Vermont Short Story (and True, Even!)

Land of the Right-Angle Smoke

The morning alarm woke me long enough to discover that the mercury read eleven below. I rolled over to catch another 20 minutes of slumber and dreamt of Vermont.

Montpelier--typical winter scene from a chimney's POV
Eleven below is pretty rare here in western Massachusetts, but not in northern Vermont, where I made my home for seven years. There were always two weeks in February where thinking about temperatures above zero was fantasy on par with imaging yourself on a Maui beach sipping a tropical drink. Fort Knox, the Maginot Line, the Great Wall of China…? They’re child’s play compared to a Vermont February. There’s no release from that Monkey Puzzle layer of cold until Old Man Winter decides to loosen his hold. My wife and I used to call Vermont the land of the right-angle smoke–a place where burnt wood cautiously crept up the chimney, reluctantly slid into the outside air, and made an abrupt 90-degree turn when it smacked into an atmospheric wall. Wintertime Vermont is a place where anti-freeze is an oxymoron and every sensible person has a block heater for his car and a woodstove for the house. The family stove–whose alleged efficiency is the source of endless tall tales–isn’t there just to be economical. In the Vermont cold a person can die if the power goes out–as it so often does in frigid conditions that snap electric wires like a bored child breaking pretzel sticks.

Three things not for the faint of heart: the death of a loved one, getting older, and a Vermont winter. We learned the last the hard way. We grew up on the Pennsylvania side of the Mason-Dixon Line. Winter is gray and chilly there, but mostly it’s a place where a “cold” day is one where you wear another layer under your jacket. We moved to Vermont in late summer, our acrylic jumpers, gloves, corduroys, and unlined work boots stowed away in boxes. They all came out in early October. None of them did a lick of good once winter arrived. I recall walking outside and taking in a deep draught of cold air. I had to prise free my nostrils before I took the second breath. I also learned why Vermont was once the sheep capital of the world: wool. Acrylic is as useless as a Tea Partier on a human rights panel in the Green Mountain State. Next order of business–lined pants from the Johnson Woolen Mills, a pair of sturdy insulated Canadian Sorel boots, and some mittens. Yes, mittens; gloves let in too much air. A Burlington day in which the wind was ripping down the east side of New York’s Adirondack Mountains and across the 12-mile-wide frozen tundra known as Lake Champlain taught me another lesson: ski mask. 

Thinking about and coping with weather was still another adjustment. Where we grew up, a few inches of snow closed down cities like Washington and Baltimore and it took days to get back to normal. Vermonters clear a foot and a half of the white stuff over night. Less than four inches of expected snow, if noted at all, is called “flurries.” It took an active storm of around a foot to cancel school, or Vermont kids would be making up lost instructional days into their thirties. There are few images that can compare to the bus circle on a sub-zero day with the steam rising off those lumbering yellow behemoths as if they were snorting, mutant, ice-covered Percherons. Nor is there a sound as distinctive as that of parents, students, and friends standing–only someone with a death wish would sit–in an unheated arena smacking their mittens together when the high school hockey team scored a goal. Clapping, by the way, always took place a few seconds after cheering subsided; it took a moment to put down the coffee thermoses and free the hands.

We were such greenhorns that it’s a miracle we survived that first winter. That summer we took a trip to Scotland and filled a suitcase with sweaters because: (a) they were really well made, (b) they were cheap, and (c) they were wool. We declared our purchases when we landed at Logan, but nonetheless were given a quick visual inspection. The agent looked over the field of assorted collection of disembodied sheep and told us that if all those sweaters were for resale we’d have to pay duty on them. “Not for resale,” I told him. “We moved to Vermont last year and these are to keep us warm.” He looked up and replied in unmistakably northern New England tones, “Ayup. I’m from up to Houlton, Maine, and y’awr good to go.” The next winter was better. Thank you Scotland. Thank you Houlton.

It’s eleven below zero. I rolled over and dreamt of Vermont–the land of the right-angle smoke.  Rob Weir

Haltadans Offers Fiddle Magic from the Shetlands


Discussions of Shetland Islands fiddling often begin with Aly Bain and proceed to Fiddlers' Bid, the later so famed that locals simply call it Da' Bid. Both Bain and Da' Bid deserve their accolades, though they would recoil at attempts to locate them in fiddle creation stories. The Shetlands fiddle tradition is ancient and is said to have originated with fairies ("peerie" folk) and trolls ("trows"). That said, Bain and Da' Bid touched off a revival within the Shetlands analogous to that of Cape Breton Island in Canada. Travel up that way–as I did a few years ago–and you'll encounter an array of amazing ensembles, only a handful of which are well known on the Scottish mainland. Among them is Fullsceliidh Spelemannslag.

