Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Fresh baloney from Whole Foods

Portland —

Shoppers at Whole Foods now have something else to feel smug about.

The eco-grocer says it will stop selling "red-rated" wild caught seafood as of April 22 (Earth Day).

A red rating indicates a species is overfished or that its harvest produces excessive bycatch or undesirable habitat impacts.

New York's venerable Fulton Fish Market, which has moved to the Bronx.
The problem with the red rating is that it comes not from the scientific community, which relies on data, but from the advocacy community, which is driven by emotion — yours.

Congress requires precautionary management of fish. If a species does become overfished — and the vast majority are not — Congress requires it to be managed in such a way that rebuilding will take no longer than 10 years.

In other words, you should have no pangs of conscience for consuming fish harvested in U.S. waters. Moreover, there are plenty of reasons, beginning with your good health, to eat them.

Well-intentioned consumers might ask how advocates such as the Blue Ocean Institute and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which rate seafood for Whole Foods, can look at the same data U.S. fishery regulators see and come to their alarmist conclusions. The answer can only be that they don't look at the data.

For example, Monterey Bay lists monkfish as a species to avoid because of sea mammal and turtle bycatch in the gillnet fishery and habitat impacts in the trawl fishery. The reality is that gear modification and areas closures have minimized gillnet bycatch, and trawl impacts are negligible on the muddy and sandy bottom where trawlers catch monks.

"Sustainability" is an ideal that has become a buzzword, so think critically on the subject. For example, the Whole Foods business model is predicated on convincing you that by shopping there, you're saving the world.

Act locally and save yourself. For practical advice about eating seafood, visit the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's FishWatch web site at http://www.fishwatch.gov/index.htm.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Custer's last stand


I have at least one more post from Mexico to write, but I want to get back to the theme of cultural differences.

While in Cancun I read Evan S. Connell's "Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn."

At one level it is the cavalry vs. the Indians, at the next it is the story of a flawed man and his place in history, and finally it is a story about the clash of cultures.

Once Americans began to push west, the die was cast. No amount of Thanksgiving dinners could have prevented conflict between settlers who sought buffalo, gold and land, and who built railroads, and Indians who hunted buffalo and carried on their own tribal wars and who above all viewed the vast West as their own.

Conflict was inevitable. There was no common language, no common experience, and above all no shared vision of the future.

Ironically, descendants of the settlers, as well as other English speaking modern-day Americans, may feel themselves kindred spirits of the 19th century Indians.

For several hundred years America embodied the dreams of immigrants. Those who didn't speak English when they got here proudly learned it. They Anglicized their names. They forbade their children from using their native tongue. They were Americans. They cherished breathing free so much that they fought against their erstwhile kinsmen in two world wars.

But what was once the land of opportunity is today viewed opportunistically. The shared vision of immigrants is "come and get it." American institutions and traditions are abstractions. That newcomers cling to their culture is partly our fault, because we make it possible for them to postpone learning English for far too long.

America is as vast as it was in the time of George Armstrong Custer, but the world is a much smaller place. Today its legions lay siege to us not with rifles and horses but with cynical indifference to the dreams of our fathers.

Should we worry? Ask Sitting Bull.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Life and work

Three among a phalanx of workers policing the beach  for litter.

Cancun, Mexico —

No task is too menial for the resort maintenance crew. Maids wipe the the railings on the balconies. There are hundreds of them. The balusters are beyond counting. At night young men with snorkels and scrub brushes clean the pools. Other youthful workers are stationed on the steps from the beach to sweep away the sand borne by wind and gringo sandals. If Sisyphus were given this chore, he’d ask if he couldn't have his boulder, hill and stick back.

The other day on our walk we saw two men with push mowers cutting the vast lawn at a hotel along the boulevard. (Not many years ago they would have been bent over with shears.) At Pemex stations there is no such thing as self-service. The pump jockeys stand on the end of each island waving at cars. At night the stations are not especially well lit, but the attendants are out there, waiting to pump your gas. Drive slow.

All of this is a function of cheap labor. But in some places labor is cheaper still. Sunday we drove to Valladolid, about halfway across the Yucatan Peninsula. Coming home the back way we saw subsistence economy at work.

