The walking wounded and the fight against suicide

I first met Cathy Lamberton when she came to the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs. She is the Executive Vice President of the Associated General Contractors of Vermont, and she lobbies on behalf of Vermont’s construction industry. Lamberton clearly enjoys her work and is good at what she does; her testimony is relevant and well-prepared, and she is quick with a smile and a joke. I knew she’d previously been a state representative and had later worked in the Douglas administration. In short, I thought I had her figured out.

By necessity and because of human nature, we make quick assessments of individuals and create a narrative and short-hand about their lives and experiences. Not intended to demean or confine, our swift appraisals allow us to categorize and consolidate, systemizing and interpreting our experiences. But in the end, we are often entirely oblivious to another’s great suffering.

Several weeks ago, I sat down to speak with Lamberton about the details of the industry she represents. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so I broke up our meeting by asking her about her life and family. She shared with me that her son, Logan, had taken his life when he was 19. Next month she will have to endure the agony of the 5th anniversary of her son’s suicide. His heartrending death crushed her, but she emerged from the misery to become an outspoken advocate on behalf of the movement to end suicides in Vermont.

According to statistics compiled by the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center, there are more suicide deaths each year in Vermont than there are homicides or motor vehicle fatalities. Vermont’s suicide rate is significantly higher than the national average.

Although the tragic suicide of popular Vermont Law School professor and legal commentator Cheryl Hanna made headlines across the country, male Vermonters are much more likely to commit suicide than females. In 2010, four times as many men and boys died from suicide in Vermont than women and girls; males are much more likely to use firearms to kill themselves.

The 2013 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey—conducted by the Vermont Department of Health in conjunction with the Agency of Education—also revealed some troubling trends among our kids. Twenty percent of all students surveyed said they’d contemplated suicide—an increase over previous years. Among middle school students, the statistics were equally disturbing: 17% said they’d contemplated suicide and 18% said they’d felt sad and hopeless for two weeks or more in a row—the definition of clinical depression.

Thirty years ago I was one of those distressed students.  Student body president, president of my high school drama club, student athlete and honors student, I was the model of a successful, well-rounded pupil. I had been accepted to a top college and seemed headed for smooth sailing. But depression does not pick and choose its prey based on grades or success; we are all potential quarry. I struggled mightily my last trimester of high school and felt despondent for weeks on end.

Luckily, I had the presence of mind to realize I needed help, and even more fortunately, there was a wonderful school counselor who helped me get the assistance I needed to navigate this especially painful time. She had received the critical training to accurately recognize and assess my needs.

The Vermont Suicide Prevention Center’s federal grant expires this August, and—as we in the legislature work to close a 100 million dollar budget gap—it faces a steep uphill battle in securing more state funds for their important work. Although I will continue to advocate for state funds, please consider donating to this organization (

There are many more of the walking wounded than you realize.



Every day is “Big Block of Cheese” Day

Every day is “Big Block of Cheese” Day

Becca Balint

In the popular TV drama The West Wing, the chief-of-staff to fictionalized President Jed Bartlet instructs his underlings to set aside time for constituents who would not otherwise have direct access to the upper echelons of political power. He calls his initiative “Big Block of Cheese Day” after a real incident in which President Andrew Jackson invited the public to the White House to partake of cheese and conversation. Although The West Wing’s version was a way to include the general public in political debate, Jackson’s overture, according to Megan Garber of The Atlantic, was actually one of desperation.

The cheese in question was a nearly 1,400 pound wheel of cheddar produced by dairy farmer Col. Thomas Meacham of Sandy Creek, NY.  Meacham sent the enormous wheel—4 feet in diameter and 2 feet high—to the president to both honor Jackson and to demonstrate his own cheese-making prowess.

1,400 pounds? That’s a BIG block of cheese! What’s a president to do?

Jackson gave big chunks away, but by 1837—nearing the end of his second term—the president still owned a colossal mound of cheddar. As Ethan Trex of the website “Mental Floss” points out, “[The president] wasn’t about to haul a two-year-old mountain of cheese with him when he left office.” The solution? Invite the public in; everyone loves free food. Contemporary accounts estimate that 10,000 visitors at his final public reception devoured the block within two hours.

