I see the sculptures of the two whales'
tails early in the morning, when I merge on to I-89 and head southeast
to work. They are across the highway on the northbound side, a pair
of cetaceous flukes in the middle of a headfirst dive into a grassy
hillock just above a large swath of Vermont farmland. Behind this
intriguing tableau is an even more captivating sight the
dawn-lit peaks of the two local 4,000 footers, Mount Mansfield and
Camel's Hump Mountain.
I need this kind of scene to soothe my age-related dystopia. For
I'm about to turn 40. It is time for the great summing
up of where I have been and the girding for the second half of my
The sight of the whale tails is my first soulful moment of the
day. Another one occurs on the way home from work. Assuming I've
timed everything right, I crest the hill on Main Street heading
west into downtown Burlington and am there just in time to witness
the oranges and reds of the sunset above the Adirondacks over the
vast expanse of Lake Champlain. The light is the most striking thing
about this the way it caroms off the red brick of the old
town, bathing everything in warmth and temporary dazzle.
Sunrise and sunset, birth and death
I must be facing midlife
Burlington, Vermont certainly seems like a forgiving place
to be on the cusp of the "big four oh." Crisis is too
daunting a word. Let's call this a midlife hiccup, the postscript
to a challenging cross-world move.
My wife Tan and I chose this haven of progressivism after a drive-through
in the summer. It seemed to have everything we wanted - a smaller
city with enough jobs to go around, a broad range of cultural events,
and access to miles of hiking trails and mountain hideaways. We
were both hooked by Church Street, a four block pedestrian-only
thoroughfare of shops, bars, and restaurants, with lots of outside
seating and the names of world cities from north to south inlaid
as off-color bricks in the wide walkway. We pulled into Burlington
over the Labor Day weekend and within three days were already settling
into a small apartment near the bike trail only a minute's walk
from the shores of Lake Champlain, and five minutes by car from
the city center.
One of the first things we noticed was an air of friendliness,
the laid-back casual atmosphere of people who seem to have pulled
the sedan over to the cruising lane of life and let the semis and
sports cars barrel past on the left. Success has long been clothed
in the spiritually hollow robes of money and expensive toys in the
United States, and it's nice to see a town with a different take
on things. Those who stay (apparently not the students at UVM who,
according to a recent article in the Burlington Post, graduate and
then depart in droves) all repeated a common mantra. They had come
to Burlington years ago, and then just stayed because it seemed
the "right kind of place to raise a family."
The thought of family figures large in my midpoint introspection.
Tan is in her early thirties and if we're going to have kids, it
should happen sooner than later. Am I ready? Is anybody ever ready?
Almost all my friends have family, but then they've also been married
Our first few days in Burlington were notable for their Vermont
"friendly" moments. My initial encounter occurred as I
was backing my Budget rent-a-truck out of a local Burger King on
the way back to the apartment (after a long drive from NJ). A stranger
stopped with his bag of burgers and Coke just under my open window
and looked up at me.
"Moving in or moving out?"
"Moving in," I said.
"Great! Welcome to Vermont. Hope you're ready for the winter!"
Tan had her moment outside the natural food market down the street.
A fifty-something stranger saw her sitting, reading the paper at
the picnic table, struck up a conversation, and gave her similar-sounding
"Layering," he said. "It's all about the layering
for cold weather."
Winter, you see, is a big theme in Vermont.
This was a weak winter, but don't tell my wife that.
She's lived the majority of her life in Thailand, where winter
in the far north consists of a couple of weeks of temperatures in
the low 50s Fahrenheit (at night). Both she and I had gotten used
to the seasonal patterns over there and I had largely shed my New
England thick skin. Rain, not cold, was the main issue. Everything
gets wet at some point, and in the depth of the monsoon, the mold
and mildew get into clothes and destroys them.
Vermont did have a very warm winter this year. There were days
in January where the temperatures moved into Northern Thailand levels,
and all thoughts of skiing vanished for me after New Year's as the
snow all but faded away. The major storms of the season passed well
south of Burlington, blanketing the mountains, including the ski
trails on oft-sighted Mount Mansfield.
But it did get cold. I re-familiarized myself in the morning gloom
with the "morning car run" of scraping off the thin sheen
of ice from the windshield, pulling the windshield wipers up (to
make sure they weren't frozen to the windshield), warming the car
for a few minutes, and watching the inside turn to a murky cave
with the steam from the coffee and my breath. I got sick of this
routine somewhere about the fourth month, for Burlington, unlike
DC (where I used to live) uses the length and breadth of its winter
allotment. Even in April, the temperature dips into the 40's.
Tan has stated categorically that she loves Burlington, but the
jury is out on the weather. We spend our days contemplating the
range of areas that are Burlington-esque and everyone seems to recommend
North Carolina, which always seems to be undergoing a resurgence
or boom in every survey I ever see.
"I just can't stand this cold," Tan said. "I mean
five months is a long time."
