Saturday, November 5, 2016

Taking Up 2016 - Malfunctions and Extreme Stubborn Persistance.

Getting my right hand into the glove was a painful struggle. The glove was soaking wet and my hand was griping at me about the hundreds of knots untied, the 4+ miles of rope coiled and the hundreds of traps lifted. Each one gets picked up six times at the end of the season between the water and my trap yard. Mine is a small scale operation.

The rain started 4 hours or so earlier and had sheeted down for a couple hours by the time the last load reached the wharf.  This was Thursday, November 3.

No amount of November rain could dampen the glow of relief and joy of knowing all I had left was to truck the gear to my yard. That process is hard work, but the uncertainty of sea and weather conditions and tide is no longer relevant.  I confess having a warming measure of wine on the trips back and forth. Readers can bear in mind that top speeds on the short largely deserted dirt roads to my home are approximately 10 miles per hour, so I’m not rationalizing buzzed driving anywhere but in this peculiar context.

The end of the season was a nightmare ordeal of breakdowns, gales, lost and mangled gear.

Typically because of weather getting uglier and mainland obligations, I try to take my traps up after Columbus Day weekend. Last year, the last load came in on Halloween.

This year’s ending was a train wreck, or better a boat wreck. I lost most of September to the Monster Under the Engine Box (the last post). After getting Close Enough, operational again following large expenditures and large lost revenue, I had the most lucrative 3 days of my life.

The only cloud came on the second day, THE SECOND DAY- after getting the boat back. The voltage meter was reading slightly low, a tenth of a volt here, another tenth there, back up, a little down. Just enough to get me fretting and wondering if maybe all of the work done just changed things a little.

I pulled the engine cover and peered into the monster’s cave, but saw nothing amiss.

Weather and scheduling blotted out the next week or two, and by the time I got back the panicxiety of winter coming and a big job ahead was keeping me up at night and driving me by day. I got one load of traps up on a Tuesday afternoon, and thought I would get the train rolling. More surprises proved me wrong.

1. Snap-Snap-Snap!

Wednesday morning it was a little rougher than I’d prefer, but I planned to find a sheltered side of the island to work. Half way there, the growl of the diesel was rudely interrupted by loud snapping sounds. The needles on the gauges were jumping. I throttled back and embraced the twist in my middle. 

Oh God, please no. Not breakdowns this late in the season with almost all my gear still in the water. Yes, my wayward son, that’s exactly what is happening. Enjoying my sense of humour are we?

I nursed the vessel back to the mooring and took a close look at the electrical system. This time I saw the top bolt on the alternator had backed itself out and crushed the wiring harness plug coming off the top of that component.  That explained the arcing snapping sound. I figured on just winding the bolt back in and being on my way.

I scrunched myself into the space and started working on the bolt, which was having none of it. In the dark place under the alternator, I saw that a brace holding it up had snapped in half and that the main engine belt was chewed up on the edge from the misalignment. Those explained the charging discrepancy.

Fortunately, Clayton had a 13/32 inch socket and an adaptor to get it onto my wrench handle. This got me past the first and often worst repair struggle- removing bolts in a marine environment.

Michelle did not know when they might have the new brace, so I headed back to the mainland on Wednesday afternoon. The part came on the following Monday, along with 7 straight days of high winds.

Megan and I headed out the following Monday morning in a brisk northwesterly wind. I had used my insomnia time to rehearse the repair steps to get all the parts back together properly. I did not factor in the cosmic sense of humour of the deity.

I got the new brace installed and went to wind in the top bolt. After a few different approaches and confused irritation, I pulled it out and discovered that it had sheared off, leaving a piece securely wedged in to the top brace and the alternator itself.  I need another new part and to get the broken piece out!? At that moment, I noticed oil seeping from the top of the filter housing. God was pissing his pants.

I paddled back to the wharf and went where I always go in despair and asked Clayton how to proceed. ‘Can you get the brace off? It would be a lot easier to work on here.’

Drive back down, paddle out, put wrench on bolts, ease first one out, round edges off the next. Nope. Not working on it back in the shop. I put a screwdriver into the opening in a vain attempt to wiggle the remnant out. God was obviously attending to other things, because it came loose. Now I knew how big a bolt and what threads I needed for a replacement.

A five gallon bucket of bolts is heavy. Clayton heaved it to the doorway where we could tip the pail into a sorting tray. My hand landed immediately on a miraculous replacement.

The reassembly was straightforward. I started the motor up and saw that there was no charge coming from the alternator. F* F* F*. I was ready to recruit someone to set fire to Close Enough, or just head up the bay a little and do it myself.

Everything looked fine. I retensioned the belt, replugged the plug, retried, reF*’d several times and headed back to Philbrooks’.

‘It’s got to be a wire. Try this Shop Solve.’

Drive back down, paddle back out, clean the plug. Oh, that’s bent. I straightened a tongue inside the alternator, and voila, on restarting, everything was normal.

It was still too windy to work on the water, so Megan and I headed out the next morning, timed to the tide. There are only a few hours on either side of high tide in which to get into the dock, so timing is key. I had never gotten 3 trips in on one tide.

Thanks to the hardest working person I know, we got three trips in on three consecutive days- something I’d never imagined.

Day one was brutal, but effective. After getting the three loads heaved onto the dock, the victory lap was 7 trips back and forth to truck the gear to my yard.

2. Floppy, the Valve Cover
Day two was more brutal and, according to the hardest working person I know, I got in a whole year’s worth of F*s.

Wednesday started with the oil level being significantly low. I couldn’t tell where the problem was but suspected the filter housing. In putting some fresh lube in, I noticed the valve cover with the filler cap was very loose. Even my rudimentary knowledge of diesel beasts told me that this should not be flopping about. None of the other ones were. I tightened the bolt which helped not a bit. Two days later, when the gear was up and I took the works apart, I noticed a washer was missing. Must not have been put in during the massive job in September.

