Thursday, September 19, 2013

Cowgirl up, princess!

We are fortunate to have wonderful neighbors, both in Cambridge, MA and in our new shack-in-the-woods in Vermont. In Cambridge, Maya takes cake-fuelled Mandarin lessons with our Chinese neighbors who supply me with exquisite teas and feed Ed the cat a series of delicacies; while Iola sits on Lollipop (the Cambridgian dog who lives on the other side) and takes the girl-across-the-road's bunnies on walks to the park. In Vermont, Iola runs wild with Grace, our neighbor's daughter, while Maya tells Raylene, our 'Vermont Nana', all about Cambridge and England (both equally foreign and glamorous in Raylene's mind).

It takes about two and a half hours to drive from Cambridge to Vermont, but they are worlds apart. Cambridge is a pocket of well-mannered liberal intelligentsia: morning conversations at the local dog park might range from discussions about astrophysics and neural pathways through to the advantages of linen bedsheets over starched cotton. Cambridge prides itself upon being 'the most opinionated zip code in America': I recently had a large bite on my arm and I was offered a plethora of opinions and advice from members of the dog-walking community, friends and neighbors. It was a poisonous spider, an earwig or a nasty mosquito. I should go to the pharmacy, I should go to my primary care provider, I should go to the accident and emergency room. I should take Advil (with plain yoghurt so that it didn't upset my stomach), anti-histamine, a herbal tincture; I should dress it with a steroid cream, leave it to breathe, cover it in tea tree oil.

The Cambridge day is always busy: rush hour starts before 7am and there seems to be a designated time for every activity. The passing months are dominated by elections, with ever-changing brightly colored bill boards in the majority of gardens, car bumpers adorned with political slogans, and canvassers urging people to vote. (I am still not familiar enough with American politics to fully comprehend the diversity of elections, but there seem to have been at least five this year). Cambridge abounds with well-dressed gray haired ladies leaning their bicycles against railings and making complicated coffee orders (half de-caf - single shot - soy latte); polished tanned men in casual clothing and expensive shoes discussing important things in very loud voices; children hurrying away from the school gates towards their soccer practice, (ice) hockey practice, softball and baseball and basketball practice; piano practice and choir. People here build complex, busy, achievement-filled lives. At the school gates, parents talk about the different savings schemes they have set up for their children's college expenses (in most cases, these funds were established before the children were conceived) and thoroughly assess the relative merits of the $2000 a term cello teacher over her slightly cheaper counterpart. The recession, which is still visible in some parts of the country, didn't even come close to touching this place: the average three bedroom condo sells for three-quarters of a million dollars and the property market is so buoyant that realtors rarely advertise properties. (There is, of course, a very real artery of poverty running through Cambridge - and I have discussed this in previous blogs - and many of the wealthy people we meet are, quietly and discretely, benefactors of art galleries and museums and charities, but poverty tends to be neither seen nor heard on the tree-lined streets of our immediate neighborhood).

Vermont runs to a different schedule and a different accounting system. Take George, for example. In May, I drove up to Vermont from Cambridge to discuss the possibility of sinking a well into our land with George; George drove over from the next town. I arrived on time, he was several hours late. In Cambridge, I would have been annoyed (we Cambridgians don't have time enough to wait around for tardy well-diggers), but in Vermont... well, I sat on the porch and listened to the silence and watched the shadows shorten and all seemed well with the world. When George arrived, we drank coffee together and talked about the view; he told me tales about a well he had dug for a strange eccentric who lived in a castellated property filled with guns, we talked about his father who had started his business, we talked about Vermont and we talked about my own roots in North Lincolnshire. It was one of those long, rambling conversations which make life richer, whose words stay at the front of your mind for days afterwards. We hoped to get the well sunk before we spent the summer at the cabin, but George's schedule is dependent upon the weather. His business only works in summer: during mud season, there is the danger that his rig might topple or sink; in winter the ground is too hard to drill. That means in summer, George works extraordinarily hard whenever the weather will allow. The well was finally sunk on the second-to-last day of our holiday. The next morning, Nathan and I woke at 5am: George was outside, ready to start his day's work. George's clock is set to Vermont time.

