Wednesday, June 24, 2009


We are talking here about something I – and a heckuva lot of other people – really hate to do. We hear again and again that regular exercise is one of the most important keys to good health and long life. It can reduce depression, we are told. And it can make us look better – toned muscles, reduced weight, etc., etc.

Yes, but. Exercising is boring, makes one uncomfortable (all that huffing and puffing, those aching muscles, joints, bones, all that sweating); and it demands energy. Being (apparently) naturally lazy, I resist doing anything that demands energy, but especially activities that are boring and make me uncomfortable.

There are some physical activities that (naturally, being physical activities) demand energy, but which I do not find boring, e.g., dancing, riding a bicycle, horseback riding. But one really can't do these things on as frequent and regular a basis as, we are told, one should exercise. I know there are people who would dispute this, like my friend Joey, who regularly rode his bicycle to and from work through the streets of Toledo; but there's no way Nervous Nellie here could ride a bicycle along the busy corridor between where she lives and where she works. Besides which there's noplace to take a post-commute shower at the library.

My doctor urged me over a year ago to get hold of an exercise bicycle, and use it. A regular bicycle wasn't really a good solution, he said, because here in Maine I wouldn't be able to use it for a good part of the year. Good point. But exercise bicycles simply did not fit into the stringent budgetary limits of this Starving Librarian. So I just continued to erratically follow my basic exercise regimen, which has been the case for many years. Diligent for a week, maybe two, then miss a day, two, three, and right off the exercise wagon you fall. And have to start all over again in a week or so, trying to build your stamina back up. Hating every second of it.

Then, just the other day, the Legionnaire's post across the street from the library was holding a yard sale, and I saw that they had this very basic exercise bicycle for all of one dollar. I figured I could hardly go wrong: even if the thing didn't work at all, I would be out only a dollar. So two of the gentlemen wrestled it into my back seat; I wrestled it out when I got home and lugged it down the slope to my back yard and around to that basement door I just recently had a dead bolt put on, past the possibly poison sumac plants. And I've actually used it several times now. It's something I can do when I just can't make myself do those loathed exercises.

I envy those amazing individuals who like to exercise. How fortunate to actually enjoy something that is good for you.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

More domestic dilemmas

Last week I had someone in to put dead bolts on the back door, and the door that leads from the basement to the outside. Ever since my scare of a couple of months back, when I thought someone had gotten into my basement, I've wanted to do this. I realized that although, in that particular instance, there had been no home invasion, there could be, without great difficulty, because the locks on both doors were the kind burglars are always using credit cards to unlock in the movies.

I now feel much more secure. But that isn't my domestic dilemma. While he was here, the locksmith told me he thought the rather floppy tree that stands beside the steps that lead down from my little deck is poison sumac. I found this hard to believe because I thought poison sumac grew in bushes, and it also seemed rather incredible that my landlord would have poison sumac plants growing around the house (besides that tree, there are a number of trees-in-the-making below the deck, crowding around that door to the basement).

Checking online, I find that poison sumac does grow into trees, as well as shrubs. And the leaves certainly do look like the fluttering leaves on the plants in question. But I also find that there are non-poisonous versions of sumac, and now I'm hoping that that is what I have. But how to be sure? Last year I cut away some of the branches that were making it difficult to get up and down the back stairs, but I wore my leather gloves to do that work, as I always do. So my hands did not come into contact with the leaves. Presumably, if they had, and there was no adverse reaction to the contact, I could rest assured that this plant – which does a nice job in the summer of helping to break up what would otherwise be a rather severe facade – was one of the innocuous forms of sumac. But I don't care to experiment with bare hands!

And then there are the slugs! Nasty creatures, that destroy the leaves on the plants in the flower beds to either side of my tiny front stoop. I found a book at the library that told me spreading sawdust or bran (surely a rather expensive alternative) would discourage the varmints. But, the book warns, these prophylactic measures must be reapplied after it rains. For the past two weeks it has done very little but rain – indeed, we Mainers are beginning to fear we are in for another soggy summer like the one we had last year – so these are obviously not very satisfactory solutions for my problem. The book also suggests just picking them off as you see them, and dropping them into a pail of salty water to end their miserable little lives. Ugg. Not even with leather gloves on.

