Friday, February 26, 2010

Tincture of Green, Final Installment, Finally...

February won’t let go. The air feels like witch hazel...
My ice skates were hand-me-downs. The white patent leather was cracked and hard, the laces were mismatched and forever coming undone. The blades were dull. The oldest daughter of the barrel-chested policeman, one of my surrogate fathers, Mac, gave them to me. I remember her balancing on piled up things in their garage to pull them down for me. We sat in her cold driveway on Evergreen Avenue and decided that the skates would suffice. She was babysitting me that day and wanted to go skating on the pond behind the grave yard. The boys were out there playing hockey and she wanted to be near the boys and her friends. It took two or three pairs of socks to make those skates fit. Her skates were new and they had blue pom-poms, so feminine, so pure white that they made the snow look gray.

My grandmother bought white shoe polish for the old skates. It smelled of magic markers and glue and had a three-color drawing of a nurse on the label. Her white shoes gave off little sparks—Sanitary! Antiseptic! All with a slightly sexy bedside manner! I applied the white polish to my skates, hopeful that it would miraculously wipe away their weary appearance. Instead, they looked like a child with makeup her face, paint outside of the lines, whorishly trodden.

When I no longer needed a babysitter or more than one pair of socks to make the skates fit, Anita and I would hike through the snow-filled woods that stretched from her house on Spruce Wood Lane to the mill pond on Sturges Highway. We’d cut through a pasture with some cold horses that stood pawing at the snow, looking for one blade of grass. Anita and I would pause to eye the old horses and then with our skates, laces tied together, and hung over our thirteen-year-old shoulders, we'd keep going.

The mill pond was crowded with skaters on Saturdays, its edges strewn with coats and shoes. Big boys in black hockey skates, bumping and running and kicking up shaved ice as they turned and skidded on their blades. The clack of hockey sticks and the puck, black like the bare trees skittering and answering the belt of the sticks with a satisfying POCK! The girls—the pretty older girls with long straight blonde hair up up up in high pony tails, wearing their fair isle sweaters, skating precisely and close to the edge of the hockey game...these girls smelled of shampoo and baby oil and the boys kept one eye on them and one eye on the southern edge of the pond that dropped off into a frozen water fall...the grist mill wheel gone years ago. Every year, a boy would go over those falls and come to school the following week in crutches or with a mess of cuts on his face. The cold that rose up from the ice was like no other cold—our blades rang against the hard uneven pond, the sound of metal slicing the ice, and it rattled up into the soles of your feet.

Anita and I would hold on to each other, she was taller than me and a better skater, maybe because she skied, maybe because she was Swedish. Whatever the reason, she excelled and I only endeavored to stay upright. The pretty girls with their Christmas scarves would skate by and I would see the flash of high color on a cheek or a lower lip, blood at the surface of cold skin. I felt like a different species from them, never equal, never as though I would grow into one of them, and somehow be allowed to skate on the edges of the hockey game.

Anita and I would skate away from the road and the hockey game and follow the frozen pond to a creek that led in to the woods, where in the summer we rode our horses. The valley of winter so cold that it froze the babbling creek like a photograph and we would skip and walk on our blades, digging them into the ice like crampons. We'd go way way back into these woods where the fiddle head ferns slept under the snow and the maple trees remembered the Pequot. We'd go as far as we could, way past the point of feeling in our feet, to a place where we couldn’t hear the boys playing hockey anymore. Something would turn us back again though, the cawing of a crow, the sight of someone’s house through the woods, the lowering of the winter sun.

There was hill on Bayberry Lane—if you walked through the gap in the stone wall behind my house and across a yellow grass field and past an old and very deep well, that seemed more like a mine shaft, surrounded by old hardwood trees, you would come to the base of that hill. There was a grand home at the top of the hill, grand by the standards of old Westport, owned by the Pabst Blue Ribbon family. There was a trail up that hill on its western-most side, the place where it faded into the woods; old rocky woods that I rode every inch of with my ponies.

Before Mrs. Hitz banned me from her son Edward, I would go to Edward’s house on snow days and bang on his front door. Mrs. Hitz would come to the door and stare out at the snow and then at me, "Can Edward come sledding with me?" Anita walked up from her house down the road to join us and we would fill buckets with water, carry them through the gap in the stone wall, across the wide snowy field with the yellow wheat grass poking up here and there and then, like a small army, we would steel ourselves up to the top of the hill, where we would carefully dump the buckets of water down a path that we had carved with sticks. The water took the soft top off the snow and froze perfectly and dangerously smooth. And as it hardened, we'd make our way back down the hill, making rules as we went...“Only walk on this side of the track!” “No sleds today! Only gliders!” When we reached the bottom of the great hill, we built snow jumps, one to hit at the very base of the hill and then another a few yards from that. Maximum speed, maximum height, maximum danger. We piled snow high after the second jump, a soft landing spot, foooof!

Edward had the gliders...I had two Flexible Flyers, which had been ruled off the course that day; Anita had a short toboggan, painted the colors of a Mohican canoe in an illustration by N.C. Wyeth. The toboggan was always good for a test run and the three of us fit on it quite snugly. The first run never led to the jumps, the jumps were saved for later, for the gliders. What were the gliders? They were nothing but sheets of some flexible blue plastic polymer with a cheap little handle. Gliders rolled up like sleeping bags and while they didn’t look like much, they went like stink down our icy course.

The toboggan test run went great; the ice was smooth and fast, we had control all the way to the bottom. We probably ran the toboggan down the hill a few more times before we decided to hit it on the gliders. The picked me to run the glider down first and this time the snow jumps at the bottom were required. The toboggan had packed down the course and we had even trekked back to my house for more water to make the course even slicker.

How do I tell you how big that hill was? This isn’t just me a remembering a hill that seemed big to kids...this was a stupendous hill. Everyone knew the hill on Bayberry Lane 'cause this hill extended out to the road and many a car had not made it down that hill. We would sled on the hill, but I was actually afraid to ride my bicycle down the paved part of the hill...a friend’s brother raced his bike down that hill and he came off the top so fast that he went airborne and crashed into the woods near the Pabst’s stone wall. He lost two teeth and broke his shoulder. Yeah, it was a big hill. No one could get up that hill when it snowed...you would hear the cars spinning their wheels and gunning their engines and then they retreated and went back to Long Lots Road to take a longer route around Bayberry Lane.

