Sunday, November 30, 2014

What do deer and Algeria have in common? A Treehouse, of course!


            It took two years for Monet and Nadir to pay a second visit to Fern Forest. We’ve been following them on social media as they ride elephants in India, run half marathons, and go on ridiculously long bike tours, all the while smiling and laughing. And once again, they brought smiles and laughter to the Treehouse.
            Monet, named after the painter whose work her mother loves, showed up for breakfast on Saturday wearing a sweater with a buck on the front. I had to tell her that a neighbor had just shot a buck on our property that morning. She hadn’t heard the gunshots.
“Should I change my sweater?” she asked.
I told her if she wore a coat and a blaze orange cap, she’d be fine.
     Monet works with the EF foundation matching European   young folks with au pair jobs in the States. With her bubbly personality, I imagine she makes au pairs feel right at home in their new jobs.
Last year Nadir launched his own internet marketing business and works out of the third floor of their house in Boston. After two visits, I summoned the gumption to ask him about his name.
     “Is it Middle Eastern?” I asked. When I lived in Washington, D.C., my favorite restaurant was Mama Aysha’s because of their delicious Moroccan dishes.
      “No,” he said. “It’s Pied-Noir.”
      “Black feet?” The name sounded Native American.
      His family, Nadir explained, is from Algeria in French North Africa. The French ruled much of the region until 1962. Until then, ten percent of the population were non-Muslim, including Nadir’s family. I looked up the history of the Algerian War and got lost in the explanation of the FLN and MNA, but I gathered that the Pied-Noirs supported colonial French rule as opposed to Algerian nationalist groups, which included the Berbers and the Arab and Islamic cultures. The French Fourth Republic, as they were named, did not fare well in the war, and the conflict ended with a mass exodus of Algerian Europeans to France when Algeria gained independence.
      The annals of Algerian history are complex. The upshot, I gathered, is that after the war eight hundred thousand French Pied-Noirs left the country and a couple hundred thousand chose to stay in Algeria. Today only about fifty thousand Pied-Noirs remain.
      Life in France was no picnic, however. The Pied-Noirs were blamed for the war and were alienated both from their adopted country and their native homeland. I recall reading a story in college French class called “La Mort d’un Bicot.” The 1940 narrative follows an Algerian who enters France without the proper papers and lands in jail. When released, he jumps into the sea and his drowned body washes up on a beach at Dunkirk. No one knows the man, and no one cares about his death. Existentialism at its best.
      Switzerland, always neutral and accepting of pretty much everyone, welcomed Nadir’s family, and they settled in Geneva.
      When I asked Nadir about the origin of the term Pied-Noir, he said he thought it related back to sailors—mostly Algerians—who worked barefoot in the coal rooms of steamships, their feet dirtied by soot and dust. I prefer the theory that “black feet” refers to French Algerians whose feet were stained with purple as they trampled grapes to make wine.
  Nadir was a young boy when his family left Algeria. He thinks of Switzerland as his home, but his father goes back to Algiers see relatives. For Christmas Nadir and Monet are heading to Geneva. I can only imagine the stories that will circulate around the banquet table, not to mention the Algerian delicacies like mahjouba (flaky crêpes stuffed with tomato jam), chicken tagine, slk fel kousha (baked cheese and spinach), and of course, couscous.
   I admit I’m a little jealous. My own family history is bland by comparison. Neither am I named for a famous painter. What I love about hosting guests in the treehouse is that when they’re willing to share, I get a glimpse of the world through their experiences. But it’s more than that. We foster friendships, no matter how different we are from each other. For one weekend, at least, we have nature and a little treehouse in common, and that’s enough.


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Flying high at Fern Forest Treehouse


