Thursday, December 31, 2009

The last of the naughties

Technically, I know, the decade still has a year to go, but it will be very satisfying tomorrow to get rid of those double zeroes. It's been an awful decade, full of such zeroes as ex-Presidents, negative markets, mindless sectarianism (religious and political), and needless wars. I'm not sure how we're going to improve. The Obama agenda is obviously the first step, if it ever gets through with any semblance of its original promise. May I also propose a healthy dose of Maine for the years to come? If you aren't as blessed as I am and can't live in the state for any length of time, or at least visit, here's my New Year's prescription.
  • Get outside. Breathe in clean air. Walk in the woods. Sit by the ocean and think.
  • Take life more slowly.
  • Be a little cussed, skeptical, independent.
  • Read books by the fire.
  • Cultivate your friends. Embrace your family.
  • Split wood.
  • Drink Moxie.
Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

More surveys

Tis the season, I guess. The latest survey from the Pew Research Center has to do with religion (as you'd expect with a name like Pew). It seems that people in the northern states, especially New England, are the least religious in the country, or at least most negative on the four statements of the survey (Religon is very important in my life; I attend religious services at least once a week; I pray at least once a day; I believe in God with absolute certainty). There may be many reasons for this but I'm more interested in what might be taking religion's place. With Maine (and Massachusetts) right down there at the bottom of the lists, I feel qualified to speculate:
  • Drinking. The fine glow from a gin-and-tonic or Allen's Coffee Flavored Brandy replaces a Christmas Eve service or a successful exit from the confessional. And hangovers are definitely Calvinistic.
  • Red Sox. Long, boring hours punctuated by little bursts of energy, just like church.
  • Law and Order reruns, especially SVU. Daily reminders of dark nights of the soul.
  • The Sunday newspaper. How convenient that it's delivered just in time to preclude church attendance! And lately the two even dwindle together.
  • Money. Getting it makes you feel either saved or damned. Ditto on spending it.
  • Alternative energy. The number of creeds and postulants and factions is rivalled only by the number of schisms in Protestantism. Each time the world will be saved.
  • Nature. The only thing worth believing any more? But what a thing! Is there anything so salutary as Penobscot Bay on a bright, late-August morning? So cleansing as snow-shoeing in dense woods? So holy as a pointed fir leaning over a pink granite ledge? God should be proud of us here in the North.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

"I am extremely disappointed"

Thus said Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine as the health care reform bill passed the Senate. Sen. Snowe thinks the bill was rushed through, is too costly, and could have benefited from a bipartisan process. She makes no mention of human facts: that her Maine constituents are among the nation's poorest, that Maine's population is the oldest, that Mainers pay very high health insurance premiums, that many Mainers forego insurance entirely and wait helplessly until Medicare is available. Nor does she mention that the state-run (as in "public option") program Dirigo Health, which subsidizes health-care costs for low-income people, has significantly lowered the percentage of the uninsured, now below 10% (compared to the US at around 16%).

Sen. Snowe, I am extremely disappointed in you (and of course in Susan Collins, Maine's other Senator, as well). There was some hope that you would be a part of the process, be a statesman and not a politician. Was the bill rushed through? Yes, because the Republicans' disinformation machine would have killed it given time. Will it be costly? Yes, but only in the short-term and actually quite cheap compared to the death panels of the Pentagon. Was the process bipartisan? No, for the Republicans have not shown themselves to be worthy of debate.

Maine's state motto is Dirigo - I lead. It doesn't apply to Senator Snowe.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas

Last week the journal Science 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 number 1 and New York was number 51. 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.

May I say that if we believe that happiness can be measured by objective measures such as the above, we should change our species name to Homo superficialis.

This study contrasts with a happiness survey taken by Gallup in November that relied only on what people said. Here the top 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.

