Wednesday, December 26, 2012

In With A Bang: What to Look Forward to in 2013

Published in the Portland Phoenix, these are my contributions to a package done with Deirdre Fulton and Nicholas Schroeder

We're thrilled the world didn't end in 2012 — aren't you? Not just because it lets us keep those plans to go to Asmara for lunch every day (why is that place not packed?), and live up to our promises to actually read that book recommended (or possibly written) by a friend or co-worker. There are some pretty amazing things slated to happen in Maine in 2013, and now that we're going to be around to enjoy them, we're getting even more excited. As you celebrate the beginning of the new year, think about all the unknown prospects and possibilities — but also about these very real events, already slated to occur.
We've already seen the sparks flying between the Blaine House and the State House, with Republican Governor Paul LePage in a snit because the Democrats apparently want to hear — and record — everything he has to say at public appearances, but things may end up escalating. We know there will be huge fights about medical costs, tax policy, social services, and environmental regulations — not to mention labor agreements, business development, and how much Mainers can afford to spend coddling wealthy out-of-state corporations. We hope things won't get as far as actual combat, of course, but we expect talks will eventually break down completely. When that happens, our state's desperate leaders might remember that fireworks are legal — and start launching barrages across Augusta's Capitol Street, from the State House toward the Blaine House, or (more likely) the other direction. We're not expressing hope this happens, but rather warning about its possibility. It definitely wouldn't be the healthiest (nor safest) way to express political disagreement, but we have to admit it sure would provide some otherwise-missing drama for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network's planned "ME-SPAN" coverage of the usually staid meetings and conferences among policymakers. If it gets as bad as lawmakers replacing scheduled votes on bills with five-minute Roman candle fusillades, we'll be certain the legislative session will end with no winners, and a whole bunch of losers. Which is more or less what we expect anyway.
The Earth's climate is changing, quickly and dangerously. Even when we had a stable climate and semi-regular weather patterns, meteorologists were frequently wrong and often in doubt. Their jobs once involved standing in front of green-screens and looking out windows, with annual contractually obligated live shots in significant wind or snow. With our global weather system on the verge of being catastrophically disrupted, we expect they'll just give up. They're already unable to explain why it rained this afternoon, instead of being sunny like they said it would be this morning. Facing a community to tell them why, instead of a few clouds in the sky, their entire neighborhood was swept away, simply isn't a sustainable profession. No longer able to be generally inaccurate, not given the airtime to explain the detailed science behind weather-prediction models, and (like the rest of us) barely able to comprehend the monumental power of an extremely pissed-off planet, these poor weather-people will flee for the hills in the face of being comically — or catastrophically — wrong.
When US Senator Angus King is sworn in on January 2, his plan to calm the disturbed waters of Congress will begin to take effect. His peaceful, friendly visage and manner will radiate throughout the halls of the US Capitol — and beyond, unto Washington and all the land — bringing harmony and concord where we were so recently a people riven asunder by all manner of disagreements and offenses. Or, the gridlock will continue apace, just with a new, amiable, lanky Virginian from Maine taking the place of a nice Greek lady, still striving to unstick the country from its mire.
Maine is already a national leader in voting rights — allowing same-day registration, absentee balloting without an excuse, and even letting inmates and people with criminal records vote. But we can do even better, and we're poised to. Departing Secretary of State Charlie Summers appointed an officiously named Commission to Study the Conduct of Elections in Maine back in May, because he and his Republican cohorts apparently believed there was some sort of huge problem with voting fraud in Maine. (Spoiler alert: There's not, and never was.) The group has heard public hearings all over the state, and the vast majority of the commentary has been two-fold: 1) there's no problem with the existing laws, and 2) if we're going to change things in any way, it should be to expand access to the ballot box, not contract it.
Suggestions have included changing the state Constitution to allow early voting (a technical change from the perspective of those of us who vote absentee in advance, but a major improvement in the burden placed on municipal clerks handling those ballots cast before Election Day); restoring in-person absentee balloting on the Friday, Saturday, and Monday just before Election Day (it was removed in 2011 in hopes of easing clerks' workload but ended up inconveniencing voters instead); and clarifying ancillary rules relating to students who vote in Maine (the Constitution's position is clear, but there are other state laws not directly related to voting that may — or may not — come into play; it's those that might need tidying up).
Having heard all the testimony, and taken written comments as well, the committee will report its findings, and any suggested legislation, to the legislature by the end of January; we can look for the Democrat-controlled State House to frown on any new restrictions, and to cheer for any ideas to make voting easier, clearer, and more accessible to all Mainers.
We've long since lost count of how many hotels there are in Portland, how many rooms each has, and how often they're full or vacant. Until recently, though, we thought we had a handle on how many new hotels were in the works. But when we last looked, the list had grown by one more — and we're sure it'll have added another by the time this hits the streets. This sort of competition has existing hoteliers worried that oversupply will mean lower occupancy rates, cheaper room prices, and reduced profits. That's almost a given when many of the new hotels open in 2014. It's not outlandish to think that, in hopes of fending off this impending competition, Portland lodgings will drop their rates to ridiculous, Priceline-like levels, preferring to lose money and discourage new hoteliers, rather than make insane profit margins and attract gold-diggers galore. If this plan comes to fruition, by December, rooms will be so cheap that Portland's homeless situation will be entirely solved — and we'll still have rooms for all the tourists flocking here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

What You Missed: Stories From 2012 That Dropped Off Your Radar

Published in the Portland Phoenix, these are my contributions to a piece done together with Deirdre Fulton and Nicholas Schroeder

