Land in the Sky: Historic Home

 

The Robert Frost House Museum in Vermont used to be a poet’s house. A sign at the gate says: “Open”. So I walk through the gate and head up to the house. Another sign says: “Come In.” I go in through a door. A lady with officious blue eyes is sitting behind the information desk. She is busy providing information to a young family—a couple with two little girls—about the dangers of ticks in the area. “Don’t even sit on the park benches around here,” she warns the innocents. “The ticks have learned that people like to sit on benches. So the ticks hide there and wait for you! And they will bite! It’s best that you don’t even go outside. Stay inside, where it’s safe.” One of the little girls looks like she’s about to cry. The parents exchange a look. The woman behind the information desk continues her homily concerning the great outdoors. I wait my turn. When she is done with the young family, they thank her and flee to their car. Now it’s my turn.

I step up to the desk. “Welcome to the historic home of Robert Frost,” she says without spirit. “How much to get in?” I ask. “Six dollars,” she says. I hand it over. She hands me a one-page museum guide and points to a door. Over the door hangs a sign that says: “Start Here”. So I do. I walk through the door into something called “The Robert Frost Room.” The walls are lined with display panels full of informative words and pictures. The only piece of furniture in the room is an old couch that once belonged to Robert Frost. A sign on the couch says not to sit on it. So I don’t.

Instead, I start reading the writing on the walls. It’s all about Robert Frost and his time in here in Vermont. It turns out that Robert Frost had several historic homes in New England. A couple of them were in New Hampshire and two in Vermont. The other historic Robert Frost home in Vermont is only a couple miles from this one. I wonder where, exactly. I enjoy visiting historic homes of writers and would like to see that one too. The pamphlet does not say. On the wall is an old picture of Robert Frost. He’s in his middle years. He’s sitting in a wooden chair in front of a big tree and he’s wearing suspenders. He looks like a poet caught between writing poems. The wall explains that this photo was taken right outside in the yard. It says: “You used to be able to look out that nearby window and see that very tree but it’s gone now.” I look out the window to see for myself. Nothing but a tangle of shrubbery. I move on to the next room.

This one is called “The Stopping by Woods Room”. The pamphlet tells why: “This is the historic spot where Frost wrote one of his most famous poems, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.’” I take a solemn look around the room. The pamphlet continues: “The entire room is devoted to this poem—the story of how it was written, a facsimile of the handwritten manuscript, a controversial comma, a presentation of meter and rhyme, what the critics said about the poem, and what Frost said about it.” I learn that he wrote the poem at the dining room table on a hot June morning in 1922. That particular table is not here anymore. There is a facsimile of it, and it’s for sale. I can’t afford it. What would I write on it anyway? I skip the informational panels in this room. I already know everything I need to know about this famous poem by Robert Frost. I probably know too much. I wish I could leave it all here for somebody else.

I exit The Stopping by Woods Room through another door. I find myself back where I started. There’s the lady at the information desk. She’s working on a crossword puzzle and does not look up. I ask her where the other historic Robert Frost home around here is. She looks up from her crossword puzzle and shakes her head with gusto: “No! It’s private.” So I ask her if this historic Robert Frost home that we’re in right here right now is haunted. I always ask that of docents when I visit historic homes. She looks at me sternly and says, “No! Not that I’m aware of.” She goes back to her crossword puzzle. I don’t have any more questions.

I leave the historic home of Robert Frost by the same door I entered. Outside, lying against a stone wall, is some brand new signage, not yet installed on the grounds. I have to tilt my head to read it. It’s a health alert. Something to do with ticks.

Land in the Sky: Seeking the Trailhead

A friend suggested I climb a little mountain in Vermont called Haystack. So I did. But the trailhead was not easy to find. It lay along an unfrequented dirt road. Vermont is the second least populous of the fifty states. The one or two farmers I asked directions from gave me stony looks and little else. I finally found the trailhead, which–like most things in the course of my days–came by accident. I started walking. I passed a couple of cows. A hermit thrush called from high in a tree. The brook I crossed was nearly dry. The top of the mountain looked like a farmer’s face, but with more sky and clouds and vistas abounding.

Land in the Sky: On Craft

Friday in the Catskill Mountains. Late afternoon, late May. Sitting on the back deck. The collie and I. On the other side of the mountain, a lineup of bands is tuning up for the annual Mountain Jam. Soon enough, Robert Plant will take the stage. Over here on the quiet side, I’m reading the words of a philosopher. And sipping some wine. The collie lies near my feet, chewing indolently on a bone. Occasionally, he glances up at a yellow butterfly flittering over the grass.

