Beethoven and Bartok Up Close

heath2Imagine it is the bleakest hours of World War I, and you are traveling through Algeria with brilliant Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, sitting at an outdoor café, drinking black coffee that makes your hair stand at attention, and listening to local folk music that will put mojo in the second movement in our man Béla’s Quartet No. 2, opus 17. I’m not kidding, that’s what it felt like listening to the award-winning Heath Quartet, last weekend’s “Music for a Sunday Afternoon” offering in Ragle Hall. Okay, it didn’t hurt that yours truly was sitting right on stage, just a café table away from these champions of chamber music.

heath3cAhem, let me explain. This was the debut U.S. appearance of the Heath Quartet, a young ensemble that has rocked houses all over Europe with crazy names like Sage Gateshead, the Musikverein, Vara Konserthus, and the Kissingen Winterzauber and Spitalfields festivals. They’ve won more awards than you can shake a baton at, including the 2012 Royal Philharmonic Society Young Artists Award and the 2012 Festspiel Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Ensemble Prize. I mean, they are like rock stars of the chamber music world. Their Marlboro premier launches a U.S. debut tour that includes the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C, and Weill Recital Hall presented by Carnegie Hall.

heath3The reason they started at li’l ol’ Marlboro is that retired sociology professor Jerry Levy is an absolute groupie. He saw them perform in England last year, and followed them all over Europe to see them again and again and again, kind of like Phish but without the “super-extended grooves.” He parted oceans like Moses to bring them here to Ragle, then moved mountains like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to let people know they were here. In the end, this included moving chairs around to accommodate the absolute overflow crowd on Sunday, for which Jerry received a hearty round of applause. Because I was one of the fashionably last people to squeeze through the door, I got seated in the ring of seats on stage, behind the quartet.

heath4bOkay, I admit it, the first thrill was having a packed house watching the stage (including yours truly) with rapt attention, and clapping like maniacs as the ensemble took their seats. But as soon as the musicians all chimed in with the lively Allegro con brio from Beethoven’s Quartet in B Flat No. 6, opus 18, all self consciousness flew out the window and I was transfixed by the music that was so close, so close to me. My heart was pounding to the rhythm of the music, and as each phrase was carried from cello to viola to violin, and on and on, I felt like they were coursing through my veins. I was so close that I was driven absolutely mad by a loose hair on the bow of violinist Cerys Jones, and was tempted to lean forward and nip it off during a pause. That probably wouldn’t have gone over too well, but by the time the Heath Quartet had rocked their way through Beethoven, Bartok, and Mendelssohn, I totally felt like a roadie for the band.

Drone with the Wind

Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 10.08.16 AMMarlboro can’t just sit quietly on its peaceful little hill and let the world of international controversy sweep by. I mean, if the U.S. is being charged of war crimes for using drones in Pakistan, and people of Afghanistan live in terror from the daily presence of spy drones, and citizens of Deer Trail, Colorado, are voting on a hunting license for drones, then Marlboro wants to be right there in the thick of it, probing the legal and ethical limitations of this new technology. I’m talking about the testing of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) right here on picturesque Potash Hill. On a bright, sunny day recently, Caleb Clark of the educational technology master’s program and Tobias Gelston of registrar fame sent a sporty quad-copter unit mounted with a camera aloft, well, most of the time.

Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 10.18.33 AMTheir maiden test voyage not only captured beautiful aerial footage of one of the prettiest campuses this side of the hanging gardens of Babylon, but it also raised some interesting questions about drone ethics. Sure, a similar UAV could be used to follow Wendell-Judd Cup racers across South Pond, or to monitor habitat use by deer on the college’s 300 acres of woods. But could drones also be used to see if students are really reading Proust, as assigned, instead of trolling through their favorite Instagram posts, or to discover if a certain faculty member is using more than their share of 100 percent Vermont maple syrup? Will community members live in constant fear of their privacy being invaded, just when they fall inelegantly on the ice, or scratch themselves in an uncouth fashion, or make a bum call on a four square play? There is no telling where this will lead, but—you know how we love a debate, up here on the frozen hill—I have no doubt that hunting licenses will at least be mentioned.

