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Karl Taro Greenfeld’s NowTrends (Short Flight/Long Drive Books) is worth reading simply for the exotic locations and unique settings, but there is much more going on in this collection. A layered sadness permeates these stories, often soliciting sympathy for the main characters. At other times, a sense of entitlement causes the reader to become frustrated and even angry at these spoiled people. And still other stories allow us to understand the uncertainty that life offers up, even amidst important events and epic moments, unsure of how to take these revelations, unable to change—even when willing.

Small town living is always the same, whether it’s in Arkansas, Idaho, or Missouri. Built on the backs of linked story collections like Winesboro, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson and Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock, Volt (Graywolf Press) by Alan Heathcock follows the lives of a handful of lost souls, tragedy washing over them like a great flood, people with names like Winslow, and Jorgen, and Vernon. In the fictional town of Krafton, we see what people do when living out in the woods, close to nature. When there’s nothing to do, they make their own fun, picking fights over nothing, running through cornfields, tipping over cows. In a small town, everybody knows everybody, and gets in their business, sometimes to help, and sometimes to enable their own survival.

90 Miles North

By Tina Traster

Essay

Five years ago my family and I left Manhattan and relocated to a Hudson River town. I have found that sweet spot of comfort. While I tread these familiar waters I take heart my gardener will arrive Wednesday, Didier will bake buttery croissants and Nyack’s librarians will go out of their way to locate any book I ask for. I’m wearing the fuzzy bathrobe, walking in shoes that have molded around my feet.

My Golden Pond

By Tina Traster

Humor

My daughter, Julia, and husband, Ricky, love to recount the time mommy dragged them around the lake path on a 10-degree day. (Of course, it was really 20 degrees — but with every telling of the story, it has gotten colder and colder.)

Julia, then 4, stumbled around the lake in a puffy pink ski suit, looking like the Gerber baby with her Renoir-rosy cheeks. It took the promise of a rather large doughnut to get her to complete the one-hour walk. My husband — usually a hearty soul — was whimpering most of the way.

Such is the spell cast on me by Rockland Lake State Park, a 1,079-acre rural retreat two miles from the end of my driveway.

Almost daily, I head to what feels like the middle of nowhere. The freshwater lake is nearly visible along most of the 3.2-mile trail. Encircled by mountains, a walker feels hemmed inside an isolated ecosystem where rabbits, deer, squirrels, swans, geese, ducks and even egrets and herons are constantly visible.

It’s by dumb luck that the lake is in my “back yard” — or, really, is my back yard. When I moved from Manhattan five years ago, I could tell the county was filled with beautiful spots, but I had never thought to ask the real estate broker, “Is there, perchance, a gorgeous lakeside trail where I can walk, two minutes from home?”

Too many suburbanites take their constitutionals in cul-de-sacs, on high-school football fields and at the (gasp!) mall. The lake is my sanctuary. Images from its shore are burnished in my mind. Like the cross-country skiers scissoring across on an icy day. And the heron lifting off the shallow bank, its skinny legs dangling. And the doe nursing its fawn six feet from where I stood.

Rockland Lake was the center of ice-making in the mid-1800s. The Knickerbocker Ice Co. harvested ice and hauled it over Hook Mountain along the Palisades to steamboats and ice barges waiting on the Hudson River. Ice was shipped down to New York City and beyond. By 1926, the advent of refrigeration killed the ice industry. But every winter, artists carve enormous ice sculptures for a festival.

Most days, nothing happens on the lake. On weekdays, faithful walkers, cyclists and joggers do laps. We nod at one another. I’ve given them some names: The demon-fast 80-year-old skater is Speed Racer; the woman with the meringue of white hair coiled atop her head is Her Majesty. Someone out there has probably named me The Woman Lost in Thought, because when I’m alone out there I’m suspended in space and time.

When I’m joined by a friend, the lake walk has a wonderful way of drawing out childhood stories. I’ve learned more about a person on this trail in an hour then I ever could over months elsewhere. The calm waters lull you into a state of remembering. My days at sleepaway camp upstate in the Catskills are conjured by the sweet scent of summer grass and the thick clumps of water lilies at the banks’ edges.

The lake is peaceful — except at that moment when you’re ambling along and an enormous maple falls right across your path on a perfectly clear, still day. No warning. No groaning sound. A reminder to take nothing for granted.

