Saturday, April 28, 2007

Is Maine anti-business?

Maine Speaker of the House, Glenn Cummings (D-Portland), has proposed a bill that would require developers building any retail establishment larger than 75,000 (big box store) square feet to file an impact study in the community where it will be built. The bill stipulates that the cost of the study will be borne by the developer.

According to Cummings, Maine is seeing development taking place at a rate of ¼ acre per hour and he feels that it’s time to take a look at the issue.

“The one thing we have left—now we don’t have PhD's flowing out of our universities; like some states do, we don’t have people building shoes for 49 cents an hour, like Hong Kong, or Romania—the one thing we have left that’s an international niche—it is a place we want to come to.”

Predictably, this rankles those people who feel that progress in Maine consists of a series of parking lots, interconnecting big box stores, like Lowe’s, Target, Home Depot and of course, our friends with the yellow, smiling face. People like the Maine Merchants Association and the Maine Real Estate and Development Association.

Jim McGregor is opposed to the bill and spoke about his concerns.

"Maine Merchant Associtation’s interest in this bill was no doubt peaked by what it feels is a growing and unjust anti-retailing sentiment in the Maine Legislature. And that LD 1810 is yet another example."

Roxane Cole, President of the Maine Real Estate and Development Association stated that she feels that Maine towns are already capable of determining what’s best for them.

Linda Gifford of the Maine Association of Realtors had this to add.

“Are we open for business in Maine, or are we not open for business in Maine? We think this sends another anti-business, don’t come to Maine message that we’re concerned about.”

All three of these opponents of LD 1810, the bill proposed by Cummings, speak from the short-sighted and damaging perspective that Maine’s future economic health is tied to low-wage, sprawl producing development. This kind of thinking has a long history in Maine, going back to the days when lumber barons and others built their empires from Maine’s plentiful swaths of hardwood and other natural resources, harvested by unskilled laborers with strong backs and power provided by Maine’s abundant rivers. You still see vestiges of that model in the large houses built by these industrial barons, in Bangor, Augusta, Hallowell and other places. In fact, most of Maine's rivers, by the late 1960s and early 1970s were choked with the aftermath and refuse of this economic era.

It seems intuitive to me that this bill, dubbed the Informed Growth Act, would provide local towns and municipalities with the kind of information that they really need, in order to assess the true cost to their communities of the arrival of Wal-Mart, Target, or some other retail behemoth—costs associated with traffic flow, the need to beef up police forces, environmental impacts and how it will affect the local economy in general. This is exactly the type of information that helps local residents to be more informed, educated and better able to assess the true costs of “everyday low prices.”

Susan Porter is the owner of Maine Coast Books, in Damariscotta and one of more than 140 small business owners who have stated their support for the bill.

“What does a developer fear from an impact study, if he honestly believes he is creating prosperity?"

I’ll answer Porter’s question by saying that what developers fear is no longer being able to shove their brand of non-sustainable development down the throats of the communities that they run to, pave over, grab their bag of loot, before running to the next open space, where they reenact the same parasitic scenario.

In my opinion, Cumming’s bill isn’t anti-business, unless, of course, your idea of business is doesn't include developing career options that include jobs that pay living wages, support the healthy growth of Maine communities and enable Maine to compete on the global stage. Retail sector jobs provide support for none of these and in fact, is leading Maine down a path to the bottom that perpetuates an economy that leaves us with two kinds of Mainers; the haves (who exploit low-wage workers and benefit from that model) and the have-nots.

I wrote three long posts that are a pretty good starting point for anyone who wants to understand the concerns that Glenn Cummings, Susan Porter and others have with uncontrolled big box development.

In Big-box bait and switch, Part I, which developed after I read Stacey Mitchell’s excellent book, Big Box Swindle, I lay out my own concerns about the preponderance of big box development that stretches up and down our state, like some kind of mange, fouling our pristine countryside and former open spaces.

If you want to have a sense of big box development run amok, drive to our state’s capital, in Augusta and in particular, the area across from the Augusta Civic Center. That area continues to metastasize, like a cancer. Apparently, Augusta wants more of this, as the west side of town, behind the Senator Inn, where you exit I-95 to access Western Avenue, is now being dug up and paved over, under the guise of economic development and with a new set of big boxes, anchored by a Target store.

I hope Cumming’s bill passes, because I think it’s exactly what Maine needs. The opponents calling it anti-business show their business orientation to be firmly in the camp that says the function of business is to always put profits ahead of people. In my book that’s not healthy for our communities and shows an anti-progressive business sentiment, oriented only towards maximizing profit.

Maine can do much better and ought to, particularly in light of growing concerns about global warming and climate change. Our state ought to take the lead in sustainable development and promote that to the rest of the U.S.

[The majority of information for this post is based upon a feature story that was done by Murray Carpenter, during Friday’s (April 27th) Maine Things Considered Program, on MPNN radio.]

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The writing fraternity grows smaller

For the second time this month, the writing community lost another giant. David Halberstam, one of journalism’s real treasures, was killed in a car crash in San Francisco, on Monday. He was 73.

Halberstam was a master at capturing the subtle nuances of whatever subject he chose to write about—sports, politics, war, the civil rights movement—setting him apart from the rest of his breed.

While not exclusively a sports guy, he was able to use athletics as a vehicle to get at the larger issues of the time he wrote about. Reading Halberstam helped ground us in the historical realities of the period he covered in each one of his 20 books. Rather than give his readers pap and nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, Halberstam the journalist, dug into his subjects and provided context.

As others have noted, Halberstam recognized that history wasn’t formed in a vacuum. He was a “social historian,” placing his stories into the milieu of the period covered by whatever book he was writing at the time. His accounts of the ballplayers, soldiers and civil rights pioneers he wrote about were grounded in the day-to-day realities of the period portrayed. One of the best compliments that anyone could utter about Halberstam, in my opinion, is that he wrote “grass-roots”history; history of the people, for the people.

In October 1964, Halberstam used the burgeoning civil rights movement to contrast the two participants of that year’s World Series. On one hand, you had the New York Yankees, a team steeped in legend and mythology, with the likes of Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Elston Howard and Roger Maris and the upstart St.Louis Cardinals, a team with up and coming stars like Lou Brock, Curt Flood, the brooding Bob Gibson and a young Tim McCarver (long before he became a boorish baseball announcer).

