Monday, August 31, 2009

August 31, 2009--From Last Summer: Anna Christina's Skin

He said:

The shadow of her head against a door has a ghostly quality, eerie, fateful, a symbol of New England people in the past—as they really were. There’s everything about her—her hand pushing a pie plate toward you, or putting wood in a stove. There’s a feeling that, yes, you’re seeing something that’s happening momentarily, but is also a symbol of what’s always happening in Maine. The eternity of a moment.

He continued:

When you get to something as mammoth as she is, all the dirt and grime and slight things evaporate and you se before you the power of the queen of Sweden sitting there, looking at you. Our measly minds pick up a speck of dirt on her leg or bare thigh and we’re clouded by that. She puts things in proper position. All the feelings of ourselves and our little delicacies disappear. Knocks me right in the teeth.

On another occasion, when he noticed she was soiled by a kitten that had eaten too many mice, he said:

"I’d better wash you face." And she would answer, "All right."

As he moved the cloth across her heavy, wrinkled face, he said:

"You have the most marvelous end to your nose, a little delicate thing that happens." Touching that head was a terrific experience. I was in awe of it. She was just like blueberries to me.

Then, 30 years later, at the end, just before she died, sitting by the open kitchen door, itself transformed into a canvas of gray from the light of the fog that had persisted for a week, he said:

The fog crept into all the tonalities of her skin. . . . It brought out the intensity of her eyes, the light pinks around her eyelids, her mouth. . . . Every now and then she would look up at the clock which was up above and she had the strangest expression. . . . A powerful face with a great deal of fortitude. . . . Terrific power in her strong neck. And there she was without any affectation.

She is, was Anna Christina Olson, who he recalled first seeing “crawling like a crab” across the mown hill upon which the bay-weathered Olson house still stands, she is obviously the Christina of Andrew Wyeth’s iconic Christina’s World. And the house in which she lived with her parents and after they died with her brother Alvaro, it is just across the St. George River from us, out on Hathorne Point. Just up the road from where Andrew and Betsy Wyeth lived.

In spite of the proximity, which we knew about before arriving, and the easy opportunity to step literally into her and his world, it took us a while to get there since, I confess, art-snob that I am, I have always thought of the painting as, at its best, a piece of heart-tugging illustration. Not that far removed from the other intoxicating sentimentalities of the work of that other most-popular New England artist, Norman Rockwell.

But, but, after visiting the Olson house late last week and after that reading through Richard Meryman’s serviceable biography of Wyeth (Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life), having these words directly from the artist and experiencing through them his lifelong rapturous appreciation and respect for the outer and inner beauty of the very crippled and conventionally ugly Christina, has forced me to take another look at the work and at Wyeth himself.

His work for me has been too much about dryness. This could be a consequence of his basic choice of medium—pre-Renaissance egg tempera on panel. But perhaps for Christina, crippled from the waist down since adolescence, the world that Christina inhabited sereness is appropriate.

Here from Meryman the actual Christina and a glimpse of her life—recording Wyeth’s first visit:

Entering the kitchen, Wyeth was cordial but courtly—respectful of the dignity of Christina’s witchlike looks. Her right eye looked at Wyeth. Her left eye, a small brown pupil in a murky white ball, stared off toward some invisible spot. A single tooth like a post in her mouth. Her arms were skeletal, her hands contorted back at the wrists. She lived marooned on her straight-backed cockeyed kitchen chair; its rear leg worn short from hitching across the rutted linoleum floor between the table and the stove. On the seat of the chair were layers of newspaper to absorb the urine.

A few years later when Wyeth brought the actor Robert Montgomery to meet Christina, after a few minutes Montgomery ran from the kitchen and once outside vomited.

Though others might see a ruin, about the house Wyeth said:

The world of New England is in that house—spidery, like crackling skeletons rotting in the attic—dry bones. It’s like a tombstone to sailors lost at sea, the Olson ancestor who fell from the yardarm of a square-rigger and was never found. It’s the doorway to the sea for me.

Artists traditionally are shameless exploiters of their sources of inspiration—use it up, move on, and hope to find more. But in Wyeth’s case, Christina served more than just as an unexpectedly beloved muse—there was clearly a chaste romance animating them (the cloth he moved upon her prematurely wrinkled face) and between them there was a lifetime of friendship and respect.

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

Friday, August 28, 2009

August 28, 2009--Long End-of-Summer Weekending

Back on Monday.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

August 27, 2009--Less Than Useful

I have a very good friend who, I think to provoke me, at least once a day sends me via email stuff that circulates among political conservatives. Occasionally they are provocative, Wall Street Journal op-ed pieces for example, and suggest that I should do some recalibrating of my views. But much of it, well, silly.

Take the following from yesterday that is designed, via less than half-truths—to “prove” that government is incapable of doing anything right:

The U.S. Post Service was established in 1775 - they've had 234 years
to get it right; it is broke, and even though heavily subsidized, it
can't compete with private sector FedEx and UPS services.

Social Security was established in 1935 - they've had 74 years to get
it right; it is broke.

Fannie Mae was established in 1938 - they've had 71 years to get it
right; it is broke. Freddie Mac was established in 1970 - they've had
39 years to get it right; it is broke. Together Fannie and Freddie
have now led the entire world into the worst economic collapse in 80

The War on Poverty was started in 1964 - they've had 45 years to get
it right; $1 trillion of our hard earned money is confiscated each
year and transferred to "the poor"; it hasn't worked.

Medicare and Medicaid were established in 1965 - they've had 44 years
to get it right; they are both broke; and now our government dares to
mention them as models for all US health care.

AMTRAK was established in 1970 - they've had 39 years to get it right;
last year they bailed it out as it continues to run at a loss!

This year, a trillion dollars was committed in the massive political
payoff called the Stimulus Bill of 2009; it shows NO sign of working;
it's been used to increase the size of governments across America, and
raise government salaries while the rest of us suffer from economic
hardships. It has yet to create a single new private sector job. Our
national debt projections (approaching $10 trillion) have increased
400% in the last six months.

"Cash for Clunkers" was established in 2009 and went broke in 2009 - -after 80% of the cars purchased turned out to be produced by foreign
companies, and dealers nationwide are buried under bureaucratic
paperwork demanded by a government that is not yet paying them what
was promised.

So with a perfect 100% failure rate and a record that proves that each
and every "service" shoved down our throats by an over-reaching
government turns into disaster, how could any informed American trust
our government to run or even set policies for America's health care
system - - 17% of our economy?

Maybe each of us has a personal responsibility to let others in on
this brilliant record before 2010, and then help remove from office
those who are voting to destroy capitalism and destroy our
grandchildren's future.

At times, I simply press the Delete key; while at others, with this one, I zap back a response. Here’s what I sent back to my friend:

This is much too quick and easy. We can't deal with any of these things in sound-bites. What we have to do is improve them. Most of these programs sort of work and a few are essential. Does that mean they get A’s or B’s? No. But we need to have them and make them more effective.

One could make the same kind of easy list about things that are not run by governments--like what happened to our steel industry, what happened to our railroads (before Amtrak), what happened to our real estate economy, our financial institutions, to manufacturing, to . . .

We have trouble doing anything right--both via the government and via the market. Thus this list is less than half useful.

And, I could have added, to demonstrated that some of America’s great fortunes were amassed by various forms of governmental assistance—either through direct grants (like giving away federal lands to the railroad industry); through direct government intervention (like supplying troops to put down strikes and thus limit labor costs); via tax breaks (such as tariff manipulations that benefited the steel and shipping industries as well as real estate venturing); by government subsidies for research and development for the pharmaceutical and space-based industries; by deregulating the oversight of the financial industry so that it could run unfettered; by passing legislation to help create versions of monopolies for entities such as medical insurers . . . .

I could continue. But you hopefully get the point. Which is—that things are not as simple as they seem. And that fancy half-truth rhetoric will not get the job done.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

August 26, 2009--Mid-Coast: At the Library

We’ve been here since the very beginning of July and Rona, with a touch of irony, says we may have to buy this place because we’ve bought and read so many books that there is no room for them back in New York City. “If nothing else than for the book shelves,” she says, “we probably should make an offer.”

But while doing all sorts of due diligence—things such as getting the septic system checked, having the roof and foundation inspected, and a water sample tested at the state capital in Augusta—Rona has been checking books out of the local library. I, on the other hand, since I have a fetish about reading books that I own and then shelving them close by, have continued to buy my books via the Internet and at nearby church and library book sales. Where nothing costs more than a dollar or two and sometimes you get lucky and find a first edition of locally-residing authors such as Richard Russo and Richard Ford.

