Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Human Folly? There’s an ICD-10 Code for That

A key premise of Vermont's admirable attempt to institute single-payer healthcare is that it will rationalize an often irrational system. With smart people like Gov. Peter Shumlin and local House Rep. Mike Fisher leading the charge, maybe it will.

But healthcare is a world where it’s illegal to acquire a legal drug, and where there will soon be hundreds of insurance codes for how people get hurt by animals.

One look at recent headlines is enough to suggest that federal bureaucracy and legal ambiguities – not to mention the pure irrationality of human behavior -- will continue to complicate a healthcare system that makes Alice’s Wonderland seem simple.

To start with, the federal courts can’t decide whether Pres. Obama's healthcare reform act -- the law upon which rests our state's single-payer efforts -- is even constitutional. Courts in different jurisdictions have issued sharply differing decisions.

Clearly, it's going to be up to the highly partisan (read: Republican) US Supreme Court to decide once and for all if healthcare reform can be fully implemented.

Even here in Vermont, we have our share of legal ambiguities. Take, for example, the case of Glenn Myer.

Myer, a 52-year-old former pharmacist, has a little company called Green Herbalist. A recent report in Seven Days outlines Meyer's effort to add to Vermont's agricultural diversity.

Except Myer isn't growing heirloom tomatoes or a new kind of string bean. He's growing marijuana.

At two facilities in Lamoille and Caledonia counties, he cultivates marijuana for Vermonters who have a doctor's permission to partake of the weed because of their medical conditions.

I’ve said before in this space that I think marijuana should be legal for adults, so long as it’s regulated similarly to alcohol. For now, though, Myer's entrepreneurial herbalism occupies a gray area of the law, one that intermingles a largely illegal drug with legitimate healthcare concerns.

His business is another example of a long-standing contradiction in state law. While it's legal to use marijuana in Vermont if you have a doctor's permission, until recently the law established no clear way for Vermont patients to legally acquire the marijuana they are allowed to use.

A new law authorizes the existence of up to four not for-profit medical marijuana dispensaries in the state. But they won’t begin operating until the middle of next year.

In the meantime, the legal marijuana users who are Myers’ customers will have to hope his operation doesn’t get railroaded out of existence by police and prosecutors.

Even if Vermont manages to straighten out the confusion in its own healthcare system, Uncle Sam seems determined to make the whole thing way more complicated.

Nothing demonstrates that better than the pending implementation of new billing codes for medical services.

Under the rubric of ICD-10, the new system will in two years replace 18,000 billing codes with 140,000 of them.

The idea is to make billing much more precise. That way, payers such as Medicare and Cigna will have a better idea what they're paying for, and health authorities can much more accurately track the specifics of injuries and disease.

On the face of it, it seems like a good idea.

But somewhere along the line, things got out of hand.

For example, there are nine different codes for an injury incurred by a macaw. There are separate codes for injuries related to the ducks, geese, turkeys, and chickens -- 312 animal codes in all.

The international system of the World Health Organization manages to get by with only nine codes for animal-related injuries. But they don't have ICD-10's penchant for detail -- which has also led to separate codes distinguishing between whether or not a patient was bitten by a turtle or struck by a turtle.

One aspect of the new system seems specifically reserved for alcoholics: There's an indication for "walked into lamppost, initial encounter" -- and a separate one for "walked into lamppost, subsequent encounter."

Other parts of the system just seem arbitrary.

When ICD-10 is implemented, for example, clinicians and billing codes will be able to indicate whether the patient evidence has a "bizarre personal appearance" or simply a "very low level of personal hygiene."

My personal favorite in the new system is the code for "burn due to water skis on fire."

I am not making that up.

Rhonda Buchholtz, an expert coder who trains others, told the Wall Street Journal she wondered where that code would be used. How did it happen that the skis caught on fire and burned the patient?

"Is it work-related?" she wants to know. "Is it a trick skier jumping through hoops of fire?"

No word yet on whether there will be a code for Vermont herbalists who are classified as "too stoned to grow."

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Friday, July 29, 2011

In Paris, the City of Pigeons

Paris is a famous city in France. It is well known for its old churches, chic shops, cafes and museums, and world-class piles of pigeon droppings.

While there are now very few actual Parisians who live in the city – the entire metropolis having been overrun by tourists -- those who remain are no longer as irredeemably arrogant as they once were.

Apparently the city’s habitués got the memo that unless they actually showed the occasional willingness to give street directions to someone who did not attend the Sorbonne, the rest of the world would accord Parisians the status of sheer irrelevance that they have long deserved.

France itself is famous not only for croissants but also for freedom fries and losing every war it has ever fought.

In a bid to erase both France's irrelevance and its long military losing streak, President Nicolas Sarkozy recently talked the Western powers into attacking Libya.

This was perhaps the best thing that has ever happened to Col. Muammar Gaddafi. His continued hold on power is now assured, thanks to the combined ineptitude of Libyan rebels, the European military and half-hearted American air power -- not to mention the French distaste for victory.

But I digress.

We were in Paris recently for a week, in a largely successful effort to empty our American bank accounts by changing dollars for euros.

The alleged purpose of the trip, as it is for so many such trips to Paris, was to savor the open-air markets and cafes, and to see famous sites such as the Left Bank of the Seine.

I refer to the “alleged purpose” of the trip, in regard to outdoor sites, because in actuality we spent large parts of each day beneath the city and safely removed from any sunshine or oxygen, riding the Paris Metro to and from the sites.

One day, however, we were able to emerge from the metro long enough to see the famous Left Bank .

The Left Bank,of course, was a favorite hangout of Jean Paul Sartre and his sometime Main Squeeze, Simone de Beauvoir -- who together became famous for inventing an indefinable philosophy and providing the early raw material for Rush Limbaugh's rants against feminism. There, too, they smoked and drank themselves to an existentially superb, albeit cancer-ridden, death.

While on the Left Bank I made a point of having a (pricey) glass of wine at the cafe where Simone and Jean Paul hung out. It's called Les Deux Magots -- a name that has led many an American tourist to ponder why anyone would name a cafe after a couple of maggots.

But again, I digress. Blame it on the French wine, which I have to say is decidely inferior -- at least at a price I can afford -- to the Italian wine we drank later in the trip.

Among the other sites we saw in Paris was Montmartre. I'm told the famous French habit of smoking oneself to death originated in this neighborhood among starving, tubercular artists such as Modigliani.

These days Montmartre is overrun with tourists who have paid thousands of dollars to come to Paris for a whiff of the bohemian life. But they could have stayed home and gotten a whiff of the same thing, from their neighbor who struggles to sell her paintings while making ends meet as a massage therapist.

Another neighborhood we visited is called the Marais. While it is famous for its gay residents, you will see more same-sex couples holding hands on a five-minute walk across the Middlebury College campus than you will in the Marais in all of July.

We also visited Notre Dame, a very large church.

I was told -- but wasn't able to verify because I don't speak French -- that this church is used as a sort of home-away-from home for students and alumni of the Fighting Irish.

Indeed, the church is large enough to provide practice space for the Notre Dame football team, should it need indoor facilities the next time it's in town.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Legacy of Middlebury College Professors

(First published in May 2011)

Ten days from now, several hundred Middlebury College students will take those fateful steps across the commencement stage to receive their degrees, and then bound off into the world.

For many of us Middlebury College alums who have taken that same walk, this is a nostalgic time of year. We can't help but recall our own college experience, and the poignant days as it came to a close.

At an institution where the list price of a degree exceeds $200,000, personal relationships with professors are one of the college's strongest selling points. That was true when the cost of a Middlebury education was $24,000 (the figure when I graduated in 1974), and it's even more true now.

As English Prof. Jay Parini wrote, the end of the school year brings "the many losses that inevitably attend that event, marked so vividly by the graduation ceremony, when half a dozen kids I had really come to like, even love, wave to me from the platform as they proceed into their adult life, diplomas in hand." He knows he will never see some of those students again.

But, he added, "Each year a number of them will return on alumni weekends and look me up … I'm aware that one or two from each class will remain friends forever.
Professors make indelible marks. And this time of year has me thinking of the marks that three professors made on my contemporaries and me.

One of my professor “friends forever” is David Rosenberg. As a young Middlebury teacher he introduced us to a new way of learning, setting aside the lectern and having us do role-playing. Playing out our roles as the representatives of different nations, I got a feel for the diversity of international relations that no lecture could convey.

When I stayed in Middlebury after graduation and helped launch a newspaper, David and his wife Jean took an encouragingly proprietary interest in the shaky beginnings of my journalism career. After I moved away and often returned on vacation, having dinner at their lovely old brick house was always a highlight of the trip. Over 35 years of conversation, David’s perspective on international relations has reminded me that it’s a big world out there, and it doesn’t necessarily revolve around America.

The classes taught by David, Russ Leng and others brought a badly needed relevance to the college's political science curriculum in the early 1970s. By contrast, professors Murray Dry and Paul Nelson, both products of the University of Chicago, staked out more philosophical territory.

"Poli sci with Murray P. Dry” – PS 101 and 102 -- was in those days a rite of passage for a huge percentage of my class.

Given the tumult of that time, these apparently archaic introductory classes were a form of exquisite torture. The nation was engaged in a massive, immoral land war in Asia; every male in our class was looking at the prospect of being drafted after college; and the Nixon Administration was increasingly understood to be conducting its nefarious business in secret and illegal fashion.

So in the face of these events, how did the college have us embark upon our study of politics? With a compulsory semester of material devoted to the 2300-year-old works of Aristotle and Plato.

