Friday, June 29, 2007

Why won't the public sector blog?

New media is no longer considered arcane, fringe, or the sole domain of geeks. Blogging, representing new media's "first wave," has become very mainstream, with businesses and other members of the status quo jumping on board the blogging bandwagon.

Back in 2003, when I took the plunge and launched my first blog, it was a common occurrence to tell someone you were blogging and get the usual, “you’re doing what?” response and the inevitable weird look when you tried to explain the concept. While millions have crossed over to media’s New Jerusalem, amazingly, there are still many that still have no sense of what blogging is about and how it might be utilized as a communications tool. I won’t even start with social networking sites like MySpace, or the metaverse.

Nowhere is this more glaringly obvious than in the parallel universe, better known as the world of government. Apparently, people who populate this world are not fans of the cutting edge, or anything that smacks of the 21st century. In fact, many in government seem better suited for the 19th century, when the horse and buggy ruled the road and quill pens and ink wells were tools of the communicator’s trade.

For the past year, I’ve been immersed in a quasi-governmental world. Opportunities have presented themselves to talk about writing and I’ve shared with a handful of people that I have a blog (in fact, I have two). Yet, I have yet to meet anyone else in this world who has one of their own, or even knows what the hell I’m talking about, most of the time.

As I’ve written before and I’ve shared with others who wanted advice about becoming a writer, having a blog is a wonderful forum for perfecting your craft. If you care about blogging and want people to take your online writing seriously, you have to make time for it. You also should strive to put up as much meaningful content as possible. While it can be taxing at times, particularly when your life reaches a fevered pace (a pace that I’ve been friends with for the past two months), your blog should have enough importance and you should respect your regular and semi-regular readers enough, to regularly update your blog, at least your primary site for your thoughts and ideas.

There are a variety of bloggers out there, including authors and columnists, who find blogging to be an additional outlet for them, beyond the traditional channels of publishing, to share their thoughts and opinions.

One of my favorite books of late has been A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule The Future, by Daniel Pink. Pink maintains a blog, utilizing new content that ties in well to the themes that he wrote about in the book. Between his publishing, public talks and article writing, Pink finds time to regularly post at his blog. Most of his posts are pithy and to the point, while bringing to his reader’s attention, trends, products and other ideas geared towards the themes in his latest book and this seems to work well for him.

I was curious to see if there were places where I could get a sense of who might be blogging from the public sector. Are there people in government, either state, or federal that have embraced the blog?

I found a website, which compiled blogs by government. How did I find it? I Googled this highly intuitive phrase—“government blogs.” I was sorely disappointed that my very own state of Maine did not show one active blog by a government agency on the list. Neither did fellow New England states, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, or Rhode Island. Vermont appeared to be an active link, but when I clicked on it, the link was in fact dead. Only Connecticut made the cut, with State Senator, Bill Finch putting “The Constitution State” on the blogging map, with his own blog. Finch, to his credit, has been blogging since April of 2005. I must tell you, this impressed me.

A group of Americorps workers based in New Orleans, going by the name of The Lost Tribe of Green 5, have their own blog. All seven members of the team take turns blogging about their experiences with Americorps and I found the blog to be both informative and worth some time given to reading member’s posts.

Utah came away as our governmental blog champion, with four sites listed. The Senate Site: Unofficial Voice of the Utah Senate Majority, was created by the Utah Senate GOP membership as a one-year pilot in 2005, attempting to “add something meaningful to the way people understand and participate in the policy-making process.” Apparently it’s been a success, as the GOP site is still blogging away, two years later.

What I liked when I read about the blog, was the spirit of bipartisanship and openness they were looking to create with the blog, giving their friends and foes across the aisle the chance to blog, as well as opening it up to guest bloggers from the public.

From the very same Utah Senate site, I learned that not all states are created equal when it comes to blogging.

In the state of Kentucky, rather than viewing new media and in particulary, blogging, as something to be embraced for communication purposes, Gov. Ernie Fletcher (a Republican), who didn’t like being skewered by Democratic blogger, Mark Nickolas, banned access to blogs for 34,000 state workers. Knowing a thing or two about the productivity of state workers, particularly their ability to get things done, I doubt that Fletcher’s decision made a dent at all in Kentucky's public productivity.

While we hear a lot about how tech savvy the millennials are, many 20-somethings that I’ve encountered don’t seem particularly adept at utilizing any of the available technology for much of anything, except navel gazing. Granted, there are a few members of the younger set that understand the implications of what’s available and know how to use it to get out their message. But sadly, these people seem to be in the minority. It appears that it is the "boomers," that seem to be most adept at utilizing the newer tools of communication to maximum benefit.

It's interesting, in light of the content of Pink's book, which details the shift from left brain, to right brain skills and the transfer, so to speak, of the "keys to the kingdom," at least when it comes to information and communication that there is such a paucity of new media activity on the public side of things. If Pink is right (and he makes a very provocative case in the book) in his detailing of the move to the conceptual age, as he calls it, a world of "high concept and high touch," then this lack of participation by those in the public sphere is telling.

