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Make Some Noise

Categories: Midd Blogosphere
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Inside the Service Building practice room

Until not long ago, if you were in a student band at Middlebury and wanted to practice, there was a series of steps you had to take before you could plug in your amp. First you had to reserve the only practice room on campus, which is in the Service Building under the smokestack, and before you showed up at the appointed time, you had to swing by the Public Safety office on South Main Street, show your student ID, and grab the key that would unlock the door at the Service Building. Meanwhile, your bandmates were probably shivering in the cold, cursing the process, wondering why they even bothered to be in a band in the first place, and gosh wasn’t it cold, and where were you with that key? Needless to say, not a lot of folks would choose to put themselves in this scenario.

Which is why the students in the Middlebury Musicians Guild—now called Middlebury Music United, or MMU—lobbied College administrators this fall to have keypad entry locks installed on the doors to both the practice room and the recording studio (across campus in the Freeman International Center) so that members of MMU could easily gain access to either space.

And this was only the beginning of a concerted effort by MMU to revive a flagging social culture built around live music at Middlebury. Since September, the group has acquired a slew of new equipment for the practice, performance, and recording of live music. It is providing resources for shows, planning a singer-songwriter workshop for students, and sending out weekly e-mails about live music events. It is beta testing an iPhone app created by students, called MMU on Air,  that will map all the live music events on campus. It uses Twitter (@middmusic) to call attention to the live music scene. Its new website is a sort of Craigslist-meets-Match.com for student musicians. (For instance, if your band is looking for a female vocalist, you might find one on middmusic.com.) And MMU members are involved with this winter term’s MiddCORE course—students take on real challenges facing for-profit and social enterprises—by providing recorded music tracks that students in the class will endeavor to package and sell.

“When we got to Middlebury in the spring of 2010, there was no community of student musicians here,” says Parker Woodworth ’13.5, an MMU cofounder. “It was as if the music had just disappeared for us. So Mike [Gadomski] and I decided we needed to create a culture where student musicians will want to play music for its own sake, where playing music is not an obligation.”

“A complaint you hear all the time is that there’s no good way to meet new people here, and it’s because people don’t venture outside their close circle of friends,” adds Gadomski ’13.5.

“We are trying to create a middle ground around the music, so it’s not so hard to meet people,” says Woodworth. “Let’s say I am at a show where one of my friends is performing, and you’re at the same show because one of your friends is performing, too. Now we have something in common, something to talk about. It is much more conducive to meet people in a coffeehouse atmosphere than at a DJ party with the music blaring and people dancing.”

“Our job in MMU is to create fertile conditions so the music scene will grow on its own,” Gadomski explains. “We don’t want to be the ones presenting the shows. That’s MCAB’s job. (MCAB is the Middlebury College Activities Board.) But we can help make it happen by providing the infrastructure”—like user-friendly keypads instead of locked doors—“to encourage student-musicians here.”

***

Middlebury is, after all, where the band Dispatch got its start and where solo acts like Courtney Brocks ’01 and Anais Mitchell ’04 cut their teeth. It’s where the rock group Throw Like a Girl was touted in The Campus in 1998 as “Middlebury’s first girl art-core band and one hell of a live show.” So what has happened to live music at Middlebury? Theories abound, but there’s general agreement about the primary cause of the decline: Middlebury students work so hard in and out of the classroom that they barely have time for more than one other major pursuit; and since there was no formal effort to support live music, students preferred activities with fewer obstacles.

Another reason for the decline of student-generated music is the shift toward live DJs and solo production (think: Apple’s GarageBand) and away from jam sessions and performing bands. That shift is something that musician Matt Bonner ’91 understands well. “The music scene when I was a student was like night and day from what it is now,” he says. “Twenty years ago, there were always three or four well-known bands on campus, meaning that on any given weekend at least one band was playing somewhere at Middlebury.”

An independent musician and producer of digital media (mattbonner.com), Bonner was a guitarist in Yukon Time, a rock-reggae hybrid band that played gigs on campus. “We were pretty good,” he says with a laugh, “at least in the context of being a party band.” And according to reports, they still are good. Bonner and his bandmates— Josh Sarkis ’91, Rodrigo Prudencio ’91, Barney Hodges ’91, and Andy Wiemeyer ’94—played last June during Reunion Weekend at 51 Main, the College’s off-campus performance space.

