Tuesday, February 11, 2014

My bad day with Maxine Kumin

Maxine Kumin loved horses. 
 I guess she thought everybody else did, too.

It was a beautiful fall morning in 2000 or 2001 when I drove north to Warner, N.H., to spend the day with Maxine Kumin. I was working on a profile of Kumin for The Larcom Review, a literary journal published by author Susan Oleksiw.

Reading last week about Kumin’s death at the age of 88, I thought back to that absolutely horrid afternoon at her farm in Warner. It was the worst interview experience in my career as a journalist. It provided me with a new truth: I could not salvage something just because I put my mind to it. My usual tools — research, persistence, compassion, curiosity — were as useless as my questions that she slapped down, one after the other.  By the time I left that farmhouse, Kumin was sputtering.

I was motivated to do the interview because I’d recently read and reviewed her unforgettable memoir, “Inside the Halo and Beyond,” about her arduous recovery from a broken neck and numerous broken ribs. One of her most beloved horses was pulling the carriage she was racing when a truck spooked him. Kumin flew off the carriage and the horse pulled the carriage over her. More than a year had passed. She and her husband were back to maintaining their farm and her horses. I remember her saying she had no intention of ever leaving there.

A few years before that, Kumin had been keynote speaker at a small writers conference I attended in New Hampshire. She spoke about her close friendship with Anne Sexton and about her profound grief after Sexton’s suicide. She was so honest and heartfelt the whole room felt a connection. Kumin was a feminist, a part of history, a survivor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet as well as the U.S. poet laureate. I loved her. After reading her book, I had to see and hear from the person who beat 95 percent odds. Not only had she lived but she walked and she wrote and she farmed. I wanted to see that kind of will up close.

The first thing she did was introduce me to her horses. “Come out back and say hello,” she said. Was this a test? Or did everybody but me want to snuggle up with a bunch of horses?

I didn’t have time to put down my purse or my notebook. We walked to the corral in back of her farmhouse. The horse who’d been spooked by a truck was among the six or seven horses gathered there. I was paralyzed with fear when all of them — so much taller than I, it seemed — galloped over to greet us. We got into a bit of a tussle over who would get to have my reporter’s notebook. They nudged, nuzzled and bonked me repeatedly. I could barely keep my balance as Kumin stood back, smiling as her brood enthusiastically welcomed me. Words like stampede and crushed and horseflesh were whirling through my anxiety. I tried, of course, to conceal my terror but I’m sure it was obvious. By the time we left the corral, I smelled like wet hay and mud and manure. My reporter’s notebook was slimy. My Ferragamo flats were caked with dirt. I slipped into the living room, ahead of Kumin, to find her husband on his knees, tending the fire.

Though my stated purpose that day was to follow up on the accident and see how a working writer had found her way back to the writing, Kumin wanted to elevate the discussion. She wanted to talk about her poetry. I could not oblige her. Despite the serious homework I had done, I’m no scholar and no poet. And even though I lived with a poet, I had no insights that could carry me through this excruciating mismatch.

Of course my intention was never to annoy or frustrate Maxine Kumin. But I had. I persisted with the questions she didn’t want to answer. Call me inflexible. I took notes. I acted like everything was okay when, in fact, I was assuring that this fiasco would fully fledge and that I would bring her down with me. Guess what? Sometimes you just have to give it up and walk away.

I left at dusk, spent the night at a local B&B, explored the fabulous bookstore and somewhere around midnight, after a couple of glasses of wine, I stopped shaking. When I got back to Massachusetts, I called my editor and said, “I’m going to write about Andre Dubus III going on the Oprah show instead.”

I saved my notes from the Maxine Kumin interview, not for whatever value they may have, but to never forget. I don't want to forget her, and what she means to me. And I don't want to forget the lesson she taught me: There are times when I will fail. But there are good and bad ways to fail.

It's always good if you can see it coming before the horses slobber all over you.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


The alligators can thrive in this protected environment. 
Below is a much smaller gator.

I’ve been visiting the Everglades in southern Florida for a couple of decades. Especially since Hurricane Rita in 2005, it’s been hard to watch the slow deterioration of one of our most unique and important national parks. Rita played a role because there was never the money or willingness to repair the devastation to Flamingo, in particular.

This wood stork is good news. A ranger I met on the trail 
told me it's an indicator that water levels are improving in the Everglades.

On our brief visit to the park late this afternoon, we were shocked to find empty water bottles and candy wrappers floating in the water along the Anhinga Trail. An alligator swam up against a plastic, baby blue mechanical pencil caught up in an imperceptible current. Boardwalk railings are swayback and wooden fences are missing rungs. This is in sharp contrast to what was once the pride and joy of the Everglades. The Anhinga Trail was meticulously maintained and watched over.