Regardless of what forms of new media, social networking and virtual reality are made available, thanks to burgeoning technology, knowing the fundamentals of communication are still essential, in my opinion, if you want to be able to say anything that others might be able to relate to and gravitate towards. Otherwise, it’s the equivalent of one hand clapping.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Random notes and items worth noting (maybe)

New job for Bush's “poodle”

Lest you shed a tear that Tony Blair has been booted from 10 Downing Street, the former British Prime Minister didn’t even need to worry about updating his resume. Hours after standing down as PM, he was appointed special representative for the peace-brokering quartet of the US, European Union, UN and Russia. His apparent qualilfications—being George Bush’s “poodle” since 2001.

Essayist Tom Fenton writes, “When it comes to dealing with the Arab-Israeli problem, the Bush administration is living in another world. It blithely ignores the realities of the Middle East and seems to make policy in a vacuum. It looks clueless.

Take the decision to back Tony Blair as the new envoy of the international “quartet” on the Middle East, with the mission to strengthen the Palestinian Authority. It makes sense for the United States, the United Nations, Europe and Russia to have a high profile representative, but the outgoing British prime minister has the wrong profile. His enthusiastic participation in the invasion of Iraq and unquestioning backing of President Bush’s failed Middle East policy have stripped him of credibility with the Arab public.”

You think? Just politics as usual on the global stage.

Hated by the world

It’s amazing how quickly some people piss away the goodwill of others. Take George Bush. After the events of September 11, 2001, most of the world was united in sympathy for the U.S., although a new book, by Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes show that resentment towards America was simmering just below the surface.

The Pew Global Attitudes Project is the largest ever series of multinational surveys focusing on worldwide issues. Begun in June 2001 with a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts, the intent was to conduct an international survey on globalization and democratization. However, the events of September 11th changed the focus of the report. The shift became, how is America is perceived abroad and global attitudes toward the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

The project revealed that just one year later, in December, 2002, the image of the U.S. was slipping, although goodwill remained strong towards our country. By June of 2003, with the U.S. firmly entrenched in a global “war on terrah,” the U.S. image was in the toilet. So much for “winning hearts and minds," eh?”

Who needs this life when you can have Second Life?

I’ve been hearing a lot about Second Life, the 3-D virtual world developed by Linden Research. The downloadable program allows users, referred to as “residents, to interact with each other through motional avatars, providing an advanced level of a social network service combined with general aspects of a metaverse. Residents can explore, meet other residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, create and trade items (virtual property) and services from one another.

While still in its infancy, Second Life has been showing up frequently in mainstream news stories in USA Today, BusinessWeek, as well as a feature last week on NPR.

I had my first guided tour last night, courtesy of good friend Jonathan Braden, designer and member of the RiverVision Press ancillary family. Sitting on his deck, nursing a couple of Gritty Summer Ales, fireflies flitting around us, it provided an interesting juxtaposition between the real world and the virtual frontier. More to come on that front.

Hotter than a _________ (you fill in the blank)

Even here in the northernmost reaches of New England, we have weather that visitors from southern climes would consider hot—usually, these doggish days occur in late July, or August—not the end of June. Makes one consider mixing a G & T, Wisdom Weasel-style.

Busier week than normal; hope to be back with an extended post over the weekend.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Black Fly Loop

[Mt Abram Regional High School]

[Sugarloaf; where the beautiful people come to visit; also, one of the area's major employers]

[A Logging truck, sans his load]

[One of many "swamp donkeys" you'll see in your travels in N. Franklin Cty]

[Downtown Rangeley; another popular four-season tourist destination]

One of the best parts of my job is the unique, passionate people I get to meet and partner with, working in the context of workforce development. Secondly, the five counties that I cover in Area III are some of the most beautiful and also some of the most interesting rural areas in the state.

Franklin County, which most people know from driving through Farmington, on their way to ski areas in Rangeley, or Kingfield, is like the flyover country of the Midwest. People think of it as merely territory on the way to a destination, or a place to get gas or a quick bite. Rarely do these visitors care to understand the complexities that make up rural counties like Franklin, or really get to know the people who live and work there.

In my own work life, much of my focus in Franklin centers in Farmington and I rarely get much further north than the county’s largest town and center of commerce. Friday was different, however.

I first met Gary Perlson when we were panelists at a MELMAC conference forum, last fall. We had the opportunity to chat briefly and find out that we both were parents of Wheaton College graduates. In talking with Gary and hearing him present, I made a mental note that here was one passionate dude, with an obvious vitality and energy that is immediately obvious when you meet him.

Gary has been one of the driving forces behind the Franklin County Community College Network, bringing community college classes to Franklin County. In addition, Gary is also the Director of Adult and Community Education at MSAD 58/Mt Abram Community Education Center, in Salem Township.

I have been given an opportunity, in my role with the Local Workforce Investment Board, to write a semi-regular feature in a new publication for Franklin County, called The Daily Bulldog. My first article in the monthly print edition (they also produce a daily online edition capturing what’s happening in one of Maine’s more vibrant rural counties in the state) was on the WorkReady Credential Program, of which I’ve been active partner in various collaborations since last fall. For my next assignment, I am going to tackle the network that is helping to expand educational opportunities for all of the county’s residents, by offering community college classes, in partnership with Central Maine Community College.

