Winter Has Loosed Its Grip: Perfect Friday Afternoon in Vermont

Spring Dandelions in Arlington Park

In my fledgling foray into photography I’m learning light is everything, especially when your equipment is limited to an oldish Nikon and a single lens; I can make do for now, and should until I know better. The light in Arlington Park on Friday afternoon was clean scrubbed and brilliant following a spate of biting days of cold rain interrupted now and again by noncommittal sunshine.

I love how the built environment leaves its thumbprint on the natural landscape—down below, at eye level, and even in the stratosphere; I found it everywhere Friday afternoon. The little park in our community is a study in contradictions, with fair-to-middlin’ athletic fields across the way from well maintained tennis and basketball courts, a scraggly but beloved municipal golf course, and playground equipment jettisoned from some from other era (it would not meet the liability threshold in most here-and-now realms), lain against the most modern of play structures. Around and through them all winds an appealing footpath whose winter wounds are now laid bare: it could use some mulch in the appealing stretch that parallels the noisy Battenkill.

As vibrant as the park feels with the emergence of spring and the arrival of student athletes and fair-weather takers, it is as barren and bereft of life in winter. And as insulated as it feels now against evil elsewhere in the world, I remain a little shaken by the arrest of a local killer in this park only a few weeks ago, nonetheless relieved he is caught. I keep to myself when I visit the park during the winter months, but my Southern self is more likely to say howdy to other friendly folk as the world awakens from its deep freeze. Meanwhile a sign in bold lettering reminds me of my status here. Scout does not share this notion with me: I am certain he feels ownership. Plus there might be squirrels and thus we have important business in the town park. Spring is still an adolescent and can be forgiven his early missteps, a most welcome visitor in these parts.

I Can’t Twirl Pasta (and other truths): Weekend Vignettes

I Can’t Twirl Pasta

Whoever coined the ridiculous phrase, You can do whatever you want to do, was dead wrong: I can never be a rocket scientist (not that I wanted to). I do want to twirl pasta skillfully against a spoon and I can’t do that, either. Still makes for pretty pictures and good eatin’ no matter how it hangs from the fork. And were there a soundtrack for this weekend it would include the sizzle of fresh veg hitting a hot sauté pan; wind knocking around the chimes outside the glass doors; occasional canine snorings, and REM tail thumpings; snow and ice rumbling off a steeply pitched roof, crashing to the deck and ground below (goodbye, good riddance); a little bit of West Coast jazz; hearts beating and shoes thumping down a cleared running trail; the muted roiling of the Battenkill River; and the heat cycling on and off, still. Yesterday there came an unpleasant rip in the universe from a thousand miles away, as is wont to happen on occasion. Today is a new day full of promise.

Pasta Twirling Fail
Pasta Mess
Post-Apocalyptic Movies Do Not Help
Going Postal Redefined
Late Day Sun on the Battenkill
Early Morning Sun Globe in the Back Yard
Sun Through Trees Through Icicles Through Window Screen
There’s a Dog in These Woods
Pork Tenderloin Requires No Twirling
Eating Tenderloin Can Be Tiring
Paws to Reflect on Green Checked Chef Pants
Tall Trees Compete for Sun
Play Dog, Play
Sugary Snow
Frozen House in the Wood: Icicle Would Kill You if it Could
Still Life with Snow Shovel
Scout Can Slurp Pasta

Stretching Dollars, Counting Blessings

Sunny Day Squirrel Vigil
Sunny Day Squirrel Vigil

Winter was kind enough last week to gift us its annual January thaw, which means the schmutz on the ground—an unpleasant casserole of crusty, gritty snow with a menacing bottom layer of ice—retreated obediently into atmosphere and earth. We have frost heaves already, a phenomenon more typical in early spring. Extreme cold temperatures arrived in December, followed by thawing, and then more cold, and more thawing. You should see our back yard right now: if you didn’t know better you might suspect a bustling community of Hobbits thrives there, creating urban sprawl in every direction, its massive network of tunnels and trenches stretching into the woods willy-nilly without the slightest regard for a plan. You’ll twist an ankle on the peaks and valleys in the darkness. Hobbits.

But January thaw also means mini mud season and messy dog walking. Friday and Saturday the temperatures plummeted, leaving frozen tundra in their wake—perfect for dog walking, nay, running. Yesterday Scout and I had our first real run, a couple of miles in bracing twenty-something-degree air. I had enough sense to quit before anything was torn, pulled, or otherwise damaged. Scout showed me a glimpse of who he really is, the dog inside him, the dog who yearns to play. In a single comical, cartoon-like moment he sprinted ahead of me on his 20-foot lead with so much zeal he face- and shoulder-planted directly into the frosty ground when he reached the end of it. Not to worry, he said, bouncing up and sprinting back again, play gesturing right and left, running in tight circles around me before we continued on our way.

Naps are important, too.
Naps are important, too.

Home again, Scout retreated to the safety of his quiet demeanor, his Boo Radley-like shy ways, but the jig is up: now I know what’s coming ultimately, and it is joyous.

Yesterday I felt like making soup, inspired by the season. That got me thinking about a particular soup, one that was handed to me in a pickle jar across the threshold of my erstwhile home in Tennessee. The young woman standing there with two little people peeking around from behind her explained it was still warm, but not too hot to handle. She also handed me a loaf of bread.

A few weeks earlier, in the late summer of 2006 but also the official start of fall term at my small ballet school, she’d enrolled her tiny and beautiful six-year-old daughter, who looked for all the world like a ballerina in the make. The child sprouted goosebumps and shivered at the start of her first-ever ballet class; when I later mentioned this to her mom she explained their small apartment was not air-conditioned, so her children were unaccustomed to refrigerated air—this happens all the time, she reassured me.

We chatted for a long while that day, this sinewy, athletic woman narrating her family’s journey to Knoxville, her background in Outward Bound programs, her husband’s postdoctoral fellowship in medical ethics at the University of Tennessee, conceding that they were only passing through ’til he finished. Eventually we would go on to talk about ballet schools in the Pacific Northwest where they expected to land, in case her daughter decided she wanted to continue her ballet classes.

Turns out we were neighbors. They lived in a groovy little mid-century modern apartment complex in the same historic neighborhood where I lived with my family; but whatever charm that building possessed—a building that housed many other families of their ilk—it lacked in amenities. If nothing else, it was most assuredly affordable, and its location was ideal for university folk.

Not only did we live in the same neighborhood, we lived on the same street separated by just three blocks. Hence the front door soup delivery, a gesture of kindness on an afternoon when I cancelled classes because a virus had left me hacking and coughing and without a teaching voice. This is the soup I always make when one of us gets sick, she explained.

Later when I was sharing the story of this woman’s charity with a mutual friend, she opined, Oh, yes: she is wonderful, and she really knows how to stretch a dollar. The memory of that remark has nudged me through the worst of times, evoking a skill my own mom fostered in me during some thin years growing up under her roof.

Three Dollar Chicken
Three Dollar Chicken

HCB and I have practiced dollar stretching, doing without extras, making things work these last four years. He put a three-dollar chicken in the oven yesterday morning; some of the meat would go into the soup I planned to make later in the day, the rest into the fridge. The carcass would serve as the foundation for made-from-scratch stock which boiled down on the stove all day yesterday, encouraging a certain dog to wander around with his nose pointed skyward—that, and the tender bits of just-roasted chicken he was hand fed earlier, still hopeful for manna from heaven. (Life is indeed good.)

I know there be chicken.
I know there be chicken.

The stock would become soup together with whole coconut milk, fresh lime juice, red pepper flakes, cilantro, green  onion, and seasoning: precisely the same soup a huge-hearted mother of two handed me on a summer’s day ten years ago in Knoxville, called again into service on a winter’s day in Vermont, and for pennies. Dollar stretched, check.

