Erik Eisele

Erik Eisele

RINOs: The new liberals?

Democrats must be hoping to inherit the earth.

Take a look at Washington right now. The president is denouncing the free press, White House aides are saying the president will not be questioned, and the Republican congress is silent in its role as a check on presidential power.

Where are the Democrats? Where is the Democratic voice stepping in to rally the oceans of opposition mounting against Donald Trump’s policies? The party is in disarray, a sham. This is not a time to be meek.

But the only dissent gaining any ground are not Democrats. Dissent is that within the Republican Party. Republicans like Sen. Susan Collins, for example.

Yes, it’s sad, but Sen. Collins is currently the most effective opposition in Trump’s America. Many Mainers bristle at her name — in their eyes she’s still part of the Republican horde, RINO (Republican In Name Only) or no, she’s part of the problem — but these days are different. 2016 left Democrats sent to their room like bad children, and for some reason they’re going. Instead of channeling the chorus of voices opposed to President Trump into a movement, Democrats are sad, silent and obedient. They are beaten and pathetic. So the movement is moving without them. Fragmented and leaderless, it has energy, but not Democratic energy.

So where is its voice? Collins is a speaking out. She is quietly but consistently offering pushback against a president who is clearly in need of restraint. Just last week Collins expressed willingness to request President Trump’s tax returns through the Senate Intelligence Committee. If a Democrat said it it would be an impotent claim. No one would care. But a RINO has power.

Her vote was not enough to stop the president’s nominees to head the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency from taking office, but it was resistance, more resistance. In the ever-right-drifting American political conversation, RINOs have become the last voice of progressive politics. It’s sad, but the alternative, Democrats, are no voice at all.

Maine has been unwilling to send a Democrat to the U.S. Senate for decades. Voters take Independents and RINOs, but not D’s. Which makes sense, as this backslip of the Democratic Party has been unfolding for years. We’ve been watching the weak-kneed politics of the Ds for a generation. Republicans have held the floor since the 1990s. They have been the idea generators, leaving Democrats scrambling to mount a counter-attack. Republican tenets like limited government and increased privatization formed the framework of government, and though might unfold with disastrous consequences, as the only party with ideas to buy they won the day. Theirs were the ideas sold.

So now in 2017, RINOs, not Democrats, are the real opposition.

It was Sen. John McCain, after all, who spoke out forcefully on the president’s travel ban, saying it will “give ISIS some more propaganda.” Another RINO, a Republican, offering Trump resistance. Where were the Democrats? Nowhere special. Nowhere important. Who even remembers Democrats anymore?

Democrats should lead the charge right now. The energy to RESIST is everywhere, but the Democrats aren’t. They are languishing, lost, a party of the past. Trump has sparked a movement in his opposition, but it remains unfocused. The “opposition party” offers that might be a rallying point is a joke. There is no real opposition party.

And so there are the RINOs. As imperfect as Collins’ political persuasion may be, it stands far stronger and far better than the ineffectual laments of today’s Democrat.

Where is the counter-vision to Trump’s America? Every American on the streets holding signs in opposition to the wall, the ban, deportations, and pipelines knows it exists, but they are waiting for a party able to articulate it. So far, however, that has not been the Democratic Party.

Which leaves us with RINOs. They have become sanity’s best ally. And until Democrats make a move towards reclaiming the mantle of a party of ideas, until they offer something more than an air of defeat, the protest is a vote for Collins.

Sad.

More Votes Than Protests

“I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular.”

Progressives hate to admit it, but sometimes Gov. Paul LePage is right. He was spot-on: Maine offered a glimpse of what it’s like to elevate a blustery, aggressive, quick-mouthed bully to the most prominent position in government well before such elections went national. Not just for one term, but two.

Eight years. Think about that. Gov. LePage was authentically himself not once but twice, and he won election and re-election. Democracy facepalm.

I know what you’re thinking about split votes and 61 percent and so forth. But just like national arguments over the popular vote count versus the electoral college, these points ring hollow. America is a county built on the rule of law, and the system for deciding victors is clearly laid out. The winner must meet the standard, both in Maine and in America. The standard didn’t change. Republicans manage to win despite long odds and minority support. They win over and over.

Such upsets are now common enough that perhaps it should serve as a lesson to progressives. Something in their strategy isn’t working. And Mainers are luckier than most: Here progressives have not only 2016 to look to, but also 2010 and 2014 to for instruction on how not to run against campaigns steeped in misogyny and xenophobia.

