Monday, September 29, 2008

Policy and Philosophy Matter to our Pocketbooks

For the second time in the last 25 years, we middle class and poor citizens have felt the pain of failed Republican economic policy and philosophy.

Let's look at the facts. We cannot afford to allow this to happen again.

Wielding the scare tactics of "tax increases" and social issues to assert the philosophy that unregulated markets not only feed individual greed but somehow benefit everyone, the Republican Party has forsaken the economic conservatism that was historically a hallmark of this party and become adept at getting voters to vote against our own pocketbooks.

"Reaganomics"--or "voodoo economics," as they became known when the economy crashed in 1987--convinced the American public that our economy could sustain tax cuts for corporations, Big Oil (Reagan removed Jimmy Carter's solar panels from the White House in 1980) and the wealthy while increasing military spending and not investing in the domestic infrastructure that makes us strong and competitive: education, health care, alternative energy, science and technology research, etc. These policies first failed in 1987, with the largest single-day losses in the history of the U.S. economy and untold job losses.

During the 1990s, Bill Clinton struggled to build bipartisan consensus and was able to restore widening prosperity and innovation to the American economy through the creation of a fair and balanced tax program; cuts in wasteful spending; and investments in domestic infrastructure. Our nation entered the 21st century with a budget surplus and at an innovative peak.

How did we allow the last eight years to happen? September 11 scared us, and we have allowed the Republican Party to leverage this fear for the advancement of a politics and philosophy which benefit the few at the expense of the many. Never has this been more apparent than in today's economic crises. How could anyone, even a registered Republican, vote for the Republican Party this year, in the face of such widespread evidence of the failure of these economic policies and philosophies?

"The economy" and "the market" do not have lives independent from policy--although Republicans attempt to have us believe this is so. It is time to hold those responsible for the current mess accountable for their actions: series of policies and decisions which hurt and damage the American middle class.

This election offers us as middle class and poor voters a clear choice between a candidate who will offer meaningful change and a candidate who will offer more of the same. Barack Obama has clearly proposed the types of economic policies which will rebuild our nation, while John McCain has offered nothing. For the sake of each of us and for us as a nation in a global economy, let's pay attention to the facts and make the right choice this time.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Coming Soon: Shakespeare Of, By, and For the People--Again!

Second Line Parade: A Culture of Philanthropy

This Sunday, as part of our 8th annual Deer Isle Jazz Festival with its special, expanded focus on New Orleans, we are hosting a traditional "second line" parade through downtown Stonington, along our working waterfront.

New Orleans' "second lines"--the dancers and celebrants who followed the mourners and brass bands in traditional New Orleans' funeral parades--are themselves the creatures of an important and unique part of New Orleans' culture: the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs.

These neighborhood clubs are one of the engines that, pre-Katrina, gave New Orleans a uniquely African and community-based culture. As new development and regulations threaten their second line parades and other traditions, these organizations--and the unique jazz culture they support--are under siege.

The African tribal customs that landed in New Orleans as both a slave port and an important place where slaves could win their freedom (in what is today Congo Square) rested on the belief that a productive tribal member was a valued part of the tribe. In times of need or death, that member's family was taken care of. Because everything that tribal member did was for the care and benefit, not just of an individual family, but of the entire tribe. If a member killed an antelope, he or she would divide up the carcass so each tribal member could share. Members shared in the building of huts, or the digging of shallow rock shelters, rituals, and the defense of the tribe and more.

In New Orleans in the late 18th century, these social customs evolved among freed slaves into the first of the social aid and pleasure clubs, created to provide burial, funeral, and even crafts training services for the African-American community. The clubs are based on the principle originally taught in Africa: of coming together, especially in times of need, for the collective good.

Here in coastal New England, we have churches and secular organizations--the Rebekahs, the Odd Fellows, the Masons, etc.--who take on many of the same functions. When someone is lost in a fishing accident, or injured in a car accident, we host bean suppers and post collection jars at the cash registers of local businesses.

New Orleans' social aid and pleasure clubs, and the musicians of the brass bands at the heart of their second line parades, are now at the forefront of trying to sustain traditional New Orleans' culture post-Katrina. In many ways for coastal Mainers, too, it is time to dig deep into our cultural traditions for the strength needed to collectively sustain communities whose unique legacies are under seige by money and development.

On this Sunday, July 27, at noon we'll have a chance to join forces--the Lobster Crackers' Social Aid & Pleasure Club, lead by New Orleans' Own Hot 8 Brass Band--and parade down Main Street and out onto the commerical fish pier, experiencing the rich tradition, power and celebration of a second line parade.

Art, Entertainment, and Outrage

All during this bright and shiny summer of recession and war, careening toward presidential conventions, I've been wondering: where is the outrage?

Then I saw the new Pixar/Disney, G rated animated film WALL-E.

And there was the outrage, packaged into a little trash compacting robot on a planet ruined by overconsuming humans and displayed for the eyes of the world, and especially children, to see.

Well done, Andrew Stanton (WALL-E's animator)--even if on national radio you did for some reason believe you had to maintain a division between art and politics, and deny any deeper motivations for your story crafting.

It's about time our kids--and us along with them--understand it is perfectly OK, indeed the RIGHT THING, to feel uncomfortable with the world around us: to be disturbed and, yes, outraged. After all, we've got a president and government that have driven our economy into ruin via policies that support and promote overconsumption--whether of oil or of bonus checks. These decisions are so defiant in their blatant self-servingness that I'm still not sure why we aren't all marching on Washington, D.C., and burning something every day.

