From the Backseat: Deaths of Despair

Did you see the news? Last week, in the town of Sherman, police arrested three people in connection with a meth lab. It was the 123rd incident of its kind in Maine in 2016. That’s more than double the number last year; in 2015 Maine had 56 meth lab-related incidents.

And then on Friday a Hebron man killed his 27-year-old daughter before taking his own life. Did you see that too?

This is the news today, constant radar blips of “the way life should be.” They are markers an assistant professor at Penn State told me about recently: she calls them “deaths of despair.” And Maine is full of them.

Shannon Monnat is a rural demographer. About a month ago I interviewed her for a story about the heroin epidemic. I came across her research on addiction rates and how they relate to a community’s economic prospects. “Deaths of despair” is the phrase she’s coined for spiking addiction, alcoholism and suicide rates across America.

But rates don’t spike equally. Urban centers are largely spared this crisis. Drug addiction today is a rural problem, and the impact is felt heaviest in the rural communities and small cities that have struggled in the global economy.

Small cities. Rural places. Hmm. Sounds like Maine. Go on…

“These small cities and rural towns have borne the brunt of declines in manufacturing, mining, and related industries and are now struggling with the opiate scourge,” said Monnat. “In these places, good jobs and the dignity of work have been replaced by suffering, hopelessness and despair, the feeling that America isn’t so great anymore, and the belief that people in power don’t care about them or their communities. Here, downward mobility is the new normal.”

Suffering. Hopelessness. Despair. The new normal. 123 meth labs in a year. Murder-suicides. We are watching the effects unfold daily, on the news and in our communities. Each event acts as a radar blip. Misery is a tough pill to swallow, and as a meal to eat every day, it’s poison. But when job prospects seem hopeless it’s easy to sink into despair.

Monnat’s analysis doesn’t end there. Her most recent research looks at the 2016 presidential race, comparing election data with addiction data. And what she found is striking: counties awash in misery, those rural communities and smaller cities plagued by higher addiction rates, came out for Donald Trump.

“Clearly there is an association between drug, alcohol and suicide mortality and Trump’s election performance,” said Monnat, though she cautioned the relationship is a complex one. “What these analyses demonstrate is that community-level well-being played an important role in the 2016 election, particularly in the parts of America far-removed from the world of urban elites, media and foundations.”

“Ultimately, at the core of increasingly common ‘deaths of despair’ is a desire to escape,” she continued, “escape pain, stress, anxiety, shame, and hopelessness. These deaths represent only a tiny fraction of those suffering from substance abuse… Drug and alcohol disorders and suicides are occurring within a larger context of people and places desperate for change. Trump promised change.”

Despair, it seems, has political implications in addition to societal.

This almost shouldn’t be news. Every day we get signals about this despair. Some are small—another drug death, another mill shutdown, another suicide—while others are large, the 2016 election outcome being the most prominent. Sitting in quasi-urban Portland, a small city somehow buoyed by its quaint appeal and its status as a haven for NYC exiles, it might be easy to forget we sit surrounded by misery. But we do. We are a rural and small city state. There is so much misery here that drugs, alcohol, suicide and Donald Trump have become rational choices, the result of living in communities where no other path seems open.

Monnat’s research states America’s problem, and Maine’s problem, succinctly: in “many forgotten parts of the U.S. (often referred to as ‘fly-over’ country by those living on the coasts),” she said, “downward mobility is the new normal.”

Despite our coastline, Maine is one big fly-over state. The evidence to that fact fills our newsfeed.

Maybe it will make tomorrow’s headlines.


This column appeared in this week’s Portland Phoenix.

CDS Column: We the People

I was listening to a radio program in the car this past weekend. The subject was A.I. — artificial intelligence, computers with the capacity for thought and reason and the analytic power to surpass us a thousand-fold. The commentator was saying something about how the most important development we could engineer into artificial intelligence would be safeguards to ensure A.I. maintains moral behavior even as its abilities outpace our own. That was a prerequisite, he said, the only thing that could make artificial intelligence viable.

