Thursday, March 29, 2007

Plan B X 2

Does changing the world require high-minded, top down solutions, or can regular, ordinary people make a difference? Is it possible to envision and begin working towards eliminating war, inequality, or at the very least, bad television, from our realities?

While that first paragraph certainly has a high-minded tone and a certain liberal arrogance to some, that’s not my intention at all. Rather, I wanted to highlight a couple of people—one whose book I recently read—the other, a speaker I happened to catch briefly, on NPR’s Cambridge Forum. Both offered a perspective and some practical ways of coping that parallel shifts in my own way of thinking about issues and the world I live in.

My life has been really busy of late. This is an exciting period for me on several fronts. I am being pushed to prioritize my time and be very protective of it, almost to the point of being selfish. At the same time, I’ve become more conscious of the value of time. One of my challenges has been finding pockets of opportunity to read. One thing I’ve been doing is waking up ½ hour earlier and reading for 30 minutes when I get up, rather than waiting until the end of the day, when I’m much more likely to fall asleep, with the book resting on my chest. I have also become more selective of what I read. I’m moving beyond negative screeds and trying to find books that help me to vision, or see things in a new way I also am seeking books that reinforce values that are central to who I am. Anne Lamott’s Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, is one of those books.

For those who’ve never read Lamott, you’ve missed out on one of America’s special writers. This 50-year-old, dreaded (as in d-locks) and irreverent to the core, stays firmly grounded in the 21st century, but is not afraid to carry her readers back to a time like the 60s, when people still dared to dream and imagine a better way. Not so full of herself as to deny the hopelessness of living in the time of Bush, when at any moment, our dictator of a president could bring a hard rain down on the heads of all Americans on the basis of his “Left Behind” eschatology, Lamott still finds a way to invoke hope and laughter and sometimes tears and honestly shares her life and own unique brand of spirituality with her readers.

In talking about living at such a time as this (the beginning of the second Bush term, when the book was being written), Lamott writes about being at her rope’s end with the thought of four more years of GW. Here is an example of her style and tenor of writing.

“Hadn’t the men in the White House ever heard of the word karma? They lied their way into taking our country to war, crossing another country’s borders with ferocious military might, trying to impose our form of government on a sovereign nation, without any international agreement or legal justification, and set about killing the desperately poor on behalf of the obscenely rich. Then we’re instructed, like naughty teenagers, to refrain from saying it was an immoral war that set a disastrous precedent—because to do so is to offer aid and comfort to the enemy.”

Then her Jesuit friend, Father Tom, whom Lamott describes as a “scruffy, aging, Birkenstock type” calls her to wish her “Happy Birthday” and Lamott “unloads the truck” on poor Father Tom lamenting, “How are we going to get through this craziness?” And like so much of the book, which dispenses with sermonizing and holier-than-thou pontificating and instead, offers grounded advice and old-fashioned common sense, well-written with heavy dollops of gallows humor, the advice coming from Lamott’s friend and spiritual advisor, Father Tom is simple and yet, profound:

“Left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe,” says Father Tom.

Sometimes, Father Tom’s type of advice is all we can get our minds around in our crazy world.

Later in the book, she writes about a trip she made to San Quentin, that hellhole of a prison that epitomizes our nation’s “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” brand of prisoner rehabilitation. She’s been invited to come and teach the prisoners how to tell stories and decides to bring along a friend and fellow storyteller.

Anne recounts the experience of she and Neshama, a grandmotherly woman and most unlikely of candidates to connect with maximum security prisoners, yet these men, many of them hardened by doing time in the bowels of the prison-industrial complex, end up giving Neshama a standing ovation, as she wins them over with her stories and honest delivery, much to Lamott’s amazement. Using this story to drive home her points, Lamott powerfully illustrates Jesus’ injunction to care for the poor, without coming off as moralizing or condescending to her reader. By making it obvious that when Jesus spoke about the poor, he was including America’s prisoners. As she does throughout the book, Lamott shows why writers also need to be readers, because she quotes other writers in the context of her vignettes from her life and weaves them seamlessly into her prose. In this particular case, she quotes Reverend James Forbes, who was fond of saying that “Nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”

Lester Brown is the founder of WorldWatch Institute, an independent research organization that works for an environmentally sustainable and socially just society. Their mission is geared towards the meeting the needs of all people and accomplishing this without threatening the health of the natural environment or the well-being of future generations. While this sounds lofty and some might say, impossible, to someone like Brown, it’s achievable, if we can break the bigger issue, down into smaller, “bite-sized” pieces.

In a media age that offers mostly right-wing blowhards, drug addled hosts and talking heads that prefer to spew anger and venom, rather than offer solutions, its rare to hear someone as measured and downright optimistic as Brown was, yesterday, on NPR’s Cambridge Forum.

Speaking on topics addressed in his recent book, Plan B 2.0 (which I’ve just added to my list of “must read books”), Brown convinced me, as I’m sure countless others within the sound of his voice that while global warming is important—maybe in the top five, as far as global issues are concerned—it is something that we can take positive steps towards addressing. Rather than assume the role of crazy-eyed prophet in burlap clothing, chewing on locusts, Brown was soft-spoken, yet forceful and led me to believe that we can alter the course we’re on to, marching towards environmental perdition. I’m not opposed to prophetic voices and at times, they’re necessary. On the issue of the environment, however, I don’t think people are frozen about what to do because they can’t recognize the dire consequences of maintaining the status quo. In my opinion, most people want to take positive steps and move in the direction of earth-friendliness, but they honestly don’t know what to do.

He clearly painted a realistic picture of what an environmental sustainable economy might look like. Unlike so many doom-and-gloom types, Brown talked about simple steps that Americans can take to make a profound difference. He discussed the conversion of our car to gas/electric hybrids. In places like Maine, where the reality of public transportation is so far into the future for most, to think about alternatives to our cars is “pie in the sky.” We can talk about sprawl all we want (and I have), Mainers aren’t giving up their cars. However, as Brown carefully explained, gas/electric hybrids could, even if everyone didn’t change their driving habits one iota, dramatically lessen the amount of oil we consume as a nation. If we could lessen our dependency on foreign oil, it might move us away from always feeling the need to solve every geopolitical problem by flexing our military muscles.

Brown said that if you took the average gas/electric hybrid, added an extra storage battery, local commuting (which is what most of us do, Monday-Friday) could be accomplished entirely with electricity. By adding wind power to our energy mix (and getting the NIMBY crowd to play along), Brown made a compelling case that we could eliminate our need for oil from the Middle East. The military-industrial scenarios were getting downright rosy in my mind, at that moment.

Here’s an interview I found, from Grist, conducted last March. I think it gives people a sense of this man’s ability to cut through the rhetoric, politics and not scare the bejesus out of people, which only causes hopelessness and paralysis, fueled by the fear. (maybe it's the bowtie?)

As I start to taste small successes in my own life, I find that trying to find a local way of seeing the issues helps me to later put things into a wider context. I know that it is helping me to more optimistic than I’ve ever been before. Now don’t start thinking I’ve joined some new cult of positive thinking, or anything like that. In fact, I may be back here in a day, a week, or a month ranting at the world, or some newfound enemy. Still, I’m finding personal empowerment fulfilling and discovering new ways to move even the tiniest projects forward. This truth and utilization of the skills and abilities I’ve always had, have given me a new sense of possibility and I’m not succumbing to negative energy like I have in the past. This energy can act as a cloud that tends to overwhelm and keep many feeling powerless and unable to use their gifts and unique talents for the benefit of others. Not to mention it makes us miserable to be around, most of the time.

Birthing pangs

I've been trying to post regularly again, but this week's been crazy (as I expect most weeks will be for me, at least over the next few months). I have high hopes to have a new post up soon. I began this morning, before work, but duty beckoned.

Stay thoughts on life in Baumerworld should be up some time this evening. Thanks for your patience.


Sunday, March 25, 2007

Rich vs. poor in Peyton Place

Income disparity in the U.S, or the growing gap between haves and have-nots, is obvious to anyone who cares to look at the numbers and various reports that detail this phenomenon that should be on the radar of every policymaker, journalist and community organizer, as well as anyone interested in the health of local hamlets.

In a brand new study released by the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute, the issue is brought close to home, for those of us in New England, as the region has experienced the biggest increase in income disparity among eight regions, nationwide, from 1989 to 2004. At both ends of the socio-economic spectrum, New England outpaced the rest of the country, as the wealthiest residents of the six state region saw their incomes growing faster than the rest of the country, while the poorest New Englanders experienced the greatest income losses.

Connecticut topped the New England states, with their $60,528 median household income placing them number two nationally, trailing only New Jersey. New Hampshire, which had been ranked #1 in 2003, fell to the sixth position. The region scored very well and is considered the wealthiest region in the country, surpassing the west (California, Colorado, Washington, Alaska, etc.) in median income levels.

It was interesting, in light of this report, to spend my Saturday afternoon in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the epicenter of wealth in New Hampshire’s well-heeled Seacoast. I was meeting my son, who recently moved to Boston. Since Portsmouth is a good halfway meeting point, we decided to grab an early afternoon lunch and talk over some editing work that he’s doing for me for RiverVision Press’s next publishing project. The conspicuous wealth on display was very apparent to me, as I rarely miss an opportunity to observe class differences on display. Just the parking garage where I domiciled my own 10-year-old car was filled with high end sedans, including an abundance of Porsche’s, which you almost see north of the Piscataqua.

Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont now are ranked in the top five nationally, when it comes to income disparity. These bastions of political liberalism now have some of the nation’s largest income gaps. Included in Carsey’s data is a listing of six New England metro areas that placed in the top 20 nationally, for growth in disparity between the rich and each community’s poor. Nashua, New Hampshire, joined New Bedford, Massachusetts and four Connecticut metro areas (Danbury, Waterbury, Stamford-Norwalk and Bridgeport) as areas of growing income disparity, as the region has moved from one of relative income egalitarianism, to one that is divided economically.

From the report, it’s clear to see that “the change in household income distribution in New England and the nation goes beyond simply the 'rich getting richer' and reflects a fundamental shift in the national economy and differences in implications by region. The shift from 'traditional' commodity-based manufacturing to technology and knowledge-based businesses has created a new economic context and structure for New England.”

Once again, another report shows a clear direction for Maine and the region, while at the same time, any efforts to increase R & D and investment in growing the skills of low-end workers is stifled by short-sighted calls by groups with Heritage Foundation affiliations for “slash and burn” policies regarding taxes. In fact, the Carsey’s data shows that finding ways to develop ways to tax the haves is the only hope we have of raising all boats in the region. Also, our sorry attempts at development, ala big-box stores and policies devoted to sprawl-promotion are failing. Unless, of course, your future vision for New England is for our region to become an apocalyptic land of gated communities, with low-wage security guards, manning gatehouses on the edge of growing camps of poverty, the only hedge against rampaging rogues, seeking to acquire the means of survival, through any means possible.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Wal-Mart: Planting flags where the sun don't shine

There are very few companies that mine the vein of pro-American, red-white-and-blue flag-waving patriotism, like Wal-Mart. Walk into any one of its thousands of stores and the pro-American, love-it-or-leave it ambience is readily apparent, right on down to the piped in redneck country tunes playing on the sound system.

Watch any local television station and your bound to have the privilege of viewing one of Wal-Mart’s hokey ads, equating their corporate theft with small town values and extolling the chain’s supposed commitment to community causes—like low-wage jobs, environmental damage and sprawl are values I desire for my little corner of the world!

What bothers me the most and is most ironic, is that the people who have the most to lose by supporting Wal-Mart, merrily drop their hard-earned money on counters in community, after community, all over the country. These duped consumers are the very people that Sam Walton’s heirs keep pitching their disingenuous marketing drivel to.

It reminds me of Thomas Frank’s book, What’s The Matter With Kansas, which came out in 2005. Frank wonders how his fellow Midwesterners—descended from free-soil, abolitionist progressives and prairie socialists—could back a candidate with an agenda like George Bush, who shows little, or no concern for the issues that ought to make these members of the working class deplore this midget of a man? Frank goes on at length about the place that historian Walter Prescott Webb called a “hotbed of persistent radicalism,” the seedbed of Social Security and agrarian reform, yet, it sided with the bosses and backed an ideology that promises the destruction of the liberal state's social-welfare safety net.

Just like Frank, I shake my head and wonder, whenever I drive by a Wal-Mart store and see the human vestiges of 20 plus years of class war, driving their run-down heaps of metal, all being drawn to Wal-Mart's smiley face like flies to shit.

On top of all the obvious reasons why consumers ought to march to their local spawn of Sam Walton and burn it to the ground, the multi-national retailer, whose motto ought to be, “profits, over people, all the time” is currently fighting legislation, which would tighten security at our ports and close some of the gaping holes in security that currently exist. Like always, Wal-Mart’s motive is profit, as if they couldn’t sacrifice a million, or two, to make sure that storage containers were properly scanned.

Since 9-11, Wal-Mart, along with its lobbying group, the Retail Industry Leaders Association, have systematically undercut security by working diligently to defeat proposals and undermine current laws that are designed to make our ports more, not less, secure. These slick lobbyists, with their expensive suits, probably with a flag pin affixed to their lapels, have been working overtime to sway Washington politicians to their position of making sure that Wal-Mart and some of their other clients—large retailers like Sears, Target, Home Depot, Best Buy—don’t have to have their foreign containers properly inspected. The primary reason—profits, at the risk of security for Americans.

Most recently, Wal-Mart, along with the RILA has been lobbying hard to ensure that their containers won’t be required to fall under recent legislation that calls for 100 percent scanning of all containers entering U.S. ports, which was part of a new U.S. House bill. Wal-Mart is claiming that it would needlessly impede the speed of imports potentially hurting Wal-Mart’s profits.

As Jerry once sang, “Wave that flag, wave it wide and high.” Wal-Mart is a master at that practice, while the cameras run—when the whir of the cameras stop, however and the lights go down, good ole’ Wal-Mart takes that very flag and sticks it up America’s hind orifice, while laughing all the way to the bank, with their loot.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Is Rush Limbaugh irrelevant?

For all of President Bush’s first term and during the euphoria accompanying his reelection and the start of his second term in office, Republicans have presented a united front. They’ve rallied around their party leader and funded the “war on terrah,” billionaire tax cuts and supported just about everything else that this century’s Warren Harding has wanted to do.

As support for the war has turned sour and the majority of Americans now in opposition and wanting our troops back home, more and more Republicans, eager to distance themselves from the wake of the Bush presidency, have begun speaking out against policies of this administration.

For more than a decade, every day at noon, Republicans, particularly Republicans of the conservative stripe, could turn on their radios at noon and receive their right-wing marching orders. For all intents and purposes, Rush Limbaugh was the voice of the conservative movement. Love him, or hate him, Limbaugh symbolized the brazen, in-your-face arrogance that has characterized American conservatism since the Republican “revolution” touted by Newt Gingrich back in the early 90s.

While Republicans aren’t exactly beating a hasty retreat from their exalted perch, happily spending their political capital, they’ve fallen upon a difficult patch and conservatives no longer speak in a monolithic voice, with talking points emanating from Limbaugh’s golden microphone.

On Tuesday, California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in an interview on NBC’s "Today Show," when asked about how he felt about certain Republicans, like Limbaugh, called America’s conservative voice, “irrelevant.” Schwarzenegger, while demonized by some as a shallow former actor, is actually quite politically shrewd and has actually been a much better governor than I ever expected him to be. Not content to merely “paint by the numbers” politically and carry water for the conservative agenda pushed down most Republican’s throats by the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity, Savage and O’Reilly, Schwarzenegger has actually tried to represent his constituents in California and forge his own political identity. An example of Schwarzenegger’s independence from the right-wing establishment came earlier in the year, when the governor proposed a $12 billion health care plan, which requires doctors, hospitals and some small employers to pay into a state fund for the uninsured. This angered many conservatives, for whom anything smacking of universal coverage is an anathema.

Characteristically, Limbaugh spent much of his show referring to Schwarzenegger as a “Total Sellout,” which was a reference to his former Hollywood days and the movie, Total Recall. After being the darling of conservatives for so long, it must hurt when someone like Schwarzenegger calls you irrelevant, particularly when you’ve occupied the epicenter of attention.

Despite Schwarzenegger’s slam and the disaster we know as the Bush presidency, Limbaugh and other conservative hosts still command the attention of a large segment of "Kool-Aid drinkers." These followers still march in lock step, following their own pied piper, ready to plunge off a cliff, if necessary, rather than face the facts and examine the realities of how far down the road to nowhere the conservative agenda has taken us as a nation.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Big-box bait and switch, Part III (Can we get there from here?)

This will be my final installment in my brief look at big-box blight, as it spreads across Maine (as well as many other similar areas of the country), felling trees, paving over fields and creating asphalt wastelands where fowl and fauna once roamed. My intention isn’t to be too overly dramatic. For me, however, the Wal-Mart issue is one that really pushes buttons and hits close to home.

I love Maine. Anyone who has read my book, or reads my posts about the Pine Tree State has figured that out by now. I know there is always a danger in standing against what some call progress. It’s easy to be labeled a crank, overly nostalgic, or even, a Luddite. There are times that I wear those badges, with a certain amount of pride. On this issue, however, I know I have company that makes this something more than just my own personal hobby-horse.

We can start with the Brookings Institute Report, Charting Maine's Future: An Action Plan for Promoting Sustainable Prosperity and Quality Places that has garnered statewide support and praise. With the exception of a handful of the usual naysayers and negative types, the response has been primarily positive. What makes this even more impressive is the bipartisan nature of the support, with most of the state’s leaders and legislative contingent endorsing its findings.

For the people who have been paying attention and in particular, those of us that have lived here over the past 20 years, the explosion in low-density development that characterizes sprawl is quite evident. This is an area that Maine will have to address. Jobs are important, particularly well-paying jobs that pay a living wage for Maine’s workers. Not only Maine, but many other rural areas of the U.S. are finding that their local economies are being strangled by the influx of big-box retailers that exploit the local labor market and inject little or nothing into these communities in the way of social capital.

The Economic Policy Institute has a helpful calculator that offers the ability to find out where the starting point should be in wage structure. If you want to talk economic development and real job creation, I think this is a good starting point. Instead, as is most often the case, local officials are hailed when they create a couple of hundred entry level jobs, paying $8 or $9 an hour. This type of job creation just contributes to the ongoing demise of the middle class and kills any substantive economic growth that benefits people in the long run.

If you haven’t already read Stacy Mitchell’s book, I suggest taking some time this spring to plow through it. It is amazingly readable, given Mitchell’s thorough research and density of material that she packs into the book. In my opinion, it is one of the more important books to read for anyone who desires sustainable local economies and communities where people, rather than profits, are given priority. I also suggest the organization that Mitchell is affiliated with, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

In addition to the EPI’s calculator, their site has a lot of pertinent material that will help you to better understand the dangers inherent in big-box development. Information is power and sites like this one will help you acquire the information that you’ll need to speak intelligently to your friends, neighbors and family members about why you have issues with Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Target and other similar corporate retailers.

All of us can be agents for positive change in our communities—in fact, we should be striving to be people who are willing to fight for local and regional values, preserving our unique landscape, one which befits the area of the country where we live. We don’t have to succumb to the homogenization that has overtaken so much of the U.S. By banding together with other folks who value their local bookstore, farmer’s market and neighborhood grocery store, or coffee shop, we can be like the two mothers, Eleanor Kinney and Jenny Mayher, in Damariscotta, who cared enough about their small community and its unique character to organize a group of other like-minded residents and as a result, Wal-Mart wasn’t allowed into that area of Midcoast Maine.

I’ll end by saying that there are locally-owned businesses that aren’t much better than the Wal-Marts of this world. In fact, there are businesses owned by Mainers that stock an ample supply of merchandise manufactured in third-world countries and that rely on exploitation of labor in those parts of the world. There are other businesses, while considerably smaller than Wal-Mart that still engage in tactics and seek their own success, at the expense of other smaller businesses. That’s one of the major drawbacks with capitalism’s model. There are always going to be winners and losers.

Given the choice we have, however, I still think we can do better than bowing down before the big-box deities of the retail kingdom. By preserving our local economies, we’re maintaining control over an important area of our daily lives, in a world where control and autonomy is rapidly disappearing.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Big-box Bait and Switch, Part II (the myth of lower prices)

If you ask big-box shoppers why they shop at Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy and any other similar store, the most common reason given is lower prices. Because these large retailers have an advantage due to economies of scale and buying clout, it would seem logical, then that they would in fact offer lower prices on most items and goods. On closer inspection however, “always lower prices” may not be the reality.

Wal-Mart, more than any of the other big-box retailers lives by the perception that their prices are lower than anyone else’s. From the smiley faces in their incessant ads to their famous slogan, this mega-retailer has convinced shoppers that they're getting the best deal at Wal-Mart, whether that’s true, or not.

In some instances, Wal-Mart will lower prices in order to drive the competition’s prices down, or worse, put them out of business. After that occurs, stores have then been known to up their so-called “everyday low prices.” Also, Wal-Mart’s prices are cheaper on some items simply because they are of inferior quality. There is no comparison between a shovel whose handle bends and breaks when shoveling heavy snow and one made by Rugg Mfg., or some other high quality U.S. manufacturer.

According to Kenneth Stone, an economist at Iowa State University, all big-box stores utilize what’s called a pricing strategy known as “signposts” and “blinds.” Signposts are items that most consumers know the price of and blinds are those items that most customers have less knowledge of. By keeping the prices lower than the competition on bananas, diapers, four-packs of light bulbs and other items in prominent places, consumers assume that all items (these signposts) have lower prices.

In 2005, Consumer Reports found that on items such as ranges, refrigerators, vacuums and other large appliances, independent retailers out priced all the big-box retailers they surveyed. Also, the magazine also found that consumers rated the independent stores highest in customer service and selection. So why do shoppers continue to flock to the big-box stores at the peril of losing local control, putting U.S. manufacturers out of business and cutting their own economic throats? It’s really baffling and without any clear rational explanation.

Despite clear evidence that Wal-Mart and other big-box chains eliminate competition, destroy manufacturing jobs paying above average wages (with benefits) and on top of that, with evidence indicating that their prices may not always be lower and their selection on many items isn’t up to snuff with independent retailers, it’s tempting to argue that many Americans have become just too damn stupid to know any better.

One area I’m particularly concerned about when it comes to big-box stores and mega-retailers, is bookselling. While perceptions of most consumers is that the local Barnes & Noble, or other chain has a greater selection than the independent bookseller, in fact, chain stores’ merchandising policies tend to focus their attention and dollars on the big-name authors. As a result, new novelists and non-fiction titles get relegated to the back of the store. Midlist authors and their books, if they have succeeded, almost always attribute their success to the independent bookstores.

In our local area, independent stores like Longfellow Books in Portland (an independent in every sense of the word, primarily because of its wonderfully feisty owner, Chris Bowe), Bookland in Brunswick and even smaller stores like BookMarcs in Bangor, have staff picks and highlight titles other than Stephen King’s, or J.K. Rowling’s latest runaway bestseller. Taking nothing away from these authors, there are thousands of other wonderful books, many of them by first-time authors, who would end up selling poorly and ending up out-of-print if not for the bibliophiles that more often than not run the independent stores.

Wal-Mart also tries to act as moral arbiter of a community when it refuses to stock music CDs that have parental guidance stickers, or deal with themes that it deems inappropriate. This kind of censorship isn’t limited to Wal-Mart, either. Blockbuster requires movie makers produce “sanitized” versions of movies that they consider objectionable.

The resulting homogeneity that comes as a result of this shrinking of retail choices doesn’t bode well for innovation, or just plain diversity of products, not to mention how it portends the demise of artistic risk-taking by musicians, writers, and other creative types.

So, if Wal-Mart and the other chain stores are so destructive to our communities, then what can, or should we do to keep them out of our communities? And if they have already set up shop, what are our options as consumers?

I’ll be back with at least one more post to answer these questions and focus some of my own thoughts on what our roles and responsibilities are in these matters.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Happy Birthday, Bouton

I was 12 when I first read Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. It was all Bouton, giving the proverbial middle finger to the baseball establishment. Tame by today’s preponderance of “kiss and tell” treatises, in 1970, it stood the baseball world on its head.

At the time, sports books were like Wonder Bread—bland and G-rated without much texture and filled with preservatives, simulating reality, but more in keeping with the dictates of ad men, rather than farmers. Then, along comes Bouton, the former 21 game winner in 1963, the year after I was born, naming names, pulling back the curtain and making no excuses for revealing what the world of athletics was really like.

Bouton dared to breach the subject of players cheating on their wives, abusing amphetamines (“greenies”) and even had the audacity to show Mickey Mantle, the epitome of white manhood in 1950s America, as a hard-drinking player, who abused his body and yet, warts and all, still comes across as larger than life.

[From Wikipedia] Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn called Ball Four "detrimental to baseball," and tried to force Bouton to sign a statement saying that the book was completely fictional. Bouton, however, refused to deny any of Ball Four's revelations. Many of Bouton's teammates never forgave him for publicly airing what he had learned in private about their flaws and foibles. The book made Bouton unpopular with many players, coaches and officials on other teams as well, as they felt he had betrayed the long-standing rule: "What you see here, what you say here, what you do here, let it stay here." Pete Rose took to yelling "F--- you, Shakespeare!" from the dugout whenever Bouton was pitching. Many traditional sportswriters also denounced Bouton, with Dick Young leading the way, calling Bouton and Shecter (Leonard Shecter, Bouton’s co-author and the sportswriter who convinced him to begin keeping a season-long diary and subsequently publishing it) "social lepers."

Bouton’s book helped me to realize that it was ok to be a “jock” and also read books and have opinions about things other than sports. Like Howard Zinn, who I wrote about last week, Bouton was a seminal figure in helping shape and form the person I am today.

During the period when I was struggling with whether to independently publish When Towns Had Teams, I ran across Foul Ball, Bouton’s own independently published book, about his adventures to save historic Waconah Park in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and the politics behind many local building projects and the shady figures and money movements that are part and parcel of much that passes for economic development across the country.

Bouton and partners offered the city of Pittsfield a restored ballpark, done entirely by private contributions and no cost to the taxpayers of the city. Yet, amazingly, it was opposed by a group of local power brokers who instead, sought to build their own 18.5 million stadium, a deal that had been voted down three times before! So much for the will of the people.

In the process, we learn about the mayor on the take and the local paper also in on the fix, all told in Bouton’s inimitable style.

While I will continue my saga of big-box malfeasance, with my next post probably appearing over the weekend, I wanted to take this occasion of Bouton’s birthday to highlight one of my sports heroes, still going strong at 68. As we head into another summer of baseball, now might be a good time to refamiliarize yourself with this sports classic.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Big-box Bait and Switch, Part I

It’s difficult to pick one thing and say that it’s the quintessential matter facing us as Americans. But after reading most of Stacy Mitchell’s Big-Box Swindle, I’d challenge anyone to argue what’s a more important economic trend than the systematic gutting of our local business culture and the disappearance of commerce along Main Street USA, as Americans kneel at the altar of the big-box behemoths.

While local, independent book stores close and are replaced by Borders, or Barnes and Noble and locally-owned hardware stores that have been in communities for decades board up their storefronts because they can’t compete with the prices at Home Depot, or Lowe’s, our neighbors continue to accumulate stuff, manufactured off-shore, courtesy of the sweat shops that are necessary for perpetuating our addictions to convenience and everyday low prices. The perpetual pressure brought to bear on locally-owned and community-centered businesses, by these corporate giants chewing up farmland like a virus on steroids, have initiated an economic race to the bottom. Not only have they have pretty much destroyed a proud tradition of locally- owned family businesses, they’ve all but snuffed out manufacturing in the U.S., a traditional occupation that was a foundation of middle-class American prosperity for the first 40 years following World War II.

The loss of both manufacturing jobs and local business autonomy have led to a 20 year decline in the share of national income flowing to the middle class. In all but two states, all new jobs being created pay less than those being lost. This ying and yang of the new economy becomes our daily bread, while at the same time, Americans seem to be helpless to resist shopping ourselves out of any remaining hope of decent jobs, with living wages and benefits.

Mitchell’s book clearly lays out the facts about what’s at stake as big-box stores become bigger and what little prosperity and economic self-reliance remains in our downtowns, if they aren’t boarded up already, is in peril. Mitchell herself, is a senior researcher for The Institute for Local Self Reliance and as such, builds her case fact by fact and anecdote by anecdote.

Her book comes along at an interesting time for me. I’m six months into a job that I’m thoroughly enjoying and actively engaged in some interesting projects. One of these in particular, is locally-focused and is helping to train some people and engage them in a skill-based program that is reaping some positive early results. As I work to help people build a foundation of job skills for the first time and help them take some small, but positive steps in their work lives, I’m also aware that in the community where I’m based, Lewiston (as well as our sister community across the river, Auburn), a plethora of low-wage and low-skill retail jobs have been dumped on both communities in the name of economic development. It seems counter-intuitive on one hand, for business people in the community to decry the skill-level of our workers and then, when skills-based training is provided and the skills of the workforce are upgraded, applaud the efforts of economic development people who ought to know better, as they bring in businesses that are intent on driving down wages and lowering the economic opportunities of people who have already seen their livelihoods turned upside-down when manufacturing jobs, as well as occupations focused on textiles and shoes disappeared, some thirty years earlier.

What’s even more frustrating to me is how many so-called leaders in the community spend so much time patting themselves on the back merely because they’ve managed to open a few boarded-up storefronts, fix a dilapidated arena (at a net yearly loss of $500K) and attract a handful of service industry jobs that still fall short of a living wage, while handing the keys to both communities over to absentee corporate entities like Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Home Depot, as well as the usual chain culinary establishments. There is only so much disposable income to go around and while a handful of higher-end restaurants have opened and some boutique-style shops have sprung up, those have been in the minority.

Mitchell’s Big-Box Swindle has been a “call-to-arms” for me and has helped me to sense the danger this area faces as we turn over the potential for sustainable growth and forego slower, economic progress, for the pottage of the quick-fix. While job-creation numbers tend to make ignorant bureaucrats genuflect and wax poetic, the lasting damage big-box development will wreak here and in our state capital of Augusta is rarely breached in any of our daily newspapers. While a handful of smart growth advocates preach to the converted, Maine continues to barrel headlong down an economic path of difficult, if not impossible to reverse consequences. While political leadership has never been the state’s forte, it’s hard for me to watch our small businesses, already struggling to survive, lose any hope for the future as large scale, big-box development has been sold, like snake oil of old, to community, after community, all over the state.

I hope to use Mitchell’s book, as well as some other research material she’s made me aware of, to piggy-back on this post with a couple of other related ones over the next week. In fact, I may have found my next writing project, as the subject of people and places being more important than mere profit is an area near and dear to my heart.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Report indicates poverty in Maine's largest city

If you’ve moved to Maine from away, one thing that’s readily apparent, especially if relocating from an urban area, is that other than Portland, the state has little in the way of cities. Even the greater-Portland metro area has less than 100,000 people, which is small compared to many urban areas in New England and elsewhere.

For lifelong Mainers, however, Portland is the state’s hub, the epicenter of culture, the arts and if you live in many of the rural areas of the state, a destination and a place to spend the weekend. If you’re from points north, living in the western mountains, or in downeast Washington County, coming to Portland and spending the weekend at one of its more upscale hotels, such as the Regency, the historic Eastland Park Hotel, or even the Sheraton, in South Portland, near the Maine Mall, all make for a great weekend getaways.

For folks from elsewhere in Maine, Portland appears urban, chic and a place where everyone is better educated and makes more money. For those of us who know the city, however, today’s report, released by the Alliance for Ending Hunger, indicating that one out of 11 families in Cumberland County faced hunger in 2006.

420 families in Portland and another 430 families throughout Cumberland County were surveyed in compiling the report. For many who have traveled the state, the fact that Portland and Cumberland County would have poverty issues like these, is somewhat surprising. It also deflates the myth that everyone in and around Portland is driving luxury automobiles and living in an upscale townhouse on the water. While that is the reality for some, for many others, hunger and living one or two paychecks away from food insecurity is closer to the truth.

In addition to hunger, families on the margin face accompanying medical problems, diminished quality of life and lost economic potential. The survey did not include Portland’s homeless shelters, which provide food and shelter to hundreds of individuals and indicates the problem is much wider than the survey was able to identify.

While Mainers regularly hear calls for tax relief and vague proposals for education reform, our state still has a long way to go economically, hoping to raise the boats of all its people.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Cornbread wants some bacon and eggs

Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell was a member of the great Celtics’ teams from the 1980s. The 6’8” forward was a first round draft pick in 1977, after leading his Charlotte University to its improbable run of upsets during that spring’s NCAA tournament.

While he was a working class player, content to play defense and rebound, as he was to score, he became known as a clutch playoff performer, winning the NBA’s MVP award for the 1981 finals, when the Celt beat the Moses Malone-led Houston Rockets.

“Max” was known as a colorful character during his eight years in Boston and in 2003, his number “31” was hoisted to the rafters, one of only 22 players in the franchise’s storied history to have that award bestowed upon them.

Maxwell and partner Sean Grande have been the Celtics’ radio team for the past nine years. With Maxwell, as analyst, providing insights from his playing days and occasional quirky observations and Grande’s exceptional skill as play-by-play counterpart, they form a quality team with an obvious chemistry.

On Monday night, Maxwell, as he often does, took exception to a call made against a Boston player. While this in and of itself wasn’t a big deal—the officiating in the top pro league in the world, at best, is suspect. What created the resulting media firestorm was that Maxwell criticized Violet Palmer, a woman of color and an NBA official, with some revealing phraseology.

Here is a paraphrase (from Wikipedia) of Maxwell’s comments about Palmer, in context of Monday’s game:

After a play where Maxwell thought a foul should have been called on a Houston player, he said that Palmer should "go back to the kitchen." He then added, "Go in there and make me some bacon and eggs, would you?".

Supposedly, this was part of Maxwell's mocking Tommy Heinsohn’s (Maxwell’s TV counterpart on FSNE) criticism of referees. Secondly, the sentence after the comment, Maxwell praised Palmer, saying she was doing an excellent job officiating. Maxwell apologized before the Celtics' next game by saying "If I said anything that might have been insensitive or sexist in any way, then I apologize because she worked extremely hard to get where she is now, end of quote."

Maxwell has spent the better part of the week fending off criticism from a variety of sources, including the sports talk fraternity, which its interesting in itself, given that genre's less than flattering takes on the fairer sex.

You see, the world of pro sports and sports in general, is a world where sexism, racism, and outright misogyny is often worn as a badge of honor. In fact, athletics is a bastion of old-school views, particularly towards women, homosexuals and anything smacking of progressivism. While there are certainly exceptions, by-and-large, athletics and enlightened views about the world rarely go hand-in-hand.

Having spent more than my fair share of time in and around sports locker rooms as a player, coach and even journalist, these are not places known for their scintillating conversation and liberal thoughts about society.

Some of my most frustrating moments discussing politics, or culture have come in conversations with young college players that I’ve coached over the past few summers. While there have been exceptions, the general lack of respect that many young males (and older males) have indicated they have for women, homeless people, people of color, gay people and others in conversations that I was privy to, is downright depressing.

I still remember playing semi-pro baseball and hearing a former teammate boast about some of his sexual exploits in college, as a fraternity member, some 10 years earlier at a party, where teammates had drilled a hole in the wall and watched him and others “get it on” with drunk co-eds. Believe me when I tell you, this is no isolated incident, as I could tell you other “horror” stories from my days at the University of Maine. If you're still having doubts, just think Duke lacrosse (a case emblematic of the culture and mindset prevalent in the athletic world).

What was troubling to me was how this person, now a father, took such great relish in telling this story, oblivious to the indignity visited on these women. Oh, I know, I’ve heard it before—because they were drinking, at a frat party and "coming on" to the athletes, they asked for it—yeah right!

By making this comment, regardless of his apology, “Cornbread” was just giving y'all a peek into just how “enlightened” certain elements of the male species are, even in 2007.