From the Backseat: A look back

2016 began a long time ago.

Remember the primary, when Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were all looking to overtake Donald Trump’s rambunctious start? That was one beginning.

The other beginning, my 2016 beginning, was in Cuba. After President Obama began normalizing relations with Cuba in late 2014, I spent the next two years working there, guiding cultural exchange trips to the former pariah state. I spent New Year’s Eve in Havana and flew back home a few days later. 

Now, President-elect Trump is poised to roll back expanded ties with Cuba. On the verge of opening fully, the door might once more swing closed. That’s 2016. What a year.

What else has 2016 brought? Not just the election, surely. It’s not just because of Trump’s win, but 2016 has carried a whole host of hints about a long-hushed and covered topic: race. America’s dividing line. This past year has made discussions on race ring quite loud.

Trump is part of it. He won despite xenophobic statements about Muslims and Mexicans. His rise has been with the support of white supremacists and his election has emboldened their dangerous ideologies. But that is only part of the race picture. He teased out race in politics, but elsewhere in 2016 the threads were beginning to show.

Like when police in Dallas and Baton Rouge were targeted and murdered following the shooting of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, by police in Baton Rouge, and the shooting of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, by police in Minnesota. 

At the time, I was working in Belize, running youth literacy programs that brought American high school students down to run summer camps for Belizean elementary and middle schoolers. The American students had limited access to Internet, so when these racialized incidents occurred, it fell to me and the other staff to let the group know about the tumult at home.

Belize is a former British colony populated by the descendants of slaves and indigenous Mayans. The American students were there to teach, and not one of the kids they were sent to guide were white.

Our group of 26, meanwhile, were predominantly white girls. There was a sprinkling of Hispanic, Arab, black and Asian kids, many of whom attended through the support of scholarship programs that provide opportunities to underserved urban students, but most of the students came from upper-middle-class white families.

Race was always on our doorstep, but it wasn’t until police started shooting and dying that we got to talking about it. Ferguson was the straw the broke the camel’s back, and that was well over two years ago. 

And we did talk about it. These were smart, thoughtful, engaged kids, not quick to shy away from hard conversations. But when it came to discussing race, the differences were striking: the students of color were well-versed and had a vocabulary around the subject, a familiarity grown over time. It was a constant reality in their world, and they knew how to express themselves, their feelings, and their frustrations.

Many of the white students, meanwhile, struggled to find a foothold to speak from. These were smart young women, but when the subject turned to historical subjugation and persistent inequity, they went silent. I did my best to get them to open up, but most were unwilling to engage. Their discomfort with race was so large it became a muzzle. One-way conversation, dominated by the students of color, was the best we could do.

That, perhaps, is 2016 in a sentence: Race and the struggle white Americans face in its stark and uncomfortable reality. The fear of it. The fear of talking about it. The struggle in reckoning with inequity, the persistence of it, and the opportunity and power race carries.

These are conversations white people are not all well-versed in. We are not all equally articulate. And these conversations include risks — in a world of scarcity, white America stands to lose. At least, that’s their perception. There is great fear associated with that risk; 2016 makes that clear.

But 2016 has also left the coverings of this most American rift threadbare. Race is in our founding, in our very fabric, and it will take Americans of all shades to make sense of it. But this long one-way conversation brings nothing to a close. We must all be willing to speak up, and when appropriate, listen.

I’m anxious to see what 2017 will bring. 


This column appeared in the Portland Phoenix.

Advertisements

CDS Column: 7 Billion Small

The world at times can seem quite full. Seven billion people all scratching out a living, with hundreds of different languages and customs. It sounds like a lot. But sometimes it’s not.

This past summer, I was working in Belize. I was there with an organization that takes American high school students around the world on volunteer service trips. The Americans were the native language speakers at a summer camp designed to teach Belizean elementary and middle schoolers English. We spent two weeks teaching and otherwise explored the country.

We were hardly the only program there. There were groups everywhere. Even our home base was not immune: There was a group of high school students there to learn about rainforest and barrier reef ecology, another group backpacking through the jungle and a third group of American middle school students who were doing adventure trips around the country interspersed with the occasional day of volunteer service.

This was at one rustic eco-resort, and there were similar groups at other sites across the country. It was a flood of Americans, all there to discover a new place and lend a hand. Our 26 kids were swimming in a sea of transplanted American youth.

Anyone who works on such programs knows there develops a brotherhood and a sisterhood among the staff. An affinity grows for others caught in the same situation, facing the same daily stress of chaperoning dozens of kids that aren’t yours. It must be the same among teachers, but in Belize there were no hallways or walls to hem them in, no busses home at the end of the day. We all worked from breakfast until bedtime, and at the end of the day the students hopefully settled back to their beds without incident. Hopefully.

That’s when we, the staff, would take our breather. We would sit together and chat. Program allegiances tossed aside, we would relax, sometimes solving as a team the complexities involved in individual programs.

It was in one of these impromptu summits that I saw the sticker. It was on one of the other program staff’s water bottles, a lobster next to the letters ME.

“Are you from Maine?” I asked.

“Yes,” the woman replied. “Originally. I now live in Oregon. But my family is still there.”

“Nice,” I said. “I live in New Hampshire. My sister lives just outside Portland.”

She smiled, and I thought that the end of it. But two days later I got an email my sister.

“I’m having dinner with a friend,” she said, “and my friend says her sister is working in Belize. Her name is Alison. Small world.”

“Tall teacher from Oregon Alison?” I wrote back. “No way! I met her the other day!”

Fast forward to now. The holidays are when people migrate across the country to visit friends and family. On Friday, I walked into my sister’s kitchen to see my niece and nephew, and there’s Alison, along with her sister, chatting with my sister. I couldn’t help but start laughing.

That alone might be enough to prove the world a small place, but these sorts of coincidences never travel alone.

Three summers ago, I was in Peru doing similar work, this time taking American high school students to build greenhouses at rural schools. With me were three other staff members — a couple from California named Miguel and Gigi, and a woman named Laura from Wisconsin who lived in Finland. We were all there for the summer, again to corral up to 30 American students at a time on multiple programs. It was two months in total, and we four spent a lot of time together.

For the couple, however, time off together was important. Miguel and Gigi did what they could to get away in the moments between programs, as well as most afternoon breaks when the students were there.

That left Laura and I to spend a lot of time together. We were paired by default, and while such a pairing could have been disastrous she had an adventurous spirit. Together we explored Incan ruins, traveled to remote villages, soaked in hot springs and got to know Cusco. We’d sit in the central square, me writing, her drawing, and enjoy the quiet of a student-less afternoon. Over the course of the summer, Gigi, Miguel, Laura and I all became close friends, but it was with Laura I spent by far the most time.

When the program came to a close I stayed in South America. I traveled to Arequipa and then to Chile. Laura, meanwhile, caught a flight back to Wisconsin and then to Finland. She and I stayed in touch for a time, emailing and chatting over Skype after I returned to New Hampshire, but life eventually caught up. We lost touch.

That was almost three years ago. Fast forward to Monday. This Christmas, I decided to draw my own holiday cards. I wanted to make them individualized, special, and I’ve been drawing a lot lately. So I bought card blanks at an art store and tackled a few, but inevitably it went slower than I’d intended. Most of the box sat unsent.

The day after Christmas I picked up the box, feeling a guilty about the remaining cards. On the cover was a beautiful line drawing showing just how creative cards could get, and underneath small print credited the artist. Four words: “Art by Laura…”

It was my friend. Her name was on my card blank box. I looked at the box and remembered her afternoon drawings in Cusco. Suddenly it was as if she was at my dining room table, in line form. I laughed out loud. I Googled to make sure it was the same Laura, and it was.

I tossed the box aside and wrote a much-belated email.


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

CDS Column: Scraps at the Christmas Table

It’s less than a week until Christmas. I still have shopping to do, cards to write, family to see. There is snow on the ground, the ski lifts are running, and Mount Washington is glistening its most majestic. I don’t really want to write about politics.

