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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.”

And Then There Was Football

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Middlebury-Vintage-Football-v2It’s not all in the history books, but 1936 was a year to remember. Germany occupied the Rhineland. Italy annexed Ethiopia. The Rome-Berlin Axis was proclaimed, and in Schenectady, New York, in ideal weather conditions, a Middlebury football team, in new Yale blue whipcord pants and navy blue jerseys, beat Union, 7 to 0. Captain Bill Craig blocked a fourth quarter kick, John Kirk, sophomore end, fell on it in the end zone, and George Anderson kicked the extra point. On the Middlebury sideline, Coach Ben Beck suppressed signs of satisfaction, while across the field, Union assistant coach Duke Nelson struggled with mixed emotions.

Leon Trotsky was exiled to Mexico. The Pulitzer Prize in drama was won by Robert L. Sherwood for Idiot’s Delight; in fiction for something titled Honey in the Horn. In the Berlin Olympics, Jesse Owens won four gold medals. In Waterville, Maine, early in the first quarter, Bud Seixas broke through right tackle to block a kick on the Colby 20-yard line and carry it in. Late in the third quarter, from his own 2-yard line, Craig punted 96 yards to the Colby 2, the ball traveling more than 70 yards in the air—this 21 years and one day before Sputnik—as Middlebury won, 6-0.

The Spanish Civil War began. Japan moved against China. Joe Louis was knocked out by Max Schmeling. In Middlebury’s home opener at Porter Field, Kirk caught a 40-yard pass from Bobby Boehm in the Coast Guard end zone, and John Van Doren capped a 60-yard drive with a delayed buck as the Panthers won, 12-0.

In Germany, work was started on the Siegfried Line. In the United States, Henry Luce started Life magazine. A fat fellow named Farouk became King of Egypt. The New York Yankees beat the New York Giants in the World Series, four games to two, and in Troy, New York, Kirk grabbed a 10-yard pass from Johnny Chalmers in the RPI end zone in the third period, and late in the last quarter scored again, intercepting an Engineer pass on the RPI 10-yard line as Middlebury won, 13-0.

In England, George V died, to be succeeded by his son, Edward VIII, who would soon trade a kingdom for the woman he loved and be replaced as monarch by his brother, George VI. Japan and Germany signed an anti-Commintern Pact. At Northfield, Vermont, Middlebury—not only undefeated and untied, but also unscored on—finally gave up points, 6 of them to Norwich following a fumble. Paul Guarnaccia and Boehm scored for the Panthers as they won, 13-6.

 In Germany, Hitler got 99 percent of the vote. In the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, confounding the Literary Digest pollsters, and helping to fold that magazine, won re-election by the largest popular victory ever. Of the two states to go for Alfred M. Landon, James A. Farley said: “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.”

At Porter Field, Middlebury faced its toughest opponent in its sixth, and make-or-break, game of the season. St. Lawrence had lost, 26 to 6, to Colgate, one of the best of the big teams of the East, but it had rolled over Wagner, 82-0, and at halftime, it led the Panthers, 8 to 0. In the third quarter, a Chalmers to Craig pass put the ball at the 1-yard line, from where Guarnaccia took it in. After an exchange, a holding penalty again put the ball on the St. Lawrence 1, and Chalmers lofted a pass to Kirk in the end zone. Another Chalmers pass to Craig made it Middlebury 19, St. Lawrence 8.

In France, Dr. Alexis Carrel, assisted by Charles Lindbergh, developed a perfusion pump, or artificial heart. In the United States, Margaret Mitchell published a heart-throbber titled Gone With the Wind. Maxim Gorki died. So did Rudyard Kipling and G. K. Chesteron. In the mud at Porter Field, Guarnaccia scored two touchdowns; Connie Philipson and Craig scored one each as Middlebury beat Ithaca, 27 to 7.

