Tag Archives: Winter 2011

Secret to Success

Authors in the cottage industry of “Get Rich Quick” books offer bullet-pointed plans, secret schemes, and peppy mantras promising to help make you a millionaire. What finance magazine writer Ryan D’Agostino ’97 found far more intriguing, and potentially valuable to readers, were first-person accounts of how real Americans became wealthy.

Mega-success stories—Trump, Gates, Buffett—have already been well documented. D’Agostino wondered about everyday residents in prosperous burgs and ’burbs. What wisdom could they impart?

To investigate America’s Average Joe and Jane Millionaire, D’Agostino reinvented himself as a “door-to-door journalist.” He designed a quixotic project: Show up unannounced at houses in America’s 100 wealthiest ZIP codes and talk to well-heeled homeowners. His hypothesis? “If I knocked on enough doors in enough preposterously rich enclaves, I might gather enough insight and guidance to help me . . . understand how to get rich,” he writes. His secret weapons? A pen and $1.79 steno pad always in hand.

D’Agostino chronicles his quest in Rich Like Them: My Door-to-Door Search for the Secrets of Wealth in America’s Richest Neighborhoods (Little, Brown and Co., 2009). It’s a breezily written account of his blistered-filled journey, from scorching sidewalks in Paradise Valley, Arizona, to the shivering wintry seashore of Westport, Connecticut. Ultimately, he hit 19 towns in 11 states, walking almost 60 miles and knocking on 500 doors to get 50 interviews.

Only the more adventurous residents “bothered” to chat with him, D’Agostino asserts, those “operating on the theory that infinite possibility exists in the unknown.” The author admits his “sampling of people was sparse and thoroughly unscientific.”

Nonetheless, the unusual approach yields fascinating and informative results. “Knocking on strangers’ doors reveals a town’s fiber, its small glories, its rust and dents, its quiet spots,” D’Agostino muses. By observing the affluent-American species in its natural habitat, the author focuses on understanding the sociology and psychology of individuals who prosper, rather than merely distilling business or financial tips from them. The people he meets inspire him, and he hopes that “their stories might inspire you to rewrite your own.”

D’Agostino organizes their tales around five themes: connections, luck, obsession, risk, and humility. Copious subheads within each chapter bristle with bold-faced maxims, often straight from the Corporate Cliché of the Month Club. (Connect the People You Meet!) The narrative’s vigor comes from anecdotes that illustrate the traits and truisms. Some interviewees have traveled delightfully unorthodox paths while putting prosperity platitudes into practice.

In Beverly Hills, California, retired character-actor Harvey Jason memorably connects people and passions. His small used-book store became an “inadvertent networking triumph” as former Hollywood colleagues came looking for film-related books, one of Jason’s special interests. They also happily autographed movie literature related to their own careers, and Mystery Pier Books fast became the place to find rare industry-related merchandise.

Frank Heurich, of Lake Forest, Illinois, vividly illustrates Chapter Two’s topic: Luck Doesn’t Exist. For more than 50 years, his company has manufactured just one machine, which peels and deveins shrimp. The firm doesn’t sell the pricey, propriety device, instead leasing the expensive equipment to clients month-to-month, maintaining and upgrading it continually. “By assuming all the risk, we’re announcing that we have confidence in our product,” says Heurich. “And that we can keep the customer happy.”

Jason, Heurich, and most of D’Agostino’s interviewees come across as earnest and unassuming. Becoming “rich like them” seems accessible. They aren’t all that different from you, the author asserts, just “smart people with motivation and a few good ideas.” Especially during tough economic times, it’s a refreshing take on the American Dream.


Island Light (MacAdam/Cage, 2010) is the final novel in the trilogy written by Katherine Towler, MA English ’84, which includes Snow Island and Evening Ferry. Unlike most trilogies, this one plays loosely with a wide range of characters and instead keeps central the small and isolated island off the coast of New England upon which all of the stories take place. (And as this reviewer had the fortune of reading all three, it’s a personal indulgence to review this final story in its sequence—though certainly it can be read and enjoyed on its own.)

In a well-choreographed dance between time and place, Towler has moved her story from the first novel, which takes place in the early 1940s, through the second in the mid-’60s, to the final installment in 1990.

