Thursday, December 31, 2009

The idiot box

I was exposed to a lot of network and cable television while I was at my sister's in San Antonio. A reminder that in my own home I have access to only the local area PBS station, since that is all my rabbit ears will pick up (actually, I did just recently discover that I could also pick up the Fox station out of Portland, so whenever I feel like seeing the forensic show "Bones," or old episodes of "Two and a Half Men," I can flip over there). I can only say that being limited to public tele-vision, for all my annoyance at the frequent periods of "begging," would seem to be a blessing.

It isn't that the programming on network and cable T.V. is so relent-lessly bad -- I know from having seen the occasional episode of this show or that that there are some well-written, intelligent shows to be seen, along with, of course, all the garbage for the lowest common denominator out there. No, the big problem is the commercials. The constant, constant barrage of commercials. For every three or four minutes of a program you seem to get five minutes of commercials. I know there were not so many commercials during a show -- or for that matter between shows -- in the "good old days" as there are now. Indeed, I can remember when there would be one product advertised per commercial break.

What I don't understand is how the people who watch a lot of tele-vision can stand it. Sitting with my mother and watching to keep her company I would sometimes feel my soul fluttering up out of my body. You can't even flip to another channel, because they all seem to run their commercials at the same time. To be constantly hawked at about this product, then that product, then that product, all too often in a very frenetic, if not downright screaming, way: it's got to be mind-numbing. Especially as they'll sometimes play a commercial that you just saw one or two commercials ago, over again. "Yes," I would say aloud to the offending television, "you just showed us that."

Not only do I wonder how people stand this endless advertising, I wonder why they stand for it. My mother, in her drastically weakened little voice, stated the obvious, "Well, they have to pay for the shows some way." Yes, but. Does it really take that many commercials to pay for a show? Or has that ol' bugaboo, Greed, gotten its tentacles in here, as well as in Wall Street and the real estate market. 'Hey, how about squeezing in four commercials, rather than just three? Or say, why not five?'

Maybe it would be a little better if all the commercials came between shows; then at least you could watch the actual programming without having the story line or your concentration/enjoyment broken by all this stuff you're not likely to pay much attention to anyway. Of course the advertisers would say no, people would just get up and go out to the kitchen for a snack between shows; but to judge by my siblings, they already do that, during the course of the show. And I'm sure there are other folks like me, who just hit the mute button. Those advertisers are already not reaching a whole bunch of us out here. They're just adversely affecting our viewing pleasure.

So maybe we should tell them that. Start a campaign: Reduce the Number of Commercials (RNC). Maybe write our congressional representatives urging them to introduce laws limiting the number of commercials that can be run during a show.

Or maybe just switch to the public broadcasting station, and give money like crazy during the pledge drives.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Domestic arrangements

And then there's the matter of managing on other people's turf. No dixie cups in the bathroom, for taking pills or rinsing out the mouth purposes (I went out and bought some). No plastic wrap in the kitchen, although there are two rolls of waxed paper (I swear my mother and sister are the only people in the world who still use waxed paper), as well as a roll of some very strange stuff called Press'n Seal. The problem with it is that it's almost impossible to get it off what-ever you put it on. I mean sealed is the word.

What gets recycled where? How does the dishwasher work? (I've practically never in my life had or used a dishwasher.) Ditto, the washing machine. And my god, the television remote!

The hot water takes forever to "arrive," particularly at the bathroom sink, but even in the kitchen. I wait and wait.

I want to put a chair on the far side of Mother's bed, as that supplies the best angle for feeding her, but my sister objects to "too much stuff" between the bed and the couch, so I have to carry the chair around from the other side of the bed whenever I want to sit and feed Mother, then carry it back. And if J is already in that chair, I have to go out and fetch a chair (the one I'm wanting to leave in place all the time) from the breakfast room. This is known as keeping the peace.

But would you believe that the thing that drives me the craziest is that none of the plastic storage containers, of which there are a decent number, has a matching lid (of which there are even more). Maddening, getting the leftover food into a container, trying lid after lid, and none of them fits. How can this be? I've finally taken to using foil...but there's not much of that, so I need to get some more...

It all makes you miss home, where your preferred products are in place, you can put the furniture wherever it makes the most sense, and the hot water instantly appears.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Role reversal

Not really able to do much in the way of blog postings right now, because I am currently in San Antonio, helping my sister care for my mother who, at the age of 81 1/2, is making her final journey, dying of lung cancer. Many, many of us baby boomers are in this position these days. If our parents aren't actually in the process of dying from some form of cancer, they are still undergoing the relentless deteri-oration of aging, requiring special care and attention.

As in other families, our situation is complicated by the fact that we are spread out, geographically, and all of us are financially chal-lenged, so that traveling forth and back is not an easy matter. In-deed, my status as Starving Librarian has been especially frustrating for me during this past year, when my mother (and one of my brothers, who also became ill) needed so much; and I could do so little.

A few years ago I watched my father die a slow death, and it was grueling and heartbreaking. Now I am seeing my mother in the same position. To see your once strong, healthy, energetic parents reduced to frailty and incapacitation, to a state where they don't want to have to move because it will cause pain, and require more energy than they have, is of course distressing. And maintaining the necessary patience, stamina and cheerfulness when helping them is very draining.

We all jokingly say things like, Well, I guess it's payback time, and Everything that goes around comes around; and we know that in fact this is true. But one big difference between our parents dealing with smelly diapers and cranky babies and everything else that went with rearing us, is that they were living in the same house, not 1400 miles away. And the beings to whom they were dedicating so much time and energy, to whom they were giving care, were every day growing, developing, becoming more human; they were waxing, not waning. Our parents were watching, tending, something hopeful, something with the potential for giving joy, if also, at times, heartache and worry. Watching, tending a parent who is dying is, at best, a matter of sadness; at worst, of exhaustion and depression.

I am amazed by my sister, as she has been dealing with this for over two months, and there was a lot of care in the previous year, as Mother had to be shuttled to doctors and hospitals and have endless things done for her even when she was still able to live on her own. The other siblings and I have been taking turns helping, but J is always here, determinedly patient, conjoling or firm as required, performing the same relentless and unpleasant tasks day after day, no matter how she feels. There is almost always one such in every family, the one who is there, and does what must be done.

The rest of us do what we can, and think "I'm never going to get that old," or (those of us out there with the money), "I'm making arrange-ments for long-term care right now."

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Politically correct holidays

Today was Christmas in Old Hallowell, only this year it became Hallowell Holidays, to the dismay, if not outrage, of virtually everyone I've heard on the subject. Emails have been flying back and forth among members of my library's Board (the Director is always included in Board "mass mailings") saying "This is ridiculous!" "Who's idea was this?" "The new name isn't even accurate since Hallowell certainly has other holidays!" Etc., etc.

I do know that one of the people on the committee that organizes the various activities of the-holiday-formerly-known-as Christmas-in-Old-Hallowell is Jewish, and I think she is the sort of person who might suggest that "in all fairness" the day, which is for the whole city, should not have this explicitly Christian name.

I ask myself how I would feel if I were a practicing Jew, and people were forever wishing me Merry Christmas, expecting me (I would know) to say the same right back. Perhaps I would feel annoyed, maybe I'd want to be able to say "Happy Hanukkah" instead, knowing, however, that that "wasn't done." (Actually, it occurs to me that this might not be a bad idea. Such a response would surely serve to tip off people that you were, indeed, Jewish, and next time they might just wish you a Happy Hanukkah!)

And of course, it's not just Jews one runs the risk of offending, or at the very least annoying, by wishing them a Merry Christmas, or by celebrating Christmas in Old Hallowell. There are more and more Muslims in this country as well. Frankly, I think their numbers are quite small in the Hallowell area (more in Portland, which has a sizable Somali population now, and other immigrants from Muslim nations), but you never know.

On the other hand, there is simply no denying that Hallowell Holidays lacks the "ring" of Christmas in Old Hallowell (in fact, it's damn hard to say), just as "Happy Holidays" lacks the ring of "Merry Christmas." I think the real solution is to stop worrying about the "Christ" in Christmas, though my saying that will undoubtedly offend the devout Christians in the audience. But my point is this: you don't really have to be Christian to appreciate certain aspects of the holiday. I am not a Christian, but I love Christmas. Love all the decorations, the wreaths and centerpieces artsy-craftsy ladies make, the electric candles people put in all their windows (very big in New England), the smell and look of Christmas trees, the spiked egg nog, the Christmas carols, some of which are truly beautiful (I always nearly cry when singing "Silent Night"), some of which are great fun ("Jingle Bells," "The Twelve Days of Christmas"), love the idea of a holiday that celebrates "Peace on earth good will toward men." While yes, it is true that the traditional "true" meaning of Christmas was that it celebrated the birth of Christ (even though that did not take place on Dec. 25th, or even in the winter), I really think we are well past that now. Christmas has come to mean so much more, to so many people. I really don't think there's any reason to be offended, or annoyed, at being wished a Merry Christmas -- behind that politically incorrect wish is a generous and friendly impulse, that doesn't have to be seen as having anything to do with ones religion. And I don't think a celebration called Christmas in Old Hallowell need bear a religious connotation that excludes non-Christians.

I vote to reinstate Christmas in Old Hallowell.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

All together now...

Well, one of those quintessential Maine happenings just happened: I was sitting at my computer when I noticed out the window that overlooks my tiny front yard and the parking area for my house and the house next door (not the noisy-trucks-and-mysterious-trailer house, but the every-year-there's-somebody-new-living-there house) that one of the cars from next door seemed to be posed at the very edge of its parking space, lights blazing (it was 4:30, so dark). "Coming in or going out?" I said out loud, and then, "If it's out, that's a big mistake." Since we're in the middle of our first major snow storm of the season, that has gone on all day and actually enabled me to close the library early, and take a nice long nap this afternoon.

