Wednesday, March 24, 2010

High Wired Act

If you check the post for December, you’ll see the weekend Colleen and Jay visited Fern Forest was the coldest of the winter. On their second visit in March, they had no snow to contend with, and the mud stayed out from under their wheels as they drove down from Brooklyn. We would have been thrilled to see them even if Colleen had not unearthed a bottle of Basil Hayden’s bourbon from her bag as she walked through the door that Friday night. H and I had eaten, but we broke out leftover Boboli and cheese and crackers, and we all dipped into the bourbon. It was a promising start to the weekend.

On Saturday Colleen came from the treehouse early because Jay had intended to get a head start on a day at the mountain. She thought he’d be right along, and we gave her coffee while we waited for him. We sat and talked about the Garden & Gun magazine she brought. After twenty minutes, still no Jay. I looked out the back, saw him at the door inside the treehouse, and figured he’d be in pronto. Colleen poured a second cup of coffee—still no Jay. H looked out the back and saw Jay on the treehouse deck—probably enjoying the crisp morning, H assumed. Colleen sipped her coffee and talked about her job as a television producer, about her stint at VH1 and her work on a documentary about Sunny’s Side, a waterfront oasis in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Finally Jay came in, looking a little hassled. “Colleen locked me in,” he said. There’s a latch on both the inside and outside of the door, and Colleen had fastened the outer latch to keep the door from swinging open and letting in the cold, not thinking that Jay couldn’t unlatch it from the inside. Jay is a hefty guy, and I’m glad I didn’t witness him climbing over the deck railing thirty feet up in the trees and monkeying around the corner of the treehouse to spring the latch. When we were sure he was unscathed, Colleen powdered him with kisses and apologies. He doesn’t hold a grudge and sat down to breakfast as if he hadn’t performed a high-wire act to earn his scones and blueberries.

It was noon when H and Jay hit the slopes at Sugarloaf for a half day of skiing. Colleen wanted to Nordic ski, but the fields were bare so we motored to Burlington and spent an hour at the gym. Colleen is a water rat and swam for 45 minutes (in the bikini she’d brought for the Fern Forest spa) while I worked in the weight room. Afterward, we had some successful retail therapy at my favorite shop, Second Time Around, where she won a pair of Jordache jeans that looked ‘80-ish and a pair of plaid trousers, tres Soho. I couldn’t resist a couple of Irish linen pencil skirts for summer and an adorable pair of deerskin Gentle Souls sandals with ankle strap. Cappuccinos and a shared peanut butter cookie put a happy bonnet on a fine afternoon.

When we got back to Fern Forest, the boys had returned from skiing, and we modeled our new (used, actually) treasures. Then Colleen started dinner, chicken marsala with oyster mushrooms and shallots. I concocted a salad, rice and asparagus while we sipped wine and the Guinness the boys had picked up. Usually we serve breakfast to the treehouse guests and leave them on their own for the other meals, but Colleen and Jay seemed to want to hang with us, even though we’re old enough to be their parents. But the age difference melted away with the candles hovering over our dinner, and the conversation never faltered.

Late that night, they had a soak in the spa before bedding down in the treehouse. Colleen likes to change the underwater colors, giving them names—seaworld blue, bordello red, ecto cooler lime and gay night club —and we heard them giggling all the way upstairs.

I tried to think of reasons to delay their leaving on Sunday, but Jay had to get back to his Monday morning job in production at VH1, where he schmoozes with some of the most famous musicians alive. But we’ll entice them back. I told Colleen she can work off the rent by helping me landscape around the spa. We’ll find something for Jay to do, too—maybe entertaining us with another acrobatic act.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"I Love Garbage!"

Heather and David visited Fern Forest Treehouse for two nights from Worcester, MA, where David is on spring break from medical school. Heather has been on hiatus from her work on organic farms but moves into The Kitchen Garden farmhouse in Sunderland this spring to start planting. I found one of Heather's postings on an organic gardening site that said, "I love garbage!" She's an expert on compost and those adorable and fragile little worms that help break down kitchen waste.

