Pool Time

Airport hotel pools are the best pools ever, in my opinion. The guests at such an establishment rarely make use of the facilities since they are normally transitioning from one plane to another and spending only the one night. Consequently, the pools are almost always empty and clean and today was no exception. As we sat on one of the sea of empty sun chairs, I puffed away in my attempt to inflate the little yellow water wings that Short Stack was going to use while he amused danced around in wild expectation of splashing everything in sight. A rare treat.

At home, we don’t have a pool to play in and if we did, it certainly wouldn’t be this warm. Normally, I’m not a swimming kind of guy and to be honest, I think a good part of that is due to the chilly factor. The pools in New England, unless connected to a heating system that would coast you a mortgage payment to run each month, just don’t get that nice to be in. The very best you can hope for is about a one week window that will appear some time in late August where the water goes from “breathtakingly cold” to “pretty damn brisk.” It’s gotta be a scorcher to convince me that diving in will be fun. Then, there’s the fact that our island is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and there is no reason good enough for me to climb into that ice bound embrace. Pretty much, if you find me floating around in the ocean in Maine, please help fish me out because I obviously fell in. Short Stack however, like any other kid his age, seems to be impervious to these mind numbingly cold water temperatures. Here, in Florida, this was going to be like bath water for him. With tiny black spots dancing before by eyes, the last air bladder on his water wings was inflated and we hopped in.

I was exhausted.

He was wired.

This was really my first clue about how this trip was going to go.

For the first time since falling asleep in my own bed the night before, I was finally relaxing and that moment of calm reflection brought the scope of this trip into sharp focus and it rolled over me like a wave. Then again… it might have been the waves my son was making just a few feet away as he reveled in creating splashes that would have gotten him in serious trouble in the bath tub. I was on duty and there was no one coming to relieve me for almost a week. My body wanted to do nothing more than go limp in the water and close my eyes and I had to consciously fight the impulse. I had to watch my son… and with a memory that chose that moment to float through my head, I had good reason to snap back to that very sobering realization.

When I was young, almost as young as Short Stack is right now, I was on vacation with my family. We too were in a tropical setting and the hotel pool called to me like the sirens to Ulysses, as it does to all children. Back then, you never saw kids with floatation devices like water wings or swim suits sporting integral air bladders. Unless you were in the ocean, you swam without and if you did have one, for whatever reason, then it was a bulky orange life vest. I guess the thinking was that if you needed something to keep you afloat, then you had no business being in the water. That might come across as sound thinking but there is one major flaw in the plan.

Me.

For what ever reason, muscle to fat ratios, high bone density, possibly unknowingly desecrating a shrine to some ancient sea god… whatever…. The fact of the matter is that I can’t float. I’m a sinker.

My wife, who would love nothing more than to live each day playing in the water, thought for years that I was simply being a frump when it came to going swimming. It’s something that she enjoys more than most do and she could never quite understand my reluctance to join her in the fun. The whole sinking thing sounded preposterous and more than a little like an invented excuse.

“Everyone can float!”

“Nope. Not me.”

“You just need a big breath in your lungs.”

“Filling up my lungs just doesn’t cut it. I sink.”

“Oh, Come on. Let’s just swim! It’ll be fun!”

“You hop in. I’ll sit here and watch.”

This conversation, in various versions, happened many times over many years as we dated and it wasn’t until some time later that she finally got to see my amazing anti-superpower it in action. One day after being once again implored to simply join her in the water and have fun, I decided that it was time for a demonstration. Kicking off my flip flops, I walked up to her in the shallows of the soft, sandy beach.

“Watch this.”

And taking a full, healthy lung full of air, I walked out to sea and disappeared under the waves. Under water, I strolled in a slow motion pantomime across the sandy bottom, each footstep taking me deeper. I kept this up until my one, big breath of air supply began to give out. I crouched down on the seabed and sprang to the surface, sucked in another breath, flipped onto my back… and slowly settled to the bottom once again.

I can swim, mind you. It’s just all work. The whole “effortless” part of the equation is missing for me.

This brings me back to my childhood in the pool. It was an important moment for me and one I can remember perfectly, though it was almost a lifetime ago. It was the day I discovered that I sink and that you can’t call for help under water.

Early that tropical morning, I had successfully convinced my Father to take me down to the deserted swimming pool and let me play before the other hotel guests roused them selves and filled it up with their own games and antics. We had wandered down past the palm trees, placed our stuff on one of the empty deck chairs and I was now happily playing in the shallow end and loving every minute of it. My Dad was close by and watching me and other then the one other kid who was apparently old enough to go swimming on his own, we were the only two there. I come by my chatty nature honestly and as I paddled around, Dad was striking up a conversation with the only other poolside visitor by asking the kid where he and his family were from and what they had seen there already. I was lost in my own little world of splashing and play and paid little attention to the two of them as they sat on the edge, legs dangling in the water. I was never more than one good lunge away from Dad and he was doing his job keeping me safe. Things seemed fine. The problem is, no matter how hard any one tries, no matter how vigilant you are, no matter what you do to stay focused on the task at hand, no one can sustain that level of diligence indefinitely. And it only takes one second.

