Of the many challenges for America’s rural communities, near the top of the list is access to health care. Rural clinics and hospitals are closing across the nation. When they close, it’s hard for younger families, and older residents, to stay in town—and harder to attract new businesses, or attract replacements for the doctors, nurses, and other health-care workers who may be retiring from their practices or just leaving town.
Previously we’ve reported on the realities of smaller-town and rural health care in Brownsville, Texas, and Ajo, Arizona. This is a report from the smallest city we have visited in our travels, in spectacularly beautiful though remote far Down East Maine.
Today’s health care in Eastport, Maine, traces its roots back to Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and the establishment of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). In this, it is like a large number of other small communities across the country. Just as today’s libraries bear the century-old imprint of Andrew Carnegie, and many of today’s post offices and other public buildings are legacies of construction and mural-painting efforts launched during the Great Depression by Franklin D. Roosevelt, today’s remaining rural clinics are, in many cases, the effects of an initiative launched 50 years ago. Along with other OEO initiatives, such as Job Corps, VISTA, and Head Start, that remain to this day, this rural-health initiative has shaped the primary health care in poor or underserved areas long since it was started.
Back in the 1960s, enter a young medical doctor and civil-rights activist with a vision. This was H. Jack Geiger, who had spent time in South Africa during medical school and had seen the positive impact that the community health-care model had in the very poor area of Pholela. Later, back in the United States, he spent time in the Mississippi Delta for the Freedom Summer project of 1964 as field coordinator for the Medical Committee for Human Rights.
When he returned to Boston, Geiger connected his observations in South Africa and the Mississippi Delta. Along with a colleague, Count Gibson, Geiger proposed to the OEO to try out what he had learned by starting two experimental, community-based health-care programs, one in Boston’s Columbia Point housing project and the other in the Mississippi Delta. Eventually, these became models for the roughly 1,400 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) that serve more than 28 million people around the U.S. today.
Their FQHC designation is a godsend for rural health-care centers. It ensures that the centers will receive, among other things, enhanced reimbursements for patients covered by Medicaid and Medicare, and will offer a sliding scale for those without any coverage. It promises federal malpractice-insurance coverage for providers, extra partnerships for the centers, and more specialist care. Each center is unique in its profile, depending on the community’s needs. For example, the Rowland B. French Medical Center has providers for behavioral health counseling, podiatry, radiology, nephrology, and social support. Desert Senita has a regularly visiting cardiologist and ophthalmologist, a certified Spanish translator, and a special phone line with third-party translators for multiple languages.
During my visit last month to the Eastport center, I noticed a language, spirit, and way of operating that reminded me, surprisingly, of what I had heard so frequently in public libraries around the country. As for libraries, when Andrew Carnegie donated funds to help build nearly 1,700 public libraries, he required that the towns he supported demonstrate a need for a library; that the towns invest some of their own funds in the present or future operations of the library; and that the library serve all the people. Today’s public libraries, Carnegie-built or not, reflect the mission of serving the public in this democratic way.
The community health centers, like Eastport’s, strike similar chords: The centers are built in underserved communities; they require majority local representation in their governing and decisions; and they are committed to serving everyone, regardless of ability to pay. Not precisely the same as Carnegie’s libraries, but eerily similar in terms of being locally driven and serving the needs of all residents in a democratic way. As Holly Gartmayer-DeYoung, the CEO of Eastport Health Care Inc., which includes the Rowland B. French Medical Center, put it to me, we are here to “understand and heartfully serve the community.”
Eastport Health Care (EHC) serves Washington County, Maine, in its three center locations in Eastport and the neighboring towns of Machias and Calais. What does the health profile of the region look like, and how does EHC answer to the region’s needs?
By most statistical measures, it looks bad. The health profile of Washington County, which includes Eastport, Machias, and Calais, is low even by Maine’s standards. Washington County ranks 15th of 16 counties in Maine in a composite measure of “Health Factors,” which is made up of health-related behaviors (such as tobacco, alcohol, and physical activity), access to care, socioeconomic factors (some 20 percent of Washington County residents live in poverty), and the physical environment (a subcategory in which beautiful, quiet, remote Washington County ranks No. 2).
Washington County ranks 16th of 16 in Maine for “Health Outcomes,” which includes measures of length of life and quality of life. (I would point out that quality-of-life measures don’t include personal safety: On our first night in Eastport, Jim and I locked ourselves out of our apartment. We hung out with the neighbors next door until someone could be found to hunt for a key. We learned our lesson: Never lock your door.)
With such a profile, where is EHC and its citizen board to start? Perhaps with the bad news. Here is a list in descending order that EHC decided were its major health needs to tackle: the opioid epidemic, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, food or heat insecurity (it’s cold in Maine), and mental health.
Now on to the good news. Here are some of EHC’s creative ideas for plans and solutions to their most pressing problems:
What can we do to mitigate travel issues?
Washington County, with a population just shy of 32,000 residents, is twice the size of Rhode Island in square miles. That can translate into an hour’s drive to a clinic, or two or three hours to visit a specialist or for routine care for kids’ health, such as eye exams, glasses, the dentist, and orthodontia. Women in Eastport drive about 44 miles to Machias for prenatal services. For situations that require frequent, regular access to ongoing treatments, such as chemotherapy, the distances to travel can become simply untenable. When I expressed my chagrin at the idea of such distances, Gartmayer-DeYoung said with a this-is-Maine tone, “People get used to the drive.”
Without a miracle cure of close proximity to all care, one way the EHC eases the complex logistics of health care is with a “patient-navigator,” someone to manage the pieces: finding specialist help, arranging appointments, organizing transportation, managing overnight stays and last-mile transit, tracking and coordinating multiple issues, and helping identify and coordinate access to food, housing, utilities, etc. EHC has a full-time patient-navigator and has trained all staff to either help directly or be aware of all their patients’ needs.
How can we help an aging population?
Eastport’s population has declined from 5,000 in its early-20th-century sardine-canning heyday to 1,331 in 2010, to 1,259 in 2018. There are a lot of retirees, and they are not necessarily wealthy. The median resident age is 54, compared with 45 in Maine overall (chronically among the oldest in the United States). At Shead High School in Eastport, the total student population when I visited in 2013 was 110; this year it is 94.
Some solutions are simple and inexpensive, and carry a punch. Focused on safety, Eastport has begun programs to install grab bars and smoke detectors in homes with elderly residents. It also brings caregivers into the equation with an ID bracelet to register them with police and EMS as go-to contacts to facilitate quick, effective, connected responses for the vulnerable individuals they serve.
In a double win to help the elderly get around and improve their overall well-being, Eastport has created plans to improve sidewalks, install street lighting and crosswalks, put safety rails along steep inclines, and place benches for people to stop and rest.
How do we attract staff to the rural health centers?
Retention at Eastport Health Care is not a big issue. Of the currently fully staffed 52 employees at EHC, some 58 percent have been there for at least five years, 25 percent for 10 years.
But there are gaps. One of the two dentists moved west. The center would like a specialist in diabetes. Gartmayer-DeYoung worries about how to replace primary-care providers when they retire. Furthermore, she is concerned about finding her own replacement when she will soon retire for health reasons.
In remote areas, and with harsh climates, attracting new staff to replace or add to the roster can be challenging. Gartmayer-DeYoung believes that a successful solution must start with awareness of the strong local culture. Mainers are, well, famously Mainers. Straightforward, proud of their heritage, understated, no-nonsense, leaning on one another. Gartmayer-DeYoung says it would help to embed that cultural knowledge into the medical training for all those who are part of the region’s health ecology: students, doctors, pharmacists, dentists, et al.
EHC has placed a cultural-immersion component into local training programs, and two professionals have chosen to settle in Washington County so far because of it. A dozen more of the 50 participating graduate students stay connected with Eastport as they continue their training. The outlook for maintaining the culture of the clinic as well is long-term: “We have built a lot of trust. We see it as a stewardship,” says Gartmayer-DeYoung.
How can we keep the young people around and offer them hope for careers?
Many people in Eastport and other towns around the country are worried about this issue. In a long-term bet, the EHC board has initiated scholarship programs. “This translates into hope,” says Gartmayer-DeYoung. Along with initiatives for boosting training in health-related fields, this could lead to strong future staffing in the health center, related fields, and a broader base for regional employment in general. Since 2008, EHC has supported 58 high-school students with more than $100,000 in scholarships and supported community-college students on health-care professional tracks, as well as staff seeking to advance their skill sets.
We have visited Eastport several times over the past six years. As part of our habit to try to keep fit while traveling, I have gone in search of exercise options in Eastport each time. Success has been elusive: The closest swimming (my go-to exercise at YMCAs and public pools) is at least 30 minutes away in Calais. Water, water everywhere, but the water was 58 degrees in the Bay of Fundy this August. No gym. No track. No rental bikes to be found. This was a short-term challenge for me, but a long-term challenge for the residents of Eastport.
As for solutions, EHC has knocked on the door of the school to access its gym for walking, and hopes this option could become a catalyst for the community. Besides extending sidewalks for all walkers, EHC hopes to extend the trails from the old railroad lines for more ambitious walkers and bikers.
It has developed collaborations—for example, with the Cancer Support Center of Maine.
It has created Community Circles, groups to build citizens’-support networks, tackling topics such as hospice care, senior needs, integrated behavior health, LGBTQ needs, recovery support for addiction, teens helping teens, understanding Alzheimer’s disease, health and wellness, food insecurity, strategic planning, governance and leadership training, and more.
Summing up the state of play in Eastport’s health-care world today, Holly Gartmayer-DeYoung says, “We are hardy people. But sometimes overwhelmed.”
This is another road report on the state of local journalism, which is more and more important, and more and more imperiled.
It is important because so much of the future of American economic, cultural, and civic life is now being devised and determined at the local or state level. Educational innovation, promotion of new industries and creation of fairer opportunities, absorption of new arrivals (in growing communities) and retaining existing talent (in shrinking ones), reform of policing and prison practices, equitable housing and transportation policies, offsets to addiction and homelessness and other widespread problems, environmental sustainability—these and just about every other issue you can think of are the subjects of countless simultaneous experiments going on across the country. Voters, residents, and taxpayers need to know what is happening (or not), and what is working (or not), in their school systems, and their city councils, and their state capitals.
It is imperiled for obvious reasons. What has happened to media revenues in general has happened worst, fastest, and hardest to local publications, newspapers most of all.
No one of these models or examples will necessarily apply in other places or circumstances. But any illustration of success is worth noticing, for tips.
This brings us to The Quoddy Tides, the twice-monthly, family-owned and -run newspaper that has a print circulation several times larger than the population of the city where it is based.
The home city is Eastport, Maine, whose library Deb wrote about recently, and which we described in our book, Our Towns. In its heyday as a sardine-canning capital, Eastport had a population of more than 5,000. Now the canneries are gone, and the year-round population is about 1,300, and nearly everyone in town holds a combination of jobs—lobster fishing, seasonal tourist businesses, work at the commercial port or in forestry, small crafts or art studios—to make ends meet. But in this setting, The Quoddy Tides has a paid print circulation of just less than 5,000, and now has more than 50 years of continuous operation. Its editorial and business office is in a white clapboard structure that at various times was a fishing-company office and then a Christian Science church, along the bay front in Eastport’s small but architecturally distinguished downtown. It is run on a shoestring, but it has some 20 contributors and correspondents in the region, and it is full of both articles and ads, and it matters in its community.
Part of The QT’s circulation secret is similar to that of Seven Days, in Vermont: It is aimed at an audience, and market, beyond its immediate hometown base. In addition to news of Eastport, The QT covers that of other down-east Maine towns such as Lubec, Machias, and Calais (pronounced like callous), and adjoining maritime islands and towns in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. It also has a substantial mail circulation, reaching subscribers in 49 states who are originally from the area, or have visited, or feel some interest or connection to it. (South Dakota is the outlier. People of Sioux Falls and Rapid City, c’mon!)
Also, like The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi, the paper’s family ownership means that it can spend its modest resources as it chooses. It is not under external-ownership pressure to meet regular profitability targets, which has sent so many small papers into cycles of cutback and decline.
But when I spoke with the husband-and-wife couple who run the paper, Edward French and Lora Whelan, they emphasized that it was the kind of journalism they provide that has allowed them to survive.
The Quoddy Tides—named for the Passamaquoddy Bay on which Eastport sits, which feeds into the Bay of Fundy—was founded by Edward’s mother, Winifred, in 1968. She and her husband, Rowland, a doctor, had moved to Eastport from Arizona in the early 1950s, and stayed there to raise their family. (“My mother was looking for someplace not quite as hot,” Edward told me in The QT’s office earlier this month. “Coastal Maine qualified.”) Rowland became a leading local doctor, with a clinic now named in his honor. One of Edward’s brothers, Hugh, also lives now in Eastport, where with his wife, Kristin McKinlay, he runs a museum and arts organization called the Tides Institute.
In the late 1960s, as the family’s children were growing, Winifred decided that the community needed a newspaper. A previous one, from the town’s sardine-canning days, had gone out of business in the 1950s. “She had no newspaper experience,” Lora said of her mother-in-law. “But she thought these communities really needed a voice. So she talked to other small newspapers and had correspondence with people all around the country about how she should set this up.” After a year of research, she launched the paper in 1968.
Edward, then elementary-school age, grew up helping address papers for mail subscribers, and with the page layout. In those days, a fishing boat took article text across the water to a layout shop in Deer Island, Canada, and then another boat would carry the pasted-up pages back to the U.S. for printing.
Then and now, the striking characteristic of the paper is its density of local news. The most recent issue, when we visited, was 40 pages long, with many dozens of purely local, information-packed news stories.
For instance, the front page (at right) had five local stories: about the Passamaquoddy Tribal Council’s effort to defend water rights; about limits on sea-urchin fishing (a quickly growing market, mainly for export to Asia); about the impact of new tax preferences, for land conservation, on local tax revenues; a crime story; and one about an academic-freedom dispute at the local Maritime College of Forest Technology. Plus, a picture of a kayaker viewing a Minke whale—of which we saw large numbers in the bay.
In the rest of the paper you have: high-school sports. Commercial shipping schedules and tide tables. Gardening and cooking tips. Religious news. Birth and death notices. Puzzles. Local city-council roundups. A long editorial and letters-to-editors section. Everything.
“I think it’s important for newspapers not to keep cutting,” Edward told me at The QT’s office. “If you keep cutting, there’s less and less reason for people to buy the paper. If you want to keep a healthy circulation, you have to make the investment in reporters and providing the news that people can’t find anywhere else.” If there is a “secret” of the paper’s success, he said, it is “that you’re providing information that people can’t find any other place.”
