far too much writing, far too many photos

A couple of days back: me in late-afternoon Montpelier, post-manly-gym-thing. Rewarding myself for being such a good, healthy, wholesome boy with a shot of good, healthy, wholesome caffeine. I order, I’m waiting while the cutie behind the counter coaxes some joyjuice out of the espresso machine. Someone says my name, I look around and see that Jeff — a character I haven’t run into in six or so years — has appeared by my side.

I first met Jeff many moons ago, when he was living with Elaine, an old university friend, and they were shacked up in a tough part of Roxbury, Mass., living in one floor of a triple-decker and taking the battery from their car in every night so the local two-legged wildlife wouldn’t rip it out of the vehicle during the wee hours. He worked driving a cab, Elaine did something in an office, both pooling their money to buy land up here in Vermont and get the hell out of the city. Seemed like a good guy, Jeff — friendly, interesting. 5′10″ or 11″, longish brown hair, narrowish face, eyes alive and a bit guarded — bears a vague resemblance to Frank Zappa.

I shifted my life out to the other coast sometime after that, settling in Seattle for one of the weirder periods I’ve experienced in this life of mine. Next time I saw Jeff, I’d gotten hitched and moved back east, he and Elaine had left Massachusetts behind, were living on ten acres off a dirt road in Hardwick, north of here. Residing in a small house they’d built, at that time without electricity. My sweetie and I drove up for their wedding (held on their land, attended by a motley blend of folks), winding our way along two-lanes from Vermont’s southwest corner to its northeast corner on a motorcycle, our only set of wheels, something I’d picked up with cash from the sale of the house I’d bought and lived in, in Seattle.

My more refined half and I visited once or twice more, in subsequent summers, each visit deepening the bug I’d picked up eight or nine years beforehand, the wanting to live up here. (On an August afternoon during one of those warm-season north country excursions, I saw my first dust devil. A small, sketchy tornado, six or seven feet high, raising a light cloud of leaves and dry earth, zig-zagging around a field across the dirt road from Jeff and Elaine’s land, its movements appearing strangely — not sure what the word I want here is… conscious? intentional? I can see why some native americans consider dust devils to be living beings.)

I left my marriage three or so years after their wedding, spent a strange 16 or 17 months in L.A. When I fled back east, I wound up in Cambridge, Mass., made the occasional trip north to touch base with Elaine/Jeff and gratify my Vermont jones. They had two daughters, their marriage went through troubles, they split up. Elaine moved to a small town not far from Hardwick, got herself into a relationship with a woman — a pairing that spanned a few increasingly turbulent years, finally bursting apart 2-1/2, 3 years ago.

One of the last times I saw her, I had two Irish boys in tow, the lads here to help me close out my life in Cambridge. We spent an evening at Elaine’s place, her two teenage daughters in attendance (along with the older one’s Jamaican main squeeze). Excellent food, hours of conversation. The kids clearly enjoyed the exotic presence of two characters from a different part of the planet, I enjoyed facilitating the event and passing some time with an old friend and her brood.

I saw her a couple of times during the following warm season, before heading back to Madrid. As my departure date approached, I called Elaine, left a message, got no response. Called again, left another message, same result: nothing. I made the transatlantic leap, the silence stretched on — on and on and on until, months later, a Christmas card materialized, the note inside talking about how we’d been so bad about keeping in touch. I answered with a teasing note of the “What you mean ‘we,’ paleface?” variety. And something about that apparently hurt her feelings — she sent a reply simply saying, “Okay,” and refused to answer my follow-up communications. I never heard from her again.

In her Christmas card, she’d mentioned that she’d gotten newly involved with a male (just to keep everyone off balance, she said) and referred to herself as ‘neurotic as hell’ as if it were a selling point. I wondered about that when she vanished, accepted that I might never know what was up. And remembered that sometimes when relationships reach the end of their shelf life, it means that the participants have evolved in different directions. Everything moves on in this existence of ours.

Jeff joined me at a nearby table to catch up for a few minutes, we gave each other the short version of our current lives. I asked if he’d been in touch with Elaine, we talked about the ever-shifting state of their post-marriage relations. I mentioned her disappearance, it came as news to him. He said now that one of their daughters was off at college, Elaine was spending increasing time at home — alone, isolated, unattached romantically (to anyone of either gender).

