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The Avocado Windfall

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Originally posted on April 12, this story was updated April 26.

When Tony Jackson first heard that the College was getting 10,000 pounds of avocados this spring, he wondered, “How the heck are we going to go through all of those?”

When most people see avocados, they think: guacamole.

A veteran chef with 29 years in Dining Services, Jackson knew he’d have to come up with something more than basic guacamole, so he started scouring the Internet for avocado recipes. There were avocado salads, avocado soups, avocado dressings, avocado dishes galore. And for a chef like Tony Jackson with access to a vast array of fresh foods, the possibilities seemed endless.

He was not alone in the quest; all the other chefs on campus have been digging into their recipe boxes because a tractor-trailer load of refrigerated Ettinger avocados arrived in Middlebury direct from southern California on March 30. There were 400 cases of avocados with about 25 avocados per case, or about 10,000 avocados in all.

The avocados are a gift from a Middlebury parent who wishes to remain anonymous. Suffice to say that the parent’s business interests include the sourcing of avocados in large quantities. “I see it as a win-win,” the parent told middmag.com. “The Ettinger is not as marketable as the Hass avocado, which is really the coin of the realm among avocados today. So we are pleased to put some smiles on the faces of the students at Middlebury, and introduce the uninitiated few to the pleasures of eating avocados.”

Pleasures indeed. How about avocado cheesecake? Yes! Avocado frittata? Absolutely! Avocado coconut frozen yogurt? Delicious! Avocado fries with chipotle dipping sauce? Mmmm! All of these dishes have been served in the dining halls this month.

The Ettinger avocado is a large, green, pear-shaped fruit with smooth skin and a big seed. Weighing about a pound each, the Ettinger is not to be confused with its more-popular first cousin, the Hass avocado with its black, pebbly skin. High in Vitamins B, C, and K, and rich in potassium, the Ettinger is just as nutritious as the Hass, with a slightly milder flavor.

Last Thursday morning Tony Jackson was putting the finishing touches to the lunch he prepared for the language tables in the Redfield Proctor Room. The first course would be avocado crab soup made with chicken stock and cream, and for the entrée students could choose from three dishes, two of which featured avocado. There were grilled pork chops with avocado black bean salsa, and tofu avocado sauté with broccoli and red onion. Within minutes the room was filled with students speaking Italian and Portuguese and Chinese and German—a Tower of Babel with avocados on the menu.

They're great in Mediterranean salads

Since then the dining staff has served avocado cream cheese with smoked salmon (for Passover), Mediterranean avocado salad with artichokes and dill (an original recipe by Dawn Sumner in Proctor), avocado and tomato wraps (a big hit in Ross Dining Hall), and baby spinach salad with smoked salmon (and, you guessed it, slices of fresh avocado).

Yes, the sky’s the limit when it comes to avocados, especially when you have five tons of them to work with.

“Now, when students walk into the dining halls, they are on the lookout for the latest way that the staff has presented the avocados,” explained Robert “Bo” Cleveland, Middlebury’s executive chef.

“To say we are pleased with the efforts of the staff would fall far short of our feelings,” he added. They have “rallied around ways to present the fruit beyond the obvious” uses of avocados, and that has made it fun for everyone. “It has been a pleasure for us to work with such a prized commodity.”

Inside Proctor Dining Hall located right next to the apples, oranges, and bananas is a self-service station (below right) to peel and slice raw avocados. And although the Ettingers have been “on the menu” for barely a week, hardly a minute goes by before another student steps up, selects a ripe avocado from the basket, cuts it open, and goes back to a seat.

Avocados, like bananas, mature on the tree but ripen off it.

The director of dining services, Matthew Biette, worked directly with the donor to effect the shipment of avocados, which were harvested in mid-March, packed, cooled, and shipped straight to Middlebury.

“It is one of the most novel gifts I have ever heard of,” said Biette, “but avocados are such a valuable food source and so nutritious, how could we turn them down?”

