Tags » Winter 2012

 
 
 

Depth of Field

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Trevor SnappOne day last February, Trevor Snapp ’02 boarded a bus in Cairo, headed west along a coast springing with the neon of beach resorts, and stopped before the Libyan border in the dry, scrubby town of Saloum. Just the day before he had been in Morocco (he had guessed the nation would be the next swept up in the Arab Spring) when he heard that Libya’s coastal checkpoint was abandoned. A journalist had passed easily into the country. “I woke up the next morning, thought, ‘I’d better get to Libya,’ took the next plane to Cairo, and went straight for the border.” From Saloum, he described it like this: “I crossed over. There was some dude with a gun. He said, ‘Get in the van.’ Next thing I knew, I was in Benghazi, and there were people with guns everywhere, missiles going all day long, like the rebels were convincing themselves they were an army. You took a picture. They shot in the air. They were playing to the camera.”

The rebels, Trevor found, were scrappy but unpracticed. Their bombs were the sort fishermen tossed overboard in tomato cans to send fish, dead, to the surface. When an army loyal to the revolutionaries organized a front line, rebels charged past it, shooting then retreating to the back. At first, they pushed Muammar Qaddafi’s forces west toward Sirte, the dictator’s birthplace. Then they began to lose. By the time Qaddafi had nearly reached Benghazi and NATO dropped bombs in the rebels’ defense, Trevor had left the country.

I met him on Avenue Bourghiba in Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, eight months later—the day Qaddafi was killed. Trevor wore a blue button-down shirt, loose jeans that tapered around his calves, ankle-high brown boots, and a soft leather camera bag slung over his left shoulder. He looked his age of 31, with a trimmed beard and wry smile. He spoke slowly and with an odd accent he calls “international English,” which made his eloquence seem all the more surprising. We walked north toward the Libyan embassy and paused at a sidewalk café for coffee. It came in tall, milky glasses and with a bowl of sugar cubes. “The bang-bang is only part of the story,” said Trevor, when I asked why he left Libya. “The market wants their bang-bang shots, and there are plenty of photographers to supply them. The market doesn’t care as much for civilian casualties or gangs that grow up in the ashes of the war. It’s hard for photographers because we risk a lot to go to these places, and we want to go back. We want to finish the story. But often we have to do it on our own dime.” Though wasn’t it the breaking news, I asked, that first drew him to Libya? “I’m not interested in conflict for conflict’s sake,” he said. “I’m more interested in what happens next.”

Two men took the table next to ours, and a waiter placed a hookah pipe between them. He lit and fanned the coal. The sun had set, and the street was dimly lit, streaked by the yellow lights of taxis. A car trailing a Libyan flag passed. “Let’s go,” said Trevor, sliding two dinars onto the table. We walked north until we came to the embassy, a tall, columned building hemmed with razor wire. A few dozen men had slipped past the coils and gathered on the steps. They were sweaty and ecstatic, and chanted in breathy syllables. Some held their arms in slings; one boy leaned on crutches. On the sidewalk, a crowd gathered around a white SUV, doors splayed, a stereo blaring hip-hop in Arabic. A pretty girl who wore a flag over her hair asked me to take her photograph. “I’m so happy,” she said. She asked if I had seen the pictures of Qaddafi. I had—his face contorted, pressed against another man’s knee, chest soaked in blood. “I’m so happy,” she said again and ran into the crowd. A legless man wheeled onto the sidewalk. When Trevor kneeled to take his picture, the man didn’t notice; he leaned forward in his chair and sobbed.

I found Trevor one afternoon at a café east of Tunis, where we were to meet our translator. Ammar, 29, had just voted in Tunisia’s first democratic election but would return soon to Dubai, where he worked for a marketing company. He was tall, impeccably groomed, and, having expected a more glamorous employer, confounded by Trevor’s nonchalance. (One night, he asked about our plans for the next day. We didn’t have any, Trevor replied; we made them up as we went along. “You’re kidding!” said Ammar. “You’re an interesting man, Trevor! You really are!”)

