Monday, August 27, 2012

Middle of nowhere


We spent the weekend in the middle of nowhere and we had a really great time. It took us nearly three hours to get there by car. Even the GPS got lost a few times. Despite a driving rain, we arrived, unsure of what to expect.

Our trip took us through some breathtaking countryside. The rolling hills, green and dotted with farms, stretched out as far as we could see. Many of the roads we took were unnervingly unpaved, but we were reassured by the presence of many, many cows, the barns they live in and other buildings indicative of a lively dairy operation. As far as we could tell, there was electricity in this neck of the woods. All along these bucolic country roads, people at their mailboxes, on lawn tractors, or simply near the road, would pause and give a friendly wave. It was lovely.

We found our friends’ house, which address they usually give as the “middle of nowhere”, but is sometimes known as Thompson, Pennsylvania, and saw lots more landscape but also a modern home. Indoor plumbing, cold beer in the fridge and burgers smoking on the grill gave lie to their descriptions of their annual summer retreat. We were pleased to note that others lived near this lake in the middle of nowhere and we knew we would survive the weekend with ease.

I suppose it must have been really weird for their neighbors to overhear our dockside conversation in Japanese. Our entire group is blue-eyed and not Asian in any way. And if those eavesdroppers listened carefully, they would have noticed that some of the accents were better than others. These friends are one of our greatest souvenirs of our time spent living in Tokyo. They are Americans, by way of Texas, living as expats in Japan and alternately visiting their college-age offspring scattered across the United States. It was a grand reunion indeed.

One of the highlights of our time in nowhere, was a visit to Arlo’s. We traveled there on four-wheel contraptions, also known as quads, across those unpaved roads, through waist high grassy fields, and on the occasional paved road. All the while, I was enjoying the lovely forested scenery and keeping a sharp eye out for bears. I’m certain the sound of these engines would have scared off the average bear, but one can never be too careful in such situations.

From a distance, Arlo’s looks like a gas station with a tilting, wooden convenience store attached to it. Upon closer inspection, you will find a tavern, miniature golf, a country store, deli, ice cream counter, rooms for rent, ATM, diesel and regular gas, a fire pit and a covered outdoor stage where live music draws a crowd on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons.
“You can get anything you want” is their motto and you will believe it for sure when you wander through the country store. The shelves are filled with a variety of useful items including realistic, fish-head beer cozies, carved, life-size wooden bears, several varieties of jerky, wall décor, and t-shirts and sweatshirts sporting one of two Arlo’s logos. You can even order an Arlo’s do-rag from their website. They also stock the more mundane necessities of life and truly live up to their promise. I even saw diapers and strawberry jam among the fishing lures, hunting gear and vinyl rain suits for sale.

The tavern room is quite charming with wide, pine paneling on the walls. A fireplace at the end of the room must be really nice in the wintertime. The bar stretches across the length of the opposite end, complete with huge, long-horn skull resplendent above the mirror and rows of bottles. About a dozen stools were occupied by men focused on the task at hand. There was very little talk, only a deep-voiced murmur similar to the sound of bees in a hive. No one looked up when we entered and ordered gin and tonics. Our host was tempted to ask for an umbrella in his glass but we convinced him that it would be unseemly to get into a real bar fight in the middle of the day. I can imagine that the energy level in this room bumps up several notches once the sun goes down.

Our time in nowhere was brief but we saw a lot and enjoyed every minute. Happily, we will meet up with these friends again before they return to Tokyo. This time, we will rendez-vous in New York City, which to me, is the center of the universe. Luckily, it is only about three hours by car from the middle of nowhere to center of everything.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Dog's Life