People live in what Americans call shotgun shacks, which is to say they have a door in the front and one in the back and you can stand outside and look (or fire a shotgun) through to the backyard. In some homes shadows dance by the light of color TV, but in others there is no electricity, Antonio tells me. "If they want to have something fresh, they have to go and buy the ice," he says. The doors are open, even at night, gasping for a breeze. Also, the doorways frame the hammocks in which people sleep in the Yucatan.

Children play outside well after dark to to stay out of the super-heated dwellings as long as they can. Scrawny dogs are also out and about everywhere. The settlements are dotted with small stores that sell soda, beer, and whatever. Two hundred square feet would be a big one. There might be a plastic table or two outside. "Everybody sells Coca Cola," Antonio says.

There are small churches as well, and they look just like the stores and the houses, which if nothing else means they come in all colors. On this Sunday night they were full of life and light and music, and my friend J.C., who has a clothing store in Cancun, says the people are happy. He says if they have little by way of material goods they miss even less.

How can this be? How will these people acquire time-share villas, golf club memberships and air-conditioned pickup trucks with back seats at this rate? Perhaps I should quit my job, learn Spanish and lecture the locals about the importance of education and save the next generation.

Perhaps not. Antonio agrees that the people are as happy as any. They raise grapefruit and oranges and their kids go to school. "They have the land," he says.

It is hard to think of Antonio as being paternalistic. He is from Merida and has spent quite some time in the United States. He now lives in El Centro, where he sews for a living and sleeps in a hammock.

Americans tend to think that everyone wants the same things we want. Perhaps that's because so many of us want what the other guy has.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

¿Dónde está el blog

Cancun, Mexico —


At the moment we are living it up in Mexico with a lousy wireless signal. If I can find a workaround that does not conflict with the notion of a vacation I  will be back in a day or so.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A day at the beach

Cancun, Mexico —

The photo at left, taken yesterday, is remarkable for what it shows — bathers in the ocean some distance from the water's edge — and what it does not: pounding surf.

Ordinarily the beach is held siege by 20 knots or more of easterly wind. The breakers explode onto the sand and over the course of the day your sunglasses acquire a misty film even if you're 50 yards or more from the surf, reading under the palapa.

The beach here is renowned for its undertow, and most days red flags fly the length of it. Yesterday a few yellow flags were mixed in. I can't recall ever seeing a green flag here, but at some point I may have. I have been vacationing here, on and off, since 1988.

As calm as it was in the afternoon, if you stood in the surf very long you noticed that every few waves it felt as though someone had you by each leg and pulling you to sea. On rougher days you look up and down the beach and as far as you can see no one is in the water beyond their calves.

Nonetheless, the beach beckons. The water temperature is 80 degrees or more, which feels pretty warm to a Mainer, and the sand is cool even on the hottest days. I have heard a number of explanations for this over the years — the sand contains lime, it consists of fossilized plankton — but in any case, your feet will like it.

In 2007, Hurricane Dean destroyed most of the east-facing beaches at Cancun. (Topographically there is one beach, but there are a dozen or more sections, each named "playa" this or that. We stay along Playa Marlin.)

In 2009, the Mexican government mined two undersea banks for sand, loaded it onto barges and pumped it ashore at Cancun and at Playa del Carmen to the south. Voila! Beach!

One can only imagine the hue and cry in the United States if someone proposed undersea excavation of sand banks in the furtherance of economic interests.

We used to hear that there is a drowning a week along this 14-mile beach. I am skeptical. On many stretches lifeguard stands are no more than 100 yards apart. The lifeguards here are a vigilant and dedicated crew. If you wander out a little too far they whistle you back in. If a rip develops they whistle at you to move. Over the years I've seen a couple of rescues.

For all of that, prudence dictates a healthy respect for the power of the surf. Folk wisdom holds that if you're born to hang you'll never drown, but I wouldn't push my luck in Cancun.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Unreal politics

                                                                                                        CANCUN, Mexico —

So what’s going on with Maine’s U.S. Senate race? There wasn’t much new when I Googled this morning, and the filing deadline is just a day away.

I’m amazed at the timidity about an open seat in the most exclusive club outside of Augusta National.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, for example, stood to lose next to nothing if she ran. She’s the junior congresswoman from a small state and the member of a minority party. She is well spoken and can deliver constituent services, and that may be very important to her, but in Washington she has the same clout Aung San Suu Kyi has in Yangon. Maybe less, actually.

