As I Was Saying…

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Archive for April, 2008

You’re Doomed. Deal with It.

April 30, 2008

Higgledy-piggledy
Emily Dickinson
Looked out her front window
Struggling for breath,

Suffering slightly from
Agoraphobia:
“Think I’ll just stay in and
Write about Death.”

—Leon Stokesbury

“Doom” is the tough love message of New England: If you go around happy all the time, you just don’t understand the situation. I suspect this is partly the residue of Puritan religion (the real sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God stuff, not that hormone-soaked prissiness we call “puritanical” these days). Yet it must also result from living in a place where “Spring” is mostly an abstract construct with no identifiable correlative in the physical world.

New Englanders devise any number of strategies to cope with this, and I think it’s important to remember that giving right in to gloom–à la Belle of Amherst, supra–is but one. There is also sublimation (calling all BoSox fans) and projection (“I’m OK; you’re doomed”).

A few years ago, my daughter developed car trouble taking an acquaintance back to Cambridge. I drove into the city to rescue her and naturally got lost. I have long believed that in laying out the street system for Boston, the founders sought to create a metaphor for the Calvinist’s labyrinthine path to Grace. They were breathtakingly successful.

The maps I had printed out from MapQuest served me reasonably well until I made the first wrong turn, but I was soon hopelessly lost. I knew that the situation was ripe for a classic Boston moment. With a sinking feeling, I stopped to ask directions. The first person I saw was a huge guy loading boxes into the back of a station wagon. I explained my situation to him.

He looked at the MapQuest pages in my hand and shook his head. “You got these on the Internet?” he asked.

I admitted that, yes, I had.

“See,” he explained, “that’s why you’re completely fucked, right there…” He then gave me elaborate, utterly incorrect directions and walked away.

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A Streetcar Named Spring

April 29, 2008

The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.

—William Faulkner

I live in Portland, Maine. Until well into the 20th century, Greater Portland was served by an extensive streetcar line. Iron rails were set into the cobblestone pavement as if the streetcars would run for a thousand years.

With the advent of automobiles and mass transit by bus, however, the streetcars faded away. They were gone completely by the time I was born in 1946.

By the 1970s, most people had had enough of trying to drive on cobblestones, particularly on streets where the old trolley line rails were still in place. As the city could afford to do the work, the streets were paved over with asphalt.

The only cobblestones deliberately left as pavement in Portland, as far as I know, are found in the downtown area known as The Old Port, a tourist mecca marked by small shops, law offices and more restaurants and bars per acre than anywhere else in Maine.

Yet the old cobblestones aren’t really gone in other parts of the city. We have had a punishing winter here, and the combination of freezing and thawing ground with the repeated pounding of heavy snow plows, storm after storm, has fragmented the asphalt pavement of many Portland streets.

Beneath the asphalt, the cobblestones and trolley tracks remain. Now that winter is over, a lot of cobblestones that haven’t seen the light of day for decades are visible. They will disappear again as street repairs are completed, but they’ll be back again to greet a new generation of Portlanders every time a winter of this past year’s magnitude finds southern Maine.

Cobblestone streets and iron rails come as close to true permanence as anything human ingenuity has ever devised.

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Moving a Hole

April 28, 2008

This evening we’re in the middle of what feels like the first real spring rain of the season. The rain started this afternoon as I was finished the first phase of a project I’ve been putting off since the day we moved into this house in 1996.

We’re the third or fourth owners of this house, but no one ever landscaped the lot. For years, I have been irritated by a low spot in the front lawn. And this is the year I finally do something about it. Nobody ever really seeded our front yard either, and after a massive attack of grubs last year there really isn’t any front lawn to speak of. Uneven grass is one thing; an expanse of bare dirt is something else.

But in trying to reestablish the lawn, I was determined not to seed a hole. So, in order to fill that hole I’ve started moving dirt from an inconspicuous spot out back. This of course is creating a hole in the back yard.

