Monday, December 31, 2012

Travel Woes Saga Part II

Of course United lost my suitcase. Or, to be more precise, they failed to put it on the plane. When I arrived at my final destination of Colorado Springs, and went to retrieve my suitcase from the carousel, 't'weren't there. There was another, exactly like mine -- I even pulled it off the carousel, thinking it was mine -- but the name on the tag was not Normancamp (airlines can't do hyphens). Later, when there was no sign of another big, dark blue bag, and no one had yet claimed this big blue bag -- and all the waiting passengers had faded away -- in desperation I unzipped the case and took a peek inside. But no, those thick, nicely folded sweaters were definitely not mine. And yes, it was time to get in the Lost Baggage line. Anyone who has had this happen will know how my heart sank.

This was at about 2 p.m. on Sunday. The woman said the earliest the suitcase would be in was 8 that night, but by the way she said it, I knew the bag would not be in until the following day, if then. (At the time she wasn't even sure where the case was; all she could say for sure was that there "was no record of its having left Portland.")

In the event, I didn't get my suitcase until 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve, but which time I'd missed the church service my sister, brother and I were supposed to attend together (I'm not a religious person at all, but my two siblings are, and attending a Christmas Eve service with them was something I had actually been rather looking forward to, especially as Ellen's church goes in in a big way for beautiful music -- but they went while I waited for the suitcase to be delivered), and had to go to the lovely Christmas Eve dinner at the very nice Broadmoor Hotel -- something we'd all been looking forward to -- in an outfit cobbled together from odds and ends from my sister's closet and jewelry box.

This latter development was especially upsetting for me. My life pretty much fits into the Never-Goes-Anywhere-or-Does-Anything category -- certainly I never go anywhere where I get to Dress Up, which is actually something I enjoy doing -- and here was my big chance, and the outfit I'd carefully put together...which included a new pair of black velvet pants I had painstakingly hemmed the day before leaving, and a red glittery top that I love but never have occasion to was lying in my suitcase, on some delivery truck that had supposedly left the airport at 1 p.m., but as of 5:30 p.m. when we had to leave to make our dinner reservation, had still not put in an appearance.

I made numerous irate phone calls during the course of the afternoon/evening -- a very pleasant aspect of Christmas Eve, needless to say -- to the inevitable 800 number with people with heavy East Indian accents assuring me that they would be glad to check on that for me. Finally, when we returned from our dinner at almost 9 p.m., and the bag had still not been delivered, I called and told the fellow, "In a town this size they could have delivered 200 suitcases in the 8 hours that have expired since I was first told my bag had left the airport and was on its way to the address I had indicated." The fellow went away to "contact the baggage delivery service," came back and said someone from that company would "personally deliver the bag to me within 10 minutes." I went outside in the freezing cold and walked up and down in front of Ellen's garage to keep the motion-activated light coming on so that no one could miss the big address numbers on her garage. When this fellow in a private automobile showed up I was astounded, expecting a delivery truck. He told me he'd personally "rescued" my bag from the delivery truck (no doubt because of all the calls I kept making), and seemed to think I should be mighty grateful. "I've been waiting 8 hours for this bag to be delivered!" I exclaimed. "Well, I'm sorry, ma'm, but we had over 700 parcels to deliver. And some people have been waiting weeks for their bags."

WHAT?! I had assumed that what was being delivered were however few (one would hope) suitcases United had managed to lose in the past, say, 24 hours. I had figured maybe 50 or 60 bags, tops. But was delivering bags that had been shipped, rather than just bags that weren't on the baggage carousel when they were supposed to be. 700 of them! God only knows when I would have received my bag, if I hadn't been the proverbial squeaky wheel.

Since these two recent trips of mine, with all their various problems and frustrations, I have discovered that United has a terrible reputation for baggage handling, flights not being on-time, and customer service in general. Now I find out! Well, now I've seen it all up close and personal, and the disgusted letter is on its way to United CEO Jeff Smisek.

And we haven't even gotten to my homeward connecting flight being cancelled, and my having to "overnight in Chicago."

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Christmas travel woes

My Christmas travel plans were laid waste in the way I'm sure many of you out there have experienced at some point, but I never had. Obviously I've been lucky, but my luck ended in such a way that I've sworn never to travel at Christmastime again, at least by air, and never to travel by United Airlines, if I can possibly help it. That latter promise to myself may be harder to keep, since United is practically the only airlines that services the Portland Jetport (as it pretentiously calls itself). Continental used to fly in and out of Portland, but has now been eaten up by United. U.S. Airways supposedly services Portland, but my flights, which were all originally listed as U.S. Airways flights, were in fact United Airlines flights; U.S. Airways would seem to be just a front for United. (The industry has become incredibly complex and confusing, as to who owns whom.) Delta does service Portland, but its tickets are always considerably more expensive than United's. Caught between a rock and a hard place here.

At first I thought things were going to go better than they did for my trip to Colorado Springs at the beginning of December (when I went for a week to look after my sister who was about to have hip replacement surgery). On that trip, on the way down to Portland, I was driving through rain that was, as a matter of fact, ice. I kept screaming, "I can't fucking SEE!" Twice I had to pull over -- barely being able to see to pull over -- and scrape ice off the windshield. It was scary as hell.

But after that unpropitious start, the trip went o.k. Well, until the return trip, when the plane from Colorado Springs was two hours late leaving (we were informed first, after quite a wait, that "your plane is now leaving the hanger," then that it "has had to return to the hanger for servicing," and finally that another plane "will be replacing your original plane."), resulting in my having to run like hell to catch my connecting flight in Chicago, sure that I was going to miss it, and then being treated very rudely by two of the crew, who didn't seem to think that an obviously no-longer-young woman gasping for breath while trying to learn if her plane had already left, called for any kind of courtesy or concern. But other than that...

This time I had a beautifully clear, if extremely cold, night to drive through. I left in plenty of time, was not feeling rushed or tense in the least. But then...

First, there wasn't an indoor parking place to be found at the "jetport." I drove 'round and 'round that parking garage, to no avail; I was stuck with outside parking. And since I knew it would snow sometime between then and my return, I could just see me, at 11:30 at night, after my long trip home, shoveling out my car (which is exactly what happened).

But for now I accepted the unavoidable, and trundled my suitcase inside. Where there was a line at the United counter, but not too formidable a line. However. That line did not move one iota -- or by one single person -- for twenty-five minutes. There were two groups of people at the counter -- a group of young men traveling together, and a family with a child in a wheelchair -- and they both obviously had problems, which took forever to be resolved. And as a matter of fact the problems for the family were not resolved, since they finally moved away from the counter looking grim-faced, while the father yelled at the agent behind the counter "You're stranding a whole family! And you don't even care!' He was a moment later threatening loudly that what they were going to do was call the newspapers, which led me to suspect the problem had to do with the child in the wheelchair. It was very unpleasant for every-body, and unfortunate for the family.

During all this time I couldn't fathom why no agent had been assigned to take care of everybody else, while the two problem groups were dealt with. There was one fellow up there doing absolutely nothing but watching. Was he in training? Was this the right time to have someone just standing and watching? When the problem groups had at last been dispatched, and we were inching forward, one of the agents came out from behind the counter, undid the guide cord next to the woman behind me, and indicated she should move to one of the free kiosks. I looked at him in astonishment and said, "Excuse me, but I'm in front of her. And there are people in front of me!" Why on earth hadn't he gone to the person at the front of the line? He looked at me blankly, replaced the cord, went back behind the counter and spent the next 10 minutes typing away at his keyboard, helping absolutely nobody.

In a nutshell what I saw that early morning was the biggest display of disorganization and incompetence I've ever seen at an airlines counter. By the time I reached the only agent who seemed to be doing anything, he spent an astounding amount of time plying his keyboard, without any apparent result. He finally told me he was not going to charge me for my bag (I was paying cash, so could not do it through the kiosk), because he'd "tried twice, and it wouldn't take." He then, finally, handed me my boarding pass, after writing a big S on it, and saying he was having to place me on Standby basis. "What?!" I all but yelled. "I have a confirmed reservation!" "Yes, but it's a matter of time; you are now in danger of missing the flight." "I've been standing in this line for 40 minutes waiting for the line to move," I sputtered. "Yes, well I'm sorry, you're going to have to run."

So once again this no-longer-young woman had to run, down to the escalators, up the escalators, through Security (where, fortunately for me, there was no line at all), back down the stairs to the gate area, and then the whole length of said area, to the farthest gate, making one breathless stop at a shop to buy a water, because I must have water to drink, and of course Security makes you throw away your bottled water so you can't use it to bomb the plane. I was beyond pissed.

And the worst was yet to come, Had I But Known.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A clash of cultures

Our book club at the library read a delightful book last month: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson. We all loved it, for numerous reasons, not least of which was the Major himself. To a large extent he's your rather stuffy, very old-fashioned British curmudgeon (who is at pains to remind people that "It's Major, actually," rather than Mr.), but who proves himself time and again a decent, kind person, and who evolves, in a positive and believable way, over the course of the book.

I was especially charmed by the love affair that develops between the Major and Mrs. Ali, the widowed Pakistani lady who runs the local bit-of-everything shop. It's nice to watch the unwinding of a believable, but still romantic, relationship between an elderly gentleman (he's 68 which, we folks in our 60s have to face, no longer qualifies as "middle-aged"), and an emphatically middle-aged lady. Especially appealing is the way it is made clear that both loved, and miss, their first spouses, and that their love for one another comes gradually, preceded first by respect, and liking. And yet, for all that, it includes a wonderfully exciting "escape" from the clutches of Mrs. Ali's very conservative relatives-by-marriage; the Major proves himself a true romantic hero, more or less despite himself.

