He said his name was Columbus, and I just said ‘Good luck.’

In 2004, I published a historical novel titled The Lost Voyage of John Cabot. The book is a fictionalized account of Cabot’s return trip in 1498 to the “newfound land” in the North Atlantic he had discovered the previous summer, five years after Christopher Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas.

Columbus is a character in the story. He and Cabot were not only contemporaries, but also compatriots. Both hailed from the Italian seaport of Genoa. It is likely that they knew each other and were rivals. In my novel, Cabot confronts Columbus upon the latter’s return to Europe in 1493 and challenges his claim of finding a western route to Asia.

My timing as an author has seldom been good. I missed the 500th anniversary of the Cabot voyages, and by the time the book came out seven years later, the backlash against the European explorers (and exploiters) of North America was in full swing. Columbus Day has now become Indigenous Peoples Day, and we are encouraged to disparage the European explorers as enablers of genocide.

History is rarely that simple.

In the course of researching the book, I learned the European colonization of the Americas did not begin with one man or one voyage. The Greenland settlements of the tenth and eleventh centuries endured into the 1400s. Fishermen from Britain and northern Europe knew about the rich sea bottom off Newfoundland, and almost surely of the island itself, long before Cabot’s voyages. There’s evidence the Chinese beat Columbus to the Americas by several decades, but the discoveries were buried in the rubble of political upheaval.

Columbus was a pretty good con man, though. The Greek-Egyptian mathematician Eratosthenes came up with a more accurate estimate of the Earth’s circumference than the one Columbus sold to Ferdinand and Isabella nearly 1500 years later. And Columbus was a hard-bitten Christian at time when Christian Europe felt threatened by the incursion of Islam and the subsequent loss of overland trade routes.

Thus his dealings with the indigenous peoples of the Americas were informed by a similar kind of paranoia that runs through much of white America today. Through the lens of modern sensibilities, the actions of Columbus and his ilk indeed appear monstrous.

But let us remember for a moment that tyranny has been the history of most of humankind. Advances in the way we treat one another have never moved as fast as advances in technology. This is why we have an overabundance of nuclear weapons and a shortage of housing and health care facilities for the poor. Most of history has been laced with bigotry and bloodshed. Christopher Columbus may have been, by every modern judgment, an unsavory character, but he was hardly an outlier.

It is intellectually dishonest to lift a historical figure out of his own time and judge him by today’s moral standards. Hitler was a monster in his own time. Columbus is a monster in ours. There’s a world of difference.

Thomas Jefferson likely forced himself on one or more of his female slaves. Today that would make him a sexual predator. But he also wrote: “…governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” words that changed the world. Are we to vilify him in 2017 for his use of the word “men,” when he lived in a society where sexism was unquestioned? Do we disregard the brilliance of the Declaration of Independence because of the personal failings of the man who wrote it?

Don’t misunderstand me. I have no use for a celebration of the Columbus depicted in Samuel Eliot Morison’s fawning 1942 biography, Admiral of the Ocean Sea. I think the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins should change their mascots. I don’t like public displays of the Confederate flag in its ugly, modern context.

But the European colonization of the Americas cannot be undone. Anywhere you go in the Western Hemisphere, you will hear people speaking French, English, Spanish or Portuguese: the languages of the colonizers. Similarly, you don’t have to be a Christian to be living in Anno Domini 2017. The approximate date of the birth of Jesus is a common frame of reference for the world we live in now.

When we try to sanitize history, we put ourselves in the company of the Taliban and the Soviet communists, blowing up statues and airbrushing photographs. It’s easy for me, a white male American, to downplay historical grievances. But that is not my intent here. Our imperfect past should inform us in our daily struggle toward a more kind and just future for all.

 

 

You can drive around the block, but not around the world

Although he died in 1994, Bernard Moitessier keeps popping up in my life.

For those who care about such things, Moitessier is famous for participating in, and then withdrawing from, the 1968-69 Golden Globe Race, the first solo sailing race around the world. The rules were simple: Leave from England, sail south and then east around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, Australia’s Cape Leeuwin, South America’s Cape Horn, and back up the Atlantic to England – without stopping and without assistance.

