Saturday, April 20, 2013

The glory of Alla and the fear of the mono-boob

It has been a week which has left us all mind-wearied and saddened. I have no words to talk about the bombings, about Maya's favorite teacher being hospitalized with shrapnel wounds, about the ominous silence of the lock-down across Cambridge, and about the boy at the center of this entire mess, little more than a school boy himself, who was good friends with the downstairs neighbor who babysits our girls. There are many people's stories to be told, but this isn't the place for any of them. I'll leave the big stuff for presidents, politicians and newspapers, and tell you instead about the glory of Alla.

The problem with living in the Super-size Me land of the United States is that it encourages personal growth, and I have recently found that my own personal growth has resulted in me needing new jeans. I have no issue with the beautiful bodies of some of the Rubenesque women who grace my gym, it is just that my body doesn't seem to want to develop towards those proportions. I am at risk of overflowing from my jeans and developing a 'mono-boob' (when I explained my abject terror of developing a mono-boob to Nathan, he looked at me with complete puzzlement until I showed him the image of Les Dawson, left. Nathan now shares my terror). 

My formative years of education occurred during the era of Tony Blair. There are many things about Blair that I would never wish to emulate: his overreaction to the fear of terrorism, his belief that all learning can be measured in very simple ways, his out-of-control ego, his financial greed; but he taught me that there is always a Third Way. Caught in the middle of two terrifying extremes, one can always find a middle path to follow. In the case of the impending mono-boob, I felt torn between the women who consider a carton of coconut water to constitute one of their three meals a day (what? No food??), and the women who shop for new clothing when their existing clothing grows too small. I love food and I hate shopping. 

My mind told me that the Third Way had to be exercise, my subconscious was not so sure. On the same day that the top button of my jeans failed to fasten, I lost my sneakers. Nathan, motivated by the contagious fear of the mono-boob, encouraged me to go the local running shop to buy a new pair. This is, in my experience, even more terrifying than shopping for new clothes and reduces me to a gibbering wreck. The shop assistant was fit and muscled and watched me, the mother with newly enhanced waistband and two small children, enter the shop with my take-out coffee.
'What kind of distance do you run at the moment?'
'Well,' I answered, taking a gulp of coffee and trying to stop my hands from shaking, 'I used to do maintenance runs of about 3 m_' I meant to say miles - 3 miles was my basic training run - but my subconscious was having too much fun with me and 'miles' became 'meters'.  
'Three meters?' asked the shop assistant loudly, and I found that I had acquired an audience. Their laughter did not make me feel better about the embarrassment of buying new sneakers and I didn't stop blushing until I had bought the first pair of sneakers that fitted and hurried from the shop.

My despondency would have continued if I hadn't found Alla. 
Alla is a personal trainer at my gym. I don't normally have a personal trainer - my membership is expensive enough - but my gym put together one of those special offer things which make it appear that if you buy five sessions with a personal trainer it is far cheaper than not buying any (that economics is not my strong point also links back to Blair's influence upon my education). I also factored in the cost of new jeans and the possibility of having to find a new husband who liked mono-boobs.

The thing with gift horses, as with any member of the equine species, is that one should always look in their mouths. In my excitement about not having to drink coconut water or buy new clothes, I failed to pick up on the warning signals. Alla has a reputation as a hard-core trainer. As a child in Russia, she had a bad accident and broke many of the bones in her body, subsequently, she explained, she considers pain to be nothing more than a state of mind. She loves weight-lifting and trained regularly with the Russian Olympic weight-lifting team. The muscles on each of her thighs are wider than both of my legs together. 

Together we began our war against the mono-boob: Alla speaking in broken English and me answering in broken American. We started out gently enough: practicing the movements of each exercise together. Easy enough, I thought and happily allowed myself to be lulled into a sense of security. Then we practiced the movements with small weights: Alla scrutinized every aspect of each movement. She doesn't believe in warming-up or stretching, and she's not a fan of cardio-vascular work. Her philosophy is that a correctly executed movement will cause no damage. She's very careful and none of her clients have had any injuries. I didn't understand why she didn't have many clients until our third session when she explained that we would now do the exercises properly. I haven't taken part in many extreme sports. I like horse-riding (preferably dressage) and biking (on roads which are tarmacked) and kayaking on quiet water. Sessions four and five with Alla are among the most extreme things I have ever asked my body to do - and I consider an unmedicated home birth to be in that category.  

With extreme work-outs you narrow your focus to the exercise and need absolute trust in your trainer. Alla had worked her magic on me. Like a Pavlovian dog, I responded to each of her words without question. Each rep was counted down - five, four, three, two, one - and each set ended with a 'boom!' That 'boom' has been hard-wired into my subconscious. Need to buy a new pair of jeans? Walk into the store, find a pair that fit, hand over your credit card, and boom! Have a book to write? Switch on the computer, write as many words as you need, and boom! It's also become part of my vocabulary of parenting: Maya's homework - work through the questions, show it to Mmmmy and 'boom!'; Iola's eating - four more spoonfuls of squash and 'boom!'

