Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Election advice: Don't worry, be happy

Every Vermont liberal I know currently spends most of the day holding his or her breath. The cause of the breath-holding? What once seemed like a steady march to victory for Sen. Barack Obama has turned into a cliffhanger. They’re waiting out an election cycle that is the most gripping in 40 years.

For all of these breathless liberals, I have devised a nearly surefire preventative, to keep them from turning election-map blue and keeling over dead between now and Nov. 4.

But first, a few random thoughts on the politics of the day.

* * *

Blame Anthony Pollina all you want for having the temerity to mess up the Democrats’ clean shot at ousting Republican Gov. Jim Douglas (and I do blame him). But also give Pollina credit for keeping his eye on the debilitating effects of America’s continued occupation of Iraq.

At a time when even the admirably anti-war Obama has taken to barely mentioning the multi-billion-dollar cost of the war, Pollina still places it front and center. As Pollina put it in a flier recently distributed by a few die-hard dreamers backing his candidacy, “I will take on, not avoid, the biggest issue of our time. I will engage Vermonters in a discussion about the impact of the Iraq War on every decision we make here in Vermont … The war must be a part of every conversation we have about out economy.”

Bringing that point home, the National Priorities Project estimates that taxpayers in Middlebury alone will eventually pay $11.8 million to cover our share of the war’s cost.

That immoral expense -- $341 million per day overall – is especially staggering in view of the impending bailout of the nation’s shot-itself-in-the-head financial industry. Exactly how does the Administration propose to pay for both the bailout and the war?

To clarify, I’m not opposed to some sort of bailout. Solutions to these kinds of problems are way above my pay grade. And Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders makes a lot of sense when he calls for more protections for taxpayers in the bailout, and for higher taxes on the super-wealthy ($1 million annual income per couple) to help pay for it.

So will Pollina’s insistence on the centrality of the Iraq War get him anywhere? Not a chance.
Like virtually every other third-party candidate in the past century, he’s doomed to play the spoiler’s role. The result will be yet another term for Gov. Douglas.

Yet the governor remains the biggest obstacle to the kind of progress on healthcare and the environment that’s supported by Pollina and the state’s huge Democratic majority. As occurred with Douglas’s initial ascension to the governor’s seat, the presence of a Progressive/independent candidate just ensures that Douglas will one day collect an even bigger government pension. And in the meantime, he’ll stick around to pay several of his aides a reported $100,000 or more per year – at a time when more and more Vermonters are underemployed or out of work all together.

The one thin reed on which the hopes of Vermont’s liberals rest, in this race, is the possibility that no gubernatorial candidate will get a majority – and that the Legislature will miraculously turn into a collection of Machiavellians.

Recall that when Douglas initially became governor, he pulled the most votes in the election but didn’t get a majority. By virtue of Vermont’s constitution, that outcome throws the final decision to the Legislature. When that last happened, legislators politely gave the governor’s seat to Douglas as the highest vote-getter.

Would the now more partisan and much more Democrat-dominated Legislature do the same thing again? Probably.

But the possibility remains that, given the lack of a majority winner, legislators could pick their own Gaye Symington. After all, she was willing to step into the lion’s den as the Democratic candidate for governor when no one else was willing to take on the popular Douglas, after the spoiler Pollina had already entered the race.

* * *

In truth, though, the attention of our state’s many political junkies remains focused on the presidential race.

Or at least it was until the crafty old G.I. John McCain changed the subject by naming Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential pick.

With Palin the center of attention, few people seem to have noticed that McCain still owns seven or eight houses but will have to get back to us on exactly how many; that he’s recently refused to affirm that he’ll meet with the prime minister of Spain, a strong NATO ally; and that he’s looking increasingly old and robotic.

Yes, I feel sorry for the senator when he tries to raise his arms and can’t get them above shoulder-high. And like most Americans, I admire his courage in surviving and triumphing over five years of torture as a prisoner of war.

Still, I’ve got to worry, at age 72 with all he’s been through including multiple melanomas – is he literally fit enough for the toughest job in the world?

But I do give the guy credit for diverting an entire planet from discussing those kinds of questions, and getting us to focus instead on the Wasilla woman from the wilds of

* * *

OK, as promised, here’s how to stay sane between now and Nov. 4. This is for you folks who are losing sleep over how many colleges Palin attended and over McCain’s insistence that the fundamentals of the economy are strong, even as he vows to clean out the corruption on Wall Street caused by all those guys from whom he’s taken millions of campaign dollars.

