Sunday, December 31, 2006

A New Year's Dawning

With the dawn of a new year, many Americans traditionally resolve to make changes in their lives, whether it be losing weight and getting in shape, vowing to complete that novel sitting in their desk drawer, or to live a life infused with more meaning.

While it would be great if all of us who are still seeking self-actualization could muster the momentum to move forward and maintain it say, on July 1st, the New Year makes for a laudable line of demarcation.

Taking stock of where we are and where we’d like to go isn’t a bad thing. Granted, there’s an entire industry that makes a living on this one day, but that doesn’t denigrate the value of using today to make small, positive changes heading into 2007.

While I have my own small changes I hope to make and yes, one of them is to lose some weight, via my new exercise program, here are some New Year’s resolutions I’d like to see Americans adopt, nationally. Granted, I can’t force these on anyone, as substantive change must be driven by personal motivations, rather than guilt. However, each one of my suggestions has solid evidence to support their consideration.

Getting the hell out of Iraq

The U.S. death toll sits precariously close to 3,000, with December being the deadliest month yet, for U.S. troops. After significant discussion, from a cross-section of U.S. leaders, with a combined experience that demands attention, George W. Bush still seems intent on doing things his own way. With his dubious track record and history of failure, “staying the course” seems like a ready made disaster for the U.S. military.

Americans need to muster the national will to demand we bring our troops home, now—rather than later! Our nation mobilized the political will in the past, forcing leaders, against their failed judgements, to leave Vietnam. We need that same effort now, as our current delusional president seems to lack the ability to read the writing—he’s now talking about a “sustained surge,” whatever the hell that oxymoron means.

A National Alternative Energy Policy

All one has to do is look at our December record temperatures, here in the Northeast, to know we’ve done some serious damage environmentally. As a nation, we had an opportunity, back in the 1970s, with oil embargoes and gas lines, to make substantive changes in the way we travel, heat our homes and produce electricity. Instead, like the proverbial ostrich, we placed our heads in the sands of denial and now, 30 years later, we have our backs against the wall.

With Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvient Truth, showing us where we need to go in formulating a national energy policy, the time is now to push for alternative energy, while there is still a smidgen of hope that we might be able to halt this march towards energy perdition. A call for a Manhatten Project for alternative energy should be the perogative of every one of the candidates running for office in 2008. For an idea of what this might look like, check out this site for Edwin Black's latest book, Internal Combustion.

A Government of the People, By the People and For the People

While most of my Democratic friends will continue to deny it, the Democrats are not the answer for America. We need a true third party in this country in the worst possible way. Both parties currently represent the interests of the elite one percent, to the peril of the remaining 99 percent of us. I know that it won’t happen in 2008, leaving us saddled with the sorriest of choices, if the current field of candidates is an indication—I’m frightened to see what other candidates throw their hats into the ring in the next 18 months, or so. Americans need to begin thinking about true political reform, if we have any hopes of truly turning things around.

With the recent passing of former president Ford, I’ve been reminded that America has faced other periods of weak and scandalous behavior at the highest levels and men have come along to restore dignity to the Office of President. While Ford wasn’t charismatic, or possessing a Hollywood persona, he did have a quiet humility and resolve that America needed in the post-Nixon era of the 1970s. Better yet, wouldn’t it be refreshing to have a real, live, breathing first lady again? Not some drugged-out zombie, like the current one, Laura Bush. Seeing some of the old news footage of Betty Ford’s speeches, particularly in light of the historical context, only highlights what a breath of fresh air (as well as controversial figure) she was, back in 1974.

Instant Runoff Voting is my hope for the future. It probably won’t make any headway this year, or even next, but possibly, by 2012, we could have some meaningful voting reform that would energize and make viable, third party participation in the electoral process.

Well, those are a few of my national prescriptions for 2007. Here’s wishing all my readers a healthy, prosperous and personally fulfilling New Year!

Friday, December 29, 2006

Ford: A model worth reconsidering

In death, life tends to get sanitized and ordinary people suddenly become heroic. When famous people die, lives get airbrushed and calling cards get hijacked by flights of exaggeration.

Once more, a former president has passed on to wherever it is we go, when we die. I never thought of President Ford as a historically significant president, although in fact, when he succeeded Spiro Agnew, who had resigned due to allegations of tax evasion and money laundering, he became the first Vice President appointed under the provisions of the 25th amendment. Less than one year later, on August 9, 1974, Ford became the first person to assume the office, having not been elected to the position.

As a 12-year-old at the time, and beginning to pay as much attention to politics as a politically precocious pre-teenager might, I recall the mid-70s as a time when the country seemed to be in a state of upheaval.

Three years before (I was in third grade), I remember Nixon imposing wage and price controls, a move that was extraordinary during peacetime. With inflation raging at the time, my father’s uncharacteristically patient explanation of Nixon’s actions stuck with me. With a paper route at the time and a nine-year-old’s understanding of the relation between prices and wages, the significance of inflation was easier to understand than one might imagine to a youngster.

While my parents weren’t huge Nixon supporters, his resignation took on an air of significance in 1974, as we learned the news from our nightly guest, Walter Cronkite. None of my family and for that matter, most Americans, knew much about Gerald Ford.

We knew he’d been a football player. Like most men his age, he’d served during WWII. As a member of the Congress, from a blue-collar state like Michigan, Ford had the kind of credentials that got you respected in a working-class home like mine and a mill town like Lisbon Falls.

One of Ford’s traits is that he was a likeable person and didn’t have a lot of enemies. Surprisingly, Lyndon Johnson didn’t like Ford, primarily because the practical Midwesterner didn’t like Johnson’s Great Society policies and was openly critical of them, as unneeded, or wasteful.

Apparently, Johnson, known for his salty speech, said that Ford “…couldn’t fart and chew gum at the same time.” The press, in an effort to sanitize the expression changed it to “chew gum and walk..,” which stuck.

During his tenure as president, this former college football star, who played for two undefeated Michigan Wolverine teams, in 1932 and 1933 and was voted team MVP in 1934, became known as a klutz. Ford actually was offered an opportunity to play professional football, but turned it down. [During this time in the U.S., playing professional sports was far from the lucrative, “sure-thing” that it’s become today] Instead, he went to Yale, to coach football and for the opportunity to attend law school.

As for the klutz part, there were several examples that later got amplified. On a visit to Austria, Ford tripped down the steps of Air Force One — to the chuckles and clicks of a press corps. Some posit that, in the aftermath of Watergate, the press was no longer interested in protecting the image of the president. The media seemed to compensate for its prior restraint by going overboard in their relentless spotlighting of each one of Ford’s subsequent missteps. He fell down on skis. He bumped his head while getting off a helicopter. His stray golf balls became the stuff of legend.

"It's not hard to find Jerry Ford on a golf course," quipped Bob Hope. "You just follow the wounded."

Chevy Chase, at the time, a member of SNL’s cast, lampooned Ford as the president who couldn't stay on his feet. In Time Magazine, Chase explained his technique:

"Ford is so inept that the quickest laugh is the cheapest laugh, and the cheapest is the physical joke." Part of the problem may have been that Ford really did stumble more than most people do: A nagging knee injury, acquired during his football years, possibly contributed to his imbalance.

Looking back, given the perspective of history and time, Ford being seen as a bungler is rather ironic, given that he may have been the most athletic of any recent president and jabs at his intelligence seem unwarranted, given our current intellectually-challenged inhabitant of the oval office. The shots at him over his supposed clumsiness apparently bothered him. In his memoir, “A Time to Heal,” he had this to say about the constant scrutiny his gaffes received.

“Every time I stumbled or bumped my head or fell in the snow, reporters zeroed in on that to the exclusion of everything else," he complained. "The news coverage was harmful, but even more damaging was the fact that Johnny Carson and Chevy Chase used my missteps for their jobs. Their antics — and I'll admit that I laughed at them myself — helped create the public perception of me as a stumbler. And that wasn't funny.”

As they say, hindsight is 50-50 and in retrospect, Ford would be a welcome change in this time of ratcheted rhetoric and hyperbolic huffing and puffing.

At the time, I wasn’t aware of how unkind the media can be to public figures. The same press that took great pleasure in amplifying each and every misstep of Ford, during his presidential tenure, now lionizes him, in typical post-mortem fashion. How ironic.

Ford’s presidency was an important one, for a country torn by the war in Vietnam, buffeted by an economy ravaged by inflation and reeling from political scandal (back before that sort of thing became Washington’s modus operandi).

With his unassuming manner and simple Midwestern humility, he helped restore some dignity to the office he held, ever so briefly.

Ford was a moderate Republican in the truest sense, back when such a designation didn’t seem like an oxymoron—a man given more to compromise, bipartisanship and the spirit of cooperation that seems archaic, only 30 years later.

Interestingly, in a 2004 interview with the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, whose details had been embargoed, Ford stated that he disagreed with the justifications for the Iraq War and indicated that he would not have gone to war had he been president.
In 2001, Ford broke with conservative members of the Republican party by stating that gay couples “ought to be treated equally. Period.”