As I walked about in the shallow end, I neared the edge of my approved domain and my foot accidentally stepped over the submerged edge. The pool’s bottom fell away beneath my foot and the surface of the water sucked away any call for help. I can remember graphically the sensation of sliding down the steep incline, unable to arrest my descent and trying to stay on my feet as I slid along until I had reached the bottom where I stood as rooted as I would have been standing on the grass above. At this point in my life, I did not know well enough how to swim back out.

What I remember most keenly from this terrifying moment of my life was how un-terrifying it was. I knew I was in trouble and I knew that the situation was pretty dire, but the overwhelming thought that went though my head was, “Really? Like this? I’m going to drown?” Looking up through the deep, impassible water, I could still see the legs and feet of my Dad and the other boy as they sat on the pool edge, still chatting and I was struck with the notion that though I could easily see my Dad, I couldn’t call to him. I was stuck only a few feet away from my savior and I could do nothing but wave frantically and hope to be seen. It was a very humbling experience.

I don’t actually remember Dad pulling me out of the water, though only a second or two later, that’s just what he did. I had been noticed looking back up through ten feet of water and he had dove and pulled me out. After expelling what water had collected in my respiratory system, I was fine, though I think Dad was more heavily shaken the I was. I remember him holding me tight as we dripped on the ground and apologizing over and over. As a child, I found this to be completely strange and backwards. It was I who had stepped into the deep end. It had been my fault getting in that terrible situation in the first place, hadn’t it? I didn’t exactly understand.

Now, I’m the Dad.

Now, I understand.

Since the experience frightened my father far more than it did me, I spent a lot of time over the rest of the vacation getting swimming lessons from Dad in that very pool. When we got home, I was enrolled in swim classes at the local YMCA. I can swim well now, but I never forget that I sink.

Short Stack wasn’t about to sink at all. Though he has a good understanding of the exercise, he has no interest of finding out if he can do it on his own. The water wings clung to his upper arms, each a mini life jacket working to keep his head up and out of the water and his toes never leaving the safety the reachable bottom. If he wanted to venture out farther, it was with the demanded assistance of being able to cling, lemur like, to my side, my arm wrapped tightly around his waist, and that was fine with me.

Casting aside any more thoughts of relaxation for much later, I joined in with gusto as we splashed, hooted, laughed and played in our private little oasis. The sun loungers were empty but for our own towels and clothes and other than our own voices and the occasional jet overhead, the prevailing sound was of the palm fronds overhead as they clacked to each other in the late afternoon breeze. I glanced at a sign posted at eye level for pool goers. “No Glass Cups or Bottles Near Pool”

Glass Bottles…

Beer.

OhBeer! A beer sounds good!

Maybe later.

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Learning to Faceplant with Grace, Part I

As the snow falls in quiet, blanketing quantity on the already buried yard and roof, Action Girl and I scurry around in the kitchen in an effort to get food on the table for the kids before blood sugar levels start to droop and turn the light hearted laughing in the living room into maniacal cackles followed by periods of lavish crying. It’s always a challenging race.

“You know,” My wife paused as she got the various drinks ready. “We really ought to look into getting Short Stack into skiing. Reflexively, I grimaced a bit but then quickly conceded the point. She continued, “ There’s a place right up by my folk’s where he could give it a try and see if he likes it. It’d be good for him.” I tried to be noncommittal, but upon being pressed to define my neutral sounding mumbling, I agreed out loud with the idea. It’s not that I don’t approve of skiing or anything. It’s more insidious than that.

I’m spoiled. Poisonously so.

When I was not much older than Short Stack is now, my father decided to initiate me into a great New England tradition and take me alpine skiing. Skiing was introduced to American here in the northeast and has been enthusiastically embraced ever since. My Dad was really excited and partly due to his own enthusiasm, I was pretty revved up as well. I got to have new, never seen by me before, equipment and a day out with Dad. What could be better?

I actually remember the day quite well. After a short drive early one wintry morning, we arrived at the base of the mountain. Cars lined up in a snowy lot as kids wearing orange safety vests waved small flags directed us to our spot amongst all the others. I clambered into my red snow suit, was wedged into the most uncomfortable boots I had ever experienced in my short life and then tromped off like a miniature Frankenstein’s monster, following Dad to the lifts.

The lifts were, to be frank, imposing as hell. At the age of four, I felt that I had pretty much mastered the art of sitting down with out assistance, but this was a totally different situation. The chairs and benches I was used to didn’t move of their own accord on an endless loop and I rarely worked with a live audience waiting to see how I managed. We stood there and watched it for a while and then, just as I was getting used to the idea, Dad redirected me to something totally different.

The T-Bar.

Nowadays, we are firmly in the era of high speed quads and even fully enclosed gondolas. They might as well have mini bars and wait staff in comparison to the T-Bar. A T-Bar, and its slightly eviler cousin, the J-Bar, are simply a bit of pipe with a backless, armless seat, all hanging from a moving cable that zings along at a speed that seems way, WAY too fast. The biggest difference between a regular chair lift and one of these monstrosities is that there is no “lift” aspect to the ride. It’s all “chair.” Your skis never leave the ground but instead are used to “steer” you up the side of the trail, or in my case, to certain doom. They do build in a spring mechanism into it up where the pipe attaches to the cable, and this is intended to make your transition from zero to “Oh my GOD!” a little bit easier to take. For me, all it did was prolong the moment of impending faceplant so I could savor my terror a bit longer. My first attempt did not go well.