I can tell you that I used to gallop my pony up that hill, sometimes in the dark on hot summer nights...woo woo woo, bareback, gripping onto his mane. I taught him to charge up that hill using all his hind quarters to make it as dangerous and thrilling a ride as possible. Sometimes I stood him at the bottom of the hill, held him there, and kicked his sides without letting him go, and this loaded him like a gun. Finally I would turn him loose and we would bullet up that hill like the Lone Ranger was on our tails. Yeah, that hill was big and it encouraged all sorts of bad behavior.

So I remember sitting at the top of the hill, Anita and Edward standing midway down the hill, off to the side, like referees. The thing about those gliders was there was really nothing to them, they could get away from you and unlike my Flexible Flyer, which I was expert at steering, you couldn’t steer the glider and you had no protection from the surface below it, you felt every jarring bump on the way down. I stared down the hill, and just the way I would hold my pony to fire him up at the bottom of the hill, I held the glider at the top for a moment to seize some sort of extra energy and I let it fly with a deadly line on those jumps at the bottom. But something went terribly wrong midway down, that damn glider spun and now I was traveling at the speed of light down the hill backwards and there was no bailing out. I could see Anita and Edward standing at their stations, their pink cold cheeks stretched as they hollered to me. But there was nothing I could do and I went up and over the first mogul, the gravity filling up my stomach and DOWN I came, hard, legs akimbo and like being pulled under by a wave at the beach, and then finding the relief of the surface again, you get that one gulp of air before the second wave comes to take you down—I approached the second jumped without any sense of it at all and I went up it, became airborne and flew right over the soft landing spot we had made and came down in a mass of winter briars. I remember hitting my head and the waking up to see Anita and Edward wrestling me by my legs out of the briars. Stars were all around me, I had never gone so fast in all my life, not even when my pony ran away with me on Long Lots Road, clackity clackity clackity...his steel shoes on the pavement.

I lay in the snow and looked up at Anita and Edward, “That was soooooo coooooooool!” “You were waaaaaaay up in the air!!!!!!!” “Do it again!!!!!!!!!”

“Okay, yeah! I’ll do it again!”

And I did, then we all did it, over and over and over—until it was dark and my grandmother appeared in the yellow glow just beyond our house, like a little snow queen, she called from the gap in the stone wall and we heeded her pleas to come inside.

The French Girl

On my way to lunch with a not-so-old friend the other day, walking up King Street, I passed a table of four biker dudes. They were drinking tall coffees and enjoying the new rare thing around these parts—sun. The window of Cup a’ Joe’s seemed to be full of light and the light toyed with my eyes momentarily as it bounced off the bikers and came to a landing on their four preposterous chrome and steel horses, who stood tied and eating the air. The bikers shared the same uniform—bandanas and black leather, massive forearms tattooed in bruised colors and hard aged faces. Their words drifted toward me as I walked the sidewalk...

“It was the French girl.”

“That girl is NOT French!”

“Yes she is! She’s got the accent and everything!”

I was just past them and “everything” got caught in my ear...what’s everything? For that matter, what’s French everything?

I was imagining everything as I passed the pharmacy window that is plastered with homemade ads...Lost Dog...Hay for Sale...free puppies...and I heard one more thing:

“I’ve never seen THAT one before!”

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Semi-colons, Commas, and Bears! Oh My!

I spent the weekend concerned with punctuation and then on Monday morning, I read the opening paragraph of The Bear from Ivan Turgenev's A Sportsman's Notebook:

"One evening I was returning alone from shooting in my racing drozhky. I was still eight versts from home; my good trotting–mare was going smartly along the dusty road, snorting and fidgeting her ears from time to time; my tired dog maintained a position within a pace of the rear wheels, as if fastened to them. A thunderstorm was approaching. Ahead of me a huge lilac-coloured storm-cloud slowly rose from behind a forest; long grey clouds floated above me and towards me; there was anxious stir and murmur among the willows. The stifling heat suddenly gave way to a moist chill; swiftly the shadows gathered. I flicked the horse with the reins, went down into a ravine, crossed a dry stream-bed, completely overgrown with willow-bushes, climbed a hill and entered a forest. Ahead of me the road wound between thick clumps of hazel, already plunged in darkness; I made progress with difficulty. THe drozhky jolted over the hard roots of hundred-year-old oaks and limes, which kept on intersecting the deep ruts left by cartwheels; my mare began to stumble. All of the sudden, high above me, a strong wind whistled, the trees swayed violently, heavy raindrops splashed and smacked sharply on the leaves, lightning flashed, and the storm burst. Rain fell in the rivers. I drove on at a walk, and was soon compelled to stop: my mare was stuck, and I could see not an inch ahead of me. Somehow or other I found shelter under a spreading bush. Huddled together, with my face covered, I was patiently awaiting the end of the downpour, when, suddenly, in a flash of lightning, I thought I saw a tall figure in the road. I began staring that way—and the figure started right up out of the ground beside my drozhky."

Monday, February 22, 2010

Sunset Boulevard



“I am big—its the pictures that got small!”
Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard

The best thing about Sunset Boulevard is that it's told by a dead man. The second best thing about it? Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond is the original Cougar...she’s got the money, the looks (granted she’s bizarre, but her arms, hips, and jaw line are to die for!), and she’s got Bill Holden right where she wants him...he's down and desperate.

Sunset Boulevard is a movie about letting go: letting go of your youth, letting go of your ambitions, letting go of the past, letting go of an object of desire and for Norma, its about letting go of your mind. I don’t think there is a soul in this movie who is capable of letting go...Norma can’t let go of Joe, Joe can’t let go of Betty, Max can’t let go of Norma! Well, Norma lets go of her sanity, but that is all so that she doesn’t have to let go of her youth, her sex appeal, her ambitions, her power, her fame and yes, by holding on to all that, she’s got this iron grip on Bill Holden’s character Joe. Norma's fantasy is so nuclear that she’s got everyone wrapped nearly as tight as those contraptions she uses to keep her face from falling while she sleeps.