Like any Halberstam treatment, the season-long buildup to the World Series is filtered through the lens of society's pressing issues, this time, the fury of racial upheaval, as the old ways of segregation are about to change. Baseball, like any sport, can be a mirror, reflecting the mores and conventions of society. During this period, blacks and other non-whites were forced the indignity of living in substandard, segregated accommodations during spring training. While management wanted to ignore this and wish it away, players like Gibson and Flood, proud men, aware of who they were and what their skills represented to owners, were beginning to recognize and openly complain about the arrangements. Gibson, who later would become baseball’s most dominating pitcher, whose 1968 season would force baseball to lower the mound, was a young, untamed flamethrower in 1964. As his stock rose, Gibson would become more outspoken. Halberstam shows us the young Gibson, just finding his way. Flood would later challenge baseball’s antitrust clause, ultimately shortening his career. In 1964, we see the rage and fury that would later find its outlet in taking on baseball’s hallowed method of indentured servitude.

I used Halberstam’s The Fifties to help me understand the decade prior to my own birth, in 1962, in authenticating When Towns Had Teams. Because I was writing about a period of time that I only knew about from the stories of parents, grandparents and others, I wanted to have a sense of what this postwar era was really about. Halberstam helped guide me and give my own writing credibility.

In The Best and the Brightest, the hubris of Kennedy’s Camelot is on glorious display, as America’s defining conflict, the Vietnam War, is deconstructed in 816 glorious pages, Halberstam-style.

He clearly shows what happens when leaders—“the best and the brightest”—blinded by insularity, privilege and Ivy League educations, carelessly lead us into a conflict that they deem vital, but ultimately becomes a quagmire and a national disgrace. Vietnam is a shining example of what happens when bad decisions, dishonesty and sheer stupidity lead America into its most costly war at the time, in lives, civil unrest and political fallout, leading to a cynicism that the U.S. has yet to recover from. There are those who argue that we lost our soul in Vietnam and we’ll never recover it.

The great writers of history lend immediacy to the people, places and predilections that find their way into their prose. Halberstam certainly belongs in that category.

As men like Halberstam pass on, members of America’s “greatest generation,” I wonder what will become of the country and its culture that they’ve left us in charge of. I think a case can be made that while Halberstam’s American compadres were far from perfect, they might very well be the last great collective grouping that we’ll know. Part of this comes from the historical maelstrom that they were born into and the events that shaped them; the aftermath of the first World War and the Great Depression, WWII, the Cold War and then, Vietnam.

Unlike the boomers, who came to question and then, turn it over to the marketers and our generation that decided to wallow in materialism, inflicting it on our own children, who struggle to decide whether they want to live in this world, or some make-believe alter-universe built on the deity of technology, the "greatest generation" faced issues of life and death. The raging debate for today's millenials is whether to download without getting caught. The World War II generation provided us with a model that subsequent generations have decided to mock and ultimately invalidate.

I was reminded of this today, while taking my lunch from work, as I tuned into Jim Rome’s radio program. Unbeknownst to me, Rome had interviewed Halberstam on several occasions. When I first turned the radio on, I knew that a guest was speaking. I didn’t know it was Halberstam, but I knew it was someone important, just as you always do, when greatness is at the podium.

Rome played several clips from various interviews, including Halberstam speaking of Ted Williams and how he first met him for an interview at his hotel in Florida. Williams apparently showed up at 8am, on the dot, as they had agreed. When Halberstam opened the door, Teddy Ballgame, in his characteristic gruff way bellowed, “You like just like your goddamn photograph!” Halberstam recounted that the interview lasted for 12 hours, with Williams talking about how he tried to teach “that goddamn Doerr” to uppercut the ball and he never did.

In thinking of Halberstam and Williams, men from a time fading fast from our memories, already clouded by unending technology and by the belief that speed and innovation trumps everything else, I’m reminded of the Major League All Star Game, July 14, 1999.

In rode arguably, the game’s greatest hitter, in a golf cart. As the cart made its way in from right field, with the 80-year-old legend waving to the adoring crowd, a group of major leaguers waited near the mound, like a bunch of little leaguers about to meet their idol. Carlton Fisk, another Red Sox great, heroic in his own right, but diminished by Williams, waited at the plate, to receive Williams’ ceremonial first pitch. Nomar, Big Mac (before his name had been tarnished by the steroid scandal), Tony Gwynn, Sosa, Larry Walker, all gathering around Teddy Ballgame. Williams wanted to talk baseball with all the players. Reports are that many of them got choked up, including Walker. Tears welled up in Ted’s eyes, as he understood the significance of the moment. Unlike so much that’s choreographed in athletic events in our era, the announcer’s pleas for the players to return to the dugouts went unheeded, as the players and Williams didn’t want this to end.

Finally, Ted threw his pitch and the cart took him to his seat alongside the commissioner, as one of baseball’s great moments had come to an end.

Williams has left us, as have many others from his era, including Halberstam. As their lives fade from view, the lamp that illuminates the deeds that defined them dims and I find myself wondering who among us will be able to keep it lit, however faintly it burns?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Equal pay for equal work

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. (I Corinthians 13:11)

I was thinking of this quote from the Apostle Paul, in the context of my post over the weekend about the sacking of Jerry Trupiano and the current Red Sox debacle in the radio broadcast booth. While sports occupies more than its fair share of time in my life, often defining it and not always for the best, I want to leave the bread and circuses and get back to something more “adult” to write about.

Before moving on, however, I want to say that my posts on sports often generate some of my highest traffic at Words Matter. These posts are often the ones that get picked up by other sites and linked to, also. I’m not really sure what that means.

Our friends at the Department of Labor in Maine have some pretty provocative material about the lack of equality of women’s wages in Maine. In fact, there is quite a bit of information being funneled out on this topic nationally, as tomorrow is Equal Pay Day, when symbolically, this is the day when a woman's wages catch up to those of men wages from the previous year, or in simple terms, this is the amount of additional time from January 1st that women must work on to earn what a man’s wages are on December 31st. This gap is even greater for women of color.

