We the People

The following is a short and incomplete history of the lives of three Republicans and two Democrats and what they did for “we the people.”

PERCIVAL P. BAXTER

Maine’s governor from 1921 to 1924 was a Republican from Portland.

After struggling to get the state to purchase land around Mount Katahdin, he used his own money to buy parcels of property in the Mount Katahdin area and then donated those parcels to our fair state.

“Man is born to die. His works are short-lived. Buildings crumble, monuments decay, and wealth vanishes, but Katahdin in all its glory forever shall remain the mountain of the people of Maine,” said then-Gov. Baxter.

Not a fan of the Ku Klux Klan (which, at the time, was active within the ranks of his own Republican Party), Gov. Baxter described the Klan as “an insult and an affront to all Maine and the American citizens.”

MARGARET CHASE SMITH

The Maine U.S. senator from 1949 to 1973 was a Republican from Skowhegan.

In a speech titled “A Declaration of Conscience,” written for the special hearings on Wisconsin Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy’s crusade to root out communists, Smith said:

“I speak as a Republican. I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States senator. I speak as an American.”

And then she said:

“Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism – the right to criticize; the right to hold unpopular beliefs; the right to protest; the right of independent thought.”

EDMUND S. MUSKIE

Maine’s governor from 1955 to 1959 and Maine’s U.S. senator from 1959 to 1980, Muskie was a Democrat from Rumford.

Some call him the father of the modern environmental movement. He introduced the Clean Air Act of 1970, making it a national policy to protect human health by protecting the air, the water and the land.

On a roll, Muskie then introduced the Clean Water Act. The bill set a goal of ensuring that all bodies of water would be drinkable, swimmable and fishable. President Nixon vetoed the 1972 Clean Water Act, but on Oct. 18, 1972, the veto was overridden and the bill became law.

“Muskie had a truly dramatic effect on the lives of not just people alive at the time but on people who are going to live in this country, permanently, in cleaning up the waters,” George Mitchell said in an interview years later.

GEORGE J. MITCHELL

U.S. senator from Maine from 1980 to 1995, Mitchell is a Democrat originally from Waterville.

In 1998, Mitchell, after 36 hours of nonstop negotiations, led the Sinn Fein and Ulster Unionist parties to reach what has become known as the Good Friday Agreement, resulting in lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

WILLIAM S. COHEN

Maine’s 2nd District U.S. representative from 1973 to 1979 and Maine’s U.S. senator from 1979 to 1997, Cohen is a Republican originally from Bangor.

He was the first member of his party to break ranks and oppose Nixon’s position during the Watergate hearings.

He said: “I will not pass judgment on the president, personally …but that must not prevent us from living up to our responsibility to pass judgment on the conduct of our elected leaders.”

In 1978, he co-wrote the law creating the Office of the Independent Counsel – a direct result of Watergate, when the executive branch demonstrated its inability to govern itself.

Today, on this day of freedom, I’d like to thank each and all of these people for having a vision beyond their life expectancy.

I thank them for speaking up. I thank them for the mountain and the clean water and the fresh air and the truth telling. I thank them for thinking of our future and our kids’ future and our kids’ kids’ future. I thank them for adding value to our society and not just value to our pockets.

Middle Child

I never identified as a middle child, even though I was. I was too busy surviving the attacks from the north (two older siblings) and the needs of the south (two younger siblings) to notice my birth order. I cared more about who got to use the car and how I could sneak my oldest sister’s boots out of the house without her noticing.

My approach to surviving a large family was to keep my head down, stay below the radar and get out any chance I could. You could find me at someone else’s house most weekends. I was the kid who would not take a hint:

“Dinner?” “Sure, I’d love to.”

I would have gladly stayed all summer at my friend Nancy’s camp on Unity Pond. I wasn’t unhappy at home – I was just happier somewhere else. New bed, new food, not my siblings, not my parents.

Novelty.

The middle, I found, was also a great place to hide. A great place to observe how others behaved. A great place to make decisions based on what has gone down before. An excellent vantage point for … “Hmmm – that didn’t look fun.” “I should probably avoid getting caught doing that.”

Being the middle child allowed me to assess the damage and plan my approach.

My parents, who I can only assume were winging it for the first two kids, continued certain parenting themes down the line of five whether they worked or not. A consistent refrain of theirs was telling the truth. We might as well have had a sign on the front door that said, “Just tell us the truth!”

