Scout’s Big Epiphany

Scout-the-Lab knows where all the chipmunks are
I Know Where All the Chipmunks Are

Whatever life experiences shaped Scout-the-Lab before he came to us last December, there is this one truth about him, and about all dogs says the vet: they forget nothing. Scout’s skittishness is authentic, part and parcel of who he is. I may have envisioned a goofy, tail-wagging demeanor in my early quest for this dog, and that is my own folly. People at home and at work are sometimes crestfallen when he rebukes overtures of affection, when he shies away from an outreached hand, or jumps out of his skin at the slightest provocation, or even cowers when an unexpected human comes barreling around a corner. Taking these reactions personally is a human problem, not a doggish one, just as my own expectations of what Scout would be when he came to us were based on my own preconceived notions of a Lab, and not on Scout as Scout. And anyway, the first time our vet cupped Scout’s chin in her hands and peered into his evocative eyes, she said, Oh Scout: you are a Chessie.

The Chesapeake Bay Retriever is not known for its effusive personality. It does not really matter.

I’ve always loved the name Scout, my favorite literary character in my favorite piece of Southern writing, the little girl with whom I identified growing up. (Never mind that Scout-the-Lab is a boy dog.) But if I had to draw a parallel between my Scout and a single character in that exquisite story, I’d be more inclined to link him to Boo Radley, the tragic, misunderstood character, “with his shy ways.” He is who he is.

Scout digs for chipmunks

Scout digs more furiously for chipmunks

Scout has his head in the ground hoping to reach the chipmunks

A few weeks ago when we launched on our Dogged Adventures with Scout comfortably tucked into the back seat of the Subi, I worried he’d be unable to reconcile what was going on in that little noggin of his. After his tenure with two separate families in Texas (humans who loved him, to be sure), he went into foster care for a couple of weeks. Thence onto a transport van with others of his ilk, rolling all the way from Austin to Brattleboro, Vermont, arriving on what was the coldest calendar day in New England at that point, turns out. Thousands of miles across the country, and into the arms of two perfect strangers, who seemed nice enough on the face of it. But surely, without ascribing too many human emotions to a trembling dog in a foreign land, I believe ‘bewildered’ must have described his condition, at least in part.

Scout was long familiar with climbing into the car and going when it was finally time for our vacation—going to work with me most days every week, going to dog camp one afternoon a week, going up to my financial planner’s office once in a while on a big elevator (head tilts for days), going to the store, and even going inside some stores. But this time the going would keep on, well, going. I worried Scout might imagine he was being rehomed. Again.

What happened instead was a week’s worth of adventures with the sweetest rewards: being invited inside the home of some friends down in Knoxville and socializing with their dog for a bit, exploring all kinds of worldly venues with me, my Handsome Chef Boyfriend, and my twenty-something, enjoying some extended outings in nature on a couple of occasions, eating exceptionally well, and—joy of joys—sleeping in a big bed with humans, a thing he can’t do at home because of the Dreaded Spiral Stairs. By the end of our trip Scout had grown accustomed to looking for the bed first thing when we checked into another hotel: Ah, there you are, bed. <check> Now, let me just <muscles twitching, preparing to jump>, THERE we go. Yep, this one’ll do fine. <circle around, plunk, exhale>

Earlier in the week when we checked into our Asheville Airbnb it took him a bit longer to get his bearings, because we had an entire apartment to ourselves. He split time between our bed and the twenty-something’s futon in the adjoining room, but always slept with us, alternately curled or sprawled between us near the foot of the bed. One beautiful morning as we began to stir, HCB reached his long arm down to scratch Scout’s noggin, and in a single, perfectly coordinated movement Scout lengthened his sinewy body until his head rested on the pillows right between ours. We lay there and giggled and continued to dole out affection: it is fair to say the dog was content to indulge in the moment, as were his humans.

Still, there must have been this unrelenting question: where are we going?

The final, sunny afternoon of travel when we began the steep ascent up the twisty Vermont mountain road to our home in the woods, Scout sat up in the back seat and surveyed the familiar landscape. As the car rolled to a stop in our drive, I hoped everything—the events of the past week, and now this moment—would crystalize for him: I am home. There had been no aha! moment on that cold Brattleboro day back in December. Only the passing of the leash from one hand to another. Here, I hoped, we had arrived at the place where everything would finally make sense to Scout: this is my home and my family—we do things together.

