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)

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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.

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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.

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Wilmington in Black and White

Mason's Inlet at Wrightsville Beach
Mason’s Inlet at Wrightsville Beach

We pulled the Subaru into our Vermont driveway late yesterday afternoon with another 2,200 miles on it, a couple of road-weary travelers we, still a little sugar-frosted from the beach and lightly crisped around the edges. I made it all the way to the Pennsylvania state line on Saturday before I fought back tears thinking about my boy, wishing I had more time with him. This is progress: usually the emotions well up in me much sooner. I think of this young man as unfinished business, not yet fully formed when our family came unglued in 2011; he still has a long way to go, and the road is fraught with peril, as a friend would say. The reality is I can’t guide him how I could if we were closer, and that weighs heavily on me all the time. But he looked and sounded good during our week together, and that is a joyous thing to see.

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He’ll hate that picture if he sees it: mainly I got the palm of his hand when I reached for my camera. It’s too dang bad. I am entitled to a few mama privileges, which happen to include indulgent squeezes, sloppy cheek kisses, and unsolicited photos. I like that one.

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I enjoyed toying with black and white filters and special effects last night. That was our final beach day, Friday. I completely overlooked packing a kite, thought of everything else—how could I have forgotten that essential piece of beachy fun? So I occupied myself with an unknown beach goer and his own kite-flying skills, impressive, but the wind I think would make launch pretty easy even for a novice. We felt a little of tropical storm Julia’s punch during our week in Wilmington, but the beach is always windy—it’s exceedingly gratifying, flying a kite at the beach—it makes you feel accomplished, and with so little effort.

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This marina on the Intracoastal Waterway kept us company during our late lunch. We had fun imagining how stupid rich one must be to own and maintain boats of the size we saw here.

Our last day in Wilmington ended with a planned outing to Fermental, a wine and craft beer joint where The Catch food truck was scheduled to purvey its acclaimed food; HCB and I had researched this well in advance and anticipated the evening with something approaching fanaticism. I foolishly believed the young man in tow would relish it too, but in no time flat he declared the live music in the garden behind the place too “touchy feely” and took off for our car across the street the instant he finished his spicy fish tacos.

We oldsters liked the touchy feely music just fine and stayed for a song before we abandoned ship. But the food truck had disappointed us—the kitchen staff ran out of a couple of entrées early, were slow getting out orders, and the truck’s power failed repeatedly during service. All avoidable, according to the chef sitting at my elbow, who critiques food the same way I do ballet. Too bad—this food had the highest potential for greatness of any culinary outing during our brief time in Wilmington. But it was still a beautiful evening, food and touchy feely music notwithstanding, if a bit wistful with the end of our vacation week in sight.

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There’s the boy, wearing a striped shirt and standing next to the chef awaiting our order. And here is the boy with his mama, at our beach rental a moment before we said goodbye ’til who-knows-when:

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Way Down South Trip postscript: On our first day of travel navigation lured us into Washington’s E-ZPass Express Only lanes in her most sultry syntha-voice, where we traveled for many miles. We understood our mistake too late, but HCB’s quick thinking saved the day: if you own up to your mistake and settle your debt right away on the Interweb, the highway gods will spare you some stiff penalties. Nice try, Ms. TomTom, but we’re wise to your ways now. The moral to this story? Navigation sometimes leads you astray when you most need instructions in black and white.

Wilmington Lifts Her Skirts, Just a Little

Downtown Wilmington, still coming into focus
Downtown Wilmington, still coming into focus

Yesterday I had the 23-y-o all to myself for several indulgent hours while Handsome Chef Boyfriend played golf, something he does exceedingly well but has far too little time to do. And wouldn’t you know the instant my son and I pulled out of the golf course we met a jeep in traffic whose driver spotted our plates, said he was from Rutland, and wondered where in Vermont we were from. Betcha we found the only Vermonter in all of Wilmington. What were the odds?

Then last night the three of us struck out for The Pilot House, a celebrated restaurant in a historic downtown structure. Sadly, we could not celebrate the pricey, pedestrian food and lackluster service that eclipsed the charm of the place, but still enjoyed our nighttime walk afterwards in downtown Wilmington.

Today our city touring continued after a brief howdy and bakery dropoff for my colleagues at the Wilmington offices of one EightOhTwo Digital Marketing (NineOneOh Digital Marketing here, say the snazzy new coffee mugs), my employer back home in Vermont. We had late lunch at a downtown dive called The Dixie Grill, less expensive by a mile and far superior to our dinner last night. We walked and walked and my lens found no shortage of the vernacular historic architecture I love so much. I need several more weeks on the ground here.

