Friday, October 30, 2009


My husband died five and a half years ago, and in the last year, I have found myself thinking of him far less often than I did during the first four years after his death, which I believe is "normal." I used to talk to him constantly inside my head, despite a great skepticism that, even if he still existed in some way, on some level, he could instantly hear my thoughts, and instantly respond to them. I still talk to him occasionally, but it's very occasional. And the brief but bereft bouts of crying, once so common, are very rare indeed.

The other morning when I was washing dishes -- along with cooking, something I seem to do on a non-stop basis -- the song 100 Years by Five For Fighting, which sounds like a group but is actually a single performer, came on the radio. This is a neat-sounding song that, if you listen carefully to the lyrics, reveals itself to be awkwardly written, not making much sense if you follow it beginning to end. Nonetheless, the following lines caused me to stop scrubbing an egg-smeared plate, and spend a good minute and a half crying:

"I'm 22 for a moment
She feels better than ever
And we're on fire
Making our way back from Mars.
15, there's still time for you
Time to buy and time to lose
15, there's never a wish
better than this
When you only got 100 years to live."*

The reason I stood there and cried for a couple of minutes, to the accompaniment of this not-very-good rock song, was that it made me think of Micheal and me when we were young. Not 15, but 17 and 18, which is how old we were when we met. We were young, beautiful (I thought I was horribly plain, but a look back at old pictures has shown me that I really wasn't...and Micheal was indisputably one good-looking, sexy dude), madly in love, with no thought of ever getting old, dying, any of the awful, real things that happen in life.

He lived in Terrell, Texas; I lived an hour away in Ft. Worth. Sometimes in the middle of the week he would drive over when he got off from work at the all-night service station (Micheal was a high school dropout when we first met, which meant being a gas station attendant was about all he could hope for). I would still be sound asleep and would suddenly hear my little brother Bobby -- now a talented, weighed-down-with-responsibility cartoonist, husband and father -- sing out "Mike, Pauline's boy's here!" (Pauline was Micheal's mother, and my stepmother's second cousin. Oh, those southerners.) So I'd have to hastily get dressed, eat some breakfast, with an infatuated Micheal looking on, and then we'd go riding around, run errands for my stepmother, and always, at some point, wind up at a nearby drive-in. Either we'd order from one of the carhops who actually came out to your car and took your order or, if it were just too damn hot (in Texas, a not-infrequent occurrence), we'd go inside and sit in a booth, which had the additional benefit of enabling us to play songs from the juke box menu that every table had in a little glassed-in box. We'd feed the box nickels (nickels!), savor our root beer floats, and talk about I haven't a clue what, but we never stopped talking.

How fleeting that time was, and yet, because we were young, it seemed to last forever.

Life is all about loss. It is about acquiring, and losing. If you live long enough, you lose just about everything you worked so hard to acquire: job, fame, wealth, health, spouse, children, home, friends. You find yourself living alone -- a not-really-healthy way to live -- standing at a kitchen sink, weeping to a rock song, as you remember the hot, sunny days, the cold, delicious root beer floats, the happy hormones dancing through your body, the hope, the faith, the obliviousness to Time. Who is the enemy, and the boss.

*100 Years, by Five for Fighting, c. Five for Fighting Music, Inc., c. Emi Blackwood Music, Inc.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


People love to sing. Isn't that interesting? I was just watching the very charismatic country singer Kenny Chesney on Austin City Limits (which Micheal and I used to love to watch when we lived in Boston -- a touch of country in the middle of the big, sophisticated city -- but now the show has lousy rock groups on more often than good country musicians), and every now and then the camera would scan all the people in the audience singing along as Kenny sang. They all knew the words. They were happy, having a great time. And people are almost always happy when they sing. What do you suppose there is about not saying words, but singing them, that makes us feel happy?

Think about all the people who sing in choruses. They don't get famous, they don't make a lot of money, they may have to go to rehearsals after working all day at their mundane jobs. But they are doing something they love, that makes them feel happy. I reckon there aren't all that many things in life that do that; when you find one, you're smart to go for it.