Was she afraid of losing to the independent candidacy of former Gov. Angus King? I would not have thought so.

What about Rep. Mike Michaud?

With former Gov. John Baldacci passing up the race, you have to figure he's done with elective office.

That leaves Secretary of State Charles Summers yet to make up his mind, if indeed he has not. I can't imagine him passing up the race, unless he figures he can bide his time and wait for a better opportunity.

But what better opportunity than this?

King was a popular and practical governor known for laptops for kids and the rainy day fund. But squirreling away money in the late 1990s was no big deal: if you had a 401(k) you probably thought you were the next Warren Buffett.

Independents are OK in the Blaine House, but the U.S. Senate is another story. If it’s an exclusive club it’s also a bastion of two-party politics.

Kings says he’d be the most popular girl at the prom when key votes were on the line, but he’d more likely be regarded as a coy mistress. The reality is that he would caucus with one party or the other or bring new meaning to the term irrelevant.

Connecticut’s Sen. Joe Lieberman ran as an independent to keep his seat after losing the Democratic primary in 2006. He caucused with the Democrats, who rewarded him with a committee chairmanship. He thanked them by supporting John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008. He’s not been heard from since and is not seeking re-election.

That’s not what Maine needs.

Maine is not California. It does not have a battalion in the U.S. House with which to make its way. Nor is it especially productive. Maine need senators who will work within the system to represent Maine’s economic interests.

Yet with Thursday’s deadline looming no Democrats have filed papers. The conventional wisdom is that having King and a Democrat in the field would clear the path for the Republican candidate, who as of now is Scot D'Amboise.


As a result, conspiracy theorists say, a deal has been cut that will see King become a Democrat after the election.

But the conventional wisdom only goes so far. Bill Clinton became the Democratic nominee in 1992 because more seemly Democrats viewed President George H.W. Bush as unbeatable after the Gulf War.

Which leaves only one question. If I start up the beach in the direction of Punta Cancun and ask every fifth sunbather who will win Maine's U.S. Senate race, how far will I get before the policia drop a net over me?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Well south of Maine

CANCUN, Quintana Roo — President Bush the first was mocked for referring to “the vision thing,” but he was onto something.
In the 1960s, the Yucatan barrier island that would become Cancun was a coconut plantation looked after by three caretakers, a series of sand dunes in the shape of a seven that ran for miles in each direction. Quintana Roo was a territory, not yet a state.
There was no airport, no city, no road. One day some bureaucrats woke up and said, “We think this Caribbean tourism thing is going to take off.”
Construction began in the early 1970s. My mother-in-law discovered the place in 1984. By then it was very much a resort, albeit one in which businesses observed the siesta.
Now there is too much money at stake and there are too many gringos underfoot to take time for afternoon naps.
Where my wife and I now stay was dune grass in 1988 when we first came down together. Today it’s in the middle of Zona Hotelera.
The plumbing has caught up with the vision and Cancun is a very sanitized place. Reverse-osmosis plants provide water in the resort, and the bowel-searing episodes of Montezuma’s revenge that once folded gringos half in two are a fading memory.
In those days milk was poured warm from a box and the butter tasted funny. Once each trip we would go to the Blue Bayou, at the Hyatt, for an expensive but reliable — the butter notwithstanding — American meal.
My wife returned from her first trip in love with the place but craving hamburgers and mashed potatoes.
Booze, on the other hand, was an abundant resource, and downtown drinking was a raucous, spontaneous and mostly outdoor affair. There was no such thing as last call, as far as anyone can remember, and at places like Mi Ranchito free tequila slammers came around every few minutes to anyone loose enough to join the conga line wiggling beneath waiters standing on chairs. Which was everyone.
The best part was the peso. At 2,250 to a U.S. dollar, our pockets were stuffed full of money and no one had any idea what they were paying for anything.
Cancun still sparkles by day, but its nightlife has been watered down by all-inclusive resorts and glitzy shopping malls. Yes, the spring breakers are crazy, but what else is new? In our time, people who never went crazy anywhere else went out of their minds here.
Now we sit sober on the beach with our e-readers. Whether or not the tourism bureau saw quite that far ahead I’m not prepared to say.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Memorial Bridge update

Portsmouth, N.H. 
Earlier this month I recounted a night years ago when I'd been steaming absentmindedly up the Piscataqua River between Maine and New Hampshire when I realized we were in danger of being swept into the Memorial Bridge by the rising tide. Fortunately, the drawbridge lifted in time; the tide did not pin us against its deck, and we did not roll over in the virtual sluice-way that is the Piscataqua.