Neither did my second.

On my third, I hardly screamed at all. I was making progress!

At some point, with my snow suit having been forcibly crammed with roughly eight pounds of slushy-snow mixture from all the mechanically induced white washes, I managed to get up high enough on the hill to try out the skis. It was “go” time!

As it turned out, all I could go was about six or seven feet until my brain would take over and yell, “What the hell are you doing?!? You’re gonna DIE! Fall over now before you get going too fast!” and obediently, over I’d go.

WHAP!

I got terrifically good at this as my Father did his very best to dredge up every ounce of patience he had available to him. To his extreme credit, I can not recall him at any time speaking through clenched teeth during the day as I listened to his instructions, lined up on the bunny slope and then promptly fell over for no readily apparent reason. The good part about collapsing in a heap mere moments after starting a run was that I didn’t have to take my chances with the T-Bar all that often. One ride to the top of the slope was good for at least eight or nine falls!

We did this all morning and by lunch, we were starved, wet to the skin and both feeling pretty frustrated and we decided to let the cafeteria’s American Chop Suey and hot chocolate do it’s best to cheer us up. As we munched away on our lavishly expensive ziti in cheeze and meat sauce, I kept thinking about all those times spent flat in the snow and what I needed to do differently to remedy that. Dad, I’m guessing, was focusing on the idea that at least he was out for the day with his son and that was all that mattered. The skiing was unimportant. I’m betting that he thought about this looooong and hard, possibly repeating it like a mantra.

“Hey, Buddy. What do you say? Want to just go home?” His comment caught me off guard. Dad didn’t give up on anything easily and the offer, though I knew it to be sincere, was out of character for him. I actually found it a bit unsettling. Yes, I did, but that wasn’t the point.

“Let’s try just one more time.” Was the only answer I had. I wanted to go home, but it just didn’t seem right to throw in the towel now, no matter how snowy and ice encrusted it was.

We suited back up into our damp outerwear and after another pitched bout with the infernal T-Bar, I found myself looking back down the slope that I had grown to know intimately at toe level. Dad gave me one last pep talk and asked if I wanted to hold onto his poles as he went down backwards. “Nope. I’ll try by my self.” And with that, down the slope I went… all the way, and most importantly, on my skis rather than under them. The rest of the day, the two of us skied happily together and other than a few more flops in the snow followed by quick recoveries, I had it nailed.

As the years went on, Dad and I went skiing quite a lot. It was our winter “father/son” thing to do and we both enjoyed it immensely. I wasn’t too bad, and gravitated toward the wide open intermediate trails the most. Mostly free of moguls and as wide as a football field in places, they allowed me to get into a tuck and fly like the wind. I’d smile all the way down, hooting like a lunatic where appropriate. We were fairly evenly matched in skill, though I always seemed to have more of a need for speed than Dad did, but it worked our well. I’d bomb ahead at crazy speed, almost wipe out and then come to a semi-elegant stop blasting up a tidal wave of snow in the process. There, I’d wait for my father to come into view and once visual was established, bomb off to the next logical place to stop and wait. The system worked fine.

Anyone who knows me at all knows one thing for sure: sports don’t interest me in the least. I never played Little League, never tried out for track and field and simply never wanted to. It wasn’t my idea of fun. When I got to high school, as a non-sports player, I stood out; especially since my uncle was the head coach of the highly acclaimed school football team. In a moment of weakness I bowed to pressure and signed up for the only sport that held any appeal to me at all: alpine skiing.

Big mistake.

More later…

Rolling Down the Snow

So, last night, the car started acting funny. Actually, there was nothing funny about it. The car was packed to the gills with small, wiggling children, seven tons of groceries and many hard won trophies from the hunt at Target. We had been out since eleven that morning and, naps be damned, we had stayed out until close to three thirty! Sometimes in the effort to have some semblance of a normal life, not to mention trying to actually accomplish goals you set for your self (such as having food to eat) you need to forgo the normal routine that ostensibly keeps your children sane but keeps you anchored to your house. This is exactly what we had done and we had the station wagon full of booty and crazed children to prove it.

The excursion had all in all, gone well. Neither Short Stack nor Lulu Belle had inflicted an emotional meltdown on us and both seemed happy for the chance to do something interesting. The rainy, cold weather had prompted me to do something! By ten that morning, I was looking down the barrel of hours and hours of hanging out in the living room with the kids, slowly going insane to the pitter patter of raindrops. Normally, I’d have jumped into a project, but with both kids home, that was decidedly NOT going to be a possibility. Plus, I didn’t want to.

By the time we were pointed homeward, the sky was looking brighter, the February rain had stopped and Short Stack at least, had managed to nod off for a few precious minutes. We were wrapping up a good afternoon outing. We drove back to the boat terminal and were the first car in line to board the ferry for the trip back to our island home. When the boat was ready, we drove on, parked and shut off the car.