I had to wait until the next morning for my answer, early on Monday when it was time for post-vacation work reentry. Curled up comfortably on the sofa in his favorite spot, Scout only barely lifted his head to acknowledge me when I told him it was time to go. Nah, he yawned sleepily, you go on: think I’ll lay here and watch some telly, maybe get a little shut-eye today. Have a good one, see you on the flip side.

Scout is indeed home.

Scout is perfectly at home on the sofa

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

 

Dogged Adventures: Preparing a Shy Dog (And His Humans) for Travel

Kibble for the Road

When I moved to Vermont five years ago I had Clarence-the-Canine in tow, my beloved German Shepherd Dog who saw me through the worst chapter in my life, and then left the planet when he knew I’d be okay. My then-teenager came with us to help during the first week of this huge midlife reboot, but also because I thought it was important for him to see where I’d be living and working in my new life so far away from him. And then Clarence and I put the boy on a plane back home to his dad in Tennessee, wistfully.

Traveling with a dog five years ago was pretty easy, especially with extra hands there to help. We had a single overnight in Harrisburg, PA, where I found a great dog-friendly hotel after a little web research. And once I was settled in my new life in Vermont I happened upon an exceptional dog sitter, a vet tech who’d grown up with complicated shepherds and understood them. Perfect. So for the traveling I did back in those days Clarence was happy to hang out at home with his new human friend.

Resources here in the southwestern corner of the state where I live now are limited. The sitter I found for Scout-the-Lab—a person he knows and loves—is on vacation herself the week we embark on our Way Down South Trip, Part the Third, which is just around the corner. And while Clarence’s former sitter would be happy to take Scoutie for us, the logistics involved are complicated, and he has enough issues still rattling around in his noggin after his big resettlement from Texas that leaving him with somebody new seems fraught with peril. Which left us wondering how to make this happen, and in the time it takes to sit-stay and high-five, we figured we’d just bring him with us. So we’re about to undertake a new adventure, this time with a tender, sometimes fearful four-legged passenger along for the ride.

Sometimes You Need to Scratch Your Face

I think he’ll be fine.

I’m not new to traveling with a dog, but it’s been a few years, and HCB has never done it. I figure the voluminous content I’ve written on the subject recently in my professional life will come in handy, although we’re traveling on a tighter budget than the average consumer who lands on those web pages.

We’ll spend a couple of long days on the road headed down to Charleston, SC, where my sister and her black Lab Waco (pronounced WAH-co, like the aircraft for which she is named) will again host us, this time for three indulgent days instead of a brief overnight. After that we’ll head inland to the mountains of Asheville, NC, destination one nifty little Airbnb rental close to downtown. Asheville’s downtown is vibrant and walkable, with lots of dog-friendly eateries (eateries are important when you’re traveling with a chef), and of course the original Mast General Store, where dogs are welcome. We will probably run over to Knoxville at some point to see family, an easy couple of hours one way, if that. And there is this one leetle footnote: Hurricane Irma is roiling out there somewhere in the Atlantic. If she plans to come ashore in the Carolinas, we’ll defer to Plan B, which is Knoxville-to-Asheville instead. A thing that seems to have changed, even in the last five years: most hotels these days are dog friendly, at least the ones we’ve researched for this upcoming adventure. While Plan B is less desirable, it is at least possible because of this.

When Scout first came to us his Texas family warned us he might be carsick. Not great news, because I knew he would go to work with me most days each week—that’s 40 minutes in the car each way, on a twisty, hilly rural Vermont highway. The reality is, he’s been sick only a couple of times since his arrival last December. Now he’s a commuting champ; he knows every twist in the road, where to pop up and look, understands animal nomenclature and alerts on critters when I point them out to him (squirrel gets the biggest tail wag, but also chipmunk, chicken, deer, turkey, bird, horse, cow, and bear), and generally seems keen to go with me; a couple of times he’s asked to stay home for the day, thank you very much.

