Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Communal Boomer Retirement

It doesn't seem all that long ago that we were college freshman.

On a Friday night in September of 1970, the four of us trooped down to Mister Up’s for a big dinner out. We were full of excitement about what our new college adventure would bring.

The restaurant had a salad bar -- the first one I’d ever seen -- and I felt very adult and politically aware when I ordered a bottle of Almaden wine. It was a time when 18-year-olds could legally drink, and we were boycotting Gallo in support of striking California grape pickers.

I remember being amazed that Mister Ups was charging the enormous sum of one dollar for a dessert. We all agreed that was way too much.

Forty years later almost to the day, the same four of us were sitting around the dinner table last Saturday night, at the Washington, D.C. residence of one of the four.

But this time instead of talking about the freshman year that had just begun, we were talking about our retirement plans.

When you're a young adult making your way in the world, older people tell you that it all goes by so fast.

You nod your head as if you know just what they mean. But really you don't.

Then one day you wake up, you're pushing 60, and you start thinking about where and how you will live when you get old and retire.

With the same four of us around the dinner table last weekend (plus a fifth in the form of a simpatico spouse), we counted ourselves as being very lucky -- both that we could gather together frequently and in good health, and that, we decided, we would like to live together when we retire.

There seems to be little consensus on what the next 30 or 40 years will look like for Baby Boomers in what the Social Security Administration has called "America's silver tsunami." But there is widespread agreement that as with so many other things, we Boomers will reshape retirement, both where and how we live.

Because our fivesome’s fantasy includes living in Vermont, I’ve begun to look around at the local options.

We are, for example, seeing the emergence of continuing-care retirement communities.

The Lodge at Otter Creek describes itself as “an all-inclusive adult community in a resort like setting. Every amenity awaits you, from the putting green to the swimming pool to the hair salon. There’s exquisite dining, the café, the fitness center, the library, the luxurious community rooms and concierge who will assist you with anything you desire.”

The vision for Eastview at Middlebury goes like this: "Here, in this cherished corner of New England, residents will enjoy a beautiful setting within a vibrant community. With 30 acres of lawns, gardens and woods, Eastview offers charming one-story cottages as well as independent and residential-care apartments within the handsome Inn at Eastview."

Extended Family, newly available in Addison County, offers a different model: "We help people age on their terms by offering premium services that promote independence, good health, and engagement in life."

But it’s not a community like Eastview or the Lodge at Otter Creek that the five of us contemplated as we sat around the dinner table last weekend.

Call us naïve, but our vision is a collection of houses in the country near a college town, with clustered homes balanced by a modicum of privacy. We might draw on a cohousing model with private living quarters and shared common areas. There would be room for visiting kids and grandkids and, as we aged, perhaps free housing for a caretaker and/or nurse to assist us in our dotage.

What we basically want to do is gather those to whom we are closest, and circle the wagons.

There might well be a need for something like the services that Extended Family offers. But there is no room in our vision for retiring to Florida to play golf and bridge with people we don't know.

Perhaps ours is just an unachievable dream. But having made it 40 years together as close friends, we figure we've got a good shot as anybody at achieving our communal vision for retirement and old age.

Besides, we just happen to know of a nice little college town.

And we'd like to think we could go back to Mister Up’s, 70 years after our first year at college, have a bottle of tasty Vermont wine, sample the localvore salad bar -- and shake our heads at the high price of dessert.

Because we remember back when it cost just a buck.

* * *

A couple corrections and a clarification.

Several weeks ago I described those round white rolls of plastic on dairy farms as containing manure. I’m told that in fact they hold silage, also known as balage or round bale silage. So much for my dairy expertise.

In my last column I said that it was the county Democratic Committee that chose Paul Ralston over Amy Sheldon as Middlebury’s new Democratic nominee for the House of Representatives. In fact, as Michael and Judy Olinick noted in a letter to the editor that appeared in last Thursday’s paper, it was the town committee.

To clarify another point: The Olinicks disputed my statement that some observers had suggested Sheldon did not get the nod because she had mounted a write-in campaign against incumbent Harold Giard. My sources for the “observers” comment were two prominent local Democrats. But neither of those knowledgeable observers was in the room when the town committee made its decision. I’m assured by a friend who is a member of the town committee that the committee had nothing but praise for Sheldon’s efforts.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

The Naked Truth on Skinny-Dipping Candidates

Vermonters will be asked to choose between two very different gubernatorial candidates this fall, and two different visions of Vermont.

But at least along the way, we can be assured of some laughs.

