To Keep My Money Local

One of the buildings here on Main Street in Poultney has been for sale for a least a few years. It’s an old gas station with a two-bay garage attached. It sits on the corner of Rt. 30 and Main Street, right at the entrance to the village. A year or two ago, one of the organizations in town hoped to purchase it using taxpayer money to create a welcome center for the village. It was also going serve as the main location in town for weather-protected access to our regional bus route (i.e., a bus stop). Unfortunately (in my view), the taxpayers voted it down at town meeting that year.

This morning, in the shower, I had another idea for that building.

One of the biggest issues with Vermont is the lack of meaningful employment opportunities. In the list of the occupations with the largest employment in Vermont, you’ll find at or near the top of the list not-so-rewarding jobs such as cashier, retail sales, food prep (including fast food), and waitstaff. According to the Burlington Free Press, “almost all of the new jobs [created last year] were concentrated in four sectors of the economy:  health care, hotels and restaurants, business and professional services, and construction.”

In other words, outside of some version of nursing, there’s not a lot of jobs in Vermont that provide secure, long-term employment with health benefits, retirement accounts, and the ability to feel as if you’re making a meaningful contribution to the wider community.

Forbes’ profile of Vermont explains some of the reasons behind this.  We have the smallest economy in the nation, the second highest business costs, and an economic outlook that is supposed to be the fifth worst in the country over the next five years, all of which affects our residents’ income growth. Add on an aging population (second oldest in the country) and a brain drain of young college graduates (as with all young college graduates, ours are more attracted to urban areas than to rural), and it’s easy to see why more large-scale employers don’t choose to make Vermont their home.

On the other hand, the state of our small businesses is strong. According to a Business News Daily survey of Vermont’s small business owners, “entrepreneurs in Vermont may have to contend with a tight labor market and an elevated cost of living, but they also have access to strong, entrepreneurial communities and operate within a stable economy.”

One of the entrepreneurs said, “There are events every month in and around Burlington to facilitate networking with [investors, mentors, incubators, and entrepreneurs]” — but if you don’t live in or around Burlington (as I do not), then your access to this network is greatly diminished.

That’s where my idea for the building on the corner of Main Street comes in.

It has to do with a thing called locavesting:

In the wake of the financial crisis, people [looked] for ways to rebuild their communities, dotted with foreclosed homes and shuttered storefronts. And they knew they had to look beyond Wall Street. In some cases, that [meant] rediscovering tried and true solutions, such as community banks, cooperatives and CDFIs, or resurrecting centuries-old concepts, like local stock exchanges. In other cases, it meant inventing brand new models, like crowdfunding. All of these alternatives harken back to a time before our global financial age, when finance was something that happened largely within a community, among trusted participants, for mutual benefit.

The word locavesting is analogous to the successful locavore movement; where locavores eat food grown or raised in their local community, “locavestors seek to invest that way.”

In Vermont (as in many other states), we have rules designed to help Vermont businesses seek investments from Vermont residents. Our Small Business Offering Exemption, for example, “allows Vermont businesses and start-up companies to raise up to $2 million in capital by selling shares in their company to in-state investors.”

But I’m wondering how your everyday small business and your everyday Vermont resident gets access to this kind of financial market. If more people were able to invest in the growth and success of local businesses, wouldn’t Vermont be more attractive to entrepreneurs, and not just entrepreneurs who are coming from out of state, but entrepreneurs and potential entrepreneurs who already live here?

Imagine this:

Let’s say I receive a $1,200 tax return on my Federal taxes. I’ve got several options on what to do with this windfall: I can pay down my debt (always a good idea); I can spend it on goods and services; or I can invest it in either a traditional savings account or in something a little fancier (of course, I can also do some combination of the three).

Let’s say I choose to invest it.

Wouldn’t it be great if I could walk down the street to a beautiful new building where I could sit down with a professional financial consultant who could help me invest my $1,200 in a local business of some kind?

Because the building is located in Poultney, various brochures and video-playing kiosks would direct my attention to businesses located within or around Poultney, with each business making some sort of pitch as to what they would like to do with my money and what kind of return I can hope to generate from it.

Maybe there’s a video from a man I know who is looking to hire a second construction worker to help him grow his business. He’s hoping to raise roughly $40,000 to afford the second worker’s salary, and in return for the investment, he is willing to split a portion of his company’s profits with his investors.

