Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Where am I?

I love maps. I'm not sure why. It may have something to do with the phenomenon wherein seeing a picture of something makes it seems more real. A map isn't exactly a picture, but it's a graphic represen-tation of where you are, the place you're trying to get to, some place you may be reading about.

Whenever I'm reading and places are mentioned, I want to know where exactly they are, in relation to other places. If we're talking Paris or London, o.k., fine, I have those locations firmly fixed in my mind. But, as an example, I just started a mystery by Kathy Reichs, called Bare Bones. The heroine of Reichs' series of books is a forensic anthropologist who specializes in, surprise, bones. She works part-time in Montreal and part-time in Charlotte, North Carolina (as she says in this book: "North Carolina and Quebec? Long story.")

Well, I know where Montreal is, but where in North Carolina is Charlotte? I'm thinking it's on the coast, but then wonder if that's Charleston, South Carolina I'm thinking of? So I get up and go look at the map. I have a large map of the United States hanging on my bedroom wall. Likewise a large map of the world hanging on the wall of my study. A map of Africa hangs on the door of the study – because I can never remember where the various countries of that continent are located, am always confusing Sudan (the place that's been brutalizing so many of its citizens, whose President has just been indicted by the International Court for genocide – and which is located on the Red Sea) and Somalia (the place that specializes in piracy off its long coastline on the Arabian Sea.) I also have a map of Britain on my bedroom door. One of the frustrations of my little tiny house is that there is not enough wall space for all of my maps. When Micheal and I lived in the big, beautiful brick house out in the country south of Abbeville, in southern Louisiana, we had lots of wall space, and I was able to put up my street maps of London and Paris as well, so that when I was reading a book set in the former place and a character turned and started up Cheapside, I could go remind myself of where that was.

I also miss being able to see at a glance my map of Greece, the one of France. Those are all, along with many others, in a drawer, but I have to go dig them out.

At any rate, I now see that it was Charleston I was thinking of, the city where the first shot of the Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression, as my dyed-in-the-wool Rebel friend Clifford insists it should rightly be called) was fired at Ft. Sumter. Charlotte, North Carolina is located well inland, right at the border with South Carolina. So now I have a clear picture of where the action of this story is taking place, and I can read on.

Some of my love of maps may spring from the same impulse that enables me to enjoy library reference work which, as I've mentioned previously (see Note of Aug. 14, 2008), can be a kind of detective work. My friend Fae, electronically-oriented as she is, swears by her GSI, but me, I don't want something to tell me where I am, how to get to my destination, I want the challenge of figuring it out. Figur-ing out the best route, seeing where I might want to stop on the way from point A to point B, seeing what interesting place names the map has to offer up for my perusal. A map is like a book, it takes you out of yourself; it, quite literally, opens up the world to you. And shows you all the connecting lines.

Monday, March 30, 2009


I'm afraid that's my word for Maine Public Television. Throughout nearly all of March they were doing the pledge drive thing. A whole month! An endless cycle of the same old shows – Celtic Women at Slane Castle in Ireland, Yanni at the Forum in Acapulco, Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, My Music, My Generation, the 60s-- endlessly interrupted by lengthy pleas for money. Mind you all of these are good programs, but you can derive pleasure from watching them only so many times, and they were all repeats as it was. And do the folks at MPBN really think people sit there patiently while they beg, during each of those interruptions? Of course not. Most people flip the channel – and if what they find they like, they don't come back. I myself, having no alternative viewing (I do not have cable or satellite, and the only station my rabbit ears pick up is MPBN), I hit the mute button, and go back to reading or working on the computer or whatever, until I notice out of the corner of my eye that the program has started again. Eventually, of course, I got to where I just left the television off.

And here's the thing. We just went through this in December. Not for a whole month, but for about two weeks. And then there was the pledge drive in August. And now, at the end of April/beginning of May there will be the annual auction, when there will be nothing on from 8 p.m. until midnight, for a total of ten days, but these eager folks trying to convince you to place a bid on all sorts of items various businesses and individuals have donated.

Of course, I do realize that what all this begging means is that Maine Public Television is desperate for money. And I guess that's a sad commentary on the state of Maine, that its citizens do not do a better job of supporting what is unquestionably a stimulating and refreshing alternative to awful, awful network television. On the other hand, it's also possible that many people, like me, have given what they can; and for them, there's an end to it.

An article in the Bangor Daily News last month mentioned that employees of MPBN agreed to a pay cut last winter, and 10% of staffing was cut. The Network also considered deactivating a transmission tower in the north of the state, to save money. How-ever, there was a real public outcry about that last move, and it was shelved. (The article made the point that for many people in the sparsely populated northernmost part of the state, MPBN is the only American station viewers are able to get. As one person said, we know more about Canada than what's happening in our own state.) Yes, it's plain they need money badly.

Quite possibly other public television stations across the country are suffering similar drops in public support, just as so many other charitable organizations are. I don't know what the solution is, for these beleaguered stations, but I don't believe it is constant begging. It is especially annoying once you have given. Eventually you want to yell at the screen – exactly as I did one night – I gave already! I don't believe keeping after them and keeping after them is going to make more people feel guilty. If you can give, and you want to, you will; if you can't or don't want to, you won't.

