Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Hillary Clinton hails herself as a progressive

To listen to the political pundits, you would think that last night’s YouTube debate ushered in a new golden age of politics. Like everything else that get’s lumped in with technology and in particular, social networking sites like YouTube, it’s given a free pass and little or no scrutiny. Technology=good, or better, great, every time.

While some articles pointed out the paucity of substantive questions, most were willing to lionize the gimmickry and mostly irrelevant questions, as some kind of watershed event in the way that political dialogue will now be carried out. Whether we have questioners dressed as snowmen, or yielding assault rifles, or the scripted questions being spoonfed by the likes of Jim Lehrer, the current debate format absolutely sucks!

I didn’t watch the debate, but I could have predicted the near orgasmic gushing that would follow the proceedings. Which brings us back to the questions, which I viewed online and from transcripts of the debate. The form which we ask our questions will determine the answers that we get. As Francis Bacon put it, some 350 years ago, “There arises from bad and unapt formation of words a wonderful obstruction of the mind.” Bacon’s quote is a fitting definition for stupidity, which our culture is drowning in at the present time.

As Postman commented upon, in Conscientious Objections, it may be that "we have adapted ourselves to disinformation, to Newspeak, to public relations hype, to imagery disguised as thought, to picture newspapers (USA Today comes to mind) and magazines, to religion revealed in the form of entertainment, to politics in the form of a thirty-second television commercial."

This last one is what our political debates are about—30-second television commercials.

Take for instance Hillary Clinton, when asked if she considered herself a “liberal,” demurred by answering Rob Porter’s YouTube clip by saying that she preferred the word “progressive.”

This won’t be a problem for Clinton because no one but a few sticklers for historicity, even know what the hell progressive once stood for. For all the brain-addled masses know, her self-identifying as a “progressive’ might mean that she’s been bought and paid for by Progressive Insurance, since we’re not far away from having corporate spots accenting our political events, like our sports; as if that would be a problem—our candidates are already bought and sold.

Not that it matters, but when I hear Clinton call herself a progressive, I alternate between laughter and screams. Some of us still know what the term once meant—particularly as it was used during the 19th century, when it came to mean a definite alternative to the conservative solutions being offered in dealing with the social and economic issues of the day.

Historically, progressive candidates, particularly in the early years of the 20th century, were concerned with social justice and workers rights, not being some watered down version of conservatism that much of Clinton’s platform represents.

For those who have read about progressives like Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, a man who in his day was called “arguably the most important and recognized leader of the opposition to the growing dominance of corporations over the Government.” Not something that Ms. Clinton would know much about.

You see, true progressives, like LaFollette, actually had some backbone and principals, something that Clinton knows little about. LaFollette, was a friend of Emma Goldman, who called LaFollette "the finest, most inconsistent anarchist" of his time. Can you imagine any modern candidate, who associated with the likes of known radicals, like Goldman, having a chance in the era of "handled" candidates--people who have every wardrobe, as well as word, picked out for them, to wear and say?

LaFollette was a man so fierce in his convictions that he would risk consignment to political oblivion rather than abandon an unpopular position. He represented the antithesis of the elected officials whose compromises characterize our contemporary condition, officials like Hillary Clinton.

La Follette believed strongly that the inheritors of America's revolutionary tradition would, if given the truth, opt not for moderation but for the most radical of solutions. This doesn’t sound much like Clinton, or Obama, for that matter.

No, Mrs. Clinton, you may not be a liberal, but you most certainly aren’t a progressive, at least in a historical sense.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Dark and getting darker

There are no easy answers to life’s questions. Maybe that’s why fewer and fewer people seem to care about searching for any. It’s much easier to follow sports, or invest in reality-based television. Your investment allows you to experience a common bond with thousands of other people and while it leads to groupthink, there is a certain comfort in conformity.

Concern about the dumbing down of the masses isn’t new, at least in America. Writers and thinkers have been conscious of this for decades, if not longer. One of the classic books on the subject, Richard Hofstadter’s, Anti-intellectualism in American Life spoke to these issues 40 years ago. Things haven’t gotten measurably better since Hofstadter. Others more recently, notably Morris Berman, have waxed eloquent about the ramifications of America’s functional illiteracy and our nation’s cultural decline.

