Friday, December 31, 2010

Why is the weather always bad at Christmas?

Thanksgiving was spent with my sister Ellen, who lives in Colorado; Christmas was spent with my brother, Jeremiah, who lives in New Mexico. And here am I in Maine. We have each picked the place that suits us most.

Jeremiah and I had a lovely visit, a lovely Christmas together. He had never been to Maine, and was properly impressed, declaring it beautiful, and cold. I was some-what surprised by that reaction on his part, since I think of New Mexico, at least the mountainous area around Santa Fe, where he lives, as being cold in winter. And I know it snows there. But apparently we're talking degree here. Several days with highs in the mid-20s, nighttime lows around ten, are perhaps a greater degree of cold than he is accustomed to.

And then, of course, he got caught in the Blizzard of 2010, as they were calling it on T.V. This was on Monday, Dec. 27th, the day we were supposed to drive to Portland, visit the Victorian Mansion, decorated for the holidays, which I've only been trying to get myself to since I moved to Maine five years ago, take a general sight-seeing tour of the city, and then settle in for the night at the Holiday Inn by the Bay, where we planned to stay so we wouldn't have to get up at 3:30 in the morning, in order to leave my house by 4:30, in order to get to the airport by 5:30 (Jeremiah's flight was scheduled for 6:50 a.m.)

Except for spending the night at the Holiday Inn, none of that happened. It started snowing Sunday evening, the wind came up during the night, as promised by the weather forecasters, and by Monday morning it was pretty darn ferocious out there, with the winds making the snow blow at the horizontal. I had thought we would try to leave about 1 p.m., but there was just no way I was going to try to drive in the conditions I could see through my living room window at 1 p.m. I told Jeremiah that we might have to wait until later that evening -- the blizzard warning was supposed to end by six p.m. But as the day wore on I got to thinking how I didn't really want to have to cope with driving at night, on top of dealing with snow, wind and poorly cleared roads; for it was quite possible that, even if the blizzard-like conditions had eased by 6 p.m., it would still not be pleasant out there. So at 3 p.m. I made the decision -- o.k., we're going -- and by 3:30 we were on the road.

Jeremiah offered to drive and I let him. He drove very carefully -- indeed, slower than I would have, slower than all the Mainers who were passing us did -- and we arrived safely, a little after 4:30, by which time it was too dark for him to see much of the city as we drove through it to the hotel. It was still very windy, and very cold, though the snow had let up, and we were in solid agreement that we were not going to walk around sight-seeing. After taking our things up to our room, which was nice, if unspectacular, and had the promised view of the bay that we couldn't see because it was night, we went down to dinner in the very nice restaurant, where we were the only customers in the place until just before we left, when another couple came in (the hotel was obviously far from full). The dinner was excellent, to our mutual surprise (a really good restaurant at a Holiday Inn?). My scallops were perfect, and Jeremiah's eggplant with Portobello mushrooms -- which I enjoyed the leftovers from later -- was also very good. It was actually quite pleasant, sitting there by the window looking out at the snowy street under the pink city lights, with the occasional muffled-up person hurrying past.

Later we enjoyed the luxury of lying propped up by all the great pillows on our individual beds, watching an episode of Bones, a show I like because of its emphasis on the importance of science, and because the heroine is the humorless, brilliant, logical scientist, while the hero, an FBI agent, is the romantic, intuitive one.

So after all that was Jeremiah's flight cancelled, like so many others, you're wondering? Since he was flying to Atlanta, not one of the impossible places like New York, New Jersey, or Philadelphia, we were hoping against hope that his flight would not be cancelled. And it wasn't, but it was three hours late leaving. And since Jeremiah got to the airport at about ten of 6 -- courtesy of the complimentary airport shuttle, a really wonderful invention -- he had to hang around the airport for three and a half hours before finally getting on a plane. Then had to wait 2 1/2 hours in Atlanta for the later plane they had put him on, since he had of course missed his earlier connection. He was supposed to arrive in Albuquerque at 1:15, but didn't get in until 6:30 in the evening. An extremely long, tiring day for him, but obviously far better than those folks who had to wait literally days to get back home.

