Thursday, August 30, 2012

August Leaves

The other day I was laying on the warm deck by the pool after a dip in the saving cool water. I looked straight up into the tree tops far above me and beyond them, into the incredible blue sky of a late August afternoon. A southeasterly wind was blowing the trees around and they compliantly moved at its command, to and fro, with a swishing, easy, and quite pleasant sound. I watched a single leaf from a clump of many way above me, suddenly and with out any particular reason, become detached from its branch and it fell prey to the effects of these invisible winds all on its own. It twirled left, then right, then chaotically it continued its fall from the parent tree, slowly downward, drifting, spinning as do most of the white oak tree leaves, until finally it softly and quietly landed, just next to me, and its journey was done. Its travel time was brief, but, the moment was indelible and forever.

It is late August. To a person who lives in the south, this point in time of the year comes as a reprieve. Just to know the end of the intolerable is coming, is pure unbridled relief. I know many people in other parts of the country and the world are affected by heat waves and scorching temps that can cause all types of issues, but, the key word there is “waves”. A temporary shift in the climate does not form a norm of summer. No theirs is just a minor inconvenience and it provides something to chat about and for the weather channel guys to get excited about.

 August usually brings a bit of hope in the form of the changing patterns of the winds that blow across the planet. They bring relief to the stagnant doldrums of July and June by allowing cooler air that comes all the way from Canada via the jet stream to pull winds from the south and the gulf, to stir up the days like a spoon in a mug of coffee. In a premature fall, browned and spent leaves begin their final journeys through the air tossed and twinkling like giant snow flakes until they find their resting spot on the ground below the canopy. Most seem quite determined to find the swimming pool like my single falling leaf had done, where I daily clean them out, only to find them back in the next day.

Ours, being a southern summer, it is unique. It is simply, an unrelenting hell. From mid May until sometimes even as late as the beginning of October it is hot and it is outrageously humid, dangerously so. The oppression of this beast of weather is what we bear as southerners, collectively we endure, we gripe and bemoan, but as stoically as possible, we ride it through with the faith that it will get better, because in truth, it couldn’t get worse. 

We are slower people by design for this reason. We talk slower, move slower, and live life at a slower pace so as not to exert too much energy and suffer a heat stroke or two. There are tall iced drinks to keep us cool, swimming pools, and talcum powder to help  us calmly ride  through these long days of the suffering, sweltering misery. The beaded sweat on the outside of a glass of a Mint Julep mirrors the our plight. But, by sipping the minted, and icy brown elixir  it holds, through a sterling silver straw, it relaxes the tension and makes one slow down even more. Quite often it is enough to force one to come to a halt under a front porch ceiling fan and sit for a spell in an ancient wicker chair next to a pack of resting dogs. I think that’s not too bad of a thing given the circumstances, slowing time down, that is.

We presently wait on more news about a storm that started off the coast of Africa a short while back, made its way across the Atlantic, slipped right between Cuba and the Keys, and has now pushed its way into the waiting warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  What began as an unorganized little group of clouds and rain has melded with the energy of the warmer waters, has barreled across the Gulf and is now a massive slowly moving hurricane. This one they are calling Isaac. 

They predicted the eye would hit New Orleans, an ironic de ja vu of Katrina, which several years ago and to the day, fairly well demolished the town and good portion of the Gulf coast. Armed with new engineering of the levee system surrounding the bowl that New Orleans sits in, it seems to be keeping the tides out and is pumping the rain out to avoid a repeat. In a town where the state beverage is called the “Hurricane” one would give thought as to why one would want to live in such a potential hurricane target, but if you have ever been to the town it is easier to understand. Apparently out lying areas have not been so lucky nor protected and the rain continues. 

Although still many hundreds of miles away, from here in the middle of Alabama, we feel its force. Strong gusts of winds are whipping the green water of the pond into a silver froth and the Spanish moss is gracefully swaying to its rhythm. The wind chimes on the porch softly add to the chorus.  Although a shower or two has passed by in the long outstretched bands that circle the storm, we were hoping for more rain, but are grateful for no damage so far.