Boulder Dam, to be renamed Hoover, was completed. Eugene O’Neill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Americans were listening to, and sometimes dancing to, “Night and Day,” “Pennies from Heaven,” “Blue Moon,” “Heartaches,” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”—which, as the Surgeon General will point out, is the least of the problems.

 At Porter Field, on November 14, after a scoreless first period and with a minute left in the first half, Boehm faded back to his own 28-yard line and threw one up for grabs. Kirk grabbed it out of the hands of three University of Vermont backs on the UVM 32-yard line and ran it in from there. At halftime, the visiting stands emptied onto the cinder track to break up the freshman “P-rade.” In the third quarter, Boehm, who did most of the carrying, scored through right guard from 27 yards out, and in the final period Chalmers, who had been returning punts like Albie Booth, ran through right tackle from the 7 to make the final score 20 to 0.

Larry Kelley, the Yale end, won the Heisman Trophy. The Green Bay Packers beat the Boston Redskins, who were on their way to Washington, D.C, 21 to 6, for the National Football League Championship. Jock Sutherland’s Pittsburgh Panthers would beat the Washington Huskies, 21 to 0, in the Rose Bowl on the first day of the new year, but who cared?

Outscoring opponents 117 to 21 in eight games, a Middlebury football team had gone undefeated for the first time. Kirk was the highest scoring end in the East and received All-American recognition from the Christy Walsh newspaper syndicate. Kirk, Jack Cridland, Randy Hoffmann, Seixas, Craig, Chalmers, Boehm, and Guarnaccia made the Campus All-State team. Anderson, John Golembeske, and Swede Liljenstein made the second team.

Those who also served were Stretch Winslow, Red Williams, Tom Murray, Sherb Lovell, Len Riccio, Ken Kingsley, Ray Stiles, Warren Rohrer, John Lonergan, Ron Meserve, Ken MacLeod, Frank Casey, and George Farrell. Never before had the Old Chapel bell rung as often, as long, or as loudly—not even when Middlebury had tied Harvard, 6 to 6, 13 years before.

W. C. Heinz ’37 wrote “And Then There Was Football” on the occasion of his class’s 50th reunion in 1987. It is printed here with permission from his daughter Gayl Heinz. Widely considered to be one of the greatest American sports journalists, Heinz died in 2008 at the age of 93. 

Looking for America

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Ryan Kim ’14 wanted to discover what it means to be an American.

So last summer, the California native hit the rails, traveling 15,348 miles during the course of seven weeks. Not surprisingly, this exploration of country also became an exploration of self.


New Orleans, Louisiana
My journey began in the Crescent City, where, two days into my trip, I began to feel as if I were in a foreign country. I was dazzled by the strangeness, the novelty of everything: brightly painted colonial French houses, jazz horns, dancing all night, bikini-clad greeters in the doorways of Bourbon Street cabarets, Mardi Gras beads and Spanish moss hanging from the trees, the steam of hot, powdered French beignets. On this second day, I took an eight-mile trek north of New Orleans into the city of Metairie in the thick midday humidity of the Southern summer. Seeking respite from the oppressive heat, I decided to stop at an unfamiliar supermarket called Dorignac’s.

Inside, I wandered around admiring some of the store’s unique features, like its aisles, which I learned were spaced 30 percent wider than the industry standard to accommodate elderly regulars. When I’d indulged my supermarket fascination and stopped sweating so profusely, I asked a passing employee for directions before leaving. I must not have enunciated clearly or spoken loudly enough, because he looked at me quizzically without response. But rather than recognize one of these obvious causes for his confused expression, I immediately leaned on my instinctual habit of noticing the exotic, and I asked him if he spoke English. Without waiting for his answer, I walked away quickly, cheeks still flushed, but now from embarrassment, leaving him both confused and affronted.

Yazoo City, Mississippi
In Yazoo City, Southern hospitality was in full effect. I met a local family, the Adamses, and they spent an entire Saturday touring me through their hometown.

