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.

Winter Has Loosed Its Grip: Perfect Friday Afternoon in Vermont

Spring Dandelions in Arlington Park

In my fledgling foray into photography I’m learning light is everything, especially when your equipment is limited to an oldish Nikon and a single lens; I can make do for now, and should until I know better. The light in Arlington Park on Friday afternoon was clean scrubbed and brilliant following a spate of biting days of cold rain interrupted now and again by noncommittal sunshine.

I love how the built environment leaves its thumbprint on the natural landscape—down below, at eye level, and even in the stratosphere; I found it everywhere Friday afternoon. The little park in our community is a study in contradictions, with fair-to-middlin’ athletic fields across the way from well maintained tennis and basketball courts, a scraggly but beloved municipal golf course, and playground equipment jettisoned from some from other era (it would not meet the liability threshold in most here-and-now realms), lain against the most modern of play structures. Around and through them all winds an appealing footpath whose winter wounds are now laid bare: it could use some mulch in the appealing stretch that parallels the noisy Battenkill.

As vibrant as the park feels with the emergence of spring and the arrival of student athletes and fair-weather takers, it is as barren and bereft of life in winter. And as insulated as it feels now against evil elsewhere in the world, I remain a little shaken by the arrest of a local killer in this park only a few weeks ago, nonetheless relieved he is caught. I keep to myself when I visit the park during the winter months, but my Southern self is more likely to say howdy to other friendly folk as the world awakens from its deep freeze. Meanwhile a sign in bold lettering reminds me of my status here. Scout does not share this notion with me: I am certain he feels ownership. Plus there might be squirrels and thus we have important business in the town park. Spring is still an adolescent and can be forgiven his early missteps, a most welcome visitor in these parts.

Daily Commute

Morning Sun on Taconics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manchester by the Sea: Reflections on the Human Condition

No one in the South ever asks if you have crazy people in your family. They just ask what side they’re on.—Julia Sugarbaker

I chide my twenty-something for goading me to watch horror films with him when we’re together. Twice he succeeded some years ago, once for The Ring (do not go there, gentle reader), and again for The Strangers, which is less horror than psycho thriller; these victories have fueled his hope for the future. I was talked into The Strangers because of its cast (could any Liv Tyler movie be all bad?), but by the end felt so wounded I’ll never revisit it, ditto the Merle Haggard standard “Mama Tried,” spine chilling now thanks to the movie. The Strangers came into our living room on the heels of an especially horrific week in my erstwhile family life; I watched it with my boy on the sofa next to me because it felt like the right thing to do at the time.

But I digress. I’m not a fan of horror because of its lingering effects: being deliberately scared seems emotionally expensive, damaging, and pointless. A friend once made a similar observation about sadness—there is so much of it everywhere in the world, why on earth would you want to provoke it on purpose?

I can think of some occasions where you should. The Holocaust Memorial Museum is an example, a reminder of an important chapter none of us should forget, ever. Going demands an emotional commitment—a willingness to embrace melancholy for the rest of the day anyway, and most likely longer: you will not emerge from that experience and then shout, Who wants ice cream! (And I would urge any family touring our nation’s capital to save it for the last day if it’s on your itinerary.)

We dipped into sadness Friday night, although I’m not sure we knew we were headed there at first, HCB and I. He brought home Manchester by the Sea after I mentioned I wanted to see it. Somewhere I’d watched the trailer or part of it, where a reluctant uncle found himself the unexpected guardian of his teenage nephew, and I somehow concluded this would be an uplifting and redemptive story. And I’d heard a scene on NPR that felt tragically comic, about frozen chicken and a frozen human corpse and the well-intentioned uncle trying to navigate his way through a teenager meltdown. At least it struck me as comic at the time.

Manchester by the Sea is instead a tragedy through and through—Shakespeare would be proud. You can find situational comedy in it to be sure; catharsis saves us in the end, because life without it is unthinkable after all. But stylistically you’d probably call this movie realist cinema, after the painting style where the artist leaves little to the imagination, exposing the subject unapologetically and without romantic flourishes (the movie’s score is haunting, at least). Or if you likened it to architecture you might call it brutalist.

The real genius of Manchester by the Sea lies in its character development. We understand the protagonist Lee Chandler because we’ve met him: the quiet apartment building maintenance man in Boston (could be anywhere), a working class hero wound tight as a drum, volatility simmering just beneath his calm demeanor. The movie wastes no time revealing this character trait. But as flawed as he is, you still find yourself in his corner, proof positive of a plausible and vulnerable character well played. Nor is Chandler merely flawed, he is ruined, the cause of ruination revealed to us over the course of the movie in a series of artful flashbacks. Casey Affleck’s portrayal of Lee Chandler is brilliant: you can’t avert your gaze for the duration.

An undercurrent of substance abuse weaves its way through the plot, too, the scourge of our time. But the story is finally less about the physical and emotional consequences of addiction than it is about unbearable grief and damage to the human spirit, so profound in this character he is finally too frail to fulfill his emotional obligations to the people around him—he is damaged beyond repair.

The movie resonated with me more now than it might have five years ago, before I moved to New England and got the lay of the land, and observed the palpable effects of a failed economy (worse here than down South) and the loss of manufacturing jobs in the region. There is also a vulgarity in the common man here that would make even my endearingly shameless Irish grandmother blush were she alive today: if you do not know these people personally, you’ve at least stood shoulder to shoulder with them in line at the grocery store. Dropping the F-bomb is a way of life in some New England towns (Vermont is no exception), and you’re well advised not to ask anybody to put a sock in it, like I nearly did one afternoon at a local discount store before I thought better of it.

‘Crazy’ (or neurotic, if you prefer) is a trait that lies on a continuum from manageable to psychotic, but that most of us possess if we’re being honest, even if we’d rather not shine a light on it. There is a kernel of truth to the quip about Southerners parading around crazy and handing it a cocktail instead of hiding it in the attic. But in the Northeast, at least as portrayed in Manchester by the Sea, we understand the kind of crazy that comes after an unthinkable tragedy strikes for which there is no one to blame but yourself, can only seethe beneath the surface, erupting now and again in bits and pieces—in coarse language, in the occasional barroom brawl, and in frozen chicken mishaps, like a fault line belching out small tremors: at some point it will snap, as surely as a damaged soul somewhere beaten down by life will finally give up.

Most of us who’ve had time to live a little understand this story and know firsthand about permanent emotional damage—nobody is exempt from the human condition. But can there be a yardstick to measure the damage? High blood pressure? Cancer, or some other insidious disease? Years shaved from one’s life, which was so full of hope when it began? Or does significant emotional damage simply make you go mad over time? And if you did find a benchmark to measure the damage, how to fix it? There is no surgery, or neutralizing tincture for some kinds of crazy. But maybe there is more healing after all in parading it around than in hiding it in the attic.

Manchester by the Sea is worth your while if you’re willing to devote an evening to a little thoughtful sorrow; I suggest salty snacks and a good bottle of wine to soften the blow.