Archive for the ‘Vermont’ Category

Excavation #5: Coins

In Vermont on May 25, 2011 at 12:00 am

The Excavation series is excerpted from my MFA thesis, entitled Ruins. These short chapters deal with youthful imagination and an increasing desire to explore the world. Photograph taken in Nova Scotia hotel.

Dad opened a plastic baggie and spilled coins over the kitchen table. They clanked against the wood, formed a pool of tiny metal discs. Hundreds of coins, each a different shape and color. Some large and silver, others tiny and copper. They were grimy and old—scanning the dates, I saw that none were older than 1972, the year a heart attack struck my grandfather dead.

“These were all my father’s,” Dad said. “He collected them from all the places he went.” Read the rest of this entry »


Excavation #4: Pictures

In Egypt, Vermont on May 18, 2011 at 12:00 am

The Excavation series is excerpted from my MFA thesis, entitled Ruins. These short chapters deal with youthful imagination and an increasing desire to explore the world. Photograph of temple interior, Egypt.

Each morning, Dad drove me to the elementary school, where he taught sixth grade. I could have slept later—past 5:45 a.m.—but I liked to wake with him, eat Cheerios in the dark, and ride with him to work. Dad would set up his classroom, file paperwork, and raise the American flag in the schoolyard. Since I went to middle school in the shire town, I could pick up the bus at 7 a.m. The less time I spent on the bus, the better. This gave me more time spent alone with pictures. I would slip into the library and sit in a big easy chair. And as I waited for my bus, I opened copies of National Geographic.

The Cornwall Elementary School had an entire wall of National Geographic magazines, dating back to the 1920’s. The earliest volumes were scattered and incomplete, and the pages were so ratty that I avoided them. But each morning I would press my finger against the phalanx of spines and pick an issue at random. I’d flip through the pages, viewing picture after picture, headline after headline. I never read a full article. The photography was enough. Read the rest of this entry »

Excavation #3: Paintbrushes

In Uncategorized, Vermont on May 11, 2011 at 12:00 am

The Excavation series is excerpted from my MFA thesis, entitled Ruins. These short chapters deal with youthful imagination and an increasing desire to explore the world. Photograph of excavated obelisk, which was never fully carved or removed from its quarry, Egypt.

We crowded around the site, and the archaeologist pointed downward. We followed his finger to the rectangle of open soil. The shape of a grave, only wider, shallower. The bottom lay uneven, like a broken sidewalk. We fidgeted and bounced on the balls of our feet. It was a warm, humid spring day. The sun beat down on us, and we kept swatting away flies and honeybees. This was not what we expected.

“From the evidence,” said the archaeologist, “there was an Abenaki settlement right here.”

Evidence. This was something they never sought in the movies. This archaeologist was not what I knew an archaeologist to be—not the rugged man in a pith helmet, but a skinny, middle-aged guy wearing a button-down shirt. His hair was thin and graying. He wore glasses. This was not an adventurer who showed up in villages and got into car-chases. He sported hiking boots and blue jeans. And there was no pick-ax, no shovel, no torch burning in an ancient tomb. Read the rest of this entry »

Excavation #2: Crown Point

In Vermont on May 4, 2011 at 12:00 am

The Excavation series is excerpted from my MFA thesis, entitled Ruins. These short chapters deal with youthful imagination and an increasing desire to explore the world. Photograph of Colonial re-enactors, Pennsylvania.

I knew this: Crown Point looked like a star. As I ran along the walls, I tried to feel its colossal shape. Twisting around a turn, I felt the pointed edge of the battlements. And it was only by somersaulting down the walls, sliding along the grassy incline, that I could relish their height.

For a fort, Crown Point was open and covered in grass. There were no tickets booths, no doors, no docents to guide me through. When we visited on summer days, there were hardly any people. In social studies, I was told that Crown Point was one of the biggest forts in North America. The space inside was like a soccer field: vast and empty, except for the mown grass.