All this gardening stuff is not in my bailiwick. Having to keep up the yard is the one real drawback to living in a house, as far as I am concerned. And Starving Librarians are hard-pressed to afford people to come and do it for them. Yes, this is another time it would be nice to Have a Man Around the House...

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The keystone state

The mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania are gorgeous. I've driven through them, along route 81, in the autumn, when the fall foliage is truly awe-inspiring, with vistas that make you thank god you can see. In mid-spring the vistas are lushly green, the green-to-blue laps of hills broken up by big valleys dotted with farms and spread with cities (Scranton, Wilkes Barre), and they, the mountains, seem endless. Indeed, they are called the Endless Mountains.

And they are big. Lots of steep inclines, with lanes to the right for the laboring trucks. On my trip from Maine, I had counted myself very lucky not to have encountered any road construction at all, with concomitant delays, until shortly before Binghamton (New York, where I stayed with my friends overnight). But on the haul through the mountains, over the line in Pennsylvania, there were several such construction sites. Generally there were no real delays, at least not once I learned the importance of being in the far-left lane as we approached a threatened "split lanes." The construction mess would be in the middle, so you would either have to go up in the fast lane, the left lane, or be stuck in the truck lane, quite possibly behind a line of trucks.

I found the rock you could see as you drove along this highway that had been blasted through the mountains interesting. Very different from the gray granite that is everywhere visible in Maine and New Hampshire (the latter is called the Granite State, but both could be). In Pennsylvania I was looking at a dark, muddy brown rock that was sometimes even reddish. Looming above you, it can look very brooding. Consulting an EPA web site on the "physiography" of Pennsylvania I find that what I was probably looking at were black and red shale, predominate rocks of the state. I've sometimes said that in my next life I plan to be an archeologist (strapping and healthy enough to pursue such a rugged career). But what I might do with the other half of that other life is be a geologist, because I am fascinated by the workings of the earth, and the by-products of those workings, such as mountains. One of the most fascinating places I've ever visited in my life is the Grand Canyon, with its layers of rock millions of years old.

Another thing that interests me is how, despite all the mountains, Pennsylvania is full of farms. The web site I referred to a few Notes back (June 9), that shows the location of farms in an area, shows quite a few, even up around Scranton, famous (or infamous) for all its now-defunct coal mines. In that same Note I mentioned that Bucknell University, in the town of Lewisburg, is in the heart of farm country. The driving directions I had had me leaving major Highway 80 a bit sooner than necessary; but that meant that I took the scenic route the last 20 miles or so, driving right past all these attractive, healthy-looking farms.

But speaking of coal mines, you can actually visit one at Scranton, the Lackawanna Coal Mine Tour. If I had the opportunity to do this I probably would, simply because I rarely turn down a chance to do something I've never done before (one exception I can think of was water ski – I knew all I would do was keep falling in the water, and that didn't seem like my idea of fun), but I think such a tour would be grim. Descending into the depths of the earth is, to my mind, a grim business anyway – it's dark! all sorts of dangers lurk! (would this argue against a career as a geologist?) – but a coal mine represents one of the harshest industries in the world, that has taken such a toll on the men who have labored in it, as well as their families, as well as the earth itself. An evil necessity, not a positive good.

Now Scranton has spruced up its downtown, is home to the New York Yankees' training team, the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Yankees, and is trying to build up its tourist trade with things like coal mine tours. It's always amused me the way places endeavor to turn whatever they were known for, good or bad, into a draw for tourists. I think of Salem, Massachusetts, deciding to exploit its unsavory history as the home of the Salem witchcraft hysteria and trials. Or what about Alcatraz Prison, inviting folks in to see this place that was the scene of so much misery. Yes, well.

Someone told me Pennsylvania has the highest percentage of white supremacists of any state in the country. Could that be true? I thought it was Idaho. I've always thought of Pennsylvania, when I've thought of it at all, as a predominately working-class state -- coal miners in the mountains, steel-workers in the cities -- but I've never associated it particularly with skinheads, or farmers. What we don't know...