Now – let’s be real. If we are honest and really do tell the truth, we should admit that no one tells the truth 100 percent of the time.

It’s not prudent. There are too many factors to consider: Will the truth hurt someone’s feelings? Will the truth make any difference in the outcome of the situation? Will I get into really big trouble?

Considering that I was getting into really big trouble anyway, I decided to give this truth-telling idea a turn. It wasn’t long after that that my parents qualified their wish by saying, “Jolene, you don’t have to tell us everything.”

They backed off from this viewpoint around the time that I asked my mother for birth control. It was a straightforward request that had nothing to do with acne. (Every teenage girl I know starts the argument for going on the pill with a complaint about pimples.) Whatever.

There was no website, chat room or online information about birth control or sexually transmitted diseases or anything related to being a sexually active teen when I was growing up. If there was a sex education class offered at my school, I don’t remember it. So, taking the risk to ask my mother for birth control was a very big deal – like starting from zero.

Today, with health classes covering everything from drug use to safe sex to sexting, a mother might be blindsided on her way home in a dark car on Brighton Avenue by her sixth-grader, who might share what she has learned in health class that day.

Words like “AIDS,” “safe” and “sex” might fill the inside of that car like little fans blocking the sound of the other words being shared by her sixth-grader. A mother might need to take a deep breath and hide her shock.

Possibly.

I remember the moment that I dared ask my mother. I walked into her bedroom one afternoon as she was making her bed and just asked. She took a deep breath and said, “Yes.”

With that hurdle completed, we then needed to make an appointment. There was no way that I was going to ask our aging family doctor for birth control. The same man who had made house calls for measles and ear infections and other childhood ailments was not, if I had anything to say about it, going to question me about my sexual activity. I had very clear skin, so that angle was out.

My mother honored my needs and made an appointment at the nearest Planned Parenthood. It was affordable, and we both knew that I would be seen by a woman.

When my own daughter started high school, I experienced all the fears that a mother feels as her girl approaches adulthood. I knew that she would not tell me everything. I knew that no matter how often I said, “Just tell me the truth,” she might not. I knew that she might need to talk to someone else. I knew that all I could do was keep the door open and suggest other options.

With this knowledge, I told my daughter that if she ever needed to talk to someone other than me, she should consider Planned Parenthood.

Hoochie-coochie, yoga and flow.

Around the ages of 7 or 8, my siblings and I started attending the Skowhegan State Fair without our parents. My father would drop us off at the front gate, give us each $5 and direct us to meet him at the harness racing track at the end of the night.

I remember wandering the midway with my sisters. I remember trying to stretch a $5 bill to pay for a couple of rides and a game in hopes of winning a stuffed animal.

During one of those trips to the Skowhegan Fair, I discovered the hoochie-coochie tent. Not a tent, exactly, but a wooden façade covered with paintings of nearly naked women and giant words that described the attraction: “EXOTIC! FAMOUS! LAVISH! GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS!”

Dancers in rhinestone costumes would appear every 20 or 30 minutes to entice the audience members into buying tickets. I gawked for as long as I could before being pulled away by a sibling or until those mysterious women disappeared behind fake doors.

Thus began my fascination with dance and flow.

There were no dance classes in my hometown, but I sometimes accompanied my friend – the only girl in a family of four boys – to her ballet class 30 minutes away. I would sit in the small waiting room watching girls in pink ballet costumes arrive at and depart from class and wonder, “Why not me?”

When life gives you lemons, become a cheerleader.

Making up steps to perform in front of bleachers of rowdy parents and teenagers was as close as I got to legitimate dance. And as a cheerleader, I watched hundreds of basketball games.

Before Title IX (worth noting here and not as a catalog selling exercise apparel) – “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” – it was only boys who played basketball at our school.

I loved the pace of the game, and I loved watching players pass the ball to each other without looking where they were passing. The best players possessed an instinctual awareness of space and timing that reminded me of dance … or cheering.

All movement is meditation if you can find the flow, but what is flow?

According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has written several books on what makes people happy, “flow occurs when challenges match one’s skill level.

If the activity you are engaged in – say, basketball or dance – is too challenging or not challenging enough, your mind will wander away from the present and you will not experience flow.

The goal, as I understand it, is to stay with an activity long enough to find the balance between being challenged and being comfortable.

