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Civility, Please

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

tolerance finalOn the afternoon of September 11, 2013, a Middlebury student and four acquaintances, who are not enrolled at the College, removed 2,977 American flags that had been placed in the lawn in front of Mead Chapel by members of a pair of student groups—the Middlebury College Republicans and Middlebury College Democrats.

The flags were set as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the 9/11 terror attacks, and the act of vandalism left many in the community shocked, angry, hurt, and confused. The student who helped uproot the flags said she found the display offensive to Native Americans and believed the area on which they had been placed had once been an Abenaki burial ground (a claim a local Abenaki chief disputed).

In the days that followed, media attention—mainstream and social—prompted an outpouring of commentary, which included threats and vitriol directed at individuals and the College itself.

In the wake of these events, we sat down with President Liebowitz to talk about civility, responsible discourse, and community standards.

In your e-mail to the community after the incident on campus you made a specific point of stating that as an academic community it’s incumbent upon us to encounter difficult issues, but that doesn’t mean that civility goes out the window when you do so, which is what happened.  
Right. We cherish freedom of speech, but it can’t be at the expense of silencing others. And in this case, we had people who felt very strongly about something, and whether or not we agree with it, it’s their right to voice it. But they can’t voice it by silencing others, by being destructive, and that’s what they did when they forcefully removed the flags.

Civility is a must. We’re an academic institution, and so we don’t only teach facts. We also teach how to argue, how to debate, how to engage, how to learn. And being civil is a key part of doing all of these things.

It seems that when the degree of passion rises, civility starts to slip. Not always, but often.
I think the larger political environment is really in some ways the genesis or the driver of what you’re talking about. If we become less civil on this campus, it’s a reflection of, or it’s an inability to stay removed from, the vitriol that one sees in current national politics.

I mean, I don’t remember this ever—I’ve been a political junkie for a long time, and I can’t recall this level of vitriol. I believe in some ways that models behavior for some individuals, and it only takes one person at one point in time to create this feeling.

There’s a paradox here too, and that is the fact that within this community, we’re overly polite towards one another most times. We’ll have less rigorous and vigorous debate and discussion than one might find, say, if they were in Morningside Heights or in Cambridge. So things can get bottled up, and then when emotions do boil over, people don’t always know how to disagree.
So it’s a combination of things, but I think the bigger issue for us is that Middlebury in some ways is a reflection of a larger political environment that isn’t always pretty.

One of the things that happened in response to this was a flood of vitriolic commentary. Not to excuse the original act, but at the same time, nothing warrants threats against one’s life.
No, it’s terrible. I myself received hundreds of e-mails, literally hundreds of e-mails, and some of them were beyond imagination in terms of the anger, the vitriol, the hatred. The Campus editors told me they got these commentaries in comments on their blog as well. I think many of those writing were not a part of this community, but some of them were.

But let’s not forget what was done here and on what day. September 11 is still an emotional and significant event, and the impact of that day was felt—and continues to be felt—by many, many Americans. People were angry about the disrespect shown for the nearly 3,000 who perished in the attack, but the deep emotions extend far beyond that.They extend to all those who, on the account of that terrorist attack, went to two wars, many of them killed or injured. Their families, no doubt, would view what happened on our campus as unacceptable—not to mention the legal, but highly provocative desecration of the American flag. So the anger and harsh response, while itself very unfortunate, reflects the deep feelings held by so many. There are obviously other ways a protest can be done.

But I do think the tenor of the reaction is also linked to this polarizing political climate. Instead of debate, we mostly see and hear only the extreme views on both ends of the ideological spectrum.
When Bill O’Reilly talked about this incident on his show, The O’Reilly Factor, it was a terrible display of reporting. It was irresponsible and unnecessarily fueled the anger. The show’s producers obviously didn’t check facts with anyone familiar with what actually happened.

After the segment was over, I went upstairs and stopped at my computer. In the three minutes that it took me to close up downstairs and come upstairs, I had already received 18 e-mails, 18 e-mails from people who had watched The O’Reilly Factor, e-mails from Abilene, Texas; Salt Lake City, Utah; Chicago, Illinois—writing threatening comments that were largely uninformed. They took verbatim what they heard on the show from “reporter” Adam Carolla and from Bill O’Reilly. And it continued for several days.