The barracks were long stone buildings, but the roofs had long collapsed and the chimneys jutted into the sky. The empty windows and doorways caught the wind and whistled. I would explore room after room, hop into a great hall, spy around corners—as if, at any moment, I might surprise the ghost of a colonial soldier. To me, the barracks were still haunted with minutemen, and they lugged their rucksacks and muskets into the present, eager for coming battle. Read the rest of this entry »


In Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Dubrovnik, Montenegro, Pittsburgh, Uncategorized, Vermont on October 30, 2010 at 7:46 pm

This afternoon, a dream finally came true: I picked up 162 copies of my book, The Archipelago, from the offices of Autumn House Press. They look fantastic — I even love the spine. I am so grateful to my Autumn House dream team: Kriscinda Meadows for keen editing, Rebecca King for her magnificent design, Rick St. John for his business acumen and Michael Simms, President, who took a chance on a 30-year-old grad student.

And now you, too, can have your own copy.

There are two ways to find one:

Amazon: You can go to and order a copy. This is the most efficient way to track it down. Orders will start shipping on November 1, 2010. You’ll have your very own volume, full of mind-blowing adventures, in a matter of days.

Me: If you don’t want to pay for shipping, and you tend to run into me on a regular basis, I plan to carry around copies wherever I go. Copies are $20 (which is about the same price as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and it’s $280 less than a Playstation 3! What a deal!). I now have 162 copies to peddle, and nothing would make me happier to furnish you with one.

What will you discover among these pages? You’ll learn:

  1. What it’s like to get solicited by prostitutes in Athens.
  2. How it feels to fly down mountain passes in Albania. In a bus. In the middle of the night.
  3. Just what it takes to wreck a hotel room in Tirana.
  4. The joys of getting interrogated by Montenegrin border patrol.
  5. How to cross a [potentially active] mine-field.
  6. The awesomeness of Austrian mimes.
  7. What to do when confronted by American G-Men at the Sarajevo airport.
  8. The mysteries of “Turbo-Folk.”
  9. How Bosnians courageously survived the siege of Sarajevo.

Makes the perfect Christmas gift.

Thanks to everyone who made this project possible! Enjoy!

The Woods Are Lovely, Dark and Deep

In Uncategorized, Vermont on June 25, 2009 at 12:00 am

Christmas in Vermont 042

I was once asked, during an audition, to name my favorite place on Earth. I said, “The woods outside my parents’ house.”

Life in Vermont can be hard: It’s ludicrously expensive, the winters are long and bitter, and the summers are humid and buggy. My parents built their own house with a wood-burning stove; everything else runs on electricity, including the well and septic system. My first “job” was to dig rocks out of the garden for 50 cents a bucket, a job I undertook for about 45 minutes before giving up on work (and money). My second job was hauling wood in a wheelbarrow down from the forest. Manual labor is tough, tedious work. Also, I was lazy.

And like all rural people, Vermonters live without certain amenities: You can’t just call the police and expect a squad car within 20 minutes. Same goes for the fire department, although both services are remarkably efficient considering the great distances between buildings and towns. Wildlife is always wandering through — bats, nests of mice, skunks, snakes, raccoons, whatever. My favorite: A bird that crashed through our garage window and died next to my Dad’s table-saw.

But that’s all succotash. The rare beauty of my parents’ house is its quietude. Nobody bothers them. The woods that surround their house makes it feel as remote as a log cabin. The summer nights are pitch-black, because no street-lamps infringe upon the darkness; in winter, the unblemished blankets of snow sparkle like mounds of jewels. Dark autumn soil is carpeted with gold leaves, and by late fall the forest’s canopy glows fiery-red. Time crawls in the Vermont woodlands, and nature’s unfolding is a lifelong lesson in patience.

Add it all together, and I’ve probably spent months in the forest around my parents’ house — pacing, pondering, gibbering loudly to myself like a lunatic. All my best ideas were hatched in this woodland. With my Dad and brother, I’ve hiked, skied, snow-shoed, sledded, zip-lined, tree-climbed, and felled Christmas trees in these woods. I’ve seen herds of deer sprint through the glade. I’ve spotted owls and heard coyotes howling. For my entire childhood, a sylvan life seemed normal. Now, having seen the diverse ways people come of age, I still have trouble imagining youth without wild greenery. This is the livelier version of Plato’s Cave. And unlike those mythical Socratics, who ravenously journey the world, free from their cavernous prison, I’m also relieved to come back, and take a deep, full breath.


In Vermont on June 24, 2009 at 12:00 am

Christmas in Vermont 022

“So where are you from in Vermont?”

