The shortcomings of solitude

The shortcomings of solitude

Becca Balint

During last week’s multi-day sleet, rain, and ice fest, I slid to a stop at an intersection and saw a woman walking in the street. This was not surprising given the 3 inches of slush on the sidewalk, but her face was serene—not plastered with a scowl I’d anticipated. And she was—by my quick, superficial assessment of her clothes and hairstyle—of middle class means. As she hiked closer, I saw that her pants were rolled above her ankles; her feet were bare. She confidently strode through freezing rain and ice pellets. I shivered as I watched; her feet were scarlet.

I’ve fabricated a host of scenarios to explain her situation. Did her shoes and socks get so hopelessly soaked that she jettisoned them? Was she in the midst of a delusion that allowed her to be so calm? Was her barefoot walk through the slush a religious devotion?  Was it simply a lark: What would it feel like to do something totally wild?  I’ve also wondered why I did not offer a ride. Her peaceful demeanor was confounding; she did not appear to want help. And I did not wish to intrude on something I did not understand.

We constantly strive to make meaning as we meet—or simply view—people. We assess, consider, and then often categorize. Our evaluations provide a scaffold for understanding someone and incorporating them into our worlds. But these immediate assessments—devoid of rich and critical context—also limit true connection and understanding.

I have an acquaintance who asserts that colleagues often underestimate her worth before they have any real context for understanding her: “I pull up in a mini-van, and I am coded as the forty-something—rather simple—‘Mom.’”  They construct a story about her life and experiences with the scantest of information. She feels misjudged in her intelligence and ability to contribute meaningfully. Eventually, they realize that she listens to every word in every meeting, synthesizes the many details, and makes important observations few others can.

Although it heartens me that she’s come to peace with this uncomfortable situation, it also feels like a tremendous waste of time, energy, and resources. What if we asked better questions of each other? What if we let our genuine innate curiosity drive conversations instead of a desire to get to the next step in a project? Research shows conversations aren’t just an important tool to build connections; talking with people—even strangers—elevates our own sense of well-being.

Nicholas Epley—behavioral scientist at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago—and a doctoral student, Juliana Shroeder, challenged conventional wisdom about commuters and their unwritten code of bus and train travel: don’t make eye contact and don’t talk to one another. They offered $5 gift cards to Chicago commuters. Members of one group had to talk with a stranger during their commute. Another group of straphangers were to follow social norms and not interact with anyone. Those who had conversations with strangers reported having more positive commutes than those who sat in solitude. This contradicted the commuters’ own predictions about which situation would be more pleasant.

Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School found similar findings in one of their experiments. They asked some Starbucks customers “to have a genuine interaction” with the cashier—to smile and chit chat. Others were instructed to get in and out as efficiently as possible. The dawdlers reported feeling more cheerful than those who kept their interactions brief and businesslike.

As I face the long, dark winter, I plan to employ any means necessary to stave off the doldrums. Be forewarned, I plan to linger a bit with cashiers and bank tellers, and I may stop to chat with strangers on the street.  I will cut you the same slack.

 

Protesting too much

In Act 3 of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, Queen Gertrude speaks one of the most enduring lines from the play: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Although our colloquial use of this quote is most often used to imply denial, that particular interpretation actually post-dates the Elizabethan era. What Shakespeare meant was more akin to “vow” or “declare solemnly”; Queen Gertrude believes the player in the scene affirms something so strongly as to lose credibility. The strength and passion of her declarations distract from the truth.  We find copious examples of similar protestations in our own lives.

A friend recently confided in me that when her father suddenly passed away several months ago, the family discovered he’d been a longtime compulsive gambler who left his wife in colossal debt. Although crushed by her dad’s death and the terrible financial predicament of her mom, the most devastating aspect was her father’s inability to be honest with them.  Whenever confronted, her dad had explicitly promised (vowed) that all was good and right. This, she said, felt like the worst insult; her dad held honesty above all other virtues. He insisted that his children be entirely truthful all the while constructing his elaborate false façade.

When research psychologists Piercarlo Valdesolo and David DeSteno set out to deconstruct moral hypocrisy, they confirmed that conventional wisdom is spot-on: We judge others more harshly for the same moral transgressions that we ourselves commit.  We are also more forgiving of transgressions by our friends than we are of folks who are not part of our in-group.  Valdesolo and DeSteno also discovered that although we are innately “intuitive moral beings”, when given ample time to think and construct more complex arguments, we develop a narrative to explain why what we did wasn’t so bad after all.

