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OK – the first thing you have to be wondering is “What the heck is Pie and Beer Day?” Having lived many years ago in Salt Lake City, Utah, I always found the celebration of “Pioneer Day” on July 24 a rather curious holiday which pushes the notion of separation of church and state almost as hard as Christmas. It is a state holiday in Utah, celebrating the arrival of Brigham Young and the rest of the Mormons into the Salt Lake Valley on that day in 1847, and as a result made for a curious day off for those of us who lived there and did not follow that faith. Apparently, a few years ago, a tradition arose among the heathens (also curiously known as “gentiles”) of Salt Lake, celebrating the parallel holiday of “Pie and Beer Day” , which is generally interpreted to involve drinking beer (3.2 beer of course, as it is Utah) and eating pizza, instead of sitting in the hot sun watching a parade and eating lots of green jello salads. It sounds like a good counter-culture holiday to me!
That said, the official reason for my arrival in Salt Lake was to run the Deseret News Classic Marathon, a road marathon through the mountains following the course of Brigham Young’s arrival into Salt Lake. So, while this was a road race for most of its length, it was on lightly-traveled roads in some very scenic mountains, and as such, it was a road race attractive to a Vermont runner accustomed to mountain trails. This Pioneer Day race is usually held on July 24, but since that fell on a Sunday this year, the holiday celebration was postponed to Monday, July 25 so as not to conflict with traditional Sunday activities.
Since I probably wasn’t going to be taking many pictures during the course of the actual race, I scouted out the course on the day before in order to get a few shots for this blog, as well as to visit some roads I had not seen since the mid-1980’s when I used to bicycle up and down these passes after work. The start of the race is at Big Mountain Pass, the point where the Mormon Pioneers got their first glimpse of the valley of the Great Salt Lake. Of course, the view is equally intimidating to a runner, who can see how far away he or she has to go!
While standing at the summit of the pass, I spied a historic marker I had never seen before. As it turns out, the Mormons were not the first to use this pass. That “honor” fell on the ill-fated 1846 Donner Party, attempting to follow the poorly described “Hastings Cutoff” on their way to California. The Donner Party took two weeks to cover the terrain from the top of Big Mountain Pass to the Salt Lake valley, constructing a makeshift road as they went, and this delay added to their delay in reaching the Sierras in time to beat the winter snows, and the rest, as they say, is history.
On the actual morning of the race, the view was quite different from the above picture, for obvious reasons when one considers the big challenges to the marathon – heat, height, and humidity (as in lack of). While the race started high in the cool mountains at around 7400′, it finished in the searing mid-summer valley heat. In fact, on the day of the race, the weather report called for 102 degree afternoon temperatures – clearly unfit for running. So, the race started at 5:30 am, ensuring that the temperature at the finish line would “only” be in the 80’s for all but the slowest runners. The view was considerably different when we arrived at the start line at 4:30 am – dark, except for a well-lit area for the runners, and the glow of the city in the distance. And like almost every race I have ever attended, there were not enough portapotties at the start. So, it was dark, and being ever-chivalrous, allowing the female competitors to have first dibs at the limited resources, I headed for the dark woods to relieve my pre-race hydration issues. As I was quietly doing my business in the shelter of a few aspens, I suddenly found myself in a spotlight, and heard over a bullhorn “Please use the porta-potties”. Ok – I got busted by the Salt Lake City water authority police, who were so concerned about the urination of a mere 300 hundred runners shivering atop a mountain pass 26.2 miles out of town, that they actually sent an officer on urine patrol! I laughed it off….and shouted back “Busted – too late” and stepped back into the crowds, hearing laughter and mild applause from the few runners who caught my little drama. But, I didn’t hear another bullhorn, so either the crowd was cowed enough to follow the rules, or perhaps the watershed authorities decided they had better things to do than to monitor the bladders of well-hydrated runners.
By the time that the starting gun went off, it was barely bright enough to see, but I saw no sign that any of the 300+ runners fell off any cliffs on the tight, steep switchbacks at the top of the pass. I have done long races with long descents before, but this one was particularly hard on the legs, dropping 1500 ft in the first 4 miles, with no opportunity to warm up. I knew I would be paying for this later in the race no matter how fast I ran it, and I was correct. Within a few minutes, the glow of the sun illuminated the road, and the next challenge of the day presented itself, the only climb on the course, a short ascent to the top of Emigration Canyon, which then led directly into the city. This climb was only 350 ft, between miles 6 and 8, but the altitude was high enough to get me a little more winded than I usually would be on a modest climb like this. However, reaching the top of this second pass, I knew it would be all downhill from there until the last few miles on the valley floor a few hours later. The next 8 miles descending Emigration Canyon went very quickly, as well they should – the middle third of any marathon is usually the fastest part, and the long gradual descent made the miles go by even faster. I could start feeling my legs tightening at around mile 10, however, paying the price for the early steep descent, and I knew that this would be an issue as I approached the finish line.