He became the highest ranking Republican to embrace full equality for gay couples. Certainly a far cry from the dominant ideology of most ranking Republicans, today.
In reflecting back on his life and his presidency, one wonders just what kind of role Ford would be allowed today, in a party of ideological hacks, kool-aid drinkers and moral miscreants.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A Good Dose of Disinfectant

I was in a meeting a couple of weeks ago with a cross-section of the local business community. The topic pertained to a function of state government that was experiencing issues with funding, as well as effectiveness. With frankness and forthright conviction rarely uttered by politicians, this business leader said, “why don’t we just blow it up and start over.” With nods from around the room, it was obvious that this fellow had scored some points with his clarity.

In my opinion, part of government’s inefficiency stems from organizational dynamics and energies that aren’t readily manipulated. While much lip service gets paid to reform and redesigning bureaucratic structures, the size of the behemoth grows larger, as does the funding needed to perpetuate inefficiency. How is it that we define insanity?

Lately, I find myself coming face-to-face with information and inefficiencies that cry out for investigation, but there seems to be very little, if any of that being done in Maine at this time.

Last Wednesday, Lance Dutson of Maine Impact had an excellent opinion piece published at, about media in Maine. He was addressing a previous column written by Jeannine Guttman, editor of Maine’s largest newspaper, about her column trumpeting her paper’s march forward into the land of blogging and social media. As happens regularly, Guttman missed the forest for the trees.

While many of Maine’s newspapers race to embrace the latest technological fad to stem the bleeding caused by tanking readership, the problem seems obvious to me. At the risk of being overly simplistic, here’s my prescription for Maine’s newspapers—give people something to read and they’ll read it. Better yet, get back to the practice of journalism and reporting on the news and some of the real issues in our state and stop pandering to the lowest common denominator (or the state’s power brokers).

As Dutson recognizes, the growth of new media has been driven by the clamor for journalism that seeks to hold leaders accountable, at all levels—local, state and national. Guttman thinks that merely assigning her staff the task of blogging will ultimately bridge the chasm caused by the public’s perception that newspapers no longer have any credibility. She couldn’t be any further from the truth.

As Dutson writes, “A legion of Press Herald bloggers will ultimately fail to produce results until the policies that cause the print media to come up so short are changed. A digital version of a sanitized press leaves the public in the exact same position as before, except for less paper to use in the fireplace.

There is a troubling diminution in Maine's traditional press for actual inquisitive reporting. Across the nation, blogs are filling this void. Maine's press corps seems to have abandoned the idea of probing into the subjects they cover, as if the concept of impartiality has paralyzed them.

The media, more so than government, sets the dialogue in a community. They provide the ultimate check and balance between the citizenry and its elected officials. When improprieties are ignored, the press becomes complicit.

The near-manic concern for decorum among Maine's traditional press has resulted in a disenfranchised public, cheated out of a thorough understanding of a reality the press has a responsibility to reveal.”

The issue couldn’t be clearer. We need at least one newspaper, or media source in this state that is willing to report the news and hold our elected officials accountable. I don’t see anything remotely close to that happening, other than at isolated outposts on the web.

With that being said, blogging remains the post-modern equivalent to the pamphleteers of the past, like Tom Paine, Voltaire and others, who were willing to shine the light of truth on the so-called leaders of their day.

As the late Louis Brandeis so concisely put it, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Maine (and many other places across our land) needs some disinfecting done in the worst possible way.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Another way to say it

I've become a fan of MySpace. For good, or for bad, I find the networking bumps I've gotten to be worth the time I've spent. While I find alot of absolute sh*t posted, overtly sexual content, as well as a dearth of meaningful banter, I've also found some absolute gems and interesting folks that I never would have known about, otherwise.

A case in point--Bobbi Buchanan and New Southerner, an online quarterly that seeks to highlight and show an appreciation for the values of the South.

Granted, I'm as Yankee as they come, at least in a geographical sense, but I've enjoyed my brief forays south of the Mason-Dixon, as well as having a propensity for southern cooking, particularly chicken fried steak, cheese grits, hush puppies and real southern BBQ.

Their most recent issue has an article worth reading, due to its pertinence to the holidays (ok, Christmas, damn it!) and for its offering of sensible alternatives to consumerism, all the while steering clear of being preachy.

So, if consumin' don't make you weak in the knees, then check out the article and get a few more ideas of how to celebrate, if not this year, then maybe next.

New Southerner Magazine
December 2006 - February 2007

ALTERNATIVES TO CONSUMERISM: Consumers find alternatives to overspending

Toby Wilcher, of Berea, Ky., admits she's as guilty as the next person about getting swept up into the rampant consumerism of the holiday season.

This year, however, will be different. Wilcher's friends will get home-baked goods packed in one of the many baskets she has collected over the years.

A couple of single moms she knows will get free babysitting and maybe even a pedicure, with Wilcher herself providing the services.

Wilcher is among a growing group of Americans finding alternatives to needless spending. Her gifts are not likely to go unappreciated. In a national survey, 70 percent of Americans said they would welcome less emphasis on spending, according to New American Dream.

"One of the things that bugs me is that I feel like I get suckered into giving gifts to a lot of people" out of a sense of obligation, Wilcher said. At the risk of seeming "mean-spirited," she said, she came up with a new rule. "If I don't care enough to call you on your birthday, you are officially removed from my list!"

Those who remain may end up getting the gift of a donation on their behalf to a worth charity. Wilcher's church, Union Church in Berea, holds an annual alternative giving fair each year to support this concept.

Instead of another ugly tie or some unwanted household appliance, the recipient gets a card thanking him or her for the gift donated in his or her name.

Representatives of various nonprofit groups, such as Habitat for Humanity and Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, are on hand to help supporters complete the giving process.

"I like this concept," said Wilcher, who goes a step further by using it as a way to gently remind loved ones of the importance of social responsibility.

"I might choose an organization that would never even be considered by the recipient. The racist uncle who has screamed the loudest all year long about 'them damn Mexicans' might get a beautiful card in the mail thanking him for his donation to an immigrant relief organization with the verse from Exodus, chapter 22, verse 21: 'Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.'"

A Homemade Christmas

Kelly Spitzer and her family are planning their first "homemade Christmas" this year. "We're all pretty crafty people," said Spitzer, who lives in Centralia, Wash.

She and her husband, Brian Percell, make everything from blankets to blackberry jam to hurricane lanterns. Her sister-in-law makes jewelry, her brother is a photographer and her father is "a fantastic chef," Spitzer said. "I think he's preparing a gourmet meal for us."

"We've all gotten tired of the consumer culture," Spitzer said. "We are not diehard anti-consumerists, but I do what I can to avoid the frenzy."

Gifts of Time

Stephanie Anagnoson has avoided consumerism both out of necessity, when she was too poor to buy much of anything, and now for personal reasons. A California-based freelance writer and editor, Anagnoson tries to make every purchase a conscious decision.

Like Wilcher, she has used prudence in culling her gift list over the years. Mutual agreements with family and friends to eliminate or minimize material gift giving have worked well, she said. Her family not only did away with holiday gift exchanges, they also stopped giving to one another on birthdays. "We were passing around the same $30 gift card every couple months," Anagnoson reasoned. "It got too obligatory and lost meaning for us."

Anagnoson and her spouse have found that simply spending time with friends is enough of a gift.

"Last year we had brunch at a restaurant on the 24th. It was enough to enjoy each other's company."

"I'm not totally anti-gift. I just think the holiday season has turned into the buying season."

Trash to Treasure

Mary Alberico, of Lebanon Junction, Ky., finds herself in the same predicament every holiday season — broke. But that hasn't stopped her from giving beautiful, meaningful gifts.

One year, Alberico corralled her two young grandchildren out onto the back porch and had them dip their hands and feet in paint and imprint them onto dish towels.

The simple gift brought tears to her daughter-in-law's eyes on Christmas day."

It was so easy — and cheap," said Alberico, who also has sewn handbags, children's hats and clothes to give as gifts.

Alberico's knack for salvage art is another way she avoids spending. She makes miniature Christmas trees with old garland and wire coat hangers, ornaments from burnt out light bulbs, dolls from worn socks and colorful flowers from plastic bottles.

Not only are her crafts much cheaper, but she finds making them much more satisfying than venturing out to overcrowded stores this time of year. "It's like therapy for me," she said. "And everyone seems to like what they get."

Saving a Buck Year-Round

Charles "Butch" Keeney, of Clarksville, Ind., will do just about anything to avoid spending a hard-earned buck — not only around the holidays, but all year long.

Keeney, who works for a car parts manufacturer, has discovered a simple way to beat the high cost of automotive maintenance and repair. His low-cost alternative involves two steps: 1) Buy the part used; and 2) Fix it yourself.

Even people with little mechanical know-how could save money doing some of the work themselves, according to Keeney, who often consults automotive manuals. Rather than buy the manuals, however, Keeney checks them out from the local library.

