Friday, June 25, 2010

La Vie en Rose

I’m a sucker for stories about yearning. Desire, to me, is the most powerful emotion. Yearning activates my primitive mind so that in a fit of longing I find myself prowling city streets not sure what I’m looking for but relishing the search for whatever it is that calls to me.

Some of the best stories in literature are about yearning. In the movie Sabrina, the daughter of a chauffeur for a wealthy family falls in love with the family’s son, playboy David. She can’t have him, of course, because he’s of a higher class, and so older brother Linus steps in to break up the affair by sending Sabrina to Paris, where she learns culinary skills. When she returns, a sophisticated woman of the world, Linus himself falls in love with Sabrina. It doesn’t hurt, of course, to have an all-star cast of Audrey Hepburn falling for William Holden to be swept off her feet ultimately by Humphrey Bogart.

What is it about the mixing of classes that twists my heart? In Remains of the Day, by Japanese-English author Kazuo Ishiguro, housekeeper Miss Keaton yearns painfully for butler Mr. Stevens, servants of the wealthy residents of Darlington Hall. In the film version, Emma Thompson plays Miss Keaton and Anthony Hopkins is the uber reserved Mr. Stevens. This is a WWII story, and adding an element of war makes longing even more delicious. The most Miss Keaton ever gets from Mr. Stevens is a tip of the hat, but it’s enough to let me know that he suffers from a similar romantic ache tightly harnessed by restraint.

And then there’s the Daphne du Maurier novel Frenchman’s Creek, set during the Reign of English King Charles II. When Lady St. Columb visits Navron, her husband’s country house in Cornwall, and finds it occupied by pirate Jean-Benoit Aubery, how can she keep from falling in love with him? The novel was written in 1942, however, and, as much as she yearns for the thrill of buccaneer adventure, Lady St. Columb forces herself to stick with her doltish husband (who happens to be very rich and well established).

I’m not sure why Fern Forest treehouse guests Elisa and her French husband Vivien made me think of these literary tales. Could be that Vivien was raised on a dairy farm in southwest France, the property enhanced by old stone buildings and contented cows. He became a farmer himself and migrated to Minnesota to work as an agrarian hired hand. Eventually he segued to construction work and now lives in Boston, where he renovates historic buildings. His wife Elisa is a personal assistant to a wealthy family in Boston (they own five homes, each with its own personal assistant), and chauffeurs the teenage daughter around as well as caretaking the house. She also cooks (like Sabrina?) five nights a week for a another couple, a pair of doctors, sets the table and leaves (“going home to my husband”) just before the family sits down to the delicious meal she has prepared.

Miss Keaton and Mr. Stevens? I don’t think so. Sabrina and Linus? Not quite. Lady St. Columb and the pirate? Not at all. There’s nothing subservient about Vivien (a name which means “alive, animated, lively”). And I don’t think he’s a pirate—he has an honest look about him and prefers to travel by bicycle rather than pirate ship. Elisa is an artist—painting is her medium—and she doesn’t need to yearn because Vivien seems completely committed to her.

In May 1913 the New York Times ran an article about a visit to the U.S. of Frenchman Monsieur Andre de Fouquieres, who wrote, “I found that American women are not simply creatures of luxury and elegance. They have also a soul, fresh, ardent, restless, in which new instincts are awakening.”

Such a woman books a night in a Vermont treehouse and spends the day before she arrives hiking a mountain with her French husband in a hard rain, loving every minute of it.

According to Vivien, De Fouquieres had it wrong when he said, “A woman of New York or of Boston would not understand our sentimentalisms. That delicious spirit of which our poets have dreamed, that adorable vision ‘which is never quite the same yet never quite different,’ is not found in the American woman. And we are egotistical enough to wish that she were more like those inspirers of genius, so that we could understand her better, love her better, hold her closer to our troubled hearts, find her more stirred, more melancholy, less positive and more touched with sadness.”

