Monday, February 28, 2005

Home Improvement

I don’t understand the concept of professional decorators. In every house I have owned, it was essential that I live in the house for quite some time, sometimes years, before I knew what the house wanted me to do to bring it back to its full glory. On Staten Island, the process of bringing back a shaggy monster to a presentable but loving creature took me a decade, and truly the process was barely begun when I handed the house over to other caretakers. In that house, like this one in Vermont, I was a newcomer.

The Staten Island house was near the ferry to Manhattan, in a neighborhood that was up and coming a hundred and fifty years ago. In a neighborhood of Victorians, my house stood out as old fashioned. It was brick, probably originally painted brick, with a mansard roof and the floor plan of a classic New York brownstone with front and back parlor on the first floor, kitchen in the basement with an entrance out back for disposal of slops. The second floor boasted two large and two small rooms, with hardwood floors laid on the diagonal and a sixty-year-old bathroom. An almost identical floor plan prevailed on the third floor, originally servants’ quarters even in this middle-class structure, which showed only wide-plank subfloors and distressing glimpses of sky through gaps around windows and skylight.

Already outdated architecture when built, the house featured four slate fireplaces painted to look like marble, wood moldings always meant to be painted, doors painted to look like woodgrain and exquisite plaster crown moldings in the first floor parlor. It was a bourgeois dream, an imitation in affordable materials of loftier architecture for wealthier patrons.

Originally built by Orlando and Lydia Lee around 1862, the house was sold in the 1890’s. When Orlando Lee failed to return from the Civil War, one can only imagine what happened to Lydia’s hopes and dreams of a home on the north shore of New York’s now forgotten borough. For the next ninety-some years, the house was in one family, until a local man purchased it along with others on the block and turned it into cheap apartments. The best one can say of his stewardship—and it is a positive thing—is that he didn’t do too much harm before it passed to a local developer and then to me.

Of Italian extraction, local guy Tony lived sometimes on the North Shore with the “Irish broad” next door and their kid and sometimes on the South Shore with his wife. An old man when I knew him, Tony had at one time owned most of the houses on my block, including a multi-family renovated by a gay couple who had since moved on to other houses and other loves.

One sunny afternoon, prompted by too much wine, one of the guys traded notes with me about Tony’s renovation techniques. “Ya see, he didn’t like to put too much money into these things,” Edward confided, “and when we finally had to replace the boiler, we found that it had a big crack in it. Tony had just jammed a tree—yes, a big chunk of a tree branch—into the crack and plastered all around with furnace cement. The amazing thing is that it held for another ten, twelve years until we had to replace the whole furnace. But you gotta wonder what else he did.”

[NOTE: Do NOT try this at home. It was very lucky that this patch held as it did. It was never a good idea. Call a professional to fix your furnace. Muck around with something less dangerous.]

I was able to contribute some other things that Tony’s imagination—or lack of it—brought to the party. Take the large third floor front bedroom in my house. Once I ripped down all the layers of sheetrock on top, I was able to see a sweetly curved plaster wall that tracked the line of the mansard roof. That curve, along with the three-quarter round molding on casement windows that originally swung open to the inside, bespoke architectural details that broke my heart. They were beautiful, livable, and if it weren’t for Tony’s admittedly ham-handed use of sheetrock, I would never have known they were there. With a lot of hours and a cunning amalgam of plaster and joint compound, I was able to reconstruct that one room.

I had some other wins in that house. I paid someone thousands of dollars—I do remember what it was like to have money for such frivolous projects—to rebuild a twelve-foot chunk of the twining, three-floor banister. And then I searched through antique stores and salvage yards to find balusters that matched close enough in cut, and the staircase was reclaimed. I also paid to have water-damaged floors on the second floor relaid, using the original diagonal plan in oak with a simple border of cherry. Two sets of pocket doors on the second floor were unusual for today’s usage of rooms, but they were what the house wanted. And in the short time I lived there, they made for wonderfully flexible space.

Some projects were simple. My memory flashes back to talking to a Tokyo colleague late at night and wondering…what are those big lumps in the sheetrock on the back wall of the second floor? I probably should have waited until the phone call was finished before sticking a pin in one, only to discover that the leaking roof had allowed water to come in, travel down the wall and get trapped between the sheetrock and its paper cover. Eeeeyuck. Mold. Disgusting. But just one of the things that is solved with a judicious mixture of joint compound, plaster, and mold-resistant shellac-based primer.

Taking down the ornate plaster rosette in the first floor front parlor was not complicated, but it was an adventure, involving me—alone on a ladder—and two sofas to catch the pieces. Ultimately, the reconstructed plaster painted in ornate colors was re-installed to a sheet of secure plywood and re-integrated into the ceiling, complete with those wonderful twelve-inch-deep plaster crown moldings lined out in gold and cream and white.

Other projects were more involved, including the reconstruction of the first floor bathroom ceiling, after the second-floor bathroom plumbing exceeded its useful life. It turns out, you see, that old cast iron pipes have a life of about sixty years before they start to “pinhole.” Once that happens, they leak into the walls and floor and ceiling, with the inevitable result that eventually the whole soggy mess comes crashing down. I learned to be grateful that the compromised beams had not come down along with the twenties-vintage cast iron bathtub. So we (the plumbers and carpenters and me) pulled out the second floor bathtub, reinforced the beams, re-did the plumbing, put in new tile floors and walls, and the whole room should be good for another century.

The kitchen was another such project. When I moved in, there were two kitchens, one in a first floor addition extending out into the back yard, but unaccountably with no actual exit into the back yard. The house was a legal two-family, and the other kitchen was in a front room on the second floor, and as soon as I could afford not to have a tenant, I took back the whole house and started to reclaim the first floor kitchen. I really didn’t have a choice. The window at the far end of the galley kitchen was leaking badly and the frame had rotted. A door to the garden seemed to be an obvious replacement.