I guess it is because, well, we are all too comfortable. And our entertainment system is geared, for the most part, to keep us that way. So that when we have a choice, in a community theater company, to choose between producing "Carousel," with its dark story of male-female relations, and something that simply makes us happy--we'll choose the latter. I can't tell you the number of times people have tried to dissaude us from producing a piece of theater or booking a film because, "It just isn't HAPPY." Yep. Right.

But not WALL-E. We had one smart and sensitive seven year old in the audience dissolve into tears and run from the theater the night we opened it. The vision it paints of our future is indeed grim, and that's a picture we don't want to look at. Because to really sit with the discomfort this movie--which, as 20th century Holocaust philosopher Hannah Arendt perceptively wrote mid-century, is more culture than entertainment--creates means we need to get off our theater seats and really make some change.

And real change is possibly even more difficult, more time consuming, to create than, well, real culture.

Leaving us all very uncomfortable indeed.

Monday, May 12, 2008

People Conservation

We’re all familiar with conservation: more people are trying to conserve energy and other natural resources; we work to conserve our fisheries and other wild species; we conserve land and the environment. Yet rarely do we apply the idea of conservation to people; and it’s critical to our island community that we do.
The appearance of Martha’s Vineyard-based small business entrepreneur and author John Abrams in our community this coming weekend (see schedule below) gives us a chance to really think about what people conservation means.

As John writes in his book, The Company We Keep: Reinventing Small Business for People, Community, and Place, “A community consists of a place and those who have a relationship with that place: the land and the people.” The beauty and desirability of our island, like the Vineyard, is responsible for several crises that are causing significant loss to and out-migration of the people who are the backbone of what makes this community work. These crises include: unnaturally inflated property valuations, supported by second-home owner incomes not attainable in coastal Maine, and the inevitable results of inflated valuations: an increased property tax burden on year round property owners; a decrease in state subsidy to our public schools; and a corresponding lack of affordable housing.

These economic shifts, left to their own devices without appropriate community/governmental action over many years, in turn accelerate the transition of work and career opportunities from year round, independently owned small businesses to seasonal, service sector work.

People conservation—community-based actions to ensure that the people who belong on and love this island are able to afford to stay here—is critically needed on Deer Isle. Without year round residents with the education, good jobs, and desire to maintain the independent spirit of Deer Isle—it’s just another pretty place.
What these actions are need to be decided together, as a community. The creation of affordable housing; more diverse year-round jobs; and educational and creative lifestyle opportunities that maintain and attract young residents are all necessary. How are we and can we actively promote such initiatives, and others?

Want to be a part of the answers to this question? The Stonington Economic Development Committee, sponsors of John’s appearance on the island this weekend, invites you and hopes you will attend the community action planning session with John and others Saturday, May 17, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the second floor of the Stonington Town Hall. Let’s start talking, and acting on, people conservation.

John Abrams will appear Friday, May 16 at 7 p.m., in a free speech at the Reach Performing Arts Center; and Saturday, May 17 from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m., in a community action planning session at Stonington Town Hall. His book is available at both the Stonington and Deer Isle public libraries, and will be for sale during his appearances.

Friday, April 25, 2008

A Nation at Risk, Take 2

This morning's New York Times carried the following Op Ed recognizing the upcoming 25th anniversary of the report "A Nation at Risk," which raised the first alarms about American public education and is often cited as the catalyst for modern school reform movements.

Twenty-five years of hand wringing over the declining quality of American education have done little to reverse the trend. Today, as cited in the article above, less than 70% of our young people graduate from high school (compared to more than 75% 25 years ago); and ranks 16th out of 27 industrialized nation in the percentage of students who COMPLETE college.

This is shameful, and it is hurting our general economy--not just due to a lack of skilled leadership and work force, but perhaps more importantly because of the way declining public education creates a badly-informed electorate. In the last two national elections, large percentages of America's working class--i.e., "red America,"--voted AGAINST their own economic self-interest whenever they voted Republican. The Republican economic agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy and initiatives such as the war in Iraq have caused the staggering burden of national debt to soar--which in turn helps to foster inflation, high fuel prices, and all the other economic woes we currently face. Yet they found a solid base of support amongst working class people: those who have been most directly hurt by these very policies.

A democracy requires a well-informed, questioning electorate. Our nation's founders and many since them knew that an excellent, fully accessible public education system was the key to creating such an electorate. We can't dismiss that knowledge at this late date; and we can't spend another 25 years wringing our hands over how to slowly change our lost public education system. National action is required, and quickly: let's hope that whoever the new resident of the West Wing is has the guts and the wherewithal to do do.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Eternal Optimism of Economic Development

Economic development requires three things: vision, optimism, and a will for change.

By its nature, economic development--creating new opportunities for people--is about shifting life perceptions and expectations from where they have lived their whole life to a new vision for how they might succeed.

In Maine, economic development often looks like the paper mill worker agreeing to learn new skills to function in a small, entrepreneurial, wood composite development shop.

Or a lobster fisherman, who can no longer afford the price of fuel and bait with an increasingly limited number of traps, agreeing to participate in a grant and use his or her seamanship skills to run research trips for scientists who need to study the movement of fish stocks. Or a lobster fisherman who uses his boat for a filmmaking crews, documenting the Penobscot Bay ecosystem.

Or people who have worked blue collar, manual labor jobs all their lives learning computer and communication skills so they can participate in the growth of weath generated by the creative/knowledge economy.

