Stories, All

Stories, All

The PointIn families there are always stories. Some become legend, told and retold until every cousin knows them by heart. Others become myth so intertwined with hyperbole they only shadow the truth. And many become lost altogether, victims of time.

But some are held close, private, only whispered until poised to disappear. Their details seem so outlandish they hint of fiction, unlikely tales spun under the veil of the past. But they’re not.

Louise Royall died on a Monday. It was the first of June. She was 89, a mother and grandmother. She had lived in East Boothbay for five-and-a-half decades, died in the house where she raised two sons, the house where countless friends and relatives convened for birthdays, holidays and celebratory dinners. She volunteered her time and donated to charities, hosted card games and observed weddings, births and graduations. She was the matriarch of a sprawling family, the last monarch on a street literally named for her clan: Royall Road.

But that is one story, and there is always another.

In July 1956 Louise Royall was none of these things—mother, matriarch, monarch. She wasn’t even Louise Royall: her name was Mrs. Louise Townsend Booth. From Long Island, N.Y., she lived in Paoli, Penn., with her husband Samuel Babcock Booth Jr., an engineer. The couple was newly married, wed the November before. Louise was 31, and she was eight-months pregnant.

It’s a story told in news clippings, yellowed and torn, stored in a photo album from her youth.

Her children and relatives knew snippets, but nothing complete. There was no full account of what happened on July 7, 1956.

But the clippings’ headlines are stark:

“Man dies, wife hurt in Long Island plane crash.”

“Son is born to plane widow.”

“Gives birth to son, learns Dad’s dead.”

And the newspaper accounts themselves are grim: “The baby was born just a day after Samuel Booth, 28, plunged to his death in his light cabin plane in the water off Sea Cliff, Long Island. Knocked unconscious in the crash, Booth drowned while rescuers pulled Mrs. Booth from the plane.”

“Heroic action by a quick-thinking young lifeguard who picked up a shovel, swam to the wreckage, and beat a hole through the roof of the cabin saved the life of the woman,” another news story says. “The 22-year-old lifeguard, with the help of others who had arrived, dragged the woman from the submerged cabin by her hair.”

But even stories told in black and white can be part myth.

“I’m not a lifeguard,” said Donald Mortimer, 81, the man who 59 years ago pulled then-Louise Booth from the cockpit. “That’s why I grabbed a boat.”

Mortimer lives in Mattituck, N.Y., just 65 miles from Sea Cliff, where Samuel Booth crashed. He, like Louise, has lived a lifetime since that day. “I tried to run it through my own mind,” he said. “I had a few blank spots.” But the story is still there.

“I heard the airplane overhead, and it was sputtering,” he said. Mortimer’s father ran a beachfront swimming pool in Sea Crest. The single-engine Piper Cub Booth had rented for the day from a local radio announcer was running out of gas. The Booths, on Long Island visiting Louise’s mother in nearby Plandome Manor, were onboard.

Mortimer watched the plane fall. It buzzed the beach then went out to sea, where it nosedived, “maybe 1,000 feet from shore,” Mortimer said. “I said, ‘Call the Sea Cliff Fire Department!’ I ran down to the beach, and for some reason I grabbed a shovel. I have no idea why.”

The news reports say Mortimer swam to the plane, but he wasn’t that strong a swimmer. He grabbed a nearby lifeguard boat, threw in the shovel, and rowed. When he got to the plane he climbed aboard and started bashing at the metal topwing with the shovel. “We broke the roof, and a little dog jumped out,” he said.

The terrier is mentioned in several of the news accounts. Mortimer said the dog swam ashore as they worked to get Louise and Sam out.

The newspapers said Samuel Booth drowned as Mortimer worked to extricate Louise. Mortimer said others came to help, and once the hole was open it didn’t take long to get both of them out and to shore. Rescuers looked at Louise in her pregnant state, he said, and assumed she’d swallowed water. So they gave her abdominal thrusts. His guess was that’s what pushed her into labor.

27 hours later in Glen Cove Community Hospital, Samuel Babcock Booth III was born. He weighed 6-pounds 11-ounces, and he had suffered irreparable brain damage. He would survive to his teenage years, but Sam Booth III would not reach adulthood.

The newspaper reports say Louise was not told Sam Booth Jr. was dead until after she had given birth. She “cradled her newborn son in her arms today as she wept for her husband,” one story reported.

Louise had saved them all. She didn’t talk about the accident, didn’t share much of her story, but she had lived it. The faded clippings were her reminders, a story she kept for herself.