Wow.
And to answer your question, no, I don’t think such a response was warranted. Though again, I understand the anger and disgust at what happened. Certainly it’s disappointing to see any of them come from Middlebury students, but I would say the overwhelming majority came from outside the College.

But even the ones from Middlebury students point to something that you’ve talked about—close the laptop and go talk to somebody.
Right.

And don’t rely on a comment section or Twitter or—
Anonymous comments, anonymous comments.

Anonymous is even worse. But even when comments are attributable, go talk to someone. Why do you think folks are more likely to respond to a comment section than walk down the hall and talk to someone?
I think it’s just a reflection of how technology has made it so easy for people to comment.  It’s far easier to do something in a faceless way because you don’t have to face the response. Angelique Kidjo, in her Fulton lecture, made this point very, very strongly.  She told the students: “You must face the person with whom you have a disagreement.  In the end, you might not ever speak to that person again, but you can’t end a relationship—you can’t say, ‘I’m not going to speak to my friend for 10 years’ and not speak to them, you’ve got to talk it out.”

This message is a tough one for this generation, because this generation relies so much on, and has really grown up with, social media as the major source for interpersonal communication. So it’s a real challenge.

There were opportunities for students to talk about the flag issue at a series of forums with faculty members. But they were poorly attended, with the exception of maybe one.
I think two.

One or two.
There were, I believe, at least six sessions, and  the best-attended one had maybe 12 students, which is a nice size for such a discussion, but yes, overall attendance was less than what we thought it would be.

In the days after, I went up to Proctor, and I sat down at a table with students and tried to figure out why that was the case—why an incident that created angry debate did not lead to large gatherings to discuss it with faculty. I think by the time the open sessions rolled around—which didn’t take place until the following week for a whole host of reasons—people were formulating their own ideas, they were having so many discussions about this in the dining halls, in their dorms, in their classes,  that they were unsure about what the open sessions would be like. Or maybe it was our students’ already full schedules.

And there’s an interesting twist that students are talking about, which is to say, “What do you think President Liebowitz, what do you think the ultimate harm to the community has been as a result of this?” I pushed them to explain what they meant. At first I was thinking they were concerned that Middlebury’s reputation had been dragged through the mud. But no, they didn’t mean that at all.

What those in Proctor meant seemed to be much more nuanced. They said, “If, in the future, this act serves to silence people who want to speak out and have honest debate, it will have hurt us terribly.” And this was coming from people who largely disagreed, some passionately so, with the act this student committed. Students feared it would further shut down future conversations on important issues.

The strength of this institution is the ability to engage in debate and hear other people’s views and learn from them. And if this incident leads to even a subtle silencing of people to speak out and question the status quo or the prevailing thought, and question even the institution’s perspective on any and all issues, we will have really hurt the College and our students. They need to hear different viewpoints—we all do.  This incident cannot diminish people’s willingness to engage in difficult topics. If it does, then the College will have become a lesser environment for learning.

Some Kind of Place: Auschwitz, Poland

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Auschwitz-photo
There are few place names on the planet that are associated with the heightened level of grotesque depravity as Auschwitz.

Carved out of the quiet Polish village of Oświęcim by Nazi invaders in 1939, Auschwitz was conceived as being a major implement of Heinrich Himmler’s system of forced labor through oppression, a concentration camp that would support the Nazi war effort and, with victory achieved, would serve as one of the greater cities in the Reich. Or so the Nazis believed.

History has recorded a different story, a deranged nightmare of starvation and mass execution. A history populated with gas chambers and crematoriums. A forced labor camp that became a center for extermination.

For the past six years, geographer Anne Knowles has lived with Auschwitz—not in the physical place, but with it, with its conception and its construction and the chaos and instability that belie the common perception of Nazi calculation and precision.

Knowles came to Auschwitz during a two-week workshop that she helped organize at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., a fortnight that brought together nine scholars from diverse disciplines—historical geography, geographic information science (GIS), cartography, history, and architectural history—“to consider how spatial analysis and geographical visualization of the built environment and forced movement of people during the Holocaust might inspire new research questions and pedagogical applications.”

