A Heedless Death

I grew up reading Vermont Life in the fifties and continued reading it until shortly after the turn of the century. It always had a prominent place in our home, moving quarterly from the coffee table to the bathroom magazine rack – where its continued perusal was assured – and finally to a shelf in the den. Back then, Vermont Life was collectible not disposable.

Eventually I lost interest as the magazine shifted away from the substantive features and images that define us toward lifestyle and marketing.

My only real business savvy in life has been marketing, and I’ve always believed that the best marketing conveys substance rather than fluff. Consumers have largely become inured to marketing yet still crave substance conveyed through story, image, history, culture, and intellectual curiosity.

Vermont’s many entrepreneurial craft, food, and hospitality businesses are integral to who we are. They serve the aspirational as well as the native Vermonter, but they remain secondary to what truly defines us and intrigues re-settlers and visitors.

In nature, things end, but human decisions are too often binary – sustain or close. To our loss, we forget reinvention.

I am deeply saddened by the demise of Vermont Life, it feels not only like the end of an era, but an unimaginative concession to the stresses of media change.

Vermont Life should be a chronicle that expresses Vermont, its people, history, culture, enterprise, and landscape – a go-to publication for definition of the Vermont brand, featuring a balanced array of articles, images, and online media appealing to people of all ages, and, if we care, it could still become so.

Imagine if Vermont Life were to remain a semi-annual print vehicle partnered and co-branded with seminal Vermont media to broaden its reach. Imagine a wider curatorial and co-production role as well as editorial, commissioning the best writers and photographers in the state for articles on contemporary subjects and ones that explore Vermont’s colorful past, but that also draw on the rich media archives and creative resources of Vermont cultural non-profits specializing in the fine arts, folk arts, history, humanities, and the natural and built environment.

Magazines are struggling, print advertising’s almost gone, but new media’s rising in its place. I can’t help thinking we could – and should – have imagined better.

Who Really Made America Great?

An epiphany is a spontaneous event that inexplicably alters one’s life, a​ manifestation​ of some force in the universe greater than oneself. ​

My wife and I both experienced this recently when we brought our foreign-exchange host student to see New York City during her spring break. She wanted to see the major American landmarks and we obliged her – as much as ​the ​crowds of tourist visitors allowed.

Because Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty involved a three-hour wait, we chose the free Staten Island Ferry ride instead. It passes close by Miss Liberty, so we could take our pictures with her towering above us – on a ship full of people who all had the same idea.

In the boarding line, we found ourselves among people from all over the world. We heard no English, only the wonderful cacophony of many languages. We were awash in a sea of multi-hued faces, earnest parents, eager children, all aspiring to connect with America’s genesis.

Th​e​ ferry ​transports ​70,000 people a day beneath the benign and non-discriminating gaze of Miss Liberty, twenty-two million people a year. It also chugs by Ellis Island, the entry point for twelve million of our European ancestors ​who sought freedom or simply a new start, the very people who went on to make America truly great, unlike the jingoistic autocrat today.

Amid this sea of international visitors, ​I felt a deep affinity for and connection not only to my own European roots but​ to all hopeful human beings. Call me a “globalist” if you wish but even today America remains the hope of millions.

We also explored the extraordinary accomplishments of other New World newcomers: The Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Morgan Library, the Metropolitan Museum, Central Park – all standing in dignified contrast to the largely empty phallic apartment towers now looming over the city and owned by absentee billionaires

I’d lost my connection to the New York of my birth family and my brief home when I was young and first married. But seeing it through the eyes of our exchange student and revisiting the landmarks that really embody this country’s greatness, I recovered my sense of what we stand for and what we can be again​ should we continue to welcome those who venture with hope and aspiration to our shores.

United Church of Hinesburg: “Reflections” Bill Schubart May 6, 2018

Ever since word went out that this old hippy was about to stand behind a pulpit and presume to speak with any authority about salvation, I’ve suffered the slings and arrows of a few skeptical friends. One local pub-owner predicted I’d have you all speaking in tongues and offered to bring me a few garter snakes from his woodpile to hold in each hand as I delivered my message of hellfire and damnation. But, alas, life has brought me low as it does all of us, and instead I’m here to talk with you about the exigent life.

What is the exigent life? Exigency is what life imposes on us by way of work and hardship to enable us to survive and even thrive in this world.