Both Lora and Edward emphasized that the paper’s twice-a-month publishing schedule—the second and fourth Friday of each month, with a built-in cushion for them in the months that have five Fridays—gives them an advantage, in forcing them away from the daily or breaking-news stories that their readers would already have learned about elsewhere.
“I believe that daily newspapers struggle because they’re so often repeating what’s already been presented, either in social media or on the television news,” Edward said. “But when you have a local newspaper that is presenting news people aren’t going to find anywhere else, I think there will always be a need for that. I think that will allow local newspapers to survive very well.”
Unlike her husband, Lora is not originally from Eastport. She grew up in New York; some of her relatives ran a small newspaper in Santa Barbara, California; and she originally came to Maine, before she met Edward, to work on an economic-development project. They met, and married, and she became involved with the newspaper. Now she is the assistant editor and publisher, and does much of the local-news coverage.
“I don’t know what journalism schools are doing these days, but I really wish they would focus more on local news,” she told me. “It can be boring, I mean really boring, to go to city-council meetings every month, and county-commissioner meetings every month. But at the same time, it’s incredibly important. And at least once a year, something will come out that’s incredibly important, and that you would not know if you hadn’t been there.”
“Those are the kinds of stories that local people need to know, and want to know, and that are getting lost with some of the papers that don’t have the resources, or don’t understand how important it is to cover those boring meetings month after month.”
“It’s not exciting most of the time,” she said—and Deb and I knew what she was talking about, since we’d been to an Eastport City Council meeting that she was covering. “But it’s critical. It’s like how most of us live our lives. Not terribly exciting most of the time—but, you know, we have these moments!”
Edward had an aw-shucks, self-deprecating manner when talking about his newspaper’s influence and record. Maybe this is The Maine Way; maybe it’s just him. But he wasn’t afraid to seem earnest when talking about why he believed that local journalism mattered.
“I think we provide quite a bit of investigative reporting, and try to get into the meat of what’s happening so that people can make informed decisions. We really try to provide a voice for people in our communities that might otherwise not have a voice, so that people in power have to address their concerns and be held accountable.”
“I think that’s really the basis for a healthy democracy,” he said. “I think without community newspapers, democracy will really suffer.” It’s worth noting at this point that we’ve been following the Eastport and Quoddy Tides saga for more than six years now, and what Edward and Lora said about their paper matches what other people in the community have told us as well. It’s not unusual to overhear people saying, “Well, I saw in the Tides …”
Lora said that in a town as small as Eastport, she and her husband and their contributors knew that every day they would encounter people they were writing about, and people who read their paper. “It’s a delicate balance in a community this small,” she said. “We’d walk into the IGA”—the local grocery store—“and people would come up to us waving a story we’d written.” For a long time, she said, she and Edward didn’t have a phone-answering machine, because they didn’t want to deal with some messages.
But overall, she said, “actually it’s a blessing to feel that trust that people have in you. They come up to you and say, ‘This is what I’m worried about. Is there any way you can look into it?’ Sometimes we can. Sometimes we cannot. But it is a beautiful feeling to have someone trust you like that.”
The Quoddy Tides model may not work in other communities, and it may not work forever even in this one. But for now it’s a useful illustration of the way journalism, community, public discourse, and civic engagement can interact in a positive cycle, rather than in the destructive ways we’re all so familiar with.
Andrew Carnegie was the force of Gilded Age philanthropy behind the building of public libraries. Along with other recognizable names who made their fortune in the late 1800s and early 1900s—Rockefeller, Ford, Mellon, Morgan, Stanford, Harriman, Heinz—Carnegie’s influence endures today largely because of the way he gave away the vast fortune he amassed.
For about 35 years beginning in 1883, Carnegie donated money from his steelmaking empire (which became U.S. Steel) to build nearly 1,700 libraries around the country and another 800 around other parts of the world. He was careful about his “formula” for agreeing to construct the commanding, elegant buildings, a formula whose elements remain fundamental in the basic operations and democratic spirit of public libraries today. The libraries were required, among other things, to support staff and maintenance, to gather at least some of their funding from public sources, and to be open and free to the public to use.
It has been stunning to see the physical and spiritual legacy of Carnegie libraries—large and small—as we have visited more than 50 towns around the country for our Our Towns reporting project. It has been inspiring to bear witness to how libraries have evolved from the simple idea of serving the wants and needs of the public to becoming crucial, essential public institutions of communities in this modern era.
Around the turn of the 20th century in Columbus, Ohio, an audacious city librarian named John Pugh hopped the train for New York to knock on Carnegie’s door, and—appealing to their shared Celtic background— charmed Carnegie into donating $200,000 for the construction of the imposing granite and marble main library in downtown Columbus. Today the building has been newly renovated and expanded, retaining its original main building and entry, where the words OPEN TO ALL are carved in granite over the door. From the library’s main reading room, you can look out the two-story glass windows onto the seven acres of topiary park with more than 200 different types of trees.
In Dodge City, Kansas, a small but distinguished group of residents, inspired by the town’s women’s club, appealed to Carnegie in 1905 for support to build their public library, as he had previously done for five other towns in Kansas. He gave them $7,500, and they agreed to ante 10 percent of that sum annually to maintain it. The town’s population grew and eventually outgrew the small library. Today it is home to the Carnegie Center for the Arts.
Carnegie wasn’t the only one with visions for public libraries. I visited at least two libraries in other towns with lesser-known patrons from the same era who built libraries in the same spirit.
In Redlands, California, Albert and Alfred Smiley, twin transplants from back East like many other early Redlanders, helped develop this paradise of an orange-growing town. So strongly did Albert believe in the institution of the public library that he personally borrowed money to build the town’s public library. He then enticed his good friend Andrew Carnegie to travel to Redlands to see the library himself. During his visit in 1910, Carnegie offered these touching remarks about Smiley and the library:
Before giving libraries, I waited until I had this useless dross that men call money, because it is useless until it is put to some good use, and he could not wait. His love for the cause impelled him to give, and he actually borrowed money—borrowed the money, I say, to build this magnificent structure.
The Peavey Memorial Library in Eastport, Maine, has a story, too: not a Carnegie story, but one that is romantic and similar in its origin. In the late 1800s, Frank Peavey, a native Eastporter, built a library in honor of his father, Albert Peavey, who was born in Eastport and died there at just 35 years old, when Frank was only 9. Frank moved from Maine to the Midwest as a very young man, where he built a fortune in the grain industry. He invested in railroads and lake steamers, and also invented the first circular concrete grain elevator in the U.S. Peavey followed a kind of Carnegie model, with a twist. He built the library in Eastport on the condition that the residents of the town would stock it with 5,000 of their own books.
The library is a deep-red brick one-story building, designed in the Romanesque Revival style. Its main reading room, with a rounded bay on one end, looked to me like its best season would be winter, when people could sit, warm and cozy, reading newspapers or books. There is a collection of dictionaries along one wall of the room, including the massive 1,200-page Passamaquoddy-Maliseet-English Dictionary. It was published in 2008 and still stood proudly on a pedestal the first time I visited, in 2013. Today it remains on display in the reading room, looking a little more thumbed through.
Apart from the original entry and small room of the stacks of books, and an adjacent room with archives of Maine and maritime memorabilia, there is an addition for the children’s room, which doubles as the activities and programs room for the library.
When we visited Eastport this summer, I went to a program featuring one of the Tides Institute’s artists in residence, Ada Cruz, demonstrating gyotaku printmaking. Gyotaku? Imagine the equivalent of brass-rubbing of a fish. The room strained to hold the crowd, full of people eager to try a hand. Some of the overflow like me spilled outdoors to the book sale, where books were stacked in watertight rubber bins on tables in the backyard.
As for the rest of the programming, Dana Chevalier, the library’s director, says that it’s important for it to organize activities to get a lot of bang for its buck. It tries to be democratic (as libraries are!), integrating programs for young and old alike. The summer list of activities was chockablock and creative. In the high season of summer, when Eastport serves many tourists and summer residents as well as the year-round population, it had organized programs of paper cutting, gardening for health, rock painting, jewelry making, author talks, poetry, tote-bag stenciling, seaweed printmaking, chess, marbleized painting, paper beads, talk about vaping, astronomy, faux stained-glass windows, and home coffee roasting, to name a few.
Eastport is not a wealthy town. And it is small, only about 1,300 year-round residents. That makes for challenges for the library, which operates on a lean budget. Chevalier is the only full-time employee. There is another part-time employee and a corps of loyal volunteers.
As in most public libraries, the computers and internet are crucial to this community. Many people in Eastport can’t afford computers and can’t afford high-speed internet connection. The Pew Research Center reports that for residents of rural areas (like Eastport), access to home broadband is much lower than for non-rural Americans. Some 58 percent of rural Americans subscribe to home broadband, compared with about 70 percent of urban and suburban residents. This is not just a data point for Eastport, explains Chevalier. “It is a reality for them.”
The most serious problem for the library now is its infrastructure: a damaged roof, some crumbling bricks, and problems around the main front entry.
The library is responding on many fronts to raise the money for the fixes. On the weekend we were there, a free music festival in the library’s backyard attracted lots of residents and tourists, who donated their dollars, which will be matched equally by a generous donor. The plywood thermometer sign in front of the library was at $10,000 when we arrived, and at $20,000 a week later. That was still a long way to go to the fundraising goal, which currently stands at about $640,000. The library also recently hired a grant writer from Bangor to see what it might win from outside the town.
I frequently stumble upon a surprise or two at the libraries I visit. In Eastport, the surprise was a young man named Andrew Wach, who was at the front desk on one of the days I stopped in. Andrew, who grew up in Miami, is stationed in this way-down-east town on a four-year tour of duty with the Coast Guard. He told me that he and the others are encouraged to participate in the town, so they sometimes come over to help move heavy things around in the library. Andrew, a boatswain’s mate, is taking this several steps further. He’s thinking of going to library school when he finishes with the Coast Guard, he said, and he is volunteering at the library regularly now as a way to see and test out the realities of library work for himself.
