Friday, March 30, 2007

in Just- spring when the world is mud- luscious

Yes, folks, that's my driveway in Just-spring, when the world is puddle-wonderful.

I just met my first truly droll Yankee, who lives in the house you can see to the left of the bon. He's an electrical contractor, perhaps a few years older than I am and the kind of flinty Abe Lincoln-looking Yankee that Norman Rockwell loved to paint.

As I pulled part-way into my driveway last evening, he was just pulling into his long driveway, so I backed out again and drove down to say hello. I told him I had learned, a bit too late, to park out by the road this time of year, and he told me that there's a rock ledge on the right hand side of the property (as you're looking at this) and the back that forms a nice cup right under the buildings and driveway, so that the heavy clay stays wet much longer than the surrounding area. By contrast, he said, he put in his own road maybe 50 yards away and has never had to touch it since, though he did start with a layer of roundstone for better drainage. But it would take tons of gravel to make my driveway into something you can use in the spring.

We stood and talked for about 20 minutes, during which time his wife arrived home and joined us, and I have to say it was the funniest conversation I've had since I got here and maybe the funniest I've ever had in which nobody laughed except me. Truly a droll Yankee, he delivered his lines in a classic Maine accent with a twinkle in his eye but only a hint of a smile.

He mentioned a mutual acquaintance in the general area and said, "She can be a very nice person," and when I didn't laugh, he looked at me out of the corner of his eye and added, "I said 'can be.'"

And when I had said that, if I were to be offered the house for sale, I don't think I could afford all that would have to be done to it, he agreed, telling me, among other things, that it has no septic tank, only a cesspool, and the clay leachfield doesn't absorb that stuff much better than the driveway absorbs the runoff. He characterized the house as having "no basement, just a hole that won't support a house," which is absolutely true.

That was about when his wife got home. She and I had waved across the yards, but this was our first conversation and I said, "I thought I'd come down and say 'hello,'" to which he remarked, "I was thinking of coming up and saying hello to you, but it was too muddy."


Saturday, March 24, 2007

My little boy is growing up

I was cleaning out Howard's tank tonight and realized he's grown a bit. Then I realized that it's been six months since he hatched (well, six months and two weeks), and so I figured I'd take another picture of him, again with a quarter for scale.

He's certainly no trouble. Every week or two I put him in a bowl and then scrub his rocks and rinse out his tank, which isn't hard since it only has about an inch-and-a-half of water in it. And as far as expense, it's negligible -- he's still on his first packet of turtle food, though every two or three weeks I give him a chunk of raw meat about the size of the top knuckle of my little finger. (Hmm ... perhaps that's not a comparison I should share with him, lest it give him ideas.)

As far as sociability, he's no more eager to be my friend than he ever was -- snappers are grumpy, solitary characters by nature and the little ones stay out of sight for the first couple of years of their lives anyway. On the other hand, he's learned that when he sees me moving around, food is likely to happen, so he often comes out of his cave and cranes his neck to see what I'm up to.

This is a little bothersome in terms of my original plan to keep him around until he gets larger and then release him -- he really shouldn't come up to people expecting food once he gets out in the wild. But this interest in food doesn't mean he's ever going to be "friendly" and he'll certainly become more risky to handle the larger he gets.

It is a puzzlement. But he continues to amuse me and I like having him around. When he gets big enough to snip off my fingers, I guess I'll have to sit down and think it all out, but, even at this rate of growth, that's going to be awhile.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Sunday Funnies

Our biggest rival, the Sun Journal out of Lewiston/Auburn (circulation 36,000), maintains a bureau in Farmington but is apparently a little shortstaffed in its on-line editing department. Needless to say, we find these things quite amusing. Mostly when they happen to someone else.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Town meetings totally rock

I'm in New England now, where we have town meetings. Tonight, I covered the meeting in Chesterville, a small, not overly wealthy town just south of Farmington. I assigned our reporter to Farmington which I'm sure was much more uptown. I'd rather be in Chesterville.

Last weekend, I covered a meeting in another town that was about half "locals" and half artists and skiers. But Chesterville is totally local, and it's a wonderful example of how wrong those smart-ass city people are when they peg country folks with Deliverance stereotypes. These people aren't all college graduates -- the three in the foreground are a garage owner, a volunteer firefighter and a deputy sheriff -- but when they stand up to ask a question or make a point, you know you are listening to an intelligent person who has looked into an issue and either formed an opinion or come up with a probing question.

And the direct democracy is just a gas. Most of the time, the moderator (and there is a moderator appointed, who is from outside the town and thus neutral) -- well, most of the time, the moderator knows the name of the person rising to ask a question or make a point. It's very informal ... "Yeah, go ahead, Tim ... " and there is humor, usually aimed at the board of selectmen. It's a conversation among people who know each other and live together.

When you arrive at the town hall, you pick up a booklet that has the various articles to be voted on, as well as reports from each department within the town for the year. So you have all the tax assessments, and the budget for the animal control officer, and every other detail in the town government. Some towns get fancy and add color and a little self-promotion, others are bare bones. Chesterville was bare bones, but it was still a thick little booklet of information.

