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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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.

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.

 

 

Got Mine. Where’s Yours?

A few years ago here in Washington, NH there came out what appeared to be a sincere call for new blood to occupy the various and sundry positions, committees, commissions and boards that comprise this small mountain town.  The town does have its true locals; those whose families first settled and eeked out a living here, back when it wasn’t the First Town Incorporated Under the Name of Our First President, but merely “Monadnock Number 8”.  But those locals are few and far between, and aging.  Their offspring have sought other vistas and new opportunities.  Mostly, Washington is comprised of flatlanders who have retired here from Connecticut, Massachusetts, or occasionally, New York.  In the summer, the population swells to twice our normal size; Washington has several small lakes and ponds which house vacation homes.  Basically, Washington consists of retired people and summer people, with a few locals and a few young, working families mixed in.  And by few, I mean, getting fewer by the day.

Still, there was a call for young blood and we answered the call.  Lionel went out for a Planning Board position  and was elected.   It became apparent though, as they repeatedly scheduled “working meetings” during working hours on weekdays, and the near impossibility of both working a job one hour away from 9am to 5pm and also making a meeting by 6pm without having eaten a proper meal between, that they didn’t really mean it.   Or rather, what they’d meant was that they wanted more of their fellow retirees to come join their little cliques.  When Lionel asked, one evening, if they could possibly consider moving the meeting by a 1/2 hour so that he could more easily make the meetings, they all scoffed.  One of them said they needed to get their horses to bed.  Another said it would interfere with his dinner.  One retorted, “We all have problems.”

Recently an older woman announced, in the middle of Story Hour at the library, that we were all welcome to join the yoga classes which happened twice a month at Camp Morgan.  Momentarily interested, I and another parent asked what time the classes were. “Oh, they’re at 9am on Wednesdays!”

When we both explained, rather politely, that neither of us (nor anyone else who works) could make such a time, she blithely responded that perhaps we could make it in the summer.  I really didn’t know what to say.  See, we both work year round.  It was clear that she’d noticed that the population of her yoga class swelled in the summer but it apparently didn’t register that none of those people were actual residents.  Ironically, I and the other parent, who are actual residents, at least in the nominal sense that we register our cars here and vote here on election day, have memberships to health clubs in a separate town.  And not the same separate town, either.

Back when I was still trying to promote and support the local Farmer’s Market, I made a suggestion to some of the other vendors that, on the July 4th weekend flea market day, during which the entire Town overtakes the green we would normally set up the market on, that we cordon off a section of the green and have all of the Farmer’s Market vendors in one space, the vendors I was talking to just stared at me like I was from Mars.  I tried to explain that I thought it would be better for everyone involved if people who would normally visit the market were still able to find their regular vendors and that it would work better for the market as a whole, but they laughed at me.  “I do great on that day!” one vendor, who sells what amounts to flour and sugar, said.  Another vendor, who makes  jellies which contain large amounts of sugar and  vague  hints of fruit, nodded in agreement “Yeah, that’s my best day too!”  Translation: I got mine.  To hell with the rest of you.

The motto of the Granite State is Live Free or Die.  This motto can mean you are free to live your life without the interference of government or neighbor.  But it also can mean that if you haven’t gotten yours yet, you better just keep going it alone, because no one is looking out for you, or people like you, or people who need even more help than you.  Collaborating, cooperating or striving for the common good is completely out of the question.

That’s not to say that there aren’t people here in town who are trying to get something big accomplished.  One group in town is doggedly determined to fix up the Town Hall, add a true basement for office space to it, and renovate the beautiful and historic second floor which houses a theater capable of seating 100 people.  Another group in town is concerned that the current safety services are being compromised by a building too old and too small to accommodate modern equipment.  But the one doesn’t see the value of the other.  Their project is the most important, no, the only project in town.  Consequently, right around Town Meeting a flurry of friendly emails came flying about, starting with “Higuyshowareyouandthegirlshaven’tseenyouinawhile” and ending, predictably with “HOPE TO SEE YOU AT TOWN MEETING AND VOTE YES ON THIS!!”

