Sunday, January 26, 2014

Dylan got it wrong: The times have already changed.

Who remembers being twenty? If I rack my brain, I can vaguely recall being in a state of complete confusion. I had taken secretarial courses and was working at a law firm for a bully of a senior partner who kept me at my desk until late at night as he dictated corporate documents. I hated every minute of it, which is why I decided I had put off college long enough.
              Estlin—who is twenty—and Billy—barely twenty-one—are a different sort of young adult than I was. They may be the youngest couple to stay at Fern Forest Treehouse, and they may also hold the record for booking the coldest weekend ever. They had skied on Friday and settled into the treehouse as the temperature dipped to minus ten.
In the morning when they came in for breakfast, I asked, “Did you get cold?”
“No,” Estlin said. “It was toasty.”
They gobbled everything H and I put in front of them, fueling their furnaces for a cold and snowy Saturday. I wish I could remember when I was able to eat like that and stay as slender as Estlin. Never, I’d guess.
            They hung out in the treehouse after breakfast and then went to nearby Bristol to shop and walk around. That evening they accepted our invitation to come into the house and chat. I was a little nervous about what to talk to college juniors about. Nervous, too about offering them a glass of wine. But I offered anyway. Billy had a beer and Estlin took a little red wine. After five minutes, the generation gap vanished and conversation came easily.
            They’re both studying business at Plymouth State College, and Billy is thinking about law school after graduation. He’d like to do something in international law so he can travel. On the other hand, he likes medicine. While he was a full time student, he took evening classes to get his emergency medical tech certification for his ski patrol work. From six to ten p.m. one night a week, he sat in class with older guys—mostly firemen.
“They were loud, telling jokes and cutting up,” he said. He put the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and took notes.
The class interested him enough to think about medical school.
“I’d like to work in an emergency room,” he said.
We know an ER doc. The work isn’t easy. Drunk and drugged students in the middle of the night, car accidents, shootings, beatings. And weird stuff, too.
“I know all about that,” he said. “I’m in college.”
Oh, yes. I do remember those days.
Estlin is president of her sorority. We didn’t have sororities when I was at George Washington University. It was during the Vietnam protest era and student activists decided Greeks were counterrevolutionary. So sororities and fraternities were shut down on campuses across the country. But they’ve been back for a while. I believe Estlin takes her office seriously. She wants to go into marketing, especially helping to get the word out about environmental products and alternative energy.
“We’re called the entitlement generation,” Billy said. “People say we think we’re entitled to the good life instead of working for it.”
“I think you’re the responsible generation,” I said. “You’re responsible for fixing the mess we’re responsible for making.”
“Yes,” he agreed. “We’ve got a lot of responsibility on our shoulders.”
Before they left on Sunday, they took a dip in the hot tub. H told them to use the thick robes we provide, but Estlin dashed out in her bathing suit, barefoot. By that time the thermometer read two degrees above zero.
After a while, she came in rosy cheeked and smiling.
“Didn’t you get cold?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “It was great.”
Great, yes. If you’re twenty.
When H was their age, he was playing college hockey and thinking about the next game. When our son, who is 35, was their age, he should have been thinking about his chemistry class but was more interested in the next party. When I was Estlin’s age, I just wanted to write poetry and maybe become a movie actress.
Times change. And judging from the aspirations of this bright and ardent couple, I’m certainly glad they do.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Green Mountains and the White House in sync

