Monday, December 23, 2013

Life near the bone (with a van called Vader)

            The longest night of the year was also the iciest this December. Taylor and Joe arrived as sleet fell on their big black vehicle. I’d call it a van, but Joe had the body fitted onto a heavy duty 4WD chassis. It’s a monster truck he calls “Vader,” and it’s a good thing he had it on Saturday night.
            Joe is a burly guy who generates excitement by thinking outside the box. He’s frugal as well as resourceful and tells us that during college he saved money by sleeping in his car—a sedan—reclining the driver’s seat for comfort. After college he dodged paying rent by buying the van and tricking it out with a double bed, counter and storage space.
            Then he met Taylor.
            She was paying outrageous rent for an apartment in Burlington, and Joe invited her to give up her conventional accommo and move into Vader with him.
            She thought he was nuts, but she couldn’t resist his handsome quirkiness. She can be frugal, too, and took him up on his offer. Besides, her job at Burton Boards takes her on trips around the world, and the trips come with a real bed and hot running water.
When Joe asked Taylor to marry him, she agreed on the condition that he provide a more commodious home for her.
            So he bought an RV.
            He also bought 22 acres of land in Brookfield, Vermont, home of the floating bridge and the annual ice harvest on Sunset Lake. Joe is a man with big ideas, and Taylor is along for the ride.
            The plan is to live in the 200SF RV, which is parked in a campground for the winter, and in the spring pull the RV onto the Brookfield property. Joe will build an addition on the front and put in a wood stove, which should serve them comfortably until he gets a cozy cabin underway.
            Taylor booked the Treehouse as a gift for Joe’s birthday. They’re used to small spaces but one without wheels must have seemed like a treat. After dinner they soaked in the hot tub and the next morning they hung out with us by the wood stove. Then Joe went out, started up Vader, and tacked the inch of ice encasing the behemoth.
            After we waved them goodbye (the icy driveway was no problem for Vader), I looked around our house on a hill and felt a little envious of this young couple with big dreams and no strings. Thoreau said, “It is life near the bone where it is the sweetest,” and I have no doubt that Joe and Taylor have sunk their teeth deeply into life’s sweetness.

Friday, December 20, 2013

There's drama and then there's drama

Filmmakers like a lot of drama, and that’s what Java and Tighe got on the stormiest night Fern Forest has seen in a while.
“You’d better let them know about the storm before they come,” I told my husband.
“I’m sure they’ve checked the weather forecast,” he answered.
They had left Brooklyn on Friday, stopping for a night at Lake George. Even if they had cell phone reception, which is always sketchy once one leaves civilization, they may not have thought about the weather. It was Tighe’s birthday weekend, and Java wanted him to have a good time.
The two met in film school in New York City. Tighe didn’t travel far from his home in northern Jersey, but Java came all the way from Paris. When I first met her, I thought we’d gotten it wrong about her being French—she didn’t have an accent at all.
“I want to speak like an American,” she said, “but I use the French accent to flirt.” It might have been a combination of accent and her dark beauty that attracted Tighe, a movie-star-handsome guy who’s also as nice as pie.
We didn’t have much time to get to know them on Saturday because Java wanted to take Tighe out for a nice birthday eve dinner at Mary’s Restaurant, a country elegant place in a farmhouse with roaring fireplaces and gourmet localvore. H and I were watching a movie upstairs when they returned, and we all settled down—for a bit.
Sometime around midnight I awoke to the thunk of an Adirondack chair tumbling across the deck—the wind was that strong. Our house is pinned to rock ledge, but still the structure creaked and snapped. I don’t usually mind the wind whistling, but this wind sounded like an F-15 fighter jet. At first I wondered if the Green Mountain Boys were having midnight maneuvers. Then with a particularly violent blow, I felt the bed quiver.
The weatherman predicted 25 m.p.h. gusts, which is par for the course when one lives on the side of a mountain, but I swear these gusts were twice that. To complicate matters, the thermometer registered a bit below zero.
I got up and looked out the window. A couple years ago after the power went out and stranded treehouse visitors in the dark cold, H lined the front of the treehouse with colored lights so we could look out and tell if there was power and if not, he’d start the generator. On this night the lights were twinkling brightly. No problem there.
During a storm, I always expect to find the treehouse hanging by a nail, but I shouldn’t underestimate my husband’s building skills. H used enormous bolts to secure the house to four sturdy maples, and in the past seven years the little dwelling has withstood hurricanes. But the maple that grows up through the center of the treehouse is free to sway as much as the holes in the floor and ceiling will allow, and sway it did the night Java and Tighe visited.
We always offer guests the option of sleeping in the main house guest room, and on rare occasions someone will take us up on that offer. Once a daughter retreated to the guest room because her mother’s snoring was keeping her awake in the treehouse. Another time a pregnant woman wanted to be closer to the bathroom, but she hung out in the treehouse during the day. Usually, though, guests will tough it out even in the worst weather.
This was the worst weather.
At four a.m. I heard Java and Tighe come softly into the house and tuck themselves into the double bed below us. When I knew they were safe, I was able to doze a little before time to make the coffee.
It was late morning when they finally peeled themselves out of bed. The wind, calm now, had left slanted snowdrifts along the driveway. H had a fire going in the wood stove and the house was cozy.
Java was first up, and over a cup of steaming tea she told us about her film school project, a short movie titled “Take a Deep Breath.” She's submitting it to film festivals but gave us permission to view this adorable vignette about a young couple in love but too shy to make a move. After a surgeon removes their hearts, they are able to fall passionately into each other's arms. 
“I like humor,” Java said. “I want to make funny movies.”  Take a Deep Breath" is shot in France with English subtitles but she admits, “It’s funnier in French than in English.”
When Tighe got up, Java put a pointy birthday hat on him. He didn’t seem to mind—he’s that cool.  

