Climate March Montpelier

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Before things got started at the Montpelier People’s Climate March

Yesterday was the People’s Climate March. The big event was in Washington, of course, but Vermont had its own sister rally. My children and I, along with a friend of my daughter’s, went down to be a part of it.

We got there early to a busy city. There were baseball and basketball games at the high school, as well as a bike race through the capital. We were an hour early so we wandered a bit before finding a spot on the lawn to watch and to listen. There was no march, even though State Street was closed, so it was more a rally.

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A sampling of attendees and signs at the Montpelier Climate March

The crowd was decent-sized but I admit it seemed small after the Women’s March in January. Partly, I think, people are just not as fired up as they were the day after the inauguration. Plus, the Science March just happened last weekend and I imagine many people simply could not attend both. It was a beautiful day. It was a good day to do any number of things. And, frankly, climate change is a fuzzy thing. That is why it has gained less traction than so many other causes. The science is clear but the everyday impact on individuals? Not so much.

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The energy was pretty positive, despite the somber topic. Speakers had the same message: this stuff matters and is real, our current administration is working to make it worse, and we all need to keep fighting to make real change. There were adults and kids, teens and gray-beards. The crowd was pretty white, to be expected in Vermont.

I felt like it mattered just to show up. I wanted to show my kids that showing up is important and that there are other people out there who also care. Climate change does feel like a problem that isn’t getting addressed enough, and, like so many other people, it feels difficult to address on a personal level. But again, just being there to listen and to be around others who understand the gravity of it all seems to help.

It did give me some energy to stay positive and, maybe, to take some action. I mean, if this kid can rally for it, so can I.

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Town Meeting 2017

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Last year I missed our annual town meeting. My wife attended. She represented us while I stayed home with our offspring. This year I made the trek to the high school to sit and listen in the auditorium. As I drove over there I admit I reminisced a bit about the days when my wife and I went together, in a different town than the one in which we now live, and shared the experience. I miss that–experiencing it together and then processing it. Last night, however, I passed on what happened after I got home.

The school board meeting was first on the agenda. That used to be on a different day but moved to the same evening as town meeting recently. While the town meeting itself filled the auditorium, the school meeting offered plenty of empty seating–about 40 people were there, including the school board and the co-principals. We are shifting to a regional school system–several towns are merging to share resources and to save money. That was discussed, plus some positive school outcomes. It was helpful to be there.

The first big issue to be discussed at the general town meeting was whether the town would support a bond to fund a new town garage. That discussion got a bit sidetracked when someone asked how much debt the town has. While that answer is in the town report (at least as of the end of the last fiscal year) there was lots of discussion about how to interpret all the numbers in the report. Learning math pays off. No one really questioned the value of a new facility, just taking on more debt to do it.

We also discussed whether to help fund a project to try to eradicate Eurasian Milfoil from our local lake. This has been a problem in many places. This invasive plant will clog a lake, it is so prolific. It grows like, well, a weed. After attempts to remove it manually last year, the proposal is to use an herbicide to target the Milfoil to suppress it. Naturally, this created some interest in the topic and some folks had some things to say. Someone called for a paper ballot (rather than the usual voice vote) so this article took some time. In the end, it passed by what you might call a narrow margin.

I headed home in the rain, feeling that I was a little more a part of the town. I voted on the articles presented. I listened to what my fellow residents had to say, although I did not offer any words myself. I like that I get to see and hear from other people in town directly. This is a pretty small town, but still, there are plenty of people I just don’t encounter much, if at all. So it gives us all a chance to be part of something together, as a town, as a community, whether we all agree on things or not. I find some satisfaction in that.

This morning I made my way to the town hall to vote–for school board members, for selectboard members, for the high school budget, for new school buses, for that proposed town garage. I said hello to a few people. I thanked the town clerk for her years of service, and the volunteers for helping us all out. I grabbed a donut hole on the way out and headed back to work, civic duty done for now, feeling just a little more connected to my town. These days, I need that. I think we all do.

Women’s March Montpelier

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Like thousands of other people across the country and across the globe, I attended a march today.  I have never seen more people in Vermont’s capital than I did today. The Burlington Free Press estimated 15,000 people attended the rally. Some estimates were as high as 20,000.

We left early to get there in time to find parking and to get to Montpelier High School, where the march was scheduled to start. Still a good way from the interstate exit we were in the slow lane to turn off. Traffic was backed up before noon. The march was scheduled to start at 1:00. Good thing we left early.