The toughest part about taking Scout into a world of people, is the people. He appears to love all dogs: he gets growly with one dog only, who lives in our neighborhood. But because he is a handsome fella with a sweet face, people—especially children—are drawn to him and want to touch him. He’d like not to be touched, and on the occasions where a rogue little person has made a beeline for him, I always position myself between Scout and child to block unwanted advances. He enjoys visiting a flagship retailer near us where dogs are welcome, if people keep their distance. The staff offer him cookies galore, which he politely and gently accepts from them, and then deposits them on the floor. (He devours them greedily on the ride home.)

A Day of Interaction Is Tiring

We had lots of doggish boxes to tick ahead of our beachy-mountain adventure, including hunting down Scout’s current rabies certificate in Texas (which was trickier than I thought it would be), and also getting him inoculated weeks ahead of our travel for canine influenza, which is a thing in the Southeast. We don’t have it up here in Vermont—Lyme is our disease of choice—but the vet tells me it takes only one dog, and it’s merely a matter of time. And my sister says if we wish to play on one particular beach, Scout will need his Canine Good Citizen certificate, something she’ll help us obtain once we’re there; he knows his commands and I expect will perform well on a test. I must admit I am anxious for Scout-the-Lab and Waco-the-Lab to go on at least one beach romp together: Scout’s entire demeanor lights up when he is around another dog, especially a girl-dog, and I anticipate he will adore the smart and eternally sweet Waco.

Then there is the dog travel gear: we will not have the fancy accoutrements I write about at work, but instead the proletariat version of most of them. No collapsible food and water bowls, just regular ones in stainless steel and plastic. And Scout’s things—food, toys, the preventive meds he’ll need to take right on schedule in the middle of our trip—they will all be packed neatly into a canvas bag, with his food pre-measured in the correct portions for each day. We have extra leashes and collars, we’ll bring along the fantastic portable crate in my office to use at each of our destinations, his rear seat harness (which he’s long accustomed to wearing by now and is required by law in some states), and a file folder full of his Important Papers. And there will be ginger snaps, an entire box of them: I learned the power of a ginger snap to settle an upset canine tummy on a long adventure through Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest with a pair of vomiting puppies, true story.

The one thing I splurged on after a failed experiment with a lesser product: the rear car seat cover. Having decades of experience with Siberian Huskies, German Shepherds, and one gigantic Shiloh Shepherd, I consider myself a veteran when it comes to dealing with hair, mud, and general dog filth. I underestimated what a smallish Lab was capable of doing to the back seat of a car, even when he appears in the rear view mirror to only sit there innocently looking out the window, mainly. This seat cover is bigger, thicker, padded, plush, waterproof, washable, and I’m sure some other things I’m forgetting. Yesterday I spent several long hours scrubbing all manner of dog detritus out of the back seat of the Subi before I installed this fabulous new cover, and I expect it will perform far better than the first one.

We’re excited. HCB and I have worked hard in 2017, Scout has made a huge transition to his new life with new people far away from the people he has known, and we all need a break. I leave you with a single request: please leave me a comment (I’ll moderate in all reasonable ones) about your own experience traveling with dogs. I’d love to hear your tips, advice, what worked, and what didn’t. (No warnings about the risks of leaving a dog in a hot car, or about taking enough water or pee breaks: I’m well aware.) I’m not a newbie, but I’ll never turn down a bit of wisdom if some clever travel strategy worked well for you and your dog on a long road trip. And we’re always open to reviews of dog-friendly venues in the Southeast.

More soon, from the road.

Just Give Me a Cookie

 

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.

Daily Commute

Morning Sun on Taconics

Like so many geographic place names in America, Taconic comes from a Native American word, meaning “in the trees.” I can think of no better moniker for the landscape that greets us each morning, but the daily commute frees one (if only briefly) from the confines of the woods which can at times overwhelm. In those moments the sky opens in the Battenkill Valley, flanked to the west by the Taconic Mountains and to the east by the western escarpment of the Greens, Vermont’s namesake mountains. However distant the Taconics or Green Mountains loom on the horizon along the stretch of Vermont’s Highway 7A between Arlington and Bennington, one can never fully escape that condition: living in the trees. The profound beauty of this landscape will catch in your throat when you first see it, but prolonged immersion in it stokes a hunger for the flat horizon, if only to observe more fully the movement of the earth against the night sky: the filtered view of it up through the trees is only a tease.

