Thursday, July 23, 2009

Summer reading

My latest readings, by request:

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout -- loved this book. A collection of short stories that add up to a portrait of a crusty, older, many-generation Maine woman. The writing is sparse and evocative and the character is strong, imperfect, and very lovable on some level. Many of the stories are about the marriages and relationships of older people, people in their 60s, say, and it's wonderful to hear that perspective for once.

Slavery By Another Name by Douglas Blackmon -- this is an intense, powerful, painful book. A thoroughly researched history of what post-Civil War slavery in the South. Ninety percent of blacks lived in the South after the war and for 80 years whites systematically arrested, convicted, and enslaved thousands of them, mostly men, but also women and children. The call would go out from a large plantation or coal mine or steel mill for 20 more men, and sheriffs and justices of the peace would routinely round up black people doing nothing more than walking down the street. The fines and court fees would be inflated and the man would be sent into servitude for a year or more to work off his debt. Once there they would find some reason to fine him again and he would get another year or two. Needless to say the conditions were appalling, with sickness, famine, and torture rampant.

This practice began in earnest after Reconstruction failed, and didn't end until a few days after Pearl Harbor, when the Federal government decided it wouldn't look good to claim to be fighting for freedom and have hundreds of thousands of blacks enslaved. Plus they needed black men to fight. Blackmon says the Jim Crow era should be renamed the Age of Neoslavery. There's a long history to the black distrust of police and authorities, with very good reason.

Persepolis I & II by Marjane Satrapi -- Lovely autobiographical graphic novels about the coming of age of a young Iranian woman. Gives a very sympathetic picture of the strong intellectual community in Iran, the pre-revolution and post-revolution world, and I started to get a sense of what it must be like to live under such a strict regime. I don't know how I would act, under such conditions. The art work is simple and extraordinary.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
-- Have you reread this lately? It's still a classic.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway -- I had read this since the 12th grade and I wanted to see if I still loved it. I still love it. My bookgroup did not, however, and we had a great discussion. The writing is extraordinary, and the portrait of a time and place and some miserable post-War ex-pats hanging around Paris and Spain.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Tips for New Yorkers moving to the Valley

A few observations, now that we've been here almost three years (!) (at Thanksgiving), in no particular order:

Don't come in thinking you know everything and you'll show everyone else how it's done, because a) you're wrong, you don't know everything, and b) you have no idea how things are done yet. Just be friendly and go about your business. The pace is different here; the environment is different; people move in different ways and communicate differently. Not better, not worse, just different.

Don't expect an immediate warm fuzzy welcome. Most people living here are New Englanders, after all. Like New Yorkers, they respect your privacy, and they are also used to frequent newcomers. But don't ever doubt that they have your back. Once they are your friend they are extremely loyal. We are extremely fortunate to have moved into a wonderful block. Everyone is very busy -- yes, NYC doesn't have a monopoly on being busy -- so we don't see each other much. But we all take care of each other. It's lovely.

Ignore the Hamp-NoHo debate. I think that's about class more than anything else, and there's no winning in an argument about class. Just don't be a jerk and most people will like you no matter how recently you moved here.

It's not necessarily a lot cheaper to live here than in the city. If you own property you'll have to pay these odd things called property taxes, which add a big chunk to your cost of living. Not to mention you'll have to have a car, and probably two, and beyond buying the things, those cost a lot to run and insure. And, if you're used to the Park Slope Food Coop, you'll be astonished at home much more you pay for groceries.

Don't complain about those property taxes. It's the price you pay for good roads, schools, public health, and safety. Your money is really not being wasted; the fact is the Federal government has stiffed the state for years, especially since the war in Iraq, and the state has to pass that loss onto the towns. It's just the way it is. Vote for tax overrides; it's the community-minded thing to do.

Don't assume the public schools are better than New York City. New York is on the cutting edge of education, in many ways, and few public schools anywhere are better than the best in New York, especially in their ability to handle very diverse communities, abilities, and large classes. If you intend to put your child in public school -- and there aren't a lot of alternatives -- be thoughtful about what town you live in.