Moitessier did not simply withdraw. He rounded Cape Horn with an excellent chance of winning. But instead of aiming his boat toward England, he kept going, detouring long enough to slingshot a message onto a boat in Cape Town harbor that he was abandoning the race “because I am happy at sea and perhaps to save my soul.” He finally dropped anchor at Tahiti, after sailing alone nonstop one and a half times around the world, a total distance of more than 37,000 miles.

I first encountered Moitessier in a book about the race by Peter Nichols titled A Voyage for Madmen, published in 2001. Earlier this year, while browsing at the Bangor Public Library for something to read, I picked up a novel about a fictional sailing family: Before the Wind, by Jim Lynch. The family’s two sons are named Bernard and Joshua, after Moitessier and Joshua Slocum. But it is the daughter, Ruby, who is the preternaturally gifted sailor, and who breaks her father’s heart by pulling a Moitessier in a local race, purposely failing to finish. It’s a good novel, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in boats and the sea.

The April 2017 edition of Cruising World magazine, which I picked up in a waiting room this summer, mentions Moitessier in an article on Cape Horn. I had never read The Long Way, Moitessier’s book about the Golden Globe Race, until I spotted a copy at the Rockland Yacht Club a few weeks later, lying in wait for me to borrow.

Moitessier was born in Hanoi in 1925 to French parents, and spent much of his youth crewing on Chinese junks all over Southeast Asia. He was something of a mystic, and he lived life on his own terms. During his months alone at sea, he often fabricated conversations between himself and some unnamed devil’s advocate presence, perhaps another part of his consciousness. Some of these conversations appear in the pages of his book, including this one:

“Yet it is thanks to the modern world that you have a good boat with winches, Tergal sails, and a solid metal hull that doesn’t give you any worries.”

 “That’s true, but it is because of the modern world, because of its so-called ‘civilization’ and its so-called ‘progress’ that I take off with my beautiful boat.”

“If we listened to people like you, more or less vagabonds and barefoot tramps, we would not have got beyond the bicycle.”

“That’s just it; we would ride bikes in the cities, there wouldn’t be these thousands of cars with hard, closed people all alone in them, we would see youngsters arm in arm, hear laughter and singing, see nice things in people’s faces; joy and love would be reborn everywhere, birds would return to the few trees left in our streets and we would replant the trees the Monster killed. Then we would feel real shadows and real colors and real sounds; our cities would get their souls back, and people too.”

Moitessier wrote these words in 1969 – before the first Earth Day, before the Arab Oil Embargo, before drive-through ATMs and drive-by shootings. How prophetic they seem now. As Houston flooded and bumper-to-bumper traffic crept northward out of Florida, one could not help but wonder if things could have been different. Had we not been busy for the past five decades paving over wetlands and building freeways and burning fossil fuels without a thought to the impact on the ecosystem, perhaps Harvey and Irma would have been smaller and less devastating.

And perhaps if a significant number of us bicycled in our cities and lived closer to our workplaces, we would be less frazzled and fractious in our dealings with one another, less inclined to assume the worst about those with whom we disagree, and more appreciative of the daily wonders our planet provides for us, despite our abuses.

It makes one wonder: Who are the real madmen?

The Murder Weapon Was a Car

A car in the wrong hands can be a lethal weapon, as the recent confrontation in Charlottesville showed us again. It’s impossible for me to fathom how anyone can think that deliberately striking someone with an automobile is acceptable under any circumstances. That it was done in the name of “white supremacy” makes it all the more sickening.

It’s not the car’s fault, of course. Most car owners use them responsibly. When a car kills a pedestrian – or bicyclist – it’s usually an accident. Not this time.

Then again, how can a group of white men, 152 years after the end of the Civil War and 52 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, think that it’s acceptable to march down a city street at night with lit torches, waving Confederate flags and shouting threats at Jews and other minorities? The First Amendment gives them the right to do it – and the American Civil Liberties Union, normally a bogeyman for conservatives, backed them up – but the culpability for the violence is on the people with the torches as much as the driver of the car.

He may have acted alone, but he was not a lone representative of the craziness that seems to have gripped this country. Everyone’s angry at everyone else. Of all the candidates who ran for President, we elected the one who encouraged assaults at his rallies and police beatings as policy.

Into this overall backdrop of violence, young people grow up in an economy that no longer works for them as it did for their parents. They’re pissed, and their anger is channeled and amplified by the most powerful voice in the land. A car in the hands of an angry young man can turn deadly in less than a second.

