Dogged Adventures: Asheville Is Noisy

Not Noisy from Here
The metal carabiner-like clip that fastens to the harness part of Scout-the-Lab’s seatbelt is maddening, like that childhood game Barrel Full of Monkeys: just when you think you’re about to get it clipped—or unclipped as the case may be—an irksome little hook (think crochet needle) gets hung up and refuses to slip through the metal clasp on the harness. At least, when you’re trying to do it one-handedly. Scout sits there patiently waiting for his lady-human to correct the situation while she tugs and pulls his harness this way and that, cursing under her breath, or sometimes plainly for the world to hear, depending on her mood. There! she finally spits out when the damned thing does as it should. The inventor of that childhood game must be complicit with the designer of the Kurgo dog harness, I am sure of it. Good thing Scout’s long familiar with the ritual, as we repeated it countless times over the course of nine days of Way Down South adventuring.

Asheville Adventurer
This was Scout’s big epiphany during our Dogged Adventures: he is a Dog of the World, schooled in long-distance travel, in navigating loud city sidewalks crowded with people and other dogs, and importantly, in waiting when he is told—waiting to jump down from the car, or to jump up into the car, waiting before bolting out of the hotel room’s open door, waiting for the automatic doors to open, waiting for the traffic signal to change, and sometimes, merely waiting. Waiting is also what happens when you go to a dog-friendly eatery with outdoor seating; the best ones bring you a fresh bowl of water and give you a pat on the head. But mainly, you lie down and wait; sometimes you snap at a yellow jacket until your human warns you to stop because this pastime can only end badly for you. But in spite of being asked not to snap at yellow jackets and being made to wait, you are glad to do it, because the rewards are sweet. Smoked barbecue, for example, is completely worth waiting for. Ditto bites of succulent grilled chicken, or crumbles of a grass-fed beef burger smothered in Vermont cheddar. Call it manna from heaven, if you like—good things come to those who wait, and Scout completely gets this.

Farm Burger Waiting Dog

Farm Burger Still Life

You Can Eat Like This in Your Twenties

Vermont Cheddar in Asheville

Sweet Potato Fries Are Health Food

Collision of Lines
No self-respecting chef embarks on a vacation without doing his culinary homework. HCB wanted barbecue from the get-go, and he wanted the best. One of his homies down in Asheville made recommendations, and because Scout-the-Lab was with us, we opted for number two on the list (see dog-friendly eatery above). This worked out fine, and nobody was disappointed: leftovers supplied a homemade pizza topping for one gluten-free twenty-something, a couple of sammies, and general late-night noshing with the fridge door wide open at our little vacation rental. We ate it with the abandon of people off their diets and on vacation, all of it, and mopped up what was left with remnants of homemade corn bread.

Butt Rubbin’ Goin On

12 Bones Smokehouse

A Pie Tin Is Your Plate

Perfection
Asheville has always held appeal as a quirky but still somehow metropolitan mountain city, separated from its neighbors by, well, mountains. You kind of have to work to get there: eastbound I-40 out of Knoxville gets steep and curvaceous all of a sudden, and just when you think you can’t take any more careening up a steep, fast-moving highway wedged between a cement barrier on one side, and a long caravan of tractor trailer rigs on the other, you’re there. What struck us about Asheville on this trip is her ancient infrastructure long outgrown by the burgeoning city around it, crying out to be replaced (as the twenty-something correctly observed: because there are no turn lanes, traffic backs up for days). The seamier, industrial parts of town have elevated graffiti to high art, and damned if it does not work beautifully. We spotted an entire group of people photographing it on tripods, part of a class assignment we guessed. Downtown is fun, and treacherous, and did not slow down one jot no matter what time we were out and about. But for his part, Scout-the-Lab seemed to know exactly what to do after our excursion with him in downtown Knoxville. Dogs are amazing and resilient.

Graffiti 1

Graffiti 2

Graffiti 3

French Broad Chocolate Has New Digs

Chocolate Makes the World Go ‘Round

Asheville City Dawgs I Know
We also took a small hike from our rental (on the outskirts of downtown, and on the edge of the University of North Carolina at Asheville’s campus, as it happens) to the UNCA observatory, high atop a ridge overlooking the city. The area around it—the paved road leading up, the street lights, and a tall concrete stairway reaching from the road below to the building above—have been let go, it’s fair to say. Nor have the gardens around it seen much love in recent years, although the most determined flowering plants have elbowed their way to life in spite of the overgrowth around them: you can tell it was once really something. Meanwhile the observatory itself is still brought into service several times a year, and opens up for public viewings. We happened to be there for one which was unfortunately full, but anyway cancelled thanks to the overcast remnants of Irma. The boy said he could tell the top of the building slides open, and when we got back to our place I looked it up, and sure enough. Meanwhile, we got outside, exercised a little, and took in the incredible vistas from the top; my whiny kid said he had no interest in going, and then all of a sudden he was right there with us. Wish I had used that strategy in my younger parenting years instead of pleading, reasoning, and brow beating. Hindsight.

