Murder capital of Maine

With a population of only 31,121, Washington County is essentially rural and small town. It’s 90 percent white, five percent Native American, and has a fourth of its residents over age 65.

At first glance, then, it’s not the kind of place you would expect to be suffering a homicide in each of the past six months.

The entire state reported only 22 in 2021 – two of them in Washington County, starting the six-month count. Quite simply, the county can currently be seen as the murder capital of the state.

Back in November, the victim in Machias was a 17-year-old male from New York. We could shake our heads and assume drugs had something to do with the case.

The rest, however, have been unmistakably local.

Several were domestic violence. One of those, the death of a valued employee, resulted in a family decision not to reopen a popular lobster pound in downtown Eastport, so we see these events having public consequences.

The latest instance had a 43-year-old Passamaquoddy woman as the victim and two of her neighbors arrested on homicide charges. Investigators have been unusually tight-lipped, leading to widespread speculation. Happening within a community of about 600, this takes a hard toll, ripping through at least three extended families.

The news, coming on the heels of a heavier than usual number of funerals in the tribe, adds to the grieving.

We can ask what is prompting this wave of violence and death.

Poverty is no doubt a factor. Individual and household incomes are only two-thirds of the national average, but probably skewer sharply down on one side or up the other, creating a gulch in real practice. The Covid-related closures of the international border to and from Canada have taken a toll on businesses, employment, and families, too.

The despair leads to drug abuse, as is related in everyday conversations around here.

As much as this region can be a paradise, it’s not problem-free. Not by any means.

Mortality and the passage of time

Realizing I really did need to get some regular physical exercise last winter, I finally caved in and ventured into the senior center for fitness class twice a week. It took three friends to nudge me into it, and it’s embarrassing to have to admit what 50 years of neglect have done to my body. I’m a long way from my yoga glory. Well, I’m also the only male in the circle, not that it inhibits the lively, enlightening, and laughter-riddled banter that occurs while we’re plodding through the routine. Their hour-plus dialogue could fill a hit sit-com or bestseller novel, if only I could find a plot. Well, much of the running commentary there is also about ailments afflicting folks in the community, sometimes leading to offering rides to their specialists or food deliveries – what I’ll call “good gossip.” And, oh yes, I much prefer to refer to the place as the Old Firehouse, skirting around the stigma of “senior center.”

That has me recalling an aside years ago when our managing editor told of a phone call he’d received from a reader complaining about being referred to as elderly.

“How old are you,” my boss asked and was told 78. “I see,” was the best he could respond with.

After that, I always struck “elderly” from news copy, along with “little” from child or kid.

Getting older is a multistage passage, most notably with the skin and stiffening joints, but the physical changes are only part of the experience.

One part is an awareness of being on borrowed time. Even when I was editing obituaries, I noted how many of the deceased were younger than me, and that was a little more than ten years ago.

Moving around the country has lessened some of the impact of aging, since I haven’t had to watch us grow older together. My high school classmates, for instance, will always never be more than 18 in my mind. Ditto for others left behind, they’re all frozen in time, even the few who are still in correspondence.

So another part is hearing that more of these colleagues of my generation are passing – a situation akin to personally knowing more people who have had been diagnosed with Covid and the recognition that it’s not just multiplying “out there” somewhere – that is, knowing only the abstract – but close at hand.

I recently posted two memorial minutes of Friends I worked with clerking Dover Meeting and have been reflecting on others in my Quaker circles.

Now I get word of the passing of an esteemed reporter who was six years younger than me, and somehow it hits more than those from the workplace who died earlier. To my surprise, it has nothing to do with how close we were in our daily interactions. (He and I weren’t, apart from a comment or two in passing. I should note that he produced “clean copy,” requiring little editing, and that meant little interpersonal friction.)

In his case, I think the blow comes as a sense of an end of an era. He carried institutional weight in covering the New Hampshire’s political scene and soared nationally during the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. With the decline of newspapers in general, his replacement at the statewide Union Leader will never achieve such prominence or influence.

Food as religion

Perhaps you know the counsel, “’Eat to Live,’ rather than ‘Live to Eat.’”

