The Conviction of Lonely Old Rural Men

I’ve always had a literary soft spot for the lonely old rural man.

“Lonely old rural man” may sound like a very specific type, but really it’s no different from manic pixie dream girl or hardboiled detective or any of the dozens of other stock characters in literature and film. They are simply old men living in isolated rural areas. Our of necessity they are strong both physically and mentally and, perhaps most importantly, unshakable in their beliefs.

I first realized my fondness for these elderly fellows when I read George Elliot’s Silas Marner in high school. I can’t remember much about the book but I vividly recall sobbing when the title character broke his beloved clay pot. (I can’t tell you exactly what made that clay pot beloved. Just that he broke it and I cried.)

Most of my favorite books have one or two lonely old rural men (LORM) at their center… the Proctor Brothers in Kings of the Earth by Jon Clinch, Moses in Sweetland by Michael Crummy and, although technically he’s younger, Blood in Lost Nation by Jeffrey Lent.

This affection for the LORM may be why I was intrigued when the other day a colleague said “You know that old guy who burned down his farm in Ascutney? I used to give him rides to Claremont.”

An old guy burning down his own farm? That sounded like a Jon Clinch or Jeffrey Lent novel and I wanted more information.

My colleague didn’t have much to offer. Something to do with the interstate being built and a family farm in the middle of an off ramp.

So I turned to the internet and found an amazing article from 2013 on the Yankee Magazine website.

The article is beautifully written and moving and I highly recommend reading it, but in case you don’t have time or inclination here’s the short version:

Romaine Tenney grew up on his family’s farm in Ascutney, Vermont. Over the years the rest of the family moved away or died off but Mr. Tenney stayed.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Vermont started building an interstate running north to south. It was generally considered a triumph, a sign of the state’s bright future.

By that time, Mr. Tenney’s farm was rather run down but still functioning thanks to his hard work and love of the land.

I’m sure you can see where this is going. Mr. Tenney’s farm lay smack dab in the middle of the soon-to-be interstate Exit 8. The government offered to buy the farm and then claimed eminent domain.

On September 11, 1964 the local sheriff and his men removed Mr. Tenney’s belongings. Early the next morning Mr. Tenney released all his animals — horses, cows and dogs — and set the barn on fire. He then barricaded himself in his house and burned it down. They think he shot himself too but they aren’t sure.

YK0313_RomaineTenney1

Romaine Tenney from Eminent Domain in Ascutney, Vermont: I Will Not Leave by Howard Mansfield (Yankee Magazine)

The story is incredibly similar to the plot of Michael Crummy’s Sweetland, where Moses chooses to stay behind on an island in Newfoundland that everyone else has abandoned.

I don’t have an over-attachment to nature, I’m not remotely sentimental about any particular place and it’s only been recently that I’ve come to embrace, and maybe even take a little pride in, my deep Yankee roots.

But Mr. Tenney’s story (and the other LORM stories) speaks to me in some inexplicable way. It sparks something in my imagination that I can’t seem to let go. What was he thinking? Why was dying better than leaving a farm he struggled to maintain? What type of person is so devoted to a place that they choose it over their life? And why don’t I feel that passionately about anything?

I feel the same envy towards these LORMs that I feel toward the truly religious. I’m baffled by their faith and wish I could believe in something as strongly as they believe in God or land or home.

At this point in my life I know I will never experience that level of conviction. I will never willingly choose to die for a cause or to protect my way of life. I would sell out, move and leave it behind. Probably without even much thought.

But I still admire people like Mr. Tenney and fictional characters like Moses Sweetland. They seem so steady, so sure what they are doing is right.

And isn’t that what we all want in life? Just to know we are doing the right thing?

Vermont Bookstore Adventure Wrap Up in honor of Independent Bookstore Day!

Saturday is Independent Bookstore Day. While there may be no better way to celebrate the day than spending it at Booktopia and Northshire Bookstore, I’m a bit sad to not be able to attend a some of the festivities at the great indie bookstores across Vermont.

And speaking of Vermont bookstores, I figure some of you might be wondering what ever happened to my Vermont Bookstore Adventure.

I’m happy to say that I did indeed visit every independent bookstore in the state. In fact, I visited the last bookstore on the list almost a year ago, on May 7, 2014.

It actually felt a little anticlimactic because by then I had fallen behind on the blogging.

