CDS Column: Constitutionally Speaking

CDS Column: Constitutionally Speaking

6f8cf-rustIt’s happened again: Another shooting. In Orlando this time, 49 victims plus wounded.

And in the aftermath we fight. Among friends, countrymen, the arguments begin. It didn’t take a day — 2 a.m. shooting, lines drawn by sunrise — that is America.

We are a nation trapped by ourselves.

Omar Mateen was an American Muslim, a U.S. citizen of Afghani roots inspired by foreign extremists to buy guns legally and turn them on gay nightclub goers. In one hateful rampage Mateen put himself into the center of multiple American tinderboxes — immigration, religion, guns, foreign wars, terrorism, homosexuality. If his attack was an act of terrorism it was one well-aimed — these issues we willingly tear ourselves apart over. His spark hit its mark, and it was more than enough to ignite an explosion.

But that is where America is today: Ever ready to draw swords. Fight-or-flight is now our political status quo, and over and over again, America’s choice is to fight, especially among ourselves.

But where does that get us? What kind of country is left when every debate turns brutal? That is our habit, but how do you govern from a never ending cage match?

Take guns, for example, that tinderbox among tinderboxes. What is the appropriate gun policy? Is the current level of regulation enough? Too much? What does the Second Amendment really mean? How does “a well regulated Militia” play into “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” a right that “shall not be infringed”? How does that fit in the era of the Glock and the AR-15? Is it still relevant?

These are reasonable, basic questions, the sort of conversations that should be raised in the halls of Congress after such an incident as Sunday’s attack. Any modern state would consider such questions foundational to finding a balance between the rights of citizens to own guns and the rights of citizens not to be killed by them.

But we have no such discourse. Opponents of guns declare there is no legitimate use for an assault rifle. Ardent defenders return to the “cold dead hands” refrain. Instead of an articulate conversation on gun policy we are fed campaign slogans. The conversation inevitably goes nowhere.

Two hundred and thirty years ago, the Founding Fathers banded together “in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” This sort of squabbling is not what they meant.

But in America today conversations go nowhere. The greatest country in the world, we can’t talk about our problems. We can’t discuss what is killing our citizens. We need a frank discussion on guns, gun rights and the appropriate balance between individual rights and collective security, but all we get are shouting matches and campaign slogans.

This is one issue. There are more: immigration, terrorism, religion. Mateen touched on many of them. But there are still more: abortion, economic stratification, race, gender equality. These are the tinderboxes that tear America apart, and they are also the issues too tender to address directly and with grace.

They are issues close to our hearts, ones we have stared at too closely for too long, and now all we can do is fight over the details. We measure our progress in battles but have forgotten the point of the war.

And what is the point? “To form a more perfect Union.” To “insure domestic Tranquility” and “provide for the common defense.” To “promote the general Welfare,” to “secure the Blessings of Liberty.”

But what good is liberty when Muslim Americans are killing gay Americans in American streets, and no one is willing to talk about it?

Shout about it? Sure. But not talk.

We are a nation populated by rugged individualists grown too independent to govern ourselves. The general welfare and the common defense are concepts alien to us. We are left with 330 million different burning visions for America that struggle against each other.

Maybe it was always this way. Maybe we have always shouted past each other. Maybe the common defense was never that common, the general welfare never that general. Maybe when the Framers who wrote the Constitution 230 years ago did it it was with a smirk and crossed fingers. Maybe those opening words were window dressing.

But men who conjure a country from thin air aren’t the sort to shy away from tough conversations. Our Founding Fathers knew the importance of discourse, of disagreeing agreeably. They fought, but they did so with a shared goal: “in order to form a more perfect Union.”

Where has that spirit gone? Where is the sense that America is the sum of its parts, and those parts are myriad. This country needs room for ideas, room for discussion, and debate and disagreement safe from being declared tantamount to treason. The problems facing us are global, and in an interconnected world, damage is never isolated. A shooting in Florida sparks fear everywhere. The tinder will light. No one is immune.

Yet we stand by our individualism as it kills us. And all the fires Mateen so efficiently set around immigration, religion, guns, foreign wars, terrorism and homosexuality, they remain burning. To be defused and extinguished will require thoughtful consideration, citizens and legislators working together to hammer out compromises that navigate a sea of conflicting tensions: security versus freedom, security versus privacy, individual rights versus collective rights, religious freedom versus personal freedom. All in an evolving world, where terrorism is the new communism and the new terrorism is only a matter of time.

To do that we have to start talking, we need to be willing to ask hard questions. Of each other. Of all of us.


This piece appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

CDS Column: Cuba, A One-Hour Visit

CDS Column: Cuba, A One-Hour Visit

IMG_8150How do you explain a country?

It’s a presumptuous task. I’ve taken six trips to Cuba in the last year, spent a little over two months there, visited a handful of towns, climbed in the western mountains, swam in the clear blue Caribbean, danced in Salsa wherever I could and wandered the Malecon. I’ve also listened to multiple professors discuss topics from trade to transgender rights, studied their history and talked politics with the people.

But still. The Cuban/American relationship is so embattled, so complex, how do you boil it down to an hour talk?

Jamie Gemmiti photo

That was Thursday night. The North Conway Public Library asked me about giving a slideshow on Cuba, about what it’s like to go there. I agreed—I fell in love with the country, and after a handful of visits it was clear the island was vastly misunderstood at home.

How? Communism, for example: Cuba is a country of small-scale entrepreneurs running restaurants and rooming houses out of their homes. There is a hustle to these new businesses, a creative energy akin to the growing food truck culture of the United States.

These enterprises exist against a backdrop of state-run restaurants and hotels that Cubans themselves will tell you are bad, not worth visiting. The state-run enterprises get government funding, but they also suffer from the endemic sluggishness of businesses allowed to bloom without fear of competition. Communism exists in Cuba, but it is no longer ubiquitous. It is the dead skin the country is still working to slough off.

And history. Explaining the longstanding Cuban desire for an independent state to Americans is an upstream paddle. We remember the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile crisis but have forgotten the Spanish-American War. Cubans remember both. And their version of those stories are different from ours.

Cuba was a Spanish slave colony for hundreds of years, a satellite possession rich in sugar. But that wealth was siphoned off. The island was populated by serfs and a few wealthy masters who minded the plantations.

But in the mid-1800s a handful of those masters grew distasteful of the inequality surrounding them. Like American patriots 100 years before, they began writing and speaking about a freedom and building a national consciousness where previously there had been none.

Then in the 1890s they went to war with Spain, and the United States joined the fight. Cubans reasoned American assistance was offered in solidarity—America too had once been a colonial possession. But when the war was over and Cuba “liberated” freedom proved to be in name only: the country traded one overlord for another. Their protector became their new master.

That is not history most Americans remember, or how most Americans remember that history. But island stayed as it was: a land of serfs ruled by far off masters. Their dreams of freedom were deferred.

Enter the revolution. In American eyes it was the insidious growth of communism. But to Cubans it was the realization of a long held dream, one of national self-determination and governance. Nearly 200 years after Americans threw off the yoke of colonialism by kicking out the British Cubans got to do the same, but the oppressor they had to expel wore the Stars and Stripes.

Again, not a story Americans are used to hearing. But walk around downtown Havana and you’ll see indications of just how much influence the American Revolution had on Cuban thinking. Statues and depictions of U.S. presidents dot the city. Their words are inscribed on Cuban monuments. Cubans feel a brotherhood with anyone striving for freedom, regardless of past (or current) animosity. It is a refreshing view of the world.

And that’s how the people are too: not once in six trips did I have a Cuban cuss me out for being American. Indeed, what I experienced was the opposite—excitement that I was visiting their homeland, that I was interested in their country. Tell a Cuban you’re from America and they’ll smile wide. They’ll grab your hand and shake it vigorously. They clap you on the shoulder and tell you “Welcome!” This is not the response of an enemy; it is the reaction of a long-missed friend.

And that’s what’s so hard to explain. To Americans Cuba’s isolation and glaring absence from the standard diplomatic worldview has gone largely unnoticed. And when it pops up it is something askew, a decision that is their fault, the result of their bad behavior. That is our reading our history.

But for Cubans the country they feel most akin to walked out on them. Their cultural touchstone, indeed their inspiration for independence, shut the door on them. That it is now cracking back open is a joyous thing.

I gave a slideshow on Thursday about Cuba. It was mostly words and pictures, sunsets and sand beaches. Those things are beautiful, and Cuba is rich with them.

But it’s much harder to capture the island’s palpable emotion, the joy that rekindled relations has brought the Cuban people. It’s a warmth of welcome Americans struggle with—our enemies of 60 years are often deeply demonized, universally denounced as “evil.” Few people say of Iraqis and Afghans, Iranians, North Koreans or Cubans “but the people, they are our kin.” They are more often viewed as hostile collaborators, willing supporters, people to be feared. The governments and the governed are viewed through one lens.

That is where Cubans are most refreshing: 60 years of exclusion and they still haven’t lost their sense of nuance. The American people are not the embargo, nor are they the travel ban. They are people, just like their Cuban counterparts, and people are meant to be welcomed, embraced, warmly greeted, regardless of politics or history. Cubans know that.

Amid the pictures of Afro-Cuban street musicians and colonial cityscapes I would have done well to mention that more.


This piece appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

Failing and Making It Worth It

Failing and Making It Worth It

IMG_7931.JPGI fail a lot.

Yesterday, for example, I climbed Heather, 12b trad. Or more accurately I fell off Heather. A lot. After the initial crack things get thin, the protection gets small, and I started flying. I jammed so hard I took chunks out of my pinky and ring finger, left blood in the crack. I eventually pulled through the first crux on gear after repeated whippers on a slotted microstopper. The jams were so painful they left my knuckles aching. Onto the second crux, a series of sport climbing-esque slaps up an overhanging wall above a fixed pin—I backed up the pin with another microstopper, but on my first whip the rock around it blew. The stopper and quickdraw scurried down the rope to my hanging waste. The pin held, so I yarded back up and placed something else nearby. I took a few more whips and then lowered.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have the finish in me. It was that I was finished. I’d hung enough, my head was spent. I was just tired of being scared. I wanted to stand on flat ground. I was over it. I’d failed.

FullSizeRender-1That was yesterday. Two days before I lowered off Confederacy of Dunces, a crimpy “sport climb” that requires as much gear as quickdraws. Earlier in the day I’d fallen off Promise Land, a route I’ve climbed a bunch before.

Before that it was Astroman, the classic Yosemite 11c. I’ve been up there four times with two different partners, and everytime I’ve retreated. Even the Steck Salathe, a long Yosemite 10b, I had to hang on this trip.

Coyne Crack. Sanctuary. Mean Streak. Fat Lady. Flesh for Lulu. Tight Rope. The Prow. Women in Love. White Eye. The last pitch of The Underground. There are more routes out there I’ve fallen on or backed off of than routes I’ve sent. A lot more.

I fail a lot. A lot a lot.

The last few years this has been particularly acute—my drive to push has ebbed and surged in waves. One day I’ll be fixated on a route, and the next I won’t care about climbing at all. Until I’m standing at the base, until the route is towering overhead, I have ZERO gauge on where my head will be.

Yosemite, for example, three weeks ago: I was feeling lukewarm about the huge projects I’d set out for myself, Astroman and a one-day ascent of the Nose. But then we came through the tunnel and I saw the towering bulk of El Cap. We pulled over, parked with the rest of the tourists, and snapped a few photos. I could feel the excitement rising from somewhere deep inside me. Suddenly I was jumping up and down, eyes wide, my hands on my partner Andre’s shoulders. “Let’s do this!” I shouted, energized, alive. “LET’S CLIMB THAT BEAST!”

We didn’t. We failed. We tried Astroman three times but never reached the top. Even climbing the Sentinel was a close one. We never even got on the Nose.

I remember as a beginning climber backing off everything. I could practically downclimb as well as I could ascend; almost every route wound up including a retreat. The first time I tried the Whitney-Gilman Ridge I backed off three pitches up; I had no idea where to go, and I was too afraid to get stranded. I didn’t have the confidence in myself, the sense of adventure required, to continue. It was the same feeling that came flooding back yesterday.

I also remember when I stopped failing, stopped always backing off stuff and started getting to the top. It felt like a victory, a gaining momentum, like I’d crested some hill and the battle that had ragged for years was finally turning in my favor. Call it confidence, call it whatever, but there was a tipping point and it allowed me to start sending. The foundation was built and it was now time to climb.

There is a power in possibility, power in believing in yourself, believing you are successful, can succeed, power in believing the next hold WILL show up, the next piece of gear WILL be bomber. There is Truth in that. And yes, you might get stranded, there may not be any gear, but most times it will work out. Climbing has the power to get you killed, but when you climb with openness and possibility, when you ask the question “How do I use the holds before me?” rather than “When will the holds get good?” the best of us shows. We meet the challenge with our all. And suddenly you find yourself at the top.

But that doesn’t happen every day. Not in climbing, or elsewhere.

I fail a lot. And not just in climbing. I tried writing a book once, a guidebook to Western Maine rock. I never got past collecting topos and building a website. My “career” is a handful of fits and starts, nothing to write home about, a small town writing gig that keeps going with some adventure on the side. And I was married once. That didn’t work out either. Life has a way of handing us failure, adversity, reminders we are imperfect, routes we can’t seem to get to the top of. Our best efforts of the moment aren’t enough to crest the hill. The summit might just be out of reach. Life has a way of reminding us of that.

I failed yesterday. A lot. It came at the end of a week marked by failure, and a trip marked by failure. At the end of a few years marked by failure.

And in the midst of those lessons on failure the failures can compound. They can transform from a single moment to a storyline, from one climb to climbing, from event or sequence of events to a life narrative.


But each of those moments are single moments, blips on the screen, instantaneous and individually inconsequential. “Failures” in name only.

As I bailed off Heather yesterday my friend Pat walked past on his way to Airation, a Cathedral finger crack. I’d seen him working the route a year ago, but he’d fallen at the crux.

“I’m getting back on it,” he said. “I’ve still got to send it.”

Not a failure, an ongoing challenge.

Life does a lot of smacking around. It is about mistakes and missteps, confusion and corrections. Climbing is a stupid, pointless way to spend the weekend. And I love it. It has a tendency to mimic the rest of existence, remind us of the challenges we face every day.

Today my fingers hurt. And my abs. I’m thinking a bike ride, or a trail run, fits more than climbing; I’m thinking I need a mental break from falling, fear, and visions of failure.

But yesterday as I walked down the descent trail after retrieving my gear I turned to Nick, my climbing partner. “Thanks man,” I said, “today couldn’t have been more fun.”

He smiled. “Yeah,” he said, “that was awesome.”

Failure can still be worth it.

And I’ll be back. I’ll be up there again, fingers jammed to the bleeding-point, gear smaller than I want disappearing below me. No matter how many tries it takes me it won’t truly be a failure, just an ongoing challenge, just one more route I have yet to send. And there are lots of those. I’ll never send them all.


Enoch Glidden, and the Question “How Can I?”

Enoch Glidden, and the Question “How Can I?”
DSC01212-2 1
Glidden on Washington Column.

What does it take to climb a 3,000-foot cliff?

For Enoch Glidden, a 37-year-old wheelchair-bound climber born with spina bifida, it might sound like a complex challenge built around planning, hundreds of feet of rope, specially designed climbing equipment and more.

But ask him what it takes, and he doesn’t give a complex answer. The Western Maine native keeps it simple: Climbing a 3,000-foot cliff requires friends.

“Nobody does anything without help, disabled or not,” he said.

Next fall Glidden is headed to Yosemite Valley, Calif., the mecca of American rock climbing, with plans to climb El Capitan, the massive granite touchstone for rock climbers worldwide. He’s been there once, last year, and despite his inability to move his legs, he climbed 600 feet up a towering granite rock face.

“It’s possible,” he said. It just comes down to a question he’s asked himself over and over: “How can I?”

That is the theme of the slide show Glidden will be giving Saturday night at International Mountain Equipment in North Conway. “Go Beyond the Fence” discusses his trip last fall and is a step on the road to his next challenge, El Capitan.

“That question has come up my whole life,” Glidden said. “How can I?” He got his first wheelchair when he was 4. Paralyzed from the waist down, he refuses to let that hold him back: He skis (both downhill and cross-country), competes in wheelchair races, plays basketball and is close to getting his pilot’s license. When he sees a challenge he runs at it, and four years ago the new challenge he discovered was climbing.

“It’s just kind of the ultimate challenge,” he said. “It’s all me to get up there.”

He started in New York with Paradox Sports, a Colorado-based nonprofit dedicated to adaptive sports. That led him to ice climbing closer to home — he’s attended Paradox Ice events in North Conway the past three years.

In Yosemite last year, he and a team climbed up Washington Column, a granite tower a few miles north of El Capitan.

But as he said, these kinds of climbs don’t happen alone.

“Pretty much everywhere I go, someone volunteers,” Glidden said. Last fall they had a team of four the night before the planned ascent. By the next morning, their team was up to double digits. People just seem to want to be involved, Glidden said. “I did one presentation, and a whole bunch of people volunteered.”

The group hiked to the base of Washington Column, carrying Glidden over broken rock and talus. They climbed 500 feet up, spent the night, then climbed another 100 feet the next day.

“Two climbers go ahead and set the rope,” Glidden said, “and then I do pull-ups on the rope.”

He has a special rope-climbing device rigged with a mini pull-up bar, he said, which he uses to climb the rope.

“The hardest part is living on the wall,” he said. He can’t stand up, so he can’t move around easily. That makes routine tasks like dressing and going to the bathroom difficult. “You can train for pull-ups. You can’t train for the portaledge,” the fabric platform he uses for resting and sleeping, he said.

But he learned a lot on that trip, worked out many of the kinks. Now “I’m pretty much dialed in,” he said. For his trip this year he won’t be scouring around Yosemite for partners. “This time I’m bringing people with me.”

The climb will take five days and nights, and involve sleeping on the side of the cliff. Glidden will again ascend a rope strung up by partners, doing thousands upon thousands of pull-ups over the course of the ascent. This will be by far the biggest climbing challenge he’s attempted.

But in some ways the vertical world is easier than some of the challenges that come before. First, he has to get to the wall. It’s a steep walk over rough terrain to get to the base of Zodiac, his planned route up El Capitan’s right flank.

That’s where the friends come in: helping get him to the climb, not just up it, and then also off the top of El Capitan and down. He’s got 14 people planning to join for some part of the mission, but it’s still up to him to do all those pull-ups. There will be a crew shooting video, plus Glidden blogging, and Paradox Sports and the Spina Bifida Foundation of Greater New England will be broadcasting the climb as well.

But all that is in October. For now, Glidden is still training, still getting ready for the challenge ahead. He’s been taking lessons from Sean O’Neill of Brownfield, Maine, who pioneered many climbing techniques for paraplegics. O’Neill climbed El Capitan by the same route in 2006, also doing thousands of pull-ups.

“He basically taught me everything,” Glidden said.

And along with training, he’s pulling together the funds to get himself out there. He just finished his degree in computer information systems, and he’s planning to intern for the summer in Palo Alto, Calif.

“The day that ends I’m going to Yosemite to go climbing,” he said.

But Saturday night at IME, 2733 White Mountain Highway, North Conway, the Mount Washington Valley will get a taste of his ascent, with video shot from his trip last fall. And Glidden wille discussing that all-important question, “How can I?”

The event will be held upstairs at IME on Main Street in North Conway Village. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. with free beer courtesy of Tuckerman’s Brewery. The film portion will begin at 7 p.m. There is a suggested donation of $10.

This story appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

Morning Run

Morning Run

10393822_922846194408133_2350935378690804178_nI woke up this morning and felt the call of the woods. After six weeks of climbing, of slowly working my way westward from the beaches of North Carolina to the Southern California Pacific, I wanted to run. I wanted to watch trees dance past in a blur, feel the spring of soft earth beneath, splash through streams and feel the sweat trail down my forehead. After weeks of ropes and harnesses the occasional wetsuit I wanted unencumbered movement, raw movement. Something animalistic, tribal.

That’s running. It’s pair of shorts, Vibram Five Fingers and a four-legged trail partner tearing down the steeps of the White Mountains. After six weeks of wandering I was home again, and running called.

But while running pulls at me, lures me in, I’m easily distracted, and climbing owns my soul. Sometimes I just can’t get out of the way.

I drove to the cliff, the air still cool with morningness, my run on my mind. The trail begins at Cathedral, then winds its way over to Diana’s Bath, up the back side of Whitehorse and then down the south slopes before climbing to the summit of Cathedral and back to the car. It’d been a while since I’d run that loop, my regular loop. In fact, it’d been a while since I’d stood below Cathedral Ledge at all and just arched my neck to look up at it. If there is a center to the universe, a place the world might have been born from, it is Cathedral. The earth spilled out of her cave. From the Central Wall in winter to the Prow buttress in summer to the trails surrounding it, it calls. Rain, wind, snow, sun, it doesn’t matter, it is always whispering to me. Sometimes I forget, wander away for a week, a month, a year, but when I see the towering granite it pulls me back in. I can’t get around it. And If I could I’m not sure I’d want to.

I drove slow. If I were running I’d drive to the winter gate and park, the very end of the road before it starts climbing. But I was barely to the kiosk when I pulled over. The cliff was calling, louder than the run. A different kind of run.

1014830_684146251611463_497985571_oI parked, pulled out rock shoes and dug around in my trunk for a chalk bag. I changed into shorts—not the lightweight running kind, but durable canvas, the kind built for scraping over granite. I slipped into my flip flops and started up the trail.

There is no such thing as smart soloing. Or maybe there is and I just haven’t happened onto it. It’d been nine days since I’d touched rock, nine days since I’d climbed 16 pitches of immaculate Yosemite stone to the summit of the Sentinel, the outstreached palm of Yosemite Valley, but the Funhouse to Upper Refuse circuit is one I know well. It would be like falling into conversation with an old friend again—I would know when to hang back, when to push. Right?

The cliff towered above. In the sun the morning coolness was burning away. I laced my shoes at the base of the first corner, taking deliberate breaths to slow my heart rate. I could feel my nervousness blending with excitement, all blending with an elevated pulse from hiking in too fast: Solo climbing is not about speed. It is about slowness, about deliberate movement. It seems fast by virtue of its simplicity, but if you’re rushing, breathing hard, scared, you’re in danger. I closed my eyes and exhaled, working my way back to that.

Then I started climbing. The sun pushed hard from above. The rock felt slick but familiar. I wrapped my fingers into cracks they’d brushed countless times. The trees danced in the wind behind me. I began to sweat. I patted my hand in my chalk bag, grabbed the rock holds, looked at the polished feet and moved upward. My body recognized the process, the unencumbered movement. It was running only slower, with a chance to fall, to die. I stuck my hand in a crack, jammed, focused on my feet and moved again. Hand. Hand. Foot. Foot. Hand. Foot. I flowed over the rock, a deer in the forest, a brook down a mountainside. The movement: There it was.

But if the movement was there, my head wasn’t with it. It was full of noise, choked with errands and assignments and things to do now that I was back in town. My hands wrapped holds, my feet pressed edges, but my head was caught in its own dance.

But I kept climbing. And as I moved upward the rhythm took over. Gravity pushed the thoughts aside, and I kept jamming, grabbing holds, moving my feet up, one more twist of the body, one more offset movement to regain balance. The noise of life bled away. I began to notice the grain of the rock, the sound of the trees in the breeze, the subtle shifts in temperature as the air moved. I came back to myself, the climbing pulling me along.

By the top rock was flowing effortlessly beneath me. I crested Cathedral and wrapped my hand around the cool metal fence. I exhaled, safe on horizontal ground, pulled off my rock shoes and slipped back into my flip flops. My tee shirt was damp with sweat, but the sweat of movement, of deliberation and concentration and presence, not the sweat of fear. I trotted to the descent trail, the rest of the day before me.

I was home. And there was still time for a run.

CDS column: Water, and the Power to Destroy

CDS column: Water, and the Power to Destroy

13246360_1490935164265897_2513155182757045179_oWater. In Fryeburg, Maine, it’s a big deal: 603,000 gallons a day, a multinational company, a legal battle, a state Supreme Court ruling. Water is a very big deal.

I remember when the Fryeburg Water Co. agreement with Nestle/Poland Spring first made headlines. It was the first time I’d seen liberals act like scared conservatives.

As a reporter you get used to hearing Republican fears — who is going to take their guns, their jobs, their money. It’s part of the modern conservative message: We have something to lose. We need to protect it.

Among liberals, however, the same fear-based rhetoric doesn’t sell. Issues like abortion and gay rights are pitched without resorting to demagoguery. Government, for Democrats, isn’t something to cower from; it’s something that can be controlled.

Republicans, meanwhile, want to starve the beast, kill it if they can.

But I remember that first meeting after the Nestle deal, the activist stances, the sharp words of trepidation that spilled out. I remember the petition campaigns, the heated elections of the Fryeburg Water District, neighbors shouting at neighbors, outside entities called in for logistical and activist support. Replace the word “government” with “corporation” and suddenly liberals become as fearful as conservatives.

But fear provokes knee-jerk reactions, and knee-jerk overreactions, regardless of party. Republicans fear for their guns to the point that they stymie common-sense gun regulations aimed at reducing school shootings and other tragedies. It’s foolish, but it’s impossible to reason with fear.

The same irrationality has been on display locally. But this time it’s a different crowd, a liberal crowd, raising the alarm: Corporations are evil! Our water is not for sale!

But corporations, just like governments, are not evil. These are not autonomous entities, Frankensteinian monsters wielding supreme power. They are run by people. They are governed by laws. They can be tamed.

But not through fear. The fear response Fryeburg Water activists employed was akin to blindfolded swings at a pinata — a lot of fury, but little meaningful contact. Water activists threw everything they had at the Nestle deal, took it to the highest court in Maine, but it is moving forward nonetheless. The fearful blows failed to land.

And why should they? The deal is legal, fitting neatly within the framework set up by the state of Maine. There was an administrative review, then a legal review. Beyond vocal objections, there was nothing to derail the project.

But here’s the thing: the Fryeburg Water activists had a point, and it was a good one. There are tremendous questions about resource extraction. It’s conversation not limited to water: When a resource buried beneath the earth is turned into a salable commodity, who should benefit? Whether water, oil or ore, what is owned by the individual, what is owned collectively, and what is free for the taking? Who owns what? What is the citizenry entitled to when extraction occurs? Should anyone be able to bottle a resource, cart away all they can and pocket the income? Or is something owed for this action?

This is not a new question, but it was also not the one Fryeburg Water activists were asking. Like gun activists thwarting the latest background check legislation, they were shouting in an all-or-nothing fight to stop the deal. They were not calmly looking to put in reasonable safeguards. And in all the shouting, they yelled themselves hoarse.

They had a point; they just failed to aim where it matters.

And where does it matter? In the Legislature, not the courts.

Water is a precious resource. It is a Maine resource, a Mainer’s resource, one currently open to extraction. To change that will require changing the law, which requires working within the bogeyman entity liberals are comfortable with: government.

Activists need to put down the picket signs and trade them for cell phones. They need to push lawmakers to create of a resource fund built on extraction revenues, something similar to Alaska’s Permanent Fund, which is funded through oil sales.

A small tax on water extraction — a half-cent per gallon, or even a quarter-cent — accrues quickly at 603,000 gallons a day. And it would serve as a bulwark against the risk that large scale extraction might someday deplete Fryeburg’s aquifer.

That is the middle road, threading the needle between government and corporations. And it works: In Alaska every resident gets a check, a payout every year, funded by the extraction industry. In 2015, that check was for $2,072 for every resident. The payout is a dividend — the fund itself has grown to more than $53 billion since it launched in 1977.

That money came from oil, not water, and required a change in the state constitution. But extraction is extraction, and bottled water sells at prices similar to gasoline.

Maine doesn’t have oil. Maine has water. It’s a resource, understandably, in which Mainers have a tremendous stake. Currently, the legal and legislative recognition of that stake is minimal, and nothing in the past few years has been done to change that. Activists opposed to Nestle went to battle with empty hands. Instead of looking to arm themselves, they wandered into the fields to get slaughtered. The Maine Supreme Court decision dispatched the last of their hopes.

But Mainers have power. It sits in the tremendous value of bottled water. Residents sit on a commodity, a valuable one. Shouting in the face of its being packaged into profits isn’t going to change things, but taxes do change things. It would be the middle way, accepting that businesses have a right to do business rather than an all out victory against an “evil” corporation. But it would create real value for Mainers rather than just noise.

And should the battle rise again, it would give activists an actual weapon. “The power to tax,” after all, “involves the power to destroy,” U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall said nearly 200 years ago.


This column was featured in the Conway Daily Sun newspaper.

The Smoke and the Fire

The Smoke and the Fire

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

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

Cold December?

Cold December?

CMG-1020592I wonder if people are worried.

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

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

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

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

I hope it’s not just me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



Four days is a long time. A lot can happen.

Four days ago Sgt. Brian Abrams was alive. Four days ago he hadn’t lost control of his motorcycle, he hadn’t crashed into a stone wall, he hadn’t hit his head on a rock. Four days ago he hadn’t needed an airlift to Maine Medical Center, where surgery did nothing to revive him. Four days ago his family didn’t have to decide whether to remove the machines that were keeping Brian alive. Four days ago Brian could breathe on his own. Four days ago Brian wasn’t dead.
Today he is dead. Brian died last night at approximately 4:50 p.m., surrounded by friends and family. I was at IME when I heard the news. I was also surrounded by friends. It did little to soften the blow, however. When I got home I wrote an email to a friend, not really with the intention of hearing back, but more as a journal entry shot into space. I wanted it to land somewhere green, somewhere vibrant and alive, where death doesn’t exist and sorrow, suffering and pain are just echoes. I reread that email today and realized it was more a note to myself than to anyone else. I though maybe it belonged here.