There is a steady drip of moral hypocrisy from our elected officials: From Newt Gingrich railing against President Clinton’s sexual peccadillos while having a second adulterous affair himself, to former U.S. Senator Larry Craig—an outspoken anti-gay politician—being arrested for cruising men in a public bathroom in the Minneapolis Airport. Craig is one of over a dozen anti-gay GOP officials who have been caught in similarly awkward positions, although internet buzz suggests that Craig has received the most notoriety; the bathroom is now a tourist spot for those passing through the Minneapolis hub. People snap pictures, perhaps to remind themselves to be wary of moral hypocrisy.

Comedian Bill Cosby has long used his notoriety to openly denounce what he viewed as the moral failings of the African American community.  A May 2008 article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in “The Atlantic” subtitled “The audacity of Bill Cosby’s black conservatism” draws a line from Booker T. Washington’s “talented tenth” paradigm to Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March to Cosby’s own frank exhortations to young black men to abandon gangsta rap adoration, pull up their sagging pants and stop having babies out of wedlock.

But there have long been murmurings about Cosby’s moral failings and hypocrisy among black fans, according to Al Sanders, writing for “Crosscut” in Seattle. Sanders recounts comments he’d heard for decades in his local barbershop whenever the topic of Cosby and ‘personal responsibility’ came up: How can a man who has slept with so many women start lecturing us about how we behave? Word on the street was that Cosby had been paying off women for years to make sordid stories disappear.

As commentators across the nation ponder how Cosby could have gotten away with such abhorrent, abusive behavior for so long, I find myself wondering why we all didn’t see the red flags sooner. His moral compass malfunctioned in direct proportion to his judgment of others. Perhaps we all bear some responsibility.  Whenever we deify someone—and accept strident condescension— we cripple the ability to self-reflect and admit transgressions.

 

 

 

The arc of justice

“She killed her friend’s mother, you know.” I stood at the library’s circulation desk, reached for the murder mystery, and scowled involuntarily—annoyed that the library assistant had just revealed “whodunit”.  She cut off my response:  “No—the author.  Anne Perry.  Look it up.” I tucked the book under my arm, headed to a meeting, and began the complicated process of examining my feelings on this horrifying revelation.

I’d missed the exposés about the grisly murder when 1994 Academy Award nominated “Heavenly Creatures” was released—a drama about the 1954 killing of Honora Rieper in Christchurch, New Zealand by her daughter, 16-year-old Pauline Parker, and her best friend, 15-year-old Juliet Hulme (now Anne Perry).

The two teenagers mercilessly bludgeoned to death Rieper when they feared they would be separated. Hulme’s parents were divorcing, and Hulme was to be sent to South Africa. The girls begged their parents to allow Pauline to leave with Hulme, but they refused the teens’ desperate pleas. Panicking at the impending separation, the girls plotted to kill Pauline’s mother as the three walked on a secluded path following an afternoon tea in Victoria Park. Parker’s diary outlined the premeditation; the jury did not deliberate long. The teens were convicted and sent to separate prisons to serve their time.

The case makes me queasy. It all feels, well, so very coldblooded. The girls clearly knew that what they planned was wrong. But in trying to puzzle out why these girls carried out such an incomprehensibly brutal crime, context is important.

Both girls had had serious childhood illnesses that required long stays in the hospital. Hulme had been sent away from her family for extended periods of time to convalesce in warmer climates; she likely suffered from an attachment disorder arising from these periods of prolonged separation.

Psychiatric experts today have a better understanding of the girls’ narcissistic and manic relationship. Auckland, New Zealand forensic psychiatrist Ian Goodwin told the New Zealand Herald news service APNZ that he’s convinced the girls were “quite mad” at the time of the murder—both convinced they were superior beings living in an alternate universe. Details of their delusions can be found in Parker’s adolescent journal.  And it’s well established that adolescent brains are still very much in a state of development.

But the question persists for me: Do I believe in rehabilitation and redemption?  If I do, as I have always claimed, then why do I view Anne Perry differently now that I know of her troubled past? I’ve read her Victorian mysteries for years and always enjoyed them as inconsequential breathers from the dense non-fiction I tend to favor. I’ve joked about some of her writing tropes but still find her characters compelling. Yet, I feel undeniably uneasy about a convicted murderer who’s now hugely successful as a murder-mystery author.

Except for having been mugged twice, I have not been a victim of violent crime. I’ve not lost a loved one to premeditated murder or vicious assault and have never experienced the depth or scope of that overwhelming anguish. Nevertheless, I wrestle with the idea that people should not be entirely defined by their crimes.

Perry has won numerous literary prizes and has 26 million books in print worldwide. Her itinerary is packed with speaking engagements and workshops on writing crime novels. Since her release from prison, she’s had no further brushes with the law. She is a longtime member of her church and lives in a small fishing village in Scotland. In an interview Perry revealed that she was shocked and relieved that she’d lost no friends when villagers discovered her ghastly past. Those who know her best do not sit in judgment.  Why must I?