            Up in the sky—is it a bird? (Newp) Is it a plane? (Newp) Is it Superman? (Well, sort of)
Treehouse guest Ben is flying high with his new startup company, Altaeros Energies. The MIT grad has spent the last few years working on a new kind of windmill. It’s called a Bouyant Airborne Turbine. Made of sturdy industrial fabrics, the BAT looks sort of like a gigantic floating donut with fins. In the middle are blades that turn with the wind. The flying turbine, which Ben says is as big as our house, is tethered to the ground and strong enough to hold sensors that detect when helium levels are low—in which case it floats to the ground for “refueling”—wifi, and impact detectors in case a clumsy pigeon should fly into it. And, of course, a very long extension cord to supply electricity.
Ben’s idea is to use the BAT not only for home power but especially for areas hit by natural disasters that have knocked out electricity—earthquakes, tornados, floods, and the like. Once the donut is filled with helium and aloft, it transmits power to the ground, and you’re good to go. The BAT is cheaper than a windmill and at an elevation of two thousand feet reaches more consistent winds than windmills. The BAT is more flexible, too, as well as reducing human and animal impact. You can check out the BAT on Ben’s company website: http://www.altaerosenergies.com/index.html.
I neglected to mention that Ben brought his girlfriend Sarah with him to Fern Forest for the weekend. She works in commercial marketing in Boston, but there’s nothing stuffy about this savvy lady. She raced Ben to the top of Camel’s Hump, challenges him to a half marathons, and likes to sing silly songs. When I told her I was working on a novel about the Titanic, she launched into the old camp song:
Oh they built the ship Titanic
To sail the ocean blue,
And the Captain swore that the water'd
Ne'er come through.
But the Lord Almighty's hand
Said the ship would never land.
It was sad when the great ship went down.”
Her enthusiasm was infectious, and I couldn’t help joining in on the chorus:
Oh it was sad - so sad
It was sad - too bad
It was sad when the great ship went down
Husbands, wives, little children lost their lives
It was sad when the great ship went down
Down to the bottom of the sea
Blub blub blub blub
            These two very cool people like Vermont microbrews, good food of all types, and lots of fascinating conversation. Before breakfast each morning Ben took over the stove and made himself hot chocolate with some cacao powder I found in the back of the cupboard. Sarah didn’t complain when on their second night a high wind got the Treehouse rocking and rolling. Don’t doubt for a minute that these two bright and energetic people can rock and roll right along with it.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Little figure skater leaps high..into a tree


           
           Imagine you’re the oldest of four children in your family. The younger siblings get most of the attention, but your mom doesn’t want you to feel neglected. So when you’re five or six and more babies are coming along, she asks if you’d like ice skating lessons. The first time you take to the ice, something clicks. You’re hooked.
            That’s what happened with Fern Forest Treehouse guest Caitria. The firstborn is always special. With the first child, everything changes. The bond is strong and enduring.
            When Caitria turned ten, Julie wanted to do something special for her. A night in a treehouse—just the two of them—seemed the perfect thing.
            When I was growing up in Virginia, I knew nothing about figure skating. My brothers and I played outdoors in the nearby creek or in friends’ yards. Parents didn’t spend a lot of time ferrying their kids to practices unless the teams were part of a school program. I didn’t put on ice skates until I moved to Vermont and fell in love with a hockey player. I was determined to learn to skate and started by holding onto the boards as I wobbled around the ice. Then the hockey player put a stick in my hand and I leaned on it to skate. I fell a lot. Ice is hard and before long I was speckled with bruises. When I got a little better, the hockey player bought me hockey skates. Without the toe picks, I kept falling forward. Then (because he loves me) he came up behind me and pushed me—fast. He thought it would be fun. I screamed and waved my arms. My hair flew out behind me. He laughed. When he stopped, I went to the bench and took off the skates. They’ve been gathering dust in the cellar ever since.
            I wish I’d gotten hooked the way Caitria did. As she grows, Julie buys her spiffy new figure skates. She also gets to wear glittery little costumes when she performs in front of judges. And no surprise—the judges like her. She’s strong and fit and pretty. When she does axel jumps and camel spins, double toe loops and a layback spins, the judges smile.
            Caitria is has such potential that Julie enrolled her in a school for athletes so she can take academic classes on campus and spend the rest of her time on the ice. She practices five hours a day and would skate longer if she could.
            This fall Julie wrote us that Caitria would be participating in the New England regional competition at Burlington’s Leddy Park where, coincidentally, I gave up the idea of becoming the next Tonya Harding. Caitria did so well that she qualified for the finals. We were honored to be invited and drove in to watch. The excitement in the rink was palpable. For each skater, parents and siblings in the stands applauded and whooped. Several fell. Others glided lyrically.
            When Caitria and three other girls came out to warm up, we recognized her immediately. She looked beautiful in her red sequined skating dress, dark hair knotted into a tight bun, eyes shadowed with glitter, her hands snug in her lucky pink gloves.
It had been a year since Caitria had stayed at the Treehouse, and now she was eleven. She was stronger and more confident than when we’d last seen her. When her turn came to perform, she skated out and took her starting spot in the center of the ice. The music began—a forties tune, peppy and classy. Her routine was flawless. The audience erupted in applause.
Afterward, Caitria came to the stands to say hello to us—to me and that hockey player I married. I could tell as he was watching Caitria that he was hankering to get out on the ice and do a few twirls himself, maybe chasing an imaginary hockey puck. But he held himself back.
Before we said goodbye to Caitria and Julie, we hugged Caitria and gave her a bottle of Vermont maple syrup to take home to Massachusetts. She's off to Boston soon for more competing. She's ready. She's psyched. You can be sure we haven’t seen the last of this little skater lady. 

