Thursday, June 22, 2017

June 22, 2107--Search Dog

We were in town and, after morning coffee, wandered from store to store tracking down items we had on our shopping list.  The weather was cooler than I had anticipated and since I didn’t have enough warm clothing I wanted to stop in Renys to see if they had any fleece vests on sale or maybe a couple of long sleeve pullovers. 
Then Rona planned to make buttermilk biscuits; but since we didn’t have a baking sheet she thought maybe we’d find one, also at Renys.  And tucked away back of the parking lot on the east side of Main Street there was Yellowbird, a small, very personal shop that among other gourmet items and local fresh herbs carries crusty sourdough bread that we had tried last week and since it went well with the fish dishes we had been preparing, we thought we’d buy another loaf. 
And we needed to pick up the New York Times and the weekly county paper.  They were available in the Maine Coast Book Shop and while Rona was paying I could rummage among books that were remaindered.  Up here one can never have enough to read.
We then crossed back to the parking lot by the harbor where we had parked because I was concerned that we might be in danger of getting a ticket.  We were in a two-hour zone and I had been warned that the police had stepped up their enforcement, chalking tires with abandon because, in the current economic climate, unwilling to raise taxes to pay for dwindling town services they were raising money by pouncing on any car that was parked for even a few minutes beyond the limit.
But Rona said relax, we still have lots of time so why rush when there were a few other things we needed.  She had spotted a gift shop and wanted to look for birthday cards to send to friends and family members who have upcoming birthdays.  Cards appropriate for the occasion but maybe with a Midcoast theme.  She wasn’t thinking about anything with lobsters embossed on them but maybe there were some nice note cards with starfish or sailboats.  “Don’t worry so much about the car.  It’ll still be there when we’re done.  This isn’t Manhattan.  They won’t tow it away.  We’re here to unwind after a rough May and June.”
It had been a difficult time.  We were struggling along with a few people close to us who have serious illnesses.  They were thankfully doing much better now, but it had been harrowing earlier.  In spite of this, clearly Maine was not as yet working its wonders on me.  Nonetheless I said, at least half-meaning it, that I was in fact determined to seek inner peace, “I am getting there.  But, you’re right.  I do need to relax more.”  I caught myself acknowledging that and quickly added, “But I am.  I am becoming calm.  Really.”  Rona looked at me with understandable skepticism.  And to demonstrate how I was more laid back I said, “Why don’t you look at the cards and I’ll hang out here on the street and look through the paper in the sun.  The sun is good.”
“That’s fine,” Rona said, “but I don’t call reading the Times exactly being relaxed.  Even in the sun.  All you’ll find there is bad news about the economy, the Middle East, healthcare, the economy, and everything else.  Of course,  do what you want.”
“But,” I protested, “I’ve got the local paper and it’s full of all sorts of good community news.  Like book talks and farmers’ markets.”  I didn’t tell her that the lead story was about a 72 year-old man who had been killed on U.S. 1 when he crashed his motorcycle into the back of a pickup.
“Whatever,” she said and disappeared into the shop. 
I hung out there, facing the sun, thinking more about what a 72 year-old was doing riding a motorcycle on Route 1 than about tomorrow’s farmer’s market, where there was hope that the first local corn would finally be available.  Should someone that age be out on a Harley?  Then again, I thought, maybe that’s the way to go. 
While lost in these less-than-calming thoughts I noticed, coming down the street toward me, a man with what looked like a seeing-eye dog.  But as he got closer it was clear that the man was not blind—I could tell that by how he was checking out things on the street and in the stores that they were passing.  Perhaps he’s training him, I then thought.  Though that seemed unusual for here.  I had only seen dogs of this kind being trained in big cities.  But that’s in part why we are here—to have some new experiences.  Relaxing ones, I reminded myself.
As they drew closer I could see that the dog was wearing a bright yellow plastic vest; and when they were just a few yards away I could read printed on it, on both sides--Search Dog.  The New Yorker in me was immediately drawn back to 9/11 when police departments from up and down the east coast had sent dogs of this kind to help find survivors buried in the rubble and then later, after things turned even more hopeless, body parts. 
But since I was trying not to allow myself to continue to be mired in thoughts of this kind, to the man who I assumed was his handler, with some awkwardness, avoiding even a hint of anything disturbing or grim, I said as brightly as I could, “Is he looking for me?”
With barely a glance and without a word of response to my silliness, they passed right by me and I was left to watch them work their way up the street.  I noticed that they both had the same deliberate gate, as if practicing stepping over dangerous piles of rubble from a bombing or a . . . 
But quickly, just as was instructed to do by Rona, I cut that thought short and leafed through the paper to see what would be available at this week’s farmer’s market.  The first black currents, I noticed.  Maybe Rona would turn them into a compote that I could then use as a marinade for some nice broiled loin lamb chops with . . .”
When I looked up again, still straining to stay in sunlight, I saw the policeman and the dog working their way back in my direction.  Clearly training was going on, I was relieved to realize, and that they were not searching for a lost or kidnapped child, or anything more tragic.  And this time the trainer allowed the dog to come up to me and give me a good sniffing.  Not in my crotch, which most non-search-dog dogs would do, but more my trouser cuffs, socks, and shoes.
“You asked if he was looking for you.  Right?”  I nodded.  “Well, if it’s all right with you I thought I would have him search for you.”
I was confused, “But he’s found me, no?”  I pointed down at him where he was giving me a good going over.  “How would he search for me since he’s already found me?”
“You see how he’s sniffing at your pants leg?  He’ll now remember that.  From that he’ll remember you.  And, again if you’re willing, we’ll head back that way,” he pointed way up the street, “and then when you’re done with that paper—nothing much good in there to tell you the truth—you can go wherever you want in town, you can even hide if you want to.  Actually, that’d be good.  And then in about 15 minutes or so, I’ll have him search for you.  To see how well he’s doing at that.  We just got him and are training him.  To tell you the truth, he’s not coming along all that well.  So this would be good for him.  How does that sound to you?”
I very much liked the idea and said, “Sure.  Sounds like fun and maybe it will be helpful.  He looks like quite a nice fella.” 
I bent to pat his head but his handler stepped in to stop me.  “One thing—no one who isn’t working him should ever touch him.  It only confuses things.  Understood?”
“Yes.  Sure.  Sorry.  My wife’s in the store and as soon as she comes out we’ll go and hide somewhere.  Is that OK?  I mean hiding?”
“Like I said, whatever you want.  If he gets trained proper I can’t tell you the kinds of things we’ll be having him doing.” 
I very much wanted to know but Rona later will be proud of me for again restraining myself from asking.  I was under orders to stay away from these kinds of disturbing matters. To try to stay calm.
“You know,” I added, half-kidding, “I’ve been trying to find myself for years.  Maybe this will help with that.”
Clearly he either didn’t understand my pseudo-existentialist comment or in fact did and thought it not worthy of consideration.  And thus, for whatever reason, without another word they headed back up the street and I folded up the paper, very eager now for Rona to finish her shopping.  I thought the only things remaining on our list were the cards and that as soon as she came out we could spend the full 15 minutes hiding ourselves. 
My first thought was to find a place down by the dock where they bring in all the fish.  It would be full of conflicting smells and thus would be a good test for the dog.  But as I thought about this I realized maybe Rona wouldn’t like what I had agreed to do, feeling that I, with my pushy big-city ways, had imposed myself on the policeman.  Her style was more to fit in by not making us too obvious, too seemingly eager to meet and befriend people.  Especially local people who were welcoming to outsiders but also were clear about wanting to maintain a separation between themselves and us.  At least on initial encounter.  And if she felt this way about what I had agreed to, she would be more than half right. 
So maybe, I thought, I wouldn’t tell Rona what happened.  That I would say, “You know we never walked along the docks.  Since it’s a nice morning, maybe we should do that.”  And then whatever happened or didn’t happen with the dog I would deal with.  After the fact. 
I felt it was at best fifty-fifty that they would find us, I mean me--that the handler had said the dog wasn’t doing very well--and that if they didn’t, as I expected they wouldn’t—especially if I could find us a good hiding place--I would have nothing to explain to Rona.  If they did, I would hem and haw and then eventually say wasn’t it fun to agree to this.  I felt sure she would come around to that.  After all, she likes dogs, though she would be frustrated that she wouldn’t be allowed to pat him.
And with that Rona bounced out of the shop and rejoined me on the street, excitedly showing me a box of note cards she had bought with tasteful pictures on them of various seascapes.  Very nice.  Not at all tacky.  Since she was in such a good mood, I suggested a walk down by the boats.  She said that sounded nice and off we went.
It was midmorning and there was very little activity.  The fishing and lobster boats had set out much earlier and wouldn’t return for some hours.  As we passed through the parking lot to get to the moorings, I had some fleeting anxiety again about how long our car had been parked but quickly put that aside since I was now on a mission to help with searches and rescues.
After a few minutes, Rona stated the obvious, “There’s not much going on here.  Maybe we should come back one afternoon when the boats come in and we could perhaps even buy some fresh fish or lobsters.”
“That sounds like a good idea to me.  But let’s walk a little further.  There’s a pile of nets I wouldn’t mind checking out.”  I was stalling for time and also thought that behind the smelly nets would be a good place to hide.
“I don’t know what it is with you and fishing nets,” Rona said, reminding me that whenever we are anywhere in a port I seem to have this fascination with nets.
Again, seeking to buy time, I ruminated out loud about this peculiar interest of mine.  “I don’t know why.  I think it may be because when I was a kid my father used to like to take us to the Fulton Fish Market in New York City and Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, down by the fishing piers, and we would wander around among the boats and stalls.  I remember fantasizing about working on one of those boats.  Hauling nets or something.  For some reason this always . . .”
“You know, it’s getting late.  We have some things in the car that we should be putting into the refrigerator.  We can come back here another time.  And you can visit your nets.”
“You know how most kids like me back then dreamed about being firemen and . . .”
“You mean boys.”
“Yes, boys, and . . .” 
I interrupted myself because, as Rona and I were going back and forth about my fascination with fishing nets, just beginning to turn down toward the docks I spotted a glint of yellow—the sun’s reflection off the search dog’s vest.  He was clearly sniffing his way along, leading his handler right toward us.
I grabbed hold of Rona’s jacket and began to pull her toward the mountain of fishing nets.  “What are you doing?” Rona squealed.  “You’re tugging on my sleeve.”
“I know.  Sorry.  I just want to get a closer look at those nets.  I’ve never seen any like them.”
“I think you’re crazy.  I thought Maine would have a good effect on you, a calming one; but now look at  . . .”
“Please, just this once, let’s take a look at these.  Trust me they’re really special.”  Rolling her eyes up in her head Rona relented and followed me behind the pile.  I pretended to scrutinize them while she stood aloof with her arms folded, impatiently tapping her foot.
Even though I was bent low, out of the tops of my eyes I could see her waiting, aggravated but indulgent, while I pretended to examine the floats on the nets, crouching ever lower and lower.  I was trying to curl up into a ball to better hide myself. 
But huddling as I was against the nets, thinking I had successfully made myself virtually invisible, as they drew even closer, I could also not fail to see the search dog and his handler. 
They came to a stop a few yards from me and the dog promptly sat on his haunches.  I had expected he would leap at me, growl, and then bite at my trouser cuffs.  But he and the policeman remained where they were, totally still, without moving closer. 
What I was really up to was about to be exposed to Rona and thus I began fumbling in my mind to concoct an explanation and also what I was certain would need to be a seemingly-sincere apology.
“Did you find yourself yet?” the dog’s handler asked.
“What was that?” Rona said, more confused than I.  After all I at least knew what they and I had been up to.
“Oh, nothing,” I said with as much matter-of-factness as I could muster.
Nothing?  Rona exclaimed, “Didn’t you hear what he said?”
“Not really,” I lied. 
She turned to them for conformation about what she had clearly heard, but they had already retraced most of their steps back up toward the street.
“Well, I never,” Rona said, exasperated, but calm.
I didn’t right then try to explain anything or look directly at her, but promised myself that when we were back at the house and all the groceries were safely away, I would tell her the whole story. 

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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

June 21, 2017--Best of Midcoast: Anna Christina's Skin

I am taking a bloggerman's holiday and over the next five or six days will repost some of my favorite Midcoast stories. Here's the first one about Andrew Wyeth and Anna Christina, his inspiration and model for Christina's World.

Anna Christina's Skin
He said:
The shadow of her head against a door has a ghostly quality, eerie, fateful, a symbol of New England people in the past—as they really were. There’s everything about her—her hand pushing a pie plate toward you, or putting wood in a stove. There’s a feeling that, yes, you’re seeing something that’s happening momentarily, but is also a symbol of what’s always happening in Maine. The eternity of a moment.
He continued:
When you get to something as mammoth as she is, all the dirt and grime and slight things evaporate and you se before you the power of the queen of Sweden sitting there, looking at you. Our measly minds pick up a speck of dirt on her leg or bare thigh and we’re clouded by that. She puts things in proper position. All the feelings of ourselves and our little delicacies disappear. Knocks me right in the teeth.
On another occasion, when he noticed she was soiled by a kitten that had eaten too many mice, he said:
“I’d better wash you face.” And she would answer, “All right.”
As he moved the cloth across her heavy, wrinkled face, he said:
“You have the most marvelous end to your nose, a little delicate thing that happens.” Touching that head was a terrific experience. I was in awe of it. She was just like blueberries to me.
Then, 30 years later, at the end, just before she died, sitting by the open kitchen door, itself transformed into a canvas of gray from the light of the fog that had persisted for a week, he said:
The fog crept into all the tonalities of her skin. . . . It brought out the intensity of her eyes, the light pinks around her eyelids, her mouth. . . . Every now and then she would look up at the clock which was up above and she had the strangest expression. . . . A powerful face with a great deal of fortitude . . . . Terrific power in her strong neck. And there she was without any affectation.
She is, was Anna Christina Olson, who he recalled first seeing “crawling like a crab” across the mown hill upon which the bay-weathered Olson house still stands, she is obviously the Christina of Andrew Wyeth’s iconic Christina’s World. And the house in which she lived with her parents and after they died with her brother Alvaro, it is just across the St. George River from us, out on Hathorne Point. Just up the road from where Andrew and Betsy Wyeth lived.
In spite of the proximity, which we knew about before arriving, and the easy opportunity to step literally into her and his world, it took us a while to get there since, I confess, art-snob that I am, I have always thought of the painting as, at its best, a piece of heart-tugging illustration. Not that far removed from the other intoxicating sentimentalities of the work of that other most-popular New England artist, Norman Rockwell.
But, but, after visiting the Olson house late last week and after that reading through Richard Meryman’s serviceable biography of Wyeth (Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life), having these words directly from the artist and experiencing through them his lifelong rapturous appreciation and respect for the outer and inner beauty of the very crippled and conventionally ugly Christina, has forced me to take another look at the work and at Wyeth himself.
His work for me has been too much about dryness. This could be a consequence of his basic choice of medium—pre-Renaissance egg tempera on panel. But perhaps for Christina, crippled from the waist down since adolescence, the world that Christina inhabited sereness is appropriate.
Here from Meryman the actual Christina and a glimpse of her life—recording Wyeth’s first visit:
Entering the kitchen, Wyeth was cordial but courtly—respectful of the dignity of Christina’s witchlike looks. Her right eye looked at Wyeth. Her left eye, a small brown pupil in a murky white ball, stared off toward some invisible spot. A single tooth like a post in her mouth. Her arms were skeletal, her hands contorted back at the wrists. She lived marooned on her straight-backed cockeyed kitchen chair; its rear leg worn short from hitching across the rutted linoleum floor between the table and the stove. On the seat of the chair were layers of newspaper to absorb the urine.
A few years later when Wyeth brought the actor Robert Montgomery to meet Christina, after a few minutes Montgomery ran from the kitchen and once outside vomited.
Though others might see a ruin, about the house Wyeth said:
The world of New England is in that house—spidery, like crackling skeletons rotting in the attic—dry bones. It’s like a tombstone to sailors lost at sea, the Olson ancestor who fell from the yardarm of a square-rigger and was never found. It’s the doorway to the sea for me.
Artists traditionally are shameless exploiters of their sources of inspiration—use it up, move on, and hope to find more. But in Wyeth’s case, Christina served more than just as an unexpectedly beloved muse—there was clearly a chaste romance animating them (the cloth he moved upon her prematurely wrinkled face) and between them there was a lifetime of friendship and respect.

So when this week, after visiting the house and reading bits of Meryman, when I looked again at Christina’s World, this time closer than ever before—with the acknowledgment that my own much more limited imagination was fired by sitting at my own fog-enchanted kitchen door, which this morning is rising from up toward the neck of Wheeler Bay—I am finding in it and its medium both the life and simultaneous decay that were so much a part of Wyeth’s World. And for the first time truly understanding them and his and its deep appeal.

Anna Christina Olsen

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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

June 20, 2017--Still Pooped

I will be back here tomorrow, Wednesday

Monday, June 19, 2017

June 19, 2017--Monday

I will be back here tomorrow with thoughts about Donald Trump's policy agenda. Yes, he does have one.

Friday, June 16, 2017

June 16, 2017--Midcoast: Colonoscopies

It used to take at least a half hour before any of us would mention colonoscopes. Now we get to it right away. Even before we are served our first cup of coffee.

Just yesterday we not only talked about them but also bladder infections, melanoma, detached retinas, atrial fibrillation, shingles, abscessed molars, Hashimoto's Disease, and kidney stones.

And of course we share health insurance, doctor, and hospital stories. Few of them good.

My colonoscopy story was about my recent visit to a new internist. After taking my medical history and giving me a thorough examination, including a cardiogram, when he was done, he told me things look pretty good except for a heart murmur and my right hand tremors.

Ignoring that for a moment, I asked him about a colonoscopy. "I haven't had one in a few years," I said, "So maybe it's time . . ."

Before I could complete my thought, he said, "At your age we no longer recommend colonoscopies (he's a gastroenterologist no less) because no matter what we might find, at your age, you'll die of something else."

In a way that sounded good, but in truth, on reflection, not really.

I said, "I guess that gives me something to look forward to. Dying soon."

He doesn't have much of a sense of humor, or maybe his waiting room was full of patients and he didn't have time to schmooze, and so he barely smiled.

The cardiologist and neurologist he referred me too said pretty much the same thing--about the murmur, something else will get me before it becomes a problem; and the same for the tremor--"I'll write you a prescription for L-Dopa," he said, "And we'll hope for the best." He hardly needed to add, "that you'll die before . . ."

I stopped listening.

When I told the story to friends at the diner yesterday, one said, "This reminds me of a joke." We all groaned. Lou is not known to be a good joke teller. Undeterred though, he began, "Morty goes to his doctor who gives him his annual physical. When he's done, Morty asks, 'So how did I do?'

"The doctor says, 'Ten.'

 Confused, Morty asks, "'Ten what?' Years? Months? Days?'

"The doctor says, 'Nine, eight, seven, six . . .'"

Not that bad a joke from Lou.

And of course everyone either has a new set of hearing aids or is about to get them. And so there's a lot of breakfast talk about that.

"Why do we always seem to be talking about medical issues?" Rona wondered. We were driving to the pharmacy to get my L-Dopa prescription refilled.

"Isn't it obvious?" I said. "We're all getting on in years and stuff happens."

"Wouldn't you think . . ." she began.

"And don't forget that Maine has the oldest population of all the 50 states. And our county, Lincoln, demographically, has the nation's oldest residence."

The next time we were at Deb's Bristol Diner, when even before the waitress arrived to take our order, Jim began to talk about his diabetes numbers, I said, "Not to sound unsympathetic, but maybe we should try to talk about something not medical."

Jim who is not the sensitive type, without attitude, said, "What would you recommend?"

"Maybe a book or gardening or maybe Donald Trump."

He said, "I rather have a colonoscopy."


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Thursday, June 15, 2017

June 15, 2017--Jeff Sessions Takes the 5th

Well, not exactly. He didn't take the literal 5th Amendment against self-incrimination, but, for all intents and purposes, during his testimony in the Senate on Tuesday, he did a version of that.

When pressed by Democratic members of the Intelligence Committee to respond to questions about any conversations he may have had with President Trump about Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election, he said that to respond to private conversations with the president would for him, as Attorney General, be "inappropriate."

In effect, he assigned "executive privilege" to himself without calling it that.

This in itself was inappropriate as it is only the president who can claim executive privilege. And, as in the past, if a president does that--Trump thus far hasn't--the Supreme Court has ruled that it is not mentioned in the Constitution and is not an absolute power of the presidency. It does come close to that when national security is at stake. But it cannot be casually invoked when there is a criminal investigation underway. This was a key ruling during Watergate when Nixon resisted turning over his taped conversations to the special prosecutor.

With presumptuousness, the Attorney General, acknowledging that only presidents can invoke executive privilege, also said that he is "protecting the right of the president to assert it if he chooses." He's protecting the president's presidential right! That's not just presumptuousness, that's also chutzpah.

A criminal investigation may not be underway (yet) involving the Attorney General or the president; but if Sessions was not going to answer questions about conversations with the president, it is still not for him on his own initiative to assert a form of executive privilege.

Having said that, why am I suggesting that what Sessions did is analogous to taking the 5th?

Because it ended that line of inquiry as invoking the 5th Amendment does when someone who may or may not be the target of a criminal investigation refuses to answer questions that he or she claims might be incriminating.

Moving on from the technical, why then did Sessions refuse to answer questions of this kind?

If he did not have any conversations with the president about Russian involvement in our election, there would be no need to wall off any testimony about conversations that did not take place. One only builds a wall when there is something to contain and protect.

So, when asked if he had any such conversations, rather that saying it is inappropriate for him to talk about them, since they never happened (so he claimed), all he needed to do was say--

"We never had any conversations of this kind."

His not doing so makes one wonder about at least a couple of things--

He may be lying in an effort to protect himself and the president.

If he is attempting to do this he would not be the first Attorney General to do so. Nixon's first AG, John Mitchell, wound up in jail for his various roles in Watergate, from the initiation to the coverup.

Then, Sessions' conversations with President Trump about Russian involvement, if these in fact occurred, likely happened with more than the two of them alone in the Oval Office.

If so, this means, as special counsel Robert Mueller (who Trump already appears to be itching to fire) interrogates Trump campaign aides and current senior White House staff who were active in the campaign and had various levels of involvement with Russia, if one of more of them fears they are going to be prosecuted and if convicted spend years in jail, some, again as with Watergate, would surely look to make a deal with Mueller by throwing those above them in the chain of command under the bus. This would bring prosecutorial scrutiny up the hierarchy, all the way to the president.

As scrutiny works its way upward, just before getting to Trump, it would sweep in Sessions. Thus, Sessions does not want lying to Congress while under oath to be on the list of serious charges he may be facing six or ten months from now. For him, things are already bad enough.

Do I hear drip, drip, drip?

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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

June 14, 2017--Tomorrow

I will be back tomorrow with thoughts about the US Postal Service. How to make it solvent.