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Scouting the New World

Benjamin Malcolm

The Big Four, Oh!

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 you see … 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 life.

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 anxiety.

Vermont Livin'

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 longer.

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 advice.

"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 world.

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 things.

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.

Spring Forward

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 to Burlington.

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.


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