Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Of Records

We listened as if the fate of our lives depended upon the report of the meteorologist —which was reported over and over, aided by charts and arrows that moved like darts across the swath of New England. We heard about the characteristics of a blizzard from three different weather people. We watched travelers trapped in airports as the list of cancelled flights grew and later returned to see some bedded down for the night— at the airport. We listened to interviews with individuals whose flight, delayed by the impetuous storm, reacted with calm, frustration, indignation or acceptance of nature's proclivity for upsetting plans. And then, as if the tape rewound, we listened to the meteorologist compare the blizzard, if it attained that stature, to previous storms. We were warned that this storm had an erratic nature. She didn't lay her burden down equally in all areas. We checked our supply of batteries, bought additional cans of tuna, baked an apple pie and a pasta dish, bought bread, checked the date of the large waters, and small seltzers.

Then they began to talk of the possibility of losing power. "Nantucket," a woman wearing a turtleneck sweater and pointing a finger to the island, "is almost completely without power." Of course both Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, surrounded by water, are prone to pounding waves and fierce winter winds. You too, she intimated, could wake up to a cold house. One news anchor even suggested you take out some extra blankets and have them ready lest the power outage occurs in your neighborhood. So I admit to trudging up to the loft, finding the plastic box containing a heavy winter goose filled comforter, and spreading it out on two chairs. That particular item, purchased before the chicken scare several years ago and the fear of feathers from diseased chickens took hold of some people, remained on the chair all night —next to a flashlight with working batteries. I do admit to buying a down pillow recently with the following words inscribed in two inch high letters on the zippered plastic cover —feathers from Germany.

Every half hour I turned the outside light on and scanned the scene. How much snow balanced on the deck railing? And by the time I turned off the light, and decided not to open the bedroom window a sliver, our railing held a mere five inches. Yes, this was a fickle storm, but they said it would continue through the night and to mid-day.

I'm never sure if I want to reach that high total or be in one of the areas allotted a lesser amount by Mother Nature. In the morning I checked the railing again and measured a snow total of eight inches—a leaning tower of Pisa held to the thin wooden board by sheer tenacity. The storm had given Boston nineteen inches and some areas twenty-one inches. When the meteorologists reported the totals they avoided our area. We didn't earn any mention.

I'm not unhappy. I'll eat the tuna or save it for another possible power outage. We'll finish the apple pie tonight and we ate the pasta for lunch. And shoveling was fairly mundane, which I do appreciate.

The weather people now resort to showing us devastation from mud floods and blizzards in other areas of the country and world. We watch with concern as waves and water destroys homes along the seashore. We watch city dwellers dig their cars out of a pouch of deep snow. After unearthing cars and the parking spaces they occupied, some residents of South Boston placed trashcans or chairs in those spots to hold them until they returned from work. The city recognizing that only the “shoveler” deserves the place allows this arcane custom to exist for several days. No one who values his car or tires would be foolish enough to move one of these saving items and park a car in that space. I imagine it's the same as the lobster fisherman placing his identifying buoy in the water, marking his territory, and reminding scavengers that his traps exist underwater.

Now that all has quieted down I envision the weather people draped over their computers studying models showing weather patterns—anxious to find another imminent storm. During the summer they spend an equal amount of time during a heat spell reminding us of the conditions for something to qualify as a heat wave.

They remind us that this was the tenth highest snow total for Boston. What is there about records? I find records fascinating. Yesterday I read about long sentences—about authors who manage to write a sentence that sustains itself for twenty or thirty pages. There is a record for an English sentence. When Joyce wrote his long train of thought sentences they often meandered for pages. Do we have some criteria for these sentences? I imagine that there are run-ons without literary merit. Joyce's sentences, while sometimes arduous for the reader to follow, repay the work with the lilt and rhythm —as well as the unraveling of meaning.

Who owns the record for the most hot dogs consumed within an allotted time period? Or the greatest number of live worms consumed in a minute? Each day someone in the universe wants to attain a record. By checking in several books you can find some feat that is possible— for you. And this feat must be done in public under the auspices of an individual who attests to the authenticity of the accomplishment. Only when this is done will the individual see her name in print. The Guinness Book of World Records states: " It is possible to hire an adjudicator to verify your record live and on-the-spot. If you know what record you want to break and you have done it before you might want to go for our Basic Adjudication Service where a trained GWR Adjudicator will show up on the day and verify your record on the spot."