Bad move.

Some time later as the ferry pulled up to the dock, we got the kids back in their seats and turned the key.

“Raur… raur…. raur.”

“Oh, you have GOT to be kidding me!”

My wife, Action Girl, was driving at the time and she was looking at the dashboard with a mixture of disbelief and hate-lasers. If any mortal being had been given that look, they would have had to shield their eyes or burst into a torrent of flame. The car, on the other hand, didn’t seem to care.

“Raur… raur… raur…”

There was obviously no way it was going to crank fast enough to catch. Having to make the other cars behind us wait while the crew went to get the onboard jumper pack was bad enough, but remember, Action Girl is a captain here. This is her turf and she knows every one and they know her. Plus, she HATES to be embarrassed. Needless to say, I wouldn’t want to be the car right now.

So, with a jump, we got home with our cargo. It just about died when we pulled into the yard and after going for a quick spin to charge up the battery, I’m pretty sure it’s the distributor or possibly, the alternator. Either way, it’s not reliable and is scheduled to go in to the garage later this week. Should be a fun drive to get it there.

This morning we all got up early enough to have a leisurely breakfast before heading in our various directions. Action Girl is working an AM shift and needed to be gone on an early boat and Short Stack needed to get to pre-school. Lulu Belle and I were the only ones loafing at home today. Not trusting the car to behave was no problem for Action Girl. She didn’t need it to get to the ferry landing and thus, to work. The question was, how to get my son where he needed to be. His pre-school is on the island and not a very hard walk at all, but as anyone who has gone for a stroll with a nearly-three year old can attest, the power of the “distraction” factor is with out equal. Everything is worth inspecting with deep interest and care when you’re that age. To make matters more patience grinding, Short Stack is in the full blown “why” phase of life.

“What is that, Dad?”

“It’s a parked car.”

“Why is it parked there?”

“Because, the people who own it must have left it there.”

“But why did they leave it there?”

A quick intake of breath as I see the conversational precipice loom before me. “Well, maybe they live in the house next to where the car’s parked.”

“Why do they live there?”

“Everyone has to live somewhere.”

“Why does everyone have to live somewhere?”

I rub my brow in an effort to smooth out some of the rapidly deepening wrinkles. “We all need a place to be, I guess. Look Short Stack! Is that a robin?”

He’ll easily blow past my pathetic attempt to redirect the conversation and pulls things back to the confounding persistence of the car to remain parked there as well as the philosophical need to belong to a place. All this time, we will have moved, oh… two and a half feet if I’m lucky. I try really, REALLY hard to answer each and every question he has, but if we are attempting to actually get someplace, it would have been faster to box the two of us up and mail us than let us walk.

No. Walking there was out of the question. Plus, yesterday’s rain had turned into last night’s snow and a couple of inches of the fluffy stuff covered everything. Remember, two inches to an adult equals at least five to a three year old. If we walked, the tulips would be in bloom by the time we arrived.

Action Girl actually came up with the solution. The roads were still covered and perfect for the sled. When breakfasts were finished and snow suits donned, I packed Lulu Belle into the kid carrier backpack, hoisted her up and strapped her in. Then, we dusted off the sled. Short Stack needed little encouragement to hop in and was beaming from under his knit hat as he hugged his school bag.

“Ready, buddy?”

“YAH!”

The orange plastic sled easily scooted along and as I trudged along, we left a trail of compressed snow, happy laughter and exclamations of glee. This was the best way to go to school ever! The trip took marginally longer than it would have with the car and was defiantly more appreciated. The sun was bright, the wind low and the world sparkled with its clean, while mantle. We arrived without incident and once he was pealed out of his layers of winter clothing, he happily joined the table of other children covered in paste and construction paper. I had to actually ask for a hug and kiss goodbye.

As Lulu Belle and I tromped home, sled tucked under my arm, I looked down at the trail we had only just made. It was still flat and unblemished by footprints. The crisp outline of the track stood out strongly on the smooth snow and it made me think of times long past. Days when the roads were rolled after a snowstorm to pack it down for the horses and sleighs. When children going to school by sled was probably anything but odd and looked forward to as part and parcel of the winter season.

rolling2

It’s days like this that I really love where I live. Being in northern New England provides us with the “Currier and Ives” old world of barns and colonial era houses that I enjoy so much and island living means that traffic is thin at worst and non-existent at best. It also makes the sledding all the more satisfying.

I almost decided to keep walking when we reached our front yard but Lulu Belle was starting to flag and her crib was calling to her. It was, after all, time for the morning nap. I walked up the steps and looked back at our trail, now starting to melt in the morning sun. By the time I need to go collect Short Stack this afternoon the snow would likely be gone or at least, un-sledable. Looks like we’ll be walking after all.

I’ll be sure to pack provisions for the trek. We might be gone for a while and have to make camp.

“But why do we need to make camp, dad?”

“AAAAAAAAAAAA!”

