Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Maine Last on Forbes- Is That Really a Bad Thing?

There is an impression that we in Maine always seem to be waiting for the next big out of state entity  to bring economic activity and incomes. It was going to be factories, then call centers, and box stores.

Maybe the big economic elephants don't fit with what Maine is about. 

Perhaps instead of wringing our hands and feeling bad about bottoming out on Forbes' list of places to do business; instead of lamenting what we aren't, we should recognize and grow what we are. So Maine is not a great place for oil refineries, chemical complexes, factories and box stores. Maine on the other hand is a great place for small businesses, with a rapidly growing farming sector, wood products, clean energy and my favorite- the most bitchin' deconsolidated fishery in the nation.

Maine is a place where it's recognized that if you buy local or hire your neighborhood contractor, the money stays in town and comes back to you instead of being cyber-whisked off to the Caymans.

Maybe Maine's economy just isn't ever going to impress Steve Forbes, but we can grow stronger by knowing the strengths we do have and tilting policy accordingly.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

On the Hard

 "Still, despite the war, despite anything, really, it eased his heart to be back at sea." -Alan Furst Dark Voyage.

Close Enough is perched on blocks and out of action. The great folks at J.O. Brown & Sons on North Haven take very good care of her. I haven't decided whether to tape a sign on her or not. I love that boat. I love the state of mind that comes from that boat. I can go places too wet and cold to otherwise go.  No matter what else is happening, the quiet and sneaky sense of peace sets in as soon as I pull away from a dock, float or mooring.

That transformative means of letting go the land and the struggles of life there is not an option now. The sense of mastery that comes when a wayward farm boy/attorney/musician is welcomed into a true island community (or two) and then learns how to- at least with fenders- make a boat go across Penobscot Bay and stop at the desired destination without major damage to vessel or float is magic. I'm not sure how to translate that to other spheres in life, but I don't think I could get rid of it if I tried.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Taking Up II

What may be my last day of taking up traps started bright, cold and breezy. After breakfasting my two younger kids and taking care of a customer with 5 vehicles to register and three fishing vessels to pay excise tax on, I head down. Rounding the top of the hill before going  down to the harbor is the spot where I get the first look at sea conditions; except of course in the summer when I don't look because it’s presumed to be tranquil. Summer it is most certainly not on Saturday November 17, 2012. Great frisking horsetails of spray arch up off the distant ledges. The temperature difference between water and air creates a serrated horizon and vertically stretches far off islands and oil tankers and such. Not a particularly inviting seascape.

The skiff is even less enthusiastic, trying to go every which way other than toward Close Enough in the wind, perhaps trying to tell me something. Nick and Samantha pull into the harbor around 9:45 or so and tie up at the lobster car. I don’t want to call and ask why. Again, not  encouraging. As a sentient being, though, I can go out and turn back if need be, though I’ve decided I really need to get the job done this weekend. I have a new job to perform for, November is only going to turn into December if I wait, there are nautical miles to go before I sleep, bills piling up waiting for the next cash flow to start dripping. Today really needs to be the day. Arrggghh, as opposed to Yarggggh!! such as pirates with more fortitude and chest hair would say.

The roller coaster delivers as promised. The first pot I try bringing up is preceded by a haybale sized tangle of balled up trap wire and some chrome automobile trim caught a couple of fathoms from the bottom of the line where my trap awaits. I wrestle the mess into  the boat as a wave hits. A wave of panic splashes across my imagination as I  picture getting yanked over by this giant wire burdock.

It is great to be back aboard the boat. Really.

Traps come on slowly and dance merrily on the platform. They are not where they belong. They are where they do not belong. Over the course of the day, I come to know that many were either junked by superstorm Sandy, or have hopscotched off and waltzed with Matilda off into the distance and the depths. It’s irresponsible to leave gear out, so I expect I’ll need to do a cleanup day some time before putting the boat up.

Even with the assumption that some lost sheep will be returning to the fold, I have lost a lot of traps this year. Poor rope work, old rope, sinking them by not anticipating tidal drift and thereby sending them off the continental shelf, snarls and who knows what else took a heavy toll on my string of gear.

I've learned so much this year, but have only just begun. I feel intimately familiar with the neighborhood of my work, the waters, the rocks, the paths between hauling areas, how to get from here to there without ski jumping over a ledge. I can sort of think in two dimensions on the water. I am utterly in awe of the fishermen here who see what I see plus the third dimension of the shape of the bottom, plus the fourth, fifth and Sixth dimensions of tide, lunar and migratory cycles of lobsters.

By Saturday night, however, I deeply and personally despise each and every trap I was not able to lose on account of incompetence or natural forces. They are heavy and grabby with rotten bits of wire bent on seizing themselves together when I am trying to stack them- each one needing to get moved about six times before it’s in the yard for the winter. I am in pain and in foul temper.

Then the last one is on the truck in the yard, and I'll unpack it tomorrow. I look at the glow fringing the western tree line and breathe. I guess I’m done. Mostly.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Taking Up 2012

At the moment, I’m riding the Capt. Neal Burgess from North Haven to Rockland inside my minivan. There are gruff northeasterly whitecaps covered with capillary waves. They are being summoned by a monster storm off the mid Atlantic. The low pressure down  there has demanded air from up here, which moving air mass is scraping across the water and gruffening up the whole of Penobscot Bay. The van is getting a saltwater rinse. November is here. It is a good time to write about July.

July is a month of overpowering blue and silver on the water, beach days, early sunrises and late sunsets, social gatherings- planned and invited as well as spontaneous and initiated across the yard when someone passes by and waves. The workdays are hypnotic. The traps are all in the water, the kinks are worked out. The dance moves come subconsciously. The dread- filled starts of cold days with large green seas and zillions of capillary waves that signal rougher water to come are far in the future.

