The Great Reflection

It’s been a week now, and people are still in shock over the prospect of a President Donald Trump.  There’s marching in the streets.  There’s hashtags with the slogan “Not My President.”  There’s a desperate attempt to change the minds of electors before the deed becomes official.

My liberal, supposedly open minded, supposedly educated friends are freaking out.  They are lashing out in all sorts of ways, calling anyone who ended up pulling the lever for Trump a misogynist, a racist, a homophobe, an idiot.  They truly believe it is all James Comey’s fault.   Or the media, for giving Trump a free ride. Or possibly all the people who didn’t vote.  Or those of us who voted for a third party candidate.  They are afraid for their future.  They wear safety pins to show their solidarity with their Muslim, Black, Latino, gay neighbors.

I don’t blame them for this outburst.  I can’t say their fears are unfounded or their anger unjustified.   Certainly the bizarre twist of events that lead to victory being snatched away from the first woman to be nominated to a major party made for a surreal Tuesday night and a gloomy Wednesday.  Certainly we’re in for a long, ugly four years.  Most likely America will lose its vaunted, if mostly self-styled, place as the “Leader of the Free World.”    There will be scandals, real and imagined, possibly congressional hearings and investigations on which pundits on both sides will dine. There will be storms of unprecedented proportions and there will be unrest and riots and mass shootings and other things we cannot predict.  But let us also step back and reflect a little.  Because I think we all knew in our hearts that a Clinton presidency was not going to be any easier.  It wasn’t going to be less ugly.  There would still be storms and unrest and riots and mass shootings.  Most assuredly there would be scandals and investigations and hearings and massive amounts of aimless punditry.  A Clinton band aid was never the answer.  The rise of Trump was the inevitable eruption of a slow but inexorable disease, the symptoms of which have been mostly ignored by everyone.  You, me, the media, our elected officials.  We’ve all been so busy trying to swim up the river in an ever more rapid current that we haven’t been able to put together enough of a dam.   Some of us don’t even notice the river.

A few years ago I began to sour on the two party dichotomy, finally seeing through it the way many people had seen through it back in 2000, the last time we failed to elect a President who won the most votes.  At that time, I not only believed that George Bush was incompetent and dangerous, but that he would dismantle all the progress liberals had heretofore achieved.  Roe v. Wade would be overturned (it wasn’t).  Social Security would be privatized (it wasn’t).   The Kyoto Protocol would go unsigned (it was).  What else were we worried about?  It seems trivial, now.  Then Barack Obama was elected President, and things seemed to be looking up.

Except nothing changed.  Well.  Some things changed on the surface.  Symptoms were treated reactively:  The Affordable Care Act was signed into law.  There was a lot of pretty talk on climate change.    Smart phones and social media became the dominant means of doing everything.  Gay people could finally get married.  But some big issues remained untouched.  The quality of education kept going down.  Higher education remained out of reach.  Quality jobs were disappearing.  Salaries were stagnant.   There were a great many weeks where the flag was at half mast.  We all still believed in the American Dream, but we were swimming harder and harder, and inexorably beginning to get swept downstream.   Arab Spring happened.  Occupy Wall Street happened.    The conservative media and the corporate-liberal media began to actually paint reality with different brushes with very different statements they both claimed were “facts.”  People were sitting in their own little echo chambers, getting dragged deeper down the drains, increasingly eyeing their fellow Americans with suspicion.  Calling them names.  Assigning positions and beliefs on them based on superficial differences.  Dividing us up enough so that some feel that it is okay or helpful to march the street and pretend that Donald Trump is Not My President even though he very clearly is, if I read my electoral map correctly and take accurate note of the country’s borders.   Where does a 50 state union go from there?

Me, I began to connect dots.  Lots of sometimes seemingly different dots.

This election cycle, I supported Bernie Sanders.  I was blessed to be one of the early adopters of his vision for America, packing into a small but enthusiastic crowd of fellow progressives at one of his very first rallies after announcing his candidacy.   I was buoyed by his leadership style, one of plain-spoken but powerful English, and his insistence that we were all in this together, that we all had to engage, get involved, be the standard bearers of his message and his work.  I believed, and still do, that the last best hope for this country’s future is for a strong, healthy, educated and engaged populace, a stable, sustainable environment, and a more equitable sharing of resources.  But I also saw the undercurrent of desperation that lead the masses to support such a populist message.  The rise of Bernie Sanders, a Democratic Socialist, in a communist-fearing capitalist country such as the United States is a symptom, not a solution.  Had he prevailed, we would not be sitting here in fear of fascism, racism, sexism and hate.  But the undercurrents would still be there.  Maybe suppressed.  Maybe marginalized.  But not cured.  And worse, the people who created the wave of Democratic Socialism would be lulled into complacency.  They would go back to sleep, believing that in a few weeks or months, they’d have their universal healthcare and their college education.  The tide would break over the rock of reality and the movement would fail.  It hadn’t had quite enough time to fully engage itself in all levels of politics, all levels of consciousness.   And yet, there was increasing awareness that we were running out of time.  An establishment candidate was not the answer, either.