Experiencing flow is sometimes called “being in the zone.” Being in the zone is sometimes how I feel when I practice yoga. In a full-to-capacity yoga class, I am forced to go with the flow of the group or risk whacking my neighbor in the groin, for example.

Since my chance encounter with the hoochie-coochie girls, I’ve dabbled in modern dance, ballroom dance, African dance, yoga and Buti (a close cousin to hoochie-coochie but not illegal). I continue, however, to return to yoga again and again, often wondering why I ever stop. After years of craving movement for movement’s sake, I now crave the energy of the group practicing with me.

My challenge is not to think of this experience called “flow” as an escape from my life, but instead, as an investment in my future. If I can be calm, focused and in the zone at yoga, I might be, for just a minute or two, calm, focused and in the zone at work and with my family (which, in my case, are one and the same).

The Skowhegan State Fair is 197 years old. It is the oldest consecutively running agricultural fair in the nation. It still offers midway entertainment and harness racing. But if you are looking for a hoochie-coochie show, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Summer is fleeting. Enjoy it.

Originally written for Port City Post, Portland Press Herald 6/20/15

 

Three Rocks.

"Let's do the rocks."  That's what we say to each other at the dinner table when any one of the three of us (mostly me) decides we need to voice the things we are grateful for. I don't know what inspires the need to go around the table and list three things we are grateful for -- could be the humidity -- but I do know that when we do, we are more connected to each other after than before we sat down to eat. My friend, MA, gave me three rocks for my last birthday. Three rocks as a physical reminder to say, out loud, the things we are grateful for. Corny? Only if you have never experienced loss or grief or just the everyday grind of trying to stay positive and present. Themes emerge:  1. my husband's food. He, unlike me, loves to shop for food and then cook it! Every damn night. If up to me I would eat cheese and crackers, salsa and chips, and take-out Thai. 2. Having our daughter at the table with us -- she heads back to the mid-west for her last year of University too soon. 3. The ocean. 4. Being part of a family that sits down for dinner. 5. For being part of a community (we do not take this for granted). 6. For the rocks that remind us to look up from our plates and our phones.

Made in the USA & Maine, thanks to skilled immigrants

I don’t know how to make French seams or grade a pattern or use an industrial sewing machine, but I do know how to write the word “scissor” in English. So yesterday, I grabbed a pen and wrote “scissor” on an address label and stuck it to the pair of scissors being used by our new employee.

I did this because I overheard one of our experienced employees offer to help her learn English. English – not Serbo-Croatian or Farsi or Arabic or German or Russian – but English, because English is the common language of the six languages spoken in our small factory.

And then I wrote down the word “iron,” and then “table,” and then “window,” “machine” and “thread.” And then I stuck all of those labels on the appropriate objects. I did this to help move our work forward.

When I sat back down at my computer and resumed my non-manufacturing task, I remembered that I did this same thing 15 years ago for another group of employees, whose first language was Spanish. At that time, I was new to this multicultural crew and wanted to help move our work forward.

We work in an industry that no longer benefits from a ready supply of American-born skilled workers; instead, we employ highly skilled individuals who happen to have been born in other countries.

These skilled individuals may not be fluent in English when they arrive, but they already speak the language of making things. (When you grow up weaving Afghan rugs, or have spent most of your working life in a factory, you know how to use your hands.)

Making things in the United States, today, is something we all celebrate. If you make a pie from scratch, you put it on Instagram and create a hashtag for it: #imadeapie. If you make a pair of earrings, you put it on Etsy: #myearrings. If you make your bed, you put it on Facebook: #mademybed.

Today, if a business can claim that its product is made in the USA or handmade or hand-crafted or locally made, it can join the group of makers on the rise in our economy: #themaker. For believers only.

But up until the early ’90s, making things was status quo. Most things were made in the United States. Making things happened every day in every state.

Mill towns like Waterville, Skowhegan and Lewiston employed thousands of skilled workers – workers who were first-, second- and third-generation immigrants. Many spoke French as their first language. We border Canada, so I can only assume that they walked or drove or took a train to get here.

Outside of the factories, other businesses were started with the hands of skilled immigrants.

One of the largest construction companies in Maine – based in my hometown – was started by Italian immigrants. We don’t border Italy, so I can only assume they took a boat to get here. The sons of those immigrants created a prosperous business that is now run by third- and fourth-generation family members.