It wasn’t so long ago that Barack Obama, the candidate of Hope and Change, swept into office. His stirring defeat of Sen. John McCain left conservatives nationwide on the defensive. But here we are eight years later, and the former opposition party holds not just the presidency, the House and the Senate, but also the majority of state legislatures and 33 governorships. That’s quite a comeback in two terms.

All this while progressives win popular votes? What makes Republicans so powerful?

I was working as a newspaper reporter in New Hampshire in 2009 when President Obama was sworn in. Remember those days? The economy had taken a cliff-jump, mortgage companies were folding, home foreclosures were sweeping nationwide, we were reeling from two wars, and with the inauguration of the first African American president came a new political wave: the Taxed Enough Already movement. It spilled out in loud protest all at once, a spontaneous eruption of right-leaning frustration.

There are echoes of the Tea Party movement today — in form if not in content: Constant protests against the president, the spontaneous upwellings of frustration at airports, schools and street corners in opposition to policy. The issues are different, but the reaction is the same — to take to the streets to make yourself heard.

That’s what progressives do well, far better and in far larger numbers than conservatives did back in 2009. But as a reporter I saw the other wave that came with the Tea Party. They brought more than just protests. Taxed Enough brought a conservative reinvigoration at every level of government. Candidates signing up for city council and school board were suddenly talking about the national debt and the federal budget. These were non-partisan positions, but there was no question where this political wave was born.

And that wave became a Republican boon, an injection into a political feeder system. While Tea Partiers protested in the streets, it was the swarm of new low-level political candidates that had lasting implications. These newly energized recruits were learning the ropes, practicing Robert’s Rules of Order and making connections within the Republican Party apparatus. Voices heard on the news stations and in the streets were one thing, but these conservatives were more focused making theirs heard in chambers of power.

Like progressives, conservatives spilled out into the streets, but they also took a long view, one intent on making their ideology more than just a slogan. The were determined to break into the halls of decision making. They fought their way into Congress and state legislatures, even school boards and select boards. No platform was too small for their fight.

I wonder how many progressives have examined that lesson. Or are they counting another 61 percent?

A Message to Portland's Immigrants: This Is Your City

A is a Portland high school student. She is Muslim of Somali heritage, her parents’ eldest child. She is thoughtful, engaged and politically aware. Lately, she has found much to be aware of.

 

“I am tired,” she told me yesterday. “I’m so tired. All of this, it’s like they don’t want us. It’s like they want to push us out. I don’t know what to do. I’m tired of protesting, I don’t want to protest anymore. Nothing changes. Never. I don’t want to protest ever again. I’m so tired.”

 

A is Somali, but she might as easily be Syrian, Iranian, Iraqi, Libyan, Sudanese or Yemeni. Here in Portland, these are our neighbors: Black. Arab. Muslim. Tired. Excluded. Alone.

 

So to every Portland-area Somali, Iraqi and Libyan, and to every Muslim who feels unwelcome, and, most importantly, to A: We see you. We are not blind to this, blind to the fear that has left you singled out and marked. “Black,” “Muslim,” “Somali,” “Woman” — these things do not scare us. These are part of your uniqueness, what makes you remarkable. Do not let others transform these into a yoke. Carry each of these labels proudly. You are black and Muslim and part of this community. There is no contradiction. You are welcome here because you are one of us, part of this city, this state and this country. You are the texture that makes this place rich, a gift to this country, an unexpected miracle that brings with it new life and renewed energy. You are a thread in Portland’s vibrant fabric, a key ingredient in this city’s thriving cosmopolitan present.

 

This is your city. It is as much yours as anyone’s, be they white, black, Hindu, Jewish or Christian. These distinctions are meaningless. If you love this place, if you invest in it, care for it, work to make it better, work to make it home, you will always be welcome here.

 

Some people may blind to you. They may fear your skin and your name for “God,” and they may reject your version of community. They may not agree with your vision for American greatness. They may accuse you of undermining their home and tell you to “Love it or leave it.” Pay them no mind. We will never be rid of such sentiments. The best we can do is soldier on unheeded by their taunts.

 

We live in a land of contradiction. At our founding, we declared “All men are created equal,” a line written by a patriot who was also a slaveowner. “All men” did not live up to its promise then, and it is still striving. But even as America is a land of contradictions, it is also a place for such striving. Since those words were first hatched, America has been swarmed with those pushing to live up to that original promise. You are now part of that striving, and in that, you are American, truly so.

 

This will be no easy walk, but you are not alone in it. We will stand beside you, stand with you, work to make your voice heard. We will work to make your blackness, your faith, your female character as equal as “all men.” Like you, we may not know how to push back the forces of bigotry, violence, and exclusion, but you will not push in alone.

