Achtung, Baby

Not too long ago, a very well-known and respected Boston Globe columnist opined that there are some good reasons why a growing number of Americans no longer “trust the media.”

In his Nov. 29, 2022 opinion column, Jeff Jacoby pointed to a recent Gallup report, which revealed that just one out of three Americans claimed to have a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of confidence in the media.

“It has been a long time since most Americans trusted the press to tell them the truth,” Jacoby wrote, adding that “in 1972, when Gallup first began assessing the public’s opinion of the news industry, 68 percent of adults voiced a high degree of confidence in the media’s credibility. In 1976, the year Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, and Jason Robards starred in All the President’s Men, public faith in the media’s integrity set a record: 72 percent.”

“Over the last three decades, that faith [in the media] has largely crumbled,” Jacoby wrote, saying “journalists and news organizations have increasingly abandoned the old ideal of unbiased news coverage, as media outlets have come to care more about getting the narrative right than getting the facts right.”

To support his opinion, Jacoby points to some recent news stories and how those stories have been covered by large and well-known media outlets.

I tend to believe that Jacoby is right, at least on a macro level.

Before we proceed any further, let’s get some things straight. I don’t offer the following commentary as an “expert” of any kind. In fact, I never graduated from college. I do, however, have some limited “journalism” experience.

(Photo: IMDb)

Today, I am paid to write for an online news organization. Previously, I was a full-time reporter and then editor for several publications. It was how I made my living. How I fed my kids and bought my house. To say that I loved my job would be a gross understatement. From a very young age, I have always been a public policy/political junkie. I was lucky enough to have a job that also fed my soul.

What is journalism?

The field of journalism has undergone a seismic shift over the last four decades. It’s not uncommon today to hear an older person say something like “I miss Walter Cronkite. He didn’t have an agenda.”

In all fairness, however, I think our expectations of the media have also changed dramatically over the last four decades.  For better or worse, evolving technology – along with a relatively new emphasis on the importance of ratings – has produced a profound impact upon the media landscape.

But what is “the media,” and how do we define the practice of journalism? I think those are some loaded questions, and the answers are both complex and widely varying. Bottom line: trying to answer those questions is likely a much more subjective than objective endeavor.

Today, thanks to technology and some societal changes, just about anyone can be a “journalist” or a media outlet. There is no requirement for any kind of training or experience. All you need is a notebook, a camera and an internet connection and presto – –  you are a journalist, or as we say these days, a “social influencer.”

Don’t get me wrong. There are many positive aspects of grass-roots journalism, but it’s also becoming increasingly difficult for news consumers to separate the wheat from the chaff when trying to discern what exactly is legitimate news coverage.

Another problem is that more and more consumers are trying to custom-tailor their news feed, aligning themselves with their own politically-flavored news perspective. If a news outlet produces a story that somehow disrupts the reader’s individual world view then it is automatically dismissed as “fake news” and further proof of media bias.

Almost three years ago, I wrote a similar blog post and interviewed two veteran Maine journalists from both sides of the political spectrum, asking them if the media is biased.

Dennis Bailey spent several years as a reporter working for the Maine Times and Portland Press Herald. He readily acknowledges that his personal politics are more in line with Democrats.

“I’ve never been a believer in objective journalism,” Bailey told me. “A good story is a good story, but it does come with some bias.”

Bailey pointed to certain realities about how a news story is produced. “A reporter often decides what story to follow,” he said. “From there, an editor decides the placement of a story and the headline of that story. These are all subjective decisions.”

On the other side of the political aisle, John Day, who spent several decades as a reporter and then as an editor of the Bangor Daily News, agrees with Bailey about media bias.

“I’m a big fan of diversity,” Day said. “But I was always a contrarian. Fake news has always been around. If all news outlets reported every story the same way, then it would be nothing more than a giant circle jerk.”

New media outlets seem to be popping up almost every-day. Cable-television introduced us to the 24-hour news cycle, and the creation of the internet ushered in the age of instant news coverage. The popularity of social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook only further obfuscate the definition of “the media.”

And we cannot ignore the financial pressures faced by those who produce the news that we read, watch or listen to.

Several months ago, I watched an interview with Christopher Wallace, a former anchor on Fox News Sunday and is now a CNN anchor. Wallace, who has a reputation as a hard-nosed journalist, was talking about how the media has changed over the last several years.

What struck me about that interview is that Wallace laid plenty of blame at the feet of his father, Mike Wallace, who is generally revered as some kind of demi-god by most professional journalists. During the latter part of his career, the elder Wallace was one of the lead anchors of 60 Minutes, a news magazine show that debuted on CBS.

“Before 60 Minutes, the networks generally considered news programming as some sort of public service,” the younger Wallace explained. “Then 60 Minutes happened, and suddenly the networks began to see news programming as a very valuable commodity.”

While the big media corporations continue to intensify their ratings war, many local and small media outlets are struggling to keep their heads above water as they desperately try to keep pace with the continually changing news landscape.

But how does that negatively impact you? Who really cares if another local newspaper closes shop? I’ll get to that in a moment.

The responsibility of the fourth estate

Nearly 300 years ago, Edmund Burke, a member of British Parliament, reportedly coined the term “Fourth Estate” to describe the press, its obligations as a check in government oversight and its responsibility to frame political issues as well as advocacy for the general public.

From Burke’s perspective, the news media played a very important role, at least as important as the other three estates: the clergy, the nobility and the commoners. Today, especially in the United States, the other three estates of government are considered as the executive branch, the legislative branch and the judicial branch.

That’s pretty heady stuff if you stop and think about it. A free and unencumbered press literally has the capacity to bring down even the most powerful of political leaders or organizations. We need the press to be our advocates at the table. We depend on the media to keep government in check.

It’s not just important during something like the Vietnam War (the Pentagon Papers, New York Times) or the Watergate scandal (Washington Post). It also matters in your own community and your day-to-day life.

For example, how exactly is the government spending your tax dollars? Who is paying attention to that new zoning ordinance and how it could impact your home value? What is the city planning to do to your kid’s school? Who is advocating for the less fortunate among us? Who is keeping us aware of the day-to-day threats to our peace and comfort?

Sure, I think it’s great that the city of Biddeford has its own, municipal news organization: The Biddeford Beat. But is that really a good replacement for an independent media source? I mean, really, how do we expect a government agency to provide a comprehensive critique of itself or an overview of its day-to-day activities? In fact, one has to wonder how much tax money is being used to produce local government-controlled news.

There are two main reasons why it is becoming more common to see local government create its own “news” coverage. First, the technology makes it relatively easy to do, especially if it’s just an on-line news source.

But much more troubling is the fact that many local government agencies are simply trying to fill a void left by a rapidly shrinking pool of professional reporters at the local level.