After they had breakfast, H and I convinced Tighe to show us the music video he's in the process of editing. The song is "New Years" by a New York band called Diane Coffee. Tighe wrote, directed and starred in the video with his brother.
The storyline is about two men who attempt to rob a gas station, the old fashioned kind where an attendant pumps gas for patrons. While the robbers threaten the station guys with pistols, a car pulls in. Tighe’s brother goes out and pumps the gas, takes the money and shoves it into his pocket. When another car pulls in, Tighe goes out and pumps the gas. Eventually there’s a line of cars waiting for gas, and instead of holding up the station, the robbers settle for armloads of junk food. In the last scene, their truck runs out of gas and blue police lights flash on the robbers’ faces.
Filmmaking, it seems to me, is a perfect blending of art and technology, and these two emerging artists are talented and savvy, not to mention intrepid. I doubt Java and Tighe will forget Tighe’s 25th birthday for a long time. Java’s birthday is in July, and maybe they’ll give the Treehouse a chance to redeem itself next summer.   

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Freight trains, tattoos, jujitsu and preconceptions

           When Adrian and Katie arrived at Fern Forest, I was a little intimidated. Both are muscular with thick Aussie accents, and Adrian’s shaved head and neck tattoos give him an edgy look. It took me a couple days to build up courage to ask about the tattoos, which scroll around his neck in some sort of writing.
            I approached cautiously at breakfast and he pulled back the neck of his black hoody. The tattoo on the right side is the name Isaiah, his five-year-old son. The writing on the left—Sage Amelie, his three-year-old daughter. Amelie is for the whimsical French movie about a shy waitress in Paris who does anonymous good deeds for people to make their lives better. It’s Adrian’s favorite movie—mine, too. 
            There’s sweetness in this couple.
            Sweetness aside, both Adrian and Katie are jujitsu masters, and Katie holds the title of top jujitsu female in south Western Australia. In feudal times, the samurai developed jujitsu for combat with enemies, and the fights were to the death. Eventually weapons were used, like swords, bo sticks and nunchakus.
Katie spars bare-handed. In May a clumsy opponent grabbed her by the neck and took her down, fracturing three bones in her neck. She’s on the mend now and is impatient to get back on the mat.
Adrian competes in tournaments when he’s in town—town being Bunbury, a hamlet an hour south of Perth on Australia’s southwestern coast. He’s home with Katie and the children for two weeks at a time and then flies up north to Dampier where he works two consecutive weeks as a freight train driver. There’s not much going on in Dampier except shipping iron ore around the world, mostly to China, for forging steel. Western Australia exports 22% of the world’s iron ore, and it’s Adrian’s job to drive one of the cargo trains from Dampier inland to the ore mines and back to waiting ships.
These are not ordinary trains. They’re each four miles long with six engines—three in front and three in the middle. Driving such a huge rig is a tricky business. Imagine going over a hill. Cresting the summit, the front half of the train wants to gain speed on the downhill slope while the back half is still climbing. There’s physics involved with pumping energy into the middle engines while slowing down the three in the lead. The engineers use computer programs to help them figure it out.  
The trains run all day and all night, seven days a week. It takes three days to get to the mines and three days to return. Driving is not a glamorous job, rocketing through desert brush and keeping an eye out for kangaroos and wandering cattle that hesitate on the tracks. But the train doesn’t need much tending once the rails straighten out along hundreds of miles of flat terrain, and Adrian passes the long hours watching movies on his laptop and having video chats with his family.
Luckily, the job pays well enough for Katie to stay home with the kids and to squirrel away enough for a vacation in the states while Isaiah and Sage visit grandparents. In Portland, Maine, they met up with some Australian friends—hip-hop musicians they used to play gigs with—and they jammed for a few days before coming to the Treehouse.
Hip-hop, freight trains, tattoos and jujitsu are pretty foreign to me, and it’s no wonder that at first I was circumspect around this Australian pair. But that’s the way it is with jujitsu—the idea is to use the opponent’s own energy to throw her off balance. Initially my preconceptions got in the way of seeing what good and kind people Adrian and Katie are.
On their last morning with us, Adrian took his phone out to the deck and called the children. He told them about Vermont and about staying in a treehouse. He asked them about games they had played and places their grandparents had taken them. He told them he missed them. He told them he loved them. Then he took the phone in to Katie so she could tell them, too.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

"Home isn't a place ~ it's a person."

