CDS Column: Conway Daily Firestarter

Do you know of Friendsgiving? It comes once a year, and it’s a holiday that serves as refuge from family holiday drama. It’s traditional observance is a day or two after Thanksgiving, and it looks a lot like Thanksgiving only calmer.

Mine came on Friday this year. I went to the house of close friends and gorged myself on turkey pot pie, turkey soup, cooked carrots, brussel sprouts and a host of other leftovers that littered the kitchen. Some of us finished a Halloween puzzle while others watched Roger Moore race across the TV, jumping speedboats and judo chopping as James Bond. The kids ran around wild-eyed, and after dinner a handful of us pulled out musical instruments for a jam session. It was what the holidays are supposed to be, with more relaxed laughter than Thanksgiving, among chosen-family not just blood relatives.

About halfway through dinner the host’s sister flashed me a smile. “I hated your column the other day,” she said as she spooned soup into a bowl. “You totally missed the point. It was bad enough that I got mad at you, and I haven’t read any of your stuff since.”

I laughed. “At least you read it,” I said. “Which one was it?”

“I don’t remember,” she replied. “But I hated it. I stopped reading after that. At this point it’s been a little while.”

We eventually sorted out the offending piece was one I wrote prior to the election. It was about locker room talk and how male culture looks at sex. I’d missed an opportunity to talk about power dynamics and the nature of sexual assault, she said. I’d totally blown it. She was calm and articulate as she explained, and all her points were valid.

“I can see that,” I said, nodding as she talked. “Yeah.”

That is one of my favorite parts about writing for a small town paper — walking into International Mountain Equipment or Front Side Grind or the North Conway post office or any of my other usual stops and having people pull me aside.

“I read your piece in the paper the other day,” is how the conversation usually starts, and from that launch point it can go anywhere. Some people love it: “Best thing you’ve written!” they’ll say. Others hate it: “Why did you even write about that?” Some point out points I didn’t have space for. Others point out points I’d never thought of. All of it is lively discussion, usually with a handshake to start and a laugh or two over the course of conversation regardless of its beginning.

There is something about writing for a small newspaper in a small town that keeps you honest. There is no avoiding your neighbors, and your neighbors are your readers. If I write something a reader doesn’t like that reader may very well see me in Hannaford, or Cranmore, or out to dinner. There is no anonymity.

I remember being a kid and going to the grocery store with my dad. We lived in a small town on the Maine coast, and he always used shopping visits as a time to catch up with people. I would stand there bored as he blabbed on, me nagging and pulling at his hand.

Now when I walk through the grocery store I’m twice the offender my dad was: I slowly make my way between handshakes and cart conversations, maybe chatting with friends but more likely getting “feedback” on some piece I’ve written.

And I love it. It’s the point of the writing, the stories, of having something to say. I have reporter friends who have realized they have to avoid the grocery store all together if they ever want to make it home for dinner.

At the outset of any conversation I am almost always driving blind. A reader has something to say, but I don’t know what piece of writing they’re talking about. After a while they all blend together, and sometimes I forget what I just wrote, much less what ran two months ago. But usually my interlocutor can navigate me to the point I was making. Other times I just do my best to carry my side of the conversation despite being totally lost. Tricky business, but oh well.

Other times the notes arrive as emails rather than in person. The feeling is still the same: “You read it? Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I’m not sure why I’m always surprised, but I am. I’m also grateful.

One occasional commenter is another Sun columnist, and no matter what his emails say I take it as the highest compliment. He could have read and then stuffed the Sun in his wood stove. So many of us do. But he didn’t. He thought it worth a word.

Again, honored.

THAT is part of what makes writing worthwhile. Writers write for readers as much as we write for ourselves. I write columns about politics, economics and social issues because I want our community (and our state, and our country) to be its best. They are not meant to chide or lambaste, but to elevate. Maybe my ideas aren’t always complete, and maybe sometimes my thinking is downright wrongheaded (as my Friendsgiving friend gently explained), but they are intended to be sparks, little flashes that light conversations. And hopefully those conversations continue at work, at the grocery store, around the holiday table. They get people talking about issues, sharing diverging viewpoints, debating, discussing. It becomes a conversation between neighbors, community members, people who don’t see eye-to-eye but otherwise believe the person they’re talking to is reasonable, smart, engaged.