I don't know Alla's ethnicity or why she came to America. I don't know if she is Muslim or Russian Orthodox or any other religion. I hope that I would never change how I think about her regardless of what I subsequently learnt about her. My novel is about the problems and dangers of making judgments based upon what you think you know about someone's background based around the little that you see and hear. I hope that, whether she is Chechnyan or Muslim, Alla is treated the same as every other person who has made this country their home and I hope that America can do that for all the people live here, without seeking any kind of exceptions or Third Ways or moral panics. 

We heard the distant gun shots and explosions yesterday while Black Hawk helicopters circled overhead, but inside our locked-down apartment we practiced Iola's taekwondo and Maya's yoga. If you'd have been here, you'd have heard me encouraging them: 'And stretch a little bit more, girls, you can do better than that. Now, five, four, three, two, one and boom!'   

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sugaring in Vermont

I won a writers' retreat in Vermont. No-one could have been more surprised than me: I am the kind of woman who normally doesn't even manage to win the home-made ash tray in the church fete's tombola.

Vermont is very similar to the Lake District... with more trees, fewer sheep and bigger mountains. Whereas spring is well-established in Cambridge now, Vermont remains in winter. Eager to walk, I headed up the lane and found a maple syrup shack. Last time I was here, I had walked past the hut oblivious to its purpose, but this time it was a hive of smoke and activity.

I would have stayed outside, taking a few photographs of the quaintness of the building, but Harold's wife invited me in to meet Harold whose family have been sugaring on this site for generations, and in this particular shack since Harold's father built it in 1946. The things that I had mistaken for ropes coiled around the winter trees were, on closer inspection, a complex network of pipes. In the olden days, syrup was taken from the maple trees through hammering in a tap and hanging a bucket underneath, into which the sap would drip as it made its way up the tree. Now the maple syrup farmers use vacuum pipes which carry the sap to the shack. The sap runs at the end of the winter when the nights are cold but the days are warm. This year, the sap had been running for about 6 weeks.

I'd seen the sugar shacks last time I was here. They are slightly dilapidated wooden buildings with elevated roofs. During sugaring, the roofs are further elevated to let the smoke and steam escape. The smoke comes from huge log burners which are used to heat the shallow pans of sap which sit on top of them. The sap boils down until only syrup remains. I know all of this because I bombarded Harold and his wife with questions. I didn't mean to, but from the minute that she invited me in I was in a fever of excitement: gabbling away about a chapter I had once read in Laura Ingalls Wilder about the maple syrup harvest, and how we had sugar beet in Lincolnshire where I'd grown up, and had it been a good winter for her, and how I hadn't tasted maple syrup until my friend Meg brought us some from Canada. It was possible that Harold's wife was regretting inviting me in before we reached the threshold of the shack, and I was regretting my children's absence. Normally, they can be trusted to ask the same questions as me so that I don't talk quite as much.

There are times when I wish that I was a photographer. I'm not a visual person and prefer to play with words, but the inside of the shack was a world that I would have loved to have had the expertise to catch on camera. Two naked light bulbs illuminated the top of the stove where five long pans of syrup were simmering. Steam and smoke filled the shack like a thick sea mist, through which Harold's white-bearded face swam in and out of focus. I paused for breath long enough for him to tell me some of the logistics of the harvest: each tree produces a quart of syrup and, as a small scale producer, Harold runs a thousand taps. They export their syrup directly all over the States. The early syrup is pale and delicate, the later syrup is dark and rich and better suited for baking. This was their last tapping and he allowed me to take a taste. It was as thick and rich as black treacle.

In terms of harvesting the syrup, little has really changed for decades, but in terms of marketing and sales, the modern world has intervened. The making of traditional tin containers, for example, has been outsourced to China with the result that - Harold gave me a sly look as though testing out my political leanings - the tin is contaminated and he now has to use glass bottles. He lowered his voice and grinned. England apparently exports tin containers as well, but they're badly designed so he loses a quarter of an ounce per can and, therefore, can't use them. Unable to think of an appropriate response, I asked after the weather.

We talked about the mildness of last winter which had resulted in virtually no syrup harvest. Did this mean, I asked, that syrup was being sold for a higher price this year? By this time, I think that he had begun to feel quite sorry for the English woman who clearly knew nothing about the wider world and the scandals which abound in every aspect of farming. He paused in his work.

'The thing is,' Harold said, 'major buyers are trying to drive down the price they are willing to pay to local producers because they claim to have accumulated a stock pile of syrup.'
'Oh.' I tried to remember if I had read this anywhere - perhaps in the New York Times. I thought of twenty-year old news stories from the Daily Mail which criticized the EU's stockpiling of butter and wheat. My thoughts had drifted to thinking of pancakes when Harold brought me back to reality: 'If they do have a stock pile, it's because of the illegal harvest they stole from the forests in Quebec.'

I said goodbye to Harold and continued walking down the lane which looked as though it should have been in the English Lake District with a head filled with images of contaminated Chinese tin, badly constructed English gallon pots, and stockpiles of stolen Canadian syrup.

Back at the retreat, I carefully recounted the things that Harold had told me to the other writers gathered at the dining table. One of the writers was also a professional photographer. He hoped to visit Harold the next day to take photographs but we were snowed in and by the time we could walk up the lane the harvest had finished, the stove was cold, and the shack had been left until the following year.