Or think about the people on chain gangs, slaves in the fields, singing to ease the tedious, grueling monotony of what they were doing. Singing did that, but how, or why, that's what I wonder.

We also cherish people who sing at us; we love professional singers. That's interesting, too, if you think about it. People who act, paint, sculpt, dance, write, are comedians -- we may be full of admiration for them at least partly because we can't do what they're doing. But almost everybody can sing. Yet, we're full of admiration for profes-sional singers, too. Is it simply that they put joy into our lives, and you gotta love somebody who brings you joy?

Andy Williams was on the Tavis Smiley talk show last night. In his eighties now, but still handsome, a low-keyed charming, as he was in the '60s, when my family used to watch his T.V. show religiously. They showed clips of him singing on his show with Tony Bennett, and the two seemed to be having such a good time. But the thought occurred to me: why would men like this, why would any man, decide to become a singer, that is, try to make his living at it? Not aim for being a doctor, lawyer, banker, accountant, engineer, airplane pilot, truck driver, soldier, teacher, newspaper man, not even an artist, but a singer? Actually, in the case of Andy Williams he told us: he had, not a stage mom, but a stage dad, who was hoping the singing talents of Andy and his three brothers would take them all out of Iowa (apparently Mr. Williams was not crazy about Iowa). And it did; they did. By the time Howard Andrew could perhaps have decided on some other kind of career, I suppose he was pretty well entrenched in the one his father had foisted on him. But one wonders about others. Why did Tony Bennett become a singer? Why did Bing Crosby? Why did Johnny Mathis? Etc., etc...

Still, whatever their reasons, I suppose we can only applaud them -- as we do -- even as we sing ourselves, in the shower.

I'll leave you with a nifty lyric from one of Chesney's songs:

A bottle of wine/two dixie cups/3 a.m./I feel in love/
for the first time in my life.
That's somethin'/that just don't happen twice.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Wyeths have it

At the Farnsworth, I quickly lost interest in our guided tour, and set out exploring on my own. The modern works on display in the ground floor galleries were for the most part Robert Indiana's smooth, brightly colored word sculptures -- LOVE, HOPE, EAT -- which are blandly pretty. Much of the art in the exhibit American Art Between the Wars --paintings done by artists working in Maine from the late 1890s to the early 1940s (which is not my idea of "between the wars") was not very good, looking clumsy, amateurish. These were disappointments, but the Tribute to Andrew Wyeth exhibit, while small, was excellent; several wonderful paintings by this adopted son of Maine (he was actually from Pennsylvania, but spent most of his childhood summers on the mid-coast of Maine) that I'd never seen before. One, called The Belfry, was almost surrealistic -- a small church belfry, with little birds flying all around it...sitting on a table in an old attic. Another, called Room after Room, has an interesting perspective: the viewer is looking through an open doorway at a woman in a chair, with another open doorway beyond her, leading into another room. But that wasn't what I found most fascinating about the picture. Rather, it was Wyeth's perfect depiction of the old wood of the walls (the setting is, as often in Wyeth's paintings, an old farm house). The different shades of brown, of grey, of blue, produced a texture: rough, old wood.

One of my favorite courses in college was my Survey of Art course. It did exactly what a liberal arts course should do: broadened my horizons, introduced me to new possibilities, new ways of looking at the world. One of the most memorable lessons I got from that course was that paintings are not really "that which is represented," they're paint. The instructor, with whom I had endless arguments about what is art? (I called myself the class philistine, but really I was just the one with petit bourgeois tastes who spoke up), would have us go stand close to a painting, so close that the picture was essentially lost; all we could see was the paint. And that's what he wanted us to see; he wanted us to understand that these marvelous effects we got -- these pictures we saw -- when we stood back and admired them from a distance, were first and foremost paint, put on the canvas by a person who was hoping to convey through that paint what he was seeing, or what he was feeling about what he was seeing, or simply what he was feeling. Getting this glimpse of the nuts and bolts of the artist's work vastly increased my respect for what artists do, though I have always been a big appreciator of their finished products.

