Neighbors in an upscale condo development were speculating about what the guy in the end-unit must do for a living to afford a sailboat, motorcycle, and camper. Curious, one strolled over and asked.
“Plumber,” came the answer.
As a society, we stratify careers as a vertical hierarchy reflecting the accumulation of wealth and power as enviable social values. Service, agriculture, and skilled trades populate the lower rungs of the metaphorical ladder of success.
And this ladder implies a value system that today ill serves both our economy and our communities, since our ongoing allegiance to it assures generational continuity at the top, thus furthering a disproportionate accumulation of wealth.
The spectrum of career and employment opportunities could be better represented on a lateral axis, implying no judgement or value structure. After all, even the wealthy need housekeepers and electricians.
But sadly, the “ladder of success” model is also reflected in our educational system. Not only have we bought into the idea that every child must have a college education, the well-heeled now vie to get their children into preschools that claim to guarantee collegiate success and rival private colleges in tuition costs – even as 1.3 trillion dollars in college debt burdens forty percent of American graduates beginning their careers.
Imagine hanging the ladder sideways – so that career guidance, breadth of educational opportunity, and compensation expectations clearly reflect and encourage the dignity of all forms of work. The nurse, carpenter, farmer, home caregiver, mechanic, and teacher are all vital to a functioning society and our educational system should mirror that reality.
As someone who was privileged to have a fine education in prep school and at UVM, I know the value of an education based in the humanities. But this need not preclude learning other work-based life skills. Such competence builds self- confidence.
In the 20th century Morrisville of my youth, some kids graduated from high school and went to work on the farm, some went to college, while others went on to the St. Johnsbury Trade School to learn the complexities of engineering and mechanics. There was no “right path,” the ladder to success had few rungs, and Vance Packard’s book “The Status Seekers” had not yet been written. Work was dignity.
It’s time to rethink our educational and compensation systems in a way that honors the dignity of all work.
I’ve finally reached that mind-body equilibrium we all seek. I’m both a Roads Scholar and a Gravel-road Slalom competitor. You’re probably not familiar with either unless you live at the end of four miles of a dirt road in Vermont and live here year-round.
For many of us the primal terror of “mud season” faded with the invention of Tyvek, now underlying the uppermost gravel layer on our back roads. The white lingerie gracing many unfinished homes in our backwoods turned out also to be a boon for those of us living on back roads where in spring the water-table overtakes the road surface. Tyvek has drastically reduced the boggy swales that mired our cars each spring.
Visitors driving along our back-country roads after a few days of inclement weather may be surprised to see locals slaloming along the full width of our two-lane roads even as they approach hilltops. Unless you’re born to the sport of gravel-road slalom, it will seem odd at first, if not fatal.
Gravel-road slalom lacks the grace of a great snow skier following the fall line through a tight web of bamboo poles throwing up clouds of snow from side to side. The gravel moguls we toss up on the roadbed as we carve our way through the aggregate only makes matters worse for the next sportif driver. After several broken tie-rods and a blown shock or two, you’ll learn to appreciate this unique Yankee sport.
If you see a hand-painted roadside notice offering to buy recyclable metal, look sharp for a whopper pothole. Tie rods, blown shocks, hubcaps, bent wheel hubs, even the occasional ancient Subaru rusting in a nearby field should serve as a warning, and by the way if you imagine that speeding over a pot-hole will incur less damage, you’re in for a costly surprise.
It’s assumed that sober folks driving on paved roads drive in a straight line and drunk drivers zig-zag, but on our gravel roads the opposite is true. Intoxicated drivers drive straight down the middle while sober drivers zig-zag.
The few imported Yugos, Ladas, and Renaults that made it to Vermont rarely lasted a year on Vermont’s secondary roads. One Yugo was found buried deep in mud on a road in Eden when a trout fisherman spotted a side-view mirror sticking out of the ditch on the side of the road.
At my age, I’m proud of my Roads Scholarship and my skill at Gravel-road slalom, a skill to which most newcomers only aspire.
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.
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.
The 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.
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:
Forage and grow
Haul wood and stone
Use hand tools
Walk without light
Pay rapt attention
Forgive yourself and others
Thank you for doing me the honor of inviting me here today.
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.
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?