Wednesday, October 31, 2007


A few evenings ago I succeeded in traumatizing my children for the second time in less than a week. First we watched a PBS documentary about the latest theories on global warming. By the time my kids are my age, the seas will have risen 25 meters, their Grammy’s house, like the rest of Florida, will be under water, and the resulting dislocation of the hundreds of millions of souls who live less than 50 feet above sea level world-wide will have paralyzed the economic and social structures of our planet.

Then, several nights later, we watched another PBS documentary, this time on the global disappearance of honeybees. No one really knows why, but last year one-third the total population of nature’s “pollinating army” literally disappeared. This phenomenon, known as colony collapse disorder, is apparently the result of a combination of pesticides, starvation, and disease. What was traumatic was learning that, while most grains (corn, rice and wheat) are wind-pollinated, virtually all fruits and vegetables, including nuts are pollinated by honeybees. As the narrator put it, without bees we might all have to learn how to subsist on gruel.

For my kids, that last comment was the kicker. Having been cast this past summer in a local theater production of “Oliver,” subsisting on gruel was the scariest thing anyone could have said.

By way of comforting my kids, I tried to think of how best to put this information in perspective. I thought about buying the best ten acres of arable land and having fun learning with them how to defend it against all comers during what will surely be a brisk period of Armageddon. But none of us wants to leave Montpelier, and none of us likes guns. Then I thought of ignoring the problem and hoping I die before being held accountable. But where does that leave the kids? Then I thought as a family perhaps we should join some radical “earth first” movement. But that won’t work because life has taught me that radical attempts to “fix” large problems often create newer, more complex ones. Finally, I thought of a very neo-conservative solution and decided to join the American Family Association’s effort to remove all public funding from PBS since they’re the reason my kids are now so miserable. You heard me. Kill the messenger.

Okay, so none of the options was particularly attractive.

In between viewing documentaries one and two, I attended a three-day conference in Burlington sponsored by the Orton Family Foundation on community planning, and among many important sessions and conversations with caring, intelligent people, a desire was expressed to capture the essence of and motivation behind the Community Heart and Soul Planning movement. By the end of the conference a manifesto of sorts had been drafted and was circulated for signature among the 300 plus participants.

The first paragraph of the Declaration of Heart and Soul Community Planning reads as follows:

“We the undersigned believe that every community must explore and express what makes it special—its Heart & Soul elements—and with specificity describe those tangible and intangible elements that if lost would fundamentally change the character of their place (emphasis mine). Once articulated and acknowledged, community Heart & Soul serves as the “Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” for citizens as they make decisions about the future.”

The declaration goes on to lay out several guiding principles for what community Heart and Soul stands for, all of which speak to such things as core values, social capital, and a positive vision for the future.

Now it might sound suspiciously like I am advocating for the radical “earth first” fix. That may, in the end be true. But I prefer to call it what it is…embracing the Heart and Soul movement by taking a page out of the Honeybee Playbook.

Honeybees basically do one thing…and do it well. They collect pollen, return to the hive, drop off their pollen load, do a little dance to communicate where the best pickings are, and return for more pollen. They repeat this cycle many times a day, every day until they die. On the occasions that the hive is attacked (by a bear, say), they throw themselves into the fray with a vengeance until the marauder is driven away—sometimes at the cost of the hive, but usually at the cost of several large honeycombs and a few hundred bees.

The Heart and Soul movement gives us humans a way to model this bee-havior. It requires us (the worker bees) to determine, within our own communities (the hive), what we care about. We do our best to provide for our community (collect pollen); to protect it from its enemies (bears); and to make sure that all that is good (the honey) gets passed on to feed future generations who repeat this cycle. [It should be pointed out—with amusement I hope—that male bees do practically nothing except, when necessary, fertilize the queen. Any socio-political lesson to be learned from this, of course, I leave to the imagination of the reader!]

I certainly have no comforting answer for my children about the global problems facing us in the coming fifty or 100 years. But I can help them, teach them, and set an example for them about how to do what’s best for our own community from within.

I think, ultimately, that is what will be our salvation. Each of us, in our own way, will turn to what we each know to be important within our own communities whether “Community” is defined as a place, a region, or people bound by common practice. We must learn how to place a value on that which is important, nurture it, protect it from external attacks, and by doing so, allow it to survive into the future.

Bees don’t think about global politics. They don’t think about moral issues or economic interdependencies. They basically do one thing, and in doing it, set in motion a chain of events that, among other things, results in the food chain at the top of which we sit. We have to imitate their behavior and bind it to the tenets of Heart and Soul community planning with intention, determination, and integrity. We can do this. We must. One person, one community, one hive at a time.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


In an October 1 Opinion piece published by the Los Angeles Times, former Clinton Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich showed to the world just how quickly someone once at the center of American political life can lose touch with reality. He proposed cutting the tax deductibility of contributions to universities and arts institutions in half because…”let’s face it: These aren’t really charitable contributions. They’re often investments in the lifestyles the wealthy already enjoy and want their children to have too. They’re also investments in prestige—especially if they result in the family name being engraved on the new wing of an art museum or symphony hall.”

He particularly focuses on Harvard University’s $30 billion plus endowment and a Lincoln Center Gala supported by hedge-fund leaders who make up to $1 billion a year.

He goes on to propose the following “modest proposal. At a time when the number of needy continues to rise, when government doesn’t have the money to do what’s necessary for them and when America’s very rich are richer than ever, we should revise the tax code: Focus the charitable deduction on real charities” (ones that, according to Reich, actually serve the poor).

Wow. This thesis just cries for a reasoned response. But where do I start?

Maybe I should ask first what could possibly have caused the government to not have the money to do what’s necessary “for them” (the poor) or to have made America’s very rich “richer than ever.” But, nah, that would be too cheap a shot and WAY too political.