The people on our mountain are a mixed lot. Kempt homes, immaculate wood piles, tidy gardens, and even a manicured lawn here and there where the limited sunshine has permitted one to grow and flourish to begin with, live in communion with backcountry landholders who seem not to care, or to worry too much anyway, about graffitied dumpsters and work trucks that should not be here to begin with, mud in lieu of lawn, and cars left to rot in situ, giving one pause to reflect on the oily soup that must surely leech from them into the ground water by way of any number of streams that finally flow into the nearby Battenkill. (I have been told these are the people you want as friends for their willingness to save you from your own stupidity when you put your car into a wintry ditch, or to deal with the rabid raccoon wandering in the woods.) Some of these folk were here first: it is their landscape, now governed by town rules to which the authorities seem content to turn a blind eye. About this time of year neighborhood creeks roar indiscriminately at all hours helping to mute the sound of heavy trucks, but in a few weeks will settle, becoming quieter still with the foliage that now waits with gathering impatience to explode from long-dormant trees and other flora. There is no way to filter the rusted out carnage when you pass through it on the way to your own drive—it is an exercise in gratitude for what you have—but the arrival of spring in earnest will try hard to help.

Our rough gravel mountain road turns to asphalt pavement for a few tenths of a mile before it drops sharply by way of a hairpin turn and finally meets Route 7A. Thence a couple of miles south into town proper, with a parallel railroad to the east and scattered housing, businesses, and the town park to the west: the accidental tourist will be tempted to stop into a likeable and accessible modern sugaring operation with adjoining shop and Norman Rockwell exhibit before venturing on into town.

Although Arlington was once the state capital, nothing much remains to suggest any kind of pomp that may have distinguished it as such, save the land markers on its outskirts. Aside from a few notable historic structures, this miniscule village is like any other in these parts, with two raggedy convenience stores, a smattering of family businesses, a vet and a medical clinic, the requisite town hall, an ancient and a modern church, and more recently an offending small box retailer of the variety one local suggested cries out, We need help here. It is too bad: we are not living in the glory days of this New England village, though there is yet life in it. (A recent infrastructure project missed its mark: opportunities were overlooked, perhaps not enough money in the till.)

A long stretch of lovely rural highway unfolds on the south end of town; heading south you can abandon ship and take a left turn onto Highway 313 to the newer Route 7, which has the feel of Interstate. It lacks the interest and character of the original, older 7A that parallels it a couple of miles to the west, affording a more intimate view of rural life in Vermont, far and above the best commute to Bennington in my opinion. Route 7A winds its way along the valley floor for several miles, hilly and curvaceous here and there, with two stretches in particular where the trees all but close in overhead: it is these two ‘tunnels’ that stubbornly cleave to packed snow and ice after a winter storm a while longer, when the rest of the road is long clean and dry.

Once through this pair of chutes, though, the heavens open again and Vermont country life can be observed as in a fish bowl. In the early morning children of all ages wait for school buses on the sides of the road, many in their own driveways. One ancient and curious barn stands half burnt, its thrifty (or uninsured) owner continuing for years now to use what remains of it, in no apparent hurry to rebuild. Wheat-colored fields, flat and rolling, will soon give way to a verdant carpet of new growth. It is along this stretch and on the approach to the hamlet of Shaftsbury one can see examples of early clapboard farm houses, barns, and other outbuildings, some lovingly cared for through the generations, nudged right up against the road: this mattered less when it carried unmotorized traffic. But when you park on 7A and step out of your car for a moment as I have done on one occasion, the cars ripping past in close proximity will get your attention: this is a fast moving highway in the here and now, however quaint the landscape.

