Monday, December 28, 2009

Phoenix's "best Maine writers" of the decade

It's been a few months since we heard from the Department of Vulgar Self-Promotion, so I'm hoping readers will excuse the following:

The Portland Phoenix (the alternative weekly hereabouts) just published their last issue of the Noughties, which features a piece on the "best Maine writers of the past ten years." It includes "local demigods" (Stephen King, Carolyn Chute, Phillip Hoose, Betsy Sholl), seasonal residents (e.g. Richard Ford) and "Young Lions," including yours truly. Here's their plug (with my own hyperlink enhancements):

"In non-fiction territory, COLIN WOODARD's exhaustively researched The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators & the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier (2004) presents a new local history that's edifying and, necessarily, both reverent and indignant. A similarly compelling unearthing, The Republic of Pirates, followed in 2007."

It's wonderful to be included in such a round-up, but even better to make the Young Lions department at age 41. It's a pleasant reminder that when the Noughties started on January 1, 2000, I was still four months away from publishing my first book, Ocean's End, and a full year from getting the initial idea for Lobster Coast. (This came to me in an epiphany while shaving in a Reykjavik pension, strangely enough.) Middle age still seemed far, far away.

Now the troubles of the world are on my shoulders.... not least that I will have to compete with the Demigods to make the list in December 2019!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Maine: pre-holiday news roundup

For fellow Mainers, a few items of interest before everything shuts down for the Christmas holiday:

Ferries and Fuel. We learned recently that The Cat, our ferry link to Nova Scotia, won't be returning next year, barring a change of heart in Halifax, where provincial officials had decided not to renew subsidies that had kept the seasonal service alive. What most news outlets haven't asked is why The Cat needed a subsidy. After all, its predecessor, the Scotia Prince, operated without one for decades before abandoning the route (after a nasty scuffle with the city of Portland over mold in their terminal building.)

The underlying problem is fuel. As I reported long ago in The Bollard, most high speed ferries stopped making economic sense when world fuel prices shot up. Throw in an economic downturn, the tightening of the US-Canada border, and the loss of the Scotia Prince's cruise ship-like experience, and The Cat became an endangered species.

Another question to be asked: what's this mean for Portland's troubled Ocean Gateway Terminal, now deprived of any real raison d'etre? Some background here.

Maine Republican Quits. Furious over the GOP's resistance to health care reform, Maine legislator Jim Campbell (R-Newfield) is leaving his party, an event that's receiving national attention today. US Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins (who both voted against the health care bill) aren't expected to follow his lead. [Update, 1/28/10: Mike Tipping has posted a revealing interview with Campbell.]

Port Reopens. Some good news: Portland's container port is up and running again, at least for now, with the restoration of scheduled barge service to the port of New York and New Jersey (where cargoes are transhipped to the rest of the planet.) The International Marine Terminal has been closed off and on, its fate tied to that of a paper mill in Old Town.

Ocean Observing System Saved? As I've reported in the past, the popular and scientifically-vital Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System suffered a partial collapse this year due to a failure of will in Washington, D.C. This month, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute announced it was merging with GoMoos, although its not yet clear exactly what this means for the rump system. I'm working on getting some answers, though, so stay tuned. [Update, 2/4/10: my GMRI story here.]

Saturday, December 19, 2009

1989-2009: Romania's Revolution lifts off (as do I)

Twenty years ago this morning, I was being interrogated by Vienna airport security, along with just about everyone else intending to fly to New York with TWA.

I was grilled by a hawk eyed Austrian agent with a cold demeanor and a Mitteleuropean's clipboard. My answers seemed to annoy him. Where are you traveling from? (Hungary.) How long were you there? (Four months.) Where else did you go? (the Romanian Socialist Republic, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, twice to the Polish People's Republic, Yugoslavia three times.) What were you doing there? (Exchange student, Karl Marx University of Economics.) You entered Austria yesterday, where did you spend the night? (Sleeping on an airport ticket counter.) Why? (I can't afford your hotels.) Are you carrying any weapons? (No.) Are you sure? (Yes.) And so on. Vienna had been the site of a horrific terrorist attack four years earlier engineered by Abu Nidal, that decade's stand in for Osmama bin Laden. They weren't taking any chances.

While riding out to my aircraft in one of those giant people movers, I saw my first glimpses of the Romanian Revolution on a wall-mounted television. There was footage of protesters seizing control of Timisoara and talk of security forces mowing down thousands in mass graves. It had apparently been going on for two days, but I'd again been traveling on long-distance trains and this was the first I'd heard of it. I was shocked. I'd been in Ceausescu's Romania two months earlier and had come away with the sense that there was no chance of a popular uprising: the people were terrified, cold, and hungry, the security forces aggressive, heavily armed, and omnipresent. I'd expected Romania to hold out, North Korea-style, until their mad dictator succumbed to age or disease.

