Change agents take many forms

Over 20 years ago I assistant directed a summer camp in the San Gorgonio Wilderness west of Los Angeles. The setting and the weather were idyllic, but the work was demanding. During a mid-summer evaluation with a staff member, she surprised me with her candor when she exclaimed, “The problem with you is that you expect everyone to do the job the same way you do. We don’t all have the same level of energy and drive, and I think it’s wrong that you expect us to.” Taken aback, I did not know how to respond at the time. But the conversation came back in technicolor this week when I read an editorial in the Washington Post.

In “Why you should stop waving the rainbow flag on Facebook”, a 20-something gay man, refers to some allies of same-sex marriage as “Slacktivists” and asserts that “armchair allies” should not “co-opt” gay pride”.  Equating the public celebration of a landmark Supreme Court ruling with “co-opting” is unsophisticated. As a gay woman who never imagined I’d see this day in my lifetime, I couldn’t be more pleased that so many people in my social and professional circles are celebrating along with me. Democrats, Progressives, Republicans and decidedly non-political friends and colleagues have shown their support by decking out their Facebook pictures in rainbow colors. They’re not “slacktivists”, they are friends, and I rejoice in their willingness to publicly support a controversial issue.

We don’t know other people’s stories. We don’t know their trauma, their burdens, or what it takes for some folks to simply get up in the morning. We don’t know who’s taking care of an elderly parent with dementia or a nephew who has been through two stints of rehab and has come begging once again for money. We don’t know who’s working multiple jobs to try to keep their home or who volunteers at the soup kitchen each week. We are ignorant of the number of grandparents in our communities who raise their grandchildren as their own because the parents are incarcerated or have lost custody. We also can be blind to all those neighbors who help bring about positive social change through a hundred small, meaningful interactions with strangers each week. People contribute in their own ways. We can’t be on the front lines of every important issue, and it feels catty and disingenuous to pretend that we can.

I have been a punk in a Mohawk railing against the patriarchy (or meat eaters, or capitalism, or the military industrial complex). I’ve yelled at porn shop owners in Times Square, participated in kiss-ins, sit-ins, protests, marches, and “direct action”. I have had—all too recently, I’m embarrassed to say—episodes of my own strident self-righteousness. Protest is a healthy and important aspect (and responsibility) of a robust democracy. But wholehearted conversations can and do change minds, as can public images of support.

My spouse grew up in redder than red Wyoming. Sexual orientation was not something she talked about with her friends. Now, her Facebook feed is awash in rainbow colors, as her friends openly and joyfully celebrated the ruling. It was a watershed: a bridge exists between them

Senator Dick Sears stopped the joint house-senate judicial rules committee meeting the morning of the SCOTUS ruling.  He was visibly moved when his Senate seatmate, Brian Campion—an openly gay man—texted him the momentous news. It was a joyful moment and my delight was not at all lessened by looking around the room and realizing that some of us had been more involved in the movement than others. I savored the jubilation that we all felt together; open hearts find each other.



Copyright trolls: entrapping our small businesses

My kids and I discovered a great picture book last January, “Lemonade in Winter” by Emily Jenkins. A sister and her little brother open a lemonade stand in the dead of winter. Pauline and John-John are nimble and creative in their efforts, and they constantly shift their strategies in order to attract more customers. But in the end they don’t even break even.

Small business owners in our county intimately understand that it’s difficult to run a successful business. They face the obvious challenges: scraping together resources to start the business; identifying the right location; constantly assessing customer wants and needs; keeping an eye on quality control; and riding out the stretches of weak sales. But they also encounter unforeseen challenges that can cripple small businesses. Take the infuriating situation in which Peggy and Ken Farabaugh—founders and owners of Vermont Woods Studios in Vernon, VT—find themselves. They’ve been fighting a nasty copyright troll for years.

Peggy Farabaugh started the business to combine her creativity with her passion for the natural world. Heartbroken about habitat loss due to deforestation, she and her husband Ken founded Vermont Woods Studios: driven by the mission to demonstrate how our purchasing decisions impact habitat destruction. They sell furniture and flooring created out of the lush Vermont woods.