Nightlife thrives in downtown Wilmington, the city’s main thoroughfares teeming with just about any kind of watering hole a person could want, live music and canned spilling out onto sidewalks everywhere you walk, sometimes on the sidewalks themselves—even on a Wednesday night. I could tell the young man with us was coveting a little social action he is not likely to get in the company of HCB and his mama. (Not to worry, we’re headed to this spot tomorrow night.) Wilmington is quirky, interesting; the city possesses much beauty, some of it shiny and new, some gritty and ancient, with a healthy dose of kitsch thrown in for good measure. The people in Wilmington seem friendly and pleasant, the economy strong: her vitals appear healthy.

We also toured the battleship USS North Carolina today, a long and physical foray into American history that tired us out thoroughly and impressed us profoundly. It deserves its own post, as soon as I have a while to parse through and edit the scores of pictures I shot. For now, I give you eine kleine nighttime, and some daytime too, in downtown Wilmington, NC.

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Charleston Reunions, Enough Sun in Wrightsville Beach

Spanish Moss in Mt. Pleasant
Spanish Moss in Mt. Pleasant

This morning I lamented to anybody listening it feels like we’ve been in the car for three days. We have, kinda. Sunday afternoon we arrived road-weary at my ex-sister-in-law’s-but-still-my-sister’s Mt. Pleasant home (we  just call it Charleston, it’s close enough) for a long overdue visit, first one in the flesh in too many years. One 23-y-o young man who belongs to me met us there in a questionable car, unscathed if rattled. My ex-sis-but-still-sis rolled out the red carpet for us with a proper Southern dinner set upon a gracious Southern table, vegetarian style.

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Her co-hostess is the Best Black Lab in the World, all but impossible to photograph. This sweet Lab was also the most patient dog in the world, willing for a dog-deprived woman to wallow in her dog-ness for a long while. Good girl, Waco.

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Yesterday morning three of us struck out for a longish, steamy walk while Handsome Chef Boyfriend undertook an ambitious jog from the house to the center of Charleston’s jaw-dropping Arthur Ravenel Bridgeabout a seven-mile trek out and back in the heat, all told. Meanwhile I tried to capture the Spanish moss that is so defining of the landscape in the deep coastal South.

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Our time there was delightful end to end, far too brief. We had only a little while after our walk for a geeky camera tête-à-tête (I’m still a newbie, pressing our more camera-savvy hostess for answers to hey-how-do-I-work-this-thing kinds of questions), and not much else before HCB gently reminded us it was time to hit the road. Again.

Thence to Wilmington, NC, the 23-y-o rattling down the road behind us in heavy traffic and persistent rain. Navigation misled us once, but we finally arrived, rumpled and weary. There was time only for the grocery, a quick dinner, and welcome sleep.

But today! Today was beach day. In the intervening years since my move to Vermont I have had occasion to walk the craggy beaches near Camden, Maine (a very different kind of coastline than North Carolina’s to be sure), and to sniff the surf of the Jersey shore once on a frigid day when I was miserably sick with a head cold. Being here with my boys—both of them—is restorative and wonderful. The skies rained on us this morning and then relented. We gathered our things and took off for nearby Wrightsville Beach.

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We are eating well, too much, enjoying each other’s company and also indulging in the luxury of doing nothing at all, except being together. We have a few other things on agenda in the coming days, more stories to come.

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Way Down South Trip: Travel Days Are Difficult

Bumper to Bumper Traffic in Virginia
Bumper to Bumper

Really I have so little to complain about: Handsome Chef Boyfriend did the lion’s share of driving today, from the moment we pulled off our mountain all the way to somewhere-or-other just past Fredericksburg, VA, where we missed our intended exit. A few truths from the day:

  1. Three in the morning is a difficult time to strike out on a journey: the brain is slow, the limbs and extremities unresponsive. It took me five tries to buckle on my sandals before we walked out the door.
  2. Dodging wildlife in the pre-dawn hours gives you white knuckles even when you are the passenger.
  3. People who get anywhere within, I don’t know, about 100 miles of New York City, are just plain crazy behind the wheel, ditto the people on either side of our nation’s capital.
  4. Chefs get grumpy in fast-moving bumper-to-bumper traffic, worse when it slows to a halt, and so do their girlfriends.
  5. The New Jersey Turnpike is an abomination.
  6. More than thirty bucks in tolls? Seriously?
  7. It’s all good, as they say, because at the end of a tiring travel day your plain vanilla hotel room looks pretty dang inviting. And even corporate chain food is appetizing, an exponential improvement over what you stood in a long line for at a Turnpike service center much earlier, and later at a gas station.
Sunrise over New York, as viewed from New Jersey
Sunrise over New York, as viewed from New Jersey
Delaware Memorial Bridge
Delaware Memorial Bridge
Beautiful Engineering on the Delaware Bridge
Beautiful Engineering
Baltimore, Francis Scott Key Bridge
Baltimore, Francis Scott Key Bridge
Susquehanna River
Susquehanna River
Pentagon Art
Just Past the Pentagon

In the morning we head still deeper into the American South, destination Charleston, SC. ‘Til soon, rested and restored.

