far too much writing, far too many photos

I am living about as idyllic a life as my teeny brain could imagine. Up in the Vermont mountains, summer at its peak. The days mostly sunlit, usually with at least a slight breeze, cicadas droning in the trees during the warmer hours. Out behind the house the yard rolls off toward the barn, then to the line of trees and undergrowth beyond which mark the property line. Bright red raspberries have come into their time in that undergrowth, so that any trip in that direction brings an opportunity to pick a few, toss them in my mouth one at a time. In front of the house, the yard gives way to the downslope of the hill, covered thickly with foliage and wildflowers, providing cover for critters. Off the near end of the house, the east end, stands a windbreak, a line of 11 or so fir trees — a major hangout for birds during the course of the day. Off the far end of the house is the driveway, a 150 or so foot track that leads to the town road and the forest beyond. Insect sounds rise from the grass all around the house, my soundtrack of choice as summer leans gradually toward the days when nighttime temperatures begin to fall and leaves turn.

A little over a week ago, I mentioned here that the crickets had disappeared during my two weeks in Madrid, leaving the place eerily silent, apart from a few other insects singing quietly to themselves in the grass. Yesterday I heard my first cricket since my return eleven days ago, and have heard more since. Which led to a theory re: what happened: 2+ acres of grass gets cut here –- a lot of mowing for one person, several hours worth of work. I usually break it down into sections, which means anywhere from an hour to an hour a half of work for a few days in a row. The grass is usually dense with insect life, the mowing tends to wipe out enough of it to leave it quiet for a day or two, until bugs from other sections of lawn filter in and their sounds gradually reach the pre-slaughter level. A housesitter stayed here during my absence, a conscientious, hard-working woman named Kit. Kit mentioned that she did all the cutting in one day, meaning she singlehandedly wiped out all the lawn critters, leaving behind no crickets to carry on the usual singing, no grasshoppers leaping to get out of the way as I walked through the yard, no nothing. It’s taken this long for enough critters to filter back in to get the soundtrack going again.

Mystery solved.

I thought about all that as I walked out to the road for the mail earlier. The Town recently re-graveled/graded the road, leaving a few sizeable rocks off to the side which I’ve been thinking of collecting and using around a flower bed. I leaned over to heft one of them, a big bugger, see if I felt like lugging it back to the house — tipping it up revealed a toad crouched in a depression underneath, blinking up at me in the sudden light. I put the rock softly back down, continued on my way.

Yesterday morning: don’t know what came over me –- got up and went out to a yard sale. During the warm season here they’re everywhere, like dandelions, many running for two days. I saw an ad in the local weekly ad-rag for a several family ‘do a ten-minute drive from here, found myself seized with the impulse to go. At 9 o’clock, I parked my car on a country road amid a cars lined up on either side of the lane, got out, followed the sound of the frenzy. What had been billed as a “lawn sale” had actually been crammed into a garage, which meant the crowd of vultures who showed up to pillage and loot shuffled stiffly around, packed tightly together into not much space, brushing crankily against each other as they cast a cold eye over the pickings and pawed through tables of dreck. Within fifteen minutes, most anything of any worth had been hoovered up by hot little hands. Me, I managed to grab a Nils Lofgren CD, a sturdy pair of shorts and a good-sized chunk of rose quartz (don’t ask me why re: the quartz -– one more example of impulse buying). The total: $1.50. Not bad, but worth racing out first thing in the morning? Hmmm.

Later in the day, I happened to glance out the living room window where I spied a hawk — a big one, probably a red-winged — a few hundred feet away, at just about the level of the window, circling lazily in the air currents above the valley that channels Route 14 north and south. As I watched, it slowly gained elevation, moving gradually toward the house.