Every week I’d say, “I should finish up those bookstore blogs” and then not do it. Eventually so much time passed that it felt silly. Sort of like that email you let sit in our inbox for so long that you end up deleting it instead of responding.

(To tell the truth, the blogging probably dried up because I got a kind of nasty response from a store to one of my last posts. I’m oversensitive. I take it personally when another car honks at my on the interstate, so a pissy comment is on my blog enough to scar me.)

But with Independent Bookstore Day looming, I thought I’d try to wrap it all up. My apologies to the stores below that didn’t get a dedicated post, but I can at least offer a few thoughts on each of the visits.

Date: 9/21/14

Store: Booked Solid
Location: Bradford, VT
Bookseller: Jasmyn
Recommendation: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

I almost didn’t stop at Booked Solid. I was in town for another reason and thought they only sold used books. (You might remember that I decided to visit only new bookstores because it was a smaller project and I really prefer new books to old one.)

But since I was there, I stopped by and there was some new stock so I’m glad I did.

If you clicked on the name of the store above, you’ll see that it links to a store called Star Cat Books. Booked Solid was sold right around the time I visited and, happily, it remained a bookstore instead of a Starbucks or law office. I haven’t visited Star Cat yet, but hope to do so soon!

Date: 10/19/14

Store: Phoenix Books
Location: Burlington, VT
Bookseller: ???
Recommendation: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Phoenix Books has two stores in the Lake Champlain region and has recently announced they are opening another location in Rutland. (Did I mention that Book King closed a while back? Sadly, so did Woodknot Bookshop in Newport and Shiretown Books in Woodstock.)

I really like the Burlington Phoenix. It feels like a quiet little book haven in one of the only truly urban areas the state. The inventory is great and the staff very helpful. I’ve returned whenever I’m in Burlington and continue to be impressed.

Store: Crow Bookshop
Location: Burlington, VT
Bookseller: Lisa
Recommendation: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Crow Bookshop is just down the block from Phoenix (Hey, I just noticed that they both have bird names!) but is a very different store.

Crow sells new and used books and definitely has more of a used book feel. In a good way! It had an extensive inventory, a great Vermont author section and is probably the most Vermont-y bookshop I visited. Or at least the most Burlinton-y. (If you haven’t been to Burlington, trust me. The city has a distinct culture and Crow has tapped into it.)

Date: 10/26/14

Store: Everyone’s Books
Location: Brattleboro, VT
Bookseller: Clea
Recommendation: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

For a couple of years now, I’ve attended in Brattleboro Literary Festival in October but somehow missed stopping in Everyone’s Books. (They sell at the festival so I have purchased from them even if I hadn’t gone in.)

There is a lot of stuff in the store… tons of fiction and nonfiction sections, calendars, chairs in random places. It felt like a store that should have a novel written about it. The Vermont version of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Cemetery of Forgotten Books perhaps?

The website says that Everyone’s Books specializes in “books about social change, the environment, and multicultural children’s books” but I didn’t know that when I was in the store. It was just a fun, packed bookshop!

Store: Mystery on Main Street
Location: Brattleboro, VT
Bookseller: David
Recommendation: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mystery on Main Street is, as the name suggests, a mystery bookstore located on Main Street. It is the only genre-specific bookstore I found in the state and I liked it a lot.

I don’t read a ton of mysteries but there was something refreshing about going into a store that only sells one genre. It was a welcoming space and less overwhelming than some of the larger stores with a wide inventory. I think if I lived in Brattleboro I’d read a lot more mysteries just to visit this shop more often.

Date: 11/16/14

Store: Tempest Book Shop
Location: Waitsfield
Bookseller: ???
Recommendation: Perfume by Patrick Süskind

Tempest is the only bookstore I visited that not only has books, but will change your watch batteries and rent you a DVD. What I love about those extra services is that it makes the bookstore even more a part of the community. People who seldom will go in for a movie and, who knows, they might come out with a book!

I’m sad to say that I didn’t write down the name of the bookseller at Tempest. I did include that he has a PhD in Psychiatry and I think he was the owner. And I remember that he made at least a dozen book recommendations and talked about them so well that I wanted to read them all.

Store: Bridgeside Books
Location: Waterbury
Bookseller: Hiata
Recommendation: Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker

Don’t tell Northshire, but I think Bridgeside is my favorite bookstore in Vermont.

