when he reads this. And I will say, where’s the fun in that? Go decorate some cookies.

By the time we reached our second stop the rain had let up. We threw open the car doors and stepped onto steamy parking lot asphalt. Feels like summer, I was thinking; feels like the South. These conditions are long familiar to me, fleeting up here in these parts where ice and deep cold are wont to wear out their welcome, as my mama might say. This heavy, sunny steam bath—this is prime deer fly weather. However stridently somebody who’s truly in the know might object, that’s my own customized folk wisdom, field tested and proven.

Here’s an example: yesterday I had my first deer fly bite of the season. Because I suspected it would be muggy Scout and I set out early for our Saturday morning run by the Battenkill. He is the first dog in my life to equivocate about running. Dogs aren’t built for long-distance running, nor were their ancestors: they’re born sprinters. You have to ease them into running a little at a time, like any human athlete would train. There are exceptions, of course: the Rhodesian Ridgeback will run your ass into the ground and never look back, evidently. And Siberian Huskies will run for days with a payload to boot (I’ve had four Huskies over the years and each of them needed desperately to go and to pull). But for the most part, our canine companions had rather race ‘round the back yard after smallish rodents, as Scout does routinely these days. He can turn on a dime—it is most impressive. But I digress.

Tight Turning Radius

Scout is gradually getting his running legs (‘summer play muscles,’ insist the staff at the dog camp where he goes for an afternoon a week), willing and able to cover something close to three miles in the heat before he throws his polka dotted hand to his forehead dramatically and quits; we’re getting there. And so it was yesterday morning, when my ingenious deer fly shunning device failed. (Scout’s running leash is long enough that I can whip a section of it back and forth over my head while we’re running, and it usually works: deer flies buzz their victims in circles before they alight and rip painfully into the flesh—a flurry of dog leash is a pretty good deterrent, the best one I’ve devised yet.) We made our way through a couple of deer fly patches without incident; deer flies are territorial and once you’ve gotten through they will not follow you beyond the borders.

But with only a half mile to the finish line, giddy and soaked in sweat, I felt the unmistakable sting on the back of my neck. My hand nailed the little miscreant, who did not live to see another day. A couple of days earlier in the cooler, drier conditions, the little bugger would have been hiding obediently somewhere—wherever deer flies go when it’s cool and dry. Maybe they grow stupid and lazy and take long naps; I don’t care so long as they leave me alone.

No Deer Flies Here

Meanwhile Scout emerged from our summery morning run happy and unscathed. This was not often the case for his predecessor Clarence-the-Canine, the German Shepherd who willingly followed me to Vermont five years ago. Clarence was an athlete through and through—we could run the five miles around Lake Morey where I lived at the time, and he would gladly go again. But in the height of deer fly season Clarence often suffered multiple bites on the tip of his nose, where you had to swat away clusters of them, leaving tiny beads of blood in their wake. On the insect bite pain continuum I’d put the deer fly somewhere between a sweat bee and a common house fly: it’s not searing, scorching pain like you’d feel from a yellow jacket sting, but it certainly gets your attention. Poor Clarence. Yesterday, though, I took one for the team, as it were.

In short, I can see no good in a deer fly, who seems intent only to cause only pain and suffering.

I can see plenty of good in afternoon storms in July (they continued well into the evening) and a day of erranding that yielded lunch at this exquisite eatery over in Greenwich, a new laptop at long last, and hand dipped coffee ice cream: it’s the best remedy for deer-fly-inducing steam I can think of, even if you had to wait in line behind an entire little league team to get it. Little league plus ice cream—that’s a damn-near perfect first day in July.

