Archive for October, 2010

How We Did It (Part 1)

Perhaps the yenta in you is wondering how we financed our move to Maine.
There are two key points: we are no longer paying tuition for our children’s education, and we have married off all our children, thank G-d happily. Baruch HaShem!!!

Now for some personal background:

With thanks to HaShem, my husband has always made a decent salary – not one that will make anyone rich, but if one lived carefully, enough to allow me to be a stay-at-home mom. We haven’t had money for expensive summer vacations, nor did we budget for camp for the kids. We did invest some of my husband’s salary in the stock market for retirement. And so began our woes.

For a while there, it was pretty exciting. We amassed enough in retirement funds to last about 10 years, which we couldn’t extract without huge penalties, and we still had 20 years of contributions ahead of us, which meant we’d be able to retire comfortably. When the first wedding came, we paid for it 100%. Since we couldn’t take out money from the retirement fund, we refinanced our house to make this happen.

Meanwhile, we got greedy. Despite warnings, we didn’t pull out of the stock market in time. When my second child got married 5 months later, we had lost 90% of our savings. The pitiful amount we contributed to the wedding was an embarrassment, and it was financed with credit cards.

Through “creative refinancing” we managed to pay off those two weddings over several years’ time. We also realized that there was no way we could continue living in our big old (ca. 1927) house, which was a high-maintenance money pit. Each month we were slowly going deeper in the red. We sold just before the real estate market’s boom (the buyer resold the house 8 months later for $200,000 more than he had bought it from us!) and moved to a much smaller and simpler house. It was a step down in gashmius, but there is no joy in living in a house when every time yet another house repair bill comes, you feel physically sick with anxiety since you have no idea how you can pay for it. We had been living beyond our means, and for what? Living more simply in this little 1960 tract house was liberating. I was no longer overwhelmed by constant repairs, higher energy costs, and cleaning vast areas of space.

The next two weddings were paid much as the first two: credit cards and refinancing. We’ll never have equity in our house, but we don’t regret it. We looked at the house not as an investment but as a means to an end, and thank G-d it was used for happy occasions.

With all the children married, we looked forward to being “empty nesters,” but that was not to be. Our elderly mothers moved in with us. Over the next four years, there were many trials and tribulations. There were some triumphs, too, but they were few and far in between. I understood the extent and necessity of my obligations, but after a time I felt trapped and overwhelmed. I came very close to a nervous breakdown.

With our love of camping and the White Mountains, we had always dreamed of buying a little piece of land in the woods and putting a camper there for the summer. We had looked without success over the years for just the right property, even before our mothers came to live with us. But as my world began to suffocate me, I began to fantasize about it more often.

I have always been the “creative” type, with my head somewhat in the clouds. That’s one of the reasons I married my husband – a true geek at heart. Early on I recognized that his somewhat geeky makeup, his kind, even temperament, and steady employment were the stable qualities I needed to balance my passion and recklessness and “head-in-the clouds” existence. (I am happy to report that in our 30+ years of marriage, we have indeed balanced each other’s strengths and weaknesses very nicely)

My husband and I do find a lot of joy in life. We have both been dreamers: “Wow, I have such a good idea!” and “Wouldn’t it be amazing if…” and “This innovation will make a million dollars!” became a sort of mantra. We were always fantasizing and planning, but never actualizing.

One day I happened to mention to one of my kids yet another one of our Brilliant Inventions/Great Ideas in my usual excited and upbeat voice. Completely exasperated, my child turned to me and said. “You know what? I don’t want to hear about it. You are always talking, talking, talking about doing this or that great thing or idea. But you never do anything about it! All’s you do is dream! Enough already!”

I honestly don’t think it was that child’s intention, but if someone had slapped me with an iron fist the pain of those remarks could not have hit me any harder.

It had simply never occurred to me that my children had looked upon us as Big Talkers instead of Do-ers; that this caused them to disrespect us and roll their eyes behind our backs. I had looked upon our fantasies as just that – fantasies. For me the satisfaction was in the creative experience of dreaming up the ideas; their actualization was inconsequential and insignificant. We are not entrepreneurs nor will we ever be, and boy, do I know it!

