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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.

Get Real

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

A loud and unfamiliar ring from the bedside table jolted me awake. Fumbling for the cheap plastic phone in the darkness, I struggled to remember where I was. Then a blast of wind shook the house with the force of a small earthquake and I remembered: Unalaska, Dutch Harbor. The end of the Earth.

On the other end of the line, my new boss, Alex, spoke in a hurried tide of words.

“The Polar Sea broke loose from its mooring,” she said. “Ripped off part of the dock and hit Roger’s boat. You know, Roger, the city councilor. I don’t have a recorder. Come down to the harbor.”


Still half asleep, I bumbled my way out the door, recorder in hand. Though it was the middle of the night, fluorescent floodlights from the neighboring fish processing plant were bright enough to cut through the horizontal rain and light my way to the car.

I made my way down to the harbor, but I didn’t see a boat in distress, and I didn’t see Alex.

What I did see were whitecaps sloshing over the floating dock, and 40-foot boats bobbing like bath toys in a stormy sea.When I had arrived in Unalaska on a 30-seat propeller plane a few weeks earlier, I found the weather to be horrendous; this was worse.

Not sure what I was to be looking for, I called Alex back.

“Keep driving,” she said. “Past the small boat harbor.”

Dodging meter-wide potholes on the dark, dirt road, I thought back to what had convinced me to take a job as a radio reporter in Unalaska, Alaska. “You’ll be doing real reporting,” Alex had said. “Not just cutting and pasting HTML.” As I flailed for post-college purpose, “real” sounded like something I wanted.

Ahead of me, illuminated by a bright spotlight, the Polar Sea emerged from the storm. Stacks of king crab pots 30 feet high weighed down the aft deck as it bobbed in the heavy swell. This was definitely the antithesis of modern-day Google reporting. But suddenly, real didn’t seem like such an alluring prospect.

Real meant getting wet talking to people who would probably rather my recorder and I occupy ourselves elsewhere. Real meant engaging the world and its problems, not just reading about them over coffee in the morning.

I parked in the mud behind a line of pickup trucks and took a deep breath before charging into the rain.

Alex waved at me from the bottom of a long dock ramp. Behind her, Roger’s boat was like a school bus pinned to the dock by a 737. Eighty-mile-per-hour winds had ripped the crabber from its mooring and spun it around 180 degrees, right onto the councilor’s boat. Remarkably, it didn’t look like it had done much damage.

We climbed onboard the Commitment, taking care not to slip into the blackness between the dock and the deck. A crowd of men stood on the bow, observing the collision point. One of them commented that the winds seemed to be dying down and maybe they could move the Polar Sea soon. Another man clung to the outside of the Commitment’s deck rail, peering down at the hull until a massive gust of wind threatened to squish him between the two boats.
I hung back, letting Alex ask the questions. But as they talked, I could hear the sounds becoming a story: a sharp cry of warning, the men yelling at each other from their respective boats, the chatter of a walkie-talkie, the thunk of hull against hull, and then the empty howl of a fierce wind.

Stephanie May Joyce ’11 is a news reporter at KUCB in Unalaska, Alaska. A portfolio of her work can be found at www.stephjoyce.com.

Knowing Oscar

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Each August, all first-year students receive the same book by mail. They’re asked to read and reflect on it before they arrive in September. Once here, they get together in groups or 15 or so—all from the same residential Commons—to discuss some of the issues the book raised.

This year’s “common reading” was The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by award-winning author Junot Díaz, a native of the Dominican Republic who was raised in New Jersey. As Dean of the College Shirley M. Collado said, “The book is a particularly rich exploration of identity from more than one lens, and illustrates the challenges and rewards inherent in building community with others who may or may not see the world similarly. These are key issues for first-years, and they are central to many of the themes we covered throughout orientation. And we were so fortunate to have Junot coming in person to speak with the students.”

Díaz visited the campus on September 27 to meet with first-year students and also to give a public reading that evening in Mead Chapel. Middlebury Magazine spoke with Díaz about having his book become a conversational catalyst for young people beginning a new chapter of their lives.

“Books, like any act of art, do not work for everyone. But when a book does work, when it engages them, when it reaches into them, it can be a source of great learning, both about the world and about the readers themselves. A book cannot prepare you for the stupendousness of the world—for meeting 600 people from 70 countries—but it can accompany you on that journey; it can provide insight and solace and discomfort; it can start debates and arguments; it can unsettle and give peace; it can be ‘a friend of your mind,’ to quote Toni Morrison, and a friend of the mind is not a bad thing to have at the start of any great journey. Hopefully my book was that friend for a few of the students.