I decided we’d chance cooking the engine and started across the harbor, only to see that the alternator was not charging again. We tied up at the lobster car and located a rotted wire. This thankfully was literally a 5 minute repair.

Even though it was an easy one, it seemed at that point as though the malfunctions would never stop, which I suppose is true of all boats. I wished though that they’d not all come at once with winter breathing down my hoody.

The day was far rougher than forecast, and I couldn’t seem to find a cubby hole to work in where the wind wasn’t frothing things up at that particular time.

We managed to get three trips in anyway and earned every one. The last one saw a couple traps go overboard when we got surprised and tossed by 3 unusually big waves.

The next day was our lucky and last one. The sea was calm and we were now in a solid groove. Even in a driving rain, we were both tasting victory.

With the last load from the west side aboard, we came around the corner and realized how lucky we were to not be taking up gear on the east. It was dark and ugly and rough.

It was just a matter of hard work from that point. The tide, the wind and the rain were no longer factors.

We had been just a hair more stubborn and persistent than the malfunctions and bad weather. It was enough.

Thanks, Megan.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Monster Under the Bed - Engine Box

Sometimes the monster is real. Even though those we trust unconditionally assure us there's no monster under the bed, we learn otherwise. Just as soon as the comforting smile is followed by the door closing, the scaly claw and dank, sour breath emerge, accompanied by a dry low laugh.

And so on September 7 I would learn this lesson again: Never trust people who say 'everything will be fine' in a kind and nurturing voice at bedtime.

The hauling had been good. We all decided to take the boat to town as we all needed to be on that side for a couple of days("couple of days"= not a month). I'd had a couple of years of nervously gluing my eyes to the temperature gauge and worrying about the relentless advance of salt water on Detroit iron. Worrying for good reason, because parts failed, alarms went off in not-so-great conditions, shit happened.

I bought the boat 5 years short years ago. The motor and everything coming off it was severely rusted even at that time. I tried to scrape and paint every spring to make myself feel better, but I was always worried about the rust monster under the engine box. Kids on the boat? Engine monster, be nice. Rough weather? Please don't come out now, just stay under the bed. Really need to make this loan payment? Oh gods of the sea, salt and oxidation pass me by one more time.

Most of the time, those prayers were answered. Along the way I tried to learn to not be afraid, to not stress over broken things that needed fixing. It's just part of the job. I tried to train myself to take it in stride, to expect the malfunctions and not get stressed.

On this particular beautiful early September afternoon, the first since I redid the temperature gauge and the first since the late murky evening when we put in a call over the vhf saying we were having troubles and where we were, I was concentrating hard on being relaxed. The new mechanical temp gauge was reading normal, we had plenty of fuel and coolant, oil was good, business was good. I needed to stop believing in the monster under the bed and just enjoy the beautiful crossing.

But of course, it does not go this way. Two thirds of the way over Penobscot Bay, Megan and I, just like Obi Wan and Annakin Skywalker, both sensed the same disturbance in the force at the same time; probably because the disturbance in the force was loud and came from right under Megan's backside as she sat on the engine box. tstststststststststs!!!! She levitated- "what was that?!" I throttled back and gave up on trying to sooth my nervous system with deep breathing.  It was an obvious unhappy sound.

Pulling off the engine cover and going down forward did not yield a diagnosis. There was a little smoke, which it seems like there often is. Oil is fine, Coolant is fine. Nothing is oozing, flapping or visibly distressed except me.

I restarted and moved slowly forward. It was a beautiful evening. Everything was normal at 5 knots. The problem there is that it would be several hours before we got into Rockland.

I called Art Stanley, the Yoda of Diesel. "Go slowly into harbor, you will. Seeing you at 6:30 tomorrow I am."

The next morning, Art quickly located the malfunction, namely a rust hole through the supposedly bulletproof Cummins 210 cylinder head. Not something one can fix with muffler tape or Bondo. This is more in the nature of dismantling the engine, 3 weeks of down time and a four page list of replacement parts.

The next 3 weeks went by in suspended animation. I called to check on progress of locating and shipping and picking up parts. Michelle and Art did everything they could to find these rare sculpted items in cast iron and go pick them up on a Friday evening if necessary.

Finally, it was time to go back into the water on a particularly snotty, gray air, green wave, whitecap, white knuckle, red eye, stomach knotting sort of day. Isn't this fun?! Yes, it is, because MY boat is back in the water. Fuck yeah!

It would take a few more days to actually find the weather and schedule window to get back to Matinicus.

When we got back, I was looking for a fleece hat, but the clothes in the laundry basket consisted of tank tops and shorts. Abrupt climate change occurred while we were gone.

Now we're looking forward to hauling pots with a few days of gentle weather.

The monster is now back under the engine cover, but also is shiny and painted up in a cheerful color.

Extra bit: Matinicus is the kind of place you can install your own gas stove, check for leaks the way one friend taught you, pull it back from the wall to find the tiny little oven and broiler valve that explains why the range worked and the stove didn't, then fire the thing up to only watch it catch fire, take the bottom of the oven apart to find that part of the manual slipped down into the oven burner and charred itself, put the works back together and have it work just fine. If I didn't figure it out, Clayton or Paul would have got me pointed in the right direction.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Two Paths, Two Maines and the New North Maine Woods National Monument

Most of my social media network people seem happy about the new North Maine Woods National Monument. I am not so cheerful on account of my origins.

I grew up until about age 13 as a privileged Bowdoin faculty brat- travel, resources and security were part of my early life. I climbed in the Arches National Park, took piano and guitar lessons and went to a great nursery school. Mom and Dad were there. I was safe.

After that, I grew up a bit more, with gratitude for tins of government cheese and peanut butter and especially grateful for a shower courtesy of MSAD 75 when there was no hot water at my home for long stretches. Winter was a prison.

One side of my family was educated and landed.

The others were laborers and servants.