The solution lies in becoming what Jackson Browne called “a happy idiot.”

If you lie awake at night fretting about the Supreme Court, then it’s time to do some magical thinking. The road to sanity lies in simply convincing yourself that Sen. Obama will in fact win, and adopting a what-me-worry grin.

Yes, it may seem naïve to believe that it will all work out just fine. It usually doesn’t.
But just fussing over every wrinkle in the news cycle gets you stone-dead nowhere. I promise you that optimism is a lot more effective than gnashing your teeth every time John McCain says “my friends.”

If all you’re doing is worrying, it’s way worse than indifference. You might as well worry about when the leaves will turn. The results of the presidential election in Vermont are already decided. The only drama remaining is whether Vermont or Massachusetts will give the highest percentage of votes to Obama.

But if you just can’t let it all go and trust that America is grand and wise enough to elect its first African-American president and such a remarkably talented leader, then please -- send in a donation, join a phone bank to call voters in battleground states, or make plans to walk precincts and do get-out-the-vote in New Hampshire.

And then stop whining. You’ll feel ever so much better.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

With peak oil, farming needs to be cool again

Drive through Hinesburg and parts of Monkton these days and you’ll see one feature of Vermont’s new economy: suburban-style houses for people who work in greater Burlington.

Drive the opposite direction, through Orwell and Whiting and Leicester, and you’ll see the state’s old economy: ancient dairy farms, so long-abandoned that there’s not even a rotting barn in evidence. Fields so long neglected they’re transitioning to third-growth forest.

The paradox – and one of the great challenges of the next half-century – is that if Vermont is to prosper as we transition away from oil, the new must become old, and the old must again become new.

With gas at $4 a gallon and surely heading higher, the “new economy” -- based on long commutes from country to city -- simply won’t hold up. At some point, living in Monkton and driving every day to Colchester just becomes too expensive.

The same high prices for oil will be reflected in what we pay for food.

Instead of costing, say, $5 a quart, January strawberries that are shipped from Modesto, Calif. to Middlebury, Vt. will cost double that – and who’s going to pay a ten-spot for fresh strawberries when you can grab homegrown berries out of the freezer for free?

As for the “old” Vermont economy in those seemingly barren stretches of southern Addison County --- well, that’s where our food’s going to have to come from. We won’t be able to rely anymore on produce flown in on 747’s from Chile.

Which is where my niece Clara comes in.

Just out of high school and headed for college, Clara has been spending her summer volunteering at two local farms. Having been raised in the burbs of Boston, she’s an unlikely candidate to get up at 5 a.m. and feed the chickens, weed a long row of carrots, and harvest garlic.

But like a few Baby Boomers before them, Clara and some of her contemporaries have come to see that farming and living closer to the land can be cool.

And if there’s any hope that Vermont can again grow much of its own food once it’s too expensive to import it – well, then, farming is once again going to have to been seen as a cool thing to do.

Clara started out at Singing Cedars Farm in Orwell, the expanding enterprise run by Scott Greene TK and Suzanne Young. Like organic farmers in many countries, Scott and Suzanne rely in part of WWOOFers – young people volunteering through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF.

The organization began in Britain in 1971. Now, under the banner of “living, learning, sharing organic lifestyles,” WWOOF affiliates host volunteers at farms on six continents. (Similar programs are sponsored by the Northeast Organic Farmers Association, www.nofavt.org).

Earlier this month, Clara joined several WWOOFers at Singing Cedars, which lies near the end of several miles of dirt road in Orwell. The farm encompasses organic vegetables, chickens, turkeys, a few cows, and Scott and Suzanne’s two healthy young children.

This summer Scott and Suzanne had so much demand from WWOOFers that they were able to accommodate Clara as a volunteer for only 10 days.

She loved every minute. She even seemed to relish sleeping in the haymow, in a tent that protected her from the mosquitos, where she read herself to sleep each evening by the light of a headlamp.

From Singing Cedars she transitioned to Blue Ledge Farm, in Leicester along another lengthy stretch of dirt road. There she’s been learning to milk goats, feed pigs, and help make nine varieties of cheese.

