Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Gambler

One of my staff at the library and her husband play bingo several times a week. And frequently, but not always, win, sometimes quite impressive pots ($200, $375, once $500). As much as I need money, I sincerely wish I had enough of the gambler’s spirit to play. But it’s that not always winning that defeats me. It costs $18-$20 to play. It would kill my soul to plunk down $18 and have nothing to show for it at the end of the evening. I am of course familiar with all the cliches – “Nothing ventured, nothing gained;” “You’ve got to spend money to make money,” etc. – but I can’t seem to overcome my feeling that I can’t afford to lose.

I am not known as a timid person; indeed, among some of my friends I am considered the soul of adventurousness. Admittedly, if your only exposure to me has been this blog of Notes, I may not be striking you as all that adventurous. After all, the main reason I didn’t go to the Maine Lobster Festival was I didn’t want to go alone – how adventurous is that? But traditionally I have not hesitated to take off for parts unknown, alone and underfunded, either for a pleasure trip, extended writing holiday, or even complete relocation. But I never really considered any of those “adventures” a gamble, since I felt assured of a payoff. In the case of a pleasure trip: the pleasure of travel! Experiencing new places; people and, yes, experiences, has provided my life with its greatest satisfactions. The several writing holidays I’ve taken have included the opportunity to write without all the mundane cares and responsibilities of “real life,’ on top of the pleasure of travel. And relocation was nearly always made with the assumption of a life change for the better.

But true gambling acknowledges, accepts, the possibility of loss, as well as gain. I suppose it could be argued that compulsive gamblers, who keep playing even as they keep losing, are not acknowledging this possibility, but my guess is they acknowledge it, but are sure their luck is about to change.

This compulsive non-gambler is perhaps too much the pessimist, too convinced that it is possible to play and play, and lose and lose.

Those of us who have invested in the stock market, either directly, or through pension and 401(k) plans, have been gambling, but we didn’t have to think of it as such. For one thing, if a company like Valic is handling your investments, you don’t know about all the gambling going on. Out of sight, out of mind. And for many of us, up to maybe a year ago the gambling was paying off; some of us may have been sitting pretty, or at least comfortably. But now the risk that goes with every gamble, at however far a remove, has reared its ugly head, and oh, gee, look what’s happened. I have friends whose savings have disappeared, who thought their retirement years were more or less secure, and who are now wondering when – or if! – they can afford to retire. All of a sudden Al Gore with his 2% interest savings account seems less a figure worthy of ridicule. All of a sudden the gamblers, and folks like me, who haven’t had a pension or 401(k) plan for some time to have wrecked, are in similarly leaky boats.

I guess the only comfort I can offer myself is that I have not gambled, and lost. But of course, neither have I gambled, and won...not even at bingo. If you lack an ounce of the gambler’s spirit, you may be stuck in this world with just getting by.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas in Old Hallowell

The little town (actually, it’s officially a city, the smallest city in the state of Maine) of Hallowell works hard to come up with events – fesitivals, etc. – to attract visitors, and business. One of those events is Christmas in Old Hallowell Day, usually held on the second Saturday of December.

My favorite aspect of CIOH is the Mouse Hunt. Kids pick up a list of participating businesses (and one public library), then go to those places and try to find the mouse hidden somewhere in the window display. The library has no display windows, but until this year we had a large, old-fashioned display case in which we would arrange a Christmas-themed display, with the tiny grey mouse tucked away somewhere. This year, having moved the display case to the basement to make room for a third computer (technology displacing everything in its path), we had to make do with the top of the one of the lower bookcases. Anyway it’s fun setting up the display, figuring out a good place to hide the mouse, then watching as kids come trouping through throughout the day, Mouse Form in hand. They peer and peer – sometimes they require a helpful hint – then it’s Eureka – they write it down – and off they go to the next place.

The library had never participated in the Mouse Hunt before I came, but I thought it would be good for us to be a part of this community activity, thought it would be a good way to get kids, with accom-panying parents, into the library.

The other major event for us on CIOH is our Christmas Carol Sing-along. This also dates from my first year at the library. I just thought it would be a cool thing to do. Again, invite the community in. The first year there was a very small turnout, the second year quite an impressive turnout – there was even a representative of the press there, so we got written up in the newspaper – the third year it was back to being small (and the keyboard that was being used literally blew up at about the third song, so the rest of the singing was done a capella), this year it finally reached a decent size, by about the mid-way point. I always agonize over whether enough people will show up, just as I do for every program we put on. Obviously I could never have been a Broadway producer.

Last year we also put out styrofoam balls, glue and glitter, and encouraged people to make decorations for our (fake, but quite nice) tree. And quite a few folks did. This idea sprang from the fact that for years homemade ornaments were the norm in my own household. Starting with my husband’s and my first Christmas together, when we were living in Los Angeles and had a friend of mine and her partner up from Long Beach to help us make decorations and trim the tree. Every Christmas after that, if I had a tree, I would have who-ever walked trough my door during the holidays make at least one decoration, despite any protestations about having no artistic ability. Believe me, I have some very interesting ornaments.

But ornament making, especially with children involved, can be very messy, and a lot of work, and I simply did not feel like dealing with all that again. We had plenty of ornaments left over from last year anyway.

Something different we had this year was Hanukkah at the Hubbard, for kids, suggested by one of the mothers who used to bring her small children to our regular Children’s Hour on Wednesday mornings (until they graduated to pre-school). I was very relieved that Stacy essentially handled everything herself – two crafts, a story-with-song, refreshments – since I was pretty well worn out by the time 3:30 rolled around, which was when Hanukkah at the Hubbard began. This was not actually a library program; they were basically just using us as a venue. But I was very glad Stacy had suggested doing this, since there is a substantial if not large Jewish population in the area, who are “left out in the cold” in terms of any notice being taken of their special holiday.

The city has a parade – for every occasion the city has a parade – then there were fireworks. But this girl cleaned up her little library, went home, and made herself a bourbon and coke. Another Christmas in Old Hallowell gotten through.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

What a way to go

I returned today from a trip by train to Boston. I went down to spend the holiday with my friend Rick, as I have several times over the past few years. Normally I drive down, but the weather was supposed to be bad, and I really didn’t feel like dealing with the inevitable heavy traffic between Portland and Boston, and especially right around Boston, while also dealing with snow/sleet/rain and whatever else the weather decided to throw at us. So I made the decision to take the train. This necessitated an hour’s drive to Portland, but that was better than a total of two and a half to three hours driving, and traffic is never that bad between Augusta and Portland.

I was so glad I made this decision, even though the weather turned out to be not-all-that bad. I felt completely relaxed when I arrived, rather than a frazzled wreck. I was able to read, snack, doze, gaze out the window at the snowy landscape, and go to the bathroom whenever I needed to, rather than having to remain determinedly alert the whole time, lose time by pulling into a rest area when I needed to relieve myself, and do any snack-consumption while keeping one hand on the wheel and eyes on the road, an awkward business at best.

Actually, I would have to say that riding the train is a kind of heaven: the heaven of going – getting somewhere – accomplishing something, without having to exert any energy, or even remain alert.

I got my laugh of the trip when, following an announcement by the conductor as to why we had stopped (so that a train going in the other direction could go by on a stretch of single track up ahead), a man across the aisle muttered, “Right, better to stop – let’s not test the law of physics.” And a moment later he added, “It’s like that old math problem: if one train is heading north at 50 miles an hour...”

Some observations on the trip: a large, old, red-brick church across the street from the Dover, New Hampshire station, whose steeply slanted roof was dripping dramatically with long, pointed icicles. The small city of Haverhill, Massachusetts, with more huge old, red brick buildings, covered with a zillion windows, than anyplace I’ve ever seen. This has to have been some mill town. A quick perusal of its web site shows that, indeed, shoe manufacturing was the town’s main industry for 180 years. It sits on the Merrimack River, which would have provided the water power needed to run all those mills.

Then: it has always amazed me the way trains run right behind houses, or directly across the street from them. The reason it amazes me is that trains make a lot of noise, and the people in those houses must live with that noise several times a day. Besides the hoarse howl of its whistle whenever it’s approaching a crossing, there is the deep rumble of the engine. I know how loud that can be, because I could hear the rumble of the 11:30 train every night when I lived in my cabin-on-the-lake...and that train was a good half mile away. Imagine if it were at the bottom of your back yard!

I noticed this especially as the train was passing through Old Orchard Beach, a popular summer resort town just south of Portland. It’s a town of slapped-together motels, tacky arcades and local eateries (like Lisa’s Pizza). Also, of course, the Atlantic Ocean, which is no mean attraction. The town is very popular with vacationing Quebecois. The motels are all closed up for the winter, but in the summer the folks in many of those rooms are slap up against the railroad track. This would certainly be another factor in my having no desire whatsoever to stay in Old Orchard Beach.

The train arrives at and leaves from North Station in Boston, a very unprepossessing space beneath what was formerly Boston Garden, home of the Boston Celtics, now called BankNorth Garden. The main thing I noticed in the waiting area were the uncomfortable benches. They were attractive, looking like park benches with fancy black iron arms and legs, but the backs sloped, making it virtually impossible to sit up straight. You are all but forced to slouch down on your tailbone. Poor design in spades, and you have to wonder: what were they thinking.

They were also a few little things wrong on the trains: going down, the hydraulics were broken on the door at the end of my car, meaning you couldn’t open it by touching the pad, so the conductor left it open, making for a drafty ride (I eventually spread my coat over my legs). In that same car you couldn’t be absolutely sure the bathroom door was locked, since the little light only stayed on if you held the lock in the forward position. If you let it go, the light went off. Did that mean the locking mechanism had been disengaged? Since I have a real aversion to the idea of someone walking in on me while I am about this very private business, I sat on the toilet holding the lock in place...

