Saturday, October 30, 2010

Climbing out of the rut in order to find a new groove

There's a very fine line
Between a groove and rut
Christine Lavin, "Prisoners of their Hairdos"
 With Lori early on her way to Minneapolis, me trying to sustain a revived exercise discipline, and a beautiful autumn day unfolding outside, I thought I would take a walk around Gray's Lake.  After all, I will get plenty of opportunities to take advantage of the exercise equipment in the basement; these are days to seize the beautiful outdoors while the temperatures still attract.  So, I threw on some sweats, jumped in the car, parked and started my brisk walk.  

That's when it hit me:  the day is beautiful and crisp; I was after some exercise; why in the world did I jump in my car to navigate the less-than-a-quarter-mile between my house and the lake?  I wasn't pressed for time.  I no longer have a dog to transport.  It's an easy trek over to the trail.  The weather is beckoning.  I couldn't think of a single explanation for my behavior other than habit. I jump into the car as a matter of course.  Apparently, without even thinking about it.

It started me thinking about the myriad other stupid things I do without so much as a thought -- "stupid" at least as it pertains to the environment, personal health, financial responsibility, as well as common sense.  I have habitualized ease, sacrificing prudence as an expendable price.

But as I made my way around the glassy lake under a sunlit sky, there was another, more blessed, insight.  If so much of my lifestyle is rutted by mindless habit, imagine how much could change by simply paying attention...

...to where I go, and how I how I get there;
...to what I eat, and how I prepare it;
...to who I encounter, and the subtleties written on their face.

I think it was Robert McAfee Brown who observed that "where you stand determines what you see; who you listen to determines what you hear; and what you do determines who you are."

As embarrassing as it was to sit back down in my car to accomplish the short drive home, it was comforting to think that at least I am standing in a different place, seeing life differently; listening to different people and hearing something fresh; and at least trying to do things a little differently in order to become a better "me."
...

Monday, October 25, 2010

Discharged from the Assisted Living Tour

OK, so the joke is quickly losing its humor.  

Yesterday I began the sermon by recounting a conversation we had overheard while boarding a plane home from vacation between two twenty-somethings; one of whom had apparently just gotten a new job. The question was eventually raised about the person who had previously been in the job.

“He had been there about 9 years, and apparently was a really nice guy – everybody seemed to like him a lot – but he was a really old guy – you know, like 55 – and had apparently lost his enthusiasm.”
A “really old guy – like 55.” I confessed how I had wanted to turn around and smack the guy, but at 54 I no longer had the strength; that it was all I could do to simply totter of the jetway and collapse into the plane. 

Ha!  Ha! Ha!  It was funny.  Everybody laughed.  I went on, with any luck, to make some relevant point.  
Our day ended with the joy of attending a concert by The Eagles, my all-time favorite rock band which had so influenced my musical youth.  It has only been as an adult that I have gotten to hear them in concert -- long after their glory days, their eventual breakup, and eventual reunion.  This would be my third time to share their company for an evening.  We parked, we passed through the doors, we found our seats, and eventually -- finally -- the lights darkened, silhouetted shapes took their places on the stage, a spotlight illuminated founding member Glen Frey who welcomed the audience and encouraged everyone to check their tickets:  "This is the Eagles Assisted Living Tour..." he announced.  It was funny.  Everyone laughed -- all 15,000 or so us.  Everyone laughed again, later in the concert, when Don Henley announced that there would be a short intermission.  "Hey," he mused, "we're getting old.  We need to take a rest."  The guy seated behind us cracked that, given their age, they all needed to head back stage and hit the restroom.  Clever.

Now this morning I open my email to find today's poem-of-the-day to which I subscribe, sent to me from The Writer's Almanac and Garrison Keillor.  Today's contribution is a poem title "Old Men" by Ken Hada, and begins...

I make it a point now
to wave to old men I pass
old men standing in shade
of a yard, maybe
a daughter's place
where now he's just a tenant
trying to understand role reversal.

