Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Charge Ahead, Fall Down, Get Up, Repeat (New Year's Wishes, 2013)

From our bedroom window looking north.

2013 came at us from Day One with reminders of what winter used to be like, could still be like, north of 45 degrees latitude in the center of a continental land mass.  The thermometer registered 18-below on New Year’s morning at 7:30, then actually dropped a couple more notches, stopping at minus-20 as the sun crept over the southeast hill.  I looked at the dial with some disbelief, but when I stepped outside and heard the deck boards creak and groan with a frigid lament under my feet, I believed (I have not over-indulged this holiday season, so I’m certain excess weight wasn’t the cause of this phenomenon).  Also my nose hairs went instantly crispy, and my still sleepy eyes were like to be glued shut if I had stayed outside a minute longer.

Odd thing was, the needle stayed put at -20 as the sun grew stronger; Mary eventually went out and gave the dial a tap, and it jumped up suddenly to near zero.  Who knows where we actually bottomed out?  Cold enough.  But it warmed enough by mid-morning that we (Mary and I, guests Martha and Tom ) got into our skiing togs and hit the trails.  A glorious day for it—with bright sun and little wind the exertions quickly warmed us.  Lily charged ahead of us over the crest of the hill and her pounding paws kicked up a flurry of powdery snow while her breath billowed out in a steamy cumulus, caught in the sun’s sharp near-solstice angle on the line where snow meets sky.
We skied over the hayfield hill, swooping down the eastern slope to the boundary with LeRoy and Shelly’s land, traversed back up to the top and came down toward the house through the old pasture.  I took the hill first, on a slightly different line than I had taken before, and as I came around the curve and over the knob with speed, I saw that divot, and I thought Oh, crud….  I believe I was airborne for a moment; then I was anything but.  Wipe out. It must have been impressive, but I don’t know if anyone saw.  I got up and shook it off; I was a little embarrassed, but more exhilarated.

Top of the hayfield hill.

One thing I’ve been trying to do a lot while skiing this year is to fall down.  I know that might sound odd, and counter to the general aim of skiing, but I feel that one of the best things a 54-year-old can do is to fall down in the snow—provided that he is able to get up again, of course.  The key is to not be afraid of falling—charge ahead, fall down, get up, repeat.

That’s going to be the theme of 2013 for me.  I’m avoiding the resolutions game.  Except that I have already publicly resolved to eat more Wisconsin cheese.  And I want to learn to play Johnny B. Goode on the Ibanez Artcore electric guitar that Mary surprised me with on my birthday last October, best present ever.

Best present ever, the Ibanez "Blue Beauty"

But back to the ski trail—and just to digress here a bit: I have discovered this winter that one key to perfect bliss for me is to be able to step out my back door and ski in my very own woods; it’s a luxury, for sure, but one that I appreciate fully.
I took Martha and Tom through the woods to the northern tip of our land while Mary stayed out in the field (she’s particularly averse to trees on skis as she’s still just picking up the sport).  The woods trails could use some improvements, as there are a lot of downed trees and some brushy patches with no clear way through, but it is so quiet and beautiful there in the snow, skiing is really just a way to get there.  One charming thing I’ve noticed this winter is that there are often deer tracks running right down the ski trails—I don’t know if this is because the deer and I share an intuition about the best way through the woods, or if the deer are cleverly taking advantage of our efforts to lessen their energy output in the cold snowy weather.  Or perhaps they’re curious about these odd emanations in the snow, and follow them wondering what sort or creature they will lead to.  At any rate, it creates a pleasant feeling of simpatico with the animals, like, yeah, we all live here together.  We often see deer at a distance, in the woods at dusk, but I’ve noticed the hoofprints following the ski tracks nearly right up to our back door.

Après-ski, a warming lunch, and Mary and Martha sat on the couch knitting while Tom and I flipped through the Fäviken cookbook they brought us as a gift, wondered about just how tasty would be a tea brewed from forest leaves that have “almost turned into soil,” and vowed that we would mature our own cider vinegar in a charred, hollowed-out stump, so help us Odin.  (Fäviken is a Swedish restaurant on the cutting edge of atavistic Nordic cuisine, employing ultra-local ingredients like, yes, old leaves, moss, lots of other foraged stuff that is very far removed, indeed, from the typical European luxury ingredients like truffles and foie gras.  Some—well, a lot—of the recipes read like parodies of obsessive-compulsive chefdom in pursuit of the hottest trend, and yet I find the idea of digging down (literally and figuratively) into northern culinary roots really fascinating.  It’s the very idea I’m slowly developing for my next concerted project, as I look for emblematic foods, methods, and recipes that speak compellingly of our place.)

Tom and Martha took their leave mid-afternoon, to get back to town before full dark, and I took a nap.  I just zonked out, and woke feeling as if I were getting sick.  But I willed myself out of bed, put on my Swedish Army surplus wool knickers, whistled for Lily (Annabel, 14-and-a-half, pretty much just putters around the yard in the winter), pulled on the ski boots, clicked into the bindings, and headed back up the hill just as it was turning to dusk.  I followed the path along the edge of the field and then, near the top of the hayfield hill, turned left and worked a traversing course up to the highest point on our property, stopping along the way to remove a section of barbed wire.  I got to the top of the hill where a serious deer stand—ours, inherited—is slowly going back to nature, the plywood walls delaminating one by one.  Then I skied out to the tip of the promontory I romantically think of as “The Grande Esplanade”; from here there is a marvelous view of our house and outbuildings far below, and the valley and ridgelines running off to the south and west.
It was pretty much dark now.  I took in the view, and the silence, only enhanced by the bit of breeze that rattled some frigid branches.  A very light snow was falling, but I couldn’t really see it, only felt the flakes touch my face.  With my literary education and inclinations, I couldn’t help thinking of Frost, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and that was okay.  Whose woods these were, I knew.  The woods were lovely, dark, and deep, but I did not have miles to go before I slept.

