Archive for category Farmington ME

Let Children Play

Debra Harrell became a social media celebrity when she was arrested for letting her nine year old play in a park without supervision

Debra Harrell became a social media celebrity when she was arrested for letting her nine year old play in a park without supervision

In a surreal story that made its way on Facebook, a South Carolina woman was arrested for child abandonment for allowing her little girl, age 9, play in a park all day while she worked at McDonalds to provide for the family.

Still, yeah, I get it.  Nine may be too young for that.  Though I’m pretty sure the odds of something bad happening to the girl would be greater if she rode in the car to her mom’s job and spent the day at McDonalds.   But the initial result – the woman was arrested, her daughter taken away and she lost her job  – was absurd overkill.

Luckily the backlash has gotten her reunited with her daughter and she’s back working as a shift manager at McDonalds.  She still has a court date ahead though – and if it wasn’t for social media spreading her story, who knows what would have happened!

It still says something about our society.   Everything is so controlled and regulated that parents have to worry that any misjudgment might get reported by some nosy adult.   An 11 year old didn’t want to go into the store so her mom ran in leaving the girl in the car just a few minutes.   An adult saw the child, called the cops, and the mom was arrested.   Huh?  The girl was happy, there was no abuse, but the police swooped in.

They said it was 85 degrees outside, the windows were closed and the car wasn’t running.   But the girl wasn’t hot, and hey – she’s ELEVEN!  I’ve known 11 year olds who babysit!  She can open the door and join her mom in the store if she wants.   It’s not like she’s a dog unable to operate the door handles.

When my kids went to day care I had to send food for lunch.   Both were somewhat picky eaters, so I made sure that I sent food they’d like.  It wasn’t always government approved healthy.  Luckily I don’t live in Manitoba where I could be fined for such a thing.  The unhealthy lunch in question?  Left over roast beef, potatoes, carrots, an orange and milk.   How could they feed their child such rubbish!  Luckily the day care gave her Ritz crackers to make it healthy.  I mean, HUH?

What this does, of course, is push parents away from allowing kids unsupervised creative play.  If I let my kids, aged 11 and 8, go on a bike ride around town, will someone think it’s unsafe and that they should be supervised?   If they go across the street to the playground, do I have to be there with them the whole time?

Of course not, kids need freedom to explore.  If every activity is supervised and controlled, they’ll not learn how to improvise and make do with whatever life gives them.  They’ll want some kind of formula or activity – or else be bored.

Since nature is so dangerous, parents rely on the safety of videogames.  It keeps kids inside and safe.

Since nature is so dangerous, parents rely on the safety of videogames. It keeps kids inside and away from all those dangers out in the world.

Parents respond to the societal push towards rigidity and control by allowing kids the freedom to do one thing nobody will get in trouble for: play video games.  You can shop, drive, or do anything with your kids heads focused on screens and nobody will bother you.  That is far more accepted than a little creative unsupervised free time.

The culprit here isn’t just the state, but all those businesses and companies that make money off of kids.  Nobody makes money when kids run out to explore the local stream or trails.  Yet if my 11 year old falls off his bike two miles from home, someone will certainly wonder why I would let him ride so far unsupervised.

Then there is fear.  Parents imagine what could happen, no matter how unlikely, and think it will if they don’t protect their kids.  People get so obsessed with safety that they lose a rational capacity to calculate probability.   Many activities that people think are dangerous are far more safe than a car ride across town.

When I was 11 I explored Sioux Falls on my bike from one end to the other, and I’d zoom down hills reaching 40 MPH (I had a speedometer), having to be really careful no cars were coming down the cross streets.  I’d spend hours away from home, stopping by friends, exploring or just being a kid.   Yes, I’d read, watch too much TV and sometimes have to be pushed out the door.  But no one was going to arrest my mom when my sister and I would walk to the park when I was nine (and she was seven).


Schools play into this by demanding more work, tests, and seat time, leaving kids only a few hours a day for real play – and much of that gets taken up by lessons, activities or clubs.   Recess ceases in sixth grade, and parents complain about early release days.   I don’t mean this as criticism of the schools or teachers – I was President of the PTA last year at my younger son’s school and really admire the work they do.

And in rural Maine I think we have a bit more common sense.  When my youngest was in first grade he was playing with a nerf gun in the car – and proceeded to walk into school with it.  My eldest told me that he took the gun in so I headed back to the school.  The staff thought it was funny – and apparently my son turned it in voluntarily, realizing he shouldn’t have it there.  But geez, in some suburban areas I’d probably have been arrested!   Sending a kid to school with a toy gun!  And, of course, many would think I was a horrible parent, worthy of jail, for letting my first grade son have toy weapons!

So I don’t worry that the parent police will get on my case here, and there are local streams, trails, and play areas for the kids to explore.  Yes, unlike me they have to wear bike helmets when they ride, but at least they can ride.  Let kids play.  They’ll have enough serious time when they have to pay the bills and work.  This time should be magical.  They need to be in nature, not just learn about the environment.  And give parents leeway to decide what their kid can handle.

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Binders of Black People!

Maine Republican Chair Charlie Webster

I wanted to blog about something other than politics today but I can’t ignore a local story gone viral.

Farmington’s own Charlie Webster, who runs a successful heating company, got into some hot water this week.   Webster, who serves as the state Republican party Chair, made a claim that “dozens” of black people had registered to vote on election day at rural polling places where none of the poll workers knew them.

Immediately he was attacked for making a charge that seemed racist — black people voting in rural Maine?   They must be from away!   I think, though, it was more stupid than racist.