Yeah…. remember that petition we circulated around town a while back?  The one about working families and education and all that?  That one you scoffed at and dismissed?  You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours?  Well my nails are all worn down and my back is getting awfully itchy.  Have fun with that project thingy.  I’m too busy working on mine.

Please, my fellow Washingtonians, be sure to keep your blinders on because those rose colored glasses only work when you look out of them straight on.  One day, the glasses will break and you’ll take them off, and, maybe, look around in surprise.  You won’t see the tricycle of your neighbor’s three year old.  Your neighbor drives her three year old to the only available daycare, three towns over.  You won’t hear the screams of laughter coming from the Town Beach.  What kids are left all go to camps hours away which maintain reliable hours.  You won’t see your neighbors jogging down the road because they all go jogging on their lunch break at their separate, lonely jobs in separate, far away towns.  There will no longer be a “school bus” sign down the road because there isn’t a school anymore.  You’ll see weeds, unattended roads, broken down houses.  You’ll hear the wind in the trees and the birds in their nests and you’ll still feel like everything is fine.  It’s why you moved here, after all.  And why everyone else moved out.  At least your taxes are low.

 

I Want To Be the Minority

It was the week that Nelson Mandela died that I finally realized I didn’t have to worry about  everyone else’s future.

I just had to worry about mine.

Not just mine, of course.  But my immediate family and genetically created future, that was what I had to worry about.  Our financial well-being, our physical well-being, our time, our place, our education.  I realized I’d spent a lot of time thinking about how to improve everyone’s situation in a community (or lack thereof) of people who want to live free, die.  Whose very last preference is to collaborate outside of some pretense of religious community, whose very core is to be everything and all to themselves and no one else.

Okay.  I get it!

Still, I agonized over a purchase of Alpen cereal the other day, a current favorite.  So far the only place I have found said cereal is at Market Basket, and the closest Market Basket is 35 miles away.  Then I found out I could order it on Amazon and have it delivered to my house for the same price, minus time, gas and energy, that I could get the product at Market Basket.  Instead of jumping at this obvious no-brainer, I started to worry that by going with Amazon I was succumbing to their McWalmartization of the internet, undercutting local jobs, contributing to the carbon footprint and possibly going against the very morals I had until then subscribed to. Should, I, instead, make the long trek to the brick-and-mortar which supplies local jobs..albeit lousy ones?  Was I solving something by going with Amazon, by reducing the number of distribution centers the cereal travelled to before it reached me?

Was I, in actual fact, worrying about the purchase of a processed granola cereal, when it was possible that I could make the same thing myself?

Anyway, gentle reader, you’ll be glad that I finally found that door.  I’ve installed it, closed it, locked it, and put in earplugs so I can ignore the incessant pounding.  And I’m purchasing the f-ing cereal online.   And maybe some other stuff as well.  And I will happily receive the benefits of time, energy, gas, and money, and I will. not. care. about the rest of it.

But I’ve made sure I can open that door, still.  Because I still want to Think Globally, Act Locally.  It’s just that this is not the locality to do it in.  I really want to be a part of a vibrant community, and help strengthen that community so we can all have a sustainable and prosperous future, despite the growing threats of pollution, climate change, population growth.  It’s just that there is no such community here.

Lionel and I have always taken an interest in Town affairs and in various ways been on different committees and commissions.  For a time I was the Chair of one.  Lionel was elected to the Planning Board.  We’ve always gone to Town Meeting and been deeply committed to the affairs and well-being of this Town  we’ve chosen to call home.  But recently, as we’ve pushed against brick walls and come up short, time, and time and time again, as we’ve been repeatedly reviled and ridiculed and outright ignored, we’ve begun to pull back.  Lionel quit his position on the Planning Board.   Recently, one day, instead of stopping at the Selectman’s office to let them know of yet one more County event that, in the end, they would completely ignore, Lionel came home instead.  “I figured I could get home ten minutes earlier,” he said,  the silver lining of being completely disengaged.  I stopped going to the Farmer’s Market, either as a Farmer or as a buyer, and gained a whole lot of time on the weekends.  We didn’t go to Town Meeting this year.