Martin Luther King’s words have been in my head for weeks now: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Congressman Welch talks turkey–and cheese

At the end of my orientation as a new Vermont state legislator—three days packed with sour news on our $100 million budget gap and critical details about the Joint Fiscal Office—all newly elected legislators met with former Vermont state senator and current U.S. Congressman Peter Welch to discuss ethics. Welch told us his time in the Vermont Statehouse solidified his deep reverence for those whom he represents. He echoed and endorsed what we’d heard throughout presentations from each branch of Vermont government: Your word is your deed. And your good reputation in this very small state is what allows you to get work done for the folks back home.

Welch used the example of a controversial 2014 Food and Drug Administration rule concerning artisan cheese to stress the importance of working with colleagues from each political party. When the FDA threatened to ban the use of wooden boards in the aging process for artisan cheese, producers throughout Vermont worried about the real threat this ruling would pose to the quality of their products.  And it wasn’t just a question of art and flavor. Upgrades to accommodate the proposed FDA rule would have cost Jasper Hill Farm of the Northeast Kingdom $20 million—a very big deal to the highly distinguished but relatively small producer.

What’s the lone Vermont House Rep to do? Find friends and allies wherever you can. Help arrived in an unlikely package: Wisconsin’s Congressman Paul Ryan. Welch and Ryan disagree on just about all political matters, but they each appreciate the importance of cheese to both culture and the economy. Together they successfully lobbied the FDA to stand down on the cheese board rule. Welch implored us to do the same: Put party aside to help the people you represent.

Towards the end of our time with Congressman Welch, a new legislator asked him what we could do as citizens to help the federal government function with fewer stalemates and intractable impasses. Welch was quick to respond: End gerrymandering and overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

He reminded us of his first run at the U.S. House when he ran a spirited and close race against Vermont National Guard Adjutant General Martha Rainville. Welch and Rainville each signed a Clean Campaign pledge and vowed not to run negative ads against each other. Today, this kind of handshake agreement would mean absolutely nothing; the Citizens United ruling allows unlimited money from outside PACS to flood Vermont’s airwaves and TV screens with ads full of bluster and accusations but short on veracity. Passing a constitutional amendment that would overturn Citizens United is a dreadfully arduous task but clearly a necessary one.

The other major impediment to a more functional government in D.C. is gerrymandering— redrawing legislative districts to give a political party advantage at the polls.  Welch pointed out that we now have “boutique” districts that represent the extremes of political ideology. Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post concurs, citing the example of defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor: “Virginia Republicans tweaked the boundaries of Cantor’s district in 2010 to make it more conservative. This seemed like a great idea in 2012, when Cantor won his primary by a huge margin. But the unintended consequence was that the district became so conservative that it made Cantor vulnerable to a challenge from the right, even though, ideologically, he’s about as conservative as Minnesota GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann.” (I will have nightmares tonight as I consider someone more conservative—and uninformed—than Bachmann.)

Welch firmly believes—both from his work in Montpelier and in D.C.—that reasonable people with differing ideologies can work together to make life better for their constituents. I hope I will remember his exhortations and his optimism. We have so much to do.

From bondswoman to bestselling author

In 2001, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. purchased a remarkable novel—purportedly written by an African-American woman who’d escaped slavery— at auction.  Gates attended the annual auction by The Swann Galleries in New York City, which offers artifacts and memorabilia of African-American history, and paid about $8,000 for a 300-page manuscript believed to be the first novel penned by an African-American woman. The unpublished book—“The Bondswoman’s Narrative: A Novel by Hannah Crafts”—had spent years languishing in an attic in New Jersey before historian and bibliographer Dorothy Porter Wesley bought it. After Wesley’s death, the literary treasure found its way to the eager and excited Gates.

Gates had the book scientifically authenticated and confirmed it had been written sometime in the late 1850s. He edited and published the book in 2002, and it immediately became a bestseller. But the mystery remained: Who was Hannah Crafts?

Enter Winthrop University English professor Gregg Hecimovich. The South Carolinian scholar meticulously reconstructed the life story of this remarkable African-American woman. He spent nearly a decade combing through primary source documents to positively identify Hannah Crafts as an escaped slave named Hannah Bond. As a trained historian myself, I have spent hundreds of hours relishing dusty yet delicious old documents. I got chills when it was announced that Hecimovich will publish a book next year that reconstructs the life of this intriguing woman: “The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts”.