From that workshop in 2007 came a grant from the National Science Foundation that funded six projects (pairing at least one historian with one geographer) that would examine the operational scale of the Holocaust; those six projects became six book chapters in the forthcoming Geographies of the Holocaust.

Though the Holocaust exists as one of the most profoundly devastating geographical events in human history, before these projects, few scholars had ever identified and investigated the spaces and geographical patterns of the genocide. No one had used GIS to do spatial analysis of these events, and, says Knowles, likely never would have if such a disparate group of academics hadn’t come together and forged a multi-faceted collaboration. “It was this frisson,” claims Knowles, “people coming together from different perspectives and different fields and then rubbing up against one another, that set off the sparks of discovery.”

This story presents some of the findings contained in a chapter titled “Visualizing the Archive: Building at Auschwitz as a Geographic Problem,” co-authored by Knowles; Paul Jaskot, an architectural historian at DePaul University; and Chester Harvey ’09 and Benjamin Perry Blackshear ’12.

Auschwitz, says Knowles, was supposed to become one of the greater cities in the Reich. A city was planned that would feature an entrance pavilion and a garden city. A grand headquarters for the commandant was drawn, as were estates for officers. In the idealized designs of architect Lothar Hartjenstein, Auschwitz was to become a “complex urban world supporting the control over a vast, greater Germany.”

But, Knowles says, these 1942 plans were displaced by more pragmatic demands in 1943. “What were built instead were more barracks to house many more guards, who were needed to control hundreds of thousands of prisoners scheduled to arrive from the Jewish ghetto in Budapest.”

Auschwitz-PlansHarvey and Blackshear used architectural drawings and plans and construction records to create the map at right. In green, you see structures that were included in the original plans for Auschwitz and subsequently built. In purple are the buildings that were not included in the original plan, but built out of necessity, including new guard barracks in the lower center of the map. And in orange are the areas planned by architect Lothar Hartjenstein, but never realized. In the upper left corner of the map are the plans for the commandant’s headquarters. Foundations were dug, but that is all. As the researchers note in their chapter, “the rationally planned total environment evident in the clarity of the SS’s ideal conceptualization of the complex in 1943 clashes with the messy reality of plans and buildings that were actualized in fits and starts over time.”

Or, as Knowles says, “The exigencies of war and genocide took over.”

With the erection of crematoria and the implementation of genocide, the SS entered a fevered stretch of drawing and redrawing plans that led to the construction of buildings that would “facilitate the day to day operation of the camp.” Perversely, this would include amenities intended to “entertain and distract” the guards charged with increasingly brutal and inhumane work.

The map below, reconstructed by Blackshear to indicate the dense variety of functions in one small part of the camp, shows the placement of two saunas on the east side of Auschwitz I, circa November 1943. Write the authors, “This cluster of different functions has remained invisible in the scholarship even though our color overlays make it clear that they were in fact extremely visible to the SS and inmates at the site.”

Auschwitz-BlackshearChillingly, the saunas’ design echoed the decorative carpentry of central European tradition. That is, they were not only functional, but had an aesthetic, recreational purpose as well—all within sight of the death chambers.

A primary goal of the Auschwitz research was to use GIS to help understand the role sight played in the exercise of control at the camps. “We wanted to know what the guards could see and what impact that had on the prisoners,” Knowles says. “Were there places that were more dangerous than others? Were there places where people could escape notice?”

Knowles worked with Chester Harvey to use architectural plans, archival images, and aerial photographs to recreate the site and then render three-dimensional images of the camp. “We could place a hypothetical guard in any place in the camp and show what he could see most and least clearly,” Knowles says. Harvey generated the image bellow. The dash of white near the middle of the map indicates the approximate field of view for a person of average height standing in the center of that location.

“But that did not turn out to be the most interesting question—what could a guard see?” Knowles says. “See those buildings shaded red? Those are buildings that were under construction from May 1943 to May 1944. Paul Jaskot looked at this image and asked, rather casually, ‘Could we animate this?’”

