Manchester by the Sea: Reflections on the Human Condition

No one in the South ever asks if you have crazy people in your family. They just ask what side they’re on.—Julia Sugarbaker

I chide my twenty-something for goading me to watch horror films with him when we’re together. Twice he succeeded some years ago, once for The Ring (do not go there, gentle reader), and again for The Strangers, which is less horror than psycho thriller; these victories have fueled his hope for the future. I was talked into The Strangers because of its cast (could any Liv Tyler movie be all bad?), but by the end felt so wounded I’ll never revisit it, ditto the Merle Haggard standard “Mama Tried,” spine chilling now thanks to the movie. The Strangers came into our living room on the heels of an especially horrific week in my erstwhile family life; I watched it with my boy on the sofa next to me because it felt like the right thing to do at the time.

But I digress. I’m not a fan of horror because of its lingering effects: being deliberately scared seems emotionally expensive, damaging, and pointless. A friend once made a similar observation about sadness—there is so much of it everywhere in the world, why on earth would you want to provoke it on purpose?

I can think of some occasions where you should. The Holocaust Memorial Museum is an example, a reminder of an important chapter none of us should forget, ever. Going demands an emotional commitment—a willingness to embrace melancholy for the rest of the day anyway, and most likely longer: you will not emerge from that experience and then shout, Who wants ice cream! (And I would urge any family touring our nation’s capital to save it for the last day if it’s on your itinerary.)

We dipped into sadness Friday night, although I’m not sure we knew we were headed there at first, HCB and I. He brought home Manchester by the Sea after I mentioned I wanted to see it. Somewhere I’d watched the trailer or part of it, where a reluctant uncle found himself the unexpected guardian of his teenage nephew, and I somehow concluded this would be an uplifting and redemptive story. And I’d heard a scene on NPR that felt tragically comic, about frozen chicken and a frozen human corpse and the well-intentioned uncle trying to navigate his way through a teenager meltdown. At least it struck me as comic at the time.

Manchester by the Sea is instead a tragedy through and through—Shakespeare would be proud. You can find situational comedy in it to be sure; catharsis saves us in the end, because life without it is unthinkable after all. But stylistically you’d probably call this movie realist cinema, after the painting style where the artist leaves little to the imagination, exposing the subject unapologetically and without romantic flourishes (the movie’s score is haunting, at least). Or if you likened it to architecture you might call it brutalist.

The real genius of Manchester by the Sea lies in its character development. We understand the protagonist Lee Chandler because we’ve met him: the quiet apartment building maintenance man in Boston (could be anywhere), a working class hero wound tight as a drum, volatility simmering just beneath his calm demeanor. The movie wastes no time revealing this character trait. But as flawed as he is, you still find yourself in his corner, proof positive of a plausible and vulnerable character well played. Nor is Chandler merely flawed, he is ruined, the cause of ruination revealed to us over the course of the movie in a series of artful flashbacks. Casey Affleck’s portrayal of Lee Chandler is brilliant: you can’t avert your gaze for the duration.

An undercurrent of substance abuse weaves its way through the plot, too, the scourge of our time. But the story is finally less about the physical and emotional consequences of addiction than it is about unbearable grief and damage to the human spirit, so profound in this character he is finally too frail to fulfill his emotional obligations to the people around him—he is damaged beyond repair.

The movie resonated with me more now than it might have five years ago, before I moved to New England and got the lay of the land, and observed the palpable effects of a failed economy (worse here than down South) and the loss of manufacturing jobs in the region. There is also a vulgarity in the common man here that would make even my endearingly shameless Irish grandmother blush were she alive today: if you do not know these people personally, you’ve at least stood shoulder to shoulder with them in line at the grocery store. Dropping the F-bomb is a way of life in some New England towns (Vermont is no exception), and you’re well advised not to ask anybody to put a sock in it, like I nearly did one afternoon at a local discount store before I thought better of it.