We chafed against this seeming irrelevance. But Murray Dry and discussion-section leaders like Paul Nelson were committed to showing us the bigger and deeper picture. And damned if they didn’t succeed.

We came away from the semester knowing little more about what was going on in the contemporary world. But we had been given an analytical and philosophical framework with which to understand it, which lasts to this day.

It must be said that it wasn't always an easy process to endure. The reading load was intimidating. Murray called on anyone at any time in class, so you had to be sure you had done the reading, and I mean all of the reading.

My brother, who was two years behind me at the college and is today the most successful lawyer I know, was one of many who took one course from Murray -- and spent the rest of his college career avoiding him in fear.

Murray’s second-semester course was also largely consumed by the centuries-old writing of political philosophers, among them Hobbes, Locke and Rouseau. We finally arrived in the 20th century during the last two weeks of the semester, concluding with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s powerful justification for civil disobedience, "Letter from Birmingham City Jail."

At the end of my final-exam essay on King's letter, I uncharacteristically added a personal note to Mr. Dry.

Two weeks before the exam, I told him, I had journeyed to Washington DC to take part in a massive peace demonstration and participate in an act of civil disobedience challenging the Vietnam War. (I'd been arrested in front of the White House with a couple hundred others, in an arrest that was later challenged in court and found to be illegal.)

Machiavelli and Hobbes and all the other we’d been studying didn't really speak to the passion and action of our own times, I assured Mr. Dry in my arrogantly freshman fashion. Nor did they speak to the moral questions that the war raised, I said. Even Dr. King hadn't touched on the full depth of it.

I'm sure I would cringe with embarrassment if I read that note today. Yet Murray took what I had to say quite seriously. I don't recall the details of his thoughtful reply.

But I do remember that he took the time to write one.

In the rest of my student years I was most drawn to Paul Nelson’s classes. I couldn't get enough of them. He even made Max Weber's theory of bureaucracy seem compelling.
His passionate love for the material was contagious. I've never encountered someone so warmly devoted to his studies and so good at conveying a sense that some seemingly random section -- this paragraph, this little parenthetical remark from John Locke, J.S. Mill or Leo Strauss -- was worth our attention.

Though Paul will continue in his longtime role as director of the college’s prestigious Performing Arts Series, the coming fall semester will mark the end of his teaching career. He’ll go out in a blaze of glory, teaching one course titled “Politics and the Study of Politics” and a seminar on – what else? – the works of Aristotle, Plato, and his beloved 20th century political philosophers, Leo Strauss and Michael Oakeshott.

Forty years later, I've pretty much forgotten what all those political philosophers had to say. But almost every day, I draw inspiration from three teachers who, for decades of Middlebury College students, have enobled the study of politics.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Email Confidential

Hey Sam –

What’s up?

-- Bob

WARNING: This message is intended only for the designated recipient(s). And for anyone else bored enough to actually read it. It may contain confidential or proprietary information and may also be subject to the coach-player privilege. Your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device.


Bob –

Not much. You?

-- Sam

This message is intended only for native speakers of Portugese. It may contain confidential or proprietary words in languages other than Portugese. Nontheless, that should not be interpreted to mean that you have any business reading it.


I’m thinking about taking an early lunch. Got any plans with that new secretary of yours? Assuming you don’t, you loser, want to join me for a burger?

If you are not a designated recipient, you may not review, copy or distribute this message. If you choose to review, copy or distribute this message, we will hunt you down and kill you.


I fired my secretary a week ago. Pay attention, will you?

Burger where?

IRS CIRCULAR 230 DISCLOSURE: To ensure compliance with requirements imposed by the IRS, we inform you that any U.S. tax advice contained in this communication is probably worth a lot less than you’re paying for it. Check under your desk for further details.


I’m thinking about that new place around the corner, the one with the dweebie waiter and the foxy hostess.

NOTICE: If you have received this communication in error, what the hell are you doing in my email, anyway? Please advise the sender by reply email and immediately say 10 Hail Mary’s. You should seriously consider deleting this message and any attachments without copying or disclosing the contents. If you do choose to disclose the contents, email them to 10 people without breaking the chain. George W. Bush broke the chain, and look what happened to him.


Yeah, she is a fox, isn’t she?

This broadcast is the property of Major League Baseball and is intended solely for its audience. And for you folks who were so bored that you started reading at the top and haven’t yet had the good sense to stop. Any rebroadcast, redistribution or other use of this telecast without the express written consent of Major League Baseball is strictly prohibited, but be my guest.


Anyway, burger about 11:30?

To ensure compliance with IRS requirements, we inform you that any U.S. tax advice in this communication cannot be used for the purpose of (i) avoiding penalties under the rules of Quidditch; (ii) promoting, marketing or recommending any transaction involving two teams of seven players riding flying broomsticks, using four balls and six elevated ring-shaped goals. Your mileage may vary.


Got a couple things to do first. Noon?

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the respective authors and not necessarily those of this publication or its associated corporate entities. Of which there are many. Don’t even think of trying to mess with us.

Sure, noon. Meet me in the lobby.

Use of this Website signifies your agreement to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy (updated 03.22.05, though who really cares). Trademarks may be used only with permission of your first-grade teacher. You knew you should have been nicer to her, didn’t you? Now it’s coming back to haunt you. Yellow lights lead to green lights which lead to exits. If you receive this in error, please notify the sender and delete this message. Thank you.

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Monday, June 27, 2011

Taking a Hard Look at Single-Payer Health

There are plenty of reasons to be worried about Vermont’s march toward single-payer healthcare.

Federal healthcare reform may allow states to cover virtually all healthcare costs within their borders. But of course there’s no guarantee such a system would work. It’s never been tried in the U.S.

Proponents of single-payer can rightfully point to single-payer successes in many other countries. But those are nation states. Places like Canada aren’t part of countries that cling to the present-day amalgamation of health coverage from government, businesses and individuals.

A massive transformation will be required for single-payer to work in Vermont. We would save the costs of private health insurance, but single payer would entail new taxes on businesses and individuals. The Legislature would have to substantially expand its role in apportioning healthcare dollars. It would take years to make the dream a reality, including a waiver from the federal government.

At best it will take at least six years to make Green Mountain Care (GMC) a full reality – affordable, universal healthcare for all Vermonters. It’s hoped that would include prescriptions drugs, medical supplies, hospital coverage, and primary, specialty and mental-health care. (Vision and dental, too? Well, as with so much of this process, no one knows for sure.)

Single-payer proponents are correct in pointing out that we could reapportion how
healthcare dollars are collected – perhaps streamlining the confusing mix of federal programs, employers who cover their workers, individuals who pay (partly or completely) out of pocket, and unreimbursed care.

Everyone is counting on potentially huge cost savings through the efficiencies of electronic medical records and other digital wonders.

But in healthcare as in so many other human endeavors, rational efficiency does not always prevail.

In North Carolina, for example, a plan to improve the processing of Medicaid claims is now more than $200 million over budget. But even though the company assisting the state has also been implicated in egregious cost overruns in the British system, the state isn’t blaming the company.

The culprit, according to North Carolina? The federal government, which has changed Medicaid specifications several times and thereby required the state to rejigger its own program.

Another potential hurdle: If Obamacare is significantly altered by Republican legislation or court defeats, the process to achieve Green Mountain Care becomes even more torturous.
Of course it won’t be smooth sailing politically for Gov. Peter Shumlin and the Democratic leadership, either.

Last week’s pro-single-payer gathering in Middlebury featured the admirably dedicated Shumlin, House Speaker Shap Smith and Lincoln Rep. Michael Fisher, among others. There, two Addison County doctors served notice that while some Vermont physicians favor single-payer, even they are watching with a suspect eye as the state tries to pull off a medical miracle.

MDs aren’t the only one ready to pounce. The health of Vermont’s community hospitals, so vital to the quality of life in this rural state, could be at stake, too.
Medical device companies, which have already been hit with a new tax under federal reform, might oppose new reforms here in Vermont. (Disclosure: I consult for device companies.)

Even more significantly, insurance companies would be among the big losers under single payer. And the insurance industry is not exactly known for its political timidity or lack of spending power to bend government to its will.

And yet.

And yet we all have a huge stake in seeing Green Mountain Care succeed.
I support it, and I think you should, too. Universal healthcare is possible for Vermont, and it’s the right thing to do.

Our present system is grossly inequitable, and it poses a threat to a strong America. One in three Americans under age 65 went without health insurance at some point in 2007-08, according to a Lewin Group study from Families USA.

Even the conservative estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show that more than 15% of us have no health coverage. That means at least 46 million Americans are one serious illness, one accident, away from overwhelming debt and potential bankruptcy.

We expect our businesses to pay an enormous share of the healthcare burden -- through direct taxes (e.g. Social Security) and through the expensive coverage they provide employees. Businesses also bear the cost of sorting through the confounding insurance maze.

Individuals who are self-employed or unemployed have to dig into their bank accounts to afford measly coverage. Or worse yet, they just go without. They hope for good health, and when they are sick, they fall back on our overwhelmed emergency rooms for cheap or unreimbused care.

In short, our expensive, convoluted, sometimes corrupt healthcare system puts a tremendous strain on individuals, families, and businesses.

We have the resources to provide affordable care to everyone. And yet, hamstrung by history, ideology and corporate greed, we endure an increasingly inefficient and unfair system.

Worse yet – and this may be the most ironically un-American thing about the whole mess – we don’t even get good value for what we pay. American healthcare may lead the world in spectacular, lifesaving new technology. But we lag behind many other nations in critical measures such as infant mortality and the average cost of common care and medications.