Last week, for the first time of which I'm aware, a vessel was actually pinned against the bridge. The towboat Miss Stacy was maneuvering a barge just above the bridge when the current overcame her. As so often happens nowadays, somebody was on hand with a video camera.

The video is 11 minutes long but you'll get the picture quickly enough and can fast forward. I recommending resuming play at about nine minutes, as the trusting soul on the back deck of the tug Eugenia Moran, wearing what appear to be street clothes despite his precarious perch amid the waters of one of the world's swiftest rivers, tosses a line to the towboat.

Although the center (lifting) span was removed from the Memorial Bridge earlier this month, the Miss Stacy was caught to one side. There is another critical difference between the Miss Stacy incident and the night 26 years or so ago I'd plowed so blithely along in the Princess: the Miss Stacy was traveling downriver and the tide was falling when she was pinned against the bridge. In theory, she would have been in lessening danger as the tide fell. Perhaps she'd have rescued herself at slack water (assuming the river did not flood her spaces below deck). In my case, we were coming upriver with the Princess and would have gotten no such relief from the flooding tide, and our mast would have represented that much more leverage.

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and other blessings.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Faith in fishing

Perkins Cove — Carl McIntire, Sr., told me everything I or anyone else ever needed to know about fishing for a living.

"There'll be times when you think you're going to starve to death," he said, "but you won't. There'll be times when you think you're going to get rich, but you won't do that either."

That's what it comes down to.

We can assess stocks and set biomass targets. We can build population models using sophisticated mathematics. We can throw the models out and build new ones. We can fret about choke species, age-to-weight ratios, and the prospect that we're "fishing down the food web."

It's what known as talking fishing.

You can always find company if you want to talk fishing. But be careful. The U.S. government talks fishing all the time and eliminates fishermen with every breath.

In Carl's time, the free market oversaw the fishing fleet. Some fishermen survived, some did not. Those who failed for the most part eliminated themselves, mostly by dint of a lack of commitment. The "times you think you're going to starve to death" are not for the fainthearted.

Fish came and went. When they came, the fleet went after them. When they went, the fleet went somewhere else. Extinction as a result of fishing pressure was not a real liability. You can't catch them if they aren't there, but you can go broke trying.

Instead, when cod tailed off you went for haddock, then grey sole, then yellowtails, and so on. Swordfish and tuna were not out of the question, and generations of Mainers fell back on lobsters. Different regions had different cycles, but the rhythm was the same from ocean to ocean. You caught what you could, you moved on, and things evened out in your wake. Nowadays, regulations lock you into fisheries. You don't just catch fish anymore; you pound them into submission.

That is just one aspect of fishery management. Other facets — scheduled openings, limited entry, quotas, the catch history imperative — all threaten fishermen while doing little for fish.

To say nothing of the dubious notion of building fish populations by controlling fishing effort. The harvest of fish is a factor in fish abundance, but so, too, are predator-prey relationships, water temperature and other environmental conditions, and forage populations. Depending on what's going on in the ocean, stocks can skyrocket or crash with a given level of fishing pressure. Abundance does not always correlate with the prospects for a given population of fish.

Truth is, once the government got involved in fishing the die was cast. The Capital Construction Fund was a grand gesture intended to capitalize the fleet with the advent of the 200-mile limit in the 1970s, but it was without question a subsidy. No longer did a vessel have to pay its way to the extent it once did.

Governments (other than the Chinese, who believe it's too soon to divine the meaning of the French Revolution) tend to take the short view. The truth is that a fishing season or two — or 10, or even 20 — is the twinkling of an eye in the Earth's life. It's one thing to react to changes in the environment; it's a conceit to suppose fishery management plans represent historic achievement.

Yet down this road we go. I believe it's because as Americans we have lost touch with nature. Many of our grandparents reckoned with nature in their daily existence. Likely they didn't have air conditioners or oil furnaces; they needed deer, clams, or fish to get through the winter; they counted on the iceman and the farmer; they were their own woodcutters. They saw years of plenty and years of less, but the natural world was woven into the fabric of living, as was the wise use of resources to better their lives.