When I was on the phone with Marge earlier in the day, she asked what I was doing. “Moving a hole,” I replied, “with a wheelbarrow and shovel. I would have preferred to tie it to the rear bumper of the car and tow it to its new location out back, but I couldn’t seem to make the physics work.”

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Scott, Meet Zelda! You’ll Love Her!

April 23, 2008

…graven with diamonds in letters plain,
There is written her fair neck round about;
Noli me tangere; for Cæsar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.’
—Sir Thomas Wyatt

She’s a rich girl;
She don’t try to hide it
Diamonds on the soles of her shoes.
—Paul Simon

The image of the poor boy in love with the rich girl is a powerful symbol of our yearning for what is unattainable. I remember my junior year of college as the year of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I read almost everything he ever published and wrote papers about his work for two or three different classes. He taught me a lot about yearning and more than a few things about myself.

F. Scott Fitzgerlad
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald, if you haven’t dived into his work the way I did, basically had only one story to tell: boy meets golden girl; girl destroys boy; girl dances away to destroy again. There is some variation from story to story—how brutal the destruction is, how much the boy has it coming, how golden the girl really is—but the arc of the story is always the same. Again and again Fitzgerald tried to tell the story of his life with Zelda so that it would finally somehow make sense. As a result, his work presents a harsh view of life, love and humanity in general.

It worked for me in 1967 and 1968, however, as graduation and the inevitable draft notice drew nearer day by day. What I yearned for was another world, another life to step into, in which longing, if sufficiently intense, could influence likelihood. This was child-like, magical thinking that I fell into again and again: if I really, really, really wanted something, then surely I could have it. But there is no bargaining with fate.

As things turned out for me, however, fate was kind. The woman I married has been the love of my life by any measure: 40 years into the marriage I am more in love with her than ever. My military service after college was easy and strangely rewarding. When it ended, I actually missed it for a little while because it had given me my first opportunity to feel competent in the world of adults.

Now, in the final third of life, I find the the old yearnings have been mostly left behind. Zelda-like women who might have bewitched me 40 years ago, for example, now seem self-absorbed and profoundly uninteresting, however lovely they may be. Remembering the young men in Fitzgerald’s stories fills me with gratitude for how far the years have brought me.

I escaped you when I was young, Zelda, perhaps by luck, but your time is past. You won’t get me now.

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Give That Boy a Hand

April 19, 2008

Right-handers are all alike; every southpaw is left-handed in his own way.

It is almost always true, but In the fall of 2003 I met a person who is left-handed in almost exactly the same way I am. I was surprised for all sorts of reasons. For one thing, I had waited 57 years to meet such a person. For another thing, the person in question turned out to be a 17-year-old girl. Having waited only 17 years to find someone similarly sinistral she was a whole lot less excited about the discovery than I was. Or it may just have been that 17-year-olds are so often bored by almost everything except each other.

Anyway, if you are of the right-handed persuasion, you may be wondering what I’m talking about. The fact is left-handedness is very rarely absolute, although my daughter Elizabeth may be an exception. She says her right hand and arm are there mostly for symmetry, but we lefties are made of exceptions. Left-handedness is a continuum, and the term left-handed therefore generally applies to any hand preference that is in any way not pure right-handedness. This means that left-handed has the same relationship to right-handed as black does to white in American racial politics.

I won’t even get started on the bum rap lefties have always gotten in general. The French call left gauche; the Romans called it sinister!

Trying something new has always been an adventure for me. Sometimes I know right away whether I will do a thing left or right, but sometimes I have to try it both ways. Here’s a partial list to show you what I mean.