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And then there was stock.
Almost souped.
Almost souped.

The magical recipe, a blessing in disguise, is scrawled on a small index card in a frugal mom’s hand, held fast to the door of our fridge by magnet, dog-eared and stained. In short, the soup is amazing. Every time I make it I think of that family and I swear I still feel the love. Hope they are doing well, wherever they are.

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Bee in My Bonnet

Coffee Table Inspiration
Coffee Table Inspiration

It happens the first week in every January, and here it is again, right on schedule: I must have lettuce. Lots of it and all kinds, and other crunchy greens, and an embarrassment of colorful, raw vegetables. It’s not about cleansing or weight loss, but instead is the natural consequence of a month of indulgences now catching up with me: Enough already! screams my gut every January.

The other annual event happening right on schedule is the tireless search for inspiration. It’s all around me I’m sure, smacking me upside the head like a two-by-four, and still it eludes me at the moment. (By the way, I am weary of photographing the snowy landscape and it’s only January; I know.)

Just before my senior year in high school my mom and I duked it out over the 12th grade curriculum offerings. Take Home Ec, she urged: you’ll need it.

Exqueeze me, but what about AP American History, which meets in the same time slot? Don’t you want me to be, you know, smart and well prepared for the rigors of academia for the next four or more years?

Trust me, she said: Home. Ec.

In the end I took history but later wondered whether that was the right choice. For one thing, the teacher was a burned out ex-Army sergeant-turned-coach, now nearing retirement and completely indifferent about commuting anything to a roomful of pimply charges. (You might say he lacked inspiration.) Somebody in the history department at Memphis State University—now the University of Memphis—Xeroxed their class plans and exams and handed them over to the coach, who merely passed them on to us, so he admitted out loud and without shame: our parents’ tax dollars at work. I don’t remember a single important moment in that silly class, and by the end of the year felt ill-prepared to earn any credit at all towards my freshman year of college, at least not in history.

But for another thing, later on in my parenting life I found myself in the company of people with skills, people who could make things with their hands, who could actually sew, and take in waistlines and let out hems, and create all kinds of things from gorgeous textiles; I could do none of that. Instead I was the unfortunate mom who would never make the Best Halloween Costume Ever from scratch, or sew a shepherd outfit for the Christmas pageant, or design imaginative summer art projects for vacation Bible school, or even hem a pair of pants except in the most crude, amateurish way. (And by the way, please don’t look to me for help with your American history homework, child.)

I wondered out loud whether I should have taken my mom’s advice after all. Nah, somebody else said: you’d only bake cookies and sew a stupid pillow case in that class.

Okay, well I happen to know my way around in the kitchen because it interested me and I took it upon myself to learn when I was in my twenties. And I’ve never felt inspired to sew a pillow case, ever. So maybe AP history was the least terrible choice, anyway.

If I can’t always make things myself, I’m still privileged to know so many people who can, people who throw pottery and paint and sculpt and hook rugs from scratch and create imaginative television and outdoor art installations and design store windows and edit magazines and write poetry and take exquisite photographs and work in multimedia and make beautiful calligraphy and cheese and design buildings and interiors; people who act and sing and dance and choreograph and expertly play the guitar and the banjo and the mandolin and the clarinet and the drums and the piano and all manner of other instruments; and don’t forget people who transform the culinary arts into high art: they are all inspiring, a multitude of dots along a creative continuum. I can’t imagine life without the company of these people, even if some of them are far, far away; wonder who among them took Home Ec.

Writing does not always feel like creative work to me, nor did complete immersion in classical ballet always feel like art to me, but pushing through a slump always seems important. On bad writing days I imagine myself wadding and throwing papers across the room right and left were I not using a virtual platform, on better days I pretend I’m Evelyn Waugh, putting down the words and pushing them a bit, as he described his own work.

