Tag Archives: Summer 2012

One Moment, Please (video)

Alyssa Limperis ’12 is speaking. She is the student speaker for Middlebury’s 2012 Commencement. Did you know that back in the day, every graduate delivered a speech at Commencement? President Liebowitz told us that just a few minutes ago—he does every year, and every year the audience chuckles appreciatively. Imagine that! Five hundred and fifty-seven speeches? Today, there’s just one (a tradition reinstituted in 2000, the year of the College’s bicentennial). And this year, the one selected is Alyssa Limperis.

She’s still speaking, and she is quite funny. She just got a big laugh when she surmised, while she’s not sure when the exact moment was that she no longer felt like her pre-Middlebury “me,” it could have been when she “started using words like quinoa, Croakies, and social entrepreneurship.”

And now she’s touching hearts—and minds. Adults are nodding. Some of the students—at least some of those without sunglasses—appear wistful. Alyssa just said: “Being a part of the Middlebury community meant so much more than being one of the lucky chosen 625. It meant contributing to the betterment of the whole.”

This is one of those moments at an annual occurrence that becomes a once-in-a-lifetime memory for many. An interesting paradox.

A hundred yards from where Alyssa speaks, a toddler unsteadily makes her way up the sloping hill toward Mead Chapel. The child’s mother (we assume), stands back, allowing the baby to take these wobbly yet determined steps toward, well, for the child, the unknown. Just down the hill, about a thousand other mothers and fathers are preparing to do the same thing.

Now, Alyssa seems to be coming to a conclusion. “We are ready—we are ready to take this Middlebury community and this extraordinary energy

It’s a lovely, wonderful speech. And it is ending. The moment is almost gone.

As one, 556 graduates stand and give one of their own, the 557th member of their class, a resounding ovation.

Pursuits: Motherboard

Somewhere, not far from the Google campus in Mountain View, California, Becky Worley ’92 stepped in front of a moving car. For a moment, the grey Toyota Prius looked like it might not stop, might blow right through the intersection where Worley had waited until just the right (or wrong) moment to step out.

Worley’s seemingly irrational behavior could be called into even greater question upon realization that the person sitting in the front seat wasn’t even driving, his hands nowhere near the wheel, his feet not on the pedals. But that’s exactly why she did it. And later that week, Good Morning America aired her story on Google’s new driverless car, including a shot of how it knows to screech to a stop when a pedestrian suddenly darts out before it.

Worley is the technology contributor to Good Morning America, regularly testing products, telling stories about the latest gadgets, and sharing her savvy view with the country’s consumers. She also serves as host of Yahoo! News’s video blog Upgrade Your Life, which provides “simple solutions to high-tech problems.”

Between the two programs, she constantly explores and plays with technology—talking with dishwasher engineers to do a full examination of the best way to clean and load dishes, testing a vacuum attachment as a way to clean a dog, and showing how iPhones keep a log of your location.

“There is no one who can explain it more clearly, give you a comprehensive look but not make you feel like a six-year-old,” says Russ Torres, head of news and finance at Yahoo! Studios. “She finds stories or trends that we’re all talking about but haven’t figured out how to articulate yet. She can boil it down so that everyone can understand it.”

But the subject of Worley’s reports have also turned to general product testing and consumer matters, like shopping for wedding dresses and the effects of limiting oneself to a baby-food diet. Worley loves the opportunity to explore something new and compares it to a constant education. “What you learn from a liberal arts education is to be open and learn, and not be intimidated that you know nothing at the start,” she says. “It’s okay to know nothing. That gets you a great empathy for other people who also know nothing, and you can be on the journey with the client, the customer—that’s a strength, not a weakness.

“At 8 am I know nothing about this,” she describes. “And by 7:30 the next day, I’m willing to speak to 4 million people, with authority, on the subject. And I pride myself on getting it right.”