The Little Free Library at Our Airbnb

The Neighborhood Has Excellent Taste in Literature
There’s no place like home. And there’s no place like the South; I miss it like crazy, content for now to busy myself with hopeful goings-on here in Vermont, about which more later.

Postscript: I meant to include this photo of my ghostlike dog-and-chef in the Knoxville post but somehow missed it. Serendipitous—I have no clue how I did it, something to do with shutter speed and the absence of light probably. It was late, we were going down stairs in a downtown parking garage. Mistakes can be beautiful, after all.

City Ghosts

Dogged Adventures: No Complaints About Rainy Days

The best that Irma could muster

When it’s cold-ish, rainy, and a bit blustery on vacation, you spend a fair amount of time in your cheap hotel room doing mainly nothing. Or riding shotgun around town with your twenty-something while he shows you new stuff and changed stuff and plain missing stuff. Five years is long enough for the landscape to morph so dramatically in some places it’s no longer recognizable, five years of freeze and thaw cycles, stormy seasons, and a recovering economy. Midday Monday found me sitting with the boy in the drive-through lane at his favorite eatery, idling over the same pavement where I clocked so many hours with him snapped into the back seat booster, tired, hungry, a peanut-sized malcontent who never really met the world’s expectations from a tender age. This was a better scenario.

My whole life has been a lie, observed the twenty-something about the fake towels at the pricey department store

We can deal with boredom, content merely to be off the clock for a few days. My ex-sister-in-law-but-still-my-sister has had a much rougher go of it in Charleston. I hate that we missed our visit, but hate it more that she and Waco-the-Lab are dealing with what they are. And there is that fickle José doing dog-knows-what out there in the Atlantic, a bit too close to Charleston.

Meanwhile the eternally agreeable and exercise-deprived Scout-the-Lab was positively giddy for his four-miler in a beloved city park in Knoxville, Tennessee Monday morning, a romp squeezed in before Irma arrived in these parts (she threw some cold rain and wind our way, and then moved on). HCB did eight miles in about the same amount of time it took me to cover four. The paved trail in the park was new, seems like yesterday. Now it is broken up in places, marbled with root incursion (a visual nightmare for somebody like myself with no depth perception); running in this case was a euphemism for playing hopscotch along the serpentine and hilly path. Scout explored every nook and cranny with the joie de vivre only a dog possesses; we should watch and learn.

Southern vacation requisite and best ever post-run carbs

Lakeshore Park was once the sprawling campus of a large residential mental hospital, the ‘loony bin’ as insensitive locals sometimes called it. In the late 19th century it was named the Eastern Hospital for Insane officially, then in the 1920s the more sanitized sounding Eastern State Psychiatric Hospital replaced it. And true to a trend, the residential services in the hospital came offline in pieces starting in 1990. For a time the grand old 19th century brick structures remained, some of them anyway, where patients continued to receive outpatient care. Then many of those services fell by the wayside, too, and the big, empty buildings served only as a snapshot of history, what was once a self-sufficient operation with its own dairy now a thing of the past. By June of 2012 the hospital was officially a hospital no more, replaced by legions of city athletic fields, and the new pathway around it filled with stroller-pushing moms and now hopscotching middle aged folks and their shy doggies. I halfway thought I’d bump into somebody I once knew and then it dawned on me most of these folks were mere children the last time I made this circuit. Time marches on.

In the space of only a few days Scout learned this truth: sleeping in a huge, soft bed with your humans is divine. He does not enjoy this luxury back home in Vermont because a vexation known as spiral stairs makes it impossible.

Scout’s most amazing discovery: the joy of sleeping in bed with the humans
Sometimes you find beauty in unexpected places, even near a nondescript hotel
Monet writ small in Knoxville
Found somebody pretty busy in a clump of honeysuckle near the hotel

Scout meets Prometheus, the Shiloh Shepherd who lives with the boy

Funny that a 60-pound dog could scare the bejeebus out of a much larger shepherd, but that is precisely what happened when Scout-the-Lab invited a skeptical fraidy cat to play.

The culinary highlight of our time in Knoxville was authentic Cuban fare eaten on our laps from Styrofoam takeout boxes, since doggies are no bueno inside a restaurant with no patio. We also caught up with my dad for a happy couple of hours and obligatory family photos with lots of chiding dad about his ancient phone technology. He insisted the groovy clicky noise and the animated shutter on his phone trumps the benefits of a smartphone any day, but HCB’s missing head suggests otherwise.

Authentic Cuban sandwich
Meat-filled empanada
Needs empanadas
Twenty-something with his granddad and mama
Family portrait
Family photo with headless chef

Scout-the-Lab is not only the Most Agreeable Traveling Canine Ever, but can now also claim expertise as a city dog. I had reservations about this, mainly about folks wanting to approach and touch him. But when we spent an evening in downtown Knoxville they came at us fast and furious—I could not run interference on every single encounter, nor did I need to as it happened: Scout seemed to get it. He was happy to be approached and petted and in fact enjoyed the attention. Urban night life proved a treasure trove of delicious new experiences for a dog keen to take it all in.

