My little collector

Each morning I sidestep miniature pirate accoutrement strewn across the floor and gather my kids’ coats and backpacks. As I reach for the doorknob, my son gives me a desperate look and cries, “We forgot my Playmobil magazine!” I dutifully swallow my stock speech about how “we” is not really appropriate here. Instead, I prompt him to look in all the usual spots. He locates his much-cherished catalogue and stuffs the dog-eared guide in his backpack. Around this time I start to feel like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day”—reliving the same banal scenario over and over again with no inkling that a scintilla of change has been made. Like that hapless weatherman stuck in the wretched time-loop, I search for meaning in this absurd routine.

My son is a Playmobil collector, one might say ‘aficionado.’ And like any collector, he studies his compilation constantly. Although many parents with Mensa aspirations for their kids may push their offspring towards a collection with more gravitas and substance, say, stamps or currency, kids choose their own collecting obsessions. I guess I should be grateful he hasn’t latched on to Pokémon cards or a collection of animal scat.

A friend joked recently that Playmobil designers hate parents. Considering the infinitesimal pirate treasure that scatters absolutely everywhere, the miniscule “snap on” cuffs for the soldiers, and tiny flip flops for Playmobil beach goers, she has a point. More than once I’ve called out, “Curse you, Playmobil!” while cleaning the house. A pal coached me to just suck up the Playmobil accessories with my vacuum sans guilt, but I know that would bring more heartache. You see, like any avid collector, my son knows exactly which swords fit with which pirate set, which treasure chest goes with which boat, and he will assuredly enlist my assistance to search. And search. And search. If the piece in question is actually in the vacuum, I am doomed to a life of eternal searching.

Once we looked for a Viking’s plastic hair for days. It had popped off and rolled behind the file cabinet. Despite my urgings that we substitute hair from one of the other Viking figures, my son reminded me that the hair in question was orange. He couldn’t possibly make the Viking a towhead or brunette. It’s not that he isn’t willing to mix and match his accessories; he just knew that he had only a few redheads in his collection; he wasn’t going to let it go that easily.

Hans Beck certainly knew what he was doing when he invented the nearly 3 inch tall Playmobil figures in 1971. A cabinetmaker and model airplane designer, he developed the now ubiquitous play figures, but German toymakers were initially uninterested. All that changed with the worldwide oil crisis of 1973-4, as toymakers sought to develop toys that required less plastic.

Beck explained to the Christian Science Monitor in 1997, “My figures were quite simple, but they allowed children room for their imagination.” His figures—first referred to as “klickies”—haven’t really changed over the years: The heads, arms, legs and hands still move, and the figures still have benign smiles and no noses.  Andrea Schauer, CEO of Playmobil manufacturer geobra Branstätter, said in a recent interview that although the figures haven’t changed much in four decades, Playmobil takes children’s feedback very seriously: “After all, children are the ones who have to like our products.” She asserts that although their sets still allow for great imaginative play, “Playmobil play worlds have become more sophisticated and diverse.”

Occasionally—despite having sold over 2.6 billion figures—Playmobil misses the mark. There was that 19th Chinese Railroad worker “coolie” display that customers found in poor taste. And then there was a set featuring medieval punishments: public stocks for smiley criminals and a “baker’s cage” for dunking in the river those tiny bakers whose loaves are deemed substandard. Beck insists that you must show all sides of history, distasteful for not.

I can think of more than a few important exceptions to this assertion, but I have to admit my 6-year-old son has already learned a tremendous amount about history from his Playmobil sets. We’ve had rich, detailed conversations about the era of the Caribbean pirates, types of Roman weaponry and the wooly mammoths of the Ice Age. He even loves to crack jokes about his Playmobil figures: “Mom, you know why these people couldn’t have made those cave drawings and hand prints? They can’t open their fingers!” He then demonstrates what it would look like for figures with hands curved in a permanent “C” to make artwork. It is funny. Every time.

Mark McKinley, writing in “The National Psychologist”, lists the many reasons why humans collect things: for fun and enjoyment, connecting with others who share similar interests, or viewing it as a big quest. Still others derive pleasure from “experimenting with arranging, re-arranging, and classifying parts of a-big-world-out-there.” According to McKinley, collecting can also serve as a means of control to elicit a comfort zone in one’s life—a way to calm fears and ease insecurity.

Knowing that there are important social and psychological reasons behind this Playmobil obsession soothes my anxiety and eases my insecurity as we watch his desire for set after set.  When he says he wants all the Playmobils in the world, he’s not kidding.  We feel unsupportive of his collection when we joke that we will not drain his as yet meagre college fund to support his collecting habit. But unlike in the time warp of “Groundhog Day”, there’s always a fresh new day—complete with new Playmobils—and we are assuredly going to make a few more trips to the store.

 

“It ain’t the tailor.”

There’s a story that director and musician Melvin Van Peebles tells about when he first took up running. He didn’t want to invest in appropriate exercise apparel, so he’d dash out the door in an old jacket, two pairs of sweatpants, some old Converse sneakers, and a cap pulled down over his head. He recalls one fateful run when he crossed 7th Ave in NYC and saw a “tough guy” heading towards him; he thought he might be a “junkie.” He explains, “[T]his guy looks horrible—snot’s coming out of his nose—and I’m coming right towards him, and when I move, he moves, and I’m thinking ‘Okay—come right for me!’” At the last second Van Peebles realizes that he is running towards a giant mirror that had just been installed on a hotel. After months of denial about his weight gain—and his raggedy jogging clothes, Van Peebles literally had to look himself squarely in the eye to size up his situation. He finally conceded, “It ain’t the tailor.”

