Saturday, April 28, 2012

East Coast Ramble - Part 6 - Hawthorne Valley

Heathsville (VA) - Chatham/Spencertown (NY) - Windsor (MA)

We've made it from the southernmost point in the U.S. to the Hudson Valley in New York. The loose plan was this: crash for a few months in Joel and Ellen’s woodsy summer house in Spencertown and hope Gryffyn would be accepted into the Hawthorne Valley School – a Waldorf school on a 400-acre working farm a few hills over in a wide hollow with big fields, forests and a clear, cold stream running through it. We weren’t sure she would get in, but Gryffyn and Ursula spent summer in a camp there, and Gryffyn really wanted to go back, for school.

Tahra went to HVS for a few years and enjoyed it. Kids get to be kids there – going outside in all weather, exploring the farm and hills around it, walking, growing and making things, studying animals, music, art, languages like German and Spanish, movement, handwork and myth are all part of it. The farm sustainably produces good food that is consumed locally, and there's an inviting farm market in the middle of it, the kind of place you could spend an hour just admiring the cheeses. Our friend Rachel Collins works in Hawthorne Valley’s visiting students program – kids from all over the U.S. and the world apparently come to see how this school-inside-a-farm works, and spend time there learning and exploring.

After a two-day classroom tryout and a nerve-wracking parental interview, during which I sat paralyzed while Tahra coolly fielded questions about pedagogy and child development intended to determine whether we were Waldorfian fiber, Gryffyn got in. (It’s probably good I never got to ask any of my prepared questions, including: “Are the sports teams any good?’’ and "Is it cool if I text Gryffyn once in a while?’’)

With school squared away, we switched our focus to Massachusetts, where, after the school year ends, we’ll move full time into a 150-year-old farm house on 25 forested acres high in the hills in Berkshire County, just across the NY state line. It’s a big old house with a wood stove, a loft, a couple of barns and enough open space to do some growing, located on a dead-end dirt road with old fieldstone walls criss-crossing the property, and I was excited to see it. Our friends from the Keys, Stephanie and Tony and their boys, have a house and land nearby, and turned us onto this place, with warnings that we'd see bears in the yard on quiet early mornings. I hoped to see one before heading back to Juba, but didn't. I think we're going to like this place.

Above: Windsor house.

Above: view out the kitchen window, Windsor.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

East Coast Ramble - Part 5 - The Northern Neck

We have arrived in the Northern Neck of the Chesapeake Bay, a place you could see easily from space, since the Bay is so huge and distinctive, surrounded on three sides by jagged rips of land inter-stitched by rivers that look like freon-filled capillaries and arteries in all the satellite pictures. The Northern Neck is one of those big rips on the west side of the Bay, and my parents’ house is perched on the edge of one of those blue capillaries – the Great Wicomico River. It’s a stunning natural environment, and the house is sited and designed to help you bask in it. There are so many windows in the place that it heats up almost instantly when the sunrays begin blasting and bouncing in off the surface of the picture-perfect cove below. Ice House Cove, overlooked by the house, is an intertidal work of art, meandering back into a grassy saltmarsh, separated by a slender spit of reed grasses from the thick river beyond.

“Heaven and earth have never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation.” So wrote Capt. John Smith, the English explorer of the Bay, in his journal, sometime around 1607 to 1609, and you might agree after a stay at Mont May, as my parents have playfully named their estuarine Xanadu.

It takes me about fifteen speechless minutes of staring out windows at the river and cove and trees to adjust to the peaceful beauty of this place, whenever I arrive. Which works out fine because the girls usually instantly cleave themselves unto grandma and grandpa with the kind of grateful desperation that should evoke self-doubt in me, but doesn’t. I wander around and look at the various ways and means that my parents have enhanced their retirement castle since previous visits. Over here, for instance, there’s an entirely new wall of Frank Lloyd Wright-ish stone pieces, framing a new stainless steel hearth in front of the fireplace. Upstairs, dad installed radiant heat flooring in the bathroom along with a magnificent new tile shower in which my entire nuclear family could comfortably stand, complete with auxiliary jets that squirt water horizontally from the wall. Outside, there is now a lovely screened porch with mechanized screens that go up and down at the touch of a button. I have no idea how he and my mom are able to repeatedly pull off these incredible feats of do-it-yourself craftsmanship, each more impressive than the last, but there seems to be no mountain of improvement they cannot scale.