City Dogs
Expert at city sidewalk dining
You can still spot the work of the ‘cathedral guy’ in downtown Knoxville; many thanks to the boy for a much better photo than I got
Nekkid ladies hold up the old Miller’s Department Store building in downtown Knoxville

When I was a young student at the University of Tennessee, I routinely stepped over the busts of naked ladies in the basement of the McClung Museum on campus, where they sat in storage when they were salvaged from a beloved downtown department store after its conversion to Something Better. In the last couple of decades as Knoxville came to its senses they were restored to their rightful places. I caught them hard at work as they should be, from our sidewalk table at this little eatery, where earlier we bumped into a pair of dear friends, and were waited on by the daughter of another. It was the perfect finale to our time in Knoxville.

With apologies to friends, family, and one beloved professor and a couple others I could not see this time around, more soon from the mountains of Asheville, NC.

Dogged Adventures: Where the South Begins

Stoic and Resolute

Just a few yards past mile marker 152 and nine tenths on Virginia’s southbound Interstate 81 stands a tall clump of vegetation completely engulfed in kudzu—fully involved, the fire department would say—like some unfortunate character from Middle Earth awaiting release from a centuries-long curse, or maybe more like the creatures the White Witch turned to stone in Narnia. There they stand by the side of the busy highway, and there is where the South begins, because I say so.

We passed that milestone a little while ago, road-weary, none the worse for wear, looking forward to reaching our first destination tomorrow with the stoic and resolute Scout-the-Lab in tow. The last couple of hours always drag on to eternity. That’s when I started a game I called ‘Name the Contents of That Trailer.’ For example, I told HCB, that one is full of Pampers and Pullups headed down to clothe the hurricane babies in Texas and Florida.

How do you know? he quipped.

Because I said so (see the South above), and you are not the boss of my trailer story game. Your turn: what’s in that one up ahead?

Mattresses And Trampolines, And Onions, he said.

What?

Yep, he continued: look on the back. It says ‘MATO.’

Well okay, but you must instead say ‘Mattresses and Trampolines, Onions,’ because if you are using the ‘A’ for ‘And,’ then you can’t invent ‘And’ if it does not exist before ‘Onions.’

He then changed his mind to invent an acronym that included ‘Massachusetts’ and some other words you can’t say in polite company.

Hurricane Irma would not leave us alone, starting this morning when we confirmed with my ex-sister-in-law-but-still-my-sister that we did not have the constitution to come see her down in Charleston as planned, even though she is sitting out this still-unknown event, because it will still be bad in spite of the spaghetti models, and because of this miscreant known as a Predecessor Rain Event, and I am not making that up—she texted it to me last night, and she is smart. In short, the wind and rain will be horrid, there will be flooding, and the last thing she needs is a house full of dogs and people and no power.

Earlier today standing in line at Arby’s to get HCB some vacation curly fries, I listened to the truckers around me warning each other to stay safe on the road. It was clear these folks belong to a special brotherhood, strangers united in a singular mission to drive trailers full of supplies into dangerous and needy territory. We passed and were passed by a squadron of cherry picker utility trucks from New Jersey all day long, each one flying an American flag, and one besmeared with a homemade ‘#IRMA.’ These guys need a special prize for the work they’re doing.

I hope everybody stays safe, but know some will not.

And I hope they get something useful like food and water instead of pens and racing skis, as HCB suggested one truck was carrying.

What?

Yep, he said. Look—it’s a Penske truck.

It’s how we roll. More soon from our Way Down South Trip, Part the Third.

Might Be a Good Jumpin’ Bed

 

Photo Essay: End of a Vermont Summer

Hangers On

One thing I’ve noticed about the changing of the seasons in Vermont: nature gives you a teeny taste of what’s coming before she says, Nah, just kidding. Then the weather maintains the status quo for a while longer before it finally relents to the tilt of the planet passing the sun. It’s happening just now: feels like fall outside in the early mornings. I drove to work Friday with my seat heater and the heat turned up for the first fifteen minutes or so. A couple of trees are starting to turn, too: fallen leaves here and there glow like embers against a gravel road. I confess they make me sad. In a few days we’ll head Way Down South for another taste of high summer, though, and there will be some sultry days yet up in these parts.

Experimenting still with rudimentary equipment, no zoom, poor lighting, and an amateur hand. I need my reading glasses when I shoot, and never have them. What I can’t capture the way I want I can sometimes fake with photo editing. (Yeah, I meant to make that picture all blurry.) Meanwhile, the end of summer gives us dappled sunlight, still-blooming plants, and abundant offerings from my favorite farm stand.

 

 

Family Vacations: The Summers of My Discontent

Family vacations are dumb.

Nothing sends me into a tailspin faster than a technological mishap: this would include power outages and car problems, to say nothing of broken laptops. I’ve been in a tailspin since the first week in August, the week my shiny new laptop failed catastrophically on a Saturday morning, an incident that prompted a series of irritating phone calls and remote sessions with tech support, and no fewer than five trips in the car over an hour one way to try to deal, because we are underserved in Vermont. That’s more than a tank of gas and five days I’ll never get back again. This coming Saturday will mark the sixth. I remain skeptical at best, even with another new laptop in the offing: an evil vortex has settled in over me, ready to stir up trouble with any device I bring into this house, I am sure of it.