Several of the couples who have been guests at Fern Forest Treehouse met in online dating sites. A few sealed their engagements here. Our latest visitors, Colleen and Dave, met in an internet chat room where people were discussing anything relating to Boston. She was running the vegetable stand at her dad’s farm an hour south of Boston, and Dave lived west of Boston, so their initial dates were virtual ones. Then he came to the farm for a weekend and won her heart. That was thirteen years ago.
Dave knew at once that he loved Colleen. It took her a little longer to warm up to this avid member of the Society for Creative Anachronism. She had all she could do getting along in modern life and wasn’t interested in living in the Middle Ages. But Dave’s kindness and sense of humor eventually won her over.  
Colleen has a son from a previous marriage and when her parents divorced, her mother moved in with her. Dave has two sons and when his father developed Alzheimer’s, he moved his dad into the spare room. His dad doesn’t do well with change, and relocating him to Colleen's house was out of the question. Snuggling three strangers into his own house wouldn’t work either. So he and Colleen decided to keep things as they were.
It’s a sensible arrangement because when Dave isn’t off jousting or sword fighting or cooking over an open fire, he’s a fireman and emergency medical tech on duty three straight days a week. His sisters look after their father and Dave’s sons when he’s at the firehouse.
“I’d only be able to see Colleen a couple days a week anyway,” he says. Besides, she’s busy selling farm produce, keeping up with her massage business, and doing a little artwork. But they talk every day, either by phone or computer, and when they do manage to get together—like a weekend in a treehouse—they revitalize their love on a mini-vacation. There’s no arguing about whose turn it is to do the dishes, who’s spoiling the kids, or an extravagant charge on the credit card.
After more than a dozen years of back-and-forth dating, Dave and Colleen are committed exclusively to each other. She grew her beautiful wavy hair to her waist because he likes it long. When I asked what she loves best about Dave, Colleen said simply, “He’s a good man.”
Actually, now that I think about it, these two may have come up with the ideal way to have a relationship. As author Stephanie Perkins says in her novel Anna and the French Kiss, "For the two of us, home isn't a place. It is a person. And we are finally home." 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Acronyms in the Treehouse

Suzie and her BF Mark are staying in FF Treehouse this weekend. They met in an online dating site. Mark, a SWM, had made several failed attempts at finding a connection, and just as he was about to give up, he caught a glimpse of this SJF who works as an ICU nurse at MGH. Since he’s an engineer at MIT, he liked that she was in a science field and close by. When they came to FF, they’d been dating for 6.5 months.
Both components of this attractive couple are just past the 30 checkpoint, and both live active lifestyles. A few weeks ago, wanting a thrilling adventure for Suzie, Mark took her to an indoor climbing wall. She tumbled and tore her ACL.
 “You weren’t wearing a harness?” I ask.
 “You’re supposed to fall,” she says. “They have soft mats on the floor. But I fell wrong.”
 She doesn’t blame Mark, but she’ll be away from the ICU for a couple months after her surgery to repair the injury.
 Suzie has a good sense of humor about her work. “Nurses in the ED [the ER] have ADD, and nurses in the ICU have OCD,” she says. She explained that in the emergency room, nurses have to handle several patients at once, think fast and multi-task. ICU nurses, on the other hand, work with one critically ill patient for three 12-hour shifts, tuning in to monitors and vitals and attending to every detail.
  It takes a lot to rattle this gal. She was on duty when the Boston marathon bombing victims came in and shook President Obama's hand when he toured the ICU to greet the injured.  
 At MIT Mark is involved in designing a flying car. He’s nearing the production stage with a vehicle he says is similar to a Cadillac Esplanade with wings that unfold for flight. Imagine flying into an airport, taxiing to a stop, folding the wings, driving home and pulling your Terrafugia into the garage without ever leaving the cockpit. By 2015, you can have one of your own for a mere $279,000. Check it out:

      After the Terrafugia “takes off” (ha ha), Mark plans to work on the TF-X, a VTOL vehicle. FLW had that idea in 1940 when he designed Crystal City for Washington, DC. Take a look at his drawing with small helicopter-type vehicles that hover-fly from one skyscraper platform to another. FLW’s concept was massive and included restaurants, stores, 24 apartment towers, park space and a thousand-room hotel, all on 10 acres near DuPont Circle. The DC zoning board scuttled the plan by refusing to waive the 1910 building height restriction of 130 feet.
   But maybe FLW wasn’t so far afield.
   As far as predictions for the future for this bright and genial couple. Suzie says she likes things neat but being a little OCD, she says Mark is a bit messy. 
    “I’m OCD in my head,” he says. 
    In that case, I’m sure things will turn out well.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Knock, Knock ~ You never know who's there