I fondly remember covering Biddeford City Council meetings more than 20 years ago. Back then, the council chambers were – politely speaking – often packed with opinions, rage and contempt. It was mostly civil, but it seemed as if there was always some sort of tension. Certain residents regularly attended every meeting, never hesitating to use their five-minute limit at the podium during the “public comment” period. It was awesome.

Back then, there were at least three reporters at every council meeting: Kelley Bouchard covered Biddeford for the Portland Press Herald. Josh Williamson represented the Journal Tribune, and I was there on behalf of the Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier.

Each of us would have likely stabbed the others in the neck in order to get the story first. We scrapped it out on the streets, digging for the facts, looking at all the angles and always fiercely competitive. Frankly, it was humbling to work with professionals like Kelley and Josh.

According to the US Census Bureau, the city of Biddeford has a population of roughly 22,000 residents. I think a city of that size, although small, deserves and warrants a full-time reporter or two. Even more so, when considering that Biddeford is the largest city in York County and is a service center for residents from all over southern Maine.

Today, unfortunately, city council meetings in Biddeford are generally quiet, somewhat uneventful and not very well attended. There are no longer three reporters covering every meeting.

The Journal Tribune ceased operations a few years ago, and the Portland Press Herald closed its local bureau on Main Street. The Courier, a locally-owned publication, was sold to the owner of the Portland Press Herald, which basically uses the weekly newspaper to account for its coverage of the Biddeford-Saco area.

Today, Tammy Bostwick Wells, one of the finest and hardest working reporters I’ve ever met, is expected to cover not only Biddeford but also several other communities throughout York County. Tammy, who previously worked for the Journal Tribune and the St. Croix Courier, does an awesome job, but she is realistically limited in what she can cover. After all, she is only one person and there are only so many hours in a day.

That, unfortunately, is the new reality for local media across the United States. Reporters are basically forced to “attend” government meetings via streaming platforms such as Zoom because of time and staffing constraints. We’re lucky that we have people like Tammy who are willing to take on more and more work without an equal increase in monetary compensation for their efforts.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t extoll the virtues of my publisher and her commitment to the communities of Biddeford, Saco and Old Orchard Beach via the operation of Saco Bay News, an online local media source. Liz Gotthelf-Othot is another former Journal Tribune reporter who runs herself ragged every day in her efforts to provide coverage of news that may otherwise go un-noticed.

(Disclaimer: Liz pays me to cover Biddeford news for her online publication)

Yesterday, I posted something on Facebook that lacked appropriate context: “I’d take a dime-bag of outrage over a pound of apathy every day of the week and twice on Sundays.”

We need the media to provide that “outrage” in a meaningful and constructive way. If a news story pisses you off, good! Get involved and help make the change you want to see.

Yup, I do think that big media outlets are somewhat responsible for the erosion of public trust in the media, but I also think we need to challenge ourselves to view news differently than through the lens of our own opinions and our own biases.

I sleep better at night knowing that people like Tammy Bostwick Wells and Liz Gotthelf-Othot are watching my local government. And you may also want to avoid taking the media – especially the local media – for granted.

That’s enough rambling and pontificating for now. Peace.


Beat on the brat

A lot of people have really strong feelings about President Biden’s plan to forgive up to $10,000 in federal student loan debt for individuals earning less than $150,000 a year.

Based on my social media feed, the debate pretty much runs along partisan lines: Democrats support the idea and Republicans vehemently oppose it.

From what I can gather, each side is flooding Facebook, Twitter and Tik-Tok with two very basic themes to support their arguments and position. Democrats are relying upon the virtues of kindness and empathy, castigating Republicans as selfish and mean-spirited. Just because I struggled to pay off my student loans, does not mean I think that other people should struggle to pay off their student loans.

Republicans, on the other hand, are trumpeting the virtues of personal responsibility, arguing that the loan forgiveness simply transfers debt incurred by someone else onto the backs of hardworking taxpayers who are already suffering under record-breaking inflation.

On the surface, I can see the merits of both arguments and it’s easy for me to see why the debate has become so heated and intense, but that debate – from both sides – does very little to address what is a very real problem in this country.

I get it. Republicans are playing the elitist card. Isn’t it lovely that Johnny or Susie was able to go to Harvard or Yale, but how about the hard-working people who went into the trades instead of college? It doesn’t take much to stoke that fire. There is always a not so hidden layer of resentment just below the surface when discussing college education among the working class.

Democrats are quick to fire back that the world needs engineers, architects, chemists, doctors, nurses and pharmacists; and that the cost of the necessary education has skyrocketed, making it almost unbearable to be saddled with a debt that could take as much as 30 years to repay.

Again, I understand the validity of both of these points, but I don’t see how those arguments – and especially Biden’s plan – really address the fundamental problems: the crippling cost of higher education and the completely bungled student loan process itself.

Before we go any further, a quick bit of disclosure. I have two sons, one did not go to college but is doing very well as an auto-body technician in an employee-owned firm with insurance, a retirement plan, paid vacations and sick time. He is learning new things every day and building his skills. My younger son chose to attend a private university in North Carolina and majored in fine arts. He is also hard-working, and is employed in the service sector. He will likely benefit from President Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan.

Both of my kids made their own choices. Laura and I obviously advised them, but ultimately they each chose their own path and understood that they are responsible for their own choices.

I made lots and lots of mistakes as a parent (I still do), but I like to think that we raised our kids to be responsible, hard-working and decent young men. It looks to me like those lessons worked . . . so back to the national argument.

Let’s first pause, however, and consider a couple of things:

  1. President Biden’s plan only forgives $10,000 of a student’s “federal loan” debt. This is a fraction of the debt that most college kids rack up in pursuit of their education. People like my youngest son will still have a ton of debt upon finishing college. No complaining, and yes, he is responsible for that debt. not you and me.
  2. We are all Americans and should be at least somewhat concerned about the well-being of our fellow citizens.
  3. In the United States, we have many taxpayer-supported programs that provide short and long-term assistance to all kinds of people across the entire economic spectrum. We routinely provide debt forgiveness to major corporations and every individual is able to file for various versions of bankruptcy as a final resort if they find themselves unable to cope with their debts.
  4. I know what you’re thinking: if someone files for personal bankruptcy, it is their creditors – not the taxpayers – who get screwed. Yes and no. Those creditors turn around and file those losses as tax write offs. So, yeah . . . the taxpayers (you and me) subsidize those losses.
  5. Yup, Biden is playing politics with this issue, making his decision just weeks before the mid-term elections, when Democrats are poised to perhaps lose control of the House and maybe the Senate. Imagine that. A politician playing politics. The nerve of that guy. (Remember, Biden talked a lot about this student loan relief idea while he was on the campaign trail.)
  6. The way federal student loans are structured, the government reaps plenty of interest (profit) from borrowers. Even with the $10k forgiveness, the government will still be making a profit on the repayments.
  7. Let’s also remember that FEDERAL student loan debt cannot be discharged by bankruptcy, like other kinds of debts.

