Thursday, August 27, 2015

Faugust and Learning to be a Fisherman

August is not known for fog. It's been a pasty murky clammy mess for two weeks. 

Lesson 28, sub 3. When bilge is full of oil, and no amount of consultation with experts, contortional stuffing upside down into small spaces, automotive/dental mirrors, profanity or reasoning produces an explanation, AND the engine is running smooth as the brush of a cat on your leg, you, the proper fisherman, go hauling. You do. I, on the other hand, fume and stew and worry and then eventually decide to go hauling anyway. I got to the point where I was perfectly willing to keep pouring in engine oil in exchange for being able to work and pay for whatever repair is in my future.

It came on gradually, then suddenly, with that deep adrenal defibrillation whereupon I decide (again) that I am stupid to be in this business. This business where the ancestral GPS of lobster cycles and migration is absorbed by 12 year olds, not 50 year olds. The gradual part was that oil inched ever so slightly down the dipstick over a couple of weeks. Not generally a big deal especially because it always does that when it's time for an oil change, which it was. After I paddled out on a Sunday morning to change the oil, fuel and hydraulic filters and set about my business, there was a stomach lurching moment when the oil pump stopped after about 9 quarts. It should have been 11 or 12.

A reluctant peek into the bilge showed two things. First, the bilge pump was not working. Wires that ended in mid air probably had something to do with it. Second, and much uglier than a recalcitrant bilge pump was the copious, odious, obscene and altogether appalling amount of oil in the bilge, glaring up at me in black, grinning, leering clots, maliciously swaying to and fro in the beautiful Sunday morning sunshine.

After swabbing up as much as I could of the oil, I began untangling and tracing wires associated with the pump and float switch. After reconnecting the works, I expected action. I pulled up on the float and got only silence. Hmmph.

I ripped everything apart and grabbed the multimeter, a very handy tool in learned hands like Paul's. In mine, as we'll see, it's a mixed blessing. Monsieur Multimeter said there was only something like 1.28 to 3.69 volts coming from the source, depending on how well I gouged the pointy thing into the wire.

I figured that even with my limited and patchy nollidge of wiring, I could find the problem. After scratching the fuse cap at the battery end with a rusty bait knife, I had a nice strong 12.48 volts and the pump hummed cheerfully when I got the wires touching correctly.

Not so good with the switch, as in silence again. After a trip to town and couple of days' office work, I came back to Matinicus after closing a commercial transaction, rushing to Rockland, hopping the lobster smack and falling asleep, bringing with me a nice clean new float switch and a bunch of handy heat-shrink splice connectors. By 8:00 or so, I had put everything back together in mild drizzle and not so mild amounts of mosquito bites and then flipped the switch. Nothing. What tha F, for F's sake?!!

I checked the wires with the multimeter: 12.49 volts DC. I hot-wired the pump to the source with no switch at all. Nothing. Rechecked the volts. 12.48. Silence. Must be a bad pump, right?

After another trip to town and another few days of office work, I returned with a new bilge pump. Now I had new connectors, switch and pump and the multimeter said there was 12 volts and change. All new connections, shrink wrapped for waterproofing. Flipped the switch. Nothing. F'ing stupid F'ing M'f-er!!! What am I doing wrong?!

I went back to the errant fuse cap at the battery end of the wiring chain and saw nothing wrong. A few inches aft of there, however, was splice connector, and not the handy heat shrink water proof kind. A friendly shake showed the connection was sloppy-loose. In the meantime, I'd brought my oil drenched old bilge pump and hand hotwired it to the battery, at which time it abruptly buzzed and spewed oil, indignantly proclaiming there had never been anything wrong with it in the first place, dumbass.

The rest was routine. New connections, new pump, new switch, and a new knowledge that 12.48 volts on the multimeter is not a guarantee of wiring integrity.

The big problem of a significant oil leak is still with me. The lobsters, however, are also present. As a result, I go out, knowing that above the deck, all is well while below, the oil trolls are laughing, dancing and procreating in my boat, the slimy bastards.

Now after several hard but productive days, there is only the pale gold to dark blue corona in the west. I want for nothing. Except Megan.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Getting Home From (And To) Work

Loading groceries in the Hannaford parking lot, it was 5 or 10 degrees below sweltering and in all other ways a beautiful late July day. Wrapping up office business late Thursday morning, I was, without much conscious thought, looking forward to getting spots with Megan on the afternoon mail flight back to Matinicus.  It did not occur to me that the warm humid air of summer was turning into chilly opaque paste as it moved across cold ocean water, making the climate very different a few miles off shore such that no planes were going anywhere near the island.  These small drops of water run the show in summer as much as wind and tide do year round.

