Friday Feedback

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

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

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

To the editor:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter O’Brien

Fryeburg, Maine

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

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

To the editor:

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

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

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

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

Religion serves a salutary purpose and urban legends do not.

John F. Donovan

Freedom

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

With this much awesomeness, it feels like the weekend…

From the Backseat: What makes a Millionaire?

Is Donald Trump a good businessman?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Backseat: New Traditions, Holiday edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That might be my new favorite tradition.


This column appeared in the Portland Phoenix.

From the Backseat: A look back

2016 began a long time ago.

Remember the primary, when Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were all looking to overtake Donald Trump’s rambunctious start? That was one beginning.

The other beginning, my 2016 beginning, was in Cuba. After President Obama began normalizing relations with Cuba in late 2014, I spent the next two years working there, guiding cultural exchange trips to the former pariah state. I spent New Year’s Eve in Havana and flew back home a few days later. 

Now, President-elect Trump is poised to roll back expanded ties with Cuba. On the verge of opening fully, the door might once more swing closed. That’s 2016. What a year.

What else has 2016 brought? Not just the election, surely. It’s not just because of Trump’s win, but 2016 has carried a whole host of hints about a long-hushed and covered topic: race. America’s dividing line. This past year has made discussions on race ring quite loud.

Trump is part of it. He won despite xenophobic statements about Muslims and Mexicans. His rise has been with the support of white supremacists and his election has emboldened their dangerous ideologies. But that is only part of the race picture. He teased out race in politics, but elsewhere in 2016 the threads were beginning to show.

Like when police in Dallas and Baton Rouge were targeted and murdered following the shooting of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, by police in Baton Rouge, and the shooting of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, by police in Minnesota. 

At the time, I was working in Belize, running youth literacy programs that brought American high school students down to run summer camps for Belizean elementary and middle schoolers. The American students had limited access to Internet, so when these racialized incidents occurred, it fell to me and the other staff to let the group know about the tumult at home.

Belize is a former British colony populated by the descendants of slaves and indigenous Mayans. The American students were there to teach, and not one of the kids they were sent to guide were white.

Our group of 26, meanwhile, were predominantly white girls. There was a sprinkling of Hispanic, Arab, black and Asian kids, many of whom attended through the support of scholarship programs that provide opportunities to underserved urban students, but most of the students came from upper-middle-class white families.

Race was always on our doorstep, but it wasn’t until police started shooting and dying that we got to talking about it. Ferguson was the straw the broke the camel’s back, and that was well over two years ago. 

And we did talk about it. These were smart, thoughtful, engaged kids, not quick to shy away from hard conversations. But when it came to discussing race, the differences were striking: the students of color were well-versed and had a vocabulary around the subject, a familiarity grown over time. It was a constant reality in their world, and they knew how to express themselves, their feelings, and their frustrations.

Many of the white students, meanwhile, struggled to find a foothold to speak from. These were smart young women, but when the subject turned to historical subjugation and persistent inequity, they went silent. I did my best to get them to open up, but most were unwilling to engage. Their discomfort with race was so large it became a muzzle. One-way conversation, dominated by the students of color, was the best we could do.

That, perhaps, is 2016 in a sentence: Race and the struggle white Americans face in its stark and uncomfortable reality. The fear of it. The fear of talking about it. The struggle in reckoning with inequity, the persistence of it, and the opportunity and power race carries.

These are conversations white people are not all well-versed in. We are not all equally articulate. And these conversations include risks — in a world of scarcity, white America stands to lose. At least, that’s their perception. There is great fear associated with that risk; 2016 makes that clear.

But 2016 has also left the coverings of this most American rift threadbare. Race is in our founding, in our very fabric, and it will take Americans of all shades to make sense of it. But this long one-way conversation brings nothing to a close. We must all be willing to speak up, and when appropriate, listen.

I’m anxious to see what 2017 will bring. 


This column appeared in the Portland Phoenix.

CDS Column: 7 Billion Small

The world at times can seem quite full. Seven billion people all scratching out a living, with hundreds of different languages and customs. It sounds like a lot. But sometimes it’s not.

This past summer, I was working in Belize. I was there with an organization that takes American high school students around the world on volunteer service trips. The Americans were the native language speakers at a summer camp designed to teach Belizean elementary and middle schoolers English. We spent two weeks teaching and otherwise explored the country.