Ammar took the back seat of our rental car, lit a cigarette, and opened a newspaper. The Islamist party, which believes faith should be the foundation for Tunisia’s new democracy, had won the most seats on the constitutional assembly. This was no surprise, since practicing Muslims were jailed and tortured by the last regime. Their devotion to Islam—and their political will—had strengthened through years of isolation. The winning party, despite its religious roots, promised to uphold women’s rights, even those contrary to Sharia law. But Trevor suspected these progressive values were strongest in the urban north, while in the country’s southern reaches, Tunisians sought a far more conservative state. So, he suggested we get out of the city.


A Heads Up

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

The other day, I was in Otter Creek Bakery just up the street from our editorial offices here in Middlebury, part of my daily morning ritual of ensuring “adequate” caffeine and caloric intake, when a comment from a fellow patron really caught my attention.

“Now that’s what I call multitasking.”

The comment was directed at me as I stood before one of the coffee receptacles, using my right hand to fill up my cup with a selection of the bakery’s darkest roast—while using my left to hold an iPhone, my attention riveted to the tiny screen while my thumb was busy scrolling through my Twitter feed.

I chuckled, muttered something about a guilty habit, and went on my way. But as I walked back to my office, I couldn’t help but think: What was so important, so interesting to a) divert my attention from the scalding hot liquid that was flowing right before me, and b) perhaps more pertinent, though less imminently dangerous, have me ignore the very real people who were standing around me? Was it the latest political gossip concerning the Republican primaries? The “news” that someone I’m following didn’t sleep well last night? Could this not have waited—at least until I had filled up my coffee cup? Now some may want to accuse me of Twitter-bashing, of unfairly maligning the utility of the social media tool; so, let me acknowledge that I firmly believe that it can be useful—even revolutionary—in the dissemination of information. What worries me is this: at what cost?

A year ago, Shirley Collado, the dean of the College and chief diversity officer at Middlebury, addressed this very question in a blog post titled “The Disconnection of Being Connected.” In that post, she wrote: “As I walk about campus, I see something that worries me. Many students are so profoundly connected online that I fear they are disconnected from life right here. I often see students glued to their cell phones, disregarding people in the same room. I see students with laptop lives, perpetually Facebooking, tweeting, scanning YouTube, weblogs, podcasts, and wikis. The face-to-face conversation, the handwritten note, and the reassuring touch have given way to the casual, distant interaction that sometimes comes with living life virtually.”

Collado, who possesses a doctoral degree in psychology, went on to say that she worried “that this may be the first generation without sufficient experience in making human connections, that we are encouraging the development of individuals who will not know how to talk directly to each other and resolve conflict across human lines. We may run the risk of simply becoming observers, passive nonparticipants in our own lives. I worry that technology, to some extent, is pacifying and paralyzing us.”

In a wonderful recent essay in the New York Times titled “The Joy of Quiet,” Pico Iyer points out that “the urgency of slowing down—to find the time and space to think—is nothing new, of course,” but he adds that cacophony of noise is at an all-time high. “We barely have enough time to see how little time we have. . . .  And the more that floods in on us, the less of ourselves we have to give to every snippet.”

It’s a dual threat, then: We ignore what’s all around us, while less and less of what we are paying attention to is actually being absorbed in any meaningful way.

Now, I’m not ready to give up Twitter or Facebook or blogs or (heaven forbid!) “old technology” like magazines or books; nor am I advocating that you do so, either. But let me join Iyer and Collado in suggesting a modification of both our media diet and means of accessing information. Take a moment to recognize the people in your midst; your Twitter feed can wait. —MJ


Dirty Jobs?

