Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice | Issue Archives | Dec 25, 2019

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  • Jeff Drew | Rev. Diane Sullivan
  • Issue of
  • Dec 25, 2019 - Jan 7, 2020
  • Vol. 25, No. 14

Backstories: What Seven Days Writers Didn't Tell You the First Time Around; Remembering Vermonters Who Died This Year; Harrison and Kisonak on the Year in Film; Food and Drink Trends of 2019; Top Albums and Art Shows of 2019

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News

  • Backstory: Most Personal Project
  • Backstory: Most Personal Project

    Dozens of talented people have cycled through Seven Days in the 24 years we've been covering Vermont news and culture. One of them was Kate O'Neill, a Burlington native who came to work for us as a proofreader in 2008. For four years, she led the team that pores over every word in the paper and on its website. It was a bummer when she left — to move to Philadelphia — but we kept in touch, and I tried repeatedly to lure her back. During one of her return visits home, we met at Muddy Waters to talk about future employment. I was somewhat desperate at the time. The year before, my father and sister had died within six weeks of each other. Through both family crises, I kept working. We needed more editors.
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  • Backstory: Stinkiest Assignment
  • Backstory: Stinkiest Assignment

    In February, I was reporting on the innards of Vermont's dairy industry — the bewildering matrix of humans, cows and economics from which those eight-ounce bars of Cabot cheddar mysteriously emerge. In an attempt to understand it all, I decided to spend a week at Vorsteveld Farm in Panton, a 1,300-cow operation that seemed to represent the inexorable scaling up of production that has changed the face of Vermont agriculture. To ensure the most immersive experience, my original plan had been to sleep in the workers' trailer, but the lack of spare furniture made that inadvisable. So I ended up commuting home to Burlington every night, a mindless 45-minute drive by day made incalculably dicier after a 12- or 13-hour stint in the milking parlor, by which point every imaginable farm odor — the rich smell of raw milk, hot from the udder; the nose-stinging iodine solution used to protect the teats, which was disconcertingly cold to the touch and looked like orange Kool-Aid; mind-boggling quantities of steaming manure — had penetrated my five layers of clothing.
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  • Backstory: Strangest Reader Response
  • Backstory: Strangest Reader Response

    I knew my March story about a man who sends threatening messages to Jewish and nonwhite public officials would provoke a response. Journalists, including some at Seven Days, have been among Christopher Hayden's go-to targets. Some readers might object to the publicity I was inevitably giving to a volatile white supremacist. I did not expect ferrets. Shortly after the story ran, my editor took a call from a man who claimed to be Hayden's cousin. He'd read the story and wanted to defend his relative, promising an incredible story. I arranged to visit his apartment in Winooski. "Brother, bring a recorder and prepare to stay a few," he texted me.
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  • Backstory: Most Vicarious Reporting
  • Backstory: Most Vicarious Reporting

    So much of the physical drama of competitive sports plays out in the field of the imagination, no matter the caliber or stage. A Little League home run is as thrilling as any professional dinger. Football fans feel the euphoria of an end-zone celebration as truly as the dancing receiver. Story lines are as sacred as mythology. For players, this emotional power can be dangerous, too. To be gripped by a dream is also to be vulnerable — to the weight of failure, and to those who would exploit it.
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  • Backstory: Happiest Hoarder
  • Backstory: Happiest Hoarder

    After a mass shooting in New Zealand in March, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) remarked on Twitter that it had taken the Kiwis "less than a week to ban military-style weapons." He noted that it had been 405 days since the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., and 2,294 days since the one in Newtown, Conn. I couldn't help myself and responded on Twitter that it had taken 85 days after the Newtown shooting for Sanders to answer my questions about whether he would support the assault weapons ban proposed at the time by president Barack Obama. I quoted from an interview he gave me then. "If you passed the strongest gun control legislation tomorrow, I don't think it will have a profound effect on the tragedies we have seen," he'd told me in March 2013.
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  • Backstory: Shyest Sources
  • Backstory: Shyest Sources