It’s always interesting to make a meal for people who don’t eat anything that has a face, which includes no dairy. So we fed them lots of fruit and soygurt and offered warm vegan muffins and scones from Stone Soup in Burlington. The second morning they feasted on gluten-free and dairy-free pancakes with sweet Vermont maple syrup. There were no complaints.

They had parked their car at the edge of the woods, and when they tried to back out on Saturday, the wheels on the driver’s side were stuck in mud. We’ve cautioned guests about snow and slippery roads, but we forgot how in mud season nature can nearly swallow a car. They fetched H from his wood shop (which he has named “Maybe I Will,” described in a previous post). He carried up a box of sawdust, which, with a shove, did the trick and they were on their way to the Battel Trail. They hiked a bit up Mt. Abe but encountered rain and so came back to the treehouse for a rest.

In the evening we shared hummus and carrot sticks and conversation. Heather met David when they were students at BU, and they found each other again when they each independently spent some time in Seattle. Heather’s from Memphis but lost her twang in Boston so that now her accent is sort of soft Jersey shore. Being from Virginia myself, I agreed with her that acclimating to Yankee culture is challenging. Like H, David grew up on Boston’s North Shore, and our guys have helped us with the transition.

Heather’s father, she says, has fully assimilated in Tennessee. He was sent from Cuba at eight years old to escape the revolution and has never been back. Heather says he doesn’t like to talk about life in Cuba, but she and her sister are planning a trip for their parents back to the homeland—it’s time to make peace, Heather says. David is in his second year at U Mass Worcester, currently studying psychiatry, and I hope his classmates don't think he's nuts for spending his hard earned free time in a treehouse. He’s a beanstalk of a guy who doesn’t toot his own horn. “Heather’s much more interesting,” he says.

Saturday evening they headed to Burlington for dinner at Vermont Flatbread and, instead of schmoozing at one of Burlington’s many bars, they came back to Fern Forest and hopped into the spa. The clouds had cleared out, which gave them a stunning view of the diamond-studded sky. The 105 degree water jetting onto the back relaxes the muscles, which made for a solid night’s sleep in the treehouse loft.

When they left on Tuesday, we invited them to come back again. Heather, a jovial little sprite, responded, "Maybe I will!"

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Assist

H floats down the ice, juggling the black biscuit, weaving in and out of defensemen. He shoulders his way around the last hulk for a showdown with the goalie. The goalie’s face is hidden by a white mask that makes him seem eerie and ominous, and his giant pads give him a leviathan look. H knows how to get the puck past him—draw him to the right and surprise him. When the goalie lowers his glove to the ice, H can lift the puck—go upstairs, they say—and shoot it over his shoulder. He did it many times when he played high school and college hockey. Deeking the goaling, fooling him. It’s a sweet feeling to score, to raise the stick in victory, to be the hero.

He’s been there. And he’s over it.

In his peripheral vision he sees one of his teammates on his left. He’s gotten through the defense, too, and slaps his stick on the ice. H looks through the white mask into the goalie’s eyes. He’s hunkered down, waiting for H to strike. H sets his mouth and pulls back his stick, keeping his eyes glued to the goalie’s, mesmerizing him like a snake charmer. But instead of slapping the puck toward the goalie, he slows down the stick and passes to his left. The biscuit hits his teammate’s blade square on and he stuffs the hole the goalie has left in the net.

Now it’s H’s teammate who raises his stick and does the hero’s dance. Then he gives H a gentle punch on the arm, a quick thanks. H grins. The thanks feels better than if he’d scored the goal himself.

In hockey a player earns one point for a goal or one point for an assist. At the end of the season, the Art Ross Trophy is awarded to the NHL player who leads the league in scoring points. For hockey players, points are like medals, and some players decorate their helmets with stars for each point won. But it’s the scorer’s name that the announcer yells out and the scorer’s name that’s put up on the scoreboard and the scorer’s name that the crowd cheers so loudly that when the name of the guy who gave the assist is mentioned, no one hears it.

“Did you score tonight?” I ask when H comes home after the game.

“No,” he says. “Not tonight.”

“Get an assist then?”

He nods. “Some guys need the ego boost.”

