Find a Penny

Closeup of Lucky Penny
Found Penny

You are a hoverer, I said to the twenty-something this morning, aware of his presence just behind and to the left of me while I was kneading biscuit dough.

A what?

A hoverer: whatever I’m doing, there you are, hovering like a helicopter. The other morning you were standing there at the bathroom door talking to me while I was putting on makeup, just like you did when you were little. Hovering.

<Twenty-something steps away a little.>

No, come back, I urged. I don’t mind it. I miss it, mainly.

Last weekend the hoverer found a penny on the floor of the attic in our 1936 home. I am not superstitious, but I pick up pennies. I think it’s more about paying homage to the smallest piece of our currency, the one nobody cares about, and that we talk about doing away with from time to time for its irksome proclivity to add bulk to the change purse. Ben Franklin’s ‘penny saved’ wisdom will mean nothing to future generations. Picking up this particular penny seemed important. Not much escapes the scrutiny of the twenty-something, even forgotten pennies in old attics. We are alike in that way: always surveying the horizon, detail oriented.

Window at Gable End of Attic
Photo courtesy of the Hoverer

Detail of Attic Window, Gable End of House

Earlier this morning he wondered why it’s so hard for me to post to my blog. Heh. Well, buying a new house is time-consuming, grasshopper. And continuing to work 40 hours weekly whilst doing it. And since the twenty-something’s arrival a few weeks ago I find myself stepping back into some old shoes, if only for a while, planning and preparing meals for a finicky eater, sneaking in a few veggies cloak-and-dagger style. Just like when he was a toddler. He’s perfectly capable of fending for himself and has done that of necessity on this visit when HCB and I are unavailable. But he does not always choose wisely (Taco Bell comes to mind).

There are those impediments to writing, and the fatigue and exhaustion that come from inhaling buckets of dust, bending and stooping to vacuum up cobwebs and ancient bug graveyards, and lifting and schlepping overburdened boxes to and fro, again and again. Early this morning HCB and I agreed: next time we pay somebody to do this.

And now here is the hoverer, standing behind me asking me what I am doing. Trying to blog, I tell him, just like I did when he was in sixth grade. Trying to.

In three days’ time our status has changed from squatters to bona fide homeowners, something we each doubted we’d achieve again, ever. On Thursday we signed all the papers in a nondescript bank conference room, we unmarried two. I observed to the attorney sitting between us how unsexy the whole business of closing seemed to me. I mean, this man and I have just bound ourselves together for the next thirty years on paper. The attorney laughed and said he wasn’t about to touch that one. I felt like we at least needed to spit in our palms and shake hands, or something. But HCB’s eyes twinkling across the table from me spoke volumes, and he did steal a kiss from me as we were leaving the bank lobby.

Bedroom Window

Detail of Window Lock

The twenty-something and I spent the balance of closing day scrubbing our new house to a fare-thee-well. The house has stood empty for a long time, but it’s still dusty after a period of big renovations. Inside it smells like new paint and carpeting, mostly, maybe a bit of carpentry, too. There will be more dust to clear, but the important work is done. On Friday when high winds knocked out the power in our rental, I grabbed Scout-the-Lab and my things in the darkness of early morning and drove to the new house to shower. Living on the grid, so to speak, has its advantages.

Yesterday HCB and the twenty-something did all the heavy lifting, bless them. We did not really see each other much during the course of the day. My job was unearthing and cleaning things in the cottage, making pathways for big furniture to move through tiny rooms, getting said furniture ready to move, keeping Scout as settled and happy as possible in the pandemonium going on around him, and importantly, fixing homemade chicken noodle soup. I made a single trip over to the house to drop some fragile belongings, to hang a shower curtain, and to roll out a rug on top of a new pad. My bum foot still swelled to the size of a watermelon after all that, and today is not much improved.

