Friday, February 25, 2011

Laughingstock

While awaiting Gov. Paul LePage's next gaffe* I thought I'd take a look at the Maine Heritage Policy Center, the think-tank that seems to be at the center of state government policy, at least philosophically.** I was somewhat relieved to find no ranting right-wingers. It's all right-wing stuff, to be sure, proposing to slay the usual bogeymen of state government, welfare, and healthcare, and if the research is skewed, misleading, and somewhat distorted, well, I expect the left-wing centers do much the same. At least there was nothing embarassing on the site, no Glen Beck/Rush Limbaugh hate and invective. Public civility is still the Maine way, as Senator Susan Collins has been saying this week.

Unfortunately, those pesky news people won't let the Center alone. Last year the media were questioning its funding sources, which it will not reveal, whereupon speculation grew that the Texas Koch brothers were behind it; and wondering at the very active role the Center seemed to be playing in the election, which is against the rules for non-profits. This week some people were complaining that the Center's CEO has used state employee email lists for fund-raising, again against the rules.

All I ask is that the Center add some polish, as well as philosophy, to the Governor's image. As much as I enjoy the gaffes, I don't like the fact that the State of Maine is becoming the laughingstock of the nation.

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*two gaffes this week:
1. He doesn't believe in the research that says bisphenol A should continue to be banned - if microwaved it might give off "a chemical like estrogen, so the worst case is some women may have little beards." This story is now national.
2. He's proposing to split DHHS into two departments, health and human services, apparently not realizing that each would then need a boss, sub-bosses, paperwork, etc. etc. and making government bigger.

**The Center's CEO was the LePage transition team's cochairman.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Juveniles

On Saturday morning we heard a larger ruckus than usual from the seven crows who patrol this part of the shore. They were flying around a fir tree at the edge of the bank, darting in and out of the limbs; one or two perched provocatively on the outer branches. We are not so adept as to distinguish between normal crow cacophony - kvetching or gossiping or arguing politics - and the coordinated calls that means an intruder is near. I looked more closely at the fir tree, indeed stared at it for while, and eventually saw a large brown shape humped on an interior branch. If you're patient and stare at almost anything in nature, eventually something happens, and soon enough the brown shape stirred and shook and flew off, crows triumphantly following. It was a bald eagle.

I had to look in the bird books to be sure, since it had no pure white head to make the ID obvious. Both Sibley and Stokes showed 3rd year, or possibly 2nd year, juveniles that looked like our visitor: large and mottled brown and white, its head more white than brown, its body more brown than white, well on its way to striking stardom.

It came back a little later in the morning. Out of the edge of my eye I saw something swoop down behind the bank by the water, and not re-appear. For a good five minutes I fought the urge to go out and see, but gave in, and like a juvenile myself put on snowboots and coat to walk to the water's edge. I just wanted to be sure and, truth be told, to observe it fly away from much closer. (Rather like throwing a stick at ducks to hear them quack and see them scatter.) The eagle was sitting on a rock, minding its business, alone, apparently out of crowsight, and of course it flew magnificently away as soon as my head came into view above the bank.

I'm not sure what brought it (actually, it was probably a male - it seemed a little too small to be a female, which is apparently noticeably larger) to this side of the bay. We seldom see eagles over here. They tend to populate the islands, unbothered by houses and wires and people peeping over precipices, where parental instruction in fish- and gull-chick-napping is easier to accomplish. Although it is school-vacation week....

He came back yesterday as well. I was out with the dog and watched for an entranced five minutes as he wheeled along the shore, hardly moving a feather in the brisk wind, hardly bothered by the crow patrol mobbing his flight, before he suddenly soared high above the woods behind us, leaving us, mere mortal and Corvus and canine, to wonder and marvel at such indifference.

Today, Presidents' Day, the eagle hasn't been seen. It would have been good to honor him again, alongside the other heroes and villains of the day. But then my view of the shore and bay is so narrow, so restricted, that a whole pantheon of eagles, maybe even bearing arrows and olive branches, could have paraded down the bay unnoticed. The crows continue to chatter, though, which means I've been able to get very little done. Like a distractible child, with my own kind of immature plumage, I constantly look up at every caw and shadow, seeking some magnificence just outside my words, some bigger world than mine.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

US National Toboggan Championships

Following the 21st annual USNTC, held this past weekend at the Camden Snow Bowl, here are the winners of my Best Name contest.

