Thursday, August 25, 2011

Late Summer Patchwork

This is a sort of patchwork blog entry of tidbits stitched together with late summer thread.

I’ve wanted to tweet about how much I admire Paris Hilton, but I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I’m shallow and starry eyed. Actually, I don’t for a minute believe that Paris is vacuous. In fact, she’s a brilliant marketer. How many of us grew up with Barbie dolls? I sold my gown-bedecked Barbie and tuxedoed Ken for good money a few years ago. Paris appeared on Saturday Night Live as Barbie—and she was hilarious at faking dumbness. Nobody is that dumb.

I follow her on twitter—and she posts a lot. Every night (well, the sun is actually peeping over the horizon) she sends a kiss to her tweet followers. She travels around the world marketing her products—which include herself—and hits nightspots in exotic places and posts photos on Twitpic. I long to be there next to her, tossing my arms on the dance floor to the thump of the disco bass and the flashes of the strobe.

There’s no denying it—Paris markets hotness. Just look at the August 1 New Yorker, page 45, the cartoon triptych called “Hotness.” First section: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one marked ‘hot.’” Second section: “I think that I shall never see A poem as hot as a tree.” Third section: “The fog comes on little cat feet. That’s so hot.”

If that’s not Paris, I don’t know what is. Dumb? I think not. A marketing product? Sure. Hot? You bet.

I keep thinking that if I continue to read Paris’s tweets, maybe I’ll figure out how to market my books. Or at least how to acquire a modicum of hotness.

But I wanted to tell you about some of Fern Forest Treehouse guests. Too many since the last entry to dig into in depth, but here are some highlights.

For three nights there was an Egyptian and his Japanese artist wife who live in Brooklyn. He came into the main house at six a.m. for coffee and conversation and one morning made us Egyptian eggs, which he deep fried in olive oil. They were quite yum sprinkled with kosher salt. She appeared at elevenish and ate some melon. One night the five o’clock cocktail hour lasted until ten-thirty. The Egyptian is a bit of a philosopher, and the conversation left my head spinning—or maybe that was H’s rum punch.

There was the flutist and his wife from Boston. I thought maybe he was a flautist and when I looked it up, I found that flaut is Italian for flute. People who play the flute generally like the Italian version of the word, but flutist is the English version. Whatever he’s called, our guest plays flute professionally and serenaded Fern Forest birds sweetly from the deck of the treehouse.

“Your birds sing in the key of D minor,” he said. Well, I’d always wondered. These lovebirds were celebrating their 29th wedding anniversary, having met when she heard him play in a band. His flute generates love.

Another couple came to Fern Forest in the spirit of adventure. H and I really do have to install a zipline from the treehouse to the tractor shed for intrepid souls. But, then, we’d have to increase our homeowners insurance. Margie, the wife, has trekked through Iceland, jumped out of airplanes, ridden in a hot air balloon and piloted a small plane. Sleeping forty feet up in a maple tree was nothing. Frank keeps his feet on the ground—and keeps Margie grounded.

Just yesterday we said goodbye to a psychotherapist and his school principal wife. Actually, Barbara is retired from being a school administrator and now does educational consulting with principals. Lee advises people how to be self-actualized. For three days I kept worrying that I’m not self-actualized and he’d be able to see right through my thin veil of pretense at normalcy. If he did, he was nice about it and didn’t offer to give me a session. I don’t know about H.

Now we’re deciding about whether or not to head to Maine for a few days. Hurricane Irene is on her way and looks to have both Vermont and Maine in her sights. H dropped $200 on a pair of Red Sox tickets that will surely be rained out on Sunday. So we’re hanging tough to see what the next few hours bring. Stay tuned. And thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn" (~Beastie Boys)

‘Tis summer and work in the gardens has taken me away from the computer. Fern Forest Treehouse has not taken a break, however. New Yorkers love to get out of the city during the sweltering season, and Vermont is a favorite destination.

In the past week we've had back-to-back Brooklynites. Josh is from L.A. and Laura’s from Florida, but they drove up from New York in a rental car with Texas license plates. Josh works on the television show “Law and Order,” and Laura fundraises for the Tribecca Film Festival. She’s also a musician and has played clarinet in orchestras. They’re quiet folks. And they like to sleep.