And Mortimer too was her reminder: every year for the next 59 years he would get a Christmas card. He would look to the mail each December, he said, and in return he would send a card to her.

Among the news clippings are several about Mortimer: stories about commendations he received for his actions, reports calling him a hero. But he is put off by such talk.

“It was all instinctive,” Mortimer said. No one told him to go out and be a hero. It’s like if you see someone stumble and fall on the street, he said: you go out and help them back up.

“As far as I was concerned it was nothing,” he said, “It’s a thing you do.”

But to Louise’s sprawling family, to those who mourned her passing on June 1, the story of Louise seemly begins with the crash: it was in the wake of the Booth’s death that Louise moved to Maine. She came to start over, to let go of the tears and find something new, and in a sense Mortimer’s shovel lit the way: without it Louise would have drowned too. She would never have met her second husband, Robert Royall, the man who would father her two children, the man who introduced her into the clan that would eventually swarm around her. She would not have moved to Royall Road, where she lived and held court in her kitchen for more than 50 years. She would not have become all that she was—mother, grandmother, matriarch, friend and host. That vision of the future clung to the lifeboat as Mortimer paddled. It stood in silence as he breached the metal hull.

Or at least that’s one way to tell the story.

The Smoke and the Fire

The Smoke and the Fire

e597d-dsc_0047Heroin. I’ve wanted to write about it for a while, about addiction and its affect on our state, our communities, but what do you say? It’s a drug, cheap, powerful and terrible. It destroys lives, families, futures. Column finished.
But it’s not that simple. Heroin is a symptom, the smoke that evidences fire. The actual disaster, however, runs deeper.
I’ve written several stories on opiate addiction, interviewed local officials, pulled court records, police logs, etc. A few years ago it was pills, but now it’s the street stuff. The tools themselves change, but the underlying story remains — people caught chasing the sweet release of poppies.
Among the conversations I had while writing those stories was one with a treatment specialist. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, he told me, during the Vietnam War, thousands of soldiers became heroin addicts. It was in easy supply in Southeast Asia, and in the chaos of war GIs turned to drugs to cope. There were fears at the time that returning troops would flood the streets of America as addicts, still searching for a fix.
But they didn’t. The flood never came. The soldiers returned home and settled back into their lives, rejoined their families and got jobs. They put the needles down and stepped back into the world.
That was 40 years ago, a very different world. Today the drugs are cheaper and more powerful, and many get hooked at the hospital, not at war. But the addictions remain, and this time they hold. They do not let go when people get home.
So what is different? What made it possible for veterans to let go of something that today swallows so many?
Community. Family. Opportunity. Connection. Those were the things that soldiers came home to, the treatment specialist told me, and they are missing now. The world is different. Decades ago returning veterans plugged back into communities, family units and an economy that was anticipating them, hungry for their participation. They came back to something, became part of something. They turned to heroin and other drugs to cope with a war, when they were lost and alone and disconnected, but upon reentry they found themselves surrounded by all the things that make life rich. In that environment, the needles lost their appeal.
When I look around today, that explanation makes sense. The land of the lost has migrated. Today we call it home.
What are the middle class opportunities today, the jobs that take those millions of Americans from struggling to standing on their own two feet? The mills are gone. So are the furniture making and logging jobs. Elsewhere it’s the auto industry that has evaporated, and the steel industry. And fishing. And manufacturing. Those places that four decades ago offered a stable middle class life to millions willing to work hard are shrinking or gone. They’ve been replaced by Walmart, by openings at hotels and restaurants, by service industry employment that makes ends meet only when you have two or three jobs.
Those are the opportunities now open to the same people who were once the backbone of America’s manufacturing might — the hardworking high school graduates, the people with “some college” or even degrees. No longer building, they instead serve, and they struggle to survive.
Families, meanwhile, have also splintered. The social fabric is now torn, and where parents and siblings might at one time have had the resources to catch a loved one slipping through the cracks, today everyone sits close to the edge. Parents whose retirement evaporated in the 2008 housing crash are in no position to buoy up their grown children in moments of crisis. It takes two incomes to build a life today, but families are split by more divorces than ever. Everyone is caught alone in their own race against insolvency; there is no time to look over your shoulder to check on someone else.
This stark landscape is now the foundation of entire communities — people struggling and alone, disconnected, unable to make ends meet, unable to look out for one another. The economic and family demographic transformation of 40 years, has wreaked havoc on the larger social structure that once made neighbor accountable to neighbor. More and more we are alone.
The Granite State in particular, with “Live Free Or Die” emblazoned on our license plates, takes pride in its independent streak. But in this instance our independence exacerbates our isolation — fierce libertarianism and community make confused bedfellows.
This is the land we live in. It may not be your reality, but it is the reality of many of our neighbors. They struggle to survive, to make ends meet, often alone or in relationships caught under massive strain, few family or community supports available as buffers. They are never far from the cracks, their options few and dwindling in a world with seemingly less and less space for them. A health problem, car issue or home repair can easily push them over the edge.
So, like the soldiers, they turn to drugs.
Like the soldiers, they turn to something that lets them escape reality, frees them for a moment from unsustainable lives. Like the soldiers, they turn to something to forget today, what they saw and lived, the sadness and disconnection, if only for a moment.
The soldiers, however, eventually got to come home. Our neighbors are not so lucky. Heroin is the smoke, but the fire is in our homes. In our families, our communities, our economy. Put out the flames, and the smoke will dissipate.
Our neighbors, then, will come home too.

