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.



Adopting an EcoMind

I found last week’s AP article about Maine’s rapidly warming coastal waters particularly alarming. The Gulf of Maine is heating faster than 99% of the earth’s oceans.  Scientists and those in the commercial fishing industry see cod, herring and northern shrimp leaving in search of colder waters. As they migrate out, black sea bass, blue crab and particular kinds of squid best suited to warmer water are popping up in fishing nets. The rising waters in the Gulf also affect Maine’s signature lobsters. There are fewer baby lobsters in coves on the Maine coast. It’s as hard to imagine Maine without lobsters as it is to imagine Vermont without maple syrup.

With facts like these, it certainly feels like we’re doomed.

Best-selling author and longtime environmental and democracy activist Frances Moore Lappé wants us to jettison this fatalism. Lappé once directed the Center for Living Democracy here in Brattleboro, and she spoke in 2013 at the Strolling of the Heifer’s Slow Living Summit. She has spent her entire adulthood advocating for sustainable food systems and practices.  Her multimillion-selling “Diet for a Small Planet” motivated many Americans to rethink their consumption habits. After reading this call to action, I also embarked on 13 years of vegetarianism. Although no longer a strict vegetarian, my food choices and those I make for my family are still informed by Lappé’s early work.  I recently tuned back in to her career when I caught an interview with Lappé in which she discussed her desire to combat the hopelessness she feels permeates the environmental movement.

Her 2011 book, “EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want”, arose from a moment of despair. Lappé left an environmental conference in Washington, D.C.—a gathering of many of her heroes—feeling utterly defeated: “I walked out feeling like I was made of lead. I walked out paralyzed and I said, ‘Oh my God. This is not working.’” She then set out to find another way to think about our innumerable ecological crises—one that would not leave her feeling entirely stuck and would still remain “based in fact and not dreamland.” The key, she reflected, was to dramatically shift her frame of reference.

Forty years ago, as a grad student at UC Berkeley, Lappé challenged the conventional wisdom that we’d reached the planet’s limit in its ability to feed everyone. ”Diet for a Small Planet” offered another lens: World hunger is not a result of a lack of food or the capacity to grow food.   It is caused by flawed and ineffective food policies and practices. Changing the way we eat—reducing our dependence on meat in our diets, for example—can dramatically improve the ecological landscape.

Now she urges us to re-frame our ideas about ecology and environmentalism by first identifying the “thought traps” that limit us in our solutions. She then encourages us to embrace the “thought leaps” that will enable more hopefulness, collaboration, and remedies. Referencing the work of German social psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm, Lappé begins her discussion with “frames of orientation.” She explains, “[A] defining trait of our species is that we each see the world through culturally formed frames that determine, literally, what we can see and what we cannot—even including what we can see in our own nature, and therefore what we believe is possible for our species.“

One of the seven climate change “thought traps” she identifies is one that I’ve heard a lot: “It’s too late.” Lappé responds: “Too late for what?” Yes, she concedes, it is too late to prevent climate change; it is already here. She continues, “Erratic, extreme, and destructive weather is already with us. It is too late to prevent suffering. Terrible suffering is already with us.” But, she explains, “[I]t is not too late for life.” We are creatures who yearn to make things better, to create a world conducive to life. It is, she asserts, the very essence of being human, and this core does not change with the tide of climate chaos.

The constant dark cultural messages about humanity and our shortcomings—we’re selfish; we’re in a constant battle for diminished resources; we’re too driven by consumerism; we’ve lost our connection to nature—do nothing to slow global climate change or ameliorate its effects. Instead, we must change the way we think about ourselves, our abilities, our connections, and our potential to solve challenging problems. If our mental frame is flawed, she asserts, we will fail despite our effort or our deep commitment.

Lappé may be a deep thinker, but she’s no Pollyanna . She soberly assesses the many threats to our planet, but she remains, in her words, a “possibilist”. In an interview with Mark Karlin of “Truthout”, Lappé describes a new frame of reference that comes when “we see that everything’s connected and change is the only constant.” Once she accepts this position, she explains, “Something shifts for me. I can see that we’re all actually co-creating our future moment to moment—which feels like endless possibility.” Although she concedes that hope can potentially distract one from the present moment, she doesn’t believe hope is just wishful thinking. Instead, she asserts, “It’s a stance toward life—one of curiosity and humility.” If we can adopt what she calls “an eco-mind”, we understand that it’s simply not possible to know what’s possible.

It has been a very long time since I’ve felt hopeful about the environment and our future. Lappé has brought me home to possibility and connection. Moving forward with curiosity and humility is a great place to start.