But if I was going to replace the window with a door, I needed to move the stove which currently snugged up to the window. And if I was moving the stove, I might take the opportunity to paint the cabinets and replace the (horrible, nasty!) counter and backsplash. But if I was going to pull out the cabinets for repainting and reconfiguring…it would be the right time to do some insulation in this substandard and chilly structure, and maybe some new outlets and lighting would be a good idea? I didn’t even know what to do with the pantry that appeared to have been a dumbwaiter to the basement in a previous life.

By this time, I was down to the studs, and my brother was crooning, soothingly, into the phone….”You pulled a thread on the sweater, didn’t you?” Well, yes. I did.

How did I get into this mess? I didn’t have enough intellectual stimulation at work. Note to self: watch that.

And I really, really wanted to learn some of these skills: painting, plastering, planning, being the general contractor. Thousands and thousands of dollars later, I had a really great time, even though I didn’t always recognize it as such and even though I didn’t even come close to getting my money back when I sold the house. But for entertainment value, you just can’t beat the experience of figuring out how to put back that sweet curve to a wall (water on a paint roller applied to a double layer of eighth-inch sheetrock to enhance the curve) or rediscovering the exact right colors for a house. I wouldn’t trade the experience for any amount of money or for anything else I can imagine.

I would also think twice before buying another house with as many major problems. Water damage will forever be a big red flag for me. Having a roof right now is nice, but I lived through moldy walls, crumbling woodwork, compromised beams, the incredible collapsing bathroom, and the bizarre image of water pooling inside the glass bells of my front hall chandelier. Can you spell short circuit?

My Chattanooga house required nothing more from me than new wallpaper in the bedroom and living room and a little paint, mostly in a nice green-tea color. If I had stayed longer, something would have had to be done about those birds on the entryway wallpaper…but I wasn’t there long enough to worry with them. I did manage to eradicate the dreaded and dreadful hostas from the front flower beds, but not the hydrangea that still threatens Chattanooga.

Here, life is not so frightening. The guy who sold me the house had an ex-wife who delighted in wallpaper with tiny floral prints—ick! Last summer, I disposed of her above-ground pool (this summer it will be an herb garden) and miles of nasty, cheap tan carpet. Even though the house is chillier this year without it, my spirit is warmed to see the fourteen-inch maple boards that run right through to my study, and my new gas stove offers a focal point and cheerful warmth in the living room. Living room (maroon floral stripe), kitchen (two varieties of tiny floral print divided by a border “chair rail”—who ever thought this was a good idea in a room with uneven floors and only seven-foot ceilings?) and upstairs bathroom (straw hats with blue ribbons—I am speechless with horror) wallpaper have been replaced, and I would have sworn that the next priority was the dining room. Or possibly painting the faux wood paneling upstairs. Maybe even rebuilding the walls to the stairwell—not even a challenge—and painting them to match the soothing blue-green of the living room

Until today. I walked into the downstairs bathroom and within minutes, without the aid of any tool other than my fingernails and my distaste for tiny-print-floral-wallpaper, much of the wallpaper was gone. I hate when that happens.

But you have to listen to what comes next. If it is the bathroom wallpaper that needs to be shredded, who am I to argue?

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Object Lessons

My old coffee maker died a couple of months ago, and I replaced it with a small, cheap one from the grocery store, which pumped hot water and coffee grounds all over the counter this morning. Harking back to a conversation with my brother, who had recently re-discovered the joys of the French press, I turned away from the mess in my kitchen in favor of mainlining caffeine as quickly as possible. I have a small French press coffeemaker in the cupboard. I’m sure there are instructions somewhere in my large cookbook collection, which fills one floor-to-ceiling bookcase and part of another, but it is quicker to go online for simple directions.

Ah. Ready. Two tablespoons finely, freshly ground coffee for each six ounces of water brought to a boil and allowed to cool just a few degrees. I even warmed my mug in hot water while I waited for the coffee to steep for four minutes. It is darned cold in this Vermont farmhouse this morning, and I need hot coffee.

While it steeps, let me note that I bought this particular French press coffee maker for some tiny amount of money (two dollars? or was it three?) many years ago because it was cute. It is a beaker with a bright yellow plastic piece on the bottom to stabilize it and protect a table surface and a yellow plastic top with a perky ball knob handle. As I fit the lid onto the beaker, I try to align it properly with the pouring spout of the beaker. I don’t really see how this is supposed to work, but maybe it will all come clear once the plunger is depressed. After all, my engineering skills are not at their best before coffee.

Steeping, steeping. Depress the plunger. Ah, that coffee really does look good. I can see a snowy Vermont hillside right through the coffee and my kitchen window.

Now if I could only get the coffee out of the beaker….

Sure enough, this particular French press has a design flaw. You can make the coffee, but the only way to get it out of the beaker is to take off the lid, releasing plunger and coffee grounds. After I strain the longed-for brew through a conventional coffee filter, I have to admit, it is a superior cup of joe. Perhaps that happy result is what makes it possible for me to move on to philosophize about my morning adventure.

Many years ago, I dated a psychologist who went to great pains to teach me that frustration is not an emotion but a state of fact. Many people use the word “frustrated” as a synonym for “angry,” but this usage is incorrect and misleading. This morning I was frustrated by my flawed possession, but I was never angry. Why waste good psychic energy being angry at an inanimate object? It has been what it is since it was made, and my emotional response to it does not change the object at all. The same can be said of people in our lives.

If not angry, how was I feeling? Fuzzy and in need of coffee. Bemused: how does this thing work? Pleased that my newly rebuilt computer has internet access and Google delivers the goods. Amused at myself for having carted around for a couple of decades a cute little pot that simply does not work. All the more amused because I have made several major efforts to pare back the number of possessions I cart around, and this pot has made the cut every time…even though it is completely dysfunctional. I wonder what character traits are the same.

