Sunday, December 31, 2006

New Year's Eve 2006 - North Troy

The Woolfoot Family has spent New Year's Eve (so far at least) here at the Last House. Just around 3:30 as the sun was headed down on 2006 I snapped this picture (with a telephoto lens, then edited it a bit to tighten the shot) of Owl's Head mountain over in Canada.

The kids had a great time sledding down one of the hills here at the farm today. If I could post a video I would. I got a funny one of Kid 2 tumling off at the bottom while Kid 1 laughed and screamed and yelled "Wicked." I even made a few runs down with Kid 1. It was fun.

Spent early morning yesterday at Jay. I was going to take a walk on the golf course (as per my usual) but found it had become impassable - or at least not pleasantly passable - without snow shoes. I had all my ski gear with me, so I took one run down the mountain. It wasn't as great up there as I had thought it would be, based on the snow down lower. Dinner last night with our Canadian Friends, Vitali and Brenda, whose kids are bookends with ours (same ages as ours, sexes flipped).

Happy 2007 to all and sundry.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

"The Subtle Thief "- Hello!

How soon hath time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stol'n on his wing my three and twentieth year (or first and fortieth)

(John Milton)

Boxing Day 2006

Highlights of the holiday season this year: iDogs for both kids - definitely the hit for Christmas giving in our house; the drive from Albany, New York to North Troy, Vermont on Christmas Eve - all sun, no snow and the Adirondacks never looked more magical; the Charlie Brown Christmas CD.

Woolfoot made it to Church (sans kids, which turned out to be a good decision from a stress management point of view) on Christmas Eve. I was in Voorheesville, the pleasant old village in Albany County where my Dad and his wife live. I went to the Voorheesville United Methodist Church. They are my tribe, as Woody Allen's sister said of the Jews in Deconstructing Harry while scanning the list of names of dead passengers in a plane crash. (Woody's answer - "They're all your tribe"). The Vville church is a a turn-of-the-century number, white and steepled and with the usual dedications on the stained glass windows; beautiful brass chandelier. Friendly and not too showy. The Methodist way.

From my point of view, however, (and this is going to make me sound like an ingrate), the service suffered from that unfortunate tendency to make church friendly and accessible (i.e., hold the solemnity and any difficult St-James-version vocabulary). (See my previous post from about a year ago "Softly and Tenderly" for more can't miss opinions on modern protestant church services and my churchgoing background).

Only one actual Carol was on the menu for Christmas Eve, "Joy to the World" at the very end. I stumbled politely through a number called "Star Child" from the supplemental hymnal- never heard of it? Well, it's not likely to challenge "Joy to the World" anytime soon ("Star Child" includes the verse "street child, beat child", you get the picture). Minutes into the service we were directed to exchange "the peace of Christ" which is code for stop contemplating and go and shake hands and kiss cheeks. People, can't we save this for coffee afterwards?

The minister was a nice-seeming youngish man who made a couple of jokes and generally beamed at everyone. He had a fine loud voice and a trimmed beard. I confess (I give with one hand and take away with the other - I told you this was going to make me sound like an ingrate)to being put off by his wardrobe choice, which included a sport coat and did not include a collar. The ensemble was set off by a medallion of unknown symbolism mid-chest. The whole style-package reminded me of Dr. Zayuss (sp?) the chief intellectual orangutan in the Planet of the Apes. During the sermon, I started drifting through the said hymnal supplement, which I had not seen before. It included the expected additions of hymns in Spanish and generally reflective of the crunchy-granola branch of modern Methodism. The piece of the Sermon that I did catch involved how all of us could be wombs for God - including six-year-old children who don't know what wombs are and 85 year old men. I think I get the drift but this is not exactly one for the ages. John Milton may rest easy in his grave.

Sorry all you nice peace-kissing Methodists. Really, I was glad to have gone despite all this mean-spirited carping. Everyone was nice.

