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.
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.
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.
Whoever coined the ridiculous phrase, You can do whatever you want to do, was dead wrong: I can never be a rocket scientist (not that I wanted to). I do want to twirl pasta skillfully against a spoon and I can’t do that, either. Still makes for pretty pictures and good eatin’ no matter how it hangs from the fork. And were there a soundtrack for this weekend it would include the sizzle of fresh veg hitting a hot sauté pan; wind knocking around the chimes outside the glass doors; occasional canine snorings, and REM tail thumpings; snow and ice rumbling off a steeply pitched roof, crashing to the deck and ground below (goodbye, good riddance); a little bit of West Coast jazz; hearts beating and shoes thumping down a cleared running trail; the muted roiling of the Battenkill River; and the heat cycling on and off, still. Yesterday there came an unpleasant rip in the universe from a thousand miles away, as is wont to happen on occasion. Today is a new day full of promise.
Every major social transformation leaves behind a fresh Eden that can serve as the object of somebody’s nostalgia. And the reactionaries of our time have discovered that nostalgia can be a powerful political motivator, perhaps even more powerful than hope. Hopes can be disappointed. Nostalgia is irrefutable.—Mark Lilla
Should you doubt that bit of wisdom, you have only to consider this campaign slogan and its outcome: Make America Great Again.
Facebook is notorious for rubbing our collective noses in nostalgia with its “On This Day” algorithm, where the photos and videos and sentiments we posted on this day a year ago, or five years ago, come back to haunt us. If once was not enough you can share them again in a mere click; I do all the time, if the memory still feels relevant to me. But that’s just it: more often than not they’re relevant to me and to nobody else. They’re fun memories, or painful ones (occasionally I cringe), and that is all. Sometimes I wish Facebook followed Snapchat-style protocols and after some interval made posts evaporate into the ether.
But even if a trendsetter like Facebook elected to follow that paradigm, other entities still allow you to peer into your cyber past; the WayBackMachine app is one of them. I confess I’ve used it on occasion to revisit my now-defunct ballet school website. The digital marketing agency where I work also invokes it once in a great while to look at a particular e-commerce website and, say, explore their inventory in a product category from a year ago, or even a decade ago; it can help give us direction when we’re working on a marketing strategy for a client. So you might say nostalgia can be helpful in certain situations.
Yesterday Facebook gifted me yet another memory of my early days in Vermont, a photo of my beloved Clarence-the-Canine stretched out on the living room sofa in my cozy lakeside cottage, the place I lived for just under a year. And here came another one right on its heels, an Instagram photo of a beautiful breakfast I made myself one morning in the same cottage, my coffee mug situated artfully in the background, everything around this little contrived still life neat as a pin. For the first time in nearly a quarter century I was in charge of my life at that instant, my clean, kempt rooms, and the order of the day: it was an idyllic day at that, where I had the privilege of mornings free to run around the lake with Clarence, time to prepare inventive cuisine, time to observe the beauty around me and reflect on it, maybe post something to my blog. The balance of it I spent doing what I’d come here for in the first place, teaching classical ballet to mainly privileged children from nearby Hanover.
I remembered those days wistfully when I looked at that photo: I was the captain of my own ship which was happily bereft of the chaos I had only just left behind. In short, life was beautiful.
Then HCB reminded me the pellet stove in that hard-to-heat place had dangerously exploded one night, foisting upon me a little reality check. The paltry bankroll I brought with me from Tennessee was running out, and fast; a piece of the financial picture I assumed would be there (I had done the math before I moved) had dissolved with no warning, nor did I earn enough teaching ballet to sustain that lifestyle for much longer, and I knew it. I was unused to the brutal Vermont winters—not just the cold and snow, but the palpable expenses of winter, to say nothing of unrelenting grey days that seemed to stretch on for weeks and then months. Although I had met Handsome Chef Boyfriend right after I got here, two hours and an entire mountain range separated us: for the most part I was terrified and living alone with my dog who would soon be gone, with no inkling of what the future might hold, and no real plan to extricate myself from the disaster ahead—I already heard that train in the distance barreling down the tracks.