The other day Mark and I traveled to Birmingham, about seventy miles north of here, to do a photo shoot for a restaurant that had hired out friend, Master Chef Joe DiMaggio, Jr, as a consultant to help give the place a lift of sorts. We had worked with Joe before and it always amazes me at the level of skill he has in creating such beautiful, and incredibly delicious peasant Italian dishes. We ate, we shot dish after dish, we ate, we shot some more,and finally got in our car to drive home, bellies full, and tired but excited. It was so nice to have once again been able to watch a person do his work with such a strong conviction for perfection in his creations and his art with food.  Mark made some beautiful shots for the restaurant to use and it was great to be around Joe in the process. 

There was no need for supper when we got home. We were satiated in many ways.


Monday, August 20, 2012

Closing Lines

I have come to feel that the act of going on a vacation, and the process of being on one, and then the finale, the closing, the end, and the return home is not unlike, and perhaps is very similar to that of going to the theatre to see a play. While being on vacation is a state of mind, it more often helps that a new venue or destination allows one the freedom to relax or do whatever it takes to feel away from the norm of daily life. The preparations for both going on vacation and going to a play are similar and require planning for the journey/experience. Baby sitters are hired, dog sitters are engaged, tickets are purchased, bags are packed, etc. all with expectations of being surprised, engaged, entertained, and to be mentally transported somewhere else for a while.

The traveling vacation begins with the first turn out of the driveway, the play begins with a lowering of the house lights to a darkened void. It is the separation from the place you were in just moments before. Upon arrival at your vacation spot there is still a period of time in which you are still in the unsettled state of doing normal things like unpacking, walking the grounds to see where to sit to perhaps read that magazine and drink that first glass of afternoon wine. In the theater after a while of sitting in total darkness, the first sound is heard or perhaps a character walks out into view, lit with a spotlight, and you are still very much aware that you are sitting in a chair watching an actor perform, very much separated from the events on stage, still clinging to a reality outside.

Then with both comes the moment where you buy in, you feel comfortable, and engage in the experience. The vacation begins in earnest when the shoulders drop and you feel that childlike giddiness of playing hooky. In the theater the moment you buy in is the moment they call the suspension of disbelief, when you suddenly believe that the story is real and the characters are you best friends or enemies and you are a part of the things unfolding on that stage.

The vacation becomes a play, the people you meet are new characters in your life if even for only a few days, the events that happen are an unscripted course, and flow along until the days wind down towards the end. There is the conclusion to both play and vacation. The curtain closes, the lights come up, the dirty clothes are packed for home, the souvenirs are bought, addresses exchanged, the actors are applauded, and the doors are opened for your bittersweet return to reality once more.

And thusly our vacation in the mountains ended. The last day was spent in that halfway mode of knowing the inevitable was upon us, trying to stay in that carefree state of deep relaxation but only failing to achieve it in totality. Mark and I went up to the lodge’s vegetable garden, not an insignificant little hike, and picked some of the heirloom tomatoes that we were told that we were welcome to. Some were not very pretty having some splits in the skin, but the small yellow ones were, and are, divine. 

We never made it back to the magic pool of cairns to kill the ground hornet nest, leaving that for another time, and we were chickens at the thought of not being successful. After another incredible meal at the lodge, we shared another night with Ellen and Tom playing dominoes. Ellen won this time and I have the incriminating video of her victory dance to prove it, which I have no doubt would bring her YouTube overnight fame, but have declined posting until she okay’s it. Although actually we have come to see a high correlation to the score keeper to being the winner ratio, so we really don’t know for certain on that. After her “victory” we retired to the deck to view the stars and to try make the last evening last a little bit longer.

When our eyes adjusted to the dark, the stars became bright in the inky darkness of the mountain air, the Milky Way glowed like a cloud and waved across the sky with Scorpio at its tail in the southern sky. We watched a non blinking object cruise the ecliptic, perhaps a satellite, or perhaps the space station, or a UFO, well technically it was a UFO to us since we don‘t know what the heck it was. Joining us on the deck in the clear cool night air were several of the couples who had been Mark’s students for the past few days, now all chatting like the best of long time friends. It was a savory moment that was felt by all, so much so that all have already made reservations to meet here same time next year for Mark’s class. Adieus were said, hugs made, and the vacation, just like that, was over.