Yes, there are many reasons to worry about single-payer care in Vermont. But there are even more reasons to be worried if we fail to achieve universal care.

Vermont has many advantages in working toward that goal – a committed, intelligent political leadership in the Legislature and governor’s seat; a state small enough to be a laboratory of democracy without attracting the soul-crushing power of greedy insurance companies; civically minded physicians; and a resilient populace.

Few states have those advantages, and these pluses are largely absent at the federal level.

Vermont has already led the way on democratically establishing marriage equality. It’s time we did the same with affordable healthcare for all.

To point the way forward– and to do the right thing by better providing for the common good -- we should all hope that Vermont can achieve universal, affordable and equitable care.

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Monday, June 13, 2011

Newspaper Survival in the Digital Age

Newspapers are dinosaurs.

Those of us who were brought up on print still love our newspapers. We will probably continue reading them in varying degrees until the day we die. Indeed, it’s been said that the best hope for the newspaper industry is Americans over 50.

Which means the industry in its present form has got maybe another 30 years before it’s the stuff of legend.

We’ll remember newspapers in print the same way we pine for the fresh milk that used to be delivered to our family's doorstep every winter morning. We’ll recall the scrunch of a morning paper being read at the breakfast table as we do the sound of eggs frying and the smell of Pop Tarts fresh from the toaster.

But none of the kids born today will grow up to say that their first job was having a newspaper route.

With the possible exception of a couple national dailies and a scattering of excellent local papers such as this one, print versions of newspapers will by mid-century be like old leather bellows. Cracked and creaky, good conversation pieces, and excellent for starting fires.

Anyone who thinks otherwise obviously does not have an iPad.

I will spare you a litany of the many wonderful things about the leading tablet computer. Let’s just say the iPad represents the kind of transformation that occurred when television went from three channels in black and white, to 50 channels in color.

Like cable TV, the iPad makes available lots of new, highly disposable junk. But it also opens up a bright and engrossing new world of knowledge and entertainment.

Already the possibilities of the tablet form -- the ability to go well beyond the inherent restrictions of print -- are being realized by pioneers such as Al Gore. He has authored/compiled/directed “Our Choice” for the iPad. This multimedia sequel to “An Inconvenient Truth" is a deeply involving documentary/book/movie. Call it a “docubookie” or “boovietary.”

The iPad also delivers a pretty satisfying version of newspapers. For example, it pulls in the New York Times at one-third the price of the print version, with the convenience of home delivery you can't get in
Addison County for the print version.

The online Times (about $20 a month for iPad access) affords access to an array of video, blogs, way more photos than can make it into print, mashups of sound and data visualizations about radio programs, and ingeniously interactive maps.

It’s enough to make this old newspaper guy wish he could sit down at a computer with a case of Red Bull and write code for the next 48 hours.

Even before the availability of the iPad, many of us had been reading newspapers on our computers for more than a decade. We’ve been guiltily guzzling the news for free from the websites of the Burlington Free Press, Rutland Herald or the New York Times, when we used to pay 75 cents or more a day to read them in print form.

The result for some newspapers has been an explosion in readership – the Times has never been so influential or so widely read – and a frightening decline in paid subscriptions and the ad revenues tied to print.

Many historians and PhD candidates will spend the next few decades debating where newspapers went wrong in the digital age.

Newspaper companies felt they had no choice but to offer their content for free online, in a race for "eyeballs" that would supposedly bring with them a fresh, mountainously large source of ad revenue. But it turns out to be impossible to charge the same amount for advertising online as for print ads. And online, newspapers are seem by many Internet users as just one of a gazillion choices.

The Wall Street Journal has for years been successfully charging its readers for online content. Recently the Times put up a "paywall" that sharply limits how many articles readers can see for free online. The failure or success of this strategy will likely determine the paper's fate, and perhaps that of newspapers as a medium.

In the meantime, regional daily papers such as the Burlington Free Press and Rutland Herald face an uncertain fate. In Vermont and everywhere else, readers increasingly turn to other sources for news and entertainment, and longtime subscribers are getting older.

Cities such as Detroit now lack a daily paper, and once great papers such as the Los Angeles Times are sad shadows of their former selves.

The happy exceptions to this startling decline, I hasten to add, are some weekly and twice-weekly papers.

That’s partly due to the lack of digital alternatives. If you want to know what’s going on in the world, you can get your news from print, broadcast media, and online sources. If you want to know what's going on in Addison County, you simply need to read the Addison Independent.

It's true that it is possible to read that newspaper online, if you pay just a little extra. The paper has, quite wisely I think, decided not to give away its content online for free. But except among snowbirds who keep track of Addison County news from their winter perches in Florida, the overwhelming majority of readers get the local paper in print form.

Vermonters have a knack for embracing the best of things new and old. In the former category is Gov. Peter Shumlin’s initiative to bring high-speed Internet service to every Vermont household. We hold on to the old pleasures of print because it still fit this state's identity. Even in the age of the iPad, the Independent and other Vermont newspapers like it remain a deeply embedded part of the regional culture.

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Thursday, May 05, 2011

Getting Real about Vermont Real Estate

We began the Great Real Estate Adventure-Dilemma (GREAD) back in February.

For me, our new home would be the sixth place I've occupied in the past seven years. African herdsman move less often than I do.

Like all naïvely optimistic would-be homeowners, we were sure that we would find several great places to choose from.

The three of us, eighth-grader included, were doing everything right. We’d done our Internet research and made our list of “must-have” and “no-way-Jose” features. We had a real-estate agent who was both a friend and a highly capable professional.

We were starting out early in the buying season. Surely we would get first look at all the hot new properties.

Or so we thought. Turns out that most of the properties on the market were neither hot nor new. Some of them had been sitting out there for more than a year, growing more frigid by the day.

OK, then. Primed by historically low interest rates and an allegedly depressed housing market, we figured there were bargains to be had.

Then we looked a little harder, and gulped.

If there were real estate bargains close to Middlebury, they were well hidden. Or just perfect for people less picky than we were.

Most of the new and ready-to-be-built homes seemed to be at 2006 prices: As if there had been no Great Recession, no collapse in prices, no disaster that turned collateralized debt obligations into horse manure.

As for older homes on the market, their sellers also appeared to believe we were still living in Boom City. Everyone was waiting for that rich New Yorker to show up with an open checkbook.

Prices were so unrealistically high that I came to think people didn't really want to sell their homes. They just wanted to list them.

I guess everyone thinks her home is the special one, the one gem that will generate demand from multiple buyers.

Probably these people also think they will win the Vermont lottery and immediately retire.

It's anybody's guess what things are actually worth these days. Listing prices are so high as to seem concocted over cocktails, so ridiculously out of whack as to invite hilariously lowball offers.

As in any real estate market, certain Addison County towns are perceived to have more cachet than others. Would-be sellers in Cornwall, for example, seem to feel their address automatically adds $150,000 to the price of the place.

We are all, in the words of the Paul Simon song, mistaking value for the price.

Our real estate search became an obsession. This winter when we weren’t sleeping, working or snowboarding, we were tracking new listings on line, talking to our Realtor, and out looking at houses.

Old houses. New houses. Model homes. 19th-century farmhouses. Places you could drive a truck through -- located on a highway where it sounded like someone actually was driving a truck through them at that very moment.

Planned residential developments. Haphazardly located country homes. Single-story ranch houses with sunken living rooms. Ultra-modern, architect-designed mini-palaces. Everything but mobile homes and hotels.

We became experts on local real estate websites. I can readily tell you who has the best blog; the finest photos; and the most profusely misleading property descriptions.

Comparing the online photos to the actual house interiors reminded me of what happens on web dating services. The hard-body gym rat turns out to be 50 pounds overweight. The charming, well lit dining room is in fact darker than Plato's cave.

But it wouldn't be fair to put all the blame on unrealistic sellers. We were certainly unrealistic buyers, too.

We dreamed of finding the underpriced place that with TLC and an extra $100,000 could become a showplace. But all those houses have already been turned into showplaces.

We were sure there was raw land with Adirondack views but without huge costs for septic, road, well, and utilities. We were going to be, alone among all would-be buyers in Vermont, the only ones to figure out how to build a Yankee Magazine prizewinner for $120 a square foot.

And then there were our contrasting tastes. I thought a nicely styled ranch house would be perfect for aging in place. She, on the other hand, dreamed of the real estate equivalent of the neutron bomb -- one that would spare the occupants but destroy all ranch houses now in existence.

I wanted to live 60 seconds from the co-op. She seemed ready to move to Port Henry for the right house.

So what did we learn about the state of the local real estate market?

Even though demand for new homes is way down, builders are (unrealistically, in my view) still quoting $200 a square foot for new construction. That means a 1,500-square-foot house costs $300,000 to build. Typical costs for getting a driveway, utilities and water to the site add another $100,000-plus – meaning even a glorified ranch house is going to run at least $400,000 and likely more.

While it’s possible to get an older house for less, buyers who can afford to be a bit discriminating will typically need to pay $350,000 and up if they want to live anywhere near Middlebury, in something that’s not tiny or a tract home.

After three months of looking, we decided that despite our real estate agent's admirable efforts, the right place wasn't out there -- at least not in a price we could afford without signing away the eighth-grader into a lifetime of indentured servitude.

We'll be moving into our new rental house in early June.

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Friday, April 15, 2011

More Hard Times for Liberals

With the limited exception of those of us lucky enough to live in Vermont, this is a lousy time to be a liberal. And it's not going to get any better.