 

This is Portland, your city. This is Maine, your state. This is America, your country. And we are your people. Ask us to stand with you and our voices will ring in your name.

It is okay to feel tired. It is okay to feel exhausted, to feel hopeless. But I write to remind you that you are not alone. I write to tell you that if your hope is spent, I will offer some of mine. I hope you will keep striving, like so many Americans before you, in search of that first promise, that most American promise: “Equal.”

Black Lives and White Faces

Maine is an unlikely forum for the conversation about race.

 

Northern New England, in general, is the whitest place in the country. At least 96 percent of the population of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire is white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Those numbers bear out as you wander through the snow. There just isn’t a lot of diversity here.

 

Which means when white nationalists and xenophobic groups — like Richard Spencer and his National Policy Institute — seem to be finding a voice in the national mainstream, it can be difficult for white people to figure out what to do. How do you show solidarity with people of color when you live in a sea of white faces? What kind of conversation can you have about race in such a pale state?

 

In the basement of the Portland Public Library last week, USM professor Dr. Leroy Rowe tested exactly that. Rowe is an assistant professor of African-American History and Politics, and with the backing of the Maine Humanities Council, he hosts "Race and Justice in America," the latest iteration of the library's "Let's Talk About It" book discussion series.

 

columns fromthebackseat DrLeroyRowe

Dr. Leroy M. Rowe is a Assistant Professor of African American History and Politics at the University of Southern Maine.

In the room was Rowe, one other young black woman born in South Africa, and 50 white faces. Yet Rowe had support — for the first discussion in the five-part series which concludes April 10, he came armed with The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, a 2016 collection of essays compiled by the novelist Jesmyn Ward, and written by a diverse group of young writers of color on the American experience in the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and the growing list of racial injustices.

 

Their voices, paired with Rowe’s, fed the conversation, prompting questions like What is blackness? How does it affect our country and our politics? What is white fear? White rage? Who does the American criminal justice system protect? How does American-style policing impact people of color?

 

It was a room full of white people sitting in a circle talking about a topic often seemingly off limits, white hands looking to offer support, white ears hoping to listen. Maybe this is what race conversations in white places are bound to look like — pale, paired with black and white of a book. Precious few interlocutors to engage with, yes, but maybe this is how the conversation begins. In a progressive city like Portland, this might be the expected outcome.

 

How can white “allies” support people of color, turn “white privilege" into a tool of the disenfranchised? I don’t know. No one ever taught me how to load, aim and fire my “white privilege” in a direction that counts. It’s something I’ve always carried, never controlled. My whiteness gets me out of laws and codes like Stop and Frisk, and in routine traffic stops my only risk is getting ticketed, but these perks seem like impotent tools for confronting systemic racism.

 

But power resides within me nonetheless. In court for example, as one essayist points out in The Fire This Time, white testimony means more than black testimony. According to this account, in the American criminal justice system, a white witness matters. Judges and juries believe me. That is power.

 

In public gatherings, white crowds are protesters; black groups are rioters. One gets deference and assistance; the other, tear gas. That is power.

 

In filling out job applications, mine is an uncommon last name, but it is a white name. That means I get more calls returned and more interviews. That is power, a privilege I never knew I had.

 

One woman in the group remarked that she did not ask for this privilege. She would give it away if she could, she said.

 

Not me. I didn’t ask for it either, but I would instead trade my “privilege” for “rights,” make them a commonality afforded to all Americans. This is, after all, the aspirational claim of our country: “All men are created equal.” Yet color is still a marker of worth. That is a mistake that is ours to undo.

 

But to break the pattern we have to recognize the power of whiteness and call it what it is. What I assumed are my “rights” are not afforded to all. Unpacking that reality required someone willing to show me.

 

That conversation has to happen everywhere, even here, where we stand surrounded by whiteness. It may be clumsy, a dialogue mostly between white people, with black voices coming mostly from books, but it’s better than no conversation at all.

It's hard to care about the environment, but we need to

The environment sucks. It’s like that depressed friend you care about but can’t help. You can kill yourself trying to save it, but what will your efforts amount to? Where does it get you?

That’s how it feels sometimes, right? I grew up being taught not to litter. I learned to recycle and kept the heat low in winter so not to waste fuel. I even turned off the water between toothbrush rinses in order to save water.

And yet, despite my best efforts, the Gulf of Maine is getting warmer. Crap.

A warmer gulf hurts fish, which, in turn, hurts fishermen, which, in turn, hurts Maine's economy. Crap. Double crap.