Republicans, in my opinion, should tread a bit carefully on this topic without bloviating about “rugged individualism,” “personal responsibility” and debt repayment.

President Donald Trump’s businesses (casinos and hotels) filed for bankruptcy (more than once). No, he did not file personal bankruptcy, but his businesses sought bankruptcy protection during the days before he was an elected official. The media and other candidates harshly criticized Trump for seeking bankruptcy relief.

Then candidate Trump defended the move by arguing that “businesses often have to file for bankruptcy and that filing for bankruptcy was a financially sound move each time he did it.”

On this point, I agree with Trump. I also believe bankruptcy protection – whether Chapter 11 for a business or Chapter 7 or 13 for a person – should be a last resort and come attached with some consequences, such as determining future credit worthiness.

The meat of the matter

My friend Scott Jalbert wrote a piece about this subject on his Facebook page. It was one of the most cogent pieces I have seen about this issue. Scott and I, for the most part are politically aligned. I would describe us as center-right individuals. It would appear that we both tend to believe that the government that governs least governs best.

 Scott made several points on his post. 1.) That the ease and availability of federal student loans has allowed colleges and universities to jack up their tuition rates to astronomical levels while stockpiling huge endowments. 2.) The federal student loan program, itself, is fraught with bureaucratic gobbly-gook that is both confusing and misleading. 3.) There is a fundamental absence of reasonableness when it comes to lending money for education. (No bank in the world would allow me to borrow $2 million for a summer home on Rangeley Lake) Yet, with the backing and guarantee of the federal government, student loans are dispensed like candy at a street festival.

“I went to college 30+ years ago and since then public college tuition has increased by 200 percent,” Scott wrote on Facebook. “Private college [tuition has risen] by about 140 percent. It went from something that we could pay off by working summer and school-year jobs to a mountain of debt that takes 20 years to pay off.”

“Remove the federal government from the college business.” Jalbert continues. “Force colleges to enroll the best and the brightest instead of packing campuses by enrolling everyone to meet quotas and to boost profits. Have students secure loans from private lenders without government intervention. Stop the vilification based on career choice and stop applying the pressure that everyone should go to college. Period.”

An idea for consideration

I am empathetic to the plight of young college students and their families, but I also know many other young people who did not go to college and are also struggling during these tough economic times. Where is their bailout?

If I were president (now there’s a scary thought), I would propose the following: 1.) Immediately freeze interest rates and set to .5 percent for all student loans (private and public). 2.) Establish a commission to review and recommend changes to the student loan process and 3.) . . . well, here’s where it gets interesting.

I would make available up to $10,000 of student loan deferment for those borrowers who are college graduates in exchange for their commitment to pay back those funds through public service.

My plan would require 10 hours per week of public service, which could be through enlistment in the military, the Peace Corps, the Red Cross, AmeriCorps, Habitat for Humanity or many other programs. It could also be as easy as volunteering at a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter or helping remove litter from public roads and highways. This commitment of 10 hours per week would last a minimum of two years.

This way, we all have some skin in the game. I would also offer up to $10,000 to any American who wants to pursue non-traditional educational opportunities, such as apprenticeships.

The reason we establish governments is to make it easier to survive and thrive. Government provides for a common defense, public infrastructure and education. Imagine what the world would like without a government that addresses the needs of all of its citizens.

The money you have in the bank would not have the protection of federal insurance, there would be no ambulance if you begin having chest pains. There would be no public roadways or highways.

We have laws that prohibit price gouging, perhaps it’s time to examine the pricing practices of both public and private colleges and universities. It’s just a thought, nothing more and nothing less.

Tainted Love; Part Deux

It’s July, and according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the “Dog Days of Summer” are finally upon us. This is the time of the year when those of us in the northeast have a pretty good view of the constellation, Sirius – hence the “dog days.”

It is also the “quiet” month. The days are long and warm. It is time for frolicking at the beach, family barbecues and complaining about the tourists from Quebec and Massachusetts. Football has yet to ramp up its next season. The Celtics and Bruins are basically done for a few months; and the political season – my favorite – is just now gearing up for another relentless, knock-down, drag-out, hands-out- for-donations season on your favorite social media platform.

Here in Maine, the 2022 elections will feature what promises to be a sure-fire battle of the ages for the Blaine House as the once-every-four-years-gubernatorial election draws near.

Unlike the last three gubernatorial battles, this year’s match-up appears to be a straight-forward Democrat versus Republican race, pitting Democrat incumbent Janet Mills against Republican Paul LePage who is seeking a return to the Blaine House.

I will be watching this race closely because I am curious about how – or if – the absence of any real “independent” candidates will affect the outcome. But we still have some time before the campaigns really heat up and in only a matter of weeks, campaign signs will be littering every paved road in Maine – and on most of the dirt roads too.

Sure, staffers and volunteers from both campaigns are already working, but on the surface, I’m betting that things will remain relatively quiet until we get into the middle of August and especially in the days just after Labor Day.

Looking back

In previous gubernatorial races, Eliot Cutler, a so-called moderate who really likes children, was a spoiler in both 2014 and 2010, the races which LePage won with relatively narrow victories.

Republican candidate Paul LePage

Cutler is currently awaiting trial on child pornography charges, hence we will not be hearing much from him during this election cycle. That’s good news for Mills and bad news for LePage.

LePage won his first term as governor in 2010, capturing just 37.6 percent of the vote (218,065). Cutler, running as an independent, came in a close second with 35.9 percent (208,270) and Democrat Libby Mitchell garnered only 18.8 percent (109, 387) of the vote.

Cutler was hardly independent. Much like his role model, former governor and now Senator Angus King, Cutler is much, much more a Democrat than Republican. Maybe not a progressive Democrat like Libby Mitchell, but a Democrat for all intents and purposes.

Maine Democrats blame Cutler for handing the 2010 race to LePage. While he may have been able to peel off a few moderate Republican (is there really such a thing?) votes, Cutler was more centrist than Mitchell and thus was able to attract votes from the perennial “undeclared,” fence-straddle voters.

Four years later, LePage won a second term, this time capturing roughly 48.2 percent of the vote; Democrat Mike Michaud got 43.2 percent of the vote; and Cutler finished the three-way race, bringing up the rear with less than nine percent of the vote. The Democrats had learned their lesson, but it still wasn’t enough to beat LePage.