Today we are connected with nature by our obsession with being "green." There is room for neither competing priorities nor economic considerations. The mandate is conserve everything.

We live in a world of smart phones, high-speed Internet connections and cars that converse with us. In the minds of some of our most highly educated people our wild planet has become a concept so abstract they needed a term — "real time" — to describe something taking place in the world around them.

As though otherwise, no one would know it was there.

There is no question that modern technology is wondrous. But old Carl could watch a gannet diving on a school of herring 15 fathoms below the surface of the ocean and see the wonder in that. Which is why he was such a good fisherman, and why the ocean never ran out of fish.


Carl's grandchildren are fishermen, and one of them, Billy McIntire, will be chasing bluefin tuna in a new (to him) boat this summer. The first time I went fishing with him he was so small his father made him wear a life jacket. Corky Decker, a former crew member of mine who went on to considerable success as a trawler captain in the North Pacific, has returned home and, like Billy, will be chasing tuna this summer in his own boat.

Faith in fishing is trait common among Mainers. It is sadly lacking among federal fishery managers, and I don't know that we'll ever change that.

The bluefin are out there, that much we know. How Billy and Corky will do is less certain. That's the nature of fishing. But like the tuna, they'll be out there come summer. "You have to go every day you can," Carl never stopped telling us. "If you miss a day you can never make up for it, not if you go every day for the rest of your life."

Friday, February 10, 2012

Untroubled Waters

Memorial Bridge. JayDuck Photo

It would be neat to have been on hand Wednesday night when they lowered the center span of the Memorial Bridge between Kittery and Portsmouth onto a barge and floated it off. That old bridge has seen a lot of comings and goings during the last 90 years. It was the bridge of choice for many of us until they opened the Piscataqua River Bridge in 1972; the Interstate Bridge (since renamed for the bridge authority's Sarah Mildred Long) cost a dime to cross.

Six lanes wide, 4,500 feet long and 135 feet off the water, the new bridge solved the problem of getting traffic on I-95 traffic around Portsmouth without impeding mariners. Indeed, it's high enough that the crew that originally painted it should have allowed for the effects of wind at altitude. But they did not, much to the amusement of locals who were not parked to leeward. Imagine the outrage that would have provoked in today's green times.

In another demonstration of the effects of wind at altitude, a friend once abandoned his vehicle at top dead center on the bridge when he broke down during a gale. In truth, it was not so much the nor'wester that was at fault as his ride, a once-comely Oldsmobile the rear half of which someone looking to get his own page on a redneck calendar had replaced with a plywood box eight feet long and every bit as high.

I has a close call under the gaze of the Memorial Bridge on a winter night in the mid-1980s. I had the old eastern rig dragger Princess and we tied up in Newington. This was far enough upriver that we would time our return to port to catch the incoming tide. Fair tide, we could get from the mouth of the river to the dock (about even with the last entrance to the Fox Run Mall) in about 30 minutes. If we were bucking the tide it was nearly an hour's steam.

On the night I'm thinking of the tide was with us and the moon was full as we made our way upriver by the shipyard. If I could find the river's sweet spot the Princess would be making 14 knots in the narrows just above the high span; we could not otherwise coax nine out of the old girl. It's great fun to watch the speed over ground ticking up on the Loran when the tide is sweeping you along — until you have a sudden need to stop.

Abeam the shipyard I radioed the crew on the Memorial Bridge to lift 65 feet, as I always did; they told me to stand by. This was normal; in an airplane it would be like being cleared for the approach as opposed to being cleared to land. They needed a few minutes to lower the gates and stop traffic.

I knew that in short order the gates would come down and I'd see the flashing red lights and hear the siren wail. They'd radio us, "Come along sir," and the center span would labor its way upward.

So I steamed along for a minute or two before the headlights that continued to dance across the bridge got my attention. I'd always figured there was a point of no return at which a 180-degree turn downriver, should the bridge jam or otherwise fail to lift, would no longer be an option. I was pretty sure I'd passed it. I grabbed the mic: "Memorial Bridge, Princess."

"Go ahead."

"We're fair tide here; we need a lift right away."

