Thursday, October 30, 2008

Fund Raising

We'll be back in Maine this weekend for Parents' Weekend at Bowdoin. Two weeks ago it was Parents' Weekend at Union. It's always a hoot to experience the various appeals to contribute to endowment drives from colleges to which we're already paying many thousands a year. You'd think they would at least have the decency to wait until after graduation. And why the parents of students? Are we that grateful to them for accepting our children?

It must be about the rankings. The two colleges together have well more than $1 billion (which would fund the entire State of Maine's operating budget for nearly half a year) so they really don't need more. Or do they? They're always building something, of course. Maybe the real goal is to cover every inch of campus with something, impressing US NEWS and alumni alike.

So it was kind of refreshing to see the Calvin College fund raising banners earlier this month. Better than Much Higher Rankings: Stocks and Bond Increasing Our Position.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fall


It was the end of a perfect day and our favorite view was especially beautiful at dusk. Not that you can tell it's autumn from this picture: one of the great things about the ocean is that a particular scene can be almost the same in all seasons. (Or it can be amazingly different.) Outside the camera's eye there's the browning grass and the decaying gardens and the falling yellowed birch leaves, but the picture still gives us summer or spring, a useful fantasy as we face the darkness and uncertainty of winter.

Things seem to fall in October, leaves, spirits, markets. I happen to think Maine is pretty damn nice all year round but can't deny how special summer is. But rejoice! Last week, after only 14 years of living with the wood stove, I at last read the owner's manual in some detail and figured out how to distinguish an updraft fire from a horizontal fire, how to manipulate the damper and the air supply and the thermostat at the back, and not incidentally (duh!) how to make the house much warmer with much less wood. Nothing like a crisis (the propane bill had just arrived) to bring out the best in us. Bring it on, winter - we're going to be cozy, less sweatered, and less poor.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Maiden Cliff



The white cross appears to be religious but is actually a memorial to a young girl who fell off the cliff in 1862. I expect the cross was erected as much for the spiritual marvel of the views as for the salvation of a soul. Thoughts of heaven pale in comparison with the beauty of the earth. We can see the rest of the Camden Hills, the peculiar little islands of Lake Megunticook, the million dollar houses on its shores, even the ocean and the peninsula of Owls Head, all available after only a mile's climb. No wonder the town keeps repairing and replacing the cross for all these years. It draws tourists much better than neon.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Bates Street


This is my grandmother's former house in Grand Rapids, MI. She bought it shortly after WWII when she had to leave Minnesota on the death of her husband and the loss of her farm. Mother's mother was a strong and stern woman although not with her grandchildren, and she was pleased to let me stay in her house, occasionally during my freshman year in college when I worked second shift at the nearby hospital, and for my whole sophomore year. I slept in the tiniest of rooms at the back, until my Uncle Henry, the first son after three daughters, the bachelor, the one who lived with Grandma, the one perhaps she was hardest on (and her children included an apostate Bowdoin professor and a near-radical in New Jersey!), until Henry gave in temporarily to his devils and was institutionalized. His room (see the window to the right of the door) was slightly larger than the cubby off the kitchen, maybe 6 feet by 10, and was the location of my own dark nights and eventual break with the tradition of those who loved me.

Henry eventually got a little better and moved to Maine in the 80s, to Richmond in a halfway house, under the sponsorship of his brother in Brunswick. It didn't last very long, and he ended up at Togus VA Medical Center, in a locked ward, and finally in a pond, drowned. On my travels through Maine I would often drive past Togus, and think of his death and funeral and grave, but it took this trip back to Grand Rapids, to see the old house and to understand that maybe we both thought of Maine as a place of refuge, both of us escaping devils, his old Satan, mine a few corporate imps. I'm very sorry that not even Maine could heal him.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Cabin


On our way to Traverse City a couple of weeks ago, we stopped in Baldwin to try to find the vacation cabin of my youth. Things hadn't really changed that much in the area, Baldwin being kind of stuck in no man's land in the middle of the state, but it still took a couple of passes on Route 37 before we found the access road, still unpaved but now graced with a street sign, West Harmony Lane. The road still wound down the hill towards the river, the power lines still hummed, the several driveways to the right still approximated my memories, but when we reached what had to be the place, I almost advised Cindy to turn around and try again. It was completely transformed, from a simple log cabin with a falling down garage, to a semi-fancy year-round house, with pole barn and gardening shed.
This wasn't its first transformation. My parents sold the cabin to someone who apparently (as they reported on a clandestine visit some years later) covered the place in yellow siding, as if nothing was safe from suburbia. The current owners at least made it look like a cabin again.
The river in front, the Little South Branch of the Pere Marquette, looked essentially the same, however. The dream had not changed. We owned the cabin for almost all my teenage years, and my longing for it, for trout fishing in the river, for summer in the verdant woods, for family time away from small-town Minnesota, away from the dry and inhospitable prairie, was almost indescribable. I felt as I did when we started coming to Maine: pure escape, from corporate pressures which indeed are quite like small-town life, from ambition, from public responsibilities.
I still think of the cabin as a savior, and expected upon returning and finding it again to be overwhelmed by grace. I was even nervous, as if I was about to give a presentation. It didn't happen. I was happy to see it, of course, but being saved when you're fifteen and being saved when you're fifty is a different level of heaven. Still, as we said goodbye to the current owners and drove out the driveway, I gave a little prayer of thanks to the place that prepared me for Maine.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore



The area west of Traverse City, Michigan, I was very happy to discover earlier this month, is as spectacular as I remember when I visited in college. Back then there was energy to burn, to climb the wall of sand at the Dune Climb and hike in 3 miles to Lake Michigan, up and down over the dunes. I believe my party even slept out under the stars, without a plan for rain.