Lobstering is a unique livelihood even on the mainland, but here on Matinicus, the days start in even more unusual ways. I may bike to the wharf with a lunch and thermos, or I may take the ancient little blue truck that saw its last inspection sticker many, many years ago. Most often, though, I walk across my lawn, down the dirt road to the island’s only cross roads, turn right with the sun not quite over the tree line and songbirds long since having shifted into full swing. I climb down a ladder at the wharf, drag my little skiff to the water and head out to the boat. The morning walk is about the nicest work commute imaginable. At the end of the day, though, the uphill seems a lot longer and steeper, especially if I promised somebody a bucket of lobsters.

There was a day in July where I tore off a lot of checks and sealed a lot of envelopes. I paid bills that had been etching my insides since the prior year. Even though the price of lobster paid at the boat was historically low, and even with 10 days or so carved out of the month by either dealers or fishermen unwilling to conduct business, I made some decent money in July. I thought there would be several more of those days before the season ended, but they never came. I did finally finish paying off the unpaid 2011 bills in October of 2012, and paid my first year’s worth of big principal payments on the boat.

There is a great Simpsons scene where Homer unintentionally skateboards down a steep incline and hurtles out across a canyon. There is a rising moment of exhilaration when he thinks he’ll make it to the other side. Then the horizon sinks slightly and -ka-splat- he does not make  it. So it was with my  season.

I’m ending pretty far short of where I’d hoped to be financially. I’m starting my winter work abruptly sooner than expected for the same reason. I am again facing a winter of financial terror, this time with a senior looking at colleges. In spite of all that, it feels like a success.

I survived my first season as a boat operator. I learned how to take help in the stern. I managed not to give myself an aneurysm every time some part would let go in the engine and I’d be looking at the rainbow colors of oh fuck I can’t be fisherman around my boat. I got handier with wrenches. I even rigged an alternate gear oil cooler so it would work on my boat and I wouldn’t have to wait 3 weeks in the make-or-break month of September for the exact part to come in. I am not quite as afraid of my 210 Cummins diesel  as I was in April. I left the harbor on many dozens of mornings, worked hard, sang out of tune, cursed frequently, partied too much, let the grass get too long and got on with it as much as I could.

I do not know if I’ll fish next year or not. Financial pressure and family changes have made it even harder for me to be on Matinicus. As I was getting ready to leave to start my part time position onshore, I took lots of walks and realized that every inch of that island had dozens of memories for me- every road, path, yard and ledge around the shore prompted many vivid moving pictures and sounds. The people are family. The place is my place. I’ll be back. Especially since there are still 350 pots to be taken up.

Learning to take help

“You’ll make more money and do less work.” “You’ll be a lot safer.” “What, fa Chrissakes, of course you got to have a stern man, whatya thinkin?!” After about the first 5 minutes of having a sternman, I wondered what took me so long. The business platform evolved around boats of a certain size and configuration, taking on or two crew along. It only makes sense for me to go with the tried and true model. Which is, of course, exactly  why I didn’t do it. Nature abhors a vacuum the way I resist doing things the correct easy and sensible way.

In my predictable square peg fashion, I wanted to haul on my own. I didn’t have any quarters to put a sternman up in. On Matinicus, crew people do not drive to work from their home. They inhabit the upstairs of shops and fish houses, couches, bunkhouses, trucks, overturned skiffs, ditches on Friday nights into Saturday mornings. I guess I’m exaggerating, but the point being that having a crew person means having a place for them to crash, eat, bath, smoke, drink and so on. I also resisted because as I am learning to run the boat, find gear, and operate the business, most if not all sternmen are far more qualified than I am to be at the helm. The only difference is that it is my name on the note at Bar Harbor Bank and Trust.

There was also the matter of me enjoying being by myself when working.

The day came, however, when I needed to at least try and do it right. My first sternman came on board in July during her break from a private liberal arts college, the basement halls of which my brother and I made years of mischief in. She knew about as much about sterning as I knew about taking her as crew. She caught on extremely swiftly. It took me about 5 pots to see the reason the business functions this way. Well, duhhh, again, what took me so long? We were grotesquely over educated, but managed not to have our top heavy brains completely overtake common sense. Neither of us fell overboard or got paralyzed by overanalyzing the kelp scraps and crab shells.

Next year is a big question mark. Insolvency, incompetence, stress and all I wouldn’t trade this one for anything.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Drinking from the Full Half of the Half Full Glass

If I wasn't consciously choosing to drink from the full half of the half full glass, I'd be pretty well in despair. This month was the month I fondly and feverishly imagined I would do a lot of catching up on bills. This was the month that the pathetic catch of the early part of the season would give way to a stampeding bounty of lobsters and cheddar. Unfortunately, the stampede got out of hand. We are catching way too many shedders too fast. As a result, the price is flabbergastingly low. My flabber is so gasted that I may need surgical intervention.

Lobsters are selling for what they did in the early 1980's. That McMonkeyed up time machine is not functioning evenly, however. Bait, fuel and boat payments are very much in the current day economically.

Not only is the price shocking, dealers are instituting rolling blackouts- days they won't buy at all. Add a week off in July when the lobstermen to tried to take action to stabilize price, and voila - a screwed up month.

So the cheddar thing? Not happening.

This was the year I'd have my first full season aboard Close Enough. Timing is everything. Time to get the glass half full again. Tomorrow it will still be July. I will still have the privilege of working on the ocean. February is still a long way off.


Check out the Unstuck posting for this time around

Friday, July 13, 2012

Time for a Rematch

"Oh, what a good boy am I" I was thinking a week ago yesterday. Despite the economic hardships of the lobster season, I'd got into the habit of buying bait and fuel ahead. The fuel keeps fine, since it has been in a similar form for x many million years in the ground. Herring is another matter. Herring keeps well either alive in the ocean, or heavily salted and in massive refrigerators. In a black plastic tote in the stern of my vessel in July for a week and change? The runoff had turned to a greasy brown shellac on the deck, not unlike what you'd find renovating a diner when you pull out a sink or friolater that's not been brought up to health code in several decades.

It's only $120, but I think I need to pitch what was my paid-ahead bait overboard. Why? Because our fleet has not left the harbor since last Friday. The fishermen have engaged in a tie-up to allow an oversupply of lobsters to correct itself, the price to stabilize and to permit the all-powerful dealers and processors to pull their heads back out where  the sun does shine.

