far too much writing, far too many photos

Wishing you all a most excellent holiday, however you spend it, wherever you are.

Feliz navidad a todos — felices fiestas.

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Along la Calle Preciados in Madrid, a year ago:

España, te echo de menos

December in Vermont. Cold, snow, blahblahblah. Lots of snow, actually. Three times during the last 7 or 8 days, I’ve woken up to find serious snowfall happening outside. 8-10 inches the first time, 6 or so the second, another 6 this morning. Pretty. And messy. But pretty. (And messy.)

Since I find myself still in northern Vermont — not exactly where I’d expected to be so many months after arriving to begin winding up things here -– and may be here for a while longer, I decided to make the best of it. Rented an office room on a short-term basis, on the third floor of the building owned by the café that is my default hang when I’m in Montpelier. Have found myself getting up freakishly early to drive into town and get a few hours of work done. Every morning this week (including this morning). Which means, on mornings of big snow, pulling out of garage between 6 and 6:30 a.m., driving slowly through side roads deeply buried in thick, virginal white fluff. (Heavy fluff, but still fluff.) Coasting slowly down the one-lane road that descends the hill the house is on, everything quiet, no lights visible anywhere around in the early-morning dark, the experience feeling like a north-country theme park version of a slo-mo toboggan ride. So very quiet, the only noise a muted sshhh as car glides slowly down gradual incline.

An unexpected upside: on mornings when I might be dragging my sad, groggy carcass to the gym for a round of healthy suffering, I now head directly to that little office, on the quiet third floor of that old building, and sit working or having fun with a true high-speed internet connection instead of the faux high-speed connection at the house. (Those ads for satellite internet? The ones that use the words ‘high-speed’ over and over and over? It’s not true high-speed — do not expect the real thing or you’ll be vewy, vewy sowwy.) The café opens at 8, I take a break, go down, get a double espresso, return to my little hidey-hole and continue working/coming to. When I take another break later, I skip over to the gym and do what must be done, looking and acting like an entirely different individual from the poor, suffering bastard the morning staff knew from the wee hours.

The big downside: this getting up long before the crack of dawn (where does that expression come from? would it be from an old Greek myth where Dawn appeared as a divine plumber or refrigerator repair person, wearing clothing that provided unwelcome views of hind quarters?) is not my idea of a good time. I’d rather be in bed under warm covers, snuggling with someone wonderful. But this is all about accepting my life as it is right this nanosecond and making the best of it. So for now I get up early and get all productive.

And the days roll on.

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Dusk, a few days before Christmas — Vermont:

España, te echo de menos

The weather here this last week or so has been hilarious. Beginning one morning seven, eight days back when the thermometer outside the dining room window greeted me with a reading of -10F/-23C. Cold enough that I felt chilly no matter what, with layers of clothes pulled on, with the stove cranking out fairly intense heat. All of which motivated me to finally get serious about finishing the insulation in the attic. (In this case, attic means crawlspace, a nightmarishly accurate word. There is no getting upright in that space, even directly beneath the roof’s peak. There is no standing, there is no kneeling. There is only lurching clumsily about, planting feet where they can find purchase, working real damn hard to keep them there so they don’t smash through ceiling drywall into living space. Whoever builds crawlspaces where proper attics should be oughtta be forced to live in them, so that they spend their days hunched over and miserable, like the denizens of the 13th floor in ‘Being John Malkovich,’ only worse.)

An upside of this work: it provides the opportunity to rant and swear like a rabid, drunken sailor — an hour-long primal, essentially. (I can’t do more than an hour at a shot — it is simply more fun than my system can bear.) Which has its twisted charm if one is looking for that kind of release. And I will confess that I get into it when I’m up there suffering in the name of making the house warmer.

A second upside of the work: the gratifying difference in household heat retention. In a normal, user-friendly weather zone, the house’s insulation would have been totally bitchen, in no need of improvement. Here in the frozen wastes of northern Vermont, where Jack Frost nips your nose, bites your bum, and then attempts to violate you every time you work up the courage to step out the door, there is no ‘complete.’ More insulation is always a most excellent idea. As anyone who has waded through entries of this journal from last year’s warm season knows, I put in a lot of time up in the crawlspace clearing out trash and debris left by previous residents, replacing old, sad, skimpy insulation with new, happy, thick, efficient insulation, doubling and tripling the overhead R rating, depending on which part of overhead we’re talking about. The difference was gorgeously apparently during the transitional seasons. But on winter mornings when the mercury slides down to the thermometer’s nether regions and wildlife is wondering why in hell it didn’t head south when it had a fighting chance, the cold seeps through walls, crawlspace and windows, intent on breaking one’s spirit.

So. Me in the crawlspace, swearing. Good clean fun. Have used up two packs of insulation that were hanging about waiting to be ripped open and emptied out. Will have to buy one more pack, haul my sad, suffering keister up through the teeny ceiling port (aperture size: 29″ x 11″, clearly designed to maximize discomfort for anyone weighing over 65 pounds) into the crawlspace one more time, and finish the work.

It is worth it.