People call us the Conway Daily Firestarter. They say it for all the wood stoves we fill. Yes, that may be true. But those aren’t our only sparks.

And again, as always, thank you for reading.


This column ran in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

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.

CDS Column: Entertainment? Debatable.

This week included the first debate of the 2016 presidential election. Did you watch?

You could sense the excitement Monday evening, the closing of doors as people rushed home to make sure not to miss anything. It had the feel of the Super Bowl: blue lights of the TV screen flooding living room after living room, the proud rooting for a chosen team, a clawing desire to win.

But it also held the feel of a car accident, a train wreck that people wanted to glimpse. What would go wrong? What outlandish things would Trump say? Would Clinton be able to hem him in and fend him off, or would he eviscerate her as easily as he did the Republican field?

I met three friends for dinner Monday night. In town for an afternoon of rock climbing, they were on a mission to make it home in time for the debate. “I want to see what happens,” one of them said. “It won’t change who I’m voting for, but I know it’ll be good.”

He was not the only one to say so — another friend stopped by to ask if I was watching. He too wanted to see the drama unfold onstage. The unpredictability of 2016 has transformed the race for the White House into top-rated reality TV.

That is our election today: entertainment. A sideshow. We are ostensibly choosing America’s next commander in chief, but it feels more like a trip to the Colosseum.

What has happened? This isn’t the first time a presidential election has taken on the carnival feel — the selection of Sarah Palin to be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office was another step in that direction.

She brought folksy appeal to the ticket but neither experience nor a global perspective. After the 2008 election loss, the former governor moved on to reality TV, hosting a 2010 show called “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.” According to People Magazine (always a trusted source) she is currently developing a Judge Judy-type courtroom program.

Reality is no longer real enough. We now select candidates more focused on Hollywood than Washington. Is this what voters consider “meaningful change”?

But two policy wonks standing behind podiums arguing the merits of Social Security reform makes for terrible television. No one is going to tune in for that show. Analysts projected the Clinton-Trump debate will be one of the landmark viewing events of 2016, with 17 percent more television viewers than Romney-Obama in 2012. And in the intervening four years much watching has migrated to online streaming media, which those numbers don’t account for. If we are upset with our choices for president, we sure give them our undivided attention. Perhaps our interest is really to be entertained.

A Palin presidency, however, would not have been entertaining, and neither would a Trump presidency. While it may be hilarious to watch the Republican nominee resurrect his signature tagline “You’re fired” in political form, he is without experience, temperament or the necessary judgment to lead. He is a conman stoking divisions and discontent. More of it won’t be entertaining to watch, and a Trump presidency wouldn’t be entertaining to live under.

So, what were viewers looking for? How many of the millions of them were trying to decide which one of these two candidates had the makings of a president? Or is that not what debates are for anymore?

Television companies appreciate them. If discord as entertaining as Trump versus Clinton could face off every year, it’d sprout a cottage industry with as many advertisers as the Super Bowl. And who wouldn’t want to see creative, funny depictions of red state versus blue, candidate versus candidate, issue versus issue. Perhaps Planned Parenthood could deploy croaking frogs and Focus on the Family a new World’s Most Interesting Man.

Maybe this is how we make America great again. Maybe we can sell ourselves back to viability. Maybe taking a page from our reality TV nominee’s book and stenciling our last names across the top floor of all of our houses from the North Country to the coast, from Cleveland to inner city Chicago, we pull us up by our bootstraps.

Really? That seems like a con. Rural America is struggling, and meanwhile Congress fails to meet to make basic compromises. America finds itself in a multipolar world amid powers not necessarily our friends. These are not joking times, not the moment for a clown, a conman. It will take vision, solid policy and hard choices to navigate the times we find ourselves in.

And yet, we as a country elect to tune in, to be entertained. We are trained to watch. We gripe about Washington and then refuse to engage in the boring meaningful work required to change it. We rush home in anticipation of getting to watch grownups act like toddlers onstage and then curse our lack of better choices. Is that true, we are without choices? Or are our politics a reflection of us? Do we have anything to offer, an attention span to listen on policy rather than vote for entertainment value?

There will always be conwomen and conmen. There will always be someone selling something we don’t need at a price we can’t afford, a shill looking to entertain.

