Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Will walk for coffee

I love my job! Actually, I’m talking about my day job, as I’m also doing the dual candle end thing most evenings with the writing and publishing.

The day job provides enough variety, diversity and challenges and I’m never bored. Many days, I get to travel to exotic Maine destinations like Augusta, Waterville, Skowhegan and Rumford. Other days, I am forced to spend my day tucked away in my cubicle, answering emails, returning calls and following up with my business partners. On those particulars day, I tend to feel a bit logy around 2 o’clock. Maybe it’s my habit of eating an early PM lunch and being sedentary most of the day. I'm sure my early rise at 4:30 am also has something to do with it. I wouldn’t trade my early hours, however, as I’m a subscriber to Ben Franklin’s axiom, at least the part that says early risers are “healthy, wealthy and wise.” On the first and third counts, I can say that while I need to shed a bit of excess baggage, regular exercise and good genes help contribute to success in this area; I like to think I am acquiring wisdom, if for no other reason than growing older and grayer, while paying attention to life’s experiences helps in that department. As far as wealth is concerned, I must say I missed that class when it was offered.

Yesterday, rather than hop in my car and drive to my local Dunkin’ Donuts, two miles away, I heeded Al Gore’s call to save the planet, opting to walk about ½ mile to the local convenience mart and buy a 16 oz. afternoon pep-me-up, aka, cup o’ joe.

Any time you decide to forego the internal combustion route for travel, you are bound to encounter issues. Maine, with the exception of maybe Portland, is like many other places—it isn’t geared to pedestrian-friendly modes of getting around.

While the end of town where I work at least has a sidewalk, it runs right along the busy Main Street, with cars and trucks ripping by at 45 to 50 miles per hour. It's not an overstatement to say it's a bit scary to see drivers coming at you, talking on their cell phones, when you have nothing to shield you, but your wits, from this hulk of synthetic material hurtling your way.

Whenever you decide to strike out on foot in most places, you immediately recognize that you are a rare bird—in a car-based culture, walking immediately pegs you as odd, eccentric, or too big of a loser to own a car. Add to the equation, someone walking, with business attire on and it really throws off the equilibrium of passers-by.

While the 25 minute walk was invigorating, the number of curb cuts, in and out of various business establishments, made a direct line near impossible, as cars trying to pull out into heavy traffic volume rarely see you, so a proactive walker knows to walk around the back of the exiting auto, so that they won’t accelerate towards a gap in traffic flow and run over you.

Three businesses actually had sprinklers operating at this time of the afternoon, spewing irrigation all over the sidewalk, forcing me to find another alternative path, or risk spending my last three hours at work in soggy attire.

As I returned to the office, I had to cross at a busy intersection. While there was a button on the traffic light pole, to activate the crossing sign, when it indicated it was safe to pass, cars turning left from across the way, actually had a green arrow, necessitating my need to goose step across the street, to avoid being hit.

While I have an automobile and can choose to walk or ride, other members of the community don’t and I often see them walking along the very same route that I took for my afternoon coffee stroll. They also tend to be folks that don’t usually involve themselves in “causes” and “campaigns,” as they’re too busy just trying to scratch out a living. This is probably why sidewalks and pedestrian options are always thought about as ancillary, or peripheral items in any urban planning and design decision.

Maybe as talk about addressing global warming continues to ramp up, some solutions oriented towards pedestrian and bicycle travel might be added to the mix that still often centers around maintaining our dependance on the automobile.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

More beach, less baseball

[Lobster boat, just offshore]

[The sound of the sea]

[Maine's characteristic rocky coastline]

[Lobster traps, washed ashore, probably during the last storm]

[Caretaker's shack on nearby, Richmond's Island]

Summer for me has always been a choice between baseball and the beach. Other than the brief time we spent in Indiana, shortly after my religious shipwreck and departure from fundamentalism, we’ve spent very little time as a family, at the beach. With Maine’s beautiful coastline, as well as an abundance of inland lakes, it seems odd that someone who used to love his time near a body of water could forsake beach time and give himself entirely over to dusty ball diamonds.

For eight years, summer has always been about Mark’s baseball, first with American Legion games and then for the past four, the Twilight League occupied more than my fare share of my “spare” time. And then, if there wasn’t a game to be going to, I spent evenings watching games, or one of my weekend days lolling in front of the television set, giving away three hours to the Red Sox.

Yesterday, I spent a part of the morning and most of the afternoon at Crescent Beach State Park, in Cape Elizabeth, with Mary, who truly loves the beach more than anyone I’ve known. I can’t believe we haven’t spent more time, together at the beach, over the past two decades. I spent time reading a great book, about Gary, Indiana—can you believe it! We walked down the beach and climbed over the rocky jetty, where we had great views of Richmond’s Island and I thoroughly enjoyed the perfect weather and sights and sounds of the Maine coast.

It appears the Red Sox are doing fine without me and with my recent resignation as Twilight League president, I have discovered that I can carve out a block of time, a few times a month, to enjoy the beach and all that goes along with it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Campaign stop, Gary, Indiana

[U.S. Steel plant in distance, viewed from the West Beach, in Miller]

[One of a number of "gentlemen's" clubs on Dunes Highway, U.S. 12/20, near Gary]

[Apparently there is some sort of celebration, although I had trouble finding it]

[This building sits at a major intersection, at 5th and Broadway and symbolizes present-day Gary]

[Gary's former "sugar daddy"]

I've posted some accompanying images that go along with my political parable, below. The idea for this fictitious campaign stop, came from my recent trip to Indiana and the incredulity that I'm still experiencing, after witnessing much of what passes for Gary, Indiana, a city of over 100,000 people, in a major metropolitan area (the Chicagoland area has a population in excess of 8 million people], yet Gary feels like a place that time and certainly anyone of any influence, has long ago forgotten, or better, written off.

I wrote this piece over the weekend and decided to send it off to several progressive news sites, which I thought might have an interest in posting it, online.

I'm thrilled that Counterpunch, one of my favorite progressive sites, chose to run it. Jeffery St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn self-identify as muckrakers, doing battle with the corporate-driven war machine, a business community bereft of a soul and those who would rape and pillage the natural environment. It's an honor to have my writing stand alongside many of their regular contributors, most of whom wage a lonely battle to keep the flame of journalism lit.

Speaking about Counterpunch, Barbara Ehhrenreich is quoted as saying that, "CounterPunch makes me think. It makes me laugh. Above all it tells me things I didn't know."

Campaign 2008, Gary,Indiana-style
By, Jim Baumer

I’ve just returned from a week in Northwest Indiana, America’s post-industrial wasteland, known affectionately by locals as “the region.” I am still trying to process all I’ve seen, particularly my time driving around Gary. It occurred to me, last Sunday morning, trying to remain inconspicuous, with my rental car plates, three-piece suit and camera dangling from my neck that solving Gary’s many problems would go far in solving many of our urban problems elsewhere.

Earlier in the week, I read an article about Michelle Obama and her desire to campaign “off script,” creating a persona sans spin and lacking the usual campaign-speak. Barak’s wife seemed to want to speak from the heart, foregoing talking points created by professional PR people. Thinking about this, I wondered if a campaign rooted in reality and focused primarily on the people on the ground would still work in 2008. For all the talk about the issues and political pandering, particularly to issues of poverty, it appears to an outsider like me that most, if not all of this is just talk—nothing more. We all know that the obscene amounts of money required to purchase TV time and other advertising gives politicians, even newcomers like Obama, a convenient excuse to go right to the corporate till and load up.

Maybe I was downwind from the towering smokestacks of U.S. Steel and the fumes had fouled my thinking, but I began envisioning a scenario about a campaign stop in Gary. I had an idea for an event in America’s very own version of a war zone city, like Bagdhad, would help dispel much of the cynicism most voters feel toward politicians, as more often then not, they get whisked from photo op to photo op, nary a hair out of place and too often, in front of carefully selected supporters and donors.

Gary, Indiana, a once proud city that symbolized America’s industrial prowess, has fallen on hard times over the last three decades. Situated along the southern shore of Lake Michigan and only a short commute from Chicago, is a place that many non-residents and travelers have come to avoid like the plague, fearing it like no other place in America. Just read some of the comments sometime on various travel websites and you’ll get a quick sense that Gary isn’t a place you want to stop in, even for gas, or a quick bite. Worse, when you actually spend time driving around its various neighborhoods, in the shadow of dilapidated buildings designed by legendary architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, you grasp how far the place has fallen, bypassed by economic policies benefiting America’s rich, ravaged by drugs and gangbangers and plagued by corruption at all levels.

If the field of presidential hopefuls want Americans to embrace them as legitimate, then staging a political debate, in downtown Gary, at the Genesis Convention Center, opening it up to anyone who wants to come, would help promote some real hope in a city that’s had precious little for nearly 30 years. Maybe Oprah Winfrey could make the trek from Chicago, via the Skyway and be seated in the VIP section down front. Other notable politicians and community leaders from the area should also be invited. I suggest that the candidates and some of the dignitaries arrive mid-afternoon and load onto a bus and spend time riding through Gary’s once majestic and now crumbling neighborhoods. Of course, security is always an issue in certain areas of town, so doing in daylight would be a much safer option and I’d suggest a police escort, even though I didn’t have one on my recent visit.

Since soul food and in particular, southern BBQ is one element that Gary does right, maybe the bus could find a rib joint near downtown, where the candidates could break bread over some authentic local cuisine, before heading over the convention center. If there was one close enough, maybe the entourage could walk off their chicken, pulled pork, corn bread, cole slaw and beans, with a short jaunt over to the center, to prep a bit before the TV lights and moderator brought them back to reality.

I think this event would favor certain candidates, particularly in light of Gary’s demographic makeup. According to the 2000 census figures, Gary’s racial makeup is nearly 85 percent African-American. One out of every four residents live below the federal poverty line, including nearly 40 percent of those who are below 18. The per capita income of Gary’s residents is just over $14,000 a year. If candidates want voters to believe they represent all voters, not just the uber wealthy, then Gary might be a campaign stop worth making.

Here’s my handicap of the night by candidate:

Barak Obama: As the great hope for African-Americans and in light of his political credentials having been forged in neighboring Illinois, Obama would be considered the “home town favorite” and possessing a solid advantage going in. He could use Gary as an opportunity to dispel the charges against him by some leaders in the black community that’s he’s an “Uncle Tom” and just another political opportunist.

Of all the candidates, Obama probably is the only one that even has a sense about some of Gary’s difficulties, given its close proximity to Chicago.

Hillary Clinton: Don’t dismiss her, as she has some “cred,” being married to Bill, who some dubbed “America’s first black president.” Hillary has the ability to connect with her audiences and as someone who knows her way around the inside of a black church, she wouldn’t be outside her element in Gary. Also, I’m sure she knows here BBQ, from her days in Arkansas.

John Edwards: Talks a good game when it comes to playing to the working class. With his roots in North Carolina and a dad who was a textile mill worker, he wouldn’t be lost in terms of understanding Gary’s industrial heritage. However, with his $400 haircuts and pretty boy good looks, he might not connect with most in Gary, who probably are lucky to own a $400 car. Still, Gary would be a good place for Edwards to fully grasp issues of poverty, up close and personal, not just from the perspective of a wonk, or an author.