Maybe there’s a pitch from a local entrepreneur who’d like to start a locavore restaurant, or another from a woman who would like to expand the location of her daycare, or another from a college student who is seeking investors to help him build a company around his recently acquired patent, or another from an elderly man who’d like to take his cottage industry online, or another from a local farmer who wants to buy a new piece of heavy equipment, etc.

It’s not just people looking to do something specific, however. There are also shares available in already thriving companies: a local plumber, a local hardware store, a local private school, a local baker. My investment in these small businesses signal my willingness to trust these entrepreneurs to make the most of my money, to use it to generate a return greater than I might find with a traditional savings account.

Of course, I would also have access to the larger Vermont market, but the priority of this particular building in Poultney would focus on entrepreneurs who live and work within 35 miles of my home — people I know, businesses I recognize and patronize, families who send their children to school with my daughter.

The upshot is that the exchange would act as a kind of hybrid between crowdfunding services such as Kickstarter and GoFundMe, micro-loan services such as Kiva, and a traditional stock exchange.

Okay. So, that’s what it looks like if I’m an investor. But what if I’m a small business owner? As an entrepreneur (in this scenario), I’m already pulled in every direction and don’t have the time or the finances to do all of the legwork necessary to get my business listed on such an exchange, or once I’m there, to figure out how to conform with all the transparency requirements that are only fair in a public market.

That’s where the person working behind the desk in our imaginary building comes in. He or she is not just a resource for individual investors; he or she is also a resource for the businesses that are looking for those investors. This professional consultant can help walk the business owner through all of the required steps to getting listed on the market, and can put the business owner in touch with other consultants who can help maximize the offering (i.e., local professionals who can produce brochures, create videos, develop websites, assist with financial audits, etc.).

Because he or she is walking all of the local businesses through the process of getting onto the exchange, he or she will know the local market better than almost anyone else, and will therefore be able to assist the individual investors when they come looking for guidance.

Now imagine this particular building (and this particular kind of financial consultant) in all of Vermont’s 255 municipalities, each dedicated to driving investments in their local economies.

This isn’t a crazy idea. The financial rules are already in place. The only thing that is missing is the local access point.

What if the legislature set aside some kind of funding for this? The funding would go towards the creation of the Internet-enabled backbone that allows an investor in Brattleboro to send her money to a cupcake maker in the Northeast Kingdom, and to track the rise and fall of the various shares listed on the exchange.

The next step would be for the legislature to create an unfunded mandate that basically says, “Okay municipalities, if you want to give your local business owners access to an entire state’s worth of local investors, you have to create a physical location in your municipality where residents can receive professional advice related to the local market. The wages of the person providing the advice must (at least) meet your county’s designated living wage, and the physical location must have access to the Internet. Until you are able to meet these requirements, your businesses will not be allowed to list themselves on the exchange.”

This would not only create (at least) 255 well-paying jobs in the state (Burlington, for example, might choose to open a few of these access points), it would also equalize the opportunity to participate in the market: you wouldn’t need the Internet at your house because it would be available at your local access point; you wouldn’t need to hire a financial manager because the consultant would be available to everyone in your town for free (his or her services would already be covered by the taxpayers); and small businesses wouldn’t have to deal with a ton of up-front costs to prepare their businesses to be listed (again, because the consultant is already working for free).

The benefits of such a marketplace would greatly outweigh the costs. It would not only ensure that more Vermont dollars stay in Vermont, but it would also increase the rate of entrepreneurship throughout the state. With more local money flowing to more local entrepreneurs, more residents would have the opportunity to follow their passions to meaningful employment, whether that means starting their own businesses or hiring more of their neighbors, funneling my investment dollars into my neighbors’ lives.

Anyway, that was the idea I had in the shower this morning. It might not be wholly original, but I thought it was good enough to share.

They Can’t Revoke Your Soul For Tryin’

My students decided they wanted to know more about the soul.  They came up with a list of questions, including what is the soul?, how could the soul exist?, is the soul permanent?, and all sorts of other questions. One of my students even wanted to compare the concept of the soul to the more new-agey concept of energy (a brilliant question, I think, when asked in earnest).

They also agreed that we do not want to be multicultural tourists in the class; rather, we want to wrestle with the questions. But at the same time, we don’t just want to riff off the top of our heads about the definition of the soul. We actually — all of us — want to learn something.

The Hindu (Vedanta) Concept of the Soul

Yes, this is about to happen.