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We later learned that the Montpelier exits on Interstate 89, both northbound and southbound exit 8, were closed. Then exits 7 and 9 were closed in both directions. There were a lot of people trying to express themselves in the capital city today.

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And express themselves they did. There were many signs, some clever, some hardhitting, all honest. I have put a few of them here.

We walked from the high school to the capital lawn. There were poets, politicians, speakers and musicians on hand to offer some guidance and inspiration. It was difficult to hear it all but that didn’t matter to me. Most people didn’t seem to mind. The atmosphere was a mix of celebration and pissed-offedness and determination to not stand for all the negativity of our new president. People are not happy about this change and they wanted to do something, to at least show up and demonstrate how much they do not support discrimination and oppression and fear.

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The message, on signs and in conversation and from speakers, was about supporting women, for sure; but it was also about fairness and equality for all in general. There were plenty of people who are just angry about our nation electing such a hateful man to represent us all and to lead us. “Not my president” was a common theme.

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Pussy hats and other pink hats, and just pink in general, was prolific. I wore a pink hat myself, borrowed from my spouse. My daughter, plus her friend and her mother, were in my party. There were plenty of my friends and colleagues and neighbors there, although I saw few of them. There were just so many damn people.

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I was inspired today. I felt more hopeful. It was a hell of a better day than yesterday. I am baffled that every day can bring more head-slapping, eye-rolling, are-you-f-ing-kidding-me news. It wasn’t just that I was around so many similar-minded people, although that was helpful. I was proud to be a Vermonter. I was proud to be around people who believe that kindness matters. I was proud of my country.

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Let me clear here. I am not upset with anyone who believes that government has a different role than I believe. I am not against anyone because of their political party affiliation. I can disagree with others on how things might be changed, or our national priorities, or how to make things better, or even what the problems are to begin with. But I cannot support this president. He is a nasty man. He is a liar. He is dangerous. I am frightened for our nation. I am not upset because “I lost” and I am not going to “get over it.”

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I know that many other people stand with me now. Change is hard. Apparently we have some work ahead of us. I am not sure what I will be able to do, but I guess I will need to be doing something. For now I am just angry and confused. In terms of what I am feeling, this guy with the green sign nailed it:

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Read more details about the Women’s March in Montpelier here.

Last Day of the Year

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We finally got some snow here in the valley. Not much, mind you, but enough to make things look bright. We took a trip to the hardware store and they filled the new inflatable sleds we got for Christmas. They worked like a charm. Fast and fun. Until one of them found a stick, got a slice, and flattened right out, with me on it. No more of that sled today.

At the beginning of the year I set a few birding goals. First was to find 50 species of birds in Vermont in January. Check. Second was to make a birding checklist every day of the year. As of today, check to that as well. Total checklists: 562. My third goal was to find 300 species of birds. As of today I have seen 406. A sub-goal was to find 300 birds in North America alone. When the year started I had not planned a trip out of the country, but with a trip to South Africa that yielded lots of species not found in North America, I easily made my goal. North American birds: 279. Pretty far off but not too shabby.

I have been thinking about goals for 2017. One goal is to run more. I have not run as much in the past several years. Out of shape, lazy, injuries, depression–I have all kinds of reasons. But I’m done with that. I am going to hit the roads again. Twice a week at least. I would like to say that I will run a half marathon in 2017 but I have made goals like that before and then gotten injured; so let’s say that is a tentative goal. I am willing to put in the effort–it just might not be an option.

Birding goal? I want to move away from the list a little. One goal is to go birding in half a dozen National Wildlife Refuges. They are always beautiful to visit and offer fantastic birding. I will have to hope no group of fruit loops decide to occupy one when I plan to visit, as happened this year in Oregon. I also would like to add some birds to my life list. How about ten? Can I add ten lifers? That isn’t too many but I will have to get out there to make it happen. So I have a list-based goal after all.

And I need to write more. How about I average one blog post per week? That seems doable. Plus I need to make some progress on that book. I will make that one a sub-goal–get an outline done. Then I can take it from there.

This was a good year in many ways. I watched my children grow and do some great things. I took some trips and saw new places. I watched the sun rise from the top of Mount Mansfield. My son and I visited South Africa to see a good friend, plus zebras and lions ostriches. I heard Hermit Thrushes and Golden-Winged Warblers and Baltimore Orioles and Go-Away Birds. I swam in clear water in summer and skied on fresh snow in winter. I baked dinner rolls and made cheesecake. Lots to celebrate.

