Sunday, October 30, 2011

Winter comes early as the witches fly

We had our first snowfall last night. Here in the Augusta area we got about two inches, so definitely more than a dusting. To my mind, early; last year the first snowfall was a whole month later (Nov. 26). The year before we had what I called a mini-snowstorm on Nov. 6th (See Note of Nov. 9, 2009), and I declared I wasn't ready then. So needless to say I'm not ready on Oct. 30th to wake up to snow on my lawn, my car, the back deck railing. But of course Mother Nature (don't you think it's interesting that humankind made God male, but Nature female?) couldn't care less who's ready and who's not. Just as she doesn't care how many people are living in paper houses above a fault line, or on the hillsides below a volcano.

What's really strange is that, since there were still leaves on the trees, and the snowfall was accompanied by wind, my snow-covered lawn is also pockmarked with yellow-brown leaves. It looks almost like a white quilt, with a leaf pattern.

Yesterday we had what has become our annual Kids' Halloween Party at the library. One of those events I HATE putting together. Librarian as Social Director; as we all know by now, my least favorite role as a public librarian. Thank God I have had a Program Coordinator for the past year and a half (we hired him when I went to reduced hours), who takes care of most of the details for most of our programs now. But this party required a lot of input from me. Ideas -- e.g., we've had Pin the Wart on the Witch for three years running now, what other, similar game could we have [answer: Pin the Tail on the Cat, with the tails proving to be much easier for the little kids to handle than the oversized warts were) -- running to the store for this, that and the other thing, mainly prizes for the various games, as well as for Most Beautiful, Cutest, Scariest and Most Original costume, which I also had to decide on. I performed this last task by wandering through the Halloween Spirit store that magically appears every year at this time, and the Dollar Tree, and Reny's Department store (the wonderful throw-back to a different era that can be found in several Maine towns -- it's actually more like an upscale Woolworth's than a Macy's, with, often, some really good bargains) hoping something would leap out at me. And things did, slowly but surely.

I also had to come up with clues for the Build a Skeleton Scavenger Hunt. I tried to delegate this task, but the only staff person who got into it produced a lot of clever clues that would have been a challenge for adults. So I had to do a lot of refining, then type the final product up and run off on appropriately orange paper with an appropriate skeleton on it. (And yesterday, as people were starting to arrive for the party, I was still running around tucking plastic skulls under dictionaries and plastic backbones under sofa cushions.)

During the party I was busy making sure things were going smoothly at all the various venues: besides the Pin the Tail on the Cat area, where two members of our Friends organization were writing names on construction paper tails and turning blindfolded kids around so that they would end up attaching their tails to the cat's legs, there was the dunking-for-apples spot, with the newest member of our Board of Trustees nobly providing guidance and towels to the eager young dunkers, the Mystery Box, where the president of our Board, who had also volunteered her services, oversaw children trying to guess what items were in the box by touch only, including such things as a pumpkin, a witch's hat ('wizard's hat' would also do), and a severed hand (all they had to guess was 'hand'). Kids who guessed everything got a festive badge that declared "I Guessed Everything in the Mystery Box," while those who were less successful got one that said "I Guessed Almost Everything in the Mystery Box."

There was the crafts table in the Children's Room which enjoyed a steady business in kids making bats and decorating construction paper jack-o-lanterns. Stacie, my intrepid helper every Wednesday when I do the Children's Story & Craft, was stuck there practically the entire length of the party, because the demand was so much greater than we'd expected, and she kept having to churn out pumpkins and bat wings and bodies. In the main reading room, beside a sign that said Make a Spooky Halloween Picture for our Wall, we also had black and orange paper, with sidewalk chalk for the former and colored markers for the latter, and this area did a brisk business as well. The lady from the Friends who was minding the nearby refreshments table would help the kids tape their pictures to the wall when they'd finished.

There was also a Ghost Walk, which I found myself having to oversee whenever I had a free moment, because there was no one else to do so. This game was another clever idea of Stacie's. Stacie is an absolute whizz at coming up with ideas for craft activities -- which I sometimes have to modify, to be within the capabilities of 2-3 year olds, but still -- and she's even more of a whizz at producing the prototype we always make so the kids will know what to aim for. Anyway, it was her idea to blow up a balloon, draw a ghost on it, put the "ghost" on a paper plate, and have the kids walk a certain course without the ghost flying away. Turned out to be a very popular activity, and whenever I would see a child looking at loose ends I would say, "Have you done the Ghost Walk yet?"

