Friday, August 29, 2008

August 29, 2008--Long Weekend

I'm on the road but will be back here Monday with a final Vermont story--"Bearer of Consolation."

Enjoy the weekend.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

August 28, 2008--Napoleon's Privates

I have a close friend who is an collector of oddities. Not of the grim and truly odd sort like those gathered by Peter the Great of Russia. In his Kunstkammer, his cabinet of curiosities, he had a four-legged rooster and a two-headed sheep. In addition, to complement his mutated animals, Peter, who fancied himself a dentist of sorts, appeared to take exquisite pleasure in extracting teeth from people over whom he had dental control and through the years built up quite a collection of molars and incisors.

He yanked and collected teeth from subjects from different stations in life—all in the name of pseudo-scientific curiosity--from a singer; a person who made tablecloths, a bishop from Rostow; from Madame Re, the Emperor’s nurse; and from someone he described only as a “fast-walking messenger.” Though apparently not fast enough, considering that he sacrificed a bicuspid in the search for truth. All in the pursuit, Peter claimed, of having and ultimately displaying the wonders of nature and the emerging sciences which were devoted to describing and classifying all the world’s natural wonders.

My friend’s collection is much more benign. He has tens of thousands of objects, enough to fill dozens and dozens of shelves and cabinets in his vast house—hundreds of compasses; uncountable numbers of 19th century children’s mechanical and pull-toys; additional hundreds of teaching tools that were used in early kindergartens in Germany; dozens of finely-crafted so-called “Philosophical Instruments,” which were constructed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to demonstrate scientific phenomena and principles such as electromagnetism; drawers full of early factory-workers’ photo ID tags; myriad games and puzzles; thousands of pastel-colored clay beads and marbles; cabinets full of 19th century patent medicines—most examples of quackery; mounds of Odd Fellow pins and buttons; a large assortment of symbolic objects from Masonic lodges; and hundreds of other categories within which to focus his brilliantly maniacal collecting and elegant arrangements and displays.

To visit his work, and that’s what it is—a body of work, is to travel deep within the aesthetic and psychic reaches of his inner consciousness and to be thrilled and transformed by the journey. In other words, through his gathering he is practicing his art, and like all artists his work causes us to see both our own outer and inner worlds in fresh perspective.

Some, who have studied obsessive collecting, claim that this form of acquisitiveness is a magnified, distorted version of the impulse to consume that is charteristic of advanced capitalist societies. Though this may be true in some cases, even a quick look through time at indigenous peoples everywhere in the world reveals this same impulse. So the instinct, and it may be just that, to collect may be more hardwired than socially constructed.

Which brings me to John Lattimer. A prominent urologist at Columbia University, Dr. Lattimer died last year at age 92 and left his children with a legendary collection of relics, many of which, his heirs discovered when they needed to sort through the hundreds of boxes of his objects that filled his 30-room house in the New York suburbs, in order to assign value to them for estate tax purposes, many of which were minimally odd and more often than not macabre.

According to the New York Times (article linked below), his daughter Evan found the blood-stained collar President Lincoln was wearing the night he was shot; a theatrical dagger that belonged to John Wilkes Booth, the actor who was also Lincoln’s assassin; Lee Harvey Oswald’s letters home to his mother when he lived in exile in Russia; a pair of monogrammed boxer underwear shorts once belonging to Nazi Field Marshal Hermann Göring; also the cyanide capsule Göring used to kill himself when he was convicted and sentenced to death at the Nurenberg Trials after the Second World War

After her father’s death, Evan Lattimer received a call from another collector who knew about the Göring cyanide canister and offered $120,000 for it. She refused to sell.

Among the oddest items is Napoleon’s penis. You heard me. It was removed from his body during the autopsy and then disappeared into the collectors’ underworld only to pop up again, sorry, in Paris in 1977 where Dr. Lattimer bought it at auction for $3,000.

His daughter received another call from another collector who offered $100,000 for Napoleon’s privates. Not bad for such a shriveled up old thing.

Her brothers were so stunned and upset to lean what it was and that it was among the things their father cherished that they wanted to throw it in the trash. Shades of Lorena Bobbitt.

It looks, though, that even if they had done so, the IRS would still have wanted to tax it. They're so relentless. Can’t they just let sleeping whatevers lie?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

August 27, 2008--Take Me Out To The Shell Game

Things are spinning out of control. The center isn’t holding. What next?

Not to worry. This is not a rant about the state of the economy or world. It’s about the price of tickets to baseball and football games.

I’ve been a lifelong fan. My first love was the Brooklyn Dodgers; then after they abandoned us for literally greener pastures in LA, the maturer me became infatuated with the Yankees; while all along I faithfully rooted for the New York football Giants. I even stayed with them after they moved across the Hudson when, though they then resided in New Jersey’s swampy Meadowlands, they oxymoronically continued to call themselves the New York Giants.

At the risk of sounding nostalgic, I remember being able to slip into the bleachers of old Ebbits Field for a quarter. Please do not ask me what that would be in constant 2008 dollars—postage stamps still cost 3 cents and for a nickel you could ride the subway all day—those cheap seats Ebbits were a bargain that a poor kid like me could afford.

But next year the Yankees and Giants and even the Mets will open glittering new stadiums, and wait until you hear what they are going to charge fans to attend. The New York Times reports that though none of the teams are asking for one’s first-born son in payment for the price of admission, giving him away for a pair of tickets could turn out to be a bargain. (Article linked below.)

Are you sitting down? I mean at home, not in one of the new ballparks because I suspect that if you have any equity left in your house you’d have to get another sub-prime mortgage to pay for that seat.

It’s costing the Mets more than $800 million to build what will be called Citi Field—for Citibank, get it; $1.3 billion, with a B, for the new Yankee Stadium, which has no corporate sponsor since the Yankees already are corporate enough; and a whopping $1.6 billion, and counting, for the Giant’s new pleasure dome. Like Kubla Kahn’s in Xanadu, it will for certain have, as the current one does, a dedicated place where unpoliced besotted fans during halftime can harass women while trying to get them to take off their sweaters.

So to pay for this extravagance, really to underwrite the cost of packing all three places with private corporate boxes and suites, as in the larger society that soaks the middle class to subsidize the ways of the wealthy, the team owners are passing along much of the building costs to their up-to-now faithful fans who have stuck with them through some thick and much thin.

But the good news is that these Bleacher Creatures are not taking this lying down. They are mounting protests and threatening not to renew their season tickets. Typical Mets’ seats will jump from about $88 on average to $175. Tickets for the best seats in the old Yankee Stadium this year are going for $1,000 each but next year in the new ballpark they will cost you $2,500. That’s for one seat. Others there, for season ticket holders, will range from $135 to $500 a pop.

Most outrageous is what the Giants are up to. Not only have their prices risen higher than the stadium’s new roof, but in order to be eligible to ante up to $700 for a ticket to home games, season ticket holders will have to pay from $1,000 to $20,000 for something the ownership is calling “seat licenses”!

First you pay your $20,000, then you pay $800 for each of eight seats for the Giant’s eight home games--$6,400 if my math is correct.

John Mara, co-owner of the Giants in nonplussed—he blithely announced the other day that they have a waiting list of 130,000 eager to get in on the action. Let them eat cake. Or an $8.00 beer.

A guy from Manhattan, who has held four terrific fourth-row seats at the old Yankee Stadium, which currently cost $220 each, will see them rise to $650 apiece in 2009. He says, “It’s going to cost me $2,600 to sit there on a rainy day in April to watch Kansas City.”

His math is right. What he didn’t say, considering how my hapless Yankees are playing this year, is that that’s what it will cost to watch them get shut out.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

August 26, 2008--Forgotten Anniversary

In her stirring speech last night Michelle Obama made note of two anniversaries that are of particular interest to Democrats gathered in Denver for their convention—the 80th anniversary of the constitutional amendment that gave women the right to vote and the 45th of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

Shrewdly, taking note of these acknowledged the extraordinary role played by woman in this election cycle (Michelle was classy to make special note of the 18 million cracks Hillary Clinton’s voters made in the political glass ceiling) and the obvious fact that her husband would not be about to be nominated if it weren’t for the movement significantly led by Dr. King.

There was, though, another anniversary that may get mentioned on subsequent convention nights that was not referred to yesterday—the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast. It is a lingering human metaphor for the failures of the Bush administration, the real opponent in this election, and the larger failure of will that has left that once-proud city still overrun by crime where fully a third of the pre-Katrina population has still not returned. (See NY Times article linked below.)

The Ninth Ward and Lower Night Ward have not yet been restored. There are sign of despair on every street amid the scattered attempts to rebuild. As a manifestation of that there here have been 127 murders thus far this year, in spite of the loss of population and the police force, which has also not been rebuilt, has been supplemented for all these years by National Guard troops. Three hundred remain. But still felonies persist.

Some claim there is so much to rebuild that New Orleans has to be patient. This is just the latest example of blaming the victim. As many said at the time, the rebuilding of the city should have been a national priority, if you will, a living example of America’s continued grit and can-do spirit. The same spirit that saw us build dams and highways and electrified every corner, no matter how remote, of this great country. But New Orleans continues to fester and is an on-going reminder of how far we as a nation have slipped and lost our passion to help those who have been treated unfairly by will or circumstance.

By coincidence I am currently reading one of the volumes in the remarkable Oxford History of the United States, James Patterson’s Grand Expectations. It covers the U.S. from 1945 through 1974, from the end of the Second World War through the Nixon presidency. Like other times, it was tumultuous, but though these were mainly Jim Crow years where African Americans continued to experience official discrimination and women for much of this time were still by all cultural forces being urged to continue to stay at home and support and take care of their husband and children, many great things were accomplished. The Civil Rights and Women’s Movements led to great victories, educational opportunities expanded geometrically, and the economy for many boomed.

