Heather Vandenengel

Strong rivers and swimmers

I’ve attended a bachelorette weekend, a bar mitzvah and a burial in the course of a week and two days, and agreed to a lease, quit a job and messed my heart around. I haven’t slept or eaten enough, but I’ve danced or cried almost every day and thought about the rituals of being human, of love and death and growing up, of choices, of beginnings and endings and all the in between. It feels profoundly hard and unfair at times, like trying to swim against a current when you don’t even know what it is that you’re looking for upstream, and yet there are those moments of effervescence, of being carried along on the stream of humanity and love and kindness and connection that can propel us all, if we let it. As exhausting as these times can be, I can’t pretend that I don’t find a deep sense of comfort in feeling so much so intensely, that I don’t love being a human among humans, to have the chance to dig every time a little deeper to the “subterranean emotional world,” the river of truth and meaning, as Cheryl Strayed says, guided by the light of the question, “When are you going to start doing the thing that you know you should be doing?” I know it’s not possible or healthy to remain in this emotional state for too long, but it is helpful to dive in every now and then.  

NY, NY

 

I don’t really want to write something about New York City because it feels impossible to do so without sounding like a cliche or a jerk, but here goes. I went to New York City for the first time in two years this past weekend and it kind of unsettled me in a way I wasn’t expecting. Maybe because every other time I’ve gone, it’s been a family or field trip, or a brief weekend stay notable mostly for the tremendous hangover and eternal early morning Megabus ride back to Boston. Maybe because I’ve always wondered if moving to New York is a thing I should consider and now I know that answer, or maybe it’s just me, not the city.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the abstract idea of a city, how we characterize it, what comprises one, the forces that act on it. New York City feels so much like a contradiction of everything at once: vast and claustrophobic, phony and real, sad and funny, insanely rich and extremely poor. There’s its obvious appeal for an observer, a writer, and no shortage of material, but I fear I might go mad from over-stimulation, or more realistically, not be able to afford any kind of life there that would allow me to write for a living. But, of course, people make it there every day just fine, and I’m happy that they do, and happy if they’re happy.

I guess it’s because you can’t think about the city without it reflecting something back about yourself. The idea is that people move there because they have something to prove, or have ambition that can only be realized there, and if I don’t want to move there, what does that say about me? Really, I think it’s a pretense, the idea that you have to live in a certain place to in order to truly live or to do great things, or that relative comfort/quality of life and ambition are mutually exclusive, but still.

The only true thing may be that, whatever the city is, it doesn’t give one shit what you think of it. It doesn’t care if you’re a 7th-generation New Yorker or if you just got off the bus this morning; if you swear it off forever or if you reroute the course of your life for the chance to make it there; if you make it big or burn out. It’ll keep chugging on, the whole glorious, crushing mad mess of it, with or without you.

Also, here are some photos of my beautiful friends, views from an 11-hour train ride and some nice things from New York City.

Summer body

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I love how the last few weeks of summer are spent talking about summer’s end and evaluating how we lived it. “It was a good summer,” we say, as if to reassure ourselves that we made the most of it, spent enough days at the beach, saved enough memories to last us through another winter. Every change–the sun setting sooner, the early morning and late evening chill–is noted and interpreted as the end of something bright and warm and the beginning of something colder and darker.

Summer is a contact sport and our bodies collect all the markings of having lived and moved under the sun. Leaner, more freckled and exposed, bruised, blistered and tanned, I’ll be sad to see my summer body fade into its paler self.

Yet as someone who finds energy in change and has a low tolerance for mourning the inevitable, I’m fine with seeing this season through and not looking back.

It was a good summer, though. It was enough.

How many years

I had a moment this Tuesday when I was at Mule Bar in Winooski, Vermont. It was shortly after they opened and I’m the first person there besides the distributor rep whose conversation with the bartender I’m eavesdropping on and I’m pretty sure I recognize the bartender from somewhere, probably just from the last time I was here when I think we both thought we looked familiar, but couldn’t place it then either, so I don’t say anything. I’m sitting at the bar, drinking a Hill Farmstead Conduct of Life and flipping through BeerAdvocate’s 100th issue and looking at the tap and bottle list and thinking about how many years it’s actually been since I got into this whole thing, beer, and writing about it.