Is our society enamored with records because we feel the need to be an individual in a society that homogenizes people? Or do we create records because numbers have an allure—for all manner of people?

Reverend Ken McReynolds, a Church of Ireland minister, successfully talked his way into the record books by giving the longest sermon. The sermon lasted five hours and fifty minutes. Of great note, eight of his parishioners including the loquacious minister's wife, stayed for the entire time. He initially desired to talk for six hours, but acknowledged running out of things to say and not wishing to repeat his thoughts he cut his sermon short.

Last January Jean-Francois Vernetti from Switzerland set a record: He owned 8,888 different "Do Not Disturb" signs from hotels in 189 countries across the world. It took him twenty-five years to accomplish this feat. ...His collection " started when he noticed a spelling error on the one he was using at a hotel in Sheffield, UK."

Why not?

So let the meteorologists seek records and the ordinary mortal find a way to attain momentary immortality —that is until the record topples.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

After Reading the First Line

Finding that first sentence, that entrance to what it is that you want to say, the beginning—the start of something that garners attention, the hook that begs for a reader to continue is an arduous pursuit. When Joanthan Lethem writes— "Here I am: in the subway but not on a train." I immediately think of subways and the reasons that someone might find themselves in that subterranean enclave.

Perhaps the narrator is simply waiting for a train, perhaps he is homeless , perhaps he will shortly take out his guitar and play. Perhaps he lives far away and returned to the place of his youth and this is a nostalgic visit. Perhaps it is something else, but in order to find out I must continue reading, following the string—being pulled along by the words.

John McPhee, in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, writes: "A lead is good not because it dances, fires cannons or whistles like a train, but because it is absolute to what follows." He also says that writing the lead is the most difficult part of a story. I like to think of it as a hook to pull me into the tale.

Before I move to the next line I remain in the subway, not any subway but the D line—the line that extends from the Bronx into Manhattan. My childhood line. This is where I discovered that stations all exhibit their own calligraphy. I learned a vernacular that didn't appear in any of my books. This is where I discovered radical causes, invitations to demonstrations, and advertisements for products not on my parent's bathroom shelf. I learned how to scan the crowd and avoid characters who looked suspicious although I did get jostled by someone who deftly lifted my wallet from a zippered pocket. Because I traveled to high school on the D line my education included how to maneuver myself on the platform so that when the train slowed down I stood close to the opening door.

At the age of twelve my parents let me travel down to the Art Student's League to take a Saturday morning still life class. I loved carrying my supplies in a fishing tackle box — the charcoal nesting in one of the small compartments usually reserved for hooks and the meticulous flies my Uncle Abe tied. I learned how to hang on to the pole in a subway car even when the train lurched. My mother made me promise that even under great duress I'd never use the subway bathroom. I kept that promise until my senior year in high school.

After going to the United Nations with a friend we went out to eat and then walked for blocks until we found a subway station. The cold , the walk, and a large glass of lemonade all made me forget that promise. We both went into the ladies room and confronted a world we didn't know existed in the subway. Two elderly bag ladies, stripped down to bras, stood in front of the sinks. One woman held a sliver of soap and washed under her arms, her neck and face. "I don't like," she said, "the soap in these dispensers. It's rough on my skin."

"You know I once found a bar of lavender scented soap. Someone left it on the sink. Imagine that."

The other woman, after washing, put on a sweater and then another sweater. "Sweetie," she said," it's cold outside and I'm not certain where I'm staying tonight."

The bathroom reeked of ammonia, body aroma and the aroma that clung to the toilet bowls. A sadness caught on the tile walls seeped out into the station where we watched a man being moved along by a transit policeman.

"Ah man, it's warm here. What's the harm?"

Lethem's sentence takes me back to the time I ran through the train—car after car. No one was chasing us. City kids need to find risks in an urban setting. We couldn't explore caves or mountains, swaths of land, or run through fields. Going from one end of the train to the other end entailed opening up the doors, getting your footing as you passed into the next car—sprinting and making believe that you were Butch Cassidy defying the law.