Here’s the context:  Charlie Webster has long thought that Maine’s same day registration policy makes fraud likely.   He once produced the names of 206 college students in Farmington who had registered on election day and had the Secretary of State Charlie Summers investigate.   No wrong doing was found, though many students were sent semi-threatening letters warning them that they shouldn’t vote in a community if they had cars registered elsewhere or otherwise did not plan to become long term members of that community.   Maine law has no such provisions, but Summers had to show some deference to his party Chair.

The Republicans grabbed control of both houses and the Governorship in 2010, and one of the first things they did was push through a law ending same day registration.   Reports are that in a state legislature where individual independence usually trumps party loyalty, this was one issue where intense pressure was put on legislatures to vote in favor of ending the practice.   This was a priority for Webster.

In Maine the people can overturn legislation through a referendum and that’s what happened.   By an overwhelming margin of 60% to 40% Mainers voted to keep same day registration.   Many on the right, buoyed by early polls showing support for the ending same day registration, thought having an off year (2011) vote would help them win.   It did not.

If 2012 was like other years, about 50,000 people state wide registered on election day.   They must have ID and a piece of mail addressed to them showing that they have a Maine address.     Part of what irks Webster is that often college students in his town of Farmington (where I also live and teach) come and vote in elections even though those students probably don’t really consider Farmington home.   His view: they should vote in their own localities, or if they are out of state, in the state in which their parents live.

UMF students were active on the same sex marriage initiative, trying to register students and get them to vte

That is a legitimate argument.   To the extent that local representation in the state house in Augusta gets decided by students with no real “base” in Farmington, local residents may feel like their vote is being usurped by students from elsewhere corralled to vote by campus activists.

Counter arguments would note that these students live at least a good nine months in Farmington and add significantly to the local economy.   The strongest counter is that it’s unlikely the campus determines election outcomes.    Students tend not to vote, and many who do vote Republican.   Republican candidates such as the State Rep Lance Harvell and State Senator Tom Saviello actively campaign on campus and have strong levels of student and faculty support, including from Democrats.

The point:  same day registration irks Webster, he thinks it damages the electoral process and should be done away with.   Yet dozens of black people going to rural Maine?

Most people would be skeptical.   Busing black folk to rural locations would be an expensive and rather odd way to try to influence elections!  \    The Sardine report did a nice satire on this, claiming “thousands of mysterious white people voted in Portland, Lewiston, Auburn, Brunswick, Bangor, Brewer, South Portland, Waterville, Ellsworth, Sanford, Saco, Westbrook, Augusta, Orono, Belfast, Bath, Rumford and Newport.”   An excerpt:

“It was an ingenious plan, really,” commented Maine Democratic Party Chair Ben Grant. ” We were only able to get a few hundred black people up from Massachusetts, and we had them voting in places like West Norridgewock, where they kind of stuck out. In retrospect, it wasn’t the smartest way to undermine the electoral process.”


Rumford town clerk Corinne McLaughlin said they were definitely some shady European-looking types registering on election day in her town. “I make a point of noticing and remembering all the white people in town, and there were definitely a few that I had not seen before,” she said.

After the Webster story went viral on Drudge, Politico, Talking Points Memo, Think Progress, and most political websites he backed off.   He apologized for making it sound like he was disparaging a racial group, and withdrew his claim that he’d send out postcards to see if people really did live where they registered.

In the end, it was a bit absurd.  I’m not sure how it went down, but I can imagine Webster hearing rumors about black people voting, taking them seriously and then blurting it out while being interviewed.    He hates same day registration and thus is predisposed to believe stories that show it to enable fraud.

Here in rural Maine there are not many black people.   Therefore we sometimes forget to think about how what we say might sound.   Heck, my six year old son in looking at a picture of Barack Obama once said, “dad, do you have to have black skin to be able to become President?”    I suspect Webster was so focused on the issue of same day registration fraud that it simply went over his head just how racially charged his claim was.

“He who gaffes last…” Romney putting blame for his election defeat on Obama’s “gifts” to voters reinforced why the Governor had so much trouble connecting

So in the end it was just a minor gaffe that gave this part of the country some national attention for a day or two.  It wasn’t even the worst gaffe of the week – that honor belonged to Mitt Romney who channeled his 47% video self to decry how Obama won by “giving gifts” to various demographic groups.    Republicans reacted to that by distancing themselves from Romney even faster than Maine Republicans fled Webster.

I’ll take Webster at his word that he didn’t mean to focus on race and is genuinely sorry about how careless his comments were.    The gotcha gaffe game is a poor excuse for political discourse in any event.    And as much as I hate to admit it, I think it’s sort of fun when something silly puts Maine and especially my part of Maine in the national spotlight.


What is Independence?

Independence Day.  The 4th of July.  A day of parades, fireworks, picnics, games and celebrations.  I remember growing up in Sioux Falls, SD, spending a day at “Westward Ho” playing games, enjoying a greased watermelon in the pool contest, swimming and at night going out in the country to shoot fireworks.

Fireworks in South Dakota was fun.   We’d drive out into the country, find a gravel road and locate a spot to shoot off a bunch of fireworks we’d bought at the big firework store on the edge of town.   South Dakota had (and I believe still has) very lax fireworks laws.  I recall as a kid lighting cones, roman candles, firecrackers, and a bunch of other things.   My dad would give me the punk (a slow burning small stick used to light fireworks), my mom worried that I’d burn myself, and I felt proud to be old enough to light the fuses.  By the time I was 12 I had taken over virtually all the lighting duties!