This is not unlike the situation we find ourselves in as we wrestle—once again—with the cost of the Brattleboro police/fire renovations. A petition demanding a town-wide budget vote has garnered enough signatures and a date has been set for this Thursday, April 17. Those opposed to the police/fire project would like to reject the entire budget to, in the words of some of the supporters, “send a message” to the Selectboard and town meeting reps whom they say are out of touch with voters. As we examine our predicament, the truth is painful. Our tax burden is growing to unsustainable proportions, and we simultaneously need to deal with the awful working conditions for our first responders. Our elected town meeting representatives and Selectboard are not out of touch: There is no simple or satisfying answer to this problem.

The working conditions at the police station and the fire department are unhealthy and unsafe. We ask our first responders to risk their lives in the line of duty; we ought to provide a decent, safe work environment for them when they are not out on call. The conditions are a lawsuit-in-the-making, whether from an employee developing respiratory distress due to continual exposure to mold or diesel fumes, or from a suspect or police officer sustaining a neck or head injury on those aging, treacherous stairs at the police station. According to an engineering study, the floor in the Central Fire Station was not built to withstand the load of modern trucks. Will we wait until the weight becomes too much and there is a catastrophic accident?

We have been kicking this can down the road for decades. It is time to do the necessary work to shore up our critical infrastructure.

There is legitimate concern about our tax burden in Brattleboro and what increased taxes will mean for the poor, the elderly on fixed incomes, and for homeowners who are currently just barely able to stay in their homes. Some residents express deep fear about what the future holds; their personal disquiet reflects a larger sense of unease in our town. We would like to be a safe, simple New England town, but the interstate brings big city problems to our doorsteps. The drug trade is all too real. It is fair to assume that the police and fire departments will continue to bear the brunt of this struggle. Our diverse and vibrant community must cobble together a bulwark of decency and civility against the onslaught. This is not the time to turn away from the tough decisions. We must be “all in.”

Some residents claim, “We have champagne tastes on a beer budget. We can’t afford this project.” I think, “No, we must sober up. We can’t afford not to complete this project.” We must look to our future and believe there are better days ahead for our town and region. We cannot let our infrastructure crumble around us. Do we view ourselves as a town in decline? Or do we see the prosperity and promise the future holds? Will we leave the problems for our children, or will we leave this town in better shape than we found it? A strong infrastructure is critical for the long term health of the community and our economy.

Many different groups considered various sites and permutations of this project. Many favored renovations over building one main police/fire facility due to budget concerns and “call time” factors. If we relocate our first responders to one centralized location, those residents on the edges of town will have much longer wait times for vital assistance.

Some townspeople want to stretch the project out over more time to save money. But this piecemeal approach will assuredly cost more. Indeed, it will cost us more to renovate now than if we had we done the work when it was first seriously considered years ago.

There is an oversight committee of town residents keeping an eagle eye on the bottom line and scope of the project. One member of the team, Stephen Phillips, is a representative who initially, vocally opposed the project. Worried about the project’s cost and wanting to educate himself about the details, Phillips volunteered his time on this important town committee. He and the rest of the team have been able to shave off hundreds of thousands of dollars from the cost. I greatly respect Phillips—and the rest of the group—for due diligence, commitment, and the willingness to fully engage with a very thorny problem.

If the budget is defeated, it will not scuttle this necessary infrastructure project. We can expect the library, the rec department, and other town services to take the hits instead.

Like every other member of town meeting, and those fulfilling their utterly thankless duties on the selectboard, I do not want increased taxes. But my strong distaste for a greater tax burden does not exceed my unflinching belief that this is a question of proper stewardship.

 

 

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Rethinking Taft

Completing Doris Kearns Goodwin’s hefty masterpiece, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism”, I felt I was bidding farewell to a dear friend. So rich is her narrative, so compelling the characters, that along with a tremendous sense of satisfaction from a job well done—hers and mine—I marveled at my new understanding of President William Taft. He is considered a generally unsuccessful president, but he was undoubtedly a kind soul. As I flipped through the 150 pages of endnotes that followed, I ruefully accepted that the complexity—and the genuine goodness—of a person are often shortchanged through the process of historical shorthand.

In many history textbooks, you’ll find obligatory anecdotes about the size of the White House bathtub and tidbits about Taft’s life-long struggles with his weight. Perhaps anyone taking office after Teddy Roosevelt would inevitably have paled in comparison to the fiery Bull Moose. But as a former history teacher, I feel I failed President Taft. His many talents have been lost to time’s tendency to simplify and reduce.

Taft certainly was not adroit or comfortable cajoling and browbeating Congressmen to pass his legislative agenda. But he brought many more anti-trust suits than his progressive Republican predecessor, Roosevelt—the “Great Trust-Buster.” Taft’s inability to woo the media as effectively as Roosevelt, coupled with several high-profile strategic missteps, overshadowed his impressive legacy of public service.  But, he came to the presidency with a stellar track record.

Although he opposed the United States’ expansionism in the Philippines, President McKinley eventually persuaded Taft that the region needed his skills. In short order he progressed from highly-effective president of the commission overseeing the Philippines, to much-beloved Governor General. Kearns Goodwin recounts how Taft and his wife Nellie mastered the complicated national dance—the rigodon—which required both grace and stateliness. Taft’s surprisingly agile dancing was a smash hit and a highly visible example of his love for his adopted culture. When he returned to the Philippines years later, Taft was welcomed “home” by throngs of supporters of all classes. He confided to family it pleased him enormously to connect to all Filipinos, regardless of social and economic status.