Women generally do better in the northeast and the west, with Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont leading the way in New England (ranked 3, 5, and 6th nationally—the District of Columbia is numero uno). Not surprisingly, the south and in particular, Arkansas, Louisiana, West Virginia and Mississippi, come in dead last on pay equity.

Maine actually scored well, falling in the middle third on median annual earnings and in the top third in number of women in professional and managerial positions.

Still, earning 77 cents for every one dollar that a man earns is nothing to do cartwheels over. Newly hired women actually earn 66 cents for every one dollar that newly hired men earn.

Here are some things that women should know about Maine law and pay equity:
  • In 1965, Maine law replaced “equal pay for equal labor” with “comparable pay for comparable labor” to reflect that women often earn less for work that is equal in skill, effort, and responsibility to the work performed by men.
  • The Maine Department of Labor enforces equal pay laws, but only after a complaint is filed.
  • Under federal law, employers cannot decrease a worker’s wage to comply with the equal pay law. They must raise the lower paid worker’s pay.
  • The Bureau of Labor Standards will assist employers who want to ensure they are practicing equal pay.

As the Maine Wage Project states, “the most effective way for women to earn equal pay is to ask for it.”

FMI about the Equal Pay Law in Maine, contact theMaine Department of Labor at 624-6400.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Pox on the Sox

I grew up listening to baseball on the radio. Like many of us 40-somethings, we cut our baseball teeth with a transistor radio and in New England, the play-by-play of longtime radio fixtures, Ken Coleman and Ned Martin, with the third man in the booth being a former Red Sox legend like Mel Parnell, or Johnny Pesky. While there was plenty of Sox games being broadcast on television during the late 60s and early 70s (courtesy of Schaefer Beer, btw—“Schaefer is the one beer to have when your having more than one.”), it just seemed like baseball was meant for transmission via WHDH-850 AM, over a transistor radio.

The Red Sox radio team of Joe Castiglione and Jerry Trupiano were in the same class as the old Coleman/Martin partnership. Who could forget “Trup’s” classic call, “Swing and a drive! Way back, Waaaay back! Home run!” whenever one of the Sox players homered?

Of course, that call has been silenced, as Trupiano was unceremoniously let go, two weeks prior to Christmas, by New England’s team. After 10 years of stellar work forming one of baseball’s best play-by-play teams on the radio side, team president, Larry Luchino saw fit to bring in his own guys. Castiglione is still in the booth, albeit on a part-time basis, but the new radio personalities; Dave O’Brien, who comes over from ESPN, where he’ll continue to do games and the lackluster—no, fucking pathetic—Glenn Geffner. It seems as though quality and commitment to the integrity of baseball that Joe and Jerry brought to the booth are no longer in demand at Fenway, any longer.

This change has been bothering me since opening day, when, while driving home and listening to the amateurish Geffner, who reminded me of the hacks that call high school sporting events on low-power local stations found in rural parts of states like Maine, I had to call my buddy, who was watching the game on television and tell him, “turn the radio on!” He was like, “Why?” I told him, “Because the Red Sox have the worst announcer I’ve ever heard calling the game with Castig.”

I haven’t written about it until now, simply because I’ve been so busy and every time I meant to look up what happened to Trupiano, I got sidetracked, or pointed in some other direction of importance.

While O’Brien is passable, he sounds like just another “cookie cutter” announcer (epitomized by his lackluster call on Big Papi's homer today) that one finds calling sports on national networks, like the God-awful Fox baseball team of Joe Buck and Tim McCarver.

I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to root for the Sox for several seasons, going back to 2002, when corporate milqetoast, John Henry (certainly no steel-drivin' man), purchased the club from the John Harrington and the Yawkey trust. I find that everytime Henry finds his way into the booth with Remy and Orsillo, I like the team considerably less. Henry, who epitomizes so many monied white males, who were the last guy off the bench on his Little League team and never played the game competitively after they were 12, reveal their lack of baseball pedigree every time they open their mouths to talk baseball. Of course, who the heck am I to criticize him, as his pocket change is probably greater than my total financial assets.

I know that Red Sox Nation (a corporate media driven commodity in its own right) continues to gain converts, particularly after finally winning the World Series in 2004, but with the team’s embrace of the corporate mindset that is professional sports, the co-mingling of NASCAR with baseball (Henry is a co-owner with Roush Fenway Racing) and the Trupiano incident, I think I’ve officially left the Nation for good. Add to that the fact that most of the team is a combination of right-wing, flag-waving Bush supporters and members of the “God squad” and I don’t find the Red Sox a very compelling team any longer.

It might be time for me to throw my allegiance back to the senior circuit and begin watching Braves games again (as I did through much of the 90s).

Friday, April 20, 2007

Cultural/racial insensitivity

I have blogged about Lewiston/Auburn on several occasions. Lewiston has special significance to me. I am Franco-American on my mother’s side. Her mother and father, my Memere and Pepere (which is Acadian for grandmother and grandfather), immigrated to Lewiston from Quebec, in the 1930s.

Beginning in the 1870s, when railroad connections to Canada were completed, French-Canadian immigrants came in droves, to work in the textile mills that lined the banks of the Androscoggin River. The textile industry provided the economic backbone of the city and the foundation that gave this area its rich Franco-American heritage. By the 1950s, textile production began moving south, following cheaper labor costs. Still, shoes and manufacturing provided an adequate economic base for the area.

By the 1970s, the economic bottom had fallen out and this once proud city began a 30 year downward spiral. Recently, the area begun to recover from the loss of wages attributed to textiles, shoes and manufacturing.

In 2003, Lewiston was thrust onto the international stage when Matthew Hale brought his gospel of racial hatred to the city, seizing upon a letter that the mayor at the time, Larry Raymond wrote, urging Somalis (who had been immigrating first, to Portland and then, to Lewiston, since 2000) to stop their migration to his city.