So it was that I was caught off guard when Sally told me it probably wasn't going to happen.

Megan and I have learned that uncertain travel prospects are best met by going to the departure point and being ready to jump instead of hanging back. Even with this force of optimism, we arrived at the Penobscot Island Air den of office cabins and got the same answer about flying conditions.

Curiously, loitering at the air service produced not the slightest improvement in the weather. I called Fiona, who told me it was bright and clear at home in the middle of the island. She biked to the airstrip and reported that it was clear right to the shore but not beyond.

After some stewing and a low-grade tantrum about missing a hauling day with lobsters on the verge of hitting and a big block of next week lost to a trial, we called Marty the lobster dealer, who put us in touch with Jeb on the Bajupa (named for Barbara, June and Pat), the lobster smack. Jeb was just coming into Rockland and thought he'd be heading back out in a couple of hours, but also might be helping work on another boat.

After thinking through how to get from Owls Head to the fish pier, what to do with cars, and how much of an obstacle was presented by the Lobster Festival being in full swing, we decided again to try and get to the departure point and be ready.

Traffic was pretty manageable and we picked our way around trucks, a forklift and stenchy puddles of fish goo to where Jeb was finishing loading bait into Bajupa's hold. He thought he'd be heading out around 4:00, giving us time to deal with the car and cool it with a beer.

Having a pretty sure ride lined up was a huge relief. It would mean a late arrival, to be followed by pumping oil into a 50 gallon barrel at the wharf, lugging it to the side of my barn and pumping it into the tank so there would be hot water in the house.

I also had to assemble the new hand cranked pump that represented energy independence to me. [Moving oil is a hassle here. One needs a pump, a truck and an oil supply- sometimes from a fuel boat that shows up every 6 weeks or so, sometimes off a truck from the ferry, sometimes from the wharf. It's always a messy pain in the ass. Having my own pump was one big step in smoothing that process]

It was probably more like 5:00 by the time we left along with a collection of other fishermen and a Dachshund named Isla who spent the voyage in the bunk, snugged against her sleeping fisherman. They both looked pretty comfortable.

We got to Harbor Point on Matinicus at dusk and had our groceries and supplies winched up onto the wharf. Our truck, however was at the airport. Jeb loaned us his truck, an early 80's Silverado with an approximately one by two foot opening in the driver's side floor where my left foot would normally rest. By the time the trucks had been swapped around and returned, the oil pumped onto my pickup, the pump assembled and put to use, the burner bled and hot water reestablished, it was close to 10:00.

The mail flight would have been on island at 1:15 PM.

That was our commute. Big thanks to Marty and Jeb. Because of them, we were able to haul the next day. Fair to middlin' catch but a catch nonetheless.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Matinicus 4th of July and Bygone America

The Fourth celebration started a day early for us. Stretching my back and seized joints, I looked upside down out the door into neon green foliage and the starkest of blue summer skies- the perfect day to break the barrier I put up after last August's little scare on the water. It was time to make a crossing from Rockland to Matinicus. The financial incentive was strong as well where we had a half ton of supplies, a new lawnmower, shingles, soap and sound gear.

Megan and I loaded 2 station wagon loads of stuff onto Close Enough at the municipal fish pier and tossed the tie-up lines at 10:38 a.m..

Penobscot Bay had only inches of chop, gentle off shore swells and perfect visibility. We arrived in the harbor at high tide, making for an easy off-load at the dock.

Morgan hosted a large contingent of family friends at the south end for a weekend of island adventures, seafood and music. Most Fourth of July weekend parties do NOT start this way: shooting a raccoon, hanging and skinning her from the apple tree in the Wyeth-worthy seaside front yard.

My real focus, though, is the piece of America I saw a few days earlier on the mainland. I met a client at his home off a sleepy side road in the interior of Lincoln County.

Chatting in the kitchen of his farm house, I noted that all of the appliances and fixtures appeared to be about my age. Worn and a little filmed over, but impeccably neat. So it was with his outbuildings and machinery which included haying equipment, tractors and a 1967 dodge pickup still in operation. His wife passed away years ago and he has cared for his place and carved out houselots for his 4 children from the many acres of rolling woodland and fields of timothy grass.

I'll call him Bob. Bob bought the place in 1955 and never had a mortgage on it. He's added barns and storage buildings and raised black angus cattle until fairly recently.