To many folks, particularly those who live in Portland and points south, Farmington would be considered rural Maine personified. As a true Mainer, let me tell you, Farmington is not rural and in fact, to many other residents of Franklin County, Farmington receives far too much focus and represents an “elitist” element that isn’t representative of the rest of the county, particularly the northern regions of Franklin County.

Both Gary and Kirsten Brown Burbank, Gary’s Assistant Director, were very gracious hosts for my Friday visit. Gary and I spent time talking about the genesis of the network that has become Franklin County Community College Network. He also spent some time talking about Mt Abram Regional High School, where the Community Education Center is housed.

It was apparent in speaking to Gary and hearing some of the stories about the school and the work that he and Kirsten do that this is one of the top high schools in Maine and not only Maine, but the U.S. Not only that—it may have one of the prettiest locales of any high school anywhere.

MSAD 58 was formed in 1966, comprising the communities of Avon, Kingfield, Stratton, Strong, Phillips, Eustis and unorganized townships, like Salem, a result of the last major wave of school consolidation, stemming from the Sinclair Act. The current building that houses the school was officially ready for occupancy in November, 1969.

Mt Abram Regional High School is Maine’s only high school located in an unorganized township and serves an area that is half the size of Rhode Island (without any traffic lights, btw) and the average student will travel 60,000 miles during his/her four years of high school attendance.

Why Rural Schools Matter

While the state and specifically, the governor, insists that all of Maine’s budget woes will be solved by combining school districts and at least on paper, he has made a passable case for it, those of us who try to understand rural issues know that it won’t be painless, nor will it benefit all areas of Maine, particularly places like northern Franklin County.

As I’ve written before, one of the key aspects of rural schools, beyond the quality education that most provide, and often, much more cost-effectively than more populated school districts, is the community component that they represent. In rural Maine and other rural areas of the country, the local school is the community rallying point and glue that brings together folks separated by distance and remote locales. An apt illustration of this will be Mt Abram’s role in helping the area communities pay their final respects to a former student and hero, Richard Parker.

Parker, a 26-year-old soldier, from Phillips, was killed in Iraq when a roadside bomb detonated as his unit’s convoy passed. The Army National Guardsman graduated from Mt. Abram in 1999. The school gymnasium will provide a place for a community visitation on Monday and on Tuesday afternoon, 300 people will gather for a full military funeral ceremony. When I visited the school on Friday, the chairs and gymnasium had already been set up, somberly awaiting Monday night’s visitation.

If you close a school like Mt Abram, or if Mt Abram were to consolidate with Rangeley, would the sending towns and their students in the northern reaches of the county still receive the high quality education in a combined school?

Mt Abram is one of eight high schools in the state selected as part of the Great Maine Schools Project through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and The Mitchell Institute. 85 percent of Mt Abram students go on to higher education. Currently, the school has 11 students (out of a student body of just over 200) that are involved in a trades pre-apprenticeship program, learning welding and other manufacturing-specific training. Perlson and Brown Burbank have instituted an effective Pathway Partners initiative at the school, which helps raise aspirations, skills, and attitudes of MSAD 58 students and helps build a future for the area communities, as well as the local economy.

Partnering with area businesses, government and organizations like the Maine Mentoring Partnership, the MELMAC Foundation, America’s Promise and the United Way, this program provides a seamless transition from school life to a successful career/life path for every student.

What ultimately drives home the importance of the school (as if one needs any more evidence after spending time with Gary, Kirsten, or talking with the school’s principal, Jeanne Tucker), is experiencing the size of the district, or even part of the district, as I was able to do when Gary took me around the “Black Fly Loop.” The Loop took us east to Kingfield (and Sugarloaf), then north to Stratton and Eustis. We then headed southwest on Route 16 to Rangeley and then east on Route 4 through Madrid, ending at Hillbilly’s, at the Avon Mall for lunch. After enjoying good local grub at the former Beanie’s, we headed back to Salem Township, passing through downtown Phillips, before ending up back at scenic Mt. Abram.

My time with Gary and Kirsten fit very nicely with some of my recent writing and presentations that I’ve been giving. As I’ve been trying to help business leaders understand the crossroads we are at with training the current workforce, as well as tomorrow’s workers, I recognized that a small rural high school, located in Northern Franklin County is doing exactly what I’ve been talking about for the past year.

I don’t know how everything will shake out regarding school consolidation. If history is an indication, the needs of the local communities for quality education and preparing their students for the 21st century are probably at the bottom of the list. Hopefully, maybe this time, the focus will shift and end up giving precedence to the needs of local, rural people, not scoring political points and creating positive media spin for the administration in power.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A playhouse and some berries

I remember the fun we used to have, as a kids, when we’d inherit an old appliance box, or other large cardboard container and design our own funky, make-believe playhouse. Apparently, even in the midst of a plethora of gadgets, games and techno-driven toys, playhouses are still in vogue.