Today, though, there is no Waugh in me. There is a little dip, a hiccup, call it a lack of inspiration. The problem could be winter in Vermont, on which I blame nearly everything. Today I give you my average best (now, there’s an oxymoron), and hope this bee in my bonnet will soon find its way out, spilling vibrant colors from my fingertips and onto the canvas; I know the colors are there somewhere.

‘Til then there is laundry to fold and furniture to dust and a dog to walk and Basmati rice to boil, which will make the house smell divine at least; I can do all these things despite my Home Ec deficiency. And you never know—I might be inspired.

 

1.1.17: Time to Press Reset

New Year's Eve Morning 2016
Perfect Light, New Year’s Eve Morning 2016

Some people claim they don’t need a special calendar day or a personal milestone to turn a new leaf, they can do it any time. I don’t possess the self-discipline for that: positive change comes to me on occasional birthdays or after emotionally significant events, mainly. For the time being New Year’s Day will do.

A friend and I once stood in the kitchen of her big, old Southern home with one eye on our boy toddlers as they scurried around and fired finger weapons at each other. She asked what I planned to do after mine no longer demanded every waking moment of my day. “I’m taking up golf,” she quipped. I could not tell whether she was serious or joking: this particular friend did not strike me as the kind of person who’d choose golf as a post-mommying avocation. She had a beautiful new baby grand sitting in her living room; it might have been for show as so many are, except she was also an accomplished pianist in another life. “You should take up the piano,” I said, only half joking. She grinned.

Our unspoken words went something like, it’s funny how much of ourselves we’ve given up for the privilege of full-time parenting these children.

I could not have known at that moment how in a few short years events in my life would reconnect me with my own performing arts past, how life would hand me rich and varied and terrifying and wonderful and tragic and deprived and fulfilled chapters, still in the make.

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When I moved to Vermont just over four years ago I didn’t have an inkling how bad things would get for me, and soon after for my beloved Clarence-the-Canine, but remained as optimistic as my character would allow. I knew winters would be rough, had no idea how rough, and discovered over the course of four of them I’m not really up for the challenge. I also discovered how many privileges I’d taken for granted when I lived down South. And I didn’t realize how difficult it’d be to find connections. Nor how simple to find the most important one of all. I discovered people here are the same as the people there, with a couple of caveats.

I also underestimated my own grit and determination.

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The Most Important Connections

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Last year was difficult, although I don’t need to tear out my hair and thrash and wail about it. I was grumpy and will keep on being grumpy ‘til a few promising new sentences unfold. At least give me my grumpiness in the winter. I’m still hopeful for 2017.

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I feel about as bad physically as I ever have; it’s time for sanctions. I’m a little worn down emotionally, too: being bitten in the face by an anxious shepherd was harder to process than I imagined. I want to feel better in 2017, starting now.

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I’ve missed spending time outside, a thing every dog demands. Thank the universe for Scout-the-Lab, a good dog with a remarkable disposition, who’s already blown that whistle: more heart-thumping time outside in 2017.

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Superhero

I’ve written more in the last year than ever; some of it was good, some not so much. I want 2017 to be the best year of writing thus far, with new outlets for writing.

Time, resources, and circumstances have made it difficult to assuage my culinary passions, as silly as that sounds coming from somebody who lives with a chef. I want to reconnect to the kitchen in 2017.

I feel called to help somebody who needs it; I hope Scout and I will undertake this together in 2017.

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I’ve found beauty through the lens of my camera; I want 2017 to show me more.

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I enjoyed an unexpected and happy reconnection recently with a beloved mentor I haven’t seen in a couple of years. I want to stay connected with people important to me in 2017.

I also want to practice civility in 2017, and hope the rest of the world will too, but most especially my fellow Americans. We can’t afford not to be civil to one another, especially now.

Come on, winter: let’s get it done. Let’s turn over a new leaf in 2017.