Also on this stretch of road lies the turnoff to one of the best farm stands I’ve had occasion to visit during my tenure as a Vermonter. And just across from the turnoff a pair of cottage businesses and a farmhouse hawking fresh eggs on a sandwich board: $3.50 a dozen during the two-plus years I’ve made this particular commute, a piece of burlap occasionally covering the sign. At the top of the hill beyond it, the cheerful yellow-and-blue cottages of the Serenity Motel cozy up to the Governor’s Rock Motel, its namesake boulder rising from the ground on the edge of the road. A few tenths of a mile further south and this curvilinear road will lengthen straight as a pin on its way into Shaftsbury, losing elevation as it surges past a sizeable cemetery, a forgotten apple orchard, and a handful of quaint structures (one schoolhouse in particular speaks to me), before the highway slows to a crawl through town. Blink and it’s gone, the town Robert Frost surely referred to as the ‘village’ in his 1922 poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. And just beyond town the same poet’s house, standing proud in its dressed stone facade but beleaguered by sparring heirs, it is rumored, still worth a gander if you’ve never been.

You’re almost in the quirky town of Bennington at this point, one of a few in Vermont with any population to it but a victim of the slow economy in recent years and other afflictions seen here and elsewhere, with palpable signs of renewal to be sure. To the east is another chance to pick up Route 7 should you desire, but my journey at this point circumvents the town in the other direction, to the west, by way of back roads—pothole ridden, poorly maintained, but scenic enough. Winding around the pastoral entrance to Bennington College, the daily commute continues across North Bennington Road, picking up the Silk Road and passing through a beloved covered bridge. Middle- and upper middle-income families live here, an elusive population in Vermont: this is a picturesque neighborhood still flanked by the remains of farms. Silk Road eventually bumps into Vail Road to the right, Fairview to the left, but all roads lead to my destination. I veer left, where there is more of interest, in particular the Bennington Monument, a massive monolith towering just outside the car now but visible on the horizon from nearby New York; marking the Revolutionary War battle that was thought to have turned the tide of the war, the monument announces Vermont more impressively by far than placards elsewhere at its borders. At the base are situated large homes, elegant and historic, save one Walloomsac Inn that languishes eerily in its shadow, a bizarre structure that is the subject of rumors and legends.

I venture instead in the opposite direction down a semi-rural road, sparsely populated with appealing homes, finally reaching my destination: a nondescript corrugated metal structure, an unlikely venue for the creativity and industry that blooms in a petri dish behind closed doors at the top of a carpeted stairwell. Not far from civilization, the campus here is always windy (it defies you to breathe in the winter, lovingly caresses you in high summer), home to a small airport and a sizeable wetlands that supports all manner of wildlife—massive snapping turtles, various species of waterfowl, and a healthy deer population all live here. It is a pleasant terminus for a longish commute that is occasionally harrowing, mainly uneventful, and once in a while awe-inspiring: the afternoon sun slipping behind the Taconics sets ablaze the fall foliage on the western slopes of the Greens in colors the likes of which I have seen in no other place I’ve lived.

Twenty miles door to door, about a half hour or so in the car: it is not a bad way to spend a few moments most days. Seems the mountains of my erstwhile home in Appalachia have followed me here: the Vermont landscape connects me unexpectedly to my Tennessee roots via the daily commute.

Nostalgia and the Shipwrecked Mind: Righting the Boat

Every major social transformation leaves behind a fresh Eden that can serve as the object of somebody’s nostalgia. And the reactionaries of our time have discovered that nostalgia can be a powerful political motivator, perhaps even more powerful than hope. Hopes can be disappointed. Nostalgia is irrefutable.—Mark Lilla

Should you doubt that bit of wisdom, you have only to consider this campaign slogan and its outcome: Make America Great Again.

Facebook is notorious for rubbing our collective noses in nostalgia with its “On This Day” algorithm, where the photos and videos and sentiments we posted on this day a year ago, or five years ago, come back to haunt us. If once was not enough you can share them again in a mere click; I do all the time, if the memory still feels relevant to me. But that’s just it: more often than not they’re relevant to me and to nobody else. They’re fun memories, or painful ones (occasionally I cringe), and that is all. Sometimes I wish Facebook followed Snapchat-style protocols and after some interval made posts evaporate into the ether.

But even if a trendsetter like Facebook elected to follow that paradigm, other entities still allow you to peer into your cyber past; the WayBackMachine app is one of them. I confess I’ve used it on occasion to revisit my now-defunct ballet school website. The digital marketing agency where I work also invokes it once in a great while to look at a particular e-commerce website and, say, explore their inventory in a product category from a year ago, or even a decade ago; it can help give us direction when we’re working on a marketing strategy for a client. So you might say nostalgia can be helpful in certain situations.