This story appeared in the Conway Daily Sun in January 2016.

Cold December?

Cold December?

CMG-1020592I wonder if people are worried.

It’s December. Do you remember December? There may not always be snow on the ground, but before Christmas approaches things up high things grow white. The air cracks, dry and cold. The skies are grey, hard as flint, and flurries are common.

This, what we are having now, is not December.

I thought about this in October, when summer seemed unwilling to end, when the leaves held way past normal. And I thought about it again in November, when the “Indian Summer” stretched week after week. But it seemed my concern was maybe jumping the gun. Maybe, like last year, winter would rear itself forcefully and all my worrying would be for naught.

But now it’s December. Mid-December. But the sun still carries warmth. The nights seldom to dip to freezing. The mountains are looking like late October. Christmas is almost here, and “white” seems very unlikely. Some days smell distinctly of spring. Something feels off, way off, a long way from normal. I’m worried.

I hope it’s not just me.

Not that I’m complaining exactly. The warm days have been marvelous, and it’s nice to wear a T-shirt when the calendar recommends two fleeces and a puffy jacket. But this is bigger than personal comfort. When things get weird like this it starts to feel like maybe the Earth’s orbit is off-axis, like maybe the planet’s tilt is spinning aloof. What the heck is going on, when April and December switch?

There is politicized discussion/debate about global warming and the role we play in it. I’m not looking to wade into that. Or the equally politicized conversation about whether or not we should be taking steps to counteract it. Like so much today, those issues are too muddied to approach openly. Each side has its staked-out position, and every conversation devolves into a shouting match. Opponents lob rhetorical grenades across a divided no man’s land. I have no desire to walk headlong into that.

But this December feels weird. Like September, the hottest on record. And October, also the hottest. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will release November numbers this week, at which point we’ll see if the trend holds for last month too. The December data won’t be out until January, at which point perhaps the hills will be white and the 55 degree days will seem like a distant memory but, no matter what the final numbers settle out to, something is askew with this month.

And regardless of the data, global temperature rise will remain a schism point, a political fracture. Here in New Hampshire it’s hard not to be pleased with reduced home heating bills, fewer mornings spent scraping the car windshield and a few extra days of tolerable temperatures.

But the Mount Washington Valley winter economy is built on Attitash, Wildcat, Cranmore, Black Mountain and King Pine. Bretton Woods and Great Glen. Bear Notch and Jackson Ski Touring Foundation. Mount Washington Valley Ski Touring, snowmobile vacations and ice climbing trips. Snowshoers and winter hikers. Winter is the unique gift the North Conway area offers, and right now we can’t offer it to anyone. Without 32 degrees Fahrenheit and below, the driver that marks the fourth season sputters.

And it isn’t just the fourth season: Foliage is getting harder to predict, harder to plan around, as temperatures buck and weave. Replacing cold nights with strings of warm days takes a toll on the colors. Springtime warmth, which drives maple sap skyward, is also erratic of late. And rainless summers have an effect on river levels, meaning an excursion on the Saco can be more of a walk than a paddle. So much of what makes the Mount Washington Valley thrive is built upon its seasonal fluctuations, built on a consistency that has allowed entire industries to develop and thrive. What happens if the ski slopes are brown on Christmas week? Right now that doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

And that is the beginning. From there, what happens to the rest of the valley economy without the tourist crowds those recreation opportunities drive? What happens to the hotels and restaurants, to the ski shops and the outdoor stores, to the outlets that entertain non-skiing family members? They will suffer the same weather pinch.

And if those businesses suffer, how long will it take for the impact to be felt down the line, at the local doctor’s and dentist’s office, at the accountant’s? In this valley everyone’s livelihood is tied to tourism, and tourism is tied to the weather. Even the newspaper prays for snow.