"...In the subway, but not on a train." —maybe leaving everything above ground and taking a vacation from the ties that keep one tethered to the surface. Maybe standing in the subway, but not on a train is really an existential conundrum—an inability to take that step, to stand inert, to fear where the train travels.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Scene from Where Do we Go From Here?

Melvyn wondered about living at a different time when things weren’t as hectic, but he didn’t want to go back to postmodern times and certainly not back to ancient times. He was concerned about hygiene and therefore avoided thinking of any time in history that preceded modern vaccinations. And since he rode his bicycle through the woods he decided against any time prior to the series of post exposure prophylaxis rabies vaccine to prevent the onset of rabies. He had even thought of getting immunized against rabies. He had read accounts of people who died horrific deaths after an encounter with a diseased animal.

He had visited a colonial village and observed the utensils and plates that were used for dining and decide that without a dishwasher the germs would disturb his intestines. He always carried some hand sanitizer with him and washed his dishes with an antibacterial soap if he was on the road.

By this process of eliminating whole eras and centuries he decided that it would need to be sometime after then 1950s. He also didn’t want a time prior to some computer use. After some serious research at the Boston Public library and online he decided that the year would be 1977 and 1978. He’d be the same age, twenty-nine, in 1977.

To him the choice became obvious: Annie Hall won as the Academy award for Best Picture. He had seen reruns of the movie and felt that he understood the characters. President Carter pardoned the draft evaders. Melvyn was against any conscription and knew that he couldn’t survive in the army. Roots was one of the popular books that year. He hadn’t read the book, seen the reruns of the television series and believed that the roots one carried went deep into the soil. You couldn’t eliminate your roots, even digging them up didn’t prevent some small strands from taking hold. The final reason for the years 1977-78 was a small black three ring Bookum & Pease Co. Standard loose-leaf Melvyn discovered in his father’s study. The paper was closely lined which didn’t seem to bother the writer whose script was compact and small. All the entries were written with an ink pen and probably a pen with a bladder and not a cartridge. When he asked his father if the book was his— the respose was, “I’ve never written that small or wrote down such drivel. It belonged to your mother. She was forever taking notes from magazines, from books, anything that had words. You’re like her in that way. The oddest things catch your attention.”

When his father said that, Melvyn remembered what he loved about 1978—. Sidney Conn and his wife, Eleanor, made the First successful balloon flight over the North Pole in a hot-air balloon called the Joy of Sound. Melvyn read whatever he could about the poles He felt that his bicycle trekking was done in the same vein of adventure, although far less costly and risky.

Once having selected the year Melvyn set out to investigate 1977. Once he had done that he’d try and find some appropriate clothes. He knew that the 70s were the hippie years and for that group anything went as far as styles. He didn’t anticipate any difficulty finding an outfit. He might even go as far as tie-dyeing an undershirt.

He started with the black book because it also made him feel closer to his mother who he didn’t see too often since she lived on the outskirts of a small town inUtah, but she was within a twenty-minute ride to Capital Reef National Park. He wondered of he needed to call and ask her permission to read the book, but since it didn’t look like a journal he decided to wait and see if there were any personal comments. He thought about purchasing the same small three-ring looseleaf.

When he looked up Bookum & Pease Co he discovered that Esselte Pendaflex purchased Boorum & Pease Company in1985.

Dated: August 28th, 1977 New York Times

A note to borrow a book: The Sun Also Rises on Rare Books by William Dunn. He knew that his mother loved going to used bookstores and burrowing around in the cartons of books as well as on the shelves. She carried a list of books with her. At one time she was collecting someone’s list of the Greatest Mysteries—many of which were no longer in print. He didn’t know what she thought about rare books, but she had written a note:’rare books are also an investment.’

Gretchen, his mother’s given name was not the name she preferred.
Anyone who knew her called her Gus, which according to his mother, means vigorous in Gaelic.

August 28th ,1977 Sunday Boston Globe

Gus either copied or wrote a synopsis of an article about Paul MacReady who designed a manpowered seventy-seven pound pedal-pushed plane built out of aluminum tubing, plastic foam, piano wire, bicycle parts, and mylar foil for covering. Bryan Allen, a bicyclist, pedaled and flew over a one-mile figure-eight course. The designer was waiting to hear if he had won a $80, 000 prize for this feat. Melvyn wondered if he was sufficiently strong to pedal that plane. What had interested his mother? She had bought him his first two-wheeler with training wheels when he was three.

