22 February 2015

Maine - Tell me about that.

While trading email with a friend now living in Las Vegas, he wrote: "Maine. Tell me about that." Okay. Take a ride with me up the Atlantic Highway to mid-coast ME.

We're living in Belfast, a coastal town with much of what one might imagine for a New England coastal town: schooners, lobster boats, tourists. In Waldo County, one of Maine's 23 counties, Belfast Bay is within Penobscot Bay, itself within the Gulf of Maine, and protected from the pounding surf by Deer Island, Vinylhaven and many smaller islands. The towns of Rockland, Camden, Lincolnville, and Belfast make up most of what's considered the mid-coast region. Portland, the state's biggest city at just over 66,300, is south and west while the sublime grandeur of Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park are just east.

The peninsula of northern New England is bordered by New Hampshire to the west and Quebec and New Brunswick, Canada, to the northwest and northeast, respectively. The Atlantic Ocean rolls to the south. The Appalachian Trail begins in west-central Maine, at Mt. Katahdin. About 1.33 million people call Maine home. Most of those people are older than the national average, many don't like us folks who move here "from away." Many are welcoming and friendly.

I arrived in late August for a position at Unity College. The previous July we (wife, child and I) visited for the first time together. The summer vibrancy of Belfast attracted us with its independent bookstores, classic old movie theater, working lobster docks and a rejuvenated ship-building yard. The true Main Street appeal was and is very charming. A small town of not quite 7,000, Belfast has relatively good schools and at least one watering hole that tolerated what emerged as a strong Green Bay Packers bar.

There is a surprisingly strong Wisconsin contingent out here. Among other points of contact, there are nearly a dozen professors of various rank at Unity College who either graduated or taught at UW-Madison. A dozen may not sound like a lot but, as a micro-college (less than 1,000 students) this dozen represents nearly a third of the entire Unity faculty body. Coming from the 40,000-student milieu of UW, the adjustment has been both refreshing and somewhat challenging - but all for the better. It's a good place to be right now.

Getting to work, I drive west from Belfast on 20+ miles of a snake trail that is State Highway 137. At Knox Ridge, I turn north on Hwy 220 towards the town of Unity. Roadkill porcupine were very common in the fall - than I ever thought there could be roadkill porcupine. Like raccoon in the Midwest. Crows are everywhere out here, too. And seagulls. Lately, near Knox Ridge, I've been seeing a few Bald Eagles and at least one osprey. A flock of wild turkeys is not uncommon, scratching around the fallow organic veggie fields common in Waldo County.

This area was a hotbed of the Back to the Land movement of the 1960s - 70s. A renaissance, it seems, is taking place. Younger farmers and ag-industry workers are plentiful. Some have moved up from New York and Boston and, while these trust-fund kids may make nice mainstream media stories, they are not the norm.

Winter. Old Man Winter is a jerk. Most people seem to rely on plow service for snow removal - even for a small driveway. If it snows 8 inches overnight in the Upper Midwest, one can expect to hear a solid handful of snow-blowers out and running by early the next morning. Here, I am the only one. Also, sidewalks. People do not seem all that concerned with clearing sidewalks. Comparisons aside, this winter would be a challenge anywhere. With about 55 inches of snow in three weeks of late January and early February -- and a good 12 to 16 inches since then -- we ran out of places to put snow several weeks ago. Boston, about three hours south, has been hit even harder.

Photo by James T. Spartz (@jtspartz) on

We are settling in. The young miss is in school and making friends. My second semester of professorship is going pretty well. The good wife is looking for work after having finished up a lingering project from UW. We're in a rental house that is a little tight yet adequate enough for the time being. We are definitely looking forward to summer. Spring will be nice, too. They just call it "mud season" up here though, so some new muck boots might be in order.

So, Maine. Yeah. It's okay. My excitement will likely be a little stronger come summer but, for now, yeah, it's okay. Now, tell me about Las Vegas...

17 January 2015

Sometimes You Just Have to Write.

Sometimes you just have to write. The subject doesn't matter, it's the drive that persists. Write. Let your fingers do the talking. From Q to P to A to L to Z to M... Just get it out.

It's a snow day and there's work. The tea has cooled and the honey is gone. Too late for coffee. No need to be clever. Just write. Get past the "nothing to say" and the "no time" and the noise of everything. Just write. Turn the spigot and water that keyboard garden. Write beautiful phrases of lush language. Or total crap. Just write.

There are no sidewalks here, just paths to follow. Walk along them. Let the world go away. Dim the lights a bit and let old photos shimmer in the blur. Play your records. Play Eh La Bas and St. Louis Blues and T-Bone Walker. Play Jacques Brel, Herb Alpert, Ray Charles, Lightnin' Hopkins. Good ol' Lightnin'. He may stumble - that one-time soul-blues drunken pioneer idol of countless roots rock duos - he stumbles and falls and you pick him up with the grace of Mother Teresa. Let Lightnin' do his thing. Let Mother do here thing. You do yours.

Write and sing and play. Be honest to who you are - and then get more honest. Be your own Corps of Discovery. Is honesty relative? Does Truth matter? Forget about it. Forget who you've been. Words are a scythe for your own stale attachments. Be who you are. Imagine your future in this moment right now. Right thinking. Right action. Just write.

Flowers bud in the spring and you, like the flower, find the winter all but deadly. The dark the cold the commercial nothingness of holiday hell. Shed your cynicism! Embrace the light! Get out and do something. Forget what your least-favorite aunt-in-law told you about playing it safe and sticking with security. Dullsville. You know this! The obstacle IS the path. Explore uncertain destinations. Be brave. Make the time to walk the dog in the snow along a frozen stream. Freeze your fingertips to a respectable degree. Walk through the cedar grove. Pause there. Nothing beats a good cedar grove in winter. And when you get back, thaw. Then write. Not for anyone. Just for you. Write. And keep writing. Keep it to yourself or announce it to the world. Do both.

The words are water and the fish in the water doesn't know what water is. Thank you, DFW. Be the fish. Swim. Let it happen and let it pass. Be active in the passing. Know when to say when but don't skip an opportunity. Scribble. Notate. Use your notepad - you do have a notepad, right? - (Write) - as it is by your bedside and in your coat pocket and in your duffle. When you're upstairs at Genna's Lounge and Lightnin' strikes like a two note solo so powerful and clear you are compelled toward silence. Write. Two notes can lead to an aria. But you won't know if you don't go. Get out there. Get gone. Do it. Do it again. And again and again and again. Be who you are (this is the key!). Be in the moment. Be open to new experiences. Recognize the glory of your own brief existence. Be in the moment repeatedly. Leave, but come back. Come back to the moment and write. Sometimes you just have to. Write.