We started at 9 am with a family breakfast of bacon, eggs, and buttery biscuits for a grand party of nine. Then we covered what seemed like every inch of town, including the federal prison, a catfish farm, lumberyards, neighborhoods of dingy and destitute government-built housing, and wide boulevards of fancy homes with well-kept lawns and gardens. They showed me devastation wrought by a recent tornado. And we concluded the tour by observing monster-truck mud races.

That night I had dinner with three of my guides, and I felt comfortable enough to bring up the subject of regional accents. “I consider you all to speak with a Southern accent,” I said. “What kind of accent would you say I speak with?”

D’Ann, one of my hosts, stunned me: “We speak with su-thern draw-ul, but you, you don’t have an accent. You speak like an educay-ted person.” D’Ann and her sister-in-law, Libby, are teachers, and the man who sat between them, Paul, is an accomplished businessman.
On the playground growing up, my friends and I used to ignorantly adopt Southern accents to caricaturize simplicity and stupidity. I’d never thought about how that was probably rooted in a stereotypical belief in the cultural superiority of the Northeast and the West.

Cadillac, Michigan
Hermann’s European Café and Hotel on the main street in downtown Cadillac is owned and operated by a world-renowned Austrian chef named Hermann Suhs. I’d walked into his establishment and proudly negotiated the nightly room fee down from $80 to $65 by taking Room 5, which had a broken air conditioner. I thought I’d simply open the window. Yet at 11:30 that evening, while I was brushing my teeth, I felt my room had become uncomfortably warm. I was dismayed to find a sign on the windowsill that read, “Do not open window.”

I disregarded the note and pulled up the shade, only to find another note taped to the glass, which read, “Seriously, do not open the window. The alarm will go off, and the police will have to come.”

Remembering that the hallway outside my room had been particularly cool, I decided to step out for a quick breather.  As I was standing there, in the upstairs hallway of the seven-room hotel, above the restaurant, I heard a quiet click behind me. I turned in horror to find myself locked out—wearing nothing but boxers, with my mouth full of toothpaste. I spit the foam out at the back door of the building, and then I began knocking on the doors of the other six rooms. Finally, I managed to rouse an elderly man, bleary-eyed and reasonably suspicious. He gave me a cup of water to rinse out my mouth and called Chef Hermann to come rescue me. I waited for 20 minutes, feeling hangdog in the hall, as Chef drove over from his house by the lake to come open my door. Grumpily, with his shoulders slumped by interrupted sleep, he let me into my room. “I told you not to take Room 5!”

Astoria, Oregon
While jogging along the tracks of the waterfront trolley in Astoria, Oregon, I came across a conveyer belt lifting thousands of small fish into an industrial building covered in grey sheet metal. I’d found Bornstein Seafood, one of the few fish canneries still operating in this historically maritime town. After I snapped a couple of photos and asked the workers lingering outside a few questions, the plant’s mechanical engineer, Rick, offered to give me a tour.

Inside this noisy metal box of a building, Rick steered me through a fantastically complicated maze of conveyer belts staffed by dozens and dozens of workers spread out along the assembly line. He explained every step of the process: sorting for deformities; removing the head, tail, and guts; packing in equally weighted boxes; conducting random inspections for waste efficiency and quality control; adding unique labeling dependent on destination; and following the procedures for refrigeration and shipping. Approximately 130 workers are paid about $10 an hour, working in 12-hour shifts to process 20­–25 tons of fish every hour.

In about 45 minutes, I received a crash course in the vertical structure of the cannery business, from the way fishermen use phosphorus or plane-spotting to locate schools of fish to the fact that most of the sardines they process (the world’s largest sardine) are shipped to Asia and Australia for consumption, since Americans don’t have an appetite for sardines this size. At the end of the tour, I asked to capture Rick with a photo—wire rimmed glasses, Steve Jobs turtleneck, long grey ponytail, and encyclopedic brain of all things fish and machinery.

Trinidad, Colorado
Though I’d taken the train into this attractive town with red brick-laid streets, I left Trinidad on a Greyhound bus to Denver, where I could switch to a train line that would take me to Iowa.