Monday’s our day off at the Treehouse. Guests check out by noon on Sunday, and H and I put in a load of laundry and then pack up and head to Burlington. We have a little condo in the city because H plays hockey on Sunday nights, and we come back on Monday afternoon and clean up, finish the laundry, pull weeds, and relax in the solitary quiet of the woods.
            Last Monday after dinner I was out in the front garden ankle deep in myrtle when an old van rattled up the driveway. I thought it was the heating man coming to check the possibility of putting a propane heater in the Treehouse, so I kept bent over, uprooting misbehaving clover.
I heard the van door shut and looked toward the driveway. A young man was walking toward me. Trim with sandy blond hair, he was wearing a blue tee shirt with a college logo—University of Passau, I think.
“Hello?” I said.
He smiled. “Hello—my name is Andreas.”
I thought he might be lost. But our driveway is a third of a mile uphill, and by the time you reach the tractor shed halfway, you should have figured out that you’ve made a wrong turn.
“Can I help you?” I said.
“I heard about your treehouse,” he said. “I wonder if I might see it.”
I asked how he’d heard about us, which began a long journey into the night. Andreas is a psychiatrist in Bavaria, Germany, working on the psychiatric floor of a hospital. His patients are severely mentally ill, some requiring physical restraint. At age 39, he was burning out and decided to take a year off and see as much of North America as he could. In Canada, someone offered him an old van for $800, and he put a mattress in the back. Most nights he found a bed via Couch Surfing. On an island off Vancouver, he spent a few weeks WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) doing everything from weeding fields to washing dishes in exchange for bed and board. Other nights he slept in the van.
In the Midwest somewhere, Andreas had surfed on the couch of a woman who told him about Airbed and Breakfast and showed him the website. Fern Forest Treehouse was on her wish list. He jotted down the name of the town in Vermont and pointed the van's windshield toward us. Lincoln is tiny and pretty much everyone knows about the treehouse. He needed to ask only one person to find our driveway.
H showed him the treehouse, and then we asked him in for a beer. Obviously intelligent, Andreas’s English is very good. He spoke a little about his job but was more interested in talking about Vancouver and his travels across the U.S., navigating only with a cell phone. No GPS, no iPad, no laptop. He doesn’t like technology and wrote letters home by hand and kept a journal with paper and pen. In quiet moments, he read books—real paper and ink books—and we talked about American authors he liked and German authors he thought we might know (Goethe, Hesse, Kafka). I told him about my German ancestors who hailed from Aachen in the north, and we asked about the wine in the Rhine Valley. He wanted to know about my books, and I told him about While In Darkness There Is Light, a story of young men who took risks with their lives. When I asked what dangerous thing he’d done in his youth, he said his father died when he was ten and he was raised by his mother and grandmother.

“And they taught you caution?” I said. He nodded. I suppose traveling in a rickety van twice across a continent and staying with strangers is risky, but Andreas seemed none the worse for wear.
His plan for the night was to find a couch in Portland, Maine, but it’s a four-hour drive and already it was getting on to eight o’clock, so H invited him to spend the night in the treehouse. He offered to sleep in his van, but we wouldn’t have it since the cot in the treehouse was already made.
Andreas accepted the offer and went to his van and brought back a bottle of good red wine as payment for the accommodation. We fed him and gave him a shot of Makers Mark sleeping elixir. Then I took him out to the deck to listen to the wood thrush singing.
“It sounds like a flute,” he said. Yes, it did.

In the morning I left early for a bike trip. When Andreas came in from the treehouse, H made him an omelet and English muffins. Andreas offered to wash the dishes, but H said no—he likes to wash them himself. Then our German guest headed north to Montreal where he was meeting his mother at the airport. She was flying in from Germany to spend some time with her son. What a lucky mother. And lucky us to have such a delightful night off.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Take heart ~ The future's in good hands