The College has donated several cases to the high school culinary arts programs in Middlebury and Rutland, and is considering donating a few cases to the area food shelf for low-income families.

Meanwhile back in the Proctor kitchen, chef Richard O’Donohue and his staff are busy peeling and chopping avocados by the dozen. Will it be another gourmet dish, a grilled avocado with sweet relish perhaps? No, not this time. Thursday is Mexican Day in Proctor and—in addition to fajitas, refried beans, and vegetarian chili—guacamole will be on the menu.

Update: In response to questions raised by some readers of this story (below), the donor of the avocados explained that most major avocado packers, including Calavo, Mission Produce, Del Rey Avocado, IndexFresh, West Pak Avocado, and others, do not market “pollinator varieties” like the Ettinger. Instead, the pollinator varieties, called “Type B” avocados, are grown in fields with the more popular “Type A” avocados (such as the Hass) to increase production. When they mature, Ettinger and other Type B avocados are harvested and generally sold at California farmers’ markets and are not shipped great distances.

Before accepting the donation of avocados, Dining Services looked into the source of the fruit, researched uses for Ettinger avocados, and received a few cases so its own chefs could determine whether they would be of value to the College. Satisfied that the avocados from the anonymous donor would keep for weeks under refrigeration, that the chefs in Dining Services could create dishes using them, and that they would be well-received by students, the College accepted the 10,000-pound donation, which included the harvesting, packing, and shipping of the fruit.

 


Shirt Tales

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Bill DeaconIt’s a phenomenon by no means limited to Vermont: College students everywhere spend a staggering amount of time watching inane comedies with friends and quoting them to each other at parties, in class, or on the athletic field. But Bill Deacon ’91 has made a career out of it.

“We had one guy on my hall in Battell South who was wealthy enough to have a TV with VCR and videotapes,” says Deacon. He laughs at the thought of how quickly things changed, how today everyone can push a DVD into a laptop. “So we watched movies constantly; they were always playing.” Films like Top Gun, Raising Arizona, and Caddyshack “provided the soundtrack to my college years,” he adds.

Deacon, who grew up in Gardner, Massachusetts—one of those “just outside of Boston” origins—is the founder and CEO of Muze Clothing, which sells T-shirts bearing movie quotes. Muze makes 200 varieties of shirts and is constantly adding new ones, with everything from “Hickory 15” (a Hoosiers reference) to “Make me a bicycle, clown” (Wedding Crashers) emblazoned on the chest. Muze manufactures all of its shirts in Arizona, near company headquarters, and boasts a strong line of celebrity endorsers, including Ryan Seacrest, ESPN’s Erin Andrews, and NFL quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Tony Romo.

The company’s next step involves expanding beyond apparel, and the executive team is confident, thanks to watching Muze sales double for three consecutive years. Deacon will launch a “movie-quote database” website that he hopes will become the online authority in what is already a competitive market.

 My Boy Is Wicked Smaht
—Good Will Hunting

That an English major from Massachusetts ended up the CEO of an apparel company in Scottsdale, Arizona, was a surprise to many. After graduating from Middlebury, Deacon planned to attend law school at Arizona State University. “That was that; we all expected him to be a lawyer,” says his sister Sandra, a professor at Boston University’s undergraduate business program.

But when Deacon arrived in the Southwest—quotes from Raising Arizona swimming through his head—he decided to defer law school for a year in order to establish residency, believing it would make his three years at ASU much cheaper. That was the plan, at least. Soon enough, though, bartending and waiter gigs at the Phoenician hotel led to a role there as director of restaurant sales. “They were looking for a young, hungry kid willing to put in hours and hours a week for very little money,” he says. In turn, that led to a marketing job at Morton’s Steakhouse.

At Morton’s, Deacon’s easygoing attitude made him a hit with the restaurant’s clients and partners. After a few years, he had created a network of people that he figured might support him in a business venture. In 2000, 31-year-old Deacon left Morton’s and opened his own restaurant, Foster’s.