So damn much went on in 2012, it's no wonder that some stories may have passed people by. You can't have missed all the campaigning (for president, US Senate, and every seat in the State House), the violence (13 mass shootings this year alone, according to the Washington Post), revolutions (across the Arab world), betrayals (by David Petraeus, TomKat, and Robsten Pattinstew), disasters natural (the derecho, Superstorm Sandy) and manmade (the fiscal cliff, the Olympics), and oh-so-much-more. We here at the Portland Phoenix have kept tabs on some other stories — ones you might have heard about briefly (if at all), before they sank back into the surging swamp of America's nonstop non-reflective news cycle. So read on, and catch up with a dozen things you didn't hear on the first round, or (if you did) that you might not have grasped the significance of — until now.
How best to avoid scrutiny for official actions, when pesky notes and emails qualify as public records open to inspection? Simple: Don't make any records. And sure enough, shortly after his 2011 inauguration, Republican Governor Paul LePage stopped taking notes in meetings or otherwise using written or electronic communication. Over the past year, the practice has expanded significantly, to most — if not all — of his department commissioners and other senior staff. (If they're unable to completely avoid creating a paper trail, what is recorded is extremely limited.) As a result, there are precious few records of discussions, proposals, and agreements being made at the highest levels of state government. We are losing accountability now and for all time because these political operatives are circumventing the state's open-government law while pursuing their agenda. Perhaps they're doing things we would all approve of, if we could only learn about them. That is indeed possible — but causes us to wonder what they'd have to hide, then. Less transparency in government is always bad, and barring public access to the thoughts and deeds of those at the very top is nothing short of anti-American.
The Bangor Daily News over the past year has made a real push to become Maine's primary news source. Starting with a foray into Portland in 2010 and 2011 as the Press Herald's position weakened amid uncertainty and bad leadership, the BDN in 2012 went beyond simply adding staff and paying more attention to the southern part of the state. Its online wing,, partnered with major college newspapers around the state, as well as other news outlets (such as the Sun Journal-owned Forecasternewspapers) to aggregate their content online. This even extended to bloggers like Munjoy Hill's Carol McCracken (previously an independent online poster) and politico Mike Tipping, who lost his blog briefly when Down East magazine shut down most of its online-only operations. It's true that the idea of the portal — an all-news online clearinghouse — has been around for nearly two decades. The BDN is localizing the concept — most of its electronic postings are not wire copy or international or national news. With energetic rising star Tony Ronzio coming in to lead the operation, the site is quietly, but importantly, becoming the must-read, go-to place online for Mainers statewide.
When the OccupyMaine encampment was ordered dismantled in Lincoln Park, plenty of people — publicly and privately — predicted a quiet end to the energy and collaboration that had swirled among the tents. But as we have written, including on the occasion of the encampment's one-year anniversary, something far more complex — and far more interesting — has resulted. With headquarters shifted largely to the Meg Perry Center, the Occupiers channeled their energy in new directions. Freed from having to spend time and effort protecting their living quarters, they have tried to spread their message of equality and fairness far and wide. They've taken on major national and international problems, like tar-sands mining, fracking, and Walmart's worker-burdening profit model; they've talked economics, about student debt, foreclosure resistance, and asking — in a punnily named "Soup or PAC?" event — whether our political process really should be as steeped in money as it is. And they've not forgotten the individuals. Alan Porter and Dawn Eve York spent weeks helping the recovery from Superstorm Sandy — including bringing donations from Maine all the way to New York City — while the government, the Red Cross, and the charity-industrial complex struggled to meet survivors' needs. Occupiers and those with similar ideals have worked to protect Congress Square from privatization, to win same-sex couples marriage equality, to promote street artists' First Amendment rights to display their wares on public property, and to stop loading educational expenses on students. A broad-spectrum group effort of grass-roots activism was missing in this city before Occupy revived it, and Portland, Maine, and the world are already the better.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Press releases: Blown away

Published in the Portland Phoenix

I am, I admit, a frequent critic of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram — not because I dislike the paper, but rather due to my recognition of the importance of a vibrant, strong, active daily newspaper is to Maine and its largest city, and because I badly want the PPH to be that paper. And this week, I'm giving extreme credit where extreme credit is due: the Press Herald/Telegram truly impressed me with its massive Sunday package, "Deadly Force: Police and the Mentally Ill," kicking off a four-day series that has not yet been completed as the Phoenix goes to press.
The series focuses on police shootings in Maine, with a particular focus on the disproportionate number of mentally ill and substance-abusing people who get shot, as well as the lack of accountability for police officers and agencies who fail to de-escalate situations that perhaps need not end with deadly force. (Though when mentally ill people go to prison, things aren't always much better, as our ongoing reporting shows.) ThePPH's work is powerful investigative, analytical, and narrative work — with multiple stories, an online database, and perspectives from all angles (except those, of course, who have been killed; in their stead stand relatives baring their souls in hopes no more unnecessary deaths occur).
Strong praise should go to the reporters whose bylines have appeared in the series so far: Tux Turkel, David Hench, Ann Kim, and Kelley Bouchard. And it should go as well to all the behind-the-scenesers (editors, copy and otherwise; layout artists; photographers; online production staff; as well as people whose work hasn't been published before this issue of the Phoenix is) who are carrying out this vital inquiry into the admittedly infrequent times when police come to end the lives of Mainers.
Rather than summarize its findings here, I urge you to read the reports and the accompanying editorial, which are available from a special section of the PPH's website, — though if you'll permit me a moment of criticism, that section could stand some serious organizing: a comprehensive index to all the stories in this package would be extremely useful.
They are extensively reported, personal, fact-driven stories showing tragic consequences of the fearsome power of police weaponry and training coming into contact with the equally fearsome power of a disturbed mind. For example, more than once have police been called to help family members contain and restrain a distraught relative, and ended up shooting the person rather than defusing the situation. The toll on the person (who does sometimes survive, but often is killed), the family who called seeking aid, and the officers involved is devastating. Learning more about these tragedies from all involved will help the public, the police, and policy leaders make our state, and our world, better.
In addition to praising the worker bees who are getting it done, it's very important to note that this sort of project doesn't happen without crucial support from the very top. Here's hoping that this is the sort of work we can see much more regularly under the leadership of newish owner S. Donald Sussman, brand-new CEO/publisher Lisa DeSisto (up last month from the Boston Globe), and executive editor (since February) Cliff Schectman.
Some cynics may grump at my praise (and the heapings from others across the state), saying this is the sort of reporting that newspapers should be doing regularly, and ask why anyone should get credit for doing their jobs. But denying praise for great work done well would be the worse offense.
• Lawmakers better get used to the sort of trackers Governor Paul LePage says he hates: the MAINE PUBLIC BROADCASTING NETWORK just announced a service much like C-SPAN, but for Augusta. For a six-month pilot starting in February, there will be video coverage of sessions in the House of Representatives and the Senate as well, possibly, as committee proceedings — and, obviously, press conferences and other artificial attention-getting events. While review from legislative leaders (and MPBN board members) remains incomplete, we can hope that improved transparency will find friends in all corners of the State House, and maybe, one day, in the governor's office itself.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

3 Ways to Tap into Supportive Creative Communities

Published on

There are days when being creative is awesome – your juices are flowing, you’ve got great ideas, awesome clients, and loads of energy. You know what that’s like – the Holy Grail of pursuing a creative profession.
But none of us are lucky enough to achieve that everyday – and sometimes, it seems like it’s been weeks or months since that Holy Grail feeling has visited. And often, whether we’re writers (like me), or photographers, or designers, or any other sort of creative type, we spend much of our work time alone (even in an office environment). I sometimes end up stuck in a miasma of a downward cycle, where I lack energy so I don’t work hard enough to come up with new ideas, and my lack of ideas just gets me down. You know what I’m talking about  – we’ve all been there.
This is where supportive creative friends and colleagues can be crucial. They can save your day, your week, or even your business.
Here are three ways you can take advantage of creative community, without getting all New Age and touchy-feely about things.