Here at Fern Forest Treehouse, we’ve rarely met a more unlikely couple than Antoinette and Chris. They met online in the early days of AOL chat rooms. It was a random chat room and the connection was innocent. She was eleven—although she told him she was fifteen—and he was indeed fifteen. She was in middle school in New York City and he was in high school in Vermont. She was an ace student and he struggled with ADHD. She had aspirations of a top college followed by law school. He just hoped to get into a college. He’s tall and slim with cropped strawberry blond hair. She’s petite with dark curly hair and comes from a Spanish-speaking home.
Five years of online chatting and exchange of photos and videos deepened their relationship, but they still hadn’t met face to face. Then when Antoinette was sixteen, her parents—whom she describes as “very liberal”—allowed her to take the train to Vermont to meet Chris. They were already in sync through their screen relationship, but seeing her in the flesh sealed the deal. When Chris asked her to be his girlfriend, she responded, “I already am.”
Antoinette is a woman who knows what she wants. She spent four years at Middlebury College in Vermont while Chris hung out in New Hampshire, where he had graduated from Franklin Pierce University. He learned building skills and came back to Vermont to work with an environmental services company teaching at-risk high school kids proficiencies to help them build self-esteem and land jobs.
They didn’t see much of each other in those years. After college Antoinette enrolled in law school. She was taking classes at Northeastern when a mentor suggested that with her Spanish speaking skills she should apply for an internship at the White House. Not only did the White House HR like her, but they offered her a full-time job with the press corps.
“What about law school?” she said.
“Transfer to Georgetown,” they replied.
Antoinette juggled night classes at Georgetown Law with ten-hour work days that required her to follow President Obama all over the world. The press goes where he goes, she said, whether to summit meetings in the Middle East or golfing on Martha’s Vineyard. Since the assassination of President Kennedy, when there were few reporters in Dallas, the press corps has been at the heels of every U.S. President in case of a noteworthy news break. And in the last four years, Antoinette has been there, too.
When Chris visited her in Washington, she arranged for an insider’s tour of the White House, including the rarely seen briefing room and, of course, the Oval Office. If Antoinette intended to impress him, she succeeded.

Chris said he thought about places they could live together that would make them both happy. He didn’t want to move to D.C., and he’s not a New York City kind of guy. Neither of them had a connection to upstate New York or Boston. Chris eliminated every option except one—Vermont.
Antoinette is resetting her headlamp toward the Green Mountain State. She’ll finish law school in 2015 and plans to take the Vermont bar exam. After that she may apply to clerk for Vermont District Judge William Sessions. Then she’ll set up her own law practice in the Burlington area, where Chris owns a home.
I’ve heard that magnetism is determined by the orbit and spin of electrons and the way in which electrons interact with each other. After spending several hours with Chris and Antoinette, it’s clear that they connect on a molecular level. They spin around each other, never out of their common orbit. H and I are glad that their orbit spun them to Fern Forest for one snowy winter night.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Treehouse Tables Turn in Tucson