Interestingly, though perhaps more common than I’d realized, the bus met its passengers at a gas station that doubled as a bus stop, where the attendant inside printed tickets behind the counter. With nowhere else to be, I patiently stood outside, sweating, with my bags on an unshaded curb under a cloudless summer sky.

A few other passengers restlessly paced and grumbled, seeking reprieve from the afternoon’s dry, blazing heat. They made repeated inquiries as to the whereabouts of our ride, but their agitation did nothing to truncate the delay.

Amidst this simmering, the door to the station swung open, jingling with greeting bells. A teenager of maybe 17 strode out, wearing dark jeans and an overstuffed camping backpack, all as dirty as his blond hair. Unabashedly, although there was plenty of space around, he squatted just a few short feet away from me. I tried to mind my own business, watching cars pass on the interstate.

He looked up at me over his left shoulder and asked, almost rhetorically, “Waitin’ on the bus?”


“Awesome.” With little pause, “Hot dog?”  He eagerly offered one of the steaming, plastic-wrapped purchases he cradled in each hand.

Fort Madison, Iowa
During a casual ramble through town on my first day, I found Fort Madison’s historical society museum, housed in the former train depot, wedged between a busy road and two heavily used train tracks. There was an old man in front wearing a red cap and denim overalls stretched over his T-shirt and enormous belly, watering a small garden of shrubs and flowers. His name was Andy Andrews.

When he saw me, he dropped his hose and invited me inside to guide me through the small exhibit that documented his town’s history, all the while incessantly chewing an unlit cigar that wobbled precariously on his lower lip.

Over the next couple of days, I ran into Andy a number of times—and some of his fellow retirees, who also volunteer to keep the museum open. Andy made a conscientious effort to help me with my principal traveling objective, to familiarize myself with each town to the greatest extent possible, by introducing me to residents and inviting me to community events. I only had three days in Fort Madison, but friendships form fast in small towns and kind men are easy to like.

At the end of my stay, I went back to the museum to say goodbye and to return a bike I’d borrowed. Andy looked at me wistfully and said,

“Maybe if you ever come back, I’ll still be alive.”

Malvern, Arkansas
I walked into the Hot Spring County Building looking for someone who could tell me about Malvern’s economic history. I was in the right place. County Judge Bill Scrimshire (“Call me Judge Bill”) and his pals were seated around the foyer of his office shooting the breeze about times present and past. They had me take a seat, offered me some coffee, and continued meandering their way through the last half-century, letting me interject with intermittent questions. I had a wonderful time listening as they remembered, misremembered, recounted, clarified, and verified facts and anecdotes against each other’s memories. I stayed on until the workday ended and the men stood up to go home.

The next day was my last in town. I swung back by Judge Bill’s office for yet another “farewell forever.” After he and I posed for a photo, his honor reached into his pocket and pulled out a fistful of change, which he dropped into my hand.

“You must be hungry as a traveling student.  Get yourself some lunch!  Here, is that enough?”

He turned around and marched into his office. I followed him in and found him digging through unruly piles of paper. He located his wallet, pulled out a five-dollar bill, and pushed it into my hand.

Wells, Maine
A fleet of trolleys runs a continuous circuit through town, offering cheap rides to the tens of thousands of visitors who flood Wells every summer. After hopping off one of these trolleys to get some saltwater taffy at a beachside confectionary, I boarded another one on the other side of the parking lot. Not knowing that this wasn’t an official stop, I hopped up the stairs and was immediately berated by the driver. Though she shouted at me quite aggressively, she took no action to kick me off. I quickly sat down, but then found myself on the first bench directly behind her, in clear view of her rearview mirror in the otherwise empty car.

At this point, I felt pretty irritable myself, feeling unnecessarily reprimanded for a harmless and honest mistake. I stewed for a minute, wondering if I should make a retributive, sarcastic remark and return the negativity she’d given me. After all, I was 20, tired, and lonely after seven weeks on the train, and someone had to get it! I paused for a minute longer, just long enough to notice the warm breeze washing through the windowless cabin. I extended the pause and wordlessly acknowledged that most disagreements are rooted in misunderstanding.