As a consequence of letting others do our thinking for us, we’ve seen book reading fall out of favor (with all due respect to Harry Potter), political civility and discourse at all-time lows and the supply of social capital continue to decline. None of this bodes well for democracy and many of the institutions that exist to further it, here in the “homeland” (an Orwellian term if there ever was one) and abroad.

Consumin’ is what we do. When two buildings melted to the ground, our president sent us to the malls. As James Mitchell, cultural critic said, “There is barely an empty space in our culture not already carrying commercial messages." Nowhere is this more evident than the world of sports. While billboards and signage has always graced ballparks and other venues, now every pause and segue is brought to you by some corporate behemoth. George Steiner had it right when he said that we live in a “systematic suppression of silence.”

Back to Hofstadter, this is not new. However, we’ve taken a turn for the worse, in my opinion, as the intellectual is ridiculed and knowledge becomes suspect and something to scoff at. We now need everything spoon fed to us—our news, our entertainment and our politics.

Berman has a new book, a blog and if interested, here’s a review of Dark Ages, America: The Final Phase of Empire. From the review is the following paragraph that helps sum up what I see as pervasive in our culture--the tyranny of the individual.

The ethos of American individualism is Berman’s particular preoccupation. It has frontier roots but is also an effect (as well as a contributing cause) of the victory of automobiles and suburbanization over mass transit and European-style city planning. "The relentless American habit of choosing the individual solution over the collective one," Berman writes, underlies "the design of our cities, including the rise of a car culture, the growth of the suburbs, and the nature of our architecture, [which] has had an overwhelming impact on the life of the nation as a whole, reflecting back on all the issues discussed [in this book]: work, children, media, community, economy, technology, globalization, and, especially, US foreign policy. The physical arrangements of our lives mirror the spiritual ones."

In one of his comments on the blog, Berman mentions that he doubts any more than one percent of Americans know what a metaphor is and the inherent difficultly of living with that, as conversation becomes more and more of a challenge—unless of course you want to talk about sports.

In wrapping up this somewhat disjointed post—there’s some unresolved tension in the thoughts and ideas that Berman has me pondering and I’m trying to process, but I’m not sure what the resolution is at the moment and maybe there is none to be had.

I’m thinking back to some of the prior reading I’ve done from writers like Neil Postman, Jacques Ellul and others; I was struck by the following passage from an essay on Herbert Marcuse that I located at the website of Logos, a quarterly journal with some interesting topics pertaining to modern culture, politics and society at large.

The essay on Marcuse, written by Arnold Farr, is titled, “Democracy, Social Change and One-Dimensionality: Reviving Marcuse.” Farr is citing Marcuse and his essay, “Social Implications of Technology,” where Marcuse has this to say about technology:

Technology, as a mode of production, as the totality of instruments, devices and contrivances which characterize the machine age is thus at the same time a mode of organizing and perpetuating (or changing) social relationships, a manifestation of prevalent thought and behavior patterns, an instrument for control and domination.

Farr adds his commentary on Marcuse, utilizing the dialectic between the liberation that technology always promises and the oppression that often gets delivered, discussing why most Americans get so uptight when technology is criticized.

Also, with respect to technology, many people are given just enough of the benefits of the technological society that they are afraid of rebelling for fear that they may lose what they have. Even the poorest homes have a TV set.

Farr's commentary on Marcuse's critique of technology would be one that I’d be most comfortable with and concur that it is more accurate, citing the negative implications of technology and not granting it the status of savior of mankind that it most often gets credited as being; catalyst for consumption maybe.

Berman’s dismal assertion (while probably anecdotal) concerning awareness of metaphor is troubling.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Clarification, apology and a side of crow

This will be my third post related to the NPR story that ran, July 3rd, on the depressed mill town of Skowhegan, Maine. The feature, produced by reporter Adam Davidson, portrayed Skowhegan in a light that I characterized as overly negative.

In my analysis and then, the posting of a letter I wrote, I took some "pot shots" at Davidson that were unfair and unprofessional. He's a journalist and he came to Skowhegan in search of a story. He left with what he fairly, or unfairly felt were the issues he discovered on the ground.