            

Friday, August 29, 2014

Security is tight at Fern Forest Treehouse


            
Two folks from Ohio joined us at Fern Forest last weekend. When Meghan was hired to work in the student abroad office at a university, Ryan relocated with her and looked for employment. He had majored in criminology in college, thinking he’d do something in law enforcement. Boy, does he ever.


            Ryan started his own commercial security company and has been hired by several department stores. One of them, a discount enterprise whose name I promised not to mention, kept him pretty active. Several times he watched a thief come in, pick up a forty-inch flat-screen TV in its box, and carry it out the front door without a glance toward the check-out lines. In broad daylight, mind you. Others filled one (or sometimes two) shopping carts with merchandise and wheeled out the goods, again without pulling out so much as a library card for payment.
            Ryan is muscular and fit, and those robbers were easy to chase down and wrestle to the ground. Some, however, were more of a challenge.
            He watched one man browse through bras in the women’s lingerie department. The man took three bras with him into the men’s room. Store policy required that customers have privacy in dressing rooms and restrooms, so Ryan sat outside the door and waited. Finally the man exited without the bras—or so it seemed. Ryan could see multiple straps under the fellow’s tee shirt, but it was against store policy to search a man’s undergarments, even if they were women’s undergarments. When Ryan checked the bathroom, he found no trace of the bras. Either the man had left the tags on the bras or he had removed and flushed them.
            At another department store, a large man came in with a petite woman and an empty shopping bag with the name of the department store on it. At that time Ryan was in his office watching the security camera monitors. He saw the man stuffing women’s clothing into the bag—some XS and some XL. Apparently they both enjoyed dressing up. When they left the store, Ryan managed to catch the woman and hand her to mall police, but the man took flight with the bag, Ryan in hot pursuit. When he passed a restaurant, a couple were having lunch on the patio. The diner saw Ryan chasing the robber and left his meal to help. They jumped fences and dashed across parking lots, clothes flying haphazardly out of the bag. Eventually the diner caught the robber and dragged him back to Ryan. The thief had cut himself on a chainlink fence and dribbled blood on some of the garments. The others were returned to the store, and the robber went off in a police cruiser.
            Probably Ryan’s most harrowing experience was following a young woman who walked out without paying for her items. He generally avoided wrestling with women, but when this one kept walking, he grabbed her arm. He had already alerted the police, who were on their way to the store.
            “Take your hand off me or you’re going to get it,” the woman told Ryan.
            He let her go but followed closely behind her. When the police caught up with them, they apprehended the woman and found a 35mm handgun in her purse—loaded. 
            Just as Ryan was wiping the sweat from his brow at that close call, the police emptied the gun of its bullets and handed it back to the woman. Then they told her she could come back the next day and collect the ammunition. State law restricts anyone under twenty-one from buying a gun, but it’s completely legal to be in possession of one—even to conceal it.
           "Do you carry?" I asked Ryan. He laughed.
           "Yeah, I carry a cell phone and a store identification card."
            Be afraid, robbers. Be very afraid.
            There’s no question that Ryan’s job is dangerous, and so we treated Meghan and him extra nice for their night in the Treehouse. The only robbers who came near us were a sorority of does eyeing my late summer gardens. Even without security cameras, I felt Fern Forest was in safe hands that night.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

