Monday, June 24, 2013

Best advice series

Published in Money magazine; these are my contributions to a larger group project

Shed financial stress
Money worries often trigger an obsessive-thought loop, sending your brain and body into fight-or-flight mode. In this state you can't make good decisions.
So first break the physical response: Close your eyes and take a couple of slow, deep breaths. Next, break the mental response: Focus your attention on the sensations of breathing.
This process opens up the medial prefrontal cortex, the reflective, creative part of your brain that develops strategies to solve complex problems in a way that's simply not possible if your body and brain are still trying to fight or flee. When the worry loop restarts -- and it will -- you can always come back to your breathing. 
-- Stephen Cope, director of the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living
Be healthier for free 
Take the closest thing we have to a wonder drug: a walk. It reduces the risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, depression, and many other ailments. Even if you never lose an ounce of weight, increasing activity is crucial to protecting your health. 
-- Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Win a bidding war
Go as high as the maximum price you'd ever be willing to pay -- if someone outbids you, you'll feel confident you gave it your best shot.
Sometimes it's not just about the money. Give the seller some breathing room too. Buyers often signal their interest by offering to close quickly, but that move might backfire in this market: If the sellers haven't found a new place yet, they may be unable to accept your offer.
Instead, propose a seller's residential lease. You close on the house quickly, then rent it back for 60 or 90 days. That gives the sellers a chance to look for a home in a nonpanicked way -- and gets you the house you want. 
-- Mary Beth Harrison, founder and realtor, Keller Williams Elite, Dallas
Prosper as a landlord
Think like your worst-case tenant -- the one who'll never pay you a dime and never leave. These folks will take advantage of strict laws on when and why a tenant can be evicted. You need to know those laws just as well as they do.
Write your tenant lease to safeguard your rights, like setting community standards for noise, trash and other areas of possible neighborly nuisance. To protect yourself financially, put away a little money from the rent to cover potential legal costs. 
-- Casey Edwards, long-time landlord and co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Being a Smart Landlord
Take the drama out of a renovation 
Don't walk blindly into a major renovation project. Know why you are remodeling, and define what you really need so you don't just pretty up a space that doesn't work for you.
And before you even contact a contractor or designer, take 25% of your renovation budget and sock it away. That way when your contractor finds water damage, you can fix the problem and move on without fighting about how much it's going to cost -- or what part of your plan you have to scrap to stay on budget. 
-- Susan Solakian, consultant and author of The Homeowner's Guide to Managing a Renovation

Friday, June 14, 2013

Equality drive continues: Workplace rights fight heats up

Published in Out In Maine

While much has — rightly — been made of progress toward marriage equality for LGBT Americans, another, possibly even bigger, hurdle remains: workplace equality.

In 29 states, people can still be fired simply for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Fortunately, Maine isn’t one of them — it’s one of the 21 states that protect LGBT individuals from workplace discrimination; a further 16 states protect LGB people, but not workers who identify as transgender, says Tico Almeida, founder and executive director of Freedom To Work, a national organization promoting employment equality.

To provide national uniformity, and include being L, G, B, or T on a long list of federally protected elements of identity that cannot be discriminated against in employment (with race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and disability, among others) comes the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, re-introduced in Congress in April. All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation are co-sponsors; Republican Susan Collins is a lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate.

Despite having 172 co-sponsors in the House and 48 in the Senate, it faces an uncertain future, though perhaps its best chance in many years.

For Maine’s delegation, it’s a pretty straightforward issue: As Independent Senator Angus King said in a statement from his office, “No one should suffer employment discrimination for any reason, including on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Simply put, it’s entirely unacceptable and shouldn’t be tolerated. When it comes to the workplace, all that should matter is a person’s skills and their ability to perform the job.”

And it’s not exactly a controversial issue outside the Capitol. In a November 2011 poll done by the Human Rights Campaign, 87 percent of Americans thought discrimination against LGBT workers was already outlawed by federal statute; 78 percent thought it was illegal in their own state, including 75 percent of people in states that actually lack anti-discrimination laws. (The survey’s margin of error is 3.46 percent.)