In some cultures, they are viewed as important fashion accessories. In others, they perform working roles, often the unsung heroes of their wooly charges. In our country, they are regarded as an important member of the family. They are spoiled, loved and revered for their devotion and warmth. Of course, I am talking about dogs.
            In Paris, you see many little Yorkshires and Shitzus peeking from Gucci totes as mademoiselle makes her way across the street in her impossibly high-heeled boots. It seems to me that French dogs are mostly of the handful size and almost never walk under their own power. You often find them sitting very demurely next to their owner (rarely a man) in a restaurant, delicately taking small bits of food, discreetly offered. They don’t make much noise, but it is certainly disconcerting to see those beady eyes following you in the most surprising places – restrooms, grocery store lines, airplanes.
            My little beagle suffers from cultural and racial confusion. He stands only 15 inches high and is, unmistakably, a pure-bred beagle. In his mind, however, he views himself as a Labrador and wants to be treated like a more diminutive Pekinese, his demeanor is often cat-like. Unlike his brethren, he is a dog of few words. He lacks the interminable beagle bay (much to the happiness of my neighbors). Don’t be mistaken about this. He can do it, usually when there is a delivery man wearing a hat and sporting a beard at my front door. His indignation is expressed from a safe distance as he scowls down from the stairway landing.
            I love to see dogs riding in cars. I know one black lab who sits in the passenger seat while in transit and immediately moves to the driver seat when his owner gets out of the car. There he sits, patiently waiting in the Food Center parking lot, dolefully gazing through the windshield as if she is holding up his schedule. He always has the good grace to look guilty as he slides back to his seat when she returns. He accepts his carrots with dignity and keeps careful watch out the window as they return home. He is a good boy after all.
            Whenever we are getting ready to leave the house, my little friend makes it very clear that he wants desperately to get into the car with us. Once inside, he realizes that he doesn’t like it very much. He begins to look a bit green by the time we get out of the neighborhood. I think he simply does not want to be left behind. He acts the same way when the kids prepare for a cruise in their kayak. He willingly dons a bright yellow doggy life vest, in accordance with house rules that all must wear one when paddling. He perches stiffly between his favorite people in the world, and I’m certain that he is willing himself to smile, despite the terror in his little, furry heart.
Every summer he travels with us on our annual pilgrimage to France. He rides in the plane in a duffel-bag type carrier. He gets half of a Dramamine, I take the other half, and when we wake up, we have arrived! Of course it is necessary to book a ticket for him, and there are only two such spaces available on each flight, so that means we are making plans months ahead, on account of the dog.
            Because he is so quiet, most of the time, the other passengers don’t even realize there is a dog among them. The bag sits perfectly still between my feet with most of it tucked under the seat in front of me. One particularly ornery airline hostess was thoroughly aggravated with the slight protrusion of the bag and reached down, with huffy annoyance, to grab the handles. This must go in the overhead compartment, she admonished me. As she lifted, and didn’t gain any ground, I told her that there was a beagle inside and he couldn’t possibly fit in the bin. Shock, disbelief, then pleasure, transformed her nasty countenance and she cooed at the duffle bag. Since it still didn’t fit the way she wanted, though she was now charmed by the unseen contents. We found that some neighboring passengers had some space on the floor in front of an empty seat next to them. My dog-in-a-bag rode with our new German friends and now he also thinks himself a “hund.”
            My globetrotting pal has enjoyed more business class flights than I have. Because the seats have much more leg room in this section, it is often whoever got the upgrade is also the traveler who gets charge of the dog in his carrier. This is much more comfortable for everyone concerned and the airline folks seem to be much more relaxed closer to the front of the plane.
            Our beagle buddy is also bi-lingual, having picked up quite a bit of French on his annual excursions. Though he wouldn’t tell you, I am convinced he prefers French to English. When my husband shouts “come” to the stubborn canine standing in the middle of the driveway, he looks the other way. But ask him to “viennes ici” and he’ll happily trot back to the house. His favorite treat is the end of a baguette and like all good French dogs, he sits placidly at our feet in a restaurant. His good European manners keep him from sticking his head into loaded shopping bags at the market and he enjoys going pretty much anyplace his kids go. It is a dog’s life indeed.