Hecimovich was not the only scholar who found the mystery of Hannah Crafts absolutely tantalizing. Hollis Robbins—Chair of the Humanities Department of the Peabody Institute and Director of Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins—and Gates set out to trace the author’s literary influences, which included the works of: Charlotte Brontë, Walter Scott, Shakespeare, Dickens and many other literary giants. They concluded that Bond must have been an enslaved house maid in the residence of John H. Wheeler of Murfreesboro, North Carolina. She’d left a riveting clue in her text: The master in her book serves as the United States Minister to Nicaragua. Wheeler did just that, and his library included all the literature that Bond references in her writing—except one: Dickens’ “Bleak House”.

How had Hannah Bond learned passages of “Bleak House” if it was not in Wheeler’s library? Hecimovich’s painstaking detective work reveals that girls from a nearby school boarded with the Wheeler family, and their school’s curriculum required them to read and memorize passages of the Dickens novel. Hecimovich’s plausible explanation is that Bond either heard the girls’ recitations of passages or borrowed a copy from one of the girls, with her consent or without. All’s fair in love and art.

The forthcoming book will reconstruct the lives of seven enslaved individuals in the Wheeler house who had both the means and the opportunity to write the manuscript.  Hecimovich sets his detective work against the rich cultural background of mixed-race society in the decade leading up to the Civil War.

I can’t remember when I’ve been so excited about a book release, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” included. This book will be a welcome antidote to the scourge of racism that emboldens citizens to disparage and discount our president, like the abhorrent C-SPAN caller on “Washington Journal” who recently referred to President Obama as “that n*gger”.

Hecimovich explains the powerful impact his research will have, not only because of its relevance to African-American history and the literary canon, but because it tells us so much about ourselves as a nation : “Crafts’ life endures through her art, a voice rediscovered, unmasking and challenging the racial bigotry and greed that divide people and nations – then and now.” He aptly concludes, “[L]iterature can still transcend the divisions of race, gender, class, and time to imagine and substantiate justice and freedom.”

 

 

Thanks, Tom

Years ago, I attended a brunch hosted by some University of Michigan grad students. Ann Arbor loves its Big Ten Conference football team and boasts the nation’s biggest collegiate football stadium. As we chatted over strong coffee, the hosts made an announcement: Time to find a seat and settle in. They flipped on the radio, and I waited for the chipper repartee of the sports announcers at the Wolverines’ latest matchup. Instead, I heard, “Hello, we’re Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers.” Thus began my love affair with the Car Talk guys.

Many assembled shared a devotion to Tom and Ray Magliozzi—the MIT-educated mechanics with  surprisingly charming Boston accents—who hosted NPR’s Car Talk. Although a committed NPR listener during my weekday drive time, I’d never before stumbled across their inimitable automotive banter. I looked at all the smiling brunch guests and marveled that these jokesters could captivate so many 20-somethings on a brisk fall morning. It only took a few calls for me to delight in the playfulness.

When it first aired in 1977 on Boston’s WBUR, the Magliozzis’ show pulled in a small core of Boston listeners.  Nine years later, it was the 3rd most popular show on the station, and over 11,500 residents—from the Back Bay to Harvard Square to Southie—tuned in each week to hear the brothers’ contagious laughter, self-deprecating humor, and dubious automotive advice. National Public Radio knew they had a hit and moved to distribute it nationally. Car Talk even won a Peabody Award in 1992, which I’m sure was an unending source of amusement to Tom and Ray. They always claimed their show was filled with answers “unencumbered by the thought process”.

When Tom—the older brother with the gleeful personality—died last week at the age 77, I was surprisingly downhearted by the news. It was not until that moment that I understood just how much joy I found in their weekly chitchat and razzing. Although Click and Clack discussed all things automotive, their show was really about us. Like them, we—their listeners—were imperfect, contradictory, and had lives chock fully of odd habits and routines. And they adored us for it.

For 35 years Tom Magliozzi doled out treasured, spot-on maxims. Among my favorites: “Life is too short to own a German car.” If only we’d heard that advice before we bought our eternally fussy VW van. I also am particularly fond of: “If it falls off, it doesn’t matter.” Once, while riding in a friend’s aging Fiat convertible, the front bumper spectacularly fell off. We ran over it. Then we backed up, threw the bumper in the miniscule backseat, and drove off again. Tom Magliozzi, I am certain, had dozens of these kinds of stories to tell. What’s the important take away for all of us?  Hey, don’t sweat the small stuff, baby. Who really needs a bumper?

Tom was particularly gifted at candidly encouraging listeners to lead happier lives. Several weeks ago I heard a rerun of a show in which a mom complained about her grown daughter’s failure to rotate her tires; now she needed new ones.  Tom listened, joshed around with the caller and his brother, and then kindly—but directly—asked her why she was in her daughter’s business. She paused, chuckled, and then conceded his point.  He rounded out the call by announcing. “You’ll both be happier if you just butt out.”

