Cruisin’

My friend and I took a cruise last weekend. Not the kind of cruise that involves lido decks and midnight buffets, but a sweet glide through the pristine Essex River Marsh. The kind of cruise that would disappoint Captain Stubing and Gopher but that delighted two ocean-loving beachgoers. And while we enjoyed the green marsh against the blue sky, the occasional heron, and boat passengers waving as we went by, we were surprised to discover that the tiny pontoon boat had both a bathroom and a bar. Nice amenities for a long day at sea, but kind of odd for a ride that lasts an hour and a half.

While the bar might be a welcome treat for passengers, it is not when one passenger imbibes and then proceeds to talk so loudly as to drown out the riverboat guide who is giving a little history of the area. SOMEONE WHO TALKS THIS LOUDLY FOR THE ENTIRE CRUISE. I started to understand why some women weren’t offered a lifeboat when the Titanic went down.

As for the bathroom: really? A tiny port-a-potty on a boat was exactly that–the kind of place you’d only go if you were truly desperate. Apparently, 80% of the cruisers were truly desperate. I know because we sat by the bathroom. Astounded by the number of people with weak bladders, I was more astounded that the culprits were not the older folks you’d imagine might need a bathroom. They were antsy people and kids and bathroom lovers who I think used the facilities with a saloon-like door for the novelty of it. I was very, very close to making a public announcement about USING THE BATHROOM BEFORE YOU GET ON THE BOAT and REMEMBERING THAT THERE WILL BE A BATHROOM WHEN YOU GET OFF THE BOAT. But then I remembered that I’d be trapped on a little boat with angry people who might pee on me or toss me overboard, which, in retrospect, does not sound so bad; I might have enjoyed a leisurely sidestroke back to the dock with the soft chirping of birds and the gentle lapping of water on the shore.

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Essex

Thwarted by the weather, my friend and I gave up on our planned beach day and had fried haddock and clams by the Essex River marsh. This duck, thinking deep duck thoughts, took advantage of the muggy overcast day to contemplate his life. We stopped at a colorful, cluttered farm stand where the chatty Greek owner told us in great detail how to cook everything and chastised the women in front of us for never having tried heirloom tomatoes. Rookies.

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Yard sale finds

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I never understood why museum goers enjoy gazing at the portraits of strangers. I mean, why? Even someone noteworthy like George Washington, a fine subject with perfect curls, is not a face I need to study. Art for art’s sake, perhaps. Or maybe I’m meant to have a moment of communion with the father of our country.

But this weekend at a yard sale I spied a luminous rendering of a woman I’ve never met staring back at me from the driveway. I walked around browsing the goods, but I kept going back to her.

“What’s the story with the portrait?” I asked the young woman selling it.

“Oh, that’s Jane,” she said. “But we call her Edith. It was done in the fifties. She was a neighbor.”

Several questions sprung to mind:

Why Edith? She was a plain Jane but Edith did seem to fit more. I thought of Edith from All in the Family, Edith from Downton Abbey.

Why would anyone have a portrait of a neighbor?

Why did this young woman keep it for so long?

Who painted it?

Was Edith part of a neighbor love triangle?

I didn’t pry. But I wish I had.

“How much are you asking?”

“Twenty dollars,” she said. “I really don’t want to sell it.” In the background her husband indicated that he did. “We’re moving to Michigan and we can’t take her with us. Really.” He silently pleaded with me to rid them of Edith.

Indeed, Edith, rendered in pastels and trapped in her vintage frame, is not cut out for Michigan. She doesn’t have the outerwear. For $15 with a couple of shirts thrown in that Edith would never be caught dead in, I brought her home and propped her up to see where I might hang her. Every time I look over there she’s looking at me. Such a starer.

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Seaside

I think what you will take away from my day trip to Annisquam, Rockport and Gloucester is that the sky was very, very blue. Boats bobbed on the river and boys jumped off a bridge but only when I turned my head. Let this be your moment of tranquility before fall begins and you are tugged in different directions. Maybe you’re a student or teacher beginning a new chapter which will be unrelenting until the holidays. Or maybe you’re just someone sniffling softly at the waning of summer. I’ll keep this spot here for when you need a moment.
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Yard sale finds

At a raucous yard sale with kids and dogs milling around the merch, I ask an old woman how much she’d like for her vintage olive suitcase.

“Can’t take any money for it, dear,” she says. “I can’t remember the lock combination.”

