Sunday, February 28, 2010

I'll think about it tomorrow

I have been reading Scarlett, the rather audacious sequel to Gone with the Wind written by an ambitious Alexandra Ripley. The book came out in 1991, so no doubt all of you who are readers read it long ago. Someone donated a copy to the library and since we already had a copy I decided to bring this one home and give it a try. So far I'm finding it entertaining, and similar enough in style to Margaret Mitchell's original not to be jarring.

The book has sent me back to my copy of that original, as all sort of things have cropped up that I didn't remember, e.g., the fact that Scarlett had a child by each of her first two husbands. The only child that appeared in the movie was her child by Rhett Butler, who died. I certainly remembered Bonnie, so obviously the movie had more sticking power than the book, which I've actually read twice.

The first time I read it was in the 9th grade, when I devoured it over one weekend, for a book report due on Monday. At the time we were living with my grandmother who essentially kept her living room "shut up," except on those rare occasions when company came. It was the perfect place to escape the noise and activity of my mother, my four siblings, and the small children who attended my grandmother's "nursery" at the back of the house. I plopped myself down in an armchair in the dim, chilly living room, door closed, and had to be all but dragged off for meals and bedtime. I was enthralled by this book.

Maybe twenty years ago I took the book up again, and, at 43 rather than 14, found myself a little less impressed. Mainly what weakened the book for me was that Scarlett never grew. She never changed, never seemed to learn from anything she experienced or observed. She remained always selfish, completely lacking in empathy, in any ability to see things from another's perspective. The sufferings she endured only made her hard and more calculating, not wise. I suppose it could be argued that people don't change, but perhaps one of the things we depend on fiction for is the suggestion, if not the illusion, that change is possible. Because if nothing and no one can change, on what can we place our hope when things are grim?

And eventually I had to wonder, why would Rhett Butler love this woman? Although she has a calculating shrewdness she is not intelligent, she has no sense of humor, she is not kind, she's a hypocrite, dishonest as the day is long, along with all the other negative qualities I listed earlier. Is the fact that she has "spirit," as he says during the famous scene with her after he's accidentally overheard her declare her love to a dismayed Ashley Wilkes, enough to make up for everything else? Rhett Butler is a pretty cool guy -- who adores and can't do enough for his mother, according to Scarlett, though I don't remember these qualities being mentioned in GWTH -- so why he would be so crazy about this conniving little bitch? Of course, I do know that the heart (or maybe the hormones) makes its choice, not the mind.

At any rate, it is my understanding that in this sequel Scarlett does enough changing to make it possible for her to win Rhett back. So I'm looking forward to those developments. So far -- at page 121 -- she hasn't changed one iota. But given its length of 823 pages, the book is young.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Cut throat

Today I took the last of my husband's fancy knives to a place here in Gardiner that says it will try to sell them on ebay, ship them off if they do sell. The place, Ship on Site, charges a commission of %33, which seems steep, but considering the fact that I have not, in the past 5 1/2 years, managed to go thru the process myself, it seems worth it to get the thing done.

Micheal collected knives; like most women, I hate knives. To me (to us!) they represent only danger, pain, blood, death -- nothing good, in short. But many men like, are fascinated by, knives. O.K., guys, why is that? Can they represent anything but danger, pain, blood and death to you? Ah, a thought occurs: they could represent power, that all-time favorite of men's. Don't mess with me, guy; I've got this real sweet knife here, and I know how to use it. In other words, perhaps men think of knives as something they could wield, while women are more likely to think of them as something that could be wielded against them. And the thing about knives is that anybody can use them, at any time, can hurt themselves or others with them, whether or not intentionally. With a gun at least it has to be loaded before it becomes lethal.

Many knives, of course, are "utility" knives, not intended to threaten or do away with your fellow man, but to accomplish some much more mundane task. Knives for gutting fish or skinning animals that have been killed on a hunt (here they still represent danger, pain, blood and death, but for animals, not for humans). Pocket knives that are good for cutting rope, wire, your girl's initials in a tree (do young men still do that?) All-purpose Swiss army knives, that men no longer seem to carry as a matter of course, and if they do normally carry, they have to relegate to their checked baggage whenever they fly. (I recently needed help getting the lid off a bottle of water in the terminal at Portland -- turned to a nearby man and started to say, "Would you happen to have a..." and then changed it in mid-sentence to "No, of course you can't have, can you?" to the poor fellow's utter befuddlement.) Chefs want their kitchen knives good and sharp. Micheal used to be meticulous about keeping our kitchen cutlery sharp, and after nearly six years of not being sharpened I think it's safe to say my kitchen knives miss Micheal mightily.