Married with three children, Keeney has taken has taken on automotive work to earn extra cash. About three months ago, he discovered a treasure trove of bargains at a place called Pull-A-Part, a do-it-yourself used auto parts store. Customers remove the parts they want from cars in a lot located behind the store.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Keeney's garage sounded like a muffler shop as he and his brothers worked on a pickup truck they plan to sell.

"Today we got this muffler and tailpipe, like new, for $15," Keeney bragged. He estimates the parts would have cost $75 new, plus labor for installation. "Now you're talking something like $125."

Keeney said he's visited Pull-A-Part nearly every weekend since hearing about it on a TV commercial.

Inspired by his frugal nature, Keeney's family practices thriftiness in other ways. Sometimes they arrive late enough at the car races to get in free. They don't have cable television, and when household maintenance is needed, Keeney tries to take care of it himself. He and his brothers recently put a new roof on his house, saving several hundred dollars in labor costs.

Bobbi Buchanan is editor of New Southerner; David Buchanan contributed information for this article.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Holiday Season

I’m not someone who gives much credence to “political correctness,” whatever that phrase has come to connote. I try to respect people’s cultural, religious, or gender reference points, but IMHO, the whole Christmas controversy has gotten out of hand.

When I was in grade school (that 70s show-era), we had a Christmas tree, held a Christmas pageant and sang Christmas carols. You could say “Merry Christmas” to everyone and be sure to get a hearty “Merry Christmas” in return. I was aware that some people didn’t celebrate Christmas, such as a few Jewish classmates, but they seemed to go along with the festivities and as I recall, no one threatened a lawsuit for damages caused by a glass of eggnog and a frosted sugar cookie with red and green sprinkles.

I know, here in the enlightened 21st century, we are so much better off with our “holiday” wishes and for defrocking Santa as seasonal hero. Hell, I even find myself wishing everyone a “happy holiday” first and then, if they break off a “Christmas bomb,” I’ll then reciprocate with a cautious “Merry Christmas.”

One thing that’s kind of cool is where my office space is headquartered, the Christmas humbugs haven’t cracked down, yet. We have a Christmas tree, we held a Christmas dinner and people have decorated several cubicles with “Christmas” cheer.

Even this old scrooge is feeling rather festive, counting down, just four days away from the big one. I even made a shopping run on the way home. I’m scaring myself just writing about it.

The blogging will probably be sparser than normal over the next few days, as I enjoy some welcome downtime, free from work, shipping/schlepping books and phone calls about how to get an autographed copy of When Towns Had Teams.

I wish everyone the merriest of holidays, whether it is Christmas that you celebrate, Chanukah (tonight is the sixth night), Kwanzaa, or any other festival. Enjoy the positive vibes of the season and hopefully, you can spend it with someone special. Oh, and a little white stuff sometime soon would make things up here in the Northeast just about perfect. Global warming, or not, my 40+ years of living in the northern hemisphere make me crave cold weather and snow, even if it's just to bitch about.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

L/A on the move

I’ve been blogging for nearly three years, beginning my first blog/website, in March of 2004. One thing I wished I had done was archive some of the posts from my first website and blog.

Over this period, I’ve had certain themes that have cycled through my writing, with an emphasis on the people and places of Maine. Readers who are familiar with my blogging remember previous posts about the Lewiston I remember from my childhood, especially the downtown shopping district and the hustle and bustle that once existed on Lisbon Street.

Many who reside south of this former textile center, continue to discount Lewiston’s renaissance. I’m announcing here that you do so at your peril. This morning’s article in the Lewiston Sun Journal, about a husband and wife team looking to open a new restaurant directly downtown should make anyone with a lick of sense—or at least, an understanding of economic development signals, take notice. When young professionals start moving into an area, you know vitality and activity are certain to follow.

Since the Sun-Journal requires registration to view archived articles, I’m posting it here for your reading pleasure. What seemed merely a pipe dream a decade ago, seems to be in its formative stages.

Fueling a passion
By Carol Coultas , Business Writer
Lewiston Sun Journal
Wednesday, December 13, 2006

When Eric and Carrie Agren looked inside the old Lyceum Hall on Lisbon Street they had to get past an inch of black gunk on every surface to visualize what their new home and business would look like.

Once a grand theater with a 1,000-seat capacity, the upstairs of the 135-year-old building hadn't been used for more than 50 years.

"It was a disaster," said Eric Agren, shaking his head at the memory.

That's changed.

The Agrens have rehabbed the entire second floor - about 5,000 square feet - into a stunning home. Light from the handsome arcade windows at both ends of the living space bounces off the restored original floors, brick and plaster walls and tin and coffered ceilings. Downstairs, a similar treatment is under way on space that will house Fuel, a French bistro restaurant that the couple hopes to launch in February.

Next to Fuel is about 850 square feet of revitalized storefront space, whose mystery tenant will be revealed at a 10 a.m. news conference today.

It's all very exciting for Agren, who is returning to his roots by participating in its renaissance.

"I think it shows people we have things to be proud of," said Agren, a member of the appliance store family.

"It's connected to that creative economy idea - that you can renovate a building, live here, open a restaurant here - that there are beautiful things downtown."

Before returning to Maine last year, Agren lived in Chicago for six years, in the 19th story of a high-rise apartment building. He is sales director for Jade Products Co., which designs high-end kitchens for clients like Bobby Flay, Emeril and the Bellagio Hotel. His contact with terrific chefs developed into cooking internships, which he expanded with professional culinary training.

Although he and Carrie, who hails from Louisville, Ky., loved Chicago, he wanted to return home to friends and family and pursue a dream he'd been nurturing for years: to open his own restaurant.

In Portland, he thought.

But the progress he saw in Lewiston and Auburn impressed him, and he decided to consider an L-A location. Once he compared the property prices, that was it.The Agrens bought 43 and 49 Lisbon St. last year. Crews from Zachau Construction worked in earnest for four months to get the living space ready for the couple, who moved in about a month ago.

The renovation preserves much of the original character of the old theater. Gleaming wainscoting remains in the long hallways, and original doors and windows from the theater's reception area and offices are used throughout. A ladies room sign on the pantry door, delicately etched in glass, remains a whimsical nod to the building's past.The home has a guest room, master bedroom, master bath, guest bath, fitness room (with sauna), den, sitting room, living room, walk-in closet and, of course, a centerpiece kitchen, anchored with a 16-burner Waldorf cooking suite.

"It's where people congregate anyway, so we wanted to make sure there was room for everyone," said Carrie of the spacious layout.

Living above the space where you'll be working makes for an easy commute: down one flight of 6-foot-wide stairs. Some day, the Agrens would like to rehab the third and fourth floors of the building - especially the top floor, which has spectacular views of the river, the falls and Auburn, and at the other end, the basilica and downtown Lewiston.

But first, Fuel.

Eric Agren said the menu will feature a mix of country French fare - think braised short ribs and pork chops with macaroni and cheese - not the fancy Parisian dishes no one can pronounce. And despite its upscale features (free valet parking, a wine bar with more than 100 selections) entrees will be priced in the $12 to $20 range, including sides.

"We wanted to be competitive with the other restaurants," he said. "I think we're right in line with them."

He politely declined to reveal how much they spent on renovating the building, but figures the outcome speaks for itself.

"Let's just say we're heavily invested in the downtown," he said with a smile. "I truly believe this is an opportunity for Lisbon Street to continue to grow."

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Writing for a region

America was once a nation made up of distinct regions and cultural mores. While there are still some unique distinctions based upon our geographic location, more often than not, corporate homogenization has defanged our quirks built on place and made us all the same flavor of tapioca pudding.

Just as our regions were once unmatched and particular, so was the writing of each region’s poets and storytellers. The Oxford Companion to American Literature defines regional literature as “…a kind that finds the dual influence of romanticism and realism, since the author frequently looks away from ordinary life to distant lands, strange customs, or exotic scenes, but retains through minute detail a sense of fidelity and accuracy of description."

Examples of writers, who gave voice to their own region, were Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor in the South. In the Midwest, the poetry of Carl Sandburg helped define the working class neighborhoods, existing alongside the railyards and industrial areas of Chicago. Mark Twain was responsible for much of our understanding of life on the Mississippi River, although Twain actually born in Florida, but moved to Hannibal, Missouri at the age of four.

A contemporary writer still rooted in his region, with its flavor finding its way to the pages of his books, is essayist, poet and novelist, Wendell Berry. Berry has helped keep agrarian values alive with numerous books firmly grounded in the Kentucky soil bordering the Kentucky River, where he resides.

John Gould was one such writer, creating a body of work about his adopted state of Maine that is unmatched by few, if any. Gould, whose column ran regularly in The Christian Science Monitor for sixty years, was first introduced on October 21, 1942, as a “country correspondent whose writings naturally have a distinct flavor of the soil.” I can’t think of a clearer description of Gould and his more than half-a-century’s worth of work compiled in Dispatches From Maine 1942-1992, which I’m currently reading.