Sadly, there are those who welcome such confrontations, who advocate for running down protesters with the temerity to temporarily block a road. Their anger is not limited to matters of race, class, or politics. Check the comments in your local online newspaper the next time a motorist kills or injures someone on a bicycle.

There’s an ongoing event in some cities called “Critical Mass.” A group of bicyclists gathers at a specific time to ride en masse over a predetermined route. The number of bicyclists forces the cars to slow down, and some drivers become furious about it.

But the bicyclists are doing nothing wrong. They are exercising their right to travel on a public way. They’re doing what cars do every day. I’ve never heard a bicyclist rail against rush hour traffic. There is something about a car that brings out a sense of entitlement, often followed by disproportionate rage when an accustomed path of travel is, literally or figuratively, blocked.

I do not mean to diminish the racial issues swirling around Charlottesville by writing about cars and bicycles. But cars are not only weapons, they’re also isolation chambers, preventing us from coming face-to-face with our fellow citizens even at close range. The homicidal driver in Charlottesville surely did not know the names of any of his victims. He made no attempt to talk to them before running them down.

A few years ago, I shared a newspaper story with a class of college students about a rubber plantation in Liberia where, for pennies a day, workers extracted rubber for Firestone tires. It was just before the Super Bowl. The author pointed out that Firestone had paid millions for a halftime commercial but skimped on wages and health care for its Liberian workers. My students were largely unmoved. They just wanted to watch football.

We seem to have little problem with violence as long as it’s at a comfortable distance. Our movies are filled with gunfights and car chases. Football is our favorite sport, though it causes debilitating injuries to most people who play it for any length of time. A car is a safe space from which to curse at protesters, bicyclists, and other drivers.

But our use of cars also requires near-slave labor in other countries, environmental degradation of some of the most fragile places on Earth, and a way of life predicated on putting lethal weapons in the hands of nearly everyone. It’s inevitable that some people will kill with cars. It’s criminal for a latter-day lynch mob to encourage them.

_______

Wednesday, August 16 at 4 pm I’ll be a guest on Downtown with Rich Kimball on The Pulse AM 620 WZON in Bangor, where we will chat with Melody L. Hoffmann, author of Bike Lanes are White Lanes, from the University of Nebraska Press. Join Rich and crew for some interesting conversation.

First there is a Fountain, then there is no Fountain, then…?

As I was walking in Pickering Square, heading for the bus with early summer in the air, from another direction I heard the sound of jackhammers. Orange-clad workers were reducing the fountain at the corner of the square to rubble.

“They’re taking it out,” said a man I recognized from shared bus rides. “Too many people were vandalizing it.”

Our local newspaper, the Bangor Daily News, essentially confirmed this in a story on June 5, quoting a local official that people had been bathing and throwing trash into the fountain. The city stopped running water in the fountain in the summer of 2016 because of these problems.

Still, I’m sad to see it go, and a little apprehensive, too. I had no idea the fountain was coming down until I heard the howl of the hammers. There was no announcement that I was aware of, certainly no ceremony. The fountain will be replaced, according to the BDN, with a concrete platform containing electrical outlets. This will create more space for a variety of outdoor events.

The fountain, restored to working order, would have made a pretty counterpart to the spruced-up benches around the square, newly painted by students at Bangor High School. I’m not sure that the way to prevent vandalism is to remove objects of beauty from public spaces.

And I worry that the sudden removal of the fountain presages a “stealth” campaign aimed at the most frequent reason I go to Pickering Square in the first place: it’s the hub of the Community Connector bus system. BDN writer Danielle McLean linked the fountain’s removal to the city’s potential long-range plans for Pickering Square, including a proposal that would remove the bus hub from the square entirely.

It’s worth noting that the BDN’s main office abuts Pickering Square, cheek by jowl to the bus depot. I wonder how many of their employees get to and from work by bus.

Not only is Pickering Square the hub of the bus system, it’s the center of town, and by extension, the greater Bangor area. It’s the nexus from which all the major roads radiate. Were you to start a public transportation system from scratch, you could find no better central location.

But you can also find litter and graffiti and vandalism, along with sometimes loud and unpleasant behavior, occasionally warranting the attention of the police. These occur in any small city. It’s hardly a reason to relocate the bus.