This is not an abstraction; the ski industry has been wrestling with this problem for decades. Snowmaking, once a small part of mountain operations, became a focal point after winter storms proved insufficient to coat the trails by Christmas. Today almost every Northeastern mountain can paint the whole hill white with guns, but they need cold temperatures. What if those are gone too? What if December truly is the new autumn? I’m worried.

But in truth, there is no use in worrying. If that is the trajectory, if winter is truly on its way out, then it is a boulder bouncing downhill — there will be no turning it around quickly.

And if not, then I’ve just written an entire column for nothing.


But the conversation about rising temperatures is not an abstract political argument about ice caps, polar bears and Polynesian islands. It is a conversation about this valley, about an economy built on seasons, a conversation about our jobs. If global warming is real it will hit us where it hurts. And this December it is feeling very real.

This piece appeared in the Conway Daily Sun in December 2015.

No Resolution

No Resolution

12419170_1370918652934216_2490529582253069540_oIt’s that time of year again: New Year’s. A time to reflect on the past year, review what we’ve done and haven’t done, and ponder the next 365 days. A time for self-examination and resolutions. Sometimes, it seems to sneak up so fast.

I don’t remember what my resolutions were for last year. I actually don’t think I had any. It’s never been my thing to peg a behavior shift to the flip of the calendar. But like everyone the end of the year has me reflecting on 2015. Which in turn has me thinking forward to 2016, considering things I’d like to do differently.

To start, it’s important to remember resolutions are not redos. There are no redos. If there were, I might not write the column I wrote last week. Did you read it? It was about the presidential race, about Marco Rubio, about how wooden and impersonal he seemed visiting the Sun office.

At least, that’s what most people seemed to get out of it. That’s what made it popular enough to bounce its way around the Internet until it eventually landed on MSNBC and the Drudge Report.

But to me that was not what the column was about. It was written in frustration not at Rubio but at how the modern presidential contest forces candidates to aim for perfection, to be always on, always be cognizant of any missteps. That expectation of perfection forces them to close the door to authentic interaction, to limit what they show to talking points only. Being a person, as well as a politician, is not allowed. I wrote it knowing Rubio has little choice — those candidates willing to be authentically themselves (Rick Santorum comes to mind) say things that keep them at the fringe. They let voters know what they think on controversial issues, and in so doing never risk a serious shot at the office.

Winners, meanwhile, never say anything of substance, anything revealing. Such risks are not the way to the White House today. This is the democracy we have inherited.

That is what I was looking to say last week. I thought I wrote one thing, but readers thought I wrote something completely different. And once the words hit paper, my thoughts are no longer my own. They become open to interpretation, and readers’ interpretation, not mine.

From a writer’s perspective, it’s a confusing position to be in. What I put down in print is not always what the reader picks up. It’s like watching words coming out of my mouth get jumbled, reorganized and reenergized before they reach your ears. The resulting conversation leaves me frustrated and confused. I am not saying what you think I’m saying. At least, I don’t think so.

It might be my fault. Maybe what made sense in my head didn’t land cleanly on the page. Maybe the salient points were left unstressed, and my delivery carries the blame.

Part of it, though, lies in the political atmosphere today, one that reduces democracy to a binary scorecard of wins and losses. I write about Rubio getting caught in an impossible system with impossible expectations, and readers interpreted my words as a condemnation of Rubio. A Rubio loss. Minus one.

That interpretation, the binary version of life, is exactly the sad state of affairs I was hoping to point out.

Candidates are caught only looking for wins, and that’s what makes them choose an affect that comes across as something other than human. Maybe my words were poorly chosen. Maybe they were just wrong. But watching the story unfurl as a loss for Rubio felt like I’d fallen down the rabbit hole I’d only intended to point out.

This is not the first time. I’ve often had people unwittingly tell me about stories I’d written, and explain in great detail what was really going on not realizing I was the original author. I would listen dumbfounded, wondering where in my story was all this subtext I never intended.

But as readers, and as people, we come to the world with our own interpretations. They silently steer us, even when we think of ourselves savvy. We all do it. I, for instance, did it in last week’s column, interpreting Rubio’s wooden affect through the lens of a broken political system rather than some personality flaw. Perhaps I twisted the truth to match a narrative I was looking to comment on. Perhaps Rubio has no interest in warmth — I spent 20 minutes with the man, so in all honestly I have no idea.

But there are no redos. I cannot take back my column, any more than I can take back readers’ interpretations that were not what I intended.

