Friday, February 25, 2011

Tractors and Books and Vinyl

I want to stay with Tracey and Chris for a couple days and talk to their three children. They all read and can tell me what’s hot in books for young people. Knights? Princesses? Wizards? Vampires? Clue me in, kiddies and I’ll invent an adventure.

Chris’s own tastes are a bit more sophisticated. He teaches high school English, coaches the school newspaper, and currently is reading Roberto Bolaño, a Chilean author who writes about dreams and hallucinations and the lost young voices of revolution. Heady stuff.

Tracey is an art teacher working on her own abstract compositions. They visited Fern Forest during school vacation, taking a break from their farmhouse near Amherst, Massachusetts, and leaving the children in the able hands of the grandparents. When they’re home, life is busy. In the summer Chris uses his tractor to harvest five cords of wood to keep his three stoves burning. Tracey has a hive of bees and tends a Morgan horse, chickens, several cats and a dog.

The Treehouse was the perfect getaway. They came over the snowy Appalachian Gap and it was just dark when Chris gunned the car up the driveway. They didn’t feel like going out into the cold again, so I whipped up a pot of pasta, vegetarian out of respect for Chris’s palate, with chicken sausage on the side for the rest of us. H’s best friend and our closest neighbor Alex came up and joined us because his wife was out of town. Tracey contributed a bottle of wine, tastier (and pricier, I suspect) than the brand I keep on hand. There was talk of wine (Tracey’s sister is in the winery business) and tractors (Alex knows all about brush hogs and tillers and the like) and teaching (H and I are retired public school teachers) and books. Tracey and Chris seemed to enjoy kicking back, which I don’t imagine they get to do very often with a full house.

It was frigid on their first night and below zero in the morning when Chris came in. I offered coffee, and he poured himself a cup and one for Tracey and then tromped back out to the Treehouse, his bootlaces trailing behind him, balancing a cup in each hand. For a boy from New Jersey, he’s pretty hardy.

At breakfast I asked them about their plans for the day. They didn’t have any—just wanted to relax. They spent the day shopping for gifts for family and stopped into the Bobcat for an early dinner. When they returned, Chris said they had found the Goodwill store in South Burlington and filed through boxes of old vinyl records. They found a few collectibles and settled on a fair price.

“Do you have a turntable?” I asked.

“No,” Chris said, “but we like the album covers.”

They lingered by our wood stove before trekking out through single digit temps to the Treehouse for a second night. They climbed the vertical ladder to the loft eight feet above the main floor, putting them 40 feet over the earth. Moonlight reflected off the snow. All was quiet.

Chris said sleeping in the Treehouse was “like being a kid again except you're an adult and it's better.” I’ll bet he listened to vinyl records when he was a kid. Maybe next trip they’ll find a turntable at Restore.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sometimes you know

Sometimes you just know.

Laura and Will knew.

The couple made their way from Philadelphia to Fern Forest for Presidents Day weekend. They had a little trouble getting over the Appalachian Gap in their old Honda. Philadelphians don’t bother with snow tires, which are de rigueur for Vermont’s mountain passes. It took Will three tries, skidding around in the road each time, before he coaxed the Honda over the summit. Laura sat quietly in the passenger seat. She believes in her man.

Will is a lawyer, and Laura is working on her PhD in art history at Temple University with a focus on 19th Century American still life. She is a natural beauty. They met during college met when they were summer camp counselors. Will was a year ahead of Laura, she at Dickinson College and he at University of Virginia. I’ve heard of those camp counselor romances—they usually end when the campers pack up to go home. But these two kept in touch. They met up on school vacations. When she went to Europe to study art, he stayed faithful, focusing on law school.

For Laura, no one else measured up.Will was the one.

When Will finished law school at UVA, he went back home to St. Louis. Laura was still in Philadelphia, living near her family. Only one thing to do. Will moved to Philly and studied for the bar exam. When he was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar, he proposed. They’ve been married just over two years.

The Honda almost made it up the driveway when they arrived on Saturday after a morning of skiing. They unpacked, had a chat and some nibbles with us, and then hit the Bobcat for a late dinner. We didn’t hear them come in later that evening. Didn’t hear them take a dip in the hot tub. Not a peep as they went out to the treehouse.

It was a cold and windy night and the treehouse creaked, but the next morning Laura said they were cozy in the sleeping loft. They took their time over breakfast. The weatherman predicted more snow on the way. They had bought two-day ski passes at Sugarbush, and they planned to use them. But rather than returning to the treehouse Sunday night, Will thought it more prudent to start south and look for a hotel near Albany. Laura agreed.

So they packed up and hiked down the driveway to brush new snow off the Honda. No arguments. No hassles. There was agreement. There was trust. There was a “we’re in this together” feeling. And there was a quiet joy in each other’s company. It was in their faces, the way Will looked away and Laura blushed when I said, “You are a beautiful couple.” I guess that’s how you know.