Mr. Davidson earned my respect by emailing me and offering me additional perspective. He didn't have to do this and I commend him for taking the time to do so; in my own email back to him, I explained my own thoughts/feelings, as well as apologizing for my personal attack upon him as a journalist. Without sharing all the details, let me say that here are a few points that need to be made, before putting this to bed (which, seeing it's nearing 2 am, might be something I ought to consider doing with my own sorry self).

1) Mr. Davidson didn't do a "drive by" story, as I insinuated, but was on the ground in the Skowhegan area for four days. Apparently that's more than the usual time spent by NPR reporters, which begs the question, "how can you fully understand cultural issues germane to a story like his, without spending even more time than that, talking with locals and actually beginning to crack the cultural code of rural places?"

2) He felt some of his subjects, particularly Mary Jane Clifford, the town's General Assistance director, were articulate spokespeople for the town. I still disagree and think she came across as one-dimensional, but that's my opinion.

3) Mr. Davidson's job is not to write puff pieces, but to tell the truth. I agree with that, I just think a bit more balance on the more "positive" side, like including something about a business that's chosen to locate to Skowhegan, like Backyard Farms, would have helped to at least leave a listener with something positive to "hang their hat on."

Blogging tends to be imperfect in the sense that it allows someone who processes by writing, to spew and issue pronouncements and occasionally treat people with less respect than is fair, which is what I did in the case of Mr. Davidson.

I've responded to Davidson with my own email and promise to try to use Words Matter less as my own personal launch pad and more as a place to disseminate information, albeit uniquely informed with my own thoughts, opinions and yes, biases.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

School consolidation update

I’ve been interested in rural issues for quite some time; part of this comes from living in a state, when classified using various criteria and methods, almost always ends up with a rural designation. Plus, other than Portland, there is no area of the state that has what could be called an “urban” vibe.

Additionally, reading Wendell Berry helped root my philosophy squarely in the camp of the rural, rather than the urban. Other writers, like Edward Abbey and to a smaller degree, Barbara Kingsolver, have helped me to understand that community is fostered by an approach that connects people to the land and ultimately, place.

Having spent quite a bit of time of late in rural western Maine and seeing some entrepreneurial educational models that work, I’ve grown increasingly concerned that the governor’s push towards consolidation and ultimately, the regionalization of the state’s schools, is detrimental to areas, like Franklin County and other rural areas of the state. Overly simplistic and concerned merely with what looks like a winner on paper, as in big=efficient, Maine—already lagging behind many other states in preparing its 21st century workforce—will continue to fall further behind if this consolidation boondoggle flies.

From the blog at Rural Matters, I found this older post (posted in February), which points out some flaws in Governor Baldacci’s plan for consolidation; like the plan has no data to support it—but why should that deter the Guv? Having determined that this will work, irrespective of data, all indicators point out that it’s full speed ahead on the plan, education quality and rural communities be damned!

BTW, successful small school models don’t work well only in rural Maine, either, as this report points out.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

This is not a beach blog

[Following Maine's "tourism road"

[Headed to Reid State Park]

[Surf's Up!]

[Beach Accoutrements]

[Beach Currency]

In an earlier post, I made much ado about forsaking the dusty diamonds of the Twilight League to spend a summer of leasure, sitting under an umbrella and relaxing by the sea, at Maine's abundant beaches. That was back in May and over the past six weeks, with lawn mowing, rainy weekends, a garage sale and a book signing last week, opportunities for dipping my toes in the Atlantic have totalled one--a trip to Popham Beach back on June 16.

Fortunately for me and the missus, this Saturday, our calendars were empty and the weather was sunny and warm, so off to Reid State Park we headed.

For those unfamiliar with Maine, Reid State Park is located in Georgetown, about 13 miles south of Bath (on Route 127). Leaving the well-travelled Route 1, normally choked with tourists this time of year, 127 winds its way past beautiful views of marshes and other scenic vistas, as it passes over numerous eddys and estuaries on the way to the state park.