Each week—she can do as many as 85 stories for Good Morning America in a year and one per week for Yahoo!—she and a cameraman go off for her latest explorations. With recording equipment hanging on a shoe tree in the closet of her Oakland, California, home, she writes the script and records the voiceovers in her closet, then films a live shot from her home via Skype at 4:30 am. All the while, she tries to keep it light.

“In the morning, it’s got to be fun. [The audience is] listening, and if something gets their attention, they’ll turn their heads to the TV and look,” she says. “It needs to be friendly; it needs to be fun.”

Worley’s fascination with technology was in full force during her time at Middlebury—where she and a friend used their Mac computers to create friends’ identification cards—and where she first considered the television medium, although she originally envisioned hosting a show on fly-fishing, one of her then new-found loves.

Her career in television actually started with her folding towels at a health club, not far from Seattle’s KOMO television station where she held an internship, and worked her way to a production assistant position, and then associate producer of an afternoon news segment. A move to a new cable network called Tech TV, in the late 1990s, shifted Worley from working behind the camera to working in front.

“She’s really good at guiding people through tough stuff,” says Good Morning America producer Tracey Marx, who first met Worley at Tech TV. “Why it’s successful is she stays true to Becky. She doesn’t try to be anyone else. It’s very relatable. She’s high energy, and she’s just knowledgeable.”

Brian Eule is a freelance writer in Northern California.

Almost Famous

For Susan Orlean, there was a day before The Orchid Thief. Julia Alvarez? She once edited a newsletter called Special Reports: Ecology. And James Franco . . . well, let’s just say that not all that long ago, McDonald’s eaters in L.A. were handed bags of Big Macs by a college dropout and future Academy Award nominee. (And let this be a lesson to the kids out there: this successful actor never forgot his scholastic ambitions and is now a PhD candidate at Yale.)

These are just a smattering of the fascinating items revealed in the Days of Yore, a critically and popularly acclaimed website founded and staffed by Middlebury graduates who want to know what life was like for artists before they had “money, fame, or road maps to success.”

Astri von Arbin Ahlander ’07, Lucas Kavner ’06, and Evan Dumouchel ’06 take us behind the scenes and beneath the hood of the Days of Yore.

Walk me through the site’s founding. Was there one eureka moment? Or did this evolve over a series of conversations?

LUCAS I think it came out of being confused and living in New York City after college and looking up interviews with artists I admired and finding that they often skipped this huge chunk of their lives that I was really interested in—the chunk where they weren’t sure how to play the game quite yet. Most interviews I was reading would say, like: “I was just waiting tables, totally broke, and then all of a sudden I was starring in Die Hard!” And I wanted to know details about the struggle period. So I was walking with Astri one day, and I brought up the idea for an interview site, and she really liked it, too.

ASTRI To be entirely frank, that walk took place on a dark street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when Lucas and I were on our way to or from a neighborhood party—one of those hazy post-college get-togethers where an impossible amount of NESCAC grads squeeze together in an impossibly small apartment. When Lucas told me about the website idea, I turned to him and said, “So, just do it.” He mumbled something about, how would we get people to agree to be interviewed? I kept up my pushy routine and said, “No excuses. Just ask.” The next day, there was an e-mail in my inbox from Lucas, who wondered, since I was so cocky, if I was interested in starting a site like that with him. I said I was. Definitely. Lucas and I brainstormed a few interesting people, and we just asked them. They all said yes. That was the beginning of the wave of positivity that we have been riding ever since. We just ask. And people just say yes. Not all of the time, but an overwhelmingly large part of the time.

I think that is a testament to the fact that the DoY idea is a good one—one that people want to support—but it also shows that, perhaps contrary to popular opinion, successful people are often fundamentally kind and willing to help young artists. At first, Lucas and I opted for a simple Tumblr platform. But after a few months, we realized we were going to need to up the ante a little on the technical side. So, I reached out to Evan, who was a friend of ours from Middlebury. Evan is a talented computer maverick, and I thought maybe he would be willing to help us a little. He did more than help a little; he came on board.