Dennis Kucinich: Actually spent time in an American city similar to Gary, when he was mayor of Cleveland. Having been homeless as a youngster, Kucinich probably comes closest of all the candidates to knowing poverty firsthand. Of all the candidates, his policies might be the most functional in addressing some of the deep-rooted issues of hopelessness that plague many in Gary. Unfortunately, Kucinich, who connects in person, doesn’t project well enough via electronic media to have a chance.

As for the Republican field, African-Americans traditionally vote Democrat, but I’ll at least give my thoughts on the three front-runners.

Mitt Romney: How does someone named “Mitt” carry any credibility with people living in a city resembling a war zone? I suppose as governor of Massachusetts, he had some sense of urban issues, like drugs, gang activity and devastating poverty. However, his law and order agenda probably wouldn’t sit well with many in Gary, who already know someone, either family member, or close friend, doing time in jail, due to America’s failed “war on drugs.”

John McCain: McCain wouldn’t play well, either. Is it just me, or has McCain’s label as a “maverick” worn thin? If McCain’s a maverick, with his support of all things Republican, then I hate to see what being a supporter of the status quo means.

Rudy Giuliani: Another strong proponent of “lock ‘em up and throwing away the key” brand of law and order, his agenda for Gary would probably consist of armed patrols, driving around the streets of Gary in vehicles reminiscent of RoboCop, rounding up drug dealers and others and shipping them 30 miles to the east, to the Supermax in Westville.

Well, that’s my little fantasy, campaign-style, 2008. While it’s offered somewhat tongue-in-cheek, there is a part of me that sees a place like Gary as symbolic for the rest of America. While urban areas nationwide have problems, it’s rare that you come face to face with an urban hell like Gary, within the continental U.S.

Gary represents a great opportunity for a political reality check for politicians who have become too detached and removed from the masses to understand the issues on a personal level that they need to, in order to know how to represent all Americans, not just their corporate donors. A candidate’s event in Gary would at least give them one night of reality and maybe, just maybe, it might make a difference, although I don’t hold out any hope that this would ever happen.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Can Maine move away from defense profits?

It’s dicey to criticize shipbuilding when you live near Maine’s Mid-coast region. For those readers from away, this area of Maine is where you’ll find one of the nation’s largest shipbuilders, Bath Iron Works, BIW for short, or “the yard,” to locals.

In a state that has a paucity of living wage, benefit rich occupations and employers, criticizing BIW is akin to looking a “gift horse in the mouth” to many a resident of this region. Regardless of jobs and economic benefit however, BIW builds destroyers and these ships are used to kill.

Bruce Gagnon, who is the coordinator of Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space, writes about the recent christening of another destroyer at Bath and his subsequent, regular protest of another BIW “christening.” (Anyone else see the irony in calling it a “christening?”)

Gagnon also writes about the local media’s coverage and spin regarding the launch of the USS Sterett, which oddly, is how I perceived the coverage, when I saw it broadcast on my local TV affiliate. My first thought was why they were spending so much time talking about the rescue mission of the ship’s namesake, an event that happened more than two decades prior, if not to “spin” it.

As Gagnon notes, “these Navy Aegis destroyers are the ships that launched the first cruise missile volley in the U.S. "shock and awe" attack on Iraq in 2003. I know this because Mary Beth and I have made friends with a former Naval officer who was the officer on the deck of the very Aegis ship that fired the first cruise missile in that attack. This officer now suffers from PTSD.We know that these same Aegis destroyers are now being deployed in the Persian Gulf in anticipation of a U.S. attack on Iran. We know that U.S. naval officers, in charge of cruise missile targeting, met with Israel military officials last summer to select targets for a U.S.-Israel attack on Iran.

These Naval destroyers are also now being outfitted with "theatre missile defense" (TMD) systems and are being deployed just off the coast of China. The military mission of these ships is to hit Chinese nuclear missiles after they have been fired in response to a U.S. first strike attack on China.

Oh, you say, the U.S. would never launch a pre-emptive first strike attack on another nation! That would be in violation of international law.

But in fact the U.S. Space Command has been war gaming such a first strike attack on China for the past several years. Set in the year 2016 the Pentagon initiates the attack on China using the military space plane, now under development. The role of the Aegis destroyer, outfitted with the TMD interceptors, is to knock out any remaining Chinese nukes that could still get off the ground after the initial U.S. attack. (Remember that today the Chinese military only has 20 nuclear missiles capable of hitting the continental U.S.) So the Aegis ships would not have to "destroy" very many of China's missiles to make it a successful operation.

These Aegis naval ships are now being sold to, or deployed, in Japan, South Korea, Australia and eventually Taiwan as the U.S. attempts to "contain" China. This aggressive, and provocative, military operation will create a new arms race in the region. Japanese and South Korean peace groups are very concerned about these plans and frequently protest the presence of these ships in their ports.”

Gagnon, who along with his significant other, Mary Beth and members of Maine Veterans for Peace, are unsung heroes, regularly bearing witness to the profits resulting from the death of others that defense contractors like BIW promote.

I’m sure that I’ll be called to task for daring to criticize BIW, Bath’s sacred cow. However, as this article clearly delineates, now is the time to begin moving away from defense-oriented industries. In fact, we should have done this decades ago, as we are now paying a steep price in many ways for our short-sightedness and corporate greed.