It became clear that both major parties had failed to effectively navigate the ever faster river.  They were caught in the rapids.  On the one hand, the Republican Party couldn’t rally its own to put forth any viable candidate at all, instead fielding an incredible number of weak primary challengers, of which naturally the least qualified but most known candidate emerged the victor.  On the other hand, the Democratic Party put its thumb on the scales, remembering long outdated lessons about fielding populist candidates and failing to stick its head up outside of its own echo chamber to notice what was going on out in reality, and thus ended up placing all its hopes and fears onto the shoulders of a woman who, rightly or wrongly, was perceived as damaged goods by almost anyone not in her immediate circle.   Then everyone put blinders on and began to stumble towards the finish line, as if that was all that ever really mattered.  Both major parties essentially made it clear that, either way, this wasn’t going to end well.

And it didn’t.

But at least now we finally realize we have a disease.

As the dust settles and we stop casting blame and start to accept the new reality, we have some hard choices ahead of us.   There are some things, like the unstable climate, the lack of quality health care, the poor quality of our schools, and the increasingly reduced resource base, which we can’t entirely control.  Not on a national level, anyway.  Not with this level of division.  But there are some things that we can change.  We can change the way we treat each other, online and in person.  We can begin to transcend party affiliations and start to identify the problems that affect all of us, so that we can come up with solutions that work for all of us on a purely local and grassroots level.  We can demand that the people we just elected into office pay attention to us.   We can re-acquaint ourselves with the actual mechanisms of what makes America tick.   We can stop posting memes offensive to the “other side”, and stop signing useless petitions on Facebook and start hosting potlucks and volunteer at the library and reinvest in our own communities.   We can stop taking so much stock in our chosen news-sources and try to broaden our horizons.  We can look at actual vote totals and read actual studies instead of relying on some poorly written editorial by an exhausted and poorly paid journalist.   We can look away from the computer screen and pick up a history tome or two.  We can look up from the virtual universe created by our smartphones and ask actual people for actual directions to actual places.  We can re-engage in our society the way the Founding Fathers intended us to when they envisioned a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

What just happened in 2016 was a symptom of decay, not only of our political system, but of our entire civilization, because of our repeated individual inability to rise above the fray, our dangerous acceptance of an increasingly unsustainable status quo, our blind willingness to follow white rabbits down holes.  Increasingly, the system has tightened its grip to such a point that it can no longer change except by its own collapse.  Shoring it up by increasingly unstable and untenable measures only invites more obvious cracks.   It’s going to come down.  And when it does, the one thing that will finally unite the conservative and the liberal average citizen is the realization that it doesn’t matter who the President of the United States is.

It only matters who we are.

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It Is What It Is

When something doesn’t work for me, I assume that it doesn’t work for a lot of people.  Like, if I try to put a dollar into a vending machine and my dollar keeps getting spit out, and I try a bunch of other dollars and so forth, I assume the machine is broken.  I’ll call maintenance and report that the machine is down.  When the electricity goes out, I don’t assume it’s just my house that has suddenly lost current.  I assume that all the people around me also don’t have electricity.  I call the electrical company.  Similarly, if the Town run summer camp doesn’t work for me because it has odd hours and shuts down randomly on inclement weather days and I work out of town and need a camp that is reliable, I assume that all the other families who work out of town have the same problem.  And I try to do something about it.

This is where my assumptions prove false.  It’s a thin, invisible boundary, to be sure, but it is undeniably there, because I have run into it time, and time, and time again.   Here, anyway.  Here, in Washington, NH, if you have a problem, you solve your problem yourself.  Even if other people do have the same problem, they do not want your help in solving it.  They like it that way.  It is what it is.  We all will make our own way.  Things do not have to change.

The town library does not have to be open on the weekends when most of us are actually around.  Or move its book drop to a more convenient place like the parking lot.  Or stock books based on specific book lists.  That’s silly. Haven’t you ever heard of a bookstore?  The school shouldn’t bring back its middle school or offer school choice like all the other surrounding towns, or offer different enrichment programs rather than the same tired repeat every year.   We all went through it and it worked for us.   The General Store should never be anything more than a run-down dusty Budweiser haven.  What do you think we are?  What’s your problem?  Why can’t you be like us?  We’re fine!