Enough, already.

On the wall at the vet's office where we have spent so much time in recent months is a framed poster showing a frolicking dog, with the caption, "We don't stop having fun because we grow old; we grow because we stop having fun."

Despite, then, the age that I occasionally feel, I'm still having fun -- and fully intend to continue in that endeavor, so I think I will take the veterinary wisdom to heart and set aside all this humor of decrepitude.

And get on with the fun of living.



Saturday, October 23, 2010

Seat-belted into that Great and Frenzied Bathroom in the Sky

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Albert Einstein 

That must surely be the explanation.  I am insane.  I keep purchasing airline tickets, and keep expecting to arrive at my destination at the advertised time.  Sick, foolish, delusional me.  But if I am thusly afflicted, the disease appears to be contagious and epidemic.  We are crowding airports by the bejillions, sacrificing otherwise perfectly useful hours and larger and larger sums of money for the privilege of subjecting ourselves to degradation, humiliation, aggravation and disappointment on the illusory promise of "travel".  Just enough actual transport does occur to keep us tantalized enough to risk it again, but the bargain turns out to be more Faustian than rational.  I looked around in the Detroit airport in our layover between "flights" and felt this sickening realization of the depths of depravity to which this kind of "travel" reduces otherwise intelligent human beings.  All around us people were driveling nonsense into cell-phone conversations, somehow lobotomized by the process into forgetting that people were all around them listening in.  And running -- as though for their lives; dashing red-faced down escalators, pushing and shoving their way through the crowds, brainwashed to believe it might accrue to them some credit or measure of advantage. 

And of course it's utterly one-sided.  I never see airline personnel running.  If the "traveler" is even minutes late, the penalties are draconian.  But the airline recognizes no reciprocal constraint.  Maybe they will fly; maybe they won't -- and maybe it will happen at this or that gate.  They can't really say for sure.  But if they deign to make a go of it, you had better be there on the spot, ready to sardine yourself into that tube that may or may not eventually pull up its wheels.  Even the rubrics are Orwellian "double-speak" -- those fabled "on time departures" and "on time arrivals" the airlines strive so vigorously to achieve defined in no material way that bears any real resemblance to the time the passengers actually leave the ground or disembark from the plane.  Despite the second chances and benefits of the doubt that we seem continuously willing to extend to the airline industry, I've got to imagine that satisfaction rates are somewhere in the nether regions east of the decimal point on a scale of 1 - 10.  Insanity.


Our most recent outbreak of this disease occurred at the hands of Delta Airlines -- but not really; it was actually at the hands of Mesaba Airlines, the slow drip affiliate partner of Delta that "serves" our airport.  "Mesaba" I think being the native airline word translated, "Maybe; Maybe not."  I have always been amazed at how precisely to the minute airlines advertise departures and arrivals -- "6:21 a.m."; "8:03 p.m."  And I suppose their planes do take off and land at particular minutes -- they just make no guarantees as to the day on which it might happen, or whether it will be the a.m. or p.m. listed in the schedule.  

The truth of the matter is that we had a wonderful -- beautiful -- vacation in Vermont, with only two exceptions:  getting there, and getting home.  While adjectives flow effusively painting the memories of leaves and mountainsides and waterfalls and streams, I'll not even struggle to look for the words to actually describe the transportational debacle bookending either side.  "Numbing" is the only one that comes to mind.  One of these days I will realize how grateful I should be that I arrived home only 4 hours later than promised, just as I should appreciate beginning my vacation a mere 7 hours late.  I shouldn't complain about the smell of vomit left behind from a previous passenger's airsickness that meant flying home in the equivalent of a fraternity house bathroom on Sunday morning.  And to their credit, they did "serve" us that proud little pouch of peanuts with an accompanying thimble of pop, though I didn't dare consume them, lest my forced wedge into the Lilliputian "seat" become irreversible.  


