CDS: Where the Avalanches are

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Joe Klementovich photo

CONWAY — The high summits have their first brushes of snow, which to many winter aficionados means one thing: Ski season is almost here.

Not everyone prefers the manicured slopes of ski resorts. Some look to the backcountry and the white-peaked Mount Washington for their sliding fix.

For them, early-season concerns aren’t limited to what type of skis to purchase or whether it’ll be a good snow year.

Their favorite sport arrives with risk. The snow is back, and with it comes avalanches.

But this year is one of transition for the Mount Washington Valley avalanche community. The U.S. Forest Service is in the midst of hiring two snow rangers for the Mount Washington Avalanche Center, which forecasts conditions and conducts rescues in Tuckerman and Huntington ravines.

Half of its four-person staff has departed. One of the positions being filled is that of longtime Lead Snow Ranger Chris Joosen, who ran the Mount Washington Avalanche Center for more than two decades.

“We have some pretty big shoes to fill,” said Justin Preisendorfer, assistant district ranger for the Forest Service’s Androscoggin district.

Both Joosen and Jeff Lane, who also left in the spring, spent decades digging snow pits, watching the weather, learning how avalanche hazards affect the mountain. “Lots of on-the- ground knowledge and skills there,” Preisendorfer said.

Preisendorfer himself was a snow ranger for eight seasons before moving to the district office.

He knows what the job requires. Mount Washington is like almost no other avalanche-forecasting spot, he said.

In most places, assessments are for entire mountain ranges, spanning miles and including varying aspects and thousands of feet of elevation change. But here it’s just two bowls: Huntington and Tuckerman. Individual gullies are examined.

“Forecasters develop an intimacy with the terrain you can’t get most places,” he said.

Plus forecasting is only part of the job. From Dec. 1 until the end of May, snow rangers also are in charge of all rescues within the Cutler River Drainage, which includes Tuckerman and Huntington, No one else does that.

There is also education and outreach. Each day after the advisory goes up, snow rangers go out and meet with skiers and climbers to talk about current conditions. That, too, is not the norm in avalanche-forecasting positions.

A lot of the complexity in forecasting Tuckerman and Huntington is because of the people.

“The biggest challenge with micro-forecasting on Mount Washington is we have an unorganized fleet of volunteer stability testers,” Preisendorfer said. Every day, swarms of skiers and climbers put assessments to the test.

So far, he said, the Forest Service is in the midst of the hiring process, and there has been a lot of interest in the positions. But Preisendorfer doubts they will both be filled by the time Dec. 1 rolls around, when the snow rangers take over responsibility for rescues from New Hampshire Fish and Game.

Luckily, the Forest Service has a handful of former snow rangers who have agreed to fill in, but the time crunch leaves Preisendorfer a bit conflicted.

“On one hand, I’m praying for a heavy, long winter,” he said, but on the other, it’d be nice if things stayed quiet until both positions were filled.

One of the two remaining snow rangers, Frank Carus, said he’s looking forward to new blood at the avalanche center. After years of the lead snow ranger working both as safety officer for the White Mountain National Forest and forecaster at the avalanche center, the new position will be at the avalanche center only.

“I’m actually excited for the change,” Carus said. “Having a full-time director will be great.”

The new job will engage with the public more, heighten the awareness of the center and work with groups like Friends of Tuckerman Ravine and Friends of the Mount Washington Avalanche Center to support center operations.

The avalanche center is one of the White Mountain National Forest’s most popular programs, and one the public interacts with most. The new director will have plenty to do.

Not all awareness education falls to professionals. Enthusiasts and former avalanche workers are stepping in to fill the gap.

The Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop is one such effort. Set for Nov. 5 at Leura Hill Eastman Performing Arts Center in Fryeburg, Maine, ESAW is a one-day seminar organized by volunteers who are mostly snow rangers and former snow rangers. It will provide a venue for avalanche workers and backcountry aficionados to hear presentations and discuss new techniques and technologies with experts in the field.

“It’s a grassroots effort to get people educated on snow science and avalanches,” said Joe Klementovich of North Conway, one of ESAW’s main organizers and a former snow ranger.

The idea of the workshop, he said, was triggered “by an uptick in midwinter activity.” It used to be that most skiers came to Mount Washington in the spring, when warm temperatures had cooked most of the instability out of the snowpack.

But these days, more and more people come up looking for powder. They are on the mountain in midwinter, a time of much greater avalanche risk.