I like the environment. The Earth is probably my favorite place. So as a reporter, the first thing I think about is writing stories about it. But stories about the environment, quite frankly, aren’t particularly in demand. Talk about how hot water off Casco Bay takes a toll on cod and people’s eyes glaze over. They have more important things to wrestle with.

But this isn’t just a Maine problem — just think back to the election and how often presidential debates broke down into a nuanced conversation on carbon emissions or climate change. Never once. Not a chance. Email servers and pussy-grabbers are a way bigger draw than slowly rising sea levels and Earth’s sixth mass extinction. The same is true of local stories — the heroin crisis and changing demographics are seen as far more compelling.

This is strange. The Earth is the only planet we’ve got. It’s akin to a ship with a bad leak — it’s taking on water fast. We have no backup ship. It’s right there in the warming waters off our coast, the body named for Maine, which is warming faster than almost any other body of water on the planet.

Even if the science isn’t perfect and it’s only half right (which it isn't) we better pay attention. But we don’t.

Part of our problem is the Earth lives among a host of issues drastically in need of our attention: Wealth inequality, racial disparity, sexism, a culture of exploitation, threats to democracy, religious extremism, etc., etc., etc. These steal our focus. But how much do they matter if the stage they play out burns to the ground? If Earth goes into a tailspin we’re all dead. Maybe an apocalypse will be the great equalizer. 

But even on an individual level, it can be hard to act in the best interest of the Earth. I care about carbon emissions, global warming, science, the environment, all that stuff. But while looking at bus tickets from Portland to New York City recently my loyalties were tested. The Gulf of Maine is warming because of carbon dioxide, and certain modes of transport emit less carbon than others — trains are best, buses are OK but not great, and taking an airplane is pretty bad.

But a quick glance at cost and time — $79 to fly from New York to Portland (one hour trip), $69 to take the bus (six hours), and between $125 and $225 on Amtrak (anywhere from eight to 10 hours or more) — and it’s clear things like money and time live on the opposite side of the ledger than preserving Earth. Our busy lives don’t include space to worry about a little thing like the environment.

Funny concept, eh? We may be giving the thing we count on to support every aspect of our lives the worst hangover imaginable, and we can’t help but keep shouting in its ear. Even if you’re one of those people who wants to lower your voice, you can’t figure out how.

So how do you take hold of the controls of a crashing ship and pull up? How do you do anything with enough force to make a difference?

Well for my NYC trip I bought a bus ticket down and a plane ticket back. I’m not off to a good start.

Is Donald Trump a good businessman?

Is Donald Trump a good businessman?

I mean, he’s rich. But is he rich because his family was rich? Because his dad made a lot of money in real estate back in the day? Or is he rich because his entrepreneurial ventures have been successful?

Is he good at his job? That’s the question.

I know lots of people already have answers. His supporters say he’s clearly a billionaire with a business empire, and therefore my question is dumb. His opponents say he was born rich, and it is his string of failed businesses — casinos, an airline, a university, meat products — that make my question dumb.

But these are partisan answers. I’m looking for something different. I'm looking for a nuanced definition of entrepreneurship, of risking it in business and seeing new ideas take, and then to compare that definition to the president-elect’s record.

I don’t know a lot about being an entrepreneur, but I know it requires a willingness to fail. No one comes up with a brilliant idea first go, and no one learns everything they need to know to be successful in college or an MBA program. It takes experience, and experience is just a gentle word for failure. Success is built on foundations of failure, and it’s only in hindsight that the failures look like inevitable lessons along the way.

Maybe that’s what Donald Trump’s casinos, airline, university and steaks were — a trail of lessons. Maybe Trump was already rich, so unlike some guy selling widgets out of his garage, his failures were bound to be public and spectacular.

The fact is, I don’t know. It's almost Inauguration Day and I don’t have a clue. That wasn’t how America approached this election. There were those with undying support willing to look past his failures, and there were those who dismissed him completely, laying his successes at the feet of his father.

I imagine it’s more complex than that. Surely, Trump has both made money and lost money. But my question is whether the rate at which he made it leans closer to success or failure.

Then again, maybe Trump’s goal all along wasn't money, but power. If that’s the case, his past seems to have definitely been worthwhile. There’s no doubt he was successful at getting elected the most powerful position in the land.

That, however, strays from my point. Is Trump, the businessman (versus Trump, the politician) successful? He sold himself as a businessman — and America bought. But is he a good one? It feels like a question someone should have asked, but never did. There must be a business professor out there, or a handful of business professors, who can explain what a normal failure rate for entrepreneurs looks like. There has to be someone able to contrast that with the record of the president-elect. Is he doing well for himself? Did he do poorly? Is he at the top of the game? The middle? The bottom?

