Thursday, April 21, 2011

A day in the Basement in Carhartts

I love how when I wear Carhartts, I walk differently. The heavy canvas pants—hand-me-downs from Brian—are cut generously through the leg leaving plenty of room for long powerful strides. When I wear Carhartts, I feel like my gait becomes slightly wider, like my legs swing more straightly from my hip sockets, and I feel more like a cowboy heading out to rope and ride. All of which sounds a bit romantic—given that my wearing of Carhartts last weekend was simply about a plumbing project that kept us in the basement at the little place in Waldoboro all Sunday.

But, there is something about a pair of Carhartts. Let’s just forget for a minute that any woman who knows what Carhartts are knows that they do for a man’s ass what no other pant seems to manage. For me, Carhartts make me feel capable, as if someday I’ll actually have a pencil, tape measure, and level stashed away in all those pockets they give you, and I’ll even know what to do with them.

This past weekend, Brian and I replaced most of the supply line plumbing for the new-to-us, yet needy little house in Maine. The old copper pipes were suspect because the water is too acidic, so while we investigate a system to add base to the water, Brian thought it a good idea to replace the old copper with PEX, which would be easy for us to install—and would have the added benefit of being more resistant to bursting if the temp in the basement should fall below freezing for long.

The project was one Brian had done before—but was new to me. So the night before donning my mighty Carhartts, I sifted through the massive number of PEX fittings Brian had purchased from our local big box hardware store. It was like sorting my nephew’s Legos; I had no idea what shapes these fittings would take or how they related to the plumbing project as a whole. So, I simply laid them all out on the floor and sorted: half inch elbows, quarter inch straight connectors, half inch reducing connectors, manifolds, valves, plugs, and tees. I read the labels and made little piles.

In the morning, Brian and I sipped coffee from our new local bakery and headed into the dank basement to make sense of all of the connectors and piping. While the project was familiar to Brian, he still had to think through this specific application: Where should the new water filter be mounted? How much of the new PEX should we install before taking out the old copper? Would we have enough of the half inch white PEX to replace the copper all the way into the furnace?

After hours of work with me in the self-appointed role of apprentice, I started to get bored and my mind started drifting to a lobster roll that could be had in Wiscasset—if we managed to wrap up and leave with enough daylight. And, when Brian discovered that absolutely no Teflon plumbing tape could be found anywhere in any of our tool boxes, I was all too happy to dodge out into the late afternoon sun and drive to the end of the peninsula to borrow some from our buddy, Bill, at the Outsider’s Inn.

When we did finally pack up to leave, though, most of the copper had been cut out of the system. I had even cut some of it out myself with a pipe cutter, which turns out to be a rather nifty tool, and Brian had attacked the rest with the Sawzall, which turns out to be a very frightening tool. And by the time we slid our dusty Carhartts into the benches at Sarah’s CafĂ© for lobster rolls, I had learned how to use the PEX crimper tool and the PEX cutting tool. I understood how the various categories of fittings worked and what they were for, and the project was much less of a mystery to me, which kind of gets back to how Carhartts make me feel. Perhaps for some people, high heels and a power suit do the same thing. But for me, Carhartts make me feel like the kind of person who can learn to be a “do-it-herself-er.” They give me permission to get dirty and make mistakes. When I wear Carhartts, I don’t have to think about what my hair looks like; I just stick it up into a ponytail and into a cap, and my Sunday, work-around-the-house uniform is complete. They’re like my favorite ski pants or running gear; they’re not only the right apparel for the job, they seem a little like a secret weapon—that thing that might just give me the edge—or at the very least not bind and chafe. So, while we spent the whole day in the dark basement and didn’t even get outside for long enough to walk down to the water, we were treated as the full moon started to climb past the pines across from the restaurant just as we finished our dinner and sipped our wine. It was a day in the basement in Carhartts—well spent.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Far and Near

One of the first times I stayed away from home as a child was on our fifth grade trip to Camp Chewonki in Wiscasset, ME. There were negative aspects of my stay at Camp Chewonki for sure; there were the mosquitoes, and after days of battling them, every bit of bedding and every sweatshirt had the chemical DEET stink of Deep Woods Off. Then there was the fact that my recently cut hair had taken on a frizzy life of its own forming a triangle on my head that no amount of cap wearing could get to calm and lie flat. There were also the fun parts of camp like the crush I had on one of our camp counselors, and there were the arm wrestling matches between me and the fifth-grade boys I thought were cute, back when being a tomboy and being a bit tough and sassy had cachet.