In other news:

Latest deep thinking has me considering the effects of time on us all. I will be 42 in a few weeks and feel like I am coming apart like a cheap suit. Belly expanding, joints aching. I clutch at bannisters when the wheather is changing to rain (my right knee and ankle protesting). I spent a day in November shampooing rugs at the Burlington condo and my forearm and wrist have not recovered from the day's squeezing of the trigger on the carpet cleaner. I looked around at the old people in church realizing - those people are not "other" those people are me - if I live long enough. I am half deaf, slightly incontinent, name it and its starting to give out.

And so, if we are lucky to live to be old, time will beat us down into a creaking, failing disaster of the flesh. Then, of course, eventually the flesh will fail altogether and we will be nothing but an assemblage of molecules. These will fall apart into dust. Just like it says in the Bible. Someday it will all be incinerated when the sun goes red dwarf, then what's left of these bodies of ours will be space dust. Talk about a downer.

But - but - when you run this scenario in reverse, you have to stop and think - from whence did we come? It's all part of the same picture, right? Here is the brighter aspect. From this same dust, these inert molecules, we have been assembled - almost ex nihilo (Water, dust, electricty, DNA a fabulous elegance - life). I remember seeing a documentary or maybe a 60 minutes piece as a kid where they were interviewing some European eminence - perhaps Franco Zefferelli?- and whoever it was was talking about the achievements of the artists of the Italian Renaissance. He said that their art was the product of their knowledge that they were a part of God. When I think in these terms I understand what he meant. What can be done by a human person with the confidence of being a part of the God that made him? See: Italian Renaissance; Bach, etc. All the glories of our species have their roots somehow in this fact.

In the movie, The Hours, I recall a scene where Virginia Woolf is asked by her little niece "where do we go when we die" and Virgina's answer is "from where we came." I have no way of knowing if this exchange ever took place, of course, but I think it is true - if you know what I mean.

Snow today

We had a green Christmas here at the last house, but this morning a light snow has covered the grass. Hurray! The Green Christmas was nice but this seems more like it should be. Boxing Day blessings on your heads and mine.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Raves for "The Queen" - The Movie and The Person

I gave myself a Christmas present this weekend. I stayed in Burlington on Friday while Woolfoot Kid 1 and Woolfoot Kid 2 were up in the country with Woolfoot Husband. This gave me a clear evening to have dinner out with a colleague, shop a bit (Borders for the Charlie Brown Christmas CD) and go see The Queen.

Everytime I say "brilliant" now I hear those cut-out cartoon characters from the Guinness ads. But, the movie is brilliant. I recently wrote here that, based on the recent John Lahr profile of Helen Mirren in the New Yorker she came off as a lightweight. I'll have to pin that on Lahr and my own faulty judgment. I knew Mirren was great even when I wrote that. We've all been witnesses to her brilliance before - but her performance as Elizabeth II in this move was - well, words fail. Plus royaliste que le roy? If the Queen is not as portrayed by Helen Mirren, she should be.

This brings me to a point I have been thinking of and wanting to write about for a long time. Given my general and somewhat unaccountable anglophilia, I have been a distant and somewhat vague admirer of ER for years. Part of what impressed me so much about this movie is that Stephen Frears (director) and the writer (Stephen Morgan?)and all these wonderful actors (there are no throw-aways) managed to dramatize the dilemma of Queen of England in the modern world. A Queen from the "greatest generation" (like my own grandmother) who is now stuck now in the Oprah generation and having to cope. A Queen alone - in an institution whose venerability is matched perhaps only by the Vatican. Singular and nearly ridiculous. In the public mind, esp. in the yobbish untutored mind, nothing but ridiculous. The movie does not seek to praise her, only to represent her. In doing so, in what feels like such an honest depiction, the truth comes out. She is worthy to be Queen.

Despite my general sense of admiration for her, I have the American distaste for hereditary privilege. (I read the rules once for who gets titles in Englahd and how and why, and could see why our founding fathers wisely tossed the whole invidious mischievous business). And yet, it seems to me that ER has justified herself and her position to the world.

