Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Fall Foliage Guide 2014

Author's Note: This blog post originally appeared in September, 2012, but it contains a lot of useful information for leaf-peepers. Enjoy!


For folks planning on heading north for some fine fall foliage viewing, the question is always about timing. While divining the moment of the brightest, most astonishing colors is impossible, there are some things to keep in mind when planning your trip, and some resources to help you adjust your expectations.

Yankee Magazine has a neat tool called the Fall Foliage Predictor. It’s a motion colored map that allows you to scroll over a calendar and see exactly when the peak colors will be in certain areas this fall. I don’t know what the mechanisms behind this map are, but given my experience in the north country, it seems about right. The accuracy of the map, in other words, may be less attributable to programmers and algorithms than people with experience, and Yankee has been around long enough to know when certain areas will experience their peak foliage colors.

According to Yankee, the peak colors for northern Vermont will be from about September 23 (my birthday, in case you have a gifting urge to fulfill) to about October 5, with the highest intensity occurring about the weekend of September 29-30. This seems a bit early to me. In the past, we’ve experienced the peak of foliage closer to October 4-5. But perhaps the folks at Yankee know something I don’t know. Perhaps they’ve calculated that long, warm, sunny, dry summer will advance the season a bit. Perhaps it doesn’t even matter.

More hard data can be found in Autumn 2012 edition of Northern Woodlands magazine. In an article called “Where’s the Peak?”, John Burk recaps the dull foliage season we experienced in 2011, and the reasons behind it: a long, cold, wet spring; an attack on sugar maples by anthracnose, a fungal disease; a high seed year, which stressed many maples by diverting energy toward seed development; something called septoria leafspot, which sounds ghastly, and which caused tens of thousands of acres of birch trees to defoliate; and the remnants of Hurricane Irene, which brought torrential rains and flooding to Vermont. Also affecting the season last year were some long term trends, such as warmer autumns and later first-frost dates. For the past half century, the first frost has occurred later and later, especially in the last 20 years. I wonder what could cause that?

Burk observes, however, that this year has been different. The long, warm summer should preclude a repeat performance of fungal diseases. Then again, warmer weather can cause earlier leaf drops. And the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center is calling for above-average temps for the remainder of this autumn.

So what does that mean for you, the traveler coming to Stowe in search of legendary color? Local knowledge is king. I’ll be out daily checking the area for the best colors, but as for timing and planning, I can tell you that at any time between the last weekend in September and the first weekend in October, there will ridges and valleys ablaze with astonishing fall foliage. All you need to do is show up.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Ten Reasons Why You Shouldn't Buy My Bed & Breakfast

Author’s Note: This summer we listed the Auberge de Stowe B&B for sale. We’ve been at this for fourteen years, and it’s time for a new challenge. If you or anyone you hate has a notion to be an innkeeper, read the following post first.

1. It’s old, and it wasn’t built with any of your guest’s needs in mind. There’s been absolutely no thought given to making memories for guests that stay here. No contrived themes for the bedrooms, no conveniences like super-deluxe down comforters, no cable or satellite television. If you’re in a wheelchair, forget it: the entry doors are narrow and angled and come at the top of two cement steps with a door that opens out. And the bathrooms in the guest rooms are like closets. French people have difficulties fitting in them. Come to think of it, if you have a gigantic butt you’re also out of luck. You’ll never squeeze through the odd passageways and tight corners. It’s also shaped funky and people sometimes get lost. The wifi is erratic. Cell service is sketchy. In other words, it’s got tons of character. 

2. You have to get up early and be nice to people. These are two separate actions that should never be grafted together. Getting up early is easy. I do most of my creative writing in the morning. That’s because most people don’t get up as early as I do, so it’s quiet. But when you throw coffee-mad paying guests into the way, you get a feeling that’s a cross between aggravation and desperation. Being nice to the first people to get up isn’t bad, but after you’ve made your “This is the best place to hike/ski/skinny dip” speech three times without the benefit of a bathroom visit, it gets difficult. #bladderbuster #colonquiver

3. Being a small business person sucks. Everybody wants a piece of you. Charities. The tax man. Your neighbors. Being in business is not about you making money. It’s about other people making money off of you. People on the phone are the worst. The phone rings all day, even after you list the number with the Do Not Call list (which is actually an anagram for “call this number repeatedly”). The phone people use spoofing to hide the number their dialing from. They represent the Benevolent Order of Police and Fire Chiefs, Vacation Getaways Condos, the American Masturbation Society, People for the Ethical Treatment of Tea Party Wingnuts, Save the Whales, Save the Bales, Save the Kale, Greenpeace, Timepiece, Peace on Earth, Earth First, First Nations Scholarship Fund, Clean Up the Bay of Fundy, and my personal favorite, the Shelter for Homeless Hookers. Really. And they all want your money. So you will evolve fun and creative ways of dealing with them, like answering your phone with Mumbai accent and saying, “Hello, my name is Robert, may I speak to your manager or the person in charge of financial decisions?” Which is why being a small business person is so much fun.