I can, however, remember that my interpretations are as steered by assumptions as my readers. Is Rubio caught in a broken system, or simply a cold person? Or both? Or neither? I have no idea. I can only write the world as it seems to me, transformed as it is by my assumptions, into words for publication.

Every one of those words is then interpreted a second time, this time by the reader. These interpretations are again rife with assumptions.

The result? A fleet of stories produced and consumed through twisted lenses. Like all stories, they are infinitely more complex than the page suggests. They aren’t broken, but they are not crystalline either.

This is the mess that is the modern media environment.

So my resolution? To remember each time I write that no story exists outside the rabbit hole. Every piece is a tumbling of assumptions falling through the blackness. The words on the page may print in black and white, but in truth they will only ever reveal dim shadows. Readers create the full version by filling in the dark spots with their own assumptions. Corruption is part of the reading process. No narrative will ever be perfect.

There aren’t enough pages to say it all. Hopefully readers remember that, too.

This piece appeared in the Conway Daily Sun in December of 2015.

In the Face of Terror

In the Face of Terror

national_park_service_9-11_statue_of_liberty_and_wtc_fireIn the days immediately following 9/11, President George W. Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington D.C. Standing before a lectern, sandwiched between a dark-skinned bearded man and a woman wrapped in headscarf, he addressed cameras directly.
“The American people were appalled and outraged at last Tuesday’s attacks,” he began, “and so were Muslims all across the world. These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith, and it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that.”
“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam,” he said. “That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world.”
He quoted the Quran. He urged Americans to treat their Muslim neighbors with respect. “Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country,” he said. “Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear cover must be not intimidated in America. That’s not the America I know. That’s not the America I value.”
“Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America,” he said. “They represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed.”
That was six days after the towers fell. What a difference a decade makes. Today, Donald Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, is advocating putting certain mosques under surveillance. He also told a reporter he would support a database to track American Muslims.
“That’s not the America I know,” President Bush said in 2001. “That’s not the America I value.”
But Trump is not alone. In the wake of Paris, where 130 were killed and 368 wounded, people are scared. We Americans are scared. Paris reminds us of our own loss, of our own brutal encounter with terrorism, and calls for enhanced security have understandably poured out as a result.
But in the scramble to protect ourselves, we are forgetting ourselves. We are forgetting the things that, as President Bush said, “represent the best of America.”
This isn’t just in international circles or in Washington, D.C. This is right here at home, in New Hampshire.
In the wake of a crumbling Syria, 4.3 million Syrians have fled their country. They left in hopes of evading Assad and ISIS, and escaping civil war. They now sit stranded in Turkey and Europe, unable to return home, with nowhere to go. To date, Germany has accepted more than 38,000 of these refugees; Canada, more than 36,000. America, meanwhile, has opened its doors to 2,200.
That number was poised to jump to 10,000 in 2016, but with Paris serving as a punctuation point, governors across the country are demanding the border closed to Syrian refugees. A terrorist could be in their midst, they argue; the risk is too great.
French President Francois Hollande, meanwhile, said France will accept 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years.
The American fear is real, palpable. And it is understandable: Terrorism, the extremists’ chosen tactic, is designed to foment, to amplify, the fear response. The true victim of terrorism is society: Those killed are simply murdered, but the fear generated by the act reverberates among the survivors. Terrorism reigns among the living, and in the wake of Paris we are the survivors.
America is 320 million scared. Terrorism is proving its effectiveness.
“That’s not the America I know,” President Bush said in 2001. “That’s not the America I value.”
The lens of fear has twisted us. We are in the throes of the greatest refugee wave since World War II, but instead of seeing 4.3 million victims of terror we see 4.3 million possible terrorists. We stand in the land of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” still emblazoned on its base, and shut the door. Why? Out of fear.
“That’s not the America I know,” President Bush said in 2001. “That’s not the America I value.”
Terrorism is real. The threat is real. But the threat is not the number of victims it claims by murder but the pressure it puts upon free societies to abandon their freedoms. We are fighting a war of ideas, and in the scramble to make our lives safe we are losing our principles. The roots of our strength are in our pluralism, our openness and our diversity. ISIS cannot change that. Only we can.
And we are. Last week, Gov. Maggie Hassan joined that call to put a pause on the Syrian refugee resettlement. Sen. Kelly Ayotte echoed close behind. And Rep. Frank Guinta and Rep. Annie Kuster both voted to add additional screening measures to the refugee resettlement process when Syrians are involved.
“Live Free or Die” be damned. New Hampshire marches to the chorus of fear.
Only Sen. Jeanne Shaheen has staked out an alternative position: “After the Vietnam War we took 750,000 Vietnamese,” she told WMUR. “We took over 500,000 Cubans when Castro took over Cuba. We’ve taken Somalis, we’ve taken people from all over the world.”
“We do need to vet them,” she said, “but we also need to look at how we can expedite that process so it’s as efficient as possible.”
An America that sees victims of terror and is unafraid to respond? One that rushes to wrap them in her cloak, to welcome them to her shores? That’s the America I know. That’s the America I value.