Yesterday Facebook gifted me yet another memory of my early days in Vermont, a photo of my beloved Clarence-the-Canine stretched out on the living room sofa in my cozy lakeside cottage, the place I lived for just under a year. And here came another one right on its heels, an Instagram photo of a beautiful breakfast I made myself one morning in the same cottage, my coffee mug situated artfully in the background, everything around this little contrived still life neat as a pin. For the first time in nearly a quarter century I was in charge of my life at that instant, my clean, kempt rooms, and the order of the day: it was an idyllic day at that, where I had the privilege of mornings free to run around the lake with Clarence, time to prepare inventive cuisine, time to observe the beauty around me and reflect on it, maybe post something to my blog. The balance of it I spent doing what I’d come here for in the first place, teaching classical ballet to mainly privileged children from nearby Hanover.

I remembered those days wistfully when I looked at that photo: I was the captain of my own ship which was happily bereft of the chaos I had only just left behind. In short, life was beautiful.

Then HCB reminded me the pellet stove in that hard-to-heat place had dangerously exploded one night, foisting upon me a little reality check. The paltry bankroll I brought with me from Tennessee was running out, and fast; a piece of the financial picture I assumed would be there (I had done the math before I moved) had dissolved with no warning, nor did I earn enough teaching ballet to sustain that lifestyle for much longer, and I knew it. I was unused to the brutal Vermont winters—not just the cold and snow, but the palpable expenses of winter, to say nothing of unrelenting grey days that seemed to stretch on for weeks and then months. Although I had met Handsome Chef Boyfriend right after I got here, two hours and an entire mountain range separated us: for the most part I was terrified and living alone with my dog who would soon be gone, with no inkling of what the future might hold, and no real plan to extricate myself from the disaster ahead—I already heard that train in the distance barreling down the tracks.

So much for Eden. Mainly, I think, nostalgia needs to live high on a closet shelf in a shoebox, pulled down once in a while so you can finger its contents wistfully, and then shove it back on the shelf.

The news stories of the day (real or fake) help fuel this wistfulness. Can you imagine an account that goes, Today, millions of Americans got out of bed and went to work, paid the mortgage, enjoyed a nice supper, hung out with their kids, and then went to sleep? Of course not, because there’s no story to that story. Jobs moving overseas, illegal immigrants pouring over vulnerable borders, terrorist attacks, and plane crashes, though?—stories for days. At one point in my life I was so terrified of flying I put the skids on any travel where the destination could not be reached easily by car: that limited us—my erstwhile family—to a relatively narrow geographic area on the East Coast, and a short window of time on the ground when we got there.

Then came the opportunity to study classical ballet pedagogy at American Ballet Theatre in New York City: if I really wanted this thing, I finally had to figure out a way past the anxiety. I considered medications, worried a little about how they’d make me feel, knowing I needed to be sharp at ballet school. And then something remarkable happened during a family trip to Washington, D.C. Our hotel room window looked out on the White House, and beyond it, arrivals and departures at nearby Ronald Reagan National Airport. Unable to sleep one night I stood there watching the planes for hours. They took off and they landed. Over and over again. All night long, and into the morning. Nothing else happened—the planes took off, the planes landed. Only then could I begin to comprehend and correct my irrational fear of flying. Nobody tells the story of planes taking off and landing safely, because there is no story to tell, really. The majority of the time, airline travel is uneventful, however trying its logistics.

I have a recurring bad dream, a wakeful dream—call it a daydream. In it I return to that little Vermont lakeside cottage. I expect to throw open the door and find everything perfect, as if I had stepped out only to run an errand. Instead the place is cold and dark, there’s an inch of dust and cobwebs everywhere, there is no dog—he is long gone, I am alone and unemployed, and the silence is deafening. Nor is my beloved HCB there: only the roaring silence. It is terrifying. This “dream” is triggered by a catchy song that was popular at the time, with piano notes resonating again and again in descending triplets. I hear that song now and it stops me in my tracks, raises the hair on the back of my neck.