Sitting on 700 acres of beautiful rocky coastline, juxtaposed next to saltwater marshes and ample tree growth, Reid State Park was Maine's first State-owned saltwater beach, with the land coming as a gift from Georgetown businessman and philanthropist, Walter E. Reid. Reid, who made his money in shipping, wanted to leave a lasting gift for the people of Maine, so he donated this diverse coastline habitat to the state, in 1946. Fortunately for Mainers of modest means, men like Reid have left us permanent access to our state's coastline, which at some point, with oceanfront property being snatched up by wealth out--of-staters, will probably be limited to just a few state parks. In light of this, Reid's gift takes on an even greater importance.

The state park has always held a special place in the hearts of Mary and I. Back in the day, nearly 30 years ago, when we first started dating (our 25th wedding anniversary is just around the corner), Reid was one of our favorite beaches to hang out at. Over the years, we've made trips back with our son, Mark and now, when we return, it is always a place filled with warm memories and meaning for both of us.

Yesterday, with temperatures right around 80, with a slight overcast, it was nearly the perfect beach day, weatherwise. If not for a rather sensitive sunburn on my shoulders, obtained by wearing a cutoff and no sunscreen, the day was exactly what the doctor ordered. Five hours of seaside bliss and ample time to pore over some back issues of magazines and fit in a little bit of reading of Ruth Moore's, The Walk Down Main Street, where the late Maine icon's fictional account of Maine High School basketball captures life Downeast, back in the day (probably the 1950s).

Thursday, July 12, 2007

My two cents worth

I'm still ticked off about the poorly done feature on Skowhegan that NPR ran last Tuesday (July 3). While I don't know if the locals generated much in the way of protest, or at least some old-fashioned indignation, for my own sense of propriety, I had to fire off a letter, even though it's taken me a week to find some time.

While a part of me understands that journalism in general has taken a turn towards the trivial and is more concerned with its entertainment value than actually capturing the truth of the story, the other half is somehat surprised that even NPR appears to have relaxed its usual standards. Just one more sign that Empire USA is on the downward slope.

Here are my thoughts sent NPR's way, about some lousy journalism (in my opinion) on the part of reporter Adam Davidson.

I'll let you know if I hear anything back from NPR; I'm not holding my breath, waiting.

July 12, 2007

NPR Features Editor
635 Massachessetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001

RE: Skowhegan Feature

Dear Sir or Madam:

I am writing to express my disappointment with last Tuesday’s (July 3rd) overly negative feature story on Skowhegan, Maine. Your reporter, Adam Davidson, didn’t seem interested in presenting an honest and balanced story. Typically, as is often the case when reporters visit rural America, Davidson latched on to anything he could find that painted Skowhegan as a rural backwater—substance abuse and pregnancy among teens and of course, domestic violence.

I’m not sure how much time Davidson spent in the area, but I’m guessing it wasn’t very long at all. I have been told by some locals that they were originally contacted and told that he would only be in town for one day and if they couldn’t do the interview that day, then they wouldn’t be given an opportunity to present their side, one that probably would have contrasted with Davidson’s. While I don’t know the details of his trip, the shoddiness of the feature seemed to indicate a paucity of time on the ground, in the Skowhegan area.

I’m not a resident of Skowhegan, but I feel like I know the town, mainly from spending time in the area in my role as a business liaison and workforce trainer, helping to raise the skills of the local workforce. While many of Skowhegan’s lucrative industries of yesteryear—shoes, lumber and paper—don’t offer the same opportunities that they did 30 years ago, Skowhegan and the surrounding towns of Somerset County are not in the dire straits that Davidson portrayed. While I don’t live in Skowhegan, I’ve lived in Maine for most of my 44 years and have also spent part of the past five years freelancing stories about Maine as a journalist, not to mention writing a 300 page book on small town Maine. I also grew up in a mill town very similar to Skowhegan, so I think I know about what I speak—Mr. Davidson, on the other hand, obviously knows very little about the people of Skowhegan, Maine, but even worse, shows very little concern about his subjects beyond that they are a means to end—pawns to be manipulated in order to file a story.

