Monday, June 29, 2009

Cape Cod

photo by Brian McMorrow

I am back from Cape Cod, where I stayed with friends Jay and John -- the world's most generous and gracious hosts (and, while I'm on the subject, awesome cooks) -- while attending a writing workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center. The workshop was led by bestselling novelist and short story writer Pam Houston.

And it was fabulous. We brought stories to workshop, wrote great stuff while we were there, attended readings by the faculty, and generally got inspired.

Alison and Oscar came down for the weekend, and that was an additional bonus -- to be on vacation with a gorgeous redhead and a very well-behaved yellow dog. All in all, a great week.

On the last night of the week, there is a reading by attendees of the workshop. We got to share one page of work that was produced during the week. Given the length constraint, I was forced to take drastic measures in the crafting of my piece, which you can read below:

The Telltale Shoes

I dismounted my Schwinn Silver Shadow and locked it to the rack. I was dripping wet – my bike shoes squishing like sponges. It has rained biblically this week, but my plan was to ride. Don’t get me wrong; three or four people have offered me rides in cars. Kind, generous people. But I stuck to the plan, changing my clothes upon arrival, wrapping the wet stuff in a plastic bag, and attending my workshop.

Hours later, Pam Houston stands at the podium, reading from her next novel. I’m sitting front row center – I’m not sure why. Ordinarily, I never go for the front row unless it’s a Phish concert. Pam is reading about a unibrowed masseur performing some sort of exorcism to expel her father’s spirit from her lower extremity when I catch the first whiff. I’m not sure what it is. It’s not good.

Pam moves on to a beach in California somewhere, where she is petitioned by a sign-carrying dachsund who wants to play. I catch another whiff of the same something – I’m not sure what. I wonder if anyone else smells it.

I assess the situation. I have Pam on the podium reading to a full room, a person on my left, a person on my right, and my two bags under my seat. The doors are shut and the rain still falls. None of the other doors in the Work Center shut the way the ones in this common room do. And the body heat of the 40 or so people is as good as any heater. I’m warm for the first time all week. In the backpack is my notebook, assigned books, and computer. And in the plastic bag my bike pants, windbreaker, tech shirt, and shoes.

Another waft of putrid haze drifts past. It smells like a men’s locker room. Wait a minute. Those shoes were full of sweat and water this morning. In the cool damp of the classroom where I stashed them all day, all was well. Now, in this warm and stagnant air, I’m suddenly in a code red situation.

I smell it again. It’s the shoes; it’s the shoes; it’s the shoes.

There’s no escape. I look left and then right. All eyes are on Pam reading – something about love, the meaning of life, and the soup of the day. She reads, “Rick looks me in the eyes. He says…” She stops. She inhales, furrows her brow, and cocks her head slightly to the left. “…He says…” She stops again. The pollution from the bag has reached the front of the room. She grabs the podium with both hands, but it’s too late. Pam Houston’s body crumples to the floor in a lifeless heap.

I stand. I pick up the bag with my shoes and tuck it under my arm. I make for the door. I disappear into the night.

This piece is dedicated to the participants of my workshop and Pam Houston.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Here In Hanover Article Available Online

Mark Aiken's latest article -- a piece about a huge landscaping undertaking in a neighborhood near Dartmouth College -- is available to read online at the Here In Hanover magazine website. Enjoy!

The Trophy Has Arrived

You have no doubt heard about the Stanley Cup tradition. After winning the Stanley Cup, each triumphant member of the winning team gets to take the Cup for a few days. Some people bring it to their hometowns or old schools. Others hold fund-raisers. Still others that we happen to know, bring Lord Stanley's trophy to dive apartments in downtown Burlington where they drink Coors Light from the Cup before abandoning it on the coffee table with the door ajar and heading to the bars. (This last event may be the reason why there is now a guy whose full-time job is to take care of the Cup.)

The men's league team from Flagstaff, Arizona, it seems, has a similar tradition. A few years ago I joined the 'Staffers' team in a big old man's tournament in Las Vegas. Our team did pretty well.

...At the blackjack table, that is. And I don't say well in terms of dollars won; I refer instead to sheer hours spent drinking and playing. Our team had great supporters, and these supporters also did well at the tables (same definition of "well" as above). In fact, it is unclear whether our supporters actually went to the rink because they knew we were playing hockey or because the cooler temperatures felt better for their headaches.

