Friday, February 06, 2015

Researching the Joy Out of Mystery

"The traveler sees what he sees; the tourist sees what he has come to see."
 G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton’s distinction between travelers and tourists has never been more apt than today. The business of tourism is all about good ol’ American marketing. Experiences are identified, packaged, and sold. If you don’t believe me, just look at our website. Oh, we’ve tried to be as real as possible, but there’s always a little disingenuousness in the effort, as there must be. After all, interest must be first piqued, lest we allow the traveler to fall into a pattern of Deo volente
I’m going to walk a line here, a line between bitching about being unable to be anonymous, and about self-promotion. In all parts of my life I’m torn between these two things, between the desire for a voyeur’s background noise and a hungry baby seal bleating for its mother among a crowd of fellow bleaters. As a writer I’m responsible for my own marketing, and that means breaking out my inner P.T. Barnum and shouting, “Step right up and see the writer! Come witness his feats of vocabulary prowess! You’ll be astounded by his literary calisthenics!” Or something like that.
So, too, must I promote myself as a college professor. Since I’m an adjunct, I work on a semester-to-semester contract. Next semester isn’t guaranteed, and I must be able to convince the metrics of the college that I am worthy of another stint. Evaluations—from both above and below—count. I’m a man in the middle. It’s much the same for us as innkeepers. 
This is, of course, the fault of the Internet. When we got into this business 15 years ago, connectivity still meant guide books and AAA and having a good sign on the side of the road so that families led by Borkum Riff-smoking dads could cruise by and say, “Gee, honey, that looks like a nice place, let’s pull in there.” User-generated content (think of the crowd in the Passion of Jesus Christ: “Kill him! Kill him!”) were off in the distance. Facebook’s father hadn’t met its mother yet. Reviews aside, the Internet has turned travelers into something worse than tourists. It’s turned them into researchers.
Remember the olden days, when you needed a paint brush you’d just go down to the hardware store, walk down the aisle filled with paintbrushes, pay for it with a two-dollar bill, then smoke a cigarette with the clerk? (I know; I sound like Abe Simpson: “Oh, I remember this story! The year is nineteen-aught-six, the president is the divine Miss Sandra Bernhart, and all over the country, people are doing a dance called the Funky Grampa!”) Now you go online—preferably to Amazon.com, so they can stalk you with drones—you spend six hours learning about paintbrushes (“The paintbrush emerged in Summarian culture as a way to stir the malted beverage that became beer…”), you read 3,496 reviews (“This brush was slightly more fine than I wanted, so I give it two stars…but I would have given it three stars if…”), and then, just as the first streaks of light begin to paint the dawn, you collapse into a puddle of tears, your full bladder pulsing in your side, your eyesight wrecked forever.
Research.
It’s what I assign my students, lauding its virtues in the discovery of facts as a means to argument. And it’s what happens to us with our guests, turning them from travelers into tourists. They arrive fully apprised of everything they need to know about us, the inn, area. And this is our fault; we’re the ones supplying the information, happily uploading photo and blogging the drivel from my mind. (I realize the full irony of what I’m arguing here: by blogging about being an innkeeper, I’m participating in the very thing I seem to be decrying. Sigh.)
When guests show up now, the well-researched exchange goes something like this:
Us: “Welcome to Stowe and to the Auberge.”
Guest: “We know where we are. The GPS brought us here.”
Us: “We’re—“
Them: “You’re Shawn and Chantal. Shawn is a writer. Or at least he thinks he is. He started his own small press as sort of a feel-good way to publish his last book, A Brief History of Innkeeping in the 21st Century. The Vermont Press, indeed. Shawn got his MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, and he worked for FedEx Express for ten years as a swing driver, not a swinger. He comes from a little fishing village south of Boston, where his father was a lobster fisherman. Shawn is a telemark skier and he loves wingshooting. Chantal is from France.”
Us: “Umm…”
Them: “We already know where we’re eating dinner: Phoenix Table. It was opened by local restaurateur Jack Picket last year after Frida’s closed. Before that, Jack was the genius behind Blue Moon CafĂ©, and back in the day he successfully operated the restaurant at Ten Acres Lodge. We’re looking forward to his creative contemporary American cuisine.”
Us: “There’s…”
Them: “A hot tub on the back deck. We know. We also know that breakfast is from 7:30 to 9:00 a.m. We’re tea drinkers. And we have our lift passes already. We did the research.”
Indeed. 
And so we beat on, hosting our guests, trying to figure whether they’re travelers or tourists, just trying to stay our of their way so they can enjoy themselves. I think we’re doing all right, but I’ll have to do a little research on that and get back to you. 

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Reflections of...

