MWF, Looking for a Date

516474I’ve started applying eyeliner when I go out. And earrings. If I notice dirt on my jeans, I might even change them. Suddenly, I’m putting a lot more effort into making a good impression. Why? I’m on the market again. In play. On the prowl. Seeking a soul-mate.

Oh, not a romantic one. Mr. 70 Percent may drive me crazy at times, but I love him and am in it for the long haul, wherever he may drag me. (Happy Valentine’s day, Honey!) What I’m trawling for is not love, necessarily, but friendship. Not to replace the beloved BFFs I left behind when we moved–that would be impossible–but simply for a little conversation and companionship. No long-term commitment required.

As it turns out, looking for a new friend is a lot like looking for a new lover. First, you make initial contact. This could be through a third-party fix-up, or a spontaneous encounter at the gym. I have even gone on nothing more than someone’s appearance–Great scarf! Nice haircut! She’s reading People!–which my 18-year-old daughter says is shallow. Maybe, but one of the great advantages of getting older is that you become skilled at snap judgments. That doesn’t mean you’re always right–and I certainly wouldn’t rule someone out as a friend just because her scarf was ordinary or she was reading Us Weekly–but first impressions provide a basic frame of reference. (Which is why I sometimes change my dirty jeans before I leave the house.) There’s got to be some sort of initial attraction.

264e7604-f803-429a-b9ba-6ef7acce51cfcshrtbre01Then there’s the stress of arranging the first meeting. Should you email or call? When? How do you convey interest without appearing over-eager? And friendship “dates” pose the same conundrums as romantic ones: coffee or wine? Meet there or drive together? Which boots to wear? But they also hold the same sort of promise–that little shiver of excitement you feel when you realize you both hate Tiger Moms, love Counting Crows, or consider Six Feet Under the pinnacle of good TV. As I’ve written before, sometimes you just know. For me, the measure of a good “friendship date”–like a good date date–is not just how easily the conversation flows, but also how quickly you delve into the nitty-gritty: family dynamics, romantic history, mental health. At least with prospective friends, that’s all the putting out you have to worry about.

Still, friendship dating summons the same kind of insecurities that romantic dating always has. There’s the constant checking of the phone–why hasn’t she texted me back?–and the fretting over radio silence. Maybe she doesn’t like me! I knew I shouldn’t have mentioned I once considered voting for a Republican, even if it was Christine Todd Whitman.

The whole experience makes me slightly envious of my 11-year-old daughter, who had about 50 new friends within a month of moving to Vermont. All she had to do was score a couple of soccer goals at recess and post a few hundred pictures of herself on Instagram. Maybe I should give it a try.

Posted in Family life, Friendship, Kids, Marriage | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Top 10 Signs You’re In Vermont

In the event that a New England blizzard blows you off course and you can’t get your bearings, these signs will help. While you might spot any one of them in any number of states, if you happen to see them all within a 50-mile radius, you are definitely in Vermont. Taken together, they reinforce my sense that Vermont is a charming, if bewildering, mass of contradictions: rural and sophisticated, socialist and private, animal-loving and trigger-happy, infinitely tolerant as long as you recycle. The top 10 signs you’re in Vermont:

IMG_26011. Those gentle, peaceful creatures grazing in the fields? Don’t let them fool you. Apparently cows can be trouble. I saw this sign while running down a dirt road, when the only problem I noticed with the heifers was that their damn mooing was drowning out my playlist. But according to a former colleague who recently retired to Vermont, a “problem heifer” is one who breaks through the electric fence and wanders off. He recalls once being awakened by a neighbor’s Guernsey leaning in his bedroom window. I guess he had to call Joel.

IMG_28852. If my oldest daughter and I hadn’t spotted this sign in a local yoga studio, I might have thought it was mocking my new home state. In something of a non-sequitur, it encapsulates two of Vermonters’ favorite activities: denouncing armed conflict and promoting small farms. If only the Pentagon had planted a vegetable garden, maybe we could have kept U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.

IMG_272223 & 4. Of course, Vermonters don’t mind armed conflict when it’s with a wild animal. These two signs neatly sum up the state’s divergent views on guns. On the one hand, don’t even think about trying to pry that firearm out of a Vermonter’s hands. On the other, let’s at least make it a fair fight.