Further, 77 percent of Americans support protecting LGBT people from employment discrimination, including 70 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of people who identified themselves as conservative. Heck, groups usually thought to really oppose gay rights were strong backers: 69 percent of people over 65, 68 percent of people with a high school degree or less, 77 percent of observant Christians, 74 percent of born-again Christians, and 72 percent of residents of the Deep South, the poll says.

But in Congress, it’s a hot potato, 1st District Congresswoman Chellie Pingree says in an interview: “The Republican House leadership is extremely conservative. There’s just no way they would bring it up.” As a strong supporter, she’s trying to be optimistic: “I’m hoping Congress will catch up” with the wider public, she says.

With some major donors starting to withhold money from the Democratic Party because of their failure to act to protect LGBT individuals, whether through the executive order or through the killing of sponsorship for non-citizen same-sex spouses in the immigration reform package, the pressure is on President Barack Obama and the Democrats to force something to happen.

Senate action
Congressional progress has been long delayed — ENDA and other bills with similar protections have been introduced repeatedly since 1974. Supporters had hoped for a Senate committee hearing in June, but may yet get one sometime in mid-July, if Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who co-sponsored the bill in the Senate, keeps his promise to discuss the bill after the July 4 holiday break. (With the Supreme Court expected to rule on the Defense of Marriage Act by the end of June, the July timing also provides an opportunity to revise the ENDA bill’s language to preserve protections in response to whatever is contained in that ruling.)

Harkin’s announcement of committee hearings gives supporters heart; so does the recent announcement by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, that he has a lesbian niece, and that he does not think she should lose her job because of her sexual identity. He has floated the possbility that the bill might come up for a full Senate vote this year, perhaps in September or October.

If that happens, and if it succeeds, as Almeida expects, it will likely be due to Collins’s hard work behind the scenes, convincing her colleagues, both Democrat and Republican, to support fairness and equality in employment.

“I think Democrats have been going too slowly on ENDA,” Almeida says, adding that Collins appears to agree, because she is pushing Dems in the Senate to keep their promises of support for gay rights. And she is convincing her Republican colleagues that ENDA is a safe, bipartisan bill that deserves their support too.

Christian Berle, FTW’s new legislative director, who was born on Cliff Island and grew up in Portland and Cumberland, calls Collins’s support for gay rights “a matter of compassion and support for common human decency.” He should know: not only a former deputy director of the Log Cabin Republicans, he has known Collins for 17 years, including interning on her 1996 campaign and twice in her DC office.

Almeida projects the bill will pass out of the Harkin-led Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee with every Democrat in support and “one to three Republicans” in favor as well, which should set it up for a good vote in the full Senate, if Reid keeps his word. “I think we can get go 60 votes and even a little bit more,” Almeida says.

House inaction
Speaker of the House “John Boehner is a roadblock to ENDA — and many other things that would benefit the American people,” Almeida says. And John Kline, a Minnesota Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, is also “ultra-conservative, anti-gay,” Almeida says. “His intention is to bottle up ENDA in committee and never have it see the light of day.”

So the normal legislative process in the House may need a kick in the pants.

Happily, there is a method for doing that. It’s called a “discharge petition,” through which, with the support of at least half the House, a bill can be pulled out of committee and directly to a vote on the House floor. With more than 170 House members already signed on as co-sponsors, that leaves between 40 and 50 more members needed to support bringing it to a vote.

Almeida says the full number may not be needed; the last time this method was used successfully was with the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill, in 2002 — when the number of House members supporting the discharge petition got close to the 218 target, the House leadership reluctantly started working the bill through the committee process. Almeida projects a similar situation may happen with ENDA, so Boehner can avoid looking like he is losing control of the flow of legislation.

Pingree says such a petition would likely be more strategic and symbolic than directly effective, but she supports any effort to bring ENDA up for a vote, even in a House led by hostile opponents.

Executive action
Even before Congressional movement, there is more that can be done: President Barack Obama could issue an executive order offering similar protection to more American workers.

Employees of the federal government are already protected by ENDA-like rules, created initially by an executive order from President Bill Clinton for LGB people, and expanded by Obama to include transgender people.

The next target for an executive order is federal contractors — private companies that get government contracts and are paid in taxpayer dollars. While campaigning in 2008, Obama said he supported such a move; five years later he has yet to act on it.

