Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Summer Hiatus

Between the heavy revision required on the first draft of my most recent writing work in progress and the fact that it is actually summer in northern Maine, and thus time to enjoy the outdoors without risk of polar bear attack, I am putting Wicked Awesomology on hiatus until after Labor Day.  I'll be back then, and maybe sooner if one of those posts that just drop out of the sky into my head and write themselves arrives.  In the meantime, I'll still be dropping in on Twitter fairly frequently @countofbluecars.

Enjoy your summer!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


In the six or so weeks between late April and mid June of this year, I will have dealt with Mother’s Day (I have both a mother and a grandmother to think of), Father’s Day, my mother’s birthday, my father’s birthday, my parents’ wedding anniversary and my nephew’s first communion.  That is one heck of a lot of cards to buy.

You see, I am still a sentimentalist at heart, and hold on to the belief that buying actual physical cards and either delivering them in person or sending them through the U.S. postal service is a kind tradition worth preserving in our increasingly impersonal electronic-based culture.  Don’t get me wrong. I fully appreciate the convenience of modern communication technologies.  I interact with most of my friends and family through e-mail and text messages for routine correspondence, but those modes of communication just seem hollow for special occasions.  They require something different.  And e-cards just don’t cut it, in my book.  Ever since I saw the first one back in the 1990s, I thought they were both cheesy and pale imitations of the real thing, much like The Munsters were to The Addams Family.

So, I continue to trek to the drugstore when special occasions come up to choose just the right card.  And for those of you who are regular readers of this blog, you know that there is the rub.  I am the type of person who can handle metaphorical bags of porcupines tossed at him with grace and dignity, but I can also take something very simple like card shopping and turn it into a task on the level of complexity of establishing peace in the Middle East. 

First, there is finding the appropriate level of sentiment in the card.  I am a caring person, but not mushy.  As a kid, I was sad when Bambi’s mom died, but I didn’t cry.  Much of my family is the same way.  A card with too many butterflies and cloying lovey-doveyness would embarrass both the recipient and me.  At the same time, giving one of those joke cards (which I love getting, by the way) for anyone other than a fellow male whose sense of humor arrested at the age of 15 would come across as being overly emotionally defensive.  So the search is on for just the right tone.  Card companies seem to like to go for the emotional jugular, however, and most cards are either too emotional or too cold.

Next, there is a question of cost.  I am a practical guy when it comes to finance, and most of the people I am closest to are as well.  I know that when I get a card, I read it and appreciate it, but then it goes into a drawer somewhere until an indeterminate period of time has passed and I can toss it into the trash without feeling guilty.  And don’t even try to tell me you would never do such a thing!  I challenge you to come up with even one card from two birthdays ago. 

Mmmm-hmmm…I thought so.  My 88 year old grandmother could probably do it, but none of us mere mortals could if our lives depended on it.

I don’t head directly for the 99 cent card rack when I am card shopping, but I do set a limit of $6 maximum per card, even those I get for Gram, who has cards in shoeboxes and drawers dating back to the Eisenhower administration.  It makes little sense to me to spend more money than that on something that will be read once or twice and then be stored away until it is thrown out.

Another rule I have for card shopping is no singing or talking cards.  Those can be tacky, or creepy, or both.  Plus, it is always awkward when people open them in the presence of anyone else.  I believe that there is a special place in Hell for people who send musical or talking cards.  The hottest part of that place is reserved for people who send Disney Channel pop star-themed musical cards.

Cards that people make on the computer are okay I guess, but they don’t quite meet the mark for me.  Knowing that almost anyone could put one together and print it out in the space of less than five minutes just seems like the sender didn’t put forth the same amount of effort as they would have getting a store-bought card.  Now handmade cards are the very best of all, hands down.  To me, they show the very highest level of thought and engagement by the send.  However, I can’t draw straws and my handwriting looks like I hold the pen in my mouth, so that’s not a practical choice for me.

The greatest problem I face when card shopping is finding one that addresses the recipient with the same term that I do.  I call my father “Dad”, as I think most people do, so finding cards for him that say things like “To my dad” is not too difficult.  However, I refer to my mother as “Mum”, and not “Mom”.  After 44 years, it is way too late to change that.  Almost every card you can find for a mother addresses her as “Mom”, and that just will not do.  At all.  That restricts me to choosing from among the cards that use the emotionally-distant, third-person term “Mother”, since I have yet in my life to locate one that uses “Mum”.  With all the above requirements I also have when buying cards, this cuts back my choices considerably.  To make matters worse, I have referred to my grandmother as “Gram” my entire life, and not “Grandma”.  Much like the Mum/Mom situation, one can very rarely find cards addressed to “Gram”, though there are tons of “Grandma” cards out there.  So I am usually restricted to choosing from those distant, third-person “Grandmother” cards.  
Honest to goodness, it took me over an hour and trips to three stores in order to pick out a birthday card for my mother the other day.  Thankfully, this six-week period of intense card-shopping only comes once a year for me.  The other birthdays and special occasions in my loved ones’ lives are mercifully spread more or less evenly around the rest of the calendar.  It’s a good thing too, or else I’d probably have to quit my job and become a full-time card shopper.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Save the Bookstores!