A couple of summers back, a sharp-shinned hawk made its home in the one of the taller trees that define the uphill property line here, nesting about as far away from the house as the red-winged hawk was when I first spotted it. That sharp-shinned hawk was a voracious bugger, a fierce hunter that homed in on the songbirds which hung out in the windbreak off this end of the house, little colorful critters used to hanging out here due to the bird feeders that get put out from September through May. Within a couple of weeks the hawk had killed or driven away most of them, leaving a strange silence in their place. (That goddamn silence again!) I began a campaign of driving it off whenever I found it flying around the house, throwing open a window or stepping outside to make loud noise, and in all of that I discovered that the one sound which really seemed to have an effect was a sharp handclap, done twice, a second or two apart. Done right, it sounds enough like a gunshot that the sharp-shinned hawk immediately bolted.

It showed up again this last May, I took to bothering it any time I saw it so that it quickly made up its mind to head off to a friendlier neighborhood. As I stood outside yesterday, watching the red-winged hawk circling slowly above the house, I began the hand-clap thing, producing two of them, over and over. That predator was too big and too bad to display any nerves, too cool, too, er, unflappable to give any sign that the jerk standing outside the house below bothered it. But as I persisted with the handclaps, it altered its course, coming out of the circles and gliding slowly off to the west, disappearing over the trees on that part of the hill and out of sight.

After that the day slowly clouded up, remaining overcast during the night, wiping out any possibility of getting a gander at the meteor shower. The characters at the National Weather Service claim tonight will be a good night to take in the show — clear, mild, no moonlight to speak of. I may pull my little bod out bed and check it out. We’ll see.

Hey, I just realized this journal had its one-year anniversary five days ago. For over a year now, I’ve been boring the bejesus out of a select group of blog surfers with far too much writing. Woo-hoo!

This misbegotten bugger began in Madrid. It’s currently being written in northern Vermont. I’ll be mighty curious to see where I am a year from now.

*************************

Went into Montpelier last night for a movie, returned home after dark. There are few houses out here, and none nearby. It gets truly dark, especially with the new moon, like last night. Stars filled the sky, the milky way in the middle of it all, stretching from the northeast to the southwest. There’s nothing like that kind of nighttime display.

Tonight the Perseid Meteor Shower begins cranking up. Recent nights here have been cool, almost cold. Crisp, clear, even a bit autumnal. I may have to drag my little body outside in the early hours to check out the show.

Or maybe not. We’ll see how I feel come the wee hours.

[continued from previous entry]

We opened our lawn chairs, settled down to eat. People of all ages streamed in, mostly families, the elders looking like folks who might have attended a happening like this in the late 60s. Blankets were spread out on grassy ground, lawn chairs set up, coolers and picnic hampers opened. Sounds of conversation all around.

The performance began when monster loudspeakers lurking in the woods behind us commenced blasting music, blasting which continued for the next 90 or so minutes. The play, it developed, had no dialogue. The company acted out archetypical scenes having to do with immigration to this continent -– the thrust of the piece was what the program called ‘the immigration crisis’ –- the music provided the backdrop for it all.

What I’ll say about the piece is this: a) the performers worked hard, exerting themselves physically in one way or another just about the entire time; b) the cast included a number of kids, one of whom looked to be about three years old -– they did a great job, maintaining focus and working hard through some complicated staging (the three-year-old was adorable); c) great soundtrack –- with the exception of one or two numbers, I’d love to have it on CD.

At the end, the entire audience got politely herded through the woods behind us to a small lake where a shell of a boat, containing a few candles, drifted slowly across the water. It slowed, drifted to a halt about halfway across. A bullfrog somewhere along the shore broke the silence with a loud, impolite sound or two. The cast, a quarter of the way around the lake from the audience, bowed. End of show.

Hmmm.

There were no lights set up around the clearing where the performance took place, so it had to be finished before darkness fell. Between the clouds, the remaining sunlight and the blue, blue heavens, the sky remained a spectacular distraction during the entire show, to the point where I often found myself with my head back, staring at it. Sizeable dragonflies put on a display throughout the proceedings, flying back and forth above the crowd, occasionally descending to make a leisurely, nonthreatening pass several feet above our heads. Nature, at times, upstaged the performance pretty effectively.

So there you have it. Vermonters carrying on in the name of art.