It is true that most major federal contractors have protections for sexual orientation and gender identity, and that more such companies are adopting such policies all the time. But discrimination remains widespread: Williams Institute studies show that between 15 and 43 percent of GLB people have been subjected to sexual-orientation-related discrimination or harassment in the workplace, and 90 percent of transgender people report “some form of harassment or mistreatment on the job or report having taken some action such as hiding who they are to avoid it.”

It is indeed is worth celebrating the fact that at least 61 percent of federal-contractor employees “are already covered by laws or private policies protecting against sexual orientation discrimination,” and “at least 41 percent . . . are already covered . . . against gender-identity discrimination.”

But that means a stunning 11 million people — 39 percent of people working for companies that receive taxpayer dollars — are vulnerable to being fired (or passed over for promotions, or otherwise discriminated against) simply for being gay, lesbian, or bisexual — and 16.5 million — 59 percent of those workers — if they are transgender, face similar perils.

Williams Institute research says 91 percent of Americans, including 86 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of Independents, and 61 percent of Republicans support Obama issuing the executive order. With all this momentum, ENDA has its best chance in years. 

A possible pitfall
A common objection to gay-rights legislation — and an excuse for stalling, revising, or outright gutting protections — is that it somehow interferes with people’s religious freedom.

But this draft of ENDA goes so far toward protecting religious liberties that even the ACLU — which is primarily concerned about constitutional rights — says it is too broad. While the ACLU does support the overall bill, and its underlying principles, “we do have really serious concerns with the religious exemptions,” says Rachel Healy, communications and education director of the ACLU of Maine. Counterintuitively, the rules could “provide . . . cover to discriminate against LGBT employees,” by exempting a very broad range of religious-affiliated organizations from the law.

Churches and other houses of worship would be exempt, as expected (the law couldn’t tell the Catholic Church it had to hire, or could not fire, a priest who did not conform to the Pope’s rules). But so would hospitals and universities affiliated with religious groups. And they would be allowed to discriminate in employment positions that are not at all related to religious doctrine or practice — such as cleaning staff and office workers. That level of discrimination is “a sweeping exemption that is broader than anything that’s ever been okayed before,” including for exemptions about discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or disability, Healy says.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Congress is wrecked: Olympia Snowe and Tom Allen explain what's really wrong and how to fix it