"Well, I've got a man... I've got a man indisposed here."

Going into reverse would be an empty gesture. Worse, we'd get sideways to the current and lose all control. If we tried to turn under full power and claw our way into the tide, we'd most likely be side-to the bridge when we got swept into it. This was the least desirable outcome. The tide would push the hull under the bridge but the mast would prevent it from going through. The Princess would lever itself onto its side and me and my crew would be swimming.

But not for long, not in this river.

I was about to go below to get the guys on deck when I thought I saw a man climbing down from the bridge operators' cab, and then I saw flashing lights and heard the siren. In a few moments the center span began to lift. The Princess swept ahead, the engine at idle. As we slid toward the maw of the bridge I wasn't sure we would clear. What kind of a mess would it be if the top of the mast hung up?

It did not, but the antenna scraped across the underside of the bridge like the sword of Zorro. 

I hoped the guy had enjoyed his bowel movement. I'd almost had one of my own.

For me, the Interstate Bridge has been much more the source of local legend. One night a lobsterman from Ogunquit pulled up to the tollbooth, which was on the Portsmouth side, with a half-empty bottle of cheap whiskey between his legs and no money in his pockets. He offered the sentry his watch in lieu of a dime. Or so he told me, at which time he was also drunk. As he spoke, he took his watch from his wrist and extended it in my direction, nodding gravely. But the sentry declined the timepiece, so my friend sped away in his red Chevy truck. "Jerry," he said, "that goddamn toll-taker reached up over his head and threw a switch and every goddamn traffic light in Portsmouth turned red. They had me."

A horseplayer friend use to take the bridge daily on his way a construction job in Massachusetts. We'll call him John. One day John didn't have any change and handed the sentry a $100 bill. The sentry handed it back and waved him through. The next day John pulled up to the tollbooth and whipped out the C-note, and once again the sentry waved him through. Inspiration took root. On the third day, John never came to a stop.

On day four the sentry held up his hand cop-style when he saw John coming. He snatched the hundred dollar bill and reached down in the tollbooth and with two hands hoisted a heavy cloth sack. It was full of pennies and it was all he could to to pass it over to John. "Set 'er on the seat," he told him, "You got another one comin'." Before hoisting the second bag he unlaced the top and counted out 10 cents.

"You're all set," he said. "Have a nice day."

The footbridge at Perkins Cove kindles more pastoral memories. Back in the early 1960s it was raised by a hand crank inserted into a winch. Most of the time Harold Hilton, Sr., was around to raise the bridge, with a cigarette dangling from his lips. If Harold was absent, a cove rat or two eagerly took on the job whenever a sailor blew his little brass foghorn.

Raising the wooden walkway was a bit of a job for nine and 10-year-olds, but we came running. The span was heavy enough — it must have strained old Harold a little bit — and the crank lost its mechanical advantage as cable built up on the winch. Fortunately, the cove wasn’t very deep, so most sailboats shallow enough to get in could be accommodated by raising a single span. Occasionally one arrived with a tall mast and spreaders and both sides of the bridge would have to be raised.

Raising the bridge wasn't dangerous, but it was not without risk. You dogged the winch to hold the bridge up; when lowering the bridge you used a hand brake to prevent its crashing down and if you didn’t take the crank out, it could whiz through your arm or anything else you put in its arc. Fortunately, our freedom to hang around the cove was predicated on our parents’ expectations that we were of a sort bright enough (albeit just barely) not to stick their feet in a lawn mower, and we lowered the bridge cautiously (for the most part) and stayed out of the way of the crank.

When the tide was high, teenage guys who worked at Barnacle Billy's would dive from the bridge on their breaks to cool off.

By the time we cove rats were teenagers, the town had removed the hand winch and replaced it with an electric motor. Soon enough, we outgrew the thrill of pushing the up button and left it to tourists, who to this day never seem to tire of it.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Portland —

Here's what my wife says when people ask her whether gays should be able to marry: "Good luck to 'em!"

Indeed. The divorce rate among straight couples in this country in their first marriage is around 40 percent. In second marriages the likelihood of divorce increases to about 60 percent. Think the third time's a charm? Only if you're a divorce lawyer. The rate for failed third marriages exceeds 70 percent.

