Thursday, March 12, 2015

Coincidence? I Think Not.

“So it'd be quite a coincidence if they weren't, ya know, connected.”
--Marge Gunderson, Fargo.

In 1993 I was doing a gap year between stints living in France and Montreal. Chantal signed up for a stateside gig with Sodexho as an ops manager at the Good Samaritan Medical Center and I got a corporate security job in a downtown Boston high-rise. Over the next year, Chantal got pregnant, we bought a house in Braintree, Seamus was born, and we moved to Montreal after Chantal went to work for Sodexho-Canada.
            The time and travel between then and now feels like a quantum leap, as if one moment I was standing in the lobby of a shiny building, and the next I was running a tractor in the snow outside my inn. Such is the nature of life: plodding and interminable in the present, implausible in the future, and fleeting in the past. And in that time as a security guard, my manager, an erudite man named David Anderson, who was misplaced leading a team of disparate employees that included a nascent writer (me), a boxer, a college student, a new-age guru, and a recovering alcoholic, came to me with a scheme.
            “You’re a writer,” he said, thrusting a news story in a paper at me. “What do you think of this?”
(Note to Millennials: In days of yore, information was extruded through ink onto paper, which we often thrust into each other’s faces in order to communicate. Think of it as a tangible-mechanical version of Facebook.)
            The article was about a guy in Maine giving away his B&B to the best 200-word essay he received. The entry fee was $100.
            “You’re a writer,” Dave repeated. “Tell you what. I’ll put up the hundred bucks and you write the essay. If we win, we’ll split it.” How we would split an inn didn’t occur to me, but it sounded like a good idea.
            A little backstory: Sure, I was a writer with some publication credits to my name by then, but I was also broke, and Dave knew it. Everybody that worked as a security guard was broke. And due to the nature of corporate building security—long stretches of nothing to do but talk to your coworkers—Dave also knew of my plans to one day buy an inn. At the time, it was a novel idea (now people build and buy inns as a “transitional strategy,” forgoing the novelty), and it intrigued Dave—himself transitioning—enough to contemplate it as a serious opportunity.
            So I wrote an essay, crafting and beating it down to 200 words, and dutifully submitted it to Dave. As he read it, I felt like a kid showing his dad a finger painting. Would he like it? Would he just tell me he liked it and pat me on the head? Dave finished reading and looked at me with the kind of level gaze a man metes out rarely. “That’s good,” he said, in his spare style. “That’s good.” He walked away, and only later did I find out he had gone ahead and entered the contest. But I never found out if we won; I assumed we didn’t, because Dave never mentioned it, and he continued to work as my manager until I left for Montreal.
            Enter time.
            You all know what happens here; you’ve seen the bio on the Auberge’s website (hereyou go), and you’ve all read my memoir, ABrief History of Innkeeping in the 21st Century. Right? Right?
Yesterday, a friend in Ohio posted something to my Facebook page, something about an inn in Maine that the owner is giving away to the winner of an essay contest. Bells and whistles go off, and that quote from Fargo jumps into my head, and I read the attached news story (thanks for sticking it under my nose, Herta, Millennial-style), and it’s the same place: the Central Lovell Inn in Maine, and the person who won the contest 22 years ago (not Dave and me) is getting out of the innkeeping business and she’s doing it the same way her predecessor did: essay contest.
            The synchronicity of the universe cannot be ignored here. That this inn in Maine would be offered in the same way and presented to me by people connecting my writing and my innkeeping 22 years apart is impossible to attribute to coincidence. You can decided for yourself what brings people and places and events together; better men than me have gone mad in the effort. I’m going to keep writing.
            Oh, and I’m not going to enter the contest this time. I’ve been an innkeeper for 15 years, and I’m trying to get out of the business myself now. Maybe I should hold my own contest. How about this: On the back of a $450,000 bill, in three words or less, tell me why you want to own my inn. I’ll announce the winners via Twitter from Tahiti.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Questions That Can't Be Answered by Science

As an innkeeper, I encounter a lot of phenomena that can’t be explained by close study of the sciences. These are the things the former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called “known unknowns”; the things we know we don’t know. It’s possible, however, that these things are actually unknown knowns; that is, they are things we don’t know we know. If that’s a bit too Jungian for you, stick with me for a moment and I’ll try to explain.
            How do we know that there are things we don’t know that we know? Think of it as collective consciousness, or background music. In the documentary The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers opens the film (which is an exploration of mythology through an extended interview with Joseph Campbell) by telling a story about some Americans who had gone to Japan to study with Shinto monks. At the end of the session, one of the Americans says that they have not been able to understand the monks’ philosophy and theology. The monk thought about that for a moment, then said, “We don’t have a philosophy. We don’t have a theology. We dance.”
            They danced to the forces that moved, them, unseen and unknown forces, and they didn’t think too hard about these forces. By accepting this universal truth, the monks were able to move beyond the shackles of the known knowns and focus more properly on simply being. Which brings me back to Rummy.
            When he expounded on known knowns and their cohort, the secretary was either trying to obfuscate or educate; probably a little of both. But the force of the words remains true. This epistemic modal logic (oh, I can feel the philosophers getting ready to pounce) covers almost all our consciousness. Which brings me back to foo fighters.
            As everybody knows, foo fighters is the term used to describe UFOs reported by pilots flying during World War II and beyond. There have been many explanations offered for foo fighters—ball lightning, St. Elmo’s fire—but they still remain a mystery to this day. But they do fall neatly into the known unknown category. Which brings me back to innkeeping.
            I don’t know why things happen sometimes. They just do, and science can’t explain it. And if science can’t explain it, it has to be lumped into the “miscellaneous” pile, also known as unknown knowns, or known unknowns—to tell you the truth, I’m getting a little confused by know—I mean now. But this is what happened.
  • ·      The hot tub stopped working when it was 27 degrees below zero outside. And don’t give me the old, “It must have been contact degradation brought on by micro vibration electrostatic elation.” Okay, the hot tub is 15 years old, and sometimes old stuff just stops working because it’s old. Which, I suppose, is a known unknown.
  • ·      The refrigerator stopped working, and thank goodness it was 27 degrees below zero, so at least the freezer stuff could go outside. The fridge was four years old and it had no business conking out. The technician came and told us we needed a new motherboard, but he didn’t know why. “Could be anything,” he said. “Power surge. Static arc. Planned obsolescence.” Or St. Elmo’s fire, I thought. Sounds like a known known to me.
  • ·      One of the three heating systems we operate here sprung a leak. It’s a good thing I make regular security tours around this place, or I wouldn’t have found the leak until it was too late. Did a solder joint fail? Did the antifreeze in the system corrode the pipes from the inside out? Does it even matter when the plumber drops the bill off?
  • ·      A sewer pipe froze. There’s company in the area that specializes in unfreezing sewer pipes. Sometimes that involves bringing is an engine from an F-14 Tomcat and training it on the offending pipe, but this time it involved a dedicated high-pressure hose to chisel out the ice. As near as I can figure, the sewer pipe developed a blockage, and everything that backed up after it froze. Does that sound like science?

Before all you logicians launch into refutations, it’s not the individual things that can’t be explained by science; it’s their grouping, because the one thing they all have in common isn’t coincidence; it’s money. And whether it was Donald Rumsfeld or foo fighters that brought all this on is irrelevant; what is relevant is that we allow ourselves to acknowledge the unseen forces in our world, and instead of trying to quantify them, we all should just dance.

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, 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.
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.”
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.