Time slows down for me at Mont May. Returned to the protective loving bosom of my parents, who always think of everything, I tend to lose my socks, my keys, my ball cap. I have trouble making simple decisions, possibly because more experienced adults who once completely and successfully ran my life for me are so nearby. A sort of pubescent dumbness strikes me, exacerbated by good wine. Which made it all the more gratifying when I beat Tahra at Scrabble there one night, for the first time in five years. I fully acknowledge that her loss had more to do with the powerful doses of six different meds she is currently taking than anything else, as well as the fact that she let me make a word that probably wasn't, but I happily savored the victory nevertheless. One doesn’t win at Scrabble with Tahra very often, in sickness or in health.

Other Heathsville highlights: dad taught me how to use a chainsaw without dismembering myself or others and shared with me the results of his ongoing arboreal research project, in which he is gradually identifying more and more different species of trees living on the property (he only chainsaws the fallen or dead ones). I think he’s got eight or ten different species of oak trees, alone, nailed down, among a couple dozen others. And during a long walk with mom and Tahra, we all saw an osprey locked in aerial combat with an eagle, apparently in a dispute over a fish. In the end, the fish fell to earth and the raptors flew empty-taloned back to the river.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

East Coast Ramble - Part 4 - Do Not Hump

Key West – Miami – Sanford – Lorton

Leaving the Florida Keys for destinations north, we stopped at Baby’s Coffee for cafes con leche, at Curry Hammock State Park for our customary nature trail leg stretch, and at Denny’s Latin CafĂ© in Key Largo for another con leche and lunch. Goodbye, Cuban coffee, rice and beans. You served us well.

We took Card Sound Road out of the islands, as we always do, and at the zenith of the bridge, with all the Keys behind us – the osprey, ibis, egrets and pelicans and spoonbills, the incredible family snorkeling and kayaking expeditions, our friends and all the little things we love about the Keys – the White Street Pier, Blue Heaven, Sandy’s and Salute, El Siboney, Bahia Honda, Fort Zach and our house, our garden – to the south, I thought about the character from that Carl Hiaasen book who strapped himself to the top of this bridge as a hurricane bore down, to experience the full force of it. We took some storms in the face, too. Hurricane Wilma destroyed our Pathfinder, pushed saltwater over the top of our three-foot-high porch and into the house, made the walls buck and blew water through the window seams, even with the shutters down. That vulnerability, that way-out edginess combined with extreme weather, contributes to the vitality of the islands, I think. I know Tahra will miss the big tropical storms, too.

On to Miami, to the home of Josh, Karla and Xavier, for one night. Josh is related to Tahra through Tahra’s mom’s mom. We discovered this several years ago, and have been having fun with this amazing family ever since. Josh spent time in Mali with the Peace Corps after UVA, where my brother went to school, Karla -- who wrote a book about the Maroons in Jamaica -- went to Yale, and their son, Xavier, is brilliant and sweet, a champion chess player who can also do perfect flips on the trampoline. We got in a little late but enjoyed a spaghetti and meatballs dinner cooked by Josh, with really good tomato sauce made by a Saudi college exchange student staying at the house. We’ve met college kids from all over the world during our visits to Josh and Karla, who seem somehow involved in everything good going on in Miami. We also have Josh and Karla to thank for introducing us a few years ago to sustainability idol Mario Yanez, founder of Earth Learning and The Farm at Verde Gardens down in Homestead. Mario introduced me to Florida-made avocado wine, which surprisingly, isn't as bad as it sounds.

From Miami we drove up toward Orlando, where we excitedly boarded the Amtrak Auto-Train in Sanford, pre-Trayvon Martin. The Auto-Train is THE longest passenger train in the world and was a thrill for all of us; we splurged for our own deluxe sleeping cabin, with four fold-out bunk beds, little fold-out tables, and windows looking out from both sides of our narrow t-shaped cabin. The Volvo would ride in style behind us somewhere on the double-decker train with approximately 250 other vehicles stacked inside enclosed car carriers. This may have been the only day in history that Gryffyn and Ursula actually looked forward to bed time. After climbing a short ladder and tucking themselves into individual, tray-like bunks suspended from the ceiling, the girls looked like weary but happy rock climbers hanging from bivy sacks on the edge of vibrating cliffs. The only down side to riding the Auto-Train: there are some puzzling policies, including one well-posted rule that forbids humping. (See photo, below.) Possibly to prevent derailment, or maybe because Amtrak gets federal subsidies, I surmised.