It is possible to imagine a sustainable economy, built upon non-defense jobs. Many currently believe that and work towards that end. I hope more of you will join in envisioning a more humane and just way of making a living.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Pilfering public assets

While traffic flow in Maine continues to increase and sprawl has only acerbated the issue, there is no comparison between driving in Maine and driving in the Chicagoland area.

Not only are the roads of northwestern Indiana and the greater Chicago area choked with cars and Big Scary Trucks (BST’s), but road construction, exorbitant tolls and in a case that hearkens back to the highwaymen of yesteryear, Governor Mitch Daniels (a supporter of President Bush) has privatized the Indiana Toll Road (I-80/90), which runs east/west across the northern part of the state. Indiana isn’t alone in selling off its public assets to private investors. The Chicago Skyway, once considered a white elephant by politicians in Springfield, is now considered a valuable enough asset that a foreign consortium spent $1.8 billion for the eight-mile stretch of pavement that is considered a shortcut to Chicago’s Loop.

Initially, the bid offered by the Cintra-Macquerie consortium, was considered extravagant by experts in the transportation community. However, when depreciation benefits of $300-400 million associated with the 99-year lease are factored in, as well as the recent refinancing of the Skyway for $1.4 billion, it appears that Cintra-Macquerie had done their homework.

"It's like putting a huge down payment on your house to secure the deal quickly so you can get in. Then you go and refinance it, so you can pull some money out," said Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation, a public policy group that promotes libertarian principles, including individual liberty, free markets, and the rule of law. (according to their website)

While Reason publicizes their work as non-partisan, their primary purpose seems to be the dismantling of government by promoting the privatization of public assets. They are fans of the privatization policies of “pioneers” such as Margaret Thatcher and the right-wing Daniels, who from what I can see, has turned the Hoosier State entirely over to business interests without much regard to people, or place.

My return to Indiana was predicated by my own involvement with fundamentalist Xianity, some 20 years prior. Interestingly, much of what I experienced firsthand in Hoosierville was still being dictated by a fundamentalist mindset—the ideology of “free market fundamentalism.”

We are living in a time when the drumbeat of the free market crowd drowns out any other discussion when it comes to public assets. Just like the fundamentalists of the religious persuasion, these economic fundamentalists hold up privatization in the same way that the right-wing Xian crowd hold up the virgin birth and the inerrancy of scripture. Question it and you shut down any hope of meaningful dialogue.

It is a rare opportunity to hear any contrary opinions and thoughts from the other side and most Americans no longer recognize that men of wisdom, people like noted author and journalist, the late Walter Lippmann, issued caveats to the market fundamentalists of his own day, when he reminding them that there is a need for both private and public enterprise in our country. For men like Lippman, wisdom always consisted in finding the right balance between the two.

More and more, ordinary Americans, far removed from the corridors of power, see firsthand, the emptiness and economic fallout that free market fanatics and their gospel of privatization wreak. While corporate America tries to extract maximum profit from every enterprise, at the peril of the people that live in the communities being paved over, and corporatized, it’s high time the inhabitants of these places begin to fight back, before all of their assets are stolen from them.

Here is a good article about how ordinary citizens can step up to the plate and make sure that they have a say in the well-being of their communities.

One area where citizens can make some "noise" is in the arena of local broadband, an increasingly important public asset, making sure this isn’t high jacked by corporate interests. Municipal broadband is an option for many communities and could be a viable alternative for rural areas of Maine that are underserved by Verizon and other communication giants.

Additionally, the BusinessWeek article, “Roads to Riches” is a good place to start for an understanding of why the investment community views public assets as the next place to put their money and why we all need to pay closer attention to attempts by our so-called public servants to privatize public services.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Airport trek to O'Hare; 5/14/2007

[Headed north on the Chicago Skyway/alternate route to O'Hare]

[Lakeshore Drive, headed north on U.S. 41]

[Fountain at Grant Park; attended Taste of Chicago here, back in 1985]

[Fore! Municipal golf, Chicago style!]

Monday, May 14, 2007

No Place Like Home

I’m sitting at O’Hare, tucked away in the corner, on the floor, at one of probably two electrical outlets (oh great!! It doesn’t work, so I’m depleting my already overtaxed and nearly drained battery—long story, I won’t bore you with the details). You would be right to think that in this age of wireless devices, having more than two electrical outlets, at the busiest air hub in the U.S. isn’t asking too much—particularly when you’ve been herded like cattle, had your water confiscated and encountered major road construction that makes the Big Dig seem like a residential driveway repaving. Oh, and the suit-wearing business hard-ons are all walking around, talking on their headsets and being assholes.

After having a whirlwind five days (two, if you count travel days, which I don’t—traveling by air in the U.S. is the antithesis of fun) of productivity and positive social interaction.

Fortunately for me, I left my hotel just after 7 am, knowing that I didn’t want to spend any time on the Dan Ryan, the Kennedy, or any other expressway I didn’t have to. I took the alternative route, via the Chicago Skyway, which allowed me one last look at the steel mills of Gary, which continue to fascinate me in some odd sort of way.

I got to retrace the route I used to take to work in Chicago, when I first moved out here in 1982. I was working for a security firm at a 40 story condo on Lake Shore Drive and used to enjoy driving through South Chicago, along U.S. 41, passing along Stony Island Parkway and through Garfield Park.

I stopped and took some photos along upper Lake Shore Drive, north of Grant Park and Navy Pier. I don’t have time to download photos from my camera before my flight takes off, so I’ll probably post a bunch of pictures Tuesday, or Wednesday, sans commentary, or offering very little. That will come later in the week, hopefully. I’m back to my day gig tomorrow and after being gone for a week, I can only imagine what awaits me when I walk in tomorrow morning.

Well, it’s time to board. Hopefully I don’t have to sit next to some freak that is averse to basic human interaction. And as Dorothy said in The Wizard of Oz, “there’s no place like home.”

[Addendum—my favorite airport, O’Hare, doesn’t have free wi-fi and I wasn’t giving the state of Illinois any more of my money—they rape you with tolls for roads that I’d rather not spend time on, going back to my sentiments earlier in the post.

For all the weirdness that is JFK, the jetBlue terminal has free wi-fi, outlets and the gate I’m flying out of is in the new terminal and the seats aren’t ripped and it’s clean. I must admit, I do have to bitch about something. Since I need an outlet as my battery is drained from O’Hare, I’m sitting here near an electrical plug and to my right is a three-year-old monster, with the typical mother who knows nothing about how to corral her child—beyond having her strapped into a harness, of some type. She’s pulling on the harness, screaming and the mother is like, “Yolinda, please don’t scream—you are giving mommy a headache.” Yeah and you’re adding to my travel-induced migraine! C’est La Vie!!]

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Let's hear it for the west side!

[Valparaiso's west side business district]

[A coffee shop that's not a Seattle-based chain]

[A local pharmacy stuggles against Wal-Mart and Walgreens]

[Local farmer's market]

[Ubiquitous box store development]

I’ve been dependent on my suitcase, since Tuesday. The chain hotel where I’m staying is quiet and clean and given the current state of the world that’s not a bad combination. While cleanliness is often placed side by side with Godliness, the staff that occupies the front desk has been another story.

As someone who has spent a lot of time of late focused on workforce training and skills improvement back in my home state, I can’t help but see some serious shortcomings at the hotel, as well as numerous other places that one is forced to frequent when on the road, namely convenience stores and unfortunately, fast food chains and sandwich shops.

While I’ve been limiting myself by and large to the complimentary fruit and coffee after my daily morning walks, a midday snack and a large meal in the evening, occasionally, I’ve been forced to grab a bite on the run. Everyone of these visits have been disappointing. I’ve learned that not all low-skill workers are created equal. While I expected this to be the case in some of the “grittier” communities in the northwestern most tip of Hoosierland, I expected Valparaiso (Orville Redenbacher’s hometown, btw) to be a bit better.

Adding to my disappointment in the most rudimentary skills these workers possess is that each time I’ve asked one of these hotel desk personnel about some aspect of commerce in the town, as in, “where can I find a drugstore (or grocery store),” everyone of these 20-somethings advised Wal-Mart across the way, on the other side of U.S. 30. When I mentioned to one young lady that I didn’t care to shop there, she offered the alternative suggestion of “Target.”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that the downtown area (the west business district) wont’ be functional in another five years, if everyone shops at the eeat end of town (big box heaven).

Granted, one’s consumer choices often boil down to a matter of degrees and shades of conformity, but as I’ve been writing about frequently, our choices do matter and at some point, we may not even have the option of making our own free choices.

Enough of that for now, although I’m bound to be back on this topic again.

As Bobby Fuller, sang, “I fought the law and the law won.” While I didn’t engage the law in any confrontation, I was ticketed to by a member of the fine Indiana State Police on Thursday, while on my way to an interview. Traveling southward on construction-choked I-65, between Gary and Merrillville, I was pulled over by an officer of the law, who inquired if I “was in a hurry.” I learned long ago to answer politely and respectfully when dealing with and agent of the law. This one was obviously a veteran, as evidenced by his quiet confidence and mannerisms. Being that I was traveling in a construction zone, I was fortunate in that all he wrote me up for was going 73 in a 55 mph zone and not triple for the construction zone violation.

So while things have been going remarkably well that event put a bit of a crimp on my enthusiasm, on Thursday.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Dry on election day (wastin' away in Hoosierville)

[I’m back in Hoosierland, home of Hyles-Anderson College, where I once attended; a place where the Klan once had a successful run and where no piece of open space is safe from the development mafia~JB]

I flew into O’Hare around midday and was eager to make my way to the southeast, where I’d be staying. I had secured my lodging in Valparaiso, far enough away from the gray, post-industrial remnants and the diesel fumes that epitomize northwest Indiana.

I was returning to my fundamentalist roots, at least my failed attempt at becoming an acolyte of the late Jack Hyles. Having lived in the area for five years, I knew I didn’t want to stay in Hammond, thought it wise to steer clear of Gary and preferred to bypass the retail hell that is Merrillville.

If you’ve never been to this part of Hoosierland, its not the idyllic place that the basketball movie portrays it to be. The northwestern tip, bordering Lake Michigan (and part of the greater-Chicagoland area) is an ugly place, ravaged by its industrial past and held hostage by a failed national policy to ship all our products via trucks. Crossing into Indiana on the toll road, heading east, I was amazed at the wall-to-wall tractor-trailers (or BST's as Howie Carr calls then), hugging the right two lanes of the tollway, made worse by the ubiquitous construction that I encountered during my 75 mile trip from O’Hare.

What should have been a 90 minute trip easily morphed into a 2 ½ hour ordeal, made worse by my early flight (6 am, out of Portland), delay at the rental car place (don’t rent with Enterprise, at least outside of Maine) and an accident on I-294, which further delayed getting to some basic sustenance, like water. I don’t know how you are when you are traveling in a strange land, but I hate exiting toll roads, especially when they whack you every time you leave their goddawful maze of hardtop.

I finally found my hotel, tucked in behind Valparaiso’s own acquiescence to low-wage box store development. I remembered the home of Valparaiso University as being a quaint Midwestern town, with a nice Main Street, with its typical courthouse square. I used to pass through it often, usually later at night, when I returned from my second shift job as a med tech at Westville Correctional Center. My normal east/west passage for efficiency and speed, was U.S. Route 6, but on my way home, I enjoyed seeing the students out and about on a Saturday night.

Valparaiso’s changed and not for the better. Just as Maine succumbs to the Faustian bargain that is big box development, so has Valparaiso and much of the formerly quaint, non-industrial areas that I remember from my time in the Hoosier State, two decades ago. Apparently, no matter where you go, people just can’t resist the lure of merchandise manufactured by serfs in third world countries. Americans have become so hollowed out and devoid of a soul that all we seem capable of is pushing a shopping cart from parking lot, to and fro around the local retail giant, back to our car, only to do it all again tomorrow. It’s Ground Hog’s Day done horror-style.

While I had expected my travel day to be all but wasted on the details of getting to my final resting place, I did harbor a hope for a nice meal and a few adult beverages at a local watering hole, preferably not of the chain variety.

Once I was checked in at the Hampton Inn (a serviceable travel hotel with a few business perks), I was off to frequent the local supermarket, to pick up some water, some caffeinated beverages (for me, it’s Diet Pepsi) and probably a six pack of cheap beer to round out my small refrigerator. Nothing takes the edge off a day of research and blogging like a cold Bud Light.

Of course, the dolt at the desk at my hotel was unable to direct me anywhere else but Wal-mart, when I inquired about a supermarket. His line was, “There’s a Wal-mart across the street; they’re the cheapest around and that’s where I shop.” Yeah, like I expected anything more from a hotel desk jockey and yet, I registered a bit of disappointment that he didn’t send me down the street to the Wiseway.

I was too fried at this point to engage him in my own skewered vision of economics, so I nodded politely and set out to find somewhere other than Wal-mart to pick up a few items for my fridge. Not that I was on some mercy mission for the common man, as I ended up at the Seven-Eleven. I picked up my six pack of D-Pepsi, jug of water and plunked my suitcase of Bud Light (thank you, sir!) on the counter. The sweet, cornfed cutie behind the counter said, “I’m sorry sir, but you can’t buy that today, until six.” At this point, I had one of those moments that one can only appreciate, after watching countless episode’s of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone. I looked at my watch. It said Tuesday and it was now 4:30 pm. I wasn’t sure if at some point, I had flown through some type of door of no return and was growing somewhat concerned that I had arrived in my own personal hell, reminiscent of the movie, Pleasantville.

Usually eloquent and loquacious, even with a total stranger like Miss Indiana Corn Princess, yet in this instance, all I could muster was, “Why?”

This 18, or 19-year-old came back with, “You’re not from around here, are you.” I was thinking at this point, “No and boy, am I fucking glad!”

Unbeknownst to me, today was primary day and in places like good ole’ Indiana, towns statewide are “dry” until the polls close. Now, in light of how we’ve fared of late at the voting station, I’m not so sure denying people a good stiff drink is having all that great of an effect on our politics, but that’s a topic for another post.

Of course, at this point, I had to offer my own two cents worth about voting and alcohol that I’m sure was lost on this teenager, approaching womanhood. In fact, like most youngsters her age, she had no sense of why Indianans can’t drink and vote, or why the goddamned state, a state by the way, where the Klan had some staying power in the early 20th century, still had blue laws on Sunday. Apparently, they don’t teach history in the Indiana schools, either.

To be quite honest, I don’t know much about this type of thing, either. I do know that Maine was rather late in repealing its own blue laws and in fact, you still can’t buy an automobile on Sunday. Apparently God wouldn’t be honored by that.

There are still a number of states prohibiting alcohol and voting to be paired; apparently it has something to do with trying to prevent crooked politicians from getting voters drunk and bringing them to the polls. Like this would make a bit of difference, with all the other ways that our election system has been tainted.

Well, that’s day one—I can only imagine the other surprises Hoosierland has in store for me.

[Coming up—the search for the "real" Jack Hyles, a game of catch and my "meeting" with the law, ala Bobby Fuller-style.]

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Rooting our memories somewhere

James Kunstler wrote a book not long ago called, The Geography of Nowhere. His premise was that as all parts of the U.S. and elsewhere get bought out and paved over, the ubiquitous sameness robs us of who we are (or were).

I think Kunstler is a good writer, although I’ve made a departure from his prepossessions about the world, as only he can know it. Limiting my exposure to cranks (takes one to know one, eh?) helps me remain somewhat sane in an increasingly insane world. While the argument can certainly be made that there is “nothing new under the sun,” the increasing speed at which everything moves—information, commerce technology and its plethora of “must have” gadgets—makes the time during which we live like no other. Men (and women) much smarter than me have predicted that this may ultimately cause our world of smoke and mirrors to collapse.

Getting back to geography, however. Place defines us. It is a rare human being that doesn’t long for some place, or places, usually tied to some pleasant memory, or memories that occurred in that place, rooted in time. While life moves at breakneck speed, interview anyone about their past and you’ll find them falling backwards into nostalgia, as they rhapsodize about the ball field where they hit their first home run, the soda fountain where they met their future wife, or even the shopping mall where a young girl bought some special dress, for some occasion, often rooted in tradition.

Much of my own writing is tied to the memories that are rooted in the geography of a town called Lisbon Falls, located on the banks of the Androscoggin River. The working class men and women that I had the pleasure to get to know, as I brought them their afternoon paper and later the Maine Sunday Telegram, taught me a lot about honesty, integrity and what it means to love the place where you live. I often say, only half jokingly that the story that became When Towns Had Teams really began when I was nine, with my first paper route.

I'm very fortunate that I grew up in one of the last great eras to be a kid and as a consequence, I can draw upon experiences and people, rooted in a specific place and time. Younger Americans, people my son’s age, or younger, may not be able to find the same deep and abiding connection that I have, with a special place.

As our unique and special places get bulldozed over, or maybe even worse, go out of business due to being unable to compete with the local big box store, we are defined less and less by these places that possess an almost sacred quality. I posit that this is not a good thing, although I'm sure persuasive arguments can be made that I'm once more being overly nostalgic.

It's quite possible that the explosion of social networking sites, like MySpace, or Facebook, or even Second Life, are filling the void, irrespective of geography. Maybe the need that 20-somethings have to create profiles and create personas in cyberspace are due to some inherent need that people have for a familiar place that they can own as their own. The beauty of favorite places is that they can be all our own, even while thousands, or tens of thousands of others are experiencing their own special memory and creating a place in their mind to go back to. Fenway Park and the Red Sox might be one of those shared places. This helps connect us collectively, in a way that the internet and social networking sites can’t do.

Obviously, I’m passionate and intrigued by this topic, as I continue to find the need to write about people and the importance of place for them, as well as for all of us, in order for society to remain connected in a healthy and meaningful ways.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Dirty water

[The former IP Mill in Lisbon Falls (now Knight-Celotex)]

[Open River on the Androscoggin; Not much recreation going on]

[There are more signs, however that people are using the river, recreationally]

[One of many beautiful open stretches on the river]

The state is at a crucial crossroads, economically. While some in Augusta grasp the gravity of our choice, I’m fearful that far too many are locked into the old mentality that accepts jobs—any jobs—as a panacea for their constituents. In my world (Baumerworld?), politicians care about their communities and in particular, the communities that they represent.

The Verso Corporation is asking that they not be required to meet the higher standards that various advocacy groups and others are asking for. While the scientific data seems to support the need for stricter standards, Verso is taking issue with the science. In a scenario that is all too familiar in Maine and elsewhere, the issue is being played as the environment versus jobs. As the case plays out, politicians are treading carefully, but if history is any indication, these so-called representatives will side with the corporations, rather than the communities that use the river for something other than a pool to dump their waste.

Rather than carrying the water for multinational corporations, water that in Verso’s case, would be significantly more polluted, these “representatives” need to focus on what are Maine’s strengths. We need to move beyond the feudal mentality that has existed for far too long in the Pine Tree state, where we allow the “kings of industry and commerce” to control every damn important decision made. Just take a look at our wage scale, compared to our neighbors to our south and then tell me that business works in the interest of Maine people.

Verso talks a good game when you speak with them. They talk about caring for the community, being a good corporate citizen—all the things that their marketing people script for them to say. Interestingly, many of their managers are “from away” and know very little about the history of Maine—beyond the fact that Mainers still know how to work, by and large and that they have a captive labor market to draw from in the Western Maine locale where their mill sits.

The reality of the paper business is that it is in flux. For all their talk of commitment, before the residents of Androscoggin and Franklin Counties grant Verso carte blanche in what they can dump in the river, let’s keep in mind the history of papermaking in Maine for the past 35 to 40 years. Mills, bought by large multinationals have fared poorly. In town after town across our state, these companies came in, got concessions from municipalities (while trumpeting jobs) and in most cases, rarely lasted for more than a decade before moving operations to a place where they could shave costs (or environmental standards) and left Mainers standing in the unemployment line.

Maybe Verso is an animal of a different stripe, I don’t know. All I know is if it walks like a corporation and talks like a corporation, then in all likelihood, in the end, it will behave like a corporation and protect its bottom line every time.

The Androscoggin, once one of the most polluted rivers nationwide, has gotten better since 1972, when Rumford native, the late Senator Edmund Muskie, was one of the authors of the federal Clean Water Act of 1972. Yet, for all the progress that’s been made from the days when the river, filled with chemical-laced foam, would occasionally catch fire and peel paint of the houses bordering the river in mill towns like Rumford and Jay, the river still does not meet the minimum federal standards, or even the state standards for water quality. In fact, the Androscoggin is still one of the dirtiest rivers in the state, used by the mills along it merely for their own industrial needs. Gulf Island Pond, the 14-mile stretch of slow moving water above Lewiston/Auburn, fails to meet even the state’s lowest water quality standards. According to DEP, there have been no significant improvements in water quality in the last decade in Gulf Island Pond.

So who is responsible for the Androscoggin’s continued pollution issues? According to DEP, it is the paper mills, like NewPage in Rumford, Verso in Jay and other paper producers upriver, which account for 83 percent of the oxygen depleting pollution entering the river and 77 percent of the phosphorus pollution sent to its waters. Phosphorus is a nutrient pollutant that causes algae blooms (green slime on the river) and depletes oxygen in the water.

Rather than merely exploiting a wonderful resource for their own profit and industrial uses, Verso and the other mills along its banks could invest in modern pollution prevention technology that would both lower manufacturing costs and allow them to meet water quality standards, at least so said the McCubbin Report, in the fall of 2003.

The report stated, “There are many technologies and operating practice that have been in use for some time in profitable, operating mills which can potentially be used to reduce the discharges of pollutants that affect the Androscoggin River. These include personnel training, improved process control for phosphorus addition, correction of weaknesses in existing waste treatment systems, recovery of unplanned mill process losses, oxygen delignification and replacement of aeration tanks in the mills’ waste water treatment plants.”

