Shiny, happy people

The 19th Century French novelist Romain Rolland once opined that “we are reckless in our use of the lovely word, friend.”  Nowhere is that more true than on Facebook and other social media platforms.

As an example, as of today, I have 1,202 “friends” on Facebook. Really? Do I have more than a thousand people who would loan me $20, help me with a home repair project or drive me to and from a doctor’s appointment?

Probably not. Because when you look deeper into my life you will see that I am actually blessed with close to 20 real friends. These people do not judge me, but will also share their honest opinions if asked.

In a few weeks, one of my real friends will get out of bed at 6 a.m. in order to pick me up at my home, drive me to Sanford for an ECT treatment and wait roughly two hours before he can drive me home with zero compensation. Now, that is a friend.

What about all those other “friends” on social media? Well, for starters, they are better described as contacts in a very large and fluid Rolodex.

Sure, social media can be fun, interesting and sometimes informative, but it’s important to remember that, for the most part, you are looking through a carefully controlled lens as you scroll through the posts on your social media page. Few of us would go to the grocery store wearing only our underwear. (Some things are best left to the imagination.)

When you see a friend’s post on social media, more often than not you are seeing only what they want you to see: their happy family, pictures of their vacation or beloved pets, etc.  What you rarely, if ever, see, is someone posting that they will need to file bankruptcy or facing divorce because of infidelity.

Instead, you are seeing only the beautiful posts, which can lead to feelings of envy and inferiority, especially among young people.

Teenage Wasteland

According to studies by the Pew Research Center and the Mayo Clinic, teenagers’ use of social media “allows teens to create online identities, communicate with others and build social networks. These networks can provide teens with valuable support, especially helping those who experience exclusion or have disabilities or chronic illnesses.”

“But social media use can also negatively affect teens, according to the 2018 study. Social media can distract them, disrupt their sleep, and expose them to bullying, rumor spreading, unrealistic views of other people’s lives and peer pressure.”

The risks might be related to how much social media teens use. A 2019 study of more than 6,500 12- to 15-year-olds in the U.S. found that those who spent more than three hours a day using social media might be at heightened risk for mental health problems. Another 2019 study of more than 12,000 13- to 16-year-olds in England found that using social media more than three times a day predicted poor mental health and well-being in teens.

Other studies also have observed links between high levels of social media use and depression or anxiety symptoms.

As a strategic communications consultant, I can tell you that maintaining your own online reputation is very important. Nothing is ever truly “erased” on the Web. Businesses and political campaigns need to be fully aware and consent to everything they post in the digital town square.

Remember: it is often better to just scroll on by posts that seem like “click-bait,” otherwise choose your words and images carefully. Because, whether you like it, people will judge you by the words you use.

Originally published on the Saco Bay News website.

Gimme Shelter

There is no question that downtown Biddeford is going through a renaissance. From a run-down and neglected corridor of assorted and vacant mill buildings to one of the most desirable places for young people to live in southern Maine.

Suddenly, without warning, downtown Biddeford became hip.

Today, long-since abandoned textile mills in the downtown area have been redeveloped into high end housing stock, surrounded by small and eclectic restaurants, shops, a parking garage and a proposed downtown hotel with a rooftop pool.

How did this happen? And are there any drawbacks to this fast-paced revitalization of the city’s core: The Heart of Biddeford?

Let’s begin with the factors that began a little more than 10 years ago.

A group of citizens from both Biddeford and Saco became activists and they began pushing city leaders to close the controversial MERC facility, a downtown trash incinerator that served several surrounding communities but left its putrid stench in downtown Biddeford.

It took vision to close that plant because it was one of the city’s biggest taxpayers. That vision came into focus when Alan Casavant was elected to his first term as the city’s mayor.

Casavant pledged to close the plant and he won his first term by a healthy margin over incumbent Joanne Twomey, who said closing MERC would likely never happen and focused her attention instead on developing a racino on the outskirts of town.

(Disclosure) I was Casavant’s campaign manager.

Although closing MERC was likely the impetus of Biddeford’s revitalization, there were many other factors taking place.

First, rising real estate and rental values in Portland forced many residents to seek more affordable housing elsewhere. They could keep their Portland-based jobs with only a 20-minute commute from Biddeford.