Grooming:

Toothbrush: right
Razor: left
Comb: right

Tools:

Hammer: left
Saw: right
Screwdriver: right
Pliers: left
Axe: left
Drill: right

Sports:

Throw: right
Bat: right
Tennis racquet: left
Bowling: right
Pool: left
Archery: right
Rifle: left

Miscellaneous:

Write: left (with chalk, ambidextrous)
Eat: right
Computer mouse: right
Guitar: right

Although many things change in education, some things do not. For example, no one teaches lefties how to write. We’re on our own. There doesn’t seem to be an explicit penalty for left-handedness anymore, but I came along in school at the very end of the days when teachers believed that everyone was really right-handed. Some of us just needed to have the fear of God put into us to realize it.

left hand writingFaced with this kind of pressure, left-handed kids adopted a number of strategies. I suppose there were the faint hearts who knuckled under and learned to write right-handed, but I never knew any of them. And that wasn’t my response. I developed a peculiar way of gripping a pencil that enabled me to write with the forward slant of a rightie without having to turn the paper upside down to do it. My grip, in fact, was almost exactly like the one shown in the picture. I didn’t know that anyone else held the pen the same way I did until I did an image search for this post.

Anyway, years later, I realized the downside of this grip. The result of my frantic, yet forward-slanted, note-taking while I studied for the bar exam after law school was a neurological injury to my left hand from which I have never fully recovered. Over the last few years, I have grudgingly begun using my right hand to write. I don’t enjoy it, but I find that I can do it. I imagine my second grade teacher pursing her lips triumphantly and saying, “This is precisely what I hoped you could avoid, Peter.”

“Yes, Mrs. Sterling. Of course, Mrs. Sterling.”

Another change is recent. After using a computer mouse for more than 15 years, I have developed a repetitive strain injury. I am now coming to terms with mousing with my left hand. I don’t like it much, but I can do it. It’s exactly the kind of switch that those of us of the left-hand continuum can accomplish without much fanfare.

But how can it be so damned hard for a leftie to learn how to do something left-handed?

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The Arrowhead Maker

April 18, 2008

Writing about black flies yesterday turned my thoughts to my old friend Gary by way of a very short series of associations. Gary was a fly fisherman and a Registered Maine Guide. As a fisherman, he had to make some sort of truce with the black fly. As a guide, he used to say, “I like black flies. They keep the tourists away.” It wasn’t true on either count: nobody likes black flies, and tourists were Gary’s source of work as a guide.

Gary and I were friends for forty years, from the fall of 1963 when we both crashed the same frat party at the college we both later attended, until he died in his sleep in January of 2004, just a few days after his 59th birthday.

Near the end of my junior year of college, Gary and I tagged along with the archeology class to Little Chebeague (shuh-BEEG) Island in Casco Bay, for a one-day “dig” in the Indian shell heaps found there. Maine Indians summered on Casco Bay islands from time immemorial, living mostly on seafood, and the shell heaps were their garbage dumps. The surviving shell heaps on Little Chebeague were supposedly begun centuries ago and used well into Colonial times.

coke bottleIt was a beautiful day in May, and Gary and I had no real responsibility to participate in the “dig.” We spent the morning exploring the island. On the beach, Gary found a piece of green glass. We immediately recognized it as the bottom of a Coke bottle.

Gary seemed lost in thought for moment, then broke into a grin. “Do you know how to knap an Indian arrowhead?” he asked.arrowhead I confessed that I had no idea what he was talking about.

Without another word, he picked up a beach rock and began using it to chip away at the Coke bottle bottom. “This,” he explained, “is knapping.”

In about ten minutes he had transformed the Coke bottle bottom into a perfect, translucent green arrowhead. “Now,” he said, “we have to wait for just the right moment.” Once again, I had no idea what he was talking about.

He put the arrowhead in his jacket pocket and we walked back to the shell heap where the archeology students were working. Soon it was time for lunch, and the students hurried out of the shell heap to begin eating the sandwiches they had brought with them.

Gary brought out the arrowhead and discreetly dropped it onto the shell heap as we walked away.