All of these things that need taking care of make me wonder: couldn’t we use some of that stimulus package money Barak Obama is promising to bolster the train industry? Put people to work repairing train cars? Maybe redesign some waiting room benches?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

When I was a kid, growing up in Texas, I dreamed of living someplace where it snowed at Christmas, where the houses had chimneys for Santa Clause to come down, fireplace mantles to hang the stockings from (we hung ours from window sills). As a contin-uation of that fantasy, I wanted to live where, in autumn, girls wore knee socks with plaid skirts, and everybody wore thick sweaters with scarves wrapped around their necks. Where in summer people went away to their cottages on lakes hemmed in by trees. I don’t remember a spring version of this paradise.

So here I am, living in a place where all of the above pertains. In autumn I am frequently decked out in sweater and scarf. Although it’s fairly rare for it to snow on Christmas Day, there’s nearly always some snow on the ground. And I actually spent two off-seasons living in one of those cabins-on-the-lake that people go away to for two weeks or a month every summer. Randy Pausch, in his famous Last Lecture, encouraged people to make their childhood dreams come true. It was just in writing this that I’ve realized I did manage to make that particular childhood dream come true.

The other Saturday I did the tiny bit of shopping I had to do for Christmas (in Starving Librarian mode, alas, it is rarely possible to buy presents for people, at Christmas or any other time). I drove to Hallowell, which is an ideal place to do a “tiny bit of shopping,” with its compact stretch of little shops. And it was the perfect day for Christmas shopping: appropriately cold (none of this 80 degree business) but sunny. The sun made people cheerful. And there were plenty of people, bundled up in parkas and boots, stepping carefully over the occasional icy patch on the more or less cleared sidewalks (snow everywhere in the background), bustling in and out of the shops. But there was not the hurry, the tension, the sense of desperation you get at crowded shopping malls. It felt...yes... Christmasy!

I was looking first of all for a decoration for my goddaughter. I have given Alexandra an ornament every Christmas since she was three years old, and she is now 21. I asked her, I think it was last year, if she’d had enough of this tradition of ours, and she assured me she had not. So it was time to find another beautiful/unusual/interesting ornament, as well as a little something else for her. I made my way to Paper Kicks, the card and gift shop on Hallowell’s main street, called Water Street. And it stuck me that this shop absolutely epitomized the small-town New England shop you spy in Hollywood movies. Two shallow, multi-paned bay windows, charmingly decorated for the holidays. Inside, a small space artfully crowded with a nice collection of cards produced by Maine artists, blank cards (beautiful picture on the outside, you come up with the inside), cards that are amusing without being crass, amazingly elaborate pop-up cards for grown-ups. And shelves on the walls and on stand-alone displays crowded with unusual little this and thats. There was a tree festooned with ornaments you could buy, and I found just the thing: a small round ball with a smiling face poking out of it, two arms sticking out, two dangling legs in striped stockings. It was one of the whimsical Krinkles characters produced by the artist Patience Brewster.

My favorite “display” in the place is all the clocks on the wall behind the counter. I love clocks, love the way people down through the ages have tried to make this functional item beautiful. And standing at the counter waiting for my change, looking at all those clocks, I felt like I was in some Swiss clock-maker’s shop back in the nineteenth century.

My next stop was the Harlow Gallery, where there was both a show I hadn’t yet caught – small works by local artists, both professional and amateur, all of which were priced at $80 (a good deal in some cases, you’ve got to be kidding, in others) – and the display of Gingerbread Houses from the contest that Hallowell throws every year as part of its Christmas in Old Hallowell Day. There was an amazing reproduc-tion of Bilbo Baggin’s home at Bag End, what looked like a Moorish castle, a church in snow (lots of cocoanut). One entry that was entitled “Too Much Eggnog” had reindeer skidding off a snowy roof, joining Santa in a jacuzzi. Easily the most unusual was the one called “D-Day,” which showed Normandy Beach. I voted for my favorites, then made my way on down the street to Hallowell’s bit of the global village: Thanya’s Imported Handicrafts, run by a smiling, plump-cheeked young woman from Thailand. Most of the jewelry she carries is a bit florid for my no-nonsense goddaughter, but I found a pair that was simple enough, but just different enough, to do.

And then it was time to go home and rest for an hour before plunging into my library’s contribution to Christmas in Old Hallowell.

Friday, December 19, 2008

There's no place like home

“You are cordially invited to tea at Blaine House...”

Actually, I didn’t get my invitation to the annual Christmas tea at the governor’s mansion because the member of the Kennebec Valley Garden Club who was responsible for a certain number of invitations forgot to mail them out. This lady also happens to be my library’s most dedicated Friend, and it was while she was in decorating the library for the holidays that she remembered to mention the tea to me. (I’m actually pleased when someone else confesses to having forgotten something they were supposed to do. Makes me feel less the pariah). The Garden Club does the decorating for this annual event at Blaine House, and extends the invitations.

I love visiting old houses. This person who was an apartment-dweller from the time she left home at 18 until she moved into her first rental house in the southern Louisiana countryside at the age of 50, and has never in her life had a strong desire to own a home, has always been fascinated by big, beautiful, historically interesting houses. I always find myself imagining what it must have been like to live there, picturing myself sitting in that sitting room, sleeping in that four poster, standing at that window looking out at that garden. So I really could not pass up this chance to visit one of Maine’s most important “houses,” which has been the home of 25 governors and their families since the house was given to the state in 1919.

Located across the street from Maine’s State House in Augusta, and a five minute drive from my little library in Hallowell (the two cities bleed into one another), Blaine House was built in 1833 by a retired ship’s captain. It actually looks something like an old ship – the enclosed lookout on the roof could be the captain’s “bridge”, the four tall, white, black-topped chimneys, two on each side of the roof, could be smoke stacks

The house is the traditional white, with black shutters, and is surrounded by a white picket fence. It does look New Englandish, but I think it would not look out of place in the Deep South, perhaps because it’s so large, and has the lovely gardens around it.

The house was purchased in 1862 by James G. Blaine, one of Maine’s foremost political figures. He served as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, was a U.S. Senator, Secretary of Sate and – what really surprised me – lost the presidency in 1884 to Grover Cleveland by only 2000 votes. Had he won, we would all have heard of James G. Blaine. It was his daughter who bequeathed the house to the state in 1919.

Inside, there is the “state” dining room, to the right of the main entrance hall. It can supposedly seat 36, but I think that would be a very snug fit. The table that was in place looked like it could comfortably seat 20, and there wasn't a whole lot of floor space available for adding "leaves." Indeed, none of the rooms is on anything approaching the grand scale, which seems appropri-ately "understated Maine."

The green and silver striped wallpaper is supposed to represent the trees and lakes of Maine, but what it looks like is a traditional, elegant dining room wallpaper. This is where tea – or coffee, if that was your preference – was served. And unlike at the little tea my library held a couple of months back, where functional but inelegant industrial coffee pots provided coffee and hot water, which went into styrofoam cups, here the beverage of your choice came out of a beautiful silver tea service, and was poured into lovely china cups.

Beyond this dining room is the kitchen, and beyond that, the "family" dining room, which naturally is smaller, cozier. Among the decor-ations there was a marvelous gingerbread house that had been done by the chef at the Augusta Country Club. I was enchanted by it, for I do love gingerbread houses.

Across the hall from the state dining room is the state reception room, with beautiful black Italian marble fireplaces, a dusky blue rug that makes a nice contrast with the white walls, and white columns that separate one part of the room from the other. You could easily imagine dignitaries standing around making small talk, sipping glasses of champagne. On this particular day we were all sipping tea or coffee, and most of us were hardly what you’d call dignitaries. There was a very large Christmas tree decorated charmingly with all natural ornaments, such as frosted pine cones and clusters of dried flowers.

My favorite room was the next one back, originally an open porch that was glassed in (very sensibly, given Maine winters) and became the sunroom. But I thought of it as the music room, as there was a baby grand piano there, being played by an unlikely-looking fellow, overweight, middle-aged, lank, shoulder-length hair. Not what you’d expect. Given all the genteel ladies, most well past middle age, who were hosting the tea, I guess I would have expected one of their number to be playing. All the windows looking out on the garden make the room very light and airy.

Beyond the sunroom/music room was a very small, very masculine study – more black marble, lots of wood, dark leather, books that actually belonged to James Blaine behind glass doors. And a door led from there to where ol’ Blaine, or later governors, might have gone to escape the ladies – the billiard room. Yes, real live billiard tables.

There were also two bedrooms upstairs that could be viewed (I viewed them), though these are not part of the private residence of the house, where the governor and his family actually live. All in all, this made for a very pleasant peak into the past, and into the “public” home of today’s governor.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The universal language

I just finished watching a segment of Bill Moyer’s Journal on public television, on independent film maker Mark Johnson and the film he produced over ten years called Playing for Change: Peace through Music. The segment was run a few weeks ago and the show was overwhelmed with response from viewers who loved it. One woman said she and her family had been very adversely affected by the recent downturn in the economy, and watching the few minutes of this segment, for the first time in a long time she had a feeling of absolute joy.

I felt exactly the same way, both times I watched the segment.

Johnson’s initial inspiration for producing this film were two monks he saw playing and singing in a New York subway. He was struck by the fact that a good 200 busy, hard-nosed New Yorkers simply stopped, transfixed, and listened. Music, he realized, had this won-derful ability to draw people together, however different they and their lives might be.

