Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A New Frontier

Spring is in the air if not on the ground. The snow’s melting, the red squirrels are out and birds are singing. Instead of shuffling along a crust of ice, every step is a Stairmaster plunge into knee-deep slush. My retriever bounds like a jackrabbit. She loses a tennis ball every walk, her muzzle white from digging frantically.

Who am I kidding? With but one day left until March, it’s not time to count crocuses this far north. There will be more snow, and then it’s mud season. Real spring with flowers and leaves comes in May. For now the village green is still a skating rink, waiting for June to become the farmer’s market with local produce and vendors selling hot dogs, wraps, ice cream and fresh squeezed lemonade. It’s a long wait until summer.

Brunswick’s sister city is Trinidad, Cuba. Opposites attract. The Cuban celebration is March 2-10. To kick it off, the Elks Lodge is throwing a salsa dance 7-11pm on March 2nd. Bowdoin has a lecture on Havana 7pm at Druckenmiller on March 5th. At the Little Dog Coffee Shop on March 6th, 4-6pm, poet Gary Lawless will read from Cuban Heart to benefit the Trinidad Children’s Library. Eleven restaurants in town will serve a special Cuban dish or drink.

The Frontier Café at Fort Andross will be playing Cuban music while the public is invited to create a mural with Christopher Cart. All week long, Cuban documentaries will air in the theater.

A welcome new addition to our town, the Frontier Café opened only last October. The location is phenomenal: looking out over the Androscoggin River’s hydroelectric dam from the 300-year old mill. It’s a gallery, independent film theater and gourmet café. The expansive space, healthy cuisine and refurbished/reclaimed decoration reminds me of San Francisco, but the view is rough industrial/bucolic Maine.

When the river thaws, the fishing shacks are hauled off the ice, and the wildlife returns in full force. Outside the enormous windows, diners can watch bald eagles sparring with osprey for spawning herring, salmon and Smallmouth bass. On midstream boulders, cormorants spread their wings to dry in the sun. Kids come out to fish, and kayakers paddle the rapids. Traffic streams across the rusty bridge from Brunswick to Topsham.

The 38-year-old owner of Frontier, Gil, is as cool as his business. He used to lead adventure travelers to Russia, China and the Middle East, but the latter route was stymied by 9/11. Returning to the US, Gil and his wife, Chelsy, started up the Frontier without any previous restaurant experience. You would never guess.

Artists and craftsmen, who work in the mill studios, join locals and vacationers for fair trade tea, paninis and organic salads. In the corner hangs a Penobscot Bay Porch Swing. Sarah Bloy sews her cozy, colorful concoctions appropriately enough in the former textile mill. Gil’s buddy, National Geographic photographer David McLain, pins his exotic images to the walls. It’s a unique space that manages to be both here and there.

It’s been almost a decade since I moved to Maine, and in that time it’s been fun to see Brunswick transform into a cultural center with monthly art walks. The winters may be too long, but the summers are perfect and the fall an explosion of color. You don’t have to look far to find interesting material.

My former home is not so far away. This weekend I’m heading south to NYC for a visit. Hope the Manhattan snow’s melted by then!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

I Hate Yoga

It seems like everyone is doing yoga. Even I wear the comfortable clothing when I’m writing. I do some of those stretches in the morning. I have nothing against the culture that produced it. My husband teaches in the East Asian Studies department at Bowdoin College, and yoga has done wonders for him.

Maybe I just had a bad first experience. It wasn’t the teacher’s fault, and the Bowdoin yoga club couldn’t have been more welcoming. Imagine this: a room full of 30 willowy women between the ages of 18-21 in spaghetti straps and drop-waist pants. A fantasy for any man, but a bit intimidating for a woman twice their age. I squeezed my mat into the far corner of the cavernous room.

In college, my roommate and I used to hang in the back row of aerobics with the men’s hockey team. We didn’t want to be anywhere near that wall of mirrors reflecting “the Goddess” and her bare-midriff attendees. Remember Jane Fonda in skimpy spandex and big hair? My roommate wore her splattered house-painting clothes, and I hid in shapeless sweats. We needed someone to shout at us to get in shape. The Goddess was from California: tan, fit, perky and blond. That might have explained the hockey team.

There were no male hockey players in the yoga club at Bowdoin. The only young man was the president of the outing club and could bend a mean bridge. The students all looked happy to be there and relaxed, but not I. My doctor had recommended yoga for stress and insomnia. Every week at yoga I discovered a new muscle to strain.

