Thursday, February 23, 2017

Meeting Mr. Grump

            The snow was superb Saturday when five of us with the Grants Pass Nordic Club skied onto the lower road on the back side of Mt. Ashland – eight inches of new snow, as soft and slick as beaver fur. Our skis, squeaking quietly, carried us silkily down the hill. Breaking trail, I stepped onto unblemished snow, the evergreens ahead of me thrusting their snow-laden limbs against a storm-black sky.
            We were skiing with long gliding steps. As the hill steepened, we broke into a glorious free-ride dash, ending with a graceful turn around a corner and slowing down as the road turned uphill. In such perfect snow, skiing was graceful, fast, exuberant.
            We climbed more steeply uphill, and then in front of us was a large totem pole 

and, behind it, a log cabin, half-buried in the snow, though its doorway, deep under the eaves, had been swept clean. A view of Mt. Shasta rose with stunning brilliance across the valley.
            After admiring the beauty of the place, envying, a bit, its owners, we climbed up the hill next to the cabin until the snow was so deep we had to stop. Then we turned around and skied back down with that glorious fast-but-controlled motion we had been experiencing all morning.
            The return was going to be even better, we knew, a fast, beautiful ride in our own tracks through that glorious snow.
            We left the cabin one at a time. I was the third person down, but I hadn't skied far when the man in front of me yelled, "Snowplow coming!" My heart sank. A snowplow! That would ruin our snow. To get out of its way, I quickly retraced my steps to stand with the other two skiers in front of the cabin.
            Soon a small snowplow, breaking the silence and pushing snow, ground up the hill toward us. The driver, a young man, stopped the machine in front of the cabin, put it in neutral, and got out. He approached us, saying, "This is private property. We would appreciate it if you wouldn't ski here."
            I looked around at the empty cabin, the beautiful snow, the view of Mt. Shasta just over the rise. Not ski in this beautiful place? "Why?" I asked.
            He said, "You wouldn't want strangers walking around your property, would you?"
            I said, "If I had a house on a mountain and all this snow and this beautiful view and I wasn't living in the house and wasn't even there, I don't think I would mind if five or six cross-country skiers shared my snow and my view. We're not doing any harm. We're not being disrespectful in any way." He mumbled something about vandals, and I wanted to say, "Look at us. Sixty-year-old cross-country skiers [taking an average]. Do we look like vandals?" Not wanting to be belligerent, I didn't point out the obvious.
            I felt belligerent, though. The only reason not to let us ski there, obviously, was because the place was his – all that beautiful snow, that incomparable view, the mountain itself. It was all his, and he didn't want to share it. The house, of course, was also his, but we weren't interested in taking anything from the house. What we wanted to take was the excitement and joy of skiing in that beautiful snow, of looking at that incomparable view. But he wanted to say, "It's mine. All mine, and I don't want to share it. I don't have to let you enjoy my gorgeous spot on the mountain, and I want you to stay away. Leave it all to me."
            So we left, skiing down the road that had, an hour before, been the most perfect snow of the winter and that was now a flat, hardened hill of snow-pavement. The descent was dangerously fast. The only way to control speed was to plow into the snowbank or drop to the ground, coming to a stop to calm the breath before standing and trying again. Two people took off their skis and walked.
            The rest of the way wasn't so dangerous, just a lot of work. When we stopped for lunch, we talked about the ruined snow, the young man who had spoiled our fun, and how beautiful the snow had been earlier in the day.

            I envision the young man entering his house after we left, turning on the heat, making himself a cup of coffee, laced with brandy, and sitting down to contemplate the view of Mt. Shasta across the valley. He is thinking, of course, about us. He is seeing us again, the three gray-haired skiers, the other two women. He is thinking about our tracks going up the mountain next to the cabin, our delight in whizzing down on those tracks, the glee on our faces, the skill of our sport. He begins to see that there would be nothing in the world wrong with letting us, and people like us, enjoy this spot on the mountain when he and his family weren't using the cabin. He began to be sorry he had run us off. He even began to be sorry he had spoiled that rare, beautiful, deep snow. He began to be sorry he was such a selfish, uncharitable, mean bastard. When I see him there the next time I ski up to the cabin, he will smile and say, "So glad you can enjoy this beautiful day, this beautiful view, and this beautiful snow here at my mountain cabin. Have a wonderful day."

