Sunday, January 30, 2011

Ah, but what comes next?

My, we do live in interesting times, don't we? I watched the protests in Tunisia with amazement, was especially amazed that the marching and shouting and street violence actually resulted in the much-despised president "stepping down," as they say, and leaving the country. A popular uprising, in that part of the world, actually toppling an unpopular government.

And now we have Egypt, which is even more aston-ishing. The country as a whole has enjoyed greater prosperity than Tunisia, but there are still many people unemployed, many of them young and educated, chaffing at having that education, and not being able to find a job (the same problem that exists in Tunisia). And so very many people living in gross poverty, on the equivalent of $2 a day, I heard on a news analysis program. And a government that has been a tiny bit more tolerant of self-expression, but not if it includes criticism of the government.

Then, thanks to mass communication, the Egyptians are able to watch the successful uprising in Tunisia -- hey, if they can do it, why can't we -- and a few hot-headed young men, who always seem to be the ones to lead insurrections, take to the streets, and the powder keg is lit.

I think how the French Revolution must have started in just this way, with the common people finally having had enough of their dire circumstances in juxtaposition with the wealth and luxury of the aristocracy, and the indifference of the government. In fact, that seems to be the recipe for "revolution": the bulk of the people living wretched lives, with no sense that the government gives a damn about them. A few brave souls start shout-ing, marching, and all the lemmings join in. Then the mob mentality sets in -- there's violence, destruction, and the powers that be get scared. Inevitably they bring in the police/army -- the guys with the guns. But if the guys with the guns have any sympathy at all with the protesters -- as seems to be the case in Egypt -- or if the protesters are in sufficient numbers, and of sufficient desperation -- the government may be out of luck.

Of course we all learn about this stuff in school -- for some of us, a hundred years ago -- but now we're able to watch it being played out on our television screens. We are able to watch history being made, as we did with the moon walk, the assasination of Lee Harvey Oswald (I remember passing through the living room, glancing at the television, which had been left on all-but-constantly since Kennedy's assasination, and actually seeing Oswald gunned down), the Vietnam war, or for that matter the Iraqi war, during which we were given practically a blow-by-blow. Television really is a remarkable thing.

The current history-in-the-making is fascinating, but also unsettling, because most of the people involved in the yelling, marching and stone-throwing are not in any way pro-American. Even though they are vehemently against their current governments, they are just as vehemently anti-American. It is going to be very interesting, seeing how the world proceeds to change.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The not-so-good earth

I have been reading a very interesting book, Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth, by Hilary Spurling. This is a book I ordered for the library, because it got such good reviews, but I am the only person to have checked it out in six months, to my considerable disappointment. I'm always disappointed when one of my book selections falls flat with my patrons. I consider a circulation of five for a nonfiction book good, 2-3 is o.k., none at all is, well, flummoxing. How could I so misread my patrons' reading interests?

I know it's not that no one knows who Pearl S. Buck was -- which is apparently the case in the wider population these days -- because a lot of our patrons are older. They would have heard of The Good Earth, quite possibly read it -- maybe even seen the travesty of a Hollywood film that was made of it -- even if they had never read any other of Buck's books. But apparently no one is interested in the back-ground and experiences that made it might even say necessary...for Buck to write that at-one-time blockbuster novel, which all but singlehandedly saved the small, struggling publishing house, John Day Company, that published it in 1931, which won the author a Pulitzer Prize in 1932, and was a large part of her winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1938 (the first woman to do so).

Well, too bad, my patrons have just missed out on a good book, from which I've learned a great deal, both about this complex, fascinating woman, and about a period of Chinese history most of us are essentially ignorant of (late 1800s, early 1900s). I vaguely knew that Pearl Buck was the daughter of missionaries to China, and spent her childhood there, but I really didn't understand to what extent China formed her. She spent the first half of her life trying to be someone she was not suited to be -- first the docile daughter of a Bible-thumping missionary (who estimated that in ten years he had managed ten converts, which just left millions still to be converted) -- then the equally-docile wife of an equally fanatically-dedicated agricultural specialist, still in China. Although she was born in the United States (in her mother's native West Virginia, which came as a surprise to me), during a holiday home for her missionary parents, she spent all but four years, from toddler-hood to her mid-thirties, living in China. The years 1910-1914 she was attending Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia, being miserable and feeling out of place (though, as she put it, "externally I became an American"), dismayed that no one was the least interested in the place she thought of as home.

I don't remember much of The Good Earth, which I read many years ago. Mainly I remember being appalled by the life of the main character's wife (who, for me, was actually the main character). She was not loved by her husband, who only picked her because he thought she would be a hard worker, which she was. O-lan's life was an unrelenting hard, from her days as a slave in a rich man's house, to her days married to Wang Lung, during which she was forever getting pregnant, bearing the children all by herself (the scene of her first solitary childbirth is indelibly imprinted on my brain), and work-work-working. I found it heartbreaking that even when she died, her loss was not much felt by her family.

