My Other Car is Also a Boat


I have a boat problem.

If I owned a car, I’d probably have a bumper sticker: “My other car is a sailboat.” But I can afford the sailboat only because I don’t have a car.

Why can you have ten times more fun in a sailboat going seven miles an hour than you can in an automobile going seventy? I don’t know, but it’s true. I’ve never been seduced by speed on the water. I do have a small outboard engine on my sailboat as a concession to fickle winds and the impatience of captain and crew. It occurs to me it’s the only gasoline-powered appliance I own.

My father had a boat, and there’s a picture of me at the age of about one, in my life jacket and harness, grimly gripping the tiller. Come to think of it, his father owned a boat, too. I guess that makes me, like Jimmy Buffett, the son of a son of a sailor. My own son in San Diego has a sailboat. Clearly, the disease is hereditary.

My boat is a Cape Dory 25 sloop named Planet Waves, and this past week I’ve been busy getting it ready for launch in Hampden and the annual trip down the river and bay to its summer home in Rockland. Last year, the mast came crashing down near Verona Island, a scary event that ended my sailing season the day it began. Several thousand dollars later, I’m ready to go again. Hey, it’s cheaper than heart surgery.

A lot about sailing involves cars. Boats can be heavy, and it takes big machinery to move them about on land. My boat has two marine batteries, four interior cabin cushions each about six feet long, three sails, and assorted other accessories that I store elsewhere during the winter. Transporting them requires a vehicle. When I lived alone, I sometimes rented one for this purpose, but I was often able to find a friend with a pickup truck whom I could bribe with the promise of a sail later in the summer.

You don’t need a car to own a sailboat, but the logistics become a little more complicated. I’ve bicycled back and forth between my home in Bangor and Hamlin’s Marina in Hampden, where the boat lives during the offseason, multiple times a day this past week. On my bike’s modest rack I’ve carted sails, an alcohol stove, gas cans, gallons of bottom paint… and yes, I’ve used a car, too.

As I’ve said, I’m not a purist. Regular readers know that I live with a woman who owns a car, and that she sometimes lets me borrow it. But it’s worse than that. For nearly two years now, the lovely Lisa has been looking at online ads for small sailing dinghies. Not a cruising boat like the Cape Dory, but something small to muck around in for an hour or two at a time. A couple weekends ago, she spotted a suitable boat at a workable price.

The dinghy was in Freeport, down a back road in someone’s shed. Within half an hour of the initial phone call, we were on I-95 south, and two hours after that, we had ourselves another boat. We paid the guy an extra five bucks for some pieces of wood to lay across the lovely Lisa’s roof rack, enlisted his help to get the boat up there, tied her in, and took the scenic route home, as the above photo shows.

So now we have three boats, including Planet Waves and the non-sailing skiff, Desolation Row. I’m reminded of a John Gould essay in which he recounts buying a boat and sticking it on a mooring and realizing he was going to need another boat to get to the first boat. Like me, Gould was a man of modest means. But boats get in your blood. They’re like guitars, or potato chips – it’s hard to stop at one.

And we probably wouldn’t have acquired this latest boat had we not had a car in the driveway capable of bringing it home at short notice. But when I lived alone without a car I still sailed. It’s easy to get from Bangor to Rockland by bus, and from there, the whole magnificent Maine Coast is only a fair breeze away.

We don’t all have to give up our cars. But imagine if just half the two-car households in America became one-car households. Envision the easing of traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions and overall frazzle. A household with three boats and one car is a household with its priorities in order.




Guns, Cars, and the Lost Art of Civil Conversation


We can’t even talk any more. The horrifying massacre in Orlando is but another example of our “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality. The bodies weren’t even cold before people divided into factions. It’s a hate crime. It’s Islamic terrorism. It’s a hideous consequence of our insanely permissive gun laws.

Gun violence touches us all, because it can happen anywhere: in your neighborhood, on your street, at your kids’ school. Newtown, Connecticut could be Anytown, USA. A bar in Orlando might as well be a bar in Bangor, Maine. None of us are safe.

And yet all we do is argue, from increasingly absolutist positions.

Though I am mostly against war (who isn’t?), I find myself in agreement with my friends on the political right that Islamic jihad is an evil worldview, and that the civilized world will eventually need to take it down, much as Nazism was eradicated. And I agree with my friends on the political left that military assault weapons should not be in the hands of civilians. These positions are not mutually exclusive. Yet it seems we would rather shout at each other than work together toward a less violent country and world.

The latest shooting took place days after Muhammad Ali, America’s most famous Muslim, was laid to rest in Louisville. Ali’s memorial service included people of many faiths. He counted among his friends the Jewish comedian Billy Crystal and the Mormon U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch. By the end of his life he was so adored that most people had forgotten how hated he once was by a segment of Christian America for his opposition to the Vietnam War. But Ali never responded in kind. He sparred with Howard Cosell, and wrote poems, and made people laugh. His refusal to serve in the armed forces was rooted in his religion, his conscientious objector status as valid as any Quaker’s.