But my fellas and the ten-foot truck we rented for the day made three circuitous trips from our mountain cottage to the storage unit, thence to the new house and back again, to retrieve and move things according to HCB’s carefully calculated plan. My massive antique hutch has inspired a lifetime supply of hutch jokes and puns. (Twenty-something this morning changed the handle on one of his social apps to ‘Hutchmasta.’)

Our dining table was finally gotten from the furniture restorer’s shop, where it has waited patiently in the darkness for more than two years after big repairs and refinishing; I almost dragged that table to the curb when it broke just after I moved to Vermont—close call. Hanging our heads over plates balanced on our knees to eat supper will soon be a thing of the past. Soon. We are not yet sleeping at the new place, too much still to do, and a new-used washing machine that on Thursday decided to belch out a puddle of water because of a frozen and burst internal organ, kind of a ruptured Kenmore appendix, you might say. We think we can fix it. And we need a fuel delivery for the boiler.

Restored Fireplace

On the way home from the house yesterday I stopped by the storage unit where I found two filthy and exhausted people dealing with the last load of big stuff. It was cold and there was not much light. And there were casualties: mice had moved into the unit some time ago and left some of our belongings unusable, destined for the dump. They also left themselves behind, in various stages of decomposition. I asked what I could do to help. Bring us four strong men, quipped HCB; hot showers and chicken noodle soup a little while later were the perfect salve, with a heavy dose of the twenty-something’s latest Netflix series on the telly.

The Walloomsac River from our Back Yard

Roiling Walloomsac River

Our new place has an unbelievable yard for its urban setting, abutting the Walloomsac River. And in spite of that you can walk less than a block for one of the best bagels I’ve had in a long time, and a strong cuppa Joe to go with. The regulars in that clean-scrubbed shop are friendly, and so are the staff. The woman who made me two breakfasts to go Friday morning welcomed me to the neighborhood with a generous smile and said she knew precisely which house was ours. It was still windy as hell outside, the same wind that had earlier taken down the power on our mountain. Here, she said: let me get the door for you. We’ll be seeing much more of you I said, stepping out into the bitter wind.

Late Day Sunlight in Vermont Mudroom
Magical Late Day Sunlight in a Proper Vermont Mudroom

I can think of no better time than opening this new chapter to formally introduce Handsome Chef Boyfriend. His name is David, henceforth David-the-Chef. Think of it like spitting into your palm and then shaking our hands. Or perhaps finding a lucky penny.

Hole in That Theory: B & W Challenge Day 7

Birch Bark with Woodpecker Holes 1
Holy Birch Bark, Robin

Birds around here fall silent in winter, but this summer and fall the woods around this little cottage have resonated with so much birdsong at times that we’ve raised a fist skyward: trying to sleep, here—can you please keep it down? A parliament of owls lives in our trees. That’s what you call a group of owls—a parliament. The sound of an owl in suburban Knoxville, Tennessee, was rare and enchanting. But in this Vermont forest they awaken a light sleeper in the night, making it difficult sometimes to fall asleep again before the early morning alarm sounds.

On the drive down our steep mountain road one morning last week I disturbed a bunch of crows who were sauntering around in the road like they owned it. You call that a murder of crows. Murder is what I’d like to do to a few owls who are interfering with REM cycles in this house.

I picked up that piece of birch bark out in the yard a few weeks ago because it was so spectacular: somebody was hard at work, for a while. I love how methodical and tidy the holes are, in neat rows evenly spaced. We have woodpeckers here, too—teeny ones and big ones. The maple that smooshed our cars a couple years back held a nest of woodpecker babies deep inside its trunk, who cried and cried when the tree came down. We could hear them, but could not see them. The mama was nearby and distraught. The next day we found a dead baby on the ground by the downed tree, probably abandoned by a critter looking for an easy meal who perhaps though better of it for some reason. Or maybe bald baby woodpeckers are an acquired taste. Nature sure can be cruel.