Once in a while the collie will jump up, stick his head between the deck rails, and commence barking—his way of shouting at the woodchuck who lives downslope in a pile of castaway fieldstones. “Get off my lawn!” He barks and he barks and he barks. I look up from my book, tell him to quiet down. He ignores me. I return to my book and read these words by the philosopher: “When I ‘have done with the world’ I shall have created an amorphous (transparent) mass and the world in all its variety will be left on one side like an uninteresting lumberyard.”

That gets me thinking. Maybe tomorrow I’ll leave the philosopher (and collie) behind and head over to Vermont. I’ll do a little hiking. Or maybe I’ll stop and visit that house in Shaftsbury where Robert Frost once lived. I’ve never been there. Or maybe I’ll drop by his grave in Old Bennington. I always enjoy that. A good poet’s grave is almost as good as the poetry. Some philosopher said that. No doubt, as I’m driving along the backroads of Vermont I’ll pass a few brewpubs. These days it’s hard not to. That wouldn’t be so bad, would it, to sample some craft beer? I need to find my craft somewhere. And who knows, along the way there might even be an interesting lumberyard.

Mountain Passages: Insider Info on Travel to Cuba

Thinking of traveling to Cuba anytime soon? Here are some thoughts, possibly useful, that will help. By Alan Stark

When you arrive at the Havana airport there are no jetways, only mobile ramps the ground crews roll up to airplane doors. These ramps look like they were made on a bad day in Romania. The plastic canopy around them has nearly gone opaque with sun damage and age. But here is a warning: It’s always warm in Cuba and mostly downright hot and humid. Don’t get caught behind a slowpoke going through one of these things unless, of course, being slow-cooked is of interest.

Once you are inside the airport, you will encounter immigration positions with a door at the far end. The sense is odd, like walking into a closet with an unfriendly young adult to one side who will decide whether you get the lady (or man), or the tiger. The security door buzzes open to a hanger-like hall with metal detectors and security people wearing starched light-brown uniforms. They are mostly handsome twenty-somethings, and the women have added a twist to their normal uniform—black lace stockings. The incongruity is starting, like encountering one of our bloused-booted, Glock-toting, immigration officers with a three-inch smiley-face pin on his chest.

Cuban WomanThe black lace stockings are a tip-off about what is to happen in Cuba—no, not everyone is going to be wearing black lace stockings. But Cuba is rapidly changing from a drab communist state clone to a multifaceted socialist state. The change appears to be irreversible, if they do it right, and make carefully thought-out changes to avoid huge dislocations. This could be another Velvet Revolution that created the Czech Republic. But, if the party holds onto power and there is no revolution, Cuba will be like Viet Nam, a Socialist government and a highly entrepreneurial population. Call it a the Salsa Revolution—for the Cubans are about to dance their way into the 21st century.

Money
There are hundreds of curiosities within the Cuban government, and many of these curiosities seem to have an antecedent of, “Lets throw this sugar cane at the wall and see if sticks.”

For example, there are two currencies in Cuba one is Cucs (kooks) that the government has set an exchange rate at 87 to US$100. Yup, there is a 13% commission charged by the government to trade dollars for Cucs. This is the currency used by tourists and should be acquired at the hotel on arrival. The second is the Peso that is used by the Cubans as well as Cucs. At this writing, there are no ATMs in Cuba, and credit cards are useless, everything a tourist buys in Cuba is with Cucs. The government doesn’t stop getting into your wallet on the way out of Cuba. When leaving, Cucs are exchanged for dollars at the airport again with a 13% charge. Give them 100 Cucs and they give you back US$87. However, there is a better deal to be had in the hotel lobby or on the street just before you leave. Cubans will pay $100 for 100 Cucs. Dollars come into Cuba as remittances that the Cubans need changed to Cucs and the only way they can do that is through money changers working free lance at and around the hotels.

Cigars
Cigar aficionados be warned, Cuban cigars are as advertised, they are wonderfully fragrant, mild, and smooth smoking. A trip to tobacco growing region Valle de Vinales and a tobacco farm is a couple hours of pure addiction gratification.