I don’t own a gun. It’s my choice not to own one, just as I choose not to own a car. In my opinion, America has too many of both. When I was raising children, I would not allow a gun in the house, because the chances of a tragic accident far outweighed the chance that I would ever need to defend myself against an armed intruder. Where would I have kept a loaded gun, simultaneously safe from small fingers and ready to respond to a surprise attack? The “good guy with a gun” fantasy is just that.

Second Amendment absolutists will tell you that the American people need guns in case they have to overthrow a tyrannical government. If a group like the Nazis came to power in the US, they say, wouldn’t you want to be armed? The problem with that argument is that some of the people making it also post on-line comments equating Obama with Hitler. You may not like the federal government much, but things will have to get a whole lot worse before armed insurrection becomes preferable to the way we live now.

These mass shootings, though… how can any conscientious American not be aggrieved by them, and the portrait they paint of our country? How can we make them stop?

This brings me finally to the thesis I’ve been circling: Absolutes are almost always wrong. In science and religion, politics and transportation, ecology and economics, language and mathematics, workable answers are usually found somewhere in the middle. The way forward emerges through listening and the art of compromise.

Absolutes are attractive because they are simple and simplistic; they tell their adherents what they want to hear. But we live in a world (a universe) full of nuance and shades of gray. We rightly condemn the random kidnappings and beheadings of the jihadists, but our moral standing on this would be buttressed if we abolished capital punishment here at home. The rights of gun owners under the Second Amendment will not be touched by a ban on the kinds of weapons used in recent mass shootings. But any discussion between hardened factions on these issues quickly turns into invective.

The hysteria of our public discourse is reflected on our roads. How easy it is to raise a middle finger to the driver who accidentally cuts you off, or yell something rude to a bicyclist in the left-turn lane. How ready we are to assume the worst in each other when our interests conflict.

Be very careful when attributing motives to the actions of others. Be considerate. Be courteous. Be kind. It doesn’t kill you, and it could save someone’s life.

You Can’t See the Food Desert for the Trees


My friend lives on the tree streets in Bangor, near Eastern Maine Medical Center. If you’re not familiar with Bangor, the tree streets, named for trees, define a desirable section of the city, a neighborhood of shaded backyards, where you can walk your dog to a park down the street past a mixture of single-family homes and rentals.

My friend and her husband would like to get rid of one of their cars. But they both have jobs. And despite living in one of the better parts of town, they find themselves stranded when it comes to basic services.

“How do you go grocery shopping without a car?” she asked me recently. “I live in a food desert. The nearest grocery stores are all about three miles away. And there’s no convenient bus you can take to any of them.”

A quick glance at Bangor’s geography proves her point. Though the neighborhood is dotted with what I call “beer stores,” there’s no place nearby to purchase produce, meats, grains and spices to cook tonight’s dinner. The nearest grocery stores are the Hannaford on Broadway, the Hannaford at the Bangor Mall, and the Shaw’s on Main Street.

“There’s no real food within easy reach of bus or bicycle,” my friend says. “I’m stuck in a walking neighborhood with two cars.”

To get to the Hannaford on Broadway, my friend would have to meet the incoming Old Town bus on State Street, change to the Center Street bus downtown, and then repeat the process in reverse with groceries. A trip to Shaw’s would likewise require two buses, the Old Town and the Hampden bus, which no longer runs on Saturdays. To get to the Hannaford at the Mall, she would need to walk several blocks to and from Mount Hope Avenue.

All three are reachable, with some effort, on a bicycle, but grocery shopping by bike requires some sturdy containers and limits the amount of food you can bring home.

When I lived alone without a car, I rented an apartment on Ohio Street and took the Capehart bus up to the Hannaford on Union Street. One reason I picked the place was that it lay on a convenient bus route. The decision to live without a car involves many choices, including location.

I also tried to shop at stores within a small radius of my home, although this was not always possible. It’s surprising how far you may have to go for an ink cartridge or a cantaloupe. I bought bread at local bakeries and meat and vegetables at the farmers’ market. (Beer, needless to say, was never a problem.)

But my friend’s conundrum raises an interesting question, independent of whether or not her neighborhood is adequately served by the bus. Why has it become next to impossible to buy real food anywhere but a supermarket? What has happened to drive neighborhood grocery stores into extinction? Why does it seem so hard for small, pedestrian-oriented stores to stay in business?