Because Harvey had compiled a database of information that included when individual buildings were constructed and what they were used for, he was able to animate just how fluid this site was. “It’s a simple thing,” Knowles says, “but in the mind of an architecture historian, it created what we call in GIS circles ‘the eureka moment.’

RedBarracks“Paul said, ‘Oh my God, look at how chaotic this was—for eight months this was a construction site,’” Knowles recalls. “What the guards saw, changed constantly. The landscape was altered over and over and over. Think about the commotion of a construction site, and then add a swelling population of guards—and prisoners.”

Write the authors, “The scale of construction and its duration probably meant that much of the camp was visually confusing, quite a different environment than the regimented, rational, static image of the camp that has become so familiar to us.”

The Holocaust has always been an event rooted in time and place, Knowles says. “We’re trying to see what that looks like and then analyze the relationship between the two, place and time.”

Mapping, she says, “shows us what [the Nazis] built and did; it shows what their priorities were, rather than what they talked about. It sends a chill down the spine.”

Also, she adds, “In my mind, it highlights the absurdity of Nazi dreams.”

Some Kind of Place: Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Grovers
I’ve lived in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, three times now, each occasion as Emily Webb, the protagonist of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town.

The people who live in this fictional village are unsentimental, hard working, and full of love, though they don’t always have the tools to express it. As Wilder wrote in the preface to the 1957 collection Three Plays, Grover’s Corners is a lens in which “to find value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.” The door is always open to visitors.

Grover’s Corners has been my benchmark to measure time and growth. I first played Emily at summer camp on Lake Champlain; it was my first big lead in a play, the role gave me the confidence to pursue my love for acting. Ten years later as a professional in a production in Baltimore, Maryland, I was made aware of the pressure of the iconic role and my own shortcomings as a developing actress. Now married, nearing 30, and revisiting the play this past summer in the acting ensemble at the Bread Loaf School of English, I found Grover’s Corners to be a new place, different from the one I knew as a teenager. It no longer felt like a physical location, but rather a fragile moment in time—our moment in time. It creates community by showing us community, and you don’t need to be from small-town New England to understand it.

Wilder wrote: “The climax of this play needs only five-square feet of boarding and the passion to know what life means to us.” What happens on those five-square feet is funny, awkward, brutal, optimistic, and forgiving. That world—Grover’s Corners—is home to me. It is a home created by the artists and the audiences who visit it. In this imagined world, I have been most fully myself. I find remnants of it in Brooklyn, exchanging smiles with a stranger, biking through the park, sharing dinner at home with my husband and friends. It’s a place that allows reflection and growth.
It can happen anywhere or anytime—as long as you leave room for hope.

Julia Proctor ’06 is an actress living in Brooklyn with her husband, Phil Aroneanu ’06. For more on Julia, visit www.juliaproctor.com.

Some Kind of Place: South Sudan/Congo Border

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

SouthSudanBorder
From above, this place is endlessly vast. We fly for hours and hours in planes and helicopters; then we walk by foot. From above, this place is smooth—a smooth, vast wilderness, beyond history, before people. But there are people here. Mothers and fathers, infants and babies, yearning youth, and ancient elders. They are connected by webs of motorcycle tracks held in place by mud huts and ancestor spirits. Yet one can still travel hundreds of miles through these jungles and not see a soul.

Here so many edges of Africa come together under impossibly thick, low-hanging canopy of brush and forest. The frontiers of South Sudan and Congo and Central African Republic. On these edges sits the center of Africa.

Such places are rare in the world. They exist at both the center and the end of things. Entire rebel groups can disappear in these lands. Massive cathedrals appear down tiny dusty tracks. Here, guns from nearby conflicts ebb and flow like tides until the neighboring conflicts become this place’s conflict.

It is a place where the notion of government is a faint one, a trickling stream that dries up in the dry season and sometimes doesn’t run all year long.

In the heat beneath the arc of the plane, the Earth sweats green. And the smoothness turns into reaching thorns and sharp grasses.

Then when I return months later, it has turned brown, and the crust of the Earth has cracked like soft-dried lava.

The sharp grasses have gone dull, and the thorns have grown smaller.

