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Pursuits: Vision Quest

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

CurryDan Curry ’68 can realize anything—and by realize, I mean make, build, render into being. He can turn shampoo bottles into spaceships. He can cajole friends into modeling for a recreation of the Cherry Valley Massacre of November 11, 1778 (a bicentennial commission for a museum in Massachusetts). He can paint whole universes on a single canvas if the job calls for it—or a Christmas tableau, with chimney smoke and blinking lights, for a holiday episode of Laverne and Shirley.

When Curry—a veteran visual effects supervisor/producer with seven Emmys (out of 15 nominations) on his shelf and an arm belonging to Star Trek’s Borg Queen in his workshop at his home in Studio City, California—enrolled at Middlebury nearly half a century ago, he had “no idea” what he was going to do professionally. “There was a movie theater on our corner growing up, and I began drawing storyboards for imaginary movies before I knew what storyboards were,” says the Bellerose, New York, native. “When I played with toy soldiers, I wasn’t playing war—I was playing making movies about war.” When he saw The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad in 1958, “there was a little display in the lobby about how Ray Harryhausen did the effects, and I said, ‘I think I can do that.’”

Coming to Middlebury on scholarship, from a high school more accustomed to dealing with parole officers than admissions officers, “I didn’t realize how incredibly good it was,” Curry says. Chandler Potter, who taught production design for theater, was an important influence; and a Midd production of A Streetcar Named Desire “opened my eyes for what live theater can be—the settings were very abstract, but they were so right on for the tone of Tennessee Williams’s play.”

After Curry graduated with a fine arts major and a theater minor in 1968, he joined the Peace Corps. He built little farms and bridges on the banks of the Mekong, “which actually had a positive impact on people’s lives,” and designed a nearby marketplace. He experienced Thai village culture just as it had existed, unchanged for centuries, “before The Flintstones was dubbed into Thai,” he says.
Fast-forward a decade or so to graduate school at Humboldt State University, where Curry pursued an MFA in film and theater. A one-man show of his paintings caught the eye of visiting lecturer Marcia Lucas (an Oscar winner for editing then-husband George’s Star Wars). She referred Curry to Universal Studios, which was looking for artists who could do photo-realistic work in oils—“because in those days there were no computers”—so he moved to Los Angeles, joined the Illustrators and Matte Artists Union, and went to work on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Battlestar Galactica.

Jobs in visual effects and main title design occupied much of the 1980s, until Curry got a call from Paramount asking him to supervise visual effects for Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1989. “Who wouldn’t?” he says. Curry worked on the Star Trek franchise for the next 18 years (through Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise), eventually directing second-unit shoots and many fight sequences as well.

Then he spent a single year on Moonlight for CBS, four years on Chuck for NBC, and wrote a white paper for NASA as a member of its vision team. His latest project is a new series starring Gillian Anderson and Dermot Mulroney called Crisis, which is expected to premiere on NBC sometime after the Winter Olympics.

“Whether it’s designing a dam, or creating an oil painting, or figuring out shots for a movie, I look at it all as an extension of the same thing,” Curry says. “It’s a reaction to the phenomenon of life. And sometimes there’s greater truth in fiction than there is in reality. We are all at the center of our own imaginary universe.”

Dick Anderson is a writer in Los Angeles. He learned all about special effects through the pages of  Starlog magazine before there was an Internet.

Coop Dreams

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

chickensI grew up a Southern city boy.

But when I had my own two boys, I began to feel that the city was no place for small children. What to do with them? There were museums, but three-year-old boys did not care too much for Southern vernacular art. It was hotter than hell in the summer. And then there was the Atlanta traffic, which, with a three-year-old and his nine-month-old brother in car seats, was truly my idea of hell on earth.

So we moved to Vermont, to New Haven, a few miles north of Middlebury—dairy country, rolling hills, dirt roads, mountains rising in the distance. Maybe it was the fact that an Atlanta neighbor had been held up at gunpoint around the block. Or maybe I held a buried ancestral memory, now rising up, of a mythic, rural childhood. Of farms and tree forts and catching monarch caterpillars, of seeing the stars at night and eating fried dough at country fairs.

As an eager stay-at-home dad, I moved into high gear. Nearly every day, we visited the Elgin Spring Farm to pet the newborn calves; we collected arrowheads in cornfields and tracked wild turkeys. We gardened and planted flowers. We built dams in creeks and collected balsam sprigs from the woods in winter.

On a summer evening, we drove to the Addison County Fair in a 1979 Ford truck I had purchased for $700. With the windows rolled down and the smell of summer silage blowing through, a dad and his sons followed the siren call of fried dough.

But the greatest adventure was to come: chicken farming. I started us on a dozen chicks, purchased for $1.29 apiece from Paris Farm Supply. Housed in a cardboard box in the kitchen, the chickens were given names, JoJo and Sam, Striper and Ajax. A neighbor brought us an old coop—gray clapboard with a cedar-shingled roof—with his tractor. We insulated it and hung up a sign: Quarry Road Chicken Operation.

