Thursday, December 3, 2015

Done Early, or Not Quite

Taking up gear is the definition of tedious. Untie the buoy, coil the rope, clean out traps for the last time of the season, stack them on the boat, heave them onto the dock, then heave a little slower into the truck and drive home to the yard, where they are heaved yet again into a stack for the winter. Repeat. Even with a small operation it is brutal. There is the tide to coordinate with; the dock is inaccessible at times on account of rocks being too high and water too low. The weather usually turns around that time so that it is either rough and nerve wracking as waves try to dump traps off the boat, or not doable at all. There is also the inevitable delusion and internal conflict over wanting to keep making a few bux and not letting go of the life on water, while also dreading getting caught with gear out late into the year when all those variables get harder to align successfully.

This year, though, it all went so smoothly. Traps were up and in the yard by Halloween. That is for sure the earliest finish I've had. Then there's the boat. I'm always nervy about crossing and wishing the vessel could just get trailered in my yard on the island. Variables get piled on to the point where I have mainland work, scheduled time with kids, holidays and increasingly challenging weather to sort out.

The swiss cheese holes didn't line up this year until December 1, when there was the perfect weather forecast and an opening in my schedule.

We flew out the day before, on the first really cold day of the year. I went to start the boat and fuel up with the too familiar dread brought on by breakdowns, leaks of one type or another, a vibration here, a little too much smoke there. My sad attempt to stay positive was in vain. I turned the power on, pushed the starter button, but the only thing that fired up was my adrenal glands and cascade of 'what the f do I think I'm doing in this business' thoughts that always rush in at such times. Not a peep, not a turn or cough. Shit. Shitshitshitshitshitfuck. Turn off the breaker and then back on. Try again, pretty fucking please. Silence. Again. Same.

After a couple of panicked calls and visions of either getting towed all the way to the mainland or working on a cold dead hunk of Detroit iron in December, Megan and I went back down to wiggle wires, hook up the portable jumper, beat on the starter or whatever else we could think of. What happened next defies explanation. With none of those interventions, the old Cummins started up as if nothing had been wrong in the first place. Must've been something personal, or Megan's presence, but I figured I'd take it, whatever it was.

December 1 was as perfect as they come. We got an early start, had smooth water and warm sunshine the whole way across. Aside from being smoky at first and a little vibration probably from junk in the wheel, it was a truly enjoyable trip across. Leaving Matinicus, Two Bush Ledge and No Mans Land, there is a long open stretch before Heron Neck Light on Vinalhaven. Hurricane Sound was full of boats dragging for scallops on the first day of their season. Close Enough was put on a mooring in the Fox Islands Thorofare and left to the good care of J.O. Brown & Son, Inc.. Better late than never.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Transportation and Taking Up 2015


This morning, at around 7:00, I was driving down Carrie's Hill toward Matinicus Harbor. Since it was blowing 21, gusting to 23 knots from the southeast, I had doubts. As I was doing the algebra of southeast wind, 26 foot boat, traps on the northwest shore needing to be pulled out for the year, getting out and back without dumping them off the boat, the sleepy voice of Maine Public Radio morning host Irwin Gratz advised me that my adopted community of Matinicus Plantation was incorporated on this day in 1840. Funny thing is how he's in a radio studio someplace and knows this, and I'm driving down the gravel road in ignorance. Today is the 175th birthday of the municipality. The community is a bit older.

I worry a great deal about whether we'll stay incorporated. Because of the apparently overpowering allure of the bland mainland life, fewer and fewer people want to live here year-round.

The power company had to recently drive up its already very high rates due in part to insufficient demand; insufficient year round households to spread costs over. This could either drive down consumption and exacerbate the problem, make an island household unaffordable, or move those of means to go off-grid. 10th grade economics says you can't solve a lack of demand by increasing price.

I see two choices. First is that the island goes Criehaven, becoming an outpost with no utilities, postal service, school, church or other institutions. Second is an active approach to livability issues. On this I feel some qualification for my otherwise eyeroll-inducing opinions.

My family and I were some of the last new arrivals to try and make a year-round life here. Energy costs, isolation, housing and grocery access are all hardships. The deal-breaker to me, though, is transportation; year-round, affordable, reliable, semiweekly access to the mainland; something akin to what the sparsely populated unorganized territories with roads that cost x many hundreds of thousands per mile per year enjoy.

The historical society has published a wealth of pictures from several decades ago. I see two things: a community of people and the Mary A. I don't think it is a coincidence.

My personal life has undergone a great deal of evolution. Work-wise, I've gotten back into legal practice by necessity. I'd much rather be stuffing bait bags, going all spiral-eyed from the fog and waking up sore, but the legal work is good for wretched days or months fit not for man, beast or lobster harvester. I can do almost everything in this line of work from the island. Knowing there was a ferry run a couple of times a week in the crappy months would make all the difference.

Unrealistic? Hmmm... Rutherford Island in South Bristol hosts 40 year round households. They are getting an $11M bridge upgrade. That's in addition to whatever annual plowing and maintenance costs are. Those investments don't just serve the residents, but as well all of the goods and service providers that do commerce over those routes. Is a water based transport system so different?

Taking Up 2015

Back to the boat. The north shore and Burgess Cove were swimming pool flat and easy places to take up fishing gear for the year. The morning was designed by Ansel Adams with infinite gradations of gray, my favorite being the rolling garden furrows of clouds to the west. I was thoroughly content to coil rope, pick out the few lobsters who didn't get the scheduling memo and stack traps in their places on the boat.