I have taken an interest in the late writer’s body of work, partly because he lived in Lisbon Falls, which is where I was born and grew up. In fact, the road where he lived for six decades bears his name. For a number of years, he ran The Lisbon Enterprise, back in the days when hometown newspapers where ubiquitous. The Enterprise actually had a short run as a statewide newspaper, which many contend was Gould’s undoing.

In 2005, shortly after I released When Towns Had Teams, I was invited by Norm Fournier, a local journalist and publisher of some local renown, who had taken over the paper from Gould in the 1960s, to drop off a copy of my book and to chat.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit with Fournier, as he spoke to me about the life of publishing and shared many a story of his days of working with Gould, when he first joined the paper as a reporter. Fournier, who cut his teeth at the old Portland Press Herald, back in the day when newspapers actually had some journalistic standards and scruples, is a throwback to an era long gone and a link for me to men like Gould, who I never developed a personal connection with. It was an honor to sit in Fournier’s office, the former office of Gould, on Union Street in Lisbon Falls.

While many non-Mainers just assume that Gould was a native of the Pine Tree State, he actually was born in Brighton, Mass.. His father, Franklin, was born in Lisbon, but took off for Boston in 1893 in search of fame and fortune. In 1916, Frank Gould moved his young family back to Maine, eventually settling in Freeport.

In 1929, Gould purchased the family homestead on what is now Gould Road, but wasn’t able to build a house until 1946. It was this home that readers of his columns came to know and many would come to visit, when traveling to Maine. Like L.L. Bean’s in Freeport and Cadillac Mountain, in Bar Harbor, Lisbon Falls became a distination, as visitors would find their way to the farm on the ridge to catch a glimpse of the popular “columnist from Maine.”

In a letter to The Christian Science Monitor, written in 1957, one such visitor recounts a journey from Buffalo, New York, to Maine, expressly for the purposes of visiting Gould at his home. Writing about dropping in “on our friend in Lisbon Falls and telling (sic) him of our gratitude for his weekly grist.”

The visitor and his family was welcomed by John’s gracious wife, Dorothy, and Gould was shortly along, having gone “over the knoll, gathering blueberries.” The family spent lunch with this internationally-recognized writer and author, swapping converasation, before they were on their way. He ends the letter by noting that, “John Gould is more than a wit, more than a humorist. He is a delineator of nature, human and otherwise, seldom equaled and never excelled. Our nation needs more John Goulds.”

This was 50 years ago, but it might have been 500. We rarely visit anyone today, whether friend or family, let alone a total stranger, particularly one with some measure of celebrity. Actually, our recent history instructs us that only bad things can come from the intersection of the rich and famous (in Gould's case, probably more comfortable, than rich) and the hoi polloi.

We may have lost our moorings as a nation and a culture, but as long as we have the recollections and a reflections of a better and more civic time, courtesy of writers like Gould, then those of us who long for such things can still find respite from the maddening mores of our boorish times.

**Here is an additional article from the Portland Phoenix, written by Lance Tapley (which ends with an interview), back in 2001. At the time, Gould was 92, living in an assisted living facility (a previous one, of which he wrote a scathing book about) and still full of "piss and vinegar."

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Getting older all the time

[Much of this information comes courtesy of the Maine Development Foundation and a presentation given by their president, Laurie LaChance. LaChance, a Bowdoin graduate and former state economist under three different governors, is one of Maine’s shining lights and someone who is able to put issues affecting Maine into their proper context. I often think that one of the best things about my job is learning what the real issues are, as well as having some contact with some of the true “movers and shakers” of Maine, who often don’t get much "facetime" but possess the clearest vision for where we need to go.]--JB

One of the biggest challenges facing Maine, as well as most of the other New England states, is the aging of our population. In fact, Maine ranks numero uno, as being the oldest state in the nation, with a median age of 41.2 years. Vermont is number two, with New Hampshire at number six and Connecticut coming in at eighth, so New England is well-represented on the geriatric front, nationally.

This information matters, because it affects policy in our state. While we hear a lot of hot air about taxes being too high and that Maine just needs to cut their rate of taxation and employers will magically arrive in droves, bringing along great-paying jobs and we’ll all live happily ever after, what doesn't get talked about is the nuance needed to counter the anti-tax rhetoric. One of the reasons our taxes are high is specifically tied to the age of our population. Because of this, our citizens require more services. You can also add an additional piece of information to that, also—we are a rural state by almost every definition of the term and getting more so all the time.

Over the past 40 years, our population has left our service center communities—those cities where hospitals and the other necessary services reside—and have moved out into suburban areas and the rural hinterlands beyond. In 1960, less than half of our population, or 40 percent lived in rural areas of the state. Now, we find the number has risen to 55 percent and will continue to grow. So, not only are we the oldest state in the country, we are also the third most rural. As demands for healthcare, housing for seniors and transportation infrastructure continue to increase, state government’s capacity to meet those needs has decreased.

Maine has another issue that is problematic for our state—income disparity. While southern counties, like York and Cumberland have prospered and seen incomes rise steadily over the past two decades, rural counties like Franklin, Oxford, Somerset, Piscataquis and others have seen incomes fall and transfer payments from the state increase. Add to this formula rising housing prices, and suddenly housing for our seniors across Maine becomes a critical issue.

There are some positive developments concerning our demographics. The poverty rate among the elderly in Maine has decreased over the past 30 years. Also, our “brain-drain” has been halted and reversed, as in-migration to Maine has been on the plus side over the past five years.

I won’t dispute the notion that Maine’s property taxes are higher than most of us would like. Howver, while cutting taxes might sound like a solution and will continue to be “shouted from the rooftops” by many politicians across our state, the issue is more complex and multi-dimensional that that.

With the new legislature paying lip service to bi-partisanship, as they were sworn in, yesterday, we can only hope that they’ll put aside ideology and begin to address some important issues that Maine faces during this first decade of the 21st century.

This issue isn’t only germane to Maine. It has resonance at the national level and hopefully, we’ll hear candidates for president speak about it, as the horse race heats up for 2008. Based upon my experience, however, this issue isn't very "sexy," (old people rarely are, in our youth-obsessed culture) so it will find itself buried deeply within the policy section of each candidate, far from the air-brushed pictures and hollow talking points.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Jingle Bells in L.L. Bean's Backyard

-Santa Dog-

-Walkers Welcome-

-Pre-race Gathering-

-The Professional Runner-

-Dressed for the Occasion-

Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell Run

I ended up in Freeport this morning, at the Jingle Bell Run. No, I didn’t waddle my fat ass around the 5K course, which is basically a loop of downtown Freeport, from the high school, north, parallel to Main Street and then, back southward, past the L.L. Bean retail store and back to the high school on Holbrook Street.

I decided to show up to support a friend who has lost a remarkable 80 pounds over the past 18 months, partly due to diet, but primarily due to exercise, which includes running. I spoke to him at a party, Saturday night and he mentioned the race that he was planning to run with his brother. He did express some concern about the alcohol he was consuming and his ability to race the following day.

Since he never showed up, I assume that he was too hung over and possibly overslept. Still, despite getting "stiffed" by his no-show, I ended up having the opportunity to be a spectator at a community-based event with a tie-in to the holiday season.

With so much of the holiday wrapped in consumerist packaging, it was refreshing to see some folks out on a marvelous December morning (not too cold, but with a just the right snap of briskness in the air), enjoying one another and raising money for a good cause. In what is becoming a rare site in our culture, the 200-300 participants and additional 100 spectators was a cross-generational gathering, with ages ranging from six months up to retirement age and beyond—one saw babies in strollers, hard-core runners, weekend joggers, as well as several geriatric runners still pulsing with energy and a competitive spirit.

The only downside to the event was Freeport’s decision not to close Main Street during the race. With the town’s configuration, it would have been relatively easy to redirect traffic and direct shoppers away from the runners, rather than force them to dodge shopping-crazed drivers, or make drivers swerve around runners. In my book, this is a recipe for disaster that is relatively easy to prevent.

Still, there wasn’t much to complain or criticize about this event. Maine, while it continues to see its unique character ebb away, it still has enough local flavor and community to commend itself to outsiders, who continue to flock here to experience a measure of small town Americana, before it disappears altogether.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Making it happen at the state level

I haven’t surfed over to Nathan Newman’s site in awhile, but after reading a slew of anti-union comments at Wal-Mart Watch, I decided to check out one of my favorite pro-labor blogs. I’m glad that I did.

As regular readers probably have noticed, I’ve backed off writing (ranting) about national political issues, choosing to focus on more local, or grassroots causes of late. Probably part of this has to do with my new job, which has me focused on issues that are community-based and pertain to the geographic area that I’m involved in (a remarkably diverse five county region in Central/Western Maine). I also think that I’ve recognized the futility of one person trying to topple a system driven by corporate power.