His bluntness, combined with an abiding kindness of spirit, endeared him to so many of us, which is why those UMich grad students listened to Car Talk that day instead of wandering down to the gridiron. Tom always knew what really mattered. He’d say, “Kids: get away from the cell phones, get away from the computers, and mail someone a fish before it’s too late.” I’m off to the post office now.

 

Looking for work

Nearly a decade ago, when my spouse accepted a clerkship with a federal judge, we packed up and moved across the county. Excited for her and up for an adventure, I gamely set about finding another job in our new locale. It didn’t take long for my spirited optimism to wane; it’s hard to look for work month after month and not feel deflated. I sent out resumes, made phone calls, searched employment websites, compulsively checked the want ads, and yet still worried that I could have been doing more to find work. It took me 5 months to find fulltime work, and by the end I felt pretty rotten about myself.

In addition to financial security, work gives more meaning and greater fulfillment to our lives. It is disquieting to feel like we’re not concretely contributing to our households or communities.

An estimated 3.6 million American workers have been out of work for extended periods of time; that’s over 2% of our nation’s workforce. Many of these workers are not simply unemployed; they’re in anguish over their loss of income and work. Long-time unemployment has been linked to numerous mental health issues.  Carl Van Horn—professor of public policy and economics at Rutgers and head of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development—explains, “Losing a job is more than just a financial crisis for people. It creates…other damage: stress, anxiety, substance abuse, fights, and conflicts in the family and feelings of embarrassment and depression.”  Many long-term unemployed workers report pulling away from family and friends in an effort to cope with their sense of shame.

The findings of a 2014 survey conducted by the Heldrich Center this summer indicate that the long-term unemployed acutely feel the financial implications of their predicament. Over half report that they will now need to retire later than they’d planned, and another 5% said that their unemployment forced them into early retirement. A majority of these workers say it will take 3-10 years for their families to financially recover from the bout of unemployment. Another 20% say it will take longer than that or that they may never recover.

Annie Lowrey, reporting for the New York Times, interviewed a former administrator at MIT who had worked steadily for three decades but is now part of the long-term unemployed. After years of unsuccessfully looking for work, she’s now bankrupt and homeless. Her experience highlights the particular struggles of the long-term unemployed. She explains, “I’ve also been told point-blank to my face, ‘We don’t hire the unemployed.’ And the two times I got real interest from a prospective employer, the credit check ended it immediately.”  Lowrey points out that this woman’s experience—like that of millions of others—illuminates an uneasy truth: Joblessness itself has become an intractable trap, a major impediment to securing a job.

Unemployment lasting more than 6 months often prevents a worker from finding employment. A newly jobless person has a 20 to 30% chance of finding another job, but that drops to 10% after a worker is unemployed for 6 months or more. Conventional wisdom among top labor economists has been that deeply entrenched long-term unemployment  results from long-lasting jobless benefits that may undermine incentives to work. A whip-smart Northeastern University doctoral student, Rand Ghayad, challenged that assumption.

Ghayad, a native of Lebanon, “did what other economists didn’t,” according to Megan Woolhouse of the Boston Globe. “He delved into the characteristics of the unemployed, analyzing decades of census data. He examined the industries in which people had worked, their educational attainment, and the length of their unemployment, searching for a pattern.” There was only one factor that kept appearing in the data: The long-term unemployed. Ghayad explains, “Everybody else was finding jobs.” Ghayad’s findings have set economists on a different path of inquiry, but it will be some time before we know how we can effectively attack this central problem.

Vermont has generally low unemployment when compared to the national average, but locally, we all seem to know workers who are unemployed or underemployed. In my own circle of friends and acquaintances, I know several folks among the newly unemployed. They are in their 40s and 50s, and they’ve never before found themselves in this frightening predicament. I also know many residents who doggedly piece together bits of work to make ends meet. It can be both terrifying and exhausting to not know if all the disparate pieces will add up to a mortgage payment by the end of the month.

For these area workers—and the hundreds more like them—I’m excited that the 2nd annual
Career Expo and Job Fair will take place in the Brattleboro Union High School gymnasium on Monday, November 10th. The general public is invited to attend between 2-6 pm; a special noon hour block will be open exclusively to Windham County high school students. Coordinated by the Windham Workforce Investment Board and sponsored by many area businesses, schools and non-profits, the Expo aims to serve both new workers just starting out in the labor market and experienced professionals seeking to figure out next steps in their careers.