But I feel like I ought to. Somehow evidence that Russia meddled in the U.S. election has become partisan. Hackers did what they could to sway the vote, and here we are bickering about it like children.

How did it come to this? How did we get to a point where we fight among ourselves while a foreign power toys with our democratic process?

This shouldn’t be complicated. It is easy to focus all citizens on concerns about Russia’s foray in our election. It’s an issue that affects every American.

Lots of Americans are concerned with unfair elections. That was made clear this campaign season. Candidate Donald Trump repeatedly called into question the legitimacy of the American electoral process. He even said he might not accept the outcome while his surrogates raised concerns about voter fraud.

But now? Where is that concern now? Who is willing to stand up and say something about the sanctity of the American process? Who is willing to rebuke Russian influence in our election? No one within the president-elect’s administration. Somehow defense of basic American civic process has split along a partisan divide, and KGB-style meddling goes unchallenged.

But that has become a theme in our country as the American Century has splintered. We have become bickering children arguing over table scraps. Trump won. There would be no punches pulled. Even as the American electoral process takes a hit.

We’ve seen this before. For years we have watched the Congress choose winning over governing. There was no compromising on workable solutions to real world problems. The fight was bitter, and We the People wound up the losers.

Supporters of Donald Trump rejoice that his rise will bring change to Washington, the draining of the swamp. But his blind eye toward Russia indicates more of the same — someone more invested in winning than on governing.

But regardless of his temperament, his party will have to govern. His promises to scrap regulation and Obama administration programs like the Affordable Care Act mean he and his team will be forced to implement a new American vision. What will that look like? Will it be one more winner-take-all proposition, or can Trump conceive of America as a place of growth for everyone?

His initial rhetoric is not encouraging. But the fact is despite Trump’s language of exclusion, America is not a zero-sum country. If our history has proven anything, it is that capitalism and ingenuity mixed in an American pot make it possible for everyone to rise. The children of immigrants can become wealthy. The descendents of slaves can be president. This is America’s legacy.

But the current strain of conservatism seems to read a different narrative, one where America is a land of scarcity. There are winners and losers and where anyone willing to pull punches might find themselves at the bottom.

That narrative has kept Donald Trump from coming out strong against Russian election influence. If Trump gives an inch, according to this reasoning, his entire victory and future administration could come crashing down.

But is his administration that fragile? Wouldn’t it be possible to fight for the sanctity of the process and the rights of all Americans to be left unmolested as they choose their president without handing Hillary Clinton victory? Where is that confident voice, Mr. Trump?

This isn’t the only place where this administration divides the world into winners and losers. Jobs and immigration get the same treatment: There are only a certain number of jobs, the narrative goes, and if immigrants are willing to do jobs for less, Americans lose. If China and Mexico are willing to produce cars or air conditioners or computers for less money, Americans lose again.

But economics doesn’t work that way. The beauty of capitalism is its capacity for growth, the ability to take a given set of inputs and leave everyone with more. Adam Smith described this idea more than 200 years ago, in 1776, the same year we declared our independence. And it is how we’ve approached commerce ever since. We aren’t left with table scraps. Yes, there are winners and losers, but that is part of capitalism’s creative destruction. And on balance America is winning.

This used to be the heart of conservative ideology. Adam Smith was Republican dogma. But just as Democrats were once Dixiecrats and Republicans were once the natural party of black voters, things change. Now conservatives abandon faith in the market and backpedal from free trade.

It is sad to watch the incoming administration approach the American worker so pessimistically. Our capacity to exist, survive and thrive on the world market is not weak. Yes, we have sectors that have become obsolete. I work in one of them: Newspapers are tanking as a result of the internet. And while we may look back nostalgically, we can’t unwind progress. We can’t disconnect from a global economy. Our job is to figure out what we do well, how we can best compete, and then throw our collective might into that sector. This is not a time to blame immigrants or trading partners, to lash out at natural allies (Mexico) and ignore the provocations from adversaries (Russia). It’s a time to claim our place within the world and its markets confidently, and to support those caught in capitalism’s creative destruction.

Instead we’re chasing table scraps and ignoring Russia. Merry Christmas.


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

Favorite Stories

Sometimes we get to write about something we’re passionate about.

This past week I had the pleasure of watching my piece about Circus Maine, the Portland-based circus school I’ve been taking hand-balancing classes at, appear in the Portland Phoenix. The designers at the Phoenix did an awesome job, and Circus Maine gave us access to beautiful photos. The whole package looked awesome. It was cool to see. Circus is a mix of art, gymnastics and stage performance, and it combines the passion of all three.

And as if that wasn’t cool enough, last night I got to take my 9-year-old niece to a Circus Maine show. We found front row seats, and for an hour-and-a-half we watched the students and teachers give an amazing performance. After you write a story about how cool something is you think you know, but last night I was blown away. It was awesome. It makes me love what I do.

CDS Column: Health (Insurance) Checkup

It’s December. Insurance month. I spent last night filling out forms for health insurance, and soon I’ll have to go about making my annual car insurance payment. December is no longer just about holidays, it’s now also about paying hundreds (make that thousands) of dollars for something I hopefully won’t ever need. It’s all part of the joy of modern living: Upside — my heart might stop but there is technology capable of kickstarting it again; downside — that technology isn’t free.

When I think about it that way, a couple hundred dollars a month to pay for health insurance isn’t too bad. I mean, if for a couple hundred bucks we were offered the choice between living in medieval Europe or modern New York, I’d take that deal. Medieval Europeans never got such a thoughtful offer, and internet and cable almost amount to the same amount.

And really, that’s basically what we get — forgo modern health care and things become Hobbesian quite quickly: “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” So I guess I want to begin from a place of appreciating what I’ve got. I want to start from there.

My car insurance, my other December insurance bill, isn’t expensive. I’ve got one car, and it’s paid for. I live in the Live Free or Die state, which means I don’t even have to have car insurance if I don’t want to, but I feel like I should, that it’s the adult thing to do. My car insurance is the liability kind, which means I pay roughly $250 a year to protect other people from my negligence. That’s it. Not bad. Every year I get a little older, and every year the cost of protection declines. I’m a (relatively) safe driver, so things haven’t spiraled out of control. It’s a formula I like. It’s also a formula I can afford.

My health insurance, meanwhile, costs almost the same each month as my car insurance costs per year. I am young(-ish), active, a healthy person in their mid-30s. I don’t smoke and, as a man, I’m unlikely to become pregnant, which means most of my current health risk is in unforeseen illness or injury. Over time that will change, but right now I’m a pretty safe bet.

And as a safe bet, I cost several hundred dollars a month to insure. As I grow older my medical risks will climb, which means the cost of insuring me will also climb. That’s a formula I understand, one I can’t do a lot about. I’ve even got a window into how much that risk rises: From last year to this year, my insurance went up 7 percent. Looking ahead to next year, I’m facing another 7 percent increase.

I’m not clear what the exact case is, whether my premiums are climbing because this year my age makes me 7 percent more expensive than last year, or if I’m actually the same risk but health care budgets are expected to expand 7 percent in 2017. Probably it’s some combination of the two, but either way 7 percent seems a lot. The U.S. economy didn’t grow 7 percent this year. I did not get a 7 percent raise for 2017. I doubt even my doctor got a 7 percent raise.

So 7 percent. If this is a trend, we’re in trouble: A 7 percent increase compounded over time would make my premiums double roughly every 10 years. If I pay a nice round $200 a month today, I’ll pay $400 a month at in my mid-40s, $800 a month in my mid-50s, and $1,600 a month in my mid-60s, at which point the government swoops in with Medicare to offer some much needed financial relief.

What a model. If mortgages had the same cost implications no one would buy houses.

And 7 percent is an improvement; 7 percent is actually a slower rate of growth than health care premiums have been on in past years. Somehow we’re doing better, but even as we do better things are growing out of hand.

