Opinion | It’s Not Easy Being an Optimist in Maine

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The optimist, according to an old joke, believes that this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears that the optimist is right.

Mainers are accustomed to second-guessing good news. Which is what you’d do, too, if you’d experienced enough late-season ice storms. This year, over 200,000 of us lost power in the wake of a furious blizzard. In April.

Maybe this is what gives so many Mainers a dark turn of mind. There’s a story about the time Mark Twain gave a reading at a bookstore near Bangor, to a crowd that mostly sat there in stony silence. Afterward, Twain heard a couple talking. The wife said, “I think he might have been the funniest person I’ve heard in my life.”

The husband replied, “I’ll tell ya, he was so funny, it was all I could do to keep from laughing.”

Maine voters aren’t laughing this fall. Everything feels too high-stakes. Our Senate race — Senator Susan Collins versus the Maine House speaker, Sara Gideon — might well decide whether the Democrats take back that chamber.

But it’s not just the high stakes that have us on edge; it’s also the race itself. This month, the Wesleyan Media Project described the Maine Senate race as the most negative in the country. (One of the nicest of the negative ads says, “Gideon had her cake — and ate it too!”) A Bangor Daily News poll released last week found Ms. Gideon and Senator Collins within a single point of each other. Last month, in an act that one lawmaker called “political terrorism,” unknown persons in Bowdoinham burned a sculpture of a donkey. And over in Rockland, two police officers were fired after beating porcupines to death with their nightsticks.

The porcupine slayers don’t appear to have been politically motivated, but the story feels very 2020 to me. These are dark days, man.

Last Monday, in hopes of finding a little escape, my wife and I drove out to Acadia National Park, on Mount Desert Island. Our route took us through both of our state’s congressional districts — the reliably blue First, which went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and the rural and more conservative Second, which went for Donald Trump. I tried to get a sense of how the 2020 Maine vote is going to go by counting yard signs. My poll gave an edge to Joe Biden and Ms. Gideon — but just barely. (There was also one sign still up for Bernie Sanders, an act of defiance I found very on brand.)

A Trump-Pence sign in Trenton had been edited by someone with a can of spray paint; the candidates’ names had been overwritten with a big orange “$750” (the amount of taxes Mr. Trump paid in 2016).

As we drove toward the coast we also saw lots of ghosts and skeletons and gravestones, evidence that many Mainers take Halloween almost as seriously as Christmas. In one yard a pair of zombie hands rose out of a tomb. Not far away was a sign: “TRUMP.”

It was impossible, in looking at that display, not to wonder whether the president, too, might somehow rise from the near-dead. It’s happened before, of course. Four years ago — almost to the day — we were all reeling from the “grab them by the pussy” tape. How confident I was then that Americans would find this kind of talk repulsive! How sure I was that we were just weeks away from electing our first female president! I was wrong, of course.

The pessimist says, “Things can’t get any worse.” The optimist says, “Oh, yes they can!”

Credit…Sarah Rice for The New York Times

Things look better for Joe Biden now than they did for Hillary Clinton then, if you believe the polls anyhow. But then the Mainer in me remembers the six months of winter lurking beyond every summer day and those zombie hands crawling out of the ground.

In Acadia, Deedie and I rode our bikes through the sparkling autumn sunshine, drove our car up Cadillac Mountain, ate popovers and chowder at the Jordan Pond House. Later that night we settled into chairs at a Bar Harbor restaurant called Havana, where Deedie had seafood paella and I had the lobster moqueca, simmered in a coconut broth with haddock and red peppers. It was really good.

The next day we went down to Thunder Hole, a rock formation where the Atlantic crashes into a cavern. We sat down on a chunk of granite, two old people with our arms wrapped around each other, feeling the spray on our faces. We had been there together as a young couple 32 years ago. Now we were back.

The day before, Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas had issued a rant against marriage equality, which they called a “novel constitutional right” in defiance of religious liberty.

As we sat there by the sea, I felt a stranger’s eyes upon us. It was a look of disapproval I’m accustomed to by now, but it still hurts.

I wondered whether the coming election will decide not just the fate of the presidency and the Senate, but that of my marriage as well.

On the way home we passed a Unitarian church with a sign out front that said: “Defeat Hate. Vote Love.” On the radio we heard Patty Griffin singing “Mother of God.Something as simple as boys and girls gets tossed all around and then lost in the world. Something as hard as a prayer on your back can wait a long time for an answer.

Patty Griffin is from Maine, too.

Deedie and I got back to Belgrade Lakes in time to watch the vice-presidential debate that night. The next morning I went outside to split some wood. The sky was blue from stem to stern, and as I stood in the dooryard, holding my ax, I felt a rush of good cheer. Could I trust the optimism I felt? Could it be that just this once, my hopes would not get crushed, as the saying goes, “flatter than a pounded hake”?

As I stood there by the woodpile I heard a sound. I looked over to see a porcupine emerging from the woods. He was the fastest porcupine I ever saw. If you didn’t know better, you’d think he had the whole Rockland police force chasing after him.

It was so funny, it was all I could do to keep from laughing.

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