Although many businesses will certainly recruit workers at the Expo, David Altstadt—coordinator of the Workforce Investment Board –wants to highlight that “the Career Expo is about exploring new possibilities, making new connections, and charting out the next steps of your career path.” This is a great opportunity to meet face-to-face with employers from the tri-state area and get your foot in the door. Facilitating the match between what local businesses need and the skills our workers have is a complex problem that requires well-planned, long-term solutions.  But the Career Expo is a great place to begin those conversations.

 

 

Language as historical thread

I’ve been closely following Chris Deschene’s bid for president of the Navajo Nation.  Deschene was set to face former Navajo leader Joe Shirley in the general election, but several defeated primary candidates protested his inability to speak fluent Navajo. Navajo tribal law requires presidential candidates to be fluent in both Navajo and English, and although Deschene claimed in candidate paperwork that he was fluent, he now admits that his facility with Navajo is not flawless.

Deschene was then disqualified from the race after refusing to take a Navajo language proficiency test. He appealed to the Navajo Supreme Court, but his case was dismissed on a technicality. This week the Navajo council will consider removing the language requirement for presidential candidates, so he still has a shot to stay on the ballot. Deschene’s troubles have highlighted a growing divide within the Navajo nation: Many younger tribal members do not feel the language requirement is in the best interest of the nation, but most elders feel it is critical to the nation’s cultural survival. The tension is made all the more compelling because the Navajo nation and its language played a critical role in WW II with its celebrated codetalkers.

Professor Manley Begay Jr. at Northern Arizona University, a member of the Navajo Nation,  believes a Navajo president must be able to speak the language because he or she must be able to communicate with older tribal members—some of whom only speak Navajo.  But there’s another reason why retaining a culture’s language is so important: We learn important information about the past through clues that native language provides.

For example, Robert Rogers’ Raid on the St. Francis Catholic mission (called Odanak in Abenaki)—home to hundreds of Abenaki Indians during the French and Indian Wars—demonstrates how important details are forgotten when historians and ethnographers ignore oral tradition and the nuance of language. Rogers’ own version of the October 4, 1759 attack on the village claims that he and his “Rangers”, aided by a group of Stockbridge Indians, raided a war-mongering group of Abenaki and killed hundreds of warriors.  Later portrayed in the Spencer Tracy film “Northwest Passage”—based on the novel by Kenneth Roberts—that account stands in stark contrast to Abenaki oral traditions about that traumatic attack.

In his seminal work, “Oral Tradition as Complement”, the late anthropologist Gordon M. Day set out to resolve several key aspects of Robert Rogers’ personal accounts of the raid that did not match French documents. For instance, Rogers insisted hundreds of Abenaki were killed; French internal documents consistently recorded 30 dead (20 of whom were women and children).

Did Rogers’ exaggerate to please his superior, British commander Lord Jeffery Amherst? Or might there be another reason why his account differed so greatly from French eyewitnesses?

Day consulted several Abenaki oral traditions to tease out important details on the raid. One came from the elderly Elvine Obomsawin, who heard it as a little girl from her Aunt Mali Msadoques, who in turn had heard it from her grandmother who was a little girl in the village at the time of Rogers’ Raid. The oral tradition tells of a teenaged girl who leaves an autumn harvest dance at the gathering hall to get some fresh air. While outside, she’s approached by a stranger—an Indian but not an Abenaki—who warns her that enemies surround the village and will soon attack. The girl alerts the others, and most hide in a nearby ravine, thus saving a large number from certain death.

Day corroborated the Obomsawin oral tradition by consulting another obtained from an elderly man named Theophile Panadis. Panadis heard it from his grandmother Sophie Morice, who in turn had heard it from villagers who were alive at the time of the raid. Not only does Panadis’ oral tradition confirm that there had been a warning delivered to the residents at Odanak, but it also provides tantalizing clues as to the identity of the warner. On the surface, it makes no sense that a Stockbridge Indian would betray Rogers and warn the Abenakis. As Day explains, “The Stockbridges had suffered at the hands of the French and were fierce partisans of the English throughout the war.”

But if one considers the exact words uttered by the warner—as passed-on through generations of Odanak Abenakis—it is clear that he was not Stockbridge; his language was close enough to Abenaki to be intelligible. Day translates for us: “My friends, I am telling you.” ndapsizak, kedodermokawleba  (Abenaki: nidobak, kedodokawleba.)  “I would warn you.” kwawimleba  (Abenaki: kwawimkawleba) “They are going to exterminate you.”  kedatsowi wakwatahogaba (Same in Abenaki.)

Both Day and University of Pennsylvania anthropology professor Marge Bruchac conclude that the Indian who gave the warning to people of Odanak was Samadagwis, the supposedly Stockbridge scout who was the only member of Rogers’ party to be killed during the raid. Samadagwis was mostly likely a Schaghticoke—and not a Stockbridge—due to his language and the fact that he requested baptism before he died from his wounds. He was clearly not among the Stockbridges who were long-time followers of Puritan John Edwards.