The Farabaughs simply love their business but are completely disheartened by their lengthy legal battle—one a small business can little afford. Their misery began in the summer of 2010 when a student who’d worked at Vermont Woods wrote a blog post about selling furniture to a customer in Hawaii. A photo of a Hawaiian bay was included in the post. It had been downloaded from a free download website, and it had no visible signature or copyright. Nevertheless, it was invisibly, electronically tagged.

Nearly two years later, Vermont Woods Studios received a demand letter supposedly from lawyers representing what could only be called a copyright troll. The letter demanded nearly $10,000 for the Farabaughs’ single use of the image. Peggy Farabaugh took down the image immediately and tried to reach out to the photographer to explain that they’d gotten the picture from a free download website. It is now almost certain he uploaded it himself. She was told to speak only through the photographer’s attorney. Then she heard nothing for nearly two years.

His modus operandi, apparently, was to wait and see if others accessed the image. He knew, and she did not, that the image—even though removed from her Typepad blogsite—would be stored to the Typepad library. His attorneys then accused her of “ongoing, willful, intentional and purposeful and/or reckless disregard.” Farabaugh dug around and determined that his lawyers were not licensed in CA, as they claimed to be, and the photographer withdrew the case.

Last July, they received word that another group of lawyers in Hawaii has taken up the photographer’s case, and they are in negotiations with those attorneys to reach a settlement. It will be in the thousands of dollars and it will include some kind of gag order. It is exasperating to them—and to me—that they must pay anything other than a nominal fee for an honest mistake, especially given that this photographer basically “seeds” the internet with his images on download sites and then sues innocents when they use them.

The Vermont Attorney General’s office—with the help of other excellent Vermont lawyers—has made great strides in taking on patent trolls. It’s time to figure out a creative way to take on the copyright trolls next.  Surely we can protect the creative economy while mitigating the bullying of blameless mom and pop shops.





The curious case of race

I am a huge Armistead Maupin fan and have read his “Tales of the City” series—set in 1970s San Francisco—numerous times. I enjoy his humor, quirky sensibility, and deep love of a city I also adore. But there is one part of the series that I always found decidedly over-the-top—just too farfetched to suspend my disbelief; a white character pretends to be black to further her modeling career. But then along came Rachel Dolezal. Turns out, where people are concerned, nothing is too bizarre.

Dolezal, the Montana-raised woman accused by her biological Caucasian parents of lying about her race, has resigned her position as chapter president of the NAACP in Spokane, WA, but continues to “identify as black.”

Despite her recent interviews, so many questions persist: Why would  someone very publicly appropriate another’s culture and experiences? How could someone so passionate about issues of equality and justice not see the offensiveness of a white person donning black face? How did she imagine that  the truth of her heritage would not eventually come out?

And why are we still so obsessed with the concept of race when it is not based in science but instead is a social construct?

If the social construction argument has been difficult to wrap your head around, take the case of twin sisters Lucy and Maria Aylmer from Gloucester, England. You can see pictures of these lovely 18-year-olds and their family on the web. They were born from the same mother, on the same day. But, Lucy explains, “No one ever believes we are twins because I am white and Maria is black.” Their father has white skin; their part-Jamaican mother has dark skin. They have the same genetic makeup, and yet we perceive racial differences when we should only see a difference in skin color.

When I lived in Casper, WY I had my race questioned constantly. Despite dark hair, dark eyes and olive skin, no one in the Northeast has ever asked me about my race. I suppose I never stood out. But when I lived among a sea of pale-skinned, blonde folks, and developed a deep tan from Wyoming’s scorching sun, I apparently became exotic. People often asked, “What are you? Mexican? Native American?” Or: “You’re not from here, are you? Are you from Italy?”

The strangest incident of all occurred when I worked as a substitute teacher for a week in the same school. About the middle of the week, a teacher approached me in the hall and said, “We’ve been discussing you in the teacher’s room.” (It is always a great introduction when you learn you’ve been the topic of conversation!) She continued, “And we’re trying to figure out something. Are you from that Iranian family that lives down the street? You look just like them, but your English is better.”  I do not recall my response.

We are innately curious.. We search for human connection. This is decidedly a good thing. But there is also sometimes that disturbing undertone: I need to know your race (or heritage) so I know how to make sense of you and how to interact with you.