The smell, however, lingered. A letter written by Senator John Davis’ wife, Eliza, described President Van Buren’s attempts to deal with the stubborn, pungent odor. He had the rugs removed and aired out from the “cheese room”, the curtains removed, and the room repainted. But the unfortunate truth was that Van Buren still had a 750 pound block from the same cheese maker leftover from his Vice Presidency.

In Jed Bartlet’s fictional West Wing, senior staffers grudgingly listen to earnest citizens bent on seemingly ridiculous projects.  But by the end of the episode, they, and we, have a deeper appreciation for the uniquely American belief that our government should be accessible.

Over a one week period, my two Senate committees took testimony from many Vermont VIPs:  the State Treasurer, the Attorney General, the State Auditor, commissioners and deputy commissioners from the Agency of Commerce, the Department of Finance, and the Department of Buildings and General Services. We also hosted the Commissioner of the Department of Fish and Wildlife and numerous attorneys from Legislative Council and the Joint Fiscal Office.

But during this same interval, we also heard equally important and compelling testimony from a host of average Vermonters : president of the Lake Champlain Walleye Association, Vermont Legal Aid attorneys, social workers, a paralegal concerned about an employee classification, Reach Up case managers, businesspeople, tradespeople, a spokesperson from the Farm to Plate Program, a representative from Brattleboro Area Affordable Housing, concerned citizens testifying about perceived predatory lending practices, and local bridge and highway engineers.

I also met several lobbyists from non-profit organizations who marveled at how different Vermont is from most other states: our representatives and senators answer their own phones, call constituents directly, and function without the layer of administrative staff that keeps regular citizens away.

Much has been made this session about seemingly trivial bills honoring the gilfeather turnip and the beagle, and the bill to establish a Latin motto. The merits of the bills aside, these ideas originated with constituents, not their legislative sponsors. Yes, we must wrestle with incredibly complex issues related to school financing and property tax reform. And we are. These problems, among others, consume most of our time, as they should.

But we would lose something precious if average folks could not call up their legislators and sing the praises of a lowly heirloom turnip.



The drive to create: From art to robotics

Sometime around 1978 I toured the new Empire State Plaza complex in Albany, NY. The buildings themselves—clad in marble and covering nearly 100 acres—were sleek and imposing. One was even rumored to have been designed after Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple in Deir el-Bahri, Egypt. Although we could have easily dedicated all our time to discussing the architecture and layout, we spent most of our visit viewing the massive collection of art, said to be the largest collection of American modern art housed in any public site outside a museum.

As we explored the gleaming subterranean gallery and the topside plaza, I marveled at the scale and design of the architecture, the eclectic assortment of artwork, and the capacity of the human mind to imagine and create. I spent long minutes in front of Alvin Loving’s “New Morning I”—a gigantic acrylic reminiscent of Dutch artist M.C. Escher’s work—and George Ricky’s “Two Lines Oblique”—a sculpture that literally shifts with the wind.  Both tickled and puzzled, my 10-year-old mind constantly returned to these pressing questions: How did they do it? How did they even think up that idea?

I was instantaneously transported back to my rudimentary childhood wonderings while recently touring  one of General Electric’s Aviation plants in Rutland where Vermonters assemble next-generation compressor and fan blades for commercial and military jet engines. If you’ve flown on a commercial flight in the past year, chances are you have been catapulted through the sky by Vermont ingenuity and diligence. The lightweight high-strength blades produced in Rutland are among the most energy-efficient in the industry, which makes them extremely popular as the airline industry seeks to reduce its fuel consumption and accompanying costs.

When U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy toured the same expansive plant in 2010, he remarked, “We’re a tiny state, but we do extraordinarily big things.”  I don’t disagree with the venerable senator, but we must not view Rutland’s success in the aerospace industry as a kind of exceptionalism or an innate capacity that is simply, naturally intrinsic to our region. This plant succeeds because there are programs in place to enable it to thrive, and there is a culture of excellence on the shop floor that emboldens workers to fine tune the robotics systems so that the blades they create are the industry’s finest. The astonishing robotics on display at the Rutland plant are another part of its first-rate manufacturing. Throughout the tour, I kept turning to my senate colleagues and muttering, “Incredible!”