Less believable is the relationship between Mrs. Ali's ultra-conservative nephew, and the free spirit he managed to get pregnant, despite his puritanical views. While you can see how he might have been attracted to the wild and saucy young woman, despite himself, what she could have seen in this rigid young man, fanatical in his devotion to his religion, is never made clear.  But the problems of the Muslim culture trying to cope with the larger British culture, and vice verse, certainly contribute to the interest of the story.

We also had trouble with the Major's son, who is so unrelentingly materialistic and opportunist, so thoughtless, that we had a hard time seeing how the kindly Major and, from the snips and bits readers get about her, his apparently very nice first wife, could have produced such a son. This led to an interesting discussion in the group about how you may do your darnedest by your children, but the result may still not be what you would have hoped. But what-ever disappointment one might feel that your child didn't grow up to be a successful doctor/lawyer/ Indian chief -- didn't seem to be able to figure out "what he wanted to be when he grew up," never quite managed to get that college degree, kept having to come home when he'd lost another job -- it would surely be much more distressing to realize your child was rude, selfish and insensitive to the feelings of others. Never having had children, I can't speak from experience, but it seems to me the latter situation would have me feeling much more the failure as a parent.

The group agreed that another of the things we liked about this book was simply the charming way it was written, how the author put things. A few examples:

As Mrs. Ali hesitates over mailing a letter to her relatives in the north of England, a letter she doesn't really want to send: "He held his breath as she stood for a moment, letter in hand, her head curved in thought. He had never imagined so clearly the consequences of mailing a letter -- the impossibility of retrieving it from the iron mouth of the box; the inevitability of its steady progress through the postal system; the passing from bag to bag and postman to postman, until a lone man in a van pulls up to the door and pushes a small pile through the letterbox. It seemed suddenly horrible that one's words could not be taken back, one's thought allowed none of the remediation of speaking face to face."

Or at an outrageous country hunt, that goes horribly awry: "A great splashing on the pond indicated that many ducks had made it through the barrage and were quarrelling over their options like politicians. In a matter of minutes, Morris would bang the oil can again and send them all aloft to repeat their suicidal mission."

When the Major presents two roses to Mrs. Ali, before they leave for the dinner dance which will also go horribly awry: "'Is one of those for Grace? I could put it in a vase for her.' He opened his mouth to say that she looked extremely beautiful and deserved armfuls of roses, but the words were lost in committee somewhere, shuffled aside by the parts of his head that worked full-time on avoiding ridicule."

And I loved his thought on American television, while trying to shore up his courage to meet his son's new American girlfriend: "She would no doubt make his prior reticence out to be some sort of idiocy. Americans seemed to enjoy the sport of publicly humiliating one another. The occasional American sitcoms that came on TV were filled with childish fat men poking fun at others, all rolled eyeballs and metallic taped laughter."

Ain't it the truth.

All quotes from Simonson, Helen. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. New York: Random House, 2010. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Wonder Woman Meets Spiderman

I just returned from my first comic con, i.e., Comic convention. My brother, the cartoonist Bob Camp, invited me to join him at the Doubletree Hotel in Portland this weekend, while he did his comic con thing. Bob attends these events, which take place all over the country, to make a little extra cash. He sits at his table prepared to draw sketches of Ren and Stimpy, the animated cartoon characters that made him rich and famous, or anyway moderately famous, back in the early '90s. It amazes me that people are still interested in that psychotic dog and incredibly stupid cat, but apparently the series developed a regular cult following, still going strong after all these years; for these people, Bob is a celebrity.

It also amazed me to sit and watch Bob whip out these sketches, while the people who were paying for them stood and watched his every move. And he assured me that the two or three or four requests an hour he was getting "was nothing" compared to some of the comic conventions, where he is drawing nonstop for six to seven hours. Incredible stamina, it seems to me, on top of the talent and concentration required to produce the sketches themselves.

Bob has done so many other things since Ren & Stimpy, which was, after all, twenty years ago; but this remains his biggest claim to fame, and is what gets him invited to these things.

I wandered around the room at one point, just to see what else was happening. There were a number of cartoonists like Bob, available for drawings on demand, as well as having examples of their work for sale, from poster-sized to post card sized, even printed on the front of T-shirts. A lot of the artwork was macabre to downright gruesome. But what there was much more of was merchandise. People selling everything from vintage comic books (lots of those, though Bob told me that at other conventions that aspect is huge), to toys, to comic-related collectables. There were also plenty of people strolling around in costumes representing favorite comic characters. The whole thing struck me as weird, but harmless.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the whole experience was the breakfast we had this morning with two of Bob's fellow artists. Interestingly, both of these guys know Bob from back in the days when he was drawing for Marvel Comics, in New York City, before he moved into animation. The inevitable "claim to fame" of one of them, Rick Parker, is that he produced all of the artwork for the comic book offshoot of the Bevis and Butthead T.V. cartoon. If any characters are less appealing than Ren & Stimpy it is surely Bevis and Butthead! And a lot of Rick's work these days I would have to put into the macabre-to-downright-gruesome category I mentioned above. And yet, Rick is an extremely nice fellow! It would seem he just has an...interest-ing...take on the world.

In fact, one of the things he said, and Mort Todd, the other fellow having breakfast with us, (claim to fame: Cracked Magazine, and more recently, Tales from the Crypt comic series) chimed in in agree-ment: when they were kids, their mothers were always asking them why they didn't draw pretty pictures, nice pictures. But pretty and nice just struck these guys as boring, uninteresting.

Though I'm glad to have experienced one -- and am especially glad to have had the opportunity to spend time with my brother, whom I see so rarely -- I can't say a comic convention is my kind of thing. But then, I've never been into comic books -- except for maybe Betty and Veronica, when I was about 10 (much too nice for Rick or Mort or brother Bob, I'm sure) -- nor cartoons, particularly. I enjoy animated features like Shrek or Ice Age (on which brother Bob worked) or The Lion King as much as the next middle-brow person, but the cartoon shows that appear on television just strike me as a total waste of my time. The Simpsons has never seemed anything but stupid to me, -- and I've never found stupid amusing -- and I've already indicated my feelings about Ren & Stimpy (though most of those show do have their amusing moments), Bevis and Butthead, and the macabre to downright gruesome stuff that seems to be so popular with many folk these days. But the people who produce these things really are all artists, creative people eager to make something, even if it's not nice, or pretty. More power to them.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Here we go again

November 8th, the date of the first snow storm of the season, here in central Maine. We woke up to about two inches of the white stuff on the ground this morning. But the temperature had already climbed above freezing, so the sporadic precipitation had turned to rain. Indeed, at 10:45, when I was out there clearing the roof of my car, and the windshield, I was being pelted by raindrops. By the time I left work for home this afternoon, at 3:45, the snow had disappeared from all the streets, though it still lay on many lawns, with blades of grass peeking through.

Mainly what it was was cold, as it has been for the past couple of days. Overcast, and very windy, the wind out of the northeast. Yes, a good old-fashioned Nor'easter, which we don't really get all that often. But when the weather comes at us from that direction, in off the Atlantic, you'd better have on a good warm coat, a warm scarf around your neck, gloves on your hands. I did, as well as slacks and winter boots, but could still feel the cold.

Of course, farther south, in New York and New Jersey, they were dealing with the same kind of weather, while still in recovery mode from last week's Storm Sandy. People who had just recently gotten power back, found themselves without it again. We've been very lucky here in Maine; neither storm hit us that hard, or had anywhere near the repercussions.

I have to admit, I'm not eagerly anticipating winter weather. I've been here in Maine for only seven years, had to shovel out for only seven winters, but already it's beginning to seem old. Imagine those folks who have lived here all their lives -- 30, 60, 80 years! That's a powerful lot of shoveling...

Monday, October 29, 2012

Celebrating the apple

One of the things my sister Ellen and I did while she was here was go to the annual Apple Festival at Lakeside Orchards in nearby Manchester. We both enjoyed it enormously. As Ellen put it, it was a bit of Americana, New England style.

Besides being able to go out into the orchards to pick your own apples -- which Ellen and I didn't do, as we'd already purchased a few of their apples a couple of days before, from the bins they have in their little shop (which was when we found out the festival was coming up) -- there were craftspeople with their wares on display...though not as many as in previous years...little kids being led around a circle on a pony (this actually made me tear up, it was so sweet, smacking of another time), a very energetic young magician keeping a whole slew of kids, and accompanying parents, highly entertained, lots of those big plastic things for kids to jump up and down on, and the usual hotdogs and hamburgers being sold by church groups.

There was also a really excellent bluegrass band, which I gather was actually parts of two different bands: the Sandy River Ramblers and the Maranacook String Band. For this outing they were being billed as Stanley Keach and Friends. The fiddler, Jay Smith, who disconcerted me by bearing an uncanny resemblance to my nephew, was absolutely fantastic. He was very serious while he played, and indeed, didn't seem to be having much fun. However, when I went up to the edge of the stage during one of their numbers, to try to get a written sheet with information about them (no luck, but I put my name & email address down on their list to receive announcements about their upcoming concerts), I glanced up at him and said, "You're great," and he flashed me a big smile and said "thank you." Boy, do I love talented people.