It did make me think hard, however. For once, we must actualize our dreams.

Mt. Washington


Before the ascent: the base of Mt. Washington, Oct. 2010

A meteorologist’s dream, Mt. Washington is one of the most unusual places on earth.  The weather is completely erratic and mostly unpredictable.  One moment there is 100 mile visibility, and 10 minutes later it is shrouded in fog with 0 visibility.  Gusting winds of 60-80 mph are not unusual – the record is 231 mph. Hikers and climbers have literally been blown off the mountain; there are fatalities nearly every year.

There are four ways to reach the top of Mt. Washington.  Which ever way you decide, check the weather first.  Unless it will be clear, it will be a waste of your time, money, and energy.

There is a small train – called a cog rail which belches black smoke – and recently they added an ecologically-correct train fueled with bio diesel.  I don’t recommend either – they are very overpriced at $62 per person.

Weather permitting, you can take your own car.  The advantage is that you can stop at various turnouts to admire the amazing views and you have plenty of time to walk around – there’s lots to see and it’s not all about the fantastic views.  However, the steep grades are murder on your car’s transmission and brakes and frankly, it’s not worth the wear and tear. Plus, the road is excruciatingly narrow in parts:  it’s not for the fainthearted.  It costs $25 for the car and driver, and more for extra passengers (but you do get a bumper sticker that says, “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington.”  Which means, if you ever see a car for sale with this sticker, do not buy it! Probably the transmission and brakes are compromised lol)

You can hike up.  There are several access trails with various levels of difficulty (rated hard to impossible on the jock scale. If a trail is rated “moderate” don’t believe them – they are lying!).  Going back down is a killer on middle-aged knees.  Since it takes several hours to make the climb, there is little guarantee that the weather will hold.  Mt. Washington’s uppermost sections are above treeline, so if a thunderstorm rolls in you are in danger of being hit by lightening.  While the risks of a summer climb are less than other times of year, there can always be surprises.  That said, if you are up for it, it’s an amazing experience on a nice summer day, as long as your backpack holds plenty of water, food, emergency supplies and adequate clothing for all kinds of weather.

Fifteen years ago my spouse and I took 3 of our children to the top; the youngest was only 9 years old (the incentive for her was the purchase of a t-shirt from the gift store that said “This Body Climbed Mt. Washington” but those were more innocent times – – that would never work today!) By the time we were rested enough to descend, fog rolled in and we couldn’t see a thing and descending was no longer a safe option by foot.  You can’t exactly get stuck up at the top, so we had to pay big bucks to go down via the train.  (And the train has no bathrooms which is not a good thing when you are traveling with children, but that’s another story for another time…)

The fourth way to climb Mt. Washington is via van service, which costs $29 per person r/t.  The disadvantage is that you are at the mercy of your driver, who decides if s/he wants to stop at a turnout, and determines how long you get to stay up at the top before the return trip.   Thirty minutes  of wandering around is really not long enough for a first-time visitor.

Unless canceled by inclement weather, there are also races to the top by automobile, bicycle and by foot.  To give you an idea of the steepness of the climb, there was only a 5 minute time difference between the winning bicyclist (51:56) and the fastest runner (record time is an incredible 56 min 41 seconds, but even more incredible, in the 85 years old and over category, the record is 2:33:30!!!).  The top speed of the best driver was 113 mph – a psychotic death wish imo.

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to the Mt. Washington weather report and they called for almost-unheard of perfect weather.  No wind! Clear skies! Warm temperatures!  I knew what I had to do:  I dropped everything, drove an hour to the base of the mountain, got on the van, and started taking pictures.

About 1/3 of the way up to the top. Fall colors are past peak but still nice.

Still climbing, this section of the road is called "The Cow Pastures"

Now at the top, there was about 1" of ice on the ground due to a storm the previous day

At the top of the world: down below in the middle of the picture you can see Lake of the Clouds, where there is a hut for hikers run by the Appalachian Mountain Club. It's located 1.5 miles beneath the summit.

Above treeline. As you ascend, the trees become dwarfed and bent from the wind, until they cease to exist at all further towards the top.