1. Find Inspiration

Visit the websites or tumblrs or Pinterest pages of some friends who do work along the lines of your own – or even along totally different lines. Really look at them. Even pretend you’re a prospective client, and see what WOWs you. Now pretend you’re a competitor, and see what you’d like to do in your own work. 15 minutes and you’re in an all new frame of mind.

2.  Discover Distraction

Call up (okay, fine, Facebook-message) a friend or colleague in your town (someone who doesn’t work for the same company as you, if you’re in a firm). See if they can find time for coffee, or beer, or breakfast, or cocktails, or whatever, in the next 12 to 24 hours. If they can, go. No agenda. Just catching up, laughing, chatting. If they’re too slammed, either call someone else or – better yet – ask to shadow them for a few hours. Watch what they do, meet who they meet, listen to their process. Get your mind off your problems, and into someone else’s world.

3. Seek Help

If you’re in a more serious slump or have a deadline looming, ask for assistance. Put up a post on social media (check your privacy settings to be sure your clients don’t see your panic!) or drop a few emails to people who do what you do. Maybe you’ve worked with them before, or maybe you’ve kinda-always-sorta wanted to work with them, but never had an excuse. Now’s the excuse. And here’s the message: “Hey, it’s me. I’m stumped and stuck and need a hand. Can I borrow you for about an hour sometime today or tomorrow? Compensation will be karma and a suitable volume of your favorite beverage. The work involves me telling you what this project is about and you telling me what your brain says in response. No preparation needed!” You’ll get a zillion new ideas right on your focused target, all for under $20!
To be honest, I sometimes forget to do these things, and find myself stuck in a rut anyway. I’ll use these tips to revive myself, if you do too. Deal?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Gifts for the entire year: Subscriptions to arts organizations are good for the community and for you

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Some gifts you open and are all excited about, but then you find, a few weeks or months later, that you have forgotten you even got it — and you've never used it. So here are some places that will sell you gifts of experiences that can last all year long.

A small number of non-theater organizations offer you the opportunity to buy tickets to all their events for a year, all at once! (See the theatrical ones next.)
BANGOR SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA | Year-round performances of classical and contemporary music | Subscriptions start at seven shows for $80 | 207.942.5555 |
BAY CHAMBER CONCERTS | Producing a wide range of events at the Rockport Opera House | Discounts vary based on the number of shows ticketed | 207.236.2823 |
PORTLAND CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL | Summertime classical performances at USM's Abromson center | subscriptions start at four shows for $100 | 800.320.0257 |
PORTLAND SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA | Performing live classical and contemporary music year-round | classical subscriptions start at five shows for $85; PSO Pops start at four shows for $80 | 207.773.6128 |

Most theater companies also sell season tickets. We've listed as many as we could find, but if your favorite theater company isn't listed, give them a call and ask.
ARUNDEL BARN PLAYHOUSE | Starting at five shows for $125 | 207.985.5552 |
CITY THEATER | Starting at four shows for $62 | 207.282.0849 |
GOOD THEATER | Starting at four shows for $55 | 207.885.5883 |
LYRIC MUSIC THEATER | Starting at five shows for $84 | 207.799.1421 |
MAD HORSE | Starting at four shows for $60 | 207.730.2389 |
MAINE STATE MUSIC THEATER | Starting at four shows for $122 | 207.725.8769 |
OGUNQUIT PLAYHOUSE | Starting at five shows for $237 | 207.646.5511 |
PENOBSCOT THEATRE COMPANY | Starting at three shows for $75 | 207.942.3333 |
PONTINE | Five shows for $90 | 603.436.6660 |
PORTLAND PLAYERS | Mid-season mini-subscription three shows for $50; or five shows for $80 | 207.799.7337 |
PORTLAND STAGE COMPANY | Starting at five shows for $129 | 207.774.0465 |
PUBLIC THEATRE | Four shows for $72 | 207.782.3200 |
THEATER AT MONMOUTH | Four shows for $90 | 207.933.9999 |

Though they don't sell outright season tickets, you can join these non-profit organizations as a member and get free or reduced-price admission to events and exhibits throughout the year.
ONE LONGFELLOW SQUARE | Individual membership starts at $75 | 207.761.1757 |
MUSIC HALL | Friend starts at $50 | 603.433.3100 |
MAINE HISTORICAL SOCIETY | Individual support starts at $40 | 207.774.1822 |
PORTLAND MUSEUM OF ART | Individual membership starts at $50 | 207.775.6148 |
SPACE GALLERY | Individual support starts at $40 | 207.828.5600 |

There are plenty of other arts and culture institutions that could use your support, and (if you give enough) will thank you for it in their programs and publicity materials. If you're up for getting your name "out there," check in here, or with your favorite organization.
ACORN PRODUCTIONS | Highlighting theater arts through performances, workshops, and classes | accepting donations in all amounts | 207.854.0065 |
AIRE | Contemporary and classic Irish-American theater productions | accepting donations in all amounts | 207.799.5327 |
CHORAL ART SOCIETY | Singing the wonders of the human voice | Aficionado starts at $1 | 207.828.0043 |
DEERTREES THEATRE | Serving theater and music performances in the lakes region | accepting donations in all amounts | 207.583.6747 |
FRIENDS OF THE KOTZSCHMAR ORGAN | concerts and other events (such as scored silent films) featuring the group's namesake instrument at Merrill Auditorium | Piston starts at $1 | 207.553.4363 |
GASLIGHT THEATER | Memberships start at $15 | 207.626.3698 |
L/A ARTS | Producing all manner of performances in Lewiston and Auburn | accepting donations in all amounts | 207.782.7228 |
MAINE STATE BALLET | Based in Falmouth, the MSB puts on full-length ballets and shorter dance performances, as well as offering classes in ballet and other dance forms | Dancer's Circle starts at $25 | 207.781.7672 |
PLAYERS' RING | Local theater in a historic building in Portsmouth | Memberships start at $35 | 603.436.8123 |
PORTLAND BALLET COMPANY | Performing full-length classical and contemporary ballets, and teaching ballet to all ages | Apprentice starts at $50 | 207.772.9671 |
PORTLAND OVATIONS | Bringing all sorts of events — dance, classical and world music, Broadway shows, and more — to the Forest City | Friend starts at $40 | 207.773.3150 |
PORTLAND STRING QUARTET | Plays and teaches about stringed classical music throughout Maine | Friend starts at $1 | 207.761.1522 |
PORTOPERA | Producing opera and vocal performances year-round | accepting donations in all amounts | 207.879.7678 |
SEACOAST REPERTORY THEATRE | Contemporary and musical theater in Portsmouth | Intern starts at $35 | 603.433.4472 |
THEATER PROJECT | Maine's only all-pay-what-you-can theater | Stagehand starts at $1 | 207.729.8584 |

Break down the shakedown: Give the gift of telling debt it’s busted

Published in the Portland Phoenix

While you're out spending your hard-earned dollars on gifts for yourself and others at holiday and year-end sales, remember that money has to come from somewhere. Unless, of course, you're a Wall Street investment executive, or a banker. They get to invent money out of thin air. How come? Occupy Wall Street activists explain, in a new book about extracting yourself from America's drain-circling debt problem:
"We gave the banks the power to create money because they promised to use it to help us live healthier and more prosperous lives — not to turn us into frightened peons. They broke that promise. We are under no moral obligation to keep our promises to liars and thieves. In fact, we are morally obligated to find a way to stop this system rather than continuing to perpetuate it," writes the book's anonymous author collective.
As you might expect, the book, The Debt Resistors' Operations Manual, is free and openly downloadable as a PDF at Part manifesto, part history, and part step-by-step action plan, it's an easy read that stays away from overly technical language, preferring to stay high-level and comprehensible to most people who have dealt with the modern American financial system.
Observing that 76 percent of Americans are debtors (and one in seven is being pursued by debt collectors), a rhetorically strong introduction puts the lie to the idea that our debt crisis is the fault of irresponsible individuals who deserve moral chiding and no sympathy or help. If you weren't already upset by the chant that "Banks got bailed out; we got sold out," give page 2 a read.
So in this season of giving, the DROM is a reminder not to forget to save — yourself, from the vagaries of our economy. It's also a plea for collective action: "help beat the system that wants you to fail."
Make no mistake: Wall Street literally banks on the struggles of regular Americans. Can't afford education? No problem — you can borrow money, guaranteed by the government, with fees paying private companies to process the payments. Get sick or injured? No problem — medical-debt collectors will pack your bags and send you on a guilt trip as far away as they can, with no return until you pony up. What about living costs, or food? How about mortgage bundling, a credit card, a debit card, or — better yet (for them) — a prepaid charge card?
Worse than all that is how it snowballs into a credit score, which can affect not only your ability to get a loan, but even to find a rental apartment, or even a job. (How sick is that? Being short of money can prevent you from earning anything.)

In sections divided by type of debt (credit cards, medical, student, housing, payday loans, and so on), the authors provide deep (but brief) histories of how each market got the way it is (you'll see a business-government collusion theme develop), followed by details of the current practices that make these industries so repellent. (Example: credit-card companies are now robo-signing documents claiming to own debt with no actual legal proof, just like mortgage lenders did.)
The writing manages emotion well, never becoming truly overwhelming, and always offering hope for a better world. Just when you're mad enough to want to act come the specific steps for rectifying almost any situation.
For example, there are solid suggestions about how to avoid having to use the usurious payday lenders without subjecting yourself to the full power of Big Finance.
Many of these ideas subvert the existing systems — like detailing a multi-month, multi-step letter-writing campaign to dispute validity of reports to credit-monitoring agencies, and even forcing debt collectors to prove they are empowered to seek repayment from you. It might be a pain to write and mail various letters, but you'll help keep the US Postal Service operating, and the dollars you'll need to spend will likely be far less than you owe. (Don't miss the super-clever way out of doctor and hospital bills, involving an overlap between collection laws requiring itemization of debts and medical-privacy laws barring disclosure of medical treatments to third parties.)

But rather than deciding it's enough to simply take advantage of the byzantine "consumer protection" regulations, the DROM also explores the sort of options that few official sources will tell you about — like how to escape payday-loan hell (it involves borrowing lots and then leaving the country) and mortgage resistance. (Occupy's unsurprising, but surprisingly effective basic rule: Don't leave; see a variant in the sidebar.)
The DROM also highlights the potential power of collective action. (Student debt in the US totals more than $1 trillion, and 41 percent of the college class of 2008 is already in default on their loans. Think of the power of the people!)
A goodly amount of the book is devoted to exploring how to play defense if you're already in a bad situation. But there is quite a lot there about playing offense too. The basic idea is a call for systemic reforms to align the US with other industrialized countries, many of which have far less wealth than we do — such as supporting universal health care and instituting free higher education.
A revolutionary book whose time has truly come, the DROM is worth much more than the time you’ll spend downloading it. It might even save the US economy, since nobody else will.

ONE THAT GOT AWAY:Here's an idea the DROM folks could use
We're no lawyers, but for people who can't afford their mortgage payments, rather than walking away, rather than trying to negotiate with a nameless, faceless bank — what if they just stayed? Pay the utilities, keep the lawn mowed, and even do some light maintenance. Stop paying the mortgage and just wait for the bank to come foreclose. There's the trick: Banks actually don't want to foreclose — it means taking a valuable asset off the books (the mortgage) and turning it into a lower-valued asset (the property at its actual worth) plus a liability (taxes and upkeep).
If the bank ever came knocking, the response is easy — and is increasingly attractive, even to policymakers: make the bank produce in court the actual paper documents signed at the mortgage closing. Not a scan, not a photocopy, but the actual page. (Some states, including Maine, have considered requiring production of this document before a foreclosure can continue.) After all, who's to say that a person knocking on your door with a photocopy of your mortgage owns anything other than just that — a photocopy of your mortgage? That can't be enough to prove you actually owe them actual money. So stand there in court and tell the judge that as soon as the bank proves it actually owns your house, you'll pay. But not until then. And wait for the banks to sort out the paperwork.
You'll live rent-free for years — or even own your home free and clear. Don't forget to pay the property taxes, though — the town can take your home if you get too far behind on them.

Money Talks: After the campaign: paying off debt

Published in the Portland Phoenix and Out In Maine

The final days before the November 6 vote on same-sex marriage saw a crazy amount of spending from political-action committees on both sides of the question, which has led both PACs to seek post-election contributions to pay off lingering debt.
In reports filed with the Maine Ethics Commission on October 26, both PACs — Protect Marriage Maine (opposed to marriage equality) and Mainers United for Marriage (in favor) — laid out their pre-election financial positions. At that time, PMM had $535,012.97 in ready cash and $96,006.75 in outstanding debt; MUM had $99,756.50 in cash, and unpaid debts of $139,827.62.
As far as yearly totals, MUM was by far the big spender, with 2012 outlays of $4,214,648.07 million by October 26, compared with total spending of $843,353.35 by PMM as of that date.
Both groups spent even more in the final days, with PMM buying so much advertising that the group ran through all its ready cash and more — ending with roughly $80,000 in unpaid debt, according to group treasurer Penelope Morrell.
While MUM went into the immediate election period with a net $40,000 deficit, MUM spokesman David Farmer says he does not know exactly how much his group needs to raise now. He estimated "it's in the tens of thousands," and not more than $100,000.
How well the groups do in their fundraising now that the battle is over will first become apparent on December 18, which is the next deadline for PAC reports.
If they don't raise the money by then, Matt Marett, who handles PAC registration for the Maine Ethics Commission, says the groups can simply remain active as PACs, and "collect contributions and continue to spend money for whatever they do in the future." They do have to continue reporting according to the commission's schedule, until whenever they decide to terminate operations, Marett says. (A PAC can dissolve itself with debts still on the books; "that's between them and their creditors," Marett says.)
Either group — or both — could also decide to continue to exist, and even change the registration paperwork on file with the commission to allow them to raise and spend money in the future to back candidates or other causes, or even become a standing lobbying organization seeking to influence legislators.
And WHAT HAPPENS IF A PAC DOES END UP WITH A SURPLUS after an election? "There really are not restrictions" on how the money could be spent, Marett says. It could be given to candidates, other PACs, charities, or to organizations that supported them (such as the Christian Civic League in PMM's case, or EqualityMaine in MUM's case).
They could even spend it on a party to thank supporters, or for travel to hear an issue-related speaker, he says, though in response to a hypothetical question about using surplus money at a casino, Marett allows "we may raise a red flag about that."