And so, we have been left with one choice in this election. The cynical view has always been presidential elections are a choice between two evils, but not this year. This year we have a consummate politician, someone who in normal circumstances would be the very definition of bum in a call to “throw the bums out.” But the conman has transformed Hillary Clinton from sleaze into white knight. There is no other choice, the alternative is absurd, unthinkable.

So we have the election we built for ourselves. But at least we are entertained.


This column ran in the Conway Daily Sun.

From the Backseat: MECA, Me and Swirling Eddies

From the Backseat: MECA, Me and Swirling Eddies

14444663_1636164186409660_5623119052921151833_oI’ve always loved the Porteous Building. The home of the Maine College of Art sits regal and square, a hub spinning eddies of creative energy into surrounding streets. Behind its department store facade hides an economic engine, a piston of Portland’s arts economy, sweeping windows and cascading stairways that breathe life to center Congress.

I first noticed it in 2001, the first time I moved to Portland. I was 20, dropped out of college a second time, working a warehouse shift at L.L. Bean. I lived diagonal from MECA crashing on the couch of my sister’s third floor apartment for token rent, woke each morning before dawn to catch a carpool to Freeport, home by early afternoon. Life was rote, routine, boring.

But just down the street MECA was a cauldron of creation, pluck and juice. There was an energy in the punk-style of the art kids who poured through her doors each day. A fire draped the work that hung in her windows. From my perch I could watch it stream past like artistic magma, stirred and prolific but too far to touch. I left Portland having never walked through her doors.

Four years later I was back, my second try at Portland aimed to finish college; this time as a double-major in political science and media studies. MECA’s creative curriculum wasn’t my syllabus. But I needed money and MECA needed models.

The first time I took my clothes off in a roomful of students was for an evening class. Painting. We were on the third floor in a room with the floor-to-ceiling windows that make Porteous so beautiful. I sat naked on a couch holding a 45-minute pose.

At first I thought I was comfortable. But after 10 minutes my neck grew tight. Soon my shoulder ached, my legs trembled with fatigue and my back cramped. By 25 minutes I was in agony, resigned to stillness among shuffling palettes. Sitting there naked I wondered if anyone outside could see in; if the glow lured peering eyes perhaps from some third floor apartment across the way.

When the teacher called a break I collapsed, wrapped myself in a second-hand bathrobe I’d brought for modesty and walked to the window. I looked out at the street dreading the next pose’s 45 minutes of pain.
Then I turned around. In front of me ran canvas after canvas of bold readings of my body, interpretations like twisted mirrors of paint and light and skin tone. I wandered from easel to easel mesmerized by translations striking and alive, bound by darkness, light and mystery. And I was a part of all of them.

I walked back to the podium transfixed. Suddenly the next 45 minutes became a different dance: I now knew the creative fires being lit around me, and that knowledge steadied my pose. I sat engaged, part of the process, a willing actor, no longer concerned with who might look in. I wasn’t there for the money anymore but a witness to the creation unfolding around me, a central ingredient to its birth. I would not miss it for the world.
Two days later I was back for a drawing class. Then for comic class. Then another, and another. I had a front row seat to unselfconscious expression and every class was opening night. Porteous was hemmed by reckless creation and inspiration. And I sat in its center.

But all good things die. It lasted a year, then my modeling career came to an end.

This past Sunday I walked into Porteous once more, this time a student. I carried my drawing pad to a room where I once stood naked. Our model, a woman of perhaps 60, sat casually in the corner. When it was time she stripped her dress and took to the podium like a prizefighter, she the captain, the room her ship. I did my best to anchor her poise and certainty in charcoal, but untrained fingers tripped and fumbled. My renditions were colorless. Only she could do her body justice.

Porteous’ windows and stairwells, however, knew better: Mine was one more act of creation born within her walls. One more mesmerizing eddy.


This column appeared in this week’s Portland Phoenix.

CDS Column: Tourism Tales

CDS Column: Tourism Tales

e5a29-dsc_0019My first real job in journalism was in Berlin, New Hampshire. I was working for the weekly newspaper, tasked with covering a community in sharp decline from its former glory. At one time, Berlin was the third-largest city in New Hampshire. Today, it is saddled with aging infrastructure intended for 25,000 residents, with 10,000 residents footing the bills. Even the paper itself was in decline — there was no office, and I spent most of my time working from the local community college.

