From the Back Seat: America’s Argument

It has come to an end. After almost two years of buildup: the election, the point on which it all hinges. Dragons will either be slain or Armageddon will soon commence.

Which, of course, depends on your political bent, whether Hillary is your Antichrist or Donald. But either way there will be an offended swath, American outrage that hasn’t occurred since… last election.

Remember in 2008 when Obama became president and the TEA Party stormed the streets in protest? We still see the racially-tinged aftermath of Taxed Enough Already in the selection of Donald Trump. Obama marked the Socialist takeover, the “they’ll come for your guns” moment, another pivotal dragons and danger moment.

And yet today America stands, gun in hand. Rome has not fallen. There have been incremental ticks, changes to health care policy, the recognition of same sex marriage, withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, but much from before remains. Guantanamo is still open. America still kills from the sky with unmanned aircraft piloted from the Heartland. Abortion is still legal and under stress. A black man may occupy the White House, but beyond condolences he’s been unable to offer anything to curb the mass incarcerations of innocents or shootings by police. America is thick with its own history, and the wave of his hand proven insufficient to part the Red Sea.

Foreign-born Muslim Socialist or not, presidential powers are limited. Armageddon will have to wait.

The same can be said of Maine and the 2010 sweep that brought the 39 percent to power. Despite his best threats, Gov. LePage proved unable to eradicate functional government. His insistence on undermining the bureaucracy rather than reforming its aims was caustic but not calamitous, and lumbering beast though it is, the government proved agile enough to stay steps ahead of the governor.

Mainers still pay taxes and state agencies continue to offer services. LePage did his damage, but much of it was superficial. The occasional racist comment proved the governor an unsavory mascot, but his real goal—to free the state of the tyrannies of government—stands uncompleted.

Another disaster dodged. Armageddon again averted.

But was Armageddon really the risk? That is language of elections today, both from conservative corners and progressive politicians. But in American democracy nothing burns overnight. Things don’t happens fast. Neither man nor movement has the sway they claim. Our institutions are great pyramids standing on bases that stretch for miles. One man or woman at the top has not the strength to move it. Even armies of protesters lack the might to push them over, be they the TEA Party or Occupy Wall Street.

A state is so much more than its government. A country is so much livelier than its laws, its politicians. These are small choices, momentary blips, water and sand only have the power to eat away the stone that forms our foundations. One day, through the slow erosion of time, shifts may come, but there is no earthquake on the horizon. Shout as they might, this country can endure.

And regardless of its smaller swings, America lumbers in the direction of its founding, the words it was born with: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

America is a country forged out of words and ideas, not the other way around. It was plucked from thin air by idealists on land made clear by genocide. We live a nation rife with contradiction. Questions of diversity and wealth and what it means to be free run in our blood. They are our history, our legacy, our burden. And they are bound to resurface at times. At times like these. Indeed, they might never go away.

Sometimes this argument we have with ourselves is raucous, ugly even. But it is our argument, one we must embrace to push forward those American words.

But for all the fighting the sky will not fall. This argument, this ungracious snarl, is the messiness of democracy. There will be no dragons gone after Nov. 8, and Armageddon will still have to wait.


This column appeared in the Portland Phoenix.

CDS Column: Right, Left and Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This column appeared in Wednesday’s Conway Daily Sun.

From the Backseat: A Mini America

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

America Mini: Yeah, we’ve got that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This column appeared in this week’s Portland Phoenix.

CDS Column: The American Locker Room Tradition

CDS Column: The American Locker Room Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And their thrashing has consequences. Their thrashing leaves victims.

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

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

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

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


This column appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

From the Backseat: Maine, Live on the Street

From the Backseat: Maine, Live on the Street

img_0656-3It was a Thursday, normally a workday but we were tucked in the downstairs of the Portland Museum of Art, around 100 of us taking pause to listen to Maine, live.