Published in the Portland Phoenix

We know Congress is broken. Really broken. Health care, immigration, civil rights. But many of us on the outside don't know just how badly broken it is, and we have only vague spectator ideas of how to fix it. What we do know is what we want, which is real action from Congress toward solving the problems our country faces.
Two recent books — both political memoirs fused with some prescriptions for repair of the system — offer insider views of how awful Washington politics really is, and paint a bleak picture of the path back to anything resembling a working American political system.
Tom Allen's Dangerous Convictions: What's Really Wrong with the US Congress (Oxford University Press) and Olympia Snowe's Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress (Weinstein) are neither uplifting reads nor remotely comforting when describing the cannibalistic brutality of our elected officials.
Allen's book reads like a standard politician's treatise, focusing on his experiences and interactions over 12 years in Congress (1997-2009), and offering mainly partisan criticism of the broken system — expressed in poorly edited repetitive language and rhetoric. To read his book, you could be forgiven for thinking there's basically nothing wrong with Democrats, and everything that's not working is the fault of extremist Republicans.
Snowe, by contrast, takes a selective view of her 40 years in politics (six in the Maine Legislature, and 34 in DC: 16 in the House and 18 in the Senate), choosing her anecdotes carefully to develop precise points about what needs to be fixed — by both parties — to set our government back on a productive course.
We can mine both books for a clearer picture of what's wrong, and Snowe's work in particular for ways we can push Congress to clean itself up and get down to the people's business again.
The "do-nothing Congress" of 1947-48 passed 906 public laws; in 2011-12, Congress passed just 283, Snowe observes — as just one of a host of criticisms she heaps on Congressional leaders of both parties. Her main objection is that without legislative action, problems persist in the lives of the American people, piling up over time, and worsening without hope for repair or relief.
For example, when recalling the disastrous 2011 budget crisis that led to the so-called "budget supercommittee," and ultimately resulted in the across-the-board federal spending cuts called the "sequester," Snowe pulls no punches: "When your remedy to head off disaster is to form a committee, you know you're in trouble."
She is relentless in her criticism, lamenting that "perhaps we should have a refresher course on how a bill becomes law, because it seems that the art of legislating has been largely forgotten," and noting that when the supercommittee failed, public "confidence in government was shattered." She places the responsibility on members — and leaders — of both parties, and dissects what, procedurally, electorally, and societally, has gone wrong. Driving the nail into the coffin, Snowe hammers the point home: "The stakes were extraordinarily high, and still we couldn't act decisively."
For a wider, more philosophical, perspective on partisan disputes, some of Allen's insights are useful: "Republican arguments . . . seemed incomprehensible to Democrats, just as ours seemed misguided to them. The evidence that mattered to us made no difference to them." Observing that Democrats and Republicans have "competing views of the world and the role of government," he says "our political debates have become ideologically frozen" in a fight between individualism and community.
Citing Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, a 1985 book by five university sociologists, Allen calls these two poles the country's "first language" — individualism — and its "second language" — community. He argues that the Republicans have a public-relations advantage because they speak the "first language," while Democrats are stuck trying to communicate with Americans in their "second language."
But then he gets more pointed, terming the modern political environment as "a widening, hardening conflict between those who believe that the mission of government is to advance the common good and those who believe government is an obstacle to that end."
He makes several interesting observations that support this point, including an anecdote in which he asks new legislators why they sought elective office. Democrats all had some version of wanting to "help people," while no Republicans said anything like that, and rather explained that they had, somewhere along the way, discovered that they "like politics."
Allen gets a few good zingers in, such as: "Our representative form of government requires that elected officials reason together, not just emote in the same space."
But he seems largely un-self-aware, and only hands a few mild knocks to the Democrats, such as a passing suggestion that Dems' tendency to avoid international military intervention cost millions of lives in the Rwandan genocide.
He also appears at times departed from reality, as when he claims that our elected officials share our worries about their effectiveness: "for both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, the inability to work across the aisle is the major frustration of the job, and neither side knows how to overcome it." But he doesn't show evidence of that "frustration," instead continuing to compile a list of wrongs that suggest politicians of both parties quite enjoy a good fight more than getting the public's business done.