Downtown business (including the Bangor Daily News) ought to the biggest supporters of keeping the bus depot in Pickering Square. Why? Every bus delivers potential customers downtown, minus the congestion of their cars. A bus can hold 30 people comfortably (I’ve been on a University run with 54). Eight buses arrive in Pickering Square every hour, and four more half an hour after that. Imagine 360 more cars passing through downtown every hour. Anyone who complains about parking in downtown Bangor should be thankful for the bus, and be looking for ways to improve it.

I will grant that most people still do business by car. But 20 years from now, will that still be the case? Long-term plans for Pickering Square and for Bangor must take into account the efficacy of public transportation, the wastefulness of the car culture, and our responsibility to the planet. We are living in the Late Automobile Age, and it behooves us to start planning now for what’s next.

The Pickering Square parking garage contains a lot of wasted space. A part of it could be made over into a modern, state-of-the art bus depot. More painted benches could adorn the outside, giving people waiting for the bus a place to sit in good weather.

Instead of looking at the bus depot as an obstacle, we need to treat it as the asset that it is, and design improvements to the square accordingly. If the goal is to bring people downtown, nobody does it better than the bus.

You can read my prior posts about the Pickering Square bus depot here and here.

 

Traffic slowly in the World you wish to Change, or something like that

 

 

“Beam me up, Scotty.”

“Billions and billions…”

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

These famous quotes are attributed to Captain James T. Kirk, Carl Sagan, and Mohandas Gandhi. None of them ever uttered the actual words.

The closest Kirk ever came was: “We’re very tired, Mr. Scott. Beam us up home.” The Sagan quote comes from Johnny Carson, who was an astronomy enthusiast as well as a late-night television host.

Altruists cite Gandhi’s quote as an admonishment to do good work in the world. Though my motivations aren’t entirely unselfish, I like to think there’s a little bit of Gandhi in my life without a car. I want to see fewer cars on the road and therefore don’t own one. It may seem like a small thing, subtracting one car from the vast American traffic picture, but small increments can add up to overall change.

Here is the actual Gandhi quote, and its source:

We but mirror the world.  All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body.  If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.  As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.  This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.

[From VOL 13, Ch 153, General Knowledge About Health, Page 241, Printed in the Indian Opinion on 9/8/1913 from The Collected Works of M. K. Gandhi, published by The Publications Division, New Delhi, India.]

Bumper-sticker folk wisdom has condensed it to a single sentence, a phrase we can all remember. It’s not bad advice, especially the last part. I’m not waiting for public transportation to get better or for drivers to get friendlier toward bicyclists; I’m riding the bus and the bicycle now. I’m not sure that giving up cars has changed my nature in the sense that Gandhi meant, but it has changed my outlook on life.

 

I’ve just wrapped up another semester at the University of Maine, where I teach creative writing. Though I’ve spent much of my life in journalism, I think of myself as a fiction writer first. My novels still sometimes turn up in used bookstores.

Many of my students are not English majors and do not plan on careers as writers. Nonetheless, I’m convinced that writing fiction can help a college graduate in any field, because the creation of story imparts a valuable human skill: the ability to see things from other points of view.

College students are generally good at describing their feelings and fantasies. They do less well with observation and reportage, and they struggle mightily with point of view. This is, of course, a generalization, but it’s mostly true.

It’s a difficult thing to ask a twenty-year-old to do: put yourself in the mind of another individual, with different experiences, goals and values. Then give that character a challenge of some kind. People react differently to challenges. As students begin to consider this, they look up from their cellphones and into the real world and its real people. Why? Because fiction gives us insight into our differences. It makes us more understanding and compassionate. It helps promote a better world.

They have grown up in a world of bumper stickers and Twitter, video games and high-speed Internet. Seeing from a different point of view is new to them. And so they struggle. Most become better writers by the end of the semester, and maybe better citizens, too, if empathy has anything to do with citizenship.

 

We Americans like things simple. We like “high-concept” movies like Jaws and Snakes on a Plane that we can describe in a few words. We like cars, because we can seemingly go unencumbered from one place to another at any time we wish. We reduce the wisdom of Gandhi to the pithiness of a bumper sticker.

I’d like to see a lot of changes in the world that I’ll never do anything about. The designated hitter has to go, for instance, and the Dakotas should be one state, with two senators. I’ll leave the fighting and losing of those battles to someone else.