Sochi Schmochi

Starting-LinecropI mean, why travel thousands of miles to stay in half-finished hotels with double toilets and get accosted by three-legged dogs, only to see skiers race through their event before the snow turns to fog, when you can enjoy winter sports in Vermont? I’m talking about that pinnacle of winter sports, the Wendell-Judd Cup, where skiers from around the world but especially from within a 10-mile radius come to compete against each other and the elements and—in my case—against a general sluggishness caused by eating too much mac’n’cheese.

Race-BeginsThanks probably to the long lines in Sochi and to near-nirvana conditions in Vermont, there was a record turnout at the Wendell-Judd Cup this year, with a multitudinous 76 skiers and snowshoers registering and another estimated 20 sneaking onto the course for the shear fun of it. The fastest skiers, or as I call them, “the show-offs who did not eat too much mac’n’cheese,” were led by Brattleboro Outing Club skier Tim Whitney, at 43 minutes and 21 seconds, soon followed by alumnus Dwight Holmes ’94 and Lilac Ridge farmer Ross Thurber.

The fastest woman on skis was Diana Whitney, who gave her hubby Tim a run for his money at 47 minutes and 9 seconds, followed by the OP’s first lady Debby Dorsett and student Liza Mitrofanova. In the youth category, Nolen Holmes, lightning lad of Dwight Holmes and Bonny White ’85, came in at 55 minutes 47 seconds, or faster than you can say “the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Yours truly and the rest of the “comfort food” category came in generally after people with watches were paying close attention. I intimated that skiers came from around the world, and I wanted to give special recognition to Abdel Izem, representing Morocco, who broke both of his poles trying to extricate himself from the deep snow on South Pond and skied the rest of the way without poles.

IMG_3734 copyBut that’s not all, because while this snow-spangled fun was happening in Marlboro, a stalwart team of Marlboro students traveled to Putney for a much-anticipated game of basketball against rival Landmark College. With only one sub on the Marlboro team, and the first full-court game they’ve played this year, they managed to tie Landmark at halftime, 22 to 22. The fans were going wild, and the Marlboro team showed them what fancy footwork and dribbling and pump fakes could be achieved with the benefit of a demanding liberal arts curriculum, but in the end they “lost” by two points, 48 to 46. All this olympic-style glory and clean drinking water too.

Arab Winter

IMG_7910Did you know that Morocco is the world’s greatest producer of phosphate, or that it was the location for shooting the original Star Wars? Did you know that it was the first nation to recognize the United States? Don’t worry, neither did I before I went to an informative talk by energetic Fulbright Arabic language fellow Abdelhadi Izem about his native land. The inimitable Abdel shared his views on the impact of the Arab Spring, the tsunami of revolutions that has swept countries in North Africa and the Middle East in the past two years, on Morocco. Now, you know as well as I do that everyone at Marlboro loves talking about revolutions, second only to talking about the lack of mugs in the dining hall. But Abdel upped the ante and brought amazing Moroccan sticky date treats rolled in coconut to assure an excellent turnout in Apple Tree.

UnknownOf course everyone has heard about major protests and cheeky rulers forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and, okay, Egypt again. Meanwhile, more quietly, Morocco also had a wave of demonstrations in 2011 and 2012, calling for political reform and a new constitution curbing the powers of King Mohammed VI. The king, who claims descent from none other than the Islamic prophet Muhammad, won a referendum on a reformed constitution, which has quieted down the protests considerably. But Abdel ably pointed out that the protests were not so much about liberty, freedom, and other highbrow ideals as they were about poverty, unemployment, and the lack of opportunity. While the new constitution has placated the people for now, he suggests Morocco is experiencing more of an Arab winter than a spring, or perhaps a mud season?

