Democracy at the local level

Last year I attended the reunion of the Class of 1970 at St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD.  (That was the class I actually graduated with even though I am technically 1969.)  Our seminar reading was Democracy in America by de Tocqueville.  A lively discussion ensued one topic being whether the de Tocqueville vision of what we in the 1960s called participatory democracy still survives.  I argued that I thought it did survive at least in New England and particularly in Vermont.  For example, Brattleboro where I live, has citizen committees for everything from planning to finance to trees.  And, yes, while there are sometimes problems in finding sufficient people to serve, I believe committees eventually find volunteers.  Some committees are appointed by the elected Selectboard, while others are appointed at Town Meeting.

Every town in Vermont has town meeting on the first Tuesday of March.  Most towns have an open meeting with all town residents.  Budgets are approved and important issues are discussed and voted on.  These are de Tocqueville’s farmers conducting business.  Here is the link to a nice explanation done for middle school students.  Brattleboro is a little different.  On the first Tuesday, which is a holiday, we vote for people who will represent us at town meeting as well as for other local offices like Select Board, School Board, Lister, and Constable.  All the elected representatives meet several weeks later at Brattleboro’s Town meeting.

I decided to run for Town Meeting Representative, got 14 people (you need 10) to sign my nominating petition and got elected with a respectable number of votes.  Town Meeting this year was divided into two meetings.  The first was on a single question of authorizing the Selectboard to take money allocated for renovations at the current police station and, instead, purchase a building in a new location and move the police station.  I voted “no” because I was opposed to moving an essential government service out of downtown, and we lost big.  There is some move to do a town wide referendum on the question, but I don’t know if that will succeed.  My feeling is that my side lost and we just need to get on with it for the sake of the police officers.

The second meeting was yesterday and was a more traditional town meeting.  We arrived at 8:30 and adjourned about 4:30 with an hour for lunch.  (Unlike smaller towns, we have no pot luck, but a high school club sold us stuff for breakfast and lunch to raise money for a trip to Costa Rico.)  There were 30 articles on the agenda beginning with appointment of the Town Clerk (no controversy there) and accepting the audit reports for the Town and for the Town Schools.  We elected people to the Capital Grant Review, Library, and Finance Committees (I got on that one.)  And then a motion was made to raise the compensation of the Selectboard members. They currently get $3,000 a year with the Chair getting $5,000.  Interesting questions were asked during the discussion including whether increasing the compensation would attract people to run who could not afford to volunteer and whether paying the Selectboard more would change the character of the government from volunteer to professional.  The motion that finally passed was to have the Finance Committee study the matter.  I can see what I will be doing this year!  Interestingly we did decide to raise the Town School Board member pay from $2,000 to $3,000 and the chair from $3,000 to $5,000 to make them the same as the Selectboard.

We voted for modest sums to support a variety of local human service non profits and for tax relief for others.  I don’t think any of those votes were unanimous.  And we approved after much discussion, the town budget and school budgets for the next year.  I am more familiar with general government budgets than with school ones, but the town budget is very lean.

Finally we passed two non-binding resolutions:  First, to eliminate fees for activities at the Senior Center and second, to designate the second Monday in October, Indigenous People’s Day.

20160319__p_REF-L-TownMeeting-0319~5_500

All in all a very interesting day.  I heard a lot of concern about poverty in Brattleboro.  I think the number of children who qualify for free lunch – 62% – shocked a lot of people.  (According to the 2010 Census, the median income for a household in the town was $31,997, and the median income for a family was $44,267.)  I can see this becoming more of a topic for discussion at future town meetings.

We heard a plea for civility at the start and other than some mutterings and calls for points of order when one representative in particular spoke, that request was answered.  I think that if he attended any of the town meetings I’ve read about in the local paper for have friends who attended, de Tocqueville would have no trouble recognizing his democracy in America.

Photograph:  Chris Mayes, Brattleboro Reformer.

Science and magic

When I was a child, my father took me up on the roof of the chicken coop on our small New Jersey farm to watch Sputnik whiz by.   I couldn’t believe that it was so small and so fast.  It was, to be honest, a little anti-climactic to my 10 year old mind.  Still, I was amazed by the concept that something could be put on a rocket and sent into space for us to see.  It was like magic.  Science often seems magical.  In her essay, “Retrograde Beliefs” in the Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Kristen Dombek, an essayist and teacher at Princeton, writes about this connection.

