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.