The first thing I tell our customers is that our product is made in the USA. We are very, very proud of that fact, but we could not do it without skilled employees, from away.

These skilled employees are now my friends and co-workers. They know where my daughter goes to school and when she’s going to be home. They know that my husband does the cooking in our family, and they make fun of me for it.

We celebrate small victories together, like making a deadline or creating a beautiful shirt. Some have developed a passion for country music. Some are rabid Patriots fans, and some celebrate Thanksgiving.

I’m honored to know their stories, to witness their transformations from “Just got here and don’t speak a lick of English” to “Just bought a house, and my son is going to college.”

We understand, without discussing it, that the world has gone a bit cuckoo and that scissors, by any other name, move our work forward.

Originally written for Port City Post, Portland Press Herald on 11/21/15

Tell me about your mother.

You are only as happy as your least-happy child. This, according to my friend, the mother of three who has been doing this mothering thing much longer than I.

Mother’s Day, not surprisingly, began as a tribute from one daughter to her mother.

In 1908, Anna Marie Jarvis honored her mom, a public health volunteer during the Civil War and a community activist, with a church memorial. White carnations were given to those whose mothers had died, and red or pink carnations were given to the mothers in attendance.

In 1910, Miss Jarvis petitioned the federal government to create a national holiday, and in 1914 Congress passed a bill establishing Mother’s Day on the second Sunday of every May.

Now you know.

The intent of the day, according to the founder, was to go to church and then write a long heartfelt letter to one’s mother.

Things went along swimmingly until about 1920, when the greeting card companies jumped on the bandwagon and started selling Mother’s Day-themed cards.

Anna Marie was not pleased. She thought that sending a greeting card instead of writing a long, heartfelt letter was just downright lazy, and she spent the next 20 years of her life trying to abolish Mother’s Day.

We know how that went.

In 2015, Americans spent approximately $671 million on Mother’s Day greeting cards. Americans spent over $20 billion on Mother’s Day in total, and the average spent, per person, was 173 buckaroos.

I can speak only for myself – but I would like to suggest that it’s not about Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day can take a hike as far as I’m concerned. Mother’s Day is just a day to remind us that we are bad children.

Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Siblings Day, Grandparents Day – they’re all fabricated holidays that make anyone without these relationships feel bad. Once you create a group and then give it a name, someone is bound to feel left out.

If you don’t have siblings, if your grandparents are gone, if you never had children or if your mother has passed … your response to these artificially established holidays will be far more complex than a Hallmark card can sum up. A day intended to remind us of our loved ones may also remind us of what was never to be or who we have lost.

My own mother, for example, grew up without a father or siblings. She was raised as an only child by her loving grandparents and her hardworking mom. Love and good food filled the void of her no-good-scoundrel-of-a-father who left when she was 2, promising to send for her and her mother when he got work. She never saw him again.

I grew up with a loving father and four siblings and feel extremely fortunate to be a mother myself; however, the moment my child was born, I became an anxious mess. The day I was discharged from Mercy Hospital, I wondered: Who would feed my child? I think we can all agree that this was not the query of a mature mother, but one of a frightened woman. My heart, I understood, was no longer my own, and that terrified me.

Being a mother ain’t easy, but sometimes it is funny.

When my daughter was in middle school, Tom took her shopping for a Mother’s Day gift.

A trip that should have taken at least an hour ended in five minutes. As I lay on the couch playing the role of the deserving mom waiting for the magnificent plant, tree, shrub or gift card to appear, the kitchen door slammed open and my daughter entered. Though tears, she cursed the man who made her shop.

I kept quiet, hoping she wouldn’t notice me.

After some yelling, they left for another try. Ten minutes later the door slammed open, again, with more yelling and more crying. Mother’s Day was off to a happy start.

My expectation were low from the beginning, but at this point in the day, I just wanted peace. To end the torture, I suggested that she just empty the dishwasher.

On Sunday, instead of expressing the proverbial “Happy Mother’s Day” greeting, I would like to suggest a new declaration.

We all began with a mother, after all. Perhaps “Tell me about your mother” would expand the holiday to include everyone.

Originally pubished in Port City Post, Portland Press Herald on May 7, 2016

Dear Mark Zuckerberg,

My parents did not raise me to take my shirt off at a bluegrass festival. They did not encourage me to skinny-dip whenever and wherever I could or to eighty-six my bra at the age of 14.