It is an object lesson to me. That rule that organizers have about throwing something out if you haven’t used it in the last year…it’s probably a good rule. I probably should not let cuteness or familiarity override that rule.

Simplifying my life is an ongoing goal for me. When I left the house I occupied on Staten Island for ten years, I left behind rooms of stuff which I hired someone to take away. He was an unreformed packrat (it is good to know those when you are trying to simplify) and wanted some things, but I suspect that many ended up in the infamous, oddly named landfill at Fresh Kills, perhaps right alongside the remains of the World Trade Center. Many other things likely remain in his junkyard or his antique store or his B&B, waiting their turn to go to the landfill. Many people really enjoy their relationships to stuff; I have spent decades learning that I am not one of them.

When I left Chattanooga, I sold, gave away, or threw away huge amounts of stuff. And when I left New York City for Vermont, all my stuff had to fit in a twenty-foot truck. It was tight, and in my view, I still have way too much stuff.

Of all the things I left behind, I have only missed a few—my sweet little gas grill, which my mother adopted then returned to me here in Vermont, and my power tools, with which my brother did likewise. Like I said, when you are trying to simplify, it is good to know packrats, particularly good-hearted, generous ones. From time to time, I think wistfully of certain pieces of furniture that needed repair or refinishing, but honestly, it is easy to find more projects. The clear, clean openness of my home and my life are far more important to me than any of the things I have divested.

Clearly, I should have given away more! Each successive purge increases the risk that I will get rid of something I will regret, but experiences like this morning’s remind me that I still have way, way too much stuff. Imagine. A coffee maker that doesn’t work, and I have stored it, washed it several times, packed it in paper so it wouldn’t break for four moves, unpacked it…but never used it. Because if I had ever used it, I would surely have noticed that it does not work.

Probably there was some overlooked manufacturing step that would have pierced the lid’s inner rim to allow coffee to flow. I really, really like this little pot (don’t ask me why?), so I am actually considering getting out my power drill and putting a hole or two in the rim. I am also considering weeding my beloved but unwieldy cookbook collection.

If we can’t get my relationships to things right, how can we ever hope to get relationships with people or—as the Buddhists would say—with sentient beings right? I am working toward simplicity and compassion in my life. I think of how hard it is to love anyone properly: just look at what I put Max and Toby through in the name of reaching out to help puppies.

Right now it seems to me that my major challenges are acceptance of my own limited capacities and the need for vigilant awareness of the importance of being present in the moment. We are all constrained by the laws of time and space. Some days it is entropy that bugs me most; some days it is aging; some days it is the intricacies of human relationships in which none of us can ever do or be enough for the others of us. If I take the time to get centered, I see…again and again…that the world is things whirling in space, time having its way with objects. The greatest blessing in my life, for which I am deeply grateful, is the faith that however difficult it is for me to accept constraints, in the end what I have is enough.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005


You will suffer some kind of setback today, and for an hour or two you may be rather depressed about it. However, you are not the sort to despair for long and by the end of the day you will be planning your next major move. Sooner or later, one of your big ideas is going to pay off - that's why you must never give up.

Setback? Setback? I’m really not in the mood.

How did I manage to forget that it is February? There are all sorts of rational explanations for it, but the observed truth is that February has always been a challenging month for me. I have my therapy lamp and my cherished daily routines to prop me up, but still February nags and annoys.

Each year, I slide into February with hope that it will be different. No, that’s wrong. I always forget that February is like this. This year I thought it was the legislative rough-and-tumble that was bugging me. I mean, really, what is it that happens under the dome to transform people of good will and better intentions into single-issue monomaniacs clinging to party affiliations over the common good of Vermonters?

Personally, I don’t even recall which party—if any—I registered. I have been registered as an independent most of my life, except when I lived in Philadelphia during Frank Rizzo’s attempted comeback and I really, really, really wanted to register an anti-Rizzo vote in the primary. Perhaps this means that I don’t have a grasp of the larger issues or the long term. Perhaps I don’t understand how to make a politically expedient trade. Or perhaps I just have a fundamental objection to the junior high cliques and transactions of our political process. Whispers of even more adolescent activities among our legislators simply make my skin crawl. Register me for the Idealist Party, please, or for whichever party is actually tackling the fundamental issues facing Vermont and Vermonters. I believe in fairness and courtesy and the ability of grown-ups to work together, and it distresses me when I don’t see that kind of behavior among people I thought better of.

I do understand that legislators and those swirling around their footfalls in the halls of law-making are humans, generally principled and well intentioned ones, but the collective exercise of legislation…who was it who said it resembles sausage making? So that, my friends, is the primary driver of my miserable mood these days—the requirement that I participate in politics to a far greater degree than I ever intended. But it really has nothing to do with Montpelier or with the specific issues facing my friends and colleagues, it really has nothing to do even with absence of sunshine, not even with new demands piled on in our busiest season, nor yet with old dogs whose failing bladders get me up in the middle of the night.

It’s just flippin’ February. Every year it gets me. I forget it is lurking out there and wham! It lays me out with psychic blow after nagging annoyance. My horoscope for today notwithstanding, a setback is simply not an acceptable addition to this mix. If I have a major setback today, I will be forced to go home, crawl under the covers and not come out until Town Meeting Day next Tuesday. Maybe that is my best strategy.

I could come to view Town Meeting Day (first Tuesday in March) as a major holiday, an occasion for celebration, a last hurrah of political struggle before we turn our attention back to starting seeds and looking for the return of the sun.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Flat Out

There’s something about this time of year. It seems we are all working too hard and too much of the time, and unlike other turns of the calendar, this one doesn’t yield to an agricultural metaphor. Some people say it’s that we aren’t getting enough light and it makes us cranky. Some say it’s the push to spring, that we are putting our shoulders into it, hoping to drive through into that welcome season of new life. Some are avowedly crabby; some relish the rough-and-tumble of legislative highjinks. As for me, I just can’t keep up.