What the fox says



Our new friend Addison is a fireball of energy. The only time I saw her still when she visited Fern Forest Treehouse was when she was watching videos of mischievous cats on H’s iPad. Her jumpiness is fine with us. Addie is an eight-year-old athletic marvel. The only girl on her Little League team, she made the All-Star list this past season. Next year she wants to be the pitcher. She also plays basketball, soccer, does gymnastics, and swims.
            Boy, does she swim! Her grandparents Gail and Craig took her to a local swimming hole on the New Haven River on Saturday. From the overhead bridge, an old rope hangs that swimmers used to jump from, but someone attached a new rope that’s longer and sturdier, and that’s what folks use now to swing and drop into the deep pool under the bridge. Addie did that a few times before she got bored. Then she grabbed the rope, swung out, and leaped from the new rope to the old one, swung again and finally let go for a plunge into the pool.
            Remember, she’s eight years old and weighs probably all of sixty pounds.
            Below the pool is a cluster of boulders smoothed by cascading water. Some of the boulders form a chute where the water runs through furiously. I’ve never dared the chute, but H has shot it a few times, always feet first.
            Not Addie. Splayed out like Superman, she rode the rushing water through the chute headfirst and laughed as she was dumped into the lower swimming hole. The water slows down there, and she could leisurely swim to the side where she got a foothold and scrabbled up over the boulders to have another go at the ropes.
            Gail had a tough time keeping up with Addie, but don’t count this grandma out. She took a turn on the rope, too, and bravely let go over the deep water. Craig took several turns, but Addie was audacious. Needless to say, she was fairly worn out that evening and at dinner slipped into slumber in a booth at the Bobcat Café.
            One day she was wearing a tee shirt with “What does the fox say” on the front.
            “I like your tee shirt,” I said. “What does it mean?”
            “It’s a song.” She tried to describe the song to me, but I was having trouble grasping it. So H looked it up on his iPad.
            “Here’s the video,” he said and handed me the tablet. The song is by a group called “Ylvis,” and “The Fox” is a sort of upbeat, modern version of Old MacDonald: “Dog goes woof
/ Cat goes meow 
 /Bird goes tweet 
and mouse goes squeek. / Cow goes moo 
 /Frog goes croak 
and the elephant goes toot. / Ducks say quack
 and fish go blub 
and the seal goes ow ow ow ow ow.”
            The tune is seductively catchy (500 million video hits will attest to that). If you watch the video, you’ll see that the members of the band are handsome and quite young—maybe too young to have kids of their own. I remember reading to my own young son a book called Fox Eyes by Margaret Wise Brown. In the book, the fox only said “Whiskerchoo.” Bry loved it whenever I sneezed the word, which was on nearly every page.
            But Ylvis has pounded author Brown into the ground with their lyrics. Here’s a little bit of what the fox says, according to their song: "Wa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pow!
 Wa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pow!
 Wa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pow!”
And the fox says: “Hatee-hatee-hatee-ho!
 Hatee-hatee-hatee-ho!
 Hatee-hatee-hatee-ho!
”
            And the fox says: “Joff-tchoff-tchoffo-tchoffo-tchoff!
 Tchoff-tchoff-tchoffo-tchoffo-tchoff!
 Joff-tchoff-tchoffo-tchoffo-tchoff!”
           The fox says a lot of other things in the song, too. A very vocal fox it is. And since Addie’s visit, I’m a fan of the fox, and I’m a fan of Ylvis. But I’m especially a fan of Addie and her grandparents. They promised to make their visit an annual tradition. I hope they do. I want to hear more about this fox and the feats of courage of our new friend Addison.




Sunday, July 20, 2014

A firefighter takes a leap

What is it about Fern Forest Treehouse that inspires romance? Fireman Tom and his girlfriend Jessica have been together for four years. Tom’s mother has been bugging him about popping the question. He thought a treehouse in Vermont provided a good opportunity.
Saturday morning they were both up at 6:30 a.m. Oh dear, I thought. The bacon wasn’t even fried yet. But Tom said, “We’re going to climb a mountain before breakfast.”
A mountain? Before breakfast? Okay, I guess there was no hurry to cook the eggs.
As it turned out, it was a small mountain, and they were back by nine o’clock. H and I served them in the dining room, and from the kitchen we heard them giggling. Later I noticed a huge diamond ring on Jessica’s finger.
“What’s this?” I asked. She grinned. They had hiked to the top of Deerleap and sat on a ledge overlooking Lake Champlain. That’s where Tom took the leap.
Jessica works at a nursing home in Massachusetts. She loves the residents with dementia because they have no filters and she’s always amused by what they say. “It’s so refreshing to be able to say whatever you’re thinking,” she says. I can take a guess about what she’s thinking today with that glittering rock on her finger.
Tom is a full-time firefighter and part-time plumber. The firefighting bug bit him at an early age. He was a senior in high school when he became a cadet with the Civil Air Patrol, a squadron trained for emergency services. He got a call late on March 3, 2003, to assist in a rescue. A small aircraft had crashed in Beartown State Forest. He phoned his partners, two other high school boys ages sixteen and seventeen and told them, “Get up. We have an actual.”
It was the middle of the night when the boys started up the mountain with temperatures hovering around zero. At eighteen years old, Tom took the leadership role. In the dark the boys waded through thick woods with snow up to their waists, trudging slowly up the 1,700-foot Mt. Wilcox. By noon when they finally reached the wreck, they found a blue and white Cherokee Six torn apart, its fuselage resting on its side just above the creek bed. Birch and ash trees had clipped off the plane’s wings, but snow had cushioned the impact.
Running shoes were scattered around the site, and goose down feathered the plane’s cabin. Inside they counted the pilot, his wife and four of their five sons. The wife and two of the boys were killed on impact, and the others were suffering from hypothermia.
Tom radioed the search helicopter and looked around the wreckage. Something caught his eye 40 feet from the demolished plane. He walked toward it. Nestled in cold slush near a stream was a baby with no shoes or hat, a boy about two years old. Acting on instinct, Tom grabbed up the child, put him inside his bulky jacket and breathed warm air on him until help arrived.
            The family had been returning from a Florida vacation when the plane’s wings iced up. Three of the boys were in critical condition but were the only survivors of the crash. They never had a chance to thank Tom and his partners. Tom never saw the boys again, but he thinks of them often. Mostly, he feels privileged to have been able to help. Helping is his passion.
            Tom likes to skydive and once Jessica took the dive with him. She prefers to lace up her skates for an invigorating game of pond hockey. Tom can barely skate. These two give each other challenges, but they also balance each other. From our perspective, it’s a perfect match.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Sky Rockets in Flight