I apologized. Perhaps the silence had cooled her down, as well. Unsolicited, she started to tell me about the town, and for several minutes we carried on a great conversation about Wells, about my travels, about her job.

When I disembarked, she didn’t punch my ride card, giving me the lift for free.

Somewhere in the middle of America
I was aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder on a 46-hour journey from Chicago to Portland, Oregon, seated at a table in the lounge car to kill time watching cornfields.

A chubby preteen entered through the sliding doors ahead of me, clutching a deck of cards. I realized, as he did, that all the tables were full, so I invited him to join me at mine. We introduced ourselves, then I taught this 12-year-old Kentuckian named Cameron how to play War.

We flipped cards mindlessly, pushing them back and forth across the table, chitchatting. Cameron uncorked with little prompting, telling me a series of unconnected and delightfully earnest anecdotes.

I listened, amused and content, as he opined about anything that came to mind, from his disgust for Kentucky Fried Chicken to his distaste towards reading. “I’d rather eat a dog crap than read a . . . ” He couldn’t finish. But then, Cameron talked about his love for writing: “When we write at school, I just write . . . I just write paragraphs.”

It was peaceful; it was late afternoon, and we were chug-chugging our way across southern Wisconsin. Suddenly, Cameron stopped. He slowly cocked his head and stared at me with a suspicious squint.

For a moment, neither he nor I said anything. Then he asked, “So . . . do you wake up every day at six in the morning and go running or something?”

I laughed.

Though I’d felt relaxed throughout our conversation, Cameron had still seen me for who I was: a high-energy, intense person, the type who rose early each morning and “went running or something.” He revealed what I’d find all summer. I thought I was out studying strangers, when in fact I, too, was being dissected, inspected. I was meeting other Americans; they, too, were meeting me. And as they met me, I met me. It was easy to feel like a wallflower in unfamiliar moments, when I was watching the world operate as if I weren’t there.

But my presence was actually an intrinsic part of the novelty; I discovered myself as I discovered America. A foreign man in his native land.

Ryan Kim blogged extensively about his travels at ryankim.blog.com. This story arose from a spring-term independent writing course with Jay Parini.

The Score

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

KafumbeFor an ethnomusicologist, music without context just doesn’t sing.

The adungu is a bow-shaped harp that accompanies epic and lyrical songs. The woods, skins, and fibers that make its body are now far from Uganda where they were cut and cured. The strings are nylon, though, readily available in Vermont. It is often tuned to the diatonic scale, which is rare in Ugandan music but was standard for music of the British and other Western colonizers. A traditional instrument like the adungu is created in tandem with its purpose; this adungu’s purpose is to last, and to teach, and to sing the students who play it into another culture.

Damascus Kafumbe is the oldest child of schoolteachers. Except for a period when armed conflict forced his family to flee to the bush, he grew up in the village of Kagoma, outside Kampala, Uganda’s capital. Through the day, music streamed from two neighboring royal enclosures of the Kingdom of Buganda, accompanying royals and the king in their duties. As a young child, Kafumbe stole time from his chores to linger by the reed walls of those royal enclosures, to watch and listen. He started to make instruments from papaya leaves and stems, tin cans, and plastic bags. He took so naturally to “real” instruments that while still in elementary school, he represented his country in the 1994 World Festival of Children’s Theatre and was invited to play in a leading Ugandan troupe.

Kafumbe recalls, “One of my teachers told me, ‘an instrument is not just something you strike to make a sound. It is kin, like a brother or sister, a wife or husband, and you must care for it.’” From Baganda master musicians, Kafumbe learned to craft lyres and fiddles and drums and harps, which calls on spirit and intention as much as skill. He journeyed to learn other Africans’ songs and dances. He recorded his own playing and and that of others. He began a scholar’s path at Makerere University in Uganda and did his graduate studies at Florida State University, where for seven years he directed an African music ensemble. “I wanted to be an ambassador for my culture,” he says.