So yes, knives have their place in the general scheme of things, and maybe they feed a man's fantasies about being tough, but for a delicate flower like myself they're just vile things to have around. I felt a pang when I realized nearly all of Micheal's dragon collection had been bought up at the huge house-and-garage sale I had a few months after his death. (I was about to take off for Scotland for as long as the money would hold out, and did not want to be paying storage for any more stuff than was absolutely necessary.) I realized, too late, that I should have kept at least one dragon, as a memento. But I had no such compunction about the knives. Sorry, Micheal, I'm happy to be shut of the last of them at last.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Jefferson City?!

I indulge in a number of useless mind games when, for example, I'm stuck at a light and don't want to sit there fuming, or after I've gone to bed and am waiting for Sleep to grab me by the throat and drag me under. A favorite involves thinking of all the male (or female) names that begin with 'a' (or b or whatever), or all the nouns (apple, applesauce, ant, anteater, aardvark...), or verbs (I ask, answer, anticipate, amble, arch...) Sometimes I'll try to think of all the actors (or actresses) whose first names begin with the chosen letter.

Well, I told you they were useless mind games.

Last night I felt like trying something new, so started running through the state capitals. This is actually something I had down pretty good, once upon a time, except for maybe exotic places like West Virginia and Michigan (Michigan is tricky). But that once upon a time is now some time ago, and I started having trouble fairly early on. Except for New Hampshire I had no trouble with the New England states (with New Hampshire I thought of two possibilities, and one of the two was correct). New York state, no problem (having lived there for a total of five years, I would hope I would know its capital), but Pennsylvania tripped me up. In fact, even when I looked it up later my reaction was really?! Delaware I got wrong. In Maryland I was torn: was it the largest, most well-known city, or was it little ol' Annapolis? (It's the latter.) Virginia, North Carolina were correct educated guesses; for South Carolina I didn't have a clue (in fact, the only city I could name in South Carolina was Charleston, and it ain't that); Florida I got wrong, thinking I was right; Georgia right, Alabama wrong. Good grief!

I turned north after Mississippi (which was one of those it's either this or that situations), and got Tennessee wrong. Still don't know West Virginia, or Michigan, and Ohio was a complete surprise. In Kentucky I at least knew it wasn't Louisville, though I wasn't sure if it was Lexington or the smaller town that lies between the two Ls , a place whose name I couldn't remember, though I'd spent the night in a motel there once, and knew it began with an F (and note that that is the capital).

I do realize that in this day of oh, just look it up on the Internet, this is not of earthshaking importance, being able to rattle off the state capitals. But I am so often appalled by Americans' shaky grasp of geography, and was nonplused to find that I seem to be in lockstep with my countrymen, at least as far as the state capitals in my own country go. And it just seems like something, like the multiplication tables, that we should all know.

So go on, see how well you do, at least with the eastern half of the country. When you look up the correct answers later on the Internet, you may impress yourself, or appall yourself. And you may discover some cities you never even heard of.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A badly needed night out

Traditionally either the Board or the Friends organization at my library has given each of the staff a little Christmas bonus, usually in the form of a gift certificate. This year I had purchased fancy but cheap Christmas stockings at the Dollar store for each of us, put our names on mailing labels and affixed them to the stockings, then hung same along the edge of the checkout counter. People were amused...and put things in them! The Friends put in $25 gift certificates to what is probably the best restaurant in the Augusta area: Slates, located just a couple of blocks from the library, on Water Street. And a couple of weeks ago, one of my staff and I treated ourselves to dinner at Slates, courtesy of the Friends.

Slates is such a popular local institution that when it burnt down three years ago, there were numerous fund-raising events, aimed in particular at helping the help who were out of a job until the restaurant could be rebuilt. The restaurant, which is housed in one of the many old, three-story red-brick buildings that line Water Street, now looks better than ever, and everybody's working again.

I was the tiniest bit disappointed when I walked into the place and saw that Barb, who had arrived ahead of me, had us a table, but in the bar area, rather than the main dining room, or the smaller room beyond. Just not as much of a dining "event," when you have to eat in the bar. On the other hand, it was better than having to eat at the bar, and Barb assured me that she had been told we were getting the very last table in the place, so obviously I had to count my blessings (one really should make reservations on a Friday or Saturday night, which thought had actually passed through my head, but then I failed to follow up on it.) And as a matter of fact, our location proved fascinating, because the table beyond us was a nonstop people-magnet throughout the hour we were there. When we got up to leave I saw why: at the end of the table I had not been able to see, because Barb blocked my view (and she had not been able to see because her back was to that table), sat the newly-elected mayor of Hallowell, essentially holding court. Slates is that kind of place.

The food was very good. I've eaten at Slates a total of three times, over the past four years, and the food has always been imaginative, and perfectly prepared. I had the haddock stuff with fresh Maine crab, at $22 the second most expensive entree on the menu. The most expensive, at $25, was the haddock stuffed with lobster. I was very torn between the two, loving both crab and lobster. It is so typical of me to want the most expensive item on the menu; indeed, my champagne taste and beer pocketbook has been the curse -- well, one of the curses -- of my life. People who can only afford beer and pizza and like living on beer and pizza are the lucky ones; the rest of us must wait for gift certificates to indulge in what we really like to eat.