            Treehouse guest Charles wrestled his way through Williams College and now coaches high school wrestling. He’s also an English teacher starting a new job in Boston next month near his girlfriend Alexis, who joined him in our lofty perch.
            These Midwesterners brought their affability with them to the east as well as their affinity for sports. Sure, they wanted to have a romantic, relaxing time for a few days (and Charles did relax on the deck with his laptop), but the World Cup was on, and Argentina was playing Switzerland. Alexis was born in the USA, but her parents moved to the Chicago area from Argentina. We all know whom she was rooting for.
             We gathered around the television to watch, chatting and nibbling hummus and crackers. After Argentina’s victory (and an excited phone call to Alexis’s parents), the two drove up the river to a pretty swimming hole on the New Haven for a dip on this hot first day of July. They were back in time to catch Belgium whupping the USA. But by that time we had uncorked a bottle of chilled white, which soothed our disappointment.
            After two nights aloft, our new friends Charles and Alexis packed up to head back to Boston. Charles went to his car, brought out six packages of sky lanterns and handed them to us as a thank-you for hosting them. I had seen videos of these beautiful little hot air balloons being launched at festivals in Thailand but had never witnessed them in person. We were invited to a huge party at a Lincoln neighbor’s house for July 4th, and I brought the lanterns to launch over their pond.
            The Danforths (of Danforth Pewter) have a pot luck picnic with volleyball, swimming and sparklers every Independence Day because it’s also Fred Danforth’s birthday. He thought the sky lanterns were a great idea.
            It was a cool evening and people gathered around the fire pit, watched children run across the mowed grass, feasted at the food tables, and filled their cups at the keg. Over a hundred neighbors and local politicians were there, and we are always delighted to be included among the invitees. 
           Everyone contributes something—a dish to share, a bottle of wine, some fireworks, and sparkling conversation. This year I baked an almond cake with fresh cherries, and just after dark H and I lit the sky lanterns. It took a minute to ignite the first one and we were a little awkward with making sure to hold the paper away from the flame and wait for the air to heat inside the balloon, which took longer than expected because of the night chill. But then the lantern rose gracefully from our fingers. It sailed up over the volleyball net, over Fred’s new barn frame, higher yet over the trees and off toward Mount Abraham.
            Suddenly children and guests surrounded us, all wanting to help light a lantern. We pulled the other five from their wrappers and got them going. When the lanterns were aloft, we stood looking up at their beauty. Someone started singing happy birthday to Fred and everyone joined in as we watched the lanterns float higher and then vanish over the treetops.
            On this Independence Day weekend, H and I feel grateful to live in this country, even if we didn’t do too well in the World Cup. We’re grateful for quality Treehouse guests like Charles and Alexis, for fine friends, and for our good fortune to live in such a gorgeous place.

            So happy birthday, Fred. And happy birthday, America!


Monday, June 30, 2014

How about a Treehouse Dating Service app?