But I did all that, without their permission, because I was a teenager in the early to mid-1970s. I grew up smack dab between the sexual revolution and the feminist revolution.

None of this rebellion was accomplished because my parents were slackers. They were not. My mother hated my braless look and never knew that I went shirtless.

My parents waited up at night for all five of their kids until we were safely home. They knew our friends. They volunteered for our activities. Our presence at the dinner table was mandatory.

But preventing their children from experiencing the ’70s was like trying to prevent driftwood from drifting. The desire to blend with the mores of those times was irresistible, just as it is irresistible for teens and preteens now who want to blend with the trends of today.

With that off my chest, I’d like to offer the following:

Parents should (in my opinion) do their very best to communicate the dangers of social media. Information is power. Setting limits on the amount of time kids spend online is smart. Throw out the TV while you’re at it.

 For as long as you can, hold off on giving them a phone or a computer or anything that will carry them out to the big waves. Ground them, lock them in your attic and do whatever works to protect them from harm.

 Make them do art.

 Do all this with passion, but understand …the times they are, always, a-changin’.

Just as my parents couldn’t have possibly kept up with the rapid changes of the social revolutions of the ’60s and ’70s, neither can the parents who are raising kids today during the technical revolution.

Social media, after all, is structured to encourage secrets: If you want to create a fake profile, no problem. If you want to invite only special friends to a private online group, no problem. If you want to increase or decrease your privacy settings, knock yourself out.

Computer geniuses spend hours creating new ways for us to hide our lives from the world while, simultaneously, they’re creating new ways to expose our lives to billions.

Personally, I am a member of three “private” Facebook groups. Only the members of those groups and the 10,000-plus employees of Facebook have access to what we post. We, as users of Facebook and the other online communication sites, pass at our own risk.

I can delete my Facebook page tomorrow. I might.

Supervising minors as they establish their online personas is difficult, and when harm comes to them because of social media, it’s only natural to want to blame someone.

But blaming Facebook or its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, when kids do risky things online is like blaming The Beatles for the stupid things we did in the ’60s and ’70s. And blaming hardworking, well-intentioned parents seems misguided.

All we really can do as parents and users of these omnipresent social media sources is to educate ourselves and our children about the risks.

So …

In the spirit of non-blaming, I’d like to congratulate Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, on their exciting news: According to Mark’s personal Facebook page, they are expecting a girl sometime in the near future.

I wish you the best, Mark and Priscilla. Good luck raising a daughter during the revolution that will erupt in her times. If you have not selected a name, I’d like to suggest “Karma.” Karma Zuckerberg.

Orignally published for Port City Post, Portland Press Herald, 1/24/14

The Great Communicator.

I called my mother to check in last weekend. As part of our phone routine, I asked her what my father was up to that particular morning.

“I don’t know,” she said. “He usually drives to Rite Aid to buy the paper, but I got a good deal on a home delivery, so I’m not sure what he did this morning.”

For the first time in over 10 years, my parents were home in central Maine and not in Florida. The month of March for my father has traditionally been spent on a golf course in Fort Walton Beach. This year, he is waiting out the snow drifts at his local 18-hole course.

“Hey, Barney, what did you do this morning now that you don’t have to buy the ‘Bangor’?” my mother shouted to my father. I could hear my father respond in the background.

“Apparently, he just drove around,” she told me with a little less empathy in her voice than I expected.

The “Bangor” she was referring to was, of course, the Bangor Daily News – a paper that was not allowed in our house for all the years of my childhood. It was the rival newspaper to the Morning Sentinel, or the “Waterville” paper, as we called it – which was also where my mother worked for 35 years.

In our house, the “Bangor” got everything wrong. If a family in our town subscribed to the Bangor paper, they were bad, and if a family in our town subscribed to the Waterville paper, they were good.

This I concluded with my black-and-white kid-logic.

My cousin Matt, even though he was blood, delivered the Bangor paper. He regularly took a shortcut through our house before sunrise by entering our front door – sometimes grabbing a snack from our refrigerator on his way – and then exited through our back door toward his next paper-route stop.

Matt’s shortcut was the closest the Bangor paper ever got to landing on our front steps.