The many farm families with whom I grew up in Morrisville in the fifties understood exigency even though the word might have been unfamiliar to them.

Living with scarcity and hardship, their days were determined for them less by choice than by the seasons, the weather, their tools, crops, and animals.

Well before dawn and after milking, haying, and watering thirty cows, farm families gathered while eating breakfast and waiting for the school bus in front of the Bakelite Zenith radio to listen to WDEV’s weather report, the crop and animal market reports, and The Trading Post.

A life in which choices are made for us by external forces takes us outside ourselves and diminishes our petty wants and desires to irrelevance when measured against survival. Just as for all growing things, such a life hardens us off to better cope with physical and spiritual challenges and instills in us perspective, humility, empathy, and endurance.

I recently read this wonderful passage from The Farm in the Green Mountains by Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer.

To wash and iron a piece of dirty laundry, to clean, scrub, wax the kitchen floor, to cover holes in stocking with a lattice of threads, to make a wearable garment from whole cloth, or to cook something from all sorts of raw ingredients – that was the same process again and again: namely going from a disorderly beginning to a state of clean orderliness or giving form and taste to unformed material. This endlessly repetitive, primitive process of accomplishment was a greater protection against care, anxiety, fear for one’s life than the application of all manner of understanding, reason and religion.

A classic book written in 1985 by Neil Postman called Amusing Ourselves to Death explains how many of us today have traded entertainment for substance, laying out the steep social and spiritual price we pay for this trade-off. Postman’s premise seems eerily prescient.

Postman’s book also raises for me the question of how we parent today. I’ve known three college presidents in Burlington. All of them have confided that they have on staff a full-time psychologist whose job it is to remove parents from campus after the college year starts. One recently noted that 25% of his incoming class are on some form of prescribed medication to cope with anxiety or depression.

I’m not sure what’s at work here but worry that as parents we’ve become so emotionally dependent on the affection of their children that we’ve lost sight of our purpose, to raise independent, resourceful, and resilient young people to carry our families and communities forward.

As youngsters, my generation was expected to have paying jobs during our teen years. Many of my friends from that time were members of Future Farmers of America or the Grange, Boy Scouts, or 4-H, all of which entailed raising and caring for one’s own animals, learning a craft, and public service.

As our theme today is growth and planting, perhaps a garden metaphor is in order. Think of how we take delicate seedlings from the comfort and warmth of the windowsill and set them out, first in a cold bed and then directly into the soil to fend for themselves, or how birds fledge their young by pushing them out of the nest to flutter to the ground and fend for themselves. The experience of having one’s days prescribed by forces greater than oneself is deeply formative and critical to the development of character and endurance. Do we do better by our garden plants than by our children?

We all know – and many of you sitting here today – have had to make your way through considerable adversity and strife to find the peace we enjoy here together giving thanks in a beautiful church in the heart of our community. This peace does not come from what we’ve accumulated but from our hard work, the challenges we’ve overcome, our families, the grace of friendships, and the gratitude of those who’ve called on us for help.

So, what happens when we’ve reaped the rewards of an exigent life… when the forces of nature exert less demand on us and our family needs are largely met?

How many of us know a friend who, having worked all their life with an eye toward retirement, finally reaches Barcalounger Valhalla, settles down in front of the TV, gets sick, and dies soon thereafter? We’re meant to both work and to play in a balance that continues to develop us physically and spiritually. God envisaged rest but speaks nowhere of retirement. Retirement doesn’t mean the end of work, it only means more choice in the work one does. God intends us to keep on keeping on.

We can choose to continue the exigent life. We can avoid the easier, softer way even in old age. We can still shovel snow, split our wood, handwash our dishes, and hang our clothes by the woodstove. We can walk to the mailbox. We can remind ourselves that our many modern conveniences often come at the expense of others.

Mindful of the gigantic eddies of swirling plastic threatening all ocean life, we can use our cloth grocery bags at Lantman’s. We can pay a bit more and buy our books locally. We can turn off the TV that only makes us lonelier and phone a friend. We can bake a casserole and bring it to an ailing stranger. We can work for social justice. The United Church of Hinesburg calls us all to lead an exigent life of the spirit, enriching ourselves and our community.

