Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Beach House on Nantucket

Do you ever try to match your reading to your vacation?

I was delighted to discover Jane Green’s The Beach House set on Nantucket before I headed to the island. With an eccentric lady running a summer boardinghouse on the bluff, the novel was clearly beachside material.

Maybe it was the just the hot sun or the sway of the hammock, but I didn’t feel like the plot took off until the characters reached the island. There it became an engaging fantasy with a lovely sense of place. Only on Nantucket could all troubles (and this book is chock-full of modern malaise) melt away on a summer breeze.

I set out to Siasconset (called ‘Sconset) in search of Green’s inspiration. The old fishing village is indeed a charming setting. Earlier in the summer all the rambling rooftop roses would be blooming.

Many of the cottages date back centuries. It’s not my camera that is crooked.

I left Siasconset Village and headed to the bluff where the larger houses were built for summer people. Newer construction at least tries to match the old due to strict building codes.

It’s hard to believe this path cutting through backyards is really open to everyone. Public rights of way are uncommon in the USA.

The bluff-top homes have stairs leading down to the beach, which wraps for miles around the island. Off season I’ve seen whales passing by. It was tempting to take a dip, but I wanted to find the house. There was one old, dilapidated Victorian that could have been the model for Windermere.

The path was cool beneath the crab apple trees. Trimmed privets afforded views of hydrangeas. I was getting warmer.

There it was!

Isn’t it the perfect bluff house? It’s weathered and aging unlike its neighbors. I just love the wrap-around porch. Can you imagine sitting in a rocking chair, watching a summer storm over the ocean? Windermere is meant to be 1920’s, and this venerable lady looks more late Victorian. It’s also not set on an improbable nine acres. Still this house was the one I pictured while reading The Beach House.

Green succeeded in making this novel ring true to a summer native. The fact that she is English and now lives in Connecticut makes this feat doubly impressive. I noted very few inaccuracies. The most amusing one was a ringing cell phone. I’ve never managed to get reception on Siasconset although the rest of the island is fine. I rather like that sense of remote isolation.

I would have liked to hear more about island life. My brother lived on island for 2 years working as a carpenter, and the year round atmosphere was very different. On Nantucket the world is divided into “on-island” and “off-island.” The economy does revolve around tourism although it’s a popular home for artists and writers too.

Dockside sunsets inspire art. My friend pointed out that it’s rare to see a town where the church steeple still dominates the skyline. Nantucket has done such a good job preserving its past, although the island has changed in the three decades I’ve summered here. Green captures well the pressures from developers to wreck lovely old homes and to replace them with McMansions.

Still, the air is fresh thirty miles out to sea. At night you can see the stars clearly. I fall to sleep to the sound of foghorns and wake to the sun rising.

One morning the sun rose in the east…

as the full moon was setting in the west:

I love the early morning light at this time of year. It lends a sharp clarity and intensifies colors. The light inspired me to paint one day. Isn’t it rather Edward Hopperesque below the big sky?

As I boarded the ferry to go home, I felt a familiar feeling of sadness but also the excitement of a new year. The kids start school next week, meaning I can resume my writing. Soon my characters will cross the Atlantic to England, and I’ll be joining them for the journey.

As I look forward to writing my new novel, NOT CRICKET, I’m still thinking about the one before it. Front page of the Sunday NYT was a story about a biology teacher’s struggle to teach evolution in a public high school. It read like a chapter from my novel S.A.D. It’s interesting when what you imagine turns out to be real.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Boston and Nantucket Seaside

There is beauty in what scares you. The New England Aquarium illuminates jellyfish to throb and glow in a twilight sea. I could spend hours watching. Are the waving tentacles so engrossing because they could cause pain?

As much as I love the dreamy underwater world, a shark is my nightmare. I wonder if that fear is hard-wired. I remember taking my daughter as a toddler to this aquarium and pointing out, “Look, a fish with teeth.” She didn’t buy my forced cheerful tone but burst into tears, hiding her face from the shark’s grimace. I know sharks are important members of the ecosystem and rarely attack humans. Phobias aren’t rational.

“Sharks” said with a Boston accent (on the aquarium sign: shahhhks) are funny. A multistory cylindrical tank displays huge fish, rays, sea turtles and sharks. The viewing platform wraps around like a ball run. The New England Aquarium in Boston is not unlike the Guggenheim Museum in NYC only it is nature rather than art on display. Good architecture enhances the viewing experience in both buildings.

At the base of the tank are the penguins, which delight all children. This one appeared to be taking a bow. My daughter and I are big fans of penguins, but they don’t transfix me in the way that sharks and jellyfish do. Why are we so fascinated and drawn to what we fear?

