Too Far from the Tree

I recently got into a text discussion with a friend about apples. He lives in Washington State, and he thumped his chest a bit about the many varieties available there. Recently I was in the grocery store and realized we have a fair number of varieties here in the East Coast as well.

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I never really thought about it where I live in Connecticut. I buy apples but, for some reason, I think I mostly buy them in the fall. I always pick up a paper tote bag of Macintosh or Macouns near the door of my local grocery store. Of course, we eat them year round, so I don’t know why it feels like I only buy them in the fall.

At our house in Massachusetts when I was growing up, we had a few apple trees. They were evenly spaced in two rows, three on one side, five on the other. I never knew any of the varieties, but some years they were quite prolific, and we needed to pick them up in buckets lest the fruit rot on the ground. This of course was the absolute worst chore, and our folks used to encourage us to make a game of it, standing back from the buckets and tossing the apples from where we stood. Ooh, look I made a shot—needless to say it didn’t work. It’s funny, I think it would seem fun today.

We never sprayed the apples with pesticides to keep the bugs and worms out of them, or otherwise encouraged them to grow. They just did, year after year. When I go home now, those trees that once seemed enormous to me, or those that remain, anyway, now seem stunted and gnarled.

One tree we had by the kitchen door was a crab apple. The fruit were small, bright green, and each one hard as a golf ball. Some years that tree was prolific enough that the fruit would fall so thick on the ground you couldn’t put your foot down without stepping on one or two. They were brutal if you happened to be barefoot, though probably a bit better than the wormy, brown, and better-camouflaged specimens beneath the other trees, which would smear beneath a footstep, or could even make you slip chasing a fly ball in the wiffle ball game.

The crab apples were the best choice should you get in an apple fight, an unavoidable eventuality in a family with three boys in a neighborhood with plenty of kids around. I remember hiding behind the tree farthest from the crab apple as my older brother waited me out. I broke for the corner of the fence by the woods, and, as I ran directly away, he drilled me right between the shoulder blades.

Occasionally I would find an apple on the ground that had just fallen (usually not during an apple-pick-up session, since I could honestly say during those—and probably often did, vociferously—that if I never saw an apple again, I would be a much happier person) or actually reach up and pick one that looked, well, palatable. I would give it a polish on the belly of my T-shirt, and take a bite. The apples that we found in this condition were invariably rock hard. Also the texture was terrible, almost unchewable in its graininess. The flavor was acidic, not a hint of sweetness. Did I mention the skin was like leather? Usually I would end up spitting out the single tiny bite, since these four attributes conspired to make me resolve never to try one again. Until next time.

There was one exception to the apple trees in our little orchard though. At the very front of the property, last in the longer row of apple of trees (or first if you didn’t live the majority of your life in the backyard, as I did) was a pear tree.

The pear tree was different. For one, the fruit was not as common as the apples most years. I have no idea what variety they were, but in my mind they were brown-skinned like a Bosc (which I confuse with an Anjou to this day). Also the branches were quite high up the tree as I recall, so we generally couldn’t get to the pears before they fell to rot in the grass. And when they did sit in the grass and rot, they attracted yellowjackets at a far greater rate. All the fruit would do this, depending on the weather and if one of my brothers or, more likely, I mowed the lawn without picking up some of the fruit, instead chopping into the perfect consistency to bait the stinging insects.

And while I didn’t always like to eat apples as a boy, I have always loved pears. But now I love them all.

Too Far from the Tree

No Answer Is Good Enough

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Strange days these.

I’ve been meaning to write a blog lately but all my topics seem to be “evergreen,” which in real editors’ parlance mean the topics are not urgent enough, and they never get written at all. Maybe there’s something to this.

I think about people who have changed my life. And then I think how they have chosen to change their own lives. And then I feel fairly haunted.

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I wrote a dreadful poem once about Kate Spade’s designs. My wife actually made fun of me for a while. Very superficial and stupid. She’s done so much more than I ever will. In light of my self-centeredness, I never even thought to regret it until now.

What is this grip that takes hold? Does life really become so untenable? I guess it must for them (and who knows what anyone really thinks), but I can’t imagine. And there are times when I get sad myself. Saying, like what the hell’s the damn point? But to this degree, nah…

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Bad lesson for my daughter, first of all. Without hope where are any of us?

And, I’ve thought about it. In short, I’m too interested to see how it turns out here. No matter how hard it gets.

Bad days, they end. Given the chance.

It can always get better. Until this is the response. Then there’s no opportunity.

And to those who say Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade, or anyone else who makes this final choice, to those who say they’re in a better place, I would answer: Please prove it.

No Answer Is Good Enough

Dreaming of Trees

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The sky darkened to the Southeast…

The wind had picked up. I shut the lights and peered out the back window, my night vision returning. The night sky had darkened to the Southeast, a haze of low, black clouds bearing down. I turned away, thinking as I climbed the stairs to bed that maybe it was a trick of the eye, with the streetlights from the the Southwest creating the effect. That it was night creeping in.