Since then, racial incidents have flared and then died down. Back in July 2006, Brent Matthews, a local thug, rolled a pig’s head down the aisle at a local mosque, on Lisbon Street. While the nearly 3,000 refugees and immigrants from Somalia, the Sudan and other countries on the African continent have begun assimilating and are clearly an important element in this city of 36,000, tensions remain.

Once again, an incident involving Somalis and cultural insensitivity has caused concern from some and cries of “PC” from others. Last Wednesday (April 11), a student at Lewiston Middle School placed a ham steak in a bag on a lunch table where Somali students were eating. Muslims consider pork unclean and offensive. For many of the students, this was reminiscent of the pig's head incident back in July. While it has drawn a great deal of criticism, especially from the racially intolerant and certain kinds of right-wing bloggers, it is being investigated as a possible hate crime by local police and it has involved the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence is working with the school to create a response plan.

According to Stephen Wessler, executive director of the Center for Prevention of Hate Violence, the incident is “extraordinarily hurtful and degrading" to Muslims, whose religion prohibits them from being around ham pork. It's important to respond swiftly, Wessler said.Wessler is concerned about this excalating into something bigger and possibly violent.

“Incidents like this that involve degrading language or conduct are often said by the perpetrator as a joke. I know that conduct is never static," he said. "It's part of a process of escalation.”

Like Wessler, I'm concerned.

If you have the opportunity, read some of the comments accompanying this article online, at the Lewiston Sun Journal site. I found them fairly instructive into how some in the community view members of the refugee and immigrant communities. In my opinion, there is an implied ugliness residing just below the surface with many of these.

Spending much of my time in Lewiston, in my current position, as well as getting involved in some community-based organizations has given me an opportunity to experience the city in a way that I haven’t for many years.

I’m encouraged by some of the things that I see, but I’m also concerned when youngsters (aged 13 and 14), who in my opinion, are merely modeling the behavior of adults in their lives, think its ok to insult someone in a very symbolic way, by placing pork on their table.

Unlike many posting comments, I don’t view these new residents in a negative light. I find them warm, accommodating and willing to adapt to our customs as often as they can. I’ve come to appreciate many of their customs and am trying to learn to be as culturally sensitive to them, as I’ve found them to be towards me. I also respect their right to practice their religion and its customs and dietary laws. To me, this is the model of give and take that makes for a healthy community.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Processing tragedy

For the next few weeks, we’ll hear about the Virginia Tech shootings. The professional news readers, sitting in their seats of importance, less for their journalistic credentials than for their ability to sell units of consumer items, will determine the arc of this story. They’ll question the school officials, the police, the parents and anyone else that they can possibly impugn for a crime that has no real explanation. Is it possible to rationally come to terms with an irrational act?

We’ll read about the details, about the killer and how his life, actions, words, screamed “warning,” “warning,” “warning!!” Interestingly, for all those supposed signs of trouble, no one saw fit to intervene—that’s just not something we do.

On the day when lives came to a standstill for the families with college students enrolled at the school, media sycophants began swarming the Blacksburg, Virginia campus, like hound dogs after a scent, interviewing students still reeling from the shock of staring down the barrel of a 9mm handgun. Trying to make sense of it all, these young adults became painfully aware that this something more than a video game, or an exercise in virtual reality.

Like Columbine, some eight years earlier, almost to the day, mayhem was visited like some Old Testament act of vengeance upon a school campus. No longer a refuge where youth retreated to experience the life of the mind, the cracks in American higher learning were fractured by the “pop, pop, pop” of semi-automatic gunfire.

Since I dropped a biblical reference above, what gives at NPR, yesterday morning? Why did this supposed bastion of “hard news” and journalistic integrity have to resort to the faith-based angle of this story, involving an evangelical youth pastor, Matt Rogers. I realize that the majority of Americans self-identify as religious, but how often will people go to the well of faith, only to have their faith shat upon by a supposed loving God? Since the topic of mental illness and insanity are being discussed in terms of motive, why not talk about the insanity of trying to paper over this tragedy with an empty veneer of faith, at least the superficial kind of faith featured by NPR?

It’s difficult to process any event in our current media-saturated culture. As hard as we try to step outside the vortex of the 24/7 news cycle, it keeps pulling us back towards its core, shredding any attempts at objectivity and reaching our own conclusions. Americans feel most comfortable running in packs and we’ll seek our own comfort group on this event, like any other.

Cataclysmic events require some element of context. In trying to frame the killings of young people who had futures brimming with hope to look forward to, we’ll be bombarded with multiple rationales and none will bring any sense of satisfaction or modicum of comfort.

Like most issues involving loss of life, sides will get chosen and the polarization will begin. One side will demand that we take guns out of the hands of killers and the other will posture that we need more guns to protect us from cold-blooded killers that maim and murder. The Rambo choir will puff out their macho chests and insist that if they were there, they’d have shot the killer before he had a chance to squeeze off his first shot.

The sad premise of this position, in my way of thinking at least, is holding to this line of thought that we need guns to protect ourselves, invalidates the notion that we have still an implied social contract and that we can live our lives, not bother anyone and live to see another day, not being concerned with being shot up by some crazy, with easy access to a lethal weapon.

Familiarity with Neil Postman’s critiques of media and communication, at least helps me understand my own morning news experience today, at 5:30 am. While having my first cup of coffee of the morning, the CNN/American Morning team of John Roberts and Kiran Chetry were seen on location, with a set that somehow reminded me of the sets that ESPN and Fox use for Sunday afternoon football.

These two meticulously groomed, good-looking and well put together news hosts were blathering on about motives, the killer’s background, the way that the Virginia Tech campus had come together during a spectacular candlelight vigil, replete with chants of “Hokie, Hokie.” Then, we were treated to a cutaway, which Postman, in his inimitable way, would have been wowed by. As he wrote about in Amusing Ourselves to Death (I’m paraphrasing), …news items are stripped from local context, commodified, and given to the viewer in bit-sized chunks, separated by the "now.... this!" phenomenon, which serves to make the viewer dismiss it all as meaningless candy he or she can do nothing about. The "now... this!" phenomenon can be tried on any news broadcast. Tonight, for example, and update on the Iraq will be followed by ("now.... this!") Britney Spears' (or insert any vapid cultural reference here) latest escapades. Postman indicated that this serves to reduce it all to meaningless trivia.