One thing I’ve come to recognize over the past few months is that there are some very real opportunities to make substantive change at the local and at least in Maine, the state level. I don’t want to give anyone the false idea that state government functions efficiently, or that bureaucracy isn’t an issue—both are very real problems here in my home state and I’m sure, elsewhere. However, I’m impressed with the quality and commitment of so many local businesspeople, community leaders and others that I come into contact with regularly. Over the past four months, I’ve begun to believe that we the people do have the power to move Maine forward in a way that benefits everyone.

Back to Newman. He has a post about an organization called The Progressive States Network. Recognizing that conservatives have effectively run amok in many states, carrying forth their agenda in state legislatures across the country, this organization is building coalitions across the country, with a goal of taking back the power in key areas in each state.

With an agenda that is focused on increasing democracy, not limiting it, as conservatives want, growing local economies, building sustainability, bringing dignity and rewards back into the mix when it comes to work, as well as valuing families in a tangible way, not merely with lip service and campaign rhetoric, this organization is worth looking into further as a way to make some very proactive changes, state-by-state.

Newman’s site links to PSN’s legislative agenda for 2007. Here are the main areas of focus for this grassroots organization, as it seeks to build coalitions, one state at a time.

  • Wage Standards and Workplace Freedom— assuring that American workers receive a decent wage and the freedom of speech in the workplace to stand up for their own interests.
  • Balancing Work and Family- helping create a more family-friendly workplace and society through better family leave policies, sick days, support for child care, and access to contraception.
  • Health Care for All- extending health care coverage to all Americans, while helping cut costs for those currently receiving health coverage.
  • Smart Growth and Clean Jobs- promoting energy independence and job growth through new transit options, smart development to strengthen our communities, and new energy technologies.
  • Tax and Budget Reform- creating more equity and accountability in state tax systems, economic development subsidies and public contracts.
  • Clean and Fair Elections- reforming lobbying corruption, establishing public financing for elections, protecting voting rights, and election reforms like vote by mail to improve the voting process.

This is a great set of core items that people who care about people and place, like I do, can get behind and support—better yet, actually have a hand in moving this pro-people agenda forward.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Cynics need not apply

"Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation ... It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is thus shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."
--Bobby Kennedy, South Africa, 1966

When did Americans succumb to cynicism, nationally? We’ve been on a four decade slide down the slope of lowered aspirations and expectations from our leaders. I think part of this is directly connected to 1968, when in a span of just two months, a pair of dreamers and visionaries, one firmly grounded in the prophetic world of possibilities and the other, embedded in the political realm, were assassinated. While speculation and various theories abound concerning their tragic deaths, as a nation, the psychic scars still have not healed.

I was only six years old at the time, so all I have to work with are historical accounts, old newsreels and the voices of those who knew MLK and RFK. The sense of import that Bobby Kennedy’s assassination occupies in that arc of time since, was driven home to me last night, while watching the tail end of the PBS broadcast of American Experience, titled RFK. I only accidentally stumbled onto it because I was channel surfing during commercials, while watching the Green Bay vs. Seattle, Monday Night Football broadcast. I’m thankful I caught the last 30 minutes.

One of the things that I found striking while watching some of the archival footage, was the makeup of the crowds that Kennedy attracted, particularly during his ill-fated visit to Los Angeles, hours before he was shot. The frames, collected as Kennedy waved and motorcaded among throngs of supporters and others, in East Los Angeles, showed a diversity of Americans that is uncommon today in almost all of our public gatherings. African-Americans, Latinos and Orientals were all represented, as well as poor whites, lining the boulevard, hoping to touch Kennedy’s hand, or just catch a glimpse of this presidential hopeful, the one who had taken on their causes—racial and economic inequality, to name but two, as well as condemning the war in Southeast Asia.

What would a Kennedy presidency have meant for the U.S.? At this point, we can only speculate, as several men who knew Kennedy intimately, have done at the PBS/RFK site. Certainly, we would have been saved a Nixon presidency, the Watergate scandal that set the bar for all subsequent political shortcomings since and a reduction in American soldiers killed, or coming home maimed, physically and mentally. The doubters will always counter with more cynicism and maybe that’s better than asking the dreaded “what if?”

As I segue into middle age, the hopeful side of me wants to believe that someone might come along in my lifetime that could once more energize our country and fuel our dreams for the future with something other than numbness and escapism. Given our current sorry crop of political operatives, opportunists and outright ideological hacks that option seems unlikely in the near term. It’s quite possible that the idealism that lived during the sixties, was just as much a product of the times, as some window of opportunity or possibility—the “age of Aquarius,” or whatever label commentators, or worse, marketers choose to hang on the decade of the sixties.

So, how do we proceed? Do we just throw up our hands and succumb with the usual, “it doesn’t do any good, so why try” futility? I think the grassroots approach to activism, working on smaller projects is something we can all begin with. In fact, history tells us that most mass movements began small and local. For me, my focus is going to be on something like instant runoff voting, which I think is a vehicle which might allow third parties some traction and possibility, to offer an alternative to the basic one-party system we now must endure. Local politics and state-level initiatives are also good areas to help dispense with our despair.

On a personal note, I also think I’ll head out this weekend and see the Emilio Estevez cinematic treatment of Bobby Kennedy’s final day, purportedly using a series of vignettes, leading up to assassination, which robbed us of someone that history shows us that we were desperately in need of at the time.

Monday, November 27, 2006

That special time of the year

We’re in that time of the year where everything is measured by how many trips you make to the mall, or toy store. Americans, who at one time took pride in their ability as pioneers, craftsman and revolutionaries, have been reduced to meandering sheep, grazing at the local retail trough.

I made a brief stop at the Maine Mall, yesterday—Best Buy specifically—to get an idea on what’s available for digital cameras. The digital camera I’ve been using for the past several years is bulky and limited in what I need it for and I’m thinking about an upgrade. I lasted about 15 minutes before the thump, thump of the music and the chattering shoppers near me, made me run screaming from the bowels of this mega-box.

Each and every year, the holidays get moved up—at one time, waiting until December, now, the advertisements arrive pre-Thanksgiving. Back in the day, when Christmas still had some religious connotation, the season took on an air of family, school pageants and carols playing on the AM radio. Now, we’ve placed Christmas in its politically-correct prison, making it part of the innocuous “holiday season,” but it’s become just an excuse for American consumers to stuff their mini-vans and SUV’s with worthless junk, much of it made in third world sweatshops, to fill some nook and cranny of their oversized and overpriced McMansions. Meanwhile, corporate bean counters salivate at the prospects of profits, built on the ballooning credit lines granted by credit card giants, who will just pass on higher interest rates at some post-holiday point. No one worries about paying the piper now, however. It's onward and upward, for a-shopping we must go!

Over the weekend, feature story after feature story was geared to people lining up for an early, post-Thankgiving opening at the nearby retail conglomerate. It’s as if our nation has become nothing more than a bunch of drooling zombies, exhibiting some strange Pavlovian response to an imaginary signal that’s triggered, making them want to stumble amongst soulless outlets, chain stores and big boxes, credit card and cell phone in hand.

As hard as I try each year, like a hopeless Charlie Brown, to get into the spirit of what I hold the holidays to be, in my own skewered version of the world, it becomes harder and harder to muster much enthusiasm for any of the trappings of what the next four weeks have become. I’m curious if I’m just getting crankier each year, or do others feel a sense of disconnection this year that they’ve never experienced before?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

A bad day for turkeys

Most U.S. holidays leave me somewhat conflicted. Like much that gets passed off as acceptable by those in power, Thanksgiving is infused with myths and misinformation that are designed to keep us fat, happy and confused. Rather than delving into that well today, however, I've decided to offer my own alternative to the traditional and the trite. There are certainly aspects of the American turkey day that can benefit us all, like taking a moment, or two and reflecting on the things that we do have that we can be thankful for.

That two-headed hydra of Maine blogging, Jason Clark and Lance Dutson, have shifted their focus over at Maine Impact. Now that election season has come and gone, Jason and Lance will be offering podcasts with a slightly different focus. I'm not sure exactly where they will be going, but today's Maine Thanksgiving version is a nice place to start. I hope you'll make Maine Impact one of your regular stops while trolling for information, particularly pertaining to the good ole' state of Maine.

Jason contacted me and asked if I could put together a two minute spot on what Maine things I'm thankful for this year. I was honored by the invitation, so if you care to, you can head over to Maine Impact and hear three Mainuhs' share their own personal takes on Thanksgiving, with a uniquely Maine orientation; Representative Emily Ann Cane (D-Orono), from District 19, fellow blogger Michelle Souliere and of course, yours truly, are given an opportunity to share the things that we appreciate and are thankful for as it pertains to the Pine Tree State.

Here's wishing readers a festive day, in whatever form you choose to celebrate it. I'll be spending the day with family and friends, enjoying the culinary skills of my better half, while watching a bit of football and having some time to get out and take an unhurried stroll up and down the less busy thoroughfare that is Route 9, here in my hometown.