Midway through the story we learn that Norma Desmond is planning her big screen comeback as Salome, to be directed by Cecil B. Demille, who plays himself brilliantly in the film. Salome is the ultimate female seductress, but Norma is more like Oscar Wilde’s depiction of the daughter of Herodias as a necrophiliac. Her insane vision is like Method Acting gone native—and her cohorts, Max and Joe, are her enablers. Max played by Eric von Stroheim is the real surprise here...you think poor Bill Holden's got it bad—his addiction to her money and inability to fend off her suicidal manipulations, but then comes Max’s apocolyptic confession that he was not only her movie director when silent movies were king, but he was her fu@*#&! first husband! And now he’s her fu@*#&! butler! This oddly redeems Joe and suddenly he and Max are just Norma's little playthings, her victims...like half dead mice between the paws of a house cat.

It hit me when I was watching Sunset Boulevard tonight, and let me tell you this is not the first time I have watched it because its one of my favorites, ANYway, it dawned on me that it shares just the slightest connection to Breakfast At Tiffany’s -- why is there an apostrophe in Tiffany’s in that title? Can someone tell me? Cookie to the reader who tells me this. But you will recall that Breakfast at Tiffany’s also depicts a young handsome on-the-skids writer named Paul Varjak played by George Peppard, who is kept quite stylishly by Cougar-extraordinaire Patricia Neal's Mrs. Failenson. What is it about starving young men writers that they can attract older female patrons? Peppard’s Paul has to actually sleep with Mrs. Failenson, but Bill Holden’s Joe seems to avoid the bedding of Norma Desmond altogether. And they both have younger women waiting in the wings, women who cannot fiscally support them -- Peppard has Holly Golightly and Holden has Betty. As a middle-aged chick, I am finding it hard to fight off the implications of these hard-faced controlling old bitches and these enterprising young male writers, hmmmm.

But Peppard gets off easy in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—Mrs. Failenson still has her mental faculties and an enormously practical tool box filled with cash and social aplomb. She can see when she is licked by the younger, more attractive Holly. She simply pays him off and walks away. But Bill Holden’s Joe is doomed. Norma is so far gone that the idea of Joe leaving her is preposterous. She shoots him down like a coyote, who only moments before stole hens from her hen house. And as if she hasn't already lost her mind, her realization that she’s killed Joe seems to cut her loose like an astronaut on a space walk gone bad...but that’s another movie isn’t it?

Paperback Writer...

It took me years to write, will you take a look?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sandy, Silver, and Soldier

My mother on her pony Silver gets her photo-op
with a U.S. soldier in 1941.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Luna



her third quarter phase...

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Thursdays With Mario

‘There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man." Winston Churchill

Everyone knew the day Mario arrived at the barn that it was something rare and special. We have worked with a number of extraordinary people, but Mario touched us with his enormous smile and joy on that first Thursday last spring. When his interpreter Sorelis and caregiver Kim pushed Mario’s wheelchair up close to Dooley, a 14 hand Haflinger, who may be one of the most talented therapy horses any of us has known, Mario put his hand on the horse’s soft muzzle and the horse responded by quietly lowering his head and there was an instant connection. Mario’s expression was one of a man who had somehow been liberated and it washed over us like soft summer rain -- this was the beginning of a wonderful journey for Mario and for us.

I’ll let you in on my secret, something that I have in common with other horse people. Horses have the power to fix you. They can fix your mind and they can fix your body. Sure, they can wrack you up too, but that’s another story, for another day. When I ride, and I have been riding since before I could talk, a transformation takes place -- my mind slows way down, time stretches out and becomes so thin, like a fine piece of filament, that I can hardly feel the pressure of it. There is no other moment, except that moment -- the moment of walking out into a field, the moment of trotting down a trail in the forest, the moment of crossing a river, the moment a herd of deer appears in the distance or witnessing a hawk’s shadow pass over us...my horse and I content in our complete solidarity. To say that it is a Meditation is an understatement. And what riding does for me physically is equally as powerful. I can arrive at the barn stiff. sore, my back aching, my joints not nearly as loose as they should be -- in fact, if I go several days without riding, my body falls into disrepair. But put me on my horse for a couple of hours or for even as little as thirty minutes and everything is right again, as though I’d visited a shrink, a massage therapist and a chiropractor all in one afternoon.

Years ago, I went to a new doctor for a check up. She asked me what I did for exercise. I replied that I walked my dogs and rode my horse. She craned her neck and with that tone that must be taught in a required class in medical school, she said to me, ”Riding horses is not exercise.“ It was all I could do not to laugh in her face, ”Have you ever ridden a horse?“ I asked and of course, her answer was no, to which I quipped, ”Well, then, I suggest you ride a horse, then come back and tell me its not exercise.“

In order to sit in the saddle and move with a horse, even at a slow paced walk, one must use their core, their legs, and their balance. As the pace is picked up, so is the exertion level -- its not like sitting in a chair that is simply rolling forward. Riding forces every part of your body to work and move in a disciplined and strengthening manner, and this is especially true of your hips and your back -- remember this: the motion of the horse beneath you can duplicate the action of walking -- as his shoulders move, your shoulders move, as his hips move, your hips move -- his muscle rhythm generates a muscle rhythm for you.

So if riding can make an able bodied person like myself feel so fixed, so energized, so aligned, and so relaxed, imagine what it can do for someone who’s body and mind are afflicted. This is the philosophy and science behind a thing called hippotherapy.

Most every Thursday, you can find me volunteering at the N.C. Therapeutic Riding Center. I have been privileged to work with the center for close to five years now. And before working with them I worked with Pegasus Therapeutic Riding, one of the oldest therapeutic riding organizations in the country, located in Connecticut. I feel so fortunate to work with a group of people who share the idea that horses can fix people...physical therapists, therapeutic riding instructors, and volunteers like me, who can use their horse skills to help people. But none of us would be able to do our job if it were not for the horses. Therapy horses are uniquely equipped to carry people who require the utmost of care. These horses must be tuned in to their work and tuned out to the happenings of the world around them, what we in the horse world call Bomb Proof. A quiet disposition must be accompanied by something even greater though, an ability to connect with the special cargo they are carrying, and I think I have been witness to that quality in the little horse named Dooley.