It's probably no accident that both studies were published around the holidays. I know that for many the holidays are stressful and depressing, for the hype can't possibly measure up to the reality, and indeed makes it worse when the reality is loneliness, poverty, or ill health. We are told to be happy, that the perfectly cooked turkey or latest-model cell phone will save us if we just try and buy. When will we see a happiness survey based on friendships and family and peace and contentment?

That describes us this Christmas, especially with daughters having safely returned from France. Geographic, scientific, objective, and especially commercial descriptors have little meaning or place. Happiness is decorating a tree with ornaments from a lifetime, angels and nutcrackers, frosted pine cones, homemade Santas, the silly and the corny, the ornate and the plain, the special box of fragile glass pieces that sparkle in the colored lights - all the reminders of growing up together in our own little state of bliss.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Climate change

1. Big storm blasts up East Coast, blanketing area from Carolina to Boston with snow. A nice change from the usual December rain and slush?

2. Northern France (where both our daughters are) shivers in below zero (Centigrade) temperatures and a couple inches of snow. A nice change from the usual December rain and slush?

3. Maine, usually synonymous with snow, gets almost nothing from the storm. A nice change from the usual December rain and slush?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Wind, yet again

Wind was again in the news this week. Some perspective:

1. Three sites off the coast of Maine have now been chosen for the testing of wind-turbine platforms in deep water, the first in the US, including one a few miles from Monhegan. (Monhegan's famous artists George Bellows and Edward Hopper might enjoy such a beast, Jamie Wyeth and Rockwell Kent perhaps not). Norway already has a deep-sea turbine in place.

2. Turbines in southern Maine are not producing nearly as much electricity as hoped. (Sites on undeveloped rural hilltops, and presumably the open ocean, apparently will be fine.)

3. Maine recently installed its 100th turbine. (California has 14,000.)

There was a report on NPR's Marketplace a week or so ago on Japan's efforts to conserve energy since the oil crisis of 1973-1974.

1. 40% of "green" patents are now held by Japan.

2. All Japanese companies must become at least 1% more energy efficient each year, and must have at least one employee overseeing the effort.

3. Every new appliance model must be at least as energy efficient as the latest release from a competitor.

The average Japanese now uses about half as much energy as the average American.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Shooting stars

Quite by accident, I saw shooting stars early Monday morning (can't blame the dog this time for waking me at 4:00 a.m. - she conked out under the covers as soon as I went to bed and didn't stir all night). I discovered later that it was the night of the annual December Geminids meteor shower, and the windows happen to face the right direction, east, and I happened to wake up before dawn, and I happened to try the sky for a soporific.

The bedroom windows allow a view of sky and bay and pointed firs of only a few degrees. I should have gone outside for the full 360, but it was 4:00 a.m. and cold. Even so limited, the view was thrilling: the stars are so brilliant and numerous and inspiring anyway in the undeveloped night skies of Maine, and then there would be a silent little pop! of light, then a brilliant little trail, then a little white flame-out. You really did get the sense of stars falling down, and also the slight and thrilling fear that a real star directly overhead (or at least a substantial meteor) would take it upon itself to target the house.

"Thrilling" is a slight over-statement. It's not a spectacle like, say, what the Chinese do for international honor. A shooting star lasts about a second. Its trail is tiny. I saw maybe 10 in an hour of gazing.

"Humbling" is a better word. In order to get all those cliches out of my head (life-is-so-short, blaze-of-glory, what-is-the-meaning-of-life), I tried to calculate how many shooting stars there would be in my life if they arrived once a second for 70 years. The answer, after a certain amount of stops and starts and confusion about decimal places, was about 2 billion (later confirmed by a real calculator to be 2.2 billion). Now that's thrilling. Don't you love the idea of a second of glory?

