Waning Summer

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I have a pair of visitors who make their presence known every single morning on my front porch, expecting to be fed. I confess I have cultivated this habit in them. Handsome Chef Boyfriend chides me about this, insisting I will be the kind of old lady one day who can’t afford to put food on the table but will somehow manage to feed the wildlife. I don’t care. I like these little critters, who are now pretty tame. One has a kink in its tail and HCB calls it Corkscrew. As in, Hey, look. Corkscrew is banging on the door expecting to be fed. Recently when I was away for a few days at HCB’s he told me he was surprised they had not left a hateful note on the door in my absence. Sometimes they climb up on the kindling box or wood pile so they can get closer to my face. I know they are wild animals who would probably just as soon sink their teeth into me, but they still crack me up and I like interacting with them. I never once saw a chipmunk in Tennessee this tame, ever.

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I hate seeing summer draw to a close even though fall is really my very favorite time of year. When winter rolls around I start thinking dreadful thoughts about things. Like mortality. And short, short days bereft of sunshine. And months of bitter cold that drag on endlessly. (Cue the Dickens.)

But enough of that. Right now is a time of renewal, of new schedules, new classes, new friends, new possibilities.

And I think this blog needs a facelift. I have ideas I’ve been developing for a while, and hope I can figure out how to bring them to fruition without help. I have new stories to tell, and news to share.

‘Til then, have some peanuts. They’re on me.

Travel Log: Maine Attractions

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I know, awful title. But fitting after a birthday weekend in beautiful, coastal Camden with the King-o-Puns, my Handsome Chef Boyfriend. That happened weekend before last, a birthday gift HCB planned and handed to me with the admonition to put away my wallet. We had to move heaven and earth to make our little jaunt happen at all, what with tricky work schedules, other logistical hurdles, and always–always–the need to lead a frugal life during challenging fiscal times.

I had never been that far up the East Coast, nor to Maine, before last weekend. And it was really the first time the two of us could escape our lives and travel without some other agenda or pressing deadline, our time together seemingly always secondary to that. We had no schedule to keep. Just three delicious, sunny, breezy glorious days.

We stayed at the home of HCB’s longtime friends, Chef Ken Paquin and his wife Del who also happens to come originally from the South, like moi. Ken comes from Massachusetts; I could listen to him for days and still not know how to pahk the cah. HCB has a long past with them about which I’ve heard so much over the course of the last two years. They own a fantastic and highly successful bistro called Atlantica tucked on the water’s edge at Bayview Landing in historic downtown Camden. Del works tirelessly in the front of the house, and also behind the scenes making sure the restaurant is stocked with the most beautiful of fresh ingredients. Ken is an executive chef whose proprietary creativity transcends the kitchen to include his talented staff, many of them young European students already with complex and varied life stories.

We insinuated ourselves in their lovely home during the height of the season, which meant we saw very little of them, a not-so-subtle reminder that the food industry–and especially its service leg–demands so much of its purveyors. I still can’t help drawing parallels between professional cuisine and professional ballet, where you’ve also got to commit fully to enjoy success–you can’t just kinda want to do it. There is no rest for the weary. But I digress.

On Saturday night the restaurant was slammed so HCB and I ventured a little ways north to Lincolnville for dinner at casual place Ken suggested, also right on the water. McLaughlin’s Lobster Shack is the kind of iconic place where you get succulent lobster on a hot dog roll, with corn bread (the sweet kind that we call Yankee corn bread down South) and corn on the cob, or other traditional sides. We sat outside at the water’s edge and watched the harried staff snap live lobsters from their holding tanks, tossing them directly into the boiling pots with the corn. It’s an unassuming place with a big following and a matching price tag. Ken later explained this has not been an especially good lobster season, ergo the prices. Still, when in Maine….

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Sunday was my birthday, officially. and we had Atlantica dinner reservations. During the day we were left to our own devices and managed some exploring in spite of the fact that my chronic foot injury continues to make it difficult for me to do normal people things like, say, stand and walk (to say nothing of teaching classical ballet).