Although there is no obvious change in the underwater topography between Black Rocks and the southwest shore, there are funny water patterns. By funny I mean that even with no wind or chop, just as soon as the boat was full, a couple of eccentric waves came a hair's breadth from snatching a bunch of traps overboard. The row of gear slid and oozed, but didn't actually take the plunge. I credit my Uncle Malcolm for teaching me to cinch down on a rope in good shape and secure things that wanted to go astray such as haybales or large, iron-toothed farm equipment. Candidly, if I could've just picked which traps went overboard, I'd have shed no tears.

The remaining problem was that although the northwest shore was relatively tranquil, I could predict what was waiting around No'theast Point. Almost, because I am perpetually naive and optimistic. Not yet knowing what I didn't know, I still had to stabilize the load of traps before going 'round the corner. This meant climbing up the pile and tugging things back into some semblance of geometry, while remaining respectful of being alone on the water on a scowling gray day.

I had expectations fulfilled as I came around the point and was then forced to idle all the way in to the harbor holding my breath. I had expected a few good sized gray waves at the point and right outside the harbor, but didn't really think about everyplace in between. For the first time I can recall, I had to tack my way in to avoid being side-to which would have taken both the wicked and virtuous members of my trap collection.

When I got home, my list started with "dry pants" and "fire." After that,  I had a big stack of legal work waiting, but once the obvious email fires were doused and the paper mail checked, I just could not sit down to do it. Instead, I went for a walk that, which, for the latter half was quite wet. I was completely happy with evergreens and the red and orange of fall shrubbery and the wild waves and wind that I no longer had to contend with.

Now at dusk there are fat, warm raindrops and even a couple of lightning and thunder moments. It's October 22, 2015.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Backwards Told Story A

This one is best recounted in reverse order. Once the weather starts to change in October, working on a lobster boat changes with it. It's colder, bouncier, stays dark late and gets dark early. My brain still thinks July, August and September will last forever. Long hypnotic days of calm seas, though, must give way to a sense of urgency and a nervous (for me) eye on the weather. Maybe I treasure the experience a little more when it's a little tougher.

The fire is taking hold in the stove. It just started raining. Seamus, the cat appears at the door.

We're walking across the yard. I have an armload of firewood and Megan has our boat lunchbox and beverages. Even with the dark gray chill and wind, the yard and house are a womb of peace and comfort.

The boat is tied up, turned off. I've made a messy dismount from my skiff onto Robert's to get to the ladder, and we've stepped onto the concrete wharf, which moves under us as though bobbing slowly in the swell.

Since Clayton's and my boats moor very close, I am on edge coming up to the mooring in 30 knots of clammy southeasterly. As I'm pondering how to get tied up and deal with a lobster crate that's tangled ass-backwards with my skiff, the boat is shoved over the whole mess, threatening to sink the skiff, get tangled in my wheel and send me into Clayton's boat. Second time is the charm.

Coming up to the lobster car to sell our catch takes a couple of tries. I aim just like I always do, but slide quickly away from the tie up lines. After lurching my way in, we fasten onto the Matinicus Island Lobster car, commerce hub and gossipatorium. Not that we didn't earn it, but we did well for a day cut 40 traps short.

On the way in, the wind takes another healthy jump upward. The sea is pretty much either black or whitecaps and I'm glad I decided to bag the rest of the day. Close Enough rolls up and over, up and over and surfs into the harbor. 

I'm thinking maybe we should finish another day. But then, maybe we could do a couple more. As I'm thinking this, my hands are putting things away, so I've obviously made a decision. We are done.

The last couple of strings of gear are very sloppy and nerve-wracking. I spend a lot of attention wrestling the boat into the waves, rather than laying side-to and sloshing about. When a wave hits side-to, I'm letting my knees buckle so as to stay on the boat, much the same way as a wily toddler knows how to fold their arms quickly to slip down, out and away from parental control. It's an old reflex.

Along the north shore, the capillary waves come, telling of larger, gruffer conditions to follow. On the way out from shore for the deeper water traps, the wind jumps up abruptly, and with it, the waves.

Throughout most of the morning, enjoying the beautiful day is easy along any of 180 compass points. The other 180 don't look so nice- they are dark bordering on dusk. I figure the darkness will be on us in 15 or 20 minutes, but after a while, I realize the storm clouds are moving more up along the coast than out toward us. They'll find us, but not so quickly as I thought.

Megan and I know the forecast is calling for deteriorating conditions; wind and rain in quantities prohibitive of fishing in a 26 foot vessel. Right now, though, it's sunny and flat-ass calm, as they say. So we go.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Faugust and Learning to be a Fisherman

August is not known for fog. It's been a pasty murky clammy mess for two weeks. 

Lesson 28, sub 3. When bilge is full of oil, and no amount of consultation with experts, contortional stuffing upside down into small spaces, automotive/dental mirrors, profanity or reasoning produces an explanation, AND the engine is running smooth as the brush of a cat on your leg, you, the proper fisherman, go hauling. You do. I, on the other hand, fume and stew and worry and then eventually decide to go hauling anyway. I got to the point where I was perfectly willing to keep pouring in engine oil in exchange for being able to work and pay for whatever repair is in my future.

It came on gradually, then suddenly, with that deep adrenal defibrillation whereupon I decide (again) that I am stupid to be in this business. This business where the ancestral GPS of lobster cycles and migration is absorbed by 12 year olds, not 50 year olds. The gradual part was that oil inched ever so slightly down the dipstick over a couple of weeks. Not generally a big deal especially because it always does that when it's time for an oil change, which it was. After I paddled out on a Sunday morning to change the oil, fuel and hydraulic filters and set about my business, there was a stomach lurching moment when the oil pump stopped after about 9 quarts. It should have been 11 or 12.

