Thursday, March 29, 2018

Blizzard Brain

When the sun came out after the most recent Nor'easter, everyone seemed a bit confused. After the roads were cleared and I drove to Portland to see clients, I heard the DJ mention she was unsure what day it was. It was a refrain I heard over several instances in completely different circumstances: people not sure of day or date. After a couple of weeks of epic, multi-inch snow storms, school cancellations, rescheduled events, grocery shelves cleared of milk, bread, and wine and the switch to daylight savings time, Mainers were in the throes of a post-blizzard befuddled brain.
The Four Blizzards of March
(photo courtesy Washington Post)

Through all of it, I had electricity and internet and determination of the ever-falling snow to get my work done. High winds buffeted the windows and the snow created a misty, ephemeral cloud over the neighborhood. I was envious of the super-powered snow removal equipment blasting their way through the streets outside. I wanted to be high above in the cockpit, accomplishing something beyond words on a screen.
Bangor Daily News, March 19, 2018

This winter, in the words of The Washington Post, "was one for the record books."  March's storms demanded flexibility, self-resourcefulness, scheduling and a sense of preparedness. As the apocalyptic news reports triggered reschedulings, I was reminded of a cartoon depicting the preparations for warring posses coming to the main street of the western town: bustling mums, shopkeepers turning their signs and closing the curtains, and the hurried closure of shutters and doors while they anticipated the gunfight to ensue.

As the sun and brilliant blue sky now unfold in the aftermath, we wait for the thaw and the inevitable coming of spring and summer. The sun is getting stronger. Temperatures still hover at the freezing mark. Mainers are feeling the fatigue in the boots that they wish could be tucked away until November.
The morning of March 25th. A little fresher upper. 
I had a housemate in Alaska who was an ultra-marathoner, using my house for training over 6 weeks between Hawaii and his seasonal job in Denali. One day he was gone for hours, running through neighborhoods and across trails.  The front door opened as I worked at the kitchen table when he silently slipped in the door and headed to the refrigerator. He was quick and deliberate at the stovetop, preparing a veggie burger, and moved to the table across from me. He was a man of faith and took a moment. Then he consumed an epic sandwich in gulping bites. Tears ran down his face as the relief of calories hit the depleted cells in his body. I watched in silent wonder.

For now, many of us in northern climes are hungering for warmth and the sun. We stretch like seedlings at the windowsill, beyond the robins flitting about the small patches of grass on south-facing fields and the bare branches full of promise, to the inevitable summer.

Saturday, February 24, 2018


A major shift in Maine's fifth largest (and my former) employer occurred in early February. L.L. Bean announced that their 106-year-old "satisfaction guarantee" was generally limited to one year from purchase or to those holding a receipt. Resulting news was featured in local, regional and national media. A contributing New Yorker writer from Maine,Ian Crouch, wrote "Even if it seems to have failed as a business model, L. L. Bean’s return policy was treasured largely because it reflected the values and characteristics that we like to celebrate in ourselves and each other as Mainers, ones that we may not always live up to but to which we might aspire—traits like honesty, good nature, and a mind-your-own-business ethos in which asking someone to explain himself is tantamount to calling him a liar." Working at L.L. Bean was a right of passage, a common thread shared across all walks of life. The company builds its brand on Maine's beauty and rural character and had a great reputation for treating its employees well.  
Taking old slippers back was the worst part
of the job at Customer Service.
(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) 

When I grew tired of the relentless and repetitive work at L.L. Bean's cash registers, I asked to be trained in Customer Service. The complexity of using multiple inventory systems seemed intriguing, and the esprit de corps of the team was strong. Just a month after I started the new position, management instituted "special conditions" into the return policy. These reasons to refuse (change in size for both children and adults, personal family reasons such as death, moving, divorce and accidents) were stealthily introduced. Signs disappeared overnight and new language appeared on the website. The customer service department explained the "clarifications" with every person as they placed their questionable item on the counter and responded to the reason for the return.  

Customers reacted. Anger, indignation, resignation, and "it's about time" were common. Dismay and disappointment resulting in tears or aggression were occasional but memorable. People lied. A man commanded the returns area with a loud treatise of "I bought this under the old policy and you should honor it" and was so determined to get his way that he escalated up three levels of management before finally left in a blaze of umbrage. The "clarification" of the policy seemed to be an affront to those who had scammed the system in the past, and now their annual "I want a new backpack." jig was up. 

As the line wound through the cordons of the stuffy cave, I would see people waiting and begin to fear the conversation that would ensue. I was always relieved to see the familiar green shipping bag that indicated an easy transaction. A woman arrived at my station, three girls under 10 years old in tow, and placed a pink sweater, with a small hole under the arm, on the counter. It was sized for an infant, and last sold in 2008. Then came the Red Wing work shoes of a style not seen since the 70's, a brand we had never sold. I could sense her desperation mounting, realizing her plans were dissolving with my response. She tried to retain a brave face in front of her daughters. I sensed that maybe things were not great at home; Christmas was coming. Her last item was acceptable for return and she went on her way with a gift card.  

