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

 

Photo Essay: End of a Vermont Summer

Hangers On

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

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

 

 

An Evening of Ballet: Refueling at the Mothership

The Mothership

Last night we saw ‘big’ ballet right down the road in Manchester. It’s a rare thing in these parts, in this underserved and sometimes overlooked state of Vermont, where a tiny population can’t support big art, or even medium-sized art of this caliber. We got lucky this time. Billed simply as ‘An Evening of Dance with American Ballet Theatre & Friends,’ this mixed-rep performance was staged and led by former ABT soloist Anna Liceica, who also danced last night in a couple of works, including a variation from Michel Fokine’s Romantic-era ballet, Les Sylphides, and in her own arrangement of ‘Dance of the Hours’ from the opera La Gioconda. The rest of the cast were members of American Ballet Theatre and Pennsylvania Ballet (ergo the ‘friends’).

I met Anna a few summers ago when ABT & Friends came to the Lake Placid School of Ballet, where I had a guest teaching engagement. So it was nice to see her again and catch up briefly before she and the rest of the cast were whisked off to dinner at a patron’s house. And I loved meeting one Lauren Post in the flesh, a young dancer whose talent I spotted many years ago observing a morning technique class at a Youth America Grand Prix regional finals competition: it was a story I’ve carried around for more than a decade and finally got to share with her. (Plus, we are both Southern girls, so as Eloise would say, you can imagine….) And bending Sterling Baca’s ear for a moment was fun, a dancer I’d long admired in classes and demonstrations through various legs of teacher training at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre, starting in 2009. Anna, Lauren, and Sterling, and the rest of the talented cast danced beautifully last night to a reasonably full house. Will they return to Manchester, we wondered? Maybe one day, Anna said; they’d like to.

This evening of ballet—good ballet—dovetailed with my longing for a shot in the arm after a couple of empty ballet years, with only one other occasion to see this young dancer at Festival Ballet Providence in Rhode Island to break the silence. I still have a ballet tome rattling around in my head, and some day I’ll let it out. It’s all about expectations: what five-year-olds expect when they step into their first ballet classroom, what their parents expect when they write their first tuition checks—and what anybody should expect of the child who decides s/he wants this life professionally. It’s a long pathway from those baby steps to the moments that unfold on the stage as they did last night, one fraught with peril, as a friend would say. Professional ballet is hard on the body, and hard on the wallet in a cultural milieu where it’s not held in the same esteem as, say, professional athletics. Most young folks who take that leap of faith know they’ll be taking on extra work to survive in the impossibly underfunded arts world here: you have to really want it, and that may finally be the single most important ingredient for any gifted young dancer who seeks the stage.

When I opened a small ballet school in Knoxville in 2006 I aimed to swat away a few gnats, those tenacious myths that cling to ballet training in the guise of legitimacy. In short, I set out to teach the parents in my ballet school community how to be intelligent consumers of classical ballet: I urge ballet newcomers even now to ask questions, and look skeptically upon a school that can’t or won’t answer them—too many schools hide behind rules and regulations in the name of some imagined tradition. I can still hear my mentor Raymond Lukens’ words during the first session in ballet pedagogy training I ever attended at ABT, to learn the curriculum this very ballet mogul co-authored: never make a rule unless you have a reason for it. In my first year as director at Knoxville Ballet School a number of parents asked whether they could watch their child in class, for example. Yes, I said, that’s what the observation window is for. At <School X>, they would say, it was forbidden—we were never allowed to watch. One mom told me she was so desperate to see what was going on—and importantly, whether her child was enjoying it—that she lay down on the floor, nine months pregnant with her second child, to try to peek through the crack under the door. This is just silly, and that is all.

I understand the motivation behind the rule, within reason—parents can be a distraction to the learning process when they’re standing outside a window grimacing and gesturing in some indecipherable sign language to their little person, whose focus on the teacher is now lost. And in some teaching environments it may be appropriate—big, reputable ballet schools with high enrollment, for example, where inviting parents to watch presents a logistical nightmare to say nothing of the disruption to the learning process. Those schools have the luxury to say no legitimately, knowing parents will have the opportunity to see their children on the stage at least once (and often more) in the calendar year, and also in the classroom for observation on designated days.