We entered our two prize chickens in the Addison County Fair. Our fledgling enterprise was rewarded with a pink participant ribbon, which we proudly hung next to the hens’ laying box.

They ranged freely and had a high time under neighbors’ bird feeders cleaning up the spillage. Every few years, we got new spring chickens to replace those that had stopped laying or had fallen ill. We moved to Ripton, and the chickens moved with us. We built a palatial coop with a standing-seam metal roof, and we continued to collect our eggs.

But my boys were growing up. The miracle of a brown, still-warm egg no longer held mystery. They were off, playing soccer, playing guitar, playing hockey, going to school.

The chickens became my job, which I carried out as steadfastly as ever, talking to them in the morning, kicking the ice out of their water bowls in winter, occasionally losing one to a fox, repairing the coop in spring. I kept the chicken dream alive.

And then came the weasel. In the night, through the smallest of openings, a crack in the door or a tear in the fence. On a hot July morning, I found one of the hens, beheaded and eviscerated, flies flitting on her dirty wings.

My boys were no longer here to see me defend our birds, but it didn’t matter. After dark, under a full moon rising over the Green Mountains, I carried our last two chickens up to the pond and set them adrift in our little fishing boat, safe from the weasel. There in the dark, they sat in the bow, as still as herons. The boat was anchored and swung lightly on the line, the moonlight reflecting on the surface of the pond among the black shadows of trees, with the frogs croaking and a lone bat hissing at the edge of the woods.

In the morning, as the sun rose, I heard a splashing. Our chickens were hungry and now, apparently, they were swimming ashore.
I went to say morning salutations. There, before the chicken coop door, were the rested survivors pecking at the dewy grass, water dripping off their beaks, feathers soaked up to their plump breasts, waiting for the man.

Yes, my boys had flown the coop, but Sam and JoJo were still coming home to roost.

Vignette: Onward and Upward

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Mahaney Center for the Arts finalIt is the day of the spring equinox. Maple sap is rising, and big fat flakes are falling on the copper roof of the Kevin P. Mahaney ’84 Center for the Arts. Inside, in one gallery of the art museum, there is an abundance of children—whether on the walls, as mostly winged cupids rendered in 19th-century France, or on the floor, as exceptionally attentive fourth- graders visiting from the Weybridge School and sitting before an 1851 seascape. The artist is Louis Gabriel Eugène Isabey, Parisian artist in the court of King Louis-Philippe.

Guided by the museum’s curator of education, Sandi Olivo, the children study and inventory the painting’s elements: numerous casks on a sandy beach; a pennant in a breeze; a blue jacket draped on a boat’s gunwale; clouds driving over land; and out at sea, a tiny sail tacking off a distant shore. Above the seascape, a Bourguereau oil with its Olympic bosoms and bottoms elicits a sideways glance or two.

Upstairs, another Weybridge School group studies a John Sloan crayon drawing, Dreaming, 1906. This gallery affords a balcony’s overhead view of the museum’s front entryway, an Assyrian panel, and, directly below one’s feet, the admissions desk, where an attendant greets newcomers and another scans a bank of security monitors.

“First,” says the fourth-grade teacher to the assembled children, “your job is to just look at the image.” The children regard John Sloan’s crayon lines, while an outsider squints down at the security monitors, stifling the urge to wave at oneself, an Observer observing an Observer, all the while being observed by another observer there at the admissions desk. Meanwhile, the teacher Socratically asks questions; hands shoot up, and she leads the children into discerning the difference between a painting and the Sloan crayon drawing.

Below, standing near the Assyrian alabaster relief, Winged Genie Pollinating the Date Palm, is security monitor Jonathan Blake; the stone relief is from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Kalhu, in present-day northern Iraq, and monitor Blake is from the Granite State of New Hampshire and an estimable photographer of art and news events.

The chatter of fourth-graders echoes around Blake, and he recalls his favorite children’s discussion of the art at Middlebury as a class studied the Assyrian genie’s graven image. “One kid announced with great authority that ‘It’s the Easter Fairy,’ whose job was to follow the Easter Bunny around and make sure the candy eggs are okay,” Jonathan Blake remarks. “Another kid noticed the genie’s ear ornament. To him, a fifth-grader who loved to play chess, it resembled an inverted bishop’s piece—‘He’s the inventor of chess!’ the kid explained. I love the way kids think!” Before its placement in the museum, the Assyrian relief hung for a half century in a cramped Munroe Hall entryway, where occasionally students would stub out their cigarettes on it as they hurried to their history or literature classes.

Fifteen lithe audience members, faculty and students, assemble in the Dance Theatre on a late Monday afternoon, all dressed either in big sweaters and scarves or in big, sagging tee-shirts, to hear a lecture by Katie Martin, improvisatory dancer, choreographer, and teacher at Hampshire College, who studied at Bennington, where she came under the influence of the renowned, innovative choreographer Trisha Brown.