At about mile 16, the race entered the benches on the hillsides of Salt Lake City proper, and the sun started to arise above the mountainsides. I also started looking at my watch more seriously, as the race organizers had mentioned that all runners who reached mile 24 at 9 am would be allowed to run along the downtown Pioneer Day parade route, and those who arrived later would be routed down an alternative route. Pushing as hard as I could as my legs got tighter and tighter, I passed the cutoff point with 4 minutes to spare, and had the pleasure of running past tens of thousands of folks out there for the holiday festivities, before finishing in Liberty Park – a location only a few blocks away from where I lived when I worked at the U. of Utah! My legs definitely felt the agony of the long descent in these last two miles however, as I was forced to walk much of it.
All in all, this was a fun mountain race. While the marathon was modest in scope, I was impressed by the fact that the organizers managed to pull off a marathon, half marathon, 10K and 5K race simultaneously, making this a much bigger event than just a mere marathon, with thousands of runners participating more or less concurrently. And as I limped back to my hotel room, after a shower and nap, I feasted on pie and beer!
The revival of a 200-year-old speech competition gets prime-time trappings.
And it just might change the curriculum.
Sitting with my fellow judges in a packed Dana Auditorium, I feel like Simon Cowell in Middlebury’s version of America’s Got Talent. The College hasn’t fully gotten oratory just yet, but tonight’s Parker Merrill Speech Competition is a promising step.
Dana Yeaton, the event’s director and mastermind, bustles up and down the aisle, obsessing over the sound and quality of video. As the founder of Oratory Now, an effort to bring the art back to the College, this theatre professor has a lot riding on the event. It could be the start of something big—big as in, restoring rhetoric to its rightful place in the academy and giving renewed vigor to the perceived value of a liberal education.
Actually, I’m more token geezer than Simon Cowell. My fellow judges, both much younger, have serious oratorical chops. Dena Simmons ’05, a newly minted EdD working at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, has given two TEDx Talks as well as a TED Talk on Broadway. Cloe Sasha ’11 founded TEDxMiddlebury and now works as the content and program producer at TED itself. TED is the Big Top of oratory, the Woodstock and Bonnaroo of the spoken word. Simmons and Sasha’s generation truly recognizes the value of the art.
A word about oratory: It’s to speechmaking what writing is to typing. Oratory injects thought into speech. The original form of persuasion, it moves an audience, changing its mood, its mind, even its willingness to change the world.
Of course, there’s evil oratory as well as good, as every dictator will show you. Effective oratory disguises its tricks. Donald Trump’s rousing non sequiturs, delivered in 12-second comedic punch lines, instinctively imitate the ancient Greek period, a point or concept delivered in the length of a human breath. (The Greeks believed that the patterns of our brains follow the rhythmos, or symmetry, of our bodies.) His audiences love this brilliant attention-holding device. Modern sophisticates, who see only the buffoon, reveal a fundamental ignorance.
Our forebears knew otherwise. Applicants to Middlebury in the early 1800s used Latin oratory as a form of SAT; a student was considered worthy of entrance if he could recite long passages of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s unparalleled prosecution of the Roman rebel Catiline. Top graduates gave Latin orations at Commencement. But the art soon faded as the classics became increasingly unfashionable. By 1855, when pastor and Middlebury trustee Thomas A. Merrill added his name to the College’s Parker Speech Competition—thus inaugurating the Parker Merrill Prize—he made the affair sound like an exercise in deportment. The winner, he said, would demonstrate “the superior propriety and elegance of his manners.”
Harvard administered the coup de grâce to the dying art in 1876, when Francis James “Stubby” Child, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, got himself awarded a chair in English literature. The first Boylston professorship had been filled by John Quincy Adams, who shared the rhetorical secrets of the ancients (and whose syllabus provided my own introduction to the art). Professor Child, on the other hand, disdained oratory, saying he “would much rather be teaching dancing.”
As Harvard went, so went Middlebury, to the point where spoken rhetoric—one of the original liberal arts—became at best an extracurricular activity. The Parker Merrill competition itself went moribund in 1965, staying silent until this spring, when Dana Yeaton and his cadre of Oratory Now peer tutors chose to revive it.