My real life fears were alleviated by seeing my mother in the hospital. She was pale but doing remarkably well after her surgery, although there will be many weeks of physical therapy ahead of her. I spent a couple of days visiting her at Mass General Hospital in Boston. Since the kids were with me, I broke up the time by taking them to the aquarium. My mother is now home and walking with the aid of one crutch.

Last time my mother broke her leg, I was living in England. It’s times like that which make living abroad painful. Even if you can’t do much to help, it’s good to be there for family. We are always stretched with my husband’s family in England and mine in the USA. As parents age, this becomes a bigger issue, especially for multinational families like ours.

Luckily our parents are generally in good health and very active. The joy they find in life after 70 is inspiring. Aging need not be something to fear, but as a daughter, I can’t help worrying sometimes.

Perhaps the biggest support my being there offered was to give my father a break and to provide a welcome distraction. It’s hard to be the supportive spouse. We went to dinner at a really good and inexpensive Italian restaurant my father discovered. Antonio’s Cucina Italiana is on Cambridge Street in Boston, right across from Mass General. I highly recommend the pasta fagioli soup.

We stayed at the ironically named Liberty Hotel that used to be a prison. They preserved some of the cells for the jailhouse look, but the hotel is quite luxurious. Best of all, The Liberty Hotel offers a reduced rate for those visiting patients in the hospital next door. The view from the hotel is spectacular and familiar. I used to work in an office building on the opposite side of the Charles River. I have so many memories from my 12 years in Cambridge, Mass.

When my mother left the hospital for NYC, the children and I continued onto our planned vacation on Nantucket Island. Now you’re probably wondering why I’d leave Maine, with all its lovely islands, to go to Massachusetts. Well, the water is much warmer. The Gulf Stream channels southern water from the Gulf of Mexico to Nantucket, but there’s more to it than that.

Nantucket Island is 30 miles out to sea from Cape Cod and is wrapped with sand beaches. It has miles of bike paths along the wild moors. Nantucket has long since been an inspiration for my art. I wrote most of my master’s thesis on island one spring when I needed quiet and solitude to write. At some point I’m sure to set a novel there.

The main draw for me is my family and our three decade history with this beautiful island. When I was a kid, my father used to split a summer house rental with his sister and her family. It’s fun to come back now to see my cousins with a third generation in tow. It was sad to arrive dockside without my parents greeting us. The two hour ferry journey had erased all tension and transitioned us into vacation mode.

My children joined their cousins for the Nantucket Sand Castle Competition and won third prize in the “Resourceful” category. That means they built their castle with natural items found on the beach. I appreciated their literary theme and pun: Prisoner of ACKaban. There was the Harry Potter reference, and ACK is the abbreviation for the Nantucket Airport. Theirs was the only actual sand castle in the “sand castle” competition. Other teams were flipping over backwards to be original.

This team stretched the rules by using dyes and a painted sign. Those are steps leading down to China (6,827 miles.) You can’t help but laugh.

Here’s a Nantucket lightship basket filled with hydrangea which grow well in sandy island soil. Being on a lightship, anchored out at sea as a floating lighthouse, was lonely. To ease the boredom, the lightship watchmen would weave baskets out of beach grasses. Now these baskets are mass produced for preppy women vacationing on the island.

Once a wealthy whaling community, Nantucket is now a vacation destination. There are only 12,000 year-round residents which swell to 55,000 over the summer. Good beaches combined with fine dining are the draw. No other restaurant blends these elements as well as The Galley Restaurant.

At The Galley there are no windows but rather open tarps to the beach and sea. The atmosphere is elegant and feels more French Riviera than American, especially when the planters sported red and white geraniums. The food isn’t as delicious but still tasty enough to satisfy if stretch the wallet. This year the cooking was better than usual. I especially appreciated the pastry chef’s nod to the restaurant’s sunset views.

The Galley is perfectly positioned to watch the sun set into the sea. Californians might take this for granted, but an ocean sunset can only be viewed from an island on the east coast. Film couldn’t capture how the sun glowed a deep red like a coal in a campfire. All the diners stopped eating and the servers froze to watch the sun sink into the water. Everyone clapped for this grand finale.

Next week I’ll blog more about Nantucket. I wasn’t able to download the images from my DSLR camera because the high definition memory card is beyond the capacities of my old card reader. My point-and-shoot Canon Elph did a fine job (especially at the aquarium,) but I want to share a sunrise and moonset that only a manually set SLR could capture. Technical problems are only an excuse. Don’t you want to dwell on summer, now that August is drawing to a close?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Mothers and Little Earthquakes

My childhood home smelled faintly of turpentine. In the living room were my mother’s easel and oil paints. Size-ordered brushes stuck out of inverted tin cans. On the walls were her paintings; their eyes followed me. The painting above now hangs in my house. It was the first one she painted after having children.