Was yoga at least relaxing? I’m writing a book called Moose Crossing, and there’s this enormous moose head on the wall. I tried a different location, but like in a Renaissance painting, the glassy eyes followed me around the room. If you read my novel carefully, you’ll find that very moose head, insinuated upon one page.

It wasn’t just the decapitated moose; I’ve never been much of a joiner. At school I signed up for dance to avoid being the second to last girl picked for team sports. I wasn’t a couch potato either. I enjoyed skiing, swimming, biking and horseback riding and still do. It makes sense. As a writer, you have to like being alone and not following the pack.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Literary Heroes

On Valentine’s Day it’s snowing and nine degrees. The kids are home from school with up to eight inches expected. They're outside, installing a second ice window in their fort. My husband is coming home rather than meeting me for a romantic lunch in town. Still, fresh snow is good, like a blank sheet of paper waiting for new words.

My favorite non-fiction author,Tracy Kidder, had “a problem of goodness” when writing Mountains Beyond Moutains. It is a chronicle of Dr. Paul Farmer's global quest to cure the poor of illness. Kidder explained to a packed auditorium at Bowdoin College last Friday that it is the reporter’s duty to dig up the dirty secrets. And yet Kidder couldn’t find a chink in Farmer’s armor. A friend had told me that Farmer is called “the saint” by his coworkers. He seemed too good to be real. “Honesty is necessary but not sufficient to make what you believe to be true to be true to readers.”

In order to make the book believable, Kidder inserted himself as a character in his book for the first time. He became the everyman foil to the selfless, brilliant Farmer and takes the reader along for a ride through a world of darkness, following the light of hope. We travel with Kidder and Farmer to poverty stricken Haiti, Russia and Peru and see first hand what a difference a small group of people can make in setting up clinics to cure the poor of TB and other illnesses. Partners in Health succeeded where governments had failed.

Kidder’s other literary problem was that he might alienate his reader. “Good provokes and makes us think about things we are not comfortable about.” Such as the fact that our American “life of privilege is built at least in part by misery elsewhere.” Employing the first person narrative, Kidder candidly shows how he, like you the reader, is less than perfect and even selfish. Even so we can still so do our bit to narrow the gap between rich and poor to a more “dignified poverty.” It’s a message of hope instead of despair.

At the end of the moving presentation, a preppy Bowdoin student turned to her friend and said, “Now, I want to be a doctor!”

I joined a long line of students and professors at the signing. Bowdoin senior Selina Asante was raised by grandparents in Ghana before moving to New Jersey. Like Farmer, she chose to study anthropology and science at college. After graduation, she will return to Ghana to volunteer with Unite for Sight. She found Kidder’s words inspiring as I did hers. Kidder was thrilled to hear about Selina’s plans from me. He said that his own daughter was in medical school but modestly took no credit for it.

Kidder, so well spoken and charmingly funny on stage, seemed almost shy when talking one-on-one unscripted. I was surprised that the author, who won a Pulitzer for his engaging book on emerging computer technology, had never read a blog, but he asked for my website address with the curiosity of a journalist. What I love the most about Kidder’s writing is how he sucks you completely into the world of computers, house builders, school children or health aid workers. His characters are believable and his true books read like novels, which was why I had wrongly assumed he was a computer nerd.

Then again Kidder also wrote Hometown about small town life in Western Mass. and his first question to me was, “You live here?” This from a man who had just visited Farmer’s plumbing free shack in Haiti! Maine in winter must appear equally remote and not the first place where you’d expect to find a blogging novelist in a black turtleneck and boot cut jeans. I love that when talented writers, like Kidder, come to Maine, I actually get the opportunity to meet them.

I met one of my favorite fiction authors, Haruki Murakami, in my mudroom. My husband was taking him out to dinner with other Japan scholars at Bowdoin. I had just that day finished writing the first draft of Moose Crossing. Odder than the talking cat in Kafka on the Shore was the reclusive author’s appearance in my home on that auspicious night.

Murakami was soft-spoken and surprisingly down to earth given the surreal, disturbing tone of his original work. With almost child-like delight, he spoke about discovering some rare jazz records at Vinyl Haven in town and found Maine charming. Murakami shared my joy in finishing a manuscript and wished me the best of luck in getting published. It must have been good karma because that draft of Moose Crossing led me to my agent, Jean Naggar.