EVAN The subject line of the e-mail was, in classically flattering Astri style, “As luck would have it; or the day we remembered there was a computer genius in our midst.” I wasn’t one, but I guess I had kept up enough of the act in college to have convinced somebody I was. I figured this whole project they had started was about figuring it out, so I did, and just kept figuring. It started with retooling their old site, but before I knew it, I couldn’t walk away from the project. I woke up, many cups of coffee later, having pored through all this content, built a completely new website, and had it ready to go if they said the word.

So, how to do you go about selecting people to be interviewed?

ASTRI In the beginning, the selection was often determined by whom we had some sort of personal connection to. Could we find their e-mail? Did we know someone who knew them?

LUCAS Yeah, for a while we didn’t have to connect any publicists or agents or anything like that, it was just us looking at the people we could get connected with.

ASTRI I did a lot of research, read all their books, and wrote them long, personal e-mails detailing why I was a genuine fan of their work or why I thought their story would suit the site specifically. I still write personal e-mails and do as much research as possible, but now the whole process has gotten easier because we have this incredible archive to refer to. It’s easier to ask an artist for an interview when you can say that you’ve interviewed Marina Abramovic. Or to approach some legendary writer when you can refer to your recent conversation with E. L. Doctorow. That doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult.

LUCAS I’ve definitely been turned down a bunch, especially by actors and directors early on. They seemed more skeptical of the press than writers. Also Jonathan Franzen, who still will not let me interview him, however hard I try.

Who was your first interview?

ASTRI The very first person I interviewed, and the first interview to be published on the site, was the writer Gary Shteyngart. He is a phenomenal writer; I’ve always loved his work. He was also my teacher at Columbia where I was getting my MFA in writing. Gary is one of those incredibly generous and accessible people. He didn’t hesitate, even though the site didn’t actually exist yet.

LUCAS Mine was Kristen Schaal, a comedian and performer I’d done some improv with in New York, and she was starting to get big at the time. Now she’s everywhere: she’s a Daily Show correspondent, she just had a big part on 30 Rock, and she’s in a bunch of movies.

EVAN My first interview was with Patrick Fischler, a friend of mine and also an actor. I think it was important to have a softball interview as my first, and I was still completely nervous. Once the interview got going, as they often do, it took on a life of its own, and I didn’t look at my list of questions once.

Most difficult?

ASTRI Do you mean most difficult to do or to get? I have to say that I’ve never had a bad interview experience. One that I thought was going to go terribly at first, though, was when I interviewed James Franco. He came 20 minutes late to the Starbucks where we were meeting, and he started out by basically telling me he didn’t want to be there. His assistant had said I would get 15 minutes, and his attitude made me fear I’d hardly get that. We ended up talking for an hour. And he warmed up. In the end, the interview was just great. As for the most difficult one to get, Marina Abramovic was pretty tough. I spent nearly a year trying first to track and then pin her down. In the end, I flew to New York from Stockholm to see her (terrified that she would cancel at the last minute!), and it was worth everything. The most difficult one to get, though, I’m still trying to get. It’s been nearly two years. I haven’t given up. I’m close. And I’m really, really stubborn.

LUCAS I’ve only had lovely interview experiences with the people we’ve featured. Honestly, nobody’s been very difficult at all. As far as difficult to get, I’ll go back to the Franzen Problem. I’ve e-mailed that guy so many times over the years that now he almost seems used to it. He’ll just write, “Hi Lucas. I’m sorry. Please keep trying.” Though he was nice enough to include me on his mass e-mail when he changed his e-mail address. So maybe he enjoys my persistence.

ASTRI That’s hilarious. Never stop trying.

Of all the people you’ve interviewed, who has the craziest Days of Yore story?

