Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Turnpike tolls go up - again

Published in the Portland Phoenix; co-written with Katrina Botelho

As if living in Maine wasn't expensive enough, on Sunday, tolls on the Maine Turnpike will increase for the second time in four years, and a year earlier than originally planned.

So prepare to pay more, or drive slower. The Maine Turnpike Authority (MTA) is pushing you to buy an E-ZPass. Their campaign includes TV ads that describe the program as "too good to pass up" and suggest that people who wait in line to pay cash at toll plazas are lame losers. (Naturally the commercials don't mention the public-transit options, which cost even less, and lower your carbon footprint to boot.)

The pay-as-you-go (cash) toll rate will be $1 at every exit where the tolls are now 60 cents (a 67 percent increase), $2 at the York plaza (up 15 percent from $1.75), $1.75 at New Gloucester (up 40 percent from $1.25), and $1.25 at the West Gardiner interchange between I-95 and I-295 (up 25 percent from $1).

If you want a discount, you'll have to open your wallet before you get on the highway. First, you'll have to buy an E-ZPass device, which costs $25. You can then choose to pay the commuter rate, a flat quarterly fee for unlimited travel between any two exits, or front the system at least $20 in toll pre-payments at a discounted rate per toll. You pay in advance, but you pay less than you would if you used the cash lanes.

The MTA adopted this fee structure in preference to an alternate plan that would have been more expensive for commuters and might have pushed more drivers to public transit — for example the ZOOM bus, which runs from downtown Portland to Saco and Biddeford.

Surprise: the MTA didn't want to encourage that; they need the money. This toll increase is projected to raise $20.1 million, ostensibly to be spent on highway and bridge repairs. But be skeptical. The MTA faces skyrocketing maintenance costs (for example, road salt costs 83 percent more than it did four years ago), and needs to come up with $12 million in cash by November to offset a recent drop in its credit rating.

Little wonder, then, that the MTA decided to reschedule the toll hike for this year, rather than 2010, as originally planned. But they might get what's coming to them if drivers decide they've had enough, and decide to leave home or work earlier instead of paying to rush.

Turning off the Pike might be even easier than it seems. The trip from Saco to Portland is the same distance, though admittedly nine minutes longer, if you take Route 1. But if you save the dollar, you're effectively paying yourself $6.67 an hour for driving. Sounds like a pretty good rate.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Fretrosexuals: Reconnecting can be fraught with peril

Published in the Portland Phoenix, the Boston Phoenix, and the Providence Phoenix

Some people really enjoy the potential of reconnecting with folks from the past, and I'm usually one of them. Through the wonder of the Internet, old friends and I have found each other. When I see such a request in my inbox on Facebook, I almost always immediately click "Confirm." Of course, those reunions haven't been sexual — just friendly. But the prospect of a reconnection with one person has left me conflicted.

More than a decade ago, my relationship with "Anne" ended. Ours was the longest either of us had been in to date, and we had seriously contemplated our future together (marriage, kids, house, all that stuff). Ultimately, though, it finished badly.

While from time to time I have wondered about what ever happened to her, I've never tried to get in touch with her, and she has never contacted me. We have a few friends in common, from whom I have heard ultra-brief updates every few years — "Saw Anne the other weekend" or whatever — and maybe she's gotten the same about me. But that was the extent of our "contact," if you can even call it that.

Then last fall, thanks in part to those friends in common, Anne popped up in my "People You May Know" box on Facebook. Of course, I looked at her profile: she's married, living near Boston, and her photo shows her with a big grin amid a group of friends. All that's great: time has healed many of my wounds (though, I find, not all). I don't wish her ill. I might even have a drink with her if we run into each other somewhere, to catch up. But I'm not proud of how I behaved all those years ago, and I don't want to revisit those times.

Beyond that, I don't suffer from the illusion that we have much in common any longer. (Apart from our memories of what happened between us, which are probably more similar than either of us might ever admit.)

Too much time has passed, and what I did in the years since would have happened very differently, if at all, had we stayed together. While I've now settled down and gotten married, the person I am today owes more to the fact that things ended with Anne and I got on with my life than to the fact that we ever were together.