If my history is correct, the last time this was done was 1957. The tie-up triggered an unusually prompt response from the federal government who, rather than examining the real cause of market distortions, instead elected to indict fishermen for Sherman Act antitrust violations. This law, designed to deal with oil monopolies and other abuses of emperors, oligarchs and the ultrawealthy was now directed at independent guys in small boats, none of whom had anything remotely like market influence. Or even a fancy cigar and top hat.

It was a misuse of the law to intimidate fishermen out of participating in their own free market. It won't happen again.

The key legal question is: Is the tie-up natural or artificial? Is it the product of advocacy and solidarity and basic free market economics, or of conspiratorial agreement to manipulate supply and force a price?

It is one of the poorer kept secrets that dealers and processors communicate regarding price in order to manage their involvement in this market. Fishermen are entitled to do the same as long as there is no coercion or contract.

It is time to undo the 50 year old misrepresentation used to intimidate fishermen out of taking an active role in their own market. The Maine Department of Marine Resources issued a memo directed exclusively at fishermen, threatening "swift enforcement" and floating the idea of antitrust indictments.

I say bring it on. Fishermen have a right to take an active role in the market that their hard work and risk make possible.

Monday, July 9, 2012


No, lobstermen do not have to get in the boat if the price isn't reasonable. Lobstermen don't have to duct-tape their mouths shut about it either.

There is nothing illegal about a public call to tie up for the purpose of letting the temporary oversupply of lobsters correct itself, letting the processors catch up and allowing the price to come back into balance with the value of the product. This is actually an example of lobster harvesters being intelligent market players instead of passively waiting for things to get better.

There is no such thing as an illegal lobster "strike" because harvesters are not regulated as to their production schedule with the exception of the state law prohibiting harvests on Sundays between June 1 and August 31.

This is not price-fixing because there is no conspiratorial attempt to artificially set a price. It is simply an adjustment to the harvest for the purpose of allowing the market to correct itself.

Lobstermen are under no obligation to accept any particular price because they are participants in what is supposed to be a free market. Lobstermen also have a constitutional right to communicate about their concerns regarding market conditions.
 Now, let's eat. Eat local.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Summer 2012 is.......on!

Maybe it was the 80 degree days in March, or the near total absence of snowfall. Maybe the water temperature was off its normal track as much as the atmosphere. The lobsters have acted very differently this year. Many of them molted and shed in May instead of July. Then we had a sluggish, cool and rainy late spring and early summer and many other lobsters are now just arriving and settling.

Whatever the climate and the odd migratory patterns of those magnificent crustaceans, they are here and have brought summer to the island, complete with its kaleidoscope of pre-dawn starts to the workday, parties, music, runaway lawns, summer fix-up jobs, predictable southwest breezes in the afternoon and a fighting chance to undo the financial damage of last winter.

Here's a little bit on summer, $2 bills- now I'll notice if they smell like baby oil- and a new song.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Back to Work

After a week of poor weather and other commitments, today was a lovely day on the water. After 10 hours on the boat, I finished a real estate transaction, dealt with some tax stuff, cleaned up the kitchen and now it's 8:26 PM.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Today was a long, soggy grind that was mercifully cut short by the most extreme squall I've been out in since being on my own in a boat. The wind went from clammy and mildly annoying to ferocious within about 15 seconds around 10 minutes to 1:00 in the afternoon. It looked as though the first 3 inches or so of the ocean were all being peeled off and hurled northwestward. I was glad to be snugged up to the shore in the lee of the island. It's definitely extreme when there is a 2 foot chop a couple of dozen yards off the shore. I took my time getting back around to the harbor and had a bouncy time getting to the lobster car and then onto the mooring.

Here's my first video journal- the Island Update. Lobsters, waxwings and a peculiar event between an earthworm and centipede.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

If You Weren't Crazy Already

It's no wonder that fishermen are unhinged. Between never ending regulatory hurdles and relentless pressure to consolidate, drive out the small boats and harbors, commoditize and otherwise crush the life out of the profession, there are things like weather and breakdowns. Lament! oh fisherman and even more, the long suffering family and partners.

I got up on Saturday already dreading going out for a stingy early season haul on a rough day. I looked at the 5:00 am buoy report giving out 21 gusting to 22 knots- no go territory. I looked out the door a little later, and what I was seeing didn't match the data. I packed up for  the day, thinking I'd go to the harbor, get a look and then come home and do other things.

I got down there, and Charlie was  getting ready to go. Ellen was heading out. I suppose I ought to try.

I dragged myself across the harbor, got my oil gear on, checked the dipstick with the unease that comes from not quite wanting to see that yes, the oil keeps getting a little lower each day, beyond what it should be. More on that sinking feeling later when the weather actually does get nasty.

I proceeded around the island to the wild north shore- an area that looks like it could be the Alaska coast, with all the bleak rocks, spruce forest and driftwood pick up sticks the size of tree trunks.

I get to the west side and, of course, it's a flat calm and dazzling morning. Blue silver water stretching away to the Mussel Ridge Islands, Owls Head, Spruce Head and the rest of the world's most gorgeous coastline.

To further confound, but in a good way, the catch is qualitatively and quantitatively much better for no reason I can discern.

Then there's Monday. I motored back Sunday night, leaving family on North Haven to get a proper start on Monday. Monday is supposed to be a super Nat-friendly 5-10 knots from the northeast.

I get a few strings hauled and the gray-green gloom sets in with occasional traction waves-my name for the the little ripples that mean big gut clenching pain in the ass fishing conditions. Things are manageable but unpleasant.

I steam across to the Mackerel Ledge where a squall and dense fog show up at the same time. OK, I'm a mighty sailin' man, I can handle it.