As the media blitz has faded in the scope of recent news, I suspect that the conversations at Customer Service are much different. The end of the return policy is both a cultural and business shift for the company, and for Mainers. It was good while it lasted but now its no longer. Now, we wait to see how the pending class action suit resolves itself. 

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Not Turning Back

Earlier this month, I realized an error in judgment that had irrecoverable consequences. In the days after, I went to Popham Beach to open myself up to whatever would happen next. There are moments when one needs a horizon and a long walk. Nearby to the beach, in the summer of 1607, a group of English settlers arrived on the shores to set up an encampment and most retreated after one winter.The sand stretched long as the tide receded. Seagulls pecked at large clams washed up on the sand. Beach houses were boarded up, an old hotel and a restaurant had for sale signs on them. An imposing civil war era rock fort faced the Kennebec River's junction with the Gulf of Maine. 
Courtesy WH Ballard Collection | Bangor Daily News

There's been some controversy in recent months within this little community at the end of the road. My interest was piqued last year with a large headline in the Brunswick Times Record,  "Beach Pilings Trigger Uproar".  The issue centers around the remnants of an old pier, which were constructed in the late 1800s by the Eastern Steamship Company. At that time, vacationers would come from Boston for fresh air, and working husbands would see the family on weekends. Popham was a thriving summer community then but recently seems to have suffered some hard times. Popham Beach has a long history of shifting sands, so the natural changes are a given way of life in the area. However, the human changes are more pronounced in recent years.

The owners of businesses have aged, and family priorities have emerged as this little spot at the end of the road has shifted. People are driving in for the day and less inclined to stay overnight unless it's in a cottage they've rented from Saturday to Saturday.  In 2009, a wealthy investor purchased the Beach's historic life-saving station and some adjacent houses, now reportedly surrounded by a tall white fence.  Last year, a longstanding campground was sold to a Massachusetts developer who constructed a large main house and multiple condominiums on the property. In some ways, the transitions have occurred are another reflection of the tension between the "way we live here" and those "fancy people from away."  It seems to be a familiar refrain in this place and point in time. 

The controversy escalated over the past year as a wealthy construction magnate and his wife bought a property that overlooked the old pier, now weathered stumps of wood pounded into the sand, and started to secure the permits needed to remove them. A Facebook group erupted in indignation. People got organized, talked strategy and some made accusations. The magnate commissioned an engineering report that validated his suspicions, went through the permitting process, and was approved a couple of weeks ago. A crane on a barge will come in to shake them loose and remove them, and that part of history will disappear except for photos and memories. 

Courtesy of Bill Hanley | Bangor Daily News
As I walked, I reflected on the past. There are moments in all of our lives that we hope will fade, those times when we were rash, or argued poorly, or just didn't react well. For our personal histories, we should mourn the losses, and acknowledge the times when we regret what happened, and then move on. 

One can only trust in the process of rebuilding in whatever new context will evolve to replace a void. The discomfort in the immediate aftermath of change is the hardest part. Time does heal.  

Thursday, November 30, 2017

My Big Belly

I've physically exploded since being back in America. 18 months of this new life has led to 15 pounds settling around my midsection. I recognize the choices that led me here. I've lost the resolve and commitments I maintained overseas. There's been a lot of driving combined with an escalating workload. Don't get me started about my grief for what is happening in America at this point in time.

On these dark, rainy and cold days, I miss the Southeast Asian culture of communal physical activity. Family and friends gather for walks walk along the river promenades.  "Aerobic" classes, where the brightly dressed instructor counted off repetitions in Thai and arms and legs flailed wildly, were offered in the park for $1,  or the fancy gym in Phnom Penh where I would swim in the outdoor pool glowing in lamplight several nights a week and marvel at the bats feeding just above the surface. Even now, as I drive to one job or another, I look at runners and cyclists alongside roads traversing the neighboring farmland and long for their commitment. My work schedule always seemed to get in the way.

In recent months, as I crept 5 pounds above my "never line" on the scale, the malcontent with my body has settled in like a dark cloud surrounding belly. This area is where I deliver my insulin, by syringe, upwards of 4 times a day. At times, when life is particularly frenetic and I'm doing a shot at a desk or under a table, my belly is peppered with small bruises. This seems to be a normal part of middle age, but I'm not happy with the saggy. Friends and acquaintances ask supportively, "Have you had your thyroid checked?" "You know this happens with menopause, right?" or "What about a class?"

On bad days, I retreat into invisibility, nodding and non-committal to their encouragement. Perhaps my struggle with accepting my belly is just another symptom of the trauma that's affecting the nation. People are worried and humorless, concerned about proposed tax code may impact small entrepreneurs like myself and lots of other Mainers. Or the crazy stuff the President says. I see them on the retail job, hoping to afford a new coat for Christmas. It's not pretty.