Later in high school and college July 4th meant 18 hour shifts at Village Inn Pizza.   I didn’t have to work so long, but I liked the idea of getting so many hours in one day so I volunteered to run the store all day.    Being in charge I’d try to make the day fun for the workers, though it was often pretty busy.   The Assistant Manager was always grateful – he was supposed to run the day shift!

That’s me with the pizza pan in hand (turning it so sauce spreads across the whole pie), back in 1981 running a shift at VIPP! Those were the days…

This year in Maine we went to Jay for fireworks last night, and today in Farmington there was a typical small New England town parade.  Some antique tractors, people representing companies and churches driving through town on makeshift floats, and local political candidates/parties dressing up, shaking hands, and of course, handing out candy.   Tootsie rolls, suckers, taffy and other candy thrown to the kids on the curb who rush out to grab it.

From the Daily Bulldog (an online Farminton newspaper), the 2012 Independence Day parade in Farmington Maine

The parade included calves for the kids to pet, a couple small bands, youth organizations, and at the end a line of eight firetracks from local communities, blazing their sirens in turn to the delight of the kids.   The firetrucks signify the end of the parade.  It was rainy, but the parade went on undaunted – and most of the time the rain was so light people put away their umbrellas.    The community is out, people chatting with each other…you can buy some strawberry shortcake or hot dogs (only $1), and it seems timeless.   One doubts the parade was much different thirty years ago or will be thirty years from now.

So what does this day mean?   Everyone knows what it signifies – the day the United States declared its independence from Great Britain.   But while the Declaration of Independence states vague ideals – all people are created equal, we have inalienable rights, and we should not be governed without the consent of the governed – what those ideals mean and how they are to be implemented are unclear.     When the Constitution was ratified 13 years later it still allowed slavery, women couldn’t vote and since then independence – freedom – has been an on going project.

Another photo from the Daily Bulldog:

To me independence day is a recognition not of a past event or ideal, but of the on going process of building true freedom.   All may be created equal, but some are born in poverty and others in plenty.    We fought to end slavery, to give the vote to women, to create civil rights for blacks, and now to provide full rights to homosexuals.   We worked to create public education so all could have opportunity.   We’re trying now to figure out how to make health care something all Americans enjoy, how to expand economic opportunity, and how to handle an economic crisis thirty years in the making.

There is something this day does not represent: selfish individualism.    Kurt Anderson may have a point in the New York Times today that the problems we face come from the triumph of radical individualism over our sense of community and shared duties.   Freedom was once an ideal that had a context – we are free in a community, our freedom is connected with duties and obligations to those around us.

Now it seems that many people see freedom simply as a desire to be able to do whatever they want regardless of the consequences to the rest of the community.   If a CEO at a financial firm can earn $25 million bonuses thanks to bogus mortgage backed CDOs, hey, that’s fine.  So what if it brings down the economy, the market decides they get a bonus and who are they to question the market (especially when they can manipulate it!)

But it’s not just the bigwigs, it’s all of us.   I know that my thinking is quite often very selfish.   Yes, that’s human nature, but it’s also human nature to be connected with others.   Freedom is the proper balance of ones’ own individual desires and interests and the sense of duty to the community.    Ignore the community and things start to fall apart and the capacity to achieve ones desires and goals becomes more difficult.

Farmington has been a community since the late 1700s…I’m not sure what year this picture dates from.

That’s our challenge now – independence means rediscovering the balance between selfish pursuit of whatever we want and the recognition that we need to care about our environment, community and neighbors.   We’re all hurt when any American goes hungry, lacks adequate health care, is denied equal opportunity, is unfairly put in jail or in any way mistreated.

In that sense the parade today in Farmington – a community coming together – reflects what we need more of.   And it’s already beginning.   People are starting to focus on eating local food, buying from area merchants, and working together to maintain that sense of community that has traditionally defined American life.    Strong communities will yield a strong country.   Crass individualism and selfishness will tear us apart.


Pure Beauty

I haven’t posted much lately because I’ve been exceedingly busy.   However, busy need not mean stressed out or overwhelmed.  Today was an example.

At 2:45 PM Tuesday afternoon I got to Mallett school to pick up my sons Ryan and Dana (third grade and Kindergarten) to head to the local mountain, Mt. Titcomb.   Dana’s doing a program put on by the University called “Snow Cats,” teaching kids grades K through 3 to ski.   Ryan skied on his own with his friend Avery.

We had to wait for Avery to arrive by bus (he’s in 4th grade, at the school up the road), and with the snow falling we had a slow drive to the mountain.   Once there it was a bit chaotic.   Get the kids stuff together, make sure we have everything, lug it all to the lodge, stash the skis and poles outside, and then get equipment on.    The lodge was buzzing with activity and kids clomped around in their ski boots and got dressed.    I first got Dana to his group lesson, made sure Ryan and his friend were all set, then I got my equipment from the car so I could ski.

I enjoyed two runs, only to have Ryan and Avery tell me they were hungry and wanted to go in and get a snack.  So I went in, helped them get situated, and then went back out to ski.   “Dad, I need six dollars, and Avery only has $5 and needs one, can you loan him a dollar?”   They were in line and I opened my billfold and handed out the money.   The guy behind the counter laughed, “that’s a good way to get popular.”   Ryan beamed, “I’ve got the best dad.”   I smiled, and convinced the boys were set, went out to ski.

It was marvelous.   I especially enjoyed going up the slow T-bar.   Light snow was falling, but that phrase doesn’t do it justice.   The snow was a pure white, glistening in the lights designed to illuminate the trails.   It was twilight, lending a beautiful bluish aura to the trees, snow and lights.   Alongside that were the sounds of kids having fun, talking, laughing, sometimes screaming…perfect.   Pine trees covered in snow, a layer on the trails, the views…how can it get any better than this?

