CDS Column: Entertainment? Debatable.

CDS Column: Entertainment? Debatable.

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-5-04-40-pmThis week included the first debate of the 2016 presidential election. Did you watch?

You could sense the excitement Monday evening, the closing of doors as people rushed home to make sure not to miss anything. It had the feel of the Super Bowl: blue lights of the TV screen flooding living room after living room, the proud rooting for a chosen team, a clawing desire to win.

But it also held the feel of a car accident, a train wreck that people wanted to glimpse. What would go wrong? What outlandish things would Trump say? Would Clinton be able to hem him in and fend him off, or would he eviscerate her as easily as he did the Republican field?

I met three friends for dinner Monday night. In town for an afternoon of rock climbing, they were on a mission to make it home in time for the debate. “I want to see what happens,” one of them said. “It won’t change who I’m voting for, but I know it’ll be good.”

He was not the only one to say so — another friend stopped by to ask if I was watching. He too wanted to see the drama unfold onstage. The unpredictability of 2016 has transformed the race for the White House into top-rated reality TV.

That is our election today: entertainment. A sideshow. We are ostensibly choosing America’s next commander in chief, but it feels more like a trip to the Colosseum.

What has happened? This isn’t the first time a presidential election has taken on the carnival feel — the selection of Sarah Palin to be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office was another step in that direction.

She brought folksy appeal to the ticket but neither experience nor a global perspective. After the 2008 election loss, the former governor moved on to reality TV, hosting a 2010 show called “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.” According to People Magazine (always a trusted source) she is currently developing a Judge Judy-type courtroom program.

Reality is no longer real enough. We now select candidates more focused on Hollywood than Washington. Is this what voters consider “meaningful change”?

But two policy wonks standing behind podiums arguing the merits of Social Security reform makes for terrible television. No one is going to tune in for that show. Analysts projected the Clinton-Trump debate will be one of the landmark viewing events of 2016, with 17 percent more television viewers than Romney-Obama in 2012. And in the intervening four years much watching has migrated to online streaming media, which those numbers don’t account for. If we are upset with our choices for president, we sure give them our undivided attention. Perhaps our interest is really to be entertained.

A Palin presidency, however, would not have been entertaining, and neither would a Trump presidency. While it may be hilarious to watch the Republican nominee resurrect his signature tagline “You’re fired” in political form, he is without experience, temperament or the necessary judgment to lead. He is a conman stoking divisions and discontent. More of it won’t be entertaining to watch, and a Trump presidency wouldn’t be entertaining to live under.

So, what were viewers looking for? How many of the millions of them were trying to decide which one of these two candidates had the makings of a president? Or is that not what debates are for anymore?

Television companies appreciate them. If discord as entertaining as Trump versus Clinton could face off every year, it’d sprout a cottage industry with as many advertisers as the Super Bowl. And who wouldn’t want to see creative, funny depictions of red state versus blue, candidate versus candidate, issue versus issue. Perhaps Planned Parenthood could deploy croaking frogs and Focus on the Family a new World’s Most Interesting Man.

Maybe this is how we make America great again. Maybe we can sell ourselves back to viability. Maybe taking a page from our reality TV nominee’s book and stenciling our last names across the top floor of all of our houses from the North Country to the coast, from Cleveland to inner city Chicago, we pull us up by our bootstraps.

Really? That seems like a con. Rural America is struggling, and meanwhile Congress fails to meet to make basic compromises. America finds itself in a multipolar world amid powers not necessarily our friends. These are not joking times, not the moment for a clown, a conman. It will take vision, solid policy and hard choices to navigate the times we find ourselves in.

And yet, we as a country elect to tune in, to be entertained. We are trained to watch. We gripe about Washington and then refuse to engage in the boring meaningful work required to change it. We rush home in anticipation of getting to watch grownups act like toddlers onstage and then curse our lack of better choices. Is that true, we are without choices? Or are our politics a reflection of us? Do we have anything to offer, an attention span to listen on policy rather than vote for entertainment value?

There will always be conwomen and conmen. There will always be someone selling something we don’t need at a price we can’t afford, a shill looking to entertain.

And so, we have been left with one choice in this election. The cynical view has always been presidential elections are a choice between two evils, but not this year. This year we have a consummate politician, someone who in normal circumstances would be the very definition of bum in a call to “throw the bums out.” But the conman has transformed Hillary Clinton from sleaze into white knight. There is no other choice, the alternative is absurd, unthinkable.