IMG_27175. If, during that fair fight, you succeed in killing a deer, bear, moose, or turkey, you are required to tell the state. Just head to one of the more than 200 “Big Game Reporting Stations,” located in such places as the Sunoco in Putney, the Hinesburg General Store and–perhaps most conveniently–Joe’s Taxidermy in Reading.

moose26. At the same time, don’t try killing a moose with your car–even if you’re planning to report it. It will hurt you a lot more than it will hurt the moose.

7 & 8. One of the best things about Vermonters is that they are crazy about their dogs. In Montpelier, the city council’s “Dog Waste Working Group” recently recommended that the state capital institute dog waste stations to encourage–without forcing–people to pick up after their pets; they haven’t yet gone as far as levying fines on offenders. Stores routinely leave bowls of water outside their doors for shoppers’ canine companions, and many–including the high-end outdoor clothing store where I spotted this sign–invite them in:

IMG_2727 Posted in a South Burlington park, this sign shows how much fonder Vermonters are of the state’s very smart dogs than of their owners:

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9. images-1Just as I mastered the art of throwing trash in one bin and recyclables in another, many Vermont dining establishments have added a third container: food scraps. You know, for compost. So now I often find myself staring, paralyzed, into an unappetizing tangle of coffee grounds, banana peels, sandwich crusts, and soggy lettuce, and wondering: does a tea bag count as compost or trash? What about dirty napkins? Pretzels? Eating out shouldn’t be this stressful.

IMG_288910. The cold here is so constant and pervasive that it’s just a fact of daily life, like mountains and goat cheese. Still, I find it heartening to know that if we lose power or heat, there is at least one place we can go, courtesy of a local church. I was especially grateful when I woke up the other day and found this forecast on my iPhone:

IMG_1796Then I realized I had inadvertently switched the scale from Fahrenheit to Celsius, meaning it was actually only -11. Everything’s relative in Vermont. The warming shelter can wait.

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The Trouble With Vermont

IMG_2869I have spent the past five months trying to figure out Vermont, without much success. It’s not as easy as you might think, given its reputation for simple, wholesome, back-to-the-land living. Which isn’t to say, exactly, that I don’t like my new home state.

In fact, in many ways Vermont suits me. It is undeniably beautiful; mountains loom in every direction, and I haven’t yet seen them meet the clouds or the light in the same way twice. The food–local, seasonal, sustainable, organic, farm-to-table, small-batch, or whatever–can be fantastic. Vermont also claims to be home to more writers per capita than any other state, giving it a lively literary scene. And there is a vibrant outdoor life, even though for us “polar vortex” is just another way of saying “today’s weather.” I have embraced my inner Eskimo and rediscovered the thrill of downhill skiing, as well as Nordic, snowshoeing, and pond skating.

Mismatched soccer, with a view

Mismatched soccer, with a view

Best of all, Vermonters exude a laid-back unpretentiousness that, as a survivor of the suburban room-parent wars, I find immensely appealing. Playing soccer in the greater Boston area, my 11-year-old once wore the wrong socks to a game and had to sit out until another player could swap with her; in small-town Vermont–oops, that’s redundant–she and her teammates didn’t even all wear the same color shirts last season. (Note to rabid sports parents: if you want your child to become a star athlete, don’t waste your money on goalie clinics, top-of-the-line equipment, or private trainers; just move to Vermont!) Everything is low key; the fancy, field-to-fork, locally-sourced, etc etc dinner Mr. 70 Percent and I recently enjoyed for his birthday barely broke $100–with wine–and we wore jeans. It’s hard not to appreciate a place that revels in informality, and celebrates quirkiness. (My 6th grader sometimes wears Cookie Monster pajama pants to her new school, without incident.)

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That’s no rug; it’s a buck.

However. As with most places, I have detected a few shortcomings–inconsistencies, really–in Vermont life. For one thing, Vermonters are as obsessed with hunting as they are with inner peace. Even our rabbi hunts. He warned us to sheathe ourselves–and our dogs–in bright orange when exploring the woods during deer season. Walking past a neighbor’s house one day, my eye caught what looked like a tawny rug hanging in front of his garage. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a dead buck, antlers still attached. His 50th conquest. I understand, intellectually, that venison and Vinyasa yoga can go hand in hand, that killing your own food f77764064a983d3a4b01ee5db6ea634c754a2d65b7c2d3d4d4708750383f7c1fmight actually enhance your peace of mind (in the same way slowing your breathing might steady your shooting arm). But emotionally, I just can’t fathom how a population can equally value both practicing child’s pose and pulling the trigger on an unsuspecting animal.