After years of battling Republican Gov. Jim Douglas, Democrats and Progressives in the Legislature have the luxury of working with new Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin. While Shumlin has put the kibosh on increasing taxes for the super-rich -- he knows that would be political poison in his first term – he has otherwise set a remarkably progressive tone.

In addition to his persistent opposition to renewing the license for Vermont Yankee and his support of marriage equality, Shumlin is making all the right liberal noises about diversifying agriculture beyond the overemphasis on dairy farms. He's pushing ahead on the long campaign for single-payer healthcare and greater broadband Internet access.

Outside the cozy confines of the Green Mountains, however, the picture is a much darker one.

Pres. Obama’s one liberal accomplishment may prove to be the expansion of affordable healthcare for millions of Americans. Beyond that, his record on hot-button liberal issues, such as "card check" legislation making it easier for unions to organize, is disappointingly thin. The record includes some outright reversals, such as the chickenhearted decision to deny fair and constitutionally mandated trials to many terrorism suspects.

When it comes to foreign policy, the best that can be said about Obama is that he looks like Bush Lite. He seems to feel it's OK to spend $1 billion on a bombing campaign to support a rebel Libyan force that is largely unknown to the U.S. And his weary supporters seem willing to go along, even as Obama further expands executive power at the expense of the constitutional mandate that reserves to Congress the right to make war.

Worse yet, last week's collapse in the face of Republican demands for recovery-crippling cuts in federal spending is probably just another step in a long retreat led by Obama.

While Gov. Shumlin is proving nearly as liberal as he appeared during the campaign, it’s obvious by now that Obama never really was a liberal. He is a charismatic and canny politician, and one of his great political strengths is that he can be many things to many different kinds of people.

That's not lying, by the way. It's called electability in a center-right country.

With conservatives chipping away at healthcare reform, it will be a generation or more before any president is brave or stupid enough to take on healthcare once again. That
means the long-held liberal dream of single-payer healthcare is essentially dead for Baby Boomers.

The Republican assault on government and the Great Society now includes a frontal attack not just on Social Security, but also on Medicare and Medicaid. If it succeeds, the elderly of tomorrow will have to pay for much more of their own healthcare. And let’s not even talk about the fate of the poor who have to rely on Medicaid, where minimal healthcare services are diminishing and even disappearing.

The middle class will also take it on the chin. Do you appreciate knowing your commercial plane won’t crash in flight? The Federal Aviation Authority is facing millions in cutbacks that will affect its ability to help ensure flight safety.

Got a kid who might need financial aid to get through college? Education Pell grants are on the chopping block, too.

The persistent cry from conservatives is that we can't afford these kinds of services anymore. Yet emerging unscathed from all of the budget-cutting discussions is the "defense" budget.

With Obama’s recent decision to bomb Libya, the US is now involved in three wars. As satirist Andy Borowitz noted, even if the government were to shut down in a budget dispute, the US would continue to provide government services to Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Neither party seems willing to ask if the bloated military budget, which grew by more than 7 percent last year, could be cut as we try to bring down federal spending. Yet U.S. military spending has nearly doubled in the last decade and is six times greater than that of China, which ranks second. (Source: the respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute).

Even most Democrats have given up on questioning the continuing occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Now the old social issues are back on the table, too.

One of the debates that nearly shut down the government last weekend was the GOP's push to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood. That was allegedly done to curb Planned Parenthood's ability to provide abortions. But the organization receives no federal funding for abortions and, according to the Guttmacher Institute, taxpayer-financed support for family planning prevented nearly 2 million unwanted pregnancies in 2006.

Cutting funding to Planned Parenthood would only increase the number of women who choose to terminate their pregnancies.

The Republican majority, heavily financed by the US Chamber of Commerce and other conservative special interests, has bought into the myth that global warming isn't real.
The GOP threatened to shut down the government in part over the party’s insistence that the EPA stop regulating the carbon emissions that are a primary cause of climate change.

I wish I could find a silver lining in all these dark clouds. The reality, though, is that liberalism and activist government continue their long sunset in America.

If that’s ever to change, we’ll have to endure the failure of drastic budget cuts and the human and environmental toll that will follow. Maybe it will take a couple more environmental disasters like Hurricane Katrina. A Supreme Court majority that decides to outlaw abortion would wake up a lot of women to what's been going on.

In the meantime, I'm holing up in the Green Mountains.

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Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Confessions of a Green Mountain addict

My name is Greg and I am a Vermontaholic. This is my story.

As with so many other Vermontaholics, my addiction started in childhood.

They say that parents should keep their kids away from the hard stuff, and that was certainly true in my case. I'm one of many for whom, at a tragically young age, the gateway drug was skiing.

I could handle it OK when my parents took me skiing near home in central New York State.

Even in the Adirondacks at Whiteface and Big Tupper, I didn't get addicted.

But when they turned me on to hard-core skiing at Sugarbush and Mad River, well, that's when my lifelong habit began.

Given how addicted I had become to Vermont, it's astounding that my otherwise intelligent parents would have, when the time came, let me come to college here.

And what were they thinking, sending me to a college that had its own ski area?

Once I got here, of course, I became completely hooked. I spent my weekends mainlining on the Allen and Ross trails. I conned my friends into borrowing their family's car so we could ditch classes in May and go to Glen Ellen.

Like any addict, I denied the toll that my Vermontaholism was taking on my relationships. I neglected my studies and my girlfriend. I lied about my plans so I could sneak away and spend even more time on the slopes.

One point I want to get across here is that people who haven't been through it don't realize how, once you get addicted to Vermont, it just takes over your entire life.

Soon it wasn't enough that I could ski 40 days a winter. I started hiking whenever there wasn't snow. After work I would get on my bicycle and ride down to the Whiting quarry -- not to look at the naked women sunbathing there, but to immerse myself in the sweet soothing waters of my adopted state.

Sometimes, sitting outdoors with friends and looking at the Green Mountains, I would just stop in midsentence and admire the jaw-dropping beauty around me.

I didn't care what that did to my friendships. It didn't bother me if everyone thought I was a space case who smoked too much Vermont green, or that I cared more for Mother Nature more than my own mother.

By the time I was 25, though, even I had to admit I had a problem. My love of Vermont was so great, the compulsion to be here so overwhelming, that I had to acknowledge a sad fact:
If I didn't try to break the addiction and do something else with my life, I would end up forever hooked on the Green Mountain State.

In the face of this realization I took the most drastic step I could think of: I moved to Southern California.

There, in the land of endless summer and surfer babes, I began to break the hold Vermont had on my life.

I found new friends who surfed and had never been on skis. Some of them had never even seen snow. I got a newspaper job where, in that semidesert by the beach, I could go an entire year without writing an article that had the words "Vermont" or "green" in them. I exchanged mountain gaps and dirt roads for beach paths and freeways.

I told myself I was cured.

The thing about being a Vermontaholic, though, is that it never really leaves you. Once the craving is in your blood -- once you've experienced the cold prick of winter's needle or felt the soothing coolness of an organic Wolaver’s Stovepipe Porter at the end of a double-gap bike ride -- you know you’ll always be jonesing for Vermont.

Powerless in the face of my addiction, I finally moved back here some years ago.

But I think I finally have things under control.

It's not as if I can't get through the day without doing something quintessentially Vermont. Sometimes whole weeks go by where all I do is work in my office, barely even looking out the window.

I’ve learned not to let my habit control me, and I can go without it when I have to. Last weekend, for example, I didn’t go snowboarding even though the peaks were smothered in white. This weekend I’m abandoning the state altogether to go to Utah.

Now and then, I’ll admit, I do pour a little too much fancy maple syrup on my French toast, which is made with Gleason-grain bread and the eggs of cage-free local hens. I'm been known to consume massive quantities of Champlain Orchards apple cider and Misty Knoll chicken.

But I don’t crumble anymore at the thought of going to Boston, or even California. I know I can always come back here.

I guess you could call me a functioning Vermontaholic.


Friday, March 18, 2011

Bernie Sanders' Recession Tales

Barbara and Shawn Thompson-Snow used to think they could live out the American Dream.

With good jobs and college educations, in their early 50’s they seemed set for a happy ending. Ahead of them stretched a few more years of full-time work -- then the chance to cut back to part-time, to travel and enjoy life.

Five college loans later and with a second kid still in college, that now seems like a laughable fantasy. They might as well try flapping their arms and flying from their Lincoln home to the top of Mt. Abe.

Together they work two jobs out of five different locations between Salisbury and Burlington. They’re digging into their retirement savings to pay for college. Retirement seems as remote as the Arctic Circle.

While Shawn and Barbara struggle to meet the promises they made to their kids, they know they’re in better shape than many Vermonters. And that they’re far better off than those in other parts of the country, where the jobs have been shipped overseas or booted by the banks.

The deferred dreams of people like the Thompson-Snows are much on the minds of Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Almost alone among senators, Sanders worries that America is leaving the poor and middle class behind.

Always a champion of working people, he has recently collected the stories of scores of Vermonters. They tell of a time when the lives of many have grown worse in the wake of two wars, a Great Recession, widespread corporate malfeasance, and an economy where the rich get richer and the rest of see our real-dollar incomes drop.

“For the first time ever, my husband and I are finding ourselves having to apply for food stamps, fuel assistance, and even lunch money for our son,” the wife of an Addison County building contractor wrote Sanders. “Without [my husband’s] work, we just can’t make ends meet. I am not sure what we are going to do.”