Get over yourselves, LLARCS!  If you don’t like it, leave!

We finally did get the message.  We’re solving our own problems, our house is on the market, and we’re looking the other way, as much as we can, when other people are obviously having their own issues.We can’t help it though; we keep looking up, out, and past the box.  We see what other towns do to solve their educational issues.  We see thriving Farmer’s Markets.  We see after school programs and sports teams.  We enroll in enriching summer programs.  We know it’s possible.

So, every once in a while, I get sucked back in.  I repeatedly offered to help babysit two kids who had suddenly shown up at their grandmother’s house, since I was home most evenings and they got off the bus at our house.  I complained repeatedly of the poor quality of the artist-in-residence program that continued to come back every single year, and succeeded in getting a survey sent out.  But my offer to babysit was rebuffed, and the survey came back claiming overwhelming support for the residency in question, and I was left, once again, wondering if I really did live in an entirely differently world than these people.  I see a thorn bush and I want to cut it down so no one has to get hurt.  But everyone else just trudges right through.  Why eradicate the thorn bush when you’ve got band-aids?  I mean, yes, there are other people thrashing their way through, too, and they do look like they don’t really enjoy it but, surely, no pain, no gain.  And no gain is what we want.

Admittedly, neither I nor Lionel have the personality needed to gather and retain the sizable force of like-minded people needed for the changes we feel would solve the problems we see.  My local Facebook friends have stopped commenting on my posts and presumably don’t even see them anymore.  They don’t get me and my seemingly unending supply of issues and solutions.   Even on the rare occasions when I do manage to spearhead something– a petition to the school board, or an Open Gym Night during the winter, no one follows up with me after the fact or offers to support the effort.  I’m not a natural community organizer, and there isn’t any community.  It’s a double whammy for the likes of me.  And for the most part, the citizens of Washington, NH like it the way it is.  They like where they are and what they’ve got.  They’ve got their own work-arounds that work fine for them.  They’ve accepted the situation like good Washington citizens.  They even genuinely love it.  They work hard and when they come home they just want to have fun.

The other day I came home to horse shoe prints in my driveway.  Perplexed, I followed the prints down to the end of the driveway and then back up, coming to the conclusion that someone had ridden their horse to our house to see if we were home and then gone on their way.  I went into the house, and it wasn’t until the kids had come home with Lionel that we realized that, actually, the neighbor’s horses had gotten loose and were in our yard.  I came out and saw what I should have seen all along, two huge, unharnessed horses eating up my lawn.  Then, as we discussed what we should do, the neighbor, who had also apparently just noticed their horses, came over the stone wall with harnesses.   We offered our help.  The neighbor mentioned, off-handedly, that she had just been in a car accident, which was why she had just gotten home.  This was her way of telling us why the horses had been left unattended for so long, and not, as we had originally assumed, a veiled request for assistance.  We offered our help again, but the neighbor just kept apologizing about her horses, while they stayed a good distance away from her.  Finally, we shrugged, wished her luck, and went into the house.  We could no longer see the horses in our yard.

And if you can’t see a problem, you won’t have a problem.  Right?

It is what it is.

Little Tiny Paper Hearts

Bundle II was hoarding the glitter glue.  Bundle I was gluing one paper heart onto a bigger paper heart.  Strips of construction paper lay dying on the floor where they had been dropped.  Both kids had managed to inscribe their foreheads with marker.  There was paint, glitter and glue on the carpet.  Epic negotiations resulted in scissors being passed around.  Arguments over markers ensued.  Finally the whole project was done.  It had taken at least five days.

Bundle I had taken some real effort to personalize hers; drawing a car on the one for her race-car obsessed school mate, drawing a picture of herself and another child playing on another.  Bundle II put her focus in carefully spelling out everyone’s names and then her own in nice neat block letters.  My role was to pass the scissors, offer advice, and moderate disputes over the rapidly dwindling resources.

Earlier in the week we had gone hunting for supplies, but had been disappointed to find that there were no paper doilies, no glittery hearts or stickers; nothing really, in the spirit of making your own, except if you were planning on making cupcakes or heart shaped fudge.  Boxes and boxes of pre-mades were stocked up though…and candy.  Always, the candy.

But the results were pretty well thought out and they were certainly original, so the kids proudly brought their school Valentines in and, well, there wasn’t much more to the story.  Because they came home with some valentines and a whole lot of sugar, but there were no handmade, badly cut hearts amongst the lot, there were no personalized messages of affection.  There was Barbie, Monsters Inc, Shrek, Batman, Hello Kitty, Mickey Mouse, Dora, Cars.  And candy.  Always the candy.