If you buy a house, check out the neighborhood. Don't assume that empty space behind your backyard is zoned conservation land. It could actually be a landfill.

Don't make assumptions about the people who've lived here for generations and have never been further than Springfield. Some of the kindest, smartest people I've met here have never lived anywhere else. You are not a better person because you lived in New York City.

Things smell differently here. Understand that landfills smell, and so does agriculture, and there's not much you can do about it. Massive livestock farms, like pig farms in North Carolina, aren't common here. But there are lots of animals and cow and horse manure have distinct odors, that's just the truth. Appreciate the incredible lush loamy smell too, and the aroma of a fresh snow, and the flowers in the spring. Lovely.

Not every farm is organic. The Pioneer Valley is full of nutty crunchy people but people have been happily farming here for generations and they do it in all kinds of ways.

That tractor going 15 mph on the road in front of you, like the smell of manure, is one of the prices you pay for having incredible fresh produce from May into November.

Farmers work incredibly hard. Be sympathetic to their concerns. Unless you've farmed you have no idea what their lives are like, and you could not live without them.

New England is the whitest region in the country. But there is much more diversity of all kinds here than might be obvious at first.

Straight people go to Gay Pride. The one in Northampton is a big city street festival and well worth attending. Support your LGBT friends and have a great time eating and hanging and buying stuff. It's really fun.

Go outside. That's why people live here, to hike, swim, boat, bike, and ski, skate, and snowshoe. Many people do other things, like hunt, fish, bird, rock climb, and row on the river. Invest in the basics right away -- snowshoes, skis, bikes, hiking boots, and good winter wear. Essential.

There's lots of culture here so check out everything you can. The Mullins Center at UMass brings in superb international acts. They and all the colleges have their own arts programs, museums, botanic gardens, libraries, and speakers. And that's just the colleges. There are many other hidden treasures, including in the Hilltowns, and west toward the Berkshires. Boston is just two hours to the east, New York is three hours south, and we're very close to the Berkshires, with its wealth of culture, especially in the summer.

Get a farm share
, the term they use here instead of "joining a CSA" (community-supported agriculture). A farm share helps you support your local farm, meet your neighbors, eat organic veggies, and improve your diet.

Look at the sky. It's incredible. It's vast, ever-changing, and you can see a whole lot more of it than in New York City.

Likewise, keep an eye on the Connecticut River. Like the sky, it's organic; it changes constantly; it rises and falls and keeps on flowing. There's lots of smaller rivers too.

Walk or drive to the top of Mt. Sugarloaf regularly, climb the tower and look around. Remind yourself why you moved here. It's a wonderful life. Oh, and be sure to make at least one visit to the Quabbin Reservoir, and hear the story of how it came to be.

Be prepared for your cell phone not work, especially once you go into the hills and otherwise get out of the town centers. Along those lines, many towns don't have cable or high-speed internet access, either. I think you can get a satellite, but those have problems too, especially when it snows. And lately it's snowed a lot.

Our best recent purchase was a GPS. It got me home on Monday night over twisty, deserted back roads in the dark. It will save you time and get you onto the more interesting back roads.

Be prepared to drive a lot more than you may have ever expected. Especially if you have kids. The corollary of that is, be prepared not to walk nearly as much. Every New Yorker here misses the walking. You have to plan your walks, if you want to take them, and take them you must.

Global warming has hit the Valley, like every place else. This means it doesn't get that cold in the winter -- it barely went to single digits last winter -- but we get a lot of moisture, and that's meant lots and lots of snow. This summer has given us so much rain it's really hurt the hay crop, and also the strawberries. Be prepared for all kinds of weather, all the time. It changes quickly.

If you can afford it, buy a house with a garage. It makes a big difference on those cold mornings when you have to go to work, especially if it's snowed.

You will probably have to drive into town to get the NY Times, if it's still publishing when you move here. Get it early, it sells out.

You will not find the deep diversity here, such as food, music, people, languages, country of origin, that you find in New York. But you will find really superb versions of all that; there's a much wider variety than you might think, and you don't have to dig hard to see it.