Sadly, bookstores are fast becoming a dying breed in the United States.  Having grown up in a small farming community in northern Maine that had no less than three of them, I assumed that bookstores were a given part of the landscape of any city or town of any size and always would be, much like a post office, school, library or church.  Even as a kid, I could spend hours in a bookstore (and the local library as well), exploring books and topics I had often not even considered.  And any trip out of town inevitably meant a chance for me to check out the bookstores in other locales.  For that matter, it still does.

In the mid-1990s my eyes were opened to the plight bookstores face when I started dating a woman who worked in a terrific little independent one near where I lived.  It was a quirky little place, one of the first bookstores I knew of that served coffee and offered places to sit and read.  The selection was wide for such a small shop, and they enjoyed a small but loyal clientele.  It was the kind of place that people made a point to visit when they were in town, myself included.

My girlfriend was worried, however.  A new “big box” book superstore, part of a large national chain, had just opened in the next city over, offering even greater variety of titles than the little indie at which she worked, and at prices that were often quite a bit lower.  While the indie store’s base clients held firm, the casual book shoppers who often made the difference between the store making a profit or not in a given month were flocking to the superstore.  As much as I loved the little indie bookstore, I was a struggling young schoolteacher with a limited budget for books for my students, and found myself frequently shopping for classroom literature at the superstore as well, so as to stretch my dollars as far as I could.  I still patronized the little indie, but financial reality prevented me from doing as much business there as I would have liked.

A few months after my girlfriend and I began dating, that little indie bookstore where she worked went out of business.  The superstore ten miles away had won the battle.  In the final days of the indie, I spent a lot of money on discounted books at their going-out-of-business sale, and even purchased some of their fixtures for use in my classroom.  I had incredibly mixed feelings doing so, mind you.  It made me feel like some sort of vulture, scavenging from the remains of something that was once so vital.

By the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century, there were not nearly as many independent bookstores compared to just a generation earlier.  The large chain superstores had taken their toll and carved out a good chunk of the book-buying market.  Not only could they provide greater variety and lower prices for books, but they also had the room to sell music and videos, and to install full-service cafes as well.  They had the ability to set up discount clubs and to stage special in-store events on a regular basis with which most independent bookstores just could not compete.  

It wasn’t all wine and roses for the superstores, however.  The internet was taking a larger piece of the book sales pie.  Online-only booksellers with gigantic warehouses but no actual physical stores were growing in popularity.  If the chain superstores could deal with books in volume, the internet retailers, unrestricted by geography, could deal with them in MEGA volume.  You could shop for an almost infinite variety of books from your living room, and easily compare prices to get the very best deal.  E-books, which you could purchase usually much cheaper than a paper copy, and begin reading instantly, also grew in popularity.  That was and is a tough thing for any bricks-and-mortar bookseller to go up against, even a large corporate chain.  Several national chains went out of business, and others have closed stores or changed their marketing focus in order to try and stay afloat.  Unless you have a strong online component, these are very hard times indeed for booksellers.

Compounding the troubles is a problem faced by all booksellers, whether independent or chain, online or bricks-and-mortar, and that is the sad fact that people are just reading fewer books these days.  You don’t have to look very hard to see that more people, especially the under-30 crowd, are interested in television, video games, and interactive media than the “old-fashioned” linearity of a book as a means to pass the time.  It’s a seismic cultural shift.  I frankly don’t think it can be fully stopped, nor do I think it is entirely a bad thing, but I do think it can be slowed, and that we should be doing what we can to read more books ourselves and to encourage others to do the same.

I’ve had an e-reader for over three years now.  When I first got it, I used it almost exclusively for my reading.  Over time however, I’ve cut back on its use, and not intentionally.  I’ve just found myself drawn back to the sensation of having an open book in my hands.  I still read e-books, but the ratio of actual books to e-books for me has shifted to about 70% : 30%.  The whole e-books versus “paper books” debate is fodder for a separate post.

When I buy a paper book, I have been making an effort to do so from bricks-and-mortar retailers over the past few years, and avoid the online-only retailers when I can.  Bookstores still hold their allure for me, and I find myself drawn to them whenever I am nearby and have a free moment.  I travel around the state of Maine a lot, and make it a point to explore at least one or two bookstores on every trip.  Even if I have a stack of books still waiting to be read, I always buy at least one book when I visit a brick-and-mortar bookseller.  It’s not unlike buying a glass of lemonade from a child’s stand along the sidewalk.  Even if you are not thirsty, you want to support and encourage the effort.

To that end, I’d like to share a list of some of my favorite bookstores that I have explored in my travels in Maine.  Some of independent, some are parts of small regional chains, and a couple of part of large corporate chains.  

  • Sherman’s Books and Stationery: A particular favorite. I’ve been to the stores in Bar Harbor, Freeport and Camden, and look forward to visiting their brand new store in the Old Port in Portland soon.
  • Longfellow Books: For me, this is one of the very hearts of downtown Portland. I have yet to make a trip to the Old Port without stopping at Longfellow.
  • Owl & Turtle: A cozy must-visit when exploring downtown Camden
  • Stone Soup: Secondhand books galore in Camden
  • The Briar Patch: Children’s books and toys in downtown Bangor.  A great place for gifts for the younger set.
  • BookMarcs: A Bangor institution, featuring an extensive collection of Stephen King’s work, among numerous other titles.
  • Barnes & Noble: While a different overall experience from the smaller bookstores, I really enjoy spending a few hours at B&N’s Augusta store whenever I get a chance.
  • Bull Moose: With stores in Maine and New Hampshire, Bull Moose is my very favorite music store.  Their locations in Bangor, Scarborough and Mill Creek in South Portland have extensive book selections as well. Between the books and the music, I could literally spent a whole day at Bull Moose.
  • Books-A-Million: Another national chain, BAM has stores in South Portland, Auburn and Bangor that I can explore for hours.

Fortunately, there are still many more Maine booksellers than these, though not as many as there once were.  I’ve chosen to restrict this list to my favorites that I have visited over the past few years.   With travel season not too far away, I am looking forward to visiting most of these again, and highly encourage you to do the same.  We are all better off for having thriving bookstores in our communities.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Losing It

There are few things that dig at me more than when I misplace something.  When an item turns up missing, whether it be large or small, I simply cannot rest easy until I find it. Unfortunately, I have always had an absent-minded professor kind of brain, where my thoughts can be so occupied with some other issue that I can set something down and walk away from it without even noticing.  It’s not something that has come with age either.  I’ve been absentmindedly setting things down and forgetting them since I was a kid.  Of course age hasn’t made it any better.

My favorite things to lose are coffee mugs.  Every place I have worked, I have unintentionally left half-full mugs of coffee in various locations like some kind of cross between the Easter Bunny and Juan Valdez.  If I was lucky, I’d notice its absence in fairly short order and locate it while the coffee was still drinkable, or someone I worked with would return it to me.  There have been a few occasions where I’ve set a coffee mug down in an obscure location like a storage closet, and it goes unfound for weeks or even months.  

In case you were wondering, coffee can become a solid if given enough time. A nasty, blue-green solid.

Another common item for me to lose is, disconcertingly,  paychecks.  For most of my working life, I have been able to have my paychecks deposited directly into my bank accounts.  I haven’t had that option with my current place of work.  Over the years I have been working there, I have lost at least three paychecks.  Thankfully, our accountant is a kind and forgiving soul (not to mention endlessly patient) and has been willing to issue me a new one in each case.  Typically, I cram it into my pocket when I get it, and take it out as soon as I get home, where it safely stays in a secure spot until I am able to take it to the bank for deposit.  On all three occasions when I’ve lost a paycheck, I have literally torn apart my home, my car and my workplace looking for it.  I’ve also scoured my garage, yard, and the parking lot at work in my searches.  Having sent paper through the laundry process on numerous occasions, I know that I didn’t leave it in my pocket and destroy it in the wash, since the evidence left behind when I’ve laundered paper in the past has always been pretty clear.

Oddly enough, no trace of those three missing paychecks has ever turned up.  No one has tried to cash them, and they haven’t been found underneath a piece or furniture or under a melting snowbank.  It’s like there is some kind of Bermuda Triangle designated especially for my paychecks.

My most recent tragic loss, and the one that inspired this post, was the tiny little USB plug that goes with my wireless mouse.  I have a corded mouse that I use when I am on my laptop computer in bed, and a wireless one that I use when the laptop is downstairs in its usual place.  Last night, I briefly needed to use one of the USB ports for something else, and since I was in bed at the time, I took out the USB plug for my wireless mouse, which I was not using at the time, and (I thought) set it down on the bed next to me.  One thing lead to another, and before long I forgot all about the tiny USB plug I had set aside.  As a matter of fact, I didn’t miss it until the next morning, when I got up for my coffee and internet news fix.  My wireless mouse was not working, and the USB plug was nowhere to be found.

I immediately knew what had happened to it, but when I went upstairs to look around, I couldn’t find it.  Knowing better than to tackle a full search prior to having had coffee, I grabbed the corded mouse and went back to my caffeine and news.  I didn’t enjoy it though.  While I could very easily replace my wireless mouse, the principle of the thing bothered me.  That USB plug was somewhere. I just had to find it.  And no, I couldn’t wait until later to do it.  So I tore that room apart.  Bedding, mattress, box spring, hamper full of laundry, overloaded desk, everything was overturned.  All the books and whatnots I shoved underneath the bed came out.  Finally, after making a holy old mess, I found it.  It was right where I typically put it when I need to use a USB port, on a shelf next to my iPod and various earbuds.  I remembered taking it out of the port last night, but didn’t remember putting it in its usual place last night, so I didn’t bother to check there until last, for some reason.

Yes, I am kind of a dope, actually.

There’s a delicious irony in this post, which I promise you I am not making up.  Before I started writing this, I went back over previous posts, because I could have sworn that I had previously written one on this topic of my habit of losing things.  Even the title of this post “Losing It”, seemed like one I had used already.  So I looked back over nearly three years of posts.

Guess what?  I couldn’t find it.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Annual Winter Whine Post

The winter season trudges on unabated here in Maine, despite the fact that the calendar flipped over to March not long ago.  Our friendly local meteorologist tells me that today’s high temperature is going to be 12 degrees.  12 degrees fahrenheit, not celsius.  That’s cold for this time of year, even by Maine standards.  There’s at least a little comfort in knowing that a good chunk of the North American continent is experiencing a harsh winter as well. There are few things left that we all go through together in today’s culture, but the weather is one of them.