The latter was a big deal.   There was no good excuse for us not to go except a deeply personal anger and a sense that we could no longer allow ourselves to be angry at a populace that simply didn’t want to go where we wanted them to go.  So we deliberately didn’t.  We deliberately shirked our civic duty.  Lionel happily went to his day job and made money for us as a family, and I bundled up the kids and went to a jacked-up arcade in Nashua called, appropriately, Fun World.

And you know?  Although the day and night before I was wracked by a weird and persistent anxiety, by the end of the day when it was clear that it had not made one whit of difference whether we were physically present or not, I felt free.  Why I have felt that the future of this Town was somehow in my hands to decide I don’t know.  I do know that this place is not a place where I can speak my mind, or where I can trust the leadership, or where a community of like-minded individuals live.  But I now know that I am not responsible for them.  And that’s fine.  Because it’s become very clear that they’ve never wanted help from the likes of a progressive liberal crazy socialist like me.  And that I, progressive liberal crazy socialist though I am, deserve to live a life of liberty and happiness, you know, that ultimate American ideal, even if it doesn’t mean anything in the end, even though it means I have to drop everything I believe in to get it.

If you close your eyes, and your ears, and most importantly, your mouth…the taste of being the minority slowly dissipates until you’ve got nothing left.  At least it isn’t sour anymore.

Navigating in a world of otherness

As probably most of my readers know, I have never exactly danced to everybody else’s drum.  I was the kid with no friends, the tomboy with hairy legs, the girl who didn’t wear dresses.  The role of devil’s advocate has always suited me, since I can’t  help but interject the “buts” and “ifs” into even those subjects I whole heartedly agree with.   I could send back offensive mailings with snarky remarks or spit off a letter to the editor with little care in the world because, after all, the world needed educating and I, I was merely the messenger.  I’ve gone about my happy life this way and all was fine, Before Children.

A week ago, Bundle I, a first grader with a capital F, downheartedly explained to me that she had forgotten her school folder at school but there was something Very Important that I needed to read in there.   I assumed it was a newsletter, a calendar or a bus schedule change, but upon successfully bringing home her folder the next day it turned out it was a fundraiser for the PTO.  Within the glossy, glitzy catalog called, cutely, “BelieveKids” (short, I assume, for “we believe in kids” or possibly “we believe there might be kids” or maybe, actually, “Believe, kids!” )  was numerous glossy, glitzy items to purchase; pages and pages of jewelry, handbags, chocolates, a whole section of fall bulbs, christmas ornaments, magazine subscriptions…none of which I was interested in purchasing.  Nor was I planning on pressuring our numerous friends and relatives into purchasing any of it.  Because it was…well, it was all junk.  Made in China.  Most likely plastic.  And all of it, completely extraneous.

Still, it was a fundraiser and, of course, all the other kids were doing it and…there was a contest and…you know, gentle reader, thinking back on it, it wasn’t exactly a picnic for me to be the Tomboy with Hairy Legs, no Friends and no Dresses.  Wouldn’t it be better if my kids could grow up to be…I don’t know…normal?

Yeah, well okay.  “I’ll talk to Daddy about it, honey,” I said, and put the offensive, plastic paper catalog near the recycling bin.  It wasn’t even good for kindling.

I had just about decided that we’d kind of, sort of, just forget about it when another earnest missive came from the PTO, this time asking us to participate in the General Mills educational program BoxTops for Education.

“Mommy!  We just clip the tops of our cereal boxes and…”

“Honey….I’m sorry but….we don’t buy anything by General Mills.”