This piece appeared in the Conway Daily Sun in November of 2015.

The Candidate Race

The Candidate Race

rubio-marcoThe pointman for Sen. Marco Rubio wore a sport coat and thick beard and talked with a southern accent. In his late 20s, he arrived an hour before the candidate was scheduled and sat in the front room of the Sun offices surfing the Internet on his phone. His name was Trip, and he was waiting for his boss to arrive. His job, he told me, was to get things ready. That means his phone battery dies every three hours.
The Sun, however, doesn’t require much prepping. When candidates arrive we pull a pair of armchairs side-by-side, one for the candidate and one for the publisher, and the rest of us form a semicircle. The chairs were still in place from the last interview, so there wasn’t anything to prep. With 15 minutes to Rubio-time the Sun staff was still working on other things. Trip’s trip was being wasted.
But after some strategic texting Trip jumped up to let everyone know the senator was four minutes out. The campaign was going into action. But again, this was met without fanfare — late afternoons are deadline time at a newspaper, no time for distractions, and people kept working.
When the senator finally arrived, however, everything shifted. Phones hung up, notebooks closed, computers went into sleep mode. Rubio made his way around smiling and shaking hands, and everyone stood to meet him. He took a comfy chair, thus beginning one more job interview for 2016’s toughest opening.
In New Hampshire we’re lucky. We guard the frontline of presidential politics. Every four years the candidates come, wave after wave, to sit and discuss the issues, to interview for the job. It’s a democratic utopia, a dreamland for reporters, where the action is.
But it’s a weird place too. It’s a place where you interact on a human level with people more prepared to address a television camera. It’s like they train to address crowds from podiums and lose the ability to engage a room of a dozen.
That was Rubio. We had roughly 20 minutes with him on Monday, and in that time he talked about ISIS, the economy, his political record and his background. But it was like watching a computer algorithm designed to cover talking points. He said a lot, but at the same time said nothing. It was like someone wound him up, pointed him towards the doors and pushed play. If there was a human side to senator, a soul, it didn’t come across through.
That might sound like harsh critique, but in essence that is the point of the New Hampshire primary, to test candidates in a retail politics setting. Rubio said it himself: “New Hampshire is very town hall based,” he told us, the politics “retail-oriented.” After the New Hampshire primary, he said, it transforms into a media race, not a human race.
But then he talked at us for 20 minutes. To him, we might as well have been television cameras.
Now maybe he was in a hurry. Or was tired after a long day of campaigning. Maybe our little paper wasn’t worth putting in the full retail effort. Whatever it was, if Rubio is charismatic, he wasn’t when he visited us.
But he was smart. It was easy to see he is brilliant, capable of winning political arguments. And maybe that’s what we should be looking for in a president — the smart guy. Maybe the transformation from human to politician is just part of the game today. In the modern media environment cell phone cameras run 24/7. There is always someone watching for any potential slip, looking to turn an offhand comment into a career-ending soundbyte.
Remember a dozen years ago when Howard Dean let out “the scream” that ended his campaign? Now multiply that risk by the number of smartphones introduced since 2004. Moments of idiocy, of poor word choice and brain farts are now captured and broadcast around the world. And it’s not uncommon for Fox News or NBC to broadcast to the world something recorded on a cellphone.
The result? An expectation of perfection, and candidates like Marco Rubio, a man so stuck on script it doesn’t even matter when the cameras are off. Living in a political environment where only the script makes sense, where the race is about the television audience rather than the general electorate, why deviate? Those willing to risk off-message interaction also risk alienating. It’s too great a risk, and retail politics drops by the wayside as voters are courted only by the millions, not one-by-one.
New Hampshire sits as the bulwark against that world. We are here to meet and greet, to be the face of the country, to gauge individual interactions and then broadcast that gut feeling on to the nation. New Yorkers will never get to meet every candidate. Nor Californians, nor Texans, nor Floridians. Those states have sway in November. New Hampshire sways now.
In New Hampshire, the presidential contest is recast as a local race. And in local races — the New Hampshire House or Senate, for example — it’s nearly impossible to vote straight ticket. When you know the candidates it’s not just enough to agree with their ideas; we need to trust the individual as well, to believe they are the kind of person we should elevate to power. It’s no longer just party. Here it’s personal.
That ability to build connections is what kept Ray Burton in office for three decades despite shifting political tides. People knew him, liked him and, regardless of political affiliation, supported him. That is a rare thing today. It’s a New Hampshire thing.
And that’s what we offer the country: The chance to face presidential candidates like local politicians. The chance for them to prove they hear us. The chance to support the person, not just the politician.