Here’s the poem with which I started my latest book, Lila & Theron:

 

Be cold

Forage and grow

Haul wood and stone

Go hungry

Use hand tools

Be bold

Raise children

Cure food

Walk without light

Keep animals

Grow old

Adore someone

Greet wildlife

Pay rapt attention

Forgive yourself and others

Thank you for doing me the honor of inviting me here today.

Language, Fear, & Leadership

Without notice or comment, The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (UCIS) recently removed from its mission statement a century-old introductory phrase… “America’s promise as a nation of immigrants…”

At the same time, it added, “protecting Americans” and “securing the homeland” begging the question “From whom?”

The implication is that Americans all must of a sudden now be protected from refugees, asylum seekers, and those seeking freedom and opportunity – just as our own grandparents did. It’s a chilling shift in attitude.

The most destructive weapon against civil discourse lies in a leader’s effort to generate irrational fear. All the great autocrats have done this – fear of minorities, immigrants, women, the poor, intellectuals, the mentally handicapped, the “other.” A fearful citizenry stops reasoning, and discourse turns to diatribe.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand just how little I really know, but I believe children are born curious and, nourished properly, they remain so for life. The capacity to pay attention to others is natural in children raised in healthy families and communities, and the courage to speak an informed truth with kindness and respect becomes the endgame.

I don’t really believe we’ve lost this in America. I see examples every day among friends, talking with strangers, and from responsible media organizations. But leaders must be held accountable for modelling civil discourse rather than debasing it in pursuit of their own self-serving agenda.

The long-accepted stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. As in grief, there are similar stages through which one must pass to acquire the wisdom and learning leadership demands.

As humans, we acquire perceptual data through our senses. We process this data into information by aggregating and contextualizing it. Knowledge comes only when that information is tested against other sources of information and fairly assessed. We graduate to wisdom when we measure our acquired knowledge against our life experience and against the lives of others we learn about through various means.

If these paths eventually lead us to acceptance and wisdom about life’s complexities, how might they apply in the current political standoff with its lack of, curiosity, comity, and compromise? Perhaps admitting how little, in fact, we know and learning to listen respectfully, process, and then speak will finally rekindle in us the wisdom true leadership demands.

Identity Politics

I’ve recently learned I’m aprivileged, cisgendered, white male.”

This feels somewhat alien to me still – but it’s new so I’m willing to try it on and figure out what it means in today’s definitional taxonomy of “identity politics.”

Like the few obese kids I knew growing up in Vermont or later at prep school, the only imposed identity I’ve ever known in my seventy-three years has been as a fat person. I was often isolated, teased, or “baited,” as they said at Exeter, where I was known as “Dumbo.” It was painful and gave me a sense of what it meant to be “other.” I believed in my “otherness” until I lost weight – for a time – and realized I was still myself.

I’ve listened with interest and empathy to the discussion around identity politics but I find it difficult to see myself in that frame – maybe itself a function of privilege, whether earned or inherited.

During the turmoil of the sixties, I thought much of this through for myself and it was clear to me that I wanted to be part of “us.” Like many of my peers, I yearned to be a member of not one but many of the communities radiating out from my own insignificance into a larger world: a Burlingtonian, a Vermonter, a New Englander, an American, and eventually a global citizen. I worked hard to retire the implicit biases with which we’re all born. I made friends across every divisive boundary I discovered and retain many of those friendships today.

So I worry that identity politics may lead us to ghettoize ourselves within our chosen identities and lose a common sense of purpose and connectedness – that we’ll focus on the “me” rather than the “us.” And I’m old enough to know how destructive that can be. But I’ll keep an open mind about identity politics, and trust the next generation to better educate me on the concept.

For now, I’ll continue to describe the world as I see it, with the humility to understand that truth, like beauty, may lie only in the eyes of the beholder. And I’ll work to beat my implicit biases into a shared humanity.

I’ll do my best to contribute to the creation of a diverse community and won’t judge those who belong to identity communities that are – perhaps forever – beyond my experience or understanding.

Death for All Drug Dealers?

While most of the civilized world has abandoned execution for moral as well as practical reasons, President Trump is now proposing an expanded application of the death penalty – traditionally applied only in first degree murder cases – for all “major” drug dealers.