Real estate developers saw a golden opportunity, and they began investing in neglected and crumbling mill buildings. More than a century ago, young workers from away flocked to Biddeford in search of jobs in the city’s textile and shoe mills.

Today, it is young renters and home-buyers flocking to Biddeford. For those already living in the downtown area, rental costs began to soar, forcing them out of the city to places like Sanford and Westbrook.

A classic example of gentrification.

Our house, in the middle of our street

Rising real-estate values have also had a significant effect on homeowners who have seen their property values climb at a phenomenal pace.

For example, Laura and I purchased a modest, working-class home not far away from the downtown area. Our neighborhood was created for the hundreds of baby-boomers returning from WWII and raising families.

We purchased this home in 2004. Today, based on real-estate comps in our neighborhood, our home has more than doubled in value. Yes, we made several improvements but not enough to explain such a dramatic increase.

Today, it is almost impossible for first-time homebuyers to find an affordable home for working-class families.

All of this may explain why there has been a lot of chatter on social media about establishing the concept of “rent-control” in Biddeford.

Let me be clear. Rent-control is a bad idea. Fostering the development of affordable housing, however, is a good idea. Relinquishing more power to government will likely stagnate growth and hinder new opportunities and investments.

While many people blame city leaders for the problem, their frustration is understandable but misplaced. Late last year, the city of Biddeford tackled the subject of affordable housing. Over the next five years, the city will work toward a goal of creating at least 90 units of affordable housing per year.

“This is a statewide issue especially in coastal communities,” said Mayor Alan Casavant. “There are limitations on what the city can do regarding private developers. Our tool box is limited,” he said.

Casavant says that many once worn down and unsightly apartment buildings are now being renovated by earnest landlords who want to increase the value of their properties. “They (landlords and developers) have a right to recoup their investments in our community.”

According to Guy Gagnon of the Biddeford Housing Authority, his agency calculates Fair Market Rent for various apartments every year. “The rapid rise in rent prices has outpaced the standard averages,” Gagnon says. “The real problem is a basic economic principle of supply and demand. We need much more supply of all types of affordable rentals and homes in southern Maine before the curve can be bent back in the right direction.”

Gagnon agrees that goal will be hard to reach as long as the real estate market is continuing to rise and he is worried about the plight of existing and long-time residents.  “All these changes, improvements are great, fantastic and amazing,” he wrote on one of his Facebook posts. “It’s especially important to be able to keep our children from having to move away for affordable housing. It is very, very, very important that the change in buildings does not change the fabric of our community.”

I agree with Gagnon’s concerns, but as I said before: rent control will do little to nothing to solve the problem.

Originally published on the Saco Bay News site.

I’m a boy and I’m a man

Ralph Waldo Emerson once quipped that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” This week, I offer a solid example in which society is best served from at least a little bit of consistency.

State Rep. Maggie O’Neil (D-Saco) has introduced a bill (LD 706) to lower the voting age in Maine from 18 to 16. No other state allows 16 year-olds to vote in general elections. In fairness, several states do allow 16 and 17-year-olds to pre-register but those states also require voters in a general election to be at least 18 years of age.

In North Dakota, however, there is no need register to vote.

Do you remember when you were 16? I do. I had black-light posters, a crush on Farrah Fawcett and I listened to AC/DC on an 8-track player. I was also a political junkie who watched Nixon resign and board a helicopter on the White House lawn when I was 10.

When I was 12, I got to shake President Carter’s hand when he made a campaign stop in Biddeford. When I was 16, my father volunteered for Ted Kennedy’s failed presidential run in 1980.

Subsequently, without thought or curiosity, I became an ardent and passionate Democrat.

Today, I have had the experience of raising two 16-year–old boys. I love my boys and they both turned into fine young men, but there was no way that they were ready to vote back then.

Old enough to die; old enough to vote

In 1971, Congress overwhelmingly voted in favor of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the minimum voting age from 21 to 18. That amendment was fueled in part by the Vietnam War and the compulsory draft of 18-year-old into military service.

The 26th Amendment set up its own range of inconsistencies. For example, at 18 you are old enough to join the military but not old enough to purchase alcohol.