That was 18th Century thinking, Vivien said. He is not lost in “sentimentalisms” but, in fact, is a man of action. After a good night’s sleep in the treehouse, he came to the breakfast table with half a loaf of solid whole grain bread, a jar of natural peanut butter, and a huge can of quick oats. “I mix the oats with your granola,” he said, his accent rich with French pronunciation. Then he added, “I like carbs.” He also ate the rhubarb bread I’d made, a couple of croissants, the fruit salad, the yogurt and the soft boiled egg. “He doesn’t get hungry again until two p.m.,” Elisa said.

After breakfast, their bicycles fixed to the back of their car, these two fresh and ardent souls headed off for Montreal to celebrate their second anniversary by cycling around the city. There’s none of the old French melancholy in either of these two adventurers. As Sabrina says, they “have learnt how to live... how to be In the world and Of the world, and not just to stand aside and watch.” Sabrina also advises living “la vie en rose,” and I’m sure Vivien and Elisa are living lives that are about as rosy as it gets.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sex and the Treehouse

When Hana asked to book Fern Forest Treehouse for herself and three friends, H said there wasn’t room, the treehouse is only ninety square feet, he didn’t know how they’d sleep. “Oh, we’ll bring sleeping bags,” she wrote. “Don’t worry—we’ll fit in.” H is a pushover, especially for such youthful enthusiasm. And he thought it sounded like a good time.

When the four gals pulled in from Boston around eleven Friday night, H was waiting up for them, the path to the treehouse lit by solar lamps, the treehouse itself all aglitter with colored lights. From upstairs, I heard excited giggles as he showed them around, more giggles as they climbed into the spa under a sky studded with a million stars. As happens in water at 102 degrees, the giggles calmed to whispers, and eventually all was quiet.

The sun rose clear Saturday morning, warming the treehouse so that the girls were up a little after 7:00 a.m. We were still in bed when I heard water running in the downstairs bathroom, and H and I rolled out to get breakfast ready. When I came downstairs, there they were—Hana, Adrienne, Elizabeth, and Dara. Hana is petite and exotic with South American roots, her black hair curling onto her shoulders.

“You’re Carrie,” I said.

“I am?” she said.

“Yes—you made the reservation.”

Adrienne is tall with legs like a gazelle.

“You’re Miranda,” I said.

“She's the quirky one, right?” Adrienne knew where I was going.

“She’s the lawyer, the logical one.”

"But she's quirky," she insisted.

Sure, Miranda could be quirky.

Elizabeth has long hair and a serious look about her.

“You must be…Samantha,” I said.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

She’d never seen Sex and the City.

“Samantha’s the sexpot,” I said.

“I’m engaged,” she said, setting the record straight.

Dark haired Dara hid behind little glasses.

“That makes you Charlotte,” I said, shaking her hand.

“You ARE Charlotte,” Adrienne said.

“What’s she like?” Dara asked.

“Innocent. Well bred,” I offered. She liked that.

But these were no “Sex and the Treehouse” gals. More like “Science and the Treehouse.” Three of them were classmates at MIT. Hana works as a business management consultant. Adrienne majored in computer robotics and does software development for a dot com startup. Elizabeth is working on her PhD in biochemistry but is about to switch her focus to fluid dynamics, investigating how liquids move, especially oil spills. “I’m a perpetual student,” she said.

The three were on the MIT varsity cross country running team together and ran sixty miles a week, each. “I’m down to about fifteen miles a week now,” Elizabeth said. Hana calls her Finn, her last name, because there were three other Elizabeths in their MIT dorm. Finn fits her. No nonsense. To the point.

H went to Harvard but is impressed with students who come out of MIT and posed with them in his MIT tee shirt. Dara is a Penn grad. Maybe it's not in Cambridge, but Penn is nothing at which to sneeze, especially majoring in biology and Spanish, as Dara did. She and Finn have been friends since third grade, and she spent a summer in Finn’s dorm room at MIT when Finn took an extra class. Dara works for an education consulting nonprofit in Boston, but she’d like to do something with her science background. I have a feeling there’s grad school in her future.