Having read Spurling's book, I now know that the unfortunate O-lan was based to a large extent on an equally unattractive, but stalwartly loyal servant of Buck's. And that, indeed, much of what happened, virtually all of the conditions of which she wrote, Buck had witnessed, over the years. When the book was published the Chinese literati objected to it vehemently, because it was about rough, lowly peasants. Why would one write about such people? The government also objected to it, because it suggested rampant lawlessness in the countryside, and did not paint a pretty picture of life in China. But what came of Buck's close exposure to "rough, lowly peasants" was a respect and compassion for these people, along with a clear-eyed view of what life was like for them, how it dictated their behavior.

She also, apparently, wrote tellingly of her mother -- trapped in an inappropriate and unsatisfying marriage her entire life (at the time of her death she literally despised her husband, whom she felt, quite rightly, had sacrificed both her and their children to his fanatical missionary work) in a book called The Exile, and about her difficult father, whom she finally came to understand, respect and love, for all his flaws, in Fighting Angel: Portrait of a Soul. I'd be interested in reading both books, though I fear the former would depress me -- I hate being reminded that, in the good ol' days, so many women were trapped in miserable marriages that deprived them of the opportunity to be truly themselves -- and the latter would make me mad.

I can only say I'm glad Buck finally had her day in the sun, that after over 24 rejections the book that made her was accepted for publication, and that once she moved permanently to the United States, and unburdened herself of a marriage that had been as unsatisfying as her mother's, she was able to find constant, loving support from her publisher, whom she married, and with whom she adopted six children. Apparently much of what she wrote in later years was not, in a literary sense, very good, but she never stopped trying to convey to the rest of the world the "real" China. That was her mission.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

To close or not to close

Well, here we are in the midst of another blizzard. It's beginning to look like this is going to be a serious winter.

I closed the library, after doing my usual dithering. At eight o'clock when my alarm went off (Wednesday is the only day I have to get up to an alarm clock, as it is the only day I must be to work before 11. Late starting times are definitely one of the benefits of my current job -- starting the work day at 8 or 8:30 was always an agony for me.) I saw that it wasn't snowing all that hard. Maybe we should go ahead and open, and then close early (the storm was supposed to get worse as the day wore on). There were several reasons I considered this possibility. 1) I was out sick yesterday, and really didn't need to be losing another day of work. 2) Like me, my staff is paid only for hours worked, so the two women who normally work on Wednesdays would be losing pay. For one of them this is no big deal, for the other it is. 3) I know that a number of hardy souls who live in the immediate vicinity of the library would be glad to have it open. We have several patrons like this: retired, not much to do, very dependent on the reading matter they obtain from the library to give them something to do. 4) What if the storm turned out to be not all that bad -- we would have "wasted" one of our "snow days." Not that we have a set number, but when you close too often, your public begins to lose faith in you ("what, they're closed again?!") And this is Maine, where it is generally expected that one will carry on, despite the weather.

Finally, at nine, I called my staff member who normally opens on Wednesday, and who lives just three blocks from the library. She is also the one who dislikes losing hours. I figured if she was up for going in for a while she could do so, but I had decided I was not going in. It was rapidly looking worse out there, and it just seemed unnecessarily foolish (sometimes it is necessary to be a little foolish) to be making that 15-minute drive from Gardiner to Hallowell on what would certainly be treacherous streets -- after spending an exhausting half hour digging my car out -- and then having to come back again in two or three hours. As usual I got Sue's answering machines -- Sue and her husband are in that elite group of people who not only screen all their calls, but never pick up, so you always have to wait for them to call you back (I admit I do not understand this at all). However, Sue did not call me back, which confused me; surely she wouldn't have left for work already. She was scheduled to arrive at 9:30, to prepare for the 10 o'clock opening, and it would take her two minutes to get there if she drove, maybe 10 if she walked.

By 9:30 I knew we should not be opening. I had contacted the delivery service that brings and picks up our Interlibrary Loan books on Wed., to tell them we would be closed, had contacted the chairman of our Board of Trustees, (by phone, as for some reason Yahoo Mail picked this particular time not to give me access to my email account), to tell him we were closed, and to ask him to convey that info. to the rest of the Board. I did this because he had sent out an email last night, about the Board meeting scheduled for this evening, telling us to "watch the weather; we may have to cancel. If the library is closed we will definitely cancel." I think he was relieved to get my message, and promised to pass along the info., and said he would be cancelling tonight's meeting, as well.