Two-person teams:

Gold - Soggy Boggin Boys
Silver - Dumb and Dumber
Bronze - Fat Bloated Idiots
Honorable Mention - Chute, I'm Out of Beer

Three-person teams:

Gold - Frozen Peckerwoods
Silver - PMS
Bronze - Junior Beano
Honorable Mention - What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Four-person teams:

Gold - Faster Than a Redneck
Silver - Internal Bleeding
Bronze - Four Wingnuts
Honorable Mention - Grandma Got Run Over By More Than a Reindeer

I'm sorry to report that none of my winners were actual (speed) winners but speed winners hardly matter in a race in which a few hundredths of a second separate the top spots, and only about a second separates first from last (of more than 400 teams). Creativity is much more rewarding.

I'm happy to report that the repeat winner of the Best Costume was a team from the Netherlands, which I guess makes the event an International Championship. See http://knox.villagesoup.com/news/story/toboggan-nationals-under-way-in-camden/380636 .

A couple of my winners, however, are past champions:


Saturday, February 12, 2011

On deck

This is the time of year when even those of us who don't mind winter (and occasionally love it) start to dream of spring. I'm looking longingly this morning at the deck. The sun has some power to it and the temperature is approaching 40 and I'm calculating the degree of stupidity involved in shoveling off the snow and sitting for a spell. A large fraction of stupidity is the element of being seen to be so, which would not apply today, as there are no neighbors, boats or planes to witness - just a few laughing gulls and of course my own self-regard. Which is enough to quell the impulse.

There are many places in the world like the beautiful one on the Merrimack River that Thoreau described as "places where one may have many thoughts and not decide anything." Mine is a view of the Maine coast, with just a book, a brain and a bay. The book is mostly a prop, and the brain actually turns mostly off and tranforms into an organ of sense, for a precious moment or morning apprehending the present and disregarding the future. The bay is the thing, a symbol of Other, or Beauty, or Danger or whatever helps a human ignore his strategic plan. Living in the future is a constant tension of decisions, how-tos, anxieties, and what-ifs, and the achievement of goals devised under such conditions is often as hollow as it is satisfying. It seems to me that a hour by the ocean is worth two on the moon.

Which brings me back to baseball, another harbinger of spring. What is sport, and in fact most recreation and play, but an attempt to live in the moment? Unfortunately, baseball lives in the past and the future: a recent study calculated that the amount of action in a typical 3-hour game totalled about 10 minutes. (I think this explains the obsession with the statistics of the past, and the ever-lengthening games as managers and players over-think the future.) These past few days the Boston Globe website has been displaying a digital clock showing how long before spring training starts, and it counts down BY THE SECOND. I guess you could call that baseball's nod to living in the present, however stupidly.

So the hype can never live up to the reality. Even worse, far too many people don't even properly recreate anything, but get their stimulus, their passion second-hand through a screen. I happen to get my kicks out of closeness to nature, but almost anything that gets a body out of its brain will do. Even if I re-create the world more and more in a chair, on a deck, in an essay, I believe I'm engaged, more in fact than ever. And if I indulge a little obsession with soccer or hockey on a screen, at least there's constant action to drive away the need to plan the morrow.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Escarpment

An escarpment runs along the front of the house these days, a sharp, 2-foot-tall ridgeline of snow. There's only a couple of inches of snow elsewhere on the lawn, and indeed directly in front of the house, between it and the escarp, there is none, just the bare grass and moss. The wind has been playing at geology, making a miniature mountain range, or a glacier, manufacturing a perfect ridgeline unbroken except by one or two crevasses, whose flanks are white and pure but for the tracks left by rabbits, chickadees, those annoying little red squirrels, and deer.

I stand by the big windows and look more closely. At the base of the escarp the bare grass bears clumps of brown pellets, the strangely small scat produced by deer. The deer must be getting enough to eat, I think, even though the snow in the woods out back is deep. Is that why they are coming down to the house, to graze for a dessert of grass and moss and use the facilities? I haven't been in Maine for a couple of weeks; they must feel emboldened to ignore this human version of a deer yard - glass and siding and propane tanks, not to mention the deck, constructed solely for a purpose unknown to them: sitting around, drinking and eating and viewing for fun. Once or twice we've seen them this close to the house, but that was on August evenings and they were eating crabapples from the tree that brushes the house.

I'd love to see them this close in the winter, to see them standing behind the little barrier of snow, pawing at the ground, defecating. I won't, of course; now that I'm back, they will be frightened off by the lights and noise coming out of the human yard - the incandescence, the computer screen, the TV, the muffled voices of NPR announcing revolutions and realities. I wouldn't see them even if they did come. At night the windows are a deep black blank barrier separating our worlds.