How the game is played

Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the death of neuroscientist and pharmacologist Candace B. Pert. Pert discovered what is known as the opiate receptor, but at the time of her landmark research, Pert was cut out of the accolades. A gifted graduate pharmacology student in the lab of neuroscientist Solomon H. Snyder, according to the Washington Post’s Emily Langer, Dr. Pert identified “the first verified receptor in the brain and the one responsive to painkillers such as morphine and drugs such as opium.” When Dr. Snyder later won the 1978 Lasker Prize for medical research related to the receptor discovery—along with two researchers in Scotland, Hans Kosterlitz and John Hughes—Dr. Pert was not recognized as having made any contribution to the discovery. Stung, she protested.

While many at the time, Pert included, suspected that she’d been excluded due to unacknowledged and intractable sexism, Dr. Snyder defended his actions by saying, “That’s how the game is played.” Translation: graduate students don’t get credit for work done in their mentor’s lab under their tutelage. It may not be fair, the argument goes, but those grad students can pull the same seniority card when they’re in charge.

It’s easy to understand Dr. Pert’s protestations. Whether it’s the brilliant Rosalind Franklin and her omission from Crick and Watson’s double-helix DNA work, or the lesser known Victorian-era computer programmer, Ada Lovelace—women’s contributions to science and math are often overlooked, dismissed, or either mistakenly or intentionally attributed to men.

I’m embarrassed to say, I too, inadvertently made this same mistake several weeks ago in a column I wrote on memory research conducted by New York University neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps. In my column, after reading several synopses of Fulbright student Daniela Schiller’s work, I erroneously—like other writers before me—said that Schiller had worked in Joe LeDoux’s lab at Mt. Sinai. LeDoux has been a 20-year collaborator with Phelps, but he did not head up the research I wrote about; Phelps did. Professor Phelps headed the lab, secured the NIH funding for the research, and Schiller’s work built on research Phelps had begun years before.  Nowhere in my column did I give Dr. Phelps credit, and I deeply regret this.

How did I find out that I’d made such a mortifying error? I received an email from Dr. Elizabeth Phelps herself.  She wrote about how disappointing it is to not receive acknowledgment for her lab’s important work and how this happens all too often to women in science.  I know this. And I still made the error. It saddens me that accomplished women scientists like Dr. Phelps must monitor their press to ensure that their work is rightly credited to them. But I am grateful that she took the time to set the record straight. My embarrassment means I have learned the lesson in a new way, and I will be hyper-vigilant next time to prevent a similar error.

It is not just women in science who have a hard time being recognized for their accomplishments. Women in the tech world face similar struggles. In an article published last week in Re/Code, an independent tech news and analysis site, Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett, authors of the “New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance Is Hurting Women, Men—and Our Economy,” outline the reasons why women have a difficult time climbing to the highest levels in the technology field.

Rivers, award-winning journalism professor at Boston University, and Barnett, senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, note that women in science and tech fields encounter “invisible” bias that goes unnoticed by men and women alike. They write, “[T]he old scripts that both men and women unwittingly follow still have amazing power.” One enduring obstacle is that teamwork is a central component of science and technology research. Although teamwork often produces rich results, mixed-sex teams rarely reward women for their contributions to the group.

Research by New York University psychology professor Madeline Heilman and UMASS Lowell assistant professor of psychology Michelle Haynes highlights that women fall victim to what Heilman calls “attributional rationalization”. Heilman explains, “[A] woman member of a successful team is unlikely to get as much credit for a team’s success as her male counterpart, and she is seen as having been less influential in bringing about the successful outcome.” Even more concerning is research conducted by Haynes and UMASS Lowell colleague Jason Lawrence. They studied who gets blamed in mixed-sex groups when a project is unsuccessful. Their research reveals that 3rd party evaluators are more likely to assign blame to a female group member if the group’s project fails.

Heilman also investigates what happens when women “violate” societal norms as to how they “should” behave. She finds that women get a far greater negative reaction when they choose not to help others than their male colleagues receive for the same behavior. Her team has also shown that women are penalized for being successful in areas or skillsets that are viewed as traditionally “male” and are disliked as a consequence of their competence. And it’s difficult for women scientists to even get a foot in the door. A randomized double-blind study conducted by researchers at Yale revealed that faculty at research-intensive universities rated male applicants more competent and qualified than identical female candidates.

Although Dr. Pert—years after complaining about not receiving public recognition for her work—told the Denver Post that her protests had been naïve and that she had “stepped too far over the line,” she gave voice to an issue of continuing relevance.  I know many men actively confront these “invisible biases,” and my own mistake shows that simply being female does not protect me from perpetrating these oversights. Hopefully, my exchange with Dr. Phelps will.