A reluctant peek into the bilge showed two things. First, the bilge pump was not working. Wires that ended in mid air probably had something to do with it. Second, and much uglier than a recalcitrant bilge pump was the copious, odious, obscene and altogether appalling amount of oil in the bilge, glaring up at me in black, grinning, leering clots, maliciously swaying to and fro in the beautiful Sunday morning sunshine.

After swabbing up as much as I could of the oil, I began untangling and tracing wires associated with the pump and float switch. After reconnecting the works, I expected action. I pulled up on the float and got only silence. Hmmph.

I ripped everything apart and grabbed the multimeter, a very handy tool in learned hands like Paul's. In mine, as we'll see, it's a mixed blessing. Monsieur Multimeter said there was only something like 1.28 to 3.69 volts coming from the source, depending on how well I gouged the pointy thing into the wire.

I figured that even with my limited and patchy nollidge of wiring, I could find the problem. After scratching the fuse cap at the battery end with a rusty bait knife, I had a nice strong 12.48 volts and the pump hummed cheerfully when I got the wires touching correctly.

Not so good with the switch, as in silence again. After a trip to town and couple of days' office work, I came back to Matinicus after closing a commercial transaction, rushing to Rockland, hopping the lobster smack and falling asleep, bringing with me a nice clean new float switch and a bunch of handy heat-shrink splice connectors. By 8:00 or so, I had put everything back together in mild drizzle and not so mild amounts of mosquito bites and then flipped the switch. Nothing. What tha F, for F's sake?!!

I checked the wires with the multimeter: 12.49 volts DC. I hot-wired the pump to the source with no switch at all. Nothing. Rechecked the volts. 12.48. Silence. Must be a bad pump, right?

After another trip to town and another few days of office work, I returned with a new bilge pump. Now I had new connectors, switch and pump and the multimeter said there was 12 volts and change. All new connections, shrink wrapped for waterproofing. Flipped the switch. Nothing. F'ing stupid F'ing M'f-er!!! What am I doing wrong?!

I went back to the errant fuse cap at the battery end of the wiring chain and saw nothing wrong. A few inches aft of there, however, was splice connector, and not the handy heat shrink water proof kind. A friendly shake showed the connection was sloppy-loose. In the meantime, I'd brought my oil drenched old bilge pump and hand hotwired it to the battery, at which time it abruptly buzzed and spewed oil, indignantly proclaiming there had never been anything wrong with it in the first place, dumbass.

The rest was routine. New connections, new pump, new switch, and a new knowledge that 12.48 volts on the multimeter is not a guarantee of wiring integrity.

The big problem of a significant oil leak is still with me. The lobsters, however, are also present. As a result, I go out, knowing that above the deck, all is well while below, the oil trolls are laughing, dancing and procreating in my boat, the slimy bastards.

Now after several hard but productive days, there is only the pale gold to dark blue corona in the west. I want for nothing. Except Megan.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Getting Home From (And To) Work

Loading groceries in the Hannaford parking lot, it was 5 or 10 degrees below sweltering and in all other ways a beautiful late July day. Wrapping up office business late Thursday morning, I was, without much conscious thought, looking forward to getting spots with Megan on the afternoon mail flight back to Matinicus.  It did not occur to me that the warm humid air of summer was turning into chilly opaque paste as it moved across cold ocean water, making the climate very different a few miles off shore such that no planes were going anywhere near the island.  These small drops of water run the show in summer as much as wind and tide do year round.

So it was that I was caught off guard when Sally told me it probably wasn't going to happen.

Megan and I have learned that uncertain travel prospects are best met by going to the departure point and being ready to jump instead of hanging back. Even with this force of optimism, we arrived at the Penobscot Island Air den of office cabins and got the same answer about flying conditions.

Curiously, loitering at the air service produced not the slightest improvement in the weather. I called Fiona, who told me it was bright and clear at home in the middle of the island. She biked to the airstrip and reported that it was clear right to the shore but not beyond.

After some stewing and a low-grade tantrum about missing a hauling day with lobsters on the verge of hitting and a big block of next week lost to a trial, we called Marty the lobster dealer, who put us in touch with Jeb on the Bajupa (named for Barbara, June and Pat), the lobster smack. Jeb was just coming into Rockland and thought he'd be heading back out in a couple of hours, but also might be helping work on another boat.

After thinking through how to get from Owls Head to the fish pier, what to do with cars, and how much of an obstacle was presented by the Lobster Festival being in full swing, we decided again to try and get to the departure point and be ready.

Traffic was pretty manageable and we picked our way around trucks, a forklift and stenchy puddles of fish goo to where Jeb was finishing loading bait into Bajupa's hold. He thought he'd be heading out around 4:00, giving us time to deal with the car and cool it with a beer.

Having a pretty sure ride lined up was a huge relief. It would mean a late arrival, to be followed by pumping oil into a 50 gallon barrel at the wharf, lugging it to the side of my barn and pumping it into the tank so there would be hot water in the house.

I also had to assemble the new hand cranked pump that represented energy independence to me. [Moving oil is a hassle here. One needs a pump, a truck and an oil supply- sometimes from a fuel boat that shows up every 6 weeks or so, sometimes off a truck from the ferry, sometimes from the wharf. It's always a messy pain in the ass. Having my own pump was one big step in smoothing that process]

It was probably more like 5:00 by the time we left along with a collection of other fishermen and a Dachshund named Isla who spent the voyage in the bunk, snugged against her sleeping fisherman. They both looked pretty comfortable.