‘Crazy’ (or neurotic, if you prefer) is a trait that lies on a continuum from manageable to psychotic, but that most of us possess if we’re being honest, even if we’d rather not shine a light on it. There is a kernel of truth to the quip about Southerners parading around crazy and handing it a cocktail instead of hiding it in the attic. But in the Northeast, at least as portrayed in Manchester by the Sea, we understand the kind of crazy that comes after an unthinkable tragedy strikes for which there is no one to blame but yourself, can only seethe beneath the surface, erupting now and again in bits and pieces—in coarse language, in the occasional barroom brawl, and in frozen chicken mishaps, like a fault line belching out small tremors: at some point it will snap, as surely as a damaged soul somewhere beaten down by life will finally give up.

Most of us who’ve had time to live a little understand this story and know firsthand about permanent emotional damage—nobody is exempt from the human condition. But can there be a yardstick to measure the damage? High blood pressure? Cancer, or some other insidious disease? Years shaved from one’s life, which was so full of hope when it began? Or does significant emotional damage simply make you go mad over time? And if you did find a benchmark to measure the damage, how to fix it? There is no surgery, or neutralizing tincture for some kinds of crazy. But maybe there is more healing after all in parading it around than in hiding it in the attic.

Manchester by the Sea is worth your while if you’re willing to devote an evening to a little thoughtful sorrow; I suggest salty snacks and a good bottle of wine to soften the blow.

Farm Stand and General Store: Evolved New England Institutions

Old Building, New Concept
Old Building, New Concept

The concept of the general store revealed itself to me the instant I had boots on the ground in my new home state of Vermont. Most small farming communities here have one (and so that would be most of Vermont, which is largely made of small farming communities). But their store offerings vary widely, to say nothing of what you can expect to pay for the stuff on the shelves. The most “complete” general store I ever patronized was Coburn’s, just over the mountain from my erstwhile home in Sharon, Vermont, on Route 132 in the small town of South Strafford.

Coburn’s is one-stop shopping in a vernacular white clapboard building like so many others that dot the landscape in these parts—you can find a decent selection of reasonably priced groceries there, dairy and not-bad-looking produce, and sliced deli meat at the counter in the back. You’ll also find a respectable bottle of Argentinian Malbec, sturdy work gloves, fire starter logs (important for a Southern girl whose fire building skills are wanting), a small newsstand, full-service post office and bank, and two gas pumps out front. Really, what more could anybody need, except possibly longer store hours?

Other communities are not so fortunate. Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I had a long-running joke about one general store in particular where we occasionally stopped for gas but avoided the inside of the store like plague because of its rotting produce, overpriced groceries, surly counter help, and general filth. If one of us had to dash inside for something, the other would ask, Need a box of seven-dollar Triscuits? Those folks are doing the locals a disservice and getting away with it because they’re the only game in town.

The best of these small businesses, if they are not running a smooth operation like Coburn’s, have evolved into a modern iteration of themselves, changing with the times if you will. Five Corners is one of them, not too far down the road in the Massachusetts Berskhires, at a busy Williamstown intersection. We had a couple of primo sandwiches there yesterday on our way to Pittsfield erranding. (And you can’t beat the beauty of the Berkshires on a gorgeous summer day.)

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To be fair, this exquisite little place is no longer a general store in the true sense of the term. It’s got pricey, gifty stuff, and coolers stocked with high-end charcuterie and cheeses, but you can also grab a half-gallon of milk and a few other necessaries in a pinch. There’s a long, rustic table in the center of the main space where folks plunk down on a wide bench with their laptops and cuppa Joe (which is also top-shelf brew). The sandwiches are interesting (not your average ham and cheese) and the pastry is to die for.

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I’m okay with this version of the general store—there’s no filth in sight, not a single head of expensive rusty iceberg, it’s a creative use of the space, and the building itself has been artfully preserved—it’s better than an empty, derelict building by a long shot, and there are plenty of those around here. You might not see farmers hanging out here, and you shouldn’t expect to buy groceries at this place between city trips to the supermarket. But there is still local community building going on.