What to do? I know health care is a hot-button topic, one plagued by talk of death panels and government takeovers, but who wants to be paying $1,600 a month for basic health coverage when they’re 65? Maybe that’s the cost of buying our way into the modern era, of avoiding a time when tuberculosis and cholera were common ailments, but this doesn’t seem normal. It doesn’t seem sustainable. It doesn’t seem like something any of us can do for long.

Health care, however, is a monopoly business: You only have one life. You can’t replace it, and you don’t get another one. And for that life people can make you pay what they want.

President-elect Trump, meanwhile, is talking about repealing Obamacare. He’s promised to replace it with “something terrific.” I hope he does. Obamacare helped slow health care premium growth, but it couldn’t slow it to a manageable level. If Donald Trump can do that, if he can figure out a way to live in the modern era without simultaneously edging us all towards bankruptcy, I will applaud him.

But it is important to realize our modern lives exist within a monopolized industry. Health care is a monopoly business, and as with any monopoly, government has to have a hand. And judges can’t just go trust-busting here like they did with Standard Oil. Health care is a complex new version of monopolization, one built on technology and science as much as the Hippocratic Oath. Doctors and nurses and pharmaceutical companies and hospitals and all of it are diverse actors, a non-traditional monopoly, part of America’s sub-7-percent growth. Figuring out how to unwind its intricacies to make “something terrific” that is also affordable will take nuance, thoughtfulness, a delicate touch.

If Donald Trump can do that, I will applaud him.

The next checkup is December of 2017. I hope to see you then.


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

From the Backseat: Deaths of Despair

Did you see the news? Last week, in the town of Sherman, police arrested three people in connection with a meth lab. It was the 123rd incident of its kind in Maine in 2016. That’s more than double the number last year; in 2015 Maine had 56 meth lab-related incidents.

And then on Friday a Hebron man killed his 27-year-old daughter before taking his own life. Did you see that too?

This is the news today, constant radar blips of “the way life should be.” They are markers an assistant professor at Penn State told me about recently: she calls them “deaths of despair.” And Maine is full of them.

Shannon Monnat is a rural demographer. About a month ago I interviewed her for a story about the heroin epidemic. I came across her research on addiction rates and how they relate to a community’s economic prospects. “Deaths of despair” is the phrase she’s coined for spiking addiction, alcoholism and suicide rates across America.

But rates don’t spike equally. Urban centers are largely spared this crisis. Drug addiction today is a rural problem, and the impact is felt heaviest in the rural communities and small cities that have struggled in the global economy.

Small cities. Rural places. Hmm. Sounds like Maine. Go on…

“These small cities and rural towns have borne the brunt of declines in manufacturing, mining, and related industries and are now struggling with the opiate scourge,” said Monnat. “In these places, good jobs and the dignity of work have been replaced by suffering, hopelessness and despair, the feeling that America isn’t so great anymore, and the belief that people in power don’t care about them or their communities. Here, downward mobility is the new normal.”

Suffering. Hopelessness. Despair. The new normal. 123 meth labs in a year. Murder-suicides. We are watching the effects unfold daily, on the news and in our communities. Each event acts as a radar blip. Misery is a tough pill to swallow, and as a meal to eat every day, it’s poison. But when job prospects seem hopeless it’s easy to sink into despair.

Monnat’s analysis doesn’t end there. Her most recent research looks at the 2016 presidential race, comparing election data with addiction data. And what she found is striking: counties awash in misery, those rural communities and smaller cities plagued by higher addiction rates, came out for Donald Trump.

“Clearly there is an association between drug, alcohol and suicide mortality and Trump’s election performance,” said Monnat, though she cautioned the relationship is a complex one. “What these analyses demonstrate is that community-level well-being played an important role in the 2016 election, particularly in the parts of America far-removed from the world of urban elites, media and foundations.”