To this day I still walk up close to paintings in an art museum and look at the paint. This is how I could see the greys, the blues, the different shades of brown, in Wyeth's Room after Room. A marvel.

The museum also owns a old, converted church a block away, that is now the Wyeth Center, dedicated mainly to revolving works by Andrew's father N.C., and his son James, more commonly referred to as Jamie. Here I was surprised to find that the illustrations by N.C. (and I swear I never knew that N.C. Wyeth's first name was Newell), didn't do much for me. I realized I much preferred the sometimes melancholy, subdued-tones depictions of old farmhouses, old farmhouse windows, of his son. The most interesting thing I heard the guide say on the tour I abandoned was that N.C. was always after his son to put more color into his paintings. But the old man was wrong.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

So what's the big deal?

One of our patrons made a good point the other day. He said, "Why celebrate the discovery of a country that somebody else had already discovered?" He was talking, of course, about Columbus Day, celebrating the man who "discovered" the Americas. Which were already full of people who had been here for a very long time. And as a matter of fact, any number of others had "discovered" different parts of America, though none of those had stayed for very long. Certainly it smacks of a real ethnocentricity, honoring the achieve-ment of someone because he was the first of your kind to do it, rather than the first one, period. And not only that, discovering the Americas was an achievement that never really meant much to Columbus. He never got over his disappointment at not having found a route to the rich Indies; he didn't think of these lands he had discovered as a feather in his cap.

I'll admit to having always thought Columbus Day a sort of weenie holiday. Since I'll take any holiday I can get I've never protested it, but really, Columbus's bumping into the Americas was a sheer accident, not this great feat that he attempted and accomplished despite tremendous odds. Meanwhile, those who came after him brought enslavement, disease and death to those who were already here. Indeed, Columbus started the trend himself, subjugating the natives on the island that eventually became Haiti and the Dominican Republic, killing them or using them as slave labor. So, really, why do we give this guy his own day?

Certainly I wouldn't think Native Americans would be all that enthus-iastic about the day. Honor this guy who started it all -- the decimation of a race, the complete obliteration of many individual populations, endless loss and suffering? They might even treat it as a day of mourning...

Which thought sends me to that ever-ready tool, the Internet, and I learn that as a matter of fact American Indians have objected to a holiday that honors Columbus, over many years. A fact that somehow escaped my notice, all those years. But now I'm aware.

According to, the original Columbus celebration was in 1792, in New York City. It was organized by a group that called itself The Society of St. Tammany after, of all things, an Indian chief, making their honoring of Columbus the supreme irony. This organ-ization eventually became the political "machine" referred to as Tammany Hall. In 1792 they were celebrating the 300th anniversary of that European discovery of...well, they said America, but really, it was just the Caribbean islands; Columbus never set foot on the North American mainland.

In 1869 the Italian community of San Francisco decided to celebrate their heritage by making a big deal out of "Columbus Day." President Benjamin Harrison encouraged citizens in 1892 to actively celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's arrival, but it wasn't until 1934 that October 12th was proclaimed a national holiday by President Roosevelt. And then came that period when all the inconvenient holidays were being changed to Monday holidays, regardless of when the event actually took place, and Columbus Day became, not necessarily Oct. 12, but the second Monday of the month. So now, it seems to me, it means even less.

And I'm thinking, maybe next year the library should not close for the day. Certainly this would make the patrons happy, our being open when everything else was closed. My part-time staff, who are paid only for hours worked, would be happy to have the hours. I would be the only one out a paid vacation day. Three-day weekends are among the true blessing of my (and most people's) life, so we shall have to see...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Light in the rain

