Sustaining Our Communities

In physics, centripetal forces propel objects toward the center and centrifugal forces drive them away. And today, our societies and communities are engaged in an epic battle between these two opposing forces.

I once attended a Salzburg Seminar and the most compelling presentation I heard was from a sociologist analyzing the Bosnian War. He explained how the Serbs destroyed villages by first attacking the places in which villagers gathered – like libraries, cafes, schools, and houses of worship.

The rationale was simple, if you destroy the places where people come together, you shatter the cohesive spirit of a community. And while we’re hardly besieged by a warring tribe today, technical and societal forces are exerting a strong centrifugal force on our fragile communities.

In the best of worlds, family and community exert a powerful cohesive effect on us as individuals, reminding us constantly that we’re not alone and that we’re dependent on one another for friendship, help in time of need, commerce, and decision-making. For two centuries, the Vermont town meeting has exemplified this understanding.

Urbanization, the out-migration of commerce, the deterioration of spiritual communities and the malignancy of shallow digital relationships, as opposed to those that are face-to-face, all exert centrifugal force. Digital relationships often degrade conversations into online yelling matches; whereas our collective sense of interdependence exerts a cohesive effect. We may disagree, but we must also live together, knowing our families and communities will survive our disagreements.

And speaking of community cohesion, we’ve just learned that the Chittenden County Solid Waste District is closing our Hinesburg drop-off site. When I was young, we called these “dumps” and they were a community gathering place.

Every Saturday morning, people brought their trash. Wyvis, the dump-man, had a cabin there and sorted reusable goods like salvaged wheels, old generators, rusty hardware, and the like. When it came time for the annual soap-box derby, the dump was our parts place. After closing, kids took potshots at rats with their .22s, and WDEV still broadcasts “Music to Go to the Dump By.”

If our communities are to survive, we must sustain the few remaining places that bring us physically together. So, as the holidays approach, turn off the TV, put down your smart phone, and share your thoughts and feelings with one another around the family table, at church, or even at your local community watering hole.

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The Curse of Instruction Manuals

When I was young, cursing was frowned on in our family. I was raised a Catholic and it was a mortal sin to take the Lord’s name in vain.

But I remember shocking myself one day as I led a pack of Stowe ski friends down the mountain after a 20-inch snowfall in a game of “follow the leader.” To show off, I veered off the summit trail and over the cliff that begins the National, a notoriously difficult racing trail. The new snow had obscured a chain and a pendant sign across the trail indicating it was closed. I felt the sharp pain in my shins and pitched forward over the chain. Both skis and one boot released, and I avalanched down the 45-degree slope in a billow of fresh powder to the vast amusement of the tourists riding slowly up the then single chairlift. I came to rest where the National crosses the lift-line, swearing like a banshee and evoking even more amusement. Since I was missing one boot and both skis, a kindly ski patrolman brought me a skip-jack to ride to the bottom. In the spring, a mountain company employee found one of my skis below the parking lot in the spring with a broken Arlberg strap.

By the time I was twenty, I was married and had a child so I stopped cursing altogether. But now that the kids are all grown and departed, the need to role-model went with them and I’ve started swearing again.

At 72, it’s no longer epic sports accidents that trigger my umbrage, but rather new devices that don’t work as I expect them to: a TV remote or an “intelligent” thermostat with too many buttons, a microwave clock impossible to reset after a power outage, or a “smart” phone I don’t know how to answer when it rings. The list goes on.

Like many dotards, to quote Kim Jong Un, I have little patience for 40-page instruction manuals in micro-type, the first twenty pages of which are safety warnings and death threats about misuse of the device, like how swallowing certain of its components might cause heart failure or impotence.

I generally discard instruction manuals more than a page along with the packaging. I’m told I can always download a .pdf from the Internet, but I’ve lost the instructions on how to download a pdf.

