Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mother Nature has her say

Gardiner, Maine, along with neighboring Farmingdale, is currently experiencing its 15 minutes of fame, thanks to the fact that the border between the two towns is where the most impressive, mile-long Kennebec River moving ice patch has gotten stuck. This ice jam, which was caused by unusually warm temperatures and heavy rains combining to loosen ice upriver and start it moving down toward the sea, plowed ruthlessly through Augusta, a couple of miles from Hallowell, where I work, and seven miles from Gardiner, where I live, on Tuesday, January 26th. The ice jam caused sudden, abrupt flooding, with water pouring into the ground floors of stores all along Water Street. It's called Water Street for good reason, running right beside the river with the buildings, and the parking lot behind them, all that separates it from the water. The parking area completely disappeared, and the news was full of shots of the one car that didn't get moved in time (people had about 15 minutes warning), with just the top of its roof showing.

The ice jam proceeded to cause the same inundation in Hallowell, right next door. Lucky Gardens, the Chinese restaurant that I and the rest of Hallowell frequents, wasn't so lucky; they paid the price for being right on the river, with lovely views from the windows that run all around the dining room. Their basement (ground floor) was flooded, burying their furnace and oil tank under water, resulting in no heat. When I went by to pick up my lunch on Wednesday, I discovered that the restaurant was open for take-out only, because of the no-heat situation; and the very strong stench of oil, as the oil company was trying to drain the basement. I stood for a few minutes at the windows, staring in amazement at the great blocks of ice that had been thrown up beneath the windows, where there would normally be the narrow, unpaved road that runs behind the buildings on Hallowell's Water Street. This road serves as a parking area for the people who work and live in the buildings, but there sure wasn't anybody parked there now.

While the owner and I were chatting about the situation, a bedraggled young woman from the Bangor television station came in with her cameraman, and asked Jack if she could interview him. He was hesitant, because his English, as with so many Chinese working in Chinese restaurants in this country, is awkward at best (and why is that? Is it that Chinese is so different from English, it's especially hard to learn, or is it that these workers spend so much time with their fellow Chinese, speaking that more familiar language, that they don't get sufficient practice?) The reporter and I both assured him his English was fine, and when I saw him later on the news, effective editing had saved him unnecessary embarrassment, while making clear the plight of his and so many businesses in both Hallowell and Augusta. He was going to have to get a new furnace, a huge, unexpected expense.

But for the rest of us, this has just been a fascinating experience, watching Mother Nature assert herself, watching this blanket of ice -- not smooth, but covered with huge white shards and blocks -- make its sluggish way down our river. And now it's "parked;" since it's gotten extremely cold over the last few days (0 degrees at night, the teens during the day) it's anybody's guess when it will move again. Both yesterday and today people were parked all along the very busy corridor that connects Gardiner/Farmingdale/Hallowell/Augusta -- the road I drive every day, twice a day -- and were standing on the embankment, gawking at the sight, taking pictures with their digital cameras. Melody went down late this morning with her undigital camera -- disappointed to see she had only four pictures left on her roll of film -- and gawked, and took her four pictures. A little excitement in our humdrum lives.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Remembering PP&M

[I wrote the following back in December, and just discovered I never posted it. So here it is. What I say about children around the world who don't have it so good as many American children has special meaning now, with the recent disaster in Haiti having left so many children, who were already living in poverty, homeless and orphaned.]

A little over a year ago I was revisiting some of the music Peter, Paul and Mary had produced over the years, after having listened to one of their CDs earlier in the day (Note of Sept. 28, 2008). Last night the "begging" show Maine PBS was giving us was the special PP&M did several years ago. There were clips of many of their past perform-ances -- at a Greenwich Village club when they were first starting out, singing Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" at the 1963 March on Washington, John Denver's "Leavin' on a Jet Plane," at their 1986 "Reunion" concert, and many more. In all of them there was that wonderful harmonizing, the marvelous arrangements, Mary Travers' beauty and passion as she sang, and the great songs themselves. These people and their music played a big part in my coming of age years -- along with Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan and the Kingston Trio -- and it was nice to be reminded of how important they were not just to me, but to millions of other people as well.

What really got me were the numbers done at a PBS children's concert, where PP&M had the kids (and their parents) singing along to "Puff the Magic Dragon," "If I had a Hammer," "We Shall Overcome," grinning with delight and nodding their heads at the silliness of "I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly." Watching all those young, eager, innocent faces, as they delightedly sang along, made my heart ache. Millions of children around the world who will never be able to sit in a comfortable studio with their parents arms wrapped around them singing exuberant and gentle songs. All the world's horrors -- war, poverty, not enough food, drought, floods, and other natural disasters, man's general inhumanity to man -- they all impact children the most. And it breaks my heart.