    Reporters are used to dealing with cagey sources. It's annoyingly common for public officials to dodge us, and it's understandable when the random person we approach on the street would rather not be quoted in the newspaper. But some interviews we expect to go well, particularly when your source has just issued a press release. That practically invites a phone call, right? Not if you're the Sisters of Mercy. I realize I probably shouldn't speak ill of little old nuns, but I assume the women of the cloth would want me to tell the truth. In May, we got word that the order of nuns would vacate their convent on Mansfield Avenue in Burlington. It was my first print story for Seven Days, and I was psyched: My grandmother is a devout Catholic and knows many of the Sisters. I fully intended on dropping her name the first chance I got.
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  • Backstory: Friendliest Competitors
  • Backstory: Friendliest Competitors

    When I signed on to the Seven Days Burlington beat in April, I knew I'd be spending a lot of time at city hall. The Queen City reporter has the honor of covering city council meetings almost every other Monday night. And, let me tell you, there's nothing quite like spending the final third of a 12-hour workday in a really uncomfortable folding chair. What I didn't count on, though, was the camaraderie I found in what I call Reporters Row. Apparently, it's tradition for media types to congregate in the right front row of chairs — at least, that's what VTDigger.org reporter Aidan Quigley told me on my first day. He started covering Burlington seven months before I did, so he took it upon himself to show me the ropes. The four-hour meetings pass a smidgen faster when the person next to you is under that same deadline crunch. We reporters share name spellings and eye rolls when discussions drag on. And on and on. We take bets on when the meetings will adjourn, and we're usually wrong.
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  • Backstory: Spookiest Assignment
  • Backstory: Spookiest Assignment

    I could've written an entire story about stargazing in the Adirondacks without seeing any stars. After all, I've seen plenty of night skies in my life and know how to describe one. What difference would it make if I were describing the heavens over Tupper Lake, Tahoe or Topeka? Don't tell my editors, but I was briefly tempted, after visiting the Adirondack Sky Center & Observatory under a steady drizzle of rain, to just call it a night and head back across the lake. But that felt like cheating. I could not honestly write about Adirondack astronomy without getting a look at it, even if the night sky appeared to be like every other one I'd seen. So I rode out the rainstorm with family in the North Country and made plans to try again the next night. After perusing some online forums, I chose Coney Mountain for a nighttime stroll — or, rather, a very dark one-mile hike up a mountain.
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  • Backstory: Most Paranoid Subjects
  • Backstory: Most Paranoid Subjects

    Everyone in Orwell had the same question for me: "Who called you?" No one had. But that answer was about as convincing as my explanation, which was too boring to be true. I just happened to visit the Town of Orwell website, decided to peruse selectboard meeting minutes, noticed the local history museum was closed and started making calls to find out why. What I hadn't realized was that the conflict over the Orwell Historical Society Museum had already escalated from what one person called a "stupid" argument over dusty exhibits to what another humorlessly described as a "Mexican standoff." By asking questions, I was stepping into the middle of what was, by small-town standards, a potentially explosive situation.
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  • Backstory: Best Example of Murphy’s Law
  • Backstory: Best Example of Murphy’s Law

    Seven Days reporters are fortunate to work with photographers who are not only talented but enthusiastic — artists who are often as excited to shoot a subject as we are to tell their tales. Luke Awtry is one such photog who always seems invested in the story. That's especially apparent when he tags along during reporting, as he did for a story I was doing about HEART Wildlife Removal for our annual Animal Issue. HEART is an acronym for Humane Eviction and Removal Team. The company, founded by animal expert JoAnn Nichols and her business partner Patty Tashiro, specializes in the humane removal of critters from homes and yards. Looking for an angle on the story, I had invited the duo over to my rented home in South Burlington for a consultation about the legion of squirrels that, emboldened in the years since my dog Buckley died, had taken over my yard.
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  • Backstory: Most Unanswered Doors
  • Backstory: Most Unanswered Doors