I’ve been out of touch for a while, but Fern Forest Treehouse has been hopping with activity. One guy hiked his girlfriend up Mt. Abe with a ring in his pocket. At the summit, he popped the question. She said yes and later showed off the ring her fiancé had designed and had made for her. Another weekend, a family of four stayed a few nights with three- and five-year-old daughters, and we had a grand time playing games and roasting marshmallows over a campfire for s’mores. A mom brought her five-year-old son for a weekend, and he taught me to play Monkey Quest on the computer. Doug and Bettina paid us a second visit, this time with their new doggie Winnie. While they were here, these faithful friends made their reservation for next year.
         This weekend four young people came to the Treehouse. H told Anny that the Treehouse sleeps only three, and she replied, “That’s okay. We’re all good friends.”
          They drove up from Boston after work and arrived at 10:00 p.m. Almost immediately they hopped into the hot tub, and H and I listened to them chat until 3:00 a.m. I’d have dehydrated and run out of things to talk about, but these twenty-somethings needed to let off some steam. They work hard, and the next day we discovered just how hard.
          Ray teaches fifth grade math at a charter school in Roxbury, a neighborhood 45 percent African-American and 32 percent Hispanic. Ray is intelligent and enthusiastic about working with young people, even though it’s often a struggle to keep children in school and help them develop positive self-images. Gabriel works with veterans at Bunker Hill Community College, coordinating with the VA to be sure veteran students are on task with the Administration’s required paperwork. A veteran himself, Gabe even edits their papers for them when requested. Barbara and Anny are on the staff of the Hyde Square Task Force, an agency established to help reverse the trend of youth violence in the neighborhood between Jamaica Plain and Roxbury, once known as the “cocaine capital of Boston.”
          Anny fits in well with the Hyde Square Task Force because the program saved her when she was an adolescent hanging out with gang members and getting into fights. A quarter of the adult population in the Hyde Square community never completed high school and a third of households are run by single parents. In the ’80s, dealers sold drugs on the streets where gang violence was an everyday occurrence. Residents finally organized to discuss ways to keep their community safe and agreed that the focus needed to be on developing the skills of young people and their families.
        Since its inception in 1991, the Hyde Square Task Force has grown into a professionally run nonprofit with a reputation as one of the most dynamic community-based organizations in Boston. The program serves a thousand youths ages six to twenty-one, focusing on arts and culture, leadership and college prep. Over the years HSTF has pushed for sex education in Boston public schools, written and performed music to create social change, and painted beautiful urban murals advocating peace and safety in their communities.
          Barbara, originally from Schenectady, manages school-based and cultural programs and gets kids into dance and music activities. Anny got involved with the after school tutoring program when she was just 13, and the next year she became a youth literacy tutor. Now she’s an administrator and helps coordinate programs.
          I suggest that if you ever worry about the future of urban youth in America, you take a visit to the Hyde Square Task Force. Or, better yet, invite these young folks to come visit you. They’ll pick up after themselves. They’ll help clear the breakfast dishes. And they’ll tell you how much they love what they do. I have no doubt that the children they serve love them right back.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Lesson from Boston

The bombing at the Boston Marathon finish line shocked the world once again, and so soon after the school shootings in Sandy Hook. I’ve lived through other violence—assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, the killing of John Lennon, the Oklahoma bombing, the Twin Towers assault. It’s tempting to look at the darkness and feel despair. But there’s another option.

One blogger noted that more people were running toward yesterday’s mayhem than away from it. Citizens took off shirts to use as tourniquets. No one worried about getting hands dirty with someone else’s blood. The immediate response of most people nearby was to help.

In four years of hosting guests in our treehouse nearly every weekend, we have not had a single negative experience. We’ve hosted Jews, Muslims and devout Christians, white and black Africans, Chinese and Japanese, gays and straights, an ex-convict, and a firefighter who had just come from honoring his fellow firefighters at the tenth anniversary ceremony of 9-11 in New York. No one asks who has previously slept in the loft thirty feet off the ground. Each visitor treats H and me with respect and courtesy.

The lesson I learned from the Boston tragedy is that in spite of a very few maniacs with twisted minds, there is more good than evil in the world. There was enough light yesterday to illuminate the darkness.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Fern Forest Fantasy

     I could write a volume about last weekend's Treehouse guests: Mom Jessica, Dad Will, their two children, and puppy Peanut. Will, handsomely Cuban by heritage, is an accountant born in the year of the Dog, which makes him inherently agreeable and likable. Jessica, of French Canadian ancestry, has a sense of wanderlust not held back by family and canine. She and Will acquired Peanut a decade ago when they bought a house in Los Angeles and jokingly told the sellers they'd take the house if they'd throw in the dog. They did, and Peanut has been with them ever since. 
     Jessica owns Cucumber Design Company and does most of her work online so she can travel anywhere she can access wifi. When their daughter came along, they moved to New York City and enrolled her in an international school to learn French. Their son followed a few years later, and they moved to Boston to be closer to Jessica's family in Maine. Their hope is to live in France for a few years and travel around Europe, exposing the children to a world of adventures.
     Instead of giving the kids toys for Christmas, Jessica and Will give them experiences. These are wiser parents than I was, evidenced by boxes upon boxes of Christmas gifts stashed in my attic, discarded after the boys grew up and left home. I hold onto the dim hope that maybe ~ some day ~ there will be toddler grandkids who'll want to play with them. Jessica and Will are less foolish. Last Christmas Santa brought their children a Treehouse. Or, rather, a weekend thirty feet up in the air. I was a little nervous with energetic youngsters ages five and eight climbing up to the loft and perhaps even dangling from the deck, but I needn't have worried. This bright new generation can figure out things for themselves.
     In fact, I'll let them speak for themselves. Take a look at Jessica's blog for a peek at their high Treehouse fantasy:

Monday, February 11, 2013

Finding hope and art in waste and decay

By Saturday morning, Sébastien was still undecided about whether to drive the Porsche up from Albany or get his girlfriend Stephanie to take her Hyundai. The weather forecast promised snow in Vermont—a lot of it. But he does love to drive that Boxter. It’s low and fast, a sleek black panther with a cabriolet top for warm, hair blown days.
The car’s as exotic as Sébastien. He’s got that tall, dark French handsomeness about him. Born just outside Paris, he still speaks with a delightful accent even after a decade working in the states. He’s got a PhD in computer science, and I like a guy who gets what I’m saying before I finish saying it. “You’ll need a reservation for dinner at the Bobcat….” And he’s found the number on his phone and is already dialing. Dinner at 7:45, which gave us plenty of time to chat before he and Stephanie slipped and slid down the driveway.

        Working as a biomedical engineer is Sébastien's day job. After hours he’s a photographer. One of his obsessions is photographing architecture—a decrepit old castle, a dilapidated theatre, an abandoned hospital streaked with graffiti. He’s drawn to decaying buildings because of “the sense of time,” he says. “Buildings and structures can outlast us but inevitably crumble and collapse, burying the memories they were attached to.” He wants to preserve those memories and “show a small glimpse of hope in that waste and decay.” In the last couple years his work has been featured in three solo and eighteen group exhibits, and he had photographs displayed at the 75th exhibition of work by artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region, hosted by the Albany Institute of History and Art. Check out his impressive website at

His passion for buildings may have led Sébastien to Stephanie, who works as an architect designing commercial buildings. She conceptualizes new hospitals, theaters and the like, and Sébastien photographs those that are falling apart. Stephanie doesn't like to talk about herself and asks more questions than she answers, which creates an irresistible mystique about her.
What we did find out about Stephanie is that even though she’s beautiful, she’s also pretty tough. She and Sébastien get the award for spending the most frigid night in the treehouse. On the Saturday evening of their stay, the temperature dipped to -12F. In the morning when they came in for coffee (Sébastien drinks milk), the thermometer was flirting with zero.
“Did you get cold?” I asked Stephanie.
She shook her head no. “I dressed for it,” she said. Practical girl.
Sébastien seemed invigorated by the cold and showed us photos he took of the Treehouse, some at night adorned with its colorful lights and some in a mystical light. He says he tries to “provide a glimpse into the world of chaos and decay before it inevitably gives way to something completely different, old or new.”
As much as I admire Sébastien's photography, on that note I’m rather glad he didn’t ask to photograph this chaotic and decaying writer. Even though he avows that the French don’t like to disclose much about their personal lives, I do hope Sébastien and Stephanie return to Fern Forest—I have a feeling we’ve barely scratched the surface of getting to know this fascinating and very cool duo. 
Here's one of Sébastien's of Fern Forest Treehouse on a cold winter night.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Nothing tacky about natural beauty

It’s odd how treehouse guests not only share a bit of themselves when they visit but also act as mirrors for H and me. Each time we have a new guest, we see our view of Mt. Abe in a new light. I look around at H’s beautiful handcrafted lamps as if for the first time. Instead of taking our surroundings for granted, I feel the peacefulness of the forest around us.
            Our last treehouse guest, Kimberly, is a makeup artist and has done makeup for stars and models like Naomi Campbell. Since she moved from Florida to Massachusetts, Kimberly’s main clients are brides and bridal parties, prom dates and once in a while a birthday party for thirteen-year-olds.
            The evening Kimberly arrived with her handsome boyfriend Phil, I wasn’t wearing makeup. Usually I’ll brush on some mascara, but I feel overdressed in blush and lipstick here in the wilderness. I’m lucky if I get my hair combed. Kimberly’s makeup was perfectly applied—understated and classy. She was stunning, in fact. Even her hair looked as if she’d laid out a fortune to have it cut and styled.
            But there was no sense of competition between us. The trick of Kimberly’s trade, she says, is to make the client feel good about herself—not to feel overshadowed by the artist. She could have said to me, “Just let me fix you up a bit.” Instead, she said, “You don’t need makeup—you have natural beauty.” I loved her immediately.
            Before they went out to dinner, I gave Kimberly a glass of wine and let her wind out some stories about makeup. One bride wanted heavy eye makeup with rhinestones glued to her lashes. Kimberly tried to convince her that not only would such affectation look tacky and unnatural, but she’d have trouble blinking. The bride was adamant about the rhinestones. Kimberly applied the glittering fake diamonds. The bride blinked. Her eyes watered. She asked Kimberly to get the rhinestones off her lashes—immediately. Kimberly smiled, removed the gems and managed not to say “I told you so.”
            Boyfriend Phil is a stonemason, which keeps him in good shape. Kimberly keeps her slim figure by going to the gym every morning and working out with a trainer. She pulled out her phone and showed me photos of herself in some of her fitness competitions. First of all, let me say that Kimberly is in her early fifties, ten years younger than I am, but when you see her in a bikini, you’d never believe her age. She’s all muscle—all definition, as they say. Two percent body fat when she’s working it. Her skin is tan sprayed a golden bronze color. She looks amazing.
            The competition involves flexing, posing, and doing a dance number choreographed with help from her trainer. Kimberly was competing in the over forty category.
            “Did you win?” I asked.
            “I came in second,” she said.
            “Who came in first?” I expected it would be someone younger but she said, “A woman your age.”
I gulped. I swore off French fries. I scheduled a gym workout.
Before they left, I asked Kimberly about eyelashes. Mine have thinned since I’ve gotten older. She recommended Colossal by Maybelline. I went right out and bought two tubes of the mascara. My lashes now are long and thick. Thanks, Kimberly.
As for the rest of me—well, that’s going to take some time.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Some events are unplanned (and unwelcome)