***********************

I subjected myself to a haircut today. Given the mass of hair that had collected on my head, the time for shearing had clearly arrived. My ‘cutter is the woman who owns Acme Hair in Montpelier. As genuine and irreverent a character as you will ever stumble across. In her late 50s, sections of her hair dyed pink and orange, with a loud voice that frequently breaks into laughter. Her shop can be found on the second floor of a building on State Street, a mere two blocks from the State House — in a bowl hanging outside her door she keeps candy and prophylactics, both male and female, free for the taking. Inside the door, more prophylactics, along with leaflets about AIDS. Around the shop: a few hand-drawn signs (”SORRY ABOUT THE PRICE INCREASE — PLEASE DON’T GUILT ME! IT’S THE COST OF DOING BUSINESS!”), a few shelves of hair products (heavy on the hair dye), loads of tchotchkes and photos, including a signed Bill Clinton photo and a bunch of Marilyn Monroe pix clustered together in one corner. And her big cuddly black doggie.

She says she’s been dealing with physical problems, has decided to sell the business, and is actively looking for a buyer. Next March, she heads across the country to her town of origin, a small burg in the San Joaquin Valley in California, to take care of her 91-year-old mother in the family house. The house is paid for, she’ll have disability income and won’t have to work. This, she said, will leave her plenty of time to (a) take care of her mother and (b) give away prophylactics and clean needles.

Montpelier is going to lose some serious local color when this woman takes off.

And the haircut? Turned out pretty well. Short. Real short. That’ll change — my hair grows like a house afire. (Now there’s a saying that make no sense at all.)

*********************

A bumper sticker seen in Montpelier:
THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE AREN’T THINGS

Hmmmm.

Today: one of those days when I was up and out early, didn’t get back to the house till mid-afternoon, and once here found my body didn’t want to run around or do anything that felt even vaguely like work.

Saw a half-rainbow during the drive into Montpelier this morning -– so vivid it seemed unreal. By the time I’d turned onto another road, it had become a complete rainbow, a long, low arc, shining against drifting gray clouds. Rainbows tend to be commercially overdone, I think — sentimentalized, overused. And there’s a reason for that, for the overuse, for the way they show up on all sorts of banal inspirational products: because the real things are amazing. The colors in this one were brilliant, almost luminescent, and when I began the descent into town, this phenomenon of moisture and light stretched across the entire downtown, from the small valley on the south side which follows the gentle winding of the Winooski River over to the north side and the houses that trail Rt. 12 out of the village toward the Worcester Mountains.

Clouds and sun traded off until early afternoon. Since then the day has been mostly gray. Once in a while, light rain, almost mist, passing briefly through. Low, dark clouds brush the mountains as they blow across the valley from west to east. Now and then bits of blue sky peek through. As I write this, the sky to one side of the house is gray, featureless, extending over the house itself so that rain is falling outside of every window. Off to the other side, where the valley extends to the north and winds out of view, blue sky and high white clouds stretch from west to east, the clouds above the house breaking into dark tatters and trailing off.

I’ve been hanging out with a nice woman lately (J.). Two nights ago I found myself down in central Vermont, sitting with her in lawn chairs, a couple of hundred of people ranged around us on blankets or in folding chairs, everyone’s attention on a goofy, earnest, well-intentioned political screed in the guise of an outdoor theatre production.

The Bread and Puppet Theater used to host a similar event every August on their land up in Glover, VT. Freaks, hippies, lefties of all stripes, Vermont families (with kids, picnic baskets, lawn chairs), and large numbers of unclassifiable weirdos came from all over for the do, which lasted Saturday through Sunday, I think, usually climaxing in a procession and performance in the wonderfully, bizarrely creative and grandiose Bread and Puppet style. Meaning comedy, darker ramblings, puppets (from small and manageable to the enormous), oversized masks, mysterious/cryptic passages, politicized allegories, music — all tossed into a blender, then staged with energy and visual flair.

The event of two evenings ago wasn’t quite up to that. In a way, it’s unfair for me to pass any kind of judgment on it in that I tend to have little interest in political spews these days, from any part of the political spectrum. On the other hand, I put in many years working in the theatre biz -– both acting and writing, actually making my living at it during some stretches -– so I can’t help noticing production pluses/minuses.