AbdelIzemAll I can say is that Marlboro is so fortunate to have visiting scholars like Abdel, with first-hand experience in distant lands that we can learn from. It makes our little community on this snowy ol’ hill feel very connected to the world in a tangible way. Abdel is also a total gazelle on the soccer field and a broomball tornado. Did I mention the amazing Moroccan sticky date treats?

New Math

imagesFor those of us who are not officially enrolled students but are certifiably nosy, there is no more satisfying time of the semester than “intro classes.” This is when each professor gives a half-hour, hypersonic, lickety split, college-on-coffee run-down of their whole class. If you spent two solid days going to intro classes, you would probably be totally exhausted but smart enough to score in the 95th percentile on your GREs. Some of the classes that jumped right out at me this semester were Sex and Gender in Late Medieval Europe, Philosophy of Poetry, and Agroecology Seminar. Senior Justin Harrison is teaching a class called Nobody Loses All the Time: Obsession and American Crime Film, and the new anthropology professor Rebekah Park is teaching Introduction to Human Rights and Anthropology, which is sure to be popular. So which intro class did I willingly chose to go to? Topics in Algebra, Trigonometry, and Calculus—yes, math.

julie_rana_lrNow, as the two of you who read my blog regularly will know, I am no Pythagoras myself, preferring less mathematically rigorous activities like thumb-twiddling, navel-contemplating, and watching lichen grow. Seriously, differential equations give me hives, but this class was different. Math fellow Julie Rana, who graduated from Marlboro in 2006 as math professor Matt Ollis’ first Plan student, has totally revamped the class to be more accessible and flexible and…well, more Marlboro. I mean, students can choose from Julie’s carefully crafted units to meet their needs, whether that’s preparing for the GREs, incorporating some math into their Plan, or just getting back onto the ol’ math horse after being kicked off in high school by teachers with the social skills of an avocado. Julie is just so excited about the course, the new units she has developed, and math in general, and that excitement is contagious. You know, not contagious like the flu or dysentery or even like a yawn, but like laughter. Julie is teaching another contagiously exciting class called Math and Art, which sounds so cool it could make me get over my math allergy for good.

Clean Water in Cambodia

photoMost college students think of winter break as a special, snowy time to catch up on their sleep, watch bad television, and commune with boredom, right? Well, a handful of Marlboro students took the time to do something way beyond their couch-potato comfort zone, traveling halfway around the world to Cambodia to participate in service learning projects. For the past two weeks, art faculty John Willis, Cathy Osman, and Tim Segar and five students have visited communities, participated in ESL classes in local schools, and helped with water projects. I mean, you can’t find this kind of adrenalin-pumping, eye-popping, intercultural-feel-good thrill on television, no matter how late you stay up.

photo-1This is the third service-learning trip Marlboro has taken to Cambodia in the past five years, building on relationships already forged with sustainable development groups in Cambodia and in the U.S., such as the Amherst/Cambodia Water project. The group is visiting schools in Champon Chhnang, Ang, Pursat, Siem Reap, and other communities where they are participating in service projects, testing water quality and supporting clean water efforts. They are also visiting the busy capital of Phnom Penh, the temple of Angkor, and memorials to those killed during the Khmer Rouge period.

photo-5But perhaps the most rewarding part of the trip has been the amazing people that they’re meeting along the way, people they were not so likely to find on ol’ Potash Hill or at ol’ Mocha Joe’s or shopping for socks at ol’ Sam’s. Like Buddhist novices in saffron robes at Monk Ang Pagoda, colorful merchants at market, stately elders in the villages, and of course the kids. Wherever you go, nothing like adorable kids to bring out the cultural relativist in all of us. I leave you with one of their young students in a village ESL class, below:

Mappa Marlboro Mundi

_MG_0429You already know, because I have ranted about it on numerous occasions, that the end of the semester is when the campus is so abustle with open studios and film festivals and graceful dance performances and erudite final papers and unfathomable performance art presentations that it could make a passing moose feel culturally enriched. What you don’t know, and I’m sure you are awesomely curious, is that the highlight for yours truly was a display of maps in the dining hall. Yeah, maps. I’m talking about student projects from the Introduction to Cartography class, taught by mathematics professor Matt Ollis and history professor Adam Franklin-Lyons.