This morning’s cutaway was of a 50-ish boomer, washing his classic automobile, while his wife sashays provocatively by, with her bedroom eyes and the poor sap is faced with the choice of finishing rinsing the soap of his expensive piece of machinery (with all its own psychological ramifications and what it says about his virility) and going upstairs for a roll in the hay with his well-preserved wife. Well, of course, he positions the sprinkler to rinse away the soap, while he is seen going through the door and then the camera shows the shot of the upstairs window, with the shades being pulled and the final camera shot of the water hitting the side of his Stingray, with the white soap dripping off the gleaming metal—what was the product? Of course: Viagra! Guns, carnage and hours of ample erections—good Lord!

There are certainly discussions that events like this one at Virginia Tech ought to promote. Unfortunately, meaningful dialogue will instead be superseded by psychobabble, politicos seeking to score points and garner support for their latest run for office.

I hope the administration and the community at large in Blacksburg have some real leaders. They’ll need some to get through the tragedy and maybe even more difficult in the short run, the damage that will be done by the media feeding frenzy that is now the norm when tragedies like this occur.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The enemy is not Don Imus

Don Imus apparently crossed the Rubicon, regarding matters of what’s tolerable, or not, on syndicated radio. Last Wednesday, Imus referred to members of the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy headed hos,” sparking a fire of outrage that led to his firing, on Thursday.

Imus has made a career of making remarks about blacks, women, fat people and others that various groups have deemed offensive. The fact of his firing wasn’t particularly surprising, given the nature of today’s media environment, where today’s star can easily become persona non grata on the basis of an ill-informed and “insensitive” remark.

It’s not surprising that two of the people yelling the loudest for Imus’ removal were Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, the apparent spokesmen for all black Americans. Both of these men have made careers of cherry-picking causes to champion, flashing the race card whenever the possibility of face time in front of the camera became available.

Since I’m not black, I won’t try to speak about issues pertinent to black people. I will, however, highlight black spokespeople that I think have something relevant to say on the matter. One such person is Jason Whitlock, a sportswriter from Kansas City, who I think has the ability to cut through the smoke regularly, writing about sports, but on occasion, he also has something to say about society in a much larger context than the narrow parameters of his sports beat.

Whitlock points out the hypocrisy of equal-opportunity race pandering. While I’ve never been a fan of the I-man and his posse of tired, middle-aged cranks that made up his morning drive team, I also recognize that he’s not the only person who has ever uttered an untoward remark about women, blacks, or any other member of America’s protected classes. Interestingly, white men, poor whites from the south, or divorced fathers desiring custody of their children don’t seem to fall under that umbrella.

As Whitlock deftly delineates, black comedians, like Dave Chappelle, routinely use racially insensitive material, all in the service of humor, yet he’s rewarded with $50 million (from Comedy Central) for his schtick. Apparently, it all depends on who’s doing the routine, whether it gets deemed racist, or not.

Whitlock writes,

“I watched the Rutgers news conference and was ashamed.

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke for eight minutes in 1963 at the March on Washington. At the time, black people could be lynched and denied fundamental rights with little thought. With the comments of a talk-show host most of her players had never heard of before last week serving as her excuse, Vivian Stringer (the Rutgers coach) rambled on for 30 minutes about the amazing season her team had.

Somehow, we’re supposed to believe that the comments of a man with virtually no connection to the sports world ruined Rutgers’ wonderful season. Had a broadcaster with credibility and a platform in the sports world uttered the words Imus did, I could understand a level of outrage.

But an hour long press conference over a man who has already apologized, already been suspended and is already insignificant is just plain intellectually dishonest. This is opportunism. This is a distraction.”

I agree with Whitlock’s points about where the real enemies of black people are; they certainly don’t reside on the air with Don Imus.

In keeping with the spirit of Whitock’s commentary, I’d go even further and say, as I have at other times that the real issue in America is less about race and much more about class. The Imus episode is just another case of media white noise, getting us to take our eyes of the real enemies of everyday Americans.

For those who hold the power in America, they’d much rather we focused on Don Imus and his poorly chosen remarks about a women’s college basketball team, than the issues of economic injustice and the widening gap in our country between the obscenely rich and the rest of us. As long as our attention is diverted from those things that are truly dangerous, those making the important decisions can keep on keeping on, while the rest of us find it exceedingly difficult to garner attention for issues that matter.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut passes on

Vonnegut, dead at 84

NEW YORK (AP) -- Kurt Vonnegut, the satirical novelist who captured the absurdity of war and questioned the advances of science in darkly humorous works such as "Slaughterhouse-Five" and "Cat's Cradle," died Wednesday. He was 84.

Vonnegut, who often marveled that he had lived so long despite his lifelong smoking habit, had suffered brain injuries after a fall at his Manhattan home weeks ago, said his wife, photographer Jill Krementz.

The author of at least 19 novels, many of them best-sellers, as well as dozens of short stories, essays and plays, Vonnegut relished the role of a social critic. He lectured regularly, exhorting audiences to think for themselves and delighting in barbed commentary against the institutions he felt were dehumanizing people.

"I will say anything to be funny, often in the most horrible situations," Vonnegut, whose watery, heavy-lidded eyes and unruly hair made him seem to be in existential pain, once told a gathering of psychiatrists.

A self-described religious skeptic and freethinking humanist, Vonnegut used protagonists such as Billy Pilgrim and Eliot Rosewater as transparent vehicles for his points of view. He also filled his novels with satirical commentary and even drawings that were only loosely connected to the plot. In "Slaughterhouse-Five," he drew a headstone with the epitaph: "Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.

"But much in his life was traumatic, and left him in pain.

Despite his commercial success, Vonnegut battled depression throughout his life, and in 1984, he attempted suicide with pills and alcohol, joking later about how he botched the job.

His mother had succeeded in killing herself just before he left for Germany during World War II, where he was quickly taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge. He was being held in Dresden when Allied bombs created a firestorm that killed an estimated 135,000 people in the city."The firebombing of Dresden explains absolutely nothing about why I write what I write and am what I am," Vonnegut wrote in "Fates Worse Than Death," his 1991 autobiography of sorts.

