Friday Feedback

As a columnist, it often feels like I’m sending my thoughts out into the darkness. If they make a splash, I never hear it. It was different when I was reporting full-time. Back then I’d be in front of the selectmen every week, and if someone didn’t like what I wrote I’d hear about it almost immediately.

As a columnist, however, it’s different. You get pulled aside in the grocery store sometimes, but only if people know who you are. They read your stuff, but at the end of the day you don’t have much of an idea how people react.

And then today happens. I was looking for a few stories to send to an editor, so I went onto the Conway Daily Sun website and plugged in my last name. The following letter popped up:

To the editor:

Reading a recent edition I couldn’t help but think about the time that has passed since The Conway Daily Sun started publishing in 1989. Mark and Adam should be proud of their creation. I worked on their cars in the 1990s and got to know them well enough to respect them and their efforts.

I, for one, want to thank them for producing a quality product and giving it away. I look forward to them continuing to “stir the pot.”

I read Erik Eisele’s column “We the people” with great interest and another recent column by Eisele, “Conway Daily Firestarter,” where he wrote about being close to his audience and the commentary and feedback that comes with that. He is a courageous individual, and I commend him for his honesty.

In “We the people,” he identifies three subject areas; money, religion and government. Difficult to argue that they are primary issues in most people’s lives.

I believe his last two paragraphs offer a concise explanation of the problems that have festered in the three subject areas and the only solution that has any hope of success in the survival of this noble experiment.

Personal responsibility begins with the understanding that “We the people,” all of us, collectively have the obligation to make this work. It starts with a conversation.

Peter O’Brien

Fryeburg, Maine

In the media world today budgets are tight. These columns don’t pay a ton, but they are a chance to write what I see, to write about things I think are important. It feels nice to read those things are important to other people as well.

In the same search, meanwhile, I also discovered another recent letter to the editor:

To the editor:

Before I criticize Erik Eisele, let me compliment him on being a wonderful, energetic reporter who covers a lot of ground and does it very well.

Now my complaint about his column, “We The People,” Dec. 7, in which he laments that many human constructs ultimately fail and includes religion as one: First, his presumption that humans created religion reflects an unfair bias against and/or at least a shallow understanding of religion. Even unschooled Native Americans attributed religion to a Source outside or above their nature.

Second, his urban legends generalizations — that the “The Catholic Church has a history of atrocious acts dating back hundreds of years. Countless wars have religious roots, as did slavery…” — aren’t worthy of a seventh grade composition. There have been wars and atrocities between opposing religions but the Crusades, for example, aimed to free people oppressed and attacked in the Holy Land, much as is occurring now. When Crusades exceeded that mantra they did not do so because of the Gospel, but in spite of it. In regard to slavery, St. Paul urged slaves to be obedient so they could survive and be freed, which subsequent emperors encouraged. Spartacus revolted and cost 6,000 lives. At the time of Christ, up to 90 percent of the population was enslaved and it wasn’t because of religion but rather primitive economics. The clear thrust of Judao-Christian teaching is freedom from sin and other subjugation.

So, what difference does religion make? Every day, the Catholic Church feeds, clothes, shelters and educates more people than any other private organization in the world.  The Catholic Church is credited with starting formal education and teaches 3 million students daily in more than 250 colleges and 1,200 high schools and 5,000 grade schools without government support. Catholic nuns opened the first hospitals and orphanages and today one out of six people receive care at Catholic hospitals. During the Civil War most nurses were Catholic nuns. The sisters of Charity ran a hospital in New Orleans where the plasma system was developed, and it has saved perhaps millions of lives.

Religion serves a salutary purpose and urban legends do not.

John F. Donovan

Freedom

Mr. Donovan felt compelled to take issue with my perspective, but he opened with a compliment of how much he appreciates my work as a reporter. That is EXACTLY the sort of conversation I hope to be a part of. I do not expect my writings to always be right. Heck, they probably hardly ever are. But they are meant, as Mr. O’Brien said, to start a conversation. And Mr. Donovan did exactly that. He used my ramblings as a starting point to engage in conversation. America is the richer for such discourse, as no single person has the wherewithal to make the best decisions for a land of 330 million. I couldn’t help for a better exemplification of democratic ideals.

With this much awesomeness, it feels like the weekend…

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From the Backseat: What makes a Millionaire?

Is Donald Trump a good businessman?

I mean, he’s rich. But is he rich because his family was rich? Because his dad made a lot of money in real estate back in the day? Or is he rich because his entrepreneurial ventures have been successful?

Is he good at his job? That’s the question.

I know lots of people already have answers. His supporters say he’s clearly a billionaire with a business empire, and therefore my question is dumb. His opponents say he was born rich, and it is his string of failed businesses — casinos, an airline, a university, meat products — that make my question dumb.

But these are partisan answers. I’m looking for something different. I’m looking for a nuanced definition of entrepreneurship, of risking it in business and seeing new ideas take, and then to compare that definition to the president-elect’s record.

I don’t know a lot about being an entrepreneur, but I know it requires a willingness to fail. No one comes up with a brilliant idea first go, and no one learns everything they need to know to be successful in college or an MBA program. It takes experience, and experience is just a gentle word for failure. Success is built on foundations of failure, and it’s only in hindsight that the failures look like inevitable lessons along the way.

Maybe that’s what Donald Trump’s casinos, airline, university and steaks were — a trail of lessons. Maybe Trump was already rich, so unlike some guy selling widgets out of his garage, his failures were bound to be public and spectacular.

The fact is, I don’t know. It’s almost Inauguration Day and I don’t have a clue. That wasn’t how America approached this election. There were those with undying support willing to look past his failures, and there were those who dismissed him completely, laying his successes at the feet of his father.

I imagine it’s more complex than that. Surely, Trump has both made money and lost money. But my question is whether the rate at which he made it leans closer to success or failure.

Then again, maybe Trump’s goal all along wasn’t money, but power. If that’s the case, his past seems to have definitely been worthwhile. There’s no doubt he was successful at getting elected the most powerful position in the land.

That, however, strays from my point. Is Trump, the businessman (versus Trump, the politician) successful? He sold himself as a businessman — and America bought. But is he a good one? It feels like a question someone should have asked, but never did. There must be a business professor out there, or a handful of business professors, who can explain what a normal failure rate for entrepreneurs looks like. There has to be someone able to contrast that with the record of the president-elect. Is he doing well for himself? Did he do poorly? Is he at the top of the game? The middle? The bottom?

These are questions we’ve stopped asking. This election left so little space for issues, so little time for a hard look at resumes. Instead, we scrutinized temperament and character, talked border walls and Muslim bans, bickered about emails and tax returns. We never took a step back to ask basic questions about who was running. We engaged in partisan conversation, and the only clues to whether or not Donald Trump was a successful businessman came from looking at those who support him and those who opposed.

Now, here we are in January, and it’s still not really clear who we elected. That seems a poor recipe for success.

From the Backseat: New Traditions, Holiday edition

I visited my niece at school last week. She’s nine and in the fourth grade. It was a holiday open house, and family was invited. Every student in the class had put together a diorama on holiday traditions, and families were welcome to come walk around the room to see how different households celebrate holidays. There were Christmas trees, Christmas cookies, strings of Christmas lights, elves on shelves, and more. Each diorama included a short history of the tradition highlighted, a smattering of interesting facts about it, and a personal narrative about how it looked in that student’s particular home.

And it wasn’t just Christmas — one little boy’s tradition was tacos on Easter. Another boy wrote about snowball fights. Another wrote about his birthday, which falls the day after Christmas. A little girl wrote about raking leaves in Autumn and jumping in the leaf pile. This was a celebration of all kinds of holidays and all kinds of traditions.

Several students chose to highlight their favorite holiday food, Eid cookies and Eid cake, sweet treats to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim religious holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.

I was familiar with Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, but I’d never heard of Eid al-Fitr. And I’d certainly never heard of purpose-built cookies or cake to accompany it. But for several students, it was their chosen tradition. One family brought in two Eid cakes for people to sample. The student, a little girl, sat smiling as her dad offered everyone a second and third slice. Her mom stood on the other side, also smiling, her head wrapped in a hijab.

I remember my own versions of these elementary school dioramas. It wasn’t that long ago, in a school much like my niece’s. But in 1990s Maine there were far fewer brown and black faces, and even fewer Muslims. Almost every featured tradition showcased a Christmas theme — wreaths, mistletoe, Christmas trees, etc. Maybe someone would stretch so far as to highlight the Fourth of July or share a New Year’s tradition, but in all the years no one shared anything about Eid al-Fitr, Ramadan, or the Hajj. Before last week I’d never heard about or seen, much less tasted, an Eid cake. A teacher might bring up Hanukkah, but the only Jewish student was a grade below so even those traditions remained a mystery. The worlds of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other non-European religions never made an appearance — my first introduction to Islam didn’t come until I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in high school. Buddhism came around the same time, through Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. Other religions like these were always embodied by books, not people. It took until adulthood for them to become as real as the people I would meet throughout my life.

My niece, however, will be spared such ignorance. Her world is more diverse than mine. Her best friend, whose diorama was set up right next door to hers, is black. A number of her classmates are Muslim. Several of the girls wore headscarves, as did parents and family members who came in to visit. To her, these differences in culture and religious belief have faces. They are people, not just ideas. She interacts with them every day, plays with them at recess, collaborates with them on assignments. They are her friends. It is a level of diversity I would not have imagined existed inside a Maine classroom, the sort of cultural education Mainers a generation ago could not access. It gives me hope. I walked into my niece’s classroom and saw the promise of mutual appreciation, the possibility of a shared interest in the diverse cultures.

Because what is school for but to learn? To learn about the world around us. Few books are as interesting as learning from life. And that is the gift my nine-year-old niece gets — a global education, right here in Maine.

That might be my new favorite tradition.


This column appeared in the Portland Phoenix.