What impresses me about these meetings is the good spirit of it all. You don't have a lot of the penny-pinchers who sink so many school budgets in other areas. Most of the questions are genuine attempts to get information, and the town officials are very open to providing that information.

Two things came up tonight that impressed me. Now, let me start by saying that there were 53 articles, each of which needed an up-or-down vote. At most town meetings, the vast majority of articles are approved, since they've been chewed over by the budget committee and town board. But there are always a few that get more scrutiny than others.

My notes are out in the car, but one item was about $9,000 -- but I forget what it was for. Someone asked why it was $3,000 more than the previous year. Well, there was some back and forth on that, but then one of the selectmen (as town board officials are called) said, "We've got some reserve, so I'd like to offer an amendment ... " and he chopped off the three grand. As simple as that.

A much more complex issue came up at the end of the evening. Most of these "articles" are pretty cut-and-dried. For instance, the state licenses snowmobiles, and each town gets some of the fee back to maintain trails. The money is traditionally turned over to the local snowmobile club which is the group that actually does the work. For Chesterville in the past year, it came out to a little over $900. It would be silly not to approve the article because who else wants to go out there and maintain the trails? So that article usually passes with little discussion, although one town locally has two clubs and one of them apparently wasn't pulling its weight -- and that became a discussion point! Hey, your neighbors know when you're slacking off.

Anyway, there was a proposal to increase the minimum lot size for building to 40,000 square feet, the reasoning being that the necessary distance between wells and septic tanks made that a more logical lot size. But people at the meeting objected, pointing out that, as written, the article would forbid you to buy a quarter acre from a neighbor to put up a garage or even a storage shed, which has no impact on either wells or septic tanks. The building codes officer accepted the criticism, and one of the selectmen finally asked people to defeat the article so they could take it back and rethink it.

People of goodwill work together.

But the best moment came on an article that would give $700 to the local group that works with "special needs" people. Someone asked why it was so much, and proposed an amendment to cut it back to $150. Well, excuse me, but if you think only city liberals have compassion, you should have heard this group rise up against that notion.

What would the town do with that money that would be more valuable than helping these people, someone asked. And someone else said, "It's a small price for personal dignity." Of all the proposals that night, this one got the loudest "nay" vote for the amendment, and the loudest "aye" vote to approve the appropriation.

It comes down to this: People can be heartless when they are talking about abstractions. But you get into a town hall with your friends and neighbors, and you start talking about real life, and the generosity of people bubbles to the surface.

I wish more communities in this country had town meetings.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Two is better

I spent Saturday sitting behind the wheel of my van, from 6 in the morning until 9:30 at night.

I drove from Farmington, Maine, to Salt Point, New York, and back, a distance of about 750 miles. Salt Point is where Melissa Carlin lives. Melissa is a breeder of Rhodesian Ridgebacks, who produced Jack, my (now) ex-girlfriend Donna's dog, and Cole, her current dog. She also had owned Nikki, an African-born champion who then "retired" to live with my son, Jed, and his family, and she was one of two breeders who produced my own dear Nellie Bly. (The other was Destry's breeder -- Nell was his niece.)

When I had to put Nellie down in December, Melissa made an offer that I turned down. She had a bitch, Ziwa, who was ready to retire from breeding and the show ring, and she wanted to find this sweet girl a nice place to live. If I wanted her, she was mine.

I pondered this for a time, but said no, that I wanted to be a one-dog family now. And I did. But Destry didn't. Now, I don't ascribe a lot of rational thought to dogs, and Des wasn't wandering around the house looking for Nellie. But he simply didn't function as well as a solo dog as he had when Nellie was there to give him some companionship and backup.

So I got back in touch with Melissa, and the result was that, as of yesterday, Ziwa is now part of our family. She's a very nice Australian-born girl with soft fur and a relatively sweet disposition. I say "relatively sweet" because she's no pushover. With Destry on first meeting, and then with our Labrador buddy Spike McManus today, she gives a quick snap and bark to say, "Don't push it, bud." But she's not unpleasant and is, in fact, funny and affectionate and, once she gets her feet under her, will be a cuddler.

I like a girl with a little snap, who is willing to set the limits but without rancour or attitude. She's a mom and has some ideas of how people ought to behave, but she's a lover.

And she and Des have already begun to play. They don't cuddle yet, but I'd be surprised if they did, within the first 24 hours. They like each other, and more affection will follow.

As for the thing about being a one-dog family, well, it's a conversation I'll have with Ziwa in a few years. I had always figured that Nellie and I would end up alone, and the difference is that Ziwa is two years younger, and a little more assertive.

I already love this girl.

Friday, March 09, 2007

My Grandfather Speaks

In the early 1900s when I was about 10 years old, I was invited, along with two of my buddies, to spend a weekend with another boy at his father's farm north of Bessemer, Michigan. It was a large farm for that area, well-equipped and operated, and of great interest because it was the county "Poor Farm," with the accent on "Poor."