In addition to the now familiar island terrain, the common thread of turbulent war and equally stormy relationships also connect the three tales. World War II was the catalyst in Snow Island, spreading its shadow over a group of young people coming to terms with their isolated life on a remote island amidst a suddenly exposed worldview. The cultural and political disillusionment of Vietnam pervades Evening Ferry, revealing a lackluster and emotionally paralyzed cast of characters. And in Island Light, the strange and somewhat surreal news bulletins of the burgeoning Persian Gulf conflict—in which disembodied voices reported from the bombed and darkened city of Baghdad in a new language of “tracers” and “desert storm”—incongruously connects a comfortably detached community.

This final story focuses alternately on three main characters—Ruth Lambert, Nick McGarrell, and Nora Venable—each tied to the island in an inextricable way, each struggling with issues of relationships and identity in a way that ends up being somewhat inconclusive by the end. Nick is a Vietnam veteran and has returned with his quiet pain to live near his parents and toil as a carpenter while engaging in a dead-end affair with a married woman. Ruth has come back to the island to consider the future of the less-than-majestic Snow Inn, inherited from her deceased aunt. And Nora is an openly gay older woman, more than comfortable with her sexuality and only wanting to find a quiet peace on the island to live out her days with the woman she loves.

It’s a gentle clashing of cultures and personal needs, but an intriguing and engaging story throughout. A significant occurrence is the fire that rampages through Nora’s family mansion and intertwines the lives of the islanders in a way that jars their typical comfort level of perfunctory nods and ferry-dock conversations.

In the end, it is a story of unremarkable beauty depicting life as it unfolds in a small place far from everyone and everywhere else. A tidy epilogue goes so far as to capture their lives, one by one, in their utter unchanged-ness. The most aged of the characters, George Tibbets, who made his first appearance in Snow Island, notes of his leaving the island—perhaps for the last time—“The place would wait for him, as always had.” And so the island remains.

Recently Published

  • Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League (Lawrence Hill Books, 2010) by Martha Ackmann, MA English ’79
  • The Wish Stealers (Aladdin, 2010) by Tracy Trivas, MA English ’04
  • Damage Control: How to Tiptoe Away from the Smoking Wreckage of Your Latest Screw-up with a Minimum of Harm to Your Reputation (McClelland and Stewart, 2010) by David Eddie ’84
  • Living with Crohn’s and Colitis: A Comprehensive Naturopathic Guide for Complete Digestive Wellness (Hatherleigh Press, 2010) by Dede Cummings ’79 and Jessica Black, ND
  • How Tía Lola Learned to Teach (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010) by Julia Alvarez ’71

The Most Valuable Legacy

Twelve colleagues retired from the faculty this past December as part of the College’s early retirement program offered to employees during the 2008–09 recession. Jessica and I hosted a dinner in honor of the retirees at Kirk Alumni Center on November 30th, and then the entire faculty had the opportunity do the same at the December faculty meeting one week later. Both events were extraordinary for reasons that reflect so well on our College and, over time, have helped to create an atmosphere that is hard to beat for a student’s undergraduate education.

The dinner, at which each of the retirees had with them a table of invited guests, numbered more than 100, and there was wonderful warmth to the atmosphere in the room. During the reception, colleagues who, over the years, had shared the same facility (Kirk Alumni Center) for countless faculty meetings—many of which included a number of testy and quintessentially “academic” exchanges—reminisced in groups that defied departmental affiliations and harkened back to a time when the faculty was small enough that everyone on the faculty knew one another, knew what they taught, and was familiar with each other’s area of scholarship or artistic endeavor. Roaming the room, prior to taking our seats, it was difficult to tell which honoree had invited which guests to the dinner, as the familiarity and comfort among all those at Kirk that evening was so genuine and undeniable. It would have indeed been a fun parlor game to see how well one could place those invited by each retiring colleague at the correct table.