Our human potential for ingenuity is boundless. But we shortchange our imagination and resourcefulness when we view artistic creativity and scientific invention as two distinct and disparate drives. We need to expand our conception of artistry, originality and modernism beyond the scope of the arts and the humanities. Not just because it is critical to honor the contributions of machinists, mechanics and technicians as part of a more complete narrative about our economy, but because innovation in all its forms must be celebrated in order to be nurtured.

I am incredibly proud of our creative economy here in southern Vermont. Our art, music and theatrical offerings are truly remarkable, as is our band of outstanding craftspeople. They all contribute materially and aesthetically to our unique sense of place and our distinctive quality of life.  But similar creativity and drive are also evident at many of our regional employers. Whether it’s components for torque converters, high-precision machined sub-assemblies for aircraft, or high-quality parts for the optical and medical industries, we have a strong tradition of excellence and innovation among our area’s manufacturers.

Witnessing the Rutland plant, I was reminded of the motto of GS Precision in Brattleboro: “If we can measure it, we can make it.” Indeed.



Inspiring the Oompa Loompa base

The day after President Obama’s State of the Union address, I took part in a lively impromptu dissection of the speech—and all the ensuing political theater—while sitting beneath our own golden dome.  Bantering with Vermont Democrats and Republicans alike, the assessment was clear, regardless of party: What was John Boehner thinking?

We all agreed that—shockingly— the Speaker of the House does not seem to fully comprehend that the speech and his reaction to it are beamed instantaneously around the country and the world—to enormous flat screen TVs, handy tablets, ubiquitous smartphones and even clunky old-school desktop computers. I am sure in my own neighborhood that I could find a home in which Boehner’s face was several feet wide as it was projected on the living room wall HDTV. Envision that gigantic Boehner refusing to clap for “expanded job growth” and staying resolutely glued to his chair when others stood to support the idea that women deserve equal pay for equal work. Great job with the “re-branding” of the GOP, Speaker Boehner. You are off to a stellar start to refurbish the party before the 2016 race.

In just a few short weeks Congressional Republicans have managed to alienate American women (again), anger Latinos (again), exasperate anyone who believes in science, and demonstrate continued myopia when it comes to appreciating women’s leadership ability. None of the new House committee chairs are women. Current House Administration Committee Chair Candace Miller is the sole female in a leadership position in the House. The story is the same in the Senate: Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) is the only woman who chairs a standing committee. Compare this to our split in the Vermont Senate:  five committees are chaired by women, six by men, even though less than a third of our senators are women.  (Of the 30 senators, only nine are women.)

Comedian Chris Rock did point out, however, that the House Republicans may be staking out a strong multi-racial position by using Boehner to champion Orange-Americans.  Likened to an oompa loompa on twitter feeds countrywide, Boehner may have made strong inroads among tanning-bed devotees, but I’m not certain this will translate into solid support for his broader agenda.

I am somewhat sympathetic to our orange-hued Speaker, third in line to the presidency. It is difficult to sit facing a bank of cameras and act naturally. During our governor’s budget address last week, while seated in the row of senate chairs slightly elevated at the front of the House Chamber, I experienced a series of minor calamities. First, my dry cough—which I’d kept at bay all morning returned with a vengeance—and I’d left my lozenges back in a committee room. Then my right eye started to water incessantly and the resulting blinking caused my contact to fold over.

Although the budget news was certainly dire, I did not want to be featured on the homepage of VTDigger appearing to sob over tough budget decisions. So, I tried to keep my face in profile during the entire speech and ended up looking less like an interested senator and more like a highly stylized portrait hanging in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Thankfully all the cameras were, rightly, on the Vermont political luminaries clustered around the rostrum.

As our conversation about Boehner’s unfortunate deportment wound down, a Republican colleague commented: “Contrast that with Gov. Douglas. Did you see him wildly clapping during Gov. Shumlin’s inauguration?” Another legislator cracked, “Yeah, it was probably the only time he ever cheered for him.” We all laughed and then someone said, “And that’s why we love Vermont. We really try to keep things civil.”