These are questions we’ve stopped asking. This election left so little space for issues, so little time for a hard look at resumes. Instead, we scrutinized temperament and character, talked border walls and Muslim bans, bickered about emails and tax returns. We never took a step back to ask basic questions about who was running. We engaged in partisan conversation, and the only clues to whether or not Donald Trump was a successful businessman came from looking at those who support him and those who opposed.

Now, here we are in January, and it’s still not really clear who we elected. That seems a poor recipe for success.

A new holiday tradition: learning about non-European cultures

I visited my niece at school last week. She’s nine and in the fourth grade. It was a holiday open house, and family was invited. Every student in the class had put together a diorama on holiday traditions, and families were welcome to come walk around the room to see how different households celebrate holidays. There were Christmas trees, Christmas cookies, strings of Christmas lights, elves on shelves, and more. Each diorama included a short history of the tradition highlighted, a smattering of interesting facts about it, and a personal narrative about how it looked in that student’s particular home.

And it wasn’t just Christmas — one little boy’s tradition was tacos on Easter. Another boy wrote about snowball fights. Another wrote about his birthday, which falls the day after Christmas. A little girl wrote about raking leaves in Autumn and jumping in the leaf pile. This was a celebration of all kinds of holidays and all kinds of traditions.

Several students chose to highlight their favorite holiday food, Eid cookies and Eid cake, sweet treats to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim religious holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.

I was familiar with Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, but I’d never heard of Eid al-Fitr. And I’d certainly never heard of purpose-built cookies or cake to accompany it. But for several students, it was their chosen tradition. One family brought in two Eid cakes for people to sample. The student, a little girl, sat smiling as her dad offered everyone a second and third slice. Her mom stood on the other side, also smiling, her head wrapped in a hijab.

I remember my own versions of these elementary school dioramas. It wasn’t that long ago, in a school much like my niece’s. But in 1990s Maine there were far fewer brown and black faces, and even fewer Muslims. Almost every featured tradition showcased a Christmas theme — wreaths, mistletoe, Christmas trees, etc. Maybe someone would stretch so far as to highlight the Fourth of July or share a New Year's tradition, but in all the years no one shared anything about Eid al-Fitr, Ramadan, or the Hajj. Before last week I’d never heard about or seen, much less tasted, an Eid cake. A teacher might bring up Hanukkah, but the only Jewish student was a grade below so even those traditions remained a mystery. The worlds of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other non-European religions never made an appearance — my first introduction to Islam didn’t come until I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in high school. Buddhism came around the same time, through Herman Hesse's Siddhartha. Other religions like these were always embodied by books, not people. It took until adulthood for them to become as real as the people I would meet throughout my life. 

My niece, however, will be spared such ignorance. Her world is more diverse than mine. Her best friend, whose diorama was set up right next door to hers, is black. A number of her classmates are Muslim. Several of the girls wore headscarves, as did parents and family members who came in to visit. To her, these differences in culture and religious belief have faces. They are people, not just ideas. She interacts with them every day, plays with them at recess, collaborates with them on assignments. They are her friends. It is a level of diversity I would not have imagined existed inside a Maine classroom, the sort of cultural education Mainers a generation ago could not access. It gives me hope. I walked into my niece’s classroom and saw the promise of mutual appreciation, the possibility of a shared interest in the diverse cultures.

Because what is school for but to learn? To learn about the world around us. Few books are as interesting as learning from life. And that is the gift my nine-year-old niece gets — a global education, right here in Maine.

That might be my new favorite tradition.

2016 Began A Long Time Ago

2016 began a long time ago.

Remember the primary, when Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were all looking to overtake Donald Trump’s rambunctious start? That was one beginning.

The other beginning, my 2016 beginning, was in Cuba. After President Obama began normalizing relations with Cuba in late 2014, I spent the next two years working there, guiding cultural exchange trips to the former pariah state. I spent New Year's Eve in Havana and flew back home a few days later. 

Now, President-elect Trump is poised to roll back expanded ties with Cuba. On the verge of opening fully, the door might once more swing closed. That’s 2016. What a year.

What else has 2016 brought? Not just the election, surely. It’s not just because of Trump's win, but 2016 has carried a whole host of hints about a long-hushed and covered topic: race. America’s dividing line. This past year has made discussions on race ring quite loud.