Maurice Henderson is the link between Fiddlers' Bid, Fullsceliidh, and the newer unit known as Haltadans featured on a new EP. He's a member of all three and Haltadans is essentially the 10-member Fullsceliidh Spelemannslag cut in half. Like most Shetlands lineups, Haltadans is fiddle driven. The strings of Henderson, Lois Nicol, and Ewen Thomson shape melody lines, and Grant Nicol's guitar and John Clark's bass syncopate their ringing strings. (Another Shetlands link: Thomson is a Fair Isle luthier who makes the instruments for many great Shetlands fiddlers, including Chris Stout.)  Haltadans' music is lively, energetic, and danceable. Its 5-track EP opens with a set of reels and proceeds to a set of polskas. The polska–as opposed to a polka–is a Swedish musical form usually rendered in 3/4 timing. The second tune, "Eklunda Polska No. 3" was learnt from Aly Bain–those connections again! Haltadans follows with a traveling tune, a lovely waltz, and a set that begins with an Irish feel, courtesy of Thomson's tenor banjo, and finishes with a piece penned by Henderson within the band's namesake stone circle. About that name, it's an Anglicized version of Hjaltadans, an ancient stone ring on the island of Fetlar whose outer ring is said to be the petrified remains of trolls, whilst the two in the center are a fiddler and his wife. The placename roughly translates as "limping dance." Lift a glass of winter cheer, play these five tracks with the volume cranked up, and you'll probably be hobbling a bit when it finishes 22 minutes later.

Rob Weir


Sado-Domestics Serve a Tasty Plate of Musical Offerings

Two-Egg Scrambler  (2013)
Self produced www.sadodomestics.com
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The Sado-Domestics titled their debut release Two-Egg Scrambler, but by my reckoning they broke considerably more eggs and raided the nests of a variety of chickens to make this tasty musical dish. The fourteen tracks are cleverly divided into a "Side A" and "Side B" with the recorded drop of an old-style record changer appearing between tracks seven and eight. This is more than a device–the first seven tracks are more acoustic based and the remaining seven edgier and more electric.

The Sado-Domestics are built around the singer/songwriter partnership of Chris Gleason and Lucy Martinez, both of whom also perform as solo acts and with other bands. The ensemble is fleshed out by other veteran Boston musicians, including Bruce Bartone, Shamus Feeney, and Paul Stewart from Gleason's roots band Los Goutos. "Mule in a Swamp" sets the tone for Side A in that many of the tracks are soaked in a Southern brine that's part swamp water, part skillet-licking Appalachia, part acoustic country blues, part folk, and part traditional. Martinez has a voice that impresses by both its power and its sweetness. Her "Dragonfly" is bluegrass influenced, but more fragile, and "Weeds" evokes the reflective melancholia of a Mary Chapin-Carpenter offering. Gleason is a more ironic songwriter. If you can imagine a snarkier version of Steve Goodman, Gleason's "Badly Paid" fits those parameters. "Dahlia," a musing upon the gruesome 1947 Elizabeth Smart murder, is a dark country blues offering in keeping with Gleason's tendency to opt for realism over metaphors.

Side B plugs in. Gleason's "Waiting" reminded me of one of the lush songs Tim Buckley used to write, but with the studio string enhancements stripped out and replaced by Bartone's crystalline electric guitar atmospherics. Gleason seems to delight in messing with our perceptions. His "January" rocks, but in a nostalgic, bright way that defies the way most of us think about that month. Similarly, "Together in You" is the only time I've heard the following mentioned in the same song: Skip James, Kurt Cobain, Emmylou Harris, Husker Du, Tom Verlaine, and Richard Nixon. Speaking of Verlaine (Television), Martinez airs her punk sensibilities on Side B. On "Tainted Windows" she juxtaposes bouncy vocals with crunchy power chords, fuzzy feedback, and energetic percussion. Then she goes new wave Devo-like on us on "Bull in a Cage." Think you've got these guys figured out? Uh huh. Listen to Gleason's "At Night We Fall" and get back to me. The tune riffs off of The Beatles' "Let it Be," but the material is country western confessional, including the line, "the road to redemption/Is paved with the best intentions." I can't say whether these folks are as badly housebroken as the band name implies, but I sure can recommend you invite them to your musical table.—Rob Weir 


Station Eleven a Superb (even hopeful) Look at the Apocalypse

Station Eleven (2014)
Emily St. John Mandel
Knopf, 353 pp. ISB; 978038535304
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These are not the most optimistic of times. Nineteenth-century novelists looked at the world's travails and cranked out utopian fiction; these days we parlay our gloom into apocalyptic imaginings. Add Emily St. John Mandel to the growing list of dystopian writers, though she manages to hint at more hopefulness than most.