Moby Dick meets El Capitan on the Dawn Wall

The first time I visited Yosemite Valley I did not notice the teams of men and women crawling over the granite face of El Capitan. This is not terribly surprising given that El Cap is roughly three times the height of the Empire State Building, and climbers from the valley floor look like colored ants crawling ever upward. When I returned several years later, I eagerly joined in the admiration and awe; I had taken up rock climbing and had a much better sense of what these nimble mountaineers attempted.

Many free climbers—those who use ropes only to catch their falls and not to assist them in their ascents—refer to the Dawn Wall on the face of El Cap as being as smooth as a pane of glass. It is exceedingly difficult to find purchase for your fingers and toes. Since it was first conquered in 1958 using climbing aids, El Cap’s many climbers assumed that the Dawn Wall could never be free climbed in one extended expedition.

But last week Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson summited after 19 days of free climbing on El Capitan’s Dawn Wall. They slept on portable ledges at night and doggedly worked day after day to scale grueling pitches. At one point, Jorgeson got stalled and climbed pitch 15 over and over.  Each time he fell, he started the section from the beginning. He attempted the same section for ten consecutive days of physically taxing and emotionally arduous effort. Ten days.

All the while, Caldwell waited high above him; he’d already finished that tough section and made relatively quick work of the remaining tricky pitches. And yet, he did not want to summit without Jorgeson. He explained, “More than anything, I want to top out together.” After working on this project together for six years, he wanted them to complete it together; finishing it alone would have been awful.  “I can’t imagine anything worse, really,” he worried.

They superglued finger cuts and sanded callouses in order to get a better grip on the wall. Due to the hot California sun, they climbed primarily at night by the glow of headlamps. Certainly, there was a fair amount of discomfort involved, despite the incomparable views from their temporary roosts. But these men were quick to remind the public that this was the fulfillment of a personal dream and not really about “conquering” this particular physical challenge.

Jorgeson told the New York Times: “I hope it inspires people to find their own Dawn Wall…I think everyone has their own secret Dawn Wall to complete one day, and maybe they can put this project in their own context.”

I thought of these climbers the other day while pumping an exercise bike at a gym in Montpelier. Eight years earlier I’d sat in the same spot—perhaps even on the same bike—trying to get a workout during my first trimester of pregnancy. Queasy and weak, I’d had to stop amidst tears and admit I was too woozy to continue. I felt fortunate to be pregnant but also experienced a distinct melancholy; my lifelong dream of public service through politics was probably coming to a close. I could not imagine how I would balance family life with public office.

As I exercised alongside other legislators last week, I considered how dramatically my own life had changed over the past decade and what personal barriers I’d faced to become the junior state senator from Windham County. We are faced with—sometimes pursued by—so many relentless occasions to doubt ourselves and jettison our hopes. But the mere process of attempting the audacious reminds us of the indefatigable human capacity to think big. The best part is that the bigness and boldness of our pursuits are all relative. What’s your Dawn Wall?



The new French Resistance

When French nationals Kevin Seraphin and Nicolas Batum donned “Je suis Charlie” t-shirts in NBA warm-ups last week, their statement in support of those massacred in the office of French satirical weekly “Charlie Hebdo” took the movement mainstream. Seraphin and Batum, both non-white Frenchmen, demonstrated their solidarity with the cartoonists and writers gunned down by Islamic terrorists in Paris, and declared that censorship is a scourge we all must resist, regardless of race, religion, and national boundaries.

Eleanor Beardsley, longtime NPR correspondent based in Paris, prompted a flurry of comments on Reddit when she, perhaps unintentionally, was a little too candid when referring to “Charlie Hebdo” as a notoriously vulgar and crass publication in the style of our own MAD Magazine. Some listeners thought she was wrong to drop her reporter’s hat to don a decidedly biased civilian chapeau, but I appreciated her apt comparison. It is difficult to understand the context and flavor when discussing another culture’s media, style or art. It may have been sloppy shorthand, but in that instant, I got it.

I spent a good chunk of my childhood buried in the provocative—and often tasteless—pages of “MAD Magazine” and its less successful rival “Cracked”. These two humorous rags mercilessly poked fun at everything and everyone: politicians from both sides of the aisle, religion, Hollywood, and hypocrisy in its many sneaky guises. I am certain that I missed a lot of the magazines’ jokes, but enough got through that at 10 years old I already understood that humor and offensiveness are tricky things to reckon with and even tougher to appraise.