2016 also offered up some crap. Some of that is the usual crap–work stress, stupid mistakes (did I really back into that car in the trail head parking lot?), stuff that gets tossed around in the course of your standard day. Other crap was a little bigger–Brexit and the U.S. presidential election come to mind. Hopefully we all will get though that garbage in the next few years and come out with some lessons learned. I have less hope for that than usual but I am not totally hopeless.

So here is to 2017. May it be filled with everyday joy and wonder and beauty and fun. And may the bigger crap be less biggery and crappy than it might be. But mostly let’s go for the first bit. Happy New Year y’all!

Dark Days

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Mornings are dark now. I wake and the sun has not risen. Soon the darkest days will be here. Should I rise and head out into the world when the light cannot be seen? When darkness tucks itself into shrubs and flows over the river and settles on the frosted meadow?  The coming solstice is a time to celebrate the return of light. These days, I am not so hopeful.

In the wee hours of November 9th I checked the news. Then I deleted a few news apps from my phone, the tool I have used to get most of my news. I needed a break from news. I have since then read little, listened little, watched little. I just couldn’t handle it. For my mental health I had to leave the broader world behind for a bit.

In the past I have been disappointed, even surprised, at election results. I have been on the losing side and figured things wouldn’t go the way I would like for a little while. A bummer, but that’s politics. Sometimes you just don’t win. But I always had faith in the process. I had faith in my country. I tend to believe people are good, whether at the voting booth or on the street. Sure, people make bad choices sometimes. We all do. But overall I have believed in the collective good. My faith has been shaken now. This election was not just about a “difference of opinion” but about deciding who we are as a nation. I am struck by what I see.

It is not easy to write when I do not know who will read what I write. I am tired of the demonizing of the “other” or those on the “other side” due to conflicting beliefs. I am happy to disagree with someone if we can try to understand each other. That makes for healthy communities. I don’t want everyone to think the same way. We need to pool all ideas to come up with a few good ones. But now I am not so sure it is even safe to say what I feel.

Our president-elect has done things that are blatantly immoral, unethical, even cruel, and he has accused others of those same trespasses. He has lied and lied and then called his opponents liars. He represents all that is mean and spiteful and selfish. I believe that kindness matters more than most things. Perhaps it is the most important thing. Yet I have seen no kindness from the man who will be our nation’s leader.

I understand why others sought someone who challenged the current order, why change seems necessary to so many, why the circumstances of so many people in the United States are not what they could be. I understand the appeal of someone who seems to speak frankly, who speaks differently, who says things so many people have wanted to say but felt they could not. I get it. But this is not the guy to bring that kind of change.

He will bring change, I have no doubt. But a man whose goal is his own glory will not bring the change we need to make this nation or the world or neighborhoods or communities better places to live. He will bring the kind of change that my children’s generation will have to spend decades trying to fix. We can disagree on how to make positive change. I welcome that. If we disagree on the solution it means we are asking the same question, that we are seeing the problem together. I have no faith that our president-elect has any idea what questions to ask. I have no faith that he believes in the value of asking questions at all.

I say all this taking the risk that you might read this, find yourself disagreeing, and toss slings and arrows my way. So be it. When the days get dark, we need to believe that light will return. This is my candle. Lighting a candle in the darkness can bring hope. It makes one visible, perhaps vulnerable, perhaps a target. But right now, I need hope. I want to believe there are others out there who are willing to light their own candles. I want my nation to be one that celebrates tolerance and kindness. A little light would help right now.

I have been unsure how to approach this space. I could not simply pretend that all is well, that I live in a place untouched by the rest of the nation or the world. I could not write simply about the beauty of falling snow or the glow of the frost in the morning or the smell of fresh bread. I will write about those things because we need them, because we need to see the wonder that surrounds us every day, because those kinds of things make life meaningful. I needed to acknowledge, however, that there is some darkness behind those things now. I can only trust that the days will get longer, that one day spring will arrive again.

Presidential Candidate

IMG_2584Not long ago Bernie Sanders, one of Vermont’s senators, announced he was running for president. It was a bold move. He immediately was pronounced the underdog and the media paid some attention. He is a United States senator, so I guess they had to pay attention. I was happy about it. Bernie Sanders is a straight-talking, take-action kind of guy. He understands that he represents all of our small state, as well as the nation, and that the nation has a whole lot of people in it. He works to truly represent as many people as he can.