Trump is part of it. He won despite xenophobic statements about Muslims and Mexicans. His rise has been with the support of white supremacists and his election has emboldened their dangerous ideologies. But that is only part of the race picture. He teased out race in politics, but elsewhere in 2016 the threads were beginning to show.

Like when police in Dallas and Baton Rouge were targeted and murdered following the shooting of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, by police in Baton Rouge, and the shooting of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, by police in Minnesota. 

At the time, I was working in Belize, running youth literacy programs that brought American high school students down to run summer camps for Belizean elementary and middle schoolers. The American students had limited access to Internet, so when these racialized incidents occurred, it fell to me and the other staff to let the group know about the tumult at home.

Belize is a former British colony populated by the descendants of slaves and indigenous Mayans. The American students were there to teach, and not one of the kids they were sent to guide were white.

Our group of 26, meanwhile, were predominantly white girls. There was a sprinkling of Hispanic, Arab, black and Asian kids, many of whom attended through the support of scholarship programs that provide opportunities to underserved urban students, but most of the students came from upper-middle-class white families.

Race was always on our doorstep, but it wasn’t until police started shooting and dying that we got to talking about it. Ferguson was the straw the broke the camel's back, and that was well over two years ago. 

And we did talk about it. These were smart, thoughtful, engaged kids, not quick to shy away from hard conversations. But when it came to discussing race, the differences were striking: the students of color were well-versed and had a vocabulary around the subject, a familiarity grown over time. It was a constant reality in their world, and they knew how to express themselves, their feelings, and their frustrations.

Many of the white students, meanwhile, struggled to find a foothold to speak from. These were smart young women, but when the subject turned to historical subjugation and persistent inequity, they went silent. I did my best to get them to open up, but most were unwilling to engage. Their discomfort with race was so large it became a muzzle. One-way conversation, dominated by the students of color, was the best we could do.

That, perhaps, is 2016 in a sentence: Race and the struggle white Americans face in its stark and uncomfortable reality. The fear of it. The fear of talking about it. The struggle in reckoning with inequity, the persistence of it, and the opportunity and power race carries.

These are conversations white people are not all well-versed in. We are not all equally articulate. And these conversations include risks — in a world of scarcity, white America stands to lose. At least, that's their perception. There is great fear associated with that risk; 2016 makes that clear.

But 2016 has also left the coverings of this most American rift threadbare. Race is in our founding, in our very fabric, and it will take Americans of all shades to make sense of it. But this long one-way conversation brings nothing to a close. We must all be willing to speak up, and when appropriate, listen. 

I'm anxious to see what 2017 will bring. 

Deaths of despair are all too common in Maine

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.

Just Don't Fall: The passions and pitfalls of making Portland a nexus for new circus

“Push up. Push up from your shoulders. You’re sagging.”

I can tell I’m sagging. I’m upside-down, balanced on my hands above a concrete floor, my feet pointed at the ceiling like the cone of a rocket ship. And since I flipped into this handstand, my face has been slowly lowering. Push as I might, I can’t halt the descent. My shoulders are spent, won’t budge anymore, and as they fail I can feel my weight tipping. The tower of my body has begun swaying like a felled tree.

“Push! Tighten your butt! Push! Push! Push!” Cory is yelling at me again. He’s always yelling at me, at least when he’s within 10 paces. Otherwise, he’s yelling at somebody else. It’s not a scolding yell, it’s a coach’s yell, the shouts of encouragement that seem almost enough to suspend someone in air upside-down, like his students’ balance hinges on the volume of his instructions. He clearly sees what I’m doing wrong, and maybe a few well-timed shouts can save me.

But not this time. His yells aren’t enough. My balance has shifted, and the spell that somehow kept me standing upside-down on my hands has broken. My legs are now headed over backward towards the concrete, a tumbling fall that at this point has become familiar. I fold at the waist and twist my body, the spin coming just in time to plant my feet safely under me. I pop up, standing rightways again, my face red from exertion and the rush of blood that comes from being upside-down. Cory is nodding and smiling. “Good. Good,” he says. “Now just don’t fall.”

Just don’t fall. That seems like good advice at Circus Maine, where handstands are probably the least hazardous height someone can take a tumble from. “Just don’t fall” becomes even more important once you move to the trapeze, the aerial silks, the straps or the Chinese pole (actually two poles that stand parallel that performers bounce between).

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Cory Tabino goes one handed onstage on a set of hand balancing canes. Photo By: Vladimir Saveljev

Falling is required just to get going on the giant inground trampoline, but then the faller flies into the air at twice their original speed, suddenly giving “just don’t fall” new meaning.