Still, a big change has occurred in America in the past half century. While the impact of organized religion has declined, a quest for a rich, even exotic, cuisine has flourished. As I posted a few years ago, dining out became the major fine art form of our time, rather than music, theater, film, or dance.  It’s the ethereal experience, the sensual transcendence, that’s the goal – ultimately, subjective rather than objective, heightened by long exposure to the field. Examples? Just look at the restaurant and wine reviews, along with their arcane or cryptic dialect.

Well, that also takes it into the realm of spirituality and religion, too, although that might also temper the feasting with periods of fasting. Maybe all of the limitations that have popped up, usually for health reasons or weight control, fit in here. It has been said that you can’t read the life of Jesus without getting hungry – there’s food or a food event at nearly every turn. (As a rabbi told me, that’s because Jesus was Jewish and in social settings, you always wind up with something to nibble in your hand.)

I’m left wondering how this translates to the home kitchen. Cooking skills, by and large, seem to be less universal than in the past, and time to devote to food preparation usually comes at a premium. Is takeout a kind of sacrificial nod to the food gods?

One thing I will say in all of the transformation. Thank God for the microwave oven.

Ring around the Shead gym

I used to joke that I swam laps to keep my doctor happy, but that ended with the outbreak of Covid. And then I moved to the remote fishing village, one without even an outdoor pool, and, in a routine checkup, my new doctor expressed concern about my blood pressure readings. On reflection, I realized I wasn’t getting enough physical exercise. I wasn’t even climbing stairs the way I was in the old place. And then I learned that the local high school gym is open to walkers on weekday mornings through winter. Voila! I’m now joking that I walk the black track around the gym floor to keep my doctor happy.

Why walk around the mall, even if we had one?

Better yet, there’s a rumor that we seniors are even going to get some exercise machines here, once the basketball season’s over. Remember, nearly half of the school’s enrollment is on the boys’ and girls’ teams.

How many other high schools are that inclusive?

By the way, keep this up, we just might start referring to the place as the Shead Seniors and Senior High School. Those kids should be honored.

 

A ‘mild case’ can still be the sickest you’ve ever felt

Here we are, coming up on the second anniversary of the Covid outbreak here and abroad, and we’re still in the midst of its disorder. So much for that initial hope of a two-week or six-week lockdown, max, which even then unfortunately had too many holdouts from the precautions. Can we blame them for leaving the Pandora’s box open for all that’s followed?

Once that first round passed, after its devastation in large urban areas like New York City, we had a breather in which medical procedures were more clearly understood and improved and vaccines became available. We’ve even been able to gather in public again, albeit in fewer numbers and spaced apart while still wearing masks. Surface contamination is no longer a major worry, either.

Where I live, the illness has often seemed to be a distant threat. While I have friends who came out of retirement to resume long hours as medical professionals, their tales of a stress still seemed confined to largely quarantined hospitals and clinics, even though they were only just down the street. Well, I also got updates from fellow clergy who couldn’t visit patients in person, that sort of thing. Still, two years later, I knew of only two cases in our Friends Meeting, both quite mild. Further east, in remote Washington County, Maine, fewer than 3,000 cases and 43 deaths have been tallied, last I looked, though those figures have nearly tripled since November.

Still, the threat kept getting closer and more personal. The surge in the Omicron variant forced the cancellation of the final Christmas performances of our beloved Boston Revels, for example. Traditionally low-rate New Hampshire recently reported the highest per capita figures in the nation. Our twice-a-month local newspaper’s half-dozen or so obituaries now regularly mention “of Covid complications” as the cause of death. (Nobody, presumably, dies directly of the infection or is at least willing to admit that openly. Am I guessing there’s a social stigma?)

We have endured the screeching dissent and violent reactions from those who feel entitled to do whatever they want in public, regardless of any harm to others, and that seems to be spiking.

How long, though, will it take for the emotional frustration of the other side to erupt?