4. Toilets. These are the things people pee and poop into, and they’re your responsibility. 

5. The road. It brings up people with money (or at least adequate credit scores), but it also brings traffic, noise, and schmucks. Traffic clogs the roads, jamming the intersections. Traffic causes endless fender-benders. Traffic confuses people from Massachusetts and New Jersey at the three-way stop in the village. People from Connecticut and New York seems to have figured this intersection out, but people from Massachusetts and New Jersey are flummoxed by it, and their solution is to drive through the intersection without stopping while yelling, “You should see this stupid  intersection!” into their cell phones. 

The road brings noise. Huge tractor-trailers shudder when they hit the potholes that pock the road like zits on a teenager’s face. Dump trucks scream through the village and engage their engine brakes, sonically assaulting buildings, cyclists, and pedestrians. Emergency vehicles race up and down the road, sirens wailing. Dogs bark. Crazy women scream. Times Square is quieter. 

The road brings schmucks. These are the people who think you owe them something because they haven’t maxed out their credit cards yet. These are the people who throw cigarette butts, diapers, and 16-ounce cans of Bud Light out the window. They also bring up their foul urban and suburban habits with them, like iPads and drugs. I’m going to start standing at the town line with my Schmuck Meter. Every time it goes off, a schmuck will get stopped and turned around. We don’t need the money that bad. 

6. Maintenance. See “1. It’s old.” Luckily for prospective buyers, I’ve done just about everything that can be done to this place: new heating systems, new roofs, new decks, new bathrooms, door hinges, GFCI outlets, vacuuming. The problem is that the cycle is coming around again, and I don’t want to be without a chair when the music stops. That’s for the next guy. Let him deal with the next round of updates. My plumbing skills are as good as they’re going to get. 

7. Needs vs. Wants. Everybody that stays with you wants something, but needs nothing. Staying at a B&B in Northern Vermont is superfluous. Think of what guests could be doing with their time and money instead of engaging me about how good the coffee is. They could be volunteering to better their own community. They could be reading the classics to folks in hospice. They could be dumping buckets of ice water over their heads. These are the people you will have to deal with daily, but you’ll get to deal with them on your own terms, not your boss’s.

8. A skewed notion of time. Owning an inn means you are busy in the morning, busy in the evening, and busier in the middle of the day, when you’re doing things like fielding phone calls from the Shelter for Homeless Hookers and paying legitimate bills. Also, you can’t properly drink. Check-ins roll in from 4PM to 10PM, prime drinking hours. Many times, I don’t get to have a drink until after 10PM. This seriously impedes your ability to become an alcoholic. And if you’re a pothead, that’s even worse. Since your 420 friends aren’t the primary target demographic, the first whiff of Mary Jane will send lodgers scurrying for the conservative horizon. By the time you’ve checked in the last guest, the only thing you want to do is go to bed–so that you can get up early and be nice to people. 

9. Vacations. Fuggedaboutit. For the first five years, you won’t have enough money. You’ll be exhausted, and traveling will be the last thing on your wish list. If you do decide to travel, you can only go on vacation in November and April, when the rest of the world is traveling, so you’ll pay top dollar if you make it out of Dodge. You’ll return from you vacation pissed and poor. And the guests will be waiting with their demands for more bandwidth and toilet paper. 

10. Friends. You won’t have any who you don’t already have, or who aren’t innkeepers. And the friends you have now will soon be sloughed away as they fail to comprehend why you would want to be an innkeeper when you could instead be an uptight jackass and earn scads of money and have tons of stuff and take vacations at small B&Bs in Northern Vermont. You’ll be left with a bitter collection of innkeepers who congregate weekly to drown the memories of their harrowing weeks with the beer their guests left behind. And they will be among the finest and best friends you will ever have. 

11. Social media. The scourge of modern mankind. Most of you reading this blog will have come from Facebook, and that irony is not lost on me. If not for social media, I’d be writing travel sidebars for women’s magazines (“How To Pee on the Interstate When There Are No Rest Areas”). So I embrace it at arm’s length. 

12. Your guests. Your guests will madden and delight you. They will intrigue and bore you. They will piss you off, and they will become your friends. They will come back and you will forget their names. They will all blend together and they will stand out in your mind. They will leave you tips and they will leave dirty diapers and condoms and bloody sheets behind. You will become a human expert. Some of them will become like brothers and sisters, and some of them you will escort out by the scruffs of their necks. 