We found our way first to Rockport Harbor, where we had a near-perfect Cuban sandwich at the Fox on the Run food truck. My Knoxville friends may remember a place in Homberg called Alex’s Havana Café, where you could get the real deal. This was a close approximation; the only thing that struck me as a bit inauthentic was the bread, but it satisfied our cravings, hoagie-style bun notwithstanding. After a longish wait for our food we sat on a bench and ate, watching people with unimaginable fortunes maneuvering their mightily expensive (and beautiful) sailboats in and out of the harbor. (We also witnessed an elderly man being rescued from a brush with death after his questionable decision to board an unstable dinghy life jacket-less left him partially immersed in the hahbah.)

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Thence to the Rockland Harbor Lighthouse, which sounded like a fun out-and-back, just an eight-tenths of a mile walk on the breakwater each way. Easy peasy, right? Funny how the closer we came to the lighthouse itself, the further into the horizon it seemed to shrink. It was a beautiful day, and I had my sweetheart’s hand in my own the entire time. And my foot hurt so badly by the time we finished I wanted to kill somebody. Yep, there’s a lighthouse out there. Way, way, way out there.

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After a brief chance to rest at home we headed back into Camden for the emphatic highlight of our weekend, Atlantica dinner. Ken was incredibly gracious and gave us a perfect table on the water. Photographic evidence of brilliant cuisine follows (and yes, it was as amazing as the pictures suggest):

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Afterwards Ken served us too-generous portions of a chocolate velvet cake my own handsome chef had made for me; we left the balance of it for the young restaurant staff to polish off (they were visibly elated).

There was more to our trip–a fun stop in Bath, where I missed seeing a friend from my ballet school days, but where we walked the historic district and enjoyed the sights. And also an evening in Belfast where we did more of the same. On Monday we spent a while in Camden’s trendy shops looking for things to take home to our kids. And then we said goodbye to our hosts, ’til next time. Ken and HCB posed for a photo, but because I am still sworn to maintaining boyfriend privacy, I had to crop him right out of it. I give you (ahem) Chef Ken Paquin and HCB’s right ear. Nice, huh?

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Yesterday was HCB’s birthday, and I had made plans to fix him birthday dinner Saturday night, schlepping a cookbook with me to his house. But during one of our epic, silly conversations we got back onto the subject of lobstah, and before we knew it were looking up Lobster Thermidor, an out-of-fashion dish with an interesting past. HCB was determined to make it, so we changed our Saturday plans. The happy results:

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And while a single serving would typically include an entire lobster, as HCB explained, we decided that since we had so many beautiful veggies growing outside the door and from a local farm stand, a big ‘un would suffice for the two of us.

I still say Lobster Thermidor sounds like a refrigerator. I am not complaining. Visit Maine if you have not (or even if you have), and bon appétit!

Elusive Friendship and Little Swans

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Last week we wrapped up a three-week summer intensive at ballet school; on Saturday the high-intermediate-level students showcased their work in a studio demonstration for their families, something that usually happens at the end of intensives. Each of us on staff was asked to set something on them. I chose Cygnets (“young swans”), the dance of the four little swans from Swan Lake Act II. It’s a fun but challenging allegro variation I decided was well within reach of the kids I was teaching. In the end they danced it in two sets of three, as we had odd numbers and a couple of kids missing. They did an admirable job given the amount of time they had to learn the choreography and (start to) refine it.

Something that sets Cygnets apart from other variations we might have used is the connectedness of the dancers, and I mean that literally. The four girls are physically joined by hands for the entire two-minute or so piece, separating only at the very end. (If that sounds short to you, try jumping rope for two minutes without stopping. With outward rotation in the legs. And pointy feet. And fully stretched knees. And a nice, straight back. With shoulders relaxed. Attached to three other people. Moving in perfect unison with the music.)