The farmer greets you in a curing barn hung with rack of sweet-smelling tobacco.

cigar seller “How many of you smoke?” the farmer will ask sarcastically, knowing that most Americans, wishing to live forever, have given up smoking but relish a puff or two on a Cuban cigar.  He then talks about how the tobacco is grown and cured, and then he goes to work to skillfully make a cigar, holding some leaves in one hand, cleaning and smoothing the leaves into a tent-like form that he then rolls on a smooth surface. Next, he carefully selects fine wrapper leaves and rolls a perfect cigar. Then he cuts both ends and light up for a couple puffs, and then carefully puts the hot end of the cigar in his mouth and blows smoke out of the cigar. Taking the cigar out of his mouth, he passes it to the nearest now-slavering non-smoker and says, “A good cigar, it draws well.”

After the demonstration he invites you to his house for coffee and/or rum or both while a family member sells cigars at one Cuc each from a cardboard box. In a matter of an hour or so, you can indulge in nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol, a socially acceptable addicts paradise, not to be missed on a visit to Cuba.

Cars
Something that also can’t be missed in Cuba are all the antique cars and trucks smoking along the streets interspersed with Eastern Block POS, (remember the Yugo?), a few Japanese and Korean sedans, and the occasional, out of place, fat-cat, thuggish BMW, Audi, and Mercedes. These antiques are the cars from before the 1959 revolution that have been rebuilt many times over, usually retrofitted with diesel engines, and appear to be held together by superb jury-rigging mechanics, imagination, wishful thinking, and wire.

They are a metaphor for how Cubans deal with their situation; don’t go without— make it work—keep it going. Throughout the day and most of the night in Havana, these cars, many of which are for hire (agree on a price with the driver before you get in), smoke and honk their way through the pot-holed streets. They provide a colorful on-going parade of mid-century American engineering, Cuban ingenuity, and entrepreneurial spirit. One note of caution, pedestrians in Cuba are pretty much ignored by drivers. It’s not that Cuban drivers are murderous, but they are a little crazy and crossing a street is an adventure.

Los Cubanos
But the best adventure to be found in Cuba is with the people: Their great love of family and friends, the warmth with which they greet and engage with strangers, and their love of life under a repressive government and a ridiculous embargo perpetrated by morons in our government.

When talking about the future, Cubans recognize that change is coming but say, “it’s complicated, we need to be careful. We need to go slowly.” In the past two hundred years, there have been a number of revolutions in Cuban, some fairly violent.

Cuban WorkerIn spite of Cuban circumspection, change is going to come quickly in Cuba. In the last month, Raul Castro and President Obama met and held a joint press conference. The Cubans are thrilled with the thaw in Cuban American relations, as are American corporations thinking about how they are going to exploit a new opportunity in Cuba. But in past revolutions, American corporations, one of them being the mafia, have taken a good deal more out of Cuba than they have put in. The Cubans are right, they need to be careful. On the business side, they should form their own national corporations that are production and profit oriented on the Chinese model. Or if outright freedom comes, they should limit international corporations to 49% ownership in Cuban corporations along the lines of the Canadian model.

The worst that can happen here is another blood-bath of a revolution. But Raul Cuban turkeyCastro appears to be a smart guy who is probably not going to give up power, and will eventually groom another fat cat to take his place. Cubans now get to vote in municipal elections. The hope is that this vote will eventually carry over to provincial elections, and then national elections and perhaps a formation of a congress or parliament that truly represents the Cuban people. We will all see.

There is much that is in flux in Cuba. In spite of this, still thinking about going to Cuba? Do it for two reasons: (1) Cuban tourism is the financial starting point for a much more entrepreneurial and free Cuba. (2) The Cubans have built a society and culture under difficult circumstance. They are happy and wonderful neighbors who deserve our support.

The fourth of a three-part series on Cuba. Alan Stark is a free-lance based in Boulder who lives with a blue-eyed person and her dog. He can be reached at alanbearstark@gmail.com

 

Postcard: Black Sheep in Stagecoach, Colorado

We’ve all felt like this guy at some point — like we simply didn’t fit in. But as he and his flock showed during our brief encounter last week in Stagecoach, Colorado, the color of your wool matters less than your attitude and ability to be productive in society. Stark as his appearance may have been, he was filling a vital role here, herding the young ‘uns across the road to the next patch of vegetation. Baaaah’aaaah!