The Grand Finale was my "spooky story," the beginning of which I'd made up in my head while having lunch, before leaving for the library (the party started at 2 p.m.) I told the kids gathered around me that at different points in the story they would have to help me, by providing the next thing that would happen, when I pointed to them. So I had the bored twins, Troy and Tracy, who couldn't go Trick-or-Treating on Halloween night because it was too windy and rainy, deciding to go explore that big old empty house next door instead (they hadn't done this before, because they'd just moved into the neighborhood the week before). When they finally get the front door open, and Troy shines his dad's flashlight inside what should they see but (point, pause while surprised child thinks, then) "a ghost!" Yes! A great big ghost, hovering there in the dark. Tracy screamed. Troy screamed and dropped the flashlight...

And on we went. It was fun, and afterwards all the grownups who had gathered to listened as well were saying 'that was a great story!' and 'you're a born story-teller!', and I was thinking, yes, yes, I have all sort of talents you have no idea about because what you see me do is this job, which has almost nothing to do with any of my real talents.

But ah, well. Everyone seemed to have a good time, and now IT'S OVER FOR ANOTHER YEAR.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The good and the bad of remembering

I was lying in bed a little while ago recuperating from breakfast (which I nearly always have to do, because breakfast nearly always upsets my stomach), and got to thinking about memory. About how, while it serves the very useful purpose of providing us with our sense of identity, also serves a very negative function, that of making us feel sad.

Whenever someone dies people send sympathy cards that say, in effect, 'May happy memories of your loved one bring you comfort.' But it's been my experience that happy memories of loved ones just make me feel sad that those times are gone forever. And other memories of the departed loved one make me feel sad because they point up where I could have/should have done better.

It's painful to remember the last few of years of both my parents, and of my stepmother. My father and stepmother in particular suffered from very poor health; my father suffered numerous strokes and spent the last two years of his life bedridden in a nursing home, while my stepmother hung on in the assisted living facility they had had to be all but forcibly moved to, when they simply could not take care of themselves or their home any longer. I know many people my age have experienced similar situations with their parents in the last few years. Whatever positive memories we may have about our parents from when they were in their prime, robust, full of energy and opinions, are darkened by the memory of what their lives became, the indignities heaped upon them by a combination of old age and limited funds. And for the vast majority of us there are memories of our reluctance to go see our parents in their depressing (however nice) nursing homes/assisted living facilities. I myself lived only a 2 1/2 hour drive from my father and stepmother, during the last two years of my father's life (instead of on the other side of the country, which had been the case for most of my adult life), and yet I was rarely able to make myself make that drive more often than once a month. I hated seeing my once-proud father having to be dressed by some attendant, fed through a tube in his stomach because he found it all but impossible to swallow. I hated the ordeal of getting him into and out of the car to take him to see my stepmother, which he was always so eager to do...and then to have my stepmother essentially ignore him while he was there (she, the most loving and generous-spirited of women throughout her life, became quite irascible towards the end). My heart would be breaking for Daddy, while I tried to act cheerful and pleasant. THESE ARE NOT GOOD MEMORIES.

Nor are too many of my memories of my husband's last months, when I was stressed out with worry about money (dealing with the insurance was a NIGHTMARE), on top of the fact that my husband was dying of cancer. I remember once getting angry with him because he had washed a load of clothes while I was at work, and dried everything in the dryer, including some cotton turtle-necks of mine that I never dried in that way because they shrank. A truly petty thing to get angry about, considering the fact that 1) he'd made the effort to help out and 2) he was dying of cancer. I was trying to make his last months as comfortable and stress-free as possible, but one memory after another shows how frequently I failed.

So, somebody out there is undoubtedly saying, just don't entertain those bad memories. Concentrate on the good ones. But, as I said, the good ones can lead to sadness, too. I find that the only good memories that it is not painful to revisit, are those in which I have no particular emotional investment. A very successful costume party I threw in the spring of 1983, in Boston (Carolyn W. was a Hershey's Kiss, I was a Jane Austen book, Large Print Edition, Jim H. didn't wear a costume but brought a bunch of his hats that he would periodically change). Micheal and I walking through the eerily silent, traffic-free streets of Somerville, MA following the blizzard of '78. A visit I made to my brother in Santa Fe, the Christmas of pleasant memory after another there. Waking up my first morning in San Francisco, Nov. 1966, and going to the window of my room at the YWCA -- which charmed me by being the kind that opens out, rather than pushing up, and by not having any screens -- and seeing my first S.F. fog, to the accompanying clang of the nearby cable car.