Damn Near Perfect July Day

Sunday Photo Essay: Remnants of the Adelphi

Wish You Were Here

Broadway is the main drag in downtown Saratoga Springs, New York, a smallish upstate city with a distinctly urban feel and an appealing quirkiness that defines so many downtown districts coming into their own after a period of modern-day decline. A city with so much going for it—named for the mineral water that flows beneath it, possessing bragging rights to a Thoroughbred racing legacy reaching back to the Civil War, to say nothing of its art and culture (it’s been New York City Ballet’s summer home for decades)—can surely survive any old decline short of a post-apocalyptic zombie invasion.

And so it seems she will. The historic Adelphi Hotel built on Broadway in 1877 is slated to reopen this summer after a long renovation. Give me any structure with a past worth revisiting and I’m in—I’ll probably never patronize the Adelphi except perhaps for a cocktail sometime or other. But now I own a little piece of it.

Yesterday Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I spent a pleasant while in a nondescript Clifton Park, NY warehouse fingering the remnants of the historic Adelphi at the everything’s-gotta-go tag sale. The first sale was some five years ago, when the hotel’s new investors bought the crumbling grand dame, “the last surviving hotel from the 19th century,” goes the Wiki entry. We suspect these were the leftovers siphoned off in a single lot to an estate liquidator, the picked-over artifacts after the ‘good’ stuff was gone. We were hopeful but realistic.

Blue Willow for days

What we found after browsing the mostly boring modern commercial kitchenware was no less than magical, a treasure trove of artwork with stories to tell. Some of it surely hung on the walls in the Adelphi’s common areas, some probably in the guest rooms. Most of it was in bad shape, every stitch of it spoke to me through broken glass and dismembered picture frames. I can only guess what must have gone before it, but these tattered scraps held so much appeal.

A Serious Affair
I will sit here with my hat on my velvet knickers while you simultaneously spin wool, chat with me, and read your book
I am pretty sure this is against union rules
Hate wearing dresses
Giselle Act I, perhaps?
Cherubim and Seraphim
Cupid’s Slow Day
The Birth of Ballet
Dance Master

That last one followed me home—how could I say no? It will need some revitalization and shall have it in due course. I wanted the one above it, too, but together the two of them exceeded my paltry, self-imposed budget. Plus, I had to have a little Blue Willow. A woman behind me asked why I was not getting both pictures and I said I was finished, but went on to explain to her how the image perfectly captured the provenance of the movement that still defines classical ballet today. She bought the picture for herself. And HCB found himself salt and pepper shakers to add to his burgeoning collection.

This morning I had the best coffee ever.

Perfect Cup

New Real Friends: A (Hopeful) Lamentation

Real Friends

Our parents serve as eternal reminders of every ‘cute’ thing we said and did in childhood, however stridently we might wish to forget: it’s a parenting privilege. I find myself doing it to my own twenty-something these days, even across the miles that separate us. I need my bref-kass, I mutter in the early morning hours to no one in particular, channeling his misinterpretation of the word breakfast when he was two. The language wire so comically crossed in his noggin stayed that way for years, rerouted by a speech pathologist just in time for middle school. (His peers will slaughter him next year, had come the peremptory warning from the elementary school principal.) I missed that little glitch when it was finally gone. Parenting privilege.

In my own early childhood, it was the post-kindergarten report: how was your first day of school, my parents wanted to know?

I loved school, could not wait to go, and continued to love it mainly, save a couple of ‘prime suffering years’ during adolescence, as a beloved fictional character might say. On the first day of kindergarten, though, my enthusiastic response evidently went something like this: “Today I made some new REAL friends!” Hilarity ensued.

It’s not an exceptional first day report, really, except for the emphasis. Even at five I clearly possessed some awareness of the distinction between casual acquaintance and friend, I think, however rudimentary.

Friendship is work, going both ways. Like anything worthwhile, it requires regular care and upkeep; neglect it and it languishes. When friendship feels effortless (it is never truly effortless), that’s proof positive of good chemistry. At least that’s how I view it.

