Wednesday, March 28, 2007

P is for Portland

Tim’s an art director for a catalog company. For the past few years, he’s been working with a photography studio in Portland, Maine. He spends a lot of time there—I’m guessing almost 3 months per year, if you were to add up all the weeks.

The longest stint is always in spring. He left Sunday, and he’ll come home around mid-April.

This has the potential to be a real relationship stressor. If we had kids, I don’t see how I could put up with him being gone so much. If he was shooting at some studio on the other side of the country, I would be very cranky. If I were working a regular office job, we’d be stuck being apart all those weeks. But none of these things are true. We are childfree, I am a freelancer, and the fabulous town of Portland is only a 5-hour drive away.

Tim stays at a hotel right downtown on the waterfront. He can walk to work from there. There’s wireless Internet in the room, which means that I can walk to work too—the several feet from the bed to the desk. There’s a small gym, so I don’t have to miss a workout (and when lucky, I can time it to next-day repeats of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report). There’s a promenade by the bay, so when it’s nice out, I can take the fast walk instead of the elliptical cross-train. (Ah, to be a runner. I’m not.)

In Portland, I become a Pedestrian, a life I gave up when I left the city. Within 2 hours of pounding the concrete, macadam, and cobblestones, I have shin splints. I will feel it for 3 days or so. Then I’ll have my city legs back.

And there’s food. Oh sweet Jesus, there’s food.

It’s not that there isn’t food in rural Vermont. It’s just that there’s very little interesting food for the money. I don’t have to go far from home to be offered an opportunity to drop a wad o’ cash for dinner, or even a half-wad, but it’s rare to feel that I’ve gotten my money’s worth. Where is the nearby affordable dive for me to love and frequent? It eludes me.

In Portland, even the dives are great.

People assume I eat a lot of seafood when I’m in Portland. I eat a lot of fish, not a lot of shellfish. (I eat a lot of nonfish too: Indian, Thai, barbecue, and the best duck I’ve ever had.) I’ve never been someone who thought that a bigass lobster was the treat of a lifetime.

After a 25-year hiatus, I did get up the nerve to eat some raw oysters at a nice little bar, and I didn’t hate them. I don’t crave them, but they’re interesting, so oceany, and with a crisp glass of Gavi, it’s a sweet little happy hour.

And then there’s Una, my favorite martini bar. I don’t know why I love it so much. Maybe it’s the company I’ve kept there. Maybe it’s just that I miss cities, and it feels so urban. Maybe it’s because the martinis are good. When I get there early enough to sit at the bar, I’m a happy, tipsy camper.

Have I mentioned the movies? There are eight screens within walking distance, and the downtown theaters tend to run some of the more indie stuff that may never get to my corner of Vermont. The closest movie theater to my house is a half-hour drive.

The people Tim works with are exceptional. I know, they have to be nice to Client Tim, but they’ve become our friends, socializing with us in the off-hours beyond the call of duty. Peter has invited us to two company Christmas parties at his house, parties that I, introvert, have really enjoyed. Tim sometimes plays music with George and Emma at their house; if I’m there, I hang with ultracool wife/mom Michelle.

I leave Friday to join Tim for about 10 days. I’m already getting antsy, wondering if I can wait that long. There are definitely things to look forward to. On Tim’s last trip, in January, Len turned him on to a new restaurant/bar, and rumor has it that three of us must go there one night. I’m going to love it. I’m picking up my very first commissioned piece of art on this trip, by Louise, who works in—among other things—piano parts. On Saturday night, I’m going to my first-ever roller derby, starring Heidi. I’m utterly psyched and need to start reviewing the rules.

Maybe I can get Wendy to teach me to shoot this trip. I should send her an e-mail.