The county is fortunate to have an economic development director of the quality of Jim Batey, who conducted a series of public forums this spring that were lively, informative and provided some optimism for the future. Certainly, he would have been someone that I might have taken the time to talk to, if not in person, then certainly with a phone call. I’m sure that Mr. Davidson has a land line phone wherever he’s based, or certainly, cell phone service to facilitate follow-up interviews that NPR-caliber journalism should require.

While I would agree with part of Davidson’s assessment, particularly concerning jobs that have gone away and that there are elements of social dysfunction, I don’t think Skowhegan is much different than other areas of Maine, or rural parts of the U.S. In fact, I have seen some many positive elements in addition to Mr. Batey and his role in attracting economic opportunities to the area.

Recently, a public/private partnership between local businesses, the local workforce investment board, community economic development organizations such as CEI and members of the Skowhegan education community, the local community college, as well as the local CareerCenter, helped to pilot a training initiative called WorkReady, which offered a three week soft skills training program, preparing out-of-work and underemployed individuals for opportunities with local employers. This program, foundational in nature, is helping to raise the skills of the local workforce and help equip them for additional training, such as employer-specific training at Kennebec County Community College, or plug them directly into existing jobs locally, if appropriate. Sadly, Mr. Davidson didn’t do his homework, or prepare to highlight anything but the typical and hackneyed, which Mainers have come to expect from journalists from the big city, who come here occasionally, to file reports on the natives and entertain many of the liberal elites that make up NPR’s listenership.

I felt compelled to write this, as I don’t appreciate yellow journalism of any type, particularly when the perpetrator goes out of his way to tar and feather good people, trying to overcome tough times with their typical Yankee resolve and toughness and ingenuity.

In the future, if you are interested in representing what’s really going on here in the Pine Tree State, give me a holler and I can hook you up with several honest journalists that will provide you with some real reporting that Mainers respect and value.


Jim Baumer

cc: Adam Davidson

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Watch out, or I'll sue your ass!

Change is hard to accept, particularly when those changes represent the loss of local culture and is driven by those from “outside.”

To anyone, but the most obtuse among us, much of Maine, from the southern border, throughout York and Cumberland Counties and down the Midcoast, is experiencing profound change, beyond mere growth and development.

Fellow Maine blogger and friend, Wisdom Weasel, recently recounted an editorial, appearing in his local newspaper, from a lobsterman, lamenting being forced to move his fishing gear from his property, as a result of a lawsuit. It almost is beyond belief, for those of us who grew up in these parts and remember the days when a local’s storage of his tools of his trade would never result in a lawsuit. Heck, people never considered hiring a lawyer to solve their spats, or for anything at all. Then again, being a lawyer back then wasn't necessarily an easy path to a McMansion, foriegn sports car and a fancy office suite. So much for the “good ole’ days.”

Apparently, there is a bit more to the story than what the lobsterman, Jed Miller, chose to reveal in his letter to the editor, at least that’s what I gathered in reading a comment made to WW’s post. According to “Mike,” who posted a comment in relation to Miller’s claim, Miller purchased his property as part of a subdivision and should have been aware of these covenants. Since these covenants were in place at the time of purchase, Mr. Miller is just SOL (my paraphrase).The commenter, “Mike” is probably from “away,” if I had to make an educated guess. He just sees this as part of the process of buying property in today’s world of subdivisions and sprawl. He is certainly entitled to his opinion. In fact, his opinion is now the majority opinion, at least along the Midcoast, as those from away now outnumber the natives. So life goes in the Pine Tree State.

While I’ve been accused of hearkening back to some nostalgic bygone time that never existed here in my beloved state of birth, I’m not so sure that accusation flies here. I’m not looking back to some “golden” age, but just one less litigious and not assured that legalese can solve every argument and encroachment. Of course that’s probably wishful thinking, as capitalism, in its most amped up form seems to lend itself to greed, avarice and trying to pull a fast one on your neighbor, whether it’s the gilded environs of Spruce Head, or the mean streets of downtown Lewiston.

BTW, if you aren’t making Weasel’s blog a regular stop, then you are missing out on an entertaining and often, educational read, not to mention a primer on all things British.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Dogs do deserve better

[The Mayor says, "just say no to to chains"]

Seeing dogs chained outside, in all types of weather, has always bothered me. Unknown to me, until this morning, is an organization with good intentions—raising people’s awareness about the plight of the many dogs that are left outside, chained, often with little, or no shelter, or even water.