Just as Taft cultivated the trust and respect of the Filipino people, similarly did he instill confidence when he served under Teddy Roosevelt.   At the beginning of Roosevelt’s second term, the president embarked on a two-month vacation. (Can you imagine? We excoriate President Obama for a long weekend on Martha’s Vineyard!) While away from the White House, Roosevelt left Taft in charge of the duties of both the Secretary of War and Secretary of State, as Secretary John Hay was ill. Roosevelt reassured reporters: “Oh, things will be all right. I have left Taft sitting on the lid.” Good old dependable Will Taft could serve as “acting President”; indeed, the press seems to have entirely ignored Vice President Charles Fairbanks.

Unlike Roosevelt, who was socially awkward and had difficulty making friends in college, Taft had many admirers. His classmates called him “Big Bill”, and Kearns Goodwin reports, “[h]is affable disposition and genial companionship with students of all backgrounds combined to make him the most popular man in the freshman class.” One friend remarked that to watch Taft stride across the campus was to “take a fresh hold on life.” Another classmate of Taft’s, Herbert Bowen, recalled that Taft was the most admired and respected student at the college. Many students sought his counsel and his company; this continued throughout his life.

His charisma and thoughtfulness made him a trusted leader, but Taft never desired a life in politics. Kearns Goodwin builds a strong case that Taft desperately sought approval: first from his parents, then from his wife.  He subsequently made career decisions that often went against both his heart’s desires and his basic nature. He had no affection for the rough and tumble—often dirty and mean—world of party politics. His greatest, most enduring desire was to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. And although he did finally attain this most coveted position after he left the Presidency, Taft had turned down the appointment several times before. He felt a powerful duty to complete other projects—like his complex work in the Philippines. His letters reveal his fervent feeling that he could not abandon the Filipinos at that critical time in their journey for self-determination.

Throughout his life, Taft’s character was one of honor, integrity and dependability. But there was also a formidable resolve that surprised me, as he clawed back from several major hardships. Will Taft’s beloved spouse suffered a severe stroke within three months of his inauguration; Nellie never fully regained her communication abilities. Taft also endured nasty public attacks by his former pal and colleague, Teddy Roosevelt, when Roosevelt broke his word and ran against Taft to seek a third term. And then Taft lost his most trusted advisor and dear friend, Archie Butts—in the midst of a vicious primary season—when Butts died on the Titanic. The loss devastated Taft.

Even just one intense hardship could scuttle one’s success and shatter any remaining confidence. And yet, Will Taft was driven by a profound sense of duty to his country and obligation to his family. He never wavered in his commitment to his job, which he considered a tremendous honor. Although he certainly was not the most dexterous executive in the oval office, he was one of the most genuine. As we gear up for yet another bruising, arduous Presidential primary marathon, I’m grateful to Kearns Goodwin for reminding me to look for the true Public Servants in the field.

Making payroll

After consuming a delectable meal in my childhood home, we often urged my dad to start his own restaurant. His response was always the same: “I love to cook, but running a successful business is endless hard work. I don’t want to take that on.” He understood the many obstacles to success and knew just how much blood and sweat he would need to keep the tears at bay. Only after I worked several restaurant jobs in my 20s did I truly begin to understand what he meant. While doing kitchen prep and baking, as well as waiting tables and bussing, I learned about the tight profit margin. I also realized the many ways in which the public often misunderstood our work and our compensation.

Each Saturday night the same couple would order a lobster dinner and then run the waitstaff ragged with special requests. Their whopping tip at the end of the night? Always the same: 2 bucks. While we hustled and got stiffed on the gratuity, the owners huddled in the office sorting out how to keep the business solvent. We’d all track the number of dinners we’d sent out for the night, the week, and the month. Occasionally we’d break out the expensive wine and beer at the end of a particularly successful night. More often, we’d recall past glory when the tables turned over quickly, the front of the house buzzed, and the kitchen got pleasantly slammed by a flood of diners.

When you own a small business, your financial fate keeps you up at night. You hope to skate on the right side of the profit margin. And regardless of the week you’ve had, you must cover your overhead and make payroll. From 2007-2011, more small businesses closed in Vermont than opened, and there was a net loss of employees in the small business sector. And yet, we are still a state of small businesses.

A February 2013 report by the U.S. Small Business Administration describes how over 96% of Vermont’s employers are small businesses; most of our small businesses are very small. Over 76% have no employees other than the owners, and most others have fewer than 20 employees. According to the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development’s 2013 Report on Advanced Manufacturing, around 60% of advanced manufacturers have fewer than 10 employees; about 87% have 50 or fewer employees. Over a thousand Vermont advanced manufacturers have 5 or fewer employees. Like the individual patchwork that so many Vermont families cobble together to make ends meet, Vermont itself is a hodgepodge of small businesses. These businesses, along with Vermont’s diversified agricultural endeavors, are the infrastructure of our economy.

We often hear that we’re mired in a New Gilded Age. Our nation has outrageous income disparity we’ve not seen since Vermont’s own Calvin Coolidge took office. Boston Globe political cartoonist Dan Wasserman drew a scathing indictment of this inequality: In the time it takes to stand at a urinal, a CEO of a large company can now make 4 times as much as a minimum-wage worker makes in a year.  But when we rightfully rail against income inequality, we need to remember that, for the most part, Vermont is not full of “big business.”

A small business owner in the area recently summed up the sentiment of many local employers: “Nobody seems to get how hard it is to keep a business going in this terrible economic environment.”  Another asked, bewildered, “When did “profit” become such a vulgar word? I work really long hours and provide a service. For the first few years in my business, I did not draw a salary to speak of. I took the risk. I always have to cover my overhead and pay my employees first.” Like other small business owners, he shakes his head at what feels is, at best, a misunderstanding and, at worst, an underlying distrust.

If a business survives, it can potentially employ others. If it does well, it can possibly expand and boost our grand list. (Something we very desperately need in this town.) If a business owner has a surplus of capital, she has critical disposable income to invest in our vibrant (but often financially pressed) arts and music community.