Both work until 7:00 or 8:00 at night, then they go to the gym and finally have dinner at 10:00 or 11:00. They’re lucky to get to bed by 1:00 a.m. and use weekends to catch up on sleep. When we got them the latest reservation at the Bobcat, they were a little appalled at having to eat as early as 8:30 p.m. H and I eat at 6:00, dishes washed by 6:45, and by 8:00, he’s nodding in front of the Red Sox game and I’m tapping away on the computer. By 9:00 p.m., we’re done in.

But, then, one acclimates to one’s surroundings. After a night in the treehouse, Laura wandered into the kitchen by herself. Josh was exhausted and wanted more shut-eye. We sat her at the table and brought her breakfast—H’s cheese omelet, freshly made cranberry scones, yogurt, homemade granola and fresh blueberries, and half a grapefruit.

“Would you like me to sit with you?” I asked. There’s a lovely shyness about Laura. She’s like a seed, quietly self-contained with beautiful blossoms waiting inside.

“I have my book.” She patted her novel, which looked like beach reading. I was not offended. Making conversation with strangers is a practiced art, and neither of us cared to practice that morning.

While she ate, I packed a basket for her to take out to Josh with a thermos of hot coffee and a mason jar of orange juice, scones and omelet wrapped in foil, the grapefruit in Tupperware. The basket was given to me for some occasion I forget and had a frilly bow on it. I left the bow on. Josh needed some frivolity.

H and I had to run errands, and when we came back a couple hours later, the couple had brought in the basket and washed the dishes. The kitchen was slick as a starched sheet.

They went to Burlington for the day and came back late, and we didn’t see them until the next morning. Josh managed to pry himself from the loft bed and came in for breakfast. I love no-fuss guests, and these two asked little of our time and left the forest with hardly a leaf overturned. Sweet.

Coming up next: Brooklyn Redoux.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Superhero Tiny House Builders

George Carlin said our houses are nothing more than places to keep stuff while we go out and get more stuff. Why do we need so much stuff and so much space to hold it? I read about a guy who pledged to own only 100 items, including a toothbrush and a pencil. I’d like to try that, getting rid of one thing each time I bring a new thing into the house (other than Ben & Jerry’s, of course—but, then, that’s not hard to get rid of).

I started thinking about space and possessions when Deek Diedricksen came to stay at Fern Forest with his wife Liz, four-year-old son Jonas (Deek calls him “Jones”), two-year-old daughter Angie (she calls Deek “Magic Dad”), and big black dog Orzo. I worried that a 90-square-foot treehouse would be a little snug for the family, especially since Deek is well over six-feet tall. But no. Deek loves small spaces. In fact, he builds them. Check out his website You'll also see Deek's take on his weekend in the treehouse.

Deek has been written up in the New York Times, ReadyMade and Make magazines, and he’s been on NPR and Boston’s Chronicle TV show. The New Yorker has courted him, as has (hush-hush) Microsoft. He even has his own TV show, Tiny Yellow House.

He must be onto something.

Is it the teeny houses he builds out of reclaimed materials—windows made from wine bottles and wood from, well, anywhere and everywhere? Some of the houses are big enough for a small party. Others fit just a body, albeit as big as Deek’s. Some are solar heated. All are utterly charming and quite romantic.

I keep asking the question, why do we like small spaces? Rabbits huddle in cozy warrens. Bears like their winter dens. At parties, everyone crams into the kitchen. Our own house is about 1200 square feet, which feels capacious to us. We have a city condo in Burlington that’s 370 very cute square feet that enlarges another 60 SF in the three seasons we use the covered porch (thanks to Plexiglas over the screens). The pull-down Murphy bed makes the back room feel much larger than it is.

Small spaces suggest a specific, deliberate set of meanings. They’re designed to be used instead of just inhabited. Blogger Joey Roth says, “The smallness I love so much in a space might be the small number of different ways it could be interpreted due to the richness and completeness of the world it creates.” We like built-ins and bookshelves and color on the walls and lots of windows to let in light and breezes. At the condo we have exposed brick and refinished old wood floors. And we keep things tidy.

That’s the trick. A sink full of dirty dishes makes a small space feel crowded. I keep surfaces free of clutter. We recycle and compost and burn paper products in the wood stove, even in the summer—in the cool hour of early morning. We live outside a lot, both in Burlington (which has a gorgeous waterfront) and in Fern Forest (where I can happily pull weeds for hours and then take a soak in the spa).