The end of the calendar year always brings us reflections. We look back at the year that was, and ahead to the year that will be. I was listening to some of these reflections on the radio this morning, and they mostly centered on famous people who died. If you listen a little harder, though, you will get to a review of the top stories of the year. Listening back to some of the things that made news several months ago was a shock—not because of the topics, but because those stories felt so far away. That’s where this discussion of reflections comes in.

Why do we wait so long to reflect? Does information take that long to soak itself into wisdom? For example, does anyone remember Boko Haram? The world stood transfixed by this terrorist organization in Nigeria after they kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls. By the way, the instant reflection of hashtagging in order to raise awareness of an important event may be temporarily satisfying, but those girls are still missing, and we’ve moved on: Robin Williams, Roger Goodell, and we can’t breathe.

Instead of reflecting like this once a year, perhaps we should reflect more frequently. Weekly news roundups purport to fill this void, but unlike the learned and patrician versions of Meet the Press and This Week with David Brinkley that aired in my youth, most of these programs are now nothing more than positional pissing contests showcasing infomediatainment apparatchiks.

Religion used to fulfill this niche, until it became a dirtier word than pornography. As Americans flee the pews and flock to the zeitgeist, however, they seek other venues; they must, because no man has no religion. The structure of the church has been replaced by other structures, most powered by electricity instead of faith, and these other structures require less from us: giggling and bloviating will suffice.

What if we reflect once a day? Daily reflection can be a powerful tonic to the noise in and around us. Reflection through intention at the beginning of the day can set the tone for the unknowable life that awaits us. Reflection at the close of the day can be the captain’s orders to the first mate before leaving the bridge. I’ve often told writers that I allow myself to dream my stories the night before I write them.

And why shouldn’t reflection occur momentarily? The end of each sentence I type invites a pause, an opportunity to reflect on another building block for the current paragraph. Momentary reflection is already happening within you, as your mind analyzes and process thousands of things. Let’s acknowledge that action and make it a conscious part of ourselves.


So as we reflect on an entire year—which is really too much to reflect on, if you get the irony—let’s reflect on the act of reflection itself. Let’s make it a conscious act, a momentary act in perpetuity. Let’s not give the distance of time the chance to make life less real, and in that diminution, less beautiful.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Picking Up Sticks

“November is a month of transitions, offering multiple paths all leading to the same destination.” --Mark Breen, Fairbanks Museum


The destination, of course, is death. The year is dying. Halloween and the Day of the Dead have passed. The light flees us by handfuls of minutes each day. The harvest is in, the leaves are down, and the Connecticut and New Jersey plates have receded with the outgoing tide. It’s stick season.

We’ve been busy at the inn, so it hasn’t felt like a traditional stick season. So when a young family was asking me the other morning where they could go for a short hike, I enthusiastically shared a few spots I thought would fit their needs. Then I stopped.

“Do you have any blaze orange with you?” I asked. “It’s youth hunting season in Vermont this weekend.”

They were Canadians, so they weren’t aghast at my inquiry. But they were amused, and we finally sent them on a hike to Taylor Lodge, behind the trout club, which isn’t normally populated with hunters on youth weekend. “Just don’t grow antlers,” I advised them, and we all had a laugh. Then I remembered that during youth season, young hunters can take any deer, antlered or antlerless. “Better wear some orange.”

Hunting is a big part of autumn in Vermont. Thanksgiving soon approaches, and to wit there was a lively discussion around the wood stove at the Auberge the other night about how to cook a turkey. Big turkeys are problematic (and their place at the table is mythological anyway). Cooking methods that were discussed: smoking (not moist enough), deep frying (“What the hell are we going to do with five gallons of peanut oil?”), brining (Avast!), trash can turkey (“Who’s going to go out and buy a galvanized trash can and a bag of coals?”), and brown bag cooking.

The brown bag method was met with incredulity and refills in all the wine glasses. “Doesn’t the bag catch on fire?” Well, no, Chantal explained. The flashpoint of paper is 451 degrees Fahrenheit, and brown bags are heavier, with a higher flashpoint. And the turkey bastes itself in the bag while it cooks, forgoing the need to open the over repeatedly and baste. Promises to try this method were made all around, and small, side discussions erupted. Somehow, the conversation drifted to ebola, as is often the case.

And we’re waiting for snow. Many of the slopes on Mt. Mansfield are covered, and we’ve had reports from early season skinners that there’s mountains of the stuff banked on North Slope, with lots of natural snow above that. So we’ll be out there soon.

But until then, we’ll cope with the darkness by soaking up all the light we can, and we’ll keep an eye on the gunmetal gray sky as we make our way to the same yearly  destination.