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.

Romancing Haglund’s Deformity: My Forever Running Partner

Scout-the-Runner
Scout-the-Runner

Vermont broke weather records last week: my car thermometer said 73° when I left work Friday afternoon, with partly cloudy skies and a pleasant breeze that carried an earthy spring scent—in February. I could be wrong, I speculated to Handsome Chef Boyfriend a few days earlier, and I know there’s still plenty of time for big snow, but this feels for all the world like spring thaw to me. Yes, he agreed, and even if it snows again, it won’t stick around long.

Call it climate change, but it feels more like weather. Winter’s fury’s still fresh in my mind: below-zero misery, the distinctly menacing sound of the heat cycling on and staying on, heart-stopping electric bills in the post office box, and the eternal fight to keep winter on the outside of the car, to say nothing of shooing it out of the house: we’ve paid our cold-weather dues, and if spring wants to move in a month early, so be it. Mud season is a thing of beauty.

Yesterday there was no cycling on of the modern kerosene heater that warms us pretty well in this tiny place. The house was blessedly quiet, with only the sound of a laptop keyboard clicking behind me, a snoring Labrador wedged next to me on the sofa, clouds drifting across the skylights overhead, and aromatic brown rice bubbling under the saucepan lid on the stove just around the corner. Later on we’d throw open the door and leave it that way, just as we do every day in summer: how delightful to enjoy this appetizer in winter, even if it’s only a tease.

Spring thaw means resuming my running habit in earnest. But where it was once part and parcel of every day in my erstwhile Southern life, in Vermont it is seasonal. Some folks manage in the winter with special equipment, but my damaged foot objects. This was a point of dispute between me and my well-intentioned doc in December: you can do it if you really want to, she insisted. I lobbed one back at her: not at my age, not with Haglund’s deformity. I know Haglund’s deformity, she persisted, and you can do it if you want.

It was another doctor, an orthopedic surgeon in Tennessee, who identified this malformation in my heels (it’s more pronounced in the left one), and another who explained why I have it. Sometimes Haglund’s is called the “pump bump” because women who routinely wear heels are vulnerable to it. I’ve never worn heels a day in my life, except maybe for the odd special occasion. I mentioned this to one of my M.D. ballet dads a few years ago when I was still teaching. How could I have something tied to the wearing of those awful shoes, when I never wear them? Well, he opined, you may not wear the shoes, but consider this: you put your foot in that position every day of the week for hours at a stretch.

He made an excellent pointe, so to speak: ballet dancers (and their teachers) maintain this position of the foot more often than not. It’s called relevé, and you can see it here in spades in an examination class at the renowned Vaganova School:

But I digress. My doctor is wrong on this one, and that is that. I’m more body aware than the average Joe and because of my badly compromised foot have exactly no stability on ice, not even on packed snow if it’s slippery. Time and again this winter I grabbed hold of trees to stay upright negotiating the topography of the back yard for Scout’s late-night pee breaks. If growing old is not for sissies, as the wisdom goes, neither is winter in Vermont with a dog.

Nor is the confounded bony protrusion on the back of the heel the only problem: it’s all the soft stuff around it—muscle and tendon—irritated by movement, sometimes angered, occasionally declaring all-out mutiny. I will make your life a living hell if you attempt to stand and walk. It occurs to me I can’t have my foot replaced.

So I won’t run in those conditions, even with special equipment, the conditions which prevailed from some time in December until only a few days ago. Instead I will respect the foot.

But mud! Mud is the perfect medium for running, a thing I remembered last weekend when Scout and I embarked on our first several runs of “spring,” as it were. The heel sinks into the soft, mushy gravel in a satisfying way, water oozing up around it, the shock absorbed mercifully and gently in the ankle, the knee, the hip, and the lower back, while blood courses joyously through the veins. Scout is a perfect running dog, happy to keep up whatever cadence I ask of him. A slow couple of miles a day feels fine for now, with some starting and stopping to honor the foot thrown in for good measure: I’m a good listener and had rather avoid mutiny down below even if the heart thumping up above urges us on.

After the rice finished cooking yesterday I laced my running shoes with Scout circling me enthusiastically. Crossing the bridge over the Battenkill I glanced uneasily at the water roaring under it in torrents, carrying runoff from the nearby mountains; later HCB and I would observe places it has already breached its banks to settle in wheat-colored fields. Elsewhere in our neighborhood the same is happening on a smaller scale, streams ripping through culverts under the roads and in some places spilling over the top of them.