From the same issue of the newspaper a note titled: "As the Dodo Goes, So Goes the Calvaria."

"The Calvaria is a tropical tree, native only to Mauritius that is “teetering right on the brink, following the dodo into extinction. It’s not as if the dodo disappeared in 1976 It’s been gone since 1681. Why the fuss now. “The Calvaria trees were utterly dependent upon the dodo to help its seeds germinate. There haven’t been any new Calvaria trees in 300 years.”

It seems that the fruit has one seed, which is encased in a pit or stone with hard walls that are sometimes half an inch thick. The dodo bird ate the seeds.” In the dodos stone-filled guzzard a tree seed was severely mauled by the stones, enough so that when it was finally excreted days later, the shell had been weakened considerably.”

A scientist force-fed the calvaria pits to some turkeys to see if they could do the work of the dodo birds. Of seventeen pits ingested seven were crushed sufficiently. They were planted and three germinated. When Melvyn looked up the tree to check on its progress it seems to have recovered thanks to the turkey.

Melvyn never knew his mother to be one of those fighting environmentalists or someone who would sit in a tree for months to prevent it being cut down. Was it the quirkiness of the story? He also collected quirky odds and ends, but most people saw little value in his bits of arcane information.

Melvyn found out that Beatrice Potter kept her diary in code. He once created a code, but couldn’t find anyone willing to use his code— which did require a learning curve. His mother had bought him a book of Potter’s natural history studies. She thought that he could create small books of reflections and nature drawings all drawn from his cycling excursions.

The same issue included a note about the replacement of 11,300 California migrant workers being replaced by tomato sorters. Melvyn rode his bike to Verrill farm in Concord where he purchased tomatoes during the growing season. Each variety in its own labeled wood box. All the varieties were described on a printout hanging off the tomato display. Melvyn methodically went through the list trying each variety and checking off his favorites. How else could he know what he really liked?

He thought about the electronic tomato sorters and how progress always has a flip side—loss. Hadn’t the mechanization of picking wine grapes eliminated most harvest workers except then machine operators. Of course not every farm could afford to be mechanized.

Why did his mother note that Barbara, the four ton elephant, who escaped from a circus tried to hide in a cornfield? She was easily caught. Did the people of Wisconsin still speak of Barbara or had she been forgotten?

He had once volunteered to bring a hamster home for Christmas vacation. One day he let the hamster out and after a day of not finding him anywhere he told his mother.
“Why did you let him out?”
“I wanted him to have a vacation.”

The hamster was finally found behind a broom—hiding just the way Barbara hid. Melvyn wondered of he hid out on backroads.

September 18th 1977 Boston Globe

Melvyn always wondered about the Gideon Bibles you found in hotel rooms. His mother noted that the first Bible was placed in a Montana hostelry in 1908 and in 1976 they placed 16.5 million Bibles in hotels, inns, hostels. Melvyn carried around several Bible apps on his Itouch. One gave him a quote each day and a place for him to write his notes after reading the verse. Recently they had listed a number of Psalms. He also bought an app that helped him read through the Bible. He wasn’t sure of what he believed, but felt that he was on a path. Sometimes when he rode he recited Psalms. He recited the 121st Psalm while pedaling.

 I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.

When he told his father that, his father suggested that he might be interested in going to Harvard to study theology.

His mother noted that in 1953 the search for old-fashioned apple varieties began in earnest. The list was completed in 1968. Melvyn often cycled out to the apple growing towns, stopped at an orchard and bought a small bag of apples. He loved the bins of small apples for tasting. If he didn’t have much room on his bike he stopped for the tasting and then offered to pay for the apples eaten. He had only tasted one of the apple varieties listed, but added some of the varieties to a list he kept of experiences he wants to have before he turns thirty.

October 16th. 1977 New York Times

The Tellico Dam, twenty miles west of Knoxville, Tenn. Has to halt construction. A court of appeals said to stop because of a three—inch fish called a Snail Darter. The tiny fish feeds on snails at the bottom of the Tennessee River. It appears that the Snail darter doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world and continuing the project would mean destroying the Snail Darter’s habitat.