Foster’s, a New England-style seafood restaurant, had a strong, six-year run. The place attracted regulars, created a real culture, and served up clam chowder to tanned Arizonans. But it was exhausting work. “If you want to work twice as hard for half as much,” says Deacon, “you work in a restaurant. It really is grueling.” In late 2005, Deacon sold the building that housed Foster’s. His plan was to start Foster’s again in a new location, but there was something else on his mind as well.

Deacon and Mark Dimond ’89, once a sales manager with the “Life is good” brand, had tossed around the idea of creating an apparel company, and they were searching for a designer. During a round of golf with Michael Sims ’00, Deacon learned that Sims’s brother Sean, a Syracuse graduate, was a prominent T-shirt designer in New York. Making him the Muze designer was a no-brainer. Deacon had found his core team. In 2006, he flew to Boston to meet with Dimond and the Sims brothers. That weekend, they came up with the company name and chose the first 20 movie quotes they’d put on shirts.

 If You Ain’t First, You’re Last
—Talladega Nights

Long before that trip, Deacon had contemplated the idea of marketing movie quotes. “Every time I watched SportsCenter,” he recalls, “I’d hear them saying six of the same movie quotes my friends and I loved from college, and I always thought, why isn’t anybody acknowledging this?” In 2004, the brainstorming began in earnest when Deacon and his friend Jeremy Roenick, a hockey legend who played in the NHL for two decades, were hanging out in California at the World Series of Golf. “We were just playing games, drinking, having fun like we usually do,” says Roenick, who adds that he and Deacon are “big golf guys and big movie buffs.” The conversation turned to business, and they sketched out what would later become, in 2006, Muze Clothing.

In addition to Deacon, Dimond, and Sims, another alum, Matt Bonner ’91, is involved and will head up the new website business, moviequoter.com. That partnership was conceived at the classmates’ 20-year reunion last summer as the two sat in Adirondack chairs outside Mead Chapel. Deacon told Bonner about the success he was having with Muze. Then, says Bonner, “I played a gig at 51 Main, drank a bunch of beers with Bill, and we decided to meet at Logan Airport after the reunion.” They met outside security in Terminal E before Deacon’s flight back to Phoenix. They realized they had a perfect fit: Muze was looking to carve out a space online beyond the retail site, and Bonner had worked with Web start-ups in music development. “It was like somebody fired a starting gun,” Bonner says.

Moviequoter.com will enter a private alpha phase in early 2012 and within the year will launch to the public. “If movie quotes are a language,” says Deacon, “we want to be the Oxford English Dictionary of when and how to use them.” He stresses that he wants Muze to do more than throw funny quotes onto shirts, but also to be an authority in how and when to use certain quotes, when it’s funniest to cite a line from The Hangover (which he calls an “instant classic”) and when to go with Good Will Hunting.

Muze wasn’t immediately profitable—“Launching any brand right before the economic Armageddon of 2008 was not the best situation,” Deacon admits—but Deacon is pleased with where the company is headed. He points to the sales figures for the past three years, of course, but also to the partnerships that he’s made with a number of charities, including the Wounded Warrior Project, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and the ALS Association. Says his sister, who invites Deacon to speak to her business management class at BU each year: “He’s a great model to [my students] . . . [showing] that you can create a company, but it’s a major challenge, too. The celebrity involvement is obviously interesting to them, but also the charity piece. It’s so important to teach them about business ethics and giving back.”

As for law school, well, let’s just say that that idea is still on hold.

Daniel Roberts ’09 is a staff reporter at Fortune magazine.


Thank You, Mr. Neuberger

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

I did not know Fred Neuberger well. In fact, at his packed memorial service at Mead Chapel, I was surprised by the many things I had never known about him: that he had been wounded in World War II, that he was a POW. He was a wood-worker, a practical joker, an advocate for diversity at the College. He was a man who took chances—that I did know about him.

