Lessons from a pre-Columbian phone

It looks like one of those string and paper cup phones—the kind you might have made after watching a “ZOOM” episode on public television circa 1975—except that it’s over 1200 years old. The receivers are made of gourds coated with resin and stretched animal hide, and the 75 foot long cord is fashioned from twined cotton.  Writer and historian Neil Baldwin calls it “a marvel of acoustic engineering” that arose out of the Chimú Empire at its height.  He explains that the “dazzlingly innovative” Chimú culture, centered in the Rio Moche Valley in Northern Peru, was conquered and subjugated by the Incas around 1470, several decades before the Columbian Exchange radically hastened the flow of ideas between East and West. It is the only example of this kind of phone ever discovered in this part of the world from this time period.

Anthropologists guess that it was made only for elites in the rigidly hierarchal Chimú society. Ramiro Matos, curator at the National Museum of the American Indian who specializes in cultures of the central Andes, speculates that the phone may have been made for executive level communication between a lower level assistant and someone of superior status. But, honestly, we’ll probably never know why it was invented. The importance for me, as someone who earned one of my master’s degrees in Native American history, is that it demonstrates ingenuity and inventiveness—qualities we often deny to indigenous peoples.

Culturally, politically and emotionally we imagine native peoples in a sort of suspended animation—unchanged by the exchange of ideas between societies and individual people. We often think of them as stuck in time—not allowed to adapt new technology to their purposes or adopt and refashion others’ ideas and traditions. Like any human beings the world over, native cultures are—and have always been—resourceful, imaginative and practical. It is unfortunate and so very limiting to our idea of human ingenuity when we insist that native groups stay “museum quality”, as if they themselves were artifacts.

This is not a uniquely American phenomenon. While in graduate school, a professor told me of a fascinating documentary another grad student made about German attendees at Native American pow wows. In the film, the tourists approached native people to critique their style of dress and complain that it wasn’t “authentic” enough. In one exchange, a German man insists that a Native American man’s ceremonial clothing is not genuine because it is a mixture of old and new styles. He felt entitled to define true “Indian-ness” and tell this man he fell short.

Once I traveled up to the Medicine Wheel in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming—an ancient sacred site to native peoples throughout the Big Horn basin. On that day, a group of local Native American women gathered for a religious ceremony. Although it is classified as a National Historic Landmark and managed by the park service, when Native Americans wish to use the sacred space, the site is temporarily closed to tourists.  We waited about an hour before we were allowed to hike up to the holy site on the edge of a magnificent vista. Later, describing to a Caucasian acquaintance our experience at the Medicine Wheel, she exclaimed, “Isn’t it cool that we still have real Indians out here? Not like back East where there are none.”

It was a remarkable comment for so many reasons. First, glaringly, there was the “we” she used that implied ownership of an entire people. There was also that unmistakable tone of pride that “their” Indians were somehow more legitimate because many still lived on reservations and had not intermarried with non-Indians to the extent of the Eastern tribes. I pointed out that Eastern tribes still very much exist—despite four hundred years spent in survival mode. Following the Pequot War that ended in 1638—a war in which hundreds of Pequots were burned alive by the English and many of the survivors were sold into slavery by their English and Native American enemies—their tribal name itself was made illegal. For many Eastern groups, survival meant going underground.

But even when survival is not immediately at stake, all people must be afforded the right to adapt and transform aspects of modernity. Prize-winning writer and historian Philip Deloria—son of renowned Dakota writer, scholar and activist Vine Deloria, Jr.—has written several influential texts about the persistent attempts of non-Native people to dictate what is true and valid “Indian-ness”. His 2004 monograph, “Indians in Unexpected Places”, challenges stereotypes of Native American people which restrict them to an unchanging past in which they are not allowed to adapt and repurpose modernity to their needs.

In one section of the book, “Expectation and Anomaly”, Deloria deconstructs one of his favorite photographs from the 1940s. In it a native woman in traditional buckskin beaded dress sits under a large salon hairdryer while she receives a manicure. Deloria asserts that the reason why so many people still chuckle at this image is because we believe subconsciously that “Indians live in the hinterlands, strangers to the urbanity of the manicure. They practice barter or gift economies and are, thus, unprepared for the cash exchange of the beauty parlor.” When we laugh at such images and label them as “anomalies”, it is because it is easier to imagine them as exceptions rather than as an absolutely normal aspect of Native American culture—indeed, all culture. We all dabble, adapt, transmute, and borrow. And in the process, we neither automatically lose our identities nor our histories.