New equipment should not fail, tech support should be smart, and people on the other side of the planet who are enlisted to ‘remote’ into your computer, with your personal stuff on it and all, should not be loading weirdo media players in another language onto your laptop without your permission. I submit these are the folks who refused to do their third grade homework but still walked away with ‘participation’ ribbons, never learned manners but were coddled in the name of self-esteem boosting, and possess not one shred of respect for personal property, because if it’s broke you just buy a new one. I bet they leave crusty bowls of half-eaten ramen noodles sitting around at home. And now here they are inside my electronics doing god-knows-what, but failing miserably at fixing the problem I invited them in to fix to begin with. (You need more RAM. Wait—how could that be the case on a new laptop?)

How do these folks even get these jobs in the first place?

See? Tailspin. But I digress.

On a recent day trip over to neighboring Upstate New York to meet again with the homework slackers, HCB and I got to talking in the car as we are wont to do. We came around a twisty bend in a sleepy rural highway and crossed another busier highway to continue our trek, which took us past a lake dotted with docks where small watercraft are moored at the edge of unassuming vacation home properties; a single golf cart was sitting idle on a patch of asphalt near the edge of the lake, a beacon of leisure on this sunny summer afternoon. This tiny lake’s more or less a poor man’s paradise, cheerful nonetheless.

I never had the kind of camping experience you had growing up, I said aloud to HCB. I vaguely recall one summer when I was barely beyond my toddler years (maybe three) when my parents and I visited with my grandparents—my dad’s folks—at a place near Chattanooga called Camp Ocoee. I’m not sure we even spent the night. What remains in my head after all these years are washed out memories of rustic board-and-batten structures with wraparound screen porches and creaky screen doors. And my grandmother’s crafty ceramics class in one building. And dusty pathways, possibly a swingset, and a boy called Chris Cunningham who accepted my heartfelt passions only reluctantly. That is all I remember, and probably the only reason I remember any of it at all is the legacy of a few photos and some family folklore. (Chris: where are you now? Did you do your third grade homework, or did you get participation awards?)

I did not have cooties.

Camping was big in my family, said HCB, and he went on to describe it. The girls had better games, he said—they were more complicated and involved and fun. The boys were just idiots. Playing with the girls was your best bet.

I remember long car trips in the summer, I said, and always asking to get out of the car when we stopped at a scenic overlook or passed some landmark or monument. No, came the answer always.

I know why, I went on: it was my brother’s fault. He was a pain in the ass to travel with. We never made short trips—we were either eastward bound for Knoxville and Chattanooga all the way across the length of our squished parallelogram state from Memphis to visit family, or worse—to a remote Texas destination for a family convention tied to my dad’s work, which meant two solid days in a hot car to get there: the crayons always, always melted, and my brother always, always Crossed The Line in the back seat to my side, to purposely detonate the big sister bomb and then sit back and enjoy the explosion. This was to be expected of a seven-years-younger brother, but of course I could not appreciate that. If I were my parents, I’d want to get there, too.

Here is the truth about my brother in those days: he simply could not shut up. He sang to himself, talked to himself, and ran out of breath mimicking the noises of choo choo trains. Trains, for god’s sake. They were his everything.

The Talker

One time on the way home from a Texas vacation, my brother drove my mom to the brink of insanity with his ‘prattling,’ as she called it. We were in Arkansas, with Memphis squarely in the crosshairs by then, so close to home we could almost taste it. My mom had cleverly outfitted the back seat of the car with two vinyl shoe racks hung over the front seat headrests—one for my brother and one for me, a strategy she’d read about in a parenting tome. Mine was still fairly organized by the end of our vacation, stocked with a few new treasures acquired along the way, but his was chaos. Long weary of his toys, he busied himself with jabbering. The kid simply could not. shut. up.

THOMAS! snapped my mama about an hour away from our suburban home. SHUT YOUR MOUTH.

He complied, but continued to make all kinds of creative sounds with closed lips, including weird gurgling noises that required lots of spit.

HCB erupted in giggles when I told him this story, and then started making his own version of close-lipped noises. Two peas in a pod, I imagined, while agonizing at the thought of traveling with not one, but three siblings in a closed space. Perish the thought.

For my part, I yearned for my bicycle and my neighborhood friends about a second after we reached our vacation destination. That bicycle meant autonomy and freedom, from boredom, from a brother who followed me around like my shadow, from tiresome grown-ups. You can’t escape any of those things on a hot summer vacation with your family.

But no, we never camped as a family, and we did not get out of the car much, because dad was hell bent on getting from point A to point B. The upshot of this for me is, I have no interest in camping, never have as an adult and never did as a parent myself, but I do love me a good road trip, especially off-the-beaten path trips into the American countryside, the kind that put you in the back yards of farmers, and take you down remote highways dotted with derelict billboards, leaving your imagination to reinvent a place that is no more, and anyway what happened to it and to the people who once worked there or patronized it? I can entertain myself in silence for a long time making up a story. Lately I’ve fabricated one closer to home, about some goings-on on the rural road where I often run: in short, I have invented an entire narrative to explain the activity I have observed on a particular property for the past few weeks. It involves tawdry behavior and a messy divorce and a property dispute and unhappy children.