It was a brief encounter in the late summer of 1969. I had been attending the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and was a few weeks away from returning to the Connecticut College for Women for my junior year. Until Bread Loaf, I had never been able to live, breathe, talk about writing 24/7, and as the conference drew to a close, I started having withdrawal pains.

And so on my last afternoon on the mountain, I came down to Middlebury’s Admissions Office. It was a lazy summer day, and the only person around was a man who introduced himself as Fred Neuberger. He asked me what he could do for me, and then listened as I told him about my two weeks at the conference, about my love of writing, about how I wanted to transfer to Middlebury. I was 19 years old, smitten with Frost country.

What I did not tell Mr. Neuberger was that I had applied to Middlebury as a senior in high school; that I had not gotten in; that it was just as well because my strict, immigrant Latino papi would not allow his daughters to go to coed schools. I didn’t tell Mr. Neuberger these things because none of them mattered anymore. I had found fertile ground for my imagination, and I was not about to let mere facts get in the way of a dream.

Mr. Neuberger handed me an application. I had plenty of time: the deadline was four months away.

“No, no, no,” I explained.  I didn’t want to come to Middlebury a year from now; I wanted to come now.

“Young lady,” he said in that tough-guy, mock macho style of his. “Them’s the rules.”

I was close to tears; partly heartbroken, partly ashamed. Who did I think I was putting myself forward this way?  “Okay, then I’ll just move here. I’ll get a job. At least I’ll be close to Middlebury until I can come here.”

Mr. Neuberger sighed. “How soon can you get this application back to me?”

I bolted up from my chair, as if I was about to fill in the blanks right then and there.  “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” By now I was hopping up and down.

“I’m not making any promises,” he reminded me.

But he had already given me so much: he had listened. He had heard the sound of a young person connecting with her calling.

Until Bread Loaf, I hadn’t listened to it myself. Two weeks later my family was packing the car to take my older sister back to college. I had had a standoff with my papi and mami: I was not going back for my junior year. I wanted to go to Middlebury.

The phone rang. Fred Neuberger was on the line. “Young lady, do you still want to come to Middlebury?”

I screamed. Even my parents were impressed, which was why, when we finally did drive up to Vermont from Queens, and my father looked around at a campus crawling with boys, he let me stay. This school had recognized his daughter’s talent, and that meant a lot to a man who had put aside his own talents to fight a dictatorship.

When I returned to Middlebury 17 years later to teach, I would tell Mr. Neuberger this story at every occasion. Then I’d let loose with a renewed sally of thank-yous. After the fifth time, he’d just sigh and shake his head.  Enough with the thank-yous.

Not quite. Mr. Neuberger, thank you, one last time.


Food For Thought

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Food. It’s not just what’s for dinner (that is, if you’re one of the planet’s lucky ones)—it’s also a powerful learning tool.  At an October 14 gathering during Fall Family Weekend, a panel of students, faculty, and parents in the food field discussed with a large audience how a proposed new food studies minor could enrich the liberal arts at Middlebury.

Moderator Pier LaFarge ’10.5, now a Washington D.C.-based climate analyst, asked those filling the Orchard Room at the Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest to consider how food creates connections. “It connects the problems of growing population and increasing pressure on resources; it also connects people with each other and with their landscape,” he said. LaFarge noted how Middlebury’s agrarian location and its commitment to projects such as local food procurement and the student-run organic farm made the study of food a natural fit. The panelists then amply illustrated his point.

Professor Helen J. Young, one of the faculty members shepherding the establishment of the new minor, emphasized that students had initiated and driven this interdisciplinary idea. Young, a botanist on the biology faculty, added that food-related course offerings could span anthropology, public policy, economics, biochemistry, literature, “and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” She further explained that the minor would comprise five courses, among which an internship or research project would be essential.