Whatever economic development looks like, it looks like change and ordinary community members spearheading economic development efforts must have the leadership skills to, as Kouzes and Posner have written, "do extraordinary things." Leaders do this by a) modeling the way; b) inspiring a shared vision; c) challenging the process; d) enabling others to act and e) encouraging the heart.

For those of us on the coast of Down East Maine--beseiged by the fall of the fisheries; the inflation of property values; and the desire to maintain independent, worker-owned businesses under pressure from the tourism/services sectors--this is tough work. Try convincing a lobster fisherman in the spring of 2008 that he or she should think about alternative opportunities, the larger economic context, or just the future in general and it is very likely you will hear only about the flat, low boat price for lobsters in relation to rising fuel and bait costs.

Change happens slowly and incrementally. If we are to sustain our communities, we must continue to be voices for change: the message of other opportunities and how they relate to former natural resources based lives must be consistent and strong. We can't worry if only one or two people listen at first: it is the consistency and persistence of the message, our long term belief in and ability to create a vision shared by the entire community, and not just a single component of it, that must carry the day if we are to sustain year-round, rural communities across the U.S.

Being an Eternal Optimist is not easy, and sometimes it feels as if fewer and fewer individuals are willing to take on this role. I for one am going to keep on trying, and hopefully a few of you will join me.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Our Contributions to the Human Spirit

One of the great and awe-inspiring things about participating in the national Kennedy Center Partners in Education program is the constant motivation provided by the venue--and its raison d'etre--itself. The Center is the national memorial to President John F. Kennedy; and neither before nor in the 40+ years since his death have we had a President as committed to the ideals of art and creativity as he was.

" . . . I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we too will be remembered not for vicotries or defeats in battle or politics, but for our contributions to the human spirit . . . "

This JFK quotation adorns an outer wall of the Center; it is also used and referred to in almost every presentation by staff and participants as we discuss how best to spread the word on the power of the arts in student learning.

Because what JFK knew more than 40 years ago now, today data proves: our contributions to the human spirit--our arts and culture, our creativity--is what distinguishes us as people. Students who learn in and through the arts learn and perform better across the board; and most of the "geniuses" of our time were people who, like Einstein, not only excelled at business or science but played a musical instrument. Their creativity and artistry, as fostered through music and arts education, is what powers them to excellence.

There is a whole-school improvement model called Changing Education Through the Arts, and we at the Opera House, in partnership with our local schools and with the help of the Kennedy Center, are excited about the possibility of becoming part of it. Because our kids deserve it. Because our communities and our local economies need it. And because ingenuity is at the core of our lobster fishing culture: so an education based on right brain methods of creativity is going to be a better cultural fit--thereby securing heightened engagement and results from our students--than the ancient, industrial model of public education under which our students currently struggle.

We invite you to learn more about how we can become what we need to be--The Imagine Nation--at the following websites. Read on and be in dialogue with us! Not only, in the words of the National Endowment for the Arts, does "a great nation deserve great art;" but a great nation demands creativity and innovation, and public arts education is the key to getting ALL of us there--not just some of us.

Changing Education Through the Arts
Arts Education Partnership
The Imagine Nation

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Tears for Art

Twice this week I have been moved to tears by overwhelming experiences of art.

The photo above is from the National Symphony Orcestra in the Concert Hall at the Kennedy Center. As part of our annual meeting, we were treated to tickets of them performing with the multi-genre group, Pink Martini. We were seated, as you can see from this photo, in the front row--closer than I've been in all my years with subscriptions to the NY Philharmonic, etc., except when I was playing! They opened with a classic that was over-played in the 1960s classical cancn: Ravel's Bolero. But the sound--the sheer richness of it, the depth of it, the way it surrounded us and crescendoed and swelled--such power and beauty of a live, symphonic musical experience sent tears cascading down my cheeks. All of the arrangements were by the young, hip Pink Martini members, which had the unionized violins at the rear of the orchestra looking pretty grumpy; but when they played the 1950s film classic, Que Sera, Sera--returning it to its origin at the end of a creepy Hitchcock flick in which Doris Day sings this in response to her son being kidnapped (!)--I again could not help the tears of joy from streaming down my face.

It is a big loss to those of us in rural areas, to not have access to this level of symphonic performance. Sheer power and beauty, overwhelming to the brain and affecting one's heart beyond what one might imagine possible.

Then yesterday, we saw, as part of one of the meeting presentations, a slide show demonstrating student learning around a book, "Martin's Big Words," the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Again, the clear power of the student learning--their own words, their incorporation of their understanding in their little third grade bodies--blew me away.

We are very lucky to be able to be in an environment with more than 300 people focused on how to improve student learning. It is a rare but much needed environment, for all our communities; in fact, each school board meeting should be the same.

Needless to say, they aren't.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Market Demand for Emotional Intelligence

I am privileged to be in Washington, D.C. this week, at the annual meeting for the Kennedy Center Partners in Education Program in which we and our local school district participate together.

