Thursday, February 25, 2016

How to Survive Winter in Maine

"No internet takes you back to 1990; no heat takes you back to 1890," said my husband as he fired up the woodstove. Then he left for his warm office.

In desperation, I figured out how to use my cell phone as a hotspot from my laptop so that I could work by the other hotspot for my feet. With the boiler down, there wasn't hot water for a shower. I pulled on extra layers and sheepskin boots. It was below freezing outside and in the fifties inside. I did at least have stacked wood, electricity and a working phone to call the repair men.

It could be worse: Our first winter in Maine, we lost power for a week. When we had looked at houses to buy or to rent, most had woodstoves. A big city girl myself, I had wondered why. An open fireplace seemed more aesthetically pleasing and less dangerous around little kids. We had a baby and an inquisitive three-year-old, who took a warning as an invitation. Still, we held onto that woodstove, and it kept our house in the 60s and the pipes from freezing during the ice storm. We cooked on the stove top and boiled water to bathe. My husband became very good at splitting logs. Neighbors with heat opened their doors to those without. It showed us the strength of community in our small town in Maine.

This time our loss of heat and internet were due to faulty systems. With an updated router installed, my home office is back online, but I'll need to rewire the house for stronger wifi upstairs. The boiler has a temporary fix and new parts have been ordered. We have plenty of wood thanks to the forest that is our backyard, but we prefer kiln dried wood for the stove as it's less smoky. Most winters we lose power for several hours or a day. We are always prepared.

A friend in Germany, who saw my plight on Facebook, suggested Airbnb for my cozy house to fund the repairs. We were amused that my city friends wanted to join me by the fire. My neighbors invited me to their warm homes out of pity. A woodstove is more charming when it's a luxury, not a necessity. Nonetheless, friends are always welcome!

Remember this story when you dream of working from home in New England. Still, I wouldn't trade my lifestyle for another. I adore my woodstove and my generous neighbors. This is life in Maine, now and then.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

What is a Feb?

This month my daughter started college in Vermont. The so called "Febs" at Middlebury take a gap term after high school. It's a wonderful program for 100 freshmen who crave an academic break to experience the real world before college.

My daughter was the music counselor at a sleepaway camp before flying abroad. After visiting family in England, she took the high road round Loch Lomond with her Scottish cousin. Then she shoveled "merde" on a French horse farm. In New Zealand she fed alpacas, farmed crops, hiked into Mordor and was stuck 3 hungry days weeding the meditation gardens of a cult. After that, college doesn't sound so scary!

Still it's a big step starting college, especially when 5/6 of the freshmen arrived in September. The first Feb we "met" was a Chewonki Semester School friend, who has the room next to hers by chance! The photo is blurry due to shivering. It dropped below zero F, but these two Febs are winter camping for orientation.

My son, a "reg" junior at Middlebury, had kindly stayed on campus for vacation week to help his sister move into her dorm. Febs often get nice upperclassmen housing, vacant due to junior spring term abroad. My lucky daughter was assigned a single with a window seat, where she'll read philosophy and play guitar while enjoying the mountain view. My son and I left a very happy Feb with her new friends and headed to the mountains to ski ourselves. Middlebury has a cross country (nordic) ski course and a small downhill mountain. In 4 years the Febs ski down that mountain in their gowns to receive their diplomas. As one who is amazed to find myself an empty nester in my 40's, I can already tell those college years will go too fast!

Here's the soundtrack via The Head and the Heart:

A big thank you to the Feb leaders, staff & faculty for your warm welcome & help settling into Midd!

Note: I'm having a new modem installed tomorrow which will hopefully fix my problems connecting to you. Looking forward to catching up soon!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Mother-Daughter Time in California

I was surprised when my daughter asked to visit Pomona, Stanford and Berkeley on our college tour. Gemma was looking for a small liberal arts school in the mountains with active outing and nordic ski clubs and no Greek life. She would have to miss a week of high school to fly from Maine to a region she'd never seen.

I asked, "Do you want to go to college in California or do you want to visit the west coast?" When Gemma admitted to the latter, I promised to take her there after she was accepted to college. So last month we flew to San Francisco for one last mother-daughter vacation before she starts Middlebury College in February.

At Half Moon Bay, CA with my daughter and my friend's dog. Photo by Martha Enthoven Stid, our host in Menlo Park.

Middlebury admits one sixth of the freshman to start in February, allowing time for a gap term. Gemma had trekked through the Scottish highlands with her cousin and worked on organic farms in France and in New Zealand (via WWOOF). We'd reunited for Christmas in the UK with my husband's family.

After wet England, we were ready for some Californian sunshine, but somehow we brought the rain with us, nearly ending their drought! Luckily the Muir redwoods were just as lovely in a misty drizzle. We spent our first day hiking with my daughter's friend from Chewonki Semester School, whose family hosted us in San Francisco.