The tenor and scope of discourse clearly needs to shift. These businesses do so much for our economy. We need each other.

There are some tangible ways in which we can help. We can publicly support successful local businesses, like Against the Grain, when and if the owners want to expand.  We can be more engaged and vocal with our Windham County legislators so that we ensure that any new state legislation passed will “first do no harm” to small businesses. We can be more rigorous in funding programs that encourage entrepreneurship, business incubators, and the creation of more local businesses.

Locally, we can organize targeted “buy out” days like the ones started by Leroy Jones of the Neighbors and Neighbors project in Miami, FL. Jones spearheaded days in which small, struggling local businesses were the recipients of publicized, directed buying sprees. Hundreds of area residents pledged to spend a small amount of money at a particular business on a specific day. This sudden influx of cash enabled businesses to make necessary improvements that they wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise. And residents learned of local businesses to patronize for the items they needed.

In order to sustain and grow Vermont’s strong entrepreneurial record, we must feed the fires of creativity while acknowledging and championing the tenacity it takes to make payroll each week.

 

 

 

Try gratitude

Making my rounds to drop the kids at school each morning, I pause to wave at each volunteer crossing guard. On especially frigid mornings, I fling a vigorous wave—not an anemic royal one— towards these altruistic souls. Recently my 6-year-old son asked, “Mom, why do you always do that?”

It is my way of saying “Good morning!” I told him.  In a deeper sense, I explained, it is how I express to them: “I see you there, doing what you’re doing, and I am grateful.”  Without fail, the older gentleman stationed at Elliot and Union, and the other posted at Union and Western, wave back and flashes a cheery grin. I imagine each is thinking, “Thank you for seeing me here.”  I love the ritual of it: making genuine eye contact with another human being first thing in the morning. Through that effortless gesture, I strengthen the tenuous connection that exists between nameless strangers as we face the day’s certain labor and its possible delights. We are here. Together.

No matter how irritated I feel in the moments before my wave, I invariably feel better afterwards. The argument with my 3-year old daughter over why she can’t be Lady Godiva and go to preschool naked, and the agonizing cajoling with my 6-year to please, please, PLEASE back away from his perfectly arranged Playmobil wooly mammoth set up—complete with Lascaux-esque cave drawings—all fade away. I am still, at heart, an impatient former New Yorker who struggles to keep my lurking aggravation in check (Peasants! Make way! I am very busy and very important!), but that daily moment of frank human connection forces me to acknowledge that—no matter how harried I feel—there is always time for respect and kindness.

In that initial hour after “thanking” the crossing guards for their service, I am a happier, more contented driver. I am apt to pause and let drivers stuck at the Citizens Bridge pull out onto Western Ave or I might slow down to signal to a driver on Putney Road that she can pull out from the Marina entrance. I assure you, this is not my usual driving mode; I am often the one scolding hesitant drivers: “Commit, would you?!”  Research on gratitude supports my hunch that expressing thanks helps me feel more positive and relaxed.

Dr. Robert E. Emmons of the University of California, Davis and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami—who have done the bulk of the current research on gratitude—asked participants in a study to jot down a few reflections each week in a journal. One group was specifically asked to write about what they were grateful for; another recorded what irritated them; the third could write about any events of the previous week that affected them, either positively or negatively. Ten weeks later, the ones who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic, reported feeling happier about their lives, and were healthier; they also exercised more and had fewer doctor’s visits than those who’d exclusively written about their aggravations.

Dr. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania—whom I’ve referenced before in this column—researched the impact of several different positive psychology interventions on over 400 participants. Each intervention was compared to a control assignment of simply writing about early memories. When participants were asked to personally deliver a note expressing their gratitude to someone who’d never been adequately thanked for their thoughtfulness, participants’ happiness scores shot up. The influence lasted for over a month; it was the most effective positive psychology intervention of any of those tested.

I have experienced the deepest gratitude when I have felt the most vulnerable. Once, when my whole family was sick, I had to schlep the kids to the store to buy a few staples. The checkout clerk at the co-op—sensing both my misery and exhaustion—was so kind that I nearly cried. Another time I felt sheer panic in the pediatricians’ office as I tried to comfort my alarmingly feverish son while occupying my fidgety daughter. The doctor and nurses were entirely professional, yes. But it was the tenderness with which they cared for all of us that touched me.

The act of writing a thank you card in both instances declared my acknowledgment that I am grateful they are in the world. I have never once regretted sending a thank you note.

Although it is satisfying and rewarding to express thanks to a stranger, friend or acquaintance, it is just as important to adequately thank those who work for you. Not surprisingly, employees work harder for those who show gratitude.  A study at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found that university fundraisers who were told by their boss that she was personally grateful for their hard work made 50% more fundraising calls than those who did not receive a message of gratitude. This is not shocking: It feels good to be thanked for our efforts.

I am imperfect, despite my regimen of “thank yous”.  I can still be impatient and judgmental, moody and intense. I make mistakes and say things I shouldn’t.  I expect too much of my kids and myself, at times. But despite my shortcomings—or perhaps because of them—I am dogged in my commitment to gratitude.

Tomorrow morning, as I once again scramble to get my boisterous rapscallions into the car, I know that at the corner of Elliot and Union I will gladly take a brief respite and enjoy the opportunity to wave “thank you!”