Meanwhile my own baby—my twenty-something manchild—arrived on my doorstep somewhat unexpectedly last Tuesday. He’s hanging out with us for a while, helping us pack, perhaps helping us move, too. We’ll see. House closing day is only a week and a half away, and then the big work begins. It’s an exciting and terrifying time for us. For my part, I’m thinking about 1936, the year the house we’re buying was built. Those were tough times, but the worst of the Great Depression was over and the American economy was beginning to recover: the ‘waste not, want not’ values of my grandparents—and of so many others of their generation—resonate with me even now.

Who built our house? Who bought it? Was it a family? Did they have a dog? Had they suffered through hard times? How did they make ends meet? I know only that somebody thought to conceal a cutting board under the kitchen counter—it slides out and shows beautiful signs of many years of use. And close to that is a drawer made just for bread, with a sliding metal lid that’s perforated in an artful starburst pattern. Once upon a time I think we cared a tad more about aesthetics in ordinary objects, like bread boxes. And street lamps, and toasters, and bridges. I think all of that matters. And I love that the people who re-made our house with modern comforts and conveniences saw fit to keep some of the things that matter.

The bird or birds who made the holes in the found birch bark were probably more concerned with finding their next meal than with art. But there is most definitely art in their industry. The twenty-something helped me puzzle through a problem with my Nikon, and made a few pictures of his own. I like this one he shot, in full color: to me it shows a perfect, tiny landscape and tells the story of so much that happened to this tree, which surely provided shelter to more than a single family in its history. Soon we’ll start making our own thumbprint on the new-old house, putting our own holes in the walls, if you will. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Birch Bark with Woodpecker Holes 2

 

October in Vermont: Season of ‘Lasts’

Staring into the sun on an exquisite October afternoon
It’s unfair to name October a season, which more properly belongs to fall. But it does mark a big transition in these parts, a time beyond which the air feels more authentically like winter to a person with Southern roots. Not once in the five Vermont winters I’ve seen have we missed a respectable snowfall—a ‘plowable’ snow—before Thanksgiving; if the trend continues we’ll have our first one soon. It won’t hang around for long, not like the snow from a nor’easter does, the kind that takes down the power grid and leaves you wishing your elbows did not have bursitis when you pick up the snow shovel, the one you forgot to leave by the back door, the reason you now have snow melting inside your boots. Rookie mistake. Nature has a sense of humor: thirty years ago last week a surprise early snow knocked out the power for five solid days, the news said. HCB remembers it.

That kind of snowfall comes later mostly, in February and March, and buries the landscape until spring thaw. January in Vermont can be oddly pleasant thanks to a phenomenon known as January thaw. But the big storms here often persist right into April, until winter has no choice except yield to the sun’s new angle in the sky. The miracle of life after all that never fails to amaze me, the idea that underneath those sinister layers the planet is birthing something new and wonderful. I always felt the same about spring in the South, but here the sensation is exaggerated.

In spring the Battenkill will roar through our little hamlet in an angry torrent. It will lick the low-hanging branches on its banks, leaving icicles that dip down into the water, exotic crystalline formations that will finally relent on a sunny afternoon. It does not feel like spring here, not a proper spring anyway, until June. Vermont winters are long, quipped the man connecting the phone cables in my cottage basement back in 2012, shaking his head while he worked. I get it now.

Ice and angry torrents on the Battenkill
Meanwhile the air feels more like late summer; Nate will pound us with rain for the next couple of days. The kids are playing soccer with padded shinbones, still dressed in summery shorts and tank tops, not for long. It’s Columbus Day weekend, a time when droves of tourists pour into the state (not in numbers like they once did, insists HCB) for the foliage and to buy the same syrup they can probably get back home at the neighborhood Kroger for less. Give them their syrup: they pump dollars into the local economy, and anyway it’s more fun to buy some where you can watch it being made while you lick sticky sugar from your fingers, the sugar that coated your apple cider doughnut a moment ago. It’s what fall is about, or October at least. Best to enjoy that doughnut this weekend, because there’s not much foliage to see, still a lot of green on the trees and it is raining indiscriminately—if Nate had come any later he’d have left us a naked landscape, but these trees are not quite ready to let go.