Second-hand information — not a reliable source of data, not a dependable way to get a picture of someone’s state of being. Gossip, essentially.

Gossip sucks. Calling her directly would be a better, kinder option, and however it went, it would likely, at the very least, be interesting. I filed that away as something to think about, mentally wished Elaine well, the conversation moved to other topics.

Jeff and Elaine are both excellent cooks, Jeff’s worked as a cook most of the years I’ve known him, was a fixture for much of that time in the kitchen at Montpelier’s most popular Italian restaurant. A situation that could provide no further advancement once he’d reached the top of that little world’s heap. And then someone offered him a job at the local food bank, a good job, one of the top positions there. He was ready for a change in situation and made the leap. It is, he commented, the first job he’s ever had that includes benefits — he shook his head at that, eyes showing a mix of amazement and sheepish pleasure.

I hoovered down the last of my espresso, we got to our feet, saying good-bye. My hilltop fiefdom is off the road he travels every day, as I did up my jacket I said he should feel free to stop by any time he felt like it. He edged away from that, saying it would be more likely we’d run into each other in town, as we had this day.

That’s the Jeff I remember — a personable guy, and friendly. But not too friendly.

And then he was gone, leaving me in a room awash with late afternoon sunlight to gather my stuff, me thinking about the way life rolls on, its only constant being change. It’s fascinating to encounter old friends, old acquaintances, and see where their journey’s taken them.

España, te echo de menos.

Bare branches/winter sky — East Calais, Vermont:

España, te echo de menos.

[continued from entry of February 20]

I drifted beneath the darkening sky for a while, hypercontent, thinking about nothing, senses on full input. At some point, I remembered G&S, floated back in their direction, slithered over the wall into the hot tub/jacuzzi thingy to say hello. A brief return, it turned out — they suggested a turn in the pool almost immediately, the words were no sooner out of their mouths than my body did the dive/slither thing, taking me once again into more open water. They followed, did a lap, suggested a few minutes in the sauna. Moments later, I found myself seated in a small wooden room, baking, G&S stretched out nearby. Irish folks came and went — married couples, parents talking about kids and family stuff, one 40ish male speaking with exactly the accent of my friend Dermot, the same music, the same turns of phrase.

After that: back to the flat to change. Heading out into cold darkness for a ride down the strip to a glorified convenience store (both sides of one aisle stocked with nothing but bottles of wine: French, Italian, American boutique vineyard product — not a bottle of Gallo or Mogen David to be seen, and, now that I think about it, not a single bottle of Spanish wine. pendejos), then a restaurant for a dinner of ‘Mediterranean’-style chow, vaguely Italian and all that. (Good bread; good salad, overflowing with hot, sweet peppers; good chicken packed with goat cheese on a bed of linguine. Took leftovers home, had chicken/pasta breakfast next morning. Not as excellent as cold breakfast pizza, but not bad.) A brief return to the hotel to drop off G&S, then a long ride home along winding two-lanes, a misty, high-hanging moon keeping pace.

I’d warned G&S that the liars in the local weather biz (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) were warning of wild weather the next day, when unseasonably warm conditions collided with an approaching cold front. Next morning here, excessively mild temperatures gave way to scarily dark skies, howling wind, wild downpours, clearing away around midday for a couple of hours before more overcast, the mercury plunging forty or so degrees, dipping below zero well before 5 p.m. I drove into Montpelier to do the manly gym thing, returned via back roads littered with downed branches and the occasional fallen tree. The radio said that central and western parts of the state fared far worse, widespread power outages leading to the opening of emergency shelters in many towns, temperatures expected to swing far below 0° fahrenheit that night.

I spoke with G&S a couple of days later, found out that the hotel had lost power on that stormy morning. The facility — huge, grand, luxurious, packed with happy vacationers — had no back-up generator, meaning everything came to a halt on the Friday morning before President’s Day weekend, exactly when the place would likely be inundated with many more guests showing up for wholesome midwinter fun. Bet management and housecleaning had a ball that day.

When G&S went out to pack their car, they found one of its windows completely smashed, the other spiderwebbed with cracks. A construction cone lay wedged under one side of the vehicle, possibly blown into the windows before dropping to the ground and attempting to crawl guiltily out of sight. Plastic sheeting and loads of duct tape made the car roadworthy, they made the ride home during the calm after the morning’s display of weather wackiness.