I would see Dana with his group, just turned six but master of the mountain.   Ryan and his friend Avery would go over jumps or trails through the woods.   I’d ski down, enjoying the mix of speed, control and beauty all around.

The light puffy snow kept falling the whole time, a fairy tale like atmosphere.    No wind, reasonably warm temperatures (mid 20’s), an absolutely perfect evening.   Part of the atmosphere was the sense of community that defines Titcomb.  It might be going up the lift with Pete who was there with his family, or Clarissa who was there with hers, or with a stranger carrying a huge drill bit, joking he was a dentist  (He had a walkie talkie and was apparently heading to repair something).   There were hellos and quick exchanges with other parents, and then a quick financial transaction with Niki to support the PTA fundraising effort (among other things I’m chair of our PTA fundraising committee).    She caught me taking equipment back to the car at the end and in the falling snow wrote a check in the parking lot before we went to coral our respective kids.     Farmington, skiing together.

At 6:00 it was over.    Chaos again, get the kids together, lug equipment to the car almost falling in the icy parking lot, dealing with rambunctious kids full of energy despite over two hours of skiing.   Then after leaving I had to turn around and go back because in the haste I’d left my helmet in the lodge.   It was there, the cleaners pointed it out to me.    In the car the talk turned to video games, Pokemon trades, and the like.   The mood was happy though, the kids had fun.

Those four hours from 3:00 PM to almost 7:00 PM were perfect.   Not that nothing went wrong…sometimes the T-bar stopped because a young kid fell off, my toes were a bit cold at times, and lugging equipment can be a pain.    It was perfect because it was such a joyful experience.  The pure beauty of the evening, the snow, the woods, the mountain, the people.

As I was going up the T-bar on one run I thought to myself, “there is nowhere I’d rather be right now, and this moment is as good as it can get” – even though objectively I was simply being hauled up the mountain by a t-bar.   “This makes life worth living,” I was thinking cruising down the mountain, even though it was just one of many runs.  I can’t explain the emotion, it comes from all the ingredients together – community, beauty, movement, friends and family.   They permeated every aspect of the evening, even granting magic to a boring t-bar ride.

Sometimes life is just absolutely wonderful.


Ski Magic

I’ve skied every day this year.   Granted, the year is two days old (probably three by the time I post this), so that’s not saying much.    Moreover, I did so despite the fact that we still have no snow on the ground and outside temperatures have been warm.   That’s because our local mountain, Mt. Titcomb, invested in massively upgrading their snow making equipment this year — and it was worth it.

The Farmington Ski Club formed in 1939 and continues to run the mountain to this day.   It is one of the few “club” owned ski centers, and as such is not a ‘for profit’ business.   It’s dedicated to serving skiers and families in the community.   People volunteer to run the snack bar, attend the lifts and otherwise help out, thereby keeping costs down.   This means a family can buy a pass for both Alpine and cross country skiing (when there is snow they have excellent trails) for less than $200 a person.  It’s actually not buying a pass but joining the club.

If you go up to Sugarloaf it’s nearly $100 for one day!   To be sure, the mountain is small, there is no chair lift but only a toe rope and two T-bars, but it has a number of excellent runs (most aren’t yet open due to lack of snow), some extremely challenging and you can have a lot of fun skiing there.   I certainly don’t get bored!

Once you get used to the T-bars, they're not so bad

The ski club also sponsors a ski swap sale early in the season.  I volunteered to help with clean up after the sale this year and it enjoyable.   Another couple had volunteered and we found we had mutual friends (we’d each been to their piano concert in Waterville the night before) and joked around the whole time.     The conversations I overheard were interesting:   People out of work struggling to find anything (it’s a bad economy when you can’t even get a job as a Walmart greeter!),  talk of church related events, who the kids have as teachers this year (‘really, she’s so old! I had her back when I was in 2nd grade’ said a mom who looked just out of high school), etc.

Paper records are kept of every item to be sold and every sale.  The workers (volunteers) physically match these up and then when the sale is over you come in and find out if your item has been sold.   If so you join a long line waiting for one man to write a check in the amount of the purchase.   If not you have to pick up your rejected equipment.   I’m sure someday at the time of purchase money will transfer to the seller’s account with an alert sent to a smartphone.  But now there’s still the man writing checks one by one.    And nobody’s complaining about the wait.

When you have growing children it’s a necessity to have something like this; they need new boots every year and new skis every two or three years.  Mt. Titcomb and the Farmington Ski Club are very special; families with modest means can spend a winter skiing and socializing.  It’s not about profit and commercialization, it’s about community (collectivism rocks!)

For kids it’s a great place to go after school to meet up with friends.    People know each other, watch out for each others’ kids, and as a parent I felt no qualms about letting my eldest simply take off and ski when he was only five years old and I stayed in the warming house with his then 3 year old brother.    They also have events, programs for racing, youth programs to learn to ski, etc.   The snack bar is what a snack bar should be — greasy and delicious.    None of this fast food efficiency or sterile blandness.   My pizza slice today was probably about 45 minutes old and warmed a few seconds in the microwave.  Yet it was ten times better than Pizza Hut!   The kids like the red hot dogs.

I can't find a photo to do justice to how beautiful this place is, nestled in the foothills with a comfortable old fashioned warming lodge.

