Tuesday, July 26, 2011

An unexpected pleasure

A few months ago, after a couple of people had asked me if the library had a book club, and I had had to reply in the negative, I decided to survey our public, to see if there might be additional interest in starting one. I had done this several years ago, and got all of two positive responses, so that was the end of that. But this time, eight people indicated an interest. So I then went through the process of trying to determine when all or most of those people could get together, both in terms of time of day -- days? evenings? -- and day of the week. Phone calling, emailing. Finally determined that the third Tuesday of the month, at 6 p.m. would work best for everybody. So I scheduled the first meeting, and suggested that for that first meeting, everyone come prepared to talk about a book they'd read recently that they really liked.

Mind you, I had no interest in being part of a book club. But this points up one of the curses of my upbringing: my mother instilled in all five of her children the...not idea...imperative...that when doing a job you not only did whatever had to be done, but what should be done. And always to the best of your ability, it goes without saying. So seeing that there was a demand among the library's patrons for a book club, I knew I had to give them a book club. I had a vague hope that after a meeting or two it would be possible to slide the running of the club onto someone else's shoulders. One of my staff was actually interested in participating, so the possibility of her taking over existed, and even if not, she could at least serve as the library's "presence," letting me off the hook.

To my surprise, I found the first meeting quite enjoyable, as I have the two subsequent ones. I find I love talking about books with others who also love talking about books. And the selections agreed on by the group have "forced" me to read books I doubtless would never have read otherwise -- my reading for some time now has been, to a shocking degree, limited to mysteries -- but which have proved to be, at the very least very well-written (and, indeed, have made me despair of ever being able to write so well); and in two cases have turned out to be books I loved. It is truly one of the supreme pleasures of life to discover an artist -- whether a writer, a painter, an actor, a singer or musician -- whose work leaves one moved and impressed.

Our first group choice was Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, a best seller that I found so depressing I didn't even finish reading it. (I have happily reached that point in life where I no longer feel compelled to finish a book just because I've started it.) But even that book, with its very unlikable main character, is wonderfully written. As I commented to the group, you could see every person she described, every scene, and she managed this without a lot of description! A sample scene: (characters: sweet, hen-pecked Henry, his too-often bitch of a wife, Olive, and their son Christopher)

A Saturday at home: Lunch was crabmeat sandwiches, grilled with cheese. Christopher was putting one into his mouth, but the phone rang, and Olive went to answer it. Christopher, without being asked, waited, the sandwich held in his hand. Henry's mind seemed to take a picture of that moment, his son's instinctive deference at the very same time they heard Olive's voice in the next room. "Oh you poor child," she said, in a voice Henry would always remember -- filled with such dismay that all her outer Olive-ness seemed stripped away. "You poor, poor child." [It was the young woman who worked at Henry's pharmacy, calling to tell him that her husband had just been killed in a hunting accident.]

The thing is, there are endless bad things like this that happen, endless everyday occurrences that demonstrate how disappointing and downright bleak life ends up being for so many people As one of the members of our club said, "It's too real." The characters are small-town folk in Maine, but they could be anywhere, leading their lives of quiet desperation.

So I came away from reading this book thinking that Elizabeth Strout is a really excellent writer -- and maybe I should give another of her books a chance -- but this one is a well-written downer.

I'll tell you about our other reads later, but in the mean-time, if you like reading, and talking about what you read...find a book club.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Where's the payoff?

I am feeling very discouraged because, after three full weeks of avoiding all those simple carbohydrates that promptly turn into sugar in the body -- which gives the ol' blood sugar level an energizing push, which is then followed by a debilitating slump -- I am still dragging around like somebody recovering from a three-day drunk. I can tell that my body is healthier -- I feel lighter, less bloated, don't pepper the landscape with huge, indelicate farts -- but I still have very little energy.

Not only did I give up sugar, I gave up caffeine. It was my understanding that caffeine can make you feel hungry, which I thought might be contributing to the fact that I seemed to be eating all the time. However, I am still hungry, and must eat, every 2 1/2-3 hours, caffeine or no. And while I have successfully kept my beloved Diet Dr. Pepper out of my diet, in the last week I have let coffee slip back in, because otherwise I simply would not have been able to do anything. This has been at work, where I am constantly (and I do mean constantly -- there seems to be a rule at my library that there can never be a calm, business-as-usual day) problem-solving, which means I have to be mentally acute and physically vigorous. A few sips of coffee helps me to be that. But what this says to me is that my just eating healthily is not going to take care of my energy problem.