If all that appeals to you, give my realtor a call. We’ll set up a visit, I’ll relieve you of your life’s savings, and you can get on with the business of innkeeping, the noblest venture you’ll ever undertake. 


P.S. I know that’s twelve reasons, but I couldn’t stop, and “10 Reasons” sounds better than “12 Reasons.” 

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Confessions of a Clive Cussler Fan

In my previous blog post, I talked about the difference between writing in different genres–specifically, writing "literature" versus writing a thriller. At the end of the blog, I rapped about my affection for Clive Cussler, who has written over fifty books, most of them adventure/thrillers that are set on the ocean, and contain a historical element. Cussler is the kind of writer that makes academic reach for the Rolaids, but I'm here to defend Cussler, not to bury him.

Cussler came to writing the old-fashioned way: he had another career, and began writing for pleasure in his 30s. In this age of advanced degrees and experts without practical experience, it's hard to imagine the organic approach to writing, but like his other best-selling contemporaries John Grisham and Tom Clancy, Cussler's craft emerged from within.

The knock against Cussler's writing is a legitimate one: the writing is fantastical or hackneyed, the plots rely on deus ex machina, the characters are stereotypical and sexist, and the dialogue is wooden. All true.

But the feeling after reading a Cussler novel is one of exhilaration. You feel like you've been somewhere, met someone, and done something. There's no confusion after a Cussler novel. Cigars are smoked, sunsets are observed, evil is vanquished. No reader walks away from a Cussler novel intellectually hobbled.

That said, while I was reading Cussler's latest novel, Ghost Ship, I came across a passage that made even the most devoted Cussler fan wince:

Five foot ten, with hair the color of red wine, and smooth pale skin, Gamay was an athlete and in fantastic shape. She had a sharp wit that was usually used in jest, though you didn't want to be on her bad side, as she didn't suffer fools lightly. (158)

I have to admit, it was hard for my fingers to find the sequence of keys on my keyboard that created those words in that order. That's one of the worst passages of writing I've ever read, and I teach composition at the university level. Let's pick it apart.

"Hair the color of red wine." Um, no. First of all, there are dozens of different shades of red wine, from pinot noir to burgundy. Second, it's not a color that occurs on the human head naturally, so our friend Gamay is a bottle-babe. And that name: Gamay. Who would name someone after a grape used to produce beaujolais wine? Oh, right. It's 2014. It's probably trending on Twitter.

Next we come to "an athlete and in fantastic shape." This is an example of being specifically general, not to mention redundant. Outside of sumo wrestlers and NFL lineman, athletes are in good shape. But wait, he said "fantastic shape." So she's a fantasy, or remote from reality. Hello, sexism.

Next we hear about her "sharp wit that was usually used in jest." Too bad she didn't just open her mouth and show us that sharp wit. Maybe it's so sharp there's a risk of injury. Actually, Gamay speaks in the next paragraph. Here's what she says: "I see we're almost ready." I admit, it's kind of hard to see the sharpness, the wit, or the jest in that statement. Further study may be required.

Finally the paragraph wraps up with this gem: "(T)hough you didn't want to be on her bad side, as she didn't suffer fools lightly." This is a straightforward mixed metaphor, and there's nothing wrong with that, except it should say something. First of all, why break into the second person "you." Oh, I see: it's being used as an indefinite pronoun. That's an amateur flaw because it breaks the tension of the story. The suffering fools reference is just lazy writing, cliche and meaningless without seeing Gamay in opposition to a fool.

In all fairness to Cussler, this passage may have been penned by his co-author, Graham Brown. Brown has co-authored three other books with Cussler, and is the author of several of his own works. I haven't read anything by Brown before, so I can't say for sure this was one of his tropes. But in a genre known for rushing by facts and details, this one honked like foghorn.

Writing like this in no way diminishes the enjoyment of reading great yarns by a fascinating writing like Cussler. His imagination is unparalleled, and the level of research behind his writing is obvious. He's a marine expert who holds a Ph.D. from SUNY Maritime College for his nonfiction book The Sea Hunters. It's also the kind of writing that many people want to read, and while I'd never advocate writing in a certain style because someone else has had success there, the plotting and pacing of this style is enjoyable to read, and it's fun to write (see my previous blog post).

So treat yourself to some Clive Cussler before the summer's over. You'll giggle at some of the writing, but after you're done, you'll be hooked, too.

Works Cited

Cussler, Clive. Ghost Ship. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2014. Print.