Then, coinciding perfectly with the deteriorating weather, the bottom falls out of my intestines and soul. That little oil leak must not be so little. There's a rainbow around me, and not the equal rights or clearing after the storm kind, but the motor falling out of the boat and bankruptcy looking kind. My eyes pounce on the oil pressure gauge. It's normal at idle, but clearly not happy when I tach up a few hundred rpms. I'm sure this means a tow into town, several hundred dollars to get hauled out and several thousand to pull the motor, or whatever seized up dead weight of cast iron is left when I get into  the harbor.

I limp in, begging the almighty to release me from my self-imposed lunacy of trying to be a commercial fisherman. I then beg Weston to help me look things over. He alerts me to the fact my hauling davit is down and imminently going to take out his wheelhouse if I don't get control of my vessel.

While I'm waiting, I very, very reluctantly look at the dipstick. The oil level that was normal a few hours ago is catastrophically low now. I want to shave my head and join a cult until the next comet goes by. Or work at Home Depot. Anything but this belligerent mechanical bull-ride of stress, unpaid bills and boat ignorance.

A few minutes of skilled inspection identifies an oil pressure sensor line as the source of all the oil spewing out of the engine. A mere 6 inch piece of tubing that rusted through. An easy fix. If I could get my hands on it. Which I can't  because the engine box is bolted, glued and caulked into place. No matter. It's gotta go.

A day later, the part has been ordered by Art Stanley, the Yoda Wan Kenobi of all things marine and diesel, dropped off on a boat he just finished fixing up that was heading out to Matinicus, and successfully installed in about five minutes.

In the meantime, I caught up on all kinds of law nerd business, laundry and yard care.

What was I was so stressed about? Quite a bit, actually. I'm a sensitive type. I'm only a very small animal. Not one of the fiercer ones, you know.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Fork in the Road

Outpost Matinicus has become too much of a confessional on the failings of the Zero Carbon Lobster Project and all of its personal and family impacts. I spend way too much time sharing the stress of my life adventure and not enough on the adventure, the vision and the many successes.

 I am, therefore, moving the confessional over to a new blog where I can document my coming to grips with my situation and my path out of it. Here is the link: http://nathusseyunstuck.blogspot.com/

Outpost Matinicus will hopefully go back to being about island life, fishing life, ideas for a healthier, more prosperous and sustainable future world, here on this little island and around the global community.

Here on Matinicus, lobsters are slow. Despite a mild winter with freakish, 80 degree days in March, things are behind now. Maybe the earth didn't get enough rest and now because of that insomnia, can't get up on time.

The lobsters are late. Only the one of the rhododendrons I tend- one out of dozens- has started to blossom. I had 1 female and 3 male Baltimore orioles here yesterday. When I looked in the bird journal, they were here earlier last spring even though last winter and spring were colder and snowier.

Because the lobsters are slow, hauling traps feels like practice. I'm getting lots of practice making the boat go where I want and running the hauler, tending traps. I am getting way too much practice measuring lobsters microscopically short of the legal size. I need to expand and intensify my vocabulary of profanity, because I don't have adequate obscene words to externalize my frustration.

We've had something like 14 out of the last 20 days be raining, foggy or something in between. Today was a welcome respite. Got some laundry on the line. Got a few more traps in the water to the northeast of the island.

Tomorrow is a haul day and I am not up for it. I'm basically working for the bait and fuel vendor. If I get a few pennies over that, I guess I'll be glad. Friends went out to haul in the rough, post-storm seas and a frisky westerly, caught 8 lobsters out of 60 traps and called it good for the day. That's what I can look forward to. Really need to find that happy place inside.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Molly Hatchet meets Ancient New Age Healing Practice

Flirtin' with Disaster is my favorite southern rock song. Except for the super tight and punchy drums, the band careens out of control through 4 minutes of guitar and vocal switchbacks on two wheels over a precipice with the radiator spouting like Old Faithful, oil burning, 2 cruisers behind, bounty hunters ahead, bad debts, good liquor, cigarette smoke and the general badass-ness of going too hard and banking on dumb luck that's bound to run out real soon.

Tapping or emotional freedom techniques are a way of settling one's mind in stressful situations like going around the switchback on two wheels with engine smoking and so on. The practice derives from traditional healing using meridians or energy channels in the body, combined with positive messages.

Today, in my life, Molly Hatchet meets the modern version of this ancient form of healing. I awaken to the none-too-welcome hiss and whiffle of wind meeting the corner of my house. The wind makes it harder and more hazardous to work on the water.

My creditors and I really need me to go out and haul lobster traps today. Like many fishermen at this time of year, I have a robust stack of overdue bills and escalating credit card balances. This causes my cortisol to go nuclear at 3 a.m. and wake me up. Then I worry and stew until I decide to get up and go do something about it. Yesterday, that worked out great because the tide was high early in the morning so I was able to get an extra load of gear set out super early and still be back in time to go to my other job, cutting dead trees and landscaping.

Early this morning, I heard the wind and its whispering song of Despair Upon You, Lobsterman. I did not bound out of bed at 5:00 am. An hour later, I checked the wind report from Matinicus Rock: Southheast at 14 knots gusting to 16. Not out of the question but uninviting. Also uninviting are the showers and 40 degree temperature. There's no meteorological index for wind, temperature and salt spray.

Yarrgggghhh.... I really need money. I'm scared of hauling alone in snotty weather. I'm scared of not hauling and how I'll feel about myself.

Hmmm. Maybe I should do some more quick reading on this Tapping thing Lisa brought to my attention. Tap meridian points, combine with a positive message, repeat. Being kind of a jerk about new things, I searched online for critiques of the practice. Nobody said it was bullshit, just some seemed to think other approaches were better. OK, now for some practical application.

Feeling a little foolish, I followed the instructions, then opened the door and walked into the cold, damp gloom of May 1, 2012. My first stroke of genius was to remember that not only could I go out and try to haul, but through the miracle of hydraulic power steering, I could turn around and come back if I didn't like it. Seems obvious enough, but with a thick, blubbery layer of self limitation in my brain and maybe yours, we can miss the obvious. The second was that, oh yeah, I have other paying work, I have a good Plan B. Third was to deal with a small problem on the boat before it got bigger in poor weather conditions, even though it meant a little back tracking first thing. Peace of mind is worth a little back tracking.

