November 25, 2008

Kept the doctor away

Last Saturday (Nov 22), the Cafe section of the Hindustan Times carried this essay I wrote about New England, on their travel pages. In print, it was slightly modified. Here's the original.

Any thoughts more than welcome.


When the score got to 17-0, we decided to leave. Brown University, hardly a powerhouse of football but my alma mater all the same, was beating up on the University of Stony Brook. Not even a line of fans of all sexes, bare torsos painted S-E-A-W-O-L-V-E-S -- the Stony Brook team name -- could spur a measure of competitiveness. It was fun to see Brown score, but watching SB's incompetence was growing tedious.

Still, it had been a spectacular show. The Brown mascots, two students dressed in bear costumes, roamed the stands for photo-ops. The kids swooned in delight. Cheerleaders in skin-tight short dresses did their peppy routines -- all twirls, kicks and smiles -- to pump up the audience. Hearts throughout the stadium were, I'm sure, aflutter. The SB marching band staged a precision halftime show to Paul Simon tunes, though "Late in the Evening" might well have been "Too Little, Too Late in the Evening" as an oblique reference to the efforts of their struggling team. Their cheerleaders were, let it be said, nowhere near as svelte as Brown's. Then again, the Brown band was nowhere near as slick as SB's, though a deliberate scruffiness has been a long-standing Brown band tradition.

Thus did several aging alumni spend a sunny September afternoon in a football stadium in Providence, reliving memories of carefree campus days. Me, for one, back at Brown after years. I wanted Brown to win, but I kept wishing SB would find some fight. The game finished, I later found out, 17-7. So SB scored, and Brown didn't score again. But really, Too Little Too Late in the Evening.

College football is a fall tradition in the States. The country's top-ranked teams spend Saturdays playing for national TV audiences, and for the chance to appear in post-season "bowl" games. But at Brown, that could well be another sport altogether. The Ivy League, where Brown belongs, is far below bowl game class. If Brown moved up from SB to play Texas, #1 in the rankings most of this season, you could bet on a score like 56-0. Not favouring Brown.

Still, something about fall in New England and Ivy football has always grabbed me. Somehow and inexplicably, those two are forever linked in my mind. Part of that is because the Ivies try to hold on to what college athletics should be about: a pursuit that's an adjunct to academics. Part is because my fellow students when I was there -- bright, motivated and hard-working all -- would on a whim throw aside academics, pile into someone's car, and spend a day driving country roads to gasp at fall colours.

Except Saturdays, when not even the foliage could keep us from cheering on Brown's footballers. Or maybe we were really ogling the cheerleaders, who knows.

Watching SB get stomped was one stop in a September caper through New England fall colours. Every day on the road, more trees gave up sedate green for flamboyant orange, pink and red. Driving along, I found myself often bereft of words, able only to extend my index finger in the direction of the latest brilliant stretch, hoping my wife would look and gasp too. Some of my most speechless moments were in northern Vermont, where we spent a night at a friend's small farm. Climbing the gentle slope behind her farmhouse, we marvelled at a panorama of rolling Vermont hills, like Joseph's technicolour dreamcoat. Nearby, a lone tree had turned a flaming yellow, a great golden medallion flung aside without a care.

Vermont beckoned also because Ben & Jerry, the famous icecream, calls the state home. With a gaggle of Spanish school kids, we took a tour of the factory. It reached a high point when two employees on the shop floor goofed at something and -- to everyone's open-mouthed horror -- dumped huge quantities of perfectly good icecream. Our guide was one of those peculiar humans who know nothing but ditzy and cheery, tipping over frequently into corny. Thus the promo film that was the first stop on the tour, she told us, would be "three hours long ... naah, I'm only kidding! Ten minutes!" With "humour" like that, by the end of the tour I was ready to ... well, suffice it to say that I took out my frustrations on the icecream sample they gave us, Vanilla Caramel Fudge, attacking it with uncommon gusto. The Spanish kids, the same.

Earlier, we had stopped in Easton, Connecticut, to pick apples. That's one more fall tradition, though in my Brown days I remember only a single messy strawberry-picking session. That time, I ate so many berries that I felt sick for days. This time, I reined myself in. Hard work, for the apples -- Golden Delicious, Macintosh, Cortland and more -- were luscious, irresistible. The Cortlands were the best, juicy and sweet without being cloying. The Macintoshes? Crisp and tart, "but don't use 'em for baking," advised the bustling young lady who showed us around the orchard, somehow convinced that we were bakers and not eaters.

We stockpiled enough apples to last most of our trip. We didn't bake any, but several times as we drove, the fruit constituted lunch. Though I will admit that while crossing into Vermont, filled to the gills with apples from Easton, I began to crave a Taco Bell meal. I mean, when I began seeing visions in the windshield of steaming Meximelt burritos, when I began to slaver at the imagined taste of a packet of Taco Bell's fiery sauce, I knew that I had finally had enough of apples. Tart or otherwise.

But that stretch of Vermont, as it turned out, was singularly devoid of Taco Bells. We had to settle, finally, for a Burger King.

Prominent on its menu: apple fries.

No comments: