What’s the future of retail after Covid?

We all know the boost the Covid shutdown gave to online shopping and delivery. Ordering from the comfort of home, when everything went well, could be a pleasure. For some of us, it even meant being able to find exactly what we wanted, even after we had tried without success to find the item in a bricks-and-mortar store.

Of course, it could also be exasperating, as I discovered when a promised item failed to arrive before Christmas, even though it had been ordered more than a month before, and cancellation and refund weren’t available, due to the fine print that the product was being shipped from an independent source rather than the classy brand name. It was finally delivered in February, even after I had finally got the retailer to cancel the purchase.

As we also know, not every website is easily navigated, either.

~*~

I think about that when I look at the vacant storefronts in Eastport’s historic and charming downtown. Just what would fit in here efficaciously? Retail, of course, is the heart of it, along with a mix of offices and studios.

It’s a situation we share with many other communities, where the pleasures of being able to stroll from one option to another are countered by the expectation of easy parking. Just what do we really want or need, actually? More possessions? Services? Treats for the eyes or taste buds?

If you open a store, you’re not going to get rich at it, even though retailing requires a special insight and savvy. To be successful, you’ll also need value-added lines in ways the online rivals can’t compare. Think of the personal touch as a shopper when you’re not quite sure what you’re looking for to fix a particular problem.

Eastport has the additional complications of a small year-round population that swells in the summer, meaning the retail season can boil down to half-dozen prime weeks with a long slowdown in between.

~*~

You’ll hear people talk fondly of the old Woolworth’s or Newberry’s, with their lunch counters and swivel chairs or their extensive fabric selection or whatever, or the way these emporiums anchored the block. Not so for the dollar stores or Walmart.

I’m well into a stage of de-collection and downsizing, so I hesitate to add more possessions. Still, when I walk into a place like the Rock & Art store in Ellsworth or Bangor, I can be tempted.

Obviously, I don’t have the answer for what will revitalize the district, but my guess is that it will be an array of things not currently in our vision. Who would have thought of brewpubs a decade or two ago, for instance?

Or, as they used to say in the days of black-and-white television, “Please stay tuned.”

Murder capital of Maine

With a population of only 31,121, Washington County is essentially rural and small town. It’s 90 percent white, five percent Native American, and has a fourth of its residents over age 65.

At first glance, then, it’s not the kind of place you would expect to be suffering a homicide in each of the past six months.

The entire state reported only 22 in 2021 – two of them in Washington County, starting the six-month count. Quite simply, the county can currently be seen as the murder capital of the state.

Back in November, the victim in Machias was a 17-year-old male from New York. We could shake our heads and assume drugs had something to do with the case.

The rest, however, have been unmistakably local.

Several were domestic violence. One of those, the death of a valued employee, resulted in a family decision not to reopen a popular lobster pound in downtown Eastport, so we see these events having public consequences.

The latest instance had a 43-year-old Passamaquoddy woman as the victim and two of her neighbors arrested on homicide charges. Investigators have been unusually tight-lipped, leading to widespread speculation. Happening within a community of about 600, this takes a hard toll, ripping through at least three extended families.

The news, coming on the heels of a heavier than usual number of funerals in the tribe, adds to the grieving.

We can ask what is prompting this wave of violence and death.

Poverty is no doubt a factor. Individual and household incomes are only two-thirds of the national average, but probably skewer sharply down on one side or up the other, creating a gulch in real practice. The Covid-related closures of the international border to and from Canada have taken a toll on businesses, employment, and families, too.

The despair leads to drug abuse, as is related in everyday conversations around here.

As much as this region can be a paradise, it’s not problem-free. Not by any means.

‘Congratulations! You are qualified to get better services and a better rate.’

This is what I got in the mail from our cable company, a month or so after it had hiked our broadband fees by 30 percent. He they were now, returning with a pitch to cut the monthly bill to $5 under what we were paying earlier but with television channels included.

The first problem? We don’t have TV and don’t want it!

“Redeem your upgrade today.”

Who are they kidding? You can bet that a year from now that monthly bill will skyrocket. Trying to scale that back to where we were would be with just the broadband becomes the second, and bigger, problem.

Of course, the third problem overshadowing all of this is the inefficiency of unchecked monopoly. Where are the Teddy Roosevelt Republicans when we need them?

How do these companies justify their rates, anyway?

Imagine what Marx would have said about Putin

Or even Stalin.

The revolution was supposed to be about liberating the people, not obliterating them. Well, we have seen more than a few of them run amuck. The guillotine was one example.

As for wealth being the cause of war and class oppression?

It’s time for a devoted Marxist to stand up and expose the old spymaster. I was going to say “from the left,” but that distinction loses all meaning in our time. He’s going to brush off any criticism from capitalist countries, in part because of his Communist roots.

The tyrant’s grounding and career, let’s be clear, were largely party-line Communist, which claimed to be based on the teachings of Karl Marx. So somewhere in that philosopher’s matrix imprinted in Putin’s mindset may be the key to turning him around. Maybe even call him to repentance.

Just what manifesto is today’s czar wannabe following, anyhoo? Does anyone want to remind him what happened to the last one?

The cruise ships are coming!

As our City in the Bay has been redefining itself, in part thanks to its lively arts scene and surrounding natural wonder, tourism has been ticking up, even in the face of Covid-19.

Part of Eastport’s appeal is the deepest natural harbor in the continental U.S., a port that at one time, back when there was a lot of smuggling, was the second-busiest in the nation – something a shift in federal tax laws and heightened enforcement soon curbed.

Still, we have a long history of steamship travel, right up to the auto age.

And now, this year, hooray, we’re even anticipating the return of passenger vessels, albeit of the increasingly popular “small” ship variety rather than the floating cities that can overrun a seaport.

First, the 210-passenger, 325-foot Pearl Mist is scheduled for five visits, most of them 3½ hours ashore, as part of a seven-night round-trip out of Portland. Other stops on its Fundy Bay circuit include Rockland and Bar Harbor in Maine, and St. Andrews, St. John, and Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick. Fares run from about $4,000 and up.

Second, in September we host the innovative 530-passenger, 459-foot Roald Amundsen expedition ship on a 10-hour stopover. Originally, this was to be part of an adventurous 44-day navigation across the Arctic Ocean in a Northwest Passage venture from Vancouver, British Columbia, an ultimate bucket-list voyage. But the fares, starting around $57,000, may have been too pricy for the Covid-antsy market, causing it to be broken up into segments – the first ending at Nome, Alaska, and the second continuing from there on to Greenland and ending at Halifax, Nova Scotia. Eastport is now tucked in as the cherry in a shorter, more affordable, New England dessert.

More exciting is the news that the Amundsen is now scheduled to return next year as part of an even more audacious 94-day cruise – a Pole-to-Pole adventure that will originate in Vancouver, British Columbia, and traverse the Northwest passage before coming to Eastport and then continue on to equatorial warmth, the Panama Canal, the Pacific coast of South America, and finally shore visits on Antarctica. Think of going from icy summer to the edge of autumn in New England to the tropics and on to spring while exploring three continents. The lowest fares figure out around $600 a day.

And little Eastport will be part of that.

In Maine, the bulk of the cruise action hits Bar Harbor, at the edge of popular Acadia National Park, where frequently two ships a day debark during the summer season, and in Portland, which gets especially busy during the fall foliage season.

We’re really not set up for the mega-cruise vessels that have dominated the industry. Let’s see how our emerging niche shapes up.

 

Ways American democracy is increasingly at risk

Spoiler alert. This is a rant. Here are some of the places I see us as American society being in deep doodah.

