Saturday, August 29, 2009

The only way to go

For my recent trip to New York I took the train. Some time ago I swore never again to do any major driving through the Northeast, due to the relentless heavy traffic, which can produce intolerable levels of stress in me. I broke that promise to myself when I drove to Pennsylvania to attend my goddaughter's graduation -- nothing like high motivation to get you to do something you've sworn never to do -- but I was lucky in not encountering really nerve-wracking traffic until Connecticut, on my return trip. Nonetheless it is absolutely impossible to avoid nerve-wracking traffic in driving to New York, so I don't do it.

The train is a wonderful way to go. A few years ago Amtrak reinstated service between Portland and Boston -- the Downeaster -- so you can even go the whole way by train, though you must get yourself from the station the Downeaster arrives at (North Station) to one of the stations the train to New York departs from (South Station or Back Bay). You either have to go by subway, lugging your luggage and hoping you don't miss your connection, or taxi, paying that extra bit (and, if the traffic's bad, hoping you don't miss your connection). Despite this hassle, I like to take the train the whole way, enamoured of train travel as I am; but for reasons we won't go into as it would cast me in a bad light, I managed to miss the Portland-Boston train. Big trauma. However, the bus station is in the same place as the train station, and they just put me on the next bus (as the woman behind the counter said reassuringly, "Somebody misses the train every day); the bus station in Boston is right next door to South Station, so making my connection was painless, and from then on it was a very pleasant trip.

But not, of course, perfect. Perfection is, we are told, reserved for the next life. (If there's no next life that means there is no per-fection anywhere which makes you wonder, why do humans even have that concept?!) In the Things Could Be Better Dept.: the cafe car had no Diet Coke, only Pepsi. I do not like Pepsi at all -- and am deeply offended by places that assume they are interchangeable, and serve you the one when you've ordered the other -- so was forced to consume water with my hot dog. I do realize that my dilemma is no worse than that suffered by those (surely few) souls out there who prefer Pepsi, every time they encounter a place that carries only Coke. Nonetheless, since Coke is vastly more popular in this country than Pepsi, I really think the cafe car should offer it. I was going to say as much in the online survey I answered when I returned from my trip (because of the promised chance at $500 free travel), but there was never a place for such input.

In the Pleasant Surprises Dept., the cafe car served the best kind of hotdogs there are, Hebrew National.

I was, happily, traveling on the Quiet Car, so was not bothered by people jabbering away on their cell phones or holding noisy conversations with one another. For me and people like me (who ask the dental hygienist to turn off the T.V. that is always running in each of the work cubicles at the dentist's office), the person who first thought of having a Quiet Car on trains was a genius.

At one point a woman sitting a few seats back from me did start jabbering away, in Spanish, on her phone. I got up, walked back, and politely but firmly said, "Excuse me, you're not supposed to use your phone on this car." There are signs hanging from the ceiling saying this, as well as paper notices in each empty seat; the conductor also announces this when the train first starts, and at any stop where a lot of people get on. However, this woman waves me away with "This is an emergency." Since the woman had been laughing and talking in a cheerfully animated way I was quite sure this wasn't true, but it didn't occur to me at the time to say, "Even if it's an emergency, you need to go to another car to use your phone."

Almost immediately, two different men went back to attempt to shut her up. One of them, shaking the printed notice at her, said, "Are you stupid? Can't you read?" The woman had plunked her large suitcase down in the space next to her, as she could not lift it to the rack overhead and apparently was not trusting enough to leave it in the large-luggage area at the back; one of the angry men went so far as to carry this suitcase off to that area. I think this action more than anything got the woman off her phone, though she was spitting "You shut up! You stupid!" at the same time.

The irony of making a noisy stink on the Quiet Car because someone was not being quiet enough seemed not to occur to these two gentlemen. I also thought how un-Maine-like their behavior was; no question these guys lived in Boston, or New York, or some other big city where aggressive behavior is the norm, and often necessary for 1) self-protection and 2) to get results. It took a few minutes for a sense of calm and serenity to reinstate itself in the car, but then I was able to go back to gazing out the window, dozing, and reading. Yes, sir, the only way to go.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Murder, she wrote

I recently read a book that I so enjoyed, I'm reading another by the same author. The one I read was actually the second in a series by the author, Ann Cleeves (no, not Anne of Cleaves). I think of it as the Shetland series, because the books take place on the Shetland Islands, north of the Scottish mainland. Those of you who know me know I have a peculiar fascination with islands, having spent extended periods of time on a Greek island (Santorini), a French island (Isle d'Yeu), and a Scottish isle (Mull). Indeed, I would live on one of the many Maine islands, if I could figure out a way to make a living there.