But what was really special about Peter, Paul and Mary (and it is now a matter of 'was,' since Mary Travers died in September of leukemia) was that they didn't just sing their music. Like the activist/folk singer Pete Seeger they lived it. They marched for civil rights and against the Viet Nam war; they visited El Salvador and wrote and performed songs protesting America's support of the military-backed government there. Over all their years together the ideas of peace and justice in the world were of paramount importance to them, and they endeavored to "keep the faith" in their work. You can only admire people like that, if you haven't the talent or faith or perseverance to emulate them.

And the really great thing is, they produced all these wonderful songs, that people love to sing along to.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

On a lighter note

But we mustn't fail to mention my mother's wonderful enchiladas, potato salad, and biscuits!

When I was growing up my mother wasn't a particularly good cook -- vegetables inevitably came out of a can, salad was lettuce/ tomatoes/mayonnaise, Campbell's soup got used a lot -- but there were a few winners, like the items mentioned above, and she was a great baker. We always liked it when she didn't have to work, because we would come home from school to the smells of her delicious cookies, pies and cakes. She made the best fudge I've ever tasted, with a slightly grainy texture. Back in the days when you could still hand out homemade goodies to trick-or-treaters, she would go to the trouble of making her fudge, or pop corn balls or Rice Krispies squares. At Christmas there were the good old-fashioned cookies shaped like Christmas trees and Santa Clauses, bells and reindeer, which she would let us help "paint." And on Easter morning we had the most elaborately colored hardboiled eggs to find, which she would have been up until 2 a.m. decorating (remember her artistic bent).

Every now and then a case of Let's-Move-the-Furniture would descend on Mother. I think she would just get bored, and decide the couch should go over there instead, the girls' room would work better if the beds were arranged thus and so, etc. In the piece that I and my siblings put together for the pastor to read at her memorial service, my brother said that sometimes they would come home to find their bedrooms were no longer even in the same room where they'd been in the morning! This would have been after I went to live with my father and stepmother at 17 -- I can remember coming home to a whole new look to my room, but not to an entirely different room.

Once my sister Ellen sent Mother a painting she'd done of yellow and white flowers which Mother loved and promptly had framed. She then announced in a letter to us all (until the last few years of her life she was very good about writing to her children, either in group or in individual letters, which were often very amusing) that now she had to make a new bedspread and repaper one wall to go with the painting.

Gary was really quite beautiful when she was younger -- I thought she looked like Ava Gardner, my brother thinks she looked like Susan Hayward -- but she was not averse to hamming it up in a photo, crossing her eyes or making some other face. One of my favorite pictures of her was taken in Alaska -- where she lived and worked twice, for a while as a secretary on the North Slope, with one of those unspeakable schedules of ten-hour days for 28 days straight, followed by one week off, which I considered barbarous but which she took in her usual stride -- and there is my normally elegant, perfectly dressed mother in a robe and baseball cap with the bill pushed back, standing at the stove, glancing back over her shoulder with an expression that suggests, "All right, Buster, don't give me any grief."

She could be fun, and funny. There was a strong streak of earthiness in this very proper lady. She liked her scotch, she loved to dance, loved picnics and backyard cookouts, she did a healthy amount of swearing, always stopping short of the 'F' word (when we were kids she washed our mouths out with soap for swearing, which we thought very unfair). She liked television's Judge Judy because she didn't stand for any nonsense. Until the last couple of years of her life she was very alive, full of energy, opinions, projects. The fact that poor health took all of that from her left her depressed, and made us all very sad for her. It was time for the dance to end.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Comments made simple

For those of you who have been frustrated at not being able to make a comment without a Google account, or an account with one of the other service providers listed (by icon) at the bottom of the comments page, I have activated the Anonymous feature, which means you can click on that choice, and make your comment. Just let me know who you are in the text of your comment (if you want me to know :-) ).

Saturday, January 16, 2010

In Tribute

Gary Ellen Tyler Camp Svalberg, July 4, 1928 - Jan. 6, 2010

How do you sum up the woman who was the focal point of your family for all of your almost-63 years?

While my mother could be very gracious, very charming -- and very funny -- basically she was not an easy, comfortable personality. She was quite judgmental, and could be harsh in her judgments. She set extremely high standards for herself, and for others, especially her children; her expectations of perfection proved a true burden for all of us.