Bonner is collaborating with MMU to rekindle the live music scene at the College. “One thing that would be really cool would be a student-driven music label at Middlebury so people can write, record, produce, and mix their own stuff, and then get it out using digital distribution services. It would not be a ‘pretend’ label; it would be a real label with real people making high-quality music. Admittedly they’d have to be advised by, shall we say, certain alumni who happen to be in the music business. We just have to figure out how it will work and get the right equipment in the FIC recording studio, and then it could be really sustainable.”

The record label is a topic that gets the current leadership of MMU, Gadomski and Woodworth, very excited. “To have original music coming out of Middlebury would be good for musicians, good for our students, and good for outsiders looking at our college for the first time,” says Gadomski, whose rock band Thank God for Mississippi has attracted a following on campus.

“We have amazing students,” adds Woodworth, who, like Gadomski, plays electric guitar. “Look at the Solar Decathlon team and all that they accomplished: We don’t have programs in any of those things, and yet somehow we are competing with students who study engineering at the graduate level. We have kids capable of being part of the real-world playing field in any number of areas, and music could be one of those.”

Peter Hamlin ’73, the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Music, sees what MMU is doing in the context of a liberal arts education. He has been the adviser to the Musicians Guild/Music United since its founding in 2004. “Now it’s seven years later and we have Mike and Parker diving in,” he observes.  “It’s a thrill to watch them operate. One of President Liebowitz’s themes has been to allow students to use their own leadership and creativity and give them a measure of autonomy to follow through on the things they are passionate about. The MMU today is just a perfect example of that.”

Matters of Scale

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Land is power in rural Idaho, but careful how you wield it.

Late in the summer of 2003, after the lambs had gone to market, Mike Stevens ’90, then president of Lava Lake Land and Livestock, packed a sleeping bag and a shotgun into his pickup and drove north from his home in the Sun Valley of Idaho to the North Fork of the Big Lost River. A colleague at a federal agency had called him that evening after spotting a pack of wolves not far from Stevens’s sheep band. The year before, a similar call had come from a forest ranger: Did he know wolves were killing his sheep? He hadn’t; nor had he any clue a pack was in the area. By the time he made it into the field, he had lost 18 ewes and lambs. This time, knowing wolves were near, he wouldn’t take the risk.

The sheep camp was on the north end of the valley, tucked into a grove of lodgepole pine. Stevens found Ernesto there alone. The young Peruvian herder had left the flock on a rocky outcrop by the river bottom. Normally, the sheep would spend nights on a high ridgeline and wander downslope the next day to find water, but on this fork, the canyon walls were steep, and sheep grazed the lower benches and meadows. Stevens sat with Ernesto a while, and at dusk, headed toward the sheep band. He laid his sleeping bag under a pine and the shotgun beside him. The ewes shifted and sighed in their sleep. His own sleep was restless—a guard dog, circling the band, visited routinely to lick Stevens’s face. When he woke at dawn, he found the dog beside him. Together, they walked the band’s perimeter. There were no signs of wolves, but at the far end lay a mangled ewe, killed by coyotes. Stevens looked down at the dog, and noticed, then, the sheep blood crusted on its snout.

He never intended to shoot a wolf; that night, he meant only to deter the pack with his presence and make noise if any came near. Stevens is a conservationist at heart, a believer that all things, hoofed or sharply teethed, can coexist. He is, you might say, a purveyor of the happy medium: common values, collaborative approaches. But what he sees as reasonable, others in the environmental community have considered traitorous. He will not condemn grazing on public lands, and believes, rather, that livestock can have a minimal impact if managed carefully. A master of the positive spin, he reasons rhetorically: “Most people look at sheep ranching as the problem. Well, can it be part of the solution?” It was for this ideology—and not for his ranching experience, of which he had none—that he was hired to run the operation at Lava Lake.

The ranch is the brainchild of Brian Bean, a wealthy San Francisco investment banker, and his wife, Kathleen, who formerly worked at the Nature Conservancy. In the late nineties, the Beans were looking to buy a small allotment in the West to place under conservation easement—an agreement that limits development on a property in perpetuity, even when the land changes hands. But the Beans realized that unless they worked on a bigger scale, their conservation efforts would be to little effect. Large wildlife, such as antelope and wolves, move over vast areas, weaving through a patchwork of public and private holdings, each managed according to the rules and whims of various agencies and landowners. “If we wanted to have a conservation impact, we had to work on a landscape scale,” said Kathleen. “And to do that, we had to be livestock operators.” Running sheep would allow them to lease—and practice low-impact grazing—on federal property. By 2002, when the Beans hired Stevens, they had acquired roughly a million acres of ranchland, a quarter private and the rest by public lease, stretching from the Craters of the Moon National Monument into the Pioneer and Boulder Mountains.