A 35-year-old man from Middlebury wrote that he’s had to move back in with his parents to make ends meet, while working at a chain retailer an hour away: “The price of housing is too expensive for low-income people like myself to afford even if I want to buy a house. I even want to get married, but right now I cannot afford marriage.”

These stories are collected in a booklet titled “Struggling through the Recession: Letters from Vermont,” available at http://1.usa.gov/gmAlOZ.

These folks are hardly alone. Rutgers University researchers reported last year that nearly three-quarters of American were themselves out of work or knew a relative or close friend who was unemployed.

That’s not just a recession. That’s the sound of America falling apart. The other shoe dropping. It’s the land of James McMurtry’s song, “We Can’t Make it Here Anymore”:

Just try it yourself, Mr. CEO
See how far 5.50 an hour will go
Take a part-time job at one of your stores
Bet you can't make it here anymore …

I hate the men sent the jobs away
I can see them all now,
They haunt my dreams
All lily-white and squeaky-clean

They've never known want
They'll never know need
Their [stuff] don't stink and
Their kids won't bleed
Their kids won't bleed
In the dirty little war
And we can't make it here anymore

So what is the response of the two political parties to this impending wasteland, to the floor caving in under the middle class?

Better unemployment benefits so people can get back on their feet? Jumpstarting green jobs to benefit the economy and environment?

Even the thought seems like a cruel joke.

Having announced plans to downsize Social Security and Medicare, the Republicans want to reduce government to the size where they “can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub,” in the immortal words of Grover Norquist.

You only need to look at Wisconsin to see that unions – so vital to many in the middle class -- are also being targeted for extinction.

And the Democrats? Bought-off and gutless, they’ve once again gone back to playing Republican-Lite.

The debate in Congress isn’t about whether to cut, but how deeply: Into the tendons? Or all the way to bone?

They’re just arguing about how much to stick it to those of us who aren’t rich.

As Sanders pointed out in a press conference this week, “The House-passed (Republican) budget bill would throw 336 Vermont children off of Head Start and cut or eliminate Pell (college) grants for 13,000 Vermont college students … Some 37,000 Vermonters would lose access to primary health care because of a $1.3 billion cut to community health centers.”

To begin to level the playing field, Sanders is calling for a surtax on incomes of more than $1 million a year and the elimination of tax loopholes for Big Oil.

His bill will pass the Congress right after Sarah Palin says she supports healthcare reform. But give Bernie credit for articulating the plight of the poor and middle class, and for continuing to champion a greater measure of economic equality.

In the meantime, many Vermonters look around them in despair.

"I am financially ruined,” a 46-year old teacher from Charlotte told the senator. Unable to get full-time work, she said, “I find myself depressed and demoralized, and my confidence is shattered. Worst of all, as I hear more and more talk about deficit reduction and further layoffs, I have the agonizing feeling that the worst may not be behind us."


For more on unemployment see Paul Krugman's NY Times column of March 18, 2011, at http://nyti.ms/i4Fq1U.

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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Town Meeting Day: 5/12 Winter

Mother Nature threw pretty much everything she had at us on Monday during Town Meeting Day -- snow, rain, sleet, hail, graupel, black ice, and minor flooding. The only thing missing was a tornado. But maybe there was one and I just missed it.

Town Meeting Day is of course the one solemn day each year when people all over the great state of Vermont gather together and pretend they can understand a municipal budget.

In Middlebury's case alone, the budget ran to nearly 1,000 lines. (Line 55: Sales/Accident Reports; Line 812, Operating Supplies for Flag Football.)

I dutifully attended Town Meeting in Middlebury, where I was disappointed to find that the cozy confines of the Town Hall Theater were not in use this year for the meeting. Instead we were stuck with the cavernous, badly lit, generally pall-inducing municipal gym.

Apparently the town officials wanted us to leave early.

Sitting in that gym always reminds me of taking finals exams at my high school, which was built using the same kind of Depression Chic architecture. Just being in the gym, useful though the space may be, evokes a sense of exam-time déjà vu, guaranteed to make me wish I was home watching reruns of Family Guy.

This year's meeting saw the return of Town Moderator Jim Douglas (né Governor Douglas) after an absence of at least a couple years.

Say what you want about Douglas’s politics as governor, but he does run a smooth meeting.
And with his radio-trained voice, he can make even the dullest of subjects sound as if they should be interesting, mellifluously reading a budget item about "a single-axle, medium-duty plow truck" as if it were the latest news from the Middle East.

The former governor's characteristically dry wit was unfortunately little in evidence. It was only after the end of discussion and voting that he got a chance to crack wise.

Rising from the audience, former select board member Peg Martin asked Douglas, "Mr. Moderator, is it illegal for me to offer a perhaps germane comment?"

"Well," he replied, barely suppressing a smile, "we won't know until we hear it."

Then noting that the meeting had in fact moved on to "Other Business," Douglas allowed that “virtually anything is germane at this point."

Even with a 2.6% tax increase at a time when we are barely digging ourselves out of the Great Recession, the town budget was approved by an overwhelming majority. Just a couple of scattered "no" votes arose from the gathering of happy campers.

The voters are just fine with expenditures totaling $6.8 million. But ask them to allocate another $5,000 for the local Humane Society, and things get lively. Suddenly the question under discussion is the moral equivalent of war, with heartfelt opinions voiced on both sides of the question.

In comparison to last year when the Humane Society came out on the losing end of two votes, the organization was better prepared for this year's meeting and indeed fared better -- coming away with its requested appropriation from the town.

As more than one speaker noted, the appropriation of $5,000 was greater than the town grants to some of the worthy agencies that serve humans, among them Women in Crisis and the John Graham shelter for homeless people.

On other topics, one could pick up all kinds of momentarily interesting though ultimately useless information at Town Meeting.

We learned, for example, that Middlebury has 64 miles of town roads and an astonishing 15 miles of sidewalk. (Imagine what it would take to shovel the snow off all that sidewalk if it were done by hand.)

We were informed that the approximately $47,000 in annual debt on the new police headquarters is less money than it costs to heat the municipal building each year. (Another reason to hate that gym.) The town is facing an eye-popping 17% increase in the annual cost for employee health insurance. The newer diesel engines in town trucks now use urea – which according to Stan Warner, the town director of operations, sometimes makes the exhaust smell like French fries and at other times like hotdogs. A product called Ice B’Gone now supplements the 24 tons of salt the town throws on its roads each winter and, because it is less corrosive, is extending the life of our vehicles.

It was also a revelation to find that winter consists of five-twelfths of the year. For budgeting purposes, anyway, the town’s yearly budget for highway maintenance is divided up into “summer” consisting of seven-twelfths of the year, and “winter” for the other five-twelfths of the year.

Remember that old joke about how winter in Vermont is 10 months long, followed by two months of bad sledding? Not anymore. Now winter accounts for only half that much of the year, five-twelfths in all.

Apparently global warming truly has taken its toll.

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Monday, February 21, 2011

All Hail the Mighty Zamboni

I’m going to write my next column about the Zamboni, I said to her.

She looked up from her Garnet Hill catalog and peered over the top of her glasses. She put down the catalog, its cover bright with spring fashions: “Why on earth would you want to write a column about the Zamboni, of all things?”

Everybody loves the Zamboni. It’s got a funny name and goes round and round turning distilled water into ice as smooth as glass. What could be cooler than that?

“These slacks right here. They’re a lot cooler than a Zamboni will ever be.”

I went over to the ice rink at the college today and interviewed Butch Atkins. He’s the co-manager of the rink. Did you know that he and Stan Pratt, from Happy Valley Orchards, have been running the Zamboni for the past 30 years, since 1981? Just the two of them for 30 years?

“How could I possibly be expected to know that?”

It was a rhetorical question. I’ll bet you didn’t know, either, that the college Zamboni runs on batteries. It’s like a gigantic electric car. Generically they’re called ice resurfacers but everybody calls them Zambonis. They cost something like $55,000 each.

I remember when the “Peanuts” comic strip did a whole thing on the Zamboni. In fact Charles Schultz, who drew the strip, liked the Zamboni so much that he had his own ice rink.

“And did he drive the Zamboni?”

I hope he did. If I had my own rink, I would make damn sure I got to drive the Zamboni.

Of course I knew I wouldn’t get to drive the thing when I interviewed Butch -- but I was kinda hoping he’d at least let me ride along for a couple minutes. Turns out, though, the college doesn’t like for them to have passengers even though its top speed is only 9 mph. I heard they need volunteer Zamboni drivers at the rec rink. Maybe I’ll check that out.

I had Butch take a picture of me sitting up there in the driver’s seat. When I got back in my car after doing the interview, the first thing I did was to post the picture to my Facebook page.

“You put a picture of yourself on Facebook sitting on a Zamboni?” She gave me that over-the-glasses look again. “I’m going to go back to reading my catalog now.”
The guy who invented it really was named Zamboni. He’s dead now but the company has a trademark on the name, and even the rock band called The Zambonis has to pay a license fee to use the name. So far as I know, however, the band doesn’t play hockey or anything like that.

“Hey, pencil skirts are coming back. And it looks like pink and green are coming going to be the colors of the season.”

I’ll bet there are plenty of green Zambonis. And speaking of colors, at the college rink and probably lots of other ones, they actually go out each fall and paint the ice.

“They paint the ice?”

Yep. Every fall they fill the rink with less than a half-inch of ice. They let it freeze, spraypaint it white, then they go out and handpaint the red and blue sections.

