Five years on the turd hockey team — and thriving

B9316683614Z.1_20150321203947_000_G6IA9H63U.1-0Not long ago, a reader stopped me on Church Street in Burlington, Vermont and asked, “Do your cats still play turd hockey?” I admitted that our five are a little older now, and have accepted the realities of age. “Now it’s more like shuffleboard,” I told her. And then she asked me about Funny Face.

Readers frequently ask me about Funny Face. It’s not merely that I post so many images of him on the social networks; it’s that his story touches something in anyone who follows turd hockey closely — or cares deeply about animals.

It was five years ago this month that I came home from a book tour to find that my wife had adopted another cat from Homeward Bound, the animal shelter in Middlebury. This brought our pride to five, four of which came from the shelter. That new cat was Funny Face.

The rap on Funny Face at the time was that he was, more or less, unadoptable. He was skittish — perhaps even certifiable. Didn’t play well with others in the sandbox. He was also a bit of a bruiser: 15 plus pounds of muscle and obstinacy. He had been living at the shelter for three and a half years, and he was anywhere from six to nine years old.

But my wife had a real soft spot for him. She has been volunteering for years at the shelter, working Tuesday afternoons with those cats most in need of socialization and human contact, and prior to bringing Funny Face home, she had spent a lot of time with him. For a difficult child, he seemed quite content to sit on her lap and drool. (Just for the record, he still drools when he nuzzles against either my wife or me.)

She had initially tried to find him a home other than ours. At her suggestion, I wrote a column about him, but there were no takers. In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have begun the essay with an homage to cats in Lady Gaga wigs. Live and learn. And so my wife decided that his best chance for happiness was with us, despite the fact we already had four cats and Funny Face wasn’t supposed to like other animals.

The reality is that he wasn’t difficult at all and he liked our other cats just fine. He fit right in, joined the turd hockey team, and found his favorite spot by the woodstove. He figured out quickly the boundaries of our yard and our barn, and happily sprayed every single bush, tree trunk, and clapboard within two feet of the ground. These days, he lives in my lap for long hours when I write, drooling all over my sweatshirts. When the weather’s right, he makes his rounds outside, leaving out the front door and then coming to my library window — the other side of the house — when he wants in. He is, in short, a great cat.

And that is precisely why his fifth anniversary with us matters.

Shelters everywhere are filled with cats and dogs that are considered problematic. They are filled with older animals. Pets that have been returned.

But very often those are precisely the cats and dogs that make the best additions to a family. They can be profoundly grateful, deeply appreciative — and very, very loving. And a loyal pet makes anyone a little more human. (Good Lord, even the Grinch had Max the Dog. Dr. Evil had Mr. Bigglesworth the Hairless Cat.)

The fact is, there are a lot of animals in this world living in a lot of cages. My sense is that most of them are just waiting for that one person willing to give them a chance. My wife was that one person for Funny Face.

Happy anniversary, my friend. Very glad you’ve joined the turd hockey team.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on March 22, 2015. Chris’s most recent novels include “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” “The Light in the Ruins,” and “The Sandcastle Girls.”)

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March in Vermont? Here’s to mud in your eye!

Vermont has roughly 8,700 miles of dirt roads, according to the Vermont Agency of Transportation. That’s roughly 55 percent of our streets, highways, boulevards, courts, dead ends, avenues, and … roads. And this time of the year, that’s 8,700 miles of mud.

How far is 8,700 miles? Imagine driving all the way from Anchorage, Alaska to Key West, Florida … and then, just for fun, driving another 3,500 miles.

Moreover, it is not merely rural Vermont that is asphalt-challenged. Dennis Lutz, public works director for Essex, told me that fully one-third of the roads in Essex are gravel. “We’re in that zone between urban and suburban and very rural,” he explained.

I never thought I would say this, but I can’t wait for mud season. After the brutal cold and snow of this winter, I am actually looking forward to the way parts of Vermont become scenes from old Hollywood horror movies about quicksand. After all, if the dirt roads are starting to thaw, that means spring is coming. Most of us are happy to pay that price.

But mud season demands accommodations. Vaneasa Stearns, owner of the general store here in Lincoln, said that the truck drivers who deliver to both her magical little emporium and the general store in nearby Jerusalem often detour back to Vermont 116 to get there, rather than continue their usual route via the Downingville Road. Any day now, that usual route — a dirt road — may become the sort of car-swallowing slop that eats 18-wheelers for breakfast.

“I totally avoid the dirt roads during mud season,” said Sally Ober, the town clerk in Lincoln. “I know how bad they can be.” She told me that people who live on the dirt roads sometimes park their cars in the parking lot for the town offices. One savvy traveler once parked there during mud season and then walked the two and a half miles to her destination on the dirt road that is Elder Hill.

The fact is, a lot of the world takes asphalt for granted. We don’t here in the Land of the Polar Tomato. I still recall the late Clara Hallock of Lincoln describing for me the way she and her husband, Ken, would stop their car where the Quaker Street pavement ended, pull off to the side of the road, and wrap their tires in chains for the last mile up Bagley Hill to their home.

Ironically, Scott Rogers, Director of Maintenance and Operations for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, only has to worry about one dirt road: Vermont 65 to the Floating Bridge in Brookfield. The other dirt roads are managed by the towns or municipalities. But that doesn’t mean that he is exempt from the madness that is mud season in the Green Mountains. “It’s also pothole season,” he reminded me. “It’s that freeze/thaw pattern that pops the pavement open.” Rogers is an eighth generation Vermonter, and he has seen “potholes so big you could park a car in them. Seriously, you could get all four tires in them.”

I’ve lived in Vermont most of my life now, but I still smile to myself when I hear the expression “frost heaves.” I imagine the poet indisposed in ways that are anything but lyrical. But I also know how damaging frost heaves can be to a vehicle and how dangerous for the passengers. After all, a frost heave can appear out of nowhere on a paved road while you’re traveling 35 or 40 miles an hour. No one is traveling 35 or 40 miles an hour on a dirt road in the middle of mud season. Not possible.

In any case, all those potholes and all that mud mean that spring is nearing. We’ll have more snow, but the days are long and the sun is high. Moreover, mud and maple are meteorological cousins. At the end of a lot of Vermont’s dirt roads is the ultimate grail: an evaporator rich with maple sap. You know for sure that spring is in the air when you breathe in deeply the steam of a sugarhouse.

So, I raise my glass today to spring – and to our 8,700 miles of mud. Here’s to mud in your eye.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on March 15, 2015. The paperback of “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives in May.)

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Time to lose a little sleep over our homeless teens

12. Setting upMark Redmond had been trying – and failing – to get some sleep since ten-thirty at night. He was on the front lawn of the Unitarian Church at the north end of Burlington, Vermont’s Church Street, curled up in his sleeping bag against the March cold, a flattened cardboard carton between him and the snow. It was nearing three in the morning and he was just drifting off, when he was jolted awake by a long, loud crash. A half minute later there was another. Soon after that, there was a third. The noise was nearing.

“I looked up,” Redmond recalled, “and it was some poor guy pushing his shopping cart down Pearl Street and going from pail to pail to find empties. I was hearing the sound of the cans and bottles as they rattled into the cart.”

Redmond’s point? “It’s not just the cold that makes it hard to get a decent night’s sleep if you’re outside. It’s the noise. It’s the lights. And you are just so vulnerable.”

Redmond himself is not homeless. He is the Executive Director of Spectrum Youth and Family Services. But later this month, on the night of March 26, once again he will be hunkered down in his sleeping bag, outside on the north end of Church Street. And he won’t be alone. There will be somewhere around 100 Vermont business and community leaders sleeping outside – or, to use the parlance of the street, “sleeping rough” – all of them getting a small taste of what it is like to be homeless. Among them? Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger. They will also be raising money for Spectrum, taking pledges in much the same way that others raise money for Special Olympics in the Penguin Plunge.