English professor Daniel Brayton gave a sampling of food references in literary works, noting their subtle ability to denote social class. As a lifelong sailor, Brayton sees particular potential in teaching food studies through what he termed “greater Midd”—Middlebury’s additional sites, including its graduate school, the Monterey Institute for International Studies, located at one of the world’s great ocean ecosystems.

Two students spoke from personal experience about food’s potential to teach. Kate Strangfeld ’12 took inspiration from a J-term class on food justice in Vermont to help found Crossroads Café, a student-run restaurant in the former McCullough Juice Bar. “It’s been the biggest learning experience ever,” Strangfeld said. “I’ve seen how restaurants can affect health, culture, and the economy.” As for the value of running a restaurant while holding down a heavy liberal arts workload, she said, “I’m so happy I didn’t go to a big school with a nutrition major. Here I see food’s many impacts.”

For Janet Rodrigues ’12, helping build an organic garden at a South Bronx middle school showed how food can nourish children and their communities in the face of social inequalities. In planting and harvesting she, her three Middlebury classmates, and the school’s students and teachers had to handle issues such as soil quality and invading rats from an adjoining business.

“I never thought I’d be speaking on this kind of panel,” she said, commenting on food’s power to take someone in a new direction. Rodrigues and friends helped kids grow fresh vegetables they otherwise wouldn’t have had while offering them new ways to learn about plants and insects. It was also important, she noted, to reach kids through foods they enjoyed, that their families could afford, and that resonated with their cultures.

The two parent panelists drew from their own careers to offer insights on what kind of education is relevant in the business of food. Chris Granstrom ’74 (P’07, ’13) and his family turned from growing apples and strawberries to helping pioneer Vermont’s wine industry. Their Lincoln Peak Vineyard, just up Route 7 from Middlebury, has established an enviable reputation for fine wines via new, hardy grape cultivars. While Granstrom credited success in farming to a personal curriculum that includes “some construction, some wiring and plumbing, business planning and marketing,” he credited the liberal arts with being fertile ground for food careers. “A lot of the new, dynamic food businesses, farms or otherwise, are being started by liberal arts grads,” he said, adding that a study program should stay abreast of food-related issues and recognize positive case studies.

Echoing the fit between the liberal arts and food and agriculture enterprises, Ted Andrews (P’13) credited his formal education with bestowing an essential farming tool: “I learned how to learn,” he said. Andrews is the CEO of HerbCo, an organic herb farm in Duvall, Washington that will produce $50 million in sales this year. Throughout its growth, the company has continually innovated to maintain the safety and wholesomeness of its crops—part of the learning curve Andrews has mastered.

Granstrom and Andrews’s participation on the panel was part of Middlebury’s new “Parenting the Earth” series, initiated by the Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest. According to Dean of Environmental Affairs Nan Jenks-Jay, “Middlebury parents working in environmental and sustainability fields are invited to campus to share their knowledge and networks with students.  Some of these connections have even generated internship opportunities.”

Based on the questions and comments that followed the panelists’ comments, it was clear that these two farmers were not the only parents in The Orchard convinced that food studies merited a place in the liberal arts. As a fitting final course to the discussion, everyone moved into the lobby for a lovely spread of local food.

Please note: While the food studies minor is still in development, it will be essential for each student to undertake an internship. Anyone who might be able to provide a Middlebury student with such an opportunity should contact Lisa Gates, Director, Center for Education in Action at lgates@middlebury.edu.

Stay tuned to MiddMag for more Fall Family Weekend coverage, including links to the President’s address to parents, as well as audio and video coverage of panels and discussions.


The Envelope Please…

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Aw shucks. Middlebury Magazine has just learned that we’ve been honored with awards for design, editorial, and general excellence by the fine (and may we say wise) judges in the 2011 Circle of Excellence Awards, which is sponsored by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education.