Snowy egret, in flight. Perhaps it 
tired of tourists photographing it.

People from all over the world visit and photograph the Anhinga Trail at Royal Palm just outside of Homestead. I spoke with a woman from France and a couple of men from Germany. What must they think about the way we prioritize in this country?

There is only one Everglades. The part that’s truly visible — the national park — serves as an important symbol for all that we don’t see of this vast river of grass. People regularly make pilgrimages to the Everglades. Today I met one man who comes here every other year. Everything is cyclical, he says. Someday our attention will come back to this spot. 

Let’s hope it’s not too late.

For the first time since I’ve been visiting, there was no gatekeeper to take the $10 entrance fee, just a handwritten sign that said: Enjoy.

This is what the river of grass typically looks like, 
with a hard-wood hammock to the left.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

What Hemingway read. Or did he?

Go to the Hemingway House in Key West and be a voyeur. 
Check out his personal library and do what voyeurs everywhere do: 
make assumptions about people based on their reading habits.

The reason I went to the Hemingway House in Key West was to have a destination for a much-needed afternoon outing. I’d finished and sent off my book review so I had the afternoon free. It was either the Hemingway House or the Butterfly House.

The last time I went to Key West with Jim, we parked the car, got out, walked a couple of blocks, got back in and drove north. “Been there. Done that,” was Jim’s response to whole Key West experience. He’s not much of a sightseer. Rather than risk a reprisal of that failed outing, I took my friend Rod’s advice and made a pilgrimage to the great American writer’s house where he lived for 11 of his most prolific years.

Hemingway’s beautiful house, built by a wealthy salvager from Connecticut in 1851, cost him $8,000 in 1931. After 11 years or so, Hemingway left Key West, preferring Cuba and another wife.

It’s hard to separate a vacation from reading so Hemingway makes sense in lots of ways. My vacations always start with: What books should I bring? For this trip to the Keys, I had to bring two books to read for review and anything else I could squeeze in after that. Jim, who reads even more than I do, picked up two of Rod’s library books and consumed them in a day each.

So naturally, when we got to Hemingway’s house I asked Stan, our guide, what Hemingway read. “There, in the upstairs hall, you’ll find some of his library. They are the actual books he read,” Stan told me. The other books, those written by Hemingway and arranged throughout this grand house, are basically props, Stan said, put there after the fact.

In checking out Hemingway’s library, I saw a book by Jackie and Jeff Harrigan called “Loving Free.” I learned from an old newspaper clipping that it’s about the pressures American couples face and the difficulties they have keeping their relationships vital and exciting. This summation comes from a librarian writing about the book in 1971. This book, she writes, offers techniques and methods for keeping things fresh and interesting. Hard to believe Hemingway read or even needed this. He had three marriages and lots of affairs. Perhaps while in Key West he did try out a few techniques with Pauline before moving on. Who knows? The fact of this book in his personal library casts Hemingway — bipolar and prone to gravitate toward that which is most exciting — in a new light, that’s for sure.

I suppose the next step for me, before I get too wrapped up in re-imagining Hemingway, is to call the Hemingway House and confirm the publication date of that book. I want to know if it’s been indexed in some official archive. I might even ask if there are any margin notes inscribed by the author. Imagine that!

More likely, the book found its way into Ernest Hemingway’s library after the divorce, perhaps as a mean prank played by his ex-wife Pauline. Both were somewhat vindictive pranksters. Visit the Hemingway House and Stan will give you an earful. Be sure to ask about the “last red penny” Pauline had encased in concrete by the swimming pool, the first to be built in the Florida Keys.

Descendants of Hemingway's cats are everywhere. 
Up next for consideration: Why do writers love cats when their 
cats do everything possible to interfere with the creative process?

Monday, February 3, 2014

Modern-day vacations

Here's my Marathon Key "desk." Working outside like this 
in 80+ degree heat requires plenty of hydration!

No wonder I’m making no progress letting go. No wonder I’m not feeling it. No wonder vacation mode hasn’t clicked in. It’s not really vacation. 

I spent all day at my “desk,” a makeshift work area facing a translucent tropical green canal that I barely noticed. I paused once to contemplate a pelican and I did see the silhouette of a great blue heron. Mostly, though, I tried in earnest to catch up to my responsibilities and I never quite made it. Ask anyone depending on me today.

Work, these days, is a gift. If you’ve got it, you do anything you can to keep it. That means working on vacation. We bring with us everything necessary in terms of tools to do the job — except for the frame of mind. That’s where it gets tricky because some of us remember a time when a vacation was a vacation.

Just being in Marathon Key creates a conflict that takes the best of my energy to manage. Aren’t I here to lollygag?