Mario is just one of the riders I have had the luck to work with, but I think he certainly stands out as my favorite. I have enjoyed working with autistic children and children with various disorders such as Cerebral Palsy, Down’s Syndrome and Angelman’s. When I was first asked to work with adults, specifically head-injured adults, I was reluctant. There was something scary about working with men, who were close to my age, middle aged, that had suffered some serious trauma that rendered them almost helpless. Working with children was less threatening to me, because their diagnoses couldn’t touch me personally, I didn’t have to concern myself with developing their disorders. But you see, to be with grown people, who once had normal everyday lives, who worked, and were married, and perhaps rode horses, this was something that I didn’t think I could deal with emotionally. None of us want to think about how our lives could change in an instant -- a car accident, falling off one’s horse, a near fatal mistake with a chain saw, a drug reaction, or, as in Mario’s case, a near fatal work related injury. Mario, who is close to forty years old, was once a strong and independent man who hailed from South America and, as far as we know, rode horses when he was young. Now he is dependent on others to care for him and speak for him, and a wheel chair is his only mode of transportation.

It takes at least six of us to help Mario ride:

1) Dooley, the horse
2) Mary Beth, the physical therapist
3) Sorelis, Mario’s interpreter
4) Kim, Mario’s caregiver
5) Mollie and Peg, volunteers and sidewalkers
6) Me, volunteer and horse handler

On that first sunny Thursday, we brought Dooley out to meet Mario -- and Sorelis told us as Mario and Dooley conversed in a language all their own, that mind-melding that can occur between an animal and a person, that she had never seen Mario smile like that. That Mario tended to brood and sulk, but the sight of Dooley was an instant mood changer for Mario. And this was before we even put him in the saddle. That first day, like all the Thursdays to come afterward, Kim rolled Mario’s wheelchair up a special ramp that we have in the indoor ring. There is a platform at the top of the ramp. This puts Mario and his helpers, including our leader, physical therapist, Mary Beth up over Dooley’s back, so essentially Mario can be lowered into the saddle. So its my job to bring Dooley quietly and slowly up to the ramp, placing his flank and shoulder as close to the ramp as possible, and then Mollie stands on the ”off-side“ of Dooley to be there as Mario is put in the saddle...Mollie’s job is critical to keep Mario steady and from falling. So then the transfer begins. I stand at Dooley’s head and ask him to be perfectly still, as Mary Beth lifts Mario out of his wheel chair and sits him in the saddle with his back facing Mollie. Then Mary Beth lifts Mario’s right leg as she slowly turns him so that he’s facing forwards in the saddle, and his right leg swings over Dooley’s neck, so that now Mario is sitting astride of his pony. Then there is a very slow procession forward, as Mollie supports Mario from the right hand side and Mary Beth walks down the ramp while supporting Mario from the left hand side and me at Dooley’s head steadying his walk. And all the while Sorelis is speaking Spanish to Mario, telling him to breath and relax and to trust us.

Once Mary Beth is level with all of us, and off the ramp, she and Mollie check to make sure Dooley’s girth is tight....a slipping saddle could mean disaster. And then they help Mario stretch his legs, which are very stiff and sometimes shaky, so that he can put his feet in the stirrups. And Sorelis speaks to us in English and Mario in Spanish -- ”are you comfortable?“ Si ”Relax“ Si ”Breathe“ Si ”Sit up tall Mario“ Si -- Mario always begins his ride feeling tense. But never as tense as he was on the first day. His wide smile pinched into a grimace at the moment that we put him in the saddle....Mario was holding his breath and fretting. He was squeezing Dooley’s sides with his heels and as everyone was adjusting this thing and that, I told Sorelis to tell Mario to relax his heels, that squeezing Dooley like that, was telling Dooley to GO...well when Mario heard that Dooley might GO FAST he went into an even more anxious state. So Sorelis looked at me for some kind of help and I looked at Mary Beth and Mary Beth said, ”No, no, Shannon is here to keep Dooley from doing anything bad. Shannon won’t let Dooley go fast. Tell Mario that Shannon is the Queen of Horses and that she will keep him safe!“ and with that Sorelis looked up at Mario and said ”Shannon es la reina de caballos, Mario!“ and Mario exhaled and smiled at me and I smiled at him and his legs relaxed and he was no longer gripping and grimacing.

Since that first day, Mario’s balance and strength have improved such that we can walk Dooley faster than before and Mario needs less and less support from Mollie and Mary Beth at his sides...they keep their hands on his legs and ribs at all times, but they don’t have to hold him upright quite as much anymore. And Mario can stand in the stirrups for long periods of time while we count in Spanish...uno, dos, tres....treinta y cinco...cincuenta....ochenta! Its a triumph really. And our merry band tools around the ring laughing and conducting a somewhat funny Spanish class. Mario’s speech is labored and delayed, but while riding Dooley he can work on not only his body but his cognition. We play memory games with him and ask him questions -- right before Thanksgiving we urged Mario to name all the capital cities of South America -- and he did!

When Mario is done with his ride, Mary Beth helps him dismount to the ground and Kim brings his wheel chair to his side. Once he is safely seated, he can visit with Dooley. Dooley has a habit of wanting to see his rider once they are back on the ground at the end of the session -- its as though he is recognizing their shared experience, he honors them with a glance and a nudge. And Mario always thanks Dooley and playfully takes the rope as if to say, ”He’s mine, I will take him home with me.“

So, you see, its not just a pony ride, its not just an outing, therapeutic riding goes much deeper than that. It is physically and emotionally beneficial to people who need to connect with the physical world that they can be so isolated from because of their afflictions.

I’ll let you in on another secret. My work as a volunteer with this program never fails to leave me full of gratitude and peace. I can arrive at the center with all my thoughts and worries hurtling around in my skull, and then magically, just like when I ride my own horse, I find that helping someone like Mario ride fixes me. And sometimes, sometimes when I am out there alone in the fields and the forests with my horse, in my moment, I sometimes ride for Mario, I tell myself that this gallop or this jump or this river crossing is for Mario, and that way I honor my fortune and my freedom.