“Ultimately, at the core of increasingly common ‘deaths of despair’ is a desire to escape,” she continued, “escape pain, stress, anxiety, shame, and hopelessness. These deaths represent only a tiny fraction of those suffering from substance abuse… Drug and alcohol disorders and suicides are occurring within a larger context of people and places desperate for change. Trump promised change.”

Despair, it seems, has political implications in addition to societal.

This almost shouldn’t be news. Every day we get signals about this despair. Some are small—another drug death, another mill shutdown, another suicide—while others are large, the 2016 election outcome being the most prominent. Sitting in quasi-urban Portland, a small city somehow buoyed by its quaint appeal and its status as a haven for NYC exiles, it might be easy to forget we sit surrounded by misery. But we do. We are a rural and small city state. There is so much misery here that drugs, alcohol, suicide and Donald Trump have become rational choices, the result of living in communities where no other path seems open.

Monnat’s research states America’s problem, and Maine’s problem, succinctly: in “many forgotten parts of the U.S. (often referred to as ‘fly-over’ country by those living on the coasts),” she said, “downward mobility is the new normal.”

Despite our coastline, Maine is one big fly-over state. The evidence to that fact fills our newsfeed.

Maybe it will make tomorrow’s headlines.


This column appeared in this week’s Portland Phoenix.

Portland Phoenix: Just Don’t Fall

duo-lyra-3“Push up. Push up from your shoulders. You’re sagging.”

I can tell I’m sagging. I’m upside-down, balanced on my hands above a concrete floor, my feet pointed at the ceiling like the cone of a rocket ship. And since I flipped into this handstand, my face has been slowly lowering. Push as I might, I can’t halt the descent. My shoulders are spent, won’t budge anymore, and as they fail I can feel my weight tipping. The tower of my body has begun swaying like a felled tree.

“Push! Tighten your butt! Push! Push! Push!” Cory is yelling at me again. He’s always yelling at me, at least when he’s within 10 paces. Otherwise, he’s yelling at somebody else. It’s not a scolding yell, it’s a coach’s yell, the shouts of encouragement that seem almost enough to suspend someone in air upside-down, like his students’ balance hinges on the volume of his instructions. He clearly sees what I’m doing wrong, and maybe a few well-timed shouts can save me.

But not this time. His yells aren’t enough. My balance has shifted, and the spell that somehow kept me standing upside-down on my hands has broken. My legs are now headed over backward towards the concrete, a tumbling fall that at this point has become familiar. I fold at the waist and twist my body, the spin coming just in time to plant my feet safely under me. I pop up, standing rightways again, my face red from exertion and the rush of blood that comes from being upside-down. Cory is nodding and smiling. “Good. Good,” he says. “Now just don’t fall.”

Just don’t fall. That seems like good advice at Circus Maine, where handstands are probably the least hazardous height someone can take a tumble from. “Just don’t fall” becomes even more important once you move to the trapeze, the aerial silks, the straps or the Chinese pole (actually two poles that stand parallel that performers bounce between).

Falling is required just to get going on the giant inground trampoline, but then the faller flies into the air at twice their original speed, suddenly giving “just don’t fall” new meaning.

Even acrobats who stack to form human towers must heed this “don’t fall” mantra. For them, a fall there takes out not only themselves but the rest of the team.

So yeah, it’s good advice, just don’t fall.

The thing is, there’s lots of falling at Circus Maine. It’s a circus school. No one is born knowing how to do a handstand, much less a one-handed handstand, much less a one-handed handstand on stage before an audience where every movement is choreographed in time with music. To get there takes falling, years and years of falling.

“It took me seven years to put my hand-balancing act together,” Circus Maine’s hand balancing instructor Cory Tabino said.

He studied handbalancing at Ecole Nationale de Cirque, the National Circus School of Montreal, for three years, and then he spent three years working for Cirque du Soleil, also based in Montreal. He’s now spent a quarter-century working as a circus artist around the world.

“I went across the Atlantic Ocean four times,” he said, doing his act on cruise ships. “The only place I haven’t performed is Antarctica.”

