Archive for December, 2010

Street Cred

I can’t believe I missed it.

The biggest blizzard in years (at least two), and I wasn’t there.  Oh, I know that there will be more; nor’easters and blizzards are a fact of life in Maine and the White Mountains.  But still.

Here’s what I missed:

On Sunday, according to the Portland Press Herald, “flights at the Portland International Jetport were canceled, commercial fishing boats raced to shore, and Gov. John Baldacci declared a state of emergency.”  Where our house sits in the White Mountains, about 2 feet of snow fell.  Howling, furious winds that sounded like a freight train gusted to 50+ mph and felled trees, caused whiteouts, and towering drifts during heavy snowfall.  Now that the storm has abated, the sky is clear;  low temperatures remain.  With windchill, temperatures tonight will be -20.  Ice fishermen and snowmobilers rejoice!

There are different types of Mainers.  There are the rural natives, who have lived in their small towns for generations that go back to the Revolutionary War.  There are the very wealthy, old money elitists who hold political sway.  There are the tourists.  There are the Summer People, who have “camps” (rustic homes or cabins) on lake shorelines or in the woods.  There are the Flatlanders, who are “from away” – these are mostly the Summer People and tourists, but it also includes residents such as my husband and myself, who are “wannabes” who will never really be considered Mainers no matter how many years they live in Maine.  The degree to which they are accepted by locals in rural Maine (but never fully integrated) depends on a few factors:

1.  Flatlanders cannot be from Massachusetts, especially Boston.  For some reason, Mainers hold anything or anyone that has a  Massachusetts connection in contempt.  Partly this is historical (since Revolutionary times!).  Partly it’s cultural (urban vs. rural; liberal vs. conservative; rude vs. polite; hurried vs. taking one’s time; aggressive vs. reflective;  being whiny vs.  stoic;  ineptitude vs. self-reliance).

2.  Flatlanders must shop and hire craftsmen and contractors locally whenever possible (but they get a demerit if they can’t do a project by themselves in the first place).  They should be on a first-name basis with their town’s hardware store and lumberyard proprietors, and never admit to going to a Big Box home improvement store (but for some reason, WalMart is okay).

3. Flatlanders must not be afraid to admit they don’t know how to do something (i.e. drive a plow truck or use a chainsaw), as long as they are willing to ask advice and learn (and then they must do it themselves and not rely upon others to do it for them); and NEVER advise a local that there might be a better, more efficient way to do something.

4. To gain “street cred,” Flatlanders must remain in Maine throughout an entire winter, without complaining or histrionics.  This was explained to us by the “P’s,” who readers of this blog have met in an earlier post.

Winter in Maine is bad.  How bad?  It’s so bad that even proud native Mainers move to Florida  during  the relentless Maine winter when they hit old age.  It’s that bad.

Yep, #4  is the biggie.

Our flatlander neighbor 2 miles down the road has street cred.  He and his wife decided to retire to Maine from South Carolina.  True, it helps that he is a genuinely nice person, that he volunteers a lot of his time, money and energy to the local school, the library, the budget committee, and the local conservation group.  It also helps that his former occupation was in the construction industry – – that’s something locals can relate to.  But the real deal is that he stayed alone in his house all winter in 2008 (his wife, a Southern belle, fled to So. Carolina at the first snowflake and returned only in the spring)  – –  a year of numerous blizzards, nor’easters, and whiteouts when temperatures got to -40 with windchill.  He outlasted power outages of more than a week.  He only asked for help once, when snows were so deep and the ice so treacherous that his plow truck (he does all his own plowing, another brownie point) wasn’t powerful enough to handle the drifts on the mile-long dirt access road to his place. (It ended up costing $200 for  a monster excavation tractor to clear his road.)

But now, this flatlander neighbor “from away”  has genuine street cred here in these parts.  Natives practically doff their blaze-orange hunting caps when they see him at the general store.  After surviving the winter of 2008, he has arrived.

It looks like we may have to wait until 2011 to establish our credentials.  Fortunately, January awaits. . .