Providential Weekend: Photo Essay

NYLO 12

How often does the opportunity arise to combine three cherished interests—in my case ballet, architecture, and cuisine—in a single weekend? Almost never, but I just pulled it off. Add to this the intoxicating joy of unfettered time with Handsome Chef Boyfriend and a happy reunion with one Gwynn Root at the end of her second of three performances dancing Swan Lake with Festival Ballet Providence, (and after too, too long without seeing this beautiful young dancer, the progeny of a pair of amazing artists). We also finally got to meet her very handsome and talented boyfriend Trevor-the-jazz-guitarist from Atlanta.

Gwynn & Trevor 1

Gwynn & Trevor 2

Gwynn & Trevor 3

Gwynn described her post-performance face as too “Kardashian” for her own tastes, which made me giggle; nobody expects a clean-scrubbed and dewey post-performance face at that late hour. With or without stage makeup this young woman is stunning, inside and out. It feels so unfair to have only an hour or two for cramming in several years’-worth of important catchup conversation before everybody turns into a pumpkin; it is assuredly better than no time at all.

It’s been an enriching weekend bumper to bumper. Spring has arrived with more intent in southern New England than it has here in Vermont. Yesterday was stunning, and I still find it incredible that I can photograph things with any acuity at all inside a moving car, but it’s possible: I grabbed a couple of respectable images during our longish, traffic-delayed pass through Worcester, Mass.

Worcester 1

Worcester 2

We stayed at a place in Warwick just outside Providence called NYLO: edgy, almost brually modern accomodations in a repurposed factory. It gets high marks for inventive use of space and clever interior design, slightly lower marks for missing a few important details. The building alone was enough to make me happy, but the ruins next to it are delicious: I don’t know the back story but sure as heck hope it has a happy ending.

Warwick 1

Warwick 2

Years ago—before child rearing emerged as my full-time occupation—I was headed down a different path in historic preservation. It did not happen, but my passion for architecture (including vernacular and even derelict architecture) has never waned. NYLO got it right; props to a place whose lobby felt more like a book store and where not a single square foot of interior space was wasted. Thoughtful design is a thing of beauty.

NYLO 1

NYLO 3

NYLO 9

NYLO 10

NYLO 4

NYLO 2

NYLO 11

Festival Ballet Providence put its own spin on Swan Lake to make it manageable for a contemporary audience. It was still long, and my favorite part of the score in Act IV was missing. Festival is a small company but managed to make itself look big onstage, no small feat. Handsome Chef Boyfriend this morning had a suggestion for the bigger ballet world when it comes to full-length corps de ballet work where all the dancers look exactly the same (as they should because they are, well, the corps): put numbers on their tutus, he says, like hockey players have on their jerseys, so you can tell who’s who.

This idea probably won’t fly, although I once suggested commercial endorsements on tutus to create cash flow the same way they do for NASCAR racers. Lookalike ballerinas notwithstanding, HCB enjoyed going to the ballet. Theatres are magical, as I have said before; construction for this particular venue—the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in downtown Providence—began in the late 1920s but was delayed by the Great Depression and finally completed in 1950. I had only my cell phone for the few photos I made, but still love that it found the sunlight falling across the proscenium as ballet patrons filed in ahead of the performance.

Vet Theatre 3

Vet Theatre 1

Vet Theatre 2

We finished our weekend in Providence this morning with breakfast at a place recommended by a local;  we found it worth the half-hour wait. HCB analyzed every crumb of it as he is wont to do when we eat out. The kitchen was in full view of the patrons (for HCB this is tantamount to eating dessert first). I had my Nikon out for these and loved capturing the movement that is part and parcel of a very busy commercial kitchen.

Cranston 2

Cranston 3

Cranston 4

We’ll be back, Providence. (Just as soon as we can get our pants snapped again.)