But hard times bring their own kind of renaissance. Berlin was stripped bare by the changing economics of the paper industry, but the winnowing distilled the city to its core, discarding those lacking a deep connection to the community and leaving residents with a deep sense of themselves. It was a process that made Berlin both weak and strong, an unlikely place to choose to live yet still a community in the richest sense of the word. I would drive north over the notch each day from the Mount Washington Valley, where nearly everyone hails from away, to a place where few chose to move unless out of options. But those who stayed did so with pride.

At the time, Berlin and the rest of the North Country were searching for whatever was going to support them next. The mills were shuttered and something had to take their place, but what? Prisons and biomass electricity were floated as options but lacked the economic steam to restart the engine.
But what about tourism? No individual North Country town had the assets to constitute a tourist haven, a hired consultant told them, but if the region as a whole banded together, it could be a market. The idea was to link the North Country’s three stately hotels — the Mount Washington, the Mountain View Grand and the Balsams Resort — in a campaign that sold the “Grand Hotels, Grand Adventure” alongside the region’s untrodden natural wonders like lakes, mountains, rivers and forests.

Berlin, however, was always skeptical. Tucked along the Androscoggin, it sits in a pocket removed from the namesake hotels. And, more important, as a blue-collar industrial city, Berlin has always looked at the tourism with suspicion. The stink of the former pulp mill was once the smell of good jobs, and any transition to the low-wage service jobs tourism brings would be a hard one. Mill work offered a middle-class living. The promise of a restaurant job or a gig as a whitewater raft guide is hardly analogous.

But in today’s economy, what other options are there? As rural towns decline, many are looking at their last remaining asset: their picturesque surroundings. North Country tourism moved forward, and Berlin grudgingly went along, never full-bore but willing to play the game.

Then the Balsams shuttered, and with that the trifecta that gave the “Grand Hotels, Grand Adventure” plans resonance came to a halt. How tenuous plans for selling yourself as a destination can be.

But as economic changes sweep across New England, tourism is repeatedly raised as the fallback plan. The mills close? Turn to tourism. The furniture factory goes quiet? Tourism. The industrial sector struggles (in Conway Village, for example)? Tourism.

But does tourism have the strength to take up the slack? As the modern economy recedes from rural areas, can visitors from away fill the void? It’s a question a small town on the Maine coast has been wrestling with, and the answers it has come up with look much like ours.

Boothbay is three hours to the east of us, a coastal community watching its working waterfront empty and its population dwindle. The town is hollowing, so what are they considering? Tourism. Specifically, a proposal to build a retail development complex distinct from the village district, installed around a redesigned traffic pattern that includes a roundabout.

Sound familiar?

Tourism North Conway-style is the new black, a solution for rural economic malaise, a unique intertwining that combines natural beauty with shopping centers in hopes of lifting all boats.

But is the economic mix that keeps the Mount Washington Valley afloat a prosperous one, something worthy of exportation? Is our brand of tourism the one to aspire to? And will it even work? Can the pull of shopping repeal stagnation?

Boothbay is already a tourist town, but it is a one-season destination, packed for July and August and otherwise quiet. It’s a far cry from North Conway, where skiing, foliage, mountains and rivers combine to create four seasons of visitors.

In looking at the attempted copycats, the uniqueness of the Mount Washington Valley stands out: Not every tourist destination can claim a year-round status. Our retail district is an important part of the draw, but its strength is that it exists as an accessory, a complement, the place to drop uninterested family members while everyone else goes skiing, paddling or hiking. It is not the focal point to which crowds flock. It is part of a whole package that makes us a destination. In isolation our retail district is but a shopping mall, and tax-free though it is, it would hardly qualify as a unique draw.

The same is true of any individual ski area, any single mountain. But pair each asset with the river, with the leaves ablaze in October, with sap running in springtime, the Scenic Railroad and the shopping, and suddenly a destination emerges. Suddenly North Conway has its the trifecta of grand hotels.

Not everyone has that. Not every place contains the mix that makes a destination. But as rural economies change, more will be looking toward tourism. The Mount Washington Valley model might find itself played on repeat.


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

CDS Column: Reality Politics

Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 9.41.37 AMDonald Trump’s popularity is sagging.

Or that was the news story in New Hampshire last week: Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers climbed to more than a dozen percentage points over the Republican nominee in the Granite State. True, some respondents voiced concerns about whether the former first lady is fit to be president, but their concerns were eclipsed by the same question regarding Trump.