Maybe I should point out that three years ago Harvard completed the transition to need-blind and legacy-blind admissions and furthermore, because of its endowment, is now able to cover the entire tuition, room, and board cost of any student whose parents are unable to contribute towards those costs. How’s that for a response to Reich’s assumptions about Harvard serving only legacies of wealthy donors and not serving the needs of the poor? On second thought, that might lead him to accuse Harvard of being the exception that proves the rule--despite the fact that Harvard’s actions are not, at this point, all that exceptional.

But wait, there’s more to Harvard (and other “elite institutions of higher learning”) than money and legacies: what about the research it does that the government can’t do and the private sector won’t do without a sufficient profit-motive? Shall we “just say no” to all that?

So let’s take the argument to a local level. Should we (the public) stop supporting River Arts in Morrisville through a combination of public funds and tax-deductible contributions simply because the services it provides to everyone in its community are arts-based? How about the services of Vermont Arts Exchange, Rockingham Art and Museum Project, the Chaffee, the Chandler, NEK Arts, and countless others? Why stop there? How about pulling the plug on all public and tax-deductible support for community economic development that involves the arts: destroy the Creative Economy in Vermont right at its source?

I could run us all through a quick review of all the great programs and services currently at work in Vermont communities, including Head Start programs, health care, identified schools, corrections, recreation and scores of others, each of which is arts-based and each of which would blast Reich’s thesis to smithereens. But that would still avoid what I believe is the most important question that we should be asking of ourselves and each other:

What exactly do we want our generation’s legacy to be, as framed by the actions of our government and the uses to which charitable contributions from our wealthy citizens is put? Put another way, what do we want—as a citizenry—the direct and indirect impact of government funding to result in?

My personal opinion is that our government should be a reflection of how we want to be governed. It should manage our public safety. It should regulate industries that have a tendency to pollute our streams, our air, our airwaves, etc. It should provide for those who can’t provide for themselves. And (here’s the kicker) it should support those institutions who serve as beacons of hope, of innovation, of creativity, of knowledge and understanding—because it is they who inspire us and who lead us forward into the future. Their work is more often built on a dream or a vision, and not on a well-documented market need. Their inventions and services belong to all of us because their work tends to be in “the public good.” Thus, their work depends on direct (tax support) and indirect (tax deductible contributions) from our government.

In Robert Reich’s world-view, there appears to be no room for all the positive things for which the government can and should take some responsibility. Is he really that cynical? Or is he that out of touch with what is really happening. Mr. Reich…before you write another opinion piece, please come to Vermont. I’ll be happy to show you a lot of government-supported, arts-based activities that will surely change your world-view just a little.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


A few years ago, Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, President of Marlboro College, told a group of arts presenters that it was likely going to be the artist community who first finds the courage to ask the difficult questions about the state of our world. As I recall, she was referring to the conflicts in the Middle East and Southern Asia. But drilling for oil in the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge—an environmental issue if there ever was one—was also big back then as was the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education act and the National Endowment for the Arts’ (NEA) budget.

I have no problem sharing my negative opinions about NCLB and my positive opinions about the NEA because those things directly impact the arts. But until now, I have felt it inappropriate to share my opinions about global economic and political issues. What has changed?

Vermont’s foliage, that’s what.

For years my wife and I have looked forward to September; kids back at school, crisp mornings, warm afternoons, great hiking, and of course, the foliage. Almost nothing beats September in Vermont—except possibly October. For the last couple of years however, we have noticed that the colors haven’t been as vibrant as they once were.

At first, I thought it was yet another symptom of middle age—the rods (or is it the cones?) on my retina must not be as responsive as they once were, surely. Perhaps my own increasingly faulty memory has imbued past fall seasons with far more resplendent chromatic displays than they deserved.

This year, however, I finally have to come clean. I am a musician by training, but as the Executive Director of the Vermont Arts Council I am viewed by many as a spokesperson for all the arts. But the artist in me has to admit, at long last, that the colors are bad; dull, brown, and crispy.

What is going on?

Last week the Times Argus wrote an article on a leaf fungus called Anthracnose, a blight that evidently has been around for ages. This year is supposedly “good” in that Anthracnose levels are far lower this year than in recent years. Okay. I’ll accept that on its face, but if Anthracnose is the culprit, why are the leaves worse this year than ever? Could it be something else? Acid rain? Warm temperatures? All of the above?

The obvious threats to our environment and our collective reluctance to call crispy-fried foliage by its true name—a nightmare—has at last awakened the sleeping beast in me. Now it is my turn to enter into this fray because if I don’t, I will not be able to stare at myself in the mirror every colorless morning for the remainder of this pathetic fall season.

I am not a scientist. I am not even a native Vermonter. But I am somewhat observant, and I listen to my friends who are sugarmakers. I hear their stories of dying sugar maple trees. I see the evidence myself—there is one on my block that can’t be more than 30 years old (shouldn’t they live to be 150?). I’m really not trying to make a political statement here, after all dying maple trees and dusky brown leaves have been creeping up on us for at least a generation and impact all of us, regardless of whether we vote red or blue (or orange or yellow).

Are we going to have to wait until the oceans are lapping at the steps of the Metropolitan Museum or drowning the Old North Church before the masses wake up and do something? It doesn’t matter whether it was Shakespeare or some other playwright who made the phrase “sound the alarums” famous. We just have to get busy and start sounding them…

The environmental decay, of which this fall’s foliage is but a symptom, affects us all—regardless of your position on global warming. Al Gore and Bill McKibben are not the issue. Your own senses are. Trust them.

It doesn’t take a lot of courage to stand up for fall. If you’re like me, you’ll do it because you miss the colors.