Thus, a mystery book that takes place on an island is bound to have an allure for me. Also, I enjoy mystery series in which one painlessly learns about the setting, as well as the culture within that setting, at the same time that a mystery unrolls. This was one of the attractions of the Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn books by Tony Hillerman -- I loved learning about the Navaho culture, within its Northern Arizona/New Mexico milieu. When Micheal and I went to visit the Grand Canyon in 2000, I insisted on our driving back through what I thought of as Hillerman country, delighting in spotting some of the landmarks mentioned in the books, such as Shiprock (which didn't look like a ship to either of us, but rather a huge rock fortress, sitting out there by itself in the middle of the prairie).

I enjoy Nevada Barr's national park ranger series for the same reason: I learn all about the various national parks, while pursuing mysterious evil-doers! In Barr's case, I don't much like her heroine, park ranger Anna Pigeon, whom I find humorless and irritatingly touchy, but the descriptions of and information about the parks are priceless.

But to get back to White Nights. That's the name of Ann Cleeves' second book, and refers to the twilight-like night-time hours of summer, on the Shetlands. Looking at my trusty world map, on the wall of my study, I see that the Shetlands are at almost the exact same latitude as Anchorage, where I experienced "white nights" myself, the two times I lived there. Several characters in the book mention how crazy the lingering light makes them, never seem to get enough sleep, etc. I know that in Anchorage many people have heavily lined curtains, to keep that pesky light out so they can sleep like normal people.

Cleeves' other book, Raven Black, which I've just begun, takes place in winter, when there is the opposite situation: long stretches of darkness, characters setting out for work or school before sunrise. There is frequent blowing snow (apparently the wind blows so constantly on the Shetlands that when it isn't blowing the locals notice; they are struck by the absence, the silence.) and ice everywhere. No tourists now.

In both books you get a nice sense of the people, the older ones hoeing their turnips in their bit of a garden, the younger ones drinking too much (a real problem throughout Scotland), everybody hooked up to the computer now. And there's a terrific police inspector, Jimmy Perez, a native Shetlander, despite the exotic name. He's mild-mannered and courteous, worried about his relationship with his new girlfriend -- is he pushing too hard, going too fast? --and also striving to maintain a good relationship with the detective inspector sent from the mainland, who is impatient, intense and driven. This kind of opposites-working-in-tandem often works well, in the aforementioned Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn books, for example (intuitive Jim Chee, steeped in Navaho ways and religion, trying to work with rational Leaphorn the skeptic), or in the Inspector Lewis mysteries on PBS, with the old-school, working class Lewis tied to his Cambridge-educated, technically savvy Sergeant Hathaway. Here I like the fact that DI Taylor actually respects Jimmy, recognizes that Perez's methods get results, even though they make him crazy with impatience. In general I like the way Cleeves avoids stereotypes with most of her characters, making them realistic composites of negative and positive attributes.

And I think to myself, maybe Shetland should be my next island.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Warning: political rant

Sometimes the ignorance and gullibility of large swaths of the American populace fill me with despair. The current shouting matches taking place all across the country concerning the health care reform bill are a good case in point.

First there is the nonsense about what Sarah Palin calls the government death squads. When you get old somebody from the government is going to come around and ask you how you want to die. Actually, if you think about it rationally (which those people who will believe any scare tactics the wealthy insurance companies care to throw at them, all too often fail to do), this wouldn't be a bad idea. Americans persist in pretending they're never going to die, when as a matter fact death is the one indisputable fact of life; and it would be much better if people made proper arrangements for this fact before it was too late and their families were stuck with making heart-wrenching decisions with no guidance. However, that's not the point. The point is that the bills before Congress propose nothing of the sort. They propose including payment to doctors for counseling on end-of-life care. If you become incapacitated do you want everything possible done to sustain life, or do you want, instead, a living will? At what point do you want all aggressive therapy to stop, and hospice care to take over? Etc., etc. None of this would be done by govern-ment "bureaucrats," but by doctors, who are, after all, sworn to "first, do no harm." They wouldn't be encouraging you to let yourself be euthanized, they would be encouraging you to think intelligently and sensibly about these important matters while you're still in good enough shape to make the necessary decisions.

And then there's all the milarky about how if we're not careful we'll have a terrible, uncaring health system like they have in England and Canada -- whose citizens are now expressing anger at how those systems are being misrepresented by the ads here. My English friends Ann and John had two children and didn't pay a dime to have them. As Ann said to me, "I can't imagine going through child birth, and all the adjustments connected with having a baby, and coming home to huge hospital bills as well!" Both she and John have leveled criticisms at the NHS on occasion -- like any system it is not perfect -- but both are basically highly supportive of it, as are most of the citizens of the U.K. But because we are, as a country, essentially ignorant of what life is like in other countries -- unless something happening in another country impacts the U.S., or U.S. citizens, or is a natural disaster like a tsunami or an earthquake, network news does not report on it -- we don't know that the scare ads we are seeing all over the television simply do not represent the experience or attitudes of most of the people living under these systems.