I also must confess that since I am a bit more eager than Rona to make an offer for the cottage, as part of my strategy to bring her along, I have been buying up a storm of books. So many, in fact, have accumulated that there is no way our rented subcompact Hyundai Accent will be able to accommodate both our clothes and our books—one or the other will have to remain behind. Or be boxed up and shipped to New York by UPS. And there is in fact no spare bookshelf space back in Manhattan. We live there, after all, in 850 square feet and I have been buying and reading books at quiet a clip for more than 50 years. Thus we have a serious book-shelving and thus real estate problem.

And to tell the truth, another reason I am obsessed with buying books is that I have never been comfortable in libraries. My deepest memories of libraries are mostly unpleasant ones, being relentless shushed and otherwise disciplined by, forgive me, spinster librarians who seemed to have a serious problem with the surges of testosterone that animated me when I was a pre-book-buying adolescent. I even have a half-conscious memory of having been kicked out of the Utica Avenue branch of the Brooklyn Public Library because I laughed over-audibly while sitting on the floor while thumbing through a book of James Thurber cartoons. It took me decades to overcome this public humiliation and to allow myself to buy and read any book that might turn out to be laugh-out-loud funny.

And then later, to make matters worse, during pre-Google college and graduate school years, as a literature major, though I had no choice but to do all my research in libraries, from those early traumas, I conspired to do term papers that were so “original” (at least that was my claim) that they required more “creative” thought than arduous research. (Read—I sought to “research” things that did not require me to spend too much time in the stacks). Thankfully, for my purposes here I do not have to pull my master’s thesis or aborted dissertation out of dead storage as evidence, or to quote from either, to convince you that I am not making this up. I will spare us that experience.

Suffice it say that for my masters I wrote about William Blake’s obscurest and least commented-upon epic narrative poem, The Four Zoas; and for my doctorate, I worked on a New-Critical approach to the narrative structure of Beowulf. In the Old English, of course.

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum . . .

From a series of quick and very cursory visits to the Columbia library card catalogue I gleefully discovered that almost no one had taken this approach and thus it was an ideal topic for me on my own—which was the point—to ruminate and write about. On the other hand, to convince my dissertation committee to go along with this scheme, which is what it unabashedly and transparently was, was another matter altogether. Thus to this day there is no PhD appended to my name.

But this summer, during one of our (actually mainly my) rummagings, this one at the Tenant's Harbor Library Summer Book Sale, indulging me while I rummaged, Rona wandered around to take in the scene and occasionally to thumb through something that looked interesting. While I scooped up a copy of Richard Ford’s Wildlife (a fine first edition—for one dollar), as good fortune would have it, on a table off in a deserted and forlorn corner devoted to “Books of Maine and New England,” Rona found, for 50 cents, a book that would deeply affect her summer.

A book by the poet May Sarton’s series of eight, late-in-life journals, The House By the Sea. An account, Rona tells me, of how after leaving Nelson, New Hampshire, Sarton sought what she thought would be a totally different, more solitary life in York, Maine. Where she could mine and reflect upon the effect of relocation and relative isolation on her thinking and writing.

Should I say—a mini-version of just what we are contemplating? A partial relocation to a cottage by the sea. From, say, May through mid-October, getting out of town, so to speak, just when it begins to get cold, the days shorten, and the effects on us of relative isolation (which in our case, confessedly, must include breakfast every morning at the Bristol Diner) would yield more cabin fever than poetic inspiration. There is a limit to this kind of thing for the likes of us. Or should I say—me?

So after ingesting all of The House By the Sea in a a day or two, Rona was eager to read the next journal in the sequence, as well as the ones that preceded and followed it; and although I offered to order all remaining seven of them for her, she said that she preferred to take them out of the local library one by one. And when I attempted to say that I could have them all shipped here in two-to-three days and that she would then have copies of her own, and first editions at that, and therefore wouldn’t have to go to the library, she simply stared back at me and, without words, said—“This is my thing. Stay out of it.”

Which I of course did.

And she added, in words this time, “How often do I have to tell you that we’re drowning in books in the city?” That put an end to that, though very early the next morning, well before Rona was awake, for myself, via Abebooks, I sneaked off to the computer and ordered Richard Russo’s Straight Man (in the spirit of keeping up with Maine-based authors and to demonstrate that I am capable of reading books that cause me to laugh out loud, which in fact, after it arrived and I zipped through it, did) and a first edition of Pat Barker’s magnificent World War I novel, Resurrection. I had read it years ago but always coveted a first. We’d figure out, I convinced myself, where to find room for them. Maybe stacked up on our new coffee table, though I hate that kind of decoratey look. Or perhaps, I smiled slyly to myself, right here on some of the already existing shelves!

Rona’s telling me not to order the rest of May Sarton’s journals meant, inevitably, that we would have to make repeated trips to the library. Hopefully, I thought, perhaps through familiarity I might somehow recover from over my bibliotechaphobia.

Rona’s first foray was to look for Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude, the first of the eight. She was directed toward the two rows of stacks where the works of Maine authors were located. Non-Fiction, where she headed; and Fiction where I decided to hide, thinking that while attempting not to too visibly cringe and thus reveal the psychic residue of my painful times in Brooklyn and at Columbia I might get some ideas about which Richard Ford and Richard Russo books to order to fill in the gaps in my reading and collecting mania. And perhaps I would discover some Maine writers with whom I was not familiar. Though since I am trying to pass for at least half a Mainer, there was a limit to what I was willing to do. I’d rather be run out of Lincoln County than be caught toting Portland’s Stephen King’s Children of the Corn.

“I see you have it,” a moment later I heard Rona say out loud to herself from the other aisle. “Just the one I’m looking for. How nice.” I was tempted to shush her before the librarian did.

But, just as audibly, I heard that librarian say, “Now isn’t that nice to hear. I wasn’t sure it was in. There’s someone else from the area who has read everything by May Sarton and I thought she might have checked it out.”

What is going on here, I wondered, as I peeked around the end of the shelves to make sure I wasn’t imagining things—a librarian in the library speaking in such a normal tone of voice? No shushing?

Rona, with a broad smile, emerged from the stacks and walked over to the desk. I could see from were I was hiding that she was clutching the Journal of a Solitude, Sarton’s first published journal and another volume, which I assumed either followed it in the series or came before the one she had bought the week before.

She promptly, louder than I would have, plopped both books down onto the desk and, noting that it was a very small library, asked, “Is it all right to check out two books at a time?”

“Of course, dear,” the clearly jolly librarian responded, “for anyone who loves May Sarton as much as I do, there are no rules about how many books you can have.”

“So, you like Sarton too? I just ‘discovered’ her. I bought House By the Sea last week and couldn’t wait to get here to see if you had others.”

“Why, we should have all of them. She has quite a following here and I made sure we acquired all of them! I saw to that. Let me see what you have here,” she let her reading glasses slide down from where they had been nesting in her hair. “Both of these are wonderful. Read them slowly as there is so much to take in and think about.”

“The first one, I mean the first one that I read was so meaningful to me that it is even making me think that this would be a good place to live. Now that we have the time.” She gestured toward me, I had by then fully crept out from between the stacks, to indicate who the we was. "I hope to read all of them.”

“Well then, you will be inspired. Some might ay that she did some of her best work when she had physical burdens to endure.”

“Oh, I can’t wait. I plan to be back to check out others of her books.”

“And we have a lot of them. Be sure, of course to look at some of her novels, I’d be happy to suggest which ones you might like since there are so many of them, not quite of the quality of her poetry, which you must, if you haven’t, read. Again, there’s quite a lot of that. So you have your work cut out for you! You may just have to come back. Even next summer! They will be waiting for you.” She bathed Rona in a glowing smile.

“I hope we might,” Rona said, “We have been talking about that.” She nodded in my direction. By then, still stunned by all of this gregariousness, I was however beginning to realize that times had changed since the last time I was in a library. Or at least one in a small town.

“Is there a way for me to join?” Rona then asked. “As perhaps a summer member? So I can check out books.”

The librarian, whose name I could see from her name tag was Mrs. Moore, frowned. This was a much more familiar look to me. “To tell you the truth that though you can, I wouldn’t recommend it.” Ah, I thought, here we go. Deep in my DNA I knew about how exclusive and off-putting these places can be. “It used to be that summer people for five dollars could become members. And that five dollars would be refunded at the end of the summer if you didn’t have any books outstanding. But then the trustees,” she lowered her voice and leaned across the desk toward Rona—and I stepped slowly closer since I am hard of hearing—this I too wanted to hear: how things in libraries really work, “the trustees, who are otherwise wonderful people, last year changed all of that. I think, to be truthful with you, to make sure the summer people contributed something to the library, they changed our policy and now everyone, no matter how long you are in residence, has to pay ten dollars a year to become a member and none of it, mind you, is to be refunded.”