Field Stones

The drive up to my in-laws for Thanksgiving was not too hard. Though the way up was prematurely darkened by changing seasons and daylight savings, it was nice to get out of the house and then farther away from the city where we spend much of our time when out and about. A few years ago, Jack and Ellen decided it was time for them to look for a new place to call home. Back in the Last sixties, they were fleeing New York and Jersey City and landed for many years in a valley of central Vermont. Having raised their children there, they had grown accustomed to country living and even after the kids had all moved away to other New England states, they stayed in their valley for many more years. As grand kids entered the scene, they took to driving long distances to see recitals and ball games, baby sit and gather for holidays. As the years went by, they decided that it was time for a change of geography.

Unlike many their age, they elected to move north, rather than join the conga line to the southern golf courses and bridge tournaments. That’s not their style, at any rate. They’d go crazy in two weeks. With two out of their three children living in Maine, they sold their house of thirty or so years and moved to the Pine Tree State. They live about an hour and a half away and though in a pleasant location, it’s not what I’d call picturesque. It’s farm country, plain and simple. Slowly rolling hills and young tree forests where vast fields used to cover the landscape. The old, colonial style farmhouses still perch on the hillsides, looking down on their slowly shrinking and mostly unused fields.

Even so, there’s still a good deal of farmland being used, mostly for hay and corn. One of these small “gentleman’s” farms sits next door to my wife’s folks. Being outgoing people and good of heart, they immediately became friends with the old bachelor farmer who lives in the old, white farmhouse nestled in a dip on the way up a hill, leading out of town. Short Stack loves visiting there too. There are chickens!

The morning after we arrived, a heavy fog was sitting over the land, giving things a softened quality that one would usually associate with snow. Snow had, in fact, already arrived just a few days before but didn’t have cooperating temperatures to keep its foothold. The five or so inches that had covered everything was gone with the warm front and had found new life as the fog and a heavy rime-ice dew that gave what would otherwise be smooth surfaces, a spiky shell of minute crystal. The grass, though wet looking, would crunch under each footfall. After getting the various children fed, visiting with rarely seen relatives and topping up my internal coffee tank, I decided to take a walk in the foggy fields.

farm-equipmet

One of the things that I love about New England is the stone. More accurately, I should say, the stonewalls. This area of North America was covered in a massive ice sheet over a mile thick during the last ice age. The action of that weight and motion ground down our mountains to their roots and left us with few imposing peaks. Where all that stone till went was directly into the soil. This makes for a difficult soil to plow since it’s full of beautifully smoothed, rounded rocks ranging in size from a small orange to a plush living room chair.

Years ago, I went for a walk with a friend of mine who grew up in Nebraska. As we strolled along path through a deep wood, he stopped at a pile of boulders and exclaimed, “Will you just LOOK at these rocks!” When I replied with something witty like, “Um. Yup. Those sure are… rocks” he set me straight. He explained to me that where he was from, a rock was about the size of an unshelled almond, and that was it. To him, the stones that had vexed New England farmers long enough to turn most of them into Nebraska farmers, we amazing to see littering the ground.

With all these massive balls of granite filling your fields and cows that were none too clear on where they were supposed to graze and where they were not, it was natural that stonewalls would quickly crisscross the landscape, and indeed, they do. If you go out for a walk in any New England wood and head off in just about any direction, I will guarantee that you will eventually find a stonewall. Eighty percent of the state of New Hampshire, to give you an idea, was open farmland just a hundred and fifty years ago. Now it’s eighty percent forest. The trees here grow quickly. When the leaves have fallen but the snow has yet to obscure things, you can fly around in a small plane and get a clear picture of the way things once looked. The arrow-straight walls run off to the horizons, transforming the rolling geography into the ghost of a quilt, long since nibbled away by nature as she reclaims what was always hers.

As I crunched out through the field across the road from the house, I was lamenting the use of a modern electric fence to keep livestock in place, rather then the traditional wall. So many traditional, if labor intensive fixtures of life have disappeared from our culture. The modern solution, though simpler and faster, will simply not stand up to the test of time. That’s for sure.

I walked a bit farther on in the mist and could, in the silence of the countryside, just make out the sound of a brook somewhere. What my eyes I couldn’t see through the fog, I found by ear. As I got closer, the sound was beautiful and entrancing.

Download Running Brook 2.WAV

stones

The farmer had dug a huge drainage ditch to allow a stream to pass through this place with a minimum of flooding come spring. It measured easily ten feet wide and was roughly five feet deep in a smooth half pipe curve. The entire bed of it, he had lined in beautiful round stones, doubtless from his fields. Beneath the layer of rocks came the sound of a hidden run or water, showing its self only briefly here and there before once again vanishing under the bits and pieces of broken and smoothed mountain tops. This, the traditional building material of the northeastern farmer, will endure, and that makes me smile.

The Square Footage of a Dream

Many years ago, I had a dream. My dream involved a big chunk of land, a rambling farmhouse and a barn.

In the place where I grew up, that really wasn’t a far-fetched dream at all. There were lots of farmhouses, bards and fields scattered all over the New England countryside. They stood as relics of the farming past. The years before the railroad connected the fertile Great Plains with the eastern city centers, this is where the food came from. It had to be close. Lord knows it wasn’t because New England makes good farm country. Unless you’re really into growing rocks, it’s a brutal place to scratch a living from the boulder strewed land.