My husband, Jim, keeps writing that the United States is in the middle of a second Gilded Age, parallel to the half century that followed the American Civil War. Now, as then, technology is creating huge new fortunes, while disrupting or destroying long-established businesses. Now, as then, migration within the country and around the world is rapidly changing communities. Now, as then, national-level politics is struggling (and usually failing) to keep up with events.
One of the outcomes of that era, he also keeps pointing out, is that it eventually triggered many broad waves of reform—in women’s suffrage, through the labor movement, in good-government efforts, in the struggle for civil rights for African Americans and other minorities. And even before that, it spawned the generation of philanthropists, led by Andrew Carnegie, who resolved to use some of their wealth to address the most acute problems of that age.
I wish the Eastport library, Andrew Wach, and the librarians of the future well. And I hope they and their counterparts around the country attract the attention of this era’s potential Carnegies.
We were flying away from Washington D.C. again, leaving the Sturm und Drang of our hometown in early August for a point nearly as far east on the U.S. map as one can get. It is “Down East,” in the vernacular of Maine, and the town of Eastport, where residents say the sun first rises over the United States, as does the moon, which gets far too little attention.
In Eastport, it is difficult to rise before the fishermen do; they are often out by dawn, returning with a catch before most of us see the sun, and then they head to the local Waco Diner, which is ready for them with bacon and coffee.
Close in to shore this morning, seagulls cry back and forth to each other. Winches lower lobster traps onto boats for setting in the bay. A few townspeople arrive at the new town pier in pickups stocked with their fishing gear. They cast their lines some six feet down from the pier to the water at high tide, and as much as 25 at low tide. The tidal difference is greatest when the moon is full, as it is now. I watched the fishermen catching mackerel, smelt, and herring for their dinner tables.
The port’s pilot boat glides silently offshore; I know a big ship is scheduled to arrive at the port this week, maybe like the Industrial Ruby, which came and went last week, loaded up with wood pulp for China. It’s a Dutch-built and -owned ship, registered in Liberia, with Russian and Ukrainian officers and a Filipino crew.
Many elements in Eastport help you touch the whole world, in a hugely romantic way rather than the fearing and dark way in which many elements in our hometown touch the world. Ships heading for China; evening flights departing the east coast for early arrivals in London or maybe Paris, their lights flickering and their huge jet engines barely whispering in our ears.
Canada is right across the water; from Eastport, you see the island of Campobello, where Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt spent summers with their family. Within a few days in August of 1921, FDR contracted a sudden series of symptoms that were finally diagnosed as polio. Eventually, he was ferried across the water to Eastport, and taken by train to New York. His dark-red house with the dark-green roof, surprisingly comfortably rambling, still stands at the top of lawns that slope down to the water. His small sailboat sits dry on the lawn. The trains have long since gone away.
On land, workers are hammering at Eastport’s 1887 Masonic Block, owned by the Tides Institute, replacing the crumbling wood beams with monstrous steel ones to keep the building standing for two centuries more, at least. It’s worth the trouble to be sure that the west side of Water Street remains solid with its row of red brick buildings.
Just uphill is the Peavey Memorial Library, which desperately needs some attention like the Masonic Block is getting so that more of Peavey’s bricks don’t crumble. Like many other public libraries, they are looking every which way to find the funds for this. There was a music festival behind the library all weekend, free but for library donations. There’s a thermometer drawn on a poster out front marking donations rising like degrees, and according to the Quoddy Tides, Eastport’s biweekly paper, a grant writer from Bangor, Maine, has been hired to seek money from outside Eastport.
Getting to Eastport from just about anywhere requires some planning and purpose. For us, it was easier than for most others. In a Cirrus, it takes about three and a half hours from D.C., which seems miraculous compared with some 14 hours of driving. We are immensely grateful for this plane.
It was a very warm and beautiful Friday afternoon to fly. From a view of 2,500 feet above the ground, everyone along the East Coast seemed to be out enjoying life in America. Through Maryland and Pennsylvania, swimming pools were swarming with clusters of tiny dots of swimmers. On inland lakes, small boats buzzed about. The mighty Susquehanna and Hudson were fairly quiet; maybe weekend boaters were not yet on the water. Beaches along the Maine coast, where the water is very, very cold, were bright with colorful umbrellas.
The skies were busy; some fliers enjoying the day like we were, and others trying to get somewhere for the weekend as fast as possible. For four hours along the mid-Atlantic, the air traffic controllers (ATC), my heroes of the skies, warned pilots half a dozen times of parachuters out for adventure. “Let me know when you have jumpers away,” the ATC would request the pilot of the adventure trip, and then pass along the crucial information to us. The ATC would occasionally speak to us: “Vector 20 degrees to the right to avoid jumpers.” I find it a little unnerving when jumpers are in the air near us. We always scour the skies, but never once have seen jumpers.
Even Air Force One was on the move that day. There was a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) in place that afternoon around both Bedminster, New Jersey (for golf), and Long Island (for a private fundraiser). We skirted a bit to the west to avoid the TFR, grateful that we hadn’t been caught on the ground for the long delay, which has happened to us a few times before.
I was surprised by the affluence of the American look. Not only the recreational part of it, but also the infrastructure. We spotted so many schools; sprawling complexes with new buildings in star-shaped designs, with baseball diamonds, football and soccer fields, even some outdoor swimming pools, and spacious parking lots suggesting many kids drove their own cars rather than riding in school buses. There were many rather mysterious industrial buildings, revealing few clues of what actually went on inside. Big buildings, oddly shaped; few cars; probably public buildings of some sort, but never rusty and colorless like those we grew accustomed to seeing when we lived in China. These were often freshly painted, in shades of gentle blues and greens. Happy-looking, if impersonal, buildings were surrounded by mowed and tended lawns.
Not all was affluent, and not all was lovely. Herringbone patterns of mobile homes looked fragile and makeshift. Prisons were plentiful. And in Portland, Maine, where we stopped to refuel, we knew many frustrated passengers sat inside the commercial planes on the taxiways, in line for take-off right behind us. We listened to the ATC talk with the pilot of one flight, saying something like: “Wow, you’re still here? I thought you’d be gone by the time I got back from lunch.” Then followed by, “Don’t shoot the messenger, but La Guardia just put on another hold. They say they’ll have an update in about an hour.” Even though we were only looking at the plane, I could almost hear the collective groan from the cabin full of passengers as they would receive this news from the captain.
What happens when a meme becomes a terrorist movement?
On May 29, two federal security officers guarding a courthouse in Oakland, California, were ambushed by machine-gun fire as elsewhere in the city demonstrators marched peacefully to protest the killing of George Floyd. One of the guards, David Patrick Underwood, died as a result of the attack, and the other was wounded. For days, conservative news broadcasters pinned the blame on “antifa,” the loosely affiliated group of anti-fascist anarchists known to attack property and far-right demonstrators at protests. But the alleged culprit, apprehended a week later, turned out to be a 32-year-old Air Force sergeant named Steven Carrillo, the head of a squadron called the Phoenix Ravens, which guards military installations from terrorist attacks.
Imagine if the National Transportation Safety Board investigated America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Coping with a pandemic is one of the most complex challenges a society can face. To minimize death and damage, leaders and citizens must orchestrate a huge array of different resources and tools. Scientists must explore the most advanced frontiers of research while citizens attend to the least glamorous tasks of personal hygiene. Physical supplies matter—test kits, protective gear—but so do intangibles, such as “flattening the curve” and public trust in official statements. The response must be global, because the virus can spread anywhere, but an effective response also depends heavily on national policies, plus implementation at the state and community level. Businesses must work with governments, and epidemiologists with economists and educators. Saving lives demands minute-by-minute attention from health-care workers and emergency crews, but it also depends on advance preparation for threats that might not reveal themselves for many years. I have heard military and intelligence officials describe some threats as requiring a “whole of nation” response, rather than being manageable with any one element of “hard” or “soft” power or even a “whole of government” approach. Saving lives during a pandemic is a challenge of this nature and magnitude.
In France, where I live, the virus is under control. I can hardly believe the news coming out of the United States.
I returned to Paris with my family three months after President Emmanuel Macron had ordered one of the world’s most aggressive national quarantines, and one month after France had begun to ease itself out of it. When we exited the Gare Montparnasse into the late-spring glare, after a season tucked away in a rural village with more cows than people as neighbors, it was jarring to be thrust back into the world as we’d previously known it, to see those café terraces overflowing again with smiling faces.
My first reaction was one of confused frustration as we drove north across the river to our apartment. The city had been culled of its tourists, though it was bustling with inhabitants basking in their reclaimed freedom. Half at most wore masks; the other half evinced indifference. We were in the midst of a crisis, I complained to my wife. Why were so many people unable to maintain even minimal discipline?
The president’s mindless nationalism has come to this: Americans are not welcome in Europe or Mexico.
There is a lot of learned material written about nationalism—scholarly books and papers, histories of it, theories of it—but most of us understand that nationalism, at its heart, at its very deepest roots, is about a feeling of superiority: We are better than you. Our country is better than your country. Or even—and apologies, but this is the precise language deployed by the president of the United States: Your country is a shithole country. Ours isn’t.
In this sense, nationalism is not patriotism, which is the desire to work on behalf of your fellow citizens, to defend common values, to build something positive. Nationalism is not community spirit either, which seeks to pull people together. Nationalism has nothing to do with democratic values: Authoritarians can be nationalists; indeed, most are. Nationalism has nothing to do with the rule of law, justice, or opportunity. At its core, nationalism is rather a competition, an ugly and negative competition. There’s a reason nationalists build walls, denigrate foreigners, and denounce immigrants: Because our people are better than those people. There’s a reason nationalism has so often become violent in the past. For if we—our nation—are better, then what right do others have to live beside us? Or to occupy land that we covet? Or even, maybe, to live at all?
