Tom McLaughlin: Banging it out

People occasionally ask how I’ve been able come up with something to write about every week for 25 years. Actually there’s too much to choose from.

Even if I were to write a column a day, there would still be too much. Listening to news while driving or working on my house, a column plays out in my head more than once a day. Sometimes it will stay in mind until I have my laptop open and I can bang out a few lines that will remind me of the rest.

Then Saturday or Sunday I start to flesh it out. I edit it on Monday and send it to one venue, then edit some more Tuesday and send it to another. Wednesdays I post it online and send links to other websites, and to people who want them.

About 120 people have asked for links over the years, but the “contacts” application on my MacBook Pro lost that folder a few months ago.

I had to reconstruct the list but couldn’t remember the names of about 90 people who were on it. We’d never met, and my only contact with them was online. They’d read the column somewhere and emailed me to say they liked it. I’d write back thanking them and ask if they’d like links each week. If they responded affirmatively I put them on the list.

Going over the 1,100-plus people on my total contacts list didn’t jog my memory either. Not wanting to abandon my fan base, I included the emails of everyone whose name was unfamiliar and ended up with a new list of two hundred twenty — a hundred more than there were on the original.

Some people started getting the link for the first time and thanked me for sending it along. Since they were obviously happy about it, I left them on. Three people emailed back and asked me to drop them, which I did immediately.

One woman made the request with CAPITAL LETTERS and lots of exclamation points!!! I figured she was a leftist whose email address somehow made it into my contacts. For others, I got those kickback messages indicating email addresses were not longer operational. After a couple of weeks everything was back to normal.

Sometimes I’ll start writing about something, but as paragraphs multiply and I approach the 800-word limit, I see that I’ve gone off in an entirely different direction and ask myself, “Where did that come from?” Other times, I’ll write an opening, then be unable to string together coherent sentences in anything like a logical sequence that will result in a paragraph. Frustrated at first, I’m forced to conclude the original thought was only a muse, more suited for poetry than an opinion column.

Twenty-five years of weekly columns adds up to over 1,200. Nearly half are archived on my blog, which I started in January 2006. The rest — about 650 — were clipped from newspapers and put in a briefcase along with some letters to the editor they generated.

When I read over some of the old ones, it seems as if someone else wrote them. It was someone else in a sense, because I’m not the 40-year-old Tom anymore and sometimes I ask myself, “Who was that guy?” I’m not the 20-year-old Tom, either, and I certainly don’t look like him. I should probably update whatever picture you see where you’re reading this because the newest one out there is 8 years old. I have less hair now.

Speaking of the effects of aging, my Social Security checks start in May. However, I won’t get as much as the Social Security Administration said I would in those letters they’ve been sending me every year. It will be 40 percent less than that because the school district where I taught didn’t take FICA (Social Security) out of my paychecks. They deducted Maine State Retirement only. I always worked other jobs while teaching, however, and paid into Social Security for all of them. I still pay into it every year in the form of self-employment tax. Will that be cut by 40 percent now too? Heck, I’d be satisfied if they just gave me back what I’ve paid in since 1967, because those monthly checks won’t add up to what they took unless I live a lot longer than I expect to.

Come to think of it, I’d be better off without most of the “help” government gives me. So would the rest of the working people in this country, but we’re all beholden to those who vote for a living rather than work for it. Think about that on tax day. It’s coming right up again you know. Are you going to write a check or get one?

Tom McLaughlin lives in Lovell, Maine. He can be reached on his website at tommclaughlin.blogspot.com.

William Marvel: Gargantua

 

Surviving a New Hampshire winter sometimes requires a little daydreaming, and a few weeks back I found myself browsing through houses for sale in warmer climes. In honor of my wife’s homesickness for the desolate plains of her childhood, I began my real-estate reverie in central Kansas, where I found a surprisingly attractive Victorian on the Smoky Hill River near Abilene. There was only one other house within a mile, and both were surrounded by hundreds of acres of wheat fields. That’s the kind of isolation on which I thrive, but my wife has upwards of a hundred relatives living within a 350-mile radius of that spot, for whom 350 miles is just an afternoon’s drive. I wouldn’t be able to keep them away with a cyclone fence topped by concertina wire, and you probably can’t buy claymores at Army surplus stores.

The ad for that Kansas farmhouse included a “Great Schools” rating for nearby elementary, middle, and high schools. All were rated at 5 or 6. I had no idea what that meant, but later I found that the ratings are based primarily on student achievement on standardized tests. Schools where student performance is below average are scored 1, 2 or 3, and average schools between 4 and 7. On a hunch I looked up Oyster River High School, in Durham, and found it rated above average at 8. Hanover High warranted the highest rating of 10. My own alma mater, Kennett High, came in well below average, at 2, and so did Kennett “Middle” School.