I’m not saying it’s worse working here than up north because up north, it’s snowing and it will be snowing through Wednesday evening. Everyone at home is complaining, with good reason. I’m not complaining. Not really. 

Here, I hop out of bed, take a run and then drop into a plastic chair by the water where I work. Today I took occasional side glances at lizards. I saw a kingfisher chase a gull. And I remembered that my friend once swam with a visiting manatee in this very canal, mere feet from where I’m working.
Is this vacation or not?

At 5 pm I closed my laptop, got up from my “desk,” and said, in a burst of frustration, to Jim, “Let’s get out of here.” He said, “Can I put on my sandals first?”

There is no lesson here. If you have work, you’ve got to do it. Pity those around you who must make sense of the sentence: We are on vacation.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Tourist excess

The gumbo limbo tree's red, 
peeling bark looks painful. 

Marathon Key
Day Two, Sunday

I read today, while on our hike along the Curry Hammock trail about two miles north or Marathon, that they call the gumbo limbo tree the “tourist tree” because the red, peeling bark looks like a tourist’s skin. Fair warning, then. Don’t overdo.

Wait a minute.

Try telling a tourist not to overdo. A tourist has a finite amount of time and dozens of imperatives. That’s the American Way. And, frankly, it makes for an ugly situation, as anyone who lives in a tourist town knows. We in Rockport have seen plenty of ugly and I’m not just talking about second-degree sunburns.

To be honest, I didn’t drag out of bed at 3 am, drive half asleep to JFK, stand in lines to get ex-rayed and then squeezed onto a plane for three hours just so I could be sensible and wan and responsible. I want different. I want experimental. I want new.

I sit here on the deck, looking across the canal at the outsized TV screen in someone’s house (it’s Super Bowl Sunday) and I see a football game reflecting off the water. Next thing I know, some kind of crazed night bird lands on my friend’s boat, right here next to me, and screeches and screeches and screeches. Yes. That’s more like it.

And there’s this exquisite breeze. The splash of a fish jumping. The rattling palms that sound like summer rain. And a perfect little curve of moon, a perfect Cheshire grin. Exactly. Bring it on. It’s a conspiracy of excess.

If there’s tourist’s remorse to be had, I hope to defer till the punishing plane ride home.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Getting used to vacation

Sadie has come in from her day chasing lizards.
She's still not into making eye contact
but she's not too proud to take the treats I offer her.

Marathon Key, Florida

Vacation: Day One.

Here I am. On the deck. It’s nighttime and I can hear fish jumping in the canal right in front of me. I’m staying in my friend’s beautiful little house on a canal surrounded by others like it though not as nice. My friend rebuilt this place himself and added a second floor. Once a boatbuilder, he has paid great attention to detail and made clever use of every square inch of precious space. 

This is a sweet and friendly getaway made to facilitate a certain kind of life on a canal in the Keys. Views, decks, fishing poles, a boat, cigars, work stations for the laptops and printers, a bed that folds out from a wall, books, Bombay Sapphire and martini glasses in the freezer. I don’t have to plan anything about this vacation. I just have to fully inhabit this house.

Many of the neighbors live here all winter. They don’t have to question their every move. They don’t have to wonder, have I taken full advantage of every second of Day One of my seven day stay the way I’ll do every day that I’m here. No. They can sort of live normal lives. 

No wonder, then, that the TV in the house to the left of me has been on all day and, I assume, the woman in there has been watching it all day. Am I curious about this? Of course. This was a day of sunshine and blue-green water and pelicans landing and taking off mere feet away. Too much Paradise is my guess. 

To the right of me, there’s some kind of never-ending party that includes fishing off the deck, then grilling it up right there. I see some men holding beers and everyone’s in on the noisy chitchat about tomorrow’s Super Bowl. I hear plenty of laughing. It is all good.

It takes days to settle into a vacation, for your mind to chill, for your body to let go. If you’ve come from the north, as we have, your shoulders are probably sore from all that shivering. It’s been a very cold winter. I have been trying to get Jim to get a Swedish massage in a place up the street because he’s sore all over. You’re a Swede, I say, you can take it. Sometimes the body needs a helping hand with this letting go we hope happens on vacation.

I’ve had a full first day. I started out with an agonizing, euphoric run in heat and humidity that was quite a shock since it was 16 degrees and windy on my last run. After running and trying hard to hydrate afterward, without much luck because of all this sweating I’m doing, I worked on a couple of jobs I have. Then I read. I made notes for my book review. And I performed duties. I am here, officially, to cat sit while my friend takes a trip. I befriended Sadie, gave her the same treats I give to my cat Lila. Happily, Sadie’s feeling comfortable enough to sleep on a chair near Jim. I should follow her example, let myself be seduced by all the treats. They’re everywhere.