Sunday, April 18, 2010

Man Love

After a gratifying win, the Utica Club hockey team posed for a picture at this weekend’s CanAm tournament in Lake Placid, the goalie front row center. The mood was celebratory, teammates slapping the goalie’s shoulders. “I’ve never felt such man love,” the goalie said, and the left wing leaned over and tried to kiss his cheek. “Awww,” the goalie said and shook his head.

I was one of a handful of wives accompanying husbands to the tournament and witnessed men over forty transforming into the boys they were when their moms ferried them to the ice rink decades past. They were silly and playful. The videographer got shots of them flexing aging biceps in the locker room, pulling in puffy stomachs and puffing out sagging chests. One guy wore fake teeth that made him look as if he’d taken a few pucks to the mouth. “Hockey is a dangerous sport,” he said, “and you need protection.” He held up two packets of condoms.

Twenty-two teams played 27 games of hockey in three days using all three rinks at the Lake Placid Olympic Center. After every game, each player was given two tickets for free pints of watery domestic beer at the rink’s bar. After Friday night’s games, most players drank up their tickets and then loaded into the hotel night club for more refreshment. Our hotel room was across from the night club, and the revelry kept us awake until after 3:00 a.m.

“Guys without wives,” I said to H, who had come to bed at a reasonable hour, all things considered. The next morning I asked for a room at the far end of the hall.

“You won’t be with your team,” the desk clerk said.

“That’s okay,” I replied.

After H’s morning game on Saturday, we went out to catch lunch and saw some of the revelers buying souvenirs at the shops on Main Street. Conciliatory gifts for bad behavior, I suspected. But it was all in fun, and I didn’t mind losing a little sleep to see “man love” in action. After all, I grew up with three brothers and raised two sons. I know how important camaraderie is.

The previous weekend, Fern Forest Treehouse hosted two Harvard undergrads, one of whom was delighted to have his sister’s car for a couple days. Peter is majoring in the politics of community and had just organized a “Best of Harvard” event where selected faculty talked about what drove their passion for their discipline. Collin is a religion major, a small but fervent department at Harvard.

They arrived on Monday afternoon, skipping out on a few classes. We gave them a glass of cider, and they gawked at Mt. Abe, a clear view from our living room. Mt. Abe is just over four thousand feet in elevation, but, coming from Northern Virginia and Atlanta, neither of them had seen a mountain that close up. They were determined to give it a go and set out for a hike in sneakers and shorts. On the way up the Battel Trail, they encountered snow, ice and cold and decided to give up and grab a bite to eat at Snap’s in Bristol. When they came back to Fern Forest, we gave them sweet tea and cookies before they bedded down in the treehouse’s two bunks. Neither of them drinks alcohol. “We’re good guys,” Collin told me when he booked the treehouse. They were.

Collin runs the Hahvahd Tour, an unauthorized tour of Harvard that has received a lot of press since it began in 2006. He delivers awful puns to his patrons, like the one about an elevator built in the dorm of John F. Kennedy. “You can become a great American President and still get the ‘shaft’ at Harvard!” he tells them. When he informs the curious about how Widener Library was named for Harry Widener, a rare book collector who went down with the Titanic, he adds, “Did you let that one ‘sink in’?” It was no joke, however, when he learned that H’s great grandparents were also on the Titanic. His great grandfather went down with the ship, and his great grandmother found herself in a lifeboat with young Harry’s mother Mrs. Widener and Lady Astor. When a cabin boy floundered near their lifeboat, H’s ancestor grabbed him by the collar and hauled him aboard—it was strictly forbidden to rescue anyone in the water—and she hid him under her fur coat, saving his life. I wondered if that story would become part of the unauthorized tour.