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Stranger in a Strange Land: A Brief Doggish Essay

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scout   verb | \’skau̇t\ – to explore an area to obtain information; noun – one sent to obtain information

Saturday morning came early, bitterly cold and windy, but clear; we’d practically forgotten how the sun looked. We stood squinting and shivering in a nondescript outlet mall parking lot with many other hopeful families, waiting, waiting, waiting for the white transport van from Texas that would arrive any moment and deliver to us our travel-weary companions, canine refugees of sorts: Labs and Lab mixes, puppies and adolescents and adults, on the road for 2000 long miles, soon to be discharged into the loving arms of happy, silent humans (and a few pint-size noisy ones)—happy dogs, silent dogs (a few barking dogs), bewildered dogs. Some were practically home when they were carried or walked off the van, others had miles yet to go.

Scout is a good name for a yellow Lab mix: it also happens to be the name of one of my favorite literary figures. Scout is a worthwhile verb, one that promises adventure and excitement, but best of all, Scout is a noun and he is ours. So let’s try this again, with belly rubs and other indulgences, but mainly plenty of quiet time to adjust.

And what an adjustment: from Texas to Vermont, where Scout arrives at the precise moment the first genuine cold snap of the season rolls in. A light layer of snow from the last small weather event still frosts the landscape in these parts, but tomorrow we’ll awaken to a winter wonderland—a trial by snow for Scout, if you will: if the weather gods get it right, he’ll be in it up to his elbows our first time outside in the morning.

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Today there is filtered sunshine, no wind, and a neighborhood to explore. This evening there will be still another human to meet, more tweaking, realigning, settling, obtaining information: the ice maker dumps with a clatter at regular intervals (what is ice?); fresh vegetables sizzle and sputter loudly in a hot sauté pan (only good can come of this), a capricious heater cycles on and off (it is not to be trusted, but the warmth radiating from it feels exquisite), and a mystifying cacophony wafts up spiral stairs from the basement in unpredictable outbursts (more data needed). And outside? Outside are creatures busy under the snow, beneath layers of spent foliage, in a network of tunnels under Vermont’s rocky soil—and they can be heard, or maybe smelt, occupying a keen canine noggin with a fervor that makes him forget the cold, if only for a moment.

Meanwhile we humans are obtaining a little information of our own: what are these floppy ears? What is this short hair? What is this impossibly affectionate demeanor? What is this polite compliance with human wishes? Welcome home Scout. We have but one simple message we shall try to convey in your own language: we already love you like crazy.

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Photo Essay: Grey Day on the Battenkill

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Flag Flies on Birch over the Battenkill

Ain’t no sunshine in Vermont (cue the Bill Withers). And thus far today seems a carbon copy of yesterday—solid grey as far as the eye can see, the distinct chill in the air nudging you to put something warm on your back. Makes me whiney. Autumn in New England is spectacular at the height of leaf season, but we’re not there yet, not quite. The peepers will arrive in droves next Friday for the long Columbus Day weekend and they may be surprised (nay, disappointed) to find an abundance of green still clinging to our mountains in these parts, as our state’s nickname attests. Meanwhile the locals are excited about pumpkins and corn mazes and maple-glazed apple cider donuts, as they should be. I like all this fine, loved it more down South. Allow me my Eeyore-like sensibilities: I know what’s coming in a few weeks.

Yesterday I walked just under four miles along the Battenkill River, the same pathway I routinely run or ride on other days. I found beauty through my lens but had to work for it a little. There are places on this road where the tree canopy on each side of it meets overhead, hemming in the traveler; those spots evoke quaint memories of childhood tomes, a little unsettling to me. The river passes very near to the road along some stretches, disappears behind a distant tree line in others. The woods occasionally give way to broad meadows, and once in a while reveal a breathaking vista.

Rusty spots dot the yellowing leaves on the trees abutting the road; Handsome Chef Boyfriend explained salting in the winter does this to them. (I for one am grateful there’s a way to deal with winter travel so life can continue more or less uninterrupted in spite of nature’s impassive plans, rusty leaves notwithstanding.) This will be my fifth Vermont winter; I greet it the same way I have the last four, with fear and trepidation. I know it’s irrational, but keeps me honest on the daily commute when the atmosphere misbehaves as it so often does. Don’t quote me any Frost, or insist a landscape blanketed with snow is quiet and beautiful: that is for the person who has no cause to bargain with it. I just want to get through winter touched by it only gently.

Until then it’s fall: we anticipate genuine beauty in Vermont, and maybe a little excitement on the horizon for HCB and myself, about which more soon.

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U.S.S. North Carolina: Jewel of Wilmington

U.S.S. North Carolina, from Wilmington's downtown waterfront
Wilmington’s U.S.S. North Carolina, photo bombed by tropical storm Julia

Nothing like wandering around in the bowels of a lovingly restored battleship to open your eyes to the daunting threat America faced on the eve of the Second World War. Destined to be sold for scrap after her decommissioning, the U.S.S. North Carolina now floats proudly in her moorings on the Cape Fear River opposite downtown Wilmington’s peaceful waterfront, a labor of love kept afloat by North Carolina and the generosity of charitable donors. The ship’s website suggests two hours for the self-guided tour to see the ship; it is not enough, friends. In two hours’ time the three of us—Handsome Chef Boyfriend, the 23-year-old who cleverly suggested this outing in the first place, and I—navigated through only a fraction of what’s currently on exhibit in the ship.

The tour is physically demanding, emphatically not for the elderly or the very young. There is no easy way out to find a toilet or take a break: once you start, you’re fully committed. And if you find tight spaces bothersome, best to stay outside on the main deck and enjoy the engineering marvel that is this magnificent floating city. Imagine her 2,000-plus troops engaged in the toils of war every hour of every day, if you can; I cannot. Piped-in music of the day, 1940s photos shot from the very spot where you now stand, human cutouts to help provide scale where you can’t go—all of these conspire to interpret daily life aboard the ship; hat tip to the U.S.S. North Carolina. We will visit again.

Shooting without a flash in low light remains a challenge for me, what with my old-ish Nikon, novice sensibilities, and unsteady hand; I get a little better with each exercise. Add to these challenges the tourists queued behind you while you’re trying to set up a shot, and the consequence for me is sloppy work. I don’t need fancier equipment ‘til I improve my hand with what I possess at the moment. I’m not a lifelong photographer, but in other pursuits I know this truth: producing a high-quality result should not depend on special equipment, but once you have it at your disposal, you spend less time “fighting” to get the results you want. I’d be thrilled for other photographers to weigh in on this in the comments.

Things I’m learning about myself as I explore photography: my eye is drawn to beautiful lines, to thoughtful industrial design, and to timeless materials (brass and copper, for example) used copiously in an era when manufacturers took the same care with the creation of a name plate as they did with engineering the “thing” itself. None of these is in short supply on the U.S.S. North Carolina, an appealing new example around every corner. And HCB could not have been more thrilled to find the ship’s many galleys fully restored, stocked with equipment cleaned and polished to a fare-thee-well and looking for all the world like it could be fired up again tomorrow. He explained to us the purpose for every appliance and fixture; many have changed little through time, some look superior to what we use nowadays.

A few geeky factoids about the ship:

  • Launched June 13, 1940
  • Commissioned April 9, 1941
  • Built in New York Navy Yard
  • 729 feet in length
  • 108-foot beam
  • Maximum speed 28 knots
  • 141 officers
  • 2,115 enlisted men
  • 85 marines
  • 15 battle stars earned
  • Decommissioned June 27, 1947
  • Moved to Wilmington October 2, 1961
  • Dedicated April 29, 1962

All told I shot nearly a hundred images, edited about 50 and threw out as many; here are the best. Steal ’em and you’ll be walkin’ the plank, though; aaarrggh. Welcome aboard.

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