Tuesday, September 21, 2010

On hearing an angel sing

I suppose everyone out there -- with the exception of my friend Clifford, who doesn't watch anything but sports with the sound turned off -- has by now heard the amazing 10-year-old Jackie Evancho, either in her recent operatic performances on "America's Got Talent," or on any of the performances saved to YouTube (which include the ones from AGT). She is certainly one re-markable little singer; indeed, her voice seems to be coming out of a full-grown woman, rather than that little slip of a girl (which is, in fact, why some people were thinking there must be a mechanical trick involved). It's one thing to reach those exquisite high notes, but how can her body produce those rich, full lower notes? How has she got the diaphragm for it?

I didn't see Jackie on AGT, but my local FOX News station always shows cuts from shows like American Idol and AGT, and that's where I heard Jackie's rendition of Pie Jesu from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem. I have this album, and while I don't think much of it as a whole -- it's lugubrious, as all requiems are, and more than once I can detect The Phantom of the Opera lurking in the background -- Sarah Brightman's performance of Pie Jesu on it is exquisite. But...little Jackie's is, I do believe, more so. How a 10-year-old girl could compete with a 25-year-old one, is beyond me.

But, enough rhapsodizing. Here's what I'm wondering. What kind of childhood is little Jackie having? Although it's obvious she has a god-given voice, you don't get that kind of breath control and phrasing and fullness and roundness without practicing, practicing, practicing. So is Jackie, like very talented children from Mozart to Frances Gumm (aka Judy Garland), doing without a childhood, in order to perfect her talent, and then showcase it? And how much of this has to do with the parents (as in the case of Mozart and Judy Garland), rather than Jackie? In other words, how much is she being pushed, as opposed to encouraged? And is she going to end up having this miserable life, while all of us out here are enjoying her beautiful voice?

I always worry about children being exploited. Childhood is a modern phenomenon; for millennia, as soon as children could reproduce they were likely to be married off, and among the working classes children worked from a very early age (e.g., on the farm), even if they were lucky enough to also be able to go to school. And they were always expected to adhere to adult standards, no matter how unrealistic that might be.

But we have such a thing as childhood now, and I think it's a good development, in the evolution of human culture. I'm inclined to think kids today are not given enough responsibility; not enough is expected of them; but still, I think they should mainly be involved with being kids, while they are kids. Grownup life, cares and woes come soon enough, and then last the rest of ones life. I just hope Jackie is getting to have sleepovers and go to Harry Potter movies with friends.

(Do listen to her, if you haven't. She will amaze you.)

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Today I did something pleasant that was good for me. All too rare, those things that are good for you, but also pleasurable. I had lunch outside in the sunshine. The weather was absolutely perfect, with a high of maybe 70 degrees, no humidity at all, and until about 1 p.m. there wasn't a cloud to be seen. The sun was very bright, but the tiniest whisper of a breeze kept it from feeling too hot on my face and arms as I sat eating my Subway roast beef sandwich at a clean picnic table in the rectangle of a park that stretches down in front of the State House in Augusta.

One of my errands for the day was to take the graduation card, with accompanying gift, that I had for my niece Sara (and that I've been meaning to get mailed for a week -- it's just so hard to get myself to do things these days!), to the Augusta post office before one o'clock when it closes. Driving there I passed the park, which lies across the street from the State House, sloping down toward the river. I knew I was going to have to eat soon, and the thought struck that a little picnic in the park would be nice. Something different from my usual resorting to a Burger King Double Whopper or McDonalds Double Quarter Pounder when I'm out and about and hunger strikes.

The park is very nice, but seems to rarely get used, perhaps because of its location. Maybe during the work week, when it's nice, people from the State House, the legislators' office building behind it, and the State Library and State Museum, which are across the parking lot from the State House complex, take their sand-wiches, sodas and yogurts across the street and down the slope. But today I pretty much had the place to myself, except for a mother and father with their two young kids, who seemed to be practicing riding their bikes. There were also a couple of men who looked like construction workers, who ambled past my table bearing their empty pizza box to the trash receptacle by the sidewalk. And a fellow who was taking pictures. I myself regretted not having my camera with me, as the white State House dome against that Microsoft Active Window Bar blue of the sky, framed by the trees in the park, made a striking picture.

White I ate I was reading one of my two current books, The Rose Cafe: Love and War in Corsica, by John Hanson Mitchell. It reads like a coming-of-age-while-doing-Europe novel, but is actually a beautifully written piece of nonfiction, describing the few months Mitchell spent on the northwest coast of Corsica during the early 60s, when the Algerians were fighting for their independence from France (Corsica is controlled by France, so all the papers were full of this news), and the U.S.'s involve-ment in Vietnam was beginning to gather momentum -- thus, the 'war' part of the title. You get a clear sense of the island of Corsica, its inhabitants, the various tourists -- French, German, English -- who come through, stopping at the small inn where Mitchell washed dishes and did whatever else they wanted him to do, in exchange for room and board. It's a travel book with a difference.