There is a thing called an atman and a thing called a brahman. That’s pretty much what I know about the Hindu concept of the soul.

Both the atman and the brahman make up the soul. The Hindus are not the only ones to have divided the soul into parts (St. Augustine does it, as does Freud, as do a lot of other people), but the Hindus are the ones who connect the individual soul to an infinite soul, not as one to an other, but as one and only. The soul we each have, the atman, is like our individual soul, our heart, but the soul we all share is the brahman, which is like the music made by all of our hearts beating together, not as one but as many, the music we make, the melody, bass line, and percussion, moving as one in song.

I read the Bhagavad Gita in college. In it, Krishna stops time just before a major battle to help Prince Arjuna make a decision. Arjuna is dithering because the men he is about to fight are his family members and loved ones. He knows it is his duty is to go into battle, but how can he kill people he loves?

I don’t remember a lot of the book.  But that’s not important. Sure, it’s one of the most sacred texts in all of Hindu literature, but by this point, there’s been so many thousands of years of dissection and analysis that anything I’d even be able to add to the discussion would always already be besides the point.

That’s okay. Because I’m not trying to teach the Bhagavad Gita right now.

What I’m trying to teach is that it says there is a sense of duty that each soul has — and by soul, I’m talking about the atman, the individual-ness of us. In some sense, the duty of every individual is to turn to face God (Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna as a god with faces on all sides, whose core shines with the light of a thousand suns; having faces on all sides allows all of us to face him individually), but each individual, as an individual, turns to God in a way that is unique to their atman; it is the duty of each of us to find and know and do our atman.

Are you a dancer? Then dance your way to God. A reader? Read your way to God. A warrior? A prince? A priest? A queen? Act as a queen should act, regardless of whether there’s a crown on your head.

But remember, you are not the queen (even if you do have a crown). You are a subject of God, with all of the gifts and rights of any subject worth their salt; we are to God as the roots are to their leaves, all as one.

The goal, however, is to cut down the tree and separate into the flowing robes of the infinite.

Reincarnation is a part of this, too. How (who, what) we get reincarnated (as) has to do with the way we live up to our duty. The Hindus call this dharma.

Dharma is what puts the ethics in our actions. It’s like the universal law, telling us exactly what we should do. But it’s also like a river: the more you move when and where you’re supposed to move, and how you’re supposed to, the better off you’ll be; the more you fight against dharma, the worse off you’ll be.

That’s one of the ways Hinduism differs from Taoism. Taoism wants you to surrender to the flow, while Hinduism wants you do more than that — it wants you to be more like a whitewater river guide who has been trained in the ways of the river and experienced it over and over again until you understand the best way to get yourself out of the river safely; Taoism, on the other hand, just wants you to close your eyes and jump in.

To use the tree metaphor again, dharma is the way the roots channel their energy up through the trunk of the tree and out onto the farthest reaches of the highest leaves, where it finally comes into contact with the sun. If you ignore your dharma and keep channeling your energy around and around near the base of the tree, you’ll grow stunted, ensuring that when the tree dies, all of your energy will just goes back into the ground, to try once again to go home.

Follow your dharma, and you’ll know exactly which way to go.

But that’s all argument from metaphor. How to philosophize that argument?

I’ll leave that one for my students.

My Current Problem with Death

I teach a class in the Philosophy of Death.

Let’s talk about the ridiculousness of that for a moment, shall we?

First, the details. This class meets twice a week for 45 minutes. I have four students in it — the youngest is fourteen; the next youngest is seventeen; and the last two are eighteen. All four of them are engaged participants in every single class. They take  diligent notes, and even discuss passionately with me the structure of those notes, wanting to make sure that what they’re writing down is what I’m trying to get across. I shit you not. The class ends at 12:00pm, lunch time, and every single class, at least two if not all four students choose to stay in their seats and continue our discussion (including a student whose hunger knows no bounds).

These incredible young students come to class every week and expect me — me! — to teach them about the Philosophy of Death.

That’s ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous.

What do I know of death?

I’ll tell you what I know of death. One of my students died this year. He was nineteen years old. The young man was no saint, and he died in the company of known criminals, of a gunshot wound, shot in the early hours of the morning in a parked car with his friends, on a dare, with a stolen gun, obtained from a house where the homeowner was assaulted during the robbery, by one of the kids sitting in the car, where my student dared his killer to shoot him, and the shooter did.