I was quite disappointed that there were so few craftspeople. Later I found myself talking to one of the people who organizes the event -- to my amazement, she was one of the parents attending our Children's Hour at the library the following Wednesday, and mentioned that she had seen me at the festival -- and according to her, the event has been the victim of bad weather so many times in recent years that many of the craftsmen decided not to take the chance. And then of course, the weather was lovely, if a little windy.

But despite the reduced options for shopping, Ellen and I each managed to find something for the other. She bought me two beautiful pair of earrings, at the super bargain price of $5 each, and I bought her a little mouse in a dress. Not a real mouse, of course; one of those things you put out as a decoration. Ellen is very into decorating her house for the different holidays, the different seasons, and she declared that Little Mousie in her red dress would be perfect for Christmas.

All in all, a splendid afternoon. Followed, on both our parts, by a nice long nap.  One of the fortunate things about this visit: we were on a par in terms of stamina.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Playing host

My sister Ellen, who lives in Colorado, finally arrived for her visit, a couple of weeks ago.  It was her first ever trip to Maine, and she was properly impressed, though this was not one of our "glorious" autumns. I think it was too warm and dry too long for the trees to produce their usual flaming scarlets/salmons/ yellows. And naturally, after two solid weeks of absolutely gorgeous weather, the weather chose not to cooperate the week she was here. The first day after her arrival (in the dead of night) was forecast to be the only reliably sunny day of the week, so we raced off to the coast, as a coastline, dotted with almost obscenely picturesque towns, is one thing they do not have in Colorado. We hit Rockport and Camden -- lots of photo ops in both places, with their beautiful little harbors full of boats -- would have gone on to Rockland, but both of us had run out of steam.

At Camden we had lunch in a very pleasant little Greek cafe called Cafe Mediterranean. Adorable, tiny interior, but we ate out on the small terrace, which was lovely. I've since learned, at good ol' Tripadvisor and elsewhere, that the place has gotten very mixed reviews, and my own review would be mixed. Service was painfully slow, as several people mentioned (and we were hungry!), the dish we both ordered -- salmon kebob -- was o.k., to my mind, but not distinctive, which was also true of the tzatziki we shared. When properly made, this yogurt and cucumber dip is out-of-this-world delicious. Admittedly, I may have been spoiled by having spent six weeks living in Greece, years ago, and experiencing the real thing.

Actually, small disappointments were connected with most of our dining-out experiences. Another day we had lunch at Slates, located in Hallowell, and arguably the best restaurant in the Augusta area (see Note of Feb. 15, 2010). While the dish I ordered, crab and artichoke crepes, was excellent, when it first came to the table it was barely warm, and I had to send it back. And since, being "purists," Slates does not believe in having a microwave on the premises, it was a bit of a wait for the dish to be warmed up. This has happened to me more than once when I've eaten at Slates. Don't know if the problem is one of kitchen management, so that the multiple orders at a particular table are not ready at virtually the same time, or one of simply needing a better heat lamp (or maybe they don't have one of those, either!)

One day we "did" Portland. It was cool and very grey when we first got there, in the late morning, but the sun had come out by the time we finished our guided tour of the very interesting William Wadsworth Longfellow childhood home, which made it possible for Ellen to get some postcard-perfect shots of Portland Head Light, where we headed after lunch. For lunch we sought out a little-hole-in-the-wall place called Fisherman's Grill on Fore Street (not to be confused with The Fisherman's Net, which is just a few doors down from it) that I had found recommended online. This place is extremely hard to find/easy to miss. And there are few seats, so I imagine if you got there at lunch time (we arrived at almost-two) you would either have to wait for a seat, or take out. And service was very slow, with only one counter man, with whom you place your order, and one cook. Even though there was only one couple ahead of us, we waited over half an hour for our duplicate orders of the crab-and-swiss toasted sandwich and cup of clam chowder.

However, the sandwiches were delicious, and so full of crab that we both found we could eat only half, and so were able to take the other half home for a later snack. And we agreed that we'd never had a clam chowder with as many clams in it. An unusually thin chowder, more like a milky soup, to my mind. But very good.

Our one unalloyed lunch success was at the Riverfront Barbeque and Grill, located on Water Street in downtown Augusta (see Note of April 29, 2010). We both had the seafood and sausage jambalaya -- hot and spicy in true Cajun fashion -- and loved it. And they give you so much, we took home enough for another meal each.

For me being able to eat out is one of the pleasures of traveling. Ellen is pretty much as uninterested in cooking as I am, so I hope (and trust) our various gastronomic experiences were a treat for her.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Buona sera!

A couple of weeks ago I started a beginner's Italian class, through the local adult education program. I had hoped to make it to Italy this past spring -- it didn't happen -- but I am determined to make it happen next spring. And I believe in being able to speak the language of anyplace I visit, at least at a very basic level ("Please," "Thank you," "How much?" "Where's the bathroom?")

The teacher, who is Italian, and speaks English with a pronounced accent, is very exuberant, and keeps encouraging up to wave our hands around, say "Mama mia!" whenever it seems appropriate, and in general be as Italian as we can be when we speak the language. With this basically shy, reserved person you may sure that's not going to happen -- I would feel like a fool exclaiming "Mama mia!" -- but I will say that speaking the language, even to the small extent that we've done it so far, tends to make you feel lighthearted and even, yes, exuberant. This is not a lugubrious language. It's fun to speak.

I do love learning a new language. It's learning a new skill, a useful skill. One that goes a long way toward winning hearts and minds, as we Americans are trying to do, generally unsuccessfully, in various hostile parts of the world. And it inevitably impresses people, when you can break into a foreign tongue when needed.

I'm always interested in who the other people are, whenever I take a class like this. In this case we're all women. Two, who are from Maine, grew up speaking French (not uncommon among older generations from the north of the state, where many folk are of French-Canadian descent), and just decided they wanted to learn Italian. One of these women is a recently-retired nurse, and also an artist, which I thought was an interesting combination.

Another woman is a recently-retired French teacher, who also thought she'd try Italian. One woman -- the only one of us who is young -- has been traveling to Italy with her sister every year for the past five years (to the unqualified envy of all the rest of us) and says while she can generally understand pretty well, she wants to improve her speaking skills, and her self-confidence. Another woman also traveled to Italy with her sister, and the sister so fell in love with the place that she bought a house there -- shades of Under the Tuscan Sun -- which they are fixing up to rent out ("Where do we sign up?" I asked.) The final woman I know nothing about -- because I had to make a trip to the restroom right before it was her turn to introduce herself -- except that she looks like the stereotypical aging hippy, complete with baggy, shapeless dresses, Granny glasses, birkenstocks with socks, and the long silver/grey hair pulled back in a thick pony-tail.

And I, of course, am a professional librarian who would love to be able to retire, but can't afford to do so, who misses all the traveling she did when she was younger, and is determined to at least get herself to Italy, before she's too stiff and ache-y to move.  A bunch of late-middle-aged ladies (except for Kim), who decided they'd rather try to learn a new language than sit and watch the usual two hours of T.V. on Tuesday night.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Why did he do it?

I have to admit I'm worried about the Senate race here in Maine. Since moderate (and very popular) Republican Olympia Snowe is not running again, her seat is up for grabs. This would be the perfect time to get another Democrat into the Senate. Unfortunately, Angus King, a former (very popular) governor, insisted on running as an Independent, rather than as a Democrat. This decision will certainly split the Democratic vote, since some people will undoubtedly vote for Cynthia Dill, the Democrat who won in the state primary in June. I can't believe all that many Republicans will vote for King, despite his emphasis on being a successful entrepreneur who understands the problems of small businesses (which is what makes up the vast majority of business in Maine). He makes the following statement on his web site:

"Dealing with both of these issues – jobs and the debt – would not be easy in the best of circumstances, but is practically impossible in the current toxic political atmosphere. We simply have to start talking to each other and put aside the partisanship and constant bickering that dominates today’s Washington. The urgent reality is that the American people can no longer afford a broken Congress. This is an historic moment for America which, if met with honesty and courage, can reset our course for prosperity and opportunity."

I'm sorry, but this is laughable. This is exactly what Olympia Snowe tried to do -- to work with the other side of the aisle in a bipartisan way, to get things done -- but she got no support from her own party, and could not, with a clear conscience, go along with some of the Democrats' positions. What on earth makes Angus King think he can be more successful at reaching across the aisle, when somebody from that party could not move those intransigent folk?

I think it's pretty clear by now that the dream of bipartisan cooperation is exactly that, a dream, and needs to be replaced by good old-fashioned party unity, Democrats working together to get things done despite the Republicans' refusal to compromise. Which means, quite simply, that we need to get more Democrats into the Senate and the House. We definitely need to keep control of the Senate. If Angus King's decision to run as an Independent loses that important seat to another Republican (Charlie Summers by name), I will be really pissed at Mr. King.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A missing ingredient

Last year I watched a PBS special on Woody Allen that, for some reason, they were running instead of Masterpiece Theatre. With the Soon-Yi scandal of 1992 (and can you believe it's been 20 years?) Woody Allen fell sharply out of favor with me (and a lot of other people), though I'd always been a fan of his movies, his humorous writings (from Without Feathers: "I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me..."), his comedy routines. But I felt he had proven himself a dirty old man with an off-kilter moral compass, and couldn't bring myself to see any of his more recent movies.

