Sunday, September 4, 2011


Like Ahab's obsession with Moby Dick, I have one of my own right now, Ethel Merman.  I can't remember when the obsession started or what in the world started it.  Maybe it was her appearance on the Muppet Show when I was a little girl.  Maybe it was when my mother made me watch Gypsy.  Maybe it was the first time I saw Airplane and laughed until my stomach hurt at her random appearance in the movie.  I loved her for her ballsy talent, for being able to laugh at herself and for being willing to make us all laugh with her.  God knows, we could all use a laugh, and she makes us smile even when life tugs the corners of our mouths down to our knees.
Lately, some of my closest girlfriends seem a little down.  Some of them have loved ones who are enduring illness.  Some are dealing with their young daughters going to school for the first time.  Some are dealing with the feeling that their families don't appreciate them or even see them as individuals. Some of them are dealing with the loss of a beloved pet.  Some are dealing with being too worn down by the down to even talk about it. 
These are the same women who have been there for me absolutely through my young adult trials and have always lifted me up.  Regardless of their own worries, they have been ready at any time to pop open a bottle of wine, grab a cup of coffee, or show up with a home-made cake to show their support and friendship.  I love these women with all my heart and, with Ethel's help, hope to make them smile through their worried minds.
Ladies, this is for you.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Batten Down the Hatches!!

We're always preparing for some upcoming storm, it seems.
Right now, hurricane Irene is on its way and after watching the news and talking to a few friends, I began to wonder if I should be preparing in some way.  Truth is, my only concern is how I'm going to make coffee if the power goes out.  Feeling a little restless, I decided to confront the worst part of the storm, visiting the grocery store.  People here have clearly lost their minds!  Racing through the aisles, carts overflowing with cases of water, toilet paper, and bread, the customers expressions were something like manic zombies.  I had a basket and tried to figure out what to buy, but I only ended up with a six-pack of water and the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies.  I'm from Maryland.  I don't know how to prepare for a hurricane!  I make cookies when we have a snow storm, so it seemed somewhat logical.
I've spent the summer preparing to remodel, preparing to move, preparing for vacation, and lately preparing to go back to school to teach fifty kids a day how to read and write. This week I faced my biggest challenge of them all and prepared to be very, very bored at an inservice for teachers.
Anyone who has suffered through days of professional development meetings understands how mind numbing they can be.  I'm bad at being bored.  I doodle cockamamie portraits, imagine outrageous scenarios, and get extremely silly with something like "church giggles" erupting uncontrollably.  It's embarrassing.  Yesterday, after hours of listening to Charlie Brown's teacher-types lecturing about six types of syllables, phonemes and graphemes, I couldn't take it anymore.  A few of the presenters had prepared to liven up the experience by having a raffle during the session where the lucky chosen one could win a pencil or pack of post-its. 
I never win anything, so I didn't see the harm in putting the name "Ethel Merman" on my raffle slip.  The thought of Ethel Merman rustling around in there with the other plain Jane tickets was entertainment enough for me for the next ninety minutes.  I tried to get one of my co-workers to put Marilyn Monroe or Phyllis Diller on her ticket, but she wouldn't give in to peer pressure. The presenter, a no-nonsense-sweater-set-lady, started the session by explaining the raffle, pulling a ticket out of the bucket and announcing the winner, "Eeeth-al Merman,".  Unprepared for that outcome, my coworker, a dramatic sort, grabbed my arm, gasped loudly and yelled, "OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD!  ETHEL MERMAN!" and burst into hysterical laughter.  No one moved.  No one changed their expression.  No one said, "Ethel  Merman?".  I turned bright red and started to sweat. 
The presenter, who had obviously never heard of Ethel Merman, looked confused at my delirious coworker, still gasping and shaking my arm, and said matter-of-factly, "It's only school supplies.  You can go to the back table and pick out your prize, Ethel."  That did it.  I imagined Ethel herself, clad in a feather boa, strutting past the desks, scooping up ALLLL the school supplies, while belting out, "Everything's Coming Up Roses".  I started to giggle.  Trying to suppress it only made it worse because I started shaking silently, tears streaming down my cheeks, smudging my mascara. My coworker caught my silly, and we took turns being tossed around in our own personal hurricanes of boredom and laughter.  We were caught in Hurricane Ethel for the rest of the meeting and, true to form, she was a Category 5.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Don't Call Me Ishmael