Now, in addition to being the lead handbalancing instructor and a professional performer (just last week he went to Japan to perform for U.S. soldiers), Tabino is also Circus Maine’s artistic director. And he’s also the head of the professional program. And he serves as a stagehand at live productions. And he organizes signature events in the Circus Maine building on Thompson’s Point. And he coordinates off-site performances for private and corporate events.

Like everyone at Circus Maine, Tabino wears many hats.

“We are the textbook definition of a startup company,” he said.

Circus Maine is a recreational circus school with both adult programs and kids programs, a professional circus training academy and an event production company. They put on monthly cabarets that bring top level performers to Portland, host a summer camp that over the past three years served more than 500 kids, and in October they held their first marquee event, a Halloween party called Mischief Night that paired circus performers swinging on silks in full costume with DJs, drinks and a dance party.

These events are anything but bland: two of the Mischief Night performances were pole dances. Two others were beautiful women in trim costumes hanging above a crowd dancing on a concrete floor. At a cabaret event in October, a couple performed on a suspended hoop in formfitting bedclothes, her wearing a slinky top and shorts that barely held her in. The pair tumbled and swung above the audience bathed in milky light; the whole performance felt like something out of a dream.

“New circus is sexy,” Joshua Oliver, the male-half of the bedclothed performance, said. “It’s very bold. It’s intoxicating.”

An instructor and performer at Circus Maine, Oliver is also the technical director and driving force behind the project. When he talks about circus he gets animated, the excitement shows in his eyes.

“We’re essentially the next generation of high-end entertainment,” he said. “We want to push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable art. I don’t think you will be bored.”

At the heart of this effort is Circus Maine’s purpose-built circus training facility in Thompson’s Point Brick North. From the outside, it’s an old brick mill building, but inside it has a trampoline, multiple lines for trapeze, padded floors and countless gymnastic mats. If ever there was a space to fall, it’s here.

But that learning space can also be converted into a performance space. And that performance space can also be converted into an events venue. The same room that hosts a dozen children practicing back flips every Tuesday night also housed a TEDx event last year in which Oliver swung from a pair of straps suspended from the ceiling in a performance that looked both Olympic and artistic. Circus Maine uses the venue to host 10 shows a year and also run their recreational program serving 120 students. Later this month they will hold their Solstice event, their first full in-house circus production, there, and on New Year’s Eve they will hold another marquee event, a 1920s Great Gatsby-themed “Red Carpet Event,” in the same space.

It’s a movement towards a type of spectacle-infused events that have become common in bigger cities, Tabino said, “but here in Maine we’re really toeing the line.”

Shows are provocative, emotive, fast-paced, beautiful. Performances infuse tremendous physical control and precise movement with an element of storytelling.

“It’s highly athletic,” Tabino said, “but it allows for individual expression.” The artistic angle is the key part. “Otherwise it’d just be gymnastics.”

That such expression is occurring at all, however, is somewhat of a surprise. Fifteen months ago the idea that Portland would host multiple circus shows in a matter of weeks seemed unlikely if not impossible. The Circus Conservatory of America, a proposed professional-level circus academy, had just turned insolvent, and Oliver, Tabino and the other professionals recruited to bring contemporary circus to Portland were out of their jobs.

But circus isn’t a normal career. No one gets into handbalancing, trapeze, juggling or clowning for the money. Contemporary circus is an art, and like any art form, it is the art itself that pulls at its practitioners. They do it for passion rather than the paycheck, performing almost out of compulsion.

Oliver is no exception. “I’ve been on stage since I was 8 years old,” he said. He discovered new circus, the intermixing of gymnastics-style physical feats with performance, in his early 20s, and it has held him ever since.

Modern circus style is an intermixing of Russian technique with French artistic tastes, according to Oliver. “We perform in theaters rather than tents,” he said, and cotton candy and elephants aren’t part of the act. “New circus is been a really important art form, an opportunity to use physical excellence as a voice.”

Circus artists create their own acts, and it takes time. It takes developing your skills and your own creative vision. It’s similar to dancing, but unlike a dancer, a circus artist choreographs their own movement. The person builds the act, Oliver said, and what you see on stage: “That’s her.”

