Sunday, July 20, 2008

A walk on the quiet side

I just returned from a walk in the cool of the 5:45 a.m. day. As those of you who know me know, my major enemies are noise and heat. These days, it’s too hot for walks unless it is 5:45 in the morning. The air was very damp, but not sauna-like as it would become with the appearance of the sun. Not a single car went by as I walked the quiet, pleasant streets of my neighborhood, passing the large, attractive, lovingly maintained houses and lawns. My only company were the birds, who provided that cacophony of birdsong I would miss if I were deaf.

Each house I passed was distinctive – no tract housing here. Most are New England white, of course, with the usual black or dark green shutters, and all are made of wood. But there is the occasional pale yellow, deep rust, grey, dark brown one, to add variety. There is even one outrageously bright blue house (all right, I can hear Bob the cartoonist and iconoclast say). The vast majority are two-storied; one magnificent example of Victorian architecture has three floors, the third including a large cupola. Most of the houses have sizable porches, often with wicker rockers or other outdoor seating on them; a good many of the porches are screened-in.

And people make their homes distinctive in ways other than the architectural. The gardening is very individual, from neat beds set here and there across the green lawn, rimmed in with ground cover like white and green hosta plants, to large patches of side lawn that are given over to a riot of flowers and tall grasses, making them look wild. And there’s the house that has made its small front lawn into a vegetable garden. The long, straight brick walk of another very impressive house has tiny plants growing up along the cracks between bricks, so that standing at the end of the walk, you seem to be looking at cultivated farm rows in miniature.

There is the smiling face (not a “smiley face”) made of what look like walnut shells, imbedded in the trunk of a handsome black maple. The collection of homemade birdhouses -- no two alike – that cluster like a small town at the edge of another front yard, with a little stuffed rabbit peering out of one door. At one house they seem to have taken advantage of a sale on burnt gold spray paint, as that is the color of all the balusters in the porch railing, as well as the wooden rockers on the porch.

And everywhere are the enormous old trees, lots of shrubs and flowers. One of the reasons I love living in the northeast: the lushness of the vegetation. The ubiquitous orange day-lilies are a little past their perky prime – the relentless sun and lack of rain for the past week have drained the blossoms of their sunset brilliance – but they are still to be seen in nearly every yard, their long stems reaching up and leaning forward out of their collar of long, narrow leaves. A number of porches sported hanging baskets overflowing with colorful flowers, and one house even had a great, fat cluster of lavender flowers, seemingly pinned to the middle of the front door (how did they do that?)

I feel very lucky to have found my cozy little house in this lovely neighborhood. When I could be struggling to stay alive in Darfur, or Burma, or even a poverty-entrenched village in Mexico, I have to see how lucky I am. While my job is the source of some frustration for me, and the low salary makes my life very difficult, my home, and my physical surroundings, never cease to give me pleasure.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

In your own back yard

A few weekends ago I almost made another trip to Wiscassett, but found I simply did not have the energy. This is one of the reasons I “very rarely do anything for pleasure these days,” as I said in an earlier Note: I simply do not have the psychic or physical energy. This is a sad commentary on my life at present, but there you go.

However, I decided I had sufficient energy to pay a visit to the little art gallery in the town where I work, Hallowell, which is a ten-minute drive from where I live in Gardiner. Despite spending at least six hours every weekday in Hallowell for the past 2 ¾ years, I have partaken but slightly of what it has to offer. The post office – where I have my post office box – the cunning little card shop, Paper Kicks, that has a nice selection of cards a cut above the assembly-line selection at the local drugstores, Lucky Gardens, the Chinese restaurant where I get take-out about once a week, and where they know me by name (Mehody), and know to cut the sauces, Slates bakery, where I occasionally get a bagel and cream cheese and, during periods when I’m finding it a major challenge staying awake and alert, cups of coffee with enough cream and Splenda to completely disguise the fact that it’s coffee (which I don’t actually like), Boynton’s Market, a 70-year-old institution in the town, though there is really nothing special about it, it being your basic mom-and-pop corner grocery, where I get an all-but-daily candy bar in the never-ending battle to stay awake and alert.