It sounded like a great idea. But we humans have a knack for creating things outside of our control. Take money, for example. How many lives does money rule? How many people think they never have enough, that they spend all their time chasing it and it just goes on outpacing them, never quite allows them to sit quiet? The next job might finally be enough, maybe. Just a little more work will make ends finally meet.

Money didn’t exist before us. It’s a thing humans imagined into being, and now it runs lives. It transformed from being a helpful means to facilitate the exchange into something that keeps people in a race no one wins. How did that switch happen? When did it occur? Was it always that way, or did that relationship develop over time?

Regardless, the scorecard begins: Humans, 0; our creations, 1.

Then there’s religion: Ostensibly a celebration of our existence on Earth and the unexplainable power we call God (whatever version), religion is not only a foundation for kindness, generosity and warmth but also for exclusion, hatred and genocide. Regardless of your thoughts on God, we humans created religion. And somehow we allowed it to take control of our morality and bend it to terrible purposes. The Westboro Baptist Church reads the same Bible as millions of peaceful Christians. ISIS reads the same Quran as millions of peaceful Muslims. The Catholic Church has a history of atrocious acts dating back hundreds of years. Countless wars have religious roots, as did slavery. Yes, religion does wonderful things — just look around at the holiday spirit surrounding us today, the food pantries and the charitable organizations founded in its name — but here again, one of our creations has grown beyond our control, spurring us to do terrible things.

Again: Humans, 0; our creations, 2.

And then there is government, another of our creations. This is the one that makes me laugh most. “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union …” In a moment of sheer brilliance, a group of rich, white, land-owning men crafted a country from thin air. There was no history, no common heritage to justify bonds of nationalism, and the original ties were both tentative and exclusionary — they left out women, the country’s native inhabitants and millions of slaves. Imperfect foundations to be sure, but there was something in the seed of that idea.

And that seed grew. The restrictions dissolved slowly, first for white non-landowners. Then slaves became human. Then women became voters. Then black citizens earned “equality.”

Clearly, this is among the least-nuanced American history ever put in print, but the original brilliance of America’s founding ideas were not bound to themselves. They had capacity for expansion, to grow as America’s definition of its people grew. The country was as resilient as the people who lived inside its borders.

Something great happened here, something unique. We are the inheritors of that legacy.

But then we get to the tricky task of governance, the implementation of these brilliant ideas. Today, we live in an age of dwindling trust, where the people and Washington sit on opposite sides of a chess match.

But this is an illusion. Government, like money and religion, is something we conjured. It grew from our hands, and it cannot grow bigger than us. It is an instrument created by men, designed (in our case) to be wielded by its citizens. If we have lost trust in it, it means we have lost trust in ourselves.

Government has the power to oppress us only when we let it go to seed, when we forget it is ours, borne from us, an extension as our rights as citizens, rights we named for ourselves. Its power is derived from our willingness to come together collectively, our agreeing to “form a more perfect union,” and that perfection is a reflection of our vision. “Live Free or Die” is a mantra as communal as it is libertarian, for example, our collective agreement to use government to protect our individual rights.

So what is broken government? The fetid mess that is Washington is nothing more than our willingness to allow something we were entrusted to run wild. We are essentially bad dog owners, the kind that ought to leash their pets but don’t. Who besides us let Washington run free?

We are “the People.” We came together to form this union. It has the power over us that we give it. And yet somehow we’ve fallen into a narrative where the great American experiment in democratic rule has grown beyond our power to control. We must “starve the beast,” “clear the swamp,” to combat a government gone feral.

Such claims are hollow. They pawn blame onto the spectre of “government” without taking on the responsibility of our part in creating it. If “government is broken” then the blame rests with ourselves.

The truth is managing a country of 330 million is hard. It is complex and messy. Government isn’t broken, it’s just tired of been ignored. It runs wild only out of ignorance, not malice. It needs a willing master dedicated to training it, and that master is us.

We, the people, we form this union. The sooner we stop running away from that fact the better. We’re the best safeguard this government’s got.