“Ethnomusicology is about understanding the role of making and being music in a society,” explains Greg Vitercik, head of Middlebury’s music department. “Damascus embodies both.”

The “why” is more important than the “how,” Kafumbe tells his students. Why do humans make music? Why do these people make this music now? In his courses, Kafumbe and his students ask these questions of cultures as diverse as the Irish and the Balinese and as deceptively distant as Congolese and Cuban. The students learn the facets an ethnomusicologist cuts into these questions to help illuminate a culture.

Kafumbe has also stirred student interest in performing by creating the semester-long African Music and Dance Ensemble, already known for rousing concerts before packed audiences. No audition is required, the class schedule is rigorous, and 90 percent of the performers have no prior instrumental experience.

The ensemble rolls out unfamiliar terrain: students sing in Ugandan languages, learn to play instruments they’ve never known, and learn to work in scales, timbres, and rhythms that dovetail and depend on each other. There are no scores—Kafumbe is the score. He is a quietly rigorous yet brotherly presence with a bottomless repertoire of illustrative stories and cultural details. He teaches the students to play as his elders taught him, through aural and oral instruction and a sense of joining in. The music he composes and arranges for the ensemble speaks in voices both modern and ancient, of celebrations, migrations, lessons from nature, struggles against power. By the end of the semester, his students hold and play their instruments and complete each other’s musical sentences like kin.

Kafumbe continues to plumb the meaning of his own people’s music. An upcoming book examines how the Kawuugulu royal drums of Buganda (and their singers and dancers) embody and influence the kingdom’s socio-political structures and processes. This time he’s inside the reeds of the royal enclosure, and his mother’s membership in the clan with hereditary rights over the royal drums grants him access to secrets any scholar would envy.

His students have begun traveling to Africa to experience for themselves how the people live with music. One young composer is expanding his musical vocabulary by living in Uganda with Kafumbe’s musician friends and with the madinda, ndara, and mbaire, which are wooden xylophones; a fledgling ethnomusicologist is headed for Middlebury’s School Abroad in Cameroon; a psychology major will travel to Uganda with Kafumbe to explore how music salves the wartime traumas of children.

For all of Kafumbe’s students who have heard the life in music and the music in life, could anything be mute again?

Food for Thought

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

berriesIn The Omnivore’s Dilemma Michael Pollan refers to Lévi-Strauss’s concept of “food that’s good to think.” This idea, which helps Pollan frame his wide-ranging exploration of what people choose to eat, also speaks to the increasing emphasis on food and agriculture at Middlebury College. One factor here is, of course, that we are located in one of the most diverse and beautiful farming regions in New England. In addition, though, specific aspects of our curriculum and history bring the nationwide intIerest in topics such as local food and food justice into a particularly sharp focus.

One of these is the vigor of our interdisciplinary environmental studies major, the first in the world when it was established in 1965. Faculty and students seek to apply diverse disciplines when investigating both ecological challenges and principles of sustainability within dynamic systems. The topics of food and agriculture have become so central to environmental discourse, here and elsewhere, in part because they are equally pertinent to fields including chemistry, biology, public policy, economics, and literature.

The Middlebury College Organic Farm has been one delightful outgrowth of such a way of thinking. Cofounded 11 years ago by Jean Hamilton ’04 and Bennett Konesni ’04 when they were just starting out at the College, and with Jay Leshinsky serving as a wise mentor there during most of the intervening period, the farm has offered Middlebury students a site just far enough from the main campus to allow for reflection, as they weed and water, on the wholeness of their education. Classes in botany and dance have used the garden as their lab and studio, while seminars have often gathered there for discussions of nature writing and pastoral poetry.

