Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas, She Gone

It took us three days to get ready for five hours of festivities, but it was worth every minute. At left is a happy crowd of neighbors and friends starting to eat on Christmas afternoon, at a twelve-foot table set up in the addition (which is usually the guest room/meeting room/lumber room/sickroom/art gallery/auxiliary summertime retreat). We unearthed my grandmothers' dishes and glassware and table linens, and now I'm glad I kept them around.

Rob cooked a magnificent 18-pound turkey, plus stuffing and gravy and two pies. I made cookies and cranberry bread (totally unnecessary) and cranberry sauce (absolutely essential), and was in charge of set design, which included IRONING THINGS, two six-foot tablecloths, for example. Everybody else brought rolls and potatoes and squash and cake and a third pie, and we ate until we could barely sit upright.

Yesterday Rob and I utterly collapsed, and I read most of HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY by Audrey Niffenegger, the best book I've read in a long time. I've been casually meaning to read her first one, THE TIME-TRAVELER'S WIFE, and now I'm deadly serious about that. Rob also gave me the much-anticipated WOLF HALL for Christmas as well as Bill Bryson's SHAKESPEARE, so I'm set for a while.

And we watched the 1997 BBC/A&E edition of "Ivanhoe"--part of a boxed set of dvds my friend Shelly of Connecticut sent me for Christmas--and it was so satisfying we stayed up until 11 when we meant to go upstairs and read at 9. Such is addiction.

And before Ivanhoe we watched the Doctor Who Christmas special on YouTube. What a wonderful invention that is (youtube, I mean, although also DW). I'm very eager for part two of this David Tennant victory lap and can't wait to see how they handle the transformation.

In other words, a complete two-day debauch.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Solstice Follies

Castle Ne'er-do-well is in full holiday prep, getting ready to host a sit-down Christmas dinner for twelve neighbors and friends. Finally, a chance to use my grandmothers' tablecloths. Possibly, a chance to dust the cobwebs off the rafters, although I wouldn't bet money on that.

My edited manuscript hasn't arrived from New York, "overnight" shipping meaning two or three days in this part of the world. That meant I could cheerfully goof off at the annual Rockbound Chapel carol sing Sunday and my neighbor Cope's annual women's lunch yesterday, not to mention two parties Saturday night. (I've already put on my Christmas weight. Damn.)

Rob cheerfully (sort of) went to an Emergency Management seminar in Bangor yesterday--he's the volunteer Emergency Management Director and 911 Addressing Officer for Our Little Town, appointed by the Department of Homeland Security as our first line of defense when al-Qaeda frogmen come flip-flapping up from the harbor.

But that's not the holiday spirit, is it?

The Rockbound Chapel carol sing has been taking place the Sunday before Christmas for 30 years. Some years, it's been standing-room-only, but we've been weather-cursed the past couple of years. Last year it got cancelled because of a snowstorm; we had snow again this year, but a dozen of us turned out anyway. Here's what it looked like outside--not really that much snow (we ended up with just five or six inches), but the plows had only gotten started so the driving was a bit dicey in places.

The pianist didn't make it, so we snuggled up to the Christmas Tree and sang a cappella.

Because it was the thirtieth anniversary, those who'd been around for a while told stories about how the tradition got started, the time the guy played the saw, the various pianists over the years, and the hilarity of the carillon manufacturer when George Fowler (amazing fiddler, also a bookseller and retired pharmacist) tried to see about getting the 40-year-old clock-chiming mechanism fixed. (Turns out carillons are all computerized now, and nobody's sure what to do about even such a relatively young relic.) Below, George describes the mystique of the chapel's oil furnace thirty years ago. That's Sally Aman, one of the carol sing's originators, at left. George's wife, Pat, is at right.

And here's most of the crowd--unfortunately, two of our number had left already to drive home to a neighboring town. After this, we stood around and ate cookies, then dismantled the tree, tidied up the hymnals, and mushed home.

Yesterday, I dutifully took my camera to Cope's Christmas luncheon and promptly forgot it existed in the excitement of chatting and eating. (Cope made her famous baklava. Good thing my cholestrol test got put off until January. I will eat nothing but oatmeal starting December 26.) I was so overwhelmed by it all that I almost forgot the camera all over again when I left, but Cope called me back and I got a shot of the few remaining celebrants. That's Cope at left, with Leslie in the middle (the astute observer will note that she also was at the carol sing) and Judy at right.

P.S. There's a ladybug in my office, batting against the lightbulb. She's driving me nuts, but what am I going to do, put her out in the snow? Squish her? What would Santa Claus do?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Scrooge et al

Tim Pugliese has a flexible face and a voice to match. This is helpful when you have to transform yourself from Ebenezer Scrooge into a small, shy housemaid. And back again two seconds later. (That's him talking to himself in the photo at right, courtesy of New Surry Theatre.)