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An afternoon in mid-December, Vermont:

España, te echo de menos

[continued from previous entry]

I didn’t experience a strange Thanksgiving until living off-campus during college, one year that I chose to stay put for the weekend instead of going back to visit the ‘rents. Stayed in my squat, slept in, partied with the few students I knew who’d also decided to hang around. Found myself at a kind of impromptu holiday dinner in a friend’s flat, a nondescript unit in an apartment complex, the place completely white, featureless, a cookie-cutter kind of living space, furnishings cheap and basic. Four of us in attendance, the dinner served at a small table in the small kitchen. Everyone drinking. Vodka, gin — no wine, no pretense of gentility. The meal: basic, no-frills, in no way memorable apart from being a first attempt at a holiday feast thrown by young, impoverished whackos. The booze flowed freely, too freely — became or had been from the start, I realized at some point, the real focus of the occasion for my companions. Until I found myself standing in the living room, looking at the others sprawled out on chairs and small sofa, shitfaced and passed out, the event feeling seedy and sad, me resolving to never again spend a similar Thanksgiving.

And I never did — have, in fact, chosen to spend some Thanksgivings solo instead of in a situation that felt like it had the potential to be uncomfortable, sad, not so wonderful. And some of those solo Thanksgivings have been perfect — quiet, relaxed, punctuated by phone calls with friends spread out across the map.

On the other hand, there was one Thanksgiving dinner at my brother’s home that I will always be grateful I experienced. Me and my brother’s family (brother, sister-in-law, niece, nephew) around the table in the small dining room of their comfortable home. With two more diners showing up late — my sister-in-law’s aunt and uncle. One of the more unforgettable couples I’ve ever known. The aunt a local realtor, a well-known individual in that town, tall, skinny, with a strong, almost ferocious personality — opinionated, smart, very conservative and right up front about it. They materialized after the meal had begun, two chairs were found for them, they slipped into spots around the small circular table, began working on plates of Thanksgiving chow, taking part in conversation.

And at some point, someone at the table let go with a fart. Clear, distinct, impossible not to note. No one owned up. I looked around, saw that everyone else was opting to pretend that no one had cut the cheese.

I resumed eating, a second fart ripped out — again, loud, impossible to ignore. The kind that would bring a smile to any schoolboy’s face. I looked around again, saw that everyone in attendance was adhering to the nothing happened pretense. I glanced at my sister-in-law, then my nephew — they both met my gaze briefly, neither acknowledged in any way the outbreak of dinner music. And from there the farts just kept rolling out: fraps and poots, complicated melodies, straight-out window-rattlers. All, it turned out, coming from my sister-in-law’s aunt, who continued eating, smiling and chatting, giving no indication that she was the source of the gathering poison gasses.

I said nothing, managed not to spew food/drink from my nose while stifling giggles, silently gave thanks for having witnessed the event.

Sometime later, I brought the dinner up to my sister-in-law, mentioned her aunt’s spectacular performance, confessed the joy the occasion had given me, and found myself alone in that joy. She and the rest of them apparently just didn’t want to go there in any way.

Ah, well. Wish I had some of it on tape. What a scene.

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Cherry-colored evening — northern Vermont, 12/4/08:

España, te echo de menos

[continued from previous entry]

It was a strange group, our family. Tense, a bit pinched. With far too much going on beneath the surface, things I had no clue about until many years later. (Probably a good thing in some ways, that ignorance.)

But it had its strong points, one being the sweet ritual of holiday-season meals. I never saw displays of abundance of that calibre during the rest of the year — my father worked as a teacher in New York City. Big stress, low wages. Leaving a thin pool of money to be tossed around. And though frugality was the watchword during most of the year, the ‘rents let go when the holidays arrived. Not running up debts as far I know, but spending what they had right up to the limit. The first round of that letting-go being the Thanksgiving spread.

The kitchen was a teeny claustrophobia-inducing space, a nearly microscopic enclosure. The holiday meals my mother wrestled into existence –- plate after plate, bowl after bowl, platters brimming over with mounds of turkey — was the lower-middle class culinary equivalent of an endless stream of clowns getting out of a Volkswagen bug. It was herculean, spectacular — an annual feat that may not have received the lavish gratitude and appreciation it deserved.

My memories of food during the rest of the year: a blur of canned veggies, ground beef/hot dogs, and sugar, sugar, sugar. And the ‘rents subscribed to the school of thought that insists a kid must eat what’s put on their plate, no matter how unappealing and/or toxic that ‘what’ may be. Leading to me passing long, unhappy evenings siting at the kitchen table long after everyone else had finished up and bolted, staring at the mound of lima beans (cold, congealed, straight out of a can) that I refused to choke down, until the world outside had gone dark, the tv had been cranked in the living room and the old lady wearied of the battle of wills and threw me out of kitchen. Not a kind of difficulty that arose during holiday dinners.

Another family strength on display during holiday meals: the sense of humor that enabled clan members to survive the rest of the year. Normal meals happened in the household’s tiny kitchen, everyone crammed in around a compact, rectangular table, laughter and hilarity not figuring in my memories of that. Change the venue to the small dining room — site of mealtime gatherings on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, maybe one or two more occasions during a given 12-month span — and it was as if a switch got tripped, enjoyment and good-humor bubbling over, radiating out. Normal mealtimes were mostly not a time of big fun for me in that house — normal life was mostly not a time of big fun for me in that house. But I have no dark memories when it comes to squeezing into my chair at the dining room table, no troubling memories of family dramas or acting out — not one. No drunken goofiness, no skeevy interpersonal dynamics. Could be they were there — they just didn’t get the kind of play they received the rest of the time. These moments were too good to corrupt. Or that, anyway, is how I remember them.

[continued in following entry]

España, te echo de menos

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