March 31, 2013
I’ve lived in Maine longer than I’ve lived anywhere in my life, but even if I stay there for the rest of my life, I’ll never be considered a Mainer. It’s a state rule. I had to accept that back in 1996 when I drove over the New Hampshire border on the green bridge with a carload of items that were too important to send in the moving truck; Butch, my old and temporarily sedated big orange cat; and Ebi, the one-eyed rescue bird.
My friend Boo (conveniently, that’s my actual personal nickname for her) was coming along to help and she was in her car with more of my stuff, and another sedated cat, Kissa, the sweet, cuddly, loving, docile tortie…well, only with me and a select couple of other people. She was the original Grumpy Cat/Cujo kitty with everyone else.
I was excited to start my NP career, sad about leaving Cambridge and Boston, and nervous about moving to a small town I had never heard of before my interview. I didn’t know anyone in the area, and had met my new boss only once.
I wasn’t sure how well I’d adapt to rural life. I had grown up in Montreal, moved to a preppy suburb outside of New York City during high school, and then escaped to Boston and planted myself there for the next fourteen years. I knew that my rural adventure would provide some entertainment or at least a few good stories, and I figured that I could always give it a fair try and then pack up and head back to the land of lattes and sushi after a year or two if it didn’t work out.
I didn’t set out for Maine with long-term expectations. Maybe that was the beginning of a pattern, considering that I’m still here in Vermont after 6 months, working a three-month contract. Anyway, back in 1996, I just wanted to start my career as an NP, avoid getting lost on a mountain somewhere trampled by moose, maybe learn how to grow things in a garden, and continue to contemplate writing a book, as I had been doing for the previous twenty-five or so years.
I’m not sure why as an adult I have such an aversion to dictating my medical notes. Reliable sources (my baby book) tell me that I was writing poems via dictation to my mother before I knew how to write. From the perspective of a somewhat seasoned grammie of now five grandchildren ranging in ages from two weeks old to eight years, I’m guessing that my parents’ interpretation of “poem” may have been generous.
Here’s a poem that I recently jotted down as dictated to me over Skype by my 22-month-old grandson (I’ll call him Little Monster—LM for short):
Gaa doggy AHHHH
Agg Nooo! AHHHH
I love that boy.
So, after a couple of days, Boo headed back to Boston. She had helped me unpack, explore the unfinished spooky basement of the cabin with me (unfinished meant that one wall was still dirt and stones), and shopped with me in town for a recliner as a house-warming gift. When the store owner offered to bring over the two recliners I was considering so I could see which one looked better in the living room, I had a feeling something was askew in this town. When the chair was delivered that same afternoon, the two urban Jewish girls knew that I had moved to the Twilight Zone of rural Maine.
I wasn’t a complete foreigner to the outdoors or to the countryside: I had gone to Brownie and Girl Guide Camp (I was in Canada), so I was skilled, but rusty, at making campfires, avoiding lakes with leaches, and turning twigs into a makeshift shelter and then sleeping on a cot in a cabin. I even had a handful of outdoorsy vacations in my background as an adult.
I hadn’t grown up in a particularly outdoorsy or camping family. We were more of a beach front motel/resort/museum/ski/theme park/road trip/ kind of family. Bed and breakfasts were a little too cozy for my parents, and I discovered those and trips that involved things like biking, kayaking, bird-watching, camping and hiking much later in my life.
However, I soon found out that a long weekend or a week visiting rural life and actually living there are quite different. Those quaint little corner stores with homemade apple cider doughnuts and six kinds of pie are charming when you’re on vacation. However, they are useless at 7:00PM on a Sunday night when your carefully prepared grocery list and recipe plan for the week includes ingredients like broccoli rabe, parsnips and grilled salmon with fresh dill. Plan B: How about cereal with skim milk? Make that 2%, because that’s all that’s left, and the store closed at 5:00PM, so shopping will have to be tomorrow.
I also discovered what those bright lights on our vehicles are for. We don’t really need those in the city, except during a random act of kindness when we flash them briefly to alert oncoming drivers about a cop who is lurking ahead of them. On roads with no lights for miles, those bright vehicle lights are crucial, although sometimes I would rather not see the scurrying, slithering, hopping and swarming that occurs during a typical Maine summer night.
It turns out that bright lights are also helpful for spotting frost heaves. I never actually thought about frost heaves before I moved to the country. I thought the term referred to what happens when you drink too many frozen margaritas. After my first spring in Maine, I became very familiar with the term frost heave. I also learned the meaning of needing a wheel alignment and new shock absorbers.
City people don’t understand what a dark sky is. Although being 40 miles from a small city pales in comparison to places like the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the darkness of the sky from my first log cabin in Maine was still relatively light-pollution free and pretty awesome. When my parents first visited me there, my Montreal born-and-raised father looked up and said, “It looks just like a planetarium.”
I had no idea that people lived in places where you have to drive eight miles to take out the garbage. Forget the “that was easy” button for trash. Also on the “not easy” list was finding a cell phone carrier that actually works in all of the neighboring towns, or for that matter, in all of the rooms of the house.
In rural communities with no public transportation, health care providers still sometimes make house calls. I love that. I’d love it more if we still got paid in chickens, but unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to be part of Health Care Reform. It would make sense for the Affordable Care Act though. I think chickens are affordable.
Early on in my practice, I’d occasionally make a house call late in the work day, usually setting out at dusk or after dark. Directions can be a challenge in rural life when you’re “from away.” The locals may or may not know the actual street names. If they do, they rarely use them, or maybe they just withhold them from the flatlanders as an inside joke. They use landmarks for directions, but even those sound like inside jokes.
Here’s a close adaptation (maybe) of the instructions I received from an elderly Mainer by phone on a winter evening so I could get to his home, which was a couple of towns over from my office:
“You take the Bangor road out past the cemetery, then take a right after the hill by the Murphy Farm, ride down about 3 miles and you’ll see the old Grange Hall (what the hell is a Grange Hall?) it’s closed now though, darn shame, we had some good times there…then you’ll see a dirt road on the left—don’t take that first one—keep going another mile and you’ll see two mail boxes on the right. Across from them and just up a small hill, there’ll be another dirt road on the right—take that one down about 2 miles, but before you get to the end, you’ll see another road off to the left. The pole is there, but the sign is gone. Turn in there and my house is at the end of that road. You can park out front but you need to come around back. Don’t worry about Max. He’ll bark at ya, but he’s friendly.”
Here’s what I found:
1) Apparently, all of the roads are referred to as “the Bangor road” or the “Dover Road’ or the “whatever town you’re heading for” road, regardless of their actual name. 2) Cemeteries can be very small in rural places, and may not be visible from the road at night. 3) The Murphy Farm isn’t some big dairy operation with a business sign or anything. It’s just someone named Murphy’s farmhouse and fields and everyone in town but me knows this family. There are also at least three other “farms” on this road. 4) A Grange Hall is a community gathering place that is usually marked with a sign that says “Grange Hall.” If it’s a defunct Grange Hall, it may be a dilapidated abandoned building, set off the road, with or without a sign, masquerading as a dilapidated abandoned building. 5) Pretty much all main roads in Maine have dirt roads branching off of them, and most of them have mail boxes near them. 6) If you’ve passed your destination on a dirt road in Maine and you get to the end of the road, especially on a winter night, there’s a good chance that you’re going to have a hard time turning around. 7) Max is fucking scary and I’m not sure he was a dog. 8) A man with four pickup trucks in his yard (granted, one was on cement blocks), who greets me with a shovel in hand clearing off the porch steps since it of course had started to sleet, probably doesn’t really need a house call, even if he is 90 years old.
Sixteen and a half years later, I guess I’m still lost in Maine. It sure didn’t hurt to fall in love with my personal professional Maine Guide during my first year in the state. In 2004, we moved to a rural town near a small central Maine city—the best of both worlds—land, woods, quiet, privacy, and only five miles from the nearest latte and sushi. Nice location for a “city mouse/country mouse” couple, although winters are getting harder for these arthritic mice.
At the moment, of course, I’m being held hostage in Sneezeville, Vermont, which is very similar to that first small town in Maine, except that ten miles away in New Hampshire we have the Middle America Strip Mall and all of its requisite Rite Aids, Price Choppers, Best Buys, and AppFriendDunkChilPan99McBurgSubGuys.
I’m not proud that I find it comforting that I could buy peanut butter or deodorant at 3:00AM if I wanted to. I’m usually in bed by 8:30PM, but that has nothing to do with it. There will always be a city girl in there, even if she does know how to break a snowshoe trail and work a wood stove.
It’s 9:45PM. I need to get to sleep. I might go buy some Skittles first though.