Melvyn followed up on the Snail Darter case, which eventually reached the Supreme Court, and they refused to overturn the decision because of the Endangered Species Legislation. In time the Tellico dam was given an exemption because the construction began before the Act passed.

“Before the closure of the gates of Tellico Dam, numerous snail darters were transplanted into the Hiwassee River in Tennessee. The snail darter was taken off the endangered species list in the 1980s.”

Melvyn felt closer to his mother than he had in a long time. He, too, was concerned about what happened to native habitats. In Massachusetts, he wrote in his notebook, we’re losing our pollinators.

December 4th 1977

“A female pigeon named Pidge, who thinks she is a male duck, has been placed in solitary confinement for interfering with the amorous overtures of the ducks at the zoology Department of the university of Western Ontario.”

Melvyn didn’t think he was gay, but he really didn’t think about amorous relationships. His friends rode bicycles, hiked, camped out, and didn’t want jobs that tied them down. He didn’t pay his father any rent for the time he spent in Boston. Whatever money he needed he earned by doing part time jobs. One was tutoring math. His name was listed with several tutoring agencies and the evaluations he received were always excellent so the agencies called him even after he turned them down several times explaining that he didn’t need any work at the moment. He also wasn’t above taking a short-term job that required hard physical work. Because his father didn’t charge him for meals either his needs were scant.

At least once a month his father, a successful executive in a Fortune 500 company, asked, “Have you discovered what you want to do when you’re too old to pedal and camp out?”

“I’m not sure.”

The answer was always the same.

The list of books Gus wrote down was transcribed to Melvyn’s notebook. He added a quotation he recently found; “Every book has a birth certificate.”—Azar Nafisi

February 26th 1978

"You can buy a hippo steak weighing thirty pounds for $180.00. Ground reindeer is $2.75 and Llama steak is $4.25 a pound. "These were on sale at a grocery store in Illinois.

Melvyn’s taste is less exotic and he’s pondering forgoing all red meat.

March 12th 1978

His mother coped down a piece about an evangelist who kept his mother frozen since she died the previous month. He was going to try and resurrect her at a service in Reeds Spring, MO. Missouri’s director of the Bureau of Vital Statistic was told to issue a Missouri permit to allow the service. He said ,”It’s the greatest thing that’s happened to Reeds Spring since the battle of Wilson’s Creek.”

Three pastors were to be involved in praying for his mother; however, the public was barred from observing that part of the service. If those prayers didn’t work they were flying in an evangelist from Indonesia, S.A. Makal, who had visions of his mother being raised from the dead.

There was no follow up article.

What made Gus select certain articles? Melvyn never gave too much thought to resurrection and didn’t know whether he believed Jesus was literally resurrected or not. Maybe he told his friend Donald, “It’s all a drawn out metaphor.’ “But,” said Donald, “suppose it’s true.

Donald and Melvyn both tutored, both rode bikes and both pondered over the existential questions. Donald wanted to believe, but couldn’t quite get over the hump of needing surety.

July 16th 1978

About a fifth of the way through his mother’s notes he found this entry.

She was quoting form Bruce Chatwin’s book In Patagonia

Mr Chatwin has just met another ornithologist, “…a severe young man who was studying the migration of the Jackass Penguin. We talked late into the night, arguing whether or not we, too, have journey’s mapped out in our central nervous system. It seemed the only way to account for our insane restlessness.”

The quotation was like a message that his mother left for him— as if she knew he’d pick up this notebook someday.


Saturday, December 18, 2010

Open House

I’ve already eaten too many cookies, too many cake slices, too many chips and guacamole and too many coated nuts. I’ve dipped into an array of dips with slices of green and red peppers, carrot sticks and slivers of celery. Isn’t this delightful?

There’s something quite festive about an open house—lax time constraints and momentary lapses of thinking —of what needs to be accomplished. This afternoon I spent several hours at an open house. At first I sat next to a woman who teaches at a local university and since we didn’t know one another we conversed about using the computer for research— and avoiding plagiarism.