This March marks the fourth time that Spectrum has held its Sleep Out in Burlington. In addition, between March 26 and March 29, there will be groups of students sleeping rough across Vermont, also raising money for Spectrum and getting an inkling of how hard it is to be homeless. Last year, the Sleep Out raised $200,000.

Spectrum’s mission is to help teens in trouble. Last year it helped 1,200 kids in a variety of programs: counseling, mentoring, health care and drug treatment, among them. The organization is known for its overnight shelter and drop-in center on Pearl Street, but homelessness is only one problem it tries to combat. “I view most of our programs as prevention,” Redmond said. So why the Sleep Out? “Because,” Redmond explained, “It really is awful to be homeless. To endure it for even one night is an experience.”

Indeed. Mary Lee, an associate vice president in Human Resources at Champlain College, was among the participants of the Sleep Out the very first year. Afterward she wrote Redmond an email and observed, “I kept imagining what it might be like for a 15 year old to be all alone with those sounds and cold night after night. At any point, I knew that I had an option and that in just a few hours I would have hot coffee, food, my car, a shower, the day off, the weekend playing with my family, etc.  Easy for me.  Not easy for that 15 year old. Life twists in ways that we often cannot understand.  Homelessness could touch anyone.”

I’ve often written about kids who Spectrum has helped over the years. I always find myself moved and impressed, which is why I keep coming back to their stories. The Sleep Out is a chance to glimpse their world – and to see why as grownups we have to care.

*     *     *

Want to be a part? Visit www.spectrumvt.org for details on how to join the Sleep Out or sponsor someone who is sleeping rough. Are you a student or teacher around the state and want information on how to hold a Sleep Out in your school or community? Email Mark Redmond directly at MRedmond@SpectrumVT.org .

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on March 8, 2015. “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” Chris’s most recent  novel, is about a homeless teen. It arrives in paperback in May.)

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Town Meeting in Vermont: Only after Voting Do I Dive into Dessert

Burnham Hall in Lincoln, empty this moment, will be packed for Town Meeting on Monday night.

Burnham Hall in Lincoln, empty this moment, will be packed for Town Meeting on Monday night.

Every so often, politicians on the campaign trail will hold something they call a “town meeting.” They’ll round up a hundred of the locals and answer questions — though the questions tend to be carefully scripted and there are TV cameras present to capture the candidate’s carefully scripted responses. These town meetings are nothing like a real Vermont town meeting, our annual exercise in legislative self-determination. At a real town meeting, we actually govern. We make the decisions that affect our lives 24/7.

Tomorrow night we will be holding our town meeting here in Lincoln, and my sense is that there are national politicians who could learn a bit from spending a few minutes with us — and by “us,” I mean “Vermonters.” Lincoln has no monopoly on the scale, the focus, and the brownies that mark an authentic town meeting in the Green Mountains.

And scale is key here in Vermont. We’ll probably have about 150 people in Burnham Hall tomorrow night. In other words, we know each other. We see each other at the general store, we see each other at the school, and we see each other at the Little League baseball field. We know each other and that scale lends itself to civility. Oh, there may be a shouting match. To be honest, I always hope one of us unleashes his or her inner crazy person for a few minutes. It makes for great theater.

But we’ll argue and then move on — and by “move on,” I mean figuratively. Not literally. It’s rare for Town Meeting to actually drive someone away. It’s probably happened. But in my experience, it takes considerably more than a debate about a backhoe to cause someone to pull up stakes and leave town.

This year we will have one potentially awkward moment. Both of the two Vermont House representatives visiting us will be from Bristol, and one defeated the Lincoln incumbent. But we will get past even that, because we live together in the same county. The ties that bind us at the gym or the supermarket transcend village (and partisan) politics on this scale.

We will also debate a new or renovated building for our town offices. The town office sits across the street from my house, and I can see it from my desk where I write. I am going to lobby that we replace it with an underground bunker.