We flew out of Bangor just under another snow storm: an "icy mix" was falling as we sat at the jetway, and soon they hosed us down with the alien green goop that they say de-ice the wings. Despite the effects of bad weather on our 30-seat plane, I was completely engaged in reading Dan Pink's book, A Whole New Mind. Pink, who is my age and a business writer living here in D.C., was yesterday's keynote speaker at the conference. For those interested in helping Maine or other locales advance in "creative economy" initiatives and/or arts education, I highly recommend Pink's work: you can find out more at

It was almost 15 years ago, when I was a young(ish) corporate executive dabbling at the edges of New Media World for The Village Voice newspaper, that my boss--the President and Publisher of that legendary paper--gathered his young execs around a table in the original conference room of Hartz Mountain Industries (yes, the bird seed / pet supply moguls, who purchased the Voice in the late 1980s and owned it until a disastrous sale in the late 1990s). "Read this," he said to us, a group of callow-radical youth in which he was trying to promote capitalist leadership skills for the new era. "It's the new way to be a leader." The badly Xeroxed article he handed us was by Daniel Goleman, the internationally-known psychologist and former science journalist, who was writing on the need for emotional intelligence as perhaps the most important leadership skill of the coming era: and my life as a business leader has never been the same.

Pink's arguments concisely and compellingly extend Goleman's research. He cites three factors--abundance, Asia, and automation--as the market levers demanding new skills from our kids who will enter the workforce. Like Goleman, who continues to work on these issues and recently posted the following on this own blog, Pink argues that a) these heretofore seemingly intuitive skills, such as ingenuity, personal rapport, and gut instinct, can be taught and b) if we are going to prepare out students for the future, they must be taught. More on "How to Think Like a Lobster Fisherman" in my next installment.

"Here’s a sneak preview of some headlines that you’ll see in the next few months: teaching kids to be more emotionally and socially competent boosts their academic achievement. More precisely, when schools offer students programs in social and emotional learning, their achievement scores gain around 11 percentile points." -- Daniel Goleman's blog

Saturday, February 23, 2008

On Suffering, Part II: Release

On Wednesday, I posted a piece using the horrible condition of our winter roads as an analogy for a discourse on suffering . . . on Thursday, I was vaulting down the back steps of the Opera House, having completed a school vacation matinee showing of "Alvin and the Chipmunks" for 36 children under 3 feet tall, and their accompanying eight adults, when three--yes, three--giant Maine DOT trucks roared around the corner and up the hill. Their trucks loaded with sand, they had just finished filling the worst dips and holes along Route 15.

Hmm. Maybe it does pay to personify god!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On Suffering, or Winter Roads

Yesterday, I could smell daffodils in the sun, I could close my eyes and see and feel Easter approaching. I know it's out there, even if daffodils don't bloom in Maine until late April and the prints of crow wings grace the snow.

The wind is still cold enough to wear full winter gear: ski jacket, hat, gloves. It was blowing hard from the west and, while walking the dogs along the cove, it caused thin sheets of ice to skitter like fish across the surface, chasing us. Young Jack was alarmed; I was fascinated, having never before heard or seen a phenomenon quite like ice leaping swiftly across itself and the water. As the gusts increased, the crackling and crushing noise grew louder, and we could stand and watch layers of crispy ice advance toward us up the shore.

I have to imagine the same process is happening under our roads here, because the results include ripples, holes, trenches and dips that any good Californian would assume meant "earthquake!" Make economic development note: local business opportunity = full time chiropractor . . .

While making what felt like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride home at night across these roads, I was listening to "Fresh Air" on NPR. Terry Gross was interviewing Bart Ehrman, a professor of religion who has just authored God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer.

Good question, I though, wondering which part might fall from either truck or self before reaching my destination.

But very quickly I found myself disgusted with the naive, simplistic approach this alleged professor of religion was taking. What kind of christianity is this, that so personifies god as a being, a friend and enemy; and then holds this entity responsible for our well being? Unfortunate answer: it's the literalist christianity that holds sway in an american culture that does not count metaphor, mystery, or self-responsibility among its intellectual or emotional legacies.

It is surely not the catholic christianity with which I was raised, which quite clearly taught that suffering is an inevitable part of this amazing garden of eden we call earth; this paradise in which we are responsible for our own actions and consequent suffering. We can hope for grace and forgiveness and strength to bear the difficulties and natural harshness of this world, but god is not a personal friend who, like Michael Clayton in the recent award-winning film of the same name, is gonna fix it all up for us. The "god" and bible stories with which I was raised were clearly metaphors and allegories for love and for, as Buddhists might say, "right action."

Ehrman, who confessed to what I already suspected--that he had grown up in the cult of fundamentalist, "born again" christianity--then went on to dismiss "other religions'" more advanced understandings of suffering--including Buddhism's. Buddhism, of course, directly posits suffering as the inevitable result of the way the human mind engages with the natural world of which it is a seamless part. This would, of course, be far too much self-responsibility for any born again christian to bear.

Little wonder our american political world--a democracy founded on self-responsibility--has itself suffered mightily during the reign of the cult of religious fundamentalism. It's time to move beyond such literalism in our teaching, our art, our politics.

The roads suck and we've got to get them fixed. How the hell are we going to do this?!

"And what, monks, is Right View? It is, monks, the knowledge of suffering, the knowledge of the origin of suffering, the knowledge of the cessation of suffering, and the knowledge of the way of practice leading to the cessation of suffering. This is called Right View." -- Mahasatipatthana Sutta: The Greater Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

40 Days

Lent is actually quite an interesting period; or it could be, if it were once again more broadly observed. Think of the potential impact on American foreign policy alone of the parable of Jesus spending 40 days in the desert, reflecting on sin and fighting temptation; and its corollary of christians reflecting on and asking forgiveness for our sins, and focusing on acts of kindness for others. When viewed within the context of our overwhelming consumption of world resources; our hubris in the face of the rest of the world; our denial of suffering by the poor both within and without our country's walls (don't even get me started on ours, or Israel's, walls)-- 40 days is not a hell of a lot. In fact, it's nothing.