Feathery rime ice is created when freezing winds hit incoming fog. It forms on protrusions such as rocks and structures like fences, signs, and buildings.

Finale to a great day

More shopping: Trader Joe’s comes to Maine!

Maine is a mostly rural state with lots of little towns. Even the big cities (Bangor, Portland, Augusta, and Lewiston-Auburn) are really little cities.  When something novel happens here in Maine it is BIG news.  And tomorrow’s opening of Maine’s first Trader Joe’s is, as one reader of the Portland Press-Herald newspaper declared, “the most exciting event in Portland’s history!”  Another writes, “Is it too early to proclaim opening day as a state holiday?”  They were not  being facetious.

Alas, Maine’s new Trader Joe’s is a 90 minute drive from our house.  That’s nothing compared to the devotees who regularly drive 3 hours to stock up at Trader Joe’s closest store unitl now, in Boston.

The other day I was doing errands in North Conway, New Hampshire, which has a giant outlet center with every possible type of upscale designer and regular store, 2 supermarkets, and a Walmart.  I got into a conversation with a 20-something woman who moved there only 2 years ago.

“Is there anything you miss?”  I aksed her.

“Yeah,” she sighed. “I’d kill for a Target!”

Farm Stands and Shopping

My local pumpkin stand

I rely heavily on local farm stands for my produce, mostly because they are closer than the nearest supermarket, which is 45 minutes away; but also because the  farm stand food is truly fresher and tastes better and I like to give the locals my business.  This time of year some farms also offer hayrides and labyrinth corn mazes to explore.

In autumn there are tens of varieties of pumpkins (some kinds are better for pie, others for jack-0-lantern carving), gourds and squash (bumpy, smooth, multi-colored, sweet, mild, large and small) and apples (my hands-down favorite is Honeycrisp), but besides the more common varieties there are also “heirloom” or historical apples native to New England.  There is one farm stand that sells their own milk in old-fashioned glass bottles, as well as  fresh eggs,  honey, and homemade cheese (the cheese is unfortunately not kosher).

What makes the farm stands unique, however, is the way they sell the fruits of their labor.  Usually no one is around.  The  produce is sold by the peck  or the piece (i.e. 3/$1.00) rather than by weight.  You simply leave your money in a basket or cash box and make your own change with the money that’s already there.  The honor system is alive and well in the White Mountains of Maine and New Hampshire.

Yes, we do have supermarkets in rural Maine.  Hannafords is the name of the largest chain store and they are pretty well stocked.  My house sits halfway between two Hannafords:  45 minutes to the west, in New Hampshire; or 45 minutes to the east, in Maine.  Both of these locations also have Walmarts, including one Super Walmart which is also fully stocked with groceries.

Amazingly Hannafords does have a “kosher aisle” that consists of 8 packages of Kedem Vanilla Wafers, 3 jars of gefilte fish, 2 boxes of matzo, onion soup mix, and 4 yarzheit candles.  Yesterday I spoke to the the stock manager in charge of the wine department and asked if he could get kosher wine.  He said occasionally (meaning Pesach time) they get Manischevitz.  I asked if any other brands were available and he said once they got Baron Herzog, but in that understated Maine way of saying things, he said “it wasn’t a big seller.”  He assured me that if I wanted it he could get it, however, and he’d place an order for a few bottles which should be in on Friday’s truck.

In New Hampshire, where taxes are lower, alcohol is sold in State Liquor Stores which are run exclusively by the State.  Not only is liquor much cheaper there (many people come from other New England states to stock up), they occasionally get kosher wines  such as Bartenura, Herzog, and Recanati and the prices are more reasonable than in cities with a large Jewish population.  But the supply is random, tenuous, and you can’t place requests or an order for more.

So far we’ve been bringing up our own supply of hard cheeses and meat; I can get Empire chicken at Hannafords by special order for about $1 more per lb.  If one is willing to pay a premium, one can order virtually anything , including perishables, via the Internet at all sorts of kosher food websites.  The point is, we are not starving.