Martin shares a series of slides from Bennington—candids of some of the greatest modern dancers when they were at the southern Vermont college. One sees the socializing Martha Graham and Ted Shawn and Doris Humphrey, and there is a selection from Trisha Brown’s earlier work in Water Motor. This elicits a delighted exclamation from Middlebury’s senior lecturer in dance, Penny Campbell, herself no stranger to the Bennington campus with the summer dance program she cofounded.

Water Motor!” Campbell exclaims. “That was my first composition piece!” As is often the case in this theater, the delight is infectious and everyone laughs. Martin, with her cascade of long, dark hair, will demonstrate her own work out on the floor, but before that, her talk touches on the teachings of choreographer William Forsythe and then segues into “improvisation metaphors” drawn from the natural world’s awe-inspiring “collective individualism”—a swarm of fireflies, a legion of army ants, and (the Observer’s favorite) flocking birds, such as starlings or pigeons or the hundreds of darting, wheeling, banking Arctic snow buntings observed aloft in the Lemon Fair river valley that very bright, cold morning.

On this day (possibly on all days), every person in the theater-tech class is attired entirely in navy blue in the noisy, high-ceilinged workshop overseen by the associate technical director, Jim Dougherty.

Pulleys and cables. Ductwork. Circular saws, band saws, radial arm saws, drill presses, pipe clamps, wire spools, the high whine of a transformer. A student runs a hacksaw across a small metal bar clamped in a vise, set up on the end of a cloth-draped worktable, upon which lies, face-down, a fully articulated human skeleton.

The class is preparing scenery and props for a production of Howard Barker’s The Castle, a bawdy drama of crusaders returning home after a seven-year campaign. Other artifacts, whether from this or past dramas, appear as one takes in the vast workspace; there’s a regulation-height basketball hoop, and 15 feet above the laboring students’ heads, one can see a plywood swan, a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary, and a surfboard-sized Hostess Twinkie.

Next door, in the Seeler Studio Theatre, a student machine-stitches white muslin at a workstation on risers, where audience seating for The Castle is to be, while another uses a small portable steamer to smooth finished fabric hanging from a clothesline. It bobs gently as the student irons, causing sympathetic vibrations in a bright roll of razor wire—future stage scenery—looped above her head. Scores of dark stage lights hang overhead, poised to light some future drama.

Three pm on a Wednesday, in the 20th year of the Mahaney Center’s existence, the Observer is perching on a bench outside the Dance Theatre. The students, faculty, and staff striding past take on an ensemble quality: all the corridor’s a stage. A music senior bustles down a hall, making thoughtful conducting motions with one arm. Down the hall, piano ruminations trickle out of Classroom 125 and laughter from Seminar 126. On a wall, a framed poster commemorates the building’s opening celebration, held in 1992 from September 28–October 10, which featured the collaborative work of choreographers and composers, the Fred Haas Jazz Ensemble, and an alumni dance concert. It all culminated in a gala benefit for the Center for the Arts with Misha Dichter, the Emerson String Quartet, Claire Bloom, and the David Dorfman Dance Company.

At the opening, crowds in finery not often seen in Vermont strolled past the new music library, peered into but did not mark the floor of the Dance Theatre, noted the courtyard tables and chairs and the whimsical space of the café just outside the museum portals, and admired the soaring atrium heights overhead; two years ahead, in 1994, the Committee on Art in Public Places would install its first work of art way up in the very space above—Jonathan Borofsky’s acrylic and urethane installation, I dreamed I could fly at 3,876,225—the figure of an ecstatic young man, floating and transfixed.

Notes on Some Changes in Two Decades: (1) The music library has been reintegrated into the general stacks at the Davis Library, gaining instructional and assembling rooms and offices for the art history and architecture department; (2) the Borofsky flying man sculpture has been shifted from the atrium to a much smaller space above the east corridor exit; (3) the café closed, ending a lunchtime meeting tradition and gatherings: “Only in America,” mourns a drama faculty member, “do they replace a vibrant café where people meet and the ferment is guaranteed, with vending machines.” At the empty half-circle of the former serving counter sits a solitary brew-ready Keurig coffee machine, filter cups for which may be purchased in nearby offices.

In the museum study gallery, Kirsten Hoving’s environmental photography students deliver their presentations to the class, discussing works from the permanent collection; in Room 209 (MCA 209), Peter Hamlin’s digital-music students have created pieces performed entirely on tablets and phones.

Dana Yeaton conducts a playwriting workshop in MCA 209, and Eliza Garrison lectures on the evolution of Western art in MCA 125. In MCA 110, Penny Campbell and Michael Chorney, saxophonist and acoustic guitarist, lead a performance improvisation for musicians and dancers.

Later in MCA 110, Christal Brown introduces dance techniques, accompanied by multi-keyboardist Ron Rost; the Dance Theatre recently hosted the dance company INSPIRIT, with work based on the life of Muhammad Ali, under the direction of Brown in a suite of dances incorporating “elements of boxing, hip-hop, martial arts, and modern dance,” with music scored by Farai Malianga, late of Brooklyn but originally from Mutare, Zimbabwe.