I test it out and confirm that yes, the suitcase is locked, but since I intend to use it on my stack-of-suitcases nightstand, it hardly matters. Though it does feel strange to buy something you can’t open or use for its intended purpose. It also feels wrong to take it for free.

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“Wait, is there drug money in there?” I ask.

“I should think not! It’s empty.”

I offer her some money, but she won’t hear of it, so I head home with a small suitcase that a stranger tells me is empty, but that makes me wonder, especially when my cat sniffs it all over. If you are a retired spy and know how to bust open a locked suitcase, let me know.

In addition to the mysterious suitcase, I also score a couple of necklaces and tops before something compels me to buy this kitschy fisherman needlepoint from a woman who says it was her mother-in-law’s, and who perhaps isn’t sorry to see it go. I add it to my wall of eclectic art.

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In Hudson, I buy antlers

Hudson is a not-yet-comfortable mix of super high-end antique stores and families living in poverty on the next street over. A tough mix but a reality of so many towns converting their old buildings downtown to lofts and studios. It’s a destination for Manhattanites furnishing their summer homes and for me looking for a treasure under $50. The Red Chair, a beautifully curated shop of Belgian and French antiques and textiles, invites visitors to linger, but the prices reflect the time and energy it must have taken the owner to scout out treasures in the French countryside and lug them back to the States.  The street is one long stretch of colorful shops and cafes, and it feels like scouring a flea market with air-conditioned pockets; a view of the Hudson awaits at the end of the street.

The work of artist Lee Musselman graces numerous storefronts along the main street, many in the form of doll head figures the artist calls “spiritual guides.” The shops are showing support for an artist who celebrates found objects–a man now in failing health. One shop where Lee worked has two deep bins of his art scraps: antlers, bones, dolls, tin. I dig out a pair of antlers with a tuft of fur still attached and buy it; the money will go to his caregiver. I spend a moment thinking of this artist I’ve only just learned about and about the deer who shed its antlers, unaware that a piece of it might the next day become art.

Hudson shops

Lee Musselman art

I love (Tivoli) NY

Movie scouts, listen up. You should film something in Tivoli. It’s quite possibly the sweetest little town in New York. I walk past the book shop, the vegetarian cafe, the colorful Mexican restaurant, the corner laundromat and half-wonder if real people live here. Its small, four-way intersection has stop signs, no lights, and is the hub of the town–the type of place where your waiter yells out to the guy walking by, “You got a haircut!” then continues taking your order.

The library, located in a renovated fire station, is open on Friday nights for neighborhood kids to gather and make stuff. Couples bike through town on old-fashioned bikes and precocious kids order their steak quesadillas medium-rare. I realize later that Bard is down the street. The waiter at Santa Fe tells me that yes, real people live here, some families, some professors, some students who attend Bard and some who never leave. The restaurant has the requisite twinkly lights. The porches are reminiscent of New Orleans or Savannah. The street signs are funky. Gardens are in bloom. When I visit the restaurant later in the week, the waiter comes over to say hello, like we’re old friends. I really like it here.

Santa Fe restaurant

Tivoli library

Children's room at Tivoli library

Tivoli library entrance

The Lost Sock

Painting of Tivoli four corners

Murray's

Horseshoe and plaque on Black Swan bar

Country mouse

My friends give me a hard time because I don’t have curtains on my windows. They’re just . . . too much. Yes, I suppose someone walking by could see me half-naked, but the chances are slim because I live across from a cemetery. I’m cool with ghosts checking me out. So when I arrive at my vacation rental and see a wall of windows, I am in heaven (ironically, where all the ghosts are). It’s like staying in the Philip Johnson Glass House. The only difference is that my house is not in the middle of the country so when it’s lights out on vacation, it’s the darkest darkness I’ve ever seen. Fireflies are welcome little flashlights.

As you might imagine, it’s also very quiet, aside from moths batting themselves against the windows and really, really big beetles that hurl themselves at the door so fiercely it sounds like someone is knocking. Which is a scary thought in the middle of the night. In the middle of nowhere.  Insect static aside, the quiet and stillness are welcome in a world filled with noise. And serendipity being what it is, I happen upon a fantastic podcast, On Being with Krista Tippett and the first episode I hear is an interview with Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist trying to preserve the few remaining quiet places in the world. The man really listens. Also, is that not the coolest job? Anyway, he doesn’t define quiet as the absence of all noise, but the absence of man-made or non-natural noise. Even in the quiet woods there are leaves rustling and water dripping and birds singing. I hear it all this week.