At the time, Stevens worked for the Nature Conservancy in the Sun Valley and was tasked with negotiating the Beans’ first easement. “I knew immediately that this was someone with a highly developed collaborative instinct,” said Brian. When the Beans offered Stevens a job, the idea of working on a large scale excited him. “In Idaho, ranching is where the power is,” he said. “If you say, ‘we’re part of the sheep industry,’ people recognize that. It’s part of the culture and tradition of the state.” He also knew that as a rancher, his conservation efforts would have more leverage with government agencies than those of any nonprofit. “We would be part of the establishment,” he said. “To be fair, it’s the very thing that an environmental activist has to fight against, but we were able to use it to our advantage.”

Before he took the job, Stevens reminded the Beans that he had never ranched before. They assured him that among the ranchers whose property they had purchased, and the Peruvians who had tended the flocks for many years, there was plenty of institutional knowledge. They reasoned that it would be easier to teach Stevens to run a ranch than to find a rancher with as strong a conservation ethic as his; Stevens shared their values, and values were never something they wanted to argue about. But the Beans’ confidence did not allay Stevens’s concerns entirely. “I was never going to be a real rancher,” he said, “and I wasn’t a normal conservationist either. The implicit risk was not being good at either of those things, and not being part of either community.”


Unveiled

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Before I ever met Mahnaz Rezaie ’13, I knew certain things about her. Mahnaz means “beautiful moon” or “glory of the moon.” It’s a Persian name, even though she’s Afghan, and she finds it wonderfully elegant. She loves the sound of the syllables reverberating in her throat: Maah-naahz. I also knew that in 1997, when she was eight years old, her Shia Muslim family fled Sunni-Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. They went to Iran, which was the country closest to their home in the southwestern province of Herat. Iran was more westernized, and in some ways life was better for the Rezaies, but as Afghan minorities, they also faced harsh discrimination. At one point, the Iranian Ministry of Education banned all Afghan children from the schools. Because Mahnaz was academically gifted, her principal shielded her from expulsion.

At the age of nine, Mahnaz had endured a horrific accident one night while she was at a family wedding. She was pouring tea from a giant samovar when it toppled over, sending a cascade of boiling water onto her arm. She watched her skin peel away from her body and drop to the floor along with the sleeve of her dress. The pain was so excruciating she thought she was dying. Her family, fearing the Taliban would kill them for breaking the 10 p.m. nightly curfew if they took her to the hospital, instead used toothpaste and mashed potatoes to treat her wounds. The next morning, Mahnaz went to a doctor who scrubbed her burns clean with a brush. This procedure was nearly as painful as the initial scalding. During the next six months, while she was recovering, she developed scars that would impact her life in many ways—including, she believes, putting her on a more academic path that led her to Middlebury, where she is now a student in her junior year.

I first learned Mahnaz’s story through articles she wrote for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP), a nonprofit writing collective based in Kabul, Afghanistan. Founded in 2009 by American writer Masha Hamilton, the writing project provides Afghan women with a place to write—a so-called writer’s hut where they can compose their stories, primarily in English, using computers and Internet access that many of them don’t otherwise have access to. Some of these women, who range in age from their teens to their 40s, are forbidden to write by their families, and they do it in secret at AWWP headquarters, using pseudonyms. The project  also provides a venue for these women to publish their work; twice a week, their personal essays and poetry are posted on the project’s  blog. U.S.-based writers, women with backgrounds in journalism, fiction writing, and teaching, serve as long-distance writing mentors, providing prompts for story ideas, guidance on writing fundamentals, like grammar and story structure, and feedback on their stories. I am one of those mentors.

Mahnaz began contributing to AWWP after a friend told her about the program during her senior year of high school. Her family was living in Kabul then, her father having decided his children would get a better education in Afghanistan. Mahnaz is a naturally gifted writer, and soon after she took AWWP’s initial writing workshop, she was penning poems and essays in English, her second language after the Farsi she learned in Iran. “She’s always been a strong writer, and she’s so amazingly brave,” AWWP executive director and former writing coordinator Elisabeth Lehr told me. “Hers is a tremendous story. Her mother is illiterate, which in and of itself says so much about Afghanistan today.”