Part of that intermittent prosperity involved a surge in home ownership. By the end of this era up to three quarters of Americans owned homes of their own. Much of this gain, sadly and ironically, is currently being threatened by failed government policies—there will be more about this for certain in Denver this week. But still, this democratizing of home ownership is noteworthy and offers a clue about what might have been done these past three years in New Orleans.

In Grand Expectations Patterson writes about how the nation mobilized to build homes for the millions of veterans who returned from the War. A spectacular example is Levittown, the first of which was built from the ground on Long Island.

The Levitt brothers up to that time had been small-scale builders, but they saw an opportunity. Applying assembly line techniques to the building of houses they established building teams that worked together to construct houses from pre-assembled materials. These included plumbing and electrical systems. These teams could erect a home in sixteen minutes. This is not a typo--in just sixteen minutes. (See page 72 in Grand Expectations.)

In rather a few months 17,000 homes were completed. And not ticky-tacky ones. Sixty years later they are still in hot demand. Whenever one comes on the market it is snatched up.

Levittown included seven “village greens” and shopping centers, fourteen playgrounds, nine swimming pools, two bowling alleys, and a town hall.

And still New Orleans languishes.

Monday, August 25, 2008

August 25, 2008--Neighbors

There’s a gravel road, Caper it’s called, that runs up to our place. It passes by what between 1819 and 1991 was the North Pomfret School. A one-room place that at its height, local lore has it, enrolled twelve students. A bit further along, on the left, is the Poplar Street Farm. I’m not sure much around here qualifies as a “street” though the poplars are abundant.

The Farm is in a pleasant spot, on high ground that overlooks the meadows that stretch out in undulations for about a mile until they run up against Bunker Hill. Just across the road is a small herd of Guernseys whose milk, I understand goes to the Thistle Hill cheese makers whose Tarantaise cheese is well regarded far beyond Vermont.

From passing the Poplar Street Farm at least twice a day—to get to coffee in the morning and then later in the day either to head into town to round up ingredients for dinner or when lazy, or seeking company, to eat out--after a few passes, we have figured out that there are two women who are in residence. They never fail to wave if they are out and about working in their flower borders. The house and they are charming and friendly feeling.

Last week, returning from breakfast, as we were working our way up the road we had to stop by their house because two of the cows from the pasture had “broken out” of the corral and were racing up the road. To us this added to the charm of rural life but to one of the women who was also standing in the road and the “boys,” as she referred to them, who were scampering about to round them up and get them back to where they belonged, it was a just a bit of daily effort.

I rolled down my window and she ambled over to the car. “It’s nice to finally meet you,” she said with a wide smile, reaching in to shake my hand. “Are you living here now?”

“Just for a month,” I said.

“Which place?”

“The one up at the end of Apple Hill.”

“Oh, it’s very nice there.”

“Yes, it is.”

“That’s good. Very good.”

The cows had been recaptured and we waved to her as we slowly pulled away.

Rona said, “That was very nice. Though didn’t you think it was a little strange when she said, ‘That’s good’ when we told her where we would be?”

“Not really. I took it as she was just being nice and welcoming.”

“Still to me, it felt a little strange. Why would it be ‘good’? Wouldn’t you have expected her to say, ‘I hope you enjoy yourself’? Or something like that?”

I said, “I think maybe you had too much coffee,” and we left it at that.

Later that day, up at house, while preparing dinner, we had an accident with the garbage disposal and needed to call the man who takes care of the house. He was in the middle of something and said he’d try to get there as soon as he was done. Sure enough, about 45 minutes later he arrived with a box of tools and quickly was able to extract the measuring spoons we had inadvertently tried to grind into waste.

After putting away his tools he was only too happy to join us for a cup of coffee. He told us a short version of his life story--that he was now 80 and how he had worked in town as a mechanic at the garage before, 57 years ago, becoming the caretaker for our house. He lives with his wife right down the road with his daughter and grandson near by. After a couple of cups he leaned back with his lanky arms extended in a stretch over his head and said, “Can’t say it’s been a bad life.” From his look of deep contentment it was obvious he wasn’t exaggerating.

The following morning we were making our usual trek down Apple Hill and Caper. As was our routine we slowed as we approached the Poplar Street Farm and there standing in the road, almost as we had left her the day before, was the women who had indicated that it was good that we were up the road from her. Again I rolled down my window and again she came over to us.

“I wonder,” she said, “if you might help me with something.” She was quite agitated.

“Sure,” I said, opening my door and wondering what it might be.

“I’m having such trouble with one of my doors. My screen door actually. See it over there. It’s fallen off and we can leave the door open for fear of getting inundated with mosquitoes. After all the rain last week they are hatching by the hundreds.”

I walked over to look at it. It was of a familiar kind to me—like the ones we used to have on our house on Long Island. And with Rona’s help in just a few minutes we had it back on track and working smoothly.

“Thank you so much. I don’t know what I would have done without it. You see, it is so good to have you nearby.”

When we were settled back in the car and resumed our drive to town, we looked over at each other and now understood what she had meant the other day. Rona said it, and I nodded, “Neighbors.”

Three days later, L___ , the caretaker was waiting for us when we returned from shopping. Though we had seen him just a few times, I knew from the way he looked that something was disturbing him. “Good to see you,” I said, “I hope you’re all right. You don’t quite look yourself.”

“I’m not.”

“What is it?” Usually I wouldn’t be so forward but he was obviously upset about something and clearly he had been waiting for us.

“It’s my grandson. He was in a bad accident last night and he’s very critical. They have him in a drug-induced coma and are hoping that will help his brain from swelling any more.”

“Oh my God,” we both said. “Is there anything we can do? We have a close friend who lives in the area who’s a doctor and if you need any help or advice I’m sure he’d be willing.”

“That’s very kind of you, but he’s in a very good hospital at Dartmouth and is getting the best care. But they don’t know if he’ll come out the other side and if he does what he’ll be like.”

We tried to sound optimistic and after about half an hour he left and told us he’d let us know if our friend might be able to help. But before he got back into his truck he turned back to us with his arms extended. He walked over to where we were standing and gathered both of us into a bony embrace.

During the next few days we thought a lot about L____ and his grandson, going about our business but eager to hear about any progress.

Yesterday evening as we were about to go out to dinner, Rona was in the shower, I saw L____’s truck pull up and heard him tap on the horn to let us know he was here. I went out to greet him. He had a big smile on his face and reported that things were looking better at the hospital. That the doctors were saying that his grandson didn’t appear to have any brain damage and they were hoping to bring him out of the coma next week. He knew we were leaving at the end of the week and said he’d come back before then to let us know how he was doing.

I said that I hoped so and that I’d fill Rona in about the good news.

Again, as the other day, he turned back from the truck and walked up close to me. Not like then with his arms extended. He just wanted to thank us again for our concern; and as he was doing so he noticed a mosquito about to settle on my head. He reached out I thought to smack it there but instead gently pressed his hand to my forehead as much to chase away the insect as, I suspected, to touch me. And he said, “Be sure to give my love to Rona.”

When I told her, she just smiled.

Friday, August 22, 2008

August 22, 2008--Obama's Veep?

Wasn’t Obama’s VP choice supposed to be announced on Wednesday or Thursday morning at the latest? To take advantage of the news cycle and so as not get lost in the weekend news which no one apparently pays any attention to.

So what happened? What might have happened? This may turn out to be old news by the time you read it, but if by then he still hasn't announced his choice, here's what I think—and hope--is going on:

He’s working on a deal with Hillary. Prior to his polling numbers slipping, with most now showing a version of a dead heat, he could finesse things—who might help him win one swing state (Indiana or Virginia) or who might add the appearance of gravitas to the ticket. No one who has been a part of that subtle assessment has the lifting capacity to help him more broadly. Except Hillary. Who, more than Hillary, for example, would do more to help him win Florida; and if he manages to do that, the numbers suggest it would be nearly impossible for McCain to be elected.

I know some may not like this thought considering how personal and low-road she tended to campaign during the primary season, but Hillary might be the best person to have on the ticket if the primary goal on Election Day is winning. Isn’t it a no-brainer that she more than any other possible VP choice can help assure Obama's election?

Then, if he's elected, there is the question of governing. And of chemistry. People worry about both. Won't Bill let loose again in the White House and Hillary thinking about running for president again four years from now undermine Obama? Both concerns, as I see them, are irrelevant because they can be easily managed. If Obama becomes president Hillary’s job, as well as Bill’s, is what Obama says it is. Except breaking ties in the Senate. If either one steps out, whatever deal they might be sticking now, Obama can change his mind and send his VP around to represent the U.S. at state funerals. The traditional role for vice presidents.

I am thinking and hoping that the delay in making the announcement is because they are deep into the details of a complex deal—how many cabinet positions Hillary gets to pick, what specifically will be her role in, say, healthcare legislation, etc.

Again, if I were Obama I’d be eager now to make such a deal, get elected, and then see how things work out. If they don’t, he could then pull the plug on the deals and her assignments and responsibilities.

Once more, like this or hate this, isn’t this the way to give him the best chance to win? It isn’t pretty, but neither are the many messes we’re in, and we thus don't we desperately need to swallow hard and get him elected. It may not be too dramatic to say that our and the world’s future well being depends upon an Obama presidency.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

August 21, 2008--The Way Kids Are These Days (Concluded)

“So what’dya think about guns?” I wasn’t sure this is what he said but I was not inclined to ask him to repeat himself. In fact, I didn’t look toward him, not wanting him to feel I was confronting him by doing that though by then he was no more than two feet from me and impossible to ignore. Though I kept my eyes glued to the floor tiles, I could hear his raspy breath and feel it hot and rancid on my face.

“So, what’dya think about them?” I still said nothing. He had his hands on his hips and was now standing face-to-face with me. I couldn’t help but look up at him. “It’s a simple question, ain’t it now?”

Rona had taken my arm and I felt her tugging me back toward her. I was happy to allow her to do that. Thankfully he didn’t advance any further so we just stood there, three feet apart, looking at each other. He apparently waiting for me to answer, me desperately hoping the waitress would finally appear and rescue us.

“Come on big fella. For someone looking as smart and fancy as you,” Rona was right, I needed to get what she called some Vermont clothes and jettison all my black pants and shirts that are the required uniform of the city, “that shouldn’t be such a tough one.” I sputtered something, even to me, unintelligible.

He stood there staring at me. With mockery, his look seemed to say, that I didn’t have an opinion about such things much less the ability to string two words together. But just as my fear was beginning to overwhelm me, I had been holding my breath and was about to faint, he reached a big paw out to me, dropped it on my shoulder with such force that I almost collapsed, and said to my great relief, “Relax now big fella. I’m was just havin’ a little fun with you.” Which he confirmed with a broad smile.

“You don’t have to worry that I’m not one of them militia types. Thankfully we don’t have any of those up here. Not too many, anyway. This is Vermont!” His grin expanded. “I’m just wonderin’ if you or your lady are hunters. That’s all. Guess I should have introduced myself or just come straight out and asked you rather than blurting out the way I did. See, I live sort of by myself and not used to talking to strangers. I’m married mind you, but I have lots of time on my hands these days. I’ve got my problems and can’t do much else with my time but think about the past and try, when I can, to take on a few odd jobs and when it’s the season get out into those woods back there.” He gestured to the tree line on the other side of the road. “But, to tell you the truth, these days not too many folks want to have much to do with me. They’ve heard all my stories a hundred times over. Like Sam, who you might of seen. He and I go back a lot of years. But we’ve grown tired of each other, to tell you the truth. I’ve heard about all his aches and pains and God knows he sure’s heard about mine. But we’re still friends though we haven’t said more’an a hello to each other since the last century.” He chuckled at that. “So I guess when I see a new face around I just don’t know how to act. My wife keeps remindin’ me ‘bout that I can assure you. She’s heard all my stories too. You can place money on that.”

I was by then nodding my head nonstop to assure him that it was all right that he was just having a little fun with me. No offense taken. I never felt for a moment, I lied, that he had me worried much less frightened. I too knew we were up in Vermont where everyone is friendly and peaceful. Or at least, I thought to myself, act that way.

Without pausing to acknowledge my babbling and realizing they were eager to close up and that he had only a few more minutes and much to say, he continued, “But she’s stuck with me through thick and thin. Got such high blood pressure that it costs me nearly nine hundred dollars a month for those eight medicines the doc wants me to take. Don’t do much good though. My numbers are still sky high. What, 280 over another number, which I forget. But it’s a big one. He told me I must have a blockage down here.” To show us, he let the shoulder strap of his overalls drop so that he could lift the corner of his shirt and point out to us, tucked below his considerable rolls of fat, exactly where they suspected he had some sort of narrowing. “He plans to shoot me full of some kind of dye which he says will show where the problem is so they cut it out, or somethin’ like that. Should either fix me up, the doc says, or kill me outright.” This so amused him that he roared with laughter and slapped my back with such force that I almost threw up my turkey.

“Yes sir, the wonders of science. Can’t wait to have it done though. With them drug bills I hardly have anything left over to put gas in my truck. Sons of bitches.” It wasn’t clear who he was referring to, but I knew from my own experience with medical things that it could be a long list of culprits. “But that’s neither here nor there. It’s still a great life here.” I began to nod again. “None better nowhere. Not that I’ve been anywhere.” He paused to suck in some air, “Though I would like to get out to Calraido.”

“Where?” from behind me Rona asked.

“Colraido. Where my people are from.” Still noticing that she wasn’t understanding, he added, “Out west near where Calraido and them other states come together. I forget what they call that place out there in the desert”

“You mean the Four Corners,” she offered.

“That’s it. That’s where they’re from. You could never tell from the looks of me but my great grandfather founded a town out there. I forget the name for a moment. Damn drugs do that to me—mess with my memory. But it’s a big place now. ‘Bout the size of this place. Bethel. On every map that I’ve looked at. I’d like to get out there one day before they put me in the ground.”

“Oh I’m sure . . . ,” I began to say.

“To tell you the truth I’m not so sure. But still I do have hopes.” He looked away from us as if to have a private moment to review them. I suspected that that too might be a long list. “But gettin’ back to that rifle--did I tell you about that? Not the one I go huntin’ with, but the one that’s from my great grandfather. It went from him to my grandfather and then on to my father and twenty year ago when he was killed to me. I don’t have a son to give it to, only a daughter, bless her, so I’d like one day to go out there and return it to someone from the family who must still live there. I don’t know for sure that anyone does, but I suspect they will and I’d like to meet them and bring back to them the gun that my great grandfather used to found that town. It musta come in handy. I’ll bet. Them musta been some days.”

The waitress was busy rearranging the stools that he had put up on the counter and then began to mop the floor where we were standing, being sure not to signal by this that she was in any way rushing us along. She cut a wide swath around us so as not to get in the way.

He shuffled closer to the counter to give her more room to work and reached out to hold onto it. Clearly in some discomfort or pain. I thought it must be from his blockage. “It’s not what you’re thinkin’,” he saw my look of concern. “It’s from when that backhoe fell on me. Back in ’92. I was workin’ for the Highway Department. After the winter fixin’ that road to Barnard. Son of a gun that thing just went of the shoulder and tumbled right on top of me. Broke my arm here in five places, cracked my pelvis and a couple of parts of my back. I’m lucky to be standin’ here, considerin’. Kept me in the hospital three weeks and two months in rehab—they didn’t rush you along back then like they do today—and they filled me up with all sorts of plates and screws. Take a look at these.” He held his left arm out toward us and slid up the sleeve. Sure enough, running up and down his arm were a series of still-raw looking scars and suture tracks. “Bet if I ever got to go to Calraido they would never let me through those metal detectors.” He chuckled at that. “Wouldn’t that be somethin’.”

“All you’d have to do . . .” I begin, but he cut me off again.

“I know, bring along my hospital records and a handful of X-rays. But as I told you before, though I’d like to get out there, there ain’t much likelihood of that.’ He sucked in another gulp of air and added, “That’s life for you. You make plans, you have dreams, and then you wind up sittin’ at a counter in a place like this and talking to folks like you.” As I attempted to ponder that and find something to say to make him feel better about his life, he quickly added, “But don’t hear me wrong. There’s nothin’ wrong with you folks. You seem like nice enough people. I was just making a point.”

I waited to see if he wanted to say more about that point, but he just looked back at us with what appeared to be a wistful look.

“Sorry to be spoilin’ your vacation like this.” I shook my head and waved my arm to indicate not at all.” “I’m getting’ along fine. Just fine. Though every once in awhile I get a little down on myself. “’Specially when I get to thinkin’ about my great grandfather and what he did all them years ago. That’s why that gun means so much to me. It represents somethin’. Know what I mean?” I thought I did and again nodded to him.

“Maybe if I can’t get there I’ll give it to my daughter. Though she’s one of those people who doesn’t like guns around the house. Her husband killed someone. Did I tell you? Not murder, I mean, or anything like that. He’s a good man. I’m proud to have him as a son in law. It was an accident. Out huntin’. Happens all the time. “’Bout as many hunters as deer get shot every year. I’m exaggeratin’ of course, but not by much. There was this woman just last year who was hanging out her wash and some hunter mistook her for a deer—you got me how anyone could do that—and shot her dead. I knew her and how she and her husband were strugglin’ to raise their three kids that all the rest of the year I’ve been bringin’ them venison from deer I’ve shot. And other foodstuffs as well, every time I have a little extra. The game wardens are all after me. They know to bring them meat I’ve been takin’ more deer than I’m allowed. We’re permitted just one per season but by now I’ve shoot three. Their freezer’s all stocked up and I don’t care what happens to me.”

This brought on a fit of coughing and to help quell it the waitress, without a word, handed him a glass of water. “Thanks Ellen,” he gasped, still choking. “I know you have to get on your way,” he said, his throat now clearer, “But one more thing, if you’ll indulge me. It’s about that rifle again. Though I don’t have a son I do have a grandson. I think I already told you that. He’s around eleven now and he has his eye on it. Wants it urgent. His mother won’t let him have any gun as you might imagine, but I have taken him out and tried to teach him about them. How to shoot ‘em and how to respect ‘em. To tell you the truth he is too full of jissom to pay much attention to the respect part. All he wants to do is run around firin’ at anything that moves. That worries me. But I love him and I’ll keep tryin’ to teach him a few things. He does have a mind of his own and still he wants that old rifle somethin’ fierce. I just don’t know what to do.”

He paused to finish the rest of his water, and again I struggled to think what I might say. And again, before I could formulate an appropriate thought, he said, “As I told you, I love him an would lay down what’s left of my life for him, but I’m not ready to promise him that rifle. As I told you, it represents somethin’ that I can’t quite put words to, and to just pass it along to him just ‘cause he wants it doesn’t seem true to its history. I feel it has to be earned somehow. Like my father did and as I feel I did. But he doesn’t understand this. He just wants it.”

This kind of wanting sounded very familiar to me and I did have much to say about it. But I held back because it was getting quite late and they really did need to close. And because I didn’t want to trouble him further with what would surely come out as disembodied, academic reflections on what, as a people, has happened to us through the generations.

But as we moved toward the door, putting his arm gently around my shoulders, he summed things up about as well as anyone might, “I s’pose that’s just the way kids are these days.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

August 20, 2008--The Way Kids Are These Days

We never did catch his name. I’m not even sure he offered it; and if he did, it’s unlikely that either Rona or I would have caught and remembered it because when he drifted over to us he swept us into such a torrent of conversation--if you can call a monologue a conversation--that specific things like names and facts would have whisked right by us.