A wiry, successful playwright, Yeaton took his first step toward oratory five years ago with a first-year seminar titled Speechmaker’s Studio. The class borrowed a popular technique from the ancients by channeling great speakers through the ages, from Demosthenes and Lincoln through Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr.—with a dose of spoken-word poetry and TED Talks. In 2014, Speechmaker’s Studio became a J-term course and began to morph, Yeaton says, “from a class into something of a movement.” Students who complete a nine-hour training program can qualify as paid “oratory coaches,” while faculty can dial up a pair of Oratory Now tutors for any class or project. Organizations like TEDxMiddlebury, the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, and Midd Entrepreneurs collaborate regularly with Oratory Now; so does the Center for Careers and Internships. Oratory can now even fulfill the PE credit, with a single eight-hour course.
But Middlebury oratory isn’t all about physical drama. “I’ve seen coaches come out of a session absolutely giddy about the sudden improvement in someone’s delivery,” Yeaton says (rather giddily).
“But my greatest pleasure comes from the writing, when someone finally shrinks their argument to its essence. When at last they tailor their style to an actual audience. That’s when our forays into Aristotle and Cicero start to make sense.”
In other words, the thinking part, known as rhetoric. Harvard wasn’t the first institution to try and kill the art. The invaders of ancient Rome did a good job at it, along with a faction of early Christians—among them Saint Augustine, who renounced his profession as a rhetorician. Rhetoric managed to survive in desiccated form throughout the Middle Ages and finally underwent a vigorous revival during the Enlightenment. Rhetorical thinking permeates the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Every one of the Founding Fathers received a rhetorical education in some form. Thomas Jefferson absorbed John Locke, an Oxford lecturer in rhetoric whose modern theories of the state were deeply influenced by the art. James Madison studied at the feet of Princeton rhetoric professor (and Declaration signer) John Witherspoon.
The art rebounded yet again during the 1960s, when the literary critic Kenneth Burke published a brilliant set of books applying Freudian and Marxist theories to classical rhetoric. More recently, Middlebury’s own President Laurie Patton employed the metonymy—a trope first described by the ancient Sophists—in her published analysis of Indian mantras.
Meanwhile, the art never died among the land-grant universities, which remained relatively uninfluenced by the academic fashions emanating from Harvard. A student can major in rhetoric at UC-Berkeley, Iowa State, Indiana University, and dozens of other schools. Still, not a single Ivy League university or NESCAC school offers a formal major in the subject. Dana Yeaton’s ambition goes beyond reviving a contest, or helping students overcome their public speaking jitters; he’d like the liberal art of persuasion to be back at the center of a Middlebury education.
But tonight he has an event to run.
Of the original 24 contestants, only a half dozen have advanced to deliver short versions of their speeches to a panel of three faculty judges and a packed Abernethy Room audience. Tonight, the six finalists will give a six-minute speech; and then we, “the esteemed alumni judges,” will pick the winner.
First, the musical. Dana has earned himself the reputation of a campus impresario, directing blockbuster celebrations like the New England Review Out Loud performance, and he can’t resist doing a takeoff on Broadway’s Hamilton for this evening’s opener. Oratory Now students gamely rap Dana’s lyrics, bringing us up to speed on Parker Merrill history.
And then the speeches. Like a lot of you, I’ve suffered through many a presentation delivered by a student reading from a text at supersonic speed and sotto voce volume. Tonight, though, notes are forbidden; some of the contestants have clearly memorized their texts, while others daringly ad lib. All of them look nervous.
The talks themselves pay varying attention to the official theme, “True North: A Principle to Guide Us Through Troubled Times.” But the real topic of the evening, for most of the speakers, seems to cover the tribal tensions infesting elite campuses. August Hutchinson, a senior Feb, is the first contestant, and he offers great sound bites while describing his meeting with a group of anti-Semites. “When was the last time you were silenced into agreement?” he asks, somewhat rhetorically. He’s wearing a jacket and tie, and his parents sit in the audience. He gets big applause; but then they all do. Most of the audience consists of students, all of whom provide a healthy dose of support.
Next, Tabitha Mueller, a sophomore Feb, talks movingly about her father dying when she was a little girl. She livens her story with a fine comedic delivery and delivers a moral: “Listening to myself . . . isn’t selfish.”
Then up comes Briana Garrett, a first-year student, who seems much less rehearsed than the others. Offering a look of comic terror at the audience, she begins, “Guess it’s too late to leave now.” She stands shyly at the back of the stage and unnecessarily tells us, “I’m black. I’m female.” And yet she wins over the audience with a beautiful voice and perfectly timed dramatic pauses. She speaks of compassion as a kind of action—one that “could get my brother out of prison.” Leaving the stage in tears, she ends up winning the audience’s choice award.
The contrast is striking, especially when sophomore Peter Dykeman-Bermingham follows her. He begins with a physics joke and speaks confidently about emotions being “physical events, grounded in their tangibility.” (Extra points for him: The ancient Greeks believed the same thing, which is why “pathetic” and “pathology” have the same root.)