Bob had only a high school education, but a lot of mechanical skill and the archetypal New England work ethic. He maintained and overhauled all of his machinery himself. Bob made things a little better every year by the way it looked to me.

Bob was a career employee at GTE in Waldoboro. I think Sylvania closed the place in the late 1980's. Before that, the plant actually made things in Waldoboro. Not buckboards or harnesses for oxen, but relatively modern items like lighting components.

What that company also provided was a way for working individuals to make a living, buy and improve a home and raise a family. Hard work and dedication were rewarded with a decent wage and some security.

Bob's accent is a very localized dialect from a different age. His life as well seems a well preserved and isolated remnant of that different age. Even though I recognize Bob's world from my own past, my own is very different.

I cannot even count the number of part and full time jobs I've had. It feels to me like the world now requires constant hustling, tap-dancing, being available by electronic media 24 by 7 and jumping from ice berg to ice berg trying not to slip into the cold river.

It was piercingly nostalgic for me to walk through a barn with the smells of hay mow and cows still hanging. I spent every summer and more than a few school year weekends and afternoons in just this sort of environment.

I'm able to write and share this story because of the same technology that I would not miss if I lived in Bob's world. It was a nice couple of hours.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Slow Spell or Disappearing Honeybee Colony?

I'm not a 'the sky is falling' type individual most of the time. Running down the lane and spreading alarm has come in most circumstances to mean little. Usually, the things we worry about don't happen. Sometimes, however, the sky may actually be falling, but we don't see it.

As for island transportation, my views come from being one of the few who have recently come to Matinicus to try and stay year round- recently meaning about a decade ago. I didn't really make it for a bunch of reasons. I hope to get back to year round living some day.

Matinicus has a vibrant if smallish community. There is housing stock. There are work opportunities. 

What do not exist are meaningful transportation options for people and goods. Even the biggest lobster boats get hauled out at the end of the season. The ferry goes to once or twice a month in the darker months.

I don't think we can compare Matinicus' lack of real transportation with rusty bridges or other infrastructure needing repairs and prioritize ourselves downward as a result. It is more akin to a small remote township where the state just decided not to build a bridge or a road at all, and then expect people to fly, canoe, mush or skidder themselves into town for groceries and then back home.

It's hard to know what might happen if families could actually get back and forth to the mainland a couple of times a week instead of monthly in the winter. Would Matinicus turn into Martha's Vineyard on Monhegan in the summer? I doubt it. Would families be able to relocate and find housing, make a life and educate their kids, at least through 8th grade? I bet they could. If the kids come, the rest of the community takes on a life that is missing otherwise. Or it could just be my self-centered perspective.

If there continue to be no real transportation options, there may be a point at which colony collapse occurs due to insufficient personnel, and insufficient utility or air service customers to spread costs over.

We aren't necessarily headed the way of Metinic or Ragged Islands, but it might be worth imagining what it would take to not go there.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Big Banks and Local Real Estate

After spending a good portion of the last two days dealing with various aspects of what the modern banking and title insurance world has done to land transactions, I need to get these thoughts down while they're fresh. The cast includes glib and corporate-speak fluent title insurance folks giving powerpoint presentations on new lending disclosure rules and big multi-state banks, employees of which probably weren't born when I started searching titles.

Yesterday's presentation on new rules on real estate settlement forms exposed Congress' assumption that 5 pages of gobbledegook out of any comprehensible order is easier to understand than 2 pages, and will make for better informed borrowers.

Then all day today I was trying to get ready for a sale while seeing all sorts of new numbers getting dropped in by the distant bank a day before closing. It was about onion layers of electronic security, electronic auditing meaning that this or that item can only go on such and such a line of a settlement statement, verifying addresses because you're several time zones away, recharacterizing this or that number. To them, land transactions are about software, drop-down menus, bureaucracy and micromanaging every business partner in a world where the system has become fragmented such that no one person has any real sense of what a land sale means. The gatekeepers in this particular deal have no insight into our community- it could be Fairbanks or Vicksburg and it would make no difference.

Having the tail end of one simple sale generate inbox entries that fill an entire screen, and so many steps that don't bear much relevance to the sale of a house and land, I cannot guess why the system isn't collapsing under its own bulk.

Real estate in essence is about ground, buildings, trees, stone walls, threads of streams, road frontage, granite monuments, houses, bits of barbed wire stuck in pine trees, 5/8" rebar set by surveyors. It is about what we do when we walk outside. It is about work and dirt, hills and hollows, lots in subdivisions with basketball hoops in the cul-de-sac. Land sales are about mortgages-  documents pledging land and buildings as collateral for loans to buy same. How this most basic part of our social fabric has turned into such a clumsy and inefficient, aggravating mess I do not know.