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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Bored Games


At age 13, my daughter developed the same summer-time disease that I encountered at her age: backgammon. What began for me as an idle, rainy-day activity turned into a summer long marathon of games played with a very patient neighbor.  I continued to enjoy playing with my friends in college and after more than 20 years, I still lose consistently to my ruthless, darling husband. Yet, like so many things, I go back for more. And now I have a very willing (sometimes too willing) opponent in my youngest child.
            My own mother had no interest in board games of any kind and managed to dodge my pleas to play.  I can only recall a handful of times when my brother and I could entice my parents to play cards or Monopoly with us. My dad called it “monotony” and only when I became an adult, could I truly understand this perspective.
            Summer is prime game-playing time, especially if it is raining or if the midday sun is just too strong for outdoor activities. I remember many hours in the cool, dim dining room of our neighbors’ beach house. They had an enormous old table surrounded by even older, beat up chairs. There could be up to a dozen kids, of varying ages, sitting around that table playing the game of choice for that particular time. One summer, we played Yahtzee almost exclusively. This game, created in the 1950s by a Canadian family while sailing on their yacht, is simple and addictive. You roll five dice and keep score, something along the lines of poker, including three-of-a-kind, open house, and aces. This may very well be my favorite game.
            I could not wait for my first-born to be old enough to play Yahtzee with me. It was simply impossible to convince my husband to join me in the game, so I looked to the infant for help. Finally, when he was about 4, I was able to teach him to play. Thank goodness he loved it too, and I had a captive partner. Generally speaking, he’s a pretty good sport and even today can be talked into playing a game or two with me. The bad news, however, is that he quickly developed a taste and skill for more sophisticated games, such as chess, and I simply could not muster the patience to play such things. My thrill comes from a game that is quick, simple and can be played while having a conversation.
            For awhile I was part of a group of women who held monthly game nights. We would get together and enjoy some snacks and drinks and play whatever game anyone brought. Pictionary was the big favorite and sometimes things got so loud that the kids had to call down from their beds for us to be quiet. Another group of pals taught me a card game called scat. Here, the idea is to pass around a deck of playing cards, adding and subtracting to your own hand until you get 31 points of the same suit. This was my first experience with betting and it was a blast. We could only lose the nine singles that each player brought to the game, so it was no worse a financial loss than buying a movie ticket.  Of course, the ubiquitous eating and drinking and gabbing enhanced the entire event.
            It must seem that I like to play games only with my female compadres. That is partly true. I don’t know why, but it is really tough to talk my husband and other menfolk into playing any group games. He is a killer scrabble player, but only reluctantly plays Monopoly or Pictionary. The guys prefer to hang out in the basement around the pool table. I guess women prefer brighter lighting and a more convivial atmosphere.
            One particularly telling episode in my game playing life happened a few years ago. We decided to play pinochle with another couple on a regular basis. This was pre-children, so we had lots of time to enjoy a leisurely dinner then the card game afterwards. We decided to switch partners and soon it became apparent that no one wanted me on their team (including my own spouse!). This is probably because pinochle is a game of strategy, patience and perhaps, common sense. Since I possess none of these traits, my pinochle playing skills soon proved to be too frustrating for the rest of the players. We moved on to Monopoly, then had babies and started playing Candyland instead.
            Other family games that we have embraced over the years include Uno, dominoes and Scrabble. Uno is the kind of card game that transcends age and language barriers. My kids learned to play the game while we were on vacation in Spain. They were at the kids’ club with children from Germany, England and of course, Spain. Lots of languages were skittering around that pool, yet when the Uno cards came out, everyone came together and played with a seriousness of purpose that I can only hope follows them into their adult years as they pilot our globe into the coming decades.
            Scrabble is a frustrating game for me. My husband was surprised to discover that I, a former spelling bee champion, did not know how to play the game when we first met. He set out to teach me and though my vocabulary and spelling skills surpassed his, his strategic skills outstripped mine, and it is the same today. For example, I can use all of my tiles for a single word and receive 10 lousy points for my cleverness. He, on the other hand, deftly drops one tile in exactly the right place and gathers 31 points for himself. With more than 20 years of experience with this game, he still manages to win handily, every single time we play.
            If given the choice on any Friday night between watching a video on TV and playing a good, lively game of Yahtzee, I would choose the game. I know one of the big game manufacturers was trying to market Friday night as family game night and I like the idea. Sadly, as my kids become deeply embedded in their teen years, it is more difficult to entice them to stay at home and play with their mom. I guess I just love the way a game gets us to face each other, communicate and laugh a bit, and dedicate some serious time to an activity that includes the whole family at once. I sincerely hope that I don’t have to wait for grandchildren to play games with me. Maybe if I offer to skip the Brussels sprouts on Friday, in trade for a family game and a pizza, I might just get their attention – and cooperation.

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