The program was very interesting; Allen is, after all, an interesting man, as well as a very talented one. They showed clips of some of his comedy routines -- or even just his response to interview questions on late night talk shows -- and I could hear myself shouting with laughter. I had thought that he started out as a standup comedian who branched out into movie-making, but was surprised to learn that he started out, in his teens yet, as a writer of jokes. He'd submit them to newspaper columnists like Walter Winchell and Earl Wilson, who would include them in their columns. He continued as a comic writer for years, graduating to writing for people like Sid Caesar. Then his managers convinced him to do the thing that I had thought was his "beginning," perform his own material. And apparently he actually hated doing that! Hated facing a live audience. But, as I said above, the T.V. clips demonstrate that he was really funny. However, he was not successful at all to begin with; his managers had to keep after him, to keep it up. Which, note, he did.

And eventually Allen became successful enough, well-known enough, for him to become involved with film-making, which led to his becoming rich, famous and much admired for his body of work. After his first couple of films he was on his way, knew he wanted to be doing this, and was, amazingly, able to get the kind of artistic freedom he needed.

O.K., O.K., this is all very interesting, but isn't my main point. Here's my main point. Allen was never in a position of not knowing what he wanted to do with his life. He started writing jokes -- it came easily to him, he liked doing it -- and right away he was able to make money doing it. He assumed he would keep on doing it, and that was fine with him. And he did that, in one way or another, for years. Even when he moved into films, first of all he wrote the film. Which, especially in the early years, was intended to be, essentially, one big joke, full of smaller jokes. He was still in the same ball park as the teenager churning out the jokes for the newspaper columnists.

I find this kind of single-mindedness of purpose both admirable, and enviable. I remember wanting to be a nurse when I grew up -- then going to the hospital to have my tonsils removed, at the age of 11, seeing what nurses had to do (like change bed pans!), and deciding that was not for me, after all. Then I wanted to be an interior decorator, because I'd discovered some interior design books at my local library, and had fallen in love with all those beautiful houses, beautiful rooms. I don't recall exactly what disabused me of that ambition -- perhaps it was my belief that you needed artistic ability to be an interior decorator, and I knew I had absolutely none -- but the next thing I wanted to be was an actress. "The greatest actress the legitimate stage has ever known," as I grandiosely announced to my ninth grade English class, when making a "personal speech." That ambition was behind my original college major, drama. But the courses I took that first semester -- or, perhaps more to the point, some of the things said by some of my instructors -- suggested to me that I didn't really have what it took to be a great actress. And I realized I lacked the burning intensity needed to reach this goal over all obstacles.

I had by that time been writing for some time -- for the most part not-very-good poetry -- and "being a writer" had also been a possible ambition, hovering there at the edge of my thinking. Now it moved front and center. But here's the thing. In the intervening 44 years, though I have never stopped wanting to "be a writer," and in fact have never stopped writing, I never thought: o.k., I want to be a writer, which really means be a published writer, and I'm not going to let anything get in my way, or discourage me. I am going to make my living as a writer. Instead, I spent years in deadly dull dead-end jobs -- none of which had anything to do with writing -- in order to keep a roof over my head and food in the belly. I lived in New York City -- the hub of the publishing industry in America -- for a year and a half and it never occurred to me to try to get a job in that industry...and this was the early 70s, when it might actually have been possible for a bright, determined girl to get her foot in the door at some publishing house, even with just a high school diploma.

My decision to go back to college and get a teaching degree was the result of being sick unto death of all the unsatisfying, low-paying jobs. I had thought about what I might like to do, and came up with teaching. But why didn't I come up with writing? Admittedly at that time I hadn't written my first novel, or even my first short story; I was still doing poetry, and philosophical ramblings (which it hadn't occurred to me to try to turn into articles that I might be able to sell). But in college I did start writing short stories, and shortly after I graduated I started my first novel. The short stories I did eventually try to get published, in a literary review or two or three...which really is about how many times I would send something out, before getting discouraged by the rejections. My novel took a ridiculous number of years to finish, ten! Ultimately I wrote two other novels, as well as two travel books, and a number of plays; all of these I would try for a while to get published (or produced), then give up, discouraged.

After graduation, when I had trouble finding a teaching job, (1975 was a very bad year for teachers), I found myself again taking boring, low-paying jobs -- despite the college degree! -- and finally wondering what else I might go into, that was similar to teaching, but perhaps would provide me with greater opportunity for work. And I settled on librarianship, which I've been engaged in ever since. Writing in my spare time, as I always had. And producing a sizable body of work which, alas, I failed to try to market in a consistently never-give-up manner.

So at this point in my life I am looking around and saying o.k., I've been a responsible, hard-working citizen for most of my adult life, but the thing I derive the most satisfaction from, the thing I arguably do best of all the things I can do, I was not single-minded enough to pursue as a career, or even a serious avocation. Although I write I am not really a writer. I am a librarian, and one who feels she has never been more than a passable one of those, and in her most recent job, barely that. Well, darn.

Lucky are the souls like Woody Allen, who have always done what they were meant to be doing.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Because company is coming...

I recently experienced for the first time something that many of you may have done, perhaps more than once. I went through the ordeal of washing my kitchen rug. This isn't a little thing that lies in front of the sink, you understand, but a full-sized rug that covers the entire floor. In fact, it's really too large for the kitchen, so one end is kept folded under.

I decided to clean it in preparation for my sister Ellen's visit, the first week of October. Ellen keeps her house spotlessly clean, so I knew I would have to make some effort to clean this place up. I don't mean tidy it up -- it's generally tidy, because it's so small clutter would make me crazy -- but really clean. Get all the dust bunnies out from beneath the bed, actually dust the furniture, that sort of thing. And wash the kitchen rug, which I've had for about 15 years...and have never had cleaned.

I had at first hoped to have someone come in and clean both this rug, and the red, fake-Oriental in the living room; but none of the cleaning places I called offer that service. They'll clean carpets, yes, but not rugs. I also called the cleaners I use and the woman there said they do do rugs, but it's very expensive (she warned), and I would have to get it from my house to the cleaners, as they did not pick up. The rug is 9x12, and heavy wool; I knew it would be very difficult for Melody the Weakling to get it rolled up, out to, and into her car; then the same in reverse.

So I decided to rent a machine from a rental place down the road. The woman showed me how to use it, since i'd never done this before. The actual process of applying the soapy water to the rug -- and later, applying clear rinse water -- was relatively simple, though not quite so simple as she insisted it would be. The main problem was that the machine would grab hold of the edge of the rug and pull it back as I moved backward with the machine -- a problem inherent in doing this to a rug, rather than to a carpet which is tacked down. The result was that I simply could not clean to the very edge. But everything else about the procedure was anything but simple, or easy.

Just getting the rug ready to be cleaned was something of an ordeal. The rental place woman had told me I should vacuum the rug three times. Since I don't have a vacuum-cleaner, I had to sweep the thing to within an inch of its life. And in case you're wondering, yes, I do usually sweep my rugs to clean them. Every three or four months I borrow the vacuum from the library and give them a good vacuuming. However, I didn't feel like making the drive all the way back to the library to borrow the vacuum, having already made the drive twice that day.

Before I could even do the sweeping I had to shove the extremely heavy trunk that normally sits at one end of the rug, up against the counter that separates the kitchen from the living/dining room, out of the way, into the living room. I had also had to ask the fellow next door if he and his son-in-law could come lift up the stove, because one edge of the rug was under the front edge of said stove. Roger's s-in-l wasn't home at the time, but Roger came in and managed to pull the rug out by himself. (And if you're wondering why I didn't ask him to help me move the trunk, the two events happened two days apart.)

Even the actual sweeping was difficult and awkward because I kept having to move the rug around to get at all parts of it (a reminder: it's too big to completely open out on the kitchen floor.) And, as I said, it's a heavy rug.

Then putting the soapy water into the machine was a hassle, because the lid of the opening where you poured it in would not stay up. Truly a case of terrible design. I had to use my elbow/back to hold up the lid, while I tried to pour a gallon of water into this narrow opening, essentially with one hand. Naturally water got all over the place, besides in the opening, so naturally I did some healthy swearing. This had to be gone through four times, you understand: soapy water, then rinse water, when I did half the rug the first night, soapy, then rinse, when I did the other half the following morning. In between was lugging the heavy water container out to the back deck to pour the contents over the railing.

But at least, and at last, it's done! And the rug really does look much better, the colors brighter. The main background is a deep green, with a medallion of pink and beige flowers in the very center, the same motif on a wide border all around the edge. I have few material possessions that mean a lot to me, but my two rugs are among those few.

Every time something like this comes up -- like putting in/taking out the air conditioners (that's going to have to be done soon, too) -- I feel the difficulty of living alone, and do long for a "man around the house." Ah, well.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

And when the curtain opens...

[This continues the previous posting.]

PBS also ran the operas themselves, on succeeding evenings. The only night I saw an opera from the very beginning was the first night (Das Rheingold), because I kept forgetting to tune in on time (see Note of April 15, 2012 for more on the failing memory). And I did not last the night with that one; I simply became too bored, pure and simple.