I am grateful deep down for both. I am grateful for my father, the earth scientist, world traveler and authority on structural geology. I am grateful for my mother who at 83 knows how to swing a mattock like nobody's business and soak up the joy that brings, knows how to grow vegetables, slaughter chickens, pile on blankets and get by.

Maine has the same dual identity. We are sophisticated and we are dug in. So regarding the new North Woods National Monument, I have mixed feelings. Conservation is great, but it would be better if conservation included meaningful human activity rather than just being about aesthetics and recreation.

Roxanne Quimby has every right to do what she wants with her property. All of the free market, conservative, property rights types who are frothing about the new monument need to shut up and remember this fundamental premise of our private property economic model. It's extremely hypocritical to blather on about private property rights and then give someone grief about disposing of acreage as they see fit.

That said, the move makes me sad because if the wealthy buy up wilderness and set it aside as a playground for other individuals wealthy enough to come and marvel as they hike the woods and canoe the lakes, it ensures there will be that much less space for meaningful interaction with the environment by those who live in Maine. There will be no contact with nature that is not carefully controlled by the government or a board of trustees. It will occur during designated hours. Guests will walk carefully and avoid touching things.

We are not spectators. People are not transplanted aliens despite what everything from Judeo Christian to Taoist traditions tell us. We are part of the environment, 4 wheelers and all.

Throughout my life, what brings the most meaning to me is not hiking, taking pictures and saying "oh, how grand," (although I've done plenty of that) but actually physically interacting with the environment in a way that helps feed me, helps me make a living and cultivates a deeper relationship with the natural Maine.

I grew up blessed to work on a farm from the second or third grade until I left for college. After that I worked in the woods. Now I am blessed beyond words  to work on the ocean.

The coast and islands in particular have seen locals forced out first by high real estate values, then by conservation easements and land trusts which exclude working families and elevate views and recreation over all other functions of the land. This is a serious process of segregation, a cultural displacement, a cleansing of those who live and work in connection with nature. Islands where there was a living, breathing community are now the exclusive domains of kayakers and grad students.

The Roxanne Quimbys of the world view locals as ignorant, and a messy threat to the natural environment, not as custodians who are deeply connected to the place where they live, and who also have to provide for themselves. I believe this mentality is why the monument has been greeted with such resistance.

Conservation easements, national monuments, gated communities, pretty much all of Isleboro- they are all the same. Those measures are about turning a land that fed, warmed and housed people into a Disney World experience for the affluent, and where the locals are properly segregated and not messing about digging clams, growing food, hunting, fishing or otherwise interfering with the view.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Lessons from Gilligan's Island and The Dawn of the Viral Cyber State

My brainwashing occurred not through social media, but on Channel 8 after school with Gilligan's Island reruns. There was one episode where the castaways could read each other's minds and it was not a good thing for their community. Too much awareness of each others' thoughts might be a problem for the global community, especially where it is propagated on a digital worldwide scale.

ISIS doesn't need a footprint or a capital. We can stomp the fuck out of them in Syria and Iraq and it won't be over. Even if that particular brand is discontinued, there will be another.

Through social media, this group and others can program and groom followers without any training camp, without personal recruitment, without having to even print out or distribute propaganda on pieces of paper. Such groups can instantly digitally clone all of their resources and reach anywhere on the planet- Bangladesh, Orlando, Indonesia, Nigeria, Paris, Brussels- places far away from any contested border or physical battleground. Loony tune copycats such as the Orlando shooter will appear organically.

What I see when I open Facebook aside from vacation, pet, family and food pictures is a collection of memes, rants, essays and graphics all of which "mostly say hooray for our side." I believe with no factual basis whatever that the addictive properties of social media and the divisive culture and acts of emboldened hate groups of every flavor are not coincidental to each other. How many of us do not feel agitated and less peaceful after scrolling through the reams of political and issue-driven posts? Multiply that energy by a few billion and the pot lid starts jumping and bubbling and hissing.

If the viral cyber state is the problem, and the consequence of addictive social media, what's the solution? First, call it out; admit there's a connection between maybe little too much connectedness and bad things happening. I'm trying to look at more clouds and listen to more birds.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Recycling - Double Life

Matinicus Island Recycles. This slogan comes from the efforts of a committed few islanders- one in particular- to change waste management away from old fashioned country livin’ methods that were probably fine when trash was almost all metal, glass or the occasional leather shoe sole. We now sort recyclables, Eva trucks them off on the ferry, and we have a hazmat disposal day or two each summer to get rid of crank case oil, old paint, solvents and other nasty things.  Here I learned to wash food packaging, and now wouldn't go back to throwing stinky meat trash in the garbage can.

Last month, on a gray windy day, I watched a chickadee engaged in its own recycling program on my deck. Seamus, our cat had coughed up his dinner a few days earlier, and the remains were now crispy dry on the deck. The chickadee pecked away and gathered tufts of Seamus’ fur out of the pile until the fluff was as big as his head before taking off into the trees.  Even hairballs don’t go to waste.

The unusually warm winter also produced some plant recycling. When I got back in April, I noticed small sproutlings of chard and bok choy in the garden. A few weeks later, the sprouts had turned into tall, shiny and thoroughly delicious greens. At the end of each lobstering season, I toss the many dozens of algae covered rope coils onto the garden. I believe the rope is saturated with nutrients that then soak into the garden and make our plants very happy.

Somebody has to be last. I got an early start that somehow ended up being a late start. In March, I got a big jump on fixing up Close Enough, though as usual, I didn’t come close to finishing up the list before deciding she should just go into the water. Somewhere between the yard and Matinicus Harbor, it got to be late May; that first few hundred feet took two months.  

 At this point, I was late, and feeling trapped by my office job, and about ready to chew off my paw to get free and put some gear in the water.

I was late and the shedders were early, so now it’s mid June and I’m still not all the way up to strength on traps in the water.

Living a double life sucks. I don’t know how preacher/philanderers, conservative congressmen who pick guys up in bathrooms, or double agent spy types can stand it.