Many readers will recall that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about pornography in the obscenity case of Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), that although it is hard to define, “I know it when I see it.” Fewer know that he later regretted this quotation. In reflecting back upon that case, Justice Stewart bemoaned, “When I remember all of the other solid words I’ve written, I regret …that if I’ll be remembered at all I’ll be remembered for that particular phrase.” He had to concede that his somewhat impulsive reaction was one of taste—and not based in law.

It can be uncomfortable to defend the right of an artist or writer to produce something that offends us. But it is critical that we not only defend these rights of free expression but are also vigilant in protecting the space in which this expression flourishes. The best response to speech we don’t like is more speech, not less. Always.

Ed Koren—longtime cartoonist for the New Yorker and resident of Brookfield, VT—expressed his despair at the murder of the “Charlie Hebdo” victims and their “huge talents…lost to us by such laughless and brutal and ignorant censors.”

The 3-4 million people of France who took to the streets this weekend clearly agree. They were part of the largest protests in France’s history and were joined by more than 40 world leaders who arrived in Paris from across the globe to partake in the denunciation of murder and censorship.

The BBC interviewed a couple who proudly marched with their compatriots. “This is serious, this was an attack on freedom, we cannot allow this,” said the dad. He and his family walked for two hours although they covered just over a mile because of the throngs of protesters. He explained why they were compelled to march: “Our values are liberty, equality and fraternity, and we cannot allow terrorists to dictate to us.” His wife added, “We had to get into the streets to show we are not afraid.”

Sometimes I fear that we in the United States have lost this courage and clarity. As I start my new job as a state Senator, I will hold those strong, resolute legions in my mind’s eye.





Laura Hillenbrand’s Purple Heart

“Unbroken”—the remarkable story of Olympic runner and WW II POW Louis Zamperini, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller—is playing at the Latchis Theater. This much-anticipated and highly-praised film, produced and directed by media darling Angelina Jolie, is sure to inspire millions of movie-goers. But the story of Hillenbrand’s own life has captured my own pluck and grit.

Our dog-eared copy of Hillenbrand’s first bestseller, “Seabiscuit: An American Legend”, provides recurrent comfort and encouragement—and not just because of the utterly compelling story of a dejected jockey who rode a broken-down horse to victory. Hillenbrand’s absorbing, descriptive prose is at once urgent and composed. Wil Hylton, writer for the New York Times Magazine, explains that Hillenbrand’s writing technique is part of a fresh flavor of New Journalism that challenges the more affected “stylistic explosions” offered by the likes of Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe. Hylton argues that Hillenbrand and her contemporaries Nathanial Philbrick, Jon Krakauer and Susan Orleans, “still built stories around characters and scenes, with dialogue and interior perspective, but they cast aside the linguistic showmanship that drew attention to the writing itself.”

Hillenband’s disciplined narratives teem with artfully arranged facts and details.  They stand as the quintessential example of what bestselling author David Grann (“The Lost City of Z”) argues is the hallmark of this generation of writers: They “get out of the way” of the story they tell. Daniel James Brown, whose book “The Boys in the Boat” has been months on the NY Times paperback list, used Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit” as a model for his own book, dissecting every aspect of it to understand her stylistic choices and language decisions. He considers Hillenbrand the very best—the consummate exemplar of this fresh writing form. The high praise in itself is striking, but it is made infinitely more astonishing when you learn Hillenbrand’s own story.

For starters, Hillenbrand— who brings coarse racetracks and cramped WW II bomber cockpits to life—has been confined to her house for the better part of a quarter century. Struck down by chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), or myalgic encephalomyelitis, in 1987 during her sophomore at Kenyon College, Hillenbrand was so debilitated by pain, exhaustion and vertigo that she dropped out of school and moved back in with her mom. For years doctors told her that her illness was all in her mind, and their incredulity took its toll. She says, “[I]t’s very hard not to let that point of view envelop you, until you start to feel terrible about yourself. I just began to feel such deep shame, because I was the target of so much contempt.”

New medication, physical therapy, and yoga all aid in managing her worst symptoms, but Hillenbrand still experiences such nausea-inducing chronic vertigo and persistent discomfort that she rarely leaves her home in D.C. She completes her exhaustive research through hundreds of phone interviews and hours poring over the vintage newspapers she orders; going to a library to view microfiche is out of the question. There are long stretches of days of all-encompassing  exhaustion.