Allen studiously avoids placing blame on Democrats when Republicans could be the scapegoats. Exploring the debate over whether and how Medicare should cover prescription-drug costs (and, specifically, whether the government should be allowed to negotiate bulk-purchasing discounts from pharmaceutical companies), Allen notes that Republican leaders want both decreased government spending and decreased government control over skyrocketing drug costs. While his underlying point may be that the GOP has no good solution for this major health-care dilemma, Allen does not dish out even-handed criticism. He fails to note that Democrats didn't take advantage of this impossible standard by pointing it out as an obvious barricade to progress. That would have been very useful, building not rhetorical or political points but public momentum for debating the priorities involved.
It is this sort of intellectual shortcoming that weakens Allen's legitimacy as an observer, but his efforts to prescribe fixes truly come off the rails.
First, he tries to play nicely with members of the opposite party: "the ideas and worldviews on both sides are honestly held, subject to the caveat that politicians learn to blend their ideas and their political interests until they seem indistinguishable." But that of course means they're not honestly held, at least not after years on Capitol Hill.
And then he offers a basic, simplistic, and ridiculous solution: Republicans have to "reject supply-side economics and accept the scientific consensus on climate change" before they can be functional again, he writes; the party must "escape[] the grip of the libertarian worldview and agree[] that government can address problems beyond the capacity of the private sector." This, of course, would mean renouncing the very worldviews Allen just claimed were "honestly held," not to mention the foundation of the Republican Party platform.
His proposals for other fixes are equally partisan and reality-challenged: First, he suggests somehow changing the country's entire media environment into something much more thoughtful. Then he suggests politicians not appeal to voters' emotions but rather their brains. And he wants business leaders to not see the federal government as a "profit center," after which he hopes religious leaders will focus on "common humanity."
These things are indeed very nice-sounding, but as practical approaches to our very real problems, they're useless wishful thinking that suggest an ignorance of human nature and millennia of history.
Allen closes the book on his own partisan cluelessness with four principles he suggests all politicians adhere to: "respect for evidence," "tolerance of ambiguity," "caring about consequences," and "commitment to the common good."
Again, these aren't necessarily bad concepts, but he demands that public servants adhere to his definitions of them, rather than acknowledging that Republicans would say they do adhere to these principles, but have differing views on what evidence, ambiguities, consequences, and aspects of the common good should be tended to.
His only real foray attempt to unravel the congressional quagmire is on page 123: "When the congressional minority party, Republican or Democratic, complains about being denied the opportunity to amend a bill, extend the debate, or a similar process issue, the real objection is almost always about the substance."
But Snowe disagrees, and it's her book that is by far the more interesting.
She compellingly argues that it is, in fact, the process of legislation — and the centrally related issues of electoral politics and fund-raising — that is the core of the problem.
"Fair-minded legislators were reluctant to reach across the aisle lest they bring on an intra-party challenge," she writes early on, specifically targeting her own party for reproach: "The main Republican Party . . . is more interested in taking down individuals with whom they don't agree than in electing representatives who will find bipartisan legislative solutions to America's problems." (In fairness, she notes that Democrats do this too, such as to Arkansas's Blanche Lincoln and Connecticut's Joe Lieberman, who were both targeted from within the donkey party as punishment for stepping outside official turf.)
Seeking a way to "attract and support candidates of both parties who are committed to pragmatic problem-solving," she makes a brief appeal to the Founding Fathers' intent, but in a very non-partisan and extremely procedurally specific way: "It was a system derived from the belief that thoughtful, well-intentioned legislators could, and should, look for ways to bridge differences."
She gives a lengthy but fast-paced buildup explaining how today's problems emerged — and in the process offers clear examples of when and how bipartisanship worked effectively (such as on a host of women's rights issues). She offers a model for how the art of compromise could be resurrected, working with many players across the government on the details of bills and engaging with opponents and skeptics to get movement on the issues that matter.
Snowe sticks hard to practicality: "Above all else, in my view a legislator is a problem-solver," she writes, counseling against a search for "ideological purity" in favor of efforts to find "practical and reasonable solutions that can attract the bipartisan support necessary for enactment."
Her scorn for hard-line party politics is subtle, but unbridled: "Fiscal responsibility used to be the quintessential Republican belief," she writes as the opening sentence of a chapter about government spending, in which she decries the GOP's failure to seek long-term budget improvements, in favor of playing short-term political games.
Snowe powerfully urges taking action, attempting movement toward real solutions, even if that means compromise. And compromise will be needed, if we're to fix what's wrong. As she reminds the petulant children of Congress: "This is a key tenet of bipartisan consensus-building. In order to get a lot of what you want, you may have to accept a little of what you don't want."
If the basic problem is, as Snowe sees it, legislators who are acting in a theatrical performance, adhering to irrelevant political philosophies, and not working for the public at large, the fixes she proposes will be hard for those who make the rules to swallow — but all the more necessary for their reluctance. Fortunately, her thoughtful approaches ensure the balance of power is not upset by these changes, no matter which party is in the ascendant.
First up Snowe addresses the popular idea of reforming the filibuster, though unlike some other proposals, hers manages to respect that tradition as protecting the rights of the minority in the Senate. She suggests it be eliminated as an option for several types of votes, including motions to send a bill to a conference between the House and Senate — because there would be an opportunity to filibuster the bill that results from that conference. She also proposes requiring individual senators to identify themselves when threatening a filibuster, and raises the possibility of requiring actual talking filibusters (rather than just the procedural move required at present) if other reforms are not effective at unblocking the stalled progress of the Senate.
Snowe also suggests abolishing the practices of barring amendments to bills and secret holds in the Senate — both of which stifle active debate and prevent input from other members of Congress, effectively muting the voices of the millions of Americans those members represent. With those changes, bolstered by devolution of power back from usurping leadership to the experts serving on the legislative committees, and led by a bipartisan conference (much like Maine's Legislative Council), Snowe thinks the gears of the legislative process will be greased and ready to roll.
Next she pushes lawmakers to act, with an approach that is all stick and no carrot. Starting with a basic principle of "no budget, no pay," she demands members of Congress actually step up to do the work of setting priorities amid practical considerations of the realities of American life and economics. If there's no budget passed by the April 15 deadline, senators and representatives don't get paid. And there's more: all recesses would be suspended until there is a budget.
To make that deadline, of course, people will really have to work. So Snowe rips the covers off Washington's dirty little secret — something lots of political insiders know, but is largely unremarked-upon in the general public: the work week in Washington is Tuesday through Thursday, with everyone heading home to their districts for long weekends of fund-raising, at the expense of actual governing. She says it should be Monday through Friday, with proportional decreases in elected officials' pay if they work less. That would also open more opportunity for social interaction between lawmakers in Washington DC, perhaps helping them find common ground socially, if not politically.
In the end, Snowe doesn't lay the problems — or their solutions — solely on the doorsteps of the legislators. They work for us, she reminds, and so we have to take up the reins and regain control of the vehicle before it comes apart completely.
Most Americans want compromise, she says, citing recent polls indicating not only that fact, but also Americans' willingness to accept compromise that they somewhat disagree with — as long as some measurable progress comes as a result.
Observing that centrist voters used to have options in candidate pools, but now the parties aren't offering them, she calls for changes to the primary system that could allow more moderates to end up on November ballots, and urges us to reward such middle-ground politicians with donations and votes.
And she asks Americans to back organizations that support bipartisan solutions (some of which have started with good ideas but stalled because of, yes, hyperpartisanship). She mentions several specifically and includes but does not draw particular attention to her own Olympia's List, dedicated to the idea that "our public discourse should not be concerned about whether an idea is a Republican or a Democratic one, but whether it's a good idea."
Snowe does sound a note of hope: "The bottom line is that Congress retains the same potential in 2013 as at any time in its history." But it will take us all, joining hands — and minds, and wallets, and ballots — to demand our representatives do our work, not theirs.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Get off the beach: Sit down — or stand up — and paddle offshore