By necessity I’ve gotten back into law practice to get through the winter, pay my creditors and keep myself fed and sheltered. I am lucky to have a nice office in a nice town, but the compass always points south-southeast to Matinicus- it’s always about getting back here to my humble cape in the middle of the island with a slightly out of tune but beloved piano. It’s all about getting back out on the water, getting bait-stinky, making muscles and joints sore.

The big downside is the back-and-forth, which needs to happen usually every week. In order to keep life here going and clients happy on the mainland, I juggle weather, court and real estate closing schedules, kid time and the ever present quagmire of whether I can fly, or whether it’s too foggy and I can take my boat, or whether it’s too windy, whether I can take the ferry, George’s charter, Marty’s lobster smack or some other random transport option. It is a 20 nautical mile salt water Rubik’s Cube.

 It's more than worth it.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Ain't No Change in the Weather, Ain't No Changes in Me; Gear Work and Title Companies

J.J. Cale was not thinking of the Maine coast in April, and I could certainly never write that line. For instance as to both, Tuesday started wet and cold, got mild and warm, got dry, sunny and breezy and then I lost track. I started the day with title work for a construction loan, cleaned up some blow-downs in the back yard for firewood, went back to the computer 'til lunch. After that, an out of state client suddenly needed something filed today, which was great except I had no printer out here on the island yet. After an aggravating hour and a half or so, documents were in the mail, so three of us switched to tree work on another property. Wrapping up the workday was a bit more fire suppression on mainland real estate matters.

I often question myself for trying to patch together this disjointed existence, feeling bad about neglected tasks for one or another of my business efforts, listening for irritation over the phone when I'm on the wrong side of the water or late on something for someone, feeling the grass get too long wherever I'm not.

Uptightness or no, the week was productive. Buoys for the year are ready. Rope has been groomed for the first batch of traps. The woodpile started to inch back up. The lilac out front looked as if a giant came down the beanstalk and stomped it right in the middle. Megan and I cut and hauled off the vintage tree/shrub, leaving one very healthy but small stalk. Fiona hauled brush, weeded, marked and bundled buoys and manage to sneak in some school vacation as well.

Last fall, the rope faery deposited large piles of rope from a retiring fisherman on my lawn. How it was loaded other than possibly a hydraulic pitchfork, I cannot fathom... It is one mass. Reason tells me there are at least two ends for the dozens of warps in the heap I'm working on this morning. Emotion prompts me to just flail my arms in an attempt to shake one length free from its clinging, entangled brothers. The last one is very sweet, because it can only tangle with itself.

Which One First?

From Chaos, Smaller Bundles of Chaos

As I do my fishing gear work for the year, I sometimes have a gnawing worry about being here or there, or neither, or doing the wrong work in life. I am getting better at mentally giving the finger to what I am supposed to be doing, or what people think. It's a work in progress.

Sometimes I am helped along by the realization that more and more are approaching life this way, by choice or necessity, and that fewer have that one job, that one career.

A recent case in point came from the real estate title business.

Real estate law practice in Maine until fairly recently was intensely local and done primarily by small firms in small towns. That's where title insurance comes in. In order to batch up mortgages and bundle them as collateral for investment banking and bond sales, title insurance makes risk more uniform, and is a condition of virtually any mortgage.

Two other forces have changed the business. One is the continual consolidation of banks. Small town banks are becoming rare. Bigger banks prefer bigger and fewer legal partners. Bigger in my opinion may help with scale and some efficiencies, but pretty much guarantees clumsiness, poor communication, bureaucratic over specialization and a lack of personal responsiveness and local knowledge. If I'm dealing with one bank officer here in town, that seems to work well. Dealing with a loan originator, processor, closer, post-closer and any number of other narrow job classifications is, my friends a recipe for poor customer service.

The other force is new banking regulations. The same financial consolidation that brings clumsiness and bureaucracy also brought you, tum ta da dum: "Too Big to Fail." [cue laugh track, because we collectively still haven't figured out who got the punchline in the nose]. Actually, they failed quite spectacularly, but at least executive bonuses did not suffer.

Shit flowing as it does, the reform measures prompted by the financial meltdown don't hurt the big institutions that caused the mess so much as the smaller title firms and banks that must meet all the new top heavy, policy-and-procedure-instead-of-common-sense type regulations. My "best practices" manual is probably the same number of pages as any city firm where there are multiple attorneys and dozens of staff in the title and closing department.

This long winded preamble brings us to Front Porch Title. I've changed the name to avoid embarrassment and litigation naming me as a defendant. (What do you call a guitar player wearing a tie?).

I wanted to put an attachment lien on some real estate before the deadbeat who stiffed my client sold it. I was too late because the sale had closed the day before I got the court order, but I did record the lien prior to the mortgage from said sale, so my guy is ahead of the bank. Banks do not like that.

In a spirit of collegial problem-solving, I set out to find the attorney who'd done the closing. "Front Porch Title" was the company listed on the mortgage recording at the registry of deeds. Google said they were in New Hampshire, but their website listed all sorts of branch offices in Maine. The one nearest the property in question had a phone number which, when dialed, was answered by someone who advised me this was her cell phone and she hadn't worked for Front Porch for 2 and a half years. I reverse engineered another phone number by searching the Front Porch address in the same town. This seemed like a match because this other title office had the same fax number as appeared on Front Porch's website. My heart warmed as I spoke with the gentleman at that number who clearly was trying to juggle kids, driving and my non-sensical call. I thought 'wow, he sounds like he lives and works like I do...I am not alone.' He had no idea who had closed this sale or why his fax number was on Front Porch's website.

The Front Porch home office at first had no clue what was going on or who had closed the deal I was asking about. It took multiple calls and emails to get things rolling. What if I'd been a customer?

Time for New Gloves, Cheap Bastard?
Front Porch Title is no local, responsive entity, no home town law firm. It is a sprawling bramble patch of everything that is wrong with the business, all the poor communication and bureaucracy and a dozen phone numbers and email adresses to nowhere.