Sophie Esser Calvi ’03, Middlebury’s new food and farm educator, was herself inspired by working on the Organic Farm as a Middlebury undergraduate. From such a vantage point, she sees a couple of even more recent initiatives—the FoodWorks summer internships and the commitment to hiring a faculty member in the area of food studies—as “the perfect marriage of agriculture and the liberal arts.”

FoodWorks is an ambitious program of paid internships for students interested in local food and sustainable development. It is worth noting that it was launched as a pilot program last year not in rural Vermont, but in a mid-sized city: Louisville, Kentucky. There, a cohort of students became immersed in an evolving urban food ecosystem, working with small farms,  food distributors, policymakers, and city restaurants; they became educated, while also educating others.

This summer, FoodWorks is again in full swing in Louisville, while also expanding to include a second site in Vermont. It was my privilege to speak to the 16 students here in New England and, via videolink, to the 10 interns in Kentucky when they convened at the beginning of June; I will do so again when they wrap up in early August.  I found these students to be an effervescent and highly motivated group. The program gains further energy from the fact that their individual projects in farming, local and statewide policy initiatives, distribution, and marketing are complemented by a carefully designed sequence of shared readings, field-trips, and speakers that incorporate their activities on the ground (and in the soil) into an ongoing discussion reminiscent of their Middlebury classes. And by existing in both rural and urban areas, the program exposes interns to diverse systems, problems, and solutions.

Elsewhere, enterprising students are devising solutions of their own to other local problems, such as food insecurity. A cohort of seven juniors (Jack Cookson, Eduardo Danino-Beck, Elias Gilman, Chris Kennedy, Oliver Mayers, Nathan Weil, and Harry Zieve-Cohen) are launching a nonprofit that will seek to bring healthy, nutritious food at an affordable cost to Vermont families in need. Modeled after a Chicago program, Middlebury Foods has met its fund-raising goals through gifts and a grant from Middlebury’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship and plans to begin operations this summer.

Food studies, similarly, is a work in progress. Whatever the disciplinary background of the first faculty member in this area may turn out to be, he or she will be called upon to help create a curriculum that is at once rigorous, sophisticated, and flexible. But an equally important role for this new program will be remembering to celebrate the opportunity for working and studying under the sky and to hold a place within our educational community for what Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini calls “the pleasures of the table.”

John Elder taught at the College and at the Bread Loaf School of English for nearly 40 years. He now holds the title of College Professor Emeritus. A thoughtful and sensitive writer, his books include Reading the Mountains of Home, The Frog Run, and Pilgrimage to Vallombrosa. With his wife, Rita, and two adult sons, John taps a sugarbush each spring and sells the resulting maple syrup. 

The Art of Perfection

Categories: Midd Blogosphere


What does it take to succeed—on your own terms—in the bakery business?

If, on a chilly winter morning, you pass by the boutique bakery on Main Street in Vergennes, Vermont, peeking inside may prove difficult. The moisture from freshly baked bread and pastries causes thick shades of condensation to form on the door and the adjoining bay windows. On warm days during other seasons, the door may be left wide open, and customers sit outside in elegant chairs, framed by the attractive storefront. A small sign completes the view. “Vergennes Laundry” is written in thin, black lettering above a brief account of what is to be enjoyed inside: Wood-fired Bakery. Espresso Bar. Cheese Shop.

Vergennes Laundry was indeed once a Laundromat, and owners Julianne Jones ’07 and Didier Murat report that people still occasionally come through the door with laundry bags over their shoulders. This is perhaps emblematic of a transformation within Vergennes: the small city with a strong blue-collar legacy has seen a high rate of growth over the past decade. Neighbored by the popular Black Sheep Bistro, Vergennes Laundry has helped make Main Street a burgeoning hotspot for those in pursuit of gourmet food.

Inside the bakery, a series of large tables lines one side of the space before a backdrop of white, wooden paneling. A large painting of the seashore hangs above the farthest table, but the wall seems to camouflage its soft pastels, and it often goes unnoticed. It is one of the bakery’s two decorations. The other—the stuffed head of a caribou, mounted on the opposite wall—would seem ironic, gaudy even, if it didn’t provide such an alluring contrast to the rest of the all-white interior. Didier smiles proudly when I ask about it, but is quick to reassure me that neither he nor Julianne killed it.