Magical beliefs include astrology.

On Jan. 21, at 10:54 a.m. Eastern Time, Mercury will begin its first pass by Earth of the new year. For about three weeks, it will appear to move backward across our sky and will, according to astrologers, disrupt technology, communication and human concord. Facebook and Twitter will clog with reports of appointments missed, important email sent to the spam folder, wars between nations, cars crashed and iPhones dropped in toilets, all followed by some version of the hashtag “#mercuryretrograde.” Advice from astrology blogs will arrive in unison: Back up your computer, expect miscommunications, don’t make agreements or important decisions and don’t sign contracts — and hide.

The sun and plants.  Arrow points to Mercury.

The sun and plants. Arrow points to Mercury.

There is, of course a scientific explanation for Mercury’s movements.

The story of Mercury is a cautionary tale too, about thinking there is a connection between how things work on Earth and how they work in the heavens. Every time Mercury orbits the sun, it ends up a bit ahead of where it began, so that the planet traces in space not a steady ellipsis but a pattern of flower petals. Called precession, some of this jumping ahead is explainable by Newton’s laws. But some isn’t. The difference between where Mercury should end up, according to the law of gravity that works on Earth, and where it actually ends up, is minuscule — 43 arc seconds per century — but it was enough to puzzle astronomers for years, even leading to speculation about a phantom planet, Vulcan, that might influence Mercury’s orbit.

What it took, in the end, to explain Mercury’s precession was Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity; Mercury flies close enough to the sun that it travels through a part of space-time so bent by the sun’s mass that the planet is dragged a bit farther along each time. The fact that things work so differently in space than they do on Earth, not to mention at the quantum level, has physicists conjuring ideas even stranger than any malevolent planet — string theory, multiple universes — to connect it all together again.

The really scary thing about astrology, however, is not that so many will be worried about their technology as well as their lives, but that

The belief that the movements of celestial bodies govern our lives is more popular in the United States than it has been in two decades, according to a recent National Science Foundation report. In a 2012 survey, a third of Americans viewed astrology as “sort of scientific” and another 10 percent as “very scientific.” Belief is most prevalent among 18-to-24-year-olds but has markedly increased among 35-to-44-year-olds in recent years. To put this in perspective: More Americans believe in astrology, or “sort of” believe in astrology, than believe that climate change is influenced by the burning of fossil fuels.

Think of that.  More Americans believe in astrology than believe there is a human element to climate change!  This is part of the current trend to distrust science and facts.  Everything is magic.  The moon landings and most certainly the recent landing on a comet were staged.  There can’t be climate change because winters are so cold.  The increase in the number of earthquakes in places where there is fracking is just a coincidence.  We have forgotten about facts because it is more convenient to ignore them when they don’t fit a particular belief system.

Like Kristen Dombek, I love Madeline L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time”.  Dombek writes

There was something about this story that married a love of quantum physics and astrophysical theory to a witchy sense of cosmic magic; it sent me not away from science, but toward it, suggesting that my relentless research, in my parents’ library and in the woods and streams of our farm, might matter, even though I was a girl.

I am not a scientist, but I read science articles, follow space exploration, and think that mapping the brain is fascinating.  Real science that discovers facts is even more magical than all those science deniers could ever imagine.  All they need to do is look.

Illustration: 3horoscopes.com

The importance of place

Amy Davidson has written  a piece for the New Yorker summarizing the last year using seven addresses.  It must have been on my mind after I read it last night because early this morning in that time when you are not quite awake and yet not asleep, I tried to name the street and visualize all the places I’ve lived.  I don’t, of course, remember the first place I went after I was born except from a vague memory of visiting as a very young child.  I do remember with some effort the other places.  Some of them – particularly early rentals as a young adult – were actually pretty awful.  I even remember a couple of the landlords.  But the last, almost 40 years, I’ve only lived at three addresses.  All of them were/are wonderful in their own way.  The seven addresses Davidson picked to remember 2014 evoke feelings from horrifying and sad to wonderment.