Being asked repeatedly about my race and cultural heritage for a year did not give me the experience of what it feels like to like to be a person of color in America. It did, however, make me much more conscious of the extent to which we fixate on race and skin color. And it gave me moments of insight into the ease with which we paint individuals as “the other”.

The church shooting this week in Charleston, reminds us again that this “othering” has deadly consequences.

“Distractingly sexy” scientists in the lab

When Nobel Prize winning scientist Tim Hunt started his week, he worked at University College London. By Friday he’d resigned his position after making ridiculous statements about female scientists to the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea.  In response, women scientists all over the world have created a compelling, hilarious rejoinder. There are so many delectable, although aggravating, lessons to take away from this strange incident.

Sir Tim Hunt—yes, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2006—made the following decidedly unchivalrous comments to a room full of high-ranking scientists and science journalists: The trouble with “girls” he said, is that “three things happen when they are in the lab…You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.” Clearly Hunt did not know his audience, nor did he read the room. Whatever relevant information he wanted to share, he lost his opportunity to convey this knowledge because he did not grasp the broader cultural context in which his comments would be interpreted. His remarks went over like a lead balloon.

Like it or not, we live in the age of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and innumerable other social media outlets that instantly broadcast news and ephemera across the globe. And then there’s that pesky little detail: Hunt gave his speech to a hall packed with journalists. What did this scientifically brilliant but socially myopic man think would happen to his controversial statements? It took all of 5 seconds for  Connie St Louis—director of City University of London’s Science Journalism program—to post Hunt’s sexist remarks for the world to pick apart.

A 2012 Yale study reveals how entrenched bias is against women in science. The researchers sent identical fictitious applications to professors of biology, chemistry and physics at six major research universities. The applicants sought a position as a laboratory manager; the only difference was one fictional applicant was named Jennifer, the other was John. John’s application was scored higher; he was more likely to be hired; and he was offered more money. The bias appeared regardless of the sex, age, teaching field, or tenure status of the scientists who reviewed the application. “There’s not even a hint of a difference there,” asserts Corinne Moss-Racusin, a postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the paper.

Ben Barres, a neurobiologist at Stanford University has lived both sides of this coin. Barres started his career in science as Barbara Barres before transitioning to being male and becoming the first openly transgender scientist in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Barres writes about his own experience of being taken more seriously as a male scientist than he was as a female. Once, after a seminar, he heard an attendee say, “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.” Barres does not have a sister; the man was referring to the work Barres did when he was Barbara.

In the face of this and other such blood-boiling comments that female scientists endure, it would be entirely understandable if these women let loose a barrage of unbridled invectives. But humor often trumps raw indignation. Take a few minutes today to get online and view the amusing responses to Tim Hunt’s sexism. Female scientists across the world are uploading pictures of themselves to Twitter with snappy quips that reference Hunt’s remarks. Just google “distractingly sexy” and you’ll find them.

Some shots honestly are distractingly funny, but what amazes me most is the depth and breadth of women in the sciences.  Despite their struggle for equity, “girls” are in the lab to stay.  Thank goodness!

Small town scourge: heroin among us

I used to be an avid viewer of the 70s cop show “Starsky and Hutch”. It was the era of cheaply produced, banal television shows, including “Love Boat”, “Fantasy Island”, and “CHiPs”. Of all the flamboyant, cruddy shows, this California-based detective show was my favorite. It was a dark window into a gritty world that was so very far from my suburban life. There were cornered stool pigeons and a scrappy, amusing informant named Huggy Bear. And there were heroin junkies. They crouched in alleys with rubbish and dented metal trash barrels. Their lives were decidedly urban and utterly wretched. I never imagined that I would live in a town with a heroin problem.

I haven’t thought about this show in a long time, but images from it have popped into my head all week. Since I have been back in town from Montpelier, multiple people have stopped me to say: “Can we chat sometime? We really need to talk about the drug problem.” Friends, educators, counselors—they have each, in turn, disclosed mounting dismay at the growing scourge of heroin in our communities.