       
           I honestly think I should start a Treehouse dating service. Remember Sue, the single mom who recently visited Fern Forest with her son Cole? Before they unpacked their knapsacks in the Treehouse, Sue and Cole had climbed Camels Hump, one of Vermont’s highest mountains.
Last week single dad Greg biked to Fern Forest with his son Kelly and daughter Chloe—a steep seven miles uphill, bikes loaded with two nights worth of overnight gear. The day before, they had biked fifteen miles from Vergennes to stay at an inn in Bristol.
            Cole and Kelly are both nine, and Chloe is eleven. Both Greg and Sue like to be fit, and they like to challenge their children to match their enthusiasm for outdoor adventure. Their kids met the challenge and passed with flying colors.
            It seemed a perfect match—except that Sue is in Boston and Greg lives in Toronto.
            But on Monday the focus was on Greg and his two amazing children. Chloe acts and sings in school musicals, and Kelly has an engineer’s mind. In the Treehouse Kelly found a wooden cube that separates into a long strand of attached pieces that can be twisted and turned. Our guests usually can take the cube apart but never can get it back into cube shape.
H once sat in the Treehouse for two hours trying to reassemble the cube. Kelly, however, got it together in minutes. In fact, he taught H the trick to solving the puzzle. Before he left, Kelly twisted the cube back into place in less than a minute. I’ve never been able to get the devilish thing back together.
These are unquestionably bright young folks. Next year every student in their Toronto school will have a tablet for their schoolwork. I’ve been thinking about developing some educational apps and asked Chloe and Kelly for ideas. On the spot Kelly suggested a spelling bee app that keeps track and graphs correct answers. He said the app would have pronunciation of each word and could be used to compete with other students online.
Chloe came up with a sort of “Good Reads for Kids” idea that includes a GPS for finding the book of choice at the closest book store.
While they brainstormed and did troubleshooting with concepts, my brain was reeling. It struck me how lucky these youngsters are—Cole too—to have opportunities for outdoor activities with a parent and the maturity to interact with adults—even strangers like H and me.
We weren’t strangers long, though. As they settled into the Treehouse, we felt the warmth and friendship of these young people even from high up in the maples.
By the way, I sent a message to Airbnb about expanding their service to include romantic match-ups. They thought it was an interesting idea and will bring it up at a staff meeting. As for Greg and Sue? Well, you just never know.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Father's Day tale: A boy and a treehouse


            I’ve fallen in love—with a nine-year-old freckle-faced boy named Cole. He’s tall for his age, the second tallest in his third grade class and his red hair is casually mussed. When he grows up, he wants to be an artist. And an athlete, but he hasn’t decided what sport he’ll pursue. At the moment he likes lacrosse. And basketball. And swimming. And running. But he’s not too keen on baseball.
              Cole’s mom Susan surprised him with an end-of-the-school year visit to Fern Forest Treehouse. She and Cole have just finished building a treehouse in their own yard in New Hampshire, and Cole is looking forward to sleeping in it. There are screens but no windows to close, and he and his friends will be high and dry as long as it doesn’t rain. They’ll unroll sleeping bags on the floor and use flashlights to see after it gets dark. Sleeping in a treehouse with windows, electric lights and a real bed was pretty cushy.
            Sue and Cole had climbed Camel’s Hump that Saturday, a challenging hike to the top of the four thousand foot mountain, and they were pretty tired. After they settled in, we offered them some cheese and crackers before they went out for dinner. My own son at nine years old was silly and uncomfortable around adults. But Cole nibbled carrot sticks and Von Trapp cheese and talked with maturity about the Rube Goldberg type of contraption he had made for the school science fair and his plans for the summer—basketball camp and a two-week trip to Michigan to visit his father. 
It was Father’s Day weekend, and I was hesitant to ask about Cole’s dad, but Sue volunteered that he has a new wife and daughter. She left Michigan when Cole was just a year old and moved back east to be near her parents and her sister. She and Cole were getting along fine until last week when she was laid off from her job as a division vice president in a large health care company. There was a look of worry on her pretty face as she glanced at Cole next to her on the couch, calmly nibbling a cracker.
That evening they had dinner at Snap’s, a fifties style café. Then they came back, put on their swimsuits, and had a soak in the hot tub, the clouds giving way to a brief view of the stars. When they retreated to the treehouse, Cole fell asleep quickly, lulled by a drizzle on the metal roof and a breeze rustling the maple leaves.
Sue may be newly unemployed and a single mom, but she’s intelligent, and she has her priorities straight. Her top priority is Cole and making sure he knows he’s loved. What greater love can a mom show than to spend a couple of days with him high above the worries of the world in a safe and cozy tree.
Before they left, Cole agreed to pose for pictures. There were hugs and well wishes, and we waved as they headed to Waterbury for a tour of the Ben & Jerry’s factory. It was Father’s Day, and H unwrapped gifts of chocolate and a wine stopper and got a call from our son Will. I hoped Cole would talk to his dad that day. I’m sure Cole misses him, but I’m even more sure that his dad is missing some very precious moments with a very special young man.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Space junk and the fountain of youth


