A Little Too Close

I wrote my story about the man who fell down Mount Washington earlier this month. It was an interesting thing, to write about this man’s experience. Usually as a reporter I know less about whatever it is I’m reporting about than the person I’m speaking with, but not this time. This man was ice climbing on Mount Washington, a mountain I’ve put a lot of days in on. He was climbing Pinnacle Gully in Huntington Ravine, a route I first climbed 10 years ago. In my free time I guide clients up there, and sometimes I’ve been known to jog up there (or to other cliffs) to get a bit of climbing in before work. To tell his story, then, was surreal.

Not that I wanted to pass judgement. He made some decisions I would not have, but I have always been a conservative climber. It was more that he was describing for me, moment by moment, a fall very similar to one I’ve watched two other people take. One was a random climber who almost collided with me and my two clients, and the other was my ski partner. One broke both legs, the other broke both arms. It’s not a fall I want to see again.

But like the post before, about confronting the reality of reporting from dangerous places, this was a story that forced me to confront the reality of the dangers of my passion. Like the man I interviewed, I love to climb. To hear it from him, he is broken and yet he can’t wait to climb again. He is like I would be, I have to imagine, only I haven’t yet taken the fall.

It’s strange when a story forces you to look in the mirror. I was reporting for the Sun, telling a story for the readers, and yet the message seemed just for me. Funny how that happens.

Out of Africa

After six days in captivity, four New York Times reporters are out of Libya. Their account is here, and it makes me think one thing: don’t get caught.

This is a story that has ebbed and flowed alongside the overall news coverage of Libya. The earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster in Japan couldn’t have come at a better time for a strongman looking to reassert his power. It’s been interesting to see how these two stories have jockeyed for the limelight over the last week. But this part of the Libya story caught my eye. It’s hard to imagine a more frightening situation, one I’m working my way towards getting into. I’m just glad to see they’re out. Reporting has to happen in these conflicts, in order to squeeze a bit of humanity out of war. It’s sad when the referee gets hit.

Update: The newest story on the four New York Times reporters who were captured in Libya.

So Much To Write, So Little Time…

This evening I got to talk with a man who fell 1,000 feet down Mount Washington and lived. He broke his femur, his knee, his hip and his wrist but never lost consciousness. He told me about thinking he was going to die, about yelling “HELP!” in a pathetic attempt to save his life, and about someone hearing him just before they skied away. He told me about looking down at his wedding ring as he waited to either be rescued or die and missing his family. He told me about screaming and swearing at his rescuers as they pulled on his broken leg to move it back into line. He told me about feeling he’d let his mentors down.

It was a last minute interview, squeezed in after a story before I left for the evening. It made me want to cry and to vomit. I have stories piling up, but this one is going to move to the front.

That 40 minute interview reminded me of something: I love my job. I hadn’t forgotten that, but I came home feeling that more than ever. Some stories just scream to be told.

Ray Day

My alarm is set for 4:45 a.m., because tomorrow I’m hanging out with Ray.

Ray Burton has been has been the executive councilor from the North Country since the year I was born. He was actually there even earlier, but he took a break for a bit and only came back 30 years ago.

He and I got into a discussion about the Conway bypass a month ago after I called him with a few questions. I asked him if $400 million couldn’t be better spent in the North Country than to speed up traffic by 20 minutes.

“What would you do with it?” he asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said, a bit surprised to be asked, “build the second wing on the state prison and fully staff it? I bet good paying jobs in Berlin would have more impact than a bit of road construction.”

The truth is, there isn’t $400 million for the bypass. There isn’t even $64 million for part of it. There is no big pot of money that can be spend on roads or on prisons, and the project is likely going to be pushed off even longer because of state funding problems. But that’s a different story for a different time. My discussion with Ray took a side turn there, and it ended with Ray inviting me to be his guest at the executive council breakfast and meeting.

“I’ll be there,” I said.

Two Vets

Two former soldiers stopped into the newsroom yesterday to talk with Tom, another reporter at the paper, about this ski event they were putting on for wounded soldiers. I didn’t get to sit and talk with them, but I heard a bit of their conversation. It jogged my memory about something I kept hearing about when I was in Iraq.