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It’s high summer here with the faintest hint of fall in the air, and the produce is exceptional. Which brings me to the Vermont farm stand, another venerable institution, not to be confused with the farmer’s market, which is also seen in abundance in New England communities. But the farm stand as it exists in these parts is new to me—what I know as a farm stand from my life in Tennessee is typically a roadside lean-to (or even the bed of a pickup) purveying a single item, or a couple, from a local farm. You can get incredible seasonal produce if you’re lucky enough to stumble on one of these at just the right moment.

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What I’ve noticed in these parts is a bit more evolved, although the simple roadside farm stand lives here, too. But with the growing season as short as it is, the big, established farms set up seasonal retail shops in respectable quarters with regular hours. Clear Brook Farm is happily about halfway between home and work, a sizeable operation that offers local meat and dairy, lush produce, but also bedding plants, flowers, and landscaping supplies. Their stuff is at its peak about now; some time in late October or thereabouts they’ll close up shop ’til next spring.

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I hate New England winters. There, I said it. Springtime in New England is not the prize, as some have suggested (they have not seen springtime in East Tennessee). This moment in late August—this moment is the prize. The impossibly rocky soil here produces a surprisingly robust and gorgeous summertime yield; it is ephemeral.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may (or hibiscus, if you prefer) and get thee to a local farm stand.

Making Sense out of the Senseless: Love is the Answer

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Annie Lennox urged me to pick up my feet and pick up the pace through sweaty ear buds, her lyrics suffused with emotions: love, loss, loneliness, joy, she knows each of them intimately, she sings. A perfect Vermont Saturday morning was the only other motivation I needed to run: success is measured in hot cheeks, eyes burning with salt, a soaked-through shirt, and happy delirium. It’s possible there is no better feeling.

But the day did indeed get better, as if that were possible: an afternoon in Massachusetts under a cerulean sky, lunch of prosciutto and mozzarella on ciabatta (barbecue and collard greens for Handsome Chef Boyfriend), a suspended moment on Pontoosuc Lake’s shore where water sparkled an early summer greeting and windmills waved hello from a distant hilltop, frozen concoctions at a roadside dive the afternoon’s finale on the way home, where we collapsed content on the sofa with a nail-biter on the telly. Plucking chunks of ripe cantaloupe from a plastic tub, licking juice from our fingers and playing footsie with our toes: life does not get better than this. It was a day beyond reproach end to end, the kind of day that explodes with so much guilty pleasure it almost feels wrong.

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When I lived in Denver for a few years in my very early twenties a passel of ballet friends and I routinely found weekend fun at gay nightclubs: they had the best dance music hands down (the perfect antidote for classical ballet), the best deejays, and truly superb entertainment. There were bouncers who sized you up at the door, and if you did not set off the hostility meter you were welcomed.

I remember one club in particular for its phenomenal drag queens, where for a small cover charge you could catch an amazing show staged by people who had spent hundreds on costuming and hair and makeup, lip syncing the songs on the charts at the time: the music of British invasion techno bands, and healthy doses of Chaka Khan, Madonna, and Tina Turner—the likenesses were spot on.

I had a good friend who deejayed at that club, a young violinist in the Denver Symphony who enjoyed this work purely as an avocation—he was passionate about getting the technical aspects just right, measuring beats per minute, knowing how to line up dance tracks in a way that made perfect sense. I went to that club as much to see him as I did the shows because he let me climb the ladder up into the sound booth and sit there with him while he showed me the tools of the trade. I was duly impressed, and also had a spectacular view of the stage below.

I never once imagined I was in any kind of danger in that club, or any of the others, and the fact is my young friends and I, and the other club patrons and performers, were probably pretty safe. At least from the kind of violence Orlando saw last weekend and which seems so much a part of the landscape now it’s exhausting to feel the pain when the news stories break.

But fear and loathing and intolerance were certainly there in Denver in the early 1980s. A short time after I moved from Colorado back to my home state of Tennessee I learned my violinist friend had been lured from the club by a man feigning interest in him, but who then beat him to a pulp and left him for dead. He spent some time fighting for his life in the ICU before eventually making a full recovery, lucky to be alive.