Autumn commencement

At the end of a challenging 5K last year, a friend and I swapped remarkably similar stories of a “great” running moment. It comes back like clockwork when I’m huffing and puffing unglamorously up South Main Street. It goes like this: “I was running up an impossibly long, steep hill.  I sprinted my heart out and pumped my arms—I gave it everything I had. And then I looked at the racer next to me and realized they were walking faster than I was running.” Humbling? Yes. Embarrassing? Certainly. (But also undeniably funny.) It is difficult for many of us to try new things—to take on big challenges—when in all likelihood we will not be very good at the endeavor, at least initially.

I took up distance running in my 30s, after a lifetime of asthma almost had me convinced that I could never run a race. Since that first race 10 autumns ago, I’ve run a passel of half marathons and 5Ks. And despite being an unquestionably unexceptional runner, I did manage to place in my age group in a 4th of July race this year. Of course, it was a very rainy day, the field of runners was desperately thin, and I nearly lost my cookies at the end. Joan Benoit, I’m not.

But I do love to run, despite the “nothing special” quality of my athleticism. What I’ve learned about running is that, truly, there is almost always someone slower than you. (Like the guy I saw in the Casper, WY Half Marathon who ran the entire race in bright red knee-high socks and matching suspenders.)  And inevitably there is another runner who looks at you in a race and thinks, “If I could just catch her by the end, I would be happy.” I even discovered this past year that there were friends who admired me for my running– maybe not for the form and strength of my running exactly, but for my commitment to it. Surprisingly, the fact that I’m not a fabulous runner makes me a good role model for some folks.

Research on role models shows that choosing ones who are amazing (untouchable) in their greatness is not nearly as useful as emulating someone less like the divine Mozart and more like the hardworking Salieri. Alina Tugend, writing in the NYTimes, cites a study conducted by Chengwei Liu, an assistant professor of strategy and behavioral science at the University of Warwick in Britain. Liu and his colleague, Jerker Denrell, developed a simulation model in which success depends on both skill and past success. According to their model, those who achieved exceptional performance did not have better skills than those with fewer successes; in fact, their skill level was lower.

“The more exceptional performers are, the less we may learn from them,” asserts Chengwei Liu. Better to choose someone who keeps plugging along, without fanfare, and consistently performs well. Liu explains that luck and chance events often influence performance. And folks who have success early on are more likely to receive accolades and money than those who consistently perform well.  There is also that troublesome issue of cheaters. Time and again flashy top performers have been revealed as unethical: Think Lance Armstrong or any number of baseball stars.

Better to admire and emulate someone not so exceptional but ultimately more reliable—someone like my friend, Carrie.

Several years ago she went into recovery for the 3rd time for compulsive overeating; she’d become morbidly obese. One aspect of her treatment was a solid hour of daily exercise. She started out by walking on a treadmill at a local gym. She saw runners there, including me, but couldn’t really imagine a time when that could be her. Despite feeling decidedly out of place, she doggedly kept at it. She recalls, “I sweated and flushed and floundered after walking for an hour, but I kept doing it.” Every single day. No matter what.

As she got stronger, she added a little running and some other exercises to her regimen. A little over a year later—through hard work and fierce determination—she lost half her body weight. Soon after that, she told me, “I hatched a wild plan.” She entered her first 5K. Her goal was to become a “mediocre” runner. She explained, “[G]iven my starting point, even shooting for mediocrity seemed audacious.”  In the process, she discovered that her body was stronger than she ever realized: She could run for over an hour without stopping!  Carrie’s whole life has changed.  She explains, “I now savor misty mornings with the sun rising and the dew on the ground… I enjoy scurrying along dirt roads past stone walls and curious horses and rambunctious morning glories.” She now can’t imagine a life without running, and I see her running each day against our lovely autumn backdrop.

In Lucy Maud Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables”, Anne says, “’I'm so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. Look at these maple branches. Don’t they give you a thrill–several thrills?” I have always found autumn exhilarating. If lovely, but ordinary, trees can re-invent themselves and try on new dazzling cloaks, what’s stopping us? The fall lends itself much more to fresh beginnings and the stirrings of new prospects than the gray, heavy skies of January.  New Year’s resolutions? Bah! Who wants to start a new project when simply pulling yourself away from the toasty woodstove can be a terrific effort?  Start now under the cerulean skies and riotous and ambitious leaf canopies. By January it will be part of your muscle memory, and you will have become an inspiration to someone else who yearns for a change.