Perhaps it's hormonal. A year and a half ago, when I was fighting with my physician's assistant about going off estrogen -- which I'd been taking for 20 years, to his horror -- I told him one of the reasons I wanted to continue taking it was that, for a couple of months, a few years before, I had gone off it, and not only did I immediately start having the dreaded Hot Flashes (and what's with hot flashes anyway? Where did Nature come up with that stupid idea?), but my body just seemed not to function as well, and I felt very tired. He insisted that "we," meaning I, should give it another try, and if after a few months I was still suffering symptoms we'd revisit the question of estrogen replace-ment. He suggested two natural solutions for the hot flashes (although really it was one of the female real physicians at the clinic who recommended them) -- fish oil capsules and Vitamin B6 -- and those have, for the most part, taken care of that problem. But I ain't got no energy!!! I think it's time for another visit to the physician's assistant.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The little country on the fault line

First off I have to say that I, for one, am glad the Japanese women's soccer team won the World Cup, rather than the U.S. team. That is one country that really needed some-thing to feel happy and proud about.

I've mentioned before how much I enjoy having access to television news programs from other countries [see Note of Mar. 31, 2011]. I feel I'm learning a lot about Japan and the Japanese people, thanks to NHK World. For one thing, they still bow to one another! The news program will show some government official walking up to the lectern, to make some announcement to the Diet (parliament), and he'll bow first to whoever is on the dais, then give a little bob of his head and shoulders to the people he will be addressing. Various government officials have been visiting the emergency shelters that are still housing so many people, and they will bow, the people receiving them will bow.

Even in a segment showing how one businessman whose business had been wiped out by the disaster was making overtures to a cooperative in another prefecture, in hopes of being able to market his expertise to them, the gentlemen bowed slightly as they exchanged business cards. It was actually a fairly informal situation, everyone was in shirt sleeves, not suits, but they bowed.

This is a real cultural difference, the sort of thing that makes travel so interesting, that makes the world so interesting.

The Japanese also nod their heads a lot when they speak, but they do not wave their hands around, the way we Americans do. They generally speak softly to the camera. An amusing exception was actually a matter of a voice being recorded, rather than someone being interviewed before the camera. The prime minister, Naoto Kan, was heard castigating representatives of Tokyo Power Company (TEPCO), the company that is responsible for the Fukishima Daiichi Power Plant. This angry assault was a far cry from the super polite public utterings you generally hear from everyone, more like what you'd hear from the furious Japanese general in an old World War II movie.

And speaking of Kan, well, talk about beleaguered world leaders. He had to promise to step down as soon as the nuclear crisis was well in hand, which it is still far from being. As last reported by NHK, his approval rating was at 16%. President Obama is in great shape, compared to him. The Japanese were having economic problems like every-body else, and then this staggering natural disaster strikes, followed by the crisis at Fukishima. People are feeling the government has been too slow in its reconstruction efforts, and too secretive about what has really been happening at the power plant. So naturally the head honcho has to take it on the chin.

And on a lighter note: the sport NHK regularly reports on is...sumo wrestling! They show clips of matches. A round, or bout, or whatever it's called, is incredibly short, just the few seconds it takes for one of the chubby gentlemen to maneuver his opponent out of the small circle they are wrestling in. The crowds are wildly enthusiastic. The referees wear traditional garb. I find it delightful.

There is an excellent article on NHK World at http://cima.ned.org/japan-disaster-coverage-measured-not-breathless (as usual I cannot get the link to work). The things the article says about the station -- no melodrama, just the facts, ma'm, no star anchors -- are the very things I like about it. And again, I thank Maine Public Broadcasting, for making it possible for me to view this part of the world.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Drowning in paper

Well, I guess we all are, but when you're someone who writes, and who does genealogical research, and who insists on printing copies of almost every email she sends or receives (I even find it frustrating that you can't also print Facebook chat conversa-tions, as I've had several good ones of those, now lost for all eternity) -- not to mention having all the usual bills, pleas for funds from various worthy causes, Statements of Benefits from ones health insurance company, grocery lists, grocery shopping receipts, scraps of paper on which are scribbled email addresses, telephone numbers, notes to myself to Do This or Do That, or names of musical pieces I've heard on the radio that I'd like to add to my collection (that may not be a typical source of clutter)...well, it can be truly overwhelming. And I haven't even mentioned all the Library Journals and New York Review of Books that I bring home from work, with the intention of reading the book reviews, to help me decide on what to order for the library.