Yesterday, in Cambridge, our handyman - let's call him H - paid an impromptu visit. The landlady pays H a monthly retainer to maintain the property (and I use the verb 'maintain' in its very loosest possible sense). I see less of H than I used to: he has taught me the valuable lesson that it is far easier to fix things myself than to expend energy trying to persuade him to do anything for me. Also, the dog always tries to eat him.
Yesterday, H was very cross. He likes to keep a close eye on the property: not so much in terms of repairs, but in terms of making sure no-one else has been paid to do the things that he hasn't.
'Did you move the humidifier in the basement?' he asked. Most Americans begin their conversations by asking how you are, but H was in a straight-talking kind of a mood.
'No,' I answered, grabbing hold of Truff who had managed to get his mouth into dangerous proximity with H's leg.
There was a long moment's silence: an interrogative kind of silence filled only with the low, hungry rumblings our our little pet mongrel.
'Maybe,' I said tentatively, 'The electrician moved it.'
'You had an electrician?' Previously, our landlady has paid H extra to do the electrical work on our property. H is not a tall man, but he grew several inches in his outrage. The dog licked his lips.
'We had to, the inspection found bell-and-tube wiring from the 1920s feeding some of the plugs.'
'Plugs? By plugs, you mean electrical outlets.' He nodded wisely, evidently pleased by his linguistic dexterity. 'I have some bell-and-tube wiring in my house too.'
'It's illegal.'
'Illegal? By illegal, you mean there isn't an earth.' He nodded again.
'It's not safe.'
'You mean it's old-fashioned.'
The problem with English-American bilingualism is that even the simplest words can be wilfully misconstrued. I suspect H would have liked the conversation to continue for several more hours, but I decided it was a good time for a dog walk.

In Vermont, a neighbor, Matt, has been doing most of our handiwork for us. Like most of the Vermonters in that area, he has several different jobs. He has built up a large timber yard from scratch and sells firewood to residents within a fifty mile radius. Since the recession crippled Vermont, people haven't been buying as much firewood; some people can no longer afford sufficient firewood to keep them warm through the winter. Firewood is traditionally sold by the cord, which is meant to be 128 cubic feet. Some of the local families who have been struggling to make ends meet have found that Matt's cords mysteriously expand in direct relation to their need. Matt didn't tell us this - but word-of-mouth travels rapidly through this area. I imagine him as a kind of reverse Grinch: sneaking a bit of extra here and there for the cold days, the winter days, the holidays.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Matt's firewood business hasn't been as profitable these past few years, and he also works building roads and doing local handyman work. Over the past couple of months, he's made our lane driveable, prepared the site for the well-digging, mended the outside staircase. We always look forward to his visits. He pulls up in his blue truck and his daughter hares out to run wild with Iola (they catch frogs and put them in bottles, pick up snakes and salamanders, avoid the poisonous hairy caterpillars, investigate every rotting log, chalk patterns on the cave walls). He has an enormous German Shepherd dog who follows the girls around the property, rounding them up if it thinks they've strayed too far.

Matt takes his time finding a way into any conversation. His hands tend to be shoved deep in his pockets, his smile is as quiet as the sun behind the cloud of his beard.
'I did this... last time I was here,' he says - and points out some detail or other. The patched-up repair to the chimney ('I thought it would get a better draw for you'), the extra joist on the stairs ('I just wanted your girls to be safe'), the tree that he chopped down to make space for George's crew ('I thought it would be easier for them to have a bit more clearance for the rig').
Last time we saw him, we were stacking the firewood he had delivered for us. He showed us how to stack it the Vermont way and then, worried that the stack we had already made might fall, restacked it all, working happily alongside us while the girls' voices drifted through the trees.
He had a bandage wrapped around the index finger on his left hand.
'What happened?' I asked.
He smiled sheepishly. 'I was putting a new roof on my stepfather's house yesterday and the ladder slipped. A piece of tin sliced the top off my finger.'
'The top?'
'Yeah,' his smile became more rueful, 'straight through the bone.'
'Did they sew it back on?' I asked.
He didn't seem to hear my question, but looked at his finger. 'It was kinda difficult working with the finger stuck out at an angle - you wouldn't think one finger would cause so much trouble. If I caught it on anything then - oooh.' He grimaced his face and pursed his lips.
'Does it feel better now?' I said.
He grinned again, still not answering. 'There was so much blood, I wrote my name with it, right there on that roof.' He laughed loudly, enjoying the ridiculousness of it all and it dawned on me that he hadn't gone to A&E, that he hadn't, in fact, even stopped working.
Matt's story moved on to another incident when he chopped a finger off. He described a cold morning (in Vermont, cold normally means below 0F), how he was chopping timber, how his hands were so cold that he made a mistake and the blade sliced straight across the base of his little finger.
'I took my glove off and there was no finger there and I just kind of panicked.'
We nodded in sympathy.
'So I put my glove back on and kept working until I'd finished the load of wood I was cutting.'
'You kept working?'
'I finished the job and then went inside and had a soda. I think the sugar helped calm me down. I took my glove off again. Still no finger.'
'Did you call an ambulance?'
'Well, the sugar helped calm me down so I drove myself over to the doctors and he said he could sew it back on. I've no feeling there though.'
He flicked his little finger and grinned, 'See, no feeling. Nothing.'
As he left, we repeated our invitation for him to visit us in Cambridge. He looked at me with the same baffled gaze that H gave me when I talked about the safety of our electrical circuits. 'Cambridge? By Cambridge, you mean all those people, all that traffic, all that talking.' He shook his head. 'I like it here.'