Still, October is about lasts. It is time to polish the silver for the last time—not for the last time ever, one hopes, but for the last time in this little cottage in the woods. And HCB will chide me for it, because we have bigger fish to fry. Polishing silver is my default strategy whenever I hear the words ‘pack and move.’ It is procrastination through and through.

Moving from Tennessee to New England inspired the most silver polishing: that is one heck of an undertaking, disemboweling a home where you’ve lived for sixteen years, prying apart what is yours from what is his, stuffing as much as you can onto a crowded moving truck, and saying goodbye to the stuff that refused to stuff. No use crying over spilt milk, but I cried plenty.

My first lakeside home in Vermont’s Upper Valley was exquisite but beyond my reach in spite of the best-laid plans, as fate proved. I squeezed out enough cash for a year, maybe to my detriment, but in hindsight it was probably important for me to live there. Vermont winters never suffer fools gladly, and my first one was forgiving in that cottage, exploding pellet stove and zombie basement notwithstanding. Life there was a sojourn, a pause I needed from the misery I left in Tennessee. It had its terrifying moments.

Lake Morey through my cottage window, winter of 2013
Thence further inland towards the central part of the state, where I said farewell to my beloved Clarence-the-Canine and finally grasped a new reality: that year and a half or so forced me to square my shoulders and face the music, as it would anybody with a dwindling bank account. Getting a handle on living expenses came at the expense of living among people. I understood people who had gone before me found healing in that beautiful setting I was lucky to call home—180 pristine mountainous acres—but I did not. It was instead an exercise in adapting to isolation, living in fear and living lean, leaning on the lessons I learned growing up during rough years in my mama’s house in Memphis: you can survive if you’re smart. I had that at least going for me, but occasionally I also wondered whether my time there resembled anything like a monastic life. Maybe I needed simply to shut up and listen. I left my beloved Clarence-the-Canine buried on that land, a reminder that life is transient and nothing belongs to any of us forever. Maybe there was healing after all and I failed to recognize it.

Clarence at the loft in Sharon
Combining two households almost three years ago made sense. It’s true two can live cheaper than one to be sure, but there’s also the sheer joy of being together with the person you love instead of a two-hour drive from him, to say nothing of the great satisfaction of writing a new chapter, a big one, and importantly, a hopeful one. Moving here has not been without its vexations: the outdated infrastructure in this tiny little house in the woods can’t support two full-time, full-size human adults, plus one part-time teenager (a while back there were two of them) without protesting. It is a place bursting at the seams—with the landlord’s stuff, HCB’s, and now mine; overflow went into storage. Since I moved in almost three years ago we’ve dealt with bears unafraid of people, with dangerous, law-breaking neighbors, with a fallen maple that badly damaged one new car and left the old car parked next to it with a good-sized flesh wound, and with one tragic visit to the emergency room after a dog bite last October. We are still somewhat isolated on this mountain top, in spite of living in a neighborhood. On an icy morning it takes a while to carefully navigate a dirt road before reaching the highway down below. But we are together.

Soon it will be the last time to navigate that treacherous road, and weather gods willing, maybe we won’t at all. Instead we will take on the new challenges of living in a distinctly urban setting, in and among a community of people, in a house that is waiting for us at this moment. The walls in our 1936 ‘New Englander’ hold the stories of generations of families who have gone before us, to which we’ll add our own. Vermont winter will still come to us there, and we’ll be ready for it. Next October I might polish the silver, or maybe I’ll let it wait ‘til Thanksgiving. But next Halloween I shall certainly pass out candy to neighborhood children. And I shall walk to Main Street with Scout-the-Lab and HCB. I’ll say hey to people I know when I pass them, people I’m about to meet, a couple of whom I know already.

Next October will be a season of firsts, at last.

New Sycamore Stories

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.