What he ended up doing was recording a hundred musicians and singers all around the world singing and playing the same songs, in their own distinctive way. The two songs that we heard were Stand by Me and Bob Marley’s One World. Johnson said it all started with a Ray Charles-like singer named Roger Ridley, whom he heard singing on the streets of Santa Monica, where he lived. He asked Ridley if he, Johnson, could bring a camera and some sound equipment and record Ridley singing Stand by Me. Ridley said sure, why not, and we were the beneficiaries. And after that there was a tubby, elderly black blues singer in New Orleans (who was wonderful), a group of singers in South Africa, a drummer in Spain, a sax player in Italy, a cellist in ?, a group of American Indian pow wow drummers (the Twin Eagle drum group from Zuni, New Mexico), a back yard jazz combo in South Africa...all contributing their take on Stand by Me. And Johnson had done a marvelous editing job, so that the different groups became a tuneful collage of what is a very hopeful, upbeat song.

During the interview that Bill Moyers had with him, Johnson mentioned a caption on a picture that his brother had given him, of a group of musicians in South Africa. The caption was something to the effect that “One of the most dangerous townships in South Africa finds solace in backyard jazz.” And of course, music provides solace to people everywhere. Johnson both demonstrated that fact through his film, and carried it on, by making and sharing the film. The proof of that is in the many, many comments on PBS’s blog for the Moyers show, and requests of “where can I get a copy of this to give to my friends?’ (Alas, the film is actually out of print, but I gather this public demand is supposed to produce a new DVD soon.)

The icing on the cake as far as Playing for Change goes, is that Johnson has also been working on establishing music schools for children in such places as that dangerous and depressed township in South Africa. What a great cause! Where do I send money? How much better to be learning to sing or play an instrument, than learning to hate and blow yourself and others up.

I saw yet another demonstration of music bringing diverse people together later in the evening when PBS ran the Yanni Live! Concert, from Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Yanni was a guest in the Maine PBS studio, and during one of the pledge breaks, he mentioned that 15 different countries were represented among his musicians. Talk about universal.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Play that thing

I think it’s interesting the way the guitar became the musical instrument of my generation. For previous generations, if there was an instrument it was the piano, but for the most part singers just sang. Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Eddie Fisher, et al. – they had orchestras or large bands backing them up, but they themselves just sang.

And indeed, many early rock and rollers “just sang.” Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Darin (and all the other Bobbys – Vee, Vinton, Rydell, Sherman), Barry Manilow (who actually played the piano), the various singing groups – the Drifters, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Four Seasons – all of these people were more or less carrying on the tradition of the singers from the 30s, 40s and early 50s. They were just singing a different kind of song.

But beginning with Bill Haley and the Comets, and continuing through people like Elvis, Buddy Holly, Ricky Nelson, the folk singers of the 60s, British Invasion groups of the mid-60s, the psychedelic groups of the late 60s and early 70s, holding a guitar while you sang was de rigueur, and I’m wondering why. Perhaps, in the case of early rockers, because so many of them were influenced by black blues singers, who generally played a guitar while they sang. So did country and western singers, who were also, no doubt, an influence.

Whatever the reason, the music of my generation became defined by the guitar. Females could swoon over Eric Clapton as he sang; males could admire the way he played the guitar. Indeed, in some way I think playing the guitar made being a singer more manly! I suppose we could get all Freudian and point out how much like an extension of the infamous male “member,” as they say in discreet novels, a guitar can seem. Especially the way some men hold it, wrestle with it, lead with it. In her rather tepid autobiography, Wonderful Tonight, Patty Boyd mentions the time that her then-husband George Harrison in effect challenged her soon-to-be husband Eric Clapton to a guitar duel. The two men tried to play one another into the ground – “I’m better at this than you!” That, of course, is the age-old competitiveness that comes out in men no matter what they skate boarding! Can you remember when skate boarding was just a silly thing young boys did for fun? Now there are extreme skate board competitions. And dueling guitars.

The other night I watched the 30th anniversary concert of Tom Petty on the late night program Sound Stage. Petty has a sort of whiny, nasally voice and perpetually stoned manner that do not particularly appeal to me, but he’s a pretty good guitarist, when he’s not strutting around, and he had a really great lead guitarist playing with him, whom he introduced as Mike Campbell. Often these “other guys in the band” are fantastic musicians, who are a real pleasure to listen to when they get their minute and a half of solo time. Both when both men were playing solos, and when they were engaged in intense “duets”, I got the sense that this was when they felt most successful, most like Big Men.

To my mind, a better arena for proving oneself than the football field. And the music they produced really rocked.

Not long ago I caught a rerun of the Eric Clapton Crossroads concert that was held in Chicago in July, 2007. While the big emphasis was on blues, of which I am not a huge fan (another thing I’ve occasionally wondered is why both blues and jazz are so much more popular with men than with women), there were all these guitars, and terrific guitarists, and the audience was absolutely loving it. As the concert went on, it became more rock oriented. Wimpy rocker John Mayer, whose singing has never done anything for me, proved himself a really excellent guitarist. I was also really impressed by the playing of Derek Trucks (and how’s that for an unlikely name). This guy looks and acts like one of the “other guys in the band,” even though he has his own group. But I was just knocked out by his playing, as was the audience.

That’s what it all comes down to in the end, the music, the rhythmic, wailing sounds that lots of love and lots of practice produce. No different from a great violinist or classical pianist, but this was “our music.” Our instrument.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Oswald's Ghost

Last night I watched the program “Oswald’s Ghost” on PBS. Yes, yet another show about the Kennedy assassination. I found fascinating the statistic, given at the end, that 70% of Americans still believe that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone, that there was, indeed, some kind of conspiracy. I myself have always found it difficult to believe that this man who came across as somewhat stupid (he wasn’t, actually) would have done this all on his own, but the hard evidence really does seem to point to that being the case. Indeed, the historian Priscilla Johnson McMillan, who wrote a book about Oswald and his wife Marina, insists that not only was Oswald capable of carrying out such an act on his own, his personality and history were such that it was highly unlikely he would do it with anyone else. He was the proverbial loner, turned killer.

Of course, like everyone else who was above the age of 10 on Nov. 22, 1963, I know exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news. As I was coming out of study hall at Robert E. Lee High School, San Antonio, Texas, someone came rushing past and said the president had just been shot in Dallas. Naturally I didn’t believe it. My next class just happened to be Civics, and the classroom happened to have one of the school’s few televisions, mounted up on the wall, for accessing educational programs. When I walked into class the T.V. was on, and there it was, in unflinching black and white. We didn’t have class, we just watched the news unfolding. A couple of girls cried. One young man – obviously a died-in-the-wool Republican, and one of many Texans who did not like JFK – announced that “he for one was glad.” Our teacher, whom absolutely no one liked, went up a few points in my book when she said, “Tommy, that’s a terrible thing to say, no matter what your politics are.” I personally had been a big fan of Kennedy’s, and was mortified to be living in a state where a president could be murdered on the streets.

Even when the bell rang and students for the next class started coming in, many of us did not move. The event produced the same kind of dumbfounded disbelief that September 11, 2001 did 38 years later; and, as we all know, became indelibly etched on a nation’s consciousness as a Defining Moment.

The program was the source of one disappointment for me: learning that New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who was at the center of the 1991 Oliver Stone movie JFK, was apparently something of a self-aggrandizing, homophobic nut case. You certainly didn’t get that impression from Stone’s film! I came away from that movie more convinced that ever that there had been some kind of elaborate conspiracy; but apparently Stone pretty much swallowed whole whatever Garrison told him (or wrote in his book), even though (it would seem) so much of Garrison's “evidence” was conjured out of gossamer. Even other conspiracy theorists at the time of Garrison’s investigation (late 60s) felt that Garrison was a “flake” and his investigation was bogus. Too bad. Kevin Costner was so convincing...

One of the most affecting parts of last night’s program for me was the scene of Oswald’s murder at the hands of Jack Ruby two days after his arrest. It brought back the amazing memory of passing through our living room and glancing at the television – which, as in most households of the time, had been on all but nonstop for several days – and seeing that murder take place. I stopped, gawked at the T.V., and said out loud, “My God, they’re having live murder on the television now.” I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Another amazing statistic that the program supplied was that 2,000 books have been written about the Kennedy assassination. Perhaps it’s time to move on.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


Today at the program we had at the library – yes, another one – there were live specimens of a turtle, a corn snake, a bearded dragon (largish lizard), and an alligator. The program was called Scales & Tales, and was presented by the Chewonki Foundation, whose proclaimed mission is to “foster an appreciation of the natural world and of working in community with others.” Both noble goals. The place started as a boy’s summer camp is 1915, still has camp sessions for both boys and girls, but also offers a four-month Maine Coast Semester for high school students, wilderness trips, and outreach programs to schools and libraries, such as the one that came to us today.

Early on a little girl raised her hand and asked the question, “Can we pet the animals?” Doug, our presenter, said that was a very good question, but the answer was no. Why? Because these weren’t really pets; they were “wild” animals. Admittedly they lived in captivity – either as the result of injury, that made it impossible for them to fend for themselves in the wild, or as the result of having been kept as pets (sometimes illegally) and then either abandoned or delivered to the animal rescue arm of Chewonki. They, too, lacked the skills to survive in the wild.

“But they aren’t like your pet dog or cat,” Doug said.

The little girl’s question got me to thinking. We do all want to pet – to touch – animals. I experienced the same thing early this past summer, when I drove out to the farm of the library’s former technical support guy. Bill had sent out email invitations far and wide, inviting people to visit the farm he and his wife have lived on and built up over 20 years. His wife, who is a potter, has a “pottery barn” there. And the couple run a bed and breakfast there as well. In other words, like many Mainers, they do a number of things to survive (note that Bill also has a fulltime job at the Bath Ironworks).

There were two reasons I decided to make the drive out to Windsor. One, it was an excursion, something to do, that would be essentially free, not counting a little gas. And two, the invitation mentioned their sheep, with two new lambs, and their Belted Galloway cattle. The latter are black with a wide white stripe around their middle (the “belt”), which has led to their being referred to as “Oreo cattle.” I have found these animals visually fascinating ever since I first encountered a field of them several years ago. And the idea of seeing new little lambs delighted me.

