Stopped by Woods


It’s February, and the sledding hill on the west side of town is naked.  The Battenkill River that runs west from the center of Arlington, Vermont to the New York line has been frozen for only a few days this winter.  It’s the second year in a row in which winter hasn’t really felt like winter but more like a long clouding, mud season.  Grey prevails today, lulling us into our individual reveries as we drive about our Saturday routine.

Then as we drive home, turning back onto the road that runs along the Battenkill, the park and adjacent outdoor ice rink come into view.  A shock of white now rises over the river.  As we get closer, we realized the white is ice and snow covering the trees on the river bank.  The ice doesn’t cover everything – it only coated a small clump of trees –  but the covering was so thick and sugary in appearance, that if looked like someone had sculpted it.

The sky is still overcast and grey, but now, roused out of our apathy, the flat light seems to throw everything into stark relief.  A stop by the park has suddenly become an impromptu visit to an art museum, and we continue on home, suddenly aware of the other exhibits around us.

A Moment on the Soapbox

I spend Inauguration Morning 2013 trying to write and thinking about inaugurating another diet for the umpteenth time.  (There have been multiple first diet days since the first of this year.)  It seems an strange day to be dwelling on something so mundane.  It’s MLK-day after all.  Our country’s first African-American president is getting worn in for the second time.   And yet, somehow, letting the mundane absorb the three members of our family who got to stay home for the holiday is oddly appropriate.

I’ve lived on two other continents in two different hemispheres.  Thanks to my parents’ wanderlust, I had the opportunity – at a young age – to see how bad it can be but also how the good we have isn’t necessarily isolated.  We got to plenty of countries where elections happened peacefully and where political debates are lively.

As youngsters, however, my sister and I also had the chance to travel and live in South America at a time when election results were often in dispute and transfer of power wasn’t always peaceful. Widespread poverty (and depending on the year, dangerous conditions) was a common symptom of the political instability, and I have memories of walking with my mother in Lima, Peru and noticing many beggars parked between street vendors.  My parents still maintain the friendships they made there, and I remember hearing occasionally of one friend or another having to leave the country quickly even after a relatively peaceful election.  It was anything but mundane.

I thought of that today as I took the kids to Bob’s Diner in Manchester Vermont for a treat.  Always hopping, it was a mob scene on this holiday morning.  The bulk of the dining population was of the tourist variety, but – as always- there was variety.

There were well-heeled flatlanders in perfectly coordinated ski pants and jackets sitting shoulder to shoulder with burly plow drivers in their customized jackets.  There were Obama stickers on pickup trucks and Ron Paul and Romney stickers on slick new SUV’s from ‘down south’.  There were T-shirts with slogans ranging from the peaceful to the political to the profane, and it was just another Monday at Bob’s.  Even after an election season completely characterized by cynicism and bitterness, even in the face of an increasingly strident debate on gun rights (and privacy and religious rights), this confluence of humanity – with its politics on its sleeve in some cases – was not only civil, but jovial.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that the Tree of Liberty would need to be refreshed with the bloom of patriots.  I don’t question his courage or passion for his country, and I know he and his suffered to sow the seeds of our liberty.  I also don’t think those words were written without an understanding of their potential consequences.  But Jefferson did come of age in an era when duels at twenty paces were still considered a reasonable way to settle a dispute.

Now, when I look at events around the world and see the human consequences of refreshing each country’s soul by pitting citizen against citizen, I know there has to be a better way.  And, listening to one of Bob’s cheeky waitresses cheerfully debate the issues of the day with a hot-headed regular, hearing their banter rise above the clattering of dishes and cries of ‘Order up!’, I realize that we have it, and it starts with hotcakes and coffee and a side of home fries.  It may be mundane, but there’s something to be said for that too.

Waiting for Winter

Saturday was the first day of basketball practice for Thing2.  Our basketball Saturdays are a lot like the rest of our Saturdays, except they start a lot earlier.  The odd thing is, that even with the addition to our Saturday to-do’s (a run to the dump, breakfast at Bob’s, and beyond), the early start to the day often leads to a fuller Saturday.  Yesterday, however, the extra hours let us do just enough to feel a little incomplete when we finally headed home.

No one thing on our schedule carved out that hollow feeling.  At the end of the day, however, we all felt it.  We’re still waiting for winter.

This is one of our only weekends without company or somewhere to go, so we decided to take care of a home improvement shopping enjoying some holiday activities.  So, once we got tired of the traveling circus act that is Thing1 and Thing2 (our 12 and 6 year-old boys) at a hardware store, we decided to head to a holiday craft fair hosted by a friend before cutting down our Christmas tree at the local tree and wool farm.

As we drove from Vermont to Saratoga, NY and back, we all noted the holiday decorations, but there was one glaring omission from the scenery.    We mind it too much on our drive, but as we shed our jackets between stores, it began to nag at all of us a bit more.  We passed a bank broadcasting the forty degree temperature, and the Big Guy broke the ice.