“There’s just so much people don’t know they don’t know,” Klementovich said. From spring to winter, the snowpack “becomes a whole different animal.”

It is the sixth year of an ESAW. Carus, who will be a presenter, said part of the goal is to reach younger enthusiasts and to counter images they may see that show people skiing in front of avalanches or surviving slides like it’s no big deal.

These portrayals don’t show the teams of rescuers poised just behind the ridge ready to respond should there be a problem, said Carus, noting, “It’s deceptive.” It makes it look like these pro skiers take huge risks without any safety net. “That’s what we need to compete against.”

The avalanche center has been working with friends groups to purchase video equipment in an effort to provide more multimedia content from the field, “integrating modern messaging techniques,” Carus said.

And, at ESAW, “it’ll be a little less nerdy than in the past,” he said, with more focus on terrain considerations and how to evaluate risk than the intricacies of snow science.

Klementovich highlighted, as well, the need to reach younger skiers.

“That was one of the founding tenets of the whole thing,” Klementovich said.

Because, like every skier, they, too, are looking up at a white Mount Washington with anticipation and sharpening their skis.

Klementovich and Carus both want to see them sharpening their avalanche skills, too.

ESAW registration information is available at esaw.org. For Mount Washington Avalanche Center information, go to mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org.

CDS Column: Right, Left and Center

image1-2When it comes to voting for federal office in New Hampshire this cycle we don’t have a lot of choices to be excited about; both the Republican and Democratic tickets are bleak. At the top is Donald Trump, clearly unfit to lead, or Hillary Clinton, the consummate politician. One step below is the U.S. Senate where Gov. Maggie Hassan is hoping to unseat Sen. Kelly Ayotte, two candidates more astute at political maneuvering than practicing leadership or instituting policy. Two strikes for the federal ballot.

Then there is the race for Congress: incumbent Frank Guinta running against former representative Carol Shea-Porter in the fourth matchup between the two. These two have gone back and forth, and every time the seat flips.

Why? Because it doesn’t matter which one is in office, both have proven uninspiring. It’s another version of the races above it, but it’s also worse: Guinta versus Shea-Porter is more bad TV, but in this race we have to watch a rerun.

In one sense we’re lucky: In a country where almost every congressional seat goes to the incumbent it’s a rare thing to see a contested race. But it hasn’t done us any strategic favors. Rep. Guinta has members of his own party (including Sen. Ayotte) suggesting he resign following his finance scandals, and still Shea-Porter is unable to trounce him.

Is that because Guinta is likeable? Nope. He’s come by the Sun a number of times, and each visit is reminiscent of a sitdown with a used car salesman.

But Shea-Porter offers nothing more promising. Both candidates sit square within their parties, basically stooges for Washington games. If a bright idea has come from either it never made it to paper.

But in the house race 2016 isn’t a rerun. We finally have a chance to watch something other than the lumbering Shea-Porter-Guinta-Shea-Porter drama. This year there is an Independent in the race. And Shawn O’Connor is a guy worth voting for.

Who is O’Connor, and why haven’t you heard of him? I hadn’t heard of him either before he came by the Sun office earlier this month and introduced himself. O’Connor is an entrepreneur and businessman from Bedford, the founder of Stratus Prep, a test preparation and admissions counseling firm, also the founder of the Stratus Foundation, a nonprofit the helps underprivileged kids access college prep services. He earned an MBA and a law degree from Harvard and studied international politics at Georgetown as an undergrad. He graduated all three with honors.

He’s smart, but more important than that, he’s reasonable. And unlike his predecessors, he’s without puppet masters to pull his strings; he’s running as an Independent, and in his case that means truly independent.

The Guinta-Shea-Porter brawl is loud. So you might have to turn down the volume to find O’Connor. But if you do you just might find something you like. Here is a thoughtful, considered candidate running for elected office, the kind of person who usually steers clear of Washington, or else is corrupted by it. He has ideas for addressing healthcare, minimum wage and social security that pull from both conservative and progressive corners, taking the good ideas from both and applying them to American problems. With no ideological allegiance and a background in business he’s a free man, something Washington lacks.

And what’s more, he’s already made his money. One of his pledges is to donate the bulk of his Congressional salary, roughly $160,000, to a charity selected by an independent board. He’s not going to Washington to help himself.