The way Mahnaz strung English words together was surprisingly eloquent and evocative to Lehr, and her stories carried a gravitas and emotional depth that betrayed her age, not to mention the fact that she’d only been studying English for a few years. Another thing that stood out about Mahnaz’s work was her feminist leanings. In writing about her childhood, she explored the inklings she’d had from an early age that the discrepancy between the way men and women were treated in the  society she inhabited did not work for her.

When she was a girl in Iran, she and her family often worshiped at a Muslim shrine—a place she found so spectacular and inspiring that she wrote this about it: “I want to sink in this sacred air. I want to hear my heartbeats and listen to the breeze as it cools my face. I want to fly to farther lands where only imagination can go. This is the magic of being in a place where you love and feel you are yourself. This is the magic that allows you to think freely.” Yet, as much as she loved the temple, it didn’t seem fair to her—even at age eight—that the men should pray in the front of the shrine while the women were relegated to the back. Her mother’s explanation reflected a widely held religious belief: Men are entitled to stand in front of women because they have higher positions before God. Mahnaz was outraged. But she was powerless to change the rules—this time.


A Beautiful Mind

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Emma Kitchen’s last memory of December 2010 came on the first day of the month, a little before 6:00 p.m.

It was cold, dark, and rainy when she walked out of the Peterson Family Athletic Center and hopped on her bicycle for the five-minute ride to Proctor, where dinner awaited.

Her friend Bronwyn Oatley ’13 was with her, and as the two pedaled down South Main Street and turned left onto the service road that would take them past the health center, the back of the Service Building, and up the hill toward Stewart Hall, they mostly chatted about the weather, how raw it felt as the cold rain pelted their faces.

They picked up their pace as they started up the hill, and in the dark they did not see the flash of a figure racing down the hill on his own bicycle heading directly for them. And he didn’t see them either.

The impact of the head-on collision sent Emma Kitchen ’14 flying backward off her bike, and the first part of her body to make impact with the ground was the back of her head when it thudded onto the pavement.

As Oatley raced to the health center several hundred yards away in frantic search of help, the other bicyclist waited helplessly by Kitchen’s side, as she lay unconscious and unresponsive on the asphalt.

Her skull was fractured, her brain hemorrhaging.

Yet her nightmare had yet to begin.

***

Emma Kitchen’s nightmare had everything to do with her accident and nothing to do with what she actually felt. For most, the pain would be the worst, the pain associated with the fractured skull, the cerebral contusions, the subarachnoid hemorrhages. (The medevac to Burlington’s Fletcher Allen Hospital, the three days in the intensive care unit, the four additional days in the hospital, the remaining weeks leading up to Christmas convalescing at home in Collingwood, Ontario—those don’t even compute, because she remembers none of it.)

And if you can push past the inconceivable pain (and she did, convincing herself that as an athlete she was tough, tough enough to overcome even a traumatic brain injury), then surely what will get you, what will be the source of your night terrors are what follows: the dizziness, the nausea, the spinal vibrations, the inability to hold a thought. It will be registering -0.5 on a 0 to 7 neurocognitive assessment IMPACT test when you plead to return to school in February for spring semester.

But no, that was not the source of Emma Kitchen’s own living hell. It wasn’t even the five months that she was confined to bed rest, ordered to sleep 18 hours a day, and denied all visual stimulus—no books, no television, no computer—and all but minimal social activity.
It wasn’t even the fleet of doctors, the neurosurgeons and neuropsychiatrists and physiotherapists and acupuncturists and naturopaths, as caring as they were, who could offer little more than a “sleep and you’ll get better” prescription.

Emma Kitchen’s nightmare, her living hell, was her solitary confinement within her own head.

She had no one to talk to who could tell her “I know what this is like.”

No one to tell her “I understand.”

No one to share a look that says “I know, but it gets better.”

Even as she healed, as the 18 hours of daily sleep over seemingly endless weeks returned her to the land of the living, she grieved.

And it was only when she finally found someone who had been through something similar, found someone to talk to from a place of shared experience, that she began to awaken from this horrible, debilitating feeling of isolation.