My mother, Cynthia Lamport, was the artistic figurehead of our family. My brother is now an architect, and I’m an artist and a novelist. Drawing was never a conscious choice anymore than picking up a ball and tossing it would have been in other households. There were always good drawing paper, squishy grey erasers and sharpened pencils in a marmalade jar.

Cynthia Lamport by Anthony Lamport

My father, Anthony Lamport, took beautiful photographs and helped me set up a darkroom with the enamel trays that had been his father’s. My mother paints portraits of my father and herself on Nantucket Island, where we spent part of many summers escaping the heat of NYC. The sea is a recurring image in both her art (below) and mine.

We should all be on the beach in Nantucket now, but my mother broke her leg biking into town. My parents had missed going on safari with us in Tanzania because she broke that same leg skiing in January, the day before her 73rd birthday. She’s been in physical therapy for months and was finally walking, swimming laps and biking again. It’s such a cruel fate for an active woman. Her art has suffered too.

My mother had to be flown off island to Mass General Hospital in Boston. Bad storms delayed her evacuation. She lay in the Nantucket Hospital hooked up to a morphine drip. Breaking a femur is extremely painful and requires surgery.

Car problems complicated my journey down to Boston. My husband summed it up, “We have one car that won’t start, and one that won’t stop. So on average we have one good car.” The ’99 Volvo failed inspection due to the brakes, and the ’02 Subaru needs a new battery and body work. The kids and I took the train from Maine.

You can’t really appreciate your mother until you become one. It doesn’t matter how many books you read, motherhood changes your life in ways you can’t imagine. My two children were both born in Boston, and my parents came to visit from NYC. Now it’s my turn to visit my mother in a Boston hospital.

My journey to motherhood was rocky. I developed high blood pressure and was induced 12 days past my due date. I labored for 19 hours, and then my son was born via an emergency c-section. There were well over 20 doctors, nurses and students welcoming his arrival. I was so exhausted and high on morphine that I didn’t remember my parents visiting me that first day. I do remember my joy at seeing my son’s face and holding him for the first time.

We stayed a week more at Brigham and Women’s Hospital due to complications from the c-section and my son developing jaundice. Children’s Hospital was conveniently next door. I spent another month recovering at home. Due to the c-section and pain, my breast milk was slow to come in, and my son failed to thrive. Nothing had gone the way I had planned.

Now that “failure to thrive” baby is 14-years-old. His feet (left) are bigger than his father’s (right.) Our roles have reversed as I ask my son to reach things too high for me. His questions about chemistry, physics and politics are hard to answer.

When did this happen? We left for England last summer with my son 2 inches shorter than me and returned home with him 2 inches taller than me. His voice is changing and so is our relationship. Motherhood is now second nature, but it hadn’t been at first.

I just read a book that expresses well the shock of early parenthood. Jennifer Weiner wrote Little Earthquakes in the months after her first child was born. Weiner captures the transformative experience, both the ups and downs. It’s not a parenting manual but a funny and engaging novel.

Weiner’s four expecting mothers start out in control of their lives. Lia is a B-list Hollywood actress married to an up-and-coming actor. Becky runs a trendy restaurant and loves her doctor husband. Kelly is a Barbie-alike perfectionist who intends to leave her event planning job to stay home with her baby. Glamorous Ayinde is married to a basketball superstar and wants to be the involved mother she never had. Of the four, Ayinde reads more like a People magazine figure, but that’s half the fun.

The ironic theme of Little Earthquakes is that you will get what you fear the most no matter how hard you prepare to avoid it. These sleep-deprived women are plagued by birthing complications, troubles balancing career and family and difficulties with sex and marriage. If that weren’t bad enough, their husbands fail their families through job loss, infidelity and mother-in-law issues. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome casts a dark shadow over the narrative.

Little Earthquakes is still not a depressing book. Weiner gets the humor of motherhood and the intense love parents have for their children. These families face challenges and discover what’s important. It’s real life, warts and all. Jennifer Weiner is also a blogger.

I hope to blog next week from Nantucket. My next post may be a day or two late. Life isn’t easy is it?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Art and Lunch on Bailey Island

Harpswell is a collection of islands and a long peninsula, dipping like long fingers into the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve heard it said that Maine has more miles of coastline than California. I don’t know if that’s true, but it sure feels right.