At home in Maine, I watched the revolution unfold on television. The events raised some provocative questions, particularly after a group of once-powerful Ceausescu regime apparatchiks seized control of the government. I would return to Romania that summer in search of answers, stumbling into a journalism career along the way. As in a bad mystery novel (or an X-Files episode), I only turned up more questions (along with a close call with a pack of government-guided miners brought into Bucharest to put down a new wave of protesters.)

Twenty years later, scholars remain divided on whether we yet know all the answers about what happened in Romania in December 1989, the subject of my feature that posted this morning over at Global Post.

For more on the 1989-2009 series -- including the opening of the Iron Curtain, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution, and visits to Ceausescu's Romania, late Communist Poland and inflation-plagued Yugoslavia -- click here.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Maine's Great Seaweed Struggle

Cobscook Bay in easternmost Maine is an unusual place: a multi-chambered embayment flushed by enormous tides (15-feet and up) where Jurassic Park sized periwinkles grow and all sorts of organisms that normally never leave the sea can be found by walking around the seafloor at low tide. It's one of the most biologically productive places in the North Atlantic, and has long put food on the table for people in Maine's far eastern settlements.

So when a large scale seaweed harvesting operation showed up in the bay last year, all hell broke loose. Periwinkle harvesters feared their quarry would be carried off with the seaweed. Shorefront property owners were upset that a Canadian company was coming in to take seaweed from intertidal rocks that might, in fact, belong to them. Activists drew attention to alleged short-cutting and other concerns. Never had seaweed be so contentious.

So what's to make of all this? This fall I returned to Cobscook Bay, and you can read what I found out in the January 2010 issue of Down East, on sale now, or at their website.

For a little additional background on Cobscook Bay, I can also offer this feature from the July 2007 issue of Down East. For more on the problems of the ocean environment generally, try my first book, Ocean's End: Travels Through Endangered Seas.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Maine's Question 1: preliminary forensics

I've been following the money behind Maine's same sex marriage ballot in general, and the single largest player's failure to play by the rules in particular. (The National Organization on Marriage provided nearly two-thirds of the funds to defeat Maine's same sex marriage law, but has sued the state in federal court in an effort to keep the source of their money secret.)

The final ballot question finance reports are now in -- No on 1 filed theirs at 30 minutes to midnight last night -- giving analysts some insight into how, when, and from where money flowed to each side.

I posted some preliminary observations on Stand for Marriage Maine's final filing a few days ago. No on 1's final report (covering the period after Oct. 20) has no big surprises. It raised $548,000 in the final phase of the campaign, the vast majority in small contributions from hundreds of individuals. The biggest donations were $35,000 from Fred Eychaner (a Chicago-based publisher and Democratic activist), $20,000 from Jonathan Lewis (a South Florida activist), $20,000 from GLAD, and $10,000 from Stephen King.

Comparing the filings from the two camps, one thing is immediately apparent. In the final days of the campaign, same sex marriage opponents were able to close the funding gap through a series of very large payments from NOM: a total of $340,000 poured in four payments between Oct 23 and Oct 29. Without the organization's support, Stand for Marriage Maine would have been in deep trouble, as it provided 63.1% of its total funding.

This apparently allowed Stand for Marriage to outspend No on 1 on advertising in the final days of the campaign perhaps by more than three to one. No on 1 paid their media consultants McMahon Squire and Associates, Mission Control, Black Blue Communications, and Mundy Katowitz Media a total of $202,000 during the filing period, while Stand for Marriage Maine paid over $652,000 to their media team: Aaron Thomas and Associates, the Monaco Group, and the cryptic Mar/Com Services. These numbers aren't precise -- both groups had large payments to political consultancies and other organizations which may have been subcontracting ads for them and either group may have paid for contracts ahead of time (so they were recorded in the previous filing period) -- but they do suggest same sex marriage opponents may have benefited from a last minute spending surge. [Update, 1/25/10: My full report on this issue in Down East is available here.]

Mainers may also be interested in the Kennebec Journal's report this morning on the (remarkably large) corporate opposition to Question 3, which would have repealed Maine's school consolidation law.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

1989-2009: A Czech town survives two utopias

The Czech city of Zlin has had a strange century.

One hundred years ago it was a village of less than 4000, seventeen years later, a centrally-planned industrial utopia of 45,000, the brain child of a local cobbler who would build the world's largest footwear company. Ten years, a world war, and a Soviet "liberation" later, it found itself part of another centrally-planned vision, this time guided by Marx, Lenin, and Stalin rather than a self-made industrial tycoon. In 1989 that second utopia collapsed, of course, and by the beginning of the 21st century the shoe industry that had built the city was gone too.

