Wednesday, January 18, 2012

I'm always surprised at how much Maine reminds me of two of my favorite places on earth: the far northwoods of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Much of the geography here is nearly identical and I love it! Maine is loaded with lakes and rivers but of course it also has the sea coast but even that sometimes reminds me of the Lake Superior coastline up in Michigan. If you've ever been on Lake Superior you'll know what I mean: it is so huge and tempermental (and deadly) it may as well be an ocean and both places have gulls and other water birds. I guess the big difference is one of saltwater vs freshwater, lobsters vs whitefish.

This is the lighthouse on Cape Neddick here in Maine; it sure could be on Lake Superior too.
We live in southern coastal Maine now and the weather here is much more temperate than the rest of Maine, the northwoods of Wisconsin or the UP. I'm told it's a benefit of the ocean and its currents.

Today we're in the high 30's -- which is about 25 degrees warmer than the northwoods and UP and 15+ degrees warmer than my hometown, Chicago. We're told by the locals that this area of Maine has enjoyed an unusually warm autumn and (so far) winter.  We may find in future years that it gets as bitter cold here as in Chicago and Wisconsin and Michigan but for now Al and I are sharing a private joke about our move here; ie., the other day when we were enjoying the first 40 degree weather we think we've ever seen in the first week of January I asked him "Hey, do think we're just so senile that we mistakenly moved to Memphis and don't know it?"

There is one strong similarity to Chicago though: the wind. I don't know about the rest of Maine but let me tell you this area sees some significant wind. Of course, to a Chicagoan, it's still not all that daunting.

I've heard Mainers are reserved people who aren't all that friendly and easy to get to know. Well, that sure hasn't been our experience. I think they're some of the friendliest -- and innately classiest -- people I've ever met. They possess a certain natural grace and good manners that continues to impress us. Folks take their time around here and expect you to do the same; there is always time for a pleasant hello. My Chicago accent often elicits inquiries about being a non-Mainer and often leads into a full blown conversation.

Southern coastal Maine draws millions of tourists each year but that number drops significantly in winter and Mainers seem genuinely interested in why a Chicagoan is in Maine at this time of year. There's always a hint of surprise (and pleasure) when they learn I live here now and love it because, of course, they love Maine too -- which is one of the things I hear most often from Mainers: they seem to know they're in a little piece of heaven.

Mainers are quick to tell me how many other people are from elsewhere too... everyone seems to know someone who fell in love with Maine and moved here permanently. I've been introduced to people from the West, South, Midwest and every other state in New England... and even New Zealand and France. And there are so many Chicagoans here that I think I could sell Bears memorabilia, real Chicago hot dogs and pizza, and make a major killing.

The other day someone asked me to be really honest and tell her the truth about Chicago's fabled winters and the weather in the Midwest. She asked, "What do you think the real difference is between weather in Chicago and here in Maine?"

"That's easy," I said, "in Chicago the weather tries to kill you."

I was doing some research on NOAA's site for my book, "March Storm," and came across this information: 74 tornadoes plowed through Maine in the last 60 years.

Do you know how many tornadoes wreaked havoc throughout Illinois in 40 years? 2,102.

Further, Maine doesn't get hammered with hurricanes as much as the coastal states south of Maine; there have only been 7 or 8 whoppers causing significant damage in the last 100 yrs. They get these storms called "nor'easters" up here but Al & I have already experienced one and we don't think they're anywhere near as terrifying as the swath of T-storms that rip across the prairie in spring or the blizzards that can hammer Chicago in winter. 

The truth is I'll always think of myself as a Chicagoan. In fact, I spoke a little bit about Chicago in my presentation at a local church celebrating Martin Luther King's birthday this past Monday. I mentioned that in 1966 Chicago was one of the most segregated cities in America and Dr. King was shocked at the amount of race hate he experienced when he marched for civil rights in Chicago in that same year. In fact, it was in Chicago that King was hit with a brick thrown by a crazed racist in Marquette Park.

But in the intervening years since then Chicago elected its first female mayor (Jane Byrne), its first black mayor (Harold Washington), and an interim black mayor (Eugene Sawyer). Now of course it has elected its first Jewish mayor, Rahm Emanuel. I said it's certainly possible and even probable that one day in the near future Chicago will elect a Hispanic, Arab or even Hindu and it wouldn't surprise me either if any of them were gay, lesbian or transgendered. I said one thing I can say about Chicago is that its people are a helluva lot more concerned about moving snow than the color of your skin, your religion, or your sexual orientation.

And you know what? That's one of the core values I will always have in my heart -- no matter where I live and make my home.

I would suggest to you that no matter where you live that it might serve as an excellent core value there too... frankly, in the disgraceful rhetoric of this long painful primary season, I would argue that the whole country should look to Chicago for a lesson in political pragmatism and good sense... but on the way, it could also take a lesson in grace and good manners from the nice people in Maine.

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