Scout kept his nose skyward to concentrate new smells that surely must assault him like a freight train, stopping now and then to bury it in the warm, wet schmutz on the side of the road below. Meanwhile my foot cried out like a mythical Mandrake yanked out of its potting soil, but I didn’t let on to Scout, only slowing down now and again to shush the pain.

Once home we headed directly to the tub, where a mud-encrusted Scout suffered no pain in his first stem-to-stern scrubbing on my watch. And true to his character, he stood resolute and patient in the soapy water through it all, content to lie on the bathroom floor quietly afterwards for a towel drying and brushing. Scout ended his day as it began, hunkered down with his humans, but sweeter smelling, exercised, his belly full of turkey and kibble.

I know running will never be the same as it was even a few years ago. There will always be a twice-daily regimen of ice baths, and pain meds, and fish oil, maybe some massage, and the occasional Arnica application if I want to keep going. Two things I know for certain: I need to run. And my left hand needs a leash in it. For the time being, anyway, they’re both met.

haglunddeformity1a

Agricultural Reflections: Cycling on the Battenkill

People here in Vermont are much closer to the land than they are in other states where I’ve lived. The state as a whole is sparsely populated, sparsely developed, and most of us live within spitting distance of at least one working farm. The road where I ride my bicycle is dotted with them, and an occasional gentleman’s farm, abundant second homes for city-dwelling folk in adjacent states, and a smattering of full-time residents.

Cycling Turnaround on the Battenkill 1

About now the second home owners are beginning to trickle back across our state lines and shake the winter out of their riverside cottages. Meanwhile, working life continues unchecked on the farms in the area, whose farmstands will soon overflow with the season’s abundant offerings; we take full advantage—there is nothing like fresh produce just pulled from the ground.

Nolan Farm 1

I love riding past this farm in particular; on Friday I saw firsthand exactly how the rolled hay bales are wrapped in their distinctive white plastic, making them look for all the world like giant marshmallows. The farmer who was bent to this task as I pedalled past expertly speared each bale with his forklift-like machine, wrapping it with a mechanical arm the way a spider does an insect caught up in its web, and then depositing it in a neat pile, all in a matter of seconds.

It was right around suppertime for most people when I passed his place, not yet quitting time for him, with several unwrapped bales to go. The second time I passed I saw that he had finished them all. I wondered what had been set on the table in the cheerful yellow farmhouse just across the road, where hens are always scratching and pecking in the yard, a playset on one side, and toys strewn everywhere: the children in that household are immersed in the life of the American farm.

In my erstwhile home state of Tennessee there are also a lot of farms, but they are removed from city dwellers by geography and by generations. I have deep agricultural roots of my own in Tennessee, traced through my mother’s family, going back past her mother, and her mother’s mother, and two generations beyond them, reaching to her great-great-grandmother’s family, who were apple farmers in an area of Appalachia known as Tuckaleechee Cove: it is picturesque and largely unspoiled, although in recent years has become attractive to developers keen to capitalize on tourism—it is very near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the country.

But it did not take long for a finger of my Irish-born family to migrate towards difficult city life. Their Knoxville neighborhood was and is still known as Mechanicsville, a charming collection of tidy working class Victorian-era homes. The neighborhood got its name because it was home to skilled mechanics employed by the Knoxville Iron Company, area mills, and the railroad, says its historical marker. My forebears were among them, one Dennis Donovan in particular helping to lay some of the first railroad tracks to stretch through downtown Knoxville.

My great-grandmother told me stories about her life in Mechanicsville as a child, but the one that left the deepest imprint on me was the day her younger sister Bess burned her foot badly playing in the alley behind the house, stepping barefoot in the corrosive runoff that is a byproduct of lye soap making. My grandmother’s telling of the story was always so evocative I could almost smell that alleyway, and visualize the episode, the distraught child and her tears, and more likely than not the reprimand that followed, as if any were needed after that. I made her tell it to me again and again.

Not long after the lye soap incident Bess died of dysentery, soon after the deaths of her premature triplet siblings, who lived their short lives on the open door of the kitchen stove: there were no NICUs, nor life-sustaining machinery or modern medicine to save the day. So in the space of less than three weeks my great-grandmother’s parents lost three newborns and a five-year-old child; my great-grandmother Gracie, a couple of years older than Bess, was the sole surviving child in that awful chapter of my family’s life.