            I’ve heard that the third time’s the charm, and Bettina and Doug’s third visit to Fern Forest Treehouse was nothing short of charming. It’s fascinating how you get to know people even though you see them only once a year. Three springs ago they came to us newly married, Bettina recovering from chemo for breast cancer. She was fragile, and Doug hovered around her, making sure she ate the right things—she had become a vegan in her recovery—and didn’t exert herself. They seemed to be getting to know each other, and we gave them space and quiet to do just that.
            On their second visit, Bettina was much stronger, her humor showing through. A family of squirrels was nesting in the rafters of the treehouse, which bothered Doug (would have bothered me, too), and Bettina teased him about being a city boy. They had adopted a puppy, a curly furred little guy they named Winston Churchill, and it was Winnie who was more bothered by the squirrels than was Doug.
            On their third visit last weekend, we settled into a comfort zone with each other. Bettina has been brewing up healthy concoctions and brought H and me each a tin of body salve she had made from bees wax and herbs. She makes her own homemade lip gloss and sunscreen and sees no sense in slathering toxic chemicals on one’s body. In her early forties, she has the skin of a twenty-year-old, and when she markets her products, I’ll be a faithful customer.
Doug, who is humble and usually lets Bettina take the lead in conversation, talked a little about his job as an engineer with the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC. I’m not clear exactly what it is he does, but one of his interests is space environmentalism which I think means figuring out how to clear debris from the earth’s orbit so that missiles and satellites don't bump into anything. Bettina suggested a huge vacuum cleaner. Doug said that would be like using tweezers to clean out an eighteen-wheeler filled with garbage. Then she suggested a magnet, but Doug said most of the defunct satellites are made of lightweight aluminum and are antimagnetic. He said someone is working on shooting dust into space to slow down the orbit of the space junk so it can be removed more easily, but he doesn’t think that will work. Somehow we need to get the junk to fall to earth and burn up in the atmosphere. Ideas anyone?
I asked Doug if the Naval Research Lab has an idea about how to protect the earth in case a giant meteorite plummets toward us like the one that supposedly destroyed the dinosaurs. He said we’d better start digging a tunnel into Mt. Abe because there’s no way of stopping a meteorite. Not even with antiaircraft weapons, I asked? He said that would be like throwing a snowball at a freight train. Actually, H said that, but Doug wouldn’t let me write his analogy in case he wants to use it in an article down the road. He has written lots of articles, including co-authoring one that appeared in Nature magazine about the Chelyabinsk meteor that exploded over Russia last year.
For now, we’re all safe. I hope we stay safe at least until Doug and Bettina’s fourth visit in June 2015. Maybe by then all the space junk will be cleared from earth’s orbit and with my medicine cabinet stocked with Bettina’s elixirs, I’ll be looking half my age.


Monday, April 14, 2014

On composting, elephants and a treehouse


                  Sagar's girlfriend was visiting from India and flying back on Friday. Could they come to the Treehouse on Tuesday?
 Normally we don’t take guests at Fern Forest Treehouse during the week, but how could we refuse?
I’m glad we didn’t. Sagar met Jahnvi through an ashram where they were practicing their religion of Jainism, one of the oldest faiths on earth. Tuesday evening over carrot sticks, hummus and apple cider (they don't drink alcohol), they told us about being Indian, being a Jain, and being in love. 
Jahnvi is a civil engineer in Bombay, as she refers to her home city. Mumbai, the richest and most densely populated city in India, was renamed in 1995 because Indian leaders wanted a less English sounding name. The Indian word Mumbai comes from the Koli goddess Mumbadevi who defeated a malicious giant. Since Jahnvi grew up in the city where her father is in the real estate business, she still uses the older name. Her job in this urban area of twenty million people is planning composting projects to eliminate some of the prevalent garbage issues. Working with compost and garbage seems counterintuitive for this beautiful, petite Indian woman. But she is determined, highly intelligent, and committed to bringing her home city to a more hygienically functioning state.
Sagar is a young dentist who was born and raised on Long Island. He shares his father’s dentistry practice and lives with his family, following Indian tradition. A treehouse in Vermont was a welcome retreat for the couple.
We always ask our guests about dietary preferences for breakfast. Neither Jahnvi nor Sagar eats eggs or meat of any kind. Strict Jains are vegans and don’t even take honey because harvesting stresses the bees, but our guests make exceptions for honey and dairy.
Food aside, these are two of the nicest and most gracious people we’ve hosted at Fern Forest. I’m not sure if it’s their religion or if they’re just naturally positive. Jains are committed to doing no harm to any living creature. In fact, Jain priests sweep the ground in front of them as they walk so as not to injure even the most minuscule insect. They carry a cloth to cover their mouths as a reminder not to speak a harsh word.
Sometimes I could use one of those cloths.
In their four days with us, Sagar and Jahnvi never wandered far from the treehouse. Sagar calls her “The One,” which led to a conversation about Indian weddings. Jahnvi said there might be 1,500 guests at ceremonies lasting as long as five days. On the day of the wedding, the groom rides in on a horse or if the family is wealthy, he rides an elephant. After the ceremony, the reception line lasts up to four hours as each guest is photographed with the newlyweds.
Sagar looked shocked. He visits relatives in India but has never been to a full-blown Indian wedding.
“How did you and H get married?” he asked. I told him it was just H and I and a Unitarian minister in the church parlor. The minister’s secretary came in afterward to sign the marriage certificate.
“That’s how I’d like to do it,” he said.
But of course, that’s not how it will be if he and Jahnvi decide to marry.
On Friday plumbers came to the house to install a water filtration system and had to turn off the water. Jahnvi and Sagar didn’t mind. Jahnvi spoke sweetly to one of the plumbers, asking him about his family and his vacation in the Caribbean. The plumber was charmed.
Jahnvi’s flight to India was just hours away, and Sagar waited until the last minute to pack up for the drive to New York, navigating around plumbing tools and buckets of water. They both had to get back to work on opposite sides of the globe. Jahnvi said once back in India her first order of business would be planning the next time she'll see Sagar.
I think I see an elephant in the dentist’s future.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Artists in the trees



