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.




The arc of justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congressman Welch talks turkey–and cheese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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