Sometimes we look at someone and think, “I wish I could be like so-and-so.”  Or, “So-and-so is so lucky.  I wish my life would be like that.”  A person who seems like they have it all may in reality be secretly harboring terrible tzuras of their own, be it serious illness, familial, financial or legal problems.  The truth is, everyone has their “peckelach” (burdens).   When we see people in a particular situation, be it good or bad, we are never seeing the whole picture.  How many times have we thought, “Wow, I’m shocked – – such a nice family! I don’t understand how such a terrible thing happened!”  when we hear of troubles of one sort or another.   The truth is, we can never know what goes on behind closed doors.  This is slightly less true in Israel, where there is less privacy and people tend to live very densely.  But in America, where people dwell in single-family homes and/or have much less of an “open door” policy in their relationships with friends and neighbors, we really have no idea what is going on in someone else’s life.  The reality is, if we really saw a complete picture of another person’s life, we would never trade our own peckelach for theirs.  It is difficult to fathom the depths of another’s suffering.  So many seemingly robust people who are surrounded by friends, family, and financial security are sick, unhappy, lonely, frustrated or overwhelmed. Irrespective of what your “yichus” (pedigree) is, everyone has family dramas, soap operas, and skeletons in their closets.

Since beginning this blog, I have lost count of the number of people who have written me, saying “I have fantasized about making a major change in my life for many years.”  Many people are not necessarily in need of a drastic change; they simply need time off to de-stress.  I consider “time off”  different from “vacation.”  Our move to Maine has opened a floodgate of heartache, as readers of this blog have shared with me the tremendous challenges faced by them in their relationships with others, mostly family.  There is so much anger, resentment, and fatigue out there.  Out of respect to their privacy, I will not share their stories here.  Perhaps if you are reading this, you are thinking, “Oh, she’s talking about me.”  I am not singling you out.  Unfortunately, “you” are one of many.

I recently checked out a book from the library, entitled “Let Go Now: Embracing Detachment” by Karen Casey. It’s one of the most “Jewish” non-Jewish books I’ve ever read.  I am not a fan of pop psychology or self-help books, but this one is a winner.  If you can go through it slowly, and actualize some of the suggestions, it might help a little bit.

Word of the Day

I was reading a New York Times article online about Jewish author and educator Erica Brown, when I came across this line:

“During our coffee, she criticized the way some observers bury moral teaching under legal casuistry and the way some moderns try to explain away the unfashionable things the Torah clearly says.”

I had never before heard of the word “casuistry” (ˈka zh (ə)wəstrē) , so I looked it up.

“The use of clever but unsound reasoning, esp. in relation to moral questions; sophistry; the use of fallacious arguments, esp. with the intention of deceiving.”

I can think of so many examples of casuistry when I read the news, especially in the shoddy treatment of Israel and the moral relativism thereof.   Honest Reporting recently released their 2010 Award for Dishonest Reporter (spoiler: Time Magazine “wins”).  Reading such blatant examples of casuistry is downright scary.  So for now, “casuistry” shall be my favorite word of the moment.

Small World

Every morning my husband, a software developer/engineer,  has a meeting via conference call with members of his team.  Employees live all over the place, but usually near main offices in Virginia, Massachusetts, Canada, and India.  One of the people in Virginia, where they had a snowfall of 2″ yesterday,  asked my husband, “so how’s the snow in Maine?”

Before my husband could answer, one of the team managers in the conference call piped up, “Who wants to know about Maine?  I live in western Maine!”

My spouse said, “Where in  western Maine?”

“Oh, I live in a small town . . . on a dirt road . . . in a remote location ” which turned out to be the town next to ours, only  5.6 miles from us!  Her parents bought a lakefront summer place there years ago, and then decided to retire there.  Recently this manager bought land near her parents; she and her children and spouse are living with her parents while their new house is under construction.

My first reaction was, “This is unbelievably cool!  Of all the places in the world, and it turns out this person is working on the same project, and lives 5 miles down the road from us in such a remote area! What are the chances?  Who would have guessed?”

As I thought about it some more, this strange coincidence invoked my neo-Luddite side.  I find it amazing that we can be so immersed in something such as our jobs, work with the same people everyday, yet not know a thing about them because we may not have any personal contact with them, all thanks to technology.  Being technically savvy with one’s computer (and the use of email and texting) has allowed us to keep in touch with far-flung friends, but has decimated the art of letter-writing.  Who has the time or desire to sit down and write a 10 -page letter when you can zip off a 2-line email?  We can’t even write without abbreviating (lol, gtg, ttyl, omg).  We rarely make the effort to go for a cup of coffee or speak on an intimate, deep level with good friends in person.  We can “friend” someone yet how many of us really know what it is to be a true friend?  Do our relationships with our friends have the same level of intensity and love as the friendships that our parents and grandparents cherished? And:  did our parents’ generation experience the degree of loneliness that people feel today?