Brattleboro is just one of countless small towns around New England that struggle—more like brawl—with heroin’s reach and clout. A high school friend posted something troubling on social media the other day about her corner of Connecticut. I clicked on the link and read the hideous news: Over 300 deaths in Connecticut were attributed to heroin in 2014. I also learned that little Willimantic, CT—a town not too much larger than Brattleboro—has been battling its heroin troubles for decades. There is little comfort, however, in the realization that we’ve gotten off relatively easy for years.

Why the urgency to talk about strategies and solutions now? Summer approaches.

The many children who live in homes that have been decimated by the heroin trade do not have the same stability, structure and safety that school affords. I often hear folks grouse that schools now seem to do more social work than teaching. I don’t know many educators who would disagree, although remarkably a great deal of learning and growth still happens, despite the obstacles and roadblocks created by the drug trade and its dreadful fallout.

Once your eyes are opened to our current crisis, it requires sheer force of will not to despair. We are battling a modern-day Cerberus, the multi-headed dog of Greek lore that guards the gates of the underworld. Craving meat of the living, Cerberus consumes the sentient and allows the deceased to pass through into hell.  Although Cerberus is most often depicted with 3 heads, there are some versions of the myth that indicate that Cerberus possesses 50 heads or more. Surely, this is our Cerberus.

How to attack the problem when there are so many complex moving parts?  Myriad areas demand immediate attention:  education, social services, prevention programs, mental health resources, homelessness, affordable housing, workforce development issues, unemployment and underemployment, child abuse and neglect, crime, restorative justice, incarceration, detox and rehab programs, and, of course, the concomitant need for ever more resources than our little state can muster.

Like many folks in this county, I happily and gratefully support the arts in all its marvelous forms: music, dance, visual arts, circus arts, and our many craftspeople that construct gorgeous pieces or distill or brew delicious libations. They all contribute to our incomparable sense of place.

But my challenge to all of us is this: Let’s target some of our charitable giving and contribute money and our time to battling heroin’s scourge in our community. It is going to take so many of us to effectively confront this shape-shifting tormenter.

Fearing change? Get curious

The massive pine tree had three trunks; one, split by lightning, crashed down on our garage years ago. Damaged, but ever proud, the tree still soared above the roof line of our neighbor’s house. Sure, we felt anxious whenever bad weather threatened. And yes, it choked out the sunlight to such an extent that our apple tree hunched over like an arboreal Quasimodo. Yet, we adored that tree. Its shade and majestic qualities offered comfort from August’s stickiness, and its scarred trunk presented a suitable—albeit precarious—perch for my kids.

Our new neighbors regretfully informed us that they intended to remove the menacing tree. I understood, but I was heartbroken. There was the literal reality of the situation: Our backyard would no longer be bathed in delicious shadows in high afternoon. But the symbolism of the change proved even more uncomfortable for me. Impermanence is so very inconvenient for those of us who crave routine, security, and the known—that is, most of us.

Psychologist and researcher Heidi Halvorson—associate director of Columbia University Business School’s Motivation Science Center—explains that although  people do tend to fear change, their wariness is not just  anxiety over something new. Writes Halvorson, “It’s also that they genuinely believe (often on an unconscious level) that when you’ve been doing something a particular way for some time, it must be a good way to do things. And the longer you’ve been doing it that way, the better it is.”

I attended my 25th college reunion last week, and amidst hilarious reminiscences and quick but earnest updates about our families and doings, I essentially had the same conversation half a dozen times: Accomplished women in their mid-40s confiding that they longed to make career changes but were afraid to do so. Of course, it is not just amorphous fear that immobilizes us; there are genuine material concerns. It is also critical to have your spouse on board when contemplating a big shift. And then there are the maddening details: How exactly do you go about making a career change when you’ve been in the same line of work for over 20 years?

I did some impromptu coaching—guiding my peers to see that in many instances they already knew what they needed to do to take some next steps. And my own successful career change served as an example of the possible and the conceivable. But I was struck by the extent to which we are often stuck between curiosity and fear.

As I approached a split rail fence last week while out on a run, a robin stood on the post at the end of the fence line. As I jogged closer, the robin grew wary and took off. But its escape was brief; it swiftly circled back around to the next weathered post. As I advanced on the following one, it again escaped only to rapidly swoop to the next post in line. And so on down the entire row. Like this skittish bird, we don’t want to be limited by our trepidation; we crave freshness and want to chart new territory. But the known is so very…well…known.