You don’t have evidence for any of your assumptions, HCB tells me.

What’s your point? I ask. Give me my story: I am not hurting anybody.

He smacks his hand over his face and shakes it in disbelief.

Family vacations with a younger brother are bothersome and that is all. On that very trip—the one where my brother made the gurgling noises—he also spat out his chewing gum in my long, silky ballerina hair right as we were crossing the Mississippi River from West Memphis, Arkansas, into downtown Memphis, Tennessee.

I howled in agony, ruing the day he was born, gnashing my teeth and wishing I could tear out my hair.

My mom was at once horrified and delighted: she knew just what to do to get it out, and it involved peanut butter—she’d read it in that damned book, the same one with the vinyl shoe caddy tip.

Little brother, your sister has a blog: it’s payback time at long last.

I wish I had a laptop. Because I like laptops.

Nota bene: My brother is enjoying a long and successful career in the railroad industry. He is a hard worker and a problem solver, character traits for which he is beloved in the workplace. He also holds a patent for a piece of machinery that is helping revolutionize the modern locomotive engine.

Vulgar Discourse: What Failed Words Say About You

Common Ass

By vulgarity I mean that vice of civilization which makes man ashamed of himself and his next of kin, and pretend to be somebody else.—Solomon Schechter

You already knew everything by the time you came home from college for Thanksgiving during your freshman year. You tossed your hair in a new and improved way—in fact all mannerisms were calculated to make everybody around you understand the cool, self-assured, grown-up person you’d become in the space of—what. Weeks? Amazing, this transformation. And you had new language and turns of phrase to show off, too, proof positive you were an adult now. They went over well with your dormmates after all, who also used them. The ladies who served your plate in the campus cafeteria on the other hand rolled their eyes at all of you, but you missed it, because a swagger tends to blur your vision.

And then using your new voice of bravado you said something vulgar and inappropriate to a family member at a Thanksgiving gathering, because along with the disappearance of your slightly younger and more childlike self, your brain-to-mouth filter had also taken its leave. Your mom kicked you under the table. Hard. The kick was a thoughtful gift, even if you couldn’t recognize it right then. It really was something to be thankful for on this day to celebrate gratitude, because in that moment she yanked you down from the clouds by your ankles and saved you from being insufferable for one more painful second.

Where-oh-where is Anthony Scaramucci’s mom?

A couple of days ago news broke that the second wife of the newly anointed Director of Communications for the Donald Trump White House—one Anthony Scaramucci—had filed for divorce after three years of marriage. This should come as exactly no surprise, gentle reader. Anthony Scaramucci, who is now a self-proclaimed expert on Washington because he has lived there for, I don’t know, a few hours. Anthony Scaramucci, who answered the call to the POTUS for which he’d been yearning, evidently, for quite some time.

It’s like being picked for safety patrol in the last week of fifth grade. The rising sixth graders are sick of it by then and anyway they’re headed on to bigger and better things next year; they’re more than happy to hand over their bright orange swag. But when the school authorities installed you in that lofty role, you felt powerful. Thing is, the instant you become a self-important and insufferable so-and-so in fifth grade, there are palpable consequences, probably coming at you from all angles: you might even be defrocked.

Anthony Scaramucci is certainly not above being defrocked, but his brain-to-mouth filter is gone, gone, gone. He’s a loose cannon with a shiny toy Twitter feed, not unlike the Commander-in-Chief who hired him. This New Yorker piece speaks volumes about him, mainly in Scaramucci’s own voice—not only laying open his difficulties with the King’s English, but also revealing his unhinged character. We should be concerned.

I recoiled in horror the first time my child tried on the word butthead; he was three. (We had the movie Babe to thank for it.) Nope, words like that are for people who have no other words to use, I told him. My strategy worked for a little while, until the next morsel of potty language came exploding out of his mouth. But all the cool kids say it. (Must make it okay.) Eventually the cool kids won, and my own kid had to figure it out for himself: people take notice of you when you’re vulgar—could be a good and powerful thing, or perhaps not.

Based on a BBC interview I heard one morning last week, sounds like Mr. Scaramucci is one of the cool kids. On the one hand you have to admire anybody who’s willing to stand up to questions from a BBC reporter. Those people get all up in your business, cutting you off right and left, often finishing an observation with a question only the Brits can make sound like politesse: But you said those words yourself in an interview just last week, Mr. Pants-on-Fire, didn’t you? It’s a rhetorical question—the inflection goes down and not up: you’ve simply underscored your point.

Reminds me of the way my mom used to interview me, only it was more like an interrogation, delivered through a lilting Southern tongue lacking any signs of politesse. (WHAT WERE YOU THINKING? Teenage subject begins to answer, cut off by, YOU WEREN’T THINKING, WERE YOU?)