Perhaps such experiences are leading me to the next big learning from all this reading and study I have been doing on the subject of terroir -- the taste of place and the importance of being intimately connected to a particular place.  The lesson could well be that I should stay closer to this place; that any considered destination which can't be reached within a reasonable time-frame by car should be the limited and well-vetted exception, rather than the matter-of-fact norm.  

Such a lifestyle may well be less exotic, but will surely involve less aggravation.  And restore me to some measure of sanity.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Until Next Time

Ok, then; until next time. It has been restful; it has been renewing; it has been beautiful and quiet and nourishing and absolutely indulgent.  It has, after all, been our gift to each other -- a sort of "combo" package rolling anniversary and Christmas presents into one glorious experience.  Others, I understand, give different kinds of gifts, but our favorites -- our treasures -- are experiences.  The only things tangible -- material -- about these gifts is a boarding pass and a room key.  And unlike most of the other gifts I have received, I never have difficulty finding a place to put ones like this; there is always plenty of space in the memory section of my mind and my soul. 

There is, of course, always the melancholy of leaving.  There always comes that sobering day when the suitcases must get refilled, the innkeepers must be told goodbye, and we exchange the tranquility of the leaves and the streams and the mountainsides and the waterfalls for the jarring, psychological collision of airport check-in, security, and boarding.  There is no such thing, anymore, as a gentle re-entry -- more like the old NASA Gemini and Apollo "splashdowns" in the ocean circled by waiting ships ready to pluck you out of the water and put you back to work.

Last night, then, as the anticipated conclusion of one more day drinking in the colored lanes and rocky streams, we indulged ourselves in a final glorious, gastronomic adventure.  Like the last episode of a long running television series, featured guests made surprising cameo appearances -- Lisa and her mother, Jane, from Jersey Girls Dairy; Frank and his wife from Blackwatch Farms; Erin, who in previous years has worked at the inn, was already seated with her husband.

Having submitted our general order, the waitress returned with instructions to ask if it would be alright if the chef veered a bit "off menu."  As far as we are concerned, that is always a good sign.  "Yes!" we responded, and waited with anticipation.  We were dining with new friends -- introduced to one another as we returned from our adventures.  Having found synergies of interest and companionable temperaments, we agreed to share a dinner table.  And for the next few hours, we "oohed" and "awed" and exclaimed out loud as the chef sent out one creation after another. 

And then it was dessert -- which, among other delights, included a stick of maple cotton candy.  Really.  We couldn't help bursting out in laughter.  The very idea of dessert, of course, felt somehow redundant; the entire week, after all, has felt like confection.  Sweet, smooth, delicious, and wonderfully over the top. When Chef Jason stepped out to say hello, all we could do was applaud.  It been the culinary equivalent of the fireworks finale on the 4th of July.

Finally, against our strongest wishes, we pushed ourselves away from the table, sent best wishes alongside our new friends, hugged goodbye the waitstaff, and made our way upstairs.

And so until next time.  In the meantime, we have the photographs, a head and heart full of memories, a few new email addresses, the sight of falling flakes of snow as we leave, and the scent of anticipation.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Brushed by the Pollen of a Colleague in Bloom

"Would you like me to take the picture?" he asked, and of course the answer was yes.  We had driven down to Brattleboro, an interesting town spilling out of the hills of southern Vermont into the Connecticut River.  The eventual nexus of the trip was intended to be lunch at the cafe nestled precisely over the elbow of the river, but of course after leisurely strolling the main street and turning the corner toward lunch we discovered that one of the two days each week the cafe is closed was this one.  No worries, since lunch had been merely an excuse to visit again the town and drink in again the view of the river.  The former we could satisfy elsewhere, and the latter could be equally accomplished from the bridge nearby.

