Sunday, March 27, 2011

Contemplating the Numbers

My reading has frustrated me over the past few weeks. By the time I’ve finished writing this paragraph, I will have committed some heresies, but that’s nothing new for me. After all, we’re talking about a short story writer who doesn’t like Alice Munro. I’ve been struggling to win back an interest in fiction reading, after a long sabbatical that found me immersed in all forms of creative nonfiction. I started back by cracking Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann, a National Book Award winner. But the structure annoyed me, and though the writing was lyrical, that kind of meta-narrative has never been my favorite. So I moved on to The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, a book my sister-in-law recommended. I know Kingsolver is a great writer, but this book bored me senseless. Its journal-entry style robbed the characters of any depth, and there didn’t seem to be a story anywhere. I put it down in frustration.

So I wandered over to the public library, hoping the chi, or the karma, or whatever force floats around a building full of books, would guide me to a new discovery. I staggered up and down the aisles like a dowser waiting for my rod to sense a ripple in collective consciousness of a thousand volumes. I paused and picked up a book called Pig Island. The promise of pagan rituals set in Scotland looked interesting. But not quite. I moved on. For a minute I had David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest in my hand, a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time. But its 1,000+ page count demurred me. Finally I settled on The Given Day, by Dennis Lehane. I flipped open to the first page and read this:

“Due to travel restrictions placed on major league baseball by the War Department, the World Series of 1918 was played in September and split into two home stands. The Chicago Cubs hosted the first three games, with the final four to be held in Boston. On September 7, after the Cubs dropped game three, the two teams boarded a Michigan Central train together to embark on the twenty-seven-hour trip, and Babe Ruth got drunk and started stealing hats.”

That’s one of the most engaging openings I’ve read in a long time, and I was immediately drawn in, downing the first hundred pages of the book in just a couple of hours.

It’s an important and relevant book to read right now for many reasons. The first is me. I’m an Irish Catholic kid from the Boston suburbs, and this book is set in Boston in 1918. It’s Irish-American themes are strong, and as I read it I thought of my grandfather, who would have been 18 at the time. It also deals with unions, and the history of the Boston Police strike of 1919, and how that strike was eventually broken: by firing all the officers who went on strike and replacing them with new hires, thus presaging President Reagan’s handling of the Air Traffic Controller’s strike of 1981. Given our current climate, it’s instructive to look back at the circumstances of these events to better find our way to more humane solutions.

But it was baseball that grabbed me first and foremost, specifically Babe Ruth. In the opening pages, Lehane paints a picture of a young Ruth as an emotionally arrested young man already on his way to self-ruin, even as he is just beginning to understand the talent he has been granted. More importantly, Lehane creates a moral and ethical dilemma for the Babe, allowing our imaginations into the ballplayer’s, in a poignant scene of racial injustice.

Because I’m a baseball junkie, I went directly to Baseball Reference online to refresh my memory of Ruth’s numbers. In 1918 Ruth was still primarily a pitcher, going 13-7 for the Red Sox with a 2.22 ERA in 166 and one-third innings. But the rumblings of baseball’s greatest slugger were already apparent in Ruth’s 11 home runs, which may seem measly to our steroid-inflated ears, but which led the league that year. In 317 at bats the young Ruth batted .300 and knocked in 66 RBIs to go with his 11 home runs.

As impressive (within that historical context) those numbers were, it was Ruth’s next year--his last with Boston--that began a historic run of statistical achievement that might never be matched. From 1919 to 1934, a span of 16 years, Ruth hit 688 home runs. We all know that in 22 seasons he hit 714, but in that span he averaged 43 home runs per year. He also knocked in 2,085 RBIs (averaging 130 per year), and hit at a .347 clip. In 1923--Ruth’s only MVP season--he hit .396, and didn’t win the batting title. In 1919 he hit 29 home runs and batted in 114 RBIs--both league bests--while hitting .322, and he went 9-5 in 133 innings pitched for the Red Sox, with a 2.97 ERA. There ought to be an award named after that kind of a season.

Of course the numbers never tell the story; that’s why we read the books. For now I’m grateful that Dennis Lehane has shaken me from my fictional funk, reignited my passions through the history of my home, and proved once again the power and relevance of writing in an ever more disconnected world.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Marketing, and other wastes of my time

I was recently tinkering with the Facebook page for the Auberge de Stowe, trying to jazz it up, make it look professional, add the latest apps and photos, link it to everything that looks interesting, when I stopped. Why? I wondered to myself. What's the point? Why am I spinning my wheels doing something I abhor: marketing.

Ostensibly, it's to create business. But I can tell you on less than one hand how many room nights I've gained due to Facebook: zilch. I've visited the competition's Facebook pages, and they all look lovely, full of the evidence of busy-work, including reviews and testimonials from past guests. Great. In my opinion, that means Facebook is functioning like a history book, giving us snapshots of the way things used to be. That's because only your friends and fans of your business's Facebook page can see this wonderful collection of pixels you've spent hours working on.

