Saturday, August 29, 2009

What Doesn't Kill You....

We recently took an end-of-summer trip to The White Mountains of New Hampshire, a beautiful part of the world, and took a 7.5 mile hike up 4802 foot Mount Moosilauke. We were staying at the great lodge, owned by Dartmouth, and the students in the Outdoor club told us that the hike would take about 3 hours up and 2 down, without any stops. It was described as "challenging," though do-able for anyone reasonably fit, it just might take some longer than others.

Full disclosure: I embarked with my group, family and a friend, as well as Monty Booh, our Bernese Mountain dog at around 9 a.m., and slogged back into the lodge covered in mud and wet at 5 p.m., the last to make it.

The climb up went well. Yes, it was challenging, somewhat steep, a bit rocky, but to reach the true summit above tree-line was eerie and spectacular, an experience I haven't had since I climbed the Canadian Rockies as a teen.

Down was the bloody nightmare. It was pure rocks, all shapes, all sizes, some solid, some loose, and you had to bear down with concentrated focused attention, watching each step, so as not to fall (I did twice), not to twist and break an ankle (knock wood) or hurt your knees. Ah, those ever essential knees. I actually have no problem with my knees, but the long, steep, rock-laden descent puts pressure on even the strongest, most hale and hearty knees. On one stone, that rocked suddenly backward, my knee locked backward in tandem: pure, piercing pain! But in a minute, or 5 or 10 (hence the 8 hour hike), I pressed on.

At one point, exhausted, my dear husband of 22 years lifted me down from the steep ledge of a rock (my white knight in shining armour). He was about to put me gently down on the muddy ground, when his mouth opened in a surprised O, and a moment later, I found myself lying on top of him in deep mud, with a stream running over our shoulders and arms.

Murder was on my mind.

"What happened?!"

"I lost my footing."

"Is this a metaphor for our marriage?"

As we roused ourselves from the sludge and wet, the rain began, first a pleasant pitter-patter, then more insistent, finally a 30-minute, torrential downpour. Did we have raingear? Of course not. The forecast was for a beautiful, summer's day in the low 80s. Can't trust those weather guys. Or those Dartmouth outdoor types. Have you seen the Dartmouth kids? Well, let's just say that they are disgustingly fit and healthy and have a significant percent of Olympic-level and true Olympic athletes. For real.

Remember those rocks? Welcome to a slick, slippery obstacle course.

I soon had my second fall, sliding suddenly down a mossy rock finding myself flat on my back. Thankfully, I didn't hit my head on a rock, or throw my back out. I was pretty surprised though, and have a few black and blue marks to show for it. But my body, thankfully, is pretty sturdy. (Must be my Jewish Russian and Romanian peasant background! I rarely suffer serious injuries.)

My 12-year-old daughter pulled me up from the mud.

"Take my hand, Mommy," she ordered.

"I'm okay."

No. You're old."

All relative. I made it.

And it seems like a wonderful accomplishment. Now. My hot shower was one of the most delicious in my life, though it took 45-minutes and a good deal of scalding water and soap to scrub off the mud. And my dinner that night of scallops and clams was gorgeous. And my night's sleep, dreamless, velvety black, sudden as a swoon.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Last Taboo

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal." -Oscar Wilde

Okay, I'll admit it: I am an earnest person. I know it is highly uncool and rare these days, but I am sincere, if not all of the time, at least most. Being earnest, sincere, is surely the last taboo.

What I like about it, though, it has a shock effect these days and is often disarming, producing not the expected response: irony, sarcasm, even cruelty, but a dash of high-risk sincerity in return, sometimes nicely spiked with humour.

So tell me, why is sincerity taboo?

Why is accusing a person of being earnest the biggest diss?

Enlighten me. Sincerely.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

My Secret Summer Pleasure

I consume it quickly, with great pleasure, and rush out to buy more when I'm finished. It's delicious, easily digestible, yet the best lingers.

No, it's not Belgian chocolate. My secret summer pleasure is Anita Shreve novels.

I discovered Anita Shreve some fifteen years ago while living in Park Slope and participating in a New York City reading group composed of women novelists. Among our group were Paula Sharp and Nancy Krikorian. Nancy suggested with a gleam in her dark eyes that we read Strange Fits of Passion.

After that, I was hooked.

Shreve is a very talented woman. Her novels are addictive with a narrative tension and momentum one just doesn't find that often in well-written work. Her sentences are elegant and evocative and her characters (for the most part) depthful and well drawn. Shreve's milieau is the New England coast, melancholy, haunted, craggy and beautiful, and she returns to it again and again, peeling away more layers, deepening our understanding of the landscape. She understands obsession in all of its gleaming and dark facets. Love is at the core of all of her work. In some ways, she is a top-notch romance writer, for intelligent women.

There is always an element of surprise, even shock, in Shreve's narratives. In the best of her work, the revelation is both startling and inevitable. My favorite of her books is The Weight of Water, which holds up as a work of art. When her books disappoint, the plot twist is manipulative and strains credulity, a story jerry-built upon a contrived notion, narrative and characters forced to fit the preconceived structure. This was a problem in Body Surfing. I enjoyed the story, the characters, and setting until I reached the climax and the eddies emanating from that plot twist. Without giving anything away, let's just say that the surprise was not believable from the standpoint of character. An earlier novel of Shreve's, I completed compulsively on a train, and hurled across the aisle when I reached the final page, that's how angry I was at the incredible, unsatisfying shocker which concluded the book. If memory serves, that novel was The Last Time They Met.

Shreve's most recent book, now out in paperback, is a good read on a timely subject. Testimony grapples with the reverberations of a sex scandal at an exclusive prep school in Vermont. Shreve tells the story from multiple viewpoints, and the novel is more about the impact of such a scandal, not only on individuals, but on a community. It is a worthy book, though I personally would have preferred fewer voices. The first-person teens speaking in short takes sounded strained and false. (I hear a couple of teens and their pals speak daily, many times a day, and teach creative writing to adolescents as well, so I know from whence I speak.) I was fascinated by the headmaster and wanted more of him. For me, the multiple voices, though an interesting conceit, put the novel at risk from bursting apart by centrifugal force. Was that part of Shreve's purpose?

I have to confess: even when a Shreve book is flawed, I still run out and read her next. Now that's a successful novelist. Speaking from the trenches, what she is doing aint easy.