Polls are only a snapshot though, one of those things that flare up suddenly like wildfire, make their rounds and scorch everything in their path before they disappear.

The only poll that really matters is in November. Everything before then is a cupped ear to the whispering mood of public opinion, a national game of telephone guaranteed to amplify distortion by the time it ends.

And that’s in a normal election year. This year is anything but normal. A little over a year ago, Trump’s candidacy appeared an extension of his television career, a shot of reality TV drama dumped into politics. It didn’t register as real, left no hint it might transform the entire presidential debacle into reality TV.

But maybe it should have. Maybe Donald Trump is the candidate we’ve been asking for all along. Other countries elect leaders in a matter of weeks; American presidential elections last years. They unfold in campaign events choreographed for the cameras and polls that track competitors’ progress like runs per inning in a baseball game. Candidates campaign on words like “Hope and Change” and “Make America Great Again” rather than policy positions, and scandals and affairs unfurl like celebrity gossip. Democracy has turned into daytime drama. No wonder Trump does so well.

Clinton, meanwhile, makes something of an easy villain for the television narrative. Or the persecuted heroine. It all depends which side of the aisle you stand on. She has certainly had to bump her way to the top, and such wrestling leaves bruises. The reality of candidate Clinton is likely somewhere in the middle, however, neither nemesis nor innocent. She is a politician, one with hands dirtied by history.

But as a former senator and secretary of state she knows the system and has been an integral part of it. Is that what we need at this moment, one of the cooks long in the kitchen?

No? OK, then consider the alternative.

What a mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. Anything but a normal election year. A frequent complaint of America’s two-party system is that it leaves voters to choose between the lesser of two evils. But not this year. This year, the choice is between the distasteful and the absurd. Would you prefer the consummate politician or the TV host? It brings to mind the famous Winston Churchill quote: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

But Churchill never saw democracy made for television. Celebrity democracy. Production democracy. Campaigns run for the cameras, voters transformed into consumers, candidates as packaged products rather than people. It’s democracy’s latest form, and the worst possible.

It is distasteful, but it’s definitely ours.

It often appears America is prepared to “snap out of it,” ready to let go of its fetish with things flashy and loud in favor of substance, but it never quite happens. Politics is just the latest version.

Remember the days immediately following 9/11? Journalists left behind celebrity-styled reporting to reorient readers and viewers to America’s place in a complex world. And for a brief instant we cared. We spent time listening, learning, treating our news like information rather than entertainment.

It happened again in 2008 after the financial meltdown: As Americans watched their banks fail and their investments disappear they stopped watching financial news modeled on Sportscenter and started looking for stories and sources that actually explained what was happening. Again, for the briefest moment, the character of the conversation changed.

Perhaps we are in another of those moments now. The two major party candidates are both deeply disliked, and yet they rose to the top. Many Americans, including those who took part in the nomination process, are dissatisfied. We watched as one candidate was considered for investigation by the FBI and the other got in a public tussle with the family of a fallen soldier. This does not seem American democracy’s finest hour.

When the dust clears, once either Trump or Clinton is president, will we reflect on this election? Will we look at our political conversation the way we looked at our approach to foreign affairs and finance in those moments after more immediate disasters? Will we have the wisdom to revisit our celebrity fetish, to let go of the flash version of modern democracy in favor of something more concrete, long term?

Or will the cleared dust mark the moment we forget about all this? Will we never ask what went wrong, what led to a race between an obviously unfit candidate and one so divisive?

If our recent past is a guide, then we are in trouble: The lessons of history are able to blind us, but only momentarily. We reverted to national conversations devoid of historical perspective in the post-9/11 days. We returned to the “too big to fail” practices of the pre-meltdown era. Our slow-moving political disaster, one without the same immediacy as those, will likely suffer the same fate. Reinvent ourselves? No, not so long as our elections are entertaining, like game shows with only the slightest twist from “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” Or “American Idol.”

Or “The Apprentice.”


This piece appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

CDS Column: Reflections Abroad

CDS Column: Reflections Abroad

Belize-1050964“Where are you from?” He was wearing a collared shirt, long pants with suspenders and a wide-brimmed woven hat. I sat next to him, sweating through shorts and a tee shirt in the Belizean heat.

“The U.S.,” I said. “New Hampshire.”

“Where is that? Higher than Pennsylvania?”

“Yes, above Pennsylvania. Near Boston.”