Someday we may discover more clues as to the inventor of the ancient cup phone. But for now I am grateful for both the reminder about the elemental drive to innovate and for the opportunity to imagine the cultural exchange and personal ingenuity that led to the clever invention.



Growth rings

Ailanthus trees, although native to China and Taiwan, are successful transplants to New York City and many parts of New England. Known as the “tree of heaven” in Asia—where it is used medicinally—the ailanthus is extremely adaptable and persistent. Do a Google search for images of these trees in the Big Apple, and you will see them growing in otherwise barren vacant lots, in the cracks in asphalt and cement, on the ledges of buildings, and even in subway grates in Manhattan and the other  boroughs.  They require very little tending to survive and tolerate significant pollution. They make their place wherever it suits them.

We should not expect children to be so astonishingly resilient, but we do. We believe any child from any background, in the midst of trauma and emotional setbacks or absent parents—or worse an abusive situation—will thrive once they put down roots in elementary school.  Instead, children who start kindergarten behind, usually stay behind. This is why early childhood education is vital, not just for children, but for our society as a whole. Preschool starts children on a path towards celebrating graduation instead of languishing in a prison cell.

The National Adult Literacy Survey indicates that children who have not yet developed rudimentary literacy skills before entering kindergarten are 3-4 times more likely to drop out of school  later. There are disastrous consequences when students do not become fully literate.  According to the Washington Literacy Council, 75% of those on welfare and the vast majority of unwed mothers have low literacy skills. Being functionally illiterate greatly reduces one’s choices in life. So it is heroic when some educators dedicate their lives to setting our youngest students on the right path—even though they choose a career that is persistently underpaid.

Last week, as our talented Chief Wrinn announced his retirement from the Brattleboro Police Department after 28 years on the force, another longtime community member—also fighting the good fight—retired after 22 years. Kim Jillson, at Brattleboro Nursery School, has nurtured and taught hundreds of area children and prepared them for life’s travails and triumphs.

Jillson’s vocation has a clear impact on the work of police officers like Chief Wrinn. When students receive quality preschool education, it sets them up to be more successful in school. Successful students are less likely to be arrested and incarcerated later in life. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 60% of America’s prison inmates are illiterate, and 85% of all juvenile offenders have reading problems. A defense lawyer I know once confided in me that almost every juvenile offender he ever represented had had reading problems.

After 22 years teaching, Jillson tells many stories about her work at Brattleboro Nursery School, but what has consistently brought her the most delight is witnessing a child learn a new skill. She told me, “When a child learns something new, such as writing their name, making a new friend or finishing a hard puzzle, I can see the joy in their eyes and their whole body.”  It is even more rewarding to know that the child is excited to tell her family that she can do something by herself. The work of the early educator is about setting a course for future success by cementing and celebrating the important little victories each day. These teachers foster and honor a child’s sense of self and a sense of place in the vast world. We are so lucky to have women (and, yes, a few men) who are willing to take on this difficult, critical work.

Over her two decades at Brattleboro Nursery School, Jillson told me, she felt supported by parents and board members at the school; they seem to understand and appreciate her work. But she has also been told more than once by those not connected with the school, “All you do is play all day with little kids. That isn’t a job. Anyone can do that.”

Oh, my, what a statement! Clearly they’ve never spent an entire morning with my two opinionated Huns. I honestly can’t imagine teaching an entire class of preschoolers each day for hours. I used to come into my son’s preschool to teach music just once a week for half an hour. This 30 minute slot just about killed me each week. I am a veteran teacher, undaunted by surly, quirky middle-schoolers. And I really enjoyed it. But having a room full of tiny Napoleons all talking unintelligibly at once and singing off key and looking at me like “glazed donuts” as my brother-in-law calls them (because of the constant glaze of mucus under, around and on their noses), well, let’s just admit I was always squarely in my discomfort zone.

I saw Chief Wrinn the other night at Gallery Walk and we exchanged pleasantries as I thanked him for his service. We’d given him a rightly deserved standing ovation at Town Meeting the other night and I felt glad that our citizens are willing to offer effusively thanks in this way. I only wish our childhood educators received the same hero’s send off.

For these preschool teachers are the ailanthus trees for our children. Each year they make a home with a new batch of children. Whatever the children offer them, they make a home for it: Trauma, hardship, joyful victories and willfulness. They see what they are given to work with and they put down roots. Always.