So we have the election we built for ourselves. But at least we are entertained.


This column ran in the Conway Daily Sun.

From the Backseat: MECA, Me and Swirling Eddies

From the Backseat: MECA, Me and Swirling Eddies

14444663_1636164186409660_5623119052921151833_oI’ve always loved the Porteous Building. The home of the Maine College of Art sits regal and square, a hub spinning eddies of creative energy into surrounding streets. Behind its department store facade hides an economic engine, a piston of Portland’s arts economy, sweeping windows and cascading stairways that breathe life to center Congress.

I first noticed it in 2001, the first time I moved to Portland. I was 20, dropped out of college a second time, working a warehouse shift at L.L. Bean. I lived diagonal from MECA crashing on the couch of my sister’s third floor apartment for token rent, woke each morning before dawn to catch a carpool to Freeport, home by early afternoon. Life was rote, routine, boring.

But just down the street MECA was a cauldron of creation, pluck and juice. There was an energy in the punk-style of the art kids who poured through her doors each day. A fire draped the work that hung in her windows. From my perch I could watch it stream past like artistic magma, stirred and prolific but too far to touch. I left Portland having never walked through her doors.

Four years later I was back, my second try at Portland aimed to finish college; this time as a double-major in political science and media studies. MECA’s creative curriculum wasn’t my syllabus. But I needed money and MECA needed models.

The first time I took my clothes off in a roomful of students was for an evening class. Painting. We were on the third floor in a room with the floor-to-ceiling windows that make Porteous so beautiful. I sat naked on a couch holding a 45-minute pose.

At first I thought I was comfortable. But after 10 minutes my neck grew tight. Soon my shoulder ached, my legs trembled with fatigue and my back cramped. By 25 minutes I was in agony, resigned to stillness among shuffling palettes. Sitting there naked I wondered if anyone outside could see in; if the glow lured peering eyes perhaps from some third floor apartment across the way.

When the teacher called a break I collapsed, wrapped myself in a second-hand bathrobe I’d brought for modesty and walked to the window. I looked out at the street dreading the next pose’s 45 minutes of pain.
Then I turned around. In front of me ran canvas after canvas of bold readings of my body, interpretations like twisted mirrors of paint and light and skin tone. I wandered from easel to easel mesmerized by translations striking and alive, bound by darkness, light and mystery. And I was a part of all of them.

I walked back to the podium transfixed. Suddenly the next 45 minutes became a different dance: I now knew the creative fires being lit around me, and that knowledge steadied my pose. I sat engaged, part of the process, a willing actor, no longer concerned with who might look in. I wasn’t there for the money anymore but a witness to the creation unfolding around me, a central ingredient to its birth. I would not miss it for the world.
Two days later I was back for a drawing class. Then for comic class. Then another, and another. I had a front row seat to unselfconscious expression and every class was opening night. Porteous was hemmed by reckless creation and inspiration. And I sat in its center.

But all good things die. It lasted a year, then my modeling career came to an end.

This past Sunday I walked into Porteous once more, this time a student. I carried my drawing pad to a room where I once stood naked. Our model, a woman of perhaps 60, sat casually in the corner. When it was time she stripped her dress and took to the podium like a prizefighter, she the captain, the room her ship. I did my best to anchor her poise and certainty in charcoal, but untrained fingers tripped and fumbled. My renditions were colorless. Only she could do her body justice.

Porteous’ windows and stairwells, however, knew better: Mine was one more act of creation born within her walls. One more mesmerizing eddy.


This column appeared in this week’s Portland Phoenix.

CDS Column: Freedom, Iceland and Campervans

14188326_1604753102884102_6073273407149284030_oIn Iceland it’s easy to rent a camper van.

They are everywhere, little Citroens, Peugeots and Ford Transit Connects rigged with curtains, beds, sinks and stoves. They zip up and down the two-lane highways like miniature delivery trucks pulling over wherever to offer overnight accommodation.

There are bigger Mercedes Sprinter vans and full campers, too, and even rigs that look like a cross between an RV and military transport, go-anywhere-campers equipped with huge tires and undercarriages that ride feet above the road, but it’s the little camper vans that buzz around the desolate isle like bees, their occupants in search of adventure.