So after this pleasant repast I was able to make myself do some other errands that I've "been meaning to" do for ages: pick up the sweater that had been sitting at the cleaners since June, buy a couple of bottles of paint for the kids at the library, using the coupons that ran out today, buy a new pocket dictionary, and a new French-English dictionary, since the ones I've been using for years are ancient, and falling apart. And then on my way home I passed the fellow I've passed a couple of times this week, sitting out in a parking lot hawking pumpkins from a flatbed. On an impulse I swung into the next parking lot up, and drove back down to where he was, and bought my annual pumpkins. Normally I like to get these from a farm stand out in the country, but this fellow was from a farm, and deserved some business, given his infinite patience in sitting out there all day, every day.

Stopped at the supermarket -- something else I've been avoiding this week, because I just get so tired of having to eat, having to cook, having to decide what to cook and eat -- and I bought some fresh flounder, brought it home and cooked it very simply, with parsley and dill, and it was delicious.

A leisurely day, physically comfortable, with no hyper-ventilating, but still getting things accomplished. It was a wonderful day.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The price(s) of not doing it yourself

A few weeks ago I had a fellow clean out the flower beds on either side of my front stoop ('porch' is too fancy a word for two wooden steps and a wooden slab about the size of a window pane). I was hoping he could go on to put something new and exciting in, in place of the junky stuff I had disliked ever since I moved in here. However, Jim is, as he says, "a lawn guy," not a land-scaper, and I could tell he wasn't eager to try to decide on what to put in. I had originally made calls to three different landscapers in the area, and not a single one had called me back, which was what had sent me to "the lawn guy" in the first place. The day after Jim finished clearing away everything but the dwarf spruce that I had pulled out of a big pot beside the stoop and planted in the ground with my own two hands, and which I there-fore felt some sentimental attachment to...anyway, the day after he pulled everything out, and carted it away, one of the landscapers actually called me back. And made an appointment to come look at "the space," and talk to me about what I wanted, and give me an estimate. He came on a Monday -- seemed very knowledgeable, talked me out of almost everything I'd found online that I liked the looks of (everything was "too invasive"), and said he'd send me an estimate.

Two weeks later I called because I still hadn't heard from him. The secretary (or maybe his wife -- around here many many businesses are Mom & Pop concerns) told me she'd "just gotten the estimate on her desk and would send it to me right away." That was a Monday, and I didn't receive the estimate until Thursday, which makes me doubt it was sitting on her desk waiting to be mailed. But anyway, the cost was about $200 more than I was expecting/hoping it would be. So then I called ol' Jim back, to see if he thought he might be able to do it cheaper. But he listened to what the landscaper was proposing, and said he didn't think the costs sounded unreasonable. He was willing enough to put the plants in, but I could tell he was not eager to try to locate them; he suggested I do that. I didn't like that idea...this undertaking was supposed to involve money on my part, not work...so I called the landscaper back, again talked to the ubiquitous machine, and said I had some questions about the estimate; please give me a call.

Nothing for another week. Finally I got a call from him at work -- "I've tried to call you several times as home; I guess you don't have an answering machine, huh?" Uh, no, which was exactly why I'd given him my work phone, which does have an answering machine. Anyway, I told him one of the items listed on his estimate -- clearing of the beds -- had already been done, and I was hoping we could deduct that from the costs. He said he would come out and look, and see if there would still be some clearing that had to be done, since they had to be sure all old roots had been removed. I went out that evening and looked, and could see some weeds were starting to sprout here and there, so obviously there were still a few roots in place. So a couple of days later I did put in some work, tugging away at a bunch of recalcitrant roots right next to the stoop, and the scattered weeds. I also removed some more plastic, buried beneath the top layer of soil. Jim had mentioned to me that he'd discovered several of these sheets, in the process of clearing the beds, and had decided to leave them there. After he told me that I'd taken a look, tugged on a few visible edges, and ended up pulling out everything I found. Why on earth have plastic sheets in the ground? And why on earth leave them there?

So the landscaper finally gets back to me, says he's taken a look and "they" seemed to have done a good job of clearing the beds (yes, we did), and that that should definitely reduce the final cost. So I say O.K., let's do it. And they actually came out a mere five days later, and put in the new plants.