That was last Wednesday night at the Creek Diner, just off Route 14 where it bends south across the White River and then swings down into Barnard. At 45 miles per hour, the first two times we passed it I misread “Greek” for “Creek” and kept moving. If I have a craving for Souvlaki I can wait until we get back to New York in a couple of weeks. We’re still up in Vermont and our tastes are still running to more typical country fare like organic veggies, hormone-free free-range chicken, and fresh picked blueberries. So both times before we zipped by, even when hungry, choosing instead to hold out for more local choices which we knew were available down in Woodstock.

But the other night it was nearly eight o’clock and thinking that a half hour later most places on a Wednesday, even in Woodstock, would be closing down, considering the circumstances, Souvlaki was sounding better and better. We had been out all day and were hungry enough to risk a taste of Vermont Greek.

You can imagine our delight, then, when we slowed to glide into the diner’s parking lot that we discovered that one letter when it comes to diner names can make all the difference. At the Creek, with a C, from a closer look at the place, which seemed indigenously authentic, we thought we might be able to scare up some home-cooked blue-plate specials. Fried chicken or an open-face roast turkey dinner, free-range or not, was sounding mighty good.

Though they were scheduled to close in 15 minutes the waitress was nice enough to lead us to a table. We promise that we would order right away and eat fast. She smiled at that and said she appreciated that but still we should relax and enjoy our food. We looked as if we hadn’t eaten all day, which was half true. The food, she told us, was cooked right there and we should be sure to leave some room for their blackberry pie—a specialty this time of year. Settling into the booth, noticing that they had a pretty good list of beers, and catching a whiff of real food smells wafting in from the kitchen, I thought that sometimes you just get lucky.

There were two other couples there just finishing up and, as we swept by the counter, I saw two men bent over their coffees a seat apart, not together and clearly even at a glance decidedly not friends. They had pivoted on their stools so that their backs were to each other. As one might expect way out near Bethel, well off the tourist trail, all appeared to be from the area, were likely regulars, and as is often the case, familiarity and personal history—even if it extends just to daily encounters at a lunch counter—can lead to a lot of animosity. I thought to make sure to twist in my own seat so as not to inadvertently make contact with either of them. I had open-face turkey on my mind, after reading on the menu that it was roasted right there, and didn’t want to get drawn into any rural spats. A friend from New York who has lived in Vermont for almost a decade has from time to time warned me not to be too forward with Vermonters of this kind—they may look charming, he has cautioned, but beneath the flannel and coveralls they can be ornery or worse to Flatlanders and tourists.

The food turned out to be as good as expected and we did make an effort to order and eat quickly. The turkey was indeed special and though we were tempted to linger over a shared slice of blackberry pie, we saw that most of the stools were already up on the counter for the night, just one of the men remained and he was helping to do that, and since the other couples had paid up and left before the food got to us, we thought let’s take a slice to go so they can finish their cleanup and close by nine.

We drifted over to the cash register even before asking for the check so as to expedite our leaving. The waitress we could see was back in the kitchen helping the cook put things in order. The man, who by then had finished settling the stools on the counter where he had been nursing his coffee, saw us up by the register and shuffled over. I felt somewhat ominously since I could hear him panting. He was well into middle age—hard to determine, anywhere between sixty and seventy-five--and was moving slowly either because he was out of breath from wrestling with the stools, he had some kind of respiratory problem—probably from the looks of him he was a heavy smoker—or he was all worked up into a froth at the sight of two unwelcome big city folks in his town. Hopefully the waitress would notice us wanting to pay and come out to take our money. I was audibly clearing my throat to try to catch her attention, but they were running the water so loudly back there that she had no idea we were ready to pay and get out of there.

“What’dya think about guns?” I wasn’t sure this is what he said but I was not inclined to ask him to repeat himself. I didn’t look toward him, not wanting him feel to I was confronting him by doing so though by then he was no more than two feet from me and impossible to ignore. I could hear his raspy breath and feel it on my face. He was clearly about my height. In other words, quite big.

“So, what’dya think about them?” I still said nothing. He had his hands on his hips and was now standing face-to-face with me. I couldn’t help but look up at him. “It’s a simple question, ain’t it now?”

To be continued . . .

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

August 19, 2008--The Other Foot

Pretend the shoe is on the other foot. Suppose that back in 1981 we had lost the Cold War to the Soviet Union. Imagine that they, full of themselves and feeling that they were the world’s only superpower began to rummage around at our borders in order to make a deal with Mexico. To say to them that they must be tired from centuries of having to live within our sphere of influence and because of their economic dependence on us have had to do our various biddings. The Soviets might say to the Mexicans, “We’ll protect you from whatever threat remains from your northern oppressor. We have an military alliance called the Warsaw Pact and if you want you can join it. This way if the U.S. ever again thinks about dominating you we will come to your assistance.” Mexico of course leaps to join up.

Then, after this geopolitical, bloodless triumph, with the shoe still comfortably on the other foot, the hegemonic Soviets turn their attention to Canada. They are of course aware that Canada is in many ways a political hybrid—one part English speaking and the other one-third culturally quite different and Francophile. They know as well that the French part of Canada has historically wanted to break away, to succeed, to form a nation of their own. With the United States effectively defanged they begin to work the fissures that separate the, in effect, two Canadas. As it turns out, after losing the Cold War, Canada, especially the English part is America’s one remaining ally, but the Soviets ignore that, couldn’t care less as they literally move in with troops and their air force to help the French Canadians break away. And when they do, not too long after that, like with Mexico, they offer them the opportunity to join the Warsaw Pact.

After a while, the U.S. gets back on its feet. It has technologies and resources that many countries need and their economy begins to freshen. So much so that they are able to rebuild and modernize their military. The Soviet Union, oblivious to this, or not caring, continues to treat the United States as if it were still an insignificant power. The U.S., though, smarting from their loses of two decades ago and from the ongoing feelings of being disregarded and patronized by the USSR looks for an opportunity to reassert itself.

That opportunity presents itself in Mexico. The Mexican president, now a close ally of the USSR who, not coincidentally, received his law degree at Moscow University and thus thinks of himself as if he were Russian which further annoys the U.S. which sees him as a political puppet who takes pleasure in mocking and provoking us, President Garcia, feeling full of himself and assured of being protected by his Soviet patrons, moves to retake land along the U.S.-Mexico border that was captured from the Mexicans during the Mexican War in the 1840s. When he moves to do so, the United States, swollen with frustration and new nationalistic pride, moves to not only suppress the Mexicans but also to seize portions of still-contested border lands.

In Moscow, the Soviet president, also puffed up with hubris, every day offers expressions of outrage and lectures the United States about their bullying ways and how they are interfering with the sovereign decisions of their democratic neighbor. This is accompanied by threats of further isolation on the world stage and cultural and economic sanctions. And his angry denunciations are followed up by the unilateral deployment of Soviet troops to the region to “protect” the humanitarians supplies they are airlifting in and to assure those supplies “fall into the right hands.”

Get the point? If so, switch the shoe back to the original foot, to a current real-life situation where a U.S. ally, Georgia, right on the border with Russia, a former Soviet republic, is asserting itself. The Russians would say, poking them in the eye, by moving to take Ossetia, a disputed region that lies between the two countries. Deluded with the belief that the United States, where Georgian President Saakashvili in fact took his law degree and after that was the darling of Washington, especially among conservatives such as Dick Cheney Bush and John McCain who continued to want to act tough and sable rattle with the Russians, that president created a mess for himself, his country, the United States (which now finds itself in a showdown with the Russians after more than two decades of seemingly constructive relations), and most of Western Europe which can’t and won’t do much about the situation because they are now almost totally dependent on Russia for oil and gas. (See linked NY Times article for all the depressing details.)

So in yet another microcosm, we see how, in our arrogance and belief that it is our God-given destiny to spread freedom and democracy to the world, how we make a mess of great consequence, expose our own vulnerabilities, and secure the very opposite of what we were seeking.

Monday, August 18, 2008

August 18, 2008--Doodlebugging

I was still sipping on my second cup of coffee when in a rush someone we hadn’t seen before plopped herself down on a stool at the counter in our favorite Vermont breakfast place. She announced to the waitresses hunkered together during the mid-morning lull by the coffee pots that she had only a few minutes for a quick couple of slices of French toast before she needed to head out to Maryland, where she lived, an eight hour drive without traffic she said for all to hear, and wasn’t it true, she wondered out loud, that the police start to give out parking tickets at the stroke of ten.

“Not that I’m usually in such a hurry,” she felt the need to have everyone know that about her in that otherwise laidback environment, “but the last thing I need is a ticket and I do want to get on the road before traffic builds. I have a lot to think about.”

To begin to accommodate her urgency, one of the waitresses filled a mug and slid it across the counter in her direction. And leaning toward the open kitchen door, she called in her order, “Small stack of FT, no meat.”

Our new companion picked up the Local section of the Valley News that the last occupant of her stool had left behind. I could her muttering to herself. “I don’t know,” I think she said, “all this time and so far away. . . I never thought . . . but then again, you never know . . . I would be good if . . . some world.”

In spite of all the caffeine surging in me I was still feeling mellow—that’s what two weeks up here will do for you—and was a little concerned about her driving all that way when seemingly so agitated. So in her direction I said, “I think the weather at least is supposed to be pretty good today.” I thought that might calm her. “I don’t know about south of New York, but I heard on the radio that it won’t be raining between here and there so you should have pretty smooth sailing.”

I thought talking about the weather was innocuous enough so that she wouldn’t be further upset by my listening in on what she had said about her upcoming drive or by whatever it was she was reading in the paper that had so riled her up. If she turned on me I could always say I was just chattering on to myself about the weather—usually the most benign and uncontroversial of subjects.