And even then, the death penalty has become so problematic and costly that the thirty-one states where it’s still legal only executed, or tried to execute, twenty-three people last year. The legal and correctional cost of execution vastly exceeds the cost of a life sentence.

The image of a blind-folded Lady Justice carrying a sword and a set of scales symbolizes for Americans the fair and equal administration of the law without corruption, greed, prejudice, or favor. And with that in mind, I wonder if the criminal justice system would be willing to apply the death penalty equally across all socio-economic classes and racial categories or just drug dealers from President Trump’s “shithole countries.”

If so, the billionaire scions of the Sackler family who are directly involved in the mass-marketing of Purdue’s oxycontin might have good cause to be worried – as might the many thousands of Dr. Feelgoods around the country who continue today to dispense opiates to those with the money to pay a premium.

Since 1999, 200,000 Americans have died of opiate overdoses. Eighty per cent of today’s heroin and fentanyl users started on prescription painkillers. The CDC’s latest figures show a hundred and forty-five Americans a day dying from opioid overdoses. And a recent study compared Purdue’s marketing strategy to that of the Xalisco cartel which targeted methadone clinic neighborhoods, and offered potential customers free samples of their product.

Using I.M.S. data, Purdue targeted populations uniquely susceptible to its product – poor communities with little education or opportunity and a high incidence of work-related injuries. And they offered doctors coupons for a free initial prescription, of which thirty-four thousand were redeemed. Last year, 2.3 million Ohio residents – some 20% – got a prescription for opioids.

If we’re sincere about Lady Justice’s commitment to administration of the law fairly and without favor, the criminal in the Pharma executive suite must be held just as liable to prosecution as the street criminal.

Will President Trump apply his death penalty initiative to his peers among the wealthiest one percent of white Americans as rigorously as he would to anyone else?

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Brave New World of Publishng

I grew up amid two publishing families. Roger Straus (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and Alfred and Blanche Knopf. They were both family cousins and close friends of my paternal grandparents. In the fifties, the publishing world had two entities, vanity publishers (Vantage Press et al.) and the traditional publishing houses. The traditional publishers enjoyed their reader’s brand respect.

Today, in this Amazon-driven maelstrom of buying, publishing, and distribution options, most publishers have lost any cohesive brand equity. By “brand equity”, I simply mean value recognition – whether a publisher’s name evokes any specific quality or characteristic in the consumer’s mind. If I say, “Harper Collins,” does anything come to mind? Does anyone go into a bookstore and ask, “What’s new from Random House?” Coherent publishing brands evoke in the consumer some identity attached to the books they publish like Harlequin Romance, Chelseas Green, or National Geographic. Its lack makes online marketing a challenge.

Furthermore, publishers failed miserably to ascribe any value to the content they sell, leaving consumers to believe that a book’s delivery medium defines its selling price – $25 for a hard-cover book; $18 for a paperback, and $15 for an audio book. So, when ebooks arrived, readers assumed they would be free as the transactional cost to buy and deliver one was virtually nil. Had publishers defined their work with a value, say $8.00, and then allowed consumers to choose the delivery medium, authors and publishers would be in much better shape.  As in music and film, the ability to monetize digitized intellectual property is at grave risk.

The good side of all this is that technology has filled the void between vanity and traditional publishing, enabling anyone to publish either alone or with a for-hire or “hybrid publisher.” There are many professionals who can assist and advise would-be self-publishers about the universe of these intermediary publishing services. The ins and outs of self-publishing are too numerous to detail in a blog post and can be better served in a panel discussion. I can only speak to stand alone self-publishing and traditional publishing, as they form the basis of my own experience.

I will, however, offer one piece of advice to writers seeking to publish in any channel. Escape yourself. Get out of your own head. When writing, you must inhabit the imagination of your intended reader. When seeking an agent or publisher, you must understand the constraints and protocols of their business model. When your self-published books arrive, you must understand the rudiments and challenges of bookselling as you approach a bookstore owner and ask him or her to promote you and carry your books.

It’s good to believe in yourself and your work, but only when you have empathy for and knowledge of those who will make your book a success, will you start down the road to a successful career.

Business-as-usual or…?

“Build it and they will come” is the oft-misquoted meme from the classic movie Field of Dreams. And in the case of the proposal by CoreCivic, a private prison firm, to build and lease back to the State a 925-bed prison in Franklin County, this meme embodies the worst fears of the corrections reform movement.