Portland’s become a home-away-from-home. It’s highly artificial on some levels, of course. I mean, if we moved there, our lives would be nothing like the charmed downtown existence we lead as Tim lives on expense account and I spend my allowance on food and drink. We would be caught up in real life, life with chores always looking us in the face, life with major bills to pay, life with little time for friends because everyone’s just too busy. In Portland, we live in a hotel-room bubble. We have time for each other and other people. How does one make that happen at home?

Don’t get me wrong. I love where I live, and it helps to spend the daily grind near mountains, streams, and little traffic. There are reasons I left the city. But there’s a part of me that will always be urban, and it needs to be fed. That Tim’s job takes him to this seaport gives me that.

There are eiders in the bay. I don’t see many eiders in landlocked Vermont. And Portland mockingbirds speak seagull. I love that.

Time to Pack.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

O is for Owls

I keep hoping they will wake me up.

It’s getting to be time for owls to mate. The stream running through the farmer’s fields and the nearby patches of woods make for perfect roosting and hunting grounds.

The ones most likely to wake me are the barreds and great-horneds. The barreds are just loud, conversational.* The great-horneds are softer, and they awaken me more gently. I love the mnemonic used for their call: Who’s awake? Me too!

These first awakenings happen behind closed windows, as it’s far too cold to be sleeping with them open. It is almost always I who wake up, almost never Tim, as I am by far the lighter sleeper. At first suspicion that I may have really heard something, I get up, walk around the bed to the windows, and open the one closest to the stream. I stoop down and stick my face up to the screen. I listen as long as I can stand it.

The next-most-often-heard owl here is the eastern screech. I love its sound. It’s the spooky-owl one. Such complexities for such a little bird! Its vibrato is the essence of spring.

The one and only time I heard a saw-whet owl, it woke me up. The Cornell recording doesn’t sound exactly like what I heard, but friends have described the saw-whet’s call as “a spaceship backing up.” Just so you know, a spaceship backing up sounds a bit like whetting a saw. I so wish I could hear it again.

I think I have only heard a barn owl twice (and a barn owl has never woken me up). The first time was almost scripted. Tim and I were heading to Chincoteague to camp with some friends, one who’s practically an ornithologist. On the way, I wondered aloud what a barn owl sounded like, because it’s not included on the Peterson tapes. When we got to the campground, we asked Chuck, who became suddenly alert and said, “Kind of like that!” as a barn owl screamed above us. Chuck managed to get his megapowerful flashlight on the bird as it flew by, and we got a look. People have likened the cry of this owl to the scream of a child. It’s a frightening sound. The second time, I was walking along the rail trail after dark, by the farmer’s fields. This barn owl was also on the wing, its screams drawing close, then veering away.

Owls. It’s almost Equinox. It’s time for one of them to wake me up.

Who’s awake?

*Tim can do a pretty good imitation of a barred owl and can occasionally get an answer when he calls. But it’s an outdoor trick, not relevant to getting the wild ones to wake me as I’m sleeping indoors. Of course, if Tim was awake and I was asleep, he could possibly trick me.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

N is for Nest

We were riding our bikes on the rail trail when I passed it on the ground. I slammed on the brakes. Tim was way ahead of me, of course. It was an oriole nest. I picked it up and stuck it in my pack. Now we keep it in Tim’s studio.

An oriole nest is a perfect, woven sack. Orioles build them high up in the tree, in branches overhanging streams, paths, roads. It seems I often see them in what I think is the same place from year to year, but a little research tells me that orioles don’t reuse nests—although they may recycle materials from old nests in the same tree.

There was an oriole nest in the tree in our next-door neighbor’s front yard. The tree was half dead. We could see the nest when it was occupied, and it stayed where it was for a couple of years, I think. It survived winters and windstorms. I loved walking under it, looking up, seeing it was still there.

At the beginning of January, my neighbors took the tree down.

It was the right thing to do. But I hate seeing trees go, and I hate losing that oriole nest, that oriole tree. I wonder if they’ll feel betrayed.