Trevor Snapp ’03 is a writer and photographer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, The Guardian (London), among other publications. He works globally, and for the past few years has been based out of Mexico and East Africa. His work can be found at www.trevorsnapp.com.

Some Kind of Place: Nuiqsut, Alaska

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

2013-08-03 The Storm

I. Path to the Sea
The blades of the fiberglass kayak paddles rise and fall to a rhythm as balanced as a pendulum’s. In the deafening Arctic quiet, they splash into the murky water with deep chops, the sound muffled only by the wind. Under cloudy skies, the river is a long, wide pane of gray, broken periodically by sandbars speckled with chalk-white caribou skulls. Steep banks rise on either side of the water, crowned at the top with tufts of grassy tundra. The cabins of a fish camp, where a family of Inupiat Eskimos likely spent the summer catching the year’s supply of char, burbot, and Dolly Varden trout, appear empty. Near one of the small, shingled buildings, what appears to be a small grizzly bear reveals itself as a musk ox when it raises its shaggy head to the sound of the boats, turns, and gallops out of sight.

As they slowly navigate the river, the small, rugged, inflatable crafts—weighing five pounds and collapsible to the size of a sleeping bag—add bright yellow and red to the otherwise stark aesthetic. Chelsea Ward-Waller ’12, Brett Woelber ’09, and his brother Paxson ’08 are on the Colville River, less than two miles from the Arctic Ocean.

From the start of their journey in the sweeping mountain passes and sunlit canyons of Alaska’s Brooks Range, they have come 300 human-powered miles in a month. They’ve named their trek Expedition Arguk—arguk meaning to walk against the wind, in Alaskan Inupiat—and they didn’t embark without putting a lot of careful thought into what they planned to do and why they planned to do it. Brett is a hydrologist; Chelsea, a geologist; Paxson, a media producer. All have a powerful affinity for the outdoors, for nature’s wild frontiers. They saw in Arguk an opportunity to traverse one of this country’s most rugged, remote regions, and they wanted to do so before the landscape was forever altered by encroaching development; a bridge, soon to be built by ConocoPhillips, will span the Colville River, offering easy access to the energy company’s newest drill site. “Our trip is limited,” Paxson explains, “We aren’t experts. We’re not going to provide a dry environmental assessment [of what’s going on here], what we can provide, though, is what it’s like to be here.”

And what it’s like to be out here is a discordant mash of serene beauty and perpetual discomfort. Three weeks on two different rivers means being constantly wet; something as simple as slipping on dry, five-toed socks before curling up in a sleeping bag is nothing short of sacrosanct. Campsites are often buffeted by piercing winds and require an electric “bear-proof” to be erected each evening.
To the group’s surprise, they haven’t seen many grizzlies. Several days into their first stretch of paddling on the Anaktuvuk River in the Brooks Range, a grizzly swam across the river in front of them, climbed up on the bank, stared, then darted into thicket of small trees. Still, everyone keeps bear spray within reach at all times. In Fairbanks, before beginning the trip, and after much debate and consideration, they decided on an extra measure: Brett carries a .44 magnum on his hip that has yet to leave its leather holster. Still, they’re not mentally prepared for what they encounter as they near the ocean.

Chelsea is the first to see the enormous, lumbering form. White spots (seagulls, skulls, driftwood) on the horizon are plentiful, and the landscape’s flatness often makes size difficult to judge—but a polar bear seen from less than a half-mile off is unmistakable.

Paddling ceases.

The bear’s shoulder rotates almost mechanically, and its legs move in a slow, seemingly effortless plod, yet it covers ground quickly. Then, suddenly, it disappears into the river ahead. Paddling begins again, this time with hurried purpose. Polar bears are known to attack prey by swimming underneath it, so the packrafters retreat to a sandbar in the middle of the river and get out of their boats. For several minutes, the bear is nowhere to be seen. Brett brings the .44 out and holds it at his side. Finally, it reappears on the opposite bank and continues down the shore.

Once the bear is well out of sight, the group presses on toward the mouth of the river; within a few hours, they wade into the Arctic Ocean. When they turn and look back across the tundra, what seem like abbreviated skylines of miniature cities appear at different distances across the horizon—the derricks from the Colville River Unit Alpine Oil Pool.