If I'm looking for a place to attract return business, this is an acceptable method, providing, of course, that your guests all have Facebook pages. But that's not always the case. In fact, most of my customers are Facebook challenged, even if they're tech savvy in other areas. I can tell you that if I hadn't gone to graduate school in my 40s, and if I didn't own an inn, I would eschew Facebook. I've been on Facebook since 2005 when they appeared in my Goddard College email one day. Thinking that it was something connected to the college, I joined. Facebook lay dormant in my mind for a few years, until the phenomenon exploded a couple of years ago, and I found myself ahead of the curve. It was only temporary.

So why do I bother? Are people going to come back and stay with me when I post on the Auberge Facebook status that I ripped the ceiling out of the bathroom in Room 4, and I'm replacing a pipe there? Or that the crocuses are vainly trying to poke up through the snow? Or some other similarly pretentious and saccharinely insincere comment?

In the meantime, hours go by, hours spent distracted by all this, hours that would be better spent writing, which is what I'm supposed to do. So if the Auberge page looks a little stale once in a while, you'll know it's not because we don't want to stay in business; we just want to be us.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A User's Guide to Snow Removal

There’s no way to teach someone how to shovel snow off a roof. The old farmhouse doesn’t have a manual of operation that contains a chapter on clearing snow so that the whole place doesn’t collapse. And there’s no way of knowing when there’s too much snow above you; supporting timbers in a 175 year-old building don’t have splintering monitors.
For the second time this winter, I clambered up onto the back roof to clear the snow away. This is a shallow pitched roof over the breakfast room of the inn, and when I got up there and stood, the snow came up to my pelvis. I gyrated a few times, as if I were hula-hooping, to push clear a spot to stand. Under my feet I imagined I could feel the smooth metal surface of the roof--metal that was supposed to be slick enough to shed the snow by itself. But all I could feel was the crunch of snow beneath my boots.
During the winter there is usually a rise and fall of temperatures that promotes not only a reduction in the snow pack through sublimation, but also movement off the roof. This winter, however, has seen consistently cold temperatures here in Vermont, keeping the snow in place. Normally I would ignore it and wait for spring to eventually do the work for me, but foul weather is forecast for the end of the week: sleet, some rain, high winds. That added moisture could be enough to push the weight of the snow into the danger zone. Time to go to work.
Earlier in the winter I’d rigged a way for me to work up there in semi-safe conditions. I attached a stout rope to a heavy eyebolt screwed into a corner post of a dormer. Lashing the rope around my waist gave me a kind of harness that would arrest my fall, should I slip. Of course, the rope might break some ribs, or twist around my neck and strangle me, but it offered an alternative to the fifteen-foot drop off the back roof.
Why, you might ask, am I doing this? Standing on the roof, I can look up and down the road and see enterprising Woodchucks (the name given to local who can trace their families back seven generations in Vermont) rattling around in their pickup trucks, the beds filled with shovels and ladders. For a few bucks--20, 50, 75--they’ll crawl up the side of your building like snow crabs, dangle from your cornices and turrets like bats, and shovel the snow off your roof while you gaze up thoughtfully at them over a nice hot cup of coffee.
It comes down to purpose. Over the years I’ve done almost all the work that’s been needed to this old house. I’ve rebuilt all but one of the bathrooms, painted, plumbed, wired, trenched, and nailed together everything that’s needed nailing, trenching, wiring, plumbing, and painting. The only things I haven’t done are the big-ticket items like heating systems. There’s a certain satisfaction in knowing that when you look at your life, you can claim ownership over the elements that comprise it. I can point to something in every room, every corner and say, “That’s me.” I have not checkbooked my way through this experiment, which is in year eleven. I have sweated and sworn and innovated and persevered through it. What I didn’t know how to do already, I learned. Like shoveling snow off a roof.
Though it may sound simple, there is an art to this task, and the art is to do it without getting killed or injured. It takes concentration and thought, because shoveling the wrong spot, or overextending yourself with a bucket full of snow could be ruinous. So I methodically begin removing large sections of snow off the roof, the hiss of it sliding down the metal, the soft thunk of it hitting the snow piled on the ground below. I’m sweating; my breathing is rhythmic. And after a couple of hours of carefully placing my boots where they are less likely to slip, I am done.
Later, after a shower and a couple of Advil, I look out the window at the piles of snow and think of the stupidity of what I’ve done. It has started to snow again. So much for the art. I have fulfilled Oscar Wilde’s prophecy: "To reveal the art and conceal the artist is art's aim." My art is the straggling hunks of snow that remain on the mostly bare roof; the artist has hidden himself away, waiting for the next snow to pile up.