Vermont's influence colors our Cambridge lives. The girls seems easier, more relaxed; Nathan's beard flourished during those weeks in the summer and we all mourned its shaving; I ignored all the opinions that Cambridge gave me, and just ignored the bite on my arm until it went away by itself, and we found a new mantra on a fairground ringside in Vermont:
'Blood clots, sweat dries, bones heal. Cowgirl up, princess!'

Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Day in the Book Fridge

Today was Rosh Hashanah (L'Shanah Tovah to all), which meant that the Cambridge Public Schools were closed for a day's holiday. It's okay to have a day's holiday two days after the start of the new school year, but I was feeling slightly aggrieved by the allocation of only one day's holiday a year to each religion. The Muslim and Jewish children have really happy holidays to celebrate, but Christianity has been given Good Friday. Good Friday?! Couldn't we at least have claimed Christmas, for God's sake? It won't be long, I am sure, before Hallmark develop a line of cards wishing friends and relatives a 'Happy Good Friday'. Perhaps they'll be adorned with brightly colored graphics of a smiling Christ strolling through the streets of Jerusalem with a cross perched lightly on his back....

Anyhow, now is not my time to reconcile my irritation: this blog is about Iola's day out in Boston, otherwise known as how to spend a day in a book fridge.

At 8.30 this morning (and it is important, here in America, not to say half-past eight as no-one knows what you mean), Iola and me joined the other sardines on the red line into Boston. At the first Boston stop, we leapt out of our subway carriage and collected one of Iola's best friends.
'Let's go to the library,' I said.
'I don't want to go to the library,' A replied.
'It's a nice library,' I said in my most coaxing of voices despite being already aggrieved by Cambridge Public School's religious policy.
'I want to stay at home with my cat.'
It's a nice cat - all fluffy and black; I would have quite liked to have stayed at home with my coffee.
'We could find books about cats,' I said wheedingly, wishing I had poured a second cup of that coffee before facing a truculent seven-year old.
'I don't like libraries,' said A. 'They're lame.'

It's probably perfectly reasonable to not like libraries when you are seven years old. The books that you are able to read by yourself are always much shinier in the book shop, they smell nicer and all the book shops in Cambridge let you eat cake while you are looking at them. Libraries have a lot to compete against - shabby books that another child has already read, a fierce librarian telling you to keep the noise down, a complete absence of anything eatable (unless you are a toddler who might gnaw discretely at the edges of each page). So, how to convince a 7 year old that a library would be good? How to rescue Rosh Hashanah before A dissolved into tears and A's mother had to take the  morning off work so that we could sit on her sofa all day with the cat?
'It's not really a library,' I said.
A looked at me with profound suspicion. 'Really?'
I looked at Iola and Iola smiled back at me before turning to A: 'It's a book fridge.'
'A book fridge?' It never fails to amaze me how much suspicion a seven year old can carry in their voice.
'Yes,' me and Iola vigorously nodded. 'With Harry Potter,' added Iola.
'Books about Harry Potter?' asked A.
'Ooooh no,' Iola said with an even bigger smile, 'With rooms out of Harry Potter.'
We were on our way.

Entering the Boston Athenaeum is breath-taking: there are long galleried rooms of books, there are high vaulted ceilings, there are huge arched windows looking out onto the graveyards which litter the center of Boston (it might seem unusual to an outside that this city centers around graveyards rather than financial institutions, but the costumed guides which hurry tourists through America's early history probably generate as much wealth here as banks and insurance companies put together. We'll leave the skyscraping corporate buildings to Houston, TX and London, England; in Boston we have dead bodies). Entering the Boston Athenaeum is particularly breath-taking when you are part of a cobbled together mission of Harry-Potter-meets-Spy-Kids-while-travelling-in-time.
Looking for clues
Harry Potter on the rooftops

Moving bookshelves

Creeping unnoticed with stealth and silence
I would like to offer my most humble apologies to any readers we disturbed while shuffling silently on our bellies along the glass floors above the reading rooms; I can give the greatest assurances that no books were harmed while we searched the pages of early volumes for clues to our mission; and I would like to stress that only a couple of fingers were squashed as we moved the book shelves using the amazing cog system. I would also like to offer my thanks to the janitor who turned a blind eye to our game and the librarians who were willing to play along.

And the outcome? Iola was utterly happy and fell asleep before 6.30 pm (not half-past six, remember); the children had an insight into book preservation, demonstrated that they were able to be absolutely silent; we had a fascinating discussion over which books the girls would like to have preserved for their own grandchildren; and, at the end of the outing, A begged me to take her to the library next time we go. Libraries aren't lame anymore apparently, they're cool ('of course,' Iola retorted, 'They're book fridges.')