And this caused her to wonder: how many others are out there trapped in the same nightmare?

***

“I want to be absolutely clear: this is not about me. This is about the 1.2 million student-athletes under 20 who have been diagnosed with concussions during the past decade.”

Emma Kitchen is standing before a roomful of peers (and a handful of professional men and women) gathered in Middlebury’s Kirk Center on a cold early February morning. She is a poised young woman with a strong voice and contagious smile, and there is not a trace of the broken body and soul that resulted from her accident two years ago.

On this morning, she is winning over a group of entrepreneurs who are judging a contest that is the culmination of the winter term course MiddCORE. The contest is called the Next Big Idea, and the pitch that has captured everyone’s attention is a support network for student-athletes who have suffered head injuries.

Although the prevalence of concussions among athletes—and the serious neurological impact associated with such injuries—have seeped into the national consciousness through investigative journalism and awareness efforts promoted by the likes of the National Football League, that has not resulted in a corresponding increase in a “concussion community,” Kitchen says, a place where those suffering can share stories and offer support to one another.

Kitchen wants to change that, and for about 15 minutes she outlines her ambition to create a website that would fill the void. She rattles off statistics (the 1.2 million student-athletes who have been diagnosed with concussions during the past decade, the startling estimate that this figure could be closer to 8.4 million because so many go undiagnosed). She outlines a business plan; she talks start-up costs (about $10 thousand).

There are seven other Next Big Idea finalists in the room. Kitchen is the seventh to present, and as she wraps up her presentation, one notices a collective shoulder slump among her competitors, followed by admiring smiles. They know they’re now fighting for second place.

***
Since the beginning of February, Kitchen has not only won MiddCORE’s Next Big Idea title, but she has enlisted a business partner (her friend Kaitlin Surdoval ’12, who has suffered four concussions in her lifetime), and has won another competition, this one sponsored by the College’s Project on Creativity and Innovation in the Liberal Arts.

This latest achievement came with office space, alumni mentoring, and $3,000 in prize money. Phase one of their project begins this spring. Each week until the end of the academic year, Kitchen and Surdoval will bring student-athletes down to their studio in the Axinn Center to record testimonials. With the arrival of June, the two will hit the road, visiting campuses and summer programs, where they hope to add more stories to their database.

Their prize money is enough to get them started, Kitchen says, though she hopes to raise an additional $7,000 that will see them through phase one, with the launch of a video blog before autumn.

Emma Kitchen’s nightmare is over. But, she knows, others’ are just beginning.

Emma Kitchen can be reached at emma@concussionsspeak.com. When her website launches this summer, it can be found at www.concussionsspeak.com.


What’s The Big Idea?

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

The man in the gray suit faced the roomful of college students, gestured toward the large screen displaying a PowerPoint slide that detailed the global population during the next century, and asked, “How are we going to feed the people of the future?”

He smiled and turned his attention to the four entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who had joined the class discussion this chilly February morning in Middlebury’s Kirk Center.

“The solution,” the man confidently said, “would be insects.”

And with that, Alexander Bea, a Middlebury senior, launched into his presentation for Bumu (short for BugMunch), a project that would harvest the nutritional value of insects to feed growing populations.

Bea was one of eight finalists competing for the lofty title “Next Big Idea” in a competition that was part of the ultra-intensive winter-term course MiddCORE. (The CORE stands for Creativity, Opportunity, Risk, Entrepreneurship.) At the beginning of the term, all 30 students in the two sections of the course were told they would be challenged to design a social or commercial innovation. “The innovation,” the guidelines stated, “may be a new good/service, a new way to deliver an existing good/service, or a creative solution to a social problem.” During the course of the term, the students teamed up with mentors to cultivate their ideas, and at the end of the period they each made their pitch to a panel of judges; eight advanced to the final. (It should be noted that the competition was just one small slice of the MiddCORE experience. For more, see middcore.middlebury.edu.)

In addition to Bea, the finalists pitched ideas such as a website that would provide a better way to statistically predict outcomes for fantasy football; YouPower, a fitness center that produces electricity; a line of sweet and savory fruit spreads; and a forum and support network for athletes who have suffered brain traumas.

Each presenter was challenged by the panel (“Do these distribution models work?” “What does success look like?” “I’d like to hear more about two things—where will the big adoption happen and what is the story that you’ll tell?”), and after all had made their pitches, they then waited for the judges to make a decision.