Do you suppose these stations would qualify for some of the stimulus package money? Put some of those people who lost their jobs back to work? And insure that I am able to watch Jim Leher and the News Hour, Bill Moyer's Journal, the NOW New Magazine, Masterpiece Theatre, the occasional nature or music program (the first time it's aired), without having to listen to endless reminders that I'm lucky I have access to all these fine programs, and should therefore send money? It's doubtful, since the arts in general seem to have been an area sorely neglected by The Plan. But some form of government subsidy, as they have in other countries, may indeed be what is needed.

Of course, all those people (like my friend Clifford) who are appalled at how much money the government has already committed itself to spending, are undoubtedly even more appalled at my suggestion. Let 'em sink or swim, may be the attitude. Public television may indeed be in the process of sinking.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Literary holes

I recently finished rereading the Harry Potter books, which I enjoyed just as much this time around, as when I was reading one a year, as they came out. They really are the perfect escape reading, taking you into a fascinating, amusing, and quite believable world where you can wave your wand and get the knitting needles to knit a sweater, where owls deliver the mail (and know where to go to deliver it), where only those who have seen death can see the particular kind of horses pulling the carriage, where you can swear to a map that you are up to no good, and it will show you how to avoid anyone you want to avoid, by showing where everybody in the castle is, as they move from place to place (obviously a naughty school boy's dream). J.K. Rowling is a great story-teller, an excellent writer, and it pleases me no end that her "children's" books filled so many children with an eagerness to read...and also made her rich.

But. I realized, as I neared the end of Book Six, that she had been guilty of leaving a literary hole in these books. Nobody ever bathes! Or takes a shower. There is frequent mention of bathrooms when we are at Hogwarts (School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, for the uninitiated) – indeed, much of the action of Book Two (The Chamber of Secrets) takes places in one of the girls' bathrooms. But there is no mention of there being tubs or showers there, it just sounds like toilet stalls (in one of which the whiny ghost, Moaning Myrtle, resides) and wash basins (which in the end prove to be the entrance to the hidden Chamber).

In Book Four – The Goblet of Fire – we do see the prefects' bathroom, which has a big sunken tub in the middle of the room. Our hero, Harry Potter, takes a bath there (even though he's not a prefect), because it has been suggested to him as a way to solve a particularly pesky riddle he's grappling with. But he's not actually taking a bath; he's trying to solve his riddle.

Throughout all the books the kids hang out in the Common Room in the evening until they go up to bed in the dorms. They get up in the morning and immediately go down to breakfast in the Great Hall. This is specifically stated. But from the evidence nobody ever does one thing in support of personal hygiene. There's never a reference to "After he'd showered..." or comments from any of the characters like "I'd tired, I'm going to take a bath and go to bed." The kids play vigorous games of Quiddich, often in miserable weather that results in their being muddy from head to toe, but there's never a line like, "he headed for the showers to clean off the mud and clear his head."

I'm always bothered when I become aware of something in a written work – or a dramatic work, like a movie or T.V. show – that detracts from the believability of that work. Another example that comes to mind is the author Robert Parker's hero Spenser, still being a tough guy at the age of 70 (in one of his earliest books, from the early '70s, Spenser mentions having served in the Korean War. If you're, say, 19 in 1952, by 2007 you're an easy 69 years old). Rowling did such a great job of making this fantasy world of hers understandable and believable. It surprises me that she overlooked this "hole" in the overall fabric.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


I can't help but be somewhat amused by all the brouhaha over the bonuses that were paid out to the people at AIG. Everyone is so outraged by the unmitigated greed.

The reason that this amuses me is that it is so damned hypocritical. Of course those mavens of the financial industry are greedy. That is the favorite American pastime, being greedy. Get more, get bigger. Bigger houses, more expensive cars and watches (I personally have always choked on the idea of spending several thousand dollars on a watch, when a $25 Timex will keep perfectly good time for years), have a television in every room, have every electronic gadget known to man. And until the current economic crisis, those who successfully practiced this kind of greed were admired, envied, celebrated, rather than vilified. To be rich is this country's idea of the highest good. Not being talented, intelligent, honorable, courageous – though all of these are given lip-service to, and may indeed be admired by some – but being rich. That is this country's idea of "successful."

The outrage we've seen expressed this past week by members of Congress, and by the President, have made me think of Claude Rains' famous line in what is perhaps my all-time favorite movie, Casablanca – "I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here." As the croupier from the next room hands him his winnings. Pul-lease. Those people on Wall Street, in the big banks and insurance companies, should all of a sudden turn into noble, self-sacrificing paragons? That isn't how they got where they are. The businesses they are in have never rewarded nobility, self-sacrifice. As Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric said in a recent interview on public television, "These people didn't choose to cure cancer. They didn't choose to do public service work. They chose to make money."