The cattle proved to be something of a disappointment, as the herd was down to a mere two, who were sitting down in the mud surrounded by flies, but the little lambs were properly adorable. And I wanted to touch them. I asked Bill if I might, indeed, pet one, and he said sure, but at my very slight touch the little one skittered away. None the less, I’d had enough of a feel to know that that curly fleece was rough and wiry, not soft, the way it looks.

But our desire to touch is not limited to animals. There are all those signs at art and other kinds of museums telling us Do Not Touch, because of our penchant to do exactly that. Almost anything that interests us, intrigues us, we want to touch. And I wonder: why is that? Is it that something in us tells us if we touch a thing we will know more about it? Or is it that touching a thing brings us closer to it, makes us feel connected to it? I think of lovers touching, parents touching their children and vice versa. I suppose it could be argued that there are different kinds of touching – wanting to touch a turtle or an alligator might represent the former impulse, wanting to touch a loved one, the latter. But still, we want to feel a thing beneath our finger tips; it is not enough just to see it. What we feel commun-icates with our brain through our nervous system, and we then know more than we did before – what it feels like – and feel more than we did before – pleasure, excitement, horror, disgust, whatever.

So, hooray for the too-often-overlooked tactile sense.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

God on trial

I just watched a powerful program on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre (only, for some reason, they’re calling it Masterpiece Contemporary). I almost didn’t watch this program, because I saw that it took place in a Nazi concentration camp, and anything to do with the Holocaust tends to upset me very much. Did I want to go there? In the end I did, and I’m glad I did, though of course I cried at the end, when the prisoners who had been “selected” were trotted off to the gas chambers.

I would call the performance a play, for it seemed like one. Lots of talk, relatively little action, a limited number of sets, although the opening and closing scenes, when the busload of modern-day tourists was arriving at Auschwitz, and then leaving it after their tour, opened it out, and made it more like a film. But the main body of the piece, during which a group of prisoners holds a “trial” to determine if God was guilty of breaking his covenant with his “chosen people,” seemed very much like a play. And that in itself gave me pleasure, to be watching an intelligent, well-acted, thoughtful play. And that last descriptor, thoughtful, was what made it especially satisfying. Weighty matters were being argued, questions that must occur to most thoughtful people at some time in their lives, when they look around at all the suffering there is in the world and wonder, where is God.

Perhaps the strongest argument in defense of God was that terrible things had happened to the Jews in the past – being enslaved in Egypt, later in Babylon, the massacre at Masada, the expulsion from Spain – and these terrible times had usually resulted (ultimately) in things being better. “If we had not been exposed to Egypt, to Babylon, would we not still be an insular tribe of shepherds?” the man asked. “Have we not become so much more, because of our experiences over the years?” It was suggested that these terrible times were painful, but necessary, purifying episodes.

Some were arguing that the Jews must have done something wrong, and were being punished by God, but this idea didn’t seem to win many proponents, as they all knew that too many who could surely not be accused of committing sins against God – children for example – were suffering. Surely it was not a just and good God who would punish the innocent with whoever might, indeed, be guilty of sin. This discussion can be applied to all peoples in the history of the world. There are too many examples of the good and innocent suffering, while the cruel and the intolerant triumph -- at least in the short run -- for one to suppose that God is in the punishing and rewarding business, at least in this life. People all too often do not get their just rewards.

Perhaps the most interesting argument was made toward the end by a man who had until then been silent. He abruptly stood up and began reeling off the history of the Jews, going back to their departure from Egypt – which was preceded by all sorts of plagues and miseries being visited on the hapless Egyptians, including the death of all the firstborn in the land. “Did he kill the Pharaoh?” he asked. The Pharaoh was, after all, the one who was preventing the Israelites from leaving. But no, God killed the innocent children. And then, when the soldiers were pursuing the departing Israelites, did he close the Red Sea immediately behind the latter, cutting them off from their pursuers? No, he waited until the soldiers were in the middle of the sea, then released the held-back waters, drowning them all.

And the fellow had numerous other examples that showed that, as he put it, God was not good, God had just been on their side. And now, he seemed to have changed sides. This was the final argument before the guards burst in and hustled out those who had been selected. But we learn from one of the departing tourists, who has heard this possibly apocryphal story, that the remaining prisoners did find God guilty of breaking his “contract” with his people. He had promised to protect them, if they were true to him, and in this terrible time he had not done so.

I would say, a not unjust judgment.

Monday, November 3, 2008

As a substitute for the next war

What I can’t figure out is why we keep having wars. Usually after a war we end up helping the defeated country, e.g., Japan, Germany, after the Second World War, Iraq even as I type. It’s only a matter of time before American tourists are visiting the place, e.g., Vietnam. So why don’t we just skip the war, and go directly to help mode? Afghanistan would be a good place to start. Instead of pulling all those soldiers out of Iraq and sending them to Afghanistan – which is what Senator Obama is proposing to do at once, Senator McCain proposes to do as soon as the war in Iraq is “won” (definition still to be determined) – instead of this out of the frying pan into the fire strategy, why not pour economic advisors into the country? Preferably economic advisors who can speak the language (and why isn’t there a push in this country for students to learn Arabic, Farsi, Korean, the languages of those areas that are proving most problematic for the U.S.?), economic advisors who could help develop the local economy. In Afghanistan, for example, there’s the problem of so many farmers growing poppies for the drug trade which the bad guys use to finance their nefarious deeds. What could they grow instead? In Columbia, Ecuador and Peru it’s the coca growers, feeding the cocaine trade. What could we help them grow instead?

As the current world-wide financial crisis is serving to illustrate, everything comes down to economics (well, actually, everything really comes down to biochemistry, but let’s talk a notch or two above that). As much as I hate to admit it, being so uninterested in business as I am, healthy trade really does make the world go round. We need to be helping the poverty-stricken areas of the world develop the means to join the rest of us in (healthy, not damaging) trade. With an improved standard of living they would have more to lose, and when you have something to lose you are less inclined to kiss it all good-by by blowing yourself and various innocent bystanders up.

While I don’t question for a moment that there are, indeed, evil people out there, some of the fanatical Muslim persuasion, most people, whatever their religion, whatever their country, want to live in peace and safety with their families. They want to be able to support those families, take care of them, make sure that everyone has enough to eat, decent housing, access to good health care when they get sick. If we directed our attention to helping them achieve those goals, without trying to convert them (after all, how do you feel when a Jehovah’s Witness comes knocking at your door?), without our usual swaggering assumption that we’re the greatest nation in the world and of course everyone must want to be like us, or should want to be like us...if, in short, our foreign policy more closely resembled the work of private aid organizations that don’t have a hidden agenda, that just want to help those in this world who are struggling with extreme poverty, I suspect it would go a long way in that winning-the-hearts-and-minds campaign they’ve been waging lately in Iraq.

Political rant post script

And of course we should get rid of the stupid electoral college.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Political rant

O.K., here are my suggestions for campaign reform. First, limit campaigning to two months before the primaries, two months between the conventions and Election Day (actually, maybe we should get rid of the conventions, since they leave third party candidates out of the process). Everyone, I’m sure, is as sick as I am of political ads every five minutes on the radio and T.V., of the snide and often misleading substance of many of those ads, of all the phone calls that are either polls (this will take only a few minutes of your time) or recordings of people “asking for your vote,” of the people who come knocking at your door, clipboard in hand, asking for your vote. We should limit the amount of time we have to put up with this stuff.

And all campaigning should stop one week before Election Day. No more ads, or phone calls, or emails, or people knocking on your door. One week in which the ten or twelve people who are still undecided can decide, in peace, whom they are going to vote for, and the candidates and their volunteers can all have some much-needed rest.

We should outlaw people calling you on the phone to make their political pitches. I feel as invaded by them as I do by telemarketers, and we now have rules in place (the Do Not Call Register) that limit their access to us in the privacy of our homes.

I think candidates should be required to use public funding for their campaigns. I was very disappointed in Barak Obama for saying he would go that route, and then changing his mind. If, as he says, the system is “broken” it should be fixed, but there should not be this gross disparity between what two candidates are able to spend on their campaigns. Presumably what primarily needs “fixing” is regulation of 527 groups. For anyone who’s as ignorant of what such groups are as I was, they’re political action groups with a difference – they may not contribute directly to a specific politician’s campaign, but may contribute unlimited amounts in support of issues, ads for which can be oriented in support or opposition of a candidate. Supposedly concern about the kind of money these groups could raise (for McCain) contributed to Obama’s decision to opt out of public funding. It’s apparently harder to regulate these groups, because of First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. But it should be possible to determine who contributes how much to these groups, and to cap individual amounts, just as is the case with regular PACs.

And then there’s the matter of pie in the sky campaign promises. Both candidates stuck to their original script about what they would do once in office, even after the world changed with the financial crisis. Both were asked more than once in the debates (which by the way should be limited to two presidential and one vice-presidential – another needed reform – since three just gives them a third time to repeat all the same stuff yet again) what would have to “give,” given the new financial reality, but neither would say. But then, they both knew people did not want to hear, 'you're right, we won’t be able to do this, or that, at least not as soon as we’d hoped; because things are going to be very difficult for a while, for the whole country.' They both knew that what most people want to hear in times of crisis is 'don’t worry, things are going to be all right, just elect me and you’ll see.' So of course our candidates stuck to what was politically viable, rather than voicing unpleasant realities.

My goddaughter has applied for a Rhodes Scholarship. As part of the application process she had to come up with a research project that she would work on at Oxford University, should she get the scholarship. Her proposed project has to do with investigating to what extent campaign promises are met by candidates, once they are elected, and to what extent, if any, different countries hold candidates accountable for their campaign promises. What a good idea! Having a law that requires candidates to fulfill (at least some!) of their campaign promises. Would it result in a little more honesty during campaigns, an acknowledgment of political realities that would have to be dealt with by whoever was elected?