I fell into writing about beer because I recognize a good opportunity when I see it and it was fun and all happening right then. It’s always been funny to me, coming to beer in this way, when I have spent so many hours interviewing people who have fought against so much in order to get to beer, to open a brewery, find a job, risk it all. Where others have leapt, I seem to have stumbled on it, and it’s honestly led to years of insecurity of not deserving all that I’ve worked for.

And yet, here I am sitting at a bar reading the 100th issue of a magazine where I have met and drank with half the contributors and have a piece published in it and whose former editor assigned me the first story I ever wrote about beer. There’s a brewery on the board that I visited shortly after the owners had their first child; now they have two, a new facility, gold medals. Another one I visited on the other side of the country, on the Oregon coast on a gray and dreary day like today, where I sat alone at the bar and talked to the bartender and the locals who were there on some other weekday afternoon. I thought about all the days diverted to visit a brewery or bar, the afternoons and evenings spent in them, talking to bartenders, searching tap lists, trying out some new beer.

I had another moment yesterday, standing in the doorway of my balcony in the early evening, watching cyclists and pedestrians pass by and thinking about this month last year, one of my favorite out of the twelve. I was going to leave Montreal by the end of May but decided to stay for the summer, ended up living in a shitty apartment I should have never moved into, and then moved out two weeks later. But it was summer, finally, and I rode a bike for the first time through the city and danced in Dieu du Ciel until 2 a.m., moved all my things in a van taxi for the second time in two weeks and made a new place my home, again.

I think the scariest thing that could come from looking back is realizing how much hasn’t changed, and I’m grateful that I feel, and am, different from former selves 12 months or five years ago. But more than that, I’ve found that I love everything about that person, how she spent her days, the choices and mistakes she made, how she thought about the world and what she wanted from it. I’m not always right, and never perfect, but it’s at least been interesting.

Northern country

I’ve been thinking a lot about Canada and being Canadian because I live here now and recently (finally) got my proof of Canadian citizenship. My favorite thing to do is to pull up a map of Canada, revel in how amazingly huge it is, and then zoom in on some small town in Québec or Manitoba and wonder what is going on there this very instant.

It feels very good to be back in Montreal, falling back into the same places and habits but with a renewed perspective and less of the angst of wondering what’s next. I’ve been mostly sticking around the island, but got away last weekend to Toronto and the Niagara area with my friend Jen. Beer, scenic vineyards, orchards and lakefront views, and many hours of driving ensued.

A quick note on sexism and the beer industry

The annual Craft Brewers Conference took place this week in Portland, Ore. The event is organized by the Brewers Association, who define and represent America’s craft brewers, and includes panels, discussions and BA-sponsored parties and concerts. Breweries also host their own events outside of the conference at local bars, restaurants and breweries. This year, some of those events were held at strip clubs.

This may not come as a surprise because Portland has an odd number of strip clubs with probably a better beer selection than your neighborhood bar. (See: this article.) It is also not surprising because the craft beer industry is still a male-dominated industry and while the CBC is certainly a valuable educational and networking experience, it is also an excuse to party.

I am not anti-strip club or anti-sex workers but when I saw tweets earlier this week about breweries hosting events at strip clubs, I rolled my eyes. Then when Carla Jean Lauter, the @beerbabe, started a conversation about it and the idea of inclusion in craft beer this morning, it made me think about last year’s Craft Brewers Conference in Denver, when at the World Beer Cup reception a brewer I had just met made me so uncomfortable that I had to leave.

That experience wasn’t a surprise to me either. I started writing about beer when I was 21 and have since found myself in plenty of situations where I felt uncomfortable as a woman while brewers and industry professionals make lewd jokes or suggestive comments. Sometimes it’s a matter of disrespect; on the same night at CBC last year, a brewer I introduced myself to wouldn’t look me in the eye and started walking away in the middle of our conversation. Sometimes it’s about crossing lines, like when brewers I interview send winky-face texts afterwards. Sometimes it’s incredibly offensive, like when I commented on Don’t Drink Beer’s Facebook post that it was not cool that he made an allusion to beating up a woman and then a slew of commenters replied with images and jokes of women being raped and beaten. (And this is a blog that many well-respected brewers and writers read and share.)