And yet, Laura Hillenbrand still writes. Her books have sold over 10 million copies; “Unbroken” has spent 185 continuous weeks on the NY Times bestseller list. Her writing inspires other authors and cajoles from them their best efforts.

When Louis Zamperini—the astonishingly courageous subject of “Unbroken”—finally learned of Hillenbrand’s incapacitation, he was extremely moved by her determination and fortitude: “I sent her one of my Purple Hearts. I said, ‘You deserve this more than me.’” Zamperini understood that our struggles can paralyze us if we allow them to define us. Worse yet, our hasty conclusions about another’s struggles can indulge a dishonorable tendency: dismissing another’s toils as inconsequential instead of grasping the inspirational lesson they offer.


Toasting the Millennials

The warm, intimate lanterns drew me in. I strode past the windows of the new Hermit Thrush Brewery on High Street in Brattleboro and glanced furtively inside. Patrons and the proprietor engaged in genial conversation under the glow of suspended lamps. I smiled and continued on. But only a few yards past the window, I surprised myself and abruptly reversed direction. Sensing optimism, I headed towards the glow. I wanted in.

Christophe Gagné—President and Brewmaster—greeted me with a firm handshake and broad smile, and again I surprised myself: I ordered samples of his Belgian ales. It was 4:00 in the afternoon. I just don’t do that sort of thing. I can be something of an old New England John Adams sort of character—There’s always work to be done!—and not so much a Jeffersonian dandy. But, I told myself, even John Adams started his day with a generous pint of ale. I shook off my sheepishness and merrily brought the diminutive tasting glass to my lips: Delightful!  I settled in for excellent beer and quality conversation.

Gagné was the consummate host, providing samples most in line with my tastes, all the while answering my many questions about his life, his business, and his path to Brattleboro.  As a long-time member of the workforce development committee at Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies, I wanted to know what made him and business partner, Avery Schwenk, settle on Brattleboro. They chose this corner of Vermont because of its good sense of community, strong connection to nature, and obvious environmental awareness. Blame it in part on the hoppy beer, I guess: I was ridiculously tickled that we’d beat out the likes of Manchester and Burlington.

He said Brattleboro was the ideal location for their first-in-the nation (possibly the world) wood-pellet-fired brewery. They appreciated our vibrant downtown and knew that  easy access to Route 91 would cement Brattleboro as a must-stop for beer pilgrims. With the Whetstone Brewery, McNeill’s, and the summertime Brattleboro Brewers Festival, Gagné and Schwenk suspected that our area was thick with folks who appreciate quality beer. Vermont is now a mecca for devotees of handcrafted brews; we have more breweries per capita than any other state. (Which might explain why we also have more non-profits per capita. You’ve got to be a little buzzed to handle running a non-profit.)

Like most of the Miillennial Generation, Gagné has already tried out several careers: cheesemonger, sous chef, social worker and now brewmaster. The Pew Research Center’s 2010 report “Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next” helps explain his generation to Gen-Xers like myself. It describes how Millennials, not surprisingly, are more digitally and socially connected than previous generations. But they also display a confidence and an upbeat view of the future that belies the constant doom and gloom in the news media. Socially liberal, very self-expressive, and open to new ideas and to change in general, Millennials’ disposition is ideal for an uncertain economic landscape.

Their adaptability comes in handy, as NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman point outs: “My generation had it easy. We got to “find” a job. But, more than ever, our kids will have to “invent” a job.” They will have to employ much innovation to craft their own jobs and careers. Friedman aptly asserts they must find a way to add value to whatever they do and build their own safety nets.

Millennials are some of the workers and entrepreneurs we most need right now here in Windham County, as we face a current wave of Boomers and the future swell of Gen-Xers who will next exit the workforce. Our county’s demographics are simply stacked against us. But the Hermit Thrush brewers aren’t just brewing high quality Belgian inspired ales; they are fermenting optimism. I’ll drink to that.




The shortcomings of solitude

The shortcomings of solitude

Becca Balint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Protesting too much

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

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

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

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

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

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

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