I'm exhausted (and at times elated) by the juggle of other priorities that have characterized the past six months, but it is clearly time to try a new tactic and bring in reinforcements to reaching goals. That's why, in December, my frugal self is making an investment. I'm talking to a personal finance coach to tame my wacky puzzle of income, and set financial goals for 2018.

I'm also making an investment to reclaim my life. I'm going beyond the cheap gym in the mall ($100 for a year!) and into a six-month plan with a wellness coach. Maybe some support on the business development too. Because when the going gets tough and there's a big job ahead, it makes sense to build a team.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Endless Autumn

Last week I had a very early morning departure to Farmington Maine for some client work. I crossed the Androscoggin River while river smoke wisped up, gently and still, as I crossed the bridge and glanced downstream. The sun was bright and the maple trees were resplendent and joyful in the beginning of the day.  This autumn in New England has been long and slow, balmy and beautiful.  I was happy to be on the road and getting paid, feeling the reassurance of another season coming, settling in roots.

I've always marked my "new year" in October. It's the anniversary of my T1 diagnosis (1969) and other significant events: marking the terminal end of the summer guiding season, moves to new places, beginnings of new jobs. This year, October has been a long, slow progression of leaves slowly turning and clinging to branches for weeks and of the temperature remaining downright balmy.

That all changed with your flash hurricane very early Sunday morning. The wind blew to 70 mph in short bursts just before dawn. I stayed in bed as the day lightened, a little disconcerted with what the day would bring, and headed over to check on the folks before I went to work at the retail job later that morning.

Now that's a smack down,
Trees were down, the ground littered with sticks, lights were out. The line at the Dunkin Donuts stretched down the highway. The retail job had generator power, and my folks went south to visit my sister. I picked up a can of stove fuel before I left work and headed home carefully in the deep dark, the absence of glowing fixtures making me wonder how long this would last. It was worse than the ice storm of 1998.

Later that evening, my housemate and I huddled around the roaring camp stove in the backyard making hot drinks in the moonlight. It's been 6 years since I left Alaska and packed up the camping gear the time between the birth of a child and their first day of kindergarten. The lights came on this morning, and I feel I am ready for anything.

I'd pruned the globe thistle at the garden after the first
bloom.Nice to see the bees feeding so late. 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The End of the World As We Know It

The world didn't end on September 23, as a number of biblical literalists had predicted.  The Sign, a documentary that tries to make a case for coming doom. The believers interpreted the unusual celestial alignment event where the planets of Mercury, Mars, Venus, and Jupiter will be close to the constellations of Virgo and Leo, with the sun and moon also hanging around, as a symbol that the world would end. NPR covered it. 
Screen shot from The Sign,.

It didn't end but feels like the earth is having a huge temper tantrum. Multiple hurricanes whirled through the American south. Let us not forget the fires that decimated Montana, Oregon, and California. While barely covered in US media, but this year's August monsoon in East Asia was unprecedented in its breadth, affecting 41 million people with floods and landslides.  In September,  earthquakes ravaged Mexico, Vanatau and other islands perched on the edge of the Ring of Fire. Activity is escalating as I write this,  a volcano in Bali rumbling to life and evacuations in progress.

In the relative safety of Maine, I reflected back on several disasters I lived through over the years I lived in Anchorage.  The eruption of Mount Spurr, which dumped ash over Anchorage. A windstorm that blew satellite dishes off the roofs, and sometimes the roof itself.  The now typical combination of snow and warm temperatures that results in a coating of ice across the city. 

Many years ago, I held several small stones of pumice in my hand on the final days of a Savonoski Loop in the wilds of  Southwest Alaska. The floating pebbles bobbed amid the boulders on a rocky shore on an island in Naknek Lake, a result of the Novarupta volcano. In 1912, the eruption was thirty times larger than Mount St Helens. The sound of the explosion reached Juneau, 750 miles away, an hour after it happened. Because of its remote location, it killed only 2 people and changed a landscape forever. 

For so many living in the midst of disaster, it is impossible to consider what will evolve beyond the turmoil of the immediate disaster. Aldeth Lewin, a Vermonter living in the U.S. Virgin Islands, recently wrote on her Facebook page.

"Every day I learn about another family who left and who isn't coming back. At least not for many more months. Ari's class has dropped from about 25 to about 6. So, yeah, "normal" doesn't exist anymore. 
I am more hopeful than I was a week ago, and still less hopeful than I was two weeks ago. Because like my co-worker said, we are all doing the aftermath shuffle - one step forward and three steps back. 
We'll get there. 
I hope."

From my safe space, perhaps I can dream for all of them. I can meditate on their path back to normalcy, maintain the hope that the new developments will not repeat the mistakes of the old, and believe that their trauma will be resolved and lead to further resiliency. Keep the consciousness of their difficulties. Know that the earth, in all her power, will survive and that humankind may not.