Buckminster Fuller said, “Our beds are empty two-thirds of the time. Our living rooms are empty seven-eighths of the time. Our office buildings are empty one-half of the time.” And yet there they sit, gathering dust. And, worse, costing us money.

As the recession takes hold and people worry about money and jobs, it becomes more and more important to use what we have efficiently. And to use less of everything. Having a smaller space and fewer items of junk saves us dough, uses fewer resources, and burns less fuel, which helps the environment. According to some figures I stumbled upon, in 1973 the average house was 1525 square feet and had 3 people per household; in 2006 the average square footage expanded to 2248 with only 2.6 people per household. Appliances have gotten more efficient, but the cost of heating and cooling a larger home offsets any green savings.

But there’s hope. Liz told me that one day she caught Jonas stuffing wads of crumpled paper under the couch.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m insulating,” he said.

When he grows up, Jonas would like to be a superhero. Or maybe a builder like his dad. His favorite TV show is This Old House. He fashions a compressor out of the vacuum cleaner and builds lovely and solid structures from blocks. Structures where a family of four can sleep comfortably and cozily. With even room for a big black dog named Orzo.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Moonshine redoux

This morning I went to a homebrewing supply store to purchase some materials to make moonshine, purely for book research, of course. The shop was not large and was packed floor to ceiling with all sorts of accouterments for making brews of one kind or another. The smell inside was warm and earthy, caramel sweet, like a deep, mossy forest. As soon as I walked in, I forgot everything. Why hadn't I brought a recipe? Why hadn't I written down the things I needed, the mash fermenter, the boiler, the worm pipe, the slobber bucket (whatever that is), the hydrometer (what does that do?)?

The guy behind the counter looked friendly enough. There were two customers ahead of us, one of which was in a concentrated monologue with the clerk about putting his boat in the water and sailing around the world. Was he planning to brew beer on the boat? Another guy came in, bought a bottle of something.

"Credit or debit?" the clerk asked.

"Whatever's easier for you," the guy said.

"Want a bag?"

"Don't need one."

Purchase finished. Beer brewers are basic folk.

My turn.

"I want to make some moonshine," I said. "What do I need?"

The clerk took a step back so that he was against the wall behind the counter and crossed his arms.
"I have no idea."

"That's what everyone says." He nodded.

"I know it's illegal," I said.

"Yes, it is."

"I can buy a still on eBay," I said.

"Then that's what you should do."

I explained that I was doing research and needed to make just a little to be sure I understand how it's done.

"We sell equipment here," he said. "What you do with it is your business." He said some guys come in with no idea how to make hooch and expect him to demonstrate. "They know nothing. They haven't done any research." He looked around, checked the door.

"For all I know," he said, "you could be from the ATF."

"I'm not from the ATF. I'm doing research, as I said."

"Right." His arms were still crossed. He was looking down his nose, protecting himself.

"Well, thanks," I said. "Maybe I'll be back for ingredients."

When we got back in the car, I told H, "This is going to be harder than I thought."

"It smelled good in there, though," H said.

"Yeah. Maybe I should make beer instead of moonshine."

Stills on eBay go for a couple hundred dollars. And it's complicated. Copper is the best material, so I've read, but the copper oxidizes and has to be cleaned each time it's used. And there are other dangers, like ergotism, methane poisoning, and several other kinds of poisons generated in the distillation that can make you blind or psychotic or kill you. Which makes me think my moonshine ancestors had to be pretty smart to get a still up and running and sell the stuff at pubs. I have a lot to learn.

I didn't post a picture of Tania and Damien yesterday. Tania is the Greek beauty who grew up in Queens. She's planning a "big fat Greek wedding," and why not. Damien is an only child, and his mother is jumping for joy that he's found the love of his life. Their wedding will be a joyous celebration.

I also promised the answers to the comma practice exercise. Let me know how you did:

1. Her hand zoomed out and grabbed hold of my wrist. [no comma]

2. On one side of us was a small grocery, and on the other side was a pay-by-the-week motel where a few old bachelors lived year-round.