My children and my patient wife urge me to read the illegible manuals, assuring me it will make my life and theirs easier. But I’ve chosen a better route, one that has brought relative calm to our household. I’ve discarded every “tool” that has more than one page of instructions or the use of which is not wholly intuitive, like good old kitchen knives, scissors, screwdrivers, flashlights, and wooden pencils. I’ve replaced all our smart appliances with dumb ones. I find myself wishing I’d never sold our ’50s-era Maytag wringer-washer, but I’ve solved the incomprehensible modern washer dilemma by letting my beloved do the wash, as she seems to have mastered the new washer, which looks to me like the cockpit console of a 747. And now we dry our clothes on a handsome wooden rack in front of the woodstove and the living is easy!

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Sexual Behavior

Any male not now asking himself about his own behavior towards woman and children is extending the risk to both into future generations. Sexual abuse rolls forward from generation to generation until someone – both victim and perpetrator – decides to get honest with themselves and others. Victims are now coming forth in droves, perpetrators only when outed.

Mutual sexual attraction is one of our greatest gifts, a healthy and natural phenomenon occurring even before puberty. But we live in cultures, not the wild and so attraction must be tempered so it’s not just the powerful who control relationships. Sexual predation, especially on children or the powerless, is one of our most destructive and enduring behaviors. We must do more than just procreate, we must raise resilient and sexually responsible progeny.

But the boundary between natural sexual attraction and initiative, and outright abuse is fraught with confusion and complexity.

Age is one boundary. And I’m sorry, but there are no defensible Romeo and Juliet love affairs between men in their sixties and women in their twenties. Nor do they occur between boys in their twenties and girls in their tweens. Nature compounds the difficulty by generally maturing females sexually and emotionally faster than most boys, but age still matters.

Another is permission. A sexual relationship must be sober and consensual. “No” does indeed mean “no.” Alcohol or drug-induced rape is never “consensual.”

Predatory sex within a power hierarchy is a third border now filling news cycles. Whether focused on the casting couch, the office assistant, the student, or the prisoner, power clouds the very nature of consensual sex irredeemably. A sexual target of either gender who is in need rarely responds of their own free will to a sexual invitation. Their choice is clouded by their need, as it may relate to opportunity, freedom, or even survival.

The human science of proxemics is about the art of knowing intrinsically the amount of space people need between themselves and others. A person with this skill can encounter someone and know intuitively whether they will welcome a civil greeting from a discreet distance, a handshake, an air-kiss, a hug, or a flirtation.

We must all govern our own sexual behavior and intervene when we see victimization. And we must teach our young by example and through frank education. Otherwise we will only perpetuate the pervasive destruction that sexual abuse brings to victim and perpetrator alike.

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Ourselves, our children

At seventy-two, I often hear myself say, “Well, when I was young…” followed by some judgment about the behavior of today’s kids. I seem to remember my parent’s expectations of me as a kid were quite different from what parents seem to expect today.  Looking back, my parents’ expectations and boundaries hardly felt ambiguous.

All of which leads me to ponder how we raise and educate those who’ll take the reins from us and hopefully forge a better world. It’s a tall order to prepare our children to take risks, respect but question authority, create and innovate, procreate respectfully, and serve mankind.

Children learn by watching how adults behave and by listening to what we teach them at home and in school. For whatever reason, sometimes religious, we rarely teach our children about the physiology and ethos of love, commitment, contraception, and parenting skills. Nor do we teach them about the workings of democracy, their rights and responsibilities, or require them to serve their country and we’re just beginning to teach media and financial literacy and personal environmental responsibility.

And outside the classroom, our children learn mostly by our example. For better or worse, our kids will most often become who we are, not who we tell them to be.

Some parents today seem confused about their own roles, believing they must raise happy children rather than resilient ones. They crave the affection of their children often to the confusion and detriment of the children themselves. They see self-esteem as a gift rather than a hard-earned prize built on accomplishment.

We’re shocked when our children become teenage parents, get mired in debt, abuse drugs or alcohol, prey on others, or can’t be bothered to vote, and still we fail to see ourselves in our children. Countless studies detail the multi-generational persistence of abuse, addiction, poverty, and emotional dysfunction.

Our children are the future. As Marian Wright Edelman said many years ago at my son’s graduation, “A nation that does not stand for its children does not stand for anything and will not stand tall in the future.”