Republican Brian Dubie sees a stake imperiled by high taxes, anti-business sentiment and wasteful education spending. He's against reproductive choice and gay marriage.

Democrat Peter Shumlin sees a state that has made great progress on gay marriage while also defending reproductive choice, but that now needs single-payer healthcare.

Yet thanks to Monday's first debate of the general election campaign, we now know both candidates have been skinny-dipping.

That's because, along with the weighty matters kicked around by Dubie and Shumlin in their first debate, there was also a query about their swimming history. I guess it was the Vermont equivalent of the "boxers or briefs" question tossed at Bill Clinton during an earlier, presidential debate.

It'll be interesting to see if Brian Dubie can get elected by reading from the same script as his predecessor, Middlebury Republican Jim Douglas. The anti-tax, anti-regulation mantra worked well for Douglas. But it's an open question whether an increasingly liberal electorate will decide it's heard enough of that particular song.

Also worth watching: Can Shumlin keep his quick tongue and combative instincts under control between now and November? He's managed to stay polite in this campaign to date. But his reputation persists as being somewhat sharp-elbowed, at least by Vermont’s gentle standard.

Judging by the early indications from Monday's exchanges, Shumlin has an edge over Dubie in Debate 101. Shumlin has his talking points down, having endured more than a couple dozen number Democratic primary debates.

By comparison, the perhaps rusty Dubie opined in Monday's debate that "even housewives" were smart enough to do a better job with the state budget than the Democratic Legislature had done.

I can see it now, the new third wing of the GOP campaign: Stupid Housewives for Dubie.

But if he keeps going this way, the lieutenant governor might not get many votes from surrendered housewives, either. The state, he said in Monday's debate, should "do what families must do … shrink middle management.”

Family middle management? Um, would that be children?

Official Movie of the Dubie Campaign: "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids."

And then there was that deliciously Freudian slip in which Dubie said that to cut the cost of state government, Vermont should "target the most vulnerable."

A Dubie spokesman said later that he meant to say Vermont should "protect the most vulnerable."

But with the lieutenant governor suggesting he can cut state spending by $100 million next year, we shouldn’t be surprised if a few of Vermont’s most vulnerable are feeling even more vulnerable today.

Before it fades into obscurity, I can't help but note the folly of State Sen. Doug Racine's demand for a recount in the Democratic primary. After more than two weeks of waiting, the surprisingly speedy recount showed that not only had Racine truly lost to Shumlin in the Democratic primary: He actually got fewer votes than the initial tallies had shown.

If Shumlin loses this fall's election -- and it will surely be a close one -- Democrats will look back in anger at Racine's demand for a recount.

The recount delayed the true start of the Shumlin campaign at a critical time, forcing him to go into stall mode when he could have been out raising money and hiring staff.

The lengthy uncertainty engendered by the recount -- and the decision of Shumlin, Racine, and the third-place Deborah Markowitz to campaign together -- presented Vermonters with the specter of a three-headed, pre-recount zombie, Vermont’s version of the Politically Undead.

Democrats tried to put the best possible public face on the recount, though I suspect they were privately gnashing their teeth. I certainly felt that Racine's demand for a recount was unwarranted given the size of Shumlin's lead compared to the number of votes cast.
Shumlin, too, must have been privately seething. But he managed to bite his tongue and play along until the recount was finalized.

Racine indicated he felt pressured by his supporters to ask for a recount. But his never-say-die narcissism may cost the Democrats the governor’s seat, in a short general-election campaign against a very well funded Republican.

Headline of the primary season, by the way, was in the Burlington Free Press, above its front-page report of the recount results: "Shumlin wins... again."

Along with Racine, East Middlebury's Amy Sheldon was another unlucky hopeful who got a couple lessons in politics over the past month.

Sheldon waged a spirited write-in campaign in the local Democratic County primary against incumbent State Sen. Harold Giard, who himself was running as a write-in because he failed to file his re-election campaign papers in time. Sheldon narrowly lost but made a strong showing.

After that close defeat Sheldon again lost -- this time by a single vote -- when the town Democratic committee gathered to name a replacement for the unopposed-for-reelection Rep. Steve Maier, who puzzlingly decided at this late date against another term.

In the committee's vote, Sheldon lost by a 6-5 tally to Paul Ralston, he of the Vermont Coffee Company. Ralston will now join Rep. Betty Nuovo as Middlebury's contingent in the House. Some observers suggested that her challenge to the incumbent Giard cost her the committee’s support.