Indeed, I have to say I found all the operas much less enthralling than I did the documentary, "Wagner's Dream," on Monday evening. I guess I've discovered I am not a Wagner opera fan. Too long, too slow, too lugubrious, almost utterly lacking in the duets or rousing ensembles that I so enjoy in other operas. Instead it's a matter of individual singers singing their dialog at one another, no "songs" you can hum afterwards. On top of which I found the story of the Ring pretty stupid, and painfully slow to develop.

In the documentary we had been treated to some singing by some of the principal singers, e.g., Deborah Voigt, who was singing Brunhilde for the first time and was a little nervous about that. Alas, her big number, The Ride of the Valkyries, comes at the very beginning of the second opera (Die Walkure), so since I forgot to tune in on time, I missed that. I had thought that some of her singing in the documentary sounded a bit shrill, and apparently she came across in performance somewhat that way, too -- in the inevitable Comments that now accompany any news report on the Web numerous people said she sounded shrill, or just didn't sing as well since she'd lost so much weight. Couldn't speak to that, having never heard her when she was fat. But the singing she did in the last opera (Gotterdammerung) seemed more controlled and full-bodied.

I was also sorry to have missed the famous Valkyrie scene because this was one that had been featured in the documentary, with the poor Valkyries scared to death during rehearsals, each on her own separate board (horse) that would tilt back and forward as she "rode" it.  I'm wondering if they looked more properly confident, like true maiden warriors, in performance.

In "Wagner's Dream" we'd also heard from the singer who was stepping in at the last minute -- as in four days before Opening Night -- to replace an ill Siegfried. I was delighted, and I admit astounded, to learn that this singer, the tenor Jay Hunter Morris, was from Texas. Knowing Texas as I do, I have to wonder how any young man growing up there could become enamored of and involved with opera; the culture simply does not encourage that sort of thing. Later, when I looked up Hunter Morris's biography online, I learned that he didn't really discover opera until he left Texas, that the music he had been involved with growing up was gospel, singing in the church choir, performing with a couple of garage bands, that sort of thing.  Much more Texas-like. Listening to him talk in backstage interviews was amusing, because of his very pronounced good-ol-boy accent -- then he goes onstage and sings his heart out in German.

Indeed, the opera which he literally carries, since he is in virtually every scene (Siegfried) singing and singing and singing, is the one I watched the most of, simply because I was quite taken with him. He's very handsome -- in his make-up he looks amazingly like a blond John Barrymore, and in his acting is even a little hammy, like Barrymore could be -- and he can certainly sing. Not shrill at all. And I was impressed at the high energy level he had to maintain throughout, as well as the fact that he had so much to memorize!

Because the operas are full of villains, there were lots of guys with wonderful deep voices (just as heroes in operas have to be tenors, villains have to be basses). I especially liked Hans-Peter Konig, who sang the role of Hagen, the son of the evil dwarf, Alberich (and note that the latter was very black, while the former was very white. I continue to have trouble with this kind of color-blind casting. Aren't there other good black basses out there who could have played the son?) At any rate, Hagen illustrated one of the other problems I had with various characters: I didn't realize at first that he was a bad guy, actually found him quite sympathetic. Same was true of the dwarf Mime, who had reared Siegfried. Despite the apparent love and care of the dwarf, Siegfried openly despises and ridicules him. This initially made me look upon Siegfried as mean-spirited and selfish, until I (finally) learned that Mime had actually cared for Siegfried all these years, in hopes that he would help him (Mime) get hold of the Rhinemaidens' gold. This latter fact is an example of the absurdity of much of the story; the fact that I couldn't always tell who was a bad guy and who was good I'm inclined to fault Wagner for.

The last opera is ridiculously long -- five hours -- and I finally gave up after about two. My thought, as I stumbled off to bed was, well, I've finally seen, and heard, some of the famous Ring Cycle, but it's just not my kind of opera. Give me Carmen swishing around in her gypsy skirt and singing "Et si je t'aime, regarde toi" any day.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Man Behind the Curtain

Last week I watched the most fabulous show on PBS's Great Performances. It was a documentary about what it took for the Metropolitan Opera to put together new productions of all four operas in Wagner's Ring Cycle, for their 2010 - 2011 season. The emphasis was on the technical problems involved in creating and manipulating the very elaborate set that was used for all four plays.

I love shows that take you backstage, whether we're talking movies, plays or operas, which are of course singing plays. I love seeing what it takes to produce the magic we then see "out front." And this program served to remind me just how very important the technical crew is to any kind of production. I first learned this during my one semester as a drama major at the University of Texas. All acting majors were required to work on tech. crew for at least one production a year, which is an excellent idea, as it keeps those future "stars" from thinking they're the only important part of a play. I pretty much sucked at everything I had to do, during my stint on the backstage crew for Somerset Maugham's play "The Constant Wife," everything from painting flats, to helping to move the heavy sons-of-bitches from place to place, to pounding nails into them to connect one to another; but I had my eyes opened to the important role played by all the backstage folk, from lowly stage crew like me, to the people on lights, to the people on sound, to the poor assistant director who had to try to keep everybody happy and doing their jobs (the director just told people what to do).

On the Ring productions the technical crew was especially important, because of that behemoth of a set that was basically a bunch of boards side-by-side -- one reviewer said they looked like a line of piano keys; they made me think of a bunch of ice cream sticks -- that could be tilted at any angle from completely horizontal to completely vertical. So you would have part of them lying at the horizontal, serving as a raft on which Siegfried and his horse were traveling, while the boards to either side, at a tilt, and with the help of fabulous lighting, became the water. And shortly thereafter became the walls of Gunter's magnificent house. Moving those piano keys up and down -- as we learned on the documentary "Wagner's Dream" -- took a lot of unseen manpower, all wearing black from head-to-toe. And long before there were any performances the work done by these unsung backstage heroes was of enormous importance in getting the production stage-ready.

One thing that delighted me was seeing all these big, burly guys in black t-shirts and blue jeans working on an opera. And this is what these guys do for a living. They use their muscle, and mechanical know-how, not to put up a high-rise, but to put works of high art on display.

The Machine, as everybody was calling it, was incredibly complicated and expensive to produce. For one thing, it was developed and built in Quebec, then had to be transported to New York. Then they had to shore up the floors of the opera house's wings, because they couldn't handle the weight. And as I've mentioned, it took a lot of people to make it do what it was supposed to do, all of whom had to be paid. After seeing it in action in the actual performances, which were shown on successive evenings, and which I'll discuss next posting, I couldn't help agreeing with a number of first nighters -- and professional reviewers -- that The Machine was basically much ado about not very much. If nothing else, moving it from one position to another was a painfully slow process. In the documentary you saw that the singers were frequently fearful, working on it, especially when it was tilted (which it frequently was). Even in performance, they often looked clumsy as they tried to navigate on it.

In his interviews the director, Robert LePage, said he was interested in combining elements of the cinema with the usual spectacle of opera. I can't help wondering why. He also made the telling comment that "they," meaning the Met big-wigs, had naturally been wanting a different kind of take on the new productions from him, something that hadn't been done before. Well, they got it, but I for one question whether it was worth the expense, the labor-intensive effort (combined with the huge technological investment), the effect on the performers and the performances themselves. I give it a thumbs down.

But the documentary about it was splendid!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Politics as usual

I have tried to watch parts of both National Conventions, but in both cases the sis-boom-bah rah-rah-rah atmosphere pretty much did me in. Often I found myself hitting the mute button when I couldn't take anymore of a particular speaker -- and always when some new singer started screaming at us (why have entertainment?!) -- I'd turn to my book, or my dinner, or even slip into the study to write some more at my computer, until a check of the screen showed me that somebody new had taken the stage. Then I'd give the new speaker a couple of minutes, to see if something new was being offered, or if it was the same old same old. For example, at the Democratic Convention I felt that far too much time was given to speakers in support of women's rights. Thought we should have heard from just one pro-choice advocate (and one who would not keep using the word abortion, as that word is such a button-pusher -- Democrats who do not favor abortion can live more easily with the word 'pro-choice' than they can with the 'a' word), rather than a parade of women who kept assuring us that we women could lose our right to choose if Romney is elected. Polls have made it clear that such social issues are low on the list of priorities for most Democrats, and even for most Republicans, though not necessarily for many Fundamentalist Republicans.

And there were lots of Hispanics -- often women -- as well as blacks, who all emphasized how various policies of President Obama have benefited the group they belonged to. Frankly, if I were a white male Democrat I think the Convention would have almost had me feeling left out! We needed to hear from more of those "white bald men," that one commentator said made up the Republican base. There have to be some of those guys among the Democrats, too!

I was impressed by all the Hispanics speaking at the Republican Convention, virtually everyone of them an illustration of the Successful American Dream. But of course, most Hispanics in this country are no more Big Success Stories than are most whites, and I felt like the plight of regular Joses was as missing from the Republic perspective as that of regular Joes.

Indeed, David Brooks, the conservative commentator who joined the PBS Newshour anchors Judy Woodruff and Gwen Iffil at both conventions, and whom I in general respect and admire as a highly intelligent, articulate, and reasonable, not fanatical, conservative, made the statement at one point that he felt the Republican Convention had been too individualistic, and I agree with that completely. The Democratic Convention then bent over backwards to emphasize the opposite concept, that of success-through-cooperation. This is not a bad concept to emphasize, but I got tired of hearing it.  Especially since, as stated by both the commentators Shields and Brooks, and some of the people interviewed outside the convention hall, what is most on most people's mind right now is the economy, and the President's plans for same. We needed to hear more about those issues. The successful bail-out of the automobile industry is a good story, but it's too bad there couldn't have been more such stories; that one got sort of played into the ground.