Valentine's Day Fern Forest style

I just heard that another of my Spalding University MFA in Writing students is having a book published. This one is IF I LIE by Corinne Jackson, coming out in ’12 with Simon Pulse. That makes how many of my former students who have published books? Oh, I’ve lost count. Mostly they’re young adult or middle grade books, a market that is popping with energy.

I’ve published two YA novels and a picture book for young readers, but I’m overdue for a new title. So I was pretty excited to learn that Jennifer had booked two nights at the Treehouse. Jennifer worked in children’s book publishing in Manhattan but left after the 9-11 attacks. She lived in mid-town, close enough to the devastation to understand that she didn’t want to be in the city any longer. So she bought an old Victorian farmhouse cottage in the Berkshires and set up an enterprise with her second passion—gardening. She designs and tends gardens for homeowners and also rents out rooms for those busy wedding weekends in the beautiful countryside of western Massachusetts.

While she was with us, she was more interested in discussing botanical zones than kid lit. That’s fine because I like gardening, too—even though weeding and nurturing flowers seems a pipe dream in this dead cold of February.
Jennifer’s boyfriend Rene is the most enthusiastic human I’ve ever met. He works at a nature preserve and has an energetic curiosity, especially about anything natural. He asked what kind of birds we get at our feeders. I don’t know—chickadees?

“Yep,” he said, “and finches.” He pointed to the little birds at one of the feeders. When an owl soared by the house, he dashed to the window, and he got excited about a red squirrel stealing sunflower seeds.

Rene is a guy you want to go on a snowshoe trek with. When he and Jennifer clomped into the woods, he was criss-crossed with straps: Gaterade, camera, compass, backpack (extra clothes?), binoculars. They were gone a couple hours, and he returned with reports of tracks—deer, fox, fishercat.

No moss grows under these two. They’d just returned from Puerto Rico where Rene helped Jennifer celebrate her 40th birthday. From the tropics to the frosty Vermont cold, they still had that sunny glow when they arrived at Fern Forest for Valentine’s Day.

To enhance the festive mood, H made them chocolate raspberry pancakes for breakfast, and I decorated each of their plates with one of the humongous chocolate-dipped strawberries H gave me. Rene had made Jennifer a sweet card and laid it beside her breakfast plate with a box of hand-dipped chocolates from a Berkshires shop. I caught them stealing a maple syrup-flavored kiss at the breakfast table.

They spent Valentine’s Day antiquing, and Rene found a peculiar three-wheel skate that attaches to one shoe, apparently operated like a scooter. I thought he might try it out, but the rubber wheels were dry and cracked. It would become a conversation piece, he said. It seemed to me he was never at a loss for words.

That cold night, a snow storm settled in but they jumped into the hot tub and let the flakes adorn their hair while steam rose from the water. After a few minutes, Rene hopped out of the spa, spread his arms, and fell full-body backward into the snow. He can make even a soak in hot water exhilarating.

There’s no doubt that the publishing business has its perks. But following your passion? In my opinion, that’s better than getting your name in lights—or ink. Want proof? Just ask Rene or Jennifer.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Treehouse Waltz

Fern Forest guest Arthur is in his first year of law school at Yale. His girlfriend Juliana works in health care policy at a non-profit think tank in Washington, DC, focusing on improving access and quality of care for low-income people. A year ago they met at a party of mutual friends. I don’t blame them for falling for each other. Both have good looks and brains. I’m not sure if it was smarts or a spirit of adventure that caused them to book a cold February weekend in the treehouse for their anniversary and an early Valentine’s Day.

Arthur attended junior high school in Ivory Coast when his father was stationed in Africa working as a senior economist with the International Monetary Fund. After that they moved to Haiti, where they lived for three years before leaving in ’86 when dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier was forced out of office for plundering tens of millions of pounds of state funds. Arthur was happy to come back to the States, where he enrolled at Princeton. His parents moved to Paris and his brother works in China, and he visits them both.

Even at age 23, Arthur has had some fascinating experiences, and we learned lots about him in the three days he and Juliana spent with us. When I asked Juliana to tell us about herself, she said she grew up in New Hampshire and went to Swarthmore. “There’s nothing interesting about me,” she said. I asked if she played a musical instrument, and she admitted that she was a trombonist in high school. Then I asked her about health care, and she lit up. Juliana knows the business and has special expertise in meeting the needs of uninsured children. She is one of the only people I’ve met who can make health care sound interesting.