The 2018 gubernatorial race was pretty much a straight-forward match-up between Democrat Janet Mills, a former Attorney General for the state of Maine, and Republican Shawn Moody, a political outsider and successful businessman that founded Moody’s Collision, an-employee-owned company with several locations throughout southern Maine.

Gov. Janet Mills

Because of term limits, LePage was unable to seek a third, consecutive term.

Yes, we don’t want to overlook Terry Hayes, another so-called independent who lost her Democrat primary race to Mills in 2018, but still decided to go for the gold and wound up with a measly six percent of the vote in the November general election.

Mills won a solid victory with slightly more than 50 percent of the vote in 2018. Despite his political inexperience, Moody was still able to grab about 43 percent of the vote.

Looking forward

So here we are, facing the mid-terms and another gubernatorial election. Which candidate has the edge? Which candidate do I think will win?

Frankly, I think it’s going to be a pretty close race.

Before we go any further, let me say that this is just my opinion. I am not working or volunteering for either candidate. I don’t have any special insight or knowledge. Yes, I have a professional background in journalism and public relations, but I am really nothing more than an arm-chair pundit who loves politics.

My opinions and predictions are no more qualified than your opinions and predictions.

So, why do I think it’s going to be a tight race between LePage and Mills? Because I think a lot of issues on the federal level are going to impact the Maine gubernatorial race.

Gun violence, abortion rights and climate change could all play a hand in this year’s election. But this year – more than in any year for a long, long time – the economy is going to be a HUGE factor. As James Carville famously said roughly 30 years ago today, “It’s the economy, stupid!”

The incumbent, whether it is George H.W. Bush or Jimmy Carter, is always judged by the economy. Voters, whether it is right or wrong, primarily tend to vote with their wallets.

The last time, inflation was this bad, Ronald Reagan crushed Jimmy Carter’s re-election bid with just one sentence: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”

Many voters, including those in the middle, will hold Mills accountable for our current economic conditions. Just as voters are heading off to the polls, many of them will be feeling the pain of filling their home heating-oil tanks, still struggling with run-away inflation and soaring gas prices.

That said, other issues at the federal level could motivate more people, mostly Democrats and some middle-of-the-road voters, to the polls. Those upset with recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and recent mass shooting incidents may want to make their opinions known at the voting booth. This could be bad news for LePage.

LePage is a strong supporter of gun-owner rights and he appeals to “pro-life” supporters. He generally holds the concept of renewable energy as a waste of both time and money. He is regarded by his base as a fiscal conservative.

From where I sit, it looks like both LePage and Mills will have to focus heavily on their ground game, especially their GOTV (Get-Out-The-Vote) efforts.

Just go back and look at the numbers.

In both of his previous bids, LePage never hit the 50 percent mark — and that was with two left-leaning candidates in each race.

Mills supporters cannot afford any missteps. Yes, she has a strong base but she will need more than that this time.

I suspect that the LePage campaign will work non-stop to hang the poor-economy label on Mills. I can almost guarantee that they will link her to President Biden’s dismal polling numbers. Meanwhile, the Mills campaign will focus on portraying LePage as Maine’s version of Donald Trump, an evil boogeyman who hates women, puppies and pine trees.

So, who do I think will win? Honestly, I don’t know.

I do know, however, that this will be one of the most brutal and intense gubernatorial campaigns that Maine voters have ever seen.

Now, let’s sit back and watch. Your predictions are welcome.

Day Tripper

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the plight of Brittney Griner, an American basketball player who is currently being held in a Russian prison facility.

Some people in the United States are laughing about Griner’s plight. More about that in a moment.

Griner, 32, is a formidable athlete who plays for the WNBA here in the United States and took a playing gig with a Russian basketball team during the off-season. On Feb. 17, Griner was arrested at a Russian airport and charged with drug possession, a crime that could land her a 10-year sentence in Russia.

Last week, Griner plead guilty to the charges, a move her lawyers say was necessary if she wanted to avoid a lengthy prison term. Allegedly, Griner was in possession of several vaping supplies, including cannabis oil. (For my readers over 25, cannabis is what we called marijuana back in the day)

(Photo: Boston Globe)

Griner, her wife and millions of Americans have been pleading, begging and cajoling U.S. officials, including President Joe Biden, to intervene on her behalf and help get her out of jail.

So, why do some Americans (mostly conservatives) think it’s amusing that Griner is sitting in a Russian jail?

Well, I — and more than 250 billion other people — don’t watch WNBA games, but according to several media outlets, Griner refused to stand and place her hand over her heart during the playing of the National Anthem at a basketball game in 2020.

Griner’s critics say she is a hypocrite, one day “bashing” the United States, and then begging for the U.S. government to get her out of jail.

Before we go any further, let me say that I think Griner’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem was boorish behavior. But that’s just my opinion, and here in the United States you can share your opinion without any fear of the government.

In America, you are free to express your opinion, even if it doesn’t align with the majority. In America, you can openly criticize the government. Not so much in many other nations.

This is what I believe makes America great, the true diversity of our populace, including a diversity of opinions. In America, you should not be forced or compelled in any way to stand for the National Anthem.

That said, I think you should be polite and stand for the Anthem, even if you’re angry with the government, but your freedom trumps my opinion.

A few weeks ago, I saw a pick-up truck driving down Main Street in Saco. The truck was decorated with two large American flags and a large sign that read: “Fuck Biden.”

What do you think would happen if you drove through Moscow with a giant sign that read: “Fuck Putin?” Yeah, right. Good luck with that.

On the other side of the political aisle, many Democrats are angry that Biden is not doing more to get Ms. Griner back home. Some people have even opined that if were Tom Brady instead of Brittney Griner, Brady would be back in plenty of time for his 247th season with the NFL.

Is it because Griner is Black? Is it because Griner is a lesbian? Is it because she plays for the WNBA instead of the much more popular NFL? Maybe, but I don’t think so.

I think Putin is really angry with the U.S. right now, and that he is going to do whatever it takes to exploit this issue.

In closing, I think Brittney Griner should be released immediately from jail. I also think she should stand the next time she hears the National Anthem, but that’s her decision and her right. Freedom means that she gets to make that choice.

A boy named Sue

I have a problem. Maybe you have the same problem.

The very first step for recovering alcoholics in the AA program is to admit that you are powerless over alcohol — that your life has become unmanageable.

Only by the grace of God, I am not an alcoholic, but I am an addict. And while not yet unmanageable, my addiction is interfering in the quality of my life . . .

What am I talking about? Cocaine? Opiates? Ben & Jerry’s ice cream? No, no and  . . . well, maybe.

I’m talking about social media. As soon as I wake up in the morning, I reach for my phone to see if anyone has commented on one of my posts; or commented on one of my responses on someone else’s post. Several times during the day, even while working, I find myself scrolling through Facebook updates.