This piece appeared in the Conway Daily Sun in December of 2015.

Cuba: Island found, or lost?

Cuba: Island found, or lost?

Cuba-2570“How do you get there?” It’s always the first question whenever I tell someone I guide trips to Cuba. Maybe they’ve heard of Americans slipping in illegally through Canada or Mexico. Maybe they figure I’m doing the same.

“Miami,” I reply. “By charter. It’s less than an hour flight.”

The next line is also scripted: “Well, now’s the time to visit. Before the Americans get there and screw it up.”

To be clear, these aren’t Europeans, Canadians, or Mexicans I’m talking to, they are Americans. Most of them haven’t visited, but they know Cuba is opening, and they know when it does Americans are going to ruin it.

The Cubans I talk to aren’t so sure. When they hear “American,” they smile and reach with both hands. “It’s about time,” they say, eager to shake.

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Cuba: An island seeks to connect
I hate to be the one to do this, but I’m here to tell you that the frozen-in-time utopia is not a realistic picture of present-day Cuba.

My job as guide to Cuba is a new one. Before last December, before President Obama announced reestablishing US-Cuban relations and loosening travel restrictions, just visiting could have landed me in jail. Even now the US government forbids tourists from going; our groups are classified as “people-to-people” exchange trips, and they require US Treasury approval.

There are no beach visits or snorkeling trips on our tours. We go to meet Cubans, experience the culture, and explore a country hidden behind 60 years of embargo.

That’s why participants go. I go to watch history unfold. If those Americans are right and we are going to ruin Cuba, then I am the leading edge of the invasion force. The destruction — the Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Marriotts — will come in my wake.

But despite the risk, Cuba’s excitement for what comes next is palpable. On our April trip, every time someone learned our group was American, they got excited.

“Do you think it will happen?” they said. “Will the blockade end?”

Then President Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro, and overnight we became celebrities. Whenever we were in the street and people learned we were American, they’d grab us.

“You’re Obama,” they’d say, grabbing our hands, “I’m Castro.” Then they’d shake vigorously, smiling. This didn’t happen once or twice. This happened a lot. Our group was there to meet Cubans, and the Cubans used the opportunity to re-create an emblematic moment of their expanding future.

It’s a moment that keeps moving forward: My last trip coincided with the US announcement it would reopen its embassy in Havana. Next time I visit, the embassy will be open. Things are changing fast.

But not everything. The streets are still flooded with 1950s Fords and Chevys, and the faces of Fidel, Che Guevara, and Hugo Chavez still loom large on countless murals and billboards. Soviet-style architecture still dots the Havana skyline, and when the sun goes down, crowds still swarm the Malecon, Havana’s iconic 8-kilometer seawall.

Cuba seems caught somewhere between the developing and developed world: Everyone has health care and a university degree, but buildings are falling down and basic goods can be scarce. But it’s that juxtaposition that makes Cuba remarkable. There are few places in the world where I would encourage people to go out after dark to wander the streets and look to strike up conversations, but social hour in Havana doesn’t begin until 9 p.m. and crime is rare. If “people-to-people” interaction means meeting Cubans where they are, then it begins at dusk on the Malecon.

Other parts of the Cuba experience, meanwhile, seem cribbed from old jokes about the ills of central planning: the three elevators in the upscale Habana Libre hotel that have been down for months; the stores that just keep running out of bottled water.

Then there’s the undercurrent of hard currency that lubricates every interaction; nothing happens without a few dollars exchanged in the palm of a handshake. There are two sides to this game: One is that the government pays so little, everyone must supplement their income with “tips,” the other is that without a contribution, you might be turned away next time. The restaurant might be closed. The tour could be cut short. It’s part of how Cubans get by, and after 60 years in the shadow of the embargo, Cubans know how to survive.

And that’s the truth I come back to each time an American tells me we’re going to ruin it. A half-century of sanctions, spies, and submarines didn’t succeed. Instead, that time taught Cubans to think on their feet, to adapt and endure. As the country opens, Americans will come — for both vacations and business ventures — and Cuba will greet them openly, with a handshake and a smile.