As I was thinking about that, out of the corner of my eye I could see her bend forward so as to be able to look past Rona and right at me. No knowing what was coming I kept my eyes glued to the bottom of my mug, looking at the pattern the grinds had left. “Don’t mind me,” she said, “I’m just having one of those mornings.”

Relieved, I then turned toward her and said, “I know what you mean.” Though in truth I really didn’t. I had no idea what was agitating her and it has been so blissful here that I had managed to forget days like the kind she was referring to. I was just trying to seem mindlessly empathetic.

“It was such a good conference and they had me so beautifully set up that to tell you the truth I’m feeling unhappy about having to leave. Not to mention the eight hour drive.”

“I know what you mean,” I repeated, unimpressed with myself that I couldn’t think of anything more interesting or original to say.

“I’m not sure that you do.” It was obvious that she too wasn’t that impressed with me; and again uncertain where this might be going, I raised my guard again and resumed swishing my coffee. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you. It’s just that my head is so full of things, overwhelmed one might say, and I could use another day here in the mountains to assimilate more of it. But I have to get home. I’ve got two dogs in the kennel and they need to see me and I need to see them.”

“I know what you mean,” I couldn’t stop myself from saying, though when it comes to dogs I must admit I don’t have much understanding about this kind of deep need on the part of either the dog or the owner.

“But maybe I’ll get some thinking done on the drive home.”

“You mentioned a conference,” I finally figured out something different to say.

“Up at Killington.”

“Nice up there,” I offered.

“Of dowsers.”

“Of what?” I asked, not sure I had heard her correctly.

Dow-sers,” she said being sure to pronounce each syllable distinctly. Seeing my puzzled look she quickly added, “I know, you’re thinking it was a gathering of aging hippies and New Agers. Folks sort of like me,” she shook her shock of thick gray hair so as to make proudly sure I knew she went back that far and might be as much into crystals as dowsing. I must have shrugged my shoulders. “Well, there were for sure some of them among the more than 300 who attended.” That impressed me. “Some folks up here call it doddlebugging, which is fine with me, but dowsing goes back to the dawn of civilization and is practiced not just here in rural places but on every continent where access to water is a matter of life and death. Dowsing is widely practiced even today, you know, in spite of having all sorts of modern instruments.”

I knew at least that much. In fact, when I was a kid my family every summer rented a house in the Catskill Mountains to get away from the heat of the city and to protect me and my young brother and cousins from the danger of polio epidemics, and up there I recalled being fascinated by an old man who looked like he was 100 who was the area’s dowser.

“I remember someone like that,” I told Janette, she had by then introduced herself, “it was said he could find water where no one else could. He would show up as if by magic with a Y-shaped tree branch from which he had stripped the bark and walk around with it out in front of him with his eyes closed like he was blind; and when it quivered and pointed itself, that what it looked like—as if the dowsing rod was pulling his arms toward the ground—without saying a word he would just point at the spot. And sure enough, everyone said later, they would drill and before long find water. I loved following him around. It seemed so miraculous to me. Even at that time when I was no more than eight or nine I knew I was witnessing something remarkable.”

As I recalled this, Janette, smiling, nodded at me. “I’ve been interested in dowsing for a number of years. I’m not a dowser per say but a retired school psychologist. I became interested when I learned that it’s much more than just about a way to find water, that it’s useful as well in understanding human behavior. That captured my interest. I saw it as another tool I could use in my work. Another possible way to gain insight into the lives of my troubled students. So that I might become more helpful in assisting them.”

I had no idea that anything more was involved than what I had experienced as a boy. “Some claim,” she said, softer now so that just Rona and I could hear, “that skilled dowsers can find centers of energy in the human body.”

“You mean find tumors and such?” I couldn’t help but sound skeptical.

“No not that. Not responsible ones anyway. You know of course about those theories, which I think have been scientifically validated, that there are specific places on the body and in the larger world where energy is most concentrated.” I told her that I did know something about that—the Qi energy of fengshui, which also forms the basis of acupuncture, energy that most Chinese believe represents how the structure of the world is made up of a set of complexly related interacting forces.

Sensing I was again perhaps sympathetic, though a bit academic in my interest, Janette continued, clearly deciding to take a chance with me by pushing further to confront my skepticism. “At the conference there was panel about human auras. I know, I know, this may be a little much for you.”

It was and so, as to keep us feeling in harmony with each other—not wanting to get too far into the aura business--as socially acceptably as possible, to shift the subject, I said, “You know it’s almost 10:00; and you’re right, they do begin to ticket cars at that time. Unless you begin to feed the meter. And you haven’t even finished your French toast.”

“I know,” she added with a broad and friendly smile, knowing well what I was up to, “and I have an eight hour drive. Thank you for reminding me. I mean it, really, thank you. But still if you have another minute, let me tell you a little more about the auras. They’re important too. The car can wait. Not everyone can see them but those who can, and many who can have been tested, can see versions of colored halos surrounding many people’s heads. I can’t. Though in certain circumstances, if the light is just right,” she was holding up both of her trembling hands beside her head to illustrate, “I can see one, maybe if I’m especially tuned in, two colors.”

She was peering at me as intently as anyone ever had. I began to wonder that maybe the light conditions in the Creamery were to her liking. And so I made sure to sit up even straighter on my stool to present myself, so to speak, in the best possible light. “By analyzing the nature of the colors they perceive they can learn important things about the nature of your state of being.”

Mine? Was she attempting to do that right now at the breakfast counter? Realizing this I did whatever I thought might help to send out the right sequence of colors—I held my breath thinking that might concentrate my energy; I switched to hyperventilation when I sensed the maybe the wrong emanations were getting to her; and then I thought perhaps a third cup of coffee would boost my capacity to radiate energy. After all isn’t that what caffeine ultimately was supposed to be about?

Whatever Janette was or was not perceiving about me, using whatever tools were at her command, and assuming the light in the Creamery was just right for a reading, I was still not quite awake and in spite of weeks of living in this serene place, I was still unsure about the underling state of my being, I knew more repair work was necessary, I was in truth unhappy that Jeanette hadn’t left five minutes ago to rescue her car. In my still-unintegrated state, I was as averse to learning what she could uncover about me as to hearing, out of self-involved curiosity, what she might be able to reveal about the alignment of my various energies.

Intuiting all of these conflicting thoughts and emotions, Janette gently said, “Not to worry. I can see that you are for the most part whole. I mean, well.” I was happy to hear this but a little concerned about the for the most part part. “This is not an official so-called ‘diagnosis’ mind you. I don’t do that. I am still learning, as I mentioned. And I’m still not fully convinced about this aspect of the art. But it is clear to me, on the basis of this week at the conference and my previous studies, that as with traditional medicine and psychology—perhaps I should say ‘Western’—that there are those who possess greater or lesser ability and talent. And I met some of the former. That’s why the drive home should prove to be so interested. There is a lot to process.”

With that she popped up from the stool with so much Qi vitality that I thought if I had the ability to read auras I was certain hers would be throbbing. “Got to run,” she said, tossing ten dollars on the counter, and bolted through the door and out onto Main Street.

It was twenty past ten but I felt certain that her car had not been ticketed.

Rona, who all this time had been uncharacteristically quiet, then said, “You know, you’ve been looking for additional things to do since you have more time. Maybe as a second career you should become a dowser.”

Not certain if she was making fun of me because of my seeming interest in what Janette had to say—Rona more than anyone knows that I have never shown much interest in metaphysical things such as fungshui—or knowing what I was up to when I preened to present my auras in their best light, not sure what Rona was really saying, to read her meaning I tried to look as closely at her as Jeanette had at me; and since I suppose the sun was in just the right position, I noticed that she was bathed in a nimbus of many colors.

Seeing that and feeling so good about what it must mean about Rona’s state of being, I turned to touch her; but before I could gather her to me, she reached over to embrace me, almost toppling both of us off our stools.

Wobbly by still managing to embrace, she whispered for only me to hear, “You do remember, don’t you, that you’re quite colorblind.”

I said, “Then it must be the coffee.”

Friday, August 15, 2008

August 15, 2008--Bodies Count

I know it’s getaway Friday and during midsummer no one wants to be bothered by disturbing news. But while all of us are trying to head somewhere relaxing, there’s a potentially big war brewing in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Beyond what is intrinsically disturbing about this, the Russian invasion of Georgia itself and how the Bush administration in its macho may be contributing to the incitement of the Russians who want to demonstrate that even though they “lost” the Cold War they still have a world-class military that needs to be reckoned with, beyond these geopolitical and nationalistic issues is the slaughter of innocent Georgians who I suppose the Russians consider “collateral damage.”

But with the help of the New York Times we are getting to know something about these suffering Georgians. Not only are there vivid print reports from reporters on the ground but through photos, many in color, we are receiving a sadly vivid picture of the toll this onslaught is taking on the civilian population.

Take, as an example, the August 13th issue of the Times. Above the fold on page one we see pregnant 29 year-old Tamar Enukidze, in what appears to be her best dress, standing stoically beside the open coffin of her dead husband. Poignantly, we see her reaching to touch his immobile head. There is no better example of how a picture is worth at least a thousand words.

Then, still in the first section, on page A10, in black and white this time, there are pictures of two other victims of the bombing in Gori. The first shows a distraught Dutch reporter sitting in the open hatchback of a station wagon, cradling in his arms, like a pieta, the body of a Georgian victim of the attack. And below that, we see the dead body of a physician, half-covered on the gurney on which he presumably died.

And, as if to remind us that warfare is raging elsewhere, on page A6 there is a full color photo above the fold that spans almost the entire width of the paper of Pakistani Air Force officials trying to identify the bodies of colleagues who were killed on Tuesday when their bus was bombed. Some are seen lifting the shrouds covering the charred bodies. One of which is mercilessly visible to us.

Enough, I know the Hampton Jitney is waiting and I have to gas up for the weekend. But, unfortunately, there is yet more.