But then again, would the majority of us want to hear what was real, what was true?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Soup's On!

Last Thursday, four days after our tea, we had yet another program at the library. Two in one week, my goodness. Whereas for most of this year (since January) we’ve been doing good to have even one in a month.

Programming is my least favorite aspect of public librarianship, and it is simply inescapable. Public libraries are expected to provide fairly frequent programs for their patrons and other members of the community. I’m truly not sure why, particularly in this day when there are so many other sources of entertainment and information. But certainly funding agencies look at number of programs/number of attendees at same, when considering your requests for funding.

Programming requires a great deal of time, energy, imagination, and enthusiasm. First you have to come up with ideas for them (the big question: will the whatever interest people enough for them to come), then there are all the arrangements. If you’re wanting somebody from outside the library to appear (to speak, perform, whatever) you have to call/email them and try to schedule dates and times...this is after wrestling with the decision of what day of the week and time frame will most likely yield the greatest attendance (timing can truly make or break a program)...then you have to stay on top of the publicity. You must make the deadlines for the various media, modifying the text and format of your announcement to suit each, get the information into your monthly newsletter and onto your web site, make signs for the library and to be displayed around town. And you have to make sure that such things as who is bringing what in the way of refreshments is understood by all concerned parties.

I call this Librarian as Social Director, and no part of the process am I able to work up enthusiasm for. And all too often all this work results in a turn-out of 4-11 people (for non-musical events), around 14-20 when there’s music involved. And most of even those numbers are too often members of the Friends’ organization, with loyal spouses in tow, rather than “civilians” from the community, for whom the programs are really intended. I call this Wasted Effort.

Mind you, I don’t have to do all of the work alone. Indeed, theoretically, the lion’s share of it should fall to the Friends, since one of their primary raisons d’etre is to support programs. But the core of my Friends group are a very few, mostly older, ladies. They are all well-meaning, certainly supportive of the library, but I fear energetic young blood and imagination are really needed. Only one lady regularly comes up with ideas, and this year she hasn’t been so productive in that area. I suspect she has just grown weary; she has worked very hard for the library for many years. But no one else has taken up the slack. Too often a meeting will involve considerable discussion of some possible programs – with, for a very task-oriented person like myself, rather too much time given over to glowing adjectives about ideas, and too few to definite plans, assignments -- and, ultimately, no definite action gets decided on. I'll look into that, someone might volunteer, but the next meeting, a month later, it still hasn't been looked into.

So a couple of meetings ago I took the bull by the horns and proposed a program. I have tried to remain essentially a silent presence at these meetings – which I am expected to attend – because I have felt that this was, should be, their show, not mine. But my monthly statistics were looking very bad (too many months with 0 attendees for adult programs), which does not look good for me. So I proposed Soup’s On. People would be encouraged to bring a pot of their favorite recipe for soup/stew/chili, with copies of the recipe to share with their neighbors. Potluck with a difference. And that’s the program we had last night. As usual, most of the attendees were Friends, along with two Board members-with-spouses, but there were a few “regular” people, and all those in attendance really seemed to enjoy themselves. Certainly it was a real treat, getting to sample all of these different soups, some of which were truly delicious. At one point I had six little styrofoam bowls lined up, going from cream of spinach, to haddock chowder with end-of-season vegetables, to potato-with-leek, to curried pumpkin (this won Best of Show in the little vote we had at the end of the evening), to Moroccan stew. Several people told me, “This was a great idea.”

So another program down, but ah, who knows how many more to go. If the library had the money I would certainly hire someone whose primary responsibility was programming. A friend suggested trying to pull in a volunteer, but that's exactly what the Friends are. And note there are far more offical Friends than there are working Friends. If I myself did not have a million other things to do, perhaps arranging programs would not seem so onerous. But there you go, life's little crosses. Below, the recipe for an absolutely delicious soup.

Creamy Curried Pumpkin Soup

Saute 1 small onion, finely chopped, in 1 T. olive oil
Stir in: 1 29 oz can pumpkin
1 14-oz can chicken broth
2 c. water
2 T. brown sugar
¾ t. curry powder, ½ t. salt
Bring to boil; reduce heat to medium-low
Add 4 oz cream cheese, cubed; cook until cheese is completely melted & mixture is well-blended.
For extra flavor, sprinkle each serving with ground nutmeg. Makes 7 1 cup servings

Monday, October 20, 2008

Hats and gloves optional

Today the Board of Trustees of my library, along with the Friends organization, held a tea for those who contributed to our 2007-2008 annual fund. The invitations that we sent out said “hats and gloves optional, but wouldn’t it be fun?” and a number of ladies did, indeed, wear hats; some even wore gloves. One lady told me her hat was 50 years old. All of the hats had to have been old, for where on earth can one buy a (formal, not sports) hat these days? Department stores used to have large hat departments, for women and men (one of my first jobs was as assistant buyer in the Men’s Shoes and Hats department of The Hecht Company in Washington, D.C.); but I don’t think they sell hats at all anymore, do they? One woman who attended our tea told me she had bought hers at the local second-hand dress shop, Reappearances, especially for the occasion.

I would have worn a hat, but it’s been a very long time since I owned one. In fact, I think the only time I ever wore a proper hat was as a child, when going to church. (Hah, those were the days, huh? Now people wear their sweat suits to church...)

My contribution to the selection of goodies available was a plate of cucumber sandwiches. I felt that any tea deserving of the name must have cucumber sandwiches, a la The Importance of Being Ernest. Making them was the usual ordeal. Probably because of my compulsion to perfection, preparing a meal when people are coming for dinner is an ordeal, preparing a single contribution for a potluck kind of event is an ordeal. And this particular ordeal began when I sat down at the computer to look for a good cucumber sandwich recipe. Too many choices! One site alone offered 89 possibilities. I ended up using a recipe out of my head – simpler than most of the ones I was reading, less like the cocktail party hors d’oeuvres many of the recipes suggested (on little rye bread rounds, with Italian dressing mixed in and paprika sprinkled on top, for example). My “recipe” consisted of mashing cream cheese and unsalted butter together, mixing a little dill into that – could probably have used more dill, but was afraid of there being too much – with a thinly sliced cucumber on each half sandwich. I removed the crust from the bread I used (naturally!), then sliced the sandwiches in half diagonally, producing little triangles. Each triangle had a cucumber.

After finally deciding how I was going to do the sandwiches, I went to the supermarket to get the ingredients, and had trouble deciding if an 8-oz package would be enough, or should I get the bigger package. After finally settling on 8 ounces (which made 20 of the little half sandwiches, for those with a party coming up), I proceeded to have trouble deciding what kind of white bread to get. Was planning on using the rest of my loaf of Country Kitchen Scotch Oatmeal for the brown sandwiches, but knew I had to have some white ones too, both for color and texture variety, and because some people, yes, even in this enlightened day and age, do not like whole grain bread. After I’d finally decided on Country Kitchen Unseeded Italian – which I probably would not go with again, because the texture was a little too flabby – I couldn’t decide whether I should buy one cucumber or two! Oh, good lord. I bought two, used only one.

And then, when it came time to actually make the sandwiches I found that, as so often happens, I had underestimated how long it would take, and was hyperventilating while frantically smearing cream-cheese-and-butter, knowing that I needed to be leaving in five minutes at the latest, in order to get to the library in time to let the ladies from the Friends in so they could set up.

But I made it in time, the sandwiches were fine, and popular, the tea was actually a very nice event, that everyone seemed to enjoy. A little girl, daughter of two of our patrons (and biggest contributors) played the violin. The child is only ten, but amazingly good; it was not embarrassing having her play. Of course, all the men present, with the exception of the two male Board members who showed up (five female members put in an appearance), had been dragged there by their wives. A tea simply is not a guy thing. In all honesty, I can’t say it’s my kind of thing either, not in the traditional sense. That “sense” involves a bunch of women sitting around talking about boring things like their health, babies, diets, with the talk possibly dipping into gossip of the cattier sort. This tea was nothing like that; talk was much more general; there was a lot of movement among groups. Actually, it was more like a cocktail party, but with the “cocktail” consisting of coffee or tea. And our Board president, who is himself a poet, read several rather charming poems that, in one way or another, had to do with libraries, or at least books. So there you go.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A feast for the eye and the soul

All of last week Maine was playing its trump card. Never mind the severe winters that linger too long, the cold, muddy springs (until those two weeks in May when all the flowering trees are in bloom and the sun finally shines), the hot, humid, but all-too-short summers. Comes the autumn and all else is forgotten. Last week “we” Mainers, and the leaf peepers from elsewhere, were treated to autumn colors in all of their splendor on mild, sunny day after sunny day. Clear blue skies the perfect backdrop for the reds, the yellows, the oranges, the paler salmons, intermixed with the still remaining light green of leaves that haven’t changed yet, the darker green of the white pines, the hemlocks, the balsam fir that will never change. On my commute to work I was forever saying “Oh, wow,” or “My God, how gorgeous,” or “”That’s so preeeetttty!”

It isn’t just a matter of color; there’s a sense of texture to all the trees. I think that may be partly because the leaves on a tree are rarely all the same color at the same time. If nothing else the edges of the leaves may be a different color from the surface (rust and bright red, for example). But also some of the leaves may be further along in the process, so some may be a bright orange, while others have more of a brownish tinge to the orange. And there’s the fact that the leaves are in the process of drying out, which effects their texture. So what you find yourself driving through is a kind of pointillist painting, passing tree after tree of impressionist dots in different colors, producing a living (but, interestingly, dying) masterpiece.