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Definitely one of the good ones

Also, Vermont has done a masterful job of marketing itself as the land of the home-grown, hand-crafted, artisanal cheese/bread/beer/wool/ice cream/honey/candles/pottery/other product of choice. To be sure, there are plenty of top-notch producers in the state, big and small. But let’s be honest: they’re not all on a par with Simon Pearce or Cabot Creamery; there’s a lot of coattail-riding going on. As I told Mr. 70 Percent when he came home from the Farmer’s Market bearing three $8 jars of local salsa, “Just because it’s made in Vermont doesn’t meant it’s better!”

But I think my most disappointing revelation so far is that while Vermonters are very friendly, they seem reluctant to become friends. It’s a state full of socialists who relish privacy, activists who drop everything to help a neighbor in need but steer respectfully clear of one who appears to be doing just fine. Shy, busy, disinterested, or simply loathe to intrude, Vermonters tend to keep timages-4o themselves–a bewildering tradition to an over-sharer like me. At least I know it’s nothing personal; every Vermont transplant I’ve discussed this with nods in agreement. “It took me three years to break in,” said one. “I still cry sometimes,” said another, who’s lived here for eight. As I keep reminding myself, it’s only been five months; it’s bound to get better! But until then, I intend to keep luring my old pals up to snowshoe through the frigid woods (in orange vests) and sample the multitude of local micro-brews. And if all else fails? I’ll just escape to New York as often as possible.

Posted in Family life, Food, Neighbors, Parenting, Small-town life, Sports | Tagged , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Home is Where the Mess Is

The move to VerIMG_2568mont is behind us, if not the unpacking. It’s a slow process. Every day I tackle approximately one box, then collapse, exhausted, on a giant pile of mismatched socks. Among the things we haven’t yet been able to locate: a box of One Direction posters my 11-year-old carefully untaped from her old bedroom walls; a painstakingly disassembled Playmobil village (though we found all the little plastic people who live there); the screws  necessary to reassemble my son’s bed; scissors; the printer cord; the hydro-cortisone ointment (essential in Vermont, where there are apparently 17 varieties of mosquito); or any of our five pairs of binoculars, which is especially unfortunate because this is the view from my new office window:

IMG_2659So far, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a great blue heron and a mallard in the pond, but I will confirm if we ever find the binoculars.

Just as aggravating, we have found a number of items in the unpacking that I wish we hadn’t. They include: the giant pile of mismatched socks; a box of Tupperware without lids; 14 water bottles, half missing tops and half melted by the dishwasher; a nearly empty box of stale Wheat Thins; children’s Motrin that expired in 2007; a cracked Lucite organizer; dozens of old reporter’s notebooks filled with shopping lists; and boxes and boxes (and crates! and bins! and binders!) of old newspaper clippings, magazines, literary journals, phone directories, half-filled notepads, old appliance manuals, and business cards for people long out of business.

These last items, you might have guessed, belong to Mr. 70 Percent, that husband of mine who–despite his penchant for leaving 30 percent of any given household task incomplete–somehow manages to score in the top percentile for hoarding outdated things. As it turns out, my nagging suspicion that we weren’t actually downsizing but merely shifting all our useless crap from one New England state to another was more than conjecture. Ever since January, when Mr. 70 Percent started his new job and began commuting weekly between his Vermont office and our Massachusetts home so the rest of us could finish the school year, he’d been surreptitiously shlepping thousands of pounds of printed material across state lines. This was the scene that greeted me when I  walked into our new home for the first time:

IMG_2604“Why??” I asked him, pointing to a box marked Harvard Business Review, 1998-2002. “Why on earth would you possibly need those?” “As a matter of fact,” he said proudly, “I was just reading something that referenced an HBR article from 2002, and–boom!–I opened  the box and there it was!”

