A laid-back life down Maine

MY commute to the office in Augusta, Maine, takes exactly 1 minute, 43 seconds. By foot. I come home to lunch, and in the summer we have salads with lettuce, radishes, and tomatoes from the tiny garden beside the house. Sometimes we take our twin six-year-old boys to a nearby park for a picnic. On our walks we are likely to be joined by neighborhood children whose parents have only a vague idea where they are. There is no danger to kids in this collection of narrow streets, neat, old white houses and ta ll trees. The city's business district, with post office, banks, and office supply stores, is about three blocks from my office. Around the corner is a small Greek restaurant that serves as a meeting place for the neighborhood. When I want to fly to Boston or New York, I simply walk to the airport at the top of the hill. I claim it is the only airport in the world one can walk to from downtown.

It is possible to leave the house a few minutes before 7 and be on State Street in Boston at 8:30. When I get home in the evening, I simply walk down the hill, enjoying the view of the Kennebec River Valley. The Kennebec flows a few hundred yards from where I work and live. One can put in a boat at the municipal landing and, with a little luck, catch striped bass in the very heart of downtown within a few minutes.

There are a number of small towns and cities where this kind of life can still be lived, although their quantity and quality are decreasing. Much of contemporary American life -- for many people -- is terribly counterproductive, a deterioration from the standards of living of the American past.

My wife and I have re-created a small-town environment of the 1940s and early '50s, in which one member of the family tended the kids, who walked to school and came home to lunch, and everybody knew the neighbors. After living in urban environments -- I lived in New York and San Francisco -- we, like many other young people in the 1970s, moved back to the country. But like many people who fled to a very rural environment, we found ourselves moving back to a town as kids came along. In this town, we disc overed, it is still possible to escape urban problems while enjoying urban amenities.

Our idea has been to eliminate self-defeating activities, counterproductivities -- the endless time running errands and commuting. To us, living in a big city or suburb and making a lot of money seems counterproductive.

There is a price paid for this re-creation of the past, however: money. You can't make much of it in Augusta, Maine. Of course, we spend less than we would in many other urban areas, but we still live in the expensive national economy.

I resist the notion that our values can be quantified, but once for amusement I tried to figure out roughly how much money we were making if one put a price tag on some of the things we were getting for free by living here. I added up the day care my wife gives our children, our minimal commuting expenses, and the low insurance premiums.

But what price could I attach to no crime, clean air, and coming home for lunch? The truth is, this can't be quantified. I don't care who you are; even if you have a private jet, you can't buy this modest life.

Lance Tapley is a book publisher and director of a think tank -- the Maine Summer Institute.

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