“My path through true north runs through the south,” says the next speaker, Dominick Tanoh, a slim African American sophomore from Chicago. By “south,” it turns out, he means “South Side,” a place that contrasts starkly with his experience growing up on the North Side, but where recently he began to uncover a deepening sense of faith.
Last up: Nia Robinson, another African American, who talks about discovering the Torah while visiting a Jewish temple. Her writing is beautiful, and she delivers it crisply, with authority. Her theme comes from Jewish scripture: We’re not obligated to complete the righteous work, but we must not stop doing it. “The work that saves the world,” she says, “is doing what we can.”
I whisper to fellow judge Dena Simmons, “We’ll all be working for her someday.” Simmons whispers back: “She’s a freshman.”
We judges get escorted to an empty room while students and faculty play PowerPoint Roulette, speaking to slides they’ve never seen before. We sit around a table wondering exactly how we’re supposed to pick a winner. I suggest we use Cicero’s five canons of oratory: Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery. We end up winnowing them down to three:
Delivery, or the way the speaker performed the words.
Invention, or the ideas behind the speech.
Arrangement, or the order and timing of the words.
Which help us only a little. The speakers were all so good, but so different. In the end, after much scoring and discussion, we decide on Nia Robinson, the last contestant. (For more on Robinson, see the spring 2016 cover story, “Let’s Talk About Race.”) Honestly, any one of the six could have won. All of them performed beautifully; none of them expressed a truly revolutionary thought. (But how many TED speakers do, really?) “I was hoping for a little more invention,” Dana Yeaton says to me later.
Which itself counts as a victory, I think. After all, when was the last time a Middlebury professor used the word “invention” to mean the thought behind a speech?
Clearly, Middlebury oratory is beginning to find its voice.
Jay Heinrichs ’77 is the author of Thank You for Arguing, published in seven languages and used in more than 3,000 college courses nationwide. He wrote “Felix Against the Barbarians” for the spring 2013 issue of the magazine.
How Paula Routly ’82 and her band of journalists have flourished in a field where so many others have floundered.
There’s a saying in the literary world: If you want your book to get a bad notice, have a friend review it. Under the guise of bending over backward to be fair, some spite and envy will leak in.
So I am here to say about my old friend Paula Routly ’82, the publisher, cofounder, and coeditor of the Burlington-based weekly newspaper Seven Days, the most vibrant and envied publication in New England journalism: She drives like a little old lady. She cannot keep a secret. She dislikes children, even those that belong to her friends. (When my two kids were very young, they placed a fake pint of spilled ice cream on her white futon sofa. To remark that she was not amused would be an understatement.) She has lost all but her most devoted friends—of which there are still many, I should add—because she is obsessed with her work and will cancel long-made social plans at the last instant to improve the first paragraph of a not-earthshattering news story that arrived a bit late. A former ballet dancer, she is a control freak with steely resolve. She can pinch a penny until it yodels.
About this mild roasting, what can I say? I’ve known Routly for years. We’re competitive. But I’m happy to have a chance to speak about her. She’s one of the least boring people I know, one who has no tolerance for small talk, and one who—now we’re truly entering the land of full disclosure—was the best “man,” 22 years ago, at my wedding. Routly’s story is a good one. In fact, it’s among the best and most optimistic stories that beleaguered American journalism currently has to tell.
It’s a story about how Routly and her friend Pamela Polston, who was once the lead singer in a well-regarded Burlington punk band called the Decentz, borrowed $68,000 in 1995 to start a scrappy little arts weekly. (Yes, Pamela is an old friend of mine, too.) These two had no business experience, and their timing could not have been worse: The Internet was about to start doing to print publications what strip-mining does to the tops of mountains. They were warned by the owners of a well-funded but hapless rival weekly (more about them later, but imagine them twisting the ends of their mustaches), “We are going to bury you.” This became a David versus Goliath story in Vermont media circles, and David buried Goliath. Over two decades Seven Days has morphed into a $5.7 million multimedia company. At a time when most of America’s alternative weekly newspapers are dead (the Boston Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Guardian) or a pale shadow of their former selves (the Village Voice, the Chicago Reader), Seven Days is fat as a tick with advertising, and fatter with news its readers actually use.
Seven Days is a free newspaper. Most weeks it is a ripe-to-bursting 112 pages or more, a number unheard of for most weeklies even during the holiday shopping season. Each issue is filled with news about everything from, say, the afterlife of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign and the plight of Syrian refugees in Rutland to rowdy new Burlington bands and the city’s even rowdier food scene. Seven Days takes an almost Talmudic interest in Vermont microbreweries, and copies of its annual sex and pot surveys—these are gritty, kinky, strange, and hilarious—are snapped up as soon as they hit the streets. Each week more than a dozen drivers deliver the paper to some 1,100 locations all over the state and across the lake in New York, two hours in each direction. The paper has grown from a handful of employees to more than 65. More than a few Middlebury graduates have cycled through Seven Days. Some are happily still there. These include Don Eggert ’98, the weekly’s creative director and associate publisher, who has worked there for 18 years. Nothing really seems to happen in Vermont unless Seven Days has covered it.