Hi. I need a few minutes to unwind. A friend, a local Fish and Game officer who I had regular contact with through the paper, got in a motorcycle crash over the weekend. He hit his head (he wasn’t wearing a helmet), and suffered a serious brain injury. He was airlifted to Maine Med, but he never woke up. His family turned off life support this evening. He had two daughters, seven and 10, and he was quite possibly the nicest man I ever met. I spent today reporting on the story, calling state officials trying to convince them to release a statement about my friend, then calling around to friends in the climbing/rescue community who had worked with him to get them to share their stories about Brian. I cried a dozen times at my desk today, thinking about the pain his family was going through and what it was going to be like for those two little girls. I skipped singing class and stopped at IME after work. The owner, Rick, was a close friend of Brian’s. While I was there Celia, Rick’s wife, got the call that they had pulled the plug. There were two other rescue team members there. We all cried.

It’s just been a long day. I want more than anything to just melt into the covers and cry. And, well, I can’t. So I’m groping for a little bit of connection.

In my heart I know Brian’s suffering is over, or at least moved beyond any form I recognize. His moment, his life, has passed. This pain in my heart is about me, about my fear, my uncertainty, my own feelings of loss. But there those feelings sit. I’m doing my best to be gentle with them, to not be mad at myself for getting so upset. I want to celebrate him and his life, but the sense of loss is like a wet cloth draped over my nose and mouth — it makes it hard to breathe. And I know my feelings of loss are illusory compared to those of his children and family.

I can’t stop thinking about a short story I heard several weeks ago about three kinds of death. First your body dies — that is one kind of death. Then the last person who ever knew you dies — that is another kind of death. Then there is the last time your name is ever spoken — that is a third kind of death. I don’t know why today made me think of that, but it’s been in my head all daIt’s all a dream. The impermanence, the meaning of plans and expectations, the interpretations of good and bad, right and wrong, it’s all just a crazy mess of electromagnetic pulses across gray matter that starves in minutes without oxygen. There is no up, no down, but our minds yearn for clarity and so they assign such markers. It’s madness, and in the end we all die anyway. The clarity we seek is just a game, an illusion, smoke. 

I’ve stopped making sense. I guess today didn’t make sense, which makes sense because the world doesn’t make sense, no matter how hard we try to make sense of it. The only thing we have is the ability to connect, and even connection is impermanent, transient, fleeting. In this moment, tonight, I’m searching for connection, for someone to tell me I won’t die alone, that I am not alone in the vastness of the space. Because how do I know I’m not? Maybe everyone else is just part of a movie — players with a set script that rolls ever on with no notice of my contribution. Maybe I’m the only one without a copy, the only one with these thoughts, these fears. Maybe I am truly alone.

Either way I will die alone, even if it is among friends. That is a trip we can’t partner up for, which is terrifying. A few months ago I discovered a phrase, “I may die today,” that carried me through dark days. It served as a reminder not to be afraid, because life is not within our control. Carefully tiptoeing doesn’t change the fact that I STILL may die today. So live BOLDLY, without the weight of fear. Only I’m not sure how to do that, so I just act the way I think someone who knows how to do it would act. Maybe that way I can get there.

Life is a mess. Not mine, but life in general. It gets places through messing up, through killing off hearts and souls without rhyme or reason. I laugh at the way I used to look at it, trying to understand it all, judge it all, take it all in and make statements of fact like I had any idea. I don’t even know if I’m alive, or if I’m just caught in a dream in the moments before death. Who even knows? It’s all just a play, and the script is burning as it’s written.

Moments of connection are fleeting. Maybe they’re not even real. But when a friend dies you realize you never told them how inspired you were by their kindness, their gentle grace. I remember this same feeling when I learned my high school friend Bill Ballard was dead. At 18 he was the best man I’ve ever known, and I never told him. I’ll never live up to the ideal of telling everyone all the time how much they mean. If I did the words would lose their value, their meaning, their truth. But in this moment, in losing Brian, I realize how much love is out there, how much love is in my life, and how much love is in my heart. So much it fills me up, drowns me, knocks me off guard, confuses and leaves me breathless. I hope that never changes. I’m pretty sure it never will. Life’s beauty overwhelms me.

I haven’t got much else to say. In fact, I’m not really sure I said anything at all, or that what I said made any sense. I was/am just looking for a lantern in the fog, another marker along the way that promises warmth, light, life. They seem spread far apart some days, but I have to trust they are there, even on the nights I can’t see them. I try not to make sense of their blinking patterns and instead just let them be what they are. They float like fireflies in the night — too magical to hold in your hand for more than the briefest moment.

It’s just after midnight, and I have to work in the morning. I’m going to bed. Thanks for giving me a place to just unload. You are not expected to respond.

It was a lot to digest, but I thought it fit here. And you are already missed, Brian. Thank you for the smiles, the quiet honesty of your presence, and all the lessons. They are unfolding still.



Yesterday I quit climbing.

It was 5:30 p.m. and growing dark. I was standing in my living room, naked from the waist up, a pile of outdoor clothes draped on the arm of the couch beside me. I had been waiting for this moment all day, for work to end so I could go climbing in Crawford Notch, but now that the moment had arrived I was faltering. “Should I go?” I thought, wearing nothing but blue Capilene tights. “Do I really want to? Or am I just going climbing because climbing is what I do?” Would my plan leave me smiling and satisfied, or would I just wind up wishing I was back at home? I didn’t know, so I just stood there in my long underwear watching the sky grow darker.

I tied into a rope for the first time at 17, and ever since I’ve poured myself into my passion. I’ve spent weekends, vacations and thousands of dollar on climbing. Now I can just describe it as what I do. It’s intricately linked to my closest relationships, my work and where I choose to live. It’s how I meet people, what I talk about with friends, how I relax, what social occasions are centered around, the focus of the organizations I donate to and how I volunteer my time. It has become more than a passion — it has become life.

And yet I quit.

I stood in my living room yesterday, lost in my head, naked, exposed, and I didn’t want to go climbing. “No,” I thought, pulling off my Capilene, “I’m not going. It isn’t me, not today. I’m not a climber. I’m just not.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d quit. I quit the day before too. I had plans to go to Tohko on Sunday with Scott, but after two days out at Ice Fest I was tired. I got home and didn’t feel it. “Not today,” I thought as I sat down to read. “I’m not climbing. Not now. Not today.”

It feels good to quit, to reject the passion that in many ways has come to define me. It feels good to put it down, to let it rest, to let the pressures and expectations that built up around it dissolve. Will I send my project? Who knows. Probably not, because I quit. And that’s OK. After weeks and months of doing nothing but climbing, I just walked out the door.

It doesn’t take long to fall into habits, and climbing is an easy one to fall into. When you climb every weekend, every vacation and every free moment it can be difficult to determine whether you are climbing today out of passion or simply because you climb. For me at some point the climbing flips from being a passion to being work. “It is the weekend again. Where are we climbing?” The desire to tick the next project, to push to through the next grade, takes over, and when it does the passion is gone. But I keep climbing because I know nothing else. What meaning does it bring at that point? What value? None. The feelings climbing can elicit are gone, and yet I stick to it. It’s become a habit, just what I do.

When that happens, I quit. I walk away. I put down my gear, fuck it, and do something else. I did it yesterday. I pulled of my Capeline, did some Googling, and instead went to a yoga class. It felt fantastic. I spent an hour and a half trying not to fall over. Every pose was taxing. I embraced sucking at something, free from any self-imposed pressure to perform. It felt the way climbing felt that first day. It felt the way it felt when I quit this summer — instead of tying in I went surfing, and I spent hours just trying to stand up. Ego stayed home during those sessions — I couldn’t afford its critique.

Quitting is liberating. It is freeing. It takes the thing that you allow to define you and puts it back in its place. Climbing isn’t life, it is an activity. It is a way to spend time, no more, no less. It can be fun or it can be miserable, depending on the day, but it is neither good nor bad. And when it starts to feel overwhelming, like it has become a job rather than a passion, the best thing I can do is quit.

And so yesterday I did just that. I quit. I walked away. I said fuck it, and in rejecting climbing I found freedom. It was in every yoga pose — the same feeling discovered 14 years ago, that first day I tied into a rope — the wonder of movement, the high of self-awareness, the intense connection between mind, body and breath. Instead of searching for that feeling in climbing like a heroin addict seeking another fix I looked somewhere else. And there it was. I found it. All that because I quit.

I’ve quit so many times before. I spent a year barely climbing once, and three years off the ice. I went on sailing and bicycling trips, spent weekends camping and watching movies, blew money on cameras, concerts and plays. I’ve quit countless times since too, and each time I discover how much I truly love my other passions. Quitting has allowed me to I train and compete in a triathlon, and it afforded me a stint in Iraq and Kuwait reporting for public radio. Quitting has given me much more than it ever took away.

Quitting has also let me discover, once I finally tie back in, how much I love climbing. The quitting helps me see my passion within a proper context, as one passion among many, all of which are rewarding and expand my perspective. Embracing the quit and the subsequent resurrection refills my passion. It allows the beauty of what climbing offers wash over me. It helps me grow.

Passion are meant to support us, to engage us and push us to new heights and levels of understand about ourselves, but if they come to define us they do the opposite — they make us contract. They can help us seek our own self-imposed boundaries, or they can form the foundation for those same walls. Climbing runs that risk for me. It is in so much of my life it can easily box me in if I sit back and let it. But in quitting I reject that mold and embrace the growth. Quitting allows me to look around with clear eyes and see all the other things I am missing.

It also gives me a chance to recommit. Every time I quit I get to rediscover the wonder climbing brought me that first day. Quitting reinvigorates my passion. Yesterday I decided I would not climbing. I quit, and rejecting climbing as a definition. I won’t go again, I told myself, until the drive comes from a place of passion, a place of love, a place of growth and willingness to accept the unknown. If the thought of climbing provokes a question about to whether I want to be there, whether or not I was making the right decision, I wasn’t going. Climbing should provoke feelings of elation, I reasoned, not exhaustion, so I quit. I just walked away.

Then today I got up and packed my bag for the rock gym. I’ll be there tonight, back on the wall, back among friends. My quit has run its course. My willingness to walk was the ingredient necessary to see my passion with fresh eyes again. After years of pitched battles (within myself always), it now takes just days to be ready again (except for those times it takes weeks or months). Today I’m back to climbing out of love rather than obligation. Quitting kicked the habit, and it no longer rules me. I cannot deny I my passion, but through quitting I let it re-bloom into a passion, a love, of my choosing. If it were any other way I’d have to quit.