My neighbor Ken Carpenter and I went to Blue Hill last night to watch Pugliese in a one-man rendition of A Christmas Carol, and we had such a good time that Rob the Grinch almost wished he'd gone, too. (Not quite. Almost.)

On a bare stage, dressed exactly as he is in the photo, Pugliese prodded our imaginations into visualizing his setting and whatever ghost or early Victorian he happened to be playing or addressing at the time. At one point I caught myself watching an empty space instead of the actual human being in front of me, a sign either that Pugliese was pretty good or I'm losing it, if not both.

The man must have a memory like a steel trap. He recited a truncated version of Dickens' novella verbatim, without a moment's hesitation. Yikes.

As usual, I was impressed by my neighbors, too. Shari John directed and her husband Frank built the set. Nolan Ellsworth, who is days away from turning 15, helped Shari John and Tim Pugliese adapt the story for the stage, and also served as stage manager, did the program art, and helped with tech. Yikes multiplied.

I have to say I was itching to meddle with the lighting design, not that I know a thing about theatrical lighting. But I envisioned, for example, a beam of white light helping us to imagine the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge spotlit on a darkened stage to heighten the drama at some points, perhaps some graying of the edges on that stark set. There was a moment when the lights went out and Scrooge's face was lit only by a candle. That was very cool, and I wish there had been more moments like it.

That's my only quibble, though. Otherwise, amazing.

IN OTHER NEWS: I got my revision letter on SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS yesterday at 6 p.m. The line-edited manuscript is, er, winging its way to me as I type. (I hope...Penguin's mailing computer kept rejecting our address.) I have until roughly the end of January to put things right for copy-editing, and there are a couple of largish issues amid the myriad of small things. For example, the magic still doesn't entirely make sense, god help me. Yikes, metastisized.

Also, the blogger E.I. Johnson has interviewed me, asking fun questions. Find them (and the answers) here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Player

This may look like nothing more than a picture of a man making the best of a power outage, but in fact it's a psychic breakthrough. Possibly temporary, but a breakthrough nonetheless.

Rob has always hated borrowing things. I blame his childhood librarian, Snagglepuss, whom I may have mentioned before. He filled Rob with such loathing that to this day--even though he's a voracious reader--he won't take out a library book for fear that he will fall asleep and let it fall on the floor open, breaking its spine. Or get chocolate on it. Or spill something. Or the dog will eat it. He will take out audiobooks to listen to while he paints, because our former librarian exerted her wiles to persuade him and, I guess, because they do not carry the Snagglepuss curse.

When our seasonal neighbors Lisa and Peg returned to Minnesota at summer's end, they left their deluxe Scrabble board with us, because the four of us had enjoyed it over the summer and they thought we could use it on long winter evenings. (They also left us their knife sharpener. Peg and Lisa think of every eventuality.)

Rob got this horrified look on his face and said no, no, no, we'd never touch it and they should take it and if they left it something would happen to it and god help us it's DELUXE. They examined his face for humor, found none, and left the Scrabble board anyway. They may have patted him on the shoulder.

I suggested several times this fall that we play Scrabble, but he got that same look on his face and pretended I hadn't said anything. It took a power outage and much red wine to settle him down at the board--next to candles, yet. Which drip wax! Melt things, burn things! He switched from red wine to milk, but otherwise he threw caution to the winds.

Unfortunately, I got all the expensive letters--even got a U at the same time as a Q, which never happens--and he was humiliated score-wise. Life is so unfair.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Let There Be...

IMPORTANT NOTE TO READERS: If you are Dr. Garrett Martin, orthopedic surgeon, Bangor, Maine, this blog post will not interest you and you should not read it. There's probably a football game on. Go watch that instead.

IMPORTANT NOTE TO THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE: Thank you for including so many short, Anglo-Saxon words, which I found extremely useful today. Also the word "bugger."

Turns out snow makes a stepladder a little tippier than usual.

I found this out today when I finally, FINALLY got the lights up on the maple tree out front. Because the tree is no longer the sprout it was when I first started doing this 16 years ago, the process now involves a stepladder, a long pole, and several implements that belonged to my mother after she'd had a hip replaced and couldn't bend over and for some reason wanted to dress herself. It also involves me climbing into the tree at one point.

So it was that, around noon today, I found myself up in the tree, geriatric implement in hand, one foot on the stepladder and one on a branch. I didn't realize that I was leaning against a relatively slim branch, which happened also to be a relatively dead one.