To be clear, as a New Hampshire reporter you sit through a lot of interviews. Politics is kind of New Hampshire’s thing, and as a result we bat around ideas with everyone from presidential hopefuls to prospective school board members. And often these editorial board meetings feel like a game of cat-and-mouse with the candidate unwilling to say anything concrete and the team of reporters chasing them to nail down a policy position. The best escape artists (Mitt Romney comes to mind) evade every attempt like a bullfighter avoids the horns. Lesser versions (Newt Gingrich, Marco Rubio) do it with less grace, but all of them come off feeling insincere.

Guinta and Shea-Porter (and Hassan too) always struck me as part of Team Insincere, team bullfight. They’re of the ilk who will say anything to win election, always trying to escape their own records and avoid firm points.

O’Connor, meanwhile, sat in front of us and took thoughtful, nuanced policy positions. He avoided partisan rhetoric and instead carved a platform in part conservative, in part liberal. His talk truly earned the label “Independent,” was the kind of candidate you can actually feel good about sending to Washington.

That’s a rare thing these days. Most races are about selecting the least poor option. O’Connor flips that on his head.

But can he win? That’s the question. As he pointed out, New Hampshire is the New England state with the widest independent streak but Maine, Vermont and Connecticut have sent Independents to Washington. New Hampshire could do it too. Voters just have to demand service, not politics, from their representatives. It was talk reminiscent of Ray Burton, the longtime executive councilor who cared more about his constituents needs than their party affiliation. Since Ray passed no one else has picked up the mantle.
O’Connor can change that. He is a candidate for all of us, not one stuck to the margins. He claims to want to Washington to support New Hampshire’s people as opposed to a party. Neither Guinta nor Shea-Porter have done that. Maybe it’s time for a change.


This column appeared in Wednesday’s Conway Daily Sun.

From the Backseat: A Mini America

49895953510__6feb8924-ea7f-4930-ae0b-20f4a8fb15f3-1Maine is a modern political allegory. In a lot of ways it can serve as a stand-in for the entire United States—liberal coast hemming a vast but sparsely populated conservative heartland, with bustle and trade, vibrancy and a smattering of diversity along the shore but both tempo and complexion changing once you leave the ocean. Isolated pockets clustered around centers of higher education (rather than midwestern cities) retain the progressive flavor of coastal life, but otherwise inland culture is very different, as is the economic outlook.

America Mini: Yeah, we’ve got that.

And politically Maine has America covered too: one Republican congressman and the other rep a Democrat, in the U.S. Senate a moderate Republican regularly accused of being a RINO and an Independent who leans liberal. Maine voters, like voters across America, support every political stripe.

And then there’s the governor. If Maine is an American metaphor then loose-lipped Gov. Paul LePage is a glimpse into the future, a hint at what a possible presidency with Donald J. Trump would be like.

“I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular,” Gov. LePage told a radio host last spring. And he’s right: Gov. LePage is a shining example of what loose cannon leadership looks like, how an executive who takes no notice of facts likes to govern. It’s impossible to watch the trapeze act of Trump’s campaign and not be reminded of Maine’s own mini-circus, the pro-business bark adorned by rude racist comments and a constant confusion on facts. Trump hardly has a corner on that market. LePage never had his own TV show but in terms of political buffoonery and chicanery he’s got a six-year head start.

How do candidates like this get to power? Of course there’s the business of third party politics and Maine’s 61 percent, but there is also that vast white interior, the working class industrial heartland of Maine/America, the places where good jobs were once plentiful and now are hard to come by. These are the forgotten lands where infrastructure is crumbling as quickly as communities. This is the seat of power for “straight talk” politicos today, the home of the frustrated white worker.

And why shouldn’t they be frustrated? These voters live in the economic sectors of yesteryear, places like Rumford and Skowhegan (Cleveland and Milwaukee) that have suffered setback after setback. They’ve watched their communities drown in joblessness while their elected officials lead in other directions and focus more on talking over them than talking to them. The American Dream, long at their doorstep, is now far away and doesn’t look to be coming back.

It is to those voters that politicians like Trump and LePage offer their promises: a rejuvenated working class and a reborn heartland. “Make America Great Again.” It’s a slogan aimed at them, and it has hit its mark. It may be hogwash, a fantasy in today’s changing world, but when no one else is speaking to this constituency there is room for LePage and Trump to find support. They took a read on the pulse of frustration among white working class voters and they spoke to it. Their words may be hollow, but any sound booms across a vacuum. They noticed a bloc and reached out; they should not have been the first.