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Eat before it gets cold: A new book about Antarctic cuisine satisfies foodies and historians alike

Published in the Portland Phoenix

As you nurse your post-Thanksgiving food coma back to normality, spare a thought for the men and women in Antarctica this holiday season. They're warm, well-fed, and happy (if really far from family) — but it wasn't always this way.
Maine author Jason Anthony explains in Hoosh(named for a half-fat, half-meat staple of Heroic Age expeditions) that "Antarctic culinary history is a mere century of stories of isolated, insulated people eating either prepackaged expedition food or butchered sealife." He describes "Antarctica's sad state of culinary affairs" as a set of circumstances where "Cold, isolation, and a lack of worldly alternatives have conspired to make Antarctica's captive inhabitants desperate for generally lousy food."
That wry sense of humor pervades the book, based in part on his eight summers in Antarctica. It begins with the mystical appearance of several loaves of fresh sourdough bread (a delicacy, I can attest from my own time on the Ice, that is of incalculable value) as Anthony prepares for a deep field expedition, with him and one other person (as it happened, a direct descendant of an early Antarctic expeditioner) slated to spend 90 to 100 days alone on a glacier, clearing and maintaining an emergency landing strip in case of bad weather at the main US base, McMurdo Station.
Beyond his own experience, Anthony's knowledge and research is deep, detailing the role of food in historic expeditions both well known (see sidebar) and not, including Japanese and Scottish efforts that have rarely been noticed. He also reviews the mid-20th-century adventures of Byrd, Ellsworth, Ronne, and others. Viewing each expedition through the lens of food offers great insight into the people who were really the most important members of those groups: not the leaders whose names we know well, but the cooks, about whom the public knows next to nothing.
Important for its food writing, Anthony's book is mainly significant because it is just the third volume detailing the modern, corporate, dystopic American Antarctic experience — after Jim Mastro's 2002 Antarctica and Nicholas Johnson's 2005 Big Dead Place. (Disclosure: I was on the Ice at the same time as both Anthony and Johnson, though I didn't know them well.)
And indeed where Anthony's voice truly comes into its own is in writing about modernity, with the spirited air of one who has eaten well in these hard places. He clearly appreciates the effort and expense required — while also marveling at the obscenity and ridiculousness of choosing to serve scallops in a tent.
He adds anecdotal flavors from others: chef-bloggers Sally Ayotte and Michèle Gentille as well as modern Ice legends like Mastro, Karen Joyce, and Jules Uberuaga. They tell of a midwinter air-drop pizza delivery from New Zealand, the fate of fuel-contaminated hot-chocolate mix accidentally diverted from its path to the trash, and the Food Room in McMurdo — where the bland, mass-produced base food stands aside for the wonder of field-camp rations (not just scallops, but halibut steaks, and chile rellenos, and much more).
It's a comprehensive account; Anthony reports a great deal of information the US government prefers remain not widely published — including what happens to the foodafter it is consumed, highlighting the decades-long trash-disposal methods and non-treatment of sewage at McMurdo. He rightly observes that many of these practices have been rectified, but when you learn about how blasting for a new building spawned a major remediation project (at a location promptly named Sausage Point), the full picture of human impact on an allegedly pristine continent becomes apparent.
And yes, you'll also find out what roast penguin tastes like. But that's in the history books. In Hoosh the best things are the tastes (and fuel-tinged smells) you'll find of life in Antarctica today. Touching a particular nerve for me is an accurate description of the otherworldly texture and flavor of Antarctic toothfish, Dissostichus mawsoni, served by the McMurdo chefs on special occasions. The men and women on the Ice enjoyed it at Thanksgiving, and are already looking forward to it for Christmas.
HOOSH: ROAST PENGUIN, SCURVY DAY, AND OTHER STORIES OF ANTARCTIC CUISINE | by Jason C. Anthony | University of Nebraska Press | 186 pages | $26.95 | Anthony reads from HOOSH and speaks November 29 @ 7 pm | Longfellow Books, One Monument Way, Portland | Free | 207.772.4045
Tastes of history: The role of food in legendary polar tales
Among the joys of Jason Anthony's work for those who have know a bit of Antarctic history is his seasoning of the book with tasty nuggets of detail about stories we've all heard and think we know well. Here are a few morsels to whet your appetite:
• WE KNOW The Winter Journey from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier (1911) was the "Worst Journey in the World," as described in the famous book of that title by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. WE LEARN It was also a food experiment, in which each of the three men had a diet primarily of protein, fat, or carbohydrates — which deepened their suffering, because what was needed was a balance of the three.
• WE KNOW Six men, attached to Robert Scott's expedition trying to win the race to the South Pole, were sent to explore the coast of Victoria Land; conditions prevented them from returning to the base and they were forced to winter (1912) in an cramped ice cave where they slept, ate, defecated, and breathed air contaminated by the smoke of their only fuel: seal blubber. WE LEARN All six men were so hungry that even in their sleep they dreamed of huge feasts spread before them. Five of the men always woke up before they were able to taste even a bit. They were extremely jealous of George Murray Levick, the only one of the group who was able to eat his fill — though only in his dreams.
• WE KNOW Douglas Mawson was the lone survivor of a three-man overland journey to map King George V Land (1912-13); after a crevasse took most of their supplies and team member Belgrave Ninnis, Mawson and Xavier Mertz continued, until Mertz died of poisoning from eating dog livers as part of their survival rations. WE LEARN After Mertz's death, Mawson fell in a crevasse and was preparing to die, when he decided that he had spent so much energy safeguarding what little food remained (barely enough to stave off starvation) that he could not die and thereby allow it to go uneaten. He pulled himself out of the crevasse and made it back to safety.
• WE KNOW After losing lost their ship Endurance to the ice, Ernest Shackleton and his men made an over-ice and open-boat journey (1915-16), finding solid ground at Elephant Island. WE LEARN One recipe book made it to Elephant Island, and "from it each night one — only one — recipe was read aloud, like a passage from the Bible."
• WE KNOW Shackleton and five men took an open lifeboat across the stormy South Atlantic Ocean, traveling 800 miles from Elephant Island to South Georgia, navigating by sextant (1916). WE LEARN They cooked in the bottom of the boat; two men braced their backs against the hull, and held the cooker between their feet, with one man tasked with lifting the pot off the flame whenever the boat hit a big wave.
• WE KNOW Shackleton and two of those five men traversed unmapped mountain territory to cross South Georgia to find a whaling station and safety (1916). WE LEARN When they arrived, they were fed "cake, bread, scones, jam, and coffee."
• WE KNOW Commander Richard E. Byrd and three other men make the first flight to the South Pole, but barely clear a key mountain pass because their Ford TriMotor is too heavy (1929). They have to throw cargo out of the plane to gain altitude. WE LEARN Byrd, worried about the potential for a crash, had brought two 125-pound bags of emergency rations. That was the cargo pitched overboard.
• WE KNOW Byrd, alone at a weather station in the Antarctic interior for five months, got carbon monoxide poisoning from his heater and stove, and went quite mad (1934). WE LEARN He had trouble cooking pancakes and was able, by radio connection, to seek advice from the chef at New York City's Waldorf Hotel. (The advice was "butter the pan," which Byrd was already doing.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Getting Results: Who won? We did