“Well. I’m willing to . . .”

“I assume you are dear. But to me this is not a good policy. That’s why I am telling you about it. And besides, if you were to join I’d have to get all sorts of information from you and put it into that.” Did I sense a familiar librarian sneer as she gestured toward the computer screen?

“So?” Rona said, letting that hang in the air.

“Here’s what I suggest,” Mrs. Moore whispered, “While you’re here, why don’t you just use my number. It’s 434. And I’ll be sure to let the other women know that this is all right. Then you won’t have a problem.”

“That’s wonderful of you, but I don’t want to cause any difficulties. Could I at least make a contribution to the library fund? I assume there’s a way to do that.”

“Yes there is and that would be very nice,” though she waved that offer away as if it were a black fly buzzing about. “Yes, that would be nice, but hardly necessary.”

“But why are you . . .?”

“Because I am interested in doing whatever we can to encourage people to read more. Charging gets in the way.”

* * *

The next morning, again before dawn, in anticipation of our anniversary in October and as a gesture toward acquiring a bookshelf of May Sarton book as a gift for Rona, I ordered first editions of all eight of her journals.

And when we returned to the library a few days later so that Rona could check out At Seventy and After the Stroke, in the Maine Fiction section I found a copy of Russo’s first novel, Mohawk; and since I haven’t as yet been able to locate a first edition and thus haven’t read it, with her generous permission, using Mrs. Moore’s 434 membership number, I checked it out.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

August 25, 2009--Also Too Big to Fail

I’m getting confused.

Not just by the Obama administration’s mixed signals about how they want to reform healthcare—is, for example, a public option essential or is it, to quote the president, just a small part, only a “sliver” of the larger plan. I am also not just confused about what they are up to in Afghanistan though I heard at first that we needed to double the number of troops on the ground there to get the job done but then learned this past week, as is being requested by our military leaders, that we may need to do more escalating. I use that word, escalating, advisedly because this also is part of my confusion—for a president supposedly steeped in history doesn’t this begin to sound a little too uncomfortably like the kinds of things we heard back in the 1960s and 70s, about what we needed to do to “win” in Vietnam?

And I am not just confused by the fact that on the one hand the president is allowing his attorney general to begin an investigation of potential CIA abuse of detainees held overseas while almost simultaneously announcing that they will continue Bush-era practices and still have detainees interrogated overseas. Oh, yes, sorry, as long as they are not tortured. But, in my confusion, I can’t square these two things--if we are not going to torture them, sorry—use ”advanced interrogation techniques,” why can’t that be done right here in the US of A?

No, what is really confusing me is why we are continuing to use Blackwater, sorry again—they have renamed themselves as Xe Services, to do all sorts of dirty work for us around the world.

You remember Blackwater? The people who helped carry out that overseas torture; provided heavily-armed security for US personal in our various war zones; and in too many instances served as versions of mercenaries, taking part in quasi-warfare activities for pay such as loading missiles onto Predator drones in Pakistan. All in large part because our military is so overstretched and undermanned that we have had to hire Blackwater types—via multi-billion dollar contracts—to do a lot of our overt and covert work.

The reason they felt the need to change their name from Blackwater to the very post-modern, very cool Xe (pronounced zee) is because of various atrocities they took part in in Iraq for which some of their operatives are now being prosecuted.

So, in a non-confusing new political world, one would expect that the very Obama administration which is closing, sort of, Gitmo; not torturing detainees, sort of, overseas; and not escalating, sort of, in Afghanistan, that they would tear up all their Blackwater-Xe contracts and do their own dirty work. Not so according to a front-page story in Saturday’s New York Times. Read it linked blow and weep.

While putting some of their rogue operatives on trial for the out-and-out murder of Iraqi civilians and then trying to cover it up, the Obama administration continues to give Xe lucrative, no-bid contracts that add up to $400 million to fly State Department staff around Iraq, guard them in Afghanistan, and train security forces in anti-terrorism tactics at its camp in North Carolina. And the CIA, at additional expense, continues to use them to collect intelligence overseas; deal with foreign spies; and take part in covert, black-bag operations.

All because the State Department and the CIA, among others, do not have the capacity to do all their own assignments. Thus we are witnessing another too-big-to-fail situation. Sound familiar? Just as we used trillions of taxpayer dollars to bail out economic giants such as AIG and Citibank, claiming that if they were allowed to implode that that would bring about the collapse of the world’s economies—they were that big—we are now hearing that Xe is also too big to fail. If we cut them loose, it is claimed, who would do what they get paid to do and wouldn’t that undermine a lot of what we are trying to achieve in a world still threatened by terrorists?

Good question. Here’s a possible good answer--maybe stop hiring them to do this work. It would then require us to fess up to what needs to be done to make us safe while also not undermining what it means for us to remain a democracy.

Monday, August 24, 2009

August 24, 2009--Reprieved From Last August

William (Bill) Buckminster of Owls Head

Not far is Owls Head. No apostrophe. Just “Owls.” That’s what the Abenaki Indians called it. They could see an owl’s head etched into the granite that plunged into the bay.

We were up there the other day visiting the lighthouse but couldn’t see that head. If there were any Indians still around we could have asked them; but the were driven out by the English settlers a couple hundred years ago. Pretty much all that remains of them are some pottery shards, arrowheads, and many place names. Most transliterations of what they named things. Like Piscataquis (Branch of the River) and Damariscotta (River of Little Fish). Also, a high-stakes casino on the Penobscot Reservation.

From walking up to the lighthouse, which offers stirring views back into Rockland Harbor, we had worked up an appetite. Rona remembered seeing a general store before the turnoff, right by the Owls Head post office, so we headed back there. We had been in this part of Maine long enough to suspect that they would have something good to eat.

Which they did. Lobster rolls of course but also hot soups and an assortment of sandwiches. And, if you ever find yourself there—which isn’t a bad idea at all—they have some fine homemade chocolate donuts. Needless to say we shared one with our coffee.

We sat at a long communal table, something else we have come to expect to find in these places. This always makes for good conversation. That day we learned a lot about the local lobster industry. Not good at all. Though lobsters are plentiful in the Bay, like everywhere else the price of things was killing business. With marine gasoline going for well above $4.00 a gallon it costs at least $150 a day for a lobsterman to run his boat so he can work his traps. This pushes up the price per pound of their catch; and since people who might be coming here for vacations are staying closer to home and folks in restaurants are watching their money--a lobster dinner at these inflated prices can easily add up to $50 a head, no one is feeling good or feeling optimistic. But still, around that table, no one was whining and the funny stories and gossip flowed as fast as the coffee refills.

One piece of gossip we picked up was about Bill Buckminster, who owns about eleven acres right opposite the general store and the “Garden Club” women who are unhappy with him.

He’s about 91, we learned, and on every inch of his property, which is right along the main road that leads to the fancy part of town, he has for more than 60 years been piling up what those ladies think of as “junk.” Lots of it. Not only do they claim it’s a fire hazard but, aesthetics aside, with property values also way down they are complaining that his “mess” is not helping with that. Actually, quite the contrary—with so much for sale, who’s going to buy a place anywhere near his.

To work off the donuts, we thought to walk over to take a look for ourselves. It’s pretty much just across from the general store.

And yes it is a sight to behold. Perhaps even enough of a sight worth a drive over to see. Lots of junk, or stuff, is a vast understatement. Mountains would better describe what he has spent a lifetime gathering. A pile of discarded window frames at least ten feet high is right out there between two of his decaying buildings, on one of which over soon-to-be-fully caved-in entrance door is half-hanging a weathered Antiques sign. Is this evidence of his sense of humor? What look like thousands of crumbling wooden lobster buoys form another mountain. There is a huge pile of coiled copper wire. Another of varying lengths of discarded aluminum leaders and gutters. Still another hill of ruined metal lawn furniture. And a vast pile of broken clocks, all with missing hands so there no way to even intimate when all this began or ended. Assuming, at his advanced age, he has concluded whatever he has been doing to amass all of this.

On all the many trees there were glaring NO TRESPASSING signs, but since no one seemed to be around and we didn’t hear any snarling dogs we did take a few tentative steps onto the property to get a closer look.