Couples don't split because they believe they're happier than they have a right to be. When a friend of mine was served with divorce papers, the first thing his lawyer asked him was whether he was having an affair. When he said he was not, the lawyer asked him who his wife was seeing. "No one," my friend said. "Well," said the lawyer, "I'll be damned!"

In recent times the question of whether the state ought to recognize same-sex marriage seems to come and go with the tide. The tide has also washed a ton of money from out-of-staters opposed to gay marriage.

It's no surprise that money from away is weighing in on the issue, because I don't think there's much money in Maine worried about who marries whom. Truth is, if you can pay the cable bill with enough left over for a half gallon of Popov or a jug of Allen's Coffee Brandy I don't know how much better it can get.

Although in our time we have seen Maine evolve (some would say regress) from red state to blue, it strikes me that Mainers have always had a libertarian streak. As far back as 1986, a ballot question to make it illegal to sell pornography in Maine went down to defeat by a 3:1 margin despite an aggressive campaign by the Maine Christian Civic League. I remember it well because I was running in a state house primary in Wells, which was solidly Republican, and was worried that opposing the question would cost me support. (It did not. No one cared where I stood on the pornography question. In fact, no one seemed too concerned where I stood on anything. But that's another story.)

According to the most recent Census, 13 out of every 1,000 men in this state is divorced. That's verging on half again the national average of 9.2 divorces per 1,000 men and represents the second highest divorce rate in the United States, behind Arkansas. (Wait until Bob Marley finds that out.) Perhaps if the civic league had it to do over again it would have gotten behind a one man, one marriage act.

The appropriate question isn't whether gays should marry, but rather, what can they do to belittle the institution that straight folks haven't already done?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Perkins Cove —

In the weeks during which I put off launching this blog I was going to call it "Down and out in Southern Maine," to reflect the direction in which the prospects of Mainers striving to make a living are headed.

On the other hand, I'm not broke, jobless, or facing grim prospects, other than for promotion. So I am calling it "Living it up in Southern Maine" instead.

I started writing a long time ago and arrived in 1982, when the York Weekly began publishing my column "Hard Times," and paying me $10 for it. In 1987 I quit commercial fishing and went to work as a reporter for the York County Coast Star in Kennebunk. For the next 23 years I made my living as a writer or editor. As 2010 drew to a close I became a full-time publisher. Since then I have written shopping lists and emails. They are useful but not what most writers aspire to create.

When you're in your 20s you can sit at the bar and hold yourself out as a writer, never having published a word — in some cases never having written one.

"I'm writing a novel about fishing."

"How interesting. How are you coming?"

"Right now I'm roughing out the characters."


"Oh yes. We do this so that as the book unfolds, everything they do will be true to who they are."

"Wow! I didn't know that writers did that."

"The good ones do. I could not conceive of putting pen to paper without knowing my characters like I know the members of my family."

"That is interesting."

"Yes; it's the essence of great writing: striving for truth when it would be so easy to capitulate and churn out rubbish. Now if you'll excuse me. Bartender!"

Indeed, when you are in your twenties you can sell this BS to other dopes in their twenties, especially dopes with degrees in English, but over time a lack of published material, even rubbish, will give you away.

The same holds for a fisherman. In my day we joked that all a fisherman needed was a pickup truck and a wife who worked, but deep down inside we knew that sooner or later we needed to unload some fish, if only to justify our extended absences from home.

Until the waning years of the 20th century a fisherman tended to prosper in proportion to his appetite for work. Luck played its part, but money in the bank tended to correlate with time on the water. Today the federal government is deeply involved in fishery management, for better or worse. Depending on the fishery, fishermen are allocated or acquire a quota of fish to catch at their leisure. And leisure it often is, given the allocations.

Of course, there is no quota system for writers. Fishermen lament that "You can't catch them twice," but the writer's resource is bottomless. Writers use words over and over and arrange them in endless ways. If there were any justice in this world, it would be the other way around. Writers would be allotted a finite number of words with which to fashion ideas and fishermen would have an endless supply of fish that they could catch over and over again. This arrangement wouldn't do much for the price of fish, of course, but there would be a lot less bloviating going on.

Ten years after I left fishing to become a reporter I went to work for National Fisherman. This intersection of career paths, which my mother might have foreseen, was unimagined by me, but it is, a decade and a half later, the vantage from which I have entered the world of bloggers.