Mary Leakey—the British paleoanthropologist and one of my earliest heroes—once reflected on her life and career and declared, “Basically, I have been compelled by curiosity.” I delight in this image of Leakey being bound—obligated—by her inquisitiveness. I dare say she even allowed her curiosity to propel her life.

With Leakey in mind, I headed out to face the spot where the grand pine once stood. There are new bushes there now; I can’t wait to find out what sprouts from them.


First impressions reveal our own pride and prejudice

Jane Austen’s 1813 reworked masterpiece “Pride and Prejudice” had quite another title when she first completed it in 1797: “First Impressions”.  As  Pulitzer Prize winning writer Anna Quindlen once wrote about Austen’s choice, “Thank God for second thoughts!”  There’s something so very ho hum about the title “First Impressions”; it doesn’t at all reveal the extent to which we each wrestle with conceit, insecurity and bias. After long days in the Senate, I’ll often unwind with one of Austen’s enduring stories of self-knowledge—always set against a complicated backdrop of human relationships. Among my favorites, “Pride and Prejudice” is a superb frame of reference for my own work in the legislature.

I absolutely relish meeting new people, and I’ve thought quite a bit this session about first impressions—when we’re spot on, and when we clearly miss the mark. When I first met Representative Patti Komline, a Republican from Dorset, she struck me as a fairly straight-forward, no nonsense, intense kind of gal who resolutely did not have a bleeding heart.  She was serious about responsible fiscal policy and I concluded—erroneously, it turns out—that social issues were not particularly important to her. My fabricated narrative crumbled upon learning that Komline had been a stalwart leader on marriage equality, despite her party’s general opposition to both civil unions and same-sex marriages. She even voted to override Governor Douglas’ veto.

But it probably cost Komline her party’s leadership position in the Vermont House of Representatives. She says she has no regrets; she’s proud to have been a strong ally. I’m gratified I was not steadfast in my first impression of Komline. I would have missed so much.

Several weeks ago, a Senate colleague shared his first impressions of me. He’d watched my performance in an early Democratic primary forum that he stumbled upon while flipping through TV channels. “I knew you had spunk. But I thought you’d be much more serious. I am so glad you have a sense of humor!” I was taken aback. I cherish my humor and felt sure it always came through, even when under stress. His first impression of me was not entirely off the mark—I do take my work very seriously. But without a sense of what I find amusing, a friend or colleague would miss a huge part of my personality and my understanding of the world.

When I first met one of my dearest friends at a party several years ago, I imagined her as the reincarnation of Donna Reed, or maybe a more hip Carol Brady—but decidedly not Joan Crawford as portrayed in “Mommie Dearest”. I drove home with my spouse dejected, marveling at the patience of this incredible woman who seemed irrepressibly happy while her four children tugged on all her appendages and harangued her about cheddar bunnies and juice boxes. She had totally and completely figured out the parenting game; I felt like Saturday Night Live’s Jane Curtain as a Conehead parent trying to figure out the strange rituals on planet earth. This gal is now one of my closest friends, and we chortle about that first impression. She is likely to spit out her wine—and utter a string of spicy vulgarities—if anyone even suggests she resembles Donna Reed.

We often measure ourselves against others, and we’re likely to sort new acquaintances into rather tidy pre-existing boxes. What I find marvelous, however, is the extent to which people can surprise and enchant us. If we pay attention, they’ll hop out of those orderly boxes and bop to a beguiling beat. We simply need to set aside our own pride and prejudice and allow them the room to do so.

The uses of adversity

At the beginning of May I took a rare week off from this column. The following week, scandal erupted at the statehouse. My colleague, Senator McAllister, was arrested during a recess from our floor debate. Stunned and dismayed by the repugnant allegations, I wrote a column to help me wade through the bizarre story.

I submitted my column as usual, but while driving up to Montpelier on Monday morning, my phone lit up. I pulled over at a rest area and discovered texts urging me to read the latest articles on McAllister.  It had turned even darker: McAllister was now accused of also sexually assaulting his intern. In addition to feeling quite nauseated about it all, I knew that the investigation would now involve the statehouse. It was no longer appropriate to comment on the controversy, so I pulled the column.