As in many rural places, on Buckminster’s land there is a lineup of abandoned and rusting cars. From at least back to the early 1950s. And, not entirely surprising, all of the cars were filled with stuff, as were we could see through the shattered windows the barn and building with the Antiques sign. From wall to wall and floor to ceiling in the case of the buildings and from floorboards almost up to the roof in the case of the cars.

After about twenty minutes of snooping around, beginning to feel more respectful than trespassing, we started to calm down enough so that we were able to take a closer look at things. A sense of order began to make itself felt—not just clocks with other clocks and copper wire with copper wire, that was most evident—but first, especially within the cars, there appeared to be much more method than less-interesting madness at work.

In an old Dodge Buckminster had placed—and “placed” seemed like the right way to think about this—were a series of layers of books and fabrics, stacked in a manner, tiered, so that, if he chose to, he would be able to find whatever it might be that he wanted to put his hands on. And gently on top of what we now thought to be a careful arrangement—again, “arrangement” seemed the right way to describe what we were observing was a dried sheaf of what looked like rye or oats. Decoration?

Larger areas of the grounds had on display abandoned ladders and cooking kettles and rubber tubing and baskets and steam irons and moldy books and keys and doctors’ satchels and grocery scales and broom heads and telephone receivers and wooden kegs and hat forms and garden shears and bicycle wheels and hubcaps and license plates and linked chains and iron stoves and harnesses and chair parts and croquet balls and toilet-bowl floats and birdhouses and electric fans and bricks and shotgun shells and tin stove pipes and sports trophies and flashlights and . . . all of this then suggested either a collector’s mania or an inner logic unfathomable to us. Perhaps, beyond fathomability.

Overwhelmed by these literally hundreds of thousands of pieces and what they might mean we did understand what the Garden Club women might be feeling about what their neighbor had done to their village—a causal drive-by by a perspective home owner or tourist would undoubtedly cause most to press harder on the accelerator. But from our closer look we also came to understand that we had visited an extraordinary collection— there could be no doubt that we had visited was a significant “collection”—and so we made our way back to the general store to see what we could learn.

The woman at the cash register was eager to talk about him and the neighbors. “Oh, he’s been doin’ that for years,” she said with a smile and affectionate wave of her hand, “No harm to anyone, far as I can see. I don’t know what all the fuss’s about. Those women always so upset with him. Why he’s been here forever. Now, mind you, those ladies are good people. They just don’t understand him. To tell you the truth, neither do I. Most days, that is. I say live and let live. Isn’t that we’re s’possed to be about? I mean all this complaining. I’m getting too old for it. If we out here on the Head can’t figure how to tolerate each other than I don’t know who can.”

But before we might misinterpret her, that she was feeling pessimistic about things, she quickly added, with an even more glowing smile, “But just ‘tween us, most of those ladies are really all right about him. I don’t think any of them would really like to see anything of his touched. They just like to make a little noise once in a while. No real harm in that. Basically we do get along fine. Pretty fine for the most part.

“And Bill did marry. His wife was a wonder. Died a few years back. Almost killed him. But he’s all right now. Battling cancer so they say, but he claims he’s fine. That’s him. He doesn’t do any gathering any more. Gave that up when Helen died. She’s buried right there up that little road right by Bill’s place. You should walk over if you didn’t and take a look. Right by a pond that the fellas in the firehouse next door tap into to fill up their pumper. Bill hates them doing that. Claims that pond’s on his property and what they’re doing is not nature’s way.”

She paused to think about that. “You did walk over there to take a look? Someth’ isn’t it? It makes me feel I live somewhere special. Don’t know exactly why I say that. But people who know about him do come by to visit. To look at what he’s accomplished. Even some famous people. Some artists and actors. Zero Mostel had a place near here and he used to come by to fool around with Bill. Always had a plastic water pistol with him which he stuck in Bill’s ribs and said ‘This is a stick up,’ as if Bill had anything worth stealing. And Andrew Wyeth bought some of his stuff. Maybe even used it in his paintings. I should ask him the next time he comes by. Yes he does. Most summers. Much nicer, I’ll tell you, than his son. That Jamie. But ‘nough said about that though.”

Customers were lining up so we let her go. But as we were about to leave she said, “You might want to take a look at that book.” She pointed to a small shelf below where she displayed the local newspapers. “It’s by some Boston woman who wrote it about Bill. People say it’s not bad. I need to get around to reading it one of these days. Who knows what she might be saying.” At that she laughed to herself.

* * *

We did get the book. It’s Owls Head (again no apostrophe) by a Cambridge-based artist, Rosamond Purcell, who befriended Buckminster and over twenty years bought things from him. Tens of thousands by her count, and in the book she writes about what he and his life’s work came to mean to her. And how she transmuted what she acquired from him into her own work, which is quite interesting.

She’s an excellent writer and the book is worth reading and pondering. It’s largely a meditation about the meaning and beauty of decay—Purcell has been called the “doyenne of decay.”

But I was hoping to learn from it more about him. No disrespect to her, her work is fine; but the owner of the general store got it right-- he’s the one who’s really special.

Friday, August 21, 2009

August 21, 2009--Mid-Coast: The Honey People

The Honey People live a short walk from here.

Out front there is a hand-lettered sign that says Raw Honey and on a wooden plank that’s supported by two old milk crates there are always, in size places, eight bottles of honey very precisely spaced. And an Honor Box, where you are supposed to put the cash. And, if necessary, take your change. In case anything remains unclear there is another sign—Take Honey--Leave Money. This system would clearly not work where I am from—the streets of Brooklyn—but I assume that up here it works fine.

Though the payment arrangements say they require honor, to make sure it is being implemented as one would hope in even small, crime-free towns such as this, the residents of this shot-gun cottage always seem to be lined up, as if collapsed in a row of wooden rocking chairs, side by side, just like their jars of honey, right out there on their front porch, not more than 10 feet from their display. Rocking gently, never appearing to exchange word. Just watching the infrequent flow of cars, strollers, and of course their merchandise, adjusting it periodically as the sun shifts. To keep the jars as much as possible in the shade.

Rona on occasion suffers from allergies to pollens and in addition to the Zyrtec she always has with her, following the advice of a friend who seems to know about these things, whenever we settle into a new place, with its own distinct pollens, we look for honey derived from the same flowering plants that cause her sniffles because according to that friend if you ingest enough local honey it has the effect of dampening the allergic symptoms. Sort of immunizes you against what’s in the air. So what better piece of good preventative fortune than to find right near by the very kind of honey it would ordinary take days to locate at a local store or organic market.

So on our daily walks we have been circling in closer and closer to take a look at the honey to see if in fact it is local. One evening the Honey People were not for the moment arranged on their porch and this gave us an opportunity for an unobserved look at the labels on the jars. We preferred to do this privately because if it was honey imported from some other part of Maine or the northeast we wouldn’t be interested. Since it was not so much to serve as cooking or sweetening honey but medicinal honey, we didn’t want to, as sort of neighbors, look it over and then, realizing it would not be a good prophylactic, walk away without taking a jar and depositing $9.00 in the Honor Box.

But the label did not provide all the information we required. Very much homemade, it simple said—

MN Honey
R_____ Pt. ME

Promising, but not conclusively local. We were confused by the MN and the ME. ME is for Maine of course, but the MN? For Minnesota? Couldn’t be. Must be a typo. But again, we are not really honey people, nine dollars is not nothing, and if it wasn’t from very local bees and plants we wouldn’t be able to test our friend’s hypothesis, nor would Rona get whatever relief might be available from the real thing. So to get answers, we would have to engage the Honey People. No way to avoid what up to now we had been avoiding.

I’ve mentioned that though we have passed them dozens of times, driving slowly by—it is a narrow and twisting road—or on foot during morning and evening strolls, we have never observed between them any form of verbal or nonverbal communication. They rock in slow unison, and though that may pass with them for interaction, this stolid stoniness does not feel like much of an invitation to outside interaction.

But then a few weeks ago, on an evening stroll, one of the two Honey Women had come down from the porch and was gathering the unsold jars, we assumed to take them inside until the next morning. We began to cross the road ostensibly to have a better view of potential car traffic but more in truth to avoid swinging too close to her. We thought she would prefer for us to respect the zone of separation they established for themselves, from each other, and the rest of the world.

But before we could reach the other side, she called out to us, waving to us to join her, “I don’t bite,” she said.