One thing that surprised me about living here is all the various meditation retreats and sitting opportunities. Within an hour of Northampton are major centers of pretty much every major Buddhist tradition, and even more places to sit and study.

Don't go blindly killing wildlife and plants that are unfamiliar. That snake that suns on the rocks next to our driveway eats all kinds of small vermin and bugs. Ditto the bats that swoop around. We had a bat in our living room recently and it was no big deal at all. Check things out first and see what's dangerous and what's not.

I advocate keeping your cats in doors. They kill all kinds of birds and small animals and don't eat them, and they themselves often fall prey to bigger predators, coyotes and fishers, in particular. They can also get diseases out there. Pretty much everyone here does, except the folks who adopted a stray.

Check out the community events -- town fairs, book sales, ski and skate sales, pancake breakfasts, church suppers, high school plays and musicals. Don't be a snob. They're fun and you increasingly see people you know. Many of these are regularly scheduled so just watch the paper.

It bears repeating: Don't be a snob. The community is very small and very tight. Everyone knows everyone else, and most of the people I've met are really interesting, doing all kinds of cool things. Talk down to your plumber, ignore the cashier at the food coop, and pretty soon you will find yourself with no one to talk to.

Subscribe to the Hampshire Gazette. If you live in the Valley, it's your hometown paper. It's where you get all the news, its website is excellent, and like any paper, it's fun to rag on it when it screws up. Essential.

Feel free to add your own.

Missing New York City

This is what I miss about New York City:

I miss stuff like this, everyone of every race and gender sharing a moment, a common experience, working through a commonly shared emotion. When I described this video to someone recently she said sure but this kind of thing rarely happens. But you know, I saw it everywhere, all the time. Maybe not in big ways, but certainly in little ones. Interactions with the bus driver. Smiling at people in the park. Chatting with people at the next table in the restaurant. The drycleaner who smiled and chatted with me whenever I went in. The extraordinary Community Bookstore on 7th Avenue. Lots and lots of warm fuzzy feelings at PS 261, Lily's old school. Even when I first moved there and the subway took tokens and they still cost a dollar, I could use a token as money. I didn't do it often but if I didn't have change I'd offer that and I was never turned down. That was way cool.

It's the little things, the things that make you feel like you are in this enormous organic thing called New York City, and you are all in it together, trying to get along. Forget the guys in their limos and penthouses, they're not really New York. Or they are, I suppose, but not the New York I miss. I miss those of us little people just trying to share very limited space and air and sun, and doing it the best we knew how. The best of my Brooklyn life embodied the word "community."

Not being clear here. A friend who has lived here for generations was complaining recently about New Yorkers who come in and throw their money around, and how much the locals don't like them. I realized later that in New York, we didn't like those people either. We didn't like people who routinely talked loudly on their decks at 11 at night. We didn't like people who came in with expectations and assumptions. People who got priced out of Manhattan so they settled for Brooklyn. Go to Westchester!

Someone told me that after Michael Jackson died someone in downtown Northampton blared their car radio and a crowd gathered and danced and sang. She wasn't sure that story was true, but I like to think it was; it's important to keep singing and dancing together. We're a community, here and there. Times like these can bring out the best in us.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Turtle on the road

On the way to Dover yesterday I took some friends of Lily's home to Amherst and just as we drove past Flayvors of Cook Farm (fantastic ice cream) I saw some people on the left on the side of the road, and garbage bag floating on the right. So I slowed down a little and was glad I did, because the garbage bag turned to be what I think was a huge snapping turtle crawling into the field next to the road. Yikes! They get up to 15 inches, I gather. This guy was really big, like the size of a bike helmet.

Reunion #3

Last night I went to my third reunion this spring, the 40th anniversary of the Charles River Creative Arts Program in Dover, and now I am trying to figure out how to get Lily there as a camper.

First, some background: The camp is basically classes of all kinds of arts -- music, drama, textiles and costume design, art of all kind, writing, photography, media, etc. Also swimming and Ultimate and stuff like that. The day is broken into about six periods and a kid makes her schedule out of 130+ classes. It's all by choice and availability. So you could have Show Tunes first period and costume design second and cartooning third and ceramics fourth, stuff like that. There's a constant buzz of energy and creativity. I think 500+ kids, and outstanding teachers, experts in every area.