Red Hook windows

House at night

The same view at night. And this is with an exterior light on.

Dark dirt road

 

The daylight trickles in, dampened by thick tree cover that keeps the house cool in the midst of a heat wave. Maple roams the house sniffing everything, while I appreciate the well-appointed house and its mid-century modern charm. I pretend that I live there, enjoying the Bose system and walk-in shower, and devour weeks of New York magazine. I’m stealing a lot of their ideas–an old hospital cart that holds toiletries, taxidermied animals that are not as creepy as they sound, and this fantastic suitcase idea:

Suitcase of books

I have a suitcase, books and magazines too. This will happen pronto.

Maple on washer

Maple finds it is coolest on the washer

Rural life

Why didn’t anyone tell me about the Hudson River Valley? What a beautiful, well-kept secret. Now that I’ve brought it to your attention, visitors by the millions will flock there–aside from Manhattanites who do seem to know about it, buying up old homes in towns along the river and renovating them into stylish weekend retreats. I rented a house in Red Hook for my birthday week, packed up the cat (no, into the crate) and headed west. A mere three hours later, we turned onto a dirt road with no street sign, signaled by a row of mailboxes on the main road, and bumped a slow mile to the end and where the house stood nestled in the deep woods. A deer welcomed us into the yard, then bounded away down to the creek flowing under an old trestle bridge. The place promised solitude and darkness and delivered both. The instructions said to bring a flashlight if arriving after dark; had I arrived in the dark, I probably wouldn’t have made it halfway down the road before turning around, terrified.

I took a leisurely drive (while it was still daylight, mind you) around the area dotted by farmland and thick with wildlife. Painted homemade signs announced farm stands or baby goats every few miles. Fresh farm breakfasts and pies abounded. Well, when in Rome.

Greig Farm

Gigi Market

Farm chickens

Deer in the backyard

Yard sale finds

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If you ever shopped at the original Filene’s Basement in Boston, you know if you saw something you coveted  you had to grab it, despite who was holding on to it at the other end. Bargains are strangers to politeness. At a yard sale today, I spied an antique wooden toolbox that another shopper had her grimy hands on. Not one to actually take it out of her hands, I waited until she walked away, debating the $20 price and what she would do with it. No debate necessary from my point of view; I got it for $15. It was my only find, aside from a $3 bag of potting soil that a guy nicely hosed down for me (you can keep the slugs, thanks) and put in my car. The soil will go right in the toolbox, which I plan to use as a planter, while the other woman berates herself for walking away. But given the sad state of my plants after the heat wave, she’ll probably get the last laugh.

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Note to the child selling lemonade: people do not like when you act as a personal shopper and follow them around, asking them if there’s anything they’re looking for and would you like to buy some lemonade? No, no I wouldn’t, because I’ve seen kids in the kitchen and you’re . . . germy. But I’m a sucker for an articulate kid who seemed disappointed that “nothing was too my liking” and gave him a quarter for his icky Crystal Light. Kid’s gonna be a salesman. At least when he’s older I can hang up on him.

 

Miscellany

* I don’t understand manicures. The smell is unbearable and all that filing grates on my last nerve. Plus, I feel bad for the woman who has to handle my feet. Not that they’re bad; they’re quite desirable from a manicurist’s point of view. But still, they’re feet and I wouldn’t want to scrape off someone’s dead skin or massage their swollen feet.

* It’s cold enough here today to crave soup. Like 30 degrees colder than every day last week. I was so chilly I had to wear a gray cardigan over my gray cowl neck and yes, it looked ridiculous. And yes, I was just complaining about how hot it was. But today, brrr. In my endless hunt for authentic ramen, which is a continual let down since I live about four hours from Ippudo in NYC–the spot for ramen, I tried a newish Japanese place around the corner from my office called Bento Express. They serve ramen in a bowl the size of a fish tank, steaming hot (note: steaming hot fish tank, not a good idea). Funny how the things you’re looking for are often right around the corner.

But not always, because you know what’s not right around the corner? Paris. An old-fashioned ice cream parlor. An affordable Whole Foods. Something that isn’t Dunkin’ Donuts.

* My frugalista co-worker sauntered in with a coral mini skirt bordering on neon that called to me. I heard it. You need me, it said. Not one to deny the voices in my head I bought it at H&M for under $20. “I promise not to wear it on days that you work,” I told my co-worker because 1) that would be lame, 2) she retains fashion ownership–the equivalent of intellectual property–on this skirt, and 3) I would lose the Who Wore it Better? contest, hands down.