This column appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

From the Backseat: Catfish 101

ssI got the weirdest note the other day. It was one of those Facebook message requests that comes from someone you aren’t friends with. Her name was Elizabeth.

“Hi there,” Elizabeth said. “This may be the strangest email I’ve ever written. I’ve been chatting with a guy on OKCupid who is using your pictures. I’m pretty sure it’s not you. The username is morethanever8.”

Next was a screenshot: a photo of me from a few years ago, taken in New Hampshire by my friend Brian when we were ice climbing. I’m wearing a red jacket, the hood is up, I’m smiling and looking right at the camera. It’s one of my favorite pictures.

But apparently, it isn’t me — across the bottom, text read “morethanever8.” My OKCupid alter ego is apparently 36 and lives in Roslindale, Mass. And his match percentage with Elizabeth was a solid 93 percent.

“If this is the guy I’ve been chatting with, why don’t you add up?” Elizabeth wrote.

I stared at my computer screen. Identity theft is not usually how I begin my mornings. I clicked refresh to see if perhaps I had misinterpreted the situation. But no, my picture was being used to lure unsuspecting women. Unbeknownst to me I was part of a catfishing expedition.

But Elizabeth was smart. She’d done some Googling. As a climber and writer, I’m pretty easy to find online. And after some reading and a spot of quick mental math, she went on Facebook. She found me and sent me a note. Catfished she wouldn’t be.

But she and morethanever8 had chatted it up a bit, and he’d given her his phone number. She included it in the note. Well played, Liz.

So I called.

It was my journalism background that made me do it. I had his number, and a good reporter does not shy away from the hard questions. As the phone rang, I felt the familiar tension in my chest of an impending argument, a feeling that marks the lead up to any contentious interview. It’s trepidation mixed with excitement, fight-or-flight by phone. Stories like these are always an adrenaline rush, and this one even more so. This time it was personal.

But morethanever8 didn’t pick up. After a handful of rings, he sent me to voicemail. His alter-ego, and yet he denied me. Who would date such a jerk? I left a message:

“Hi. I’m Erik. This is kind of awkward, but I got a note saying you’re using my picture on your online dating profile. Um, could you not? I mean, I’d kind of appreciate it if you took it down, thanks. If you want to talk about this, you have my number. Bye.”

As so often happens in online dating, I’m still waiting for him to respond. But a few hours later Elizabeth messaged to say morethanever8 had removed my photos. It was only in writing this column that I noticed her note said “pictures,” not just the singular “picture.” Eww.

I’ve told this story a handful of times now, and each telling gets a laugh. But it also raises questions. Several people have suggested Elizabeth is some sort of online dating ninja, that she couldn’t have found me based on just the pictures and maybe concocted the whole story as a ploy to get my phone number. Maybe the number I dialed was hers, people suggest.

But I don’t buy that. As a reporter I regularly find people on scant evidence. I believe Elizabeth to be my Hillary Clinton, not my Donald Trump; my pantsuited white knight rather than my con artist.

But morethanever8 I’m still confused by. Who is he? What was he thinking? Did he expect to pull off being me once it grew time for an in-person meeting? Or was this some other type of scam, one where the prize was something other than carnal? Did he know what he was doing? Would this ploy allow him to evade a meeting and thus detection?

I clearly don’t understand these things. Like some long-retired phone company employee who borrows an iPhone to make a quick call, despite my inside role I still have no idea how catfishing works. I know only that I got nothing out of it but this column.

I do, however, still have morethanever8’s phone number. Maybe I’ll try giving him another call today.


This column appeared in the Portland Phoenix.

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.

From the Backseat: Hipster Hunting

Hipster hunting doesn’t mean what you think it means.

I’ve been doing it for about a year. And no, the quarry doesn’t wear flannel or a beard (although if it did, Portland would be rich game grounds). Hipster hunting is hunting as a return to the past, as a return to authenticity, an homage to killing. It’s hunting to personally experience what goes into every meal containing meat.

Because, let’s face it, killing is something we’ve forgotten how to do.