The long distance to major shopping, and with no neighbors to loan me a cup a sugar, ensure that I plan my menus carefully and that my pantry is well stocked with emergency supplies, especially in the event of really bad weather.

In fact, we see this as an opportunity to eat better.  The stresses of the last few years, plus having “treats” around when the grandchildren would visit resulted in a loss of self-control.  I’ve got 60 lbs to lose and that is one of the many goals I’ve set for myself in Maine.  We’ve gotten rid of all junk and snack foods, relying more on whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and are exercising more.  I’m not doing anything drastic so the weight will come off slowly, but I hope to be a little bit thinner and feeling better about myself the next time I visit my “home town.”

As far as other types of shopping, we live about 45 minutes from a major outlet center in New Hampshire.  No sales tax!  While I’ve raided Children’s Place and TJMaxx a few times for my granddaughters, I haven’t really shopped for myself.  It’s funny, but once you live away from the city, you don’t really need much, and when you try to live with what you need versus what you want, shopping is not such a temptation.

There are two stores I love, however.  Reny’s is in Maine and it’s like an old-fashioned Woolworth’s department store.  The prices are great and it feels like I’m in a 60s time warp.  The other store is in New Hampshire and called Christmas Tree Shops.  I wonder how many Jewish tourists avoided this store because they thought it sold nothing but Xmas decorations? In fact it’s like a giant A to Z or Amazing Savings (or Pic ‘N Save if you’re from California).  You never know what you’ll find but it’s always cheap and fun.  I’ve found all sorts of Israeli food there (such as crackers with “Pas Yisroel” written in bold letters) and Elite chalav yisrael chocolate bars for $.89!

That said, the most-visited store when you live in Maine is the hardware store.  There are both a Lowes and Home Depot next to the outlet center in New Hampshire, but big-box building supply stores are shunned by locals, who resent all that they stand for.  Even though the prices at small hardware stores are necessarily higher, Mainers support them vigorously.  Rural hardware stores are crammed to the gills with anything and everything.  Only the proprietor can find what you need, which he does with dogged determination and helpfulness.

BD”E, Mr. Bear

The trouble started this summer.  My neighbor down the road, who hails from Massachusetts and was spending the week at his self-built rustic cabin in the woods, made a careless mistake:  he left his picnic cooler on the porch.

A young male 150 lb. bear that must have been tired of the abundant wild blueberries, was most appreciative.  He climbed onto the porch, opened the cooler, had a little feast, and lumbered away.

The neighbor thought it was a great adventure: no real harm done, and a bear on his porch!  But the next time, my neighbor said to himself, he must be more careful not to leave food in the cooler.

So the next night, the cooler lay empty on his porch.  The bear came back, looking for more.  I know this because at 11 p.m. I heard my neighbor shouting, “Get away! G’on now! Git!” and my poodle was barking like crazy at the commotion.

The following night, my neighbor was out for the evening.  My neighbor wasn’t taking any chances, so he made sure that the empty cooler was inside the cabin.  But this was one determined bear, and when he didn’t see the cooler on the porch, he decided to check where that cooler disappeared to.  As no one came to the door when the bear knocked, he invited himself in by climbing through the window (breaking the glass with his sheer bulk) and sure enough, the cooler was inside.

Unfortunately the cooler was empty, and the bear did not take this well.  Disgusted, he threw the empty cooler out the broken porch window, and decided to find some dinner elsewhere in the cabin.  He rummaged through the kitchen garbage and made a heck of a mess.  But I guess Mr. Bear was conscious about his dental hygiene because he then ambled over to the bathroom, where he proceeded to eat a tube of toothpaste and jump out the bathroom window, all before my neighbor returned home.  By now even my poodle was getting used to the sounds of the bear down the road, and after a single “Ruff!” the dog settled back into the comfort of his bed:  so much for protecting me against wild animals.

I got an email.  “If you see a bear that has peppermint breath, you’ll know he’s the one,” my neighbor wrote.  He also mentioned that should Mr. Bear return, the next time he would be greeted with a shotgun.

Alas, the following night the bear did indeed return.  Again I awoke late at night to my neighbor yelling, “Git! Git! G’on now!” and then… KABOOM!  But I could tell from the gun’s report that the neighbor had aimed over the bear’s head just to scare him away.