Kids Crooked House, a Maine-based company, located in Windham, has been building playhouses for kids since 2004.

From the company’s website, we learn that “in 2004 cousins Glen Halliday and Jeff Leighton went on a quest to find a creative playhouse that was more than a shed and less than $10,000. They found nothing. After a little research and hours of cartoons, Glen drew up the plans for a playhouse that looked like it was built by a cartoon character. The drawing had angled walls, crooked windows, and a twisted roof. Many angled cuts later, the first Kids Crooked House was born."

Now, these Maine entrepreneurs are finalists in Yahoo!'s Ultimate Connection Contest, after being chosen from among 9,000 entries. If they win, they’ll receive a marketing makeover worth over $100,000. Don't forget to vote for the Maine guys!

While Haliday and Leighton’s business is on the way up, another local entrepreneur seems to have fallen off the map.

Susan Eminger, creator of the immensely popular dessert-stuffed berries that led her company, Eminger Berries to be featured on Paula Dean’s Home Cooking, on the Food Network and in Dean’s son’s cookbook, is closing down her Auburn operation and moving to Texas.

According to this morning’s Lewiston Sun-Journal, a city official, who spoke to Eminger on Wednesday, stated that Eminger Berries has “closed and, she (Eminger) is moving to Texas.” The official refused to give a reason for the closure and move, “out of respect to her.”

Eminger was one of eight local entrepreneurs on a panel I moderated back in March, at the Afox Small Business Conference. Like many of the entrepreneurs on the panel, which included Fuel’s Eric Agren, Eminger was very forthright in sharing with the audience the joys and also the pitfalls of entrepreneurship and life as a small businessperson.

The Sun-Journal article spoke with Jeremy Usher, from Firefly, in Damariscotta who said that a Google trends report on June 3rd listed Eminger Berries as 15th as the most searched phrase on Google. The 14th most-searched phrased happened to be “The Soprano’s Last Episode.”

Usher is quoted in the article as saying, “She seems to have vanished without a trace to most people.”

Entrepreneurship is fraught with pitfalls. Building a brand and delivering a product, even after reaching that elusive goal of popularity and success, doesn’t necessarily mean that things get easier.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Is manufacturing still a viable economic option?

Manufacturing’s death has been predicted by the media, economic experts and government bean counters for more than twenty years. While the U.S. has seen the number of manufacturing jobs decline since their peak in the mid-1970s, American manufacturing continues to keep its head above water and in some cases, is experiencing significant growth in sales, burgeoning export figures and upward trending capitalization numbers.

As we sail forward in the “flat world” of Friedman, rather than fall off the edge the earth, we seem to be finding new market frontiers for U.S.-manufactured products. In the June 25, 2007 issue of BusinessWeek, in their Business Outlook section, there is a brief about upward trends in global capacity, tight overseas job markets, combining with the weaker dollar, which should translate into higher U.S. export activity. This could help close our nation’s trade gap and boost U.S. economic growth for the first time in decade.

So, as we surge into the 21st century, should Maine build economic growth around the tried and true manufacturing model? The state certainly has some precision manufacturing firms that are increasing capacity, while paying very well. CNC machinists can pull down in excess of $50K/year and skilled metal fabricators can make in excess of $60,000. Rather than hitch our state’s economic wagon to big-box development, maybe someone in Augusta should at least lend an ear to advocates of manufacturing in the state, since manufacturing firms in Maine supply the aircraft, aerospace and aviation industries, to name a few and also provide cutting edge components for biotechnology and healthcare.

Michael Porter, the “guru” who leads the Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness, based at Harvard Business School, has written extensively on the ability of states and regions of the U.S. to compete globally. Porter’s work, which centers on clusters—geographically concentrated groups of interconnected companies, universities, and related institutions that arise out of linkages or externalities across industries.

In addition to Porter’s work on clusters, is the research that he has led in the area of competitiveness in rural regions of the U.S., of which very little research has been done.

While much of our policy, particularly at the national level, but unfortunately, also at the state government level, is concerned with urban economies, or worse, not much more than the small world that exists between their office and parking garage, rural economies need attention beyond giving away the farm to the next Wal-Mart that wants to come to town.

From ISC’s report released in 2004, on rural economies, Porter and his researchers write,

“Current policies to improve the disappointing economic performance of rural regions are, by and large, not working. This is increasingly the consensus among policy makers across political parties, not only in the United States but also in many other countries around the globe. Not only is the performance of rural regions lagging, but the gap in performance levels between rural and urban areas seems to be widening. This state of affairs exists despite significant efforts to boost rural regions through a wide variety of policies with budgets of billions of dollars in the United States alone.

The failure of current policies for rural regions has many costs: First, it draws on limited government resources at a time of budget deficits and cuts in spending. With many other competing demands on public sector funds, policies that fail to generate results are getting increasingly hard to defend.

Second, rural counties account for 80% of land area, and 20% of U.S. population. Weak performance in rural regions retards national productivity and national prosperity, and fails to effectively utilize the nation’s resources. As the growth of the U.S. workforce slows, making all parts of the economy productive is an important priority.