_MG_0432There were big maps and little maps, bright maps and oblique maps, digital maps incorporating the very latest in mapping technology and hand-drawn maps using the very latest in colored-pencil technology. There were sobering maps, like sophomore Eddie Higgins maps charting mass killings in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and surprising maps, like senior Eliza Rudegeair’s brilliant map of speeches in Act One, Scene Two of Hamlet—I’m not kidding. Of course, Marlboro being Marlboro, the most popular thing to map was Marlboro being Marlboro.

_MG_0434There’s an interactive map of trails around Marlboro by junior Ian Hitchcock, a map of sounds around the college by senior Kara Hamilton, a map of smokers on campus by freshman Jonah Nonomaque, and a map of what parts of the library are being used by students over time by Kelsey Gibson. I mean, these students made the NSA look like elementary school playground stuff. But my favorite, as you might know from all the images I’m sharing this instant through the modern miracle of the internet, was a glimpse of Marlboro from the perspective of crusty, old historical maps.

_MG_0437These amazing maps by sophomore Kelly Hickey are inspired by the mappa mundis of Medieval Europe (top), the Codex Mendoza of the Spanish conquistadors (middle), and the Tizoc Stone, a giant Aztec cosmographical map (bottom). But while the original Tizoc Stone is about six feet across, carved of solid basalt, and used for human sacrifices, Kelly’s version is a more Marlboro-scaled 16 inches across, crafted from stoneware, and would make a really nice cup holder. Instead of images of blood-thirsty warriors engaged in battle, Kelly decorated the outside of her stone with more familiar Marlboro scenes like skiing, studying, partying, and pressing cider. Now, I don’t know how those feathered gentry of 15th-century Tenochtitlán would feel about that, but to those of us chowing in the dining hall that day (most of us unaccustomed to human sacrifice), it was pretty awesome.

Marlboro’s Got Compassion

_MG_0401Up here on the hill, where natural disasters usually take the form of icy roads or bad years for maple syrup, it can be hard to imagine a typhoon flattening communities, killing more than 5,000 people, and leaving another 3 million displaced. Well it hasn’t been hard for a collection of awesome students who have designated this Typhoon Haiyan Awareness Week to help alert their peers to the ongoing plight of Philippine communities. I mean, these students set up a bodacious booth in the dining hall, projecting images of the typhoon’s aftermath, and a silent auction selling donated arts and crafts and services to raise money for aid to the Philippines. But the highlight was last night’s “Benefit Show for the Philippines.”

_MG_0391Seriously, forget about America’s Got Talent, or Britain’s Got Talent, or Australia’s Got Talent, or the ever-popular Vanuatu’s Got Talent. In addition to attracting some of the most intellectually curious people you will find anywhere, Marlboro apparently has way more than its fair share of totally talented students. There was awesome finger-picking and folky crooning of original songs by the likes of Amber Claxton, Sophie Tulip (both pictured above), Sam Bass, and Aidan Keeva. Bella Ortiz-Wren (left) accompanied her songs with a wailing Fender Stratocaster and ankle bells, and Felix Jarrar thoroughly rocked Shubert and Schumann on the piano. Johnathan Banks gave a taste of one of his compositions for minimalistic piano plucking, in the dark, amidst a barrage of machines, voices, plumbing, and other gathered sounds.

_MG_0422The show finished up with Michael Schneeweis and Edward Suprenant (right) doing a cover of Rihanna’s “Stay,” Edward and Mia Bertelli making everyone melt with a duet of James Taylor’s “Close Your Eyes,” and a fabulous fiddle tune by Mia and two friends. I know my mind is easily boggled, but all through the concert I sat in awe of these accomplished poets, scholars, scientists, and existential philosophers, all putting their hearts into their music to raise money for bereaved and displaced people eight thousand miles away. It’s not something you find every day, but here it’s just another indication of how this apparently cozy little college on a hill is intimately connected to the big ol’ world beyond.