So much for Eden. Mainly, I think, nostalgia needs to live high on a closet shelf in a shoebox, pulled down once in a while so you can finger its contents wistfully, and then shove it back on the shelf.
The news stories of the day (real or fake) help fuel this wistfulness. Can you imagine an account that goes, Today, millions of Americans got out of bed and went to work, paid the mortgage, enjoyed a nice supper, hung out with their kids, and then went to sleep? Of course not, because there’s no story to that story. Jobs moving overseas, illegal immigrants pouring over vulnerable borders, terrorist attacks, and plane crashes, though?—stories for days. At one point in my life I was so terrified of flying I put the skids on any travel where the destination could not be reached easily by car: that limited us—my erstwhile family—to a relatively narrow geographic area on the East Coast, and a short window of time on the ground when we got there.
Then came the opportunity to study classical ballet pedagogy at American Ballet Theatre in New York City: if I really wanted this thing, I finally had to figure out a way past the anxiety. I considered medications, worried a little about how they’d make me feel, knowing I needed to be sharp at ballet school. And then something remarkable happened during a family trip to Washington, D.C. Our hotel room window looked out on the White House, and beyond it, arrivals and departures at nearby Ronald Reagan National Airport. Unable to sleep one night I stood there watching the planes for hours. They took off and they landed. Over and over again. All night long, and into the morning. Nothing else happened—the planes took off, the planes landed. Only then could I begin to comprehend and correct my irrational fear of flying. Nobody tells the story of planes taking off and landing safely, because there is no story to tell, really. The majority of the time, airline travel is uneventful, however trying its logistics.
I have a recurring bad dream, a wakeful dream—call it a daydream. In it I return to that little Vermont lakeside cottage. I expect to throw open the door and find everything perfect, as if I had stepped out only to run an errand. Instead the place is cold and dark, there’s an inch of dust and cobwebs everywhere, there is no dog—he is long gone, I am alone and unemployed, and the silence is deafening. Nor is my beloved HCB there: only the roaring silence. It is terrifying. This “dream” is triggered by a catchy song that was popular at the time, with piano notes resonating again and again in descending triplets. I hear that song now and it stops me in my tracks, raises the hair on the back of my neck.
Reinventing the past is an exercise in futility. Learning from the past and then moving on feels relevant. But feeding on nostalgia can and does invoke reactive behavior: what if nostalgia inspired rancor and hate founded on a contrived, sepia-toned existence? I don’t know, it might encourage angry, unhinged people to rant destructively using social media as a platform. In its more sinister guise it might encourage somebody to desecrate a Jewish cemetery, or phone in a bomb threat to a Jewish community center. Or to rough up a transgender person who simply needs to pee. Or to shoot and kill a man at close range because he looked “ethnic.” Or maybe to build a wall that shuts out scores of people who are taking away mythical, sepia-toned jobs, people who instead would by and large make us a better, stronger, more enriched nation. In the hands of a reactionary, nostalgia is a dangerous motivator indeed.
* * * * *
Inspired by that photo from four years ago, yesterday I made two lovely breakfast sandwiches; I ate one and gave the other to HCB. The sticky marmalade clung to my fingers and utensils, and afterwards my napkin was rumpled and stained with breadcrumbs and little bits of egg. You could say that breakfast sandwich was a metaphor for our lives right now: uneventful, fairly satisfying, messy at times, but pretty good overall.
It’s dang cold in Vermont. Last week’s record-breaking warm temperatures were but a tease: we woke up to 2° this morning. Still, I managed to run with Scout on Friday after work in frigid air with a bitter wind in my face (his ears were all aflap). On a positive note, I captured the moment he discovered a pair of geese at close range on my iPhone. But this weather has left me grumpy once more: Vermont winter, you win. I quit. I’m finished pushing through pain in awful weather. I’ll just sit here and drum my fingers ’til you’re done—you let me know, please.
