Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Making friends online and off

I knew things were getting out of control when I got a Facebook friend request from Patricia Lopez of San Francisco..

I’ve never known anyone by that name in San Francisco or elsewhere, so at first I thought she must be a grade-school classmate using her married name. Yet it was clear from her photo on Facebook that she was at least 20 years younger than I am. I couldn’t see a single thing in her background that might have connected us.

If you haven’t yet discovered the gigantic time suck that is Facebook, first of all count your blessings that you still have a smidgen of free time. Second, suffice it to say that this online site does an uncannily good job of liking old friends, by cross-referencing demographics such as hometown, high school and college experiences.

Along with Twitter – a “microblogging” site that allows people to “follow” each other electronically through messages and Internet links limited to 140 characters – Facebook has almost instantly become one of the Web’s must-see sites. Along with Second Life, a site I have so far resisted, it’s become a kind of second life.

Sometimes it seems that we don’t talk to our friends anymore, we Facebook them. We don’t discuss a topic with a colleague, we Google it or we youtube it.

Addison County hasn’t escaped this phenomenon, rurally bucoloic though it may seem on the surface. In fact, our distance from the rest of the world seems to encourage these disembodied ties to the rest of the ether-world.

In a scene eerily reminiscent of the movie “Wall-E” where interaction with machines has supplanted human interplay, Carols’ Hungry Mind Café in Middlebury is populated every morning with people such as myself who are staring into our laptop computers.

Our interactions seem to be almost exclusively focused not upon our physical environment – the few actual conversations around us, the friendly folks behind the counter and the humans sitting next to us -- but on the pixels on our screen, transmitted through distant web servers, transoceanic cables and the invisible electrons of the wireless connections that beam to our eyeballs someone else’s electronic, online simulacrum of reality.

(And for the record, I just went online – where else? -- to be sure that I was using the word “simulacrum”correctly.)

Anyway, it’s all got me to wondering: Are we rocketing down the slippery slope to a sort of netherworld in which we will have replaced our normative, usually comforting physical reality with a cold, disembodied and wireless reality?

So hooked are we on our gadgets that we might even be losing touch with what’s right in front of us. As Greg Brown says in one of his songs, everyone else is walking around, “talking on cellphones and walking into doors.”

When I stand waiting in line at the co-op or Greg’s Market, I don’t stare off into space anymore or look around me to see if there’s anybody whom I might know. I pull out my Blackberry to see if I have any new e-mail.

They don’t call it a “Crackberry” for nothing.

If this is where we’re headed – into a world where we find our new friends on Facebook living on the other side of the continent while ignoring the person next to us – that would be a very sad outcome for Vermont.

Why Vermont in particular? Because we’ve built our life here on the social and economic connections that hold us so satisfyingly together in physical community.

We shop locally. We eat food that’s grown here. We know our neighbors and our neighbors’ kids and what team they play on at the high school or the rec league. We know who used to own that farm down the road, who lives there now and maybe even how many cows they’re milking.

We watch the weather together and relish it as a topic of conversation. We have an identity that’s deeply drawn from the sense that we’re all in it together, here in this lovely little mix of idiosyncratic bioregions and webs of human connection.. Not a worldwide web. The web of Vergennes and Ripton and Leicester, Otter Valley and MUHS and Mt. Abe, the Farm Bureau and Ducks Unlimited.

But is that irrevocably changing?

Because of my personal and professional interests and the way Twitter.com has insinuated itself into my life, I now know more about certain people who live in Australia and San Diego, and who “tweet” (post messages on Twitter) about healthcare and climate change, than I know about the nice couple that lives next door.

Indeed, Twitter is in the process of becoming so ubiquitous – exploding in two years from a few thousand users to several million – that for its aficianados, life seems to occur in bursts of 140 characters.
It used to be said back in the 1960’s that the revolution will not be televised.

Maybe not. But it might well be tweeted.

Yet when you dive into the new media – smartphone in one hand, laptop in the other, a wireless headset stuck in an ear as you navigate the neighborhood using a portable GPS – you begin to learn something strange.

Rather than cutting ourselves off from others, much of this technology is about the old tried and true human instinct to connect more widely and, better yet, more deeply.

Many of us have had the experience of finding a lost old friend by tracking his online presence through Yahoo or Google. I’ve shared secrets in email that I might never have revealed in face-to-face conversations, and those shared secrets have often brought me closer to others.

