Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

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: