Is It Possible to Slow Down?

You probably know my story—but if you don’t, click here, here, and here.

Last night, I was supposed to be meeting my musical comrade in arms. The two of us have a history that dates back to Lisbon High School and him patrolling the outfield behind me during our championship baseball season in 1979, when I was flinging the baseball real fast towards home plate. We also experienced two basketball seasons where we posted identical 1-17 seasons back-to-back.

Of all my friends from this era, Dave has remained as fixated (if not more so) about music (mainly rock) as I am. He listens to it, stays current, and since February, he’s been getting me out to shows more frequently.

Speaking of back-to-back, we saw The War on Drugs at Portland’s State Theater Monday night and last night, it was X. Dave almost didn’t make it, however.

Driving home from work in South Portland, he was rear-ended in Falmouth, along what’s become a notoriously dangerous stretch of I-295. The state has even lowered speed limits there as a way to prevent accidents.

The affected vehicle, a 1997 Saab convertible he calls Bambi II, was a nod to Dave’s penchant and vehicle preference. He had another similar vintage that he was planning to use as a parts car. However, last night’s crash means Bambi II is headed to the scrapyard.

Dave’s okay. He could have been killed. In fact, there was a fatality not long after an SUV plowed into the back of him, sending car and driver into the median and up against the guardrail on the opposite, southbound side.

I received his message just as I was parking in downtown Portland. He said he was fine and would be “riding in with Leo, meeting up at Port City in time for the show.

We know that ever-increasing speeds lead to accidents. Yet, some states are promoting driving faster.

Speed limits on roadways are determined by a careful process. There’s a history to setting them dating back 200 years. From The Methods and Practices of Setting Speed Limits: An Informational Report, rendered by the Federal Highway Safety Administration:

Speeding, commonly defined as exceeding the posted speed limit or driving too fast for conditions, is a primary crash causation factor across the globe. Based on a survey of road safety performance, speeding is the number one road safety problem in many countries, often contributing to as many as one-third of fatal crashes and serving as an aggravating factor in most crashes.2 According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), speeding-related crashes account for over 13,000 fatalities per year in the United States, making speeding one of the most often-cited contributing factors for fatal crashes.3

One of the most frequently used methods of managing travel speeds is the posted speed limit. The setting of speed limits predates the automobile by some 200 years, when Newport, Rhode Island, prohibited the horses galloping on major thoroughfares to prevent pedestrian deaths. Similarly, Boston, Massachusetts, limited horse-drawn carriages to “foot pace” on Sundays to protect church-goers.

The English Parliament is credited with setting the world’s first speed limit for mechanically-propelled vehicles in 1861.* At that time, the Locomotive Act (automobiles were considered “light locomotives”) limited the speed of all “locomotives” on public highways to 10 mph (16 km/h)-5 mph (8 km/h) through any City, town, or village.The Act was later amended to set speed limits of 4 mph (6 km/h) outside of towns and 2 mph (3 km/h) within them. These new operating speeds also required three operators for each vehicle—two traveling in the vehicle and one walking ahead and carrying a red flag to warn pedestrians and equestrians.5

Selecting an appropriate speed limit for a facility can be a polarizing issue for a community. Residents and vulnerable road users generally seek lower speeds to promote quality of life for the community and increased security for pedestrians and cyclists; motorists seek higher speeds that minimize travel time. Despite the controversy surrounding maximum speed limits, it is clear that the overall goal of setting the speed limit is almost always to increase safety within the context of retaining reasonable mobility.

The principal exception to the safety objective of speed limits was the oil crisis in the early 1970s, when speed limits were lowered as a means of conserving fuel. This rationale for lower speed limits was revived in Spain in early 2011, where the government lowered the maximum speed limit of 75 mph (120 km/h) to 70 mph (110 km/h) in an attempt to curb fuel consumption in the face of rising oil prices.6 However, the measure lasted only four months before the top speed limit was returned to the former 75 mph (120 km/h).

Maximum speed limits are laws; therefore, speed limits are set for the protection of the public and the regulation of unreasonable behavior on the part of individuals.
* This still predates the gasoline-powered automobile and was enacted for steam-powered vehicles.

Did you catch that? Speed limits exist for our protection. When you exceed them, you potentially put others and yourself in grave danger.

But everyone speeds, right? Not necessarily. It’s not even necessary to, but we’ve made driving beyond posted limits socially acceptable and fashionable.

Have you noticed car commercials? I can’t help it—most of them magnify the advertised vehicle’s capacity for speed and power, knowing that’s a lure for cultivating sales. In these days of climate change, why wouldn’t more people value cars that emphasize other aspects. Driving slower also conserves fuel.

Speeding is okay until you are directly affected by it. Sometimes, merely paying an excessive find is enough to slow you down (if you get caught). But more likely, nothing changes. Plus, every time you take to the roads—whether driving, or god forbid, walking or bicycling—you are forced to co-exist with the tens of thousands of scofflaws who routinely flaunt the rules of the road.

When someone you love is killed by the actions of a driver who violates the laws of the road, you are forever affected by it.

Since January 21, when Mark was killed, I’ve had a hard time co-existing with my fellow drivers. The further south you go, the worse it gets. Anecdotally, it seems like drivers from New Hampshire, and especially Massachusetts are notorious for driving well-beyond the posted limits. In Massachusetts and Rhode Island where we’ve traveled frequently since the first of the year (Mark lived in Providence and owned a home there), it’s not uncommon to have vehicles come up on you and swerve around you at speeds that I’m sure are approaching 90 miles an hour. Sometimes I think I want to hurt them. So far, I haven’t given into that urge.

Once I’m past the initial surge of adrenaline and anger, I check my own speed. I’m consistently driving under posted limits partly because the used car I bought a month ago incentivizes me to drive for fuel efficiency. I now know I couldn’t live with inflicting the kind of pain on another family like both my wife and I have had to bear since the driver in Florida  left her lane and hit Mark, walking legally along the paved shoulder.

If you can’t slow down for yourself, could you stop being such a narcissistic asshole and do it for others? Maybe you won’t end up killing or maiming someone in the future. That would really suck (I think) to have to live with that.

Dave’s okay. I’m thankful for that. Having lost a son and recently, a mother-in-law, I wasn’t ready to have to deal with losing one of my best friends.

Could You Be The One?

Back when life was simpler and a lot less sad, I went out to see bands because I thought music might save my life. Music as a life saver? Please do tell.

Lot’s been written about Mark by me and others. In death, there is a tendency to enlarge one’s life, or attribute qualities to people in the dead person’s life that may or may not have been present. In Mark’s case, he was the real deal. I did my best as a dad and things turned out pretty well until last January.

In 1986, I was simply a father and husband with a three-year-old son. We were living on a dead-end street in Chesterton, Indiana.

Mark had a tricycle and was making a few friends in the neighborhood. I worked at a prison and Mary had just started working breakfast at Wendy’s prior to me heading off to the med room at Westville Correctional Facility.

Mark and dad playing in the snow [1986]

Things were looking up for our little family, trying to scrape together enough money to return to Maine. I also had aspirations of being something more than an hourly wage slave. It would take me another 15 years to recognize that the writing muse was calling. Unable to recognize its beckoning however, caused considerable frustration and angst in my mid-20s. Continue reading

Cycle of Life

Last November we sold our house in Durham where we’d lived for 26 years. This felt like the start of a new chapter. It was, but the narrative soon turned dark.

Landing in Brunswick on a beautiful tidal cove was exciting at the time. Being new to town, I envisioned capturing elements of our new home with a series of post based on weekend forays about the place. Then tragedy intervened. Life along the cove became framed by abundant morning light that simply permitted holding on.

A mile and a half from our house there is an older cemetery. I knew nothing about it until passing while running one morning in December. My new route took me westward from our new place, out Coombs Road. I immediately knew the road to be an ideal alternative providing a side loop away from busy Route 24, where I could enjoy my surroundings and not worry about dodging cars and trucks roaring along at highway speeds.

Purington Road, which abuts the cemetery, also dead ends at a gate on the east side of the former Brunswick Naval Air Station. The road, like much of this area, is bordered by chain link fence and warning signs left behind when the town answered the military’s every beck and call.

From RootsWeb, I found this description of the cemetery, known as New Meadows Cemetery:

New Meadows Cemetery is located on Purinton Road and borders the Naval Air Station. This part of Brunswick was farming country known as New Meadows before the Naval Air Station occupied the area. Old records describe it as located on the North side of the road to Great Island, about three miles from Brunswick village. This road is now part of the Naval Air Station.

Doing a minimal amount of digging revealed that the area around Purington and Coombs Roads was once a thousand-acre town commons that was once the New Meadows neighborhood. There are historical records that show there were four homesteads dating back to 1739. What locals know about the area if they know anything is that it’s framed by the recent past following the Navy’s encroachment (and significant contamination) of 90 percent of this section of the community that formerly consisted of farms, grist mills, and brick and carriage makers.

Father and son, forever.

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The Unbearable Whiteness of Lasagna

Becoming a plant-based vegan offered another connection point between Mark and his dad. We had baseball and sports (for much of our relationship), books and writing, and then, just prior to his leaving on his walk, I decided I’d see if I could go two weeks without consuming dairy or animal-based food products (namely meat). During his trip, we kept a dialogue going about plant-based eating and associated food-related topics.

This re-ordering of diet and food might seem drastic. It really wasn’t. I just stopped eating some foods–eggs, cheese, yogurt, and meat. I replaced them with mainly plants—fruits and vegetable that I already liked and was eating. A new attentiveness ensued, searching for meals and recipes that fit with that.

In August when the three of us were together in Omaha, Yelp directed us across the city to a nondescript eatery in a converted gas station. I found out later that the chef was none other than vegan cook and cookbook goddess, Isa Chandra Moskowitz. The food on the menu was amazing. “So this is veganism,” I thought at the time. Afterwards, it made sense to seek out her books.

Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook is a book written with Terry Hope Romero for people like me (and Mary); those coming to veganism who want to learn to cook vegan, and not rely on others to cook for them.  The authors bring their unique, DIY-informed approach to food, billing it as “the essential guide to mastering the art of vegan cooking.”

Vegan cooking 101

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When Disaster Strikes

When loss hits you, your world is turned upside down. Whether the loss involves death, or in places hit by hurricanes and other kinds of disasters where people are displaced from their homes, stress and the subsequent emotional and physical effects target the victims.

A key element in ensuring health and harboring the hope for longevity requires learning to manage and mitigate stress. That’s easier said when you are observing stress from a distance. When you are in the midst of swirling waters either literally or figuratively, remaining detached and free from roiling emotions and a knot (or pain) in your gut is nearly impossible.

Disasters bring out the best and worst in humans. While now personally acquainted with the personal variety, natural (and national) ones are often magnified by the media. They serve an important function for programmers—ready-made stories that fill hours of air time, with advertisers happy to fork out marketing capital to capture fixated eyeballs.

Speaking of capitalizing on disaster, our sitting president is someone who has done well capitalizing and exploiting the misfortunes of others. I’ve mentioned Sarah Kendzior before. She nails it in this article by Nancy LeTourneau on our Exploiter in Chief being our “ultimate disaster capitalist,” a master at reveling (and profiting, handsomely) when others are in the midst of chaos and suffering. Make sure you click on the links provided in the quoted snippet, too. This isn’t false (or “fake”) propaganda, but a telling measure of the man we elected as our 45th president. He’ll surely find a way to profit from the fates of those in Houston like he has throughout his business career. That’s the Trump MO.

Trump spent his business career eagerly anticipating both social and economic disasters. “I sort of hope that happens because then people like me would go in and buy,” Trump said of the housing crash in 2006. Before that, Trump spent decades exploiting the damaged economies of towns like Gary, Indiana and Atlantic City, leaving them as bad or worse off than when he arrived.

America’s 4th largest city, underwater. [Aaron Cohan photo]

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Moving On

I was deeply affected by the events in Charlottesville. Many of the emotions I experienced in a visceral way, were flashbacks to Janaury, when Mark was killed. Another young person, with passion and concern for others, was senselessly killed by someone selfish and self-centered.

While there were a host of stories about Heather Heyer, an activist described in one as “a passionate advocate for the disenfranchised,” there was a sameness and quality to these that all made them read similarly after awhile. Her story deserved more. Too often, Heyer became an afterthought, as once again, media made it about “All Donald, all the time.”

Foolishly, I thought I could add a different context, one that was unique and personal, based upon our own journey over the past seven months since Mark’s death. Continue reading

Pain in the Gut

For weeks after Mark died, my stomach hurt. Searing pain, centered in my gut.

Then, winter turned to spring. We made a pilgrimage of sorts to California. Upon returning, I was thrust into the school umpiring season and then, it was summer and more baseball games to arbitrate.

Mary decided to embark on training to get ready for the Tri for a Cure. She returned to work. I got dumped from one of my jobs. Life continued, without Mark.

How does one normalize that which isn’t normal? Life missing a portion of your heart, a family unit in mourning, and now, it’s tourist season and everyone’s life is filled with the seasonal things we all know and love. Except it’s hard to find joy when your life is turned upside-down and you continue reeling.

Our gut is part of the nervous system, known as the “brain-gut axis.” According to an older issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter detailing the effects of stress and abdominal pain,

“our brain interacts with the rest of the body through the nervous system, which has several major components. One of them is the enteric nervous system, which helps regulate digestion. In life-or-death situations, the brain triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response. It slows digestion, or even stops it completely, so the body can focus all of its internal energy to facing the threat. But less severe types of stress, such as an argument, public speaking, or driving in traffic, also can slow or disrupt the digestive process, causing abdominal pain and other gastrointestinal symptoms.”

Stress causes disruption of the digestive process. Since Mary and I have been on stress overload continuing to deal with the details of a life sans its guiding force here during summer’s height, I guess I know why my stomach is hurting again.

Stress can cause pain in the gut.

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Faking the News

I was born into a Catholic family. The Catholicism of my formative years was a totally different brand than the Catholic Worker-style practice of one’s faith (and life lived in accordance with the gospels) advocated by co-founder, Dorothy Day.

When I tried to capture (in an essay in my last book) some of the oddness of growing up Catholic in the house where I was born, it was met with considerable familial disapproval. I obviously failed in my attempt at being a poor man’s David Sedaris and mining family matters for writing material.

Today’s purpose isn’t revisiting family dysfunction, however.

Two Des Moines-based Catholic Workers, Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya were arrested last week, having admitted to sabotaging the Dakota Access Pipeline section crossing the middle of the country and Iowa. Reznicek has a history of this type of activism, modeled after the Plowshares anti-nuclear activists of the 1980s. Both also are carrying on in the spirit of the organization co-founded by Day and Peter Maurin.

Dorothy Day, one of the 20th century’s activist giants.

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Hope in the Dark

It’s easy to grow discouraged in this life. Adversity—whether it’s an illness or failing health, economic stress, loneliness or isolation—or in Mary and my case, losing Mark suddenly and tragically: elements like these can grind even the strongest person down, and make them want to give up.

The case can also be made forcefully that the charge that many of us were given when we were young that life in America would be better for us than previous generations is no longer a reality for most. We’ve just elected a president who is at best, a boorish and self-centered man unlike anyone who has sat in the oval office prior. Some believe however, that our current president is an authoritarian with designs on dismantling what remains of our nation’s functionality and crumbling civic and physical infrastructure.

Peggy Noonan, someone with legitimate Republican bona fides calls Mr. Trump, “Woody Allen without the humor” in an op-ed written for and published in the Wall Street Journal. She paints him as a pathetic and weak little man. She’s probably right, although don’t understimate the damage possible by “weak little men.” It’s also far too easy to locate our reasons for despair in one man or a devastating life event.

In the midst of walking a personal path buffeted by discouragement and sadness, I’ve noted how many others are dealing with their own dark journey. In my own grief, I’ve recognized this collective sense of loss all around.  So fellow travelers, why so sad?

Rebecca Solnit is an American writer and activist. She’s been engaged in environmental and human rights campaigns since the 1980s. Her writing is informed by a life lived with boots firmly planted in real life and direct action work, not academic posturing. Maybe that’s why her book, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, has made such a strong impression on me over the past two weeks as I made my way through it. Continue reading