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Stories about my Little Brother on the Occasion of his 60th Birthday

(1)       When I was twelve years old, asleep with my sister Linda in our room on Feb. 4, my father woke us up, his eyes shining with excitement. "It's a boy!" he said. I was delighted, but my favorite memory of that moment is Dad's excitement.
            And now the blank line on the mailbox, after "Ken and Lois Coogle," "Linda," "Diana," Sharon," and "Laura," each with its own separate strip of black plastic, could be proudly filled in: "Lee."

L to R: Lee at 2 yrs, with his sisters: Laura, Sharon, me, Linda
(2)       When Lee was a baby, Mom would be holding him and say to all his four older sisters crowded around, "Should we keep him and love him or flush him down the toilet?" We would answer in a chorus: "Flush him down the toilet!" Then Mom would say, "Oh, let's keep him and love him," and we would all give in and agree.
(3)       The original idea for the famous Coogle trip to Alaska in the summer of 1959, when Lee was two years old, was for Lee to stay with Grandma and Grandpa in Kentucky, because having him along would mean extra trouble, and, after all, what would the trip mean to a two-year-old? But when it came time to kiss him good-bye, Mom couldn't let do it, and so he came with us.
            We were all glad. Without Lee Mom would have moped every day, and we all would have felt his absence. Of course, having Lee did add to the chores. Besides setting up the tent, helping with dinner on the Coleman stove, and blowing up air mattresses, someone always had to be taking care of Lee. Because I cherished every moment of the Alaska trip and was afraid Dad would turn around and take us home if we complained about anything, I was always willing to take Lee out from under Mom's feet. Usually I took him down to the creek or the lake, where I tried to skip rocks over the water. Lee, following suit, threw rocks. Evening after evening I would say to him, "Let's go throw rocks in the water," and I would take his hand and lead him to the creek, leaving Mom unencumbered to do other things and giving me one of my best memories of the Alaska trip.
(4)       Then there's the famous story from the Alaska trip about the time we stopped at a gas station for gas, and everyone poured out of the car to use the bathrooms. After filling the car, Dad started the motor to move it away from the gas pumps. At that, Lee came hurtling from the bathroom without his pants, screaming, "Wait for me! Wait for me!" Mom chasing after him with his pants.
(5)       I treasure all the memories and stories I have from each visit Lee has made to me in Oregon, and I could tell several (chief among them is when his dog, Dusty, fell in my neighbor's septic pit), but I especially appreciate his being here for and participating in my seventieth birthday. He was indispensable. My favorite memory is the way he divided people into teams for croquet: you four, you four, you four, not paying any attention to who knew or didn't know whom. The result was a great mingling of party guests.
(6)       I love my little brother.

Lee today at 60

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Three Days of Cross-country Skiing

            For months I had been looking forward to three days of cross-country skiing at Willamette Pass the first weekend of February. And then, after weeks and weeks of cold weather and piles of snow, last weekend's temperatures turned warm. On the way up the pass to the lodge on Odell Lake, where I would be staying with others from the Grants Pass Nordic Club, I was shocked at how far I had to go before hitting snow. At the lodge there was endless talk about the weather, double-checks of various weather sites on phones, and discussions about whether the snow would be any good at all.
            Probably it would be heavy and wet, we thought on the first morning, but there we were, so off we went. I chose to go with the group that skied a road to a ski-hut shelter, then through the woods to Midnight Lake in the Diamond Peak Wilderness Area, which was so thick with snow and ice that three or four in the group skied across it while the rest of us stood or sat in the snow for lunch. The ski back to the cars was tricky, on narrow, icy downhill trails, or sluggish, through heavy wet snow, and by the end of the day we were skiing in what only the most optimistic person could call snow. The rest of us called it rain. By the time we got to the lodge, we were soaked.
            In contrast to the bedraggled wet skiers of my group, the skiers who had chosen an easier route, at Willamette Pass Nordic Center, had come back ecstatic. "The best ski ever!" Dani crowed. The snow had been fabulous. The skiers in my group looked at each other sheepishly. The next day we would choose the Nordic Center.
            But all that night I could hear rain falling and melted snow pouring off the roof. The next morning there was more endless talk about the weather, but in the end everyone decided to go to the higher elevation at Willamette Pass and see what the snow was like there. Behold, there it was snowing, not raining. I skied with eight or nine other skiers, up and up, on a wide, groomed trail. At one turn in the trail, all but four in the group turned around and skied back to the lodge. I followed the three others up and up and up, sometimes climbing steeply. My legs were tired, but anticipation of skiing back down the same slope was urging me on. At the top we stopped for lunch.
            And then the return.
            Oh, but it was glorious! Because we were on a groomed snowed-over road, I could ski in wide swoops, curving from side to side as I went down, making swallow-swoops in the snow. Or I could set my skis straight and fly down the hill to the next slope up. Down and down we went, then slightly up, step-gliding, then downhill again then step-gliding to the next free ride downhill. The whole thing ended with a very steep and somewhat icy hill to the parking lot, which I took with grace. 
            On the last morning only three of us opted for one last ski before heading home. We went back to Willamette Pass, where the snow wasn’t quite as good as it had been the day before, but it was still lovely, and the skiing was still great. We skied up to a plateau, where a dark sky set off the white snow and green evergreen trees with dramatic panache. Practicing my technique, I did some turns in excellent form.
            It was a fabulous weekend (let's not forget to mention the good food prepared by members of the club), and I was very pleased with myself. I skied for three days and never fell. I was skiing better day by day. Of course, as someone said to me once, on a day of perfect snow conditions, "Snow like that makes you think you can ski." And it’s a great feeling, although all I have to do is remember the awkwardness with which I skied the much more difficult downhill trail through the woods on the first day to bring myself back to reality. Still, I am getting better. And I do love to ski.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Learning to Cook