If Obama or Hilary or anyone could give us this--a way to step back from American arrogance to and defensiveness from the world at large, and from the poor in particular--I'd guarantee my vote.

In fact, the questions of Lent, as illustrated in the story of Jesus and the serpent in the desert, not surprisingly cross religious borders, finding their echoes in Jewish, Muslim, and even Buddhist thought. Does a particular action serve only ourselves? What sort of power seduces us? What sort of hunger invites us to grab a short cut? What sort of attention do we crave?

For our politicians as for us, these are the ongoing questions of our time.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Bored Dumb

It's Lent and I've given up alchohol (again). It is viciously icy here day after day, and Judith has just fallen on the lovely, coated shore (as pictured) for the fourth time this winter.

No wonder I am getting cranked up to be in "Post Valentine's Day, February Rant Mode," and being told by friends they are "bored"--a word used all too frequently in my neck of the winter woods--is just the thing to set me off. I've never liked the word, and ban its use with my students.

"Tired of the world" and "not interested" are the most common meanings of "bored"; but there are also those associated with the drilling aspect of the verb, such as "to make one's way steadily, especially against resistence." This I find of much greater interest. But verbs are active, and being an actor is never how one finds oneself "bored." Being bored is to have something done to you when you are NOT acting.

As a culture, we Americans, very much like unevolved adolescents (see The Gale Encyclopedia of Childhood and Adolescence, which cites "boredom" as a condition most frequently affecting this group--and a condition closely related to depression), have a problem with boredom.

The primary cause of boredom in any situation is a lack of attention. And that's exactly what we are taught by the media and our public schools and our families to do: to not pay attention. Rather than being taught that everything is of interest--say, if not the plot of a movie or book, then the language or the cinematography; if not the moral quandary then the characters themselves, etc.--we're taught to either "like" or "not like" things. And if we decide we don't like something--say, a political candidate or issue--we lose interest. We shut down. We close ourselves off--in fact, we defend ourselves-- from the myriad of interesting details: like these stones, their colors and shapes caught just beneath the thin, translucent surface of winter.

We've become a culture of defense, and nothing illustrates this more readily or tragically than how often so many are bored dumb.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Winners and Losers

Today our home team, the New England Patriots, are poised to win their fourth Super Bowl in five years.

Our Boston Red Sox, after not having won a World Series since 1903, won their first World Series in 2004 and won again in 2007.

Meanwhile, the Celtics, a great basketball team when I was growing up but one that's been in the doldrums for nearly 20 years, have lost only eight games this season and are 12 games ahead of the nearest competition.

Out there in media-land, they are starting to call us New Englanders "winners."

I'm just not sure how I feel about this change in perception.

OK, not that sports are the only, or necessarily the best, metric for a regional culture. There's also cuisine; and, of course, theater.

But when you grow up in a place that, let's face it, has established pride in its underdog status; a tiny region rising from the eastern underarm of New York City--and then you start to become winners: it's a big perceptual shift. What does it mean to us as New Englanders to embrace a culture of winning?

Will it mean better education, and stemming the loss of jobs from our northern climates? Will it mean a return to Blue State dominance of national politics; of New England surpassing the south and midwest in leading america's voting for a new president?

Probably not. Hopefully neither will it mean that New Englanders--famously ornery and uncaring about showy wealth and fame--will succumb to the success-crazed, ego-driven culture that appears to be, more and more certainly, dominating our national heritage.

Here's what I'm hoping for today: a really tight, tight game. Long, excellent, stunning passes by both Tom Brady and the Manning baby. High scores on both sides. A close enough game we will all be glued to our sets until the two-minute warning.

And the outcome? Why do we care so much? Why do we want so badly to identify with a team that is the winner? Maybe, just maybe, who knows: if we all asked ourselves this at half-time, while reminding each other that losing is good for the soul, we'd emerge on Monday morning a better nation.

Enjoy the game.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Bi-Partisan? Bi-Something: is it nature or nurture?

As caucus day finally reaches us here in Maine (Sunday, February 10), it's impossible not to dwell on, well, partisanship. After all, the very nature of the caucuses is that there are Democratic and Republican events and choices.

I've had a couple of chances lately to experience and then to muse on the differences between local Democrats and Republicans, and, try as I might, I can't seem to convince myself these differences are merely policy or electoral choices.

Democrats and Republicans here on my small island, where we are of course all mixed up at every meeting, just plain seem to behave differently. And these different behaviors--toward both process and people--appear to originate in quite polarized ways to understand the world.

When we sit down at tables in the evenings or mornings, at town hall or at the schools, to work together to improve local education or economic development or affordable housing, we've got engineers and artists, gay and straight, democrats and republicans all right there elbowing for space. You'd have to say we've got more than bi-partisanship; we've got multi-partisanship. Which is to say that, unlike in larger places, you can't avoid those folks who think and act differently from yourself.

This is an amazingly powerful thing: the democratic ideal, really. It is also a frustrating one, because small changes are hard and long fought. Living and working in a truly multi-partisan environment makes it easy to see why it is so difficult to achieve world peace; to lower greenhouse gas emissions; or to achieve any of the large, international goals so necessary to our survival as a planet.

I'd like to think that, despite our different perspectives and practices, we share the same goals: we want to continuously improve education for our kids; we want to stimulate prosperity for more of our community members; we want to reverse global warming and live at peace as a world.