As presidents often do on these occasions, I had the honor of “emceeing” the event. But because of my 26 years on the Middlebury faculty, the evening was no regular gig: I was unable to see these retiring colleagues only as employees who deserved to be recognized and thanked by the institution for all their years of service. I was a colleague of theirs for more than a quarter of a century, and I had deep and meaningful experiences with each and every one:

  • the colleague who initiated and developed what is today the premier Chinese department among liberal arts colleges (John Berninghausen);
  • the coach-mentor who won six national titles in women’s cross country, and who was as proud of the prodigious number of phi beta kappa graduates on his teams as he was of their titles (Terry Aldrich);
  • the entrepreneur-faculty member, who, in addition to fixing clocks, raising sheep, and founding an institute that was deeply involved with the democratization of the former Soviet bloc, year after year challenged our students to draw upon their creative and innovative talents both inside and outside the classroom (Michael Claudon);
  • the French professor who taught and administered in meticulous and supreme fashion in three parts of the College—in the undergraduate program (the French department), in our School in France, and in our summer intensive French School (Bethany Ladimer);
  • the political scientist whose unbounded intellectual curiosity led him to develop and teach a wider range of courses than anyone else over the past four decades (David Rosenberg);
  • the alumnus, Class of ’67, who founded the College’s counseling center and who, behind the scenes, and, because of the nature of his work, without much recognition, helped scores of students overcome personal challenges during their time at Middlebury (Gary Margolis);
  • his classmate, roommate, and teammate (varsity basketball), who taught American literature and served as dean of students, dean of advising, and dean or faculty head of each of our five commons (Karl Lindholm);
  • the artist who, in addition to his remarkably consistent, excellent studio teaching across more than three decades, taught as his final winter term course an innovative outdoor environmental-art class on site at a spectacular ranch near the four corners in southern Colorado (Eric Nelson);
  • the gifted physicist who, because he was so committed to conveying the wonders of science to pre-college students, transformed our teacher education program by directing the program for five years in order to ensure better K–12 science teaching (Bob Prigo);
  • the mathematician turned computer scientist who founded our computer science program and was instrumental in developing the annual Middlebury-Williams “green chicken” math competition (Bob Martin);
  • the superb translator of Russian literature and texts and greatly admired teacher of Russian, who also served as dean of the Language Schools and Schools Abroad at a pivotal time in College’s pursuit of internationalizing its curriculum (Michael Katz);
  • and the beloved teacher of Spanish language, literature, and culture, who also directed our School in Spain, taught in our Spanish Language School, served as vice president of the Language Schools, and was the intellectual inspiration to so many colleagues and students (Roberto Veguez).
  • Combined, these 12 colleagues accounted for 404 years of teaching and mentoring Middlebury students, and a good fraction of that time they also mentored faculty who began their careers after them, including me. It was easy to provide sincere words of thanks to each of them during the dinner; it was difficult to keep my comments brief or to avoid injecting them with personal recollections of each colleague as I remembered their contributions in my role as faculty colleague, dean of the faculty, provost, and now president.

    The impact of their time at the College was, to put it mildly, enormous, yet a most important part of their legacy leaves me, as it should our alumni and current and future students, extremely grateful for their contributions and confident about the future of our College. In addition to how well these faculty educated generations of Middlebury students during the past 40 years, they also solidified and passed onto their colleagues a strong faculty culture that, without question, places our students and the institution at the center of their professional pursuits. Despite the rising demands and pressures on the professoriate within the academy, and the ramifications of specialization within academic disciplines, Middlebury faculty retain their unwavering commitment to undergraduate education and to educating our students in the tradition of the liberal arts. Such a commitment is not typical today, and I, indeed all of us, owe a great amount of gratitude to the 12 colleagues we recently honored for leaving such an invaluable legacy and gift to the College. We wish them all a long, satisfying, and happy retirement.

Coffee Brake

It’s 4:30 on a cold November morning in Astoria, Queens, and David Belanich ’05 swings his car’s headlights across a padlocked urban parking lot. He hops out and opens the lock, shivering, and drives inside. There in front of him is a long row of empty Mister Softee ice cream trucks, parked for the night. These trucks are spooky, in the manner of deserted amusement parks. This is a not-bad place for a Sopranos-style mob hit.

Belanich directs his headlights into a far corner, toward his own food truck, a former FedEx delivery vehicle he’s had spotlessly and cheerfully refurbished. From it he dispenses, on Manhattan’s streets, a more sophisticated product than Mister Softee ever dreamed of: his own blend of tart, high-end frozen yogurt, as well as coffee from the celebrated indie brand, Stumptown Coffee Roasters. In a few hours he’ll flip on his truck’s neon sign, which casts a warm and welcoming yellow glow. In loopy cursive script it reads, appropriately enough: Joyride.