Collin, the Atlanta boy, applied to Harvard on a lark and was surprised to be accepted. But he has learned to appreciate all things Crimson, and, representing the eighth consecutive generation of Harvard men in his family, H saw an opportunity to educate the two young men. First he showed them his old leather hockey helmet, which helped him score his team to victory in the ’71 ECAC Championship. Next came his grandfather’s 1946 Crimson yearbook. I brought out the ’70 yearbook with the centerfold of naked students swimming in the Adams House pool. “They’ve filled that in,” Collin said. “It’s an amphitheater now.” I can see why. They seemed impressed by the silver martini shakers and pitcher that had been awarded to H’s grandfather for service to the Fly Club and the reunion committee. I’m not sure they noticed the red letter jacket with “HARVARD” emblazoned in white across the back. It belonged to H’s father and hangs as a sort of monument in our mud room.

The night before, I peeked out the window and saw lights were still on in the treehouse at midnight and the boys were studying. When they came to the breakfast table at 7:30 a.m. so they could get an early start to be at Tuesday’s classes, I asked, “How much sleep do y
ou usually get?” Peter said he needs a lot of sleep, but Collin has three priorities. The first is to his friends—surviving Harvard is no easy task, and he often stays up until midnight counseling the stressed and overwhelmed. I imagine he might go into the ministry some day. His second priority is to his studies, which often keeps him up until the wee hours. With whatever time is left, he sleeps.

H’s hockey team won the gold medal in the tournament this weekend. He had an assist on the first goal and scored the second unassisted. Somewhere along the line he acquired a bad cut on the lip, but he was so focused on the game he doesn’t remember getting it. It was about playing his best, supporting the team. I suspect it was also about man love and camaraderie. He’s been out of Harvard for almost four decades, but, like Peter and Collin, H has his priorities. And I’m not a bit jealous.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

I believe I've got a case of "saudade."

I’ve never thought of our treehouse as a subversive retreat, but when Erica and Michael stopped at U.S. Customs on their way from Montreal and the officer asked, “Where are you staying in the U.S.?” Erica responded, “In a treehouse in Vermont.”

“Pull over,” the officer said.

Fortunately, Erica had a printout of the Airbed and Breakfast site that lists Fern Forest Treehouse, and after studying the sheet, the officer waved them through.

This Canadian couple was looking for anything but excitement. They simply wanted a quiet place to relax, and that’s what we provided. When they arrived in the afternoon, we offered to make them reservations for dinner in Bristol, but they’d brought snacks and planned to hang out. Fine with us. H and I went for a late dinner at the Bobcat to give them some solitude, and when we returned they were snug in the treehouse.

It was 11:00 a.m. when they rose for breakfast on Saturday. While they grazed over scones and granola, we got to know them a bit. Michael is a disarmingly handsome Frenchman, slender with a new growth of dark beard, required for a role in a film set in ancient Greece and being shot in Montreal. “I play a chicken merchant,” he said. It’s a bit part, but he’s getting paid and pampered. The makeup artists try out products on him and massage his shoulders while he’s waiting for his scene. When he’s not acting, he’s studying for his doctorate in international law at McGill, writing his dissertation in French. His charming French accent disguises the fact that his mother was from Indianapolis, where he occasionally visits relatives. He holds dual citizenship, which comes in handy when he’s stopped at U.S. Customs.

Erica busies herself running a gallery space and hosting Airbnb guests in their extra bedroom in Montreal. They met at a party and married two years ago when Erica was just twenty. She’s a beautiful woman who presents herself with elegant grace except for moments when she erupts in joyful laughter.

Mostly Erica and Michael speak French to each other. Once Michael was describing someone—perhaps himself—and searched for the word in English. He looked at Erica and said something in French. “Hardheaded,” she said. “Yes, hardheaded,” he agreed. We didn’t find him at all hardheaded. In fact, we discovered that he is born under the sign of Cancer in the Year of the Dog, which makes him tender and loving, a good match for Erica, who exudes confidence.