But then, this is exactly why we need laws that hold such people in check, just as we need laws to hold potential murderers, rapists and thieves in check. They are not going to hold themselves in check. I so often think (and I mean this quite literally) about the end of the nineteenth century/beginning of the twentieth, when the robber barons and others of their ilk were also getting filthy rich, at the expense of the little guy, and the country as a whole. Finally people like Theodore Roosevelt started saying, o.k., enough is enough, and Congress started passing things like the Antitrust Act (which seems to be have been pretty much ignored for the last twenty years or so.) We are there once again; history does, after all, have a tendency to repeat itself. I suspect there will always be people who will do what-ever they can get away with, so the rest of us just have to put rules in place that keep them from getting away with too damn much.

But, it seems to me, we also have to stop admiring these "respectable" scoundrels; and that is a cultural turn-around that I really wonder if we as a country are capable of.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The best medicine

Not long ago I watched (on good ol' PBS – where would I be without PBS?) the ceremony that was held last fall at the Kennedy Center honoring comedian George Carlin. He was awarded, posthumously, the Mark Twain Prize for Humor. I don't think I'd ever actually seen Carlin perform, though I'd heard a few clips from his comedy albums. I dipped into his book Brain Droppings when he died last June, and we put out what books by or about him that we had at the library (this is what we do whenever anyone famous dies). I wasn't particularly impressed – the book seemed so totally negative, and he was awfully enamoured of the word asshole, one of my least favorite words, as it is both crude, and ugly-sounding. But there were certainly some laugh-out-loud bits.

The award ceremony showed quite a few clips from Carlin's performances, over many years, and I discovered that this was, indeed, a very funny, as well as astutely intelligent, man. He was not just this scruffy guy who liked to use dirty words. ("There are no bad words.") We saw one of his earliest performances of his "Al Sleet, the Hippy Dippy Weatherman" skit, on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Sitting there with his short, neat hair, in his suit coat and narrow tie, you would never know that this was the stringy-haired, shaggy-bearded, tee-shirted hippie of later years. And his weather "forecast" had me, the audience and Johnny Carson screaming with laughter.

The final line of that "skit," delivered nonchalantly, had to do with the fact that the radar, which had picked up some thunder-storms, "has also picked up a squadron of Russian ICBMs, so I wouldn't sweat the thunderstorms." When I stopped laughing, it occurred to me that human beings are remarkable not so much because we laugh – it seems to be pretty well-established that at least chimpanzees do, too — as for what we will laugh at. The things we can see the humor in. The line above is clearly an example of "black" humor, and made Johnny Carson fall out of his chair laughing.

I also started thinking about how remarkable it is that we still have court jesters. For isn't that what professional comedians are? People who are paid to make us laugh. (I wonder if medieval court jesters were paid, or just received room and board.) Having something to laugh at is so important to human beings that we are willing to pay people to provide us with that "commodity." I suppose it isn't all that remarkable that there are people who are willing to become comedians, even before it starts paying, since most of us like to make people laugh. We don't like for people to laugh at us, but we like to say things that others find amusing (and why is that?) I guess comedians are just people who really, really like that feeling, crave it, want it repeated. And with our need for laughter, the rest of us have to be very grateful that they do.

Monday, March 16, 2009


During my trip to Texas, I spent one evening with an old friend from high school. I have kept in touch over the years with four friends from my high school days: three girlfriends from my sophomore and junior years at Robert E. Lee in San Antonio (do they have Ulysses S. Grant high schools in the North?), and Bobby, from Arlington Heights in Ft. Worth, where I attended my senior year. Bobby – who is tall, rangy, and looks like the mature Sean Connery — is a great reader and has kept me informed about books over the years, reading things and commenting succinctly about them way before I got around to them. He has always delighted in words, and often when I have visited him, on my occasional trips to Texas, we have spent an evening or afternoon playing Scrabble. Which is what we did this time, but with a difference.

My friend had a variation on Scrabble, called Upwords, which I'd never heard of, but was certainly willing to try, especially when accompanied by my favorite drink, bourbon and coke, and some cookies. In Upwords you not only build words across and down, you build them up. In other words, you can form new words by putting the little letter tiles on top of letters that are already on the board.

I was not very good at this. Frankly, although I enjoy the game – and despite being a writer, someone who is constantly working with words – I'm not really very good at even basic Scrabble, rarely able to come up with long words, large-scoring words. I just don't seem to be able to look at what is already on the board, and see other possibilities. I don't know what kind of skill that ability represents.

I think about chess. That game calls for strategic skill, the ability to think ahead, considering various possible moves and the likely repercussions. I am no good at this kind of game, either. Is the same, or a related, skill involved in being able to see other possible words on a board? Or is it more of a visual thing? Is it about the brain's ability to make connections, fill in gaps? I am definitely going to have to investigate this...

Well, we had fun, as we always do. We were joined by Robert's mother, a delightful woman in her eighties who still plays tennis. We all had just the right amount of alcohol, and cookies. Spending time with good friends is a great pleasure for most of us, and one I am able to indulge in far too rarely. This was one of the good things that happened on what was otherwise a pretty dreadful trip.