Maine’s rivers have an important role to play in the state’s future economic growth. The city of Lewiston, which borders the Androscoggin, is developing a beautiful riverside gateway complex to the city. Amazingly, there is talk about luxury condominiums being built overlooking Great Falls. On the Auburn side of the river, the Hilton Garden Inn has been built, attracting guests from all over. Nearby is Gritty McDuff’s with an outdoor deck overlooking the river during the warmer months. There is a new river walk and beautiful Railroad Park, providing an important greenway area for Little Canada and that part of town bordering the Androscoggin. The river is a key part of Lewiston’s continued economic growth, so for Verso to use the argument that they should be allowed to continue to dump phosphorous and other chemicals in the river shows an inability, or unwillingness on their part to recognize that the river is a key part of the area’s revitalization and future.

What bothered me the most was Verso’s shameless attempt to use its very own workers to do their bidding, bidding, by the way that will be quickly forgotten as soon as Verso hits economic hard times and has to lay off some of these same workers. Bussing them to Thursday’s hearing, the general tenor of their testimony was that if the more stringent laws are passed, then they’ll be out of a job.

I’m not unsympathetic to their plight. My own father was a paper worker for over 40 years. During that time, I saw him work swing shift, holidays and do pretty much everything his employer asked of him. For his efforts, his employer of 30 years closed its doors, after seeing ownership change hands regularly over his last decade there. He hung on, taking a cut in pay in his mid-50s and limped across the finish line to retirement.

My father was a product of another time, a time when a high school diploma and a will to work, coupled with loyalty served a Maine worker fairly well. Those times have changed and sadly, many of these workers who spoke Thursday, taking their cues from the corporate suite, don’t realize it.

While mills like NewPage in Rumford and Verso in Jay pay well and offer employment opportunities, I’m not convinced they’re here for the long haul. Residents along the Androscoggin’s banks would do well to demand the more stringent regulations. By doing so, they are guaranteeing the long term sustainability of the river, for recreation and the enjoyment of those who are committed to the area for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The value of a good plumber

Fewer and fewer young men (and young women) are going into the skilled trades. As our society has grown more technology-oriented, making a living with your hands has fallen into disfavor. Now, working in a climate-controlled environment, even if its in a cubicle, performing the modern-day equivalent of assembly line work, which is basically what today’s information workers are doing, still carries more prestige than an occupation where you might get dirt or grease under your fingernails.

Occupations like electricians, plumbers and other trades, such as heating and ventilation, are finding their workforce aging and today’s high school students set on a four-year degree, in liberal arts, business, or information technology. The orientation for the last 50 years, beginning with the returning GI’s from WWII, has been on obtaining a bachelor’s degree.

While there might have been a time when foregoing four years of earning power made sense, more and more, graduates of liberal arts programs are finding good paying jobs hard to find. In addition, many students are leaving private institutions with crushing levels of debt, resulting from student loans.

So, is a four-year degree necessary? According to Bert Schuster, executive director of National Tooling and Machining Association Training Center in Fremont, “There are people who just have a high school education and are doing very well.” Schuster points out that many machinists find their way into the occupation by going through the association's four-year apprenticeship program.

While many continue to beat the drum that manufacturing is going away, precision manufacturing continues to provide opportunities and great paying jobs for many young people coming out of two-year community college programs, or on-the-job training opportunities, such as apprenticeships. Even in a low-wage state like Maine, a journeyman machinist often earns more on average than a four-year college graduate, with many machinists making more than $55,000 to $60,000.

Machinists make parts that go into virtually any manufactured product—from from car engines to computers, from medical devices to kitchen appliances. States like Maine have many machine shops that manufacture components in such diverse fields as medical equipment, semiconductors, computer peripherals, communications, automotive, consumer durables, and even aerospace.

Which brings me to plumbing. There is nothing worse than needing the services of a plumber and not being able to access one. For someone like me, with very little mechanical acuity, I depend on people like plumbers to maintain my fixtures around my home.

Living outside, I have a well and a well requires a well pump. Over the 20 years that I’ve lived out in the country, my wife and I have experienced our share of issues with our well pump. Due to the iron in our water, periodically, we get a buildup in the pump and we begin having problems with the pump not shutting off. While I know how to manually shut the pump off, it becomes a headache and inevitably, it becomes necessary to place a call to the plumber.

We’ve had several plumbers over the two decades that we’ve lived here and they’ve all been the stereotypical tradesman that many people think of when the discussion turns to manual labor—difficult to schedule, undependable and with a tendency to overcharge and under-deliver.

About three years ago, we found a local gentleman who does plumbing part-time. While this can present challenges, as his business has grown and there are just so many hours in the day, he’s very good at calling us back and giving us a pretty accurate “ballpark” of when he’ll be able to get over. We’ve been fortunate not to have a plumbing emergency, so I don’t know what would happen in that instance. I do know that for routine problems, he’s been great. Professional, personable and surprisingly reasonable, price-wise.

With fewer and fewer people having basic skills to do plumbing, wiring and other basic repairs around the home, the skilled trades will continue to be in great demand.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Portland loves baseball

The Portland Sea Dogs and the City of Portland are looking to extend their current lease at Hadlock Field for another 20 years, which would take it through 2028. I predict this will be a slam dunk, because the city council will basically “rubber stamp” this and will continue to subsidize a private business.

It’s always been interesting to me how often good people suspend logic when it comes to something sacred, like their local professional baseball team.

I wrote about all of this before. In light of the pending vote by the City Council, it's probably worth linking to it again. It continues to amaze me that my well-researched and indepth article is the only one that bothered to look critically at whether the Sea Dogs offered any real benefit for the city.

Not surprisingly, the article in the Press Herald fails to go into any depth in analyzing the issue. In fact, almost all the comments echo support for sticking the local taxpayers with the task of subsidizing a millionaire’s business venture.