I went into the wet sloppiness and hauled contentedly despite escalating winds and seas. Back to Flirtin' with Disaster. Rolling and slatting about, hauling traps aboard, picking them and running them back off. I made almost an entire day of it before deciding I'd had enough. As I was cleaning up, the lobster dealer called me and inquired when I might be in as I was the last boat out today. Go figure.

No, I did not use biofeedback or accupressure to rationalize an unsafe workday. I was fine. It never got past the flirtation stage.

Bop, bop, bop yeah! Flirtin' With Disaster Every Day.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Sometimes You Just Have to be Where You Are

All the time really.

The 210 Cummins diesel under the engine cover on my boat with its 6 inch water cooled exhaust growls in the ear and rumbles through the soles of my feet. Pushing the start button is a lot less like starting a car or a computer or some work equipment and a lot more like touching off some incendiary device. Fireworks were always peculiarly pleasing when I was the ignitor. I can honestly say I'm still a little freaked out in a good way when I push the starter button. The little firecracker hooligan in me jumps a little.

So as much as I started this blog to chronicle my zero carbon sail/solar/oar powered alternative energy save the world lobster project, as much as I was just about 'round the bend having to come back to Matinicus without my family 3 weeks ago, and as much as never, ever when I was younger did I see myself running a commercial fishing vessel- here I am.

This past winter brought a lot of challenges and grave, fearful doubts about what I was doing, where I should be and what my living situation would be. I dreaded leaving my family. I dreaded starting the fishing season pathetically ignorant, alone and broke.

If I could have waved a wand 3 weeks ago or last winter, I would have pixie-dusted myself into a dramatically different situation. Therein is today's lesson. I am not in unicorn and pixie dust land. I am somewhere in life I did not necessarily anticipate or control my way to. Somewhere much more satisfying.

On the south end of the island, looking past ledges and islets to the open ocean, I weeded a garden, put down bark mulch, began the rite of spring where I extract this year's fallen spruce tree from the ornamental pond at Jim's place, then noticed the wind had fallen off, got on my boat, pushed that button and started earning a few nickles then got back in the harbor just before 7:00, talked to my young children on the phone and finally stretched my sore muscles and joints.

I am where I am.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Yesterday was the most painful day of my life, which is a testament to how sheltered I've been. I left my family on North Haven to return to Matinicus. You'd think I was headed to Afghanistan for how I felt. Once aboard my boat, though, I had a baseline sense of at least directing myself. The boat went where I pointed it. The crossing was a little rough with a dry and cold northwest wind ushering me down Hurricane Sound and across the the open water, but otherwise routine and comfortable. That brisk period of volition was as good as it got.

On stepping onto the island, I was greeted by a hundred reminders of how hard it is to function here, especially when flat broke. First, I could not unload my belongings because the tide would not be high enough for another 6 hours.

Then we're on to transportation. I set off up the road with a bike pump for the inevitable flats and a five gallon container of gas. Tom graciously allowed me to take his pickup to try to jump start the first dead vehicle, our car at the airstrip. The car did not want to come out of hybernation, and took a good half hour of charging from two trucks and another helpful soul, Rick before she'd awaken. In the meantime I went home to try and get the pickup truck running. The truck would not respond at all to jumper cables, so I decided to go through the house to open the barn and get the charger.

The house was indescribably saddening to walk through. Dirty, cold, dust sockets where this item or that plant had been taken away, kids' artwork hanging faded on the walls. I am here alone in extreme financial distress, under terrifying pressure to get my fishing business going and surrounded by echoes of happier times. It is unbearable.

I make my way through the barn and realize I took most of the extension cords to North Haven and that all my tools are on the boat and inaccessible until high tide tonight. Getting the charger to the dead vehicle becomes a major challenge, but in the end I cobble enough cords and outlet strips together to reach.

Each car eventually comes to life. Both also fail to restart after good long run times. I am panicked. Without vehicles, there is no way I can get my work done. There is no AAA or garage here. I don't know much about cars.

I keep trying to use one to jump the other. The Mazda must have lost all coolant and sends an angry plume of steam up. I stall the pickup in the road and it won't restart. I am beside myself.

I go back and bring Tom back to my place so he can have his truck back. We start tinkering and ripping parts of the battery lines out because they are hot, and the battery seems to have a fine, snappy charge, so it should be fine. The classic coffee can of bolts yields enough items to create a primitive and far superior battery connection. This victory should have been minor, but saved my life.

Amongst all the vehicular suffering, I tried to get the hot water heater going, but it just sucked air. It seemed as though the oil tank had enough, but I had to pump a few gallons from the nearly empty other tank. Then I bled the burner and it seemed fine. Now I have hot water to tackle the grime. I wash old dirty dishes and mop the kitchen floor. I will live after all.

Bless Tom for his truck and his clarity in helping rebuild the battery line. Bless Rick for getting my car so I could at least get it home. Bless Rex Crockett for getting me to the point that resuscitating a hot water burner was a routine matter instead of something where you have to find a burner tech for a service call. Bless Wanda and Clayton for supper.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Toast to North Haven/Oriented Times One

I'm loading my life onto my little boat and leaving North Haven tomorrow. Tools, rope, clothes, chainsaw, guitars, groceries. It's another wrenching twist in the belly. I've been dreading the day, and yet am anxious to get going.

Let me raise my glass of cheap white to a place that took me in for a time. A hard time made better by good people.

I showed up a green boat operator never having been more than a mile or so from Matinicus, in late November at dusk, hesitantly nudging up the Fox Islands Thorofare, frozen brittle and looking for my friend's mooring. "Excuse me, can you tell me which mooring is Elaine's? She said it was next to a blue boat, Casie Jo or something." "That boat's out of the water, I'll show you." The first person I met was welcoming and helpful and especially so 'cause he advised me about a rock that I did not see on the chart. That experience repeated itself over and over again.

There was an offer to cut blow downs to feed the stove in my wife's ravenous and sieve-like rental home. Then there was "come over and cut some of what's behind the shop. You can use my splitter and the pickup truck to haul it home." It only got better. "Just come take my stuff. It's all split and dry. I'll never burn it all."