I was this boy’s teacher at the last school he attended before dropping out. I was his last formal advisor. He was going down this path before he met me. And he continued down it after me. If anything, I only stalled him for a while and tried to put a smile on his face. I’m not sure I should have tried anything more. I did of course, but not by the end. By the end I only wanted him to know that I still cared. But this isn’t about me. It’s about death.

My great-grandmother’s death is the first one I remember. I remember it in part because my mother often tells the story of how I behaved at the funeral, but it’s not just the story I remember; it’s a visual. We’re seated near the front of the chapel, the priest is just a few yards from us, on my right, and up high, and he’s saying something, and then my eyes go incredibly blurry and I turn my head to the left, looking down and away from the priest, and then my shoulders are shaking, and my breath is coming and going in sobs, and my mother puts her arm around my shoulder and squeezes me tight, except now I’m making such a commotion that she has to take me out the side door of the chapel while the service is still going. In the story, my mother asked me if I understood what the priest was saying, and then she says she could just tell: I understood every word. I was four or five years old.

I really only have one memory of my great-grandmother, but even this could be based on a photograph I’ve seen: she’s seated on a folding chair in the middle of a shaded, sloping lawn. We’re at my family’s summer cabin, and she’s sitting alone up on the grass. Her feet are crossed at the ankles. She’s wearing what appears to be a thin bathrobe over eighty-year-old raggedy bones, but she’s someone who is always nice to me, and her bones don’t scare me. I can feel myself approaching her from her right. I can’t see her face, but I can see that bathrobe and the bones in her arm, her hand lowering to the ground near my head, moving towards me, welcoming me in.

When I was in my twenties, my best friend’s mother died. My memories of her are as strong as my memories of my own mother. I’d known her almost as long, and felt from her almost as much love. She wasn’t a daily presence in my life, especially not by the time I was in my twenties and living in a completely different state, but her son was my best friend and my brother, and so I was in contact with the spirit of her on almost a daily basis. Her death changed him (and changed me) for the better. In her death, she offered with such grace and love her life’s final lesson: this is what courage and dignity looks like.

There have been other deaths in my life. Friends. Family members. Acquaintances. Celebrities. No more than most others, and significantly less than some.

So what do I know of death, and what qualifies me to teach philosophy on the subject? I mean, I’m using the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as my guide, for God’s sake! — and when I say “as my guide,” I should say that what I’m teaching my students is the Encyclopedia; I’m teaching them its entry.

I know, I know. Lame.

In a class on the Philosophy of Death, you don’t just want to look at one source, and if you do, you sure as hell don’t want it to be an encyclopedia. That’s a rookie move.

In a class on the Philosophy of Death, you want to check out all the weird shit from Asia and Africa and South America; and you want to see what the Egyptians had to say about it — after all, if anyone made an art form of death, it was the Egyptians, the first dead people anyone decides to teach us about, in the sense that elementary school teachers seem to not show us pictures of George Washington’s grave or discuss the Colonialists’ burial rituals; they do, however, show us the pyramids and tell us they’re built as monuments to death and filled with kings and queens who have been mummified by priests, a process which could be considered totally creepy (hence, the Mummy as a monster), but is discussed more for its novelty than its sense (or lack thereof) of humanity.

But you also want to make sure it’s a philosophy class, and not just a class for a multicultural tourist. True, it’s a high school class and not a college class, so you don’t have to get too deep on the philosophy side of things, but you ought to reveal some of the major questions around the topic.

Even more, you want to make sure it’s an engaging class. You want the kids to experience philosophy in action. You want them to criticize what you’re trying to teach them and doubt the ideas you put on the board. You want them to scrutinize the language you use and to document your logic while not accepting its dogma. You want them to point out your lesson’s flaws and double-check its facts, even the most basic ones, such as what philosopher said what when. You want them to disagree with each other, challenge each other to define their terms. You want them to discover moments of both clarity and confusion and feel a passionate compulsion to express any questions or doubts.

But you’ve only got so much time in the day. And you have other classes, and other responsibilities, not least of which are your responsibilities as both a father and husband. As a whole person, and not just a teacher, you can’t just be studying death all day. So as a teacher, you have to make choices.

As a teacher, I have to make choices. Should I choose to put my effort into engaging my students each week with 90 minutes of active philosophizing, or should I help them develop a slightly deeper understanding than they may already have about some of humanity’s most cherished ideas?