I snickered. This was a bit rich coming from an early adopter who spends most of his waking hours hunched over a MacBook Pro. “Ever hear of digitization?” I asked. “You work for an institution with one of the world’s best online libraries! How about looking it up there?”

My new closet? Ha. It's Gisele's.

My new closet? Ha. It’s Gisele’s.

He shrugged, and started leafing through an issue of Architectural Digest. “Want to see Tom and Gisele’s mansion?” he asked. I did, but couldn’t concede the point now. Besides, I had unpacking to do. So I began gathering all his folders, files, clips, notebooks, binders, magazines, and crooked stacks of paper into three separate areas, which I promptly dubbed “the crazy person piles.” And I started working around them until they simply became part of  the landscape.

It helped that I could focus instead on the happy fact that we were all, finally, in the same place at the same time. On their first night together since the start of summer, the three kids pulled mattresses into one room for a slumber party. The next evening, my husband arrived home from work before 6 pm, following a grueling five minute commute. We finished the dinner dishes by 7:30, and then the kids and I played rousing rounds of Rummikub and Blockus. Mr. 70 Percent wanted to play, but I told him he had to deal with the crazy person piles first. He didn’t seem to mind. When I looked over a few minutes later, he was deeply absorbed in a New York Times Holiday Books review. From 2010.

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The Last Walk

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Max, with the baby, in 2007

I slipped the leash around his neck for the last time. He wagged his tail, hopeful even through his labored breaths that we might be going for a walk. Just 24 hours earlier, Max, our 12-year-old Lab, had been diagnosed with cancer, which had aggressively metastasized. The vet showed me the x-rays, his lungs mottled with white. I started to weep. The big old boy had lost 13 pounds, down to 74. He had a wheeze and a little cough. I was thinking maybe pneumonia.

I wanted us to have the holiday weekend with him; Mr. 70 Percent was due back from Vermont on Sunday, and he needed to see Max one more time. But I couldn’t stand listening to him gasp for breath. He could barely lift his head, let alone get up and greet anyone who came to the door. He had to be suffering. My husband, a cat person until we got a dog, understood. I held the phone receiver up to Max’s ear so he could say goodbye.

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Max welcomes his new sister, 2008

Max first came to us via Newark, NJ, where he had been abandoned in a shopping cart. He was about a year old, the vet estimated, and one of his paws bore a big gash closed with stitches that had been left in too long. (We speculated that his owners had ditched him because the veterinary bills got too high.) My friend Archie, northern New Jersey’s patron saint of rescued dogs, called; she knew we had a soft spot for Labs. I was working full-time in New York and 7 months pregnant with our third child–so a dog made perfect sense. But Max was handsome and sweet, housebroken, crate-trained, affectionate and well-mannered. He knew basic commands and never tried to jump on the furniture. It was love at first sight. Our son, then 4, would climb into the crate and lie by his side. When we brought home the new baby, and then 6 years later the new puppy, Max wouldn’t stop wagging his tail.

Max had his shortcomings. He seemed to harbor a personal vendetta against anyone in a uniform bearing packages. His bark was deep and scary and he did not always make visitors feel welcome (though as soon as they crossed the threshhold, they became a part of the pack he would guard with his life.) He didn’t like to be alone, which created some awkward moments. When he was young, anytime Mr. 70 Percent and I started to get romantic, he would come bounding over to the bed, ready to play. If I had all three kids in the tub in our tiny bathroom in New Jersey, he had to squeeze in, too. His gale-force tail could not only topple toddlers but also clear a coffee table of glasses, newspapers, and puzzle pieces. Among the things he has eaten off the kitchen counter: a roasted chicken, half a pizza, a dozen pumpkin muffins, a pound of toffee and a full bag of Nestle’s semi-sweet chocolate chips. Contrary to what I’d heard, Max tolerated the chocolate just fine.

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His last supper, May 25, 2013

The cancer proved a more intransigent foe. On that last day, I made him a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon, which he ate half-heartedly. Then my two older children, pale and somber, accompanied me to the vet. Their 10-year-old sister, who had never known life without Max, couldn’t bear to go.