This, as you might imagine, stopped us dead in our tracks in the middle of the road, and an approaching Subaru Outback needed to swerve to avoid us. “I don’t.” This woman who we had never observed except silently and expressionlessly rocking even smiled at us and we could see, from 30 feet away, that she was virtually toothless.

When we got back to her side of the road she waddled over toward us as if to greet and welcome us. She was dressed in a tent of a dress that seemed constructed from tablecloth rather than clothing fabric, fulfilling the rest of the Appalachian stereotype. “I’ve seen you eyein’ my honey. The best in all of Maine. I like to say, good for what ails you.” We thought that she also somehow knew about Rona’s allergies and was indicating to us that she had the cure for them. “I’ll bet some of our bees have been visiting with you. Your wildflowers I mean. Right now there must be all those nettle plants flowering—be sure not to touch those suckers. They have those nasty thorns that come loose and stick in you hands and legs. Nettlesome, I’d say.” She smiled at this etymological lesson. “Then them asters. And the last of the lupine. Have you any of them left? A little late for them to be in flower I know. But there should still be a few lingerin’. Be sure to remember to scatter those seeds. Just break open the pods once they’re all dried out. Me and the bees will be needing them again next spring. That lupine nectar is a big part of our mix.

“I think I know where you’re staying so I figure what’s growing there.” How would she know that I wondered? We were renting close to her place but were not in direct visual alignment and there was little likelihood that she was capable of doing much walking up and down the steep hills she would need to navigate to get to our cottage.

“My bees don’t have all that much time to do their gatherin’. This far north here we have a short flower season. A lot of them fall flowers are already coming out and before too many more weeks things’ll start to die back. All that rain earlier, which wasn’t so good for you summer people, did some wonders for the flowers. But on all those gray days my bees couldn’t get oriented. They need sunlight to guide them you know. To make those beelines back and forth.” Again she smiled at her way with phrases. “Yes indeed. They have a short life but work hard every minute of it. Busy as a bee, you might say.” This time we did the smiling.

“So your honey is not just raw and pure, which I assume means it’s not processed in any way.” She was nodding. “But,” Rona asked, “Is it really local? I ask because . . .”

“You have those nasty allergies,” she finished Rona’s sentence. Now it was Rona who did the nodding. “Well, as I said, this honey is good for what ails you. So if I were you, ailing some, I’d give it a try. And you,” looking now directly at me, “you look like to me like you like to do some cookin’,” again how would she know that, “and I can promise you that if you add some of this here honey to half the things you’re makin’ it will do both of you lots of good. Especially the lady. And make everything taste extra special.”

She was also clearly a persuasive salesperson, and Rona was already digging in her pocket book for nine dollars; and I was looking at the jars still on display to see which one to take. “They’re all the same. You can close you eyes and pick one and not go wrong. All pure. All,” she winked, “local. Right from your garden.”

“I think we’ll take this one,” I said. “And then we’ll leave you to finish up.”

“No rush. None at all. I don’t have much to do all day, now that all we have to do is sit out here rockin’ and sell what we can. The work’s later in the year. When the bees are done with their work that’s when ours begins. Getting’ the bees out of the hive and the honey out of the combs. Lots to do to get things ready for you when you come back next spring.” How did she know we were considering that? Extending the summer season. She not only by her own claim made the best honey in the state but she was prescient as well. This was turning out to be quite unexpected.

“And I’ll bet you don’t know that that Greek philosopher Aristotle thousands of years ago thought a lot about how bees can find their way back and forth from the flowers to their hives. Even from quite far away without being able to see their way home.”

“No I didn’t know that,” I confessed. “To tell you the truth I haven’t thought too much about bees and their ways.”

“Well, you should. Lots of lessons there about cooperation and communicatin’. Both of which are in short supply among us so-called higher animals, so to speak.”

“I certainly agree with that,” I said.

“How they find their way back and forth illustrates that. How they work together. It was some German or Austrian fella who figured all this out about the beginin’ of the last century. By watchin’ them in action. Like I said, he discovered it’s all about communicatin’. Which we could pay some attention to too. He saw that when the scout bees, that’s what they’re called, came back from finding some good sources of pollen they danced a dance on the honeycomb for the worker bees. To get their attention. A figure eight dance if you can imagine. I can show it to you if you want to come by early one morning just after the sun rises. It’s really somethin’. And then the scouts, after tellin’ them what they found, takes the lead in showin’ them where. That’s really what a beeline is—the line of dozens of worker bees—all females by the way,” she winked again at Rona, “linin’ up and followin’ those scouts. It’s nature’s way. And as I keep sayin’ till you’ll for sure get tired of hearing me, it should be ours as well.”

“I’m not at all getting tired of hearing about these lessons from the bees,” Rona said. “There are others from nature as well that we would be wise to follow.”

“Like taking some of my honey every morning. Right?” She was grinning toothlessly.

“I promise to try.”

“And you’ll come by and let me know how you do, right?” Rona indicated that she would. “And don’t pay no mind to those others—my husband Jimmy and my boy Sam and his wife Betty who’s also from these parts. I’m Sally, by the way,” she reached out to shake our hands and we took hers as we introduced ourselves. “I know they look off-puttin’ but to tell you the truth they’re harmless. Though we don’t do much talkin’ we’re like our bees. We find ways to do our little communicatin’ dance, not exactly figure eights mind you, but by pullin’ together we’ve got ourselves, all of us, through some real hard times. But you don’t want to hear about that now do you? You’re here for your good times.”

“Actually, when I come back to let you know how I do with my allergies, if you don’t mind, I’d like to learn more from you. About your life and of course from your bees.”

That was about three weeks ago; and though as a precaution in every room of this cottage Rona put out boxes of tissues, since her daily dose of Sally’s honey—swirled into yogurt at midday and in some of the stir fries I’ve been making for dinner—pretty much all of them have remained untouched. And although we did report back about Rona’s dry nose, which didn’t surprise Sally in the least, we haven’t as we did that first time again found her alone at the end of the day. To talk more with her about her bees and her life we think it would work better that way. The rest of her family, in spite of what Sally said about them, continue to inhibit us. We have some stereotypes still to overcome; but we have two or three more weeks here and I suspect will be taking lots of early evening walks.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

August 20, 2009--Day Off

Back tomorrow with The Honey People.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

August 19, 2009--James Madison's Slave

With Barack Obama’s election, many of us for the first time learned about the role slaves played in the construction of the Capital building and the White House itself. To my new understanding, it appears that they did much of the work. This is yet another chapter of that sorry history and how wonderful that things have come full circle—Obama himself is not descended from slaves but his wife and children are. What must they feel like living there?

Now it has come to light that the first in a long series of White House memoirs was written by a slave. One belonging to President James Madison. Paul Jennings who was owned by Madison and came with him to the Executive Mansion from Virginia when he was elected president. Paul Jennings was only 10 years old at the time and served initially as a footman to his owner and then later as a valet. He wrote that he often shaved the president and that he was kind to his slaves. Jennings was also among the few who stood at his owner’s bedside on the day he died.

Most historically noteworthy, during the War of 1812, when the British threatened the capital and in 1814 burned the White House almost to the ground, it apparently was 15-year-old Paul who played a significant role in rescuing the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington from the flames. It is now the only object from that era that remains in the White House.

Until recently it was believed that Dolly Madison, that legendary hostess, saved it for posterity, but the recently rediscovered memoir of Paul Jennings--A Colored Man’s Recollections of James Madison-- suggests otherwise.

Additional research about Mr. Jennings tells more about his life, including how he won his freedom some years after Madison died. Though slaves were barred from learned to read and write, Jennings somehow managed to; and though their stories were thought by their owners not to be worth recording, at some point in his life Jennings did so.

We also learn from his Recollections and other sources that though President Madison had made plans to release him from bondage at his death, his wife Dolly refused to carry out his wishes and kept Jennings among her own slaves, and that unlike her husband she was a harsh owner. He was forced to live separately from his wife and children and when things turned difficult for Dolly she hired him out to others and, to quote him kept “the last red cent” of what he earned and left him “to get his clothes by presents, night work, or as he might.” (See linked New York Times story for more details.)

She later sold him to an insurance agent who in turn sold him for $120 dollars to Senator Daniel Webster who quickly set him free, allowing him to work as a servant in his household to return the cost of what Webster had paid for him. Paul Jennings was 48 at the time.

As a free man, Jennings worked in the government’s pension office, was able to buy property, and most remarkably, when Dolly Madison later in life fell on hard economic times, in spite of how she had treated him—refusing to release him as her husband had desired—he helped support her in her old age by giving her “small sums from my own pocket.”