Third, the inability of rural areas to achieve their potential leads to an inefficient spatial distribution of economic activity in the United States. Activities that could be performed more efficiently in rural areas either migrate offshore or add to the congestion of urban

Fourth, weak rural performance creates demands for interventions that threaten to erode the incentives for productive economic activity. The lack of competitiveness of rural economies has been a prominent cause of agricultural subsidies as well as import barriers that hurt the U.S. position in the international trading system without addressing the underlying challenges rural regions face.”

These broad conclusions about rural economic development are , by and large, not surprising. The United States has the need and the opportunity to lead in this field. Advances in thinking on competitiveness and regional economic development over the last decade provide an opportunity to now examine rural regions in new ways.”

Since most of Maine would fall into Porter’s classification of rural, his work takes on added importance for the long term economic well-being and seems worthy of at least some consideration by those in charge of economic development in the state.

From Porter's work at the ISC, to some of the findings of the Brookings Report, it's obvious to many that one-size-fits-all economic develoment models won't work. We need to find areas of strength, particularly areas where Maine and other rural areas can compete in a global economy. Regardless of your views on globalization, it's here to stay and we've got to find ways to adapt. Strengthening and adding needed skills to the workforce is a start and supporting clusters that can remain competitive, or find new markets for their products is another.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

RiverVision does it again!

RiverVision Press, "Maine's Unique Small Press," announces the release of its newest title, T.W. Moore's I Love Today--Musings From New England.

Ever since I returned from my sojourn to NW Indiana, I've been in full-blown production mode, readying our latest title for release.

For those unfamiliar with publishing, particularly small press publishing, you can't fully appreciate all the details that go into releasing a book.

Until I took up the mantle of publisher, mostly by necessity, in order to release my first book, I wasn't aware all the minutia that goes into readying a book for printing.

From ISBN numbers, to copy editing, writing back cover copy, designing a cover that will entice readers to pick up your book, through the actual layout, reading and re-reading proofs, to selecting a printer, it takes real attention to detail to do it right. In addition, you have to be able to market your book, so readers will know about it and if you are a small press publisher, you need to be able to do that marketing on a shoestring.

I'm pleased to be releasing Mr. Moore's book and initial interest from bookstores has been gratifying. Much of that interest comes from cultivating relationships with my independent stores, as well as the chain stores, like Borders, which are quite supportive of local books; this is helpful when you are small and trying to maximize options.

Not only has RiverVision Press doubled its catalog, but we are turning two-years-old on Friday.

To celebrate the new book, we will be holding a book release event in Lewiston, on Saturday, June 23rd, at Percy's Burrow, 20 East Avenue. Mr. Moore will be reading from the book, as well as signing copies of the new book, from 4 to 6 pm. Afterwards, we'll be holding an after-party at the RiverVision Press compound, in Durham.

Hope some of our local friends can make it out and meet our newest author.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The garden plot

[The "Mayor," overseeing the manor]

[Mary doing some planting the old-fashioned way]

[Man's best friend, at least when it comes to backs]

[Garden plot with tomatoes, squash, carrots, kale, spinach and green beans]

[The herb garden, for what ails 'ya]

Mary and I (and of course, “the Mayor,” aka, Bernie) braved Saturday’s heavy morning mist and did a yeoman’s worth of work out in the yard and garden. Despite a forecast for rain on Saturday, we decided that the absence of rain, early in the morning presented a window of opportunity that could best be filled with the tasks at hand—mowing the lawn, prepping the soil for the herb garden and then later, sans the predicted deluge, picking up the rototiller at our niece’s house and going to town on our little plot, where we usually have our summer vegetable garden.

We had our first garden, back in the summer of 2001. Tired of talking about having a garden and wanting to grow something on our own, without relying on the supermarket, we prepped a small 12 X 20 foot area, erected a simple mesh fence to keep the critters out and our foray into growing our own food began.

Because we composted our own kitchen scraps and had a pretty good pile of organic material, filled with nutrients, we opted to go fertilizer-free with our garden. We’ve maintained the garden free of chemicals and fertilizers ever since.

While our garden is small and doesn’t yield enough to sustain our needs, it is a great supplement to supermarket produce. In fact, not only does it provide us with some wonderfully delicious and healthy vegetables, by supplementing our own yield with various farmer’s markets and roadside produce stands, the summer months provide us with a cornucopia of locally-grown foods. Additionally, I feel that gardening is symbolic and helps us reconnect with the earth, which I think is vitally important to our physical, psychic and spirtitual health. On a practical level, knowing how to grow one’s own food may become increasingly important in light of global events and the predictions of some that we cannot sustain our current way of life much longer, as society is currently configured.

There is something that happens when you are out digging in the dirt, smelling the rich aroma of the soil, getting it caked on your hands and under your fingernails. It helps you to recognize the labor required, or, in lieu of labor, the energy, almost always in the form of oil that it requires to produce our foods and truck them to markets, where we can buy them. Even produce and other items obtained at the local organic market requires large outlays of energy to get them to us.