3. She had found a small twig and pressed her thumbs together to spin it between them. [no comma]

4. When the women came out, Daddy and Charles Asher carried chairs down from the screen porch and sat them up in a circle near the clothesline.

5.“Templeton, if I ever catch you poking-oking-oking your ugly nose around our goslings, I’ll give you the worst pounding a rat ever took.”

6. Underneath her rather bold and cruel exterior, she had a kind heart, and she was to prove loyal and true to the very end.

7. Everything on the farm was dripping wet. [no comma]

8. Charlotte, sleepy after her night’s excursions, smiled as she watched.

9. The children answered their cheer, and away went everybody to the Fair.

10. When the wind had died down, and the barnyard was quiet and warm, the grey goose led his seven goslings off the nest and out into the world.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Moonshine in Kentucky - and Tehran

I’ve taken a hiatus from blogging, and with good reason. First there was the ten-day residency for the Spalding University MFA in Writing program in Louisville. I’m on the faculty there and mentor writing students in fiction, creative nonfiction and writing for children. My lecture this time was on the use of the comma for restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. I tried to make it fun, but as with most things, you can’t please everyone. A few students found the lecture helpful. Others thought a grammar lesson was beneath them—this is grad school, after all. One student who complained about the elementary quality of the talk admitted that she did not get a perfect score on the final quiz.

I’ll post the quiz here. Check back later for the correct answers. The sentences come from children’s literature: E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, and Silas House’s Eli the Good. Place a comma where you think it should go.

1. Her hand zoomed out and grabbed hold of my wrist.

2. On one side of us was a small grocery and on the other side was a pay-by-the-week motel where a few old bachelors lived year-round.

3. She had found a small twig and pressed her thumbs together to spin it between them.

4. When the women came out Daddy and Charles Asher carried chairs down from the screen porch and sat them up in a circle near the clothesline.

5. “Templeton if I ever catch you poking-oking-oking your ugly nose around our goslings I’ll give you the worst pounding a rat ever took.”

6. Underneath her rather bold and cruel exterior she had a kind heart and she was to prove loyal and true to the very end.

7. Everything on the farm was dripping wet.

8. Charlotte, sleepy after her night’s excursions smiled as she watched.

9. The children answered their cheer and away went everybody to the Fair.

10. When the wind had died down and the barnyard was quiet and warm the grey goose led his seven goslings off the nest and out into the world.

The residency ended with a garden party at Tirbracken Farm in Goshen, Kentucky. Nana Lampton owns the estate and lives some of the time in the 18th century stone farmhouse with fields that roll down to the Ohio River. The food was very fine. The bar was stocked. The vistas were divine. The music was uplifting. But best of all, I gathered some stories for my latest writing project—moonshine.

Kentucky, which was once part of Virginia, has raked in a lot of money on moonshine. Seems everyone in KY has a moonshine story—either handed down from ancestors or a more recent run-in with white lightning. If you’ve got a moonshine story centered in VA, WVA or KY, let me know (and don't worry about getting the commas right).

Before I left Fern Forest, we entertained guests from New York City. Tania is the daughter of Greek immigrants, and her fiancĂ© Damien is the son of an Iranian father and a Boston mom. His father died when he was young, but he visits family in Iran on occasion. In casual conversation, I learned that moonshine reaches its seductive hand all the way to the Middle East. Iran is a Muslim country, and drinking alcohol is forbidden. But many Muslims distill their own liquor—they call it arak—at home or in backrooms of warehouses. It’s fermented with raisins and “is really smooth,” Damien says. The potion he tasted had been distilled three times and run through a carbon filter.

A true Iranian experience is a supper of roasted liver and heart sliced and skewered on a kebab. When the meat is tender, the kebab is folded into a broad piece of flatbread held tightly while the kebab is extracted.

“Delicious,” Damien says, “especially chased with a drink of arak.”

A surprisingly large number of Muslims indulge in moonshine. “The way it was during American prohibition,” he says, “is the way it is in Iran today.” Public drunkenness is rare, and Muslims who drink moonshine do so in their homes. The penalty for being caught with illegal liquor is severe—sometimes death. In spite of the danger, those who imbibe do so with great enjoyment, Damien says.

I suspect that danger is part of the flavor. By the next post, be ready for the answers to the grammar quiz—and an update on my own moonshine making progress.