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.

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Portland Phoenix: Art Walk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

From the Back Seat: America’s Argument

It has come to an end. After almost two years of buildup: the election, the point on which it all hinges. Dragons will either be slain or Armageddon will soon commence.

Which, of course, depends on your political bent, whether Hillary is your Antichrist or Donald. But either way there will be an offended swath, American outrage that hasn’t occurred since… last election.

Remember in 2008 when Obama became president and the TEA Party stormed the streets in protest? We still see the racially-tinged aftermath of Taxed Enough Already in the selection of Donald Trump. Obama marked the Socialist takeover, the “they’ll come for your guns” moment, another pivotal dragons and danger moment.

And yet today America stands, gun in hand. Rome has not fallen. There have been incremental ticks, changes to health care policy, the recognition of same sex marriage, withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, but much from before remains. Guantanamo is still open. America still kills from the sky with unmanned aircraft piloted from the Heartland. Abortion is still legal and under stress. A black man may occupy the White House, but beyond condolences he’s been unable to offer anything to curb the mass incarcerations of innocents or shootings by police. America is thick with its own history, and the wave of his hand proven insufficient to part the Red Sea.

Foreign-born Muslim Socialist or not, presidential powers are limited. Armageddon will have to wait.

The same can be said of Maine and the 2010 sweep that brought the 39 percent to power. Despite his best threats, Gov. LePage proved unable to eradicate functional government. His insistence on undermining the bureaucracy rather than reforming its aims was caustic but not calamitous, and lumbering beast though it is, the government proved agile enough to stay steps ahead of the governor.

Mainers still pay taxes and state agencies continue to offer services. LePage did his damage, but much of it was superficial. The occasional racist comment proved the governor an unsavory mascot, but his real goal—to free the state of the tyrannies of government—stands uncompleted.

Another disaster dodged. Armageddon again averted.

But was Armageddon really the risk? That is language of elections today, both from conservative corners and progressive politicians. But in American democracy nothing burns overnight. Things don’t happens fast. Neither man nor movement has the sway they claim. Our institutions are great pyramids standing on bases that stretch for miles. One man or woman at the top has not the strength to move it. Even armies of protesters lack the might to push them over, be they the TEA Party or Occupy Wall Street.

A state is so much more than its government. A country is so much livelier than its laws, its politicians. These are small choices, momentary blips, water and sand only have the power to eat away the stone that forms our foundations. One day, through the slow erosion of time, shifts may come, but there is no earthquake on the horizon. Shout as they might, this country can endure.

And regardless of its smaller swings, America lumbers in the direction of its founding, the words it was born with: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

America is a country forged out of words and ideas, not the other way around. It was plucked from thin air by idealists on land made clear by genocide. We live a nation rife with contradiction. Questions of diversity and wealth and what it means to be free run in our blood. They are our history, our legacy, our burden. And they are bound to resurface at times. At times like these. Indeed, they might never go away.

Sometimes this argument we have with ourselves is raucous, ugly even. But it is our argument, one we must embrace to push forward those American words.

But for all the fighting the sky will not fall. This argument, this ungracious snarl, is the messiness of democracy. There will be no dragons gone after Nov. 8, and Armageddon will still have to wait.


This column appeared in the Portland Phoenix.

From the Backseat: A Mini America

49895953510__6feb8924-ea7f-4930-ae0b-20f4a8fb15f3-1Maine is a modern political allegory. In a lot of ways it can serve as a stand-in for the entire United States—liberal coast hemming a vast but sparsely populated conservative heartland, with bustle and trade, vibrancy and a smattering of diversity along the shore but both tempo and complexion changing once you leave the ocean. Isolated pockets clustered around centers of higher education (rather than midwestern cities) retain the progressive flavor of coastal life, but otherwise inland culture is very different, as is the economic outlook.

America Mini: Yeah, we’ve got that.

And politically Maine has America covered too: one Republican congressman and the other rep a Democrat, in the U.S. Senate a moderate Republican regularly accused of being a RINO and an Independent who leans liberal. Maine voters, like voters across America, support every political stripe.

And then there’s the governor. If Maine is an American metaphor then loose-lipped Gov. Paul LePage is a glimpse into the future, a hint at what a possible presidency with Donald J. Trump would be like.

“I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular,” Gov. LePage told a radio host last spring. And he’s right: Gov. LePage is a shining example of what loose cannon leadership looks like, how an executive who takes no notice of facts likes to govern. It’s impossible to watch the trapeze act of Trump’s campaign and not be reminded of Maine’s own mini-circus, the pro-business bark adorned by rude racist comments and a constant confusion on facts. Trump hardly has a corner on that market. LePage never had his own TV show but in terms of political buffoonery and chicanery he’s got a six-year head start.

How do candidates like this get to power? Of course there’s the business of third party politics and Maine’s 61 percent, but there is also that vast white interior, the working class industrial heartland of Maine/America, the places where good jobs were once plentiful and now are hard to come by. These are the forgotten lands where infrastructure is crumbling as quickly as communities. This is the seat of power for “straight talk” politicos today, the home of the frustrated white worker.