Reinventing the past is an exercise in futility. Learning from the past and then moving on feels relevant. But feeding on nostalgia can and does invoke reactive behavior: what if nostalgia inspired rancor and hate founded on a contrived, sepia-toned existence? I don’t know, it might encourage angry, unhinged people to rant destructively using social media as a platform. In its more sinister guise it might encourage somebody to desecrate a Jewish cemetery, or phone in a bomb threat to a Jewish community center. Or to rough up a transgender person who simply needs to pee. Or to shoot and kill a man at close range because he looked “ethnic.” Or maybe to build a wall that shuts out scores of people who are taking away mythical, sepia-toned jobs, people who instead would by and large make us a better, stronger, more enriched nation. In the hands of a reactionary, nostalgia is a dangerous motivator indeed.

* * * * *

Inspired by that photo from four years ago, yesterday I made two lovely breakfast sandwiches; I ate one and gave the other to HCB. The sticky marmalade clung to my fingers and utensils, and afterwards my napkin was rumpled and stained with breadcrumbs and little bits of egg. You could say that breakfast sandwich was a metaphor for our lives right now: uneventful, fairly satisfying, messy at times, but pretty good overall.

Steady as she goes.

Simple Living versus Excess (or How Not to be Insufferable)

iceonbattenkill
Ice Formations on the Battenkill

It’s dang cold in Vermont. Last week’s record-breaking warm temperatures were but a tease: we woke up to 2° this morning. Still, I managed to run with Scout on Friday after work in frigid air with a bitter wind in my face (his ears were all aflap). On a positive note, I captured the moment he discovered a pair of geese at close range on my iPhone. But this weather has left me grumpy once more: Vermont winter, you win. I quit. I’m finished pushing through pain in awful weather. I’ll just sit here and drum my fingers ’til you’re done—you let me know, please.

scoutdiscoversgeese

Meanwhile, gentle reader, humor me for a moment with a few separate but related thoughts.

Recently a bloggy friend published this beautiful post about excess that is so spot-on in so many ways, but she especially nailed the whiny, wealthy twenty-somethings HGTV manages to dredge up for their reality shows: I’ve thunk those very same thoughts on many occasions.

I hesitate to diss HGTV for several reasons, among them it’s headquartered in my erstwhile home city of Knoxville, and also I have some dear friends who’ve created fine programming for that network through the decades. In more recent years I’ve found the program lineup wanting, but that’s just my opinion: you could turn on the telly in HGTV’s early years and if you hated what was on, there was probably something better coming on next. Maybe the wide array of enriching offerings I remember are still there but broadcast at odd hours when I can’t watch, I don’t know. I updated the tired old exterior of our small vacation cottage in North Carolina borrowing ideas from one episode of Curb Appeal and another show whose name escapes me about historic architecture. If Walls Could Talk was a favorite. And remember the show with that nutty white-haired guy who traveled the country in search of the most bizarre homes? That was worth the hour you’d never get back.

Now HGTV leaves us with only binge-watching options: an entire evening of Flip or Flop. Or Fixer Upper (which Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I happen to like). Or Property Brothers. Or Love it or List it. Plus, they’re all reruns: HCB and I estimate we’ve seen some episodes of Fixer Upper as many as five times (this is what happens when we’re impossibly tired at the end of a work day and lack the wherewithal to even pick up the remote to change the channel). You have to wait until NINE p.m. for a new episode, and that’s bedtime for two people who are up each day by five.

Anyway the point is, how much granite and stainless steel does one really need (or want) in a kitchen? And who are these entitled young people with budgets often in excess of $1 million? And why do they lack an imagination? HCB chided me on that last bit and said, c’mon: I didn’t have any imagination at that age, either. Cut ’em some slack.

After my friend published her post I enjoyed reading all the responses to it on social media, where people recounted stories of their childhood homes, where siblings shared rooms, and entire families shared a single bathroom. (My international readers are rolling their eyes.) I confess we have a single bathroom in our little Vermont rental and it’s not enough with a teenagery occupant, even if she’s a part-time resident. But I do agree with the overall point: a vanity with a single sink is not gonna kill anybody.