To raise resilient, capable, confident citizens and future parents, we must do better ourselves. STEM learning supports economic and scientific growth but if we don’t also raise rational, empathetic, responsible citizens living together respectfully, in time, our species will perish from this earth.

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The Comforts of a Mediocre Education

It’s no secret that many colleges and prep schools are in financial trouble. Accrediting organizations predict a significant number of institutional failures in the next decade. We even feel the pain here in Vermont but, understandably, no one wants to discuss it, as any faint whiff of distress further discourages applications.

The college value equation has been eroding for decades. Total private college costs average $45,000 annually, $20,000 at in-state colleges. Accounting for payments, discounts and scholarships, average college graduates carry $37,000 worth of debt. And in return, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to which the U.S. subscribes, we rank thirtieth in math and nineteenth in science among the thirty-five sponsoring countries.

Access to a free and superior education was once the great promise of America. But cultural shifts in our country inevitably manifest themselves in our institutions. Our societal inclination towards comfort, entertainment, consumerism, and ourselves is displacing investments in educational excellence and mission.

And while the $65,000 price tag for our elite institutions may still serve those who can afford it, it does little to spread opportunity to others aspiring to the opportunities a great education enables. Many of our schools look like wealthy island resorts surrounded by a sea of poverty and economic decline. Income on non-profit college endowments isn’t taxed, representing a public tax expenditure at Princeton, for example, of almost $100,000 per student per year.

To combat application declines, colleges invest in amenities to attract more students. But these amenities inflate their carrying costs. Rich alums love building monuments to themselves at their alma mater, but almost never fund their monument’s ongoing expense.

To survive, education must refocus on teaching excellence. The cost of a new gym could easily endow twelve faculty positions, allowing deans to attract and hire the greatest educators in the world. But if colleges compete on amenities, they’ll continue to lose value and relevance. And if they continue to market amenities instead of great teaching and learning opportunities, we may not need them anyway.

When asked what I recall from my own education… gyms, dorms, shops, and student centers don’t come to mind. Instead, I remember the few outstanding teachers who intrigued and encouraged me to learn. They weren’t concerned about my comfort or self-esteem but instilled in me a life-long desire to learn. All the comfortable stuff I learned on my own.

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The Vegas Shootout: Yes, Let’s Politicize it.

When I was eight, I took the NRA safety and target training at a camp in Maine. Two years later, my parents gave me a Winchester .22 long rifle. We kids would peddle our bikes up to the dump after it closed on Saturday to “pop” rats. During deer season the high school boys brought their 30.06s to school and left them in the principal’s office so they could hunt right after school before sundown.

Today, our property is the only one in the neighborhood not “posted.” We have friends who hunt here and we welcome them. We have two old hunting guns in the house, and believe in hunting for food, sport, and to manage our wildlife populations.

But I draw the line at weapons that don’t remotely resemble hunting gear. No hunter I know would hunt wildlife with a machine that can fire a hundred rounds a minute. Nor can I imagine our much vaunted “founders” advocating for silencers, automatic weapons, or against trigger locks. They never envisaged the antipersonnel weaponry we’ve devised and protected under their still ambiguous second amendment.

Monday, I awoke to learn that more than fifty people had been killed and a rising toll were injured in the worst gun tragedy – among many – in recent U.S. history. We’ve since learned that a lone shooter managed to kill or injure a number equal to the population of the town I used to live in.

Our foreign exchange student asked me that morning if she’ll be safe here. And once again I’m getting emails from European friends asking, “What’s happening to your country?” Internationally we’ve become an embarrassment to our increasingly skeptical nation-partners.

A seasoned national journalist visiting us this week suggested wryly that perhaps we could manage this trend in gun-related violence by declaring a limited season on humans and regulating it, as we do with other species.

We’ve since learned that police discovered an arsenal of twenty-three weapons in the shooter’s room, including either banned but easily accessible automatic weapons – or semi’s that appear to have been modified.

What’s next: grenade launchers perhaps – or maybe pocket nukes?