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Sea kayakers in Portland have a couple of problems. First, it can be hard to find someone to paddle with, if you don’t already know a fellow enthusiast. Second, if you find someone willing to paddle, they likely don’t have their own boat — meaning you’re back out paddling solo again.
There’s nothing wrong with that, except it’s way more fun — not to mention a good bit safer — to paddle with friends. The easy solution, of course, would be to rent a boat for your willing partner. But until recently, renting a kayak wasn’t possible in the Forest City. Rather, prospective paddlers were forced to leave downtown and drive north or south along the coast, or to sort out the ferry schedules to and from Peaks Island on either end of the trip. All this precluded a quick after-work paddle or the spontaneous choice to laze around the swells of a weekend afternoon.
But salvation is here, and there are no more excuses. Portland Paddle opened its hatches last weekend, right at the East End Beach.
It’s a perfect spot to start a paddling trip — many owners already store their boats on the city-provided racks and launch from the beach. It’s a very protected little corner of the harbor with great views, and provides super-easy access to a wide range of destinations. You can take a relaxed excursion among protected inlets, (carefully) explore wildlife nesting areas, check out the rarely viewed seaward sides of lighthouses, and watch lobstermen do their work at close range — if you’re lucky, and have some cash on board, you may buy them fresh out of the trap!
Portland Paddle co-owners Zack Anchors and Erin Quigley are longtime East Enders who found themselves frustrated at the lack of paddling opportunities on the mainland hereabouts. So Anchors, a master Maine Guide who has led kayaking trips in many places for more than a dozen years, and Quigley, an experienced outdoorswoman who just got her Maine Guide license last month, teamed up to expand paddling opportunities in Portland.
They have about a dozen single kayaks and five tandems (as well as several stand-up paddleboards), all available for rentals by the day, half-day, or for an hour or two. (Buy a 10-rental punch card for a discount!)
The gear’s all new; they let me put the very first scratches on the hull of a shiny Necky Looksha in late May, on the first official Portland Paddle outing, an afternoon route around the back of House Island via Fort Gorges. It’s great stuff — put it to use!
Go it aloneIf you rent from Portland Paddle you’ll need some kayak experience and self-rescue skills. (See below for class information if you need to learn, or brush up, on those skills.) They have wetsuits, life jackets, spray skirts, and paddles available at no additional cost. (For a half-day single kayak rental with all the gear too, you’ll pay $40.)
Pop out to Fort Gorges in just a few minutes, or across to lunch on Peaks. Noodle among the islands for a relaxing afternoon of on-the-water sightseeing, and find a quiet beach to pull up on for a swim and a brief rest before heading back on your way. Paddle up the inland coast to Mackworth Island. Explore the inner harbor or even up the Fore River. Or head for the main passage out to the open ocean, checking out some of the more remote outer islands; adventurous paddlers can cross the channel (be careful!) to picnic at Willard Beach or Fort Williams Park.
Follow themIf you’re not up for a solo rental, Anchors and Quigley also lead guided tours around the harbor every day from now until September. (If the weather’s really windy or thunderous, they’ll cancel, but generally they run rain or shine.) You can get out there with the other sunset cruises, take a morning harbor tour, or go all day to the farther reaches of Casco Bay. The coolest thing on offer is an every-other-Friday moonlight paddle, heading out at sundown and letting darkness fall during the excursion. You might catch some bioluminescence in the water, and you’ll definitely get your own glow-stick.
Do as they doOf course, if you’re new to paddlesports, you’ll need to learn the basics. Sea kayaking is fun, and not difficult, but you ought to be prepared before heading out onto the ocean.
Classes, which cost just under $50 each (including use of a Portland Paddle boat and equipment), will be taught on a weekly schedule, with others added as demand requires. Most of them are three hours long, which is enough time to learn, try, and practice techniques without wearing yourself out. There are basic-skills classes to introduce you to sea kayaking — and the all-important rescue class. Intermediate and experienced paddlers can benefit from tailored classes on improved boat handling techniques, and even a rolling clinic. (And yes, there’s an intro to stand-up paddleboarding too.)
Become a regularThe first teaser for locals to become regulars is a discount punch card, which lets you prepay for 10 rentals and get a pretty sizeable discount for buying in bulk. You can get a kayak-only card for $250, a stand-up paddleboard card for $150, or a card offering five of each for $200.
Even more attractive for those of us who are seeking more of a paddling community is the weekly Wednesday night skill sessions, from 4:30 to 6:30 pm; $10 with your own kayak or $20 to use one of theirs. It’s a chance to hang out with other paddlers, brush up on some skills with an instructor, and maybe, just maybe, find a paddling buddy for those longer excursions.  ^
Portland Paddle | East End Beach, Portland | open through September, Mon-Thurs 11 am-7 pm; Fri-Sun 9 am-7 pm | | 207.370.9730
Boost your safetyHelp the Coast Guard with a free sticker
 The Coast Guard is trying to cut down on unnecessary search-and-rescue missions, to leave time, energy, and focus for when it really counts. Paddlers can make it harder, or easier.
When any boat is found adrift, or washed up on a piece of coastline somewhere, the Coast Guard gets the call, and has to figure out whether someone’s in trouble (or several someones), or if it’s just one of those times when a boat slipped its mooring or got loose from a dock.
If power- or sailboats are involved, they have registration numbers on their hulls, which makes it fairly easy to contact the boat’s owner and see what might have happened. Not so for kayaks and canoes: Since there’s no registration required, there’s no easy way to track a boat to its human.
This sort of thing happened to canoes and kayaks more than 50 times in Maine and New Hampshire’s coastal waters last year, says Lieutenant Nick Barrow, who supervises the search-and-rescue command from the South Portland Coast Guard station. (By mid-May, there had already been nine so far this year.)
To prevent this, get a vessel identification sticker, fill it out, and slap it on your boat. Pick them up free from the Coast Guard during the June 15 boating safety day (all day over at the station on High Street in South Portland), or at paddle outfitters around the area. You put your own contact info and that of your emergency contact on a reflective surface that will hold fast to your boat, even if you, or your tie-up lines, don’t. (If you can’t find one, call the Coasties at 207.767.0320; they’ll figure out the easiest way to get you one. And hey, get two — and give one to the next paddler you see without one.)
The stickers are useful if your boat escapes on its own (meaning no extensive search is needed, and you get your boat back), and even more so if you’re actually in trouble. As Barrow points out, your emergency contact can give rescuers important information about where you were planning to go, what your level of experience is, and what equipment you had with you — all of which helps them plan a better, faster, more efficient search to get you home safely.