But in his first-ever interview with the BBC’s edgy Emily Maitlis Anthony Scaramucci tells the world it’s okay to behave like an ass if you’re from Queens (all the cool kids are doing it). Ms. Maitlis’ question: Does having a ‘tough exoskeleton’ (Scaramucci’s expression) allow the President of the United States be rude to you? Scaramucci’s answer: You’re from Great Britain. I’m not from Great Britain. I’m from a town that’s right on the border of Queens. And the President grew up in Queens. Okay, so we have a little bit of a different communication style: it’s a little bit more direct, it’s probably less subtle and polite, but you don’t think politicians in your home town are hitting each other left and right? Now, they may be hitting each other in a more subtle way, but I sort of like the more open approach. One of the things I cannot stand about this town <he gestures to Washington over his left shoulder> is the back stabbing that goes on here, okay? Where I grew up, in the neighborhood I’m from, we’re front stabbers.

Two front-stabbing, language-deficient, peas in a pod, Mr. Scaramucci and his close buddy, Mr. Trump, the leader of the free world.

Here’s a snippet of that interview, should you doubt he actually said those words. The only thing missing is the orange swag (the swagger is intact) and the little blue beanie. Oh, and the only words this Southern girl has for Mr. Scaramucci, a girl who did not grow up in Queens, and is not one of the cool kids: Bless your heart.

How to Live in a Summer Moment

Summery Radicchio

Summer is color at long last after months of a monochromatic landscape, not only the verdant carpet that defines our namesake Green Mountains in Vermont, but in what it yields: marbled veins and rivulets in crimson radicchio, the bitter leaf that will cavort a while later with exotic mesclun and mustard greens waiting patiently in their twist-tied bags at the farm stand, where I stop on the way home from work, where a cat wanders around while people are picking through vegetables, a cat who sometimes plunks down lazily on the rough-hewn floorboards and flicks the tip of her tail back and forth and forces patrons to queue up awkwardly around her at the counter. Everybody smiles. Cat, you know nothing of the alert dog waiting just outside these big, open barn doors in the back seat of my car, I think.

Summer is taking that dog outside to do his doings whilst contemplating words like curmudgeon, and unctuous, or unctuous curmudgeon, and then realizing you can’t really have it both ways because they cancel each other out, which is too bad because ‘unctuous curmudgeon’ rolls off the tongue in a pleasing way. Scout, you are an unctuous curmudgeon, I say, and he wags his tail at me.

Summer is listening to Miles Davis in the evening with plenty of daylight still filtering through the skylights above, wondering who stole my copy of Kind of Blue back in Knoxville years ago and wondering why I never replaced it. And thinking of all the music I said I’d collect through the years but never did, like Fleetwood Mac or Michael Jackson in spite of his weirdness, or any of a number of 1980s British Invasion bands whose over-produced music I loved in my twenties. And the Bach Brandenburg Concerti—I still have none of them after all these years. And by the way maybe it was the same person who stole the liner notes from my Paul McCartney USA tour video, which vanished around the same time as Miles.

Summer is reminiscing about a highfalutin event my ex and I once hosted in Knoxville, a fundraiser for a local historic landmark where I’d worked as a young student of archaeology. And now years later I was somehow on the board of trustees feeling like a fish out of water and this enormous white event tent was pitched on our sprawling corner lawn shaded by massive, centuries-old hardwoods, a tent filled with tables and white wood folding chairs and people dressed to the nines and a sommelier going on about what they would be drinking that evening, and making Kir Royales for everybody all night long while they were writing checks. And thinking I knew on that night how the rest of my life would go. But in that moment, I am thinking I’d rather have a trowel in my hand and dirt under my nails than wear this tailored linen dress. Or stand at the barre breaking in a new pair of pointe shoes instead of wearing too-tight sandals on my own front lawn among people whose names I won’t remember and who know nothing of me.

And here I am two decades later in Vermont, longing for a summery Kir and making one for the first time in as long, with cheap cassis and even cheaper chardonnay. And it is better than I remembered.

And then reading about how to make a perfect Kir after I have already made and drunk one, I marvel at the snobbery out there in the wine-y ether, and about how you’re supposed pour in the cassis first so that it mixes perfectly with the wine, taking care it’s not too red—and instead I pour it in last, and carefully, to try to make it separate from the wine in the glass on purpose like a dessert parfait, because it did that by accident one time in Knoxville and it became a science experiment to try to make it do that again and again; my archaeology colleagues would appreciate the layers that recall stratigraphy in the soil.

Summer is eating lobster and filet because they were on sale and because I live with a person who knows how to prepare and cook them, and also greedily gnawing on our corn on the cob from a local farm, which if we’re being honest pales in comparison to what I grew up eating. And sneaking a small bite or two to Scout-on-the-sofa between us while we enjoy this rare surf-and-turf supper and binge watch the final few episodes of Six Feet Under on a Friday night after a difficult work week, and laugh and cry at the hilarity and sadness of mortality and at human frailty in general. And then we decide to save the last episode for later.