Not as a society — as a people we’re quite adept at killing chickens, cows, pigs, the planet, whatever — but as individuals we’re bad at it. It’s one of many things we’ve outsourced. When was the last time you wrung a bird’s neck? Or smashed a fish over the head with a wooden baton? Sounds brutal, right? A bit barbaric? But here’s the thing: Chicken is GOOD. Fish is GOOD. Who would want to live without fish tacos? Almost every time I order a meal out, I get chicken, fish, lamb, a burger, something made of flesh. So really each time I go out I’m killing a chicken, a sheep, a cow. I mean sure, I’m not the one chopping off its head — that work goes to someone else — but my hunger is the architect of death. I’m basically the chicken Gestapo.

Last night I ordered a burger with bacon on top — not just cow, but a pig on a cow. I killed them, both in one meal. Devastation.

Earlier in the day I grabbed a pair of Otto’s pizza slices, one with bacon, the other turkey. Two more beasts — BAM! — gone.

Some days my fork is set to full auto.

Now I want to be clear: I have no problem with meat. We’re built to eat it, and animals taste awesome. I want cows and chickens and pigs to live happy lives, but I don’t think it’s wrong to eat them.

But we have grown pretty far removed from our food. Some people plant gardens as a reminder of where their carrots come from, but I’ve never been good at half-measures: I signed up to take my proper place in the killing fields—I took a hunter safety course.

But like most half-baked hipster ideas, it’s just not that easy. I’ve been stumbling around the woods for weeks draped in blaze orange and dragging a 12-gauge, but I have yet to experience the primal mix of elation and guilt I imagine accompanies killing.

Hunting is HARD. It may seem like an unfair game — sweet woodland creatures up against a man with a loaded gun — but when the person hunting has no idea what he’s doing the woodland creatures do just fine. I’ve been out a dozen times, and I haven’t shot a thing. I haven’t even swung my gun to my shoulder. The only thing I’ve shot is a paper plate, and if it were moving I’d bet money I’d miss.

I’ve seen game in the woods, but they are a lot faster than I am, a lot stealthier and probably a lot smarter. My best look is their backsides before they disappear into the underbrush.

On a recent trip I got so lost I had to use a compass to find my way back to my car. I followed a course east to the river and then hopped boulders upstream until I came to a bridge. I was tired, thirsty and overheated by the time I got back to my car, and over my two-plus-hour adventure I saw one bird. I didn’t get more than a snap look at him. Trying to follow him I nearly fell in a river. If it weren’t for Hannaford’s rotisserie oven I’d be poultry-starved.

So hipster hunting is thus far not a resounding success. All my meat still comes ordered off a menu. I’ve found new respect for those who can actually go out and harvest something for the table, but my personal ethical escapade has been fruitless.

Killing. It’s grisly business to be sure, but so far my tally is zero. Maybe I’ll have better luck next week.

CDS Column: Lost Hiker

I don’t hike much anymore.

I used to. I used to hike all the time. Through high school it’s all I wanted to do. When I graduated I wasn’t ready for college, so instead I went hiking — first on a cross-country road trip to hike Colorado, the Grand Canyon and Jackson Hole, then on the Appalachian Trail. At 18, I walked from Georgia to Maine. It took four months and transformed me from relative backcountry novice to old hand. Night after night, firing up a tiny backpacking stove, filtering water, sleeping among the pines, hiking became my first full-time job.

From there I moved to mountains, to rock climbing, ice climbing, mountaineering and skiing, added tools to get me to the top, techniques to push adventures to new heights. “Hiking” became something I did to get to the fun part: the snow, the rock, the vertical parts where the rope came out. I hiked on 14ers in Colorado (the state’s highest peaks), volcanos in Washington and the knife-like ridges of the Tetons, to rock faces in the Shawangunks in New York and Yosemite Valley in California, but keep in mind none of it was hiking.

And over time it moved even further aside. It got renamed “the approach” as I traveled to South America, Europe and Africa for mountains, rock and ice climbs. “Hiking” meant carrying a rope, harness, helmet and all the climbing gear for the adventure ahead, and thus weighted it became more work than fun. The sport once again found itself on my periphery.