That surprised even me. It hasn’t been so long, after all, since Kennett did a lot of crowing over favorable mention in the annual high-school evaluation by U.S. News and World Report. Unfortunately, the U.S. News ratings involve some significant handicapping based on educational prejudice. Presuming that poor and minority students are less capable of learning, U.S. News forgives poor performances according to the relative poverty and ethnicity of the student body. For schools like Kennett, with so many free-and-reduced-lunch students, a U.S. News listing amounts to being congratulated for doing what they could with the material they had. To flatter the school, it’s necessary to impugn the capacity of the students.

Kennett High is almost certainly not nearly as exceptional as the ephemeral listing by U.S. News suggested. Neither is it probably as bad as the Great Schools rating implies. Like Pine Tree, John Fuller, and Conway Elementary, it may actually be pretty average for an American school — although that isn’t necessarily a cause for celebration, either.

Except for an occasional editorial, our schools are the perennial focus of positive propaganda in this newspaper, especially during budget season. Forty percent of the issues published between Feb. 28 and March 18 carried flattering front-page photos of Conway students or teachers, in addition to front-page school news with a complimentary flavor. The hype is most strident when a teachers’ contract is on the ballot. At such times, the school board pats itself on the back for all the money it has saved the taxpayer through negotiated concessions, usually by reversing its own costly negotiation blunders from past years. Board members and parents extol the extraordinary job done by our “wonderful” teachers, as though trying to goad those who know the other side of the coin into naming some of the teachers they found less than wonderful.

Many of us will not live to see the hypothetical, faraway savings promised by the proposed teachers’ contract. But aside from its internal failings, the contract deserves defeat because of its unusual three-year length. Teachers’ contracts are always the school board’s greatest concern, and one-year contracts are in the taxpayers’ best interests. Only when the voters have the leverage of turning down such a contract is the school board likely to placate taxpayers by trimming staff even slightly. If a year passes with no contract to worry about, there is much less pressure for any staff reduction, and lost positions can be restored or new ones added. The three-year contract on this year’s warrant gives the board two “free” years in which to bloat the empire’s political power to the point of invincibility. No wonder they want it so badly.

The heavily padded educational staff in the Conway School District vastly strengthens the faction that can best be characterized as the education empire. The habit of throwing money at problems has given us half a century of disproportionate staff inflation, but the results show that more programs, teachers, aides, and administrators don’t necessarily improve education. The explosion in staff has, however, given the empire tremendous political power by spreading the school payroll throughout the community. Many hands make light work in the classroom, but they also bring political victory. Educational staff and their relatives flooded the March 8 school meeting to support a three-year teachers’ contract that would accommodate even further staff expansion. Teachers constitute the town’s strongest union, and that voting bloc will support overstaffing as long as it works to their advantage. They may stop if voters deny their contractual raises because of it.

William Marvel lives in South Conway.

 

Erik Eisele: Traveling: Chaos and comfort

Central American bus terminals are never easy. The word “terminal” is usually an overstatement: a dirt lot packed with people and stands selling fruits and cell phones and loose AA batteries, all crammed with buses pulling in and out and collecting people even as they leave. There are no schedules, no timetables, no assigned parking spaces, just a sea of rainbow-painted school buses lurching and stopping.

That’s Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. I’d just spent a week in the mountains to the north with a small non-profit, interviewing the coffee growers and pickers who make their living at the agricultural end of a latte. After a week of hiking hillsides and asking questions on health, hunger and human impacts, the team was headed to the airport to fly home.

But not me. I like to take advantage of airplane tickets when I have them, so I had an extra few days to head to the Pacific Coast. I was bound for a few days of sand and surf.

“There is a direct bus from Managua every afternoon,” my friend Rich told me. “The bus goes to Las Salinas. Just get off at Calle Popoyo.”

Popoyo is the kind of place people dream about: a dirt road to a quiet stretch of beach, the slow thunder of crashing waves, a handful of scattered surfers, water the temperature of forgotten tea and a few cheap places to stay with hammocks hanging in the shade. No stoplights, no horns and few tourists, only a soft breeze off the ocean. They’re planning to pave the road soon, Rich told me, so it’s going to change, but for now it’s paradise.

After a week of riding in truck beds and trudging through jungle, paradise sounded good. So I rode to Managua and headed to the bus terminal.

Unloading into utter chaos, I looked around. There were no indicators in the dust and dirt and hot sun what bus went where. The best I could do was walk up to one of the barkers standing near a bus and ask for direction.

“Las Salinas?” I said to the first one I came to.

“No,” he said, “alla,” pointing to a bus a few rows over.

I hustled over to the bus in question, dragging my luggage behind me. The barker saw me coming.

“Las Salinas?” I shouted over the din.

“Si,” he said, taking my bag, “Salinas.” He followed me inside and shoved my bag into the overhead rack. I slumped into the seat, ready for a few hours on bumpy roads.

Now, I’ve never set up a country. But if I did and there was a town called Salinas and another called Las Salinas, I’d make sure they were nowhere near each other. Maybe I’d pair them with some other identifier (like an associated state name, for example) to mark one as different from the other. Nicaragua, however, doesn’t. They leave it to a guy manning the door of a technicolor school bus to differentiate between Salinas and Las Salinas.