Liquid Gold

Local officials in Bruges, Belgium recently approved a plan to build a beer pipeline under the city in an effort to preserve its cobblestone streets and protect its many canals. Picturesque and historically relevant, the city center is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the 100,000 tourists who visit De Halve Maan (Half Moon) Brewery certainly take their toll. But it’s the brewery’s heavy truck traffic that concerns residents.  To reduce its carbon footprint and protect the historic city, according to Agence France-Presse, the brewery will build a 2-mile underground pipeline to connect the brewery to its bottling facility. De Halve Maan’s director, Xavier Vanneste explained, “The idea is born of environmental and quality of life concerns, and not economic ones.” A beer pipeline pumping 1,500 gallons of beer an hour? Now there’s an environmental idea that even Homer Simpson could get behind.

But what to do when the liquid gold in question is an unquestionably valuable by-product of consumption but is plagued with the “ick” factor? I’m referring to the over 100 gallons of urine that each of us produce each year—urine that is rich in nitrogen and phosphorous and makes an excellent natural fertilizer.  Consider this: Each year, your urine contains 8 lbs. of nitrogen and 1 lb. of phosphorous—enough natural fertilizer to grow food for someone for an entire year. But due to habits, squeamishness, and ignorance, we flush over 4,000 gallons of clean water per year per person to send “liquid gold” into our sewers where it then becomes pollution.

Collectively, Americans flush away 1.2 trillion gallons of drinkable water to transport our urine from our homes. Then we expend a lot of energy and pay big bucks to remove the urine from the water to make “cleaner” wastewater. And we’re still stuck with a sludge of all the chemical and organic pollutants.

To locals Kim Nace and Abraham Noye-Hays—founders of Rich Earth Institute (REI)—this is madness. Nace, a longtime educator, and Noye-Hays, an eco-sanitation expert and designer of dry toilet systems, teamed up in 2011 with the mission of “advancing and promoting the use of human waste as a resource.” REI’s first project was using source-separated urine as fertilizer (referred to as “pee-cycling”).  Over 170 residents of Brattleboro and its environs signed up to donate urine for this project—the very first of its kind anywhere in the United States. There has been no other legally authorized and publicly documented community-scale “urine to fertilizer” project conducted in this country.

Nace recently told me that there are trials underway in Europe, Africa, and Asia, but REI was the first here to collect detailed data on the effects of urine fertilizer on the quantity and quality of harvested hay and the underlying soil. More than 3,000 gallons of prime Southern Vermont urine have been collected, sanitized, and spread on agricultural fields. And the resulting yields were impressive.

Local participants have been eager to help with this project; it saves on water bills and greatly reduces the amount of water they waste. We are a thrifty lot here in New England and, if we’re honest, we’ll admit to enjoying feeling somewhat morally superior.  It feels great to know that simply removing your urine from the waste stream drastically diminishes the phosphorous and nitrogen in our water systems—nutrients directly responsible for eco hazards like algae blooms—and returns these valuable nutrients to the soil.

In addition to enthusiastic volunteers, Rich Earth Institute has received significant additional local assistance for their groundbreaking project. The folks at Best Septic in Westminster have been a great help, as have Chris Campany of the Windham Regional Commission, Bruce Lawrence of Brattleboro’s Waste Water Treatment Plant and Steve Barrett of Brattleboro Public Works. Their technical experience is surely vital, and Nace also deeply appreciates their belief in REI’s work.

Rich Earth Institute’s project offers tremendous potential for a state like ours—a region in which we feel closely tied to the land, protective of it, and constantly strive to maintain agriculture as an important way of life. I think our love of our natural landscape can and will trump the aversion some of us might feel towards putting our pee to work.

And besides, says Nace, “We are so much more than people peeing in jugs.” The work that they’re doing at REI is sophisticated and well-respected. They are EPA and USDA funded, and they work with academic and industry leaders in water quality. REI also recently teamed up with SUNY Buffalo and University of Michigan to conduct at 2-year study on trace pharmaceuticals in the urine. Nace and Noe-Hays want to guarantee that drug residue does not show up in soil, groundwater, or in harvested crops.

Just a few blocks from my house, Nace and Noe-Hays cultivate important partnerships with researchers and agriculturalists from across the nation and the world. Says Nace, “We want to have greater impact beyond our little state.” To that end, REI’s 2014 goals involve scaling up and improving its reach. They‘re developing a mobile urine-processing facility and working to install simple urine diverting toilets and waterless urinals in public buildings. As businesses and institutions realize the cost-savings (from reductions in water bills) and understand the relative ease with which the switch can be made, the folks at REI are confident that they can facilitate large-scale shifts in our thinking.