There was talk of innovations in robotic prostheses, of Boston’s International Health Organization, of oil floating in the Gulf, and of running and hiking. I went into the house to get the coffee pot, and when I returned, I heard them gossiping about guys, especially one named Liam.

Okay, so these young women are going to shake up the world. But first there was breakfast to be eaten. And then there was Mt. Abe to be conquered. Later—maybe much later—there will be Liam. And eventually maybe Hana will write a book about it all.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Consciousness is epiphenomenal..not!

Last weekend Kat and Barb drove up from Northampton, MA, for three rainy days in the treehouse. Kat works as a physical therapist at a nursing home there, and Barb is a researcher, studying the federal budget. A former tenure track prof with a PhD in cognitive neuropathy (specializing in memory), Barb contracted an illness that, ironically, attacked a part of her brain that stores memory. She’s not an amnesiac, however, and knew where she was all weekend—you can’t get lost in Lincoln with Mt. Abe hovering over you from every angle. But she wasn’t able to continue her teaching duties.

Fortunately, Barb seems to have a very large brain, judging from our conversations about consciousness and the rate of federal spending on useless trinkets, some of which she told us, but much of which I can’t remember. The only thing that has attacked my brain, it seems, is old age.

So, what does one do on a rainy Saturday in Addison County? Smart girls go to the Otter Creek Brewing Company for a free tour and free samples of the local brew. Smart girls also buy a case of their favorite brew and stash it in the trunk of their car for the trip back to Northampton. Then smart girls return to the treehouse for an afternoon nap.

H had cut down a couple trees and piled pieces of the thickest part of the trunks by the wood shed. In the afternoon he rented a splitter with a wedge on a hydraulic piston powered by a gasoline motor. The thing is loud, especially when one of the big logs emits an ear-splitting crack as it breaks open. We split and stacked wood for about three hours, and smart girls slept through most of it.

They came in from the treehouse just as H returned from Bristol with a Rockydale chicken and pineapple pizza. With no plans for supper, they agreed to share our large pie and some sparkling conversation. Here are the top ten highlights (from what tidbits managed not to escape my synapses):

  1. According to Barb consciousness is epiphenomenal.
  2. I looked up epiphenomenal consciousness and (from what I vaguely understand) am not a fan of epiphenomenalism.
  3. I am a fan of ‘pataphysics, however. Barb had not heard of ‘pataphysics and was amused by my faltering explanation. ‘Pataphysics may in fact dovetail ever so sightly with epiphenomenalism—or maybe I’m just imagining it.
  4. Science is just a way of measuring and categorizing what we think we know, even though what we think we know may not at all be accurate. (Sounds like ‘papaphysics to me.)
  5. If you made a million dollars a year, it would take more than a million years to equal the cost of the war in the Middle East since 2001.
  6. Barb is reading a book in which everyone always tells the truth, a concept that amuses her. I think it’s scary as hell.
  7. Zombies don’t hear their thoughts (I read that while trying to find an explanation of epiphenomenal consciousness).
  8. Kat can lift a 200-lb man (and often does).
  9. Because of Medicare corruption and cutbacks, nursing homes are understaffed with physical therapists, and Kat does the work of three (and is about the size of three-quarters of one).
  10. Barb’s brother owns a fuel oil company but heats his house with wood.
  11. (Sorry..can't count) Kat knits about as well as I do—which is to say, don’t look too closely at my scarf. But Barb doesn’t care as long as the scarf keeps her warm.