The journalism world is paying attention. In 2013 the industry magazine Editor & Publisher named Seven Days one of its “10 Newspapers That Do It Right.” It was the only weekly to make the list. The same year, writing for the Atlantic, James Fallows studied the paper’s attainments in a piece titled “Strange Tales from the North Country: A Profitable (Print) Newspaper.” Fallows and others are curious about many aspects of Seven Days’ success. How did it fight off the powerful Internet businesses (Yelp, Monster, Craigslist, Match.com, CareerBuilder, Cars.com, LivingSocial, Groupon) that have drained the plasma from most print publications? How did it steal so much authority from the Burlington Free Press, the city’s once-powerful daily, hiring away some of its best news reporters? How did it become so multitentacled and multiplatform?
To understand the reach of Seven Days, you have to look beyond its print product. It runs annual tech expos that are attended by thousands of people. It hosts singles events, restaurant weeks, and beloved first-time homebuyer tutorials. It publishes student, dining, and tourist guides. (The last, because of Vermont’s close relationship with Canada, is printed in French and English.) It operates a publication for kids and one about home design. It has two mobile apps, one that lets you read the entire paper on your phone, the other a business directory. It made a video game! It is so avid about keeping its many pages of employment advertising that every time a new ad comes in, the paper tweets it.
“Paula is one of the most forward-thinking publishers in America,” Mark Zusman tells me. He’s the editor and publisher of Willamette Week, a media company based in Portland, Oregon, and the former president of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. He fondly recalls the time, a few years ago, when he and a few other weekly newspaper publishers were visiting Vermont. Routly had them to her house for a cocktail party, and Bernie Sanders, to their happy astonishment, dropped by for a meet-and-greet. “He sort of grumbled and grunted,” Zusman says, “and told us all what a bad job we were doing. Then he left.”
Zusman adds: “Paula’s newspaper is serious and speaks truth to power. She also knows her market, is frugal, and is interested in building community. In our industry, when we learn that she’s trying something, we pay attention. We’d be fools not to.”
“Do you remember your first semester at Middlebury?” Routly asks me. It’s a warm afternoon in late June and we’re sitting in Adirondack chairs in the backyard of her house in Burlington’s Old North End. The house’s exterior is modest, but in the rear it has a wraparound IMAX view of Lake Champlain. She bought it in 2009, in a rare splurge on something other than her newspaper. Routly is wiry—she’s a relentless swimmer and a StairMaster obsessive—with hazel eyes and dark brown hair that she piles into a wave above her forehead. In a sitcom, she’d be played by “Seinfeld”-era Julia Louis-Dreyfus. We’re talking about how Middlebury shocked the hell out of both of us when we arrived there, her in 1978 and me in 1984. We are bonding over social class. Neither of us was prepared for preppies and, in fact, barely knew then what a prep school was. How do all these people know each other already? Why do they have names like “Winky”?
“I remember thinking, How are they so relaxed and confident?” she tells me. “And they could be so nice. They’d take you home at Thanksgiving. You’d get off the highway and then drive for a long time until you’d start to think to yourself, Wait, we’re still driving. Then gates would open. It was like Downton Abbey.” She obsessed over status in part because, at Middlebury, she had so little money. Her parents gave her a strict allowance of $40 a month, not always enough to buy Tampax, much less burgers and beers downtown at the Alibi. She hated to so often be, to use her term, a mooch.
They say the best way for parents to teach children about money is not to have any. Routly’s parents were not poor, but they were meticulous and they were scrimpers. Her father, Paul Routly, was an astrophysicist with a PhD from Princeton. (He liked to tell the story of how he once almost ran over a distracted Albert Einstein.) Routly and her older sister, Pam, grew up largely in Princeton, where their father was the executive director of the American Astronomical Society. Later they moved to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where he worked at the U.S. Naval Observatory. She remembers him as a frustrated and remote man (“he probably shouldn’t have had children”) who worked with enough geniuses to know he wasn’t one. His work ethic appealed to her, however. He cowrote a book called Galactic Astronomy, writing at night after coming home from work. “That image of him working over the dining room table late at night, being driven to do something beyond what he had to do, made an impression on me,” she says. He’d order a pizza at 1 a.m. and Routly would come down from bed and help him eat it.