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Linda RossIn the summer of 1980, Linda Ross accepted a part-time, temporary job as a custodial worker serving the Language Schools. By the end of the session, the temporary tag had been removed; the part-time designation followed, and by 1994, Ross had been promoted to the assistant director of custodial services. She now oversees a division of 96 people who work in vehicle rental, space management and office moves, office services, and custodial services.  

On her expansive desk sits a nameplate with the words Boss Ross. Always within reach is her “magic wand,” which she wields whenever the occasion warrants. Linda Ross has a face made for smiling; she laughs a lot. And on an early winter morning, she sat down with Middlebury Magazine to talk about her job.

 

It’s the interaction with people—faculty, staff, and students—that is the best part of the job. Getting to know people.

Biggest challenges? Holding on to staff in the department. It can be hard to keep good people. It can be hard work here, and younger folks are seeing the challenges for the first time. It may not be their dream job, but it is their job. I have high expectations of my staff. That’s who I am. Holding people to those expectations is important.

Some of the challenges that I think about now that we didn’t used to think about are things like a pandemic flu. A cleaner campus can lead to a healthier campus. There’s really no way to measure that, but it’s always on your mind.

We lost a lot of staff [through voluntary separations and early retirement] during the recession. So we had to cut back on some of the services that we offered. That was hard.

I think our staff has finally accepted this. People take pride in their work, and it was hard to cut back on some things that we used to do regularly when we had more staff. I have to really compliment the Commons staff and residential staff for being supportive, for saying to us, “It’s OK, we understand.” That’s helped our folks get through it.

For me, personally, this job is so rewarding because I do feel that people understand what we do. Maybe it’s my rose-colored glasses, but I think that everybody realizes what we do, what we bring to the table. The appreciation comes forth in so many ways.

I would have to say that in all my years of experience at Middlebury, there have been only a handful of times when a student has looked at the department and said, “That’s your job. You’re a maid.” It’s only a handful. In 32 years.

The most important thing is building a relationship with students.

Two young men came forward after causing quite a hassle for us last year during the week of Commencement. They came before Community Council and spoke about the things that they had done—they had sprayed off some fire extinguishers—and asked what they could do to help us in the future. I looked at it and thought that we could turn this into something really positive, make this a learning experience for them. Since then they’ve come forward with some great ideas on how to discourage dorm damage, reckless behavior. A negative has turned into a positive.

Watching a student grow. That’s a thing that’s good, in my opinion.

Things aren’t nearly as bad as they used to be. I remember getting a call about lobsters in the toilet down at the Mill. Or a calf in the living room of a fraternity house. One time a student had a boa constrictor, and the kid would let the snake out of his cage to exercise. One day, a plumber walked into the bathroom and there was the snake. He didn’t come to work for two days after that.

Before we renovated Hadley and Milliken, the students on one given night had bricked in the alcoves, closing in people in two rooms. I have to say, the craftsmanship was beautiful.

Stuff like that doesn’t happen anymore.

Those things are fun to look back on. Though at the time I guess it wasn’t that funny.

In 32 years, you see a lot of people come and go, not just students but faculty and staff, too. What’s great, though, is when you hear from someone who graduated 20 years ago, and they ask, “Do you remember me? You helped me grow up.” That’s what we do.


Shirt Tales

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Bill DeaconIt’s a phenomenon by no means limited to Vermont: College students everywhere spend a staggering amount of time watching inane comedies with friends and quoting them to each other at parties, in class, or on the athletic field. But Bill Deacon ’91 has made a career out of it.

“We had one guy on my hall in Battell South who was wealthy enough to have a TV with VCR and videotapes,” says Deacon. He laughs at the thought of how quickly things changed, how today everyone can push a DVD into a laptop. “So we watched movies constantly; they were always playing.” Films like Top Gun, Raising Arizona, and Caddyshack “provided the soundtrack to my college years,” he adds.