A cold call to a plumber's answering machine got returned with a job offer. That NEVER, EVER happens.

Smiles. Helping hands. Welcoming. Sheltered coves in a turbulent winter. High, windy places to carry off a spirit where the hawks and eagles go. Warm windows. A table set. Goodbyes only for now.

Here's to all of you. Really, thank you. I will do my best to pass along the kindness I've been blessed with here.


People in emergencies sometimes get classified based on their level of awareness and orientation. Do they know what day it is, where they are, or even their name? Oriented times 1 is where you only know who you are.

When every external attachment has been torn away, there is only the raw, primal self awareness. The trick is to keep that orientation. To lose and not be a loser. To grieve and not be a grievant. To have the wind knocked out of you by life's punches and keep giving, keep turning the other cheek. To love just because. To be. Oriented times 1.

Friday, March 9, 2012

It's a Y Chromosome Thing

"Why is busting shit up so satisfying....except I mean when you don't mean to?"
My foreman laughed knowingly, but said "I don't know."

I was in Rex's shop, breaking down some of the many, many cardboard boxes that accompany plumbing components. My winter job has been a godsend for learning new things, getting in touch with the trades again, getting the map of the island; for things like wrestling gas bottles, snapping off cast iron drain lines, using a blowtorch to connect pipes AND for rapidly starting the morning fire in the shop stove, cutting and smashing up walls and ceilings to get old pipe out and new pipe in. It's all fundamentally satisfying.

Breaking things, burning stuff, internal combustion, big amplifiers, loud drums, not wanting to ask directions, and especially not wanting advice about what turn was probably the right one after you've gone past it, misinterpreting kindness for romance, thinking communication means a two way exchange of information and emotional experience- and that a few minutes of that is probably plenty, "fixing" things until they're really broken, then blaming it on piss poor design, profanity as a problem solving strategy, beer, football. All of these things and so many others are, in the big picture, equally enjoyable for all chromosome configurations, but may trend toward a predisposition in Y chromers.

So it is with warm weather and the Carhart and pickup truck brigades here on North Haven. A couple of days of warm weather and everybody's got the mantra going. "Time to get gear in the water...Time to get the boat overboard...Got your gear work done yet?" This kind of nature-driven horniness for internal combustion, profanity, beer, the ocean and other basic food groups of the testosterone complex seemed to happen abruptly. Thursday was suddenly warm. That pretty much did it. In addition, the daylight crept in at 5:30 instead of bankers' hours, and I first heard, then saw Canada Geese going overhead.

I of course, being the sophisticated and sensitive fellow am immune....

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Of laying rubber and cast iron bathubs

Laying rubber is a minor mystery. Why is it so very satisfying? It starts when we're on bicycles and moves up the vehicular and hormonal food chain. A bath tub actually got me thinking about it. Here's why:

A few days ago, my boss graciously loaned out his appliance dolley to a fellow who wanted to move a refrigerator. The following day, even though the dolley probably had not been out of its cocoon for years, it was suddenly indispensable to the second floor bathroom renovation we had underway. Unfortunately, the fridge moving guy had gone on an apparently spontaneous roadtrip to a museum of medical oddities in Philadelphia.

Not knowing this and looking for the guy at one possible work site, we got the van stuck for the first time in a seemingly perfectly level and firm area. We two shiftless plumber's helpers then set out up the Crabtree Point Road and eventually found Doug, who brought a stout John Deere tractor and made short work of yanking the van onto a more suitable passway.

The next morning, the three of us got started on moving an extremely obstinate and dense cast iron tub. The only notable difference between the new tub and the spotless, pristine cast iron clawfoot tub that came out of the house was that the new unit was as much heavier as it was unattractive. Being a Y chromosome bearer, I can definitely say the clawfoot had it all over the new model in terms of picturing the lines and curves of both bath and bather. Like trading a Mustang for one of those dismal boxy things that tries to be a utility vehicle and station wagon and sedan.

At any rate, the clawfoot had come down the stairs with as much relative elegance as one could expect from any large piece of cast iron, at least when compared to a much clunkier piece going up.

Now we had to get the new one in, and really needed the dolley. Being from Matinicus, I had the practical, but felonious suggestion that we go and see if the door was unlocked where the dolley was most likely to be found and then enter, take the item and exit.

The next morning, my boss realized that a come-along and a block of wood were necessary to ensure victory and tried to leave. The van was not so anxious for a productive morning and allowed as to how she'd stay right there, thank you very much. Rex had had enough of the delay, so after myself and the other helper pushed her to the roadway, Rex proceeded to lay a good hearty fifty or so foot patch of rich black rubber on the road in the otherwise tranquil Pulpit Harbor neighborhood.

I could feel his satisfaction. By 4 PM Friday, the tub was in place. It really did take 3 of us. And Dolley.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Far Greenland and Near Misses

Time makes you bolder and children get older. -Stevie

You can do everything right: vitamin C, exercise, spiritual health and meditation, handwashing, and still get the cold.

Lots of resources suggest we are somehow also master of our emotional state, and should manage strong internal tides that come over us. Refocus, meditate, breathe, take control. Sure. For me, I may as well try to will away this cold. I can keep fluidated, get plenty of rest and whole food and supplements, but the cold will move on more or less when it pleases. So it is with the emotional currents, I am thinking.

One remedy for such symptoms is to listen to folks like Captains Rick and Karen Miles of the Wanderbird, and drink in their couple hundred slides of ice, Inuits, polar bears, belugas, Greenland villages with vividly colorful houses, fish drying racks, more ice, broad daylight at 3 AM and other wonders. There were photos of Capt. Karen cutting fish, welding and having a very high lattitude dunk. I've done the New Years dip on Matinicus, (secret being run fast enough so you can't change your mind) and I'm betting it was warmer than high summer off the Greenland coast. There were pictures of Capt. Rick being joyfully piled on by kids and sled dogs. Both captains had an intimate familiarity with the nature and culture of that environment.

