Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Maine and Antarctica

Aired on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network's Maine Calling radio show

The turning of souls: USM prof: Teaching is about spirit, not data

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Making an impassioned plea for humanistic considerations to remain paramount in our societal discussion about education and its continual improvement, University of Southern Maine philosophy professor Jeremiah Conway follows his own advice. He seeds his book, The Alchemy of Teaching (forthcoming in March from Sentient Publications), with stories of classroom encounters between students and ideas that remind us of an important, but oft-neglected, truth about education: It is no good if it merely teaches the young facts and tasks to be accomplished in the workforce. Rather, education must deeply and fully engage both students and teachers in the quest for understanding and connection.
Conway begins and ends with aspects of the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus — and the Breugel painting depicting that myth's climactic moment. He inquires thoroughly into what the story might mean (see excerpt in sidebar) Conway gently, calmly, and unrelentingly shreds the data-driven mantras of the modern industrial-style education system.
His heartfelt tales of students young and very old transforming themselves — and their teacher — get to the heart of a distinctly European, even Renaissance tradition of education: that its aim is not to indoctrinate nor to cause memorization, but rather to excite, to enthrall, and, above all, to spark the human potential within each of us.
In constructing his subtle argument — for this is among the least argumentative examples of a persuasive essay — Conway marshals some unexpected forces. Among those making significant, and sympathetic, appearances here are a religious fundamentalist, a smartypants overachiever, a reclusive-silent type, and an elderly woman.
But there is more. A particularly impassioned section takes the interpretation of Nietzsche's nihilism in a direction even philosophy students might be surprised at. While the 19th-century German thinker thought the rise of lamentable decadence was the first step toward its subsequent dissolution, he wrote movingly inThus Spoke Zarathustra of feeling and thinking and sensing and processing deep within the body — "in the blood," as he put it. Conway's professorial but not at all dry explication of this section of the text leads to an account of how a particular class of his engaged with this idea; the deep soulful examinations that discussion entails augur well for Nietzsche's forlorn hopes.
Certainly more a work of thought and exploration than of diagnosis or prescription, The Alchemy of Teaching asks its readers to remember that those ancients who sought to transform base metals into valuable treasure didn't know exactly how it might occur, but retained their sense of wonder and certainty at the potential of the universe to deliver riches beyond measure. We, and all students of any age or era, should be so lucky as to in herit not only the scientific determinism of the alchemists, but also their mystic faith in the ultimate possibility: that all leaden pupils might, with care, attention, and not a little bit of liberty, transform themselves — and, perhaps, their equally lucky teachers — into golden pioneers simultaneously finding and creating new worlds.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Building a hub for food: Behind the scenes with a community project to feed bellies and souls