I’m not from a military family. My dad was drafted during the Vietnam War and was sent to Germany, but he never made a big deal out of it. I had an uncle in the Air Force, and my best friend growing up went into the Army, but it just wasn’t a part of my life. So what effect, aside from the occasional news reports, did the Iraq and Afghan Wars have on me?

That was a question I started asking myself as soon as I met the first New Hampshire soldier I interviewed in Baghdad. What does war mean to us today?

And here’s where it gets weird: if you aren’t an inductee into military culture, military contractors keep it out of sight, out of mind.

Around Fort Bragg, or Fort Hood, or Fort Campbell, where soldiers own all the houses and the employees are military spouses, that isn’t true, but here in the Northeast, where the bases have closed in the wake of defense cuts in the 1990s, there isn’t the concentration of military culture to make people remember.

Remember where soldiers did all the cooking, all the building, all the engine repairs in a war zone? That was Vietnam, or Korea, or World War Two. That was when they needed a draft to fill all those positions. But not today.

Today they contract out to KBR or Blackwater for all sorts of tasks, including security. Instead of filling those voids with soldiers they are filled with TCNs—third country nationals—foreigners.

I got dinners served by Pakistanis and Singaporeans. Those roles used to be filled by Americans called up by Uncle Sam.

What’s the difference? It’s big, and it isn’t just about cost.

The justification for this system is that it saves money. By not providing government retirements for a human wave of American soldiers it saves taxpayers millions. That is hard to dispute, at least with my level of understanding of the system. But there are more insidious implications.

If all those jobs had to be filled you could say goodbye to your all volunteer force. It would be time for a draft. And then, all of the sudden, the idyllic life of people who live outside of the reaches of military culture would be shaken awake by the truth—there is still a war on.

It’s too far away too much of the time. I went to Iraq a month ago, but it’s already fading. But there are still 50,000 Americans there. How can we forget them?

And there are more than twice as many in Afganistan. But where are the daily reminders?

It’s too easy not to notice. The bases, the bodies and the spouses don’t surround us here in the Northeast, so it’s easy to forget. But if a letter came in the mail calling a local man or woman to fight, or even cook, it would suddenly become our war.

I was infinitely impressed with the men and women I met over there. I don’t want to forget them. But when I look at the method the U.S. government is now using to fight wars I think that is inevitable. It only has to be our war if we want it to be. So much for united we stand.

Budgets and Stuff…

Ever put together a $33 million budget?

Me neither.

The budget process for towns and schools in New Hampshire is officially broken. Honestly, having come from a city form of government before this, the way they deal with things in towns is crazy.

Here’s the problem: there is a proposed budget, and a default budget. The proposed budget is what the town hopes to pass, and the default budget is a fallback budget, where last year’s budget is only increased by contractually obligated amounts.

Normally the proposed budget is more than the default budget. If voters don’t like it they can reject it. If voters add to the proposed budget that’s fine, because if the body politik as a whole doesn’t approve they can always fall back on the default budget.

These days, however, are not normal. Budgets are being slashed in the midst of one of the worst state and municipal budget crunches in decades. (I listened to a story on NPR about how bad it is just tonight on the ride home.) 60 Minutes had a segment about it a number of months ago. Things really are bad, particularly on the state and local levels, where politicians don’t have a treasury that can print money to fall back on.

So what have local lawmakers done? Slashed budgets. The proposed budgets for both the town of Conway and for SAU 9 were less than last year. Some of that was voluntary, and some of it was by force. Some departments did as they were requested by the boards overseeing the budgets, and some had their budgets cut without their approval. It got ugly at times.

But New Hampshire is about local democracy, so those cuts had to go before the voters. The voters with something to lose came out, and in both cases the cuts were restored. In the case of the town the cuts were restored and then some, but the towns budget is about one-third of the school, so less people got up in arms about it.

But therein lies the problem—remember the fallback budget, the default budget? It’s last year’s budget plus contractually obligated increases, right? So it’s last year’s budget plus a little. No big deal. But then take the proposed budgets, the cut budgets, and then add back the voters requests. Suddenly that proposed budget becomes last year’s budget, maybe plus a little. All the sudden there is no fallback. There is no option for people to turn to should they not approve of the proposed budget. There is one choice for voters, which equal to no choice.

Or there was a choice, but that choice was to show up to the deliberative portion of town meeting to fight for cuts or increases. Now that choice has passed, and there won’t be another shot at it.