After about a minute I realized the fellow from next door was out there with a shovel. So, o.k., whether going or coming they were obviously having trouble getting out, or in. I hesitated about a millisecond. Not because I didn't want to help -- that's the knee jerk Maine response, perhaps even, if we give our humanity half a chance, the knee-jerk human response: the weather has got someone trapped, you go try to help. No, my hesitation was because I won-dered if, by the time I got the boots, the coat, the gloves on and got out there, he'd have already taken care of the problem. But then I went ahead and put on the boots, the coat, the gloves, grabbed the shovel on my tiny front porch and walked up the slope.

Sure enough, my as-yet-nameless neighbor's wife had been trying to pull into the space without their having cleared it first, and was now stuck, betwixt and between. Nameless, his mother or mother-in-law who lives with them, and I proceeded to push and pull and rock the vehicle (stupid SUV) back out into the street, then Nameless and I proceeded to clear the space. I couldn't have kept this up long, but with the two of us doing it it wasn't too bad. We all cheered when we stood back and Mrs. Nameless managed to pull into the narrow space (between their other SUV and their smaller car [three people, three cars; this is America]). "You may not be able to get out," I called to the dark window, "But you're in." "I'm home!" she chirped. And they all thanked me as I made my way back across my snowy yard to my house.

I'm sure similar scenarios have been repeated all over New England, and the upper Midwest, during this storm. Not only do you get a good feeling from helping someone, you get the satisfaction of overcoming a difficulty, solving a problem, and doing it with others makes it that much more satisfying. And why is that? I guess because we really are social creatures...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

If you don't like the weather, wait a minute...

Definitely freaky weather. On Thursday it got up to 64 degrees here in mid-central Maine, breaking the former record of 55 degrees for Dec. 3rd. People were coming into the library exclaiming "It's like spring out there!"

The heretofore unknown Jennifer Sporzynski of Portland made herself famous, at least for 15 minutes, with her quote, issued to a reporter while sitting on a park bench in the sun: "It's not right. It's December. It's supposed to be snowing. I like warm weather," she went on to say," but not in December."

While I think most Mainers were delighted with the balmy day (which developed only after an early morning of high winds and rain), we all knew it was weird.

So today Jennifer, and the rest of us, got your more typical Maine-in-December weather. It was overcast and distinctly nippy this morning when I went out to mail some Christmas cards, and buy some more. Then late this afternoon as I was making my second trip to the post office in Augusta to mail cards (I have friends who celebrate Hanukkah, rather than Christmas, and friends overseas, so those cards needed to go out), I suddenly saw what looked like snow rushing at my vehicle, illuminated by the headlights. The forecast had said possibility of rain or snow, and this stuff had too much substance to be rain.

Well, I couldn't complain. Except for that mini snow storm we had a month ago, on Nov. 6th (see Note of Nov. 8), we have had no snow at all; indeed, for much of November it was unusually mild. Friends and family living in the south would say, are you freezing yet, and I would have to say no, indeed, it's usually been in the upper 40s, even in the 50s. But I just got up from one of those two-hour naps that are one of my luxuries on a weekend (and generally result in my then being able to sit at the computer writing until one o'clock in the morning), and when I passed the kitchen window whose blinds I keep cracked so that I can see the light in my next-door neighbors windows, so I won't feel so cut off from the world, I noticed that the ground was white. I then lifted the curtain of the other kitchen window, which gives a view of my large back yard, and sure enough, winter had arrived. Not with a vengeance -- my guess is there isn't more than an inch -- but I just checked the weather, and we could get 2-4 inches overnight. Hello, winter.

Although, with global warming, you never know.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

If you give a man a fish...

At this time of giving, I'm enclosing part of an electronic newsletter I receive from the organization Working Villages International, a non-profit group dedicated to "teaching a man how to fish," i.e., helping people in undeveloped parts of the world to become more self-reliant, by helping them establish sustainable local "industry." They have accomplished amazing things in one part of a very dangerous place (Congo), giving the people there practical goals, the means for reaching them, and hope. A truly worthy cause. The link to their web site is in my list of Interesting Links. You don't have to give; just reading about what they're trying to do, and have thus far accom-plished, is fascinating.

"2009 has marked substantial growth for Working Villages Inter-national, both in terms of outreach and in terms of program develop-ment at our Ruzizi Valley Project in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We feel very fortunate as we look back over the past year.

The year started off with a bang, as we were able to fulfill the generosity of numerous donors and put our new rice huller into full production. The rice huller can process over 160 tons of rice a month, which enabled us to process not only our own rice, but also the rice of several thousand small farmers in the surrounding area. This had a dramatic effect, as the farmers were now being paid significantly more for their rice. Since farmers are now guaranteed a good value, more people are growing rice.

The importance of increased rice production became clear this year when a white fly infestation came through central Africa and destroyed the cassava crop, an important staple of the local diet. In the past, such blights have caused widespread starvation, but our rice program meant that local farmers produced enough rice to prevent famine in our area. Our Project Manager, Fiston Malago, is now growing various resistant strains of cassava. In the meantime, our program has ensured that the people of the Ruzizi Valley have a stable source of food.

Our agricultural production has exploded this year, from about 50,000 pounds of rice per month in January to about 100,000 pounds of rice per month in August. In August we also harvested 220,000 pounds of corn, and large amounts of seasonal produce such as cabbage, beans, melon, squash, eggplant, cucumber, lemons, tomatoes, lettuce, and onions. Our staff has stayed at about 600 people since 2008, but our crop production has greatly increased. We are producing more than twice as much food as last year because the labor originally used for infrastructure improvements, such as clearing fields and digging irrigation, is now focused on crop production. The massive food surplus and our large staff have both acted as stabilizing forces in the region, as there is now a consistent source of both food and work.

One of the most exciting projects of 2009 came as a byproduct of our rice production. The small husk around each grain of rice is inedible, and difficult to compost or burn. We were able to obtain a design for a rice hull stove which would burn the hulls by creating an intense updraft. During our summer trip to the Ruzizi Project, WVI's black-smiths expertly built a rice hull stove, and everyone cheered as the previously incombustible rice hulls burst into flame and boiled a pot of water. This stove will have a dramatic effect on our reforestation efforts in the valley, by reducing the need for firewood in cookfires. By the time we left, Hortense and Toiye, two of the ladies in the kitchen, were already making delicious meals with the new stove.

The July trip to Congo was a success on many fronts. Alex was able to oversee the ox training, and the animals had their first session in a yoke. Our staff teamsters, Toiye and Live, were calm and masterful with the animals, and it was clear by the time we left that the oxen could be plowing as soon as we can obtain suitable equipment. This was exciting progress, as animal traction will be an important component in the next stage of village development. Toiye has been with WVI since we first started working in the Ruzizi Valley, and she is now not only an amazing cook but also an amazing teamster!

As we head into 2010, Working Villages has never been so strong. Thanks to the generosity of donors all over the world, in September we were able to raise enough money to buy a truck for the Ruzizi Project. This will allow our staff to transport significantly more grains and agricultural produce, eliminating crop waste and providing more food for the region. 2009 also marked an important milestone for us, as the first year that our agricultural surpluses provided enough money to pay all the monthly wages for our agricultural workers. This is a very important step forward, as it allows us to redirect our funding to the next phase of development: buildings and infra-structure construction.

This summer we completed several beautiful model houses, made of brick, tile and thatch. The houses have been a big success, and there is a big demand in the valley for more building. But there is a challenge which is currently keeping us from increasing our rate of construction: with gasoline at $12 per gallon, the cost of transporting materials from outside vendors quickly mounts up.

Our next goal, therefore, is to raise money to build kilns for brick, mortar and lime. With the cost of transportation eliminated, the kilns will enable us to produce beautiful and long-lasting buildings using local clay, sand, and lime for less than $1000 apiece. The construction of houses, barns and infrastructure will serve two purposes: not only will it provide badly needed buildings, but it will also create jobs and skilled job training in an area that has been ravaged by war. Job creation is fundamental to building more stability in the region, and we look forward to 2010 as a time when we will take some very important steps in building our village of peace.

If you would like to help us in this next step, we appreciate contri-butions of any size. You can make a secure online donation, or, if you would like to make a seasonal Gift of Peace donation in honor of a friend, you can download our Gift of Peace form. Thank you so much for your support over the past year, and have a wonderful holiday season!"

Monday, November 30, 2009

Last night I said these words to my girl...

This week they are again begging on public T.V. (see Note of Mar. 29 to see how I feel about that). Last night one of the programs they frequently interrupted was on rock acts that appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. Which included the Beatles, in 1964. I remember watching that show with my family, and being utterly enchanted. They were so cute. Yes, I was a Beatlemaniac. I even went to see them during their only appearance in Texas. My stepfather drove me and my stepsister all the way from San Antonio to Houston to see them. It was thrilling to watch them come bounding onto the stage, and start singing all those "great" songs ("Please please me, oh, yeah, like I please you"); but I was so disgusted by all the screaming females, who made it utterly impossible to hear more than the occasional word. I remember muttering, 'Oh, this is so stupid; why don't they shut up?!' I had actually gone there to hear them sing, not just gawk at them and scream myself hoarse. But I was part of a tiny, tiny minority.