There are many fine writers who reside in Maine. My favorite elementary school author is my daughter. She wrote a scary story, The Nevergreen Forest, featuring a white-faced witch with a “voice like fingernails screeching against the chalk-board.” Even adult writers can learn a lesson from her book. Remember to employ all the senses, not just sight, when writing descriptive prose, and draw from your own experiences even when writing fantasy.

When she grows up, my daughter wants to be a writer or a photographer (she took the photo of me on skis in the second blog 1/24/07.) With help from friends, she is starting back up the school newspaper. Always drawing, writing or reading, my daughter won’t leave the house without a notebook. She’s been very curious and excited about my book. I read only the first chapter of Moose Crossing to my children (with a few sentences removed.) They laughed and loved it. It’s fun to be a literary hero, if only in my nine-year-old daughter’s eyes!

Haruki Murakami photo by Marion Ettlinger.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Size Matters

The whimsical playground at Longfellow School
(due to shut?)

The Walmartization of our nation is bad enough without it spreading to public education as consolidated big-box schools. There are hidden costs to so-called economies of scale. The academic literature over the past decade concurs that small schools work better in terms of academic achievement, attendance, behavior problems, graduation rates, parent involvement and teacher/staff job satisfaction. Small schools are even cost effective.

The students most at risk are hurt more as school size increases. They are lost in the cavernous halls and in the tunnels of bureaucracy. The achievement gap between the well off and the lower income/minorities only increases and is harder to track. There has also been a large rise in attention deficit disorders and autism, and these students cannot bear commotion and distraction. Children at risk are the canaries in the coalmine, and what is dangerous for them is challenging for most children.

As the rest of the nation struggles to break down large schools into smaller units, Maine marches in the opposite direction. Small towns mean small schools, and some can be too costly to run for cash-strapped communities. There is, however, a huge difference between consolidating 80 student rural schools to the ideal 350-500 student size and consolidating ideal size schools into a 800 student school as my town of Brunswick is contemplating. The damage can be mitigated by building two schools-within-a-school, but why go there at all?

Brunswick does need a new school to deal with crowding and has a long-standing problem of inequity. All four K-5 elementary schools are old, cramped and have systems in need of updating. The two newer schools have been housing students in “temporary” mobile units for decades. The kindergarteners have to put on coats to use the bathroom. A teacher fell through the floor one year. Add to that, the two older schools are not adequately accessible for the handicapped and lack space for new special programming and even a cafeteria. Worst of all, the districting among the schools is not equal in terms of income or special needs.

Despite these problems, Brunswick still produces excellent academic results on a tight budget. Much of that credit is due to dedicated staff, teachers and parent volunteers, but a small learning community facilitates this dynamic. The principal at my daughter’s school knows the name of every student. Classrooms team up for multi-age mentoring, and teachers stay connected with their students throughout the formative K-5 years. Many parents and even neighbors volunteer. It is a warm and cozy place for a child. The good spirit spills outside school walls into the neighborhood, engendering a special feeling of community.

So why not just build a new small K-5 school to deal with crowding and make the old schools accessible? Equity issues between the schools could be dealt through informed redistricting. The problem is that the state will only pay for new construction; hence the pressure is on the town to build a big new school and shut the two oldest schools (pictured) despite their lovely old architecture and valued place in the community.

A shiny, new mega-school may prove to be a Trojan horse should educational quality decline. It hurts not only the children but the entire community. A remote, poor state like Maine needs to attract professionals and equip the next generation for the future, and for that good schools are key. In addition to building a new school with state funds, it might be worth renovating or adding onto existing structures to maintain a system of small schools. Investing local dollars in quality education will pay off in the long run.

It’s the school board’s responsibility to start with clear educational goals and insist that the building be designed to facilitate programming instead of fitting the programming into the building. The architects are artists and technicians but not policy makers nor experts in education. Without guidance from the building committee, the design may limit the programming options. If the town wants small K-5 schools, then the architects need to start figuring out the most cost-effective way to make this happen. Policy must precede blueprints.

The public should be invited to participate throughout the process well before the town votes to accept or to reject the new school. The school building committee needs to launch a public information campaign with all the facts and figures. It’s hard to trust a process that almost appears to be happening behind closed doors. Where’s the time for public comment? Transparency allows for informed decision-making and better public policy. Whatever the outcome, it must reflect the will of the people through true civic discourse.