Al and Rita

Watching a clip of Maya Angelou reading her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” for Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, I was struck by how well I remembered it— not just its beautiful, startling turns of phrase, but also her intonation, posture and delivery. She rules the dais. Behind her, throngs of white dignitaries—including a baby-faced Clinton and the eternally earnest Gore—listen, enthralled.

Without compunction her robust yet clipped voice begins: “A Rock, A River, A Tree/Hosts to species long since departed…” While I contemplate her injection of the mighty mastodon into an inaugural address, she has already cut the prehistoric emperors down to size: “The dinoasaur, who left dry tokens of their sojourn here on our planet floor…” She stands before the most powerful people of the most influential nation on earth (It was the roaring ‘90s after all!), and reminds them that we will all one day be but dust and dung.

What a remarkable woman.

Although accused of solipsism—and much worse—by bloggers and writers at the conservative National Review, she had a genuine fan in Erick Erickson, editor of the website RedState. In his remembrance of her and her work— “The Caged Bird Sang to Me”—Erickson unabashedly proclaims, “I loved her mind and I loved her voice.” He writes of his frustration with some of his colleagues on the right “who think nice things cannot be said of people on the other side of the aisle.” Erickson, like so many readers worldwide, enjoyed the rhythmic quality of Angelou’s work and its ability to connect him “to others, other times, and issues”.  Despite a life lived within Jim Crow brutality and merciless misogyny, Angelou thrived because of her stark honesty. But, Erickson points out, she did not write with bitterness or discontent.

Angelou died a celebrated writer and poet, but her interests were many and her moments of languor few. She worked as a fry cook, cable car conductor, actor, producer, activist, educator and nightclub performer. In the 1950s she teamed up with dance great Alvin Ailey (another deeply expressive soul), to   perform a modern dance nightclub act called “Al and Rita.” (Born “Marguerite Johnson” she later took her childhood nickname name Maya.)

Like Maya Angelou, Alvin Ailey—the brilliant modern dancer and choreographer—well understood the liberation that art offers. His renowned dance company was dubbed “Cultural Ambassador to the World” because it seemed to perform everywhere across the globe. Ailey harnessed his prodigious talent and ambition to express complex, painful –but ultimately redemptive—stories of the African American experience.  His company’s signature piece “Revelations” is considered both a dance masterpiece and a tour de force of African American storytelling.

The physicality of the dancers—their strength and beauty—are absolutely stirring. Ailey brilliantly folds together classical and modern styles to vigorously, singularly, convey the astonishing ability of all of us to endure.  The dancers’ leaping—all at once, upward, outward and inward—brought to mind a tender fragment of a celebrated Angelou poem: “You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust/I’ll rise.” And in that rising, she implies, we do not just survive; we persist and thrive.

Thomas DeFrantz—professor of African and African American studies at Duke University—and Jennifer Dunning—writer and critic for the New York Times—have both written on Ailey’s eclectic and electric dance style. Ailey combined vividly expressive upper body movements, a “modern top”, with striking “unbroken” leg lines, a “ballet bottom”, in all his dance pieces.

Ailey’s exceptional ability to play with form and style in the dance world, and Angelou’s willingness to re-invent biography make them creative kin. Ailey was unusual in the dance world because he did not insist that his dancers be trained in a particular technique before performing his choreography. He wanted them to fully infuse themselves into his pieces. In this way, some have likened him more to a conductor of a jazz ensemble than to a stern task master. He valued his dancers’ interpretations of his ideas and felt this was a critical part of his artistry.

Angelou did not originally set out to change the parameters of autobiography, but did so essentially on a dare from Robert Loomis, who would become her editor at Random House.  Loomis asked her to write her autobiography. When she balked, he told her that was just as well because it was “almost impossible” to write autobiography as literature. Her response? “I’ll start tomorrow.” Margalit Fox, writing for the New York Times, asserts that Angelou ably responded to the challenge. Her “prose style included a directness of voice that recalls African-American oral tradition and gives her work the quality of testimony.”

Her agony, rooted in America’s South, is neither bound nor defined by it. She sees herself connected to a human experience that includes “You, the Turk, the Swede… Ashanti, the Yoruba…Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare, praying for a dream.” But she furiously urges us: “Do not be wedded forever to fear, yoked eternally to brutishness…Here on the pulse of this new day…say simply, very simply, with hope, good morning.” It is a classic Angelou revelation: our discontent, our disappointment could propagate like so much kudzu in fertile, inviting soil. Or we can choose to acknowledge the grime—almost honor it—and then dance with it. By finding its rhythm we subdue its power, and find the audacity to carry on.