Seventeen hours, 900 miles and four states later, the train deposited us in Lorton, Virginia. When I stepped outside into near-freezing blustery weather, I had my first second thoughts about our planned move north, and flashed back to the day when I was a kid waiting for the school bus on a frigid day in Springfield, and suddenly realized my nose hairs had frozen together.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

East Coast Ramble - Part 3 - Bury My Wounded Heart at Blue Heaven

My turn to get into a hospital gurney. Time for knee surgery. My doctor is a top-class orthopedic surgeon who has patched up many pro football players, soccer players, and other athletes. He has described my knee problem as a “pretty good’’ lateral meniscus tear. I could let it go, but it would haunt me. Better to let him use his tiny video-camera-on-a-stick and buzzing alligator-jaw implement to remove it. “Your meniscus is like an o-ring,’’ he said. “Take the bad piece off and the rest of it still works.’’ Manfully, I pretended to understand what an o-ring was, imagining it has something to do with car engines. The doctor and I have had a few chats about Africa, because he volunteers for Doctors Without Borders when he’s not repairing bones in the Keys. He has been to Haiti already three times since the earthquake. He has been to Africa before, and they are sending him to Somalia, next.

The girls and Uncle Brent, who arrived safely for his visit in Key West from Phoenix last night, all stayed home when I went to the hospital. Who cares about a middle-aged guy getting elective arthroscopic knee surgery for a soccer injury, even though I could have died?

But I didn’t. In fact I was home a few hours later and felt well enough to hobble around without crutches, even though my left knee had three small, sutured holes in it and my leg was swaddled in white muslin from ankle to thigh. Now it was time to finish packing up the house. With a bad knee, two over-excited children and a still-recuperating Tahra.

Uncle Brent to the rescue! This guy -- this sensitive hunky deep-thinking adrenaline-junky doctor-of-physics Grand Canyon hiking landscape photographing Ultimate Frisbee all-star uncle, who parachutes out of planes every weekend and plays kickass guitar licks, who once starred in a band called The Revolvers who opened a Tucson show for The MONKS OF DOOM (Camper van Beethoven, anyone?), who drives a fast BMW and makes a lot of money doing something complicated on computers, who once took a U-haul filled with all of MY old junk from our parents’ basement in Virginia all the way to Key West, by himself – had come down to help us out with moving stuff once again, and to see the girls and see us off. The reasons this man is still single are as hard to fathom as the elusive Fifth Quark*. Girls: he won’t last another year. Book your tickets to Scottsdale, quickly, but walk softly when you get there. Hunters have had more luck snaring snow leopards in the Himalayas, though outdoorsy supermodels from Stanford might fare ok.

Anyway, last week in Key West. Tahra and I packed up the house, with much assistance from Brent, who knows I don’t get much time with Tahra and tried hard not to be in the way while simultaneously maximizing his helpfulness. The girls helped, too, by thoroughly taping shut completely empty boxes, making fully-furnished houses (for themselves) out of large boxes while we were trying to pack them, decorating boxes and the floor with Sharpies, popping costly bubblewrap and thwarting us in the midst of trying to give away a small fraction of some their never-used toys.

Five days and a lot of packed boxes later, we reluctantly said goodbye to Brent, put him on a plane back to Phoenix and hired our fantastic babysitter, Kelsey, from down the block to watch the kids for a few hours so we could go out to dinner on our last night in Key West. Kelsey showed up for the job with her live pet duck, Prissy, in a stroller. Is it any wonder the kids love her?

Fitting that our last dinner out in Key West should be at Blue Heaven, site of my first dinner out in Key West, more than ten years ago, when I was a lonely wounded man incapable of experiencing love -- until I met Tahra at the restaurant a week or two later. On this, our final night in town, we sat under the boughs of the great Spanish lime tree and enjoyed the company of friends Liv, Will, Hanrow and Ashley with lobster, snapper and scallops, hand-picked bottles of excellent wine and a lot of funny stories. Richard and Suanne, our good-hearted friends and owners of this famous, iconic and for us – intimately historic – restaurant, showed up at the end of our meal, stole the bill and gave us hugs, and wished us luck. “You’re off on a new adventure!” said Suanne.

* Editor's Note: For anyone interested, I believe the Fifth Quark is/was something important that may or may not be real, and which after great effort by Nobel Prize winners was actually discovered at Fermilab, a giant underground particle accelerator where Brent once worked as a research physicist trying to discover how the universe was created. Brent can (and will) correct me if I'm wrong.

* New Editor's Note: Brent May clarifies that it was actually the SIXTH Quark, also known as the Top Quark, that was such a big deal. It was "postulated and then observed'' at Fermilab (DOE lab outside Chicago.) Kinda scary that he knows what this means.