Monday, February 8, 2010

A Roundabout Full of Ducks


“Tourists aren’t people, honey. Tourists are tourists!”
Angela Lansbury in Blue Hawaii

We called them Ducks. Why? Because they flocked together in great groups and there was always one Lead Bird, whatever that bird did, all the other birds did too. There was nothing dignified about them, its terrible really, they were fishes out of water, ducks waddling on land -- they were Tourists on Motorbikes. A Duck and his wife could be spotted a good hundred yards away -- sometimes they rode on one bike, sometimes they rode on two. There was the tell tale wobble of the bike, an ungainly and soft swaying, like a child riding his two-wheeler, the training wheels gone for the first time. There’s that anticipation of a fall, but the fall doesn’t come, just a quick sway back UP and then the equilibrium is once again foiled to the opposite side of gravity and then another sway back UP and gravity pulls again from this side. And there you are on your motorbike or in your mini car following and you find yourself gently reeling sway-sway-Up and sway-sway-UP, but of course, you catch yourself and you laugh to yourself and finally you turn down a side street and hope the Ducks make it to their destination.

Another dead giveaway were the bike helmets or as we called them Salad Bowls. These were not the motorcycle helmets we wore, these were the motorbike rental shack helmets -- all white, all one-size-does-not-fit-all -- sort of a bad cross between an old fashioned polo and pith helmet. Ducks wore them in several odd angles, there was the jaunty-to-one-side style or the daring strangle-the-throat-with-yer-chin-strap-back-off-yer-forehead look. Occasionally these two styles were combined in an alarming one-ear-exposed-go-for-broke fashion. And very rarely you might have the pleasure of seeing the-way-down-over-me-eyes-can’t-take-my-hands-off-the-bike-handlebars-to-fix-it mode and when you saw this, it was best to give the bike operator plenty of room for error.

Room for error was something we didn’t have alot of in Bermuda, and especially not on the roads. The roads were narrow, winding, full of blind corners and frequented by lunatic drivers of every sort. There were the taxi drivers, the kids on motorbikes who thought nothing of riding “up de middle”, that is between you and oncoming traffic, yup, right up de center line! And there were the Leaners, folks who rode their motorbikes in a lopsided, ultra-cool, kinda way. One of my favorite motorbike ridin’ styles was the husband or boyfriend up front and his wife, his girly on the back, sitting not astride of the bike, but sideways, with one high heel jammed over the exhaust pipe and the other leg crossed over that supporting leg, pointed out and she could balance there quite nicely Thank You without even holding on to her man AND she could hold a mirror in one hand and apply lipstick with the other!

But the worst thing on the road was the Damn Pink Bus. The Damn Pink Bus was Bermuda’s full sized transit bus. You would think that the roads being small and all of us on the roads driving our mini cars and our motorbikes would warrant some kind of limit on the size of the bus of the Bermuda transit system, but NO, they got some overseas deal on a fleet of full size pink busses, cause nobody else in the world wants a fleet of pink busses, and so you just had to deal with the Damn Pink Bus. If you ever go to Bermuda, do NOT ride the Damn Pink Bus. They encourage tourists to use the bus, but what they don’t tell them is that the busses are used to transport all of Bermuda’s school children, so twice a day, the busses are filled to capacity with Bermudian kids...and don’t let the navy and plaid uniforms fool you. These kids are wild, wild, wild. Every once in a while I would have the pleasure of seeing a Damn Pink Bus whir by me, with arms and legs and what have you coming out the windows, along with this storm of voices....eeeeeeyah....and as the bus passed, I would see two faces pressed against the glass, two white but sunburned faces, unmistakably the countenances of Tourists, wearing their binoculars around their necks, and their gazes outward were filled with a desperate plea, “Somebody please get us off this bus!” and you knew that inside there was total schoolyard bedlam...books and spits balls flying and those two innocent tourists were traumatized forever.

But the really bad thing about the Damn Pink Bus, the reason I named it the Damn Pink Bus was for the simple fact that they tailgated anything and everything in their path. They tailgated mini cars and they tailgated motorbikes -- there you’d be, minding your own business, tootling down the road at a proper speed and then you would feel this Pink Presence upon your ass and you’d turn and there it was, looming huge with its windshield the size of a store front, rocking softly on its air cushioned shock absorbers, silent like a shark about to strike and you had to find a place to pull over and let ‘er by, cause you were holding her up, she had places to be, sights to see, and she had the Queen’s sense of entitlement to the road and well, she was Pink, so get out of the way!

But the Ducks on motorbikes were so unaware of the dangers of Bermuda’s roads. They had never heard of the young boys, who would ride in gangs of two together and speed by a bike and steal a handbag out of the basket. Some were cagey enough to reach into car windows at high speeds and grab whatever was sitting on the passenger side seat and tear off before the driver even knew what happened...I always drove with my purse on the floor of my car or locked inside the kit of my motorbike. No, the Ducks didn’t know about the boys on bikes, nor did they know about Road Rash until the sway-sway-UP failed and they went sway-sway-Down and bare legs met limestone and coral roads. And there were coral walls that hemmed in the roads and sometimes the sway-sway-UP dragged Bermuda shorted flesh against prickly rock.

And then there were the Roundabouts. Just when the Ducks thought they were getting the hang of which side of the road to drive on...KEEP LEFT HONEY, KEEP LEFT! They came upon the Roundabouts and instead of GOING, which is what a Roundabout is for, GOING and YIELDING and FADING into the swirl of cars and motorbikes, the DUCKS routinely stopped and you could see them working out with their hand gestures and their heads....Right Left...Left Right...oh this is my RIght and this is my Left....Clockwise? Counterclockwise? Hmmmm....oh Yes! NOW GO NOW and they would gun the engine and the front wheel of their wobbly-bike would pop upward slightly and Mrs. Duck would lose hold of her Mr. Duck for just a moment and grab her Salad Bowl for fear that it might come completely off her head and hang just by its tether round her sunburned neck and off they would shoot into the Roundabout and THEN they found once they were in there that they weren’t sure which exit to take so they might have to go around two or three times before they see the sign, YES, there it is, SOUTH SHORE ROAD to HORSE SHOE BAY and they would lean and once they were safely out of the mixing bowl you know Mrs. Duck squeezed Mr. Duck and said something like, “Oh wasn’t that exciting! I think we handled that beautifully!” and she would think secretly to herself That is why I married THIS man! And then they headed on to the beach and promptly forgot all about it, so that when they returned to the Roundabout again, on their way back into town for the evening, they went through the whole process again!

