October in Vermont: Season of ‘Lasts’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Sycamore Stories

Licking Our Wounds: Hindsight, You Win.

Hindsight
Hindsight

I once had a dog who destroyed the back seat of my brand new car in under ten minutes, reducing it to softball-size pieces of upholstery foam; a friend was with me and the two of us had darted inside the grocery for a moment. The dog, a beautiful Siberian Husky gal named Chaika, was all giggles and grins when we returned to the car. Chaika was a love, and that is all. But she came to my family as a shelter dog with an unknown past. One thing was clear about her: she was anxious as hell around food. Mealtime was the only time to be careful around this dog, who would as soon take your hand as she would the bowl of food you placed on the floor for her. In hindsight the food anxiety was probably symptomatic of anxiety in general, including separation anxiety. At the time I considered myself a seasoned handler of dogs; Chaika proved me wrong. Dogs will shame you that way.

Over years, and then decades, I’ve had dogs who peed and pooped in the house seemingly for sport, who destroyed thousands in books, furniture, and other objects, who behaved badly at the end of a leash in spite of diligent obedience training, who were antisocial around people, or antisocial around dogs, or both. I’ve also had well-mannered dogs who were a joy to be around. You could say dog problems are really people problems, and I’d be inclined to agree, but most every dog in my life has been complicated in some way, just like we are. Still, each one has enriched my life immeasurably; my last German Shepherd Dog, Clarence-the-Canine, was mine alone and came closest of any to being a “soul dog.” When Clarence died in 2013 I could not imagine my life without him, and the void he left was every bit as horrific as I guessed it would be and then some.

Teddy was my first shepherd and came to us (my ex-husband and then-seven-year-old child), as something of a rescue. His past was known, but problematic, his bloodlines a mystery. Turns out he had an intussusception—a dangerous “telescoping” of the colon that’s often fatal. The surgeon who repaired him also removed an entire plastic bowl from his gut during the surgery, an indicator of big problems in his previous life. He came through it all fine, healed well, but emerged a changed dog, one who was no longer recognizable to us. And while he remained loyal to a fault, he could not be trusted around other dogs or people because of his aggression. One afternoon he escaped an obedience exercise and bolted across our front lawn, laying into our next-door neighbor, whom he damaged badly. Things could have ended worse, thank the universe they did not. There can be no shelter in a family for a biting dog, period. In Teddy’s case, we foolishly believed there was hope for rehabilitation; he proved us wrong time and again, and because we cleaved to this silly notion people were hurt.

Warden bit me in the face Monday night in an episode I’ve replayed too many times to count. There was nothing impressive about the circumstances, no warning (or there was and I missed it), only a lightning-fast but powerful bite followed by a toothy snarl after an episode of affection, leaving a gaping hole in my nose, an anguished chef, an upset dog, and ending with a prolonged visit to the ER and a sleepless night. I bear Warden no ill will; he has no recollection of biting me and has spent the first few days of his mandatory ten-day quarantine with us confused about disruptions to routines we were already establishing, but also affectionate and friendly. I am sad he bit when he might have reacted to whatever was bothering him another way—with a warning growl, or pulling away, for example. But in that one moment he sealed his fate: he is forever ruined now as a family dog, nor could he ever be trusted in the office where he was to go with me every day—this was to be Warden’s important work. And he certainly can’t live here with us now.

Could I or we have seen this coming? Initially the answer was emphatically, no way. In hindsight, there were red flags reaching into this dog’s past. Our thinking was clouded by our emotions, so determined were we to welcome Warden into our family. He is a beautiful animal with distinguished bloodlines, and that is where our affinity for him must end. He will remain here for the duration of his quarantine period and then we shall foster him for the time being; he will not be euthanized.

However heartbroken we are for this awful turn of events, we are as awakened by it. Will we have another dog eventually? I hope so. Will it be a shepherd? Probably not, but maybe: it’s too soon to decide.

Five years ago I resolved to trust my gut when surveying the landscape around me, because I’ve been right every time I suspect something’s up; I did not stay true to myself in Warden’s case. I hope hindsight will not bite me next time around.

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Tail of the Dog, in Which Warden Prepares to Play the Wrong Piano Concerto

This was not what I had on my calendar for this date.
This was not what I had on my calendar for this date.