If I had a dime for every time I’ve either uttered or heard “I’m sick of the cold” and “I’m sick of the snow” lately, I could probably settle the national debt.  While freezing temperatures and snow are the most common subjects of complaint, I’d like to offer a list of ten less-often-heard but equally valid concerns about winter, as my annual “winter whine” blog post.  (See here and here for past examples of winter whines.)

10. I’m sick of those buildups of slush in the wheel wells of my vehicle.  If they freeze solid, they can seriously damage your tire by rubbing against them, not to mention cause you to break a toe if you give it a good kick to remove it.

9. I’m sick of taking the garbage out in the cold.  Taking out the trash is an odious task under the best of conditions.  Having to do it when the snot in your nose is freezing every time you inhale just adds insult to injury.

8. I’m sick of getting more heating fuel.  Lugging in another ton of wood pellets or another cord of wood in mid to late winter because you are running low is no picnic.  Writing a large check for another tank of heating oil you didn’t budget for isn’t either. 

7. I’m sick of changing from shoes to boots to shoes.  While boots are great at helping one’s feet stay warm and dry, they tend to go on hard and come off even harder.  I’ve fallen on my keister several times this winter already doing the footwear changing dance when coming in or going out the door.  With small puddles from the snow melting off your boots, you don’t want your socks to touch the floor, after all.

6. I’m sick of being snow-blind. Yes, I am actually complaining about the sunshine here.  Don’t underestimate my whining skills.  The sun reflecting off the snow almost has the same effect as an allergy on my sensitive eyes: watering, sneezing, squinting, headaches.  Sunglasses help, but spring helps more.  Less white, more green!

5. I’m sick of these crazy cats with their cabin fever.  I am an animal guy, and enjoy watching the birds, squirrels and whatnot gather at the bird feeders outside my window in the winter.  Trouble is, so do the cats, and it makes them absolutely insane.

4. I’m sick of stale air.  Sometimes one of the cats drops a bomb in the litterbox.  Sometimes I cook things that have a lingering smell.  Sometimes I raise dust when I am cleaning around the house.  During the winter, one can’t just open up the windows and air things out.

3. I’m sick of tall snowbanks and narrow streets.  I drive a relatively high-profile SUV, and yet I’ve still had more than a few times this winter where I’ve had to stick my nose so far out into and intersection to see if anyone was coming in either direction that I’ve nearly had it clipped off.  Just a bit of a thaw to shrink those suckers down is all I ask.

2. I’m sick of not being able to make travel plans in advance.  Any out of town appointment or event at this time of year is a crapshoot, contingent upon travel conditions.  A concert you’ve been dying to see for months finally comes to a nearby city, you have tickets and hotel reservations, and then BOOM, an ice storm hits.  Epic bummer.

1. I’m sick of my feet always being cold.  My feet are almost perpetually cold anyway.  I tend to wear wool socks from October until April.  Even then my feet are chilly, only slightly less so than if I didn't wear them.  If there is such a thing as electric socks, I would seriously consider them.  I’d probably need a very long extension cord though.

Even though it seems impossible now, the temperatures will warm up, the snow will melt, and spring will arrive, just like it always has for as long as the seasonal wheel has turned.  

Of course then I’ll need to find some new things to whine about. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Little Chris and the Naive Politics of Black and White

Growing up in a small town in the 1970s, there were plenty of other kids with whom I could play.  It was a less worried time, when many parents would allow their kids to freely roam their neighborhoods and beyond.  For the most part, they did it without fear of anything more than the old lady down the street calling to report to them that their child was climbing on the roof of the toolshed.

When I was about five years old, I was the youngest member of a group of about a half dozen friends who lived in the houses around mine.  The acknowledged leader of this gang of kids was also named Chris like me, so he was called “Big Chris” and I was saddled with the moniker “Little Chris”, a nickname which I loathed and despised with a white hot passion.  Nonetheless, that’s how it was.

"Little Chris", from around the time about which I am writing.  And yes, turtleneck sweaters were considered "in" at the time.

As the youngest of the group, I was the least worldly, relatively speaking, and because of that naivety and my strong desire to be accepted by the others, I was prone to being put up to things.  It was never anything terribly serious, but I was a sucker nonetheless.  If they needed someone to swipe some apples from a neighbor’s tree, I was their man.  When they wanted to see if the wooden ramp they built for bicycle jumps was too high, I was their go-to guy.  And if they wanted to get some candy from Mrs. Johnson, who always had a bowl on her kitchen counter as treats for us kids, I was the emissary who was sent to ask for it, because I was not only the smallest and presumably cutest, but also they knew I would not refuse to go.

Yes, “Little Chris” was gullible, but as I got a bit older and gained some more life experience, that gullibility decreased rapidly.  Before too long, I was on to them, and not long after that, I could put others up to doing things if I chose.  As a little more light was shed on matters through time and experience, I saw things I hadn't previously, and it worked to my advantage.