Life here since then: cold, cold, cold, slowly easing up within the last day or two.

This morning, the world outside lay beneath an inch or two of fresh snow, the kind that glitters in sunlight as if covered with tiny diamonds. At 8 a.m., the temperature hovered around 10, by 11:30 it had pulled itself up to around 40, a quick walk outside providing a hint of a distant, slowly-approaching spring. Just a hint — good enough for now. Sunlight poured down, flooding through west-facing windows, I stood in the kitchen with a glass of water in hand, the space around me feeling light and airy in a way it hadn’t in a while. Therapeutic, all of it, for a body longing for spring, or at least the Madrid version of late February.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

In an entranceway along State Street, Montpelier, Vermont:

España, te echo de menos.

[continued from entry of February 17]

The pool had cleared out some as daylight faded, the scene growing more tranquil. I floated, propelled by a leisurely backstroke, overcome with an expanding sensation of well-being. A bit disproportionate to the situation maybe, but there it was, overriding just about everything else — a feeling of freedom like I hadn’t experienced in a while. A long while. In part, probably sparked by the sudden sensory opening out after spending the last two months out in wintertime northeast Vermont, in the middle of beautiful nowhere, feeling fairly constricted by cold, snow, lack of input. In part. It seemed to go far deeper than that, though, strangely so.

Mulling it over later, this occurred to me: a substantial part of my younger years were spent on the Hudson, where my family had land. From the age of four on, the warm season was spent with the river as the passing days’ backdrop, from 18 on that became the family home, the ‘rents having fled downstate, building a home there in the woods, the river a major presence in day-to-day life. Huge amounts of time were spent by the water, swimming, in small boats, laying on our small dock, the slightest breeze producing a gentle, tranquilizing rocking motion (the dock’s outser section a float, mounted on barrels, responding to the smallest rippling of the river’s surface). The smell of water, the feel of it — all fundamental to existence for many years.

The first three summers post-high school were spent working at Jones Beach on Long Island, a whole different thing in some ways, but water once again a basic part of life. One summer after that was spent in a small town 90 miles north of N.Y.C., a pit stop between Seattle and Manhattan, my then wife and I passing big chunks of the days at the town pool. Not the same as the river or the Atlantic, but not bad. Sunlight, water. High diving boards. And the company of someone dear to me.

And then: nothing. I’ve lived all over the map, have never again found myself close to water in the same kind of intimate, daily-basis way. I’ve had friends who’ve been into the indoor swimming pool thing, I’ve tried it now and then: it’s never done it for me. (No sunlight, no sky, no open air.) And I’ve gradually forgotten about the pleasure, the fundamental rightness of being around and in water.

Until Wednesday, when my body found itself waking up, overjoyed in a way it hasn’t been for a long time. Don’t know what I’ll wind up doing with this information. It’s good data to have, though — I’ll be curious to see what I do with it.

[continued in entry of February 22]

España, te echo de menos.

A Sunday in winter, dusk coming on — northern Vermont

España, te echo de menos.

[continued from previous entry]

Funny things have happened in this life of mine when I’ve gone places with no real expectation beyond a nice time. For instance:

a.) In 12th grade, a few days before turning 18, I accompanied a friend to a performance of a musical given by the school’s teaching staff, anticipating nothing more than a few laughs. We arrived at the auditorium to find females sitting in our seats, the one in mine a year younger than me. Our eyes met, it was as if I’d been struck by lightning. That woman who became my first passionate love interest, that chance encounter turned my life inside out.

b.) A couple of months into my first semester at college, a friend mentioned she was heading over to the school’s theater department to declare her major, asked if I wanted to come along. I shrugged, figured what the hell, soon found myself in a meeting with her and the department director, wound up declaring theater my major, spent far too many years working as an actor. (Often, the theater world being what it is, working for free or close to it.)

c.) One wintry morning in January, 1999, I came across an ad for cheap flights to Europe, Madrid catching my eye (not a place I’d ever thought about or dreamed of visiting) for some reason. I followed an impulse, booked a flight, found myself there in the city center one evening in February, being struck by lightning once again. Within six months, I’d returned to live, exploring a city and country that felt like home.