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

Speaking of ridiculous, Butch says Norwich University doesn’t have just one Zamboni like Middlebury does. They actually have two! And did you know that the rec rink in Middlebury has the college’s old Zamboni?

“Of course I knew that, dear. I’ve just been keeping it a secret from you all this time.”

When the college decided to donate the old Zamboni to the town, they had to figure out a way to get it over to the rec rink. So at 4:30 one morning, Butch fired up the old Zamboni and drove it across town. It wasn’t licensed to be on the road, but he figured no one would be awake at that hour so he wouldn’t get arrested.

Sure enough, though, the Middlebury cop on duty spotted Butch and wanted to know what in the hell he was up to. He didn’t give Butch a ticket or anything. I guess they had a pretty good laugh about it.

“What do you think of this top? Would this color look good on me?”

Everything looks good on you, dear. And speaking of looking good on something, did you ever notice that two Middlebury College alums have their names on the side of the Zamboni? Check it out the next time you’re at a hockey game, or at this weekend’s Winter Carnival Ice Show (Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon). In blue script on the Zamboni, it says Jim Lake, Class of 1950, and Ralph Lovey’s, Class of ’51. Meg Storey Groves over at the college says they established a fund in 199 to support Zamboni maintenance at Kenyon.

I wonder how much money they had to give to get their names there. It’s way cooler than having your name on a library. If the college ever buys a new Zamboni, I want my name on it. I think I’ll call the alumni office and see how much that would cost me.

“It would cost way more than you have, darling. But I’m sure you could afford to buy me this lovely sweater on page 51.”

I like that sweater. I think you’d look really hot in it. And speaking of hot, some of the water the Zamboni spreads on the ice is 120 degrees. Water that hot melts the very top layer of the ice so it can freeze back and be smooth.

Plus a blade at the bottom of the Zamboni shaves off a bit of ice. Butch says that’s why they talk about “getting a nice cut.”

There are three things in life that people like to stare at, Charlie Brown said. One is a rippling stream, another is a fire in a fireplace, and the other is the Zamboni going around and around and around.

Sometimes when the Zamboni comes out onto the ice at an NHL game, the fans actually cheer.

Imagine that: They cheer for a machine.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Shaking off the Winter Blues

It's right about this time of year that some of us begin to wonder why we ever thought it was a good idea to live in Vermont in the first place: Three more months of wintry weather to come.

Couldn't God have just skipped January and February (and maybe November) and given us only the shocking green of spring, the lazy warmth of summer, and the gold of autumn?

Sure, we’ll take a few weeks of late winter thrown in there for good measure, complete with longer days and fresh maple syrup.

But as for January? A lot of us would just as soon hit the fast-forward button.

Do not despair. There are plenty of fun and rewarding things to do in January.

Just ask your friends. I did -- and here's what they suggested.

Eric Warren, science teacher at the North Branch School, says January is his favorite month and offers these ideas:
• Make a snow sculpture/building/igloo.
• If the snow (and ice) go away but the ground is still frozen, it makes for great biking. If you dress right, being out on a mountain bike on frozen ground is really fun.
• Make a fire. We recently made the observation in my house that it is really hard to get motivated to go outside and make a bonfire on a cold evening when the TV and computer seem so compelling. But staring into the hard-won fire that we are all huddled around is better than anything on YouTube! I think that deep down in our DNA, there is something that makes fire so intriguing to play with, to look at and to sit by.
• Cook over a fire. A woodstove, a fireplace and a barbecue all work great. It's a challenge, but food never tasted better that the half-blackened thing you succeed in making.
• Snow shovel paths. When my kids were little, I think I got as much out of the mazes of paths we would make as they did.
• Follow critter tracks. I love trying to figure out what creatures have come by in the snow and seeing where they've been or where they are going.
• Ice skating on a pond by torchlight.
• Snowball fights.

Fran Putnam suggests volunteer activities: "Check out the Volunteer Connection at the United Way. Or volunteer at the Community Lunch or Community Supper programs. Area schools like to have mentors who can read with children.”

She adds: “I also recommend getting onto the Middlebury College website and looking for interesting, often free lectures and concerts. There is always a lot more to do in this community than we have time to do!”

Author and climate change activist Bill McKibben reminds us how good it can be to be outside and skiing under our own power: "Get out to Breadloaf or Blueberry Hill. Cross-country skiing is by every measure the best exercise there is, easy on the joints and good for the heart. And by its very nature it takes you deep out into the woods, where you're reminded what a gorgeous season this is.

“If you want some company, check out the Frost Mountain Nordic club (frostmountainnordic.org), which has groups at every level from beginner to racer. Winter is the season when friction disappears--make the most of it!" (For more from McKibben on cross-country skiing, see his recently reissued book, “Long Distance.”)

Win Colwell puts in a plug for a return to the storytelling traditions of old: "Make it a mission that in January you will learn a new story to tell aloud. Start by reading lots of short pieces to find one that you love. It can be modern or of an old tradition, but one that really talks to you. Then read it several times, and practice speaking it well aloud -- so you are ready for the winter night, or the summer campfire, or the long car trip, when it's wonderful to share a good story, well told.”

If you're looking for quieter times than you might experience in a countryside that sometimes has roaring machines going by, one friend suggests that January is "a good time to stick pins in your voodoo snowmobile, right around the transmission."

Leslie Ellen Ray, a longtime friend of mine who lives in France and blogs about cooking at http://lafourchette.blogspot.com, reports “I make a lot of soups in January. In part to warm up in the frosty temps here, but also to clear out the foie gras and wine feasting that goes on in these parts, in the month preceding January.”

Susan Hong, an editor and writer who lives in Charlotte, has this to say: “In January I sleep deeply, stretch luxuriously, and wake up again to the lengthening light. The dark has been beaten back once more. I've finally made the commitment to layers of clothing and flannel sheets, and put up no more fight against the cold. Flip-flops are at the back of the closet and the Bean boots are dusted off.

“My husband tells me that being cold is merely a state of mind, and I start to believe him. The sun even comes out on occasion, and the snow is bright and squeaky. My giant dogs are magnificent as they play in the drifts, crashing their chests together like elk, rolling to make their own brand of snow angels.

“I even have time to take a little stock — to think about how I'd best spend those brand- spanking-new hours of 2011 that stretch out before me. New projects seem possible. I'm done spending money for awhile, and there's room for new habits, new thoughts, better ways of being. January is a welcome sigh: For me, it's all about the light.”

Middlebury College Prof. Pieter Broucke suggests we brighten this month by changing our routines: "Don't eat meat for two days in a row. Park in the farthest spot in the parking lot instead of in the nearest. Make it a point to use the ACTR bus, even if only once in a while. See all the exhibitions at the college museum and the Sheldon Museum. Go to a concert at the college’s Mahaney Center and take a youngster. Read a poem every week.”

Nancy Nagel, a Boston-area therapist who used to work at the Counseling Service of Addison County, has other ideas about how to make January newly involving:

• Maintain a bird and animal log for the month of Jan.
• Have a homemade pizza-making party.
• Start learning a new language; research where your next trip will be to use the language.
• Write a letter to a friend with whom you've lost touch.
• Spend a snowy day making homemade bread (no bread machines; the kneading is the best part!).
• Pick a political issue you don't know enough about and learn more.

Hugh Miner, my favorite high school teacher, views January as "forever a month when just maybe I will get organized. I see a new year stretching out before me and it becomes a time to consider how I might fine tune the family schedule, or at least mine. First, of course, I need to finish sending my Christmas cards and hopefully get that done before I work on income tax … I guess the bottom line is that, along with the Christmas tree, our season lasts well into January.”

Lauren Waite reminds us there are treasures to be found in the long dark. She urges us to one night “wake up at 2 a.m. (I’m too old to say ‘stay up’ until 2 a.m.) and look at the night sky -- amazing in January.”

Christine Fraioli sees this month as a time for clearing out the past and ushering in the future. Among her favorite things to do in January is to “totally clean every inch of my house and throw away all accumulated detritus. It helps clear and organize my brain so I can plan weekend trips to break up the winter months ahead, before the calendar fills up with work-related activities. This year I would like to drive to Boston and Philadelphia in March and April to see the flower shows in both those cities.”

Laura Asermily reminds everyone that the local Acorn Energy Co-op (www.acornenergycoop.com) can always use new members, to support its mission of helping transition the county from our near total dependence on fossil fuels to a greater reliance on affordable, renewable energy.

And last, this bit of advice from Dana Yeaton, a theater professor at Middlebury College:

“I say eat by candlelight. Even alone, with a bowl of ramen, a candle can raise the spirits. Plus it hides the wrinkles.”


Correcting a portion of my previous column on the Snow Bowl and “lost” ski areas, I need to note here that the reports of Ragged Mountain’s demise are greatly exaggerated. The resort in fact remains in operation.

On a related note, a couple of readers wrote me to report other “lost” slopes. The website www.nelsap.org says there was one in Lincoln, and Jay West adds: “Blueberry Hill had a ski area just above the Inn (powered by a jacked-up old Ford truck, which is still there rusting), and on Goat’s Knoll in Goshen you can see the traces of old ski trails above Goshen Four Corners. “

The Tracks of John Boehner's Tears

Pity the poor liberals. They spent decades convincing Americans that it was a good thing for women to be strong, high-profile leaders. So who comes along and grabs the mantle of the high-profile political woman? Not a liberal, but the dreaded Sarah Palin.

Then after years of creating space for men to be more in touch with their feelings, liberals have to watch the new Speaker of the House John Boehner -- he of the tough-guy politics and country club demeanor -- become the most emotive man in public life.