But first, there’s work to be done. Belanich fires up his truck’s generator and checks his supplies, including steel containers of fresh toppings: mangoes, kiwis, pomegranates. After making sure everything is stowed tightly—things tend to bounce around during the pothole-filled drive into Manhattan—he hits the road. At 7 a.m., he glides into a favorite spot on Park Avenue between 26th and 27th streets, in front of the landmark 1928 New York Life Building. He brews some coffee, does some prep work, and bingo: Joyride is open for business.

Customers arrive almost immediately. Even though Joyride is parked here only on Tuesdays—it occupies a different location around the city each day—there are regulars who brandish “Buy 10, get one free” cards. Joyride has only been operating since July, but already it’s made a name for itself in Manhattan’s flowering and increasingly hip food truck scene. The trend-spotting Web site Daily Candy praised Joyride’s “buzzed” frozen yogurt—fro-yo that’s been spiked with caffeine—and also a honeylike topping called jaggery, often derived from the sap of Sri Lankan palm trees. This isn’t your grandmother’s frozen treat.

Joyride has won admirers, too, for its inventive and witty coffee specials, including the Jeffrey Paul, a kind of ultimate cafe mocha made from double shots of espresso and delicate MarieBelle hot chocolate, dusted with espresso grinds and chocolate shavings. Then there’s the Balzac, essentially the same drink with the addition of gently heated organic milk. The truck also sells pastries and, in the fall, fresh cider doughnuts.

The good press has been a bonus, but Belanich isn’t taking any chances in terms of getting the word out. “Excuse me,” he says, allowing a female employee to take over the customers for a minute. “I almost forgot to do the social media.” He pops out his iPhone and posts Joyride’s location on Twitter and Facebook. Then he updates his location on a real-time online food truck map operated by Zagat, the restaurant guide company. “There,” he says, smiling. “Now the world can find us.”

Operating a frozen yogurt truck in downtown Manhattan is not where David Belanich thought he’d find himself when he left Middlebury six years ago. Belanich, who grew up in Great Neck, Long Island—his Croatian-born father worked in real estate—was a political science major who, after graduation, spent two years pursuing a Ph.D. in political science at Yale. When he took a year off from Yale to spend time with his father, who was ill, he never went back. “I didn’t want to write any more papers for a while,” he says. “I wanted to do something on my own, something more exciting, and to see what happened.”

He teamed up with a friend, Lev Brie, a Columbia graduate, and his younger brother, Adam Belanich, a Dartmouth grad, and began kicking around business ideas. There were plenty of them. They debated starting a finance company or a media aggregator Web site. (“None of us are programmers or journalists, so the media site was kind of a non-starter,” he admits.) They opened a small tutoring company—it is still running—before hitting on the idea of a frozen yogurt truck. “A lot of people my age don’t want ice cream any longer,” he says. “They want something better and more healthy.”

Once upon a time in America the idea of dropping out of Yale to run a food truck would have seemed absurd. To many people, it surely still does. But food is taken more seriously every day; it’s its own kind of cultural pursuit, and it is attracting the types of creative and ambitious young people who would have scoffed at the field two decades ago.

The world of street food is also rapidly changing. On Manhattan’s streets, you used to be able to pick up a cup of coffee from a Greek or Afghan vendor or a hot dog from a cart run by Dominicans. There were a lot of pretzel, smoothie, nut, and kabob carts, too. These days, though, you can find sophisticated sandwiches, wood-fired pizza, and almost anything else. And behind the counter, you’re as likely to find an MBA as a struggling recent immigrant.

The first thing Belanich and his partners did, after deciding to start Joyride, was buy a used FedEx truck on eBay. “We spent about $9,000 on it,” he says. They picked it up in Vermont and brought it back to New York to be outfitted. A lot of thought went into the truck’s brushed-steel interior, and to its coloring and logo. Then the three got lucky, winning a coveted New York City mobile food vendor permit in an official lottery. (There are 3,000 such permits in New York. Only a few new ones are issued every year.)

“The great thing about a food truck is that you’re not paying rent,” Belanich says. “But there are a lot of hassles. It’s not like a restaurant where you can just turn the water on. You’ve got to fill your tank in advance.” If he needs to use a bathroom, he jogs up Park Avenue to a nearby McDonald’s.