I do appreciate that they helped me feel better about my patchwork crazy quilt existence. At least one other person in the title business is patching, too.

Back to the rope pile and the stacks of traps. It is my happy place, mostly.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Long End of a Short Winter

My boat frightens me.  Not the boat, really.  What frightens me is my ignorance of diesel injection, hydraulics, gear coolers, wet exhaust and anything fancier than a pair of oars.

The fear comes from several years of expensive surprises on days when I thought I might pay a few bills. Involuntary mooring time coupled with many calls to find out when UPS might drop the part off on the mainland so it could be flown to the island, lots of paddling across the harbor, up the ladder, into the truck and up the road and back again for the weird tool I didn’t know I needed or hadn’t even heard of before, frozen bolts in impossible to reach places, long procrastinating stares down at the rust caked greasy half ton of cast iron mystery wondering what to do. 

A positive spin might go like this: I am a ‘lifelong learner’ like they say in school.

The forecast was for near 60 degree temperatures. In the context of a feeble winter and unanimous opinions among knowledgeable fishing industry types and unqualified opinionators that the lobster runs will be early this year, a 60 degree day in March seemed like a good occasion to get a jump on my many boat maintenance and repair delinquencies.

Close Enough is waiting up on Smith Street side by each with the shrink wrapped pleasure craft, runabouts, commercial vessels and a stray Airstream Land Yacht.

Off I set on the morning ferry, full of vague dread and self conscious of my being ‘differently competent’ with boat work.

Even with all my careful mental preparation and unspooling of stressful scenarios, I had a thoroughly enjoyable day.  I realized I was very content to smell rusty diesel grease on my hands again.


There’s something to be said for the peace that comes with knowing there’s nowhere to go but up. Check out Dreamer’s Blues written by the great Steve Jones.  I doubt anyone could say it better.

After feeling like 2015 was my year to crawl out of the hole, stand up and stretch and enjoy the financial sunshine, late winter 2016 punched back hard.


My hydraulic trap hauler leaked a little last summer. Clayton helped me redo the seals and that seemed to fix the problem entirely for the season. Then at the very end of the year, the hauler began dripping larger volumes than before.  The first step is to take the whole works apart and cart the hydraulic motor to qualified service personnel on the mainland.
Then it was on to routine tasks like new zinc anodes all around. I took the gear cooler apart to try and figure out why it might seem to run hot some times and not others. There were a flew flecks of shredded pump impeller from adventures past.

The main event was to start dismantling the crumbling remains of my fuel injection lines. Art took a look and poked his finger here and there making me wince as I do when I’m worried the dentist is going to find that rotten place or touchy spot at the gum line. “That’s not leaking. I don’t know why.” A few weeks after his boat call, I received a box full of twisted tubes, nuts, washers and other items. 

I had hoped having the box of parts aboard the boat would be enough to ward off the rust gremlins, but if anything it emboldened them to chomp away at my engine all the more.

Being a lifelong learner, and confronted by a corroded bracket held in place by even more corroded little bolts, I had to learn again that the Cummins 210B has metric hardware, but that I do not have metric wrenches aboard the boat.

While taking a break, I expressed some mild disappointment at the raw 20 mile an hour wind and damp air. “You won’t get 60 degrees with a southwesterly going across 40 degree water” said Foy. Lifelong learner, I tell myself. Foy fetched me a metric socket set which did the trick and started me on my journey toward sound fuel injection components. When that’s done, I can direct my prayers and curses to other parts of the system.

The rusty grease smell makes me happy. It’s been a long short winter.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Primary Season

Two women, one who I went to elementary school with and one high school friend, both chimed into a social media post attacking a political figure. It doesn’t matter who or what side of the fence. It was ugly. In their comments, I couldn’t recognize the girl who has at my 3rd grade birthday party or the young woman I sang songs with. How did we all get here?

The orgy of divisiveness goes on, thanks to talk radio, political commentators and satirists and other unaccountable opinion shapers on both sides of the imaginary political divide that’s been created.  The system creates monsters, labeled “liberal,” “conservative,” “tea-bagger,” “socialist,” “neo-fascist,” and so on. Whining and contempt fill the airwaves and internet.

We have two dominant noisemaking ideologies, each with polished talking points and righteous certainty that there’s only one right way, only their side knows what that is.

We have a major election coming that will leave somewhere around half the country thoroughly despising whoever wins, unwilling to support the government or be part of the business of being Americans. It is a lose-lose scenario. A house divided against itself…

How far can we get with ideological intolerance? How long until our enemies exploit the lack of unity to catastrophic effect?

Centrism is discredited as weakness. This is like saying I can balance better with all my weight on one foot. More likely, I end up on my ass.

The real strength and courage are not to be found in ideological purists who snipe and blame the other side for everything from bank and school failures to sunspots and earthquakes.

The real strength and courage are in compromising and working to the middle.  Come back Olympia, Bill Cohen, George. Stay in there, Angus.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Best Shower

After a few days of exploring and camping in a very warm climate, I was overdue for a shower. We were on the verge of bailing on the rental because of plumbing issues and another, shower related detail a couple of paragraphs down. I waited to shave because I wanted to look bedraggled or crusty for negotiations with our host. Turns out the whiskers were not necessary because the host could not have handled the situation better.

The shower is located among floor beams and cinder blocks underneath the shanty. There are a few patio blocks on the dirt to stand on and a drainage system entirely satisfied by gravity and the very steep incline falling away from the place. I can say with no hesitation that this shower has the best view of the rainforest, mountains and valleys and the most unabashed lizards I’ve encountered in a bathroom environment. If someone on the other mountain wanted to see what the gekko does, they’d have a clear view.

The half inch pvc pipe coming out from someplace dark has a shutoff valve on it that serves as the faucet handle. The water feels cold at first. All 7 teaspoons per minute. Rinsing of hair takes patience. Cleansing the rest of my large self takes time.  I’m not sure I’ve appreciated a shower as much.