For starters, there’s a growing weariness among those of us who have been wearing masks and getting our booster shots, in part to protect others from suffering from the illness, while enduring the arrogance of those who pooh-pooh the odds, putting their own “liberty” above the common good, and then putting the rest of the populace at risk while expecting overworked medical professionals to come to their rescue and forcing heart attack patients and crash victims to be juggled about for unavailable intensive-care beds.

Look, I know Christian Scientists who have gotten the shots, not for themselves – remember, they generally avoid doctors as a matter of their faith – but out of a sense of social responsibility for others. In contrast, I’m sensing that many of those who refuse vaccinations are also among those accusing lower-income Americans of “entitlement” when it comes to economic and social support, rather than turning the focus to the One Percent who actually benefit financially from overt entitlement in public legislation and regulation. Are these the same ones who scoff at widespread examples of global warming and impending disaster? The willful ignorance, selfish, self-centered behavior, and bullying outrage me. And before they quote – or misquote – Scripture for their positions, I can imagine them refusing Moses’ orders to paint lambs’ blood above their doors for protection from the Angel of Death – “Who are you to tell me what to do?” – but it’s the firstborn who suffer if they don’t. Drat! I can confess a vindictive urge – you know, of the smite-my-enemies vein – but revisiting the Exodus text, I’m seeing that in only one of the first nine plagues are the Israelites exempted from the evil consequences. Pointedly, all Egyptians, not just the pagans, suffer from Pharaoh’s refusal to act in accord with Divine direction.

No matter what, in the end, reality will win out, though it won’t be selective in choosing its victims.

What happens if this affliction spreads to strike down all who haven’t been vaxxed? Costly treatments that could have been avoided will be borne by all, regardless, through Medicare, insurance companies, and unpaid debts to hospitals, more than by the defiant unvaxxed ill and dying. The workforce will continue to be impacted, too.

The Omicron variant, as we’re seeing, is also hitting vaccinated people, but with lesser impact.

We look at the statistics and hear the stories that the new variety is less deadly but more infectious, along with the note that breakthrough cases among the vaxxed hit far more gently than among the unprotected, but we need to listen more closely.

Unless a patient is in need of a respirator, the diagnosis is to stay home, there’s no room at the hospital. Good luck if you’re living alone, and good luck to the rest of the household if you’re not.

Moreover, it’s considered a mild case unless you’re hospitalized or die.

As for those “mild” cases? More than one person has been quoted as saying they’ve never felt so sick in their life.

So far, I’ve been lucky, but my family’s finally been hit, notably in their recent visit to me. My test and my wife’s came back negative, but not so for the rest, despite all their precautions.

Would coming down sick be a sufficient lesson for the nay-sayers? Or would it make them dig in more deeply in denial?    

 

I’m going ‘round in circles!

No, I don’t mean that maddening activity of starting one thing but picking up another before the first is finished and then jumping ahead to the a third or fourth or fifth but having to backtrack to the second or first in some fashion. Know what I mean? Don’t we all have days like that?

This blog’s merry-go-round, meanwhile, feels more like a spiral.

The circles I’m looking at this morning are much calmer.

Let’s start with the fact I haven’t been getting much exercise this autumn and winter. It’s not like pre-Covid, when I was swimming laps in Dover’s indoor pool. Up here in Downeast Maine, the nearest such pool is in Canada, and the border’s essentially closed. I used to joke that I swam laps to keep my doctor happy, but now my new one has been concerned about my current blood pressure level, so I guess I’ll have to do something to keep her, too, happy. . Does that sound familiar to any of you? So we’re back to the lack of exercise and maybe a rising intake of salt.

After learning earlier this month that the high school gym is open weekday mornings for walkers, I’ve started venturing forth (it’s only eight blocks away, no need to drive) and begun circling the basketball court briskly in full comfort for an hour or so, switching directions about 30 minutes in. It’s nice not having tree roots, rocks, mud, or inclines to deal with, too. Frankly, even when they’re not snow covered, the local trails can be pretty challenging, not just where they’re along bluffs dropping into the churning ocean, either. There’s some pretty rough terrain around here.

As for the gym? I’m the only guy showing up so far, the rest are all women. Make of that what you will.

