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.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor: What Does Your Life Promise?

Maybe you’ll live in an artsy house with a bicycle wheel fence out front

Life promises nothing. And everything.

An earnest young man named Tristan called me Wednesday night on behalf of the University of Tennessee’s Arts and Sciences Annual Telefund, he said. I found a mailer from my alma mater in the P.O. box last week, so I knew this was coming and already planned to give. Perfect timing, this call, as I was sitting on the sofa after work doing mainly nothing except unwind with the news and a glass of wine in hand. It’s somehow reassuring that the familiar ‘974’ exchange still belongs to UT—I knew exactly who it was.

Last year I gave the student solicitor an earful of unsolicited advice. He may have caught me at a bad moment, I can’t recall. But I do remember thinking, if you’re intercepting my down time like this then you’ll hear a few words for my trouble. I asked him about his major (business). I said, go take English. No, wait. Go take English literature. You’ll need the writing skills, even if you think you won’t in whatever professional life you anticipate on the outside.

You’ll need to know how to write well if you enter the priesthood

To his credit, he was polite and reverential, and admitted writing was not his strongest suit, that his dad helped proofread his college papers even now. I gave him some names, which he said he was taking down. For all I know he was making a note on my Permanent Record, This one is a whack job.

Poor Tristan: he was brave enough to dial me up even with that red flag flying.

I exercised more self-restraint with this young man. He asked how I got to Vermont from Tennessee. Long story, I said, involving an awful divorce. I’ll spare you the details. Fair enough, but if I may ask, he persisted, can you tell me how you’ve used your degree in anthropology?

Maybe you’ll open a weirdly specific business

The short answer, I told him, is not at all. The longer and more truthful one goes like this: my degree helped me survive at a moment in time when I thought I might not, because all those classes in anthropology and other disciplines conspired to help make me a stronger writer. It is how I earn my keep these days, writing and editing digital copy for a burgeoning marketing agency here in Vermont.

Ah, said Tristan: so you moved to Vermont to work for a marketing agency?

No, I told him, I moved to Vermont to teach ballet. I have spent much of my life immersed in classical ballet, but that is a story for another day.

He understood, he said, and would not take any more of my time. He told me he was from Michigan, enjoys his life as a UT student, and knows Vermont because he comes here in winter to ski; it is a beautiful corner of the world, we agreed. Then he ticked off a list of recent improvements to campus and insisted “without the support of alumnae like you” they would be impossible (now he was reading from a script). Have you visited campus lately?

Two summers ago, I said, I drove through.

Did you know they’re tearing down Presidential? (He is no longer reading.) It’s about damn time, I said: I lived in one of those brutalist high-rise buildings as a freshman and remember it only as a noisy and impersonal assault to the senses. We both laughed. Seriously, he said—you should come see it—there’s only a huge pile of rubble now.

I’d like that, Tristan; maybe this summer. I asked him to make my gift to the Anthropology Endowment in honor of one Charles Faulkner, professor emeritus. He thanked me and said goodnight.

You might go postal

To my unrelenting desire to dance Mouse King in somebody’s Nutcracker, I think I’ll add, deliver a college commencement speech. I have a much better shot at Mouse King because some small civic ballet company somewhere might actually find itself desperate for one, although I may be too short to fill those shoes. But I’ll never give a commencement address because I lack the other kind of stature: fame and notoriety. Still, I have so much to say.

My chat with Tristan got me thinking about the varied chapters of my life so far, and the impossibility of connecting the dots that will define the rest of one’s life when one is only just graduating from college. I wish somebody had explained this to me when I was Tristan’s age—connecting those dots is an exercise in futility, and anyway it doesn’t matter. Standing there in your cap and gown, giddy with your accomplishments thus far, you have no way of knowing what lies ahead. If you chose a career for which specialized training was essential—you’ll practice law, or medicine, for example—it’s not unreasonable to expect some pieces to fall into place as you imagined they might.