Truth be told, this isn’t quite precisely true.  A few General Mills purchases do occasionally creep into our house, since General Mills is all powerful and pervasive and own both Kashi and Cascadian Farms, both products that we purchase on occasion.  But there is no way that I am going to clip a rare boxtop just so that the PTO of my child’s elementary school can collect and send them back for a whole ten cents per box top.    In principle I support large corporations’ donations to educational endeavors as long as there are no strings attached to said donation, but we all know in our hearts that BoxTops is merely a pretense aimed solely at pressuring parents to buy Go-Gurts and HoneyNut Cheerios in an effort to shore up the finances of their supposedly publicly funded school.

When I finally did manage to talk to Lionel about both “fundraisers” a few days later, we both agreed that to participate in either one was unpalatable and morally wrong, but we were also both aware that our children’s social status could possibly be at stake, both with their peers and with the various adults they interacted with.  In addition, we recognized that while, in theory, public education should be fully and adequately funded, that in reality, it was not, and they really did need the money.  We finally agreed that we’d send the PTO a note letting them know we could not participate, without letting them know why, along with a direct donation–which probably would fill their coffers more quickly than our three boxtops or our one sympathy purchase would have and will hopefully dull the echoing effects of gossipy PTO-ers.

I used to enjoy being the Other in a field of Them.  After all, I was the one most likely to stand out.  But these days being the Other is increasingly and simply alienating, as  I navigate playdates and fundraisers, clothes and snacks, lunches and homework.   Having to not only make the decision that we will not be eating the nitrate-and-GMO-filled-hot-dogs at the PTO “BBQ” (in quotes because the hotdogs were neither grilled nor was the meal outside) but also trying to explain that decision to two hot-dog loving daughters in a way that would not cause angst or come out of the mouth of babes at the wrong time is exhausting, and my lame excuse that I had erroneously already put dinner in the oven fell flat when questioned about it by other parents.  They’ve all witnessed the bizarre antics of the LLARCS before.  It’s a small town.

Maybe they’re right, after all.  Maybe we’re not from around here.  But when we look around at the end of the day and notice all the dents in the walls that we’ve butted up against during the day, here in the town that we live in, we wonder if there’s any place in the whole world that doesn’t have those walls.

Or at least, softer walls.

In one ear

Over the weekend we dropped everything to take advantage of the first day of PYO strawberries at Edgewater Farm in Plainfield, NH, about 45 minutes from our house.  The plan was to pick as many pounds as we could and freeze them in order to offset the inevitable winter fruit shortage which forces us to buy frozen strawberries grown in impossibly far away places like Turkey.  (And to answer the mostly rhetorical question posed at the bottom of the post: Yes, actually, the  LLARCS apparently do have to do everything ourselves.)  Our own patch, which will yield a fair amount of berries but not in such startling quantities all at once, will be eaten fresh for as long as they last.

In conversation with another parent, I explained the strawberries-from-Turkey dilemma, and she responded, “You guys always notice stuff like that.”

To which I replied, “you know, I really wish I didn’t.”

I’ve always been hyper-observant of the world around me.  That’s not to say that I won’t miss a road sign or skip two steps in an instruction manual.  But usually I miss the road sign or the two steps because I’ve been distracted by something else.  Consequently I’m not very good at multi-tasking.  But it used to be that I could compartmentalize the observations I was making, along with their associated connections, and essentially shut the noise off.  Strawberries from Turkey?  …shut up, I’m eating strawberries in January; where did you expect them to come from?  Now let’s go watch re-runs of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

But I lost that door somewhere along the way.  A new neurological connection bypassing the shut-off valve keeps these observation-connections at the forefront of my consciousness at all times.  Now, I have to filter through all the noise just to decide on which kind of fish I will buy and where to buy it; “sustainably farmed”?  (what about the escapees and what are they feeding these captive fish and what is the nutritional value?) hook-caught (from whence were these fish caught; what are the contents of mercury in this type of fish; were the fisherman compensated fairly?), “buy at the local CO-OP or the local fish market?” (CO-OP: Stronger Together! Fish-market: local!  Fish: from same damn distributor no matter where I go!) not to mention trying to remember how much the suddenly hungry LLARCS hoard will eat in a sitting and which recipe to use so that they actually eat it.

