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.