I have no cure for intolerance, fear, hate, oppression, or marginalization, but I know this: they leave their calling card at every single scene of carnage. And they absolutely detest love, can’t bear the sight of it.

I ache for the 49 people in Orlando, and so many more, who never again will see a sparkling lake or indulge in an ice cream on a sunny day. We owe it to them, and the people who went before them, and those who will go after them, to love, over a prosciutto sandwich, or a tub of cantaloupe, or however love insinuates itself in your life.

The adult luna moth lives for only one week. She has no mouth—her sole purpose is to reproduce. For this reason she has come to symbolize love. A beautiful specimen visited us early last week, a reminder: Be good. Don’t judge. Bury your fears. Say something nice to someone who needs to hear it, starting now, because your time here is short. Just, love.

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New England Track & Field Championships: When Life Hands You Lemons

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It’s track and field season here in New England; maybe in other parts of the world, too, not sure—this is well outside my life experience bubble. ‘Tis also the season when Handsome Chef Boyfriend morphs from pastry chef by day to pole vaulting coach by afternoon and the occasional weekend, true story: he coaches invincible young folk who run like crazy with a long, bendy pole, then jam it into the ground and somehow try to heft themselves many feet up, up, up into the air, and then twist around, and clear a horizontal pole without knocking it off. Sometimes they actually make it. 

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For about a decade H(PVC)B has been coaching high school pole vaulters; this year he was asked to work privately with an individual student, a talented freshman at Southern Vermont College. There he is, the boy in the yellow jacket, young Isaiah. On Saturday Isaiah and one other SVC student competed in the New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, accompanied by a gaggle of coaches and some well-wishing teammates who did not make the cut for this event which in turn was a qualitfying event for a bigger meet next weekend: the Eastern College Atheltic Conference Divsion III Track & Field Championships.

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, women's track event

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, women's track event

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, women's pole vaulting

Being the consummate ballerina, I tend to notice bodies and there were some pretty, sinewy, lean ones in Massachusetts at Springfield College for Saturday’s meet. Being there among them made me wish I’d discovered the joy of running much sooner than I did in my late thirties, like maybe when I was a young college student. But even then I am almost certain nobody could have convinced me to pole vault.

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, women's pole vaulting

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, women's pole vaulting

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, women's pole vaulting

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, women's pole vaulting

Yeah, not so much.

But I digress. Saturday was cold, gray, rainy, generally unpleasant. There was a lot of standing around and waiting for things to happen, which I have learned to expect at these kinds of things. I parented a figure skating kid and was spared much waiting around at athletic venues, except for one weekend a year at the local ice rink; hat tip to parents who routinely tolerate it.

After an eternity the men finally had the so-called runway and “pit” at their disposal for practice vaulting ahead of the actual competition. And for the record, it is not really a pit; it’s a bunch of really big, squishy mats, and there are not enough of them in my humble opinion.

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, men's pole vaulting

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, men's pole vaulting

Isaiah had a couple of iffy practice vaults, and took a bad spill off the mats after one of them, injuring his shoulder. The track felt slippery to me (I can’t say whether it was actually slippery, but I did hear some grumbling about it from some of the athletes). And the ballerina in me wanted to put warm clothing on these kids while they stood in the long queue awaiting their turn. Some of Isaiah’s competitors walked in front of me when I was attempting to capture one of his practice vaults, and so I only caught a couple of awkward shots:

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, Isaiah

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, Isaiah

Pole vaulting is nothing if not awkward, though. And it was just one of those kind of days. Kids were falling all over the place—Isaiah was hardly alone.

When I could no longer feel my fingers I finally took my leave of the track meet and headed to the student union across the street for coffee. And as fate would have it, I missed Isaiah’s moment, the one we had been waiting for (not to worry: Coach Chef was there). Turns out on his third and final vault Isaiah not only cleared the horizontal crossbar, but cleared it by a mile, only to inadvertently knock it loose with his foot on his way down. He narrowly missed qualifying for next weekend’s big event.