We got to Harbor Point on Matinicus at dusk and had our groceries and supplies winched up onto the wharf. Our truck, however was at the airport. Jeb loaned us his truck, an early 80's Silverado with an approximately one by two foot opening in the driver's side floor where my left foot would normally rest. By the time the trucks had been swapped around and returned, the oil pumped onto my pickup, the pump assembled and put to use, the burner bled and hot water reestablished, it was close to 10:00.

The mail flight would have been on island at 1:15 PM.

That was our commute. Big thanks to Marty and Jeb. Because of them, we were able to haul the next day. Fair to middlin' catch but a catch nonetheless.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Matinicus 4th of July and Bygone America

The Fourth celebration started a day early for us. Stretching my back and seized joints, I looked upside down out the door into neon green foliage and the starkest of blue summer skies- the perfect day to break the barrier I put up after last August's little scare on the water. It was time to make a crossing from Rockland to Matinicus. The financial incentive was strong as well where we had a half ton of supplies, a new lawnmower, shingles, soap and sound gear.

Megan and I loaded 2 station wagon loads of stuff onto Close Enough at the municipal fish pier and tossed the tie-up lines at 10:38 a.m..

Penobscot Bay had only inches of chop, gentle off shore swells and perfect visibility. We arrived in the harbor at high tide, making for an easy off-load at the dock.

Morgan hosted a large contingent of family friends at the south end for a weekend of island adventures, seafood and music. Most Fourth of July weekend parties do NOT start this way: shooting a raccoon, hanging and skinning her from the apple tree in the Wyeth-worthy seaside front yard.

My real focus, though, is the piece of America I saw a few days earlier on the mainland. I met a client at his home off a sleepy side road in the interior of Lincoln County.

Chatting in the kitchen of his farm house, I noted that all of the appliances and fixtures appeared to be about my age. Worn and a little filmed over, but impeccably neat. So it was with his outbuildings and machinery which included haying equipment, tractors and a 1967 dodge pickup still in operation. His wife passed away years ago and he has cared for his place and carved out houselots for his 4 children from the many acres of rolling woodland and fields of timothy grass.

I'll call him Bob. Bob bought the place in 1955 and never had a mortgage on it. He's added barns and storage buildings and raised black angus cattle until fairly recently.

Bob had only a high school education, but a lot of mechanical skill and the archetypal New England work ethic. He maintained and overhauled all of his machinery himself. Bob made things a little better every year by the way it looked to me.

Bob was a career employee at GTE in Waldoboro. I think Sylvania closed the place in the late 1980's. Before that, the plant actually made things in Waldoboro. Not buckboards or harnesses for oxen, but relatively modern items like lighting components.

What that company also provided was a way for working individuals to make a living, buy and improve a home and raise a family. Hard work and dedication were rewarded with a decent wage and some security.

Bob's accent is a very localized dialect from a different age. His life as well seems a well preserved and isolated remnant of that different age. Even though I recognize Bob's world from my own past, my own is very different.

I cannot even count the number of part and full time jobs I've had. It feels to me like the world now requires constant hustling, tap-dancing, being available by electronic media 24 by 7 and jumping from ice berg to ice berg trying not to slip into the cold river.

It was piercingly nostalgic for me to walk through a barn with the smells of hay mow and cows still hanging. I spent every summer and more than a few school year weekends and afternoons in just this sort of environment.

I'm able to write and share this story because of the same technology that I would not miss if I lived in Bob's world. It was a nice couple of hours.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Slow Spell or Disappearing Honeybee Colony?

I'm not a 'the sky is falling' type individual most of the time. Running down the lane and spreading alarm has come in most circumstances to mean little. Usually, the things we worry about don't happen. Sometimes, however, the sky may actually be falling, but we don't see it.

As for island transportation, my views come from being one of the few who have recently come to Matinicus to try and stay year round- recently meaning about a decade ago. I didn't really make it for a bunch of reasons. I hope to get back to year round living some day.

Matinicus has a vibrant if smallish community. There is housing stock. There are work opportunities. 

What do not exist are meaningful transportation options for people and goods. Even the biggest lobster boats get hauled out at the end of the season. The ferry goes to once or twice a month in the darker months.

I don't think we can compare Matinicus' lack of real transportation with rusty bridges or other infrastructure needing repairs and prioritize ourselves downward as a result. It is more akin to a small remote township where the state just decided not to build a bridge or a road at all, and then expect people to fly, canoe, mush or skidder themselves into town for groceries and then back home.

It's hard to know what might happen if families could actually get back and forth to the mainland a couple of times a week instead of monthly in the winter. Would Matinicus turn into Martha's Vineyard on Monhegan in the summer? I doubt it. Would families be able to relocate and find housing, make a life and educate their kids, at least through 8th grade? I bet they could. If the kids come, the rest of the community takes on a life that is missing otherwise. Or it could just be my self-centered perspective.

If there continue to be no real transportation options, there may be a point at which colony collapse occurs due to insufficient personnel, and insufficient utility or air service customers to spread costs over.

We aren't necessarily headed the way of Metinic or Ragged Islands, but it might be worth imagining what it would take to not go there.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Big Banks and Local Real Estate

After spending a good portion of the last two days dealing with various aspects of what the modern banking and title insurance world has done to land transactions, I need to get these thoughts down while they're fresh. The cast includes glib and corporate-speak fluent title insurance folks giving powerpoint presentations on new lending disclosure rules and big multi-state banks, employees of which probably weren't born when I started searching titles.