But she was someone you absolutely could rely on -- if you needed help you got it, without hesitation, without her considering how it might inconvenience her, how much it might cost her. And this was not just her children: many others can attest to her help in times of trouble. She was the soul of generosity. And she had great courage, great determination. Whatever had to be done was done, and she did not complain.

One of the most dramatic examples of my mother's courage and unflappability in times of crisis (a talent I fear she did not bequeath to her firstborn, since I all too easily fall apart) occurred years ago when someone broke into her apartment one night, while my brother Steven was staying with her, sleeping on the couch. The would-be burglar came in through a window right by Steven's head, waking him. They proceeded to have a stage-whispered conversation in which the guy -- who had a knife -- kept telling Steven to cover his head with his pillow, while Steven kept saying no, I'll do anything else you want, but not that, feeling sure the guy would then stab him. My mother, hearing voices in the living room, came out to investigate, though Steven called out to her to stay in her room. When she realized what was happening she very calmly started talking to the home-invader. She talked to him very politely as if he were a visitor. Said she was sure he didn't want to hurt anyone, and she saw no reason why he shouldn't be able to walk out the door, with no one the worse off. Pointed out to him that they had not turned on the lights, could not identify him. And after about five minutes of her calm, polite -- not pleading, not frightened-sounding -- conversation, the young man left, by way of the front door.

And as an example of her unflagging mind-over-matter determination: when she was visiting me a few years ago, in an effort to keep her from being bored (my mother was one of those people who does not know how to relax; she always had to be doing something constructive), I suggested she paint the blank front covers of some photo albums I had. Mother was always very artistic -- created many a beautiful wreath, centerpiece, and flower arrange-ment in her life -- and in her 50s took up painting seriously, producing several professional-quality paintings before the tremor that developed later made it too difficult for her. Now she insisted that her hands shook too much for her to be able to paint anything.

"Do an abstract," I said. "Just swirl some colors on there so it won't be so blah." Instead, she sat down and painstakingly produced two intricately executed paintings of flowers, and one of butterflies. This was a woman who was not going to let a damn tremor keep her from doing a job "right." She was a woman it was impossible not to respect, to admire, even if one often found her infuriating.

Gary Ellen (which we all sometimes called her, along with Mother, Mom, and mamacita; my youngest sister would call her Gare)...Gary Ellen Svalberg, your firstborn, born to you when you were but 18 1/2 years old, for whom you did so much throughout the course of her life...this daughter whom you never quite understood (having been a drum majorette and football queen when she was in high school, she was very disappointed when I dropped out of my high school pep squad after only a week because I knew I hated football, and thought the whole pep squad business was stupid; likewise, she couldn't understand why I wouldn't let her buy me a white sweater and orange skirt to wear to the football games when I was at the University of Texas -- "Mother," I said, "I will never, never, go to a U.T. football game.")...this daughter, Gary Ellen, salutes you.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Hibernation weather

Well, it's snowing and snowing and snowing. Which it has been, off and on, since the afternoon of New Year's Eve, but now it's getting serious out there. I'm glad I forced myself to shovel out this morning, as soon as I'd eaten, showered and dressed, since now besides snowing heavier the wind has come up, and the snow is blowing all over the place. I wouldn't have shoveled out at all -- would have just holed up in my little house, as I did all day yesterday -- were it not that I was getting low on food. And the weather forecast was telling me it would be even worse tomorrow. In Maine you ignore weather forecasts at your peril -- they're sometimes wrong, but not often -- and shoveling 4-6 inches sounded better than a foot.

The first week I was in Texas it often got up close to 70 degrees -- indeed, when I arrived at nine o'clock in the evening on Dec. 14th it was 68 degrees (it had been 30 when I left Maine). I had taken a pair of shorts, just in case, and wore them several times. By the Christmas weekend a cold front had moved in and the daily highs were about 55. For myself, my brother who lives in Santa Fe, and my sister who lives in Colorado -- who have all lived in colder climes for many years now, and simply can no longer tolerate the extreme Texas heat -- this was weather sent from heaven. At night it was pleasantly, seasonably cold.

Jeremiah and I went for a walk around the neighborhood Christmas night, relishing the crisp air. We enjoyed seeing the sidewalks lined with farolitos. I was reminded of the first time I ever saw these lights-in-a-bag, when I visited my brother in Santa Fe in 1987. Christmas Eve he took me on the Farolito Walk, along Canyon Road. Hundreds of little brown "lunch" bags, with light glimmering through them in a welcoming kind of way. Back then most people were still using real candles set in sand at the bottom of the bag. Now I believe most people use bags with electric candles in them -- certainly the ones we saw in S.A. were all like that. And in Santa Fe there were the occasional small bonfires, called luminarias, where you could warm your hands and chat with people. Someone might be serving hot cider or chocolate. Everyone very friendly, but it wasn't boisterous. A lovely community tradition.

On this year's walk (and how amazing to think that that other walk took place over 20 years ago. We weren't spring chickens even then, but Jeremiah was still dancing -- I went to a couple of his perform-ances -- and we weren't senior citizens, as we now officially are)...on this year's walk, we were also quite taken with the tree trunks and branches that were completely covered with lights. We decided there must be a mesh drapery covered with lights that one wrapped around the trunk and branches; you'd never be able to get such regularity, and such total coverage, stringing lights yourself. Besides which, it would take you forever. It looked like a major undertaking as it was; some people are really serious about decorating for Christmas.

As yet another example: one house had a little Ferris wheel turning (ever so slowly) on the lawn. It was about the size of a small swing set, and the seats were occupied by Santa elves. On another lawn Santa's sleigh, looking big enough to hold a real Santa, was all lit up. And there were lots of lit-up wreaths (they're mainly non-electric here in Maine), and large candy canes, and reindeer, and little polar bears. And one giant, inflated Santa, that Jeremiah swore, until he got up close enough to see it clearly, was a penguin.

So, what the heck, it's the holidays in New England -- let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

Beauty for the eye, and the ear

I have just been enjoying one of my favorite traditions, that of welcoming in the New Year with the Vienna Philharmonic's New Year's Day concert. It is always such a gorgeous melange of music, dance (some of the pieces include performances by members of the Vienna State Ballet), and grand, elegant buildings. Besides the Musikvereinssaal, in which the concert is held, and which features an amazing ceiling of gold, the dancers swirl through rooms and gardens of various palaces and museums to be found in Vienna -- this year it was the Art History Museum. The Musikvereinssaal is filled with flowers, and with people from not only Vienna, but all over the world, who have paid top dollar to attend the most famous and heavily watched concert in the world. And it is so obvious that they are having a grand time, as are the musicians.

The two dances that were featured were enough to satisfy the romanticism buried deep inside every grown woman. In one a lovely, lithe dancer in a red dress was wafting gracefully through pale yellow and gold rooms full of stark Roman and Greek statuary, eventually accompanied by a beautiful young man in white tie and tails. The use of color was inspired: the red against the pale yellow, in striking contrast to the austerity of the white statuary; in shots from above, the two dancers against the black and white mosaic floors. I thought how remarkable it was that here they were whirling and lifting their legs in the way of all ballet dancers, surrounded by priceless art. You would have to practice plenty, to make sure you didn't knock over anything.

Another dance started out with one young dancer in a frothy pink dress, and her young man, again in white tie and tails (and black tights, I eventually realized), pas de deuxing on a landing of the grand stairway. The camera changed angles to reveal a second, then a third couple. Eventually the place was alive with couples, some of the young ladies in the pink, others in a pale grey layered with pink, all of them gliding through the wide, white-painted doorways of gallery after gallery, all in a line, and all lined with great works of art. It was elegant, beautiful, utterly satisfying.

And of course, through it all you are hearing all of this great music, written primarily by various members of the Strauss family. 'though this year there was also a haunting rendition of Jacques Offenbach's Overture to Die Rheinnixen. The concert always finishes up with three encores, one of which is always the On the Beautiful Blue Danube waltz (An der schonen blauen Danau). This year as the orchestra played, television viewers were treated to shots taken along the length of this mighty, historical river, wending its way from Germany, through the Austrian valley of Wachau, with castles on the hills above the river, past Vienna (Vien), past Budapest, Hungary, through Rumania, finally emptying into the Black Sea. For the first time I had a sense of this river as a river, about which Strauss wrote such a melodic and memorable orchestral piece. The opening is so haunting and affecting, I can imagine a native Austrian feeling the tug of home when he's far from home, and he hears it.

I have decided to do something I have been tempted before to do: register for the drawing for next year's concert. The orchestra's web site opens registration between Jan. 2 and Jan. 23, with winners announced in March. Tickets are so in demand, this is how they have to handle it. There are actually three concerts one can attend: the Preview on Dec. 30th, the New Year's Eve concert, and the one on New Year's Day that is televised. I'm going to register for all three, as the program is the same at each. The main thing is to be there, soaking up the music, the ambiance, the sense of tradition...the magic.

Who knows, this time next year I might be in Vienna.