That’s what they call it: Maine Live. Like a TED conference fitted with flannel, 15 speakers with 15 minutes each to talk about whatever they want. Mainers of all backgrounds: a former U.S. Olympic luge racer, the co-founder of ReVision Energy, the department chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Maine Medical Center, business owners and nonprofit directors and artists. Pious Ali, Maine’s first African-born American and Muslim to be elected to a public office, shared stories of young immigrants and people of color searching for jobs amidst more roadblocks than on-ramps. Kennebunk-based architect Brian Beaudette talked about knowing he was gay but pushing his feelings aside through high school, college, a marriage and fatherhood. MaineWorks founder Margo Walsh shared her own struggle with alcoholism and how her work helping felons and addicts find jobs helps her, too.

Like most conferences of the inspirational type there were standing ovations, moments of teariness, hors d’oeuvres during intermissions and photo handshakes. But at Maine Live there was more. It was a distillation of creative energy, the state concentrated. Put 15 Mainers in a room and let them to speak on whatever they want and there could be 15 distinct topics, no linking thread. But themes emerged: immigration, climate change, the power of business for positive impact. If you wanted a pulse on Maine, a hint at what was important and pressing in the state today, with Maine Live as a carotid snapshot you got a chance to see it, what matters to those in the thick of it, out in the morass.

And there was a shadow among themes, a darkness that kept rearing: any Maine Live participant would be forced to note how often heroin came up. Among a roomful of professionals, nonprofit-types and business people opiates were everywhere. One speaker, Biddeford-based plumbing and heating business owner Jim Godbout, devoted his entire talk to addiction, to the impacts of heroin and other drugs and the toll they’ve taken on his community. He stood wet-eyed on stage and shared stories of more than 40 friends and loved ones lost. This inside the white walls of the art museum, a space more familiar with the picturesque projections of upper-middle-classness than somber stories of social decay.

But opiates have emerged so insidious they’ve wormed their way into all our halls, part of everything and everywhere, in the art museum not in some scrawlings by an on-edge surrealist but among the crisp crowd who rents the space for the ambiance. Addiction has left the shadows, gone mainstream.

It is a funny thing, watching talk of heroin and opiate addiction wind its way through such circles. These $100-tickets events are usually reserved for generative conversations that lighten the heart, exchanges that make you think, make you wonder. Perhaps they highlight a societal problem, but one distant. But here sat a hint of alarm bells, indications of a problem metastasizing close to home. Addiction the wrecking ball swings at all walls, even those lined by Wyeths and Winslow Homer. Something needs to happen, soon.

That was in the museum. Then Maine Live ended. I walked out onto Free Street, crossed over to Congress in my sport coat and dress shoes.

Around Forest a man pointed at me from a few feet away. He was walking towards me wearing a tee shirt and dirty jeans. “Wait!” he said. “Before you take another step…”

I kept walking, closing our distance.

“…can I have a dollar for something to eat?”

I continued to walk, brushing past him. I heard him turn but he didn’t follow.

A dozen more steps and I heard his voice again, this time shouting: “Who is going to give me a dollar so I can buy SOMETHING TO FUCKING EAT!”

Maine, live.

No one paused to listen.


This column appeared in the Portland Phoenix.

CDS Column: Freedom, Iceland and Campervans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

CDS Column: The Cost to Learn

CDS Column: The Cost to Learn

IMG_0400The other day I came across a news release from my alma mater the University of Southern Maine: “USM hails turnaround,” was the headline, “Admissions numbers substantially up and budget balanced for first time in years.” Classes are full, and the university is in the black. Officials were upbeat; for the first time since the Great Recession the university is making money.

USM was hit hard back in 2008. There were cuts, layoffs, changes in leadership. Officials threw countless levers in search of something capable of putting things back on track, of making ends meet. Now they finally have good news: “The number of high achieving high school graduates attending USM this fall is soaring. ‘Last year at this time 16 admitted students who were awarded merit scholarships sent us a deposit,’” a school official said. “’This year that number is 216, and we expect the numbers to climb.’” Things are looking up.

I studied at USM a decade ago, graduated in December of 2007 in the calm before the financial firestorm. Those were flush days for the university, before a lot of tough decisions and belt-tightening.

Today in-state USM students pay $253 per undergraduate credit. That’s not much different than when I was there. Out-of-state tuition, meanwhile, costs $665 per credit. One year of classes and fees costs $8,920 per year for in-state students, while out-of-states pay $21,280.

An hour away, meanwhile, at University of New Hampshire, an in-state student pays $600 per credit hour. A year of tuition costs $14,410, plus an additional $1,607 in fees. Over four years those numbers add up, and the $60,000 price tag for UNH doesn’t include food or a place to sleep. College today is full of opportunity, including for students to saddle themselves with significant financial baggage barely into adulthood.

It wasn’t always this way. The prosperity of the American Century wasn’t financed by 18-year-olds; it was fueled by public investment. In the wake of World War Two former soldiers swarmed university campuses backed by G.I. Bill dollars. A generation later their children attended low-cost state universities, another gift of government dollars. These two generations—the Greatest and the Boomers—built success out of this community investment. They prospered, and America prospered. They grew in tandem, gains forged in the fires of collective investment in higher education. We were a nation of government-funded students and state-sponsored graduates, two parallel rails that fostered America’s transition from industrial nation to an economy interlaced with technology. Today forms of commerce unimaginable in the post-World War Two years are commonplace, built by this army of first financial aid recipients. Complex derivative industries now sustain us, and the grandchildren of people born before telephones reached a majority of households are finding jobs as ap developers for smartphone companies. Such is the growth in an educated society.

1140f-highBut those opportunities are becoming harder and harder to afford. Over the past 50 years education has changed. The opportunities have changed. Even as the necessity of a college degree has increased, support for obtaining one has dwindled. Political pressure has forced entities built on public investment to operate more like businesses, to focus on growing income streams rather education opportunities. School budgets once covered by government have been cut while the portion left for students to bear has ballooned. The task of educating, a responsibility once felt by all of us, has been privatized, individualized and handed off to the kids. Education has transformed into something you buy, and it’s no longer affordable.

How did this happen? How did investment in a strong workforce, with the stability and prosperity that it brings, become the responsibility of 19 and 20-year-olds? How did we so erode our public support of higher education that the costs now land on the shoulders of children?

Perhaps it is tied to the modern narrative around education. The story of school was once that of a tide that lifted all boats: No one lost by investing in education. Gains might be unevenly distributed, but society as a whole saw tremendous advancements as a result of rising standards. Better education meant better jobs, more wealth and general upward mobility. The trajectory was one of growth. Investment in education was a building block in creating middle class communities, an investment in a collective future, and a brighter one.

Today, however, that storyline is gone, replaced by a simpler tale. Today we are told education exists for the individual. It is a personal investment with personal rewards: the chance for more money and a better job. From a societal level there is little incentive to see others educated, as only the individual sees the benefits. Taxpayers, meanwhile, bear the expense. Society is saddled with the cost. For individuals college is an investment; for the rest of us it is an expense.

Such a shallow view of our society, history and economy. Education, like economics, is not a zero-sum game; with investment, the pie grows. There is no finite number of slices. Inventions like the internet and the iPhone revolutionize entire sectors, creating new opportunities and derivative markets that spill their way down the economic food chain. Exploding technologies may be built by engineers and computer programmers, but they create opportunities for accountants and janitors, lawyers and food service workers, CEOs and parking lot attendants. Everyone benefits. Education is no simple rising tide; it is a wave, a tsunami, a tremendous force for change.

We knew this, and for years we watched it work. For generations. The result was the American Century, a middle class revolution built on public investment in knowledge, creativity and growth. America led the world, leadership funded by all of us.

We could get back there, but not by ignoring the cost. We must spend wisely and choose which bills to make our own. Education is one that belongs to all of us.


This column appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

400

400

Icy landscape, View Point, Weddell Sea, AntarcticaIt’s happened: Antarctica has hit 400.

If 300 was a movie about the destructive capacity of a small band of humans, 400 is the same thing only on a much larger scale.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced this week that on May 23 carbon dioxide levels at the South Pole surpassed 400 parts per million (PPM) at the South Pole for the first time in 4 million years, a marker NOAA called “another unfortunate milestone.”

The South Pole has shown the same relentless upward trend in carbon dioxide (CO2) as the rest of world, NOAA said in a statement released on their website, but its remote location meant it was late to register the impacts of fossil fuel consumption, the primary driver of greenhouse gas pollution.

“The far southern hemisphere was the last place on earth where CO2 had not yet reached this mark,” Pieter Tans, NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network lead scientist, said in the statement. “Global CO2 levels will not return to values below 400 PPM in our lifetimes, and almost certainly for much longer.”

400 PPM “should be a psychological tripwire for everyone,” according to NASA Michael Gunson. “Passing the 400 mark reminds me that we are on an inexorable march to 450 PPM and much higher levels. These were the targets for ‘stabilization’ suggested not too long ago. The world is quickening the rate of accumulation of CO2, and has shown no signs of slowing this down.”

CO2 levels rise during the Northern Hemisphere’s fall and winter and decline during the summer as terrestrial plants consume CO2 during photosynthesis. It’s an AMAZING process, one you can watch on this video from NASA:

 

But plants only a fraction of emissions. For every year since observations began in 1958 there has been more CO2 in the atmosphere than the year before, according to NOAA. Last year’s global CO2 average reached 399 PPM, meaning that the global average in 2016 will almost certainly surpass 400 PPM.

The question NOAA scientists are now asking is whether even the lowest month of 2016 will have CO2 readings over 400 PPM.

Also concerning, the rate of increase appears to be accelerating. The annual growth rate of atmospheric CO2 measured at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii jumped 3.05 ppm during 2015, according to NOAA’s statement, the largest year-to-year increase in 56 years of monitoring. Last year was the fourth consecutive year that CO2 grew more than 2 ppm – which set another record. This year promises to be the fifth.

Part of last year’s jump was attributable to El Nino, the statement said, referring to the cyclical Pacific Ocean warming that produces extreme weather across the globe and causing terrestrial ecosystems to lose stored CO2 through wildfire, drought and heat waves.

“We know from abundant and solid evidence that the CO2 increase is caused entirely by human activities,” Tans said. “Since emissions from fossil fuel burning have been at a record high during the last several years, the rate of CO2 increase has also been at a record high. And we know some of it will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years.”

So there’s that…

Seeing Bright Spots in the Sea

Seeing Bright Spots in the Sea

IMG_8135.JPGIt can be tough to read news about the environment. With oil spills and ocean acidification and coral bleaching and mass extinctions and rising temperatures it can seem overwhelming, just easier to just put your head down, worry about yourself and ride the doomed Earth into oblivion.

But that is only half the story. The other half is awesome.

Like this: the California Academy of Sciences announced yesterday they are partnering with coral reef conservation group SECORE to plant millions of concrete, reef-attaching “seeding units” in damaged reefs to “restore dwindling reefs with sexually-produced corals on a meaningful scale,” according to a statement on their website.

The project is part of an $8.5 million investment Cal Academy is making in coral reef research and restoration. “We’re not losing any time in our continued fight to understand, protect, and restore these majestic ecosystems,” Bart Shepherd, director of the Academy’s aquarium said.

That’s in San Fransisco. And there’s more. An article published on the Atlantic Magazine’s website on Wednesday profiles an Australian scientist who has been studying coral reefs and discovered that many of the world’s reefs in better shape than might be expected have frequent human interaction.

Contrary to what you might think, the bright spots weren’t all remote reefs, where humans were absent or fishing was banned. Instead, most were home to lots of people, who rely heavily on the corals and who frequently fished. They weren’t leaving the corals and fish alone; instead, they had developed social norms and institutions that allowed them to manage the reefs responsibly.

The study offers the evidence that it is possible for humans and reefs to coexist without the inevitable destruction of the coral.

At is an unrelated video about a chance discovery that sped up the growth cycle of slow-growing corals in Florida. It may be possible, it seems, to restore not just fast-growing corals but slower-growing species as well. More reason for encouragement.

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 1.24.48 PMThen there is the work of Jason DeCaires Taylor, a sculptor who creates stunning installations underwater out of coral-accepting cements. His beautiful creations sit on the sea floor and transform over time. They become an intermixing of human and natural creation. His sculptures turn into otherworldy attractions that highlight the plight of the oceans, while at the same time offering sealife a space to thrive.

Taylor talked about his work on the TED stage:

 

Lastly, there is Norton Point, the Massachusetts-based company tackling the problem of ocean microplastics with capitalism. They are turning trash from the sea into something useful: sunglasses.

For every product we sell, even those not made from ocean plastic, we are committing to you to clean-up one pound of plastic from the ocean. In addition, we have chosen to give back 5% of net profits to global clean-up, education, and mediation practices.

Their Kickstarter campaign has exceeded its $37,000 goal by more than $5,000 this week, and there are still 20 days left until it finishes. An excellent example of how the environment inspires defender/entrepreneurs.

So instead of getting discouraged, instead of losing hope for the future of the planet and the environment, look for the bright spots, the many examples of people and organizations pushing for positive change. Look at the amazing discoveries they are making, the incredible support they are finding. Inspiration builds upon inspiration, success from success. Maybe it’s even time to join.

 

Climbing for Brian

Climbing for Brian

10553818_903535722993720_2619385696188103555_oTwo years ago my friend Brian died. He was climbing on Cathedral Ledge, doing laps on a route I’ve been on countless times before. I was in Peru at the time, a long way from home, a long way from the people I turn to when things get difficult.

I had plans to spend eight months in South America, plans to bounce from Peru to Chile to Argentina and all over and up to Central America. But it didn’t fit. After a month traveling in Chile I flew home.

Instead I went climbing: Red Rocks, Zion, Eldo, Rifle. Looking Glass. Rumbling Bald. The Obed. I wandered through 14 states over five weeks, clipped bolts, jammed cracks and hung on gear. I got scared. I got lost. I fell. I saw old friends and made new ones. I took the type of trip Brian loved taking. He and I had discussed a trip to the desert or to Yosemite, though it never happened. But I felt a connection to him out there, a recognition that “gone” and “with us” can be indistinct.

A month ago was Brian’s birthday. Facebook was kind enough to remind me. It popped up in my feed like he was still here, like I should send him a card or a gift. But he’s not.

13172996_1480482645311149_7238612379710389030_oA few weeks earlier I made it to one of the desert towers Brian and I talked about. The North Face of Castleton is a beautiful 5.11- up steep orange rock. My friend Jim just happened to be in Moab at the same time as me, and it was his birthday. He put a post on FB asking if anyone wanted to climb the next day. “Seriously?!” I said. “You’re in Moab?? Let’s climb Castleton!”

We met the next morning around 10 a.m. and drove to Castle Valley. It was noon by the time we reached the route, but at only three pitches we figured it would go quick. I took the first lead, a steep blue Camalot crack that ended in thinner cracks through a patch of white calcite. Two guys were repelling off as I started up. “Mountain Project says you need 6 number threes,” one of them said. We had two. Jim looked at me. “Maybe leapfrog that one below you?” I heeded his advice.

But the crack was straightforward, the climbing uncomplicated. I jammed and I jammed, making quick progress. I hit the calcite rested and laughing, enjoying the movement and exposure. No wonder Brian so loved such places—the red of the sandstone gleamed, and every jam felt handcarved. This was climbing at its best.

13147451_1480754145283999_7137182934756421799_oJimmy followed, pushing his way up the final exposed crux with a grunt, and we scampered up two more pitches, both excellent.

From the summit the Valley ran off in every direction, a landscape carved out from the red stone with snow-covered mountains as a backdrop. It felt like paradise, God’s country, the kind of place Brian would smile at.

There is a photo of Brian taken on top of another tower. He is sitting, his legs outstretched, writing in the summit register. A valley spills out below him. The sun is high, the sky blue. It looks peaceful. This is how I like to remember him. He was joyful, at ease.

It’s been nearly two years since Brian fell. I’m on another trip, roughly 20 states in, another handful of climbing areas. There has also been surfing and freediving and random beach visits. And yet this still feels like an homage to him. He keeps popping up. I started this post a year and a half ago, while I was on that first trip. It came back to me today, begging to be finished. I couldn’t ignore that call.

There is a sense of being lost in wandering, but there is also an open door, a chance to be reminded of people, events, places that otherwise fall into darkness. So quickly we forget, but wandering we remember. Some of that can be painful. Other parts are beautiful. Perhaps every visit to the desert will in part be Brian’s. I hope so. I see him in the beauty of the landscape. I feel blessed to share it with him. It may only be in my heart, but that is enough.

13123037_1480754148617332_8038899256409081962_o