Pennsylvania might not be someplace where I would want to live, but it is certainly beautiful to drive through. And probably worth knowing more about.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The nose has it

About a week ago I began to notice an unpleasant smell in my house. Since the smell seemed to be concentrated in the kitchen, I initially thought it might be something that hadn't been quite thoroughly chewed up and disposed of in my garbage disposal. However, an investigation with my bare fingers – accompanied by a 'yuchhh' expression on my face – disproved that theory. I moved the micro-wave out of its spot in the corner of the kitchen counter, to make sure no old food had crawled back there to die.

It finally occurred to me that the smell might be emanating from a Rotting Rodent in my attic. Following the discovery that a hole in my outside wall was serving as the front entrance for animals unknown (some said squirrels, some said raccoons – see Note of April 25, 2009) my landlord sent out first, his handyman, to board up the hole, and when I was still hearing sounds above my head, an exterminator, to deal the final blow. And, happily, the sound of animals lurching around over my head in wingtips ceased.

But what if some (poor little) wild thing had either got trapped inside, when the hole was boarded over, or partaken of some tasty poisonous snacks, and ultimately succumbed to either hunger, or sated hunger?

Now, if I'd been thinking carefully I would have realized that a month to six weeks was a bit long for a decomposing body to wait before it started smelling. But this really was the only thing I could think of. So I broke out the rarely-used incense – which only helped while it was burning – and told myself the smell would pass, and it was certainly better than unwanted visitors.

Well, the other day I had the brilliant idea of placing the container of coffee – which was filling the cabinet with its own strong aroma, even though I'd placed the container inside a plastic bag – placing that container out on the counter, where the offensive smell seemed to be strongest. I would use Peter to kill Paul. In the process of doing this I had to move a few things out of the way: my various bottles of pills, my water glass, the bulb of garlic.

The Bulb of Garlic. Which had been sitting there for who knows how long. From which I had detached a couple of cloves for cooking purposes, and not used since. As I gingerly picked it up it felt somewhat squishy beneath my fingers, and the slightest whiff told me I'd found my Rotting Rodent. Into the plastic bag in my freezer where go food scraps that do not go down the garbage disposal (bones and the like) it went. Presto magico, no more unpleasant smell.

I had to laugh at myself. The girl who can't tell rotting garlic from rotting squirrel.


The keynote speaker at the graduation I attended at Bucknell University in May was none other than the writer, activist, Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel. I was very impressed that this was who they got to speak. The emphasis in all the speeches that had come before was service and leadership, as in, 'this is what your education at Bucknell has been preparing you for, service and leadership.' Wiesel's talk touched lightly on these ideas also, but his big theme was one he has expounded on in many of his previous speeches: as you go through life it is important above all to avoid indifference. As he said, "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death."

Heavily accented (which somewhat surprised me – after all these years?), his was not a fiery, or even a particularly dynamic speech, but it was moving and powerful, not least, I'm sure, because of the experiences of the man, that we in the audience were all aware of. They gave heft to what he had to say. An inner voice was whisper-ing, "This guy knows what he's talking about." He described how he and his fellow prisoners in the concentration camp took a tiny solace from the idea that of course the rest of the world must not know where they were and what was being done to them, or surely the world would have long since rushed to their rescue. It would have been unbearable to think that the world did know, and was doing nothing. That level of indifference from their fellow men would have made their suffering far worse.

Just tonight there was on PBS a show on the folk singer Pete Seeger. What the program demonstrated was that Seeger determinedly lived his life according to Wiesel's principal: he was never indifferent. He cared – about racial discrimination, about the plight of exploited workers, later about ending the Viet Nam war and bringing home the soldiers – and he used his music to try to bring about change in those areas. He also believed strongly that Americans had a right to their own political and religious beliefs, and to privacy in those beliefs. He therefore refused to answer questions about those things before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities in 1955, and that stand ultimately got him a prison sentence (overturned on a technicality), as well as being blacklisted, which prevented him from appearing on commercial television until those subversives, the Smothers Brothers, had him on their show in 1967 (good ol' PBS had allowed him to have a shortlived program of folk music in the mid-60s). He and the group he had helped found, The Weavers, were also black-listed from the radio for several years. But he sang on, he never gave up, he never stopped caring.