Dogs Deserve Better was founded in 2002, by Tammy Sneath Grimes, who wanted to raise awareness about the issue and find concrete ways to improve the lives of countless dogs that spend their lives tethered to a length of chain.

We’ve all seen these dogs—chained to a tree, a doghouse, a metal post, or an old car. This unfortunately is the fate of millions of canines, nationwide. In rural states like Maine, this is an all-too-common site.

A decade ago, when I was a field service rep for the state's largest electric utility company, I saw countless dogs all over the region, living a life of deprivation, yoked to a chain, or heavy cable. Many of these dogs were far from friendly. Dog experts agree that chaining dogs increases their level of aggression.

According to Rolan Tripp, affiliate professor of animal behavior at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Colorado State University, "Rather than protecting the owner or property, a chained dog is often fearful for itself, particularly poorly socialized dogs or those with a previous negative experience."

Tripp adds, "When tethered and exposed to a potentially threatening stimulus, one thing the dog definitely knows is, `I can't get away.' In that circumstance, a reasonable response might be, `Therefore I'm going to try and scare you away by growling or, worse yet, biting.' "

That was my experience, numerous times. For whatever reason, this was especially prevalent in areas of Maine where fishermen tended to congregate—places like Harpswell, Phippsburg, particularly the Sebasco (beyond the summer estate) and West Point areas and areas on the Boothbay peninsula. I’m sure if I begin paying particular attention, I’ll notice more of this in my travels around much of my current service area that I roam in my current non-profit role.

I think I was more aware of it then, because I was entering private properties, particularly areas near the power meters. This was an especially popular place to locate a chained dog. I found that many of these sadistic SOB’s that found chaining a dog humorous, also thought it was funny to see the power guy have the wits scared out of him, or even worse, get nipped (which happened to me more than once, two times resulting in visits to the ER). I also developed fairly strong opinions about the character of a so-called fellow human and the way he/she treated dogs. A fairly accurate maxim that I've adopted--never trust a human that could mistreat a dog, as they'll end up turning on you, or visiting harm upon you at some point.

The first time I got bit, I found myself being angry at the dog, but once I had a chance to process this intellectually, I knew that this dog was merely reacting to his circumstances—the dog’s equivalent to spending all, or at least most of his/her life in solitary confinement—certainly deemed cruel and unusual by many prisoner rights advocates. On numerous occasions during my stint with the power company, particularly during the summer months, I found myself filling water bowls and trying to engage dogs that didn't pose a danger to me. During those times, I was always overcome with sadness, as I empathized with the plight of this poor creature, knowing that he/she had no chance of a quality existence.

Later, when we got a dog of our own (my first dog, ever), I marveled at the intelligence and human similarities that dogs possess. In fact, it might be argued that dogs are most like humans, at least among domesticated animals (sorry you cat lovers). I began to think more like a dog than ever, trying to empathize with his needs and what he was trying to communicate to me. I know I never ever thought about tying him up; well, let me back up, just a bit.

When Bernie was a puppy, we bought a nice dog run, with a long lead. We figured this might be an easier way to keep tabs on his whereabouts, when we were outside with him. Never did we intend to leave him outside for extended stays.

We set the run about 100 feet from the house, between to sturdy shade trees. Once clipped in, you’ve never seen such a pathetic reaction. Bernie just lied down and looked at us with the saddest two eyes we’ve ever seen. I tried to coax him to run back and forth, to no avail. It was clear to my wife and I that this would not work for this gregarious Sheltie, who just lived to follow us around wherever we went. In fact that run still sits unused in our shed, used that one time, some 13 years ago. It didn't take us long to figure out that this type of dog hated to be segragated from us and that's how he viewed being tethered to his run.

Whether you chain your dog outside, or not, I hope you look over the website, particularly the "Tips for a Safe and Happy Dog" section. All dogs deserve humane treatment, because after all, they really are man’s (and woman’s) best friend.

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Realities of Small Business

Eminger Berries files for bankruptcy

With the abrupt closing and departure of Susan Eminger, of Eminger Berries fame, there has been no shortage of water cooler speculation about what happened and her whereabouts.