Above: Ursula meets Prissy on our front porch steps in Key West

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

East Coast Ramble - Part 2 - Minor Procedures

Key West–Miami–Key West

Friday -- At Key West Airport I’m smothered by my children, who always look a little disbelieving that it’s really me, really there again, with them. For my part, each time I arrive I’m surprised, too, by these little energy pockets whose arms and legs are longer each time I see them, in eight week increments. It’s not enough. Tahra is usually quiet but shiny-eyed when I arrive, letting the girls get their fill. For the kids, the excitement of me wears off as soon as the baggage belt lurches to life, however, and I’m struck by Gryffyn’s urgent motherly protectiveness of Ursula. When the conveyor belt’s flashing light comes on, she clamps an arm firmly around Ursula’s shoulder and pulls her near, every time. These three girls look out for each other.

Saturday -- I’m up early. I have to go to Key West hospital for a blood test and EKG in advance of my knee surgery, scheduled for Wednesday, the day after Ursula’s oral surgery in Miami. (I tore my meniscus playing soccer in Juba just before Christmas, couldn't walk much for about a week.) At home later, in between playing with the girls, Tahra and I work on getting the house ready for our move, scheduled for the week after next. And Uncle Brent is flying in, from Phoenix, on Wednesday night -- the same night we come back from Miami after Ursula’s surgery. It’s a crazy mess of a schedule, during which I also have to visit a urologist to make sure my vasectomy is still working. Long story, but everything is ok in that department.

Tuesday – Tahra has an appointment with a rheumatologist in Miami in the afternoon, who refers her immediately and unexpectedly to an allergist a few miles away for a biopsy of some mysterious and disturbing new spots on her lower legs. Turns out it's vasculitis, not a good sign considering the powerful meds she is on. More to worry about. Ursula’s surgery is on Wednesday morning at Miami Children’s Hospital, so we decide to stay overnight in Miami at one of our favorite places, The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. We like this historic old place, which has giant bird cages in the ornate, wood-paneled reception hall, along with what is reportedly the largest outdoor swimming pool on the East Coast. We’ve stayed here three or four times during trips through Miami, and always enjoy it. There’s really good sushi nearby and a little Moroccan restaurant we like just off the Miracle Mile, and the girls are crazy about the huge, L-shaped pool. Seemed like a good idea to rest in luxury after a long day of driving and before what was certain to be a traumatic and stressful medical event tomorrow – Ursula’s surgery, which would entail full anesthesia for several hours and much painful work inside her little mouth. Also, the Biltmore is right around the corner from Miami Children’s, where we were scheduled to check in the next day at 7 a.m.

Wednesday – Oral surgery day is here. We have given minimal information to Ursula up to this point, but now we casually let her know that the dentist is going to see her today to fix her cavity and give her teeth a good cleaning. Never-had-a-cavity Gryffyn is in on it – she knows it’s a bit more serious than that and she has done a good job keeping quiet so as not to terrify her sister, who doesn’t do too well with dentists or doctors.

Ten minute drive to the hospital from the Biltmore, still dark out, and we’re all quiet in the car. I’m nervous, Tahra’s nervous, and the kids are still sleepy. At the hospital, we are checked in quickly by a no-fuss receptionist and the girls set about puttering around the kid-friendly, art-filled waiting room, occupied by other grim-faced parents and wary-looking children. Upstairs in the ‘’minor procedures’’ area, numerous friendly people check on us, ask us lots of questions, flip through paperwork, and finally, the dentist arrives. Ursula mercifully takes a little liquid medicine to make her sleepy, which is great because by now she has figured out something big is going on, what with the hospital bed, hanging wires, beeping machines and other small children walking and rolling around in pastel gowns, not to mention ladies with clipboards and stethoscopes whisking our curtain back and forth.

“Ok Ursula, can you come up here on the bed now?” one of the nurses perkily asks, when the surgeon is ready.

“Cool! A rolling bed, wanna get in a bed with WHEELS on it?!” I croak.

No. Even a half-drugged Ursula will not get willingly into a hospital gurney, no matter how much fun her lying daddy says it will be, and she clings heavy-lidded and moaning to her mother’s neck, and stays stuck on as Tahra walks through the big double-doors into the OR, after which, Tahra later told me, she succumbed to the pharmaceuticals and was laid out, noodle-like, on the bed with a gas mask strapped onto her cherubic Ursula face.

Three hours, seven cavities, two crowns and one root canal later, I would see her again, and she was not happy. By late afternoon, however, we were back in the Volvo heading for Key West, with Uncle Brent somewhere in the skies above due to meet us in a few hours, and Ursula mowing through bananas in the back seat while watching Angelina Ballerina.