I am a political junkie. I always have been for as long as I can remember. I blame my parents. They got me hooked on watching the news. One time, my father pulled me out of school so that I could see Jimmy Carter during a campaign stop in Biddeford.

They made me stay up late on school nights and watch “Roots,” a televised production of the Alex Hailey novel. We participated in the “Fresh Air” program, hosting minority, inner-city kids from New York during the summer.

I remember seeing George Wallace get shot on the news. I was glued to the television when Nixon announced his resignation. By the time I hit sixth-grade, I was writing essays about G. Gordon Liddy and Charles (Chuck) Colson. I dreamed about becoming the next Carl Bernstein.

My mother is and was always a progressive Democrat. When my parents divorced, she became relentless with Helen Reddy music. To this day, if I hear: “I am woman, hear me roar . . .” I begin to twitch and drool. Mom wore that album out on the old Zenith turntable.

Meanwhile, my Dad became a volunteer on Ted Kennedy’s failed presidential campaign in 1980. Before then, they were always talking at the dinner table about Vietnam and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and other boring stuff.

I was hooked. I became a political animal. It was once a badge of honor, but has since become a curse.

I can’t help myself. For some reason I cannot just scroll by political posts on Facebook, even the bat-shit crazy memes created by extremists on the polar ends of both political parties. I LOVE to argue. I piss off friends on the left and then I piss off friends on the right.

I am sarcastic and stubborn, a fly in the ointment, always challenging the so-called iron-clad pronouncements of the self-righteous, never quite realizing that I’m just being an asshole. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Somewhere along the line, even though I once worked for the Maine People’s Alliance, I started becoming a bit conservative in my political outlook. It makes my mother cry and my father roll in his grave.

As some of you may already know, I used to get paid to offer my opinions as the editor of a local newspaper. That led to hosting a live political talk show on public access television. Politics led to meeting my wife for the first time on Election Day 2001. She was running for a seat on the Old Orchard Beach School Board. I did not endorse her in my local endorsements. She was pissed. Really pissed, sending me e-mail after e-mail after e-mail because of a tiny mistake. She does the same shit today.

Anyway, so often I find myself engaged, actually consumed, in heated arguments on social media. My blood pressure spikes. I lose track of time. Before you know it, hours have passed.

That’s precious time that could have been allocated toward more meaningful and productive endeavors; like re-arranging my sock drawer or working on my collection of Canadian placemats.

Even while vacationing with my wife just a few kilometers south of Cancun, I was still arguing with people on Facebook. There I was, in paradise with the love of my life. Beautiful scenery, the green Caribbean and white sands, palm trees and I’m arguing about Donald Trump, Joe Biden and the cost of gasoline . . . WTF?

In all seriousness, it’s just silly. No one out there is trying to engage you and help you see their perspective. Instead, it seems they just want to scream about the other side being wrong. You really have to work at it in order to find consensus . . . and it’s damn rare.

I don’t care what your political outlook is, I can be friends with you . . . well, at least on Facebook. Look, we are ALL much more alike than we may want to admit.

We all love puppies and pictures of newborns.

We all have fears and concerns that we don’t share publicly.

We all have parents, and some of us have children. Everyone I know would take a bullet to save their child or their parents.

We all love sunny days and the smell of fresh-cut grass, the gentle pelting of a late afternoon rain shower.

We have all made silly mistakes.

I am worried about the world and where we are heading, but I can’t afford to let that consume me. I find solace in music (and 200mg of Clozapine every night). I have posted this video clip before, but I think it needs to be repeated.

A friend turned me onto this band earlier this year. These four young Asian women are amazing, and this song, in particular, gives me hope for the future: the idea that everything is going to be okay.

Also, the drummer is 12. Not a typo. She is 12. Give it a listen and tell me that you don’t feel just a little bit better about the world. I need more music and fewer political conversations in my life. Cheers!

Send lawyers, guns and money

The world is going to Hell in a handbasket.

Well, at least according to a friend of mine, who was recently lamenting the concept of Critical Race Theory, discussion of gender identity in public schools and the “whole gay marriage thing.”

Maybe you’re thinking, why are you friends with someone like that? Well, to be honest, I have several friends who feel the same way. They are not racists or bigots. They are decent, hard-working, kind and generous people. For the most part, they ascribe to a “live and let live attitude,” but many of them also cite their own religious beliefs and convictions as the foundation and the basis of their concerns.

On the other side of the coin, I have some friends who are somewhat trigger-happy with the “politically correct” gun. In their view, racism and bigotry can be found around almost every corner. They seem to be perpetually “offended,” and generally have a dim view of religion, NASCAR and the Second Amendment.

However, the vast and overwhelming majority of my friends can be found somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. It’s also where I find myself . . . at least most of the time.

Regular readers of this blog and those who follow me on social media already know that I am a political centrist, and that I ping back and forth between conservative and liberal thought as easily as a blade of grass is bent by the breeze. According to some people, I have no convictions or moral compass. I have also been accused of being a kiss-ass and guilty of “virtue signaling.”

Let’s pause here for a moment and think about that last sentence. Virtue signaling? Apparently, from what I have been able to gather, this is a term used by conservatives to describe someone who publicly discusses racism or liberal attitudes. People who use this phrase, apparently, don’t like people talking about virtues. Is it bad to have virtues? I don’t know, let’s move on.

Man of the year

Several weeks ago, I apparently made a comment in the public square about the issue of gender identity. I can’t seem to find it now, but I think that I basically wondered why gender identity was all of a sudden a thing. In my view, it was the just the latest in a trend to continually prove that we are each special and unique and need new ways to pronounce our self-absorbed identity to the rest of the world.

That post/comment prompted a call from a friend I have known for nearly 30 years. He said, “We need to get together for a beer and talk.” I drove into Portland a few days later to meet him for lunch. He told me that he had recently come to understand that he was a member of the LGBTQ community, specifically that he is transgendered.

I was knocked back on my heels. Look, I consider myself to be an open-minded and tolerant guy. I have several very close friends who are either gay or lesbian. In fact, one of my most dear friends (a man I lived with for several years) is openly gay. But I never before had a friend who is transgendered.

I had a ton of questions. Of all the people I know, this particular friend was the last person I would imagine to be transgendered. He is a successful professional, happily married to a beautiful woman with a gorgeous daughter, a beautiful home . . . you know, the whole nine yards of normalcy.

So, over the course of an hour or so, I peppered my friend with questions. Does his wife know? How did she handle the news? What about his daughter? His family?

When did you choose to be a man, he asked me.

I didn’t choose. I was born that way, I replied.

Exactly, he responded. When it comes to gender identity, none of us choose. It’s not like a hobby or joining the Elks Club. It’s who you are.