Monday, November 20, 2006

I miss my amp

I should have known better--when you have a vintage tube amp that is on the fritz, take it to real repair professionals, not some L/A wannabes. Well, actually that would be unfair. The store where I dropped my buzzing Fender off at have been in business in Lewiston for decades, it's just that they don't appear to have a clue when it comes to repairs.

I knew in my heart, I should have taken it to Buckdancer's Choice, in Portland, but I thought it would be a hassle going into Portland three weekends ago and the music store in Lewiston told me that their amp guy could get it done--they also warned me that he was backed up.

So here I am, three weeks later, jonesing to plug in my electric and growing sick of the laid back sounds of my trusty Yamaha acoustic. The only solace I'm feeling tonight is that I wacked my left thumb with a hammer, driving nails on Saturday and couldn't hold a guitar if I wanted to tonight, or for several nights for that matter. Why is it that every time I start to build up momentum with my guitar playing, something inevitably gets in the way? Just when I had started to learn a few songs and didn't have to plod my way through the changes, once more, the reality that I'm never going to taste musical fame and fortune gets shoved in my face (heck, just becoming proficient on the guitar would be fine at this point).

Well, it looks like I'll have to wait a bit longer to plug in and make some noise again--maybe my amp will be ready by the weekend?

Saturday, November 18, 2006

From Kittery, up the coast

[Holding the line against chain stores]

[Not a Maine-owned business in sight!]

[The Kittery Trading Post--outfitting yuppies for their next shopping adventure]

[York Harbor, exuding old money and its stately homes along the water's edge]

[Maybe pigs really do fly--if not, its one kick-ass brand of locally baked bread]

From Kittery, up the coast-

Crossing the Piscataqua River, from New Hampshire, back into Maine, I rarely leave the Maine Turnpike and travel coastal Route 1. Friday morning, on my way back from a Thursday night show in Cambridge, I decided to spend some time along this coastal roadway, which has a storied history, although it was painfully obvious to me that Maine’s southernmost section of this auto route has lost any sense of uniqueness.

I have a new book project in the works, which will once again be my own skewered take on Maine, as I see it. Planning to take the day off, Friday, I made the decision to catch the show and rather than head home, I got a room in Portsmouth and hoped to spend some time scouting York County for some ideas. Armed with a camera, I took some photos as I meandered north, on my way back home.

I won’t go into great detail here, but I wanted to catch a Texas-based band called Centro-matic, who were playing at the Middle East in Cambridge. I’ve blogged about it in considerable detail over at my own MySpace page. I created the page to capitalize on any networking that might come from another online venue. While skeptical at first about the phenomenon, I have come to embrace MySpace and found it to be an effective networking tool and even a bit addictive.

The Middle East, while purported to be a legendary rock club, doesn’t have anything on Chicky’s in Westbrook. I find it inevitable as I get older that going to shows where there is a high number of the 20-something college crowd takes away my enjoyment of the music. But, I don’t want to spend much time on that issue, as I’m going to provide some commentary and context for some of the photos.

Like other Maine communities such as Ellsworth and South Portland, which have given their towns over to the corporations and an outlet mentality, Kittery has little that I find redeeming, at least that part of Route 1, near the New Hampshire border, teeming with its multitude of discount outlets. Does anyone see the irony of calling one grouping of stores the Maine Outlet, but not one of the stores is based in Maine?

I always get a kick out of the Kittery Trading Post, a poor man’s L.L. Bean knockoff. Like Bean’s, the KTP was once exclusively for hunters and outdoors people, but is now more likely to be frequented by folks looking to outfit themselves for trips from that offer the rigors of leaving their climatically-controlled SUV and walking to their next consumer conquest down the road.

While Maine has an abundance of great locally-grown vegetables, Maine-made breads and other unique products, Kittery’s shopping experience offers shopping sustenance via the chain method of food prep.

Once drivers exit Kittery and head north, the outlets thin out and it is possible to get some flavor of local culture. While this area’s retail and service economy once was the domain of locals, over the past two decades, chains continue to creep northward, dotting the landscape with their ubiquitous branding that is devoid of uniqueness and local flavor.

If you’ve never had bread baked by When Pigs Fly, you haven’t had bread! This local bakery is still one of Maine’s better-kept secrets, although you can find a limited offering of breads at some of the Hannaford locations. The Kittery store, however, is where you can really get a sense of the variety and possibilities for bread making with an eye toward creativity. With over 25 varieties on display and beckoning me with their mouthwatering aromas, I was happy I stopped by, leaving with my own freshly baked loaves to take home and compliment my Friday night dinner.

Up the road, apiece, I met David, a local farmer whose farm stand and gardens bordering Route 1 serve as a buffer to out-of-state developers and other interlopers whose primary interest is to extract as much profit as they can from the real estate, with little regard for local culture or preserving the area’s heritage. Ironically, David is from “away,” a transplant from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

York Harbor, with its abundance of 18th century architecture offers travelers a chance to step back, a sense of some of the old money the area is built upon, as well as beautiful views of Maine’s rocky coastline.

Traveling north into Ogunquit, visitors will find theater, antiques and numerous local eateries and locally-owned shops. While the main drag still has plenty of seasonal shops offering trinkets and other merchandise geared for the tourist crowd, this section of one of Maine’s renowned tourist areas is much more palatable than nearby Kittery.

Obviously, sprawl and the specter of the McMansion serves as a warning to many of us that Maine could easily lose its unique sense of place without some vision for our future. I saw more of these types of homes recently constructed, than I have in the past.

Wells Beach and Wells were where I ended my initial fact finding on Friday. Wells, like its neighbor to the north, Kennebunk, are solidly working class towns, where the locals depend upon tourism and walk a fine line between enjoying the fruits of tourism, but despising having their faces rubbed in the conspicuous consumption of the guests that fill their coffers and crowd their roadways every summer. Like Bar Harbor and other Maine towns that see their prosperity rise and fall due to the visits of interlopers from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and elsewhere, Wells is a prime example of what tourism produces—chintzy shops, bottle-necked local roads each summer and if the weather cooperates, enough money to make it through the winter to next year’s tourist season.

As a state, Maine has ridden the tourist rollercoaster for as long as I can remember and it will continue to do so, until our economy begins producing jobs and opportunities for the locals. Until then, we’ll continue to play reluctant hosts to the hordes of visitors who swarm into our state every summer.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


I know that I'm about to commit the blogging equivalent of what Postman called the, "Now...this" seque. In fact, he spent an entire chapter talking about what he called, the "Now...this" worldview in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

You see, I want to blog about Meredith Viera, Katie's replacement on The Today Show and more precisely, Meredith Viera's blog.

While I was never much of a fan of Katie Couric, I used to find it amusing how so many men, particularly conservative men, could hurl so much vitriol and venom poor Katie's way. I guess when you host a show so amazingly popular and watched by millions, especially millions of women, apparently that's enough to get you hated by the knuckle-draggers of America.

When Katie made the switch over to her new position, as the CBS Nightly News anchor, my wife insisted that we watch her first night and subsequent nights afterwards, for at least a week. It was then that I actually felt somewhat bad for her; almost sympathetic, as she obviously was trying to hard to make it work.

Recently, I watched her do her nightly half hour and I think she's relaxed enough and almost looks comfortable. My wife thinks she made a mistake, however and I'm inclined to agree. I do respect her, however, for making an honest attempt to at changing her modus operandi later in her work career, something I can certainly identify with, on some basic level. But I'm not here to talk about Kaie. No, I'm here to talk about her successor, Meredith Viera.

Meredith Viera has a blog. While it would be natural to think that someone is probably "ghostwriting" Meredith's daily posts, according to something I heard somewhere (NPR?), she actually does her own writing and is enjoying doing the blog, after first thinking it would be just a bunch of "busywork."

While it would be easy to write off Viera, after her recent stint as moderator on "The View" and her current gig as host of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," Viera actually has a career vitae that includes hard news and journalism, having worked on 60 Minutes, Turning Point and CBS News. You see, unlike the bimbos that Fox pays to read teleprompters, with their collagen enhanced lips and other accoutrements, Viera actually does have some credibility and talent for reporting. In fact, Viera created a bit of a fuss in some news circles, after having marched in an anti-war demonstration and then, talking about it on "The View," saying that the "war was built on lies."

Meredith's piece on getting to dance with the Radio City Rockettes was actually very personal and showed her human side, which should help her win the women over who will ultimately decide whether Viera can emerge from Katie's shadow and carve out her own unique niche as the new must-see maven of the morning.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

A death goes unnoticed

I've always prided myself in finding new, under-reported and often, obscure material, via the web, but before that, it came from scouring the underground press, free papers and other cultural detritus.

Of late, my time has been much tighter than it has been in some months, so having the luxury and even allowing myself some extra time to dig deeper has been lacking. Today, despite spending several hours getting done some essential work for a new RiverVision release that is slated for the spring, I had some time to peruse other small press operations, such as Akashic Books, a unique literary arts organization in Berkeley, California, Small Press Distribution, among others and finally to the site.