The movie also reminds us that Elizabeth 2 can't go on forever. It got me thinking about how the world will react when she goes. Even the Sex Pistols and Elvis Costello and Morrisey and others who have trashed the whole show and HRH may feel a twinge when she goes. For us general admirers, I think there will be a genuine sense of loss. She has been like an oak tree on the horizon for our whole lives (most of us). All that documentary footage we have seen - the girl Elizabeth playing blind man's bluff on the deck of a ship, the young woman pledging her service upon the death of her father; sitting on a throne at coronation; standing outside Windsor Castle as it burned during that annus horribilis; the hat, the handbag, the queenly wave; we have assimilated them all. With this movie, Mirren has fooled me into thinking I actually know her, and it will make the loss more real. For the great mass of British people, I expect millions will be devastated. I read an article in the Wall Street Journal some years ago about how it is a common phenomenon for English people to have ER show up in their dreams. One woman told about a dream she had of finding the Queen in her bathroom washing the dreamer's underwear and scolding her. She is theirs, they are hers. Whatever constitutional limitations there may be on her, the Queen has power.

It was bold to make this movie. All the real life principals are still here - false notes and false moves would be easy to spot. It also seemed to me like a stupid idea for one, frankly. But here I am Mirren and Frears and all involved should take their bows. I bow to them and, with all due respect, to their subject.

Friday, November 24, 2006

My Next Album Cover

Happy Thanksgiving! The weather up here was beautiful today. This pretentious shot was taken on the golf course at Jay a couple of weeks ago.

Je ne golf pas. But I like the new golf course. I feel like I am strolling through some Scottish country club. I was there again this morning and saw the sun rise on the back nine. Golf is done for the year, which is how I like things. I don't like to run into any other people or feel like I am getting in anyone's way.

Thanksgiving in the Woolfoot home was pleasantly past with Woolfoot Pere and Woolfoot Step Mom alond with Kid 1 and Kid 2 and one of the dogs of the senior generation. A Glen of Imaal terrier named Zoe (photo to follow).

Kid 1, Kid 2 and I spent the night in the condo being rented by Pere and Stepmom up at Trillum Woods. We enjoyed playing foosball in the basement and this AM (after my walk on the golf course) I took a sauna in the quite excellent facility.

Today we accomplished snowtires (at Sumner Tire damages $409) and grocery shopping. Leg of Lamb is cooking now. The table must be set. Children entertained. Etc.

Skiing started at Jay today, by the way, but only one run - far beyond my abilities

Friday, October 13, 2006

Banner by Gladys (1918)

One Aunt - Now Gone

This is a true essay, though the names have been thinly disguised ..

My Aunt Madge died two weeks ago. Heavy all her adult life, she had melted down to just over 100 pounds. Kidney failure was the big problem, but there had been a litany of health disasters near the end. I didn’t see her during her final illness; our only contact these last few years had been Christmas greetings. Probably because I had not witnessed her decline, the news hit me hard. My Aunt Madge had never been the sick old lady type.

She and her husband, Uncle Harry, lived in a small city in central New York. I’ll call it Boster. They had two sons, Rod and Will.

My Aunt always had the brassy manner of a career fifth-grade teacher and sometime-performer in light opera theatricals. For instance, if she called your name and you responded “yeah” she would pretend she didn’t hear you. You could keep saying “yeah? yeah?” until the cows came home. Until you said “yes” she would just keep calling your name.

In his working days, Uncle Harry owned the furniture store in Boster. They lived in Boster’s best neighborhood in a sprawling flat-roofed house, ‘50s chic, derivative of Frank Lloyd Wright. One could easily imagine Gregory Peck wandering around the living room, mixing martinis. Of course, as owners of a furniture store, they had nice furniture. I saw the first VCR of my experience in their den. It was the size of a microwave and heavy as a cinder block. They had a little cloth doll labled “the flasher”. He wore a trench coat that opened to reveal he was anatomically correct.

Aunt Madge and Uncle Harry had a boat called the Globus. They had a pool table in their finished basement. They had a refrigerator with a built-in beer tap on the way to the pool table. They had parties. They had a van. They had a good time.