Yeah, I responded but you’re born with certain genitalia, which determines if you’re male or female.

“Gender identity is about a lot more than genitalia and it’s not about sexual preference,” he said. “As far back as I can remember, I was always more comfortable playing with girls. By the time I hit middle school, I was constantly bullied because I wasn’t like most of the other boys in my class. Society drills into you what is expected if you are a boy or if you a girl. Those expectations are relentless.”

Our conversation went all over the place. I questioned him about natural law and defiance of God’s will.

“What if I don’t believe in God?” he responded. “Do you really think the world is going to come of its axis if some people choose to identify with a gender that is different from the one to which they were assigned? Trans people have been around since the beginning of time. How does it impact you or anyone you know if I choose to identify as a woman? Who is being harmed?”

I have been thinking about that conversation for almost a month, and here’s what I have come to believe. [Pause here. Disclosure: I do not have any advanced degrees, including psychology, religion or political science. I’m just a bald, overweight, underachiever from Biddeford, Maine. My opinion, plus $4.25, will get you a small coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts. So, relax. This is just my opinion and it carries no more weight than your opinion]

I think my friend is mostly right. Some hardline conservatives tend to get all worked up about individual rights when it comes to things like wearing a mask in public during a global pandemic, but they are quick to judge individual choices and preferences. They want you to subscribe to their values.

Furthermore, I don’t want to live in a government that is controlled or motivated by certain religious beliefs. Those guys who flew airliners into the World Trade Center were convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were doing God’s work.

Now, I can almost hear what some of you are thinking. What about professional/collegiate or even high school sports/competitions? What about boys who want to use the girls’ bathroom?

I confess. I don’t have the answers to all those questions. But I am convinced that a nation that figured out how to put a man on the moon can figure out some common-sense solutions to these questions or dilemmas. For example, we could have a third restroom that could be used by anyone. It’s not rocket science. Hell, we have only had the Americans with Disabilities Act for a little more than 30 years (1990).

Today, just about anywhere you go, you can find accommodations for people with physical disabilities. We figured it out. Despite some protests about the cost impacts to Joe and Jane Taxpayer, businesses and institutions were able to adapt. I happen to think that the world is a better place if people with physical disabilities can get on the bus, do their own grocery shopping or attend a sporting event.

Hey, teacher! Leave them kids alone

Now here’s where I part company with some of my friends on the left side of the political aisle.

There is absolutely no need to develop curriculum for kids in grades K-3 to foster classroom conversations about gender identity, sexual preference or gay marriage.

For Pete’s sake, we’re talking about kids aged 5-8 years old. At this age, kids will gladly eat paste, crayons or their own snot. In most cases, they don’t yet have the intellectual or emotional capacity to determine which socks they should wear. They should be allowed to be fun-loving kids without concern for adult subject matters. You only get a 3-4 year window of just being a kid, why muck it up for them?

I mean really. There is a reason we don’t let kids vote until they are 18 or drive until they are 16. There are appropriate age barriers for childhood development stages. Here in the state of Maine, the age of consent is 16 years old, which means a child under the age of 16 cannot consent to sexual acts. I don’t know about you, but that makes sense to me.

I remember one particular day when I was in the fifth grade and all the girls in our class got to go to a special assembly and the boys were left behind in the classroom. I remember asking our teacher, Mr. Flaherty, what was going on. He replied curtly, “nothing you need to worry about.” Boom. End of conversation. I went back to whatever I was doing to pass the time. The girls returned to the classroom about an hour later and they all had gift bags.

What a rip-off, I thought. It just wasn’t fair, I reasoned.

The next year, in health class, the mystery was cleared up for all of us. Some of us giggled, others let their minds drift someplace else and others just accepted what we were being taught. It was really no big deal. I don’t recall any pending legislation or parent protests. We were 12-year-old public school students and we learned about sexual intercourse, pregnancy and menstruation. Upon learning these things, we didn’t run out and start fornicating like jack rabbits. (Well maybe the other kids did, but it would be another 35 years before I experienced sexual intercourse.)

If a seven-year-old asks his teacher “why does Johnny have two daddies,” an appropriate response is: because Johnny’s parents are different than your parents. Boom. End of conversation. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that kid will simply shrug his shoulders and move on to the very next thing that catches his attention, like wondering how much money the tooth fairy is going to leave under his pillow.

And for those of you who are worried that the gay/transgender lobby is out to recruit your kid. Relax. Your kid already knows if he/she is gay or straight. Again, it’s not something you just randomly choose. Hey wait, I think I’ll try being gay for a while. No, it doesn’t work like that.

As for corrective/trans-gender surgery options, I believe you should be at least 16 years old before you can make that decision. Even then, I think it’s dicey because you’re talking about a medical procedure that is pretty much permanent.

If your son is gay, it’s not because of something he learned in school. Are you going to still love him after he tells you that he is gay? Are you gonna try to have him fixed? If your daughter tells you that she is attracted to other women, what’s your response? Frankly, I don’t think kids should be having sex until they are 18, but it happens. Once, they are grown and out of the house, however, the less I know about their sex lives, the better.

I know I promised to also discuss gay marriage and Critical Race Theory in this post, but we are pretty much out of room for today. I will tackle those lightweight subjects in the near future. In the meantime, focus on being a nice person and stop being offended about every little thing.

We’re all different, but we are also all the same. Let’s spend more time focusing on what unites us rather than worrying so much about what divides us.


Beat on the brat

Before we proceed any further, please allow me to be perfectly clear. Just like millions of other people all over the world, I am outraged and saddened by the events now happening in Ukraine.

But, as this conflict goes on I am also struck by my own hypocrisy, and I’m wondering why so many of us (especially in the United States) are so angry about Russia’s invasion and so sympathetic to the people of Ukraine; yet we are basically silent about similar conflicts that are now raging in several African countries (and other places around the world).

Yes, it’s true. The people of Ukraine are suffering horrible circumstances. Towns and villages are being wiped out. Hundreds of people are dying every day. Refugees have been forced out of their homeland. Innocent people have lost their homes and basically all their possessions.

But here’s the thing. The same exact thing is happening right now in Ethiopia, Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan and many other places, where ongoing civil wars and other conflicts have been raging for years. Children are being killed by warlords. Territories are being occupied by those with military might.

Why are we not getting nightly news updates about those conflicts? Where is CNN’s round-the-clock coverage? Why aren’t people updating their Facebook profile pictures with the flag of Cameroon?

(Photo credit;

I have some theories about why we seem to care more about Ukraine than many other nations.

