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Nostalgia

12/04/07 5:55PM By John Fox
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John Fox, commentator
(HOST) As our communities face a host of challenges and the pressures of change, commentator John Fox thinks it’s time for Vermonters to move beyond nostalgia for the good old days and forge new narratives that are all about imagining, and creating, the good times to come.


(FOX) I've been thinking a lot lately about the word "nostalgia". It's a word that now makes some of us feel as warm and fuzzy as a pair of old slippers, but it actually made its debut in 1688 as a medical condition, treatable with leeches and opium. Johannes Hofer, a Swiss medical student, coined the word - which derives from the Greek "nostos", returning home, and "algos", pain or longing - to describe a pervasive malady that afflicted soldiers posted far from home. These heartsick soldiers couldn't function in the here and now because they were tormented by memories of what they'd left behind.

Nostalgia is the stock in trade of many Vermont communities, and that may account for why many of them are also finding it difficult to really function in the here and now, as old vistas are asked to make room for wind turbines, and old neighborhoods have to make room for new immigrants.

Now I can readily understand why Vermonters are so prone to nostalgia, given its role in shaping our recent history. The back to the land movement that began in the 1950s was driven by urbanites who arrived in search of a simpler life far removed from the malaise of the modern world. Post-war nostalgia fueled the Vermont economy, driving tourism and the second-home boom. Images of sugaring, sleigh rides, and steeple churches filled the pages of publications like Vermont Life - and they still do today.

But in 2007 the nostalgia economy, like nostalgia itself, just ain't what it used to be.

Vermont, a place to escape to, is at real risk of turning into Vermont, a place to escape from, with anemic rates of growth, the nation's second oldest and whitest population, crippling property taxes, a vulnerable energy platform, and a sluggish housing industry.

It's time to trade in the old slippers for new shoes and step from a nostalgia economy toward an innovation economy. This shift will require not just new policies but a new narrative or story to tell our selves and others - one that is more about the future and less about the past. More about creating than curating. More edgy than folksy. More Isaac Asimov than Norman Rockwell.

A new Vermont narrative might feature Ben Kaufman, the hip, 20-year-old Champlain College student from Burlington who was selected a few months ago by Inc. Magazine as their top entrepreneur under 30. Ben started a business designing iPod accessories that employs 14 young Vermonters and is expected to see revenues approaching $5 million this year. More significantly, he's invented an entirely new approach to product development that taps an online database of 50,000 members for ideas and then asks people to vet prototypes before they become products.

Now that's what I call homegrown, 21st-century Yankee know-how! And maybe Ben's is the face we need to increasingly project and promote as the "New Vermonter" - young, innovative, and energized, with eyes set squarely on the future.

John Fox is a writer and anthropologist who lives in Weston.
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