And there are adventures to be had in Iceland — glaciers, mountains, geysers and waterfalls, hiking trails and hot springs, whale watches and black sand beaches. The country is crawling with visitors, mostly Europeans but Americans and Canadians, also, there to see volcanoes and ice caps, to ride horses and explore ice caves.

And when the day is over, they pile into their delivery vans, find an empty parking lot and go to sleep.

This isn’t like New Hampshire, where landscape and pine forests might conceal the little red cars with names like “Happy Camper” and “KuKu Camper” pasted on the side. Iceland is a barren place; lava flows coated in emerald moss stretch for miles. It would be easy to veer off the blacktop and just drive almost anywhere, no obstructions for miles. Far-off mountains, plateaus and camper vans dot the landscape, all in clear view. Scenic viewpoints and dirt pull-offs everywhere become impromptu campgrounds each night, three or four cars to a lot.

14124927_1603110626381683_7502455490426160407_oBut no one minds, and no one complains. The police — there are few in Iceland — aren’t about to break up the party. No one is asked to move along. It’s just not a problem, something part of the culture.

And it’s not just the cars: In Iceland you can go almost anywhere. There are trails crisscrossing private land, and tourist sites sit adjacent to homes. Iceland is just open. Anyone can go anywhere. Roads might be posted for vehicles, but walkers can go pretty much anywhere.

The rules are codified in the Icelandic Nature Conservation Act, which stipulates “everyone has the right to travel around the country and enjoy its nature,” according to the website of the Environment Agency of Iceland, “as long as the traveller is tidy and careful not to damage or otherwise spoil natural resources.”

It is “permissible to cross uncultivated private property without seeking any special permission” in Iceland. “Landowners may not hinder passage of walkers alongside rivers, lakes and ocean, or on tracks and paths.”

The result? A country where everyone is free to wander, welcome to roam. Backpackers pitch tents in any open field, walkers wander along exposed clifftops, and car-campers park for the night anywhere they please.

Another result is less concrete by no less real: a feeling of openness, of freedom, of unrestrictedness, a right to be where you are. It is a feeling unfamiliar in America. But in Iceland no one is ever going to ask you to move. They aren’t going to ask you to explain yourself, to demand you produce your ID. The default assumption is you have the right to be where you are, to stand where you are standing and walk where you are walking. Private property is not so private to exclude you access to it.

It is a different version of freedom, one that runs deep on the island of fire and ice. It even extends to the national parks: There are no entrance fees, no gates or rangers. The mountains, waterfalls, natural hot springs and glaciers are all open; there are no ticket sales. Iceland may be expensive — it is an island, after all, and imported goods cost accordingly — but to gain access to the land is free.

Contrast that with our version of freedom, the version so vehemently celebrated in the Live Free or Die state. Here the word means not universal access to the land but the right not to be bothered. “My home is my castle.” “Don’t tread on me.” Freedom is a celebration of a place where I do not have to fear interruption.

Here in New Hampshire — and in America — freedom is a form of protection, a cloak, a warm blanket to wrap ourselves in. It shields us from the darkness and the night, all the terrifying and unwanted things crowding outside our doors.

But freedom doesn’t have to mean that. Iceland lives a different version. Freedom there is not the protection of a closed door but the chance to throw open the windows. It is a chance to abandon home completely and explore the world, to wander and get lost without fear of persecution, to head for the horizon without risk of reprisal. It is the right to exist exactly where you are, to not apologize for standing in place no matter where that place is.

Maybe everyone grows accustomed to the version of freedom they are born into, the version they grow up with. But those camper vans dotting the highway, those hikers pitching tent in empty fields, they represent a different version of the word, some meaning long since forgotten at home. Somewhere between the White Mountain parking passes, the Do Not Enter signs and Echo Lake entrance fees, we got lost. Suddenly, our land wasn’t ours anymore. It was yours, and only yours, to keep free.

But that’s not everywhere. In Iceland, little red cars with beds in the back swarm the land, buzzing their way freely wherever they like. The wind carries them past the lava and snow, over rivers and next to oceans. It’s all free, and it’s theirs. Because “everyone has the right to travel around the country and enjoy its nature.”


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

CDS Column: A Shot in the Dark

CDS Column: A Shot in the Dark

IMG_7944-1I’m not much of a hunter.