It was there, during repeated attempts at taking long-armed pictures of ourselves with the river view as background that the passerby volunteered his question.  We accepted, we posed, he snapped, and then we undertook the obligatory smalltalk.  "Are you visiting?"  "Where are you from?"  Etc.  And as usual we found ourselves living in a very small world.  Steve, our new photographer, had taught at the University of Iowa, among other places, on environmental conservation, among other things, and just like that we felt we had been brushed with the pollen of a passing bee.  For the second in as many days we had bumped into a new acquaintance with sympathetic passions.

Yesterday, at the dairy farm, it was Maria, a teacher from New York state taking a leave-of-absence to research and write about the precious and often precarious pathway of our food from farm to table, and the valiant, often sacrificial endeavors of those closest to the soil, the animals, and the vicissitudes of nature.  We agreed to keep in touch -- fellow encouragers, if nothing else, which is no small thing.  This next day it was Steve, whose photographic assistance turned into a leisurely stroll and a long corner conversation waiting for the Amtrak train to move on past the station and the road crossing.  He told us about his work; we spoke of our growing interests; we promised to keep in touch -- learners, affirmers, stimulating pollen of compatible blossoms.

We did, eventually, find our lunch -- a sandwich at a bakery to which Steve had directed us, with its own view of the river -- and then we were off to Walpole for ice cream, and then to Grafton for a long walk in the woods.  By that point we would have calories to burn away, and lots of conversation to share.
video

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Crazy Act of Returning

From the outside looking in there is an unmistakable element of craziness to the enterprise.  In our second visit this week to the dairy farm -- my third sense spending an afternoon there in August -- we were struck afresh by the confining physicality of the relentless work, and were sobered again by the financial sacrifices chewed up by the "business."  But, of course, Lisa would chafe at the label.  This isn't, she would argue, a business; it is...

...actually, I'm not yet sure what she would call it.  Watching her, listening to her, following her around while she chatters and works and rants and raves about the constraints of government policy and the willful ignorance of the public and the soulless, extractive profit-taking of corporate agribusiness, words like "passion" and "crusade" and "vocation" spring quickly to mind.  But she tends not to talk that self-reflectively.  She prefers to talk about the cows -- their particular behavior patterns, their unique and individual personalities -- the milk, the science, laments about the deleterious effects of "nourishment" as moderns now try to satisfy it, and the importance of knowing your farmer.  Her website trumpets almost nothing about herself and her operation; using the space instead to provide links, in almost shouting font sizes and styles, to a petition advocating "Food Democracy Now", an article detailing the reasons not to drink pasteurized milk, along with the various support and advocacy associations of which she is a member.  This is, in other words, more of a Cause than a Career; a lifestyle and calling than a way to pay the bills -- several common necessities of which, because of the tight economics involved, she simply chooses to do without.  She is more concerned with her cows' comfort than her own.

It is easy to see why her mother thinks she is working too hard.  Any reasonable assessment would agree.  Except, Lisa would argue, when the reasons are as compelling as these 20 or so Jersey cows and their insatiably cavernous stomachs and swelling udders that get her out of bed in the mornings and fill her hours each day with energy, devotion, passion and purpose. 

And pure, precious milk.


It is, I suppose, crazy; but probably not as crazy as me being less intrigued by it all as moved;  and being drawn back to it time and again.

Not so much envious, as deeply appreciative...

...and awed; as though I haven't so much been tromping through the muck of a farm, as bowing in a very precious sanctuary.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Nostalgia as the Excuse, but Not the Destination

Highway 100 is routinely mentioned as one of the most scenic routes in Vermont.  Little had we known almost 13 years ago when we drifted down to Waitsfield from our honeymoon destination further up in Stowe that we were on the beauty trail,.  We only knew that it was an idyllic little village that warranted a parking place and a stop for lunch.  Today, all these years later, we targeted it as the northernmost focal point of our venture up VT-100.  We had the day, a full tank of gas, and the draw of nostalgia to move us northward. 

video
Indeed, they proved to be miles and memories worth the investment of the day, alongside rivers, waterfalls, and what felt like wave after wave of colored hillsides nudging our little vessel along the currents of autumn.  Once in Waitsfield, we absorbed the community update volunteered by the gift shop owner otherwise busy painting her 26th year of wooden ornaments just off the highway.  We took her advice for lunch, but passed on the ornaments.  After a quick walk around town, we were ready for the road home. 