It's enough to make progressives want to go out and burn a bra.

In the meantime, the rest of the country is trying to figure out what it thinks about the new Weeper of the House.

Do Speaker Boehner’s tears – which flow with sentimental regularity -- reflect instability, or just someone who's not afraid to show his strong feelings about country and family?

Many Democrats are profoundly skeptical about his lachrymose behavior. They recall when the slightest suggestion of a tear in Ed Muskie’s eye sunk his 1972 presidential campaign.

They remember when a genuinely choked-up Hillary Clinton was accused during the 2008 primaries of crying crocodile tears for political advantage.

For former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, tears are pretty much off-limits.

“If I cry, it’s about the personal loss of a friend or something like that,” she said. “But when it comes to politics—no—I don’t cry.”

And imagine if Pelosi did shed public tears over a political matter. She’d be instantly derided by the Right.

We give our male sports heroes a break when they choke up over the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.

Moreover, we’re an era when bromances and male hugs are part of the culture. We’ve had a two-term Democratic president who felt our pain and regularly bit his lower lip to keep from crying.

But we remain ambivalent about how and when our political leaders shed their tears in public.

Elements of the mainstream media and political Left have been unable to resist taking a shot a Boehner, in spite of their own calls for a more humane politics.

"This guy has an emotional problem," Barbara Walters commented. "Every time he talks about anything that's not 'raise taxes,' he cries."

Samantha Bee went further on “The Daily Show,” saying Boehner was someone “who can go from zero to snot in 6.4 seconds.”

“The Republicans,” she intoned, “are in the hands of Captain Blubberpants.”

Beyond this mean-spirited humor, though, lies the genuinely important question of how OK it is for men to cry, in public or private.

“Telling a man not to cry is like telling someone not to go to the bathroom,” says author Warren Farrell. “Both serve the purpose of cleansing the system.”

We pay a huge price for this emotional constipation, Farrell adds: “Men's weakness is their facade of strength.”

Middlebury psychotherapist Thomas Jackson asserts that we teach boys at age 6 or 7 not to cry or show sadness – “one reason there’s a large amount of unacknowledged depression among American men.”

A symptom of that depression, Jackson says, is captured in the title of Terence Real’s seminal volume on male upbringing, “I Don’t Want to Talk About It.” (And, it goes without saying, men certainly don’t want to cry about it.)

Boehner’s tears are disconcerting for some people because it’s the first time they’ve studied him closely. We give more latitude to political figures we already know, such as both Presidents Bush, who were known to tear up from time to time.

As Warren Farrell notes, “If a man has proven his power already and then occasionally cries at a funeral or over his wife or children being sick or criticized, that can be a positive.”

No one would doubt, however, that when it comes to shedding a public tear, we’ve come a long way.

Even one of our most masculine public figures, Gulf War Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, has put in a good word for the benefits of male tears. “I don’t trust a man who doesn’t cry,” he once said.

Everyone will have a different opinion about Boehner's tears. As for myself, I believe that while his tears may be oddly frequent, they humanize the man and the public debate.

And yet.

I look at the politics of the speaker and his party, and I see them headed in a less-humanizing direction – away from equality and toward tax cuts for the rich; away from healthcare reform and back to a system that denies health insurance to the needy.

Deeply felt emotions – the tears that come from compassion, for example – are intrinsically a part of being human. And if our politics lack compassion, sometimes our tears come out in other ways.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Middlebury Snow Bowl Is Alive and Well

For skiers, no website is as bittersweet as the one dedicated to the New England Lost Ski Areas Project.

NELSAP chronicles the history of the scores of New England ski areas that have closed their doors over the past 70 years.

There was a ski area in Bristol, for example. The website quotes a 1939 source, ‘Ski Trails in the East and How to Get There’:

"The resort has two trails and several open slopes for practicing. The skiing area is in town and the trails are reached by automobile. A tow located on a hill with two slopes has excellent terrain for novice and intermediate skiers.

“Mountain Top Run, for experts, is 1-1/2 miles long. The area also has two intermediate runs, and facilities for skating and toboganning. A first aid station and a skiing instruction school are nearby.”

Hinesburg, too, had a slope now lost to time, the site says: “The area had a 400-foot rope tow and operated from sometime in the 1960's to around 1972. According to J. Wilson at the Hinesburg Town Hall, the rope tow was run by a 1948 or 1949 car engine and was located on land owned by five families.”

I mention this history not so much for the ski areas that Addison County has lost -- but rather for the one we haven't: the Middlebury College Snow Bowl.
The Bowl is as steeped in history as any lost ski area. Trails were first cut there in 1934, for example, and the fieldstone fireplace in the base lodge was built even before the Neil Starr Shelter itself.

But unlike virtually any other ski area in the world, the Snow Bowl has the support of a well endowed college. The place gives new meaning to the phrase “higher learning” – 2,650 feet higher than sea level, to exact, where the Worth Mountain Chairlift reaches its apex.
Despite a recent brush with extinction – or at least with significant downsizing – the Bowl remains a vital center of community life.

Generations of local skiers have called the place their winter home away from home.

Parents and grandparents know that once the kids have reached a certain ability, they can be safely let loose on the mountain while their elders read a book in the base lodge or chat with friends. And the kids know they easily catch up to their buddies at the Bowl without being too specific about where and when.

This easily found camaraderie is a big reason why adult skiers keep coming back, too. They return even though they can easily get to bigger, better slopes at Mad River and Sugarbush.

But those resorts are also full of people from New Jersey, not New Haven.
The Bowl’s characteristic community feeling is becoming more rare with each passing year.

Over the decades, many New England towns have lost their local ski areas. This season, for examples, has seen the apparent demise of one more, Vermont’s Ascutney Mountain Resort.

The Bowl itself may have narrowly averted this same fate.

When the Great Recession hit a couple of years ago -- at the same time that the old Worth Mountain Chairlift was so old it couldn't pass a safety inspection -- Middlebury College leaders might have wondered if it would fall to them to be the ones to close the Bowl.

How could they possibly justify spending $1.7 million on something as comparatively frivolous as a new chairlift – at the same time they were being forced to close a new dining hall, offer staff and faculty buyouts, and pull out all the stops to avoid devastating layoffs?

Perhaps only a few college administrators and trustees know how they did the juggling.

They certainly made a lot of noise about donors. But I suspect it was the college itself that came up with the cash to reinvigorate Vermont’s third-oldest ski area. They decided to buy a new triple chairlift and keep the Bowl’s central lift -- and perhaps the ski area itself -- in operation.

Our communities are the richer for the college’s efforts. With the opening of the new chair and the 2003 renovation of Starr Shelter, the Bowl has undergone a facelift that will keep the place fresh for years to come.

Amid these improvements, its history still shines through at the place “where college champions compete.”

Four plaques honor national championships won by the college’s women's ski teams, which were coached by such familiar names as Charlie Brush, Terry Aldrich and former Olympian Gordie Eaton. A photo montage shows other college champions and coaches including John Bower, a ski jumper and cross-country racer who, like Eaton, was an Olympian and Middlebury College alumnus.

It's been years now since college champions competed in ski jumping at the Snow Bowl. But if you look hard into the woods, you can still ¬see the outline of where the old ski jump was.

Two-thirds of the way up the sleek new Worth Mountain chair is an overnight shelter for the historic Long Trail. It rises up on the right, just at the end of the spooky section where the chairlift passes beside granite cliffs, largely out of view of any of the ski trails.

Looking east as you creep past the cliffs and imagine making fresh tracks in the untouched snow below, it's easy to believe that you are in fact exploring one of New England's closed, lost ski areas.

But as any holiday-week visitor to our much loved little mountain can assure you, the Bowl is very much alive.

-- 30 --

Monday, November 29, 2010

Saying Thanks for Life's Small Heroes

(Posted for Thanksgiving, 2010)

There are plenty of reasons to see through the glass darkly in late November. You don't need me to remind you what they are.

But there are also good reasons why it's become an American tradition to say thanks amid the gathering darkness.

On this holiday, I'm grateful for a few small-time heroes.

I call them "small time" not because their heroism is petty or unworthy. It’s just that their kind of everyday valor goes largely unnoticed.

I got to thinking about that when I attended a wedding at the Waybury Inn this past summer.

Not just any wedding, but one between two women in their 60s. They united in matrimony under a big white tent before a gathering of more than a hundred of their friends.
Weddings are almost always touching affairs. But this one transformed pretty much every one of us into a puddle.

These two female beloveds, who could have chosen to live together quietly, put it all on the line in a very public way.

That made the event more than just a celebration of their love for and commitment to one another.

It also made it a day to be glad we lived in Vermont. Where people can join in full and legal partnership with whomever they choose. Even if that person happens to be of the same gender.

The simple heroism of that act of marriage helped me see some of the other heroes around me.

I know another married couple, for example, who were childless and child-free and well into midlife. Then they decided to adopt two boys from Ethiopia. They didn't have to do this, to take on all the expense and complexities and potential heartbreaks. But they did, bringing the boys to Vermont while also maintaining ties to the boys’ family members back in Africa.

Another example: Almost no one will notice the heroism of my dearest friend K. She's way too introverted for that. But even in the face of family difficulties, physical illness and divorce, she has deepened her commitment to the inner journey. The depths to which she is willing to go, exploring all that lies within the psyche, inspire those of us who know her to go deeper in our own lives.

I know another married couple, approaching the age of 50 with a son already in middle school, who took the leap and adopted a baby girl from China.
The story goes that in China after the girl’s birth, she had been left abandoned in an open field.