“Do you want to pay now or later?” the nurse asked gently. I handed her my credit card, trying hard not to think about this grim ordeal as a business transaction. I had already nixed burial in the pet cemetery (prices starting as low as $850, plus an additional $350 for the top-of-the-line “high-impact styrene plastic” casket!). And I had no desire to keep Max’s ashes in an urn on my mantle–even if I could afford the $205 “solid wrought bronze urn with decorative filigree,” complete with engraved name and picture frame.

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Comforting him until the end

The vet gave Max a muscle relaxant, which made him plop down sleepily on the floor. He was breathing easier. As she administered the lethal injection, we gathered around him, whispering through our tears what a good boy he’d always been. In moments, he was gone; it was shockingly quick and blessedly peaceful. The nurse took a final imprint of his massive paw, which I later noticed came with instructions on how to bake and paint it–kind of like Plaster Funtime.

Max was the only being in my life who never felt conflicted about me. He never found me annoying, disappointing, or embarrassing; he never once rolled his eyes at me, stormed out of the room, or told me to “Stop talking.” He didn’t complain about what I fed him, asked of him, or watched on TV; he liked my music just fine.

So today I feel a little less loved than I did last week. No one will saunter over to my desk and put his head in my lap, just to check in. No one will follow me expectantly around the house, paying close attention to what shoes I put on. When I come home from the store, the only family member who will greet me with gusto is Max’s sister, Riley, who is wandering around in a bit of a  funk. She knows there’ll never be another Max. But if she’s lucky, there will be a new puppy in our future who can again make our family complete.

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Max, 2001-2013

 

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The Packing Wars

images-4If you really want to test your marriage, just pack up your house. You don’t even have to move; simply spend time together determining who has more useless crap. In our case, I think even Mr. 70 Percent would agree that he wins that contest. He is fond of collecting dust magnets like architectural statues and  bronze animals, and cannot throw out–I mean, recycle–any magazine until he’s read it, even if it is from 1994 and all its contents are online. Also he thinks it is important to keep every American Express statement he’s received sincimagese the Reagan administration. Yet that doesn’t stop him from trying to throw out the one box in the attic–amid his 200 filled with National Geographics dating back to 1969–that contains my precious college notebooks. (Hey, I could be called upon at any moment to compare and contrast the Renaissance and the Reformation, or dissect the dinner party scene in To the Lighthouse!)

It was easy enough to overlook such pack-rat tendencies when he was cramming cabinets and overstuffing drawers in the house we thought we’d stay in forever. But now that we’re moving, there’s a new enforcer in town, and she is not going to tolerate one single atlas that still shows the Soviet Union. Since my husband started his new job in January, we have been steadily moving carloads of stuff up to Vermont with him, which provides the dual benefit of outfitting his temporary quarters while reducing the clutter in our house so potential buyers might actually be able to see the hardwood floors. The problem with this arrangement, of course, is that it gives Hector the Collector a convenient alternative to tossing anything out: “I’ll just take it to Vermont!”

Which brings me to how we nearly came to blows over kitchenware. Mr. 70 Percent was standing in the kitchen, staring pensively at two identically-sized spin_prod_721925901pans, one in each hand. They were strange pans, neither frying nor sauce but something in between–wok-shaped, with flat bottoms and handles. I can’t recall ever using one, so I’m not sure how we wound up with two. “Pick one or they both go,” I said in my most menacing Sophie’s Choice voice. He was dithering. “This one has ridges on the bottom… but this one looks newer and has a nicer handle…” I was on the verge of seizing both and hitting him over the head when our 10-year-old stepped in and unwittingly defused the tension. “Geez, Dad,” she said, rolling her eyes. “It’s a pan! Have your farewell ceremony and get on with it.” And in an instant, my girl had coined the unofficial motto of our move: Have your farewell ceremony and get on with it.