Davidson begins with West Florissant Avenue, Ferguson, Missouri and Bay Street, Staten Island, New York where Michael Brown and Eric Garner died at the hands of the police, events which have the potential to change policing as well as the way we talk about race.  Her next set of addresses are where Thomas Eric Duncan was exposed to Ebola and where he first became ill:  72nd Samuel K. Doe Boulevard, Paynesville, Liberia and The Ivy Apartments, Fair Oaks Avenue, Dallas.  Duncan’s illness set off an extraordinary and irrational panic here.  An epidemic never materialized and so, in the American way, we have mostly forgotten that people are still dying in West Africa.  One consequence is that people there no longer seek medical help for problems that have cures because they fear medical facilities and Ebola causing the number of deaths from ordinary medical problems to rise also.

A memorial for Eric Garner at the site where he died, on Staten Island.

A memorial for Eric Garner at the site where he died, on Staten Island.

Have you heard of this next address?

Nathan Road [Hong Kong], which is six lanes wide and cuts through the central Mong Kok district, was closed for weeks this fall, as students and others assembled to protest what they saw as Beijing’s broken promises about free elections. It, along with other gleaming thoroughfares, was the scene of standoffs whose contrasts—crowds holding up umbrellas amid teargassing near destination boutiques and offices—embodied some trade-offs that have accompanied China’s economic rise in graphic, or geographic, terms. (Traffic or democracy?) The barricades on Nathan Avenue were mostly cleared away in a major police action at the end of November. Cars are passing through again, but the story is not complete, for either side.

We hear almost nothing about the students and their supporters these days unless one listens to the BBC.  Right now, no one is sure where the protests are headed and protesters themselves are divided about whether to continue or to rethink tactics.

I had never heard of this next address:  Naem Roundabout, Raqqa, Syria.

The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, also known as ISIS, has been geographically disorienting: it has made sudden, sweeping moves into Northern Iraq, threatened the Turkish border, and put out videos, shot in indeterminate stretches of desert, in which hostages are mocked and killed. But there are moments when the group’s brutality and degraded character can be given an exact address, as when, in Raqqa, the Syrian town that serves as its base, prisoners were beheaded and their remains put on display along the Naem Roundabout. (Naem, in Arabic, means “bliss.”)

Davidson ends with the wonderful address of Comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The Rosetta spacecraft’s trip to this address took a decade and covered four billion miles. On November 12th, after a couple of bouncy knocks, Rosetta’s Philae module landed on the comet’s surface—the first such visit in human history. The lander settled in a shady spot and then, over a frantic fifty-seven hours, scientists at the European Space Agency performed all the experiments they could before its solar-powered batteries shut down. Philae is sleeping on the comet now, but it may wake up again next summer, when the comet next turns toward the sun.

Thinking about the world and one’s own life through place is a fascinating thing to do.  Try thinking about all of your addresses and how they shaped your life and how they will shape your future.  Think about places you have been.  And I can’t wait to see if Philae wakes up next summer.

Photograph:  MARK PETERSON/REDUX

 

 

Anne Perry: crime and punishment

A few years ago, a good friend suggested I try reading a book by Anne Perry.  She knew I enjoyed Victorian mysteries.  She also told me that when Perry was a teenager, she had been convicted as an accessory to a matricide by her good friend, served time, and now wrote mysteries.  I thought it curious that someone who had committed such a serious crime now wrote so well about crime, but I read my first Thomas and Charlotte Pitt book and was hooked.  After I retired, I went back and read all of them in order.  I’ve also read some of her William Monk books, but I find the Pitts very compelling.  I had forgotten about Perry’s criminal past until I read this past week’s column by Rebecca Balint in the Brattleboro Reformer. [link to be added when column is posted online,]

Becca is my neighbor and newly elected State Senator whose weekly column my husband and I always find interesting.  She had not known until recently that Anne Perry had committed murder.  Her column explores how she feels about Perry after finding out.