At least most of Bundle I’s class had taken the time to write their classmates’ names on the cards themselves.  Bundle II’s grab bag of assorted Disney characters were mostly all written in clear, tired adult handwriting.  One, done, get it over with.  Here, have a lollipop in the shape of Olaf.  And neither of my kids showed any interest in looking at the actual cards themselves.  They’ve all ended up in various piles on the floor, the candy long since separated and stored for later consumption.    For a holiday they’d spent a good week preparing for, the end result was severely anti-climactic.

I’m not suggesting that all these kids get out some scissors and do some old-fashioned handiwork.  And I know that just taking time out of busy schedules to select a box of pre-made Valentines is a stretch for some people.  But if that is all that we’re doing on this day which is supposed to be about affection for each other and connecting, shouldn’t we just stop?  If my kids are the only ones being duped into the idea that their classmates are thinking anything about them as they hurry through a box of Barbie so they can get on with their iPads or their TV or whatever they actually wanted to do,  why bother?  Why bother at all?

I myself had earlier asked both kids if they wanted to make their own, or if they wanted to buy their Valentines.  I knew it was going to be a lot of work and heartache on their part, and a gigantic crazy gluey mess on my part.  They were both eager to put effort into the holiday of Love.  But I wonder how long their connection to their schoolmates will last.  I wonder how many times they’ll ask me to call someone’s parent to have someone’s child come over for a playdate: a call which frequently goes unreturned.  I wonder how much longer they’ll see themselves as part of a community that doesn’t exist, before they finally retreat into themselves like all their peers have done.  I wonder when the tiny paper hearts will stay uncut from the paper, longing for freedom but knowing it won’t come from here.  I dread that day but I also long for it. At least we won’t be different anymore.

One Coin Does Not Make Change

Even before our revelation there were some common themes discussed with my fellow working parents.  The school situation.  The lack of a cohesive PTO.  No day care.  No after school activities.  Also, no employment within a 35 mile radius.  No food, clothing or recreation within that circle either.  One parent seemed more willing to put her neck out in the day care business than the rest of us, though (as may surprise some of my gentle readers) I myself considered it briefly.  Recently she put out a question on social media, asking us all whether we should have a day care open in Washington.

Kudos to those who open their homes and clean them up well enough to be able to offer at-home child care.  Really.  It’s not a well paying job and while taking care of your own kids might garner some rewards, taking care of other people’s brats just isn’t what the average person sees themselves doing with their lives.  That’s why large screen TV’s and cookies so often make their way into these homes.  Turn on the TV to zone out the little turds and then load them up on sugar so their parents get a taste of their own medicine.  At least the parents got to work their full 8 hour-ish work day, even if their kids are over or under stimulated on a day to day basis.  At least its a “smoke free home” with a fenced in yard and no dangerous pets.   All good, right?  But really, if it weren’t for these at-home providers, scattered amongst the foothills, we’d all be up a creek without a paddle.

So sure.  On the face of it, another at-home provider offering child care in some fashion would certainly help band-aid the bleeding wound, especially since the two established at-home providers are looking to get out of the business and get their homes and their lives back.  But you’re really just treating the symptom.  Having a bunch of random people offering or not offering at home child care in different parts of town with no amenities and no employees and no curriculum is, well, it’s just ad hoc baby sitting.  It’s not the village raising the child.  It’s the parents in search of the lonely nun.  It doesn’t make the problem go away or change the status quo.  It’s just ensuring  that you get more of the same.

The lack of a licensed dedicated pre-school curriculum minded day care in town is only one of the many many symptoms of a systematic problem here in this town.  The actual problem is that most people don’t give a fuck.  And then when some people raise enough hell to make these people do something, the people in charge of the obstruction move over a little.  Just a little.  Then everyone is appeased and goes their merry way feeling like they’ve changed something and they never look back.  If they did look back, they’d notice that those people just moved right back into the way.

An older summer resident stopped us on the road to mourn our imminent departure.   She had just picked blueberries and visited the farm stand, the epitome of our dreams gone awry.    We haven’t been actively shouting our grievances to the general public, but when someone opens the dam we flow all over them.  Lionel and I have gotten very good at tag-teaming on this rant.  But when we got to the part where the summer camp only works for summer residents’ kids or with kids who have retired grandparents living in town due to its tendency to shut down early  on “inclement weather days”  despite the fact that there is a huge lodge capable of housing all the kids comfortably in the case of actual rain and the human race has had thousands of years to come up with things to do during these times, she interrupted us.  She’d found the solution, you see.   Not to the town wide tough luck attitude towards its working family citizens, though.  Just for us.