I never knew about the Search Engine Colossus. Imagine checking out Guernsey—I had read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society . Imagine living somewhere called: BRITISH CROWN DEPENDENCY OF BAILIWICK OF GUERNSEY. Upon discovering the actual and preferred name I immediately felt an intimacy with the island. —Now to cite that title correctly.

I entered a conversation with someone who anticipated having a discussion with a noted mystery writer when she appeared for a book signing. The topic—motorcycles. Karen discovered that she and the author shared a love for a particular cycle. I’ll need to follow up on that tale. But I did find out that a local pub sponsored dances once a month. It’s difficult to visualize dancers sharing space with a billiard table, but I expect that they made it all work.

“You know the guy who opened up the optician store? He plays the drums in a band.”
“Is the band any good?”
“It’s different.”

After two hours I knew that someone’s dog was diabetic and required shots twice a day, that someone else recently took up quilting, that the school superintendent didn’t want to regionalize, that someone had become a serious birder, that someone erroneously thought I owned a Kindle, that someone wanted a gas stove and because they didn’t have a gas line used propane to fuel the stove, that someone was retiring in three days. I also learned that James Buchanan was the only president that never married, that 300 million cells die in your body every minute, that someone I hadn’t seen in fourteen years looked the same.

I loved moving about the house, talking to different people, dipping a chip, and sensing that no one was in hurry and our differences made the afternoon interesting. There’s an art to holding an open house.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Ubiquitous Book Club

How many book clubs meet in the fifty states?

Some clubs are intent on providing ambrosia and nectar fit for the plates of the aristocracy. Other clubs pride themselves on meager fare because eating is so secondary. The book discussion is the focus. All else, even munching, is relegated to a category of no importance.

I've belonged to the same book club for over twenty years. We occupy a middle ground. There are nibbles, but they are often left in another room. We're serious. We use an arcane method of selecting books which is so confusing that explaining it to any newcomers requires several attempts at clarity. 

"You'll see. It does work."

Over the years a core group of eight can recall the early days. At its height twenty people attended a meeting. Now we're often down to twelve. 

I expect that each book group follows particular patterns. You need someone who is contrary and someone who is willing to like every book given a good review by the New York Times.

You find people who love trying to convince another reader that their viewpoint was erroneous. Then there are the peacemakers. who really want everyone to agree. We all love the book. We all find the book wanting.

And every book club needs the person who contemplates the true literary merit--the sentence quality, the voice, the structure. They hold each book up to a standard and will be ready, even without prodding, to launch into a heady discussion about the qualities of the writing.

I guess it's important to play one's part. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Coffee Shops I Have Known

There are about 27, 645 coffee shops in the United States. Vermont has the fewest shops, even fewer than Wyoming and South Dakota. Fortunately I live in a geographic area committed to drinking coffee. My drink of choice—decaffeinated iced coffee. When the temperature really dips I change to hot decaffeinated coffee. Since I primarily go to coffee shops to read and write —but over the years I’ve become a connoisseur—not of coffee, but of the shops friendly to writers.

I’m not interested in any place that serves you coffee, expects you to finish your cup, dab your mouth, have a short conversations, and leave. I want to stand on line, carry my cup to a table, and settle down to read or write.

My mother was my mentor. While she never read a book over coffee, she selected places that allowed customers to sit for long periods of time—usually with a newspaper or engaged in a lengthy conversation. Our favorite shop had red faux leather chair seats and a standing rack of newspapers. Often the papers remained long enough for the news to be stagnant. We usually shared a bran muffin—warmed, if they weren’t busy. My mother initiated me into this lifestyle way before I drank coffee.


Melone’s wasn’t the perfect coffee shop, but they did bake the best raspberry twirls. All the guys who drove the snowplows in the winter or did landscaping during the summer stopped in at Melones. While Mrs. Melone didn’t push anyone to vacate a table the noise level precluded any serious work. In nice weather Mrs. Melone put three or four metal tables in front of the store. As long as I didn’t mind sharing the table with a host of birds intent on scarfing down every crumb that fell on the ground the spot lent itself to reading. Melones also lent itself to eavesdropping since the townies stopped in at the end of the day. That’s where I heard about the woman being murdered two towns away. “She was in a bar and left with a stranger.” I heard about why the pigs were transported in the middle of the night. Seems like the townspeople were “too stuck-up for pigs” and certainly didn’t want to see them being driven through town in the daytime.