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Exploding out of the mind of Portland idea-man Eli Cayer, 39, and with financial backing from his Urban Farm Fermentory, is the conversion of a former East Bayside taxi garage into a home for food processors and preparers right on the Portland peninsula.
With his eye ever fixed on the Next Big Thing for the Forest City (he's had his hand in everything from public transit to community engagement to booze), Cayer is not only projecting the February 1 opening of the yet-to-be-named new space, which will house an expanded space for Bomb Diggity Bakery and an all-natural fruit-popsicle maker — he has also offered the Portland Phoenix a behind-the-scenes look at how ideas like this one arise, develop, change, adapt, get wrecked, get salvaged, and ultimately, if the stars align, actually happen.
It's a peek at what goes into bringing great new businesses and ideas to Portland. More often, as Cayer observes, "you see what worked" — at a grand opening or community open house. "Sometimes it doesn't work," he says wryly, and with personal experience.
Cayer has started businesses in Portland for many years. There was a DIY bicycle-repair shop called the Hub, which led to cycle-rickshaws (predating by a decade the ones we saw this summer), and then an unfruitful plan to install a downtown refueling location for biodiesel vehicles. He founded the community group MENSK to bring together like-minded creative people in hopes of cross-pollinating great ideas. He co-founded Maine Mead Works, and then left to help start the Urban Farm Fermentory, which makes mead, hard cider, and a rapidly expanding line of kombucha drinks. Not all of these endeavors have worked out as planned, and others ran their course, after which Cayer moved on.
Now, with the UFF growing strong, another Cayer notion is taking shape.
"I've been dreaming about this space for a while now," he says, standing in the vast open cavern that used to be the garage home to ABC Taxi. It's another part of the same 200 Anderson Street building that houses the UFF, which is how Cayer heard, last June, that the taxi company was moving to a new space off the peninsula.
He signed a lease in August, based on commitments from a couple of prospective tenants, and started submitting permitting applications to the city for different uses as well as renovations.
When he did, Cayer admits, "I unfortunately worded it in a way that scared" city officials scrutinizing how the building would be divided for various tenants. An initial potential tenant was a man who would be making countertops; also interested was Bomb Diggity, seeking to expand both its bakery business as well as the social mission of its nonprofit parent Momentum (which works with people who have intellectual disabilities) out of the space it presently shares with Local Sprouts on Congress Street. Cayer soon found out that city rules governing spaces with multiple uses (like manufacturing and food preparation) meant different permitting and building requirements than Cayer was used to from his experience with single-use spaces, like the UFF.
That led to delays, which meant the countertop-maker dropped out, but ultimately that change made life easier; he found a beginning cheesemaker who wanted to rent some space — which put the entire building back into just one use (food prep) and on familiar regulatory ground.
But even that confusion wasn't as bad as the mess Cayer found in the space itself. "I pressure-washed the floors like six times," he says with a grimace, recalling a six-inch-deep mess of grime, oil, and other disgustingness piled up in the back corner after the first round of pressure-washing. After all, it had been a taxi garage. "Cars parked here for a decade," Cayer notes, pointing to areas of the concrete floor that have been worn down by traffic and eaten away by chemicals. "It was gross."
After the second pressure-wash, it was time for a degreaser. And then, yes, more pressure-washing. It was not the only work needing doing: the roof needed some repairs and a paint job; old electrical and phone wires snaked through the open rafters overhead (Cayer got $200 from a scrap-metal yard when he'd finished yanking it all out).
Nevertheless, by September Cayer had the bakery and cheesemaker tenants committed and permitting under way. "Then it was sort of figuring out the layout and trying to find contractors" to build out the space.
In October, another snafu arose. The cheesemaker, Rachel Lauriat, learned she couldn't actually work in the new space. A creamery needs intensive plumbing (you'd be surprised at how much liquid is involved in making tasty solids), and those requirements were more than was available on site. Adding the pipes would come at a huge cost Lauriat was hoping to avoid.
And then there was the ventilation. Beyond working with huge kettles and steam systems that require good air flow, the product itself can be picky. The final step in cheese-making is ripening, working with live cultures that require specific ranges of humidity, temperature, and air circulation speeds. Not surprisingly, advanced ventilation control like that wasn't already installed and waiting in the former industrial warehouse and loading dock (along a disused railroad bed) — and the situation was complicated by the potential for other live organisms to be in the air from the bakery (live bread yeasts) and fermentory (fermenting yeasts and related bacteria).
Without direct access to a window, and without the landlord's permission to ventilate through the roof, Lauriat was out of luck. She calls the decision "quite disappointing," and is still looking for a workable space in Portland. The bakery, and the popsicle-maker who would eventually come in to take her place, she says, "need way less plumbing and ventilation than I do." And even though she won't be an immediate neighbor, Lauriat is still working with Momentum to plan some cheese-making workshops for that agency's clients.
With Lauriat out, Bomb Diggity decided to revamp its floor plan to save some money, which delayed construction some more. And Cayer had to network like crazy to find someone to fill the empty spot.
That person, found after a couple weeks of searching, was Tanya Rosenberg, a bartender and commercial painter whom Cayer had known for more than a decade. Last July she had started a company that would become Pure Pops, making organic, all-natural popsicles in two-dozen crazy flavors like Apple Cranberry Crisp, Avocado Lime, and Pumpkin Pie.
She has been based near her home at Sugarloaf and selling them in sports/outdoors businesses from Scarborough to the Forks (and, obviously, Carrabassett Valley). But with a new contract bringing her pops onto the Bowdoin College campus later this month, and a mobile vending license from the city of Portland, she's moving the operation to town.
By the end of November, with yet another plumbing reconfiguration, "things really started to kick into gear," as Cayer puts it.
After dealing with "old dead pipes that led nowhere," the rough plumbing was laid in the floors. The plumbing was done by pros, but the less-skilled labor (concrete work and epoxying) were handled by Cayer and other volunteers. Rosenberg brought her spray-painting equipment in so that she, Cayer, and others could repaint the ceiling of the space, which has great all-day light and lots of windows.
Between Christmas and New Year's, wood was dropped off and framing began, finishing in the first week of this year. As a volunteer work party began Saturday morning, Momentum executive director Dennis Strout was on his knees spreading cement across a pockmarked section of floor near the entrance to Bomb Diggity's space.
Other folks scraped old paint off a huge brick wall and primed it, before lugging in most of the baking equipment Bomb Diggity has purchased for use in the new space. Workers included Jonah Fertig and Abby Huckel from Local Sprouts, who are keeping ties between the two community-minded organizations strong, while looking forward to expanding the Local Sprouts catering business with the space being vacated by the bakery.
Next will come some more electrical work, sheetrocking of new walls, and finishing the epoxying of the floor. "Every day something more is happening," Cayer says eagerly, his eyes lighting up with excitement that this idea is ultimately coming to fruition.
The bakery is certainly the anchor tenant, and sees great opportunity to grow in this new space, says Lindsay deCsipkes, Momentum's program administrator. Beyond supplying several small local markets with baked goods, Bomb Diggity also provides Hannaford and Whole Foods Market with English muffins. Capitalizing on more square-footage, the company plans to expand its wholesale accounts, and will also work toward having a separate, certified gluten-free kitchen.
While commercial baking will occupy the mornings (starting early, as bakers do) the larger area will also be more conducive to afternoon workshops for Momentum clients learning culinary skills, deCsipkes says.
"We're psyched about what can happen here," she says, talking not just about the business and learning potential but also community collaboration. Bomb Diggity will still retail its baked goods at Local Sprouts, and keep its art program there, where "our participants feel so at home," says deCsipkes.
But with the new space, the Bomb Diggity may try to piggyback on the Fermentory's existing distribution network to also carry its products. And deCsipkes is already talking with local artists, including some Momentum clients, about making murals to decorate the walls inside the industrial-looking exterior.
It's that sort of synergistic potential that gets Cayer truly excited. Whether there are more classes (which the UFF used to hold until production demands required more space), or partnerships with renewable-energy companies, or opportunities for collaboration with food-truck owners as that business type develops in Portland, Cayer has no shortage of ideas about how to use the space inside the building, as well as the 5000-square-foot parking lot outside it. (In fact, he overflows with such ideas, many of which are not yet ready for publication; watch this space.)
Not to mention that the warehouse bay between the former garage and the existing Fermentory is now available for rent. Though nothing is finalized, Cayer definitely has his eye on that, both as a connection between the UFF and these other businesses, but also to help with a much-needed expansion of his own production and storage space.
It's all part of his effort to grow community throughout Portland, even in a place like East Bayside, which is a place Portlanders are just starting to think of as an exciting neighborhood. "People are coming down here now" Cayer says, pointing to the little drink-related cluster of Rising Tide and Bunker brewing companies and Tandem Coffee. That's not to leave out other parts of the East Bayside revival, which includes eco-businesses like Washboard Eco-Laundry's Greener Cleaner dry-cleaning and Freeman's Bicycle Service, community groups like the Maine Muslim Community Center and the Compass Project youth-building non-profit, and arts groups Running With Scissors and Zero Station.
People are already attracted to the area. "We just need to create more reason for them to come a little further," he says. He hopes that's where this new food hub will come in.
YOU CAN HELP• Volunteer work parties will happen on Saturdays from 10 am to 2 pm through the end of January — so show up and contribute your sweat and equity too!