I’ve been thinking about my days as gullible “Little Chris” lately as I have read and watched the news, both national and state.  It seems like many politicians, pundits, and media outlets these days are implementing a “Little Chris” treatment on you and me, and sadly, are meeting with some degree of success.

My intent in this post is not to single out a particular person or entity, so I’ll be dealing in generalities here.

We live in an age with an overwhelming amount of information at our fingertips.  There is such a high volume of data out there, much of it conflicting, that many suffer from fatigue in dealing with it.  It’s much easier just to have someone distill it for us.  And there is no shortage of talking heads who are willing to cherry-pick information and give it to us in a way that they want us to understand it.  It is made all the more persuasive when this cherry-picked information is given to us wrapped in emotion, drama, academic language, and/or pre-conceived ideas.  The overused term propaganda would apply here, though even it has become highly charged by some of the very people who use it, with direct connections often made to the wartime PR tactics of enemy nations.

This cherry-picking approach to politics and media bias would not be so pervasive if it didn’t actually work.  But it does.  Too many of us are easily persuaded.  Too many of us buy into what is being sold to us without asking ourselves if there is more to it.  The sins of omission seem far more frequent than those of commission in politics and media.

Let me give an example that I am just pulling out of the air.  Suppose a local media outlet reports on a horrific home invasion, where an elderly woman is beaten and robbed for drugs and money in her home.  It’s a terrible thing, and a legitimate news story, for sure.  Then, two nights later, the same media outlet starts airing a series of special reports on how you can protect yourself your loved one and your property from home invasions, complete with ominous music and scary clips from the most recent incident and others that have taken place in other parts of the country.  Interviews are aired with people who have experienced such a terrible thing.  Many viewers may become fearful.  It must be a problem, or else why would the news be devoting so much time and attention to it?  (Answer: Ratings.) Not only are viewers locking their doors and keeping their drugs secure, which would be sensible reactions, but some have also become frightened when they see an unfamiliar face in their neighborhood, and may even now refuse to go for a walk down their own street by themselves for fear of crime.  Some may go so far as to install an electronic security system in their homes.  Their fear has taken away some of their freedom, not to mention money.  And here’s the kicker: lost in the midst of it all is the fact that home invasions in that particular area are extremely rare, and the odds are greater that one would have a truck crash through their bedroom than that they would actually experience a home invasion.

I’m picking on the media taking something out of proper context in the aforementioned example, but politicians and pundits often do the very same thing.  It isn’t unusual for them to create a perceived boogeyman cloaked in emotional hot-buttons as they make their case for a particular candidacy or policy decision.  Their candidate or point of view is going to be the one to put a stop to this boogeyman (or “straw man” as it is called in debating terms), and therefore is the one with which all of us in the general public should be on board.  Welfare queens, big corporations, illegal aliens, religious fundamentalists, leftist whackos, right-wing nutjobs, the list of boogeymen goes on and on.  Some of these entities portrayed as boogeymen are actual problems, and some are not, depending on your own point of view.  If you don’t have your own point of view, politicians and pundits are more than willing to give you theirs.

So what’s my point?  It’s a very simple one: Despite what we are often led to believe, very, very  few issues in our society are black and white.  If something seems too clear, too cut-and-dried, then there is likely something we are missing.  Yes, there are people who abuse the welfare system horribly, for example.  But there are also many more on welfare who do not and use it as it was intended.  Yes, there are some large corporations that exploit their workers and plunder natural resources, as another example, but there are many more of them that do not, never have, and never will.  

In other words, don't be naive.  Do your homework.  Be skeptical without being cynical, especially when you find yourself automatically agreeing or disagreeing with something newly presented to you. 

Look at all sides before settling on a conclusion.  Don’t be satisfied with letting politicians, pundits, and the media feed you only the information they want you to have.  Seek out more for yourself. Consider the source of your information.  A press release from a lobbying group or political party headquarters may be “newsy”, but it is not necessarily news.  A pundit is not a reporter.  A letter to the editor is not a news article.  Opinions should be based on facts, but they are not facts themselves.  And don’t fall prey to hot-button terminology, especially in headlines.  Words like “terror”, “sex”, and “war”, among others, are often squeezed in there to capture your attention, even if they are not the best choices.

You owe it to yourself to be a cautious, media-literate consumer of information. Otherwise, you’ll likely end up like “Little Chris”, paying unintended consequences for being unquestioning and naive.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

On Poverty

I’ve been thinking a lot about poverty lately.  If you check out the news on your TV or computer these days, you cannot help but hear about the so-called “income gap”, and it seems like we also are seeing more and more cuts being made to programs and services that benefit the less fortunate. There’s almost a demonization of the poor in some quarters. The emphasis that Pope Francis has placed on helping the poor and disenfranchised has also done a great deal to bring issues related to poverty to the forefront for me. On a personal level, I’ve been reading a biography of Robert F. Kennedy who, despite his privileged background, had strong empathy for those living in poverty, and that has also stirred my consciousness of the poor, a consciousness which put down roots many years ago. 