But recently I’ve found myself back in the woods. I find myself there with no summit in sight, tramping between trees and ducking under spruce bows, the trail unbeaten and unmarked. I’m out there wandering, splashing through creeks and past logs downed by beavers. It feels like a return, a recovery of my hiking spirit.

But it’s not. It’s from before my high school days, before hiking boots and Gore-Tex and double-walled tents. It’s from my very first explorations of the woods, back in late elementary and middle school when I would pull on duck boots, grab the dog and vanish into the trees out past the cemetery at the end of the street. There were trails, but they were serpentine and poorly marked. The spruce and pine hung close, and though it was only a few hundred acres hemmed in by road on one side and ocean on the other, it was enough to get lost in. There were rotting logs and moss-covered rocks to climb over, and a canopy so thick sunlight struggled to reach the forest floor. It was just woods, more rugged than any hiking trail. My Australian shepherd Cody and I would walk for hours, wandering deer-paths looking for stray antlers and animal signs, imagining ourselves intrepid explorers, Native Americans maybe.

But that’s where hiking began for me, those first forays into woods as pretend hunters and explorers. The nylon windshirts, LED headlamps and ultralight stoves came later, the slick well-marketed modern trappings that now adorn that early call.

My earliest role models weren’t looking to stand on top of things. “Because it’s there” is a modern concept. They were looking to survive, to find enough to eat or the safest/quickest route. “Adventure” was an accident borne of necessity. Hiking wasn’t the approach to those explorers, it was the pre-industrial equivalent to a trip to the grocery store. It wasn’t sport, it was just part of life.

What brought me back to my roots? To the root of my roots? My new hiking partner—not an Australian shepherd, but a 30-year-old Sears and Roebuck 12-gauge.

That’s right, hunting is my new hiking. With my dad’s old shotgun I wander, no vertical objective calling from the horizon. I find myself stumbling through undergrowth, pushing aside tree branches, mucking across marshes and otherwise tramping, the original forest call. I’m not ticking off another peakbagging summit or trying to break my speed record up Washington; I’m just walking, wandering the woods, looking for antlers and animal sign.

And with the walking the wonder returned. The things I used to love about hiking — noticing the feathers scattered among the tree roots marking some kill, walking an old logging road in the cold morning air that eventually peters into nothing, tripping on the rusted hulk of an old peavey left by some long forgotten logger — now lives in blaze orange. It’s exploration with a walking stick of wood and steel.

And just like those early walks with Cody, when I go hunting I have no idea what I’m doing. I get lost. I get wet. I find myself tired and hungry and running low on water. I overdress or underdress, wear the wrong socks or wrong hat. It’s all those things I used to struggle through while hiking, but when there are summits involved I’ve long since learned my lessons. Not in hunting though. In hunting I’m still the utter beginner, more akin to that elementary school kid than ever.

As a result the animals of the forest are safe. I see game, but everything in the woods moves so much faster than me. I have yet to get my gun to my shoulder much less get a shot off before my quarry disappears. It’ll be a long time before I kill anything. When I see something I wind up chasing, but the animals know the hiding spots better than I do. So I search, walk in circles sometimes for hours.

It’s the most hiking I’ve done in years.


This column appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

From the Backseat: Fear, the Biggest Liar

I will not be afraid.

Fear is a mask without holes to see through. It pulls at us, weighs us down. It is a yoke, a liar. I will not be afraid.

I will, however, say thank you to the women in my life: my sister Liz, my mom Nell, my nieces Charlie, Kennedy and Mackenzie. My sister-in-law. My step-mother. My cousin Lisa. My friends Helga, Lindsay, Terry, Nicole, Ana, and others too many to list and too strong to hold down. You are breathtaking. Powerful. Worthy. Equal. Unique. Amazing. I can only imagine your thoughts, the frustrations spinning inside. There is nothing I can say or do, but I hear you, grieve with you. Not for a missed political opportunity, but for the national sidestep around your inherent equality, our collective rejection of your internal capacity. For the continued elevation of your bodies as objects. For the grinding lack of respect you endure.