This morning’s Lewiston Sun Journal ran what appeared to be a wire story indicating that Eminger Berries has filed for bankruptcy. The two-year-old business, which shut down its operations suddenly, last month, shows documents filed on June 20th, seeking Chapter 7 protection from creditors.

According to the news story, the company shows assets of $124,974 and liabilities of $229,537, with sizeable unpaid bills to FedEx and UPS.

The business, which opened in 2005 with Eminger filling orders from her home when she began, was featured on the Food Network, specifically Paula Deen’s show, the culinary equivalent of having a book featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Eminger has apparently relocated to Texas, with her husband and two small children.

Starting a business is never easy, even with a delicious product and some national exposure. Having met Ms. Eminger, who emanated confidence and capability, I hope she lands on her feet and finds something new to focus her food-related talents on.

Death of a Coffee Shop

Barnie’s Café, a wonderful coffee bar, featuring light breakfast and some yummy sandwiches and other summer fare, is closing its doors on Monday.

Located in the historic Bates Mill, in Lewiston, Barnie’s was one of several new businesses that had located to the renovated Mill No. 6 and featured dozens of coffees, from espresso, to latte and cappuccino. The complex, which is home to one of the city’s major employers, TD Banknorth, as well as partial operations for Androscoggin Bank, medical offices and two restaurants, seemed like the perfect locale for the upscale coffee shop, feauturing Wi-Fi for business clients.

Having utilized Barnie’s for several client meetings and a Saturday rendez-vous with a potential RiverVision Press book project suitor, I enjoyed the café’s atmosphere and coffee, not to mention that it emanated a much hipper vibe than any other coffee shop in a town. While Barnie’s was a franchise of the Florida-based Barnie’s Coffee and Tea Company, it had local ownership and wasn’t just another one of multiple chain store offerings in Lewiston/Auburn, catering to the caffeine habit.

While local economic development people insist that there isn’t a trend developing, these two closings, coupled with the recent closure of Uncle Troy’s a locally-owned family BBQ restaurant across the river, aren’t positive signals to those of us that prefer variety and something other than the big-box, or pre-packaged gastronomic experience.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Public radio paints a negative picture

Driving home from my final appointment yesterday, I happened to have NPR on the radio, listening to the evening’s "All Things Considered" Segment. Much to my surprise, reporter Adam Davidson was doing a story on Maine—not Portland, or some “touristy” area of the state, either—the feature was on Skowhegan and how the former mill town was struggling to stay afloat. Immediately, my ears perked up and I even called my wife to listen to the feature, on her way home.

Since last August, when I began my current workforce training gig, I’ve spent more than my fair share of work time, in this community. While I recognize the challenges faced by a town that had hitched its wagon to Maine’s papermaking industry, as well as old-style manufacturing, I still felt a sense of hope, at least from the people I've met and been working with. Maybe its because I had the opportunity to spend some time with some of the members of the community that hadn’t thrown in the towel yet. People very different than Mary Jane Clifford, the woman that Davidson interviewed, who heads up the town’s general assistance office. Maybe it’s the nature of Clifford’s job and hence, all she sees are the folks that made her paint the future in such negative terms. She came across as the typical small-town rube that reporters from the big city try to find, to set up and “plant” the kind of quotes they are looking for—like Clifford talking about some of the young people that come to her—the one’s that she sees as having no future; the ones she gave such a ringing endorsement with the following quote:

“I'm dealing with a lot of young people who really seem unemployable," Clifford says. "They've dropped out of school. Their families have thrown them out. They have no plan. Many of them are heavily tattooed, heavily pierced.”

One of these “heavily tattooed, heavily pierced” folks recently completed the first pilot of a new training initiative that I’ve been part of. In fact, I spent quite a bit of time doing some of the ground work for and helping members of the community put together an employer advisory group that will oversee the program. In my opinion, our first time through was a success and we saw some people that Clifford would deem “hopeless” complete the training and a number of them have been employed after graduating from our three week soft skills training initiative. By the way; our young graduate, who removed her piercings, covered up her tattoos and cut the red coloring out of her hair, recently got hired by a local employer to perform a customer-service role. Unfortunately, Davidson didn’t talk to any of the local employers, or other community-based people that were responsible for the success of this program, called WorkReady.

