Something Completely Different
Well, sort of, though, as you'll see, it's pretty hard for yours truly to get too far away from the political world.
Here's the scene: Fiftysomething divorced columnist undergoes lifestyle change. Sheds a layer of his Chicago-grown Mike Royko skin and bids the barroom goodbye for the winter. Becomes a clean-living homebody.
Surprisingly, he sinks quite easily into the new regimen. Lots more time for research, writing and exploration of the mind and soul. Plus, the wallet gets noticeably thicker while the waistline gets noticeably thinner.
Anyway, our "child of the '60s" columnist is, as they say, between romances. And after a couple months of early-to-bed-early-to-rise, the question arose: How do clean-living, non-church-going, single and divorced middle-aged Vermonters find that special someone?
On the recommendation of a friend, to the Internet he goes. The amazing Internet, keyboard to the universe.
One can browse through Yahoo! Personals without signing up. The columnist threw a broad net: women 30-60 within 50 miles of Burlington, Vermont.
He got 880 hits, 340 of them with photos. Amazing. Many attractive, upstanding ladies. Quite a few with good jobs and careers. In fact, the columnist recognized a few, including one redhead he had a romantic "fling" with 20 years ago.
But the columnist didn't sign up right away. Shy, perhaps?
After all, he had a good Irish-Catholic New York upbringing. In fact, his formal sex education consisted almost entirely of what he read from copies of The Kinsey Report he shoplifted from the bookstore at Grand Central Station.
At 13, he devoured Kinsey on the 40-minute train ride home. Always had to leave the thick paperbacks behind on the train. Couldn't dare bring Kinsey into the house.
And, yes, he did confess the shoplifting of "a book" in the confessional. Fortunately, the priest never asked the title or how many.
Anyway, the columnist goes back to check the Yahoo! Personals a couple weeks later and the redhead is no longer posted. Curiosity is killing him. Did she meet her match, or did she have a bad experience on the brave new frontier of romance?
So, he finds her website -- she's a professional artist -- and sends an email.
Five minutes later, the phone rings. She's as delightful as he remembers and would love to chat about her online-personals experience -- as long as he doesn't use her real name. Private citizen and all.
The bottom line is that "Alexandra," the artist, is just fine. In fact, she removed her personal because she thinks she has finally met "Mr. Right."
It gets a little complicated, but here's the thumbnail version:
Alexandra's three-year relationship with a local photographer broke up last year, and at Christmas she was alone and feeling "a little bummed out." At every Christmas party she went to, she said, friends urged her to sign up with an online personals service. Especially since she was about to go out of state for an art project.
Finally, Alexandra overcame her fears and doubts and signed on. She immediately checked out the boys in the city she was visiting.
"Most of the guys looked horrible," she said. Alexandra described them as either "serial killers or the kind that just wanted a bimbo in a bikini for their boat."
But then, after a few online visits, up popped the kisser of a guy she'd met more than a year ago. It was at a dance, "and he was a lousy dancer." But he was a "big talker, too, and funny," she said. He'd come on strong, and she didn't quite trust him.
But seeing his mug online was too much to resist. She sent him a message.
"He sent me back four messages," said Alexandra. "He said I had been his 'mind pal' for six months. He remembered my name, the color of my eyes and what I was wearing."
Long story short, he recently flew to Burlington and they spent "four wonderful days together."
"We got along great," she said. But when he went back home she still kept her personal posted on Yahoo.
"I didn't want to believe this is the guy," said Alexandra. But after daily emails back and forth, she decided he was. She removed her online personal. She's got a trip planned to visit Mr. Right next month.
In the meantime, Alexandra said, she's learned how to use the iMovie application on her computer. She's sent him short, homemade 30-second videos. The first was of cooking an omelet on her stove. More recent ones have evolved into subject matter of a more a sensual nature. The one with the black lace bra, red lipstick and snow sure sounded award-winning.
After all, Alexandra is an artist.