Leaving was necessary but sad. The plumbing problems did not resolve, and there was another matter. We returned in the afternoon when I had so needed the cleanup to find the shower running and a watch obviously belonging to a gentleman of great discernment- our uphill neighbor. There had also been a teensy bit of concern on our first day out because things seemed to be not quite in the same order we left them.

Our host spoke to the neighbor who explained that his water supply was not working, and that was why he had been at our place. The shack is served by a cistern between the two properties and a network of pvc pipe and valves laid along the ground.

Again, I was to feel right at home the next morning when our decision to leave was forced by the flush not working. In addition to the occasional gunfire and junk cars, there was apparent sabotage of the water lines the next morning. The line to our tank was moved ten or so feet out of place, flipped over and the fitting broken off. There was no connection to the supply for our rental.

It all felt so familiar.

Puerto Rico

Although they don’t get voting representation, our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters live in American territory. It’s hard to believe I’m in America sitting here in the shanty in Anasco.

Very wet clouds off to the east.

A line of evening traffic to the south coming from Mayaguez.

We are high up on route 411 with views of the mountains, fields and ocean to the west. I hear drumming, a djembe by the sound of it, and singing- not recorded but live if I were to guess. Crickets, tree frogs and dogs are pretty constant. Birds fluttering from trees and chattering are more occasional. What looks very rural by day takes on a lighting design much more like a city at night. The air is soft and moist. When we first stepped off the cramp fest that was our Newark-Aguadilla flight, the smell is that of stepping into a greenhouse.

Driving here is fun and nerve wracking.  Unless we are on a major highway, there are no straightaways and no level stretches. Roads are curved and steep beyond anything we’d ever see in Maine. This is for the same reason that we don’t see any pickup trucks in yards with snowplows on them. Plenty of beater trucks, but no plows. There are inclines here that feel like the dreadful upward part of a roller coaster, and downslopes where you have to stop and then creep because you can’t see anything past the hood, and the road may just as likely take a 90 or 120 degree turn in the part you can’t see.  In snow, you couldn’t get a snowcat up one of these places much less a four wheel drive truck.

Below our shanty there is a tar road that looks, because of perspective as though it goes uphill very gently. Observing vehicles from the deck tells a different story. Sedans snarl and strain to go what looks like about 7 miles per hour, and an SUV comes through that gets stuck spinning on leaves and has to go back down for a running start.

Having gotten around on St. Croix during a couple of trips, Puerto Rico is a much more relaxing place to drive. Here, as at home, they operate for the most part on the right hand side, except for any occasion when you encounter another car on the twisty roads, in which case they always drive in the middle. The driving pace is a lot slower here as well, with no great straight roads with people going 70 and clearing the 3 foot mahogany trees by six inches or so as they do on St. Croix.

The other thing I found actually very nice about driving here is that there is not a lot of tension about who goes next at an intersection. This is because: A) everybody goes at once; B) nobody does it aggressively, and C) it seems to work fine.

In spite of the spectacular view from the Shanty, we had to leave. The fluch didn’t work. At all. I consulted with our host on putting in a vent pipe and doing something to clear out the hippy-style barrel-in-the-ground septic system. The other disconcerting thing was finding the shower running and a men’s watch in the shower area upon returning from the beach.

The loose dogs were ok. The trash and horse manure strewn walkway were authentic and charming in their own way. A nightly soundtrack of very confused roosters, dogs, jungle noises and club music and car alarms was also enchanting in its own way. Intruders and no place to-ahem-go, were not going to work. The junk cars, occasional gunfire and crazy neighbors actually made the place feel like home.

Traveling and the Big Lie

Right now I’m staring past Megan’s foot. It’s atop a weathered 2x6 rail that could so easily be the rustic studio on Matinicus. If it were, I would be looking past her foot into the scape of  frisking horse tails of white surf, granite fortifications shaped by molecular structure and the last ice age scraping through, sharp salt breezes, brilliant blue gray water and endless spruce trees.  I would also likely be huddling with watery eyes and cursing the wind chill, and her foot would be wrapped in smartwool and rubber boots  Instead I see lush fields, triangular mountains piled high with jungle trees, massive airborne humidity and a flat ass calm ocean. Ears are filled with free range chicken talk, an occasional moo, goat blat, bird, and passing Puerto hip hop from car windows.

If you are traveling, I can heartily recommend a light dose of 5htp, a version of tryptophan available over the counter without the necessity of stuffing, gravy, family dynamics or pant size changes. It is especially helpful at keeping one’s adrenal and irritability glands in check if you’ve had a 9 hour layover in Newark and arrive in western Puerto Rico at 2:30 in the morning and have to drive up into the rainforest to meet your Airbnb host, without much in the way of road signs or brain function. 

I’ve always loved maps, and so looked a bit before we left Maine, then followed my nose for a bit to find Sur 107 out of Aguadilla.

I can also heartily recommend the GPS lady inside of Verizon android phones. My nose was good for getting out of town, but she made it possible to navigate the twirly up and down switchbacks once we left the main roads. She was spot on.

After picking up Brandon at the Casa Linda restaurant parking lot , we shoehorned into side roads and driveways where it seemed the car would need to bend in the middle to make it. Our host hopped out to swing the gate so we could pass by the shredded carcass of a Hondoyota and into the manure spotted parking area.  Several (fortunately) friendly dogs and an elderly gentleman who muttered in some vowel rich and tooth-free version of two languages greeted us.  I shoehorned and bent my 3:45 a.m. brain into not thinking about how we could possibly turn around the next day, and embraced the shanty in the mountains.

Now after a day of finding grocery stores, walking the Rincon beach, listening to all the goats, chickens, car horns, turkeys and other profusion for the ears, we are able to relax.

I am always emotionally thrown open by travel. It’s exhilarating and scary and the sight of small children saddens me a little until I remember traveling with small children. Being out of my usual tracks puts my own life tracks right in my face for reflection even as I’m soaking in new sights and sounds and getting away from those grooves and ruts.