My mental image of my quiet farm in the country was sculpted in the pre-Martha Stuart days; long before the masses of baby boomers were told that country living was the goal and the prices asked for such properties was driven to the moon. I clung to that vision for a long time.

farm

As is so often the case, my long range plan is not how things turned out. The house we live in is very tiny. It is perhaps nine hundred to a thousand square feet and the lot it is placed on is little more than a postage stamp. You might think that this would disappoint me. It most certainly does not.

The reasons for my change of heart are simple. First of all, a smaller house simply means less house to take care of. The modest size of our home is enough to keep me busy for weekends, stretching into infinity. Every time I look up a it, I see a new part that needs replacing, painting, fixing, removing or completely reengineering. A few months ago, the kids, Action Girl and I all went up the coast to visit a friend who had purchased the quintessential “old farmhouse”. The building wasn’t terribly big, as farmhouses go, but looking at its sagging floors, ancient windows, rotting soffits and ancient plumbing gave me the screaming heebeejeebees. There was a lot of work to do and it was easily three times the size of our place. I had the inescapable feeling that you could whittle away at it for years with out seeing any measurable improvement. It was going to take a long, long time and a lot of money and work.

Then, there is heating. Our home is heated quite easily by one small, gas fired, hot air system. No ductwork is needed and it sits quietly in the corner until it’s needed. This winter, I hope to close in our south facing front porch with a series of big windows. I’ll do the floor in slabs of slate and the passive solar will probably keep the heater off during the daylight hours, all winter long. Heating the massive, old and questionably insulated farmhouse of my dreams would be another matter entirely. Most likely, it would involve a combination of a lot of splitting, stacking and burning of wood and roughly a bazillion gallons of home heating oil. I grew up in a house with a wood stove and to be honest, the shine of chopping and stacking cord after cord of wood in the cold air and then schlepping it into the house armload after armload seems to have rubbed off some time early in my childhood. I can live with out going back to that and with the cost of oil these days; I can defiantly live with out that bill!

Now, imagine this old farmhouse sitting in amongst rolling fields, a large grassy lawn leading down a winding driveway to the roadside. Specifically, imagine having to mow the yard and hay the field. Now, there is one major caveat to this part of the workload that would come with my dream farm. It would give me the justification to own a tractor, and that is nothing to sneeze at. To have ownership not only the faded, red Farmall, in all it’s greasy, rumbling glory, but also a valid reason for having it in the first place… well, that’s nothing to turn one’s nose at.

farmall

I also know full well that I’d have to beat Action Girl to the driver’s seat if I ever was going to get to drive it. At least until running it became humdrum. And that’s the problem. It would be fun AT FIRST. Soon it would be another house chore of Damocles that would hang over my head, threatening to squash me flat under six tons of farm equipment. No. I’ll pass. My little plot of land is easily mown by an old fashioned, rotary push mower, built in 1881. It takes me about twenty minutes.

Last and most importantly, there is the space. Lots and lots of space. This would, for me, be very, very bad. I tell you now and with out shame, that I am a pack rat. It comes to me via genetics, or at least, that’s what I tell my self in an effort to diffuse guilt. My wonderful Grandmother, though she kept a tidy home, was a pack rat too. The floor of her bedroom was reportedly, navigable only by paths that wound and twisted through the stacks of “important” things that she had carefully set aside as too good to throw out. Apparently, when once asked about these collections of saved items, she replied, “Well, I’m not what you’d call ‘nasty neat’”. Neither am I. I’m more “friendly cluttered”.

If I think I could use it later, I’ll save it. If I think someone else could use it, I’ll save it for them. If I have no particular reason to keep other than it’s in perfectly good shape and otherwise it will go to a landfill… well, if any one needs it, it’s probably in my basement. Actually, I’m making it out to be worse than it is. I’m not THAT bad anymore, but it does go against my grain to toss something that still works or just needs a little love. Moving to an island, accessible only by ferry has only made it tougher to deal with my tendency to hoard. There is nothing more aggravating that getting stopped cold 90% of the way through a project because all you have are ¾ inch fittings and all you need is ONE ½ inch elbow. I tell you, it can lead to some interesting plumbing solutions out here. Here, having my boxes of odds and ends actually pays off!

Most of all, I think that people are gold fish, in that we will grow to the size of our tank. If I had the barn that I had always dreamed of, I am completely certain that it would contain at least four cars that I’d be “working on”, part of an airplane, old engines for both car and airplane and piles and piles of stuff that was too good to throw out. When the day would come for my kids to put me in a nursing home, Action Girl would be left to deal with my treasures and, really, the best way to do that would be with a match and a gallon of gasoline.

My house is small. I have no barn or field to fill with interesting tidbits. My basement is full and therefore, to put something new in it, something else must come out. I still dream of my farmhouse in the country, but it’s accompanied now by a shudder brought on through knowing myself. The house would own me, rather than the other way around and that would be a heavy burden to carry. No, I’ll stay in my little house with no fields or fireplaces and just dream about my farmhouse. It’s cheaper that way and the best part is, I never have to paint it.