So if we did run into each other again, and caught up over lunch or a drink, I wouldn't expect us to stay in touch, much less to become friends. And I (and our respective spouses) sure would be nothing less than astonished if we wound up in bed together.

Given all that, Facebook is more of a get-in-touch-and-stay-in-touch kind of site. Privacy settings aside, anyone who is a "friend" can see my status and other information as I update it. Distant though it is, I'm not sure if that's a level of connection I want with Anne.

So I decided not to initiate contact. After about a week went by, I assumed she had seen me in her "PYMK" box and made the same decision. Not so. Another week later, I got a friend request from her: a short, friendly note ending with "It's been a looooong time . . . "

Waiting game
That was at the end of September. It has now also been "a looooong time" since her friend request, and I still haven't clicked "Confirm" — or "Ignore."

But this dallying has only made matters worse. Every time someone sends me a friend request, I have to face Anne, lined up first in the "Friend Request" queue. And all the well-meaning friends I already have on Facebook deluge me with kajillions of pokes, thrown sheep, drinks, and other application requests — never knowing that every time they do, I have to face Anne then, too.

(Almost) every time I see Anne's request, the debate begins again. If I click "Confirm," then she'll be able to see photos, videos, notes from other friends, all kinds of stuff that I'm not sure I want to share with someone who's not, technically, a "friend."

On the other hand, if I ignore her request, then I'm putting up the Berlin Wall, severing completely a chunk of my past that, while hanging on only by the barest tendril, was still somehow a connection.

Then again, by virtue of the fact that I've taken this long to make any decision at all, Anne probably thinks I've long since clicked "Ignore," and has written me off. The terrible irony is that, as a result of Facebook, I've thought about her more — and more often — in these past few months than I had in the last decade.

One last wrinkle: if you're wondering whether my wife knows about all of this, the answer is yes. She actually brought up the bizarre topic of what do to about old loves in new media because she was wondering if an ex-boyfriend was ever going to show up online. To date, she hasn't had the pleasure.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Press Releases: Kill your antenna

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Listen, TV broadcasters: I've had enough of your pleading with me to call for a coupon to help me handle the "DTV transition." You're wasting my time — it doesn't affect me. And I have lots of company — though president-elect Barack Obama has asked for a delay to make sure everyone can participate, the change (shifting TV transmissions from analog to digital signals, requiring an antenna adapter) will affect only about 15 percent of Americans, according to government stats. (Everyone else has no TV or a digital TV, or gets their TV programming over cable, satellite, or the Internet — none of which will change one bit.)

But still, TV stations need all the viewers they can get, to keep ratings up so they can charge advertisers more money. And the public owns the airwaves, meaning we need to know how to access what's being broadcast over them.

Most of the purpose of this whole crazy undertaking is to use the airwaves more efficiently. Compared to digital signals, traditional analog transmissions consume more of the broadcast spectrum for an equivalent amount of information, so converting to digital gives us, the public, a net gain of available airwaves. From that surplus, the government has kept several frequencies to itself for emergency broadcasts, but sold most of the rest to private companies for a total of $19.6 billion, which funds a lot of government communications-infrastructure efforts. (A few spare "white spaces" in between allocated frequencies are also available to any user, which provides room for experimentation of the sort that launched the Wi-Fi revolution.)

A lot of those re-allocated airwaves will soon be used to provide long-distance wireless (or cellular) Internet access that can efficiently reach rural areas. It is already happening all over northern and downeast Maine, and it's a great way to bring far-flung parts of the country into the 21st century.

We should do more of this, and we know how to. Let's get all the spectrum back from TV broadcasters.

Face it: broadcast TV is hardly the way of the future. TV itself is fine — tons of people, including me, watch TV all the time. But we are not using our airwaves to their best, highest possible purpose. We could be using them — and the money made by selling rights to them to private Internet providers — to give Internet access to every American, everywhere in the country. We could subsidize Internet access for poor people, ensuring that they can participate fully in our economy and our society.

But of course the broadcasters want to hang onto their one-way communication monopoly. They definitely don't want a completely level content playing field, in which video producers tiny and huge would have equal access to every household. But they are our airwaves — not the broadcasters'. Let's use them for something real.