That sort of mass hysteria really has nothing (or very little) to do with what is supposedly causing it, in this case, four cute guys with lots of energy who sang about love, but were totally non-threatening. (In another age it was a sweet-faced, skinny kid who also sang about love and was totally non-threatening, by the name of Frank Sinatra. On the other hand, in between the two phenomena was a very good-looking, overtly sexual guy with a pompadour who could possible be construed as being the tiniest bit threatening.) Whatever the supposed source, it's really a matter of mob mentality taking over, and turning other-wise sane human beings into unthinking lemmings (lead me to the nearest cliff and I'll gladly jump over, screaming all the way). I assume all kinds of books, never mind dissertations, have been written on the subject. I suppose part of it is a grabbing at the chance to let off steam, let it all hang out, toss away all the ol' inhibitions for a brief time. I'm sure I was as sexually repressed as every other girl in that giant auditorium -- after all, I was 17, but had never been on a date, never been kissed (this was actually possible for girls back in the good ol' days, even ones that weren't "dogs") -- and I certainly indulged in lots of rather vague fantasies about the Fab Four (alternating among Paul, "the cute one," George, "the quiet one," and John, "the smart one", with Ringo, "the funny one," never ringing any particular bells, for some reason). But for all my untapped sexuality, I was never the least bit tempted to scream it out. Call me unnatural.

On this same show last night we were treated to appearances by the Rolling Stones, with an astonishingly fresh-faced Mick Jagger -- my God, he's a little boy, I thought as I watched him trying to contain his bottled energy -- and ditto Eric Burton, with The Animals, who also amazed me by having a surprisingly good voice, and blues style. The kid had obviously been working hard. And neither he, nor Jagger, nor Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, nor any of the others, had that haggard, a little too much sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll look that they were all to have within ten years.

It was fun, watching them, remembering that yes, more innocent time. Had We But Known.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A new mystery

Remember the neighbors with the obnoxious dogs who disappeared after tearing down the fence in their back yard? They did finally resurface, after being away for most of five months. Before they moved back in, in October, they had come by a few times, for brief periods, so I knew they had not absconded to Montana. One of those times they left a very large white trailer sitting in the driveway. It looks like the sort of thing people use to transport a race car, or maybe a couple of motor cycles.

The day I came home from work and saw the trailer in the driveway, saw that the young couple was there along with some other folks (I heard voices, did not see bodies), I thought that perhaps they now really were moving out, and were going to be using the trailer to haul away their stuff. But after an hour or so of noise, mysterious bumpings both inside and outside the trailer, the voices raised in continuous discussion, Matt, Patty et al. left, leaving the trailer behind. After that they would be away for weeks at a time, occasion-ally putting in an appearance that might include an overnight stay, might not. But the mysterious trailer was always there, taking up nearly all space in the driveway.

Since they've returned, on a more or less full-time basis -- and apparently dogless -- I've noticed that the trailer is sometimes plugged in. A heavy-duty extension cord running from the house to an outlet at the bottom corner of the trailer. The only reason I can think of for hooking this trailer up to electricity is to keep it warm. But this does not look anything like a house-trailer, and nobody ever seems to go into it. Why would they be keeping it warm? O.K, come on, what's in there?

We had what I call an interesting incident right before they re-established residency. One night at around 2 a.m. I heard noises from the little back porch that is directly across from my bedroom window. I got up and cracked a blind -- there was a light on upstairs, and in the hallway, but not in the kitchen. The back porch light, that was left burning day and night for all the months Matt and Patty were away, was on, and under it stood a man in a sweatshirt, hood pulled up. He was smoking. It was possible that it was Matt, but I couldn't see his face (and I'd never seen him smoking). I also hadn't heard either of the noisy trucks arrive. I went to the living room window and looked out -- sure enough, no truck in the driveway behind the trailer, nor any other vehicle that might have brought Matt. This was all very strange.

I hesitated about calling the police, partly because I had had them out twice in one night back in the spring when I was hearing scary noises that turned out to be squirrels in the attic (Note of April 25). I could hear them saying, 'Oh, no, it's that crazy woman on Lincoln Ave. again.' But I finally did call 9-1-1 because I didn't want to be the kind of person who "doesn't want to get involved," and so ignores sus-picious circumstances. That's not being a good neighbor. And I hated to think of the young couple, whom anyone could tell were anything but rich, coming home to find their house cleaned out.

I told the police that it was possible it was the owners, but that they had been living "elsewhere" for some time, and when they did come by it was in one of their trucks, of which there was no sign.

So the police came. Not as quickly as when I had called to say I thought there was someone in my basement, but pretty darn quick. By this time the fellow on the porch had disappeared, and the lights in the house had gone off. The young policemen went all around the house, knocked on the various doors. Then they started to get in their cars and drive away! I called out to one of them, and he strolled down to my front door to tell me all the doors were locked, and no one had answered when he knocked.

"But someone could have just locked the door from the inside," I said, visualizing a couple of young hoods hunkering down inside the darkened house until the police left. The officer agreed, but said he couldn't break down the door to find out. "If the owners come home and find the house has been broken into, then I can do something," he said. He also told me that his fellow officer had talked to the neighbors on the other side, as he knew them (Small Town, USA) and they had reported that they had seen "the owner" earlier in the evening. "They may have just gone to bed." my officer said.

So, what the heck, I had done my civic duty. Back to bed.

But there was an interesting epilogue. About ten minutes after the police left, Matt's noisy truck did pull up in the driveway. It was not turned off (even though it was 2 a.m.), but left idling in that inimitable Matt/Patty way. And while I was still staring at it -- having gotten up to make sure it was what I thought it was -- the police reappeared. Yes!! I thought, when I saw the cop get out and first flash his flashlight on the license plate of the truck, then march down the driveway to the back door. I galloped back to my bedroom, and peered briefly through the blinds -- Patty was there on the porch, being questioned by the policeman. I heard him say, "Were you here earlier?" And I heard her say "Yeah," though I couldn't hear the rest of her answer (that has been one of the frustrations in any of my attempts to eavesdrop on my neighbors: I can usually hear their voices, but can't make out most of what they say.) So at least I felt vindicated with the police. Some highly unusual goings-on had been going on, but at least the perpetrators were the owners.

But hey, these guys next door are strange.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A surfeit of heroes

There was drastic flooding in the Lake District of England recently -- global warming strikes again -- and I saw Prime Minister Gordon Brown, on BBC World News, expressing condolences to the family of a local constable who was swept to his death when a bridge he was on broke under the force of the water. The policeman had evidently detected that the bridge was not in good shape, and had been directing motorists away from using it. Gordon Brown stated that Pc Barker was a hero, performing heroically when he died. I think what PC Barker was was a traffic policeman doing his duty, who died tragically in the line of duty. I really question whether he was a "hero."

Like the word awesome, I think the word hero is vastly overused these days. Every member of the military who goes off to Iraq or Afghanistan is automatically a hero. I don't buy that. What they are are soldiers (or marines, or airmen or whatever), doing the job they were hired to do. That job is an extremely difficult, dangerous one, but it is one they signed on for (if we still had the draft -- which I'm inclined to think we should bring back -- that wouldn't, of course, be the case). I don't think doing a difficult, dangerous job that you agreed to do automatically qualifies you as a hero.

While the little paperback dictionary that sits beside my desk claims that one definition of hero is 'a man who performs brave deeds,' I'm inclined to think that the brave deeds he (or she) performs should be under particularly dire circumstances, that true heroism involves performing above and beyond the normal call of duty. The job soldiers in hot spots like Iraq and Afghanistan have calls for them to be brave virtually every single day. But that's the nature of soldiering; that's what it's all about. That and following orders, which occasionally (possibly even frequently) serves as an effective substitute for bravery. The men and women who agree to do this, possibly to the death, and then go out to these god-forsaken places where they're encumbered with hot uniforms and all this heavy equipment in 106 degree heat and do it...they should certainly be honored for their efforts, and dedication to duty, we as a nation should certainly express our gratitude whenever we can, and our tax dollars should certainly be used to insure that they receive any medical care they might need as a result of their efforts, and dedication to duty.

But we shouldn't be calling them all heroes. If everyone is a hero then no one is; the word loses meaning. And my guess is, most soldiers feel that way, too.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A rose by any other name...

I am fascinated by names, by the importance of names, the impor-tance humans attach to names. If we start talking to someone we don't know, we feel compelled early on to introduce ourselves, to provide that person with our name, with the expectation being that s/he in turn will provide us with a name. We become more real to one another, more substantial, once we have exchanged names.

We feel insulted if we're with someone who starts talking to someone else, and fails to introduce us. Introducing us gives us a name, at which point we cease to be invisible; we become real.

We get upset if others misspell our names. Our names represent us, stand for us; we want people to get them right. I'm not one of those Melodies with an 'i,e', I'm this particular Melody, with a 'y.' It's not Camp, it's Norman-Camp.

And it isn't just names of people that are important. We don't like feeling bad, going to the doctor because we feel bad, having all kinds of tests done, and then not being provided with a name for what's wrong with us. ("Sorry, all your tests are within the normal range." -- in other words, we haven't a clue what's wrong with you.)

People can have the wrong name. I have two friends who definitely have the wrong name, though presumably they don't think so. One is one of my oldest friends -- we go back to Accelerated English class and American Government class, sophomore year of high school -- when she was Carol. A very common name back then, along with Linda, and Judy, and Barbara, and Patricia (always called Pat, or Patty), and Diane. Names people don't give their daughters anymore. These days it's Kaitlyn or Alexis or Abigail or Isabella or Madison or Emma. (Fashions in naming also fascinate me.)

But to get back to Carol. It turns out that Carol is actually her middle name, and some years ago my friend decided to start calling herself by her first name, Martha. When this change took place we were not in touch -- we dropped out of one another's lives for many years, and then dropped back in a few years ago thanks to When we reconnected I was very surprised to learn that Carol was now Martha. Martha to me is a very old-fashioned name -- I put it in with the likes of Josephine and Geraldine and Mabel, names our grand-mothers might have had. And Carol is hardly an old-fashioned girl. So I've had a hard time thinking of her as Martha, though of course I call her that...though sometimes, in emails, it will be Martha Carol, to take care of both my comfort zone, and her preferences.