ASTRI Oh, so many. The photographer Thomas Roma stands out. His story is just so crazy, and his completely uncompromising attitude is both unnerving and inspiring. He was kicked out of high school for starting a fight. Then he got a job at 16 on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Then he was hit by a truck and sustained a serious brain injury. While recovering, he had to sit very still in his bed. All he could do was look out the window. His brother gave him a camera, and he started taking photos out the window. That changed everything. When he recovered, he quit a very successful career on Wall Street, embraced near total poverty, and unflinchingly pursued his dream of being an art photographer.

EVAN Thomas Roma was one that floored me, absolutely. His seems like so many different lives. A recent interview that Lucas did with actor and musician Jake La Botz seemed the most like what I’d imagine a movie version of the Days of Yore would entail. Jake’s story just read the way I’d expect a tortured, searching artist’s story to unravel—complete with drug dens, Bret Easton Ellis-styled Los Angeles, and long roads to redemption.

Ok, if you can interview anyone you want for the Days of Yore, who would it be?

EVAN I’d love to interview Martin Scorsese. That would blow my mind. I always want to know about a director’s journey from the first films that resonate so much (like Mean Streets with Scorsese) and how that journey winds, meanders, relates to their lives as they go on. That’s a goal of mine, to get more director interviews.

ASTRI Such a dream interview! Scorsese, definitely. I’d also love to interview Wes Anderson. I adore his style, the films he has made, the way he works. And Meryl Streep—what a woman. Also, Toni Morrison. And Tomas Tranströmer, but I’m afraid I’m too late for that.

Last question, but it’s a two-parter. It’s 20 years in the future, and you’re being interviewed for the Days of Yore (yes, it still exists in some form). First, what do you tell readers about your “days of yore,” your first steps starting out on the road to success? And, two, what does success look like 20 years from now? How will you define success?

ASTRI Wow, that’s a big question.

LUCAS That is very large, yes.

When I interview artists, I often ask what they would tell their younger selves that they think it would have benefitted them to know. In 20 years, I think I would tell my younger self to stop doubting herself so much. I am constantly wracked by self-doubt! But, like pretty much all of the DoY interviews show, this 20-something in-between time is somehow meant to be full of doubt. Am I doing the right thing? Making the right choices? Where will all these small, incomprehensible steps lead me? Like Steve Jobs said, you can’t connect the dots going forward, only looking back.

I interviewed a wonderful writer yesterday who said that, yes, the goal was always to publish books. But in the end, success for her is not actually that her work exists in print or that she has won a bunch of awards, but that she is able to take the image she has in her head and render it on the page.

EVAN Oh God, that seems like such an easy answer—it isn’t. But the first thought that came into my head was do more. Think less. Just do more. Our 20s can be a time of navel-gazing introspection. I would love to reach back in time, tilt my head upwards, move my legs forward, and just do. I would absolutely worry less about making the right choices and just commit to making choices, period.

LUCAS For so many of the people I’ve interviewed, their 20s represent this big, long blur of a decade, where all the events got lumped together, and they were throwing lots of things out there, seeing what stuck. That’s been the most helpful advice—realizing that every artist was deeply confused about something. Every artist wondered how they were going to pay bills early on, even once they started becoming well known. I’ve been lucky these past few years (or screwed, depending on how you look at it) in that I’ve been able to make a living doing lots of different things that I like doing, without thinking of those things in respect to a long-term, ultimate goal. I guess I’m still trying to figure out what “success” means to me. The one thing I do know is that it means owning seven white tigers.

EVAN As far as my definition of success goes, if I’m still acting, it will be when I’m getting the calls asking me to play a part instead of the other way around. In general, to be able to do whatever I love at an expert level will be enough. A sense of mastery in whatever it is I’ve chosen to do at that time will be successful in my book. To put a finer point on it, when I “know” instead of “think I know,” then I’ll define that as a success.