This time I was struck particularly hard by two things. One was my prejudice, the other the great ordinary beauty, love and daily function of a stupefying number of people you encounter traveling.

At the bus station in Maine, two obviously Islamic gentlemen were praying in a corner; one a very tall and unsmiling and bearded older person and the other a dour 20-something. They prayed and parted and the young man, looking tired and vacant, boarded the bus with us, stuffing his back pack in the overhead bin.

The logical brain first says, ‘don’t be a dick,’ but then says ‘there’s no security screening of any kind on buses, this bus is full, passing major bridges and tunnels, groups claiming association with Islam have publicly and repeatedly promised to strike the United States, this would be a great way to wipe out people, stifle the economy through fear of buses and costs of increased security screening, and paralyze a major Boston artery, and whoah, I need to not ever watch Homeland again.’

The ‘don’t be a dick side’ lost.  The fear was powerful and physical.

The irrational brain was plain scared and thought of finding another way to Boston.

All this coursed through me in 45 or so seconds.

I realized as we got rolling and Megan handed me a swig of wine, that staying on the bus, and trusting was actually- in this day of slickly marketed fear campaigns by ISIL, presidential candidates and news outlets alike- a radical act of peace and brotherhood.

Coming out of the old white cocoon that is Maine, I am overwhelmed by the shades of beauty, young and old, that I see in airports, on city streets and in stuffed subways.

The big lie, the really, really Big Lie is that we live in a dangerous, bad world.  Yes, there are horrible things done to innocents.  There is poverty and corruption.

But how many times in a 36 hour travel process did I see- just in my tiny little perceptual scope- Dads and Moms loving and caring for their babies, older couples sitting together, janitors doing their jobs, baggage check staff making the effort to help with a smile, friends walking together, those alone going in the direction that was right for them in that moment? In my 36 hours, I must have seen tens of thousands of simple, loving, decent good things done. Multiply that by every place that wasn’t in my little world view and what do you get?

Fear gives control and these days fear is a red hot sales vector for ISIL and presidential candidates alike.

Mr. Rogers, help me out here, but isn’t love and ordinary life so much, so astronomically much bigger and better? How come we don’t see it?

Actual Surfing Class

My six awesome surfing runs probably totaled about 4 seconds of upright time, but I learned a few things.  The best run was laying down at the end of the session and catching a wave that had me going about 28 knots into the channel or safe zone. 

That I tried at all was something. It was an ordeal; a transformative one. The experience was also one of those that if you really knew, you’d just find a ukulele and sit on the beach crooning to your sweetie instead.

My first mistake among many, perhaps my second mistake after signing up, was that I forgot shoes. By the time we’d walked down the scorching tar road and ouchy, rocky path carrying surf boards and gotten the final “site specific” advisories about currents, channels and scary places, it was the time to “paddle, Paddle, PADDLE!”

"See that channel there? You can rest there, and see out past the breaking waves? You can rest there. In between, you MUST NOT STOP." Had herding instinct not impelled me forward, I would have just taken a walk on the beach, but I hopped aboard and tried to get a feel for paddling, while promptly regretting the 3 beers worth of fortification I’d taken in prior to the class orientation.

Our group got as far as the inside stretch of calm water a or so hundred feet off the shore. The instructors watched the waves and the channel out to the outer safe zone where there was a gap in the big curling breakers. They then gave the signal to charge. I was awed by the noise and the bounciness of the ocean, but tried to get a good rhythm going and to take advantage of my stringy arms to get good long strokes. It didn’t really happen until the end of the session, but I did get the feel for that part at least.

I could see the reef looking like it was about a foot under water as the waves started plowing toward us and the time had come to contend with a real wave on a real reef that would just as soon peel me off the board like a post-it. I dug into the water as hard as my 53 year old 3 beer self could manage and did the push-up maneuver as that wave bore down on us.  Even with the clear instruction back at orientation to do the snap push-up move and to hold on tight to the edge of the board, the force and noise of the wave yanking me in five directions and blasting my ears and head was much more than I expected. Somewhere from the water balance and movement cortex (thank you Charlie, John, Clayton and Steve Ross once again), I felt what I had to do, and never got flung off or flipped over. There were several more to get through, over and under before reaching safety.

The waves kept coming and we desperate baby sea turtles paddled until the instructors told us two things. First, we could sit up on the boards and rest, and second, to have a look back to the now distant shore to see how far we’d come.

As much satisfaction as it gave me to get out there without dumping myself, it was as good as my performance got for the day. 

Humility and reality came into play. I was overwhelmed and had just enough common sense to know it.  I decided I’d just sit on my board out past the breakers and wait for class to be over and hope that no one noticed. No f-ing way was I getting in the middle of that churning mess again.

There were two intervening circumstances. First was that being out past the breakers is not really the same as being out past the big breakers. There were a couple of oh F moments where I had to do a quick turn and a panicked wave survival move through an extra big wave. 

The other circumstance was my baby sitter, B. She knew I was in over my head and stayed very close by the whole time. We talked about the Outer Banks where she lived, Prince Edward Island where she had relatives and had lived and my humbling experience- feeling like a fairly tough person who has taken up lobster gear in January 20 miles off the Maine coast, but who suddenly feels like a total wuss. She probably kept me talking to avoid having me lock up and become a major management issue. That wasn't going to happen, but I appreciated the attention and concern.

Eventually, the nagging voice came back and I decided I needed to try a wave. I got in position, paddled when they said, stood up when they said, and fell off immediately. The white water rushed over me and I found my way back to the board with some help from B. This was not a problematic fail because the run was so short that I only had to paddle a little way back to the outer resting zone.

Try number two was a different story, and was the worst/best/most brilliant/scariest thing I’ve done in a good long while. Even though it was a complete and extended failure, it’s what I kept coming back to, feeling later in the evening, and what dazzled in my mind’s eye as I got sleepy.  Fail or no fail, it’s all playing in the ocean, which I like, especially in such warm water.