Deacon, who grew up in Gardner, Massachusetts—one of those “just outside of Boston” origins—is the founder and CEO of Muze Clothing, which sells T-shirts bearing movie quotes. Muze makes 200 varieties of shirts and is constantly adding new ones, with everything from “Hickory 15” (a Hoosiers reference) to “Make me a bicycle, clown” (Wedding Crashers) emblazoned on the chest. Muze manufactures all of its shirts in Arizona, near company headquarters, and boasts a strong line of celebrity endorsers, including Ryan Seacrest, ESPN’s Erin Andrews, and NFL quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Tony Romo.

The company’s next step involves expanding beyond apparel, and the executive team is confident, thanks to watching Muze sales double for three consecutive years. Deacon will launch a “movie-quote database” website that he hopes will become the online authority in what is already a competitive market.

 My Boy Is Wicked Smaht
—Good Will Hunting

That an English major from Massachusetts ended up the CEO of an apparel company in Scottsdale, Arizona, was a surprise to many. After graduating from Middlebury, Deacon planned to attend law school at Arizona State University. “That was that; we all expected him to be a lawyer,” says his sister Sandra, a professor at Boston University’s undergraduate business program.

But when Deacon arrived in the Southwest—quotes from Raising Arizona swimming through his head—he decided to defer law school for a year in order to establish residency, believing it would make his three years at ASU much cheaper. That was the plan, at least. Soon enough, though, bartending and waiter gigs at the Phoenician hotel led to a role there as director of restaurant sales. “They were looking for a young, hungry kid willing to put in hours and hours a week for very little money,” he says. In turn, that led to a marketing job at Morton’s Steakhouse.

At Morton’s, Deacon’s easygoing attitude made him a hit with the restaurant’s clients and partners. After a few years, he had created a network of people that he figured might support him in a business venture. In 2000, 31-year-old Deacon left Morton’s and opened his own restaurant, Foster’s.

Foster’s, a New England-style seafood restaurant, had a strong, six-year run. The place attracted regulars, created a real culture, and served up clam chowder to tanned Arizonans. But it was exhausting work. “If you want to work twice as hard for half as much,” says Deacon, “you work in a restaurant. It really is grueling.” In late 2005, Deacon sold the building that housed Foster’s. His plan was to start Foster’s again in a new location, but there was something else on his mind as well.

Deacon and Mark Dimond ’89, once a sales manager with the “Life is good” brand, had tossed around the idea of creating an apparel company, and they were searching for a designer. During a round of golf with Michael Sims ’00, Deacon learned that Sims’s brother Sean, a Syracuse graduate, was a prominent T-shirt designer in New York. Making him the Muze designer was a no-brainer. Deacon had found his core team. In 2006, he flew to Boston to meet with Dimond and the Sims brothers. That weekend, they came up with the company name and chose the first 20 movie quotes they’d put on shirts.

 If You Ain’t First, You’re Last
—Talladega Nights

Long before that trip, Deacon had contemplated the idea of marketing movie quotes. “Every time I watched SportsCenter,” he recalls, “I’d hear them saying six of the same movie quotes my friends and I loved from college, and I always thought, why isn’t anybody acknowledging this?” In 2004, the brainstorming began in earnest when Deacon and his friend Jeremy Roenick, a hockey legend who played in the NHL for two decades, were hanging out in California at the World Series of Golf. “We were just playing games, drinking, having fun like we usually do,” says Roenick, who adds that he and Deacon are “big golf guys and big movie buffs.” The conversation turned to business, and they sketched out what would later become, in 2006, Muze Clothing.

In addition to Deacon, Dimond, and Sims, another alum, Matt Bonner ’91, is involved and will head up the new website business, moviequoter.com. That partnership was conceived at the classmates’ 20-year reunion last summer as the two sat in Adirondack chairs outside Mead Chapel. Deacon told Bonner about the success he was having with Muze. Then, says Bonner, “I played a gig at 51 Main, drank a bunch of beers with Bill, and we decided to meet at Logan Airport after the reunion.” They met outside security in Terminal E before Deacon’s flight back to Phoenix. They realized they had a perfect fit: Muze was looking to carve out a space online beyond the retail site, and Bonner had worked with Web start-ups in music development. “It was like somebody fired a starting gun,” Bonner says.

