Friday, September 28, 2007

The Beans of Maine

If Maine has an employer that is synonymous with the state, particularly to those coming from away, LL Bean would be probably be the one. The company began humbly, with Leon Leonwood Bean first developing products in his brother’s basement; later, he would open his small hunting store in Freeport. I doubt he ever imagined the company's meteoric rise, to where it sits today, as a world-renowned retailer.

More times than not, dropping an LL Bean reference elicits recognition, particularly when talking to someone in another state, or even country. Most tourists have visited Bean’s for shopping when visiting the Pine Tree State.

There’s a famous story that gets told to new hires, during orientation that might be apocryphal, but it’s been told so often that it is now considered part of the holy writ of the company.

When LL Bean developed his waterproof boot and had outgrown his brother’s basement, he acquired a small storefront in sleepy downtown Freeport. Legend has it that LL lived upstairs, above the store and had installed a bell outside the street level entrance, so when hunters came through during the night, headed north, they could ring it and he’d come down and wait on them, as they stocked up on supplies and other items for their hunting expedition.

Like many Mainers, I’ve done numerous seasonal stints for the company, picking merchandise, packing and during the winter of 2004/2005, I worked at their Peck Building phone center in Lewiston, taking calls from eager holiday customers.

This was my winter spent organizing my research and completing the final draft of my first book, When Towns Had Teams. I wrote each day from 5 am, until around noon and then headed in for the evening shift on the phones. I have fond memories of that winter stint, tired from my early hours at the keyboard, but flushed with excitement as my book took shape. This seasonal job helped supplement my meager income of that period, as I labored to get my book out the door.

The hours spent on the phones were a welcome reprieve from the isolation that accompanies the craft of writing. Many callers were thrilled to find out that they were talking to an actual Mainer, located in Lewiston, Maine. They’d ask about the weather (if it was snowing) and other aspects of Maine. While Bean’s is production conscious in all it does, it still allows phone reps the chance to chat a bit with customers. And the customers love it, too!

Maybe that’s why the company saw such strong results during their “spring season,” running from March to August. While other retailers are running flat, or even downhill with their sales, Bean’s continues to track upward, showing an eight percent increase during this period.

As a result, employees are looking at distributing $1 million in profit-sharing bonuses to employees and its customers will have free shipping on all orders until December 21st.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Will Populism still play in Peoria?

[The piece below made me decide to run a back-to-back on "Horserace '08." It was penned by Jack McEnany, editor of Lost Nation.TV, a solid political site. Plus, anyone who drops a Fightin' Bob LaFollette reference is ok in my book.-JB]

It’s impossible for a true progressive not to be moved by John Edwards’ new stump speech. We’re suckers for that Fightin’ Bob LaFollette, eat-the-rich, take back the country, kick some corporate ass oratory.

LaFollette, a Wisconsin congressman, governor, and senator once said:

“Every nation has its war party. It is not the party of democracy. It is the party of autocracy. It seeks to dominate absolutely. It is commercial, imperialistic, ruthless. It tolerates no opposition. It is just as arrogant, just as despotic, in London, or in Washington, as in Berlin. The American Jingo is twin to the German Junker…If there is no sufficient reason for war, the war party will make war on one pretext, then invent another.”

He died months after losing his presidential bid as the Progressive Party candidate in 1924. Some things never change.

My wife once said to me, Can you change the baby? And I replied, only if the baby wants to change. As much as Edwards’s extols us to change, Hillary’s popularity among Democrats indicates a strong sense of what he calls “nostalgia” for a time that never was. And he’s right. American politics, especially the presidential variety, lists hard toward the cult of personality – we’re always looking for the Kennedy, the Nixon, the Reagan, the Clinton who will fix what we don’t like about modern America. But genuine, fundamental change will take an active movement of free thinkers, not just a president friendly to the cause. A progressive leader as president would help, of course, as would a responsive congress and a media that isn’t owned and operated by the same gits we have in our cross hairs. Currently, none of these situations exists. Our best shot at any of them is electing a progressive president, if only because Bush has screwed the pooch so arrogantly and so thoroughly that the Democratic nominee has a huge advantage in this cycle. From Adlai Stevenson to George McGovern to Mike Dukakis, progressives have proven that they can deliver when the passion moves them. This time it might work in November.

There are those who will make a case of Edwards’s recent corporate dalliances (but as a trial attorney he stuck it to them good and often), he opposes gay marriage (he has a pro-choice-to-be-gay position, which misses the point), and he voted for the goddamn war (which he now freely admits was a mistake). So as Hillary’s husband used to say – don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Edwards’s domestic agenda is ambitious and necessary, and while social and economic justice issues are at the heart of left-leaning populism, so is peace. Health care is key, ending the Bush-Cheney tax cuts for the rich is duh for everyone except the top 1% and a few self-hating, middle-class Republicans, but the organizing issue of the day is Iraq. Morning in America is always a powerful trope; this time sunrise comes when the war ends.

If Edwards bangs hard on bringing the troops home now, and raises hope by offering ways to improve the deteriorating conditions of the middle and working classes, he’ll steadily pick up support. But enough to catch Hillary? Not going to be easy.

Whether Edwards can get the disaffected to vote at all, much less for him, is the question. That there are a lot more us now than there used to be works in his favor – but it’s also the subtext of Hillary’s Clinton II gambit.

Edwards needs a creative and very active voter registration drive with plenty of follow-up field and telephone contact; a fearless and aggressive GOTV team willing to drag what’s theirs to the polls, and; and an inhuman amount of retail vote trolling by Edwards between now and primary day. It’s all uphill, but as things stand, given Clinton’s commanding lead in the polls, if Obama can still win it, so can Edwards.

[Reposted from Lost Nation. TV, 2007]

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Access fees

Barack Obama is coming to Portland on Tuesday, September 25th, at 4:00 pm. He'll be speaking at one of Portland's storied venues, The Expo. In my opinion, if you have a chance to see a candidate in person, definitely take advantage of it. Often, something they say, or how they say it, can tip you off on whether or not you want him/her as your candidate for the White House.

While Obama isn't my guy (to be honest, I'm at a loss right now as to who I'd vote for, if I had to make a decision), I've somehow ended up on his fundraising list. It seems I became a target for the folks when I sent my blog/article about Gary, Indiana, along with a few suggestions I had for dealing with urban America's problems. Rather than respond, I just became another name on the list of people to target for funds.

While on the topic of fundraising, if you are planning to head down to the Expo, you better look closer at the fine print; attending this event, another one of Obama's "Countdown to Change" exercises will cost you $23.00 a pop! Apparently, just for the privilege of hearing the candidate, you've got to cough up cash, whether you've made up your mind, or not.

Now I know running for office cost boatloads of cash, but I've seen countless other candidates for free. Personally, I'm somewhat offended by being asked to pay to hear the candidate. In 2004, I saw Dennis Kucinich in Bath, John Kerry in Portland and John Kerry/John Edwards in Lewiston and I didn't have to fork over a penny. I guess it's a new day in America where access to political wannabes requires payment.

I probably would have attended the Portland event, if it was for free. But being charged to hear what the great Obama has up his sleeves for America doesn't sit well with me. Then, I hear from my wife that she got an email from the campaign, justifying their policy of charging, when she expressed similar reservations about paying for political access. I've definitely soured on Obama for 2008. In my opinion, our pickings for president are pretty slim.

Need to raise funds? Have a fundraiser and bring out your well-heeled supporters and shake them down, which is what everyone does. But don't charge admission for your first event in Maine, open to the public. It doesn't make you seem very inclusive and it does nothing to attract those on the fence who might come see you, but resent being asked to contribute to a campaign that they haven't yet decided to endorse.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Greenspan economics

If the world of economics has a rock star, or at least a name that maybe half of Americans might recognize, it would be that of Alan Greenspan. The former fed chief, firmly ensconced in retirement (or so we thought), has been making the rounds of television and radio, promoting his book, The Age of Turbulence.

For many, economics is equated with watching paint dry. If Greenspan’s interviews are any indication of the book’s content, however, The Age of Turbulence should be anything but dry reading.

Greenspan is drawing the ire of many on the right, with his blunt criticism of the current administration, laying charges at the feet of President Bush of “lacking fiscal discipline” and using monetary policy to push political agendas. Pork-barrel policies and political maneuverings have chewed up the surplus left by the Clinton administration, when they left Washington.

I’ve listened to two NPR interviews with Greenspan, one with the Terri Gross and the other with Robert Siegel. Greenspan comes across as someone who is rational and is humble enough to admit he doesn’t have all the answers. It might be those exemplary qualities that are making him persona non grata to many that make up the right-wing noise machine. Republicans of the conservative stripe don’t like to be called on their foibles, such as their own brand of anti-Robinhood income re-distribution.

A recent caller to C-Span’s Morning Journal went off on an anti-Greenspan rant, calling him a “liberal,” which in the stunted-growth world that conservatives inhabit, is the kiss of death, or so they think. It was obvious listening that this gentleman (I use that term with trepidation in this case) wasn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier and his excoriation of Mr. Greenspan was first, ironic, but even worse, in particularly bad taste. It would seem to me that a group harping on family values at every turn, might afford an 81-year-old man, who has ample life experience to back up his academic credentials, some measure of respect, just out of a sense of decorum and dignity.

Mr. Greenspan made what I thought was a particularly cogent point about the growing income disparity in our country. As a self-described, “lifelong libertarian Republican,” not averse to free market principles, he recognized that capitalism that serves only a limited segment of the population, is a bad omen for maintaining democratic ideals. While stopping short of advocating progressive taxation, I sensed that if the underlying causes of this growing chasm aren’t addressed soon, he’d be willing to consider taxation as an option, which was the most interesting part of his interview with Edwards.

Additionally, Greenspan also expressed grave concern about the growing deficit, which in his own words, “diminishes our future.” He also posited some tough sledding for baby boomers who will be retiring en masse. According to him, "We should be preparing ourselves for the retirement of the baby boomers with balanced budgets or surpluses for the difficult years ahead."

Some sentiments worth heeding, particularly for those hoping to occupy 1600 Avenue, come January of 2009.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Firing up the Pats

While I don’t consider myself a rabid football fan, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to some interest in the recent success of the Patriots. In an era when players have run roughshod over head coaches, Bill Belichick commands a certain respect from his players that today is the exception, rather than the norm. The control he exerts over his players is almost Lombardi-esque. Say what you want about fanatical coaches resembling autocratic dictators, anyone who once laced them up for an old-school coach can relate to what I’m talking about.

The world of professional sports has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. The obscene amounts of money being thrown at the players have upped the ante on performance. While the elite players of any era—Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Mantle in baseball and Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown in football—these players commanded premium salaries and drove Cadillacs. Journeymen players, however, worked at the local sporting goods store, dug ditches, or stocked grocery shelves and drove Ford Fairlanes. Today, however, even back up catchers are millionaires and have the lifestyles of the rich and famous. With the level of cash ratcheted up and the stakes that much higher, is it any wonder that players shoot themselves full of performance enhancing substances? Granted, there are a handful that don’t, but I’d be willing to wager that a good percentage do. Just look at some of the classic Sox games broadcast on NESN and compare how scrawny Yaz looked, or even Mike Greenwell and the Sox players of the 80s, compared to today’s bulked up ballplayers. We ain’t talking healthy living and antioxidants, my friend.

Which brings me to the New England Patriots and Bill Belichick. If I had my druthers, I would rather that the dirt on one of the all-time great head coaches in NFL history remained tucked conveniently under the carpet, rather than shouted from every sports desk across the country. What us New Englanders sometimes forget, who have suffered long, quaffing the bitters that come with epochs seasoned with losing, in both baseball and football, is now that we’ve feasted on the spoils that come with a few championships, many others have come to despise our newfound success. While we loathe the Yankees and have grown to despise Manning and Co., our own teams, particularly the Patriots, have become the hated. Hence, it’s with a great deal of gloating and finger-pointing that Belichick’s revelation that he has feet of clay, or better, can be tempted to gain the upper hand by taping other team’s signals (which I’m sure is happening all over the league), is being seized upon by fans from the other 31 cities. Many biased fans, in fact are saying that the Pats success stems directly from cheating. Those that say that know very little about the complexities of the game—than again, I did weigh in on the intelligence of the average sports fan, didn’t I?

If Sunday’s rout of San Diego is any indication, the Pats would have been better off, being left alone to grow complacent. Hitting at their pride might be a dangerous thing, particularly when veteran players like Teddy Bruschi are fired up about the accusations that their prior success might be tainted.

"This might be the most satisfying win of all," said an emotional Tedy Bruschi. "I've never been in a situation where people were doubting us, our integrity. I care about that logo, as much as anyone in here. And I care about how we're perceived. What we do is win football games. What we did tonight speaks volumes about who we are."

Bruschi later on said, "Yeah, that's probably what bothered me the most," he said. "Something like this happens, and all of a sudden, what, we're less of a team? What did you see out there tonight? That's who we are."

It appears that the hornet’s nest has been upset and the hornets are ready to do some buzzing.

For more on the players taking up for their coach, here's an article by Tom Pedulla, in USA Today.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Our Daily Bread

Issues around our food—local vs. corporate sources and the nature of how and where it’s grown—may represent some of the most basic and yet, important questions we can address as Americans and/or westerners. Discussions about how our food gets on our plates (or into the polystyrene containers at McDonalds) get to the very basics of where we are at and where we might be heading, as we plow deeper into the 21st century.

For nearly three years, I’ve been receiving periodic emails and updates from the Slow Food Portland email group that I’ve been a member of. While I’m not terribly active in the group, particularly now that my daily orbit finds me north of Portland most of the time, Monday through Friday, the information that comes across the transom via this group is rarely not worthwhile. The periodic events that I hear about are always worth considering. Too often, I’m not able to attend. Last night, however, Mary and I finally were able to get out to one and it was wonderful.

Brunswick’s Frontier Café, along with Crystal Spring Farm, also in Brunswick, hosted a Food + Journey Tour and Picnic Dinner, held at Crystal Spring (part of the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust).

Our connection with Crystal Spring comes from Mary’s regular trips to the farm nearly each Saturday for their abundant and varied farmer’s markets that are held there. Featuring many local growers and other food vendors, this has become one of our favorite sources for locally grown food. When I received the Slow Food email, it seemed like a logical thing to do, seeing we had nothing on the calendar, to get out into nature and learn a little more about one of our food sources. Plus, the thought of meeting other people who probably shared some of the same values we had around food was also a selling point.

The weather couldn’t have been any better. Arriving just before the start of the tour, the late day sun shown brightly over the green fields, pregnant with the abundance of the farm's rich late summer cash crops. The crisp, fall-like air, requiring a jacket or sweater, seemed fitting and harvest-like, creating the perfect arena for our walk across the grounds and out into the growing portion of the farm.

The farm’s manager, Seth Kroeck, along with two other local growers, provided a low-key, but informative environment for learning more about local food production. For anyone without knowledge of where thier food is grown and what’s involved, this was a great introduction. For others, like my wife and I—amateur growers, but learning all the time—it was a chance to acquire an even better understanding of what local agriculture is and what it means for our area. It also helped to validate many of the conscious decisions we’ve made over the last decade to support local farmers, ranging from buying local, at supermarkets, farmer’s markets and food stands, our participation in two CSA’s, as well as frequenting restaurants and others that support local food producers.

Kroeck, a very unassuming host and soft-spoken, gave a good overview of what life as a small local farmer is like. He talked about the growing process, how he’s added sheep to the farm and the role that animals play in farming, as well as touching on some of the bigger issues related to organic entities, like Whole Foods and others and the potential issues local farmers are facing in selling their food and making a living from the land.

Two other local farmers, Nate Drummond and Gabrielle Gosselin, from Six River Farm, in Bowdoinham, were along on the tour. These two farmers, just completing their first year running their own operation, are farming a parcel of land on what was once Harry Prout’s farm, on Merrymeeting Bay. When Prout got too old to farm, about a decade ago, his land was acquired by a gentleman who wanted to keep this rich parcel of land in production and more specifically, given to organic farming practices. Through Maine FarmLink, which is a farm transfer program that connects farmers seeking farmland with retiring Maine farmers and farm owners who wish to see their agricultural lands remain active, Nate and Gabrielle were able to locate this small, six-acre parcel of land, where they are growing organic vegetables. They also participate in the Saturday farmer’s market that is held at Crystal Spring, bringing their produce and connecting with local people who value locally-grown food. They represent what Maine FarmLink’s intent has been—to stem the tide of sprawl and maintain the state’s agricultural heritage for now and hopefully, the future.

The tour alone would have been worth the trip, but upon returning to the barn, a feast fit for a king had been prepared by Finn MacDonald, Frontier’s arts and events director and Loryn Kipp, who is the Café’s food director and heads up outreach, like this Food + Journey.

From the start, which consisted of fresh, organic carrots, halfed, for dipping in a wonderful, homemade, ranch-style dip, to bread and cheese, to the main course of beef and lamb burgers, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, various chutneys, pickled beets, washed down with organic wine, beer, or just plain water, this was a great way to end the evening.

What was particularly gratifying for Mary and I and I think the 25, or so other people who participated, was the conversations that were struck up, by previous strangers, around food, its production and the accompanying issues associated with this topic. We met other writers, teachers, people who had come to Maine from other states and even countries (New Zealand). There was a couple from Damariscotta, who are documentary filmmakers, in the midst of producing a film about local food and all its attendant issues.

In an era when community, centered around food and conversation doesn’t happen enough, I felt fortunate that Mary and I had availed ourselves of this wonderful opportunity. I know we came away enriched and satiated. Better yet, we got to connect a little more with people who share similar values.

[The only “downside” of the entire evening was that I didn’t bring my camera to capture a few photos and in particular, the breathtaking vista we got to view on our walk back to the barn, at dusk. Oh well—there will be future opportunities to do some shutterbugging—JB]

Monday, September 10, 2007

Pining for the Pine Tree State

There is really something unique about Maine. Yes, our wages are too low and depending on the statistics you use to boost your ideological bent, our taxes are too high. If you send regular checks to the Maine Heritage Policy Center, in your opinion, they are the sole reason Maine lags behind the rest of the nation. For some of us, lagging behind isn’t necessarily a bad thing, when it comes to crime, population density, or even shopping malls (save for southern Maine).

Many times, natives don’t realize what they have. Oh, our state is far from perfect that’s for sure. But, we are a hell of a lot more pristine and have a measure of life quality that most points south of here don’t have. For many locals however, it’s become a classic case of “you don’t know what you got, ‘til it’s gone.” Some bitch and complain about the Pine Tree State, but when viewed from afar (or from a plane, upon one’s return), it’s not out of the ordinary to find oneself reciting Dorothy’s mantra, “there’s no place like home.”

While the Brookings-Growsmart on the state indicated that many Mainers had an overriding sense of negativity, many that come here “from away” appreciate what our state has to offer—often more so than those who’ve never been anywhere else.

It is easy to get “tunneled in” and taken by naysayers, but time away, particularly in an urban setting, makes one appreciate the return passage north, high above the Piscataqua to life, the way it should be.

Katherine Lesser’s op ed in yesterday’s Maine Sunday Telegram illustrates my point. I’m not sure where Ms. Lesser grew up, but she obviously had familiarity with Maine. She mentions reading Edna St. Vincent Millay as a teenager. As an adult, she found herself settled in Brooklyn, yet longing for a way to call our state home.

Ms. Lesser writes, “Many years of going to alumni reunions at Bowdoin (her husband graduated from Bowdoin) and vacationing in Maine followed. Many of these vacations were six- day sailing trips on Penobscot Bay. We sailed out of Rockland on the schooner Heritage.

Happy days on the Heritage included mornings observing a pair of loons, eagle parents feeding their young in their nest and glorious evening sunsets. Each night was spent in a quiet and beautiful cove. We took a trip Down East, to Lubec and Eastport, and visited Campobello Island. A highlight was an overnight in Machias, where we saw nesting eagles on the Machias River.

Driving to Maine, we would take a deep breath as we were leaving New York City to stop briefly in Connecticut, coast through Massachusetts and become eager as we arrived in Portsmouth, N.H. As we crossed the Piscataqua River bridge into Kittery, I always let out a cheer. I breathed better, and my skin felt different.”

She goes on to recount finally being able to move to Maine and settle in Portland. Friends and colleagues in New York, as well as locals, ask her why she chose to move to Maine? As if living in an urban setting is all that life’s about.

Interestingly, the trolls that comment via online forums (anonymously, I might add) have begun weighing in with vitriol, intimating that people like Ms. Lesser, choosing to settle in Maine“from away,” somehow are a bad thing.

While there are those who choose to come here from elsewhere and discount the culture and heritage of Maine and attempt to quash and quell local customs, I don’t see that being the case with this woman. In fact, it’s interesting, but I meet people all the time that are helping to preserve the culture of rural Maine and other areas of the state and more times than not, I find out that they came to the state from somewhere else and fell in love with it just the way it is.

I’m learning that not everyone who moves here from somewhere else is an enemy to our state and in fact, many people that have lived here forever are more apt to be part of the problem, rather than the solution.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Karl Hess and the political spectrum

On Saturday, I happened to have the television on, watching C-Span's Washington Journal program. The host was taking calls from only Republican callers on the topic of the party and a series of moderate (read, sane) Republicans called in. One of them made reference to Karl Hess, a key 60s political figure who I knew nothing about.

I spent a bit of time reading about Hess, who was an interesting figure, who swung from far right, to the far left, while in his 40s.

In the course of my research, ran across this older post on Wally Conger's blog, which is worth reading, if you have any interest in the whole left/right debate. Certainly, given that we're about a year away from selecting another president, I think it's worth pondering. Anyone else?