H gets his ego boost from helping the other guy, and that’s a lesson I’m trying hard to learn. As a writer, recognition is important to me, getting published, being respected for my stories and essays. But things are changing as I get older. In Aboriginal societies, one is designated an Elder after acquiring significant wisdom and experience. I suppose in my accumulated experience, I might be considered an Elder, even though I’m far from wise. What experience has taught me is that I don’t need to be the star, to stand on stage and command attention. It’s odd how this shift in perspective has reinforced my own faltering ego. When I give praise to a young writer for a solid sentence or a lilting phrase and her writing starts to shine, I feel good. And when I help teachers hone their lessons, I’m thrilled.

After living with H for two decades, I’ve started to appreciate what it means to give the assist. That’s not to say I’ve given up trying to score on my own. I still send out my stories, still puff up when a manuscript is accepted for publication. But I’m just as happy when I see my name in the acknowledgments of a book written by someone I’ve helped along the way. There’s no doubt that life is a team sport. All of us need to rely on each other to feel like winners—whether we score or not.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

No, Yale, we're not taking down the Harvard poster.

When Cindy said she'd like to replace the Harvard poster in the treehouse with a Yale poster, I'm sure she was kidding. When it comes to the treehouse, we don’t have anything against Yalies, even though, by association with H, I’m all Harvard. Anyway, Fern Forest is neutral territory. Cindy is an art conservator at the Yale University Art Gallery, tediously repairing ancient and priceless works from paintings to mosaics. Rich is a photographer for the gallery. Both are artists in their own rights, but they brought a technical aesthetic to Fern Forest.

They drove straight up from New Haven, taking our advice to go over the Appalachian Gap to get to Lincoln, dropped their bags, and rode another hour to Burlington for shopping and dinner. Rich had never been to Burlington and thought it was something he ought to do, but he seemed happy to get back to the bucolic isolation of Fern Forest. It was fairly late when H and I heard them giggling in the spa, the jets massaging their road-weary muscles. They picked the most beautiful weekend of the season to come for a visit. The black sky was studded with diamonds, a half moon low in the east when they climbed into the treehouse loft. There was no wind, and the night was cold enough for a cuddly sleep under the down comforter.

These two are early risers, hungry for breakfast at 8:00 a.m. before I’d wiped the sleep from my eyes. But H was ready with hot coffee and we whirled into action with fresh blueberries, cantaloupe, granola, warm muffins and soft boiled eggs. Snow was giving way to earth around the treehouse, but Mount Abe looked to be frosted with white, and Cindy and Rich slipped into their hiking clothes, loaded their snowshoes into Rich’s van and headed for the Battel Trail. The mountain was theirs, all the way to the top, where Rich captured Cindy whooping in victory.

They had time for a glass of wine with us before dinner at the Bobcat. Cindy talked about her work and how the motto at the Yale Gallery is “Better is the enemy of good.” I can see that’s relevant to art, where she doesn’t want to improve on the work of the artist but to restore it to a look of authenticity, considering the age of the piece. But the motto applies to literature as well. Walt Whitman ruined Leaves of Grass by revising again and again as he got older. Good writing has voice, and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is a perfect example of how Holden Caulfield wouldn’t be as interesting if he spoke “better.” It’s his idioms, his ragged misanthropy that give him such color. As a flawed person myself, I like to read about flawed characters.

When I told a minister friend about the Yale Gallery motto, she said that when God created heaven and earth, He declared that it was good. He didn’t say I could’ve done better or I hope humans will improve on my imperfect creation. Good was good enough. I’d rather have goodness than betterness. Better implies competition—better than whom? I may want to better myself, but maybe I just need to recognize that I’m good enough as I am—wouldn’t that make me better? Oh, dear—Cindy has me going around in circles.

On Sunday morning, another early rising, Rich and Cindy feasted on fresh citrus salad, apricots, granola and hot apple-cranberry-pecan bread. Afterward, Rich grabbed his tripod and started snapping photos of the mountain, the treehouse, and, with his shutter delay, his good friend Cindy and himself. You can see that they’re a handsome couple, but they also brought a sweetness to Fern Forest that we know will linger for a long while, even if they are Yalies.