“Does it touch Canada?”

“Yes.”

“Huh,” he said. “Is it cold there?”

He spoke with precision, like he was reading off a script. He addressed me directly, never breaking eye contact. His name was Elias. He was a Mennonite, a Christian sect similar to the Amish common to Belize. We were riding south out of Belmopan, the capital city, in a retired school bus with brown vinyl bench seats and windows that only slid halfway down. I was headed to the Caribbean coast. He was going home.

“It is cold,” I said. “It even snows. But not right now, only in winter.”

“I’ve never seen snow,” he said. “I couldn’t handle it.”

He smiled. He was 24, a farmer and one of 10 children. He lived with his family in central Belize, but he’d visited the United States a handful of times and had dual citizenship. His father left their church in Pennsylvania decades ago in a return to his core beliefs. His American community was using tractors and driving cars, Elias said, slipping towards modernity, so his father and a selection of others moved south, way south. They now farm tomatoes and peppers and corn, he said, in a community of 15 families.

“Did you go to Belizean school?” I asked.

“We have our own schools,” Mennonite academies separate from the national system, he said. “But we only study until eighth grade.” After that, Mennonite children become farmers.

“Do you ever feel like you are missing out? Ever think maybe technology and education and everything might be better?”

His answer was unhurried. “No,” he said. “I’d like to know more geography, to understand the layout of things better, but that’s about it. I don’t follow the world, really. And the pieces I hear about don’t make me want to take greater notice.”

“Explain that,” I said.

“You have an election coming up, right?” he said.

“Yes,” I said, suddenly sullen.

“I don’t know much about it,” he said, “but it seems a mess. I don’t think I want a bigger part of that world.”

The bus lurched. I sat quiet. He had a point.

That’s why I love travel: It’s a mirror, a necessary step back for reflection. Only from a distance can you get a full view of yourself.

As a country, it’s no different — without adequate space it can be impossible to formulate an accurate view of your policy, your politics. Only in leaving can you see more clearly.
Another glimpse came from Karina, a Belizean mother of three. Every morning she sat outside the school. Inside, American high school students ran a summer camp for Belizean middle and elementary kids. Karina’s daughter was in the youngest class, made up of kindergarten and first graders. She would bawl inconsolably if Karina wasn’t nearby, so each day Karina sat at the picnic table outside the classroom.

Karina was black. She had grown up in central Belize not far from the school, and for the last two years she’d attended college in America.

“What was it like,” I asked her, “going to the U.S.?”

“It was wonderful,” she said, “but hard.” She wasn’t ready for the racism, she said. As a Belizean she hadn’t developed the thick skin required of a black woman in America. Her culture is multiracial, but it lacks the divisions she encountered in the U.S. Encountering the stinging blows of prejudice as a young adult shocked her. She was unprepared for it. She would cry a lot, she said, and was hurt easily.

“I didn’t expect that,” she said. “I was happy to go to an American university, but it’s really nice to be back.”

These moments give pause. They are brief glimpses into the mirror of ourselves, of the country we have built: A Mennonite man with a middle school education who sees our politics clearly enough to know he wants no part in them. A young mother whose experience with American racism left her in tears. These versions of America grow fuzzy to those of us who live them every day. They seem impossibly entrenched and complex up close. But from abroad they look different. With the benefit of distance they seem both larger, more intertwined in the American fabric, and also smaller, more isolatable, more feasible to face head on.

At home, issues of race and politics seem too overwhelming to be changeable, too thickly American. But from 1,000-mile shores they become remote enough to appear moveable. They seem again to be in our hands, something within American control, within the control of the citizens who make up this country. They are ours to manipulate and eradicate if we chose. Racism is not part and parcel to this nation. The politics of money, fear and limited choice is not an inexorable American parasite that cannot be purged without risking the host. These are momentary glimpses of our country at this moment, they are not what define it.

But to change them, first we have to look in the mirror. First we have to decide if we like what we see.


 

This piece appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

400

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

So there’s that…

Seeing Bright Spots in the Sea

Seeing Bright Spots in the Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taylor talked about his work on the TED stage:

 

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

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

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

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

 

CDS Column: Constitutionally Speaking

CDS Column: Constitutionally Speaking

6f8cf-rustIt’s happened again: Another shooting. In Orlando this time, 49 victims plus wounded.