This is from the camp's website: "On the last day of each four-week session, the performing and visual arts created by campers are displayed and performed in an Arts Festival. Families and friends are welcome and encouraged to participate. The festival will conclude with an evening performance of the program's original musical with all elements produced and performed by students under professional direction."

It's gotten lots of grants and support over the years and has turned into a model for arts camps all over the country. Really wonderful program. I went to the camp in the seventies as a camper when I was 11 and 12, and then as a CIT when I was 15 and 16, I think. For almost the entire time it's been run by two members of the Dewey family, Nissy Dewey, now in her late 80s, who I gather took the camp from what was basically a crazy, disorganized -- but fun -- idea to the shape of it now, and Toby Dewey, her son, who has headed it for many years and has continued to hire extraordinary professionals.

I've been debating going. Reunions are so emotionally draining and I hadn't been back to camp since I left 30 years ago. Dave and Lily didn't want to go, certainly. It's almost two hours away and it was evening event. Yesterday, as I drove to the reunion, I asked myself why was I doing this? I'd been up since five am and at four pm, when I had to leave, had already picked something like 30 pounds of strawberries, cleaned about 20 pounds, had entertained our picking partners and their families for lunch-plus, and was on my way taking two of the kids home.

As I ran down the list, I rejected going to feed my ego, say, look at me and see how I turned out. I didn't go to see anyone I knew, because I didn't think I'd know a soul. It was partly sentimental, to see what the place looked and felt like. But mostly, I went because Toby Dewey asked me to. He was organizing this, it was important to him, he wanted us to go, and I wanted to show up for him. For him, and for the whole Dewey family, who have really made that camp what it is today, an extraordinary, happy, creative, buzzing wild place.

It was so worth it. The first person I saw remembered me, although I didn't remember her until I quite a bit later, and I couldn't fake it. I saw the Deweys (there's also Kippy and Peter, Toby's siblings) especially dear Nissy, who kept encouraging me to write, write, write! I was so talented! She taught a playwriting class I was in, me and Dana and Jenny, I think, and we wrote the August show, Rip's New Wrinkle, about the sleeping guy being out for 200 years, not 20, and waking up in 1972.

And I saw dear Louis Hutchins, probably one of the nicest people from one of the nicest families ever to live, also with his really nice wife. We talked a long time, reminiscing and sharing notes about the crazy, wild seventies, how off the wall they were in some ways. We caught up on families and mutual friends and former camp mates. It was such a gift, to meet him again, and be greeted so warmly, and feel like I had remade a new friend.

I also saw Harley, and Howard, and had a long talk with Howard's partner, and others, and was just thrilled to have made the trek. Thank you, dear Toby. You are a gift, and you gave me a great one by organizing this event, even though I didn't get home until midnight, most of that in a driving rainstorm, caffeinated wildly -- I even stopped at a 7/11 to get coffee, which I never drink, to stave off any hint of doziness -- my hands gripping the steeling wheel, reminding myself I didn't have to go 75 in that storm, just because many others were, the GPS telling me in her clipped British accent where to turn, the iPod set to my song mix, playing very loudly everything from Michael Jackson (RIP) to ABBA to the Stones to Elton John.

I'm a bit burned out today, laying low, taking it easy on this lovely summer morning. Me and the Times and a cup of green tea. And now two blogs in two days! How about that, Kim?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Blog catch-up

Yup, haven't blogged in more than a month. Ah, me. Haven't done much of any writing, partly because Lily has been out of school since the first week in June and camp ended early, 2:30, or else she didn't have camp. Here's some notes about June:

Bement graduation. Lily was required to go and wanted me to go too. The kids not graduating wore their uniforms, school blazer, white collared shirt, khaki skirts/pants, and made two rows up the sidewalk. All the graduates walked between them, one by one. The best part of the ceremony was the red-tailed hawks circling above the whole time, watching us. At one point the third grade sang a song (it sounded fabulous, but I was told later that the tape they sang along to included a whole choir of kids; disappointing)and at the end, a couple hawks gave their haunting cry. Go to this link on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and scroll down to listen to their call. Best part of the day for me.