I do wish I could justify the tractor, though. Vroom! Vroom!

Cool Down.

Fall in Maine does not approach calmly or with advance notice. On one day, it’s summer. The leaves are green, the air is warm, the flowers in bloom and the tourists cover the roads like lost frogs oblivious to the traffic bering down on them. Local drivers like to award point values.

This morning fall arrived. It is not an arguable point. The temperature out side, as well as in, is chilly, and the sad fact that the heat will need switching on after a long summer break is inescapable. If any doubt remained to the change of seasons, then the arrival of the cats last night, sleeping on our bed, removed any further argument. It’s time to button up and get ready for the cold.

The trick with Fall in the upper New England states (Here, I’m talking about Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont) is that there is no good way to dress for a day like today. When I got up, it was feeling quite raw. Socks and a flannel shirt was picked out for my own attire while miniature sweaters with a variety of entertaining themes were put on the kids. That, and the comfort of corduroy pants for Short Stack. It was that cold.

To quote my son, today was quickly turing into, “A fine, bright day”. Every day is a “fine, bright day” for him now. It’s a quote from one of his favorite Miffy episodes and he tells it to us often. Pretty much, if it’s not actually raining, he decrees it a “fine, bright day.”

Today however, he was correct. Bright, fine and nippy. After my first two cups of coffee were gone and the grisly remains of a shared english muffin sat next to me on my plate, we headed out on to our porch. The mid morning sun flooded over the various toys and strollers and Short Stack amused him self with some plastic trucks while Lulu Belle reclined in her bouncy seat and soaked up some vitamin D. I worked on cup number three. Within about ten minutes, I was shedding my flannel and stripping objecting children of their woolens. By the time it I had to get them to the baby sitter’s I was in shorts and sandals. Mother Nature in New England might not throw earthquakes, fire storms, or tornados at us too often, but she does try to confuse us to death.

The part that amazes me the most is our neighbor. She left for the season just yesterday and her timing this year is verging on the clairvoyant. She is a summer resident of our little corner of costal Maine and calls Florida her home most of the year. She’s single, in her seventies and appears in portrait in most dictionaries next to the definition of “Fire Cracker”. We love to see her arrive each summer and bring her boundless personality with her along with the official mark of “High Summer”. She adds a lot of life the place and lets nothing stop her, with one exception; the cold.

“Cold” is a relative term, really. I like to think I’m pretty tough when it comes to winter. Born and raised in New Hampshire, I’ve seen snow and freezing temperatures and they don’t scare me. I am however, a big wimp compared to a good friend of mine who is a native of North Dakota. If I’ve got maple syrup in my veins, then she’s got molasses. I may not gripe about the snow, but she goes out in it barefoot to get the mail from the end of the drive. Routinely. That, is tough.

If I’ve got maple syrup for blood and my friend has molasses, then our hot shot, summer neighbor has tap water. Action Girl and I have seen her in a full length down coat in June and come the first whisper of the possibility of a rumor of cold weather moving for the season, she locks up the house and returns to the stifling heat of central Florida. She probably doesn’t even switch on the AC when she gets there.

The amazing part for me is that she has been gone now for exactly 24 hours and fall has moved in like it’s been waiting for he flight to leave. From now on, the windows will be mostly closed around our house and I’ll start panicking about the outside jobs that I’ve been foolishly putting off all summer. I’ll test the generator out this weekend, just to make sure the gas is still good lest we discover it otherwise come a power outage in mid winter. I’m not going through THAT again!

There are some real good things to look forward to as well though and Fall is truly my favorite season. The leaves blaze up with the colors of a thousand sunsets. The tourist, bedecked in their fanny packs and out sized cameras start to thin out and the black fly and mosquito finally meet a deterrent mightier than Deep Woods Off. Frost! I’ll get to go to the range more often and do some shooting and with some luck, go turkey hunting with a friend once the leaves drop. It’s all worth the chill, so far as I’m concerned. In just a few weeks, I’ll be able to put on one set of clothes and leave them on for the whole day without broiling come noon or freezing once the sun goes down. Okay, the freezing part will probably happen, regardless. It’s a long, cold winter here, but I’m not complaining. It aint North Dakota!

Vermonsters

As I drove up the rural onramp to get up on I-91, I knew that something wasn’t right. The notion that car just didn’t seem as peppy as it should be floated through the back of my head but the alarm bells were hardly going off. I was driving an elderly, but good and solid Subaru Legacy up to a cousin’s wedding in the northern reaches of Vermont. The drive was going to be a long one and I had already done a lot of driving the day before. I was okay with that, though. I didn’t mind the drive. Then the power really started to fail. Hmmmm. This was starting to not feel right at all.

“Holy crap!”

My eyes popped as I looked in the rear view mirror and I realized that the giant grey cloud that was rapidly filling the onramp was coming from me. Not good! Alarm bells! Bad! I pulled off the highway having not quite made it out of the merge lane and shut the car off. Three things were in my favor here. One was the fact that I was following my parent’s car and they had noticed the smoke screen that I was laying down behind me. My father, ever an astute individual, figured that I was not trying to screen the fleet from marauding u-boats and that perhaps, I might need a lift. The remaining two aces in the hole that I had were my a cell phone and a AAA card.

