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.