Sarah and Brian arrived at Fern Forest last weekend in a cute Mini Cooper AWD, which trundled up our snowy driveway without a slip. They’re event planners in Massachusetts and organize corporate conferences and festivals for thousands of people—sometimes as many as a hundred thousand. Imagine arranging venues and hotel reservations, designing registration folders with name tags and itineraries, planning meals, scheduling talks and workshops, solving a myriad of problems and answering a hailstorm of questions. Imagine the rise in blood pressure, the surging anxiety.
Three weeks earlier, they would have driven their SUV, but there had been an accident. Sarah was driving while Brian reclined in the passenger seat, asleep. They were on the highway, returning from a trip, and Sarah had her ear tuned to the voice of the GPS device to guide her home. When the GPS lady told her to turn right, which would take them south, Sarah knew she should be going north. Could there be a glitch in the satellite signal?
            We don’t use GPS devices in our part of Vermont. Some roads that used to be thoroughfares are now horse paths or hiking trails. The steepest, most winding mountain roads are closed in winter, but the GPS doesn’t read signs and will lead a trusting driver straight into a wall of packed snow where the plow stops.
            I once used GPS in a car I rented in Louisville to find my way to a book festival. I don’t know Louisville roads and the device’s voice spoke in what sounded like a Liverpudlian accent. By the time I got close enough to match the street signs with the nasally voice, I was usually in the wrong lane and the woman was “recalculating.” I prefer to sit down with a map the night before a trip and memorize the route. Even so, I often get lost and have to ask some benevolent local for directions, in which case all I’ve lost is a bit of time.
            Concerned that the mechanical voice was heading her into uncharted territory, Sarah took her focus from the road just long enough to look at the animated map on the GPS screen.
            Not two seconds.
            When she looked back at the road, she was careening at seventy miles per hour straight toward the tailgate of a pickup stopped dead ahead. Thankfully, there was no time to swerve because SUVs have been known to overturn at high speed jerks of the wheel. Thankfully, too, her seatbelt was fastened.
            Just before impact, she looked over at Brian, his seatbelt stretched and locked eight inches above his sleeping body.
            When the SUV slammed into the pickup, its airbags inflated, saving Sarah’s pretty face from smashing into the windshield. The seatbelt left a bruise across her chest for weeks afterward. Brian woke up as his body crashed into his seatbelt, fracturing his sternum. The SUV was destroyed. The driver of the pickup was uninjured and the truck had only minor damage.
            An ambulance took Brian to the hospital and after a few days he was released with a fistful of painkillers. He had to train himself to sleep on his back, what little sleep he got.
The visit to Fern Forest was elixir for him. The first night was windy, and the creaking of the treehouse woke him several times. The second night was calm, and he said it was the best sleep he’s had since the accident.
Most days, Brian and Sarah spend their time tending to the edification and enjoyment of other people. I’m glad that for one brief weekend we could provide them an intermission, a chance to look around and breathe in stillness, a chance to feel grateful for being alive.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Panning for Vermont Gold