Barb had the Mahi mahi, which she also proclaimed excellent. She also ordered, as one of her accompanying vegetables, caramelized onion, moments after I'd been wondering aloud how they could think someone would want to eat a dish of just plain onions. I had pureed winter vegetables, which proved to be a little pile of pale green mush, disconcerting to look at, but quite tasty.

We both ordered a drink to start. I wanted to have something I couldn't get from my own kitchen cabinet (the drinks I most often drink -- Wild Turkey over ice or with coke, rum and coke, white or black Russians, Brandi Alexanders and Rusty Nails -- I have the fixins for all of those at home), but was also in the mood for something warm as it was very cold out -- something like ten degrees, with a wind chill value of minus something, and I'd just walked the two blocks from the library -- so I ended up ordering a hot buttered rum. That's something I could make myself at home, but never do, so it, too, was a "treat."

Barb and I are the same age, have a similar sense of the absurd and the ironic, and can talk intelligently about a myriad of subjects. So...a good meal with a good drink at hand, good conversation, in a friendly, if somewhat noisy restaurant (I decided when we were standing at the archway leading into the dining room, buttoning up for the trip out into the elements, that I was just as glad we hadn't been seated in there, since besides the conversation of all the diners, there was Friday night music.)...for a lovely evening, Friends, we thank you.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

May the best voice win

The other night I watched the most wonderful show on PBS. Called "The Audition," it was a documentary that followed a group of aspiring young opera singers as they prepared to compete in the 2007 Metropolitan Opera's National Council competition. Five winners are ultimately selected, out of about 1500 hopefuls across the country. What we the audience were treated to were the excitment, the musings, the practice sessions, of the approximately-20 semi-finalists who had made it to the New York audition. Filming took place during the week preceding their final performances, which would determine the winners.

Absolutely fascinating. I love behind-the-scenes theatrical films anyway, and this one had the added benefit of all this splendid singing. Every one of those young people had a beautiful, beautifully trained voice. It was also interesting meeting the different personalities. There were three young women who were the traditional operatically-hefty -- one of them commented to the camera that she knew there was more of an emphasis these days on physically attractive singers, but she hoped the judges would be concentrating on singing ability, and not on "the weight issue" -- whereas one of the young woman who was very slender indeed, admitted that she had a problem getting the fullness of sound that some parts demanded. The oldest in the group (at 30), was a black man from Houston who had had to take time out from his training for several years because his financial situation became so desperate the sheriff was knocking on his door. Initially I was least impressed with his performance, but as the week went on, thanks to various work-shops they had for the contestants, his self-confidence seemed to increase, and his performance improved.

The contestant we saw the most of was easily the most neurotically bent on winning; his ambition was palpable and his paranoia that "politics" would interfere with honest judging rather sad. When the five winners were announced at the end, his name was the last to be called, and there was a lengthy pause before it was -- indeed, some-one in the group still waiting in the wings muttered "Is that all?" -- and when his name was called you had to breath a sigh of relief, as he gave a great cry of exultation, and strode onto the stage. For my goodness, if he hadn't won, what would he have done?

In an earlier Note (Oct. 24, 2009) I had wondered aloud what made some men want to sing for a living. You really have to wonder that about men who want to be opera singers. If nothing else, how many boys are even exposed to opera? One of the Metropolitan Opera people who gave a pep talk to the contestants mentioned the fact that a recent survey had shown that the average age of opera goers was 65. "Twenty years ago it was 45," he said. "Our audience is aging on us." In your typical American family opera is just not part of the musical scene, to the extent that there is a musical scene. So the pool of opera lovers -- people who would expose their children to opera -- is very small. And from that small pool come this group of boys who like it enough, and like singing that way, to try to make a career of it. To me, amazing.

I was so pleased at the end, when we were told where the winners and the other finalists were one year on. One of the hefty women, Amber Wagner, had signed with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Angela Meade, the hefty, but actually quite beautiful, woman who had been con-cerned that her weight would be held against her, had stepped in as understudy at the Metropolitan itself. Our rabidly driven Michael Fabiano, had appeared at Teatro alla Scala, more commonly referred to as La Scala. You can actually catch Fabiano singing on YouTube (I tried to insert a link here but had no luck -- but an Internet search under his name will bring up several videos of him singing.) He really has a fabulous voice, and when he won in 2007 was only 22 years old, which both his fellow contestants and the judges commented on with disbelieving admiration.

The news that made me happiest was that Ryan Smith, he of all the financial woes, had had his debut at the Metropolitan Opera.

And then, I was devastated by the dedication at the close of the program -- to Ryan Smith, who died of lymphatic cancer in Nov. 2008. No question that Fate has a twisted sense of the ironic. The only thing you can feel good about is that at least Smith had his 15 minutes of glory. He was on top of the world, the world he had chosen, for only a moment. But for a moment.