The hassles don’t end there. “Nobody likes food trucks except your customers,” he says. “Restaurants don’t like them. Neither do small coffee vendors and other food trucks.”

It took Joyride a while to learn where they could park the truck on New York’s streets. “In the first month, we got three tickets,” Belanich says. Sometimes restaurant owners complain when he pulls up, and sometimes neighbors don’t like his truck’s noisy generator. “We’ve taken serious measures to reduce the noise,” he says.

As Joyride becomes better known in Manhattan, different sorts of offers are pouring in. Belanich was asked to bring the truck to the movie set of Premium Rush, and the truck has also served coffee and yogurt on the set of the TV show Gossip Girl. He’s often asked to take the truck to weddings, bar mitzvahs, and private parties.

The long-term plan? Belanich says it’s to purchase more trucks, and perhaps to turn Joyride into a national franchise. “It’s a lot of work,” he says, “and a lot of brutal early mornings. But I am having more fun now than anytime in my life.”

He serves a cup of steaming coffee to a gregarious businesswoman in a bright scarf.

“People always smile when they see our truck, because it’s happy looking,” he says. “To be honest, it always makes me smile when I see it, too.”

Turned Off

The eighth-grade students were stunned.

“Mr. B, how do you live?” they asked, after I mentioned I turned off my Facebook account, don’t have cable TV, have never tweeted, and only send 10 or so text messages a day. For most of my students, this act of cutting back or turning off an otherwise constant flow of information was inconceivable.

Now let me set the record straight—I’m certainly no Luddite. I’ve organized most of my class work around a blog, maintain my own education Web site, and am, in general, pretty addicted to the Internet. As a substitute for cable TV, I subscribe to Netflix and stream some of my favorite shows, including Dexter, 30 Rock, and Damages. I like my BlackBerry. By any logical or sane standard, I’m hardly disconnected. But in today’s intractably tethered world, not really.

Jaron Lanier’s fascinating critique of Internet and digital media use, You Are Not a Gadget, was a catalyst for my scaling back. While there are amazing benefits resulting from the ease of digital information production and sharing, Lanier points out the worst of it. There are the bullying, the anonymous abuses online, and the Twitter feeds that create what he calls a “cultural slum world” online. Think about the amount of spam and chatter online that is simply a mindless response to movies, music, video games, and other media forms. This is not to mention the millions of useless blogs, YouTube clips, and other forms of expression that may or may not have any redeeming value.

If all of my skills and interests exist in a digital sphere, what do I do if I don’t have access to the Internet, my iPod, or other gadgets? If the Internet crashes, what do I do? If all my important skills, documents, and general records of existence survive in some abstract computing cloud somewhere, what if the cloud disappears?

Inspired by Lanier and Middlebury’s own Bill McKibben, who presciently (eerily?!) wrote about the fragmentation of “real” experiences in contemporary society in his 1992 book The Age of Missing Information, I’ve attempted to strike a better balance between what I do digitally and what some might call “hard” skills.

Take my new hobby of bow hunting for whitetail deer, for instance. To hunt, I need to experience more than the keyboard or mouse, be aware of my natural surroundings, and draw upon human needs that many of us can get disconnected from if we’re too concerned with digital, “cultural slum” material.

I also brew my own beer, raise chickens in my backyard, enjoy gardening and working on house projects. I like to build fires in the fire pit in my backyard. I like to grow things. Just because we don’t have to do these things doesn’t mean we should write them off in favor of leisure and convenience.

We are all too quick to embrace the latest software development or gadget as if it is unequivocally necessary for human survival, happiness, and productivity. I love many technological applications in my personal and professional life.  But I worry that too much technology and an overzealous approach to its mere existence will somehow distract us from hard skills and satisfying aspects of humanity that have persisted for thousands of years.

A teacher and a writer, Paul Barnwell currently works in the Jefferson County School System in Kentucky.