“Do you know Middlebury? Middlebury College? It’s kind of, you know, in the middle?”

“Oh, yeah. You’re from there?”



“But I’m from Cornwall, right outside of it. And Middlebury is the shire town.”

The questioner snickers. “Shire… town?


“Like, The Hobbit?”

“Well, it’s the county seat—”

“You really call it a shire town? Wow. So you’re from Middlebury, huh?”

“Uh, yeah, sure.”

For a tiny town of only 8,000 people, Middlebury has many distinctions: Woody Jackson lives here. The Morgan Horse Farm is located here. Woodchuck Hard Cider is brewed here, and so is Otter Creek beer. The foot-bridge that spans the creek was used for a scene in Me, Myself & Irene. Middlebury College is triumphantly mentioned at the beginning of The First Wives’ Club, although the opening scene was glaringly shot somewhere else. I briefly waited tables for the Waybury Inn, where “Newheart” allegedly took place (although not a single room was used for the show).

The tourists like to walk Main Street and see the stone church, the gazebo, the large-ish Battell Building. They buy hemp shirts and smelling salts and bandanas with cow-patterns. When you grow up in such a tiny town, the tiny shops become iconic: The Rainbow Room, with its pendants and greeting cards; Comics & Collectibles, the basement nerdtopia where I whiled away summer afternoons; Skihaus, the ultimate over-priced ski-supply store; and my favorite place in the world, the Vermont Book Shop, whose narrow stacks of books always smelled of must and sandalwood.

If you were really autonomous MUHS student, you could stroll down to the Marble Works — an industrial neighborhood where marble was once cut. The converted warehouses are all constructed from rough-looking marble blocks, and in the summer the white stone gleams incandescently. When I was finally allowed to leave my high school campus during free periods (a luxury reserved only to seniors), my friend Rory and I would spend hours at Lee Zachary’s, a colossal pizza parlor tucked into one of the Marble Works warehouses.

But the most illustrious landmark in Middlebury is the waterfall — this is why outsiders see New England as magical. Middlebury has a main street, simply called Main Street, which is the developed section of Route 30 (pronounced: “Root Thrr’dee”). In the middle of Main Street (which is to say the middle of Middlebury), there’s a stone bridge that arches over Otter Creek. The architecture of this bridge is magnificent enough, as it’s composed of roughshod masonry that looks venerable in any season or light. But the bridge also overlooks a powerful waterfall that crashes beneath it — a waterfall that’s routinely frosted over in ice or shrowded in mist.

My relationship with this waterfall is complex: picnicking next to it, climbing the boulders around it, make-out sessions at its frothy foot, and so on. My brother once waded across the water to chop free a dead tree-trunk that was caught on the cliff’s edge. And most remarkable of all, legend has it that escaped slaves once hid beneath the water as they rode the Underground Railroad to Canada.

As a teenager, it was chic to trash Middlebury as a pit of universal despair. To us, it was a colony of hypocrite yuppies and braindead rednecks. We’d wait to see which worthless dickwad died in a drunk-driving accident, and we’d laugh when the yearbook was dedicated to him. We’d wonder which drop-out farm-girl would get knocked up with twins. Our cynicism was pointless, and we knew it, but we claimed our lives would only be worthwhile if we abandoned ship.

Now I’m a tourist, and Middlebury is just a spot on the map. It’s a nice promenade, and the sights are particularly handsome in summer. The thugs I once feared have grown up or moved away. And when people give me attitude, I just remember that I’m not from Middlebury. I’m from Cornwall.

Small-Town Celebrities

In Vermont on June 23, 2009 at 12:00 am

Christmas in Vermont 020 

When my parents first came to Vermont in the 1970’s, they stopped at a service-station. The state was crawling with hippies and bohemian drop-outs by that time, so it made sense that the owners used the station to sell home-made ice-cream. The two owners were old friends, a guy named Ben Cohen and a guy named Jerry Greenfield.

Today, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream is a global, multi-billion dollar corporation. And Cherry Garcia is delicious.

For such a tiny state, Vermont is packed with celebrities. Michael J. Fox and David Mamet have houses in the Green Mountains, and they have each contributed to Vermont-themed movies.