And that’s just what’s in front of me.  For added background noise there’s all sorts of issues pinging around in my head, almost constantly, every day, fueled by what I’m reading (Currently “Naming Names” by Victor S. Navasky), or what I’m experiencing, or bigger-ticket items such as climate change, the state of education and health care in our country, and the rise of the corporatocracy.  Sometimes, they even bump together in giant connections that border on a grade-one, Dan Brownesque conspiracy theory.

I think most people are capable of these observations and connections and; to some extent, everyone is influenced by the actual world around them even if they aren’t consciously thinking of issues, scenarios and solutions.  But these constant barrages of  input, in the form of observing, reading, listening and the subsequent echoes of thoughts and memory are inherently stressful to the human brain, and most people just shut them off.  They close that door.  They go on with their lives, willfully and blissfully ignorant.  There’s just way too much information out there to process it all.

 Just buy the damn fish already; you’re running late.

Recently we’ve been looking around us and realizing that while the land we live on is rich and beautiful and unique, the town itself is in a powerful state of decline.  Enrollment in the school system has gone down significantly in the last few years, and given my recent crazy gyrations trying to keep one of my children in the local school system, I can completely understand why, especially since, once they reach the 6th grade, they fall into the black hole known as Hillsboro-Deering.  The crazy gyrations piece will soon be solved by the application of a game card known as “switching” which essentially puts Lionel in the big breadwinner seat and allows me to drop down to part-time, more sleep and a less crazy commute every day.   But the educational dilemma still sits out there, a big dead end.   The thought of sending college-level tuition payments to private schools 1 or 2 hours away from our house fills me with dread.   Sending my children to an economically depressed, blue-collar populated, historically poor-performing school with limited options just seems wrong.  So what do we do?

Naturally, the LLARCS try to stir things up and petition the school board to study the feasibility of alternative school choices for Washington.  As if I didn’t already have enough chaos going around in my head; I organized my thoughts, researched the issue, wrote a lot of supporting documentation, pounded out some statistics, organized some parents and went to the school board, which promptly told us to go away because they were “too busy” and the issue we were raising was “too big.”

Essentially, they shut that door.  That big door that everyone else has where they can take in a bunch of supporting documentation, possibly even read it, and get absolutely nothing out of it at all.

The Chair said it all: “What do you want us to do, again?”

Lionel is as stressed as I am, these days, prior to our big transition.  So even though I patiently explained that the new automatic watering system that I had just purchased was leaking because I had neglected to use plumber’s tape or a wrench to put it together, but that if you turned it on halfway it didn’t leak as much, and that I was going to buy plumber’s tape and fix it the next day, this morning he called me to ask if the waterer was broken because it was leaking so much and did I know that and should he turn it off?  I know there’s lots of stuff bouncing around in his brain too.  In one ear, out the other.  Or in one ear, out the same ear.  Shut the door.

“No, ” I said, and decided not to go into the whole spiel again, and, understanding that it was stress that had made him tune out, tried not to be irritated that he’d apparently not heard anything I’d said at all, “Just turn it on half-way.  I’ll fix it tonight.”

You know, after I pick up the kids,  move the chickens, go to a laundromat because our washer just died, make a couple phone calls about said washer, buy said plumber’s tape,make dinner (fish tonight!), and deal with other unexpected issues.  Meanwhile, my brain, having lost that door somewhere along the line, will still be going on and on, each issue, whether immediate or large, getting equal and scattered attention.  You’d think with all that swishing around in there somewhere I’d finally figure out how to fix the damn door.

Live Free or Die

It sounds admirable, doesn’t it?  It’s a call no true hardscrabble New England Yankee could possibly deny.  It personifies fundamental freedom and hard work and pride.  It codifies responsibility for one’s actions and accepting the consequences.  It soars off the tongue and flies high in our consciousness.  It’s the motto of the Granite State, New Hampshire, the State where I live and work.

That’s me right there.  I should be living that dream all the way home.