But in my small, suburban school in Knoxville, Tennessee, I said yes: it was good advertising for the product I was purveying, and proof positive we were hard at work. And anyway, simply closing the curtains sends a clear message to an offending parent who is not likely to offend again. I once had a tiny, beautiful Chinese student who at first simply refused to participate unless her mother came into the classroom with her; she was five at the time and spoke no English. I unfolded a chair in the corner of the classroom; shored up by her mom’s presence, the child was content to participate fully with her classmates and by the end of the academic year had gained enough confidence that she finally asked her mom—in perfectly clear English—to stay in the lobby with the other moms. She went on to enjoy much success in her ballet classes and in the annual ABT Affiliate exams before her family returned to China. In the end, my class observation policy was never a problem; it is a single example of many where a silly rule masquerading as a cherished ethos has the potential to ruin a child’s chances for classroom success, to say nothing of leaving a sour taste for the art form in the mouths of her parents. I was able to position myself in such a way as to straddle the professional ballet world in which I had grown up fully immersed, and the real needs of uninitiated ballet parents and their young children.

Last night during intermission I spoke with a man from Boston, a balletomane I think it’s fair to say, who arrived late to the performance and wanted to know what he missed. That in turn led to a lengthy discussion about Romantic-era ballets, modern audiences, and a few unfortunate attitudes and practices that stubbornly persist in some professional companies even today—where the work environment has improved in most settings as compared with previous generations, but where a few antiquated and unhealthy practices are still tolerated in others. Turns out he’s a psychiatric therapist who treats lots of young dancers. I told him about my teacher training at ABT and explained to him that for the first time in the history of ballet training in this country a new curriculum has emerged that actually addresses the training of the whole dancer; this was music to his ears. It’s groundbreaking in a country where anybody can hang out a shingle and claim to know how to teach ballet—whether they possess the qualifications to do it, or had rather hide behind closed doors doing god-knows-what to vulnerable young folks, a phenomenon I’ve witnessed firsthand. It’s another truth we learned on the first day of teacher training at ABT: you need more professional certifications to give somebody a manicure in this country than to teach a child classical ballet. I think most folks would agree the stakes are higher for the health of a child.

But one other thing about this still-new training and curriculum I’ve been less successful explaining to parents, or to anyone who would listen: this is a big deal. No, really—not all ballet schools are alike (far from it), and most school directors don’t possess the constitution to subject themselves to scrutiny, to adhere to a set of high standards and then invite adjudicators from the epicenter of the ballet world to come and see whether the school is honoring them. This was finally the best answer I could ever give a parent who questioned why s/he should write a check for $50 at the end of the year for a ballet exam: because the exam tells all of us whether I’m doing my job well, teaching your child ballet—it holds me accountable—and this benchmark after all should matter to you a great deal. It was a simple line of reasoning and stated in those terms made undertaking the exams an open-and-shut case.

It’s hard to believe I’ve been disconnected from the ballet classroom since October of 2014; I’m lucky to ply my trade now as a writer, though, and enjoy it as much. One of my colleagues with classical ballet roots not unlike my own asked one day last week whether I miss teaching. I don’t miss the punishment to an ageing body, I told her, nor cobbling together freelance work to try to make ends meet. But I do miss the process of enlightenment, the priceless ‘Aha!’ moments in the classroom when you nurture along a kid who finally internalizes some thing she’s been struggling with, and the same moments outside the classroom, when a parent demonstrates a depth of understanding about classical ballet training in May s/he did not possess in September. And I miss the satisfaction of observing those parents sharing their wisdom with the new crop of parents who cross the school’s threshold the next September.

For now I’ll make my peace with the joy of watching a handful of beautiful dancers who finally came to town.

I leave you with excerpts of Alexei Ratmansky’s reconstruction of Marius Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty as performed by dancers from American Ballet Theatre in 2015 at the Guggenheim as part of the Works and Process series; Lauren Post dances Silver Fairy, seen in the opening on the left.