And so the slim branch broke, and the stepladder tipped, and I found myself hanging over another branch, staring at the ground a dozen feet below, about to topple. My last appointment with Dr. Martin flashed before my mind's eye: I asked if I could ski this winter, and he fixed me with A Look and said yes but he'd appreciate it very much if I didn't break the leg with the fake knee in it, the bones of which would remain weak for another 18 months. "That would be hard to fix," he said. "There's not much to work with there."

As I dangled, I reassured myself that I probably would fall head-first and break my neck rather than my leg, thus not involving Dr. Martin. This gave me strength, and I managed to feel around with my foot, find the halfway-tipped-over stepladder, right it, and achieve some semblance of solidity.

Otherwise, the operation went well and was over in a couple or three hours, although close to the end I did almost fall off the ladder with scissors in my hand. (SPECIAL NOTE TO READERS: If you are the ghost of my mother, creator of the world's longest list of Things You Don't Do with Scissors in Your Hand, perhaps you'd like to watch the game with Dr. Garrett Martin, orthopedic surgeon. I know you didn't think much of football, but you'd flirt with Dr. Martin.)

ATTENTION CHRISTMAS SHOPPERS: If you're wondering what to get your dog, the managment suggests giving her a solid undertaking that she will never be human and thus will never be called upon to manipulate strings of things. As stunt-dog Callie demonstrates below, dogs think we're nuts. (Click on the photo for the full facial expression.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Plays in Progress

The remarkable experience of the Stonington Opera House/John Cariani playwriting course continues. I posted about this last month, and now it turns out that John, an insanely busy playwright and actor, is officially the World's Most Generous Person. The nine students in his class spent the past few weeks writing ten-minute plays, and he and a friend drove up from New York in a snowstorm to spend eight hours Sunday hashing through them and thinking of ways to make them produceable. Judith Jerome from the Opera House was there all day, too, and is actually thinking of producing the plays in some form next fall. The writers are going to meet once a month this winter, aiming for finished plays by May 1.

In the photo above, Nancy H., Maggie, and Sue sit at a work table that quickly became a food table. Those of us with laptops kept them on our laps rather than the table, because the food took up all the space, because there are priorities in this life. That's John Cariani at right, uncharacteristically serious.

I took the class to tweak my brain, and had no intention of getting serious about playwriting. But John's enthusiasm is so infectious, and this group is so well matched, that it's impossible not to get caught up in the joy of it all.

For example, below Nancy G. joins our friend and advisor John Not-Cariani in a dramatic reading of Amy's hysterical play about a bride with cold feet. Maggie's face (right) speaks for the rest of us. Amy's at left in the photo below left, with Nancy H. and Lauren.

I have to admit I'm a bit flummoxed by the notion that my first-ever play could even be read aloud in public, let alone produced. Yet another lesson in toughening up the skin, I guess.

IN OTHER NEWS: As I write this, the ginormous storm that's been traversing the country is here and is changing from snow to ice, rat-a-tat-tatting on the roof and windows. The wind's howling, the trees are bent with wet snow, and it's hard to believe some branch isn't going to break a power line somewhere.

If the rain melts off enough snow, tomorrow I'll start procrastinating again about putting the lights on the maple tree. (See post below.) Tomorrow's supposed to feature normal temperatures and lightish breezes. Friday's supposed to be freezing cold and windy. Guess when I'll end up putting the lights up.

UPDATE: I had no sooner saved this post than the power went out for 16 hours. Rob and I had a lovely evening playing Scrabble, an event of deep significance that I will explain later.

Monday, December 7, 2009


I have a ton of photos to post, taken this weekend with my newish little camera at the Bay School Faire and our playwriting group meeting. But first I have to acknowledge the latest Improv Everywhere caper, courtesy of Color Me Katie.

It's here: Where's Rob?

Oh, and I never got my lights up. Nor my snow tires on the car, nor my kayak rack off. And now it's snowed, which normally would have me jumping up and down with glee, particularly because the lights would look so gorgeous on snowy branches. *sob* And more weather is coming Wednesday.

I believe I've been in denial. But now I am ready to say...we've had all the summer we were ever going to get.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Lights! No Action!

The other day, I read that Douglas Adams' widow had commented that he "hated writing but loved having written," or something like that. I can relate when it comes to writing, but also when it comes to the white lights on the maple tree out front. (Those are last year's in the photo.)

I love them. They get me through the winter. I adore coming back from a walk or ski at dusk and seeing them on. I love sitting in the living room and seeing them out the dining room windows. Love, love, love.

I detest putting them up.

Last year, when I was crippled, Rob did most of the work even though he hates the whole idea, thinks it's a waste of our precious natural resources (electricity, his time, his sense of humor). This year I'm on my own again. Today's the perfect day to put them up, because it's warmish and calm, and I've been talking all day about This Being the Day and Well, Gonna Put the Lights Up Now and Yup, Here I Go, Going to Get The Lights Now.

