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?