            As a child I made chocolate chip cookies with my mother, of course.  She said once that she could get three more cookies out of a dough than I could because I ate so much raw dough. But my mother only cooked by necessity – and did it well, feeding her large family meals both nutritious and basically good. She preferred painting to cooking, and the kitchen was not a scene of much mother-daughter collaboration.
            In college I lived in a dorm, where meals were provided and kitchens hidden, so I didn't have any incentive to learn to cook. When I lived in Aix-en-Provence for six months during my sophomore year, I boarded with a Swedish roommate in a family house where the kitchen was not ours to use. A Provençal cooking class was offered in Aix while I was there, but, to my eternal regret, I did not take advantage of that great opportunity. I wasn't interested in cooking at that time.
            That interest didn't blossom until I became a student in Cambridge, England, and shared a house with four other women students. I bought a cookbook called "Cooking in a Bedsitter" and started cooking in the single pot on the single cooking ring in my room. Soon enough, I ventured beyond the room into the shared kitchen.
            Then I was hooked. I bought more cookbooks and started making more elaborate dishes, but it wasn't my four housemates I cooked for nor our kitchen that emitted the enticing smells but my boyfriend, Peter, who benefitted from my new interest and the marvelous kitchen in his marvelous house that was the site of lavish dinner parties.
            Peter's house, which he shared with several other Cambridge students, all male, was a Victorian semi-detached in a narrow lane called Portugal Place. Francis Crick's house, identified with an inn sign of a double helix, was a few doors down. The entrance to Peter's house led into a large book-filled front room, off-limit to the renters, curious and intellectually avid students though they were. I remember the upstairs living room, with its rickety harpsichord, and the attic room, formerly an artist's studio, that Peter took as his bedroom, but I especially remember the basement kitchen and its dining room. It had a low roof that Peter regularly banged his head on, a circumstance more understandable when you know he was blind. I was too short to worry about banging my head, but I do remember that the kitchen was low-ceilinged and that the only natural light came from a below-street-level window. It was a large kitchen with a fabulous stove and included a dark dining room, only used when Peter and I threw our splendid dinner parties. It had a grand, heavy, Victorian table with matching ladder-back chairs of heavy dark wood. We set it with candles and ladened it with steaming platters of beautiful food.
            We didn't do it often, but I loved those parties, planning, cooking, and serving grand seven-course dinners for six or eight people, flinging myself into the study of cookbooks, learning to cook by cooking. Peter would buy a large array of bottles of champagne, from half-pints to huge magnums and jeroboams. I would make delicate hors d'oeuvres, meat dishes of elaborate preparation, irresistible desserts. The only specific dish I remember is some sort of pie, which I remember because it was my first effort at pie crust and Peter raved not about it but about the perfect pie crusts his aunt would make, which I thought an unfair comparison, since I had only just begun as a pie-baker.
            But nothing dampened my excitement at being able to serve such fabulous food to my friends. One course was hardly downed before I jumped up to prepare and serve the next. We ate and drank to repletion. We toasted the queen. We talked of literature and music, Bob Dylan and opera. At the end, we sprawled around the table with its food-stained plates and half-emptied platters, sipping port, Beethoven still playing on the stereo upstairs. When the guests finally left, I was exhausted but exhilarated. I had discovered the magic of cooking and serving good food, the spell that Babette knew, a new dimension to life as beautiful as the sex, also new, post-party in Peter's garret up four flights of stairs from the basement kitchen, still littered with the detritus of the day's cooking.