How to Live in a Summer Moment

Summery Radicchio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deer Flies and Summer Storms: First Day in July

Second Day in July

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tight Turning Radius

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

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

No Deer Flies Here

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

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

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

Damn Near Perfect July Day

New Real Friends: A (Hopeful) Lamentation

Real Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Essay: Saturday in Three Parts

Summery Saturday Explosion

We really did miss out on spring, dang it. Winter held fast, and then fought tooth and nail before it finally relented sometime a couple of weeks ago. There were fair weather days here and there; they were but an illusion, some atmospheric sleight of hand at work, wicked trickery you might call it. And now we’ve arrived at summer full blown. I miss the changing of the seasons.

After Saturday morning doings we struck out on errands and found a little fun. Part I: our favorite farm stand opened at long last, a springtime box finally ticked. One hopes for a long growing season and exquisite bounty. For now it is slim pickings, but pickings nonetheless and a crowd of folks as desperate as we to get their hands on it—our little home garden is only just sprouting.

My struggle to bring images into focus in low light with limited equipment and expertise seems oddly appropriate since the bounty of the season remains blurry at best. An extreme example at this little eatery where we had lunch, Part II:

See that pale thing on the plate? That is no tomato (and a certain chef suggested it should never have found its way out of the kitchen to begin with). This is a tomato:

Saturday Part III was all about time travel, my idea.

Eventually the din grew too loud to bear, all those stories clamoring to be told. And there is only so much Swiss dot milk glass one can stomach in a single Saturday.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor: What Does Your Life Promise?

Maybe you’ll live in an artsy house with a bicycle wheel fence out front

Life promises nothing. And everything.

An earnest young man named Tristan called me Wednesday night on behalf of the University of Tennessee’s Arts and Sciences Annual Telefund, he said. I found a mailer from my alma mater in the P.O. box last week, so I knew this was coming and already planned to give. Perfect timing, this call, as I was sitting on the sofa after work doing mainly nothing except unwind with the news and a glass of wine in hand. It’s somehow reassuring that the familiar ‘974’ exchange still belongs to UT—I knew exactly who it was.

Last year I gave the student solicitor an earful of unsolicited advice. He may have caught me at a bad moment, I can’t recall. But I do remember thinking, if you’re intercepting my down time like this then you’ll hear a few words for my trouble. I asked him about his major (business). I said, go take English. No, wait. Go take English literature. You’ll need the writing skills, even if you think you won’t in whatever professional life you anticipate on the outside.

You’ll need to know how to write well if you enter the priesthood

To his credit, he was polite and reverential, and admitted writing was not his strongest suit, that his dad helped proofread his college papers even now. I gave him some names, which he said he was taking down. For all I know he was making a note on my Permanent Record, This one is a whack job.

Poor Tristan: he was brave enough to dial me up even with that red flag flying.

I exercised more self-restraint with this young man. He asked how I got to Vermont from Tennessee. Long story, I said, involving an awful divorce. I’ll spare you the details. Fair enough, but if I may ask, he persisted, can you tell me how you’ve used your degree in anthropology?

Maybe you’ll open a weirdly specific business

The short answer, I told him, is not at all. The longer and more truthful one goes like this: my degree helped me survive at a moment in time when I thought I might not, because all those classes in anthropology and other disciplines conspired to help make me a stronger writer. It is how I earn my keep these days, writing and editing digital copy for a burgeoning marketing agency here in Vermont.

Ah, said Tristan: so you moved to Vermont to work for a marketing agency?

No, I told him, I moved to Vermont to teach ballet. I have spent much of my life immersed in classical ballet, but that is a story for another day.

He understood, he said, and would not take any more of my time. He told me he was from Michigan, enjoys his life as a UT student, and knows Vermont because he comes here in winter to ski; it is a beautiful corner of the world, we agreed. Then he ticked off a list of recent improvements to campus and insisted “without the support of alumnae like you” they would be impossible (now he was reading from a script). Have you visited campus lately?

Two summers ago, I said, I drove through.

Did you know they’re tearing down Presidential? (He is no longer reading.) It’s about damn time, I said: I lived in one of those brutalist high-rise buildings as a freshman and remember it only as a noisy and impersonal assault to the senses. We both laughed. Seriously, he said—you should come see it—there’s only a huge pile of rubble now.

I’d like that, Tristan; maybe this summer. I asked him to make my gift to the Anthropology Endowment in honor of one Charles Faulkner, professor emeritus. He thanked me and said goodnight.