Aunt Madge was also prone to immodesty which I, something of a natural prude, found slightly alarming (witness, “the flasher”). I remember my aunt commenting my cousin Rod’s inability to waterski: “He’s like Crisco, too much fat in the can!” and letting out one of her braying laughs.

As kids, we got Christmas gifts from Aunt Madge year in and year out with the names of local banks on them and things recognizably used.

For a period after her retirement from school teaching Aunt Madge was the mayor of Boster. Her supporters put “Madge for Mayor” bumper stickers on their cars. She always wore a skirt and came to City Hall on a moped, with the skirt flying all around her. She conducted business on the City Hall steps.
My cousin Will once told me that Aunt Madge never once admitted to being wrong about anything, including things like dates of battles or state capitals.

I last saw Aunt Madge at a cousin’s wedding back in 1999. She looked the same as ever then, though slightly grayer. Uncle Harry, however, looked like he might fall over dead at any second. That “kegerator” had done its damage. He was enormously fat riding around on a scooter. I saw him again at her funeral. No change. That she departed this life before him is a source of family amazement.

The loss of my Aunt Madge brings home to me how long gone are the days of gathering round the Betamax and eight-ball versus the cousins in the basement. God only knows what happened to “the flasher”. I have been busy for years now with my own little children. In these last few preoccupied decades I haven’t taken much notice of those people and places of years gone by and now, too late, I am suddenly sorry.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Today at the Last House

A perfect fall day in perfect Vermont. Took Kid 1 and Kid 2 to the craft fair at my holy Mountain - Jay Peak. I cheaped out on them and expended a total of two Canadian dollars so they could each have a piece of fudge. Then it was off to the leafy country town of Knowlton, Quebec where we attended a block party in the neighborhood of our Canadian friends. If Martha Stewart were Canadian, she would concoct a town like Knowlton.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Barn and the View into Canada from the Last House (Yesterday)

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Love it!

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Saturday in the woods

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Whooaa - More Deep Thoughts (Mirren/Dickinson/ Monastic Life)

It's ridiculously early on Sunday morning and my Protestant brain is listing again toward thoughts religious, though church-going is not on my North Troy agenda this morning (for further discussion on that point see previous post, "Softly and Tenderly").

Instead I have been pondering a little revelation provided by reading John Lahr's profile of Helen Mirren in a recent issue of the New Yorker. Helen Mirren may be the actress I most admire. She has been so brilliant in Prime Suspect, it's unspeakable. Until two hours ago, when I finished my insomniac reading of this profile, I never knew anything about her background. Turns out she's the daughter of a Russian emigre (I don't know how to manage a accent mark on this blog keyboard), a defeated sort of character as per the interview, and a virago-sounding atheist English mother. Well, that is interesting. Maybe I should blame it on Lahr, but, despite these promising beginnings in this profile Dame Helen comes off as being sort of insubstantial. Lahr writes about her as a "QUEEN" but talks about a trip he makes with her and her husband - Taylor Somebody - to a California race track where she makes cheap bets. Perhaps I am being unduly influenced by the fact that she has lived in California, primarily, for more than 20 years and has no children. Both leading characteristics of a light weight. Also, the only movie in the long list on her CV that I knew and admired was the Madness of King George. I remember when I saw it, years ago, that her performance had been praised, and Lahr praises it again, but as I recall, her part was just barely more than eensy weensy. She was wasted there. Still, she has got to be brilliant. You can see it on TV.

So, get to the revelation you say. My other weekend reading has been, incidentally, a few poems by Emily Dickinson. At 41 I am now ready for her. I admired the assigned readings I did back at McGill 20 years ago, but I don't think I "got" them like I can get them now. I was lying down to dry off after a bath yesterday and picked up a Modern Library Anthology of Engilsh and American Poetry that I scavenged from the book sale at the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington two weeks ago. I read this:

Safe in their alabaster chambers,
Untouched by morning and untouched by noon
Sleep the meek members of the resurrection
Rafter of satin, and roof of stone.