Ultimately Mechanicsville itself was doomed, divided by the imposing Interstate 40 when it blazed through Knoxville in the mid-twentieth century. It suffered decline like other neighborhoods of its ilk, but has shown signs of rebounding in the last twenty years as it has ridden the coattails of renewal in other older parts of the city. I wonder whether my grandmother’s family missed the uncluttered landscape of the mountains during their life in Mechanicsville; it is impossible to know.

Horses on the Battenkill 1

Knoxville’s old Mechanicsville is a thousand miles and multiple generations removed from the here and now on Vermont’s Battenkill. Agriculture has its own smells, very different from Victorian-era urban smells, and they are wide open on this stretch of river.

Vermont is attractive, I am told, for people raising families (less so for their college-bound kids, who often leave and do not always choose to return). I understand that appeal, far removed as rural Vermont is from the seamier influences of city life, with its fresher air, agrarian sensibilities and values, and a more intimate sense of community. There are disadvantages: city life has an energy and an abundance of cultural opportunities that elude us here—and in spite of that, the same big-city problems people ostensibly hope to avoid—violent crime, opioid addiction, and even environmental issues—are problems here, too. (Vermont is known for its burgeoning heroin addiction and related problems; and drinking water in wells tainted by none other than industrial waste—very, very close to home—has made national news recently.)

Geese on the Battenkill 1

There is no paradise.

But there is springtime in Vermont along the Battenkill, and for the time being anyway, it is intoxicating in its own glorious way. I don’t know whether generations of my family members in Knoxville, Tennessee forged machine parts that might have made their way north to Vermont; it’s pure speculation, of course, but would be a nice connection were it true.

The land connects us all, though, whatever our provenance.

New York View on the Battenkill 1

Self-Stewardship: Healthful Habits, Happy Body

Updates: I am pretty dang pleased to report my foot issues have not yet derailed this latest big effort to resurrect my beloved running habit.

Cycling in Vermont

I told somebody yesterday I’ve learned to view every glorious, temperate day in Vermont as a gift; last week there were several of them, and the temperature once even climbed into the low eighties. Nevermind the snow this morning. On Monday and Tuesday I ran, not exactly like the wind, but I ran, friends—two consecutive days because the weather insisted; I am on week seven of my C25K program and it is going very well indeed, better than expected. To make it work I must:

  1. Keep on going to yoga, as I do most Sundays and sometimes in the middle of the week.
  2. Take anti-inflammatory meds, and stay on top of them.
  3. Use Arnica gel on the foot before I go.
  4. Stretch hammies, calves, and Achilles, holding each about 45 seconds, give or take.
  5. Repeat #4 on the flip side of the run.
  6. Dunk the bothersome foot in an uncomfortable ice bath for 20 minutes when I return home; I usually Skype my son to take my mind off the burn.
  7. And for much of the day during the work week use a knobby roller on the offending heel while I sit at my desk and write; I would like to think this is helping break up scar tissue. 

It’s a shotgun approach that seems effective.

Wednesday was weights class at the gym, which for me is like taking cod liver oil—I know there are benefits, I am not crazy about doing it. And on Thursday my bicycle came out of winter storage for the first ride of the season. The landscape in the photo marks my turning-around spot, close to the New York state border. Friday my bum hurt like heck from the unforgiving saddle, but soon I’ll be tough enough to forego the “butt shorts,” as I call them, opting instead for more comfortable cottony stretch shorts as I do every summer.

Life always seems a great balancing act, and I’m not there yet. I gain control over One Big Thing, only to turn around and find Another out of kilter. Like that game where you whap a critter on the head and then one pops up out of an adjacent hole; I find it infuriating.

I’ve put myself back on a nutrition plan, one that has been around since the 1960s and has worked for me several times in the past. Handsome Chef Boyfriend is participating by default; we’ve enjoyed some very nice benefits thus far, but this particular plan does require work—careful buying habits and a lot of meal preparation at home. It’s okay—I have a trained professional at my disposal.

Three and a half years ago I was thirty-five or so pounds lighter and ripped. And I was scared down to my socks and anything but happy. Now that situation is more or less flipped. There is much to be said for happiness; I shall keep pursuing the rest. Cheers.

Healthy Eating

 

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

Pole Vault 20 A

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. 

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships , Isaiah

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.

 

Running on the Battenkill: Easter Sunday

Easter Run 2 Edit

Your body is a temple.

I’m an adherent but lately have not behaved in a way to reflect this heartfelt conviction owing to circumstances and such. I started running about fifteen years ago for several reasons, chiefly to energize myself in the early morning hours ahead of a long day dealing with a difficult child. By 2011 I was running 35 miles weekly with my Clarence-the-Canine, ’til this annoying problem reached epic proportions and forced me into retirement in October of 2013. I’ve coughed and sputtered a few times in the intervening months, but with each renewed attempt to run, the foot has objected, loudly.

There is nothing in the world like running, and if you’ve never been a runner, you’ll need to take my word for it.

In recent weeks I’ve felt some changes in the injured area of my left foot that might possibly indicate healing. (Shhh. Don’t tell the universe.) I spend eight hours a day sitting on my arse in front of a computer, and it could be this was precisely the pathway to health I needed, without fully admitting so: I would not have gone down that road willingly otherwise.

Mild weather has urged me and everybody else in these parts outdoors to indulge. Two weeks ago I bought a pair of running shoes that people who share this particular foot problem I have, swear by. Something about “give” in the area of the heel that does not aggravate it—I am still unsure exactly why it’s so special, but if the price tag is any indicator it sure as heck better be. Anyway, at this point in time I would pay a king’s ransom for the privilege of running again; I am okay with short, slow runs, happy to allow others more fleet of foot pass me by like I’m standing still.

Today was the day.

The early spring Battenkill River is flowing full and beautiful right now, a far cry from about this time last year, when there was still so much ice everywhere after the winter from hell. Mud season has pretty much come and gone, and River Road—where I’ve run in the past, and also ride my bike—is just about perfect right now.

Easter Run 3 Edit

The early spring this year is simply stunning. Little streams that feed the river are flowing at full tilt; sound byte at the bottom. Today could not have been more glorious. I arrived back at the car pink-cheeked and positively giddy, and significantly, pain free. The only thing missing now is a leashed shepherd in my right hand.

Easter Run 4 Edit

Easter Run 5 Edit

 

 

Garden State Highway: Beauty in Unexpected Places

Garden State Parkway

If driving were a metaphor for the rancor which seems to characterize the tenor of American politics these days, it is playing out on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey. Any remnant of human decency that real, face-to-face interaction demands is lost once you’re behind the wheel of a car. And on this particular stretch of road that privilege evidently extends you carte blanche to be a bonafide jackass. It’s the kind of behavior you might have known standing in a cafeteria line with the bullies in your sixth grade class—elbowing and pushing and jostling, cutting in line: generally behaving like a jerk. You’d never tolerate it in the grocery store queue as a grownup, where you could directly confront your offender.

The stakes are much lower in the sixth grade cafeteria line than they are on a multi-lane highway where the speed of traffic is easily ten- to fifteen-miles an hour over the limit to begin with. (Apologies to my New Jersey friends, and you have my deepest sympathies if you must travel this road.) The most infuriating aspect of the driving we saw on the Parkway yesterday was the overt expression of this sentiment: my agenda is more important than yours, and I am willing to risk your life to achieve it.

The reason for our visit to the Jersey shore is bittersweet, a memorial service for a beloved family friend who was an exemplar for a life well lived. It was also supposed to be a nice, if brief escape from our little corner of the world for the Chef and myself, but a virus that insinuated itself earlier this week is now in full bloom, leaving me holed up in the hotel with a box of Kleenex while everybody else is at the church; thought I could power through this one quickly, I was wrong. I feel bad for anyone who’s had to be near me for the last few days, not least of all HCB. I figure his symptoms should emerge just about any second now.

Spring has not arrived here like it has in the South, where I gather foliage is already exploding left and right. Here (at least in Vermont) we can only just see the tiniest hint of fullness and color coming into the tips of deciduous branches. At home our chives have sprouted, but elsewhere the land still lies barren from our mild winter, with snow still in the forecast.

Spring foliage covers a multitude of sins, but it’s still way too early. The scenery whizzing past yesterday was brutal: seamy, industrial, poor, decrepit towns and suburbs, juxtaposed against beautiful ancient foundations in the woods and stacked stone fences that once marked property lines. I could not get them in my lens, and instead aimed the camera skyward and surprised myself with the results, at least until it was yanked out of my hands by the G-forces of the car as we swerved (again) to avoid being nailed by another selfish somebody. HCB has excellent reflexes.