It was, after all, the serendipitous lake, barely 30 minutes away from our starting point, not the town, well over an hour further down the road, that had captured our imagination on the drive north.  Echo Lake, more linear than geometrical, stretches along the road just outside Plymouth, the birthplace of Calvin Coolidge.  The still water offers itself as a horizontal canvas for the sloping palette of trees circling and rising above it; the mountainous colors duplicated in the reflection.  It was this lake that finally drew us out of the car and into its enveloping silence for a hike, an absorbing view along its edge, and the tearing sound in the soul as we eventually drove away.  The placid lake, and its almost photographic duplication of the golds, the yellows, the greens and reds above it. 

I don't know where we will go tomorrow, but we can only pray for an equal serendipity to remind us of the value of a flexible vision, attentive eyes, and a willingness to park where memory has not already paved the way and rutted the view. 

Monday, October 18, 2010

Happily Lost and Finding our Way

We got lost, although the consequence was hardly catastrophic.  Traveling south on Vermont 5, we had parked at a roadside pull-off to get a more patient look at some red-leafed maples.  Reds are thinning by this time in the season, and a stand of consecutive maples had caught our attention.  After a few minutes of quiet absorption we walked on alongside the road, enjoying the closer connection and the more pedestrian pace.  It was only then that we had seen the small sign marking entrance to Pinnacle Trail.  A narrow entrance, we hadn't noticed it from the car.  No one was expecting us, and time was our own, so we stepped away from the pavement and into the woods and the leaf carpeted trail that, according to the sign, led .5 miles to the summit.  There were a few rocky climbs, but the surrounding birches and and pines and hemlock, oaks and maples and shaded hillside meadows beckoned in.  We found our rhythm, forgot about the car, and walked.

We had been doing a careful job of following the blazes marking the trail, signaling lanes and switchbacks, but near what must have been the half-way point we suddenly stopped.  "Where is the trail?" I asked -- as much to myself as to Lori.  We pecked around, but the absent trail became undeniable.  The clearing had suddenly petered out into a thicket cluttered with felled trees and undergrowth.  How could we have missed the marking?  It would be convenient to blame poor trail maintenance, or the obscuring effects of stormy weather that had recently passed through the area.  The truth, however, was closer at hand:  we had simply become engaged in animated conversation, and had grown too preoccupied with watching our feet to pay guiding attention to where we were going.  Both were understandable.  We enjoy, after all -- indeed treasure -- the company of each other.  And the terrain was uneven -- rocks and veiling leaves, twigs and branches, inclines and erosions.  Neither of us wanted a twisted ankle, or a rump-a-coaster slide down the hillside.  We were paying close attention to each step.

video
But as a consequence, paying such attention to where we were, we lost sight of where we were going.  Backtracking, the damage was easily repaired.  We had simply zigged when we needed to zag.  The turn took us higher and deeper and more fully into the shower of falling leaves.  It was glorious; better, to be sure, than the dead end, but only somewhat.  It, too, had been into the woods, among the trees and under the leaves, in each other's company, in the crispness of an autumn in Vermont.  If the ultimate goal had been that important we would have had some points deducted.  As it was, the primary objective was simply to enjoy the day and one another; and toward that end we were earning a perfect score.  That we eventually claimed the summit and its view of the Connecticut River down and across the way was only bonus, hardly the prize, itself. 