 

 

Lost in translation

Once, on a street corner in Paris, I stopped a Parisian to ask for directions. Having tackled the Louvre and Notre Dame, I was eager to visit La Conciergerie—the former royal palace turned prison where Marie Antoinette was held before her execution. But I couldn’t make sense of my street map. “Excusez-moi, s’il vous plait…” I began. “Où est…” and here everything went completely haywire. Instead of completing my inquiry with “…La Conciergerie?”, I asked instead ““Où est le consierge?” (Where is the hotel attendant?) Bewildered, the man had his own question for me. He said in stilted but crisp English: “Why-do-you-want-him?”  It took a surprisingly long time to comprehend my error and longer for me to stop laughing from embarrassment.  Poor Marie Antoinette! What indignity!  This stupid American thinks I was held captive by a hotel doorman!

I certainly meant well. My parents instilled in me a love of language and word play, as well as an appreciation for culturally diverse experiences. And I had gamely tried to recall my high school French while rifling through several dictionaries and phrase books; I was not going to be the “ugly American” who didn’t even try to speak the native tongue.  But if I could have opted to take my New York Regents exam strictly in “French accent” instead of grammar and vocab, I would have done decidedly better than I did. Something always seemed to get lost for me in translation.

I fear that this same phenomenon may be occurring in our attempts to express the importance of Town Meeting here in Brattleboro. Adopted a little over a half century ago, Brattleboro’s Town Meeting is the only representative town meeting  in Vermont. In all other towns, every eligible voter can attend town meeting and vote on town matters; in Brattleboro, although anyone may attend, only elected representatives vote. Any registered voter in Brattleboro can serve as a town meeting representative.  You wouldn’t think it would be too difficult to collect the required 129 representatives, out of a list of 8000 registered voters. But once again this year, we emerged from the elections on Vermont’s Town Meeting Day with a severe deficit of representatives.

For some reason, perhaps many reasons, most residents do not feel compelled to spend their third Saturday in March hashing out the town and school budgets and their concomitant spending priorities.  Town Meeting apparently does not grab people as immediate, relevant or droll. (Although inevitably someone does say something totally wacky during the course of the day. That can be fun.) Some friends and neighbors do like the representative town meeting system. I, myself, always smirk a bit when I hear someone proudly declare, “Brattleboro is the only town in Vermont with this unique system of government.” (Is that “unique” like “interesting”—in the way visitors comment on your “interesting” choice of paint color in the hallway? It seemed like a good idea at the time…)

Some argue that all residents should still be allowed to attend and vote at town meeting; others believe that we should convert entirely to Australian ballot; and more than a few say that we should have switched to a mayoralty a long time ago.  A strong case can be made for each of these options, but, here’s the thing: This is the system we’ve got—now and for the foreseeable future.  The painstaking, thorough, multi-year Charter Review process came and went; we still have Representative Town Meeting.

Many of us shake our heads and ask, “Why don’t more young people care enough to get involved and become Town Meeting representatives?”  Perhaps, like my linguistic mishap in Paris, we are asking the wrong question. Maybe this style of town meeting has run its course. The Millennials have a very different relationship to information, news and political involvement. This could very well translate into a new, not-yet-conceived model for citizen interaction.

According to the Pew Research 2013 Internet Project, an astounding 90% of 18-29 year-olds use social networking sites; almost 2/3 of these young people access and load social networking information from their smart phones. And their use of social networking sites is not limited to connecting with friends and family. Pew Research from October 2012 indicates that younger users are much more politically engaged online than older users. They are more likely to “post links to political material, encourage others to take political action, belong to a political group on a social networking site, follow elected officials on social media, and…promote political material others have posted.”  We often mischaracterize them as “disconnected”, but they are simply differently-connected.

When I first moved to Vermont, the Town Meeting photos in the newspaper, taken at meetings from across our county, were of attendees knitting while listening to the proceedings. These folks remained engaged while unabashedly multi-tasking. There is little difference between knitting and purling, and sitting and posting; we just perceive one as more virtuous.  Perhaps we are now shifting from Knitter World to Twitter World.

To that end, I will be “tweeting” for the very first time ever—from Town Meeting. I have put aside my own hesitation and bewilderment and set up a Twitter account. Admittedly, I am still trying to figure out just how it works. But I hope to have it sorted out by Town Meeting. By tweeting about Town Meeting I will attempt to start a new conversation about civic engagement—one aimed directly at our politically-minded young Brattleborians.

 Here’s hoping this conversation isn’t lost in translation.

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In spite of history

 I first knowingly met a heroin user in 8th grade health class. Invited to talk about his addiction, the man described how his life was essentially run by his scheduled doses of methadone at a local clinic. I can still picture his gaunt face, wiry body, and cowboy boots. The visit—presumably modeled after the “Scared Straight” method of education—had the desired effect: It terrified me. The idea of injecting something that would give me both a powerful, albeit temporary, euphoria and a perpetual, insatiable craving was horrifying. It also helped that I couldn’t really identify with him. He didn’t look like anyone close to me. And I’d been stuck with needles frequently for allergy testing and treatment; using a syringe for recreation held no appeal.

The second time I knowingly met a heroin user was in college in the mid-80s. She was in my circle of friends, and she disclosed her past as an IV-drug user while discussing with me an awkward conversation she’d had at our college health services. She’d gone in for a checkup because of concern over swollen lymph nodes in her armpit. The nurse had made an off-handed remark: “Well, we don’t have to worry about AIDS from IV-drug use…” I guess she assumed a funny, sharp Smithie couldn’t also be a former or current drug user. Although I’d like to think I didn’t reveal my shock at my friend’s disclosure, I’m sure I did. To her credit, she didn’t hold it against me.

Culturally, we still struggle with flawed notions of what a heroin addict “looks” like and just who is susceptible to the pull of smack. Outsiders (and many insiders as well) are surprised that Vermont has a heroin problem. In a recent article in the Atlantic, Jeff Deeney—social worker and recovering heroin addict—refers to new users who are “fueling a surge in heroin purchases in locations as remote as Vermont.” Remote? We haven’t really been ‘remote’ since I-91 came to Brattleboro in 1959.