Recently three of my grandsons ages 8, 9 and 10, went on an all-day field trip with their school.  While they enjoyed themselves, they found the long bus ride boring.    The root of their displeasure was based in the fact that they were the only boys who didn’t have a Nintendo DS hand-held game machine.  Each of the other boys was unto himself, playing away for the long hours the bus was en route to their destination.  There was no talking or singing or interacting (although I am sure the bus driver and chaperones were blessing the Nintendo corporation for the zombie-like quiet).

When I was a kid we survived long bus rides  singing endless renditions of “100 Bottles Of Beer On The Wall” at the tops of our lungs.  But I can’t say I was bored, singing and  laughing the entire way with my friends.

How are these same little boys going to relate to their wives 15 years from now, I wondered aloud, if human interaction and conversation becomes an annoying interruption that keeps them from their hand-helds?  My daughter replied that it wouldn’t be a problem, because their wives would meanwhile be so immersed in sending and receiving text messages to their girlfriends, they wouldn’t realize they were being ignored.

Color (exterior)

I am a person who agonizes over color. When it came time to paint the interior of my house in my home town, i put up 100 swatches of paint on the walls – and they were all shades of off-white.

I wanted my house in Maine to blend in with the environment, as though it were engulfed by the woods. I didn’t want the house to be visible from the road, though of course it would be once the leaves fell and there was no coverage from the trees. So when it came time to choose the siding colors, much to the amusement of my builder, I stuck the two pieces of fiber cement siding samples that were my top color choices into the ground next to tree trunks and earth, trying to decide which was the closest match.  My spouse thought they looked the same.   Sheesh.  That is such a man thing to say!  Since when does heather grey look like taupe?

Grey or Taupe? (click to enlarge)

I moved the little fiber cement samples in front of different kinds of trees, in different types of light and shadow on site.

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

That was important because color looks different based on atmospheric conditions.  The colors looked very different when I held them up in my home town, vs. on the  property in Maine.

Why fiber cement siding?  It doesn’t look as fake as vinyl nor does it fade, chip, dent or scratch. The color is baked on and is guaranteed for 15 years.  It’s extremely energy-efficient and no-maintenance, unlike log cabins which despite their rustic beauty require a new coat of wood preservative and rechinking every few years.  Fiber cement is  less expensive than most siding materials.  It’s available as shingles;  vertical or horizontal siding;  in different sizes and widths; with a choice of many colors.  What’s there not to like?


The house as seen from the driveway. The metal roof is a dark bronze, which also blends in nicely. This type of roof is energy efficient and low-maintenance. (click to enlarge)


Here is how the fiber cement siding color looks on the completed house.  Even when there is no foliage, the house “becomes one” with the surroundings.  Although it’s visible from the road in winter, it’s not noticeable.  You really have to look for the house to see it.

The house as seen from near the bottom of the driveway (click to enlarge)

Can you find the house? From the snowy unplowed road below, you can see it peeking from behind the trees, up the hill. (click to enlarge)











What Color is Your Angel?

Coming back to my hometown led me into a vortex of racial tension,  as an unfortunate series of neighborhood events nearly turned into a media-inspired incitement to riot.  The local daily’s online accounting of what transpired led to such hateful, vitriolic comments it’s downright frightening.  The people who I stand in line next to, drive behind, or visit at the bank or supermarket and who serve me with a smile might in fact be the very same people who, under the cover of Internet anonymity in the Comments section, want Jews dead, the sooner the better.

On Friday I was standing in line at my local Dollar Store, where it so happened I was the only white person in the store.  I was buying decorative cookie tins so I could send home-baked cookies to all those in Maine who had provided me with quality service and kindness in the past year:  various subcontractors, our woodcutter, the postmistress, the town clerk.  Next to me in line stood two ladies, talking loudly enough to ensure I’d hear their conversation.