Press Herald Watch
Sale postponed The financing the prospective purchasers had hoped for has not yet come through. There is speculation in some quarters that they are waiting for a real fire-sale price before closing the deal. Maybe that's true, or maybe banks just aren't that excited about lending money to a questionable business model in a terrible economy.

Arbitration delayed Because the sale is postponed, so is arbitration in a dispute the Blethens have with their employees' union, over whether a new owner must continue to honor the existing union contract.

New free daily paper The owners of the Conway Daily Sun in New Hampshire have announced that sometime in the next few weeks there will be a new free daily paper in our town, the Portland Daily Sun. It will circulate about 5000 copies, have a news staff of two reporters and an editor, operate out of Wi-Fi-enabled coffee shops and a Munjoy Hill apartment, and print in Conway.

Entertainment on the cheap: Where to go without breaking the bank

Published in the Portland Phoenix

You've paid your rent and your tuition, and bought your books and groceries. Yes, you're broke. But that's no fun. Now what?

Fortunately, Portland is rife with budget-friendly activities and events. Some places have weekly specials — we've compiled a bunch here — and there are plenty of others, as well as venues with occasional deals. Here's what to look for, and when.

Look your best
JONATHAN DOUGLAS SALON AND SPA (345 Fore St., has $99 "economy crunch packages" combining several services for one price. Choose "The Feel Good," with a basic manicure and pedicure, shampoo, haircut and style, and a brow wax, or unwind with "The OohLaLa," a one-hour Swedish massage and a "Get Acquainted" facial.

O2 SALON AND SPA (605 Congress St., has "recession packages," too, including a 30-minute massage and a pedicure for $80 (a $10 savings).

STUDIO ONE LTD. (151 Middle St., is giving new clients 15 percent off services by Kate and Robin.

Each week GOODWILL STORES (244 St. John St., in the Union Station plaza; find others mark many of their clothes and accessories (and other items) as half-price with special tags.

And on Wednesdays, the SALVATION ARMY STORES in Portland (49 Alder St. and 30 Warren Ave.) have half-price specials on marked items.

Refuel the engine
For a quick pick-me-up, grab a "recession special" coffee at FREAKY BEAN COFFEE COMPANY stores in Westbrook (855 Main St.,, Scarborough (264 US Route 1, and 2 Cabela Way), and South Portland (740 Broadway) — it's 99 cents for a small drip coffee and $1.99 for a small latte.

Also calling its deal a "recession special" is BRIAN BORU (57 Center St.,, which offers lunch for $7. That includes a soft drink; if you want to upgrade to a local draft beer, add just $2.95.

O'NATURALS in Portland (83 Exchange St., has specials just about every night, under their "economic bailout plan." If you work at nearby businesses, stop in on Mondays for 20 percent off (show your business card, nametag, or pay stub); Tuesdays they give 20 percent off with a college ID. Wednesdays are family night, with a free kid's meal if you buy an adult one. Thursday two guys can go in and buy one meal and get a second free; Saturday the same is true for two women. And Friday is "date night," when any couple gets 20 percent off.

On-the-go diners will want to stop by the new JOE'S NEW YORK PIZZA (420 Fore St., to check out their slice-salad-drink combo deals.

At ANTHONY'S ITALIAN KITCHEN (151 Middle St., you can buy one dinner and get the second at half price on Friday and Saturday nights.

Westbrook's Italian-cuisine standby, Casa Novello (694 Main St., 207.854.9909), has two-for-one entrees on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Back in Portland, SHAY'S GRILL PUB (Monument Square, has a $4 quesadilla special on Mondays.

Every day is special at the EMPIRE DINE AND DANCE (575 Congress St.,, with a $6 burger deal that includes fries. Bring a friend — it's two small burgers, not one big one, so it's perfect for splitting.

There's always free popcorn at ROSIE'S (330 Fore St., 207.772.5656) and THREE DOLLAR DEWEYS (241 Commercial St., — though the management obviously prefer if you order something to eat or drink with your popcorn. And if you order a drink at the ARMORY LOUNGE (20 Milk St.,, you get free snacks.

The MAINE SQUEEZE JUICE CAFÉ (5 1/2 Moulton St., 207.775.6673) sells 16-ounce containers of really yummy soup for $3 (and, while this is moving into the next section, amazing flavor-explosion smoothies for $5).