  1. Out-and-out lies, delusions, and false expectations “Making America great again” has done the exact opposite. And ideological preconceptions block any reality of what needs to be done. It’s a great sales pitch, but if you’re promising to fix something, you better master the details. Think about making your car or computer or anything else run better and who you’d trust doing the job.
  2. The center is coming apart, along with the breakdown of face-to-face community. Who belongs to a lodge or bowling league or even a church anymore? Without those, just how are our opinions tested and refined? It’s part of a decline of civic awareness and participation.
  3. Refusal to give and take, i.e. compromise, to work out solutions for the common good. Health care is a prime example. Any faults with “Obama-care” can be laid at the feet of those opposed to any health insurance for Americans who didn’t have union jobs or the like. And we know who’s opposed those unions.
  4. Disproportionate representation by rural states. Not just the Senate, either, but especially the Electoral College, which was a faulty way of accommodating Southern slaveholders to begin with.
  5. Disenfranchisement of voters, one way or another. Want to talk about “stealing elections”?
  6. PACs and other big-money corruption, leading to the undermining of the middle class. It’s why the rich are getting richer.
  7. An uninformed electorate, along with the economic collapse of responsible journalism coupled with the tainting of “liberal media” by certain self-interests. Where on earth have the left-wing editorial page columnists been in the past half-century, anyway?
  8. Blaming the victims rather than the super-rich. Talk about “entitlement”? Add to that the myth of the “self-made man.”
  9. The collapse of the tax system. I’m no fan of the Internal Revenue Service, but it’s been gutted to let those with the most to get away scot-free.
  10. Without excusing the left for its too-often sanctimonious airs, I’d say the real threats are coming from an increasingly barbarian right-wing. Or should that be “anarchists”? They’re not conservatives or patriots, OK?

Look, unlike many, I’ve read the Federalist Papers closely, the arguments behind the American Constitution. I can say definitively that MAGA is dead-set against its principles.

Your turn to weigh in. Just be polite.

 

As an example of the kind of excellent journalism we’re missing these days, let me offer this modest example

My wife forwarded me a link to a Washington Post article about the ways international supply-chain problems impacted a small, family-owned, dairy north of our place in easternmost Maine and its signature product, a chocolate milk with a passionate following.

For me, it’s a great piece of journalism, or as I told her, my ideal of reporting.

In fact, it fit into the aspirations I present in my novel Hometown News.

Personally, I favor longer pieces that take a long-range view, as this one does, especially when they encapsulate a much bigger, more difficult, issue in ways that hit home.

In contrast, the trend has long been for shorter, faster, less complex dispatches that move on to the next sensational blast. You know, the 24-hour news cycle. Or less. Most of it is forgettable, puff in the air, hit-me-with-what’s-next superficiality.

Instead, what we have here is a consequence of assigning a reporter full-time to the Northeast, as the Washington Post does, in one of those expenses that might seem superfluous to the bean counters who fill too many executive positions in too many industries. In fact, we can blame them for much of the supply-side issues that plague us. Prestige, after all, is rarely seen as a quantifiable asset.

Moreover, I doubt the Post would have found this story without that marginal investment. (The nearest daily newspaper, fine as it is, finds itself way too overwhelmed by everyday issues to dig into something requiring an investment of time like this. In fact, one of the things I that drew me to working at the New Hampshire Sunday News was the opportunity to assist similar projects, where we might have a week to dig into the dimensions and then display the findings properly.)

I also love the fact that the Post hired an excellent photographer to pursue the story, too, and paid for his time to look beneath the obvious surfaces. Again, it takes time to get a feel for what’s beneath the surface and come up with something fresh and expressive. His shots tell a full, parallel, story of people dedicated to their seemingly commonplace employment. What emerges is almost like a film score underpinning a movie.

Better yet, in this case, the difficulty encountered was about chocolate – who couldn’t love that! As well as the schoolchildren who loved the dairy’s chocolate milk as part of their lunches. You can’t build a better connection than you do with kids, except maybe through the words of their parents, as this report does.

My kudus to reporter Joanna Slater and photographer Tristan Spinski – and their unnamed editors for publishing this.

If only we could see much more along this line of journalism!

What happens when a journalist attempts a novel

It used to be said that every newspaperman had a novel inside him, waiting for release. (Yes, male. Women reporters and editors were a definite minority. My, how times have changed!)

Frankly, I rarely saw any literary ambition around me. Few in the business read fiction of a serious sort, much less poetry. There were, though, a couple of playwrights. More recently, however, I know of two colleagues who have self-published – one a mystery, the other a political intrigue.