I was somewhat disappointed that the lunch that was included with our train excursion to Rockland was not a seafood meal at a nice restaurant, but rather our choice of plastic-wrapped sandwiches, chips, cookies and beverage at the Atlantic Bakery Co, which is a small, attractive, yes, bakery, that serves sandwiches. However, my turkey with cheese and sun-dried tomatoes on sesame-seeded bread was excellent, as were the kettle-cooked sea-salted potato chips and (especially) the pistachio/apricot/oat cookie. Service is order-at-the-counter, seating is a matter of grab one when you can, but fortunately turn-over was steady, so that by the time we had gotten through the line to present our vouchers, and gone to the various spots in the room to collect our choices (refrigerated case for the sandwiches, nearby table to pluck a packet of chips from a basket, another table to siphon off coffee or tea (i.e., hot water for same) from industrial-sized thermoses, pastry case for cookies) needed seats had usually appeared. I found myself sitting at a small table with a young woman from Maine, married to a very tall, lean young man from the British midlands. They'd met in Wales, where they were both attending university. The three of us were always at the far edge of the group photos Barbara, the organizer, kept insisting on; we would all have preferred not to be in them at all. (Alisha explained her and Mathew's reason: they weren't really Simmons alumni, but simply friends of Barbara's. My reason is I hate having my picture taken.)

We were to be treated to a guided tour of the Farnsworth, just across Main Street from the ABC, at 2 p.m. That was half an hour away, so I opened my umbrella once more and walked a short dis-tance down Main to a lovely, spacious, well-lighted art gallery, the Dowling Walsh, one of twenty-three galleries in this small town. What initially pulled me in was a wonderful ship's model in the window, that I immediately wished I could buy for my sea-loving friend Ernest. (I rarely visit an art gallery that I don't see something I wish I could purchase for a friend, or for myself. If I were wealthy, I would spend a lot of money on works of art.) Once inside I found myself impressed by the paintings of Colin Page, that exhibit a beautiful use of sunlight. I am very enamoured of light in paintings, which is why paintings that do not suggest light, but merely color (I think of Gauguin and Matisse, for example) do nothing for me.

One of Page's paintings, called Blueberry Harvester, was basically of an old farm truck, with a long flatbed attached, pulled up in a farm yard. A very mundane subject, but the scene was permeated with the light of a beautiful sunny day. Proof that a good artist can make a beautiful painting from any subject.

In an adjoining room I was much taken with a picture entitled After Grass, by Richard Vickerson: a long, low dull brown building with a red roof; in front of it, great rolls of golden hay in a field of dull gold, above, a pale, pale blue-to-white sky. Wonderful lines to the house. Almost a Hopper-like simplicity and sense of isolation to the picture. Very Maine-like, I thought, although as a matter of fact Vickerson is Canadian, from nearby Prince Edward Island, where I imagine things look a lot like they do in the northern part of Maine.

Most of the paintings in this room were landscapes by Thomas Paquette. I found some of them to be lovely and interesting, but all rather disturbing, because of the quality of the paint, which some-times looked flat, dull, unable to reflect light. When I reached the table where a copy of the catalog lay, I learned that these were gouaches; consulting an art glossary once I got home, I found that gouach is a type of watercolor paint mixed with a white pigment called body color, which renders the paint opaque. That was the dullness, the flatness I was seeing: opacity. That effect often distracted me from the scene itself; I was too aware of the paint. Nonetheless, there were one or two of his small scenes of the coun-tryside of southern France, where the serenity of the sunsoaked landscape offset the flat smears of color on the mountainside, that I could see myself hanging in my living room, had I the $2,800 to purchase them.

Works by all of these artists can be seen on Dowling Walsh's web site (, an example of what a gift the Internet can be.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Riding the Maine Eastern

Last Saturday I did something I've been wanting to do ever since I discovered that an excursion train runs between Brunswick (half an hour south of where I live) to Rockland, on the coast. I took that train trip. I had hesitated over making the trip up to now because of the cost, or what I thought was the cost, i.e., $60 round trip. The alumnae association of Simmons College, where I went to library school, was offering the trip, plus lunch, plus admission to the highly regarded Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, for what I thought was $15 less than that regular round trip fare alone. As it turns out, the round-trip fare at this time of year is only $40, but I feel the extras included in my trip made it worthwhile.