Well, it will all make a good story for him. He can now say he's experienced a New England blizzard.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

With a little imagination...

The ornaments I hang on my Christmas tree are nothing if not original. Many have been made by various friends over the years, out of Styrofoam balls, glitter and beads. It all started with the first Christmas my husband and I shared, in 1968, the year we were married. We were living in Los Angeles at the time -- with me chaffing because it was in the 70s, and it was Christmas -- and I invited my friends Grace and Joe up from Long Beach to a tree-decorating party. Which first involved making the decorations. And later when I was living in Boston, I coerced my Boston friends into participating in another such party. And off and on over the years, whenever somebody would visit me at Christmas time, I would have him or her make at least one ornament.

Some are quite lovely -- the one covered completely in blue glitter, for example -- some are very clever (e.g., the globe of the world with glitter continents by Boston friend Robert), some are amusing (friend Rick's The Phantom Frog Strikes Again, with its grinning masked "action figure"). One that my mother made demonstrates her patience in producing a craft: what must easily be a hundred green sequins topped by a gold star, and pinned to the Styrofoam with gold headed pins, forming a "cap" above the face she had colored in. Another face that someone else did -- friend Meaghan? (who was formerly friend Grace) -- comes complete with eyeglasses. There's a snowman, complete with three segments and a black top hat. Don't know how whoever did that one -- I think it may have been Micheal -- came up with that particular accouterment.

I've done the same thing with the Christmas tree we put up at the library: each year, we put out the Styrofoam balls, the glitter, the glue, the what-have-you, and invite and encourage people to "Make an Ornament for our Tree." And they do, little kids and grown-ups alike. Here again, some real artistic talent is revealed. But mainly it's a way to give people an investment in the tree. It's not just one we put up and decorate for them to look at, it's one they've contributed to. And we save the decorations from year to year, just as I do mine at home, which has imparted a sense of tradition to the tree.

This is the kind of thing that makes Christmas meaningful to me: people coming together to share various kinds of traditions, which give them a sense of continuity, while making the world colorful and festive (or delicious) for a while.

So Merry Christmas, already.

Monday, December 20, 2010

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree

Since I live alone, and don't usually have guests at Christmas, I frequently do not put up a tree. But this year my brother is coming from New Mexico for a visit, so I definitely needed a tree. And any tree this girl has has to be real.

But here was my problem, or rather the first of what were to prove numerous problems: where to put a tree in my tiny house? I had one the year my mother spent mid-November to mid-December with me, and again the following year, but in both instances my living room was set up differently. Once I discovered one of my book-cases was sitting over a heating vent (how had I missed that fact when I moved in?), which was not good for either my books or the temperature of the room in winter, things had to be re-arranged. Now in the only possible space I didn't have a bookcase that it was no big deal if it was partially covered by the branches of a Christmas tree, but rather the small table where I eat my meals. Couldn't very well cover that up. I finally decided I would just have to get a tree small enough to stand on top of my desk -- that was simply the only horizontal surface available.

So I drove way out to Longfellow's Greenhouses in Manchester, thinking that would be the most likely place to find a really small tree. But the only small trees they had -- which were actually the perfect size -- were live trees, and cost $65. I couldn't bring myself to pay that much for such a small tree, especially one that I didn't know what I'd do with until spring. So the next day I stopped at the tree lot I pass every day on my way to work, with the sign out front that touts "All Maine Trees." Frankly, in this state full of every kind of evergreen (it is the Pine Tree state!), I can't imagine any tree lot having anything other than Maine trees, but oh, well.