My business partner and I run a 10-person firm together, connected by the umbilical cords of cheap phone service and broadband connections, though we live on opposite sides of America. The process has enriched our nearly 20-year partnership, and I swear we get along better – and are no less creative -- than when we lived just a couple miles apart and saw a lot more of each other.

There’s a reason that Twitter and Facebook and MySpace and dozens of other new forms of communication are called social media. The juice is not in the isolation of a keyboard and computer screen. It’s in the heartfelt connections they bring.

And if it’s love you want, the old-fashioned touching and looking deeply into one another’s eyes, well, the number of happy marriages traceable to online dating sites must by now be in the hundreds of thousands.

I don’t mean to say, however, that there’s any substitute for face-to-face communication and the pleasure of others’ company.

Even in the café where the row of us spends hours staring into our laptops, the web of friendship blooms. I’ve become friends with several people because we like to write and do our email at tables near one another. At some point you look up you’re your screen and the deeper instincts reassert themselves.

“Only connect,” wrote the British novelist E.M. Forster. “That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will bee seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect…”

And as for Patricia Lopez, the woman who contacted me and wanted to be my friend on Facebook?

I was right to think that she and I have never met. She contacted me because she saw on my Facebook profile that I’m interested in environmental issues.

We’re friends now.

Sort of.

Gregory Dennis’ column appears here every other Thursday. Connect with him through email at GregDennisVt@yahoo.com, or in person at the nearest café with a wireless connection. He blogs at http://middleburyvt.blogspot.com.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Come Back, Howard Dean

With his stinging defeat at the hands of the Vermont Legislature, which last week overrode his veto of gay marriage, Gov. Jim Douglas has got to be wondering if this is just a temporary setback -- or the beginning of the end of his political career.

Douglas squeaked into office in 2002 thanks to the stubbornness of the Progressive Party, which ran its own gubernatorial candidate and split the liberal vote – giving Douglas the governor’s seat even though he fell short of a majority.

The regressive Progressives, proving they’d learned nothing about the folly of being a third party in statewide elections, pulled the same move in last year’s election.

But by then Douglas had become such a steady vote-getter that Democrat Gaye Symington and Progressive Anthony Pollina couldn’t even get 45% of the vote between them.

Douglas has faced increasingly large Democratic majorities in the Legislature. In the Senate, Republicans are nearly as hard to find as the Lake Champlain Monster.

But the governor has used his veto pen to great effect. He’s cut down legislation approved by the Legislature that would have improved energy conservation, widened access to healthcare, forced the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant to plan adequately for its decommissioning, and placed stricter donation limits on political fundraising.

As recently as last summer Douglas could brag, to his Republican cohorts at the national convention that gave us Sarah Palin, that while he was New England’s only Republican governor, Democrats had never overridden one of his vetoes.

He can’t make that claim anymore.

With this precedent, as the Legislature grows increasingly Democratic and increasingly liberal, the governor has got to feel just a little more vulnerable.

It remains to be seen whether Democrats can field a gubernatorial candidate with enough name recognition, personal popularity and fundraising ability to defeat Douglas. Vermont may be among the most liberal of states, but the voters still like Douglas. And until his veto of marriage equality, the canny governor had rarely put himself in a position to be steamrollered by an angry opposition.

In that sense, the Legislature did him a favor.

If the House and Senate had not been able to overcome his veto of marriage equality, there would have been a small army of gay-marriage supporters ready to defeat him next year. But the anger that marriage-equality supporters now rightly feel toward Douglas will have dissipated by next year’s election season.

So even if the Progressives finally wise up and stay out of the governor’s race, is there any chance the Democrats can muster a candidate with a snowball’s chance in hell of defeating Douglas?

Secretary of State Deb Markowitz seems likely to run, and State Sen. Doug Racine – who would have been governor but for the Progressives’ intervention in 2002 – has already said he’s running.

But what if the Dems could find a candidate who’s not just popular and well known in Vermont, but who’s also known on the national stage? Someone who has enormous name recognition, leadership experience at the national party level, and the political savvy to rally Democrats and independents of all stripes?

Better yet, what if that candidate had already been a successful Vermont governor?

Enter, stage left, the Hon. Howard Dean.

Dean capped his successful run as Vermont’s governor with a groundbreaking presidential campaign that gave the national Democratic Party some backbone on Iraq, the environment and other core issues. His campaign pioneered electronic, online campaigning that proved critical to Barack Obama’s ascendancy eight years later.