O’Neil’s bill, however, is riddled with many more inconsistencies. 16-year-olds are rarely, if ever, tried in criminal court for a criminal offense; instead they are tried in juvenile court and sentenced to a juvenile detention facility if found guilty.

While 16 is the minimum age of consent, they cannot act in pornographic movies and are too young to buy a pack of cigarettes. At 16, society says that you cannot sign a legal and binding contract, including marriage without parental consent. I could keep going, but you probably get my point.

When it comes to minimum age requirements, Congress mandates that you must be at least 25 to serve in the House of Representatives; 30 to serve in the Senate and 35 to be elected president.

While O’Neil acknowledged those inconsistencies, she also says her bill is designed to address some other inconsistencies.

Reaching the age of 18 is a big milestone in all of our lives,” O’Neil says. “But the truth is [turning 18] does not signify some seismic shift in an individual’s ability to participate in society or civic life.  At the age of 16, young people are working under our employment laws, paying taxes, and driving on roads. They are attending school–there’s no one more in touch with our education system than students and educators who are in school every day.”

O’Neil says she was motivated to submit the bill after working with several juvenile supporters during her campaign for office, specifically pointing to her campaign manager, 16-year-old Cole Cochrane, a sophomore at Thornton Academy.

Cochrane says “we don’t need to just focus about current responsibilities for 16 year olds, but about how we contribute and the ultimate outcome.”

 According to Cochrane, lowering the voting age has proven to increase voter turnout rate in countries like Austria, and even in some American cities. “One must consider the contributions we make to society.  We are foundations of campaigns, go to schools that are run by the government, and take on jobs that support our economy. Although we may be considered children by law, it is time to consider us voters as well.”

While many scientists and neurologists say that a brain is not fully developed until one turns 25, both Cochrane and O’Neil point to other studies that say 16-year-olds are fully capable of making decisions and critical thinking.

I already consider this argument somewhat irrelevant given this data point.” Cochrane says. “Decision making capabilities are developed by 16 years of age, indicating that we are able to make decisions despite these concerns.”

Overall, there are multiple benefits to lowering the voting age, Cochrane says. “From validation of millions of voices, to strengthening our democracy. It is time to act now, for the betterment of our state.”

O’Neil readily admits that her bill (currently stuck in committee) faces a “steep hill to climb to send the bill out to voters.”

“No matter what the outcome is, these young people have led an important conversation in the legislature,” O’Neil said. “I’m proud of the work they have done. Their voices are so important, and the legislature needs their perspective.”

Video killed the radio star

As we continue our march through the 21st Century, there are still a great many people who are less than pleased about the various advances of technology and about how the so-called charge into a brave new world is affecting their lives and their nostalgic memories.

Henry Thoreau opined that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” This is especially true when it comes to the Baby Boomer generation that is constantly trying to catchup with Gen X and Millennials on the technology choo-choo train.

Facebook is full of memes that disparage overweight, poorly dressed or otherwise ‘redneck’ people who shop at Wal-Mart.

Twitter or Facebook will not suspend your account if you share photos of a fat lady using a motorized cart while buying Twinkies and a case of Coca-Cola at Wal-Mart.

Boomers are those who write a check for their purchases at the supermarket. The ones who still pay cash for their Turnpike tolls. I’m not necessarily suggesting that all Boomers are a bunch of troglodytes, but if the shoe fits . . .

In a world where people are increasingly offended or feel marginalized, it is still acceptable to look down upon those who shop at Wal-Mart.

For all of its successes, Wal-Mart faces steep criticism from the pretty people who gladly shop at Target or Whole Foods.

Wal-Mart does not need me to defend it from gross mischaracterizations. (But if someone from their corporate headquarters wants to talk about public relations, please send me an email.)

Now, back to the talk of technology. We carry mini-computers in our back pocket. We have robots to clean the floors in our homes. We use Alexa for everything, ranging from setting the thermostat to maintaining a shopping list. Many people have satellite dishes on their roofs and satellite radio and GPS units in their cars.