Takin’ the Plunge

_MG_0089croppedI know, I know. It’s that time of year when there’s so much going on it would take a blog of Tolstoy-esque proportions to capture it all. The thrills and chills and social drama worthy of the Russian aristocracy during a Napoleonic invasion is all here, with introductory classes, convocation, peer advisor meetings, dorm charters, the first town meeting, and community dinner with produce from our very own farm. It’s the week where lively new students take the big plunge into the ever-lovin’, communal-livin’, brain-boostin’ life at Marlboro, and the community gets an infusion of garden-fresh new students. There’s so much to talk about, but I still want to talk about biking.

_MG_0040croppedI mean, if you have every bicycled with seven Marlboro students you would know why. A few of us staff and faculty joined the Bridges orientation group called “Biking Towards Community” on the last day of their epic trip through Vermont, and it was like a breath of fresh Vermont air. These guys had been riding for four days, from Ascutney, Vermont, and we found them playing cards in the shade of a covered bridge in Townshend as if they had known each other their whole lives. Now, I’m used to seeing Marlboro students bonding over discussions of existentialist philosophy and post-apocalyptic literature, but this kind of bonding over achy muscles and saddle sores and sunburned necks was downright wholesome.

_MG_0037There is something awesome you get from riding with a group that is another world from riding alone. It’s like you become part of an ant colony, part of a hive of bees, part of a termite mound, all striving with your rhythmic pedaling toward some lofty goal, which in our case was dinner. An in my case it was not so much rhythmic pedaling as frantic pedaling, but you get the idea.

_MG_0090From Townsend, our merry band of pedalers followed Route 30 south and stopped in Newfane for gelato, water, shade, and costume adjustments (trip leader Lia Gips (they, them, their) decided that, despite the striking fashion statement, their snakeskin-pattern bodysuit was too hot). Then we stopped at the covered bridge in Dummerston (I tell you this state is covered with ‘em) for a dip in the West River, and rode on the new rail trail into Brattleboro. From there it was a hop, skip, and a pedal to the home of Max Foldeak, director of health services and leading cycle-therapist, where we enjoyed another refreshing and symbolic plunge (above) and a cookout. Riding with these guys gave me a burst of energy for the new year and a cluster of new bicycling buddies to ride with in the coming weeks.

Sweet Sixteen

Screen Shot 2013-08-27 at 1.39.25 PMDo you remember when Donald Rumsfeld infamously invoked “unknown unknowns,” the things we “do not know we don’t know,” to link the Iraqi government with weapons of mass destruction? Well, that always made about as much sense to me as a pile of kittens until it was quoted by Dr. John Ehrenfeld, commencement speaker at the Marlboro College Graduate and Professional Studies graduation last weekend. It was the sixteenth commencement for the graduate program and an auspicious venue for Dr. Ehrenfeld, renowned industrial ecologist, retired MIT professor, and beloved professor of sustainability at Marlboro for five years.

Screen Shot 2013-08-27 at 1.37.36 PMAccording to Dr. E, author of the new book Flourish: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability, our man Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns are the difference between “complicated” systems and “complex” systems. He argued that conflating these two kinds of systems is one of the challenges facing global sustainability, and that the Marlboro graduates assembled that day were uniquely equipped to know the difference. I would argue that Dr. E’s probably right, because many of them had taken his Exploring Sustainability courses at Marlboro.

Screen Shot 2013-08-27 at 1.47.48 PMNot only was this commencement notable because it was the 16th and because John Ehrenfeld is awesome and because it is the first year for graduates from the Master of Arts in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages program. It was also the commencement of two students who had also received their bachelor’s degree from Marlboro. We call these students participants in the dual degree program, also known by me as “can’t get enough of a good thing.” Sarah Scheff ’11 (pictured right) received her Master of Science in Management: Mission Driven Organizations and Jonathan Wood ’12 received his Master of Arts in Teaching: Social Justice. Now that’s what I call a “knowing knowing.”