Meanwhile, gentle reader, humor me for a moment with a few separate but related thoughts.
Recently a bloggy friend published this beautiful post about excess that is so spot-on in so many ways, but she especially nailed the whiny, wealthy twenty-somethings HGTV manages to dredge up for their reality shows: I’ve thunk those very same thoughts on many occasions.
I hesitate to diss HGTV for several reasons, among them it’s headquartered in my erstwhile home city of Knoxville, and also I have some dear friends who’ve created fine programming for that network through the decades. In more recent years I’ve found the program lineup wanting, but that’s just my opinion: you could turn on the telly in HGTV’s early years and if you hated what was on, there was probably something better coming on next. Maybe the wide array of enriching offerings I remember are still there but broadcast at odd hours when I can’t watch, I don’t know. I updated the tired old exterior of our small vacation cottage in North Carolina borrowing ideas from one episode of Curb Appeal and another show whose name escapes me about historic architecture. If Walls Could Talk was a favorite. And remember the show with that nutty white-haired guy who traveled the country in search of the most bizarre homes? That was worth the hour you’d never get back.
Now HGTV leaves us with only binge-watching options: an entire evening of Flip or Flop. Or Fixer Upper (which Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I happen to like). Or Property Brothers. Or Love it or List it. Plus, they’re all reruns: HCB and I estimate we’ve seen some episodes of Fixer Upper as many as five times (this is what happens when we’re impossibly tired at the end of a work day and lack the wherewithal to even pick up the remote to change the channel). You have to wait until NINE p.m. for a new episode, and that’s bedtime for two people who are up each day by five.
Anyway the point is, how much granite and stainless steel does one really need (or want) in a kitchen? And who are these entitled young people with budgets often in excess of $1 million? And why do they lack an imagination? HCB chided me on that last bit and said, c’mon: I didn’t have any imagination at that age, either. Cut ’em some slack.
After my friend published her post I enjoyed reading all the responses to it on social media, where people recounted stories of their childhood homes, where siblings shared rooms, and entire families shared a single bathroom. (My international readers are rolling their eyes.) I confess we have a single bathroom in our little Vermont rental and it’s not enough with a teenagery occupant, even if she’s a part-time resident. But I do agree with the overall point: a vanity with a single sink is not gonna kill anybody.
Was life just simpler when we were kids? Or did we learn to do without because an “all-in” budget of $1 million was unheard of in the ’50s and ’60s? I grew up in a modest suburban home my mom kept scrubbed to a fare-thee-well, decorated tastefully with inherited furniture, some of our own, and a few meaningful pieces of artwork. My brother and I wanted for nothing, were never handed everything we wanted (but some things), and life was pretty good in general. There was time in the day to go to school, to go to ballet class after school, thence home for homework (with ample time to complete assignments), and to sit at the table and eat supper. Maybe even for some telly afterwards.
But later on my insufferable college freshman self had the audacity to experiment with newly acquired ‘tude once when I was home on a break. My mom had asked me to do without some thing I decided I needed in my dorm room, and I said, “No…I can’t handle it.” Meaning, I can’t live without this thing. She squared her shoulders and spat, “You WILL handle it.” And that was that, my former self restored.
My brother and I turned out okay, as they say.
By the time I stepped into parenting shoes, though, the landscape had changed dramatically, expectations for success felt supersized along with everything else, and the sheer volume of homework my young child brought home outweighed anything I ever recall being asked to do until my prep school years. And the damaging pop culture influences I tried to shoo away from our threshold still somehow found us the moment we backed out of our driveway: my ex and I had the Cell Phone Argument with him in the fifth grade, gave into it in the sixth. Many of his young colleagues had cell phones even sooner. Is this needful condition—for cell phones, or for double vanities in starter homes—the consequence of decades of American prosperity followed by complacency and unrealistic expectations? I don’t know.