In 1985, MTV only showed music videos. My girlfriend at that time said MTV wouldn’t last long because people would get “bored” watching videos. I wonder what she would say today about You-Tube? Today, MTV broadcasts “reality” shows such as “Jersey Shore” and “Sixteen and Pregnant.”

Would you like to join me and invest in opening a new Block-Buster store? Things change. And that’s not always such a bad thing.

Now back to Wal-Mart bashing.

Over the past year or so, dozens of social media memes have popped up, decrying the advance of the self-checkout lane option at Wal-Mart. They argue that this trend is poised to exterminate the need for cashiers. Really?

What other national retailer pays someone to simply greet and welcome you to the store?

Other memes include quips such as “when is Wal-Mart going to send me W2s if they expect me to work there?” Another meme: “if I wanted to self-checkout, I would stay at home and shop at Amazon.”

That last one leaves me scratching my bald head. Amazon is the epitome of technology and consumer trends. If you use Amazon, why are you bitching about Wal-Mart and its self-checkout option?

And why is Wal-Mart singled out for providing a self-check-out option? Hannaford grocery stores have self-checkout lanes. Target stores also have self-checkout options and even Whole Foods (gasp) is experimenting with a self-checkout option for its customers.

I went to Market Basket today. I only had a few items in my cart yet it took 11 minutes for me to get through the traditional checkout lane. Market Basket does not offer a self-checkout option (at least not at its Biddeford store.)

There is an old saying that time is money. If I have just a few items in my cart, I breeze through the self-checkout lane in less than three minutes, saving roughly eight minutes for me to do something else instead of waiting in line to buy a six-pack, a loaf of bread and a box of Twinkies.

To add insult to injury, I get on the Turnpike without stopping to pay a toll, simply by using my EZ pass device. I have to guess that EZ Pass is more profitable for our friends at the Maine Turnpike Authority because these devices decrease the need for human toll booth attendants.

When I was a young child, I remember that my father had a night job pumping gas at the Top Gas station in Saco. He would wash your windshield, check your oil, or inflate your tires upon request.

Today? There are no gas station attendants. Welcome to the jungle. At some point, the machines are going to become self-aware; and we all know what happens then. In the meantime: Thanks for reading! See you next week.

Originally published in Saco Bay News on May 13, 2021

One by one, until we’re done

It started with an e-mail I received Friday afternoon. It was sent to me by Marty Grohman, the man who sponsored my recent membership into the Biddeford-Saco Rotary Club.

Marty was looking for volunteers who would be willing to give up a few hours to help FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) at its Mobile Vaccination Unit (MVU), which is at Biddeford High School this week and ending on Wednesday evening.

There is an old saying: Many hands make light work. I joined Rotary because I wanted an opportunity to give back to my community, to the people who live, work and play in my hometown.

Photo by Marty Grohman

I signed myself up for three five-hour shifts, starting Monday and ending Wednesday. I finished my first shift this morning. When I first arrived I was warmly greeted by one of the many FEMA staff members. The gym became a giant, yet effective maze as people are screened, tested and then remained sitting at least 15 minutes before going on their way.

No appointment is required to receive the vaccine, which is the Johnson & Johnson version, commonly known as the “one and done” vaccine.

A FEMA staffer told me that they very much appreciated the presence and assistance from community volunteers, allowing them to focus on data collection and other tasks. I actually had a blast because I got to interact with just about every newly-vaccinated person. I manned the check-out station, collecting the data sheets and then informing patients that we would like them to hang out for 15 minutes. (By far, the longest part of the vaccination process.)

We averaged about 70 vaccinations per hour, more than one person every minute; and the process was stunning in its efficiency and design.

People came from all over, from Fryeburg to Sanford and from Turner to South Portland. I also saw a lot of familiar local faces and it was good to see them again. Everyone, it seemed, was in a good mood; happy to scratch the vaccine off their to-do list.

Some people are always quick to gripe or tell horror tales of bloated government bureaucracy. But what I saw this morning was a finely tuned model of efficiency and ease.

The object of Rotary is to “encourage and foster the ideal of service as a basis of worthy enterprise.” I want to thank Marty and all the members of Rotary Clubs around the world (Yes, it’s a global organization.)

I know some people think that COVID-19 is a hoax, others say it is a tool of a tyrannical government. Those voices can yammer away all they want.