Ralston's business background will no doubt be the butt of a few good-natured jokes. Herbert Hoover ran for president promising "a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage." Will Ralston seek reelection in 2012 promising an Americano in every cup?

As for Sheldon and Racine, in their respective write-in campaign and recount request, they’ve had hard reminders of a reality that those in the political arena often face:

You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

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Thursday, September 02, 2010

College in the Age of Helicopter Parents

Barbara Hofer is having more fun than the average college professor. With her new book featured on The Early Show and in USA Today, who can blame her?

Hofer, a psychology professor at Middlebury College, is co-author of "The iConnected Parent." The book explores the reasons behind the often-creepy connection that many of today's college students have with their parents -- and what Mom and Dad can do about it.

Anybody who's recently been on the Middlebury campus can't help but notice how much time students spend on their cell phones, even walking between classes. Turns out, Hofer says, they are often talking to their parents, to report on such earthshaking topics as what they'll be doing after class or what their roommate said last night.

Research by Hofer, her students, and co-author Abigail Sullivan Moore revealed that it’s not uncommon for college students to talk and e-mail with their parents four or five times a day. Indeed, they found, the average student is in touch with a parent, via “electronic tether,” more than 10 times a week.

Does this matter?

You bet it does. Says Hofer: “Those who are talking a lot with their parents are less autonomous,” at a time of life when their primary task is to develop autonomy.

How bad is it? Hofer's research revealed that 19% of college students are e-mailing papers and other assignments home – so their parents can check their work before it’s submitted.

Sometimes young people's dependency on their parents gets truly out of hand. For example, Hofer and Sullivan felt it necessary to caution parents of high school students, when they are applying to college, against talking about where "we" are applying (as in, "We really want to get into Amherst, but we'll settle for Middlebury if we have to.").

This is the Age of the Helicopter Parent, and of the college junior who can't make up his mind what course to take without consulting mommy.

All of this sounds especially bizarre to many Baby Boomers. When we were in college, we did our best to talk to our parents as little as we could.

I remember one tortured Sunday night phone call with my parents in which I had to explain, as Christmas break approached, why they hadn't heard from me since Labor Day.

My mother, whose college career culminated in a major in Martyrdom and a minor in Guilt Creation, was especially adept at raking me over the coals about this.

But she would have been even more freaked out, had I called or written her four times a day.

So why are today’s parents and college-age children so excessively connected?

The simple answer, Hofer and Sullivan say, is that they can be. Inexpensive and ubiquitous cell phones and e-mail -- not to mention texting and Skype -- make it seem quite natural to be regularly in touch.

It doesn't take Sigmund Freud to figure out that this long umbilical cord can be choking.

Rather than having to manage their own class schedule, study habits and friendships, students can and do habitually turn to their parents. Sometimes they rely on a parent to call and wake them up each morning. Faced with even a small crisis, Hofer reports, mommy is often the first person a student will talk to.

Compare that to a couple of generations ago. Back then, by the time young adults had reached age 20 they were often married, financially self-sustaining, and themselves parents of young children.

Perhaps even more disturbing than parents' overinvolvement in the lives of their college students is what happens when they graduate. Hofer found that the frequency of communication between 20-somethings and their parents actually increases after college.

That entanglement may be part of a larger trend. Clark University psychology Professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett calls it "emerging adulthood." Skeptics call it "failure to thrive."

A recent piece in the New York Times Magazine, for example, reports that 40% of people in their 20s move back in with their parents at least once.

Whether one sees the daily communications between college students and their parents as sweet and touching, or as disturbingly obsessive, it's clear that American society remains ambivalent about emerging adulthood.

My Baby Boomer peers and I sometimes look back with regret on the lack of communication between ourselves and our parents when we were younger.

As we became parents ourselves, many of us resolved to be closer with our kids that our parents had been with us. We knew the cost of lost connections. And if we knew our history, we knew that it was natural -- before jet travel and socioeconomic mobility -- for two or even three generations of a family to be in daily contact, sometimes under the same roof.

As one commentator put it on the website of the Early Show after Hofer's appearance there last month, "When did it become a negative thing to be connected to family members?

But another commentator on the website, who said she worked in an office with recent college graduates, described them this way: "They can text, IM, log into assbook, & have a spreadsheet up on the PC to show they are ‘doing work.’ But they don't even know how to use a copy machine & put a presentation together. Pathetic."

So what's a college student to do?

“It doesn’t mean divorcing your parents,” says Hofer. “It means having a relationship with them, in a way of owning your own behavior, governing your own emotions, and not needing to be reminded of everything.”

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