Many Vermont leaders already oppose the idea, including former head of Corrections, Con Hogan, the Attorney General, the ACLU, NAACP, and Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform. In the face of such headwinds, few believe the prison will ever be built.

Meanwhile, Vermont spends nearly double on corrections what it does supporting our five state colleges, two of which are struggling with declining admissions and rising costs.

We know prevention is always more cost efficient than remediation, so perhaps we could take some of the hundred and fifty-million dollar Corrections budget and, partnering with enlightened employers like Twincraft, Rhino and others, repurpose one of the two campuses to create a low-security, remedial education and employment training center for offenders who pose no threat to the community and fulfill the legislative intent to repatriate our prisoners currently serving in Pennsylvania.

We’ve criminalized the poverty that many of our austerity policies have nourished and we treat mental illness and addictions as crimes rather than the health crisis they are. We jail impulsive young people for stupid decisions rather than counselling them back into society even when prisons have long been understood to be universities for crime and drivers of recidivism, and we jail Black men at a higher per capita rate than any other state.

Nearly half our prisoners are either past their release dates or detainees awaiting trial. A focused diversion curriculum would offer a pathway back into society and the changing economy for newly released offenders as well as for young offenders that would meet them where they are.

In our current system, each male prisoner costs about fifty-thousand dollars annually and each woman, eighty-thousand, and that doesn’t count the social cost of caring for their six-thousand children, whereas the average state college tuition is a mere fifteen-thousand.

Given increased competition, skyrocketing student debt, and declining applications, it’s easy to imagine how we might put one of our existing state campuses to much more productive use.

“Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light”

The long-accepted stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. As in grief, there are similar stages through which one must pass to acquire wisdom and learning.

As humans, we all acquire perceptual data through our senses. We only process this into information by aggregating and contextualizing it. Knowledge comes only when that information is tested against other sources of information and fairly assessed. We graduate to wisdom when we measure our acquired knowledge against our life experience and against the lives of others we learn about through reading or friendships.

If these paths eventually lead us to acceptance and wisdom about life’s complexities, might they also apply to the current political standoffs and the demise of political debate and compromise?

Perhaps there’s a similar pathway to civil discourse beginning with the core elements of learning: intellectual humility – that is knowing how little, in fact, we know – curiosity, the ability to listen respectfully and process, and, finally, the courage to speak.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand just how little I really know. As to curiosity, I believe children are born curious and, nourished properly, they remain so for life. The capacity to pay attention to others is natural in children raised in healthy families and communities, and the courage to speak an informed truth with kindness and respect becomes the endgame.

Have we lost this in America? I don’t believe we have. I see examples every day among friends, talking with strangers, and from responsible media organizations. But leaders must be held accountable for modelling civil discourse rather than debasing it in pursuit of their own self-serving agenda.

The most destructive weapon against civil discourse lies in a leader’s effort to generate irrational fear. All the great autocrats have done this – fear of minorities, immigrants, women, the poor, intellectuals, the mentally handicapped, the “other.” A fearful citizenry stops reasoning. Discourse turns to diatribe and that’s where courage comes in.

By way of example, without notice or comment, The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (UCIS) recently deleted its century-old introductory phrase… “America’s promise as a nation of immigrants…” and added, “protecting Americans” and “securing the homeland.” From whom? Refugees, asylum seekers, those seeking freedom and opportunity as our grandparents did?

To quote the poet Dylan Thomas, the time has come to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Last Communion of an Island Dog

I died today or yesterday of fleas and famine – sooner both,

but consciousness and hunger haunt my rest.

I fought life hard, bore countless pups, though none would know me now,

And ran tantivy with my gang, now mostly gone.

Today, I hop three-legged door-to-door, my fourth snapped by a motorbike when I was young, a mangled stilt I always wanted gone.

Like cleats my dry dugs wither in the sun.

I lean against a wall or splay on restaurant floors in hopes of table scraps, kind words and touch.

New fingers rub behind my ears, massage the cartilage below, and gently rub the wetness of my nose. My tongue lolls in the sand.

The words elude me, though I recognize their lilt.

A stale wafer used to wipe a plate is settled on my tongue that I might die in grace, as consciousness and hunger ebb.

Bill Schubart – March 2018, Las Galleras D.R.