…Details of their delusions can be found in Parker’s [Perry’s friend] adolescent journal.  But the question persists for me:  Do I believe in rehabilitation and redemption?  If I do, as I have always claimed, then why do I view Anne Perry differently now that I know of her troubled past?  I’ve read her Victorian mysteries for years and always enjoyed them as inconsequential breathers from the dense non-fiction I read.  I’ve joked about some of her writing tropes but still find her characters compelling.  Yet, I feel undeniably uneasy about a convicted murderer as an author.

The first Thomas and Charlotte Pitt novel.

The first Thomas and Charlotte Pitt novel.

I read this and wondered why I had reacted so differently.  I went back and located the interview I had read years earlier in the Guardian.

In 1954, Hulme felt as if she had been pushed to the limit. Three days before she took part in the killing of Honora Parker on June 22, her parents announced that they were to divorce – triggered by Hulme having found her mother, Hilda, in bed with a lover. At the same time, her father lost his job and she was to be sent to South Africa to stay with an aunt. The shock to Hulme – who had not been at school because of tuberculosis, from which she had suffered since the age of 13 – was cataclysmic.

She turned to her close friend, Parker, a working-class girl from a humble background. Some felt it was a curious friendship for Hulme, whose family were well to do, her mother glamorous and clever. The two friends believed they could stay together if Pauline’s mother would let her leave New Zealand. Her refusal triggered Parker’s murderous rage and Hulme believed she owed it to her friend to help lure Mrs Parker to a Christchurch park and cosh her with a brick in a stocking.

“I felt I had a debt to repay,” says Perry. “Pauline was the only one who had written to me when I was in hospital, and she threatened to kill herself if I didn’t help. She was vomiting after every meal and losing weight all the time. I am sure now she was bulimic. I really believed she would take her life and I couldn’t face it.”

Hulme served five years at Mt Eden women’s prison in Auckland – “supposedly the toughest in the southern hemisphere,” she says with what sounds like pride.

Yet Perry now calls her time in prison “the best thing that could have happened”. “It was there that I went down on my knees and repented,” she says. “That is how I survived my time while others cracked up. I seemed to be the only one saying, I am guilty and I am where I should be.”

In an interview with Ian Rankin, Perry explains further.

IR: I wondered: at what point does redemption come do you think, I mean at some point during incarceration?

AP: That is a very spiritual question, to which I can only give you my own estimate of the answer. The redemption comes when you no longer wish to be that kind of person. When you understand that… when you see it as ugly, and you understand why it is not what you want to be. Not what you should be, not what you want to be. And that’s the difference. Not because somebody outside is telling you: this is not what you do. But because you, yourself, say: this is not who I want to be.

IR: How do you feel about the fact that society requires people to be locked up, especially at such a young age, that we require what seems to be not redemption so much as a kind of vengeance.

AP: I suppose society does require a certain level of vengeance. It needs to be not only done but seen to be done because it is supposed to be enough to prevent other people wanting to do the same. I think it would have been the worst thing that could ever have happened to me in my life if somehow they had said: “Well, look. You know, you were under medical treatment. These are mind altering drugs. I am sure you are not really wicked. You go ahead and forget about it.” I think that would have been totally destructive to me.

IR: How important was the punishment to you?

AP: I feel it is vital. I think until you feel that you have settled the debt, you cannot move on. It is a bit like trying to walk with an open parachute open behind you. By paying, you cut the strings and then you can move on. You can allow yourself to move on. I can say it and look you in the eye, because I can say: Yes, I have dealt with it. I believe that I have paid. I believe that I have been forgiven where it matters. And it now for me no longer exists. I can move on and be the best person I am capable of being. But I think that is true of everybody. As long as you don’t say: “somehow it wasn’t really me, it was that person and somehow it didn’t matter and I don’t need to pay.”

I think this explains why she writes novels about crime and punishment.  I can read Perry’s books without thinking of her past because it is her past that allows her to write.

 

 

 

College reunion: My 45th

I have to begin by saying that I have no idea what a “normal” college reunion is like.  I picture football games, halftime bands, sorority and fraternity parties and a good deal of alcohol consumption.  That last may be the one thing that a homecoming reunion at St. John’s College has in common with other homecomings.