In fact, many of my happy memories that carry no ties to unhappy thoughts spring from my travels over the years, but that in itself makes me sad, as I am scarcely able to travel these days. Am I just determined to be sad? Or would I just be better of without any memory at all?

Ah, but then I would be lost.

Friday, October 14, 2011

An outing in the sunshine

Last Sunday I and one of my staff made a trek out to the country to visit a farm and its "cheesery." (I'm wondering if there is even such a word.) It was the annual Open Creamery Day, when Maine creameries welcome visitors in to taste their cheeses and yogurts, see their livestock and bucolic surroundings. The Kennebec Cheesery at Koons Farm in the town of Sidney was the closest, so that's where we went.

The owners are Mainer Peter Koons and wife Jean who is from New Zealand. Peter spent 25 years living in New Zealand, and then family matters brought him back to the old homestead. I asked Jean if she missed New Zealand -- which certainly qualifies as a stupid question, for of course she would -- and she admitted that she did, but, she said, when they were in New Zealand they missed Maine, so it was a tradeoff. She is from the South Island, where they've been having all the bad earthquakes, and still has family there (including a 90-year-old mother), so I'm sure it must be worrisome for her. It was hard enough on me, worrying about my parents who were only 1700 miles away, rather than literally half a world away.

Jean is the cheese maker, and makes her cheese primarily from goat's milk, though she does get fresh cow's milk from a neighboring farm for one of her cheeses. We spent a very pleasant hour soaking up the country quiet, the pretty views -- the farm looks down a wooded slope to Messalonskee Lake -- and gawking at the goats, including two cute babies, who really did make that ehh-ehhh-ehhh goat sound. The adults were for the most part silent, although a lone billy goat, tethered off by himself ("because, quite frankly, he stinks," Peter said. "Female goats don't smell, but billy goats tend to be really rank." Now how many of you knew that?) did keep up a steady protest at being tethered off by himself.

We also went into the little building where they make the cheese, and where Jean's assistant gave us an explanation of how the various cheeses are made. Actually sounded relatively simple, but time-consuming. Do the milking in the morning, pour it into the big stainless steel vat and heat it to a certain temperature ("a kind of pasteurization"), let it set for a while, then pour off the curd that has risen to the top, putting it into little pyramid-shaped molds, or round ones. The molds have holes through which the whey drains. Then the cheese is salted, put into the refrigerator for a period of time (during which a "small amount" of whey continues to drain away). Finally, it's combined with olive oil and a variety of herbs, or rolled in other herbs, and it's ready to sell.

And we both bought some cheese. Jean had several kinds to sample. I really liked the basil-in-olive-oil chevre (which literally means 'goat', but also refers to goat cheese), but then I tasted the ball of cheese that had been rolled in dill and that was so delicious I had to get that one. (Starving Librarians cannot afford two cheeses at once.) I was disappointed to learn that all the places where Jean regularly sells her cheeses are in towns that, like Sidney, lie north of Augusta -- Waterville, Skowhegan, Oakland. However, she does frequent the Augusta Farmer's Market, so if I can make myself get over there on Tuesdays, I can get some more of her tasty cheese, and feel good about supporting a local farmer in the bargain.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Doesn't look or feel like fall

Well, it looks like we're not going to have a fall this year. Although we've had four or five scattered days of pleasantly autumn-like weather, mainly it's been unseasonably warm and dry. Today, here in the Augusta area, it's gotten up to 77 degrees; tomorrow it's supposed to reach 80! And this is Maine, second weekend in October.

The result of all this warm, dry weather is that the trees have not been undergoing their usual dramatic transformation. The leaves are just drying up and turning pale brown or, at best, pale yellow. There is a huge tree behind my house (neighbor's back yard) that is always a joy to behold every autumn, because the leaves turn a vivid orange. But not this year. Many of the leaves have simply dried up and fallen off already -- we've had a number of windy days that contributed to that -- but those that remain are an unprepossessing pale brown.

This same phenomenon occurred two years ago (see Note of Sept. 19 2009), and my friend Fae and I speculated about its being the result of global warming, that perhaps the chemical processes the trees usually underwent were being inhibited by the warm temperatures, especially at night. This year the warm, dry weather has gone on even longer and the lack of color is even more striking. I feel sorry for any tourists who have driven up this weekend to look at the "gorgeous fall foliage," because they're going to feel cheated. Gorgeous it ain't.