It was there that I encountered the following item that's been virtually buried, receiving little or no national dispersion from a media that seems to fixate on the trivial, mundane, or the painfully obvious.

Malachi Ritscher R.I.P.
by anne elizabeth moore 11/09/2006 in obituaries

On Friday morning, Nov. 3rd, During rush hour in Chicago, local activist and sound engineer Malachi Ritscher doused himself in gasoline and lit himself on fire, by the millennium flame near the Ohio St. exit off the Kennedy expressway. He set up a sign that read: "thou shalt not kill" and also set up a video camera on a tripod and recorded the whole thing. (The videotape is with the police).

Longtime supporter and participant of the Chicago experimental music scene for many years, Malachi Ritscher was behind many live recordings for musicians in town and throughout the world. He kept up his page, a useful and comprehensive list of creative music events in Chicago. Perhaps more importantly, Malachi was an activist and vocal protester of political and social ills that stem from, but are not limited to, the Bush administration.

Readers were directed to several other links pertaining to Ritscher's music, politics and life, including this one, which takes readers to the site of the alternative weekly, the Chicago Reader, which has a brief article, followed by a number of comments from people who knew Ritscher and were touched in some way by his life.

Lending credit, where credit is due, Chicago Sun-Times columnist, Richard Roeper, had a pertinent piece about suicide, mentioning Ritscher's final act, which included the following:

"It makes no sense to pretend suicide is a rare and scandalous thing. The sad truth is that every 18 minutes in this country, somebody makes the unfathomable (to the rest of us) decision to leave this life forever. "

Here is Ritscher's self-penned obituary.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Will the women get it done in DC?

As the results surged in Tuesday night, a Democratic wave washed over both the House and the Senate, changing the composition of both legislative chambers. While that tidal shift, resulting in the Democrats handily gaining control of the House and narrowly claiming the Senate, by a whisker, it also brought about a historic event, one that bodes well for the women of America.

Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) will be the first ever woman speaker of the House. Not since 1992’s “the year of the woman,” which saw the election of a class of woman Senators who would become influential leaders in the Senate, has the election of a female been accompanied by such a bevy of media attention.

Women in politics are no longer an anomaly. With Pelosi’s ascension to speaker, they’re now edging closer to that ultimate goal—seeing a woman in the White House. Seeing that it is the year, 2006, the question becomes, “Why the hell not?”

With the votes all counted and the campaign signs being picked up and stored away, women now hold historically high numbers in the Congress—16 Senate seats, as well as 70 seats in the House. Yet, despite gains made by women, those numbers still only represent 16 percent of the total number of possible seats available in both chambers.

So, is 2006 the new year of the woman? Not according to Vivian Eveloff, director of the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life at the University of Missouri.

“Oh, I so don’t like that expression," Eveloff says. "I think every year ought to be the year of the woman until we get a Congress, and we get legislators, and we get statehouses that reflect the diversity of this country. We’ve made a little progress this year. But we certainly have a long way to go.”

Therein lies the crux of the problem. While women continue to make their way up the political ladder, there remains work to be done. Obviously, Pelosi’s role is an important one in many ways. For both her party, as well as her gender, how she performs will resonate and could play a pivotal role in just two years, when we elect a successor to George W. Bush. If Pelosi can bridge the partisan divide and put a face of honesty, competence and accomplishment on her speakership, then it could be very interesting for Democrats in choosing their candidate to lead the party in their quest to retake the Oval Office.

The Democratic Party has a real opportunity to lead a nation that is divided by partisan politics, a war that has become an economic albatross and is stealing vitality and services from our own, and a perception that politics and politicians are incapable of getting the job done. Can Pelosi reinvigorate her party, as well as gain the support of most Americans? It won’t be easy. One place where the carping had already begun, before the election, was right-wing talk radio. I guess it's to be expected, but good lord, even a member of the "sisterhood," Laura Ingraham, (who along with Ann Coulter, are two of the meanest, nasty females I’ve ever encountered) was bashing Pelosi’s pending position, before she even had a chance to oversea any legislation or perform her first official task. I can only imagine how vitriolic it will become if Hilary is the Democratic nominee.

So, why do will still see women under-represented in our politics and why are we still so squeamish about the thought of a woman president? In other areas of the world, women have reached the pinnacle of power—think Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher and recently, Angela Merkel, elected German Chancellor, in 2005 and VerĂ³nica Michelle Bachelet Jeria, elected president of Chil, in March, 2006, when she beat out billionaire businessman, Sebastian Pinera, in runoff election. Even better, in my opinion, Bachelet is a socialist, who campaigned on a platform of continuing Chile's free market policies, while increasing social benefits to help reduce the country's gap between rich and poor, one of the largest in the world. Now there’s a strategy in the making for Democrats—instead of always running towards the center, try mixing in a few actual liberal, or progressive ideas and really live up to the label of “liberal” tossed their way, spit out and even “hissed” by so many conservatives.

The next two years will be pivotal. While I’m no fan of the Democrats, at least in their current DLC modus operandi and I’ve had my issues with Pelosi, I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Her performance could have a lot to say about whether Republicans ultimately lose the White House in 2008 and continue their freefall.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The will of the people (who vote)

The mid-term elections are over. After months of campaigning and disruption of their lives, candidates can go back to the normalcy of their everyday routines. With voter turnout approaching 60 percent in Maine, our state once more showed our greater engagement in all things political.

Contributing to the higher than normal turnout for a non-presidential election was the TABOR initiative, Maine's "slash and burn" attempt at tax relief, which went down to defeat, 54 to 46 percent. This is the second sound defeat of a taxpayer "rights" referendum by Mainers, but knowing some of the ideologically-driven leaders of the pro-TABOR side, I wouldn't be surprised to see something similar in two years, when we vote again.

The day after an election can be a bit of letdown, particularly when your candidate finishes a distant fourth. Pat LaMarche ran a grassroots, issue-oriented campaign, championing healthcare for all Mainers, an emphasis on a living wage for all workers, a commitment to renewable energy and some positive proposals for getting a handle on escalating property taxes.

As a Green Independent, LaMarche offered a clear, third party alternative to the traditional choice between elephant and donkey. LaMarche's female counterpart, the perpetually "catty" Barbara Merrill made a strong showing, gathering 20 plus percent of the total vote. As she conceded, however, she managed to show her less than gracious side, once more, which is what ultimately led to me go over to the LaMarche camp, late in the race. It is my sincere hope that Pat, gracious and genuine to the very end, will remain engaged in the political process. We need her ideas, energy and passion for all the people of Maine, not just the ones who drive luxury sedans and SUV's.

Maine faces a multitude of challenges. Governor Baldacci cannot allow his final four years to be business as usual. The Brookings Institute report has given anyone in a leadership position, a clear blueprint for taking our state forward, into the 21st century. Partisan posturing and political cronyism won't get the job done for the people of Maine.

Nationally, it appears that Democrats have been given a clear message from the voters--they are fed up with perpetual war, fear mongering, political scandal and ideological divisiveness. Regaining control of the House for the first time since 1994, Democrats must step up to the plate and lead.

As votes were counted last night, it became clear that Republicans had lost their hold on power across the country. In distrcts of all stripes--conservative, liberal and moderate — as well as in urban, rural and suburban areas, exit polls revealed that many middle class voters who fled to the GOP a dozen years ago appeared to return to the Democrats.

With this so-called mandate, the Democrats, or "the gang that couldn't shoot straight," now have a responsibility to address some of the most serious issues in our nation, including finding a way to unite a divided populace. For me, I saw several races, won by conservative Democrats, as offering very little substantive difference between them and the GOP incumbent. Joe Lieberman, who lost the primary to anti-war candidate, Ned Lamont, won as an Independent.

Will we see a troop pullout from Iraq, a push for universal healthcare, a closing of the income gap and a push to develop alternative energy sources? The pessimist in me says Democratic control of the House and even the Senate, won't alter business as usual.

As I've been preaching regularly here, during the latter days of the campaigning, our electoral process needs an overhaul. Until third party candidates, fueled by ideas rather than ideology can get into the game in a meaningful way, little if nothing will change for the working class people of our land. Obscene amounts of money, sent down from the corporate suites have poisoned our political well. Until we find the will to tap into the well of populist reform, I don't harbor any real hope that anything meaningful will result from all the hoopla surrounding last night's election returns.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Let the women lead

While politics as usual most often means white males mouthing the same old rhetoric, Maine’s gubernatorial race has been energized by two dynamic women, as candidates. Both Pat LaMarche and Barbara Merrill have given incumbent John Baldacci and Republican challenger, Chandler Woodcock, much more than I’m sure they bargained for.

Both LaMarche and Merrill have run issue-oriented campaigns that have given Mainers an opportunity, if they so choose, to vote against the tired and trite and choose a direction for the state that is actually grounded in issues that matter. With LaMarche’s focus on healthcare, the environment, job creation and a way to realistically address tax issues, she offers a clear choice for anyone who cares to go beyond the sound bite campaigns offered by her male counterparts.