In Memory of a Son

I put off reading Mary Westra’s After the Murder of My Son for as long as I could, and I did so for entirely selfish reasons: as a parent, I couldn’t bear to read about the loss of a child. It was not so much the senseless and brutally violent death of Peter Westra ’99 that kept the book unopened on my desk for one, two, three months, as it was the abject fear of a mother’s grief in all its rawness, its horror, its anger; but not just the grief itself as it lay on the page, but its power of transference. I feared that the virtually unspeakable terror that all parents keep hidden in the deepest recesses of their minds would leach to the surface, would pervade my thoughts, haunt my dreams. And I was not two paragraphs into the book’s preface before coming face-to-face with my cowardice: it does not take an ounce of courage to read this book, not when compared to writing it, to living it. And so on I read, and now here I write, encouraging, urging, pleading, really, with you not to make the same mistake I nearly did. Find this book and read it, for it will teach you more about love and hope and the human condition (and, yes, agony and gut-wrenching grief, too) than anything else you might ever read.

If, as a reader, approaching this book is based on confrontation (as my approach was), then know that this memoir is predicated on confrontation—from the crime that was committed outside an Atlantic City strip club in the early morning hours of July 8, 2001, to Mary Westra’s (and her family’s) continuous confrontation with the tragedy, its aftermath, and her own complex and ever-changing feelings.

At the heart of this book is a violent assault—five men kicking and bludgeoning a 24-year-old until he is dead—and there are passages in After the Murder of My Son that are as raw and as blunt and as brutal as the repeated blows that landed on Peter’s body. Beginning with the darkest hours and days that immediately followed her son’s death and continuing through each milestone (month-by-month anniversaries of the date of the killing, holidays, a birthday) that inevitably arose, Mary Westra confronts her grief and anger and confusion with unsparing detail. We bear witness to the awful moment of notification (and the appalling degree of confusion that preceded it by way of a disrupted phone call), to the unanswered questions Mary has for Peter, and, eventually, to the questions she’s afraid to learn the answers to—those of his friends and Middlebury classmates who were with him that evening and morning.

The story reaches its climax with the trials of the accused, the bouncers and employees of the Atlantic City strip club. Again, Mary writes with gripping detail and searing honesty—we are voyeurs as she visits the scene of Peter’s death, we sit in the courtroom as she faces the man accused of taking her son’s life, and we are invited to join her in grappling with the confusion (and rage? more hurt?) that accompanies a denouement that one could reasonably argue was unjust. (Let’s just say that the title of the memoir has even more of an edge once you reach the end of the book.)

However, it is not the conclusion that has stayed with me but a sentence from earlier in the book, a sentiment, a fear that Mary espoused a few months after Peter was killed. She worried that she would forget him, that others would gradually forget who he was, that their memories of her son would fade with time. By writing this book, she has ensured that that will never be the case.

In the Name of the Father

When Pastor Howard Fauntroy ’89 returned to Detroit to fill his father’s post, he hardly recognized the place he called home.

At 17101 West Seven Mile Road in Detroit, the First Baptist Institutional Church knows two pastors by the same name: the late Howard Fauntroy Jr., the father, and his son, Howard Fauntroy III, whom the congregants call Pastor, or Howard. It was the father who imagined the blueprints, saw the first bricks laid, and preached life into the new church’s cavernous walls when it opened in 1975. But when the father died in 1996, the son saw his work through. It was Howard’s duty, his father’s wish, and an inheritance he could not decline. The congregants would say that God had moved Howard to become their spiritual leader—others, perhaps, that he was bound on a path he did not choose. †

On a Sunday evening in December, 14 years after his father’s death, I’ve come to visit Howard in his office. I find him leaning slightly forward over his lectionary, spine straight and upright, as he pencils notes in the book’s margin. His study is dim and cluttered with racks of old choir robes, miniature cars, photos, magazines, and stacks of last Sunday’s programs. A sepia portrait of his father hangs over the folding table he calls his desk. There’s plenty to distract him—a dripping faucet, a ticking clock, his iPhone, set squarely beside the lectionary. But Howard is poised and deliberate. He circles words and summarizes paragraphs; he hums and nods at certain lines. At a break in the scripture, he pauses, folds one arm across his chest and the other toward his chin, resting his forefinger there for a moment before an idea strikes him, and he leans again over the page.