I keep trying to get the situation under control, but the major stumbling block is that I do have to make a decision about every single piece of paper. The decision is: what do I do with this? I know there's a pearl of wisdom that says never handle a piece of paper twice -- in other words, take care of whatever it is now, and get the damn thing tossed or filed or passed along to someone else to take care of (not an option at home, rarely an option at work). But sometimes I just don't have the time to make the decision; too often I'm unable to make a decision quick like a bunny.

You might say, what kind of decision do you have to make about a grocery store receipt? Just toss the damn thing. But no, if I paid in cash the receipt must be set aside for at least a few days, in case something I purchased has to be returned (and I have, more than once, had to return bad meat, so this is not as utterly ridiculous as it may sound). If I've paid with my debit card, the receipt has to go on the stack that is supposed to be entered in a timely fashion into my check book...a task which, alas, I have been neglecting sorely over the past few months because it's both tedious and depressing, depressing both because it reveals how little money I have, and because I can never get the damn thing to balance...with the result that there is now quite a stack littering my dining table (and why does everyone put papers on the dining table? Most of us have desks, but they don't seem to be used for what is surely one of their major purposes...)

And then there are the begging letters. By rights I should just toss them in the trash, without even opening them, since I know I don't have the money to donate, however good the cause. But sometimes I'll think, well, maybe, in a paycheck or two I can send them something... And then I never do (or almost never, my two alma maters and Maine Public Broadcasting being the only likely exceptions), so the begging letters just lie around making me feel bad because I can't respond to them the way I'd like to.

I have this same problem at work, just stacks and stacks of paper that every now and then I make a stab at making the necessary decisions about. I'll get three or four sheets of paper taken care of, and then something will come up to distract me, and I won't get back to the stack for a week or two, by which time it has been buried by another stack.

I've even tried bringing some of those stacks home to get them organized where I'll have the time to concentrate on them without endless interruptions -- write little notes on stickies saying what to do with them when I take them back to work. But the same thing happens: I'll follow the instructions scribbled on the stickies for two or three pieces of paper -- get distracted -- and the rest of the papers in the folder will sit around for another week or two, until I stumble on them again, and try to clear them away again.

All I can say is: achhh!!!

Friday, July 8, 2011

The joys of librarianship

On Wednesday, even though I was officially on vacation, I went in for an hour and a half (which ended up being two hours), in order to put on the show that is our weekly Children's Hour. Any time over the past year I could have just left this to my assistant, who can certainly read a simple story and oversee a simple craft for two or three, or even four children. Which is how many kids we've been getting for the past year. Demographics were at play here: all the little kids who had been coming regularly suddenly graduated to pre-school or kindergarten, and there was not a new batch of children of the right age to replace them.

However, week before last we were inundated with children! Not two or three or four, but sixteen! It was like the old days. Which was nice, but we weren't prepared. We didn't have enough of the needed supplies for the craft we had planned. So Stacie and I had to do some quick thinking, to come up with an alternative. And, clever ladies that we are, we did.

We had to assume we would be getting about the same number of children this week, and I knew Stacie could not handle sixteen children by herself, however simple we made the craft. So I made the decision to go in, just for that time period. What the heck, it wasn't like I would be interrupting my Bermuda cruise. I would just be driving the 15 minutes from my house in Gardiner to the library in Hallowell, reading a story, getting however many kids showed up through a craft, and then splitting for my air-conditioned home once more.

However. We had been thinking: decorate rocks if it rains, paint on the long roll of white paper taped to the wall outside if it's dry. It was dry, and also very warm. The library was very warm. Painting really seemed the best option. But before the children could paint, Stacie and I had to attach a big piece of plastic to the wall outside, then tape the paper onto that. The wall is made of large, rough blocks of granite, not the best surface to be painting on, which was why the plastic needed to go on first.