I have great admiration for people like this. Elie Wiesel endured horrific suffering in his youth and has spent the rest of his life trying to see to it that others should not suffer in the same way. Seeger spent his life trying to use that which he loved most – making music – to help others, relieve the suffering of others, support justice and fair play.

I have noticed in myself over the past few years an increase in that sense of indifference that Weisel warns against. I see it as a kind of withdrawal from life. At times it dismays me; at other times, I fear I am...indifferent. It may be that my inability to manage my life in a (to me) satisfactory way has made me feel, oh what's the point. I have never been what you would call an optimist, and it may be that my natural pessimism has gotten the better of me. How do we make ourselves care, when we don't really care?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The case of the disappearing neighbors

You remember the neighbors who kept their three dogs locked up in one room of the house for 8-10 hours every day while they were both out driving trucks? (See Note of July 3, 2008.) The neighbors whose noisy diesel pickups would come and go at unfortunate hours (12:30 at night, 5:30 in the morning)? One of whose trucks used to be left idling for at least 15 minutes – once for as long as half an hour! – in the driveway right outside my bedroom window, at those unfortunate hours?

Well, they've disappeared. When I returned from my trip to Pennsylvania both trucks were gone, as were the three dogs. And they were gone for several days. What really got my attention – after all, Matt and Patty (not their real names) could have just been at "the in-laws" (an older couple who have put in an occasional appearance, either singly or together, and who have sometimes supplied Patty with a ride when, apparently, her truck wasn't working) – what really got me wondering was: they'd torn down their fence! There used to be a fence of pointed, flat, unpainted stakes separating their back yard from mine. It was in that fenced-in back yard that the dogs would tear around, barking their heads off, whenever they were let out for a few minutes. But now the fencing stood in the middle of the yard, piled up in the shape of a small A-frame house.

The dog situation had actually gotten a little better in the couple of months before The Disappearance, at least partly because Matt, or someone, had fenced in that part of the yard that opened onto the narrow side yard, which led to the driveway and thence to the street. The only entrance used by Matt and Patty was the door leading into the kitchen, which opens off this side yard. That was where they would let the dogs out, having to be careful to corral them off to the left, to the back yard, when where the dogs really wanted to be going was to the right – the driveway, the street, freedom! Then whoever let the dogs out would have to stand guard, to make sure the dogs did not leave the yard.

But then the new fencing went in, so it was no longer necessary for a human to be standing guard; and I suspected a doggy door had also been cut into the back wall of the extension off the kitchen, that juts out toward the back yard, because the dogs were now out in the yard much more often. It was also possible that they were just being let out more often through a regular door at the back of that extension. This was a possibility because Patty's truck very often remained in the driveway all day, so perhaps she was home. And that seemed more of a possibility because she seemed to have had a baby!

The woman never looked pregnant to me. But one day as I was about to depart for work the female half of "the in-laws" came to pick her up, and when Patty came out of the house she was carrying one of those baby baskets people use these days. Before climbing into the front seat, she swung the basket into the back seat with what seemed like great casualness to me, were it indeed a baby. So I wasn't prepared to swear it was a baby. Or maybe it was someone else's baby, that she was taking care of for a while...

But not too long afterwards, when I was again out at my car, returning from someplace or about to leave for someplace, the young couple returned home in one of the trucks (the other truck being nowhere in sight. As I've mentioned before, sometimes one or the other of the trucks would disappear for a while.) Patty was driving, got out and went directly into the house; Matt got out, opened the back door, and swung out the baby basket, saying, as he did so, "Let me get my new baby."

So first there was the Mystery of the New Baby. And now there's the Mystery of the Disappearing Neighbors because, except for one very brief reappearance a few days after my return from Pennsylvania (Matt and someone else – not Patty – who seemed to sweep into the house and out again in no time; all of this heard only, as I was busy inside my house at the time), they have been gone for one solid month. This is too long for a vacation trip, especially if they have a new baby, and especially as they are obviously a struggling young couple. I would have said they'd moved, especially given the evidence of the torn-down fence, but they left the kitchen light burning (still burning after a month!), and I can see through the large kitchen window that all the furniture is still there, the clock on the wall, a big iron skillet hanging on a hook. 'Tis a puzzlement.