But I can keep my name off a car registration, and I can continue to expose young minds to the reading and writing of fiction. It’s not much, but it’s the least I can do.

Spring in Maine is like a Baseball Argument in a Traffic Jam

The only things more tedious than awaiting spring in Maine are: waiting for the umpires to review a replay in a baseball game, and sitting behind the wheel in a line of stalled traffic. Whose bad idea was it to replace an umpire’s eyes with a barrage of camera angles? And whose bad idea was it to herd everyone into cars?

It doesn’t make much sense to complain about things over which you have no control. That didn’t stop generations of Red Sox fans from bemoaning the sale of Babe Ruth, the trade of Sparky Lyle for Danny Cater, or Grady Little’s decision to leave Pedro Martinez in game seven of the 2003 ALCS an inning too long. I don’t complain about baseball anymore. The Red Sox have won three times, the Cubs won last year, and the apocalypse may be upon us. I don’t have any control of that, either.

The weather in Maine is a lot like baseball. We can watch, we can whine, but we can do very little, at least in the short run, to change the outcome. The Earth Day event to celebrate the Community Connector bus system has been postponed until the tenth of June. We can only hope that the sun might shine on that day– and on the future of public transportation in Maine.

What did I expect when I moved back here after nearly two decades in sunny southern California? I told myself I didn’t mind the snow as long as I didn’t have to drive in it. I took up cross-country skiing. I wore out a couple pairs of boots, and I learned to dress in layers when I left the house in the morning.

But April is the cruelest month. It wears you out with anticipation as it delivers one gray day after another. The weather smiled on the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race and my family’s annual Easter gathering. I missed them both with the flu. I never get the flu, and in my arrogant assumption of ongoing good health, I never get a flu shot, either. I’m not complaining. Illness happens, and this year it happened to me.

I used to complain about California traffic. “This is no way to live,” I muttered to myself while taking the kids to school in the morning, two freeway exits away. Maine does not have traffic. Last week I had a conversation about this on the bus with a man who had lived in Houston. We discussed Maine’s idea of traffic, which might occur on the odd tourist weekend at the base of the Maine turnpike. But even that is mild compared to San Diego – or Houston or any other Sun Belt city – on a normal day.

When I came to Maine as a child, my family drove up Route One, through Brunswick and Bath, where the divided road still ends, and Wiscasset, which wasn’t so much of a bottleneck then. There’s a huge car dealership just outside Wiscasset that wasn’t there during my childhood. Route One can be slow through there in the summer, but it’s nothing Californians would call traffic.

Is it any wonder, then, that Mainers are cool to the concept of public transportation? The automobile saturation that plagues so much of our country is barely in evidence here. What is the problem, on a collective level, with everybody using a car? On an individual level it’s not so great – many people make themselves poor by failing to imagine a life without car ownership – but Maine’s roads are mostly uncongested, even in the summer.

Still, public transportation is something I can do something about – by using it as much as possible, by refusing to own a car, and by writing this blog. Even in Maine, many people do not need cars every day of their lives. Many households can reduce the number of vehicles in the dooryard and see significant savings as a result. It’s in everybody’s best interest to reduce our overall dependence on cars, and good public transportation is integral to that goal.

So I’ll keep lobbying for later bus hours, expanded routes, passenger trains, and a less entrenched car culture. Every person on the bus represents one less car stuck in traffic, a chunk of a paycheck that can be spent on something else, and a small reduction in greenhouse gases. It’s good for all of us.

 

What is the true meaning of Earth Day?

 

In June 1989, five months after running aground and spilling its cargo all over Alaska’s Prince William Sound, the Exxon Valdez limped home to San Diego, still leaking a trail of oil.

I went down to see it at the shipyard, but the public wasn’t allowed in close and there wasn’t much to see. The costs of the American car culture are often hidden from view.

I’m reminded of this as Earth Day approaches, on the heels of Easter. The two celebrations of spring occur within a week of each other this year, thanks to the configuration of the Earth and Moon.

Though only 47 years old, Earth Day is now observed in more than 180 countries. Which makes sense when you think about it. Humanity has many religions, but, so far, only one planet.

