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!"