Would it have been different if the switch had been the other way around, if I'd known her as Martha in our youth, and she'd then adopted Carol? Would I now be having a hard time thinking of her as Carol? Perhaps, but there's the case of my friend Meaghan, who was born Grace, and was Grace when I first knew her (she was my very first roommate, way back in Washington, D.C. about 100 years ago). Grace always hated her name, and a few decades back decided she was Meaghan, instead. I had absolutely no trouble calling her that, or thinking of her as Meaghan; the name really did seem to suit her better than the old-fashioned 'Grace.' People can have the wrong name.

There's my friend Joey. When I first met him, back in my Boston days, he was Joe. But neither name really suits him, as far as I am concerned. Joe sounds like a bruiser of a Polish stevedore; Joey sounds like a third-generation mafioso. Joey is neither; he's a slight, very bright, very funny newspaperman who has been hit by the dissolution of the newspaper industry (similar to the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII), and is filling in time uploading to his Flickr web page the many, many interesting, amusing, quirky pictures he is constantly taking. As far as I'm concerned his name should be Eric, or Elliot or maybe Terry. Something a whole lot lighter than Joe, a lot more intellectual than Joey. But Joey apparently identifies with Joey, just as I identify with Melody, and the friend-formerly-known-as-Grace identifies with Meaghan. These are our claims to who we are, and we want people to get them right. So there.

Friday, November 13, 2009

But they would have been a bitch to heat

One thing that most Americans do at some point in their lives is something I've never done, or had any desire to do: own a house. Since I left home at 18 I have been a life-long renter, and that has been just fine with me. You couldn't find a monthly mortgage as low as many of the rents I've paid over the years, and I haven't had to worry about paying taxes, or insurance, or taking care of repairs, or other major maintenance situations (in two of the four houses I've rented in my life, I did take care of minor repairs...or rather, my handyman husband did).

Given my indifference to the very idea of owning my own home, I find it interesting that one of my favorite things to do is visit old homes that have become museums. I love looking at the size and layout of the rooms -- so often, even though a house may look large from the outside, the rooms really are not big at all, especially when you consider the large families and the voluminous skirts people generally went in for in the olden days -- the furniture, the knick-knacks (despite having no use for knick-knacks in my own home), the dishes and other kitchen utensils that might be on display, the arrangements for using the toilet, for taking a bath (my favorite example of the former was an elegant wooden "throne" in the master bedroom of an old plantation house in New Iberia, Louisiana, whereas my favorite bathroom was at Waddesdon Manor near Aylesbury, England -- the single round window had a stunning view of a huge, beautiful fountain in the center of a formal garden). I love the staircases, all the fireplaces -- even though I know they did a lousy job of keeping the inhabitants warm -- I love imagining what it might have been like to live in these houses.

On my trip to Rockland in early October (Notes of Oct. 11 and 19), between the main building of the Farnsworth Art Museum, and the converted church down the street that houses the Wyeth Center, is the Farnsworth Victorian Homestead. The last member of the well-to-do Farnsworth family bequeathed the building that became the art museum to the town, as well as her family home, with the stipulation that everything in the later structure remain essentially as it was. Although Lucy Farnsworth died in 1935, unmarried and childless at the age of 97; the house had been very little changed from the mid-1800s when it was built; thus, visitors are, indeed, able to see a comfortably middle-class "Victorian homestead."

There was the "second parlor," which was actually the room the family spent the most time in, where guests were routinely received -- the 1800s' equivalent of today's den or family room. This was a good example of what I was saying about rooms not being as large as you would think they would need to be. Across the hall was the formal parlor, much larger, much more "elegant" (actually quite ugly, in that way attempts by the Victorians to be elegant could be). Two of the most interesting rooms were for the servants, the housemaid and the hired man. Upstairs, back of the house over the kitchen, with a nearby stairs leading down to same. Small, very spartan rooms, especially the hired man's. I think about the maid, cleaning the bedrooms of the family -- so much roomier, and more attractive -- did envy ever tug at her brain stem? Or was her situation such that she could only be grateful to have a live-in position (one afternoon off a week), with her own room, small and plain though it was? The Everything's Relative Sydrome...

The one question I had for the two pleasant ladies who were serving as "guards" was, why was the cast iron stove in the kitchen so low?! It seemed almost like a toy. The ladies explained to me that Lucy had been quite short, not even five feet tall, on top of which, the pots and skillets they used back then were quite heavy, and the higher the stove, the more difficult to maneuver them. This answer left me a little skeptical, since surely Ms. Farnsworth had someone to do the cooking. This was a well-to-do lady, after all, in a time when servants were common. But maybe the cook was pint-sized, too.

Interestingly, this stove had a contraption connected to it that used the heat from the stove to produce hot water, which was then pumped to the one bedroom downstairs (which in her old age became Lucy's), and to one of the bedrooms upstairs...that of one of the sons. Lucky, spoiled so-and-so.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

My kingdom for a shoveler

I'm not ready! This is what I said a couple of days ago (Friday, Nov. 6th) when I woke up to snow on the ground. The day before had been bad enough, when there were snow flurries as I was leaving for work. I made a squawking sound when I saw those. And they recurred off and on throughout the day, though there wasn't much sticking. But overnight the dang stuff stuck, and there was at least an inch standing up along the railing of my back deck, when I looked out my kitchen window Friday morning.

I really do like snow, but unfortunately snow means shoveling; for this lady who is no longer young, a back-breaking proposition. And I don't just have to shovel a path from my door to the car, and then shovel away what both nature and the snowplows have deposited behind my car, all too often I have to shovel the walks at the library, too. Officially we have someone to keep the walks clear, but last year he did a lousy job. What he would most often do was come very early in the morning, and use his snowplow. But there would still be a layer of snow -- it takes a shovel to get down to the concrete. He might put down some ice-melt, but that needs to be shoveled away within a half hour or so, or the softened snow just freezes again. And if it continued to snow, by the time we opened, at either 10 a.m. (Monday & Wednesday), or 2 p.m. (Tuesday, Thursday & Friday) there would be additional snow that I would have to go out and shovel away. And yes, of course, I talked to Jeff about this, more than once. When I told him that what was important was that the walks be genuinely clear at the time we opened, he insisted that he had to come earlier, if it was a heavy snowfall, or his plow couldn't cut through the accumulated snow. "Then you need to come back later, to do a follow-up," I said. And a few times he did come back -- for an additional charge -- but even then he wouldn't be out there applying the necessary muscle power; he would just make another swipe with his damn machine.

Get somebody else, I hear someone say? This is my third snow clearer in four years. The first one I contracted with did a good job when he showed up, but he was totally unreliable about showing up. He always had excuses. I got tired of the whining, and the fact that I was having to do so much shoveling, an omen of things to come, Had I But Known. The fellow I found the next year started out so gung-ho -- he and his men were out there with shovels, after using the snowplow -- but by midway through the winter it was the same old song. And when I called him for the following year -- despite my misgivings -- he seemed to have gone out of business; I got no call-back.

You would think people dedicated to clearing walks of snow would be thick on the ground in Maine, but you would be wrong. Guys with snowplows on the front of their trucks, eager to clear parking lots, people's driveways, private roads, they're pretty easy to find. But guys who will get out and swing a shovel, no indeed. And even the snowplow guys are, as all of the above indicates, not terribly reliable. As far as my personal situation goes, I have thought of putting up a notice at the Gardiner library, saying "Snow shoveler wanted, weekdays that it snows (M&W, snow cleared by 9 a.m., T,Th&F, by 10:30). Note that this is not a job for a snowplow; the space has to be shoveled." I don't know that the library bulletin board is the best place to find such an animal, if such an animal exists. It couldn't be a kid because they are all off for school by 7 o'clock. An out-of-work Joe Blow with a strong back?

I think I'll try it. Heck, maybe I should try it for the library...

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Second Tuesday

Oh, I do love to vote. That is the time I feel my most patriotic, glad to be living in a country where the people can say who or what they prefer, without fear of having their fingers cut off or being blown up at the polls. All those people who say why bother to vote, all politicians are alike, nothing ever changes anyway, blah blah blah are 1) wrong and 2) missing the point. Yes, most politicians are cut from the same basic mold because it takes a certain kind of person to go into politics, just as it takes a certain kind of person to go into teaching, or electrical engineering, or nursing, or riding rodeo. And the nature of politics, especially in a democracy, is such that change usually does come slowly -- it's not like the emperor, or Herr Hitler, declares this is how it's going to be starting tomorrow -- and that change is rarely perfect, rarely exactly what any group or individual wants. The name of the game in our political system is compromise, has to be in such a big, wildly diverse country.

If you vote, you're at least putting in your two cents' worth, and those pennies can add up.

Here in Maine we had several referenda on the ballot. I'll admit to being disappointed that the majority of Mainers voted yes on the "people's initiative" that had put us in the national spotlight, the initiative to overturn the law passed by the legislature in the spring making same-sex marriage legal. I had been so pleased when that law passed; to me it was evidence that I did, indeed, live in an enlightened state, that acknowledged that same-sex couples existed, loved one another, often stayed together for many years, and were entitled to the same legal rights and protections that heterosexual couples enjoy.