But. I was all excited on my way home from work, thinking I was going to be seeing this whole new vision of lush greenery with white accents (my house is charcoal grey with white trim, so I wanted plants with white edges). But what I saw when I pulled into the parking area was a whole bunch of...what is it that looks like shredded wood?...covering the floor of the two beds, and four little plants on one side of the stoop, four little plants on the other, next to the preserved (but moved, when I thought where it had been was just fine) dwarf spruce. These little guys cost me $40, for four lamium plants, $33 for two hosta wide brim plants, and $52.50 for two dogwood "ivory halo." I was expecting to get full-grown plants, but now, it seems, I have to wait for them to grow. Does this seem right? Have I been took? Or is it just that I don't know how these things work?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The great American pastime

I went shopping today, which is very unusual for me. I don't mean grocery shopping, which I do about every other day. I mean clothes shopping.

As those of you who know me know, I've always hated to shop. It's always seemed like such a waste of my precious time, and I've never been rich enough to shop with anything approaching abandon. I have to think about each purchase, being as practical as I can be. First of all, is it something I can afford? (Since this is always question #1, I am always attracted to the end-of-season reduced racks, where prices have been slashed to what the items are actually worth). Then, if it's a skirt do I have at least one and preferably two tops I can wear with it? If it's a blouse do I have at least one skirt I can wear with it? Is it something I can wear to work?

Even before I do these mental calculations there are other things I have to consider. For example, when buying outer clothing, the first consideration is color. I don't even look at things that are beige, brown, rust-colored, orange, yellow, grey, greyed-down shades of blue or green (also known as teal blue and teal green), navy or -- usually -- black, because those colors do not look good on me. Second, I consider the fabric. A kicky little summer dress made out of polyester is ridiculous, because polyester is hot; likewise I can no longer wear knitted tops because they cling and my "top" (more accurately my mid-section) no longer takes kindly to clinging. Then, style. Do I like the look of the thing? These days the answer is frequently no, as I find most of the styles hanging on the racks ugly, sometimes in the extreme. Admittedly we've at least gotten away from padded shoulders, a fashion that I loathed, and which seemed to last forever, the way long, baggy shorts for boys and young men have.

And finally...does it fit? And not only fit, but look good on me? Both questions are answered in the fitting room, where one is forced to avert ones eyes at the sight of ones soft, aging, semi-nude body, while experimenting with various fashions, some of which (in former shopping expeditions) wouldn't even close at the waist.

You can see why I consider shopping more ordeal than fun. But I decided to put myself through this ordeal today because we really do seem to be in the midst of The Endless Summer, and I am sick to death of wearing the same six skirts, five tops, in various combinations. I lost the use of three old standby skirts this summer, due to the ever increasing waistline (I have gained 30 pounds in the past five years, ten of those pounds in the past year). I have more blouses, but they are not cool enough for the inferno that is my library. On top of which, I figured since this was the end of the season, there would be some good bargains to be had.

So I went to good ol' Kohl's, the closest thing to a department store in the Augusta area (it appalls me that the state capital has a K-Mart, a Wal-Mart and a Target, but no proper department store. You have to drive 50 minutes to Portland, or an hour and a quarter to Bangor, to find department stores, buried in malls.) And I helped the economies of China (a skirt, two blouses), Indonesia (a pair of shorts, since the one and only pair I still fit into -- thanks to the elastic waistband -- are starting to wear out), Vietnam (3 pair underpants) and Thailand (another pair of underpants). I will admit the fact that not a single item was made in the U.S. makes me uneasy, but here's the real killer. Supposedly American businesses have things manufactured overseas in order to keep them cheap. But a simple little cotton blouse was originally $40 (I got it for $16, which is what I would say it was worth); my pair of shorts were also originally $40 (I got them for 12). So what I'm wondering is, where are the cheap prices, that come from sending everything overseas to be put together? And my god, what must they charge for shorts at Neiman Marcus?

Well, at least I should be cool, while looking fetchingly different, this coming week

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Enough already

According to the weather guy on the radio we here in Maine are in the midst of the first official heat wave we've experienced since 2002. And heat wave it is. After a couple of days last week when there were intimations of fall -- pleasantly cool mornings, warm sunny days but with very low humidity -- all of a sudden we're getting five days in a row of high temps in the mid-90s. For Maine, at the end of August, that is really bizarre.

We've had a really good summer, for those who like summer weather. The people who have camps they trek out to on weekends, or for a few weeks, have been loving it, as have all the out-of-state visitors, and all the businesses that depend on all those tourists. I've been happy for those folks, even as I have spent most of the summer hiding out in my little air-conditioned house, avoiding the heat to the extent possible.

But even all the people who have been enjoying the summer, are ready for it to end. Mainers simply are not hot-weather folk, or they wouldn't live here. Fall, wonderful, spring, nice, winter, actually enjoy unless it's too brutal or goes on for too long, but too much hot summer weather? Boo, hiss.

But whater ya gonna do? I close my library, because it's too hot for my staff to be working in, and I come home to my air-conditioned house, and wait for fall.