Guess the indoor track is gonna be the anchor of my new routine into spring, likely with pickleball thrown in somewhere during the week. (So far, I know nothing about said sport, other than what I found on the Web and that a couple of guys here have told me it’s a gas and I should try it and it seems to be the big social activity through the depth of deep cold. At least the avid players have a Facebook page here, and I’m kinda signed up, when the next round of newbies get introduced. Please stay tuned!) I do miss swimming those laps and some of the social connections I had many miles and months ago. Could that be a fine substitute?

That said, being back in high school, even it’s only a building, stirs up its own mixed feelings. I did resist an urge to deface a sign, TAKE THE SHOT, by altering one letter. I would be a horrible student if I had to do high school again. For instance, those PA announcements that interrupt the calm of my stroll really could prompt comedy. They’re unintelligible, far as I can tell, but they do have sound effects. BLARROOM! BLARROOM! Seriously. And you wonder that those kids aren’t learning anything? I think back in antiquity we relied mostly on bells, but I do vaguely recall that “come to the office” demand from a speaker box above the escape door.

In a more leisurely circle of activity, another highlight these days is the Eastport Arts Center’s Sunday afternoon free soirees through April. This coming week is some guy who’s invented a lot of instruments, starting with hubcaps, and is renting a U-Haul truck to bring them all up and perform. Some solid musicians insist it’s a revelation. I’m game. And last week was a discussion of dramaturgy. Hope I spelled that right. Well, how many other community theater companies do you know of that came out of the Covid shutdown with a Brecht-Cocteau double bill? By they way, I did know a fifth of the cast of their last production, Almost Maine, and a same proportion of the band. How’s that for a newcomer to town?

What anchors your life, week to week or even day to day?

The turmoil’s turned up, blowing the lid off simmering pot

Let’s take a look.

Over the past year, we’ve witnessed a range of economic jolts that seem vaguely related to the worldwide Covid outbreak, though I’d say the virus only precipitated troubles that would have been inevitable even without it.

The pandemic simply turned up the heat, as it were.

Among the headlines:

  • Soaring prices of houses, many of them going to buyers from California or New York, sight unseen. Who can afford these mortgages? None of us in our old neighborhood could have moved in today.
  • The relocation from big cities to small towns, for those whose jobs can be done from home. Will they stay or fit in? What will their impact be, especially in places that have been economically struggling?
  • A retail apocalypse in the face of rising online shopping – what’s the future of downtown or the malls? (If you’re “going to work” on Zoom, you don’t need to dress up in new clothes, for one thing.)
  • Superrich and corporate takeover of American farmlands – and mobile home parks. Another blow to the middle and lower classes.
  • Systemic problems in the nation’s health-care system, including the uneven distribution of medical services. A fourth of Americans, mostly rural, have no primary physician, and many others are afraid to use the system because of serious past racial abuses. (These appear to be the leading reason many people have not been vaccinated.)
  • The failure of “just-in time,” including the supply-chain issues that have plagued retailers and manufacturers alike. It’s also exposing the vulnerabilities of offshore sourcing to places like China and Indonesia, as well as looming national security weaknesses. (I blame the Walmart influence in shuttering American factories.)
  • While automakers have shut down assembly lines because of the unavailability of computer chips, what we found most striking was all the empty shelves during a run to IKEA, the home design line built on its international flair and savvy. Row after row, empty. So much for our shopping list and research.
  • Inflating food prices. Fuel and weather are only part of the problem. (Well, we should note climate change somewhere in here, though it has nothing to do with Covid.)
  • Customer and voter nastiness, no doubt intensified by the isolation and resentment.

~*~

More telling is the shift in the workplace, with all of the help-wanted signs for jobs that go begging. It’s not that people are lazy, but rather they’ve realized the positions are demeaning, or meaningless, and it costs them more to work than they’re paid. It’s time to admit that minimum wage is insufficient. Many apparently discovered during Covid that their jobs were costing more than they were earning, once child care, transportation, and related costs were factored in.

Add to that the fact that a certain percentage of the populace is, candidly, unemployable – in the old days, you could give them chores around the farm, but even those have been mechanized. So what can they do to still be contributing members of the wider society?