Drinking in the view and savoring the moment, we joined hands and picked our way back down, toward the mouth of the trail and our car waiting beyond -- nourished, satisfied, and smiling; still talking, but paying, perhaps, less attention to our feet and more to the wonders -- and markings -- surrounding

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Grateful to the Leaves for Holding On

Driving north on Vermont 106, the hillside colors explode in the morning sun.  Locals would almost certainly say that the "peak" of color has passed, but the view is electrifying to us.  We have traveled hard to get here --  enduring equipment malfunctions, missed flights, rerouted schedules, lost hours and a missed dinner that we had been 12-months looking  forward to.  A few bare trees are not going to dampen our enthusiasm.  We drive patiently, attentively, appreciatively.

Banks of roadside trees intrude on the pavement, almost fighting for attention; as if to say, "Look at me; look at me!"  Streams gurgle along on either side, oblivious to the stones that litter and ultimately pave their way.  Birch trees stretch tall and upright, as though chastened for poor posture -- or more likely, basking in every glimmer of autumn  sun.  It is an ocean of neon yellows, warm coppers and reds, deep greens and white trunks.  The blue sky and the sweeping hillsides have endured waves of rain, whipping winds and a dusting of snow; holding on until we could get here.  Perhaps they are wearying -- winter, after all, is almost certainly on its way.  But today -- Sunday -- their intrinsic glory is worship enough; almost hymnic.  No wonder we began the morning spontaneously singing, "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation."

The little shiver might have something to do with the morning chill in the air, or it could simply be that we are euphorically, speechlessly, reverently...

...grateful.  Amen.

The Cowlicked Kindness of Strangers

I didn't catch his name, but our acquaintance wasn't social.  It was purely a matter of necessity.  After boarding our plane, only to be disgorged several minutes later because of equipment problems; after waiting for an update, booking an alternative schedule only to have it, too, evaporate for lack of a plane, the airline hired him to drive us to Omaha to catch a flight from there.  Weary of the wait and the associated drama, we were, despite the nuisance involved in the two-hour ferry west, happy for a solution that required no more effort from us and still delivered us to our destination on the same calendar square as originally intended.

I later thought how naively trusting we must be to tumble into the minivan of this total stranger whose hair cowlicking in interesting directions suggested very recent entanglement with pillows and sheets.  But I don't suppose I am any better acquainted with any of the pilots who were prepared to elevate me upwards of 37,000 feet.  By comparison, hurtling down I-80 at 70 miles-per-hour seems like child's play.  The reality is that I put my life into the hands of all kinds of total strangers.  This shuttle driver was simply the most immediate, and so we positioned our luggage on top of the junk piled in the back end of of his van, buckled up and sucked it up. 

Despite his nocturnal appearance, he told us that he had been at work when he got the call -- "work" being an auto mechanic at the body shop of a friend.  We asked how often he does this sort of thing, though I never really heard an explicit answer.  Maybe the airline swears him to secrecy on that delicate subject.  However often it happens, I thought to myself that it didn't sounds like the kind of job for which I would want to trade:  random calls to transport otherwise decent people ground down by the vicissitudes of "modern" travel into beleaguered grumps; two hours of testy silence, followed by two more lonely hours back along the same stretch of road.  But, then, he probably wouldn't want my job either.  That said, there are those times, every now and then, when a few quiet hours behind the wheel might would be therapeutic.  And I guess most people would love a crack at a pulpit at least once in their life.

However undesirable I might find his job, he successfully performed it -- arriving at the Omaha airport in ample time for us to make our substitute flight.  I think we thanked him, but I'm not altogether sure.  With the low expectations of a veteran of such trips, he waved to us a courteous "goodbye" and settled back behind the wheel and pulled away from the curb.  And it's true that we didn't tip him -- I figured that was the airline's business -- but if it hadn't been buried within my suitcase I would have made him a gift of my hairbrush.  And a smile.  Everyone deserves a smile -- especially a shade tree mechanic on a bad hair day who had the grace to let us sleep in his back seat while bridging our first leg to Vermont.