J. and I hooked up in the town of Norwich. I left my car in a parking lot, we drove to the event in her Jeep, down winding Vermont roads through beautiful country (country more genteel, less wild than my part of the state, the kind of land Frodo Baggins might feel at home in), the roads becoming progressively narrower, changing from asphalt to dirt, until we finally turned into a field being used as a parking lot. From there, we followed a grassy path that gave out onto acres of rolling land, a natural, sprawling bowl whose sides angled gently up to the enclosing pine woods — thick stands of old, stately trees that stretched up into a blue evening sky across which feathery mares’-tails clouds drifted.

[continued in next entry]

It has been extremely, almost extravagantly beautiful here since my return from Madrid. Vermont is at its finest -– in my humble, ignorant opinion -– from July through October. I would expand that to include May and June except for the whole blackfly thing, which impacts life in surprisingly concrete ways. The joy of being able to walk outside into ideal weather, in some of the most beautiful country on this planet of ours, free of teeny winged bloodsuckers, is almost beyond my ability to describe. Deep. Transcendent.

The nutbags at the weather service have been claiming there’s a real possibility of rain this afternoon, so I dragged myself out at a reasonable morning hour and cut the grass on a section of land I refer to as the UFO Landing Pad -– a flat, circular expanse slightly down the hill from the house, maybe 30 feet out from the northeast corner of the building, overlooking the valley as it stretches away in both directions. During the warm season here, insects spring to life with a concentrated overabundance that is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Unless one doesn’t care to have spiders and teensy flying critters finding their relentless way into one’s living space, in which case it’s annoying or unnerving. But they’re everywhere, and the lawn is densely populated with noisemakers of all kinds, flying and hopping in every direction as one disturbs their little lives with human footsteps. Pushing a lawn mower through that produces a scrambling of little critters trying to get out of death’s way that reminds me of certain shots from the original Godzilla movies, the ones when the big lizard is taking a stroll through downtown Tokyo and the camera has assumed God-Z’s point of view, looking down at the running masses in the street trying wildly to get out of the way of big oversized dinosaur feet. Over ponderous, menacing soundtrack music and Godzilla’s overstimulated roaring can be heard the screaming of tiny voices, going, “Augh!! Godzillaaaa!! Godzillaaaaaa!!!” I look down at the crickets, grasshoppers, etc., streaming off in every direction from the advancing Mower of Death, I swear I can just about those same tiny voices crying, “Aiiieeee!!! Godzillaaaaa!!”

And speaking of crickets: if you’ve read this journal’s entries from the past week, you may remember that during my first day or two back, a mysterious silence reigned here, as if the locals were all stunned at my return. Speechless or grieving or expressing pouting disapproval. Far fewer birds than normal spouted off, virtually no insect song rose from the grass. Everything quiet save the occasional breeze in the trees. Normally, at this point in the summer, the insect noise has grown from soft and intermittent to a continuous stream of sound with the conversation of crickets riding atop all of it in an intense, chiming blizzard of back-and-forth chirping. That’s what it’s usually like. And right now? Not much of anything. Oh, there’s been some recovery –- other insects have filled in some of the vacuum, mostly critters that make soft chirring and whirring sounds, a kind of gentle, ongoing late summer noise I like. But no cricket music.

The thing is: I know they’re out there. I’ve seen them during the past week, especially this morning, as I pushed the lawn mower around. They were in there among the hordes fleeing the Blade of Doom, crickets of all sizes, lots of ‘em, from teeny buggers to big, fat suckers. So why aren’t they making any noise?

Also missing when I got back from Madrid: the robins, a group who had been here in pushy, joyful abundance when I left on July 14th. My little hilltop fiefdom includes 2+ acres of mown lawn, and at any given daylight hour, several robins could be seen hunting amid the short grass. During my first couple of days back: none. Not one. A couple of days ago two showed up, now and then I hear one or another of ‘em sounding off. But nothing like before.