But what a trial getting that plastic onto the wall proved to be! We did this one time before, a few years ago, and it surely was not so difficult then. The roll of clear "packing" tape I'd taken out would not stick to the wall. Stacie had brought out the almost defunct roll of masking tape, which worked better, but Stacie's hands shake even more than mine do (for a different reason), so she had trouble peeling the tape from the roll, then tearing it off (she'd forgotten to bring out scissors), then attaching it smoothly and securely to the plastic. My impatience couldn't tolerate her fumbling long -- keep in mind that we were not able to do this in a leisurely fashion, because Stacie only arrives at the library about 20 minutes before story time -- so I took over the taping, while Stacie held first the plastic, then the paper in place. There was also a fairly good breeze, which complicated matters. And I kept fuming, "I don't even have a book yet."

I'd actually spent some of the time before Stacie arrived looking for/trying to think of a good book to read. Normally I have this done by the day before, but of course I hadn't been in on Monday or Tuesday. I did go in for 3 1/2 hours on Sunday, partly to get some things done that needed to be done, partly to insure that my paycheck this pay period wouldn't be too pathetically paltry (since I went on reduced hours last year I am paid by the hour, rather than having a fixed salary as I did before). But on Sunday I was thinking 'decorated rocks', rather than painting, so what little time I spent looking for a book was spent looking for something having to do with rocks (and finding nothing). We try to connect the story to our craft, though that isn't always possible.

Selecting a book is always something of a challenge anyway. Our usual audience is made up of 2-4 year olds, and you can't challenge their limited attention span with too long, too complicated, or too abstract, a story. They want something to happen, and in a fairly short amount of time. And there have to be good illustrations to show them.

The situation is complicated still further when you have older children as well, which we now did. Part of our new influx of children included a private day care center (containing only six children, thank god) with ages ranging from 3 to 8. So what to read, what to read.

When I got back inside, hot and harried, it was 10:45, the time I usually sat down with a book and started to read. No time to find a book now. So what the heck, I'd tell them a story. Which I did. Not really hard at all for me...I am, after all, a writer! And as I've mentioned in these Notes before, I used to entertain my siblings with stories when the family would travel. I very cleverly included the children gathered around me in the story -- whenever I pointed at them they were to say their names. Thus I could begin my story, "Once upon a time there was a brother and sister named..." (point) "Sam!" "and..."(point) "Lily" (said very shyly, but said). I had Sam and Lily walking through a big forest that got darker and scarier as they walked, and they were starting to get a little nervous when all of a sudden they met... (point) "Corrina." And on we went, looking for the Ice Cream House, where they had such good ice cream, and meeting lots of children along the way.

So once again the human brain problem-solved in a pinch. And then we went out and painted.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Temptation, get thee behind me

We've all heard of taking a mental health day. This week I'm taking a physical health week. As I mentioned in a recent Note (May 14, 2011), for some time now I have been badly abusing my body with various "poisons" -- heavy doses of sugar (which, as a hypoglycemic, I'm not supposed to eat at all), caffeine (I've been consuming more and more diet soda, and coffee, which I didn't drink at all for 63 years, finally entered my diet about a year ago, when I discovered it worked better than anything else at keeping me alert when I began to drag...but it disagrees with my insides), lots of carbs, lots of greasy fast food. I was eating poorly because I was tired of the effort involved in eating well, and I needed all the poisons to keep me going.

I decided it was time for a change when I realized I had just had half a cup of coffee, and a slew of cookies, and I still felt like putting my head down and going to sleep, still lacked the energy to do what I needed to do. So o.k., if the poisons weren't going to work, maybe it was time to eliminate them altogether, try to get back on the straight and narrow of good eating habits. But I knew that would require a chunk of time when I could put my head down and go to sleep, whenever I felt the pull of an unhealthy pick-me-up. In other words, a chunk of time when I didn't have to go to work.

So here I am, at day five of my Great Experiment -- which actually seems to be taking the form of the Great With-drawal. No sweets, no coffee or diet Dr. Pepper, no McDonald's burgers, no bagels with cream cheese, no corn chips, not even any proper bread, but rather, a gluten-free, wheat-free loaf made out of various forms of rice and tapioca...which actually isn't too bad, if you toast it. Haven't really missed the coffee, miss the Dr. Pepper a lot. Day before yesterday I felt lousy, yesterday I felt terrible, today is actually a little better, though I still have no energy. The hope is that ultimately this jetisoning of all those things that taste good but are bad for you, in one way or another, is going to help me feel noticeably better, so that I can work up some enthusiasm for life again.