We were hardly the only program there. There were groups everywhere. Even our home base was not immune: There was a group of high school students there to learn about rainforest and barrier reef ecology, another group backpacking through the jungle and a third group of American middle school students who were doing adventure trips around the country interspersed with the occasional day of volunteer service.

This was at one rustic eco-resort, and there were similar groups at other sites across the country. It was a flood of Americans, all there to discover a new place and lend a hand. Our 26 kids were swimming in a sea of transplanted American youth.

Anyone who works on such programs knows there develops a brotherhood and a sisterhood among the staff. An affinity grows for others caught in the same situation, facing the same daily stress of chaperoning dozens of kids that aren’t yours. It must be the same among teachers, but in Belize there were no hallways or walls to hem them in, no busses home at the end of the day. We all worked from breakfast until bedtime, and at the end of the day the students hopefully settled back to their beds without incident. Hopefully.

That’s when we, the staff, would take our breather. We would sit together and chat. Program allegiances tossed aside, we would relax, sometimes solving as a team the complexities involved in individual programs.

It was in one of these impromptu summits that I saw the sticker. It was on one of the other program staff’s water bottles, a lobster next to the letters ME.

“Are you from Maine?” I asked.

“Yes,” the woman replied. “Originally. I now live in Oregon. But my family is still there.”

“Nice,” I said. “I live in New Hampshire. My sister lives just outside Portland.”

She smiled, and I thought that the end of it. But two days later I got an email my sister.

“I’m having dinner with a friend,” she said, “and my friend says her sister is working in Belize. Her name is Alison. Small world.”

“Tall teacher from Oregon Alison?” I wrote back. “No way! I met her the other day!”

Fast forward to now. The holidays are when people migrate across the country to visit friends and family. On Friday, I walked into my sister’s kitchen to see my niece and nephew, and there’s Alison, along with her sister, chatting with my sister. I couldn’t help but start laughing.

That alone might be enough to prove the world a small place, but these sorts of coincidences never travel alone.

Three summers ago, I was in Peru doing similar work, this time taking American high school students to build greenhouses at rural schools. With me were three other staff members — a couple from California named Miguel and Gigi, and a woman named Laura from Wisconsin who lived in Finland. We were all there for the summer, again to corral up to 30 American students at a time on multiple programs. It was two months in total, and we four spent a lot of time together.

For the couple, however, time off together was important. Miguel and Gigi did what they could to get away in the moments between programs, as well as most afternoon breaks when the students were there.

That left Laura and I to spend a lot of time together. We were paired by default, and while such a pairing could have been disastrous she had an adventurous spirit. Together we explored Incan ruins, traveled to remote villages, soaked in hot springs and got to know Cusco. We’d sit in the central square, me writing, her drawing, and enjoy the quiet of a student-less afternoon. Over the course of the summer, Gigi, Miguel, Laura and I all became close friends, but it was with Laura I spent by far the most time.

When the program came to a close I stayed in South America. I traveled to Arequipa and then to Chile. Laura, meanwhile, caught a flight back to Wisconsin and then to Finland. She and I stayed in touch for a time, emailing and chatting over Skype after I returned to New Hampshire, but life eventually caught up. We lost touch.

That was almost three years ago. Fast forward to Monday. This Christmas, I decided to draw my own holiday cards. I wanted to make them individualized, special, and I’ve been drawing a lot lately. So I bought card blanks at an art store and tackled a few, but inevitably it went slower than I’d intended. Most of the box sat unsent.

The day after Christmas I picked up the box, feeling a guilty about the remaining cards. On the cover was a beautiful line drawing showing just how creative cards could get, and underneath small print credited the artist. Four words: “Art by Laura…”

It was my friend. Her name was on my card blank box. I looked at the box and remembered her afternoon drawings in Cusco. Suddenly it was as if she was at my dining room table, in line form. I laughed out loud. I Googled to make sure it was the same Laura, and it was.

I tossed the box aside and wrote a much-belated email.


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

CDS Column: Scraps at the Christmas Table

It’s less than a week until Christmas. I still have shopping to do, cards to write, family to see. There is snow on the ground, the ski lifts are running, and Mount Washington is glistening its most majestic. I don’t really want to write about politics.