The lights of our homes do that, don’t they? When the darkness descends, they hold the outer world at bay. Much like the fireplace, the hearth at the center of the circle.

That’s why I like the wind so much — it intrudes with its sound and feel, particularly when the windows of our old house rattle as the pressure ratchets up, then drops. Reminding us it’s all out there.

Lately though, the maples around our old house have been reminding us their own way. A couple of years ago my brother and his family came for an afternoon’s visit before driving to Vermont. One of our trees dropped a 3-inch-diameter limb on his parked car shattering the back window into tempered-glass grapenuts. His family left in a rental, and he stuck around a night to deal with getting the window replaced the next day.

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Maples…. and a spruce.

Just this past winter, in early March, we had a heavy wet snow here accompanied by some high winds. One of our trees dropped a large limb in my back neighbor’s yard, another dropped one on our patio, managing to block the driveway in the process.

Time to do some trimming. A few weeks later, we had an arborist come in for a look, to see what needed doing. I asked him if the big red maple at the back of the property may be saved. He answered me before I even finished: No it’s a hazard, he said. It’s got to go.

I’ve had vivid dreams lately and some I even remember when I wake up, which has become less common as I’ve gotten older. More than anything this sense of a dream I can’t recall reminds me of the present-ness of real life, how we’re all in the now, a circle of light from which the past slips.

This morning I woke from a dream, deep in the richness of feelings it evoked in me. Unfortunate since the feelings were bad. Several insecurities were there, making a day of it, and manifested in shadows that looked like people I’ve known, in situations too bizarre to be real, too real to be discounted.

I awakened and began to retreat into myself before I even sat up, then realized the dream hadn’t actually happened, and what a gift of perspective. Though I had to take some stock, and make sure the limb hadn’t dropped closer than I thought.

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Grackles come calling…

One morning recently, the tree crew showed up, and the tree came down. In one day it was there, and then it was gone. As piece after piece fell to the chainsaw, we could see the tree was rotten in key spots, though it was a lot more solid in places we hadn’t expected it to be. The crew chipped most of the wood, and hauled away the logs. But when they were gone, we found they left one solid, round fireplace-length limb section in the driveway.

The morning the tree crew came I had been up early, to remove some parts of our fence to give access to the tree. When I finished the light was coming up and I took some photos of the tree, top to bottom, crouching to get it in frame. A death mask. I had suddenly realized the tree would soon pass out of the circle of light, and live only in our memory.

It’s important to remember the rot. And it’s worth keeping a solid piece or two, to help keep the darkness at bay.

 

Dreaming of Trees

Independence Day

Much has transpired since my last post here, and the story just gets better. Our family has a boat. 

But it isn’t mine. Even better, it’s my daughter’s: an Optimist sailing dinghy, which we gave her two Christmases ago. I’m happy to report that Loblolly floats. (This is the name Zuzu had chosen shortly after she got her, and unbidden by her parents. It’s a paean to the beautiful stretch of beach on the backside of Anegada.)

So now Zuzu is sailing her own boat, erasing her own doubt, overcoming her nerves, enjoying the feeling of trying to do things for herself that she’s never done before.

There’s a theme here, which we’re continuing from the winter where Zuzu’s downhill skiing, and our effort level at bringing her along and growing her skills, and it’s been a revelation. Like with skiing at her level, learning and growing is a marathon rather than a sprint. More is accomplished from regular small bites than a once-a-year, daylong banquet. 

Of course all the effort has been interspersed with learning from other sources and it is not a bad idea, since I don’t consider myself expert at teaching or being up on the latest techniques (to wit, the pizza and French fry techniques for young skiers. Too distracting! But snack-bar revenues may be the savior of the ski industry).

Still I’m not fobbing her off completely on any instructors. There’s certainly a cool feeling when you see some aspect of her technique that you know comes from you, something you helped instill.

The proper care of a boat is definitely something she’s learning from me. Loblolly was a little rough, a tough little Winner (that’s the Dutch builder) who has had quite a variety of owners who made the most of her rugged construction. She’s the only one in the dock racks with varnished wooden daggerboard and rudder (all the others have composite, plastic rudders–where’s the fun in that?), and Zuzu says she sails just fine, and she would know since she was on the boat with a classmate–not an instructor–on just the third day. It was pretty windy and choppy. There were whitecaps.

This summer is just getting better and better. Now about my boat….

Independence Day

Thoughts on Drowning and Other Revelations

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Recently the image of a drowned three-year-old boy on a Turkish beach has awakened something in the world that story after story depicting the horrors of the migrant crisis had so far failed to do. I think the desperation of how bad it is, that’s the point. And the power of that photo to me is rooted in the universal fear of water that’s over our heads that none of us ever gets over.