Even acrobats who stack to form human towers must heed this “don’t fall” mantra. For them, a fall there takes out not only themselves but the rest of the team.

So yeah, it’s good advice, just don’t fall.

The thing is, there’s lots of falling at Circus Maine. It’s a circus school. No one is born knowing how to do a handstand, much less a one-handed handstand, much less a one-handed handstand on stage before an audience where every movement is choreographed in time with music. To get there takes falling, years and years of falling.

“It took me seven years to put my hand-balancing act together,” Circus Maine’s hand balancing instructor Cory Tabino said.

He studied hand balancing at Ecole Nationale de Cirque, the National Circus School of Montreal, for three years, and then he spent three years working for Cirque du Soleil, also based in Montreal. He’s now spent a quarter-century working as a circus artist around the world.

“I went across the Atlantic Ocean four times,” he said, doing his act on cruise ships. “The only place I haven’t performed is Antarctica.”

Now, in addition to being the lead handbalancing instructor and a professional performer (just last week he went to Japan to perform for U.S. soldiers), Tabino is also Circus Maine’s artistic director. And he’s also the head of the professional program. And he serves as a stagehand at live productions. And he organizes signature events in the Circus Maine building on Thompson’s Point. And he coordinates off-site performances for private and corporate events.

Like everyone at Circus Maine, Tabino wears many hats.

“We are the textbook definition of a startup company,” he said.

Circus Maine is a recreational circus school with both adult programs and kids programs, a professional circus training academy and an event production company. They put on monthly cabarets that bring top level performers to Portland, host a summer camp that over the past three years served more than 500 kids, and in October they held their first marquee event, a Halloween party called Mischief Night that paired circus performers swinging on silks in full costume with DJs, drinks and a dance party.

These events are anything but bland: two of the Mischief Night performances were pole dances. Two others were beautiful women in trim costumes hanging above a crowd dancing on a concrete floor. At a cabaret event in October, a couple performed on a suspended hoop in formfitting bedclothes, her wearing a slinky top and shorts that barely held her in. The pair tumbled and swung above the audience bathed in milky light; the whole performance felt like something out of a dream.
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Joshua Oliver and Kat Finck take to the lyra during a stage performance. Photo By: Casey Jaques

“New circus is sexy,” Joshua Oliver, the male-half of the bedclothed performance, said. “It’s very bold. It’s intoxicating.”

An instructor and performer at Circus Maine, Oliver is also the technical director and driving force behind the project. When he talks about circus he gets animated, the excitement shows in his eyes.

“We’re essentially the next generation of high-end entertainment,” he said. “We want to push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable art. I don’t think you will be bored.”

At the heart of this effort is Circus Maine’s purpose-built circus training facility in Thompson’s Point Brick North. From the outside, it’s an old brick mill building, but inside it has a trampoline, multiple lines for trapeze, padded floors and countless gymnastic mats. If ever there was a space to fall, it's here. 

But that learning space can also be converted into a performance space. And that performance space can also be converted into an events venue. The same room that hosts a dozen children practicing back flips every Tuesday night also housed a TEDx event last year in which Oliver swung from a pair of straps suspended from the ceiling in a performance that looked both Olympic and artistic. Circus Maine uses the venue to host 10 shows a year and also run their recreational program serving 120 students. Later this month they will hold their Solstice event, their first full in-house circus production, there, and on New Year's Eve they will hold another marquee event, a 1920s Great Gatsby-themed “Red Carpet Event,” in the same space.

It’s a movement towards a type of spectacle-infused events that have become common in bigger cities, Tabino said, “but here in Maine we’re really toeing the line.”

Shows are provocative, emotive, fast-paced, beautiful. Performances infuse tremendous physical control and precise movement with an element of storytelling.

“It’s highly athletic,” Tabino said, “but it allows for individual expression.” The artistic angle is the key part. “Otherwise it’d just be gymnastics.”

That such expression is occurring at all, however, is somewhat of a surprise. Fifteen months ago the idea that Portland would host multiple circus shows in a matter of weeks seemed unlikely if not impossible. The Circus Conservatory of America, a proposed professional-level circus academy, had just turned insolvent, and Oliver, Tabino and the other professionals recruited to bring contemporary circus to Portland were out of their jobs.

But circus isn’t a normal career. No one gets into handbalancing, trapeze, juggling or clowning for the money. Contemporary circus is an art, and like any art form, it is the art itself that pulls at its practitioners. They do it for passion rather than the paycheck, performing almost out of compulsion.