So, I think I mentioned the Lead Bird effect. I used to guess that the Lead Bird was self-elected, sometimes by choice...usually the Lead Bird was male and seemed to be larger than the other males. I figured he became Lead Bird of this flock of ducks because of one of two things. Either he was the first one out of the rental bike shack parking lot and all the others followed, or he had some sort of Experience...perhaps he had been to Bermuda once before, but it was so long ago that his Experience was useless or he had been to some other foreign country where they drive on the opposite side of the road from where they drive at home. But the important thing to note here, is that once the Lead Bird was elected, all the Ducks would follow his lead...they would do as he did in all circumstances on the road.

For instance, once, my husband and I were riding our motorbike on the South Shore Road. We had just spent the afternoon watching cricket. We rarely rode the bike together, we usually took the mini car, but that day, we took the bike and we were tooling along at a pretty good clip. Suddenly, a Lead Duck passed us, and it was on a blind corner, and he was followed very quickly by another Duck and another Duck and another, until I turned and looked and realized we had about 15 Ducks readying to pass us, with no regard to the blind corner, simply because the Lead Duck had passed us, so they all did what he did. And then we became unsure if they actually knew which side of the road they should be driving on and it became clear that they were driving on both sides of the road, because when uncertain, why not try both sides and see which side goes the best for you? Py and I decided to pull over and let the Ducks go by, because there was no telling them KEEP LEFT, they were listening to the Lead Bird.

The biggest Roundabout in Bermuda resides at The Foot of the Lane -- its the Roundabout the gets you in and out of Hamilton. And it is ALWAYS busy. The center of the Roundabout was inhabited by a lovely manicured lawn and garden of Pink Bermudianas, and Hibiscus and low palms and one of Bermuda’s oddballs, the island and perhaps the world’s friendliest man, a man named Johnny Barnes, who would wave to everyone who drove past him. He would set up shop early in the morning and wave and wave and smile and smile and everyone would wave back and toot their little horns and throw him kisses and he would throw kisses back. He was sweet really, although I truly believed he had been left in the sun a bit too long as a young boy. But you’re getting the picture, the Roundabout at the Foot of the Lane was a busy place and it was the first Roundabout that the Ducks, who had just come off of Cruise Ships docked in Hamilton, would have to negotiate.

One day, I was caught in a traffic jam leaving Hamilton. I was at the top of the hill that led down into the mouth of the double-lane Roundabout that would eventually lead to my home back in rural Flatts. From the top of this hill I could look down on the sunny Roundabout that was packed with mini cars and bikes and trucks all trying to get somewhere on the island. As we inched down the hill toward the Roundabout, a Duck appeared, he was in fact a Lead Bird, and he was the worst kind of Lead Bird, he was clever! He began working his way between cars and taxis and on down the hill. As I sat there more Ducks appeared and as expected they followed Clever Lead Bird through the maze of cars down the hill and I thought to myself, “Wow, that’s awfully advanced of those Ducks, to be going down the middle!” I glanced at the taxi driver in the car next to me and he smiled a crooked smile as if to say, “Look at dose Ducks!”

As Clever Lead Bird and his followers approached the bottom of the hill and the ever so important entrance into the Roundabout, traffic began to flow again and this onslaught of moving vehicles took Clever Lead Bird by surprise and he did the most unexpected thing, but now that I think of it, perhaps it was actually the most expected thing, instead of hesitating at the gape of the Roundabout, he went full speed ahead to the RIGHT and all the Ducks followed suit and from my vantage it looked like the pouring of heavy cream into chocolate in the bowl of a mixer as it spun and so the cream was going in one direction and the chocolate was going in the other. From that moment on Chaos reigned. Horns began blowing and cars and taxis and trucks began swerving this way and that way and the Ducks on their bikes broke out of formation and went into full panic. There were bikes on the grassy center, there were bikes off to the side, there were bikes turned sideways. And all of us up on the hill sat in our cars and our taxis and our trucks and we just started laughing because there was nothing else to do. It was better than any Keystone Cop movie scene. If only Johnny Barnes wasn’t gone to lunch, he could have waved the Ducks all into line and put them right, but they kept following Clever Lead Bird who continued to drive round and round the Roundabout trying to find his way out of this mess he made, such that now he was no longer Lead Bird, but he was eating his tail, catching up with the Ducks who he led into this battle of WHICH WAY and you could see from all the way up on the hill that mutiny was bountiful.

Finally, by some law of physics, some rule of chaos thumb, the Ducks fell into line and with a mortified order they managed to exit on to the South Shore Road and flee without injury. And all of us on the hill proceeded on, smiling from ear to ear, carrying a good story home.

And this is why I tell anyone I meet who tells me they are going to Bermuda for vacation: Whatever you do, I don’t care what you do while you are there, really I don’t, but please, just do one thing for me -- take a cab!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Tincture of Green, Part Two A

The smell of snow is sharp and antiseptic, like a tincture of the landscape, and snow has a sound -- like holding a sea shell up to your ear -- stand still in the snow and it makes an audible noise, several noises in fact...there’s the sound of snow falling at night, the sound of snow on a field, the sound of snow laying heavy in a forest, the sound of snow with the moon upon it, the sound of snow when you are lying down in it looking up at the white sky thinking no day could be as exquisite as the one you are in right now and the best sound of snow? The sound snow makes when you wake up in the morning to discover the world is frozen, vaulted, chapel-like and still.

Being raised by ones’ grandparents is to grow up with a warped sense of time. You become their connection to the modern world and they become your connection to what the world used to be. There is a great sense of freedom, because you are not their first child, not even their second -- you are their Last child. They have seen their first children already grow up and leave and have children of their own, you in fact, so they see you as something to be guided but not directed. They rarely worry about you, they trust you. And in turn, because they trust you so generously, you are obliged to simply honor that trust.