My husband (who was in my class at St. John’s) and I hadn’t been to a reunion since the 25th, but we had been tapped as co-chairs for the 45th.  The first thing you have to understand is that St. John’s is a tiny school.  I think that there are around 400 current students on the Annapolis campus and an equal number on the Santa Fe one.  In the mid to late 1960s the student bodies were smaller.  I believe that the graduation rates have increased since my time, also.  Our freshman class was around 100 and if memory serves me, about 50 or 60 of us finally graduated.  This is my long-winded way of explaining why when 11 us (plus one spouse who is also the mother of a graduate) showed up, it was a pretty good number.

But what is a reunion all about?  You go to the place where you were x number of years ago and you hang-out with people you haven’t seen for years (and maybe didn’t know so well to start).  A reunion/homecoming at St. John’s is different. What makes a St. John’s reunion for me is several things.  First, the school is small enough that one knows people from other classes.  Second, because we all had pretty much the same curriculum and read the same books we could talk to friends (some old and some new) from the Classes of 1984, 1967, 1956 and 1965 with no problem.  And, third, the experience is intellectually stimulating.  Even the Friday night lecture, which wasn’t very good, sparked a breakfast discussion at our B & B about Dostoevsky and “The Brothers Karamazov”.  We came home and researched translations and will order and read the book again.

Our class had a seminar on Moliere’s “Misanthrope” led by two tutors that many of us had studied with back when we were students. The College also mixed in some current students.  It was a lively event with discussion on comedy, tragedy and what it means to be a misanthrope.  The play came up several times in other discussions over the weekend and my husband and I talked about it on the drive home to Vermont.  That is a powerful experience.  Seminars are the heart of any reunion at St. John’s but are not the only shared experience that is re-experienced.  There was also Freshman chorus (think of a bunch of mostly non musicians singing Mozart and rounds as we were once required to do. )  That was fun!

This was the anniversary of the writing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key who is an alumni of what we fondly refer to as the Old Program.  (St. John’s is the third oldest college in the United States after Harvard and William and Mary.)  In his honor we all toddled out to back campus after drinking much wine at dinner (and the pre-dinner reception) to watch the fireworks over College Creek after this year’s Freshmen sang the “Star-Spangled Banner”  It was a great Homecoming and Reunion.

Fireworks over College Creek, St. John's College, Annapolis 2014 Homecoming.

Fireworks over College Creek, St. John’s College, Annapolis 2014 Homecoming.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photograph: Tia Pausic

Hitting reset

A few weeks ago, my husband and I both noted an article in the New York Times Week in Review section called “Hit the Reset “Button in Your Brain.”  The authors argued the need for a true vacation from work.  In other words not one like President Obama had where according to a news report I heard he talked to at least 9 foreign leaders and held at least 4 press conferences.  This would be in addition to the normal routine of daily briefings, etc.  Some of the rest of us call work and read email while ostensibly on vacation.  They argue

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there’s a reason: The processing capacity of the conscious mind is limited. This is a result of how the brain’s attentional system evolved. Our brains have two dominant modes of attention: the task-positive network and the task-negative network (they’re called networks because they comprise distributed networks of neurons, like electrical circuits within the brain). The task-positive network is active when you’re actively engaged in a task, focused on it, and undistracted; neuroscientists have taken to calling it the central executive. The task-negative network is active when your mind is wandering; this is the daydreaming mode. These two attentional networks operate like a seesaw in the brain: when one is active the other is not.

0810BRAIN-master495

 

So what helps us reset and overcome the overload?

Increasing creativity will happen naturally as we tame the multitasking and immerse ourselves in a single task for sustained periods of, say, 30 to 50 minutes. Several studies have shown that a walk in nature or listening to music can trigger the mind-wandering mode. This acts as a neural reset button, and provides much needed perspective on what you’re doing.

Daydreaming leads to creativity, and creative activities teach us agency, the ability to change the world, to mold it to our liking, to have a positive effect on our environment. Music, for example, turns out to be an effective method for improving attention, building up self-confidence, social skills and a sense of engagement.