When I was in first grade at St. Mary’s School back in the 1970s, there was an international organization called The Holy Childhood Association that provided parochial school teachers with many educational resources.  It still exists today, though it is now known as the Missionary Childhood Association.  Founded in 1843 and supported by the Vatican, its mission in a nutshell is to help Catholic kids in first world countries to learn about and reach out to the less fortunate.  The classrooms and hallways in our school were filled with Holy Childhood Association posters and bulletin boards showing the challenges that children our age in less-developed countries were facing.  As a school and in our individual classes we undertook many lessons and activities which impressed upon us the obligation of our Catholic faith for caring for one another and especially for those who were less fortunate than us.  We learned about what poverty was, where it was occurring, and how we could help.

One of the Holy Childhood Association’s poverty-awareness activities made a particular impression on me: our support as a class of  “the pagan babies”. 

The way it worked was pretty clever really.  Our first grade class was encouraged by our teacher, Sister Eunice, to voluntarily bring in loose change from home, with parental permission of course, and put it in a canister on her desk to help children who didn’t have enough food or shelter.  The goal was to get to $10, at which point the class would “adopt” a poor baby.  As we started collecting coins toward each new $10 goal, Sister Eunice would announce the gender and nationality of the prospective adoptee, show us a photo sent by the Holy Childhood Association, and tell us a little about where and under what circumstances the child lived.  Next, she would choose two students who would be responsible for giving the baby a name once we reached the $10 mark.  Now of course no child in a far off country had their actual given name changed by a couple of first graders from the USA, but the symbolic naming of the baby made it a very personal thing for us as kids. 

It wasn’t unusual for namers to want to use some version of his or her own name, which was okay.  However, the hard and fast rule was that at least one of the two names had to be that of a saint.  It was a Catholic school, after all. 

My naming partner and I gave a boy from Chad the name “Louis Christopher”.  Louis was the name of my female partner’s French-Canadian grandfather, and we were instructed by her that it was to be pronounced “Loo-Wee”, and NOT “Loo-Iss”.  For some reason, many of my first grade buddies and I found this new-to-us pronunciation quite funny.  And I suppose you can guess where the name Christopher came from.

Donating, while popular, was strictly voluntary, with no minimum amount.  As we were settling in each morning, a few kids would always drop a few pennies and nickels from home into the metal canister as they walked by.  Thanks to the blessed innocence of our being so young, we didn’t pay much attention to who was giving and how much it was.  The rattle of change in that canister was just part of the soundtrack of our day.  The teacher kept a daily tally of how much we had raised posted on the chalkboard.

The drive was limited to coins only.  I remember sometimes finding dimes, nickels and pennies lying around the house at that time and asking my parents if I could take it in to school for the Holy Childhood. My grandparents were aware of the campaign as well and when I went to visit them on Sundays they often gave me some pennies and nickels to take in to school the next day for what they still called “the pagan babies” which was kind of politically incorrect even back then in 1976.

By the end of the school year, our classroom list contained several dozen names.  In hindsight it was a pretty powerful way to get the message through to a bunch of young kids that there were poor people in our world, that they needed our help, that it was our obligation to help, and that we really could help, even if we were only six and seven years old.

Flash forward to today.

I recently made a trip from Aroostook County to southern Maine, stopping in several cities on the way down and back.  These cities would be considered small by most standards, yet in each I saw at least a few men or women standing in traffic medians, holding signs asking for help.  It tugged at my conscience.  I wanted to help them directly, but couldn’t be sure if I was feeding a mouth or an addiction.  (I did donate to a local service organization in their honor, however.)  The plight of these people with their signs really made me think.  What depths would one have to reach in order to spend a frigid January day, standing in city traffic, begging?  Could that happen to someone I know?  Could that happen to me?

The proliferation of panhandlers sharpened my eyes to see other signs of poverty around me: the run-down apartment houses that did not look entirely safe for occupancy, the people in tattered clothing trying to stay warm in the winter cold, the sheer number of food pantries and homeless shelters in a relatively small state like Maine. If the problem is this serious here, what can it possibly be like in New York, Rio de Janeiro or Bombay?

And the biggest question bouncing around my brain: What can I really do as just one person?

I wish there was an easy answer to that question, but there isn’t.  At this point, the only answer I have come up with is DO SOMETHING!  It may not change the scope of global poverty, but every little bit each of us does, whether it’s a contribution to a charity or service organization, a donation to a food pantry or thrift shop, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or even just working to shift stereotypical thinking about the poor as somehow lesser people, adds another bright new fiber to the sometimes-tattered tapestry of what’s right with us as human beings. 

Post Script--This editorial by Robyn Merrill, recently published in the Bangor Daily News, makes many good points about poverty as it impacts Maine: Beyond the attacks, ideology: What poverty looks like in Maine

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Slight Brush With Greatness

Depending on where you conduct your life, you may or may not come into contact with influential people.  For some, standing in line behind a movie star at Starbucks is just part of a typical morning, while for others, attending a party where the mayor of your small town is invited might be as big a deal as it gets.  Here in Maine, we have a surprising number of celebrities for a small, relatively rural state, due in part to the large number of vacation homes situated here in “Vacationland”.  Stephen King, the Bush family, Martha Stewart, Patrick Dempsey and a number of others call Maine home for at least part of the year.

