Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

At Reunion, the Comfort of Old Friends

At reunion, the comfort of old friends

By Gregory Dennis

We Baby Boomers were born in the wake of World War II, out of our parents’ desire for abundant normalcy.

Our parents’ world had been torn apart by depression and then war. In the wake of those traumas, their kids were going to be safe from harm – riding their bicycles down the sidewalks of perpetually tranquil neighborhoods.

And when it was time for their kids to go off to college, if they were lucky enough they were going to matriculate at places like Middlebury College.

We reveled in the abundance our parents created, the opportunities for summer camp and travel and good schools. And when we began to mature and our parents’ "normal" got dumb, murderous or boring, we changed the paradigm. No one was going to tell us what couldn’t be done.

But in the subsequent decades, we have learned, the world isn’t always a kind place.

Life doesn’t work out as we’d hoped. Friendships fade. We aren’t the heroes we’d planned to be. Careers go south or stall out. Our parents and children and spouses disappoint us.

The world, we now know, can be a lonely place.

So it was oddly comforting last weekend, at my 35th Middlebury College reunion, for my classmates and I to be reminded that we’d gone to college with an especially nice bunch of people.

It seems that each subsequent reunion – and I’ve been to all seven of them since our 1974 graduation – brings forth more of my classmates’ gentler side.

We spent the first two or three reunions trying to impress each other. Then we bragged at the next few gatherings about our kids and adventures.

These days we just have a good time in the company of friends and equals. We know enough about the world’s unkindness that the company of old friends is that much sweeter.

Inevitably, having a good time at reunion means retelling tales of our ignorant youth.
Launching off the 30-meter ski jump at the Snow Bowl on jumping skis during a Winter Carnival competition, without ever having been off a jump before.

Stoned, narrow-miss encounters with Campus Security, who came to tell a classmate that the car he’d reported as stolen was in fact down by the dining hall, right where he’d parked it the night before.

Drunken dares that prompted two beer-fueled classmates to ride naked, in February, atop a car that was crossing the bridge on the way home from a booze trip to Plattsburgh.

Geez, we were stupid.

It’s amazing we ever made it to graduation.

Beyond these stories of oft-wasted youth, though, lie more interesting tales of life since we left college.

Pretty much everyone there had been successful on his or her own terms. After all, people who feel like losers don’t go to college reunions.

To explore some of what our experiences have taught us, we pulled together a panel of five classmates, under the rubric of ”It’s All About the Journey” -- unofficially titled “What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been” (launch Frisbee and cue the Jerry Garcia guitar solo).

On the panel were survivors of divorce, cancer, Wall Street, parenting, and heterosexuality.

One classmate talked about being diagnosed with prostate cancer. He described his tortuous odyssey through the medical industrial complex to get the treatment that was best for him, as doctors bid for his insurance dollars with confusing, competing claims and treatments.

Another man, attending with his boyfriend and “out” for the first time at a reunion, described how ignorant he, and all of us, were about homosexuality as students. How he’d come to learn of his own homosexuality after college, and how important the battle for true equality remains.

If someone you love comes out to you as gay, he told us, the only right answer is “I love you.” And if you can’t give that answer, take a long hard look within yourself and find out why.

A couple of parents told of watching their children struggle with cancer and mental illness. Having experienced things no parent should have to, they told us that love and connection were what had pulled them through, and what still matter most to them.

One panelist talked of his greatly satisfying conversion from investment banker to organic beef farmer. Another observed that she was good at many things but had never excelled at the one pursuit that would make her a true achiever, someone worth an article in the paper.

She volunteers in the court system as part of what she calls the “liberal arts life.” She dances, does yoga, reads, and hangs out with her children. Even when you were schooled among a bunch of Middlebury College overachievers, she reminded us, you don’t have to be a star to live a worthwhile life.

But she added that she had lived for a long time with the tension that many women our age have felt, to be both Super Mom and a worldly success. “We still don’t have the balance right,” she said.

Was there a common theme there among the panelists? Something we could sum up as “our” identity, “our” experience?

Definitely not. Among a group of privileged, almost exclusively white people, the perspectives and experiences were about as diverse as they could be.

In truth, my class and any college class – and especially any generation, Baby Boomer or other – can’t be categorized by a few words or even by the era in which we came of age. To some of us, for example, Vietnam and the first Earth Day were the defining events of the day. For others, they were just distant headlines.

I spoke to several classmates after the reunion who said they’d had long and meaningful conversations with classmates to whom they’d hardly ever spoken when we were college students. Today, they have a lot to say to each other.

Their present-day connection was born largely out of what we shared at that campus on the hill, and how those four years have shaped the 35 years since then.

We’ve all made it through the same crucible. We’ve survived and mostly thrived. We’ve shared the experiences of coming to the same college in exactly the same year, entering the work world at the same moment, raising children in the same decades, making our lives out of much of the same raw material.