As the surprise chairman of the national Democratic Party, Dean staked his reputation on remaking the party into a 50-state force. That brave effort was rewarded with a Democratic president and senatorial victories in states as unlikely as Montana and Alaska, as well as domination of the statehouses.

But the never-bashful Dean ran afoul of several powerful Democrats, most notably Rahm Emmanuel, who tangled repeatedly with Dean over issues of strategic and personality.

So when it came time to find someone to lead the charge on healthcare reform as Secretary of health & Human Services – especially after nominee Tom Daschle was buried by his unpaid income tax -- Dean seemed a logical choice.

But with Emmanuel now White House chief of staff, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sibelius got the nod instead. (After which it was quickly revealed she had her own tax problems. Apparently some Democratic nominees believe paying your full share is for suckers. But I digress.)

The irrepressible Dean is now a part-time commentator for CNBC. He spends the rest of his time barnstorming the country for healthcare reform.

Fun stuff, I’m sure, for a guy who is accustomed to the adrenaline of hearing thousands of admirers scream his name.

But -- and indulge me in this, I realize it’s just a dream – what if HoJo decided he wanted to come home again?

A seemingly silly idea at first blush. I’ll grant you that. That’s certainly what I thought when Middlebury’s Victor Nuovo suggested it to me.

But then I mused, well – why not?

The state has made an international reputation for its progressive politics. Maybe we’re just getting started.

First on civil unions and now on gay marriage, Vermont has led the way on 21st-century civil rights. Why stop now?

Throughout American history the states have been the laboratories of democracy. From welfare reform to clean-air legislation, they’ve led the way to innovative solutions in recent years.

Perhaps the time is ripe for tiny Vermont to continue to show the way.
I’d set out the agenda for Dean Redux with exactly the legislation that was murdered by Douglas’s veto pen.

The financial set-asides to close Vermont Yankee – collapsing cooling tower and all – are woefully underfunded. We’ll need every cent of it and more to shut down this aging dinosaur. Douglas won’t hear of it. Dean could make it happen and lead the way to making Vermont a leader in wind power.

Climate change isn’t just a threat to Vermont’s maple syrup and ski industries. It’s a looming global catastrophe. One good place to start addressing the issue is in providing support for better energy conservation.

And wouldn’t you know it, conservation efforts were at the heart of legislation Douglas tossed in the dumper a couple years ago.

And then there is healthcare.

Dean was way ahead of the curve on this one as governor. He expanded healthcare for children to make it nearly universal in Vermont. And before he ran for president, you got the feeling he was just getting started on an issue that he knows so well, both as a physician and a politician.

Why would a man who’s been living so large “waste” his time in little ol’ Vermont?
“Small P” progressives have a lot of ideas about how to address the multiple crises that face Americans. And heaven knows the Republicans have pretty much run out of ideas beyond waving teabags and calling Obama a socialist.

But in even the most liberal of the large states, progressives face big obstacles in turning their agenda into reality.

Not so in Vermont. Save for one man and his veto pen, the doors are wide open to the kind of groundbreaking programs that brought America Social Security, Medicare and MediCal, workplace safety, the 40-hour work week, and a cleaner, more diverse environment.

This time around, Vermont could show the way to an abundant life after peak oil; true regeneration of our communities through local food production; sustainable healthcare for all; and the best adaptations to deal with our rapidly heating climate and all that portends.

Jerry Brown went from being governor of California and Linda Ronstadt’s consort in her prime to being the mayor of lowly Oakland.

So will Howard Dean give up the talking-head gig, the endless plane rides from one speech to the next, and decide to come home, roll up his shirtsleeves and show the world what can be done?

Probably not. But he’s surprised us all before. And we can always dream.

- 30 -

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Marriage Equality Knocking at the Door

Watching Gov. Jim Douglas during the leadup to the Legislature’s votes on gay marriage, you could almost get the feeling that -- for once in his political life -- the governor would Do the Right Thing. Perhaps despite his personal misgivings, Douglas would step aside and let freedom to marry reign in Vermont.

That naïve optimism was dashed last week, when Douglas announced that he will veto marriage equality for gay people when the bill reaches his desk.

And so in the history books, Gov. Douglas will join Gov. George Wallace at the schoolhouse door, trying vainly to turn back the tide to a time of separate and unequal.

Thankfully, Douglas and many of Vermont’s gay marriage opponents lack the bigotry that marked Wallace’s effort to block African-Americans from equal education. But Douglas’s stance is equally benighted, unfair, and out of step with the evolving ethos of our time.