I didn't watch the much-admired speech by Michelle Obama, because I feel I already "know" President Obama to the extent I need to know him. I already admire his intellect, his courage, his integrity, his idealism combined with pragmatism, his coolness under fire. I don't need to have him "humanized" for me by his loving wife. But I was very glad I caught Bill Clinton's speech. It was invigorating and inspiring -- as well as frequently amusing -- while at the same time answering some of those questions that hadn't been answered, or even addressed, by anyone else so far in the convention. Clinton took on the issues of our national debt -- which got a great deal of play at the Republican Convention, but almost none at the Democratic, even though polls show many Americans are very concerned with lowering the debt -- he took on the question endlessly asked by the Republicans: are we indeed better off than we were four years ago (individually, maybe not, but as a nation, given how bad things could have been, yes) -- and he gave some specific examples. And he took on various lies of the Republicans, particularly those of Paul Ryan, and shredded them. He surely helped the Obama campaign enormously with that speech.

And I discovered Elizabeth Warren! Her speech was a pleasure to listen to. She struck me as a tells-it-like-it-is lady with class and a heart. We will surely be hearing more from her.

In a little while we will be hearing from President Obama himself. He has a history of giving terrific speeches. Let's hope this one is a doozy. And then, thank God, the Convention nonsense will be over.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Nature, being delightful

There is a particular plant that is quite prevalent in this neck of the woods, and which I dearly love. In fact, year before last when I was arranging to have new plants installed in the flower beds on either side of my little front stoop, I wanted some of these plants, but the landscape fellow talked me out of it, assuring me that they grew from little bushes into big trees in no time at all, and would quite overwhelm my little house. So I've had to content myself with enjoying those I pass on my walks around my neighborhood, or as I drive to and from work.

The plant is Viburnum opulus Roseum, or the snowball bush. Big, white, round blossoms, that do, indeed, look like snowballs, beautifuly contrasted against a leafy green background. They appear in early summer and usually begin turning a dull pink in early September. When you've got some pink blossoms and some white on the same bush, it makes me think of the scene in Alice in Wonderland, when the Queen's gardeners are busy painting the rose trees. It looks like they've been called away in the middle of their work.

This year, for some reason, the snowball bushes began turning early, by the middle of August (because it's been so dry?). When I noticed this, I kept telling myself I must remember to take my camera when I went to work, so I could stop and take a picture of a completely white plant, on either the inbound or return trip. And of course I kept forgetting. When I finally remembered, this past weekend, I discovered that the battery on my camera was dead. And it was the weekend before payday; no discretionary funds for camera batteries.

And now, alas, it's too late; there isn't a bush left that is all white. I've missed my chance to get a picture of these beautiful bushes while they are in their most Fairy Kingdom stage. So, as I did with the picture of Ford's Theatre, I must again make do with a picture that someone else has produced. We'll call this Something That Gives Melody Pleasure.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Hooray for the land of four seasons

Sunday, Labor Day, today, the first three days in over two months during which I have not had to turn on my air conditioners at all. In fact, this evening I'm sitting at my computer wearing long pants, rather than shorts, for the first time in over two months -- it's chilly! And I am so happy; fall is on the way!

We had a very unusual summer, day after day of warm, dry, sunny weather. Very little rain. There were a couple of weeks in there when the humidity was a typical summer-in-Maine high, but many more days when the humidity was relatively low. It was the perfect summer to spend a week vacationing in Maine. Some years I feel so sorry for the tourists, because there are so many rainy days. But this year not only were the tourists happy, but all the many businesses that cater to tourists in one way or another, have to have been happy, too.

But me? Alas, I just endured the summer, as I always do. For one thing, in my little granite stone library, completely without insulation...or air conditioning...even if it wasn't all that hot outside, it could be absolutely miserable inside, by the early afternoon. Which is why we again went to Summer Hours this year, being open in the morning every day, rather than opening at 2 p.m. three days of the week, as we normally are.

But even released from that hot little oven each day by two p.m., what I usually did was just rush home to hide out in my air-conditioned house. It is a true curse to be so... allergic! heat. My goodness, especially in these days of global warming! In the past it's scotched the idea of trying to teach English in the various countries that were in the market for such teachers, because those southeast Asia, in South America...were hot and humid. The places that get touted online as The Cheapest Countries to Retire To...the countries of Central America, for example...are also hot and humid. The lucky people of the world are the ones who aren't bothered by such weather. The rest of us live in Maine, and eagerly await the fall.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Counting Your Blessings Department

I was just watching the last half of the appalling documentary, I Was Worth 50 Sheep, which some of you may have seen. Basically it's about the traditional Afghan practice of selling young girls when a family is broke. This particular film follows the story of 16-year-old Sabere, who was sold to a man in his 50s when she was all of 10 years old. She was both wife and slave to him for six years -- during which time she was frequently beaten, talked to constantly as though she were lower than a dog, and had four miscarriages, as well as a forced abortion when she was seven months pregnant -- before she finally escaped, and made her way to a safe house in Mazur.

The film is also concerned with the plight of Sabere's half-sister. Her mother had had to remarry after the death of her husband, Sabere's father, in order to avoid the shame (and destitution) of widowhood. She and her second husband -- who was, as tradition dictated, a cousin of her deceased husband -- also had a daughter. The husband, who had lived in and been deported from Iran, had heavy debts which he could not pay. He "had no choice," but to sell his daughter. When he said this, during one of the interviews with him, I let out an unamused laugh. "You had no choice," I said sarcastically to the screen. "What if selling your own daughter were not socially acceptable -- that wouldn't be a choice -- you'd have to figure something else out!" The father had made a deal with the buyer -- who was also a much older man -- that he and his wife would be able to keep their daughter with them until she was 15 -- when, according to the father, she would be "old enough" for marriage -- and instead of receiving the sheep all at once they would receive 10 a year.

The "drama" of the film had to do with the fact that Sabere, with the help of the people at the Safe House, was trying to obtain a divorce from her husband, while at the same time the stepfather was trying to fend off representatives from the man he had sold his daughter to, who were saying the buyer no longer wanted to wait; he wanted little Farzane now.

Watching something like this reminds us of something we all know, but prefer not to dwell on: while women in western industrialized nations have made great strides toward fair treatment and equality with men over the past century, in many parts of the world they have value only as slaves, as someone a man can kick around when he's feeling angry at the world, frustrated perhaps by his bad luck, or a bad day, someone he can always feel superior to. The stepfather, who kept insisting he did not want to have to give his daughter to the man who had bought her, nonetheless lay around on his cushions-on-the-floor barking "Bring me some tea," "Bring me a glass of water," to the three women who lived under his roof. Nary a please, nary a thank-you. He did go out most days and try to sell some pens that he had, inevitably without luck. But he didn't really hustle at all, didn't do whatever he could to feed and protect his family; he just metaphorically scratched his head and said, "I don't know what to do." If ever there was an example of a loafer, waiting for a miracle to save him, this was it.

At the same time, there is no denying the crushing poverty of places like Afghanistan, the lack of jobs. The United States and various international agencies have been trying for years to improve this situation, to help "develop" the economy of the country. But an "Asian Voices" segment I was watching recently on PBS stated that too much of the intended help has been poorly thought-out, poorly organized, and ineffective. This is one reason I have been so supportive of the Central Asia Institute, begun by Greg Mortenson.  Despite the controversy that arose around Mortenson at the beginning of this year, it has seemed to me that the organization has done a better than average job of working with locals to bring schools -- that oh-so-important commodity, education -- to the impoverished familes in the hinterlands of both Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Effective aid.

We all know that too much of the aid money, from our government, and that of other countries, that was supposed to go towards Afghanistan's economic development, has instead gone into the pockets of various government officials and their families; and this is of course maddening. But do we stop trying to help? Do we throw the country back into the hands of the Taliban (the man Sabere was married to was a member of the Taliban). What to do, what to do...

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Life's little annoyances

The supermarket needs a fast check-out line with a sign that says "For REALLY impatient people who are REALLY in a hurry & who DEFINITELY have 14 or fewer items & who can pay WITHOUT complica-tions." And it should only be staffed by cashiers who are REALLY fast; none of this la-de-dah-I've-got-all-the-time-in-the-world business; none of this chat-the-customer-up-show-him-how-friendly-you-are business.

As you can no doubt surmise from the above I just returned from the supermarket where once again I found myself in a "fast" check-out line that was anything but. When I first got in line the other two fast lanes that were open were just as long; but then two others were suddenly opened up, and all the people behind me and at the ends of the other two lines swarmed to the new opportunities. I couldn't join the swarm without trampling over the people in the line next to me.

And then, as I stood there, I saw that all the other lines, new and old, were moving forward steadily, whereas my line had not moved an iota since I got in it. The couple at the front of the line evidently had a payment difficulty -- credit card wouldn't approve the payment or some such nonsense. And the little cashier was of the slow as molasses in December variety, so that even when the first couple finally got their difficulties straightened out and departed, plastic bags in hand, it took forever for her to take care of the next customer, and the next (behind whom I stood). Although it has been my experience that as soon as I change lanes, that lane freezes, and the one I was in originally suddenly grows wings, I finally couldn't take it another minute, especially when I saw that one of the new lanes was now completely empty, had taken care of all the people who had been behind me, and then some. I walked briskly over, plopped my environmentally-friendly bag of groceries down and began emptying it, was briskly tallied and re-bagged by the efficient cashier, and walked out of the place just half a minute before the women who had been behind me in the original line.

