From the Backseat: What makes a Millionaire?

Is Donald Trump a good businessman?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From the Backseat: New Traditions, Holiday edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That might be my new favorite tradition.


This column appeared in the Portland Phoenix.

Favorite Stories

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

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

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

From the Backseat: Deaths of Despair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it will make tomorrow’s headlines.


This column appeared in this week’s Portland Phoenix.

Portland Phoenix: Art Walk

The best part about art shopping is the wandering it requires. It’s not like buying a blender or one of those abominable Hatchimals, things you can just order off the internet or walk into a store, point and go home—quick, painless, boring.

Art is different. There is no MSRP, no UPC, and to find something you like takes time. It takes perusing galleries, developing a taste, seeing a lot of crap or plain work before you strike on something unique.

And my unique is different than your unique. A stroll through the Greenhut Galleries on Old Port’s Middle Street last week pulled me to a painting by Jeff Bye, Portland Harbor in oil marked by strong lines and colors that bled into one another. On the reverse wall another Bye piece, this one a painting of New York City’s Canal Street from the air, measured almost four feet by four feet. It puts the feeling of skydiving into traffic while wearing goggles smeared with Vaseline onto canvas, and it stopped me in my tracks. So did its $12,000 price tag. My gift giving is by necessity far less generous, but when else are you overwhelmed by arresting beauty while holiday shopping? At Target? At the Apple Store? No. Art shopping is its own gift, as much as for you as for those you’re shopping for.

And opposite Bye’s opus were four tiny masterpieces by Kathi Smith, six inch by six-inch landscapes bursting with color. Even upscale galleries have something for everyone—Smith’s wild rendition of Black Head on Monhegan Island, a fraction of the size and price of Bye’s work, fell much closer to my price range.

Portland is full of such gems: a few doors down the Portland Art Gallery had Bill Crosby’s seascapes, smartly smeared sand dunes and angular beaches. At the Roux & Cyr Gallery on Free Street, it was Sally Ladd Cole’s crashing waves and Dan Graziano’s restaurant scenes that stopped me. Shopping became a midweek art walk, the discoveries of an afternoon meander.

But maybe you’re more excited by the creative process itself than the clean quiet halls of city center galleries. Luckily Portland carries broad tastes. If you missed the First Friday’s street fair and MECA’s holiday sale there is always Running With Scissors, a studio tucked in East Bayside. Their print shop, ceramics studio and woodshop houses painters, potters, jewelers, furniture makers. Walking their halls is like roaming Santa’s workshop, with human-sized elves everywhere making, making, making.

And on Dec. 10 Scissors is opening its doors, holding a holiday pop-up sale that mixes art, food, beer, woodblock printing, painting and shopping. Artists creating in their spaces are also selling. It’s a chance to get drawn in, to become part of the process, as well as chance to take something home.

And with art isn’t that the point? To make, create, experiment, mess up and start over? Running With Scissors is a chance to buy prints, mugs, handmade maps and paintings, but it’s also a chance to watch the creative process in action, to shake hands with the hands that sculpt the art.

But there are also opportunities to become the sculptor. Here the wandering steps deeper, beyond the galleries and even the gallery/studios to the maker spaces, places never intended for public consumption. A walk back into town ends at the Continuing Studies department of the Maine College of Art, where anyone can sign up for—or gift—courses in drawing, ceramics, sewing, photography, glassblowing. For the cost of a handful of handmade mugs (or a fraction of the cost of an Elizabeth Hoy painting) you can give instruction and dirty hands. Art doesn’t just sit on the wall here. It’s blue collar work built on apprenticeship and years of training.

But it doesn’t take years to draw a portrait. It takes sitting still and looking deeply. These are rare gifts today. A weekend workshop transforms art from a noun into a verb.

Lastly, before we close we must make two more holiday art walk stops: Art Mart on Congress Street and Artist & Craftsman Supply on Deering. Whether you’ve signed someone up for a class or know a friend who spends nights drawing random scenes while bar-hopping, these stores carry paper, paints, pastels and glue, ink, xacto knives and easels, holiday gifts for anyone with a creative spirit. It’s hard to walk these aisles and not imagine the showpiece that might spring from your own hands.

One more wandering holiday step. And still not a blender in sight.


This piece appeared as part of the Portland Phoenix Holiday Gift Guide.

From the Backseat: Hipster Hunting

Hipster hunting doesn’t mean what you think it means.

I’ve been doing it for about a year. And no, the quarry doesn’t wear flannel or a beard (although if it did, Portland would be rich game grounds). Hipster hunting is hunting as a return to the past, as a return to authenticity, an homage to killing. It’s hunting to personally experience what goes into every meal containing meat.

Because, let’s face it, killing is something we’ve forgotten how to do.

Not as a society — as a people we’re quite adept at killing chickens, cows, pigs, the planet, whatever — but as individuals we’re bad at it. It’s one of many things we’ve outsourced. When was the last time you wrung a bird’s neck? Or smashed a fish over the head with a wooden baton? Sounds brutal, right? A bit barbaric? But here’s the thing: Chicken is GOOD. Fish is GOOD. Who would want to live without fish tacos? Almost every time I order a meal out, I get chicken, fish, lamb, a burger, something made of flesh. So really each time I go out I’m killing a chicken, a sheep, a cow. I mean sure, I’m not the one chopping off its head — that work goes to someone else — but my hunger is the architect of death. I’m basically the chicken Gestapo.

Last night I ordered a burger with bacon on top — not just cow, but a pig on a cow. I killed them, both in one meal. Devastation.

Earlier in the day I grabbed a pair of Otto’s pizza slices, one with bacon, the other turkey. Two more beasts — BAM! — gone.

Some days my fork is set to full auto.

Now I want to be clear: I have no problem with meat. We’re built to eat it, and animals taste awesome. I want cows and chickens and pigs to live happy lives, but I don’t think it’s wrong to eat them.

But we have grown pretty far removed from our food. Some people plant gardens as a reminder of where their carrots come from, but I’ve never been good at half-measures: I signed up to take my proper place in the killing fields—I took a hunter safety course.

But like most half-baked hipster ideas, it’s just not that easy. I’ve been stumbling around the woods for weeks draped in blaze orange and dragging a 12-gauge, but I have yet to experience the primal mix of elation and guilt I imagine accompanies killing.

Hunting is HARD. It may seem like an unfair game — sweet woodland creatures up against a man with a loaded gun — but when the person hunting has no idea what he’s doing the woodland creatures do just fine. I’ve been out a dozen times, and I haven’t shot a thing. I haven’t even swung my gun to my shoulder. The only thing I’ve shot is a paper plate, and if it were moving I’d bet money I’d miss.

I’ve seen game in the woods, but they are a lot faster than I am, a lot stealthier and probably a lot smarter. My best look is their backsides before they disappear into the underbrush.

On a recent trip I got so lost I had to use a compass to find my way back to my car. I followed a course east to the river and then hopped boulders upstream until I came to a bridge. I was tired, thirsty and overheated by the time I got back to my car, and over my two-plus-hour adventure I saw one bird. I didn’t get more than a snap look at him. Trying to follow him I nearly fell in a river. If it weren’t for Hannaford’s rotisserie oven I’d be poultry-starved.

So hipster hunting is thus far not a resounding success. All my meat still comes ordered off a menu. I’ve found new respect for those who can actually go out and harvest something for the table, but my personal ethical escapade has been fruitless.

Killing. It’s grisly business to be sure, but so far my tally is zero. Maybe I’ll have better luck next week.

From the Backseat: Fear, the Biggest Liar

I will not be afraid.

Fear is a mask without holes to see through. It pulls at us, weighs us down. It is a yoke, a liar. I will not be afraid.

I will, however, say thank you to the women in my life: my sister Liz, my mom Nell, my nieces Charlie, Kennedy and Mackenzie. My sister-in-law. My step-mother. My cousin Lisa. My friends Helga, Lindsay, Terry, Nicole, Ana, and others too many to list and too strong to hold down. You are breathtaking. Powerful. Worthy. Equal. Unique. Amazing. I can only imagine your thoughts, the frustrations spinning inside. There is nothing I can say or do, but I hear you, grieve with you. Not for a missed political opportunity, but for the national sidestep around your inherent equality, our collective rejection of your internal capacity. For the continued elevation of your bodies as objects. For the grinding lack of respect you endure.

And to my friends of color — Jahad, Cynthia, Sinclair, Ish, Katie, Miguel, Helga, Lisa — my Muslim friends — Wasim, Farah, Selma — I can only imagine this moment for you, the feelings of exclusion, of otherness. You are the blood and bones of America. Your Haitian heritage, Salvadoran past and Saudi roots add texture to our fabric, your Friday prayers as sacred as Sunday. Worth does not live in color, sex or religion. It just is. Do not dim your light for anything, for anyone — doing so robs both you and the world.

Where to go from here? Part of me wants to drop the anger, to push for healing and national unity. But another part realizes this is a false choice, that the repudiation of Clinton and Obama grew out of racism and misogyny. Anger at the extreme right, meanwhile, is a rejection of these most American characteristics.

So how do we extract hate and exclusions from America? How do we instead spread ideals like tolerance, inclusivity and religious liberty? By yelling at opponents? No. We have to try something else.

Hurt people hurt people, a friend told me. Hurt people lash out. They react. They do damage. America today is full of hurt people. Will we, the tolerant, now become hurt too? Will this rejection grow to anger?

No. I will not be afraid. Fear is what got us here. I am sad, disheartened, but I will not move forward in anger. America has had enough of that.

Instead, I will look for the bright spots. Like Pious Ali, who was elected to Portland’s City Council. The first African-born Muslim to hold the office, he is a resounding voice for America’s integrated future. I heard Ali speak in September on young immigrants and people of color in America. His message was clear: We are stronger together. The gaps that divide us are narrow. The success of our newest citizens mark success for us all. Ali is not a man of fear. His eyes are open. He sees the American challenge with clarity, and instead of cowering in its shadow he smiles at it. He brings an unfettered heart to the fight. We must do the same.

The forces of inclusivity are strong, woven deep within the American experiment. We, the tolerant, are not alone. Fear and exclusionary violence will erupt from time to time, but those blows cannot overcome America’s inevitable grind towards equality. Over the long arc we are moving forward, and that movement continues, however awkwardly.

But our fight will always be hamstrung. We are cursed with the knowledge our opponents are as human as we are, as worthy and valuable as ourselves. We cannot demonize; even those who see us as abhorrent are our brothers.

How do we rise from such handicap? Like Ali: With clear eyes. By refusing to cower and rejecting the shadows. By realizing our commonalities will always be stronger than our rifts are deep. By engaging even our adversaries with curiosity and compassion. By refusing to be afraid. Fear is a liar. Put down that mask.


This column appeared in the Portland Phoenix.