After lunch, the students went back to their “dig.” They were starting to find some fairly interesting things. A knife that seemed to have been carved from a deer antler. The rusted remains of an iron axehead that the Indians must have gotten through trade with colonists. A few bits of broken pottery. A barbless bone fishhook. A few ordinary arrowheads like the one shown here. And, finally, the most miraculous discovery of all: a translucent green arrowhead.

There was an uproar among the students with everyone talking at once and crowding around the kid who had picked up Gary’s arrowhead. Ignoring Sherlock Holmes’ sound advice to investigators, people began “reasoning ahead of the facts” trying to figure out where the arrowhead had come from.

Coke bottle green was instantly recognizable in those days, but the archeology students refused to see it. Was the arrowhead ancient? Was it made from obsidian? Or was it emerald? Could the Indians have made it? How could they have gotten it from someone else?

Gary let this go on for a few minutes, then couldn’t contain himself any longer. He explained the trick, then made another arrowhead out of a piece of white beach glass while everyone watched. Not much digging got done after that. I suspect that someone took the glass arrowheads home as souvenirs of the dig.

We finished our island day by flagging down a passing lobster boat. We bought lobsters and clams and steamed them on the beach, over a driftwood fire.

Years later, I told this story at Gary’s funeral because it so beautifully captured his knowledge and skill, his great sense of fun and his utter lack of meanness or malice. I had to stop quite a few times during the telling to pull myself together, but no one criticized me for it.

I have a couple of redwood whales that Gary carved for me years after the day on Little Chebeague, but I wish I had that beautiful green arrowhead.

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My Personal Spring

April 17, 2008

My headline today is a twist on an inside family joke of sorts. For a long time, Marge has referred to hot flashes as her “personal summer.” I sympathize without the ability to empathize. “Manopause,” my own stage of life, does not include personal summers.

I do, however, have a personal spring, and it arrived yesterday. The pile of snow at the end of the driveway, at least six feet tall back in January, is completely gone. The last patch of it trickled away some time around 3:00 o’clock yesterday afternoon. I doubt that anyone except me marked its passing.

Last winter there was a lot of snow everywhere in Maine, so I’m not exactly sure why I have attached so much significance to one particular pile of it. It must be partly because that snow pile made backing out of my driveway hazardous for months. It was still chest high when the calendar announced the official arrival of spring last month. It was also the last holdout of winter on this street. Somehow I haven’t been able to feel spring in my soul while that snow pile was still visible.

Black FlyHere in northern New England, of course, it is always necessary to qualify the word “spring” in some way. This is a three season place. The reality is that we move from late winter to the season of spring yard work. Spring yard work gives way, around Mother’s Day, to black fly season, which we share with our neighbors to the North. By the end of black fly season, summer will have begun. In Maine, we enjoy summer, fall and winter. We have no spring, at least not of the sort known in much of the rest of the country.

Maybe that’s the real reason I’ve made up my own.

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A Short Sad Story

April 15, 2008

It was only three days ago that I wrote enthusiastically about our new dog Mike. And now the story is over. This morning, I drove him back to Bethel.

I wish I knew exactly what went wrong. Instead of adapting and adjusting to living with us, Mike got more and more anxious. By last night, when Marge took him for a walk, he was afraid of people, other dogs, and even blowing leaves. Last night, he again refused to climb the stairs and spent most of the night whimpering downstairs because he was alone. By this morning, he wouldn’t go out on the back deck. Except when he was actually touching someone, he was whimpering.

On the way back to Bethel, he began panting and whimpering in the backseat of the car. I stopped the car, thinking that I needed to let him out, but that wasn’t the case. Once outside the car, Mike dropped into a crouch, shivering, panting and acting for all the world as if he feared being abandoned. That wasn’t right either, because then he didn’t want to get back into the car!

When I left Mike with the breeder, I said, “I feel terrible that we couldn’t make this work. I hope you can find a good home for Mike.”

The breeder’s response was icy: “That won’t be a problem.”