“My granddaughter goes to that camp,”  she said.  “Your daughter could come over to my house, I’d be happy to take her there.”

Give a penny.  Take a penny.  Band aid the wound and keep beating through the thorn bush.  You’ll run out of band aids and you’ll never make enough change, but at least you haven’t rocked the old, fragile boat.  If you’re lucky, you’ll be so busy keeping the boat afloat that you won’t notice the rapids ahead.

Tongariro Crossing

(Originally published on swampyankeewannabes in Janurary, 2005)

We’ve just climbed Mt. Doom, otherwise known as Mt. Ngauruhoe, and it’s worth it. . We’re not in Hobbit country, that was further back in Waipua and sheep country. This is Middle Earth, pure, imposing, volcanic, beginning. There’s an outer edge with active vents where Lionel posed over the vent with his wedding ring, poised to throw the One Ring into the fire. He decided against it though, and so we made our way up to the crater. Red rock surrounds the very top of the cone.

The way up was ferocious. It’s an almost vertical climb in mostly sifting ash, impossible to get good footing or any good handholds, also death to anyone with a fear of falling, which I have. I’ve gotten over it though in recent years, self defense really, since Lionel keeps taking me on walks with less than secure footing along sheer drops. It takes two and a half hours to reach the top. It takes half an hour tops to get down.

We got up at five again this morning, and this time the guide didn’t even bother to explain the weather, it was obvious that it was going to be a gorgeous day. On good days like this, 500 people will cross this track, a good deal of them will run it, for some reason known only to them. It takes 7-8 hours on the crossing alone, not counting the scramble up Mt. Ngauruhoe. At first it was cold, chilly air and no sun, and the valley was well graded and at times boardwalked for easy walking. We got to the Devil’s Staircase and the royal treatment stopped; up this long and steep track over boulders and drops, then up to what you thought was the top only to discover that you’re not done yet. It’s all lava rock and pumiced and black, odd shapes pushing up out of the ground. Up we go and the sun finally comes out at possibly the worst time—while we’re working up a sweat trying to get up the Staircase. Then it evens out and there is Ngauruhoe, classic cone shaped volcanic mountain.

So here we are up on top of it and it is time to go down. Going down, it turns out, is easy. First you slide down the snow top between the crater and the outer ridge, then you pick a good spot with mostly ash and not too many large rocks and you ski your way down on your boots. Sometimes you’ll knock a rock out of its slumber and it will start to tumble down the mountainside. “Rock!” you’ll yell, and hope that the others downhill from you will take up the call. I dislodged such a rock from the very beginning and it fell, gaining speed, bouncing over a snow field, finally stopping a thousand feet below. You could get seriously hurt on this mountain. But how often do you get to climb a volcano? So we swish our way down in record speed, conveniently forgetting that it took so long to get up here. It’s almost like skiing only I only have boots and no snow, and we reach the bottom 3 and ½ hours from when we started. 3 1/2 ! We must have spent some time up on the cone itself, getting distracted. Anyway we’re now going to be late for the bus, but there’s no help for it, we go on.

We cross over an impossibly flat area in a valley, which looks like an old crater but apparently was formed by glacier. Then we head back up towards the Emerald and Blue lakes and Red Crater, up another steep incline with loose soil. It isn’t as bad as before but it’s no picnic after Ngauruhoe, and our thighs are cramping a little bit in protest. It soon passes though, and we’re at the Red Crater. It’s certainly red, and eerie, with an eroded lava dyke coming out of its side. The dyke is gray inside and red outside, an eerie contrast. We start down again, through more of the sifting ashy stuff, slowly, since Mom has the same fear of falling that I do. She’s not enjoying this part at all but I am – there’s craters and lava flows, vents and green lakes surrounding us. No vegetation graces this area, sometimes an odd flower or grass stuck under the rocks out of the wind, but nothing more. The side of the trail steams and sulfur fills the air again, then we pass by the green lakes and head through another thankfully flat area until we start to go up again. A lava flow once stopped in its tracks halfway in its journey across this valley, and it looks as though it were yesterday, since the lake that it stops at it steaming at the edges, as if it were trying hard to cool off the rock.

The weather has changed a bit with fog rolling in fast from up the mountainside, and the view gets restricted. We’re back in alpine shrub country and the track has ceased to be so steep. There’s another whiff of sulfur but I can’t see anywhere it would be coming from, so we move on.

We wind our way across the mountain in this fashion for sometime, hitting boardwalk finally which means we’re close to other infrastructure, mainly the hut where we’ll get more water, and it becomes quite clear where the sulfur smell is coming from. A place identified as the Kehutia Hot Springs, Private Property, forbids entry to trampers. It’s steaming furiously and I’m not sure I want to get too close to it anyway.