But I feel like I ought to. Somehow evidence that Russia meddled in the U.S. election has become partisan. Hackers did what they could to sway the vote, and here we are bickering about it like children.

How did it come to this? How did we get to a point where we fight among ourselves while a foreign power toys with our democratic process?

This shouldn’t be complicated. It is easy to focus all citizens on concerns about Russia’s foray in our election. It’s an issue that affects every American.

Lots of Americans are concerned with unfair elections. That was made clear this campaign season. Candidate Donald Trump repeatedly called into question the legitimacy of the American electoral process. He even said he might not accept the outcome while his surrogates raised concerns about voter fraud.

But now? Where is that concern now? Who is willing to stand up and say something about the sanctity of the American process? Who is willing to rebuke Russian influence in our election? No one within the president-elect’s administration. Somehow defense of basic American civic process has split along a partisan divide, and KGB-style meddling goes unchallenged.

But that has become a theme in our country as the American Century has splintered. We have become bickering children arguing over table scraps. Trump won. There would be no punches pulled. Even as the American electoral process takes a hit.

We’ve seen this before. For years we have watched the Congress choose winning over governing. There was no compromising on workable solutions to real world problems. The fight was bitter, and We the People wound up the losers.

Supporters of Donald Trump rejoice that his rise will bring change to Washington, the draining of the swamp. But his blind eye toward Russia indicates more of the same — someone more invested in winning than on governing.

But regardless of his temperament, his party will have to govern. His promises to scrap regulation and Obama administration programs like the Affordable Care Act mean he and his team will be forced to implement a new American vision. What will that look like? Will it be one more winner-take-all proposition, or can Trump conceive of America as a place of growth for everyone?

His initial rhetoric is not encouraging. But the fact is despite Trump’s language of exclusion, America is not a zero-sum country. If our history has proven anything, it is that capitalism and ingenuity mixed in an American pot make it possible for everyone to rise. The children of immigrants can become wealthy. The descendents of slaves can be president. This is America’s legacy.

But the current strain of conservatism seems to read a different narrative, one where America is a land of scarcity. There are winners and losers and where anyone willing to pull punches might find themselves at the bottom.

That narrative has kept Donald Trump from coming out strong against Russian election influence. If Trump gives an inch, according to this reasoning, his entire victory and future administration could come crashing down.

But is his administration that fragile? Wouldn’t it be possible to fight for the sanctity of the process and the rights of all Americans to be left unmolested as they choose their president without handing Hillary Clinton victory? Where is that confident voice, Mr. Trump?

This isn’t the only place where this administration divides the world into winners and losers. Jobs and immigration get the same treatment: There are only a certain number of jobs, the narrative goes, and if immigrants are willing to do jobs for less, Americans lose. If China and Mexico are willing to produce cars or air conditioners or computers for less money, Americans lose again.

But economics doesn’t work that way. The beauty of capitalism is its capacity for growth, the ability to take a given set of inputs and leave everyone with more. Adam Smith described this idea more than 200 years ago, in 1776, the same year we declared our independence. And it is how we’ve approached commerce ever since. We aren’t left with table scraps. Yes, there are winners and losers, but that is part of capitalism’s creative destruction. And on balance America is winning.

This used to be the heart of conservative ideology. Adam Smith was Republican dogma. But just as Democrats were once Dixiecrats and Republicans were once the natural party of black voters, things change. Now conservatives abandon faith in the market and backpedal from free trade.

It is sad to watch the incoming administration approach the American worker so pessimistically. Our capacity to exist, survive and thrive on the world market is not weak. Yes, we have sectors that have become obsolete. I work in one of them: Newspapers are tanking as a result of the internet. And while we may look back nostalgically, we can’t unwind progress. We can’t disconnect from a global economy. Our job is to figure out what we do well, how we can best compete, and then throw our collective might into that sector. This is not a time to blame immigrants or trading partners, to lash out at natural allies (Mexico) and ignore the provocations from adversaries (Russia). It’s a time to claim our place within the world and its markets confidently, and to support those caught in capitalism’s creative destruction.

Instead we’re chasing table scraps and ignoring Russia. Merry Christmas.


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.