II. From Beginning to End
Arguk began at the Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range, where Luke Douglas ’09, Brett, Paxson, and Chelsea hiked into the Arctic National Preserve: 13,000 square miles with few named landmarks or a single trail. Navigation involved topographic maps, compasses, landmarks, and a little guesswork. With the shadows of clouds moving along with them, they passed through valleys and over steep passes, crowned with ridgelines of striated rock. They followed braided rivers, at times walking through rushing water when it proved easier than hiking over tussocks, the hillocks of thick grass that make up the vast floor of the region.

After the first week, they arrived at Anaktuvuk Pass, a small Nunamiut Eskimo village in the central Brooks Range. There, Jason Mercer, a biologist and the group’s fifth member, joined them. But they were not five for long. Luke arrived in Anaktuvuk with a badly sprained ankle and, after much deliberation, left on a flight back to Anchorage shortly after Jason arrived. The new group of four would use their packrafts to float down the Anaktuvuk River to its confluence with the Colville. Where its headwaters lay was a mystery, however, and no one in town seemed to know. After substantial wandering, they found a small, meandering channel through some grassland, began paddling and, soon enough, found themselves on a narrow river.

The landscape north of the Brooks Range changed drastically; they were suddenly surrounded by bright green, perfectly rounded hills. It looked “like you could walk blindfolded for a hundred miles without tripping,” Brett remembers, and though it seemed empty at first, more and more birds began to appear. Many were in molt and couldn’t fly, so as the boats approached, they ran down the riverbanks in large flocks, flapping their wings until just out of sight. When the boats came around the next river bend, the charade began anew and continued for miles and miles.

The packrafters then entered the National Petroleum Reserve (NPR-A), the largest single unit of public land in the United States (measuring slightly larger than the state of Maine), in Alaska’s North Slope. The region was opened for oil development in February, an event that garnered litle attention, even in Alaska.

After entering the NPR-A at the confluence of the Anaktuvuk and Colville Rivers, the packrafters spotted another boat filled with paleontologists who invited them to their camp at Ocean Point, where the saltwater from the Arctic Ocean begins to mix with the freshwater from the mountains. The next morning, they visited their dig site, where a group of duck-billed dinosaurs had been killed en masse millions of years ago. Thousands of bones spilled from the side of a bluff.

After leaving the paleontologists, the packrafters paddled through thick sea fog as they neared the ocean. Motorboats full of Inupiat Eskimos would pull alongside; a few of the natives would snap pictures of the visitors. There had been a celebration in the nearby village of Nuiqsut, population 400.  The people in Anaktuvuk Pass had warned the packrafters about Nuiqsut—an insular and protective community, they claimed.

The village’s power lines soon came into view, standing tall over the prefabricated houses arranged among a neat grid of gravel roads. When the packrafters arrived, they deflated their boats, walked past the graveyard on the edge of the village, and entered the town offices to introduce themselves.

2013-08-15 01 NuiqsutIII. The Village
Contrary to the opinion of those south of Nuiqsut, Expedition Arguk was welcomed warmly in the village. People in pickup trucks and four-wheelers waved when they passed by on the town’s gravel roads; some would stop to welcome them or ask where they’d come from and why.

Caribou and moose antlers lay unceremoniously on the tops of garages and the ice cellars outside homes. (The ice cellars are used to store whale skin and blubber after a hunt.) Subsistence hunting accounts for a large part of the diet in Nuiqsut, though there is a grocery store in town where a half gallon of Darigold two-percent milk runs for $9.99, a dozen grade AA eggs cost $6.99, and one and a half quarts of Dreyer’s Rich and Creamy Vanilla ice cream will run you $15.35.

The visitors attended Thursday night Bingo in the town hall, bringing their own sheets and markers and finding seats around one of the long wooden tables in a room full of Inupiat women and a few men. Chelsea won $100 in the first game, and she, like every subsequent winner, received the room’s applause. Several days later, representatives from ConocoPhillips held a meeting in the same room to discuss the construction of the CD-5 bridge across the Colville River to the new drill site. Door prize tickets were handed out before the meeting began, and someone translated the presentation from English to Inupiat. “There will be some blasting involved.” “The bridge will withstand flood conditions.”