My soul craves beauty. It has feasted, this past week. Today, the Columbus Day holiday, was supposed to be another such day – even at 10 a.m. the radio was still declaring it would be “mostly sunny”, although cloud cover was solid – and as it turned out, it was overcast all day. The leaves still look lovely when it’s gray, but not so striking.

I’m off from work all this week. The Starving Librarian can’t afford to go anyplace, but is looking forward to napping whenever she feels like it, to not eating sugar, which I consume far too much of during the work week, in an effort to stay alert and on top of things every minute, to writing (last night it was until 3 a.m.), including catching up on some neglected correspondence, and to reading old letters. What, you ask? My old letter collection is quite impressive: I have every letter or card I’ve received from anyone since 1967, and copies of most letters I’ve written since 1976. This is my conservative (as in conserve) self at, I suppose it could be argued, its worst. But a current writing project calls for remembering what was happening in my life 30 years ago, and those letters are proving a godsend. The things I had forgotten, or remembered incorrectly. The things we forget, or remember incorrectly...

Friday, October 10, 2008

Art for Art's sake

The day I visited the Wadsworth-Longfellow House I found myself arriving just as the 3 o’clock guided tour filled up. “Couldn’t you squeeze one more person in?” I asked. Sorry, the docent said, “I had to squeeze in the last person.” They try to limit the tours to 13 people because of the space available throughout the house. I was the first person to go on the list for the 4 o’clock tour, but it was only 2:30. What to do with myself for an hour and a half on a cool, drizzly day in downtown Portland?

Portland is not the most scintillating place to wander around, except possibly down on Commercial Street, which runs along the bay. This is a small city of low-rises with a working class feel to it. Except for a few jewelry stores most of the retail establishments have, as in so many other cities, wandered off to the mall. In the summer Congress Street is bustling with tourists, but on my particular Saturday afternoon at the end of September there were few people on the street, and a sizable number of them seemed to be, if not quite homeless, close to it. I walked a couple of blocks south, and spotted the Maine College of Art, housed in a renovated former department store. Maine, like the rest of New England, is extremely diligent about preserving old buildings, but there isn’t really anything noteworthy about the Porteous Building. But there were a couple of galleries open and free on the ground floor, so I wandered through.

The most arresting, and amusing, exhibit consisted of an entire wall covered with lists and notes-to-self. Hundreds of grocery lists, to-do lists, chore-assignments-for-the-cooperative lists, written neatly or more often scribbled on post-it stickies, notepad paper with kittens or flowers at the top, torn sheets of notebook paper. I pulled out the pad of paper I’m never without and scribbled a few. The following list conjured up a middle-class mom with an SUV and 2.3 kids:

Water plants
LL Bean – return items
Bandaids (Batman)
Coop – gluten-free waffles
Call dr.

On a snippet of lavender paper was scrawled:
11 a.m.
Smelly Cat! (A bath was planned?)

The following harried note on a yellow post-it I could certainly identify with:

Do math again in my checkbook!
email Charles

On a torn sheet of notebook paper:
1) Clean your room
2) Read for 30 minutes
3) Practice your piano for 30 minutes
If you don’t do this Becca will call me @work & tell me.
Have a Great Day! Love, Mom

And on and on they went; it was absolutely fascinating and delightful. This to my mind is contemporary art at its most imaginative, taking an ordinary everyday something or other and making it into something else, or something we see as something else. Can’t you just imagine the sequence of thought that led to the idea for this exhibit? Damn, where’s that grocery list? God, I’m forever making lists. Everybody’s forever making lists. Just think of all the lists and notes to themselves people write in their lifetimes...

Hey! Imagine a wall full of nothing but lists, grocery lists, to-do lists...

Something my Survey of Art teacher in college kept saying was that art was about making people see things differently. This exhibit did that.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

A visit to the past

Last weekend, thanks to the nation-wide Free Museum Day, I did something. I drove to Portland (which admittedly was not free – it’s about a 45 minute drive) and visited the Wadsworth-Longfellow house. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow moved to this house on one of Portland’s main drags (Congress Street) in 1807, when he was a few months old; he left permanently when he went to Europe for the first time in 1826, on a trip that lasted three years (ah, those were the days). However, Henry’s favorite sister Anne (he had four sisters, as well as three brothers) continued to live in the house until she died in 1901. She bequeathed the house to the Maine Historical Society, which opened it to the public in 1902, making it the oldest house museum open to the public in Maine.

And as a matter of fact it is also the oldest standing structure in Portland, having been built by Henry’s maternal grandfather, General Peleg Wadsworth (Peleg – now there’s a name we’re glad didn’t catch on), who came to the area as a soldier during the Revolutionary War, and stayed. The house was built in 1785-86, the first brick house in Portland. Peleg and his wife reared 10 children in this house, and then his daughter Zilpah (another name that has, happily, not stayed the course) and her husband, Stephen Longfellow, raised their eight in it. When you’re going through the house it’s hard to imagine that many people crowded into the available space. None of the rooms is particularly large, and until 1815 there were only four bedrooms, on the second floor. A third story was added in that year, and then the youngsters were able to have their own rooms, instead of having to share not only a room, but a bed. But this always strikes me when I visit old houses in the U.S. – how little space people had in which to carry out the mundane tasks of their lives.

The house is beautifully maintained, full of the furniture and everyday objects that three generations of the same family used, over more than 100 years. I learned all sorts of interesting things through this visit – besides what I just trotted out, above – not least of which was that HWL was a real celebrity in his day. Of course, thanks to high school English, I knew he was a famous poet, though I couldn’t for the life of me remember which were some of his poems (a glance at the Maine Historical Society’s Poems Database reminds me: “I shot an arrow into the air? It came to earth I knew not where...” Or how about: “Listen my children and you shall hear...” Or “On the shores of Gitchee Gumee/of the shining Big Sea Water...” All of which represent far from his best poetry, but you know high school English classes). But he eventually became one of the most published, and renowned, men in the Western world. When he died, various products used his image on their packaging and advertising, because it would help sales.

Can you imagine a poet enjoying that kind of adulation today? You have to be a rock star or baseketball or baseball player. Oh, my goodness, what does that say about the state of our cultural life?

I also learned the appalling details of Longfellow's second wife’s death. His first wife had died following a miscarriage on a trip to Europe they made, which was bad enough. But then Fanny dies when she’s melting some sealing wax, and the candle catches her dress on fire. Two of her daughters were with her, and screamed for their father, who came running. He tried to put the fire out, badly burning his own face and hands in the effort. But Fanny was so severely burned that she died, though not before enduring a night of agonizing pain.

I have watched a husband die, and it was wrenching, but to watch a much-loved spouse die in such a horrible way has got to be one of the worst things life, which is just loaded with dreadful happenings it can throw at you, can throw at you.

I would have to say the main thing I learned from my free visit to this little museum on the streets of Portland was that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a much more interesting...fellow...than a line like “On the shores of Gitchee Gumee” might suggest. And it has made me want to learn more about him.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

It's raining it's pouring the old man is...

I have mentioned before how important music is to me. This morning I was listening to my Peter, Paul & Mary Around the Campfire CD while having breakfast. When they sang “Light One Candle” I found myself tearing up. It was a combination of the words –

"Light one candle for the Maccabee children
With thanks that their light didn’t die
Light one candle for the pain they endured
When their right to exist was denied
Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice
Justice and freedom demand
But light one candle for the wisdom to know
When the peacemakers’ time is at hand

Don’t let the light go out
It’s lasted for so many years
Don’t let light go out
Let it shine through our love and our tears."*

- and the stirring music, with all the voices singing (PP&M were joined by the New York Choral Society) that made it so ... for want of a better word ... uplifting. Music has that amazing power to rouse us.

And immediately afterwards came the hauntingly beautiful “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” I like the Kingston’s Trio’s version as well, but the PP&M version has the benefit of the ineffable sadness of Mary Travers’ falling voice on “Oh, when will they ever learn?” And of course, we don’t learn. Or rather, too many of us don’t learn.

And then I was treated to the delightful cheerfulness, and silliness, of three of PP&M’s children’s songs in a row. The one entitled “Inside” soon had the kids in the audience singing along on the chorus – “Inside, inside, that’s the most important part, inside, inside, that’s the place you have to start, inside, inside, that’s where you find the heart of the matter” – and after singing about pies (you don’t know which one you’ll like best if you eat just the crust), and birthday presents (you can’t know which will be your favorite ‘til you unwrap them), PP&M sing about every boy and girl being special – “just how we know I’ll bet you guess...we took the time to look—” a tiny pause and then all the kids called out “Inside!” I saw the concert that this was performed at a number of years ago, on the PBS station in Abilene, and it was delightful, seeing all the kids get into singing “Inside, inside, that’s the most important part...”

My CD moved on to the next song and I was listening to the charmer, “The Marvelous Toy,” with all the sound effects (“it went zip when it moved and bop when it stopped and whrrrr when it stood still. I never knew just what it was and I guess I never will.”)

And finally, in “Right Field,” there was the triumph of the little kid who’s always stuck out in the aforementioned hinterland in baseball games, because he’s slow and clumsy, until one day when he comes out of his usual daydreaming to find everybody yelling and looking at him – “they point to the sky and I look up above, and a baseball falls into my gloooove.” Big burst of applause from the audience, and this solitary listener laughed out loud. PP&M’s children’s songs make children, and grown-up children, feel good about themselves, and the world.

So thank you, Peter, Paul and Mary, for all the lovely music you’ve put out there in the world, and for brightening my breakfast on a grey, rainy day.

*Light One Candle, Peter Yarrow, c1983 Silver Dawn Music

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Exercise for the mind

Watching The Brain Fitness Program on public television (which is the only television I get, since I don’t subscribe to cable or satellite T.V., and the PBS station is the only one my rabbit ears pick up), I learn that the secret to keeping the brain, i.e., the mind, in good shape as one ages is, basically, learning. And more than learning new information, learning new skills, learning, and performing, new tasks.