My 30th high school reunion: I graduated from Milton Academy in 1979, and was really happy to be able to go back this June for reunion. I wish more people showed up, although I was happy to see the ones who did. Unfortunately, two women I really wanted to see didn't come until the evening, and we had already left.

Dave and Lily were highly bored and won't come back again, although I was very happy to show the place to Lily. It was an essential part of who I am; it was solace and comfort at a time when I was troubled, not to mention an extraordinary education, and my teachers and the other adults there were devoted and fabulous. I didn't love every single one, but I adored many. Three of my very favorite teachers were there this day, the three who always go to reunion, Sarah Wehle, my Latin teacher, John Banderob, my algebra teacher, and my counselor Ellie Griffin. I am so grateful to these people, and to Milton in general.

Lily's June consisted of art camp for two weeks, which she always enjoyed. One of the few (only?) camps that opens the second week in June, for the private school kids. Thank god! Then she was off for two weeks and we drove to Washington DC and back over four days. We stayed with our friends Anne and Jamie, whose daughter Grace was one of Lily's first friends. They met when they were a year old, at preschool. They hadn't seen each other in a couple of years but they picked right back up and had a great time visiting.

I saw not a thing in DC; I was there to see my friends, and decided to skip the sights, most of which I've seen several times. So my friend Betsy came over for breakfast with our hosts, and then, while our friends took Lily to the Air and Space Museum, Dave and Betsy and I went to Politics and Prose, the best bookstore I've ever been in. We met our friends Nancy and Eric -- I met Betsy the first day of school when I was a freshman at Johns Hopkins, and Nancy was her roommate. They stayed roommates while I dropped out but we've all stayed close ever since. It was wonderful just to chat and visit for a couple of hours.

DC-Baltimore-New Jersey. On the way back home we stopped in Baltimore to spend a night with Dave's cousin and family. Lovely! Then another night, this time in New Jersey, with my cousin and family, and then breakfast with my father and stepmother. All this driving was helped considerably by our brand-new GPS, which we have been saving for for some time. Maps make you far more aware of your surroundings, and more independent. But there's something to be said for a GPS, especially when you are driving city streets. We had a couple of hours to kill so we stopped at the Baltimore Art Museum just before closing and caught the phenomenal Cone sisters' collection of Matisse and other works. Lovely! And lovely to show Lily and Dave yet another school I'd gone to, albeit briefly. But the people I met there have stayed my friends ever since.

Two weeks off. I was a little anxious about having two weeks off with Lily and nothing scheduled besides this trip. But we had this trip, and I got a sitter a couple of days so I could go to yoga. We went to visit my mother and Don for a night just before the 4th, lovely to see them as always. Lily and her cousin Jonah went to dinner at Friendly's with Don, and I made the mistake of saying she could get anything she liked. So two orange sodas, chicken fingers, fries, and an ice cream sundae later, she was very sick to her stomach. She didn't lose it all but I gather it was close.

More reunions were up next up for me. My friend Susan from high school, one of the women I'd wanted to see but hadn't, made the drive from Gloucester, on the north shore of Massachusetts, for the afternoon and dinner. I cannot say how enormously flattered I was and am. I was so touched and pleased. The weather was crappy so we sat on the sofa while Lily was distracted by TV, and talked and talked and talked. Susan has been in construction management but is making the transition to counseling. She stayed for dinner and then drove home. What a wonderful gift!

And I was only to be given yet another, similar gift. Another friend from my class at high school who lives in Idaho couldn't come to reunion but was visiting her family in Brookline on her way to New Hampshire. So she and her kids drove a couple of hours out of their way to have lunch with me and Lily. Again, what a gift! Molly is a French teacher at her local Waldorf school and raises sheep and knits incredible things. Her girls were wonderful.

Thank you, friends. I am honored to have you in my life.