But it makes a strange soul out of you -- you use expressions that are a generation removed, you read books that are of a different era...Mark Twain and Kipling first editions are in the house and you are not aware that there is anything OLD about them. OLD movies and OLD movie stars are contemporary. Your parents become like sisters and brothers to you and you have no concept of what middle age is, because your living with people who are well past those years.

And death looms a little closer than it should because they are much closer to it than a set of middle aged parents...and because they are closer to it, they mark time with you, they are relieved when they have made it to your 12th birthday, through your first year of high school, through your high school graduation, through your first year of college and so on. And when you are grown, they finally feel like they can let go -- they were there to get you to a marked destination...parents don’t mark time like that, at least I don’t think they do, see? I’m slightly warped.

Because I lived in an old house with old people, the smells of my childhood are medicinal ... camphor, alcohol, vinegar, antiphlagestine clay, epsom salts, absorbine...horse linements and tincture of green...I didn’t think it was unusual until I grew up and found that my house was not quite so filled with these smells and now that I am middle aged, those smells are creeping in again, sharp reminders of Mom and Pop. And the cold weather takes me into my Connecticut childhood in the most intense way, like the aura to a seizure...the sting and glare of snow splits my mind open and spills me into that little room I inhabited over the kitchen...

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Albert Camus says...

“The soldiers’ home was surrounded by a big park that was almost entirely neglected. A few residents had taken on the task of caring for some clumps of rose-bushes and flower beds around the building, not to mention a small vegetable garden enclosed by big hedges of dry reeds. But beyond that the park, which had once been superb, had gone back to nature. Huge eucalyptuses, royal palms, coconut palms, rubber trees with great trunks and low branches that took root farther off, thus making a labyrinth of vegetation full of shade and secrets, thick solid cypresses, vigorous orange trees, clumps of extraordinary tall pink and white laurels -- all these overshadowed the secluded paths where clay had swallowed the gravel; nibbling at the paths’ edges were odorous tangles of syringas, jasmines, clematis, passionflowers, bushes of honeysuckles, and the in turn were invaded at ground level by an energetic carpet of clover, oxalis, and wild grasses. To wander in this fragrant jungle, to crawl in it, to snuggle your face in the grass, to cut a passage through grown-over paths with a knife and come out with mud streaked legs and water all over your face--this was rapture”

from The First Man by Albert Camus

Monday, February 1, 2010

Tincture of Green, Part One

Friday night came with a side order of snow...nine inches of it which is an impressive winter feat for these parts...here in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, two or three inches will usually do the trick to put every one in a tizzy. Nine inches just paralyzes the place. Its Monday now and out here in the woods the roar of the nearby I85/I40 exchange, all six lanes of it, is only just beginning to return. Its a din that I am most accustomed to here, along with the sound of the distant train, but they have been silenced by this polar magic trick. And me? I’m in a sensory heaven, because snow, especially snow of this quality, commands me to become a time traveler.

Last week, The New Yorker teaser page, you know that thing that is stapled to the outside cover to tempt prospective readers with goings on inside that week’s issue...something that if I hadn’t let my subscription run out last year I wouldn’t have to deal with, but I did, and so when I pick The New Yorker up at the market, there it is, that teaser page, obscuring the cover art which is what I am most interested in and whether or not there is a cartoon by George Booth on the inside, because Mr. Booth is sublime and speaks to the very heart of my inner laughing place, but ANYway, there I go digressing...last week’s teaser asked a question that made me think and immediately answer under my breath, right there in the grocery store line, What did your childhood smell like? It took me exactly one second to answer that question and make the woman standing in front of me turn over her shoulder and eye me with some nervousness “Tincture of green...” I uttered to myself and when I saw the woman look at me as though she might call for security, I coughed...I haven’t told you but I have also been suffering from what Pop used to call The Epizudic and I am certain that I caught it from someone in the grocery store, so why not pass it on to this woman, who thinks that people like me, people who talk to themselves in the grocery store line, are, well, to be looked at in such a way that they are made to feel as though they shouldn’t talk to themselves. Does that make any sense?

But I have thought about it throughout the weekend, this question, and the snow storm couldn’t have made it clearer to me, the answer that is, that my childhood smelled like Tincture of Green. I could say that it smelled like horses, like molasses on oats in that bin that had the tin lining in the barn, like the cabinet that my grandmother kept onions in, like Pop’s glass of whiskey that sat on the bench in the den while he was watching the television, like the little drawer in the telephone table that smelled of pencils and Pop's bag of pipe tobacco, like the books on the shelves in my room...it was a white bookshelf that served as my bedside table and on it sat a white porcelain lamp and within it were all the books that I loved -- books that came on Christmas mornings and books that came on my birthday, and best of all, the books that I found in the den and brought upstairs and claimed as my own. I could say that my childhood smelled like my grandmother’s perfume...4711, an eau de cologne that was for men, but Mom wore it and it was so light and slightly alcoholic and it meant her hand on my head, telling me all sorts of good things to make me feel as though I were the only good child in the world...but these things are not the things that rose up immediately, while I was standing there in the grocery with a supply of things to get me through this snow storm.

I was declared Accident Prone when I eight or nine years old. This label was in direct correlation to some of my other childhood foibles...short attention span, hyperactivity, a tendency toward long bouts of asthmatic bronchitis, a real inclination for getting beat up by other children, and an overactive imagination. Unfortunately, it has just occurred to me I haven’t really grown out of any of these traits, except for the inclination for getting beat up by children...perhaps that woman giving me the evil eye in the grocery store would have liked to have knocked me to the floor though, but being an adult, she restrained herself.

Today, I suppose, they would have just handed my grandmother a prescription for Ritalin and that would have been that -- I would have been more or less safer. But, as it were, my grandparents did the only thing they knew how, which was to let me be. I know that sounds like too simple of a solution, and frankly I don’t think there was any plan to it, no family meeting to speak of -- no I think Mom and Pop just accepted me for the Wild Child that I was. Of course, they had the best possible elixir for my troubles just down the hill from our house: a barn full of horses. And I was given absolute freedom, they just didn’t sweat the small stuff with me. I don’t think they knew where I was or what I was doing half the time, but I always showed back up for dinner, so this gave them confidence that it would continue on like that.