It's also great, not having to go to work (although as a matter of fact I did go in this morning for my regular Children's Hour, which is the subject of my next missive). I am so ready to be retired.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Weird, & irritating

I've mentioned that the young couple with the noisy trucks who used to live next door disappeared for essentially a year, with only the occasional drop-in to demonstrate they had not fled the country, and then moved out bag and baggage because (I learned from the male half of the couple) the in-laws had given them some land on which they were going to build a house (see Note of April 11, 2010). A For Sale sign went up out front, and then, after a few weeks, a group of men moved in, apparently in something approaching a fraternity house set-up (though these are not young men). They all have their own rooms -- with one of them being ensconced in the dining room -- and the kitchen is a common area.

Although this assortment of men also come equipped with trucks, these are not ferociously loud ones, and they are not left to idle for as long as 15 minutes, at twelve o'clock at night, as was the case with Patty and Matt (not their real names). So I'm not complaining about the trucks.

But here's the weird of my title. One of the fellows sits out there in his truck for hours at a time, both day and night. He turns the truck around in the driveway, so it is facing the street, and he sits. The window on the driver's side is right next to where I park my car, so sometimes in the late morning when I'm getting ready to leave for work, we'll exchange brief pleasantries. I kiddingly asked him one time if they'd thrown him out of the house, and he said no, he was just waiting for the postman to come "with his check," and then he could go cash it. That may have been the explanation for that particular time, but what about all the other times? He added at that time that he "liked to watch the traffic." Now, we do not live on a street that sees a lot of traffic, one of the things I like about it. He might see two or three cars go by in a half hour. So what's he looking at all the rest of the time? He's staring out his windshield at the wooded area that lies directly across the street from our two houses. He doesn't listen to the radio, he isn't sitting there reading the newspaper, I don't think he even smokes. Am I alone in finding this behavior odd?

Now for the irritating part. There has been some trouble with...oh, no...music from next door. Along with vehicles purposely made louder than they have to be, music played too loud, particularly the bass from rock music, is the bane of my existence. It isn't just that I don't like it; it's that it's a terrible irritant to my nerves. So here some rock musicians have moved in next door. Somebody plays the drums, and will practice for an hour or two at various times. Every now and then there seems to be a jam session, with people who don't live in the house coming over and joining in. So far none of these instances has been that loud, or late at night, or gone on for too long, so that I have not complained, and have tried not to mind too much. After all, I tell myself, musicians have to live somewhere ('though part of me is thinking, "Not in this quiet neighborhood!"), and obviously they have to practice.

However, the other night there was the unmistakable sound of an electric guitar coming at me for a good three hours. At 9:30 I went over and said to the man who answered my knock -- he of the truck-sitting -- that apparently someone was playing music? He looked blank, shrugged and said "I don't hear anything." "Well, if you were standing in my house you would hear it. Could you please tell whoever it is to turn it down? It's getting late, and he's already been practicing for several hours." "If I hear anything I'll tell him," the guys says, which tells me nothing is going to happen. And nothing does. So then I call the police and ask what time it has to be for one to be able to place a noise complaint (by this time it's about 9:45). The dispatcher tells me she can take a noise complaint, so I tell her the situation. "It's not like they're blasting their music all over the neighborhood," I say. "But I can hear it in my house, and it will make it impossible for me to get to sleep."

So in maybe ten minutes here come two police cars. Obviously a slow night for the Gardiner Police Dept. The two young officers stand in my front yard and can't hear anything, so I have them come into the house -- into my bedroom -- but of course just at that particular time the guitarist drops into one of his lengthy pauses (the music was very erratic, not constant).

Well, the police did, finally, hear the music, standing out in the narrow side yard that separates my house from the back end of my neighbors'. You could tell they didn't think it was that bad -- and it wasn't terrible, but why should I, or anyone, have to listen to somebody else's music inside their own home, for several hours, until late at night? Why should we have our peace disturbed in this way? So they knocked on the door, and asked the guy that answered (different guy, apparently the father of the young man who was doing the playing) to please stop with the music. What he ended up doing was promising it would be turned down...which, however, it wasn't, or not so you could tell. So eventually I had to go back, and knock on the door again, and blah, blah, blah.

This is actually something that really makes my heart sink, because the quietness of where I live has been one of its huge benefits, for me. I have had to deal with noise where I was living for most of my adult life, so not having to deal with it has been such a relief. And now it looks like I'm going to have to engage in that battle again.