On the surface of it, nothing that dramatic happened in Killington. G&S headed into the women’s locker room, I ducked into the men’s, finding myself surrounded by a bunch of kids, two or three adults, all speaking with English and Irish accents. (Could be that the continually-weakening dollar has turned us into a prime vacation spot for U.K. folks.) Dumped my gear in a locker, found my way out to the pool entryway, noticing a hand-printed sign on the wall reading something like “Pool: 94°, Hot tubs: 104°.”

Steps led down into a narrow channel of water, crowded with kids. A few feet along, vertical strips of plastic formed the barrier between indoors and outdoors. I stepped through, warm water swirling around my legs, found myself suddenly out in the long, slow Vermont dusk, the mountain rising skyward off to my right, the darkening sky spreading out overhead. A brisk breeze blew, English and Irish accents filled the air around me, the day’s last light shone soft and clear, unmistakeably a winter twilight. The effect of all that colliding sensory input: a subtle feeling of disorientation of a strangely positive variety, me feeling a smile take form on my face as I waded ahead into deeper water.

I turned a slow 360°, water up to my chest, me taking in the surrounding scene (kids cavorting, groups of adults talking in variously-accented English or trying to corral children), saw G&S waving as they advanced from the entryway. They headed straight to one of the two poolside jacuzzi/hot tub enclosures (at the same level as the open pool, separated from the rest of the olympic-sized space by tiled walls), I followed. We weaseled our way into a free corner, me settling back against warm tiles, warm roiling water making my bod happier by the minute. Directly ahead: a spectacular view of mountain and sky, daylight fading to the point that headlights from trail groomers shone out from two different points near the skyline. Steam rising from the water, cold moving air on my cheeks, my ears taking in a surprisingly dense mix of sound (jacuzzi, voices, breeze). Sensory fullness.

I took it all in, my body buoyant in the surging water, constantly trying to float surfaceward (me deciding that handles on the submerged tile seating shelf would have a bitchen addition to the tub/jacuzzi’s overall layout). After a while, S. offered me her place directly in front of a water jet, I tried it out. Loved the feeling of the warm water flowing around my torso, but found its pressure augmenting my body’s ceaseless surface-direction drift. I finally moved aside, switching places with G. And as nice as the bubbly tub was, I gradually realized that my body was urging me to return to the pool, found myself going over the wall in a kind of slithering dive, back to warm, calm, now uncrowded water, floating on my back, open sky above (now going dark).

[continued in next entry]

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

February foliage — Montpelier, Vermont:

España, te echo de menos.

Two mornings ago, when I glanced blearily out at the thermometer beyond the dining room window, the mercury hoverered around the 10° mark. An improvement from the 0°F (or lower) readings of the previous ten or so mornings.

Yesterday at the same hour: a lovely 30°, the air feeling mild, the Vermont countryside basking in sunlight, looking like an extremely user-friendly day might be in store. And right on time — friends were spending a few days in Killington, south of here, I had plans to drive down and swan about with them.

Mid-afternoon, drove into Montpelier, did the manly gym thing. Headed south from there, tooling along the interstate for 25 minutes, enjoying Vermont countryside bathed in sunshine. Transferred to local roads, spent half an hour following two-lanes that wound between green mountains, with streams and broad, shallow rivers appearing and disappearing to either side of the roads. Snow minimal, bare ground everywhere, the predominant colors browns, grays, dull winter greens — far more of that than up in this part of the state where white still abounds, at least outside towns, though less than what some might consider normal. Far less.

A fine, relaxing ride, through teensy towns and late winter countryside. Until Killington, that is, when the scene changed from low-tempo rustickness to sudden drastic overabundance of cars, motels, hotels, condos and restaurants. And behind all of it: looming green mountains, white ski trails descending the slopes between patches of forest.

Drove along Killington Road, a three-lane lined with, well, motels, hotels, condos and restaurants, a few standing out from the rest via an enthusiastic show of garishness. Kept driving until all that gave way to trees, mountains, sky, the road rising to a sudden wide-open view, hotels and condos abruptly recommencing, one of those my destination.