Published in the Portland Phoenix

We did it. The progressive, thinking, socially minded, involved people — people like you, the readers of the Portland Phoenix — won the election. For years, we've been talking about marriage equality, about preventing religious ideologues from getting between women and their doctors (and pharmacists), about the fact that we are our brothers' and sisters' keepers, that we are all on this Earth together, that "I've got mine" is a terrible philosophy dividing and destroying us rather than freeing us to some self-powered higher achievement.
We knew, when we heard the speeches, that Obama was right — nobody who built a business in this country did so without the help of roads and schools and firefighters and police officers. (Not to mention the government-insured bank accounts that let all of us stash our earnings safely.)
We agreed with Massachusetts US Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren when she declared during her campaign, "You built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."
We knew it was wrong for Governor Paul LePage and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature to cut off state-subsidized health-care coverage for thousands of young poor Mainers.
We knew Mitt Romney's claim that the government shouldn't pick "winners and losers" in the business world was misguided because he failed to mention the federal tax policies that picked him and his investor-class ilk to become incredible winners, at the expense of all us workaday losers out here.
We know climate change is happening — and we've already taken our own action to slow its progress. We know it is wrong to throw out immigrants who are trying to help us make this country better. We know handing senior citizens coupons toward private health insurance isn't a way to guarantee a human right.
So while conservative pundits, misogynists, homophobes, racists, and corporate raiders lick their wounds and re-evaluate how they got everything so wrong, we — the Portland Phoenix and our readers — can take heart. After years of being made to think we were the minority, the underclass, the un-privileged, those who lack support, we can now take comfort in the fact that the people of Maine, and the American public at large, have our backs.
On November 7, we woke up in our world. Even Bill O'Reilly admitted on Fox News on election night, "It's not a traditional America anymore." He was referring to demographic change, but his statement has a much wider truth: "Traditional America" isn't what a lot of people thought it was.
Joel Benenson, Obama's chief pollster in 2008 and 2012, wrote a post-election piece in the New York Times, describing the "set of values that define an America that the majority of us wish to live in: A nation that makes the investments we need to strengthen and grow the middle class. A nation with a fair tax system, and affordable and excellent education for all its citizens. A nation that believes that we're most prosperous when we recognize that we are all in it together."
We knew it — and we've been saying it — all along.

Press Releases: False Equivalency

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Lots of ink has been spilled over Nate Silver and his uncannily accurate statistical predictions of how the presidential race turned out. We need not repeat the hagiography here.
We also need not delve deeply into the repetition of the mainstream media's reporting of the hand-wringing and finger-pointing now under way in conservative circles, including the media branch of the right wing, Fox News.
What's being overlooked in Silver's results — and the results of the election itself — is the power of the conservative media over the rest of the mainstream media (and the mainstream's utter abandonment of truth-seeking in favor of he-said-she-said coverage).
After all, national media outlets had access to all the data Silver did — the polling results and the history of how well those polls predicted past elections. Heck, the national media had access to Silver's actual analysis of it, which was posted publicly on the New York Times website.
And yet, while over the course of weeks and months every measure Silver used consistently showed Obama ahead of Romney, the mainstream media continued to paint the race as tight. It plain wasn't.
Since June, Silver's predictions showed Obama always winning more than 283 electoral votes, and Romney never winning more than 255. (Winning takes 270.)
The low point for Obama was on October 12, when he had 61.1 percent chance of winning, and Romney had 38.9 percent.
That same day was the only day Silver's model predicted that Obama would get less than half the popular vote — 49.8 percent, to Romney's 49.1 percent. On October 11 and on October 14, Obama was at 50 percent. (Silver didn't do a prediction on October 13.) And every other day, Obama was predicted to get more than 50 percent of the popular vote; Romney hadn't previously — and wouldn't again — registered over 49 percent.
What made the mainstream media portray this race as close, then? The principle of false equivalency.
This is the same problem that plagued climate-change reporting for years. One side said climate change was a looming emergency; another side questioned whether it was happening at all. And the reporters and editors doing the stories put their hands up and said things like, "We report. You decide."
Except they didn't report. Not really. They didn't seek truth about the topics they were discussing. They didn't, for example, until very late in the game, begin even talking about Nate Silver — and then, often only to ask him if he even knew what he was doing (and why his results were just so partisan).
This is false equivalency. Nate says one thing; Karl says another. "We report. You decide." So the race appears close because Thing 1 and Thing 2 say differing things, rather than because the facts support a claim that it's close.
This sort of thing is more of a problem when talking about climate change. (It is happening; I've personally seen it, and evidence is all around us.) For years, reporters sought out people who said things that might be interesting, and did not concern themselves with determining who, if anyone, was speaking actual objective truth.
It's common to blame this on lazy reporters; the truth is elsewhere. The reporters are not lazy but in fact, in a downsized, pay-cutting media landscape, running their asses off. They're so overworked they lack the time to research, question, examine, and think for themselves. That's why you thought Romney might still win; and that's why major action on climate change is not happening.
ALSO OF NOTE The Nieman Media Lab piece by Ken Doctor observing the striking similarities between the losing Republican Party and the dwindling American daily newspaper. (Think of the target audience: old, white, male.) Very well worth reading for anyone who is thinking about what else this election might mean for the vaunted American news industry.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Laurels: Honored for torture exposé, Tapley points out more work to be done

