Excerpt from “State of the Union”

After he was arrested, my father became famous.It was 1966—and Dad (or John Winthrop Latham, as he was known to everyone except his only child) was the first professor at the University of Vermont to speak out against the war in Vietnam. That spring, he headed a campuswide protest that resulted in a sit-down demonstration outside the Administration Building. My dad led three hundred students as they peacefully blocked the entrance for thirty-six hours, bringing university executive business to a standstill. The police and National Guard were finally called. The protestors refused to move, and Dad was shown on national television being hauled off to jail.It was big news at the time. Dad had instigated one of the first major exercises in student civil disobedience against the war, and the image of this lone, venerable Yankee in a tweed jacket and a button-down Oxford blue shirt being lifted off the ground by a couple of Vermont state troopers made it onto newscasts around the country.

“Your dad’s so cool!” everybody told me at high school the morning after his arrest. Two years later, when I started my freshman year at the University of Vermont, even mentioning that I was Professor Latham’s daughter provoked the same response.

“Your dad’s so cool!” And I’d nod and smile tightly, and say, “Yeah, he’s the best.”

Don’t get me wrong, I adore my father. Always have, always will. But when you’re eighteen—as I was in ’69—and you’re desperately trying to establish just the smallest sort of identity for yourself, and your dad has turned into the Tom Paine of both your home town and your college, you can easily find yourself dwarfed by his lanky, virtuous shadow.

I could have escaped his high moral profile by transferring to another school. Instead, in the middle of my sophomore year, I did the next best thing: I fell in love.

Dan Buchan was nothing like my father. Whereas Dad had the heavy-duty Waspy credentials—Choate, Princeton, then Harvard for his doctorate—Dan was from a nowhere town in upstate New York called Glens Falls. His father was a maintenance man in the local school system, his late mother had run a little manicure shop in town, and Dan was the first member of his family to go to college at all, let alone medical school.

He was also one shy guy. He never dominated a conversation, never imposed himself on a situation. But he was a great listener—always far more interested in what you had to say. I liked this. And I found his gentle reticence to be curiously attractive. He was serious—and unlike everyone else I met at college back then, he knew exactly where he was going. On our second date he told me over a beer or two that he really didn’t want to get into some big ambitious field like neurosurgery. And there was no way that he was going to “pull a major cop-out” and choose a big-bucks specialty like dermatology. No, he had his sights set on family medicine.

“I want to be a small country doctor, nothing more,” he said. First-year med students worked thirteen-hour days, and Dan studied nonstop. The contrast between us couldn’t have been more marked. I was an English major, thinking about teaching school when I graduated. But it was the early seventies, and unless you were going through the grind of med or law school, the last thing anyone had on their mind was “the future.”

Dan was twenty-four when I met him, but the five-year age gap wasn’t huge. From the outset, I liked the fact that he seemed far more focused and adult than any of the guys I had been seeing before him. Not that I knew that much about men. There had been a high school boyfriend named Jared—who was bookish and kind of arty and totally adored me, until he got into the University of Chicago, and it was clear that neither of us wanted to sustain a long-distance thing. Then, during my first semester at college, I had my one short flirtation with freakdom when I started seeing Charlie. Like Jared, he was very sweet, very well read, a good talker, and “creative” (which, for Charlie, meant writing a lot of what was, even to my impressionable eighteen-year-old eyes, really turgid poetry). He was heavily into dope—one of those guys who was usually smoking a joint with their breakfast coffee. For a while, this didn’t bother me, even though I was never really into his scene. Still, in retrospect, I needed this brief descent into bacchanalia. It was ’69—and bacchanalia was in. But after three weeks of putting up with the mattress on the floor of the crash pad where Charlie lived—and his increasingly obtuse, stoned monologues from deepest Spacey Outer—there was an evening when I came over to find him sitting around with three friends, passing around a humongous joint while blaring the Grateful Dead on the hi‑fi.

“Hey . . .” he said to me, then lapsed into silence. When I asked him over the din of the music if he wanted to head out to a movie, he just said “Hey” again, though he kept nodding his head sagely, as if he had just revealed to me some great deep karmic secret about life’s hidden mysteries.