"Winston" is a 53-year-old lawyer at one of our finest Main Street firms. He's divorced with grown kids.
Winston told the columnist he had given the online personals a try without success. He exchanged emails with a few prospects, even met a few, but nothing clicked. He gave up and decided to close his account.
But wouldn't you know, just before his personal was removed, he received an email from a particularly interesting female his own age.
"We arranged to meet for coffee at Borders," said Winston. "We chatted for an hour and just hit it off right away. Six months later we're happily living together," he said.
Winston was happy to talk about his online good fortune, but got nervous at the idea of his name appearing in this column. Though back in the '60s and '70s he was "as bold as daylight," he said in his current incarnation he's more of a "traditionalist."
"I suppose that, in some ways, I'm a bit of an old fogey, not so modern as I might like to pretend," he explained in a subsequent email. "I have not done anything improper, but nonetheless am imbued with a more traditional view of matters, though the views might in some ways conflict with actual realities."
Aw, shucks. Doesn't anyone remember Woodstock and Haight-Ashbury?
After hearing about Winston's good fortune, the columnist got curious about what other distinguished local gents might be trying the online personal experience. Turns out 1003 have posted profiles. And who pops up on the first Yahoo! page but a well-known member of the Burlington City Council!
Under the cute heading "Vermont Boy Needs Some Warming Up," the city councilor reveals he's a Virgo, with "very liberal" political views, and has a full-time job. In fact, he says he's making "$75,000-99,999" a year.
Nice! Those federal jobs sure pay well.
The distinguished pol writes that he has "a full and interesting life with good friends and a great job." He also admits to having "a weakness for foreign accents, and couldn't conceive of going out with a George Bush supporter."
Pretty normal Vermont guy, eh?
In fact, the columnist likes foreign accents, too. So he sent Councilor Phil Fiermonte an email Sunday morning requesting an interview.
The Ward 3 Progressive has been a fixture on the local political scene for 20 years. Councilor Fiermonte's principal job is that of Congressman Bernie Sanders' top assistant in Vermont.
If a successful politician like Phil the Prog, a successful artist like Alexandra and a successful lawyer like Winston have all turned to the online personals during life's inevitable dry spells, it's got to be all-American-kosher, right?
Unfortunately, Councilor Phil did not want to discuss it. In fact, on Monday, it appeared he had removed his personal from Yahoo!
Bummer. Looks like an unfortunate case of more Catholic guilt about sex. But without sex, Your Holiness, none of us would exist!
As the columnist learned in the last week, the use of Internet personals has become commonplace in 2005. With a staggering divorce rate and a culture that promotes detachment and alienation, the Internet looks to be today's cultural vehicle for turning single people into couples.
Nonetheless, on Tuesday morning the councilor emailed the columnist:
"As you've guessed by now, I don't want to be interviewed for the story you are doing," wrote Fiermonte. "I never thought my personal ad -- albeit on a public website -- would be fodder for a story. They are, after all, THE PERSONAL ads."
Phil the Prog asked the columnist -- an old chum, after all -- if he might give him a "bye" on this one.
Nothing wrong with asking, but what public officials do in public, be they Republican, Democrat, Independent or Progressive, is public. Should the columnist not write about Burlington Republican State Rep. Kurt Wright's bondage website?
Just kidding. Sorry, Kurt.
Unlike Phil, the next local online heart the columnist found this week was thrilled to have his real name used. In fact, so was his wife.
Jon Shenton is a talented Burlington graphic designer. In a telephone interview Monday, he spoke over the gurgles of Olive Anne, the 1-year-old daughter he cradled in his arms.
Shenton said he first tried online personals right after 9/11. His DSL link went down and he had to switch to AOL. He got so many pop-up ads for Match.com that he finally gave in.
Shenton, 40, said he exchanged emails with a few ladies, but nothing clicked. Just as he was giving up, he got a message from Jessica. John had posted a photo, but Jessica hadn't. They emailed back and forth for three weeks, and then agreed to meet for dinner at the Daily Planet.