What I witnessed this morning was nothing short of a mosaic of humanity: young and old. Men and women, people of color and differing sexual orientation. And guess what? They all smiled today.

And for me, that was a beautiful thing. I got way more than I gave.

If you want a vaccination, they are free and available without an appointment. So, go ahead do your part: roll up your sleeve and take another bite out of this global killer.

Originally posted in Saco Bay News.April 26. 2021

When Irish eyes are smiling

Damn! I remember it like it was yesterday, but actually it was about a quarter century ago when I first met Vincent Keely and his son, Brian.

It was Halloween day and I had just started my new job as a reporter for the Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier.

Back then, the Courier office was located on Washington Street in Biddeford, directly across the street from the Wonderbar restaurant.

At that time, the Wonderbar (as I would soon find out) was a political and social epicenter, where everyone felt comfortable knowing that their conversations were confidential, off-the-record and checked at the door. It was also a comfortable haven for those of Irish descent.

The Wonderbar restaurant 0n Washington Street in Biddeford

It was a place where political deals were struck, but more importantly it was a place where everybody knew your name, comforting and familiar, sort of like the television show Cheers.

And now it is for sale.

Back to Halloween 1998.

I left the office to pursue a feature story about downtown merchants handing out candy and other goodies to small children. Brian Keely was standing in the middle of the road, wearing a chef’s apron and clutching a rubber chicken in one hand and a toy axe in the other.

I had no way of knowing back then that Brian Keely and I would become close friends.

I soon became a regular at the Wonderbar. I don’t have a drop of Irish blood in my veins, but the Wonderbar became my home away from home.

I would marvel at the way that Mr. Keely — with his mischievous grin and a sparkle in his eyes — poured a pint of Guinness, forming a shamrock in the foam of the beer. That was a trademark of the Wonderbar that I have not seen since.

Every time, I met a new woman to date, I would bring her first to the Wonderbar for a drink. Following my date, Brian, Vincent and other regular customers would rate those women, always with a chuckle.

I recall late nights hanging out with former school superintendent Kent Webster and some members of the school board after school board meetings, and I remember watching Super Bowl games from my favorite seat at the bar.

Soon after my first date with my wife, Laura, I brought her to the Wonderbar for inspection and evaluation. On the next day, I got a unanimous thumbs up from Vince, Brian and some regular patrons. Who knew then that I would eventually become married to that woman?

My friendship with Brian Keely grew stronger with each passing day. We started a call-in political “talk show” on Biddeford’s public access television channel and later served together on Biddeford’s Downtown Development Commission.

I asked Brian to be the best man at my wedding. He readily agreed.

Laura and I held our wedding reception in a function room above the bar and restaurant.

The Wonderbar was and remains as an intrinsic part of my life. And although now it is for sale, I hope that my memories of the iconic business will endure.

I spoke by telephone with Mr. Keely a few days ago. He told me that he purchased the Wonderbar nearly 30 years ago in 1992 from Edward “Ted” Truman.

I asked why he was selling the business.

“It was a matter of time,” he said. “Covid didn’t help matters any.”

Keely will soon be celebrating his 87th birthday. He said he routinely has back pain and often feels weak when standing too long.

“I didn’t get any help from the city, the state or anyone else,” he said with a tone of frustration.

He said he has had several calls from potential buyers, but most of them were “tire-kickers.”

For me, the Wonderbar was always so much more than an Irish bar and pub. It was my home.

To Vincent and Brian, I offer this Irish blessing “May the road rise to meet you; May the wind be ever at your back; May the sunshine warm upon your face; And the rain fall soft upon your fields; And until we meet again; May God hold you in the palm of his hand.”

Slainte.

Originally published on March 24, 2021 in the Saco Bay News

Local water rates set to increase

Public water consumers in the Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach area will soon see a moderate spike in their monthly water bills.

According to Maine Water, a rate increase of 77 percent will be spread out over a three-year period and be used to help fund the upgrade of existing infrastructure and build a new treatment plant on outer South Street in Biddeford.

Rick Knowlton, president of Maine Water, said the typical residential water bill will increase about 20 cents per day in each of the next three years, roughly $5 to $6 per month in each of the three steps proposed. When the full rate increase process is complete, water service will cost about a penny per gallon.