Dodd-Frank and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau were supposed to help with the bad stuff, the really bad stuff that happened as a result of ninja loans (no income, no job, no assets), credit default swaps (a Ponzi scheme) and bond rating practices that rubber-stamped the whole works as top choice grade A real estate investments. The problems were caused by big financial institutions. The regulatory and legislative responses seem to cater to the same players, setting up the next meltdown.

Love your land. Work with a community bank or credit union. There's no place like home.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Where Next, Matinicus?

Where to start. Maybe tonight, as I was sitting in Megan's truck on the wharf looking out past the harbor and ledges to the horizon. Maybe how Ellen was courteous when I first looked at a property here. As to being on the island for more than a short summer vacation, she said something like 'it all depends on what you're willing to do without.' Other phrases come to mind. "It's so isolated." "There's no store." "There's no reliable transportation." "It's too expensive."

Those things are all largely true and even more largely complete bullshit at the same time. Yes, we are two dozen miles from Rockland. Shopping opportunities are limited. Transportation is a constant wild card.

As for isolation: our suburban culture has unfortunately infiltrated Maine during my lifetime, wherein we know the Kardashians better than our neighbors. Not so on the island- for better or worse. I've met more interesting people from more far flung places and made more connections with people from all over and been more connected to my neighbors while on this tiny speck in the ocean than I ever did living right outside the state capitol, or in Portland or Boston. It is expensive here, but not really any more so than inland, just different. Transportation is a bear, I'll give ya that.

In my gut, I feel it's not the expense, the distance or the logistical headaches that have drained off the population. Instead, it is a narrowing of what people expect or want in their lifestyle. There is a coercive pressure to be in the suburban big-box (or Little Boxes) social environment. There is a fear that kids will be stunted if they don't do team sports, and have 30 peers in the same grade from the same town and take  the right lessons so they achieve some particular merit badge. If instead they work on the water or garden or learn to hang with kids of all ages and adults or learn to fix machinery or engage with nature, they are bound to be island-queer and incapable of coping with society. I do not believe this is true. At all. All of the things that may seem like deprivations or hardships end up creating more adaptable, socially aware and better rounded young people.

I am afraid for the community. The community is what makes it possible for us to be here and live. There are people who ensure the phones work, that the power works, that there is emergency medical response, that town business gets done. Often, these tasks are all done by one person, or two or three. At one point, I helped; in the school, the town office, on a couple of occasions as a gopher during work on power lines (it was wicked fun to run the bucket truck). Now, I mostly just play a few songs on the dock in the summer, but that may be a dubious contribution depending on where you live and what time you want to start sleeping. Last winter, I was not here to help when things were very tough. I wasn't here to help share the infrastructure costs for our public utilities. There is a valid concern that since the school closed and the population thinned out there won't be a critical mass to support essential services such as the air service and power company.

I'm scared, but also bewildered. There is a big disconnect. I am here on Matinicus. It is not northern Greenland. I have reliable internet, indoor plumbing and a machine that washes dishes for me. I am sitting on a very comfy two seater couch next to the wood stove. I am not feeling deprived or isolated. On the other hand, I also have an utterly magical environment where I can bike to one work site down a gravel road with a grass median, walk to the harbor when it's time to get on the boat to work, and can feel the aliveness that only comes with a lot of physical activity outdoors, while at the same time producing legal work online and over the phone.

From my viewpoint at the harbor, here by the stove on my internet, and on my bike on the grass medianed road to the land tending job, I wonder why the place isn't swarming with people.

There are really only two possible explanations. Our society has become soft, unimaginative, totally chickenshit and missing out on the beauty, struggle and spontaneity of life, or I'm a nutjob. Don't answer except among yourselves. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Scooter

--> The scooter purchase was not one of my better spending decisions. It was intended to fulfill the manifest destiny of all Matinicus kids to have a means of transport with a carbon footprint early in life. One of the many empowerments  of this place is that children can learn to handle machinery in a fashion and at an age that is not customary or legal in other places. 2nd graders just do not typically show up to school at the wheel of a golf cart or 4 wheeler.  My girl Lydia began to drive at the age of 12 and a half in the old silver Mazda.

This particular scooter, however  was  sold at Christmas time by a particularly shady online vendor and arrived in a mangled carton, the contents of which did not closely resemble the promised merchandise.  Since we were talked out of using a credit card,  there was very little recourse. We made the best of it.