The Andersons were actually tenant farmers who had a working agreement with the County of Gogebic whereby they housed and fed inmates (nobody would think of calling them guests) who had been placed there by the authorities.

None were compelled to remain, but they had no alternative. Of the 20 or so there at the time, mostly men, all were old and, though still able to walk, unable to earn a living, and all had given up the struggle. The air of hopelessness and despair was overwhelming.

At about the same time, I also observed that here and there in our neighborhood there were old people living with their sons or daughters and their families and thus able to avoid the stigma attached to the "Poor Farm." This system of family responsibility appears to be as old as civilization, perhaps older.

Invariably, these folks would remain out of sight until mealtimes when they would appear at the table to eat and then disappear again. They didn't take part in conversation nor were they encouraged to do so.

Naturally, I didn't see this occurring very often, but I knew it existed and I also knew that it was only a step above the Poor Farm situation.

There was yet another group of old people commonly known as "tramps" who wandered up and down the countryside doing odd jobs around homes and receiving handouts from the housewives and permission to sleep in barns or haylofts. While unable to hold down steady jobs, they too avoided the degrading existence of the Poor Farm.

I did not include the able-bodied men in this general category who were vagrants by choice, and traveled on freight trains or walked from town to town begging, stealing or working for a meal in a pinch. I felt no pity for them, nor did they deserve any. They were not numbered among those that the Bible says "we will have with us always."

I dwell on this general subject for one reason only: When I became old, I wanted to be included out of this existence.

Parenthetically, I should state that I grew up in a neighborhood where there was only one "rich" man, the mine captain, who was reputed to be earning $200 a month.

None of us thought that we were poor -- President Johnson had not yet invented the "poverty" caper and we firmly believed that each of us was completely responsible for his own future. There was nothing resembling "public assistance" or "Social Security" and pensions (very small) existed only for some war veterans. If anyone had told us that we had "rights" we would have been mystified. Our schooling, of course, was free through high school, but that was about it.

While no one spelled it out, I knew that one should go to school until he was 16 years of age and then should go to work giving all of his wages to his parents until he was 21. Thereafter, he must pay board, buy his own clothes, etc. and save up for his old age. Marriage, which was now a
probability, should not shut off (though it certainly would curtail) this saving habit.

The conviction that I had to provide for my own old age grew stronger and stronger as the years went by, and in time resulted in an effort to increase my earning power.

The only solution appeared to be to go to college and prepare myself to handle a higher-paid job such as being an engineer, accountant or school teacher.

In this I was greatly influenced by our school superintendent and the science teacher at our high school -- two wonderful men.

Arthur Peterson was the son of Danish immigrants on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. After dropping out of school to help support his family by working in the mines, he was persuaded to return and earned a scholarship to study metallurgical engineering at the University of Wisconsin. This undated letter to his grandchildren was written in the early 1970s. The picture was taken at my wedding in 1971.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Absorbing a dose of championship energy

This picture is why I don't mind driving up into the countryside late at night. A little high school up there (about 300 kids, grades 9-12) won the state championship in girls basketball, and as I was watching the game on TV down here, I thought, yeah, better get up to the school. Fortunately, the team was about two hours away in Bangor and I only had to drive 45 minutes to get to the school. So I was able to easily get there about half an hour before their bus pulled in, accompanied by the town's firetrucks and ambulance with lights flashing, at 11:30.

When I pulled into the drive, there was hardly anyone at the school -- maybe half a dozen cars -- and I thought, oh, man, this is going to be a bust. But that's because half the town had made the two hour trip to Bangor. They all got back before the bus and were there to greet the girls with pizza and a cake and the whole shebang.

And this picture, if it were the only one I brought back, made the trip worthwhile. These are seniors sharing a moment of total happiness -- the friendships that come in these small schools exist on a very special level.

Friday, March 02, 2007

At the risk of posting twice in one day, you should really read this. It's kind of the opposite of where I'm at. Thank god. But also, thank god people write these kinds of letters.

Welcome Home
(The shovel's just inside the door)

Why would anybody build a house in Maine with two -- count them, two -- roofs slanting so that they collect the snow and then slide it right off in front of the door?

We got maybe a foot of snow today, but I came home to about two and a half feet of it between me and the door. And, yeah, the snow shovel.

Ah, well. It's gonna look beautiful tomorrow when the sun is out. Hope so, anyway, because I'm heading up to Kingfield to cover the annual town meeting at 9 a.m. and then down to Industry for an ice fishing tournament.

The ice fishing folks are probably unhappy -- this is wet stuff and it's going to make it tough to clear the ice, drill holes and get set up. They're counting on 300 to 400 fishermen, with the proceeds going for upkeep on the town beach. Fortunately, it's a two-day event, so, even if Saturday isn't too good, by Sunday they should be okay.

The town meeting folks are probably just fine. The place is about 25 miles north of here, just into the mountains. My guess is there will be a lot of snowmobiles parked outside the school.