I’ve drafted posts about these experiences before, but have always deleted them because I struggle with questions of if there was anything I did to put myself in these situations. Did I not come off as professional enough? Did I insinuate that it would be OK to casually text me later? That is nonsense, of course, but it’s difficult to make sense of these experiences in the context of an industry that paints itself as a big, happy family united by the bonds of craftsmanship, collaboration and community.

The reality is that dealing with casually and overtly sexist men who don’t respect women is something that all women of all industries and backgrounds deal with all the time, in both their personal and professional lives. It’s no different in craft beer.

I don’t know what the solution is other than to acknowledge it and at least talk about it. Women belong in this industry and I think we could all do a better job at making them feel like they do.

 

People in Motion: Peter Gorman

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“Why are you biking 10,000 miles around the country?” is the first question I ask Peter Gorman, who is biking 10,000 miles around the country, over the phone two weeks ago. It is, of course, the most obvious question and also the most difficult to answer, at least in any succinct fashion.

Such is the nature of travel that those who are stationary will always have questions for those who are moving through: What are you doing here? How long are you staying? Where are you going next?

Since selling nearly all of his belongings, save one box stored at his parents’ house, and moving out of his apartment in Boston almost seven months ago, Peter has answered the questions of strangers as he biked down the East coast, around the Florida Panhandle, through the charming old railroad towns of West Texas and up the coast of California.

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It came as a surprise that a solo bike trip would not be shaped by the long miles alone by himself, but through the daily interactions and kindnesses of people he met passing through, he says.

“I thought I would be spending a lot of time alone and working on creative projects all by myself. But after about a week I realized that I get approached by strangers all the time and it’s really easy to meet other people. Where I thought I would be spending my energy changed from myself to meeting other people.”

In a small town in South Carolina, he knocked on a firehouse door and asked if he could camp on their lawn; they invited him to sleep on an extra bed inside instead, cooked him dinner and still Facebook message him for updates on his trip. In Savannah, where he only expected to crash for one night but stayed for four, his couchsurfing host organized giant Bananagram games in the park, inviting passersby to play until it was 10 vs. 10. After a late night out in Lafayette, La., his host offered him the couch another night and they recovered together with hangover gumbo.

“I think it’s just people’s natural reaction to help somebody out who’s traveling, and so that always makes me feel really positive about other people,” Peter says.

Such is also the nature of travel that the traveler becomes the inevitable sounding board for everyone else’s longing to get on the road, someday. As Steinbeck writes in Travels with Charley in Search of America:

“Under the big oak trees of my place at Sag Harbor sat Rocinante, handsome and self-contained, and neighbors came to visit, some neighbors we didn’t even know we had. I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation—a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every state I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move.”

It’s something Peter hears all the time too, he says.

“People always say I wish I could do something like what you’re doing, but it’s just not something I’m able to afford.”

These two strands, the inclination of strangers to help travelers and hearing how they would also like to take a few months off and see the country, fused into an idea: a crowdsourced, self-sustaining project to fund travel for people who can’t afford it.

The idea, called The Off-Season Project, came to Peter about month into his trip, and after five months of honing and planning he launched an Indiegogo campaign earlier this week.

It’s a simple, smart idea: travelers will be funded for three months, which will cover their daily expenses as well as a stipend to cover their bills back home. While on the road, they’ll be expected to contribute something—creating public art displays in every city, documenting national parks, recording peoples’ stories—while also raising money for the next round of Off-Season Project travelers.

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Via the Indiegogo campaign, Peter is raising money for three travelers each for summer 2016 and fall 2016. Aspiring travelers will be able to apply online and will be selected by The Off-Season Project team.

“It’s something that I hear all the time, and I hear from other travelers, too, is what’s your cause, what are you raising money for?” says Peter. “It would be this network of people that grows and grows. The idea is to pay it forward.”