Last Thursday, Lt. Governor Phil Scott—who presides over the Vermont Senate—asked us all to remain seated during a recess. He then dropped the news: in a completely unprecedented move, the powerful Senate Committee on Committees stripped McAllister of his committee assignments. As almost all the influence you can exert and leverage is through your committee work, this one move rendered McAllister essentially powerless in the Senate.  He could still vote on bills and speak on the floor, but he no longer had a committee base of operations and support.

Senators Claire Ayer and Jeanette White—who sit to my right and left in the Senate—were as surprised as I was at the news.  Nobody could remember another time when a legislator had been stripped of his or her committees. “It’s never happened before,” said Ayer.

I heard that a lot this session: we were once again in uncharted territory.

The biennium began with a contentious governor’s race still to be decided. We were lobbied hard for our votes: either for incumbent Peter Shumlin, who’d eked out a popular vote plurality but had fallen short of the necessary majority, or inexperienced challenger Scott Milne, who’d surprised pundits and residents alike with his very strong showing. One day after being sworn in as a brand new legislator, I would cast my vote for governor.

The very next day, during Gov. Shumlin’s inaugural address, protestors—furious with the governor’s  decision to abandon his push for a single payer health insurance program—swarmed the well of the House Chamber repeatedly disrupting the proceedings. Nobody could recall a time when a group had persistently disregarded the traditional decorum in “The People’s House” and had breached Chapter 2, subsection 8 of the Vermont Constitution concerning decent behavior in the House.

The ensuing concerns about statehouse security impacted a divisive vote for the sergeant-at-arms.  Exceedingly contentious debates concerning gun laws and vaccinations followed close behind. Invectives flew, tensions amplified, and we still had that obstinate $113 million dollar budget gap to wrestle shut. We set to work teasing out possible solutions, and then Sen. Claire Ayer’s husband died suddenly. A beloved man, his death shook the entire Senate.

The tax and spending bills proved extremely controversial throughout the session, as was the school governance bill. And as we finally staggered towards the session’s finish line, the Norm McAllister scandal broke.

Many have asked if I regret running and serving in the Senate; not a chance. I read myself to sleep last night with Mason’s Rules, which govern the Senate. I love this job and am beyond honored to serve the people of this great county.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s words guide me, “There are uses to adversity, and they don’t reveal themselves until tested…difficulty can tap unexpected strengths.”

A friendship formed over a fence

After a week of emotional conversations about vaccines, wealth disparity, and the future of education governance in Vermont, a colleague tearfully spoke on the senate floor. He said he’d been verbally attacked by strangers for supporting the vaccination philosophical exemption. Later that day, a friend of mine who works in the statehouse told me of a pregnant colleague of hers who had been cornered in a bathroom and accused by a complete stranger of poisoning her child in utero by having received a flu shot.

Politics demands an armadillo’s armor.

In the midst of all the drama, I learned that my neighbor in Brattleboro had died after a hard-fought battle with cancer. In quiet moments I could admit that he probably wasn’t going to be able to fight it off, but mostly I wanted to believe he’d beat it, because he was a workhorse, because he was burly, and because he had so many things he wanted to live for.

His death means a political touchstone of mine is gone. During my first term in the Senate, I have often thought of him and what he’d think about whatever topic we debated.

My neighbor was born and raised in Brattleboro, and he’d seen this town and county through so many changes. He would often come over to chat when I was stacking wood or doing yardwork. At times laconic, he had a wry sense of humor, and it was sometimes hard to tell when he was pulling my leg; he could hold a poker face for so long.

We often discussed history, something we both adored. He shared stories about the neighborhood “back in the day”. He appreciated classic cars, restored old British motorcycles, and was fanatical about the Beatles. Despite our different political views, he still strode over to chat and crack a joke. He made an effort to connect, and as the new neighbor, I appreciated the overtures.

During the contentious debate over whether to change current Vermont gun laws, I kept him in my mind and heart as I discussed this issue with colleagues and constituents. After years of conversations in my driveway and across my fence, I had a pretty good sense of how he’d feel about any changes to our gun laws. My understanding of who he was and how he felt as a fiercely proud lifelong Vermonter provided me critical insight into the issue. Any approach to this topic needed compassion and context in the conversation.