Through their email exchanges, said Shenton, they each got a sense of the other's personality. They learned each other's likes and dislikes. They chatted about music and books and much more.
At the time, both had given up on the bar scene. "Burlington's a small town," said Jessica Oski, public affairs director at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. She was getting worried she'd already met every guy in it.
"We just weren't in the same circles and probably never would have crossed paths" had it not been for the Internet personals, said Papa John. "I recommend it, depending where you are in your life."
Momma Jessica wholeheartedly agreed.
Hey, Councilor Fiermonte, did you hear that? It's OK. Don't be so shy. Screw the nuns. Put your Yahoo! Personal back up, will you? In fact, you may soon find a local columnist on the same page.
After all, he likes foreign accents, too. French ones. English ones. And, especially, Irish brogues.
P.S. Seven Days co-publisher Paula Routly astutely points out that had the Shy Councilor used a Seven Days newspaper personal instead of Yahoo!, he would not be appearing in this week's column -- they're private.
Buster Update -- Ambassador, sorry, Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie's office distributed his monthly op-ed column Monday. In it, the Doobster writes about recent visits to Washington.
Among the luminaries Doobie-Doo visited was Sec. of Education Margaret Spellings -- you know, the secretary who complained to PBS about a children's program, "Postcards from Buster," because it included two Vermont families headed by same-sex couples.
In his column, Dubie describes Spellings as "a woman who is very businesslike, very sharp and very articulate about student-improvement results under No Child Left Behind."
Dubie did not mention a word about bringing up the Vermont censorship incident so we contacted his office and received this reply Tuesday morning:
"I believe the people of Vermont aren't looking for me to either oppose or support Secretary Spellings," wrote Dubie. "I believe that what all Vermonters want and need is to find a caring course between those poles, where we teach our children in an age-appropriate way, and grow ourselves, in the direction of tolerance and respect for everyone. It is a healthy and a necessary ongoing discussion, and one I welcome."
As everyone knows Republican Gov. Jim Douglas has ducked the Spellings censorship issue as well.
Meanwhile, the Congregational Church in Charlotte has taken a stand. Sixty-seven church members signed onto a statement Sunday stating they "stand in support of same-sex-parent families as part of God's community of life. We are committed to caring and concern for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters through demonstrations of openness and inclusiveness. We bear witness to such commitment today by standing in opposition to the public discrimination of a family from our own community."
Apparently the Charlotte Christians have a viewpoint too radical for either Doobie-Doo or Gov. Scissorhands to embrace.
P.S. Speaking of Scissorhands, Gov. Douglas' ribbon-cutting this week will occur Thursday morning at a Montpelier auto dealership. Busy guy, eh?
Iceberg Dead Ahead? -- Friday afternoon's shocking rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic by the Douglas administration caught everyone off-guard. House Speaker Gaye Symington told Seven Days she met with the governor the previous day.
"He didn't mention anything about it," said Speaker Symington.
In fact, she said, after suddenly moving Sec. Patricia MacDonald from Transportation to the Department of Employment and Training in November, the Guv assured her there would be no more changes in top state government positions.
Guess he changed his mind, eh?
The Speaker said the switcheroo of an entire six-pack of state agency and department heads is frustrating for her and House committees who have just gotten to know them.
"It's really going to interrupt the process," said the Speaker. "The timing is very awkward for trying to work with the legislature. If," she added, "anybody in the administration has that goal."
Lucky for Douglas, the unprecedented administration shakeup played out as a one-day story. Heck, it wasn't even the top news story on WGOP, sorry, WCAX-TV Friday night.
Nice work, Jim!
Last Word -- Do yourself a favor and check out Burlington novelist Philip Baruth's VPR commentary that aired Tuesday. It's called "Vermont: The Shadow Administration." You'll find it here.