Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: The Two Maines

The journal Science in November 2009 published a research article on happiness, attempting to rank its prevalence by state. Supposedly, this research compared what people said against objective measures “known” to affect happiness (weather, population density, air quality, home prices, etc.). You'll be happy to know that Louisiana was the number 1 happy state and New York was number 51 (the survey included the District of Columbia). My own home states, Maine and Massachusetts, checked in at number 10 and number 43, respectively. Eight of the top ten were warm-weather states.
This study contrasts with a happiness survey taken by Gallup in the same month that relied only on what people said. Here the happiest states were the wealthiest and the most tolerant, with Utah first and West Virginia last. Massachusetts was 8th and Maine 29th. Even taking into account people's ability to lie, especially to themselves, these data seem more representative.
May I say first that if we believe that happiness can be measured objectively by weather and house prices, such as Science claims, we should change our species name to Homo superficialis. (Also, Derek Bok in his book The Politics of Happiness, says that high GDP is no predictor of happiness.)
Second, by the objective measures, Maine is a great place to live, but the people don’t think so. I wonder if the surveys corrected for the two Maines, the splits between coastal Maine (Kittery to Acadia but not past Acadia, for “way Down East” is as poor as any inland hamlet) and the rest of the state, between natives and summer people, between north and south, between poor and well-off.  A state of mind can be so much more pleasant than a state of body.
       At present there seems to be a reasonable truce between the various “twos,” but I doubt there’s much commerce among them except in the money sense. The tourist industry is still Maine’s biggest. E.B. Whites and Henry Bestons are rare, even possibly extinct, a casualty of the new social ecology of increasing class differences. Yet the mildness of the relationship is typified in the old saying, “Summer people and some are not.”

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour

My friend, marvellous poet K.T. Landon, asked me to contribute to this blog tour.

1) What are you working on?
A book based on my journals from the two-plus years I spent in Peace Corps Korea. The place is popping up 40 years later, in a couple of personal essays about Maine (!). I’m not sure why it’s bothering me now, but I’m finding out.
2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?
I mostly work on familiar essays, in which I take common subjects in nature and see what happens if I let my imagination go. I suppose this is nature writing, which puts me in a category often too revered or too reviled. I try to avoid those extremes: the pathetic fallacy, for example, which is deadly (and which has been done without peer by Thoreau anyway) or too much outdoors ecstasy, which lasts only seconds in the first place and in the second place, writing about it is rather like writing about music. So I try to get facts in there, and connections to the world in general and me in particular, and maybe a bit of a narrative. Therefore, I greatly admire writers like Annie Dillard and Robert Finch.
3) Why do you write what you do?
In spite of the above, I’m entranced with the natural world, especially the shores and hills and forests and rivers of Maine. Much of my writing has an environmental focus and is a natural extension of the volunteer work I do with a land trust. Persuasion is my game, the trick being to avoid preaching, which as a recovering Calvinist I have to fight all the time. I’m convinced that we forsake our genetic and spiritual connections to nature at our great peril.
4) How does your writing process work?
Since I split my life between Massachusetts and Maine, I have different routines. In Maine, I’m a morning writer (assuming no land trust duties), two to three hours between breakfast and lunch, usually in my JFK rocker in the living room, but increasingly – one does get older, one is allowed – on the couch. The view is of Penobscot Bay in either case. I usually start by reading and revising what happened the day before (turn off the Internet!). Afternoons are for the body: errands, meetings, gardens, naps. In Massachusetts the routine is reversed (I don’t know why) but there I also take over the living room (thanks, honey!). I write on the computer, since my hand crashes cursive.
A new familiar subject gets basic Internet research first, then I let the notes and facts and trends ferment for a day or two. Connections start to pour off. If I do have any talent, that’s it, seeing connections to philosophy and religion and daily life and memories and last night’s nightmare and this morning’s daydream. I believe in a kind of ecology of poetics – everything is connected, dependent, related – in which the crux of art is to pursue only what’s important, or to put it another way, to understand which mutations of our ecosystems might last. Far too often, however, I diverge like crazy, seeing too many connections, tending to write them all down, deleting, restoring, and trying to make them dance together. When I can no longer see the dance for the dancers, I give it to my editor and she rescues the set.

Finally, I should say that a daily walk is essential to the process. Sometimes I don’t think in words at all, just images, in the eye or in the brain, of moss or surf or a Victorian painted lady or a mass of phlox along a suburban garden wall, or if I’m really lucky, a fox or deer or eagle. Mostly though, I review and regurgitate and even sometimes compose, and the ideas and sentences that survive the walk find themselves in the computer as soon as I return, ready to be taken out again tomorrow.

Monday, September 1, 2014


    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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