I followed traffic into a parking lot where a sign indicated hotel customers should proceed to the left. Assuming that excluded freeloaders like me (my friends having advised me to be careful about where I parked), I turned right, parked on a high, unpaved section of land, the valley spread out around me in full Vermont ski-country splendor. Headed to the hotel’s main entrance, assisted by a strong, chilly wind, the area feeling noticeably cooler than up north.

Inside, I approached a smiling concierge, explained I was visiting friends, asked if there would be any problems with where I’d left my car. His smile faded as he realized I wasn’t an actual customer, he assured me dismissively that there’d be no problem. Leaving me to find my way upstairs and down long corridors to meet up with G&S in their luxury hideyhole.

Turned out to be a nice little space, their squat for the week. And not so little, in reality. A genuinely spacious studio complete with kitchen (the real thing, not a hotplate special), dining area, murphy bed, sizeable entertainment center (including gnarly-looking boombox rated to 170 watts of tooth-rattling power), comfy sofa, comfy loveseat, and a fine view of mountain, ski runs, sunset, folks returning to the hotel from the slopes. Loaned to G&S by the owners, friends who timeshare it.

Friends are good. Well-placed friends are gooder.

They were lounging about in thermal underwear when I arrived, doing the post-skiing afterglow thing. We hung out, they showed me their brand new bells-and-whistles-galore cellphones (I thought they were pagers at first, so sleek and simple-looking were they when closed — silly me), we discussed vice presidents shooting elderly people in the face. And when daylight began to fade, we pulled on swimming gear and trooped down to the hotel pool, the first of two main events.

When we’d originally talked me about me coming to visit, they’d suggested I bring a swimsuit, told me the pool was an indoor/outdoor number. Which sounded nice, of course. And that’s not all, they said: jacuzzis! hot tubs!. Last time I sat in a hot tub was in northern Idaho during a late-80’s Thanksgiving weekend, snogging with a woman from eastern Washington I was seeing. Good company, snow-covered mountains, romantic fun & games. Left me with good associations when it comes to hot tubs.

So whoopee, I figured, though I noticed I was more interested in the hanging with friends part of the experience than with the water sports. Didn’t really know why, wondered about it in a vague way for a moment or two, then forgot all about it.

[continued in next entry]

España, te echo de menos.

Critter tracks, northern Vermont
(temperature at 9 a.m.: 0°F)

España, te echo de menos.

Whoops — hard to believe so much time has elapsed since this journal’s last installment. Not that the silence has been deliberate (or that people have been hammering at my virtual door jonesing for an update). Two, three days back I made several attempts to pull together what passes as my thoughts and dump them here in reasonably coherent fashion. The result: pure, blithering, unintentional comedy gold, me finally giving up when my word processing program decided to have a seizure, wiping out a paragraph or two of ponderings in the process (producing a brief blizzard of colorfully foul language from yours truly). Which I took as a sign to call it a day. Sometimes you have to know when to fold up your tent and slouch off into the metaphoric night.

It continues feeling strange to find myself out in the middle of northeast Vermont’s snowbound hills instead of Madrid’s noise and energy. There is a part of me that experiences this time here as an especially long session in a sensory deprivation tank. A beautiful, endearing sensory deprivation tank, but still — awfully damn quiet.

I returned from Montreal just in time to miss my downhill neighbor Mo’s 84th birthday bash. When I stopped in the next day to grovel with apologies and see how he was doing, I found him looking tired, a little strained. Normal, I suppose, for someone in his situation: three days post-installation of a pacemaker. His heart had developed a tendency to slow way the hell down during the long Vermont nights, slow enough that implanting a cardiac metronome seemed like a good idea.

He was sitting at the kitchen table paging through an outdoorsy magazine when I showed up, his live-in sweetie off driving a schoolbus. Home alone, feeling kind of isolated, especially in the wake of the previous day’s houseful of birthday partyers. He let me know he was going to be home alone a lot during the next couple of weeks, told me to stop by any time I felt like it — sounding like an indirect way of asking for company.