I am certain that these two 20th century icons are dancing together in some earthy cabaret in the hereafter.




Wired to move

While watching my daughter’s dance class, I struck up a conversation with the young dad standing next to me. As we stood gazing through the glass at our hell-raising cherubs, I asked about his story.

He’s a local contractor, he explained, but he hadn’t started out that way. In fact, he once told his carpenter father—through gritted teeth—that he would “never be like him”; he didn’t intend to pursue a life in the building trades. He flashed a self-deprecating grin, and recounted how he’d had to eat crow when he came “home” to a life as a contractor. Once he’d swallowed his pride, he reveled in the fact that he’s good at it—something he’d rarely felt in school.

He told me he’d been one of those “fidgety boys” that needed to use his hands and “experience” education through tactile activities. Although interested in school and learning, he struggled. He told me that he’d gotten the message early on from his teachers that he needed to go to college in order to succeed. “I don’t remember even one teacher telling me in middle school that it was okay for me to want to work with my hands,” he reflected. “Instead, we were told constantly to go to college. So I did. I didn’t last long.” He explained that he wasn’t successful, and it didn’t cultivate his talents. But he grinned with pride as he rattled off all the local building projects he’s been a part of creating. I could almost see his “thought bubble”: “I built that.”

Although many studies indicate that, on average, college graduates earn more money than those who don’t pursue higher education, the story is more complex. David Leonhardt, writing for the NY Times venture “The Upshot”, notes that in a down economy, men’s wages do tend to stagnate, and men are more likely to be “idle” than their female counterparts. But Leonhardt asserts that this national problem is an outgrowth of the “boy troubles” that have grown in public schools over the past decade. Many high-energy boys don’t feel valued for their differences and unique contributions so they check out of school. In bygone eras they might have received encouragement for their facility, dexterity and energy. But today these boys grow into men who do not seek the additional education that could enhance their career options because they feel unsuccessful at school.

My own son said to me through tears of frustration and utter exasperation the other day, “Girls are just better at everything at school!” He rattled off his observations: they write better, draw more neatly, read better, and can sit quietly in circle. Despite our celebration of his creativity, physicality and his wonderful deep thinking, and regardless of the support of his teachers and their willingness to work with my rocket-fueled son, he still feels generally unsuccessful in school. Many of my friends raising boys hear similar things from their little guys.

Although we’ve managed to shrink most of the gender gap in girls’ math and science achievement, the gap between boys and girls in reading and writing has widened over the past 20 years. And nationally girls have higher report card grades in each subject area, even when boys perform better on standardized tests in certain subjects. Given that a significant portion of their grades include behavior and homework scores, it should not surprise us that  boys who are wired to move  struggle to sit still long enough to carefully complete their work.

Brain research done in 2013 at the University of Pennsylvania, shows distinct differences between male and female brains and the ways they process information. MRI scans reveal greater neural connectivity from front to back and within one hemisphere in male brains; they appear designed to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action. Female brains, however, have wiring that runs between the left and right hemispheres, suggesting more communication between analysis and intuition. Although it will take years to sort out the many meanings of these results, biological brain differences exist.  It makes sense that boys and girls would learn differently and thrive best under different conditions.

One school—Spark Academy in Lawrence, MA—is reinventing what school looks and feels like.  School leaders did not specifically make the changes to meet the needs of boys, but the school’s abysmal record demanded radical revision. Students now get 3 physical activity periods each day, totaling 2 hours of gym. Teachers also provide regular movement breaks and try to include some action in each activity. Recent test scores indicate that the school is on the right track. As physical activity has increased, so has student achievement.

Restructuring schools to include a lot more movement is one way to try to meet the needs of boys (and high energy girls). Another is to form book groups for teachers to read “Wired to Move” a book by Ruth Hanford Mohard that explains boys’ drive to move and offers strategies to help boys be more successful in school settings. Publicly and frequently valuing any student’s aspiration to have a career that involves “hands-on” work is another way to support our smart but fidgety kids. And providing clear educational pathways from middle school through high school will enable students to step into a career upon graduation. We must broaden our definition of success.

As dance class ended, all the girls sat listening attentively, carefully following directions. My new friend jerked his chin towards the glass that literally gave us a window into another world. He shook his head: “That wasn’t me. I couldn’t sit still. I needed to move.”