This is normal for the end of August. Not for the beginning.

Hmmm.

Meanwhile, yesterday morning I stumbled outside to discover that someone, during the nighttime or early morning hours, had made a meal of most of my tomato plants, sucking down every single green tomato and about half of the branches and foliage. Leaving me eight sad, stalky survivors of a brutal vegetarian feeding frenzy, drooping against their tomato rings in stunned disarray, half their previous size. And — as the Ronco refrain goes — that’s not all: two of the three sunflowers I’d planted beside the tomato plants also got hoovered down. The only thing that saved the third was that its blossom had already turned brown.

The perpetrator? Could have been a groundhog — there are two or three of them that maintain summer homes around the house). Could have been deer — the gluttonous buggers pass through the yard on a fairly regular basis. When I first moved here and planted some young, diminutive maple seedlings in the stretch of ground between the house and the gravel road, each successive morning revealed fewer and fewer leaves remaining due to critter grazing. Until I enclosed the seedlings with chicken wire.

I situated the tomato plants and sunflowers right near the house, just 12 or 15 feet away from the building itself, not far from the kitchen door, a place that sees a lot of human activity. Working on the assumption, I think, that proximity to people would discourage critters from chowing down.

Silly me. Now I know.

*****************************

Note: Any further additions to the entry-in-progress of two days ago (3 August) will go into that day’s entry until the bugger is complete. And then it’ll all remain there, pretending that I wrote the entire thing in one sitting.

Following is the text from this week’s “Life In Hell,” a weekly comic strip by Matt Groening (© 2002 by Matt Groening)

He: Would you please kiss me?

She: Say please.

He: Please.

She: Say pretty please.

He: Pretty please.

She: Say pretty please with sugar on it.

He: Pretty please with sugar on it.

She: Say pretty please with sugar on it and a cherry on top.

He: Pretty please with sugar on it and a cherry on top.

She: Now jump through this hoop. (He does so.) Now sit up and beg.

He: (On his knees:) I’m begging you.

She: I can’t kiss you now because for some reason I no longer respect you. But here’s a treat.

(She tosses him a bit of dog kibble, he gobbles it down.)

He: Mmm! Beef-flavored!

******

Should I be worried that that’s been cracking me up?

[continuation of yesterday's entry:]

“So. Class. Bank. Then returned home to dump school stuff, cram a swim suit/towel into a bag and flit off to rendezvous with my landlords, who had offered to take me to their club. The plan: I was to catch the Metro out to a station southwest of the city center where one or both of them would pick me up, the afternoon would proceed from there. From my building, I made the hike to la Calle de Fuencarral, one of Chueca’s main drags -– the more touristy of the two main drags -– then down Fuencarral past the Municipal Museum to the Metro, where I headed well down into the Earth’s crust to catch the subway line I needed, one extending well southwest of the center.

“Part of the reality of Madrid, at least in the two years I’ve been lurking within the city limits, is that it’s growing at an unnerving rate, meaning construction everywhere, aboveground and underground. In this case it meant (I discovered) that due to work being done on this Metro line, the train ride terminated two stops short of where I needed to go. A shuttle bus took over from there.

“One or two statios short of the transfer point, the line abruptly burst aboveground, bringing scenery to contemplate -– dusty green trees; brown, parched grass; hard, brilliant Iberian sunlight. Now and then buildings or a view of a road. At the termination point, all passengers poured out of the train, walked through the station to the street, poured into a shuttle bus, which took us to the remaining stations. After which I found myself standing on the sidewalk by Campamiento, the station final station on my ride. My landlords (Pat and John) waited, I crawled into the back seat of their small car, we headed further west.”

[this entry in progress -- more to come]

Hot, muggy weather arrived yesterday morning, I’ve been intermittently worthless since then. Unshaven, ragged-looking, hair pointing every which way. Mighty unattractive. (And I give thanks that there aren’t mirrors scattered around the house so that I’m not continually catching glimpses of me, ’cause the unnerving, eye-widening moments when I do result in an urge to shriek.) I’ve gone from a dynamic environment of sound, movement, energy, abundant diversion to, er, where I am — out in the middle of beautiful nowhere. Why do I get the feeling this may not work?

