Getting to yes

Sometimes, when I’m talking to my son, I become aware of my own voice and the words coming out of my mouth.

I don’t always like the sound.

It’s bitter to the ear.

Too often, the sound I hear when I talk to him is “no.”

Elias, my only son who turns 8 on Friday, is high energy, high demand and high octane. His engine has two speeds: full ahead and full stop. He somersaults from one thing to the next at break-neck speed.

No – too dangerous. No – too fast.

No – too much. No – bad idea.

No – we can’t go to Funtown Splashtown USA.

No – not right now, maybe when I finish work.

I need to work on finding ways to say “yes.” To get out of the habit of the easy answer and to find a better balance between being a good parent and a scold. Right now, I feel like I’m heavy on scold.

In that way, my tendency toward “no” might be a reasonable metaphor for our state.

As a people and as a community we need to find ways to say “yes” a little more often.

Certainly, like a parent telling his son not to ride his bike in the middle of the road, we can’t say “yes” every time. But we need to put in the work to get to more yeses.

When you start out with a “no,” it’s much harder to find middle ground or to move on from the initial rejection.

It can be hard. It takes listening, compromising and sometimes giving up parts of what we want. It means working together for solutions that aren’t self-apparent and that might make some of our friends unhappy, at least in the short-term.

Almost anyone can say “no.” It takes no effort, no energy, no thought. It’s easy and a default answer when we’re too tired or scared or indifferent to do better.

As Maine struggles to recover from a recession that really set our state back, I’m troubled by our willingness to say “no” to so many things. While any single project or idea might be bad or marginal, we seem predisposed to oppose.

Consider liquid natural gas in Washington County, a new tank at Searsport, offshore wind energy, the east-west highway, wind farms, a new building downtown, a new park near Katahdin.

On their own, it might be perfectly reasonable to oppose any of these.

I, for one, have real questions about the viability of an east-west highway and the environmental damage it could cause. I didn’t really follow the Searsport tank fight to keep a new, bigger tank from joining the tanks already there, and I am deeply committed to the clean, renewable energy that wind power can create.

But we seem to start at “no,” which makes it very hard to ever get to “yes.”

We might not all agree on which project is worthwhile and which isn’t.

But, taken together, we have said “no” or fought like hell to say “no.” Can we agree to build anything, anywhere for any purpose?

I wonder if today we could build the Interstate Highway System, lighthouses or Baxter State Park, assets that make our state better and more vibrant.

When the Wind Energy Act was being developed, the goal was to identify those places that were better suited for the development of wind energy projects and then create a predictable set of rules to govern development there.

The process, set up by Gov. John Baldacci, my old boss, was inclusive and exhaustive. So much so that the Legislature adopted the legislation unanimously. The goal was simple: to set up a framework that protected our most special places but also recognized the need to find some place where we could get to “yes.” It then put in place predictable rules, so everyone would know what to expect.

While the act might not be perfect, it’s worked to bring new investment, new sources of clean energy and new jobs to the state.

Right now, the folks who oppose new things are often the most vocal and the most organized, while folks who support ideas – but aren’t outraged by them or really engaged – stay on the sidelines or are drowned out by the negativity and the conflict.

We need to broaden that discourse, and we need to draw fewer lines in the sand and start listening to each other a little bit more.

This is my last column, at least for a while. Between now and the next time I write, I’m going to work harder on finding ways to say “yes.”

Starting right now: Yes, Elias, we can go to the demolition derby Friday night. And instead of just saying “no,” maybe we should talk about why it’s not a good idea to enter mom’s car.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at