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Rain, Rain

We’ve gotten a lot of rain here on Colorado’s Front Range of late. And I haven’t even been here the whole time. Maybe Colorado has softened this Seattle boy to a degree. My expectations of sunshine 360 days a year settled in pretty easily. Those 360 days are going to be hard to get this year. I still stick with my mantra of “There’s no bad weather, just poor clothing choices.” But my poor child who has had free reign of the yard as she continues to discover how to walk and negotiate her balance among the tufts of grass has no rain gear. No little slicker to shed the water. No rubber boots to stomp in the puddles with. And worst of all, no understanding of the hypothermic dangers lurking in allowing her to run wild in the rain without some modicum of protection from the deluge.

We just got a flyer in the mail from the city with information about what to do to prepare for flooding, how to handle the floods themselves and what to do after the waters recede. Fortunately, we’re not in a high-risk flood zone, but I can only imagine the concerns weighing on those who had to fight off the waters of two years hence. In fact, I’ve already heard from a friend about how his sump pump failed and he’s had to repeat the process of pulling up soggy carpet from his basement.

But here we are, living in a world where it rains. In a world where we have tried to build structures to protect us from the weather. Usually it works. Usually we can outsmart the elements and create walls that keep us warm and dry. But sometimes those elements sneak by and remind us we are just part of the world. We are just creatures who exist here as the animals do their best to protect themselves from the cold and the wet. Just as our ancient ancestors did their primitive best to do the same.

Thanks for the reminder rain. And thanks for keeping Colorado green for now.

Mountain Passages: Cuba Tres, Bear Salsas

At loose, sort of, in Cuba, Bear drinks in music and art, gets out on the dance floor (with the help of some rum), and wonders why Cubans like us. By Alan Stark

Cuba is about the music and dancing, the people, and their art. Traveling here is an opportunity to observe a very odd government, try their food, and maybe drink a little rum and smoke a cigar or two.

Flamenco LeaderAt eight in the morning the sound of music from the studios across from our hotel dance into and through the room. Almost anywhere in Havana, at any time of day, there is music. And, at whatever time you tumble into bed, you will hear music until you fall asleep. Most of the music I heard was a Latin-Cuban-African-Caribbean mixture that involves a steady beat, at least one singer, drums of all sorts, a lead guitar, and a bass. But beyond that, the additional members of the band can be playing just about anything that makes music.

This is a communist country where the work of musicians is just honorable as the work of professors—that’s a good thing. So, in Cuba, if you qualify for a musical education based on testing, your eventual job for the state will be as a musician. Sort of like being in the Marine Band in DC minus the shaved head, the uniform, and having to play Sousa marches the rest of your career. There is clearly a great deal of music education in Cuba. It wasn’t the intent of this education, but the consequence is bands with folks playing cellos, flutes, and violins accompanying the usual drums and guitars.

I’ll bet that the base player in a band, who is highly skilled, was classically trained—remember that Cuba was basically a Russian satellite for years. Classical music is just a notch below vodka in the Russian value system. The guy working the bass in a given band isn’t some mountain-town loadie who has mastered maybe a solid ten chords he can pound-out all night. The bass line in a Cuban band can be just as interesting as everything else being played. It all contributes to a toe-tapping, butt swinging, stand up and boogie musical experience.

And the dancing—Cubans dance all of the time and are great at it. In the studio across the street from our hotel there was a recital almost every night. It looked like modern dance, with amazing moves to watch. Part of the cultural tour was to see a Cuban Flamenco group one morning. Seven dancers simply rocked the place with intricate Spanish moves with a huge Caribbean heart.

Afterwards the leader spoke with great enthusiasm but she made us a little sad when she said she had to constantly recruit new dancers, because when members of her troupe reached a high level of skill they emigrated. No country can sustain itself when it consistently loses the best and brightest people.

As mountain people we all have some dance moves that we make, usually fueled by alcohol, generally to the beat of the music. Blue Eyes calls my dance moves, “The Bear Shuffle.” It wasn’t working for me when we were taken to a dance studio for an hour-long salsa lesson that started with a couple of shots of rum.

The Salsa beat goes like this: one-two-three-stop, five-six-seven-stop, going forward, backward and then to both sides. The couple shots of rum I had before the lesson didn’t help that much, Salsa dancing pretty much eluded me.

Because this was a cultural “people to people’ trip, and maybe because we were spending a great deal of time drinking rum before dinner, one late-afternoon we were shuttled off to a choral recital in a church. The vocalists were highly skilled, and while the music left me staring the ceiling, there was one point where the conductor had his choir singing in such a way that individual blocks of notes rolled forth like a single wave of sound filled with discrete tones. I’ve never heard a choir do that before and I’d love to hear that again. I might even show for a church choral recital in Boulder one of these days. Probably not, but what a great sound.