Yes, we’ve had notable exceptions, with Edna Buchanan, Ernest Hebert, Carl Hiassen, and Tony Hillerman topping my list. (Hemingway wasn’t considered much of a reporter in his six-month stint in Kansas City, and earlier giants often cited reflect a much different kind of journalism than what’s been practiced from the rise of the last century.) The crush of daily deadlines is exhausting, and fiction requires an entirely different approach and sensibility to the telling of a story. Journalists are conditioned to put facts first, usually without any concern for feeling, and to be professionally neutral, reflecting the quest of objectivity. These stances place the reporter at a distance from the subject, no matter how fascinating. Journalists also tend to put action ahead of the actors. Most of the resulting novels leaned toward the crusading reformer slant of the Front Page tradition – Down with corruption! – or maybe sports, either way, with the emphasis on the game more than the inner mindset of the players.

Well, there was also one editor-in-chief who took a popular genre novel and did a paint-by-numbers kind of rewrite over it. I think it was a Western, but I’m no longer sure. His connections got it published, and his success led to a half-dozen more. He was sheepish about the whole thing, though. It was more like a game, I suppose.

I wasn’t typical. My first love was the fine arts beat, for one thing. Since jobs there were scarce, I wound up on the copy desk. No matter how much I love politics, I find meetings boring. Press conferences, even more so. My most satisfying post was heading up lifestyles sections. Long story, as you’ll see in Hometown News. Maybe I was mostly a misfit who happened to do some things extremely well.

News writing, for the most part, is supposed to sound anonymous. Short sentences, limited vocabulary, a structure with the most important details at the top and the rest in descending order. As a writer or editor, your craft can soon become dulled. As an editor, one of my skills went to headlines, trying to relate a story in as few as four or five words. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of them, and I can see the distillation as an element of poetry. In my personal writing, I often reacted against the broader restrictions – I wanted a richer range of diction, more accurate language, more varied sentence structure (yes, I love long threads that work), and often more background on the story itself.

Turning to fiction, I’ve learned the importance of withholding details until later in the tale, things like not including first name, middle initial, and last name when introducing a character, much less his or her age and address. As for my poetry, I’ve preferred experimental and edgy, where the image or fractured expression might open into its own ambiguity and potential.

I do remember the first time a poetry publisher reacted to my submission by saying how delighted he was that my work wasn’t what he expected from a journalist. He had received enough to develop a negative opinion, one I fortunately didn’t fit.

My novel “Hometown News” was drafted during my third break from the news biz, when I was approaching 40 and gave myself a sabbatical after two years calling on editors in 14 Northeastern states as field salesman for a major newspaper syndicate. Driving between my calls on the local papers and seeing their newsrooms from the other side of the desk, so to speak, gave me plenty of time to reflect on the industry and then augment what I had collected in my own career. At many papers, as I saw, the managing editor or his equivalent was gone in a year, and with each one, I’d have to start grooming a new connection all over again. Many of them had telling histories of their own. Many of their towns looked like bombed out shells after World War II, their industrial might boarded up or rusting. I kept notes. Many of their skirmishes reflected my own.

Later, developing my novel in a series of routine days set months apart, “Hometown News” gave me an opportunity to see what I could do with creating a computer-generated novel. I set a framework for the day and randomly inserted 80 to 120 markers I could hit with search-and-replace items for each round. There were many other places that had to be manipulated manually, but it the attempt was fascinating, the way working a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle is.

The result was something like a Jackson Pollock painting, a theme-and-variations curiosity but not compelling reading. Through a series of revisions, I kept the bones but layer by layer added flesh and muscle to bring certain characters to the fore while the dystopian theme deepened.

Thirty-four years after starting out on the work, and seven years after its publication, I am struck by the story’s prescient warning of the collapse of a once very profitable business for the dominant voices, not that our salaries reflected that. What I saw was entire communities under attack, and they still are – not just their daily mirror.