Moreover, our problems are manageable. Sure, some of our problems are chronic. (Exhibit A? Property taxes and school funding.) But we have specific objectives going in each year, and that leads to a rapier-like focus. We work from that Town Meeting Bible we call the “warning,” and we understand precisely what we are going to discuss. We know the issues. We have a moderator who makes sure that everything we say is “germane.” There is nothing in the world a person can do that is more humiliating than to stand up at town meeting and say something that is not “germane.” To this day, I am confident, Anthony Weiner wakes up every morning relieved that he was merely sexting by mistake on Twitter, and not babbling incoherently at town meeting.

Finally, there are the crème de menthe brownies. And the apple pie bars. And the peanut butter chocolate kiss cookies. There is the flourless chocolate cake. On the Tuesday after town meeting, we return to Burnham Hall to use paper ballots to elect our local officials and vote on the high school budget. Burnham is right across the street from the Lincoln General Store — a store that bakes the sorts of desserts that are worth every single calorie. It’s an important detour on the road to democracy.

For years our nation has rued the reality that not enough people vote. Trust me, you trot out crème de menthe brownies and apple pie bars, and people vote. We will show up to vote on those issues that matter to us greatly, such as the high school budget, and we will show up to vote on those issues that matter a little bit less — the uncontested town races for delinquent tax collector and grand juror.

And while one would think I would view those treats as the best part of town meeting, one would be wrong. The best part? The people. I am never more proud as a Vermonter than during town meeting. Only after voting — only then — do I dive headfirst into dessert.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on March 1, 2015. The paperback of Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives in May.)

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A confession: Before I write. . .I watch. (Also? A few of my Oscars picks for tonight.)

DSC_3278Tonight is the night when otherwise sane reporters channel their inner Hannibal Lecter and ask women, “Who are you wearing?” It’s the sort of creepy question that is usually directed at people who have human body parts in their freezers. But not tonight. Tonight it’s the inquiry that annually precedes the Academy Awards, and it is asked of our Hollywood icons as they walk the red carpet. The women — especially those women who have been nominated for awards — smile, while thinking longingly of tomorrow, when once more they can eat and wear underwear.

I love movies as much as I love books, and so I love the Academy Awards. And here’s a confession: Movies are inspiration for my writing. Years ago, I would read a little poetry before starting to string words of my own together. Other days I would skim a thesaurus. Occasionally, I still do. But more often I start my day by watching movie trailers. I do this because of the way a good trailer distills the movie’s sensibility down to a couple of minutes, and the music has been chosen to create a very specific mood: Dread. Longing. Romance.

Moreover, I think it helps my writing even more if I’ve seen the movie. The fact that I know the story brings me back to the emotional state I was in while watching the film the first time.

There are four movies that will be discussed a lot tonight, three because they are in the running for awards, and one because one of its leads was “snubbed.” (I use this word only because everyone else has.) I’ve seen all of these films and watched the trailers a lot the last month and a half.

I’ll begin with the trailer for “Wild,” the powerful adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of hiking the Pacific Coast Trail and trying to rediscover who she was as a person. It stars Reese Witherspoon, who is my choice for Best Actress in a Leading Role. The trailer begins with Witherspoon quoting Emily Dickinson and then segues into Beck’s “Turn Away.” The opening lyric? “Turn away from the sound of your own voice.” It exudes regret and pain, moments that for better or worse pepper my fiction.

I’m also a fan of the trailer for “Cake,” the movie that has garnered ink because Jennifer Aniston looks dowdy, has bad hair, and didn’t get an Oscar nod – despite a courageous performance. The music that runs through the trailer is from a Brooklyn band called Haerts (not a typo – a before e). It’s called “Hemiplegia.” I had to look the word up when I found the song: It means paralysis of one side of the body. The music is surreal and captures beautifully for me that transitional state between sleeping and walking – when you believe you’re awake and yet are unable to move.