Now our eldest is 8 and the youngest just turned six — and both can ski down the hill as fast if not faster than me.   Last year the eldest mastered trails I avoided.   That amazes me.   In much of the country skiing is for rich folk.   I didn’t ski until I was 19, and my friends that did ski when I was growing up were my rich friends.  Skiing meant going to a ressort or traveling long distances when you lived in South Dakota.   The local ski area where I grew up, a kind of ‘bump on the prairie’ wasn’t cheap either.   To think my kindergartner can zoom down the slopes with confidence gives me a kind of a rush!

It’s also a nice foil to the video game world we live in.   I have to admit, I do not see the appeal of video games.   It’s not a technology thing either.  I don’t understand why people like puzzles, crossword puzzles, or rubics cubes.   All that work and effort for what, to get a cube with all the colors the same on each side?   Words written in blocks up, down and across on a paper?   What value is that?  If I’m going spend time on effort on something, there has to be some kind of pay off – ‘leveling up’ in a game just doesn’t do it for me.   I’d need cash.

To be sure, blogging fulfills a similar function for me, I gain nothing from games but like to be creative.   Yet my kids love games.   My just turned six year old will regale me detailed information about Pokemon battles (including the moves, names, and types), talk about his spell and pets on Wizard 101, or go into a Gamestop store and get on an XBox and quickly master whatever game is being displayed.   The fact that we don’t have an XBox slows him only a tad.    He also doesn’t seem to comprehend that I’m not at all interested in the fact his Pokemon just evolved, or that his wizard has a new pet piggle.  I’ve learned from his detailed descriptions that these games slightly more complicated than particle physics.

The boys can play for hours, calling each other over to see when some new event or special battle takes place.  That’s convenient when I have lots of work to do, but I’ve heard that letting your kids play videos sunrise to sunset is frowned upon.   ‘You got your son a DSi for his sixth birthday?’ asked a friend in horror crunching her nose in contempt.   Well, she actually said “oh, I’m sure he likes that,” but I knew what she was thinking!

And as I’m learning with Wizard 101, the games are designed to make money.   They start free, but soon kids ask to buy crowns in order to do special things.   2500 crowns for $5?  Sure, it’ll make the kids happy.   Now they’re wanting to wipe out their bank accounts to buy more crowns to furnish their mansions (which they bought because their original dorms were too small).   I mean, huh?

Yet compare the time they spend on this with the time they spend with often much more expensive toys that just sit around (hey, what about this air hockey table we got for Christmas – why has nobody played it since December 26th?), and I can’t say it’s a waste of money.   Having an real object opposed to a virtual one is meaningless if the real one just sits  there – at least the virtual stuff gets attention.

Then there’s skiing.   Both boys love it, they’re in the sun, having fun, exercising and learning that Maine tradition of wanting snow — and not just for a school day.   Even on the few runs open due to the limits of snowmaking the views are awesome and skiing remains the closest physical approximation of a religious experience (well, maybe the second closest) – speed, beauty, movement and serenity wrapped together.

And if after a day of skiing they want to play a video game or watch Futurama (yes, my six year old watches Futurama – stop crunching your noses in contempt!) that’s OK.  Skiing is magic, and here in Farmington, Maine, it’s the way life should be.


Soccer Champs!

The Colorado Rapids - Farmington ME Champs (1st through 3rd grade)

I’ve said before that I live in paradise.   I usually mean the beauty of the foothills in the lakes region of central Maine, as well as how from our house we can access trails and the woods — meaning our kids can hike and explore the great outdoors without having to travel to a park or wilderness area.

However, what really makes me love this region is community.  In the winter the local ski area is a family fun center.  Inexpensive, it is heavily populated with children, including after school programs that help kids master the slopes as early as Kindergarten (our youngest already has skied down the larger Saddleback — and that was last year, he’s only in Kindergarten this year!)    Season passes are very cheap and the place has a family feel — people know each other, and you can let kids go ski on their own without worrying that they’ll be in danger of some sort.

This weekend the Farmington Ski Club is having its annual sale — you can find skis, boots and poles for kids at a total cost of under $50 as families buy and sell old equipment as their kids grow up.   People volunteer for work at the ski area, and though they have t-bars rather than lifts, the views are awesome and the runs are fun.

Soccer is another thing done right by a community recreation department that is a model of how communities should create opportunities for children (they do basketball, summer playground, and other activities year round).   Starting in early September, soccer leagues form for two groups — division 1 is first through third grade, division two is fourth through sixth (after that middle school teams take over).   Kindergarteners have their own prep soccer division where they learn basic skills and play skill building games.   Dana did that this year, and he’s now better able to handle a soccer ball then me (which may say more about my lack of skill).

The Kindergartners get their trophies

Ryan was in his last year in division one.   The teams take on names of real professional soccer teams — since first grade Ryan’s been on the Colorado Rapids.   They then play a season with games every Sunday afternoon (division one plays at 12:30, division two at 2:15 — the Kindergarteners also meet at 2:15 which meant long Sunday afternoons for me this year!)   The games are competitive, but neither parents nor coaches take them too seriously.   There is a fun sometimes festive atmosphere as people gather at Hippach field in the center of town on Sunday afternoon for the games.   Parents catch up with friends and chat with other parents, the kids practice awhile and then have their games.

Autumn is the most glorious season in New England and though we’ve had cold and drizzly games, often there is bright sunshine, colorful trees and it just feels fantastic to be outside with community as the kids kick around the soccer ball.  At the end, there is a single elimination playoff series.

This gets a bit tough for the kids who have to face the fact that if they lose, their season is over.   Only the top two teams end up with trophies.  There’s no “everyone wins” attitude here; the message is “having fun is more important than winning.”    Losing teams often are in tears, kids used to winning (after all most parents let their first and second graders win when it’s important to them) learn what it means to lose.   That is a good thing, it reflects how life works, it helps kids learn to understand you don’t always win.   But it’s also not serious.   Parents don’t argue with refs or coaches, people cheer and support the kids even when they make mistakes, and the message “it’s about fun, not winning” is reflected by the coaches, parents, and program itself.   A perfect balance.