I paddled when they said. I tried to stand up and maybe made it for a half or possibly a whole second before dumping myself. This time, however, I couldn’t get back on the board and got rolled and tumbled and thrashed by the next wave. I could feel the coral at about knee level. B came to the rescue and said not to worry about the board. Another wave was coming like a Viking battle charge and we went flailing about and trying not to touch bottom on the reef. B then told me to swim under the last wave in the set. This was surprisingly easy. It was not, however, the last wave in the set. Nor was the next or the next after that.

At some point, I told B I felt stuck. Pounded down, trying to paddle out, pounded down, rolled around, trying not to stick my feet down into the corals, swim under the wave. After what seemed like a very long time, there was a calm period and I got paddled back out and rested again, this time with a wary eye to the west’ard. She asked me how I felt. “Salty,” I said.  

As much as I’ve never been a real water person, I managed not to get water in my nose or a mouthful, or a lungful. All the same, everything tasted very salty when she asked.

The nagging voice came back and I offered myself a third swing (“Hey batta batta, hey batta batta swing! … Whiffah”).  Strike three actually saw me upright for a moment and then falling off the back of the wave.

I tried a couple more times with comparable results. The last run, when it was time to quit, was the best. I could have laid down the whole way in, but got up, went for maybe a foot and a half this time, fell again, got back on my board, followed B’s instruction to get toward the stern of the board to avoid going nose under (and ass-over-teakettle as my mother would say) and screamed into the tranquil spot in what felt like a rocket thrust of surf.

Somebody has to be the worst in the class, and today was my turn. All the same, it was about action and play-time in the water, and felt safe because of the Rincon Paddleboards professionals that were looking out for me.

The rest of the day and evening, I had visions going on behind whatever I was doing at the moment. Visions of blue water, white water, motion, loud charging wave sounds, and most of all, the sense of connection, the pleasure and fear and respect that come from interacting with an all-powerful environment.

In my sleep, I saw giant waves, and had some idea what to do.
Somewhere around the corner to the left was where they took us for the initiation...

Surfing Orientation

During orientation from Justin, a very brown and fit combination standup comic, motivational speaker and surfer dude, we were informed we were all going to “do great,” or “awesome” and would be driving to a different surf location, which sounded to me like the spot where Megan and I saw giant waves a couple days earlier.

We were also advised that if we needed to exit our surf boards, we could not go straight in the water because we were surfing over a reef and it was not deep enough to accommodate long limbs pointing straight down (such as mine).

I also had not really understood that there is a significant wave breaking zone where one must paddle to beat hell and not stop for fear of getting “thrashed” – which is a term I would become directly familiar with, and involves repeating cycles of getting pounded, and vigorously rolled a bunch of times, finding the direction of up and starting over.

Paddling must be done on the board in what is much like locust position in yoga. This requires holding one’s upper body up off the board while paddling.  And breathing. What is different from locust in a surfing context is that you also have to paddle to beat hell, do a quick pushup maneuver to avoid getting pummeled when a wave comes, and are very far from being on a mat on a level floor with a soothing voice telling you to be in the moment.

It was hard being told that we would “all do awesome,” and strongly suspecting I would do otherwise.

I was with three other students. I was at least 20 years older than the next oldest guy, who came from North Carolina, and probably equivalent to the combined ages of the Swedish couple.

If there was a Group W bench for surfing, that’s where I was headed. (See Alice’s Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie.)

Why I Decided to Try Surfing

Day two on Puerto Rice took us to San Sebastian, a good way into the interior to seek out a waterfall. Megan loves waterfalls, and now I do as well. After more adventures with GPS and narrow, silly-straw shaped roads through giant bamboo groves and hanging vines, we charged up one last stupefyingly steep incline, so steep that horizontal grooves were cut in it to aid traction. Buckety buckety up we went.

The crustafarian gentleman who took our parking money directed us to the paths for the different falls and made sure to point out the bar down the hill. After a modest hike through more dark, Indiana Jones-ish jungle, we arrived at the upper falls. The water falls about 4 stories to a large pool with sitting rocks on one edge, a beach on the other and a rock platform with a swinging rope for the adventurous.

We watched two couples of tan, body-hairless and nearly naked examples of youthful physical perfection gracefully swing out and drop into the pool, one going so far as to GoPro his descent after releasing the rope.

At first it felt pretty ballsy just for us to be here in this wild place and to get in the chilly mountain water to paddle around. I couldn't help eyeing the rope with the nagging sense that I ought to maybe just swim to that side and think about it. A few naggings later, I was getting ready to leap and telling myself not let go too soon for fear of grievous injury. Surprisingly to me, I went for it and didn’t let go until I was out and up as far as I could go. Of course I had to do it again. 

The ribbon that got cut in my brain was that after years of financial terror, feeling professionally like I couldn’t make a mistake or I’d be sunk, or that I couldn’t seem to do anything but make mistakes, I was thoughtlessly doing something fun and a little scary, but scary in the fun way.

Hanging out on the Rincon beach and watching the surfing classes got me nagging at myself again. There in a corner of the beach, young kids and adults had short wave rides and quick falls into the water on mellow little waves. It looked fun and was something completely foreign to me. After a couple glasses of beer, I signed up for the next morning’s class.

The next morning I wondered what I’d been thinking and was relieved when I showed up and the class had been canceled. The gracious woman explained she’d accidentally called my ex-wife at 6:00 in the morning and offered to reschedule me for 1:00 p.m. and to throw in free paddle boards for Megan and myself in the meantime.  Customer service.

The paddleboard experience brought doubts. How was I going to surf if I was slow acclimating to a paddle board on a flat calm morning? Even with that hesitation, I had no idea how much more intense and intimidating the surf class would be.

Where I thought I was getting a surf lesson
Gosa Linda Falls
This is in part because the class I watched bore no resemblance whatsoever to the class I was taken to.  I told them I wanted the surf equivalent of the bunny slope, but no.