It’s also an nice, neat answer to the why query, at least in part, he says.

“Talking about The Off-Season Project is very easy for me. When it comes to, ‘Why are you on the road?’ I still don’t have a good answer. I kind of meander through a lot of different ideas.”

Yet for the traveler himself, the why isn’t all that relevant anyway. It matters only that there once was a why and that why led to how and when and it got you out the door and so here you are, doing it. For Peter, it mattered most that he set a date: September 29, 2014.

“You can spend two years planning your trip and getting ready, but you’ll never really be completely ready until you get on the road. And so with that in mind, it was a lot easier for me to just set a date and say, I’ll figure these things out as they come.”

And once your bike is your home and all your belongings are on board, the most important question becomes where next.  

“You literally don’t have any room for any baggage. So if something’s bothering you or something bad happened, when you move on, you just move on, you don’t really think about it anymore. I think that’s a helpful lesson that I’m taking for life, not to be weighed down by anything that’s happened in the past. The easiest way to get past it is to keep going.”

After a month in San Francisco, working on the project and spending time with family and friends, Peter is heading north. Follow him via his blog and Instagram and learn more about The Off-Season Project here.

Winter blues in black & white

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Whenever I’m going through a tough spot, there seems to be a turning point when perspective shifts from misery to curiosity. The misery of this winter, for example: Isn’t it interesting how we can talk about the weather all day long and it doesn’t once think about us? How we’re just trudging along, moving around piles of snow and slush when the sky opens up once again, without sympathy or mercy, exposing weaknesses in infrastructure, mobility and sanity? Really makes you think.

And really, it’s not all bad. I have greatly expanded my repertoire of soups, rediscovered the joys of letter writing, and am getting around to doing something with a long-neglected stockpile of film.

The other day I picked up my film camera, a Nikon FM10, and saw that there was still a roll of film in it. I spent the next few days shooting photos here and there only to realize that the whole roll had already been exposed, but I apparently hadn’t been able to rewind it, and so had just left it in the camera like the diligent film photographer I am. While I wanted to pick up a new one, I still have eight or so rolls I need to develop before I’ll allow myself to buy any more. So, here are some black and white photos taken with my DSLR, a Sony NEX6. Same effect I suppose, but not quite.

Good luck out there, you hardy New Englanders. I think we’re going to make it through, and with stories to tell on the other side.

 

 

Return to Big Sur

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I think I’ve been putting off writing about Big Sur, a stretch of the California coast south of Monterey where the mountains and redwoods rise from and above the sea, because I haven’t been able to articulate what exactly it means to me, and why it means so much.

I was nervous to go back. The last (and only) time I had been in Big Sur was one of my most revered travel memories.

On a road trip from LA to San Francisco, my friend Maddie and I drove through it, along winding Highway 1. We stopped at the Henry Miller Memorial Library, a magical little cabin with books hanging from the ceiling and a fat old cat roaming around. We asked the caretaker what else we should do in Big Sur and he drew a map on a scrap of paper of Julia Pfeiffer Beach, the Big Sur River Inn and the Maiden Publick House. So we went to the windy beach, and then to the Maiden Publick House and I got a Rodenbach Grand Cru and it tasted like it should be drank in the woods. We asked a woman at the bar where we should watch the sun set and she said we should drive up this dirt road to the top of the hill, so we did. We were planning on going up to Monterey for the night, but it was already dark and we were tired so we got the last room at the Big Sur River Inn, just across the parking lot from the Publick House. We went back to the bar and drank California IPAs and played dice with (and lost money to) a group of rowdy locals and walked back to the room looking at the stars. I woke up in the morning and sat on the deck next to a redwood and read a book and drank coffee. On the way up north that morning, we stopped at the Bixby Canyon Bridge and I got out of the car and stood at the top of the hill looking at the bridge and realized that in a photo I had of my father when he was about my age, he was standing in this very spot and I had never realized it was this bridge until just now.