H & M skirt

A 15-year-old blogger also wearing it better than I.

Yard sale finds

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A 7-day heat wave ends tonight. And weeks of a yard sale shopping drought ended this morning. Traveling and weather have thwarted my bargain hunting, but today, in 90° temps, I made it to the handful of sales that were on (picture sellers languishing in the shade of a tent after dragging their belongings out into their hot yards) and got exactly one thing. And that was enough.

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The lump in the bed is not a giant pea but my cat enjoying the cool sheets.

I found the loveliest patchwork duvet cover that looks like vintage tea towels sewn together. At Anthropologie it would be $325. At a yard sale, it was $20 for the cover, bed skirt and two shams. I hesitated because it was a full size and my bed is a queen, and while I’ve made that mistake before (but this chenille bedspread is so cute it HAS to fit), this time it was the perfect size, proving once and for all that the full / double bed designation is a strange one.

Media miscellany

* If you prefer your movies with more conversation and less leaping off tall buildings, do yourself a favor and see Before Midnight, the third in the Ethan Hawke / Julie Delpy trilogy of romantic 20-somethings who meet traveling through Europe in Before Sunrise and then meet up nine years later in Before Sunset. That second one has one of the best endings as movies go. In Before Midnight it’s another nine years later and the couple is married with twin girls. Life interrupts as it does for married couples with kids who can no longer pick up and go to Europe, except that they are in Greece, actually, so life isn’t so bad. The film comprises just a handful of scenes, all long and intimate and believable given the natural dialogue. Find some cool indie theater that’s playing all three. And expect After Midnight in another ten years with that Eric Clapton song playing in the background as the pair meanders down some cobblestone street in Venice.

* I’m re-watching all eight hours of The Thorn Birds, which is exactly the kind of melodrama needed to kick off summer: a hot, windy Australia setting; forbidden love; priest passion. It has it all. Rumor has it there’s also a “Lost Years” episode, which I will be devouring like Richard Chamberlain devours Rachel Ward in the classic scene on the beach. Where else can you get a line like “I never felt such ecstasy in God’s presence as I felt with her”? The Bridges of Madison County, I guess.

The Thorn Birds

* Do you remember Valotte, the album (and I mean album) by Julian Lennon from 19 freakin’ 84? I LOVED that man and his soft brown eyes and flowy hair, sitting on a pebble by the river playing guitar, which only now strikes me as strange. A pebble is very small and uncomfortable. Should have been rock, though I guess that was only one syllable. I see your problem, Julian. “Boulder” could have worked. Call me. But I digress, the Hey Jude dude came out with a new album this summer!! I’ve only been waiting nearly three decades. I sort of gave up on you, man. And that’s saying something because I bought your second album (possibly a tape, by then) called The Secret Value of Daydreaming. And let’s face it, Help Yourself in 1991 didn’t really count. Your new release Everything Changes is so long in coming that you bypassed the entire CD era and will go straight to digital and into my playlist titled “Music no one else buys.” Oh, who am I kidding; all my music is stuff no one else buys–and I  don’t mean that in some hipster way.

The silences of poetry

If you’ve ever been to a poetry reading, you know the silence after a poem is read. It’s a moment of reverence, appreciation, or simply I don’t get it. The rule is that you listen and hold your applause. But after fiery poems or protest poems or poems about sex and breakups, rowdy audiences applaud. Somewhere in that middle ground is a little sound that listeners emit when a poet closes a poem. A sigh, an “mmm,” a subdued acknowledgment that as an audience, says, We are moved.

The Massachusetts Poetry Festival last month was filled with rowdy poetry fans. At one reading by Nick Flynn, the applause started up and he warned that if we applauded for one, we’d better applaud for all or it was going to get mighty awkward. Poet Jill McDonough read a touching (!) poem about a classic Boston subject: road rage. At another headline event held in a church, applause reverberated again and again as Sharon Olds read poems of passion and Eduardo Corral read a poem in which a woman had names for each of her breasts. The atmosphere was electric; I felt like a Baptist ready to shout Preach it!