Published in the Portland Phoenix

At an October 26 event attended by five previous awardees and nearly 30 others, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine presented Portland Phoenix writer Lance Tapley with its 2012 Roger Baldwin Award, recognizing his nearly 100 stories over seven years exposing solitary confinement and other torture of inmates in Maine's prison system.
According to ACLU of Maine executive director Shenna Bellows, Tapley's reporting, which began in 2005, prompted the ACLU of Maine to decide to focus on prisoner treatment (specifically the elimination of solitary confinement), an issue on which the civil-rights organization has led pressure for reform both nationally and in the state. Bellows also told the assembled group that the ACLU's interest — and threat of impending legal action — was key in pressuring new Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte to undertake sweeping reforms that have significantly reduced the use of solitary confinement, both in terms of prisoner numbers and duration of their stays.
Though solitary confinement has not yet been eradicated in Maine, the ACLU of Maine credits Tapley (and the Portland Phoenix) with having inspired the effort and kept media pressure on, while activists and lobbyists attacked the problem from other angles.
Both Bellows and ACLU of Maine board president John Paterson described Tapley's work as "exemplary journalism" and "rare" evidence of a commitment of a journalist and a media organization working over many years, despite many obstacles, to seek truth and right wrongs.
Tapley, for his part, thanked his wife, Peggy, and many supporters, but took most of his time to highlight another example of torture in the corrections system. He read from a disturbing letter he received from an inmate recently returned to Maine from out of state, describing abhorrent, cruel, traumatic, mentally damaging, and life-threatening treatment during the multi-week trip across the country in a privately owned prisoner-transport van.
As ACLU of Maine legal director Zachary Heiden said during the event, if all ACLU offices and staffers nationwide could stop everything they're doing and focus solely on prison-related issues, they would have enough work to keep themselves busy for a very long time.
Tapley ended his remarks about the abuses encounters in prisoner transportation by saying, "It needs to stop. If you'd like to help, let me know."
Bellows responded, as she took the lectern, "Emphatically, yes."