So how has Zlin weathered it all? Very nicely, thank you, not least because its peculiar past. Passport members can read all about it in my feature now posted at Global Post.

Scholars of the industrialist Tomas Bata will be interested to know that elements of his vision for a centrally-planned garden city were co-opted by the Communist regime, which also pressed Bata Company technocrats into service, creating the concrete panel buildings that ring many Czech and Slovak cities today.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Maine: following Question 1 money, an update

Regular readers know I'm a big believer in following the money in politics, and I've been keeping an eye on the funds behind Question 1, the ballot measure that successfully overturned same sex marriage here in Maine.

It's already been reported that the majority of the funds came from a Princeton, New Jersey based group that has thus far failed to reveal their donors, as required under Maine law. The National Organization for Marriage even sued the state of Maine in an effort to keep the source of their money secret. This month they announced they plan to run advertisements before next June's state legislative primaries and the general election targeting legislators who voted for same sex marriage.

Yesterday morning, Stand for Marriage Maine -- the group that sponsored Question 1 -- released their final ballot question financing report, which reveals donations and expenditures since October 21st, the closing days of the campaign. The group raised a total of $525, 720 in this final period, of which 64.7% came from the National Organization for Marriage, bringing NOM's total contribution to $1.94 million, or 63.1% of Stand for Marriage Maine's funds.

Other large last minute donors included $7000 from Gary Bauer's American Values, $10,000 from James Dobson's Focus on the Family, and $25,000 from Howard and Roberta Ahmanson's Fieldstead & Company, a California-based Christian philanthropy that had once been a major donor to a foundation that advocated the stoning of gays. (They've since withdrawn support.)

If you'd like to read the ballot question disclosure documents for all the groups on both sides of Question 1, you can find them here. (The final reports technically aren't due until Dec. 15, and as of this writing, No on 1 had not yet filed theirs.)

More on this topic coming up in the bricks-and-mortar media.... [Update, 1/25/10: My full report on this issue in Down East is available here.]

Friday, December 11, 2009

Canada's nuclear waste policy

With concerns about climate change and oil dependence on the front burner, some experts have argued that more nuclear power plants to be built in the U.S. Critics point out that, in addition to concerns about their economic efficacy and the possibility of accidents, nobody has figured out how to safely dispose of the waste they produce. As I reported earlier this year, a lot of highly radioactive material is now stranded at former nuclear power plant sites in places like Wiscasset, Maine.

A number of readers asked what other countries were doing with their waste by comparison: Canada for instance. My piece on Canada's plans -- and a sidebar on the problems at New Brunswick's Point Lepreau plant -- posted at The Christian Science Monitor yesterday. As you'll see, their strategy is very, well, Canadian. (Potential depository sites have to volunteer to be considered.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

1989-2009: Witnessing the Velvet Revolution

Twenty years ago yesterday, I stepped off an overnight train from Poland at Prague's Hlavni nadrazi at 6 am. Sixteen hours later I boarded another overnight train to Budapest. (I was in Czechoslovakia on a 24-hour transit visa.) It was one of the most vivid days of my life.

On December 9, 1989, Prague had entered the ecstatic final phase of Velvet Revolution, which had begun with a student protest on November 17th and escalated into million-man marches ten days later. The Communist regime was frenetically backpedaling. They'd already repealed laws guaranteeing the Party a role in the nation's political life and were about to announce a new coalition government. As it turned out, December 9 would be the last full day of Communist rule. President Gustav Husak announced he would resign the next day, when a new government would be sworn with a non-Communist majority. Dissident poet Vaclav Havel was widely expected to be the next president.

But at 6:30 in the morning, the streets of central Prague were completely deserted. My companions and I walked to Old Town Square before dawn. It was a surreal scene. There wasn't a soul there, but there had obviously been many thousands only a few hours earlier. "It looked like a neutron bomb had gone off," I scribbled in my journal hours later. "There were no people to be seen, but someone had left behind an entire encampment: guitars, food, coffee pots, chairs, jackets, pastries and hundreds of still-lit candles." The famous statue of Reformation martyr Jan Hus had been turned into a candle-lit shrine covered in Czechoslovak flags, portraits of Alexander Dubcek, assorted printed announcements, and photographs of demonstrators being beaten by police. Seemingly every building in central Prague was adorned with dozens of national flags, which hung from nearly every window.
After sunrise, people began emerging from their homes, nearly every one wearing a Czechoslovak ribbon on their jacket in a show of support for the Revolution. There were many signs declaring "Havel to the Castle!" (He would be there soon enough, seated in the Presidential office there.) Demonstrators returned to their chairs and guitars to begin another day of Velvety goodness.