Yesterday's presentation on new rules on real estate settlement forms exposed Congress' assumption that 5 pages of gobbledegook out of any comprehensible order is easier to understand than 2 pages, and will make for better informed borrowers.

Then all day today I was trying to get ready for a sale while seeing all sorts of new numbers getting dropped in by the distant bank a day before closing. It was about onion layers of electronic security, electronic auditing meaning that this or that item can only go on such and such a line of a settlement statement, verifying addresses because you're several time zones away, recharacterizing this or that number. To them, land transactions are about software, drop-down menus, bureaucracy and micromanaging every business partner in a world where the system has become fragmented such that no one person has any real sense of what a land sale means. The gatekeepers in this particular deal have no insight into our community- it could be Fairbanks or Vicksburg and it would make no difference.

Having the tail end of one simple sale generate inbox entries that fill an entire screen, and so many steps that don't bear much relevance to the sale of a house and land, I cannot guess why the system isn't collapsing under its own bulk.

Real estate in essence is about ground, buildings, trees, stone walls, threads of streams, road frontage, granite monuments, houses, bits of barbed wire stuck in pine trees, 5/8" rebar set by surveyors. It is about what we do when we walk outside. It is about work and dirt, hills and hollows, lots in subdivisions with basketball hoops in the cul-de-sac. Land sales are about mortgages-  documents pledging land and buildings as collateral for loans to buy same. How this most basic part of our social fabric has turned into such a clumsy and inefficient, aggravating mess I do not know.

Dodd-Frank and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau were supposed to help with the bad stuff, the really bad stuff that happened as a result of ninja loans (no income, no job, no assets), credit default swaps (a Ponzi scheme) and bond rating practices that rubber-stamped the whole works as top choice grade A real estate investments. The problems were caused by big financial institutions. The regulatory and legislative responses seem to cater to the same players, setting up the next meltdown.

Love your land. Work with a community bank or credit union. There's no place like home.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Where Next, Matinicus?

Where to start. Maybe tonight, as I was sitting in Megan's truck on the wharf looking out past the harbor and ledges to the horizon. Maybe how Ellen was courteous when I first looked at a property here. As to being on the island for more than a short summer vacation, she said something like 'it all depends on what you're willing to do without.' Other phrases come to mind. "It's so isolated." "There's no store." "There's no reliable transportation." "It's too expensive."

Those things are all largely true and even more largely complete bullshit at the same time. Yes, we are two dozen miles from Rockland. Shopping opportunities are limited. Transportation is a constant wild card.

As for isolation: our suburban culture has unfortunately infiltrated Maine during my lifetime, wherein we know the Kardashians better than our neighbors. Not so on the island- for better or worse. I've met more interesting people from more far flung places and made more connections with people from all over and been more connected to my neighbors while on this tiny speck in the ocean than I ever did living right outside the state capitol, or in Portland or Boston. It is expensive here, but not really any more so than inland, just different. Transportation is a bear, I'll give ya that.

In my gut, I feel it's not the expense, the distance or the logistical headaches that have drained off the population. Instead, it is a narrowing of what people expect or want in their lifestyle. There is a coercive pressure to be in the suburban big-box (or Little Boxes) social environment. There is a fear that kids will be stunted if they don't do team sports, and have 30 peers in the same grade from the same town and take  the right lessons so they achieve some particular merit badge. If instead they work on the water or garden or learn to hang with kids of all ages and adults or learn to fix machinery or engage with nature, they are bound to be island-queer and incapable of coping with society. I do not believe this is true. At all. All of the things that may seem like deprivations or hardships end up creating more adaptable, socially aware and better rounded young people.

I am afraid for the community. The community is what makes it possible for us to be here and live. There are people who ensure the phones work, that the power works, that there is emergency medical response, that town business gets done. Often, these tasks are all done by one person, or two or three. At one point, I helped; in the school, the town office, on a couple of occasions as a gopher during work on power lines (it was wicked fun to run the bucket truck). Now, I mostly just play a few songs on the dock in the summer, but that may be a dubious contribution depending on where you live and what time you want to start sleeping. Last winter, I was not here to help when things were very tough. I wasn't here to help share the infrastructure costs for our public utilities. There is a valid concern that since the school closed and the population thinned out there won't be a critical mass to support essential services such as the air service and power company.

I'm scared, but also bewildered. There is a big disconnect. I am here on Matinicus. It is not northern Greenland. I have reliable internet, indoor plumbing and a machine that washes dishes for me. I am sitting on a very comfy two seater couch next to the wood stove. I am not feeling deprived or isolated. On the other hand, I also have an utterly magical environment where I can bike to one work site down a gravel road with a grass median, walk to the harbor when it's time to get on the boat to work, and can feel the aliveness that only comes with a lot of physical activity outdoors, while at the same time producing legal work online and over the phone.

From my viewpoint at the harbor, here by the stove on my internet, and on my bike on the grass medianed road to the land tending job, I wonder why the place isn't swarming with people.

There are really only two possible explanations. Our society has become soft, unimaginative, totally chickenshit and missing out on the beauty, struggle and spontaneity of life, or I'm a nutjob. Don't answer except among yourselves. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Scooter

--> The scooter purchase was not one of my better spending decisions. It was intended to fulfill the manifest destiny of all Matinicus kids to have a means of transport with a carbon footprint early in life. One of the many empowerments  of this place is that children can learn to handle machinery in a fashion and at an age that is not customary or legal in other places. 2nd graders just do not typically show up to school at the wheel of a golf cart or 4 wheeler.  My girl Lydia began to drive at the age of 12 and a half in the old silver Mazda.