And in the aftermath we fight. Among friends, countrymen, the arguments begin. It didn’t take a day — 2 a.m. shooting, lines drawn by sunrise — that is America.

We are a nation trapped by ourselves.

Omar Mateen was an American Muslim, a U.S. citizen of Afghani roots inspired by foreign extremists to buy guns legally and turn them on gay nightclub goers. In one hateful rampage Mateen put himself into the center of multiple American tinderboxes — immigration, religion, guns, foreign wars, terrorism, homosexuality. If his attack was an act of terrorism it was one well-aimed — these issues we willingly tear ourselves apart over. His spark hit its mark, and it was more than enough to ignite an explosion.

But that is where America is today: Ever ready to draw swords. Fight-or-flight is now our political status quo, and over and over again, America’s choice is to fight, especially among ourselves.

But where does that get us? What kind of country is left when every debate turns brutal? That is our habit, but how do you govern from a never ending cage match?

Take guns, for example, that tinderbox among tinderboxes. What is the appropriate gun policy? Is the current level of regulation enough? Too much? What does the Second Amendment really mean? How does “a well regulated Militia” play into “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” a right that “shall not be infringed”? How does that fit in the era of the Glock and the AR-15? Is it still relevant?

These are reasonable, basic questions, the sort of conversations that should be raised in the halls of Congress after such an incident as Sunday’s attack. Any modern state would consider such questions foundational to finding a balance between the rights of citizens to own guns and the rights of citizens not to be killed by them.

But we have no such discourse. Opponents of guns declare there is no legitimate use for an assault rifle. Ardent defenders return to the “cold dead hands” refrain. Instead of an articulate conversation on gun policy we are fed campaign slogans. The conversation inevitably goes nowhere.

Two hundred and thirty years ago, the Founding Fathers banded together “in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” This sort of squabbling is not what they meant.

But in America today conversations go nowhere. The greatest country in the world, we can’t talk about our problems. We can’t discuss what is killing our citizens. We need a frank discussion on guns, gun rights and the appropriate balance between individual rights and collective security, but all we get are shouting matches and campaign slogans.

This is one issue. There are more: immigration, terrorism, religion. Mateen touched on many of them. But there are still more: abortion, economic stratification, race, gender equality. These are the tinderboxes that tear America apart, and they are also the issues too tender to address directly and with grace.

They are issues close to our hearts, ones we have stared at too closely for too long, and now all we can do is fight over the details. We measure our progress in battles but have forgotten the point of the war.

And what is the point? “To form a more perfect Union.” To “insure domestic Tranquility” and “provide for the common defense.” To “promote the general Welfare,” to “secure the Blessings of Liberty.”

But what good is liberty when Muslim Americans are killing gay Americans in American streets, and no one is willing to talk about it?

Shout about it? Sure. But not talk.

We are a nation populated by rugged individualists grown too independent to govern ourselves. The general welfare and the common defense are concepts alien to us. We are left with 330 million different burning visions for America that struggle against each other.

Maybe it was always this way. Maybe we have always shouted past each other. Maybe the common defense was never that common, the general welfare never that general. Maybe when the Framers who wrote the Constitution 230 years ago did it it was with a smirk and crossed fingers. Maybe those opening words were window dressing.

But men who conjure a country from thin air aren’t the sort to shy away from tough conversations. Our Founding Fathers knew the importance of discourse, of disagreeing agreeably. They fought, but they did so with a shared goal: “in order to form a more perfect Union.”

Where has that spirit gone? Where is the sense that America is the sum of its parts, and those parts are myriad. This country needs room for ideas, room for discussion, and debate and disagreement safe from being declared tantamount to treason. The problems facing us are global, and in an interconnected world, damage is never isolated. A shooting in Florida sparks fear everywhere. The tinder will light. No one is immune.

Yet we stand by our individualism as it kills us. And all the fires Mateen so efficiently set around immigration, religion, guns, foreign wars, terrorism and homosexuality, they remain burning. To be defused and extinguished will require thoughtful consideration, citizens and legislators working together to hammer out compromises that navigate a sea of conflicting tensions: security versus freedom, security versus privacy, individual rights versus collective rights, religious freedom versus personal freedom. All in an evolving world, where terrorism is the new communism and the new terrorism is only a matter of time.

To do that we have to start talking, we need to be willing to ask hard questions. Of each other. Of all of us.


 

This piece appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.