The real, day to day problem--the one that keeps us from achieving our communal goals and ideals--is we don't really focus on shared goals. Instead, we each tend to focus on our own individual goals, which have to do with ways to approach and interact with the world. And that's when the difference between say, the engineer and the artist, or a democrat and a republican, matters.

How do we move beyond the impasses caused by these differing world views? You'll note I am not going to characterize or judge either: they are just immensely different, and again, my experience is that these individual differences very often get in the way of moving forward toward shared goals. But I do have a funny story, from the world of gay pop culture, that reflects this impasse.

In season three of "The L Word," a Showtime evening soap designed for the lesbian crowd, one of the gals "switches teams:" i.e., she falls for, and moves in with, a man after years in lesbian relationships.

Happens all the time, in both directions.

The funny story part is a scene in which she invites her old pack of lesbian pals to a party, to which her new male honey also invites HIS pack. And, you know, as life as in art: it's awkward. The straight crowd is mostly titillated and thrilled by the beautiful young lesbians; and the lesbians are pretty dismissive of the kind of unconscious rudeness and judgement that wafts from the straight crowd (here is where you can insert your own republican/democrat analogies . . . ).

Because it is a TV show, the writers--to break the ice and move along the party, not to mention the show's message--sit them down to play a trivia-type game, one in which the players make up their own questions. "Who is Terrell Owens?" one of the straight guys ask. The lesbians look nonplussed. "Only one of the greatest receivers in the history of football!" the guy guffaws. The lesbian group shrugs diffidently, as a unit. "Who's Kathleen Hanna?" one of the lesbians ask. Now it is the straight groups turn to look nonplussed. "The most famous founder of riot grrrl music!"


A little black and white, but it makes its point: as privileged americans, we tend to live in highly segmented worlds--our fiercely won and proclaimed self-identities dictating much of our everyday choices and world views. We read only the news we want to read (thanks to RSS feeds and customized emails); we listen to only the music to which we want to listen; and when it comes down to solving a community problem--we see only the world each of us individually wants to see.

It's the paradox of democracy; and we're gonna have to be a little more creative than we've been for the last 20 years to really make it work before we melt down the planet.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Running on Fumes

Late yesterday afternoon, as I was racing up island from the theater to the school, I noticed it was nearly 4:30 (meaning I was half an hour late already for the meeting of the school technology committee meeting, which I was attending)--and I noticed my truck's gas gauge indicated I had zero gas.

I was, as is so often the case and in so many ways, running on fumes.

I slowed down (good for truck, environment, and bystanders anyway). It was snowing large flakes, and was bitterly cold. I really didn't want to have to walk a mile or more when I ran out of gas.

If you're like me, you might remember slowing down is a major strategy in energy conservation. Again, I'm not talking about personal, human energy here -- although I might as well be. I'm talking about our use of gasoline, and our production of driving's evil byproduct, atmosphere-warming CO2. But for those of us who got our licenses in the 1970s, pre SUVs; and then had to wait in line to buy gas, odd-numbered and even-numbered days based on our plates; and hear the cries of outrage in Nebraska as the federal speed limit was set at 55 throughout the country -- we might remember that slowing down is a part of conserving energy.

So I coasted down the last incline and into the twins' Mill Pond Service. Lights were on but no one appeared and I could easily imagine them closing at 4 p.m., since many island businesses do. But when I got out and poked my head into the garage itself, one of the twins appeared.

"I'm running on fumes," I told him. "Glad you're still open."

He came out and began filling the tank (we're happily not self serve or automated here on the island). "You know where that phrase comes from?" he asked nonchalantly.

"Nope," I said, thinking I was about to hear a yarn about a epochal empty tank.

"Back in the 1960s," he began, "when folks started getting really interested in the environment, some folks down at MIT began to get interested in how far you could really get on one gallon of gas."

Now I'm sitting with my head hanging out the driver's window, listening.

"So they took a 1955 Chevy, and they tinknered with the carburetor," he continued. "they had a closed track to run this test on. You know how you can see the fumes coming off gas when you leave it sitting in the sun?"

I nodded.

"Well, if you heat the gas up, you get these heavy fumes. So heavy you can run on them. So then they shaved the tires down, practically to points in the middle, so only one inch or so was in contact with the ground."

Seeing this tippy old Chevy in my mind, I begin thinking maybe this is a tall tale after all.

"Then they started her up. They got her up to about 35 mph and then just sent her around the track with this one gallon of gas and its fumes . . . and she kept going for over 300 miles."

My jaw dropped, and he laughed. "It's true," he said. "There's another story about a guy, about the same time, bought a new DeSoto and drove all the way from Las Vegas to Los Angeles without using hardly any gas. When he got there he went into a DeSoto dealership and asked what was going on. They looked under the hood and said, um, you got a model with our new, experimental carburetor on it. Then they took it from him and replaced it with the old model, which used LOTS of gas.

"Course now the oil and car companies own all them patents, and you're never going to see them in a car," he concluded, grinning. "That was back when Greenpeace and all those other environmental organizations got started up. But I've got the knowledge to do it myself, and with gas prices going the way they are I might fix up my own."

I told him I'd be by to have my own carburetor operated on. Who wouldn't want to, if we could, run on fumes? And who doesn't believe, after all, that it is really possible; although not to the benefit of those making the policy and the $$.

Slow down. Save yourself a gallon of gas, and more.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Laramie Revisited

Last night I was in the theater alone. On the stage, on a ladder, paint can in my hand, painting a set piece for tonight's student performance of "The Laramie Project."