The disease’s “long-haulers” have endured relentless waves of debilitating symptoms—and disbelief from doctors and friends.
For Vonny LeClerc, day one was March 16.
Hours after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson instated stringent social-distancing measures to halt the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, LeClerc, a Glasgow-based journalist, arrived home feeling shivery and flushed. Over the next few days, she developed a cough, chest pain, aching joints, and a prickling sensation on her skin. After a week of bed rest, she started improving. But on day 12, every old symptom returned, amplified and with reinforcements: She spiked an intermittent fever, lost her sense of taste and smell, and struggled to breathe.
When I spoke with LeClerc on day 66, she was still experiencing waves of symptoms. “Before this, I was a fit, healthy 32-year-old,” she said. “Now I’ve been reduced to not being able to stand up in the shower without feeling fatigued. I’ve tried going to the supermarket and I’m in bed for days afterwards. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.” Despite her best efforts, LeClerc has not been able to get a test, but “every doctor I’ve spoken to says there’s no shadow of a doubt that this has been COVID,” she said. Today is day 80.
Power comes before freedom, not the other way around.
His impatience had thinned like the length of his letters back home to his wife, Abigail, in Boston. On June 7, 1776, John Adams finally had the opportunity to second the resolution that led to the Declaration of Independence at the Second Continental Congress. Though it was drafted by Thomas Jefferson, the declaration’s editors and defenders behind history’s scenes piloted its approval on July 2, mostly notably Adams.
He pleased his wife, Abigail, impatient, too, as she was about declaring independence that year. But she desired more. “In the new Code of Laws … I desire you would Remember the Ladies,” she wrote to him on March 31, 1776. “If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no … Representation.”
In the beach towns south of Melbourne, everyone, it seems, knows someone who’s been attacked.
About a week after Steven Mikac began taking antibiotics for the strange spot on his leg, the flesh around his ankle started to tighten and swell. The moist orifice of a wound opened up and took the form of a small bullet hole. A plug of tissue had gone missing—dissolved into pus and slime. Walking was excruciating. Working, unbearable. In early October of last year, Mikac showed his ankle to a colleague at the hospital where he works in Melbourne, in the Australian state of Victoria. She suggested that it might be Buruli ulcer—a disease caused by a strain of flesh-eating bacteria.
Though Mikac had seen local television reports about an outbreak of this tropical disease in Victoria, it sounded so freakish, so unlikely, that he hardly considered it a possibility. But like hundreds of Australians before him, he was about to become all too familiar with Buruli, a slow-moving horror show that has proved, in many ways, even more baffling to infectious-disease researchers than the novel coronavirus. After decades of research, scientists still aren’t certain who, or what, is spreading this strange malady around the world.
People complain that going to the shore is a careless act during a pandemic, but the science so far suggests otherwise.
We’ve entered another risky, uncertain phase of America’s pandemic summer. COVID-19 cases are surging across most states, and once again, intensive-care units are filling up. Eighteen states have either paused or rolled back their plans to reopen, and even Republican governors who previously resisted public-health guidelines about masks are now asking people to mask up.
So why on Earth do so many articles about this crisis feature pictures of people frolicking on wide-open beaches? Why is an attorney dressed as the grim reaper bothering beachgoers in Jacksonville, Florida? Why are cities such as Los Angeles shutting down beaches?
The answer, unfortunately, goes a long way to explain why, of all the developed, rich nations, the United States may well be stuck in the worst-case scenario, and for the longest amount of time.
The writer and activist has the painful, powerful words for this political moment. America just needs to heed them.
“There are days—this is one of them—when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it. How, precisely, are you going to reconcile yourself to your situation here and how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here. I’m terrified at the moral apathy, the death of the heart, which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I’m human. And I base this on their conduct, not on what they say. And this means that they have become in themselves moral monsters.”
James Baldwin made this somber observation more than 50 years ago. I included these words in my film I Am Not Your Negro, which explored Baldwin’s searing assessment of American society through the lens of the assassination of three of his friends: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. It is a film that cruelly shortens time and space between acts of police brutality in Birmingham in 1963 and images of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of Michael Brown; recent images of protests over the death of George Floyd extend that tragic connection to the present-day.
Revolutionary imagery is ubiquitous right now. But real structural change involves more than the toppling of statues, and what happens next is a matter of chance.
Three months ago, a global pandemic and a sudden economic crisis looked grave enough to suggest that something—if not a revolution, then at least the stirrings of a revolutionary era—was under way. Since then, the revolt against the pre-coronavirus status quo has only gained force. Crowds chanting “Black lives matter” and “Enough is enough” have marched all across the country. Statues have been toppled, buildings have been renamed, and pollsters report that public opinion has shifted with almost unprecedented speed. In Ferguson, Missouri, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, protesters carried a guillotine. As a historian of the French Revolution, I can’t help but pay attention to guillotines (adopted in the 1790s as an alternative to the cruel and unusual punishment of death by hanging). If the United States right now is not in the early months of a revolution, Americans are certainly surrounded by the signs of past ones.