A Snowstorm Together

There’s something about snowstorms.

Maybe it’s a result of growing up in New England, but when storm warnings hit, it’s an excuse to burrow in. When snow begins falling, everything slows. Cars creep along white streets, school gets canceled, and work gets pushed aside. Life becomes frozen in time. Plans and schedules cease to matter, it’s time to hunker down and watch as Mother Nature wear herself out.

When it’s daylight, snowstorms are one thing but after nightfall, darkness hides the growing blanket as it muffles out everything. Daybreak inevitably comes sparkling blue, and everything lays transformed.

That’s when the digging out begins.

We had one of those storms last week. It started early, and I hid inside as I usually do, fully dormant until the next day. When I finally left home, I came upon a woman scraping her car with one of those tiny ice scrapers meant for morning frost — barely larger than her hand, it was insufficient for a foot of powder.

I jogged over with my extended-handle brush/scraper. “Can I help?” I said, my scraper already digging into the drifts covering her passenger-side windshield.

“Thanks,” she said. “You don’t have to.”

“I know,” I said, smiling. “It’ll only take a minute.”

That’s the other part about winter storms I love: They change the rules of engagement. They force us out of solitary lives and encourage interaction. In a modern world, it’s easy to move undetected and anonymous, but winter snow rips us out of hibernation. It bring us out in front of one another.

I have a friend who moved from New England to California, where the weather is always sunny, warm and beautiful. “People don’t talk to each other,” she told me. “They don’t have to. Nothing forces you. You can get by on your own, no one ever has to call a friend because their door’s snowed shut or their car got buried by the plow. It makes life easier, but it also makes it more isolating.”

Community, by force of weather.

But storms offer more than that. It’s more than the neighbor who plows you out, or the friend willing to watch your kids so you can go to work. Snow transforms the rules that govern our daily life, leaving them meaningless, arbitrary markers. Norms go out the window, and in their absence the best of us comes out.

Speed limits, for example: The one time I feel least at risk of getting a speeding ticket is during a snowstorm. If you are able to keep your car on the road and avoid collision, you’ve won. You passed the test. No one comes close to 45 mph then, so why even pay attention to what the sign says? The “rules of the road” cease to be the rigid and dogmatic statues we are accustomed to. They are lost guidelines, so meaningless and out of reach they become laughable. Going 5 mph might be too fast, 15 mph leaves us in a ditch and 45 mph is nothing but numbers.

But the police are out on these nights. They are often out in force. But the snow transforms them from law enforcers to public assisters. They help us dig out, give pushes or call tows. This is undoubtedly what most of members of the police force signed up to do in the first place, to help people, but in the muddled mess of life they spend more time telling people what they can’t do than offering the friendly assist.

Snowstorms, however, recalibrate. They slow us down. They remind us there is no hurry, and in remembering that we remember generosity, thoughtfulness. Our police get to be what they always wanted to be for a night, and so do the rest of us. We remember we don’t live alone, that sometimes we need our neighbors, and sometimes we need to be neighbors ourselves.

I wonder what part snowstorms played in early democracy, that foundational American institution. What would New Hampshire town meetings look life if they could skip the harsh winter, if the democratic congregation was held in June, the summer sun stretching until 9 p.m.? With nothing to keep us indoors would we make time to self-govern? Would we abandon civic duty to take an evening walk among the fireflies? The early colonies further south lacked this democratic practice.

The town hall is a New England contribution, one perhaps tied to snow — because there are no luxuries in March. This is when storms often rage most furiously. And in a storm there is nothing more comforting than sitting in a room packed with neighbors dedicated to enduring the same elements, the same harsh wind.

I think of town meetings past when snow blanketed every street and yet conversations continued in gymnasiums and town halls over how to spend communal tax revenue. This is the time for collective decisions, a time when choices on governing are informed by the vulnerable nature of rural life. Democracy is a game best played as a team, and we blessed with days, December through spring, that remind us of exactly who makes our team.

Much of America doesn’t think about it that way. But then again, most of America has never enjoyed one of our snowstorms.


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

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…

CDS Column: Elections and Trumped up charges

Next week we get a new president.

Next week we get to watch one of the most remarkable aspects of the American experiment — the commander of the largest military in the world relinquishes his claim to the most powerful nation in history. Obama’s term is ending, and soon he will step aside peacefully without complaint.

