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David's Travelogue: Portland, Maine

I join John Brooking, a bearded computer expert, on his six -mile commute home. We're on bike, me on my nice touring bike, John on a very robust, beach-cruiser type bike. Brooking does this during all four of the seasons. Let me remind you, this is Portland, Maine a place where snow covers the ground from December to April. Yet Brooking commutes on his bike 12 months out of the year. Maybe if there's a blizzard, Brooking will work from home, but other than that, wide tires and prudent stopping distances keep him on the bike to and from work, most days.

I frankly had some trouble believing, if not visualizing this, until John coughed up some supporting evidence in the form of some photos of him during some winter bike community event, his beard caked in ice. I needed to talk to Brooking about making bike-commuting work in the long term in an effort to reduce my own carbon footprint (I had fixed up an old, rusty Schwinn Continental ten speed that I use to ferry myself to the train station in my town). Among the pearls Brooking shared with me: On the very worst days for weather, the big Nor'easter of the year for instance, telecommute from home and don't push it. Also, use bicycle tires of medium width: spindly road racing tires are clearly stupid, but the big, heavy fat tires are not necessary either.

A penny earned -- an hour exchanged

"I tack up some weather stripping around the access door to the cellar as. It's dusty and cob-webby but I hardly break a sweat as I work away with a hiker's headlamp strapped to my head."

I'm here in Portland to get a handle on something called Hour Exchange Portland. It's a way to both build connections within a community and to run a piece of the economy without cash. Here is how it works: You contribute something you do by the hour. Maybe you fix Ipods; or you drive older people to their doctor's appointment; or you're a doctor. Whatever you do, your contributions are recorded in the electronic ledger of the Hour Exchange, and in return, you can get someone else in the system to donate an hour of whatever it is that you need done. An hour put in is worth an hour withdrawn no matter how skilled the service provided. So a neurosurgeon's hour is worth the same as the hour contributed by the man mowing lawns.

The man behind the Portland Hour Exchange is Richard Rockefeller -- a real Rockefeller, as in "come let's mix where Rockefellers walk with sticks" -- and a real physician.

His idea for Hour Exchange stemmed from a stint volunteering in a fishing village years ago in the Canadian region of Labrador. The village had only spotty electricity service and no telephones. "These were really remote villages and what they had in spades was connection with one another," Rockefeller recalls. "They depended on each other for everything that they did. There were no locks on the houses. You simply went and walked in somebody's house and sat down till someone paid attention to you and I learnt from that, that you can have…and they had happy lives."

He describes a kind of culture shock upon his return. "When I came back to a relatively affluent society in New York and Connecticut, I saw the reverse, that people had plenty of money. They could buy what they wanted and there was a whole lot of sense of insecurity and separation, cynicism among my own age group. So that's really where it began," Rockefeller said.

What Rockefeller came up with is what I call "social capital in a can." Social capital, the resource created when folks work together in a community, is at the center of Hour Exchange. Rockefeller sees both earning and spending as social capital; every time I spend a time dollar, somebody else is earning one and both of those contribute to the fabric of the community.

And here's an added benefit: the IRS sees Hour Exchange, according to Rockefeller, as a way of brokering "friendly favors," which are not considered taxable labor. So if you shovel your neighbor's driveway just to be nice, that's a friendly favor. If in return, your neighbor makes you a nice bowl of soup to thaw you out after the all the shoveling, that's another friendly favor. The Hour Exchange basically organizes these kind of transactions (and yes, an hour cooking soup is one of the services available at the Hour Exchange.)

Taking Hour Exchange out for a spin -- or a sail

I visit the home of an affable person named Lunden who recently purchased an older home on a street in Portland that she considers "in transition." I put in an hour of work -- a sort of visiting anchorman who can help her weatherize her place -- and will later take an hour from the time bank. Along with a trained crew, I squirt some insulation foam into some voids and cracks in her basement where the drafts get in. I tack up some weather stripping around the access door to the cellar as well. It's dusty and cob-webby but I hardly break a sweat as I work away with a hiker's headlamp strapped to my head.

And in return for this donated hour of mine, deposited with the Hour Exchange? I get to withdraw an hour in the form of a one -hour sailing lesson on a breezy late afternoon where Portland's Fore River meets the Casco Bay. That, I have to say, is a decent trade.

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My instructor is Stephen Beckett and aboard his ship, he and I have a chat about fixing the future of our economy. "The existing economy leans too far to serve a small segment of society," Becket says. Right at the word "lean," a gust hits us hard and the sailboat leans hard to the starboard, as if the boat itself were ratifying the observation. Steve's a fine sailor and the boat is in no danger of capsizing. We do, however, just about lose our producer/cameraperson, Mary Olive Smith, who abruptly but daintily loses her perch topside.

Our next stop is Fargo, North Dakota where we'll find out about a bank that puts the profits it makes into the hands of its employees and the communities it serves.

Next: Fargo, North Dakota

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David in cycling gear.