This is a tradition with centuries of history, but it used to be passed down among families. You were either born into a circus family or you weren’t. The modern circus school is a very new thing, and it occurred in tandem with the intermixing of Russian and French influences that eventually became contemporary circus. Schools pulled elements from Moroccan and Chinese acrobats and went to seed in Canada. And it blossomed. Cirque du Soleil is the name everyone knows, and Montreal is now its the global hub.

Oliver lived in Montreal for 10 years. Like Tabino, he studied at Ecole Nationale de Cirque, Canada’s premier circus arts training institute, and then worked in the industry afterward. The Ecole and Cirque du Soleil sit side by side in Montreal, he said, and they form the left and right ventricle of contemporary circus around the world.

Oliver started circus at 22, a late arrival for the industry—at Circus Maine 12-year-olds are already eyeing the National Circus School—and his act includes aspects of the martial arts that were his passion before he found circus. He is powerfully built, and when he walks he glides across the floor, leading with his chest like a warrior headed to battle.

Which seems appropriate, because when Oliver talks about pulling Circus Maine from the ashes of Circus Conservatory of America it sounds like a battle.

“There have been at least three miracles that have allowed this project to continue,” he said. “We worked until we were bloody, and then we worked some more.”

Oliver and Tabino literally dug the hole in the floor that became Circus Maine’s inground trampoline with shovels, pulling out old railroad ties by hand, hacking them out with an ax. Oliver is a builder, and much of the work that went into renovating Brick North was done by his hands.

“I came to Maine to make this project work,” Oliver said. “I tried to build a circus school in Norway and in New Zealand. This was my third attempt.”

So when Circus Conservatory of America sank, Oliver was not ready to let go. He scraped and saved. He asked Thompson’s Point to work with him to keep a school afloat. He put on outside shows to earn extra cash, borrowed and leased and bought equipment and built what he couldn’t otherwise find, renegotiated and collaborated and asked for help.

“We opened in October of last year doing classes,” he said, and at the time the school had 21 students. It wasn’t nearly enough to make ends meet, but they kept pushing, limping their way through the holidays and into the winter.

Then in February, they held a two-hour cabaret that ran several times over a weekend. They sold 900 tickets. Suddenly it felt like ground may have materialized beneath their feet, however unsteady.

Since then Circus Maine has continued to grow. Tuesday nights are now packed with adult hand balancers (my class) falling out of handstands, a youth tumbling class and a youth trapeze class. Afterward is adult partner acrobatics and an adult tumbling class. The monthly cabarets are filling up. Shows include professional performances, and then students take the stage at intermission to grab their first chance at performing. It has a unique feel, somewhere between a family picnic and a broadway stage performance, like Cirque du Soleil descended on a Fourth of July barbecue.

“People are realizing our potential,” said Oliver. “We were international level spectacle performers. Cory and I are plugged into the source. We’re going to turn Portland into the nexus of new circus in the U.S.”

“But,” he said, “we need to create a solid community of circus artists here first.”

And, as I prepare to flip into one more handstand, that’s how it feels. Cory is across the room now. Mathias, another student in his 30s, is muttering something to himself just to my right. He and I have both flipped upside-down at least 50 times in the last 20 minutes, but neither of us seems able to hold it today. A few feet away high school phenoms Sarah and James are balancing on their hands and doing slow splits, lowering their feet inches off the ground before returning upright. Hugh, whose daughter is in the tumbling class, is on the mat flipping up into Cory’s assistant Sierra’s waiting hands. Hugh’s still working on finding his balance point, but he’s gotten much stronger. Kirsten and Ian are flipping on their own, legs waving in the air before they tumble, and Cory is striding between all of us barking instructions: “Tighten up! Point your toes! Hollowbody! Hollowbody! Squeeze your butt! Push! Push! Push!”

And of course, “Just don’t fall!”

But we all know, at Circus Maine it’s safe to fall.


This story appeared in today’s Portland Phoenix.