However, I still hadn't talked to Sue. I tried to reach her several times between 9:30 and 10 at the library. I have told my staff not to answer the phone when we are not open, as I think it's important for people to understand that, just like any other business, we have hours when we are open, and hours when we are closed; but I knew that when I was not there Sue frequently disregarded this stricture. I hasten to add that this is not because of a basically rebellious nature, but because for Sue helping patrons is a sacred duty, and whether they call at 7 a.m. or 10 p.m. -- if she's there, she feels duty-bound to answer, and help them if she can. However, I got no answer, even after 10 a.m. -- except for the message I had had my staff put on the answering machine last night, saying if you're hearing this message during our regular hours on Wednesday it means we are closed due to the storm -- so I had to infer that a combination of my rather cryptic message to her home phone ("we need to talk about our opening"), combined with the state of the weather, had convinced her that we were not opening today. And when she finally called me, 11-ish, that turned out to be the case.

Well, I've gone on and on, when here is the real crux of the matter: it drives me crazy that I have such a hard time making this kind of decision. Perhaps it's a lack of faith in my own judgment, combined with a fear of not meeting the expectations of others. Perhaps I am just cursed by being so aware of all possibilities and ramifications...or perhaps the curse is being paralyzed by that awareness. Whatever is the cause, I must say it's a drag...

Saturday, January 8, 2011

If you don't like the new law, shoot somebody

I have just been reading on Yahoo news about the shooting of Representative Giffords in Tucson (I don't have access to television news on Saturdays until the 10 p.m. news on the Fox channel). I am just so sick of living in a place where people get pissed off, so grab their guns and go out and shoot a bunch of innocent people. And even more sick of living someplace where this is tolerated -- with just the same old mumblings about "this terrible tragedy," -- including by such people as Sarah Palin, who has actually displayed on her web site, in the cross-hairs of a gun, "targets" of elected officials whose political stands she disagrees with -- with nothing being done to make it less likely that such a thing will be repeated.

The irate sheriff of Pima County is so right when he excoriates the political "vitriol" that is being tossed about in this country, with hatred of those with opposing viewpoints being proclaimed from radio and television shows (and web sites). Then some mentally unbalanced person responds to that message of hate, which he has heard repeated over and over, by grabbing the gun he has no business having, and going off to shoot somebody, preferably several somebodies. And still the gun lobby triumphs, with their stupid insistence that "Guns don't kill people, people do." Yes, but if those wretched people didn't have such ease of access to guns, they wouldn't be able to shoot any 9-year-olds to death, would they? I have to stop; I'm too angry. THIS JUST KEEPS HAPPENING.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Especially for you

I just received a late Christmas present. Or rather, I just discovered it. Under my sofa, where it was apparently kicked at some point. The thing is, I didn't know it was a Christmas present, when I found it in my Post Office box on Christmas Eve. It was from Vista Print. I had ordered some business cards from them a few months ago, but knew I hadn't ordered anything from them recently. And yet, on the three large envelopes inside the padded mailer was imprinted 'Thanks for your order!' I had the fleeting thought: Oh, it's going to be one of those unordered-merchandise-return-to-sender things. (Although yes, I know you can't do that once you've opened a package.) So anyway I tossed the package aside to be dealt with later; at the time, I was right in the middle of my brother's visit.

Recently my friend Fae asked me via email if I'd received a Mystery Package at Christmas. Having completely forgotten about the parcel from Vista Print (out of sight out of mind with me, and it had now been under my couch for who knows how long), I responded in the negative. Then this evening when I was searching everywhere for the spiral notebook in which I write my List of Things To Do, and without which I am lost, I looked under the sofa, and found the Mystery Package. When I opened the interior envelopes I saw sheets and sheets of beautiful return address stickers...with lighthouses on them. And a light bulb went on in my head. I had mentioned in my Note of December 18, 2010 that I couldn't shorten the amount of time doing Christmas cards takes by using return address stickers, because I considered those a little luxury I really couldn't afford. And most of my friends know by now that I love lighthouses. lightening brain was busy putting two and two together...Fae had ordered luxury return address stickers for me, but since they came directly from the printer's, I hadn't known that.

But now I did, and could properly thank my good friend for her thoughtful gift.

This is the kind of gift I like to both receive, and give. A sudden realization that something would be perfect for someone, and promptly getting it for him or her. Not because it's Christmas, or their birthday, but because you know they need it, or would love it. My friend Ernest once sent me an audio book of The Iliad, read by Derek Jacoby, because he knew I was a huge fan of the actor's.
My sister's trip to the San Francisco area at Thanksgiving was a gift from me to her, because I knew it was some-thing she'd enjoy, and indeed needed, but could not afford.

A monetary gift need not be of the I-don't-know-what-else-to-get-you-so-here's-some-money variety. My English friends Ann and John once sent me $500, because both Micheal and I were at the time unemployed, and I had just incurred a large hospital bill as the result of what was apparently a mild heart attack. I wanted to pay them back, but they insisted it was a gift. A friend who would probably prefer to remain nameless sent me a gift in early fall that made it possible for me to make the trip to Texas I'd been wanting to make for months.