Before I get into another subject I know nothing about but appreciate, that being ART, let me digress a little about the Cuban character. I suppose that if I had a huge country north of me that had tried to strangle my government with a dumb embargo, had actually invaded my country, and allegedly tried to assassinate my leader on a number of occasions, I’d be tempted to be highly pissed-off at the US.

Cigar FarmerCubans have every reason to hate us because the embargo didn’t screw up their government; the fat cats always survive embargoes untouched. The Cuban embargo messed up the lives of common people as blanket embargos always do. Embargoes are a quick fix by incompetent politicians much like cops rounding-up all the usual suspects instead of doing the hard work of finding two or three really bad guys (or girls). The President got it right with imposed sanctions against key Russian leaders and oligarchs who went whining to Putin when their assets outside of Russia were frozen.

Cubans actually like us, even after all the hardships we have imposed on them. I’m guessing it’s because we have figured out ways to help them in spite of our stupid embargo. A couple years ago, my friend Steven called in markers from other orthodontists and dental vendors and hauled dental supplies down to Cuba. Blue Eyes took guitar strings and watercolors kits to give away to musicians and kids. The remittances from family members that keep Cubans going are from Cuban-Americans.

But if there is anger at the US it manifests itself as a kind of megalomania. Cuban objects are bigger, better, and more beautiful than anyplace else, and Cubans more skilled and artistic than anyone else. For example, Cuban architecture is beautiful, even though the building is now crumbling to a pile of rubble. Cuban rum is the best in the world but I found, in a highly scientific, week-long experiment, that 18-year-old Cuban rum was a little rough. Cuban Cigars are the best in the world. We had a Cuban famer roll a cigar in front of us, light it up, and pass it around. It was the best cigar I’ve ever tasted. Cuban auto mechanics are the best in the world. The early 50s cars that smoke along the streets are wrecks that keep on rolling based solely on superb repair work, wishful thinking, and wire.

Some of the megalomania is justified, but like any people trying to tell the world that they are as good as anyone else, if not better—it gets old after a while. There is a greatness in these Cubans, they have survived and thrived under a stupid government. It will be amazing to see what they accomplish over the next ten years.

But back to art. Blue Eyes has dragged me to a number of art shows, exhibitions, and museums. I pretend that I’m being taken away from something important like sharpening my skis or turning the garden, but in reality, I always enjoy myself, because I almost always see something transcendent, something, like a well-written paragraph or a line from a poem that just takes me away to a happy place.

We saw twentieth-century paintings in the National Museum of Art and none of it moved me. Maybe it was the Bay of Pigs tanks and missiles in the park across the street that got me off on the wrong foot.  The art was mostly dark and somber—maybe taking itself too seriously. Art historians can prattle on (like architects) endlessly about all the allusions and symbols and sources of inspiration of a particular painting. Once I’ve been grabbed by an artist I find a modicum of this information worthwhile, “But geesus Lady, let’s not spend fifteen minutes on a piece that no one appears to care about except you.”

Cuban flag-2So if you’ve gone to France or Japan to eat or Argentina or Scotland to drink you might be a little disappointed with Cuban comestibles. We ate as a group of American cultural tourists and were generally served family-style a good amount of food. Breakfast was Euro hotel food-piles with the best being eggs cooked fresh on the grill. Lunch, as did dinner, started with a welcome drink and an appetizer such as dishes of croquets and plantain chips that look like potato chips and taste like cardboard. Salad was inevitably sliced tomato, some lettuce or shredded cabbage, cucumbers, and maybe cold green beans dressed with oil and vinegar. Next came plates of roasted pork and lamb and grilled fish. Dessert was almost always flan but flan isn’t interesting enough to eat twice a day.

And dinner, was pretty much the same. I’m sure you could do better with food if you ordered a la carte but don’t go to Cuba for the food, they have a ways to go. Even when I ditched the tour and ate out on my own, the food was still boring. Best guess is that foodie endeavors are tough in a country where the food supply is often limited.

Cuban art and food are so-so. The government is repressive. But go to Cuba for the people—especially the people, the music, the dancing, rum and cigars.

This is the third of a four-part series on Cuba. Read #1 here and #2 here.

Alan Stark is a free lance based in Boulder who lives with a blue-eyed person and her dog. He can be reached at alanbearstark@gmail.com