It was a bitter pill for young Isaiah to swallow. And so it goes—we’ve all been there. It is another little chink of mortar to add to the bricks that compose us and make us interesting, small consolation when we’re in the moment. Chin up, Isaiah, it is but a blip on your timeline. At least, that is what my mom used to tell me when my lower lip was scraping the ground: life goes on and you do your best to make lemonade of lemons.

A long-awaited visit to Berkshire Mountain Bakery finished our Saturday. This interesting little place took the spotlight in one of four episodes in food writer Michael Pollan’s wonderful documentary series called Cooked. I think it is fair to say I am a Michael Pollan afficionado, even if I do not practice his food philosophy completely and earnestly all the time. But I appreciate his comprehensive knowledge of food history and love that his message about healthy eating is rational, never shrill.

The thing to distinguish the bread at this particular bakery is the absence of leavening—baker Richard Bourdon uses fermentation and ancient baking practices to create a product that is ostensibly good for the gut, even for folks with gluten intolerance. (You can watch the series on Netflix, and I enthusiastically recommend it—even if you have no interest in the underlying healthy food ethic, the documentary is thoroughly entertaining, as is Pollan’s narrative.)

Turns out the outlet in Pittsfield, where we had dinner, was just that—an outlet. It was not a bakery as we expected. So the atmosphere left much to be desired. But the product was every bit what we hoped for and more.

Berkshire Mountain Bakery Michael Pollan Cooked

We left loaded down with a bunch of bread, thinking we’d make it last. We will not. And so it seems routine visits down to Pittsfield, Massachusetts will be part of our still-evolving landscape.

That’s some pretty dang good lemonade.

 

A Day at the Museum: MASS MoCA

Every small-to-midsize Massachusetts town I’ve had occasion to drive through or visit these last three years seems to possess a seamy industrial underbelly, more often than not in plain view of historic dwellings in varied states of loving restoration or decline, depending. (Second Empire is hands-down my favorite iteration of the Victorian style, and it is everywhere in these parts.) There is palpable evidence of renewed life in some urban centers where the recent past has not been kind, others are not yet there. The decline of American manufacturing and industry echoes in grand industrial buildings where architects once paid exquisite attention to detail: you can see it still, even where windows are replaced by plywood or missing altogether, and rotted foundations are betrayed as far aloft as rooflines.

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Give me gritty nineteenth century industrial buildings and a jaw-dropping collection of modern art any day of the week—is there a better combination of the built environment and our own creative thumbprint? MASS MoCA—the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art—occupies a campus of some 26 of these buildings (not all of them yet renovated), every bit the attraction as the art collections therein. The buildings themselves were home to the Sprague Electric Company from 1942 to 1985 (maker of weapons systems during the war and consumer electronics in peacetime), and Arnold Print Works prior to that, a Civil War-era textiles company whose fingers reached into the modern manufacturing era. A squat building at the entrance to the sprawling campus still bears a rusted sign reminding employees to present identification before entering.

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HCB and I spent an indulgent Saturday there; it was a spiritually and intellectually nourishing day. Standouts for me were Clifford Ross’ Landscape Seen and Imagined photography exhibit (I have not felt so moved by photography since my introduction to the work of Ansel Adams in the early 1980s), and Jim Shaw’s bizarre but evocative collection, Entertaining Doubts, which included an honest portrayal of his own father’s immersion in a 1950s correspondence school to learn how to draw. Knowing that piece of his past somehow made his own art feel more accessible.

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I could not pull my eyes away from the main building itself, a delicious new detail around every corner. You can’t touch the art in a museum; there are no rules about touching walls and windows and doors. My past as a student of historical archaeology urges me to touch everything, and I did. And I was delighted to find tell-tale striations of original, early glass through which the outside world appeared distorted in a pleasing way.

There was music in surprise places: a bluegrass band in a freight elevator followed visitors up and down with a serenade in tight quarters; my camera could not deal with the darkness in the confined black box, but I still loved the unintentional movement in the photos I made. Another appealing Celtic ensemble entertained visitors in the museum café.

It was a beautiful day, bumper to bumper. Hat tip to my friend Margaret for the alert to the free admission.

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All images of artwork in this post are of works currently on exhibit at MASS MoCA.