  1. Americans have been indoctrinated for more than 60 years now about the evils of Russia and its threat to the free world. From drills that involve hiding under school desks to free-flowing rhetoric about the evils of communism, we have a long and well-documented history of loathing and fearing Russia.
  • Unlike many of the aforementioned African nations, Ukraine is rich in natural resources that are very important to the United States and other western nations, including recoverable reserves of uranium ores, titanium ore reserves, shale gas reserves, food resources (wheat, corn, etc.) and on and on.
  • We tend to have short attention spans. Although profoundly sad on many levels, news about an actor slapping a comedian temporarily overshadowed the media’s news priority over Ukraine and lots of other things, including how millions of Americans are struggling with record-breaking inflation.
  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine came as a flashpoint in Eastern European geo-political theater. Meanwhile, war and civil unrest seems to be par for the course in several African nations. It’s been going on for centuries and shows no sign of ending any time in the foreseeable future.
  • It should be noted that Ukraine’s location is a high strategic resource for the western world; hence why Putin is so bugged about Ukraine becoming part of NATO.
  • Finally, the majority of Ukrainian people are white. Just like us. It’s easier to sympathize when the people and the landscape look familiar. We see towering steel and concrete apartment buildings that have been destroyed by Russian rockets. It’s much harder to envision war-torn regions in many African nations before they were involved in war.

As I wrote at the beginning of this post: what is happening in Ukraine today is horrific and gut-wrenchingly sad. Vladimir Putin should be tried and convicted of war crimes. The people of Ukraine did nothing to provoke Russia. They are innocent. It is more than understandable why the free world is outraged by what is happening.

It is good and laudable to send humanitarian resources to Ukraine. It is good to place economic and other sanctions upon Russia.

But let’s not forget that a whole lot of other people are also suffering the same exact nightmare in places you won’t read about on the front page of the Washington Post or other daily papers. Let’s make what is happening in Ukraine awaken the rest of us from our slumber.

For every dollar of relief we donate to Ukraine, let’s match that gift with an equal donation to the people of Ethiopia or any other war-torn shithole around the globe.

Let’s not beat our chests of moral indignation and sympathy only when it’s convenient to do so.

Lie to me

Earlier this week, Chris Wallace – son of legendary journalist Mike Wallace – appeared on the Stephen Colbert Show and said, among other things, that his father and the legendary television news show 60 Minutes were partly to blame for today’s public distrust of the media.

Wallace, a former FOX Network news anchor who this week began his own show on CNN Plus, said he understands why many Americans have a dim view of the media and how it presents news.

When asked what, if anything, could be done to restore public trust in the media, Wallace told Colbert that before the advent of 60 Minutes, the major networks – CBS, NBC and ABC – considered the broadcast of news to be a “public service.”

Wallace said he believes that “[today’s] desire to chase ratings and make money is what needs to change if the news and the public’s faith in it are to be restored,” according to an MSN story about the interview.

“It used to be in the old days, and I can remember growing up with my father in the ’70s, that news didn’t make money. It was a public service, and the networks viewed it as a public service,” Wallace said. “And then 60 Minutes came along and showed you could make phenomenal amounts of money with the news business.”

60 Minutes first aired in 1968 and was originally hosted by Mike Wallace and Harry Reasoner. The show has often been praised by journalists and other media programs for its integrity and “fearless” pursuit of the news. It has enjoyed steadfast popularity in television ratings for more than five decades.

Today, however, a growing number of Americans say that the media can’t be trusted. Many people claim that today’s media is politically biased. Another often heard complaint is that today’s news is more “editorial than objective news.”

It’s easy to understand why many people feel that the news is no longer objective and fact-based. Today, more than ever before, Americans – and people all over the world – have an increasingly wide range of news options, many of which that have popped up during the past 20 to 30 years on cable television, satellite radio and, of course, the internet.

It’s hard to know who or what to trust, and it’s easier than ever before to blame the media for everything from today’s political climate to the rising cost of gasoline. Millions of people, it seems, are convinced that big media is orchestrating a vicious web of lies intended to keep “regular people in the dark.”

So how can we put the genie back in the bottle? How do we — or can we — restore the concept that news is a public service? Can we really stop the networks from “chasing ratings?”

I seriously doubt it.

If the news delivery business is to truly be a public service than we have to remove the profit factor. Please don’t blather on about NPR (National Public Radio). Even their “listener-supporter” broadcasts include corporate messaging and receive government funding.

Do we really want the government funding the news? Yeah, right. Surely, we can trust the government to fairly and accurately report news and information about the government. I don’t think so.

Getting money out of the news business is problematic on many levels. How do we pay journalists or recruit top journalistic talent? How do we pay for the delivery of the news (the producers, clerks, editors, technicians, camera operators, etc. etc.)?

So, what’s the solution? How do we keep the news business honest?

From my perspective, the more news outlets we have, the better. But more news outlets also requires more viewer/reader/listener discretion. It’s easy to gravitate toward news that aligns with our own pre-disposed political beliefs and philosophies. It’s much harder to seek out information that might make us uncomfortable.

In the end, there are no easy answers. As long as we need a scapegoat to explain things we don’t like or trust, the media will always be a convenient target.

In the words of legendary journalist Walter Cronkite: And, that’s the way it is.

Johnny, we hardly knew ye

For me, it’s hard to know what to think or feel about the recent news regarding former Maine gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler.

According to several news reports, police allegedly discovered several computer files of child pornography in Cutler’s home this week.

Before we go any further, make no mistake about it. Crimes against children are especially heinous and repugnant. I think we can all agree on that point.

While the civil libertarian in me wants to say we are all innocent until proven guilty, there is a much more well-defined part of me that wants to forgo all the hassles of a trial and simply drag Cutler into a darkened alley and beat him to death with a 36-inch aluminum baseball bat.

Even amongst hardened criminals, child sex offenders are the lowest of the low. If convicted and sent to prison, Cutler will likely need to be placed into protective custody. Another slap to the people of Maine.

In my opinion, there is no forgiveness for this kind of crime. There is no redemption. It is one of the darkest corners of humanity, a place that is impossible for most of us to imagine.

One more disclaimer before we proceed any further. I voted for Cutler. Twice.

In case you don’t recall, Cutler twice ran for governor as an “independent” candidate. He angered Democrats who said he split their party’s vote and allowed Republican Paul LePage to win with 38 percent of the vote.

He also pissed off Republicans who said he was nothing more than a wolf in sheep’s clothing: a Democrat who might be able to peel away some of their party’s centrist votes by talking about fiscal responsibility.

Today, in the wake of this horrific news, both Democrats and Republicans are saying: “See? I told you so.”

Do a quick Google search and you will find that nearly a dozen Maine men have all been arrested for possession of child pornography within the past year. We don’t hear much about those men, despite the fact that their crimes were just as heinous as Cutler’s.