You might go postal

To my unrelenting desire to dance Mouse King in somebody’s Nutcracker, I think I’ll add, deliver a college commencement speech. I have a much better shot at Mouse King because some small civic ballet company somewhere might actually find itself desperate for one, although I may be too short to fill those shoes. But I’ll never give a commencement address because I lack the other kind of stature: fame and notoriety. Still, I have so much to say.

My chat with Tristan got me thinking about the varied chapters of my life so far, and the impossibility of connecting the dots that will define the rest of one’s life when one is only just graduating from college. I wish somebody had explained this to me when I was Tristan’s age—connecting those dots is an exercise in futility, and anyway it doesn’t matter. Standing there in your cap and gown, giddy with your accomplishments thus far, you have no way of knowing what lies ahead. If you chose a career for which specialized training was essential—you’ll practice law, or medicine, for example—it’s not unreasonable to expect some pieces to fall into place as you imagined they might.

Maybe you’ll live on a groovy sustainable farm in rural Massachusetts

But most people I knew when I stood on that threshold were still putting together the pieces. I dealt with my own uncertainty by postponing decision making for a while, plowing headlong into graduate school with leftover undergrad momentum. I was married by then, and a surprise adoption changed my plans near the end of my coursework, a plot twist I found delightful and challenging in its own right. Full-time parent of a difficult child: it was not in the blueprint (by then I had zeroed in on a few career possibilities, none ever realized as fate would have it). Nor could I have predicted returning full time to classical ballet as a teacher might insinuate itself into the child rearing landscape (I forgot to tell young Tristan I used anthropology every day of the week in the ballet classroom, giving my students lessons in anatomy with a full-size anatomical skeleton—who knew coursework in human osteology would prove helpful in the ballet studio?).

Nor could I imagine that in the space of only a few months it would all vanish: a comfortable, settled, affluent lifestyle a couple of decades in the make completely gone. Gone.

Nobody gets through life without a few curve balls, maybe even a direct hit to the noggin once in a while. But what do you do when somebody yanks the rug out from under you wholesale?

Wholesale destruction is a delicious opportunity to start all over again

At first, you gnash your teeth and wail and lash out at the universe: you need answers—why is this happening to me? The universe is strangely quiet. When you tire of waiting, you finally blow your nose and sweep your greying hair out of your face, push up your sleeves, and get to work. Next comes the hard part: you may suffer a little humiliation while you’re figuring out Plan B. And Plan C, D, or even Plan E…. But this exercise is so much better than the alternative, after all. And anyway, you have no choice.

When I was puzzling through a squirrelly child-rearing problem years ago, a wise friend reminded me to use past behavior to predict future behavior. Superimpose this idea on life’s bigger mysteries, and you get something like this: use past successes to predict future successes. Your package of skills helped you accomplish much: now use them to accomplish something more, even if the shape of that thing, whatever it is—could be writing for a marketing agency, who knows?—remains out of focus for now. The not-knowing is anguishing, to be sure. But uncertainty holds the promise of possibilities.

Maybe you’ll build a solar array next to a police station

My commencement speech would go something like that. I’d also urge my young listeners to keep an open mind and take advantage of opportunities when they pop up, even if they look different than you thought they might. And when you make poor choices, I’d tell them, admit your mistakes, chalk them up to personal growth, and move on. Learn how to apologize if the situation calls for it. And never say ‘no problem’ when somebody says, ‘thank you.’

All the television news outlets have been airing mash-up reels of commencement speeches lately, famous folk standing becapped-and-gowned at the podium, a few notorious ones, advising hopeful throngs of the newly-degreed on this special occasion that for many marks the transition into adulthood, or ‘the real world,’ anyway. Because I’m such a fan of fifth grade humor the one who speaks loudest to me is Will Farrell, a fearless performer who had the audacity to channel Whitney Huston’s standard, I Will Always Love You, to a hopeful crowd of University of Southern California grads. It was a cringe-worthy performance they’ll forever remember. I’ve never been a Will Farrell devotee, but give me a little irreverent humor on a solemn occasion and I’m in (anybody who lacks humor is suspicious in my book). He was nothing if not earnest, like the young man who called me the other night. And in moments of seriousness, he was credible. It was a perfect sendoff, full of hope and possibilities. I leave you with the juiciest morsel.