I have re-read Day’s work dozens of times, and every time it gives me goose bumps. By honoring the power of oral traditions and attending to the specificity of language, he enables us to reach across time and hear accounts that solve longstanding historical mysteries.

It is up to the voting members of the Navajo nation to decide if their president must be fluent in Navajo. But whatever the outcome of this race, it is critical that greater efforts be made within the nation to preserve their language. We all lose some of the vital complexity of history when language is lost.

 

The kids are all right

It started with a BAMS middle school student named Eliza. A fan of the website “Humans of New York” (HONY), she was intrigued by the idea of doing something similar here in Brattleboro. HONY’s Brandon Stanton takes pictures of average New Yorkers, asks them questions about their lives, and then posts the images and quotes online. This simple format is hugely popular; HONY has over 10 million followers worldwide. Eliza pitched the idea to friends, and soon these teens—at BAMS and BUHS—started their own project: “Portraits of Brattleboro” (POB). The POB students are unified around a basic belief in humanity: Random people have incredible and beautiful stories.

In a recent interview with four of the approximately nine students who make up POB, the students explained that they wished to remain anonymous; they want the main focus to be on the “ideas” of their project and not on them individually. But they were all clear on one thing: They each had great admiration for their founder. One commented that she greatly respected her conviction and passion. Another said she was in awe of her willingness to be serious and do things that are meaningful. A third agreed, “She’s a really rare person. When I got to know her, I thought: Wow! Do you really exist?” This one student has had a powerful, positive impact on her peers. She urged them to simply get started.

A seminal moment for the group was when they observed a 20-something woman on the streets of Brattleboro offering “Poems-to-Order” on an old Hermes Rocket typewriter.  GennaRose Nethercott—a local playwright and poet, who also happens to be a former student of mine—can sometimes be found on downtown street corners offering poetry to passersby. One of the POB kids explained, “We saw her and we thought, ‘If she can do that, we can take on our project.’” This reminds me of something acclaimed Hindustani writer Munshi Premchand once wrote—and that has been on my mind constantly lately—“Like timidity, bravery is also contagious.”

Some of the POB kids are former In-Sight Photography students, and they acknowledge that they received some technical support from adults at In-Sight—including help getting their work exhibited in a downtown storefront. “But”, one said, “We try to keep adults out.” They feel both a strong ownership of their project and a fervent wish that it continue after they’ve graduated. It tickles them to think that their project’s ideas and focus could transcend them and could work in perpetuity, spanning several generations of Brattleboro youth. Ultimately, it is the ideas that bubble up from their photographs that appeal to them the most. One explained that they want to bridge the gap between technology and personal contact with other human beings: “It is, purely, just life.”

When they initially started their project, they made the mistake of going out to photograph in large groups. Strangers seemed hesitant to share with a horde of youth—no matter how charming—so the POB kids now set out in groups of only 2 or 3. These mini interviews with strangers have changed them for the better. In a practical sense, they are now able to strike up conversations with anyone. This translates into more confidence when making phone calls or appointments. In a deeper sense, their project has solidified some important beliefs about our shared humanity. They are much less likely to make snap judgments now, and they realize that “moments, not material things” are what matter. One marveled, “The thing is, the most interesting-looking people do not always say the most interesting things.” Another chimed in, “I’ve learned that you never know what people will say.”

I have many favorite Portraits of Brattleboro photos, but one that stands out for many people is an interview they did with two brothers. In the photo, the brothers—who appear to be about 10 years apart in age—both smile with an ease and deep affection. There is unmistakable warmth and admiration between them.  When asked their favorite thing about each other, the older says, “He has his own language.” The younger—who looks about 12—replies, “He is a beautiful human being.” It is a favorite for the POB kids, too. They marvel that this simple statement is laden with so much beauty and poignancy.

“We would like adults to know that we are not just a big pile of angst,” a POB student told me when I asked what adults get wrong about today’s youth.  Another chimed in, “We have a ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ sense of justice.” A third agreed: “We can be more clear-eyed and focused on fixing a problem.” They all vociferously asserted that they are not always on their smart phones, like many adults complain, and that they—like those same adults—worry about living in a hyper-digital world. These kids want to focus on things that are important: climate change, the economy, and actually interacting with other people. They do not want to be mesmerized by material things. This project is an ardent reminder to keep doing the things that matter, starting with knowing and appreciating humankind.

As I said goodbye to these average—and also remarkable—young people, I walked away from our interview with an unexpected lightness of spirit. And I ruminated on what one of the students said was her message to others: “Do something important today–even something little.” Moments matter.

You can find their excellent project on Facebook at Portraits of Brattleboro.