Daring’s darlings

I have a cringe-worthy group photo from my high school days.  I am at teen leadership conference, and for some assuredly good reasons—that escape me now—I wore mismatched Converse high tops, boxer shorts as pantaloons, an old tweet jacket, my Mohawk, and a pair of gargantuan pink-tinted glasses. I look equal parts ludicrous and unreasonably proud. But I was “all in”—fully present and engaged in the work of the group and confident in my opinions.  Youth possesses daring and authenticity that often depreciates as we age.

I remembered this photo the other day while engaged in a rich discussion at the Boys and Girls Club. My friend Byron Stookey and I had contacted the inimitable Ricky Davidson to see if we could talk with area youth about their views on economic development and job opportunities in Brattleboro. Our discussion was part of a commitment that Byron and I made over a year ago to seek out voices on the edges of the critical conversation about the economic health of our region. As a member of the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS) workforce committee, I know that despite the numerous meetings and forums held to hear from area residents while the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies (CEDS) document was crafted, there were  voices we didn’t hear; some folks simply don’t attend public meetings. Byron and I have been trying to fill in the holes.

We learned so much. These impressive young leaders expressed worries about the easy drugs available in our town, and they named the “sketchy” areas around town they try to avoid. Most said they feel generally safe now but would have real concerns about raising their own children here. They all seemed to appreciate the town’s artsy flair and cultural offerings, but they worried that young locals are being left behind.

One young woman said, “It is so hard to afford a date night in this town!” The others readily agreed. Now that Frankie’s Pizza is gone, there’s no place in the downtown district where one can grab a cheap slice. They also wished the Latchis could offer a cheaper “movie night” option for teens.  Many said that the shops in Brattleboro “aren’t for us.” And several commented that Brattleboro is “too into the local thing” and “caught between hippies and tourists.” “It is hard for us to buy things we need,” they explained, “and we can’t find jobs here. Nobody wants to hire a teen.”

Many bemoaned the fact that they cannot buy affordable teen clothing downtown. More than one said “they’d kill” for a clothing shop geared towards them: an Urban Outfitters, PacSun or Forever 21. Now they drive to New Hampshire or Massachusetts to do their clothes shopping. As one teen pointed out, “Burlington and Northampton have some of these chain shops, and that hasn’t “ruined” their towns.”

These students come from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds and experiences. Some plan to stay in the area as adults; others suspect that their interests and passions will lead them elsewhere. All cared deeply about this town and their place in it.

At the beginning of the meeting, Ricky reminded the teens that we truly wanted to hear their thoughts. His dogged determination to honor and champion these young people shone as he shared the astounding number of community service hours these students have contributed to area organizations.  He reminded us that we must have the courage to be vulnerable in order to be seen and heard.

He said, “Speak even if your voice shakes.” Brené Brown—research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and best-selling author—writes and lectures extensively on courage, vulnerability and shame. Her 2012 book, “Daring Greatly,” has been a companion to my work with Byron and has guided my thinking about listening deeply to others’ perspectives.

Brown starts her book with a quote from Teddy Roosevelt’s speech “Citizen in a Republic”—the so-called “Man in the Arena” speech—delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris over a hundred years ago. One particular passage addresses her themes: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again…if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”

Brown asserts that we want to experience others’ vulnerability, but we don’t want to be vulnerable. We are inspired by the willingness of others to be vulnerable and authentic, but we feel weak when we think about showing our own true selves. In this way, Ricky Davidson is a tremendous model for these teens: He shows authenticity and vulnerability in his work each and every day. And the teens at the Boys and Girls Club respond.

They openly discussed their fears and hopes for our town and region, and they shared their disappointments. This took honesty, courage, and a trust that someone on the other end would truly listen to their unabashed candor.

Like my 18-year-old self in the preposterous outfit and outrageous hairdo, these students—much more reasonably dressed, I might add—embody the importance of daring greatly. Byron and I have gained a much deeper understanding of our town by listening to the opinions they were courageous enough to share with two strangers.



Taxing tensions

“Where you stand depends on where you sit,” she said.

I’d heard this political adage before, but this time it truly resonated. We’d been discussing the Brattleboro town budget, and we both conceded that our day-to-day experiences in this town shape our views. As a mom, I see my whole world through the lens of my young children. I want strong schools; I want solid infrastructure that supports town services and invites new residents and businesses. I want a safe town, equipped to deal with the heroin onslaught, and I want a robust economy that will lift local children out of poverty.