In our woods going up is often easier than going down—certainly less dangerous.  But coming back down last night I found the line I’d been looking for all winter:  a long traverse of the big swale, between the oaks and maples, avoiding deadfalls and stumps and hidden barbed wire, so that I made it from near the top to the edge of the woods in one exhilarating run, in control but with enough pace to make it interesting.  It felt like an accomplishment, as if I’d worked out a writing problem, and it made me feel like, yeah, I will learn how to play Johnny B. Goode, the coolest song ever.

Then I skied to the top of the hayfield hill and finished with a lovely downhill run with a decent telemark turn, and as I glided into the yard I thought for some reason of Hemingway, something reminded me of a story from In Our Time.  I can’t help it; I’m made that way.

For New Year’s dinner Mary and I raided the fridge for leftovers—a couple of shrimp fritters that were excellent reheated and dabbed with mayonnaise; home-smoked duck breast and its accompanying sauce, so luxurious served on toast with a carrot slaw, “leftovers” seems a wholly inappropriate term.  Then the last remnants of some excellent cheese, Uplands Pleasant Ridge Reserve, and aged Marieke gouda (off to a good start on one resolution…).  We were both weary, we didn’t talk about too much, but it was pleasant.  We sat in our usual living room chairs and noshed.  Mary went to bed around ten; I practiced Johnny B. Goode for a while.  I’ve got about two-thirds of the intro down pretty good.

From my office/spare bedroom window; note Tom (L) and Martha's (R) herringbone ski tracks up the hill, impressive.

Thinking about the events of last year makes my head spin—we bought a house, sold a house, left the city for the country, plunged into home renovations, learned to live in a whole new place, embraced it; my mother went into a nursing home, had to leave her old life behind for one with not promising prospects, but she’s doing okay, has such a positive attitude, she sustains us all; our old dog Annabel had a major health crisis last winter (because of various and numerous fabric items she consumed), and last summer, a seizure, so she’s now on a daily dose of doggy downers; Mary became a country-to-city commuter; book events crescendoed in the fall then completely tailed off (don’t forget, I’m available for birthday parties, bar/bat mitzvahs, bachelorettes, etc.!). 

I hardly fished, barely hunted.  I found morels in our yard, chanterelles where I expect to find them, and missed out on most of the other mushrooms.  Our garden produced a lot of squash, but our apple trees bore little fruit.  We ate exceedingly well, and I grew rather tired of taking pictures of food, or looking at them.  Cutting, hauling, and splitting oak logs to feed our wood furnace has become a consuming concern for me; we could turn on the LP furnace, but to me that feels like a moral failure.  I’m heading up the hill with the chain saw and the ice fishing sled this afternoon.

Not the easiest way to heat a  house, but among the more interesting.

What’s past is past (or not, ask Faulkner), and I’m taking a clean slate approach.  Charge ahead, fall down, get up, repeat.  Focus on the possibilities; it’s never too late.  Resolutely avoid resolutions (except as noted).  Let conclusions present themselves.  Some of this applies to the future of Trout Caviar, as its five-year anniversary nears.   It’s usual to say something like, “Five years ago I never would have believed I’d be writing this damn thing five years later…”, but since, when I started this journal I didn’t put a term limit on it, it sort of makes sense that I’m still doing it, especially in light of the book, and all.

Which is to say:  I’m not sure about the future of Trout Caviar.  I ended the year in a bit of a slump, with only a brief, herring-induced bounce-back; I wonder how long the topic can remain fresh, or why, ultimately, I would keep at it.  I know I am not alone in this, since if you click on many of the sites in my “We Read These” list, you’ll find that there’s not much new to read on a lot of them.  It is probably melodramatic to say that I have seen the best blogs of my generation destroyed by madness, or that the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of a passionate intensity….  Well, melodramatic and derivative, and wrong.  If some of our comrades have fallen by the cyber-wayside, others have picked up the torch and race onward.

Nonetheless, what seems fairly clear to me is that the thrilling promise of a true “Internet community” is paling more than a little.  I’ll bet there are plenty of you reading this who have resolved to spend less time on-line, get off Facebook, give up Twitter.  Who doesn’t want to live her or his life more fully in the actual moment?  There’s good stuff to be gleaned from the Interwebs; it’s setting the limits that is tough.

I revile myself for caring about how many Twitter followers I have (300!), and I believe that the whole of social media creates a lot more heat than light, while at the same time, thanks to the “blogosphere” I’ve met lots of people who have enriched my life.  I’m not planning to crawl into a cave; or, if I do, I’ll be sure to bring my iPhone….

What I meant to say was:  Happy New Year.  The designation is arbitrary, sure, but nonetheless significant.  Marking passages is important, can lend clarity.  I hope your 2013 is filled with satisfaction and growth; that the people and things around you compel your interest, and that you spread it to others.  I wish you moments of calm reflection, bursts of inspiration.  Thanks for hanging around here.  It means a lot to me.

Cheers~ Brett