I moved to this small town of Washington, NH 13 years ago, following Lionel to the town he’d chosen to call his own home after moving away from New York City both as a physical locality and as a world view.  Previously I had lived one town over (Hillsborough) and before that,  in Bradford.  I’d grown up in Henniker (“The Only Henniker on Earth!”) and gone to high school in Manchester.  I’d gone to Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania for college but came bouncing right back as soon as I was done.

Besides the fact that I was actually born in Boston, I grew up here.  I’m native to this landscape and presumably its people.

I’ve never thought to question this until recently.  All my life I’ve loved the hills, the forested roads, the snarky unpredictable weather, the landscape which grows granite rocks instead of fertility.  I like that our largest city would be considered a small suburb anywhere else.  I love the fact that you can drive across the state in less than a few hours.  I love the White Mountains and the parks and the cold crisp fall air of September, the snowed in coziness of January, the mud season sludge of April, the humid dog days of August.  But the people, the body politic, the culture that embodies our motto?

Let’s be gentle and say it doesn’t appear we have much in common.

I was in a general discussion of the people ‘round these parts with another resident in town with whom I do have much in common, when she mentioned in passing that she “wasn’t native, but..”

“Yes,” I said, “But I am!”  In this particular context I was lamenting the lack of will in the community to come together in any sort of collaborative way to further our local economy, preferring instead to hoard their secrets and their small customer base and not share anything—be it cost or profit.  I find this particular mind set limiting and potentially damaging to the goal of economic sustainablity—a goal I readily admit is not actually on these people’s radar, since the only thing on their radar is themselves—in true Live Free or Die fashion.  But it’s a goal I hold for them for both selfish and altruistic reasons.  What’s good for me would ultimately also be good for everybody, is the way that I see it.  But that would require a communal mindest dangerously sliding toward a socialist model, and we won’t have any of that here.  We’ll fall on our own swords, individually, thank you very much.  And we made them swords, too.

She ventured to say that I was younger, but I don’t trust this explanation.   There’s an assumption in town that I am not in fact a native New Hampshirite, or possibly its just an inherent old town pride which dismisses anything beyond the town line as “not from around he-ah”, which at one point during a heated Town Hall discussion caused another resident to turn and point directly at my face and yell “We let you come here!” when faced with the suggestion that we might want to plan our future housing developments in a more pro-active fashion.   It was later revealed that he himself had moved to town from Massachusetts to escape the persecution of an onerous Zoning Board, but presumably had gone native faster than I did even though I’ve lived here my whole life with no zoning at all.

It’s only taken me 39 years to come to this crisis of identity, mind you, but I now wonder how I could have lived my entire life in Small Town New England and not fully absorbed the culture here?

Lionel, a native New Yorker who’s citiness still arises at odd times (“do you think it’s okay to leave the tractor there?  Someone might steal it.”) suggested it was my education that had disrupted any native political acumen I may have developed otherwise.  Or perhaps my parent’s immigrant status as native Massachusettians and Marylanders gave me a bilingual cultural identity.  Or perhaps it was because I’d married a New Yorker.  Or maybe, I just didn’t fit in.

Yeah.  Story of my life.

Whatever the reason I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that I don’t get it.  Instead of fraternizing with my next door neighbors at the Annual Fire Department Chicken BBQ, we schmooze with retirees from Connecticut and New York and New Jersey, who have come up to New Hampshire to escape their own kind.  So the last irony is that I am trying to create a viable local economy by selling my wares to people from out of state, and sourcing the products that we don’t actually make from outside the town lines because the people of Washington NH are too busy making and selling their own jams and pies from their own homes from blueberries from god knows where that  they bought from Shaw’s because they wouldn’t be caught dead picking them from an actual orchard in town run by commie-not-from-around-heah liberals to figure out that it might actually work in their favor to do business with us.  In return, my good old-fashioned “Live Free or Die this, you muthas!” Yankee pride requires that I go tit-for-tat and  I end up going out of my way not to do business with them either.  So much for  altruism and cultural refinement after all.

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