I have heard our super slab of asphalt referred to as “Heroin Highway” by people in law enforcement.  It’s easy for dealers from Holyoke and Springfield, MA or Brooklyn, NY to zip up the highway and seek out potential customers.  (Makes us look less like Currier and Ives—and more like Courier and Ives.)  We are no different from our brethren in surrounding states; addiction does not discriminate by creed, color or cultural background; the only difference may be that we are more reluctant to admit we have a problem here in our bucolic, delightful home. We’d like to think the “junkies” are in the back alleys of the big cities—far from view—and not in our neighbor’s house tucked along a craggy, winding dirt road and certainly not in our own homes.

Award-winning and highly acclaimed actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s recent heroin overdose was so shocking it made the cover of People magazine, but overdose deaths are stunningly—crushingly—common. Cuyahoga County, Ohio had three deaths from heroin overdoses in just one day last week. Since November, there have been 19 heroin deaths in the Greenfield area of Western, MA. There is at least one heroin death on Long Island, NY every single day.

In the last 5 years, the number of heroin users in the U.S. has nearly doubled, jumping from an estimated 373,000 to 669,000, according to surveys by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The Boston Globe reports that the number of Vermonters in treatment for heroin addiction has increased 40% in the last year; heroin overdose deaths nearly doubled from 2012 to 2013. And there are now over 600 Vermonters languishing on waiting lists, desperate for treatment programs.

There are several reasons for the spike in heroin use. Starting about ten years ago, the proliferation of powerful opiate-based painkillers like OxyContin and Percocet meant that opiates were easily available in unlocked medicine cabinets. Soon there was a thriving trade. But these pills have a street value of $100 each, and pharmaceutical companies began repackaging them to make them harder to abuse. It became impossible to crush the pills to snort the powder.

Enter heroin: readily available, comparably cheap and offering a deadly high.

Some hailed Governor Shumlin’s state of the state address as bold; others questioned his decision to dedicate his entire speech to Vermont’s drug addiction problems, and many feared that public disclosure of our woes would hurt tourism. Regardless, it is time to face the facts of our situation and admit that our preconceptions hinder our progress. According to the CDC, between 2008 and2010, “drug poisoning deaths involving heroin” increased for only one age group: 15-24 year olds. Many of our addicts here in Vermont are our fledgling, directionless youth. They are our offspring, our posterity. They do not know heroin’s long, repugnant history.

The 1970s heroin scourge seems bush-league compared to this current epidemic. Or perhaps it is just that we’re being forced to finally confront our faulty beliefs about addiction and who it ensnares.

Poet and playwright Derek Wolcott said in his 1992 Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “For every poet it is always morning in the world. History a forgotten, insomnia night; History and elemental awe are always our early beginning, because the fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world, in spite of history.”

I have repeatedly turned to Walcott’s words as I have studied heroin’s spitefulness and greed. Just as we are punished for the rejection of history’s potent lessons, our ability to “fall in love with the world, in spite of history” may be our succor. It offers a chance to accept our disgust, disappointment and sheer despair while acknowledging the universality of human frailty and the persistent prospect of redemption.

 

 

Lies of Omission

It is difficult to watch award-winning actress Ellen Page’s speech from the Human Rights Campaign’s Time to THRIVE conference. Page—the 26-year-old Canadian actress and Oscar-nominated star of “Juno”—is both charming and engaging in her speech, but she is also very nervous: She shifts from foot to foot and gestures anxiously with her arms. She’s afraid to tell the audience—and her millions of fans—that she is gay. TIME magazine contributor Brandon Ambrosino suggests that American society has changed so much that it doesn’t actually require much bravery to “come out” anymore. But the video clip reveals Page’s fear and anxiety—as well as her resultant exhale when the audience gives her a standing ovation. It is never easy or painless to correct lies of omission.

Page, who received an outpouring of support from many fans and fellow celebrities, was accused in other hostile online posts of “rubbing her sexuality” in the public’s face. This is both malicious and dishonest. Like most successful actors, Page has been hounded by reporters who want to dissect and then broadcast her private life. In 2011 a blogger even threatened to publicly “out” her as gay if she didn’t do it herself. He argued that she had a “moral responsibility” to be a role model for struggling gay youth who might contemplate suicide. That’s an awful burden to lay on a 20-something still trying to figure out her own sexual identity—all the while living inside the Hollywood fishbowl. Like so many others in the public eye, Page understandably didn’t anticipate that her chosen career meant she’d entirely abdicated any sense of privacy.

In her Valentine’s Day speech, Page explained why she publicly divulged her sexuality: “I’m tired of lying by omission. I suffered for years because I was scared to be out. My spirit suffered, my mental health suffered, and my relationships suffered. And I’m standing here today, with all of you, on the other side of that pain.” Recently she had been linked romantically to a male actor, and despite repeated denials, the media ran with the story that they were in a relationship. Since her public coming out, some media outlets have speculated that the heterosexual “relationship” was a Page-created smokescreen.  Perhaps it was a dispassionate, cynical example of giving the public what they desperately want, but I’m more inclined to believe it was just a convenient act of survival.

Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson—in his 1879 essay “Truth of Intercourse”—contends, “The cruelest lies are often told in silence.”  To achieve true and honest communication, one cannot simply adhere to facts: “Truth to facts is not always truth to sentiment; and part of the truth, as often happens in answer to a question, may be the foulest calumny.” Stevenson submits that it is easier to be inexact in our communications, just as it is simpler “to draw the outline of a mountain than the changing appearance of a face.” Complete truth takes real effort, constant vigilance and an abiding trust.