    My editors call it a "door knock." But the simplicity of that term belies the courage it takes to walk up to a stranger's front door and rap on it — in hopes of getting a face-to-face interview with a subject who hangs up or doesn't answer the phone. I found myself on a two-day "door knock" in September after Seven Days set out to locate the dozen surviving priests named on a list of 39 Vermont Catholic clergy credibly accused of sex abuse. Seven of them, as far as we could deduce, still lived in Vermont. We went to find them. On the first day I teamed up with a colleague, Derek Brouwer, and was happy to have a cocaptain on this difficult assignment. The awful details — questions about betrayals, guilt or innocence — were all in the mix.
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  • Backstory: Most Satisfying Public-Records Search
  • Backstory: Most Satisfying Public-Records Search

    As a lifelong Vermonter, I take pride in knowing my home state. But every now and then, I learn about a place I never knew existed. In September, I was researching the connections between Sara Holbrook, the namesake of a Burlington community center, and the Vermont eugenics movement of the 1920s and '30s. After visiting two libraries and doing a fair amount of googling, I realized I had to see some historical documents up close. That's when I discovered the Vermont State Archives in Middlesex. The beige warehouse is on Route 2, right behind a state police barracks — and down the road from the field where my sister and I used to watch my dad play softball while we were growing up. The archives weren't there back then, but I still felt nostalgic as I pulled in the driveway.
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  • Backstory: Best Side Conversation
  • Backstory: Best Side Conversation

    Green Mountain College began the year by announcing it would cease operations at the end of the spring semester. By July, the Poultney campus was for sale. In September, I found myself covering a public auction of the private school's buildings, artwork and furniture. Roaming the library during the "preview," I encountered a man upstairs in a back corner. Stretched out on a couch with a musty old book, it was Duane Merrill, the founder of Duane Merrill & Company auction house, which was handling the sale of more than a thousand items at the college the next day.
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  • Backstory: Happiest Ending
  • Backstory: Happiest Ending

    In September, my editor heard that PhotoPlace Gallery in Middlebury had been banned from Instagram for posting a photo of a woman's nipple. People get banned from social media all the time for all kinds of things, but it seemed like Instagram was an important component of PhotoPlace's business, so I called up the owner to check it out. James Barker told me that a gallery staffer had posted a photo of a woman with one bare breast visible, and Instagram had shut down the account the same day without warning. Barker had tried to restore the account through Instagram's official channels for three weeks but never heard anything back. Eventually, he gave up and started a new Instagram account with a fraction of the followers.
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  • Backstory: Best Unused Quote
  • Backstory: Best Unused Quote

    In journalism, as in filmmaking, sometimes the best lines end up on the cutting-room floor. This year, a source said something that, although astounding, I couldn't use: "He shot me with a shotgun and blew my leg off ... It was the best thing that ever happened to me." First, some background: In October, I profiled Dan Caddy, a Vermont Army National Guard soldier who, in 2012, created a Facebook page to pay tribute to the drill sergeants who helped make him the man he is today. Called Awesome Shit My Drill Sergeant Said, the page went viral, attracting comments from military personnel worldwide, who shared hilarious, off-color quotes from their own drill sergeants.
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  • Backstory: Hardest Working Hypocrite
  • Backstory: Hardest Working Hypocrite

    When it comes to burning wood, I may be a flaming hypocrite.  Even as I was reporting on the climate impacts of biomass energy in Vermont, I was looking forward to firing up my woodstove at the first sign of frost.  Earlier this year, my family and I moved to a Waterbury farmhouse equipped with an ancient woodstove and an oil furnace. I hoped to heat the place with more local wood than foreign oil.  During the weeks I worked on my cover story, "Carbon Quandary," I grilled public officials, experts and advocates about the wisdom of biomass energy projects that add carbon to the atmosphere by burning the very trees that excel at removing it.
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  • Backstory: Most Aerobic Assignment
  • Backstory: Most Aerobic Assignment

    Most reporters would relish the chance to ditch the office for a day and go ride a bike around Montréal. I'm not most reporters. Back in October, my editor pitched me a story that involved tagging along with city officials on a two-wheeled "learning journey" north of the border. The idea, the trip organizers said, was to witness bike infrastructure done right. Was it a cool assignment? Yes. But it was also downright intimidating for someone who'd just bought her first adult bike a few months before. I'd only wheeled my lime-green cruiser around the block a few times, and I'd never ridden a bike on a real urban street or even on the Burlington bike path.
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  • Backstory: Best Unintentional Story Tip
  • Backstory: Best Unintentional Story Tip