The calculating, and the humbling, put the world to right, and getting back to sleep until 6:30 (5,400 seconds later, with dreams) was a piece of heaven.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The writer's friend

The woodstove offers:

1. warmth, preventing you from going back to bed or curling up on the couch with the New Yorkers that you're way behind on
2. complexity - lots of flues and vents and baffles, the frequent opening and closing of which keeps your brain alive
3. tangible results and goals, i.e, the thermometer magnetically attached to the stovepipe registers the temperatures ( 400-500 degrees) for "best operation"
4. discipline - it must be lighted first thing in the morning, even before orange juice, the log rack must be restocked twice a day, the wood pile in the garage must be replenished
5. creativity in choosing the exact right log - diameter, length, hard- or softwood - for maximum burn and most shapely fire
6. nostalgia: Baron Wormser lived for more than 20 years with only woodstoves for heat and cooking? Such a simpler way of life.... Also, when you light the stove in the morning, you use newspaper, financial statements, cereal boxes, and old manuscripts and sometimes you read them and get distracted by the past, which leads to the most important point of all:
7. distractibility: getting up constantly to check the burn, open a vent or door for just a little more air, brush wood bits from the floor under the log rack and ash bits from the brick apron in front of the stove, get some more logs from the garage, check the stovepipe thermometer, then your house's, then the outside one and feel virtuous, in fact do anything at all to get you away from the balky sentence, the lame phrase, the description that slithers around like jello, the cliches that just will not leave your brain, the character who sounds like you, and the impossibility of transitions between paragraphs.

All in all, quite a useful thing, the woodstove.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Giant contradictions

Finally some good news about carbon dioxide! The increasing level of the stuff in the ocean seems to make the shells of lobsters, shrimp and crabs (but not snails, oysters, clams and scallops) bigger and harder and stronger. This is a finding of considerable implications for Maine's fishing industries, but is also a finding in isolation, and scientists have no idea what it might mean in the bigger picture.

Well, I do. Just like in the real world, the rich gets richer. Those scuttling creatures are already abundant and doing well; stronger shells will make them indestructible. The more we pollute, the more they will benefit. At last they will grow huge and emerge from the sea. The crab will form campaign committees, take over government. Shrimp will school together in giant pods and conquer TV and movies. Lobsters will be the new New Army, or I should say, Peace Keepers, red in tooth and claw. Little helpless things like crabs will have no Hope.

Farfetched? Not nearly as much as headlines that say "President Defends US Wars, Accepts Peace Prize."

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Sun bombs

The weather maps the last few days have looked vertiginous, as low-pressure systems march across the country like giant sine waves. Here we're getting a day of sun, a day of snow, a day of sun, a day of rain, etc., not altogether displeasing because any sunshine beats no sunshine. Of course, at this time of year the sun's arc through the southern sky is pathetic, a blip starting at 7:00 in the southeast and ending at 4:00 in the southwest and at its peak, getting barely a third of the way up. Not that we aren't grateful. I watched this morning as the outdoor thermometer, which gets about 10 minutes of direct sun a day now, gamely raised its mercury 2 degrees in response.

While low and weak, the sun's influence is still noticeable. Most of the snowfall from the other day is now melted from the tree branches on the north side of the lane. The southside trees are still laden. I take care to walk in the middle of the road, away from snow-covered, overhanging branches, to avoid the sun's little tricks, like suddenly raining a snow-bomb down my neck. Today I could brave the north walk on Ash Point, down to Crockett Beach, for the wind seems much less cold on a sunny day. I don't mind quite as much the continuous ups and downs of war news, market gyrations, healthcare legislation.

Weather is starting to resemble the Internet. You can always quickly find something good to follow something bad, or is it vice versa?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Just after snow

The woods out back were a perfect marvel this morning. Just enough snow had fallen to blanket everything, and it was wet enough for serious and creative sticking. All the horizontal surfaces had caps, all the vertical surfaces were whitened on the north side. The effect was slightly dizzying, like looking at Janus or yin-yang. Turn one way and it looked like just a normal couple of inches had fallen. Turn the other and the whole world was white, an alien place of no color, an outer space. It was exhilarating to be in a new, one-element world, like breathing water under the ocean.