H remembers more than I do about our conversations, but he’s not writing this blog entry. Funny thing about memory, though—we each remember an experience a different way. I remember the noise of the wood splitter; H remembers the World Cup opening concert. Kat remembers soothing soaks in the hot tub spa. And Barb—well, let’s hope when she sips that Otter Creek brew, some pleasant memory of the weekend will come back to her. In any event, H and I hope these two smart girls will come back to Fern Forest for another round of conversation.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Opera comes to Fern Forest

When my short story collection, Full Bloom, came out in April with Brown Fedora Books, editor Jim DeFilippi said he liked the story “Crimson Flower” the best. So that’s the story I chose to read at the Spalding University MFA residency in Louisville last month. There’s a scene in the story when an ex-priest goes into a New Orleans bar (no, this is not a joke), and some old songs from the Vietnam era are playing on the jukebox, a Neil Young classic and “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells. I was to be the fourth reader, following two playwrights, and I figured if I sang the lines from the songs instead of just reading them, I’d stand a chance of holding the audience.

Problem is, I have a wretched singing voice. One of my brothers sang baritone with the Arizona Repertory Company—classical stuff—and was in big demand for musicals. Another brother was a member of an elite madrigal group when he was younger, and the third brother was lead singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band.

Here’s how badly I sing. One morning in an expansive mood I was belting out a happy tune in the kitchen. I know I didn’t sound good because my voice cracked every time I reached for high C (the note, not the juice). At one point I stopped and complained, “I wish I could sing.” H responded, “I wish you could, too.”

With that veiled criticism, you can imagine my concern about singing in front of two hundred people. I found YouTube videos of the Shondells singing “Crimson and Clover” and covers by Joan Jett and Nicole Mauricio. I sang with Tommy and with Joan and Nicole. I tried to find the chords on the guitar. I even searched the house for an old pitch pipe I remembered having years ago when I thought I had a molecule of musical talent.

And then, in Louisville, I let her rip. Lots of people told me they liked the story because they’d been to New Orleans. One guy corrected me on my pronunciation of Chartres Street. Thankfully, no one mentioned my singing.

Last fall Chris stayed at the treehouse with his girlfriend Elisa, a fledgling opera singer. Of course I wanted to hear her sing, but I didn’t want to put her on the spot. I understand that circumstances have to be right for a singer to dig deeply into her core to pull out a big vibrato.

Chris is pure heart. He met Elisa in Ohio, where she sang with Opera Cleveland, and she convinced him to move to New York, the best place to get the big break in opera. Chris agreed and landed a job doing online promo for the Jewish Community Center, while Elisa crammed herself into a Manhattan apartment with several other young women aspiring to make it in New York. She worked as a receptionist, spending every spare nickel on voice lessons.

In April she was invited to perform with Musica Sacra at Carnegie Hall. I can scarcely imagine that thrill. Then Middlebury Opera Company came calling, and Elisa was back in Fern Forest territory for a few weeks.

While I was stumbling through my own snippets of song in Louisville, Chris emailed H and asked to stay in the treehouse again. Elisa would be put up with the other cast members of The Pearl Fishers. H called me to say he’d gotten tickets to see Elisa in the opera. I was thrilled—if I can’t sing, at least I can appreciate a pitch perfect voice.

Les PĂȘcheurs de Perles, Bizet’s first opera, written when he was just 25, is in French, set in Ceylon. It’s a story of a romantic triangle in which a beautiful priestess drives apart two friends. The loser, unfortunately, is king of the island and condemns the couple to death but, unlike the tragic death of young lovers in many operas, King Zurga relents and allows Nadir and Leila to escape and then throws himself onto the flaming pyre he had set to execute Leila.

I hesitate to imagine what Bizet was thinking when he wrote the opera, but I suspect it had something to do with his feeling for his father. Nevertheless, the singing was sublime. In a solo, Nadir hit a high note that seemed humanly impossible and which a reviewer called a “cathartic reprise,” and Leila’s voice rivaled the hermit thrush songs that peal from the depths of Fern Forest. Elisa was in the chorus, raising and lowering gorgeous cloth sails of delicious colors with the five other chorus members and delivering a finale to the second act that a reviewer called “magnificent and spine tingling.”