And to my friends of color — Jahad, Cynthia, Sinclair, Ish, Katie, Miguel, Helga, Lisa — my Muslim friends — Wasim, Farah, Selma — I can only imagine this moment for you, the feelings of exclusion, of otherness. You are the blood and bones of America. Your Haitian heritage, Salvadoran past and Saudi roots add texture to our fabric, your Friday prayers as sacred as Sunday. Worth does not live in color, sex or religion. It just is. Do not dim your light for anything, for anyone — doing so robs both you and the world.

Where to go from here? Part of me wants to drop the anger, to push for healing and national unity. But another part realizes this is a false choice, that the repudiation of Clinton and Obama grew out of racism and misogyny. Anger at the extreme right, meanwhile, is a rejection of these most American characteristics.

So how do we extract hate and exclusions from America? How do we instead spread ideals like tolerance, inclusivity and religious liberty? By yelling at opponents? No. We have to try something else.

Hurt people hurt people, a friend told me. Hurt people lash out. They react. They do damage. America today is full of hurt people. Will we, the tolerant, now become hurt too? Will this rejection grow to anger?

No. I will not be afraid. Fear is what got us here. I am sad, disheartened, but I will not move forward in anger. America has had enough of that.

Instead, I will look for the bright spots. Like Pious Ali, who was elected to Portland’s City Council. The first African-born Muslim to hold the office, he is a resounding voice for America’s integrated future. I heard Ali speak in September on young immigrants and people of color in America. His message was clear: We are stronger together. The gaps that divide us are narrow. The success of our newest citizens mark success for us all. Ali is not a man of fear. His eyes are open. He sees the American challenge with clarity, and instead of cowering in its shadow he smiles at it. He brings an unfettered heart to the fight. We must do the same.

The forces of inclusivity are strong, woven deep within the American experiment. We, the tolerant, are not alone. Fear and exclusionary violence will erupt from time to time, but those blows cannot overcome America’s inevitable grind towards equality. Over the long arc we are moving forward, and that movement continues, however awkwardly.

But our fight will always be hamstrung. We are cursed with the knowledge our opponents are as human as we are, as worthy and valuable as ourselves. We cannot demonize; even those who see us as abhorrent are our brothers.

How do we rise from such handicap? Like Ali: With clear eyes. By refusing to cower and rejecting the shadows. By realizing our commonalities will always be stronger than our rifts are deep. By engaging even our adversaries with curiosity and compassion. By refusing to be afraid. Fear is a liar. Put down that mask.


This column appeared in the Portland Phoenix.

CDS Column: Right, Left and Center

image1-2When it comes to voting for federal office in New Hampshire this cycle we don’t have a lot of choices to be excited about; both the Republican and Democratic tickets are bleak. At the top is Donald Trump, clearly unfit to lead, or Hillary Clinton, the consummate politician. One step below is the U.S. Senate where Gov. Maggie Hassan is hoping to unseat Sen. Kelly Ayotte, two candidates more astute at political maneuvering than practicing leadership or instituting policy. Two strikes for the federal ballot.

Then there is the race for Congress: incumbent Frank Guinta running against former representative Carol Shea-Porter in the fourth matchup between the two. These two have gone back and forth, and every time the seat flips.

Why? Because it doesn’t matter which one is in office, both have proven uninspiring. It’s another version of the races above it, but it’s also worse: Guinta versus Shea-Porter is more bad TV, but in this race we have to watch a rerun.

In one sense we’re lucky: In a country where almost every congressional seat goes to the incumbent it’s a rare thing to see a contested race. But it hasn’t done us any strategic favors. Rep. Guinta has members of his own party (including Sen. Ayotte) suggesting he resign following his finance scandals, and still Shea-Porter is unable to trounce him.

Is that because Guinta is likeable? Nope. He’s come by the Sun a number of times, and each visit is reminiscent of a sitdown with a used car salesman.

But Shea-Porter offers nothing more promising. Both candidates sit square within their parties, basically stooges for Washington games. If a bright idea has come from either it never made it to paper.