Ready for the Championship game to begin

This year an odd early snow storm and earlier rain pushed the playoffs into November, with the semi-finals on Tuesday and the Championship games Wednesday.   Parents of the losing teams Tuesday (which was a very chilly night) joked that they actually won since they wouldn’t have to be out there freezing on Wednesday!   Wednesday was warmer, and thanks to an especially skilled second grader named Josh the Rapids had the edge over the LA Galaxy.    Ryan played great specializing in defense, and the rest of the team had a solid effort, holding the Galaxy (which had been undefeated) scoreless.

The Rapids celebrate!

For me this also was a chance to teach my son about the difficulty of losing.   The Rapids were 1-2-1 in the season, thanks to first graders who were inexperienced.  In one game it was comical.  Someone on the other team broke through and two first graders playing defense stood in front of the goal motionless and watching as the guy dribbled the ball past them for an easy goal.   Ryan was livid.   He couldn’t keep playing.  His intense personality led to anger at those “stupid first graders” (he forgot what he was like as a first grader!) and I briefly removed him from the team because his intense/hyper active personality couldn’t handle it.

But the coaches and other parents urged us to return.  I had long talks with Ryan…”you win if you stay calm,” and created incentives and fun, including pre-game meals of his choice.   I was there on the sidelines, reminding him when I saw the emotions grow.  He worked at it.   He wanted to stay in control.   He went from saying “I hate soccer” and wanting to quit to overcoming his frustration and winning the championship.   Moreover he realized that his team needed him, and he didn’t want to let them down.

That was tough on me.  I’m pretty laid back, and never expected I’d have to deal with such intensity from my son — parents learn quickly that personalities are unique and kids are born different.   Helping get Ryan through the season came to occupy my mind more than anything else.  I’ve never had a problem with losing (which is good considering how often I lose) and I had to deal with the fact that I couldn’t just command my son “don’t take it so seriously.”   He’s not wired like I am!   But we made it through, and he was as proud of staying calm and persevering as he was of winning.   At the end he hugged one of his coaches, a high school player with whom he had locked horns earlier; her patience during the season (the high school players they have as coaches are amazing) helped alot.

As the players and families left the field (with the bigger kids arriving for the 7:15 division two championship), I felt a kind of natural high to be in a community with these kinds of opportunities.   I also thought of Monday night when the town was alive with trick or treaters, families running into each other and chatting as the kids rushed from house to house, safe and having fun.   Community matters, it is more important to quality of life than money or possessions.   Maine’s motto is “the way life should be.”   Wednesday night that motto sure rang true.

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Natural and Social Beauty

I was going up the T-bar at Titcomb Mountain, Farmington’s local very family friendly ski mountain on Thursday.  It’s not a big mountain, the run down is just a couple minutes, though the views and layout of the trails is superb.  As the sun was setting, and the night ski lights came on, I looked at the snow glistening under my skis as I was pulled up the mountain.   I found myself filled with exuberance.    The beauty of the moment overwhelmed me – clear skies, clean crisp air, the mountains the snow.   An amazing world!

At the top I joined a group of second and third grade skiers, including my son.  This is a group of seven youngsters, with ten other groups from grades K-3 taking lessons from university students hired to teach.   The sound of kids laughing, various lessons taking place, and the activity up and down the hill had a vibrancy that blended with the natural beauty.   Here a new kind of beauty emerged — social beauty.

By social beauty I mean simply that this community organizes itself in ways that inspire the same feelings as when I look out over the ski trails at dusk.  These lessons — every Tuesday and Thursday from 3:30 to 5:30, draw a large number of families who want their youngsters to learn to ski.  It’s cheap — only $40 for six weeks — and there is an atmosphere of family and community.  Most parents just drop their kids off, but I volunteered to ski with the group, enjoying honing my skills too.  Whether it’s kindergartners just learning, or groups like this one of kids who handle themselves well on skis, it’s a real benefit to the community.

Saturday a five year old friend of my five year old son had a birthday party there, and it was great.   There’s nothing like riding the t-bar with a five year old between your legs, and then heading down the mountain as he learns to ski.   My seven year old, of course, was off on his own — he’s mastered the slopes and has his own friends to ski with.

Earlier Saturday Ryan (the seven year old) got the winning basket in his game in a league for 2nd and 3rd graders. It is competitive in that they have teams that play a season and then a single elimination tournament.   But while they play the director/referee is lax in enforcing rules like traveling or double dribbling, instead usually stopping the child, explaining what they did wrong, and then having them start again.  Parents cheer both teams, and the purpose is learning and fun, not winning.   Yet having a tournament is important because it shows that even though the purpose may be primarily learning and fun, you still try to win, and that’s a good thing.   The teams in soccer and basketball have the names of real teams — Ryan’s this year is the Milwaukee Bucks, though when I first told him that he looked at me surprised, “my team is the walking butts?”   Saturday’s score: Milwaukee Bucks 13 Orlando Magic 12.

Of course, in fall there is soccer, organized through the Farmington rec department.  Every weekend for two months over 150 kids 1st grade through 5th play in teams, followed by a tournament.   Again it is competitive in the fact that the tournament is single elimination and the champions win trophies, but it’s not in the sense that adults and coaches see it more for teaching skills and letting the kids have fun than to win.   Families watch their kids on the sidelines, chatting with each other as the kids play.   Beautiful.