During high school, Routly fell deeply into the ballet world, so much so that she barely got to know her classmates and did not go on dates. This was Soviet-style ballet, heavy on theory and so immersive that she left school every day at noon to attend practice. This felt like her new family, and she had talent. She was accepted to the New York City feeder school for the Joffrey Ballet but gradually realized she didn’t have what it took to go further. In distress she fled to a summer camp she knew about in the Adirondacks. There she gained 30 pounds, made a lot of friends, got her first period, became a camp counselor, and learned how to hug. “This was big,” she says. “We didn’t hug in my family.”
At Middlebury she graduated with a joint major that her father liked to jokingly refer to as “14th-century Italian cinema.” In reality, it was in Russian and Italian. She didn’t write any journalism at Middlebury, but she did take semesters off to do exotic things like walk the Pacific Crest Trail and bicycle in New Zealand. (She earned money for her adventures by waitressing at Mister Up’s.) Often there was a boy involved in these trips. She met her first husband, Theo Miller ’81, at the Italian table in the Château. They married in Vermont in 1983—at Cate Farm in Plainfeld, an organic operation run by Middlebury graduates—after he’d worked in the Peace Corps in Benin, West Africa. (When Paula visited him there, she got hepatitis. He left the corps early to escort her home.) Neither was ready for a commitment; the marriage lasted nine months.
Single and back in Vermont, Routly got a job at Burlington’s Flynn Theater, the city’s defining performing arts space, doing public relations and marketing. She felt like she was back in a world she loved and understood. She also began writing freelance dance reviews for the Vanguard Press, then a thriving alternative weekly in Burlington. She was soon offered a position at the daily Burlington Free Press, a Gannett newspaper, where she founded its standalone weekend arts section.
In 1988 she met the man who would become her second husband. Routly and Roger Clapp, a hunky fellow with an Abe Lincoln-like chinstrap beard, had a whirlwind romance. Early in their relationship, he was offered a job doing resettlement work in Uganda, and she decided to go with him. They impulsively married and jumped on a plane. They were in Uganda for two years. Paula taught English there and did some serious photography, but was eager to come home. The locals called her “Mrs. Roger,” and she felt she’d lost her identity. (The couple divorced in 2000. He wanted children; she did not.)
We are nearing the spot where I make a small but stylish cameo appearance in this story. While Routly was in Africa, the Vanguard Press closed and reopened as a more straitlaced newsweekly called Vermont Times. In 1990, I became its first arts editor. When Paula returned from Uganda, she began to write dance criticism for me. I remember her first piece, a review of Mark Morris’s company at the Flynn, because she called me afterward to complain about the dumb headline (“Happy Feet”) I’d put on it. She was right. Headline writing-wise, that was a low point. We finally met a few weeks later and instantly became friends. I helped her get hired as a staff writer at Vermont Times. When I moved with my fiancée (Cree LeFavour ’88) to New York City in 1993, Routly took my job as arts editor.
Vermont Times was never very successful. In 1994, in an attempt to save it, its publishers decided to turn it into two separate publications, one for arts and one for news. Routly brought in Polston, the former punk rocker and also the former arts editor of the Vanguard Press, and together they started an arts publication called Vox. It was more successful than its sister news spinoff, but not successful enough to save the company.
“We realized about three months in that the whole company was for sale,” Routly says. “The buyer was a publisher of penny savers in the Adirondacks. They had one editor overseeing eight newspapers. We could see the writing on the wall. We knew they would never keep Vox going as it was. They would gut it.”
Routly and Polston tried to purchase their baby outright, but the new owners asked for $100,000 and demanded an onerous noncompete clause. When Routly and Polston walked away from the talks and decided to start their own publication, one of the penny saver’s owners said to Routly, “We don’t know if your parents are paying for this, or if Pamela’s parents are, but we are going to bury you.”
Those words were all the motivation Routly and Polston needed. Three months later, on September 6, 1995, the first issue of Seven Days was on the streets of Burlington.
The bathroom at the Seven Days office is, strange to say, one of my favorite places in all of Vermont. Its walls are pink and covered top to bottom with kitschy religious and other memorabilia that staffers have dragged back from all over the planet. The place is a shrine, a truck stop instead of St. Peter’s, in REM terms. The last time I visited, there was also a roll of toilet paper with Donald Trump’s face on each square, along with sayings like, “We Shall Overcomb.”