Naturally the weather was miserable. We have had weeks and weeks of glorious, dry weather, so last Saturday it rained. And was chillier than the forecasts had led me to believe it would be. I found myself underdressed, which is very unusual for me. I tend to take into consideration every possible contingency, as physical discomfort completely distracts me from whatever I might be trying to do. In this instance I needed a top layer, like, say, a raincoat. And I could have used some gloves. Standing in line waiting to get on the train (for a good 20 minutes), and later walking from the train station to the restaurant where we were to have lunch, I had to dredge up what little Maine stoicism I've managed to accrue in four years. But at least I did have an umbrella.

My first surprise was the train "station" in Brunswick. The infor-mation card I had from Simmons directed me to a new depot on Maine Street, but that is not yet in operation. I had to go into the bank behind it and ask where the train station was. After a series of right and left turns I found myself at a big, empty, unpaved lot, weeds all around. There was a small hut on the far side of the lot beside, yes, a railroad track. Very unprepossessing for an operation that caters to tourists!

I was wildly early, which is also very unusual for me. However, I had been determined not to repeat the debacle of my trip to New York this summer, when I missed the train due to a combination of leaving too late, and then taking the wrong exit off the turnpike. So I had to sit in my car for a good half hour, until the sight of others getting out of their cars -- which had been gradually arriving as I sat there -- suggested to me that the train must be arriving. This proved to be a false alarm -- the train was coming, but over there aways, and then it disappeared. At the end of the day, when we returned from Rockland, I learned why: the train has to drive a distance down the track, and then back up onto a different track, that runs to the empty lot. By the time of this enlightenment it had been a very long day -- officially 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., though since I'd been 45 minutes early it was that much longer for me -- and this tedious maneuver, which added a good ten minutes to our "arrival," (and we were running late anyway), made the corners of my mouth turn down. One hopes this will not be necessary when the new depot is up and running.

The Simmons group was supposed to have use of the Parlor Car, but it turned out tickets had been sold to individual passengers for that area (I used the restroom in there at one point, and could see nothing that suggested a parlor, saw nothing but regular seats, but apparently there is a "variety of seating and table configurations" at the far end, which supposedly justify paying $15 more a ticket), so we were pretty much on our own. Eventually the woman who had organized the trip, who went my coatless/gloveless state several levels better by wearing shorts, got permission from the conductor for our group to use the cafe car, which was not open for business because the help hadn't shown up . (We are obviously not talking Amtrak here.) However, by the time she got around to telling those of us in the car I was in, I was comfortably ensconced, in one of those train configurations where two seats face two other seats, and you have to watch out for one another's toes and knees, with two delightful ladies from New Jersey, who were on a separate bus tour (their bus would be picking them up in Rockland). I saw no reason to move. I hadn't come on this trip to hobnob with people I hadn't seen in 25 years (I knew no one in the Simmons group anyway), but for the pleasure of riding a train, and to look at fall foliage, which I was hoping would be more impressive than that in my own neighborhood.

Which it was, if not wildly so. For much of the trip you are riding through woods, often so thick with underbrush that you can't see far into them. Smears of red and orange, the colors that have been so noticeably missing in the Augusta area. Every now and then you come out into open marsh land, with rivulets of water full of lily pads winding through the golden reeds. Occasionally there are green fields beyond the marshes, with comfortable old New England farm houses, and the occasional cow. When we got closer to Rockland there were fields with more cows, much closer to the track, and Betty, one of my New Jersey ladies, said, "They aren't sitting down. They're supposed to sit down when it's raining." Obviously uneducated cows.

The most exciting part of the trip was just beyond the town of Wiscassett, when the train crosses a cove of the Sheepscot River. All of a sudden you do not see a rocky embankment sloping down from the edge of the train to the water, you see nothing but water. And water that is very close, not a good distance away, as when crossing a bridge. "Yikes!" I cried, glancing out, and down. "This has got to be one narrow railroad track; you can't even see it!" "Oh, my," said Betty. "Do you suppose we're safe?" "Can you swim?" I asked.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Life and death in Big Ben

Watching the Ken Burns film on the national parks, and noting that former Park Ranger/current novelist Nevada Smith was an advisor, reminded me that I just finished her most recent Anna Pigeon book. Called Borderline, and set in Big Ben National Park in west Texas, it is arguably one of her best, at least partly because Anna's need to protect a newborn even as she is trying to escape bad guys, and extradite herself and others from life-threatening circumstances, gives her a new level of humanity. Her understanding of, among other things, the responsibilities of motherhood, dramatically increase, as she discovers how the first instinct of motherhood -- protect the young -- can limit ones options, and change ones priorities.