Particularly pertinent to a discussion of growing your own food, are the recent revelations that pet food and now, human food, originating in China, have been contaminated, exposing the vulnerability of our food supply. In addition to contaminated food, is the question of availability of food, in light of corn being turned into ethanol to run our automobiles, which is having the affect of causing many other food products to escalate in price.

While a small garden plot won’t save the planet, it at least is a positive step in the right direction. Knowing where your food comes from is the first step in being more conscious about the issues that surround the politics of food, food security and it lessens our dependency, even in the smallest of ways, upon corporations for our survival.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

A few more photos from Friday night

[Lara answering questions from the audience]

[Greeting her fans and signing copies of her book]

[Two writers talking craft]

[A photo snapped with the famous author]

Friday night book event

[Books, Etc., A Great Local Bookstore]

I haven’t been to an author’s event in quite some time. When I was finding my way as a writer, I was a regular at these events, hoping some kernel of wisdom would fall from the lips of that night’s author and would launch my sputtering writing career. Over time, I came to realize that success with my writing would only occur by practice, which meant to write at any opportunity I could find.

Once I published my own book, writer’s events became a chance to meet other writers and talk a bit about the craft and spend time with a group of peers, which is an opportunity that doesn’t always present itself.

Recently, I struck up a correspondence with a writer, who grew up in Maine, but now lives in the writing mecca of New York City. Lara Tupper, who hails from Boothbay, was giving a reading at one of Maine’s great local bookstores, Books Etc., on Exchange Street in Portland.

Having become a frequenter of MySpace, primarily to make some contacts and network, I had run across Lara and her book, A Thousand and One Nights, which is a fictional account of a young entertainer, just out of college, who lands a gig as an entertainer on a luxury cruise liner. The Maine connection immediately caught my eye and I inquired about having her endorse RiverVision Press’s latest book. Unfortunately, due to contractual issues, Lara wasn’t able to lend an endorsement for the book’s jacket, but she was gracious enough to offer a blurb on RiverVision’s behalf, to post via our website and/or use on any promotional material.

In a world of wannabes and poseurs, who pull rank and whose 15 minutes seem like an eternity, Lara came across as genuine and approachable, taking the time to call me and explain why she couldn’t endorse the book. This really showed her class and impressed me a great deal. When I received her email, announcing upcoming book events in Maine, I jotted the Friday night event in Portland on my calendar, with a commitment to be there, if at all possible.

In my new job, I find that I rarely get to Portland, after having spent a lot of time there over much of the past 15 years, with work, going out with my wife to movies, or cultural events, as well as being involved in a variety of activist organizations based in town.

It was nice walking around the Old Port, prior to the 7 pm reading, seeing the younger set, juggling and engaged in various performances in Tommy’s Park, listening to guitar players busking on the sidewalks, as well as sensing the palpable energy of the beginning of another Friday night of partying and merrymaking for many.

I arrived at Books Etc., just prior to 7 and chatted a bit with the bookstore staff. Always one of my favorite local bookstores, I had soured a bit on the store when I had some difficulty getting my own book into both the Portland and Falmouth stores. What I found out, only recently, is that I had been going through the wrong channels and all is now well between the store and RiverVision Press.

Lara was chatting with family and friends when I arrived. I introduced myself and she was very friendly and gracious, going out of her way to introduce me to her Mom, as well as other friends. While people occasionally leave Maine and acquire the traits and attitudes of their new home, it was obvious that Lara still possessed the ways of the Pine Tree State.

She spent about 20 minutes, or so, reading from the book, which sounds very interesting and should make for an interesting summer read and could very well end up being reviewed in the not-too-distant future, over at Write in Maine, as one of my summer beach books.

Always a sucker to know more about my favorite musicians, athletes and writers, I welcomed the question and answer time and Lara took a number of questions. One gentleman asked a couple of interesting questions, one in particular, which pertained to place and since she now lives “away,” did this negate her sense of Maine being home for her? Lara talked about people having a need to go away, to see other places, but she said that for her, this didn’t mean she had lost her sense that Maine is home, for her, which proves that you really can go home, again. The time she spent answering questions and talking to those in attendance revealed a very engaging writer, who really connects with her readers.

A Thousand and One Nights is somewhat autobiographical, in that Lara’s first job out of college was as a lounge singer on a cruise ship and she ended up doing this line of work for nearly 10 years. A Wesleyan grad, who did a MFA stint at Warren Wilson College, in North Carolina, she’s currently teaching writing at Rutgers University, in NYC and already planning a follow-up book to her successful debut novel. The new book will be historical fiction and will be based on the life of the wife of Paul Gauguin, which will be remarkably different than her first book and shows her obvious versatility as a writer.

I really enjoyed meeting Lara, hearing her read, as well as getting an autographed copy of One Thousand and One Nights, which is at the top of my “books to read” list for the summer.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

American justice

With so many on the far right, clamoring for stronger immigration policies, fences and even mass deportation, it’s not a good time to be an immigrant, legal, or illegal, seeking a better life for yourself, or your family, here in the U.S.A.

According to Think Progress, a political appointee of the Bush administration has emerged as a central figure in the politicization of the Justice Department, particularly relating to policies on immigration.