Moviequoter.com will enter a private alpha phase in early 2012 and within the year will launch to the public. “If movie quotes are a language,” says Deacon, “we want to be the Oxford English Dictionary of when and how to use them.” He stresses that he wants Muze to do more than throw funny quotes onto shirts, but also to be an authority in how and when to use certain quotes, when it’s funniest to cite a line from The Hangover (which he calls an “instant classic”) and when to go with Good Will Hunting.

Muze wasn’t immediately profitable—“Launching any brand right before the economic Armageddon of 2008 was not the best situation,” Deacon admits—but Deacon is pleased with where the company is headed. He points to the sales figures for the past three years, of course, but also to the partnerships that he’s made with a number of charities, including the Wounded Warrior Project, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and the ALS Association. Says his sister, who invites Deacon to speak to her business management class at BU each year: “He’s a great model to [my students] . . . [showing] that you can create a company, but it’s a major challenge, too. The celebrity involvement is obviously interesting to them, but also the charity piece. It’s so important to teach them about business ethics and giving back.”

As for law school, well, let’s just say that that idea is still on hold.

Daniel Roberts ’09 is a staff reporter at Fortune magazine.


Get Real

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

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

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

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

Click.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On the Road in Asia

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Ron LiebowitzIn November I spent a week traveling in Asia with Middlebury colleagues Mike Schoenfeld ’73, senior vice president and chief philanthropic adviser, and Dina Wolkoff ’88, senior development officer for Asia. Our trip took us to four cities—Tokyo, Beijing, Hong Kong, and Singapore—where we met with more than 250 parents and alumni of Middlebury College, the Language Schools, the Schools Abroad, and the Monterey Institute of International Studies. We held receptions in all of these cities, each attended by 60 to 80 guests, making these by far the largest gatherings the College has ever hosted in Asia.

For me, this trip provided an ideal opportunity to reflect on what it means to be leading an institution that aspires to be the global liberal arts college for the 21st century. While Middlebury is certainly not alone in its efforts to think globally—Yale and Duke have been in the news recently for launching campuses in Singapore and China—our position in American higher education is distinct because we are a liberal arts college that’s been thinking internationally for almost a century. It’s clear from our broad array of international programs that Middlebury has an impressive global footprint: the undergraduate language and international studies programs; the 10 summer Language Schools; our Schools Abroad sites in 38 cities and 16 countries; and the graduate programs at the Monterey Institute. But institutional reach alone does not make Middlebury a global liberal arts college. What matters most is how we educate students to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Being a global liberal arts college means that our students, irrespective of their majors and whether they travel or study abroad, gain an international perspective through their experiences on our campus, both in and out of the classroom. International students, who constitute about 10 percent of the undergraduate student body, offer alternative perspectives in class, in the residence halls, and in the dining rooms. Then there is the academic program. During the past 15 years, we have been purposeful in recruiting and hiring faculty across the curriculum who have an international focus in their work. Consequently, a large percentage of our courses are informed by the realization that we are living in a globalized, interconnected world. This generation of students has no choice but to engage this world while at Middlebury and after graduating.

Finally, it’s worth emphasizing the most powerful way in which our students develop a global outlook: they study abroad. Middlebury students can choose to study a number of languages and cultures in departments recognized for their excellence, and approximately 60 percent of them study abroad for a semester or a year. For these students, that means six months to a year immersed in the culture and language of another country.

Middlebury’s global orientation developed fortuitously in 1915 when the College established the intensive summer German Language School, the first of our 10 Language Schools. In retrospect, this move appears to be one of the most important educational—and entrepreneurial—decisions that the College has ever made. Over the years, our strengths in language education have been the leading feature in Middlebury’s reputation. In the past two decades, we have deliberately sought to build upon these strengths and enhance the international dimensions of a Middlebury education across disciplines. And that is why we went to Asia.