Accident Prone is defined as “Having or susceptible to having a greater than average number of accidents or mishaps...” This definition conjures visions of physical mishaps, ones that end in injury, but really, a strong tendency toward mishaps can be much more inclusive...think about it, think about the world of trouble a child can get into without getting hurt and that my friends, brings you to the real heart of what being Accident Prone is, to what I was and, to some degree, what I still am today.

I certainly had my share of accidents that put me in the hands of doctors...for instance, I tried to fly at the age of five -- I had been planning the flight for some time. I had a long conversation with my friend and confidante Indian Girl, who happened to live in the tree outside my bedroom window. She and I conspired to my act of flying for some time. My first attempt was rather uneventful, I climbed the Japanese Maple in our front yard, Indian Girl by my side, and I just stood there in the crook of the tree with my arms out, waiting for the spring wind to take me. Of course, nothing happened. But it was my second attempt that was, shall we say, a show stopper. I stood on the arm of a terrifically old wing back chair in the living room and took flight for just a moment over the fireplace hearth, landing with a terrible thud on the bricks. Six stitches in my chin and a lovely pink turtleneck ruined with blood stains. I still have the scar to prove it, to prove that I was unable to fly, even though I wanted it desperately, almost as desperately as that elephant, the elephant that I wanted to keep in the barn with my pony, the one I would ride to school.

I used to think that my status of Accident Prone had something to do with the fact that I rode horses, and while I had my share of of broken bones and concussions due to hanging about the equine world, I think I would have gotten into just as many wrecks with a bicycle, or a pogo stick for that matter.

The broken bones list is impressive though. By the time I reached the age of fifteen, I had broken both collar bones, several ribs, my right arm, my coccyx (Thank you Tanya and Twanya) and a shin bone. Some of these broken bones were accompanied by a concussion, and some concussions came all on their own with no broken bones. But except for the coccyx bone, these were not the most amusing of my mishaps. Really, they were just straight forward coming out of the saddle and landing badly.

Then there were the mishaps I was witness to -- like Edward cracking his skull. Edward was my neighbor, Edward Hitz. Edward was a year younger than me and he moved in to the house across the street with his mother and father when I was nine. The Hitzes had moved to the country from Yorktown Heights. They were nice people, Mr. and Mrs. Hitz. They were the first people I ever knew to keep clear plastic covers on all their furniture. And they had similar plastic carpet protectors throughout the house. Mrs. Hitz insisted that Edward and I never walk on the carpet in her house, only the plastic runners. Edward had a Big Wheel and a hell of a hill for a driveway. I had a pony, which was of no interest to Edward whatsoever, but that Big Wheel was magnetic to me. Edward was a dangerous kid really. He liked to light fires in the woods and he liked to build these enormous “jumps” to run the Big Wheel down to and like Evil Knievel, he would take flight somewhere around the rear end of his father’s Pontiac and then come to a crash landing in the grass beyond his garage. I partook of this activity, but mainly Edward requested that I watch him -- it was important that he had an audience.

Mrs. Hitz was adamant that we not do dangerous things, but somehow she never prevented us from doing anything we wanted to. She was just this very thin being that seemed to haunt the kitchen of their home and when supper time came, she would come out on the the front porch of the Hitz Home and yell “EDWAHD! EDWAHD! EDWAHD!” and you could hear her all the way down Bayberry Lane, she was like a siren. And Edward would look at me and say, “I gotta go” and we’d stamp out the fire he'd set or I’d help him carry his Big Wheel up to the house.

But Edward did go for a ride on my pony once, just once, and that was enough to end his foray into the equine world. You are probably thinking he fell off my pony and cracked his skull, right? But he didn’t fall off. I took him for a bareback ride in the woods. I was in front and Edward sat behind me, his pale freckled arms around my waist and we rode way into the woods and down to the creek behind the Pabst’s barn. Then I took him to my favorite look out, this rocky cliff that looked down over a little valley that I always imagined myself to be an indian lookout on. It was here that Edward decided he was afraid and didn’t want to ride anymore, he wanted to get down and walk. So I said, fine, suit yourself, and Edward slid off my pony and we began our trek home. Me up front walking on my pony and Edward, the boy from Yorktown Heights trudging behind me. What happened next is so simple its ludicrous...Edward tripped on a rock and fell and hit his head on another rock, a sharp one. He sat up bleeding, I mean like a stuck boar, and me, being a tough kid, I said something like, “Geez Edward, get up, you’re fine. Let’s go back to my house, I know how to fix you up.” And so I rode my pony and Edward stumbled behind me looking like something out of a horror film and when we get back to my house, nobody is home. I made Edward wait in the yard, yes, I made him hold my pony, and I went in the house, ran upstairs to my grandmother’s bathroom where, in a cabinet, she kept a large brown glass bottle with a small label...the label had only three words typed on it, yes typed, by a pharmacist, Tincture of Green.

I ran back out in the yard and found my pony nuzzling a dazed and bleeding Edward. I opened the bottle and told Edward to sit down. “Okay, my grandmother puts this on all my cuts and bruises, and sometimes, she washes my hands with it. It stings, but...okay, here goes!” and I poured the Tincture of Green on Edward’s bloody head and Edward let out a scream that came from the bottom of his boy soul. I stood back and sort of laughed...I wasn’t expecting such a noise to come from Edward, but considering his mother’s vocal talent, it wasn’t that surprising. I was hoping the Tincture of Green would stop the bleeding. But it didn’t. So I put my pony away and wrapped Edward’s head in a rub rag...yes a rub rag, that’s a towel kept in the barn to rub the horses down with. And I took Edward’s hand and led him back home. I knocked on the Hitz’s front door and Mrs. Hitz appeared in the hallway. When she saw me standing at the door with Edward teetering by my side in a bloody turbin, she went completely haywire. She exploded through the storm door and got down on her knees in front of Edward and started screaming ”Jeeezus, Mary, and Joseph, Jeeezus, Mary, and Joseph, JEEEZUS, MARY, AND JOSEPH!!!!“ She wrenched him into the house and I went home. That night my grandmother got a call from Mrs. Hitz -- Edward had received several stitches in his head and I was banned from playing with him anymore. It was all for the best really, I believed that sooner or later Edward was going to do something REALLY bad and I was going to get blamed for it.

Part Two? Winter Sports...