Later this month, descendents of the Jennings family will gather for a reunion at the same house in which their great-great-great relative worked faithfully and heroically as a slave.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

August 18, 2009--Best Selling

How many copies a book must sell to jump to the top of the New York Times’ Bestseller list may be a closely guarded secret; but it's obvious, looking at the top-ten on this past Sunday's nonfiction list that those folks who spend all day watching Fox News spend all night, assuming they actually read them, reading books by the likes of Bill O'Reilly, whose immodestly-titled number ten-listed book, A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity—a tome about his self-proclaimed larger-than-life self; or Dick Morris, whose number four-ranked book is Catastrophe—about how we have to stop Barack Obama before he truns America into a socialist state; or Mark Levin's number two, Liberty and Tyranny—a Rush Limbaugh recommended conservative manifesto which see liberalism as a sinister movement; or at the top of the list, ultra-conservative blogger and talk-show personality Michelle Malkin's Culture and Corruption—who claims that most the key officials in the Obama administration are crooks, influence peddlers, and tax cheats. (See link below for the full list.)

What's especially good about these books, which perennially wind up on the list, is that the title says it all--Corruption! Catastrophe! Tyranny! Which can save a lot of reading time.

Liberals may pride themselves on being better ivy-educated and more interested in nuanced ideas, but from who appears to be buying books, it looks as if the self-anointed cultural elite are not among them. Though, perhaps, people of my political persuasion are buying and of course reading some of the other bestsellers.

For this more discerning set there is Ian Halpern’s number five, Unmasked about Michael Jackson’s final years; The End of Overeating at number six—the title tells it all; for middlebrows, Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Blink, at the number three slot, Outliers—about why some people succeed; and at number seven Douglas Brinkley’s The Wilderness Warrior which details Teddy Roosevelt’s crusade for conservation.

To give you a sense of what awaits you if you check Malkin's list-topper out of the library, here's a glimpse of what’s been on her so-called mind.

In addition to listing in her new quickie-book all the Obama officials such as Peter Geithner who were revealed to have tax problems during their confirmation hearings, Malkin is also the one who started the false report that Michelle Obama’s “entire professional career was based on nepotism”; that it was proper to detain Japanese citizens in versions of concentration camps during World War II because conditions there were not all that bad anyway; and as part of her relentless anti-immigrant ranting, she has advocating amending the U.S. Constitution to eliminate the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment that grants citizenship to anyone born in the USA. Some strict constructionist.

But if you are still looking for books to read this summer, I’d suggest either David Heymann’s number 12, Bobby and Jackie (I’ll bet you can figure out where he finds them on frequent occasion); and then, at 13, there’s always Tori Spelling’s Mommywood about, yes, motherhood in Hollywood, which has been lingering on the bestseller list for almost two months. Must be a page-turner.

As for me, I think I’ll pick up War and Peace again. I just can’t get enough of that Rus-lit.

Monday, August 17, 2009

June 17, 2008--Reprieved From Last Summer


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 14, 2009

August 14, 2009--Mid-Coast: The Spiders of Pemaquid

There’s not much opportunity here to see big game. Rarely if ever are there any moose to be spotted along the coast of Maine. Wildlife action of that kind occurs inland. So here near Pemaquid Point, in compensation, I have taken to watching the many spiders that are especially hard at work this year because all the summer rain has spawned an unusual number of mosquitoes. And though they dive-bomb us at dawn and dusk, for spiders they are a delicacy. Rich in the protein that they need to sustain themselves and out of which the silken material from which they spin their webs is composed, the oversupply of these pests has kept the local spiders working overtime.

If you are skeptical, I can assure you that I do have some experience as a very amateur naturalist. One time, in South Africa for example, after the work I was engaged is was completed, Rona and I trekked out to a game camp near Kruger National Park. A very expensive one. At first, all poshly accommodated—we were met at the entrance by a post-Apartheid black man in a crisply starched White Hunter’s outfit who offered us a frosted glass of something orange, which tasted like a mimosa, to help us relax and compensate us for the bumpy flight in on a six-seater—I was immediately suspicious about the authenticity of the experience that awaited us. Mimosas and stalking big game somehow didn’t go together even blended in a rich imagination. I, after all, had grown up reading Jungle Book stories and spending time at this Ngala Game Lodge promised to be very different than squeezing under a mosquito net in a tent in the bush.

And so, as I usually do in these circumstances, I behaved dismissively, of course blaming Rona for dragging me to this expensive Disneyland version of the Veldt, and immediately began to make cynical fun of the guide’s cheerful promise that during our three days there we would be certain to see the Big Five, which he informed us, since this was the first we had heard of this notion, were the five most desirable animals to encounter—the lion; the African elephant; the cape buffalo; the leopard; and rarest of all, the black rhinoceros.

And with that he had one of his “boys” whisk us to our hut (some hut with a marble and slate bathroom about the size of our one-bedroom apartment back in Manhattan) and told us not to be late for dinner, which that evening was to be served by a roaring fire on which various slabs of game meat were to be roasted. “Be sure to have the impala steak,” he said, smacking his lips, “It is very special.”

The next day, on the first of our six game drives—one each morning just before dawn and another every evening prior to sunset—we spotted two cheetah within a hundred yards of our camp, which, rather than pleasing me, only made me more cynical. I think I said sotto voce to Rona, “I’ll bet the reason these cheetahs are right here is because they lure them close by putting out food.” And to the guide, who did not deserve my sarcasm, I added, “They don’t count toward the Big Five, do they? Maybe the Big Six?” He simply smiled back at me, undoubtedly having had, through the years, to endure this and worse from rich tourists.

And then within the first hour, after spotting a pride of lions at a watering hole and learning all about how it is lionesses who do all the cub rearing and hunting while the males hang around sleeping their way through the sultry days—it was clear that women’s liberation as well as freedom and democracy had arrived in South Africa—suspecting that the hotel owners had dug and kept the water hole full so that their pampered guests would not have to drive around all day in dusty futilely chasing after the first of the Big Five, restraining from allowing myself to be overly impressed, I came up with what I thought to be a witty counter to the traditional way of keeping score while on this version of safari—the obverse of the Big Five, the Tiny Five. “Maybe we should keep that list too,” I said to no one in particular, “You know, the termite—see all those termite mounds—the tsetse fly, the mosquito, the African Mantid [I had done my homework to come up with this voracious creature], and of course, my favorite, the dung beetle.”

I chuckled at my own cleverness; but when Daktari, our driver stopped suddenly with no big game in sight and directed us to get out of the Land Rover, I thought perhaps to change a tire, saying nothing, he pointed at the ground near where we were standing. There was nothing noteworthy to be seen—just a few pebbles and rocks. “There!” he pointed again, insisting, “Right there!” We bent closer to the ground, following the direction of his finger and indeed right there was one of my Tiny Five. “A dung beetle,” he chortled, “Just what you came all this way from America to see.” With that he knew he had me and his face exploded into a brilliant grin.

And there it was, about three-quarters of an inch in size, reared back on its hind legs and with its front legs rolling ahead of it what could only be a ball of dung at least twice its size. “You can put that on your list,” Daktari said. And I did because that amazing beetle was as interesting as any of the Big Five which, over the days, we accumulated. And to tell the truth, all my cynicism quickly faded and I had the time of my life.

Which brings me back to the spiders of our back deck—after close observing I discovered an ideal location for them not only because of the airborne protein supply but also since the spaces between the vertical posts that support the deck railing are an ideal distance apart for the construction of their so-called orb webs. Bear with me.

Much of this work occurs just before dawn, which is a fine time for me to get distracted in noticing since I am a notoriously poor sleeper; and if it were not for my writing, and the chance to get lost in things such as spiders’ projects, I would be left desperately groping for ways to fill the time and push back, always unsuccessfully, against the tremors of non-specific anxiety that prior to sunrise invade my unprotected mind and sabotage any possibility of morning tranquility or a smooth transition to consciousness.

If the breeze is just right for web-building—not too fresh, not too indifferent--I notice that my spider companion from one rail post begin by extruding a foot-long silky adhesive thread which it leaves to hang unfettered in the air, knowing—if it knows--that it will then begin to float gently, carried on the breath of these pre-dawn zephyrs. With just the right amount of wafting this initial strand is lifted higher and higher until it appears to reach across toward the opposite post, in my case just an eight-inch span. And if there is then a slight additional uplift to the breeze it, miraculously, adheres to the adjacent post and what remains is a single, fragile swaying strand which bridges the gap and begins to emit a silken glow in the first light of the day.

