Monday, September 1, 2014

Right-lane-ness

    The news from a couple of weeks ago, that the speed limit on the Maine Turnpike would increase from 65 to 70 mph, brought some despair in these parts. Not only does this mean poorer gas mileage, more pollution, and rising seas, but also that people will now drive 80, with impunity. Yesterday, as I was driving back to Massachusetts from Maine, I indeed found this to be true. But I also discovered a hidden benefit in the disaster.
     Being a conscientious hyper-miler, and approaching codger-hood, I've been driving no faster than 65 on the Turnpike for some years now. I've added months, perhaps years, to my life, I'm sure, by avoiding the stress of all those autocidal maniacs in the left lanes, more than enough to offset the extra 20 minutes the trip now takes. A further goal, besides achieving 48 mpg and extending Social Security and calculating arrival times and trying to forget how much I'll miss Maine, is to hit cruise control after the toll plaza in South Portland, and for the next 35 miles, until the toll plaza in Kittery, never to touch a pedal, gas or brake, never to leave the nirvana of the right lane, passing no one even in steady traffic. It's well possible because almost everybody exceeds the speed limit to my left, leaving me pleasantly and calmly tootling along. I've done it, too, twice, and although yesterday didn't quite measure up - I had to pass a woman in a Prius and an ancient VW Eurovan camper stuffed with tents and hippies, all nice people, I'm sure, and so I forgave them for their ignorance of my mission - I can now see that the increased speed limit will greatly contribute to my hopes for more success in the future.For people were driving really fast, well over 80 (cars from Connecticut, especially Audis, being the main culprits, and New York and Massachusetts rounding out the top three), leaving the right lane pretty deserted.
     I did not calculate how many cars I was forced to pass after Kittery. There were too many merges, ramps, bridges, construction blocks, and New Hampshire drivers to attain heaven. For the hell of it, I tried the second rightmost lane in northern Massachusetts: and yes, I was steadily and frequently passed both left and right, in a kind of purgatory of impatience. And of course once one reaches the part of I-95 known as Route 128, bypassing Boston, the right lane becomes an invitation to suicide, and one must drive like a maniac just to stay alive.
     There is one potential drawback to the new and blessedly empty state of right-lane-ness. It was so open that a few maniacs were using it to pass immense blockages of three, even four cars insolent enough to drive under 80 in the left lanes. I'm sorry to report that these were mostly New Yorkers.
     Finally, I can report that your average peppermint lozenge, sucked at a moderate rate (no crunching), lasts 7.8 miles at 65 mph. Next time I'll try for 8 mpp.
     I guess I was really missing Maine, on the last day of August.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Artists

Artists are thick on the ground. Ever since Frederic Church and Thomas Cole, painters have done more to romanticize and publicize the beauties of Maine than any other group. The famous ones are intimately identified with iconic parts of the state: Winslow Homer with Prouts Neck, Marsden Hartley, the self-described “painter from Maine” (he was born in Lewiston) with Mt. Katahdin, Rockwell Kent and George Bellows with Monhegan Island, Robert Indiana with Vinalhaven, Andrew Wyeth with Cushing, Jamie Wyeth with Monhegan and Tenants Harbor. The trouble with Maine art is that it takes a genius to overcome the very strong stereotypes. As with every art form, there is a huge range of talent and expression, but when looking in gallery windows I'm always struck by the strong and universal and repetitive need to capture our common icons of surf, lobster pot and pointed fir. The worst of the efforts are indeed like capture: trite phrases and brushstrokes, perspective angles set off like little cages. The best snap you out of the frame instantly and into the mind of the image. But at least the act of trying, in either case, makes even the most ordinary seascape speak out loud with allusions.
Andrew Wyeth represents the Maine art dilemma perfectly. The New York Times, upon his death in 2009, led off its story with “Andrew Wyeth, one of the most popular and also most lambasted artists in the history of American art….” The Olson house in Christina’s World is so famous that it is no longer real. It has gone beyond reality into some iconic State of Maine Mind, along with crashing surf and lobster dinners and the noble moose. Some of this has to do with Wyeth himself, who painted with a sentimentality that ranged from bracing to boring. The rest has to do with our worship of icons, living or otherwise. We seem to need physics to refresh spirits. Seeing and touching and photographing a house, even today, even when it’s institutionalized as part of the Farnsworth Museum, conjures up the faith in what that object meant to Wyeth, and by extension, to us.