“I’m looking for the big idea, but also an idea that is real—a big idea with wind in the sails.” Ernie Parizeau was the first to speak. The five judges had crowded into a small office filled with books piled on every conceivable surface. “The winner should be someone who, we are fairly confident, will actually implement his or her idea.”

“But then are we in danger of the challenge morphing into the biggest real idea?” countered Paul Bottino ’87.

And so it went for the next several minutes as Parizeau, Bottino, Greg Wiebolt, Adam Greenberger ’93, and Marc Randolph (Suzie Reider ’87 and Rocki-Lee DeWitt judged the earlier round but were unable to attend the final) debated the merits of the eight finalists. In the end, there was a clear-cut, unanimous winner (see “A Beautiful Mind”), while Zannie’s Zing: Sweet Savories by Suzanne Calhoun ’14 grabbed runner-up honors.

Alexander Bea hasn’t given up on Bumu, though. With true entrepreneurial zeal, he applied for—and was one of five students to receive—a $3,000 grant from the College’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship to pursue his idea. There just might be crickets on the menu, yet.


Cashing Out

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

So, it appears that the physical paper dollar, that crumpled, bacteria-ridden, piece of filth that resides in your pocket—along with all its grubby cousins, coins—will one day, perhaps one day soon (!), go the way of the wampum, the animal pelt, the tobacco leaf as a form of tradable currency. That’s what David Wolman ’96 would like you to believe, and after reading his fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable book The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers—and the Coming Cashless Society (Da Capo Press, 2012), I’m right there with him. Good riddance to the greenback, I say.

All I needed to know to come to this conclusion can be found in one sentence on page 28: “Traces of the bacteria staphylococcus have been detected on 94 percent of all U.S. dollar bills.” Never mind that, on the very next page, a friend of Wolman’s at the Centers for Disease Control essentially says that for people to become sick from dollar bills, they would need to be “sucking on banknotes or inserting them in their noses” to even put them at risk of becoming sick, to which I say, close enough. And indeed, Wolman joins me in being disgusted by food handlers who take a sweat-stained dollar from someone and then use the same contaminated fingers to drop a lemon into someone else’s drink. Gross, right?

Wolman’s case for the end of money goes far beyond the ick factor, though. As he points out, there are all kinds of reasons to get rid of cash. It’s the currency of crime, for one (think: robbery, counterfeiting, and drug dealing); it’s insanely expensive—and we’re not just talking about what it costs to actually make the currency but the cost of inefficiency associated with cash and cash transactions (or non-transactions); and it’s dangerous for reasons we don’t often think about (eco-costs, for example).

Throughout the book, Wolman finds fascinating characters to shed light on the inadequacies and toxicity of cash, and he spends just as much time talking about what will (and should) replace cash in the coming years.

Wolman is a contributing editor at Wired magazine, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find him spending a fair amount of time addressing the number of digital alternatives—and their inventors, champions, and pioneers—to cash transactions. (Some seem a little screwy to me, but others induce that familiar feeling of “of course,” followed by “why didn’t I think of that?”)

The most fun, though, might be the vicarious thrill of tagging along on Wolman’s Plimpton-esque journey of going cashless, himself, for a year. I won’t spoil anything, but there are some humorous moments where the rule of the given realm is still cash money.

I should acknowledge that David Wolman is a friend of mine. We’ve published his writing in this magazine, and I’ve been an avid reader and champion of not only his magazine journalism but also his previous books (A Left-Hand Turn around the World and Righting the Mother Tongue). Yet all these connections aside, The End of Money is just the type of book that curious readers, like me, would naturally gravitate toward. And I wasn’t disappointed.

You won’t be, either.

***

Fans of Eudora Welty, who died in 2001, will joyfully immerse themselves in yet another aspect of the much-loved and complex author, and lovers of gardens will discover a kindred spirit (or three) within One Writer’s Garden: Eudora Welty’s Home Place (University Press of Mississippi, 2011), by Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown ’75.

Playing off the title of another Welty favorite—One Writer’s Beginnings, her 1984 memoir in which she chronicled her life along with some instruction on how to write—Haltom and Brown have delivered an equally evocative narrative of a family garden, a fading Southern culture, and a span of time and history from the 1920s to postwar America.

