In keeping with my personal philosophy of always staying at least 18 years behind everyone else, about a week ago we watched the 2003 film “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” Colin Firth is the 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, Scarlett Johansson is the shy chambermaid who becomes the subject of one of his most-famous paintings. It’s a costume drama, so the people of Delft are wearing clumsy headgear, dark cloaks and drab, ankle-length dresses as they stroll through the muddy streets and inspect butcher stalls filled with decapitated pigs. The cinematography is excellent. Many scenes borrow the smoky colors, pure window light and random household contents found in Vermeer’s work. That’s not a lot of source material. A meticulous artist, he did only about three dozen paintings.
“Girl With a Pearl Earring” also enjoys superb supporting actor work from its dogs. Wandering casually through the streets, loping through courtyards of chickens. Unlike the humans in the film, who go about their arcane business with the quaint social interactions we’ve learned from movies to expect of that era, the dogs look and act like 21st-century dogs. Nothing has changed about dogs since they worked their way into the fabric of human society, a relationship that anthropologists believe goes back more than 15,000 years.
Dogs have always lived simple, uncomplicated lives. They are creatures of routine. We should follow their example. And in doing so this week, I realize I have drifted from the routines that once made me…
Well, dog-like happy.
(Writer’s Disclaimer: Today’s blog is not about to evolve into one of those “A Year in Provence” style essays about my visit to the oh-so-charming countryside, smugly dispensing my sophisticated superiority, while learning valuable lessons myself from the bumbling yet lovable locals.)
Let’s set the scene. Five of us are here for a vacation week, including the dog, Abilene. The road creeping along this portion of the west bank of Keuka Lake is an eternally temporary arrangement of potholes, band-aid filler gravel and dead twigs and squirrels crushed beneath the wheels of passing pick-up trucks. The house we’ve rented is a rambling decor of knotty pine walls, board games stashed on a shelf, mismatched wine glasses, strategically placed box fans, the ugliest rug I’ve ever seen and a perfect deck overlooking the lake.
These Finger Lakes are long, skinny bodies of water, tree-shrouded grooves in the terrain created by the retreat of glaciers during the last Ice Age. It’s 17 rickety wood steps from the road down to the house perched precariously – in my non-architectural judgment – on the edge of a steep hillside. And then another 42 steps leading to the lake.
The lake is an impossible lens of light. The Sunday morning after our arrival, the sun is reflecting so brightly off the water that it leaves a temporary orange scar on my retinas. From our deck on the west bank, we can easily see the houses on the east bank. The real-estate developers have done their work well. Those houses are packed in, side by side. Many have personal docks for their power boats, their motors snarling like hornets. The kids hot-rod around on jet skis, owned or paid for by their rich parents. This lakeside smells like one long stretch of entitlement.
The following morning is a completely different landscape. Gray and calm. Human activity is limited. Sitting on the deck in our rural outlier of Keuka Lake feels like we’re living in the trees. Their green branches nicely frame our view of the lake. This section of shoreline is not at all like what I’ve been seeing on the other, overdeveloped east side. What neighbors exist among us are hidden from view by a thick growth of trees and brush. A slight breeze carries cottonwood seeds from above, like tiny paratroopers. Small, dark caterpillars descend from the trees on invisible threads. Ducks drift wherever the rippled water takes them. Turtles sit atop posts from a long-decayed wharf that barely breaks the surface of the water. On this relatively untamed shore, there could be dangerous wildlife as well. Perhaps a future encounter with a bear that’s exhibiting aggressive territorial behavior over the wheeled garbage tote stationed at the side of the road.
He can have it.
When time slows, anything passes as entertainment. At mid-week, a street sweeper went up and down the road a few times. I thought that was a courteous, if futile, gesture on the part of the local officials. But it was merely preparation for the next day, as a crew of workers with a road grader, dump trucks filled with asphalt and a steamroller, began loudly creeping along the road, filling in the low spots. There seemed to be twice as many workers in yellow hardhats than was needed, but I’ll give them credit for doing a lot of pointing, picking up rakes as if something interesting was about to happen, and in general trying to find something to do.
As morning slips into afternoon, we abandon the hypnotic sound of powerboat-generated waves crashing into the stony shore and turn to the satellites for music. Sirius radio is tuned to Mojo Nixon’s “Outlaw Country” show, playing quietly amid the hushed whisper of breeze in the tree branches. Until Nixon interrupts the calm to bellow something obscene about a song he’s just played.
Wednesday morning, the intense sunlight creates thousands of short daggers of light, dancing vertically across the water. The silver reflections closest to me appear to be the same size as the ones furthest from me, on the far side of the lake, as if they’re on a one-dimensional plane. I point this out to My Friend Scott. He agrees, this is a very odd phenomena of refraction.
Or perhaps it happens all of the time out here.
Now we have now entered a world where my 13-year-old, 95-pound Weimaraner lies on the deck, dozing beneath the freckled sunbeams penetrating the tree branches while the internet explains the world to us. Winner of Best Supporting Dog on a June Afternoon. My Friend Sue is examining a virtual map of the Brood X cicada invasion as it spreads across the United States. We didn’t have virtual maps the last time the cicadas emerged from hibernation en mass, 17 years ago. From the internet vantage point, we appear to be doomed.
All are signs that gently suggest: Slow down.
So we do.
Margaret and Sue are in the house, laughing, mixing cocktails. The wineries only add to the beauty of the region. Our Friend Dan is a singer songwriter, but what matters this week is he is the chef at The Park Inn, in nearby Hammondsport. He’s created a menu that takes everything three steps beyond the norm. Grilled asparagus with parmesan custard and roasted garlic vinaigrette. Fried oysters with creamed spinach, house-smoked bacon, parmesan cheese and Tabasco aioli. The restaurant looks out onto the town square, where the local government has wisely decided that the best way to re-invent tourism lost to the coronavirus pandemic is to close the street and allow businesses such as The Park Inn to set up a huge, cozy tent. It works, time stops for us. We stay well past 10 o’clock that night.
With cosmetology slowed to a virtually imperceptible crawl, there is room for small, magical things to happen. Opportunities for cosmic occurrences emerge. Sue has been working on one of the Sunday New York Times Magazine word puzzles. She is stumped by the name of a Marty Robbins song. Two words, starts with the letter E. All I can think of “Streets of Laredo.”
My geography is off. A few hours later, the deckside satellite radio is playing a Marty Robbins song. “El Paso.”
This is the kind of synchronicity that happens in a world cleared of clutter and distractions. More will reveal themselves. Our Friends Kit and Alexis show up for the last two days of our week on Keuka Lake. We haven’t seen them since the pandemic started. She’s brought a book with her. A 1999 historical novel, set in 17th-century Delft, written by Tracy Chevalier. It is, “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”
BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.