I’m certain several years ago that Belgium’s beer pipeline would have been dismissed as a frat boy punchline, but our pressing ecological needs force us to think ingeniously about seemingly intractable problems. Rich Earth Institute is a home-grown leader in creative, practical solutions that will benefit so many people. They are moving the possible to the probable.


The century tree and the blooming Bush

At the University of Michigan, a remarkable 80-year-old American agave plant –a so-called “century plant”—bloomed for the first and last time this summer. It sent up a 26-foot-tall shoot, and workers removed a glass panel from the conservatory’s roof so the aging anomaly would have room to unfurl its many flowers. Century plants were long-rumored to bloom only once every 100 years, but botanists now understand this is hyperbole; most bloom after only 10-30 years. But all perish after their last glorious hurrah. It is as if they have given every bit of themselves to produce something stunning.

News of the Ann Arbor agave reminded me of the soundtrack that played constantly while I worked on my first master’s degree: The work of a talented, quirky Louisianan named Victoria Williams. Williams’ high-pitched vibrato makes her an unlikely star, but her songwriting chops more than compensate for her unusual voice quality. You can find her name on several lists of the best living American songwriters, along with legends like Dylan, Mitchell and Springsteen. Her poignancy nests in stories of the commonplace lives of average folks who turn out to be remarkable in their sagacity.

When Williams croons, shouts and whispers on the track of “Century Tree”, it is as though we have been let in on a precious secret. She starts off singing about the century plant outside her house, but then deftly shifts gears: We never know when we will bloom. She urges us, “Hey, do you want to come out and play the game? It’s never too late.” Williams ends with the story of a man who rediscovers joy after the unexpected heartbreak of his wife leaving him: “Now he brings roses to his sweetheart/she lives most everywhere/ He sees someone suffering/he knows that despair/He offers them a rose/and some quiet prose/ ‘bout dancin’ in a shimmering ballroom/’Cause you never know when it will bloom.” It’s not just about our untapped potential and unspoken reveries; it is the acknowledgment that we just don’t know when we will send up our own spectacular signal.

It was in the midst of my rediscovery of Williams’ work that I learned that another early musical hero of mine, Kate Bush,  shocked fans and music critics by announcing a series of concerts at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. She hasn’t toured since 1979. Over 35 years have passed since she shot to fame in Britain as a 19-year-old with her single, “Wuthering Heights”—yes, a musical take on Emily Brontë’s classic. (Only in the U.K. could the bleak tale of Heathcliff and Cathy become a smash hit. It’s hard not to feel like they really are more erudite on the other side of the pond.)

Bush’s recording company had wanted her to release a more pop-friendly tune as her inaugural effort. But she dug in her heels and insisted on “Wuthering Heights”, which climbed to #1 in the U.K. Her musical savvy and artistic sensibilities have continued to serve her well: She is the only U.K. female recording artist to have had a top 5 album in five consecutive decades. And she did so with an atypical piercing soprano vocal quality, videos full of interesting interpretive modern dance moves, and complex lyrics that referenced James Joyce and Tennyson.

She was decidedly not your average pop star. I remember being overjoyed when she toppled Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” from the U.K. chart’s top spot. Art triumphed over artifice for at least a few weeks.

But there has always been that lingering question about her refusal to give concerts or go on tour. Her first and –up until now—last concert series, “The Tour of Life” was a six-week tour de force in the spring of 1979, full of complicated sets, lush dance and lighting sequences, and 17 costume changes. As the years slipped by, she was often referred to as “reclusive” or “withdrawn”. Some of the British press even dubbed her “Miss Havisham”—the withdrawn spinster of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations”. Others pronounced her a total perfectionist who was afraid to make a mistake.

The truth is a lot less scandalous and salacious: Life intervened and she had to piece together bits of time she could commit to her performance art. The death of her beloved mother, the birth of her son, and the death of a close friend and fellow musician all took their emotional toll. And the sheer amount of time and energy required to raise her son without requisite nannies meant she could not be as artistically productive. Reclusive? Not really; she was fully engaged in the present and the greater world, and yet she doggedly continued to craft her art.

Her fans, especially her stalwart British ones, did not expect that after more than three decades she would launch a tour. Joyous admirers sold out the 22 shows in just 15 minutes.  At the opening night last Tuesday, according to the New York Times, fans sat stone silent during the music, only to leap to their feet applauding at every brief opportunity.  Eleven of her albums are set to break the U.K. top 100 simultaneously.

We never know when we will bloom.