For those who know Welty’s work, 1119 Pinehurst Street in Jackson, Mississippi, is as familiar an address as one’s childhood home. It was from here, after all, that she wrote so many of the stories that have earned a lasting place among modern short stories. But this beautiful book unearths a different and deeply rich glance into the Welty home that many have not seen before.

Haltom first became engaged in the project as a local gardener in Jackson, when she approached the aging Welty with an interest in revitalizing the family garden. The Welty home and surrounding gardens had been a celebrated centerpiece at the hands of a younger Eudora and her mother, Chestina, who had designed the original garden in 1925. Tended with care by Eudora for decades after that, it had fallen into disarray in her later years. With Haltom’s help, she began to re-imagine the once vibrant sanctuary, recalling the flowers and plants that had flourished under her mother’s hands.

Private papers released a few years after Welty died in 2001 affirmed that the garden had indeed offered both solace and inspiration for her. Haltom and Brown have included several writings that were previously unpublished, including literary passages and excerpts from her private correspondence. They highlight not only the connections to Welty and her writing, but also to the time period in which she lived. Divided into four parts, the book covers the gardening seasons and also illuminates four decades of radically evolving Southern culture—from the 1920s to the postwar 1950s. Through Haltom and Brown’s writing, we see the role of garden clubs and yardmen as social norms, and the way gardens were upheld as the ideal antidote to all that could possibly fail one—the healing quality of combining work and introspection. The writing is colorfully interspersed with handwritten notes, garden maps, local advertisements, and plenty of photos—both historical and contemporary. Appendices tucked into the back include wonderfully cataloged information, such as planting lists over the decades, a breakdown of roses and annuals, a partial list of plant names that occur in Welty’s works, and even a discussion guide for book club goers.

Those familiar with Welty’s writing will remember how she often included images of Southern flora in her writing—“The Worn Path,” and “Flower for Marjorie”  are but a few—and the authors of this book help draw those connections, giving one a better understanding of the role that flowers and gardens play in her works. One passage reads as follows:

References to flowers and gardens colored her fiction and correspondence. Their consistent presence in her writing reveals that the flower garden lay at the heart of her inner world, sustaining her creativity and stirring her imagination.

Complementing the authors’ well-tended prose is a rich collection of full-page images by noted landscape photographer Langdon Clay, who captured the revitalized garden at all its current seasonal highpoints.

This is truly a book to be relished over time and enjoyed for many years to come. The pages are silky smooth; even the type is carefully laid out. The heft of the book itself encourages long leisurely reading by a sunlit window.
—Blair Kloman, MA English ’94

 


Reality Check

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Sophie was the first person I met at Middlebury. On move-in day, I noticed Sophie struggling to carry her life’s possessions up three stories to Battell’s “Nunnery,” where I had just finished hauling mine. As I helped carry—and inevitably spill—boxes of clothes up the concrete stairway, we laughed and bonded over what silly implications our new home, “The Nunnery,” could have. When we reached the top floor, I asked Sophie what room she was in. “Three oh five,” she answered. “Hey, me too!” Sophie Clarke ’11 would be my freshman-year roommate.

Sophie was a tough one to crack. She was hesitant to offer up a window into her life, so I was usually the one overcompensating by throwing the door open to mine. Sophie wasn’t shy or cold; she simply had more layers than most. As I paraded around with a rowdy gaggle of field hockey players, I would often see Sophie in the dining hall with a small group of close friends—people who spent enough time with her to unfold some of her layers.

Whenever I walked into our room, Sophie would be hunched over her desk, poring over a new problem set or another Russian novel. She was so focused that oftentimes she wouldn’t even notice I had walked in. If I struggled with biology homework, I went to Sophie—as did the rest of our hall—even though she had never taken the class. It wasn’t just that Sophie was smart; she knew how to unravel the nuances of a question. She was strategic in her thinking, and usually if she spent enough time with a problem, she could figure it out. Sophie could stay up until the early hours of the morning working on a paper, even if that meant sitting on the girls’ bathroom floor because I had gone to bed. Whatever was necessary to get the job done.

At the end of freshman year, our hall put together a list of superlatives that characterized each girl according to the rest. Sophie’s—“Most Likely to Marry a Lax Bro”—couldn’t have been further from the truth. Yet, I don’t think anyone, much less Sophie herself, could’ve guessed her actual post-grad title—Reality TV Star, Winner of Survivor South Pacific.