I don’t know when my mother starting allowing the Bangor paper in her house. I do know that the home delivery that is occurring presently is clearly a result of the BDN’s circulation department having offered the most frugal woman in America – she’s been known to drop off half-eaten bell peppers for me on her way to Florida – the best deal on the planet. A deal that has resulted in her lifelong partner having absolutely nothing to do on his Saturday morning.

“How sad,” I thought. “And all for the enemy.”

“Scoop,” as her friends called her during her career as a reporter, had become a turncoat.

In 1961, my mother began her newspaper career as a correspondent for the Morning Sentinel. She went on to become the newspaper’s first full-time features writer, then features editor, editorial page editor and finally the first woman to be appointed managing editor of a Maine daily.

At 4:45 p.m. every weekday during the late ’60s and early ’70s, she cajoled one of her five children into carrying her package of typed pages and film via a beat-up banana bike uptown to meet the Greyhound bus, which conveniently passed through Pittsfield on its way to Waterville. The package was delivered to the Morning Sentinel offices for the next day’s paper.

What had happened during the previous 24 hours was any person’s guess.

This happened:

One afternoon, the town drunk – what we called him before we understood that this was a terrible thing to call a man with a serious alcohol addiction – knocked on our front door, asking for my mother. He had arrived to ask if she would be interested in writing his life story.

My mother sat with him in our seldom-used living room for what seemed like days. Being a nosy kid, I sat with them. I don’t remember a thing he said. I do remember what my mother did: listened until he was finished.

This happened:

In 1970, a terrible fire broke out in the middle of the night in our hometown. Two people died. My mother had just had her fifth child. Exhausted from midnight feedings, she loaned my 14-year-old brother her Rolleiflex camera and sent him to cover the tragedy. The next day, he received a front-page byline.

This happened:

As the first full-time features writer, she interviewed Mickey Rooney, Robert Indiana, Helen and Scott Nearing, Bernard Langlais, Andrew Wyeth, Jud Strunk, Kennedy impersonator Vaughn Meader and many more famous and non-famous characters. Only one interviewee asked her if she wanted to smoke a joint.

At the beginning of her career, she was paid by the inch. My sister used to cut and paste my mother’s “ahhticles” to an expense sheet that ultimately measured her worth. She was paid extra for taking photos.

“I wrote long and took lots of pictures,” she is fond of saying.

My mother did not mention how long their BDN home delivery offer would last, but she did promise me not to renew it so as to provide my father with something to do.

The Waterville paper, however, has continued to arrive at their home every day, uninterrupted, for the last 54 years.

Originally written for Port City Post, Portland Press Herald on 3/28/15 and, today, dedicated to my mother who has been spending too much time reading the Bangor Daily News while in Bangor recovering from the flu. P.S. get a flu shot.

Nothing to say, today.

That time when the news is too distressing to discuss. That time when another mass shooting is not talked about, because it has happened so often that we understand that it is better to go about our day as if nothing has happened than to trivialize the tragedy with our worn-out expressions of grief.

Silence, not chatter, feels right after yet another one of the horrific shootings that have become our new norm.

I was gardening Sunday morning when I overheard my neighbor say to her roommate, “Did you hear about what happened in Orlando? 50 dead.’ ”

And then they drove away to wherever they were headed on that beautiful, windy Sunday last weekend.

I continued to garden for another 20 minutes, thinking to myself that everything that day, so far, was good: All family units were accounted for and relatively happy. There were no fires to put out, so to speak; no deadlines to meet; no looming decisions, and no bad news to cope with.

“Life is good,” as my friend and neighbor Nancy says when her family members are all in their places with bright, shiny faces. She knows that the expression is a cliché and that the clothing company of the same name is a brand giant, but she says it anyway, because when life is good, it’s good to say it.

Because one never knows.

I hoped that I had misheard my new neighbor. Perhaps she was sharing old news. Perhaps this had already happened and I had already read about this tragic event and therefore had already mourned. Perhaps, I thought, obviously grasping at straws, she meant that there were 50 people being held hostage, not dead – as if 50 people being held hostage were something to be grateful for.

I planted the last marigold and then went inside to face my computer.

“Orlando Gunman Attacks Gay Nightclub, Leaving 50 Dead.”

It happened. It’s done. Past tense. Fifty people were dead, and dozens of others were wounded. (The death toll was revised to 49 Monday to exclude the gunman.)

That club-goers, club employees, police, first responders and ER doctors and nurses all helped save lives during and after the shooting is the good news.