Almost 40 years later, we are not so adventurous but more appreciative. We slept in a comfortable bed, ate better than burgers and beans, took showers. Nonetheless, progress on a large scale has largely been thwarted at Sleeping Bear, leaving wind and sand and water and woods and dunes that at their highest point are nearly 500 feet above the lake (and the angle down is nearly 90). What towns there are are minuscule. It's very dark at night. Not so different in kind from Maine, one might say.


Except that it is, and not just for the immense dunes. It starts with Lake Michigan. It is of course freshwater, and swimmable all summer and into September, and large enough that, like the ocean, you can't see the other side. But I've never felt power and majesty as I do on the North Atlantic, not even when we were in Grand Haven during a wonderful blow.

The obvious difference is the tide; most of the time, the Great Lakes are quiet, sending small, consistent waves always hitting the same part of the shore. Most of their shores are sand, not rock. Because of the sand, the water color is a light blue, almost green in spots, almost tropical. I don't ever have the sense that monsters lurk beneath the surface. If there were monsters around, one didn't discuss them.

In many ways I'm happy I grew up in the Midwest, for the calmness, the placidity, a more phlegmatic approach to life. But when I'm in Maine, especially on a day like today (blustery, cold, whitecaps on the water, soft grey-blue the color of the clouds, hard slate-green the color of the sea), I find in the serene turbulence and sharp beauty of the place the sense of spiritual energy that the adversarial training of my childhood had no chance of instilling.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Hydraulics

In the back of my mind, as we've lollygagged out of state for a month, has lurked Hurrican Kyle. Kindly, he missed Maine and pommeled Canada back on September 28 but even "missing" means a lot of rain. And heavy rain means a small river of mud and sand down the driveway.

I've been slightly obsessed about water flow since early this year when a new pattern was established, to the detriment of the garage, the railroad-tie steps, and the brick walkway. Completely amateurish solutions, arrived at after thinking deeply and squinting along the driveway surface and damply observing run-off during light showers, involved the construction of canals bordered with stone and leftover bricks, which were immediately overcome by any precipitation falling harder than a shower and lasting longer than 10 minutes. The garage floor took a mudbath, the walkway turned from red to grey. I'm not looking forward to tomorrow when we'll see what Kyle hath wrought, and I take no comfort in the fact that the Panama Canal also has to be continually dredged.

I do take a little comfort in that these homespun, homemade approaches to the problem might make me a bit more of a real Mainer. For now, until another Bob (1991) comes along, and/or the steps fail completely, I'll resist the profe$$ional $olution of large machine$ and pla$tic tarp and 4.5 inche$ of white gravel. A man should be able to control his own destiny, unless of course it involves world finance, presidential politics, global warming or the music choices of one's children.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Regulation

I suppose it was good to be on vacation as the markets tanked. The temptation to check accounts isn't nearly as strong when you're with friends and relatives, or walking the beaches of Lake Michigan, or basking in a B&B near Sleeping Bear Dunes. We were good Americans, spending money, having fun, following the advice of our President in the face of disasters. What, me worry?
Now that we're temporarily finished with privatizing profit, socializing risk is in full swing. (Odd that the Republicans are in favor of both.) New regulations are the order of the day, and after driving through a number of the exurban areas of Michigan, I do hope that financial regulation is not the only category to gain more oversight. Mini-malls have taken over vast swatches of southeastern Grand Rapids, eastern Holland, southern Traverse City. It's as if there has been absolutely no regulation at all for years, resulting in incredible ugliness. We have these problems in the east, of course, but land is limited and further expansion is difficult. Farms and forests and wetlands seem to be valued. Environmental review has teeth. I wonder if such sentiments ever trouble the members of the zoning board of Allendale, Michigan.
The irony is that lack of regulation has not produced diversity, but a depressing sameness: the mini-malls are completely filled with national chains. A further irony for Michigan - irony is too mild, tragedy comes closer - is that it is in desperate shape. While we were there, McCain's campaign actually pulled out of the state. How awful, to be abandoned even by the Republicans! And now with the Big Three threatening to become the Big Two, it can only get worse. Yet development seems to continue unabated.
There are some incredibly beautiful places in Michigan, and still a lot of undeveloped land (probably the problem). Yet I get a sense of life on the edge, desires unchecked, a state reaching the end of the game and going into overtime. Maine is by no means perfect, but there's a strong feeling of place and respect for what's there, and precious, to be protected at all costs.