Summer is rooting for the lightning bugs in the woods when darkness falls at last, whispering that their homies down South would love to meet all three of them, and wondering how in this far-north destination they could ever overwinter in the first place.

Summer is anticipating a trip down South in September when it will still be plenty hot, and pretending I’m running on a gravel road in North Carolina where my erstwhile family’s erstwhile vacation home languishes in legal limbo, and comes unglued at the seams a little more with each passing Appalachian freeze and thaw cycle. I pretend I’m already on vacation before I run around the corner with Scout in this mountainous Vermont neighborhood and remember I am not.

A robin red breast will sit on the gravel road in the summer in Vermont with his back to you, statuesque, giving you the impression—however fleeting—that you can have him. Your lift your tawny ears, furrow your wrinkly brow, and stiffen your body at this delicious possibility. The prey drive in you engages at the precise moment he takes flight. Away he goes, and with him your resolve, which evaporates right off your muscular neck, moving first through your collar, and then all the way up your leash where the human hand on the other end of it feels it waft away, the human who has reminded you time and again you’ll never catch a bird.

But you are here to remind your human to live in this summer moment.

Deer Flies and Summer Storms: First Day in July

Second Day in July

Cool air washed clean by the rain that came before it makes the deer flies retreat: that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

There was only steam yesterday, July 1st of 2017. Frontal boundaries on the afternoon horizon stood in stark contrast against menacing, billowy black storm clouds floating above them and clearer skies below. In the distance torrential rain fell in wide, sloping columns, dragged by the advancing atmospheric energy across upstate New York, thence over the border and into Vermont. Somebody somewhere was getting soaked.

Earlier we had gotten it, Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I. First the rain fell against the car windshield in minuscule beads, fragrant, benign, even friendly: call it a pleasant early summer shower. Then with gathering momentum the droplets splattered against the glass intentionally, like an irksome child testing his boundaries. And with no warning at all this erstwhile innocent morphed into an angry faerie changeling with fists raised, pelting the car in a full-blown tantrum, the land around us inundated. Windshield wipers dialed up to ‘stun’ threw rain off the car as we barreled down the bumpy road, dodging puddles right and left to keep the wheels attached to the pavement. I might have pulled over.

You could just say it was pouring, HCB will opine later when he reads this. And I will say, where’s the fun in that? Go decorate some cookies.

By the time we reached our second stop the rain had let up. We threw open the car doors and stepped onto steamy parking lot asphalt. Feels like summer, I was thinking; feels like the South. These conditions are long familiar to me, fleeting up here in these parts where ice and deep cold are wont to wear out their welcome, as my mama might say. This heavy, sunny steam bath—this is prime deer fly weather. However stridently somebody who’s truly in the know might object, that’s my own customized folk wisdom, field tested and proven.

Here’s an example: yesterday I had my first deer fly bite of the season. Because I suspected it would be muggy Scout and I set out early for our Saturday morning run by the Battenkill. He is the first dog in my life to equivocate about running. Dogs aren’t built for long-distance running, nor were their ancestors: they’re born sprinters. You have to ease them into running a little at a time, like any human athlete would train. There are exceptions, of course: the Rhodesian Ridgeback will run your ass into the ground and never look back, evidently. And Siberian Huskies will run for days with a payload to boot (I’ve had four Huskies over the years and each of them needed desperately to go and to pull). But for the most part, our canine companions had rather race ‘round the back yard after smallish rodents, as Scout does routinely these days. He can turn on a dime—it is most impressive. But I digress.

Tight Turning Radius

Scout is gradually getting his running legs (‘summer play muscles,’ insist the staff at the dog camp where he goes for an afternoon a week), willing and able to cover something close to three miles in the heat before he throws his polka dotted hand to his forehead dramatically and quits; we’re getting there. And so it was yesterday morning, when my ingenious deer fly shunning device failed. (Scout’s running leash is long enough that I can whip a section of it back and forth over my head while we’re running, and it usually works: deer flies buzz their victims in circles before they alight and rip painfully into the flesh—a flurry of dog leash is a pretty good deterrent, the best one I’ve devised yet.) We made our way through a couple of deer fly patches without incident; deer flies are territorial and once you’ve gotten through they will not follow you beyond the borders.

But with only a half mile to the finish line, giddy and soaked in sweat, I felt the unmistakable sting on the back of my neck. My hand nailed the little miscreant, who did not live to see another day. A couple of days earlier in the cooler, drier conditions, the little bugger would have been hiding obediently somewhere—wherever deer flies go when it’s cool and dry. Maybe they grow stupid and lazy and take long naps; I don’t care so long as they leave me alone.

No Deer Flies Here

Meanwhile Scout emerged from our summery morning run happy and unscathed. This was not often the case for his predecessor Clarence-the-Canine, the German Shepherd who willingly followed me to Vermont five years ago. Clarence was an athlete through and through—we could run the five miles around Lake Morey where I lived at the time, and he would gladly go again. But in the height of deer fly season Clarence often suffered multiple bites on the tip of his nose, where you had to swat away clusters of them, leaving tiny beads of blood in their wake. On the insect bite pain continuum I’d put the deer fly somewhere between a sweat bee and a common house fly: it’s not searing, scorching pain like you’d feel from a yellow jacket sting, but it certainly gets your attention. Poor Clarence. Yesterday, though, I took one for the team, as it were.