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

On being undead: Why I’m bailing from giving the gift of life

Published in the Portland Phoenix

I've been an organ donor since I first got a driver's license, more than 20 years ago. But Friday morning, after getting off the phone with the New England Organ Bank, I took a black marker and crossed out that line on my license. Here's my public declaration that I'm not interested in being an organ donor anymore. When my license needs renewal next year, I'll make sure the designation isn't there.
I haven't suddenly become cold-hearted or unwilling to be of use to others after my death. It's just that, as a direct result of reading Dick Teresi's The Undead (published by Pantheon earlier this year) I no longer have confidence in the medical establishment to accurately determine that I actually am dead. And after talking to spokespeople Laura Dempsey and Sean Fitzpatrick at the NEOB, I no longer have confidence that organ donors have professionals looking out for their interests, either.
What I found, and what Teresi, a science journalist with decades of experience (including being former top editor at Science Digest and Omni), documents comprehensively in his book, is a culture of defensiveness that attacks skepticism with assurances that lack any factual support.
When I mentioned that I had read Teresi's book, Dempsey's first reaction was to blurt out, "Oh no." (She later specified that she'd thought I was calling to do a pleasant feature about someone who was either about to receive an organ transplant or had just donated their organs after death.)
The bottom line is that she and Fitzpatrick didn't like the questions Teresi was asking — which is exactly Teresi's point. Fitzpatrick even called Teresi's tone "snarky and nasty," apparently without irony, as he labeled the work itself "sensationalistic and unserious" and said it "does a disrespect to the science of the topic."
My own reaction was that Teresi's were great questions — like "How do we know who is dead and who is alive?" and "If someone's heart can be restarted in someone else's body, how come it can't be restarted in its original body?" He assumed that there are good and solid medical answers to these questions, and set out to find them.
Fitzpatrick, however, viewed them as allegations that physicians are "willy-nilly killing individuals across the country," a charge he vigorously attacked. "Nobody wants the person dead," he told me.
I'll grant that. But Teresi searched for many years without locating anyone who could tell him — or demonstrate scientifically — how we can tell, with no exceptions, the difference between being living to being dead. That's what his book is about. It turns out that many people who are declared dead may not in fact be dead; some of them may even have the capacity to recover to more or less normal lives.
He says the medical profession makes little or no use of that information, and posits that the reason for this lack of interest is because of pressure from the organ-donation industry, which is seeking bodies that are legally dead but perhaps still have some vitality left somewhere, to provide new parts for others' worn-out, but still-hanging-on, frames.
In my view, this link is the most tenuous of his book. But clearly there must be a reason that doctors don't use all their high-tech diagnostic equipment to determine, for example, whether someone declared "brain dead" actually has no blood circulation in their brain. (This is required in Sweden, but not in the US.)
Teresi's book has seriously unsettled me, by documenting two conceptual disconnections between the medical field and the public at large, which individually and together compound (and confound) decisions about death and organ donation.
The first disconnection has to do with what death actually is. Most of us have a sort of visceral understanding of death as when your breathing and heartbeat stop. But at least some of the time, that's not the measure doctors use.
Rather, they use the concept of "brain death," which medical professionals and laypeople alike take to mean that there is no remaining brain function, neither at the low-level brain stem, nor in the highest levels of the cerebral cortex — the home of memory, personality, sense of humor, self-awareness, and all the other stuff that we might call the person inside the body.
Doctors encourage us to think this — and they think so themselves. But, Teresi argues, that's only because of the second conceptual disconnection, which is that while modern medicine has made truly startling advances in being able to keep people alive, and modern science has deepened our ability to detect life signs, almost none of this wondrous knowledge is applied in the hour of our death.
As Teresi points out, the protocol for determining brain death — which has remained the same across the US since the 1970s — does not test the cortex at all, but just the brain stem. In fact, among the most common — and decisive, for doctors — tests of whether a person is dead is to flush ice-cold water into a person's ear canal and see if their eyes twitch (or not). He rightly observes that this seems a bizarrely Stone Age method in a world where machinery lets us view oxygenation and neural activity deep inside the brain.
Dr. Galen Henderson, the director of Brigham and Women's Hospital Neurocritical Care and Neuroscience Intensive Care Unit, told me that's because the technology has already been used on the patient, to determine what's wrong in the first place. Henderson, who is also an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, says procedures like CT scans of the brain and MRI exams are "prerequisites" to the point at which a doctor might test for actual brain death with the decades-old methods, which he describes as a more thorough version of a series of tests used to determine whether — and how deeply — a person is in a coma, vegetative state, or other condition.
My assumption was that Teresi's revelations, which so shook me, would have made some sort of difference in the months after the book's March 2012 publication (which was accompanied by coverage in major news outlets worldwide).
Perhaps doctors involved in determining death — and those involved with organ transplantation — would have stepped up to offer the answers Teresi was unable to find. Maybe the explanations were there all the time, but Teresi didn't ask the right people, or look in the right journals.
I hoped that Dempsey and Fitzpatrick would be able to explain what had happened in the book's aftermath. This was particularly the case when Dempsey told me that Teresi did his interviews and research "years and years ago, before the book was published." Fitzpatrick also accused Teresi of, among other things, using "potentially outdated information."
Some of Teresi's references do go back as far as 1976 — with historical sources well before that — but his endnotes reflect that the bulk of his research was in the mid-2000s, with the latest interviews coming in 2011.
And the protocols for determining brain death that the book describes are listed as current by, among other authorities, the American Academy of Neurology and the New England Journal of Medicine. The NEJM article Henderson pointed me to specifies that "interpretation of the findings on neuroimaging" is a precursor to a declaration of brain death, and says a CT brain scan is "essential for determining the cause of brain death." But Teresi provides examples where brain scans were not used until it was (nearly) too late.
I asked Dempsey if anything changed since Teresi's contact with NEOB in late 2010. And that's where I began to see the problem Teresi saw: "I don't know that much has changed since 2010," she replied.
It was then that Dempsey told me she was "uncomfortable" with even mentioning Teresi: "I honestly don't want to be part of this piece if you're going to talk about the book."
Shifting into PR-script mode, Dempsey began the organ-donation sales pitch that Teresi criticizes. Dempsey told me that 118,000 people in the US are currently waiting for an organ transplant, and that 18 people die daily in this country because "there's not enough organs to be transplanted." Rhetorically, she asked, "If you're to pass away, then why wouldn't you want to help someone else?"
Of course these are sympathy-inducing facts, and it's a fair question. It's also tempting to accept at face value Fitzpatrick's assurance that "dead people don't feel pain." All Teresi is doing — and all I was following up on — was asking questions about the fact that the focus of the organ-donation community seems to be not on the donor, but on the recipient, and seeking protections for the organs' original owner.
In the vein of assurances on the donor side, Dempsey offered the same explanations that Teresi had found lacking. "Death is irreversible," she said. An organ donor is "brain dead" before the organs are removed.
The determination of brain death is by "a very complete neurological examination," Dempsey said. "No one has ever recovered after the series of tests has been conducted" with a determination of brain death.
I pointed out to her that Teresi dissects each of these claims and offers convincing evidence that they're false. In a significant number of determinations of brain death, the tests were conducted improperly; in several well-documented cases, patients have in fact met the clinical definition of brain death and yet returned to functioning life, even as the surgery to remove their organs for donation was moments from beginning.
Noting that Teresi's research had disturbed Dempsey, I asked if his information had prompted any sort of ongoing discussion in the organ-donation community about the issues he raised. "Not really" was her very quick answer.
Not even the revelation that apparent pain responses are common in patients whose organs are being removed for transplantation appears to have shaken the establishment. (Fitzpatrick says these are similar to the flinch your body makes to pull your hand away from a hot stove before your brain registers the "Ouch!" Henderson says that's a bad comparison; there are different types of reflexes, some of which do involve brain activity.)
Also failing to shake the establishment is the fact that some death experts want very particular criteria to be met before they themselves are declared dead — nor that if they are to have organs removed after death, they would require their next of kin to ensure anesthetic was administered to their corpse.
As Teresi writes, despite all this, organ-donor organizations, including NEOB, are unwilling to talk about anesthesia. They say not that the patients have been proven by science to be unable to feel pain, but simply assert — with no supporting scientific evidence — that if a patient is declared dead, they are assumed incapable of sensing it.
If the people who run the show aren't interested in legitimate questions being asked about their processes, and don't have any interest in finding answers when those questions are asked by others, my faith in the system leaves entirely.
I am not involved in some effort to deny death, though Teresi posits that medical professionals and the public alike misunderstand death (and misrepresent it) because we wish to avoid thinking that one day we too will die.
I know — and mostly accept — that I will die one day. (I've actually thought it was about to happen one dark night when my car left an icy road, headed into the woods. I escaped with minor injuries.)
I accept that at some point my heart will stop, my lungs will no longer exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide between the air and my blood, the cells in my body will cease their metabolic processes, and my neurons will stop sending and receiving minute electrical currents.
What I struggle to accept is that with all we know about science, and all of the equipment, technology, expertise, and experience, the only way I — or anyone else — can be truly certain of my own death is that my body will begin to decay, as my immune system will no longer hold off the bacteria and fungi that constantly assault it from within and without.
And at that point, the first moment at which everyone involved — medical experts, legal experts, and family members — can agree that death has occurred, it will be too late for me to be an organ donor. (I may still be able to be a tissue donor, as some bodily tissues, such as bone, can be harvested for some time after circulation, respiration, and metabolism stop.)
Which is all to say that there is an answer to the question, How do doctors know you're dead? But you're not going to like it, because the honest — and fucking terrifying — truth is that they often don't.
And if doctors can't tell for sure if I'm dead, I'm certainly not going to let them cut my organs out of my body while I might still be alive. Because that would kill me. For real.
• Teresi's book explains the history of how death has been determined over millennia, and focuses on the major sea change, in 1968, when "brain death" was formally defined by a group of people who published their work in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
He observes that the paper was deeply flawed: The committee itself was primarily neurologists and other brain scientists, and did not include cardiologists or others who might have helped clarify the traditional heartbeat/breathing definition of death. The work included no references to scientific studies, and no direct research by its authors. The main reasons given for creating a definition of brain death had nothing to do with the patient in question, either. Instead, the report expressed concern about the burden on the patient's family, and about providing opportunities for increasing organ donation.
It set up several criteria for death, but as Teresi chronicles, those details — inadequate on their own — were shifted, subverted, and ignored systematically. And none of the criteria involve any of the technology of modern medicine, using rudimentary methods to test brain-stem function without using advanced equipment to examine higher-level activity. (Though that technology may have been used to form the decision to test for brain death.)
Ultimately the definition of death came to mean, Teresi writes, "The patient was not necessarily dead, but he was not going to recover." And even then, the tests laid out in theJAMA article were done improperly as much as two-thirds of the time, meaning the conclusion could be entirely wrong.
Most stunningly, Teresi relates the experience of a woman who was found to have a massive, life-threatening aneurysm at the base of her brain. In the surgery to repair it, her body was chilled to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, her heart was stopped, and her brain drained of all its blood. By medical definitions, she simply could not be alive.
Nevertheless, she not only recovered to full health, but was able to accurately recall, by way of a near-death/out-of-body experience during the surgery, very specific details of the procedure and of the conversation between the medical professionals conducting the operation.
Teresi observes that this raises questions about where life resides, if not in the beating heart or the blood-infused brain. What part of this woman's life was present during that surgery, and where is it located? He notes that we should probably find it and test it, too, before announcing that someone is actually dead.