This particular scooter, however  was  sold at Christmas time by a particularly shady online vendor and arrived in a mangled carton, the contents of which did not closely resemble the promised merchandise.  Since we were talked out of using a credit card,  there was very little recourse. We made the best of it.

Lydia’s first ride took her joyfully down to the crossroads, where the fuel tank detached  and began merrily skipping along at her heels. She was oblivious and I could not run fast enough or yell loud enough, and waited for the small mushroom cloud that would follow.

There were a few other rides. I used it a few times. Mostly it sat. Briefly inspired a couple of years later,  Lydia and I fueled it up only to watch gas leaking out of the tank almost as fast as we poured it in. I think I painted the hole or did some other band-aid repair.

That was years ago. Today, Fiona wheeled old Smokey out of the barn. I first barked at her to put it back in its dusty corner. I then agreed to try to start it, confident that it would go no further.  I pulled the starter cord to no avail, but then was gradually overtaken by the challenge and found myself unscrewing the spark plug, checking fuel and fuel lines, looking for a choke, pouring some gas into the spark plug hole and finding the fuel bulb underneath.  I am no one’s idea of mechanically inclined, but that damn thing fired up. Cough.

At that point, the Matinicus magic kicked in. I’m sure these things happen in other places, but they only happen to me here. What ensued was a daylong series of triumphs followed by some other part falling off or breaking. It was a challenge and adventure and a great way to blow a day with your 13 year old learning and sharing the joys of internal combustion.

The next thing to be fixed were two totally flat tires. The front one was inflated in about 20 seconds. The rear tire, through some truly inventive engineering was set up such that the air stem was located deep in the wheel rim and separated from the rest of the world by the brake disc. Noway nohow was a pump going in there. After undoing the chain, tensioners on both sides, rusty wheel nuts and trying to keep mental track of everything that came off, we got the wheel separated from the frame and the disc off of the wheel.  The tire inflated in 20 seconds- just like that!

Having the wheel fiddled and worried back into place, we fired her up and Fiona took a series of rides starting on the lawn, where an engine cover fell off, and then down the main road with joy rolling off her in waves.

She was ready for a road trip, so I followed her all the way to the south end to check on Morgan’s chickens. When we finished there, I pulled the starter cord which only flopped out loose. The curse appeared not to have forgotten us or our scooter.

I took off the pull starter and found what I had hoped not to: that one of the tabs that turned over the engine had broken off. Then I idly jabbed my pointer finger at the metal part the tab would contact to turn over the engine and out popped the broken plastic. We reassembled that part and it seemed like the starter  turned properly with only one tab.

Putting the whole works back together I pulled and again the cord stuck and then flopped loose. Off it came again and this time I saw that the whole plastic wheel was split and non functional.

I felt it would be tragic if a little plastic wheel crippled Smokey Bessey as she is now known.  I also knew that there was no identification of any brand on the scooter,  so I ruled out the possibility of finding a replacement for the plastic wheel.  Adhesive would have to do.

As I was thinking about the plastic part,  approximately 4 and one-half feet of steel ribbon erupted from the starter casing. This springing spring was the message from above to give it up. I made a couple of attempts to reseat it. Then I again fell prey to the challenge and the Matinicus magic, and using Kreskin-like spoon bending powers of mind, stubborn fingers and streams of profanity, managed to get the spring re-packed.

That victory gave me the courage to try to glue the wheel.  After a recess, the wheel seemed sturdy enough. As I was putting this collection back together, the jackass in the box sprung back out and it took another 20 minutes to wind it in there. If you have not attempted this before, here is my advice: Don’t. If you do, wear  eye protection and yell at your boisterous children to give you some peace for a little minute. You then must wind the thing very tightly and not let it move in any direction whatsoever,   because it desperately wants to go every which way.  After that, you must slow time and molecular motion down to near absolute zero so you can get the end hooked in where it goes before the coil expands just enough to be too big for the housing. Then you must do this several more times.

After bolting the works back together for the fourth time, the starter pulled normally, but before the motor caught, the plastic wheel had again given up. I apologized to Fiona and visualized dumping the scooter under the No Dumping! sign behind the recycle shed.

One stupid plastic part. Too bad there’s no information about this machine anywhere. Before we went in the house, I looked at the starter housing cover, which actually had a small sticker bearing the “Zhijiang SunScooter Limited” name.

A quick internet search revealed that Zhijiang Sunscooter Limited was a “modernized enterprise,” but little of use, especially no parts places. A less quick search for more information on the model and the company and replacement parts vendors gave up nothing. Amazon, however, after the first search said “no products matching your search” (when does that ever happen?) showed an ad for the identical item for $8.00 and change plus shipping.

 Now we wait. happily and fondly hoping.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

A Little Taste of Reality- that most of us are out of touch with

Piecing things together was difficult. There was one carcass outside the front fence. Fiona found one a ways into the woods. We counted 3 piles of feathers in the yard and two across the road in the woods. Four chickens were cowering in the shrubs. One was wedged way under the shelf in the potting shed. One came back several hours later and really did not want to go back into the coop. If each feather pile accounted for one chicken, that still left one missing.

