Down East 2013 ©
Have you heard that Maine is the dumbest state in the union? That's according to a recent survey — well, actually, a chart — published on a web site that goes by the 100% credible-sounding name of Pleated Jeans ("No filler, just funny! "). There is indeed something funny about this whole thing, but I'll get back to that.
While rejecting any and all attempts to impugn our intelligence, I do admit that we might be a little crazy.
Look at the sorts of work Mainers do. My friend Norm has been crawling around lately on someone's roof, installing a solar hot-water system. This at a time when daytime highs have barely climbed into double digits. Rosey, my snowplow guy (who is also an ordained minister, a naturalist and an auctioneer), drives out heedlessly through raging blizzards, passing on his rounds other guys from the power company busy splicing high-voltage lines so that I can microwave a cup of yesterday's coffee. There are people who go out in boats over steel-gray water that makes you cold just to look at. People who lug chainsaws into the snowy forest and drag out mighty trees. Wardens who comb pathless wetlands for missing snowmobilers. Healthcare workers who point their cars down unplowed roads to make it on time for the graveyard shift at the local hospital.
There's some kind of argument in Augusta, I hear, over how to make Maine work better. That's not my beat; but I would humbly submit that it's a daily marvel that Maine works at all.
We are a spread-out, sparsely populated state that struggles constantly to hang on to the citizenry we've got. There are times, even where I live, within earshot of U.S. Route 1, when everything seems to have come to an absolute stop. But that's an illusion: there is always something happening, Mainers out there working quietly, every minute of the day or night.
When I try to imagine this, to form some kind of mental image of what's really happening at, say, two hours before sunrise on an icy winter morning, what comes to mind is something like an insect colony. But that's wrong, because we're not talking about unthinking, indistinguishable drones. We're talking about intelligent people who willfully take on the difficult, sometimes dangerous and often invisible work that needs to be done. And all the rest of us depend on them, whether or not we ever pause to give it much thought.
I've been slow to give it any thought myself. What opened my eyes, oddly enough, was spending the holidays alone while my far-flung family was busy flinging itself even farther than usual. I say "alone" but that wasn't really the case. Apart from my kids, everyone else in my life was pretty much right where they'd always been — including the folks who work in the local shops I like to frequent. One of these is a conspicuously located gas-station-cum-village-market at the edge of Camden village, and I mean, these people are there all the time.
What's especially charming about this place is that the folks who own it hang around on major holidays, working extra hours so their employees can have some time off. I make it a point to schlep down on Christmas, on some inconsequential errand or other, just because I know they'll be there. This year, with extra time on my hands, I hung around to chat with the paterfamilias, a friendly guy named Gary. I told him this was a classy thing, his tradition of pulling the holiday shift. I expected, I think, something like a modest chuckle. Instead, Gary turned serious.
"You know, I think about all the working people out there," he said. "Christmas is a really busy time for a lot of them. And the people in all these restaurants — they work late, especially around New Year's. Then when they get off, there's no place open for them to pick up coffee or beer or something on the way home. So I try to stay open when I know people are going to be coming by. Sometimes we'll turn the outside lights off but keep the doors unlocked, so our regulars can get in."
As revelations go, this probably counts as a modest one. But it got me to thinking, you know, there are probably little places like this all around the state. There must be, because people are working all the time, and there's this whole infrastructure — a gas station here, a convenience store there — to support them. I felt kind of dumb, never to have really appreciated this.
Speaking of which ... that bogus statistic about Maine being the dumbest state derives from a ranking of average SAT scores . And this in turn is driven almost solely by the percentage of high school students taking the SAT, a category where Maine leads the nation by a wide margin, at 92 percent. In Iowa, the "smartest" state by this dubious measure, a mere 3 percent of students — the brightest and most ambitious — bother with the SAT; the rest take the ACT, which the survey ignores. "No filler, just funny."
Tell that to the man with the chainsaw.