This is his practice: he reads from the lectionary at the start of every week. On Mondays, he begins with coffee and the New York Times, combing troubled headlines for stories to illustrate the lesson. (In hard times, he says, the Golden Rule is the first forgotten.) Fridays, he reviews his notes, and Saturdays, he writes. Sundays, he climbs to the pulpit, and his words pour out as if he’s known them all along.

Even after 14 years, Howard’s duties are anything but routine. Not long ago, First Baptist neared foreclosure when a fraudulent mortgage company, Alanar Inc., snared the church in a Ponzi scheme. Then this year, a utility company overestimated the church’s meter readings and shut off the electricity when Howard refused to pay the bill. Now, between visits to sick parishioners and Bible study, he’s working with an interfaith council to alert Detroiters to the utility bill scam. “People are paying bills they do not owe,” he says. He worries that many will lose their credit—and homes—when they can’t pay utilities this winter.

Howard can list the city’s symptoms of decline like a doctor with a medical chart—a third of its population in poverty, only slightly fewer unemployed. But the story behind these numbers precedes the recent economic collapse. “For such a long period of time, this was the mecca, regardless of race, color, or creed,” says Howard. In Detroit, the working class was once the middle class. A job in manufacturing earned a high wage, a respectable house, a summer retreat, and a new car every three years. By 1950, the city had a robust population near two million. Then, over the next half century, it dropped by half. Racism, crime, and failing schools led to urban flight. Buildings were gutted and whole city blocks razed, as if, in an exhale, the city’s lungs fluttered and deflated within her rib cage.

Though First Baptist fared better, it was not immune to the collapse. In the nineties alone, almost a third of its 1,400 congregants moved south to cities they had called home before the industry beckoned. But there were many, still, who stayed. I once asked a congregant what kept him in Detroit, and he said, “Here at church, I’m around people who understand who I am and what I am.”

The same evening that I visited Howard in his office, we sat in a back pew of the sanctuary to watch the youth group perform a dance. The girls twirled and swayed in long red robes, and the boys, faces painted white, moved their hands and eyes mechanically, like mimes. “Yes, yes,” Howard cooed. Hallelujahs bounced off the walls, and the pianist, Maestro, pounded chords in a new key.

Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan?

Not long ago, political science professor Quinn Mecham was in Aceh, Sumatra, a once-rebellious Indonesian province and ground zero of the 2004 tsunami that swept more than 230,000 lives out to sea. Hopping a bush flight up and over the mountains to Meulaboh, a remote and deeply conservative city where Sharia law had been recently enacted with some vigor, Mecham and his U.S. State Department colleagues went in search of the governor and his religious police. Public shamings and canings were causing a stir among aid groups, whose projects dotted the post-disaster landscape. The governor told him that the Muslim community was tight-knit, and so the laws were quite popular, Mecham recalled recently. “When I left, he gave me a dagger.”

Later, talking to a British aid worker, Mecham heard a different explanation. “During the war of rebellion, tons of men were killed. Shortly after that, when the tsunami hit, a disproportionate number of women were killed—men tend to work inland, while children, women, and grandmothers live down by the coast. Suddenly there was a rebalancing of the genders, and lots of singles. There was this new dating season, and marriage season—and it’s now adultery season. People are disillusioned with these second marriages.” Sharia law was an effective way to pull the community back together, to tighten social strictures and save patched-together families. “I don’t think the governor would have told me that story. But I found it quite compelling.”

“Compelling” is high praise from a scholar and tarnished idealist whose travels through the darker corners of the world have left him with a lingering mistrust of simple explanations. On a leaden-skied September afternoon, over lunch at the Storm Café, in Middlebury, Mecham was trying to find compelling answers to the question of Yemen. “You could make a laundry list of problems facing Yemen,” he said, between bites of potato garlic soup and a deconstructing sandwich, “some of which are going to matter a lot more than others.” Draining aquifers, oil wells that will soon pump only mud, a violent insurgency in the north and a secessionist movement in the south, endemic corruption, and an agile despot for a president—any of these alone would weaken a country. Together, they may collapse it.

Failed modern states are rare; Somalia is one. And the sudden rise of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), out in the rugged Yemeni desert, with its series of near-successful terrorist attacks, invites comparison to another: Afghanistan. The U.S. has spent nine years and $336 billion in a spectacular effort to simultaneously right Afghanistan and fight a war there. One wonders if Yemen needs our help, and if it could survive it.