One thing that struck me about the villages was how the only other place I've ever seen houses and shops so organically placed around the shore, and having no lanes, roads, property boundaries or other structure, is of course, around Matinicus Harbor. I'm sure there are other places where ledge, tide and hungry people intersect, but the resemblance was striking in these shots.

The Miles also talked about how in high latitudes, they have hunter's markets as we have farmer's markets. The produce is fresh and utterly non industrial. There are still many in Greenland and Labrador who closely interact with their environment for sustenance.

Taking all this in was a nice break from my seemingly endless preoccupation with this winter of great excitement, a sweet new island community, and great challenges all mixed in. I don't remember any stretch of time where external circumstances and internal emotions were so intense for such a duration. If it ain't one thing, it's something else. The ride is wild and fast and full of turns that maybe were big mistakes, or maybe exactly what should have happened. Hard tellin'.

I've taken big swings, and taken a lot of big whiffahhs. Lots of big fun along the way as well. This winter, and gradually from earlier on, I've been feeling the piper breathing down my neck for his installment and have not got a lot to show for myself or give to my family. $23 royalty checks and some cool slideshows of my own don't quite cut it in Grownupwiththreekidsland.

Stevie's right, though. So for all those big things in life, love and work: Better the big swings and misses than the wussing way. 'Specially where life is finite. I keep swinging for the fence. Or maybe Greenland.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Hole in the Fence

Illegitimis non carborundum- "Don't let the bastards grind you down." This phrase is stuck in memory. At my older brother's high school graduation, future governor Angus King incorporated the saying. I don't remember the rest of the speech, but maybe this bit stuck with me because I was in such awe that a guy could say "bastards" at school and not only not get carted down the hall by the earlobe, but get applause! What an alchemy of profanity into wisdom.

February is a good time to get in touch with the forces that grind me down. I don't need to dial long distance for that. Because Feb and Mar bring things forward, this is an opportune time to talk shit back to the grindstone and go further than not just letting bastards run me down.

A skinny break-dancing sheep offers a great approach for breaking out of old grinding patterns.

These days, especially at this very instant, I am around young children with inexhaustible supplies of energy. I, on the other hand, am quite exhaustible. So sometimes we watch TV and I take the easy way out on my parental obligations. One very charming offering is Shaun the Sheep, created by Nick Park of Wallace and Gromit fame. Shaun does lots of cool things like dancing to James Brown tunes and designing catapults and such. Shaun outwits the supervising dog, and easily maneuvers around the coke bottle glassed farmer. Shaun figures the system out. The other sheep look on in amazement or dull confusion.

Shaun's great power is just this: he sees The Hole in the Fence.

My essential corollary would be this: If there's a hole in the fence, we're duty bound to step through it.

And from whence is the fence? Inside, of course. If some mischievous farm critter helps you find the hole in the fence, thank them. Then step on through. Don't let the bastards put you off.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Cabin Fever

"Not much of a winter so far."
"Haven't even put the plow on yet."
"We'll probably pay for it later."

I know it has been mild this winter. Our puritan DNA tells us that we'll suffer for this relatively merciful climate. For me, though, it's still winter with all the cringing, arm-wrapping, stove-swearing-at rituals that go with it. One reason is that I can hear squirrels scratching their haunches through the walls of my rental home. I can hear squirrels' thoughts these walls are so thin. Wood and oil turn to heat that vanishes before doorknobs or room corners really get warm. I took it for granted all those years of living on Matinicus with its blasting cold winds, but having a snug house where, if it was warm in the middle of the room, it was also warm at the edges.

The cold wears me down, wears down my limited supply of cheery winter patience. Don't get me wrong. I love nothing better than heading outdoors for work or play on a sunny winter day. Even a cloudy winter day. The problem is that as much as I can work or play outside in winter just fine, I get fatigued when trying to stay warm indoors. I get frustrated with stoves that just barely melt an ice cube when going full out, or doors that need a big pillow flumped in front of their lower edges or vehicles that get tolerably warm about when I arrive wherever I was headed. It gets aggravating by repetition and tests my psychological endurance.

About the time February seems old though it's only into single digits on the calendar, I start having fuzzy dreams of the Caribbean, the Azores, Hawaii. Last year's jaunt to St. Croix notwithstanding, my travels are of the imaginary variety. Wikipedia, google earth, atlases, facebook friends' photo albums all open before me with green foliage, blue water and smiling faces.

Back home from the weekend afternoon travels by Sunday night, I pack the stove and let the kids sleep in the den instead of in their big bedroom; the one that probably seems fabulous when central heat is not needed.

Going to my happy place, simulating soft, tropical air by wearing a fleece hoody to bed. Toes in the sand are courtesy of boot socks.

Monday, February 6, 2012

First Monday in February

Week 5 in my new job is underway. The first morning that I walked onto a job site and smelled sheetrock and sawdust, it was a homecoming, 25 years on. Tools and materials have changed. I've changed. If anything, the extra score and a quarter years give me a much more immediate sense of play and accomplishment. I enjoy the physicality, in no way separated from spirit.

Month 2 in my new community of North Haven is on. It's the same and different from Matinicus. Mostly, it's just a new home base. The deception is that minute to minute, nothing seems like a big adjustment. In the back rooms of the mind, however, there is an awareness of how many radical bends and switchbacks have come our way since September.

Day 1 starts every morning. I sense more radical bends and steep adjustments coming soon. Fire and regrowth. Destruction and creation. The dry dusty wind whiffing of stale smoke gives way to humid green stillness.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Being a Good Stranger

This week, I've learned to cut and help thread and assemble 2 inch cast iron pipe to outfit a new oil tank. This is not like other plumbing I've faked my way through in life. Cast iron pipe in a 2 inch diameter has about as much give as 2 inch cast iron pipe. Oh yeah. Right, so the pieces really need to meet up exactly. The threads are cut with a very serious piece of power equipment that can lift a large person off the ground if it becomes fetched up, misaligned, or there is not enough oil squirted on it. Nowhere in my farming, musicking, fishing, lawyering or home fixup have I done this before. My mentor can do it all asleep.