The week after the gun vote in the Senate, I worried that we might have a tense exchange under my maple tree. Instead, he chose to talk about what plumber I’d recently hired and whether he thought that had been a good choice or not.

We were—outwardly—unlikely conversationalists. We had strong opinions and often opposing views, but relationships and loyalty were extremely important to both of us. History and personal ties ordered our worlds, providing perspective and connection.

In the statehouse, there is an area of the cafeteria known as the “Republican” section. As I gazed over my colleagues in that corner last Friday, I remembered when I first told my neighbor I was running for office. He said, “No offense. But I won’t vote for you. I am a lifelong Republican.” This was not news to me, nor did I take offense. He didn’t need to vote for me, he’d already shown his respect for me in dozens of other smaller gestures.

When his condition worsened, he told his family and the staff at Dartmouth-Hitchcock: “Tell me when it’s time to go. I sure as hell don’t want to die in New Hampshire.”  Agreed.



Dying to get in: Natural burial grounds

I never know what I will hear when I walk into my morning committee. This week in Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs, Vermonters spoke about taxing distilled products, producing gun silencers, and internet dating scams. We also took up H. 25, concerning natural burial grounds.

If passed into law, it could provide Vermonters with more choices in how they are interred, avoiding customary manicured cemeteries for more organic alternatives.  In a state with many residents concerned about land management, ecological decision-making, and sustainable practices, it is no surprise that death—and the inevitable decomposition of the human body—would become an area of focus.

In natural burial grounds, a body may be laid to rest in a simple burial shroud or another fully compostable container.  The bill specifies distances from water sources and authorizes the Commissioner of Health “to govern the disposition of human remains” when the deceased had a disease considered a public health concern.  Advocates imagine burial grounds much more untamed than traditional cemeteries, perhaps using trees as monuments instead of headstones. The bodies buried in these grounds would not be embalmed or would be embalmed using non-toxic fluids.

Although there are non-toxic alternatives to time-honored—but toxic—formaldehyde, most embalmers across the country still use a combination of formaldehyde, methanol, and other solvents.  This is because families demand a “lifelike quality” for their loved ones—even in death—and traditional embalming fluid consistently delivers.

From ancient Egyptians to modern-day funeral home customers, we want our dead relatives to appear as they did in life.  As Ed Lins, a funeral director in Flushing, NY told the New York Times several years ago, families want that “everlasting effect.” So although nontoxic alternatives to traditional embalming fluid exist, Lins says, “I wouldn’t embalm a body that is being shipped overseas with it.”

But, if you’re not setting out on a multi-week, 180 city, 7 state, funeral procession like slain President Abraham Lincoln, tissue preservation may not be your top concern. Environmental sustainability may trump skin tone perpetuation. Recently, my sister’s hometown of Rhinebeck, NY approved a measure to set aside a portion of their town cemetery for a natural burial ground. Cemetery Committee Chairwoman Suzanne Kelly said they made the decision because of demand. Many people want their burial to part of the natural environment, not set apart from it.

Others want a more economical approach to funereal practices: a burial shroud or simple pine coffin will not set you back the several thousand dollars that an “18-Gauge Steel Love Remembered Casket” will. (Although you can order one online at Wal-Mart for $1,533.33,plus shipping.)

Two Italian artists—Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel—invite us to shift our thinking about the dead and how they can live on as part of memorial forests. Their project, Capsula Mundi, entails burying your loved one in fetal position inside an egg-shaped biodegradable pod. As the body decomposes, it provides fertilizer for a tree planted on top of the burial container. Several astute critics have pointed out that, although the containers are beautiful and imaginative, their shape does not best provide nutrients to the trees; a prone body distributes nutrients more evenly.

Natural burials aren’t for everyone; religious traditions and family wishes are often in play when wrestling with death’s mysteries. But Mary Roach, author of bestseller “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers”, reminds us, “We are all nature, all made of the same basic materials… We are no different, on a very basic level, from the ducks and the mussels and last week’s coleslaw. Thus we should respect Nature, and when we die, we should give ourselves back to the earth.”