I spent a fair amount of time last week at work researching and writing about travel to Cuba for one of our clients. I’ve never been there but desperately want to go, especially now. If ever there were a nation of people who’ve had to make do with limited resources, surely it is Cuba, the colorful island encapsulated in 1959, a place where art is part and parcel of the national identity, even vernacular art, and where ephemeral beauty matters. When I had the Subi’s oil changed last week I mentioned the cars in Cuba to my mechanic: you know the ones, the American classics Cubans have kept running of necessity for decades after the Revolution. Best mechanics in the world, Cubans, he quipped: those guys can take an outboard motor and drop it in a car and it’ll go.
I’m guessing multiple bathrooms is a condition unheard of in most Cuban homes. Just about every piece of travel writing I unearthed in my research last week revealed the same bit of wisdom about going there: do it now, before it’s too late. Too late for what? Too late for immersion in Cuba’s unique culture and simple, beautiful (if impoverished) lifestyle, before there’s a Starbucks on every corner, that’s what. Don’t get me wrong: the Cuban people deserve better circumstances than what they’ve suffered for decades, nay centuries. I hope they have stainless steel appliances and granite countertops and two-sink vanities for days if that’s what they want.
But maybe revisiting want is a worthwhile exercise, if only on occasion: maybe simplicity after all is a thing of beauty that saves us from being insufferable.
Vermont broke weather records last week: my car thermometer said 73° when I left work Friday afternoon, with partly cloudy skies and a pleasant breeze that carried an earthy spring scent—in February. I could be wrong, I speculated to Handsome Chef Boyfriend a few days earlier, and I know there’s still plenty of time for big snow, but this feels for all the world like spring thaw to me. Yes, he agreed, and even if it snows again, it won’t stick around long.
Call it climate change, but it feels more like weather. Winter’s fury’s still fresh in my mind: below-zero misery, the distinctly menacing sound of the heat cycling on and staying on, heart-stopping electric bills in the post office box, and the eternal fight to keep winter on the outside of the car, to say nothing of shooing it out of the house: we’ve paid our cold-weather dues, and if spring wants to move in a month early, so be it. Mud season is a thing of beauty.
Yesterday there was no cycling on of the modern kerosene heater that warms us pretty well in this tiny place. The house was blessedly quiet, with only the sound of a laptop keyboard clicking behind me, a snoring Labrador wedged next to me on the sofa, clouds drifting across the skylights overhead, and aromatic brown rice bubbling under the saucepan lid on the stove just around the corner. Later on we’d throw open the door and leave it that way, just as we do every day in summer: how delightful to enjoy this appetizer in winter, even if it’s only a tease.
Spring thaw means resuming my running habit in earnest. But where it was once part and parcel of every day in my erstwhile Southern life, in Vermont it is seasonal. Some folks manage in the winter with special equipment, but my damaged foot objects. This was a point of dispute between me and my well-intentioned doc in December: you can do it if you really want to, she insisted. I lobbed one back at her: not at my age, not with Haglund’s deformity. I know Haglund’s deformity, she persisted, and you can do it if you want.
It was another doctor, an orthopedic surgeon in Tennessee, who identified this malformation in my heels (it’s more pronounced in the left one), and another who explained why I have it. Sometimes Haglund’s is called the “pump bump” because women who routinely wear heels are vulnerable to it. I’ve never worn heels a day in my life, except maybe for the odd special occasion. I mentioned this to one of my M.D. ballet dads a few years ago when I was still teaching. How could I have something tied to the wearing of those awful shoes, when I never wear them? Well, he opined, you may not wear the shoes, but consider this: you put your foot in that position every day of the week for hours at a stretch.
He made an excellent pointe, so to speak: ballet dancers (and their teachers) maintain this position of the foot more often than not. It’s called relevé, and you can see it here in spades in an examination class at the renowned Vaganova School:
But I digress. My doctor is wrong on this one, and that is that. I’m more body aware than the average Joe and because of my badly compromised foot have exactly no stability on ice, not even on packed snow if it’s slippery. Time and again this winter I grabbed hold of trees to stay upright negotiating the topography of the back yard for Scout’s late-night pee breaks. If growing old is not for sissies, as the wisdom goes, neither is winter in Vermont with a dog.