But he spent 23 years struggling to write about the ordeal, which he survived by huddling with other POW's inside an underground meat locker labeled slaughterhouse-five.

The novel, in which Pvt. Pilgrim is transported from Dresden by time-traveling aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, was published at the height of the Vietnam War, and solidified his reputation as an iconoclast.

"He was sort of like nobody else," said Gore Vidal, who noted that he, Vonnegut and Norman Mailer were among the last writers around who served in World War II."He was imaginative; our generation of writers didn't go in for imagination very much. Literary realism was the general style. Those of us who came out of the war in the 1940s made sort of the official American prose, and it was often a bit on the dull side. Kurt was never dull.

"Vonnegut was born on Nov. 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, a "fourth-generation German-American religious skeptic Freethinker," and studied chemistry at Cornell University before joining the Army.

When he returned, he reported for Chicago's City News Bureau, then did public relations for General Electric, a job he loathed. He wrote his first novel, "Player Piano," in 1951, followed by "The Sirens of Titan," "Canary in a Cat House" and "Mother Night," making ends meet by selling Saabs on Cape Cod.

Critics ignored him at first, then denigrated his deliberately bizarre stories and disjointed plots as haphazardly written science fiction. But his novels became cult classics, especially "Cat's Cradle" in 1963, in which scientists create "ice-nine," a crystal that turns water solid and destroys the earth.

Many of his novels were best-sellers. Some also were banned and burned for suspected obscenity. Vonnegut took on censorship as an active member of the PEN writers' aid group and the American Civil Liberties Union. The American Humanist Association, which promotes individual freedom, rational thought and scientific skepticism, made him its honorary president.

His characters tended to be miserable anti-heroes with little control over their fate. Pilgrim was an ungainly, lonely goof. The hero of "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" was a sniveling, obese volunteer fireman.Vonnegut said the villains in his books were never individuals, but culture, society and history, which he said were making a mess of the planet."

We probably could have saved ourselves, but we were too damned lazy to try very hard ... and too damn cheap," he once suggested carving into a wall on the Grand Canyon, as a message for flying-saucer creatures.

He retired from novel writing in his later years, but continued to publish short articles. He had a best-seller in 2005 with "A Man Without a Country," a collection of his nonfiction, including jabs at the Bush administration ("upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography") and the uncertain future of the planet.

He called the book's success "a nice glass of champagne at the end of a life.

"Vonnegut, who had homes in Manhattan and the Hamptons in New York, adopted his sister's three young children after she died. He also had three children of his own with his first wife, Ann Cox, and later adopted a daughter, Lily, with his second wife, the noted photographer Jill Krementz.

Vonnegut once said that of all the ways to die, he'd prefer to go out in an airplane crash on the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro. He often joked about the difficulties of old age.

"When Hemingway killed himself he put a period at the end of his life; old age is more like a semicolon," Vonnegut told The Associated Press in 2005."My father, like Hemingway, was a gun nut and was very unhappy late in life. But he was proud of not committing suicide. And I'll do the same, so as not to set a bad example for my children.

[Associated Press writers Michael Warren, Hillel Italie and Chelsea Carter contributed to this report.]

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

(Maine) Roads and bridges redux

[Here are a couple of accompanying pieces of information, which ties into yesterday’s post regarding the need in Maine (as well as other rural areas of the U.S.) to address aging infrastructure, which includes roads and bridges. Not as “sexy” as say talking about the Red Sox (if crotch-grabbing and spitting is your idea of sexy), or the latest 15-minute celebrity poseur, but important, nonetheless, IMHO.]

From today’s Daily Mainebiz. (If you’re not getting this email, you’re missing a convenient way to get daily updates about Maine business, tourism and other related information.)

DOT unveils $10B plan
The Maine Department of Transportation yesterday unveiled a $10.6 billion, 20-year draft plan to address the state’s transportation infrastructure needs.

The plan addresses improvements for roads, bridges, rails, ports and air service in Maine, but allocates most of its funds to maintenance, improvements and modernization of the state’s highway and secondary highway system, according to the Bangor Daily News. The plan also includes $2 billion to replace bridges in the state, which DOT officials said need to be replaced at a rate of 32 per year.

The plan, however, still outlines a $4 billion shortfall in necessary funds over the next 20 years if revenue sources remain the same, the paper said.

Then, in this month’s Working Waterfront, essential reading for anyone wanting to know about coastal issues in Maine, comes Sandra Dinsmore’s article about the new Waldo-Hancock Bridge, including funding issues and the eminent domain controversy involving the Dyers and the Sail Inn Restaurant.

Oh, and don't forget to check out Colin Woodard's Parallel 44 column; Colin is a helluva' writer, author of The Lobster Coast, a must read for anyone who wants to understand life here in the northern reaches of New England.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Roads and infrastructure should be priorities

While there is considerable debate about the role of the U.S. in Iraq and whether, in fact, we should bring the troops home now (my position), or begin a gradual deployment, eventually turning control of Iraq back over to the Iraqis, the cost of U.S. involvement in the country can no longer be discounted, or ignored. If you doubt what role our “war on terrah” is having on the domestic agenda and the well-being of ordinary Americans, you haven’t spent any time reviewing the current FY budget sent forth by the Bush administration. Domestic programs for the marginalized, working poor and middle classes (most of us) have taken not a back seat, but are stashed in the trunk, while the beneficiaries of military spending, namely Haliburton, Carlyle and other instruments of the minority elite, receive additional funding every time a request is put forth. What did Eisenhower warn us about back in the 50s?

While there are a myriad of negatives associated with the $415 Billion ($415,863,980,562 at this moment—it’s already risen dramatically) that we’ve spent in Iraq to date, with arguably little, or no measurable success, after we’ve come in and destroyed much of that countries infrastructure, the entire debacle seems counter-intuitive on a good day and sheer madness and lunacy at its worst.

Back in 1992, Jerry Brown spoke at the First Parish Church in Portland. At the time, he was running as a Democratic contender for president. While the press was given to caricaturing Brown, calling him “Governor Moonbeam” and other pet names, for what they perceived as Brown’s different way of conducting his affairs, both political and personal, he came across as reasoned, articulate and probably the scariest trait for a modern politician—intelligent.