The first Earth Day was a response to a massive oil spill near Santa Barbara, twenty years before the Exxon Valdez disaster. It was the brainchild of Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat and early opponent of the Vietnam War. Nelson toured the California coastline in the aftermath of the spill and thought that the energy of the anti-war protests could be brought to bear on environmental issues.

From Nelson’s 2005 obituary in the New York Times:

More than 20 million Americans marked the first Earth Day in ways as varied as the dragging of tires and old appliances out of the Bronx River in White Plains and campus demonstrations in Oregon. Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York closed Fifth Avenue to vehicles. Congress shut its doors so lawmakers could participate in local events. Legislatures from 42 states passed Earth Day resolutions to commemorate the date.

Senator Nelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995 by President Bill Clinton, who praised him as “the father of Earth Day.”

The Santa Barbara disaster occurred in the heart of America’s car culture, within view of the Pacific Highway. More than 3 million gallons of crude oil fouled some of the most popular beaches in the world, and killed untold thousands of birds, fish and sea mammals.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

The Jan. 28, 1969, blowout was caused by inadequate safety precautions taken by Unocal, which was known then as Union Oil. The company received a waiver from the U.S. Geological Survey that allowed it to build a protective casing around the drilling hole that was 61 feet short of the federal minimum requirements at the time.

The resulting explosion was so powerful it cracked the sea floor in five places, and crude oil spewed out of the rupture at a rate of 1,000 gallons an hour for a month before it could be slowed.

It was the worst oil spill in the nation’s history – until 20 years later, when the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of crude off the coast of Alaska.

In those twenty years, California and the United States, with bipartisan support, passed reams of environmental legislation. There is little doubt that these laws have improved all of our lives. Los Angeles still has smog, but not like it did in 1969, thanks to the requirement that all vehicles pass an emissions test before they can be registered. We still have bad oil spills, like the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, but we also have an enhanced awareness of our impact on the planetary ecosystem.

In the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill, Greenpeace ran an ad campaign with the slogan: “It wasn’t the tanker captain’s driving that caused the Alaska oil spill. It was yours.”

Even the car-happy cities of southern California are starting to take this to heart, and invest in public transportation. If we are serious about the environment – and the expanding observance of Earth Day shows that we are – there is no mission more important than promoting alternatives to the private car.

And that’s why I’ll be down in Bangor’s Pickering Square from noon to 2 pm on Saturday, April 22, Earth Day, to help celebrate the Community Connector bus system. There will be free food, activities for all ages, information and entertainment. The event is hosted by Transportation for All, a volunteer group working to improve bus service in the greater Bangor area.

Every bus passenger represents a car not driven, a tank of gas not purchased, a reduction in the risk of another oil spill. Bangor’s bus system dates back to 1972, just two years after the first Earth Day. Both traditions are worth honoring.

 

A Great Country Needs a Great Train System

 

Many years ago I took my kids on a cross-country train trip. Amtrak was offering a great deal: I paid full fare for myself, half fare for the first kid, and the second kid rode for free. We bought a pass that allowed us three stops and 45 days to complete the trip, though we did it within the month of July. We visited family in Maine and Minneapolis, and spent a couple of days in San Francisco before returning to San Diego.

My son and daughter were seven and five, small enough to sleep comfortably in their seats. I don’t sleep much when I travel, but I did doze off in the observation car as the train sped through Kansas in the dead of night. We bought a pack of Amtrak playing cards, which I still have. The kids walked up and down the train during the day and made friends. On the third evening of the trip we pulled into Boston and took the subway to Fenway Park, where the Red Sox, who had a lousy team that year, won in eleven innings. The next day we took a bus to Maine.

The trip was not glitch-free. On the way back west, we decided to use a 90-minute layover in Chicago to visit the nearby Sears Tower, then the tallest building in the world. I hadn’t realized that going to the top involved a lot of standing in line and waiting for elevators. We watched helplessly from above as our tiny train pulled out of the station without us. My sister met us the following morning at the Greyhound station in Minneapolis, after an overnight ride on a crowded bus. In San Francisco I dropped my acoustic guitar on the stone floor of a hotel lobby, breaking its neck.

But my kids remembered that trip so fondly that ten years later, when we were living in Maine and planning a spring break trip to California, they insisted we go by train.