LePage and Trump are blowhards, but their political foresight should not be overlooked. It’s now clear that white rural voters are ignored at our collective peril. While Maine and the rest of America quibbled over policy nuance these factless windbags climbed ranks: LePage won both election and then reelection, and Trump cleared the Republican field. Disillusioned and disenfranchised working class voters led the way, showing up in droves to exercise what power they have left, supporting the candidates that speak to their situation as everyone else looked on.

Maybe next time Republicans and RINOs, Independents and Democrats will approach this frustrated constituency, listen to what they have to say and speak to them. Maybe next time working class Maine’s sole option won’t be a bluster-filled bully.

Maybe that can be part of America’s story too.


This column appeared in this week’s Portland Phoenix.

CDS: No Limits Ascent

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Gary Dunn photo

CONWAY — How does a guy in a wheelchair climb the biggest cliff in the America? Pull-ups. Lots of pull-ups.

Enoch Glidden may have been born with spina bifida, but that doesn’t keep the 37-year-old Western Mainer from rock climbing. Paralyzed from the waist down, he got his first wheelchair when he was 4. But his birth defect didn’t diminish his passion for adventure, and this month, Glidden climbed the largest granite monolith in North America: El Capitan in California’s Yosemite Valley.

“It was definitely a pretty awesome experience,” Glidden said in a phone interview from somewhere in Colorado (he was driving back to Bethel, Maine).

Glidden and two partners — climber Christian Cattell and climber, artist and filmmaker Craig Muderlak — set out from the valley floor on Oct. 4. Their goal was to climb Zodiac, a well-known route on El Capitan’s steep right-hand flank.

Zodiac ascends 1,800 vertical feet of sheer rock up mostly overhanging terrain. It requires nights as well as days on the wall, and most teams have to haul camping gear, food, water, even a collapsible hanging ledge to have somewhere to sleep. It can take anywhere from a handful of hours to days to ascend.

Glidden and his team planned on five days. The three were scheduled to start out on Oct. 5, but it turned out that a woman from Italy, who was also an adaptive climber, was set to begin the same route on the same day, so Glidden and his team opted to launch their effort early.

As in any such expedition, theirs was not without complications. Eleven volunteers met Glidden, Cattell, Muderlak and a fourth team member — climber and guide Gary Dunn — in the meadow below El Capitan early on the morning of Oct. 4. It was 30 degrees F., but soon everyone was warmed as they took turns carrying the 130-pound Glidden strapped in a litter over a mile of trail, rocks and boulders to reach the base of the route.

“It was exciting to see and be part of it,” said Joan Veilleux, a Mount Washington Valley guide and nurse at North Conway’s Memorial Hospital, who was on Enoch’s support team.

Once they reached the base, Cattell and Muderlak started up Zodiac. Then it was Dunn’s turn, whose job would be to support Glidden throughout the climb.

But a short way up the first section of the cliff, Dunn injured his shoulder. Still close to the ground, it was clear he couldn’t continue. He came down, and suddenly the team of four was down to three — of which one member couldn’t use his legs.

Muderlak and Cattell descended, and along with Glidden considered their options. They decided to see whether anyone back at camp would take on the job and had suitable experience.

But their search was fruitless, and a few hours later, Muderlak and Cattell returned to start up with Glidden as a team of three.

“That kind of started us off a little unsure,” Enoch said, but they were determined to give it a shot. They developed a system: Cattell would go up first and set the ropes, which included a line for Glidden to climb. Glidden would start up, doing pull-up after pull-up using specially rigged rope clamps that would allow him to ascend to the top anchor, while Muderlak would set out from the low point to clean any gear Cattell used in climbing. Cattell, meanwhile, would haul the bags of overnight gear, food and water to the high anchor.

This meant Glidden was without the planned support person to help should there be complications. While Cattell and Muderlak concentrated on the rock and the gear, Glidden hung, twisting and swaying on the rope, hundreds of feet above the valley. There were definitely moments, he said, when he thought, “Why am I doing this?”

It was scary, when the wind caught and spun him, he said, but it was also why he was there: to challenge himself, for the sense of exploration and adventure.

With the adventure, of course, came times of doubt. “Just using the bathroom was a total chore,” Glidden said.

Muderlak agreed: “That was the most stressful part of the day.” It was forced intimacy, something nobody was comfortable with. “But we got better at it.”