 

 

 

 

Americans in Paris

We sat, stood, squatted or slouched—in sometimes impossible positions—late at night in a well-lit hallway of my college’s art building. Sometimes three-deep, we craned our necks and strained to see the hundreds of photos arrayed in tight formations along the walls of the lengthy corridor. It was all part of a hallowed ritual: Art 100. This massive year-long survey course sought to give each undergraduate the history of world art and its historical context. The memorization required was notorious in its volume and certain lecturers were “must see” in their presentations. One professor’s almost campy, effusive admiration of Donatello’s “David” had us in stiches, and another’s stories about the Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka revealed just how personal art historians can feel about their subjects.  Still, I reference Art 100 repeatedly as I strive to understand world history, culture, and current affairs.

Art allows us to understand ourselves and each other. Neither simply a luxury or an extravagance, it can be sharp social critique or coded tableau revealing much about the society from which it springs. I rediscovered and unpacked an art history book in my attic about painter John Singer Sargent this week, and just hours later, purchased a book at a tag sale about Americans finding inspiration in Paris.  Historian David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey” called to me from among hundreds of books. I did not need another book—the stacks on my bedside table are proof of that—but I inexplicably kept circling back to it. I finally relented. For goodness sake, it was only a quarter, and it clearly wanted to come home with me. When I had a moment to skim the chapters, I saw why: Sargent features prominently in McCullough’s work.

John Singer Sargent is considered one of the greatest American painters, despite the fact that he lived almost his entire life abroad. His American parents, Philadelphian eye surgeon FitzWilliam Sargent and the talented watercolorist Mary Newbold Singer, decamped to Europe after the death of their two-year-old daughter. Devastated by the loss, the Sargents found solace in Europe. According to McCullough, they wandered about the continent, “moving from one city or spa to another for twenty years, according to the seasons of the year, always in search of more amenable climate or more economical accommodations, seldom settling anywhere for long.”

Although John Singer Sargent was technically an American painter by birthright, he was born in Italy and was profoundly influenced by the incredible art he absorbed as his parents moved from city to city: Rome, Florence, London, Paris, Salzburg, St. Moritz, Venice, Dresden and more. McCullough asserts that although it was certainly an interesting life for the Sargents, it was far from “the romantic expatriate life commonly imagined.” It was more captivity than freedom; Sargent’s mother feared both that her health and her social standing would deteriorate if they returned to the more expensive United States. His father grew weary of the nomadic life but consoled himself with the knowledge that their lifestyle exposed his son to superb art. Indeed, Sargent had an early love of and appreciation for beauty.

McCullough notes that Sargent’s first memory was of viewing deep red cobblestones along Via Tornabuoni in Florence. They were so gorgeous that he constantly urged his nanny to take him to see them. By the age of 13, he knew he wanted to be an artist—an aspiration encouraged by his parents—and at 18 his expansive portfolio astonished his Parisian art teacher. Sargent’s talent not only pushed the other students to be better but soon surpassed his teacher’s abilities.

But, when Sargent hung “Madame X” in the Paris Salon of 1884, the portrait of American ex-pat Madame Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau was considered scandalous and shocking. Gautreau, daughter of a Confederate major killed in the battle of Shiloh, was raised in Paris by her widowed mother. When she married a wealthy French banker, she became a “professional beauty”—a wife known for her extraordinary loveliness and socially-appropriate “stage presence”.  McCullough explains: “[I]n her appearances in society, [she] was expected to fill that role with all due attention to wardrobe and the artful use of cosmetics, no less than a great actress.” Sargent painted her in her trademark chalky lavender powder on her face and body, and had her strike an eccentric pose of self-confidence. Her poise was derided as arrogant in its strength. The original painting showed one strap of her dress falling off her shoulder as she leaned on a table; Sargent later retouched it to “fix” the Victorian version of a wardrobe malfunction.

The Paris Salon that year, not surprisingly, was filled with paintings of nude women. But it was Madame X—in her floor-length black evening dress—that caused outrage. The pallid, lavender quality of her skin, combined with her strong pose, made the portrait daring and decidedly unconventional. Both Sargent and Madame Gautreau were castigated for being vulgar in their magnificent audacity; no doubt because that audacity shook society’s notions of itself. The painting is subversive in its honesty. As Picasso reminded us, “Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.”

At least since Art 100, “Madame X” has been one of my favorite paintings by one of my favorite American artists. Its apparent simplicity evokes so much mood and tone. Madame Gautreau appears luminous and confident, and her portrait is at once vulnerable and strong, sumptuous and straightforward. It is an impressive example of what French poet and art critic Théophile Gautier called “L’art pour l’art.”: Art for art’s sake.