Oct 2, 2011
The phrase “jump the shark” comes from a scene in the fifth season premiere of Happy Days (1977), when a water-skiing, perfectly coiffed Fonze decked out in swimming trunks and his signature leather jacket, accepts a dare to jump over a shark. In a series whose lifeblood was its gently self-mocking kitsch, this scene was a-kitsch-too-far, at least to some reviewers. Happy Days remained on the air for another seven seasons. Nonetheless, the term came to signify the defining moment when a favorite television show has reached its peak, after which it will simply never be the same. The idiomatic usage of the phrase has since broadened to refer to the moment when any endeavor moves beyond the core qualities that defined its success, and begins a decline from which it never recovers.
Yesterday, as I picked the few surviving (and actually ripening) cherry tomatoes in snow so thick and sticky-wet I could barely see what I was doing, the phrase came to mind. As I wrapped the not-yet-winterized chicken coop in visqueen as an ad hoc barrier against the snow and wind, among other unprintable thoughts that occurred one was dominant, so much so that I spoke it aloud: “Lady Pocahontas, you’ve jumped the shark.”
Allow me to digress as I explain.
Brightside is located in Pocahontas County, a mountainous land of about 940 square miles and 8,700 people. Named after the Native American princess, this county is easily anthropomorphized as she. Lady Pocahontas, as I’ve come to think of her. My fickle, difficult queen.
She is the mother of eight rivers, the hostess of the National Radio Quiet Zone (limited cellphone service is available in only two towns), and a doyenne of darkness. All of the traffic lights here can be counted on one hand. My Lady’s world is one of cloud-slung valleys and mist-wreathed ridges. A world of near-primordial vistas, where one might be less astonished to see a brontosaurus raise its head than an airplane take off. Since the end of vast logging operations at the turn of the last century, mankind’s mark upon her body has been relatively light. And it shows. It shows in the rolling voluptuousness of her skyline, unbroken by human constructions. It shows in the purity of the air that is her breath and the water that is her blood. In the abundance of wild animals that thrive in her lushness. In the deep silence that can be found at all times of day, and most especially at night.
But make no mistake, Pocahontas is no easy woman. Not in any sense of that word.
Even in the valleys, in the county’s three incorporated towns, living with Lady P. demands the evolution of a patience, a kind of self-soothing here-and-nowness not experienced by most Americans since the 19th century. Consider this: wherever you live here, it’s at least a two hour round trip to get everything you need. Sure, you learn to make do without and need much less, but sooner or later, you gotta go. And for most if not all of that drive there will be no convenience stores, no gas stations, no streetlights, no cellphone service, and often no radio either. You’ll only have Lady Pocahontas for company. Which is just the way she wants it. And you do, too, right? Or else you wouldn’t be here.
Well, of course, sure. But within some well-defined metes and bounds. If I do my part, she’ll do hers. I mean, can’t I get a contractural agreement?
With Lady P? (Ha-ha-ha! You poor dear.)
Here’s when I need to confess that I’ve never envisioned Lady P. as anything resembling the mythic/historic figure of the actual Pocahontas, but more Elizabeth Taylor as a neurotic/petulant/viciously self-interested amalgam of Scarlett O’Hara, Cleopatra and Richard Burton’s wife. In mud boots, fashionable winter parka and perfect eye make-up, of course.
This woman ain’t signing nothing.
Perhaps it will help illuminate the (okay, I’ll go ahead and say it) deep distrust at the heart of my personal Love Story with Lady P. if I admit that it was September 15, the day after I wrote my last paean to her, that she froze the remains of the Brightside garden. Of course, like any well-trained vixen, she left a few come-hither dribs and drabs. A handful of heretofore mentioned cherry tomatoes, a half-dozen peppers, a bushel of sweet mama winter squash. She took all the rest. All the late beans, the last resurgence of zucchini, summer squash and cucumbers, the hard-fought renaissance of slicing tomatoes, the astonishing abundance of spaghetti squash, the mounds of culinary herbs. Frozen as if by Narnia’s White Witch.
Standing in the ruined garden on September 16, I saw her bat her shadowed eyes and shrug. Not my problem, she seemed to say. But you still love me, don’t you? I know you do.
Within 48 hours, the trees began to color in earnest. Brilliant yellows and reds. The mountainside across Hidden Valley became a living tapestry forming moment by moment, woven by invisible hands using internally illumined thread. One warm evening last week, the ridge was filled with migrating dragonflies, tens of thousands of the insects with their iridescent tails and matched sets of pearl-colored wings buzzed and clicked in the flaming goldenrod and the last of the bright white Queen Anne’s lace.
“She takes, Lady Pocahontas. But she never takes more than she gives. The trick is to be present to receive her gifts. She is always giving. Receiving is what’s difficult.” I said these words last Thursday.
It started snowing in earnest Friday night.
Yesterday afternoon, as I swaddled my chickens in plastic sheeting, I thought, with a wry sort of knowingness that can only come from deep intimacy: Lady P. has jumped the shark, this season is over. Good god ya’ll, there ain’t nowhere up from here. Just a swift slide to winter and, best case scenario, a six-month slog to spring.
As I write these words, snow is falling.
The snows of April were indeed five months ago, a while back, to be sure. Yet somehow the time between doesn’t seem quite enough. Why? It’s not that I don’t like snow. It’s not even that I don’t like winter. I have said many times that the beauty of Lady P. is never so revelatory as in the winter. Perhaps my personal problem, my hang-up, my grief comes from the fact that this simply is not what I was expecting to happen next.
Fact is: I’m not privy to Lady P’s script.
What I call “jumping the shark,” an unexpected and unfortunate season decline, Lady P. calls nothing more nor less than exactly what must and needs happen next.
My expectations regarding what needs happen next? Well, Scarlett would no doubt say something along the lines of: “Fiddle-dee-dee!”
I can only imagine that Lady P. would fully concur.