Clouds 1

Clouds 2

Clouds 3

Clouds 4

Clouds 5

Decaying barbecue grills and forgotten backyard toys and other roadside detritus will soon be obscured by spring’s lovely foliage. It is just too dang bad it can’t do anything to obscure the human condition as it careens down the Garden State Parkway.

Warm Days & Cold Nights: Sugaring Time in Vermont

Yesterday Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I drove past three sap buckets hanging on roadside telephone poles in Upstate New York; somebody’s got a sense of humor. HCB’s brother would enjoy that, I am sure; there is a longstanding dispute in this family about who makes the best syrup—New York (where brother S lives) or Vermont. Though I don’t really have a dog in that fight, I will stick out my neck and say Vermont is not known for its (ahem) superior maple syrup for nothing; behind every cliché there is always at least a kernel of truth and in this case, a whole lot more.

Maple 7A

Maple sugaring has come early this year with record-breaking warm temperatures; the tree outside our kitchen window is more prolific than ever. HCB taps it every spring in an exercize that is equal parts science project and culinary fun.

Big producers don’t use old-fashioned buckets anymore—everywhere in the Vermont countryside you’ll find roadside networks of the telltale blue plastic tubing that drains the maple sap and carries it from the trees to large collection tanks for serious syrup production. It is distinctly un-romantic, but still yields the sticky confection that is so magical in the mouth, ostensibly faster, better and more efficiently, and all that.

We still do it the old-fashioned way for fun. The thing is, buckets of syrup boil down to virtually nothing: when HCB insisted we had a bumper “crop” of sap this spring, my observation was something like, oooh, maybe we’ll get three tablespoons this year.

That is of course completely beside the point.

There really is not all that much to making maple syrup except collecting the sap, reducing it, straining it, and canning it. But you do have to keep your eye on the stove. It’s what’s been going on here for the past several delicious days.

Maple 8A

Maple 9A

Maple 1A

There was so much sap this year the bucket was overflowing the first time around and HCB had to use a commercial pot in the beginning.

Maple 2A

Maple 3A

Our biggest stock pot held all the sap after many, many hours of reducing:

Maple 5A

Maple 10A

Thence to a smaller pan, just barely:

Maple 11A

HCB watched it carefully from this point forward, observing its viscosity as he allowed it to fall from a spoon. For me the über-sweet aroma announced its arrival: at some point our house began to smell distinctly maple syrup-y.

Next came filtering, where the residue—particulate from the tree that eludes the eye when the sap is running—is really observable.

Maple 13A

Maple 14A

Our yield was phenomenal this year; one of us might have indulged already.

Maple 15A

There really is no substitute for real Vermont maple syrup. Totally worth the expense, to say nothing of the sticky laptop keyboard.

Maple 6A

 

It’s the Little Things

IMG_20150614_135634

I think it must be a function of age and want. I don’t recall ever getting so excited over ripe tomatoes. And crispy local green beans. And fresh ears of corn just arrived from Georgia, and expensive organic strawberries like the pint I bought as a special treat last Friday, and my Sunday morning yoga class. Three years ago, at the threshold of big changes, I was driven by fear and survival (mainly fear), the rug freshly yanked out from under me; those feelings were reprised just last October. The fear remains, but with cautious optimism I am savoring ordinary things with renewed ferocity, things I once took for granted.

It’s also life in Vermont. I love so much about this place, but the jury’s emphatically out on others, to wit: the sun never gets quite overhead on a winter’s day, and darkness comes early. I hate that. Hate. It’s a strong word that should be reserved for occasions when one really means it, like now. And it would be just fine with this Southern girl if we got about a tenth the amount of annual snowfall we get here. And ticks and deerflies—they contribute nothing to the world order except agony, and we’ve got them in droves.

But there is salvation in that tomato, which is almost as tender and juicy and sweet as a Southern-grown tomato. Almost. And when I returned home from my delicious yoga class this morning, I made a delicious salad with it, and a number of other beautiful ingredients, many of them locally grown. It is nothing short of a miracle, in my humble opinion, that the farm I pass twice daily on my commute to and from work was harboring the infant version of that beautiful tomato in one of its many greenhouses, when I was still sliding all over the icy highway using my slow-to-improve Vermontish driving skills. (See fear, above.)

See what I mean? It does not take too much to get me excited these days. Like this salad I made—this salad is pretty dang exciting.

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I will make another similar one and take it to a barbecue potluck in a couple of weeks. That’s exciting, too: being invited to a potluck with new New England friends.