I’ve used the “Birdman” trailer a lot to get started, both because of Brent Smith’s spectacular cover of the old Animals hit, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” and because of the way the trailer probes every artist’s worst fears: being washed-up. Being a has-been. But the movie is about risking everything to be relevant. “This is about being respected and validated, remember, that’s what you told me!” an anguished Zach Galifianakis tells Michael Keaton. The writing is honest and funny and poignant — and my pick for Best Original Screenplay.

I have watched the trailer for “Boyhood” a dozen times. “Boyhood” is Richard Linklater’s audacious experiment filmed over twelve years, and we quite literally watch child actors Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater grow up, and adult actors Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke grow older. Nothing horrific happens, and yet the movie is wrenching: it wrecked my wife and me when we saw it, because it so perfectly captures how fast our lives pass, how hard it is to be a kid, and how easy it is for even the most well-intentioned parents to make bad decisions daily. And the trailer soundtrack? “Hero,” by the band, Family of the Year. It leaves me wistful and a little wounded, which is the perfect state for me to be in when I am hanging around with my most vulnerable fictional creations.

Finally, I have to give a shout-out to the trailer for “Selma.” It is wrenching and riveting. The movie has not yet opened here in Burlington, Vermont. I hope it does soon.

When you read my next novel, you won’t see echoes of these scenes and stories. But maybe you’ll detect an emotional remnant here and there.

Enjoy the Oscars. If you have time, tweet me: Who are you wearing tonight?

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on February 22, 2015. Chris most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives in May.)

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These icy blasts from the north? Perhaps winter’s las gasp.

Photo by Victoria Blewer

Photo by Victoria Blewer

A few winters ago, a childhood friend from Connecticut contacted me on Facebook. I had gone to elementary school with him and we had lost touch when my family moved to Florida just before I started eighth grade. He wrote how happy he was that I loved Vermont, but surprised that my wife and I had settled here soon after college. After all, he said, when we were boys he had presumed that I hated winter.

He recalled a day when we were playing ice hockey on the nearby pond and I was dressed like the Michelin Man. He said it was a wonder I could skate. He remembered that when we went sledding at the golf course, I was focused only on the hot chocolate we’d have when we were done.

I, in turn, reminded him of two things: I was dressed like the Michelin Man because even at 10 I had a spare tire big enough for a pickup truck. And I was probably talking so much about the hot chocolate because as a kid I ate like a sumo wrestler. Remember, I wrote back, my mother had to buy me all my pants at a store called Greenberg’s Husky Boys Shop — and still she had to cuff the pants up to my knees. I was the William Howard Taft of fifth-graders.

Well, Valentine’s Day is now behind us. As is the Super Bowl. Major League Baseball pitchers and catchers report for spring training this week. And the spring equinox is less than five weeks away.

In other words, winter — even here in Vermont — is starting to fray around the edges. I know I sound like a crazy person since the temperature is not going to top zero degrees today here in Lincoln. (That’s not hyperbole. We’re not supposed to see positive numbers again until Monday.) But the sun no longer seems to set around lunchtime. Vermont now has Town Meeting Day to look forward to, as well as sugaring season. Maple’s meteorological cousin, mud season, is only weeks away. Soon there will be those remarkable crocuses popping up on our lawns. Most, of course, have a death wish: no sooner will they bloom, than they will be squashed by 11 feet of snow

The reality is, however, I’ve never minded winter. Looking back, all the blubber I carried around as a kid probably made winter easier for me to endure than my more svelte friends. I’m always a little fascinated when we recall how much harder or colder or longer winter was when we were kids. Clearly global climate change has had an enormous effect. Make no mistake: The weather is different now than it was in the 1960s.

But Starksboro’s Kurt Kling also once put our childhood memories of winter in perspective for me with the grace of a poet. He said years earlier he had been walking through the snow-covered woods with his son, then a little boy, and the snow was practically up to the lad’s thighs. For Kurt, it seemed barely to top his boots. “But when you’re a little kid,” Kurt said, “the snow is always deep like that. And that’s how we remember what winter was like.”

Certainly that’s how I recall the snow from my childhood: it was deep, whether I was fat or skinny or somewhere in between.