As the sun broke through the clouds, we hiked from Muir Beach Overlook down to Muir Beach and had a tasty pub style lunch at The Pelican Inn (his family is half British too). That's a real pelican in my opening shot. Muir Beach and the pub are on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge and up the bay.

Muir Beach

Double jet-lagged from England, I fell into the teen timezone, staying up past midnight and sleeping late.

My Snap Chat debut via Gemma.
We enjoyed cocktails and sodas at Top of the Mark, overlooking the San Francisco skyline. Our best meal out was at Range, a restaurant owned by the brother of my oldest friend. Range's chickpea fritters tasted like cheese souffle only lighter and healthier. All the ingredients were fresh and local, a joy in January. The Mission neighborhood, with its funky after hours boutiques and vibrant street art, was fun to explore at night.

My daughter revived my inner teen, suggesting we try on designer dresses at BCBG just for fun, imagining life on the red carpet. Then we rummaged through the sale racks for clothes we would wear in the real world. Stepping out of the changing rooms in our favorite dresses, we had an hilarious surprise. When Gemma leaves for college, I'll miss her laughter. It was hard enough saying goodbye to our friends in California.

When I last saw Miriam, we were at M.I.T. graduate school studying politics. There were only four women in our year so we bonded tightly. She was a fabulous cook and taught me how to make Oyakodon, a Japanese dish I still enjoy with my family. In San Francisco she treated me to excellent dim sum at Hong Kong Lounge. We reconnected like no time had passed and could have chatted for hours.

After a week of staying with friends, we pushed the boat out for the Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa. The location, Cannery Row was the setting/title of one of Gemma's favorite novels. My dad emailed a link to a literary tour of Monterey, and we were pleased to find Doc's shack still standing. The character was modeled on a real marine scientist and friend of Steinbeck.

Our journey down the coast started out well when Enterprise Car Rental offered me a free upgrade to a BMW. Yes! It was a challenging drive in heavy traffic, thick fog, torrential rain and longer still dealing with a flat tire, but it was well worth the journey just to see the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Braying sea lions and Pacific waves breaking under our cantilevered hotel lulled us to sleep. I woke early to watch the sea otters fishing in the surf while Gemma slept in. I wasn't quick enough to photograph a pod of dolphins leaping past the pier so I phoned my daughter. She stepped out on the balcony in time to see them.

With borrowed binoculars we watched hundreds more dolphins from the shore path, passing like a parade at sunset. We reminisced about the past and discussed her plans for the future: Philosophy, Studio Arts, Psychology, Music?

Today my son and I are helping Gemma move into her dorm. I'm so lucky to have two marvelous children, and Middlebury is a wonderful school. Still, it's hard to let go.

I will cherish these memories...

My daughter at Half Moon Bay, California.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Muir Beach before sunset from my mother-daughter vacation to California last month.

Ta-Nahisi Coates won a MacArthur "Genius Grant" last year for his journalism and memoirs on race and politics. Between the World and Me describes what it's like to live in a body that is a black in the USA. Coates recounts the history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, his own perilous childhood in West Baltimore and more recent events like Eric Garner's death to explain systemic racism in America. I read similar books for Literature of Social Reflection back in college, but this 2015 National Book Award winner speaks to our current crisis and makes sense of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Coates's personal approach to the subject teaches empathy and compassion.

Between the World and Me wasn't an easy book to read because it flags the failings in our nation, specifically in our system of justice. Although only 151 pages long, this eloquent memoir took me several days to finish and longer to process. Coates made me live inside a black man's skin and see the world through his eyes. He tells true stories of well-educated and compassionate men who play by the rules and are still crushed. There are incidents of police brutality (officers both black and white) but also the unintentional racism of people who identify as white and benefit from the system oppression. So much needs to change in the way we think, speak and act. Coates does at least leave room for hope.

His writing was beautiful and poignant:
"I remember being amazed that death could so easily rise up from nothing of a boyish afternoon, billow up like fog." 
"'Good intention' is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream." 
"I felt that I had missed part of the experience because of my eyes, because my eyes were made in Baltimore, because my eyes were blindfolded by fear."
Between the World and Me was the most meaningful book I read last year, and I would recommend it to everyone, especially to Americans. Since the book was written as a letter to his 15-year-old son, it would crossover well to a teen audience, although it was marketed as adult nonfiction. My mother read it in two days and was deeply moved by the narrative as well. My husband and son are reading it now. "This is required reading," says Toni Morrison in her blurb. Add it to the top of your list.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought this hardcover book without compensation at Longfellow Books and bought two more copies at Gulf of Maine Books as Hanukkah and Christmas gifts for my son and for my writing crit partner, who loved it too. She read it on Martin Luther King Day.

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@Barrie Summy