At the university swim lessons are free for beginners (through level two).   For pre-schoolers, that can mean two or three years of free swim lessons, thanks to a donation some time ago.  It’s also twice a week, and I get the same feeling looking at the parents bringing their kids and towels to the pool, with sometimes dozens of kids (especially the winter sessions) learning to swim.  In Maine with all our lakes swimming is a necessary skill!   Our seven year old has mastered it, the five year old is still working on it.

The community also has football for third graders and up, dance is big, especially (though not solely) for girls, there’s a very successful t-ball and baseball league, cross country skiing, summer camps, and a variety of things for kids to do.  I really oppose over scheduling kids, and most of these are not time intense at the beginning.    We made some conscious choices (e.g., he’ll be tired with skiing and Saturday basketball, so no boy scouts, or cross country skiing), and let the kids dictate a lot (Ryan decided he really didn’t like T-ball, so we didn’t continue).

Being in a community with so many activities for kids is really great, and the coming together of people to interact and share the experience is invaluable.  Moreover, the social beauty mixes with the natural.   On soccer playoff evenings, at twilight as they play the star spangled banner with the sun setting, kids lined up in little soccer jerseys, green well manicured grass and a series of ad hoc (smaller than regulation) soccer fields, the smell of autumn in the air, well, it’s amazing.   Or being at the pool as dozens of pre-schoolers prepare for lessons, parent with towels, chatting as the instructors get ready.  Or, of course, Mt. Titcomb and the beauty of winter.

When natural and social beauty intersect I get a sense of content satisfaction.    Given the state of the world from Moscow to Cairo to inner cities and war zones, I am profoundly thankful that I live in a place that mixes social and natural beauty in such an exquisite manner.   At least in terms of community and childrens activities in Farmington, Maine, the state motto “the way life should be” rings true to me.


The True Meaning of Halloween

The Halloween decorations went up after Labor Day.   We’d told the kids (who wanted to get them out in June) that they would have to wait for fall.   When they saw the first colored leaf they insisted we get out the lights, skeletons, cobwebs, spooky posters, spiders, etc.   We have more Halloween decorations than Christmas decorations, and our kids host an annual Halloween party.   This year will be the fourth one, and each year things get a bit more elaborate.

Yesterday we decorated outside for the party — the entry way, and then the back “haunted” woods, including a leaf-filled “dummy” wearing a mask in the playhouse.   Hopefully the weather will cooperate and the kids will be able to play outside.   Halloween is also gaining importance nationally as a holiday.   What once was primarily a night for kids to trick or treat and Wiccans to celebrate has become a national event.    So what is the true meaning of Halloween?

Just as Christmas is not just about Christianity and materialism, Halloween is not just about the occult and candy.   Indeed, just as secular folk celebrate Christmas in terms of peace, love and joy even if they do not share a belief in its religious origins, celebrating Halloween does not require one to believe in ghosts.  Just as Christmas means much more than the materialist excess of holiday spending, Halloween means more than just sugar highs and candy.   But while Christmas has a long track record of having meanings conveyed in cards, movies and songs, Halloween’s true meaning remains a bit unclear.  I’ll take a shot at defining it.

One thing clearly associated with Halloween is spookiness. Scary movies, haunted houses (in Farmington there is both a haunted barn which really spooked the kids, and a corn maze that is haunted on Halloween weekend), and the Simpsons’ annual “Tree House of Horror” attest to that.   Yet it is not really a celebration of fear.   The goal is fun, an enjoyment of confronting something “scary” and laughing about it.    So to me Halloween is about play and the power of imagination.

Imagination inspires costumes, spooky stories, and haunted houses.   We imagine ghosts, ghouls and witches; even my four year old will roll his eyes up and don a blank face with arms outstretched to become a zombie.   Imagination is fun, the limits of the real are dispensed with, as are concerns about what would really happen if creatures could suck our blood and turn us into vampires.     Imagination is play, and Halloween is the ultimate play holiday.   We are all playing, creating scenarios and pretending to believe in all sorts of creatures and story lines.

Halloween is also a very social holiday.   In Farmington the streets are crowded with ‘Trick or Treaters,’ and is truly a community affair.  People put up lavish decorations or props to make things fun for the kids, and at the very least most people have candy to hand out.   If Christmas is more about family, Halloween is about community.     People rarely go door to door any more, visits are planned, and if you want to see someone on the spur of the moment you usually call first.   The days of just “stopping by” are long gone — but on Halloween nearly everyone’s door is open to provide children with a small gift.    It is a social event.

In our society people often lose perspective, driven to anxiety by an apparent contradiction: our lives are both unimportant and extremely meaningful.   No matter how serious things seem to be, in not too long we’ll all be gone and the things we obsess about will be forgotten.    Yet, even if nothing in life is permanent, life is all we have.    How do we reconcile those two facts?

Halloween reflects the answer: recognize the power of imagination and play, and the importance of social contact.    In the film “Life is Beautiful” the capacity of the hero to use imagination and play to make even a holocaust concentration camp more tolerable for a child attests to the importance of play.   No matter where we are or what we’re doing imagination can flourish and help us through, and a sense of play can add to the experience.   When things are bad, imagination can keep us sane by encouraging hope; when things are good, imagination is key to maximizing enjoyment.   Life as play helps us have the energy to act and achieve without succumbing to stress and anxiety.   Life as play is living with perspective.

So I embrace the true meaning of Halloween.  It reminds us to imagine, and to treat life playfully.   Living with perspective means not letting life’s annoyances and pitfalls cause too much anxious stress or depression.   Imagination is to our mental health what diet and exercise are to our physical health.   So happy Halloween!