Was life just simpler when we were kids? Or did we learn to do without because an “all-in” budget of $1 million was unheard of in the ’50s and ’60s? I grew up in a modest suburban home my mom kept scrubbed to a fare-thee-well, decorated tastefully with inherited furniture, some of our own, and a few meaningful pieces of artwork. My brother and I wanted for nothing, were never handed everything we wanted (but some things), and life was pretty good in general. There was time in the day to go to school, to go to ballet class after school, thence home for homework (with ample time to complete assignments), and to sit at the table and eat supper. Maybe even for some telly afterwards.

But later on my insufferable college freshman self had the audacity to experiment with newly acquired ‘tude once when I was home on a break. My mom had asked me to do without some thing I decided I needed in my dorm room, and I said, “No…I can’t handle it.” Meaning, I can’t live without this thing. She squared her shoulders and spat, “You WILL handle it.” And that was that, my former self restored.

My brother and I turned out okay, as they say.

By the time I stepped into parenting shoes, though, the landscape had changed dramatically, expectations for success felt supersized along with everything else, and the sheer volume of homework my young child brought home outweighed anything I ever recall being asked to do until my prep school years. And the damaging pop culture influences I tried to shoo away from our threshold still somehow found us the moment we backed out of our driveway: my ex and I had the Cell Phone Argument with him in the fifth grade, gave into it in the sixth. Many of his young colleagues had cell phones even sooner. Is this needful condition—for cell phones, or for double vanities in starter homes—the consequence of decades of American prosperity followed by complacency and unrealistic expectations? I don’t know.

I spent a fair amount of time last week at work researching and writing about travel to Cuba for one of our clients. I’ve never been there but desperately want to go, especially now. If ever there were a nation of people who’ve had to make do with limited resources, surely it is Cuba, the colorful island encapsulated in 1959, a place where art is part and parcel of the national identity, even vernacular art, and where ephemeral beauty matters. When I had the Subi’s oil changed last week I mentioned the cars in Cuba to my mechanic: you know the ones, the American classics Cubans have kept running of necessity for decades after the Revolution. Best mechanics in the world, Cubans, he quipped: those guys can take an outboard motor and drop it in a car and it’ll go.

I’m guessing multiple bathrooms is a condition unheard of in most Cuban homes. Just about every piece of travel writing I unearthed in my research last week revealed the same bit of wisdom about going there: do it now, before it’s too late. Too late for what? Too late for immersion in Cuba’s unique culture and simple, beautiful (if impoverished) lifestyle, before there’s a Starbucks on every corner, that’s what. Don’t get me wrong: the Cuban people deserve better circumstances than what they’ve suffered for decades, nay centuries. I hope they have stainless steel appliances and granite countertops and two-sink vanities for days if that’s what they want.

But maybe revisiting want is a worthwhile exercise, if only on occasion: maybe simplicity after all is a thing of beauty that saves us from being insufferable.

Art installation outside 21C Hotel in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, paying homage to Cubans who died during migration attempts during the 1980s
Art installation outside 21C Hotel in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, paying homage to Cubans who died during the migration attempts of the 1980s

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few geeky factoids about the ship:

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

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

uss-north-carolina-3

uss-north-carolina-4

uss-north-carolina-6

uss-north-carolina-5

uss-north-carolina-15

uss-north-carolina-50

uss-north-carolina-49

uss-north-carolina-10

uss-north-carolina-14

uss-north-carolina-11

uss-north-carolina-9

uss-north-carolina-8

uss-north-carolina-45

uss-north-carolina-44

uss-north-carolina-32

uss-north-carolina-30

uss-north-carolina-25

uss-north-carolina-22

uss-north-carolina-24

uss-north-carolina-23

uss-north-carolina-21

uss-north-carolina-20

uss-north-carolina-18

uss-north-carolina-19

uss-north-carolina-17

uss-north-carolina-34

uss-north-carolina-42

uss-north-carolina-35

uss-north-carolina-36

uss-north-carolina-33

uss-north-carolina-41

uss-north-carolina-40

uss-north-carolina-46

uss-north-carolina-39

uss-north-carolina-37

uss-north-carolina-38

uss-north-carolina-29

uss-north-carolina-27

uss-north-carolina-7