He spoke a great deal on this particular night about the need for a nationwide program of infrastructure rebuilding and refurbishment, similar to FDR’s programs during the 1930s. As Brown mentioned at the time, which was nearly 15 years ago, our roads, bridges and railways have not seen major upgrades for nearly 60 years (and now, closer to 70).

In rural states, like Maine, maintaining the integrity of our roadways is particularly crucial. Since 85 percent of all our freight and 95 percent of all passengers move by truck and passenger vehicle, infrastructure maintenance and bridge upgrades should be regular and proactive in approach. Interestingly, while many clamor for lower taxes, often citing the neighboring New Hampshire, as our model for taxation, New Hampshire has condiderably less pavement to maintain, compared to Maine. Maine has 1.5 times New Hampshire’s road mileage, with 22,748 miles, to the Granite State’s 15,627. Maintaining roads costs money.

Not only does Maine have more roads, but Mainers are now moving to the suburbs, leaving the service centers of our state like a pack of lemmings. Over the past 40 or so years, the percentage of Mainers living outside service centers have grown from 37 percent, to just over 50 percent. Currently the average commute for Mainers is now roughly 44 minutes per day.

Here’s where it gets interesting: With Mainers driving more, driving longer and fully dependent on our roadways for our livelihoods, not to mention public safety concerns, the maintenance of our roadways should be of major concern to our state and local leaders and even our federal delegation. According to the Maine Development Foundation’s Measures of Growth report, 31 percent of the major roads in the Pine Tree State are in poor, or mediocre condition. The report calculates that the cost factor associated with these bad roads at $263 million dollars, statewide, or $282 per motorist. Not only are our bad roads costly, but they are also dangerous. Poor road design is a factor in a third of all crashes on Maine roadways, with the estimated cost of these crashes for 2005 coming in at $1.1 billion.

While I’m a proponent of developing light rail for a variety of uses, particularly pertaining to commuting, Maine is still a decade or more from that becoming a reality and it's the same in many other rural sections of the country.

This is a serious issue here and nationwide. I haven't even touched on food security issues in this post. While Maine should certainly approve pending transportation bonds for road improvements and upgrades, this matter is of national importance and needs to begin showing up on the radar screens of politicians in the Beltway. While its easy to lose site of reality in D.C., many of our elected officials come home to rural parts of the country, which are wholly dependent on automobiles and trucks for our survival. We need to begin to hold them accountable in order to have them address the infrastructure issue.

[I am indebted to the Maine Development Foundation for much of my information in this post, in particular, the Spring 2007 issue of The Catyalyst, their monthly newsletter. which is where my stats on Maine’s roadways came from.]

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Mitt on a skewer

In the fraternal spirit of New England blogging, I wanted to tell everyone about Lost Nation TV, a New Hampshire-based blog. Billed by Sam Smith of Progressive Review as the "father of the political blog," progenitor Jack McEnany is an equal opportunity crank, skewering both parties at every opportunity.

Being such an inclusive fellow and supporter of fellow bloggers, I won't hold it against my Granite State neighbors for their lower taxes, better roads and that they drive nicer cars. As long as they keep providing "the goods" on the various candidates, I'm grateful.

Like this one about Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts Governor, man of the people and, well, hypocrite. Read it and chuckle, as McEnany zings ole' Mitty. Seems rich folk need more help than the rest of us keeping the estate maintained.

Mitt the Hypocrite

Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) has a major Zoe Baird problem. It seems he’s been using illegal aliens to make his little 2 ½ acre Garden of Eden in Belmont, Massachusetts tidy and beautiful. Alvarez Rosales, a recently-repatriated Guatemalan claims that as an employee of Community Lawn Service with a Heart, he kept Mitt’s garden green for eight years.

Mitt, ever the duplicitous conniver, endorses the Taco Curtain concept, and number four in his 10-point plan to keep America great is Getting Immigration Right:

Immigration has been an important part of our nation's success. The current system, however, puts up a concrete wall to the best and brightest, yet those without skill or education are able to walk across the border. We must reform the current immigration laws so we can secure our borders, implement a mandatory biometrically enabled, tamper proof documentation and employment verification system, and increase legal immigration into America.

Do illegal gardeners fall into the “without skill or education” category, or the “best and brightest” division?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

More than just showing up

Woody Allen was purported to have said that “90 percent of life was showing up.” (Bartleby's says it’s 80 percent). For many business people, apparently they do little more than that. Returning phone calls, answering emails and foregoing one’s golf game in order to get real work done seem to be qualities from another time. Well, maybe not the emails, but you get my point—I think.

I’m on the lookout for a business etiquette book because I’m really growing perturbed about the inability of so many so-called business “professionals” who seem to lack any capacity for follow through—as in, answering messages that you leave on their voicemail, responding to emails, or doing anything more than merely “showing up.”

It’s never been my goal to become “successful” in the Steven R. Covey “7 Habits” kind of way. At the same time, my role as entrepreneur and now, back working a regular 9-5 gig has helped me to recognize that there are certain traits that I find helpful and even welcome when I see them on display. Having an innate capacity to move things forward and “get things done” are skills that benefit non-profit agencies and activist groups, as well as profit-driven business organizations.

One thing that I used to find maddening in all my activist work, was how often meetings, seminars and even marches, or other actions, became exercises in disorganization and worse, even chaos. Finally, I began to see how much of my time was being wasted by people more interested in their nicotine addiction than they were in changing the world. While most could rail against “the man,” I don’t know how the hell they thought they were going to beat him when they had trouble getting out of bed before noon. Laziness isn’t becoming on anyone, much less so on people that claim they have the ultimate cause.

It’s not only activists. Musicians and artistic types also seem to embrace the “slacker” vibe with vigorousness and then wonder why they can’t line up gigs, let alone get their music to the masses. Whatever your goals are for your cause, your art, or making a living, hard work and having some basic organization skills go along way to getting you beyond the 90 percenters that Woody Allen was referring to.