So it's easy and comforting to confuse Christina's World and our world. And that is Wyeth's genius, whether you agree with it or not. He took the ordinary and made it iconic, he painted one place hundreds of times and made it universal. I don't particularly like the way he gets there, but the sanctity of the effort can make me weep. I am proud to worship in the house of commitment – and the way people are committed to the state represents Maine to me more than almost anything else.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Thoreau

Since 1936 Maine’s license plate slogan has been “Vacationland,” but people have been coming to Maine since long before that to fulfill spiritual or psychological needs unmet in cities and plains. I imagine one could blame Thoreau, even though he was hardly a marketing success in his lifetime. The first edition of The Maine Woods in 1854 compiled three magazine essays – “Ktaadn,” “Chesuncook,” and “The Allagash and East Branch” – into a book printed by Ticknor and Fields in Boston and published mostly at his own expense. (He said about his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “I have 900 volumes in my library, 700 of which I wrote myself.”) The second edition was published in 1864, shortly after his death, as a tribute from his friends. And after his lifetime? He’s achieved the closest possible definition of immortality outside of the impossible religious one.
His books by now are famous and have influenced millions, but it’s in the Journals that I started to understand why he’s so inspirational. I’ve dipped into them and am dumbfounded by the discipline, if not by the language. For nearly every day of his life since his 20s, Thoreau recorded several pages of painstaking and quixotic notes and drawings of the worlds – fields, forests, rivers, mountains; birds, flowers, weeds, mammals; Concord, Cape Cod, Katahdin, Olympus - around him. From there the essays spring, ornate and passionate. And the books, just collections of his essays, perhaps his feeble attempt at fame in his lifetime, were ironically un-saleable. His undying genius lay in the daily discipline of the word.
I found as I read The Maine Woods that inspiration is not necessarily in the text. It’s not so spell-binding a book that you have to put it down every once in a while and hug it to your chest in selfish, goose-bumpy loneliness. For modern readers Thoreau is a mixed blessing. Often he indulges in long stretches of the densely particular, pages and pages of arcane description of portages, for example, and then jumps precipitously to long flights of the grandiose, including a great deal of obscure mythology. Half of the second essay in the book, "Chesuncook," seems to be devoted to the moose, a magnificent animal to be sure, but not in the same league as Agamemnon. He is fascinated by his Indian guides, but there’s that modicum of 19th century condescension. The language tends to be flowery, except for the occasional terse and passionate epigram.
       It doesn’t matter: it’s the idea of Thoreau that’s so compelling - the romantic view of Walden and Maine, the passion for observation and writing, the aphorisms, reliance on self and (occasionally, humbly) on his famous friends and patrons, the commitment to art and nature and science all at once. He is superlative, the perfect embodiment of the ancient Greek and Roman concept of a Genius or Daimon guiding each person, the most brilliant attempt to make the connections between nature and spirit, the bravest resolve to make a sojourn away from pettiness, to live the way life should be no matter where you live it. He is so unself-conscious as to say in the Journal, “I felt a positive yearning towards one bush this afternoon. There was a match for me at last. I fell in love with a shrub oak."  That’s the vision that brings millions of people to Maine, to capture as much or as little of it as their other lives can stand.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: The Amish

There is one current example of an “invasion” by foreigners that is both welcome and inspiring. In 2009, the Amish started moving into the area around Unity and buying farms. They’ve come from various places in the Midwest and Canada, and even a few from the other two towns in Maine that boast them, Smyrna and Easton in Aroostook County. Unity seems the perfect place for Amish, including its name: lovely, rolling countryside with good soil and plenty of water; friendly, tolerant people; Unity College and its heavy focus on environmental studies. Any people who completely eschew electricity in their houses are environmentalists at their very core.
I've often wondered about the relationship between religion and conservation. Humans are enjoined to be good stewards, and it should be a natural fit, but so often those who believe in the Bible forget the one in favor of the other, dominion over the earth, etc, etc. There is a movement to revive the relationship, but in today's fractured and splintering world, I can't see that the religious right will ever take the earth seriously again.
Religion aside, the life of the Amish is very compelling. They believe in books. They grow organic food. They make wonderful furniture. They build windmills to run their compressed-air engines, or charge battery packs. Family care is paramount. A sign in one of their houses in Unity reads: "To be content with little is hard, to be content with much is impossible.’’
       Lifestyle aside, the religion of the Amish is not very compelling, mostly I suppose because it's similar to the dark Calvinist tradition in which I was raised. But the Amish have managed to bring light into the gloom. They've done what few can accomplish - marry word and deed.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
Kindle                    Smashwords                        Nook