My spider then puts on display its extraordinary tightrope walking skills—no less remarkable than those of the legendary Philippe Petit who pranced on a wire that spanned the two World Trade Center towers. As I raptly watch it carefully walk along that slender thread it extrudes another, strengthening strand of silk. It works its way back and forth, back and forth until these repeated passes and deposits have thickened that first precarious filament. Not unlike the way suspension bridge builders spin the cables that reach from anchor tower to anchor tower and then support the roadway. From Manhattan to Brooklyn, from Brooklyn to Manhattan, from Manhattan to Brooklyn, from Brooklyn to . . .

With this horizontal element now securely in place, and strong enough to support the rest of the web that will be suspended from it and anything it may eventually entrap—including the full weight of the spider which ingests its victims while clinging to the web itself--this aerialist architect is ready to begin to fill in the rest of the vertical structure.

It does this next, I observe, the way climbers lower themselves by ropes from the cliffs they have conquered—in their case by repelling themselves against the rock face as they drop toward the ground where they began; while in the spider’s case by again producing a silken rope at the end of which it dangles—again swinging in the breeze until it simultaneously is pitched to precisely the midpoint between the posts and, when thus positioned, rapidly drops the last few inches to the lower horizontal cross piece where it affixes its sticky thread. It then ascends, again strengthening this first angled vertical line, as it laboriously hoists itself back up to the top rung, all along the way extruding another thread. And once there, it skirts to the other side and immediately lowers itself again, as before waiting until the wind catches it just right and swings it, dangling, to the center of that lower span and when positioned at that precise spot again plummets so it can affix its strand.

If one were to stand back at this point—as I wondrously do, distracted and thus no longer ensnared by fears—one sees the Y-shaped framework, which will contain the eventual web itself. All the heavy structural work has now been completed—it is time to apply the finishing touches, to fill in the details. The radials and the circular threads that might be thought of as the web loom’s warp and weft, which together will form the final cobweb fabric.

The radials bridge the center of the Y-armature and the concentric circular threads give the web its distinctive Halloween look. Typically, my spider mate constructs at least half a dozen radials and at least that many circular loops; and when they are sketched in, it spends quite a bit of time strengthening the webs center with at least five final circular strands. This is obviously where the action will occur.

By the third morning I am beginning to notice something else: it appears that the spaces between each spiral are proportional to the size of the spider itself—specifically the distance between the tip of its back legs and its spinners. It is using itself, its own body as a measuring device! But before I got too carried away in the rapture of this back-deck discovery, I quickly realized that this technique must be hard-wired into many animal species. Including humans. After all where did we come up with a yard as a unit or measurement? Or and inch? Or, more obviously, a foot? Welcome to my world spider cousins! Or is it it that is offering the greeting?

And then, hopefully it will be the spider’s breakfast time. It has put in a full morning’s work and deserves something nutritious and savory. I still have two hours to wait until Rona rises before I can get my less-wholesome blueberry pancakes. So with nothing better to do, to kill some more time, I wait along with it.

After about a half an hour, a frisky, early-rising mosquito begins to buzz about. Perhaps it too is a troubled sleeper. If it sleeps at all. Not wanting to interfere with the natural forces at work I do not swat at it as it dives toward my uncovered head. If it is to pay a price for what it attempts to inflict on me it will not be by my hand. I therefore do not choose to wave it off as I in compensation take malicious pleasure in noticing my spider friend waiting, patiently immobile off to the side of its web. It and I know what potentially awaits.

The mosquito, which as a result of its first pass left a swelling and itchy welt on my neck, circles lower, seeking a second helping, moving in closer to, circling the warm veins throbbing in my ankle. To it irresistible. Sensing its approach I shift a bit—I confess with retributive intent since my foot is not more than a foot from the web—perhaps to help divert it toward its fate. And for once, man interfering with Nature yields a sustainable ecological result. No inconvenient truths yesterday morning! My mosquito tormentor, diverted in its flight path by me uncrossing my legs and thereby forced into a stall by a sudden downdraft is swept right into the center of the waiting web.

The spider, sensing the impact and the struggle of its prey by the vibrations transmitted through the web, begins to stir. It lifts itself, seemingly to me to stretch its legs and even yawn, and begins its slow ascent toward the middle of the web where the mosquito, as it squirms to free itself only, as if in a straight jacket, further entangles itself. Then, just as the spider approaches close to its prey, an exact body-length away, all struggles cease; and, I believe, if I had a magnifying glass, I would be able to see my spider companion licking the equivalent of its chops.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

August 13, 2009--Another Day Off

This is getting to be a habit. But I will be back tomorrow with a report about the Spiders of Pemaquid Point.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

August 12, 2009--The Ladies of Forest Trace: "It's All Because He's Black"

“The ladies are saying that they don’t want socialized medicine. So I say to them, ‘You’re on Medicare, right? And you have no complaints, right? Well, maybe a few. And they say to me, ‘We like what we have and we don’t want him to take it away from us.’ It was my 101 year-old mother calling from Forest Trace, the Florida retirement community where she lives, “And so I say back to them, ‘Well, the joke’s on you—you already have socialized medicine! That’s what Medicare is. Socialized medicine. And by the way,’ I add, ‘President Obama--is not calling for socialized medicine. He wants to do things to save the system we have. Which is bankrupting the country. Largely because of us.’ They look at me like I’m crazy. Some of the girls are not all there, if you know what I mean. ‘I say us because all we do is go from doctor to doctor with trips to the emergency room and the MRI machine thrown in. All of this costs money. A lot of it. In the past,’ I say, ‘all of us would be dead already. How much did it cost young people who are paying taxes to get me to be 101?’

“They have no answer to that one,” my mother continued, “Especially since I’m, thank God, healthier than the rest of them put together. I’m not boasting. It’s true how lucky I’ve been. But just this week, and it’s only Wednesday, I’ve been to my cardiologist—who changed my blood pressure medicine—and my ENT who checked my ears and took the wax out of them, and to my podiatrist, who cut my toe nails, which I can’t do myself anymore. Do you know how much he gets for this from Medicare? For each toe? At least 15 dollars each. Times ten that’s how much? Too much, but that’s how it works.”

“I know, mom,” I finally got to say as she paused to catch her breath. She was all worked up about this. “They must be watching Fox news and listening to talk radio. They’re whipping the public into a frenzy. Scaring people by lying to them about what Obama is wanting to do.”

“Exactly. It’s all about fear. Old people are especially afraid. About their money. Their Social Security. And now their medical care. And, more than anything else, they are afraid of change. Any kind of change. Even if it’s for a good thing. Did you hear about what is happening with prescription drugs?”

“No, I haven’t. What?”

“You know all the medicines I take. For my blood pressure. The ones to help me with the anxiety I get in the morning. For my gall bladder. Thankfully nothing that serious. But I noticed that for the last few months the cost of my medicines has gone down. And by a lot. I asked my pharmacist why. ‘Are they on sale?’ I asked him. And he said, ‘No. It’s because Obama made an agreement with the drug companies to lower their prices and if they did he would not ask Congress to regulate them.’ Can you believe that?”

“I had heard something about that. In fact, I think some of the most liberal groups are criticizing him for agreeing to this. To them the drug companies are evil.”

“First of all we’ve had enough of this evil business with the last president. And now that Sarah from Alaska is saying that Obama’s healthcare plan is evil. That to pay for it they will have an Asia committee to decide who lives or dies in order to save money to give insurance to those who don’t have any.”

“That’s euthanasia, mom, and I did see that she said that in a Twitter message.”

“A what message?”

“Twitter. The social networking Internet site.”

“Look, I’m too old for these things. All I know is she said it. And we know what she really means.”

“Go on.”

“Which is the reason I called.”


“You’re not rushing away are you?”

“Well, I do have something in a few minutes but I have time.”

“You’re always rushing somewhere. When do you get to rest? You’re not as young as you think any more.” She seemed to get considerable pleasure from reminding me of this during almost all of our calls. “What I mean is that people are starting to turn against him because he’s black.”

“I’m listening.”

“To tell you the truth I’m even hearing this from some of the girls. They are saying that he wants to take things away from white people to give them to ‘colored people.’” She sensed that I wanted to correct her but before I could she said, “Don’t correct me, I was just quoting them. That now that he’s in the White House—you should hear some of the sneering about that on the radio, that maybe he wants to paint it a different color—he’s showing his true colors. The pun is intended. He sold himself to us during the campaign as just a person. Not a black person. So as not to frighten anyone. But now he is doing all these things to give things to his people. That’s what I am hearing. Which is why they are questioning where he was born. Saying he’s an African, not a real American. Which really means that they are saying that he’s just a black man.”