She was born in Portugal, however, and no one understands romance better than the Portuguese. She taught me the word saudade, for which there is no suitable English translation. The closest she could come to its meaning is tormented longing. Nowhere on earth is yearning taken to such a high art as in Portugal.

On Saturday the couple took a stroll on the Natural Turnpike, a dirt road that meanders through national forest to Ripton. When they returned, they took over the kitchen, chopping almonds and tomatoes and boiling pasta. When dinner was ready, they invited us to join them, and we seasoned the meal with a couple bottles of red wine. Well fed, they hung out with us in the evening, the tension of the city melting away.

Erica has never learned to drive, and on Sunday Michael gave her a lesson on Lincoln’s back roads. It was a lovely Vermont spring day, and they lingered until afternoon, kicking around a soccer ball and reluctant to head back to work and traffic and city noise. As for us, we were saudade to have them stay just a little longer.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Sweet Bees and K-Mart

Even though they came from just up the road in Burlington, it took us a while to get to know Hannah and Brad when they visited Fern Forest for a night in the treehouse. Brad is the most understated fellow I’ve ever met. He’s compact and fit, an athlete who took up ice hockey this year, even though he’d never played before. But he plays roller hockey and soccer and football, and they keep him in shape. He’s cautious until he gets to know you, not giving away anything about himself. H is like that, too. Maybe it comes from being a competitor—don’t give the opponent any advantage; keep him guessing.

“What kind of work do you do?” I asked.

“Retail,” he said. I could’ve let it go at that, but I’m a writer, and I’m always looking for a story.

“What store?” I said.

He hesitated before answering, “K-Mart.”

“Oh,” I said, “Martha Stewart!”

“Her contract ran out,” he said. “She’s with Macy’s now.”

“Too bad,” I said. My financial adviser just sold my Macy’s stock because it’s heading downhill. K-Mart is holding its own. I like K-Mart. I’ve bought garden supplies there and once I snagged a sweet pair of 14-karat earrings for a song. I avoid Wal-Mart, but I’ll shop at K-Mart. Maybe it’s a nostalgia thing. When my son was little and we were struggling to meet ends, I always managed to find something I could afford in the kids department at K-Mart. Vermont was the last state in the union to allow a Wal-Mart store. Governor Dean finally agreed to let Wal-Mart open in a flagging downtown, and in the mid-nineties they established themselves in a vacant store in Bennington—which some say isn’t really Vermont at all but a suburb of Massachusetts. When republican Jim Douglas succeeded Dean as governor, Wal-Marts started springing up all over the state. I like republicans about as much as I like Wal-Mart. But I’ll shop at K-Mart. Yes, I will.

Hannah bubbles with cherubic cheer. Originally from Connecticut, she came to Vermont to attend UVM and landed a job as a manager at K-Mart, where she met Brad. I thought of the Nanci Griffith song, “Love at the Five and Dime” and imagined these two hovering around the bulk candy bins or dancing in the aisles after closing time.

It wasn’t until the next morning that Brad let us see just a sliver of his inner light. He played soccer in junior high, but his father never came to watch his games. His dad was a football guy, he reasoned, so when he got to high school, he went out for the freshman team and made it. He played his heart out, checking the stands between plays for his dad, but he wasn’t there. He never came to a single one of Brad’s games. His mom, who works for the University of Vermont, suggested Brad give up sports and concentrate on his grades. He did, and he got into UVM and majored in business. Now he’s in charge of marketing for K-Mart, and he’s doing a darn good job. I just hope his dad shops there from time to time.

Hannah now works for Chittenden Bank in the loan department. Her biggest aspiration is to acquire a hive of bees and keep them in the back yard. If you ask me, this couple is sweet enough without the honey. But, like Brad, Hannah knows how to go for her dreams, and she’ll have those bees—I don’t doubt it. She’ll need the head gear and the smoker and the other accouterments of the bee hobby, and maybe she’ll be able to find them at K-Mart. I wouldn’t be at all surprised.