We made it back to town in time for the memorial service for our friend who had died in the motorcycle accident on Sunday. Joe was such a nice fellow and he had touched many lives as was evident by the number of folks there and the emotional outpourings on his behalf. He was here, and now he is gone, and all of questioning of “Why” does something like this happen has no answer and no resolution. It simply, is, reality in its coldest form. From that though, perhaps it will give everyone who knew him a better way of everyday living. Joe apparently lived a finer line between the daily grind and vacation time, and seemed to make more out of each day than most. If that was his mission to share then perhaps that is what we should take from having known him.

It is now, unbelievably, the middle to almost the later part of August, and soon the season will change and bring some relief to the unbearable summer heat and humidity of the past months. My vacation time is over, its mission was successful in bringing my attitude and enthusiasm back to a lighter note. I look out now at the things that need to get done on the farm and am armed with a bit more ambition to conquer the weeds, to get the hedges trimmed, the fields bush hogged, the horses worked, the garden tidied and ready for fall planting, the house cleaned and the laundry washed and put away, the last of the canning done, etc, etc, etc.

 Perhaps though, one needs to be careful not to get to crazy and hasty about things like this. The list is infinite, my daylight isn’t. I think maybe I am not fully recovered from my vacation, and like the lingering last lines from the actor in the darkened theatre that haunt you after you leave, I don’t want to let that feeling go, just yet. Perhaps another cup of tea before tackling such ideas would be the thing to do. I see no Chore Nazi hiding in the shrubbery waiting to haul me in if nothing gets done that is the MOST productive thing I can do at every given moment today. So, the question that remains, is, green tea or herbal?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Standing Stones

As I wait for my photos to load off my cell phone, I will try to jot down yesterday’s basic happenings. It began with the usual breakfast and photography class for Mark and his students, and me writing, etc. I did a bit of watercolor sketching and once class was dismissed for lunch we ate our sandwiches in the protective screened in porch off to the right of the lodge’s mountain view. The gnats and no-seeums have been brutal and we were offering no more blood to them.

After we had finished we were joined by a charming young lady who was the daughter of the inn owner. She is nine, blond, tall for her age, with legs as long as a new born colt, and wears braces on her teeth that once removed will reveal a gorgeous smile to go with her incredibly precocious personality. She is a very pretty girl now and looks like she will only improve with age. She had come down to where we were, armed with a ridiculously huge set of binoculars with intent to see a hawk that she had heard but couldn’t see. 

She stood at the edge of the deck and stood on her toes to see around the tree to the left and suddenly said “whoop!” and the binoculars fell out of her hands. A few long minutes later we hear the tell tale thump of a very heavy set of binoculars making contact with the ground way below. We all looked at each other and shared the uh-oh face of knowing those binoculars were toast. Undaunted by the thought of the condition of her dad’s binoculars after their recent fall through space, Sophie began her scramble down the steep overgrown hill to go get them, in her flip flops and shorts, sliding in the tall grasses. She stopped at some point and said emphatically that this was NOT her cup of tea, but onward she bravely scrambled. Eventually she reached the bottom and retrieved the battered binoculars and came up to join us in the screened area.

Rarely have I been around a young girl so comfortable with herself, full of drama, intelligent, witty, a budding beauty, and totally charming. We sat and she entertained us for quite a long while until someone came to tell her that her dad had gone to the house and she was to follow by foot up the hill to where they live. Reluctantly she did as she was told and we were left to figure the rest of the day.

Mark’s students decided they wanted more of Mark and so he was tied up with them leaving Tom, Ellen, and I a chance to right a wrong, well, perhaps not a wrong but we needed to go fix the temple. Last year we had discovered a long smooth pool at a park ground, Rattler Ford, covered with small ephemeral sculptures of stacked stones from the bottom of the smooth flowing water. It was a magic place and the beauty was mystical, and we had felt a reverence to the place, hence the temple description. We had spent a lot of time last year there enjoying the art of the mystery rock stackers and feeling the peace. This time we revisited and all of the stones were knocked down, no sculptures and no magic, and thus our mission was to recreate some of our own. So off we went down to the creek, leaving Mark to teach.