When the planets in one’s life begin to misalign, when the glue that holds together the firmament dries and cracks and begins to flake away, the joy of a friendship transforms into hard labor. That’s a heavy yoke for a friend to bear—at least, if the burden persists beyond some decent interval of time. The last few years I lived in Tennessee I think I had grown too difficult for some of the people around me, some of my real friends—too high-maintenance, if you will, and at times even insufferable. I remain forever grateful to a particular few who stuck it out with me, when it felt like the effort had flowed mainly one way for too long.

There is a simpler piece to friendship, though, and that is time, a luxury I took for granted for years. My friends and I were lucky, even sheltered, tucked away in a beautiful, prosperous community, held together with common values to be sure, but mainly our children. I can’t speak for any of them now, but I was short-sighted. I never anticipated a future when the luxury of time would evaporate, when our lives would grow more complicated, when geography and divergent interests would conspire to separate us: I assumed there would always be lunch on the occasional Friday afternoon, or dinner on a weeknight, or Shakespeare on the Square with bag chairs and a picnic in summer. 

It also never dawned on me, poised as I was to start life anew in a place far removed from my family and friends, the impossibility of repotting those plants. (To be fair, I was focused on survival.) The reality is, when you no longer have church—however that looks—or community to unite you with others of your ilk, you will come up empty handed. Add to that a life bereft of the luxury of time, and you can forget about fostering anything more than a few casual acquaintances in a place that still does not feel like home.

But casual acquaintances have a way of morphing into real friendships, and therein lies salvation. So many significant friendships start this way: with rare exception, I’m hard pressed to define a specific point in time where the connections in my life crossed the threshold from casual to real.

Meanwhile I imagine a point on the horizon when I once again possess the luxury of time for friends. We’ll meet for lunch or dinner to talk about a shared experience for far too long—we might even shut down the little noodle eatery in Union Square at 11pm, forced to finish our conversation back at my Manhattan rental until almost dawn, because there is still so much to say. Or I’ll admire my friend’s most recent creation (she is gifted); I’ll finger the landscape on a piece of her pottery and tell her I love the blue glaze, her latest textile work will inspire me and I’ll lament for the umpteenth time how I can’t do anything with my hands, and my friend will wave it off like it’s nothing. Or my friend and I will talk about how hard it is to recognize the right moment to step away and watch an adult child suffer, or know when to step in and help. Or we’ll fiddle with our cameras and talk about apertures and my friend will know much more than I and I’ll feebly follow along as best I can and try to learn; but we’ll finish with chocolate dessert, which always makes everything better. Or we’ll stay on the phone for far too long speaking a language nobody else understands, the language of ballet divas, but he is from the South like me and so we have this extra layer of camaraderie, and we’ll channel our best French-Southern ballet-speak and explode in laughter and agree as our phones die we need to talk more often.

I’ll do all these things again with my real friends.

Photo Essay: Saturday in Three Parts

Summery Saturday Explosion

We really did miss out on spring, dang it. Winter held fast, and then fought tooth and nail before it finally relented sometime a couple of weeks ago. There were fair weather days here and there; they were but an illusion, some atmospheric sleight of hand at work, wicked trickery you might call it. And now we’ve arrived at summer full blown. I miss the changing of the seasons.

After Saturday morning doings we struck out on errands and found a little fun. Part I: our favorite farm stand opened at long last, a springtime box finally ticked. One hopes for a long growing season and exquisite bounty. For now it is slim pickings, but pickings nonetheless and a crowd of folks as desperate as we to get their hands on it—our little home garden is only just sprouting.

My struggle to bring images into focus in low light with limited equipment and expertise seems oddly appropriate since the bounty of the season remains blurry at best. An extreme example at this little eatery where we had lunch, Part II:

See that pale thing on the plate? That is no tomato (and a certain chef suggested it should never have found its way out of the kitchen to begin with). This is a tomato:

Saturday Part III was all about time travel, my idea.

Eventually the din grew too loud to bear, all those stories clamoring to be told. And there is only so much Swiss dot milk glass one can stomach in a single Saturday.