I know that my impatience is one of my least attractive -- and most noticeable -- attributes. I suspect that the gods that be throw slow check-out lines, along with slow cars on the roads, in my path, to test my patience, to (presumably) encourage me to develop greater patience. I keep telling them this is a complete waste of everybody's valuable time. This is a character flaw I don't even seem inclined to try to curb. Whenever I am doing something I don't want to do -- like drive, like stand in line at the supermarket or the drug store, like cook -- I am impatient to just get this over with. But the indifferent cosmos rolls on at its own immutable clip, and I am left to fume and be rude if given half a chance.

That's life.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A page from history

I mentioned recently that I had made a trip to Washington, D.C. to attend the graduation from law school of my goddaughter. I wasn't able to do much sightseeing on that trip, but one place I did visit, that I'd long wanted to visit, was Ford's Theatre, where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865.

My hotel was in China Town, just a few blocks from the theatre, so I could easily walk over. If you order tickets online, they cost $2.50 a piece, but there are a number of free tickets available on a first-come-first served basis each day, and I got one of those at the box office, then had to go stand at the end of the line waiting to be let in. They count people entering, and when the numbers equal seating capacity, entry is cut off until the next tour time. You're (politely) herded into the theatre -- can sit upstairs in the lower balcony, or downstairs in the orchestra. There's a very interesting talk by a Ranger -- the site is part of the National Park Service -- about not just the events of that night, but what came before and after, as well. One of the interesting tidbits of information he supplied: in the 1860s the comfortable seats we were sitting in were not in place. There were straight-back wooden chairs, which people were at liberty to move around. "You could see some of your friends over there," the Ranger said, "And just pick up your chair and move over to join them."

He also mentioned the fact that the President and his party arrived about 30 minutes into the play -- which was apparently not unusual -- and that, when it was realized that President Lincoln had arrived, the play stopped, and the audience stood up to applaud him. He acknowledged the applause, then went on to the Presidential box with his wife and guests. Listening to this I was thinking, "How disruptive of the play!"

After the Ranger's talk, as people were filing out, I walked down to the stage to get a look at the theatre from that perspective. From my seat back under the overhanging balcony it had seemed very small, intimate, but from the stage I saw that there were two balconies, and it wasn't really all that small.

I had found it very moving, looking at the box where President Lincoln was sitting when he was shot. But later I picked up a brochure in the lobby, and learned from it that the building was turned into offices for the Army Medical Museum and Library not long after the government took it over in 1866 (it was closed immediately after the assassination); part of the interior collapsed in 1887, killing a number of people, and had to be rebuilt, after which it was used as a government records warehouse. The Lincoln Museum took the building over in 1932, but it looked nothing like the old theatre inside. It was only following restoration, which finally took place 1962-1967, that the place come to look more or less as it had looked in 1865 (except for the seats. :-) )

Thus, I suppose it could almost be argued that this is essentially a theme park, since virtually only the front outer wall of the building is original. But the restoration was very well-done, meticulous in its attention to historical detail, and the history lessons provided are fascinating.

There is also a museum in the basement that can be visited in the other kind of visit that is possible (talk-in-theatre-plus-visit-to-museum), but the time slot I was in allowed only the former, which was actually all right with me. My biggest disappointment was that I couldn't get a good shot of the exterior, which is very handsome indeed, because of where the sun was.  So I've borrowed from the experts. 

I was glad I went.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Going where no one has gone before

My friend Joey was asking me what I thought of the space program. Was I for it, or did I think it was a waste of money that could be put to better use here on planet Earth. I told him I was very much for it, but I have to say, I'm not that enthusiastic about all this exploration of the planet Mars.

Curiosity has now been deposited safely on the planet's surface -- certainly no mean accomplish-ment. Imagine: the NASA folk were able to build and direct by remote control a space ship that would travel over 100 million miles and then gently deposit the latest rover on the surface of another planet. Very impressive indeed.

But...for what purpose? To see if they can find more and better evidence that there may have been life on that planet at one time. But I can't see the point in that. If there was any form of life in some distant past, it was certainly in the microbial category. Finding evidence of that is hardly going to answer the question that they keep mentioning in the newscasts these days: are we alone? We already know we are alone in our own solar system, as far as life forms in any way approaching our own go. We have to look way, way beyond our own backyard, so to speak, to find the answer to that big, looming question. And I personally think that is what we should be spending those billions of dollars, and all that scientific know-how, on: developing ways to get beyond our solar system. That and figuring out ways to colonize those foreign bodies within our solar system where humans could possibly live, in a controlled environment, since our own planet is rapidly becoming too crowded.

After all, humans have always moved on when the area where they were became too crowded -- not enough resources to support their numbers -- have always explored what was over that rise, beyond those mountains, across that sea. I feel space exploration is just an extension of that, though it is far more difficult, and expensive, than crossing those mountains or that sea. But I don't think we should be wasting our time trying to figure out if there was some primitive form of life on Mars -- or anywhere else -- once upon a time. What is the place like now? What would it take for humans to be able to land on these places, and spend any time on them?

President Obama's space exploration policy, which he outlined in 2008, includes the statement that he "endorses the goal of sending human missions to the Moon by 2020, as a precursor in an orderly progression to missions to more distant destinations, including Mars." So do I. Let's get on with it.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Two positives to offset two negatives

Today I splurged on two things. First, I bought a bouquet of flowers at the supermarket. This is something I very rarely do -- maybe two or three times a year -- even though I love flowers, love having fresh flowers to look at in my home. But I don't call myself a Starving Librarian for nothing: a bouquet of flowers really does fit into the luxury category for me. But there was a large bouquet of roses, all different colors, all looking healthy -- in other words, like they'd last more than a couple of days, which is sometimes a problem with roses -- and they were only $12.99, which really is unusually low, especially for roses. Who knows, maybe it's like meat that has been reduced because the sell-by date is tomorrow...maybe they won't last more than a couple of days... but it all added up to a sale. I brought them home, snipped off the ends, plunged them into a vase half-full of cool water that had been saturated with plant food, and now there they are on my little improvised coffee table (a tray atop a bamboo foot-stool), giving me pleasure every time I look at them. I noticed when I was lying on the couch watching the news that I could even smell them!

My other splurge purchase was a not-quite-one-pint ("14 fluid ounces") of Haagen Dazs pineapple-coconut ice cream. This is an unbelievably delicious concoction I stumbled upon recently when I was wanting something besides my usual Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia/Karamel Sutra/Vanilla Caramel Fudge choices. I couldn't believe how good it was, when I took the first bite. I could easily have appeared in one of those commercials in which some skeptical person's face lights up and s/he goes all dreamy-eyed, while visions of waterfalls/butterflies/rainbows fill the screen, as the result of said skeptical person having taken a bite of something or other. Yes, it is somewhat like a frozen pina colada only -- based on my memory of my last pina colada -- better.

So there you go, Melody doing not just something nice for herself today, like "they" (i.e., commercials, self-help books, friends) are always telling us to do, but two somethings nice.

Which may have been my attempt at recompense for two mini-disasters of the recent past. I spent more than I ever have in my life on a pair of shoes -- $147 -- so that I would have some attractive shoes that would pass muster at my goddaughter's graduation from law school, which I attended at the end of May and may get around to writing about one of these days, as well as shoes that I could do some walking in, as I was going to be in Washington D.C. for this graduation, and naturally wanted to get in a little sightseeing as well. So I spent a lot of time deciding on these shoes, a lot of money (for a S.L.) purchasing them...walked and walked and walked in them, in D.C., winding up all but crippled as the result, and just yesterday learned from the foot doctor that they are probably the primary culprit behind by my developing tarsal tunnel syndrome, the ankle-equivalent of carpal tunnel syndrome. He told me I shouldn't wear these shoes anymore...which I can, of course, no longer return. To just, in effect, throw $147 out the window is very hard on the mental health, not to mention the pocketbook, of a S.L.

But the final blow was realizing that I will probably also not be able to wear another brand new pair of shoes, the moccasins I ordered online, had to send back once because I needed a larger size, finally received, and loved (moccasins are what I've worn around the house for many years, because my feet hate shoes; my old pair had finally given up the ghost)...only to realize over the course of a couple of weeks, that they make my ankle hurt whenever I wear them. Turns out the top edge hits in exactly the wrong place. That's another $52 (including the cost of returning the pair that were too small) out the window, or down the drain, or wherever wasted money goes.

My goodness, no wonder I needed the instant gratification of some beautiful flowers, and some of the world's most delicious ice cream.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A little touch of South America

Sunday was Open Farm Day here in Maine, and as we did last year, my friend Barb and I picked one of the farms listed in the newspaper's special supplement, and went to visit it.

Last year we visited the Kennebec Cheesery at Koons Farm in Sidney (see Note of Oct. 14 2011) where we gawked at goats. This year it was alpaca, at The Dream-on-a-Stream Alpaca Ranch, located deep in the woods of rural Maine, officially in the town of Mt. Vernon, but nowhere near the little village of Mt. Vernon. Barb did a powerful lot of driving along back country roads, getting us there and back. But we agreed the trip was worth it. Alpaca are ever so much more charming than goats!