I love it when a performance has me by the heart and I sit up straighter, tense and thrilled by every note. I loved it even more when the next day I heard two cars pull up the driveway—Elisa, Chris, and the other three sopranos from the chorus. Elisa wanted to show them the treehouse, and my camera captured them perching like delicate birds in the maples.

When I was in high school, I tried out for a part in a musical and actually made call-backs before I was eliminated. I sang “I’m as corny as Kansas as August.” My voice was corny, too, but it was loud enough to give the director momentary pause that maybe I was something he could work with. But then he changed his mind—too much work to be done on me. Just as well.

After the Middlebury performance, H and I went down to the stage to greet Elisa when she came out, still in costume. She seemed happy to see friends. Her parents were there, too, having flown in from southern California for the show. Afterward, H and I walked arm-in-arm back to the car, and I felt I’d just had one of those magic evenings that you tuck away to pull out when you need a sweet memory.

Much later that night we heard Chris come in. He wasn’t alone. Elisa had escaped the chorus to join him at Fern Forest for a little magic of her own.

p.s. Just found out that Chris asked Elisa to marry him...and she said YES (of course)!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Of technology..and mice

I admit it—I’m a technology slut, as much as I can afford to be. I live at the end of a long gravel driveway that winds uphill from a dirt road in a small town surrounded by national forest. But I’ve got DSL and cell phone recep and satellite HDTV and a Bose radio-CD player and a desktop, a laptop and a netbook. I Skype and facebook and tweet, all in the shadow of the majestic Mount Abraham. But until Chris brought his sweetheart Megan to Fern Forest, I didn’t know what I was missing.

Chris works for a gaming startup that designs scavenger hunts for iPhone and iPad. Cool idea for museum crawls, corporate employee bonding, city tours, education, and individual fun. After he graduated from Andover Academy, he did his undergrad work at St. Andrews College in Scotland studying international relations and drama. He’d like to be an actor but the scavenger gig pays real money, so he’s biding his time until he gets his Hollywood break. Megan recently returned from a year of teaching English at an elementary school just north of Paris, where she honed her French language skills. She’s a poet and is settling down back in the States to look for work.

I was in Louisville teaching at Spalding University’s MFA in Writing residency when they arrived, and H took care of them for the first few days of their stay. He Skyped me while I was working and said, “Chris has an iPad.”

“He does? Can he show me?”

“He’s sleeping,” H said. “He’ll show you when you get home.”

I could barely focus on leading my workshop at the thought of getting my hands on the new techno toy. I’ve heard they’re a joy for surfing the net but even better than the e-readers for book downloads. The potential for children’s books—I’ve published a few myself—is huge. A word can be hyperlinked to its meaning or to a website. Imagine a book like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example, with scenes hyperlinked to songs and dancing oompah-loompahs.

The MFA residency ended, and I caught the first flight out of Louisville. When I arrived at Fern Forest, Megan had left for a ten-mile run. I should have warned her about the Lincoln terrain. A runner either goes uphill and cruises downhill, crunching the knees on the way back, or vice versa. Running on flat road requires a five-mile drive to Bristol. But Megan followed the path of least resistance and headed down along the New Haven River to Route 116, took a right and fell into a rhythm along the level highway. By the time it occurred to her to turn around, she’d already gone six miles and realized she’d forgotten to put on sunscreen. I greeted her when she came into the house, pink and dripping with sweat, having clocked a dozen miles of up and down jogging. I could see that her technology was in the pricey running shoes on her feet. Nothing wrong with that.

I’d gotten up at 4:00 a.m. that morning to catch my flight from Louisville and went upstairs for a rest while Megan showered. Chris had been reading in the treehouse, and I hadn’t met him yet. In a little while, I heard him come in and speak with H.