Our trip had several specific purposes. First, to show the College’s support for the alumni and parent network in Asia and all that it does on our behalf. Second, to seek increased support for the College, in the form of both funding and developing greater opportunities for students through mentoring, internships, and jobs. And, finally, to strengthen the College’s network by bringing alumni of the undergraduate college together with alumni of the Language Schools, the Schools Abroad, and the Monterey Institute.

The Middlebury network in Asia has been developing for decades. The first students from the region to attend Middlebury were introduced to the College in the late ’50s by C.V. Starr, the founder of American International Group (AIG) and a source of continuous, generous financial support to the College through the Starr Foundation. He convinced some of his Chinese colleagues in Hong Kong that Middlebury would be a suitable place for their sons and daughters to get a liberal arts education. One of the first Chinese students to make the journey to Vermont was Tom Kan ’64, who introduced me when I spoke at a dinner in Hong Kong. His daughter, Andrea ’96, later followed him to Middlebury, becoming our first legacy student from Asia.

Most of the people at the gatherings in each of the four cities were alumni, who represented an interesting mix of experience and perspective. Almost all of the older alumni were American expatriates, some of whom have lived and worked in Asia for 40 years or more. Many of the younger alumni were international students who returned to their native countries after graduation. The number of alumni in Asia reflects the dramatic increase in the number of international students attending Middlebury in recent decades. In 1980, international students made up less than one percent of the student population; now they represent about 10 percent. Today, there are 91 students from Asian countries enrolled at Middlebury and 129 at the Monterey Institute.

In Tokyo, I met one of the first students to come to Middlebury from Japan, Koichi Ishiyama ’69. His story is extraordinary. After receiving a scholarship to attend Middlebury, he traveled to North America by boat and then made his way across Canada to Montreal, and eventually to the College. He still remembers the day he realized that he could understand English beyond the bookish knowledge he brought with him to the States. It was December 14, 1966, halfway through his sophomore year. He was watching Walter Cronkite on the evening news and was startled to discover that he understood every word. After graduating, he returned to Japan to teach English and journalism, and to write what has become one of the world’s most popular Japanese- English dictionaries. He served on the Alumni Association Board and has been an active volunteer for the College for more than 40 years.

We next visited Beijing, where our reception featured a fascinating panel discussion that included two alumni from the College and two from the Chinese School. The College alumni who served on the panel were Tao Zhou ’98, a native of Shanghai, and Dado Derviskadic ’08, who grew up in Brooklyn; the Chinese School alumni were Kim Woodard LS’66 and Frances Fremont-Smith LS’77, P’10. Kim attended the first year of Middlebury’s summer Chinese School in 1966, when the United States was fighting a proxy war with China in Vietnam. He was one of the first Americans to enter China during Nixon’s ping-pong-diplomacy effort in the early 1970s and has been there ever since. In those early days, he said, he knew just about every American doing business in China. Now, Americans number greater than 100,000, and they work in a variety of fields, including banking, finance, education, publishing, technology, and green energy.

During the panel discussion, Tao Zhou reflected on his journey back to China after his time at Middlebury. A math and computer science major with a minor in physics, he credits his liberal arts background for his willingness to take chances and to test himself and his passion for “living a life of uncertainty.” After graduating from Middlebury, he earned two master’s degrees from Dartmouth before returning to China. Because he feels that he was born to be an entrepreneur, he has started a data-storage company that now employs 30 people and continues to grow. He mentioned how his next pursuit is unclear, but suggested he might go back to university to earn an advanced degree in philosophy.