One of our more beloved well-known people was the late Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Skowhegan.  For those of you unfamiliar with her, she is in the American history books for a number of things, including being the first woman to serve in both houses of the United States Congress,  and the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for the American Presidency at a major political party's convention.  Her famous (and politically courageous) “Declaration of Conscience” speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1950 was the beginning of the end for red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunts.  She was the first notable person to declare that essentially “Emperor McCarthy” wore no clothes.  After serving in Congress, Senator Smith retired to Skowhegan in 1972, where she became somewhat of a “grand old lady” of Maine politics, much beloved by most of her former constituents and especially by those in her hometown, where almost everything is named after her.  Members of both political parties held her in very high regard.  It was with Senator Smith that I had what I consider my most memorable brush with greatness.

In the summer of 1992, I was fresh out of college with an education degree, and had been hired for my first teaching job, which was slated to start that September.  During that summer, I got my first apartment, a second-floor efficiency, in the town of Skowhegan, Maine and prepared for my first year of teaching as I also adjusted to life on my own.  My personal funding would be pretty limited until I started receiving paychecks in September, so I spent most of my time getting my classroom and lesson plans ready, as well as exploring the Skowhegan area on my mountain bike.

Skowhegan, if you don’t know it, is a beautiful and historic town on the Kennebec River in central Maine, about an hour north of the state capital of Augusta.  A working class community of about 6000 people, I felt right at home there, as the town was very similar in size and character to my hometown in the County, from which I had just moved.  If the weather cooperated and I didn’t feel compelled to give in to my workaholic nature and head to the school, I often hopped on my bicycle to pedal around the tree-lined streets or dusty back roads.  There were cemeteries and historical sites to explore, as well as beautiful scenery and unique architecture.  Unless it was very hot of course, when all I would explore by bike was the road from my apartment to Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream, a well-known, locally-based dairy bar on Madison Avenue.

One particular afternoon, I got on my bike and followed my nose up a rather steep street called Norridgewock Avenue, which I had not previously checked out.  Knowing that the next town over was called Norridgewock, I figured I would follow the street to the town line and then turn around.  It was pretty hot, and before long I regretted biting off such a lofty goal, but I was young and stubborn, and had nothing else to do, so I powered on.  Before long though, I ended up getting off my bike and pushing it up what I later learned was called Neil Hill.  I was pretty exhausted from the heat by the time I reached the top.  As I stopped to catch my breath and take a drink of water, I saw a sign nearby that indicated I was across the street from the Margaret Chase Smith Library, which I knew was attached to the home of Senator Smith, who by that time was in her mid-90s.  While I was catching my breath, I caught sight of a figure dressed in a bright blue bathrobe sitting alone on a wicker chair inside a glass atrium and looking over at me.  It was a very slight, elderly lady with a head full of silver-white hair, sipping from a mug.  Before it clearly registered in my mind who this actually was, the lady in the blue bathrobe raised her hand and gave me a wave and a smile.  Suddenly it clicked in my oxygen-starved brain.  It was Senator Margaret Chase Smith herself!  Of course, I returned the smile and wave from the woman who would later be selected the most influential Mainer of the 20th century.  

Having caught my breath again, and not wanting to disturb Senator Smith’s privacy, I gamely mounted my bike again and continued on my way.  On my return trip past Senator Smith’s house heading home, she was no longer sitting in the atrium.  I biked past there a couple more times over the next few years, but never saw the grand old lady again.

Sen. Smith, as she would have looked around the time I saw her. I believe that is the very chair in which she was sitting that day. (Photo from Margaret Chase Smith Library website)

As “brushes with greatness” go, this could probably be considered a slight brush at best.  It wasn’t like I was seated next to Senator Smith at a state dinner and had a foreign policy discussion or anything like that.  It was just a simple, friendly wave and smile from an elderly woman to a stranger on a bike on the street near her home.  Nonetheless, it made an impression on me.  This important and influential woman who had dined with presidents, statesmen and royalty, who had the courage to speak up against a bully when almost every other leader in the country was intimidated, and who had made history by helping clear a path for future female leaders, was still “Margaret from Maine” who would smile and wave at a passing bicyclist.

The memory of that day has stayed with me all these years.  You don't seem to see many in positions of leadership like her anymore.  Maybe when we go to choose our leaders, we should be looking more carefully for people of character and courage, like Senator Smith.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Slogging: A Post for Writerly Types

I consider myself an actual writer, for whatever that is worth.  It’s not my career, and I am not published at this point, but nonetheless I identify with those who have put pen to paper, or fingers to keys, throughout the ages.  Writing is something that I have loved to do ever since I was very young, and also something upon which I have gotten a great deal of feedback, mostly positive, since those early days.  Various and disparate sources have told me that I have a knack for writing, which has been both a blessing and a curse.  It’s been a blessing in that such input has spurred me on to keep up with my writing over the years and to cultivate it.  At the same time, as the great philosopher Spiderman once said, “with great power comes great responsibility”.  My writing ability is hardly what I would consider a “great power”, but it is something I possess which not everyone does and, I feel, should be used for some greater good.  So when I don’t write much, or at all, it seems like squandering, and I’ve been doing a lot of squandering lately.

