April 1st, 2013

The Dao of Hinda: Reading Hinda Miller’s PEARLS OF A SULTANA

by Philip Baruth

Pearls of a Sultana: What I’ve Learned
About Business, Politics, and the Human Spirit

Hinda Miller
Public Press/$19.95

Early on in Hinda Miller’s Pearls of a Sultana – an openly devil-may-care text that asks to be shelved simultaneously in the memoir/politics/spirituality/business-self-help categories – we run across a brief moment that perfectly encapsulates the work at hand.

It’s a bit of reminiscence from Miller’s ten-year term as a Vermont State Senator, specifically her early days on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Having just joined the committee, and recognizing the gaps in her own knowledge, Miller begins earnestly trying to educate herself by asking questions, questions about how the committee works, questions about individual budget items before them.

And along with the other strings of questions, Miller has the audacity to question a particular earmark aimed at the burgeoning composite industry in Bennington.

Why, exactly, is this an audacious move?

Because, as anyone in the Statehouse will tell you, the composite industry in Bennington – like all industry and public infrastructure in Bennington – is constantly and jealously guarded by one Richard Sears (D-Bennington). Sears is an impressively large man with a very gruff voice, an acknowledged force of nature, and the flow of legislation generally moves in sympathy with that force. When it does not, the skies darken:

“I say something that bothers him. He leans forward and bellows, ‘Are you saying I don’t know what I’m talking about?’ The skin tightens slightly around his cheekbones. His nostrils flare slightly. Once more, he leans toward me. It looks like he’s ready to blow.”

And under the existing rules of engagement in the Senate, Sears would have blown, and Miller would have been incinerated in the blast – at least procedurally speaking. But unbeknownst to the senior Senator from Bennington, the junior Senator from Chittenden has powers of her own:

“I decide it’s time to change the energy in the room. The best way I know to do this is through the techniques I learned in my recent Naam Intensive. I begin moving my arms in a sinuous fashion around my head and shoulders. (It’s a motion you sometimes see with belly dancers.) I am moving the energy from the earth to the heavens, as I have learned from my yoga studies.

“At first Sears tightens further. He is taking this very personally, not my intent. He is interpreting this as mocking or criticizing. ‘Are you criticizing me?’ he sputters. I shake my head. He looks at me as if I am having a stroke . . . . After a period of stunned silence he sputters, ‘What . . . are . . . you doing?’

“’I’m changing the energy,’ I say.”

And incredibly enough, it works (at least in Miller’s version of the tale). In the very next moment, Sears breaks into a hearty laugh, and the tension melts. Whether Sears relents because he honors the Kabbalist principles behind Miller’s gestures – or because he thinks Miller is stark-staring mad and must be humored – matters not at all. The important thing is that the default mode of thinking has been interrupted, and productively so.

And that, after all, is Miller’s intention in Pearls of a Sultana.

Miller knows very well that her attempts here to join Kabbala and yoga and numerology to the worlds of business and politics will be met with skepticism, even hostility; she knows that the book’s structure and tone are wildly idiosyncratic; she knows that she is not proposing a neatly numbered set of steps to improve business efficiency; and she knows that all of these things will inhibit the number of books she ultimately sells.

Miller knows, in short, that readers may well react the way that Dick Sears reacted to her sudden sinuous arm movements – but she’s betting that even if they do, they’ll wind up in a new (and potentially productive) mental space as a result.

And speaking only for myself, it works.

You’d be hard pressed to find someone less receptive to numerology than me, to take one example; it has always struck me, like astrology, as a pseudo-scientific means to discover that the universe shares your own deepest desires. And when it creeps into Miller’s text here, I can’t help but roll my eyes: “There are 12 sections to this book. 1+2=3. The number three is ruled by Jupiter, the lord of the planets who brings prosperity and growth, and good luck.”

But having rolled my eyes at the numerological whimsy, and with my expectations in flux, I’m then doubly impressed when the text shifts gears to a wonderful, sustained, first-hand account of the founding of Jogbra. For those interested only in hard-core business advice, and the anecdotes through which it is traditionally offered, the Jogbra chapters will be more than worth the price of admission, in and of themselves.

Of particular interest for would-be entrepreneurs? The detailed break-down of Jogbra’s initial financing structure, how the two-person company scaled up before being ultimately acquired by the Sara Lee Corporation.