My husband and I are looking for a new place to live. 
After being in my hometown for 33 years, it is hard to imagine living anywhere else.  I've travelled quite a bit , and have had many opportunities to move elsewhere, but I've never felt the need for a long term adventure that would take me away from home.  Maybe I watched Gone with the Wind too many times as a girl, and the idea of the land I live on being like my mother was taken to heart. I do have a drop of Irish blood, so it is possible I get it honest.
Ishmael confessed that, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”  We all get "grim about the mouth" from time to time, but when it happens to me, I take a drive in the country.  I love the scenery here: rolling hills, dotted with quiet farms, blanketed with winter wheat, decorated with the bluest chicory, delicate Queen Anne's Lace and cheerful daisies.  I love the lonely gnarled trees in empty pastures and the air fragranced with sweet cornfields at night.  Driving down the winding curves of  Bloom Road, always hidden away by the cover of trees, warms the November in my soul right up.
Part of the comfort I find here is in the local traditions. We take pride in supporting local businesses.  There is an amazing local creamery, Hoffman's, that is the only place to respectably get your ice cream.  Breakfast at Baugher's, our favorite country restaurant, always includes freshly baked pie made from the fruit grown in their orchard.  The steaks bought from Bullock's, the local butcher, would put any New York City steakhouse to shame.  Rediciously enormous smoked holiday hams must come from Hann's, who also happens to roast their own coffee beans, creating an aroma in their little store that is intoxicating. These businesses are all named for the families who own and run them and most of us are on a first name basis with them, so to shop is to visit.  Another one of our traditions is organizing a parade for EVERYTHING!  Together, the whole town lines Main Street to celebrate whatever the occasion, eating cookies and drinking cocoa provided by one of the local churches, listening to the municipal band while the 4-H Pork Princess proudly waves from a fire truck, followed by miniature horses and familiar children, dressed like dancing books and crayons, encouraging us all to visit the local library.  These traditions form a web of close relationships that keep our kids out of trouble and our manners in check.  Everyone who grew up here has heard the words, "If I ever catch you doing/saying that again, I'll call your mother/father!" Everyone here has a story about choosing to be polite after being frustrated by a stranger's actions, only to find out later that the same person was their mortgage broker or their child's teacher.  Our community is our crew and when you live in close quarters and are bound to run into or need someone again, you learn to get along. 
While reading Moby Dick, I wondered if being surrounded by the open ocean ever became banal to the men aboard the Pequod, but I think they must have felt the same way about going out to sea as I feel about being home.  For those of us who have stayed long enough to know the land as well as our families, we know that the landscape, like the waves and sea creatures lovingly observed by Ishmael, is in a constant state of change. I've never gotten over the beauty of the land and the idea of leaving my home feels like being cast out to sea, bringing with it drizzly November.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The End of the Voyage