And why shouldn’t they be frustrated? These voters live in the economic sectors of yesteryear, places like Rumford and Skowhegan (Cleveland and Milwaukee) that have suffered setback after setback. They’ve watched their communities drown in joblessness while their elected officials lead in other directions and focus more on talking over them than talking to them. The American Dream, long at their doorstep, is now far away and doesn’t look to be coming back.

It is to those voters that politicians like Trump and LePage offer their promises: a rejuvenated working class and a reborn heartland. “Make America Great Again.” It’s a slogan aimed at them, and it has hit its mark. It may be hogwash, a fantasy in today’s changing world, but when no one else is speaking to this constituency there is room for LePage and Trump to find support. They took a read on the pulse of frustration among white working class voters and they spoke to it. Their words may be hollow, but any sound booms across a vacuum. They noticed a bloc and reached out; they should not have been the first.

LePage and Trump are blowhards, but their political foresight should not be overlooked. It’s now clear that white rural voters are ignored at our collective peril. While Maine and the rest of America quibbled over policy nuance these factless windbags climbed ranks: LePage won both election and then reelection, and Trump cleared the Republican field. Disillusioned and disenfranchised working class voters led the way, showing up in droves to exercise what power they have left, supporting the candidates that speak to their situation as everyone else looked on.

Maybe next time Republicans and RINOs, Independents and Democrats will approach this frustrated constituency, listen to what they have to say and speak to them. Maybe next time working class Maine’s sole option won’t be a bluster-filled bully.

Maybe that can be part of America’s story too.


This column appeared in this week’s Portland Phoenix.

From the Backseat: Maine, Live on the Street

From the Backseat: Maine, Live on the Street

img_0656-3It was a Thursday, normally a workday but we were tucked in the downstairs of the Portland Museum of Art, around 100 of us taking pause to listen to Maine, live.

That’s what they call it: Maine Live. Like a TED conference fitted with flannel, 15 speakers with 15 minutes each to talk about whatever they want. Mainers of all backgrounds: a former U.S. Olympic luge racer, the co-founder of ReVision Energy, the department chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Maine Medical Center, business owners and nonprofit directors and artists. Pious Ali, Maine’s first African-born American and Muslim to be elected to a public office, shared stories of young immigrants and people of color searching for jobs amidst more roadblocks than on-ramps. Kennebunk-based architect Brian Beaudette talked about knowing he was gay but pushing his feelings aside through high school, college, a marriage and fatherhood. MaineWorks founder Margo Walsh shared her own struggle with alcoholism and how her work helping felons and addicts find jobs helps her, too.

Like most conferences of the inspirational type there were standing ovations, moments of teariness, hors d’oeuvres during intermissions and photo handshakes. But at Maine Live there was more. It was a distillation of creative energy, the state concentrated. Put 15 Mainers in a room and let them to speak on whatever they want and there could be 15 distinct topics, no linking thread. But themes emerged: immigration, climate change, the power of business for positive impact. If you wanted a pulse on Maine, a hint at what was important and pressing in the state today, with Maine Live as a carotid snapshot you got a chance to see it, what matters to those in the thick of it, out in the morass.

And there was a shadow among themes, a darkness that kept rearing: any Maine Live participant would be forced to note how often heroin came up. Among a roomful of professionals, nonprofit-types and business people opiates were everywhere. One speaker, Biddeford-based plumbing and heating business owner Jim Godbout, devoted his entire talk to addiction, to the impacts of heroin and other drugs and the toll they’ve taken on his community. He stood wet-eyed on stage and shared stories of more than 40 friends and loved ones lost. This inside the white walls of the art museum, a space more familiar with the picturesque projections of upper-middle-classness than somber stories of social decay.

But opiates have emerged so insidious they’ve wormed their way into all our halls, part of everything and everywhere, in the art museum not in some scrawlings by an on-edge surrealist but among the crisp crowd who rents the space for the ambiance. Addiction has left the shadows, gone mainstream.

It is a funny thing, watching talk of heroin and opiate addiction wind its way through such circles. These $100-tickets events are usually reserved for generative conversations that lighten the heart, exchanges that make you think, make you wonder. Perhaps they highlight a societal problem, but one distant. But here sat a hint of alarm bells, indications of a problem metastasizing close to home. Addiction the wrecking ball swings at all walls, even those lined by Wyeths and Winslow Homer. Something needs to happen, soon.

That was in the museum. Then Maine Live ended. I walked out onto Free Street, crossed over to Congress in my sport coat and dress shoes.

Around Forest a man pointed at me from a few feet away. He was walking towards me wearing a tee shirt and dirty jeans. “Wait!” he said. “Before you take another step…”

I kept walking, closing our distance.

“…can I have a dollar for something to eat?”

I continued to walk, brushing past him. I heard him turn but he didn’t follow.

A dozen more steps and I heard his voice again, this time shouting: “Who is going to give me a dollar so I can buy SOMETHING TO FUCKING EAT!”

Maine, live.

No one paused to listen.


This column appeared in the Portland Phoenix.

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.