Back in 2006, on the eve of the presidential election, Schlozman brought felony indictments against four members of ACORN, a respected organization committed to social justice issues, serving the needs of low and moderate-income individuals. ACORN’s track record shows a history of organizing and carrying out successful campaigns for better housing, schools, neighborhood safety, health care, job conditions, and more, certainly not the stuff worthy of law enforcement interdiction—unless social justice now is considered a criminal act in the Bush dystopia.

At the time of their indictment, the ACORN workers were conducting voter drives, registering low-income and minority voters, who historically, happen to vote for Democrats, not right-wing fascists like George Bush. Coincidence?

During testimony before a Senate Committee, investigating issues at the DOJ, Schlozman labeled groups like MALDEF and NAPABA, as “liberal,” when in fact, they don’t have any of the typical ideological orientation that right-wing groups like Heritage and the Federalist Society do, as pointed out by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

In his position as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, Schlozman oversees a staff of 119, including 59 attorneys and 60 non-attorney support personnel. The district is headquartered in Kansas City, with staffed branch offices in Springfield and Jefferson City. The district is comprised of 66 of Missouri’s 114 counties, and encompasses the metropolitan areas of St. Joseph, Columbia, Jefferson City, Springfield, Joplin and Kansas City, Mo.

The nation’s 93 United States Attorneys are responsible for the prosecution of federal crimes such as firearms, narcotics, public corruption, money laundering, child pornography and fraud; the defense of civil cases brought against the United States; and the collection of debts owed to the United States and restitution owed by criminals to their victims.

The voter fraud charges against ACORN, were dismissed.

The Bush administration and its Department of Justice fired eight U.S. attorneys in December, eliciting charges from opponents that they were politically motivated.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Faith and politics

Jim Wallis of Sojourners, is someone I respect. I don't necessarily hold his views on theology, even though they are left of center and at least somewhat less strident than the current "Left Behind" theology, currently in vogue and in power.

For the last 20 years, thanks to Falwell and Co., who like Reagan, was awarded a free pass in death, by the sycophantic MSM, religion, particularly when it pertains to politics, has been heavy on hellfire, damnation and judgement, rather than focusing on the social justice and elements of the redemption story that at one time was much more common in our country.

For most Americans, who've allowed the debate on religion to be highjacked by fascists like James Dobson, the aforementioned Falwell, Pat Robertson and columnists like Cal Thomas, the civic religion of the far right has come to define presidential politics. Forced to pass a religious litmus test on issues like abortion, prayer in school and sexual orientation, candidates have been cowed by Dobson and his Family Research Council and others like Chuck Colson whose orientations leans heavily towards theocracy and ridicules a more pluralistic view of faith. During the Bush reign, these religious fascists have set the tone and agenda on all issues pertaining to spirituality. Chris Hedges, in his book, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, draws striking parallels between 20th-century totalitarian movements and the highly organized, well-funded "dominionist movement," an influential theocratic sect within the country's huge evangelical population.

The dominionists, with a theology firmly rooted in a radical Calvinism, have wrapped their apocalyptic, vehemently militant, sexist and homophobic vision in patriotic and religious rhetoric. These far right groups seek absolute power in a Christian state. Hedges's book is a powerful and eye-opening read, even for those who purport to having an understanding of American fundamentalism.

I had received Wallis' email from Sojourners, a religious group that I still receive information from, primarily via their email list. Receiving the email, promoting the "Faith and Politics" feature on CNN, I thought I'd tune in. Mentioning that the candidates would be discussing their views on poverty, I decided, despite my tightly packed schedule, to at least have the TV on, as I worked, prepping for my upcoming book release.

Sadly, CNN and in particular, Paula Zahn, managed to miss the mark regarding the amalgamation of religion and politics, as members of the national press do, 99 percent of the time. Heavy on the hype and failing to provide any viable context for a serious issue that could have been handled much better, if CNN had a host that actually had a clue regarding spriituality. Her questioning, or better, haranguing of the candidates regarding how they handled tragedy in their lives, abortion, whether they pray and other issues that define their faith, was absolutely pathetic and exposed Zahn for the shallow talking head that she really is.

While I applaud Mr. Wallis for trying to open up a dialogue to broader theological issues, which are much more representative of Christianity and the various strains of theology that aren't as narrow and monolithic as fundamentalists would like to have you believe, his ambition got the best of him, as he should have recognized that someone like Zahn and a network, like CNN, wasn't the right vehicle for this. Someone like Bill Moyers, or another, more nuanced, sophisticated journalist might have made it more meaningful. Once again, however, a mainstream news outlet showed why this community no longer has any journalistic cred remaining.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Writing in retreat

Recently, I received an online survey, from a writers/publishers consortium that I pay membership dues to belong to. More often, than not, when I receive my membership dues notice, which is about as often as they seem to contact me, other than to infrequently solicit my input, or remind me of the many wonderful benefits they are providing me for my yearly dues, I ponder exactly what those benefits I are that I’m receiving.

Now I’m not so self-centered and self-absorbed as to dismiss that some probably benefit from my dues and derive benefits that I don’t receive, so maybe this is the altruism that’s required of me to help other authors, or publishers. But the cost/benefit ratios isn’t what I came to write.