My 8-year-old has been given a first-class education at the lake. She perfected riding her scooter. She’s learned to cycle and row a boat. She possesses a natural-world vocabulary I did not have until my 30s. She can spot a cormorant sunbathing on a rock. She knows baby swans are called cygnets. She finds it intriguing that a flock of crows is called a murder.

Of all the things I do with Julia, walking around the lake with her is my favorite. I love that she knows the contour of the lake as well as I do. I know she will scale up and down the giant boulder near the trail’s end or pick up acorns and shove them in her pocket.

One day this summer, she and I walked around the lake when the temperature reached 100 degrees. I know we’ll recall that hellish-hot day a year from now. One of us will say, “It was 110 degrees that day.” And the other will say, “Oh no, it was hotter than that.”

Read more about Tina Traster’s move from the city to a rural suburb in “Burb Appeal: The Collection,” an e-book now on Amazon.com. E-mail: [email protected]

I’ll Only Leave Manhattan in a Body Bag

 

Is it me or is the word suburbia loaded?

Like ‘stay-at-home mom’ or ‘Britney Spears’, suburbia has its fans, satirists, detractors. Until 2005, I was smugly ensconced in the third category, a self-styled city slicker who wore black garb, told cabbies the best route to get across town, exchanged intimacies with people riding elevators. Typical New Yorker. Suburbia to me — a psychologically-scarred Brooklyn-born kid whose family never ‘made it’ to Long Island — was an aseptic construct where women over 40 lost their edge and their calf muscles because they spent their days driving to the strip mall and schlepping kids to soccer practice.

“That will never be me,” I’d swear to my husband driving over the George Washington Bridge after visiting friends who lived in cavernous colonials with marbled foyers and Labrador retrievers. “Never!”

My lifelong scorn for suburbia enabled me to put up with every city-related inconvenience or absurdity. Circling like a hungry buzzard for a parking spot or keeping windows shut on hot summer nights to drown out whining sirens or the occasional gunshot. Even when I was tripping over my toddler’s loot, I believed IKEA was the solution to our ever-shrinking 700-square-foot apartment.

We could not afford a bigger apartment in a steroidal real estate market but I would not contemplate suburbia.

I was mentally and physically asphyxiated by my long-held beliefs that the sticks were filled with people who stopped going to independent films and who ate dinner before 7. Sure I was yearning for room and trees and a driveway but my childhood demons were ninjas. It all started the day my family piled into the yellow Cadillac to see the white house for sale in Long Island. At ten, this was the most glamorous house I’d ever stepped inside of – it was nothing like the cramped ones in Brooklyn. My mother wanted this house and this life more than anything in the world. My father didn’t. He thought a Cadillac in his driveway and a detached house in Canarsie was good enough. My mother’s brooding and envy for greener pastures turned into scorn for all-things-suburban. An emotionally resourceful woman, she came up with plan B: raise her daughters to worship Manhattan.

Throughout college, I tacked up in every dorm room I lived in a famous New Yorker Magazine poster that put Manhattan as the center of the universe. Then I went about spending my whole adult life there, becoming the quintessential New Yorker. You know, Woody Allen’s template.

Disturbingly at 43, for the first time in my life, my romance with Manhattan was wilting. Sept 11 had crushed me. The apartment walls were closing in on me. I wanted to step on Elmo’s face every time he said “Elmo loves you.” I was growing unrecognizable. I began to think my daughter needed a bedroom (rather than a creative space) of her own more than a first-class education on the Impressionists at the MET. I started to dream about what it would be like if she could distinguish between lavender and salvia. I thought about how delightful it would be to wake up to the whata-cheer-cheer-cheer of Northern Cardinals rather than screaming sirens.

My husband knew not to suggest suburbia – I considered it a four-letter word. Instead, Mr. Tactically Brilliant got me to spend long stretches of time in the country.

 

 

Call of the Wild

 

I am a city kid. Born in Brooklyn, I hung out on stoops, played kickball in the street, could hear neighbors when they fought.

But every summer, my parents shipped me off for eight weeks to sleep-away camp in the mountains. There I pulled a blanket over my head at night because I was afraid the bats in the rafters would sweep down and weave nests in my waist-length hair. At night, dark, black starry nights, I worried a bug-eyed country loon with a warm rifle would do us in. But each morning the sun rose and I plunged happily into the serene lake and was sad only when the sun set.