After the hut we make our way down, getting quite close to the steaming vent which apparently outputs a stream, or maybe the stream just runs through it. It’s not hot water, but it’s certainly not cold, and it’s soft to the touch. Moving through this area we see more vents, more sulfur pits, and then we’re out of volcano country, probably for good.

By this time we’re exhausted and I start counting to myself as a way to keep pace. We leave the alpine shrub and enter the forest, which smells sweet and cool and surely signals that we’re getting close to our destination. But it’s another half an hour until we emerge to the other side, where our concerned bus driver awaits us. We’re an 1 ½ late, the fault of Mt Ngauruhoe, and we’re mostly unrepentant. It was a twelve hour hike for us, and we spent it well. We’re exhausted though, so it’s a good thing tomorrow we’re doing nothing but driving.

Life is Like a Box of Chocolates

Lionel and I, along with some other parents that we had coralled and who had the same concerns as we did, sat in a room full of people, trying to get them to acknowledge the big elephant in the room.

But that elephant is pretty big, and powerful, and apparently doesn’t leave alot of space in the room for anything else.  So instead of revealing itself, it said things like:

“I used to be really scared about it too.  But now we’re there, and it’s actually okay.”

“Our store got a Gold Seal last year!”

“We had students competing in DECA this year… alongside Pinkerton Academy!”

“We had 12 students inducted into the National Honor Society!”

It tried to berate us, too.

“If you came to our school board meetings, you’d know more about what we are trying to do.”

“You really should come and visit the school, and talk to the principal and myself before embarking on this.”

“Actually, I did a study like this all by myself three years ago.  And I concluded that it was impossible.”

“Those NECAP scores don’t mean anything.  We have 12 students in the National Honor Society!”

The big elephant, of course, was none other than the  Hillsboro-Deering Cooperative School District.

Listen, those of us who have grown up around here and have lived here all our lives call Hillsborough, NH, in sometimes not so affectionate tones, “Hooterville”.  So it’s not surprising to me at all, really, that throughout my tenure in the area the schools in Hillsborough have struggled in and out of probationary status, had high dropout rates, a long running drug problem, high turnover in teachers and staff, a disinterested and downtrodden student body.  Not surprisingly, the town itself has no sustainable industry.  It’s always been a sort of self-defeating death-spiral.

So we sat there, all of us, each and every one of us having rushed home early from our distant gainful employment, every single one of us from a different direction, to go to a School Board Meeting which begins promptly at 6pm on a Tuesday (or might we also say, at “dinner time on a school night”) and formally asked the school board of the Washington School District to undertake a formal study of other school districts in the area in terms of relative merit, distance from people’s places of employment, potential cost to the town for sending our kids there, etc.  We really weren’t asking them to do anything other than really examine that big elephant in the room, to finally, at least, fully acknowledge it.  Because Hillsboro-Deering Cooperative School District might be really turning itself around, and it might be inducting kids into the National Honor Society, and it might occasionally send kids to DECA or spit out a Teacher of The Year, but so do other area schools, schools with more consistent, challenging and varied curricula, schools with sports programs and language clubs, schools in communities that actively support and fund their educational systems rather than randomly slashing the budget or castigating the school board for daring to spend “surplus” money on new computer equipment or roof repairs.  Hillsboro-Deering Cooperative might finally be turning out some half-way educated kids that might even go on to college, and that’s great for Hillsborough.  But we don’t live in Hillsborough.  We live in Washington.  Hillsborough’s not even that close to us. We don’t have any say in Hillsborough’s government, we have no clout with their governing bodies, we can’t force them to see the really big elephant; the total lack of gainful employment within a 30 mile radius.    We don’t even have any say at their school board meetings since we’re not residents.  But for some reason, we’re okay with sending our kids there, putting blinders on, and hoping that it “will all be okay.”

And those blinders sure are working, boy, because you know what, at face value, inducting 12 kids into the National Honor Society from a school whose NECAP scores routinely place it at the bottom of the pack of schools in NH is pretty great!  It’s the National Honor Society, right? It might really mean something… except the Hillsboro Deering NHS GPA requirements, which each local chapter gets to set, is 3.15.  That’s barely above a B average.

Meanwhile, neighboring schools have set the bar at 3.4 just to be considered.   And since we all know that GPA is not necessarily a reflection of how prepared you are or how challenged you are in a school setting, it is merely a reflection of the grades that you got in the classes you took, which can easily be dumbed-down or inflated depending on the teacher and the student population, the fact that Hillsboro-Deering School District managed to induct 12 kids into their NHS chapter actually means nothing at all outside of Hillsboro-Deering.  Scratch that shiny surface a little bit, and it turns out that Hillsboro-Deering was able to induct 12 kids into their NHS chapter because they set a low bar for being inducted in the first place.  And a lot of those kids wouldn’t even  have maintained such a grade point average at another school with a more challenging curricula, let alone be inducted into anything.