The result of years of hard work by Hannah Sessions and Greg Barnhardt TK, Blue Ledge is a relatively small but impressive operation – especially the new “cave” where the cheese is made, in a cool, partly underground setting that is wired for the good rock music that reverberates from an iPod through its several rooms.

Both Blue Ledge and Singing Cedars say a lot about how to make the new economy of local agriculture work.

Except for a little bit of cow’s milk bought from another farm for one of their cheeses, Blue Ledge doesn’t rely on the dairy industry that is so rapidly dying in Vermont. (Organic milk holds great promise, but that’s a subject for another time.)

Instead, Blue Ledge has created especially tasty niche products that sell not just locally but also to urban outlets in southern New England. Moreoever, Blue Ledge helps preserve open space by grazing their goats while also respecting the nearby wetlands.

And as attested to by a unique beer and cheese tasting event that was held three years ago at Otter Creek Brewery, lots of other mom-and-pop operations are also making terrific Vermont cheeses.

Blue Ledge itself relies on mom and pop, too. Hannah’s mother, Abi, works the Rutland Farmers Market every Saturday and milks the goats on Sunday morning. Bill Sessions is a fixture at the Middlebury Farmers Market -- which surely makes him the only federal judge who sells cheese in his spare time.

Singing Cedars, too, uses grazing to preserve a bit of bucolic farmland. Like Blue Ledge, they’ve reclaimed old farmland and put it back to use in a part of the county where land is more affordable.

These operations rely heavily on farmers markets, community-supported agriculture arrangements, the organic and “slow” food trends, and the emerging localvore movement. (The outta-state media has taken to referring to them as “locavores,” but to me, that sounds too much like a bunch of crazy binge eaters.)

We eat as partial localvores because it tastes so good, of course.

But – and here’s the coolness factor again -- we also eat this way because of the romance of local food, its resonance of simpler times, an expression of honest values and hard work. Eating locally, we also savor the knowledge that our neighbors have labored through the overly warm, dry spring and an epically wet summer to bring these salad greens and garlic scapes, this venison stew meat and cheese and goat chops to our table.

Do we pay a premium for this food? You bet we do. It’s often cheaper to buy blueberries trucked in from North Carolina than those grown on Lower Notch Road.

But more and more of us are willing to pay that premium.

It’s a form of investing in a future of partial food independence, as Ripton’s Bill McKibben pointed out in his excellent article in the July 23 Seven Days.

Unless we support the new back-to-the-landers and their altruistic WWOOFers, we’ll never create a sustainable infrastructure of local and regional agriculture, for that inevitable day when the oil runs out.

And in the meantime -- as we contemplate how and what we will eat when it will have to be loca -- the process of buying and eating locally is also a wonderful way of that saying we love this place, along with the young people who have staked their farm future here and the bounty they produce.


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Douglas shows his GOP colors with Palin

So, I was planning to make all nice-nice this week about how glorious it is to live in Vermont in September.

Last Saturday alone, there were enough interesting activities to keep you busy and happy for at least two weeks – from farmers markets to coffeehouse concerts to anniversary celebrations and a Paul Winter performance at the Center for While Communities in Waitsfield.

Then Gov. Jim Douglas started making all nice-nice about Sarah Palin, and I felt my blood pressure begin to spike.

No more Mr. Nice Guy for me.

You may have noticed Douglas prominently featured in news photos shown around the world -- standing all jut-jawed and resolute behind the Republican VP nominee, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.

Douglas is an astounding politician from a statistical standpoint. He’s had only one significant career loss that I can think of, to incumbent St. Patrick Leahy in a Senate race. He’s a Republican governor in the most Democratic state in the union, and the only GOP governor in all of New England.

Moreover, he still gives every appearance of truly liking the job. Ever the Happy Warrior, he remains affable and unflappable in person. Thousands of Vermonters who basically detest his politics vote for him every two years because “he’s such a nice guy.”

But every eight years or so, Douglas has to take a stand with or against his fellow Republicans in state less blue than Vermont. Then Jim’s true colors start to show.

Again this year, he’s fallen in line with the party faithful as they pull the country ever further to the right, somewhere in the direction of Rutherford B. Hayes.

Like a lot of GOP elected officials, Douglas had to immediately answer media questions about the GOP ticket-- a fate that Palin managed to avoid for two weeks.