There has been a serious breakdown in the social contract that underpins democracy. And in the work ethic – or ethics, for those who look closer.

For decades now, employers have demanding loyalty but offering none of their own. Sometimes, there’s even a requirement of noncompete agreements, no matter that the worker has paid for the needed education and career. In reality, in a big company, you work for your immediate boss and colleagues and whatever satisfaction you can find – not the remote layers above. The fact is, nobody entering the workforce today will be at the same enterprise at the end of their career. Maybe public service – especially education – will remain the rare exception.

One of the more shocking reports I saw in the past year noted that only a minority of American males between 18 and 65 hold fulltime jobs – I think the figure was just a third of the total. What are the rest doing? School, prison, early retirement, or – as I’m suspecting – under-the-table ventures. They’re not all stay-at-home dads, are they?

~*~

My new community is an interesting place to watch all of this play out. The place has long been stressed economically, with few adequately paying jobs to sustain families, and that’s led to a population outflow.

Qualified contractors, on the other hand, have been booked out solid, as has been the case nationally. (See above housing sales.)

Our new old house needs tons of renovation, but we’re stymied. As my wife says, “I have money I want to give to somebody but just can’t find anyone to take it.” Well, if we had a crew lined up, there would have been the problem of getting building supplies, and then at prices twice what they’d been just months before.

We’re hoping that will all change in the months ahead.

~*~

These are all things that need to be examined closely in the months ahead, especially in the public arena like the upcoming elections, not that I expect much of it will come coherently from the candidates. The fixes, after all, aren’t easy or painless.

In a way, it’s reflected in the matters of even wearing a mask (or not) or getting the vaccine (or not). I’d say Covid has simply made more obvious the deep polarization at work in our nation – and the wider world.

We all have some important and difficult work to do ahead. We can start with small steps.

 

Why we’re all waiting for the border to Canada to really reopen

Having to wait 72 hours for a Covid test result – but don’t you dare delay much longer – as well as the other current restrictions have meant that the U.S.-Canada border really isn’t open, not the way it was before the coronavirus outbreak.

That’s made for a hard burden where I now live. New Brunswick is very much a part of our community. Just about every long-established family has kin on the other side of the boundary. For almost everyone, it’s meant jobs or services or shopping or even cultural pursuits. There are good reasons our local newspaper covers the two adjoining counties, which share the tidal waters and weather. The virus constraints have devastated the economy of the small city of Calais, to our north, which usually carries heavy truck traffic between the two countries as well as local business at groceries, hardware stores, and other retailers and restaurants; likewise for the town of Lubec, to our south, which has the only bridge connection for Campobello Island. Many folks also have property on the other side of the line, or maybe their boat, or even dear ones buried in cemeteries, and are cut off. You go to the dentist and realize the radio is tuned to a Canadian station, that sort of thing. It’s not all one way, either. I would be back to swimming laps in the nearest indoor pool, for instance, only 45 minutes or so distant. The nearest Costco would be only an hour-and-a-half drive off, rather than eight or nine down around Boston. We’d have some fine dining options available, so I’ve been told, as well as museums and nightlife and even festivals.

The local Passamaquoddy population has long been torn by the international division, especially the differing laws regarding Indigenous peoples. I’ve also heard how the already tightening border regulations have changed other interactions. Guys my age have told me about dating girls on the other side of the water (way back then we were all teens), rowing over to court them and then returning (merrily), something nobody could do today without being detained by the Coast Guard, Customs officials, and who knows else. (Not so merrily.)

It’s also dampened summer tourism, especially by travelers who were hoping  to continue on but couldn’t, or by Canadians who usually boost the crowds at our week-long Fourth of July revels and Pirate Festival weekend.

For me, this has been a lesson in the ways seemingly arcane regulations made in distant places can hit home personally. You know, the kind of thing you might glance over in a news story with a shrug, as I would, not anticipating a trip to Europe or a Caribbean cruise or even a cross-country flight anytime soon.

What unexpected ways have you experienced Covid restrictions?