“I really am going to complain to the manager,” one said to the other.  “All the gift bags have white faces on them,” saying the word “white” as though she were sucking on a lemon.  “There ain’t no reason he can’t get gift bags with black faces!”

“Yeah,” the other woman huffed, “and now I have to go to the other Family Dollar store up the street, because they don’t have any black angels for the top of my tree!”

But I had to admit: I, a white person, wouldn’t necessarily buy gift bags with black faces on them.  Then again, I wouldn’t buy gift bags with white faces, either.  Personally I gravitate towards gift bags in solid metallic colors.

I left the store, deep in thought about black angels.

Will they watch over me?



Post Office: Maine vs. Home Town

I’m back in my hometown to celebrate Chanuka with my children and revert temporarily to babysitting duty.

It’s been quite a culture shock.  So many people, and all of them in such a hurry! Traffic! Lines!  I’ve been to a mall (no parking left!) and the library (ditto!).  The density amazes me which is kind of ridiculous because my home town is a fraction of the size of NYC or LA.  But it’s ginormous compared to rural Maine.

I had a very difficult encounter at the local post office in my home town.  I waited in line for the standard 25 minutes but I was at the counter itself for 45 minutes, and there was no shmoozing at all.  I was attempting to mail a package while trying to keep a smile on my face and maintain a pleasant demeanor as the clerk, bless her, made it the Day From Hell.  ‘Nuff said, but it made me reflect on my last day in Maine.

I had gone to our rural post office to pick up mail from the PO Box, and told “H,” our postmistress, that I would not be seeing her until January.  In case our mail forwarding request back to our hometown was not going to work properly, I apologized in advance for the possible avalanche of mail she’d receive and have to hold aside for us, especially since we rented a teeny-weeny box that holds less than bubkes.

“Ill tell you what,” she said, “how ’bout if I hold the mail for you until the middle of December, and then I send whatever comes to you here in Maine to  your home town address?”

“That would be great, ” I said, “but how will I know how much postage to give you to do that?”

“Don’t worry about it,” H said, “I’ll cover it out of my own pocket, and you can pay me for the postage when you get back here in January!”


Is there anything more wondrous than turning on the tap and having pure mountain water gush out, especially when you know exactly from whence it comes?

Building a house is remarkable process of creation, but it’s not particularly mysterious.  You choose a site based on the practicality of its topography, you create a design due to needs and wants and budget, and then follow its blueprint.

The search for water is much more serendipitous.  You can plan and budget and hire the most competent of well drillers, but it is mostly an exercise in blind faith and hope.

Some people rely on dowsing, otherwise known as water witching.  While the act of walking around with a forked stick and waiting till it quivers downwards to indicate the presence of water may sound like quackery, dowsing has been practiced since ancient times and many people swear by it, although scientists do not consider the practice legitimate.

I try to approach these things with an open mind – – who am I to say something doesn’t work just because it sounds weird?  So I did a little research as to whether it might be a good idea to hire a dowser to locate the best location for our well.  I’m sure there are dowsers who would disagree with my conclusion, but we opted out.  It seems that dowsing may locate water, but mostly for water that lies close to the surface.  If we had wanted to dig a well, I might have gone for it.  But dug wells have their own disadvantages: since they tap water close to the surface, they are more susceptible to contamination and going dry.  We decided to go with a drilled (bored) well, which is a considerably more complex operation, but in the long term, a better choice.

If we were very, very lucky, we might find water as little as 25 feet underground.  The average in my area, however, seemed to be around 350 feet underground.  There was no rhyme or reason – you could pick a place to drill and you’d find nothing, and then pick another place five feet away from the first and find water at 100 feet.  If you found nothing, it didn’t mean there wasn’t water – it just meant you had to keep drilling. Eventually water would be found, but the flow might be meager (we were looking for a minimal flow of 3 gallons per minute).  A meager flow required further, deeper  drilling.

The other issue was budget.  At $10 – $14 per downward foot (depending on the contractor), a very deep well was an expensive proposition, and it also meant that the motor for the well pump to bring the water to the surface had to be more powerful.  Residential pumps ranged from 1/2 horsepower to 1 horsepower, and obviously the larger pumps not only cost more, they used more electricity – something we wanted to avoid with our smallish solar array providing all our electric power.