This was only momentarily successful.  With my dog on alert due to the gunshot, and barking like crazy, the bear ran onto our property.  It was pitch dark and I didn’t see him personally, but I know he was there because nervous Mr. Bear very inconsiderately pooped in the middle of our driveway, and let me tell you, bear scat  does not come in size small.

He did not return for a few days, so my neighbor stopped sleeping next to his shotgun, and I was now able to sleep through the night without interruption.  Alas, it did not last.  Taken by surprise, my neighbor was nowhere near his gun when the bear once again entered his cabin.  Thinking quickly, he sprayed him with the entire contents of his fire extinguisher.

“He should be easy to spot,” my neighbor told me the next day.  “He’s the one that looks like a polar bear.”

After meeting up with the fire extinguisher, the bear did not return.

Two weeks later, bear hunting season began.  The very first day, a hunter shot and killed a young male bear, around 150 lbs., about 1/2 mile from my house.   Unlike most of the bears in the area, he seemed to be used to humans.

A Jill of All Trades (Not!)

Alas, I suffered a huge disappointment today when I found out that I would not be attending a class given at a nature center:  Chainsaw 101.

Years ago, we bought a big, gas-powered chainsaw on the cheap from a Sears Outlet that was going out of business – doesn’t everyone need a chainsaw?  It remains unused in its original box.

Here in the Maine woods a chainsaw is as much a fixture of one’s tool collection as a carton of milk is to one’s refrigerator.  We paid handsomely for all of our downed trees to be cut in chunks and then split for firewood by a local handyman.  We only did the stacking.  It hurts to know we could have done the chainsawing ourselves, if we only knew how.

Oh sure, I could read the chainsaw’s manual – but there really are tricks to doing it expeditiously, by angling the cut with or against the grain just so, not to mention sawing safely.  That includes wearing not only safety goggles, but chaps and steel-toed boots.

I was anxious to enroll in that particular session of Chainsaw 101, since other similar classes had always been offered on Shabbos, and this one was the only one given on two consecutive Sundays.  Admittedly, I dawdled, because I figured that everyone in the Maine woods knows how to use a chainsaw except me, so how popular could such a class be?  When I finally got around to calling to reserve a spot, I was dismayed to hear I was far down on the waiting list, with little hope of attending at all.

Turns out that anytime they announce the formation of a Beginning Chainsaw class (and they even have separate classes for women!!!) they fill almost immediately.  The next class to be offered will be in the Spring, but unlike the Fall, with its clear, cold and bug-free days, the Spring class will be held amidst swarms of biting blackflies.

Apparently there must be a lot of wannabe woodsmen and homesteaders that are new to Maine.  As I said in a previous post (albeit in a different context):  I thought I was the only one . . .

Live Free or Die

Ideologically, New Hampshire is arguably the most unique state in the United States today.  It’s motto is “Live Free or Die” and its residents take this credo very seriously.  They are a proud, independent and thrifty people who abhor Big Government.  There is no state sales tax, and no state income tax.  Their property taxes are higher than neighboring states, but at the end of the day the total cost of living in NH is thousands of dollars per year cheaper than living in any other New England state.  Recently I read an article about the State appointing a cadre of geriatric social workers for home visits.  Apparently there were many elderly living on such minimal incomes, they lacked enough money for basics like food, heat, and medical treatment, but their pride and repugnance of government aid hindered them from seeking available help and social services.  Few would accept Welfare.  The State wanted to ensure that these reluctant elderly were getting the services they were entitled to, hence they mandated home visits.  A few days later, the newspapers were full of indignant Letters to the Editor by elderly readers blasting Big Government for their interference.

But what really caught my eye was this article from the Conway Daily Sun.  A school board in the Mt. Washington Valley town of Bartlett realized that they had a budget surplus.  They voted to return the surplus to Bartlett’s residents so property taxes could remain low.  They also publicly accounted for every dollar spent (to the penny!).  Can you imagine this happening in any of the schools where you live, be they private or public?

click on article to see enlarged version