Maybe you’ll live on a groovy sustainable farm in rural Massachusetts

But most people I knew when I stood on that threshold were still putting together the pieces. I dealt with my own uncertainty by postponing decision making for a while, plowing headlong into graduate school with leftover undergrad momentum. I was married by then, and a surprise adoption changed my plans near the end of my coursework, a plot twist I found delightful and challenging in its own right. Full-time parent of a difficult child: it was not in the blueprint (by then I had zeroed in on a few career possibilities, none ever realized as fate would have it). Nor could I have predicted returning full time to classical ballet as a teacher might insinuate itself into the child rearing landscape (I forgot to tell young Tristan I used anthropology every day of the week in the ballet classroom, giving my students lessons in anatomy with a full-size anatomical skeleton—who knew coursework in human osteology would prove helpful in the ballet studio?).

Nor could I imagine that in the space of only a few months it would all vanish: a comfortable, settled, affluent lifestyle a couple of decades in the make completely gone. Gone.

Nobody gets through life without a few curve balls, maybe even a direct hit to the noggin once in a while. But what do you do when somebody yanks the rug out from under you wholesale?

Wholesale destruction is a delicious opportunity to start all over again

At first, you gnash your teeth and wail and lash out at the universe: you need answers—why is this happening to me? The universe is strangely quiet. When you tire of waiting, you finally blow your nose and sweep your greying hair out of your face, push up your sleeves, and get to work. Next comes the hard part: you may suffer a little humiliation while you’re figuring out Plan B. And Plan C, D, or even Plan E…. But this exercise is so much better than the alternative, after all. And anyway, you have no choice.

When I was puzzling through a squirrelly child-rearing problem years ago, a wise friend reminded me to use past behavior to predict future behavior. Superimpose this idea on life’s bigger mysteries, and you get something like this: use past successes to predict future successes. Your package of skills helped you accomplish much: now use them to accomplish something more, even if the shape of that thing, whatever it is—could be writing for a marketing agency, who knows?—remains out of focus for now. The not-knowing is anguishing, to be sure. But uncertainty holds the promise of possibilities.

Maybe you’ll build a solar array next to a police station

My commencement speech would go something like that. I’d also urge my young listeners to keep an open mind and take advantage of opportunities when they pop up, even if they look different than you thought they might. And when you make poor choices, I’d tell them, admit your mistakes, chalk them up to personal growth, and move on. Learn how to apologize if the situation calls for it. And never say ‘no problem’ when somebody says, ‘thank you.’

All the television news outlets have been airing mash-up reels of commencement speeches lately, famous folk standing becapped-and-gowned at the podium, a few notorious ones, advising hopeful throngs of the newly-degreed on this special occasion that for many marks the transition into adulthood, or ‘the real world,’ anyway. Because I’m such a fan of fifth grade humor the one who speaks loudest to me is Will Farrell, a fearless performer who had the audacity to channel Whitney Huston’s standard, I Will Always Love You, to a hopeful crowd of University of Southern California grads. It was a cringe-worthy performance they’ll forever remember. I’ve never been a Will Farrell devotee, but give me a little irreverent humor on a solemn occasion and I’m in (anybody who lacks humor is suspicious in my book). He was nothing if not earnest, like the young man who called me the other night. And in moments of seriousness, he was credible. It was a perfect sendoff, full of hope and possibilities. I leave you with the juiciest morsel.

To those of you graduates sitting out there who have a pretty good idea of what you’d like to do with your life, congratulations. For many of you who maybe don’t have it all figured out, it’s okay. That’s the same chair that I sat in. Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result. Trust your gut, keep throwing darts at the dartboard. Don’t listen to the critics and you will figure it out.—Will Farrell, 2017

*Almost* Paradise: Close Enough

Class with Julie Kent: Pretty Dang Close; Photo courtesy of Jill Adlin

So how’s your dukkha these days?

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.

Literary Devices

Literary Devices

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.

This one’s for you, Dr. Faulkner.