Press Releases: Gov-speak

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Governor Paul LePage famously (and perhaps in jest) threatened to punch MPBN reporter AJ Higgins in the face, back during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. He probably wants to do it again this week, since Higgins was first to report on the simulated interview LePage did last week with his own employee, Adrienne Bennett, about the changes in Maine's tax code that took effect January 1.
But the brief flurry of publicity about the five-minute clip missed the takeaway. Yes, it was filled with questions both softball and obviously partisan. ("How is it that now you're getting pushback from Democrats in particular about putting more money back into the pockets of Mainers?" is not only the lead-off question but the setup of the entire farcical premise.)
And Bennett, a former TV broadcaster, is not identified by her title (Director of Communications for the Governor's Office) in the actual video — though she is in the text accompanying the video's posting on LePage's official YouTube page; she gives the famously bullying and belligerent governor a calm, friendly reception. She clearly reads from a prepared script of pre-approved questions, and parrots long-disgraced Republican talking points: "A tax cut can stimulate an economy. We know that," she claims, when that's basically never true, and certainly not when the tax cut is in the wealthy-and-corporate-welfare form proposed by LePage and his GOP buddies.
But most importantly, the structure of the piece is so clearly edited, with cuts in both video and audio that would never have passed muster in an actual journalistic interview, that we begin to see LePage's serious tendency toward blundering, even in the most coddling of surroundings (with not only a patsy asking questions but filmed by state Department of Transportation employees, Higgins reports).
We've known since his campaign that LePage is a loose cannon, lurching about the decks of state government, firing (and misfiring) indiscriminately. Now we begin to get a glimpse behind the curtain — things appear to be so bad he can't hold a simple, friendly, five-minute conversation with someone whose career he controls, without going off-message in unproductive ways.
• For contrast this weekend we were offered a roughly similar amount of time watching FORMER GOVERNOR ANGUS KING, now an independent US senator, on an actual journalistic television program, NBC's Meet the Press.
King appeared in a debt-ceiling roundtable with some heavy hitters: former GOP House speaker Newt Gingrich; current House Democratic Caucus leader Xavier Becerra (D-California); the Washington Post's EJ Dionne; and Carly Fiorina, a business executive and vice-chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Moderator David Gregory handed King the first question, and it set the stage for what may become King's m.o. both publicly and privately. First, he answered with a universal, nonpartisan truth: "People have lost confidence in the ability of our government to do anything." Then he turned the conflict itself into the problem at issue, rather than the debt ceiling or other budgetary details: "It's the inability of our government to work in a way to solve these problems that itself, I think, is a drag on the economy." He finished with a statement of principle that's both hard to argue with and rarely found in Washington: "The solutions are more important than the parties."
He found agreement from Gingrich (who described the current DC climate as "exactly the opposite of healthy self-government"), Becerra ("This is no way to run government"), and Fiorina (who urged talking real facts, not political infighting). Then King stayed quiet for most of the rest of the 20-minute segment, adding a short interjection about the facts of the debt ceiling (it's not about future spending, but the past), and finally answering another Gregory question about his independent status: "I could have frank discussions with both sides without being viewed as a member of the enemy camp."
For a non-career politician whose experience is in the executive and not the legislative branch, it was an impressive national debut, and all the stronger for its contrast with LePage's charade.