Since then, I have repeated that directive numerous times, for everything from ancient cookbooks and 40-pound encyclopedias to out-of-fashion suspenders and unused athletic shoes. Not that it makes a damn bit of difference. Last weekend, along casio_ctk3000_front_1with the trash, a broken fish tank, and some old Science Fair poster boards, I lugged out to the curb a well-used portable piano keyboard that became obsolete when we got an actual piano four years ago. Mindful of the trash pickers who cruise our neighborhood looking for treasures, I  placed a sticky note on it: STILL WORKS! A few hours later, Mr. 70 Percent and I were hauling more junk out to the street when I noticed the keyboard was gone. “Oh, good!” I said. “Somebody took it.” He looked down sheepishly. “Actually…. it was me,” he confessed. “I put it in the car. For Vermont!” I started to protest, but couldn’t muster the strength. Luckily, he’s working up north all week so I’ve got plenty of time to make a few things disappear. images-2

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In Which Mr. 70 Percent Moves Me

GetImageI’ve had a lot to process. Mr. 70 Percent has gone all out and gotten himself a new job. In Vermont. And so our gradual withdrawal from civilization continues. We left the New York area in 2005, beaten down by three kids, years of train commuting, and the inescapable ghosts of 9/11. We landed on the green and cultured north shore of Massachusetts, a quick 30-minute drive from downtown Boston. Sure, we had to make a few adjustments–all that Red Sox paraphernalia!–but overall the transition was quite smooth.

120921-canada-maple-leafNow, for the first time, we will be living not in a city or a suburb, but in a town. With a college! And an independent movie theater AND bookstore–you know, the kind of place I have always fantasized about settling. Only now that it’s become a reality, I don’t actually want to go. Partly that’s because change is hard, and we’re leaving a place I love, and the seasons up there are defined primarily by cold, mud, or big-city leaf peepers. But I’m also worried about the small and remote factor. After all, we are moving to a state whose entire population is almost exactly the same size as Boston’s. A state so small it warrants only three electoral college votes (though in the plus column, it re-elected Obama by the biggest margin of any state in the union). A state without a single Target, Apple store, or Whole Foods (though I’ve been assured that Vermont’s whole-food markets blow the chain away.) When we move, we will need  passports to visit the nearest big city: Montreal. We will live among people invariably described as either “nice” or “really1333524664593_4768306 nice”–a characteristic I consider about as useful in a good friend as “left-handed” or “argyle-sock-wearing.” When we drove around with a realtor just to get a feel for the area, pedestrians on the rural back roads routinely waved at us. “Do you know them?” I asked her. “No,” she replied cheerfully. “Everyone’s just friendly!”

That I find such answers unsettling no doubt says more about me than about Vermont–mainly that I’m fearful that none of those nice, friendly folks will like cranky, cynical me. And that as a solidly middle-aged woman with a peripatetic career and three increasingly independent children, I already feel peripheral enough without moving to the far reaches of New England. Also, that I’m a big, fat baby.

Perhaps I should take a lesson from my children, who accepted the news of our impending move with calm good cheer and a spirit of adventure. For our eldest, who will graduate high school in June, the move coincides 39beautifully with her own next chapter, whatever it may be: college or gap year, west coast or east, U.S. or overseas. Our 14-year-old outdoorsman, always seeking a thrill, sees nothing but promise in the Green Mountains. Only our little one, 10, instantly teared up at the news. Unlike the older two, she doesn’t remember living anywhere else. Through her sniffles, she asked with a smile, “Am I coming, too?” This was a joke: as we have reminded her countless times, that was the question she innocently posed the last time we told her we were moving, back when she was three. Then she mournfully invoked the name of her beloved best friend, and I started bawling. How could we do this to them?

Vermont-FarmI had to recover quickly, though, because my whole family shrewdly began bargaining. The eldest vowed she would attend college in Vermont–if we bought her a horse. “Done,” I said. (It sounded cheaper than the new car I had already considered dangling in front of her.) “It can live on the big farm we’ll get,” my son chimed in, which would also include waterfront access and steep cliffs for rock climbing. “I call the biggest room in the new house,” said the baby, who might have you believe she has spent her childhood  languishing in a tiny shoebox under the stairs. “AND a new puppy, and a trampoline.” Mr. 70 Percent wants the farmhouse on 100 acres, with chickens and a two-story library for all his books. But when you come visit us in Vermont–and I certainly hope you will–I suspect you’ll find us living the way /I/ want: in a cozy house with a wood-burning stove on a manageable lot, close to town and in view of the nice neighbors. Otherwise, I’ll be the raging alcoholic on the side of the road, dressed in hemp and selling hand-crafted goat cheese, waving gleefully at every passing car.

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Posted in Family life, Kids, Marriage, Neighbors, Parenting, Pets, Reality check, Teenagers | Tagged , , , , , , | 22 Comments