“There’s a mouse in the treehouse,” he said.

“Uh-huh,” H replied.

“I caught a movement and saw him come in through the ceiling and skitter down the tree that goes through the middle of the treehouse. He was pretty big. Or maybe he was stretching himself out. I couldn’t tell. He disappeared through the floor.”

“You’re in the woods,” H said. “There are mice.”

“No big deal,” Chris said. “I just thought you’d like to know.”

“Thanks,” H said.

H knows about mice. They live in the motor of his truck where it’s warm. He just spent a grand getting the fuse box replaced because the rodents find it amusing to urinate on the fuses and short them out so that his check engine light is always on. He’s using fabric softener sheets in the engine now, hoping that the smell will keep them away, but riding in his car is like having my head in a clothes dryer. I prefer to dry my clothes outside on the line. The mice got into his VW bug, too, but it’s an old car and rather than spending the money for the repair, he put a square of black electrical tape over the check engine light so it doesn’t distract him while he’s driving.

I discovered that mice were nesting in my old Outback when one winter I started the car, turned the heater fan on high and pieces of paper and straw shot out like confetti. I chased the mice away, but the heater fan clicked and clacked the rest of the winter. A neighbor had a nest in her Impreza, and the fan sliced up a couple mice. The mutilated corpses stank up her car for months. I now trade in my car every few years—I don’t think mice like the new car smell.

I hoped Chris’s old Volvo had not been parked by the house long enough to entice the little pests. Anyway, his air conditioner is broken and so he and Megan ride with the windows down—no worries about the fan blowing in mouse nests or gory mouse parts.

While I was napping, Chris and Megan left for dinner in Burlington. H and I were in bed when they returned, and I didn’t get to meet Chris until the next morning. They’d been up late, and I’d risen early to make buttermilk pancakes and sautĂ©ed apples, which I kept warm in the oven. They didn’t come in from the treehouse until nearly lunch time, and by then the apples were dried out and the pancakes were like hardtack.

“A little maple syrup will soften them up,” I told them, and I tried to ignore Megan attempting to saw off a chunk of pancake with a knife. But they were good natured and grateful for a few days in the countryside away from Boston. I discovered that Megan had gone to the public high school in Andover her freshman year, found it unchallenging, and enrolled as a day student at the prestigious and private Andover Academy. Chris was a boarding student escaping arguments with his parents. She’s a feather of a girl with pretty pouty lips and big eyes. He’s substantial and worried that he wouldn’t fit in the queen-size sleeping loft. He did fit, but just barely, with an inch to spare between head and foot walls.

After breakfast Chris gave me a demo on the iPad. He has several books on his shelf, which looks like a real bookshelf, and the pages turn as if I’m actually turning pages. I was worried about not being able to write in the margins, but he showed me how I can highlight sections and make notations about them. Magazines are downloaded for a buck, and some articles have videos that can be activated to illustrate the stories. Some of the photographs are interactive, like the model for a futuristic movie costume I can rotate for a 3-D effect. The keyboard appears on the screen when necessary, as when I click in the search box, and the keypad works more efficiently than the one I’m using now on my netbook and is absolutely silent—unless I choose to turn on a key clicking sound. I especially liked the way the image followed me however I turned the machine and how I could zoom in or out on a picture.

To avoid sounding like an iPad commercial, suffice it to say that I was in love. In a matter of minutes I was navigating the iPad like a pro, showing Chris my personal website and some of its pages. He was patient with me, but I could tell he was itching to have me hand over his baby.

When they left to head back to Boston, Megan gifted us half a bottle of Sauterne, half a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, and her running shoes, exactly my size. She called H later and asked him to send the shoes. Too bad—I’d like to have slipped them on to see if they’d carry me a dozen miles. I checked the treehouse, the guest room, the dining room, hoping Chris had forgotten the iPad, but no such luck. But there’s one out there somewhere no doubt with my name on it.