Our winning entries:

College and University General Interest Magazines: 30,000 to 74,999 circ. (40 entries)
Bronze, Middlebury Magazine, Winter 2010 and Fall 2010 issues

Excellence in Design: Illustrations (28 entries)
Silver,
“Long Live the Great White Yak,” illustration by Emiliano Ponzi
Silver, “Brain vs. Nature,” illustration by Heads of State

Excellence in Design: Editorial Design (65 entries)
Silver, “Can the Louisiana Coast Be Saved?” art direction by Pamela Fogg, design by Carey Bass ’99

Best Articles of the Year: Higher Education (107 entries)
Silver, “Hollowed Ground,” by Sierra Crane-Murdoch ’10



In Other Words

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

On the classroom screen, TV journalist David Frost introduces guest Julian Assange and asks the beleaguered Wikileaks cofounder about extradition threats, leak sources, and conflicts between governments and journalists.

The 16 students scribbling notes aren’t preparing to analyze issues of free speech and national security. Instead, each is figuring how to interpret this conversation to a speaker of a target language. Within the classroom are native speakers of French, Russian, and Bengali, and the American students have brought their advanced skills in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish. This is “Introduction to Translation Studies” and it isn’t just the overall J-term Gestalt that lends it a different feel.

For one, this is the first Middlebury undergrad class to focus on translation and interpretation (T&I) theory and practice instead of the workings of a particular language. (The primary difference between translation and interpretation? Text versus speech.) It’s also part of a recently launched minor in linguistics with expansion potential via collaboration with the Monterey Institute for International Studies (MIIS). The teacher, a seasoned professional translator and interpreter, Karin Hanta, is more familiar to the Middlebury campus as director of Chellis House, the home of many women’s and gender studies activities. A native of Austria, Hanta speaks five languages, has lived and worked on three continents, is a doctoral candidate in translation studies, has translated several books on topics such as Holocaust biography and German philosophy, and has written a dozen travel books for major German publishing houses to boot.

Questions arise as each student paraphrases Frost’s and Assange’s comments in English and then translates them: “I’m not sure whether Arabic would use ‘summit’ for a meeting,” says one. “OK, try and talk your way around it; could you use ‘conference’? ” prompts Hanta. “I don’t know the German for ‘extradition,’” says another. “Auslieferung,” Hanta offers. Each student evaluates his or her own progress with the translation; Hanta can fill in vocabulary for German, French, Portuguese, and Spanish, and fellow students of Chinese and Arabic also offer feedback. It’s not a language class, however, so the point is the process.

Hanta wanted to interest students in translation studies through a balance of practical issues, such as copyright and remuneration, and relevant scholarship. The view of the translator’s role has shifted since her own fascination with T&I began years ago. “Scholars often held that the translator should be invisible, subservient to the source text,” she notes. “Newer theories ‘dethrone’ the source and ask, ‘What’s the target text supposed to accomplish?’”

When those “texts” are advertising copy, the translator is expected to marshal marketing and cultural ken that will encourage business in the target country. Discussion of this growing field, “localization management,” gave Hanta one of several opportunities to bring MIIS experts into the class via Skype and videoconference. MIIS alumni are active in this area, translating for Apple and Microsoft, among others, making sure that a software icon makes sense in Russian and a technology term strikes the right note in Portuguese.

“Monterey’s a real gem, one of the best institutions at which to train for this work,” says Hanta, noting that career opportunities are burgeoning. It’s a point not lost on her students, several of whom entered the class considering T&I careers, and now feel they know where to go for personal advice and further training. And they’ve got a head start on the skills they’ll need. As Hanta says at the end of the Frost-Assange exercise, “What you’ve just done took me a couple of years of training.”


The World According to Irving

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Not many things will distract the more diligent Middlebury students from their midterm exams, but thankfully an internationally famous author is one of them.

When John Irving stepped up to meet the crowd in Mead Chapel this past Wednesday evening, his good humor, casual plaid-shirted presence and magnetic narrative style made all else slip away for a good part of the following hour. A core audience of students, as well as other campus and community members, enjoyed a mix of personal musings, historical perspective and even a little political rallying along with the highly engaging reading from the author’s current book in progress.