And please, enough with the “our thoughts and prayers…”

We can’t predict or control all human behavior, but we can surely differentiate between hunting gear and the weapons of mass destruction that Stephen Paddock used in under fifteen minutes to kill or maim what’s nearing six-hundred people.

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Who Will Save Us from Ourselves?

As humans, we’re living in a time when our evolutionary capacity as humans to understand, regulate, and use technological innovation in a way beneficial to mankind and our planetary home is simply overwhelmed by the relentless speed of discovery and invention.

While civilization is about six thousand years old, it was the industrial age that first started taxing our management capacity as humans some hundred and seventy years ago.

Our understanding of natural phenomenon and therefore the pace of technical change accelerated greatly between 1850 and 1950 and has only sped up since that time. Technology, like biology, is an evolutionary process. Only the fit, or in the case of technology, the functional, survive to potentiate new waves of invention and discovery.

Think about this: chemists now add 2000 new chemicals a year to our environment. Pharma medicates us annually with 450 billion dollars’ worth of drugs. We spread six billion pounds of pesticides annually over our planet. Pilots routinely see 200-mile-wide swirling eddies of plastic trash in the Pacific. And only recently have we come to understand that ocean currents break the plastic flotsam into tiny particles that find their way into much American tap water as well as nearly all ocean fish. Scientists in Maine have found visible polyester Fleece fiber in the flesh of some Atlantic species.

We humans don’t necessarily evolve as rapidly as the technology we develop. Just look at the ambivalence of the men and women working on the 1940s Manhattan Project when they understood the ferocious destructive capacity of their invention. “Job creators,” as business people like to be called, will consistently choose more cost-effective and predictable automation over human labor. Computers and robots now make cars better than people do. Within five years long-haul trucks will drive themselves.

Innovation takes many forms. Mark Zuckerberg is only now acknowledging the Pandora’s box Facebook has opened, as it’s been weaponized in the service of racism and politics. Digitization and streaming of art and entertainment properties have significantly diminished artists’ earning capacity.

When Congress and state legislatures can’t even manage age-old systems such as health care, housing, infrastructure, and taxation, how can we have confidence they will they ever wisely and effectively cope with the flood of innovation and social change that many don’t even understand?

Who will protect us from ourselves?

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Understanding and Reducing Poverty

In Vermont’s early years, poverty was managed by an elected “Overseer of the Poor” until we passed the Social Welfare Act of 1967, which formally relieved communities of responsibility for care of their poor and ended the office of “Overseer.” The last “poor farm” closed in 1968.

Growing up in a middle-class family in Lamoille County, I knew people who were poor – though they’d have hardly described themselves that way. Many were grateful for the little they had and took both pleasure and pride in work, family, food, and neighbors.

My father ran the small Union Carbide office in Morrisville and was twice offered a whopping raise to move to Manhattan, but declined each time. His life was defined by his community, not his assets.

In 1958, Tom Watson opened the IBM plant in Essex and began hiring Vermonters at unprecedented salaries. Many folks sold their struggling hill farms and moved or commuted to the new plant but others declined to leave neighbors, land, and animals.

Our cousin, Sister Ste. Alphonse took vows of poverty, chastity, and silence. But even so, we kids knew her as a joyous presence in our lives when she came to visit.

Poverty is remarkably nuanced. For some, it may be a chosen lifestyle, but for most it’s destitution – an unwanted economic oppression with no exits.

If we wish to alleviate its impacts, and change the social and economic conditions that impose it, we must first listen to those whom we perceive as poor.

The essence of giving is asking someone what they need, not imagining or prescribing it. Our understanding of poverty may well be distorted by our own lack of any experience with exigency or need. And those we see as poor may be offended by that characterization and resent being “rescued”.

And while we’re defined by our differences as human beings, our communities are still collapsing under the weight of our gross financial inequities. Noblesse oblige prompts us to alleviate the effects of poverty but morality obliges us to change the causes of it. To accomplish either of these goals, we must first understand its variability.

And in one historical footnote of uncommon good sense, it’s interesting to note that in an effort to ensure fairness and appropriate empathy, the town of Richmond used to maintain the tradition of electing Overseers who at some point had themselves needed help.