However, opponents of the law immediately set to work getting an initiative onto the November ballot that would overturn the law. And obviously the majority of Mainers, at least Mainers who vote, agreed with them. The outcome wasn't even that close, at 53% voting Yes, to overturn the law, 47% voting No. While Maine is in many ways a liberal state, certainly much more so than either Texas or Colorado, the states I was living in before I moved back here, it would seem that many Mainers still harbor a deep aversion to, fear of, homo-sexuality. I myself don't "get it," because I am hopelessly hetero-sexual, but at least I acknowledge it as a reality that has been around as long as heterosexuality has, and that isn't going to go away. And I also acknowledge that people involved in long-term homosexual relationships should have the same right to leave their retirement or Social Security benefits to their "partners," as Mr. & Mrs. Smith next door.

Ah, well, the people have spoken, with there vote. See, it can make a difference.

Friday, October 30, 2009


My husband died five and a half years ago, and in the last year, I have found myself thinking of him far less often than I did during the first four years after his death, which I believe is "normal." I used to talk to him constantly inside my head, despite a great skepticism that, even if he still existed in some way, on some level, he could instantly hear my thoughts, and instantly respond to them. I still talk to him occasionally, but it's very occasional. And the brief but bereft bouts of crying, once so common, are very rare indeed.

The other morning when I was washing dishes -- along with cooking, something I seem to do on a non-stop basis -- the song 100 Years by Five For Fighting, which sounds like a group but is actually a single performer, came on the radio. This is a neat-sounding song that, if you listen carefully to the lyrics, reveals itself to be awkwardly written, not making much sense if you follow it beginning to end. Nonetheless, the following lines caused me to stop scrubbing an egg-smeared plate, and spend a good minute and a half crying:

"I'm 22 for a moment
She feels better than ever
And we're on fire
Making our way back from Mars.
15, there's still time for you
Time to buy and time to lose
15, there's never a wish
better than this
When you only got 100 years to live."*

The reason I stood there and cried for a couple of minutes, to the accompaniment of this not-very-good rock song, was that it made me think of Micheal and me when we were young. Not 15, but 17 and 18, which is how old we were when we met. We were young, beautiful (I thought I was horribly plain, but a look back at old pictures has shown me that I really wasn't...and Micheal was indisputably one good-looking, sexy dude), madly in love, with no thought of ever getting old, dying, any of the awful, real things that happen in life.

He lived in Terrell, Texas; I lived an hour away in Ft. Worth. Sometimes in the middle of the week he would drive over when he got off from work at the all-night service station (Micheal was a high school dropout when we first met, which meant being a gas station attendant was about all he could hope for). I would still be sound asleep and would suddenly hear my little brother Bobby -- now a talented, weighed-down-with-responsibility cartoonist, husband and father -- sing out "Mike, Pauline's boy's here!" (Pauline was Micheal's mother, and my stepmother's second cousin. Oh, those southerners.) So I'd have to hastily get dressed, eat some breakfast, with an infatuated Micheal looking on, and then we'd go riding around, run errands for my stepmother, and always, at some point, wind up at a nearby drive-in. Either we'd order from one of the carhops who actually came out to your car and took your order or, if it were just too damn hot (in Texas, a not-infrequent occurrence), we'd go inside and sit in a booth, which had the additional benefit of enabling us to play songs from the juke box menu that every table had in a little glassed-in box. We'd feed the box nickels (nickels!), savor our root beer floats, and talk about I haven't a clue what, but we never stopped talking.

How fleeting that time was, and yet, because we were young, it seemed to last forever.

Life is all about loss. It is about acquiring, and losing. If you live long enough, you lose just about everything you worked so hard to acquire: job, fame, wealth, health, spouse, children, home, friends. You find yourself living alone -- a not-really-healthy way to live -- standing at a kitchen sink, weeping to a rock song, as you remember the hot, sunny days, the cold, delicious root beer floats, the happy hormones dancing through your body, the hope, the faith, the obliviousness to Time. Who is the enemy, and the boss.

*100 Years, by Five for Fighting, c. Five for Fighting Music, Inc., c. Emi Blackwood Music, Inc.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


People love to sing. Isn't that interesting? I was just watching the very charismatic country singer Kenny Chesney on Austin City Limits (which Micheal and I used to love to watch when we lived in Boston -- a touch of country in the middle of the big, sophisticated city -- but now the show has lousy rock groups on more often than good country musicians), and every now and then the camera would scan all the people in the audience singing along as Kenny sang. They all knew the words. They were happy, having a great time. And people are almost always happy when they sing. What do you suppose there is about not saying words, but singing them, that makes us feel happy?

Think about all the people who sing in choruses. They don't get famous, they don't make a lot of money, they may have to go to rehearsals after working all day at their mundane jobs. But they are doing something they love, that makes them feel happy. I reckon there aren't all that many things in life that do that; when you find one, you're smart to go for it.

Or think about the people on chain gangs, slaves in the fields, singing to ease the tedious, grueling monotony of what they were doing. Singing did that, but how, or why, that's what I wonder.

We also cherish people who sing at us; we love professional singers. That's interesting, too, if you think about it. People who act, paint, sculpt, dance, write, are comedians -- we may be full of admiration for them at least partly because we can't do what they're doing. But almost everybody can sing. Yet, we're full of admiration for profes-sional singers, too. Is it simply that they put joy into our lives, and you gotta love somebody who brings you joy?

Andy Williams was on the Tavis Smiley talk show last night. In his eighties now, but still handsome, a low-keyed charming, as he was in the '60s, when my family used to watch his T.V. show religiously. They showed clips of him singing on his show with Tony Bennett, and the two seemed to be having such a good time. But the thought occurred to me: why would men like this, why would any man, decide to become a singer, that is, try to make his living at it? Not aim for being a doctor, lawyer, banker, accountant, engineer, airplane pilot, truck driver, soldier, teacher, newspaper man, not even an artist, but a singer? Actually, in the case of Andy Williams he told us: he had, not a stage mom, but a stage dad, who was hoping the singing talents of Andy and his three brothers would take them all out of Iowa (apparently Mr. Williams was not crazy about Iowa). And it did; they did. By the time Howard Andrew could perhaps have decided on some other kind of career, I suppose he was pretty well entrenched in the one his father had foisted on him. But one wonders about others. Why did Tony Bennett become a singer? Why did Bing Crosby? Why did Johnny Mathis? Etc., etc...

Still, whatever their reasons, I suppose we can only applaud them -- as we do -- even as we sing ourselves, in the shower.

I'll leave you with a nifty lyric from one of Chesney's songs:

A bottle of wine/two dixie cups/3 a.m./I feel in love/
for the first time in my life.
That's somethin'/that just don't happen twice.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Wyeths have it

At the Farnsworth, I quickly lost interest in our guided tour, and set out exploring on my own. The modern works on display in the ground floor galleries were for the most part Robert Indiana's smooth, brightly colored word sculptures -- LOVE, HOPE, EAT -- which are blandly pretty. Much of the art in the exhibit American Art Between the Wars --paintings done by artists working in Maine from the late 1890s to the early 1940s (which is not my idea of "between the wars") was not very good, looking clumsy, amateurish. These were disappointments, but the Tribute to Andrew Wyeth exhibit, while small, was excellent; several wonderful paintings by this adopted son of Maine (he was actually from Pennsylvania, but spent most of his childhood summers on the mid-coast of Maine) that I'd never seen before. One, called The Belfry, was almost surrealistic -- a small church belfry, with little birds flying all around it...sitting on a table in an old attic. Another, called Room after Room, has an interesting perspective: the viewer is looking through an open doorway at a woman in a chair, with another open doorway beyond her, leading into another room. But that wasn't what I found most fascinating about the picture. Rather, it was Wyeth's perfect depiction of the old wood of the walls (the setting is, as often in Wyeth's paintings, an old farm house). The different shades of brown, of grey, of blue, produced a texture: rough, old wood.

One of my favorite courses in college was my Survey of Art course. It did exactly what a liberal arts course should do: broadened my horizons, introduced me to new possibilities, new ways of looking at the world. One of the most memorable lessons I got from that course was that paintings are not really "that which is represented," they're paint. The instructor, with whom I had endless arguments about what is art? (I called myself the class philistine, but really I was just the one with petit bourgeois tastes who spoke up), would have us go stand close to a painting, so close that the picture was essentially lost; all we could see was the paint. And that's what he wanted us to see; he wanted us to understand that these marvelous effects we got -- these pictures we saw -- when we stood back and admired them from a distance, were first and foremost paint, put on the canvas by a person who was hoping to convey through that paint what he was seeing, or what he was feeling about what he was seeing, or simply what he was feeling. Getting this glimpse of the nuts and bolts of the artist's work vastly increased my respect for what artists do, though I have always been a big appreciator of their finished products.

To this day I still walk up close to paintings in an art museum and look at the paint. This is how I could see the greys, the blues, the different shades of brown, in Wyeth's Room after Room. A marvel.

The museum also owns a old, converted church a block away, that is now the Wyeth Center, dedicated mainly to revolving works by Andrew's father N.C., and his son James, more commonly referred to as Jamie. Here I was surprised to find that the illustrations by N.C. (and I swear I never knew that N.C. Wyeth's first name was Newell), didn't do much for me. I realized I much preferred the sometimes melancholy, subdued-tones depictions of old farmhouses, old farmhouse windows, of his son. The most interesting thing I heard the guide say on the tour I abandoned was that N.C. was always after his son to put more color into his paintings. But the old man was wrong.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

So what's the big deal?

One of our patrons made a good point the other day. He said, "Why celebrate the discovery of a country that somebody else had already discovered?" He was talking, of course, about Columbus Day, celebrating the man who "discovered" the Americas. Which were already full of people who had been here for a very long time. And as a matter of fact, any number of others had "discovered" different parts of America, though none of those had stayed for very long. Certainly it smacks of a real ethnocentricity, honoring the achieve-ment of someone because he was the first of your kind to do it, rather than the first one, period. And not only that, discovering the Americas was an achievement that never really meant much to Columbus. He never got over his disappointment at not having found a route to the rich Indies; he didn't think of these lands he had discovered as a feather in his cap.