To those of you graduates sitting out there who have a pretty good idea of what you’d like to do with your life, congratulations. For many of you who maybe don’t have it all figured out, it’s okay. That’s the same chair that I sat in. Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result. Trust your gut, keep throwing darts at the dartboard. Don’t listen to the critics and you will figure it out.—Will Farrell, 2017

Idling in Vermont

Idling in Patagonia

Some forty years after its publication Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia is still considered a pivotal and authoritative piece of travel writing about this 400,000-square-mile South American region. Ferdinand Magellan called the tall aboriginals he encountered there Patagones after a mythic character, it is rumored, hence its name. Straddling two countries and claiming most of a vast mountain range, Patagonia is bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Atlantic to the east, and all but shakes Antarctica’s hand in its southernmost reaches; precisely where it begins in the north is arguable. My own ‘journey’ there began with a mammoth piece of content I’m writing for a client. But the very idea this delicious-sounding book existed prompted my off-the-clock quest for it.

That, together with a single glowing accomplishment: I managed to nudge my first-generation Kindle out of its long slumber, and after several hours’ worth of uploading no fewer than four system updates, finally pressed it into service once more. I like my old-style Kindle for its satisfying, clicky keyboard—the kind that talks back to you affirmingly—and for its Etch-A-Sketch-like screen that does not tire the eyes and overstimulate the brain at bedtime the way most devices these days do, so the experts say. I pat myself on the back any time I win a battle with technology: this one was measurable, rewarded by the instant, magical download of a new book.

In Patagonia is my favorite kind of writing, one thoughtful, descriptive essay after another, stitched together in a sensible way that takes the reader bumping right along for the ride across the arid steppe. Any gaps in Chatwin’s account he fills with ingenious turns of phrase and the quiet kind of humor that belongs to the English alone; stop paying attention for an instant and you’ll miss it. Chatwin is an exquisite storyteller and that is all, weaving illuminating bits of history throughout the 1970s landscape as he sketches it, staying true to his descriptive narrative style. It is a story we already know, of successful and failed European conquests, of aboriginal tribes whose temperaments vary from heroically savage to comically irreverent, of expats seeking freedom from persecution in the homeland. Europeans of questionable provenance insinuated themselves into this Patagonian landscape centuries ago as alleged princes and kings, so they claimed, bestowing fictional titles on the ‘Amerindian’ natives in exchange for land and wealth: you can convince any tribe of naked drunks to agree to a lopsided deal, went the thinking. Things never seem to work out precisely as one hopes they will; the natives have a way of skewering and roasting you on a spit when they come to and figure out what’s what.

I envy Chatwin’s excursion while my engine idles here in Vermont. Not that I have some unsated wanderlust: the idea of a Patagonia-style sojourn appeals, but I probably lack the constitution for it, to say nothing of the bank account. One thing is certain: my mood always hangs on the promise of what is coming, even if that is unclear. Lately ‘what is coming’ seems to be lollygagging along at an irksome pace, coming to a dead stop now and then to examine some inconsequential weed growing out of a sidewalk crack. (Even this spring’s arrival is maddeningly complicit in this plan, teasing us with minuscule bits of warm sunshine, but mainly handing us damp cold and grey days that linger like a tiresome dinner guest.) I need a trumpet fanfare, or at least some sign of progress where there is none, or so it seems.

Meanwhile, back in the tiny rental house at the end of a mountain road. Where the partial remains of two failed marriages collide with things that belong to someone else, the balance left to languish in storage. Where the kitchen counter doubles as a pantry. Where a single bathroom groans in protest every time a tap is opened. Where a timid dog retreats often to the security his cheerful yellow quilt-covered crate behind a sofa, a crate whose top doubles as an adjunct desk littered with receipts and file folders and Kleenex boxes and other objects—a broken antique sugar dish in a Ziploc bag (another casualty of too-tight quarters); a takeout menu from a local eatery; random USB cables; and a stack of newspapers eager to wrap and box precious possessions yet again. Nothing can be put in its place, for there is no place for the putting.