I was coming down with the flu and in bed when the Russians arrived for a stay in the treehouse. I heard the front door open, the clamor of suitcases and greetings, and a little feminine voice say, “Hi! What’s upstairs?”
            We’ll call the girl Verushka. She had just turned a precocious seven. H hadn’t said anything about the guests bringing a child, and when I heard her traipsing up the stairs, I pulled up the covers and pretended to be asleep.
            It was Monday. We don’t usually take guests during the week, but H thought the Russians sounded interesting, so he accepted them. They booked the treehouse for three nights.
            When I heard Verushka’s parents—Elana and Nureyev, we’ll call them—peppering H with questions, I rolled out of bed and went downstairs to help him entertain, tissue held tightly to my nose. The only Russian words I know are “do svidaniya,” and when I said it, Verushka laughed.
            “We just got here,” she said.
            “That means goodbye,” Elana said.
            “Oh,” I said. “Then how do you say welcome?”
            “Privetstviye.” Copying Elana’s pronunciation was beyond me, and I found that a smile and a nod worked just as well.
          H put out cheese and crackers, and Elana disappeared into the guest room to make some phone calls. She manages a team of web designers and needed to make sure everyone was on task. Nureyev gave Verushka his cell phone to keep her occupied with games while he talked about his own web business. When I told him I have a blog, he said he knows someone who makes half a million a year blogging.
“Where does the money come from?” I asked.
Nureyev was vague about the source of the fortune but said one gets advertisers by writing posts everyone wants to read, as if that’s as easy as splicing a comma.
            Just as I was getting interested, Verushka complained, “No one’s talking to me. Why does my father get to do all the talking? He’s always talking.”
            H scooted over to sit beside her on the couch. I wondered if it was her bedtime yet.
            I offered Nureyev a glass of wine or a shot of bourbon, but he said, “I drink three quarters of a bottle of vodka before I feel anything, and then I just feel bad.”
            Fine with me. I didn’t have any vodka anyway.
            Elana finished her calls and sat down to eat some cheese. We suggested some local restaurants for dinner, but Nureyev said the cheese was sufficient. Elana had brought a cooler of snacks from Brooklyn to eat in the treehouse in case they got hungry later. It was early winter, the time mice come in to warm up, and I hoped our local rodent population had no appetite for Russian nibbles.
            Normally I’m a patient B&B host, but I wondered why this family had chosen to stay in a treehouse if they were going to spend all their time in our living room. Thankfully, two hours later—after the cheese plate was empty—they retired to their lofty quarters for the night.
            At nine the next morning, Elana and Verushka came in from the treehouse. Elana helped Verushka dress and braided her long brown hair. We asked if Nureyev was getting up soon, but Elana said he was sleeping in and they’d have breakfast without him. I wasn’t feeling much better, but I helped H serve breakfast, making sure not to sneeze into the granola. After the dishes were cleaned up, Nureyev still had not appeared, and I suggested Elana, Verushka and I go for a walk. It was a bright, cold day, and Elana tied Verushka’s purple hiking boots and off we went, Verushka dressed in purple coat and hat to match her boots.
            I planned to take them a couple miles up a country road to see some horses and the mountain views, but after half a mile Verushka lagged behind. When Elana couldn’t coax her any farther, we ambled back. By the time we returned, a little after eleven, Nureyev was up and hungry as a bear. H fed him the cheese omelet and bacon he had kept warm, and I tried to hold up my wilted end of the conversation while Elana and Verushka went out to straighten their things in the treehouse.
            “What is this white stone in the yard?” Nureyev asked.
            “It’s quartzite,” I said, “brought here by glaciers thousands of years ago.”
            “Probably from the west,” he said. “There was a gold rush here two centuries ago. There is gold in your white rock.”
            “There is?” I said. “Gold?”
            “Probably. Gold, yes. Have you panned in the streams? There must be gold in the streams.”
            “No, I haven’t panned,” I told him.
            “You might have a fortune here.”
            Nureyev is a burly man with a bushy beard. He ate every strip of bacon, the omelet and several slices of toast.
“Where is the closest panning shop?” he asked between mouthfuls. I told him I didn’t think we had panning shops in Vermont. He checked his phone and found a place on the other side of the Green Mountains where he could buy such a pan, much to our surprise.
Sometime in the afternoon, after Verushka showed me a few ballet postures, they took off for a hike and some gold panning. That evening they returned, having no luck at the pan shop, which was long closed, but they had gone down to the New Haven River to hang out and sort through rocks. From somewhere Nureyev had procured a mason jar and filled it with river mud, which he was convinced contained gold. He planned to take it back to New York and have it tested and would let us know if he found the precious metal.
I’ve since discovered that Nureyev may be on to something. In the 1860s, more than five hundred prospectors came to central Vermont seeking gold. The Great Appalachian Gold Belt runs along the Green Mountains, and some veins have been found in the last few years as the ground has shifted. Panning for gold is legal in Vermont, and those with enough patience have found flakes and even nuggets but so small one needs tweezers to pick them out—hardly worth the effort. Gold does indeed hide in quartzite, as Nureyev said, but getting the metal out of the rock is tricky and can cost more than the gold itself. It’s better to wait for a sale at the local jewelers.  
On their final morning, Elana packed up, and Nureyev carried his precious jar of river mud to the car. Before he left, he told us, “My other interest is knives. I like sharp knives. Japan has the best knife sharpeners in the world. I take trips to Japan just to have my knives sharpened.”
I’m rather glad Nureyev didn’t spring his knife fascination on us any earlier.
As they drove off, I yelled, “do svidaniya”—and this time I meant it.