Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Notes from Brewster, MA

And now for something completely different…
Here is a book review I wrote for the Brewster Ladies Library on Cape Cod, one of my favorite vacation hang-outs.

Unfamiliar Fishes, by Sarah Vowel 
William Zinsser, the late non-fiction writer, editor and teacher, wrote: “Ultimately, the product any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is. I often find myself reading with interest about a topic I never thought would interest me… What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field.” Sarah Vowel with “Unfamiliar Fishes,” her study of Hawaii’s fortunes from 1819, when the first boatload of New England missionaries left Boston Harbor for the Sandwich Islands to save the heathen, through to annexation in 1898, illustrates Zinsser’s point. Encouraged by a friend to read Vowel, I had no interest in Hawaii, but “Unfamiliar Fishes” was the volume handed to me. From the first pages I knew I was in for a fun voyage.

A caveat:  Vowel’s style and structure are unconventional. Vowel wears her politics on her sleeve – or perhaps more accurately on her hard drive. As early as page 3 she shows her colors, describing the annexation as “a four-month orgy of imperialism” that gobbled up Puerto Rico and Guam in addition to Hawaii and included the invasion of Cuba that resulted in American control of Guantanamo Bay.  As for the book, there are no chapters, no headings, no index. Instead, Vowel unfolds her narrative over 233 pages with occasional section breaks throughout, weaving into the 19th-century history her personal observations of modern day Hawaii and vignettes about her research.

Nevertheless, the dominant focus is the decades of conflict between the native population with its royal families and the sons of the white missionaries who ultimately “dethroned the Hawaiian queen,” handing Hawaii over to the United States. Indeed, some natives who were on the scene when the first missionaries arrived foresaw the conclusion. Vowel quotes David Malo, the native Hawaiian historian who became a Christian minister and died in 1853:
 If a big wave comes in, large and unfamiliar fishes will come from the dark ocean, and when they see the small fishes of the shallows they will eat them up. The white man’s ships have arrived with clever men from big countries. They know our people are few in number and our country is small, they will devour us.

 With warm sympathy she portrays the doomed dynasty of the Kamehamehas, I through V, their passions and also their flaws. With considerably cooler sympathy she tells her tales about the Doles, the Richards, the Binghams, the Gibsons and the Thurstons.

The differences between the “small fishes” and the “large and unfamiliar fishes” were profound. An expansive people comfortable with sensuality vs. a Puritan people pretty much uncomfortable with everything. A deep love of nature for its own sake vs. an attitude that natural resources exist solely to be exploited for the benefit of man. A society willing to ask its members to chip in when monetary resources are needed vs., in Vowel’s words, “upper class white guys…exceedingly touchy about taxation.” Vowel depicts all of the clashes with engaging scenes, often filled with drama and almost always ending in tragedy for the “small fishes.”

Along the way Vowel also shares some surprising (at least for me) information. The first newspaper west of the Rockies was published in Hawaii (though it lasted only one year). The British government supported Hawaiian independence and welcomed Hawaiian royalty to London. A private missionary school, founded in 1839 by Juliette and Amos Cooke (who had not gone to college) so “the children of chiefs will be taught,” was sending its graduates off to Williams and Harvard  by 1868. Punahou became a world-class school and still sends its graduates off to the mainland, including one Barack Obama, who went on to Occidental College and then Harvard Law School.

If you happen to share Vowel’s politics, this book will be a delight. If you happen to lean more to the right, but have been known to happily spend a long evening with a highly opinionated but also highly intelligent friend, someone you consider a worthy adversary who regales you with entertaining and enlightening stories, this book will also be a delight.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Have a Nice Trip

Last Saturday morning I fell down and broke my crown.

Well, I didn’t really break it, but I certainly gave it some rough treatment.

I had gotten up early to check Weather.com. When could I work in my run? The forecast the evening before had been gloomy, threatening rain all day. I hadn’t run in the rain for decades, choosing as I advanced in years to wimp out and use a treadmill. But this time I had no choice: the HealthPlex, with its trusty treadmill, was closed for its annual three-day mega-maintenance and facility projects weekend. Weather.com told me I was in luck: 0% chance of rain between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., my usual running time.

At 7 a.m., I strapped on my Garmin watch, headed down the street … and heard raindrops patter in the leaves overhead.  I kept walking. After five minutes I started my usual slow lope. Down Blackthorn Road I went, and the raindrops came a little faster. I decided to persevere. The temperature was mild and it wasn’t exactly pouring. I continued my trot, left on Green Valley Road, right on Providence Road, and then right again onto the old concrete walking path that had been laid down 80 years ago between two yards to connect Providence Road to Dogwood Lane.

The next thing I knew that concrete path was rising up to meet me. This was no Irish blessing. I saw the sidewalk coming with the green lawn beside it and had just enough time to put out my hands and think, “Aim for the grass and roll.”

It half worked. I felt the right side of my head bounce off the concrete and I was on my back on the grass. Interesting sensation that – one’s head bouncing.

I lay there for a moment. I hadn’t seen stars, but I felt a “sensation” on my forehead that I was pretty sure was the inception of a goose egg. I drew a couple deep breaths and stood up to take stock. Two scraped knees, the left one oozing blood, the right one closer to dripping. Two scraped palms, the left one slightly abraded, the right one gouged with blood leaking along the edges. And that interesting sensation on my forehead.

I took some more deep breaths and started the ten-minute walk back home. At the intersection of Providence and Green Valley, I greeted one gentleman walking his dog, who gave me a strange look.  (The man, not the dog, though I can’t swear to that.) I put the unbloodied fingers of my left hand up to my face and pulled away with some sticky red stuff. I kept my head down for the rest of the walk home to avoid more greetings.

When I came in the kitchen door, Jon looked up from his paper and said, “That was a quick three miles.”

“I took a tumble.”

“Oh. I thought you stopped because of the rain.” And he went back to his paper.

No use crying if no one notices, so I didn’t cry. I inspected. I already had a good idea of the condition of my knees and hands, but the face was fresh territory. Having caught the edge of the sidewalk, I had scratches along the brow bone above my right eye, now very tender, scrapes high on my right cheekbone, giving me a rough-and-tumble action hero(ine) look,  and a sprinkling of bright red pockmarks along the right side of my nose (from pieces of loose gravel?). I did my best at mopping up.

After disposing of the damp and bloodied paper towels, I grabbed a bag of frozen peas from the freezer to hold against my pate. It was only then that the adrenaline drained right out of my body, leaving me dripping with sweat and feeling lightheaded. Jon sprang into action, fetching for me the magic elixir for all ills: a glass of ginger ale.

An hour or so of holding a pack of peas against your face can get pretty tedious, and I had done only three or four minutes of my run. I went back out to finish, but this time to the local college track, and Jon came with me. It was either that, he said, or he was going to make me wear a helmet.

Three days later the major reminders of the fall are:
(1) A swollen top joint of the pinky finger on my right hand, which I apparently jammed when I landed but which also apparently kept my head from hitting any harder than it did (well done, pinky finger) but now hurts like the dickens (and does anyone even know what a dickens is?).
(2) An intriguing black eye that isn’t swollen but looks exactly as though I have gone wild with deep purple eyeliner and eye shadow from my eye lashes right up into my eyebrow. (An office colleague commented that the color looked good on me.)

It could have been worse.

I do not know what triggered the fall. I’ve run that same route, padded along that same path for seven years, two to three times a week, April through October. Perhaps I was just too focused on being so proud of myself for running in the rain just like I used to do 30 years ago. (Clearly a physical manifestation of the proverb.)

I do know that I had not gone up a hill.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Death to the Moth

Oh that Virgina Woolf. Such a sentimental softie. There she is in a room of her own, sitting at her writing desk but obviously procrastinating by looking out the window. (I procrastinate by doing the laundry.) The scenery before her provides exquisite pastoral beauty of a September day in the English countryside: fields being ploughed, birds swooping to and fro, horses gamboling about. Yet she gives all her attention to a moth fluttering at her windowpane, seemingly “content with life” before it keels over, and she is “conscious of a queer feeling of pity for him.”

Well, I don’t have much pity for the moth fluttering around my kitchen. The pantry moth, the Indian mealmoth, the Plodia interpunctella. If only our moth seemed to be just “content with life.” Our moth isn’t content unless it gets into every box of Triscuits, every partially used package of baking walnuts, every minuscule crevice of a bag of flour.

And while the moth might be as diminutive as the one that charmed our Ginny, it is definitely not frail. It zips around the kitchen, surviving a certain death blow between two hands clapping, eluding the grey cat who leaps to bat at it with outstretched paws, and cannily avoiding all of the traps, with their alluring red squares and sticky surfaces, that have been placed strategically up high, down low, and any place in between that we have seen the moth alight.

At the end of her musings, Woolf admires her now dead moth, “most decently and uncomplainingly composed.” If only our moth would be so decent as to die off.  Even if one of us manages to squash the thing against the wall, we know what lurks in the corners of the cabinets. We know it has left behind its eggs, and like the offspring of the Alien of sci-fi horror filmdom, those eggs will grow into larvae, then into pupa and finally to adulthood. We may be lulled into a short period when we think we have escaped the torment, when we can open a bag of granola without groaning “Oh gross!” But no, there they are again, and our only recourse is to take everything out of the cupboards; to throw away masses of what had been perfectly good cereal and crackers, nuts and other nibbles; and then to wash down the shelves and any containers that had been on those shelves.

So Woolf rhapsodizes about her moth: “as he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light became visible. He was little or nothing but life.”

I don’t know about day moths in rural Sussex, England, but pantry moths in suburban southeastern Pennsylvania are nothing but pests.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Happy Halloween

Yes, it’s decorative gourd season again.

Halloween is nearly upon us. But you wouldn’t know it from our house. Outside, no pumpkins, no mums, just baskets of impatiens still hanging on with some periwinkle petals. The front door does not boast a bundle of dried corncobs. Inside, the same empty ceramic bowl has sat in the middle of the dining room table since the poinsettias were retired in January. No cornucopia overflows with fall’s bounty. I won’t even be here the evening of October 31 (although Jon may have to dole out some treats). Without kids in the house, Halloween has become a non-event.

But when the kids were young, Halloween definitely was an event. In fact, the event that heralded the beginning of the holiday season. At the first chilly night, the family went into seasonal overdrive. Off to Linvilla Orchards for piles of pumpkins, pots of yellow and orange mums, and a bale of straw to be turned into stuffing for our “fall tableau”: we each would contribute a worn shirt and pair of pants to be stuffed. The straw-stuffed bodies would be propped up on a bench in the yard and topped with pumpkins for heads. Voila! Mom and Dad and Jay and Annie in scarecrow form.

The heart of Halloween, though, was costume-planning. Well before the nights turned cold, sometimes at the first sign of summer's fading, husband Jon and daughter Annie would go into caucus over their costumes. Jon was not a big fan of trick-or-treating, but he joined in Annie’s planning with good-hearted gusto (and also with the hope that he might get a couple Oh Henry candy bars out of it for his trouble).  These costumes weren’t purchased at a Halloween pop-up store at the mall. These costumes were made by hand by Annie and Jon (mostly Jon) and were eagerly anticipated each year by the households they visited on their rounds. One year Annie was a maiden from Camelot who traveled with her own Merlin, she in flowing medieval wear and he majestic in long cape and outsized wizard’s hat. Another year, Annie was a Southern belle and Jon her charming beau.

As Annie got older, the costumes evolved from cute to clever, like the time they went as “Coke with a Straw.” Annie wore a silver cylinder of poster board with accurate Coke graphics, and Jon made a flexible tube by basting a series of hula-hoops into sheets painted with red stripes. This contraption was then worn in such a way that he could make it bow at just the right place for a bendy straw. And there was the time they went as “Partly Sunny.” Annie wore grey sweat-pants and -shirt with bunches of white balloons somehow attached to the sweatshirt so that she looked like a walking cumulus cloud. Jon fashioned a mask of yellow rays flaring from around his head, like the pictures of Old Sol in children’s books. Strapped around his head beamed a kind of miner’s lamp. As they walked through the neighborhood, there was no doubt that the day was sunny with some clouds. They always came home with bags bulging with sugared booty – and if Annie was happy and there was an Oh Henry in one of those bags, it was all worth it to Jon.

Many harvest moons have passed. Both kids are out of college and out of the house. Less than two months ago we were all together for Labor Day weekend, just about the time that Jon and Annie used to get down to serious Halloween costume business. Sitting out on the deck, Jon smiled and said to Annie, “So, what should we go as for Halloween this year?” Annie turned a pitying eye on her father and replied, “Oh, Pops. I never liked doing all that Halloween costume stuff. I only did it because it was so important to you.”

Now, there’s a taste of O. Henry for Jon.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Watered Down Coleridge

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink

“I thought I should let you know before you got home. When I came in this morning I found a hole in your hall ceiling and a pile of plaster pieces on your hall rug, which is also soaking wet.” So ran our cat-sitter’s voicemail message that I picked up while we were driving back from July Fourth weekend on the Cape in the middle of the hottest summer ever.

After a flurry of phone calls from the car, our plumber guy and our home-repair guy pulled into the driveway minutes after we did. Plumber Guy figured out what happened first. The condensation draining tube from the central air conditioner’s condenser on the third floor had gotten clogged and backed up into the overflow pan. The sensor that should have sensed water in the pan and should have shut down the air conditioner did not sense the danger because the pan had cracked. The air conditioner ran and the water drained down inside two stories of walls to end up saturating the hall ceiling, which gave way, landing in a sodden mess on the hall carpet. Plumber Guy expressed surprise at the problem. We expressed surprise at Plumber Guy: he was the one who had installed everything eight years before and had been doing the plumbing in the house ever since. Plumber Guy put in a new overflow pan and charged us $500. Home-Repair Guy cleaned the wound in the ceiling, with plastic for a bandage, and didn’t come back until Thanksgiving to re-plaster. One bright spot: the hardwood floorboards threatened to warp, but then changed their minds.

And the coming wind did roar more loud...
And the rain poured down from one black cloud.

Two months later we again arrived home from a Cape weekend to another water event, this time in our TV room: a waterfall cascading down the inside of the window and a shower sprinkling from now visible seams in the ceiling adjoining the window. A freak storm (part of which we had driven through) had dumped four inches of rain in less than an hour. The drainage of the flat roof over the TV room could not cope. So in came the water, leaving behind a 2’x3’ section of ceiling a mottled mustard shade. We did not call Plumber Guy, nor did we call Home-Repair Guy. The mottled mustard remains.

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around.

In January – yes, when we arrived home from a New Year’s visit to the Cape – we found a frozen facade coating the fieldstone that is the outside wall of our house. After several weeks of head-scratching and consulting with various experts, it was Home-Repair Guy’s turn to solve the mystery: the old pipe to bring water from the third floor bathroom, which had been installed several generations back with no insulation up the inside of the exterior, had cracked under the onslaught of arctic temperatures. Water escaped once more down two stories and this time found crevices to come out and pour down the outside wall.

Given that all three of these wet messes were discovered on returns from the Cape, you might think if we just didn’t go to the Cape, our water worries would be over.

But no…

In March I noticed puddles and pools around the base of our gas heater – and we hadn’t been to the Cape for two months! The water dripped from a narrow copper pipe suspended from a jungle gym of pipes and valves that make up the transportation system for our gas heater and radiators.  It was Plumber Guy’s turn again. He diagnosed a faulty water tank and replaced it. Yet the puddles and pools not only remained, the drip graduated to a steady trickle. Plumber Guy came back and re-diagnosed the problem: a faulty lever on one of the valves. He replaced that. (I know, with all this replacing, we should also think about replacing Plumber Guy.)

And yet there is no relief. Two weeks ago the water company began an “upgrade,” replacing all the pipes underneath our road. Of course, there was some malfunction (although at least not at our house this time), and a small river rushed down the street. The water company chose to repair the problem at 2:00 a.m., with the glare of the work lights, the grinding of the drill through pavement, and the shouts of the various workers encouraging each other, making for an interesting sleep environment.

I have had enough. Tomorrow I’m sending around an email to the neighbors: “Okay, which one of you did in the albatross?”

Water, water every where…

Sunday, September 16, 2012

To the greater glory…

            I go to church to sing.
            There it is. I know I will be struck by lightning. For our family, God does not work in mysterious ways at all. Nope. He acts quickly and clearly.           
            Example:  My mother and my grandmother (her mother-in-law) were never very fond of each other. My father’s sudden death at age 54 left my mother, in her grieving and upended state, to be the one to keep a daily eye on my grandmother since my father’s sister lived 1,000 miles away in Florida. My mother religiously visited Grandma, who lived only minutes up the street from us. This was hardship duty, but she did it without a whimper. I was in college at the time and what I heard most often was how much my mother admired (not to say coveted) one of Grandma’s china lamps. After 3½ years, at the age of 82, my grandmother died in her sleep. My aunt came up from Florida, the estate was settled, my grandmother’s house was dismantled, and my aunt was fine with my mother taking the china lamp. By this time, I was home following graduation and my mother enlisted me to drive while she cradled the base of the lamp in her lap, with the lampshade, protected by a blanket, sitting safely behind us on the back seat. Not having decided yet the best placement for the lamp, my mother put it down in the basement on the floor so that there was no danger of its falling off a table. Less than two weeks later, a freak storm of nearly hurricane intensity sprang up and a mighty gust of wind blew open the cellar door. SMASH went the lamp. My mother told this story in a matter of fact way: it was not mysterious at all that God would frown on her taking possession of this coveted lamp once owned by a woman she did not like. A devout Episcopalian, my mother understood the message immediately and had no hard feelings toward God.
            Now back to me and church…
            I have been singing Episcopal hymns in Episcopal churches since I was old enough to stay “up” in church for the service instead of going “down” to the undercroft (read “basement”) for story time. And for decades I was singing from the choir stalls. Choirs, especially good choirs, are regularly reminded that they are not performing. Choir music is part of the service. No applause, no encores, no “bravos.” (Even if you happen to have done a fine job as soprano soloist in Schubert’s “Mass in G Major.”)
            But that was okay. During those decades, concurrent with singing in church, I had other singing opportunities that were performances. Applause welcome. (Plus any individual words of praise.). At Hollidaysburg Junior High I starred in the 9th grade operetta, “The Man from Venus.” In high school, the Baldwin Trio were featured at chorus concerts. (See “Harry Goes to Hollywood.”) In college, my rendition of “When I’m 64” was preserved for posterity in the first recording of my women’s a cappella group. As an adult, I sang with a number of organizations, from 150-member volunteer choruses that performed Verdi’s “Requiem” with the Philadelphia Orchestra to a 16-member professional chamber choir that performed Thomas Tallis in local churches.
            Once our children were both old enough to stay “up” in church, I stopped singing in the choir. I had all those other singing outlets and I wanted to sit in the pew with my family.
            About 13 years ago, I gave up even my extracurricular singing. Kids’ school events and our work schedules were just too tight to jam in any rehearsals. My only outlet for singing was from the pew on Sunday mornings--and that is not performing. I confess that sometimes I would get carried away, especially at Christmas, as I knew by heart all the fancy descants which I would then belt out with gusto. This led to embarrassment on the part of my children, but also, often enough, to someone turning to me and saying, “My, you have such a lovely voice.”
            Then the kids grew up. Going to church on Sunday has become less compelling then doing the crossword puzzle.
            However, when we were last up on the Cape driving to dinner in a new area, Jon pointed: “Look, there’s an Episcopal church!” He had struck a chord. I had been feeling like I was missing something. So the Sunday before Labor Day I went off to church. Seating no more than 125 souls, the building was a small jewel, with white-washed walls, dark wood beams, and brilliant stained glass windows. And they had a great music program. At the 10:00 a.m. service I was so happy to be chanting the liturgy and singing the Navy Hymn and “Come, Labor On” (hymns, coincidentally, from my father’s 1970 funeral that still make me tear up). When the service concluded, two people sped toward me, one still in her choir robe.
            “I heard you from the choir stall. Next time you are here, please come join us.”
            “Oh, that’s what I was going to say! You should be in the choir!’”
            And from the trim gray-haired woman in the seersucker suit who had been sitting in front of me, “My, you have such a lovely voice.”
            Ah. That’s what I’d been missing. Adulation…of me!
            I am a vainglorious creature, and fully expect to be a pile of ashes momentarily.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Blue Moon

August 31, 2012: Cape Cod, MA

The end of August really annoys me.

It’s not so much that September is around the corner and the next step means back to school. Although I do work for a university, I’m on an administrator’s schedule, so September is no different for me than July. And I genuinely enjoy the changing of the seasons. It’s just that the end of August is so sudden about it.

Consider the transition from fall to winter. When does that happen? No set time. There can be snow on Halloween and t-shirt running weather on Christmas. The leaves take forever to come down. Week after week of raking. The township makes leaf pick-ups from November 1 through December 10. There’s a gradual building up to the holiday madness from September on; the winter solstice doesn’t take anyone by surprise.

And consider February. I’ve always thought that February gets a bum rap as the dreariest month. In fact, February has as many daylight hours as October. It’s just that nobody notices. And the first snowdrops come up in February to make way for crocuses in March. All giving us time to prepare for April and the early forsythia and daffodils before there are even any leaves on the trees. So when did winter end?

In late April we might put in the screens on the side porch and get out a couple of chairs. Three weeks later we might retrieve the grill from the garage, then wait another week before planting the impatiens. And we can even wait another week or so before we buy the hanging baskets for the front doorway. Summer comes that gradually.

But the end of August slams into summer like a hurricane making landfall. No subtlety about it. Almost overnight the world seems to go from daylight and birds chirping at 5:00 to dark silence as late as 6:00 a.m. In my morning run, I’m loping past the tidy landscapes of Plush Mill Road when I smell it: the pungent odor of decaying leaves. The impatiens that were perky just a few weeks ago now look sallow, with snubbed nodes on their stems instead of incipient buds. Recognizing the inevitable, I’m tempted to stop my rounds of watering. Why bother? Can’t stop the decline now!

Take the last couple days. We arrived on the Cape Thursday afternoon, having left only 10 days before. The end of August had done its damage here as well. 

Our planters and baskets of flowers that had thrived all summer through extended absences and benign neglect now look like props for the Addams Family, dead stems collapsed over the sides of their containers. Our neighbors returned to Albany only a week ago, yet their black-eyed-Susans that had reigned in glorious sunny gold for three months now stand stiff with nothing left but charred tops. Although the thermometer said it was 82°, an undercurrent of chill raised the hair on my forearms and Jon wanted to know if he could build a fire. The scrub trees edging the pond are pock-marked with leaves the color of dried blood, and at our favorite farm stand pumpkins are pushing aside the peaches. There is no more reading on the deck until 7:30 p.m. -- we can’t see the pages of our books. And we have to turn on the lights to eat dinner.

All of this change in 10 days.

In defiance of the end of August bearing down on us, tonight, August 31, Jon and I put a steak on the grill, boiled up some corn, and had a salad with native tomatoes. Afterwards we walked down to the landing of the pond. The breeze was now soft and the moon was shining so brightly that the water shimmered silver and we could see our shadows.

The moon wasn’t really blue, but we were. Good-bye, summer.