This time, though, without photos. Just a stark list of four names, below the fold on the lower left-hand corner of page A8. In 8-point type we learn that John Mattox, 23, of Dangerfield, Texas and Kenneth Gibson, 25 of Christianburg, Virginia and Adam McKiski, 21 of Cherry Valley, Illinois and Stewart Trejo, 23 of Whitefish, Montana were also killed on Tuesday.

John Maddox in Afghanistan; the other three soldiers in Iraq.

There are no photos of their bodies. Nor of them while they were alive. Just the nearly invisible list. It makes them easier to ignore.

I’ll try to enjoy me weekend and hope you do as well.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

August 14, 2008--Rocks On the Rocks

I’ve never been in a water bar. You know, one of those places in New York or LA or Miami where you can get a pour of your Hoshizaki or Kold-Draft or, I guess, even the now-déclassé Evian.

There’s a part of me, though, that understands this. If you’re considering spending upwards of $1,500 for the latest Marc Jacobs bag, you need to sit down somewhere quiet to figure out if it’s worth it. And what better place to do so than in a setting of this kind where you can get something to drink which won’t scramble your senses. This is too serious an investment decision to have your thinking addled by a few ounces of early-afternoon alcohol.

Coming to this appreciation for the social purposes of the water bar was not easy for me. Though I’ve tried, I’ve never been able to get into drinking bottled water except in Europe where you basically have no choice. And, among other things, it’s not easy to appear cool sitting in a café on the Riviera or the Plaza de Santa Ana in Madrid with a glass of tap. Assuming you can even order such a thing.

And, in spite of my antipathy to bottled water, you won’t catch me attempting to. It’s hard enough trying to pass for a sophisticated American in Europe these days now that the dollar has turned into a version of Monopoly money. So for a couple of Euros I can hide behind a quarter of a liter of Pellegrino.

I grew up in New York City where the municipal water could pass almost any taste test, but beyond taste I’ve never been comfortable paying more for a gallon of Ferrarelle than for a gallon of gasoline—even at today’s sky-high prices.

But just as I’ve become almost comfortable with the idea of water bars, something new has come along for which I cannot muster any rationale or appreciation--not quiet designer ice cubes, but something close to that.

The New York Times reports that dinner guests are more and more showing up with their own bags of ice. In fear, it seems, that their hosts might serve them a highball or ice tea with ice that they made in the refrigerator, can you imagine, and with tap water to boot. (Article linked below.)

To be fair, some are into making their own ice more to devise ways to make it more effective when cooling drinks than out of concern for the kind of water out of which they are made. This may be a Green thing—the more high-tech the cube shape, in essence the more surface it presents to the liquid to be cooled, the more energy efficient the cube. QED. Something like that.

But then again, considering the way the conservation of energy works, the first law of thermodynamics to be specific, this also doesn’t make any sense. There’s just so much cooling energy you can extract from a given cube of ice. No matter its shape or configuration. Sorry to get into all this physics, but I’m trying hard to figure out this BYOI trend.

Then to make things even more complicated for me, I’m learning that there’s something called “chewable ice” and that some downtown folks are getting into it. Probably in Whole Foods, if they’re still in business after selling tons of E. coli beef, you can get Pearl Ice or Nugget Ice or Chewblet, which they say are chewable, falling somewhere in consistency between traditional refrigerator ice cubes and the kind of stuff you get in a Snow Cone. Since I’m still OK with Snow Cones, I think I’ll take a pass on this too.

In our house we sometimes do get into water spats. Rona is devoted to her Volvic while wherever we are—Europe excepted—I go for tap. This doesn’t present too many problems when it comes to water for drinking. But we do at times have a dust-up over ice cubes. Rona wants hers made from her Volvic while I insist tap ice cubes are good enough for proletarian me.

This means we have to maintain separate ice trays, and every once in a while they get mixed up in the freezer compartment—all right, that happens only when I’m the one preparing the iced drinks. I of course think they “taste” the same while Rona insists that not only are hers better but also purer and healthier.

She’s probably right. But for me the bottom line still remains—I’m saving my water money for gasoline.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

August 13, 2008--Id al-Fitr

It still makes me proud of Americans to remember that after 9/11 there were so few incidents of violence against Muslims living in the United States.

As best as I can recall there were just a handful and even fewer of those were seriously violent. Among the various responses that day and through the weeks and months that followed that display of tolerance was high on my personal list of things to feel good about. Though we had been viciously attacked by men who were Muslims, Americans did not see all of the Islamic faith to be guilty by association.

So it came as some surprise to me that so many workers at a Tyson Foods poultry plant in Tennessee are in a rage with the company because management agreed to allow Muslim workers there to take Id al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, as a paid holiday.

Catching in the caw of those is the requirement that in order to celebrate the Muslim holy day, the plant’s hundreds of Somali workers--at least one quarter of the workforce--if they opt to take the day off, must make it up by working on Labor Day.

As reported in the New York Times, they have been flooding the union, which initiated this, with letters expressing their ire. One wrote:

“You had no right to drop Labor Day. Muslim employees must integrate Labor Day into THEIR lives if they are going to live in America.” (Article linked below.)

And just as I was wondering why I, as a Jew, have been expected to not only “integrate” Labor Day into my life, which I am happy and proud to do, why must I also integrate Christmas, which is also a national holiday? As I was thinking about this, from another who wrote in fury to the union, I received my answer.

“You are a union that is proud of achieving a Muslim holiday? A union in the U.S.A., a country based on Christianity? You call yourselves Americans? Have you forgotten 9/11?” (My italics.)

I guess this means that since I and the Islamic Tyson workers live in a Christian country we should just shut up and play by those rules. Of course, ironically, aren’t we as Americans currently occupying two Islamic countries in part to help them form democracies where freedom to practice various religions is to be protected? But maybe I am reading too much into this and should calm down and go back to contemplating all these cows up here in Vermont.

But before I do, let me say a word about the union that negotiated this right for its Muslim members—who, by the way, at the Shelbyville plant constitute a significant percentage of the total workforce.

The president of the union did not back down when confronted. He said, “We in the labor movement have always understood that unions are only strong when we work to protect the dignity of all faiths, and that includes Muslims.”

Two more things to note—at the plant for the past 23 Labor Days workers who wanted to could work, and hundreds did. Of course, for extra holiday pay. So there was nothing sacrosanct about it. And, a Tyson spokesman noted, in Shelbyville, the company for years has provided three Christian chaplains for employees and prayer rooms for Christians and Muslims alike.

Footnote--Three days after this controversy surfaced in the press, Tyson, bowing to criticism and the threat of a boycott of its chickens, changed its mind about Id al-Fitr. Muslim workers who want to take the day off cannot substitute it for Labor Day but rather must use one of their personal days. There was no word about the fate of the three chaplains.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

August 12, 2008--Day Off

Back tomorrow.

Monday, August 11, 2008

August 11, 2008--Bono & Me

I’ve had my Raybans for more than ten years. But for at least the last four they have become so progressively scared and scratched that whatever benefit I might have been deriving from their UV-filtering capacity, forget about looking cool, has been more than offset.

So much so that I have been observed to drive our various rental cars with my head tipped so far down, with my chin resting virtually on my chest, as to appear to be staring at the dashboard rather than the road when in fact I had cocked my head that way so as to be able to see through the only still unruined part of the otherwise clouded lenses.

Thus, since about 2004, I’ve had my eyes open for a replacement pair. And since Rayban no longer appears to make my model, I have reluctantly been in the market for either another type of Raybans or some other brand.

But I hate change. And even more I hate sunglasses. Or at least the fetishistic interest that surrounds so many people’s passionate involvement with them. I’m a minimalist in this regard. Actually, maybe really more a contrarian minimalist snob.

And between now and the time when I bought my Raybans the price for any pair not bought from a street vendor on Lower Broadway has risen at almost the same rate as a gallon of gasoline. And not because the plastic out of which they are made is a petroleum-based product.

The reason so-called “designer glasses,” which in truth have no relationship or association with the so-called designers who sell, sorry “license” their names, cost a fortune now is the same reason why designer pocket books, sorry handbags, now cost on average upwards of two grand—because they can get away with charging that much. They assume that many of us are a bunch of status-starved dupes.

And, as it turns out, me included.

Because just the other day I relented and popped for about 150 bucks for a pair of Serengetis. Silly me, until then I thought this was the name of a desert in southern African, not a pair of high-end sunglasses. Oh well. The world is complicated and I’m trying hard to keep up.

To make sure everyone in the know knows my new shades are Serengetis there’s a swoosh of an “S” embossed on the upper left hand corner of one of the lenses. It’s taken me a while to get used to that since it’s situated right there in the field of my peripheral vision—so much so that for the first two days I asked Rona to clean my glasses repeatedly thinking they might be dirty rather than logoed. But I’ve gotten used to the “S” and suppose I should feel good that it signals to others in the know how hip I am.

Serengetis are so special that not only do they come with what appears to me to be a bombproof case, that when doing a little Web searching about them—to see if I got a good price and why all the fuss about them--I learned that airline pilots prefer them to almost every other brand, with the exception of Vedalos (whatever they are). That was reassuring. In an emergency, if ever I have to take over a 747 in mid-flight, I’ll be well shaded.

Also, as a measure of their quality or how seriously the Serengeti folks take themselves, mine came with a full page of instructions about what to do if I have a problem with them, how to pack them if I have to send them in for a 100,000 mile servicing, how they are guaranteed (with only a “limited warranty” to be sure), and how to care for them.

Regarding the latter, allow me to quote from the printed materials I received (much more, by the way, than came along with my new MacBook Pro laptop). I think from that you’ll see what a good buy I made:

Please take care of your Serengeti sunglasses. On those rare occasions when you aren’t wearing them, store them in their case. . . . By taking a few precautions to preserve the lenses, they will last for many year (sic).

Of course since I want mine to last many year (sic), I’ve been wondering about those rare occasions when I won’t be wearing them. After dark, I suppose. But then again perhaps not since I see plenty of very cool people in Soho wearing them very late at night. But for sure I’ll take them off when sleeping. I’ll stash them in their case where they should be safe even if the ceiling collapses, and that will help me sleep through the night since I won’t have to lie awake worrying about them.

Friday, August 08, 2008

August 8, 2008--Fat Burning Soup

If you Google Madonna, the world’s most Googled celebrity, 128 million items appear; God turns up 670 million; and a cluster of those queries that involve dieting and weight control yield a number in between—more than 154 million.

In any of these cases, there’s enough information available on the Internet to keep you occupied for at least a millennium. With the exception of those associating with how to lose weight—for these, since you would have to take food and noshing breaks, they could keep you going for even longer than that.

So you can imagine how exciting it was when rummaging around in the recipe box that we found on the kitchen counter of the house in which we are staying that among various family recipes for muffins and meatloaf there was one for Basic Fat Burning Soup.

I had never heard of this kind of diet before so before rounding up the ingredients so I could make a batch, I Googled Fat Burning. Among other things I learned that there’s lots to know—in fact 387,000 items popped up. Not quite Madonna numbers, but still impressive.

Fat burning, if this is as unfamiliar to you as it was to me, is a form of rapid weight loss dieting. The most popular diets claim that they will lead to the loss of at least 10 pounds in 10 days.

Here from The Diet Pill Institute are some of the most frequently asked questions:

How Do Fat Burners Work?

Most Fat Burner supplements contain a stimulant such as Green Tea, Synephrine, Yohimbine, or very commonly – caffeine. These ingredients increase the body’s metabolic rate and consequently help you burn more calories.

Are Fat Burners Safe?

The safety of a Fat Burner depends on the ingredients. Fortunately trial and error have made safe and available some very effective fat burning ingredients.

Which Ingredients are safe and Effective in Fat Burners?

The best and safest ingredients found in the top-rated fat burners are: Green Tea, Yerba Mate, Advantra-Z, Guarana, PEA, Chocamine, Synephrine, and Chromium Polynicotinate.

Got it? Good. Now, back to the fat burning soup recipe. If you want to give it a try, here it is:

6 LARGE green onions
2 green peppers
1 or 2 cans tomatoes
1 bunch celery
1 large cabbage head
1 pkg. Lipton Soup mix

Season with salt, pepper, curry, parsley, boullion or hot soup. May also use Old Bay.

Cut vegetables in small pieces and cover with water. Boil fast for 10 minutes. Turn to simmer & continue until vegetables are tender.

This soup can be eaten any time you are hungry. Eat as much as yo want, whenever you want. This soup will not add calories. The more you eat the more weight you will lose.

And then there is this:

If eaten alone for an indefinite period you will suffer malnutrition.

A few things—honesty such as we find here at the end is refreshing. I’m not sure that Dr. Herman Tarnower, the infamous inventor of the Scarsdale Diet added such a caution to his diet ,which, I seem to recall, was largely based on eating lots of cabbage and grapefruit.

But the fact that his diet and the one I found here for the fat burning soup both emphasize cabbage, I have been wondering, in Diet Pill Institute terms, what is the real secret ingredient that leads to our being so starkly assured that “The more [soup] you eat the more weight you will lose.”

A couple of possible clues—in the list of ingredients large in
“large onions” is only item capitalized. So could it be that it’s all about the onions?

Then what about the Lipton Soup mix? This seems to jump off the recipe card, doesn’t it? That is, unless maybe the mix contains a stimulant that increases the body’s metabolic rate and consequently burns off calories.

Whatever, we’ll give it a try.

But not of course for an indefinite period. It’s a good thing, therefore, that we have this place for just another three weeks. I’m not sure that three weeks qualify as indefinite, but I don’t want to take any chances.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

August 7, 2008--The Bells of North Pomfret

Though just beginning to rouse from a deep sleep, even a day later--our second day here--I remain convinced that the bells that announce the hour and each quarter hour from high up in the steeple of the North Pomfret Congregationalist church, those bells, with a mind of their own, at three minutes before 6:45 a.m. that first morning, tolled the full seven-o’clock hour, eighteen minutes prematurely.

By the next morning the situation appeared to have been corrected, or adjusted itself. More or less. Since that time, though the bells are no longer proclaiming the hour at a quarter-to, every quarter hour and every full hour are still being struck three minutes early.

There is the argument to be made that in this postcard-perfect valley, a few minutes one way or the other doesn’t matter all that much. The local farmers, don’t they, still tell time more by sunlight and the seasons than by clocks on churches or, for that matter, on their wrists. And anyone who has a traditional 9-5 job is unlikely to depend upon something so nineteenth century to keep them out of trouble with their bosses. Then for second homeowners and vacationers, isn’t not caring that much about what day it is, much less what hour or minute half the very purpose for being here?

In spite of myself, I are realizing perhaps not for me.

Though we have been on the road and away from the City for a month, the deep residual need for me to know the day, the hour, and it looks like even the minute has not faded. No matter how much I say I want to free myself from its pull I remain ensnared by time.

So I’ve been pestering the mistress of the North Pomfret post office about this, thinking she more than anyone else should know what’s going on. Her office is the only other public building in this tiny town, no more than 50 yards from the church and its clock, and since she has worked there for some time, I thought who better to ask about this situation. I knew enough to know that I should proceed cautiously because as a Flatlander camped out here for just August and dependent on her to receive and hold our forwarded mail, though I very much wanted to figure out the story of that clock, the local lore about it—which I assumed would at least be charming and, perhaps better, eccentric—more important, I wanted to be sure to get the mail on time: not so much the bills but the eight books I had ordered and eagerly awaited—it is very quiet here.

So I thought I was being wise by not broaching the subject of the church clock the first time we stopped in for the mail. I needed to scope out the situation so as not to do anything inappropriate—who knew, perhaps legendarily-laconic Vermonters were proud of the ways things were working, bells and all, thank you, and didn’t need any instruction from outsiders—and I didn’t want to distract us from gathering the essential mail.

After we introduced ourselves, I noticed with a sigh of some relief that there was a load of it—so much in fact that Mrs. J____ (she wore a name tag) had been gathering it in an official post office tub, which from the volume and weight of the month’s accumulated bills and thankfully many books, I realized would require a few trips back and forth to the car. But with the friendliest of smiles, Mrs. J____ waved at us and the tub and said that we should take it with us, that it would make it easier, with the groceries she correctly assumed we had, to bring everything into the house. “That is,” she smiled even more broadly, “if you remember to bring it back the next time you come by.”

I said that this was most generous and, yes, we did have quite a load of groceries—we would be here through August and planned to do a lot of cooking. And that I would be sure to stop in tomorrow with he empty tub. “Who knows, maybe there’ll be more mail.”

“That would be very nice,” she said. “Maybe, if you have the time, we might have a cup of coffee together. I always like to get to know new people in town.” From over the counter I thought I could smell some fresh brew. “What I have is regular. Don’t use the caffeine version. I drink mine with just a little milk and two Sweet’N Lows.”

“That’ll do us fine,” Rona and I said simultaneously. “Though we have ours without any sweetener.”

“If you drink it that way that means you must be from a big city,” Mrs. J____ said with a wink.

“Looks like you might have noticed our address on the forwarded mail,” I took the risk of saying. I was just trying to fit in by picking up on her playful joshing style. “If OK, how about us buying the coffee tomorrow. They seem to have some special brew down at Teago’s that by afternoon you might enjoy.”

As we headed for the door, with a wave goodbye she said, “That would be nice. I look forward to it.”

Thus feeling welcomed, the rest of the day went well. I felt so relaxed and even at home in our isolated rental house, which was situated at least a quarter of a mile from our nearest neighbor, that I literally lost track of time—my watch had stopped, all the clocks in the house displayed widely different versions of the time, and the direction of the wind was such that the sounds of the miscalibrated church bells were blowing inaudibly away from us down the valley toward Woodstock.

But who cared. I had my books. And I thought, wasn’t this the way it was supposed to be—the meaning of if not getting-away-from-it-all, at least from some of it? So I thought, in the spirit of inner peace and harmony, should I crack open Ethan Canin’s America, America, which had been in the post office haul, or should I start with something more diverting like Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt? I opted for the latter, I needed the emersion in one of his “entertainments”—America the novel as well as America of the elections and gas prices and Iraq could wait. Again, wasn’t that sort of the point about being up here?

After chuckling my ways through the first few chapters of Travels, I slept like a log; and when I awoke, again at my usual 5:30—at least that’s the estimate that I could see in the half-light on the clock that rested on the bureau across from the bed. After, for me, such a good night’s sleep, I thought, “That’s close enough. 5:30, 5:45, 5:50? Who cares! Listen to those birds. I wonder if there are any wild turkeys still rummaging about?” I had seen a family—is that the right way to refer to them—the previous morning.

Later, we stopped by Teago’s to get three cups of coffee to go—one we remembered with two Sweet’N Lows—and made our way back over to the post office.

Mrs. J___ was of course there and said she was happy to see us again. As we were to see her still just as spunky and wry and full of life as we had left her the other day. “So I see you remembered to bring me something. How nice.” She paused, then with a sparkle added, “The tub I mean. No, just joshing. I mean the coffee. And with those Sweet’N Lows! Much appreciated.” She began to wiggle the lid off and then stirred in the sweetener. “Here, have a handful of these blueberries. My daughter just came back from gathering them. Down at Moore’s. You must have passed them if you came up the Pomfret Road.” We indicated that we did see at least a dozen cars haphazardly pulled over by the berry field as if they had screeched to an emergency stop. Those berries, I thought, must be something special to attract such an early-morning crowd. “You should get over there one of these days. But be sure to bring your own bucket. You’ll fill a big one up in 15 minutes they are so plentiful. In the meantime, have some of these.” With little reluctance we did reach across the counter to scoop up some and saw in an instant why Moore’s had created for this area such a traffic jam.