We contracted with an old-timer to drill our well, whose initials, ironically and perhaps ominously, are BP.  Our first difficulty was in communicating with one another.  His Maine accent was so thick, I had to request that he repeat himself several times before I could make out exactly what he was saying.  It was small comfort that he found me equally difficult to understand.  BP’s son and grandson are well drillers who work under him; his father was a well-digger, as was his father before him.

He asked us where we wanted the well drilled but we decided to leave the location up to him.  He told us that finding a location with water not too deep under the ground is basically “a crap shoot” and wished us luck.  Besides considering the geology and topography of our property, the optimal location of the well would be determined by proximity to the house’s future water intake line, and the distance (as far as possible) from the underground propane tank and septic system.

My husband, standing to the right, is dwarfed by the monster size of the well-drilling truck and its huge bore drill (click to enlarge)

BP’s well-drilling “truck” makes a commercial semi-trailer look like a  mini Cooper.  What a beast this monster is!  Its size dwarfs any man standing next to it.

At this point the dirt driveway was excavated and packed, but unfinished.   We had held off laying the final layer of gravel, because we knew that the sheer weight of the monster drill truck would tear up our driveway.  There was no point in finishing the driveway until after the well could be drilled.

Amazingly, “BP” backed the truck up hundreds of feet of our roughed-in, steep and rocky driveway.  Once the rig was secured with massive stabilizing jacks, the drill began its work.  The noise was deafening!

Seven hours and 500 feet later, there was still no sign of water.

At this point we had three options:  to give up and start over again at a different location on the property; to continue drilling; or to “hydrofrac.” Explained as simply as possible, hydrofracturing involves bringing the bore drill back up to the surface, lowering hundreds of feet of pipe, and under extremely high pressure, bombarding the hole with water.   Fissures are created under the ground, loosening up and increasing the underground flow of water.

With the money already spent on the 500’ cavity, it seemed foolish to try drilling elsewhere on the property, since another site might yield equally dismal results.  The cost of hydrofracturing was in the hundreds of dollars.  We decided to call it a day, and have “BP” resume drilling the next day.

Alas, the next day was equally disheartening.  After four solid hours of excruciatingly noisy drilling, there was a trickle of water at 750’, but nowhere near the minimum 3-gallon-a-minute flow we were looking for.  “BP” suggested we hydrofrac.  Although we were apprehensive, we nevertheless did not really have a choice, so we agreed.   I was both discouraged and dismayed, due to the expense.  Our construction loan left a 15% “contingency amount” for unexpected building costs that ran over budget.  The well drilling certainly qualified!

At 650 feet the hole was hydrofrac’d and the water began to flow at 4 gallons per minute, which is more than adequate to meet the needs of our household.

Unfortunately due to the depth of the well, we would have to use a 3/4 horsepower well pump to bring the water to the surface, which was more than we anticipated when calculating our needs for the solar array that would provide our electricity.  We were unwilling at this stage of the game to add more solar collector panels before seeing if the current system would be adequate once the pump was in place, and simply hoped for the best.

Once the plumbing was hooked up and the water began to flow, I took a sample in a sterile container to a local lab for testing.  It was a clever way to make a living in these parts.  The woman who runs the lab from her home has small children, and it allows her to care for them while making a nice income and providing a valuable service.  She leaves a bin of sterile vials with an instruction packet outside.  You fill out a few forms, indicating how extensively you want the water tested (Arsenic? Lead?  Radon? Various types of bacteria?  Minerals? Odor? Hardness? Etc) and pay accordingly when you leave off the sample the next day.  I dropped off the vial along with a check for $60; I received a detailed report in the mail a week later.

B”H, our water got an “excellent” rating in all fields.  Indeed, the water is completely free of bacteria, and without the chemicals or treatment of city tap water or the plastic taste of bottled water.  The water is nice and soft, too – my hair comes out feeling silky after a shampoo, and the clothes get clean with much less laundry soap.

We take it for granted that when we turn on the tap, water will come pouring out.  Being so involved in the extraction process gave me an increased awareness of the preciousness of this resource, and an appreciation for the miracle of water that I would not have had otherwise.  I also learned a lot about geology and mechanical and hydraulic engineering along the way!