And you know what?  That’s okay.  I myself obtained an excellent education without ever being inducted or honored with any kind of scholarly award.  I believe I got a C in Honors Chemistry one year, and I routinely struggled in my math courses.  But I went to a very excellent private high school.  And when I got out of High School and got into Bryn Mawr, the first thing this struggling math student did was try to fulfill her math requirement by taking Multi-variable Calculus, instead of the more popular “Statistics for Poets”.  I just barely passed that course, which was totally outside my field of study (Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology, with a minor in Ancient Greek) and ultimately ruined any chances I had of graduating anything other than Cum Laude.  And I didn’t care, because even then I knew it was more about the quality of the class and what I got out of it rather than the grade I got.  Whenever I received 4.0’s in any of my classes I was immediately suspicious of it, because 4.0 means perfect, and who is perfect in anything they just learned?

I digress.   Sure, I can solve this educational problem on my own.  I could, for instance, choose to tuition my kids into another school district, possibly the one in which I work.  I could send my kids to private school (halfway across the state, for an exorbitant amount of money but hey!  Live Free or Die!)  Or, I could pack up my whole family and move to a community that values education more.  But because I’m a bleeding-heart progressive liberal who is a glutton for punishment, and I like knocking my head against walls, instead, I petition the school board to look at alternatives not just for my kids, but all the kids in Washington, because for some reason, I’m still loyal to the place and I’d like to see the backward trend of no industry, no community, no working families, empty houses and no future reversed.

I work for Keene State College these days, which is a nominally public institution.  I say “nominally” because NH’s Tea Party Extraordinaire Legislature slashed 50% of the state’s funding for public higher education three years ago.  That was bad enough, but even before this indiscriminate slash-and-burn took place, New Hampshire was 50th in the nation in terms of its support for public higher education.  Can I say that again?  We were Dead Last.  And now we’re even more Dead Laster.   Meanwhile, 15 years ago, another faultering town with a another constantly failing school district tried to be proactive and sued the state over its reliance on local property tax to fund education.  There has been lots of talk over how to rectify the situation, and we’ve pretty much bent over backwards trying to avoid the I and S tax words, introducing neat, novel ideas like casinos or getting rid of the whole problem altogether by amending the constitution, and effectively the state has just kind of skipped over the part where its entire tax structure was found unconstitutional by its own high court because, well, it’s Live Free or Die.  Right?   So the whole Hillsboro-Deering High School problem?  The whole we have no industry here issue?  Yeah, that’s your NH Tax Advantage, staring you right in the face.

No wonder families like ours are leaving.

I could shout “Wait!  Come back!! If we all work together, we could find a way to work this out!”  Remember how the Apollo 13 astronauts managed to fit a square peg into a round hole?  They did this impossible task in micro-gravity with nothing but the items on a very small, fragile spaceship while battling the effects of carbon dioxide poisoning.  And that was 44 years ago.  I have no reason to believe that a bunch of educated adults with a common goal can’t find a solution to the no-industry, poor-education dilemma we find ourselves in, Live Free or no Live Free.   I’ve glimpsed evidence of hard-working dedicated committees coming up with all sorts of brilliant, working solutions for all sorts of seemingly insurmountable impossible problems.

I just haven’t actually seen it here.  In this place where I actually am.  With the people who are–supposedly–charged with ensuring that the school-age children of the Town of Washington are provided with an education.  Instead, I get glass-eyed looks or actively hostile glares, from people who probably realize they’ve been caught not doing their job and therefore feel an overwhelming need to become patronizing.

“There’s no convincing these people,” the chair of the board piped in at the end, “they’ll have to find out for themselves.”

Later that night, Lionel mentioned that he’d found three ticks on Bundle II.  “I’ve heard some really bad stories about ticks, recently,” he said.

“I used to be really worried about ticks,” I retorted, “but you know, now I’ve had some, and guess what?  It’s actually okay. Now I really think they’re awesome.  You really should come to their meetings, sometime, talk to their leader.  You’ll see.”

We both laughed until tears ran down our faces.   But we’re not sure if it was actually funny.

It’s a shiny elephant, to be sure, but I’ve scratched the surface, and it’s still the same god-damn elephant.  If we could just get it out of here, maybe we could finally poke our heads up out of the box.

Here’s the Thing

for-sale-signThere’s this thing.