“Poor Oscar is bullied endlessly. Ours is a society of hierarchies and competition, and in a world like that there are always going to be losers. There have to be. Oscar is the kind of kid that, no matter what the regime, seems to always end up at the bottom. It’s less about Oscar, I would argue, and more about how little we like to be reminded of difference, vulnerability, strangeness.

“Even in the face of death, though, Oscar could never be anyone but himself. He never wore any masks; even at the point of his destruction he was true to himself, and given the damage that masks do to people in this book, I would argue that’s a good thing. But hey, that’s just me.

“Oscar’s family curse, the fuku, is about the role that history has in shaping our lives, even when we don’t know the history that has its hands around our neck. It’s also a way to address that most American of all preoccupations: whether one is blessed by the universe (which Americans seem to believe is the condition of our country) or whether one is cursed by the universe (which is something that Americans fear our country might in fact be).

“In the end, this is a novel. There are no single take-away messages. A novel attempts to duplicate the complexity of the world. Politicians and religions have messages. Corporations have messages. Novels seek to confront readers with the world and with their own humanity and in that confrontation hopefully raise the kind of questions that you can spend your whole life answering.”

Einstein on the Porch

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

I wanted to leave as soon as I got there. Maybe it was the darkness in every room, where shellacked pine comprised floor, walls, and ceiling. Maybe it was the balding stuffed deer and muskrat. Or maybe it was because this wasn’t part of the plan, and I had really liked the plan.

It was a simple one: drive to Lower Saranac Lake in New York, get a friend’s motorboat from its slip, and settle in to an island campsite in time to enjoy sunset and a rib eye steak.

But we didn’t have a reservation, and the warden was deaf to our sweet-talking. One in our group knew a family staying over in Shingle Bay, so we motored over. Twenty minutes later, we were official (albeit accidental) houseguests in Cottage 4 at the Knollwood Camp, friends of a friend of a son who wasn’t even there.

Knollwood is one of the Adirondack Great Camps, built at the turn of the century by wealthy New York Jews who were excluded from the resort communities springing up in Saratoga Springs and Lake Placid. The architect William L. Coulter conceived of the compound in 1899 for a group of six friends and their families, among them Louis Marshall and Daniel Guggenheim. He put a massive, two-story boathouse on the water and set six Victorian-gone-rustic homes into the wooded slope overlooking the bay. The cottages are identical except for the design of their twig-work facades; the one on Cottage 4 is made of concentric diamonds.

We entered at the back of the house, into a small kitchen that had once been the domain of a few live-in servants. There we met our hosts and fellow guests—doctors, their wives, a lone physicist—all friends from way back.

During hors d’oeuvres on the porch, someone mentioned that Albert Einstein had been a frequent guest here at Knollwood. A great sailor, apparently, but he couldn’t swim. In the summer of ’41, the scientist capsized his boat and was saved from drowning by a 10-year-old who had been putzing around in a boat of his own.

Einstein was here, in fact, on August 6, 1945, the day that the U.S. dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. I realized that it was August 7, 2010. Sixty-five years ago yesterday, Einstein might have been sitting on this porch, smoking his pipe, trying to comprehend the magnitude of the event and weigh his own complicity in it. He had not been directly involved with the Manhattan Project, but he had spurred its creation when, in 1939, he helped persuade President Roosevelt to enter into an arms race with Germany. And he had given the world that beautiful and terrible equation, E = mc2.

The great physicist gave his first interview following Hiroshima here at Knollwood. “Atomic power is no more unnatural,” he told Richard Lewis from the Albany Times Union,  “than when I sail my boat on Saranac Lake.” By the time the article ran on August 12, the second bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki.

Much later that night, as I was trying to fall asleep in the old servants’ quarters on the top floor, the door swung open and banged against the wall. No one was there. A buzzing sound crackled out of the outlets in the room, and in the bathroom down the hall something creaked, or fell over.  Terrified, I took my sleeping bag down to the second-floor porch.

There, beneath a luminous Milky Way, I thought about Einstein again. Years after the end of the war, he would say that convincing FDR to develop the Bomb was the “one great mistake” in his life. Perhaps he decided this right away. Or maybe he just lay on the second-floor porch, looking up at the stars, knowing that something had happened that wasn’t part of the plan.