Nor is the confounded bony protrusion on the back of the heel the only problem: it’s all the soft stuff around it—muscle and tendon—irritated by movement, sometimes angered, occasionally declaring all-out mutiny. I will make your life a living hell if you attempt to stand and walk. It occurs to me I can’t have my foot replaced.
So I won’t run in those conditions, even with special equipment, the conditions which prevailed from some time in December until only a few days ago. Instead I will respect the foot.
But mud! Mud is the perfect medium for running, a thing I remembered last weekend when Scout and I embarked on our first several runs of “spring,” as it were. The heel sinks into the soft, mushy gravel in a satisfying way, water oozing up around it, the shock absorbed mercifully and gently in the ankle, the knee, the hip, and the lower back, while blood courses joyously through the veins. Scout is a perfect running dog, happy to keep up whatever cadence I ask of him. A slow couple of miles a day feels fine for now, with some starting and stopping to honor the foot thrown in for good measure: I’m a good listener and had rather avoid mutiny down below even if the heart thumping up above urges us on.
After the rice finished cooking yesterday I laced my running shoes with Scout circling me enthusiastically. Crossing the bridge over the Battenkill I glanced uneasily at the water roaring under it in torrents, carrying runoff from the nearby mountains; later HCB and I would observe places it has already breached its banks to settle in wheat-colored fields. Elsewhere in our neighborhood the same is happening on a smaller scale, streams ripping through culverts under the roads and in some places spilling over the top of them.
Scout kept his nose skyward to concentrate new smells that surely must assault him like a freight train, stopping now and then to bury it in the warm, wet schmutz on the side of the road below. Meanwhile my foot cried out like a mythical Mandrake yanked out of its potting soil, but I didn’t let on to Scout, only slowing down now and again to shush the pain.
Once home we headed directly to the tub, where a mud-encrusted Scout suffered no pain in his first stem-to-stern scrubbing on my watch. And true to his character, he stood resolute and patient in the soapy water through it all, content to lie on the bathroom floor quietly afterwards for a towel drying and brushing. Scout ended his day as it began, hunkered down with his humans, but sweeter smelling, exercised, his belly full of turkey and kibble.
I know running will never be the same as it was even a few years ago. There will always be a twice-daily regimen of ice baths, and pain meds, and fish oil, maybe some massage, and the occasional Arnica application if I want to keep going. Two things I know for certain: I need to run. And my left hand needs a leash in it. For the time being, anyway, they’re both met.
Niko left us with about eight inches of snow on Thursday, Orson’s knocking at the door right now: we expect him to gift us with ten to twelve or so inches. Yesterday Scout—with shiny, new off-leash privileges—took advantage of the calm between the storms.
Find someone who looks like they need a friend, and be that person’s friend: it was my mama’s mandate to me on the first day of third grade, a tall order for an eight-year-old kid at a new school, but the outcome for me that year was a tight friendship with a sweet, third-generation Scot. It lasted until her circumstances prompted a relocation with relatives in Louisiana, but we enjoyed months of camaraderie before that day arrived, and I’m glad I knew her.
The simple be-a-friend exercise earned me a number of meaningful connections I might otherwise have missed through the years; when I became a parent I repeated this mandate to my own child, who internalized it well and continues to practice it himself, and with far more aplomb than I ever possessed, all the more remarkable in his case because he’s been on the receiving end of exclusion too often in his young life. Or maybe that explains it.
Exclusion. Nobody likes feeling left out. This morning I checked my news feeds on the ‘net and found little beyond a collective hue and cry centered around that theme writ large: the exclusion of people seeking refuge in our great land.