Installing circulation pumps. Cracking old very medieval cast iron drains. Rolling, documenting and dollying gas bottles. Refreshing my feeble knowledge of cutting, cleaning and soldering copper pipe. I've only torched a couple, but I'm watching a master and paying attention. Taking apart oil burners and learning the components. Many new puzzlers over how things work, where does that pipe go, what's this for, how long does it take for a soldered joint to cool down, what is that rash on my arm.

Being new at things is probably really good for the brain. In my rock hopping, I've had more than the usual middle aged man's share of being the new guy in the office, on the boat, on the construction site, in the school environment, at the bar. I sometimes feel envious watching masters, people who have long term devotion to a particular skill, being such a jack myself. More often, though, I love the buzz I get from adapting and integrating in unfamiliar places, groups and tasks. I actually think that this is a distinct skill set as much as being a master plumber or tax lawyer. I'm a master novice. It is a rich experience.

I'm still in my first month on a new street on a different island working a new job. Even tasks and tools I'm somewhat familiar with are challenging in a new context. The super fancy chop saw with the laser sight and automatic dust collector stymied me for a few minutes until I found the "on" switch. No chop saw I'd ever used had such a thing. I just plugged 'em in and pulled the trigger. Meanwhile, the plumber is waiting for a 15 7/8" piece of 2X4. A hundred of these challenges present themselves every day and there is a gradual sense of how to rapidly and quietly fit into the new niche.

A few pointers for any of you thinking about diving into the novel situation. Have big ears, big eyes and a small mouth. Talk and joke enough to assure everyone you're not a poorly programmed antisocial animatronic device, but watch, listen, breath in the details. Pay close attention to unfamiliar words. Memorize where things are. Don't be afraid to take on a completely new and alien task. Do be afraid of breaking things or making mistaken assumptions. Ask questions quietly, and don't ever, ever try to sound like you know something about something you don't really know about. Let people get to know you, but don't rush it. Take an interest in the interests of your new people. Smile. Absorb. Forgive your own awkwardness.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Temporary Normalcy Adventure

Today is Monday. I did not work yesterday. I did work today as a plumbing assistant. My work schedule is Monday through Friday 7 am to 4 pm. This is remarkable in my life. Work begins and ends at particular times instead of flooding into or eluding and thwarting me during every possible moment and configuration of days.

The furnace needed to go in through a bulkhead entrance. First puzzle: Bulkhead doors open approximately 3 inches- several feet short of the gap through which a boiler will fit- because two new decks and stairways were constructed too close on either side. Doors must be detached from their hinges. Having been detached from my hinges myself, I can say that the doors came through it a lot better than I do.

Second puzzle: cellar stairs have to come out, but are screwed into the concrete floor and fitted extremely snugly against the concrete walls. After undoing the anchor screws, the process of trying to lever the staircase out is unsuccessful. Taking off one piece at a time in hopes of removing only just enough to get the assembly out works great, except that "just enough" means every last piece gets unscrewed.

The furnace is lowered thanks to a hydraulic boom truck- very handy thing. I'm much more used to a bunch of guys shoving, swearing and in disorderly but effective fashion moving heavy things with only a grudging tolerance or complete indifference to the concept of planning for the effects of mass and gravity. The boiler and oil tank are in within 5 minutes. Preparing the way required an hour's action by the puzzle squad.

Puzzle three: test plugs that don't fit in bath tub drains. Another process I never gave any thought to was checking new plumbing for leaks. My method is to wait for drips from the ceiling or other incontrovertible evidence of leakage. The pros substantially complete the system and then put caps or plugs on all the pipes and drains and use an air compressor to huff and puff and stuff a lot more air in the pipes than would comfortably fit at sea level atmospheric pressure. As the air seeks somewhere less crowded to go, we watch the pressure gauge for nice dry evidence of leakage.

One little obstacle today is that the bath tub has both a drain and an overflow opening. Plugging the pipe far enough down to catch both air escape routes is not an option. Unfortunately, the tub drain is a wee bit too big for one plug and way too small for another. Solution? Not duct tape. Not a paper clip. Process of elimination leaves only one other possibility: Rubber bands. They provide just enough additional circumference to get a good seal, though the first time Rex charges the system...pop! goes the innovative hybrid plug. Next time, I twist a little harder on the wingnut. Not as messed up as it sounds. And it holds.

Thus goes the day. The day with a schedule. Not the coin flip of having to either go like buggery or be idled depending on sunrise, wind direction or when high tide is. Tomorrow the schedule will be the same. How about that? Two days in a row!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Generosity to a Stranger

New situations are usually invigorating for me. New locations, work, people. A new route to the grocery store. A different pub. Learning where lightswitches are, how to work different machines. Learning faces and names. I love traveling, especially when the adventure is shared with others who also enjoy the new.

Our first seasonal migration to North Haven was not immediately such an experience for me. After the first couple of days where I had the initial rush of experiencing the new house footprint, neighborhood, beer store, school, community center and airport, I had to go back to Matinicus because that's where work was, along with many, many hastily abandoned tasks to be completed.

I have also had epic amounts of financial stress, guilt and shame. Since the decision to move was made, there was not one minute of a day of the last 3 months when I wasn't pinched in the abdomen worrying about imminent bankruptcy. A new household to pay for. The old one to hold onto. Transport. Lisa and I both trying to get new businesses off the ground and neither having anything approaching full time work.

Things happened gradually, then suddenly. The biggest was that in the midst of up- all- night despair and thoughts off auctioning my body parts to research facilities and non stop door to door, phone and email begging for work, a kind soul offered me a job. It's work I enjoy doing and will keep me busy and help me catch up with the encyclopaedic sheaf of overdue bills I've been stuffing out of sight.

Now I'm back with a light heart enjoying the business of fitting in to a new community. I went bike exploring today up the South Shore Road. I came back well frozen. I am a child roaming a new place. Monday, I will try to honor the generosity Mr. Crockett showed in taking a chance on a stranger.