“We understand this rate increase is significant,” Knowlton said. “There is never a good time to increase water bills. The project to replace the water treatment facility began years ago and construction is nearing completion. We delayed our rate filing for as long as we could in hopes of some relief from the pandemic. Filing now allows our customers the opportunity to phase in this increase gradually over three years. Delaying the filing further would increase water bills even more.”

In addition to assistance from local and state agencies, Maine Water has financial assistance available for customers that have been negatively impacted by COVID-19, Knowlton said.

Maine Water purchased the Biddeford-Saco Water Company in 2012. Knowlton said his company knew that the existing treatment facility and water delivery systems would need significant upgrades.

The current treatment facility was built in 1884, and renovations to that facility were last made in 1936 in order to keep up with the growing demands of a robust manufacturing sector on the banks of the Saco River.

Knowlton said Maine Water hired an engineering firm to evaluate the company’s infrastructure in 2013. According to Knowlton, that report detailed a laundry list of needed improvements in order for the company to keep providing clean and safe drinking water.

Construction of the $53 million project began in 2020.  The new facility will be in service in the spring of 2022.

“With 40,000 people relying on one source of drinking water every day, we have to have the facilities in place that can deliver,” Knowlton said. “This project will provide reliable, resilient and efficient water service for decades to come.”

The new facility will produce high quality water more consistently, Knowlton said, pointing to the fact that the river water quality does change with the seasons and with storm events. He said the new facility will be better equipped to handle those natural variations. The new facility will be more efficient and use less labor, less power and less chemical to produce a gallon of drinking water than is used today.

Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant said that he and other municipal officials from Biddeford, Saco and Old Orchard Beach took a tour of the plant four years ago.

“I was shocked by what I saw,” Casavant said. “There was no question, whatsoever, that the plant was near the end of its useful operation.”

Casavant said the municipalities will not be making the decision about whether to approve the rate increase.

The rate increase proposal is now being reviewed by the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

Maine Water serves more than 40,000 people in Biddeford, Saco, OOB and the Pine Point area of Scarborough and the company employs 45 people in the Biddeford-Saco area.

Originally published in Saco Bay News

Gimme Shelter

It was almost exactly 12 years ago today when I found myself in Washington, D.C. as part of a massive crowd converging on the Capitol Building. We were hoping to get a glimpse of profound history: the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

I remember that it was bitterly cold but the crowd was joyous. Beyond optimistic. But here’s the thing: I did not vote for Obama. I voted for John McCain. That said, I knew the impact of the moment. The history being created. I wanted to be a part of that positive energy.

I did not travel to Washington to attend the inauguration. I was invited to a reception held the night before at the New Zealand Embassy. I was working in the public policy arena and somehow got invited to that reception. I was a nervous wreck. What would I wear? What are the protocols? Laura could not join me. Someone had to take care of the kids and pets. I bought a new suit.

I felt so out of place at that reception. It was way beyond my pay-grade. Again, I didn’t even vote for Obama. I went back to my hotel that evening relieved. I fell asleep while watching CNN. I awoke early the next morning. Inauguration Day. I checked out at 6:30 a.m., thinking I could beat the crowd for a “good spot” to witness the ceremony. I was dead wrong.

The mass of people descending on the Capitol was mind-boggling. I don’t think I was able to get within one mile of the Capitol. The cold air stung that morning. I had an open-ended plane ticket to Boston. I could have simply turned around and retreated. I did not. I also did not see the swearing-in ceremony nor the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.

But I was there. I was part of history.

Four years, later I repeated myself. I did not vote for Obama. I voted for Mitt Romney. I was not invited to any fancy parties. I watched that inauguration from the comfort of my office in Portland.

Flash forward almost 12 years and I could not believe what I was seeing on television. The Capitol Building was breached while Congress was in session Protestors scaled the walls. They broke into Congressional offices. They vandalized the epicenter of our Democracy.

Filled with hate, they continued their rampage. They flat-out refused to accept the inevitable (and official) outcome of the presidential election. Fueled by conspiracy theories and their self-righteous rage, they revealed what we may not want to accept: There are a lot of angry people out there.