I am willing to swallow the bitter pill of higher taxes because I have the comfort afforded by the long view. And I know that, in all likelihood, my family will not have to choose between buying heating oil or paying our property taxes. I am fortunate. But it is not solely my good fortune that drives my position. It is the love of my offspring and my fear about the future—theirs, mine and Brattleboro’s.

If I were retired and subsisting on an inadequate fixed income, I necessarily would have a very different perspective on the budgetary crisis. Rising taxes might be my preeminent concern—even if it meant critical infrastructure went untended or town services got cut. I received an email from a reader several weeks back in which his fear was palpable. He described how an older neighbor of his—a local landlord—is thinking of selling of his “retirement” investment because he is losing money. The rising costs of heat, hot water and taxes make it untenable for him, but he feels trapped. Like others I’ve talked to, the soft real estate market forces his hand, and he stays put. In my own neighborhood, the immaculately maintained house directly behind mine has been on the market for two years. Other friends will most likely sell their house at a loss.

If I were among the scores of residents living in poverty, I would feel the proposed budget cuts to sidewalk plowing, the library, and the rec department acutely. The rec department is a life saver; parents can provide their children with healthy recreation even if they have little more than pocket change at their disposal. And one need only look at the library’s doors before they open each day to see this institution’s great worth to the town. The throngs gathered represent a broad cross-section of residents, but the library is a physical refuge for the poor and a critical information portal for those without access to computers. The cruel irony is that some of the proposed budget cuts—in order to make life more affordable in this town—would affect the poorest among us most deeply.

In a recent conversation with a town employee, she conceded, “I am biased.”  She is. But so we all are. We are shaped by our experiences, our history, and the demands of our fears and hopes. We cannot stop listening deeply to our neighbors; nor can we move the conversation forward by accusations nested in unfounded mistrust. One selectboard member shared with me that it is really demoralizing to work so very hard and receive emails that begin with the phrase, “You people…” When basic civility breaks down, it is time to seek the meta-view and take comfort in the realization that we Brattleborians are certainly not alone. Towns all over Vermont have reached a breaking point over taxes and expenditures.

The sluggish economy, a flat grand list, the downturn in the real estate market, rising poverty, lack of economic development, our incapacitated Brooks House block, and the chickens coming home to roost in regard to deferred maintenance and infrastructure repairs all contribute. But one Technicolor Dumbo in the room is the unwieldy, impenetrable statewide school-funding mechanism.  One would be hard pressed to find an individual who could accurately depict all its moving parts, but the results are obvious: Our school budgets increase even when local boards level fund their schools.

Clearly, our issues are greater than Brattleboro, and we must continue to engage at the regional and state level to unravel these complicated quandaries.

At the local level, we must do the difficult work of attacking our budgetary problems together. The recent huge turnouts at select board budget meetings have buoyed my spirits. When we have more people—from a wide swath of the Brattleboro experience—fully involved in brainstorming possible solutions, we have a better chance of crafting remedies that honor the diversity of our day-to-day experiences.   I hope we will make small but significant changes to the town budget now, but hold off on bigger ones until we get critical input from more residents in the next cycle. But people need to show up.

The other day, for the first time since moving to Vermont 17 years ago, I became disoriented on a run. I started out on familiar pathways and well-worn trails, but as I got deeper in the woods, I lost my sense of direction and landmarks by which to navigate.  I eventually worked my way back to town, after three miles had turned into six miles, and I was late to a meeting. But once I was safely home the unexpected detour offered a fresh perspective.

We have been lost. We have loped along on the same routes hoping desperately for a different outcome. The unprecedented public engagement in the current budget discussions perhaps means we’ve finally reached a breaking point. And from the current crisis grows the potential that we can develop a new way forward that combines both irrepressible optimism and a sober assessment that things must change.




Sterling and Silver

For those of you who still held out hope that the nation that elected President Obama is a “post-racial” society, the news out of L.A. this week was an abhorrent reminder of the tenacity of racial prejudice. Donald Sterling—owner of the NBA Los Angeles Clippers franchise—made headlines when his surreptitiously recorded boorish racial rant went public. On tape, he tells his former girlfriend that he doesn’t want her to post pictures of herself on social media in which she poses with black people. He clearly should spend more time worrying about his own image.