On Saturday, however, he was asleep at the switch. And so was I. I said Las Salinas, he said Salinas, and together we hopped aboard. Moments later the bus pulled out, collecting more passengers even as it left, and was on its way.

It wasn’t until we were an hour out, when the street signs started announcing Leon, Nicaragua’s famous colonial city far to the northwest, that I realized I was headed the wrong direction. I walked to the front of the bus, where the barker had become the ticket checker.

“Excuse me,” I said in imperfect Spanish, “but did that sign say Leon? I’m going to Las Salinas, which is way south of Leon.”

“No no,” he said, “Salinas is just outside of Leon.”

The man driving the bus looked over at us.

“Las Salinas?” he said. “Small town near the beach? That’s in the opposite direction.”

The barker and I looked at each other. He shook his head. So did I. “Crap,” I said.

Paradise was going to have to wait.

International travel is like that. In places like Nicaragua, the second poorest nation in the western hemisphere, infrastructure is limited, and mishaps occur. But even in places like U.K., where we ought to be able to find our way, we get turned around.

But such errors aren’t errors; they are the point of going. Adventure isn’t the result of well-laid plans working out smoothly, it’s the outcome borne from a misunderstanding and a 100-mile trip in the wrong direction, or some other similar twist of fate.

When I embedded in Iraq I missed my flight home because my U.S. military escorts weren’t used to accessing the civilian part of the Kuwait City airport. The final days I spent with the soldier were some of the best.

On two separate occasions in Peru, I’ve wound up sleeping as a guest with a local family after finding myself far from anyplace offering a hotel room. Those nights each wound up being the highlight of the trip.

It’s hard to remember sometimes when you’re tired, hot and have been sitting on school buses all day, but these are the moments we leave home for. They serve as reminders of how chaotic the world can be, and how lucky we are to live in a place where appointments occur on time, where buses have schedules and potable water flows from every tap. Paradise isn’t just a secluded beach; it’s also a bus station with cushioned seats and a printed timetable.

Erik Eisele is a reporter for The Conway Daily Sun.

D. Maurice Kreis: We need statewide standard utility costs

Utilities don’t pay property taxes, utility customers pay them.

Taxes incurred by a public utility are a recoverable operating expense. In other words, the taxes imposed on utilities end up included in the rates each of us pay in our energy bills each month.

Which brings me to House Bill 324, an effort to implement a fair and consistent method of assessing, and ultimately taxing, property owned by utility companies.

Under the current system, New Hampshire’s Department of Revenue Administration assesses utility property for the purposes of the statewide utility property tax. Separately, each town also assesses this same property for municipal property taxes.

All too often these assessments end up much higher on the local level than by the state. Some communities have actually doubled and tripled their utility property taxes over the course of just a year or two.

If your community suddenly doubled your property tax bill, without you adding any new property, you’d know something was very wrong. HB 324 would have the Department of Revenue Administration’s assessments used to determine the municipal taxes.

When one town unjustly drives up taxes, that cost is passed on to all ratepayers. This acts as a hidden tax on the consumers and artificially drives up the prices everyone pays. Power consumers across the system end up subsidizing the towns that jack up their local taxes.

Worse, the utility property being over-assessed at the municipal level has led to many lawsuits with the towns.

Ironically, the residents of each community where there is litigation end up paying both sides’ legal costs, first as a taxpayer and then as a utility customer.

The financial burden of higher taxes and higher legal fees ends up adversely impacting the families and small businesses that end up paying higher electric bills. This is bad news for a state deeply concerned about its electric rates.

The lack of a statewide standard has created a chaotic system that is directly contributing to unnecessarily increased energy costs on the customers. HB 324 would correct that.

Everything that is wrong with the current system New Hampshire uses to assess utility property throughout our state was on prominent display at the House Science, Technology, and Energy Committee hearing in Concord on the morning of Jan. 25. As a consumer advocate who thinks customers deserve safe and reliable electricity at the lowest possible cost, I testified before the committee in favor of this legislation.

As I told the committee, House Bill 324, if adopted, will assure a fair and consistent process that would give the residential utility customers, many of whom struggle to make ends meet, a reason to be confident that this slice of their utility bills has been determined in a fair and reasonable manner. I did my best to undermine the false impression that wealthy owners of utility stock, rather than struggling payers of utility bills, are bearing the brunt of this unfairness.

Not surprisingly, the committee heard from town officials who rely on the current system to bring in these additional tax dollars from unjustifiably high assessments. They also heard from lawyers and assessors who are paid by these towns (actually, paid by the local taxpayers) to come up with these sometimes creative, bloated assessments.

Unfortunately, as is all too often the case, the committee did not hear much from ratepayers. I attended, listened and offered testimony as the Granite State’s consumer advocate, tasked with representing the interests of residential utility customers. But I am just one face and one voice.

The people whom we send to Concord to represent us need to hear from you, the ratepayers, if House Bill 324 is going to have a chance of becoming law. I assure you these same representatives are hearing from the assessors and town managers who rely on the current system to collect more of your hard-earned dollars.

D. Maurice Kreis serves as New Hampshire’s consumer advocate before the Public Utilities Commission.