The experience was exponentially more pleasant that getting onto an airplane. We saw parts of the country you can’t see from the air or the Interstate. There was room to move around and get away from one another. Yes, the trains were late, and yes, federal subsidies kept the fares affordable. Amtrak’s critics are quick to point out the system’s costs and shortcomings. But as an American taxpayer, I want the opportunity to see my country by train, even if I only take advantage of it once a decade or so.

When I moved to California in the 1980s, I became involved with a group of people promoting high-speed rail in the corridor between Los Angeles and San Diego. Jerry Brown had already served two terms as governor and made two unsuccessful bids for the presidency. He had already earned the nickname “Governor Moonbeam” for backing high-speed rail and other futuristic projects. Today he’s governor again, throwing his weight behind a high-speed line connecting the Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas, and he’s still being ridiculed for it. The governors of Florida and Wisconsin rejected federal funds for high-speed rail projects that would have created jobs and alleviated traffic in their states.

A great country needs a great train system. We have a mediocre one – which is still better than nothing. But why is it so hard to build and maintain modern, high-speed passenger train service in the United States? Why does it take so long? And why the unreasonable expectation of profitability, when we don’t apply the same standard to cars and trucks and airplanes?

In the years following World War II, while Europe and Japan were modernizing and developing their rail infrastructure, the United States built the Interstate Highway system, at a cost of more than $500 billion in 2008 dollars. The federal government subsidized 90% of this cost. Annual support of the Interstates costs more per passenger mile than keeping Amtrak running at its present, minimal level. And yet despite this massive government giveaway to the owners of cars and trucks, Amtrak continually faces threats of budget cuts or outright elimination.

It would be a shame if the federal government eliminated long-distance rail service and forced more people into cars and crowded airports. It would also go against the flow of history, at a time when Americans are waking up to the wastefulness of our car culture. I’m glad my kids got to see the country by train. I want tomorrow’s kids to have that same opportunity.


Enjoy reading these posts? I encourage you to visit the Slower Traffic Facebook page, still a work in progress, and drop a Like.

 

Are we Driving Ourselves to the Poorhouse?

 

Maine is famous for low wages and small towns. Those small towns have been losing population for decades. When I was growing up in Blue Hill, families with five, six, or more children were common. Last year, deaths outnumbered births in all but two of Maine’s 16 counties.

My parents had five kids and two cars. My father drove one of those cars a mile and a half to work, where it sat in a parking lot all day. My mother used the other one to haul groceries and to take us to doctor’s appointments and such. Almost everybody we knew lived like this.

It’s hard to question a lifestyle when you’re living inside it. I anticipated that I would buy a car as soon as I got my license, and that I would spend my working years as a car owner. It took many years of driving and pouring money into a series of vehicles before I began to think seriously about alternatives.

Thus I sympathize with the young woman whose story appeared recently in the Bangor Daily News, my hometown newspaper. She is by all accounts a skilled elder care worker with a full-time job at a Bangor facility. Her salary – about $1,600 per month – barely covers her basic living expenses. Her story is repeated all over the state.

And yet, according to the BDN, those basic expenses include a monthly car payment of $233 and an insurance premium of $135. Before she puts gas in the car, or buys a set of tires or has an oil change or a minor repair, she has to make a monthly “nut” of $368 just to keep the thing in the driveway. And that doesn’t include registration, inspection, wiper fluid, parking tickets or any of the other little expenses that crop up from time to time. She is paying more for her car than for her monthly rent, and many Mainers are in the same boat.

Her hours may not align with the schedule, but her place of employment is right on a bus line. A monthly bus pass is $45 – a far cry from what she’s paying to keep a car.

If Maine employers want to keep skilled workers, they could raise their wages, of course – or, they could encourage them to use public transportation. The University of Maine has been doing this for years, and Husson and Eastern Maine Community College have recently followed suit. As an adjunct professor, I have months during the year when I make less than $1,600. Those times are tight, but I never have to worry about getting to work.

Municipalities can help retain workers by expanding bus schedules and encouraging employers to offer incentives like the schools do. Even small towns can do this, with a little creative thinking

Most employers willingly offer free workplace parking. What if they offered free transportation instead? This is essentially what the University of Maine does and, except for evening hours, it works splendidly. Some companies (though few, if any, in Maine) offer their employees parking offsets, where the price of a parking space is reflected in the paychecks of workers who don’t use one.

