Wednesday, July 27, 2011

An Annotated History of Innkeeping in the 21st Century

What began out of frustration for my attempts to find a publisher for my memoir The Innkeeper's Husband has turned into a full-scale rewrite of the book. With it comes a new title: An Annotated History of Innkeeping in the 21st Century.

Several weeks ago Chris Millis and I were talking about novel-writing techniques, and we discussed the idea of annotating a novel, a la David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest. As I was contemplating the fate of The Innkeeper's Husband, I started to think about this method as a way of injecting something more textual into the book, something that would divorce it from a strict narrative. Though the original draft contained articles from a regular column on innkeeping that I'd written several years ago as chapter bridges, those columns felt like asynchronous intrusions.

So, on a whim, and while I'm getting close to the end of another novel I'm working on, I dropped what I was doing and reworked The Innkeeper's Husband into An Annotated History of Innkeeping in the 21st Century.

What's more, I decided to serialize the rewrite as I complete each chapter so that everyone out there in pajama land can enjoy or be aggravated by my efforts. Totally up to you.

Here is the Introduction and Chapter 1. And please remember, this is the Beta version. (That's the inchoate version, for you smarty pants.)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

My Morning Muse

It didn’t start out as a deliberate act; many of these things don’t. There was no planning, no discussion. In fact, most people didn’t realize it until the event had passed. And after the first couple of days, it faded into the background with no protest, no uproar, no pleading. Perhaps the most noticeable effect was that there was no noticeable effect. Life went on.

That not always how it works out for everyone who stops drinking coffee. Most people get headaches, become irritable, or find themselves nodding off at ten in the morning. When I stopped drinking coffee over Memorial Day 2010, none of that happened. In fact, what I noticed over the next few weeks was a mellowing, a smoothing out of my day, and a quicker drift to sleep at night.

For years I’d risen with or before the dawn, pounded coffee, and slew dragons. I didn’t really start drinking coffee on a daily basis until I met Chantal. She imported this excellent coffee from Louisiana called Community Coffee. It was rich and sharp and she drank it black and it made me forget the large regular with two sugars (“lahhge regulah with two sugahs) that I sometimes ordered at Dunkin’ Donuts. Thus began my coffee drinking career.

When we lived in France we had access to a tremendous selection of coffee, muscular, aggressive roasts of pure Arabica beans. The French drink coffee as a way to hydrate themselves. They drink it in the morning, they dunk their cigarettes in it throughout the day, and they drink it at night to fall asleep. They don’t drink it out of mugs. Rather, they drink it in short cups, perpetuating the illusion of continuous consumption. Funnily enough, Chantal and I preferred the coffee we could buy in Germany, which was less edgy. We made frequent cross-border forays for this coffee, which we drank with breakfast.

Back in the States (and a couple of years later when we moved to Canada) coffee became a tool when we had children. And by tool I mean a drug in the sense of something we say to our kids all the time: “Don’t do drugs.” With the advent of erratic sleeping patterns comes the total dependency on coffee to survive the daylight hours. I discovered the joys of iced coffee, which could be spiked with chocolate syrup, cream, coffee liqueur, or whiskey, depending on the time of the day.

When I went to work for FedEx, coffee became a piece of equipment for me. Like many of my purple-and-orange brothers and sisters, reporting to work at oh-dark-thirty for a day of driving required gasoline and coffee to keep up the 14-hour days I logged. Like all couriers, I began to orchestrate my delivery route with my need for coffee and bathrooms. While we loaded our trucks, the morning discussions among couriers revolved around toilet talk: who had the best john, and what could we do when we were “out of range.” My favorite technique was called the “mirror adjustment.” A courier would pull over to the side of the road and adjust the mirror on the passenger’s side of the truck while he secretly peed on his right front tire. Another courier pointed our that all the water bottles that littered access road to the FedEx station I worked in back in Mass were filled with urine. “It’s all the coffee we drink,” he explained. “What are we supposed to do?”

The next phase of my life required absolute devotion to coffee: innkeeping. Coffee is the lynchpin to the entire operation, the only thing guests really want in the morning. Fail as an innkeeper to provide excellent coffee for guests, and you fail at your essential task. Don’t even bother breaking eggs: the day’s battle is won or lost on that first sip of coffee. Furthermore, I lived ten minutes away from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters--and later, with FedEx, I worked at the GMCR facility in Waterbury, Vermont. I found myself awash in coffee. During the workday, access to coffee was unlimited, and the latest rage were K-cups, which made delivering coffee to my system more convenient than ever.

So when I quit coffee last year, it was a major event that I somehow managed to slip quietly under the notice of most people (except for my perceptive friend Lloyd, a professional coffee drinker, who rightfully chided me for my deception). But I experienced no side-effects, no withdrawal from the bean. A sort of mellowness descended around me, a tolerance, an openness. The feeling was not unpleasant, and through the winter ski season I didn’t miss coffee.