It’s the bond of a common journey we share with our classmates, the kind of ties one doesn’t share even with a sibling or spouse.

And when we gather every five years to tell the same old stories and reflect again on what it’s all meant, it makes the world seem a lot less lonely.

- 30 –

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Staples Comes Unglued

The end of plans to place a Staples store in Middlebury is yet another marker of how things have changed in Vermont.

Once upon a time maybe 30 years ago, any economic activity that wasn’t obviously polluting was welcomed by virtually all elements of Addison County.

Now, though, even community-oriented projects like Eastview can be delayed for years by a neighbor or two worried about the view out their windows. And woe be onto anyone who proposes to bring a nationally recognized brand such as Staples into town.

Much of the opposition to the Staples store proposed for The Centre, near the Hannaford supermarket, revolved around loyalty to Middlebury’s downtown stationery store. That store, like the independent bookstore next to it, is a much loved and endangered species. The organized opposition, calling itself Middlebury Area Residents for Sustainability (a curious acronym of MARS, which I guess makes them Martians), also voiced concerns about the visual appearance of the store, parking, traffic and a degradation of the ever-elusive community character.

The minisucule opposition to Eastview is just bizarre. But in the case of Staples, all the concerns voiced by the opponents made sense. We’re much the better place for the efforts of community watchdogs like these folks.

But I confess to watching the demise of the Staples plans with some misgivings. Little of the merchandise it would have sold would actually compete with any downtown stores. Moreoever, many of us will still be left driving to Williston or Rutland for major purchases such as computers, office furniture and other bigger-ticket items.

Yes, there are local alternatives to that long car trip and yes, you can order door-to-door delivery from a distant Staples. But the continuing absence of a local Staples-like store provides yet another excuse to expand our carbon footprint by racing off to another county for our many of our office supplies and equipment.

And the cynic in me can’t help but wonder if the Martians who opposed the local Staples -- and Starbucks before it -- really mean it when they say their opposition is to chain stores.

Will Olympia Sports, TJ Maxx, Hannaford and Shaw’s be next on their hit list??
Rite Aid, Aubuchon Hardware and Kinney Drugs? What about the Marbleworks Pharmacy, which has demonstrated dangerous chain-like tendencies by having two stores, one in Middlebury and another in Vergennes?

If you’d like to discuss this topic in person, you can find me having a mass-produced burger at McDonald’s.

* * *

We may be in a major recession, but you’d never know it from what gets left behind by affluent students who are anxious to blow this joint.

For those of us who grew up believing that one’s person’s trash is another’s treasure, the annual May departure of a couple thousand Middlebury College students is true cause for celebration.

The college of course organizes and sells off most of the treasure dumped by students at the end of the academic year. But for those able to escape the eagle eyes of campus security, the drop zones themselves are bonanzas. So, too, are the piles of barely used items that are left at various spots around town, on the curb outside student rental housing.

Over the past holiday weekend, several friends and I rescued silk pillows, rugs, a futon, hockey skates and a Schwinn cruising bike, courtesy of the newly departed students.

* * *

I got my own personal taste of the students’ dilemma last week, when I moved my home and home office to another location across town.

Moving is in theory a good excuse to divest oneself of unused worldly goods. But I’m one of those people who looks at a shirt I haven’t touched in three years and says, “Well, you never know, I might want to wear that someday.”

Which is part of the reason that I have so many jackets. They range in style from an enormous sheepskin coat and truly hideous matching hood, which I acquired at a used-clothing store in Rochester, to several ski parkas and light-weight windbreaker. Apparently I have a jacket for every five-degree shift in temperature, ranging from 20-below to 70-above.

Butpackrat tendencies do pay off eventually.

For example, it began to rain rather steadily last Sunday morning as the hour approach for the college’s graduation ceremonies. I was attending the first graduation ceremony since my brother’s commencement in 1976 (speaker: Anne Morrow Lindbergh). Among this week’s Midd grads unleashed upon the world was my delightful young friend Abel Fillion, whose parents were college classmates of mine.

Over my last four household relocations, Packrat Greg has held onto a pair of rain pants that I’d never worn. But they sure did come in handy during the graduation deluge.

* * *

Green is cool, in case you missed that memo, and one company that’s riding the green wave is Vergennes-based Country Home Products. The company’s Neuton electric mower was highlighted, and favorably reviewed, last week in the Wall Street Journal..

* * *

Favorite bumperstickers seen around town:

“Gun control means using two hands.”
“Quit wishing. Go fishing.”
And this from a Buddhist among us:
“Honk if you don’t exist.”

* * *

Lastly, I want to correct an error I made in a previous column. In a discussion of the college’s cost-cutting plans, I stated that the “Atwood” dining hall would be closed to everyday use. I meant to say Atwater, which is its correct name.
For the record, the Atwood’s are my brother’s neighbors in Dedham, Mass.
And of course I always refer to them, in my neverending confusion, as the Atwater’s.

- 30 –