Though he didn’t realize it, Irving was pleased to be reminded during the welcoming comments by Chellis House director Karin Hanta that this is National Coming Out Month, a notable celebration given the recent media focus on bullying and homophobia among young people. The reading, co-sponsored by the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, the Creative Writing Program, the Department of English and American Literatures, Wonnacott Commons, and the Office of the Dean of the College, dovetailed meaningfully with some of the current issues on people’s minds. Irving often interlaces themes of sexuality and prejudice throughout his novels, and spoke passionately about the fundamental right for people to be accepted, tolerated and welcomed for who they are, no matter what the differences among us may be.

Irving’s writing—he has published 12 novels with his 13th underway—has always embraced the normality of difference. As example, he recalled for the Mead audience characters such a Frank Berry from Hotel New Hampshire and John Wheelwright from A Prayer for Owen Meany, among many others who have questioned or confronted their sexuality. His latest narrator is a bisexual man looking back on his formative childhood and sexual awakening via a local librarian, Miss Frost, who is later revealed to be transgender. The unfinished novel’s working title, In One Person is a reference to Shakespeare’s “Richard II,” when in Act V, Scene V, the protagonist says, “Thus play I in one person many people/And none contented.”

With a voice both breathy and expressive yet clipped and direct, Irving brought these new characters to life—the unguarded boyishness of young Billy, the crisp aloofness of the aptly named woman. The issues at hand were deeply serious; the writing—and Irving’s delivery—was unabashedly humorous. When asked later in the Q&A about his habit of blending humor and tragedy, Irving said, “You can’t choose to be funny or not—you either are or you’re not. But the downside is that you also can’t control when it comes out. When you know something really bad is going to happen—and I always do because I am a methodical planner of my plots—sometimes you just can’t help but make a little joke of it.”

Speaking of his methodical plotting, Irving was straightforward and clear about his writing style as a process, almost to the point of being a science. “I always write the ending first,” he explained. “I need to know where I’m going, which probably hearkens back to my early and ongoing influence by such character- and plot-driven writers as Dickens and Hardy. Now that’s not to say that the ending I write can’t change,” he added with a telltale grin. “But it hasn’t yet in 12 novels, so don’t hold your breath.” In fact, he even began his excerpt from In One Person by reading the last line of the chapter first—“So you’ll know when it’s over,” he deadpanned. But in doing so, in all seriousness, he clearly wanted the audience to know—and feel the process of knowing—exactly where we were going.

Irving was first published in 1968, with Setting Free the Bears. Though his career began slowly, he received immediate worldwide attention in 1980 with The World According to Garp. He has won the National Book Award, an O. Henry Award and an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Cider House Rules. He’s no stranger to success, and yet he presented himself that evening in Mead as just another writer diligently—and daily—honing his craft.

After his reading, he took questions from the audience. Though he was fond of beginning with a deceivingly short answer—“yes,” “no,” “both”—there was no stopping the author on a roll of elaboration. When a question arose regarding his experience with control issues on the movie adaptations of his books, Irving took a wide tangential turn to politics and in the process expressed his support for Vermont Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Shumlin, adding that “if you care about people who care about respecting sexual differences, then don’t vote for Brian Dubie.” Not minding at all that he seemed to have wavered off topic, the crowd responded with a healthy round of applause. And, to his credit, Irving adroitly managed to bring the whole thing back around and satisfy the questioner by saying, “Basically, it’s a two-way street: I respect you, you respect me, and together we can collaborate on something really great.”

Following questions, and nearly 90 minutes after his introduction, Irving enthusiastically moved toward the front of Mead to sign books for a growing line of fans. Seated with pen in hand for nearly 30 minutes, John Irving carefully took each offering, whether a crisp new book just purchased or a tattered paperback from years ago, and signed them all with characteristic style and aplomb.