Maine: The Way Life Should Be 

By the time this essay is published I will already be in hiding, probably in a midsized Sunbelt city, living under a pseudonym, and receiving no packages. Maine, a Libertarian-minded, keep-to-your-own-business kind of state, does not take kindly to written assessments, possibly because to write about the place is to say “I am an authority,” and nobody, by Maine standards, is more deserving of a beat-down—or of persecution, or expulsion—than an authority. When my husband and I ask our neighbor, a professional boat-builder and former electrician, if he can lend some advice about boat-building and wiring, he’ll first demur that he knows nothing in the slightest about boat-building and wiring. Of boat-building—like three-million-dollar, ninety-foot yachts he says, “Anybody can do it.” Because authority holds such little weight, there is no zoning in our town, which means there are no building permits, which means you could, as my husband often jokingly threatened to do, erect a brownstone in your back field. Civilians rule in rural Maine, thus it’s best not to incite the civilians by writing about them.

But here I am, writing about them, an act of inexcusable treason since I am, if you subscribe to the legal definition, a “Mainer,” with a folder of convincing documentation that includes a birth certificate and a failed driving test from the Portland DMV. I’ll admit that my authority, already questionable, suffers innate limitations because I’m a certain kind of Mainer—Averagely Seaworthy First-Generation Over-Educated Urban Coastal pretty much describes my brand of nativeness. I can tie a bowline, I know a nun from a bell from a can, and a harbor seal from a lobster pot, but I know squat about the daily life trials facing the lake-and-mountain set. I didn’t portage a canoe until I was eighteen (and living in New Hampshire); I didn’t sight my first official moose until I was in my thirties. But because my Maine is the basis of the Maine cued in the minds of the non-Maine public when they hear the word “Maine,” I’m inclined to issue a cultural correction, even a doomed one. I’ve spent a lifetime bristling at the Murder She Wrote doddery quaint clapboard nonsense that passes as Maine in the cultural vernacular. Maine, according to this vernacular, is a state filled with people possessed of great, garbled wisdom who eat lobster like it’s bologna and die in ironic drowning accidents.

But non-natives—”From Aways” in native parlance—aren’t the only ones indulging in gross acts of distortion. Maine’s state slogan, recently changed from “Vacationland” to “The Way Life Should Be,” represents one of the boldest moves in the annals of intentional misrepresentation, depending on your notion of ideal living conditions. There are more obese people in Maine than in any other New England state. In Maine, it’s illegal to bait bears with donuts and then shoot them (presumably, people, and bears, should be less fat because of this law). Maine has more cat owners than any other state. Maine’s drug of choice is coffee brandy. If you want to grow your own food, which an astonishing number of people in Maine feel compelled to do, you have 122 days to accomplish this between frosts. The annual mean temperature on the coast, where I live four months per year, is 46 degrees (40 degrees up north). If you spend a year in Maine, you’ll enjoy 128 days of rain, 48 days of fog, and 17 days of snow. The only state poorer than Maine in 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina, was Louisiana. Meaning, the only state worse off financially was a state that suffered the most crippling natural disaster in the history of this country. In Maine, meanwhile, 2005 was business as usual—just a lot of fat people hanging out in the rain with their cats, drinking coffee brandy and trying, without cheating, to kill a bear.

It should come as no surprise that such an elite group would be extremely cautious, if not downright parsimonious, when extending membership privileges to others. And once they’ve hopped the cement walls that encircle the Maine border, people discover the state’s population divided into two categories—Natives and From Aways. Easy stuff on first inspection. Either you were born here or you were not. But From Away is a highly relative term, applicable to anyone who didn’t grow up in the place where you are standing at that very moment. Taken to its logical extreme, everyone is a From Away—i.e., everyone who isn’t You is a From Away—but Mainers don’t tend to get so Hegelian about it. Instead, they invoke the town line or the water boundary that separates you from the people who graciously took you in, like a family that loves to flash before you on a nightly basis your adoption papers. Take, for example, an obituary oft-cited by a friend when trying to convey, to the average tourist, just how far away they are from the place they’re currently visiting. According to this obituary, a woman had lived her entire ninety-plus years, save the first three weeks she was alive, on a remote island. She was known in her tiny community, in which she had clocked nearly a century marked primarily by winter, as the Woman From Away. I suffer similarly. I was born in Portland, Maine. I left the state when I was eighteen and returned at the age of thirty-three. My husband and I bought a house in a town three hours northeast of Portland. Thus I am a From Away in my home state.

The easy thing about being a From Away, however, is that your community has extremely low expectations for you. You’re meant to screw up regularly at great cost to your homeowner’s insurance, because such screw-ups are entertaining and an excellent way to warm the hearts of even the most indifferent natives. We proved highly entertaining. We showed up and promptly burst our pipes, ruining a room that had, based on the plaster and lathe we had to chunk into garbage bags, not been touched in nearly 200 years. In other words, we were the stupidest people in almost 200 years to live in this house. We were welcomed throughout the land. Months later I went into the bookstore twelve miles away, and the clerk said to me, “Aren’t you the person with the burst pipe?” Our tale of successful integration assumed some chilling misshapes in the coming year; a woman whose mother lives in D.C. said she’d heard from another woman in D.C. who was friends with the woman who used to own our house that our house had burned down. I panicked before realizing this was just another variation on the Welcome You Delightful Idiot story.

I’m glad I didn’t have to burn my house down to be embraced as the know-nothing I was, but some people have gone to nearly that extreme. Take, for example, Auslander. Auslander showed up from a city and knew too much. He had big plans for the town, including a low-income housing project, a ferry, maybe even a university. Then he put the ashes from his woodstove in a plastic bag and left them on his barn floor. The barn caught fire, the volunteers were called. We weren’t in Maine at the time; two weeks later we drove up for a visit. A neighbor came by to say hello. “Did you hear about Auslander’s barn?” he asked. We decided to take a walk, get some brisk Maine air. Halfway to town a friend stopped in his truck. “Did you hear about Auslander’s barn?” he asked. Later another friend called. “Did you hear about Auslander’s barn?” she asked. There was a Schadenfreude-y undertone to this news, but it also had the sweet enthusiasm of a birth announcement. Auslander had finally arrived.