Apparently, there is a pot of money available and this particular organization is looking at the feasibility of creating a retreat center for writers in Maine. There already exists opportunities in New England for writers to “get away” from the demands of life and focus exclusively on the writing process. In Maine, there is the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, on Deer Isle. Vermont is where you’ll find the Vermont Studio Center and there are various other opportunities for writers desiring a cloistered environment to work their craft. The University of Southern Maine runs an annual conference, The Stonecoast Writer’s Conference, held in Freeport, each summer.

Apparently, there is an audience for these types of events, centered on experts imparting their word skills and transmitting their craftsmanship to participants who come to sit reverently at their feet. I’m sure many attendees leave these retreats, better able to shape their thoughts and ideas and some probably attribute one of these experiences at a writer’s event as being instrumental in pushing them to their next plateau as a writer.

I currently lack the time, as well as the means, to take a week out of my life; even a long weekend is out of the question for me, to sit around and listen to others talk about how they do what they do and write what they write, or even, where their inspiration comes from. Don’t misunderstand. I’m not pooh-poohing those that find this helpful and at one time, I personally thought this might be the way to jumpstart my own writing, when I wasn’t sure what being a writer was.

Like many who fancied seeing themselves as a writer, I had a romantic notion of wearing that mantle. It seemed to me at the time that, at least in certain circles, being a writer carried with it a mystique and even a bit of reverence. For a period of time, I scoured the events sections of the daily newspaper and the best source of goings on around town—the free weeklies—in search of upcoming book readings and author’s events. I had the good fortune of meeting some writers, many local and heard them offer some helpful hints, but more often than not, they’d offer things that I already knew—if you want to be a writer, you ultimately need to write. Now there’s a profound statement, don’t you think?

Of late, I find myself thinking about writing and ways to improve my own craft. I’ve also been giving consideration to where I’m at on the writing continuum. While I now proudly wear the badge that says, “writer,” I’m also keenly aware what it means. My understanding of the entire culture of writing has shifted, also. Gone is my neophyte’s notion that some successful writer might be able to transfer their skills, grace with words and even success, by the process of osmosis. As Stephen King and others have written, in books aimed at getting people off the sidelines and into the realm of words and sentence construction—being a writer involves spending time writing—nothing short of this will ever yield success, no matter how minimal and fleeting that success might be.

As I’ve continued to write and publish, I find my definition of success has also undergone metamorphosis. Most, if not all writers, remember seeing their first article, poem, or essay in print, no matter how obscure the publication. Mine happened to be on the pages of a publication that has long since been defunct.

Many articles, op eds, essays and even one book later (not to mention countless blog entries), I marvel at how far I’ve come and how much I enjoy the process of writing. The experience; the ideas that swirl around in my head, demanding attention until it becomes necessary to pull over to the side of the road and scribble them hurriedly, on a notebook, scrap of paper and even receipt, for fear that they’ll depart, lost forever. Or, foregoing spending time with people that you love because, if you don’t get started on that essay rattling around in your brain, you feel like you just might jump out of your skin.

While I’ve come to fully embrace the life of a writer, the shape that the writer’s life has taken for me is remarkably different than the romantic notions I once carried around in my back pocket. Interestingly, while my life is cluttered and I have to carry a full-time job that enables me to keep my membership in the writer’s club current, I’ve come to accept my place—a writer who, rather than needing to retreat from the world, in order to write, finds a way, in the midst of bills, the cacophony and sounds of daily living and the busyness that for many is their daily bread,. keeps on writing, cranking out his thoughts, for others, but mostly for himself.

There are many other writers that forego the bucolic, rural setting, instead, choosing the environment of urban chaos, even war zones, to infuse their own writing with life and vitality. I’m currently reading a book by one writer, whose very own writing experience has been filled with blood and death, regularly seeing the subjects of his stories, snatched away. One can only do this for a time, before they must, if only for a respite, return to a saner reality, although it’s always conjecture, whether any existence in our post-modern world is ever safe to classify as sane.

There will always be writing retreats, charging people money, to listen to writers talk about their own success. People will gather, as the experts talk about how they wrote their one great book, or use their summers to supplement their teaching assignments in one of the many MFA programs that keep sprouting, like weeds between the cracks of some city sidewalk.

Life has a way of helping you sort out the things that are important. It has been said that necessity is the mother of invention. When you procrastinate and put off doing what you should have been doing much sooner, sometimes it becomes necessary to utilize your time more wisely, keep your head down and keep plowing forward, otherwise, you’ll never accomplish what you know you must, which for me, is to keep on writing.

I may never publish that one great book, or see my byline in a publication that others deem “big league,” but that’s no longer my goal. Granted, I’m not so disingenuous to say that I wouldn’t be happier than a pig in shit to see my name posted on some national best sellers list, or bylined in Rolling Stone, The Nation, or on the op ed page of the New York Times. It’s just that my focus is now on writing down what I feel I must communicate, to myself first and then, to others that might happen to stumble upon my writing.