It’s not a large store, but it makes you feel like you have stumbled into someone’s private and well-curated library. Hiata, the owner, was super nice (that’s a quote directly from my notes) and I could have spent all day. If I were not going to be in Manchester on Saturday, I would be at Bridgeside!

Date: 5/7/14

Store: Bear Pond Books
Location:  Stowe, VT
Bookseller: ???
Recommendation: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

I don’t know if the Stowe Bear Pond Books is connected to the Montpelier Bear Pond Books or not. I suppose it doesn’t really matter but it seems strange to have two unrelated, identically named independent bookstores within less than 30 miles.

This Bear Pond is in an interesting shared space call the “old depot.” It’s a long, narrow store with a funky sale room in the back. Along with a good selection of books, they have a great variety of greeting cards including one line that features books and book quotes. It’s not a surprise that I bought a fair number of those cards!

I wish I had written down the name of the bookseller at Bear Pond because I remember her being very nice. Since I don’t have her name, I’ll just say that all the staff at Bear Pond was nice!

Store: Rivendell Books
Location: Montpelier, VT
Bookseller: Ziya
Recommendation: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Last year, Vermont’s capital had two independent bookstores right across the street from each other. But in March, Rivendell Books merged with its “sister bookstore” Bear Pond and now there is only one.

Rivendell was a nice store, with both new and used selections. I was a bit confused by the pricing (I don’t remember exactly why but seem to recall color codes and signs explaining them) but found lots I wanted to read.

One of the notes I took at Rivendell was “The Wicca section is right across from Christianity.” Then I drew a smiley face.

Store: Bear Pond Books
Location: Montpelier, VT
Bookseller: Justin
Recommendation: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

I saved Bear Pond Books for last on purpose because I had heard raves about the store from readers and authors alike. So much so that it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Or maybe I was just bookstored out (is there such a thing?!) by the time I reached the end of the list.

Don’t get me wrong. Bear Pond is a lovely store. It’s large with charmingly creaky floors and a lot of great programming. (Just check out the events listings on their website.) I’d like to go back to the store someday because I think I’d enjoy it a lot more if I wasn’t busy eyeing the finish line.

So that’s my quick and dirty finish to the Vermont Bookstore Adventure. One thing I realized during the almost year I spent going from bookstore to bookstore is that we are lucky to have so many wonderful stores in Vermont.

I’ll let you know when I get the nerve to move on to New Hampshire.

Have a happy Independent Bookstore Day!

Give Me The Dax

With my fine, straight hair I have always been prone to celebrity hair crushes that just won’t work on me.

I first remember coveting a celebrity haircut in the early 1980s when I was obsessed with  Square Pegs-era Sarah Jessica Parker’s long chemical curls. (Confession… I still would like my hair to look like this even though it’s hopeless out of date.)

SJP 2

In the 90s I joined the crowd that ripped a picture of Jennifer Aniston out of TV Guide in order to request  “The Rachel” from my hairdresser.

JA

More recently, I’ve drooled over the super short hairstyles like the one Ginnifer Goodwin sports.

GG

All of these attempts at celebrity hair have failed. My fine hair did not take to a spiral perm when I finally got one. My hair is too flat to make The Rachel look like anything than a long, ugly bowl cut and I’m nowhere near small enough or adorable enough to look like a short-haired pixie like Goodwin.

But I’m pleased to announce that after years of searching I think I’ve finally found a star whose hairstyle I can emulate with great success: the Dax Shepherd!

DS

The best part is I don’t even have to try. My hair looks almost exactly like this when I get out of bed in the morning!

Six Observations of a (Weight) Loser

Over the past two years I’ve lost a noticeable amount of weight.  Along the way I made a few unexpected discoveries that I thought I’d share.

1) Fat cold is much warmer than thin cold.

I never realized just how much insulation my layer of fat provided. I thought I had what were normal temperature fluctuations when I was heavier. Sometimes I was hot and sometimes I was cold. But I never experienced cold like I do now. It’s like I’ve spent my life wrapped in a parka and now I only have a windbreaker.

It’s kind of a miracle that all skinny people haven’t frozen to death.

2) When someone notices your weight loss but doesn’t feel comfortable mentioning it, they compliment your hair.

I have gotten a lot more compliments on my hair since I’ve shed some pounds even though I haven’t changed my hair style. Some people will play coy with a “you look different. Did you change your hair?” And others will just say they like my hair.

They all know my hair is the same. I know my hair is the same. They might as well just say, “hey, you’re not fat anymore!” At least that’s honest.