While this post probably makes me seem like I’ve gone over to the corporate camp, the reality is that I’m finding that the work of change and transformation requires at least the same effort as those that put profit ahead of everything else. If you want to change the world, it requires a lot more work than distributing a few poorly put together flyers, or forwarding an email to a few friends.

BTW, if anyone has recommended books on etiquette in the workplace, or what constitutes proper protocol for the office, or place of business, I’d love to hear about them.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Fuelish Saturday

Photos: (Top to Bottom:)

#1 Meet the Baumers
#2 Joe Pez displays his superior listening skills
#3 The Happy Couple
#4 Post-party blurriness, probably courtesy of the wine

[I had hoped to “file” this yesterday, the day after our fabulous Saturday night dining experience. Unfortunately, my Twilight League duties robbed me of my Sunday night; not wanting to miss the chance to rave about Fuel, the truly amazing new restaurant in Lewiston, I’m posting a day late, instead.]

Saturday Night Fuelish-ness

Lewiston’s most anticipated local opening in recent memory has happened; Fuel, L-A’s newest high-end restaurant opened to the public last week and reservations are filling up quickly. Hearing the buzz wherever I went in my travels over the past few months, I made sure to call for a reservation two weeks ago and our party of six experienced firsthand what all the fuss has been about.

If you’re reading this and live in Boston, New York, or some other urban enclave, buzz about openings, swank restaurants and nightclubs, or theatre productions has probably grown old and tiresome. When you live in the far northern reaches of the kingdom known as New England however, we just don’t have enough “happenings” to bypass them. Even more important to me, they become essential to experience if they happen to be in a place that’s rooted deeply in your memories and sense of place, like Lewiston is for me.

I wrote about Carrie and Eric Agren, back in December, long before they had transformed one of the city’s great old pieces of architecture—the Lyceum Hall—into a modern French bistro, the likes of which you won’t find north of Boston. While Portland has a slew of high-end, trendy restaurants, Maine’s largest city’s got nothing on L-A this time and locals can thank these two entrepreneurs for their vision, passion and daring, making it all happen. Business people find success by seeing a trend begin to develop, waiting until they’re sure its moving in the right direction (i.e. can I make money here) and swoop in after visionaries and entrepreneurs live through 100-hour work weeks and lack of sleep to lay the foundation. The Agrens are in the latter category and Lewiston-Auburn residents (and people from the surrounding communities) have a chance to get in while it’s still brand new.

Four (The Baumers and Mr. and Mrs. Joe Pez), from our planned party of six arrived just before our 7 pm reservation time and walked into the long and buzzing room that not too long ago had been a dilapidated storefront, one of the all-too-many that still characterize much of downtown Lewiston, particularly this end of Lisbon Street. Our hostess made us feel welcome, taking coats and offering to get us drinks while we waited for the final couple to arrive. Normally, we would have been escorted to the wine bar area, at the front of Fuel, to wait for our table, but this area was jammed with people enjoying wine, appetizers and face-to-face interaction. With our embrace of technology at every turn, experiencing this kind of vibe is no longer the norm and being in the presence of this kind of palpable, positive energy is an experience to seize and experience whenever possible.

With the arrival of the final third of our party of six, we were off to embark on our three hour journey, experiencing Lewiston's newest eatery. I honestly don't remember the last time I've been this eager for an anticipated event. Part of it probably had to do with the recent articles in the Lewiston Sun Journal and the article and photo spread in the Twin City Times (local weekly) of last Friday's official opening and sneak preview for some of Lewiston's important set. On Saturday, it was just two bloggers, their significant others and one other couple, whose wife works with me.

The restaurant was packed, with nearly every table occupied and the energy palpable as we made our our towards the back of the long, rectangular room that is the restaurant space. Everyone was having a great time and I was sure that we would, also. I wasn't to be disappointed.

As is the case when you try to meld two sets of people--some who already know one another (the Baumer's and the Pez') and the third couple who were unfamiliar with some of the other four people, the first meeting can be an exercise in awkwardness. Instead, we began chatting like we've been out numerous times, rather than embarking on our maiden voyage for this new amalgamation.

By the time we ordered the wine and began contemplating appetizers and first courses, we were engaged in witty repartee and scintillating conversation. The communication, fueled (no pun, honestly) by equal parts red and white vino, the conversation flowed easily, like the spirits.

By the time food began arriving, we were all eager to experience the handiwork of the Fuel kitchen crew. I had a wonderful Potato Leek Soup that was hot, flavorful, with the just the right combination of creaminess, as well as seasoning. It was the perfect beginning for me.

After the initial course, we were ready to order the main course. We all ordered a variety of dishes, with everything from Grilled Salmon, to Slow Braised Beef Short Ribs (mine), which were tender, savory and with the honey carrots and pommes terrine, was exquisite.

Before someone accuses me of being a paid “shill” for Fuel, let me detail a few minor “glitches” that were noticeable. The service was a bit uneven, as our server didn’t quite fit the profile that I’d expect in a higher end establishment. While sincere, this 20-something young lady shared a bit too much information about the chef and his background and prior employment. While not an issue for me, it might have been for someone else. Also, she struggled so much opening one bottle of wine over my left shoulder that I was almost tempted to ask her if she wanted me to do it. Also, there were long stretches when I wondered if our server may have left for the night. Since none of us were in a hurry and enjoying the winning triumvirate of wine, friendly banter and fabulous food, it didn’t dampen our experience.

Since restaurant was barely a week old, it was acceptable, particularly after seeing Carrie Agren running herself ragged all night, carrying food, bringing table settings and doing whatever it took to make the night a success.

The Agren’s have obviously done their homework and preparation and have given considerable thought to the entire experience they hope to provide, even down to the music that’s playing in the background. From the Fuel website, we learn that Eric and Carrie have spent “a lot of time choosing our music, to compliment our urban environment. Classified as ambient, we strive to offer music you won't hear in any other restaurant in town.You will hear sounds from Telepopmusik, Stephane Pompougnac, Thievery Corporation, De Phazz, and more.” Now that’s attention to detail!

If vision, hard work and commitment to community matter, then Carrie and Eric Agren’s Fuel is a can’t miss for Lewiston.