“You could be right.”

“Well, I am.” I wasn’t going to try to disagree with that. Not that I wanted to. “And, I’m afraid that it’s worse than even that. Did you hear about this new book that says the White House is being swamped with letters that are calling him the worst names and threatening him and his beautiful family with harm? It’s being denied, but I am sure it must be true. If all of these crazy people are willing to be on television with pictures of Obama dressed up like Hitler you can only imagine what they are saying and doing privately.”

“I did hear about that book and it wouldn’t surprise me either if it was true.”

“But then there is something almost funny. You would call it something else—ironic—that I hope is happening.”

“I’ll tell you if you’re right about how I would describe it.”

“If they are this crazy because they woke up one morning with a black man as their president, one who is also half African, whose father was an Arab . . .”

“A Muslim.”

“Yes, that. And if they think that black people are lazy and not as intelligent as white people, which they do, can you imagine what they are already feeling after only six or seven months when they see how smart and hardworking he is?”

“That for sure is making some of them crazy.”

“But here’s the best part,” I could hear her chuckling to herself. “What would happen if he also turned out to be a good president?”

“You’re losing me here. I assume they might have to swallow hard and be forced to admit he turned out to be OK.”

“You see—that’s where you’re wrong. To them, and hopefully they are far from a majority, it’s all because he’s black. That’s all they’re able to see. But since it’s true—he is black--if he does well, if he succeeds with his agenda, if the economy gets better, and there are signs that it is--even that Paul whatever his name is in the Times who won the Nobel Prize is saying so and he is no fan of the Obama people—if he does a good job as president it will really make those who hate him meshuga.”

“Krugman, mom, Paul Krugman.”

“He’s Jewish, isn’t he?” I didn’t answer. “In any case, it will make these tea-bag people even madder if he becomes an effective president. If that happens, and I still think he will, how will they be able to hold onto their prejudices? Won’t this upset them even more?” She didn’t pause to allow me to agree with her. “They need their prejudices and some of their other beliefs to help them feel secure in a world that to them is so complicated and scary. To not feel afraid they need these kinds of easy answers.”

I broke into her chain of thought because I did have something to say and was feeling time pressure. I had an appointment. With my internist. I too am old enough to experience socialized medicine through Medicare. “I agree with everything you’re saying. But the good news is that it appears that there are fewer and fewer of these kinds of bigoted people. The media love them of course because viewers seem not to be able to get enough of seeing them on TV when they show up with their Hitler posters and scream and yell at members of Congress at those town hall meetings. And by putting them on the air over and over again, they make them seem like they are the majority. But they’re not. All the polls show that . . .”

“But,” she interrupted me again, “though you may be right about the TV, before we enjoy ourselves too much about how these people are getting all mixed up not knowing what to think about Obama—and how though they want to see him fail at everything he tries and they will continue to be the primary victims of the recession and the medical system we have—there is something else we have to worry about. It’s this: as I said, the better he does the worse it gets. That’s ironical, correct?”

“Yes, that would be ironic. But you need to say more because I don’t see what there is to worry about.”

“If that happens, won’t that make Obama even more vulnerable than he already is? And I don’t mean politically. I mean personally. Won’t this place him in even greater danger?”

“I understand what you’re saying and of course I hope not.”

“We’ve seen this before, haven’t we? With Martin Luther King and Kennedy. Both Kennedys. And now that poor sister died. The better they did, the more popular they became, the more people saw that they represented change, and the more some people felt threatened by it, who were afraid of change—like now—the more they hated them. Fear leads to hatred. And we know what happened.” I could hear her sigh. “I hope I don’t live to see that again. That’s one good thing about being so old.”

“Of course I hope so too. I mean,” I added quickly so as not to be misinterpreted, “about not wanting to see this happen to Obama. And though you may be right, you probably are right about how his being successful could make him even more hated by these people we’ve been talking about, it also means that he will be better protected.”

“But you know me. I’m a worrier. I always see the dark cloud when others see sunshine. I was born in a shtetl in Poland after all. More than a century ago. So how can I be an optimist?”

“Easy,” I said, “Look at all the good things that have been accomplished in the world. How . . .”

“I know, every time I get this way you make the list. To try to make me feel better.”

“But more than anything else, how can you be so pessimistic when all you have to do is look at your own remarkable life?”

And with that, without even a goodbye, she hung up. Which she does every time I say anything like this. This too, it seems to me, is ironic. How for her something positive can so often feel like bad news. But with her, almost everything is forgivable.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

August 11, 2009--Affirmative Action In Action

If there is a third rail in what remains of the Culture Wars it is affirmative action.

This was on full display, often smoldering just below the surface, during the confirmation process for now Associate Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor. Her vote on the New Haven fire department affirmative action case, where she joined the majority in finding that minorities’ rights were violated by the nature of the examination and promotion process, convinced conservatives that she would be a judicial activist.

And, it was further claimed, that she was not qualified to sit on the Supreme Court because she herself had been the beneficiary of affirmative action. How else would she have been admitted to Princeton and then, after graduating with undoubtedly inflated grades, how else could she have been admitted to Yale Law School and then subsequently been appointed to the federal bench? And so on.

This is a more nuanced subject that the hot rhetoric on both sides of the issue would suggest. First, a little history:

The term "affirmative action" was introduced by President Kennedy in 1961 as a method to redress discrimination that persisted in spite of civil rights laws and constitutional guarantees. After his death, it was enforced for the first time by President Lyndon Johnson who said, “This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek… not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result." [Emphasis added.]

For many, this assertion about the equality of results was inflammatory since to opponents this could only mean that they would have to be realized via quotas and by ignoring the fact that minorities and women (who turned out to be the major beneficiaries of affirmative action—something frequently and conveniently overlooked in our heated racial politics) were either genetically inferior (there was and still is a lot of this feeling loose in the land) or incapable of pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. The inequities that were undeniable were more the result of laziness and a failure to seize the opportunities that existed than any systemic forms of discrimination.

Things get even more complicated when we recall that though affirmative action initially was to focus primarily on education and jobs, and that its policies required that active measures be taken to ensure that blacks, other minorities, and women enjoyed the same opportunities for promotion, salary increases, school admissions, and scholarships that had been the nearly exclusive province of whites and men, from the outset, affirmative action was envisioned as a temporary remedy that would end once there was a level playing field for all Americans.

While arguments swirl about the meaning of “level playing field” and when we will know it has been achieved, does having an African-American president and a Latina Supreme Court justice suggest we are there? Or close? Does the fact that at least half the students in America’s law and medical schools are women suggest that it might be time to begin to ratchet back affirmative action admission programs? Does the fact that boys in public schools now lag behind girls in achievement test scores mean that the field is leveled? Or leveling?

While you ponder these vexing questions, be assured that various, under-reported, extra-legal kinds of affirmative action practices are proceeding full speed ahead.

For example, in the state of Illinois, the New York Times reported the other day that, quote, “Top officials of the University of Illinois developed a sophisticated shadow admissions process for applicants who were supported by politicians, donors, and other prominent sponsors.” (Article linked below.)

As a former senior university administrator I can assure you that Illinois is not alone in acting in this perverse-affirmative way. It is rampant. And it is even more on display at virtually all of our most elite private colleges and universities. This is something not widely spoken about, but between 10 and 15 percent of places in their freshmen classes are reserved for children of alumni. Especially for children of those alums who have been the best citizens of their alma maters. Read, major benefactors. Read, those who sent in the biggest checks.

Harvard has its notorious Z-List of legacy admits; and at Yale, children of alumni are admitted at the rate of about 30 percent of those who apply, much higher than from the pool of non-legacy applicants, and they make up about 15 percent of the total undergraduate student body.

To be fair, not all legacy admits have lower high school GPAs and lower SAT scores. But there is clear evidence that many, many do. Ironically, one of Yale’s most famous alums, George W. Bush back in 2004 called on Yale to end it practice of admitting legacies with lower qualifications. Forgetting, for the moment, that that is precisely how he managed to get admitted in spite of doing poorly in prep school. And forgetting that after doing C+ work at Yale he somehow managed to get into Harvard’s MBA program. If it hadn't been for father President George H. W. and grandfather Senator Prescott, George W. would have been left to commute to Midland Texas Community College.

So, let’s keep searching for the meaning of “level playing field,” but while we’re at it, let’s stop demagoguing this issue. It has served many very, very well—from the George Bushes to the Sonya Sotomayors.