Lydia’s first ride took her joyfully down to the crossroads, where the fuel tank detached  and began merrily skipping along at her heels. She was oblivious and I could not run fast enough or yell loud enough, and waited for the small mushroom cloud that would follow.

There were a few other rides. I used it a few times. Mostly it sat. Briefly inspired a couple of years later,  Lydia and I fueled it up only to watch gas leaking out of the tank almost as fast as we poured it in. I think I painted the hole or did some other band-aid repair.

That was years ago. Today, Fiona wheeled old Smokey out of the barn. I first barked at her to put it back in its dusty corner. I then agreed to try to start it, confident that it would go no further.  I pulled the starter cord to no avail, but then was gradually overtaken by the challenge and found myself unscrewing the spark plug, checking fuel and fuel lines, looking for a choke, pouring some gas into the spark plug hole and finding the fuel bulb underneath.  I am no one’s idea of mechanically inclined, but that damn thing fired up. Cough.

At that point, the Matinicus magic kicked in. I’m sure these things happen in other places, but they only happen to me here. What ensued was a daylong series of triumphs followed by some other part falling off or breaking. It was a challenge and adventure and a great way to blow a day with your 13 year old learning and sharing the joys of internal combustion.

The next thing to be fixed were two totally flat tires. The front one was inflated in about 20 seconds. The rear tire, through some truly inventive engineering was set up such that the air stem was located deep in the wheel rim and separated from the rest of the world by the brake disc. Noway nohow was a pump going in there. After undoing the chain, tensioners on both sides, rusty wheel nuts and trying to keep mental track of everything that came off, we got the wheel separated from the frame and the disc off of the wheel.  The tire inflated in 20 seconds- just like that!

Having the wheel fiddled and worried back into place, we fired her up and Fiona took a series of rides starting on the lawn, where an engine cover fell off, and then down the main road with joy rolling off her in waves.

She was ready for a road trip, so I followed her all the way to the south end to check on Morgan’s chickens. When we finished there, I pulled the starter cord which only flopped out loose. The curse appeared not to have forgotten us or our scooter.

I took off the pull starter and found what I had hoped not to: that one of the tabs that turned over the engine had broken off. Then I idly jabbed my pointer finger at the metal part the tab would contact to turn over the engine and out popped the broken plastic. We reassembled that part and it seemed like the starter  turned properly with only one tab.

Putting the whole works back together I pulled and again the cord stuck and then flopped loose. Off it came again and this time I saw that the whole plastic wheel was split and non functional.

I felt it would be tragic if a little plastic wheel crippled Smokey Bessey as she is now known.  I also knew that there was no identification of any brand on the scooter,  so I ruled out the possibility of finding a replacement for the plastic wheel.  Adhesive would have to do.

As I was thinking about the plastic part,  approximately 4 and one-half feet of steel ribbon erupted from the starter casing. This springing spring was the message from above to give it up. I made a couple of attempts to reseat it. Then I again fell prey to the challenge and the Matinicus magic, and using Kreskin-like spoon bending powers of mind, stubborn fingers and streams of profanity, managed to get the spring re-packed.

That victory gave me the courage to try to glue the wheel.  After a recess, the wheel seemed sturdy enough. As I was putting this collection back together, the jackass in the box sprung back out and it took another 20 minutes to wind it in there. If you have not attempted this before, here is my advice: Don’t. If you do, wear  eye protection and yell at your boisterous children to give you some peace for a little minute. You then must wind the thing very tightly and not let it move in any direction whatsoever,   because it desperately wants to go every which way.  After that, you must slow time and molecular motion down to near absolute zero so you can get the end hooked in where it goes before the coil expands just enough to be too big for the housing. Then you must do this several more times.

After bolting the works back together for the fourth time, the starter pulled normally, but before the motor caught, the plastic wheel had again given up. I apologized to Fiona and visualized dumping the scooter under the No Dumping! sign behind the recycle shed.

One stupid plastic part. Too bad there’s no information about this machine anywhere. Before we went in the house, I looked at the starter housing cover, which actually had a small sticker bearing the “Zhijiang SunScooter Limited” name.

A quick internet search revealed that Zhijiang Sunscooter Limited was a “modernized enterprise,” but little of use, especially no parts places. A less quick search for more information on the model and the company and replacement parts vendors gave up nothing. Amazon, however, after the first search said “no products matching your search” (when does that ever happen?) showed an ad for the identical item for $8.00 and change plus shipping.

 Now we wait. happily and fondly hoping.