These are the establishments in Hallowell that I frequent. But there is much more to this little town, which historically was a bigger deal (and was bigger!) than its next-door neighbor, Augusta, now the capital, and obviously both bigger and more important. Hallowell had at one time a thriving ship-building industry (it is located on the Kennebec River, which empties into the sea 25 miles away) and also exported huge quantities of ice, and of granite. My little library, built in 1880 to look like a English country church, is made of the local granite. There is still a Granite Hill, where you can still select a hefty chunk of granite, to do whatever with.

In the second half of the 20th century Hallowell was best-known for its many antique shops, but most of those have disappeared. Today it’s given itself over to a lively arts scene, including frequent live music at places like Higher Grounds (coffee house/bar) and The Wharf (good old fashioned bar); as well as several shops that feature jewelry, pottery, bags, woven wall hangings, etc. by local area artisans.

But on my Saturday afternoon outing I limited my dip into the arts to the Harlow Gallery, which as usual was exhibiting the work of Maine artists. I’ve seen a lot of excellent paintings at this little gallery, confirming in me the impression that there are lots of folks out there who are very talented, making beautiful/interesting/amusing art, who will never be rich or famous. I always wonder how these people survive. Do they all have day jobs?

I also visited John Merrill’s Book Shop, a second-floor walk-up. As you would expect of a writer and a librarian, I love books, and bookstores. John Merrill’s is everything a used bookstore should be: slightly claustrophobic with narrow aisles, crammed shelves reaching above your head, lots of little hand-written signs, the occasional nook with a chair where you can sit down and read. Traditionally, I’ve had to restrain myself when visiting a bookstore, but being in Starving Librarian mode, with virtually no discretionary funds at my disposal, and living in a very small house, with virtually no more room for bookcases, I didn’t find restraint so difficult. Still, I was glad to finally visit the place (after 2 ¾ years!), and John – whom I know because he comes to preview our books before we have a book sale at the library – encouraged me to use him as a resource, for those occasional items that I might want to add to our collection, but that are out of print.

Finally, I had lunch at the new restaurant in town, Joyce’s. It is on the river side of Water Street (Hallowell’s Main St.), and it was very pleasant, sitting out on the covered terrace, looking out at the water gliding by, at the tree-covered opposite bank. I splurged and had the lobster pie, which could more properly be called lobster soup. Very tasty – my God, I do love lobster – but the puff pastry topping was an annoyance. Why do chefs do such things? You can’t cut up the flaky pastry because it’s sitting atop liquid, and you can’t really eat around it. Had to lift it gingerly out and set it on my bread plate, sawing loose a bite every now and then, to accompany a spoonful of the sweet, creamy soup.

My experimental glass of wine was the perfect degree of dry. All in all, I was glad I had managed to overcome my torpor, and "do" Hallowell.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Death, where is thy sting?

Here’s a thought that surely most people who live alone – especially those who are no longer young and invincible – must grapple with: what happens if I die while I’m at home? Have a stroke, heart attack, serious fall? If such a thing happens when you’re out and about people will see, call the police, an ambulance, somebody will go through your pocketbook, your wallet, find out where you live, and on and on. But if you’re home alone when this happens, how long will it be before someone finds out? And in the meantime...

Having spent a lot of my reading time over the past decade or so devouring mysteries, I’ve long been familiar with the scenario wherein a body is discovered only several days into the decomposi-tion process, when the smell attracts the notice of neighbors. I don’t have a problem with the idea of dying, but the idea of police or fire fighters having to break down my door, only to be greeted by an unholy stench and a body so bloated with gases it’s unrecognizable is a definite turn-off. Perhaps that springs from the same vanity that kept me coloring my hair for over twenty years. I want to look good. At the very least, I don’t want to look bad. Not even when I’m dead, and the people seeing me are professionals who are used to seeing people who are not at their best.