It's been lovely not having to listen to barking dogs, or roaring trucks. But I have to admit to a faint feeling it loneliness? Having neighbors on either side offers a kind of comfort: there's somebody there. For some time now there's been nothing but an empty house and a back yard rapidly returning to its wild state.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The farmer in the dell

[Just this minute realized I have been producing this blog for exactly a year. Haven't set the world on fire with it, but it has more or less served its purpose from my viewpoint – i.e., it's kept me writing – and people do seem to drop in from time to time. So perhaps I'll try for a second year.]

Passed a lot of farms on my trip, first in Maine, then in New York, finally in Pennsylvania. I had thought that Bucknell University, my destination, was deep in the Pennsylvania mountains, but what it's deep in the heart of is pretty, hilly, farm country. It would seem that farming is still alive and well, or anyway alive, in the United States, even though, as I asked my little tape recorder, "Why would anyone want to be a farmer these days?" Besides the time-honored draw-backs of being at the mercy of the weather and the market, it's hard to take a vacation, can't call in sick, if you have animals you have to get up at an ungodly hour to take care of them, every single day, and it's all gotten so much more complicated than it was in the good ol' days.

You work hard, and you don't get rich, in a nutshell.

But luckily for all of us who like to eat, some people still do want to do it, want to live the life, and are willing to endure the difficulties. I have to admire them, and it has only recently occurred to me that it might be a good thing to support them, as well. Buying locally-grown produce, if that's indicated as such, at the supermarket is obviously one way to do that. But it's now possible to interact even more directly. There's actually a site online,, that tells you, and shows you on a map, where all the farms are. Or at any rate, all those that have registered with the site.

And what a great idea! You feel like some free-range chicken eggs, or some raw milk, or honey, or maple syrup, or apples you pick yourself, or something called "sustainably grown heritage vegetables," or even grass-fed beef, you can find the closest farm, and get in touch, perhaps drive on over. Or for that matter, order stuff from a farm in the next state, two states away. You can, in other words, support local farms, or small family farms in general. The little guy struggling to maintain both a way of life – the absence of which would leave this a poorer country, in more ways than one – and to supply his fellow human beings with that which is truly the staff of life: food. And not just food – the great big, heavily-mechanized, corporate-run farms supply that – but food produced in ways that are more environmentally sound than those used by the big guys.

Convenience has generally been my god in such matters, and there's no denying the local supermarket is convenience writ large. And cost is always a consideration for Starving Librarians, and other low-income types. But I may, I just may, make more of an effort to step outside my convenience zone, and Support My Local Farm.

Somebody's gotta do it.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The other New York

For most of the 114 miles separating Albany and Binghamton, New York there stretches a beautiful, bucolic valley, liberally sprinkled with small dairy farms. Near the Binghamton end is the small college town, Oneonta, where I was an undergraduate. I so loved the area that I tried to stay on after I graduated, but teaching jobs were hard to find (before I was a librarian I was a teacher), so I ended up moving to Boston, where I spent the next nineteen years of my life.

But I always derive great satisfaction from making the drive along Route 88, that runs the length of that valley, for much of the way along a shelf cut out of the side of the hills, which then continue down into that shallow, peaceful valley. When you look out from that shelf you see hills across the way that recede in a way that makes me think of old-fashioned stage scenery – a flat painted to look like a hill, and a little way beyond that, another flat, then another, to give a sense of distance. This vista is very different from the terrain of the Berkshires, even though both places are full of hills and trees. In the Berkshires the furry round hills crowd around you, there are few actual vistas. And this is clearly domesticated land while the Berkshires give the appearance, anyway, of being in their pristine state. The Berkshires also depend utterly on the tourist trade, while this valley sees tourists mainly just passing through, though some do make a destination of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

I would live in this valley in a heartbeat, just as I would in the Berkshires, even though both would make my heeding the occasional call of the sea more difficult. But both contain at least two of my residential requirements : natural beauty that's heavy on the color green, and a climate that knows more cool weather than hot. The Berkshires are full of artists, while the valley between Albany and Binghamton is full of no-nonsense farmers. I love art, but dislike nonsense, so either place would suit me. Admittedly, the politics of the Berkshires would probably be closer to mine than those of struggling upstate New York.