The newsroom I present is a blend of five I’ve worked in over the years – another one was much smaller, and the remaining one was simply different. When you get a group of news folk together and we start talking what one spouse called Bodoni-Bodoni, after the typeface used for many headlines, we all have insider war stories. I hope “Hometown News” gives you an idea how ours translate.

Just before taking the unanticipated buyout

Hard to think that it was right around this time ten years ago when my newspaper career took the big turn.

The atmosphere at the office was tense, with contract negotiations approaching a deadlock. Actually, there was little back-and-forth but rather a take-it-leave-it set of ultimatums from the front office.

As much as I loved journalism, I had long dreamed of being liberated from the daily workplace grind to pursue my bigger passions fulltime – writing serious works that would stand as a legacy, plus more time for Quaker endeavors and activities of personal renewal. I envisioned a bigger studio at home and had several book manuscripts that looked promising, if only I could get them in motion faster. When you had an interested book publisher, as I tentatively did, you had to act fast, something that’s difficult when you’re actively engaged elsewhere. My big break, all the same, hadn’t happened, even if I was being published widely in the small-press literary scene. You had to build a name, after all, as well as connections.

The job itself had long ago turned into a production-line mentality, rather than a more deliberate craft. Gone were the big projects that allowed enough space for deep research, reflection, and revision. Even at the prestigious big dailies, the clout that came with having a byline had largely evaporated. I began joking, with a degree of factual backup, that I really earned my wages in a one-hour span every Saturday night, when our biggest paper of the week in terms of circulation, heft, content, and income, was about to hit the press. Missing that deadline by even a few minutes was costly and had consequences. In that hour, and the two that followed as we made corrections and updated editions, everything funneled down through me, carrying with it blame for any big errors.

Well, I was a pro. Suck it up.

The possibility of buyouts had been floated by the union but required a certain number of members to step forward as interested candidates – tell us more – before that possibility was soundly yanked away from the table by management. I felt left like a pawn in that high-stakes game. For me, the pension and Medicare were both still a year off, and a steady income between here and there was looking more and more imperiled. I’d stuck my neck out, after all, and could now be seen as disloyal – if the paper was still running at all.

A few weeks later, brusquely, I was called into HR and essentially told I had an hour or so to commit to a decision. What, it’s back on the table? Maybe I had a little longer to confer with my spouse, I don’t recall, but in the whirlwind, the closure still came down like a hammer.

And that was it – a bonus that included extended health coverage, plus opportunities for part-time employment, if I wished. No guarantees there, but good luck. Even so, I was giddy. This is it?

A few nights later, there was a cake in the newsroom in recognition of us who had walked the plank. Some of our younger colleagues, I suspect, wished they had the option, though part of our decision came in hoping what we did kept them employed duly, some even supporting families. These calculations get tangled.

~*~

My first month of liberation came as a welcome period of decompression. I loved sitting in our front parlor and reading in winter sunlight, for one thing. A favored new routine with my wife was strolling downtown every Wednesday around dusk, when a small pub featured a fine jazz guitarist. How civilized! I could even go to bed before midnight.

The paper soon found itself short-staffed, however, and I began receiving calls wondering about my availability. Enjoying the flexibility of picking-and-choosing, I soon found myself working three or four shifts a week, the max allowed under the agreement. The feeling was entirely different, free of the weight of internal politics and big responsibilities. My floating shifts liberated me to attend concerts and films and a host of other events not previously open on my schedule. I didn’t have to weave around others’ vacation time off, either, when looking ahead to conferences or travel.

But ten years ago already? It really does feel more like five.

A ‘mild case’ can still be the sickest you’ve ever felt

Here we are, coming up on the second anniversary of the Covid outbreak here and abroad, and we’re still in the midst of its disorder. So much for that initial hope of a two-week or six-week lockdown, max, which even then unfortunately had too many holdouts from the precautions. Can we blame them for leaving the Pandora’s box open for all that’s followed?

Once that first round passed, after its devastation in large urban areas like New York City, we had a breather in which medical procedures were more clearly understood and improved and vaccines became available. We’ve even been able to gather in public again, albeit in fewer numbers and spaced apart while still wearing masks. Surface contamination is no longer a major worry, either.