Exactly what most of us resist doing, as we age. I’ve had to learn to do many new things in my current job and, I fear, have more often hated it than not. Actually, I’ve never been crazy about learning how to do things, though I have always loved learning new information. Technology, especially, has been the source of endless frustration and hissy-fits on my part, though I have done what I had to do, because one does. But according to the brain fitness experts, it is exactly this kind of attempt to master new tasks that maintains the brain’s neuroplasticity, which is needed to keep one not only mentally astute, but engaged in life, hopeful, even cheerful.

I can see this. I have watched myself becoming less and less engaged over the past few years, less and less inclined to put myself out at all, in order to do something. I found myself a cozy, comfortable little house, where all the irritants of previous domiciles had pretty much disappeared, and I didn’t want to leave it to go “do things.” Granted, the main reason I do so little these days is lack of discretionary funds, along with the lack of someone to accompany me, and a distressing lack of physical energy, both mentioned in earlier Notes. But stirred into the mix is a lack of interest.

It would seem that what is happening is my brain is getting stiff, along with the rest of my body. Loosening it up – or maintaining its plasticity, as the experts on the T.V. program kept saying – would presumably help to loosen up the rest of me, would help me regain some of my youthful enthusiasm and adventurous spirit. I should add that if somebody said come on, let’s go to Italy, or Nepal, or Finland (even with the America-inspired school shootings they’ve had lately), or western Canada, or Montana, or you-name-it, I would be ready in a shot. There is still nothing I would rather do than travel. But...just to give you one small example...I had registered to attend a meeting sponsored by the Maine Democratic Party in Lewiston last night. Angus King, a former governor of Maine, was going to talk about Barak Obama’s energy policy (one of the women I work with said ‘Barak Obama doesn’t have an energy policy,’ but that’s what I wanted to find out). Wednesday is the day of the week I am able to leave work earlier. I could have come home, taken a little nap, gotten up and had a bite to eat, made the 40-minute drive to downtown Lewiston for the meeting at 7, gotten home 9-ish. But it didn’t happen. Once I was home I just couldn’t make myself go out again, couldn’t face those two 40-minute drives, one after dark (when I don’t see well). I took a three-hour nap instead. This is not being engaged.

This is despite all that wrestling with technology I've been doing for the past couple of years. So maybe you have to be interested in the tasks you're learning, for it to be really beneficial? Maybe I need to take up...step dancing? Skeet-shooting? Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Real tomatoes

Well, I’ve done my part to carry on the autumn traditions. I stopped this past weekend at a farm stand and bought my annual pumpkin, which is perfect and which I’ve named Sunny (I always name my pumpkins, and I keep them until they rot on me, which is true of everything I acquire. Stuff lives with me – and moves with me – ‘til it rots/falls apart/dies on me), as well as a lovely acorn squash, and some enchanting cherry tomatoes.

The place I stopped at was on the other side of the river. On this side the road that runs along the river is a heavily traveled, house-and-business-lined thoroughfare connecting three small towns (Gardiner, where I live, Farmingdale, and Hallowell, where I work) to the “big city” (population about 18,000) of Augusta. On the other side of the Kennebec the houses and businesses are pretty much limited to the Augusta end; in short order you’re driving past fields and farms. And traffic tends to be much lighter. Every now and then I take that route, rather the one I take at least twice every day. There’s a bridge at Randolph that leads back across to Gardiner.

McGee’s Vegetable Stand was very neat and attractive, painted a deep barn red, with pumpkins lined up in front. I caught a glimpse of it as I went zipping by, and immediately slowed – here was a chance to get my autumn pumpkin! At someplace more interesting than a supermarket.

I was very pleased to see the sign that said “Honor system – please leave money in slot on door.” Initially I thought this meant slot on door of nearby farmhouse, but I saw no slot on either of the visible doors, and the man coming out of the house showed me that one end of the produce shed was actually a door, lying on its side...with a slot in it.

One reason this honor system pleased me was that it’s nice to see places and situations that still rely on such a thing. But also, I had only recently been thinking about farm stands and honor systems, probably as the result of passing a house on the outskirts of Hallowell that had a few vegetables sitting out on a little cart, with a sign. I had thought how most people would probably play according to the rules, but all it would take was one unscrupulous person who made off with the contents of the box, to ruin the system for everyone (especially the farmer).

And then, voila, here was a farm stand operating on the honor system. McGee’s has at least solved the problem of that one-in-a-hundred dishonest person making off with the money, but of course, people can still take produce, and leave no money. But I suspect that most people who would bother stopping at a farm stand are not the kind of people who would do that.

This little transaction of six or seven minutes gave me a great deal of satisfaction. It was nice to know that I was “buying local,” helping out a local farmer, in my small way. And the place was so pleasant, with lovely produce attractively displayed. And for me it was something out of the ordinary, though others may stop at every farm stand they see. And finally, I liked doing my part for the honor system.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The other side of the aisle

Having commented on the Democratic National Convention (DNC), I feel I should do the same for the Republican National Convention (RNC). I actually watched more of the latter than of the former, since I wanted to hear what the opposition was saying.

Patriotism was the big theme of the convention (its official slogan being “Country First.”) While the DNC concentrated on what was wrong with this country -- the watchword there being “Change” – the RNC concentrated on the valor and sacrifices of our servicemen and women, past and present, with the thread always leading back, of course, to John McCain’s service record. I have absolutely no problem with honoring and thanking those people who serve in such a way that the majority of us don’t have to, but I didn’t see how all this had anything to do with a presidential campaign. And I thought way too much time was given over to McCain’s POW experiences. I don’t think there’s anyone in this country who doesn’t acknowledge McCain is a bona fide war hero. But does that automatically make him good presidential material?

Very interestingly, the big night seemed not to be the last night, when Senator McCain spoke, but the night before, when his high-energy running mate made her highly effective speech (my, but the crowd did love her). One statement of hers really got me: “And I have never been ashamed of my country.” This, presumably, was in response to Michelle Obama’s controversial statement months ago that for the first time in her adult life she was proud of her country. But...our treatment of the Indians doesn’t make Governor Palin feel the least bit ashamed? The fact that for many years (until government stepped in) we were working children as young as five years old 12 hours a day in factories – that isn’t something to be ashamed of? Or our treatment of blacks prior to the civil rights movement of the 1960s? Our incarcerating during World War II thousands of loyal American citizens who happened to be of Japanese extraction doesn’t make the governor feel the tiniest twinge of shame? Or the fact that right now millions of Americans avoid going to the doctor because they have no medical insurance, and if a medical catastrophe strikes it can completely ruin a family financially...this is something to be proud of?

It could be argued that Governor Palin wasn’t around for, and therefore had nothing to do with, most of the “shameful” situations I mention above. And therefore, she has no reason to feel shame for them. But...what if she had been around then? As many people were, who objected to, were ashamed of, and fought against, the conditions I’ve cited. And who were, without exception, demonized by the status quo. Would Governor Palin have been able to feel ashamed of her country then, at least of some of the conditions it was tolerating? Or what about the last situation I mention above, the health care situation in this country, this “richest country in the world.” Isn’t that condition shameful?

I’ve always had trouble with the “my country right or wrong” attitude, and it’s all-too-often accompanying attitude, well, if you don’t like how things are, go somewhere else. The United States, for all its wealth, power, physical beauty, and yes, warm-hearted, generous, hard-working people, has done plenty of lousy, bad, shitty things, just like every other country has. And, like others of my ilk, I don’t think a willingness to point out when the country is doing something unacceptable indicates a lack of patriotism. What it indicates is an acceptance of the (very American) idea that things can always be made better. And should be.

As to other speakers, I did think Rudy Giuliani got in some good hits about Obama’s “present” votes in the Illinois state legislature. That’s the kind of real information I like to hear about candidates (and I’d say it’s pretty damning for Obama). But then Giuliani got snide. As Sarah Palin was snide. Oh, preserve me from snide. (And isn’t it amazing, my Spell Check knew how to spell Giuliani.)

I was very impressed with Mike Huckabee as a speaker. He was not snide, but relied on affecting personal anecdotes to get his points across. For example, his description of how poor his family was, when he was growing up, followed by the statement (which got tremendous applause, and rightfully so): “I’m not a Republican because I was born rich, I’m a Republican because I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life poor, waiting for the government to save me.” He is way too conservative for me, but I like the man’s style.

And that’s enough about politics for a while. Everybody vote.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Crime wave

Labor Day weekend my car was spray-painted. Sitting right outside my house, in my nice neighborhood. Fuck Black Cars was the elevated message (silly twits. The car is dark green.) I was moderately miffed when I discovered this little act of vandalism, which was when I went out to make my garbage run on Sunday night (see Note of June 10, 2008). However, the next day, when I went out to wash the offensive message off, I became really disheartened when I discovered it wasn’t written in the egg-based substance I had thought it was (what would make me think such a thing? I suppose because it was yellow), but rather yellow paint. As in difficult to get off, especially off the trunk of the car, without taking the car paint with it.

After realizing this was going to take more than a pan of water with Mr. Clean added, I went back into the house and called the police. Of course there was nothing they would be able to do, but I felt they should be informed. You wouldn’t bother in a big city, where the police are busy with the murders and the rapes and the muggings and the break-ins, but in relatively crime-free small-town Maine, attention was more likely to be paid. Maybe there had been a string of spray-paintings. Maybe I was part of a pattern. Or might be the start of a pattern.