As with the Sears story, Miller succeeds as a Jogbra entrepreneur partially (but importantly) because of her own willingness to admit ignorance, to ask questions, to trust where pure reason might dictate skepticism. Much the same is true of her equally intriguing account of the early years of Green Mountain Coffee, on whose board she continues to serve. In her telling of it, she succeeds the way that Cain succeeded in every episode of the old Kung Fu series: by presenting an open heart, by dint of human connections, and by fighting only when peace can be had no other way.

In that sense, Miller comes across as a highly enthusiastic networker but a reluctant corporate warrior, one whose great success argues that perhaps the idea of business as war has always been substantially overvalued.

(And of course this reluctant warrior happened along at the perfect historical moment, at least here in Vermont – Miller’s emphasis on networking, community, partnership, gentleness and good intentions was the right note to hit in a state increasingly cognizant of corporate responsibility and social mission.)

If you come to the text searching for a hard and fast definition of “sultana,” you will be disappointed, however, for Miller makes no bones about the fact that the concept is a work in progress. “Is it a club,” she asks, along with the reader, “a movement? A product line? Time will tell. And I, for one, look forward to finding out.”

Whatever else it might be, the concept is clearly an attempt to create more and better ways of thinking about women of a certain age: “Think of the English words for an older woman – ‘Biddy,’ ‘bitch,’ ‘hag,’ ‘crone.’ Wouldn’t you rather be a ‘Sultana’?” But even the book’s feminism is fluid and situational, one of a number of ways of successful thinking, rather than an analytical tool to be applied dutifully in each and every scene.


Miller, with Senators Illuzzi, Campbell, and Hartwell.

Part of the point with this new book, as with Miller’s undeniable success in business, is that she remains determined not to overdetermine. She believes, apparently with every fiber of her being, that a selfless heart and a questing mind – and a lifelong yoga regimen – will bring not only happiness, but riches as well.

And honestly, can I say that my previously mentioned disdain for numerology has ever brought me either one?

Reader, I cannot.

The fact is that to this day, when things grow confrontational in the Vermont State Senate, you will still occasionally see a senior Senator here or there begin to move their arms in trademark Hinda fashion, moving the energy from earth to the heavens, with other senior Senators quickly joining in the joke, half mocking the gesture as they do so, but invoking it nevertheless as a way of indicating that everyone needs to take a deep breath and refocus. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, many times.

And in that, yogi Miller has succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.

This, then, is the dao of Hinda: Laugh if you will, for your laughter serves only to enrich us all.

November 2nd, 2012

VDB MOVES TO DEFCON FIVE: FIVE DAYS LEFT UNTIL ELECTION DAY (AND CAN YOU DO US A QUICK DIGITAL SOLID?)

by Philip Baruth

Just about 5 days left until Election Day in the insane Chittenden County Senate race , and so it’s crunch time. Votes must be gotten out, and not just in the three-dimensional world: if the netroots are to be respected in the political world, then the netroots also have to prove their muscle in getting out the vote. Which brings us to the Final Project: Pulsing The System. AKA Netting Out The Vote.

By pulsing the system, we mean every supporter of this State Senate campaign (and every supporter of every issue we support, from GMO labeling to single-payer to shuttering Vermont Yankee) reaching out to their own individual electronic network with a simple message: I plan to vote for Baruth, and hope you will too.

That’s it: a message just that brief if you like, but posted to your Facebook and Twitter pages, and then sent as a broadcast email to your address book. If you can throw in an extra 3 minutes, posting it to your Front Porch Forum list helps a lot.

But altogether that might take — might, if you really type slowly and deliberately — about 10 minutes. That 10 minutes, though, reaches maybe 1000 people. And if everyone who supports this campaign reaches their universe, we’re golden.

Think of it this way. Technology is woven into your life; you spend hours interfacing with it, and that’s a scary thing if some of that time isn’t spent accomplishing something real, tangible and of benefit to others. Politics is one way to do that, and here in Vermont we’re engaged in some truly exciting political developments.

A first-in-the-nation ban on fracking. The country’s first true single-payer healthcare system.

Reaching out to your network with a quick endorsement is, very literally speaking, the least any of us can do. And you know we here at VDB will appreciate it until our dying day.