I was even sadder when the camp bus returned me to Brooklyn’s hot streets eight weeks later.

Three decades later, the country is a container of youthful memories. Julia was two when we rented a summer house in the Catskill Mountains. The little Arts-and-Crafts two-story cottage was set back from the dusty dirt road near a lake. I felt my chest expand every time we drove up on a Friday afternoon. Turning up the steep road after Ellenville, we’d pass hulking hotels, abandoned riding stables, bungalow colonies – some lived in, others reminders of days when the Catskills drew New York’s urban Jews by the droves. Sheep and goats grazed behind wire fences. This down-and-out depressed area is a no-man’s land to some but to a down-and-out stressed out urbanite it looks like paradise.

The cottage was rickety and unfinished – wires hanging where the owner meant to install a fixture – but the diaphanous lake seen through our window was like an Impressionist painting, changing colors with the hours of the day, altering perspectives with the opening and closing of the waterlillies on the lake’s surface.

I found unexpected peace and pleasure. I woke to bird song. My daughter and I yanked wild flowers, especially tiger lilies from the side of the road. We gathered bouquets in bunches and put them in tall skinny glasses. The day I swam across the lake to a tiny sandy beach on the other side I was transported back to my teen years at sleep-away camp, a time when I had felt most alive. The lake was telling me something. I had only to listen.

One day our landlord told us she was thinking of selling the cottage.

“Do you guys have any interest in buying it?” she asked.

My first instinct was to throw my arms around her and say “yes, yes, please, yes” but instead my husband said “We’d need to think about that.”

That night, after we tucked Julia into her crib, we went out on the deck. We crawled into a sleeping bag and gazed at a sky of diamonds. I think we were both afraid to start the conversation.

“So, have you given the idea any thought?” he asked.

“I love the idea but we can’t afford to maintain the apartment and a summer cottage,” I said.

“Yeah, I know, but it would be nice,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “If we could at least escape on weekends, I’d probably be a nicer person,” I said, wistfully.

“Maybe we should move up here permanently,” he said.

I thought he was joking, and left it at that.

In early September, on our final ride back to Manhattan in our car stuffed to the brim like the Beverly Hillbillies, I blubbered like a baby.

“Why is mommy crying?” my daughter asked my husband.

“She doesn’t like to leave the country,” he explained.

There it was—the simple truth. I wanted to be immersed in nature, to quiet the noise, to slow down the pace.

That September misery became a gauzy shroud. I secretly began scouring real estate listings on the Internet – unable to admit to my husband or myself I was thinking about leaving Manhattan’s hallowed ground. But viewing houses for sale on the Internet is additive. It was only so long before I’d break down and admit I had to live in one of those old farmhouses that looked so inviting on my computer screen.

The old house we bought was a total wreck. It had been on and off the market for five years. We viewed it on a January day, tramping through waist-deep snow. It was covered in cobwebs. Every window was broken, every door was warped, every wall was crooked. But a great brick hearth, strands of light pouring through skylights and a wall of windows facing acres of woods said “rescue me.” Deer grazing outside the window might have sealed the deal.

Taking in a shallow jittery breath, I said “I’ll take it.”

“Are you sure?” the broker asked. “This is a money pit.”

She wasn’t wrong but we jumped. Sometimes it is those insane decisions you make for the wrong reasons (or at least those your mother would say are the wrong reasons) that end up putting your life in the right direction.

The house needed a four-month top-to-bottom renovation. In that short span of time, I learned I had a knack for rebuilding a house. I discovered how good I can be under pressure. I figured out how the innards of a house work. I learned the alphabet soup of HVAC and BTUs. Four months gave me a life-time of experience, and at the end, a house that held my DNA.

During the renovation, we lived in the Catskills cottage. One night, I told my husband there was a drunk intruder stumbling around outside. We closed the lights in the house and peered outside. He was big, all right—I’d say about 400 pounds—and he didn’t give a rat’s bottom when we shone a flashlight into his beady silver eyes. He just looked up and presumably said, “Hey, I’m eating dinner. Buzz off.”

I accelerated the renovation, bringing down the whip even harder on the contractor. A week later we packed the car and drove HOME.

I cried again as we wended down the mountain.

“Why is mommy crying?” my daughter said.

“She’s crying tears of joy because we’re not going back to the city,” my husband explained.

 

***The rest of the collection is availabe on Amazon for $2.99.