Lois and Jack (called Bear) Brace started raising alpaca not quite three years ago. They are very enthusiastic about the business, though they have yet to start making money. When somebody asked how much an alpaca cost and Lois said, "Well, theoretically it's about $15,000," everybody's mouth dropped open. Then she hastened to say that "in reality," for $15,000 you could generally get a pregnant female and a companion animal, since alpaca are herd animals and must have alpaca or llama companionship (alpaca and llamas being closely related). But this is obviously not a business for a poor person to try to go into.

It's also obvious that the Braces, as well as their two young hired girls (whom Barb and I initially took to be their daughters) are very fond of their herd of 23 animals. They've given them all names, and can describe their distinctive personalities. There were several babies, who were properly adorable, but all of the alpaca were cute as they could be. They come right up to you, fearless and non-threatening; they're very curious animals. They were especially taken with my skirt, which had a brightly colored flower pattern. One of them would suddenly make a sauntering beeline for me, but with head lowered (on its long neck) -- they knew flowers when they saw them! Then when it got close enough to detect that these flowers did not smell, or behave the way flowers should, it would pause, then raise its head to eye level, giving me a look that suggested, "What's with the fake flowers?"

Their faces made me think of camels, as did their basic bodily shape (without the hump), but camels are famous for their ornery dispositions, and alpaca are just sweethearts!

At one point one of them started running to the other side of the small pasture where they are kept -- and where we visitors were mingling with them -- and at once all of them were running. "Just like sheep," I announced, amused. But then they all stopped in the same spot, and they all started defecating or urinating! Another woman and I said at the same moment, "Are they potty trained?!" It turns out that no one trains them to do this; by nature they pick one spot for their waste, and only "dump" there. How cool is that? So you're not having to pick your way carefully across a dung-littered field to visit with them.

The annual shearing had just taken place, in June, so their coats were not as thick as they would normally be. I'm sure they were actually grateful for that, since it was very warm. We petted one whose coat was fairly substantial, and the fleece (right word?) was so soft! Much softer than when you pet a sheep (if you can manage to do that, skittish things that they are). The coat of a sheep, or even a lamb, looks soft, but is actually very coarse to the touch. And that never really changes, as the coat goes from being fleece to, say, a sweater, or a pair of socks. The Braces had some socks on display for comparison purposes, and the wool ones felt very rough, the alpaca ones just as thick, but silkier to the touch (and no doubt twice as expensive).

The "ranch" (it seems rather silly to call anyplace in Maine a ranch) also has bunny rabbits, including some for sale. One of the young women brought out a perfectly enormous white Angora rabbit which, cradled in her arms, looked like nothing so much as a fat bundle of soft white hair, with pink eyes. I actually preferred a smaller gray one that we petted a while later -- hair unbelievably soft, such a cute little thing. Barb said I should get one for a pet -- people are always trying to convince me that what I need is a pet -- but I protested that rabbits shit all over the place. "Yes, but it's just little pellets," she said. Yes, well...

Friday, July 20, 2012

While looking at "The Collections of the British Museum"

One of the interesting things about humankind is that we are interested in our past. We build large, imposing buildings in which we collect, store and display items from the past. There are people whose jobs are to, sometimes quite literally, unearth, these items that have survived the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and bring them back to the imposing buildings for display. There are other people who do research on them, give little talks on them, write up the informational signs that go with the displays, so that people can read the known or presumed facts about the things they're looking at.

Amazing. Other animals certainly don't do this. Why do we do this? Why are we interested in how our ancestors lived, decades, centuries, millennia in the past? Of course, many people aren't, in the least, but there are enough people who are, to support all those imposing buildings. I suppose a big part of it is just the natural human curiosity about the unknown, the same curiosity that made some people explore our world, and now makes others want to explore space. But I think some of it may also be a desire to see connections to those who came before us. I've said elsewhere that seeing relics of the past helps make the past more real to me, the people of the past more real. And this is especially true when there are unexpected similarities. For example, when visiting the little museum in the Agora, in Athens, I remember being especially delighted by such mundane articles as a child's potty chair, and some pottery shards which had been used to write quick notes ("Bring the saw that is under the bench"), others that were part of a child's practice session on his ABCs. Ha! Those people were just like us! They set their toddlers on little toilets and tried to induce them to do their business in the proper way, they scribbled notes to one another, children pains-takingly tried to master the art of writing.

Why should such connections give us a sense of satisfaction? It shows that the past isn't just words in a history book that we were forced to read in school; it was real people like us, even if, given the times and the culture, they were also, in many ways, very different from us. But still, I don't seem to have answered my own question: why would feeling a connection to the people of the past give a sense of satisfaction?

Perhaps it is the same thing that makes genealogists spend hours on the computer doing research, sends them on trips to small towns in distant states where there ancestors came from, to pour over hard-to-read probate and land records: we want to know where we came from! Who the people were, what they were like, who led to us.

The ancient Egyptians with their pyramids and mummies and hieroglyphics didn't really lead to me, personally, but they were a part of the whole human story, that has ultimately led to me, to my world. How cool. How fascinating. People who aren't interested in history, who never visit those imposing buildings, don't know what they're missing.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

On listening to those campaign speeches

I am certainly not an economist, and often don't understand the discussions on the financial sector that I hear on the various news programs I listen to. But this is something I do know: nothing grows forever. This is a fundamental law. Something is "born" -- whether it be a planet, a biological species, an individual tree, or animal...or a nation, a national policy. It grows, sometimes slowly (like over eons), sometimes quite quickly, it matures, and eventually growth slows, eventually what begins to take place is the opposite of growth: signs of aging, illness, erosion, deterioration of one sort or another, depending on what the thing is. And, eventually, there's death, the end of the whatever. If it's not a complete death -- as in the case of most nations in the world -- it's the death of whatever is the current culture within that nation, so that what then begins to grow is a different version of that nation.

And this is what happens to absolutely everything. And yet, everybody is yelling: we need more growth, we've got to come up with ways to get the economy growing again. Building and buying more cars, more houses, more clothes, more electronic economy based on more and more (in other words, growth) of absolutely everything simply cannot continue forever. The planet, staggering under the weight of billions of people, more and more of whom are insisting on the same kind of economic growth that the industrialized countries have long taken for granted and insist must continue unfettered for them...well, the planet will simply buckle.

And yes, I do realize that plenty of other people have pointed this out before, beginning with 1972's The Limits to Growth, by Donella H. Meadows et al, continuing through the same group's updates of their original work, published in 1992 and 2004. A 2010 study entitled "A Comparison of the Limits of Growth with Thirty Years of Reality" concluded: "The analysis shows that 30 years of historical data compares favorably with key features… [of the Limits to Growth's] ‘standard run’ scenario, which results in collapse of the global system midway through the 21st Century."* So they've said it, these environmental and social scientists, based on their computer simulations and mathematical calculations, and I'm saying it, based on observation and common sense. But is anybody listening?

I honestly think President Obama, in his early pushing of alternative forms of energy, was acknowledging the limits to the growth of oil consumption as the backbone of our energy policy. But now he's singing the same song as everyone else, because that's what people want to hear, and this is an election year: we gotta grow, grow, grow...and quickly!  No time for research and development, no time to gradually get new kinds of industries, that would be aimed at more sustanable forms of energy, up and running.

And yes, I also know that this is what much of the "green" movement is all about, that there is a "sustainable growth" movement, both here and in Europe. But it's painfully small and lacking in power, compared with the hysterical push for unfettered growth.

So what do you supposed a collapse of the global system will look like?

*Turner, Graham. A Comparison of the Limits of Growth with Thirty Years of Reality. CSIRO Working Paper Series, (2010). Available at:

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


Well, no sooner do I brag to my friend Carolyn (with whom I stayed overnight when I went to Boston recently for my friend David's birthday party) that I had been very lucky in not having problems with bugs in my rented bungalow, in the four years I have lived there...except, I said, for the very occasional spider in the bathtub...than I find myself invaded by spiders-in-the-bathtub. At least one a day for the past few days -- yesterday it was two, a mama spider and a baby. Where are they coming from?! There are no obvious cracks or holes. Carolyn had said she thought they might come down through the pipes. But if they were hiding out in the pipes, seems like they'd occasionally get washed out into the tub while I was showering, or rather, during that period of time when the water is rushing out of the regular tap, while I'm playing with the hot and cold nozzles, getting the temperature just right before switching to shower mode. This has not thus far happened.

I know all about spiders being "good" bugs, because they consume other bugs, but I have a rule: you can do your thing, but stay out of my sight! Crawling around in the bathtub is definitely breaking the rule, and death is the punishment. Spiders I've caught in there in the past I've usually finished off with a shoe, but these lately have been big guys (or gals); no way I was going to squash them with a shoe, then have to clean out the squashed remains. So I've resorted to canned ant-and-roach spray, which I've had forever (when I lived in my wonderful cabin-on-the-lake, one unwonderful thing about it were the ants that hung out in the kitchen), and which seems to work o.k. on spiders. They just curl up in a ball to die, making their removal -- with a paper towel -- a mess-free operation.

I'm sorry, but I can't be "green" -- or Buddhist -- about bugs. And being greeted by another one in the tub is one of those times -- like putting in/taking out air conditioners, or trying to set up a Christmas tree, or investigating scary sounds at night -- when I sure do miss having a man around the house.