This is from his website, Berniesanders.com:

The American people must make a fundamental decision. Do we continue the 40-year decline of our middle class and the growing gap between the very rich and everyone else, or do we fight for a progressive economic agenda that creates jobs, raises wages, protects the environment and provides health care for all? Are we prepared to take on the enormous economic and political power of the billionaire class, or do we continue to slide into economic and political oligarchy? These are the most important questions of our time, and how we answer them will determine the future of our country.

Politicians talk all the time about change, and often they seem to dance around the issues. Bernie is a bad dancer. He stomps right in. Could this be bad for his presidential bid? Of course. Many things will be said about him that turn what he says into something it isn’t. But I am betting, and I imagine he is as well, that that is OK, that his message and what he stands for and the work he wants to do will matter more than the ugliness of presidential campaigns.

The photo above is from the Memorial Day parade in Vergennes last Monday. That right there is Bernie Sanders. He is wearing a regular jacket; I swear he wore that in the last parade in which I saw him, and I missed this same parade last May. He is wearing running shoes. His baseball cap is in hand, his hair the usual muss. Even his pants are not ironed. That is just the thing here–he is tidy enough and respectful, but in no way pretentious. He does not pretend to be someone he is not. He dons the suit and tie when appropriate but here, where he stops to hug his constituents and to take photos with those who ask, he wears something comfortable. He cares more about wealth inequality than he cares about the Windsor knot.

In this photo, his wife, Jane, is walking behind him. I am not sure what she was doing with her phone. Maybe she was tweeting “Mem Day Parade w/Bernie @Berniesanders. Need to remind him to iron pants!” but that is just a guess on my part.

And Now a Few Words from Dr. Dean

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Look, it’s the former governor as seen through a smart phone camera from the back row

OK this is just not a great photo, but I wasn’t prepared to take photos. There I was visiting Milton High School today to help out some students and I hear on the morning announcements that juniors and seniors should come to the auditorium for the visiting politician, who blah blah blah really important whatever I can’t really hear I have things to do Vermont big wig such and such and his name is Howard Dean. Howard Dean? Right here today? I started listening but had already missed the details.

After I met with one student he asked if I was going to see Howard Dean. I had a hole in my schedule so I followed him into the auditorium. We were a little late. I sat in the back. He spoke for a while and answered some questions. He talked about how their generation has a different world to take care of and different tools to use to do that. Some key ideas, paraphrased:

When he was young, he and his peers could organize a protest but it took lots of coordination and months to organize. Today anyone can go to change.org and set up a petition to make big companies or Congress take notice, with hundreds of signatures in a couple of days. He told the story of the young woman who got five dollars tacked to her bank statement each month to allow her to use her debit card. She organized a petition and, very quickly, got 300,000 people to say they would switch banks unless the fee was dropped. The fee was dropped.

He asked the group how many of them had at least one international connection, including through social media. The majority of hands went up. He said that when he was in high school there was no social media so only about three hands might have gone up; ok maybe four since “we had some exchange students.”

He was asked a question about the cost of college and noted that college is expensive but there are ways to do it cheaper. He noted the expansion of students at community colleges and that one can transfer into a larger school to get a degree from a different institution. He said that anyone can get a good education at just about any not-for-profit institution if one works hard enough.

He was asked about the number of students who go to college outside Vermont and said “I think that is a great thing.” If you grow up in Vermont and go to college in Vermont and stay in Vermont to work, how are you going to get any experience with the world outside Vermont? Half of what you learn in college is from professors. The other half is from students who go to school with you. So go somewhere to college where you can be around people who are different from you. He likes the idea of students from other places coming to Vermont to go to college. It means that Vermonters who stay here get to be around different types of people and that will make their education better.

If you think you are going to work your way up through the system and become president and then change the world, that isn’t going to happen. To become president you have to work your way through the system you need to change. Change comes from the bottom up, not from the top down. Today there are more tools to organize people to make change than ever before in history, and more people are doing it despite a dysfunctional political system.

The Iraq war was “the biggest foreign policy blunder in the history of the United States.” Patrick Leahy is “my favorite senator.”

He said some other things, as well, of course–things that got me thinking. I especially got thinking about the idea that 50% of what one learns in college is from peers. Somehow that phrasing set right with me. His thoughts on the college experience were directly relevant to the conversation I was having with the student I had been meeting with. I asked the student about that later. He said it was weird that the college topics came up and then said this:

“It made me think differently about how awesome Vermont is.” Yes, Dr. Dean, your words still are inspiring, ten years after you changed the face of political organizing and fundraising, both for me and for the students you met with today. Keep that up.