Whatever it is, I’m tired. The long weekend—complete with another blogfirst, meeting in person blogger Robert of Beginner’s Mind—was fun, but not so very long once I added in shopping on Saturday and a catch-up day in the office today, during which I accomplished….oh, maybe 25%...of what I intended.

Robert introduced me to a cozy coffee shop that could have been right in New York, complete with good Greek favorites. We had a lot in common, including that we both found it a little spooky to be getting to know someone already well known in many ways. I’m looking forward to meeting wife Karen and comparing gardening notes as spring advances. We gossiped like old friends, then Robert adjourned to get his car fixed, and I moved on to Costco and beyond.

I really needed clothes, and it was great fun to hit the holiday sales. As I agonized between the gray shirt and the lavender one, at last I threw caution to the winds and bought both! At $3 each, it’s a cheap thrill. $7 pants and $11 blazers round out the flagging wardrobe.

Sunday’s big accomplishment was a nap; today’s was rebuilding my office computer. I guess that I can finally declare the hard drive crash of December 21 resolved, a full two months after the fact. Is this what a warranty is meant to achieve? Maybe it’s just because I am crabby that I don’t think so. Never buy a Dell. I know, I KNOW, I had several with no problems at all. I was a loyal Dell customer. But once you hit the customer dis-service meatgrinder, you never want to go back there.

Tomorrow it’s back to the routine. What can I do to break up this grind of expectations unmet? How can I rise above my to-do list? It’s not that life is boring, not exactly, but somehow I am stressed, scattered and very tired. It’s a comfort to know that this phase will pass, that no matter what I do, spring will come. Hurry, springtime!

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Learning to Lose

I still am fascinated by Saffron Gates, most particularly by the passion that inspired Christo and Jeanne Claude to persist in the face of numbing bureaucracy and outright opposition. Averse to conflict as I am, I come back again and again that the small number of failures I have experienced in my life may insinuate a different kind of failure, shortness of vision or lack of courage.

I don’t enjoy failure, no, not at all, at all. Anyone who has been subjected to my latest round of self-questioning about my divorce twenty years ago might suspect I take some sort of perverse pleasure in it, but eventually even I look at the situation…again…and say “There were two of you in the situation. You both tried and came up short. You both did your best. It happens. Get over it. The sin would be to let it rule your life. Who do you think you are to expect that you will never fail? How arrogant!”

One can argue about whether this process should happen in a year or three or twenty; conceptually one can argue that we should never let go of marriages. The truth is probably that it is less about what we oughta do in a situation and more about recognizing the reality that has occurred. That process takes whatever time it takes, and there is really no point in beating ourselves up for not meeting some imagined, self-imposed timetable.

What if we were to accept failure, really allow that it does happen in our lives? What if we put less energy into recasting situations as just another victory in disguise? What if we threw ourselves fully into each envisioned victory. Each project, throughout its life from birth to resolution, is in some sense a failure right up to the moment it is achieved or abandoned. When Christo and Jeanne Claude say they have eighteen completed projects and thirty-eight not yet realized…are the thirty-eight failures, or are they still live battles, successes still in process of being achieved? I suspect there is a mixture of campaigns in process, battles properly fled, and some that are inactive, resting as the artists store up energy to rejoin the fray, or simply wait for more hospitable conditions.

If we accept failure, we clear the decks for more attention to the issues that deserve our best efforts. If we accept failure, we learn from what didn’t work and try a different approach on some new project, maybe one that is stronger and truer from inception. If we accept failure, we stop focusing on the same old battles and move on to something new: we grow. If we accept failure, we accept ourselves. If we accept failure, we recognize the truth that we are like the rest of God’s children, fundamentally flawed but unconditionally loved, glorious in our capacity to envision the new and pursue it with passion. The number of failures in our lives then becomes a scorecard that reflects how completely we threw ourselves into this brilliant game we call life.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

More Gates

No, Zen Mama (see comment to previous post), I won’t be calling you crazy, not on any subject, but especially not on this one. And did you hear the coverage on NPR today ( ), linking the Gates project for sheer scale of effort to the Gaudi temple in Barcelona and the musical work of William Bolcom inspired by William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience? Fascinating stuff. I love the concept of a penitential temple that will only be finished when penitence inspires enough people to give enough money to support its completion, even if that takes generations. We have eternity to get it right: how uplifting is that?

But with respect to Gates and these other efforts, first, let me say that my response is as a lover of the arts, as a loving and trained critic and consumer of inspired and crafted expression of the human soul. I’m not a supporter of all the arts, only the art that speaks to me, and if that makes me an elitist, so be it. Like Snoopy, I love mankind, it’s people that bug me, but there are certain people I love. If Snoopy were commenting on art, I think he would agree that the arts are a good thing, but most artists bore me; still there are certain efforts that touch my soul. The Gates project is in that category.

Second, let me say that my response is as a lover of the arts, not in my role as budget-minded economic development professional. The Gates achievement, to me, is all the more startling because it was funded, organized and pushed through bureaucratic challenges by the artists themselves. No NEA boondoggle, this was not the result of some half-baked social dropout getting hold of other people’s money to put up a monument to “what we all agree on.” The Christo/Jeanne Claude vision is almost aggressively personal. And I mean that in a good way. The two artists drove that vision to completion. They felt so strongly about the work’s impact that they worked for twenty-six years to make it happen.

In the NPR interviews, they point out that they have “only” completed some eighteen projects, that there are thirty-eight visions that have not come to life. They see “only;” I see eighteen large-scale life-changing projects. Eighteen. Wow.

In the end, this particular vision has come to life because Christo/Jeanne Claude’s efforts finally intersected with Michael Bloomberg’s term as mayor. Michael Bloomberg, entrepreneur extraordinare, whose concept of a system to aggregate information for traders was almost as ill-received, almost as difficult to execute as the Gates project. I’m not sure I would like Michael Bloomberg much if I met him in person, but I respect the person who has been able to build a computer system that is so critical on Wall Street, in London and in professional trading rooms everywhere that traders simply cannot do business without a “Bloomberg.” One has to wonder if Michael Bloomberg’s own experience driving his passion to product generated a sympathetic response when he saw the Gates proposal. I think it had to, and I think that Bloomberg is—in his own milieu—an artist.