The presentation ended with, “Does everyone have a door prize ticket?”

“760694.”

Clap. Clap.

A new first-aid kit.

“760675.”

Clap, clap.

A new set of kitchen knives.

Jason left Nuiqsut first, followed by Brett and Chelsea. Paxson was the last of Arguk to leave. He boarded a small prop plane, flying under the name Era Alaska. After bumping down the small airstrip, the plane lifted off the ground, slowly gained altitude, and disappeared into the fog, bound for Deadhorse, 60 miles away, where a larger plane awaited.

Some Kind of Place: Middlebury, Vermont

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

MiddOn opposite walls in my room on the top floor of Gifford in the fall of 1991: a world map with National Geographic pastel borders and a somewhat pretentious Kandinsky poster.  Between them was a dormered window through which I could crawl out onto the building’s slate roof for a crystalline view of the Adirondacks. The mountains were visible from within the room, too, but I preferred sitting on the roof, sky overhead, feeling the wind move through the valley.

Other transformational places on campus: David Napier’s anthropology class, where we debated the authenticity of Carlos Castaneda’s vision quests, and John Bertolini’s Modern British Drama class, where we lurked at the edge of Beckett’s eternal abyss. Every Tuesday at 3 am I sequestered myself in the WRMC studios for a jazz show featuring Art Blakey, John Coltrane, and Thelonius Monk, deejaying for (at best) a handful of Addison County insomniacs.

At the top of our hill, with Rt. 125 ribboning off to the east and west, we had Kerouacian amounts of time and space for reflection and introspection. It was as though the breadth and serenity of the valley demanded it. You read To the Lighthouse, and you could linger within Woolf’s consciousness for as long as you wanted and needed—the purple mountains weren’t going to distract you. You read King Lear, and you lived with it in the quiet of those long pathways of the quad. It became harder and harder to hide from a book’s implications. Each book had room to breathe. Sometimes I’d take these ruminations to the Long Trail, whose lush leafiness was only a few miles away.

There were days when I would be walking alone up the hill from Twilight and the face of a classmate or teacher would pop into my mind. Seconds later, that very same person would emerge, in the flesh, from behind Warner or down the steps from the offices in Old Chapel. Initially I was alarmed by this. But then I realized that coincidences like this happen all the time amid the churnings of a small campus.

Mostly, I liked this coziness. For a while my girlfriend and I walked into town every Friday morning for breakfast at Steve’s Park Diner. Each week we invited a different guest. Many of our professors came. Even President McCardell came once, and he chronicled the history of Middlebury football for us.

What we didn’t seem to have, though, was a political culture. My older brother was at Wesleyan, where you couldn’t walk from the library to the dining hall without encountering a sit-in or picket line.
We at Middlebury, on the other hand, seemed mostly subdued and conflict-averse. At the outset of the Gulf War, I witnessed a few dozen students assemble outside Proctor in protest. They marched with banners until someone in Gifford pointed their three-foot Bose speakers out a window, anonymously blaring “Born in the USA.” The protest dwindled, and afterwards, campus was especially quiet.  We lived in such a beautiful, peaceful place, the problems of the world felt remote.

There came a point when I needed a break from this feeling of remove. David Napier had introduced me to an ambitious group of doctors in London who shared a flat and provided free medical care to homeless people throughout the city. I took a term off and lived with them, shadowing them in their clinics. When I returned to Middlebury, I was eager for one last round of intense academic rabbit-holing. This was the perfect time for Elizabeth Napier’s transcendent class on neoclassical and romantic poetry. It helped to have a somewhat more world-wise frame of reference. Exploring the mysteries of Pope and Wordsworth in a high-ceilinged Twilight classroom for 90 minutes felt both luxurious and, if I paid close attention, relevant and essential.