Thanks in advance.

October 30th, 2012

Hoffer Takes On Vermonters First

by Philip Baruth

Look, we’re all ripshit about Vermonters First, and the unholy effects of $700,000 worth of campaign spending washing into the system — campaign spending from one fabulously wealthy and spectacularly disgruntled individual. And I think all of us have been waiting for one of the campaigns, or one of the candidates, to fashion a truly effective response. Wait no longer: the Hoffer campaign has done it. Seriously.

Hoffer for Auditor “Whiteboard” from Hoffer for Aditor on Vimeo.

In terms of production values and message, this is the best ad produced this cycle, bar none. And it couldn’t come at a better moment. Watch it. Share it. Facebook it. Because it’s brilliant.

October 11th, 2012

BREAKING: With A Final Reporting Deadline Monday, The Senate Re-Election Bid Moves Toward The Finish Line

by Philip Baruth

If you’re lucky, every year you spend in the Legislature comes with a highlight. The high moment my first year was the successful attempt to dramatically expand Pre-Kindergarten education in Vermont. Before the Governor signed that bill, your community was probably limited to ten Pre-K slots, and it was even odds you drew out of a hat to see which kids lost. Then, at the Blooming Minds Pre-School in St. Albans, Peter Shumlin signed S.53, the first bill I ever reported on the floor of the Senate and one I’d pushed hard since day one. And that all changed.

A year later, the Governor signed S.223, a bill I co-sponsored with Anthony Pollina, increasing coverage for autistic Vermonters from age 6 to age 21. That was an incredibly happy day in the Governor’s Ceremonial Office — especially when one of the kids moved Shumlin along by grabbing the pen and offering to sign the legislation herself.

Days like those are why I’m working every day to be re-elected to the State Senate. Making change like that, even though it doesn’t come on every issue, even though it doesn’t come without costs and compromises, is one of the greatest feelings going.

And right now, we’re just about $1000 shy of what we need to raise to have everything scheduled and paid for in this re-election bid: lawn signs, campaign literature, stickers, palm cards, social media, print ads, etc. and so on.

When we’ve raised that $1000, we’re done, all except for the honking and waving.

And the last reporting deadline is Monday.

So if you can help us now, on this last push, it’ll be very deeply appreciated. Just click here, and you’ll be whisked to ActBlue, the safest and most progressive donation site out there. Or if online donation doesn’t work for you, our address is the same as it’s always been: Baruth Senate, PO Box, 876, Burlington, VT, 05402.

Thanks in advance if you can help, folks. This forced march will only last three more weeks or so. Onward.

October 8th, 2012

Bill McKibben’s Video Endorsement

by Philip Baruth

Couldn’t be more proud to have the strong support of famed environmentalist Bill McKibben in my bid for re-election to the Vermont State Senate. Here’s Bill’s video endorsement, and if by any chance you could share this in some way — via social media or a link to your own blog — VDB would be eternally grateful. Because with only 30 days left to go, November 6 is coming all too soon, with the winter snow.

Bill McKibben for Baruth 2012 from Phil Baruth on Vimeo.

September 24th, 2012

Single Best Obama Ad Of the Cycle

by Philip Baruth

September 21st, 2012

Public Meltdown: New Book By Richard Watts Brings Yankee Tale Into Sharp Relief

by Philip Baruth

We all have our favorite people and subjects and genres, and every so often a book comes out that seems made just for you. And because it seems so perfect for you specifically, you save it, and go through it slowly once you permit yourself to read it. Felt that way with David Maraniss’s masterful biography of Bill Clinton, First In His Class. Richard Ben Cramer’s epic tale of the 1988 Presidential race, What It Takes. And most recently, Richard Watts’s Public Meltdown: The Story of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant. Because as you know, we love a good Yankee story here at VDB. And Watts tells a very good Yankee story indeed.

As a documentary resource, the book is invaluable, bringing together as it does all of the best, in-depth reporting done on Yankee over the years by journalists like Bob Audette, Paul Heintz, John Dillon, Terri Hallenbeck, and Kristin Carlson. It locates and references between two covers nearly all of the relevent resources and studies — every fact one might need in order to judge the situation on the ground in Vernon, you will find in Public Meltdown.

