Deborah Lee Luskin

Commentator

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, speaker and educator.

When a recent commentary about the need for intelligent and empathetic discussions about vaccines by Abby Mnookin ended with a plea to “relearn how to talk to each other with compassion and to consider the broader impact of our decisions,” I was both amused and appalled when the thread of comments that followed escalated into an on-line shouting match, complete with snide remarks and name-calling – until VPR closed the thread.

Not long ago, I received a private message on Facebook from a woman who’d once been my best friend, but with whom I hadn’t spoken in thirty years.

Since last year’s Town Meeting, I’ve been called to the polls twice for special elementary school votes, once for a special article about a Town Charter, and once each for the November elections, the union high school budget, and the elementary school budget. That’s a total of seven votes – an indication, I think, of how vibrant self-governance is in my town.

In 1764, King George the Second set the boundary between Vermont and New Hampshire at the Connecticut River’s western low-water mark. Simultaneously, Britain’s Royal Board of Trade decreed the same low-water mark as the border between New York and New Hampshire, squeezing Vermont off the map.

The arch truss bridge on I-91 that’s been spanning the West River since the late 1950’s was once state-of-the-art but has become functionally obsolete. A new bridge of balanced cantilevered construction is going up in its place.

Last winter, Governor Shumlin took a good first step in reframing the issue of drug addiction by defining it as a public health crisis rather than simply as a problem of crime. Since illnesses can be treated, it follows that treatment should be more effective than incarceration and in the past year, Vermont has made great strides in creating a number of proactive strategies.

I suffer a mild form of Seasonal Affective Disorder, where the diminishing daylight depresses my mood.

As humans have done for eons, I celebrate the seasonal festivals that brighten the dark, especially those including candles and lights. There’s evidence that humans have been lighting the dark for as long as they’ve had fire, especially in the parts of the world where daylight dwindles in winter. But with the advent of electricity, humans have been lighting the night to an unhealthy extreme.

Thanksgiving is the Big Holiday at our house, the one my kids attend with their partners in return to spending Christmas away. In addition to the traditional turkey, we have our own traditions, including a Big Project. This year, it’s augmenting a stonewall. And if weather permits, we’ll light up the night with a bonfire, burning all the brush accumulated over the year. The Thanksgiving feast is just one part of what’s turned into a house party that lasts most of a week and involves lots of meals, walks, Scrabble and talk.

I’m named after a woman who emigrated from Russia with two sons, then gave birth to an American, but never became one herself. Every year Devorah Leah would register as a resident alien, because she never learned to speak or read English – a subject in which I’ve earned a PhD.

I’ve been thinking about my grandmother a lot recently as I stumble my way around the foreign territory of the digital landscape, with only a rudimentary knowledge of its language.

The Newbrook Elementary School serves the towns of Newfane and Brookline, and this Thursday, the voters of both towns will meet for the second time to resolve how to heat the building.

The current boilers are weary, and the ventilation inside the school is poor. After years of study, the energy committee is proposing a solar array with air-to-air heat pumps. The old boilers would kick on as the temperatures approach zero.

On a sunny afternoon last month, I visited NewBrook Elementary School for a field day celebration of their food-based curriculum. Mixed aged teams, Kindergarten through sixth grade, rotated through different stations on the school grounds. I followed Team Tomato around the course.
 

Our first stop was at a picnic table covered with a map of the world; a geography lesson ensued, where the kids read stickers on fruit and packaged food, then located where in the world the apples, seaweed and chocolate came from.

Unlike many much larger towns, Brattleboro boasts a rich cultural life filled with music, art, intellectual exchange, lively politics and literature. On any given night, residents can attend concerts, lectures, theater, or classes. Sometimes, the choices are so varied it’s easier just to stay home and read.
 

When the late Dan Darrow was running for the state legislature in my district almost twenty years ago, he handed out a campaign brochure with the recipe for his famous blueberry pie. His opponent accused him of offering pie in the sky.
 

When I came home with my ears pierced more than fifty years ago, my father asked, “Why didn’t you get a bone through your nose?” To further prove he was square and I was cool, I had a second set of holes drilled through my ear lobes and rarely wore earrings that matched.

Then I had kids.
 

When our oldest was thirteen, she wanted nothing more than to have her bellybutton pierced. It was perhaps the first and only time her father and I responded with an unequivacal, “No.”

My dad has been a widower for the past eighteen months, and he’s been living alone for the first time in his life. He met my mom was he was eighteen, courted her by letter from a foxhole in Europe, married her when he was twenty-one, and lived with her for sixty-six years. In 2009, they moved to a deluxe independent living facility, where they had daily exercise class, fine dining, evening programs and an apartment tastefully decorated with their familiar furniture.
 

Even though I don’t live in Brattleboro, I attended a recent, special meeting about the town’s budget, which was developed by the Select Board, passed by the Representative Town Meeting, and defeated by a referendum. The initial budget was the work of months of meetings – but none so well attended as last week’s, where so many people showed up they had to find a bigger room. At issue was the five percent across-the board cuts the Select Board suggested in response to the budget’s defeat. These cuts would affect every town department.
 

William Shakespeare was born 450 years ago right about now. His exact birthdate is unknown, but his baptism was recorded on April 26, 1564. Shakespeare left neither letters nor diaries, and only eighteen of his plays were printed during his lifetime. The thirty-six plays that comprise what we consider his complete work were published in The First Folio of 1623, seven years after he died, but this lack of hard data hasn’t hindered a thriving industry in Shakespeare scholarship.

Town Meeting Day itself may be over in my town – but the voting isn’t. We’ll go to the polls two more times, both for Australian Ballots that failed. The first recall is for the Union High School, whose seven million dollar budget lost by ten votes. It would be easy to blame the low voter turnout on the snowstorm on voting day, but the truth is more people voted this year than did last year, when the weather was fair.
 

At our annual school district meeting this year, we voted to reduce the size of our school board from five members to three. Even so, we have only one elected school director, and we have to hold a special election to elect at least one more, so that we have a quorum and can conduct business.
 

The last board tried recruiting candidates but no one stepped forward, which is both understandable and too bad.

Henry Martyn Robert lived from 1837 until 1923, and while I don’t know if he ever set foot in Vermont, his influence in this state is significant. He’s the army corps of engineers officer who wrote the manual on parliamentary procedure that governs Town Meeting in Vermont.
 

What started as a list of rules for governing deliberative assemblies short enough to fit on a slip of paper that General Robert could carry in his wallet is now more than seven hundred pages in its newest, revised edition just off the press.

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