The Jackson Lab in Bar Harbor partners with public agencies to run several daily buses. This reduces traffic on Mount Desert Island and the need for more on-site parking. The bus is a boon to the employees who use it, too, because every dollar they don’t spend on a car trickles into other areas of the economy. It’s good for everybody.

We need to think differently about the way we use cars. We don’t all need our own private chariots all of the time, and we certainly can’t keep doing it forever. But it will take time to convince most Americans of this. Most of us have spent our whole lives believing exactly the opposite.

A changing mindset about our use of automobiles will produce other long-term benefits. We won’t have to keep filling our cities with parking lots. We won’t have to keep paying oil companies to drill for more and more oil in fragile ecosystems like the Arctic. And perhaps we can fight fewer wars over this finite resource.

Yes, Maine needs better wages. But businesses and local governments can also expend a little capital to promote ride-sharing, public transportation, and smart development. This in turn can encourage more Mainers to get out of the cars that are keeping them poorer than they should be.

The Designated Driver is a better Idea than the Designated Hitter

I am a Red Sox fan. I’ve been lucky to live long enough to see them win three World Series, a feat that eluded Ted Williams, my father’s hero, and Carl Yastrzemski, mine.

At the center of those three championship teams was David Ortiz, widely regarded as the best designated hitter ever to play the game. Unlike the rest of baseball, the history of the DH doesn’t go back very far – only to 1973, when the American League decided that casual fans were bored by watching pitchers try to hit.

Next to playing the World Series at night – another dubious legacy of the 1970s, a decade full of them – the designated hitter is the worst idea ever foisted on the best team sport in the world.

I’m probably on the losing side of this argument. The DH has permeated all levels of the game, down to college and high school. It was used in the recently completed World Baseball Classic. Many pitchers like it, and so do aging hitters who can’t get around so well in the field any more.

I would trade the championships of 2007 and 2013 (but not 2004 – that one I’ll always cherish) to make Ortiz play first base and John Lester swing the bat. Watch a National League game, and it becomes clear that baseball is a better sport when the pitcher bats.

Barry Zito was a soft-tossing lefty who won a Cy Young Award with the Oakland Athletics in 2002. Six years later, he signed a lucrative free-agent deal with the cross-town San Francisco Giants, and his career promptly tanked. But in 2012, the Giants, down 3-1 in the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals, gave the ball to Zito, having no one else.

Zito’s fastball topped out at 85 miles per hour, and if he couldn’t throw his curve for strikes, he often got pounded. In the second inning, the Cardinals put runners on second and third with nobody out. Zito struck out the number-seven hitter on a curve. That brought up Pete Kozma, a rookie on a hot streak. Zito walked Kozma intentionally. Lance Lynn, the Cardinals’ pitcher, promptly grounded into a double play to end the inning.

There was no score at the time, and had the Cardinals plated those two runs, they may have gone on to win the game and the series. Instead, Zito took a shutout into the eighth to save the Giants’ season. They went on to win the World Series.

There’s more. The Giants put together three runs in the fourth before Zito came to the plate with two out and runners on first and third. Seeing that the third baseman was playing back, he laid down a bunt and beat the throw to first as the fourth run scored.

In an American League game, neither of these scenarios would have happened. The Giants would not have been able to manipulate the Cardinals’ batting order around the pitcher to get out of a jam, and Zito would not have come to the plate at all.

A good National League game is baseball at its best. The pitcher is not an automatic out, but he is a built-in soft spot in the batting order, and opposing pitchers work the innings accordingly. Fernando Valenzuela was a master at this. He was also a pretty fair hitter.

Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka drove in two crucial runs in the 2007 World Series with his only hit of the year. In 1985, an obscure relief pitcher named Rick Camp hit his only career homer to tie a Fourth of July game in the 18th inning, only to give up five runs in the top of the 19th and lose the game. Knuckleball pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm hit a home run the first time he came to the plate, played for 20 more seasons, and never hit another one.

The designated hitter robs baseball of these delightful anomalies. A manager no longer needs to decide whether to leave his pitcher in a tight game or lift him for a pinch-hitter. It makes a subtle sport a little less so.

Much of baseball’s appeal lies beneath the surface of the action on the field. A good ballgame is like a good novel, which is why the sport is so beloved by writers. It asks the audience to flesh out scenarios with their imagination, to anticipate rather than to simply watch.

I guess maybe I am a purist, about some things.