To me, the personal passion behind this project—extending to its self-financed execution—is part of the art. The location in New York City is also part of the art, and the people who visit this installation are and will always be part of the art, as it will always be part of their experience and of who they are.

I want to see it, too. I want to remember it. I want to learn from it.

Saffron Gates

Christo’s installation of 7,500 gates along 23 miles of footpaths in Central Park is just the kind of thing that makes New York City the incomparable, experiential organism that I love. New York’s gift to visitor or long time resident is its capacity to deliver over and over again experiences that linger. I have many such experiences stored up in my memory: the laughing monks I wrote about a few days ago, seeing the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloons rise from puddles of vinyl to come to life as giant cartoon characters at 4 am, hearing artistic debates in the subway…only to realize that it was two subway graffiti artists comparing how to have the greatest impact, seeing ballet or theatre so piercingly, emotionally real that I came away feeling my life changed, …the list goes on and on and on.

The list goes on and on because New York is so big and so diverse and so wild and so unmanageable that once you know the city, you have to fall in love with it. It is like a wild child, untamed and untameable. You don’t always like it, but there is much to love.

I remember a conversation with a much older woman as we rode the Staten Island Ferry to work one day. She was a bird watcher, and she was pointing out how the tides’ different levels in the harbor brought out different birds. As we observed this wildness, we also chatted about looming drastic changes in city government, including major layoffs of city personnel in the department where she worked. I asked whether she thought the changes were right, whether they moved in a direction of more control of the big issues. Her answer stopped me cold. “Well,” she said, “it’s not like it really makes much difference. I mean, after all, everybody has their ideas about how to make New York better, but it is fundamentally unmanageable. This administration will find that out eventually.”

Partly her answer was politically motivated, aligned as she was against the incoming Giuliani administration. But the part that got to me was that she’s right. New York is unmanageable. Untamable. Wild. A collection of millions of hearts and minds on millions of collision courses, and this is what frightens many tourists, many who would never set foot in the city and even many who live or work on that crowded island. But if we look only at the scariness of New York, we miss its wonder.

The wonder of New York is that even in the most extreme circumstances, the human spirit finds ways to reach out and to rise up. Human connections are made, and the divine is celebrated.

I have been missing this celebration of wildness in Vermont, and there must be something in my perspective that has gone wrong. Vermonters know that nature is wild and untameable and ultimately to be celebrated. But lately I have wondered if they know that people are the same—wild and untameable and ultimately to be celebrated. It’s the political process that is getting to me, particularly the aspects that suggest that people can be controlled and managed and regulated and regimented into a set of common goals. Healthcare issues, environmental issues, job creation are just of few of the swirling human needs and wants that collide under Montpelier’s dome and in its halls, and that the political process can never fully address. Administrative skill, good humor, and courtesy help enormously, but we have to recognize that we will never be able to achieve agreement on the goals, much less lockstep march to their execution. We might be happier if Vermonters, like New Yorkers, accepted that like New York, Vermont is a living thing, wild and ultimately uncontrollable.

Then again, maybe it’s me. Maybe I am just trying to get others to accept my worldview—just another attempt on my part to control the world. Maybe instead I need to back off, reflect, then take my place in the dance.

Just reading about The Gates makes me happy. It makes me want to see it. It makes me want to be again in a place where I can walk and walk and find outrageous and unexpected things three times on each and every block. It makes me want Indian food and Vietnamese food and Ukrainian food and really good sushi. It makes me want new cheap Chinese shoes from Chinatown, along with a red bean bun stamped for good luck. It makes me miss turn-of-the-century skyscrapers shrouded in the morning fog. It makes me miss historical context cheek by jowl with the newest and most startling innovation. It makes me miss the bustle and the good-natured clarity of Wall Street’s focus on making a buck. It makes me fall in love with New York all over again, even from this remote outpost in northern Vermont.

Saturday, February 12, 2005


Getting work done on Friday was just not possible—we had snow! Thursday afternoon and continuing for several hours, the result was several inches of new fluffy white stuff, the best kind for skiing and playing. I don’t know about the rest of Vermont, but most people in my town took off at least the afternoon to play in the snow. Return e-mails—pah! Paperwork—bah, humbug! Not when the snow is like this.

Snow! We haven’t seen much of it this year. Groundhog Day has come and gone, and we hardly feel as if we have had winter. As much as we moan about it, we all love the snow. You would too if you were here. I hardly dare confess that my first winter here was over all too soon. I had barely gotten used to what to expect when the dandelions were out, and summer hiking was the order of the day.

This is my third winter here. It hasn’t had the early snow of my first—Brooklyn based movers were not amused to work in heavy, wet snow as they moved me into my first Vermont home late on Thanksgiving weekend. They finished after ten at night, then some of them curled into the back of the truck cab, planning to take turns driving back through heavy weather. And there I was. In Vermont. In the winter. I seriously considered the life-threatening aspects of winter before I moved up here, and that first night I wasn’t sure I was ready to cope.

The second winter had lots and lots of snow, and long weeks of subzero, which I tolerate less well than glorious snow. I learned that my car starts at thirty below, but will not start at forty below. I first learned that the dishwasher freezes in subzero temperatures, along with the washer drain. I learned why there are only two tiny windows on the north-facing back of my house, compared to the welcoming window-rich front of my house. The cold north wind was my frequent visitor last winter, but not so frequent as this year, with little snow to insulate my floorboards.