The fellow who came out was 1) my idea of attractive and 2) very nice. Properly sympathetic. “Really nice,” he says with acerbity, of the message. He tells me two things that make me feel a tiny bit better. One is that he’d noticed that a For Sale back up the block had also been spray-painted. And the other is that they’ve occasionally had trouble with this kind of thing when there have been games at the ball field which sits at the end of my street. I had had the uneasy feeling that I might be being singled out, since my car sat right beside the three cars that go with the house next door, all of us with our rear-ends to the street, so equally vulnerable to violation, but only mine was violated. But relief that it probably wasn’t a matter of me having a secret enemy (like my next-door neighbors on the other side? Whose howling, barking dogs, shut up in the house for 10-12 hours a day, I’ve called the police about more than once? The thought did cross my mind...), was almost immediately replaced by the sinking realization that the little creep(s) who did this could do it again, anytime.

However, my immediate problem was the writing on the back window of my car. I really could not be driving around with Fuck Black screaming at people (the Cars part can only be read if you’re standing near the car, looking down at the trunk.) I didn’t know what to use, thought of paint remover – obviously not for the trunk, but maybe for the window? – called first my landlord, to see if he had any, but he wasn’t home (never a landlord when you need one), so called the one of my staff who owns a home, and might possibly have such an item in her possession.

“I have paint thinner,” Barb says. I figure it’s worth a try, so drive to Hallowell (the back way, so as to be viewed by as few cars as possible), to Barb’s house, where she produces a paint scraper she found while waiting for me. The paint scraper actually proves quite efficacious at removing the paint from the window, though it takes a while. So we forget about the paint thinner. Barb digs around in her house some more and finds a much smaller scraper that she uses to help me, and the two of us spend maybe 45 minutes scraping away yellow paint. I’m deeply appreciative for her "being there for me,” as the cliche goes.

I’ve now asked several people for suggestions as to what to do about the trunk. I can’t afford to have it repainted. Acetone, like nail polish, might take the spray-paint off, one fellow suggests. But yes, it might take some of the car paint off, too. Another of the patrons at the library suggests trying a rubbing compound (what’s a rubbing compound?). And yet someone else makes the suggestion that I buy some spray paint in a color as close to the muddy green of my car as possible, and do the repainting myself. “Or paint it all yellow,” he said, with a wicked grin. “Then you wouldn’t have to worry about it not matching.”

No, all I have to worry about is its happening again. But what am I going to do, sit out on my tiny front porch every night with my firearm in my hand? I think not...

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


This evening when I went to the supermarket, there were large pumpkins sitting out front, waiting to be purchased and whisked home to sit on someone’s front porch. On September third! Surely it’s entirely too early for this. But there’s no question that once Labor Day is past, Maine goes into autumn mode. We’re still having warm days, but the humidity of deep summer has lessened (though it will undoubtedly rear its ugly head a time or two before disappearing altogether), and the evenings are pleasantly cool. There is even one tree on my commute to work that has been displaying more and more of its autumn foliage for several weeks. Obviously it’s got a gene loose, but any day now the other guys are going to hit the color switch, and things will start happening. And the season that is many people’s New England favorite will be in full swing.

A lot of people in Maine have vacation homes they call camps, though you and I would probably call them cottages or cabins. These are not usually fancy, and sometimes are only about an hour, maybe a couple of hours’ drive away. Their owners will often go up for a weekend, or a few days at a stretch. Folks are now starting to shut these up, and return to home base. This, too, seems way early to me. But life in Maine is so tuned to the seasons. Summer is the time to spend time “up at the camp.” Autumn is the time for pumpkins on the front porch (I always get a little one, and it sits inside my house), visiting apple orchards to pick a bag or two of McIntoshes or Cortlands. (I love to do this), and politics (Maine folk are very involved in local politics). Winter is the time for skiing, snow-mobiling, and shoveling, shoveling, shoveling. This last I do not love, but Mainers of all ages do it, grumbling about it while looking upon it as one of life’s givens. And spring is the time for grumbling about how long the winter has gone on, for rain and mud, for the coming of green, and flowers, for gardening. And then it’s summer and it’s time to open up the camp.

By the way, I recently realized that I made a mistake in my Note ‘And where were you born?’ I said that all the people who know me are five other people away from knowing one another (me being the first of the famous six degrees). But of course, they’re really only one person away from knowing one another, that person being me. Good grief. I’m surprised no one called me on this. But then, maybe no one’s reading...

Monday, September 1, 2008

Politics as usual

When I first announced this blog to family and friends, my friend Clifford – who was one of my father’s oldest friends (they’d known each other since seventh grade) and thus, clearly, of a very different generation – begged me to please stay away from politics. As might be expected, he and I differ considerably in this area, but I know what he meant. Who needs a lot of ranting about politics, when we all have our own opinions on the topic anyway, and are not likely to be swayed by a few paragraphs in an online blog. People who read politically-oriented blogs are usually reading “rants” that agree with what they already believe.

But I feel compelled to say something about the Democratic National Convention. I support Barak Obama – like many people, I want something as different from the past eight years as possible, and besides promising change Obama is very smart, articulate, seems to be good at collecting good people to advise him.

But. I was really rather put off by the convention, especially by the final night in the football stadium. It all smacked too much of “showtime” for me.

I didn’t watch every minute of the convention, but I certainly watched more than I ever have before. In general, I’m not interested in lofty speeches – talk being cheap and all – and I’m not much interested in spectacle. So political conventions have never had an allure. But in this case I wanted to see who showed up, who had what to say. I admit to being impressed by the couple of turncoat Republicans they trotted out, who announced that, despite being loyal Republicans, they were voting for Obama. I don’t really intend that to be as snide as it may sound – I’m all for people voting for the individual, not just slavishly following party lines.

I was also impressed with Obama’s wife, but I pretty much hated the little video on her, hated the fact that there was a video on her. In fact, this was part of my objection to the convention as a whole: it was all one big, carefully directed and edited movie. (I also hate the fact that there is so much emphasis on a candidate's family. We're electing the person, not the wife and 2.3 kids. But this is not just an element of the Obama campaign; it's across the board. Think how many people didn't vote for John Kerry because they didn't like his wife.)

I missed Hillary Rodham Clinton’s speech, which I regretted, and regretted even more missing Joe Biden’s speech, since I know very little about him. I was surprised by the huge, lengthy ovation that Bill Clinton received, and would like someone to explain it to me. I voted for the man twice because I preferred his politics to those of his opponent, but at the personal level I think he’s proved himself to be a real sleaze, and a dishonest sleaze at that. So why does he seem to be so popular? (P.S. More than once during his speech I muttered, “this guy is good, he’s good.”) I sat through several Regular Joe speeches, by people who had found that working hard and playing by the rules does not necessarily insure that ones life is secure, and therefore I am voting for Barak Obama.

Which actually takes me to my biggest problem with the convention, and maybe with the campaign in general. The suggestion that, with all the things that are wrong, all the problems the country is dealing with, Obama is our Savior. If the man gets into office, he won’t be able to accomplish many of the things he wants to; he certainly will not be able to bring about miracles. That’s the reality of politics. Why do people persist in believing otherwise? Or insist that a candidate assure them otherwise? Barak Obama has proved, in his meteoric rise, to be a savvy politician, and someone who knows how to inspire people with hope. He is not God. Think how disappointed people are going to be when that fact is brought home to them.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Drive, she said

I suspect Maine has the politest drivers in the country. They are forever stopping to let people in (indeed, I sometimes get annoyed with this gallantry. ‘Come on,’ I’ll fume, “let’s get on with it.’ But then, I’m probably the rudest driver in Maine.) They don’t honk, or yell out the window at you, or shoot you the finger. They stop if a pedestrian even looks like s/he wants to cross the street. I compare this last quality with the drivers in Boston (possibly the country’s worst), who seem engaged in a perennial war with pedestrians.

You encounter relatively few people driving around convinced that they have the god-given right to inflict there music on the rest of the world, and most of them are in the “big city” of Portland. It used to drive me crazy in Colorado Springs, in San Antonio, in Abilene (God, especially in Abilene), all the jerks so damned indifferent to the concept of consideration for others. You could hear the bass from their car radios blocks away. I'm sure wherever you live you get treated to this sort of thing all too often.

There isn't even very much traffic to contend with here in the great state of Maine. Indeed, the fact that traffic is relatively light throughout Maine is one of its attractions for me. I’ve long held that traffic is one of the true curses of modern life. It frays our tempers, raises our stress levels, eats up great quantities of our valuable time, as well as great quantities of that oil that has gotten so expensive. (Aside: I can’t help but feel the silver lining to the rise in gas prices situation is that it has forced many people to reconsider their gas-guzzling SUVs that should never have been invented. Actually, there are two silver linings: people are now taking the concept of alternative forms of energy seriously.)

But what's a body to do? We have to drive, immerse ourselves in that monster, Traffic, in order to get to work, to school, to the store, the doctor's office, our parents in the old folks home, etc., etc. Admittedly there is that wacky concept, public transporation, that I am such a big supporter of, especially the kind, like subways and trains, that do not add to the traffic on the streets. But not everyplace in the U.S. was foresighted enough to build those kinds of systems; and even places that do have public transportation, usually have a lot of traffic anyway. There are just a whole lot of us, and we all have cars, and we all have lots of things to do, lots of places to go. Wherever you live, you probably have to contend with heavy traffic some part of every day.

I'm lucky; I don’t. A number of things wrong with my life these days, but that ain’t one of them. Oh, being the demon of impatience that I am behind the wheel I may get irritated on my ten-minute commute from Gardiner to Hallowell, if I get stuck behind someone who insists on going the speed limit, but that doesn't always happen, and I can always take the back roads between here and there, that tack on three or four minutes, but are aggravation-free because nobody but me is usually on them.

I’ve been in Maine this second time around almost three years now. And slowly but surely the penchant for driving with courtesy is rubbing off on me. Today I even let somebody in.