Vermont versus New Hampshire

vermont vs nh

New England is made up of six smallish states: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.

The territory is small, but the terrain varies greatly, and the weather varies from state to state: Vermont and New Hampshire and Maine get snow in October and November sometimes.

There are other subtle differences too.  I swear, when Partner and I drive over the border from Rhode Island into Connecticut, I can see a difference: Connecticut is more rural, and woodsier, and wetter. What happened? Did Rhode Island farmers do something that Connecticut farmers didn’t do? Or is it just my colorful imagination?

Maine is different from the rest of the New England states too. Portland aspires to be a hipster / cosmopolitan destination, but the state itself is – as Parter said recently – “Tennessee North.” It’s visibly poor and rural. No wonder it elects Republican senators to Congress.

And then there are Vermont and New Hampshire.

Vermont feels liberal and free. I love it there. I love the breeziness of Burlington, and the wind off Lake Champlain. I loved the time we spent in Bennington. I loved Rutland.

New Hampshire? Meh. It’s dull and conservative.

When you drive north into Vermont, it feels as if you’ve entered a different country. (It was a different country, for a couple of years there.) When you pass from Massachusetts to New Hampshire, it feels like – hmm – like you’re still in Massachusetts. You really haven’t gone anywhere.

Vermont is different. Vermont is independent. It’s strange, and funny, and determined to be so.

New Hampshire is dull and New Englandish. It’s got all the things you expect it to have.

Vermont is independent and hippyish. It wants to be different. It has all the things that New Hampshire has – mountains and lakes and forests – but they’re more interesting, somehow.

Kids: if you have a choice between New Hampshire and Vermont, visit Vermont. Eat some ice cream. Have some cheese.

And tell the Vermonters that I sent you.

Becoming a Rhode Islander

becoming a rhode

I came to Rhode Island from Washington state thirty-five years ago, in August 1978. There were some obvious differences. Rhode Island is a tiny provincial state with a long history; Washington is a large diverse state with a much briefer history.



It took me a long time – almost until the present day – to figure out the subtler differences between the two.



I was puzzled (at first) by people who kept asking me if I was “one of the Rhode Island Williamses.” I had no idea what this meant. I finally realized they were asking if I was descended from Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island colony in 1636. I am not one of his descendants, so far as I know. But I wasn’t here more than a year or so before I became acquainted with someone who was. See? The Roger Williams family is still here. Everyone’s still here. People here stick around.



They seem to like it here.



They like it so much, in fact, that a lot of people never cross the state line. I saw a cute bumper sticker in Frog & Toad the other day: THIS CAR NEVER LEAVES RHODE ISLAND.  (That’s not a joke, for a lot of people.) The Rhode Island border is a little permeable here and there – into Attleboro, Mass. in the northeast, and into Seekonk, Mass. in the east, and maybe just a little into Stonington, Conn. in the southwest – but it is generally a very watertight little enclosure, in which everyone bounces around, but which no one ever really leaves.



Which leads to the next thing: everyone knows everyone here. 



In Washington, you know the people in your community, or at least a few of them. In Rhode Island, you know everyone. Of course you do. You keep running into the same people over and over again. How can you not know everyone?


But Rhode Island is a very private club. It takes a while before you’ve really been accepted.



Now I’ve been here for more than thirty-five glorious years. People smile and wave at me in the street. I say hello to everyone, and they say hello back, because they know: deliverymen, cashiers, business owners. Even one of the homeless people downtown greeted me the other day with casual familiarity.



I’m a local, at last. A real Rhode Islander.



And it only took thirty-five years!



Smoking, take two

smoking take  two

(Note: this is a rewrite of a blog I wrote back in 2011, with maybe a few updates, in the light of recent events.)



Both my parents smoked. I have distinct memories of sitting in the front seat of our family car, with my father in the driver’s seat on my left and my mother sitting to my right, both of them puffing away, the ashtray overflowing. I couldn’t breathe. I finally spoke up about it when I was about nine or ten years, and it actually inspired my mother to quit smoking.



This, however, didn’t stop me from taking up the habit myself. I got a free sample of Lucky Strikes at Fenway Park in 1983; I smoked one or two of them; soon after I was in Morocco, and smoking a pack a day; soon after that I was in Tunisia and smoking two packs a day.



I kept this up until 1998. Remembering the family proclivity for cancer, I resolved to quite when I was forty, and I managed it, just a few months shy of my forty-first birthday.



I have been reasonably healthy on and off since.



And now, fifteen years later, I discover that I have throat cancer, the main risk factor for which is – ahem – smoking.



Go figure.



I freely acknowledge that it’s my own fault. I knew there were bad genes on both sides of the family, and I knew that smoking could only be bad for me. But I kept it up for fourteen years.



Foolish, naturally. Most of those fourteen years between ’84 and ‘98, I was just smoking out of habit; I even (as do most smokers) kept it up while I was sick with colds and the flu. I even smoked at meals. I was smelly and utterly obnoxious, and probably nearly burned myself to death more than once. I realize that now.



But I remember one beautiful morning in Tunis, before I developed my two-pack-a-day habit. I left the house around 8am, bought a pack of local cigarettes, lit up, and –



That first puff was heaven.



So it wasn’t all bad.



But it probably wasn’t worth getting cancer for.




