Sunday, January 24, 2010

Wi-Fi in the Mountains

Wi-fi in the Mountains

Every since we moved up here six years ago, there have been promises to wire the state for high speed Internet. It’s come up with every politician I’ve seen interviewed.

We had to go to the public library six miles away to use the high speed connection there. Every time someone sent us a picture of their dog (which a surprising number of people feel compelled to do) our dial-up connection clogged and/or crashed. We would send desperate, barely polite reminders to the senders to just send text emails. Apologies followed, and soon thereafter, more gargantuan files. We were frequent library users. Sometimes when the library was closed (it’s open 32 hours/week) we even had our laptops outside, balanced on the often freezing book return box as we sent and received files.

Governor Douglas cut a deal two years ago with FairPoint to take over Verizon’s lines and install DSL throughout the state. It was controversial. The Vermont Public Service Board had doubts about FairPoint’s fiscal stability and customer service record. The doubt was well founded. FairPoint filed for bankruptcy and is reorganizing now.

Anytime I saw a FairPoint service truck stopped, there was a crowd surrounding it, asking about high speed Internet. They were like the ice cream trucks from my semi-suburban youth, only nothing got resolved. The poor drivers gave evasive answers about when It was coming, shook their heads ruefully about management, and finally got away. Stories abounded of bad service, too, or even no telephone service at all. One friend reported that a woman in the FairPoint repair office, to whom he’d spoken many times about not having telephone service, took pity on him and told him how to shinny up the pole and fix it himself. Which he did, gratefully.

Now we have both DSL, and Wi-Fi. It feels like a miracle. I can keep up with work email, and even make timely contributions. I can download pictures. I can send pictures of rugs to potential customers. I can edit and share group documents online. I have a blog. Yesterday I even hosted a party for gubernatorial hopeful, Doug Racine, and had his speech streamed into my party. I can watch YouTube.

I’m old enough to recall when we had party telephone lines. Each house had its own ring, but there was nothing to stop nosy neighbors from picking up and listening in. All very amusingly quaint and Norman Rockwell, but no one hesitated when private lines became available.

With DSL came fewer trips to the library. Fewer trips meant less gas used but also less casual contact with friends and neighbors. DSL has allowed me to reach out to the world beyond my little mountain county, but it also could isolate me from that county, if I’m not careful. The irony of having high-mindedly dumped our ailing television a decade ago only to have current episodes of The Office now deliciously available for our amusement is not lost on me.

One must be conscious of the consequences of each choice. A very wise doctor once told me that every medicine has side effects, even the most mild, even aspirin. (Well, especially aspirin!) You had to be aware of them and then make your choice.

What will be DSL’s side effects? There will certainly be more advertising for Vermont products, since state government has no advertising budget at all. But there will also be more exposure to (sorry) rotgut pop culture for our children. There will be more online opportunities for education. If you’ve ever watched a You Tube how-to made by some kid in his garage, and marveled at how clear, how free of know-it-all, I-work–in-a-hardware-store-and-you-don’t attitude his presentation is can see how important the Internet is already becoming to education.

Access to the big, bad, amazing world is a mixed blessing. Bring your tweezers.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Post Oil Solutions

Post Oil Solutions

About a year ago, I signed up to be on the Post Oil Solutions mailing list, little knowing how vital the contact would be. As its name suggests, it’s a group dedicated to helping people come up with viable solutions to the challenges of trying to create thriving communities that are not oil dependent. In southern Vermont, there is an added challenge facing us. The Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant is due to be relicensed in 2012. If people are really serious about shutting this old, and in my view, dangerous, plant down—and many are-- we are going to have to come up with alternative sources of energy.

One piece of this puzzle that POS focuses on is local eating. The logic is that it is wasteful and dangerous to not have local sources for our food. What makes POS so brilliant is they start with where people really are. The winter calendar of workshops features garden planning sessions for beginning and intermediate gardeners, seed starting, cold frame building, and one that I’m sorry to say I already missed, “Eating from your garden 12 months a year”. Not rocket science, but if you’re new to country living, or have just been too busy with your life to even contemplate chickens, then these workshops could save you years of trial and error. Not bad for $20.

How do people normally learn this stuff? If you’re brought up on or near a farm, you learn it from your family or neighbors. Newcomers are usually stuck with the trial by fire method that has generated so much amusing literature. Here, at last, another way.

Last year I went to the chicken, goat and sheep workshops. Filled with earnest, note-scribbling neophytes like myself, the workshops were inspiring. Held at Fairwinds Farm on the edge of Brattleboro, each workshop contained a element on fencing—portable electric for chickens and sheep, something a little more robust for goats. Fencing is where I need more info, and I plan to get to yet another workshop in New Hampshire on same, early this spring. Meanwhile though, we got to taste fresh goat’s milk, which because of the farm’s good hygiene, has none of the off-putting goatstink I associate with that animal. It also helps to keep the odorous bucks away from the does. That, I’m told, is a large part of the problem. The milk was delicious and, what’s more, it tasted real, like there were actual nutrients in it.

The question is, do I want to milk goats? Twice a day, regardless of my own wee druthers? Well, actually, no, not right now. Attractive as Tasha Tudor’s life was in theory, I’d like to be able to go to Boston once in awhile, or New York, or even New Mexico. And if I’m an unlikely goatherd, you should see my adored but even more disinclined men folk.

But—gardens I can do. And bees, too. Maybe even chickens and sheep, although I can picture every hawk, raccoon, fox and coyote in the neighborhood tying napkins around their necks in anticipation. I just need to get to the electric fence workshop.