The project had begun two years before, and Muderlak had been to Yosemite with Enoch in 2015. “The more work is manageable,” Muderlak said.

The biggest challenge was pushing Glidden, “but not pushing him too far.”

Glidden said he was definitely pushed.

“Most people would think (the hardest part) was the 4,000 pull-ups,” he said, “but it was the mental challenge.”

Five days on the wall is wearing; 1,800 feet of sheer rock is wearing. Day after day, with no ground beneath you gets wearing. When it came to pull-ups, “I actually wasn’t that sore,” Glidden said, “I guess I’d put in enough time at the gym.”

Despite his undeniable fitness, “there were definitely thoughts of maybe I should bail,” he said.

Like at the top of the seventh section of climbing, the point where the route becomes too steep to retreat easily. That had Glidden thinking hard about returning to flat ground. But he kept going up.

And five days later — and thousands of pull-ups later — Team Glidden reached the top.

Glidden is modest, not a talkative guy. His reminiscences about summit day are subdued. He’s the kind of guy whom you ask, “How was it?” and he’ll reply, “Cool.” Or “Fun.” Or “Hard.” A journey of a lifetime squeezed into a single word.

But for those who worked with him and witnessed his determination, this was not just another mountain.

“This was so much more than that five-day climb,” Muderlak said. This was the culmination of two years of planning, training, effort and setbacks.

For Veilleux, who met the team at the top to help them descend, it was an emotional moment. “I just lost it,” she said. “It really was amazing. I’m still coming down from it.”

But the top, as every mountaineer knows, is only halfway. After five days on the wall, the hardest part was yet to come. It took another day and another team of 12 to make it off the top of El Capitan and back to civilization.

By all accounts, the descent was grueling and took until well after dark.

But on the way down, strange things started happening. People showed up, started helping, assisting with the litter carry and donating food, water, fresh headlamps. “All these climbers were coming to our group to meet Enoch,” Veilleux said.

In truth, Muderlak said, that was the real magic of Enoch’s ascent: “The climb isn’t really the story. The real story is the moments in between. The real story to me is the community of people.”

Enoch’s determination, his drive, was moving, Muderlak said. “He is what inspired people.”

Muderlak captured it all on video, filming the climb and the lead-up. He plans to release a movie on Glidden next spring, giving everyone a chance to see what determination and adventure really look like.

Glidden, meanwhile, hasn’t slowed. He reached the summit, but it looks to be just one of a string. “The next day, we were talking about doing Rainier,” he said, referring to the hulking 14,410-foot volcano that dominates the Seattle skyline.

It’s a different kind of ascent, one that will require him to pull his way over crevassed glaciers. He’ll probably sit on a ski, he said, and use a rope to pull himself along.

“I’ll definitely be training for that.”


This story appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

From the Backseat: Oceans Apart

14188296_1606188992740513_8342364284182226130_oI used to think the North Atlantic was mean. All the stories of shipwrecks and European sailors tossed around in icy waters. Growing up I watched winter waves pommel the shore, saw fog swallow roads, houses and fields, watched hurricane swells grab a 40-foot lobster boat and toss it like a seashell. The sea was raw power, the North Atlantic menacing.

Then last fall I visited the Pacific. I wanted to see the Olympic Mountains, to soak in hot springs, wander rainforests and paddle the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Out West, cities face inward. They sit on water but don’t risk open ocean: San Francisco has the Bay, Seattle the Sound, Portland the Columbia River but north of sunny Southern California few outposts brave the sea. And so the Pacific is forgotten. Those placid and welcoming bays and bodies come to represent western water. The ocean lies eclipsed.

But four hours west of Seattle it sits guarding America’s edge: water dark as arterial blood rolling and falling onto itself like a wounded animal, roiled, frantic, ferocious. Unpredictable. Great trees tumble among a constant roar. Seafoam stretches for miles. Wind dashes the shore with tendrils of saltwater, everything glistening and cold. Drizzle falls from a sky only a shade lighter than the water. More trees sit half-buried in sand, ripped from the shore by past assaults, now imprisoned.

This is no Puget Sound, no tranquil shoreline. Here the full force of 5,000 unbroken miles slams unceasingly without stories or reputation to precede it, just a quiet pounding of the American West. Uprooted trees the size of small buildings swing like toys in a perpetual grey of clouds, drizzle and churning. The Pacific marks an endpoint, and there is no mistaking its edges. America closes and it takes over. No abbreviations.