Merrill literally has written the book on how she would govern Maine. Like Maine’s last Independent for governor, Angus King, Merrill put pen to paper and wrote, Setting the Maine Course, which is also available on her website.

Merrill’s strong commitment to the rural values of Maine, should resound solidly with much of Maine, although I’m concerned that too many of them will take the easy road and cast their vote for Chandler Woodcock, making the false assumption that a Republican cares about the working class citizens of rural Maine. His support for TABOR should be a clear indication that he doesn’t, as this “slash and burn” attack on the rural communities of Maine will devastate services to the people who need them most.

While I wrote an earlier post about leaning LaMarche’s way, I’ve now made my choice to vote for Pat. Having said that, I respect Merrill and would be comfortable with her as governor, if LaMarche doesn’t come out victorious after the votes are counted Tuesday night.

For those who are still wavering, I’d encourage you to visit Jason Clarke and Lance Dutson’s excellent podcast site, Maine Impact, where you can listen to interviews with both of these talented and intelligent women, who would both make great choices to lead the state of Maine.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Democracy's death rattle

We are in another election period. Three days from now, some of us will march to the polls and cast our votes, hopeful that they’ll even be counted correctly. That, in itself, is problematic. In my own state of Maine, the secretary of state is predicting a voter turnout of somewhere in the range of 45 to 55 percent—this during a crucial midterm election at the national level, with Maine choosing a governor, local representatives to Augusta and determining whether or not we care to gut our public services by passing TABOR, the “slash and burn” attempt at controlling taxes, given to us courtesy of our friends on the right-wing fringe.

Our current president, a man who won two elections under dubious voting circumstances, fraught with polling irregularities, spends a lot of time talking about democracy, his focus often on other parts of the world to the exclusion of his own banana republic. In a country that some would hold up as the shining “city on a hill” when it comes to how representative government should work, half of us don’t vote, with a good portion of the other 50 percent not sure that Tuesday’s process will be legitimate. As Jeffrey Kopstein and Mark Lipback write, in their book, Comparative Politics: Interests, Identities and Institutions in a Changing Global Order,

“Democracies sometimes violate their own laws or conduct elections that are not perfectly free and fair. Beyond a certain point, however, it makes little sense to categorize a country as democratic if it prohibits free speech or falsifies election

Back in 2004, those who did vote (or could vote), regardless of the candidate you voted for (or thought you voted for), the election didn’t seem right. After four years of fractious rankling and with an unpopular war raging in Iraq, Americans went to the polls, with pundits insisting that voters were determined to express their dissatisfaction with Bush and the Republicans. Strangely, the usually discombobulated Democrats, the “gang who couldn’t shoot straight,” as I like to call them, were strangely unified. They’d united around the “electable” candidate, the former Vietnam veteran and longtime Senator, John Kerry, and urged everyone within earshot that we should vote for “anybody but Bush.” Even the perennial third party rabble-rouser, Ralph Nader, garnered almost no support (0.38 percent of the national vote), yet, when the smoke settled and the votes were counted (or not counted), George W. Bush was standing tall, reelected as our 43rd president. In fact, unlike the chad-shrouded election of 2000, this one wasn’t even close, with GWB winning with a 3 million vote cushion.

Strangely, despite voters being forced to stand in line for hours in Ohio, polls closing before voters got to vote, exit polls favoring Kerry (in Ohio) turned on their heads, there was very little national attention focused on the specter that the 2004 election, like the 2000 election, was stolen. Other than a few lone voices like Mark Crispin Miller, Keith Olbermann and even Randi Rhodes, of Air America, most of the media moved on, ready to talk about Republican mandates and Mr. Bush’s conservative capital to spend. In fact, Mr. Bush, one of the more intellectually challenged presidents to ever hold office, began running about the country, as well as at the mouth, insisting that the voters had given him a clear message that his disastrous “war on terrah,” civil liberty infringements and wealth transfer programs were wildly popular.

So, what’s the answer? To be quite honest, I don’t really have one. As person who no longer has faith in the tired ideal of, “one person, one vote,” I’ll go to the polls, more out of conditioning than any great optimism. I’ll cast my vote and then, I’ll come home and watch the returns stream in. I’ll tolerate the prattle from tired commentators, rattling off results from states like Oregon, Montana and Utah. They’ll gush about certain “stars” of the political pantheon and devote some coverage to key races, but absent from any of their corporately-controlled patter, will be a mention that the whole goddamn system is fucked beyond our control!

Just this past week, John Kerry, the man I voted for in 2004, made a comment about Iraq that put him in a world of hurt, or as Bobby Boucher (from The Waterboy) would say, he opened up “a can of whupass.” I don't dislike John Kerry. Oh, at times, he pisses me off, with his air of nobility and, like Al Gore, his penchant for letting political handlers so obscure the real candidate that both of these decent men, come off as totally inept and ultimately, ineffective.

Kerry dared to make a statement before college students in Southern California that got characterized later, as a bad joke. What got missed by everyone, except good ole’ Keith Olbermann, a former sportscaster from ESPN, was that Kerry, in essence, was calling the president, stupid (Christ, there's a new revelation). Instead, the Bush sycophants and members of the press (are those two one and the same?), turned Kerry’s statement into a case of insult against our good boys in Iraq. Before all was said and done, Kerry, regardless of how you feel about him as presidential material, a man of honor and integrity, ended up having to “fall on his sword” at the insistence of the spineless Democrats in control, virtually extinguishing any hopes of a presidential run for himself, in 2008. Kerry, who guided men through battle and then had the integrity to come home and take a stand for veterans, which, as a child of privilege, would have been easy to have shirked, ends up looking like the lesser of a person in another head-to-head with George W. Bush.

I cannot explain how a man, with obvious pathological predispositions towards dishonesty, who never served a day in combat, in fact, criminally left his responsibilities to occupy a politically-arranged substitute for real service, continues to be given a free pass? Either the American people are too stupid, too callow, or they don’t have what it takes to live in a country that was intended to be a democracy.

While conservatives love to quibble over definitions, insisting our nation is actually a "constitutional republic," we are in fact, a democracy, a representative one, evident in each one of our various branches. Maybe that aversion to the term among conservatives is somewhat instructive? By denying the term, but even more important, by denying the mechanisms, the current conservative clusterfuck is doing all in its power to deny the very foundations and underpinnings that date back over 200 years.

Unlike many progressives and left-leaning hipsters, I don’t entertain any illusions that a Democratic majority in the House, or Senate, or both, is going to change the collision course that America is on. The Democrats aren’t going to overhaul the tax code, or suddenly defund the military, or enact anything close to the radical changes (universal healthcare) that would make me happy. However, just a slight swerve back to the center would be a cool drop of water for even a cynical left-leaning libertarian, like me. It would halt this continual rightward, theocratic stumble towards fascism that we are on and if nothing else, gives me some slight glimmer of hope that we might rid ourselves, eventually, of some of the loathsome bottom-feeders that we are currently saddled with in Washington.

Driving home last night, I was listening to NPR and heard a story about the D-word subject that I’ve gone on about much longer than I intended. The theme of the piece was the U.S. policy of promoting democracy around the world, particularly in Arab countries and whether or not these countries are well-served with democratic forms of government. In fact, it was quite interesting when they talked about Hamas, recently brought to power in Palestine, in a democratically-held election. The reporter made the point that while we want democracy in other parts of the world, we are disappointed when a leader, or in the case of Hamas, a party is a elected that we don’t want—the wrong candidate, so to speak. Ironically, one of the so-called “experts” that they talked to was none other than Newt Gingrich, which ultimately led me to ranting like a crazy man at my radio and ultimately, shoving in my mix tape of Centro-matic to prevent my head from exploding.

Come Tuesday, I’ll drag myself to my Durham polling station. I’ll vote for governor, against TABOR, choose my local representatives, as well as senator and representative to Washington. We actually still have paper ballots that you feed into a machine on your way out, which will be counted by one of my fellow townspeople. My wife, Mary, has counted on election night before. If nothing else, I can at least be assured that my vote is counted, which won’t be the case in many other parts of the country. You see, if you are voting on a Diebold machine, or one of the four machines owned by rabid, right-wing Republicans, which leave no paper trail, then you can’t be sure that the vote you cast is actually counted for the candidate you chose.

Since those who count the votes, ultimately are the ones who win, then Republicans have a real advantage, at the present time. If Democrats can do nothing more than regain control of the House and Senate, they’ll be able to feel good on Tuesday night. Simply being able to fix the broken system of elections that exist right here in our own country will be one huge step back towards legitimacy. Then, I can start wishing again, for something miraculous, like instant runoff voting, or god forbid, a viable movement to elect a third party candidate that represented the needs of all Americans, not just the wealthy. Hey, a man can dream, can’t he?