Morgan got the chickens to take out to Matinicus- the supposedly rough and dangerous offshore pirate island. In the interim the chickens were free ranging in the Meadow Drive Subdivision in Camden- a more self contented and complacent environment would be hard to find. And yet it was here in insulated Volvo retirement professional comfort land that the massacree transpired.

They were a delight to have around with their conversational lawn pecking and the way they'd all come running to greet whoever might come out the door. All was tranquil for 10 days or so.

We had been warned about turkey vultures, but in my smug insular suburban ignorance I could not imagine a bird capable of flying off with a full grown laying hen, much less 5 of them. Morgan the owner of the chickens seemed much less upset than the rest of us, and surmised that birds of prey had made off winged-monkey style with our (her) chickens.

Morgan was not sad. I was sad. And even though in my well fed 21st century complacence I had no need of these birds, I felt a sharp pain of losing a food source and income stream that must have gripped farmers through centuries when predators or disease came calling. Even though it bore no relevance in my life, I felt scared and panicked by losing these productive animals. In earlier days, the loss might have meant starvation, accelerated poverty or increased vulnerability to disease.

These latent instincts erupted at 8 or so in the evening when I saw through the dusk and  puckerbrush a fox prancing off with one of the chickens that must have been hiding from the vultures. I exploded out the door yelling obscenities at the fox and tramped through the prickles, charging to where the fox had been. The chicken had been dropped there, except for the head which was nowhere to be seen and which pretty well meant Goose, the favored black hen was not coming back to the yard.

Today, the kids and I went to the middle school to play baseball. It was the best of the first world: green grass, warm weather, sport, family, and an absence of starvation and fear, with none of the bad parts such as over-stimulation from fingertip activated electronic devices, digital era angst over all that is wrong with the world, high fructose corn syrup and similar perils.

When we returned to the scene of the crime, a silent but creepy spectacle greeted us. At least a dozen very large black birds were alternating between wheeling slowly around over the yard and perching in the bare hardwoods. This was our yard, but it felt like something between medieval dragon invasions and a Tolkien movie.

As E.B. White might put it, I was reminded of one of the harsh realities of farm life- or real life depending on how one looked at it. What it really amounted to was that regardless of our self satisfied suburban domination of the environment, nature still totally kicks ass.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Oak Runners and the Soothing Effect of Sore Hands

Oak runners protect the bottom of a lobster trap and let it slide as the trap is pulled upward toward the boat. Hopefully, the trap on that journey is crowded with keepers. Since lobster traps sit on the bottom of the ocean for months on end, the wooden runners rot eventually.

For the dub like me who is always trying to get the most gear out with the least effort, the decision when many a trap is heaved onto the operating table is whether the rotted runner(s) can make it another year, or whether they will instead partially or fully come apart and fall off a week into the season. The decision is made by observation, by pulling on the runner, an internal tug-of-war between laziness and diligence or just whacking it with a hammer or my faithful blue wrecking bar to see if I can break it.

Since the hammer has disappeared-probably for some project dreamed up by the younger two kids-the wrecking bar calls for some digression. When I was on North Haven one winter, I worked a for Rex, the Plumber. Rex had tools going way back. He'd call for "that green wrench." I would look stupidly about and only see tools with the standard brown rust and grease finish of proper workmen's implements. Rex might grow tired of waiting and fetch the item himself. Where I saw dark brown, he could see the green paint which was probably very cheerfully applied during Prohibition, and in an American foundry at that. In somewhat the same way, my wrecking bar has only a few flakes of paint left, but it'll always be bright blue to me.

Back to oak runners. The trick with the blue bar and with that task is to hack away at the runner and dislodge it without destroying the rest of the trap wire. Therein lies the irony of the rotted runner. That same runner which will fall off a week after I set it will fight me to the death before it lets go of the trap. Those corroded screws and worm eaten pieces of oak can be mighty obstinate. I'm sure there is something to be learned from an oak runner that won't let go for anything, but which will punish my laziness if I don't do the work.

Runners are one part of the gear work. I have many vintage traps. They need bungee cords, acres of patch wire, netting restitched, vents replaced and hoops restrung. The decisions are much the same. Can this thing make it a year? Will I be sad with myself when it disintegrates two weeks from the start of the season?

After a winter on the keyboard or the fretboard, my fingers are not used to the jamming, pounding, scraping, cutting, puncturing and general abuse of trap work. Yet they and I are happy. It's been chilly, windy and showery at times, but the sun is strong, birds are at the feeder and the peepers sing all night.

Saturday, March 21, 2015



Weather and banking regulations have me feeling dragged northeast by the wind and southwest by the tide. Pushed in one direction and pulled in another. Or several.


I’d very much like to be cleaning rope and painting buoys and trying to make fishable pots out of the crumbling misshapen mismatched collection of gear in my yard. I would like to be doing that as the grass gets green under my feet and the air softens up on my brow. If, however, I were to show up there this afternoon, much shoveling of snow crust would be required to even get a glimpse of my rope pile. The snow banks look slightly shorter, but I have this uneasy sense that they’ve only compacted and become more obstinate.

George sent me a picture of my house a few weeks back- at least the visible portions. I’m afraid that the snowbank halfway up my window may be trying to sneak inside through the sash.

As a result, I am pulled to get back home, but pushed back into place on the mainland for another little while waiting for a thaw. When it comes, it will happen quickly. Right?

Financial Institutions

Without rehashing my well worn descriptions of financial and personal struggle, I can say I have worked hard the last couple of years to be a good doobie and build up the real estate law work so that when I can’t be on the island, I can still meet my basic responsibilities.  