It’s both a big thing and a really simple thing at the same time, and it’s not really a unique or different thing.  It’s some thing that people all over the globe do all the time.  People do it for all sorts of different reasons and the same reasons people do any thing; for the love of a thing, or a lack of a thing, for a better thing or a different thing.

Like divorce.  We could say it’s like divorce.  You suddenly, or gradually, realize that the person you are with, the life you are living with them, is no longer bearable and you decide, finally and for all, that something must unequivocally be done about the situation.  Certainly it’s a simple decision; you firmly decide that you simply can not live like this with this person any longer.  The process, though?  The emotional, practical, physical implications of it all?  Brutal.  Other people’s perceptions?  Humiliating, judgmental.  The sheer effort involved in the very idea?  Immeasurable.

Humans have a very real need for a DELETE key which just neatly erases whatever it is that they’ve written into their lives.  But since there are so many different tendrils and ties and glues which bind us to the paths we’re on, abrupt changes in direction just aren’t as pleasurable as we imagine they might be in our dreams.

Here’s the thing: we’re leaving.

We’re moving.

We’re selling out.

This simple fact has been a very real fact for us, and for no one but us, for a year now.  We reached this lonely conclusion while riding back from a joyful First Night celebration in Burlington, Vermont, as we realized, for the first time, what living in a backwater, tea-party, close-minded town like Washington, NH was likely to do to our farm as a business, to us as a family, to our kids as our future.  We saw with very real clarity how bleak the future really was; no industry, years of busing our children to the closest private school, and the very real likelihood that once we’d finally properly educated them, they would move elsewhere miles away and never come back.  Signs of collapse were all over the place:  a lack of actual farmers at the “Farmers’ Market”.  A PTO spaghetti dinner cancelled due to a lack of volunteers.  A town government suddenly aware of how it was getting in its own way, responding to the crisis by locking up public meeting minutes in the Town Hall instead of posting them online promptly so that we could all see the decline in black and white.  A student representative to the Hillsboro-Deering School Board declaring that he had no plans to go to college.  That’s right.  The student representative to the school board.  The kid with good grades and stuff.  He’s decided not to go to college.  Too expensive, he said.

Still it isn’t as easy as just packing up, putting up a For Sale sign and leaving.  For one thing this place that we live in has very long and very real family history not just for us but for the extended family.  For another the idea that we won’t be here in twenty years is a very new concept against the assumption, up until a year ago, that we’d be here until we died.  That’s why we spent so much time and energy shaping the yard, the vegetable gardens, the orchard and the sugar bush.  That’s why we’ve spent so much of our energy on town affairs.  Now that we’ve realized this isn’t where we want to be, that we need to get out of the trap, we feel lost.  Cut free, floundering, happy, flabbergasted, confounded.  It’s a real roller-coaster.

Also?  Up until now we haven’t told anyone.  Not family, not friends–just a few very select realtors whom we’ve immediately sworn to secrecy.  And yet, there are so many different immediate issues on a day to day basis that it’s hard not to get sucked in.  People asking me when our farm stand will be open.  Will we have fresh produce?  What do we plan to plant this year?  When will the chicks be arriving?  Can I buy some chickens this year? Won’t it be fun when our kids are older and they can bike down the road to our respective houses by themselves?

“I don’t know yet, it’s been a late spring….we’ve decided not to do chickens this year so we can focus on bringing back the yard….uh….uh…..Yes, won’t that be nice?  In a few years?”

The realtors, though?  Like any good divorce lawyers they’ve laid it out for us.  The cost layout.  How to achieve our ultimate goal. What people are looking for.  What we need to do make it sale-able.  Like, for instance, plowing under the acre of garden we’ve cultivated for all these years and turning it back into grass.  Updating the appliances for the sake of appearances, knowing full well that the next owners will tear up and re-vamp and re-model and re-paint and make it their own.  Basically we need to hit the brakes, hard, so we finally stop the tremendous momentum of where we thought we were going, turn around, and go down another road in a completely different direction.  Only it’s not the actual direction we eventually want to go, it’s the direction that someone else, a mysterious someone else who potentially wants to live in our current shoes, it’s the direction they possibly want to go in.  Only we don’t know exactly what that is, so we’re guessing.  And while we’re guessing, we’re hoping that we don’t lose sight of the direction we actually wanted to head in so that we can get back there without too much trouble.

We love this land, and this house.  We are proud of the apple orchard, the blueberries, our sugaring operation.  But we dislike our commute.  We’re in over our heads.  We dislike NH.  And we have come to despise this town.  And we finally, finally realized that it wasn’t an insult when the old timers told us to get out if we didn’t like it.  It was, actually, sound advice.  Too bad we never saw it for what it was…

until now.