In 1999 the Portuguese virtuosa Maria Joao Pires famously sat at the piano with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, conductor Riccardo Chailly  at the podiumawaiting the first bar of the piano concerto she expected to play for this lunchtime concert. Imagine her surprise when the orchestra began playing a different piece of music—the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor—instead of what she had come prepared to play. That moment is captured on video, the sick feeling in her gut written all over her face, which she places in the palm of her hand as the reality of this horrible epiphany slowly unfolds before a crowd of expectant concertgoers. There are only a couple of minutes of music before the piano begins. As the concerto continues, Chailly surmises what has happened, there is an exchange between the two of them, she insists she had something else in her calendar, she is not sure she can do this without preparation. There are a few reassuring words from Chailly, as he continues to move his baton without missing a beat, a smile on his face: the proverbial band plays on.

I can only guess this must be akin to how Warden felt this week in his new digs: surprise! We are the wrong people in the wrong house, these new rules and routines are wrong, wrong, wrong: this bowl is unfamiliar, this collar, this leash—a leash!—nothing is right.

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Meanwhile, we’ve smiled and continued to move the baton to the time signature of life in this family. And how has Warden responded to this? Like a boss, that’s how.

The last week has been one of discovery for Warden and for us (living with a dog is in my muscle memory but unpracticed; it is awakening now with lighting speed). Warden regarded us with suspicion in the beginning, most especially one adolescent human who is a part-timer here. This is not just about displacement, I think, but is a character trait of the breed: shepherds are discriminating. Now at the start of our second week together I think I can fairly say he has imprinted on me, regards the tall chef with equal parts affection and suspicion (although hand-fed pieces of succulent baked chicken and beautifully seared salmon must be considered in this assessment). We’ll see how things go with the adolescent later today.

Mother Nature has not been especially helpful in this trial-by-fire week: first time since I’ve lived in Vermont we’ve had snowfall in October, only here in the valley-ish area where we live it was more of an icy, bone-chilling mess with high winds thrown in for good measure. Did we shrink from this hellish weather? Heck no. Warden discovered the neighborhood park with me this week on a day that left us soaked through and muddy, ditto the back seat of the Subi; second time around it was not so awful outside.

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And yesterday we had a bigger adventure at this place, which is a bit further afield from home, but happens to be very close to work, where I expect Warden will go with me most days eventually. (Baby steps.) So there was a lot of trust building and plenty of fun to be had yesterday, with one tired dog and a couple of worn-out humans at the end of it all. Warden is champing at the bit to play off-leash; for now he will remain tethered, and stay that way ’til we know beyond the shadow of a doubt the trust is firmly established.

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Brush Burning Against Beautiful Vista at Mile-Around Woods

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You-Need-To-Catch-Up Head Tilt

There was adventure to be had at home this week, too. Fun fact about this tiny house: there are skylights.

Sky Lights Up There
Huh.

Who knew? Also, it is possible to lock yourself in the bathroom without opposable thumbs; the best time to do this is right after ralphing up kibble eaten with too much gusto, and whilst HCB is phoning to announce he is stuck in an October snow storm behind several disabled vehicles on the mountain between the bakery and home. (I explained I had to go because the dog was locked in the bathroom and there was a pile of vomit on the floor, sorry you’re stuck on the mountain—good luck with that.) And also the basement is questionable; best to bark at it occasionally for good measure, which you can do conveniently whilst slurping and dribbling.

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Basement, i vous considère.

I think it is fair to say we had a good first week together. It ended peacefully, and last night, as Warden snuggled on the sofa between the two humans, this happened:

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The Chef is okay.

As for Ms. Pires, she played that concerto bumper to bumper without missing a note, the consummate professional. I’ve had the great privilege of hearing the Concertgebouw Orchestra live in concert—I’m such a huge fan I frankly would not care about unrehearsed Mozart or muffed notes. I’m also a huge fan of Warden-the-Shepherd. Here’s a short clip of that Pires concert, with some narrative by Maestro Chailly; he is talking about the Mozart, and about Pires, but may as well be talking about us. Take a peek at 2:48—it is the perfect musical metaphor for Warden’s quiet start to life in his new family.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night.

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Foggy Day Shepherd

No, really. It was. Friday was a grey day, Friday afternoon brought wave after wave of gully washers to Southern Vermont and New Hampshire, and Friday night the heavens opened up and Zeus hurled mighty lightning bolts down upon us. Prediction: Handsome Chef Boyfriend will look over the top of his glasses when he reads this and ask, Why couldn’t you just say “it stormed?”