I'll admit to having always thought Columbus Day a sort of weenie holiday. Since I'll take any holiday I can get I've never protested it, but really, Columbus's bumping into the Americas was a sheer accident, not this great feat that he attempted and accomplished despite tremendous odds. Meanwhile, those who came after him brought enslavement, disease and death to those who were already here. Indeed, Columbus started the trend himself, subjugating the natives on the island that eventually became Haiti and the Dominican Republic, killing them or using them as slave labor. So, really, why do we give this guy his own day?

Certainly I wouldn't think Native Americans would be all that enthus-iastic about the day. Honor this guy who started it all -- the decimation of a race, the complete obliteration of many individual populations, endless loss and suffering? They might even treat it as a day of mourning...

Which thought sends me to that ever-ready tool, the Internet, and I learn that as a matter of fact American Indians have objected to a holiday that honors Columbus, over many years. A fact that somehow escaped my notice, all those years. But now I'm aware.

According to, the original Columbus celebration was in 1792, in New York City. It was organized by a group that called itself The Society of St. Tammany after, of all things, an Indian chief, making their honoring of Columbus the supreme irony. This organ-ization eventually became the political "machine" referred to as Tammany Hall. In 1792 they were celebrating the 300th anniversary of that European discovery of...well, they said America, but really, it was just the Caribbean islands; Columbus never set foot on the North American mainland.

In 1869 the Italian community of San Francisco decided to celebrate their heritage by making a big deal out of "Columbus Day." President Benjamin Harrison encouraged citizens in 1892 to actively celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's arrival, but it wasn't until 1934 that October 12th was proclaimed a national holiday by President Roosevelt. And then came that period when all the inconvenient holidays were being changed to Monday holidays, regardless of when the event actually took place, and Columbus Day became, not necessarily Oct. 12, but the second Monday of the month. So now, it seems to me, it means even less.

And I'm thinking, maybe next year the library should not close for the day. Certainly this would make the patrons happy, our being open when everything else was closed. My part-time staff, who are paid only for hours worked, would be happy to have the hours. I would be the only one out a paid vacation day. Three-day weekends are among the true blessing of my (and most people's) life, so we shall have to see...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Light in the rain

I was somewhat disappointed that the lunch that was included with our train excursion to Rockland was not a seafood meal at a nice restaurant, but rather our choice of plastic-wrapped sandwiches, chips, cookies and beverage at the Atlantic Bakery Co, which is a small, attractive, yes, bakery, that serves sandwiches. However, my turkey with cheese and sun-dried tomatoes on sesame-seeded bread was excellent, as were the kettle-cooked sea-salted potato chips and (especially) the pistachio/apricot/oat cookie. Service is order-at-the-counter, seating is a matter of grab one when you can, but fortunately turn-over was steady, so that by the time we had gotten through the line to present our vouchers, and gone to the various spots in the room to collect our choices (refrigerated case for the sandwiches, nearby table to pluck a packet of chips from a basket, another table to siphon off coffee or tea (i.e., hot water for same) from industrial-sized thermoses, pastry case for cookies) needed seats had usually appeared. I found myself sitting at a small table with a young woman from Maine, married to a very tall, lean young man from the British midlands. They'd met in Wales, where they were both attending university. The three of us were always at the far edge of the group photos Barbara, the organizer, kept insisting on; we would all have preferred not to be in them at all. (Alisha explained her and Mathew's reason: they weren't really Simmons alumni, but simply friends of Barbara's. My reason is I hate having my picture taken.)

We were to be treated to a guided tour of the Farnsworth, just across Main Street from the ABC, at 2 p.m. That was half an hour away, so I opened my umbrella once more and walked a short dis-tance down Main to a lovely, spacious, well-lighted art gallery, the Dowling Walsh, one of twenty-three galleries in this small town. What initially pulled me in was a wonderful ship's model in the window, that I immediately wished I could buy for my sea-loving friend Ernest. (I rarely visit an art gallery that I don't see something I wish I could purchase for a friend, or for myself. If I were wealthy, I would spend a lot of money on works of art.) Once inside I found myself impressed by the paintings of Colin Page, that exhibit a beautiful use of sunlight. I am very enamoured of light in paintings, which is why paintings that do not suggest light, but merely color (I think of Gauguin and Matisse, for example) do nothing for me.

One of Page's paintings, called Blueberry Harvester, was basically of an old farm truck, with a long flatbed attached, pulled up in a farm yard. A very mundane subject, but the scene was permeated with the light of a beautiful sunny day. Proof that a good artist can make a beautiful painting from any subject.

In an adjoining room I was much taken with a picture entitled After Grass, by Richard Vickerson: a long, low dull brown building with a red roof; in front of it, great rolls of golden hay in a field of dull gold, above, a pale, pale blue-to-white sky. Wonderful lines to the house. Almost a Hopper-like simplicity and sense of isolation to the picture. Very Maine-like, I thought, although as a matter of fact Vickerson is Canadian, from nearby Prince Edward Island, where I imagine things look a lot like they do in the northern part of Maine.

Most of the paintings in this room were landscapes by Thomas Paquette. I found some of them to be lovely and interesting, but all rather disturbing, because of the quality of the paint, which some-times looked flat, dull, unable to reflect light. When I reached the table where a copy of the catalog lay, I learned that these were gouaches; consulting an art glossary once I got home, I found that gouach is a type of watercolor paint mixed with a white pigment called body color, which renders the paint opaque. That was the dullness, the flatness I was seeing: opacity. That effect often distracted me from the scene itself; I was too aware of the paint. Nonetheless, there were one or two of his small scenes of the coun-tryside of southern France, where the serenity of the sunsoaked landscape offset the flat smears of color on the mountainside, that I could see myself hanging in my living room, had I the $2,800 to purchase them.

Works by all of these artists can be seen on Dowling Walsh's web site (, an example of what a gift the Internet can be.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Riding the Maine Eastern

Last Saturday I did something I've been wanting to do ever since I discovered that an excursion train runs between Brunswick (half an hour south of where I live) to Rockland, on the coast. I took that train trip. I had hesitated over making the trip up to now because of the cost, or what I thought was the cost, i.e., $60 round trip. The alumnae association of Simmons College, where I went to library school, was offering the trip, plus lunch, plus admission to the highly regarded Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, for what I thought was $15 less than that regular round trip fare alone. As it turns out, the round-trip fare at this time of year is only $40, but I feel the extras included in my trip made it worthwhile.

Naturally the weather was miserable. We have had weeks and weeks of glorious, dry weather, so last Saturday it rained. And was chillier than the forecasts had led me to believe it would be. I found myself underdressed, which is very unusual for me. I tend to take into consideration every possible contingency, as physical discomfort completely distracts me from whatever I might be trying to do. In this instance I needed a top layer, like, say, a raincoat. And I could have used some gloves. Standing in line waiting to get on the train (for a good 20 minutes), and later walking from the train station to the restaurant where we were to have lunch, I had to dredge up what little Maine stoicism I've managed to accrue in four years. But at least I did have an umbrella.

My first surprise was the train "station" in Brunswick. The infor-mation card I had from Simmons directed me to a new depot on Maine Street, but that is not yet in operation. I had to go into the bank behind it and ask where the train station was. After a series of right and left turns I found myself at a big, empty, unpaved lot, weeds all around. There was a small hut on the far side of the lot beside, yes, a railroad track. Very unprepossessing for an operation that caters to tourists!

I was wildly early, which is also very unusual for me. However, I had been determined not to repeat the debacle of my trip to New York this summer, when I missed the train due to a combination of leaving too late, and then taking the wrong exit off the turnpike. So I had to sit in my car for a good half hour, until the sight of others getting out of their cars -- which had been gradually arriving as I sat there -- suggested to me that the train must be arriving. This proved to be a false alarm -- the train was coming, but over there aways, and then it disappeared. At the end of the day, when we returned from Rockland, I learned why: the train has to drive a distance down the track, and then back up onto a different track, that runs to the empty lot. By the time of this enlightenment it had been a very long day -- officially 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., though since I'd been 45 minutes early it was that much longer for me -- and this tedious maneuver, which added a good ten minutes to our "arrival," (and we were running late anyway), made the corners of my mouth turn down. One hopes this will not be necessary when the new depot is up and running.

The Simmons group was supposed to have use of the Parlor Car, but it turned out tickets had been sold to individual passengers for that area (I used the restroom in there at one point, and could see nothing that suggested a parlor, saw nothing but regular seats, but apparently there is a "variety of seating and table configurations" at the far end, which supposedly justify paying $15 more a ticket), so we were pretty much on our own. Eventually the woman who had organized the trip, who went my coatless/gloveless state several levels better by wearing shorts, got permission from the conductor for our group to use the cafe car, which was not open for business because the help hadn't shown up . (We are obviously not talking Amtrak here.) However, by the time she got around to telling those of us in the car I was in, I was comfortably ensconced, in one of those train configurations where two seats face two other seats, and you have to watch out for one another's toes and knees, with two delightful ladies from New Jersey, who were on a separate bus tour (their bus would be picking them up in Rockland). I saw no reason to move. I hadn't come on this trip to hobnob with people I hadn't seen in 25 years (I knew no one in the Simmons group anyway), but for the pleasure of riding a train, and to look at fall foliage, which I was hoping would be more impressive than that in my own neighborhood.