You can hardly fault the bus system for not linking all neighborhoods conveniently to grocery stores. The dominance of large stores pushes people into cars, even if they want to walk, bus and bicycle more. Those stores are always surrounded by large parking lots off major traffic avenues, where parking is free and everything is geared to the car. There’s a drive-through ATM nearby, and a drive-thru Dunkin’ Donuts and a drive-thru Taco Bell. Every economic incentive encourages businesses to cater to car customers. We design and build our cities on an automotive rather than a human scale.

People who use the bus to do their grocery shopping not only have to make more frequent trips to the store, on each trip they’re helping to pay for people who drive there. Shaw’s and Hannaford pay to keep up their parking lots, and a bit of that cost gets passed along to every customer. But bus passengers, pedestrians and bicyclists don’t need parking spaces. Why should they pay for them?

Incentives that steered people in the other direction – away from their cars rather than into them – might include discounts on groceries with a monthly bus pass, and subsidies for smaller neighborhood stores.

My friend speaks wistfully of opening a small neighborhood market and offering cooking classes in conjunction with it. Would such an idea take off? Who knows? Evidence suggests it would be difficult. It’s easier to go to the drive-thru for a burger and leave the shopping for the weekend. It’s also a preposterous way to live. Food for thought.

Thoughts on Ringo Starr and Muhammad Ali


He may be only my second-favorite living left-handed Beatle, but I’m stoked that Ringo Starr is bringing his All-Star Band to Bangor this month (Wednesday, June 8, at the Cross Center). The Dave Mathews Band is on the waterfront that same night, and as I wrote in an earlier post, traffic is likely to be nightmarish. It doesn’t matter to me, though, because I live within walking distance of both venues.*

Some scoff at Ringo’s contribution to the seminal rock band of the Sixties. He got lucky, they say; he rode to fame on the coattails of his more talented band mates. There are hundreds of better drummers, they claim, and thousands of better songwriters.

Ringo didn’t write many songs, but almost every Beatles album has a “Ringo song” on which he sings lead vocal. On some it’s a Lennon-McCartney gem: “With A Little Help From My Friends” or “Yellow Submarine.” On others, it’s a goofball cover like “Act Naturally.” I love “What Goes On?” from the British Rubber Soul, on which Ringo shares a writing credit with John and Paul.

One Ringo original keeps popping up in my consciousness, though: “Don’t Pass Me By,” from the White Album. Like everything else on that record, it’s eclectic and a little bit weird. A fiddle noodles along throughout. And it contains this inane lyric:

I’m sorry that I doubted you, I was so unfair
You were in a car crash, and you lost your hair

What? You lost your hair? That’s the best rhyme Ringo could come up with? No wonder he didn’t write many songs. Compare it to the Beatles’ other noteworthy car-crash song, “A Day in the Life,” which spawned a worldwide rumor that Paul McCartney had been killed in a car and the band was covering up his death.

The canon of car-crash songs is vast and varied, but the template for the genre is found in songs such as “Tell Laura I Love Her,” by Ray Peterson and “Last Kiss,” by Wayne Cochran. Both song come from the 1950s and the aftermath of the death of James Dean. Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking, if mangled, corpse.

Why do we romanticize the car crash? We don’t mythologize plane crashes and train derailments. More than thirty thousand Americans die in road accidents every year, and while that number is down from a high of 45,510 in 2005, I can bet that the bulk of those deaths were not at all romantic.


I was in the middle of writing this week’s post when I heard that Muhammad Ali had died. How can Muhammad Ali be dead? He was so much larger than life. I was an upper middle class white boy, and I loved Muhammad Ali. He made a brutal sport beautiful. He composed poems about his opponents. And he called the war in Vietnam for what it was, at great personal cost, long before public opinion came around to his side.

He had a singular moment in Maine, too. Perhaps the most famous Ali photo of all was taken at the Colisée in Lewiston as he stood over Sonny Liston after knocking him out in the first round of their rematch.

Shortly after I moved back to Maine from the west coast in 1999, the Maine Sunday Telegram (jumping the gun by a year) ran a rundown of the Top 100 Maine Sports Stories of the 20th Century. Reading it, I chuckled. The Ali-Liston fight was number four, behind two high school basketball stories and something I’ve since forgotten.

Only in Maine, I thought, would high school basketball be considered, especially in retrospect, more important than a world figure authoring a signature moment of his career.

Among the many images circulating online in the hours after Ali’s death were photos of him with the Beatles. It’s the month before Ali’s first fight with Liston, in 1964, and the Fab Four are on their first tour of America. They are all between the ages of 20 and 23 with the whole world ahead of them. Ali is a head taller than all of the Beatles. In one photo, he has picked up Ringo in his arms and holds him like a rag doll. All five beam for the camera.

An era is passing. Only two of the five exuberant young men in that photo are left, and one of them will be in Bangor Wednesday night.

* Full disclosure: I’ll be working as an usher at the Cross Center for the Ringo show. I hope to see a few of my friends, and a little bit of history.