I also love gifts that are the result of personal effort/ talent. The above-mentioned Fae has delighted me with bracelets she made herself (she's a beader), and a very long knitted scarf she'd made herself (she's also a knitter). My friend Mary frequently includes Haiku poems she's written with birthday/Christmas cards, and one of the loveliest gifts I ever received was a whole book of them that she had produced. My friend Robert offered me my choice of a number of his art works, when I saw him in Ft. Worth this fall; a long time ago he did a watercolor of an owl for me, because he knew I liked owls.

It's people at their best: giving, to give pleasure.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

In the spirit of the season

On Christmas Eve my brother and I went to church. I am not a religious person but my brother, like most of my family, is; and I knew he would like to go to church at some point during Christmas. There is a plethora of churches in my area -- the granite Catholic church at the end of my street, across from the Gardiner common, the granite Episcopalian church on the other side of the common, the Congregational church a block down from the Episcopalian church, the Baptist church directly across the street from the Congregational...and two Methodist churches a few blocks away. (I've often wondered how there could be two Methodist churches on the same street, just a couple of blocks from one another. Did the Gardiner Free Methodist Church break away from the United Methodist Church because some folks objected to all the money they were being asked to fork up?)

Since the church Jeremiah attends in Santa Fe is Pentacostal, I suspected that the First Baptist Church of Gardiner might come closest to what he was used to. Besides which the church building, which is small, has gorgeous stained glass windows. I am a sucker for beau-tiful stained glass windows. And these do not contain pictures of Biblical stories, as is usual, but stylized nature scenes, with the occasional cross or lamb thrown in for relevance. Numerous times I have driven past the church at night, when the lights inside had the windows looking jewel-like, and have thought I should go to a service just to be able to see those windows with the sun streaming through them.

I was hoping the service would not be a normal church service, but emphatically Christmas-y, and it was. We sang a lot of Christmas hymns, which I like. One really can't object to singing Joy to the World, it's such an "up" piece. I also liked it when the minister had all the men go up to the front and sing We Three Kings of Orient Are. For one thing, it demonstrated that there were a surprising number of men in attendance, and for another, it was cool hearing that particular song sung by these robust, manly voices.

Instead of a regular sermon the preacher tried something that struck both Jeremiah and me as a good idea that didn't quite come off. He had a little scenario in which a neighbor dropped by for a chat, and they talked about the wider ramifications of Christmas. Unfortunately, the "neighbor" seemed to have forgotten all his lines, so the preacher kept having to say them for him, in a way that made sense, his saying it rather than the neighbor. And it meant he did nearly all the talking, with the "neighbor" just sitting there looking rather foolish.

I also felt that the pastor missed the opportunity to say some really pithy things about the "wider" meaning of Christmas (that is, beyond it's being a celebration of Christ's birth). For example, almost in passing he men-tioned that the year had been a very difficult one for many people, but he didn't really connect that very successfully to the issue of Christmas, as in: when money is tight, when maybe somebody in the family has lost his or her job, not only is Christmas the perfect time to remind ourselves that God is ultimately on our side, if we will hang onto our faith, hard as that may be, but a "tight" Christmas is the perfect time to wean ourselves away from all that excessive buying that doesn't really bring us happiness anyway. A chance for the family to promise to do something nice for one another ("I'll do the vacuuming for you, Mom/Sweetheart, every week in January.") rather than trying to buy expensive gifts they simply cannot afford. A chance to reaffirm that Christmas really is about being together, in loving kindness, rather than about accumulating more stuff. Etc., etc. (There were numerous other instances where I thought he missed some golden opportunities.)

You see, I could be a preacher; I know all the right stuff to say, and I know it's important to say it in a way that connects with people's real lives. On the other hand, I don't believe most of the stuff you're required to be-lieve, so I probably couldn't be a preacher.

Anyway, it was a pleasant evening, in a warm, comfor-table, very pretty church (Jeremiah and I agreed it didn't look like the Baptist churches we're used to in the south, which tend to be plain, if not downright sterile), and we went out feeling cheerful. But then it all got ruined because some fellow had penned me in with his auto. His front fender was literally touching my back one. And I couldn't move forward because there was a truck there. So we had to wait for the offender to come out. But we waited and waited, the church was emptying, and still no thoughtless driver. So now I was really annoyed, and went storming into the church, interrupting various happily chattering groups of people to ask if one of them had parked a four-door white station wagon in the back alley. Nobody had, but maybe the offender overheard me because as soon I got back out to the car here he came. He did apologize, but alas, I had gone beyond my patience and good-humor limit, and was not gracious. So much for the lasting influence of Christmas's message of loving kindness...