But this morning they came anyway, three of them, not to the front of the house but wandering in back next to the car and the garage, perhaps wondering at the freshly shoveled driveway. A surge of joy jolted me. Magical things just appear in Maine, and this is true not just for the real things of deer and surf and loons in the cove, but also for the stream of ideas and images racing by and through and around my rocking chair. The elements are so much more accessible here even though we construct our houses and our psyches to protect us from them. It's as if I can dip in and out of a stream of life and maybe even capture a bit of it every once in a while in a word or a sentence. It's a feeling of being inside and outside at the same time, and that is especially useful in winter.

I realize those deer were hungry, wary, cold, unaware and undeserving of my joy, in fact completely unconcerned with the likes of me except as a danger. They exist in no way for me, but yet they are a blessing. Seeing them this morning makes it easier to bear this thing that humans do: climb up barriers and escarpments, fall down in rejection, get back up for another try.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Cheese Doodles

The town of Thomaston, Maine is considering a new business development on a large tract of land on Route 1 near the Rockland line. Some five years ago Thomaston voters approved 150,000 square-foot big-box stores for that area, and almost immediately a Lowes went up to complement the car lots and redemption centers. This new development is for half-a-dozen businesses, including a Walmart semi-Supercenter. There have started the usual sequence of public meetings on design, traffic, and environmental impact, the usual press stories on citizen approval and outcry. Only one story that I've seen gets at the huge absurdity of this Walmart.

You could argue Walmart is already absurd. All these big-boxes are, with their sterile atmospheres and cranky employees (when you can find one) and stadium sizes. Walmart adds a little frisson by claiming to demand green practices from its suppliers, which sounds good on the surface but really is an astonishing claim from a purveyor of mountains of mostly unnecessary junk. No, the absurd thing in Thomaston is that there's another Walmart just 4 miles away in Rockland.

Oh, but this will be a bigger one, with lots more stuff, choice, and variety. It will bring more customers to the area. It will be newer, slicker, brighter. It will be all the things that civilization demands. Anywhere on the East Coast, Route 1 means cheek-by-jowl development. Why should Maine be any different?

There are a couple of years of hearings and permittings and rulings from the State to get through, but I have no doubt the new Walmart will be built. The one in Rockland will close, become some other big-box or maybe just molder away. The endless pursuit of tar and concrete, knick-knacks and walnuts, plastic toys and cheap jeans, groceries and drugs and appliances and bedding and rakes and rifles and plasterboard and Cheese Doodles continues.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

ZPG

Census data show that Maine gained about 4% in population this past decade. This is one of the lower rates in the US. Generally, the Northeast and Midwest had low increases, or even losses; the Sun Belt had larger gains. For a lot of people, apparently, a low increase is a disaster. Loss of influence! Loss of federal funds (even though they want smaller government)! Loss of US Representatives! More is better!

With apologies to Edward Abbey (The Great American Desert) I offer a contrary view: If you're thinking about moving to Maine, don't, because:

It's very poor. You won't find a job, there are hardly any amenities, electricity and fuel is expensive, it's the worst state in the US for business (according to Forbes), taxes are high....

It's dangerous. Lobsters pinch, rogue waves wash people from the shore, black bears roam the woods, hikers have to be rescued regularly, a logging truck could crush you, you could run afoul of black flies and barnacles and mosquitos and the most dangerous animal of all, the Ye Olde Gift Shoppe, hunters abound, you could be struck speechless, maybe even dead, by a view....

It's a slow, boring life. People drive slowly, talk slowly, eat slowly, there's nothing to do except nature stuff, people enjoy splitting wood (!), you'll be shunned for several generations for being from away, you'll be caught in monumental traffic jams on Route 1, garage-sitting is a major sport....

It's cold and dark. It was 46 below in Greenville a couple of weeks ago, winter starts in September and lasts until June, whereupon cold fog blankets the coast, ice storms are legendary, in winter snowmobiling and alcohol are the major distractions in the north, shopping and alcohol in the south, cars don't start, pipes freeze, cabin fever is the state disease, there are seven hours of daylight in December....

It's scary big and remote. You'll need a car all the time, there's no public transportation, everything's an hour away (at least) from where you are, you could get lost in a vista....

The Sun Belt has much more to offer, so please move there. Visit Maine, of course, enjoy yourself and spend lots of money, but whatever you do, don't even think about making it your home. In accordance with our new policy of zero population growth, we have to eliminate someone else if you do.