History surely will judge it that way, just as it judged opposition to the first civil rights movement. That movement has in turn inspired the drive to achieve full civil rights regardless of sexual orientation.

But history’s judgment will probably come too late to achieve justice for gay people in Vermont this year.

Despite the rousing super-majority for gay marriage in the Senate – where only four of 30 senators opposed it – it will be tough to for the House to overcome Douglas’s veto this year.

I won’t recite here all the arguments for marriage equality. But a couple observations about why this has become such an important issue for America, even as we’re being told we should all be thinking about the bad economy all the time:

First, life ain’t always just about the money.

Second, as being gay becomes more acceptable in mainstream society, we’re coming to see that equal rights and status for gays affect far more of us than we ever thought.

Third, allowing gay marriage has the potential to be transformative for America. Ultimately we only benefit when equal opportunity prevails. When we embrace diverse ways of being in the world – black and white, right and left, straight and gay -- we are enriched as a society.

As I’ve said here before, I came to fervently believe in the urgency of allowing gay people to marry – and not just civilly unite over there in some kind of open-air closet – when my close friend Dan and my teenage niece Clara came out as gay.

I might have previously thought, along with Gov. Douglas, that marriage should be “just between a man and a woman.” But having once been happily married for many years, who am I to deny that same opportunity to some of the friends and family I love -- and by extension to other people who happen to be gay?

Obviusly I’m not alone in this view.

Seemingly overnight last Sunday, a crowd of more than 300 people mobilized to gather at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on the Middlebury Green in support of marriage equality.

The governor’s announcement also earned him a spirited crowd on his doorstep in Montpelier the morning after he launched his veto rocket.

Douglas’s pronouncements on gay marriage have been especially interesting. He’s recently proclaimed himself a fervent supporter of civil unions, though he hardly led the charge on that issue. For months he kept quiet on whether he would veto gay marriage. Then he declared he would in fact nix the bill, declaring it to be “a distraction” from the real issue of the economy.

You can look up that last statement in the dictionary under “disingenuous.” After saying for months that he never issued veto warnings in advance, the governor’s veto-warning-in-advance set off a political firestorm. It’s become the distraction of the day, as surely he knew it would.

When you’re governor and you can’t do anything about an economy that now has rocketed Vermont’s unemployment rate to 7 percent and rising, ignite a distraction on gay marriage. While insisting all along, of course, that the Legislature should focus on the economy, stupid -- and forget all this foolishness about equal rights.

* * *

Much of the opposition to gay marriage comes from people with religious concerns, of course.

But for decades in America, we’ve wisely carved out a huge space for marriages that are not conducted or sanctioned by a church. Should you happen to want to marry someone of the opposite sex without involving religion, you can easily get a piece of paper from the City Hall that will keep you tied and true.

Yet America has a funny view of marriage, wrapped in religiosity and the ridiculous. Which is a damn shame for an institution that so many of us hold sacred.

Americans sanction unions between straight people that are conducted by “ministers” who bought their holy credentials through an ad in the back of Rolling Stone. We honor ceremonies for male-female couples that are conducted by Elvis impersonators inside chapels in Las Vegas and, for all I know, Barre, Vt.

But heaven help you if you would prefer to marry someone of your own gender, inside a church or down at the town clerk’s office.

Fortunately, the misplaced religious barriers to gay marriage are eroding, and this is thanks in part to the satirists. As comedian Jon Stewart pointed out during a raucous show at UVM last weekend, the Bible has passages against homosexuality, and the Bible also says you shouldn’t eat shellfish. Forget gay marriage, Stewart advised. What religious conservatives should do is try to close down Red Lobster restaurants.

You know things have begun to change in Vermont when even the Burlington Free Press has done an astounding and courageous turnabout to support gay marriage, less than a decade after it opposed even civil unions.

We see transitions like that because debate about marriage equality is in part a debate about what we are as a society, and how compassionately we can live on this planet.

Why not just settle for civil unions? As writer Steve Silberman muses in the current issue of Shambhala Sun about the decision he and his longtime partner Keith made to get married:

“Certain words have alchemical power. A humble noun or verb can become a transformative mantra. Embracing the word ‘marriage’ had a subtle but profound effect on our relationship, like unlocking a door to a secret garden that only other married people know about.”

It’s time we unlocked that door for everybody.

Whether it’s this year or at some point in the future, Americans will sweep aside the governors blocking that door. We will unlock that door.

Love will find a way.

Labels: , , ,