I suspect that by moving to Vermont with cleaner air, quiet, and lots of space to walk and appreciate nature even within a few blocks of our house, we have hit our reset buttons.  Being able to sit on the screened in porch and watch daylight fade as I did last night or taking a walk to see the stars tonight provides time to think and reflect.  We did try to do this in Boston by walking around Jamaica Pond for example, but even there you could hear traffic.  I used to walk over to Boston Harbor at lunch and look at the water.  These are urban dwellers solutions which people in cities can employ.  But they need to do so without cellphones and other devices.

I know it is a privilege to be able to retire to a place where we can so easily hit reset.

Illustration by Matthieu Bourel

President Obama and leadership

Like many of his supporters I am frustrated at times by what appears to be indecision on the President’s part.  You have to admit that he can take a long time to make a decision while speculation dominates the media and the blogs as to what he will do.  Look at the still to be announced appointment to be Chair of the Federal Reserve.  But when I get frustrated I tell myself that he is playing a long game.  Farah Stockman had an interesting op-ed in the Boston Globe today explaining better than I could the Obama style of leadership.

I am going to quote most of it because I can’t figure out where to cut it (and because one can’t read it from the link without a Globe subscription) and it isn’t that long..

Before we start hand-wringing over the gridlock in our domestic affairs, let’s savor the good news on the international front: Last week, after years of paralysis, the UN Security Council mandated the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria and endorsed a political transition plan that might finally sweep Syrian President Bashar Assad aside.

And after years of Iran’s refusal to talk seriously about its nuclear program, Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, announced that he wants to resolve the issue in 12 months. He and President Obama even spoke on the phone, the first such contact since the 1970s.

Of course, we’re still a long way from solving those two problems. But we’re on a far better path than we were three weeks ago. Back then, we were on the verge of launching a unilateral military strike that would have inflamed the situation in Syria and hurt our chances of getting a nuclear deal with Iran. So how did that no-win situation in Syria turn into something positive? And what does this bizarre chapter in US diplomacy tell us about the nature of leadership itself?

Recall that Obama announced that he had made a decision to strike. Then he asked Congress to give its blessing. Those moves allowed time for Americans to debate, with the whole world watching. Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus were forced to contemplate the possibility of a US strike. The uncertainty of what would happen next weighed on them more heavily than a knee-jerk cruise missile. In the end, the threat of US military action proved more powerful than the action itself. Our adversaries finally agreed to a diplomatic solution that they had refused in the past.

Of course, Obama got called a lot of names for the delay that made that outcome possible: “weakling,” “ditherer-in-chief,” and— nastiest of all, in some corners —  “community organizer.” I must admit that I thought he was crazy for going to Congress, which often seems more eager to tar and feather him than to approve of anything he wants.

But political theorist Dennis Thompson, co-author of the book “Why Deliberative Democracy?” says Obama’s moves mirrored a style of leadership Thompson taught at Harvard. Thompson believes that, in a true democracy, a leader ought to explain the reasoning behind the course of action he or she wants to take. But in the end, wherever possible, the group itself should debate it and have the final word.

It stands to reason that a country that believes in democracy should have faith that a decision debated openly by a group will usually produce a better outcome than a decision one man makes alone. So, why then were some Americans so infuriated that Obama took the issue to Congress?

“It is as if we expect decisions of war and peace to be made by the president rather than society as a whole,” said Archon Fung, another Harvard professor who has studied the virtues of “deliberative democracy.” “Decisions about when to use military force . . . involve killing as a state act. If any decision should be made democratically, it’s this one.”

Peter Levine, a professor at Tufts University, sees the public reaction as a sign of the times. Americans have grown less interested in the public deliberations that that make democracies work. Participation on juries and PTA meetings are at an all-time low, he said. Voters expect their elected leaders to solve their problems. Debates over the best way to go about it are seen as a sign of failure or weakness.

“Our system is supposed to be deliberative,” Levine said. “But we live in a profoundly anti-deliberative moment.”

So maybe this episode says as much about us as it does about our leader. We like John Wayne presidents, saviors who rescue us with their quick trigger fingers. We don’t like leaders who admit uncertainty, who ask us to help choose between imperfect options. But, at the end of the day, the Syria debate taught us that when Americans deliberate as a people, we can come up with a better outcome. It’s a lesson we shouldn’t forget.

President Obama is certainly not John Wayne, but he is the leader of a democracy.  We need to remember this when we get frustrated.