In my childhood winters, I would take ski-trips to Breadloaf, home of the Breadloaf Writers Conference, and skate-ski to Robert Frost’s mountain home. It’s fitting that Frost’s domicile is an isolated building, given how thoroughly the man suffered at the hands of other people. Small wonder, after losing most of his family and committing his sister to a mental hospital, that Frost wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

For the Middlebury Community Players, I performed in a production of Dracula with David Moats, who soon after won a Pulitzer Prize (and state’s first Pulitzer for journalism). The next year, I performed in Follies with Ron Powers, who won the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for TV criticism and co-wrote Flags of Our Fathers. I went to elementary school with a kid named Sam, whose father, Gary Margolis, was shortlisted for the Pultizer in poetry. For a long time, I just assumed that every small town was crowded with Pulitzer-winners.

My Mom is friends with the world-famous novelist Julia Alvez, who lives in Middlebury, and so does governor Jim Douglas, who has occasionally stopped by my parents’ house for political talk.

John Deere grew up in Middlebury, but he didn’t invent his tractors until he moved to the Midwest.

I have sung Handl’s “Messiah” in a Middlebury Church with Dr. François Clemmons, who is better-known as Officer Clemmons from “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” I’ve corresponded with Bill McKibbon, one of the most respected environmental writers of the past 30 years.

But I still haven’t met Trey Anastasio. I’m working on it.

Where I Was From: Vermont

In Vermont on June 22, 2009 at 12:00 am

Christmas in Vermont 016

Here’s how the conversation usually goes:

“You’re from Vermont?”


“So you make maple syrup?”


“Wait, really?”

“Well, I don’t make it, but my Dad does.”

“Your Dad makes maples syrup?”

“Well, he has in the past. But for the past few years he’s spent maple season in China—”

“Wait, your Dad is in China?”

“Yeah, he teaches English in Inner Mongolia.”

“Is your Mom in China?”

“Oh, no. She stays in Vermont. That’s where she teaches piloting.”

“Hold up. Your Mom’s a pilot? Like a commercial pilot?”

“Oh, heavens, no. She flies prop planes. Cessnas, stuff like that. She’s a piloting instructor, and I think she does tours once in a while. She wanted to pilot for this company in Cape Cod, but from the way she tells it, their instruction was a little confusing, so they parted ways.”

“Wow. Your parents are awesome.”

“I know, right?”

I’m not your typical Vermonter, but then again, nobody really is. Vermont is a peculiar state: It’s rugged and rocky, and so are the people. It’s the “most rural” state in America, and one of the smallest. Vermont was long populated by loggers and quarrymen, every one of them a diehard Republican; and yet Bernie Sanders, the state’s junior U.S. senator, describes himself as a socialist, and the state is now famous for its hippie population. Vermonters are usually quiet and hate crowds, but they’re also shameless self-promoters: They love to show off a new barn door, a souped-up motorcycle, a sprouting herb garden, an extensive DVD collection, anything to wow a guest or friend. Most Vermonters claim to love quiet and the outdoors, but most Vermonters I’ve ever met lead turbulent, dramatic social lives. The peacefulness is relaxing for ex-urbanites, but the boredom can make people stir-crazy. Vermonters pride themselves on open-mindedness and civility — and most folks are pretty open-minded and civil — but there are deep pockets are resentment and cruelty: By far the most racist, homophobic, misogynistic comments I’ve ever heard were spoken in Burlington. And above all, Vermonters are incredibly touchy: They stew over careless words for months and years. Most people end up dying before their grudges do.

These days, I only visit Vermont once or twice a year, and my sojourns are always brief. The house my parents built will always be my one true home, a palace of sloped ceilings and broad windows, surrounded on all sides by acres of forest. Otherwise, I’ve become a kind of tourist in my hometown, where dirt roads I once disdained now look charming and pastoral. I do the things that tourists do: canoe down Otter Creek, bicycle to Fort Ticonderoga, order a pint at the Waybury Inn, where I once waited tables. I wave to my parents’ friends and ask how their grown-up children are. But all my memories are whispers; they seem distant and worn, unexpectedly revived by smells and sights. My adolescence was stiff and inflexible; I didn’t play well with others. As Vermonty as my lifestyle is, my heart is pure Pittsburgh.

But as an experiment, and for the sake of my fellow Flatlanders*, here begins some snapshots of my homeland, the Champlain Valley. Pictures and words may not do it justice, but there are no mosquitoes here, and it’s way cheaper than a New England bed-and-breakfast.