Snow! The boys and I went out for a romp today. I was wearing snowshoes, and I have been told that it is okay to walk across the fields across the road from my house. In Vermont, apparently, neighbors still expect that neighbors will walk across their fields, that dogs from neighboring houses will meet in the middle for romps. I’m still so new as to be respectful of boundary lines, but my neighbor Tim—who sold me his family home—tells me it is okay to walk out back of his family’s old barn, across the fields and into the woods. So today we went out.

Forty-five minutes, and I am tired. Deep snow, yes, and I could be in better shape, but I put my weariness down to the effort of walking with a large German Shepherd trying to stand on the backs of my snowshoes. You try it!

We’ll be back out tomorrow. So what if I am constitutionally unsuited for skiing or other sliding sports, my formative years in the Deep South having left me unprepared for winter here. Snowshoes are a blast, and who can miss this snow!

Another Twist or Several

Perhaps it is because I am doing lots of computer housecleaning that I am looking back over the full history of Vermont Diary and finding fascinating shifts and turns in audience and intent of my writing here. Last July, it was from several motivations that I started writing to an e-mail list of friends and family. Because I am new here in Vermont, I am conscious of my impressions of the place as being particularly fresh and strong, and I wanted to store up the experience to revisit in the future. And I thought others might enjoy it.

Because I am new here, life can be lonely far from friends, and I found it personally helpful to reach out with messages, whether or not responses were forthcoming. It also gave me a mechanism to reach out to family members, who for whatever reason, don’t communicate with me. It took some time to work through various issues associated with the e-mail list—sorting out assumptions about what communications were personal and what could be shared, making sure that I respected others’ assumptions as far as possible, assuring people that I really did care about their views even if I chose a “Christmas letter” sort of mechanism in order to communicate more often and sometimes more deeply than they might have expected. The process was not without mis-steps.

Finally, I have long had a sense—as I have probably expressed here before—that writing would overtake me in middle age (that would be now). And so it has. I refer you to Fiction? ( )

In October, I started the blog. I felt a need to shift the perspective a bit, to make my writing more for a public audience, even though content is undeniably personal. I don’t want my friends and family to get the wrong idea, but I have experienced more real personal interchange in years of e-mail than I did in decades of cards, letters, phone calls, and personal visits. Maybe my experience is shaped by the twin facts that I live—by my own choice—a long distance from many of the people I love, and that I am oriented to written exchange.

In a different lifetime, I would have been one of those literary spinsters cranking out letters every morning or afternoon, crafting a spider-web legacy of words weaving together the thoughts of my acquaintance, whose smallest acts would take on outsized historical significance simply because they were recorded while countless others were not. By recording the tiniest facts of my life, I create a world entire, peopled by my friends and colleagues, my family and the slightest acquaintances. A world that is both real and fiction.

Here’s where it all gets really interesting. While we all create such fictional worlds, we owe truth to ourselves and to others. Absolute, rock bottom truth. Getting to truth is not a trivial exercise. We think we know the truth about ourselves, but then someone points something out to us…and we wilt. How could we have missed the obvious? We think we know the truth about another person, but however much we may care for another person, it is impossible to enter into another’s reality. We owe each other the rights to have our own stories, gloriously separate but interlocked by compassion and love.

Now I refer you again to Fiction? ( ) and to Dan’s comment at the end of that piece. I responded off-blog via e-mail to Dan saying that I really didn’t view the call to write in the same upbeat way he had described it—more like being pursued by black flies.

This is, I realize, a Vermont reference, which I may need to explain for readers who have not visited the Northeast during mud season. Black flies are tiny insects that go for any particle of exposed skin and bite, bite, bite. The pain they inflict far exceeds their size. Clouds of black flies in the spring have been known to drive seasoned hikers to beat their heads against tree trunks in a maddened effort to make the pain stop. If the Furies came to Vermont, they would come as black flies.

I didn’t think any more of the exchange until I read Dan’s posting several days later at . If you haven’t read Dan’s stuff yet, you may want to. He has been nominated for Best Business Leadership Blog. On the other hand, Dan is another intuitive introvert like me, but more intellectual, so you may find his stuff heavy going. This particular entry—about being trapped by a “reformed” work-a-holic on a plane—seemed a bit uncharacteristic of Dan, and I was concerned enough to write back off-blog as follows (edited):

Dan...I sympathize with how distressing it is to have people talk to you on planes, also with the annoyance of learning from someone you don't particularly warm to at the same time you are grateful for the lesson. Funny, though, I would have pegged you for someone who didn't need to have the heart attack.

Dan replied (edited) to reassure me that he did not need the heart attack to jolt him into an authentic life, then added this followup:

I'm still thinking about the black flies line. It bothers me because it wasn't just ironic -- at least that isn't the way it came across -- but also as a defeat of the gift that you are bringing with your wonderful observations and sensitive dialogue with the world. I'm not much for derision of such a precious thing. What was it you were saying about losing something precious? (Can you hear this?)

And I wrote back (edited):

Thanks for that cheerful message! I certainly feel better about you, and you are right, we keep learning the same damn lesson over and over again. But I do believe that we get it better each time, and eventually we really get it.

Don't worry about the black flies. I hear your comment, but please know that I accept my fate cheerfully--I am leaning into it and exploring bit by bit how to get on up the trail despite the little monsters.

You know, it's funny...despite how much I have learned from blogland, this is one of very few real exchanges I have experienced. I write in response to a lot of people who appear to be aware questioners, sometimes in response to pain between the lines, but generally to people I perceive as grown-ups. Most often I never hear back, and sometimes I hear back that I didn't get it right at all, how dare I empathize with that person! Okay. Maybe I am writing from a projection of my own situation, but I prefer to think of it as empathy, fellow feeling with another human. If what I have to say is not heard, well, okay. I'm not going to force my viewpoint on anyone. Contrariwise, I have come to recognize that the more adamant the response that I didn't get it right at all...the more likely I did, and hit a sore spot. Compassion is a narrow path between the sore spots; compassion is knowing when to say "that's ok, you are just like the rest of us," and when to leave it alone to fester or to heal, whatever rightly comes next. One of my other big lessons is learning how to avoid the arrogance of being Little Miss Fix-It. Implication for my writing is that it must avoid any tendency to the didactic.