Watching that fiasco was painful, to say the least. I was ashamed to be a Republican, even if my connection to the GOP was thread-bare. My first thought was to publicly disavow my political affiliation, to retreat safely into a ring guarded by conservative Democrats: a position of relative safety and protected against public disdain and blame.

But as my own anger about the protestors grew, I came to a conclusion. I would not abandon my party. Instead, I would continue to be a Republican with conservative ideals: a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, a voice for limited and more efficient government, a fiscal conservative. I would not be ashamed to be a Republican. It is possible to be a Republican and still condemn the melee that was conducted by an unhinged mob.

I want to a be a Republican like Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, former Defense Secretary and Maine senator William Cohen, and the list goes on and on.

Make no mistake, there was nothing patriotic about the events that today still seem like scenes from a nightmare. That said, Republicans of good conscious must rise up and let their voices be heard. It is well past time to cower in the shadow of public opinion.

Some in the GOP will mock me. They will call me a RINO (a Republican In Name Only). I will also be disparaged by Democrats. Some say I will be a man with no country. I call bullshit on that.

I am a Republican, but first and foremost, I am an American.

More than this . . .

I have made more than my fair share of bad decisions — from thinking I could drive just a few more miles to the next rest stop, to throwing some kerosene onto a campfire.

For more than nearly 30 years, I lived my life with no clear direction, no purpose, no meaning.

Failure, it seemed, was at every turn. I joined the Air Force but washed out after nearly completing basic training. Then I went to college. Yup, you guessed it: I dropped out. I toyed with the idea of becoming a priest, but that did not last more than one summer.

I crisscrossed the country in search of peace, stability and worthiness: Maryland, Tennessee, Arizona and Oregon. No matter where I lived, I felt lost and lonely, unable to hold down a job for more than a year at a time.

Flash forward to 1997 and my return to Maine. I worked a few odd jobs before being hired as a sports writer (bear in mind I know nothing about sports) but I loved that job. I loved the idea of getting paid to do what I love: to write.

In the autumn of 1998, I was hired as a reporter at the Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier. I was working in my hometown, getting paid to be a political junkie. Suddenly, my life had some meaning. I think if you ask my publishers (David and Carolyn Flood) they would tell you that I worked my ass off. But it didn’t feel like work.

It was fun.

I became the editor of that newspaper and David gave me a wide berth when it came to the newsroom. I started a column called All Along The Watchtower. Suddenly, people knew who I was.

I made friends. I made enemies, but I was still having a grand time.

Flash forward to the local election season in 2001. Our country was still grappling with the horrific losses of 9/11. It was a tense time in our nation’s history. Local elections (city council, school board, etc.) seemed so trivial within the larger context of things.

There were three candidates running for two vacant seats on the Old Orchard Beach School Board: an incumbent (Sharon Inkpen) and two political newcomers: Dora Mills and Laura Kidman Hayes.

I made a mistake in my endorsements for that race (one that I didn’t consider very important) Really, what newspaper ever covered the OOB School Board? With only a couple of weeks left before the election, I gave my endorsement to the incumbent, thinking that there was only one seat up for grabs.

It was the best mistake I ever made!

Within hours of that issue hitting the streets, I received an e-mail from Laura Kidman-Hayes. In part, she wrote: “If I were the editor of a newspaper, I would get my facts straight.”

I replied with a snippy response that barely acknowledged my mistake. Later that day, I found myself on Main Street commiserating with a Portland Press Herald reporter about the upcoming elections. Without too much detail: Grace Murphy told me that Ms. Kidman-Hayes was very cute, and she showed me a file photo of the candidate.

I immediately raced back to my office in order to send Ms. Kidman-Hayes another e-mail: a bit more contrite, even though I thought she might be married because of the hyphenated last name.

I loathe hyphenated last names.

Within minutes after I sent her my second email, she sent me another e-mail and that’s how it went for a few days. Eventually, I made her a deal: if she won, I would actually cover a meeting of the OOB School Board. If she lost, I would buy her a cup of coffee because there would be no conflict.

On election night. I was a bundle of jangled nerves as I drove to OOB to “check” on the status of the polling place (yeah, right). Laura was standing in the hallway along with the other candidates, shaking hands with incoming voters.