I had to work this morning, of course, but now it's almost 2 in the afternoon and am I on a ladder? Nope, I'm blogging. And you KNOW how much I like to blog. (See the weeks of silence below.)

The trouble is, it's a MAPLE tree. Not a nice, cooperative spruce, which you simply drape in lights and no matter what you do it looks OK. Also, because I live with Mr. Paranoid T. Fireman, I'm only allowed three strings of lights. Which was fine ten years ago, but the trouble is, maples GROW. Every year, I must tap more and more of my minimal store of hand-eye coordination to keep these lights from looking sad and lame and overworked.

Also, there's the crisis of conscience involved. The lights take a beating out there in the wind and snow and ice. Even if last year's team seems to be working now it's quite likely that, come January, an entire string will go out when the world is an iceball and I can't replace them. This will cause me angst.

So I do tend to go out and buy new ones just to be on the safe side, which is extravagent and environmentally incorrect. I'm determined not to do it this year. But of course I haven't gotten last year's lights down from the attic and tested them yet, have I?

Right now. I'm going to do it right now.

After I order the turkey for Christmas. Wrap a birthday present for my friend Shelly. Defrag the computer. All worthy and necessary things, don't you think?

If I put this off long enough, spring will come.

EDITED TO ADD: Anytime I write about procrastination, I send up an apology to the ghost of humor writer Robert Benchley, who retired the subject back in 1949. Here's his take on it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

December Book Review

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@Barrie Summy

I decided to review an oldie but goodie this month--no particular help to book vendors in this holiday season, I'm afraid, but I didn't finish GOING BOVINE fast enough and I would have had to re-read anything else I chose and I didn't have time. So there. Plus, this is a perfect book for a winter fireside, or a snowy afternoon tucked up in your bed. As always, click the icon to find more Book Review Club entries.

Restoration London
By Liza Picard
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003

If you like researching books almost as much as writing them, you can’t help envying Liza Picard. A retired lawyer with the Inland Revenue (Americans, think IRS), Picard has spent her golden years (so far) immersed in ancient diaries, cookbooks, magazines, bills, letters, and whatnot, researching daily life in London at various points in its illustrious history. RESTORATION LONDON was the first, followed by DR. JOHNSON’S LONDON, ELIZABETH’S LONDON, and VICTORIAN LONDON. Picard is now 82.

She told The Guardian years ago that RESTORATION LONDON set out to be a biography of Elizabeth Pepys, whose husband, the legendary diarist Samuel, was an official in the administration of Charles II. She collected mountains of information about domestic life in the latter 1600s, but not much about poor Elizabeth. Nevertheless, the tidbits she’d jotted on reams of index cards called out to her, and RESTORATION LONDON was born.

The book is organized the way a lawyer would organize a brief, Picard says. The result has been called “a near-perfect bedside book,” and that’s true. Picard divided her work into four parts: The Urban Environment, The Human Condition, The Social Context, and Horizons (meaning religious beliefs, superstitions, and world view). Each part is subdivided into chapters and each chapter into sections, some of them just a few paragraphs long.

The book is fun to sit down and read page after page. But if you’ve just got a minute or two, you also can open a page at random and dip in. And if you’re looking for information about a specific topic—Sanitary arrangements? Medical care? Slang? Women’s clothes? Sex?—the table of contents or index will lead you exactly where you need to be.

Utility aside, this thing’s a hoot. Here are some of the facts I now know: The less frequently you did your laundry, the higher your status—infrequent laundering meant you had a lot of clothes, and some great houses only laundered twice a year. In the kitchen, you kept flies away with pots of aromatic plants and by lining shelves with the color blue, which flies supposedly didn’t like. Articles of clothing were important bequests. The rules of mourning were many and strict—one wore black wool, for example, even when one could afford silk. A popular way of preparing a pike for cooking was to “rub his skin off whilst he lives.” Poor pike.

I just opened RESTORATION LONDON at random, and found a page and three lines about dentistry. We learn that “recommended daily care included scraping away plaque.” Also, “When caries did occur, it was thought to be due to a worm in the tooth, and an ‘operator for the teeth’ in the local market or fair would remove the worm and hold it up for inspection by his admiring audience.”

Picard then covers pain-deadening and extraction (with the comment that “operators seem to have had a curious reluctance to get in there and pull, unlike midwives”), how false teeth were made and fastened, and whether you could actually eat with those teeth.

The section ends by pointing out that nobody gave toothy smiles in contemporary portraits. “Could it be that, when caries and accident caught up with our seventeenth-century ancestors, they kept their mouths shut about it?”

I’d love to have tea with Liza Picard.