The smallest tree on the lot seemed like it would be small enough, but when I got it home I saw it was definitely too big to fit on my desk. Well, I could hardly take it back; I would worry about where the heck to put it after I got it into its stand. But that proved a task beyond my powers. It simply is not possible to screw in the screws that hold the trunk in place, while holding the tree upright. After doing a lot of screaming and swearing, which I acknowledged to myself was hardly in the Christmas spirit, I went next door and asked Bill the Drunk if he could perhaps help. Note that I don't really know that Bill is a drunk; it just seems like he's all but stumbling drunk whenever I talk to him (or possibly stoned) -- he's frequently out in the driveway having a cigarette when I'm coming or going, evidently banned from the house when he smokes. He's nice enough, but a little unsteady on his feet. Actually, when I went over there I was hoping one of the other fellows who lives in the house would be there, but as usual it was just Bill, so Bill is what I got. He held the tree while I struggled with the screws, but we could not get that damn tree to stand straight.

Finally I sent Bill on his way, and called Earl. Earl is the fellow who hauls the library's old newspapers and cardboard to the recycling center, and he has also traditionally done whatever kind of "muscle" work I needed done around the library. He is no longer young, but is determined to prove that has not affected his muscle power one whit. Though I sometimes fear he will drop dead of a stroke or heart attack on me -- all while talking a blue streak -- I find him enormously helpful. And he has helped me personally a couple of times with other Woman Living Along problems.

However, as luck would have it, Earl was not home. So in desperation I called the one male member of my staff, and asked if he could possibly help me set up my Christmas tree. With his usual good grace Bob drove from Hallowell to my place, did his best to help me, but finally agreed with me that the big problem was most likely my broken tree stand (did I mention my tree stand was broken?) So while Bob went to have lunch with his wife, who happens to work in Gardiner, I went to good ol' Harvey's Hardware and bought a new stand; Bob came back after lunch and we were able to get the tree up, and more or less straight. While he was gone I had decided where the tree would go: in the kitchen! The kitchen is separated from the living room (where I also eat) by only a narrow, waist-high counter cum built-in bookcase, so the tree would be plainly visible. And the only things taking up space on the kitchen side of the counter were a big box of bubble wrap, and the big cooler my mother gave me to carry food in when I was driving from Texas to Maine. Both could easily go down to the basement (in fact, I asked myself, why hadn't I don't that before?)

So, success at last. I was so worn out, I decided decorating would have to wait for the weekend.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

'Tis the season

Well, it's all over but the shouting. Sent my last Christ-mas cards out this morning. Doing Christmas cards is an activity I actually enjoy -- I like the idea of connecting to all those I care about at this time of caring and sharing -- but it just takes so long. First there's picking out the cards, then deciding which ones should go to whom. I don't just buy a box or two of the same card and send them out to everyone I know; I want what I send to be appropriate. Does this scene work for this person or couple? Does the message inside? And I have to keep a record of what card I send to whom, since I sometimes have cards left over, which I may use another year...but heaven forbid they should go to the same people!

Then there's the fact that I send cards out to a total of 38 households (plus three Hanukkah households, but this year that holiday came way too early, so those folks are getting Happy New Year's cards from me). But the real labor-intensive part comes from the fact that I make a point of writing personal notes to everyone, if I'm not including a Christmas letter. When I do a letter it isn't a summary of the whole year, as many people's Christmas letters are, but simply an of-the-moment letter. It may vary slightly from person to person, but the gist of it is the same. That saves me some time -- it's all on the computer, any slight changes take no time at all -- but this year I didn't seem to have a letter in me, so per-sonal, handwritten notes it had to be. Those people I more or less keep in touch with during the year -- or those few who I know actually make a point of reading my blog -- may get a very brief note; others, a more substantive one. But it all takes time, and thought.

And finally, I have to photocopy all the cards, so I'll know what I've said to whom (since I remember nothing, see Note of...ah, I forget). And then I have to handwrite my return address 40 times because I don't have those little return address stickers (a frill I can't bring myself to spend money on). And at some point I stand in line to buy Christmas stamps. And all of this takes me a week to ten days to complete. Which is where I am now, tired but triumphant.