But in the house race 2016 isn’t a rerun. We finally have a chance to watch something other than the lumbering Shea-Porter-Guinta-Shea-Porter drama. This year there is an Independent in the race. And Shawn O’Connor is a guy worth voting for.

Who is O’Connor, and why haven’t you heard of him? I hadn’t heard of him either before he came by the Sun office earlier this month and introduced himself. O’Connor is an entrepreneur and businessman from Bedford, the founder of Stratus Prep, a test preparation and admissions counseling firm, also the founder of the Stratus Foundation, a nonprofit the helps underprivileged kids access college prep services. He earned an MBA and a law degree from Harvard and studied international politics at Georgetown as an undergrad. He graduated all three with honors.

He’s smart, but more important than that, he’s reasonable. And unlike his predecessors, he’s without puppet masters to pull his strings; he’s running as an Independent, and in his case that means truly independent.

The Guinta-Shea-Porter brawl is loud. So you might have to turn down the volume to find O’Connor. But if you do you just might find something you like. Here is a thoughtful, considered candidate running for elected office, the kind of person who usually steers clear of Washington, or else is corrupted by it. He has ideas for addressing healthcare, minimum wage and social security that pull from both conservative and progressive corners, taking the good ideas from both and applying them to American problems. With no ideological allegiance and a background in business he’s a free man, something Washington lacks.

And what’s more, he’s already made his money. One of his pledges is to donate the bulk of his Congressional salary, roughly $160,000, to a charity selected by an independent board. He’s not going to Washington to help himself.

To be clear, as a New Hampshire reporter you sit through a lot of interviews. Politics is kind of New Hampshire’s thing, and as a result we bat around ideas with everyone from presidential hopefuls to prospective school board members. And often these editorial board meetings feel like a game of cat-and-mouse with the candidate unwilling to say anything concrete and the team of reporters chasing them to nail down a policy position. The best escape artists (Mitt Romney comes to mind) evade every attempt like a bullfighter avoids the horns. Lesser versions (Newt Gingrich, Marco Rubio) do it with less grace, but all of them come off feeling insincere.

Guinta and Shea-Porter (and Hassan too) always struck me as part of Team Insincere, team bullfight. They’re of the ilk who will say anything to win election, always trying to escape their own records and avoid firm points.

O’Connor, meanwhile, sat in front of us and took thoughtful, nuanced policy positions. He avoided partisan rhetoric and instead carved a platform in part conservative, in part liberal. His talk truly earned the label “Independent,” was the kind of candidate you can actually feel good about sending to Washington.

That’s a rare thing these days. Most races are about selecting the least poor option. O’Connor flips that on his head.

But can he win? That’s the question. As he pointed out, New Hampshire is the New England state with the widest independent streak but Maine, Vermont and Connecticut have sent Independents to Washington. New Hampshire could do it too. Voters just have to demand service, not politics, from their representatives. It was talk reminiscent of Ray Burton, the longtime executive councilor who cared more about his constituents needs than their party affiliation. Since Ray passed no one else has picked up the mantle.
O’Connor can change that. He is a candidate for all of us, not one stuck to the margins. He claims to want to Washington to support New Hampshire’s people as opposed to a party. Neither Guinta nor Shea-Porter have done that. Maybe it’s time for a change.


This column appeared in Wednesday’s Conway Daily Sun.

From the Backseat: Oceans Apart

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

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

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

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

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

But home carries its own mysteries.

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

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

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

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

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


This piece appeared in this week’s Portland Phoenix.

CDS Column: The American Locker Room Tradition

CDS Column: The American Locker Room Tradition

13475016_1517641101595303_7355454198074171565_o“Locker room talk” is a catchy phrase and now the talk of the nation. Never have the tiled quarters of towels, benches and shower stalls garnered such attention. It is, however, a presidential year, so no wonder.

It’s been interesting to watch lines drawn around Republican nominee Donald Trump’s comments, “locker room talk” or “sexual assault” depending on your political leanings. His supporters rallied, some Republicans used the comments to justify severing support, and opponents pointed aghast saying, “See! See! We told you!”

