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.