Now isn’t this interesting? Full circle from e-mail to blog and back to e-mail, which I have now shared with you via blog. Amazing how authentic an interchange is possible via blog, amazing how seldom we hear each other no matter what medium we choose.

Meanwhile, I am working through an issue that is so deeply personal that I can deal with it only off-line and through fiction I have shared with only two friends—Dan, a blog-friend, and Jon, a personal friend for the last twenty-two years. In the end, there are only the people we love, however we come to know them, and we can deal with the deepest issues only in the most personal contexts, never in blogland, never for display.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Laughing monks in saffron robes

Thanks to cable tv, I just watched the beautiful movie Seven Years in Tibet, a depiction of the young Dalai Lama. In many ways, the movie is very sad, showing the fall of Tibet to the Chinese Army, but it brought back memories of the Dalai Lama’s visit to New York City. Deborah, a junior high friend, with her sister Colleen, are among the dearest friends of my life, and Deborah braved New York to see the Dalai Lama.

I don’t remember the year, but I remember that it was November and it was freezing cold. Girl-like, I remember the exact coat I was wearing, and that there were not nearly enough layers below it. We were up early to get to Central Park by the time the monks’ meditation began. Very early, very cold.

We parked on the west side and walked into the park. It was early, cold, frosty, and as we approached the Sheep Meadow, we could hear the monks’ horns. We came closer and could see those wonderful orange curlicue hats that look like a Mohawk cut. Lots and lots of monks. The park was silent, except for the monks’ horns and distant traffic. As the appointed hour approached, we were all squirming from cold and wishing we had remembered to pee one more time before leaving home. We didn’t know what to expect.

Suddenly, there he was: the Dalai Lama. Diffident, relaxed, he walked forward and sat down. There was not a sound. In all of Central Park, it seemed in all of New York, there was silence. He began to chant and the monks joined in, and all of the huge crowd was as one in meditation. It went on for, oh…half an hour or so…then, he bowed, stood and thanked everyone.

It was a wonderful experience, one of my top ten New York memories, maybe in the top three. Who could have imagined that one man could have such an impact? I will never forget the contemplative silence in Central Park that morning, nor will I forget the mournful tribute of those horns.

There is a story about the Dalai Lama traveling through the US, that in one city, a troubled and agitated man tried to reach him backstage. The security people kicked into high gear, only increasing the intruder’s anxious flailing. Suddenly, the Dalai Lama appeared out of the crowd, walked over to the man, and seized both his hands in a warm clasp. “Thank you!” he exclaimed, looking straight into the troubled man’s heart. “Thank you for coming to see me.” And then he quietly moved on. Having met the Dalai Lama across Central Park’s Sheep Meadow, that’s exactly how he seemed to me.

That day in New York, we went on to join a group from the Zen Center for lunch, and each group hosted a visiting monk. We fed ours Chinese food, and he ate quite a lot and laughed a lot. It was a very good day.

Saturday, February 05, 2005


Often I have been known to intone that the worst thing about living alone is being sick alone, but today I have to take that back. Tucked up in front of my cozy fire, I am replenishing reserves and trying to shake a cold. I made myself a pizza (caramelized onion and goat cheese today, not as interesting as it sounded), took some meds, had a long, hot shower, napped with the dogs, and read three quarters of a murder mystery, and I am feeling better.

Unfortunately, I did have to defer the pleasure of meeting Robert of Beginner’s Mind and his wife Karen for lunch, but I trust they will be around for some time to come and all the happier not to be infected by me. We are looking forward to chatting on numerous topics, including herb gardens, one of my passions.

Out back where the above-ground pool used to be, I ordered up a truckload of dirt to bring the plot back to level, and I am happily plotting what will go where. This will be a year to have scented geraniums again, and to start collecting multiple varieties of thymes and sages. I love the thought of mixing in attractive vegetables, and I am noodling around what needs to go into pots to take indoors once our short growing season is past. I am thinking about growlights and seed starting, and this all makes me very, very content.

The truth is that I need a lot of unstructured time like this, particularly when I get overtired and overstressed. The psychological folk say it’s because I am an intuitive introvert (INFP if you like Meyers-Briggs). It’s nice to have permission from the world to recharge; all I know is that it is essential for me. I used to be rigorous about taking a couple of hours off during the day any time I had to go to an evening meeting, but having lost that discipline in recent weeks, I feel my energy flagging. From there it is a short step to getting sick. Or getting hurt falling downstairs. Or some other all too physical reminder that I need to safeguard my resources.

Since moving to Vermont, I am far healthier than in years, and I attribute a lot of it to this more measured pace. Still, I was looking forward to lunch with Robert and Karen. I was looking forward to doing something purely social and meeting new people. I was even looking forward to treating myself to new sneakers, my old ones having been sacrificed to Toby’s distress over the whole puppy episode. Who am I to say that’s not their best and highest use? We all need what we need.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Cold storage

I have just been listening to a news account about a Vermonter killed in Iraq. Come spring, he will be buried….and details follow. Come spring? Oh. Yes. Right. We have to wait for the ground to thaw. My friend T points out that Vermont cemeteries are located on southern slopes, the first to defrost once spring comes. If granny doesn’t make it through the winter, Vermonters put her—now more figuratively than literally—on ice. And there she stays until the ground thaws, someone can dig down the traditional six feet, and granny’s mortal remains can be deposited in the spot she always expected to occupy. Right now we can’t possibly chip away the earth, so granny will have to wait, and so will we.

This is no odder, arguably less odd than burial practices elsewhere. I think of aboveground interment in New Orleans. My mind also flashes back to an uncomfortable discussion when I was on an Episcopal Church vestry about how when you own a cemetery plot you actually own a condo…that bodies are actually buried three deep…and presumably it is a first come “first floor” scenario. I don’t know about you, but this all makes me focus on the benefits of cremation.