It took my friends more than five years, thousands of dollars, and hundreds of hours of effort just to get the right to bring a child from an orphanage in China to a cozy brick house in Vermont.

They persisted through all those years and dollars and hours. And now when you see their bright-eyed daughter held in her father's arms, she reaches out her left index finger to tap you. As if to confirm that she really is here, held by heroes.

Yet another local couple with a biological child decided to adopt into their family an infant African-American girl from the Bronx. I don't know why people would add such great uncertainty to their lives. But I know that they and the girl will be happier, and the world a better place, because of their decision.

One couple of my acquaintance has been facing her cancer for more than four years now. She's bravely dealt with it on her own terms. Her husband stands beside her to this day, helping to share the burden in every way he can.

If I had faced the same circumstances, I could not have acted as nobly. But someday when a great difficulty comes, I will think of this couple and try to find some of the same strength that has sustained them.

Sometimes we take on great challenges all by ourselves. Because we have to, or we deeply want to.

For example, a friend of mine decided in the mid-1990s that if she was ever going to have a child, it was time. Even if she was past 40 and it meant raising that child on her own.

And so she has done that for more than 13 years now.

These days I share many hours with her and her daughter, grateful for her heroism and her daughter's shining presence.

The three of us are spending the Thanksgiving holiday together. As I near age 60, my days are sunnier thanks to them. And I am a late, grateful enrollee in the School of Hanging out with Young People.

These are some of my not-so-small-time heroes.

Look around you. No doubt you have a few such heroes in your own life.

In the brightness of this holiday weekend, I encourage you to find a way to thank one of them.

-- 30 --

Monday, November 15, 2010

The (Tom) Rush of Time

To hear what it was like to play professional football in the early days of the NFL, you'd want to talk to a guy like Y.A. Tittle. Interested in the history of the feminist movement? Go hear a Gloria Steinem talk. George McGovern could tell you all you needed to know about trying to change a political party.

And if you wanted to learn about folk music -- which reaches back several centuries yet still shapes the music we hear today -- you couldn't do much better than going to a Tom Rush concert.

With stylishly shaggy silver hair and his trademark mustache, Rush is pushing 70 and has had a musical career of nearly 50 years. Yet as amply demonstrated by his show last Saturday night at the Vergennes Opera House, he remains one of the most important links in the chain.

No other folk singer has been so closely tied to New England. A New Hampshire native who went to St Paul’s School (which meant, he said, “I grew up in 18th century England”), he now lives in Norwich, Vt., after some years living out west. With a sound developed and polished in the folk clubs of the early 1960s, his songs transport an audience back through the decades, to when he and his listeners were young.

Rush was there when the great Delta blues men were being rediscovered by white college kids back in the early 1960s. Coming down from Merrimack County, he was a Harvard undergraduate when he began playing the clubs during what Tom Paxton calls "the folk scare."

Like Bob Dylan, Paxton and a number of other youngsters who revivified the blues, Rush helped bring the music and personalities of Southern black America into the mainstream. Those young folksingers met the old bluesman at gigs, invited them back to their Cambridge apartments for late-night jams, learned their songs, copied their idiosyncratic picking, and reinterpreted a lost, distant music from the Mississippi Delta for a white audience of millions.

Saturday night, Rush closed the first set of his show with "Panama Limited. " He made his old Epiphone acoustic guitar sing like the wheels, brakes and bells of a freight train, channeling a century of the blues through the licks he learned from Bukka White.

But as Rush wryly observed, he just can't do some of the old blues songs anymore because they are so politically incorrect. Take for example "Big Fat Woman," the old number by John Hurt, who sang of "the meat shakin’ on her bones." But as Rush added, Hurt’s song has the rare and beautiful rhyme, "Big Fat Woman great big legs/ Ev'ry time she moves, move like a soft boiled egg."

It's just not the same if a white guy tries to write in that genre, Rush said: "Imagine if a yuppie wrote a blues song. It would go, ‘Woke up this mornin’. Both cars were gone.’ "

Rush is right up there with the funniest of the singer-songwriters, among whom I would rank Richard Thompson, who played a Middlebury show back in August, and the late, great John Stewart. Rush has revived the old Fred Koller/John Prine song "Let Talk Dirty in Hawaiian." And he clearly relishes the telling of a corny joke. Like the one about the ex-girlfriend who became a street walker in Venice, and drowned.

But Rush has also built his career on moody, evocative songs delivered in a honey-tinged, smoky voice. He wrote a few of those himself, such as the classic "No Regrets," but most of them are covers. He’s famous as the first to record the songs of Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and James Taylor before they had their first records.

His delicate reading of classics such as Joni’s “Urge for Going” (the best song ever written about autumn) and Jackson Browne's "These Days" sparked many a memory.

Several of us spent the intermission regaling each other with memories of past shows he had performed in Vermont, including one during the Middlebury College 1969 homecoming weekend. I recall seeing him in Burlington in 1975 with his very loud folk band (featuring guitarist Trevor Veitch, "of no fixed address"), on a double bill with Linda Ronstadt.

Yes, the average age of the audience last Saturday night was well north of 50. But when Rush encored with “Child Song,” in which the young narrator explains why he’s collecting his things and leaving home -- "Goodbye Mama, goodbye to you too, Pa ... I love you but that hasn't helped at all" -- the 1970s were as new as that morning's sunrise.

It's one thing to hear those old songs on CD. It's quite another thing to see and hear them performed live, just one man and his guitar. Only a familiar old scent can so powerfully evoke the past. Tom Rush proves again that music is our one true Time Machine.

- 30 -

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Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Middlebury Bridge on TV

I got my 10 seconds of local fame on Channel 5 over the past few days, in their coverage of the opening of the nifty new downtown Middlebury bridge. View the brief video clip at:


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Honoring Murray Dry, Guessing on the Gov Race

Who’s going to win this nail-biter of a governor’s race? It's anybody's guess.

The polls say Republican Lieut. Gov. Brian Dubie and state Senate President pro tempore Peter Shumlin are in a virtual dead heat. And so it seems they will remain until Election Day next Tuesday, Nov. 2.

Hopefully there will be no need for a recount, as there was after the Democratic primary. But with the electorate apparently split straight down the middle, there's no guarantee this one won't go to a recount, too.f

But Dubie can’t be encouraged by the decision of the usually conservative Burlington Free Press to endorse Shumlin. Dubie’s political base is in the relatively populous Chittenden County, which is the heart of FreepLand, and the Freep backed Gov. Jim Douglas in his 2008 re-election bid.

Along with the Free Press and others, I'm impressed by Shumlin’s leadership in getting the Legislature to deny a renewal license to the dangerous Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. Shumlin also led the way in establishing the nation's first non-court-ordered law on marriage equality. He’s demonstrated the ability to get things done.

By comparison, Dubie's election would give us two more years of trench warfare between the governor and the Legislature. He’s sticking with the tired old story of running down Vermont because it's supposedly antibusiness, while advocating tax cuts for even the richest Vermonters. It says here it’s time to turn things over the Democrats and see what they can do.

You've got to wonder, though, why any sane person wants to be governor at this point. Much of the next governor's time will be consumed in trying to find the money to fund state programs -- and then overseeing severe budget cuts in most programs and perhaps the outright destruction of some.

The recession-caused tax shortfall -- and the difficulty of getting meaningful tax increases passed in a time when Americans seemed to have given up on investing in their future -- will give the next governor little choice.

In a classic "drop back 10 and punt" move, the 2010 Legislature did its best to avoid the worst of the budget crisis. But the state's budget crisis is serious enough that it can't be dodged again in 2011.

In fact, one might say that the winner of this year's election could end up being the loser. Whoever comes out on the short end will, after two years of budget cutting led by the new governor, have a ripe target for a repeat effort. Should he have the stomach for it.

* * *

Perhaps the most interesting local legislative races is in the New Haven-Weybridge-Bridport district, where Democrat Spence Putnam is squaring off against Republican Harvey Smith, who previously held the seat for eight years. Smith was knocked off in 2006 by Chris Bray. The seat is an open one in the wake of Bray’s unsuccessful, quixotic quest for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.

Putnam is that somewhat unusual Democrat who can claim deep business experience -- among other things as one of the top executives at Vermont Teddy Bear and Danforth Pewterers, and as executive director of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. On that basis, as well as for his extensive experience with local governmental and nonprofit organizations, Putnam deserves the seat.


My vote for best campaign sign of the season goes to Mike Fisher of Lincoln, who’s seeking re-election. Some of his bright-red signs don't even say who the candidate is. They just show the outline of a red fish.

Too bad redfish aren't native to Vermont. But then, Fisher's choices for a sign color were limited to out-of-state piscatorians. Yellowtail, orange roughy and bluefish aren't native to Vermont, either.


More on this topic later, but last Friday and Saturday's symposium honoring the Middlebury College teaching of political science Prof. Murray Dry showed just how huge an effect one teacher can have.

Many of Dry's students over the decades gathered for two days of papers, panels and a culminating dinner to honor his teaching career and scholarship.

All this, and Murray isn't even retiring.

The composition of the dinner crowd indicated the reach of his legacy, consisting of both graying Baby Boomers who had been in Murray's first Middlebury class in 1968 -- he forgot his lecture notes and had to dash back to his office to get them – and students who take his classes today.

There are certainly other teachers at the college who deserve this kind of tribute. But few of them have inspired as much loyalty as Murray Dry.

One reason? As a speaker at Saturday night's dinner jokingly put it, "In Murray's world there are three things: students, former students, and nonstudents."