Which it was, if not wildly so. For much of the trip you are riding through woods, often so thick with underbrush that you can't see far into them. Smears of red and orange, the colors that have been so noticeably missing in the Augusta area. Every now and then you come out into open marsh land, with rivulets of water full of lily pads winding through the golden reeds. Occasionally there are green fields beyond the marshes, with comfortable old New England farm houses, and the occasional cow. When we got closer to Rockland there were fields with more cows, much closer to the track, and Betty, one of my New Jersey ladies, said, "They aren't sitting down. They're supposed to sit down when it's raining." Obviously uneducated cows.

The most exciting part of the trip was just beyond the town of Wiscassett, when the train crosses a cove of the Sheepscot River. All of a sudden you do not see a rocky embankment sloping down from the edge of the train to the water, you see nothing but water. And water that is very close, not a good distance away, as when crossing a bridge. "Yikes!" I cried, glancing out, and down. "This has got to be one narrow railroad track; you can't even see it!" "Oh, my," said Betty. "Do you suppose we're safe?" "Can you swim?" I asked.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Life and death in Big Ben

Watching the Ken Burns film on the national parks, and noting that former Park Ranger/current novelist Nevada Smith was an advisor, reminded me that I just finished her most recent Anna Pigeon book. Called Borderline, and set in Big Ben National Park in west Texas, it is arguably one of her best, at least partly because Anna's need to protect a newborn even as she is trying to escape bad guys, and extradite herself and others from life-threatening circumstances, gives her a new level of humanity. Her understanding of, among other things, the responsibilities of motherhood, dramatically increase, as she discovers how the first instinct of motherhood -- protect the young -- can limit ones options, and change ones priorities.

"Civilization. Anna longed for it, and the unnaturalness of the emotion registered even as she crept through reeds in shoulder-deep water trying to keep herself and her charge alive. For most of her life she had felt more at home, safer, saner, stronger and more able in the wilderness than she had in towns and houses.

Babies changed that, too. Since she'd taken over the care and feeding of one of the little buggers, Anna had wanted homes and diapers, stoves and sterilizers, warm, dry clothes and washer/ dryers."*

At another point: "When she was a young woman, she remembered wondering why stay-at-home moms...didn't write epic novels, create great paintings, or memorize all of Shakespeare. ...Having spent part of a day and a night with an infant, Anna knew she owed each and every one she'd internally sneered at an apology. It was mind-boggling how all-absorbing caring for an infant was. Cute little aliens who stole ones brain and rendered [ones] body a slave."**

But Barr's basic stance in favor of strong, independent women -- apparent in all of her books -- comes through loud and clear with this passage:

"Standing unarmed with a baby she was responsible for and a large male person of unknown motivation sitting down the hall from her, Ann realized what a terrible disservice America was doing its women -- all its citizens -- in teaching them never to do for themselves but to wait for the authorities to come and save them from whatever dilemma had arisen."*** This was exactly why Micheal and I bought me a gun -- and why Micheal had me out in the back yard, shooting at a paper plate nailed to a tree -- when we were living in southern Louisiana, and I would be alone for weeks at a time while he was working offshore. Somebody breaks into the house in the middle of the night, you can't count on being able to call the police, and their being able to arrive in time; you need to be able to defend yourself. This country is (alas) too full of crazies and creeps for (especially) a woman living alone in a rural area to depend on "the authorities" to protect her.

Barr also has a marvelous, complex character in Darden White, former Secret Service agent turned head of security and substitute father for the female mayor of Houston, a gubernatorial hopeful. The few pages at the beginning of the book where the reader is intro-duced to Darden are a priceless picture into one man's life and psyche. Take the following paragraph:

"Darden had never married. His job didn't lend itself to family life. Sometimes he wished he was gay. Another man would be a better fit for the home life of an agent: sex and companionship, somebody to grow old with, and no worries about who'd call the plumber or shovel the walks or scare away the burglars when you were away on assignment."#

Or there's the telephone conversation with his elderly mother who suffers from Alzheimer's, with whom he lives, but whom he must place in a nursing home whenever he has to be away from home. It perfectly captures how surreal such "conversations" can be:

"The woman on duty told him his mom was agitated and wanted to speak with him...Calls from his mom entailed a dark tunnel down which long conversations trickled as the caregiver reminded Ellen she wanted to speak with her son, and helped her to figure out how the phone worked, and where to put it against her head...

'Hey, Mama, what's happening?'

"Oh, Darden! How nice of you to call."

'Just wondering how you were doing is all.' Darden no longer corrected his mother when she forgot. He didn't explain how life worked, either. That was a rabbit hole he'd gone down a few times when she'd first started losing it. 'You doing okay, Mama?'

'No,' she said. Murmuring at the far end of the tunnel ensued as confusion erupted and caregivers gave care."##

And with all the fine characterizations (and there are others), we get vivid descriptions of rafting down the Rio Grande, scrambling up rocky cliffs while sharpshooters are trying to pick off you and your party, and unlikely rescues of stranded cows and people. I recommend it.

*Barr, Nevada. Borderline. C.P. Putnam's Sons, 2009, p. 383.
** Ibid. p. 281
*** Ibid. p. 345
# Ibid. p. 19
## Ibid. p. 73

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

America's Best Idea

Like many of you, I've been enjoying Ken Burns' latest opus, The National Parks. Part II was especially inspiring, with its tales of those who fought to preserve our natural (and later, ancient cultural) wonders, against the relentless, single-minded commercial urge of the nation. I stand in awe of people like John Muir, who can fight year after year for a cause they believe in -- in his case, the preservation of the Yosemite Valley, and of all the land that eventually became Yosemite National Park -- despite setbacks, despite being up against powerful, moneyed opponents, despite simply not being successful, for so long a time. I consider it one of my character flaws that I am too easily discouraged; had I been in Muir's place, I fear I would have given up long before the moments of success could arrive.

But then, Muir's successes were often not quite complete -- as when he succeeded in having the high country around Yosemite Valley declared a national park, but not in getting the valley itself trans-ferred from the (indifferent) care of the state of California, to the federal government -- or they weren't permanent, as when the city of San Francisco managed to persuade the federal government to allow the Tuolumne River in the Hetch Hetchy Valley to be dammed, to form a reservoir for the Bay Area. But he plugged on, he never gave up, which is of course what They always say: you must Never Give Up.

I've certainly learned lots of fascinating facts, thanks to Mr. Burns & Co. For one thing, I hadn't realized how far in the past John Muir lived, worked, wrote! I thought he was active, making his travels (to Alaska, among other places) and writing his books, in approximately the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Undoubtedly a shameful thing for a librarian to be admitting, but I also have to admit that I've never read any of his books. I simply knew they were considered classics in the realm of environmental literature, books one did not discard from the collection, even if no one had checked them out in a long time.

But good lord, the fellow stumbled onto Yosemite -- which he promptly fell in love with, and which soon became his life's obsession (something else I didn't know) -- way back in the 1850s. And I didn't know that it was because of him that the Sierra Club came into existence, for the express purpose of protecting Yosemite. I also had no idea that that organization went back as far as it does (1892). Just as I didn't know the Audubon Society was originally started by someone named George Bird Grinnell, who worked tirelessly in the late 1800s to preserve natural habitats and their wildlife. One of the most satisfying moments of Part II was when it described his publishing in the magazine Forest and Stream, of which he was editor, an article on the slaughter by poachers of buffalo in Yellow-stone National Park, which so outraged people that Congress in short order passed the National Park Protective Act, thereby saving the buffalo of the park, and animals throughout all the parks. Yes! The power of the press!

Indeed, again and again in this series we are learning about individuals -- many of whom I personally had never heard of -- whose passion and dedication were given over to protecting and preserving the natural wonders of this country, for the enjoyment of all of us. These men -- and early on they were all men -- are as much an in-spiration as the parks themselves. And certainly the many gorgeous views of the various parks is an inspiration to get out there and experience some wilderness.

It reminds me of the time I went camping with my Aunt Kittisue in Alaska. My lovable aunt's idea of camping was to put Pavarotti on the cassette player, pour a glass of wine and wait for the steaks to cook on the habachi. While she and her friend Mary were doing that, and enjoying a good gab fest, I made the short walk from our campsite out to the road. Straight ahead reared that awesome sight, Mt. McKinley, completely white though it was the end of May. It was ten o'clock at night but the sun was still shining, and all the birds were still singing (I wondered fleetingly if they dropped dead from exhaustion because they never knew when to go to bed). I stood there in the middle of that two-lane highway for a good ten minutes, and no car passed, there was no sound but birdsong. And I realized that there was virtually no touch of humankind for many miles in all directions; we were surrounded by true wilderness. And I was forcefully struck, for the first time in my life, by how valuable that fact was, the fact of wilderness, of land untrampled, undeveloped, uncommercialized. Just nature, doing its thing.

The National Parks, America's Best Idea, is reminding me of that moment, and that conviction.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The rail trail explorer strikes again

I decided to take advantage of another gorgeous day of sunshine and green leaves, and walk a stretch of the Rail Trail I hadn't walked before. This stretch runs from just past the little frame building housing Kennebec Jewelry and Repair...with its sign out front, "Gem panning here," which I do not get at all -- it's not like they have a stream tumbling down from the mother lode at their doorstep...north toward Hallowell. Across the street from the opening in the fence where you access the trail is the big, ugly frame building that houses the KV Health Club (KV stands for Kennebec Valley). Farmingdale has a surfeit of these buildings. They would look pre-fab if they weren't so big, although maybe they make big pre-fabricated buildings. They are incredibly functional looking: plain walls, roof, windows, door, the end. Aesthetics are for sissies.

But the trail. It's lovely. Actually much nicer than the stretch running south from Hallowell that I walked in the early spring (Note of April 19). Admittedly, then it was pre-leaf season, but even so there are many more large trees along the Farmingdale stretch, and they are often on both sides of the trail, and close at hand, which is not the case at the Hallowell end. Indeed, a couple of times I could hear myself thinking, "Lions and tigers and bears, oh no!"