Interestingly, Davidson interviewed the interim chamber director, who was bemoaning cuts in town that are putting a crimp on tourist-friendly amenities that Skowhegan had. As if all that matters for the future of the town are fireworks, balloon festivals and public restrooms. One interview, with a member of the business community, with something positive to say would have helped to lend a bit of balance to the story. In my opinion, a chamber director ought to be looking to create some positive energy from his membership. Our local workforce development committee has tried to solicit support for our training program from the chamber and for whatever reason, the chamber has chosen to not attend any meetings, or the subsequent graduation of WorkReady, as we focused on upgrading the skills of the local workforce. I guess he doesn’t see the correlation that exists between workforce skills and economic development, which is too bad, given his function of marshaling the area's business community.

One person that does understand the connection and who was noticeably absent from the parade of negative interview subjects and hand-ringers in Davidson’s piece, was Jim Batey, who heads up Somerset Economic Development Corporation.

Batey is someone who I’ve come to respect a great deal in the community. He was a major catalyst for WorkReady and commands respect among the business community, which by the way, also impressed me and appears committed to the future of Skowhegan.

It was Batey who held a series of public forums, one of which I drove up to attend, where he solicited input from members of the community, as he was formulating a five-year plan of economic development. The forum I attended was engaging, many positive ideas were put forth and unlike Davidson, I came away from this meeting with a sense that Skowhegan and Somerset County was on the verge of something positive. Silly me, with my love of rural America and small town economies. Better to be a cynical big city journalist and portray rural Maine as a bunch of benighted hicks in a post-manufacturing backwater, than a place where hope still flickers.

I suppose that to some, like realtor Amy McLellan and Main Street Skowhegan’s Audrey Lovering, the future of the town rests with rich folks from away coming in and buying up the town and tossing a few scraps to the locals. Apparently that’s what Davidson and other visitors to Maine must think when they come here for their requisite lobster dinners and drives along the state’s idyllic coastline, with occasional forays inland, to places like Skowhegan. To some extent, why should we expect anything else? We've placed many of our eggs in the basket of tourism for far too long. It is Maine's tourism-based economic model that fuels the caricature of Maine that the Adam Davidsons of the world enjoy perpetuating.

Somerset County and Skowhegan have challenges. Anyone with any sense would be foolish not to acknowledge that. At the same time, there are people with a positive vision still active in the community, who see the possibilities of economic growth, are working towards raising the requisite skills employers need and will be the ones who ultimately determine the future of the town.

Interestingly, neighboring Franklin County, a county with some of the same challenges as Somerset County and Skowhegan, exudes confidence for the future. Rather than wringing their hands, they are moving forward, increasing educational opportunities, attracting businesses to the county and facing the future with optimism, rather than the pessimism of people like Clifford and others.

Sometimes it all comes down to perspective, I guess. Sadly, in Skowhegan, the perspective of many appears to be negative and the NPR feature won't do much to change that view.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

It's time to impeach

I'm so fed up with the state of national politics and most notably, our war criminal of a president that it's better for me to not write about national issues, because it gets me too worked up. Plus, having taken part in enough orchestrated protests that have amounted to nothing, marching around in our "protest pens," I fully recognize that these do nothing to change things, even though I had to fight the urge on Sunday, to drag my tired ass down to K'port and shout some slogans towards Walker's Point.

Last night, hearing that Lewis "Scooter" Libby had his sentence commuted by the president, just ratcheted up my level of being "pissed-off" that I usually feel around this time (flag-waving and the 4th of July, with all its subsequent jingoism) of year.

Think Progress has a post on Libby and the subsequent moral bleatings that major newspapers are good for. Periodically, even the disgraced and irrelevant MSM manages to screw up what remains of their moral indignation and fires up their op ed machines. Of course, since no one reads the papers and as long as there's still some petrol coming out of the end of the hose at the gas pump and there's a reality TV program on the flat screen at home, Americans just don't give a rat's ass about anything outside their narcissistic three-foot circle of interest.