This story has resonated with me. I don’t wish to downplay the situation there and I think there’s much to be done to resolve it. Hopefully seeing a child done in by the water should be a wake-up call to the world.

While I don’t wish to compare our daughter to that boy in the tragic photograph, I have a certain perspective as a parent: Zuzu is advancing in leaps and bounds in her aquatic education. She’s learning to swim and to be confident around the water. And while I don’t want her to be afraid of the water, I do want her to have a healthy respect for the sea and its unforgiving nature.

I’ll never forget jumping from a dock for a swimming test at a summer camp. Into ten feet of water. I took a couple of halfhearted strokes WHERE WAS THE BOTTOM?!? and proceeded to swallow what felt like a gallon of lake water. A counselor on the dock pushed the end of a bamboo pole toward me to grab and as my wide eyes (I imagine) watched him, the water’s surface closed over my head. The water surrounded me with its cold completely. I’ll never forget that moment, though I don’t think I’ve ever shared that with anyone before.

Now when Zuzu swims I generally swim with her, always ready to crack the joke I learned from Chet Roche. Chester was my folks’ friend and neighbor who was so generous with his swimming pool when I was growing up. He and his wife BJ would have us up to the top of the hill where we lived to swim and dive and use their slide (really probably all ill-advised by the insurance underwriters who seemingly control so much now). At any rate, whenever my older brother Matt or I would surface from his pool coughing and hacking from inhaling a lungful of water, Chet would laugh and say, “Don’t drink my water! That’s expensive pool water!” And it always struck me as funny, because here I was trying to catch my breath and coughing or watching my brother’s face turn a shade of pale blue-gray as he did the same, and Chet—an adult, mind you—was joking around.

I try to do the same to my daughter. Don’t drink the whole ocean, I say. We won’t have anything left to swim in. If you’re thirsty, just ask, we’ll get you a drink. Her eyes fix on me as I say this, as she hacks and tries to catch her breath. Does she get it?

I do. I now understand how it works: Acknowledge her plight but also make light of it. And while it worked to some degree for me, I hope it works much better on her.

That’s what this boat is to me. A way to face up to this and everything else. And show her how to do that too.

Thoughts on Drowning and Other Revelations

Firsts and Bests

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My wife Erica and I were able to confirm a few key things about our daughter and boats. You see, I got an assignment for the magazine to take a crewed charter with my family in the British Virgin Islands with a company called The Moorings. If you’ve never been to the BVI, trust me when I tell you it is truly a beautiful place and a cruisers’ paradise. I don’t think I could really lay out the islands in a more pleasing array, were I given the chance to reach down from Olympus like some color-obsessed deity and place the landmasses in water that ranged from cobalt to cerulean to palest azure. The distances we ran each day gave us just enough boat time to cleanse our palates to appreciate the next spectacular stop. The coves our skipper David Blacklock and first mate/cook Deb Mahan put us in were a terrific combination of views (both above and below the water) and protection (we needed to find the lee of the islands since a couple of tropical storms were playing cat and mouse with each other—and us).

Taking a crewed charter makes it easy on parents too, since we found we can focus on time together and leave the details to the experts. Turns out our daughter Zuzu is great on a boat, and managed to fashion a distilled version of her lubberly life (a few toys, a few new books to read) that worked very well on board. She’s shown a tendency toward motion sickness in the past but she got acclimated well and quickly on our cruise, with a bit of help in the form of carefully considered doses of Dramamine for long or rough passages.

As we ran about an hour to Anegada, an open-water run that we expected would have a bit of a roll thanks to a storm-pushed swell, Erica sat with Zuzu in a shady spot with a fresh breeze and talked as Anegada rose from the haze of the horizon—asking imaginative questions that provided the distraction that did the trick. It’s not easy to explain but watching them talk, the wind drowning out the words, I was as proud of my family as I could be: Watching them because I was concerned about how Zuzu was feeling (Erica’s sea legs put us all to shame), and when our daughter’s face broke into a smiling giggle I knew she felt fine.

We all swam off the boat, Zuzu always in her life jacket as she’s a very new swimmer, and of course we saw a bunch of marine life around. At one point I felt a tingle in the middle of my back, and as it heated up a bit I moved Zuzu toward the ladder. Too late. Some sort of jellyfish fry or an errant cnidocyte got her on the leg. She said she thought she too had been stung, and climbed the ladder, with me right behind her. Deb got her a white vinegar compress as we watched tiny welts rise on her leg. But no tears, and, most importantly, no fear the next time we had an opportunity to jump in.

In fact Zuzu may have indicated some marine-biologist tendencies as she sketched fish from a snorkeling guidebook the crew had on board. Good times and more to share soon.

Firsts and Bests