There’s still a lot of winter ahead, especially here in New England. One of the worst storms of my youth occurred in the second week in April, when I was on a bus trying to return to college in western Massachusetts from a suburb of New York City. The bus driver gave up in Hartford, Connecticut. Just stayed at the bus station. My roommate, Kevin Kelly, had grown up in western Massachusetts and was unfazed by the blizzard. He drove to Hartford that night in his pickup truck and rescued me.

So maybe winter is a big reason why I love Vermont so much. I had to go north to find the cold and snow to remind me of my boyhood.

But spring is coming, despite what the temperature is telling us today. These last icy blasts from the north? My sense is they’re winter’s last gasp.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on February 15, 2015. Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives in paperback in May.)

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You don’t forget a friend like John Vautier

photoLincoln’s Andrew Furtsch works out at the gym in Bristol in a pair of ratty Converse high tops. On the white toecap of one he has written in permanent black marker, “J.H.V.” On the other he has penned “2.8.11.”

It was four years ago today that our friend John Henry Vautier passed away: February 8, 2011. A man who survived two battles with cancer and a National Guard deployment in Bosnia died when he fell clearing snow off his roof in New Haven. Andrew and I worked out with him two and sometimes three times a week at Bristol Fitness. Andrew and John used to dead-lift together, squatting and hoisting refrigerators off the floor. (Okay, that’s an exaggeration. They weren’t really lifting refrigerators. They were lifting golf carts.)

Andrew will never forget his last conversation with John. They had finished working out for the day and were walking down the alley that leads to the gym, and John said, “I gotta get a big tub of gum for the kids. See you next time.” John used to teach Sunday School at the United Church of Lincoln, and a big part of the curriculum he improvised for the four- and five-year-olds in his care involved giving them chunks of Dubble Bubble. It worked. The kids adored the hulk of a man that was John Vautier and knew they were loved in return.

But, of course, there wouldn’t be a next time for Andrew and John. It snowed and John climbed a ladder, and his story ended a lot sooner than any of us expected.

It’s still hard for me to believe that John has been gone four years now. I was on a book tour the day he died, but I know right where I was when I learned what had happened. I know the precise spot in the hotel lobby in Austin, Texas where I was standing when Andrew called me with the news. Andrew said – because, it seems, people really do say this when we are breaking unbelievably bad news – “Are you sitting down?” I was about to check in, but I went to a leather couch and sat down, just as Andrew had instructed. I ended the book tour early and came home.

Obviously a big part of living is dying. Not simply the reality that all our stories end there. I am referring to the fact that sometimes our friends and family leave us much earlier in the journey than we anticipate. And in most ways, we move on. We have to.

Yet even four years after John died, I don’t enter the gym without thinking of him. Clearly Andrew doesn’t either: he can’t put on his sneakers without recalling the man. “I always think of that booming voice of his,” Andrew said to me the other day. “I think of that big smile on his face. Not a lot of people have that demeanor.”

Lord, I can’t even change the halogen bulb in my desk lamp without thinking of John, because he was an electrician and used to make the bulbs magically appear whenever I needed one. Now that finding the bulb is my responsibility, it’s a scavenger hunt to hardware stores in two counties before I find the right one.

Last month I heard Tony Dokoupil, author of the memoir, “The Last Pirate,” on “Fresh Air.” While answering one of Terry Gross’s questions, he said something that has stayed with me: “Memory is like surveillance footage. Everything gets picked up, but you don’t really review it unless there’s an incident.”

Indeed. And for those of us who knew John from the gym or the church or from Cubber’s Restaurant in Bristol, that surveillance footage is a gift. There was an incident: a cataclysmically awful incident. But thank God for the memories we have of John. Even though he has been gone four years, we still have inside us those reminders of his laughter, his exuberance, and – best of all – his friendship.

We still miss you, buddy. I hope you’re lifting some crazy weights in heaven.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on February 8, 2015. The paperback of Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives in May.)

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