The breeze in the trees made that water-like sound I love so much, though since the leaves are beginning to dry out, the sound wasn't so much soft as brittle, more like a small waterfall than a rushing river. Quite a few birch trees to be seen in amongst the maples, the oaks, their distinctive white bark marking them as special. In one case there were two growing close together, with one contorted somewhat like a stretched out S, the other standing perfectly straight. I could just hear the conversation over the years -- "Please, come away with me. Let's explore over this way." "I'm not going anywhere." "If you won't come with me, I'm going alone." "Suit yourself; I'm staying right here." "Ach! You know I can't live without you."

There were another two farther along, the trunks close together lower down, but then they began to grow apart. In adulthood their upper branches had suddenly reached out to each other, as they realized they needed each other after all.

Yes, I can make up a story about anything. In fact, when my siblings and I were kids I used to keep them and myself entertained on the long hauls between Texas and Indiana where we had moved after my mother married my stepfather, by telling them stories based on whatever they pointed at out the window. (old barn -- "Once upon a time a brother and sister lived in an old barn...")

At one point the rail trail made a right-angle turn and crossed the track. Big excitement. Of course, as I mentioned last spring, trains no longer travel along this track, so there was no danger involved in crossing the track. But why the change? As soon as I was over there I thought I knew: I was now directly above the river, and closer to it than I'd been anywhere else along the trail. It was too bad that the tide was out, so what lay below me were exposed mud flats, rather than flowing water. But the current was moving northward, which meant the tide was coming in. If I'd had a few hours to kill I could have stayed there, and watched the water reassert itself.

Another nice aspect of this stretch of the trail is the absence of traffic noise. It quickly disappeared, once I was on the trail, from a combination of the thick stands of trees on the road side, the gradual descent of the trail to a lower level than the road, with an embankment serving as a noise damper, and a widening distance between the road and the trail. A combination of factors that increased the peacefulness of the walk dramatically. Altogether a perfect way to spend an hour on a perfect day.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Nature, behaving strangely

Here it is the beginning of the third quarter of the month of September, in the state of Maine, and all the leaves are still green. They are tired and worn out, a dull green, as opposed to the perky, full-of-promise lime green of early spring, or the serenely lush forest green of mid-summer, but still, green. Oh, there's the occasional patch of red or orange here and there, but it's very occasional. When we have a breezy day there are leaves all over the place, but they are dried-out, brown leaves that seem to have fallen from the trees without going through the mandatory color change first. Even the big, gorgeously round tree I pass every day on my way to work, that normally starts churning out the colored leaves in the middle of August, is still determinedly green, though many of its leaves are curling at the edges and turning brown.

A word to the wise: don't come leaf-peeping for a few weeks.

Has it been too dry? Is it because we still haven't had a frost? We have been having absolutely gorgeous weather for the past month -- sunny days, highs usually in the upper 60s, low humidity -- after a perfectly miserable June, when it rained or was overcast for all but three days, and July, during which if it wasn't raining it was the hot, humid weather that makes it so much hotter than whatever the thermometer declares it is. I have been enjoying these so much more cheerful and comfortable days as much as everyone else. People come into the library saying "isn't it a beautiful day?" and of course I agree. But I'm thinking, why aren't the leaves changing? And I wonder why no one else seems to have noticed.

I just checked online, and at, on the Chemical of the Week page, learned that low temperatures destroy chlorophyll, which of course makes leaves green, and if those low temps. stay above freezing, it enhances anthocyanin (the red pigment found in some leaves) production. So maybe it has been too warm -- even at night the temperature has been dropping only into the lower 50s/ upper 40s (I can hear my Texas relatives, still enduring daily highs in the 90s, yelping "Upper 40s!") which may not be cool enough.

The information on this Chemical of the Week page says one thing that really confuses me: "bright sunlight also breaks down chlorophyll." But in that case, why are leaves so green during the summer? Admittedly, at the beginning of this summer, here in Maine, we didn't have that much "bright sunlight," but other places have lots of sunshine during their summers, and they still have green leaves.

But then, chemistry has always left me in the dark. I realize it's life at the most basic level -- that it isn't just biology as destiny, but chemistry as destiny -- but that just means life at the most basic level leaves me in the dark.

And why aren't the leaves changing?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Odds and ends

One of the reasons I like living in Maine:

Between 1998 and 2008 the number of homicides averaged 24 a year, ranging between 11 and 40. Can you imagine living in a state where there are only eleven homicides for the whole state in the whole year? Even 40 is pretty dang low. And almost all homicides are domestic, so if you can just avoid being married to a guy who's been out of work for too long and was a jerk to begin with you're probably o.k.

Literary pet peeves:

Characters clutching the steering wheel, the gun, the whatever so tightly their knuckles turn white. Excuse me, folks, but when you clutch something your knuckles do not turn white, although they may get a little pinker. And whatever color they turn, anybody standing there with you is not likely to notice the color of your knuckles. Face, other body language, yes, color of knuckles, no. Even the best writers use this literary cliche, and it drives me crazy.

The best writers are also forever having their characters turn pale -- not just their knuckles, but their whole faces. This is something else that simply doesn't happen. When people get a terrible shock they may look stricken, they may freeze in place with horror, they do not, instantly, turn pale. This evening one of my staff came in to work even though she was feeling unwell. She was noticeably pale, but you can bet that condition did not come upon her in the blink of an eye.

I find it fascinating that the following people were almost exact contemporaries, both as to birth dates, and death dates. Besides the fact that they all became famous, and successful, what did they have in common? They got rich and famous by writing words...

Cole Porter 1891-1964
Ben Hecht 1893-1964
Dorothy Parker 1893-1967
Oscar Hammerstein II 1895-1960
Ernest Hemingway 1899-1961

And moving from words to music: first composer John Williams lifts Darth Vader's leit motif directly from Shostakovich's 5th Symphony, now he's "borrowed" the Aquarium piece from Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals for the haunting background music in the Harry Potter movies. (Can this get me sued? But all one has to do is compare the pieces...)

Some rock lyrics to make you wince:

"He will be like she and me" (from Danny's Song, by Loggins & Messina)
"The heat was hot..." (A Horse with No Name, by the Eagles)
"Open up your morning light and say a little prayer for I" (I Don't Wanna Wait, by Paula Cole -- this may be my all-time favorite most horrible rock lyric)

On the other hand, a rock lyric I really like:

"Sometimes I think/ life is like a rodeo/
the trick is to ride/ and make it to the bell." (Rock and Roll Girls, by John Fogerty)

A license plate on a Massachusetts car that made me smile:

(non-trekkies won't get that at all)

A bumper sticker on a Maine pickup that made me laugh:

Kill your television.

And I'll close with a bumper sticker that I second:

God bless the whole world
No exceptions

A window on nature

I was just looking through the folder where I kept notes for my newsletter, which I started sending out in March of 1979, and pretty much discontinued in 2005. Lots of odds and ends never made it into the newsletter. I've decided to trot out a few of the fairly recent ones, dating from when I was living in my cold, leaky but wonderful cabin-on-the-lake in East Winthrop, Maine. The lake was the Cobbosseecontee, shortened by everyone to Cobbossee. I was forever being treated to scenes that delighted me, driving along the road that led in from the two-lane highway to the unpaved road that in turn led to the camp where my cabin was located, driving along various back roads when I just felt like exploring the neighborhood, even just looking out the window of my cottage. To wit:

When I first moved to the cabin from the motel where I'd been staying I was arriving late in the evening, and it was quite windy. My headlights lit up masses of dry, late autumn leaves that were being swept across the road, up, over, around, turning the road into a tunnel of swirling leaves. And there was perfect, vigorous musical accompaniment on the radio -- Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. Made it seem like I was starting out on this exciting adventure.

One day in early spring I glanced out my window and saw a perky squirrel sitting upright on a branch, its tail a bushy question mark, looking just like all those cartoons. Then it took a flying leap to another tree and the air filled with dust, lit up by the sun. Dust? A few minutes later a car drove down the road to another of the cabins, and I saw that it was covered with a fine green film. The light went on in my head: the "dust" I had seen was tree pollen, being transferred by one of natures transport agencies.

Another sign of spring: two bugs copulating on the window pane. It looked like forcible rape to me -- she kept trying to scoot away, he kept pulling her along in the other direction. When I hit the pane they both froze, played dead ("Shhh. Somebody's seen us.")

One winter's day I drove into Winthrop proper. Flawlessly blue sky, bright sun, the ground and trees covered with recent snowfall, but the roads clear. Out on the lake in town (Maranacook -- another great Indian name) there were scattered ice-fishing huts, the occasional snow mobile speeding across the snow-covered surface. At the edge of the lake some folks had cleared a small area of snow, turning it into an ice-skating rink. All those people out there enjoying the day, despite the 24 degree temperature. But 24 degrees with sunshine and no wind feels good to northerners dressed for it. And all of this was accompanied by the beautiful, peaceful music, with just a touch of the melancholy to it, that was playing on my car radio. When the piece ended I learned it was Dvorak's 9th symphony. Perhaps he wrote it on just such a day. It went so perfectly with the day, the scene, that I almost cried.

Another day in winter I watched snow dust being wafted through the air from the snow-laden pine and hemlock trees around the cabin on a wind that was really nothing more than a breath. The earth breathed, and the trees sighed.

And this was my reaction when I got home late one night, and stood for a moment in the dark, listening to the silence that was interrupted by a waxing and waning wind:

"I love the sound of the wind coming through the trees toward you -- like rushing water -- and it sounds so strong you're surprised that the trees around you move so little when it arrives. Sound...the great deceiver."