Normally H and I host visitors at Fern Forest Treehouse in Vermont, but occasionally we travel and get to experience what it's like to be a guest. Staying with my brother outside of Tucson was such an opportunity.
Arizona is a long way from Northern Virginia where Butch and I grew up. In Vail, south of Tucson, it’s not unusual to see a bobcat sauntering down the street or a black widow spider weaving a web in the garage.
Butch’s wife Mary Beth teases the tarantulas but avoids the scorpions she often sees when she takes out the trash. I always recognize their house by the saguaro cactus in the front yard, those tall limby plants that look almost human once they grow arms. At Christmas Butch snuggles a Santa cap on its prickly top to keep off winter’s chill. Saguaros don’t like cold.
Butch moved to Arizona three decades ago, and it had been three years since I’d seen him. He has had a myriad of health problems—heart, colon cancer, gall bladder, and backaches. H and I agreed that Thanksgiving was a good time for a visit.
In the mornings, Butch and I were the first ones up. He made coffee for me and drank his orange juice from a mug, having given up coffee on account of his heart. Memory is tricky. We catch one event and drop another like fly balls in the outfield—sometimes he called the catch and at other times I did. I’d forgotten that our cousin tagged him with the nickname Butch because of the crewcut he had when he was eight. Before that he’d been “Junior,” which he never liked. He liked his given name—Lester—even less.
Five years younger than I, Butch has a better memory. He recollected going with Mom to pick up our dad at the A&P grocery store where he ground coffee and straightened shelves after working all day at the Navy Annex of the Pentagon. The extra job allowed us a weekly treat—hamburgers and a banana split at a cafĂ©—at least before a heart attack caused Dad to give up working so many hours.
“Do you remember the Navy Band concerts Dad took us to on the steps of the Capitol building?” I asked.
“The concerts were at the bandstand by the Potomac River,” he corrected.
“No—they were at the Capitol.”
I started to feel the old gratings of competition. I’ve always been jealous of Butch’s blond hair and blue eyes. My hair is mud brown and my eyes hazel, which is no distinct color. He was the singer who got the leads in school musicals and in Tucson sang bass with the Arizona Repertory Theatre. I sailed through college and graduate school but can’t sing a note. At least we agreed that the Navy Band concerts always ended with a Sousa march.
“I’ll never forget waiting on line to view JFK’s coffin in the rotunda after the assassination,” Butch said.
“Was I with you,” I asked?
“You, Mom, Dad and I, yes. Dad wanted us to pay our respects.”
Butch was eleven in 1963. I was in high school history class when the announcement came over the loudspeaker that the President had been shot, but I don’t remember being at the Capitol.
“It was cold that November,” Butch said, “and I was shivering so much that Mom urged Dad to hail a cab back to our car. Dad was disappointed, but the line was so long we’d have been there another hour to get in.”
I poured another cup of coffee to buoy myself for the competition.
“Wasn't it great to watch the lighting of the Christmas tree on the Ellipse?”
“We never did that,” he said.
I had the advantage now.
“And Fourth of July fireworks at the Washington Monument?”
“We put off fireworks in the back yard,” he said. “I know that because of the time I used the car cigarette lighter to light a cherry bomb. It went off in my hand before I could toss it.”
He held out his hand to show me the scar on his finger. He may have been right about the fireworks, but I wasn't going to admit it.
The rivalry ended when our spouses got up and we made breakfast, shifting the conversation to the golden eagle perched in the ash tree behind their house and the hummingbirds at the feeders.
On one day of our visit, Butch and Mary Beth took Harry and me to the Sonora Desert Museum where we watched raptors show off their aerial skills and sneered at rattlesnakes behind glass. We ate at an authentic Mexican restaurant while a flamenco guitarist serenaded us. We sprawled on their leather sectional and played with the Wii on their huge screen TV, laughing until our bellies ached.
On Thanksgiving morning, Butch peeled and cut up sweet potatoes and cooked them until they were mouth-melting soft. Then he put them in a pan and sprinkled on brown sugar and butter, just the way Mom used to make them. I cut up fresh fruit for a fruit salad.
“Mom used canned fruit,” Butch said.
“I know,” I said. “But I like fresh fruit.”
Sometimes memory can be improved upon.
I steamed asparagus and sprinkled on olive oil and toasted almonds, and we talked about the good times and our regrets. When Butch was a senior in high school, his girlfriend discovered she was pregnant. At eighteen he was a husband and father to an adorable towheaded boy. I was off at college, so Butch moved his family in with Mom and Dad and got a job in a shoe store. When he enlisted in the Navy, his wife left him and took their son Jeff to live in New York. Butch kept in touch but saw his boy only occasionally. Years later he encouraged Jeff, who was then thirty, to move to Tucson.   
We took our sweet potatoes and fruit salad to Jeff’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. Jeff met his wife Terry when he lived on Long Island and she embellished her New York accent with warm laughter. Their son Theo is the spitting image of Jeff at three years old, and eight-year-old Chloe has my brown hair and wide-set eyes, although hers are black like her mother’s. Shyly she asked what my favorite colors are and I told her pink and gold. Within a few minutes she had made me a bracelet of pink and gold elastic bands she had woven on a tiny loom. I wore the bracelet for the rest of our visit.
After dinner, Chloe read me a story about a redheaded girl with freckles and gave me a Mardi Gras necklace with a note taped to the green beads that read, “I love you. Chloe.” Theo was shy but let me kiss his cheek. I wanted the children to know me, to understand that their granddad has a sister who cares about them and is cheering them on as they grow up—even if from afar.
On the drive back to Butch’s house he said, “I ate some of your asparagus.” Butch doesn’t like asparagus.
“Everyone raved about your sweet potatoes,” I offered.
Out the car window the sun was putting on a show, setting the rugged mountains afire with gold and pink.
The next day my husband and I said our good-byes with long, tearful hugs. When we got to the Phoenix airport for our trip back east, Butch called my cell phone.
“Did you get there all right?” he asked.
The competition was over. For a few days we had transcended distance and time. As the plane took off, I thought about how in spite of the thorny cactus, blowing sand, and three thousand miles between us, we care about each other—we are family.