Because it’s funner to say it my way, that’s why, and you should stick to making compotes and port wine reductions, and let me sauté the words.

Friday was a truly awful day to be on the road, which is what we were; it was the kind of day where the sun seems never to rise completely, where it feels dark by four, even though the time hasn’t yet changed, and a shroud of fog hides everything beyond the immediate horizon. Friday night was worse still. I might add some language about the mighty rolling thunder, and also the broken reading glasses, the “good” pair, which snapped when I yanked them out of my bag to read my phone in the dark as text messages and Facebook messages and emails poured in. But that would be a different kind of descriptive language, of the sort that exploded from my mouth when my glasses broke. (Rest assured I was not driving while intexticated. I drove the daytime leg of our six roundtrip hours in the car with my devices safely tucked away, and HCB drove the after-dark part of them, because he knows I lack confidence in my nighttime vision, especially in unknown territory, and most especially on dark and stormy nights.) Suffice it to say, no dark and stormy night could impede our plans, not on this day for which we had waited so long.

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Warden vom Traumhof

On Friday we welcomed a new torrent of joy into our family, one Warden-the-Shepherd. Officially, he is “Warden vom Traumhof, by Goliath v Traumhof and out of Emerald v Traumhof,” says so on his adoption contract. I still can’t wrap my head around the pedigreed part of this pooch, although I have read and studied it some through my new reading glasses after the Dark and Stormy reading glasses incident, but I will say he is related to this amazing blogger’s Princess Blaze and Marshal Dillon Dingle: I believe Marshal Dillon and Warden are half-brothers, if I understand all these blood lines correctly. Which I think means we are all family now, so I am sure they’ll be fine if we drop in on their fabulous new digs up in Maine for a few days.

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All our friends and family have been clamoring for pictures, which I have promised, but fell short of the mark on Friday. This was owing in part to the weather (I can’t replace my one “good” camera like I can my reading glasses), but also the general mayhem that met us when we arrived at Warden’s house, which I can only describe as a great crescendo of many, many enthusiastic German Shepherd Dogs who are busy announcing and greeting the newcomers but also reminding each other who gets to greet first and who should be put in his place while all this greeting is going on, to say nothing of the chorus of shepherd voices from the training center across the driveway and down the hill; imagine if you will. So I only grabbed a few fair-to-middlin’ iPhone photos, and some pretty dang blurry ones with the Nikon, blurry in part because of the low light and shutter speed (still learning, friends), but also because my subject would not hold still. But I love it when my “mistake” turns out interesting, like the head-shaking-teeth-showing image that seemed a perfect masthead photo for “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Here is the irony: Warden is one of the most agreeable, friendly German Shepherd Dogs I’ve encountered ever, one trait among many that drew us to him, and why his human believed he might be a perfect fit for us. In all the chaos that met us at the front door, Warden was there, too, but did not bark once—did not so much as growl—just tried to fight his way forward to inspect us, intercepted by a pretty girl named Prada and a grand dame named Charlotte. At least, I think it was Charlotte—there was a lot of tail wagging confusion and a few fierce reprimands, and Charlotte was clearly not one to suffer fools gladly. Plus, a couple of females are in season, which had Warden all excited for anybody in a skirt, including Charlotte, who is a mature gal whose time for all that is long past, and who mainly rolled her eyes in disgust at this whole spectacle.

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Warden is a special dog and I knew leaving the nurturing fold of his family, both human and doggish, would be difficult for everyone. But once on the road after our longish visit he proved an easy travel companion; we stopped for strong coffee soon after we struck out for home, at the precise moment the storm unleashed its greatest fury on us (or, in the worst part of the storm, if you prefer); the car shook with every clap of thunder, but Warden seemed unimpressed. I took this as a good omen, dark and stormy nights be damned.

I know everybody’s champing at the bit for endearing dog stories and photos, closeups and action shots. They will come in good time, although I can assure you the notorious German Shepherd head tilt is alive and well in this dog. For now, we must give him room to settle in and learn to be part of our family, and to embrace a lifestyle completely unlike the only one he has known thus far.

The sun is shining brightly this morning and there is a contented dog in twitching, snoring REM sleep at my feet, a beautiful condition for which I’ve waited too long. Soon the images will come into much sharper focus.

(And Clarence—thanks, good boy.)

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Warden-the-Shepherd at home