So what do I do about this situation? As I’ve already mentioned, I have no near and dear living close by, no one who is accustomed to seeing me or at least talking to me on the phone every few days. I do try to talk to my mother in San Antonio about once a week, but if she doesn’t hear from me, she isn’t going to immediately assume that I’ve dropped dead. And even if she starts to worry, she’s 1900 miles away. There is no one who, not hearing from me, or being able to reach me by phone, would come running to see what the problem was.

I am the director of a small public library, and certainly if I didn’t turn up at work, or call in for, say, two days running, there would be alarm. My staff would know this “wasn’t like me.” But what if I’m watching an Inspector Linley mystery (which is how I’ve been entertaining myself the past few evenings, having checked DVDs of the first two seasons out from our library) on a Friday evening, and suddenly keel over, after experiencing the usual left arm/shoulder/ neck pain, sudden nausea, and shortness of breath. There I would lie, in my body’s spontaneously released waste, until, I suspect, along about Tuesday morning. The woman I work with on Monday mornings would be concerned that I wasn’t there, would call, would get no answer, would shoulder on until it was time for the changing of the guard at 1:30, when she might call again, before leaving. My Monday afternoon staff person would also be able to manage fine without me (we have a policy that no one should work alone for an extended period, but both of these women are capable of managing alone). Barb, my morning person, might call again in the evening, express concern to her husband – “I hope nothing’s happened.” If she tried again Tuesday morning, and still got no answer, I suspect she would call the police, and sometime during the course of the day I would be “discovered.” But hey, that’s three full days, four nights. Plenty of time for the gases to build up...

No doubt this discussion is striking some readers as a tad morbid. But this really is the sort of the thing that one realizes one must think about, like making a will and buying a burial plot, as senior citizen-hood attacks with full force. When you’re young you’re never going to die – and isn’t it wonderful how the human mind has developed that defense mechanism, to keep from dwelling on the one absolute reality that awaits all living things – but when you reach a certain age, and everything is starting to break down periodically, like a car that really needs to be replaced, then you know you’re going to die, and suspect you’d better make some arrangements.

So I’ve looked Death in the face, and am not afraid of it. But I want to be tidied up and tucked away as soon as possible, like a human being still swathed in what may be our greatest illusion – that of dignity.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Dogs Revisited

O.K., I did call about the dogs. About 15 minutes after I finished my last blog. I learned from the police that there had been other complaints, which rather surprised me. It has been my observation that people generally do not complain about things, except to one another, or people who can’t have any impact on the situation.

The dispatcher said they would send someone out, but as far as I know they never did; and the owners came home about 15 minutes later. A few days after that, when I spotted Matt (not his real name) actually home, and outside (he and his wife are very rarely home that they are not, from all appearances, sleeping), I did something I didn’t want to do, but that my conscience told me was the “right” thing to do.

When I went over, Matt was removing many, many huge stuffed garbage bags from the little room that is built onto the back of the kitchen which is itself built onto the back of the house. Evidently my neighbors wait even longer than I do to go dump their garbage. I asked him if he was aware that his dogs barked and howled a good deal of the time that he and Patty (not her real name) were away. He said no, but it didn’t surprise him. He then said that two of them were going to going to doggie school soon, and one of them was going to be getting some kind of injection, because it was so hyper. (What on earth could that be? A doggie tranquilizer?)

So now I made the offer that I didn’t want to make, but felt I should make. “I’d be glad to let them out every now and then, say when I get home. Maybe if they were able to get out a little more often when y’all have to be gone all day, they wouldn’t be quite so unhappy, having to stay inside.” We had already discussed the fact that yes, they were kept in “the doggie room” while Matt and Patty were at work.

Matt said he would talk to his wife about my offer, but so far no one has come knocking on my door to say, yes, that would be great if you would do that. To my secret relief. And frankly, I am now skeptical that even if they did take me up on my offer, it would really help. I’ve noticed that the dogs often start barking within 15 minutes of their owners' leaving, which puts it at maybe 20 minutes after they’ve been let out. I think they just don’t like being shut up in that room, and my God, who can blame them?

It’s hard for me to understand people having animals like this when they cannot be around to care for them properly. You may “love dogs,” but making them spend up to ten hours in one room (one hot room, these days), where they can’t (presumably) relieve themselves is very tough love indeed.