In short, I can see no good in a deer fly, who seems intent only to cause only pain and suffering.

I can see plenty of good in afternoon storms in July (they continued well into the evening) and a day of erranding that yielded lunch at this exquisite eatery over in Greenwich, a new laptop at long last, and hand dipped coffee ice cream: it’s the best remedy for deer-fly-inducing steam I can think of, even if you had to wait in line behind an entire little league team to get it. Little league plus ice cream—that’s a damn-near perfect first day in July.

Damn Near Perfect July Day

New Real Friends: A (Hopeful) Lamentation

Real Friends

Our parents serve as eternal reminders of every ‘cute’ thing we said and did in childhood, however stridently we might wish to forget: it’s a parenting privilege. I find myself doing it to my own twenty-something these days, even across the miles that separate us. I need my bref-kass, I mutter in the early morning hours to no one in particular, channeling his misinterpretation of the word breakfast when he was two. The language wire so comically crossed in his noggin stayed that way for years, rerouted by a speech pathologist just in time for middle school. (His peers will slaughter him next year, had come the peremptory warning from the elementary school principal.) I missed that little glitch when it was finally gone. Parenting privilege.

In my own early childhood, it was the post-kindergarten report: how was your first day of school, my parents wanted to know?

I loved school, could not wait to go, and continued to love it mainly, save a couple of ‘prime suffering years’ during adolescence, as a beloved fictional character might say. On the first day of kindergarten, though, my enthusiastic response evidently went something like this: “Today I made some new REAL friends!” Hilarity ensued.

It’s not an exceptional first day report, really, except for the emphasis. Even at five I clearly possessed some awareness of the distinction between casual acquaintance and friend, I think, however rudimentary.

Friendship is work, going both ways. Like anything worthwhile, it requires regular care and upkeep; neglect it and it languishes. When friendship feels effortless (it is never truly effortless), that’s proof positive of good chemistry. At least that’s how I view it.

When the planets in one’s life begin to misalign, when the glue that holds together the firmament dries and cracks and begins to flake away, the joy of a friendship transforms into hard labor. That’s a heavy yoke for a friend to bear—at least, if the burden persists beyond some decent interval of time. The last few years I lived in Tennessee I think I had grown too difficult for some of the people around me, some of my real friends—too high-maintenance, if you will, and at times even insufferable. I remain forever grateful to a particular few who stuck it out with me, when it felt like the effort had flowed mainly one way for too long.

There is a simpler piece to friendship, though, and that is time, a luxury I took for granted for years. My friends and I were lucky, even sheltered, tucked away in a beautiful, prosperous community, held together with common values to be sure, but mainly our children. I can’t speak for any of them now, but I was short-sighted. I never anticipated a future when the luxury of time would evaporate, when our lives would grow more complicated, when geography and divergent interests would conspire to separate us: I assumed there would always be lunch on the occasional Friday afternoon, or dinner on a weeknight, or Shakespeare on the Square with bag chairs and a picnic in summer. 

It also never dawned on me, poised as I was to start life anew in a place far removed from my family and friends, the impossibility of repotting those plants. (To be fair, I was focused on survival.) The reality is, when you no longer have church—however that looks—or community to unite you with others of your ilk, you will come up empty handed. Add to that a life bereft of the luxury of time, and you can forget about fostering anything more than a few casual acquaintances in a place that still does not feel like home.

But casual acquaintances have a way of morphing into real friendships, and therein lies salvation. So many significant friendships start this way: with rare exception, I’m hard pressed to define a specific point in time where the connections in my life crossed the threshold from casual to real.

Meanwhile I imagine a point on the horizon when I once again possess the luxury of time for friends. We’ll meet for lunch or dinner to talk about a shared experience for far too long—we might even shut down the little noodle eatery in Union Square at 11pm, forced to finish our conversation back at my Manhattan rental until almost dawn, because there is still so much to say. Or I’ll admire my friend’s most recent creation (she is gifted); I’ll finger the landscape on a piece of her pottery and tell her I love the blue glaze, her latest textile work will inspire me and I’ll lament for the umpteenth time how I can’t do anything with my hands, and my friend will wave it off like it’s nothing. Or my friend and I will talk about how hard it is to recognize the right moment to step away and watch an adult child suffer, or know when to step in and help. Or we’ll fiddle with our cameras and talk about apertures and my friend will know much more than I and I’ll feebly follow along as best I can and try to learn; but we’ll finish with chocolate dessert, which always makes everything better. Or we’ll stay on the phone for far too long speaking a language nobody else understands, the language of ballet divas, but he is from the South like me and so we have this extra layer of camaraderie, and we’ll channel our best French-Southern ballet-speak and explode in laughter and agree as our phones die we need to talk more often.

I’ll do all these things again with my real friends.

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.