New England is different. The East Coast is warmer, more gentle, dotted by islands and inlets that break up a full assault. Any water runs only a short distance before intersecting land. Only hurricanes carry the intensity of the everyday Pacific.

But home carries its own mysteries.

I arrived in early evening. The ocean stood calm, a mirror of lobster buoys and boat masts. Fog sat heavy, the coastline waning in either direction, an easy day to get lost. I parked at the boat ramp and pulled a paddleboard from the roof. An oversized surfboard mostly meant for lakes and ponds, on the ocean it feels like a thimble. But there is magic in braving something so vast atop something so small. A seagull screeched from the rocks. Cormorants dotted the nearby mooring balls, their wings outstretched like goblins. Everything stood suffocating white. I buckled my life jacket, slid the board into the water and cast off.

Under my feet the mirror shook. Strands of seaweed buoyed by air sacs stretched towards the surface. A loon called inside the mist. The blanket muffled a bell buoy and held shorelines distant. I coursed around a small island at the periphery of the bay, a line of rock mostly buried by the tide. Huddled pines climbed above a highwater mark so low winter storms must sweep the whole of it. But the only moisture touching the pines today was fog.

I paddled to the island’s beach—sand and stone dotted by shells and seaglass—and pulled ashore. White-grey peeled its way across the water, but for a moment the sun broke through. Trees opposite peeked green. From my perch I watched the Atlantic’s shifting mood, an ocean in utter calm.

Our constant neighbor, moody but not malicious. Our porch and guest space for welcoming in the wild. Angry? Mean? Barely. So much more gentle than the Pacific, she allows us to sit on her islands, lets us look into her reflection.

The clouds descended with resurgent fog. I looked back to the mainland’s faint outline, only silhouette now, and walked back to the sea. I slid my board into the mirror, the only ripples ours.


This piece appeared in this week’s Portland Phoenix.

CDS Column: The American Locker Room Tradition

CDS Column: The American Locker Room Tradition

13475016_1517641101595303_7355454198074171565_o“Locker room talk” is a catchy phrase and now the talk of the nation. Never have the tiled quarters of towels, benches and shower stalls garnered such attention. It is, however, a presidential year, so no wonder.

It’s been interesting to watch lines drawn around Republican nominee Donald Trump’s comments, “locker room talk” or “sexual assault” depending on your political leanings. His supporters rallied, some Republicans used the comments to justify severing support, and opponents pointed aghast saying, “See! See! We told you!”

But Donald Trump’s comments don’t make him a monster; they put him squarely within American culture. They mark him as an American male, the personification of American masculinity stated in stark terms, its dark edges exposed, things we don’t often dwell upon out. His “grab them by the pussy” comments are not so far fetched or outlandish, not as far afield as many claim. This is the raw of American male conversations on sex, particularly among young men — proud, boastful men still finding their way across the landscapes of adulthood.

Trump’s comments shine a light into a world we look to ignore. Not a political point; this is a truth about us, about American male culture and the customs we carry. Donald Trump is no outlier here. He lives squarely within the American psyche, the sexual culture we cultivate. This is about American men, our mores and a tradition of celebrating aggression.
Sounds dramatic, but it’s not meant to be. American men are not predators. But we carry a school of conditioning, a cultural norm: From a young age, American men learn to talk about sex in grand terms. Sex is not a subject to ask questions about, something for discussion, learned easily within our social network. It is instead something to boast about, a way to prove your position within the pecking order. If you are an American male you’ve seen this before: raunchy conversations where participants compete to be the most brash, the most raw, the most confident and loudest. If you’re an American male, chances are you’ve felt your place within the hierarchy, and you’ve probably either striven to prove yourself or else felt ostracized by it. Likely both.

From middle school on there is pressure to conform, pressure to be the most experienced, the most promiscuous, the silverback, the alpha. Sex talk, “locker room talk,” is never gentle, thoughtful or considered. It is “grab them by the pussy” and worse. This is how we grew up, our sexual education. It is where and how American men learn to talk about women.

Most men don’t act out these lessons. For most it is a show, a performance we make to fit in, part of joining the tribe of our peers. It does not become foundation for sexual assault or sexual violence but remains the bluster of “locker room talk.” Is it necessarily happening in locker rooms? No, but make no mistake, it’s happening.