Where I live, the illness has often seemed to be a distant threat. While I have friends who came out of retirement to resume long hours as medical professionals, their tales of a stress still seemed confined to largely quarantined hospitals and clinics, even though they were only just down the street. Well, I also got updates from fellow clergy who couldn’t visit patients in person, that sort of thing. Still, two years later, I knew of only two cases in our Friends Meeting, both quite mild. Further east, in remote Washington County, Maine, fewer than 3,000 cases and 43 deaths have been tallied, last I looked, though those figures have nearly tripled since November.

Still, the threat kept getting closer and more personal. The surge in the Omicron variant forced the cancellation of the final Christmas performances of our beloved Boston Revels, for example. Traditionally low-rate New Hampshire recently reported the highest per capita figures in the nation. Our twice-a-month local newspaper’s half-dozen or so obituaries now regularly mention “of Covid complications” as the cause of death. (Nobody, presumably, dies directly of the infection or is at least willing to admit that openly. Am I guessing there’s a social stigma?)

We have endured the screeching dissent and violent reactions from those who feel entitled to do whatever they want in public, regardless of any harm to others, and that seems to be spiking.

How long, though, will it take for the emotional frustration of the other side to erupt?

For starters, there’s a growing weariness among those of us who have been wearing masks and getting our booster shots, in part to protect others from suffering from the illness, while enduring the arrogance of those who pooh-pooh the odds, putting their own “liberty” above the common good, and then putting the rest of the populace at risk while expecting overworked medical professionals to come to their rescue and forcing heart attack patients and crash victims to be juggled about for unavailable intensive-care beds.

Look, I know Christian Scientists who have gotten the shots, not for themselves – remember, they generally avoid doctors as a matter of their faith – but out of a sense of social responsibility for others. In contrast, I’m sensing that many of those who refuse vaccinations are also among those accusing lower-income Americans of “entitlement” when it comes to economic and social support, rather than turning the focus to the One Percent who actually benefit financially from overt entitlement in public legislation and regulation. Are these the same ones who scoff at widespread examples of global warming and impending disaster? The willful ignorance, selfish, self-centered behavior, and bullying outrage me. And before they quote – or misquote – Scripture for their positions, I can imagine them refusing Moses’ orders to paint lambs’ blood above their doors for protection from the Angel of Death – “Who are you to tell me what to do?” – but it’s the firstborn who suffer if they don’t. Drat! I can confess a vindictive urge – you know, of the smite-my-enemies vein – but revisiting the Exodus text, I’m seeing that in only one of the first nine plagues are the Israelites exempted from the evil consequences. Pointedly, all Egyptians, not just the pagans, suffer from Pharaoh’s refusal to act in accord with Divine direction.

No matter what, in the end, reality will win out, though it won’t be selective in choosing its victims.

What happens if this affliction spreads to strike down all who haven’t been vaxxed? Costly treatments that could have been avoided will be borne by all, regardless, through Medicare, insurance companies, and unpaid debts to hospitals, more than by the defiant unvaxxed ill and dying. The workforce will continue to be impacted, too.

The Omicron variant, as we’re seeing, is also hitting vaccinated people, but with lesser impact.

We look at the statistics and hear the stories that the new variety is less deadly but more infectious, along with the note that breakthrough cases among the vaxxed hit far more gently than among the unprotected, but we need to listen more closely.

Unless a patient is in need of a respirator, the diagnosis is to stay home, there’s no room at the hospital. Good luck if you’re living alone, and good luck to the rest of the household if you’re not.

Moreover, it’s considered a mild case unless you’re hospitalized or die.

As for those “mild” cases? More than one person has been quoted as saying they’ve never felt so sick in their life.

So far, I’ve been lucky, but my family’s finally been hit, notably in their recent visit to me. My test and my wife’s came back negative, but not so for the rest, despite all their precautions.

Would coming down sick be a sufficient lesson for the nay-sayers? Or would it make them dig in more deeply in denial?