About half way into our coffee and after a second generous handful of berries, as the church bells just down the road rang out some approximation of the time, well enough lubricated by Teago’s excellent coffee and the even more succulent berries, I said, as if we hade lived there forever, “You know, Jean, there’s one thing I’ve been meaning to mention,” I was feeling bold enough to address Mrs. J___ by her first name, which was also printed on her tag, “There’s one really interesting thing . . .”

Either intrigued, more likely humoring me, she leaned all the way forward and, leaning on the counter, twinkling, she said, “And what’s that Steven?” She of course, it was her job, knew my name from the mailing labels she had been seeing on all those books and envelopes she had been setting aside during July. “What is really interesting?”

Hearing her quote me back to myself this way would normally have inhibited me and caused me to retreat and change the subject—back to the weather or something equivalent; but the good cheer she engendered encouraged me to press on. “It’s about that clock,” I gestured in the direction of the church.” She continued to look back at me with a theatrically puzzled look. “The one on the church I mean. The one that rings every 15 minutes or so.”

She picked that right up—“Or so, you say?”

I nodded, “Yes, that one. On the church I mean. Do you have a moment? I can explain.” I hoped I wasn’t sounding as if I were pleading. I truly was still feeling inner peace and wanted to appear cool and serene. Not my more needy New-York self.

“I’m not goin’ anywhere.”

“Well, as you know,” she continued to gaze at me as if I were a foreign object, which I suppose I was, and wouldn’t give me any sign of recognition about knowing anything about whatever it was I was stammering about--she was having too much fun with me. “Well I noticed,” I pressed on, “the other morning the church clock was 18 minutes fast. It rang seven bells as if it was 7:00 o’clock when by the clock on my cell phone it was still 18 minutes to the hour.” (I had cleverly, I thought, figured out that though our house was so out of signal range it was useless for making or receiving calls, the phone’s clock somehow managed to tell accurate time.) She just kept looking back at me, seemingly more amused by the moment.

“But, interesting,” I continued, using interesting again as if anyone but me would be interested in any of this, “by yesterday morning things seemed to get better.” She took a deep breath, almost sighing, as if to stop me. She still didn’t say a word, but reading her unwavering look and perpetually wise smile I understood that she was trying to encourage me to calm down enough to focus just on the clock’s mechanical problems and not to grandiosely extrapolate that into something much larger—that, as I put it, things seemed to get better. It was as if she wanted me to be sure I wasn’t referring to Things with an upper-case T. If I wanted to get into that, she seemed to be saying by her look, that will be for another morning. So let’s now just talk about the clock up in the steeple.

Thus, without the necessity of a word from her, I resumed, hopefully in a more balanced way. “But by yesterday, our second day here, the situation seemed to improve.” I rattled on longer than I should have about now the hours rang much closer to the actually time but that everything was still three minutes off, etc., etc.

As I finally managed to listen to myself I realized how silly and uptight I was sounding, how caught up I still was in mundane matters. If I ever wanted to be able to reach to any of those perplexing realities, which Jean J___’s demeanor suggested should be reserved for another day and on that day should center on a more substantial set of issues, I would have to struggle further to become more successful than was currently on display to keep things in better proportion: the correctness of measured time was very different than the existential meaning of time.

I had been conflating the two and all this blather about the bells revealed that I clearly had a ways to go before I would be able to untangle these distractions from more important things. I had a lot of work to do but to do so only a month up here surrounding by this perfection. I had better, I told myself, get over this—the bells—and get on with it—the understanding.

Thus disappointed with myself, I finally shut up, shrugged, and smiled weakly back at Jean. She remained there for a moment, holding me gently in her gaze, and then lifted herself slowly with a creak from the counter. She had been on her feet all day. As on every other day.

Then she said, “Well, here’s what I think, if those bells are bothering you so much the way you say they do, why don’t you get some plugs and put them in your ears.”

This hit me with a jolt. But before any sense of upset fully enveloped me, she reached out to me and with an even friendlier smile said, “You know me, I’m always joshing. To tell you the truth, those bells shouldn’t be off like that. I know who’s in charge of them and I’ll mention it. I don’t like it any better than you.”

I felt great relief. “Thank you, I said, “and for the berries. I never tasted anything like that.”

“My pleasure. And be sure to come back tomorrow. Maybe my daughter will make some blueberry muffins. I’m sure you’d like one of those too.”

I said I’m certain of that.

And she added as we turned to leave, with me breathing again, “And if you want to talk about any of those other things, you know where to find me.”

Saturday, August 02, 2008

August 2, 2008--The Ladies of Forest Trace

Since whoever wins Florida’s electoral votes is likely to be the next president, rather than checking in with MSNBC or Justice Scalia to see who’s in the lead or who the Supreme Court will choose this time around, to find out how things are looking I call my mother who lives down there in a place called Forest Trace.

Forest Trace is for very senior citizens. The average age of the 400+ residents is about 80 and back in 2000 they were among the voters who punched the wrong sprocket on the paper ballot, thinking they were voting for Gore, but because of either shaky hands or misaligned ballots they hung enough chads, or by mistake punched a hole next to Pat Buchanan’s name, to send the election to the Supreme Court. And, as they say, the rest is history.

My mother has dinner every night with the same five or six friends, all of whom are lifelong Democrats who feel personally responsible for putting George W. Bush in the White House. Thus, this time around they are wanting to make up for what they consider to be their cosmic mistake.

As you might imagine, all but my mother were Hillary supporters. Actually, all but my mother remain Hillary supporters. They are among the disgruntled who feel that the nomination was snatched away from her by the media’s being unfair to her because she is a woman or because Barack Obama did not treat her with appropriate respect—remember, “She’s likeable enough”? They relate to her culturally and viscerally. They too stood by their men when they drifted, forgot their birthdays and anniversaries, didn’t help with the children, and failed to make an adequate living. So Hillary not only felt their pain, to their way of looking at things—forget objective reality—she lived it.

I was thus both curious and worried about what the ladies would think, and more important do, after John McCain rolled the dice and chose Sarah Palin to be his running mate. Would the residue of their resentment be so strong that they would hold their collective noses and pull the lever or punch their chads for McCain-Palin just because he picked someone with the right gonads?

So Friday night, after her dinner, with considerable trepidation, I called my mother to see how McCain’s gambit was playing with my own personal Florida focus group.

She too was worried. She reported that most of the “girls” were very pleased with his selection and were now going to vote. Prior to this, out of on-going anger, to protest, they had been planning not to vote at all. Now, my mother said, they told her they were going to vote for McCain. When, she challenged them, saying both he and more important she were against all the issues and policies that Hillary supported, they shot back, “All we care about is that he chose a woman; and if we ever are going to see a woman in the White House during whatever little is left of our lives, this is our last chance.”

My mother was shaken and so was I. I tossed and turned all night, feeling that in spite of what seemed to be a fairly universal reaction that Palin’s selection would take the “experience” argument “off the table” and thus help Obama; and that any rational side-by-side comparison between Palin and Biden—assuming he didn’t come off condescending and patronizing during the vice presidential debate—that this too would tip the election toward Obama. Thus the ladies had me in a 24-hour state of political panic.

I say 24 hours because when I called my mother the next night, again after dinner, I could tell by the bounce in her voice that things had changed.

“You sound different, mom,” I said.

“Yes, sweetie, I am feeling better. Much better.”

“Tell me. Tell me. What did the women say?”

“They’re all now going to vote for Obama.”

I resumed breathing. “What happened?”

“You know them, you met them the last time you and Rona were here. They’re all smart and well informed. They read all the papers, including the Times, and watch CNN.” I did recall liking them and thinking that they were still very much “with it.”

“Now that they know more about her,” I knew she was referring to Sarah Palin, “they are feeling insulted. They are now saying that John McCain is, what 72 years old, had serious cancer—and they know all about what that means—and has been saying all along that the most important thing is for him is to have a vice president who is ready on day one to become president.”

She knew I’d get the “day one” reference. “The girls now see that she is not ready if, God forbid, something happens to him. We have wars going on all over the place, terrorists still want to attack us, the economy—including their own pensions--is in trouble, and everyone around the world hates us.”

That was also pretty much my list. “So now that they have taken a second look at her and also realize that she opposes every issue that they fought for all their lives, some of them even marched for--you know Selma went to the South on Freedom Rides—they are saying that they don’t want the United States to be the laughing stock of the world. Things are already bad enough.”

“So? So?” I asked.

“They tell me they’re now all voting for Obama. And that’s not going to change.”

“I’m so relieved to hear that,” I sighed. “I’ll be able to sleep tonight.”

“Please, you need to get your rest. And be sure to eat.” She was still my mother. “I know what happens to you when you’re upset.”

“I will. I promise. I am so happy to hear that they will be voting for Obama. Florida is such an important state.”

“I know. In fact, you also know R___.” I did remember her. “Well,” my 100 year-old mother said in a whisper as if R___ might be able to overhear her, “She is not well. I think she may not be with us very much longer.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” I said.

“I told her to get an absentee ballot and to vote next week, because you never know what will be.” Her voice trailed off. “To tell you the truth, all the girls here, me too, should do that.”

I had to admit that made sense to me though I held back from adding anything that would contribute to further discussions about mortality.

It was almost nine o’clock and my mother, again full of enthusiasm said, “I have to go and watch Larry King, but be sure to call me again next week. With these girls, who knows, by then they could be voting for Ralph Nader!”

I could hear her laughing as she lowered the receiver to its cradle, making a note to call her then. I’ll be sure to let you know what the ladies are saying.