Even so, all this talk of disposition of remains after life is over is more palatable than folk tales in Vermont of how the old folks are packed in hay and put out back to winter over. Thus disposed, apparently they are no longer a drain on the food supply, and come spring, they are defrosted no worse for wear and needing only to be updated about the winter’s rigors. One can only imagine that they want to hear it was a really tough one, requiring their enforced slumber. One wonders if the old folks are thawed in time to vote at Town Meeting the first Tuesday in March.

It took me a long time, but one day I realized why Vermont towns are fundamentally different from Southern towns. Vermont towns touch each other, Southern towns hardly ever do. The Town of Morristown butts up against the Town of Stowe, which is cheek by jowl with the Town of Waterbury. Put together, there are ten Towns in Lamoille County, with a few Villages occupying subsets of their respective Towns. There is a County Seat in Hyde Park, but no county government to speak of.

In Georgia (the-state-I-mean-not-the-Town-of-Georgia-Vermont), where I grew up, the governing structure is different. Counties touch counties, as they do here, but within counties are large spaces that are not part of any Town; they call these spaces “unincorporated.” The difference, ultimately, is the weather. If you had this system in Vermont, who would plow the snow? Highway construction in Georgia (the state) is a state function, and the one-person-one-vote high involvement in local politics simply does not exist in the same way.

Interesting, eh, how something as fundamental as weather drives differences in burial custom and even differences in local governmental structure?

Thursday, February 03, 2005


Dowsing around blogland, I find people and prose that speak to me, including Annette at thinking out loud ( ), who left behind a therapist role and finds herself, unaccountably, blog-stilled.

A old boyfriend M used to say to me, “If you don’t know what to do, sit down,” and as little as I trust many of his theories, this one, I think is sound. “Don’t just flail around,” he counsels, “wait for inspiration, think about what logically comes next, focus on what you want, and then act.”

I quoted old M to Annette over at thinking out loud and suggested that fiction might be a new arena for her, and then I realized that the advice was really for myself. Not quite sure where the idea came from, but suddenly there it was. The NaNoWriMo experience intrigued me, and I am warily circling round the concept, the very idea that I might start something new. Plots abound. All I need for plot I can get from mythology or from Shakespeare. (“That Shakespeare dude, he wasn’t much…all he did was string together a buncha quotes.” This from the radio talk shows of my youth, who also connived to convince themselves that the so-called moon shots just went “over there in East Alabama…I know that place, I been there.” )

There are a lot of places I know, even if I never have been there. That is the very fabric of fiction.

I have been reading David Mamet’s South of the Northeast Kingdom, which is mostly not even essays, just impressions of this amazing few hundred square miles that we call Vermont. Although my assessments of Mamet range from ambivalent (Glengarry Glen Ross, House of Cards) to approving (Writing in Restaurants and this current volume), my strongest association is to an evening in New York at the 92d Street Y, when Mamet and Horton Foote laid out the difference between writing for stage and screen.

They used as an example the way the different media might evoke impatience, time passing all too slowly. On stage, an actor might stride onstage, look at his watch, look at it again, shake it, tap it, stride up and down. In film, a broad panorama might give way to a man’s face, impatient, then a quick shot of a wrist turned ever so quickly. I was blown away, not by the obvious differences in approach, but by their straightforward assertion that writing is a craft, that it can be learned and practiced, and that fiction is a mechanical tool we use to convey truth.

Annette has a special story. As a therapist, she was been given the gift of her patients’ stories, and now that she is full up on stories, she is right to pause and consider what her next life stage might be. Those stories are a sacred trust, not meant to be regurgitated for gawkers. It may be that she needs to close the lid on that box and move on to something completely new, trusting her psyche to leave behind or refine whatever is there in its own time. I have to admit, I am in awe of the trust that she must have inspired working with people. She helped many, I am sure, but it is surely also true that each of Annette's patients made to her an offering of themselves. A professional exchange, yes, but also deeply personal.

Like any other former patient, I would be nervous if I thought that the anxious, even tortured, stuff of my personal journey was feedstock for someone else’s art. But deep embedded in those stories are strands of heroism, of love and loss, of hope and striving, of tragedy, and those transcendent morsels want to find expression in new tales with new listeners who will carry the spark into new acts of daily heroism. Any writer of stories inherently if not absolutely true carries the human spark of imagination and inspiration into the future.

If Annette had been my therapist and she started to write fiction, I would be anxiously scanning her work, afraid I would find petty details of my history, afraid I might not find evidence that I was one of the brave, creative ones that really touched her heart and spirit. No, if Annette decides to write fiction, maybe best do it under cover of a pseudonym. But this isn’t really about Annette; it is really about me, here in the ultimate me-land of blogdom.

We each have our own story, and it is an important part of our life work to tell it honestly and with compassion. Even that most personal story is fiction, since we can only imagine the secret hearts of even those closest to us. We owe it to ourselves to keep looking for our personal truth, neither beating our breasts nor raising our arms in victory, but honestly. We owe others the courtesy of recognizing that however much we care for them, their stories are not ours. Like the visitor at Town Meeting, we may be invited to comment, but we don’t have a vote. We owe others the courtesy of recognizing that our versions of their stories are fiction, always, even when we are trying to get to the truth. We owe others the cushion of saying to them, "I could be wrong." We owe ourselves the hard discipline of recognizing that we likely are wrong most of the time about other people's stories.

I suspect I have stories to tell. I have often had an inkling that writing would overtake me in middle age. And more and more, I suspect the stories I need to write are absolute fiction, stories of people I have never met, but fiction with a stone foundation of truth. Time will tell if this inkling unfolds into reality, or if it is just illusion born of two glasses of wine and avoidance of the State of the Union address.