‘Course I could be jumping the gun. I just need more three-dimensional human interaction than I’m getting right now. Luckily there are one or two possibilities for socializing coming up this weekend, and possible connecting via telephone. Maybe that’ll fill the bill. Yeah.

A week ago at this time I was in my piso in Madrid (keeping in mind the six-hour time difference), the TV spewing Spanish in the background as I gradually pointed myself in the direction of the bedroom. It had been my last day of intensive language classes with that quirky group — a good day, full with activity, interesting folks, new experiences. In fact, I managed to scribble the following rundown late that afternoon:

“The last day in class, at least with this current group, went well. No, really. For more than one reason. First, there were only four of us -– smaller, which seems to engender more tranquility. Second, Pietro was back after yesterday’s truancy due to car problems. He’s an expansive, benign, funny presence and affects the atmosphere. He and I get along fine, which seemed to have a ripple effect. Third, it didn’t matter to me how things went -– I was going to enjoy myself. And did. (Damn, I’m good.)

“Last night’s visit to the ATM didn’t pan out. Neither machine at the local branch of my bank could seem to deal with my ATM card, claiming it was damaged. After class today, I went to the branch where I opened my account, intending to get a replacement card. On impulse, I slid the card into an ATM machine there, suddenly it functioned again. I was a real person once more, able to request money, which I did immediately. The machine seemed delighted to comply, presenting me with euros and sparing me the need to beg/plead/grovel/implore the bank staff for a new card, at least until my return to Madrid, whenever that turns out to be –- October? November? Don’t know right now. If there’s further ATM mischief, I’ll deal then.

“Yet another beautiful day here, same as yesterday. Extremely, almost excessively user-friendly. Hot in the afternoon in that no-humidity way Madrid has, meaning as long as one tends not to spend too much time in full sunlight all is well. Least that’s how I experience it. The walls of my apartment are thick, the windows southern-facing but placed to allow plenty of light with no direct sunshine until evening time. Works for me. So while the temperature scaled heights that had some people complaining, my little life felt just fine. Plus, really, I hear someone going off about the heat and my thoughts turn to the outrageous displays of summertime heat/humidity that I’m used to in the northeast U.S. After which my general response to complaints re: Madrid’s heat is usually What, are you kidding?

“I spent eight years in a large brick apartment building on the corner of Mass. Ave. and Hancock Street in Cambridge, Mass., in a small one-bedroom dive. Five windows, all in a line along the outside wall –- no cross-ventilation, no A/C. When the global warming summers began showing up in the late 80s, heat waves rolled in, each day hotter than the next, humidity intense enough that the covers of paperback books curled up from the ambient moisture. Two, three, four days of that made sleep impossible — the building soaked up relentless light and heat during the day, radiating it out at night. I’d get up in the early morning hours, the tiles in my roach-infested kitchen would be unpleasantly warm under my feet, my steps producing a sticky sound. Compared with that, Madrid is out-and-out paradise.

“But I blather….”

[continued in next entry]

Well. Didn’t get much sleep last night, though it doesn’t seem to matter much. I feel clearer, happier and more human than I’ve felt since somewhere around midday Tuesday, when the long process of crashing began. It’s nice to be able to write, talk, prepare food, all that.

I’ll be heading into Montpelier this morning for gym, groceries, etc. It’s a cute little town, Montpelier — civil, pretty, at the height of its season right now, plenty of summer folk around. The season will stretch into October, and after the leaves have fallen and the colors are gone, life in the town will quiet to its winter-dreaming state.

It’s just a crossroads, really, a town of 8,000 souls. Being the state capital brings it activity and life it wouldn’t otherwise have — between government and a large insurance company, the population doubles weekdays between 9 and 5. By 6 p.m., life quiets back down, the population reverts to its normal size. A small place, really. It’ll be interesting to be there after two weeks in Madrid.

Right, I’m off. Later.

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