And then there are those people yelling, you're going to have this public option plan at the expense of my Medicare! Excuse me, are they not aware that Medicare is a "public option" government-run plan, exactly the kind of thing they're objecting to? Where do people leave their brains when they leave home?

There are legitimate things one can base objection to the bills on, perhaps how-do-we-pay for-this being one. The simple, and logical, answer to that would be: we raise taxes. All the countries with excellent health care systems have higher taxes to pay for them. They have accepted the idea of the shared burden of higher taxes, in order to have the shared benefit of good, reliable health care that does not force anybody to declare bankruptcy, because of their med-ical bills, or to go without medical care, because they can't afford it.

But Congress is scared to death to come out and say, 'we'll have to raise taxes, but it will be worth it.' I think it's a mistake for President Obama to insist that only the very rich should be taxed. Those guys should perhaps bear the lion's share of the burden, but it should, again, be a shared burden. My taxes help pay for improved roads, and I get to use those improved roads. My taxes should help pay for an improved health care system for everyone...including me.

Friday, August 14, 2009

After a turn around the park...

The restaurant where Fae and Jim held their birthday/anniversary party was the Gramercy Tavern on East 20th, just off Fifth Avenue, and a couple of blocks from famous Gramercy Park, one of only two remaining private parks in New York City. In very London-like fashion the black-iron-fenced park sits in the middle of a residential square, with only the tenants of the buildings all around it able to purchase keys to the gates. Larry, Mary Beth and I arrived downtown a bit early for showing up at the party (and Fae had been firm: don't come early), so Larry had our cab stop at the park, and we walked two-thirds around it, admiring the handsome, elegant old buildings lining the four sides of the square. We were most taken with a rather hideous Victorian Gothic structure of dark red stone that, according to an information sign we discovered at the park, is one of the oldest apartment buildings in New York.

The place I would most like to visit is The Players Club, located at Number 16, in a building dating from 1844. (The 1840s is when the square was first developed. Townspeople were skeptical, but the developer knew people would soon be moving "this far north." Twentieth and 21st Streets! Yes, indeed, they kept moving all the way to 198th Street...) Anyway, Number 16 is where the actor Edwin Booth lived (a statue of him stands in the middle of the park). After his brother, the infamous John Wilkes, assassinated Abraham Lincoln, Booth's family, and actors in general (for John Wilkes had also been an actor) were held in very low esteem. In an effort to mitigate this negative attitude, Booth decided to form a social club in which members of the theatrical world would mix and mingle with successful businessmen and others. He had his home on Gramercy Park redone, so that it could be used as the "clubhouse," just reserving the upper floor for his personal use. Supposedly it is full of all kinds of theatrical memorabilia, and being a lover of the theatre as I am, I'd love to take a gander.

Some of the famous members of The Players have included Mark Twain (an example of how you don't have to be an actor... a "player" be a member), John Barrymore, playwright Eugene O'Neill, James Cagney, Gregory Peck, Jose Ferrer, Lynn Redgrave, Timothy Hutton (those last three were all president at one time), Walter Cronkite, Kevin Spacey, Judy Collins, Angela Lansbury, Sidney Poitier, Tony Bennett, Carol Burnett, Dick Cavett, Hal Holbrook, Robert Vaughn, Christopher Plummer, Ethan Hawke (one of the younger-generation members), Peter O'Toole and ex-James Bond Roger Moore (you'll notice a number of Englishmen in there, so obviously you don't have to be an American, either.)

A walk of a couple of blocks west on 20th brought us to the Gramercy Tavern. Online reviews of the place refer to it as "rustic but elegant," which seems something of an oxymoron to me, but it is quietly elegant, and I suppose all the pieces of old wood furniture scattered here and there could be called rustic. The walls are painted sand which makes a nice contrast with the brown-stained wood beams across the ceiling in the main dining room, the long, heavy brown drapes in the doorways between the several dining rooms. The color scheme also contributes to a sort of country feel. But the place is certainly not my idea of a tavern.

As to the food, of course it was good -- my sea bass in marinated cucumbers and yogurt sauce was gently cooked to perfection -- but in my nitpicking restaurant critic mode I have to mention that the drink the waiter brought me was not the Wild Turkey over ice I asked for but Wild Turkey with water over ice (this mistake astounded me). And the salad -- an attractive heap of arugula and turnip greens with sweet garlic-saffron dressing -- was a little bitter. The "sweet" dressing was not enough to offset the bitterness of the greens. This also surprised me, like an experiment that was not quite successful. And finally, I took issue with the fact that coffee was not served until most people had finished their dessert. Perhaps this is commonly done, but to me it makes more sense to provide coffee and tea with the food, rather than after. The warm chocolate bread pudding, by the way, was wonderful!

One thing that impressed the hell out of me was how many people they had serving. It made me think of those royal dinners, with a server between every two chairs. But ours were a little more informally dressed, no white gloves. All in all it was lovely party, beautifully done. The sort of thing one needs to go to every couple of years or so, to keep ones hand in.