In MCA 210, a multimedia arts lab, a student sounds a gong while his project is translated into digital sound on a laptop, as the door-muffled reverberations echo down a stairwell.

MCA 125 is in standing-room-only condition for a 4:30 lecture by Ilaria Brancoli Busdraghi of the Italian department, on Italian stoneworkers in Vermont in the years 1880–1915. The talk is themed to coincide with the museum’s show of photographs taken by Edward Burtynsky in the marble quarries of Proctor and granite quarries of Barre, Vermont.

Brancoli traces the development of the quarries from the 1850s, when rail transportation made industrial distribution possible, into the 1880s and beyond, when Italians migrated in droves. Arriving in Vermont with skills handed down to them for a millennia in the pre-Alpine valleys of Piedmont and Lombardy, they worked in the cutting and shaping sheds rather than in the much more dangerous pits. Still, with rock dust endemic, the average lifespan of a stonecutter was 42 years, thanks to silio-tuberculosis.

The audience views slides of the cutting sheds and extraordinarily carved marble and granite, some of which decorated the graves of the workers, and of recreational picnics, parties, Italian instrumental bands, and the vigorous unionization efforts; when viewers see side-by-side comparisons of Piedmont and Lombardy mountains and valleys with those in Proctor and Barre, there is a murmur at how alike is the terrain.

“They must have felt so at home here!” someone whispers, to which another responds, “At least until the immigration curbs, the anti-union efforts, and the Red Scare of the 1920s.”

Although the talk extends past the closing time of the museum, Brancoli announces that in honor of Edward Burtynsky receiving an honorary degree at Middlebury’s Commencement, the show has been extended through June 2013.

Vignette: Around the Clock

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

middlebury libraryFive bright bands of light blaze from an otherwise dark wall as one approaches the Davis Family Library from the south. It is well past ten on this December Sunday night, and with the beginning of exam period, the library has gone on the 24/7 schedule. Snow is said to be on the way, but there are 39 bicycles and one scooter propped outside the main door.

Past the caffeine-brimmed Wilson Café, past cell-phone talkers and a student smiling into a Skype screen on her laptop, through the heavy doors into the atrium, beyond circulation and help desks, to the edge of the most public space in the library: a senior crouches over sheaves of graded papers and photocopied book chapters.

He makes notes in a spiral notebook, but doesn’t appear to be in a concentration groove yet. Sights and sounds: entering and exiting, rendezvous and regroupings, passing bodies, eddies of conversations from beyond shelves, a greater hubbub audible from the outside of the main doors. Here in the ringing gateway to the halls of quiet study there is a parade of distractions, and he looks up frequently. His feet take the place of papers on a low table. He produces a laptop and taps. A friend appears and there is a consultation about take-home exams as well as driving-home plans. Five minutes later, he has removed to other circumstances.

On the eastern end of the main floor, inside the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research, a white board proclaims “Tutoring During Exams!” and lists review sessions for economics, chemistry, and math. Peer writing tutors are on call from early evening until midnight, whether at the center or at various Commons. Nearby, a sign in the Wilson Media Development Lab instructs on technological-software aid: “Turn on. Log in. Get Smart. Lynda.com. Tutor available 24/7.”

Up the long curve of the staircase to the second floor, tight focus is the norm in the Quiet Study Area. Faces gleam with reflected light from laptops, elbows flanked by little ramparts of stacked books with pads and pens at the ready, and students silently build arguments, buttress theories, review a semester’s stock of ideas, groping for the perfect handle to carry them all. One is hard-pressed to hear any whispers.

In an unobtrusive, 20-minute stroll past desks, study tables, carrels, darting quick glances at individual screens, not a glimmer of social media can be seen—not one Facebook or Flickr or Renren or LAGbook or LinkedIn—and not one Wikipedia page. Satisfied, relieved, even hopeful, one determines never to take such a poll again in such a place. Better not to spoil the fleeting impression.

At last heading out into the night, with one observer’s exit, the overall age average at Davis Family Library plummets.

Bright and slanting daylight, a smattering of snow on the ground, and the Davis façade of local marble, granite, and limestone is a screen upon which shadows of surrounding winter trees are projected. Behind every window of the Wilson Café is a garland of Tibetan prayer flags, sending up hopes with each tiny flutter from the warm, coffee-scented updrafts of booth tables.

In the gusty vestibule, display cases commemorate the visit of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in 1984—posters, programs, candids from the indefatigable Middlebury photographer Erik Borg.

Farther into the building are similar displays from the Dalai Lama’s appearance in 1990. There are many people in the world who would venerate the sidewalk, the flagstones, the Davis threshold, the slate and carpeted floors, because nine weeks earlier, October 12–13, His Holiness came to Middlebury again to “cultivate hope, wisdom, and compassion” with two addresses in Nelson Arena and a visit to the library to view sacred Tibetan manuscripts and a Tibetan contemporary art exhibition.