As soon as we had made the call, we transferred my stuff to their car and then waited on the side of the highway for the tow truck. Moment’s like that are always interesting to me. I didn’t expect to have a lot of time to chat with my parents that morning and especially not sitting on the scrubby grass next to cars whipping by at eighty mils per hour. As we cleaned out the Subaru, we talked about how different this sort of thing used to be and what it meant.

Not so very long ago, a break down like this would have meant a lot of different leg work. If I was alone, I would now be walking down the road to the village about six or eight miles back. I would be looking for a pay phone and then trying to explain where the driver could find both me and my car. Having gone through this in cell-free, years gone by, it made this situation look like cake. Not fun, to be sure, but hardly high drama either. The tow guy came around twenty minutes later but had sadly, left his personality in his other coveralls. An older man, round and mustachioed in a striped cap, it looked for all the world like having your car moved my a grumpy Mario. I wondered if Luigi was back at the shop working on Princess Peach’s Fiat. A few grunts from our Nintendo-esque tow truck driver and we were on our way again, packed in tight for a two and a half hour drive.

Vermont is a beautiful place. Action Girl hails from there and I have both spent a lot of time driving through it and briefly living there my self. It’s those amazing mountains. The Green Mountains are not like mountains you find in other places. They aren’t even like the mountains of New Hampshire, where I grew up. They are their own thing. If bare of vegetation, they would stick up like the teeth of an enormous granite, saw blade. Any one looking at them would immediately forgo any notion of hiking over the long ridges and precipitous cliffs. That’s how they would appear. In actuality, they are green. They are in fact, very, very green. Not only do the forests of Vermont seem to go forever, but it’s the fact that they are mostly hardwood forests that makes the autumns here so spectacular. The soil, though poor for large scale farming, is perfect for maple and oak trees. Pines, though abundant as well, are relegated to the edges of rock formations too ambitious for their slow growing, leafy brethren. Together, they turn the landscape into a softened spectacle, reminiscent of rumpled sheets on a bed freshly mugged.

As we climbed through the state along its highway spine, I waited with anticipation for views that I knew were en route. Deep river valleys speckled with towns opened up beside us. A cluster of old homes crowded close to the high white steeple of the village church marked the place where farmers had settled and toiled for hundreds of years. It made me want to move back, nestle into the soil and never leave again.

Eventually, we got off the highway and took the smaller roads that by necessity, wound deep into the dark valleys, following closely the path of the rivers and streams. In much of the state, a five mile trip “as the crow flies” means a fifteen mile trip, winding along the bits of the landscape that are actually passible to anything terrestrial. It’s a beautiful way to travel, but slow. You’ve got to be patient.

The wedding went off with out any undue drama. The bride was beautiful, my cousin looked calm and the backdrop for the out door event was a lush mountain range and a mirror smooth mill pond. You could literally not have painted a prettier picture. I mean that. As the party moved inside and we met folks from far away, we got to answer some questions about New England.

“Was it so green because of excessive rain?”, asked a couple from California. “No.” We replied. “It’s supposed to be like that.”
“How bad are the winters?”, asked another woman from Maryland. “Oh, it can get pretty spectacular. Especially in the valleys where the snow can really pile up and is shaded from the sun. It’ll be several feet deep come spring.”

It’s with a real sense of pride that I call my self a New Englander. Living here is not an easy thing a lot of the time, but to my mind, it can’t be beat either. Years ago, when describing the oppressively humid summers and the bone chilling winters to a young man in Germany, his immediate reaction and next question was, “Why do you live there?” To be honest, I don’t have a good answer to that. The extremes of the seasons are breathtaking and require a lot of work, but I do love it here, Mario look alike tow truck drivers and all.

The next morning as I took my hangover out for a walk, I just kept looking up at the Green Mountains. In the distance, I could listen to birds in the trees, watch the wind move along the hills and over the next ridge, just make out the report of someone sighting in a rifle, possibly getting ready for deer season. On the way back to my folks house and my car problem du jour, we stopped at a little diner called the Wayside, where I had enjoyed many a greasy breakfast when I called this place home. It was just as I remembered it and the pancakes came with real maple syrup, naturally. It was fantastic.

I really do love Vermont and New Hampshire and I miss them terribly sometimes. I’ve lived on the coast of Maine for over a decade now and I honestly don’t see us leaving. Where we are fits up mighty well, though mountains do call to me still. I know they do for Action Girl as well and some day, I think we’ll have to get a little cabin up there. It would be nice to have a place to call our own. We could go there in the summer and swat mosquitos and black fly, chop wood until our the sweat gets in our eyes and come winter, try to shovel out and not freeze to death.

I know part of my heart is still up there in those high valleys, because all that actually sounds like a good time to me. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that we ever left. I’ll have to go back soon anyway. I’ve got to see what Luigi’s done with my car’s head gasket and if they accept payment in 1up’s or or floating gold coins.

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