The Flagstaff team, when all was said and done, came in second place. And the tournament organizers awarded each team member with a Second Place trophy. ( I have to wonder who came up with the idea to give out individual trophies for second place, but that is a topic for another post.) I "mistakenly" left mine at Rob French's house, but I guess my day with the trophy has arrived. Just yesterday, it came by mail: wrapped up with a bag of beef jerky and a few other items. Please make your appointment to see -- and even have your photo taken with -- the trophy which is currently on display on my mantelpiece ("You're putting it there?" Alison asked me). It will remain there for all to see until the time comes (and, make no mistake Frenchy, it will come) for the illustrious second place award to move on to the next team member.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

First Cutting

Now that's a mower (see below).

Anyone who thought they had a manly lawn mowing machine hasn't seen the apparatus our local farmer uses to cut the hayfield in front of our house or the alfalfa fields down the road. He took out his mega-mower for the first time this season, so the smell of cut grass is filling the air. You'd think you were in Nebraska or Kansas when you see this thing come, but, no, we're still here in Richmond, Vermont. Amount of time it takes them to mow 1-2 acres: 30 minutes (maybe less).

In other mowing news, our Neuton electric cordless hand mower is the finest push mower I have ever operated. Quiet and clean, I never have to check or change the oil -- because it doesn't take oil! It goes for about 2 hours, and then you plug the battery back in to recharge. We use it to mow the dog's fenced yard and the hill in front of the house.

Lately, however, it's been the primary mower since our old, used ride-on mower has been unpredictable at best. It runs okay, but the blades sometimes choose not to turn. The Neuton is not really made to do the whole lawn, but it's been performing above and beyond the call of duty this season. Meanwhile, the ride-on has been a real under-achiever. I saw an electric and cordless ride-on mower advertised recently for just $6500. I guess I'll check the classifieds for a used one in a few years.

During that time, however, I'd like to see a little better performance out of our ride-on.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Phish Rocks Fenway Park

Sunday evening started like any other evening game at Boston’s Fenway Park. The sold-out crowd respectfully removed hats as four musicians clad in Red Sox jerseys approached the pitcher’s mound to sing the “Star Spangled Banner.” That’s where the similarities end. The Boston Red Sox – away on a three-game road trip – were nowhere to be found. And the four singers – Trey Anastasio, Jon Fishman, Mike Gordon, and Page McConnell, better known as Phish – made their way to a giant stage in the outfield before the storied Green Monster for their first-ever performance at Fenway.

The May 31st show was historic not just because it was the band’s first visit to Fenway; other than three reunion concerts this March in Hampton, Virginia, it was the first night of Phish’s first tour since their “final” show in Coventry, Vermont in August 2004. The air was full of anticipation as concert-goers filed past posters of Ted Williams and David Ortiz. Would fans receive them well after nearly five years off? Would the concert be characterized by long sets and extended jams like pre-Coventry Phish shows? And, simply, would the performance live up to legendary Phish spectacles of yore?

The answers: yes, yes, and yes. From the first words of the national anthem and the first set opener “Sample In a Jar,” the crowd cheered appreciatively and enthusiastically. Meanwhile, if it was long jams you came for, you found them in the second set when the band played 7 songs – averaging 12 minutes per song. As to whether the show lived up to the good ol’ days, well, according to this writer, it did. Both the band and the audience were dancing, smiling, and engaged. The band played for nearly 4 hours, taking a short break halfway through. They introduced three never-played-before numbers, including “Time Turns Elastic” from Anastasio’s new solo album. They dusted off old classics like “You Enjoy Myself” and “David Bowie” – but, on the other hand, having toured unflaggingly for over 20 years and playing all of their songs hundreds of times, it didn’t really seem like there was much dust or rust to wipe off despite the hiatus.

There were some noticeable differences between Sunday’s performance and past Phish shows. One was in the appearance of the crowd. You didn’t need quilted pants and dreadlocks to fit in with Sunday’s crowd. Clean T-shirts, khaki shorts, and Red Sox caps seemed the attire of the day, and the clean-cut, clean-shaven – the operative word here seems to be “clean” – appearances weren’t really reminiscent of Phish days gone past. Also, the band didn’t say any words addressing the audience – no thanks for coming, or we’ll be back after a short break. Band members did take moments to share words and grins with each other, but didn’t openly address the crowd.

Still, the interaction between performer and audience that makes a Phish show a Phish show were evident. Members of the audience knew every word to every song except for the very newest and sang along enthusiastically. And take, for example, a moment early in the show when the sun came out and a rainbow replaced the rain that had doused the crowd just moments before showtime. Looking around at the crowd gathered at one of America’s most storied ballparks, Anastasio flashed a giant grin and played the first few notes to “Take Me Out the Ballgame.” Phish fans, take note: the boys of summer are back.