Outside Davis, the air scented by bundles of incense, the Dalai Lama blessed a newly planted Burr oak (Quercus macrocarpa) and tied a white fringed prayer shawl around a slender trunk that one day, perhaps in a hundred years, will be as many feet tall and three or even four feet in diameter, the surrounding ground crunchy with acorns.

Inside on the second floor, in his red and saffron robes, His Holiness blessed the work, and those present of five Tibetan artists in the Contemporary Jewels fellowship show presented by the Vermont Studio Center of Johnson, Vermont, and lingered appreciatively before each work.

He smiled before the playful collage of Tenzing Rigdol, born 1982, Excuse Me Sir, Which Way is to My Home? with its central Buddha image and colorful background, entirely constructed from Tibetan brocade cloths, glossy magazine ads, and U.S. maps. He praised the artists for transforming their artistic traditions and techniques to relate to the contemporary world.

Today, in that bright exhibition corner, the 10 paintings giving off their own light, finals-preparing students in their parkas and Midd sweatshirts and watch caps bustle past the art and across the carpet on which the Dalai Lama peacefully stood.

In a study area surrounding the basement’s American literature section, next to a Spiderman backpack, a female student sits on the floor, props her back against shelves of poetry. She is unmindful of an abandoned pillow in a white slip some inches away on the floor.

At the end of the row, a shelf of fiction criticism ending with these three titles: Imagining Los Angeles, Los Angeles in Fiction, and Gillette Foamy, a travel container of shaving soap.

Wednesday, close to cold-December midnight, from the west passing the candle-lit windows of Old Chapel; Davis Library looks like a Spielbergian Mother Ship, with the star-studded, blue-black Vermont sky overhead. Though not one of them is visible passing the moon, 41 bikes attend the main doors.

Sounds from the atrium: Footfalls of winter-weight boots on slate flagstones, buzz of a motorized hole punch, metallic sword sound of a paper cutter, the emphatic punctuation of a stapler, the rolling wheels of a heavily laden book cart fluttering with pink-colored slips.

Downstairs in the lower level, a late-night murmur from a little knot of people in a circle of easy chairs—behind them stands a rough, monumental slab of rock. Muffled but animated words leak from one of the group-study rooms ringing the area.

A female sophomore perches yards away at a table covered by a laptop, graded short stories, a fiction textbook, a water bottle, and a package of Pepperidge Farm cookies. Two male political science students at a nearby table intent on their scrolling laptops are backdropped by periodical shelves displaying recent issues of Die Zeit, La Stampa, Le Monde, and the Rutland Herald.

Recycling bins overflow. Oh, the hidden words!

Two floors above, the study carrels are still well populated at the stroke of midnight. A literature major, surrounded by towering stacks of thesis resources, looks up to blink bleary eyes and refocus. She takes a swig of tea from a thermos and extracts trail mix from a brown bag, shakes her head to realign her thoughts back below the surface of a poem, and is perhaps surprised there is no apparent rattling sound.

Back in the basement behind the display window of Special Collections, the chair, the writing lapboard, the moth-eaten cardigan, and the marble busts of Robert Frost may emanate a sympathetic vibration upward toward the weary young poet above.

Outside cold night air: smokestacker first-years stomp on slate.

Rows and phalanxes of books on their shelves and art and artifacts on the walls. On the second floor, it is of the bold-handed and pigment-generous watercolorist Arthur K. D. Healy (1902–1978), some five large modernist landscape watercolors and an oil portrait; he served on the faculty from 1943–1968.

He was a hotel interiors architect before moving to Vermont as the first artist in residence at Middlebury,” a faculty member once commented while pausing before one of the landscapes, then hanging elsewhere. “One might expect to see these paintings in a 1940s hotel room, as a matter of fact, but he trained many successful artists here and did much to support the Sheldon Museum.”

More historical Vermont images line the walls and populate display cases near Special Collections downstairs—Rutland Railroad artifacts, enlargements of vintage Middlebury postcards, and framed, finely inked maps of the village of Middlebury and its surrounding town, from the F. W. Beers Atlas of Addison County, Vermont, 1871.

Students—perhaps even history majors—walk heedlessly past the little bygone world behind glass on the wall, where the three buildings of Middlebury College—Painter, Starr, and Old
Chapel—stand figuratively on the snow-white hillside.

Behind the glass, the Rutland Railroad tracks downtown pass the Addison County Fairgrounds, crossing Otter Creek past the Battell Building, Stewart Block, the Sash & Door Mill, the cotton factory, while above the west bank of the creek, along Weybridge Street, rise the professorial edifices of President Kitchel, the Reverend Steele, Professor Brainerd, and Professor R. D. C.
Robbins—scholar of Socrates, the books of Moses, the Christian epistles, who would have thoroughly enjoyed meeting His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.

The population of a table upstairs in the Davis Family Library’s Quiet Study Area, judging by an unscientific poll of textbooks and scrawls on yellow pads and spiral notebooks, seems to be running neck and neck between budding biologists and early economists, although the outcome is skewed by the presence of a patient philosopher.