Growing up, Sophie had watched the show with her family and picked it up again in college as a way to de-stress with friends. Taking after her father, Sophie would often yell at the contestants about what they should’ve done and would brag to friends about how good she would be on Survivor. One day in December of her senior year, Sophie’s friend Sarafina Midzik ’11 pushed her to earn those bragging rights. “We’re making a video application so that you can get on this show,” Sarafina insisted.

The video showed off Sophie’s extremes. Dressed in a lab coat, Sophie looked up from a microscope to tell the camera why her smarts would bring home the big bucks; moments later, she replaced the science garb with an ’80s ski suit, showing viewers she could bring her game to the slopes as well. Her over-the-top confidence and swanky demeanor made her seem smug—but that was the goal. “It’s not how I would normally present myself to people,” Sophie confided. “I knew I had to make myself into some kind of character, a character they would want.” It worked. A month later Sophie received a call from CBS casting.

Sophie stuck with the same über-confident persona throughout the requisite series of aggressive interviews. “I wanted to seem genuine so that it didn’t appear like I was putting up some kind of shtick,” Sophie told me. Yet, she admits that it was like acting. “I had the way I talked to professors, the way I talked to friends, and then the way I talked to Survivor casting.”

The acting became part of Sophie’s lifestyle during that final spring at Middlebury. Sworn to secrecy by CBS, Sophie devised a clever cover for the mysterious hour-long phone conversations and the days she would sneak off to Los Angeles for interviews: Sophie would be leading trips in Russia for the summer. Though her friends balked at the development, they were too busy enjoying their last days of college to question her plans. Meanwhile, Sophie was teaching herself how to skin a fish, start a fire, and crack a coconut. “I was physically there, but mentally, I was off in Survivorland.” As it got closer to filming, Sophie began to feel removed. “I couldn’t hang out with people who didn’t know because I wasn’t being genuine with them,” she told me. This was the biggest thing that had ever happened to Sophie, and she couldn’t tell a soul.

The day after graduation, Sophie left for Los Angeles. Those next 40 days were what she called “a living paranoia.” Surviving the island was only half the challenge; reentering life as a reality TV star was quite another.

Sophie returned from the island thinking she had played a smart, aggressive game, only to realize when the show aired that the editors had portrayed her as anything but. Her story didn’t really take shape until another cast member called her “pretentious.” When the people she thought she had bonded with echoed this sentiment, Sophie took a second look at herself. “I’m not overly friendly to people I don’t know, and sometimes I come off as aloof,” she admitted. For the first time in her life, Sophie received some critical feedback about who she was—and she found that just as difficult as surviving the island itself.

The other contestants weren’t the only ones judging Sophie. People on the Internet called her “Sophugly,” writing her off as a “smug elitist,” and a “smartarse” on Survivor forums. At first, Sophie was intimidated by this lack of privacy, but as time went by she felt liberated to be so exposed. When people would insult her, Sophie would simply wonder if that was all they had to remark about. “I almost think being so exposed made me more true to myself because    I couldn’t hide anything. I couldn’t pretend to be someone I’m not.”

Just as Sophie’s view of herself changed, so too did her notion of reality TV. While she once considered it trash, she has since done a 180, and now considers Survivor a life-changing experience. “Believe it or not,” Sophie told me, “Reality TV is real.” She said this with such persistence I almost had to believe her.

I could tell that this experience had affected her deeply. She seemed different, more mature and sure of herself. Rather than fighting her public image, she embraced it. Maybe Sophie knew who she was when she graduated, but now that the rest of the world had seen that person too, she seemed more comfortable letting others in.

For 40 days, Sophie starved, barely slept, and let a game of lies and betrayal consume her existence. But it also gave her a better sense of who she is, not to mention the fact that in the process of her self-discovery, she won a million bucks.

These days, Sophie has resumed life as a post-grad. She lives on the Upper East Side of New York City, a five-minute walk from Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, where she is studying to become a doctor. Certain things bring her back to the island. When Sophie sees bananas at the fruit stand, she feels the warmth of the Pacific sun. Every morning she drinks a cup of coffee—a switch she made on the island after winning a bag in one of the show’s challenges. At times, Sophie will even wake up in the middle of the night on the hardwood floor, having moved there unconsciously from her bed, dreaming she’s still on the island.