I wonder. Marge and I love dogs, and we have a lot of experience with Labs. As far as I know, we did just about everything right. Yet Mike was consumed by his own anxiety in less than three days. Maybe he can find a home with no stairs where he never has to be alone.

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Meet Mike

April 12, 2008

Pleasant River MikeWe drove to Bethel, Maine, this morning to look at a couple of adult Labrador retrievers who needed a home. We drove back to Portland early this afternoon with a brand new friend. Mike is 5½ years old and is about to spend his first night in his new home.

So far, so good. We’ve learned in the last few hours that Mike doesn’t like puppies and that he won’t climb stairs. The first is not a problem. As much as I love dogs, I have no intention of ever starting with a puppy again. I’m told that most people shy away from taking older dogs, but, as I told a woman who spoke to Mike while I was walking him this afternoon, “I’m kind of an older dog myself.”

As for the stairs, well, we’re going to have to reach an accommodation here. My home office is upstairs. We sleep upstairs. Somehow we’re going to have to teach Mike how to climb stairs. But not tonight.

We haven’t had a dog since August of 2005 when the vet had to come to the house and take poor Dougie away. Doug was a black Labrador with so much personality that he was almost human. When the time came to make that final call to the vet, I cried as if I were losing a child.

It’s probably no surprise that I’ve been holding out for a long time, saying I didn’t want another dog, saying I couldn’t stand to have another dog put down. And those things were true. About a week ago, however, I realized that their truth was becoming less important every day. Last Saturday, we spent a few hours online visiting dog rescue sites. Then Marge made a couple of phone calls and connected with the breeder who had Mike. We made the appointment to visit today. There were several dogs we thought we were going to look at, but Mike went right to work and knocked out the competition in short order.

When Mike’s owner Dave brought Mike into the room where we were waiting, Mike came to me so that I could pat him, then he sat beside Marge and put his head in her lap. The whole bonding thing, at least on our part, was pretty much a done deal at that point.

We really have to work our way through the stairs issue, however. And now, as I am writing this, Mike just tried to get up on the couch beside me. That’s a non-starter in this house. Mike’s look of surprise and disappointment tells me a lot about the life he has led up until today. After all, people have different standards that apply to statements such as “He never gets fed from the table” or “We’ve never allowed him on the furniture.” Sometimes I think those statements mean little more than, “We never fed him from the table or let him up on the furniture even once without remembering that some people think those are bad ideas.”

For now, we’re getting to know Mike and he’s getting to know us. We’ll take things one day a time and pretty soon Mike will be ours and we will be his.

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‘I Was Glad’ at the Traffic Light

April 11, 2008

So often when I stop at a red light, I find myself beside a vehicle pimped out with bone-shaking audio—always cranked up to the max. I can’t tell what music is being played because only the bass thumps its way to my car.

My response is typically a brief prayer: “Thank you, God, that I am sitting in this car and not that one.” This is only to say that I’m aware of a cultural and generational chasm between people like me and those who like their music played above 100 dB.

C. Hubert Parry
~ C. Hubert Parry ~

When you’re sitting next to the thumping car, it’s pretty easy to assume that the driver is young and the music is rock, or one of the 180 sub-genres of rock that Wikipedia enumerates. Both assumptions seem fairly safe, and I imagine they’re usually right.

And yet, the other day I was the driver of the thumping car. Was I listening to Blackened Death Metal? Psychobilly? Pornogrind? Screamo? J-ska?

Nah. It was C. Hubert Parry’s classic I Was Glad, as recorded in 2002 by our church choir.

It has a huge pipe organ thing going. Those 32-foot pipes will shred speakers with the best that rock has to offer. I had ol’ C. Hubert cranked.

The driver of the car next to me at the red light of course had no idea what I was listening to and was probably imagining one of the 180. He stared at me until I turned and met his gaze. As we made eye contact, his expression changed to something almost quizzical.

He seemed to be asking, “Aren’t you a little old for this?”

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