Several yards away is one of two high-tech soundproofed cell-phone booths installed on opposite ends of the Quiet Study Area, northeast to southwest corners, a response in 2010 to widespread complaints about cell-phone use. The tall black tube with sliding glass door would accommodate a superhero’s costume change. But at this early Thursday-morning hour, no peril looms but the ticking of a clock and the reality of finals and deadlines, and these quiet students of Middlebury College are on their own, and what’s more, they will survive.

 

Vignette: The World by the Bay

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

In 1769, a Spanish exploring party led by Don Gaspar de Portola was sent north from San Diego to establish a fort and mission at Monterey Bay, which had been described 172 years earlier by a passing Spanish seafarer as a “fine harbor sheltered from all winds.” The first whites to see Northern California by land, and suffering greatly from starvation and disease, Portola’s men completely missed Monterey Bay, an open gulf. They overshot by at least 70 miles, but at last sighted the empty land and water that would be called San Francisco and its bay. They returned home thinking they had failed.

The admissions office of the Monterey Institute of International Studies is in a plain one-story adobe house from the historic Mexican period, home to the author John Steinbeck, his second wife, Gwyn, and their infant son, Thom, between November 1944 and April 1945. The Lara-Sota Adobe, he said, was “a house I have wanted since I was a little kid.” The little two-room house was shaded street-side by a massive cypress tree and stood on a quiet street a few hundred yards uphill from bay water. Steinbeck was writing his parable, The Pearl, and its screenplay, in a backyard garden shed in January 1945, when his novel Cannery Row, about colorful down-on-their-luck folk living downwind of Monterey’s sardine factories, was published.  The Steinbecks left the adobe for Mexico and the filming of The Pearl and never returned.

Today is the first day of classes of the fall semester, and the admissions staff is resting on laurels, having admitted one of the largest classes—418 students—in Monterey’s 57-year history. With a total student body of 700, 60 percent women, 40 percent men, from 38 countries and speaking 33 native languages, the average student has three years of professional experience before entrance. Amid its pride, on this quiet late-summer day with all the first-day bustle happening elsewhere on campus, the staff is still panged at the loss of its massive shading cypress, felled by snarling chainsaws only a few weeks before after being declared terminal and hazardous; it is said to have been planted over the bones of a child, an early resident in the Mexican period. Chipped and shredded, the cypress is piled in a small mountain in the center of the campus organic garden and has been distributed in all the gardens and beds, sweetening the already scented air.

The campus sits in a gentle, flower-scented, hillside-bungalow neighborhood, punctuated by cypress, cedars, palm trees, live oaks, Japanese maples, and knobcone pines. Gardens proliferate: alongside very old adobe or stone walls topped with terra cotta tiles, narrow stone or redbrick paths thread between buildings and duck below redwood pergolas, past tiny courtyards, bench nooks, planters and pots and gardens of phlox, coast buckwheat, primrose, buckthorn, thimbleberry, fruit-dangling grapevines, a multitude of flowers.

Near the center of campus, in the Samson Student Center Café, many nations’ flags hang from ceiling timber trusses, from the familiar Old Glory, and France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Russia, Egypt, the Philippines, to the less familiar Bhutan, Ghana, Senegal, Thailand, Armenia. Directional signs are pinned to the wall above the cashier station and a Coca-Cola cooler: New Delhi, 7,773 mi; Petra, 6,852 mi.; Madrid, 5,838 mi.; Cairo, 7,512 mi.; London, 5,413 mi; Paris 5,621 mi.; Mexico City, 1,818 mi. In late morning of this first day, the room swells with the sound of young peoples’ banter, a babel of languages, beneath the assembly of flags.

Find a vacant seat in class with Professor Lyuba Zarsky, Public Policy and the Environment. Thirty-four IP majors crowd into a trim, well-appointed, storefront classroom on Pacific Street in McGowan Building; outside the large plate-glass window, busy traffic whizzes by. Many of the students are freshly returned from summer internships or institutes, and from an International Professional Service Semester. Lyuba Zarsky has taught at MIIS for seven years and edited the book Human Rights and the Environment: Conflicts and Norms in a Globalizing World, which will inform this course. She has previous experience—up to 25 years in sustainable development, working with Aborigines in Australia and with an NGO’s a globalization program. She will guide them through discussions of public policy and government functions and through the process of changing norms, to influence laws governing the environment and sustainability.

This being the first class meeting, Zarsky directs students to break into pairs, interview each other about their backgrounds, and then introduce their partner to the class. For 10 minutes, 34 avid, intelligent, and confident graduate students look into the eyes of their partners and digest their lives, filling the room’s air with warm talk. Justin Wright (Middlebury ’08) turns to a classmate to report of his landscaping and carpentry work in Hawaii, Arizona, and Northern California, and how living near mountain-fast Lake Tahoe, witnessing the pressures on the environment brought to bear by wealth, power, and development, led him straight to MIIS to pursue public policy. His classmate, Rainey, has been working as a translator, most recently at the London Olympics, where the beach volleyball competition commanded much attention.