Providence is full of ivy. Brown University is Ivy League, after all, and there’s English ivy (Hedera helix) growing all over the place. A friend of mine, freshly arrived in Providence from Montana, plucked some ivy leaves off the wall and mailed them to her family and friends in Billings, to underline the reality of where she was.

Ivy wants to go up, away from the ground, against gravity. There’s a nearby building with two ivy tendrils curling up its walls like arms outspread. And up up up they go!

I always think of my mother when I see ivy. When my father built our new house in the early 1960s, my mother decided that she liked ivy, and planted shoots of it all along the north side of the house and along the roadside.

Those shoots were stubborn. They didn’t die, but they didn’t grow. A few leaves stuck out of the ground, year after year. And then, after five years or so –

They exploded.

The entire north side of the house was engulfed with ivy. And do you know what ivy does to the side of a house, especially one with wooden shingles? It chews it up, om nom nom. If you try to pull the ivy down, you rip away half of the wooden shingles at the same time, and you reveal the dark mottling that the ivy has produced on its way up the wall.

Mom got her wish, and how! But she wasn’t happy that her plan had gone beyond expectations. She managed to get most of it off the shingles, and she repainted, but she couldn’t get the ivy off the brickwork. This picture, taken in May 1971, shows the ivy covering the exposed brickwork:


Moms house

It looks nice, doesn’t it? Nice rhododendrons in front of the house, and a nice ivy-covered chimney.

But Mom was watching that ivy every moment, to make sure it didn’t leap onto the wooden shingles again.

Ivy is aggressive.

And now, a song:

Reasons not to die

why i cant die

I am sick at the moment, but it’s not terminal – yet. It’s curable, according to my doctors. I just need to be faithful to my treatment schedule. And everyone says that you have to maintain a Positive Attitude.

For me, it comes down to this: I don’t want to die.

Here are some reasons why not:

  • I don’t want to (as I said). Isn’t that sufficient?
  • Mom keeps appearing to me in dreams in which we’re going on a long trip together. I loved Mom dearly, but she was not especially nice to travel with. If I can put this trip off, I will.
  • People need me in the office. They need me to pay the phone bill and order stupid irrelevant office supplies and listen to them complain.
  • My student employees need me. (Or rather, I need them. I need to tell them stories.  They pretend to be interested, but that’s okay by me.)
  • Most of all: I don’t want to leave Partner alone.

This is the most beautiful time of year in Rhode Island. It’s sunny but cool, and the colors are very full: the green of summer and the shades of autumn are all together at once.

I’m glad I get to see a New England autumn one more time.

I don’t mean to be morbid. But still: one has to be realistic.

Just one more time.

(And many more after that, I hope.)

The Old Man of the Mountain


In 2000, the US Mint issued the New Hampshire quarter. The image on the back shows the Old Man of the Mountain: a cliff hanging off Cannon Mountain that looked like a bearded man’s profile:


new hampshire quarter


Well, on May 3, 2003, the Old Man of the Mountain collapsed.



What now? Naturally a state committee was formed to decide.



Did they decide to reassemble it? No. (Wise decision.)



Did they decide to commemorate it? Yes, of course. They’ve put up viewscopes that show what it looks like now (not much), and what it used to look like. (Excellent decision.)



But the stupid thing persists. New Hampshire uses it on its highway signs; if you’re on a state road, you see something like this:



new hampshire highway sign



And it’s still on all those quarters, which will be in circulation until Doomsday.



There’s a lesson here somewhere.



Washington is “the evergreen state.” Probably there will be evergreens growing there – some of them, somewhere – even if there’s a catastrophic event. Rhode Island is “the ocean state,” and the ocean ain’t going anywhere.



Here’s an old song (sung by Frank Sinatra) which should have been heeded by the state leaders of New Hampshire:



In time the Rockies may crumble,

Gibraltar may tumble,

They’re only made of clay . . . .





Tired of summer

tired of summer

It’s right around now, in late August, when I become tired of summer.



I am tired of humidity, and heat, and perspiration, and intermittent hot rainstorms. I am tired of this blurry blue / gray sky that doesn’t mean anything – not sun, nor cloud, nor rain. I am tired of feeling filthy and sweaty every day.



It was the same (but different) back in North Africa in the 1980s. There, it was dry from April to October. The temperature (in Kenitra, and Casablanca, and Tunis) wasn’t extreme – not like the Sahara, thank god – but the heat just went on and on. And the dust kept blowing in from the desert. By mid-August, everything was dull and dusty and filthy and too warm.



(Question: why do I keep ending up in warm climates? Why am I not living in Greenland, where I’d be deliriously happy?)



Here in New England, I start hearing crickets and grasshoppers in August, and it gives me some hope. I hear them first thing in the morning when Partner and I leave for work, and although it’s too warm, I take heart. It’s late August, I think. Not much longer until September, and cooler weather.



Autumn is the loveliest season here. It’s long and temperate and pleasant. The trees lose their leaves, slowly, north to south; Vermont and New Hampshire have their foliage season in September, but we don’t see it until early October. And apple season comes in September. (Partner and I passed a pear tree on a nearby street recently with pears that looked pretty much ripe. In August!)



It’s still summer, but autumn is right around the corner.



I can hardly wait.


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