A thousand miles away from me a twenty-something also idles, waiting for his life to inch forward like Patagonia’s own Perito Moreno in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, the curious glacier that advances about six feet every day, calving building-sized icebergs into the water around it. Be patient, I urge, reminding him he could be doing things now to nudge his life forward, however glacial its pace seems to this restless young being.

I could heed my own advice in the place where I am treading water now, yearning for permanence and community and walls I don’t mind painting.

My friend Rebecca’s goat Darcy finally had her twins a couple of days ago. Rebecca, whose life and writing and cheese and food and photography are filled with so much inspired beauty. Were I a true Vermonter, I’d want to live like my friend Rebecca and her family, I think. But I believe that is called coveting thy neighbor’s oxen, if memory serves, and it surely applies to their goats, too (never mind that Rebecca and her family live a solid two hours from here: in these parts they still count as neighbors, and anyway I used to live much closer). But I will never achieve the ‘true Vermonter’ milestone measured any way you want to; my life is my life. I still draw inspiration from Rebecca, and from Darcy-the-Goat, who took her sweet time about kidding her twins, “chewing her cud like a bored receptionist chewing her gum,” wrote Rebecca. I think Chatwin and Rebecca must be related. Or maybe Darcy and the Natives.

Things never seem to work out the way one hopes they will, but they finally work out the way they must.

Vermont Springtime Portrait: Pictures and Words

Springtime Fits and Starts

Spring comes to Vermont in fits and starts, coughing and sputtering like an old man in the morning. This year is no exception: the occasional raw, chilly day will spoil any ten-day outlook, just as the gnats do my early morning backyard excursions with Scout. What is the point of a trustworthy dog off leash, a condition that extends one the delicious privilege of a lingering walk with steaming coffee in hand, when one needs both hands to swat away the cloud? Just last week a faraway friend asked whether Vermont gets the black flies Maine has. Yes, but they pale in comparison to a little flesh-eating miscreant known as the deer fly, I opined.

Here is proof positive spring is springing, if it has not yet fully sprung: yesterday I had close encounters with a rawther large, furry spider I felt crawling on my hand just before it met a horrible end within the folds of a shirt; a classic ‘picnic’ ant navigating the contours of my ankle bone; one kamikaze moth in my face; and scores of tiny, miscellaneous flying insects. Poor Scout: I spotted two deer ticks exploring his canine cheeks for fertile ground during our Saturday morning run, pulled another one off a very sensitive part of his anatomy when we got home. Funny that not so long ago we had temps in the single digits: insect life in these parts is nothing if not resilient.

Meanwhile there is no stopping spring: every morning more tender, green foliage emerges from the trees, mercifully softening the landscape and editing out some local scenery we won’t miss all summer long and into the fall. And everywhere are bulbs blooming—daffodils, tulips, iris—and the tiny ferns that will soon carpet the woods, just starting to unfurl (the fiddleheads are a culinary favorite in these parts). A symphony of birdsong greets us at sunrise (woodpeckers on percussion), lingers throughout the day, and crickets chime in later on; cicadas would be nice, but are too smart for winters here. And the hungry, emaciated black bears are awake now, as seen in a trail of garbage strewn willy-nilly at the end of our road one morning last week—they’ll almost certainly be back in the coming days.

Yesterday we took my car through the tunnel for its springtime scrubbing, the annual cleansing away of the caustic chemicals that are part and parcel of winter travel; dad will chide me about this, my lazy car maintenance habits and the once-a-year wash “whether it needs it or not.” Last weekend we took Scout on a short outing to the Mile-Around Woods, where it is finally dry enough to walk without sinking knee deep into muddy trails. We meant to allow him some off-leash romping in a picturesque meadow at the top of the big hill there, but thought better of it when we observed a few others who had beaten us to the punch: it was the first gorgeous spring Sunday and nobody was missing it (Vermonters are fair-weather opportunists of necessity). This could not stop our fun on an exquisite day, if cut short by my bum foot, et al. I wore my camera around my neck to shoot the landscape as it is now, because it will look very different in only a few days; I managed to catch a single beautiful moment between Scout and The Chef, who despite his mild manners and generosity with tender, steaming bits of succulent chicken and fish, remains Tall And Scary to tawny little doggies.

Vermont spring, thou dost vex, but we are so glad you’re finally here.