The reason I was driving this route was that I was stopping off for the night at the home, in Binghamton, of one of my college roommates. Kathy was the roommate who got me through physics (I would come home from class, utterly bewildered, and she would explain everything in terms of apples and oranges), and who taught me to drive. She was the perfect driving instructor, completely unflappable. I remember once we were coming down and around a steep curve, during a practice drive, and I suddenly realized I was going way too fast. Instead of screaming and grabbing the wheel Kathy calmly said, "It might be good to slow down a little."

Kathy, husband Bona and son Bryan inhabit what I call the K&B Bed and Breakfast, since I almost always stay overnight at their house when I am headed anyplace west. They are located a convenient 8-hour drive from my home in Maine, and always welcome me with open arms, into a relaxed, like-minded atmosphere where we inevitably have stimulating political and moral discussions, with all of us managing to be our most entertaining at the same time. How can you beat that?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Hills and trees

I saw a lot of beautiful scenery on my trip to Pennsylvania to see my goddaughter graduate. Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, all beautiful states. (Also drove through the quarter of an inch of New Hampshire that, inexplicably – given that Maine was once part of Massachusetts – separates those two states; but you don't really see anything there but the big State Liquor Store (no taxes), and the New Hampshire toll booths.)

I was driving at a perfect time, when everything was lushly green, but the heat and humidity of summer had not yet descended. I was also driving in the right direction as I left Maine on a Friday morning in mid-May – the LONG line of cars inching its way north to those toll booths at the New Hampshire/Massachusetts line reminded me that The Season is upon us again, when that part of the country that resides almost anyplace east of the Mississippi says, "Let's go to Maine!"

I remembered to take my hand-held tape recorder with me, and waxed especially poetic when I hit the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. I call them round, cozy hills, because they lack the size of, for example, the broad-shouldered mountains of Pennsylvania, never mind the drama of the western Rockies. But I did finally reach one long, long incline that just kept going up and up. I got a little thrill out of maintaining my little Toyota's 75 mph speed, passing all the 18-wheelers that seemed to be barely moving in the far right lane. That ascent was the Berkshires' way of telling me, we may look like cozy hills, but there's a reason we're called the Berkshire Mountains.

And they are exquisitely beautiful, completely covered in trees, often with no sign of human habitation to be seen. At one point I said it looked like I was descending into a wall of trees, as that was all I could see as I came over a rise. Sights like this give you an inkling of what this part of the country looked like before the white man came, its pristine beauty. One thing I noticed about all the trees: most were deciduous. Fewer evergreens than you see here in Maine, where all the pine trees, all the hemlocks, insure that we stay green even in the winter.

During the time I lived in Boston I made several trips out to Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer home in the Berkshires. Many fond memories of those weekends, staying at genteel bed and breakfasts full of quilts, antiques, small dogs or large cats, hot tea and blueberry muffins; visiting some of the many art galleries and antique stores in the little towns -- Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge –- and finally, in the evening, sitting in The Shed, listening to beautiful music. Perhaps the most memorable fifteen minutes of any visit was the drive I made – in a thunderstorm – from a dance concert at determinedly rustic Jacob's Pillow, located at the top of a little mountain, to our bed and breakfast, located at the bottom. It had just begun to rain lightly as we left Jacob's Pillow, but within three minutes it was pouring, the lightning was literally blinding me, as it lit up the sky and the deep forest all around us, and the cracks of thunder kept making me jump. My friend David and I felt as though we were in a crashing Wagnerian opera. It was one of the scariest drives I ever made in my life.

Now I kept waiting to see the exit sign for Tanglewood; it was much farther out than I remembered, almost to the New York border.

Next time, we'll cross that border.