Teaching in a summer intensive dredges up all kinds of memories of attending them myself, way back in the day when we just called it “summer school.” A highlight was learning from stellar faculty to whom many of us did not have access during the academic year, a few of them iconic. I am not sure whether I recognized when I was in the presence of greatness as a twelve- or thirteen-year-old, but my ballerina mama tried to impress it upon me as best she could.

Aside from being steeped in all that amazing training–as much as a year compressed into a few weeks–the thing I remember is the friendships formed between girls (and boys! in tights!) from all over the country, and a stray overseas dancer or two. It was the closest I ever came to attending sleep-away camp, something my pals outside the ballet world did most summers.

In the days following the end of summer school we kept our friendships alive as pen pals but most of those connections languished over time as we went our separate ways and embarked on adult lives. Now a few cherished friendships have been rekindled after long silences, courtesy of social media (which we never could have imagined), and that is a truly wonderful thing, I believe.

All this has me thinking a lot lately about friendships in the context of what has happened in my life over the last two years–an unimaginably horrible divorce, a thousand-mile move to a place where I knew (practically) nobody, disconnection from family and friends, a midlife reinvention. I have never been the kind of person you knew in high school who somehow maintained relationships with everybody, gathering up friends like wildflowers. I was the kid with only a couple of cherished friendships. I think I learned early that important relationships are not to be taken lightly, and require effort to maintain. How can you do that with so many people? I am sure some can; I am not one of them.

At the start of each new school year my mom urged me to find the person who looked like they needed a friend, and then to be a friend to that person. Some years I managed this more successfully than others–that is a tall order for a third-grader. But once in a while, when the plan really worked well, I discovered some amazing kid I’d never have known about otherwise.

Life during a huge transition, though, has posed a great many challenges to forming new friendships. First and foremost, when you arrive at a particular place in your life, at a particular time, it is exceedingly difficult (and maybe even unfair) to invoke a new friendship. It is really asking a lot of someone, strange as that may sound. And for the time being, anyway, I am still in survival mode–I no longer possess the luxury of time for weekly phone chats or lunches out, as I did only a couple of years ago, because my circumstances are radically different now.

But using the be-a-friend paradigm, it occurs to me as an adult that there is another issue: the person who appears to really need a friend is often a Difficult Person. And I will submit to you that adults are way less forgiving of difficult personalities than kids. I think about this all the time, and of the occasions where it was I who was difficult, and of the people who reached out to me when I needed a friend. Doing this as an adult feels risky, and more challenging than inviting a shy girl who is ridiculed for bizarre fashion sense to sit with you in the lunchroom because you know nobody else will.

Vitale FokineAnd yet this is precisely how I came to know a legend–Vitale Fokine–a ballet giant whose father Michel had a generation before him created enduring Romantic-era ballets. Vitale was on the guest faculty at a summer school I attended around 1977. He was ancient by the time our paths crossed; he spoke with a heavy accent (Russian, and his voice was shot), and gave technique classes that felt oh-so-foreign to me. On the first morning of summer school I scanned the the dorm cafeteria for a place to sit and spied him (you guessed it) alone at a table. The paradigm kicked in. I grabbed my roommate by the elbow for support and led her behind me to sit with him. For two weeks Mr. Fokine was our breakfast friend. He ate peaches and burnt toast, insisting the carbon black was good “for the digestion.” The ballet world lost him a very short time later, that same year.

I look at the kids I teach and hope they are forming happy alliances with each other at a time when friendships between difficult girls can daily hang in the balance. I also hope they will someday reflect on these friendships, which had a chance to congeal during intensives. When I was coaching them in Cygnets I tried to impress upon them how very important it was for them to be together, to move as a single unit. And as they banged knees in bouts of comically miscalculated timing during the learning process, they laughed like crazy and collapsed on the floor in giggles at the end of two minutes of togetherness, more than once. I am taking this as a good sign. My mantra as always is, We take our work seriously, but not ourselves.

I leave you with the version of Cygnets that we used for the intensives, danced here by students at Canada’s National Ballet School as part of a year-end performance.