3) It’s embarrassing when people don’t recognize you.

My mother and I ran into an old family friend one Saturday morning. She smiled in my direction as she stood chatting with my mom, but didn’t speak to me directly.

After a few minutes she asked my mother, “How is Heather?”

My mother pointed at me and said, “She’s standing right here.”

The woman was flabbergasted, my mother was amused and I was mortified.

This keeps happening and my mother struggles to understand why I find the situation so embarrassing. “You do look different,” she tells me and I reply, “but I’m still me!”

After giving it some thought I’ve decided that it’s embarrassing because, while I never identified myself by my weight, it’s obvious that other people did.

I don’t like that a thinner Heather is unrecognizable because in their minds Heather = fat.

4) Weight Watchers and Nutra System ads on TV still make me uncomfortable.

I don’t know why but I still cringe at those “I lost 100 pounds on Weight Watchers” advertisements. It’s probably related to the reasons that not being recognized upsets me but I haven’t spent as much time thinking about it.

I fast forward over the ads instead.

5) People think you’re crazy when you don’t know how skinny-sized clothing works.

A few weeks ago I went into a Levi’s store and became so confused by all the styles, sizes and lengths that I had to ask the sale woman how the jeans worked.

Most women learn how to shop for themselves when they are teenagers. So when you ask someone to explain jeans to you at age 45, they think you either have been recently paroled or are insane.

Luckily when you tell sales women that you’ve lost a bunch of weight they forgive your ignorance and go into super helpful makeover mode.

6) Even skinny people get insulted.

The other day an old man said to me, “Now that you’ve lost all that weight, you must get better gas mileage on your car. And your tires will last longer too.”

It’s almost reassuring to know that even though my body has changed drastically, there are still stupid people who say insensitive things.

(And no, I didn’t lose enough weight to get better gas mileage.)

Chill out, NaNoWriMo Haters

 

I’m a bit of an author junkie.

I follow a lot of writers on Twitter and listen to multiple writing, book and author interview podcasts.

Unlike many other types of celebrities, I find authors engaging, entertaining and smart whether they are speaking or tweeting.

This time of year, however, the pervasive disdain and sometime downright hostility toward NaNoWriMo makes me want to unsubscribe to the lot.

NaNoWriMo — or National Novel Writing Month — is an “annual novel writing project that brings together professional and amateur writers from all over the world.”

It prompts writers of all kinds to write a novel in 30 days (Or 50,000 words of a novel anyway) through a website, meet ups, chat rooms and other forms of encouragement.

I’m not participating in NaNoWriMo and I fully realize that it’s close to impossible to write a good, publishable novel in 30 days. Many of the “novels” produced through NaNoWriMo are probably God awful.

But why do “real” writers feel so threatened by the movement?

As the director of a performing arts center, I witness many art forms that encourage amateur participation. We have community bands, community theater, drama clubs, open mics and dance recitals.

The local visual arts center has sculpture classes, open studios and “sip and paint” events.

We both go out of our way to invite people in.

Are all amateur artists good? Will they ever star on Broadway or be featured at MoMA? Of course not. The point is that you can participate in art at many levels.

So why do published authors scorn NaNoWriMo’s attempt to get people writing?
Perhaps they are sick of comments about how easy they have it. “I wish I could just sit at home all day and collect a big paycheck.”

Or that writing isn’t a difficult profession. “I could write a novel too. It can’t be that hard!”

I can’t imagine saying these things, or even thinking them, but I’m sure people do. People think and say just about anything.

But NaNoWriMo isn’t saying writing a novel is simple. Their mission is all about “creative potential,” and “self-expression” and “community.” There’s nothing in there about publishing or even having a readable manuscript. The project is about inspiration.

And deadlines.

Perhaps successful authors forget what it was like when they started writing. The self-doubt and isolation.

Victor LaValle once tweeted something like “write your novel now before someone else does” so maybe the NaNoWriMo-hating authors think there aren’t enough words and novels to go around. (I’m not saying LaValle is one of these authors. I’m just using his theory as a possible excuse for them.)

Luckily not all authors are so disapproving.

At a recently literary festival I met Julia Fierro and Miranda Beverly Whittemore. One of them asked if I was a writer too.

I blushed and said that I was “attempting” to write a “novel sort of thing.”

Mr. Fierro smiled and said, “You’re a writer!” And Ms. Whittemore wrote “good luck with your writing” when she signed my copy of Bittersweet.