Stevenson explains that words require more time and a “just and patient” audience, but “patience and justice are not qualities on which we can rely.” We can never know or control how ours words will “land” with the listener. Subsequently, Stevenson contends we should instead trust our faces, our gestures—even our breath. They are the “clearer reporters of the heart” and can explain things in one lush moment. Unfortunately, the public demands a comment, an explanation or a refutation.

It can be dreadfully difficult to speak one’s truth and reveal our raw emotions for public evaluation. But Stevenson maintains that the cost of refusing to do so is exceedingly high: “Veracity to sentiment” is the very thing which makes love possible. Lies by omission poison intimacy.

Like actor Ellen Page, University of Missouri football star Michael Sam, also recently decided to publicly come out as gay. All-American and Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, Sam chose to disclose his sexuality before the National Football League draft in May. Well-liked and respected, Sam was already “out” to his teammates, but many question his decision to come out to the larger football world. NFL officials quoted in a recent Sports Illustrated article said they would be uncomfortable with a gay man in the locker room.  Translation: They are uneasy with an openly gay man in the locker room; they choose not to accept there are already gay men there.

Dale Hansen—venerable sports anchor for the ABC affiliate in Dallas, TX—boldly confronted the argument that Sam’s disclosure makes people “uncomfortable.” In a withering and spot-on commentary, Hansen catalogues the many abhorrent behaviors the NFL condones: “You beat woman and drag her down a flight of stairs…? You’re the fourth guy taken in the NFL draft. You kill people while drunk driving? That guy’s welcome. Players caught in hotel rooms with illegal drugs and prostitutes? We know they’re welcome. You love another man? Well, now you’ve gone too far!”

Hansen told Robin Young of WBUR in Boston that he admires Sam’s courage and integrity: “He seems to be a young man of great character, of great inner strength.” Although he acknowledges that Sam has a hard road ahead, he feels encouraged by his fortitude and his authenticity. Unlike many in the NFL, Hansen sees strength, hope and valor in Sam’s disclosure. He supports Sam’s decision to reject the far easier lies of omission.

Hansen’s stirring commentary aligns closely with Stevenson’s conclusion: “[I]t is only by trying to understand others that we can get our own hearts understood; and in matters of human feeling the clement judge is the most successful pleader.”

 

 

Risk taking: Creating an innovator’s index for schools

Bruce McLachlan—principal at Swanson Primary School in Auckland, New Zealand—took a headline-grabbing risk two years ago. Although many teachers and parents advised against it, he threw out all the playground rules for recess at his school. Approached by researchers at Auckland University of Technology (AUT) and Otago University, McLachlan agreed to take part in a study designed to measure and encourage active play.  The results astounded him.  Without playground rules, children fought less,suffered fewer injuries, played more complex and creative games, and  concentrated better in the classroom. One reason for these positive outcomes may be that students need opportunities for healthy risk-taking.

McLachlan recently reflected, “We want kids to be safe…but we end up wrapping them in cotton wool when in fact they should be able to fall over.” He conceded that his school’s playground may look “chaotic” from an adult’s perspective—chock full of barely controlled frenetic energy and children furiously dashing about. But although it looks dangerous, the children rarely hurt themselves or others. They are now so engrossed in recess activities that the school no longer needs a “timeout” area and fewer adults monitor recess.

Instead of arguing and bullying, the students climb trees, play a rowdy game called “mudslide” and romp in a “loose parts pit” that contains old tires, hoses and wood. By eschewing the far-reaching—and now pervasive—rules and regs, this school provides children with a much-needed outlet for age-appropriate risk-taking.  Grant Schofield—AUT professor of public health who worked on the project—commented, “The great paradox of cotton-wooling children is it’s more dangerous in the long run. You can’t teach them [risk-taking]. They have to learn risk on their own terms” through healthy trial and error.

Many of the parents and educators who came to the Brattleboro Town School Board meeting last month echoed that same refrain: We want our kids to have more breadth and depth in their learning. We want them to have time to discover, to gather, to explore. In order for them to be innovators, we—as parents and educators—must allow time for this important process to simmer, and moreover, model risk-taking in the learning process.

Innovation happens when we’re allowed to noodle around with ideas and actions. I fear that the constraints conceived by our overly litigious society, coupled with a severe narrowing of our school curriculum, have resulted in a school culture that precludes risk-taking. As the testing demands of No Child Left Behind have played out for the last decade, we may have  inadvertently signaled to an entire generation that the “right” answer trumps the grand process of investigation— exploration that includes surviving, and thriving, after failure. This culture jeopardizes not only our kids’ spirits and potential for inspiration; it threatens their intrinsic inventiveness.

One of my favorite aspects of all-school sing at Green Street School is that teachers, administrators and staff members consistently exhibit the courage it requires to stretch outside their comfort zones. One recent morning, the principal sang a rousing, rockin’ solo and demonstrated to students that they should also take a risk. Students need to see teachers as risk-takers, innovators, and creators so that they feel safe—and encouraged—to do likewise.  At Green Street, the many students who sing, dance, read a speech or play an instrument in front of the packed gym demonstrate a commitment to healthy risk-taking.

Principal Bill Anton at The Dover School in East Dover, VT told me last fall that one of the most critical aspects of his job is to support teachers in their work as creative, inventive “program designers”. He fears that some educational leaders view teachers as simply interchangeable “program implementers” and not innovative, resourceful “idea” people.  It was this conversation—along with several dynamic discussions with local business owners and artists—that solidified my belief that we need an innovator’s index for schools.

This index (as yet still just an idea in my noggin) might affix a point system to various indicators of innovation. A school’s inventiveness could be measured by the community as a whole: parents, students, local businesses, artists, community leaders, interested and engaged retirees—anyone invested in insuring that our schools continue to be incubators of creativity and ingenuity.  In this way the community could meaningfully evaluate the dynamic work of our schools and celebrate the less tidy, but absolutely juicy aspects of great teaching and learning.