Cutler is leading the six o’clock news because he willingly stepped into it. Unlike those other men who have been arrested for possession of child pornography, Cutler sought the media’s attention and favor. He portrayed himself as a man who would make responsible decisions; as a man of good character.

In the end, it has become abundantly clear during the last 48 hours that Cutler is neither of those things.

Yes, Cutler is innocent until proven guilty, but the evidence against him is pretty damning. The men and women of Maine’s State Police take their jobs seriously. They don’t get search warrants on a whim.

Like you, I don’t have all the facts. Like you, I am disgusted by the story.

But what I do know is this: These crimes were not political. Child sex offenders do not fit into such convenient categories.

It is disheartening to witness Cutler’s fall from grace. It is disturbing to think about or even contemplate this type of crime.

But it is also sad – at least for me – to watch pundits, party stalwarts and others beat their proverbial chests and try to use this awful news to further their own political agendas.

It’s a shitty story, all the way around.

Losing my religion

Warning: This post is about politics, God, a dear friend of mine and a chance encounter with my sixth-grade Social Studies teacher.

I enjoy talking politics with my friends, even with those friends who adamantly disagree with me or have an entirely different perspective than mine.

There are consequences, however. Openly discussing your political beliefs (made so much easier today with social media) can cost you some very special friendships; it can also put a strain on your relationships with family members; it can even cost you your job or social status.

Politics, very much like religion, is not for the faint of heart.  Both topics are generally dominated by people with an absolute and an unquestionable belief that their position is the correct one.

I envy those people. I really do.

A few years ago, a friend gave me a copy of book titled: “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.”  I never read the book, and now I can’t even find the copy she gave me. Basically, the book explores the contrasting worlds of atheism and Christianity, tackling subjects such as “does God really exist; and if so how is God defined and what are the consequences for the world.”

It is not light reading, which pretty much explains why I didn’t read it.

From my perspective, it is decidedly much more convenient to reject the notion of God, the idea of sin and the premise that there is something much greater than human construct. It’s much more palatable for me to be a “spiritual” being; a small part of a great universe in which we are all connected, open to definition, without judgment or much consequence for any of our actions.

I feel warm and fuzzy just thinking about it.

I was raised as a Catholic. I didn’t learn much about God or Jesus Christ during my weekly catechism classes, but I aced the lessons in standing, sitting and kneeling on command. I also learned about the Pope, the hazards of a nun with a ruler and the seven sacraments.

The coolest of the seven sacraments, in my opinion, is the Holy Sacrament of Confession. For you non-Catholics out there (repent now before being cast into Hell), the weekly act of confession involves going into a telephone booth sized room and telling a priest about your sins. The priest then absolves you of all your sins and as a consequence instructs you to say five (maybe 10) Hail Mary prayers.

It was like a license to sin. Steal a pack of chewing gum from Zayre’s? Say five Hail Marys. Get into your father’s collection of Playboy magazines? Say five Hail Marys. Kill the neighbor’s cat (on purpose)? Say five Hail Marys.

There is a reason that the concept of “Hail Mary” is synonymous with the idea of a long-shot. Just ask Fredo Corelone about that.

Anyway, growing up Catholic is relatively painless. You don’t have to handle snakes, you just have to digest a small, thin wafer of cardboard every week and believe that it has been transformed into the body of Jesus Christ.

I tried being a good Catholic. I was an altar boy and even toyed with the idea of becoming a priest, but in the end I felt a huge void. There was something missing.

Busload of faith

I make no secrets about my mental illness and my daily battles with depression, paranoia and schizophrenia. I take medications. I see a psychiatrist. I undergo ECT treatments, and I see a therapist. My therapist recently retired and I was assigned to a new one.

He is a man from India. He is funny, smart and friendly. During our very first meeting, he asked me something I never expected: How is your faith?

My head tilted. My body stiffened. My mind raced: huh? What? Does my insurance cover this?

Bottom line? I am very uncomfortable talking about things like faith, religion or God. But there it was and there it now remains. This gnawing feeling that I don’t have faith. That my world view is missing a very big component. My idea of right versus wrong could be completely off mark. Maybe everything I learned while growing up was a lie. Maybe I need to be open to some new ideas, some new beliefs.

Last week, I had the opportunity to have lunch with a very close and longtime friend that I have not seen in a long time. Up until that point, I was doing a pretty good job of feeling sorry for myself: I have been dealing with some dental issues and corresponding levels of pain that impact everything from eating to sleeping. I am anxious about rising fuel costs and wondering how I will heat my home next year. On and on and on.

Then, I took a breath and asked him how things were going in his life. Without going into all the awful details, his life is severely screwed up right now: his health, his finances, the strains on his marriage and so much more. I could not (and still cannot) imagine going through what he is going through. I asked him. ‘How are you getting through this?” He smiled patiently. “I have faith,” he replied.

I was polite and kept my thoughts to myself. “Dude, it doesn’t sound like faith is working out for you.”

But the more I listened, the more I was struck by his calm in a sea of calamity; of his confidence in a world chock full of doubt. We talked about a lot of things. About the difference between wrong and right, about what is happening in the world today and yes, we talked about God.

Back to politics for a moment. In many ways, I was a lucky kid in my formative years. My political leanings came from being raised by my very liberal mother, whose political identity is slightly left of Noam Chomsky; and by my late uncle who would be found politically right of Ronald Reagan.

Today, I happily engage in political discussions with friends and soon to be ex-friends. Sometimes, I argue simply for the sheer joy of arguing. I seek out controversy and then piss gasoline onto its flames.

But you have to be careful. The most common causes of war? Politics and religion. Choose your battles wisely. Keep your options open. Stand for something or fall for anything. Be brave, but be smart.

Finally, I stopped by one of my favorite watering holes after work yesterday. Also seated at the bar were two older men who were heavily engaged in a discussion about politics, the damn media and their opinions about the crisis in Ukraine.

They seemed clueless that anyone was listening to them talk. I kept to myself, nursing a beer and trying to mind my own damn business. And then someone said something about Saco Middle School and then one of the men said something about Thornton Academy.

I couldn’t help myself. “I graduated from Thornton,” I piped up. The men paused and turned to face me. One of them said, “Did you go to Saco Middle School? Suddenly, a light bulb went off. One of those men was Mr. Boothby, ironically my sixth-grade Social Studies teacher. We both laughed. He then recognized me. I asked about his wife, my beloved second-grade teacher. He hung his head just a bit. She passed three years ago, he told me. She had bravely fought a battle with Alzheimer’s. The grief in his voice was palpable.

I don’t know how I would survive if I lost Laura. I don’t know if I could ever forgive God for taking her from me. I don’t know how I could rise and face each new day. I bet it would take more than a bottle of pills, some talk therapy and electronically induced seizures. I can only imagine that it would take a busload of faith.