But, here's the thing. Most people (at least most women) not only churn out the Christmas cards -- and I'm sure many people have lists as long as mine, if not longer -- but they also have to buy presents for various near and dear, an obligation I'm spared because of my Starving Librarian status. If they have kids, several gifts for each one of them. If they have nieces/nephews they're close to, they have to have presents. The parents -- both sets, if you're a couple. The spouse. Secret Santa at work. Everything has to be selected (will he like this, is this too young for her, will this fit, do you suppose they already have one, can we afford this), wrapped, mailed in a timely fashion or put under the tree. On top of baking cookies for the family, and the church Christmas fair, on top of decorating the house (male contributions in this area usually restricted to putting the lights on the tree, and putting up the outside lights), on top of going to see the kids in the church's nativity play, on top of maybe going to a Christmas party, maybe throwing one. Planning, shopping for, and preparing the Christmas meal.

No wonder they're so relieved when it's all over. No wonder the holidays are so stressful for so many people (especially women). There are just too many things one is expected to do, or that one demands of oneself, to make the holiday "just right." Toward the end I got really tired of doing Christmas cards, and that was just one little task that I was demanding of myself. But ye gods, if I had to do all that other stuff...

As much as I love Christmas, with all the trimmings, I probably just wouldn't. In order to keep on loving Christmas.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Oh, yes, I forgot...

As yet further evidence that my memory is essentially useless: Ellen and I had two delays on our trip, not one. And the second was lengthy enough for us to sit down in a restaurant and have a leisurely lunch.

Friend Fae drove us to the airport at about 11 a.m. Saturday, for our 12:50 flight to Colorado Springs. Although we'd been blessed with sunny weather throughout our stay, the last ten minutes of the drive were in pouring rain, that had us all feeling nervous. Indeed, both Ellen and I were worried about Fae having to drive home in that rain, but she assured me in a later email that it stopped as soon as she'd left the airport (it would seem the gods didn't want people coming to the airport, but if you'd already dropped off your passengers, ah, what the hell). After we'd snaked our way through a longish security line that nonetheless moved at a reasonable pace -- and during which a smiling, very young, security guard reminded me that I'd have to dump that water bottle in my hand ("Or you can just dump the water in the bin and keep the bottle," he'd said helpfully, but, thinking about those annoying faucets in the ladies room, where you have to hold your hands just so to get the water to come on, and it can go off any time it likes, I decided against the refill-it-after-the-security-rigmarole substitute for having to purchase a $2.50 bottle of water post-security.) -- and after following the little old white-haired gentleman who had to all but undress (first they had to tell him to take off his belt, but then his suspenders set off the alarm. So then he undid them at the front, but of course that didn't help at all, since the metal clips that had attached to his pants were just as metal dangling down around his knees. Finally one of the security guards helped him undo them at the back and remove them. At least they didn't say, O.K., sir, you'll need to step over here for a pat-down.) through the security gate, we found a Departures monitor and learned that our plane wouldn't be leaving until 1:20. We had nearly two hours to kill.

So we opted for lunch. And not in a food-court kind of set-up, with overpriced fast food, but in a real restau-rant, where you sat down, ordered, and waited for them to cook your food. A first for me, in many years of flying. The place was called Yankee Pier -- more irony -- and served really quite excellent seafood. I had the fish and chips, and while the fish was fried, the flesh was cooked just right, not overcooked, not rubbery, and the batter was very light. Excellent fried potatoes made out of real (as opposed to pop them frozen out of the bag) potatoes. Ellen said her tuna melt was "real" tuna (as opposed to canned), and delicious. It was nice not having to rush, or take the food with us, to clumsily consume while waiting to board the plane.

Of course, this meal did not come cheap, $34 for the two of us, with only water to drink, and no dessert. Ah, well, we just pretended we could afford it.

By the way, re the very nice young security guard: throughout our various flights all TSA workers seemed to be bending over backwards to be pleasant and courteous, and Ellen and I were both wondering if the recent flap over the pat-down business had anything to do with that. At any rate, it was better than being treated like a potential criminal...