Visions of the Past

Sometimes you read a book and it changes the way you think about your environment.   I had such an experience Sunday when, sitting on the shore of Rangeley Lake as the kids swam, I read Luann Yetter’s Remembering Franklin County – Stories from the Sandy River Valley. The book provides glimpses into life in Farmington, Maine and nearby communities over the last 235 years.  I came away from that short read (I read it in one sitting – only 128 pages) with a new appreciation for the community in which I live, and a better sense of its history.

Really, you might ask?   A 128 page beach read did that?!    Histories of Farmington have been written (and were cited by Yetter), and I’m sure if I took the time I’d find them fascinating.  As a journalist, however, Yetter has the instinct to “find the story” and paint an image succinctly yet effectively.  My mind could see early log cabins, the first frame houses, the paths, roads, and people.    Driving through town my mind thinks about how things once looked, and seeing names like “Knowlton Corner road” I wonder if its the same Knowlton who did not want a unified Farmington in 1794.

I could envision the people, the buildings, and the sense of excitement and apprehension in leaving the civilized coast to venture into Maine’s forest.     She describes the early settlers — like the Titcombs and the Belchers — and what it meant to move into the wilderness.    With it now so easy to hop on highway 27 to head down to Augusta, it’s hard to fathom the idea that the Kennebec river was so far a way that you had to be a subsistence farmer to survive out here, and that early on travel was rare and often impossible in winter.

I also found the people fascinating.   Though they worked immensely hard, the core New England values of pragmatism, community and education could be seen.  These weren’t rogue settlers who couldn’t make it in elsewhere, but educated and civilized New Englanders realizing if a new community were to take off, they’d be in the center of the action, profiting.

A few stories stuck out.   Farmington became a town in 1794 by act of the Massachusetts legislature (Maine was part of Massachusetts then).   They wanted to have the right to raise taxes to build an infrastructure so the town could grow and profit.    I was a bit surprised by the fact they still used British Pounds as currency.   Supply Belcher, the man who would represent Farmington at the legislature also managed to publish music he’d been writing — apparently he was a very good composer, though his work to create a new town kept him from writing much music after that.    He was also opposed by people living in what is now Chesterville and Farmington Falls, who had seen the balance of power shift to the east side of the Sandy River, a few miles down.   Belcher won; if not, where I live now wouldn’t officially be in Farmington!

I also never knew about the contested election of 1879 when Governor Garcelon tried to essentially steal the election for the Democrats from the Republicans.    He discounted results in many locations, and in Farmington that shifted the election to the Democrat,  Louis Voter.  Voter, however, decided integrity was more important than partisan victory and refused to go to Augusta, helping derail the plans.  I also thought the old tradition about the winning candidate buying a barrel of rum for a raucous victory celebration was cool — perhaps that could be brought back (are you reading this, Lance?)

I was moved by the story of the Croswell store in Farmington Falls.  In part, it helped show just how the region developed.  It started catering to subsistence farmers, dealing in things they couldn’t produce themselves, often less in currency than arranging trades to Hallowell (the nearest trading center, including what is now Augusta).  Then it grew, expanded to carriages, changed with the times, weathered panics and depressions, but finally had to close in 1958.   That, and the profiles Yetter gives of interesting personalities such as Julia Eastman showed that even though we may now be living in a time for transformation, every generation has seen their world change.

My favorite story connects with where I work – the University of Maine Farmington.   It traces its lineage back to the Farmington Academy, begun in 1807.  At that time they bought a bell from a Boston Silversmith named Paul Revere.   Revere (not yet immortalized in poetry) would complain about non-payment as an economic crisis hit and the Academy lacked funds.  He ultimately got paid, and the Academy went through a few incarnations and name changes before becoming the University of Maine Farmington.

Yetter’s description of the change from the virtually inaccessible harsh early days on the Sandy River to the growth of the town and connection via roads and trade to the outside world illustrates dramatic development.   I’d been told when we bought our house that where we live — now forested — had once been farm land.  You can see it from the trees, which are clearly young despite their height.  Farms ultimately became unprofitable, with the ‘big boom’ after World War II bringing modernism and change to this region.

Yet now I see things in this town I didn’t before.   It’s not just a pretty New England town I got lucky enough to find a job in, it’s alive with history and personalities, I feel a bit more connected.  I also understand why I’ll always be “from away.”   Those here grew up with the town and are connected to it.  Yet the original settlers also came from away, and there is a commonality.   The Ingalls who settled in South Dakota and endured hardship were of the same kind of stock as the Titcombs and Belchers.   The notion of leaving comfort and security to set out to build a new life is a common American story.

Joni Mitchell’s song “Both Sides Now” has a line that came to mind as I thought about this:  “Something’s lost but something’s gained by living every day.”   We’ve gained a lot since then.  We have all the modern conveniences, ranging from grocery stores to easy delivery of mail and goods purchased on line.   We’re wireless, connected and prosperous beyond imagination.  Even the poor amongst us have it pretty good when compared to most of the rest of human history.   Yet we’ve also lost something, we’ve become dependent on conveniences, and few would undertake the risk the Titcombs took bringing children and a young baby into the barely explored forest to start a new life with no guarantee of success (to be sure, even their families at the time thought it a bit foolhardy).

We don’t have that option.   Life is organized, controlled, under surveillance, and kept safe.   Risk has become something to be avoided at all costs, due to both government regulations and the fear of law suits.  In my modern persona I would not want to live back then — I wouldn’t know how to navigate what it would take to survive, let alone thrive.  I’ve been spoiled by modernity.    Yet part of me wishes I could have had that chance.