Around the World in 49 Minutes

You know, on most days I am content to be here on th’Hill, sitting on a gneiss stone wall under a spreading maple tree aflame with carotenoids and anthocyanins and listening to the crickets stridulate. On most days I would be happy to press apple cider and bob for apples and play baseball with apples and shoot apples with a bow and arrow and grotesquely eat an apple pie as fast as I can with no hands (that’s right, it was Apple Days). But yesterday it was just harder to enjoy being here, despite it’s many mind-bending intellectual challenges and Walden-esque pleasures, because of an awesome slideshow by three community members about their travels around the world.

First of all there was art history professor Felicity Ratté, who talked about her amazing travels last spring through Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Bulgaria. She claimed she was studying historic Islamic art and architecture and comparing the “built environment” to Medieval Europe and all, but I suspect she might actually have had something to do with the rash of revolutions that swept through the Arab world at precisely the same time. After all, what did she show us pictures of? Cats—I’m not kidding—very suspicious, right? There was hardly a mosque or minaret or a calligraphy-painted tile in her whole bunch of beautiful cat pictures, leading me to wonder if Felicity’s cats were somehow the underground instigators of the “Arab Spring.”

Then came senior Zack Chilcote, who spent last year in Beijing teaching English, researching the social impacts of the “one child” law, trying to start a “broken-English speed dating service” and learning to ride a motorcycle. Zack became intrigued with the government efforts to “civilize” the population, which struck me as ironic in a country whose civilization stretches back to the Bronze Age. Finally, senior Drew Tanabe talked about his spring semester in Japan, where he worked at the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation and volunteered in the clean-up efforts after the earthquake and tsnunami there last March.

Both Zack and Drew are in the World Studies Program, and Felicity is on the world studies committee, so their presentation together was an inspiration for any student who has an inkling to leave this Hill o’Potash and see the rest of the world. It also introduced students to Susie Belleci, the marvelous new associate director of world studies who is helping make global perspectives and international travel the bread and butter of studies at Marlboro. And last but not least, it made yours truly pine for a little global adventure of his own, preferably someplace more exotic than the Price Chopper’s international cuisine isle or the Hogback Mountain Gift Shop with its 100-mile view.


Make Prose Not War

You can forget about the Hundred Years’ War and the Crusades and the Napoleonic Wars and even the “War of the Elves and Sauron.” Forget about the Mongol conquests, when Genghis and all the little Khans misappropriated 16 percent of the Earth’s total land area, killing tens of thousands of people along the way. All of that looks like a game of checkers compared to the last century, which writing professor John Sheehy calls “the bloodiest century in history.” He should know, because he’s teaching a writing seminar on the subject called War & Rumors of War.

Sheehy, as he is affectionately known, is one of those typical Marlboro professors who commands tons of respect and admiration from us mere mortals without asking…you know, without claiming even an ounce of superiority. Going to the intro class for War etc., along with what appeared to be half of the freshman class, I was at first in awe of the sheer number of people who would choose to spend a whole gloomy semester writing about trench warfare and atomic weapons and the firebombing of Dresden and other gloomy stuff. Then I heard Sheehy expound on the gloomy subject with such a mesmerizing mixture of compassion and morbid curiosity, and I was hooked.

Like some compassionately morbid psychotherapist, Sheehy asks his unsuspecting students impossible questions like “what does it feel like to live in the aftermath of the bloodiest century?” He points out that this generation of students is growing up at a time when people have come to accept a world more appallingly violent than any other time. Like, the Afghan War is already longer than any other war in the past century, and it’s not even front-page news most days. The students are reading books that will get them all pondering the context and cultural reactions to war, gloomy classics like Catch-22 and All Quiet on the Western Front and Where Men Win Glory. But most of all they are writing about war, and talking about writing about war, and, yes, thinking about talking about writing about war, all in the magical land of Sheehy.