To do the latter would be to invest a lot of energy into my own education, and would become an almost all-consuming project. It wouldn’t take into account my need to teach a class on women’s studies, a class on academic writing, and a class in which I must lead four young adventurers on an original and yet more-than-improvised campaign of Dungeons & Dragons. It would also mean neglecting many of my responsibilities beyond the classroom.

To do the former, however, to provide my students with the experience of philosophy, all I have to do is spend at least one or two extra hours a week really studying the topic, and then just try to teach the students whatever I learned the week before. Because the information will be so new me, I won’t really know what I’m talking about, which might sound bad, but that will give my students ample opportunity to criticize and question, and then watch and listen as I wrestle out loud with their implications.

With two hours of studying outside of the classroom, I’ll  definitely know at least little more than they do. And of course, I’ll already possess an undergraduate background in Continental philosophy, which means not everything I read will be exactly new to me. That background should also allow me to put up reasonable (or at least time-wasting) defenses on any of the arguments I haven’t fully researched or understood, which again, sounds bad, but will force the students to penetrate to the heart of an idea from more than one angle.

Two hours a week studying the philosophy of death? I can do that in my sleep. Literally. I can lay down at the end of the day with any text even tangentially related to the topic and study it as I fall asleep. Right now, on my own time and out of my own sense of interest, I’m already reading the King James Version of the New Testament, the book most responsible for what America’s dominant culture thinks about death. If I can support that by also reading some more analytically sound thoughts on death, I should be fine.

But I don’t want to read a whole book on death, per se, so articles it’ll have to be. But how to distinguish a reputable article from another? How to find an article or series of articles that will give me enough scope of philosophy’s take on the subject while also making sure I don’t get bogged down in any academic squabbling about details?

The Stanford Encyclopedia. I’ll start there. But shit, have you ever tried to read that thing? They don’t just give you a short entry on something. They break that shit down, take on various theories, reveal various biases on the part of the authors, etc. I’ve only got one to two hours a week, man! I can’t just knock out the Stanford Encyclopedia and move on to the next article. If I’m going teach anything about it, I’ve got to think that shit over. I’ve got to read it slow and re-read certain sections, make sure I understand the logic.

So that’s what I’ve been doing.

Which means, for the past three weeks. I’ve been teaching my students what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has to say about Death.

Unfortunately, I’m only about halfway through it, and it’s starting to get old. The entry basically explores the philosophy around two central questions: What is death, and does it harm us? While those questions are interesting (I guess), they’re also not very exciting — or at least, the way they’re discussed by an old white man is not exciting.

I want to show my students more than what an old white man seems to think.

For that, I’m going to need something that comes from the darker cultures (in every sense of that word), something I can pull up from the moist wet soil of the Earth, a cultural philosophy of death that was once buried and forgotten but has now been returned to us, alive and vital.

I don’t want to talk about the Egyptians, unless it’s the Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military junta, the deaths of people in the streets. Nor do I want to talk about the Indians, unless its the rituals of the telephone operators when they go home at night, contrasted with the rituals of the farmers in the south. I don’t want to talk about the west Africans, or the Aztecs, or the Incas; not the Navajo, those stand-ins for the peaceful Indians, nor the Apache, the Spartans of North America. The Inuit is a possibility; northeastern Russia as well. Japan and China would be little more than a cliche, a blind-eyed choice that excludes the Koreas, Vietnam, and all the other cultures to the south, each with their own rich heritage.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, alone, could be its own nine-week class.

How to choose? And how to figure out the reasons to choose? I’ve only got one to two hours a week, one to two sleepy hours, and at least a portion of those two hours must remain committed to reading something analytical, if only to exercise the analytical skills I need to successfully teach the class for ninety minutes a week.

But wait a second! Don’t I work at a democratic school?! At a democratic school, the teacher doesn’t have to be the one who makes the choice. I only have to present the options as openly as possible to my students, and let them decide. I’m confident I’ll be able to take it from there.

But then it strikes me — What if I’m going about this all wrong? Shouldn’t a class on the Philosophy of Death consider more than just the human community?  Shouldn’t it embrace the entire community of life? It could explore if animals mourn, for example. Enough videos on YouTube prove that other species process the loss of loved ones, so why not use the class to explore that? Why not bring up some environmental and ecological questions about death? I could pose the question of death from the point of view of climate change and political terror, as the death of humanity as we know it, and the potential extinction of all life on Earth.

So many questions. So many possibilities. And only so much time to figure it all out. That’s my current problem with death.