To be precise: I am painting the X-shaped fence on which Matthew Shephard was left to die.

There is something great about working alone on a stage set, at night, after rehearsal and the work day is over. The presence of what is in the process of being created presses around you, exciting and comforting, on all dimensions: in the air, in the smell of the paint and the stage, in the feel of the lights, in the echoes of the actors footsteps and the lines they just finished reading. It is an air of expectancy and of promise: of a vision in the making. This is how theater tech people enthusiastically stay up all night before opening, painstakingly finishing their work after the actors have left.

On this night in particular, I feel nearly giddy with emotions. Some of the last words that sounded on the stage on which I am working were those of Dennis Shephard, the father of brutally murdered, openly-gay college student Matthew Shephard, as read by one of our local high school students. The students self-selected "The Laramie Project," an ensemble piece by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project, as a play they wanted to direct, stage, and present. They felt its import to their own lives on this small Maine island, at their tiny high school from which approximately 30 students graduate annually. And I can feel its importance to them, in the way they are working on this play, tussling with the language of the many characters: learning how to pronounce western place names and present adult characters--parents, preachers, doctors, judges--totally different from themselves and their experience here in Maine. They are giving this their effort and seriousness because the play's central emotional themes--of sexual choice; of acceptance; of justice--mean something to them. And as someone who came out in high school in 1978, I am so deeply moved by their work -- I could stay up on this ladder and paint the night away.

See you at the Opera House tonight, Wednesday, January 23, to bear witness to their efforts.

Monday, January 21, 2008


As those of you who've followed my published work know, today--the public holiday in recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, birthday--is my favorite of all holidays. That's because this is our only national holiday which supports a subordinate and seemingly fading spirit underpinning our Constitution: our desire not only for the pursuit of individual liberty; but also our desire for communion, for an active practice and tradition of unifying with each other.

"King sought to bridge that gulf between the social and the spiritual," the Reverand Frank Portee III is quoted in today's Los Angeles Times as saying. "That was the genius of his prophetic leadership."

King was a Christian who understood that Jesus's message of love was not a passive nor an easy one; he was a Christian who was puzzled and appalled by those who claimed to be Christians yet worshipped silently in the shadow of others' oppression. He understood that a philosophy of loving others as you would yourself be loved--of treating with love and prayer those who might persecute or hate you--was and is an extremist position: one that would radically change the world. He acted on it; he changed the world; and he paid the price.

A hunger for spirituality, for communion with others, is clearly one of the dominant forces in American politics today. How can we shift the practices--consumerism, vengeful battles, and the accumulation of obscene wealth chief among them--that merely support our individual pursuit of liberty, toward those that will truly bring us into communion with those less fortunate than ourselves? With so much privilage--education, leisure time, a wealth of resources--why is it so difficult to leverage our wealth and resources in support of others?

One barrier to King's radical notions of love, service, justice and change is a peculiarly american misunderstanding of Christianity itself. As a people, we are plagued by the Puritanical belief that God shows his judgement of us in the forms of earthly wealth and success. In this misguided understanding of christianity, those who prosper deserve to prosper; those who don't, don't. And the deserving prosperous--the righteous--don't take into themselves the radical notion of Jesus's love, and how that might inform all of our actions.

"We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny," King wrote in "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," a letter addressed to white ministers. "Whatever affects one directly, affects us all indirectly."

We inherently know we are part of something much larger than any of our individual selves, and we hunger for that sense of belonging. Yet at the same time, many of our day-to-day actions work to contradict our desire for this communion. Martin Luther King Day is an excellent time to reflect on the ways, small and large, each of us might better let go of ourselves--our egos, our pride, our desires--to better support our communities, our country, and our world. It's a wonderful holiday--may you celebrate it well!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Local Control, Local Control, Local Control

That's right: if you say it repeatedly, like a mantra, its meaninglessness becomes apparent.

"Local control," alongside projecting what taxpayers will not pay, is the biggest club used to bludgeon a consistent process of educational improvement out of our schools. And at this juncture, in citing the real issue again--the need for a sound process of consistent, continual, educational improvement in every school, whether rural, suburban, or urban--let me just add a clarification to yesterday's column. Here on Isle Storm, we DO have school committee members who try to operate under this premise. It's just that those individuals are stymied at every turn by 1) higher administrators throughout the state who does not insist on consistent, functional processes and 2) the school committee members who simply do not understand their roles.

We live in a global economy, where our students need the same skill set as students in China or India to succeed. The truth is, the U.S. spends more per pupil, with much worse results, than much of the rest of the world in educating our students. You'd think this alone would be enough to cause us to seriously re-think the structure of our educational system, but alas, not so. As a people, Americans love to hold onto myths and traditions, even when they hurt us. We'd be so much better served by expending more energy saving our cultural myths and traditions, and jettisoning those practical traditions that, founded during the colonial era are, well, simply no longer practical.

Such as "local control" of our schools.

Let's imagine what real local control might look like. If we REALLY wanted local control of our schools, you'd imagine that the principals in our buildings would be strong and respected leaders: this is hardly ever the case in Maine, as both the principals, their governing boards, and higher administrators bow instead before the too-many superintendents we have. If we REALLY wanted local control, we'd have an active Parent-Teachers Association, with parents engaged at every level at their children's education (not just as sports boosters). Again, because many rural Maine communities are natural resource and blue collar based economies, trying desperately to hold onto economies that are slipping into the ocean, we don't have that, either. And last but not least: if we REALLY wanted local control, the local PTA and other groups would actively support the principals in finding alternative local and national funding sources to support the education our kids really need; rather than allowing the property tax base to circumscribe and make unequal the education our kids get.