    How do reporters come up with story ideas? More often than not, I learn about my next story while reporting the one before it. In the course of an interview, a source might mention something that's off-topic but really interesting. I'll file it away in a list I keep and return to it soon. That happened this summer as I was reporting a story about the use of "extreme risk protection orders" in Vermont in the year since Gov. Phil Scott signed a package of gun-control bills into law. In the course of my reporting, I learned that Commissioner Chris Cole of the Department of Buildings and General Services was working on a system to dispose of seized and abandoned firearms in state custody.
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  • Backstory: Stupidest Question
  • Backstory: Stupidest Question

    When I traveled to Capitol Hill in November for the first day of the House Intelligence Committee's impeachment hearings, I was hoping to find some color to liven up my report. I didn't expect to find it in a bathroom. My goal for the day was to shadow U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who found himself at the center of the impeachment circus by virtue of his perch on the intel committee. As it turned out, shadowing him mostly entailed sitting in an ornate hearing room, watching Welch watch witnesses testify.
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  • Backstory: Most Interesting Conflict That Didn’t Make It Into the Story
  • Backstory: Most Interesting Conflict That Didn’t Make It Into the Story

    Huntington Open Women's Land, or HOWL, was established in 1985 as a women's community — a refuge from men, machismo and phallocentrism in all its forms. Until about six years ago, trans women were only tentatively considered in the collective's definition of "women"; more recently, HOWL has been grappling with the inclusion of people who identify as nonbinary, or neither strictly male nor female. On rare occasions, HOWL will host all-gender gatherings to which members can invite male partners, friends and children over the age of 10, but the categorical rule is that men aren't allowed on the premises.
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  • Backstory: Most Nerve-Wracking Data Project
  • Backstory: Most Nerve-Wracking Data Project

    My job is to look for sets of data that tell interesting stories about Vermont. Earlier this year I found one in the state's Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living. After negotiations that spanned three months and nearly $2,000 in fees, I wrangled five and a half years' worth of complaints made against local assisted living and residential care homes. I set up a spreadsheet to help make sense of thousands of pages of information. Much of the stuff was mind-numbingly boring — stats and dates that our reporting team dutifully recorded. But we also found shocking revelations about what sometimes happens in the 133 eldercare homes overseen by the state. Residents had been injured by staff mistakes and even assaulted. A cook took vengeance on picky eaters by ruining their alternative sandwiches with a copious amount of mustard.
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  • Backstory: Best Stringer
  • Backstory: Best Stringer

    In October, my editor handed me an envelope addressed to Seven Days' post office box bearing the official Department of Corrections stamp indicating that it was inmate correspondence. Inside was a three-page letter written with purple ink and perfect penmanship. Its author, Mandy Conte, told a harrowing tale about the women's prison in which she was lodged, the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. One officer at the South Burlington prison, she wrote, had sexually assaulted her former cellmate, Megan Webbley. Another officer, just days earlier, had been dismissed from his post for sexual misconduct. "It causes me great concern that these are the men in a position of authority and control of the women incarcerated at CRCF," she wrote.
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  • Backstory: Most Humbling Moment
  • Backstory: Most Humbling Moment

    Vermod is trying to remake the modular home business. But people who have purchased the Vermont-made zero-energy units have had some problems with them. Earlier this month I went to Waltham, where there's a cluster of 14, in search of sagging floors and cracking walls. Roaming through the small affordable housing development, I met Michelle Kilbreth, who lives with and cares for her disabled brother. She introduced me to several of her neighbors on McKnight Lane. After about 90 minutes, my notebook was full. Time to go.
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  • Backstory: Best Line of Questioning
  • Backstory: Best Line of Questioning

    I was nervous when I called Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo in July for a story about social media abuse. So nervous, I went out to my car, where it was quiet, to conduct the phone interview in which I had to ask him whether he had set up a fake Twitter account in order to troll a local citizen. Charles Winkleman, a regular critic of the chief and his department, alleged that the chief was behind the short-lived @WinkleWatchers account and had some convincing evidence to prove it.
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