Bailey Island boasts of having “the world’s only cribstone bridge.” That’s most probably true as I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else. Slabs of granite, erected like Lincoln Logs, form an open lattice to the sea. You can see right through the bridge as the tide washes in and out. The larger opening is for lobster boats to drop their catch at Cook’s Lobster House. Beware of delays if you’re driving as the bridge is being repaired.

The Island Romance ferry from Portland brings tourists to Cook’s for lunch, but it approaches from the sea as do the many sailboats anchored in the harbor. Portland with 65,000 residents is the biggest city in Maine. Bailey Island has only 400 year round residents.

Usually we only go to Cook’s when people “from away” visit, but my kids felt like they’d been away long enough in England to merit lunch. We always start with the delicious fried calamari. The local mussels and steamers (clams) are delicious too. My son had the deep fried local shrimp in a bun and was upset to find it came with no greens (welcome to the USA.) My daughter orders non-seafood off the kids’ menu. If it’s lunch, I get a lobster roll and fresh coleslaw.

For dinner you’d have to get boiled lobsters. They do them well. My kids are huge fans of the mud pie parfait served in an old-fashioned ice cream sundae glass with a long spoon: coffee ice cream, fudge sauce, oreo crumbs with whipped cream and a cherry on top. The view out of the many windows is amazing.

I set a couple of scenes from my novel Moose Crossing on Bailey Island, including one at Cook’s. A central character in my novel S.A.D. is a lobsterman living on an island in Harpswell.

After lunch we headed to Cedar Beach, where the sea is thick with lobster buoys. It’s a small private beach with very limited on street parking. You have to walk 1/4 mile through buggy woods, meaning fewer crowds. Not a good beach to go at high tide as there would be little sand, but at low tide you can walk to a mini island and explore. My kids enjoy catching the many hermit crabs, wading through seaweed and climbing over the rocks. This is not a beach for the tender-footed.

I painted the watercolor on my bio page one fall at Cedar Beach, and the lobster boat harbor photo is on Bailey Island too. There are more Bailey Island paintings on my watercolor page. In the summer my wardrobe is a bathing suit and a smock. I swim first to cool down. I can paint the view while sort of keeping an eye on the kids.

It was take the kids to work day! Now that sounds ideal, but I’ve only just been able to manage it. My children are 11 and 14 and good swimmers. They are also good photographers. My son took the photo of me painting from behind, and my daughter took the front shot. My daughter wrote a story in her journal beside me while her brother dug a pit. They are usually good at not interrupting my concentration, but I prefer working on my own for longer hours.

Even at a remote location, I’ll run into people I know. It’s just as well that I was covered up for the sun as my doctor was there with her kids too. Remember how people used to compare tans? These days the competition is over the strongest sunscreen. I won with 45 zinc oxide over my doctor’s SPF 30 lotion. We tease each other because we are friends too. Lines blur in small towns.

Unfortunately, my first attempt at watercolor painting in a year also became a blur. I was rusty and without my favorite tools. Would you believe the only thing I lost in the move back from England were my paintbrushes? I have spares of my two favorites but will be buying more at Artist & Craftsman Supply in Portland today. I might also have to head back to Sapporo for a tuna sashimi lunch.

I’ve only painted 2 days because of all the rain, but at least on the second day I produced a good painting. We were lucky that day. Can you see the rain clouds passing out to sea?

In the afternoon the light improves, allowing me to intensify the colors and to find the shadows. The problem is that the tide changes too. Working on larger seascapes, I sometimes come back over several days to catch the tide and light. Bugs can be a distraction, as can people who stop to chat. I get in a meditative trance while working.

It’s never easy painting on location, but it does lend greater vitality than working from a photo. What I see with my eye is very different from what the camera lens captures. What I choose to paint versus photograph is quite different too. A photo is an instant. A painting is a vision unique to me. I often change the elements for the composition and let the wet pigment flow on its own. I love both media.

The biggest problem is I’m so absorbed in my work that I can’t engage the kids. It’s still more fun for them to go to the beach while I paint than to stay home while I write. I also need longer blocks of uninterrupted time to compose a novel, which I find while the kids are in school or at camp.

It’s nice having two careers that mesh well with the seasons and raising children. I work half days over the summer so that I can still focus on the kids. We all need some down time to enjoy the glorious Maine summer.

The blog keeps my writing free from rust. Also, in some ways, I am working on my next novel. The central character of my work in progress is a painter too. It will be interesting to combine my two passions of writing and art in one book. As much as I love painting, I’m counting the weeks until I can get back to novel writing. The summer is going by so fast.