A friend recently commented that Sterling looks like the love child of Jack Klugman and Jabba-the-Hutt, but, like Jabba, the billionaire real estate developer clearly had clout. Now that the spotlight is more finely attuned to his disgraceful record of past prejudice and “plantation” mentality, former Clipper general manager Elgin Baylor—who unsuccessfully sued Sterling for racial discrimination—will finally feel vindicated. And NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s maximum fine and lifetime ban of Sterling sets a new tone of complete intolerance for racism within the NBA. But why did it take so long?

Sterling, whose lackluster team has long been the butt of jokes, was well-known throughout the NBA—and beyond—for racism. But recently, after his team finally started to win games, the NBA and the public seemed to have tacitly accepted that, although he’s a bigoted lout, at least he now runs a winning franchise. All’s fair in victory and profit?  Gene Demby, of NPR’s Code Switch, points out that Sterling’s $2.7 million settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Justice Department because of discrimination in his rental properties was the largest payout ever for housing discrimination. After the settlement became public, the NBA issued no fines or sanctions against Sterling and seems to have wholly ignored the issue.  Although the tape recording was a smoking gun, there has been enough smoke hovering around Sterling for years that someone higher up in the NBA should have long ago yelled, “Fire!”

Jay Jaffe, writing for Sports Illustrated points out that Major League Baseball took on Marge Schott—former Cincinnati Reds owner— when she made repeated offensive comments about African Americans, Jews, and women. Schott was the first woman to purchase a controlling share of a Major League Baseball Team, but her “status as a pioneer was buried amid her limitless capacity to offend,” writes Jaffe. Like Schott was to baseball, Jaffe argues, Sterling is a blight on the NBA. Commissioner Silver must be unwavering and methodical in rebuking owners and coaches for repugnant statements and actions.

My backdrop to this Sterling and Silver scandal has been David Levering Lewis’ Pulitzer prize-winning biography of African American historian, sociologist and intellectual W.E.B. DuBois. I purchased Levering Lewis’ two-part biography of Du Bois (each of which won the Pulitzer for biography) years ago, but had not finally cracked them open until last week—days before Sterling’s disturbing comments. After finishing Annette Gordon-Reed’s recent biography of Andrew Johnson, I felt compelled to dive in. As Reconstruction foundered under Johnson, and the nation began the horrid slide into Jim Crow and unconscionable violence, there were, as always, incredible stories of African American men and women who wrought lives for themselves—lives lived among people that would have them disappear or be shipped to Africa’s distant shores.

As I read the inspiring story of the erudite W.E.B DuBois, I marvel at his talent, curiosity, and drive. DuBois never doubts that he has what it takes to achieve academic greatness—despite constant reminders from a nation unwilling to truly grapple with hundreds of years of exploitation and underestimation of black people. DuBois, like all his African American contemporaries, yearned for respect in the broken, but not chastened, South and the gritty, unforgiving North.

Certain moments in the text force rumination on the depth and scope of suffering shaped by the weighty fear of difference. When DuBois and his wife lose their two-year-old son to diphtheria, they follow behind the cart carrying the tiny coffin to the Atlanta train station to be brought home to Great Barrington, MA. Even while engulfed by profound grief, they are not afforded any propriety or solemnity. White onlookers call out, “Niggers!” as they walk in a haze of sorrow and loathing. The year is 1899; the war is decades over and yet freedom never coalesces; it is a noble notion, unrealized. Because emancipation is not simply about manumission; it is about freeing the spirit and allowing it to live its true potential.

DuBois labored his entire adult life to re-frame society’s beliefs about African Americans and their capacity for intellectualism. Much has been made of DuBois’ clash with contemporary Booker T. Washington over whether African Americans would find salvation through hard work and industrial education or by rigorous classical study. But this famous disagreement should not obscure DuBois’ most important principle:  the conviction that all men should have “intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it” in order to fashion a “true life.”  Every man must balance the “skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life.”

Despite Donald Sterling’s delusions of grandeur as a modern NBA plantation master lording over his African American “slaves”, he is but a “boy.” I mean “boy” said with the full weight and scorn of lifetimes of derision that DuBois and millions of others have endured at the hands of ignorant men who never fully embodied the wisdom and understanding of the brotherhood of man.