The entirety of the sprawling Seven Days office, located not far from Burlington’s waterfront, is just as strange, warm and inviting. To enter it is to enter a combination record store, dorm room, bookshop, coffeehouse, and den. Posters and original art choke the walls. Dogs snooze under people’s desks. The director Cameron Crowe could set a sweet romantic drama here. (Two Seven Days reporters met their spouses through the paper’s personal ads.) There is a lactation lounge for new mothers. A wall along one long hallway, which a typical visitor would never see, is filled entirely with the dozens of awards the paper has won. These range from a prestigious Pushcart Prize, won in 1995 for Tom Paine’s short story “From Basra to Bethlehem,” through the paper’s seven general excellence awards from the Vermont Press Association over the years to Routly and Polston’s induction into the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2015. There are so many of these awards that there is not space for them all. They overspill onto a table in a separate room, where they await TLC.
To walk though this office with Routly is to see her glow. She purposefully didn’t have children—“I could not have done this if I had had kids,” she says—but this is her family. Her employees tend to have similar feelings about her. Samantha Hunt, a University of Vermont graduate, was the paper’s first designer. She’s gone on to become an acclaimed fiction writer. Her first novel, The Seas, won a National Book Award for writers under 35. Hunt told me, “Paula is a thrilling storyteller, a loyal mama bear/cheerleader to many, a great journalist, and a great, great friend. We knew within moments of meeting we’d be lifelong colleagues and friends.”
The Vermont-based cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the author of the graphic memoir Fun Home and the now-defunct comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” which ran in Seven Days, told me: “It’s easy to see the tangible stuff, the way Seven Days is growing and financially successful at a time when newspapers everywhere are struggling. But the way Seven Days has created a Vermont community—that’s harder to see because the paper has become such a backdrop, such an integral part of life here. Paula is like Clark Kent—everyone knows she’s a successful, mild-mannered alternative weekly publisher. But I’m not sure everyone knows that she’s also a superhero.”
So how did Seven Days pull it off? How did it manage to create a thriving weekly newspaper at a time when publications all around it were crumbling? On some meta level, it’s a mystery—an only-in-Vermont anomaly. On another level, it’s no mystery at all. Routly’s frugality has played a big part. The paper has never been in debt, and it paid off its original investors—two were friends from Middlebury, Charlie and Mima Tipper, both ’81—within three years. Routly and Polston also had the good sense to give their publishing company a name (Da Capo Publishing) that was bigger and scarier than they are.
They made other canny moves. Early on, when Seven Days was known primarily as an arts paper, they hired the Falstaffian political columnist Peter Freyne, a barstool sage who was Vermont’s Mike Royko. This gave the political crowd in Montpelier a reason to pick up the paper. (Freyne died in 2009 after a battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Polston keeps some of his ashes in a box on the bookshelf behind her desk.) Seven Days has never run editorials. “At first Pamela and I were too busy to research and write them, and then we realized we also disagreed about some things,” Routly says. Even though the paper leans to the left politically and temperamentally, Routly thought, “Why give anyone a reason to write us off because they think we are predictable?”
The smartest thing Seven Days has done is to capitalize on the floundering fortunes of the Burlington Free Press. Seven Days has become a serious general interest news source, moving away from its alternative press roots. The paper has kept its classified ads strong because of its demographics. Businesses in Burlington want to reach Seven Days’ educated and interested readers.
It is attracting some of America’s best young journalists. One recent hire, straight from Columbia Journalism School, is Kymelya Sari. She is from Singapore and is likely Vermont’s first Muslim reporter. Among other things, she helps cover the state’s refugee community. She has written for the paper, among other topics, on what it is like to wear a hijab while reporting.
There have been some potholes in Routly’s path. In 2007, at the start of the recession, Craigslist appeared on the horizon. Here is Routly’s self-effacing description of how she responded: “I got a debilitating case of shingles and I thought it was over.” She was in a lot of pain—“I couldn’t leave the oatmeal bath for three months”—but the paper survived.
One work-related headache these days is her 14-year relationship with Tim Ashe, 39, a rising political star in Vermont. He’s 16 years younger than Routly, and the chair of Vermont’s senate finance committee. When he ran (and lost) for Burlington mayor in 2012, Routly’s news editors sometimes made her step out of meetings when coverage of him was discussed. Each time Ashe’s name appears in Seven Days, it is tagged with a disclaimer that reads, “Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly.” Such are the problems of Vermont’s power couples.
One of the best things about Seven Days has always been its smart but unpretentious tone. When the paper issued its 20th-anniversary issue last year, it published a list called “Twenty Reasons We’re Still Here.” I like it, so I am going to print it here. (Note: “ISpys” are dating ads. Lola, Mistress Maeve, and Athena have been among the paper’s sex columnists. “Daysies” are the paper’s popular readers’ choice awards.)
Twenty Reasons We’re Still Here
Seven Days was “locavore” before there was a precious term for it.
It’s free—you can thank our advertisers for that.
In Vermont, our circulation drivers are more reliable than the Internet.
You can’t wrap presents, make mulch, or start a fire with Facebook.