My parents published a joke book called Real Vermonters Don’t Milk Goats. The cover featured a cartoon of a preppy guy with a sweater tied over his shoulders, grinningly regarding the viewer as he yanked away on the teat of some poor little nanny goat. The jokes lampooned the pretentions of flatlanders coming here to live The Vermont Life, or what they perceived it to be.

Those concerns seem rather quaint now. Times change.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Playing in Snow

Playing in Snow

The way to enjoy winter, or at least get through it sane, is to play in the snow. This holds true for adults as well as children. Maybe even more so for adults. During Vermont’s five month winters, your life is dominated by snow: you shovel it, plow it, drive in it, fret about it, and try not to break your neck as you navigate through it. You ‘d better find a way to enjoy it.

It is pretty. I love the way it reflects light, not losing one lumen coming out the perpetually gray sky. Frankly, we gloomy northerners need ‘em all.

I love the sound of snow settling as I ski or walk across new snowfall.

I love the smell of snow, the crisp cold it gives off is unlike any other. Granted, it’s more pleasant when the temperature is above 20 degrees F, but still deeply refreshing.

I even like snow fleas, a Hyporgastrura also known as springtails that look like pepper shaken over the snow. You can see them on warm winter days near the base of trees.

Not being hugely coordinated, and not wanting to spend $100/day on a lift ticket, downhill skiing, though wildly invigorating, is not my first choice. I learned with my children, happily going up and down the bunny slope at Wachusett Mountain in Massachusetts.

I grew up cross-country skiing, back when you had to apply waxes before during and after your outing (or so it seemed). Its consistency reminded me for some reason of Vicks Vapo-Rub for skis—sticky, lumpy and gummy, especially when applied without the proper Nordic vigor—that left one unable to glide at all, with four inches of snow stuck firmly to the bottoms of the skis.

Now I have graduated to a pair of skis with ingenious plastic scales that allow me to ski (sort of) up hills and glide down them pretty handily too. Avoiding trees and being able to stop are still challenges. Now that I’ve been on downhill skis, the edges on Nordic skis are to me unconvincing. That’s why golf courses are good—not too many steep hills, or too many things to bump into.

My father perfected a stopping method he called “the bush grab”. Taken out weekly on woody, steep trails by good skiers, a few of whom were in serious training, he controlled his speed by proceeding from tree to tree, instead of just flinging himself down the hill. He actually enjoyed it.

I never mastered it. In fact, I developed a distaste for out-of-control sliding in any form. Maybe it had to do with a few car trips sideways down our local hill as we tried to catch the school bus at 6:10 AM, before the snowplows had plowed or sanded. I suddenly just had enough.

Which brings me to snowshoeing. Modern snowshoes are a real improvement over the old heavy wooden models. They are smaller, much lighter, and generally easier to get into and out of. They even have metal cleats on the bottom so you can scale the iciest hill without slipping backwards. You begin to feel a little like Spider Man with your new mobility. While arduous, it is still easier to break trails than on skis.

For me, snowshoeing presents fewer issues about style and technique, prowess or competition. I don’t have to be great at it to enjoy it. They provide transportation over the snow, into the woods. I can go slowly enough to see things like coyote trails, fisher tracks and where moose have nibbled the bark off striped maple (hence the name “moosewood”) or snow fleas.

What snowshoes do is get me out, exploring and enjoying the woods. They provide, if not an experience of being “one with nature”, then maybe just unselfconscious joy.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Snow Days

Snow Days

Snow days provide the excitement of gambling without the expenditures, or the addiction. The anticipation, hope, growing excitement as the weather forecasts are analyzed and discussed all contribute to the euphoria when a snow day is finally declared, and kids don’t have to go to school. Snow days provide a forced, spontaneous vacation.

Even our guests from Inner Mongolia got the importance of snow days. I picked them up one October night from a dinner they’d attended. In the car, they asked me in halting English about Vermont weather.

Much snow?

Oh yes.

When much snow, school?

No Sirree!

Everyone in the car cheered.

As a child, part of the thrill was having grown-up power trumped by good old Mother Nature. School was closed. Order and obligation went out the window. Your mother could bundle you up and send you out to shovel and play, but later she had to preside over baking sessions or long Monopoly games, while your soggy mittens steamed in front of the stove, drying.

At boarding school, we’d listen to WBZ out of Boston, as the school closings were listed alphabetically by town. When our school, which, after all, had to accommodate day students and teachers, was named, there was a school-wide shriek of joy. No one I knew went back to bed. We threw on clothes, tore outside, went to breakfast where we stuffed ourselves, dashed around visiting friends, glorying in our temporary freedom from schoolwork. Some girls would go downtown, some would go sliding on lunch trays, a diligent few would start homework early. By dinnertime, we were a subdued lot, facing the inevitability of reality closing in once again.

As an adult, the thrill didn’t diminish, at least for me. When we lived in a small Massachusetts town, we’d listen to the radio for our school district, near the end of the list. We’d do roughly the same things I’d done as a child. For my children, the day included hours of fort building, snowball fights, and sledding, punctuated with breaks for dry mittens and cocoa. We read aloud, made popcorn, watched videos, played Monopoly. I usually tried to interest them in some kind of art project. I still have the scrimshaw they made out of plaster of Paris and the Indian necklaces on leather bootlaces.

We’ve had three days of snow over the weekend. The meteorologists have called it a “disorganized storm”. Look out the window and you’ll see Antarctica—snow blowing everywhere, sub-zero temperatures. The shoveling and plowing we did were undone by more snow and wind. The predictions are that the storm will subside in time to return to school and work tomorrow.

I really need to get to town, and am growing tired of holing up at home. But the lure of that freedom--like I’m being given a day—is still strong. Now school closings are listed on the Internet.

I’ll be up early, checking, just to make sure.