Quench your thirst
The WHITE HEART (551 Congress St., has your back when it comes to drinking on the cheap. Every night they offer Portland Phoenix readers' favorite drink special: $4 for a PBR pounder and a shot of Evan Williams. Mondays are half-price wine night, when certain bottles — not glasses — are discounted. On Wednesdays, get $3 well drinks, and on Thursdays pay $5 for a PBR pounder and six wings.

The GREAT LOST BEAR (540 Forest Ave., has "short" beer nights on Mondays and Tuesdays — get a 22-ounce draft for the price of a pint. And on Thursdays, selected pints are $2.50 between 5 and 9 pm.

At MESA VERDE (618 Congress St., 207.774.6089), Thursdays bring $6 margarita pitchers — which are nicer when it's warmer, we'll observe, but are still pretty good in wintertime.

On Mondays and Tuesdays at the DOGFISH BAR AND GRILLE (128 Free St., has $2.50 drafts from 4 to 7 pm.

If you're up late, CHEF ET AL. (408 Forest Ave., has you covered. After 10 pm, appetizers are half price, and drinks are $1 off with a college ID. (The discount is also available to teachers and restaurant workers, regardless of student status.)

And UNA not only offers $5 specials on beer, wine, martinis, and other cocktails from 4:30 to 7:30 pm every day, but extends the deals all night long on Tuesdays. And on Thursdays there are even more, with $3 beers.

Catch a flick
Look, we all know about and the various TV shows and films there for free viewing (with just a few ads). But if you, like us, believe that it's better on the big screen, Tuesday's your day at the NICKELODEON (1 Temple St.,, with $5 admissions all day and all night to every film.

And if the film you want is no longer in theaters, it's certainly at VIDEOPORT (151 Middle St., 207.773.1999), which has daily rent-one-get-one-free deals: Mondays you can choose your freebie from horror, incredibly strange, sci-fi, thriller, or Japanimation; Tuesdays pick an action or classic film; Wednesdays pick comedy or foreign; Thursdays get a free film from any category; and on Saturday and Sunday, rent two and get one free from any category. (Also, on Fridays, you can get a kid's video free without even renting another film!)

Dance it up
Fridays are "college night" at the HIDDEN DOOR (the nightclub inside Styxx, at 3 Spring St.,, with no cover if you show your college ID. Also, there are 50-cent drafts until midnight, and a not-to-be-missed human disco ball.

There's tons of no-cover karaoke all over town. For just one example, head downstairs at the ASYLUM (121 Center St., on Wednesdays. Thursdays, the downstairs club at the Asylum has a retro dance party with no cover.

Another no-cover spot with lots of variety (stand-up comedy, live bands, and an acoustic open-mic) is SLAINTE (24 Preble St.,, which also has half-price glasses of wine on Mondays and Tuesdays, and beer specials Monday through Thursday.

And don't forget...
If you'll forgive the shameless self-promotion, we suggest you don't miss OUR LISTINGS — every week, we compile everything that's going on in greater Portland, southern Maine, and seacoast New Hampshire, complete with times and costs. To stay current, pick up the Portland Phoenix every week and choose your favorite activities!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Exploring deep within

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Hannah Holmes, the Maine-born, Portland-dwelling science writer, naturalist, and friend to all animals has turned her lens deeply inward in her latest book, The Well-Dressed Ape: ANatural History of Myself. In the process, she not only reveals more of herself than perhaps might be generally considered polite (describing the color not only of the "fur" on top of her head but also elsewhere) but also uncovers deeper truths about all of us.

As much memoir as biology, Holmes compares her interactions with other humans against the ways other animals interact. We are, it turns out, definitively animalistic in our tendencies toward territory (whatever we have, we protect, protect, protect) but at the same time bizarrely unique (what we consider desirable in a location is not based on food productivity or defensive characteristics, but some external message of "status").

It is definitely fascinating — and amusing — to have the human animal explained in the detached, clinical prose of science, but most interesting, and in excellent supply from Holmes, is something we can never get from other fauna: the information from within the brain and the senses and the body of what the life of one of those creatures is actually like.

The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself | by Hannah Holmes | Random House | 351 pages | $25

Tuesday, January 6, 2009