Even without an index, we can start by publicly recognizing the innovation and creativity already demonstrated by teachers, staff, administrators and students. Test scores are just one snapshot, one small—albeit relevant—measure of how a school is doing. And although we should not dismiss the information gathered from testing, we should acknowledge that this regimen does not reveal other critical information about our schools. The tests cannot tell which educators create vibrant, imaginative spaces in their classrooms where students and teachers unite in their daring quest to discover. Genuinely resonant learning happens where there is some risk involved.

In 2010, 1,500 chief executives surveyed by IBM’s Institute for Business Value overwhelmingly identified creativity as the most important trait they look for in top managers.  As an editorial in Bloomberg BusinessWeek pointed out at the time, “Until now creativity has generally been viewed as fuel for the engines of research or product development, not the essential leadership asset that must permeate an enterprise.”   Business, education, the arts and the challenges and complexity of daily life demand creativity and innovation. We cannot leave their development to chance.

 

 

 

The Midwives’ Tales

When Martha Ballard—a midwife and healer—started her diary in 1785, it is unlikely that she understood the significance of this seemingly mundane action. Very few women of her day left behind any sort of written record of their lives, but Ballard wrote nearly 10,000 journal entries. They record, with minimal introspection or reflection, all that would go into a standard New England daybook of its time: debts contracted; payments received; “yards got out” of her loom; varieties of beans she’d planted.  She also methodically recorded all her midwife deliveries and accounts. According to the biographer who rescued Midwife Ballard from historical obscurity, the few historians over the centuries who knew about Ballard’s diary dismissed it as insignificant. One called it “not of general interest”; another found it “trivial and unimportant.” In her book, “A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812,” Laurel Thatcher Ulrich urges us to see its rightful importance: “[I]t is in its dailiness, the exhaustive, repetitious dailiness, that the real power of Martha Ballard’s book lies.”

Ballard, who kept her diary for 27 years, delivered 814 babies in what was then the Maine district of the Massachusetts frontier. She traveled on foot, by boat, and by horseback—through swarms of black flies, deep snow, and unforgiving mud—to assist laboring women in the settlements along the Kennebec River near Ballard’s home. “For her,” says Ulrich, “living was to be measured in doing. Nothing was trivial.” This is also true about Lois Tresize, the nurse midwife at Brattleboro OB-GYN who attended at the births of both my children. Like Ballard, Tresize has delivered hundreds of babies in her 30+ year career. And similarly, by attending to women in labor—like that 18th century Maine midwife—Tresize has “her finger on the pulse of the world” in which she lives.

Ballard’s journal reveals snippets about pregnancies out of wedlock and hasty marriages; bits about debtors’ prisons and wives left to manage households alone; details about animal husbandry and references to the many medicinal herbs she used to treat numerous patients. Ulrich aptly reflects that if there is a “problem” with Ballard’s diary for historians, it is not that it is trivial. Instead, “[I]t introduces more stories than can easily be recovered and absorbed…Taken alone, such stories tell us too much and not enough, teasing us with glimpses of intimate life, repelling us with a reticence we cannot decode.” However, when placed in the broader, richer context of 18th century American history, Ulrich explains, the journal helps to complete a tremendously complex portrait of what it meant to be a woman during this period of profound political revolution and remarkable economic, medical, and sexual transformation.

As Lois Tresize eases out of her midwife and OB-GYN practice, a colleague of hers told me that Tresize intends to go back through her records to calculate how many babies she helped to delivered, how many women she’s attended to over the years. Surely, as she reflects on these women and their rich and varied stories, she will become a social scientist and historian. Tresize has seen the ravages of the obesity epidemic, the pernicious effects of addiction to nicotine and alcohol, and the nearly ceaseless cycles of poverty—all revealed through her patients’ ordeals and predicaments. Yet, she also simultaneously holds incalculable stories of devoted love and selfless care. I wish I could hear Tresize’s candid reflections on her three decades of attending to women, their families, and—in a much more honest and complete sense—our entire community.

We’ll never know what Ballard’s patients thought of her skill or her bedside manner, although her very busy practice is certainly adequate evidence of their trust. But it’s easy to ascertain Tresize’s reputation in this county. Whenever I mention her name to friends, acquaintances, colleagues and neighbors, the response is immediate, unreserved and certain. I always know what’s coming: With a huge grin, inevitably the person exclaims, “Lois? We love Lois!” Indeed it is always “Lois”—even from some doctors, nurses and physician’s assistants.  Many garble her last name or can’t recall it without assistance. It is not disrespect; Lois transcends the need for this formality.  She’s like Madonna or Cher—without the revealing costumes or outrageous behavior. Just say “Lois” and it conjures the image of this formidable woman who enfolds, holds, and sustains women and new families through her unwaveringly attentiveness and exceptional skill.

To say that “she’ll be missed” is like claiming that I only mildly appreciate French éclairs. It is not hyperbole when we murmur that many of us don’t know what we’ll do without her.

Martha Ballard’s diary was passed down through her descendants and eventually landed in the hands of her great-great-granddaughter, Mary Hobart, who became one of the first female physicians in the United States. Because of meticulous records, we also know that Hobart was the very first woman ever admitted to the Massachusetts Medical Society. Like her great-great-grandmother, she felt a compelling call to be a healer.

Protected by HIPAA privacy rules though they are, we have prodigious written records of Lois’ work—even those confounded, dreaded electronic records she abhors. But the richer stuff, the oral stories of her gifts, will assuredly circulate freely long after her retirement. She delicately and ably balanced the tedium and heroism intrinsic in her work as a midwife, and in doing so exquisitely honored the life and work of every parent.