Scrap the interview

On a glorious run through the scrub brush in the wild lands of Wyoming, my brother-in-law remarked between breaths, “Interviews are worthless. Totally, utterly pointless. They don’t actually give you any reliable information.  We only think they do. And we’re completely wrong.” Now, my dear brother-in-law is something of an adorable, argumentative curmudgeon and sometimes stakes out a controversial position just to move the conversation in an interesting direction. I thought perhaps this was one of those times. But he was emphatic and cited numerous books and studies to support his assertion that traditional job interviews are, in fact, pointless.

I checked his facts, and he’s right. The overwhelming body of evidence concerning job interviews supports his assertion. Interviews do not give the interviewer an accurate sense of whether or not a potential applicant can do a good job. A solid interview does not  predict success. So why do we still do them?

For one, they serve as a kind of security blanket. We want to be sure we “like” the candidate. But Don Moore—associate professor at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley—notes, “Interviews favor candidates who are attractive, sociable, articulate, and tall. They also favor manipulative candidates, or ones who know how to make a positive impression even in a brief interview. But those aren’t always the best job performers.” We all have examples of “likeable” hires who interviewed well but turned out to be complete disasters.

When Moore’s MBA students conducted interviews with two other classmates and then guessed who would perform better on the midterm exam, their success rate was not much better than simply flipping a coin: just over 50%. “We all want to believe we are good judges of character,” he explains, but we don’t bother to collect the real evidence we need to determine job performance. We instead rely on wholly unreliable “gut instinct.”

Google did their own internal assessment of the efficacy of their interviews and concluded they were deeply flawed. Laszlo Bock, Google’s senior vice president of people operations, explains, “We looked at tens of thousands of interviews, and everyone who had done the interview and what they scored the candidate, and how that person ultimately performed in their job. We found zero relationship.” Bock describes it as a “complete random mess.” Supervisors were not very successful at picking the right members for their teams.

Interview teams also bring inherent cultural, racial, and gender bias with them into an interview. A 2003 experiment conducted by Columbia School of Business professor Frank Flynn and New York University professor Cameron Anderson illustrates our prejudicial assumptions. Flynn and Anderson gave students identical applicant profiles to assess; the only difference was that one applicant was named Heidi, the other was named Howard. The students rated both applicants equally competent, but Howard was viewed as more favorable a candidate. Men and women alike categorized “Heidi”  as aggressive and difficult to work with—simply because of her successful track record.

I witnessed this unconscious gender bias firsthand  when I was on an interview team. A female candidate answered a direct question about her accomplishments, citing many examples of successful programs she’d instituted. A male candidate answering the same question was personable but did not give a direct answer. During the  debrief, many on the team forgot his evasive answer, but the female candidate was labeled “aggressive” for tooting her own horn.

From a job-seeker’s standpoint, too, sometimes interviews are a waste of time. My worst interview ever? One in which members of the interview committee held unconcealed hostility toward each other. I felt I’d walked into a dysfunctional Thanksgiving supper—without the wine and promised dessert. As each day passed after the interview, I recalled more awkward and unprofessional comments from that cringe-worthy ordeal. Although it always stings when you don’t get a job, in this instance the pain of rejection was assuaged by the feeling that I had just dodged a bazooka.

Megan McArdle, writing for the Daily Beast, argues that although interviews are a good way to assess whether someone appears to be sociable or charming, they don’t help determine if a candidate is “hardworking, honest, or supportive of their team members when things go wrong.” Many Human Relations directors have argued that although this may be true, the thinking has always been that at least they won’t hurt a good candidate’s chance of being hired.

Not so, says Jason Dana at the Yale School of Management. His research indicates that “unstructured interviews are worse than invalid; they actually decrease accuracy.” Dana says this is because we are prone to “dilution” and “sensemaking.” When we are bombarded with too much non-diagnostic information, our brains “dilute” the valuable information. We don’t ignore extraneous information, and we start to reduce our reliance on “good information.”  We seek out information that proves a preconceived impression of a candidate. Dana explains that if a candidate offers a response that is inconsistent with the interviewer’s impression, the interviewer will reformulate their “sensemaking” until the candidate’s answers seem to match their impression of the candidate. We want a narrative—a story—that makes sense, so when we don’t hear one, we create one for ourselves.

So what’s an employer to do? If you’re not ready to scrap the interview entirely—despite the convincing evidence—create a more structured interview process in which each applicant is asked the same questions. Employ a scoring rubric that lists the specific skills, qualities and experience needed in the job. Each candidate can then be measured against this score sheet and not simply assessed by the wattage of their sparkling smile or their ability to turn on the charm.

My little collector

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“It ain’t the tailor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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