I used to feel the same way when I lived in New York City, and would see people out walking these enormous dogs. Everybody lives in an apartment in New York, and relatively few are the big, spacious abodes you see in Woody Allen movies. I would feel so sorry for all those dogs, forced to spend most of their lives in a very limited amount of space. Of course, their masters and mistresses did walk them – and nowadays they even pick up their poop! – which was at least something. But to my mind dogs, especially big dogs, need to be able to run. They need a yard to romp in, or they need to be taken to a park where they can be let off the leash for at least a little while, to go tearing around after sticks or frisbees. If you can’t provide your big dog with that, maybe you shouldn’t have your big dog. And if you are going to be gone from home for as much as ten hours almost every day of the week, maybe you shouldn't even have your little dogs.

Maybe we should ask the dogs how they feel about this.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Ethical dilemma

I’m not the kind of person who cares to have a dog. They bark, require too much care, dig up and pollute your yard (or the street -- and then you have to pick the pollution up) and have bad breath. But I like them all right. Some of them are very cute, and they’re friendly, and receptive to affection, which is pleasant. But whether or not I would want one, I certainly object to their abuse.

There is a house I pass when I take the back way to work (longer, but aggravation-free, as there is virtually no traffic, so I’m not going to get stuck behind someone who insists on driving the ridiculously low speed limit). This house has a large, unfenced yard. It also has a tiny fenced-in area, up against the garage, for the dog. Actually, it used to be two dogs, and large ones at that, stuck in this little space for most of their waking hours, and in all kinds of weather (there is a dog house in the space, that looks indecently small). I would cringe every time I saw them. Why don’t those people fence in the whole yard, or even just a larger section of it, and give their animals a modicum of freedom, I’d fume.

But this is as nothing compared to my next-door-neighbors. These are a young couple whose lives are an endless mystery to me. They both drive (very noisy) pickups sometimes. From time to time one or the other truck disappears, to be replaced by some other vehicle. But the trucks always come back.

Since I moved in, a year ago, the husband has usually left for work sometime between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. Not always at the same time. What could he do for a living that didn’t require that he leave at the same time every day, but did require that he leave before most people are even up? For most of the winter the wife, who has a commercial license (as I learned in a brief conversation with her one day) had a job delivering fuel to gas stations in the dead of night. She left for work at midnight, after letting her incredibly noisy diesel truck idle in their driveway for 10-15 minutes. Said driveway is, quite literally, right outside my bedroom window.

Well, lately, the old departure times have disappeared. Now they both seem to be gone most of the day and night. But these young people have three dogs. Whom they were wont to let out into their small back yard three or four times a day for 5-10 minutes, (during which time one of the dogs would bark non-stop). They do not walk these dogs. And now the dogs are lucky to get maybe four minutes of toilet and exercise time a couple of times a day. The rest of the time they are apparently shut up in a room on the other side of the house from me. I say apparently because every half hour or so you can hear what sounds like some very unhappy bark-bark-barking, emanating from that location. I can only thank my lucky stars that I don’t live in the house on the far side of the Dog House. That place is currently vacant, or surely the residents would complain.

Which takes me to my dilemma. Should I complain? Or, to be more accurate, should I report the situation to the police? I already know it wouldn’t do any good to say anything to the couple, although speaking directly to the person who is responsible for a situation is generally the best approach. I have had a couple of run-ins with the wife, once when I complained about the little Dog That Can’t Stop Barking, when they were outside; and once when that damn truck was allowed to idle for half an hour. In each case she was very defensive. I am sure her response now would be, we have to be at our work (I’m assuming that’s where they are), what else can we do with them? And I’ll admit I don’t relish the idea of the animals being left out in the yard for all the hours and hours the couple are gone. Not given that one very undisciplined little thing, that apparently will only not bark when the husband or wife is there watching them (as they do, whenever they let them out).

I also do not relish the idea of being at odds with my neighbors. Strained relations between neighbors is very unpleasant indeed.

Good grief.