Light laughs the breeze in her castle of sunshine
Babbles the bee in a stolid ear;
Pipe the sweet birds in ignorant cadence-
Ah, what sagacity perished here!

Grand go the years in the crescent above them;
Worlds scoop their arcs and firmaments row,
Diadems drop and Doges surrender,
Soundless as dots on a disk of snow.

OK, ladies and gentleman, let us observe a moment of silence for that!

So, reading Helen Mirren's profile, thinking of her and California, as it exists iconically to all of us non-Californians around the world, and the cult of celebrity of which the New Yorker performs its part, at the upper end where it is nearly priestly, and of Emily Dickinson and the previous 2000 years or so of Western Civilization, what happened to our ancestors' focus on death? Emily was notably profound on the subject. Good riddance, you say? Well, Yes. I guess. But does it make us silly - even the artists? Memento Mori - remember you must die - was drilled into everybody's heads in Christendom for thousands of years. It made a big impact on Emily. What about Helen? I don't have the answer, just asking the question.

I have thought for a while that many things that we seem to think we have done with in this day and time are really only waiting for a revival in a new "incarnation." All the nuns are old ladies now and no one in the first world is signing up for their thing. But the baby is still there in the bathwater and I think it is due to be born again, even here, where everyone is bowing toward California ...

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Kid 1 and Kid 2 and Vermont

This may be my Christmas card this year. Edgy, huh?

St. Kathleen of the D-List

My face has mostly recovered from the strain of laughing and non-stop smiling I endured the night before last when I saw Kathy Griffin at the Palace Theater in Albany, NY. Now friends, despite the rave review she properly got from the Albany Times Union, I alone am returned to tell you why we really all love Kathy, beyond the too obvious reason that she is funny.

She is doing the Lord's work - an apostle with an audience - sold out, adoring. As Jesus came to say unto us that, truly, those who sat at the lunchtable of the popular kids have had had their reward Kathy is returned to remind us of that truth. Nevermind that she, a professed long ago and deeply lapsed Catholic called priests "Kidf___ers" a few times, well, maybe a dozen times or so in the hour and a half, or that the funniest bit in the whole show was her rendition of her devout 85-year-old mother's disregard of the commandment not to take the Lord's name in vain (when asked by Kathy to go on a lesbian cruise for a Bravo TV special) her moral authority is intact.

A-list celebrities are ridiculous and the ordinary sloggers, and the despised and outcast (gays of both sexes ascendant and a big part of her fan club) are, uplifted in Kathy's company. She's come to tell us nobodies in a conspiratorial tone, how ridiculous those fabulous people are. She's one of us - or convincingly pretends to be - whose been in their world spying and is here to tell us, and, you guys, you won't believe it!

Come to think of it, Moses hung out with Pharoah and his ilk for a long time and was a Jewish guy. Maybe, instead of thundering down the mountain and smashing stone tablets, dishing up Pharoah and his hangers on would have helped keep the Israelites in line. Maybe Aaron, history's first Jewish lawyer and a smooth talker, could have had that job...Of course, he wasn't adopted into Pharoah's family the way that Moses was. To make it work you need a first-hand account from someone who has really seen how it all works.

OK, that Old Testament analogy probably isn't really that apt. That dour northerner in me just won't shut up. (Do we always have to loop back to Jesus - even in a review of a nearly x-rated comedienne? hmmm). I have to admit as well that we love to laugh at Paris Hilton and her crabs and don't really want her to stop doing what she is doing. It's fun and its funny and part of what makes America great; you can see that when Kathy is talking about it. Go see her if you can.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Before I Forget

I know there are people out there who are paid lots of money to come up with names for things. I am not one of those people. No one has ever offered me one red cent for an idea for a name. Yet, without hope for remuneration, I can't help having some good ideas. I am putting them down here hoping for compliments on my genius and to protect these gems, the way inventors put things down in the patent office. It's on the record. Potential uses, you ask? Company names, rock bands, products. Just about any old thing. Here goes:

The Vanilla Cycle

East Coast Girls (if I ever start a consulting firm, I think this will be its name. As we know, East Coast Girls are hip. Perhaps ECG, LLC will be in the business of genius branding... hmmm. Hey, I like that too, "Genius Branding, LLC")


That's all for now. Bidders can contact me here ;-)

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Do the Math, Or Life in the Law for a Writer Manque

This is Woolfoot’s entry into the 2006 Ross Essay Contest sponsored by the American Bar Association. Lawyers were invited to submit an essay describing how life in the law has changed them. I had counted on winning, but wound up an also-ran (they did “publish” this in their weekly e-newsletter but no coin for yours truly). I liked it though, so I'm sharing

If I had been good at math, and or science, I could have been a doctor. But I was not. The only thing I remember about 10th-grade geometry is the time a classmate came to the front of the room to get a hall pass and barfed all over the one teacher in school who had a PhD. That is vivid. I can’t remember one theorem. About one week into 11th-grade chemistry, the teacher started talking about “atomic weights.” I fled. Chemistry wasn’t required for high school graduation.
Within the first few weeks of law school I learned that the capacity for logical thinking, math/science-style thinking, would be required for graduation. And so, in my late 20s, I was forced to forge new pathways through my swiftly hardening brain. One of our first assignments was to write a memo analyzing a torts fact pattern that involved the balance of probabilities. This did not quite make blood come out of my ears.
Writing that memo was a do-or-die moment, and I did it. I managed a respectable law school career and have now been practicing law for 10 years. I have worked in a small firm doing general legal work, then for a few years as a prosecutor, and now as a family law attorney at the biggest law firm in our state. For better or worse, I now can think like a lawyer. In fact, I can’t stop thinking like a lawyer. This is the great change that The Law Hath Wrought in me. I am still not very handy with numbers, but now, my mind is forever, completely unbidden, processing equations of the following sort:
• 1 North American Woman + 1 Man from former Soviet Republic x (1 Child + 1 Child) + Money Problems = Legal Fees requiring Grandma to take a 2nd Mortgage.
• 5 Boys between ages 17 and 20 + 1 Campfire + 1 fifteen-year-old Girl passing by who knows 1 of the Boys + 2 cases of Bud Ice + 1 Marijuana Cigarette + 1 Cargo Van ≈ minimum of 7 Misdemeanors and 2 Felonies.
• 1 Stock Boy + 1 Long-Handled Dust Mop + 1 Friend of Stock Boy behind Service Desk with Time on his Hands + 1 Woman with Multiple Sclerosis and Associated Vision and Gait Problems = 6 to 18 Months Employment for Insurance Defense Counsel.
And while, as noted, geometry was never my strong suit, I now understand that where two neighbors with a long set-back from the highway share an interest in a rectangular area of driveway where their properties meet the road, the cost and number of legal problems that will arise is directly proportionate to the size of the rectangle times the disparity in income between them.
Needless to say, this is not how normal people, process the everyday situations that confront us. Recently, I was discussing a terrible plane crash with my sister, a nice “civilian” who teaches middle-school social studies. She said it had never occurred to her that lawsuits might follow after a passenger plane went down. I had to tell her that was generally the first thing that occurred to me.
It is in moments like these that I wish I had been smart enough or good enough to be a doctor or an artist or whatever. Still, if there’s one other thing I have learned in the last ten years it is that our world, with all its constant conflicts, actually needs and desperately relies upon people who can work things out the way we lawyers do.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Santa's Village

Hello to all of you, my dear public. Back again after too long away. I wanted to record the events of the day, my last day of vacation, spent with Kid 1 and Kid 2 at Santa's Village in wee Jefferson, NH.