Faculty Authors’ Section—10 shelves—William Tell Coleman Library, a bright and modern, two-story facility. Pull titles at random: Green Planet Blues: Environmental Politics from Stockholm to Kyoto; Bringing Women In: Women’s Issues in International Development Programs; Terrorism and Homeland Security: Thinking Russia’s Revolution from Above, 1985-2000: Reform, Transition, and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime; Strategically about Policy; The Interpreter’s Companion; Leadership in English Language Education: Theoretical Foundations and Practical Skills for Changing Times; The Human Genome Project and Minority Communities: Ethical, Political, and Social Dilemmas; Translators’ Strategies and Creativity; American Lake: Nuclear Peril in the Pacific. Adjacent are five shelves dedicated to the life and career of General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, the brilliant, abrasive maverick who served in the Army in China, Burma, and India before and during World War II. Nearby is a lifelike bust of the general, with his prominent ears and thin Yankee nose. Stilwell’s two daughters, who settled near the family home in Carmel, were long associated with the Monterey Institute of International Studies; Nancy Stilwell Easterbrook, born in China and a longtime trustee of MIIS, and her sister, artist Alison Stilwell Cameron, are themselves memorialized outside the Coleman Library in a flower garden with thankful plaques from the many Chinese scholarship students they supported at Monterey.

At the Holland Center, a photo exhibition overlooks tables for ping-pong and foosball. The pictures are the work of Peter Grothe—former adjunct professor and emeritus director of International Student Programs, who died in June 2012, at the age of 81. All are close-up portraits of mostly young people, an international panoply of children from a lifetime of world travels; the faces brighten a dim and temporarily empty gathering spot.

In early 1960, as adviser to Minnesota Democratic senator Hubert H. Humphrey, Peter Grothe drafted the language of a foreign-aid bill and proposed an entity he called “The Peace Corps.” Later that season, Humphrey gave the idea to the Presidential nominee, John F. Kennedy. Young Grothe wrote Kennedy’s proposing speech and later served in the first “class” of Peace Corps volunteers, assigned to Ethiopia. At Monterey for 31 years, Grothe taught cross-cultural communications and American politics, and recruited in more than 40 countries, greatly increasing international student enrollment. In the student lounge, beneath Grothe’s colorful assemblage of international amity, the pool cues rest on the tables like crossed and put-away swords, and the rows of foosball combatants are, at least for the moment, at rest.

Up behind the Holland Center, grounds super Kirk Eckhardt (who, with his build, could be a younger stand-in for the actor Nick Nolte) is tending a row of tall, stupendous flowering vines that most people would not notice unless they left the traveled way and peeked at an obscure wall, when he is startled by the sight of a wounded deer hiding in the foliage. It seems to have been injured by a car. He calls the wildlife rescue truck for the Monterey County SPCA. It glides discretely up a driveway, and the veterinarian eyeballs the deer before mixing a sedative so the deer can be rescued. Graduate students sit studying and checking e-mail in a nearby courtyard, blissfully unmindful of the little drama unfolding just a few yards away.

The McGowan Building contains the Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program, the East Asia Nonproliferation Program, and the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program. Framed decorative posters spied on the second floor: Middle East maps, informational posters on botulism toxin and the dangers of ingesting alpha emitters, and two vintage U.S. government wanted posters—offering a $5 million reward for Osama Bin Laden. It is eerily quiet. Not wishing to wait for the elevator, one takes the stairs to another floor.

One flight above, in a crowded little seminar room, Professor Jeff Langholz is holding the first meeting of Environmental Conflict Management, studying the role of environmental factors in conflicts and international security. Langholz’s research focuses on biodiversity conservation and sustainable development; he worked for the Environmental Protection Agency for five years on toxic waste policy, trained and practiced extensively as a mediator, and has taught a version of this course at MIIS for 13 years. Today’s simulation exercise explores a multination conflict over an imagined watercourse, the Zihum River, which forms borders of five neighboring nations. The students break into five groups, following a process Langholz has directed 5 times at The Hague, 7 times in the Middle East, and 4 times each in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and North America. The conclusion will underscore the importance of earned trust, transparency, flexibility, and most of all, enlightened self-interest. “It pays,” the professor says, “to cooperate.” There have been shouting matches, tears, and walkouts in his mediation exercises in the Real World, but at MIIS, working step-by-step toward an Ideal World, there is teamwork, reason, receptivity, and comprehension. Jeff Langholz’s article about this exercise rests on 100 case histories and will be published soon.

Screeching gulls perch atop the tiled roof of the neighboring AT&T building, echoing on the walls of the Monterey Institute. One may stand on tiptoes on the ringing second-floor balcony of the Morse Building, as a multicolored congress of national flags on their flagpoles waves in the breeze, and one can glimpse a smidgen of Monterey Bay. Toward the end of this first day of classes, four graduate students wander downtown to the water and Fisherman’s Wharf. They gaze at a heap on a wooden float moored to the whale-watching center: 25 sea lions of varying tonnage sprawl in a companionate pile. One meditatively scratches his side with a broad flipper. He grunts. Thirty yards away on a bobbing white skiff, two pelicans supervise the harbor.