Paul’s Bakery was another townie hang out. It’s where I interviewed Mr. Murray who served in World War II and played with the Marine Corps band for a short period of time.. “Do you think they’ll publish this photo of me wearing a band uniform and playing my trombone?”

Another regular, Mr.Sherman, told me all about his friendship with Babe Ruth and he talked about Alku, the Finnish Temperance Society. Mr. Sherman occupied the post of town historian.

Reading was a possibility, but listening gave me fodder to write.

When the Boston Bean first opened it was the optimum coffee house—a real one. They made all the drinks that require more expertise, cost more, and have exotic names. People took reading seriously. Two long shelves beneath the windows featured pocket books arranged alphabetically by one of the patrons. It’s where I brought my computer, plugged in, poured my decaf into a thermos and wrote.

Small groups formed—one woman, a maker of hats, brought her materials down and sewed. She had a following—a physics professor who spent some time seated talking to her and more time reading one of his books. Another person who tended to sit with her read the newspaper from page one to the last letter on the last page. Then went back and did the puzzle. Another man sat with her for a short time and then went to another table to write. He worked from home. Over a carafe of half and half I met another reader who became a friend.

A drawback was no bathroom. I had to leave and walk to the Town Hall or library.

Two years ago they moved to a new location—with a bathroom. It’s a bigger place with no electric outlets, but comfortable chairs and the inclination to let you sit for hours over one cup of coffee. The lady who makes hats now has a studio and a baby. The newspaper reader sits by himself and the physicist sits with two men who discuss scientific topics. Lily, the vociferous reader, still orders a bagel with cream cheese for breakfast and a bagel with hummus for lunch. She asks about any new books and writes the titles on scraps of paper—and then often loses the scrap. Then there’s the woman who reads mysteries—“Only good mysteries.”

My perfect coffee shop is one that has open electric outlets, comfortable seats, a bathroom and some heat. And, of course, tables filled with readers and writers, but not so busy that I can’t get a seat.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Thinking of Egypt

Yesterday— while I roamed around the Museum of Fine Arts, I watched people looking at the art. In the Egyptian gallery several boys stood in rapt attention staring at the tools needed for mummification. I think the fascination with Egypt is built into the DNA of boys.

When I taught in middle school one of the teachers read up on the embalming and mummification of a chicken. Mrs. Rooney felt that a hands on approach to learning was the best way to absorb new knowledge.

She started with a plump three or four pound chicken. Several youngsters washed the chicken and removed the innards— then dried the fowl thoroughly. The chicken was then placed in a large zip lock bag with two boxes of salt. According to the directions the salt needed to be changed in ten to twelve days. Sometimes this had to be repeated for four to six weeks—after all the chicken needed to completely dry out. The time frame worked perfectly since this procedure was performed just before winter break. If all went well when school reopened the chicken would be ready for a change of salt.

School reopened and as soon as you walked down the sixth grade hall the smell began its assault—not a gradual aroma, but a pervasive clinging stench. It’s not unusual to find that a sandwich left in a locker rots and sends a strong odor way beyond the confines of an individual locker. Lockers were cleaned out before the winter break so the smell came from some other source. The janitors had cleaned the school and had left a note on Mrs. Rooney’s door. There’s an odd aroma in this room. Since the posting of the note the smell—the olfactory perception— had ripened.

Because the class was intent on surprising the other classes with a mummified chicken —no one was aware of the mummification process taking place in the classroom. The chicken, instead of eventually being trussed with strips of cloth and residing in a shoebox sarcophagus decorated with hieroglyphics, sat in a zip lock bag filled with salt. Instead of reaching a glorified state, it simply turned a pasty color and let out a putrid aroma that pervaded the hallway and every niche of Mrs. Rooney’s classroom.

The zip lock bag was rushed outside, put into a double trash bag and thrown in the school dumpster.

Half a dozen art students copied paintings, a woman with a walker stood in front of a Greek statue of an androgynous young male, and a class of students with their teachers and chaperones rushed through the Assyrian gallery to reach the Egyptian exhibits.

“Do you think they have a brainhook?” said one young boy.