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Getting Closer in Vermont…Affordable Health Care for All.

When I was young, Morrisville had three doctors, two dentists and the wood-framed, four-story, Copley Hospital, which had the town’s first elevator. Theoretically, there was competition, but price wasn’t the criteria by which we chose our providers, it was familiarity and trust. All docs pretty much charged the same for an office visit. Our doctor was our trusted friend and on his advice, we went to Burlington for major surgeries or life-threatening illnesses.

In the ‘70s, when cities became employment and retail hubs connected by new highways, community hospitals began to compete for patients. Medical technology became a marketing edge but also a major cost-escalator. If Newport got the newest M.R.I., then St Albans wanted it as well. New medical technology ballooned costs and spurred more utilization. Relations between community hospitals and tertiary care hospitals grew toxic in this new competitive environment.

Acknowledging the failure of competition and for-profit services, Vermont set out to design a regulated network of distributed medical services based on cost, access, and need. Regulators made two strategic decisions: first, Certificates of Need would not be issued to for-profit hospitals; second, Vermont would abandon the competitive model in favor of an integrated, collaborative network with regulated investments in technology, appropriate to cost, utilization, and need. And despite detractors’ claims, this system is working.

When we retire “fee-for-service” billing in favor of paying providers to maintain healthy communities, we move away from costly medical interventions and toward prevention – which history has always shown to be less expensive and traumatic than remediation.

But with our absurdly short political cycles, it’s easy to lose our institutional memory and forget where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Many Vermonters would like to see a national health care system like the rest of the civilized world. But short of that, we’ve tried to optimize what we have, to ensure affordable and accessible health care for all. Recent efforts to second-guess and demonize the network we’re building only distract us from our goals.

Many are too young to remember how America was wired for phone and electricity by regulated for-profit monopolies which could earn a fair return on their investment while being required to service everyone equally. The Rural Electrification Act and Universal Service Fund brought light, power, and communications to all Americans. We can do the same in health care.

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Children should never be allowed to name pets

I’m not obsessive about pet names. I usually leave them to the kids, perhaps with a little parental guidance, like avoiding undistinguished names likeFluffy or Spot, or ambiguous names like Pussy, or aggressive names likeGenghis or Trojan.

So, when we drove up to Frank Bryan’s hill farm in Starksboro to choose a tiger kitten from the dwindling array of barn cats left after an onslaught of fishers had depleted his neighborhood of most domestic pets under forty pounds, we decided on a double-toed tiger male and brought him home in the arms of my then 5-year-old daughter, Anna.

Looking small and confused on the floor of our kitchen, the still nameless kitten relieved himself mightily. I muttered under my breath, “Oughtta name him sphincter.”

Anna chirped, “What’s that?”

Now with children, parental duty demands honest and forthright answers, which I delicately provided.

Anna and her slightly older brother Steve were delighted with their vocabulary addition, which neither could pronounce, so our new kitty was henceforth known as “Phinxter.”

Luckily, I remembered from the legion of domestic house cats we’d had since I was Anna’s age that Phinxter would need shots. I made an appointment with the local vet and, to imbue my children with a sense of responsibility for their new pet, told them they were to accompany Phinxter to the vet. I’d drive and answer any difficult questions.

The avuncular vet knew the drill. He bent down over his computer keyboard to meet Anna’s smile as she held Phinxter in her arms and asked, “What’s your kitty’s name?”

To my embarrassment and his astonishment, in her 5-year-old voice, Anna pronounced “Sphincter.”

The vet blinked, but knew not to repeat the offending word in front of children. He just looked at me quizzically as if wondering whether to call the authorities.
I, too, avoided the offending word and simply nodded.

He shook his head and carefully hunt-and-pecked the word it into his computer.

After a terse lecture on the prevalence of feral ticks and a futile effort to sell us overpriced cat food endorsed by his trade association, I drove home with the children in the back seat, taking turns comforting their wounded pet.

The following year to my confusion, we received a blue, computer-generated. merge-purge, postcard from the vet that said:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Schubart, it is time to bring your Sphincter in for a rabies shot.

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