Anybody who knows me at all understands how I hate jumping into the political fray. I eschew conflict, most especially political conflict. One afternoon last week I listened to the late Mary Tyler Moore explain in a 1995 interview how she grew up in a repressed family bereft of conflict because unpleasant things were simply never discussed—they were just there, and nobody talked about them;she went on to describe how she borrowed some of her own mother’s real-life proclivities to play the role of Beth Jarrett in the movie Ordinary People.
I confess I own some of that. Talking openly about conflict is risky, because it lays open the possibility of controversy, which can be downright ugly. Speaking out about deeply held convictions puts us at risk of estrangement from the people we love and admire and call our friends. And that is why I eschew conflict, at least I think it is.
I still cleave to the notion, however naive, that we have far more in common with each other than not. And anyway, I don’t think the world needs to know our opinions about everything, as social media suggests it does—including the opinions of the delusional, the unhinged, or simply the misinformed among us.
Misinformed. Never mind fake news: last week a colleague linked me a poorly written HuffPost article about an exercise trend that draws inspiration from the ballet world. The writer got a few facts about classical ballet dead wrong, and not surprisingly; people outside the ballet world who try to report on it get it wrong more often than not. A few hours earlier I’d watched a news clip showing moments from a professional ballet company in their daily morning class. Seems nice enough, positive marketing for ballet. But I cringe every time a reporter stands there nodding her head knowingly while the ballet rep explains something, and then attempts to “translate” what they’re saying for the audience, distilling it I suppose so everybody can understand. But they rarely synthesize the facts correctly; something important is usually lost in the translation, and the reporter’s comments often perpetuate the misconceptions floating round in the public mind’s eye to begin with.
That’s just ballet. What of the story of an entire ethnic group? Or a faith tradition? Or a profound world event, for example the Holocaust, or the tragedy that is Syria?
In first grade a favorite rainy day activity was sitting in a circle where one kid whispered something—a word or phrase—into the next kid’s ear, who then whispered it into the next kid’s ear, and so on, until finally the last person had to say it aloud. It was never anything close to what the first person said, so the phrase “Lego blocks” emerged instead as “dirty socks” or some other thing that set off the first grader giggle box in everybody. Nobody was disparate in that classroom setting: we were all one, each of us united in this fun game that demonstrated how simple it is for a thing to be lost in translation. Nor were we desperate.
Desperate. How desperate must be a person or family to willingly risk everything—everything, including their lives—to leave their familiar homeland for a better life elsewhere? Surely each of us has imagined ourselves in that person’s shoes and felt anguish at the prospect of wearing them.
When my son visited me during the holidays a couple of years ago he brought with him a close friend, a young man of Palestinian descent whose family has owned a beloved East Tennessee eatery for decades. One night during their visit Handsome Chef Boyfriend prepared Yorkshire pudding for us and explained to my son and his friend all about this favorite food in the context of his own family. Then he asked my son’s friend about his family’s culinary traditions, which spawned a beautiful conversation that went on for some time. Earlier my son—who is of Mexican descent—and his friend encountered some scorn on the sidewalk when they were shopping one town over, based solely on the somewhat “ethnic” appearance of each of them. They’re both Americans.
My son is a funny and irreverent guy; he is also fiercely loyal. He handed back the scorn, which was deserved.
We’ll never all “just get along;” the size and scope of our problems can never be reduced to the silly word just. But we owe it to ourselves not to be misinformed, lest we risk isolation that finally ruins us. The mandate to find somebody who needs a friend and be that person’s friend has never felt more timely.
Scout was mainly charming at work all last week, save his single throaty warning growl misdirected at the company CEO. He was walking towards us with a scary cardboard box, though, so you can imagine. Still, Scout was patient through long hours of copy writing and editing, and for that he was rewarded with a romp—the second in a single week—at the top of the world, better known as the Mile Around Woods. I used the panorama function on my iPhone to try to capture the view; it scarcely does justice to that breathtaking vista here in the southwestern corner of Vermont.
However patient is sweet Scout, I am the opposite. At the top of the world, I have a chance to reflect some about that particular character flaw, and to ponder other great questions of the universe, which I did on Friday.