As he moves between the counter and the rows of neatly organized shelves on the back wall, Didier appears composed, almost solemn. He and Julianne began remodeling the old Laundromat in 2010 and nearly all of the woodwork is his. Julianne studied architecture at Middlebury and was responsible for the bakery’s design.

“I like designing an experience for the customer,” she tells me one evening after closing. “I think a lot of people don’t design that experience, they just fill a mold and that’s not at all interesting to me.” And it’s true; every detail seems to make the experience of Vergennes Laundry impressionably unique. The daily specials are written on a long roll of butcher paper that hangs behind the register.
The tarts, croissants, and other delicacies on display are labeled and priced on notecards in typewriter font.

Wyatt Orme talks to Julianne Jones about opening Vergennes Laundry

The bakery has gotten its fair share of good press, having been covered, among others, by the New York Times Style Magazine’s food blog, Edible Selby, which gave the bakery a glowing review. The food, like its aesthetic, is exhaustively perfected. All the tarts are made to order, using ingredients from nearby farms: cheeses from Twig Farm in West Cornwall, fresh vegetables and herbs from Bella Farm in Monkton. Croissants, canelés, pain aux raisins, and a host of other handmade pastries are available throughout the day, along with the bakery’s bread, a pure wild-yeast levain (French sourdough) made from grains freshly milled onsite. Coffee from Intelligentsia, the award-winning Chicago roaster, is brewed and Sixpoint beer (from Brooklyn) and kombucha are available on tap.

When she works, Julianne ties her wavy blonde hair in a loose bun that bounces lightly as she moves from the oven to her worktables and back. Her gaze is steady, and her arms are toned from what amount to inordinately long days of physical work. She proofs and bakes, pulling bread out of the oven with the oar-like wooden peels from 3:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night, six days a week. These hours seem ludicrous to most and even she admits them to be draining at first. The regimented schedule of quiet, physical work, however, is what she claims to feel most drawn to in baking.

“I love doing the same thing every day and doing it better and seeing results,” she says. “The bread starts right when I get here, and that’s the last thing before we leave.” Despite this control she has over her day-to-day routine, she won’t deny the drawbacks of regularly being at the bakery for over a hundred hours a week. “I’d like to go outside more,” she says and then offers, “I get the newspaper,” with a resigned smile.

Though she claims not to have been “too into food” while at Middlebury, Julianne showed glimpses of her potential throughout her undergraduate years. She cooked at Dolci, the student-run restaurant on campus, and served as the manager from her sophomore year on. It wasn’t until the summer after graduation, though, that she tried her hand at selling pastries and tarts at the Middlebury Farmer’s Market. It was something of a coincidence that she began baking bread in the first place. At one market, Julianne was asked to make desserts for a party in Westford, Vermont, hosted at the house of Gérard Rubaud, who is, as Julianne puts it, “sort of a legendary Vermont-French baker.” Rubaud built his illustrious Breads of Tradition Bakery right next to his picturesque mountain home, where he bakes a levain loaf that is sold, without advertisement, to frenzied buyers at select co-ops and grocery stores in the area.

When she saw Rubaud’s operation for the first time at the party, Julianne claims to have said to herself, “I want to move here.” So she did, and worked as an apprentice to Rubaud for several months. It was there that she baked her first loaf of bread, at the age of 22. Now, at 27, she thinks back on her training and remembers being most influenced by the simple artistry of Rubaud’s one kind of bread.

“I like making people happy with one thing,” Julianne says, returning to her chair after checking on the loaves in the oven. She left Westford with a new-found determination and returned to Didier in Vergennes to begin working on a business plan.

Wyatt Orme ’13 was a Middlebury fellow in narrative journalism in 2012.