Slowly the streets became busier, although heavy snowflakes began gently falling in mid-morning, giving the already gorgeous city a magical quality, as if everything were under a goodly spell. We spent the next few hours seeing the sites -- it was the first time in Prague for all of us -- and by the time we got back to the Vaclavskie Namesti (Prague's half mile-long central square), it was packed with hundreds of thousands of jubilant demonstrators. There were cheers and chants, a lot of waving of flags and flashing of the V for Victory hand sign. New to the country and not understanding Czech, it was difficult to figure out exactly what was going on. I later learned I had taken part in a public celebration of Husak's resignation.

By the time our train reached the Hungarian border we were several hours over our visa, but the Czechoslovak guards seemed caught up in the spirit of '89 and didn't make a big deal out of it. (They even dispensed with the usual ritual of making us prove we still had all of our cameras, Walkmans, and other popular western gadgets with us, on the theory that every American was desperate to sell theirs on the black market.) At 8 am we were back in Budapest, reading western and Hungarian news accounts make sense of what we'd seen the day before.

For more on the 1989-2009 series -- including the opening of the Iron Curtain, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and visits to Ceausescu's Romania, late Communist Poland and inflation-plagued Yugoslavia -- click here.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

1989-2009: Poland on $10 a day

Twenty years ago today I was in Poland for the second time, taking advantage of the end of classes at my exchange program to take a trip lasting more than three days. I'd been to Krakow earlier in the fall and, like so many other visitors, was captivated by city's medieval charms, the intensity of its Catholicism, and the J.R.R. Tolkien-like flavor of Wawel castle, where Poland's kinds and queens rest in elaborate tombs.

I'd been to Auschwitz on my previous visit, but on this one I had time to wander Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter, which was then literally in ruins. For reasons that still aren't entirely clear to me, the entire neighborhood appeared to have been left exactly as it was in 1945: blocks of gutted, bombed-out, or abandoned buildings whose occupants had been sent to the Auschwitz's ovens when the Nazis liquidated neighborhood. I returned a few years later to report on the neighborhood's rebirth for the Christian Science Monitor; Schindler's List had just come out and there were already bus tours for the tourists. I gather the place is thriving today.

The Nowa Huta steelworks -- Stalin's questionable gift to the Polish people -- were still working full tilt in those days, smothering Krakow in toxic pollutants. Friends told me not to go out at night because that's when the most dangerous emissions took place; pregnant women were allegedly told to leave the city until after birth. My landlady advised me not to brush my teeth with the tap water as it was known to corrode metal. Rain was so acidic it was melting away the statutes and gargoyles adorning the city's buildings. If you wanted to see what the U.S. would have been like without the Clean Air Act, Communist Eastern Europe provided a lot of sobering scenes.

As a penniless student, Poland had an additional attraction in those days. Dollars could be exchanged for an absurd quantity of Polish zloty, giving one the spending power of a millionaire, so long as what you were buying was priced in zloty. Hotels required hard currency, but if you could rent a bed in someone's home, everything else might as well have been free. I spent my 21st birthday with four friends at Krakow's most famous restaurant, Wierzynek. I had Chateaubriand, sauteed mushrooms, beetroot soup, pastries, imported Czech beer, ice cream and tea, was served by a wait staff of four, and paid a bill for the equivalent of $2.50, tip included. (We ate there three more times that week.) And while I stocked up on Christmas gifts and albums (vinyl and cassettes in those days), there were some things you just couldn't buy: toilet paper, fresh fruits, meat at the butcher's. When these things appeared, people stood in long lines to get them, and horded huge stashes. Every apartment I saw had an entire closet filled with toilet paper rolls.

Aside from the restaurant, we were hardly splurging, but rather living like adult travelers on a budget. But I calculated that I was spending a typical Poles' monthly wage every two to three days. A Polish friend with a good sense of irony related his favorite line from Trading Places. Eddie Murphy has just been given a $5 bill by Dan Aykroyd and he says "Gee, Thanks. Now I can go to the cinema....alone." At the time, $5 represented several days' wages in Poland.

On my last day in Poland, my travelling companions and I went out to Nowa Huta, where Stalin had built a centrally-planned city around the enormous steel works. There was a huge statue of Lenin in the middle of the suburban town. Students had tried to attack it the previous night and had been driven away by police with water cannons. Lenin was flecked with paint stains and broken bottles were strewn at his enormous feet. The square was covered in ice from the water cannons.

We were to leave Poland on December 8, but we weren't going straight back to Hungary. Instead, we planned to get the most out of our 24-hour Czechoslovak transit visas. There was a revolution underway in Prague, and we would see it happen.

For more on the 1989-2009 series -- including the opening of the Iron Curtain, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and visits to Ceausescu's Romania and inflation-plagued Yugoslavia -- click here.