Except for the sky, which was blue like only a post-storm sky can be, there was almost no color. The evergreens and moss and grasses were obliterated. I had to peer close up at the bushes to see red winterberries. There was one exception: a crabapple tree on Ash Point Drive still had a few red apples clinging to the snow-laden branches. I'd like to think that's the origin of Christmas tree decoration, not Victorian angels or some Visigothic thing involving the heads of enemies. Brightly colored baubles and lights are pagan enough for me. There's enough stuff already cluttering up our winters.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Just before snow

The first snow of the season is forecast for the coast tonight. I might have been able to tell even without the benefit of technology: a northeast wind of a certain heft; a sky uniformly gray and the same color as the ocean; clouds not quite thick enough to obscure the sun entirely; the weak glow of a wintry sun; temperature that feels colder than what the thermometer says; air spiced with Canada and chewy from the woodsmoke blowing from everyone's stoves.

As I walk I look especially intently at what remains of color in the woods. Besides grays and blacks and browns, there isn't much. The winterberries boast various reds shading into orange. Long grasses in the wetlands have turned into light-colored hay. Short grasses on the lawns are still partly green. The mosses are neon-green this year, from all the rain, and they have colonized rocks on the forest floor, poking through the leaf bed like bright Pacific atolls. A few yellowed leaves cling to the bushes at the side of the lane.

In the morning it will be hard to pretend it's still fall. The landscape will be black-and-white, but choices will become grayer, more complicated. It will not be as easy to be productive, or optimistic.

The danger of winter is living too much in the head. The pleasure of winter is living much more in the head. Animals of all kinds need to hibernate and be refreshed.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

To be content...

For a year now, the Amish have been moving into the area around Unity and buying farms. (Unity is a small town halfway between Bangor and Augusta.) They're coming 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. For any people that 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 make wonderful furniture. They believe in books. They grow organic food. 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.

I already think of Unity fondly, since for about 10 years my parents had a camp on Lake Winnecook, known also as Unity Pond. And now that the Amish are there, it's a small but poignant connection to my diminished family, for the last time I saw my father alive was at his 60th wedding anniversary party at the Blue Heron Farm Retreat, near Amish Country in eastern Ohio, where for a weekend our family eschewed doctrine in favor of living.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Boston Harbor


Sunday saw the first sunny day in a week and so, our need for the sight and sound and smell of the ocean being great, we drove down to South Boston for the nearest fix. Very pleasant to walk around Castle Island and then along the breakwater that sticks out into Boston Harbor. The breakwater encloses part of Carson Beach so one can avoid the dreaded go-out-and-then-have-to-retrace-your-steps syndrome, in favor of a much more satisfying loop that returns you to your car without having to backtrack.

Pleasant enough, but not thrilling like a walk along Rockport Harbor or Ash Point or even Old Orchard Beach (in winter, of course - summer tends to be unspeakable there). The islands of Boston Harbor are pretty but lack granite and fir trees. The sand of Carson Beach has the slight gray tinge of industry and over-use about it. The rocky shoreline is indeed rocks, but they've clearly been put there and are black with old pollution. The water is clean, but doesn't really sparkle. One would be shocked to see wildlife. The places for rest are pieces of architecture as well, not what you'd find in plain Maine. ( I haven't been in Maine for 17 days - help!)

But not bad for a sanctuary in the middle of the city, even with the docks and containers marked Maersk and Hanjin crowding right up to the back of the fort, with the triple-deckers of Southie stacked like dominoes just beyond Columbia Road, with large and noisy jets taking off from Logan every couple of minutes. People (and lots of dogs) clearly were enjoying themselves, and our little one went into sensory overload, ranging from side to side and straining at the leash for the entire hour of the walk. Her scents per minute ratio must have been over the top - I can imagine popsicle and mustard and firecracker and beer and the latest news from countless canines. At least one of us likes the city better than the country.