It was with all that in mind that I went back to Big Sur with my friend Courtney, for a weekend of camping in the woods and running the Big Sur Half Marathon (which is actually in Monterey). I took a bus from Santa Barbara and met her in Salinas, where we got incredible burritos and churros from the Mexican grocery store around the corner from the Amtrak station. We camped in the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where we found out upon entry that no campfires were allowed on site because of the pesky drought. I believe we ate apples, avocados and chips and I definitely ate an ashy hot dog we tried to cook with a lighter.

The motto of Big Sur is Do Nothing, which we did to the best of our abilities. We drove, stopped, took photos, drank coffee, strung up hammocks and watched a pod of dolphins swim by. We revisited the Maiden Publick House (no Rodenbach Grand Cru, but there was a dog and a guy playing guitar in a truck bed and an old man making paper airplanes at the bar), watched the sun set and talked about how many times a year you take the time to sit and actually watch it set or rise, walked around the dark campground and went to bed at 8 p.m. We woke up the next morning at 4 a.m. or something crazy like that, drove through Big Sur and over the Bixby Canyon Bridge in darkness and watched the sun rise over Monterey Bay from the starting line.

I still can’t quite articulate why I love Big Sur so much, besides the obvious: something about the intersection of mountains, crashing waves and big trees. I think it also has to do with a growing frustration with the energy we devote to minutiae as the days slip away. (How many days will you go without seeing, actually seeing, the sun set?) And maybe that Big Sur once planted something in me about wanting something bigger, even if I’m still not sure what that is.

A few good things I read this year

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The year’s nearly done and I crossed off the only two things I had written on a “Bucket List” two years ago, which was to drink moonshine and run the Big Sur Half Marathon, so I guess my work is done here.

And now I will add to the flood of year-end lists with a short one of a few of my favorite longreads and essays that I read in the last year. I was looking back at my Pocket and bookmarks and didn’t seem to have as many stories that gripped me or blew me away as much as last year, but I did spend a lot of time going back to a few essays.

On Self Respect | Joan Didion | Vogue

I think I read this for the first time this year, and if not, I definitely thought about it a lot throughout the year. She nails it throughout (minus the slightly racist bit in the middle), but the last two paragraphs are my favorite.

“To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect.”

“To assign unanswered letters their proper weight” reverberated in my head often, if only to get over abandoned email threads, but y’know, deeper stuff too.

Who Is Su | Dan P. Lee | New York

This article is fascinating for a lot of reasons, but I never got over one thing: that one second you can be standing in the kitchen making macaroni and cheese and the next a ceiling fan hits you on the head and when you wake up your memory of yourself and your life is obliterated. Life is wild.

Confessions of a Mortician | Eric Puchner | Matter

I think about death a lot in the sense that is definitely a thing that is going to happen to us all one day, but not as much about the practicalities of it. This profile of Caleb Wilde, a sixth-generation funeral director who wants people to think about death and funerals, is full of the practicalities. It’s squirm-inducing and sad, but hey, that’s life (or lackthereof). It’s also full of lines like, “When I got to Parkesburg, a town of 3,637 people — all of whom would die someday — Caleb was waiting by a van, looking sprightly and well-dressed.”

The Art of Arrival | Rebecca Solnit | Orion

I wrote about this essay earlier this year, and I keep on returning to it because Rebecca Solnit is a baller who can write to break your heart.

“But there are many kinds of travel, many reasons to move. Sometimes you travel so that the process of becoming that is your inner life has an external correlative in your movement across space. You may not know how to save your soul, but you know how to put one foot in front of another. You may not know the way to stop being so furious you can hardly sleep, but you can buy a road map of the American West.”

And here’s a short list of other year-end and otherwise reading lists:

The Rotten and the Sublime: A Reading List of Fermentation (The kimchi story was my favorite.)

The Year’s 15 Best Longform Food Stories (Would also add this one.)

10 of the Best ‘Dear Sugar’ Advice Columns (And I should add that I probably thought about or re-read more Dear Sugar columns than anything else this year.)

Women Who Travel Alone: A Reading List

Aaand finally here’s a playlist of songs I’ve been listening to on repeat at the end of the year.

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