11/28/17

Vermont State of Mind



Experience and utopianism aren't always the best of friends. When asked of my ideal place to live, I often conjure a land that combines the best traits of my current Western Massachusetts home with the humor and resiliency of Scotland, the civic ideals and beauty of New Zealand, the kindness found in Canada, the economics of Scandinavia, and the food and culture of Western Europe. And it would be warmer, but not tropical—maybe San Francisco without the freezing fog and numbing cost of living. Experience, though, tells me there's no such place.

Experience also tells me that the best place I've ever lived is Vermont. It is said that comparisons are odious, but a Thanksgiving sojourn to Burlington has put me in a Vermont state of mind, even though I'm not planning a move. I always feel at home in Vermont, but I was also reminded of its depressing 4 pm November darkness, the bone rattling winds blowing off Lake Champlain, the rural poverty of Franklin County, and the region's overall isolation. Still, there are ways in which Northern Vermont has much to teach Western Massachusetts.

First and foremost is that, reputations for being taciturn notwithstanding, Vermonters are way friendlier than folks in the Pioneer Valley. Vermonters don't take themselves as seriously and that's a good thing. I've threatened a local terrorist act that wouldn't rise to beige on the alert scale; I'd love to string a banner across Main Street Northampton that reads, "C'mon Folks—Lighten Up!" We are a grumpy, angry bunch 'round these parts and I too often get caught up in stuff that brings me down: bad driving, arrogant pedestrianism, cause fanaticism, and—above all—a stunning lack of perspective. In Northern Vermont, snowflakes are real things that fall in mass quantities, not people of privilege sniping at things that don't touch them personally. Honestly, I wonder how some people manage to rise in the morning bearing all their assumed burdens. You can hardly sneeze in Western Massachusetts without being accused of a micro-aggression—a term that makes my working-class soul sneer. I'd love to see how some of our local Snowflakes would deal with the in-your-face-take-that-shit-elsewhere aggression of life outside the Bubble.

Mind, I prefer Bubble values, but we ought to do a much better job of distinguishing the real from the imagined. Sorry, but when I hear folks tell me they've never experienced  [fill in your favorite oppression ending in ism here] like that on their college campuses my first thought is, "You really need to get out more." Vermonters are, on balance, more resilient. Maybe this is what happens when being down-to-earth is literal rather than metaphorical. Vermont winters are not for the faint of heart and Mud Season is no treat either. Though it sounds odd to say it, one of the things I like about Western Massachusetts is its milder climate—as in 6-8 weeks less winter. Remember the 2011 Halloween snowstorm that knocked out power in the Pioneer Valley, or the 1997 April Fools' Day wallop? These are legendary; in Northern Vermont they're filed under, "Not Unusual." 

All of this is to say that everyday concerns are more prosaic because your life really does depend on those details. I still recall the -20 degree (Fahrenheit) day when my antifreeze froze and a roadside lift from a stranger was all that stood between me and serious danger. Vermont town meetings discuss things such as dumping gravel on washed out roads, getting road crews out early, buying snow fences, and rounding up volunteers to help EMTs. Small town politics can be cantankerous—especially school budgets, a shameful problem in the Green Mountain State—but nobody goes home until the agenda is dispatched.  Occasionally locals weigh in on national issues, but mostly they don't waste time debating symbolic things of little significance. Really, most Northeast Kingdom townies know that El Salvadorans are not looking up their way for sanctuary cities.

Yet here's the really crazy thing: Vermont politics are often more pragmatically progressive than those of Western Massachusetts. This is especially true in Burlington, where power isn't a two-way contest between Neanderthal Republicans and Brain-Dead Democrats. Both are to the right of the Progressive Coalition, which doesn't always control city government outright, but you can't rule without them. Springfield and Holyoke pols might want to check out Burlington's Old North End sometime. Social problems remain there, but there's also been a ton of progress, not decades of stasis. And I'll tell you for free that in my lifetime there has been nothing that comes close to being as exciting and transformative as Burlington during the Bernie Sanders years. Save your clich├ęs; that cranky socialist did more concrete things to improve life than a manure spreader full of faux liberals.

Vermonters are fiercely independent—another trait I admire. Politically, it's a state with a socialist U.S. Senator (Sanders) and another who is a for-real liberal Democrat (Pat Leahy), but also elected a Republican governor (Phil Scott) after two lackluster terms from its Democratic placeholder (Peter Shumlin). That same pragmatic streak shows up in other ways. Vermonters have been environmentally conscious since the 1970s, are suspicious of big promises, don't care much for pretense or bling, and the slogan "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, and do without" ought it be stitched into the state flag.  Either that or "No Whining."

Like I said earlier, Vermont isn't utopia. The same arrayed dark forces gather there as well: opioid addiction, a shortage of good jobs, hucksterism, poor folks, unwise development, a declining retail sector…. I sometimes also think Vermonters make do too much and demand too little. But I do admire the realism of the place. Maybe Vermont is closer to utopia because its citizens have their feet on the ground instead of their heads in the clouds. After all, clouds are where snowflakes reside and they see too many of those. Me too.  



   

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