But there was one side-effect that I did experience, one aspect of my life that suffered from my decaffeination: my writing. Coffee has always been part of my writing ritual, the routine that fuels my creativity, the morning muse for my morning pages. As an early riser, I depended on coffee to ignite my writing and elevate my consciousness. It sharpened me early and sustained me late. And I’d noticed a frustration surrounding the completion of a novel I’ve been working on for too long. So quietly, at the last Roundtable Writers’ Confab, I began sipping some coffee. And just as there was no marked difference when I stopped drinking coffee, there was nothing to signal that I’ve resumed drinking it. Oh, maybe I’ve felt a little rush in the morning following my one cup. But I think the most noticeable effect has been on my writing. More of it’s getting done, earlier, and with more clarity.

Every writer has his muse. For middle-aged guys like me it’s usually some gal in her 20s. But my muse is coffee, that robust elixir of stimulation who clears to fog from my mind and tingles my fingertips across the keyboard. It’s good to be back.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Biking Away the Summer

For the past three and a half weeks, my son has been taking a summer class at Johnson State College. Aside from the fact that I’m impressed with his pluck (the class is General Chemistry, and it meets every morning from 8 AM to noon; next fall he’ll be entering his junior year of high school), I’m also impressed my dedication to helping him achieve this goal. Since my son doesn’t yet have his driver’s license, it’s my job to get him to class each day, then hang around for four hours until he’s ready to head home. With fuel flirting with four bucks a gallon it doesn’t make any sense to drive the twenty minutes back home, then go back and pick him up.

This isn’t as bad as it sounds. For starters, I’ve been able to use the time spent up in Morrisville (where the class is held) doing the things that everyone in Stowe does up in Morrisville: shop. Ironically, though Stowe bills itself as a great place for visitors to “shop,” the kind of shopping small innkeepers need to do (what I call survival shopping: supermarket stuff, farm and garden supplies, etc.) is better done in the blue collar setting ten miles north of here. If I need a new yoga outfit or special creams for my body, Stowe’s the right town; but when I need toilet paper and cheap plastic do-hickies, I head north.

Another benefit of being trapped in a different locale for the morning is that I’m close to the Community College of Vermont, where I teach. While I’m only teaching one class this summer, there’s still plenty of work (like reading essays), and I can go to CCV and use the instructor’s office (which is painfully air-conditioned) and plow through my work while I sip coffee.

And speaking of coffee (which I’ve begun drinking again after a 14-month hiatus; more on that in a future blog), when I’m done with CCV, I’m free to sample the local coffee shops offering free wi-fi. My favorite is the Bee’s Knees. It’s laid back and the coffee’s good. Plus I can look out the huge front windows at the morning bustle as it passes by. Another favorite is the Lovin Cup Cafe in Johnson. Located on the first floor of an old Victorian home, the place has the feel of someone’s living room, which makes it perfect for plunking down on one of the couches and answering emails.

But the best benefit of this arrangement is that I get to ride my road bike every day. As soon as I drop my son off, I change into my bike shorts and take my bike off its rack and hit the road. Biking in Vermont is a pleasure that can’t be overstated. It would be trite for me to waste this space talking about the barns and the cows and the babbling brooks I get to ride past every morning, or to wax philosophic with platitudes about the breathtaking views of the mountains, yadda yadda.

What’s more interesting is the intimate relationship I developed with the road and my bike. After three weeks of hard riding, my bike feels like an extension of my body. The feeling must be similar to what pilots feel with their planes: I just look where I want to go and my bike goes there. I’ve also become a connoisseur of macadam, asphalt, and other road surfaces. Averaging 12 to 15 miles per hour on a thin-tired bicycle requires concentration. While the views around me may be bucolic, most of my time is spent surveying the upcoming road for cracks, detritus, and roadkill. Nothing can ruin your day faster than running over a partially-flattened beaver. (Beaver carcasses are notoriously greasy--some say they’re slicker than owl shit, but I have my doubts--and greasy bike tires are unstable, to say the least.)

While I managed to avoid the remains of various mammals and marsupials that decorated the verge (once I rode by a bloating deer corpse; a hundred yards later I rode past a festering coyote carcass; though I kept a sharp eye out, I never saw the third act of this roadside tragedy: the remains of someone wearing green plaid, holding a rifle), I did have a run-in with a jagged piece of steel that someone had carelessly tossed from a car window. The piece of metal looked like something from a medieval torture chamber, rusting and serrated. I managed to avoid it with my front tire, but it sliced open my back tire, and the resulting high-speed explosion nearly sent me under the treads of a passing oil truck. With no way to repair it--I needed a new tire, as well as an inner tube--I was forced to walk four miles back to my car.

Vermont roads are famous for other unexpected cycling hazards. While patches of sand can destabilize anything on two wheels instantly, my worst fear as a cyclists is the dreaded Wall of Manure. Farmer’s barns may look lovely on postcards and in magazines, but the cows that live there are busy turning grass into milk and manure, and on a hot day the scent of nature can form a physical obstruction as dangerous as any rotting body. To try and suck air precipitating cow dung after climbing a ferocious hill in the July heat is to experience something close to drowning. The body won’t allow it. Eyes water. Skin burns. Lungs seize. But the legs keep pumping, because to stop is to be swallowed up in the miasma.

My son’s class is over, so I’m back to biking from Stowe, and while it’s still a gorgeous place to cycle, I’ll miss my morning cows, my sandy turns, and my Smithsonian-caliber collection of North American fauna piled up on the side of the road. Oh--my son’s class? He got an A. I’ll burn fuel for that any day. Especially if I get to bike away my mornings.