Last year was my first season. I took the hunter safety course in the southern part of the state, a consequence of waiting until the last minute to sign up. But three days of spoon-feeding later — information distilled so simply failure wasn’t an option — I had state approval to walk the woods with a gun.

A hunting license, paired with no idea what I was doing. An old hand-me-down 20-gauge I’d been given in high school would serve as my long sword, and a few stops at the L.L. Bean outlet set me up in blaze orange. I was suddenly poised to kick around the woods with a loaded firearm, crisply dressed and legal but still far from lethal.

So, for my first day out I recruited an experienced friend to lead me in my pursuit of ruffed grouse, an appropriate-seeming challenge. We walked Jackson woods on overgrown logging trails waiting for an explosion of wings or the sound of their distinctive drumming, but we saw nothing. Instead of entering the arena of primordial provider, I took a pleasant afternoon stroll.

Lots of hunting days, my friend explained, are spent like this, more wandering through empty woods than shooting. The gun on those days is a hiking accessory.

Two days later, I was back, this time on my own. A grouse, I was determined, would find its way to my table. I drove the same dirt road looking for deciduous forests along sunny slopes, the sort of place a healthy grouse might opt to make roost. I parked at a pullout, donned my orange vest, loaded my shotgun, laced my boots and set off into the forest.

The explosion caught me off guard, barely five minutes in. A rustle catapulted a bird into the sky, and it streaked from left to right like a football bound for the endzone, wheeling around trees and darting out of sight.

My gun never came up. The lightning bolt erupted faster than I’d imagined, and I stood dumbfounded. This was going to be harder than I’d thought, I realized.

But I’d seen it, noted its general direction. It wouldn’t go far. This was its territory and it’d stick close. So, I followed it, tromping dead trees and downed limbs looking for wherever the football had landed.

Fifteen minutes later, my steps triggered another explosion, this time streaking back right. I’d found it, but again I was flat-footed. My gun hung across my thighs, never approached my shoulder. I didn’t have a chance. This bird was better equipped for survival than I was, and another hour of walking failed to scare it up for a third time. I walked back to my car with nothing but a shotgun in hand.

More wandering in the woods than shooting. It was proving true.

But the shooting was what drew me to the woods, what pushed me to hunt: Not the sport of it, but the killing. Like most of us, I am happy to eat a hamburger or chicken on my Caesar salad. But I have never killed a cow, never chopped the head off a hen. Our food does not demand such commitment. It’s easy to eat steak without ever coming face-to-face with a living, doe-eyed cow, much less having killed one. Our killing today, like so much in our economy, has been outsourced, and not just to the neighborhood butcher.

Not that I’m opposed to the killing. Every carnivore and omnivore does it, all without the guilt humans wrestle with. But our habit is to kill from a distance, to leave it to others while reaping the benefits. It’s a tendency that engenders complacency. Ignorance in the face of death lets things to get messy in dark corners.

Across Idaho, Utah and Kansas vast feedlots line the highway. Herds stand crowded into brown squares stripped bare of grass. Cows stained dark with mud and feces stand resigned to lives hemmed in on four sides, the bovine equivalent of cubicle-bound.

These are not happy cows. They live this way as a consequences of distance, the result of ordering the sandwich without having to raise the meat. It is a system built to maximize efficiency at the expense of humanity (or bovinity perhaps). Bullfights may be decried as cruel, but the ring offers more life than the feedlot, and everyone winds up hamburger by dinnertime.

The factory farm, however, lets us keep our hands clean. The bullfight, meanwhile, occurs center stage in blood red. How curious one is banned while the other is good business.

Hunting was my reckoning. I went into the woods to walk among feedlots, to take my part in the killing up close, a shotgun filling the space of captive bolt pistol, no more handing off the task at reduced rates.

But it didn’t happen. I didn’t even raise my gun, not that day nor any of the following. I wandered woods and watched birds streak like footballs through the foliage, but my reflexes were too slow, my gun never reached my shoulder.

Left to my own devices, I determined, I would starve. Ideas about ethics and ideology would play no part. The only meat would be store-bought, and questions about the veracity of my carnivorous spirit remain unanswered. The ferocious hunter I was not.

It is, however, that time of year again. Lucky for the birds I’m not much of a hunter.


This column appeared in Wednesday’s Conway Daily Sun.