In each of the cities we visited, I met people from different generations, with extensive experience and far-reaching connections, who are eager to help recent graduates and current students who want to work or study in Asia. We discussed participating in admissions recruiting, creating internship opportunities, supporting financial aid, and assisting with career networking. We succeeded in obtaining commitments from a number of parents, alumni, and friends of the College to create new internships for students; such internships are becoming more and more important for those who seek longer-term opportunities in Asia. We also received immediate and unexpected financial support, as people attending meetings or receptions made gifts and pledges to the College on the spot, which was very welcome and gratifying.

Overall, this trip demonstrated the value of reaching out to everyone who has a connection to Middlebury’s rich array of programs with an international focus. By engaging alumni of the College, the Language Schools, the Schools Abroad, and the Monterey Institute, we are attempting to nearly triple the number of people who can serve as resources for our students and other alumni. Including alumni from all of these programs increases our alumni body from slightly fewer than 30,000 graduates of the undergraduate college to about 80,000. No other liberal arts college can boast an alumni network as large, distinguished, and global as ours.

Clearly, this fact was not overlooked by the students, alumni, and parents at our four receptions. Many of the people attending had never met before, and I could see them feverishly thumbing the keys of their smartphones as they exchanged contact information. The Middlebury network was expanding before my eyes.


Flight of Fancy

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

The BorrowerDavid Copperfield opens with the intrepid orphan wondering “whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life.” In The Borrower (Viking, 2011), children’s librarian Lucy Hull begins by confessing the opposite. “I might be the villain of this story,” she concedes. “Even now, it’s hard to tell.” With this cheeky allusion to one of literature’s most famous first lines, author Rebecca Makkai, MA English ’04 signals that storytelling itself shapes how her characters try to understand their world.

Recent college grad Lucy, 26, has taken the library job primarily to reject any help from her father, a wealthy Russian immigrant living in Chicago. But fleeing to the remote Midwestern town—“Let’s call the scene of the crime Hannibal, Missouri,” she fibs—doesn’t stop her from obsessing over dramatic family lore. Narratives of escape and rescue filled her childhood. Centuries of scholar-warrior ancestors fought Good versus Evil under Tsarist and Soviet tyrants; the family crest is a “book in right hand, severed head on pike in left.”

Even though Lucy has deliberately fled her father’s orbit, her work with classic children’s literature reinforces similar themes. The behavior of characters from Huck Finn and the Wizard of Oz intrigues her almost as much as her most imaginative pint-sized patron, Ian. At 10, Ian is already a voracious bookworm and regular attendee at Lucy’s story hours. But his uptight fundamentalist mother strictly limits what Ian is allowed to read: only “books with the breath of God in them.”

Lucy’s First Amendment hackles bristle. She starts sneaking age-appropriate—but also forbidden—books to Ian by letting him borrow them under her library card. As Ian grows increasingly moody, Lucy learns that the child is attending sessions with a ‘Pray-Away-The-Gay’ pastor. Ian’s bookishness and sensitivity and lack of aptitude or interest in contact sports have apparently triggered his homophobic parents’ early warning sirens.

As Lucy sees the bright child deteriorate, she seethes. “Like a good Russian, I wanted to break into Pastor Bob’s house and poison him,” she muses. “Like a good American, I wanted to sue somebody. But like a good librarian, I just sat at my desk and waited.”

Until one morning Lucy arrives to open the library and finds Ian camping out there. He has a hobo knapsack and a sort-of plan for running away. All the stories that Lucy has been raised on—tales “of Russian revolutionaries and refugees,” of Huck, of Dorothy and her crew—color how she views what follows: an impromptu, cross-country road trip with Ian.

Did Lucy kidnap a 10-year-old library patron? Or was she actually kidnapped by him? It’s all in how each character perceives the story.

On the combined budget of a librarian and a fifth-grader, the duo doesn’t get far without seeking help from Lucy’s dad. The fresh cash infusion allows them to resume Ian’s evolving scheme: to reach his grandmother in Vermont.