The temperatures dipped down below zero the nights they were with us, but they didn’t seem to mind. The treehouse has heat and stays toasty, even in the wind that blew through the maples. On Saturday they went skiing and at the end of the day they were beat. They joined us by the wood stove, and we ate some popcorn and drank a couple brews. When they wanted to have a dip in the spa, H offered to pick up a pizza while they were soaking because none of us had eaten. They thought that would be preferable to getting dressed and going out. I sautéed some kale because I need the greens for my bones and added walnuts and maple syrup to make it palatable, and we feasted on our laps in the living room while we watched “The Last Waltz.” Here they were, younger than our own children, watching a video of a concert held a dozen years before they were born. They’d never heard of Levon Helm, Van Morrison, Robbie Robertson or Ronnie Hawkins, but Juliana knew about Joni Mitchell and of course they recognized Bob Dylan. Whereas H and I are enthralled each time we watch the video, for Juliana and Arthur, it was background for talk.

Arthur did offer that his father is an avid Rolling Stones fan and has all their records on vinyl. I tried to imagine his father, a dignified man with international sophistication dancing on his veranda while “Hey, you, get offa my cloud” blasts on the phonograph. Arthur says he heard Mick Jagger goes into the hospital every few years to have his blood completely recycled. I wonder if his health care plan covers that—Juliana would probably know.

Even though Arthur had a paper due on Wednesday (due Monday originally, but his prof took pity on him because of his Valentine’s Day treehouse adventure), they dallied on Sunday. Finally in the early afternoon they got ready to hike down the driveway to Arthur’s aged Audi convertible that couldn’t make it up the hill because no one bothers with snow tires in New Haven. They planned to stop in Burlington to check out a few shops and coffee places before heading back down to Connecticut, where Juliana would catch a bus back to D.C.

And, about that paper? “A couple all-nighters and I’ll get it done,” Arthur said. Then he kissed Juliana on the cheek and carried the bags out to the car.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tee-Vee in the Trees

Artist Amber’s website bears the quote by poet Jean Wahl: “Le moutonnement des haies C'est en moi que je l'ai” (The frothing of the hedges/ I keep deep inside of me .") The hedges weren’t exactly frothing when she and Michael visited Fern Forest for two January nights in the treehouse—at least, not that we noticed. The ferns are still buried under deep snow, and the maples are bare. But it was Amber’s 30th birthday, and maybe she was frothing about that (although she looks ten years younger).

They came down from Montreal, where Michael works in construction on renovation projects. An artist and a construction worker in Montreal? How do they manage?

“It’s not expensive to live in Montreal,” says Michael. “Food is cheap, and I don’t have a TV. I only watch TV w
hen I visit my family in Saskatchewan.” He works on expensive projects, where his clients want the best of everything.

“You must be well versed in what’s the best,” I said.

“I’m learning,” he said. “It’s fun. I may start working only for people with lots of money.”

I guess he won’t want to hire on to build me a new kitchen addition on our main house. The treehouse doesn’t have a kitchen, just a tiny refrigerator big enough for a couple beers. That seemed to be enough for these two. They are Canadian quiet and don’t demand much.

After I visited Amber’s website, I could see why she was interested in spending her birthday in a treehouse. Many of her drawings have trees in them—houses in trees, branches branchin
g out of people and around them, roots rooted in air. Her work, according to the website, is “rooted in the neo-romantic trajectory of drawing” and “fundamentally escapist.” It seemed fitting that she’d escape Montreal for the Vermont wilderness.

What we neglected to tell these sweet people was that a TV crew was coming from Boston to do a show on our county, and they wanted to include a minute or so about the treehouse because they’d heard so much about it (WCVB-TV, "Main Streets and Back Roads").

We waited until Michael and Amber's second night with us, hoping by then they’d have fallen in love with Fern Forest. Canadians are shy and wary of publicity. Besides, these two had
come to escape, not to become television stars.

When we put it to them (gently), Amber agreed to be filmed, as long as she didn’t have to say anything. Michael indicated he’d go along but not to expect him to effuse. He doesn’t effuse. In fact, the most excitement we saw from this handsome guy was when our contractor-builder friend Alex came up for a visit, and he and Michael talked construction-speak that was too esoteric for me to follow.

On a rather overcast day, as Amber and Michael were rising to have their breakfast, writer/producer Sangita arrived with Bob, the cameraman. The camera alone was intimidating enough—a suitcase with a lens. When our guests sat down to eat, Bob filmed them forking into H’s blueberry pancakes. Sangita tried to get them to say something—even just an expression of delight—but they said they’d keep mum and they kept their word.

After breakfast, they agreed to go back into the treehouse and come out with Bob rolling the film. They didn’t prance or even give a high five to the camera. Nope—their lips
were buttoned. H and I spouted off about the treehouse, however, and we’ll see how we came out when the program airs.

In spite of putting these nice guests on the spot, they were good sports. I have a feeling, though, that this is one birthday Amber will remember. After all, she’s very fond of trees.

H and Ellie with Sangita and Bob

The segment is online only briefly, but here's the link: