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 “In these places, good jobs and the dignity of work have been replaced by suffering, hopelessness and despair, the feeling that America isn’t so great anymore, and the belief that people in power don’t care about them or their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.

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CDS: Heroin “Ground Zero”

CONWAY — By this point, we are used to hearing about an opiate crisis has reached pandemic proportions. More people dying from overdoses each year than car crashes. A cheaper, stronger heroin that is often mixed with powerful synthetics like fentanyl and destroying lives across the social spectrum.

And while it’s in every corner of the country, according to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Deputy Administrator Jack Riley, who spoke to WMUR last month, “the Northeast, in particular New Hampshire, is ground zero,” he said.

As if on cue, two days later, the New Hampshire branch of the U.S. Department of Justice announced indicting more than two dozen individuals, mostly from Massachusetts and Manchester, on heroin-trafficking charges.

Locally, news stories about heroin show up with regularity: a Conway man out on bail for one heroin complaint arrested a week later on a second; a Bartlett couple arrested with more than 5 grams of heroin and $4,000 cash; a selectman’s adult son charged with conspiracy to sell heroin; a pair arrested at the public library allegedly using heroin; a homeless man arrested for heroin possession with intent to distribute; a man arrested twice in two months on heroin-related charges. Police are doing what they can to combat addiction and trafficking, but the uptick continues.

But heroin is more than just a headline or a quick story. It is the everyday experience of many in the Mount Washington Valley, from police officers to doctors, EMTs to midwives.

“The question is how we deal with this problem,” Conway Police Lt. Chris Mattei said after a bust in March of 2015. “When we hinder the accessibility of one drug, addicts have proven that they will find another source to feed their addiction. The way to attack the drug issues long-term within a community is to help the addicts who utilize these illicit drugs.”

He is not the only local police official pushing for more prevention.

“We know we cannot arrest our way out of this,” Bartlett Police Chief Janet Hadley Champlin said last month. “As long as there is demand for drugs, there will be suppliers. For all of those in our community who are addicted to drugs, now is the time to get help.”

But there are few options for recovery. The state’s own report on New Hampshire’s substance use disorder treatment service capacity lists Carroll County as one of four regions without any residential programs, and according to addicted.org there is not a single long-term recovery program northeast of Lebanon and Tilton.

New Hampshire, meanwhile, ranks third in the nation for prescription rates of long-acting/extended-release opioids, according to a Federal Reserve Bank of Boston report released in September. Neighboring Coös County ranks as one of seven counties in New England with an overdose mortality rate of more than 20 per 100,000 deaths. And Carroll County is not far behind: one of the 20 New England counties with overdose mortality rate above 16 per 100,000.

Dr. Matt Dunn works nights in Memorial Hospital’s emergency department. He grew up in the valley, graduated from Kennett High in 1991, but he did his medical training in Albany, N.Y. He worked in a 400-bed hospital in Glen Falls, N.Y., before returning here almost three years ago. Dunn sees patients with opiate-related complaints “multiple times a week,” he said. “I see much more frequent issues with heroin here than I ever did in New York.”

The heroin-related complaints Dunn deals with fall into three categories: overdoses where the patient “is just about to die,” injection-related infections and people coming in asking for help.

These days, it is EMS personnel who do the heavy lifting in overdose cases. New protocols have enabled almost anyone to administer naloxone (Narcan), an opiate antidote, and “often by the time overdose patients get to me they’re awake and talking,” Dunn said. Many, he said, “get up and leave.”

Ambulance personnel see something else.

“The heroin snore,” Rick Murnik, director of the Bartlett/Jackson Ambulance Service, said referring the depressed breathing of overdose patients. “Once you see it, you’ll never forget what it looks like.”

An overdose leaves the patient taking only four or five breaths a minute — too few to keep them alive.

“Our first heroin overdose was five or six years ago,” Murnik said. “We didn’t know what it was.”

Now the service, which responds to only about 500 calls a year, sees several a month.

Conway Fire Chief Steve Solomon described what his EMTs see all too often: a patient reported to be unconscious, pale, breathing at less than half the normal rate, maybe lodged between the bed and a wall or sprawled in the bathroom.

“We’ll find well-meaning people have tried to revive them by pouring water on them,” he said. But water doesn’t work.

What does work is Narcan, which in Conway is usually given via IV and nasally in Bartlett.

“Within a minute or two, that person will wake up,” Solomon said, and sometimes they’ll be grateful that the EMTs that just saved their life. But some will be angry, upset that someone interrupted their high.

“We’re using Narcan to bring these people back from death,” Solomon said, and ambulance staff may end up getting yelled at.

In Conway, there may be no overdoses for a while, Solomon said, and then the next day there’s one at noontime, another in the evening, two more at night. His guess is overdoses surge when a new batch of drugs comes to town. “It’s not so much there are more people doing drugs,” he said. “It’s that the drugs have changed. The dose they give themselves to get high is now a lethal dose.”

One girl in her 20s “we’ve brought back from the dead three times,” Solomon said. “Most of our narcotic overdose patients we’ve seen before.”

But, says Shannon Monnat, an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University and a fellow with the University of New Hampshire Carsey School of Public Policy, “we’re not going to Narcan our way out of this.” What her research has uncovered is that addiction takes root in rural communities and small cities left stagnant by structural economic change.

In the face of sustained economic hardship and uncertainty, “drugs and alcohol are a way to cope.”

“The problem is not a new problem,” she said. “The problem has been building for three decades.”

Access to Narcan and improved mental health services are “important first steps,” but “we need to get to the underlying cause. People without a college education need opportunities for a livable wage,” she said. “People need to feel their role in this country is important.”

In the valley, organizations are still figuring out how to serve a population with growing addictions.

Memorial Hospital, for instance, launched a prenatal program in March after more than a year of watching the number of heroin-addicted mothers-to-be skyrocket.

“We were seeing more and more moms coming in who were addicted,” said Dr. Marni Madnick, an OB/GYN at Memorial. “We felt we had to do something.”

Ten percent of pregnancies at Memorial involve opioid — primarily heroin — dependence. In 2014, that meant roughly 24 women.

Infants born to addicted moms require more treatment than traditional moms, which can mean days in an acute care setting.

But concentrated support upfront can reduce the services addicted babies need. So Memorial’s midwives, OB/GYNs and birthing center staff drew up plans for the New Life prenatal program, combining pre- and postnatal care, community support services and access to social workers with drug treatment and substance abuse counseling.

“It’s a lot more work,” Madnick said. These moms often face additional challenges even beyond addiction, like transportation problems, financial limitations and domestic violence issues. But if the team can meet these challenges, they can make a real difference.

Since the center opened, it has helped four women give birth. Each received the prescription drug Subutex to treat the mom’s opiate cravings and the fetus’ addiction.

“Our goal is to keep these moms with us for one year postpartum,” Madnick said.

Ten more moms are set to deliver at New Life over the next nine months.

Dr. Dunn, meanwhile, focuses his prevention efforts on high school students. Research shows the majority of heroin users report first experimenting with opiates between age 17 and 25, so he has been holding forums at Kennett High to talk about the risks.

“Once this decision is made, it often becomes a lifelong issue,” Dunn said. Therefore, it is vitally important to reach people before they take their first dose.

“I’ve seen straight-A honor students die,” he said.

“This can be anyone, from any walk of life,” he said. “It’s a tragedy everywhere. But this is where we live.”


This story ran in the 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.

From the Backseat: Oceans Apart

14188296_1606188992740513_8342364284182226130_oI used to think the North Atlantic was mean. All the stories of shipwrecks and European sailors tossed around in icy waters. Growing up I watched winter waves pommel the shore, saw fog swallow roads, houses and fields, watched hurricane swells grab a 40-foot lobster boat and toss it like a seashell. The sea was raw power, the North Atlantic menacing.

Then last fall I visited the Pacific. I wanted to see the Olympic Mountains, to soak in hot springs, wander rainforests and paddle the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Out West, cities face inward. They sit on water but don’t risk open ocean: San Francisco has the Bay, Seattle the Sound, Portland the Columbia River but north of sunny Southern California few outposts brave the sea. And so the Pacific is forgotten. Those placid and welcoming bays and bodies come to represent western water. The ocean lies eclipsed.

But four hours west of Seattle it sits guarding America’s edge: water dark as arterial blood rolling and falling onto itself like a wounded animal, roiled, frantic, ferocious. Unpredictable. Great trees tumble among a constant roar. Seafoam stretches for miles. Wind dashes the shore with tendrils of saltwater, everything glistening and cold. Drizzle falls from a sky only a shade lighter than the water. More trees sit half-buried in sand, ripped from the shore by past assaults, now imprisoned.

This is no Puget Sound, no tranquil shoreline. Here the full force of 5,000 unbroken miles slams unceasingly without stories or reputation to precede it, just a quiet pounding of the American West. Uprooted trees the size of small buildings swing like toys in a perpetual grey of clouds, drizzle and churning. The Pacific marks an endpoint, and there is no mistaking its edges. America closes and it takes over. No abbreviations.

New England is different. The East Coast is warmer, more gentle, dotted by islands and inlets that break up a full assault. Any water runs only a short distance before intersecting land. Only hurricanes carry the intensity of the everyday Pacific.

But home carries its own mysteries.

I arrived in early evening. The ocean stood calm, a mirror of lobster buoys and boat masts. Fog sat heavy, the coastline waning in either direction, an easy day to get lost. I parked at the boat ramp and pulled a paddleboard from the roof. An oversized surfboard mostly meant for lakes and ponds, on the ocean it feels like a thimble. But there is magic in braving something so vast atop something so small. A seagull screeched from the rocks. Cormorants dotted the nearby mooring balls, their wings outstretched like goblins. Everything stood suffocating white. I buckled my life jacket, slid the board into the water and cast off.

Under my feet the mirror shook. Strands of seaweed buoyed by air sacs stretched towards the surface. A loon called inside the mist. The blanket muffled a bell buoy and held shorelines distant. I coursed around a small island at the periphery of the bay, a line of rock mostly buried by the tide. Huddled pines climbed above a highwater mark so low winter storms must sweep the whole of it. But the only moisture touching the pines today was fog.

I paddled to the island’s beach—sand and stone dotted by shells and seaglass—and pulled ashore. White-grey peeled its way across the water, but for a moment the sun broke through. Trees opposite peeked green. From my perch I watched the Atlantic’s shifting mood, an ocean in utter calm.

Our constant neighbor, moody but not malicious. Our porch and guest space for welcoming in the wild. Angry? Mean? Barely. So much more gentle than the Pacific, she allows us to sit on her islands, lets us look into her reflection.

The clouds descended with resurgent fog. I looked back to the mainland’s faint outline, only silhouette now, and walked back to the sea. I slid my board into the mirror, the only ripples ours.


This piece 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.

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.