And Matthew Dicks just graciously read two random chapters of my work-in-progress and offered me some great suggestions and encouragement.

Their well wishes meant a lot to me.

I entertain no delusions of grandeur. I don’t expect my attempts at a novel will ever be published or are even very good.

But I’m having fun giving novel-writing a whirl.

And if 300,000 plus NaNoWriMo participants are doing the same thing, why resent them? Successful authors have to stop being possessive and enjoy the fact that so many people admire what they do enough to try it for themselves.

Namaste to you too.

Prompt: When the bell rang…

Based on my tennis success (and by success I mean that I have survived the locker room so far and haven’t fallen over on court) I decided to give yoga a try.

I should start by explaining that I am not, by nature, a bendy person. I’m just not flexible or graceful. My mother actually nicknamed me “Gracie” when I was a little girl. I guess she knew early on that I would never be a ballerina or gymnast.

But I thought yoga would help with my bendiness along with my (occasional) back pain and (constant) bad posture.

Like with the tennis lesson, I was greatly relieved that the instructor wasn’t stick-thin. Maybe I’m prejudiced against the perfectly proportioned, but I’m more comfortable when an exercise class is led by someone with a pot belly or big butt. I feel like I fit in that way.

The first class was small, just me and one other woman (who I later found out is also a yoga instructor. I’m glad I didn’t know about that during the class!)

I spent 90 minutes twisting myself into shapes I didn’t know possible. Although I often couldn’t reach the floor (or my ankles or my toes) when I was supposed to, I like to think that did ok.

I especially excelled at Tadasana, or mountain pose.

Ok, so that pose consists of standing up straight on “all four corners” of your feet but I really was quite good at it.

By contrast, I was a major failure in my attempt at Viparita Karani, where you put your legs up the wall. Picture that the wall is the floor and you’re sitting on it with your legs outstretched.

It sounds easy but I couldn’t roll over and get my butt close enough to the wall. And like a turtle on its back, I couldn’t wiggle myself closer. I was beached, legs in the air, flailing my arms round wind mill style to scootch closer.

The instructor finally had me give up on that one.

The biggest challenge of the class, however, was dealing with the spiritual nature of yoga. I went to stretch, not pray. But I guess they go hand in hand.

We ended with the “final resting pose” or corpse pose.

I had an immediate objection to the name alone. I don’t want to be a corpse until absolutely necessary!

It’s an easy pose to achieve… lying on your back (or with your legs up the wall if you can actually get into that position in the first place) and letting go of all your tension.

That I can do.

I can breathe deeply too.

What I can’t do is let go of all my thoughts.

I lay there on my back thinking how silly I must look and how I had a show later that afternoon and wondering if my shirt had ridden up or not.

Eventually, by relying on my OCD tendencies, I stopped thinking and started counting. Breathe in for five, hold for five, breath out for five.

Then, just as I was reaching a partial state of relaxation, the instructor rang some sort Tibetan hand bell, like he was calling the monks to supper.

It was supposed to draw us back to our bodies, but it just gave me the giggles.

Yes, I am that unenlightened.

By literally biting my tongue I was able to keep it together, although there was a fair amount of twitching.

When we were finally back sitting up, the instructor gave us a little blessing and ended with “Namaste.”

I didn’t know people really said that. I smiled back, but apparently that wasn’t enough because he kept looking at me expectantly. After a minute the tension became too much for me and I muttered a “Namaste” back to him.

I’m extremely proud that I said it without laughing.

All in all I liked yoga. I liked feeling just a wee bit stretchier than usual and walking away aware of muscles I didn’t even know I had.

But I don’t think I’ll ever achieve anything close to a zen state, unless giggles is one of the levels.

What I Like About Me.

Prompt: Good On You

This is very hard for me because I don’t usually think about myself in favorable terms, but here’s a list of thirteen things I like about myself:

1. The color of my eyes.

2. I’m comfortable admitting that I’m an introvert.

3. I still get excited about things.

4. My strong work ethic.

5. The fact that tried a sport for the first time at age 43.

6. My relationship with my mom.

7. The freckle on one of my toes.

8. I have the Playbill from every Broadway show I’ve seen.

9. I’m easily empathetic.

10. I ask a lot of questions.

11. I have skinny thumbs.

12. I’m happy being single.

13. I can say the alphabet backwards.