And this is exciting:

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Those are the beautiful layers of pastry stratigraphy in the opera cake (yes, opera cake is a thing) Handsome Chef Boyfriend made and brought home for the second teenagery birthday celebration in the space of only a couple of weeks, this time for the 16-year-old. I think of it as high art. And I am duly impressed with HCB, not just because he can make something that gorgeous and delectable, but because he is also in a period of transition, self-motivated, doing some creative reinventing, moving into the culinary world of sweet after a long and successful career mainly in savory.

Which brings me right back to the little things. When you spend long hours on your feet poring over recipes, scaling out ingredients in a busy commercial kitchen, turning out beautiful baked goods right and left (things for which people sometimes drive long distances), you deserve some time to yourself enjoying the little things.

But HCB tends to latch on to the little things with even more ferocity than I.

Case in point: cake fails. You know the ones: once in a while some hilarious image of a badly decorated cake with raunchy pastry work and egregious grammatical errors floats by on social media. Sometimes it’s a whole collection of them, and I admit they often make me laugh. Yesterday I shared an especially awful one with HCB, which then inspired him to go find others. And others. And still others. This went on for some time; the giggling coming from the vicinity of his desk was contagious, long after I gave up looking at the cakes gone bad.

But then came the other obsession, the one that has gathered intensity of late: eBay.

It started innocently a few weeks ago with teenager number two and a particular piece of outerwear he wanted which costs a king’s ransom if you buy it off the rack in a store. Out of the question. So eBay it was: jacket located, auction won (hooray!), and we thought we were done.

Except when it came, it was not the material we thought it would be, and there was some question whether the teenager would like or want this particular version.

On to auction number two, where HCB once again enjoyed success, and the jacket was much closer to the mark. We gave the boy both for his birthday, and he seemed pretty happy.

Golf clubs, Super Mario Bros. toys (long story), Spanish saffron, car parts—he’s found all of them, and joyously, on eBay auctions. What I find the most entertaining about HCB’s new obsession with this particular flavor of e-commerce is his excited play-by-play description of what is happening near the end of an auction. It’s comical and endearing, even if I have to throw something at him to get his attention. Last night I said I would get a little bell and just whap it every time there’s a bit of auction news:

“I’m the high bidder again!”

<ding!>

“I’m waiting ’til the last 30 seconds!”

<ding!>

“I found a whole boxed set of Audrey Hepburn DVDs for you!”

<ding!>

“Wait, they’re from the UK, nevermind.”

<bummer.>

Tomatoes, eBay, cake fails, deep snow, short winter days, sometimes-sullen teenagers, ever shifting planets. Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I are in it together, obsessions notwithstanding, and that’s no small thing.

Bustin’ Out All Over

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Every single year, every single June I get that earworm from Carousel: “June is bustin’ out all over!” Aw, c’mon. Sock it to me. It’s Tonys night, after all. And guess what? I survived my third <wait for it…> Vermont Winter! I am still standing. I am also bustin’ out all over, a condition to which I have alluded in earlier posts. I am proud to say I have reversed the trend. I’ve gone back to an old plan, one that has worked for me more than once in the past. It’s rough getting started, but last week was excellent, and I feel mainly good. (You are my muse, Denise.)

The past few Friday evenings Handsome Chef Boyfriend has made deliveries to a farmstand over in New York, and I’ve gone along for the ride. We’ve had stunning, breathtaking weather every single time. Last Friday this hung on our horizon:

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And then we came across this:

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“You could never get me into one of those things,” I said.

“I’d do it,” said HCB.

Of course you would; knock yourself out. I question the sanity of the person who first decided hopping into a basket attached to a gigantic balloon, with open flames right over your head, was a good idea. And of everybody else who agrees it’s a good idea.

But I digress. Guess what time it is here in Vermont? I’ll tell you what time it is: farmstand time. Fresh produce time. I can’t tell you how exciting this is. And my daily commute takes me right past one of my favorites. First veg of the season:

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Organic mixed greens, spicy and delicious, not to be found in the supermarket. And,

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Green beans. Vibrant and crispy, lots of ’em.

I might watch some of the Tonys tonight. It will make me wistful for NYC, where I’d have been in the recent past for American Ballet Theatre’s 75th Anniversary celebrations but for circumstances that make it impossible at the moment.

But I am celebrating where I am right now: it’s tough to beat late springtime in Vermont.