That fall, I lived in a Ripton farmhouse with four friends. The land was adjacent to Forest Service property connected to the Bread Loaf ski trails. There was a pond out back where we swam every day until it froze, and I only went to campus for class and work. Arriving at Middlebury four years earlier, I’d been wary of the school’s pastoral calm. I was worried I’d get bored. That winter, snowstorm after snowstorm, our top priority was to sit by the fire and write our theses, coffeemaker nearby. We shoveled off the roof when necessary. We cherished the quiet, hardly knowing it wouldn’t last.

Lewis Robinson ’93 is the author of the short story collection Officer Friendly, which won the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, and the novel Water Dogs. He is a writer in residence at Phillips Academy in Andover.

After the Storm

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

stormWhat does it take to rebuild from the largest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded?

Keelah and Harry Helwig lived on a dirt road in Far Rockaway, New York. When Hurricane Sandy struck, and their house broke away from its foundation, and the waters of Jamaica Bay sloshed against the living room windows, they decided they would have to swim. Harry’s mother, Dora, was in a two-story house nearby. The upper story was above the water. But then, fortunately, the boat in their driveway detached from its trailer and drifted close enough to their house that they could climb into the rocking hull. They survived the storm, but their home and all their belongings were destroyed.

“There’s our house,” Helwig said one evening in August. He was pointing at a square on a giant satellite map taped to a wall in a brightly lit school gymnasium. “Or what’s left of it.” The square was on a nub of land that stuck into Jamaica Bay, which separates the Rockaway Peninsula from the rest of the borough of Queens. “Now we’re waiting for demolition,” Helwig said. He and Keelah planned to rebuild, and they were hoping the city would help them.

The Helwigs had come to the gym for an information session about the city’s flood recovery program, run by Mayor Bloomberg’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations, which was established after Hurricane Sandy. Morgan Jones ’04 is the senior adviser for outreach for Housing Recovery in Queens and was one of the event’s organizers. He helped launch the program, Build It Back, on June 3. Its $648 million budget was allocated from the $61 billion federal Sandy recovery bill that Congress passed in January.

“The idea tonight is for people to meet with developers and find out their rebuild options,” Jones told me. A big part of Jones’s job is to make sure that people like the Helwigs apply to Build It Back. He publicizes the program citywide, mainly through social media, e-mail blasts, and events. More than 17,000 people have already applied. His work never ends. “I have a Blackberry that follows me everywhere I go,” he said. “And my wife loves that.”

Over the last year, Jones has helped hundreds of people navigate the aftermath of the violent flood. Immediately after the storm, 150,000 New Yorkers had to find temporary housing or get immediate home repairs. More than 20,000 households still need help—whether they need to rebuild entirely, make repairs, or get reimbursed for work already done. Some homeowners will be able to sell their property to the government, particularly those in the worst flood-hazard areas. So far, such buyouts have been sought only in Staten Island.

Recovery work is not for the one-dimensional. Jones became a mold expert. He learned how to start a generator. He arranged with a real-estate developer to move a wheelchair-bound boy trapped for months in his fourth-floor apartment (the elevator was broken) to a ground-floor unit. He read the fine print contained in flood insurance plans.

Sandy was the largest hurricane ever recorded over the Atlantic Ocean, with tropical storm-force winds spanning 1,100 miles, roughly the distance from Manhattan to Miami. It was the second costliest storm in American history, after Katrina. A storm of such magnitude has countless impacts and meanings. For Jones, its impact is redefined daily by its human toll. For many people, Sandy has become a historic event, a natural disaster, and a regional tragedy whose details slowly fade.

But for some people, Sandy has been a stark illustration of the changing climate and a call to arms. They believe there must be new coastal-development policies, new measures to slow greenhouse gas emissions, and adaptations to protect people from the next storm. Mark Mauriello ’79, the former commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), is among those inspired to rethink priorities. He has been a vocal critic of Governor Chris Christie’s approach to Sandy recovery. “There are two sides to the Sandy story. One is technical, and the other is human,” Mauriello explained. “And the human side is always compelling. Listening to testimony of the trauma and misery that storm victims experienced really highlights the importance of considering the increasing coastal-hazard vulnerability that we face. Shame on us if we fail to learn the lessons of Sandy and repeat past mistakes as we rebuild.”