It doesn’t pay to be an artist these days. I mean, it doesn’t pay—at least, generally not much. Kristen and Dave will tell you that. They were last weekend’s guests at Fern Forest Treehouse. Kristen is a video film editor in Boston currently working on a documentary film about how child well being is molded by the policies and practices that shape their environments. Dave is a musician who works at an insurance agency, his hours often melting into the evening.
Painting by artist Rory Jackson (http://roryjacksonart.com)
            More and more it’s becoming obvious that we’re living in a visual culture—much you see on social media are pictures or videos, and even texters are expected to send photos to illustrate their texts. Kristen believes pictures should tell stories. You won’t see her photographing her brother standing in front of Lincoln Memorial. She’d rather capture a broken salt shaker on the table of a Boston restaurant. She didn’t mean to break it, but stuff happens. There’s all sorts of resonance to spilled salt—embarrassment, a mess someone will have to clean up, possibly being billed for the broken shaker, and bad luck if you don’t toss a pinch over your shoulder. There’s a sad sense of spilled salt—the waste, a salty taste, tears, the vast and detached ocean. And there’s a story to be told.
            Kristen began working in film editing as an unpaid intern three and a half years ago. She’s still struggling her way up the ladder, but she’s lucky to be able to work at something she has a passion for. The unfortunate side effect to her work is that when she joined the firm, her employer told her that she would never be able to sit back and enjoy a film again—she’d always be looking for the cuts. She confirms that his prediction has come true.
            I had a similar experience when I joined a local book group. I read the books like a writer, finding themes, symbolism, repeated images and triangulation in characters and events. Other members of the group complained that our meetings felt more like a class than a social gathering. “Can’t you just read for enjoyment?” one group member asked.
No. I read critically. I can’t read any other way. So I bowed out of the group but continued to read the books. Now the group has decided they want me back because since I left their discussions have fizzled. At the next meeting, I’ll try to keep my analysis from brimming over.
There’s always a catch to making and interpreting art.
Dave is in a three-piece band. The drummer was trained in Ghana and plays both rock as well as traditional African drums. The lead guitarist has a taste for Middle Eastern music. Dave plays bass and prefers rock music. The flavor of each musician is different but somehow the music comes together. “It’s a cross between jazz and rock,” he says. “Sort of new age-y.”
The beauty, as one might say, is in the ear of the beholder.
Dave and his band have played lots of gigs around New England, but a night in a hotel costs them the evening’s earnings. So when on tour they try to stay with family, friends, and friends of friends.
“Everyone is nice,” he says. “They won’t take any money and even feed us.”
Art for room and board? I suppose that’s worth something.
Our Lincoln house is decorated with paintings and lithographs by artists we know. When we have a little extra money, we support them by purchasing artwork. H has made frames for local painter Rory Jackson, and Rory has repaid him with a few paintings, one of which hangs in the Treehouse. Maybe art is better bartered.
Who can really place a value on art? It should at least be worth the cost of an artist’s rent and grocery bill. But in my opinion, art—whether it be visual, auditory or literary—is worth a whale of a lot more. Our very souls depend on it.