Although I’ve been aware of it for a while (witness my post: Writing About Having Nothing To Write About, from last April), my lack of writing production really jumped out at me recently when I was examining the layout of this blog, “Wicked Awesomology”.  I noticed that I had tallied 47 blog posts in the year 2012, and yet only 27 for 2013.  Now I think we all realize that more is not necessarily better and I would be better off posting nothing than tossing something on here that is not very good.  Still, being down 20 posts on the year is more of a drop-off than I would like to see, especially considering that my readership numbers, in terms of visitors to the blog, have steadily risen.  In addition to the blog, I have two writing works in progress, one of which is a collaborative effort that is moving at a slow crawl at best, and the other is a novel that is still in the outlining phase, where it has been for a couple of months now.  A third work in progress, a Maine-based murder-mystery, is no longer in progress by any definition of the word, since I have completely lost my way on it.  It isn’t abandoned per say, but it is resting.

The writing slowdown has also become evident in the nature of my Twitter account, which I originally started several years ago to connect with other writers and foster my own writing.  When I first began on Twitter (@countofbluecars, by the way), the vast majority of followers and people I followed were writers, and the dominant theme of my tweets was writing.  My account has evolved over time to be broader based, and I have attracted, and been attracted to, Twitter accounts from other aspects of life, like politics, sports, humor, animal issues, the media, fellow Mainers, and so on.  I’d say only about a third of my followers are writing-related people, and the percentage of those I follow who are writers or connected to the field is less than that.  My actual tweets on writing have become rare.  I enjoy my Twitter account as it is now, so it is not a bad thing, however the demographics of it seem to indicate that the place writing occupies in my life has shrunk.

So why am I not writing more?  Hard to say, really.  Yes, I have been busy with other things in my life, but no more so than in the past when my writing production was much higher.  It’s possible that I’ve been more choosey about my topics.  A lot of the things that pop into my head as possible topics for blog posts, short stories or novels seem like they have already been done by me, overdone by someone else, or just not feasible.  For instance, I am writing this on New Year’s Day. Why not write about my New Year’s resolutions, you might ask? Already did that a couple of years ago and it did not go well at all.  (Let’s just say putting them out for public display made not keeping them even harder.)  A predictions post?  It seems like every other blog out there has one of those up on it.  Why not post some personal “Best of 2013” offerings?  Also heavily represented in the blogosphere, and plus, who cares?

It’s that “who cares” attitude that could be at least partly holding me back.  There is a popular stereotype that bloggers are self-indulgent people who post merely as a means of inflating their sense of personal worth.  It’s about the writer, not the audience, and that’s not how I roll.  I’ve tried very hard to keep my readers at the forefront.  Before I start any post, I always ask myself:  Is the topic something that those reading will actually be interested in?  If the answer is no, then I either try to change it so that it is, or else I dump it.  And then, if I do choose to stick with it, I ask myself, does it fit “the brand” I have built?  Is it the kind of post that people have to come expect from reading Wicked Awesomology in the past?  Anecdotal light humor is the general theme.  Will writing something outside that realm be well-received on this particular blog?  Would it be better suited for another venue?

A case in point:  Recently, a young relative of mine was murdered in a domestic violence situation.  It struck me very deeply, and made me want to put something out there in writing to somehow deal with it and to raise awareness.  But what, and where, and how?  That’s a pretty heavy topic for Wicked Awesomology, and would probably be longer than a standard blog post.  Would my typical readers accept such a thing, or should I look elsewhere to get it out there?  And then, could I write it in such a way that is inspiring, not maudlin and pitying?

And so on and so forth.  I could make a longer list of writing excuses, but fail to see the benefit of that.

I tend to be a solution-oriented kind of guy, so all this leads me to wonder what I’m going to actually do about this lack of writing production, aside from whine about it.  A few things come to mind, actually.  One is to broaden the scope of the Wicked Awesomology blog in 2014, so that I will have the freedom to write about a wider range of topics and ideas.  The core of the blog will remain the same, but the tone will likely vary more as I take more risks with what I write.  It would probably be wise to cut myself some slack on the volume of writing I produce also.  As I mentioned earlier, more is not better, especially if the content produced is substandard.  Not all actual writing involves putting words down.  Research and planning are no small parts of the actual process, so setting a goal related to actual volume produced daily or weekly does not seem like a good idea.  I am however setting a production goal for at least one of my works-in-progress.  Since the collaborative project is, well, collaborative, I’ll get with my writing partner soon enough to set a goal on that, but as far as my adventure novel goes, I’d like to have the rough draft written and be in the midst of the revision stages by the first day of 2015.

Another thing that I want to do more of as a writer in 2014 is connect in a concrete way with my readers and with fellow writers, in hopes that the increased feedback will drive me further.  I have a couple of ideas on how I might go about doing this both in person and online, one of these ideas involves you.  I want to open up my e-mail to you for topic suggestions, critiques on posts, and general conversation about writing and/or the topics in my posts.  One thing I have heard from other bloggers is that only a fraction of your readers will respond in the “comments” section below a posting, due to its very public nature. Someone said it’s akin to those who make comments or ask questions at a public meeting.  Only those comfortable in front of a group tend to speak up.  I want to encourage you to share your thoughts on writing, mine or yours, with me via e-mail.  My address for the purposes of writing is  

I hope to hear from many of you soon. Now let’s get writing!  Or at least thinking about it.