But Donald Trump’s comments don’t make him a monster; they put him squarely within American culture. They mark him as an American male, the personification of American masculinity stated in stark terms, its dark edges exposed, things we don’t often dwell upon out. His “grab them by the pussy” comments are not so far fetched or outlandish, not as far afield as many claim. This is the raw of American male conversations on sex, particularly among young men — proud, boastful men still finding their way across the landscapes of adulthood.

Trump’s comments shine a light into a world we look to ignore. Not a political point; this is a truth about us, about American male culture and the customs we carry. Donald Trump is no outlier here. He lives squarely within the American psyche, the sexual culture we cultivate. This is about American men, our mores and a tradition of celebrating aggression.
Sounds dramatic, but it’s not meant to be. American men are not predators. But we carry a school of conditioning, a cultural norm: From a young age, American men learn to talk about sex in grand terms. Sex is not a subject to ask questions about, something for discussion, learned easily within our social network. It is instead something to boast about, a way to prove your position within the pecking order. If you are an American male you’ve seen this before: raunchy conversations where participants compete to be the most brash, the most raw, the most confident and loudest. If you’re an American male, chances are you’ve felt your place within the hierarchy, and you’ve probably either striven to prove yourself or else felt ostracized by it. Likely both.

From middle school on there is pressure to conform, pressure to be the most experienced, the most promiscuous, the silverback, the alpha. Sex talk, “locker room talk,” is never gentle, thoughtful or considered. It is “grab them by the pussy” and worse. This is how we grew up, our sexual education. It is where and how American men learn to talk about women.

Most men don’t act out these lessons. For most it is a show, a performance we make to fit in, part of joining the tribe of our peers. It does not become foundation for sexual assault or sexual violence but remains the bluster of “locker room talk.” Is it necessarily happening in locker rooms? No, but make no mistake, it’s happening.

And that bluster does two things: It leaves young men and boys feeling ostracized, wondering how their peers know so much about sex when they themselves are clueless (despite whoever or whatever we just claimed to have carnal knowledge of), and it permanently impacts the language we learn to use around sex, the character of the conversation we embrace. We adopt the swagger and bravado to fit in, and it is the swagger and bravado that make us afraid to ask questions, afraid we are the only ones who don’t know. To speak in opposition to the boasting rhetoric becomes unthinkable — it risks exposing ourselves as ignorant children, fakes. And with that coincides a tumbling loss of social position, a risk we cannot take.

And if men know the bragging and rough talk, women know the ignorance, the bumbling, the delicate male egos propped on false claims of past deeds. This is our “sexual education,” the path carved for young American men and women to reach adulthood, our incubator for home, family, partnership.

And it has consequences. It leaves young men groping to prove themselves, to show they are who they say they are. From private New Hampshire high schools to the swimming pools at Stanford we’ve seen young men from the top of the pecking order strike out, thrash their way into sex rather than risk a question, an about-face. Boys employing the crude tools our culture has equipped them with.

And their thrashing has consequences. Their thrashing leaves victims.

But they, too, are victims. They are victims of our collective unwillingness to talk openly about sex, our timidity and our vision of American maleness. They grow to be men never baring their ignorance, never risking what they don’t know. They learn only through thrash and bluster, bumping their way down the hallways. Then they have their own boys, and the cycle continues.

Donald J. Trump. Alpha. Silverback. He stormed the pecking order with braggadocio, and now like so many of us he cannot risk an about-face. He is a man, built of words like so many other men. Some of us may fumble our way out of the locker room but still we find ourselves back there at times, fighting our way within the hierarchy. Billy Bush, the other man on the Trump tape, knows that fight.

What that tape shows us is ourselves. This is how we as Americans engage in conversations about sex. We learn young, and we learn well. Maybe we spend the rest of our lives unlearning it. But this pattern shapes our perspectives, forms our culture. And what we never learn to say shapes our children.

And so we should be grateful to Donald Trump. Because this conversation is one way overdue.


This column appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.