In about an hour wading in the knee deep chilly water the three of us had done a pretty good job of standing the stones back into precariously balanced sculptures and it was good to have the spirit of the place restored. We returned to the lodge and told of our efforts of the recreation at which some of the students were so excited that in the lingering light after dinner they ventured down the road to go see the pool and its stones and take some photos of them. For us, another rousing game of dominoes sealed off the evening. Tom did not win again. I did, but who’s counting.

This morning it was decided that the class would be a field trip to the pool of standing stones. I ventured into the water to make some more of the statues while some of the braver students wandered into the water to take some shots. The wading takes care not to trip and fall in and walking with a camera had its own risks, so several had walking sticks. It was not long before the sound of splashing water was heard as one lady was like a bull in a china store and repeatedly kept knocking the delicately balanced stones into the water. Of course she was quite sorry and made apology after apology as she swung her walking stick as she stooped to retrain the rocks to stand up, and knocked down more. It was comical to say the least.

There is such good energy to be absorbed by sitting by moving water, whether ocean or by a moving stream. I sat on the large rock for a while and listened to the cascades, and felt the power of the rock I sat on. How long ago was it atop a mountain, part of one, perhaps a huge one, now a mere several ton bench for us to sit on? How old were the granite stones that we had stacked, worn smooth by how many years of being whittled away, moved down the stream to lay where we now where? And how soon would they be tiny grains of sand? Lots to think about when you are in a peaceful place such as this. Finally the class had snapped until they could snap no more and it was time to head back to the lodge. 

I was returning to the large bench stone after wandering upstream, along the same path that we had all traveled several times while we were there, grabbing onto the small trees that line the banks for balance, when I noticed a shaft of sunlight now hitting a tree root to my left. I also noticed a small movement that went past my knee towards the root, then another movement behind my knee going the other direction. I turned at looked at the destination of the arrival and departure of the unidentified things that had passed so close to my legs, and saw the hole. Out came another thing and this time I could see what it was and it didn’t take me long to get the heck out of its fly zone. Yellow Jackets.

I let everyone still out on the rock where they were and all made an alternate route around the tree to the parking lot and we retreated, feeling quite lucky that for whatever reason we had not all been stung. I would really like to know what is the trigger that causes them to suddenly see you as a threat, and also what makes them simply fly by you with out doing so. Perhaps the sunlight hitting the nest woke them up and they had been sort of sleepy until warmed up. It absolutely got my heart rate up to target though to see them so close and be in their midst, again. Our plan now is an evening assault with a poison of some sort to pour down the hole once they have retired for the night. I might be sitting in the car, however, while the braver adventurers with grudges from the incident last year get revenge.  We shall see how that goes...



Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Being Here Now

After a bit of a shaky start to the part of being on a vacation, the second day at Snowbird Lodge has opened with a light mist out on the valley below me. The green hills out there are varying shades of blueish greens depending on how close or how far they are from my vista. Again, the air is filled with the peeps of the bright yellow Gold Finches as they flit around the tree tops and come to eat at the feeders. Huge Swallowtail Butterflies graze on the lavender blooms on the butterfly shrubs and the distant rumbling of motorcycles comes rolling up from the valley, and then its deeply quiet again.

Behind me Mark is on the deck reviewing with his students the hows and what evers of taking a photograph. Most of them have a variety of nice cameras with absolutely no idea of what to do with them. We decided the other day that manuals are pointless, as they are too intimidating to read, and so they are always  put away with the purchase box, and the camera remains largely unused until some enlightenment can be found. This is what Mark is so good at, removing the mystic and letting it be simple. He is very good teacher at this and his students today are eager to learn.