ISpys. Maybe this week, right?
We actually live here.
You can’t do the Seven Days crossword online.
Unlike other local news outlets, we get to drop the F-bomb.
We really, really try to eliminate typos.
Who else would you nervously ask about your penis size if not for
Lola, Mistress Maeve, and Athena?
It’s nice lookin’. Admit it—you even read the ads.
For Seven Days, serious word play is not an oxymoron.
Vermont is far more sophisticated than our rinky-dink population
Two words: job ads.
The fearless Peter Freyne launched our news section.
You need something to read in the bathroom.
How else would you know what to do this weekend?
We bust our asses—no squat machine required.
It’s not all work: Think Mardi Gras, Art Hop, and Big Lebowski.
YOU. Thanks for picking up the paper, buying ads, sending letters,
pet photos, suggesting stories, voting for the Daysies and giving us so
much to write about over the years.
The next afternoon, we’re again sitting out behind Routly’s house, talking. The view is astonishing, but she can’t totally give in to it. Her mind is where it always is, back in the Seven Days office. Pretty soon she’ll drive back there, like a little old lady, think about canceling some dinner plans, and put out another terrific issue.
For an astrophysicist who hunts for planets in other solar systems, there’s nothing more exciting than discovering one being born.
It turns out that witnessing the birth of a planet—something that has never been done before—doesn’t deliver a cinematic moment of astrophysicists huddled in an observatory and erupting in excitement at their discovery.
It unfolds more like this: one month after defending her dissertation and just before she began a postdoctoral position at Stanford, Kate Brutlag Follette ’04 ’04 decamps for the southern Atacama Desert of Chile, and the Las Campanas Observatory’s Magellan telescopes—a pair of 6.5 meter–diameter mounted telescopes on the summit of Cerro Manqui. Because of their size (anywhere from two to eight times the size of telescopes launched in space), ground-based telescopes can resolve images unseen by small scopes and also collect up to eight times as much light—a key capability when one is attempting to image the faintest of objects—like a planet in another solar system decamped for the southern Atacama Desert of Chile, and the Las Campanas Observatory’s Magellan Clay telescope—a 6.5 meter-diameter mounted telescope on the summit of Cerro Manqui. Because of their size (anywhere from two to eight times the size of telescopes launched in space), ground-based telescopes can resolve images unseen by smaller scopes and also collect up to 64 times as much light, a key capability when one is attempting to image the faintest of objects—like an exoplanet, a planet in another solar system.
Telescopes like Magellan are at the heart of a new technique in astronomy called “direct imaging,” in which astronomers are able to directly image exoplanets. Until recently, discoveries of exoplanets were all indirect observations—that is, inferences were made by observing the stars that these planets orbit. During the past few decades, nearly 3,000 exoplanets have been discovered, with more than two-thirds of those being detected by the Kepler space telescope. But for all of those Kepler discoveries, the planets in question have not actually been seen; they’ve been inferred by observing the shadow that they cast on the star in the system. Direct imaging is unique in that it is the only method by which an exoplanet is actually seen. Only a handful of exoplanets have been directly imaged, the first occurring during the past decade.
Follette was drawn to the doctoral program at the University of Arizona because of its access to some of the largest telescopes in the world (including Magellan); subsequently, her participation on planet-imager survey teams positioned a young grad student as a pioneer in a field that could forever alter our understanding of space.
Which takes us back to Chile. In the fall of 2014, Follette had returned for “one more observing run” while she still had access to Arizona’s telescopes. “But here’s the thing,” she says. “You rarely know whether you’ve seen anything new when you’re at the telescope. It’s not until later when you do a detailed analysis of the data that you know whether you have an interesting result.” So Follette was at Stanford in the early months of 2015 when her data revealed something never before imaged directly—an exoplanet in the process of formation.
“You have a moment of exhilaration when you think you see something interesting in your data,” she says, “but there are lots of tests to go through to be sure.” And every test confirmed her discovery. “But we didn’t think anyone would believe us until we imaged it again to prove it was still there,” she says, “and the season for observing it was already past, so we’d have had to wait at least a year.” So Follette was resigned to sit on her discovery—until she learned that another astrophysicist had also found the planet, albeit through an indirect method. “People have fairly well-founded skepticism about inferences from certain indirect detection methods—it’s probably a planet, but it could be something else,” says Follette. But in this case she had also seen the planet—literally. So the two coauthored a paper for Nature, in which they announced the birth of LkCa 15 b.
“I had spent my entire graduate career taking high-resolution images of protoplanetary transition disks, making a case that they could only be caused by planets in the process of forming,” she says. But Follette and others believed it would take the next generation of telescopes to image a planet while it was actively forming.
Until one day, she saw just that.