Camping was next up. This was last week, the week of the 4th, and you may remember it poured all the time. We were to go camping with friends at Myles Standish State Park in S. Carver, southeastern Massachusetts. But our friends had a medical emergency and had to cancel and we were anxious about all the rain. Dave had given me a new, very sturdy tent for my birthday, so we decided to take a chance and give it a test drive. As it turned out we were on a bluff just above Barrett's Pond, if you know the park, and while it was incredibly windy it never rained.

Dave had also gotten a hammock, and although I was worried about Lily being bored without kids for three days, she read in the hammock almost the entire time. We hiked a little and got lost. We swam in the pond. We sat in the sun and tried to dry out from being soggy and moldy for all of June. We drove into Plymouth twice, once on the night of the Fourth to see fireworks, and once on our way home on Sunday to go Plimoth Plantation and Mayflower II. Oh, and Plymouth Rock. (That was amusing; a smallish boulder surrounded by a colonade, designed by McKim, Mead, and White, with a grate on the ocean side to let the tide in. Dave noticed it had split so someone had patched it with cement. Silly!)

The ship and the rock were pretty lame, but the plantation was pretty cool, for two reasons. One, they've tried to modernize the truth about how the Pilgrims actually were an early wave of the genocide of the Native People living here already. They have a Wampanoag village with Native people wearing authentic clothes and doing authentic chores and crafts, such as cooking, beading, and making a dugout canoe (with fire). Those people are not role-playing.

But then you go down the path and meet people dressed in 17th century clothes role-playing the Pilgrims. They are specific people and they have the accent and the entire backstory down cold. I was given parenting advice by two women (one was a very pregnant Pricilla Alden) daubing clay on the walls of a new chicken coop (the less labor a child does, the more the mother does) and got into several conversations with Feare Allerton, I think her name was. Her father was Brewster, and my friend Sylvia is a descendent. Dave took our photo so I could send it to Feare's "cousin" in New Amsterdam.

Years ago I met Emily Dickinson in the Concord Inn, in Concord, Massachusetts, and when without thinking I told her I'd flown there she laughed and said, In what, a hot air balloon? So this time I tried to have a conversation with Feare on her terms. We discussed midwifery, and where I had come from (100 miles west by carriage "but there are no roads!" I said we made do, but I kicked myself later for not saying, "you'd be surprised") and her a-forementioned cousin in New Amsterdam.

I kept going away and then coming back, and at the end after we'd said goodbye, I turned back quickly and said, "You're very good!" She gave me a big grin and said, "And you are a wonderful guest!" That made my day. I told the woman at the gift shop about her and asked her to convey my compliments. These people aren't actors, apparently, they are just local people who are very big history buffs. They read histories about the time, and primary sources from the time, and an newbie works with an experienced person, and sometimes they switch and have to learn an entire new accent. I was so impressed. She was fun.

Camp today. Finally, June has ended, and so has most of the rain, and Lily started at Camp Norwich, the Y camp she went to last summer. She loves it, and I gotta say, she has really matured this year. She sounded accepting and willing about everything. She says some kids are kind of icky, but she can handle them -- and tonight she noted that kids that can be icky at school can be really nice at summer camp. She got a part in the play, Really Rosie, and she's playing Bonnie, as in One Was Johnny (but the cast is mostly girls so they changed it).

Lily is truly growing up. She is playing two instruments this summer, continuing with flute and starting piano. She is also doing a couple of pages of math four or five times a week without complaining. She is helpful. She is very, very tall, almost as tall as I am (probably 5-2 now), and she can sit in the front seat, per doctor's orders (at least five feet tall).

And, she has pierced ears. That's a story I should blog, it was pretty cool. I promise to try to put more photos up here, like of Lily. And I want to do a little photo essay of Chance, our cat. Stay tuned. Oh, and I should talk about the New Century Theatre, our local summer stock subscription.

One final point: Harry Potter 5 opens on Wednesday and I am very sorry I won't be in Brooklyn to watch the first showing with my friends Charlene and Alyssa. I saw 3 with them, and 4 with Char, and it was a wonderful tradition, much like volunteering at the Community Bookstore the night the 5th book was released. But, as Tom Lehrer says, I digress.