"Civilization. Anna longed for it, and the unnaturalness of the emotion registered even as she crept through reeds in shoulder-deep water trying to keep herself and her charge alive. For most of her life she had felt more at home, safer, saner, stronger and more able in the wilderness than she had in towns and houses.

Babies changed that, too. Since she'd taken over the care and feeding of one of the little buggers, Anna had wanted homes and diapers, stoves and sterilizers, warm, dry clothes and washer/ dryers."*

At another point: "When she was a young woman, she remembered wondering why stay-at-home moms...didn't write epic novels, create great paintings, or memorize all of Shakespeare. ...Having spent part of a day and a night with an infant, Anna knew she owed each and every one she'd internally sneered at an apology. It was mind-boggling how all-absorbing caring for an infant was. Cute little aliens who stole ones brain and rendered [ones] body a slave."**

But Barr's basic stance in favor of strong, independent women -- apparent in all of her books -- comes through loud and clear with this passage:

"Standing unarmed with a baby she was responsible for and a large male person of unknown motivation sitting down the hall from her, Ann realized what a terrible disservice America was doing its women -- all its citizens -- in teaching them never to do for themselves but to wait for the authorities to come and save them from whatever dilemma had arisen."*** This was exactly why Micheal and I bought me a gun -- and why Micheal had me out in the back yard, shooting at a paper plate nailed to a tree -- when we were living in southern Louisiana, and I would be alone for weeks at a time while he was working offshore. Somebody breaks into the house in the middle of the night, you can't count on being able to call the police, and their being able to arrive in time; you need to be able to defend yourself. This country is (alas) too full of crazies and creeps for (especially) a woman living alone in a rural area to depend on "the authorities" to protect her.

Barr also has a marvelous, complex character in Darden White, former Secret Service agent turned head of security and substitute father for the female mayor of Houston, a gubernatorial hopeful. The few pages at the beginning of the book where the reader is intro-duced to Darden are a priceless picture into one man's life and psyche. Take the following paragraph:

"Darden had never married. His job didn't lend itself to family life. Sometimes he wished he was gay. Another man would be a better fit for the home life of an agent: sex and companionship, somebody to grow old with, and no worries about who'd call the plumber or shovel the walks or scare away the burglars when you were away on assignment."#

Or there's the telephone conversation with his elderly mother who suffers from Alzheimer's, with whom he lives, but whom he must place in a nursing home whenever he has to be away from home. It perfectly captures how surreal such "conversations" can be:

"The woman on duty told him his mom was agitated and wanted to speak with him...Calls from his mom entailed a dark tunnel down which long conversations trickled as the caregiver reminded Ellen she wanted to speak with her son, and helped her to figure out how the phone worked, and where to put it against her head...

'Hey, Mama, what's happening?'

"Oh, Darden! How nice of you to call."

'Just wondering how you were doing is all.' Darden no longer corrected his mother when she forgot. He didn't explain how life worked, either. That was a rabbit hole he'd gone down a few times when she'd first started losing it. 'You doing okay, Mama?'

'No,' she said. Murmuring at the far end of the tunnel ensued as confusion erupted and caregivers gave care."##

And with all the fine characterizations (and there are others), we get vivid descriptions of rafting down the Rio Grande, scrambling up rocky cliffs while sharpshooters are trying to pick off you and your party, and unlikely rescues of stranded cows and people. I recommend it.

*Barr, Nevada. Borderline. C.P. Putnam's Sons, 2009, p. 383.
** Ibid. p. 281
*** Ibid. p. 345
# Ibid. p. 19
## Ibid. p. 73