I walked down there one afternoon during the following week. Both cars were gone, but I made my way through front-yard snow and dog poop to knock on the door just for the hell of it, just in case one of his kids or grandkids had temporary use of his vehicle, leaving Himself in the house, at loose ends. The response: silence. An eerily deep silence, unusual in a house where the two resident canines generally make an unholy racket at the sound of knuckles on door or footsteps on porch. More knocking, more silence. And at some point Mo’s chubby beagle, Sally, appeared in the kitchen window, staring quietly out at me, expression strangely mournful. I talked to her, she gazed back, eyes sad. When I finally gave up and returned home, I found myself feeling strangely disquieted, decided to return the next day to make sure Mo was all right.

And I did. And he was. More than all right –- spirits and energy high, his body feeling better than it had in some time, the pacemaker doing its job and then some. Him talking about resuming the long daily walks he used to take up the road past this house, something that disappeared a few years back as various ailments took hold. He cut a priceless image on those walks — a long, gnarled walking stick in one hand (longer than Mo was tall), the end of Sally’s leash in the other, the dog jerking him in various directions as they moved along the road, Mo attempting to maintain a straight course, a creature about 1/10th his body weight dragging him pretty much anywhere it felt like. I’d love to see that kind of vaudeville pass here on a daily basis again.

He’s a tough old bird, Mo — it would not surprise me if he proved to be indestructible. It wouldn’t surprise me if he wound up outliving everyone else on this hill, cackling gleefully while shooting squirrels off our headstones.

In the meantime, winter has returned to these parts. Proper, ass-freezing Vermont winter, not the strange, slushy global warming pseudo-cold-season we’ve been experiencing in recent weeks. A bit of a shock to the system, but beautiful.

And the days roll on.

España, te echo de menos.

This morning, here:

This afternoon, visiting friends in New Hampshire — Lacey, a gentle soul rescued and adopted when she was in danger of being put down by her original owners:

España, te echo de menos.

[continued from previous entry]

Max headed off to hang with friends, Tom and I pulled on cold-weather gear, slogged through snow and fading daylight to pick up food and entertainment.

A brief stop at an Indian restaurant to snag a take-out menu, the place not yet open for the day. Tom rapped at door and windows persistently, untiringly, wearing down the employees skulking around inside until one finally let us in to complete our mission.

Then a stop at a market for chow. Not, it turned out, your garden variety market — an Iranian market, a sizeable one, the kind of grocery store that used to be considered large until the advent of mega-markets. A busy place, with an international array of customers, appearing like any other successful, well-maintained grocery store until one peered closely at the shelf stock, at which time brain and cultural gears had to be guided through a slight shift. Not your usual lower-48 fare, though enticing, tasty-looking. Especially the deli and meat counters, where we lingered, picking up a bunch of stuff. Where Tom exchanged friendly hellos with a 30ish Iranian woman working behind the deli counter, a woman he seemed to have a bit more than a passing acquaintance with — a painter, with an easy manner, extremely attractive in a not-your-standard-western- world-cover-girl way. With sparkling eyes and a radiant smile. And apparently interested in him, an interest he was aware of, choosing not to investigate it too deeply.

He rounded up meat, the woman headed off to a different part of the store. I tracked her down and let her know she had a spectacular smile, taking her, apparently, completely by surprise. Her reaction: pleased, slightly embarrassed, the smile shining forth once more, at full wattage. Yowza!

I let her alone, found Tom. We ran the check-out gauntlet, paid up, headed out.

Back home, Tom slaved away at food prep., ignoring my offers to assist. Plates of good-looking chow accompanied us down into the basement for a dinner/DVD evening. The entertainment: Junebug, an American indie film that roped me in right from the start, maintaining its hold until the very end. A complex bugger — low-key on the surface, interpersonal intensity swirling around beneath the seeming tranquility, the characters getting a heavy-duty emotional workout — with a great cast, easily worth seeking out. (The food was good, too.)

Tom offered to drive me back to the hotel, when we finally wandered out to the car, the night had turned genuinely cold, the kind of cold that has a hard, bitter edge. Joyous minutes of Tom scraping snow and ice from windows while I jiggled about, trying to keep my feet from freezing to the street. And we were off, Tom picking up Max along the way, then heading downtown via a route I’d never traveled, along the St. Lawrence, the city ahead, its many lights shining in the night. Pretty.

Found myself back in my hotel room surprisingly quickly, the car ride turning out to be way faster than the afternoon’s pokey bus ride had been.

End of day 3.

[to be continued]

España, te echo de menos.

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