Of course, orioles and their nests will still be around. I’ll see them along the rail trail. I’ll see them on that particular bend of the Mettawee River if I wade up far enough. And there’s a tree across the street, way up on the hill, where—if I stretch my hammock between the hooks on my porch and actually lie down in it (an all-too-rare occurrence), then place binoculars to my eyes—I can see them flitting in and out of a nest. They are so perfectly orange against the blue blue sky.

Monday, March 12, 2007

M is for Monkeys-See, Monkeys-Do

For Christmas, I received the entire run of Get Smart on DVD (M is for Max!). This show is one of my earliest memories of comedy and understanding its importance. It is a very silly show, but smart silly, and I enjoy even the dumbest parts.

However, I recently saw an episode that included a chimpanzee. Why have so many sitcoms eventually resorted to the chimpanzee episode? Writers must think that other people think chimpanzees are funny. Maybe they’re right. It just seems lazy to me.

[Spoiler alert!] The use of the chimp in this Get Smart episode wasn’t too overdone; he didn’t get that much screen time. The chimp was used by a killer to lock a trailer from the inside after a murder. Still, they resorted to the chimp joke.

None of this has anything to do with monkeys, of course, as chimpanzees and monkeys aren’t the same thing. But no doubt that episode put me in a monkey mind frame as the letter M rolled around here.

The few monkeys I have personally encountered (monkeys-see) are nothing like the funny, friendly chimpanzees of stage and screen.

I once spent three days at a birding lodge in Belize. My body is never happy about traveling, and it was a rough trip, but being there was one of the most spectacular things to ever happen to me. We were in a rain forest, and not only were we surrounded by amazing birds—there were also spider and howler monkeys about. When we checked in, we were told that we’d hear the howler monkeys overnight. I asked what they sounded like. Oh, I’d know them when I heard them, they assured me. That night I heard lots of unfamiliar jungle sounds, including something I figured was a big cat. That turned out to be the howler monkey.

Mostly, we watched groups of spiders and howlers in the trees. They were close by, but binoculars greatly enhanced the experience. A couple of times we were really close to groups of spider monkeys in treetops right above us; they never seemed bothered. Once, though, Tim and I wandered into a particular howler monkey’s territory. He (the monkey) was none too pleased and very vocal about it. I was as intimidated as he intended me to be as he followed us from so many feet up. I may be bigger, but it’s likely he could have taken me in a fight. He’d have the dropping-from-the-sky advantage, too. They look like very good droppers.

The only other monkey I’ve met lives a couple of miles away, in the wilds of my neighbors’ house. He’s a pygmy marmoset named Chiclet: tiny, with a perfect feathery-fur mane. When out of his cage, he is diapered and tethered to one of his owner’s shirts—usually Ed’s. Chiclet likes the warmth between shirt and skin, so we rarely actually see him, even when he’s in the room. He’s not friendly to the rest of us—in fact, it’s clear he’d be happier if we weren’t around—but he’s completely devoted to his owners.

It seems monkeys-do not like me.

That’s okay. Deep down, I know the birds don’t either. But they’ve seldom shown outright hostility.

Friday, March 9, 2007

L is for Lorna Doones

Plural. The shortbread cookies. It may say Lorna Doone on the box, but I’ve never eaten just one.

And I’ve never read the (singular) book.

When we worked together, on particularly rough days, Dana and I would do a line o’Lornas.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

K is for Kestrel

I saw a kestrel the other day perched on the telephone wire, hunting, ready to take off and kill something. He knows it’s March, even though it was –10 degrees F (–23.3° C) when I woke up this morning. Very unMarchlike. I hope he found a yummy mouse or vole and is still out there surviving this.

I spotted a few kestrels over the winter, but one really starts to see them here this month, up on the wires, spaced evenly between territories. Tim and I can also count on seeing a pair every year in a farmer’s field behind our house. They nest in a tall dead elm trunk. More than once we’ve had our binoculars on them while they were mating. I’m not sure what that says about us, exactly, but I can’t say we weren’t into it.