No surprise that Douglas supports John McCain. That’s an easy one.

But our governor’s forthright support of the Palin pick has a lot of people just shaking their heads. What could he be thinking?

For the record, here’s what the governor said, in asserting that having the 22-month Alaska governor on the national ticket would help Republicans in traditionally Democratic states:
“For the first time in many years we have someone on the ticket that’s just like us, someone who has dealt with the challenges of raising a family, dealt with so many issues that confront small town America…someone who has provided leadership in rural parts of America.”
Well, some of the cashiers at the co-op are just like me, too. But I wouldn’t want them to be one heartbeat (or fatal melanoma cancer) away from the presidency.

No word from Our Gov about Palin’s stance against reproductive choice, her support for oil drilling in protected wilderness, and her doubting the reality of global warming even as parts of her state melt into the sea. And of course, no assessment of how effective Palin could be as a world leader while raising five children including an infant with Down syndrome. (Heaven forbid we talk about a candidate’s family values, right?)

“She’s going to bring a great deal of enthusiasm to the Republican team,” Douglas said of Palin, “and I am very optimistic about what the fall portends.”


Doesn’t that sound like just the kind of word that an arugula-eating elitist would use? Somebody who’s actually had a passport for several years and who’s been to foreign countries other than Wasilla?

Maybe the Republicans should take a little closer look at Just-Us-Folks Jim. He might not really be their type, what with all that portending.

* * *

In boosting Sarah Barracuda, Douglas was of course in step with most of his GOP brethren. But not all. In a candid off-camera exchange, Wall Street Journal columnist (and ex-Reagan speechwriter) Peggy Noonan told GOP strategist Mike Murphy the choice of Palin was “political BS.” The pick was so bad, Murphy responded, that the election was “over” for McCain.
Predictably enough, Douglas’s mindlessly robotic parroting of the Palin party line drew howls of protest from the Vermont left.

Here’s J.D. Ryan on GreenMountain.com:
“I guess Douglas feels that Vermonters also have foreign policy experience because we live so close to Canada… Or perhaps the Vermonters he meant were the loons in Second Vermont Republic who can relate to her days in the Alaskan secessionist movement.”
Taking a more tongue-in-cheek approach, a Times-Argus editorial suggested Douglas himself for VP.

“McCain is playing a game of inordinate hypocrisy,” the paper wrote. “His campaign has decried what it called the media's preoccupation with the story of Palin's daughter's pregnancy, even as McCain held a photo-op at an airport, greeting the girl's boyfriend for all to see. Never before in American politics has a boy received such royal treatment for getting his girlfriend pregnant.
“Jim Douglas is not a moralistic right-winger; nor is he a colorful character who can divert attention from the substance of governance. That apparently counts him out as a vice president…

“But in the event that McCain needs a backup, we offer the name of Jim Douglas. He would not placate the religious right. But for the job of vice president, he and dozens of other Republicans would be better qualified than Sarah Palin.”

Even more biting, though, was late-night host Conan O’Brien: “Experts say that since Sarah Palin became the vice presidential nominee, there's been an actual spike in the sales of her style of eyeglasses. Yeah, with Palin's glasses, you'll be able to see everything, except what the hell your teenage daughter's up to."

So much for abstinence education and the vision thing.

It’s all quite amusing, if you set aside the frightening possibility that Palin might one day be called upon to replace the aging and serially cancerous McCain as president.

But does any of this matter for the election itself?

Maybe not. Palin is the flavor of the month, but there’s nearly two months until Election Day, and she will surely stumble or just fade from memory among all but the religious right. Anyway, these things get decided by the top of the ticket, not the VP nominee.

As for Jim Douglas, count on hearing from him for the next two years at least. Neither Democrat Gaye Symington nor the hapless “progressive, er, I mean independent” Anthony Pollina stand a buck’s chance in November of becoming governor this year.

And as for those benighted folks who have Pollina "We Can Do Better" signs in their yards -- they might as well replace them with Douglas signs.

Any slim chance the Democrats had of winning back the governorship were erased the day Pollina announced his candidacy. We can, indeed, do better than Douglas, or Pollina and the Progressive’s divisive sideshow.

OK, now I’m going to go take my blood pressure medication.