But the things I remember most were the new experiences and adventures I had, and the simple ones were most profound. The woods at Camp Chewonki were dotted with delicate pink Lady Slippers. They could be found in shady spots in the forest where strands of light poked through, standing tall against the decaying leaf matter on the forest floor—yet dwarfed beneath the enormous trees above. The Lady Slippers were not like shells or beach pebbles that could be pocketed and brought home to show my parents and sisters. I couldn’t take them from their forest home without destroying the wonder that they were, and I remember agonizing that I could never convey the beauty of their pale leaves and gentle curves to my family back at home.

In the morning at camp, there was always hot cereal. In our house at home, we never had hot cereal. Eggs, yes. Bacon, frequently. Pancakes, all the time. Cold cereal, absolutely. But, we never had hot cereal, and I was fascinated by it. The other breakfast offerings at Camp Chewonki have faded from my memory, but the recollection of the various hot cereals remains, and mostly, I remember the various scents. I remember smelling the darker, warm grains flavored with maple, and then I remember a plain, pale grain—maybe rice or wheat. I’m sure there were oats, and the sweet smells of the brown sugar and raisins were tantalizing. I’m not even sure if I tried some or any of these hot cereals. I wasn’t really sure how you were supposed to eat them, and I was afraid of trying them and not liking them. But the experience of sensing something new and foreign was exotic to me—making me eager to experience more of my world—more of the world beyond the home I knew and loved.

Years later, I was hired to coach skiing at a youth ski camp in Zermatt, Switzerland. At 21, I was pretty much a youth myself, and leading up to my departure I was both ecstatic and terrified. I remember the damp, dusty smell in the tunnel at the top of the tram. I was told that the fine, pale-grey silt at the top of the mountain was actually sand from the Sahara blown on the wind and deposited when the winds buffeted the Alps. On the other side of the tunnel with the strange damp, clay taste, the brilliant, sapphire sky was so bright and expansive and in such bold contrast to the stark white snow, it was overwhelming. It seemed like every sunny day I’d ever known packed into one—bigger and brighter than my imagination. After days of becoming acquainted with the piste, or open trails on the glacier, I remember skiing lazily down to where we’d ride the gondola back down to town since the summer months had left the lower slopes green and bare of snow. As I skied down through soft, granulated snow, the warmth from above mingled with the cool breeze off the snow. All was bright blue, white, jagged peaks in the distance, glorious green pastures below, and again I thought, “How will I ever transport this back to my family; how can I share this experience with them.” I tried my very best by talking about Switzerland non-stop for months after my return. Nearly every sentence I spoke started with “In Zermatt . . .”

Throughout my life, I’ve felt both the lure of the distant and the gravity of the familiar—a need to see, feel, taste, touch, and hear what the distant places of the world have to offer and a desire to bring those experiences home to the people and places that are most familiar and most dear to me.

This past Thursday, I made a small effort to marry the two. Maine, that fairy-tale land that I have loved since I first looked at Lady Slippers in the forest, has been on my mind all my life—both when I lived there in college and beyond—as well as in the years I lived on the West Coast. So, on Thursday of last week, I signed some papers in an old law office in Waldoboro, ME, and I took possession of the deed for 3.3 acres of land, which boasts both a small fixer of a cottage and 82’ of rocky shoreline on Sampson Cove—where the Medomak River meets the sea. The deed will be in my name, and it will remain my center of gravity as I continue to seek out adventures far from home—but I will share this place that has captured my affection wholly with my family and friends. They will likely live there more than I will, and by sharing this treasure, I hope to make it more real and even more special.

And even as I type this, Brian is digesting the final phase of boat plans that have just arrived in the mail, and our plans to strike out for distant shores remain the driving force that they have been for the past two and a half years. Our voyaging dreams will remain our motivation for the months and years ahead, and we also hope to share our sailing dreams—both through in person visits and through our stories.

So, I don’t know if the little house in Waldoboro will fully satisfy my desire to always be in two places at once—both grounded and searching. And, I don’t know if all of my friends and family will thrill at the sight of the periwinkles affixed to the rocks on the little beach at low tide. I don’t know if they will enjoy a whiff of exposed seaweed as much as I do, and I don’t know if the effort and expense of rehabilitating the cottage will demand more of me than I have to give. All I know is that when I find something that is special to me, I need to try to share it with the people I love.