Yet it’s the narrative — the tale — that catches and holds your attention.

After referencing the disastrous 2011 multiple melt-down at Fukushima, Watts begins, “This book is about another kind of meltdown, a public meltdown that took place over an eight-year period as Vermont citizens and political leaders became increasingly concerned about the management of a nuclear plant within state borders.”

And of course that’s what drives any story told by humans — human failings, human sacrifice and perserverence in the face of long odds.

And Watts brings it all into sharp relief: how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was born in a conflict of interest between promotion and regulation; how lax oversight allowed safety to take a back seat from the beginning; how nuclear activists in the state — particularly the New England Coalition and the Clamshell Alliance — began their opposition fully forty years ago; how spectacular malfunctions captured the attention of the state; and finally how a certain, undeniable corporate mendacity eventually caused Entergy’s last support network in the state to quickly unravel.

Watts is at his best when he gets to the best and juiciest moments in the story. Case in point: when nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen and others catch Entergy higher-ups in a highly public lie about the plant’s extensive underground pipe system, and the nuclear material it carries.

Entergy’s lead witness, Jay Thayer, testified on May 20, starting with the traditional oath to tell the truth. The room was silent except for the tapping of the stenographer, whispers from onlookers and people shifting in the blue-cushioned, curved metal chairs. DPS lawyer John Cotter started the cross-examination . . . . He then asked Thayer, “Does Vermont Yankee have any underground piping that carries radionuclides?” Burke peered over his glasses from his seat on the dais.

There was a long pause — 12 seconds — before Thayer responded: “The reason I hesitate is I don’t believe there is active piping in service today carrying radionuclides underground . . . . But I don’t — I can do some research on that and get back to you, but I don’t believe there are active piping systems underground containing contaminated fluids today.”

This was the precise moment when Entergy finally slipped over the line between corporate fudging and corporate perjury, and Watt captures the moment brilliantly.

Of course the story doesn’t end as VDB would like: the plant continues in operation today, due in large part to a single, dismissive ruling by U.S. District Judge J. Garvan Murtha. But as anyone who has ever followed this particular tale knows, the opposition to Yankee has shown an amazing ability to regenerate and strengthen over time.

Which is to say that time and history — especially with fine books like Watts’s — are not on Yankee’s side.

September 19th, 2012

Are You Committed Enough To Fight The War Against Women With Bowling Balls?

by Philip Baruth

So yes, we’re still apparently locked in mortal combat — nationally speaking — over the right of women to control their own reproductive destinies. And the emphasis has been on Planned Parenthood, and rightly so, given the very high-profile attempts to slash their funding. But other organizations are out there fighting the good fight too. To wit: VARF (Vermont Access to Reproductive Freedom). And every year, VARF challenges you to show your level of commitment by, you know, bowling. And drinking.

As politically serious events go, it’s not so serious. But while everyone has an extremely good time, money finds its way to a very worthwhile cause. VDB, not too many people know, developed mad bowling skills back in the 70’s in Rome, NY (true story). These skills we will be coolly demonstrating with Bill Simmon’s award-winning team, The Ovary Achievers.

When and where will this go down? October 6th, from 7 to 9 pm at Spare Time in Colchester, Vermont. And believe us, it’ll get real on the lanes.

If you want to know more, or want to sign up your own team, go here for more info. If you want to simply donate directly to event organizer Selene Colburn’s team so that she can rub it later in Bill Simmon’s face, go here. And if you want to know the deeper reason why people do this event year after year, look more closely at that last photograph.

See you on the lanes. In your cool rented shoes.

September 12th, 2012

BREAKING YANKEE NEWS: Protest Flotilla Masses On Connecticut River Saturday

by Philip Baruth

Maybe you thought that the days of sustained protest against Vermont Yankee were over. Maybe you thought that this was a land campaign only. Wrong, on both counts. Because this Saturday, SAGE Alliance goes at the Yankee problem by sea, in the form of a coordinated flotilla, designed to draw attention to the plant’s harmful warming of the Connecticut River. Are you free Saturday? Have boat? Will paddle? It isn’t often that you can enjoy the glories of the river and fight the good fight at one and the same time. Details below:

September 4th, 2012

This Choice RNC/Clint Snark Just In From Always Alert VDB Wingman Don Shall

by Philip Baruth

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