Makkai movingly sketches complicated parenting relationships: the permanent but ever-changing link between exuberant father and reluctant daughter, the temporary but life-changing connection between accidental guardian and wounded child. Each character is memorably drawn, and their relationships unfold in unexpected ways.

The plot is a little far-fetched in the age of Amber Alerts, omnipresent security cameras, and the Internet. Gone for 10 days, the odd couple travels major highways in Lucy’s easily identifiable car, using ATMs and cell phones. But Makkai transports us into the stories her characters believe about themselves. And somehow we find ourselves eager to drift on their Mississippi, to follow their yellow brick road.

 

How to Stop Loving SomeoneQuirky characters, verbal acrobatics, and a humorous take on some of life’s sadder moments. These are just a few of the things that seem to make Joan Connor, MA English ’84 tick in her most recent collection of stories called How to Stop Loving Someone (Leapfrog Press, 2011). And they are also the very things that will keep you flipping the pages.

Connor enjoys language, and that is abundantly—if exhaustingly—illustrated throughout the book. Her turns of phrase and circuitous wordplay create an engaging platform for inviting the reader into the story. From highly unusual analogies to tongue-rolling alliteration and assonance, Connor draws on our imaginations to draw us into the tale. “The continent is shrinking around me like a polyester costume washed one too many times,” she writes in “If It’s Bad It Happens To Me.” And Muriel, the main character in “The Writing on the Wall,” can slip by unnoticed because she “moves as smooth as an ice cube melting.”

Connor also seems to harbor a certain fascination for the darkly ironic. Two potential lovers are magnetically and compassionately drawn to an injured fox yet miss the opportunity to connect with each other in “The Fox”; a long-distance friendship fails miserably to become anything more than a sad and emotionally vacant tryst in “What It Is”; and a phone number relisted under the name William Butler Yeats leads to one man’s forlorn contemplation of the world through the lines of the dead Irish poet in “The Folly of Being Comforted.” In Connor’s world, night doesn’t simply fall; it plummets.

In “Palimpsest,” Connor makes a metaphor of her title on so many levels it can be hard to keep up—she portrays the old mill town in the story as “nestled in the corner of a riparian confluence” but now finding “its geographic situation anachronistic.” And later she describes the main character, Caspar Weems, as “a solitary man, serious, sedulous about obituary writing” who had “studied the styles and tones of other funereal columns with artistic perspicacity, noting the range from the lugubrious to the lurid, from the lachrymose to the laudatory, from the solemn to the silly.” If she doesn’t send her readers to the dictionary at least once during each story, they’re not reading closely enough.

Throughout the collection, there’s an urgency to Connor’s writing that pulls the reader along. Whether it’s the rhythmic cadence of her words or the relentless twists of fate facing her characters, there’s a sense of expectation and hope that demands the turning of the page. The title story, which comes near the end of the book, is in itself a perfect encapsulation of the collection. “How To Stop Loving Someone: A Twelve Step Program” recounts the downward spiral of a melodramatic and self-conscious narrator. It’s written in steps, dutifully luring you from “first” to “twelfth,” only to confront you at the bitter and downtrodden end with this: “return to step one” and “repeat the above.” Because, after all, that’s exactly how life works.

—Blair Kloman,
MA English ’94

Recently Published
Tweet Heart (Hyperion, 2010) by Elizabeth Rudnick ’02

The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes (Timber Press, 2010) by Sasha Duerr ’99

The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the Twenty-first Century (Scribner, 2011) by Alex Prud’homme ’84

Fading Memories from a Vermont Hillside (Shires Press, 2010) by Robert ’73 and William Badger

Lady Painter: A Life of Joan Mitchell (Knopf, 2011) by Patricia Albers, MA French ’72

Swimming in the Daylight: An American Student, a Soviet-Jewish Dissident, and the Gift of Hope (Skyhorse Publishing, 2011) by Lisa Paul, Russian School ’83

Tex: A Book for Little Dreamers (Trafalgar Square, 2011) by Dorie McCullough Lawson ’90