But I’m willing to bet it will still be Cuban palms that wind up filled with folded bills, and again without losing their island.

I’ll tell you for sure after my next trip. Or the next.


This story appeared in the Boston Globe in August of 2015.

One Page, Typewritten

One Page, Typewritten

12466190_1372029352823146_3197915331627306497_oJune, 1947. Page, 24, sits at the bar in the Sheraton Plaza Hotel in Daytona Beach, Fla. It’s hot, Florida in summer hot. She sips a drink alone.
A man walks in. A sport coat and pressed shirt drape over his lanky frame. His nose is sharp, eyes the color of coffee. As he crosses the room he seems to point to the floor — his eyes, his nose, his head, his chest. He served in the war. It’s that walk, she can tell. He comes toward her.
“Hi,” he says. “May I sit down?”
“Yes, of course,” Page replies.
He pulls open the chair and sits. “Thank you.”
The past can be hard to picture, it leaves only shadows. The impression remaining is cobbled together like scenes from old movies — the characters are real, but the settings are wooden, the dialogue imagined, almost fiction.
But Page is real. And so was he.
They talk. He’s witty, makes her laugh. She orders a second drink. He finishes his first. Late afternoon slips to evening, but the dark Florida June is still stifling. Soon he has to leave.
“I’m giving a talk,” he says. “It’ll be an hour. Will you wait?”
She smiles. “Wait for what?”
“I’d like to have dinner with you,” he says, standing.
“An hour?” she says. “Yes, I’ll wait.”
When he returns they leave together, walk out of the bar, out of the hotel and into a restaurant. They keep talking — him telling stories and her laughing. When they finish dinner they go to another bar, then a third. It’s after midnight when they walk back to the Sheraton Plaza.
“Thank you,” Page says, leaning against the door to her room. “I had a wonderful night.”
“Me too,” the man says.
She steps inside, closing the door behind her as he walks away.
The next morning early there is a knock. Page pulls on her robe. “Yes?”
“I wanted to thank you again,” the man says. She opens the door and he hands her his card. His fingers trail across hers as she takes it. “It was the perfect night.”
He smiles. “Write me,” he says, and then turns.
She looks at the card: J.D. Salinger, writer.
1947, four years before “The Catcher in the Rye.” Page is now 92. Her birthday just passed. She lives in South Carolina, still drives, still lives in her home. She is my grandmother.
I knew none of the story when I visited last fall. She’d fallen, broken her pelvis and was in a rehab center awaiting surgery. I drove down to offer help. Aside from the break she was healthy and strong, “This place is full of old people,” she told me. “Not like me. I’m old, but these people have no idea what day it is.”
But not her. Ninety-two or not, she remembers.
“You’re a writer, so you might appreciate this,” she said, and she told me the story: the bar, how he came in then left then came back. Dinner. The next morning. All of it.
“Go in my desk,” she said. “In the back there’s an envelope. Look inside.”
“Write me,” he said. And she did. And he wrote back.
The envelope was yellow and stuffed with clippings. The return address — P.O. Box 32, Windsor, VT 05089 — lacks a name; the postmark read May 23, 1976, 29 years after the hotel.
“Dear Page B.,” the letter begins, typed in the irregular stroke of a typewriter. “Mainly, I suppose, because of the kind of work I’ve got myself into, my memory seems to be almost extinct. Or so cluttered and cross-cluttered that I can get at things only at their convenience, not mine. Not that it doesn’t all come back if someone very kindly presents me with an artifact or two — the seating plan of some old dining room, say, or a sketch of the way deck chairs were placed around the swimming pool, or sometimes just a plain wet black bathing suit does the trick.”
But even faded, the memory survived: “I was back at that Daytona hotel a couple of winters ago, with my children, but the place had turned seedy and the weather was cold, and we cleared out in a hurry.”
One page only, signed “JDS.” He referred to her children (“I’m aware of what goes into having just two. The algebra of seven is too much for me.”) and her separation, indications of past correspondence. Her words, however, are silent, only echoed on the page of a man who splashed letters like paint.
“You do sound intact, but very much, though, and I’m glad. For what very little it must be worth, I send you all these inanities with warm apologies.”
He is dead now. She is 92. But the letter remains. Thirty-nine years later, 68 years later, the past is still cluttered and cross-cluttered. Memories fade, then disappear, and from the rearview it sounds almost like fiction.

This story appeared in The Conway Daily Sun in July of 2015.