This is day two of vacation here. As I said first day was marred with the news from home that a good friend and his lovely new wife had been in a motorcycle accident. He is dead and the wife is now in critical care waiting to see if she will lose her right leg. Tragedy knows no boundaries of place or timing. I can do nothing from here but feel the sorrow for them and their friends and family. I am not a big fan of riding motorcycles as the risk is not worth the reward to me, but I do understand their appeal to others. Life is is all about its measured risks and how we enjoy being challenged, to either conquer or to be conquered, and hopefully the first. Joe found his pleasure in riding and he was many things, but chief among them was that he was a very nice fellow. He and his new wife, now a tragically young widow, both were/are well liked by all. Tragedy wears many faces and this is one is very saddening to many. 

There is a wise saying, however, which goes, to “Be here, now”. Not to put the horrible news in denial mode, rather, it is best to move to this moment of our being here and why. For all of our married years we have made a retreat in the summer to either the mountains or to Maine, usually in the doldrums of August, the month of my birthday, to escape the accumulated oppression of the heat of the south. Once again we are in the mountains, at a place we first encountered back in our college days, totally by chance having stumbled upon it. Later we visited again, the place under new ownership and remodeled, but still the magic of the vista and the space remains the charm. The lodge is old and framed with huge dark beams, the walls paneled with honey colored pine, and the patios are paved with flat sandstone. The walls are lined with books of all descriptions and the four top tables are home to chess boards and domino games. The overstuffed furniture is well worn and comfortable and let one have good excuse to sit and ponder the view from the huge windowed wall facing the mountains beyond, and to remember what is like to breathe, and to relax.

There is so much stress involved in leaving the farm, the horses, the dogs, trying to tie up details that hopefully will hold until we return. It is very hard to leave and to let go. But once, in the car, it is like being pushed along like a leaf in a stream, with no real rudder of the direction or control over the events that may or may not happen. To go on a quest, an adventure not knowing the outcome, to hopefully drift peacefully along to leave the daily grind behind and to simply be surprised. If it works, it restores one’s soul, at least, for a while.

A daily routine begins here with breakfast, then its on to Mark teaching his students until their eyes glaze with dumfounding information over load. He eventually releases them to go and practice what they have heard and we generally eat our lunch and plan the afternoon activity. Last year’s encounter with the hornets have ruled out the idea of wandering in search of waterfalls down in remote canyons and so water related things have been the plan to pursue. 

Yesterday we drove a short way to a lovely blue lake where we borrowed a canoe and two of our group chose paddle boards. Neither of us had tried to do the paddle board thing but it looked intriguing enough for an effort to learn it, and so Mark and our friend Ellen went first. Paddle board is supposedly the new thing in water sports but it looks fairly benign to me. I had only seen it done once and that was in the early morning down at the beach and the person was moving at a snail pace, in a mediative state, no adrenalin pumping there. It consists of a person standing on what looks like a surf board and paddling along with a long paddle. The point to me is unclear, and perhaps as one gets better at it, it may get more adventurous and enjoyable.   

The learning curve was steep as guessed. One starts off on your knees, searching for the balance point and the most stable spot on the board. Then carefully one stands up. At first both of them stood with shaking knees and trembling legs, tight muscles, very tense, creeping along, daring to touch the paddle to the water. Tom and I took the canoe and easily glided along beside them waiting to seeing which would dump into the cool water first. Eventually both stood all the way up and we moved along the undulating shoreline of the mountain lake. My bum shoulder withstood the strain of paddling and I found it fun to dip into the water and to pull hard, something I had not been able to do in a long time. It felt good.

Back at the lodge, cocktail hour was followed by a wonderful dinner, which was followed by our usual domino match with our friends Ellen and Tom. This has been an ongoing tradition for several years and Tom has managed to redeem himself after his initial game with us with a perfect score of zero points. He won last night, thoroughly. Tonight we shall see if his luck holds or if the victory will move on to another. We take our game very seriously.

I suspect the students in the class on the deck are getting pretty bewildered by now and soon Mark will let them go stumble about using their newly learned settings and armed with new ideas about composition, perhaps they will capture what they want to see in their new images. After I finish this post I think I will sketch for a while, maybe paint. Lunch will follow at some point and then the lazy pondering of potential adventure for the afternoon will be tossed about. My shoulders are looser and my attitude is improving, and time is beginning to slow down, and that, is the reason to be here, now.