“It’s downright balmy,”  he commented as we passed a barren field.

“It’s the third mud season this year,” I replied.  He nodded and we both sighed.  We noted the mugginess again as we went to the craft fair, initially hunching in that traditional winter pose to protect our body heat and then standing upright as we remembered it just wasn’t that cold outside.

We’ve been having this conversation off and on for a few weeks – as I suspect, based on national forecasts, much of the country is.  But when you live in a state that depends on winter weather for its economy and even part of its identity, a December that isn’t that cold outside is an event – and not always a pleasant one.  This is the second un-Vermonty December in a row, and the kids who are old enough to participate in the statewide Junior Instructional Ski Program (JISP) have already been watching the skies and the weather forecasts for weeks.  There are even signs at some borders bidding visitors to Vermont to pray for snow.

My own life revolves around winter more than I care to admit.  I’m waiting for the snow pack that will slowly trickle down the mountain in the spring and summer, preventing me from needing to water my garden most of the year.  I’m waiting for the opportunity to bundle up the kids for the guaranteed energy burn that only a few hours in two feet of snow can bring.  I’m waiting to strap on my snow shoes and breathe in mountain air made more crisp by a coating of powder sugar.

But, hoping that getting our Christmas tree up would get all of us feeling more like winter, we decided to stop at the nearby tree farm on the way home.  Like most transactions around here, this one began with a lengthy (according to the kids) conversation with the farm owner about mutual acquaintances, the scuttlebutt from the country store, where the deer are, how much were the trees, and, of course, the weather.  This time it was the farmer who brought up the 800 pound snowplow in the room, and the mere mention of the missing snow made all of us a bit somber.

The Big Guy and Thing1 ditched their coats as we trudged out to the foggy, soggy field, sizing up the trees.  The farmer followed us offering his opinion here and there, and we all took turns sawing the chosen tree.  Upright, it had looked like the perfect size for our living room, but after we felled it and the Big Guy and the farmer hoisted it on the car, we realized it was huge.

Dwarfed by its cargo, our family wagon looked like something out of ‘Christmas Vacation’, and we all started to laugh.  It took twenty minutes to get the tree secured and say our goodbyes, and by the time we pulled away from the tree farm we were all laughing.

The paved road quickly disappeared, letting us know we had arrived in our hometown.  The Big Guy drove slowly, mindful of the pointy projectile on our roof.  The muddy mess that is our town road sobered us a bit, but as we passed a friend’s house, Thing1 brightened.

“That’s the best sledding hill in the world!”  he proclaimed pointing to the mountain behind our friend’s house.  “It’s a huge climb, but it’s totally worth it.  I can only do it five or six times before I have to come in for a drink. (I want to be 12 again someday.)”

“That’s a great party,” the Big Guy responded, and we smiled in anticipation of the annual sledding party in early that usually marked our last big winter social event.  Then both of us quieted, remembering that there had been no party last year.

“I hope there’s one this year,”  said Thing1, resting his chin on his hand as he gazed out the window.  We said little else the rest of the way home.

Traffic Jam

Tuesday day before Thanksgiving, and the house is almost ready.  The kids’ room is at Defcon 2 (down from a catastrophic level four), most of the laundry’s done (that was going to get done before Sunday), beds are made and ready for guests, and I only have the shopping left to do.  I dropped the kids at school and turned south on Route 7A going out of Arlington.  I got to the turn off for the highway but, not seeing anyone in front of me, decided to stay on the slower road to Bennington.

A meandering two lane country road dotted with  a few farms and the occasional white-steepled church, Historic 7A (as it’s known in the tour guides) is even more scenic as the November morning brushed the trees and meadows with a muted pink and green frost.  Usually I’m too preoccupied with to-do’s to absorb the view, but this is my last bit of quiet before a long weekend of entertaining, and I am determined to enjoy the drive – as long as it doesn’t take too long.

But I’m coming around a curve, about to set the cruise control when the back end of a decelerating dump truck magically appears in front of me, interrupting my view and my plan.  He continues to slow down, and I roll my eyes.  What now?  We are now crawling forward, but my curiosity is short-lived.

A few seconds later we get to the cause of the slowdown. It is a single flagger directing traffic around another orange-vested road worker. On the side of the road, parked in someone’s yard is an orange VTrans pickup.  And then I see the flagger has a couple helpers.

As the flagger steps out into the road, a couple of Rhode-Island Reds appear, inspecting the scuffed dirt around the parked pickup.

The dump truck and I slowly down a bit more, but we don’t even stop. I watch the dump truck weave carefully around the flag man, and the flag man waves.  The dump truck driver probably doesn’t know the guy.  I don’t either, but a second later I pass and wave too.

I accelerate out of the last curve.  The car speeds up, but I’ve completely slowed down.