But think about it: the newspaper says Budget Committee Cuts, If Passed, Will Eliminate 60 Jobs at the School. Who will come out for that meeting? The person who wants those cuts? No, they think “my elected representatives are doing what I want them to do, no reason to raise concern.”

No, it’s the people who want to fight the cuts that come out. That’s what happened with both the town and the school—people opposed to the cuts came out, and people in support of the cuts stayed home.

I know what you’re thinking, “maybe the town doesn’t really support these cuts.” But last November’s election argues that. Every election in the region went to conservatives. It seems strange all those same people would be looking to raise their taxes. And all the budget committee members and all the selectmen were struggling to be frugal—one would think the elected officials would be representative of the people that put them into office.

But the votes for both the town and the school were overwhelmingly in favor of giving them more money. That seems hard to believe, that a town would so wholeheartedly endorse higher taxes.

And if the voters who showed up at the meetings aren’t representative of the electorate as a whole, it’s too late now. The people will have two choices—vote for a little increase, or vote for a larger one. That, to me, is a broken system.

And it’s funny, I’m not against increased spending personally. But when I go to meetings (and I go to a lot of them) I hear a lot of citizens concerned about spiking property taxes and increases in local spending. I would wager it’s roughly equal to the number of people willing to watch their taxes go up for more services. But that isn’t the impression Conway’s form of government gives. It, unfortunately, has built-in assumptions about perpetually increasing budgets and a legislative format that brings out the special interest groups at the expense of the general public. It gives a disproportionate amount of power to the few, albiet at the fault of the many who don’t show up.

It’s been interesting to watch, but I’m not sure it’s good democracy. And that’s what it’s meant to preserve.

Just in case you missed the link, here’s the 60 Minutes segment about state debts:

Hanging With Mitt

Mitt Romney was in the Mount Washington Valley tonight, criticizing President Barack Obama and laying the groundwork for a 2012 presidential bid. The New York Times, among other media outlets, was there to report. I was bumping into photographers, television reporters and other print journalists who were all there trying to capture the moment.

It’s a bit surreal to watch the horserace begin this early. I have not lived through a New Hampshire primary, so I haven’t seen this before. It won’t be as lively as 2008, when there were two parties nominating candidates, but there will likely be rhetoric to spare.

The more reporting I do the less I understand partisanship. I have political views, but they aren’t convictions. I don’t believe them to be true. I feel one way, but I don’t think it’s the only valid model. I studied political science in college, but as I get into it now I realize reporting on this race or any like it is not the journalism that excites me. It isn’t shining a light into places where no one else is going, and while there is room for insightful reporting I don’t think I’m the one to do it. It’s certainly interesting to be in a room with a past and future presidential candidate, a U.S. House representative and a U.S. senator, but that isn’t the coverage for me. I don’t like races, particularly ones that go on for years. I guess that’s good to figure out now.

What’s In a Committee?

It’s town meeting time, and with tight budgets around Conway that has meant fights all over the place. The budget committee has had several heated meetings, and the selectmen have gone the same way. The school board is struggling to keep their budget numbers up while people on all sides are looking for cuts, and the police are asking for more money to fund more officers at a time when other departments are cutting.

We were talking today about the role of the budget committee, which recommends final figures that then go to the voters and (if not revised) onto the ballot. The budget committee is supposed to be elected, but of the 11 person board (don’t quote me on that number, I’m just spouting here) only one was voted in. The rest were appointed, some by the budget committee itself.

Which raises an interesting question: what role does a self-appointed committee have in a democracy? It’s only self-appointed because there isn’t the interest among residents to fill the seats through elections, true, but the committee makes serious recommendations for the rest of the town and they are not appointed by the people.

Like with the school. The budget committee cut 11 percent from the school’s $33 million operating budget. The voters have the option to add back most but not all of that. $700,000 they just can’t get back. That means an 11 member board decided to cut the school budget, and even if the entire town showed up to protest the closest they could get is $700,000 less. Direct democracy could be restrained by a self-appointed group.

And who would people have to blame? Themselves. Anyone who wants to run can, but in the past they haven’t. This year, however, there is a lot of interest in civic duty. Maybe it comes with challenging times. It certainly has been interesting to report on, and it is only going to get more exciting.