Bowling for Dollars

If you’ve ever done it, you know there’s something indescribably good about the feeling of making a clay bowl. I mean, it feels to me like something sort of archetypal, like rubbing sticks together or pulling potatoes out of the soil or standing under an icy waterfall. It feels like you are doing something just like untold squillions of people have done before you, squeezing arcs of clay like Athena the patron goddess of pottery, heroic endeavors and the manufacture of olive oil. It felt especially indescribably good last Saturday, because it was to benefit the Empty Bowls dinner on October 9th.

Ceramics professor Martina Lantin invited members of the community to come by the pottery studio and make bowls, lots of bowls, whether that meant making bumpy bowls one pinch at a time or throwing masterful vessels on the wheel (invented by the Egyptian god Khnum, who I hear made children’s bodies from clay and placed them in their mother’s wombs). All kinds of folks came down and got muddy, from the new Fulbright Arabic fellow Mohamed Jalal to the new student life coordinator Zoe Ogilvie. History professor Adam Franklin-Lyons brought his whole family. Everyone got in an archetypal, gooshy groove and cranked out about 65 bowls, which will be glazed and fired in time for the October event.

I know, I know, the “Empty Bowls dinner” sounds a little like an oxymoron, but they are only empty for now. It’s this very cool fundraiser where local potters contribute bowls, local restaurants contribute good food and local musicians contribute good sounds. Participants will get to enjoy all this and walk home with a nice bowl made by Mohamed or Zoe or Athena or Khnum or some other archetypal potter. Donations benefit the Brattleboro Drop In Center, and the empty bowls are a reminder of how many people in the immediate area are hungry. I guarantee you that as we go into the winter, with fuel prices rising and food prices at an all time high, the Drop In Center will make good use of every dollar generated by Marlboro’s little bowl-a-rama.


Parfait for the Soul

Every fall semester around this time, usually a little earlier actually, Convocation comes along and feels like a yummy dessert before dinner. You know, this is the “formal” occasion where new students are officially welcomed, faculty members get to strut around in their flowing robes and tassels, and everyone feels warm cockles in their heart they had forgotten about for the summer and emerge with a comfy glow about them. This year, convocation was particularly dessert-like, I’d say on the order of strawberry cheesecake or a brownie sundae, because it was delayed for a whole week.

As I’m sure you know, along with CNN and MS-NBC and VPR and probably a lot of other acronyms I don’t even know, the last week has been a little challenging here on “Potash Isle.” Vermont’s first official tropical storm left Marlboro totally isolated from other parts of the state, and this is a state that most people already thought of as a bit remote. Far from being a desperate situation, the scene here on the hill has been pretty heartwarming. Faculty, staff and new students, fresh from orientation trips, kept engaged in workshops, discussions, movies and all while they waited for returning students to trickle in, some of them walking the last 10 miles from Brattleboro.

The kitchen staff has been lugging in food by the pick-up load because all roads are closed to trucks, and Bryant the chief budget and planning officer showed up the first day after the storm—when there was no power—with a pick-up full of ice, so food wouldn’t go bad. Many enjoyed a double-header of A Stranger in the Kingdom, the “community read” for this year: author Howard Frank Mosher regaled us with stories from his life in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom on Thursday, followed by a screening of film professor Jay Craven’s adaptation of the novel on Friday (Jay and Howard pictured, left). And the college community joined with local townspeople to welcome Governor Peter Shumlin (above) on Friday afternoon, when his helicopter landed on the soccer field so he could hear about local road difficulties and offer his support.

So yeah, with all that excitement behind us, and the whole semesterstill ahead of us, the gracious ceremony of Convocation came as a much-needed parfait for the soul. New music professor Matan Rubinstein (top) played pleasingly poignant piano processionals from Copland and Gershwin. President Ellen seemed closed to tears of relief to be welcoming new students, who came from as close as Marlboro and as far away as South Korea, Germany and Slovakia. But alumnus Sokol “Koli” Shtylla ’01 (right) really stole the show with his stirring convocation remarks about personal growth, community and service. I mean, it was such a gratifying start to the year that I hardly had room for the community dinner following.