* “Flatlanders” is the slur for anybody who grew up outside of Vermont. Since the state depends on tourism, they’ll never say it to your face. Nor will they call you a “Leaf-Peeper,” the local term for people who visit in autumn and drive very slowly to take in the breathtaking views of changing leaves. Vermont’s economy literally hinges on leaf-peepers, even though natives despise them with a passion.

Phish: 3

In Pittsburgh, Vermont on June 19, 2009 at 11:01 pm

Phish Show 014

At the gate, a squat female security guard tells me to raise my shirt. I pulled up my shirt, revealing pale skin beneath. When she asks about my bulging pockets, I pull out a folded hat and some bundled napkins. “I can unfold the napkins, if you want,” I offer.

“Nah,” she says, sighing. “Not like it even matters with this crowd.”

As we migrate into the undulating ocean of Phish fans, the thousands of heads shaded violet in the setting sun, I see what the guard meant: Stoners are pulling on joints and fingering bowls and sucking one-hitters. They’re exhaling great clouds of marijuana, or chomping marijuana cookies or talking loudly about marijuana: “DUDE!” cries a bearded guy on the beach-blanket below us. “I AM SO FUCKED UP! BUT YOU GUYS KNOW! YOU KNOW!”

I don’t really know — instead of ‘shrooms and tabs, I settle for a 22-oz. cup of Coors Light, purchased for an astonishing $11 at a bar that looks like a Slushee stand. But Phish fans require alchemy; the music is designed for disordered minds, and without some kind of chemical enhancement, the music is simply off. So Coors Light it is.

When the musicians walk on-stage, the audience erupts — screaming, hopping, punching at the air with fists. But even as the first song begins, and the enormous speakers project animated chords into the sweaty air, I’m transfixed by the Glow Sticks. I’ve seen crowds full of glow-in-the-dark chachke, but I’ve never seen them hurled. Each stick is flung into the air like a tomahawk; they arc beautifully before splashing into the crowd. But a dozen sticks are firing at once, a great synchronicity of projectiles, like wordless neon messages curried by pitching arms and gravity.

The songs unfold gradually, great tidepools of rhythm and circular harmonies, shifting tempos and entropic optimism. The silhouettes around me sway and stagger; migrants part the crowds in search of lost friends. Everyone is dancing, and even I am dancing, imitating the electro-shock gyrations that hippies favor. I bop my head and try to abandon all pretentions; the songs are long and tedious, and when dancing no longer seems worthwhile, I sit in the dewy grass and just listen, letting the siege of bodies envelop me. Because even if Phish isn’t “my” kind of music; even if I’ve eschewed the one ingredient that will make it “meaningful”; I can enjoy the company of a dozen friends and ten thousand eccentric strangers, sharing a sloped lawn in the middle of the night, whipped by strobe-lights and swaying to a playful beat.

Then something magical happens: A song winds down, and the instruments stop. The music becomes an arrangement of voices, nonsense syllables, switchbacks of speed and pitch, bleeping in the dark like a coven of deranged robots. It’s as if all the previous songs have been inside-jokes, and now they’re proving just how masterful their musicianship is. In this one, purely vocal moment, Phish is revealing its true prestige, like the magician who has piddled with card-tricks and is now effortlessly escaping from his eel-tank.

The guitarists also manage to play their instruments while bouncing on trampolines, shifting direction in choreographed swivels. They sing a snatch of four-part harmony, and Fishman even performs the greatest party-trick of all time: playing an ordinary vacuum cleaner. The range of sound that passes through Fishman’s face is spellbinding — not only as a novelty act of weird noises, but as an ode to Vaudeville tomfoolery; the skills that seem impossible. I think of the Vermont I once knew — the Vermont of buskers and craft fairs and wacky hitchhikers. I think of the New Age boutiques and teenagers selling hemp-necklaces on the sidewalks; I think of the Wicca ritual I attended in the basement of a Unitarian church, and the old men who smoked pipes on the porches of their antique shops; I think of Bread & Puppet Theatre and Circus Smirkus; and as Fishman blows fat notes through his vacuum tube, everything clears away, and my mind trascends to simpler strangenesses, and I hear and see what other people come here to hear and see.