It’s a crazy idea, a system where power moves effortlessly from one leader to the next, one party to the next, without bloody upheaval. Imagine such a trade-off in Syria or Sudan, Somalia or Saudi Arabia. Such handovers are unimaginable. There and elsewhere wars are fought for less.

But somehow America has found a way stave off the corrupting influence of power, enough so that every four or eight years the transition occurs. Elections come and go, presidents come and go, without a hitch. Steel-edged self-interest is ignored in favor of stability.

And as a result, year after year, we reap investments in businesses, community, family. No one wants to pour themselves into a future at risk of being torn down every four years, but Americans have figured out how to let the veneer of government change while the substance of our country continues. It is our American legacy, our 200-plus-year history, something so elemental to our democracy that anything else seems absurd.

Maybe it was bound to be taken for granted.

When Donald Trump raised the spectre that this election could be rigged, when he said he might contest the results of Nov. 8 if on Nov. 9 he isn’t White House-bound, he drew a line between himself and our American past. He pointed to the most fundamental of American concepts — those clean transitions of leadership — and opted to take a pass.

This is the history that makes America remarkable, a pillar of our greatness. The candidate who would “Make America great again” would also smear her best qualities, reject her democracy at its roots.

And on what cause? What evidence? Mad claims of rigging, unpunctuated by fact? Trump has offered this show before. It’s a reprise of his Obama birth certificate blowout: all fiction and farce, a ball of lies, a con. In shouting “It’s rigged!” he does more to show his disdain for the American civic process than to enlighten voters with any truth. In the land of honesty Trump is a foreigner, a hustler looking to get America on the cheap.

But his boasts are inconsequential. We are made of stronger stuff than this, and we have faced more meaningful crises before. Remember 2000? Imagine the chaos that would have followed had Al Gore had refused to accept defeat. Considering the irregularities — Florida, butterfly ballots, a monthlong recount, the U.S. Supreme Court — the loser had cause to protest but, as a player in the American political game, Gore recognized the rules. His personal stake in the outcome did not trump the American tradition of graceful defeat.

American politics, as messy as it may seem, is largely about such grace, about high ideals and civic virtue. Though a strain to live up to, American democracy was founded on such optimism. The country’s first president famously stepped down after only two terms in office, which at the time was itself something of a revolution. This was the time of kings and emperor generals, but, like Cincinnatus, George Washington relinquished power after only eight years. Elected in 1789, he retired to his Virginia plantation in 1797 and died there in 1799.

Washington’s civic example, however, outlasted him. It set a precedent for presidents that lasted through the next century, and it wasn’t until World War II that a commander in chief exceeded eight years in office.

Congress passed the 22nd Amendment limiting presidents to two terms in 1947, but for a century-and-a-half before that there was no need for such a rule. American politicians lived by Washington’s example. They recognized the decorum of the office, that their position only held for two terms. Stepping aside gracefully was a presidential prerequisite.

Such grace eludes Donald Trump. The Republican nominee (the party of limited government) is conducting his campaign in a way that almost shouts for more rules, more written laws. But how do you write a rule for presidential candidates unwilling to accept the outcome of elections? How do you put in print the most basic tenet of electoral decorum? Trump has no evidence to back his claims of rigging. We are a week from the election and the Republican nominee is calling into question the very backbone of our democratic system. There ought to be a rule against it.

But actually there shouldn’t. To echo good conservatives, we don’t need more rules. Trump’s behavior begs for laws and regulations designed for the worst of us, legislation designed for that one windbag willing to make outlandish claims. But America is built of stronger stuff than that. Our democracy runs deep. Our rules and laws and governance are meant to be thin. They are the paper covering on something more substantial, a vast nation that the drama of politics only plays on top of. Any swindler with a lawyer can find his way through one more law. Trump has proved that again and again.

What we need is a trust in our roots and our traditions, paired with a demand that claims of election impropriety be followed by evidence. Shouting “The sky is falling” doesn’t make it rain, much less uproot the sun and clouds. Trump needs to be held to account.

And he will be. Next week, ballots will be cast, and we will see where America stands.

And Trump may well win. He’s on the ticket, and it’s the voters who decide. That’s how the system works, how it has worked for 240 years. Next week, we’ll know the outcome.

But, unlike Trump, Americans will accept the results even if they don’t like them. Because in America, that’s how it’s done.


This column ran in today’s Conway Daily Sun.