I agree, but we both like the idea of settling, something we had
started to do in Chiang Rai. Don't middle-aged people settle?
Working for a Living
While we've fallen into Burlington's embrace as a "place to
raise a family," we've had varying success with our jobs.
Tan started at a small, family-owned bakery, only a first step,
and then eventually became full-time staff at the city's shelter
system. There is some logic to her in this move, the challenge of
working with a group that she otherwise would never see. She is
a former teacher, so social work isn't that much of a leap, and
she comes back with stories of heartbreak from the guests who have
gone straight past the souvenir stand of the American dream over
the cliff. She comes home tired with the emotions of it but inspired
by the sense that she is helping someone somewhere.
My work-path, and my search for work, has been something less than
inspiring, and this is where the sharks of midlife paranoia have
torn the biggest chunks out of my psyche, for while I understand
our move in terms of family and of lifestyle, I'm having trouble
justifying it in terms of what I'm doing for a living. In that arena,
it feels like "one step forward, two steps back."
After a long, grueling search, which started only a week after
we stepped off the plane last June, I finally landed in Burlington
as a temp in a big company, doing a job that requires a modicum
of effort on my part, but which is a world away from my past of
refugee camps, university classrooms, and writer's porch in Thailand.
A year ago, I was writing travel stories and restaurant reviews
for money. Now, I'm in the recesses, buried in the American corporate
The first month of my job was spent figuring out why I was there
and responding to the daily joyful refrain of "you came back!"
The last person in the position left after three days, and never
bothered to call. I'm sequestered on my own, in a back room, pushing
numbers in the boiler room of the vast complex. I'm good enough,
and cheerful enough, to have hung on, but I could be doing other
There is far too much talk from the people around me of how much
time before they have to retire, the slow disintegration of their
benefits, and how much they would like to move on if they could
ever work up the energy, with no expression at all of the joy of
being there. "Another day in paradise!" and "Having
fun yet?" are the catchphrases day after day from the Dilberts
that litter this landscape. I know it's not the end of the line;
it only feels that way.
There is some consolation in the steady, decent pay it brings,
and the jobs that I see advertised through my Peace Corps listserv
in Washington, D.C. There do seem to be interesting things out there
that fit me, but none of them are popping up in Vermont.
My writing, usually a form of escape, relief, and formerly my only
occupation, is another millstone around my midlife neck. It was
really beginning to flourish in Thailand, as I found the freedom
and inspiration to work, and at one point, I was easily averaging
1,000 words a day. This 1,000-word daily output grounded to a halt
upon my landing in the U.S. Writing, of course, requires a day to
day effort, a constant refining of the gemstone, and perhaps nothing
is as painful as losing that. The material I've built up from Thailand,
if left too much longer on the hard drive of the computer, and in
the recesses of my brain, could begin to rot.
I was supposed to parlay my years of living overseas into something
special here. Is this it?
I shudder if I use the yardstick of my work. I feel myself returning
to and drowning in the life that I remember the clock-ticking
sand-through-the-hourglass sensation of putting in the hours but
losing out on meaning.
Thank God I don't have cable.
It's a good sign when the tarp comes off the bicycles
Over the last week, I drove home and then biked into town,
and I saw the sunset more and more along the unfrozen, frost-heaved
bike path, where I used to see it in the midst of a traffic jam
heading into town.
There are signs of spring everywhere. I joined a Taiko drumming
class, took a six-week short story writing workshop, and have been
picking up books on tape from the local library for the half-hour
commute. Tan bought a new pair of running shoes, took up jogging,
and then signed up for a Japanese bookbinding course.
The rhythm of the whales, and of my job continues. I wonder what
fascinates me about them. Their heads are in the ground, but their
dive is happy, not trying to escape the world so much as celebrating
the moment. I love the iconoclastic energy that drove the artist
to plant them like metal ears of corn on the periphery of farmland
in front of the mountains. It feels like the energy we used in moving
Tan and I are really like sea animals on land, a longtime expat
and his Thai wife in what is now immigrant-wary America. Can we
merge our lives into this land, our hopes and our dreams to "coming
back" here, or do we get so caught up in the mundane day-to-day
that we lose sight of where we've been, what we need to do, and
who we need to be? For me personally, is it to be a slow crawl to
death, or will I sprint into the back 40 to take the brass ring?
On my good days, which warm more and more with the sun, I prefer
to believe the latter.
My big "4-0" will occur technically in July, on Bastille
Day. I'll have to do something special on that day. Perhaps I may
drive solo up to Montreal and then return for a lavish meal along
the waterfront with Tan. Perhaps I'll go for some solo mediation
time with a hike in the forest, or perhaps I'll even pub crawl on
Church Street with the friends from the city.
Or just maybe, sometime around when the light comes up, I'll head
out to I-89, kick off my shoes, curl my toes in the grass, in the
shade of a pair of metal whale tails, and imagine what could be
to the sound of cars rushing by.