There are echoes of Peter Heller's The Dog Stars, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas in Station Eleven. As in Heller, a pandemic–the Georgian Flu this time–has wiped out 99% of humankind and human infrastructure fails bit by bit until electronics and material possessions are little more than curiosity objects to be displayed in the ironically named Museum of Civilization. As in McCarthy, the cities have been emptied and are fit only for occasional foraging trips, if you can avoid the savage gangs lurking nearby. And, like Cloud Atlas, St. John Mandel tells her tale in flashbacks and non-linear sequences.

The story opens in Toronto on what is, for most, the last day on earth. Aging actor Arthur Leander is on stage performing the title role in King Lear. Leander, a famed Hollywood actor bored with glitz and shallow glamour, literally dies on stage despite the efforts of audience member Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, to revive him. (Hmmm—one of Lear's daughters was named Regan and Birdman's lead character, who collapses on stage, is named Riggan Thompson, Thompson being the last name of one of St. John Mandel's characters. Maybe just a coincidence.) Also on stage at the time was eight-year-old child actress Kirsten Raymonde, to whom Leander had been exceedingly kind. Leander's death is a shock to all, but his exit was merciful compared with the flu that destroys most human life.

Eighteen years later Kirsten struggles to recall Arthur or, indeed, what the world was like before the pandemic. Rusting cars and planes litter the countryside, their fuel long since too stale to power them. There is no electricity, no communications network, no food industry–humankind has been reduced to hunting, gathering, and subsistence agriculture. But Kirsten is still acting–in an itinerant musical/dramatic ensemble called the Traveling Symphony. The band travels to and from scattered small settlements in what used to be Ontario and the Upper Midwest of the United States. Why take such risks on dangerous open roads? The Symphony's slogan and Kirsten's tattoo say it all: "Because survival is insufficient." That line is lifted from Star Trek and it's one of two ways in which science fiction directs Kirsten's fate. The other is embedded in one of the few material possessions she carries: a single issue of a graphic novel given to her by Leander before he died, Station Eleven, Volume One, No. 2. It's a beautifully illustrated post-apocalyptic tale of humankind adrift in a space station in hope of re-establishing the species. Although Kirsten doesn't know, Leander's first wife, Miranda Carroll, penned it.

We learn of Kirsten's childhood, Leander's back-story, and that of Clark Thompson–Arthur's best friend who survived the flu–through flashbacks. We soon suspect that Arthur is the story's linchpin, but we don't know how. It gives away nothing to say that Leander hailed from a tiny town on a British Columbia island that, for him, represented Paradise Lost when he opted for Gomorrah in the form of Los Angeles. Ironically, upon his passing, the remnants of humankind live in analogous island communities.

There is very little stability in the world, but whatever Kirsten and her companions had evaporates when the Symphony passes through St. Deborah by the Water, a town under the grip of The Prophet, a self-proclaimed messiah unafraid of using violence in the name of an imagined greater good. Kirsten's survival comes to rely upon making her way to the Museum of Civilization and a community that supposedly lives in an abandoned airport, though both may be apocryphal.

St. John Mandel's narrative skips between the past and present, makes detours into the Station Eleven graphic novel, drops King Lear references, and blurs the line between life and the stage. Her prose is poetic, her storytelling topnotch, and her sense of drama acute. Yes, it's a post-apocalyptic tale, but it also takes time to dwell upon small things–the beauty of the countryside, a deer running, fragmentary memories, a tender exchange between two people–that indeed suggest that survival alone is insufficient. Mandel St. John is even so bold as to suggest that the breaking of humanity's distracting toys allows for the recovery of more authentic things. Its central revelations are convincing and the book ends ambiguously, but suggestively upbeat. Okay, 99% of the human race is dead, but it's been a while since the collapse of the species felt so optimistic. Station Eleven is certainly one of the better novels of 2014.  Rob Weir