I took one look at her and I knew that she was way out of my league. I curtly shook hands with her and dashed into the gymnasium to chat with the town clerk. I wanted to appear like I did not care.

Not a thing

The election was over. The streets were quiet and softly lit with a mid-autumn moon. I went to bed, feeling like an idiot.

On the next day, I checked my e-mail messages at the office. Ms. Kidman Hayes had sent me an e-mail. She included three telephone numbers where she could be reached: her office phone, her home phone and her cell-phone.

I could not believe it. I asked one of my coworkers if he thought that she really wanted me to call her. “She gave you three telephone numbers. Are you really that stupid?”

I called her and asked if she wanted to have dinner with me on Sunday. She said yes. I planned on eating at Traditions on Main Street in Saco. But I forgot that they were closed on Sundays. I was a nervous wreck. I was ashamed of my 1993 Ford Escort station wagon that had muffler issues. I was ashamed because she owned her own home and I was still living in a one-bedroom apartment two flights above the Happy Dragon restaurant on Main Street in Biddeford.

We ended up at the 99 Restaurant. We were seated at a back table. We were there for a little more than three hours but neither of us ordered any food. We were too nervous, but we decided — right then and there — that we would like to try embarking on an exclusive relationship.

That was 19 years ago today. Wow time flies. T-Ball games, house hunting, pets, family deaths, kayaking, camping, different jobs and home renovation projects blend into a blur of happiness, of meaning . . .

Of purpose.

The best mistake ever.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Earlier this week, my community lost a great man. Don Wilson was 73 and apparently living with severe depression. Hopefully we all learned a lesson from this tragic event: Mental health disorders can be fatal, especially without professional health treatment.

Can you imagine being in so much pain that you would hurl yourself in front of a moving train?

Mr. Wilson (as I will always call him) was a community hero. Within hours of his death, our community rallied around his family. A multitude of sympathy was shared on social media, and we all wondered what went wrong.

Mr. Wilson was woven into the fabric of Biddeford. He touched hundreds (if not thousands) of lives. He was so dedicated as a teacher, coach and athletic director. Everyone, it seemed, had a story to tell, a favorite remembrance or a funny story about him.

He was a gregarious community leader who spent so many years supporting every life he touched. Smiling, generous, humorous and full of life is how so many of us described him.

But in the latter days of his life he was fighting an inner war with some very powerful demons.

According to reports by his friends and family, he openly talked about his feelings. He was, reportedly, recently hospitalized for depression. But finally, he could not fight the pain anymore.

I simply cannot imagine his pain. His suffering. His fragility.

Tough guys don’t dance.

Mr. Wilson was a role model for me. He was a gentlemen who did not speak a bad word about anyone. As I said before: he was kind and generous; quick with a smile and always willing to help.

Mr. Wilson was from a generation that usually did not talk openly about depression or suicide. Typically, obituaries of those who committed suicide described the death as “died unexpectedly.”

And there is an abundance of stigma associated with mental health, especially among men. Depression is a sign of weakness and laziness, society says. “Stop your pity party and stop feeling sorry for yourself.”

Unlike so many men of his generation, Mr. Wilson courageously bucked that trend. He shared his feelings with friends and family members. But in the end he lost that battle. In the final hours of his life he took matters into his own hands.

Some people die from cancer and some people survive. That is true for almost every illness, including mental illness. Talking about mental health is not easy. In fact, it can be overwhelming.

I still cringe when I hear someone refer to a psychiatrist as a “shrink.” I could write all day about the stigma associated with mental health.

Until we all can accept mental health disorders as genuine and potentially fatal illnesses, we will have people fighting an invisible and overwhelming war.

Depression is not feeling sorry for yourself. Having depression is not a sign of laziness. Depression does not discriminate.

Depression is a pervasive disease, but it can be treated. If you or someone you care about is fighting depression and/or suicidal thoughts, please contact the national suicide hotline: 1-888-568-1112, 24 hours a day, seven days per week and 365 days a year.

Thank you, Mr. Wilson for all that you gave to your community. As far as I’m concerned, you remain as a role model for me.