Kid 1 is 8 and Kid 2 is 5 and Santa's Village is a throwback to the 50s, a family-owned proto theme park with, you guessed it, a Christmas theme. It's perfect for small kids and not too hard on the grown ups. The place has more Christmas Kitsch than you can shake a stick at and they are not adverse to separating you from a dollar but it is also obvious that they are not there to rip you off. For your $21 admission you get a clean, safe, friendly little park, staffed by nice kids and retirees. Everything is immaculate. The soft ice cream cones we bought cost about $1.50 and were too big for kids to eat.

Kid 2 is not adventurous but today he went on the Rudolph Rollercoaster and the Yule Log Ride, the too "scariest" rides and loved them. I was telling some friends about it last night and noting the happy contrast to Walt Disney World: a nightmare of eight-dollar lollipops behind a sea of strollers and the new semi-disabled on their Rascals.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Give me deeper understanding

Softly and Tenderly

Last weekend Woolfoot was back in Montreal: the place where I spent almost all of my 20s, the place where I got my formal (and a lot if informal) education, the city of my heart. Unlike college days, however, on this trip, I also had two kids, and for part of the time, the husband in tow.

I was there for a meeting of the Vermont Bar Association. We were based out of the luxe Omni Hotel on Sherbrooke Street, in the heart of downtown. The formal bits of the meeting wrapped up on Saturday afternoon and then everyone got to do what they really came to do: have fun with their friends and family in Montreal. It also meant that the kids and I were still in town on Sunday morning. This rare event brought with it for me an undeniable sense that I was under a cosmic obligation to at least try to get the kids to the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul, which is just stone’s throw (well, 4 blocks) from the Omni.

As the hart pants for streams . . .

The Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul is a Presbyterian Church and was built by a prosperous set of Scotch/English/Canadian high society back just before the second World War got going. It was an amalgamation of the Church of St. Andrew and the Church of St. Paul. This group (the founders of the “A&P,” as it is sometimes known) and their ilk have gone and we will not see their like again. In their current incarnation (today’s rich people), charitable efforts are not directed at church buildings and stained glass. The A&P, is a gothic revival stone church with an impressive stone tower that anchors the corner of Rue Redpath and Sherbrooke Street in what is still, in some senses, Montreal’s “best” neighborhood.

The sanctuary is large and long and the ceiling is vaulted. The pews, the altar, the pulpit, the model church over the pulpit, all are made well and out of the best things. It is a cathedral of and monument to a particular brand of colonial Britannic Protestantism. In the giant stained glass window over the altar Jesus rises triumphant and white with his arms outstretched and the awed onlookers include a be-kilted soldier holding a Union Jack. The weekly bulletins explain that the faded flags that hang in rows on slightly bowed poles above the heads of the congregation are the colors of the Black Watch, and that the church is the regimental church of the Black Watch.

I have never been particularly active in any church organizations but I grew up going with some regularity to the Methodist Church in my home town of Schenectady, New York. We may have made it to church about once a month. We were the family that was late every spring when they changed the clocks.
I bonded with those services and my fellow middle-Americans. In the ‘70s at our Methodist Church, everyone was nice and the emphasis was on reflection rather than fervency. The service went basically like this: Call to worship, hymn (choir entering), reading, children’s sermon, prayer (exit children), hymn, collection, sermon, hymn (choir exiting), blessing, cofffee, doughnuts. Once a month, on the first Sunday, we did communion, usually in our seats but sometimes at the rail. The hymns were the same ones my great grandmother sang.
Since then, this has seemed to me the right way for a church to be. As an undergraduate in Montreal in the mid-80s I was in search of a church in the poor man’s Paris that a Methodist girl from Schenectady could attend without making a fool of herself. McGill University, which is largely the product of that same group of people that endowed the city with St. Andrew and St. Paul, is in the same neighborhood as the Church. I decided to chance it. It was Presbyterian, but I figured that was close enough. Furthermore, I recalled that my maternal grandfather, Floyd Stark, had been raised as a Presbyterian by his mother, Ella Macumber, (though he had gone Methodist under Grandma’s influence) so I figured could claim some reasonable heritage connection.

We shall be changed . . .