Perspective.

I’m not sure if it’s a mother-bear thing, but my first impulse was to be with my daughter. My daughter, who is home from her first year of college, is usually the first one in our house to report the latest news. The phone attached to her right hand alerts her.

When I asked her if I could walk with her to a class she was taking down the street, she looked at me funny. She hadn’t heard yet, and I was grateful.

Remember when our children couldn’t read and we could pick and choose what we wanted them to know?

On the walk, we talked about nothing, but it felt good to be close to her and to know that she was safe.

When I returned, I walked directly to my husband, who was gardening at the front of the house. He took one look at my face and asked, “What happened?”

I told him. We kept gardening. Silence, at least for that moment, felt right.

It took me a full day to decide what action I would take this time regarding this shooting. My strategy, so far, has been to call my elected officials and say whatever comes out of my mouth. I’ve tried in the past to organize my thoughts, but as soon as I start to speak, I start to cry.

This time I decided to write to my U.S. senators. So, on Monday morning, I sat down at my computer and I wrote a letter to my senators, two of 100 people in the United States who can do something about this mess.

“Go directly to the source,” my mother the reporter always said.

Period.

Originally written for Port City Post, Portland Press Herald. June 18, 2016

Bigger Love.

I once met a man who declared his love to me by saying: “I’m bigger than you think!” Almost 30 years later, I’ve decided that this is the best pickup line I have ever heard. This statement came from a man who, at the time, wore Levi’s 501 jeans with a 28-inch waist.

Of course, he didn’t mean he was physically bigger; he meant that his life was more complicated than I knew, and if I wanted to stay involved with him, I would need to keep up.

After I stopped laughing, I said, “I’m in.”

After snow-blowing our driveway for the fifth time in 10 minutes, he repeated the same basic message with new winter-words: “Life is a siege.”

“Yes, my sweet, it is,” I replied. “How can I help?”

“How can I help?” is the new “I love you.” Can I help … start the car, shovel the stairs, take the dog out in subzero weather, haul the wood, start the fire or chop the kindling? Can I help iron your shirt, make a deposit or build a house? All of which I have done to keep up with the man with the very complicated life, whom I now call my husband.

Case in point, if proof is needed:

When I say “build a house,” I mean, other than hiring someone in the dead of winter to trim out the peaks, and accepting hours and hours of help from generous friends who felt sorry for us, we built our own house. Together, we built a house on an in-town lot full of 200-year-old trees.

I knew there was no turning back when I came home one Friday night to a bright-yellow backhoe parked on the side of our new lot.

The way-too-expensive quote from the foundation contractor caused an “I’ll dig it myself” declaration from my husband. The fact that he had never run a backhoe before and commuted an hour to a full-time job didn’t seem to be a concern.

“I’m not paying $30,000 to have someone dig a hole when I can do it myself,” he said.

One hundred years ago, our lot had served as a gully for a populous Portland neighborhood. Everything not consumed had been dumped into this trench we were now calling home. The first scoop from our rented backhoe exposed hundreds of artifacts: shards of every shape, old bottles, intact miniature clay pipes (apparently left by leprechauns), E. Swasey & Company molasses jugs, tiny headless Victorian dolls and always, with every scoop, more bottles.

So many “finds” were found that the neighborhood kids started gathering every afternoon to pick though the dirt. After making sure that our insurance covered all the horrible things I could imagine – children being swallowed by sinkholes, trees falling on neighbors’ houses and the general maiming of anyone not related to us – I told the kids they could keep what they found.

Building a house in the middle of a neighborhood is like setting up a circus: We were on display for all to observe. Small children became big in the time it took to finish our house.

One day I came home to a woman sifting through the dirt on the edge of our pit of despair. She was wearing wicked nice boots.

“Can I help you?” I asked in my least aggressive voice.

Gracious, poised and obviously smart (I could tell by her boots), she replied, “I’m a visiting archaeologist at USM. I take only the shards and never whole plates. If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to take a few shards to use for my class.”

“Yes,” I answered, “take as much as you need. After all, whatever you take, we don’t have to move.”

At that moment, I knew that the hole my husband had dug had become a symbol for life moving forward and a community being built.

To my husband, who is bigger than life and smaller than most: Happy Valentine’s Day.

Originally published for Port City Post, Portland Press Herald on 2/14/15