ASTRI But don’t you think the over 100 DoY interviews so far show that even the most successful artists never stop feeling like they don’t quite know? Which I guess, in a way, is comforting in and of itself.

EVAN You’re totally right. I’ll settle for knowing one thing, and seven white tigers.

LUCAS Nobody Ever Really Knows What They’re Doing: The Days of Yore Story.

ASTRI Publishers, come get it.

In the Queue: A House Divided

When a husband leaves his stay-at-home wife and small children to move in with his sexy, accomplished coworker, a series of predictable events often unfolds. The jilted wife remains in the home and struggles, often bitterly, to keep life normal for her kids, while he “moves on”—to a brand new, more titillating existence with fewer encumbrances. It’s been pretty much thus in American life for years.

Alexandra Whitaker, Spanish ’79, offers a refreshing take on that long-standing scenario in her novel Leaving Sophie Dean. She upends conventional wisdom about how marriages end and demonstrates that there are better alternatives. Not only does the book offer a riveting tale with delightfully surprising twists, it may also serve to raise the bar on how people handle the dissolution of their marriage.

The book opens with best friends Agatha Weatherby and Valerie Hughes discussing their affairs with married men. Valerie is deeply in love with fellow architect Adam Dean, father of two young boys and husband to Sophie. Agatha challenges Valerie to force Adam’s hand and make him choose between his wife and her. Without a moment’s concern for the lives she may be messing up—other than her own if Adam doesn’t meet her ultimatum—Valerie tells him that he has 48 hours to leave his wife.

Busy with mothering and homemaking, Sophie is oblivious to the threat. Our first glimpse of her seems to reveal a conciliatory, slightly overwhelmed hausfrau focused on minutiae and family peacekeeping. But when confronted with Adam’s announcement that he is moving out, Sophie rises to the occasion with a power play that clearly demonstrates she is the better gamester.

With that move, the main characters are all forced to do things they never anticipated, and many of their subsequent efforts to gain control over their teetering plans lead to unexpected outcomes—readers may gloat!

Equally unexpected is the way in which Whitaker creates and then annihilates stereotypes. Early in the novel, the characters are easily typecast: Valerie, the villainess out to destroy a family; Adam, the self-absorbed snake; Sophie, the mousy, misunderstood wife. But by the end, they have each evolved into more self-aware, compassionate people.

As for Sophie, she may well become a contemporary icon for female determination and gutsy action. She delivers some fine, outspoken commentary
to her husband, and to her new lover, that many women (and men) may wish to aspire to. There may come a time in our culture when those finding themselves in similar circumstances will ask, What would Sophie Dean do? What would Sophie Dean say? How can I be like Sophie Dean?

Ode to Joy

For those who enjoy listening to music that sounds like it was created with actual instruments played by actual people, there is plenty to love about this latest 12-track accomplishment from Hip Hatchet, released in April 2012 by Gravitation Records.

The musical brainchild of Philippe Bronchtein ’10, Hip Hatchet combines self-assured vocals with storyline lyrics, creating a solid selection of engaging melodies that carry on long after music has ended. But don’t be deceived by the upbeat overtones of songs such as “Limits and Rules,” whose lyrics expose a darker story. These songs deserve a closer listening, and Bronchtein’s voice—from a young musician who seems far beyond his years— practically demands it. Whether it’s his light touch on the guitar, piano, organ, and accordion, Bronchtein brings a depth and sincerity to his music on Joy and Better Days.

Rounding out the album’s sound is a handful of musicians and friends, including fellow Middlebury 2010 classmate Charlie Freundlich on double bass, Alex Lewis on guitar, and Jake Nussbaum on drums. It’s no surprise that Bronchtein is a man of many talents, after all. As an undergrad, he was as much involved with dance and performance as he was behind the mic. He currently lives in Portland, Oregon, and continues to dance with a number of performing groups, while also composing, performing, and recording his music as Hip Hatchet.