Oliver is no exception. “I’ve been on stage since I was 8 years old,” he said. He discovered new circus, the intermixing of gymnastics-style physical feats with performance, in his early 20s, and it has held him ever since.

Modern circus style is an intermixing of Russian technique with French artistic tastes, according to Oliver. “We perform in theaters rather than tents,” he said, and cotton candy and elephants aren’t part of the act. “New circus is been a really important art form, an opportunity to use physical excellence as a voice.”

Circus artists create their own acts, and it takes time. It takes developing your skills and your own creative vision. It’s similar to dancing, but unlike a dancer, a circus artist choreographs their own movement. The person builds the act, Oliver said, and what you see on stage: “That’s her.”

This is a tradition with centuries of history, but it used to be passed down among families. You were either born into a circus family or you weren’t. The modern circus school is a very new thing, and it occurred in tandem with the intermixing of Russian and French influences that eventually became contemporary circus. Schools pulled elements from Moroccan and Chinese acrobats and went to seed in Canada. And it blossomed. Cirque du Soleil is the name everyone knows, and Montreal is now its the global hub.

Oliver lived in Montreal for 10 years. Like Tabino, he studied at Ecole Nationale de Cirque, Canada’s premier circus arts training institute, and then worked in the industry afterward. The Ecole and Cirque du Soleil sit side by side in Montreal, he said, and they form the left and right ventricle of contemporary circus around the world.

Oliver started circus at 22, a late arrival for the industry—at Circus Maine 12-year-olds are already eyeing the National Circus School—and his act includes aspects of the martial arts that were his passion before he found circus. He is powerfully built, and when he walks he glides across the floor, leading with his chest like a warrior headed to battle.

Which seems appropriate, because when Oliver talks about pulling Circus Maine from the ashes of Circus Conservatory of America it sounds like a battle.

“There have been at least three miracles that have allowed this project to continue,” he said. “We worked until we were bloody, and then we worked some more.”

Oliver and Tabino literally dug the hole in the floor that became Circus Maine’s inground trampoline with shovels, pulling out old railroad ties by hand, hacking them out with an ax. Oliver is a builder, and much of the work that went into renovating Brick North was done by his hands.

“I came to Maine to make this project work,” Oliver said. “I tried to build a circus school in Norway and in New Zealand. This was my third attempt.”

So when Circus Conservatory of America sank, Oliver was not ready to let go. He scraped and saved. He asked Thompson’s Point to work with him to keep a school afloat. He put on outside shows to earn extra cash, borrowed and leased and bought equipment and built what he couldn’t otherwise find, renegotiated and collaborated and asked for help.

“We opened in October of last year doing classes,” he said, and at the time the school had 21 students. It wasn’t nearly enough to make ends meet, but they kept pushing, limping their way through the holidays and into the winter.

Then in February, they held a two-hour cabaret that ran several times over a weekend. They sold 900 tickets. Suddenly it felt like ground may have materialized beneath their feet, however unsteady.

Since then Circus Maine has continued to grow. Tuesday nights are now packed with adult hand balancers (my class) falling out of handstands, a youth tumbling class and a youth trapeze class. Afterward is adult partner acrobatics and an adult tumbling class. The monthly cabarets are filling up. Shows include professional performances, and then students take the stage at intermission to grab their first chance at performing. It has a unique feel, somewhere between a family picnic and a broadway stage performance, like Cirque du Soleil descended on a Fourth of July barbecue.

“People are realizing our potential,” said Oliver. “We were international level spectacle performers. Cory and I are plugged into the source. We’re going to turn Portland into the nexus of new circus in the U.S.”

“But,” he said, “we need to create a solid community of circus artists here first.”

And, as I prepare to flip into one more handstand, that’s how it feels. Cory is across the room now. Mathias, another student in his 30s, is muttering something to himself just to my right. He and I have both flipped upside-down at least 50 times in the last 20 minutes, but neither of us seems able to hold it today. A few feet away high school phenoms Sarah and James are balancing on their hands and doing slow splits, lowering their feet inches off the ground before returning upright. Hugh, whose daughter is in the tumbling class, is on the mat flipping up into Cory’s assistant Sierra’s waiting hands. Hugh’s still working on finding his balance point, but he’s gotten much stronger. Kirsten and Ian are flipping on their own, legs waving in the air before they tumble, and Cory is striding between all of us barking instructions: “Tighten up! Point your toes! Hollowbody! Hollowbody! Squeeze your butt! Push! Push! Push!”

And of course, “Just don’t fall!”

But we all know, at Circus Maine it’s safe to fall.

  • Published in Features
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