It is one of the hazards of Protestantism that those born into any of its branches are likely at some point to go in search of church that speaks to them instead of simply submitting to the authority of their natal church. I respect the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, but 500 years of Protestant ancestry has disabled me from an honest embrace of them. I can’t help weighing up the belief systems on offer. At the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul, I found my church.

The service followed the same outline as the Methodist one to which I had become accustomed. The hymns were the same, although the Presbyterians went in for something called metrical psalms. I loved the way they did things, though I couldn’t help a little bit of inner chuckling at the Presbers (church leaders) who periodically appeared, marching solemnly through the church and sat in the row of high backed carved gothic chairs at the back of the altar. They were not all older white men, there were plenty of women and people obviously not of Scottish heritage. They were all, however, so extremely dignified… The Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul still looks back to Old Scotland. I think the Queen Mother dedicated the Organ or something back in the 80s (I wasn’t at that service). I did hear a reading at the A&P one day by a very florid visiting gentleman named, believe it or not, Lord Elphinstone.

This is not to say that the church is snobby. There were quite a few students in the congregation with backpacks and casual clothes and I always felt quite at home there. I enjoyed these little cultural flourishes. They were so obviously not put-ons, but a genuine expression of the heritage of this Church. And the congregation was full of people of many stripes (the superintendent of the apartment building where I lived during law school, Mr. Ong, was a member of the A&P choir back in those days). People were exactly the right amount of friendly: they always smiled and nodded and said hello. The minister invited people to church events from the pulpit. No one tackled you to get your home phone number. Perfect. There were no guitars. No stopping the service midway to run around the church shaking hands and hugging.

The church has always had, and retains, a commitment to great church music. There is a professional music director and a choir that sings Christmas carols for the CBC each year. The massive organ can boom through the church to vibrate the stone pillars. Just as important, and what was such a treat, nay, blessing, for me on my recent revisit, is a minister with genuine literary talent. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s when I went regularly to church at the A&P the leader was the Rev. James Armour. This last weekend when I was back in Montreal, the Rev. Armour, now retired, was filling in for whomever the new guy is. When I saw the Rev. Armour’s name on the sign in front of the church, I knew I couldn’t miss the service.

Q: Where have all the Rev. Armours gone? I studied English lit. as an under graduate and was marked forever by John Donne and John Milton and a handful of other religious geniuses who were also literary geniuses. The sermon is an art form, or can be. The Rev. Armour was clearly an offshoot of the root that is found way back in that tradition. I wouldn’t embarrass him by classing him with Donne and Milton but he could think, write, and deliver a sermon of beauty and logic week after week. More than just afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted (the role expected of ministers, as he joked once) he mined the Bible for insight and gave sermons that demanded reflection. He did the same when I lucked back into church last week. I was so grateful to have a chance to hear him again this last weekend, I was almost overcome - which is not really the done thing there. Thank God – really, for all of it, and to all those Saints who from their labors rest who made the A&P what it is.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Jay Peak Update

Your cheerful hostess returns with a brief note for anyone out there interested in how things are going at Jay Peak in Jay, Vermont. (Way back in my first posts you can find more info.) I spent a big part of my recent five days off work in the woods there (only once on skis, more on that in a minute) and it was magical, as usual. Having seen the new Chronicles of Narnia movie a few weeks back, I kept thinking how a tall gas-lit street lamp would make a nice addition to my favorite walk.

The Christmas crowds were not too bad. Of course, I wasn't much on the slopes, which is what 100 out of 100 people come to Jay to experience. (The only person I met in the woods was the trail groomer and, one day, two cross country skiers). I did take one downhill run with my little girl (she has to wait for me at the bottom of the hill because she goes fast and I do not). I had just had my skis tuned and the snow was wet. I fell down twice and spent the few seconds when I was not falling down almost falling down. Even though I bought myself a pass for this winter, I have a feeling I am not going to be doing a lot of skiing. I have, however, come up with a possible solution to my failure as a skier. I have decided to blame my skis. It must be the skis, right? I'll rent a pair next time and let you know if I do any better.