And that bluster does two things: It leaves young men and boys feeling ostracized, wondering how their peers know so much about sex when they themselves are clueless (despite whoever or whatever we just claimed to have carnal knowledge of), and it permanently impacts the language we learn to use around sex, the character of the conversation we embrace. We adopt the swagger and bravado to fit in, and it is the swagger and bravado that make us afraid to ask questions, afraid we are the only ones who don’t know. To speak in opposition to the boasting rhetoric becomes unthinkable — it risks exposing ourselves as ignorant children, fakes. And with that coincides a tumbling loss of social position, a risk we cannot take.

And if men know the bragging and rough talk, women know the ignorance, the bumbling, the delicate male egos propped on false claims of past deeds. This is our “sexual education,” the path carved for young American men and women to reach adulthood, our incubator for home, family, partnership.

And it has consequences. It leaves young men groping to prove themselves, to show they are who they say they are. From private New Hampshire high schools to the swimming pools at Stanford we’ve seen young men from the top of the pecking order strike out, thrash their way into sex rather than risk a question, an about-face. Boys employing the crude tools our culture has equipped them with.

And their thrashing has consequences. Their thrashing leaves victims.

But they, too, are victims. They are victims of our collective unwillingness to talk openly about sex, our timidity and our vision of American maleness. They grow to be men never baring their ignorance, never risking what they don’t know. They learn only through thrash and bluster, bumping their way down the hallways. Then they have their own boys, and the cycle continues.

Donald J. Trump. Alpha. Silverback. He stormed the pecking order with braggadocio, and now like so many of us he cannot risk an about-face. He is a man, built of words like so many other men. Some of us may fumble our way out of the locker room but still we find ourselves back there at times, fighting our way within the hierarchy. Billy Bush, the other man on the Trump tape, knows that fight.

What that tape shows us is ourselves. This is how we as Americans engage in conversations about sex. We learn young, and we learn well. Maybe we spend the rest of our lives unlearning it. But this pattern shapes our perspectives, forms our culture. And what we never learn to say shapes our children.

And so we should be grateful to Donald Trump. Because this conversation is one way overdue.


This column appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

Ten Years

Ten Years

I woke with a start and flipped a calendar: 10 years ago tonight we met. We climbed together at the indoor rock gym and then went to the Front Room, an intimate setting a short distance from the ocean. You wore a wool skirt and a smile. I was still in my climbing clothes. It was a Tuesday. I said I wouldn’t have time to see you again that week.

On Thursday we met at the Top of the East, Portland’s rooftop bar. You introduced me to your work friends and we got takeout. You spent the night.

On Friday we slept together. I asked you, “Are you for real? Is this really you.” You said yes. I knew then I would marry you.

A year later I asked. It was my birthday. Again climbing, I knelt down halfway up a cliff in New Hampshire. You started crying even before I finished. Your legs wouldn’t hold, couldn’t carry a body so overwhelmed by laughter and tears. We were 600 feet up. You didn’t trust yourself to hold the ring. You put it on, cried out with joy, and then asked me to keep it until we got to the top. I put it in my backpack and went. When you reached the top you kissed me, crying.

I don’t remember if that last part is true, but it has to be.

A year later I waited on a bridge. It was autumn, rain falling. It was getting dark. Japanese lanterns hung from the roof supports. Candles marked our walkway. The Swift River ran beneath. I remember when I saw you: You stood in white, your hair twisted in a knot of curls, hints of purple brushed over your eyes. Rain spit against the umbrella your father held but could never touch you. Nothing could touch you. You looked so beautiful, soft as snow. I don’t remember music, or sound, or the other people. Or anything. I remember you walking towards me, smiling again, your eyes searching for mine.

The rain and the river closed out the world. Your footsteps and breathing were all I heard. I don’t remember “I do,” but I can still feel your hand sliding the gold band up my finger, solid and heavy and light at the same time.

But that was after. Before and after. Before it fell apart, before court documents and divided possessions, before life seemed too fast and too slow, too ordinary and too silent. Before we moved into separate houses. Before it was over.

And after. After that first night I saw you walking towards me. After wondering if this was the same girl or if in the short drive from the rock gym to the restaurant she’d somehow gotten lost. We’d just spent two hours climbing, sweating and playing, but here walking towards me was a stunning woman, beauty in a skirt, her hips clicking in time to her heels. Her smile lit up the night.

That was you. Your smile grew as you reached me. I remember that too.