In seventh grade I developed my own font; there are no surviving examples to show here, but imagine the stylized, glowing scroll inside Tolkien’s celebrated ring, change it to swirling English runes, and you’ll have a close approximation in your mind’s eye. I worked tirelessly on that font in my social studies class whilst the teacher droned on impassively about nothing at all. A kid who sat next to me tried to copy it. I hated he was doing it, but could not stop him. One day I finally spoke up, because he was getting it All Wrong: let me just show you, I implored him, because you are ruining it. Encouraged by this intervention, he asked me to write out the entire alphabet for him in my font.
At home I painstakingly created a master list of upper- and lowercase letters: if somebody was copying my work, they better get it damn close to how it was supposed to be, went my thinking. I was keenly interested in showing him how, even if I’d rather yank the silly pen out of his hand and just do it for him. Patience.
More patient as an adult, I discovered teaching came naturally to me when I opened my small ballet school in Knoxville. Sitting in pedagogy classes at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, I also discovered my beloved mentor possessed the same sensibility about getting things right, whether he was talking about executing a movement, correcting a student, or using the correct terminology.
Terminology. That resonated with the wordsmith in me. Don’t agonize over it, he said, if you’ve been calling a movement this for years, when you should have been calling it that. But he emphasized at least knowing the correct language, often with the accompanying subtext of how a position or movement came to be called what it is to begin with.
One of my favorite examples is the term passé versus the term retiré. Many ballet teachers mean this position when they say “passé:”
Strictly speaking, it means “passed” or “passing” in French (the infinitive form is passer, meaning “to pass”). This denotes movement, in this case movement of the foot from the front of the knee to the back or from the back to the front. But when you’re simply talking about the position of the leg at the front, the back, or even the side of the knee, you really mean retiré, which means “withdrawn:” the foot is withdrawn from a position on the floor and is now placed at the knee of the standing leg. (If anybody in the ballet world is reading these words, they’re rolling their eyes about now.) It’s really just semantics, as they say.
Does it really matter? Practically speaking, no. Ballet teachers, dancers, and choreographers will go on saying passé when what they really meant to say was retiré, and the world will keep on pirouette-ing on its axis (and by the way, pirouetter means to spin, and tourner means to turn, in case you’re interested). But I liked telling the story to my young students , and nowadays I like telling it to anybody who will listen.
In my work as a copyeditor I sometimes feel pulled to wear my teacher’s hat again, but mainly can’t in the interest of time: the goal in a marketing agency is to roll out the strongest possible content in the voice a client wants and hand it to them as quickly as possible—there’s really no time to dawdle. Sometimes I make copyedits a writer never sees, other times I make a suggestion and leave it to the writer to fix the copy, but occasionally feel the need to explain why I’m making a particular change.
Lately we’ve had some lively discussions at work about modern writing conventions, about using language that’s not technically correct but “sounds” better in print than what is correct, because it flows more naturally, as it might if you were simply talking to somebody over coffee. I’m okay with this most of the time, especially if it makes a client happy, but also because absolute propriety in language is just plain silly in some contexts.
Other times language is downright sloppy; comma placement seems to rear its head on many of these occasions. I found this example yesterday when I was rummaging through the bathroom cabinet:
I’m a huge fan of the Oxford comma (more eye rolling) because in most cases it clarifies the meaning of a sentence and saves the reader needing to read it twice. But in the Band-Aid box example, there’s also a missing comma. As written, we’re to think applying a bandage will clean our dry skin: placing a comma after the word “clean” takes away any mandate to scrub and instead tells us where to stick it. (Not sure what’s going on with all that capitalization; it bothers me, too.)
There are other spots where a comma is called for, and so I have added them in red:
Does it matter? Nah. Everybody on the planet knows how to use a Band-Aid. Am I both an obnoxious and an impatient editor? Most assuredly.
I leave you with this scene from one of my favorite kid movies, because impatient Woody and I are kindred spirits, and because it’s fun.