I’m no poet, but I’ve immersed myself in poetry over the last few years because it’s nourishing. I attended a 5-day workshop led by the brilliant Marie Howe at Omega, a bucolic campus in Rhinebeck, NY, where you could write by the lake or in a hammock or in the garden–real poet stuff. I’ve been enjoying the MA Poetry Festival every year and taking workshops on persona poems or catalogue poems or poetry collages. I’ve been reading more poetry, keeping Billy Collins’ quirky collections on my nightstand. And I’ve been writing poetry, which, according to a handful of real poets who read it, is not a good idea. The problem with a new interest is realizing that you will never be great . . . or even good. It’s a bit depressing, like taking up an instrument and realizing you have no ear or joining a dance class only to realize you are uncoordinated. One must accept one’s suckiness. Still, I resolve to keep experiencing poetry, if only for those moments when a writer lays a poem at your feet and you can offer nothing in return by a reverent silence because there is absolutely nothing to say.

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Where the wild things are

On a perfect, sunny, dry, tick-filled day, I explored the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, an Audubon property chock full of birds, birdwatchers, bridges, and beavers. You had to walk quietly and really look though. Animals weren’t exactly basking in the sun, craving human observation. They hid around every lone reed . . . standing tall, waving boldly–sorry, You’ve Got Mail diversion. It was easy to feel like John James Audubon himself, except that I’m not a male and I have close to no bird identification abilities. I’m good with sparrows, mockingbirds, crows, mourning doves, robins, nuthatches, and probably couldn’t mistake an eagle if one landed on me, but that’s about it. Thus, a duck:

Ducks in the reeds

Find the animal

Test your creature spotting skills: find and name the animal.

A volunteer at the visitor’s center told me late afternoon was not prime time for beavers that come out at dusk. But every time I lingered on a wooden bridge, a beaver came gliding by, darting into a narrow clearing in the weeds and heading for a dam, a virtual rush hour of beavers heading home. Turtles sunned themselves on logs, and herons stretched their wings in flight, casting enormous shadows. And just as I emerged from the path into a small section of woods at the end of the day, four deer crossed just in front of me, a meadow of sweet grass in view. I held my breath as they crossed; perhaps they held theirs too.

Beaver

Monet's bridge

Spiraling tree branches

Rookery

Gangsta cat

My friend tells me that my cat, Maple, is a little vandal. “Sit on the right side of the train when you head home and check out the abandoned train with graffiti all over it. You’ll see ‘Maple’ spray painted in a couple of places.”

Apparently, my cat has been tagging trains.

OK, so it probably isn’t my cat because I lock the door at night, so I know she can’t get out, but seriously, whose gangsta tag is “Maple”? It’s so . . . sweet.

On a lunch excursion this week, I spot this amazing piece of work on Stuart St. in Boston. The clever style smacks of Banksy. If you haven’t seen the documentary on this artist–Exit Through the Gift Shop–you should. It’s weird, like graffiti  done by a cat.

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A little research turned up the fact that the artists behind this are Os Gemeos (twins) who have also contributed art to the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston.

Garden club showdown

I like supporting local garden clubs rather than the giant Home Depot mass-produced plant department, and usually find a couple of interesting plants that I’ll manage to let wither in the sun by season’s end. I’m looking at you, lamium of cheerful yellow blooms.

I end up at the Driftwood Garden Club of Marblehead (say it with a heavy Down East accent, dahling) where plants are plentiful, artfully arranged, signs separate the annuals from the perennials, and hoards of helpful ladies who lunch are ready to answer questions about the best light and soil for the fanciest plants in Marblehead.

“I can’t believe they’re selling loosestrife,” a man tells me, clutching a bunch of pots. “It’s illegal because it’s invasive. Oh, this isn’t the illegal type,” he decides. I move away from him and the contagious plant.

Couples line cardboard boxes with their selections and $50, $60, $80 is exchanged. I have a heart-to-heart with myself (You’ll kill them. Don’t overdo it.) and buy some violets and the lamium, which a woman tells me nearly glows in the dark. I keep forgetting to venture out at night to see if it’s true.

On my way home, I stop at another plant sale in the more middle-class Salem. In a small church hallway, there’s a variety of greens–nothing in bloom yet–and admit it’s a bit of a sad scene after the fauna of the garden club in the neighboring town. I buy something because I feel bad, but for a dollar, it will probably outlive us all.

Also, these petite pink English daisies are now my favorite flower.

birdhouse and plants

Swans at rest

Because it’s spring and I work a block from the Boston Public Garden, I head over for a mini-retreat after lunch some days. When the swan boats are launched and the real swans return, it’s officially spring. No matter that scarves and gloves are still needed some days, it’s spring. Overnight it will be summer and kids on their last field trip before school ends will wonder why the swan boats aren’t air-conditioned.

Boston swan boats scene

swan boats