This usually goes along well enough in terms of actually doing the work- examining titles, fixing problems, running down all the numbers and details and providing reassurance to buyers and sellers that the sale will go through. For the last almost 3 years, the work has grown and gotten more enjoyable through a lot of sweat, tap-dancing and steep learning curves.

Less enjoyably, real estate practice is not what it was when I started assisting other attorneys while still in school. The secondary mortgage market wags the title insurance dog that dominates the practice.

Enter a new, bigger, clumsier and far less friendly dog: new banking regulations. Because of the excesses of coked out sleazy mortgage brokers, financial professionals as creative as they were sociopathic and greedy, cyber criminals and complacent parties elsewhere throughout the real estate business, the rest of us who did not create the problems- lenders, attorneys, insurance underwriters- all have to cope with dizzying new requirements for security and fairness in lending. This is noble but stupid; an ass-up-the-tree foolish idea that more small print forms will assure that borrowers are better informed and personal information better protected by creating more layers of process.

Keeping up with escalating bureaucracy and regulation has become an additional part time job and a far less satisfying one.

For an independent firm trying to stay up on this stuff, two things come through loud and clear. First is that small producers like me are hanging on by our nails and are at risk of being choked out of the business because the requirements favor larger firms. Second is that the regulations address risks posed by those selfsame big firms, big banks and the right hand/left hand syndrome that happens in those environs.

Pardon me, but a large city law firm may get infiltrated or have information get misdirected in one way or another, but nobody, nohow is getting by Cyndy and Christine, who between them know everyone who ever lived in our county for several generations.

Small banks are much more responsive, nimble and able to deal with risk, and much less likely to engage in the kind of drunken gambling that brought the market crashing down in 2008. Small law firms are much more likely to be aware of fraud risks and much less likely to have cyber vulnerability.

Those things being said, I’m feeling very much the endangered species. I’m feeling pulled toward success by learning the business and keeping up with changes, but at the same time pushed away by a system that values conformity and bureaucracy over responsiveness and dedication. Pushed toward Matinicus again. The big thaw can’t come soon enough.

Saturday, January 24, 2015


The day is a few minutes longer on each end and what a difference. Aside from accidentally working a little longer, it is a great thing.

It is still January, but a couple of days ago, I was swept by the vision of being home, with gear work happening in my yard. I heard the boats of those more diligent and quicker into the water than myself,  the crows, pheasants, gulls, fourwheelers and songbirds, felt the wind and smelled the woodsmoke, salt air, and smoldery trash fires. It is only a couple of months off.

I live in the real estate law world during the off-island season. My time is occupied with deeds and mortgages, easements, surveys, puzzles and problem solving, getting the deal done, but hopefully not in a way that will bring regrets and litigation later. 

I still run into deeds with descriptions telling me to look for an old spruce stump with barbed wire in it. As I look at the predecessor deeds, the title records often suggest that the spruce stump has sat unchanged since the Taft administration.

Land conveyances have changed and remain the same. As much as we have precision in land surveys with distances down to the hundredth of a foot, and courses expressed in magnetic year specific directions in degrees, minutes and seconds, achieving clarity and permanence on the face of the earth- an earth inhabited by humans- is still a challenge.

It is endlessly fascinating until such time as there is some light at the treeline after 4:45 p.m. when thoughts drift to spring.

As well as things have gone since the boat came out of the water, and as trying as it was having the boat in the water but not moving much on account of many previously documented malfunctions, I just can’t wait to get back at it. I’m choosing of course to ignore the first couple of days of flat tires, dead batteries, mouse droppings, reluctant oil burners and trying to remember where that thing might be that I need in order to deal with those other things. One neighbor described it as looking for shit you need to fix shit to fix the other shit.


I was coming across to North Haven on the ferry for office work and realizing again with some amusement that I find myself during winter in places which are very inviting and lively with people in the summer. It’s a a left-handed, square peg Offseason thing. I wintered over on North Haven one very eventful year, but have only tagged up briefly any time when the weather was hot and there were leaves in the trees.

I spent a number of winters on Matinicus, and never pined for Applebees or pavement. I never struggled to find something to do. It was the opposite problem- a sense of panic that I would run out of winter way before I felt caught up on tasks I couldn’t do in the summer.  The queue would form in my mind shortly after January 1.

Spring is always a miracle in our latitude, but is particularly moving on Matinicus. I’ve been on the mainland the last few winters and missed out.

It’s not the same to show up with the grass already green. I like watching the straw-sepia tone of the land melt into green, yellow and blossom shades, and the slate gray water with the crinkled horizon inhale all that soft blue out of the sky and back to the sea.

The magic starts in March, although it is not the Glinda pink sequined kind of magic. It is the sort of magic that makes people say something like ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with everyone else, I’m just fine.’ March is well suited to irritability, paranoia, Netflix-athons, misinterpreting-or choosing to ignore- that look from or tone of voice of your family members, very early “happy hour,” and would be the perfect time for Salem-style hallucinatory justice proceedings.

The wind only leaves any gravel on the road because the road is frozen down tight;  until it isn’t at which time ground clearance is important. It’s Fargo-by-the-sea.

Then there are cracks in the windbeaten fa├žade. Some time in mid to late March, a day arrives when the wind lets go and the sun takes hold. A few such days will follow before the panic sets in over the coming season of early mornings and short rest, grass that grows an inch an hour, visiting friends and relatives, lobstering, outside fixup projects and trips off island for events that just couldn’t be scheduled in February such as weddings and graduation ceremonies or court appearances.

Those few days are a sweet spot between one crush and another.