The truth is, we don't really want local control--which means taking a lot of responsibility as active citizens. We want the memory of that little white schoolhouse sitting in our little white downtowns. Of course, those went away as school populations in Maine began to decrease in size, and as everyone recognized the need for consolidated facilities. But the memory is powerful even though the reality is gone; and now we cling to its vestiges as though they might bring back that day before the fish were gone.

The twin bludgeons of local control and taxes are leaving our childrens' education beaten, bruised, and weakened.

Whenver I have an idea like this that I know is truly right on, it is usually confirmed by the same notions popping up somewhere in the national media. No great idea is ever alone. To read more about how the myth of "local control" is hurting education across the U.S., you can read "First, Kill All the School Boards" in this month's Atlantic Monthly. Thanks to Jen for the reference.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Wanted: Doll for School Board

The biggest laughs and most audience interaction during this weekend's screening of the movie Lars and the Real Girl at the Opera House came when it was noted that Lars's girlfriend--a life-size, anatomically correct blow up doll named Bianca, whom Lars ordered from the internet--had been elected to the school board in his far northern, tiny rural community.

"We need to get us one of those!" someone shouted one night.

"When can she move here?" asked an audience member loudly on another night.

And on the third night, there was simply a raucous chorus of laughter.

Interesting, right? That of all the jokes, both subtle and crass, in this movie about one community's open-armed acceptance of the delusional first love of one of their members, it's the one about school committee membership that most strikes home.

The point being: a blow up doll ordered from the internet would be better than what we've got.

As a veteran of local school committee meetings and of consulting with the schools, I am sad to say that I concur. While each school committee member is a well meaning and hard working member of our community, their individual efforts are so subjective, inconsistent, unrelated to educational research, and often hostile to actual educational improvement for our kids that it would be preferable to vote for Bianca--or someone most like her.

To wit, as we move toward town meeting, election, and school budgeting season here on the coast of Maine, a few more serious things to consider:

1. With two seats open on the school committee this election season, vote for a person who can
a) keep the big, long term picture of educational improvement in his or her sights, and not be distracted by the usual short term fears of angering the tax payers, and b) can learn to respect the guidelines for what is appropriate behavior for a governing board member of our schools. For instance, shaking one's head negatively during reports of programs approved previously by the board as part of the schools' budget is not appropriate behavior. Neither is badgering citizens who attend school committee meetings (note that none do, unless their child or the basketball program is threatened, as it is such a remarkably unpleasant experience); nor ignoring the priorities set for the current year to launch off on one's own agenda. A good school committee member, like the board member of any effective organization or profitable company, is there to govern: which is defined as establishing policy; hiring and evaluating the administration; and ensuring the funding of agreed upon programs as proposed and recommended by these administrators. It is not the role of school committee members, who have no education or expertise in educational matters, to determine on their own which programs have value and which do not. Neither is it the role of an effective school committee member to treat administrators, staff, and the public rudely or with belligerance.

2. Vote for individuals who either respect the administrators and educators they've hired, and their decisions; or move quickly and legally to let go those not meeting the standards of their job descriptions.

3. Urge your school administrators to do a thorough and proper job on the budget prior to submitting it to the school committee for approval. It is not the school committee's job to establish an abstract budget cap, based on what they imagine voters will pay, and then chew the budget up accordingly. It is the administrators' jobs to review all budget requests; match them up against the priorities established in a school's strategic plan; and bring to the school committee only the budget for what they agree, as administrators, is needed in the coming year.

4. Require that both the administrators and school committees do their jobs and fund continual educational improvement in our schools, by establishing a budget that meets the educational priorities and needs of our students and then researching and developing a variety of funding sources to meet that budget. The school committee is exceptionally lazy in its reliance on tax dollars: many of Maine's and the country's best performing schools receive supplemental funding for needed programs (on our island, think: foreign languages in K-8; a real music program at the high school level; and technology and technology integration that works) from both interested, generous individuals and foundations. The biggest, most valid job of a school committee member is to be able to ensure the funding of continuous educational improvements for our children. Vote for someone who is willing and able to do this.

5. And finally: don't allow anyone -- school administrators, teachers, or especially school committee members who are not subject to term limits but only to the lack of boundaries of their own egos -- to bludgeon your school budget with a sob story of what the taxpayers will or will not pay for. Au contraire, in our community we have proven time and again that people WANT to pay for the education of our next generations. That said, such support does not magically exist. Needs must be communicated to the community, and support organized--right up to the Get Out the Vote effort on the night ballots are cast.

You'd think only five steps shouldn't be so difficult, but these steps have proven to be nearly out of reach for voter and for our local schools. Vicious cycles breed vicious cycles, and the state of our school committee and schools are such that few who are truly qualified want to run for these positions. It's a shame, and our kids are hurt by it. This alone is the biggest argument in favor of school consolidation in Maine: not only are the long term benefits quite clear (the costs of negotiating ONE union contract vs. negotiating several--which, as all successful companies learned long ago, is incredibly cost ineffective), but so are the political and social benefits for our children of busting up the incredibly ineffective system of local school committees.

In the meantime, I'd vote for Bianca in a drop dead minute.

Next edition: What is Real Local Control?