Garden State Highway: Beauty in Unexpected Places

Garden State Parkway

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

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

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

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

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

Clouds 1

Clouds 2

Clouds 3

Clouds 4

Clouds 5

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

Carpe Diem, and All That

Ballet Workshop Clock

When you discover two of your favorite people are performing in the same weekend in separate but (kinda) nearby venues, albeit in completely different kinds of shows, and you think you can somehow make it to see them both, you tell them, Heck yeah, I’ll be there. Every opportunity to go to the the theatre for a performance of merit is a golden one, more glowing still when you know somebody on the stage. And if it requires travel to two cities (and neighboring states) in the same day, well so be it. Maybe it is a function of age, but more and more I feel a sense of urgency about doing things, and seeing people who are important to me. I would not go so far as to call it a bucket list. Just urgency.

See that ugly flower clock up there? It was part of a most impressive collection in a Massachusetts dive where Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I stopped on our way down to his sister’s on Friday night. The place was full of clocks and plates and needlepoint, a lifetime supply of them, clearly somebody’s labor of love. And there were wagon wheel light fixtures for days. This funk-vibe little eatery may have been firmly rooted in about 1972, but it was clean as a whistle, staffed by earnest young folk, and offered a superlative and surprisingly forward-thinking menu. Here is the authentic-tasting falafel sandwich I had as evidence (trust me):

Wagon Wheel Falafel

Betcha it was not on the menu when they opened.

Anyway, that clock. It struck me (ha ha) I’d seen it somewhere before: that clock was one and the same hanging on the ballet classroom wall at my mom’s small 1970s school, the erstwhile Ballet Workshop in Memphis, Tennessee, where I trained for a few years of many, from about age twelve ’til fifteen or so. Hideous clock. But it brought back a groundswell of memories.

Like the first time my mama took me to the theatre as a spectator. I imagine I was held in her lap, but what I recall was the tiny sliver of glowing blue escaping from the bottom edge of the curtain as the house lights came down—magical. It was a beautiful mystery that held so much promise.

Hanover Theatre II

Or the moment when I first saw the stage lights come up behind a scrim that seconds before seemed opaque, but now revealed an entire world behind it. Magical.

Or the boom of a live orchestra in the pit when you least expected it.

Or the smell of the theatre; it changes when the cutain opens, whatever lingered behind it spilling into the house. (You can see the air moving whenever there is fog; fog will always tell you which way the wind is blowing as it curls over the lip of the stage. I’ve always wondered how it feels to the musicians in the pit—does it mess with their instruments? Make playing more difficult? Or do they get caught up in the magic, too?)

That silly clock made me think about the ballet. But as HCB and I sat in the Massachusetts dive and ate dinner, I also thought about whether we could realistically make both performances: a Broadway show in Worcester at 2 and a 7:30 ballet in Providence. HCB was powering out of a week of illness, and I was feeling its first symptoms.

Damn.

We warned his sister we were sick; she was a saint for still taking us in for the weekend. We decided we’d keep our date for the first show (and our breakfast with Ryan Carroll, my friend in the show), and then reassess afterwards how we felt about going to the ballet in Providence later that night.

HCB Deb Ry

That is moi, sandwiched between Handsome Chef Boyfriend (a rare sighting, I know), and Ryan. I’ve known Ryan for about a decade or so; he more or less showed up out of the ether in Knoxville looking for guest teaching gigs early in Knoxville Ballet School’s history. Southerners to the bone (Ry is from Montgomery, Alabama), we became fast friends and our connection continued to grow through the years with his frequent visits to the school. He always stayed at my place and we enjoyed late nights watching videos and talking ballet trash.

I also saw him on several occasions in NYC (where he lives) over the years when I was in the city for teacher training at American Ballet Theatre. We both had the proverbial rug yanked out from under us (in different ways), and in more or less the same time frame. He is a dear person who was always a champion of Knoxville Ballet School; so many young students, even outside the immediate school community, benefitted from his generosity.

Ryan is also a beautiful ballet dancer with impressive Broadway credentials. At the moment he is touring with The Producers in the role of Carmen Ghia.  The first time he guested for me I had the great fortune of observing him teach Bye Bye Blackbird from Fosse (a show he had danced for a very long run with the likes of Ben Vereen, et al.) to a roomful of teenage girls. That was magical, too, and I shall never forget it.

Producers Playbill

By Saturday morning my voice was already gone. I tried to cram three years’-worth of questions and narrative into an hour-long coffee date with HCB and Ryan at Starbucks. Then quick as a flash it was over. HCB and I had a little rest and made it to the theatre for the 2:00. We made it through the performance with discreet coughing, but it was abundantly clear by then the ballet would have to wait.

Insofar as The Producers—and J. Ryan Carroll—I will only say you should drop what you are doing, check this schedule, and find tickets for a city on the tour near you. Sieze the day: you never know when you will get another chance for a wonderful little piece of magic like that. (‘Til soon, Ms. Gwynn Root.)

Hanover Theatre I