His Holiness Returns. Again.

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

The last time the Dalai Lama was on the Middlebury campus, in 1990, he concluded his visit—one in which he participated in an interfaith service and spoke about spirit and nature before 4,000 people in Nelson Arena—by blessing a community lunch and helping to plant a Norway maple tree behind Munroe Hall.

The time before that, in 1984, His Holiness made the trek up the mountain to Ripton and the Robert Frost Trail, where he had a magical encounter with the Rabbi Victor Reichert, a summer resident and longtime friend of Frost. The two spiritual men exchanged blessings. Later that autumn weekend, the 14th Dalai Lama engaged in a spirited public discussion with William F. Buckley and spoke to more than 3,000 people about the roles that wisdom and compassion play in attaining enlightenment.

We mention these memorable moments, so personal to this place, because this fall the College will welcome His Holiness back to Middlebury for a third time. As in his two previous visits, the Dalai Lama is scheduled to speak about issues of critical importance to humanity. On Friday, October 12, he will speak to College faculty, staff, and students about “educating the heart.” The next morning, he will deliver a public address titled “Finding Common Ground: Ethics for a Whole World.” (Tickets for both events, which will be held in Nelson Arena, will be available through the Middlebury College Box Office.)

The visit, built around the theme of “cultivating hope, wisdom, and compassion” is designed to help people explore resources for hope, optimism, and cooperation, while being challenged to lead lives of courage and engagement.

“The problems that face humankind today, and that this generation of students will be called upon to address,” says Middlebury President Ronald D. Liebowitz, “will necessitate not only knowledge and technological ingenuity, but also compassion, determination, and sacrifice. These human attributes and virtues have long been fostered and sustained by the world’s religious, spiritual, and philosophical communities.”

Some have thought that the Dalai Lama may be attracted to Vermont because it reminds him of his childhood home in Tibet. When he arrives in October, perhaps he will pay a return visit to the Frost Trail or check in on the tree he planted. Or maybe he will craft a new memory to join the others shared by this fortunate, let’s even say blessed, community.


What Paul Nelson Conducted

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

On a brilliant fall day in 1973, Paul Nelson passed me a golden gift that I have prized ever since. A small group of Poli Sci 101 students had gathered to discuss Plato’s entertaining, maddening book, The Republic. Before coming to Middlebury I had never heard of Plato; and here I was, slouched at a table in a Warner seminar room with a dozen other freshmen, mulling the morality of a shepherd named Gyges. I thought of that moment when I heard that this ageless man, this tireless conductor of thought, was actually retiring.

In Book II of The Republic, this cad finds a gold ring that makes him invisible. In short order Gyges hooks up with the queen and, with the queen’s help, murders the king and sets himself on the throne. The story serves as a kind of experiment to see whether social pressure dictates one’s virtue. Can any human, unobserved, anonymous, behave well? (You might say that Gyges foreshadowed both the Internet and Super Pacs.)

Being a late-blooming adolescent, I was less interested in the philosophical question than in the randy queen. The experiment seemed less than pure; after all, not every invisible aspirant to a throne would find such a willing coconspirator. Gathering my courage, I spoke up. “What about the queen? I mean, doesn’t she sort of, you know, spoil the ethical question?”

Paul Nelson frowned.

I blushed.

And then came the gift. “That hadn’t occurred to me,” he said.

It hadn’t? I stared at him, sure he was lying. This bearded sage looked exactly the way Aristotle must have: professorial, probing, peripatetic, impossibly lean. Philosophy whooshed from Mr. Nelson’s mouth as though the ancients themselves spoke through it. And he was ancient himself! Surely he had reread The Republic sufficiently to have memorized it, possibly in Greek. And the queen question had never occurred to him?

In the four decades since, while Mr. Nelson donned the grand title of G. Nye and A. Walker Boardman Professor of Mental and Moral Science, his outward appearance remained unchanged. Many thoughts have doubtless occurred to him over those years, as much from the works of his beloved mentor, the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, as from the mouths of tabulae rasae like me. Paul Nelson was the most brilliant listener, showing patient curiosity in the rhetoric of Henry Kissinger, my senior thesis topic. He went on to direct the performing arts series at Middlebury. And he became a scholar of rhetoric himself, spending his last sabbatical in London in the study of 19th-century British sportswriters.

An illiberal mind may ask what a philosopher can glean from the rhetoric of long-dead Limey sportswriters. The answer lies in one golden moment in Warner. For this was Paul’s gift, this is what he conducted: A liberal education comes not so much from the four-year pursuit of knowledge. It comes from welcoming, over a lifetime, the occurrence of thought.

Jay Heinrichs ’77 is the author of Thank You for Arguing and Word Hero.