I did it!  After months of looking up definitions, pictures of whales on the Internet and cross checking all biblical and classical references, I have done what Ahab could not and have conquered Moby Dick!  This novel has been a favorite of mine for years, but is now absolutely my favorite book.  What an amazing tale told by a brilliant, although sometimes long-winded, storyteller.  During the dry, but still interesting, non-fiction chapters, I imagined that Melville must have spent his whaling years, tirelessly researching the animals and industry.  His dark, long New England winters must have been passed doing the same, only I imagine him in front of a roaring fire, smoking a pipe, stacks of leather bound books surrounding his chair.
For me, the Pequod's meeting with The Bachelor and the Rachel are two of the most suspenseful moments in the story's conclusion because Ahab still had a chance for redemption.  I wanted to reach into the pages of the book, shake Ahab by his gnarly beard and shout, "Follow them you fool!!!  Turn back!!"  Imagine the helplessness felt by the Pequod's crew, knowingly being led to their destruction by an insane captain , when they met the Bachelor dressed to celebrate, homeward bound after a successful whaling voyage. 
"And jolly enough were the sights and the sounds that came bearing down before the wind, some few weeks after Ahab's harpoon had been welded.
It was a Nantucket ship, the Bachelor, which had just wedged in her last cask of oil, and bolted down her bursting hatches; and now, in glad holiday apparel, was joyously, though somewhat vain-gloriously, sailing round among the widely-separated ships on the ground, previous to pointing her prow for home.
The three men at her mast-head wore long streamers of narrow red bunting at their hats; from the stern, a whale-boat was suspended, bottom down; and hanging captive from the bowsprit was seen the long lower jaw of the last whale they had slain. Signals, ensigns, and jacks of all colors were flying from her rigging, on every side." 
To me, it seemed their hope sailed away with the brightly decorated Bachelor and crew.  Afterwards, meeting the Rachel provided Ahab with one last chance to save the Pequod.  If only he had done his duty as a fellow captain and good-willed human, he could have searched for the missing boys instead of Moby Dick, but his revenge obsessed mind wouldn't let him see that saving the lost crew members of the Rachel could be the salvation of himself and his men.  Like Jonah, he was taken down by the Leviathan and sacrificed his crew in the process.  Without a doubt, the most startling image for me was the last, Tashtego's hand reaching out of the churning sea, still hammering the flag to the uppermost mast, the only part of the sinking Pequod still visible while the entangled sea bird was taken down with the ship.  My heart sank with the last visible remnant of the ship.
My family has been encouraging me to finish the novel along the way, my supportive husband looking up unknown references with me and for me while I read.  (I wish we had written everything we learned in the margins!)  He and the World's Most Patient Kids listened to me drone on and on about profound passages or interesting (to me at least) facts, saying things like, "We never knew that's what unctuous meant.  Cool."  They must love me to say such things.
 We were on vacation in the mountains, spending our days floating and fishing in the Potomac and our evenings relaxing in the cabin, when I finally reached the last page of Moby Dick.  My beautiful, big hearted step-kids insisted that we get up and dance when I read the last word.  Closing the book, with that satisfying "thup" sound, we all jumped up and shook our booties and cheered, Moby Dick waving in my right hand high over my head.  My husband was taking a nap at the time, but I'm sure he dreamed about shaking his bootie and cheering, too. 
Basking in my accomplishment, I knew that I could never give up my beloved hard-backs for a Kindle.  There is no substitute for the weight of a great novel held in both hands gradually shifting from a heavy right to a heavy left until the last whispering page is reached and realized with a...


Saturday, July 30, 2011

Scrubbing the Decks

After three days and nights of butchering a sperm whale, Ishmael and the rest of the exhausted crew have the daunting task of organizing and scrubbing the limited and crowded space of the ship's deck, slathered in unctuous, unidentifiable butchered parts of whale, blood, oil, and tools.  The job done, the men go below deck to clean themselves, put on fresh clothes and emerge renewed. Instead of sleeping, they celebrate their freedom from the toil by singing, dancing and drinking as if they were at a wedding instead of a whaling ship. All the while each of them knows that if the call, "There she blows!" is heard, they'll be right back where they started, slopping the decks and themselves for the sake of the invaluable whale oil.
I can sympathize. My husband and I are remodelling a 1940 Cape Cod with most of the work and all of the cleaning being our responsibility.  Instead of doing one room at a time, plumbing and electrical repairs have forced us to do the entire house all at once.  We have ripped up floors, torn down walls, and sanded the remaining plaster and trim, leaving every crevice covered with a fine powdery dust that seems to elude all cleaning devices!  The process of organizing and cleaning after a days work takes the most effort on my part because I know that only a few hours after wiping down everything in the house, vacuuming with the shop vac, scrubbing the planks of our wood floors on my hands and knees with a bucket of soapy water and rags, my reward is to take a shower, collapse in bed, and get up early to do it all over again.  I know I sound like Sisyphus, each day pushing his boulder up the slope, only to have it roll all the way down again, but  like the men in Moby Dick, after working as hard as I can, I need to know that in the evenings there is an end to the task and toil, even if it is temporary.
While I am working, I imagine that I am on the Pequod, scrubbing the decks and storing each tool in its proper place.  I wish I could be there in the evening when the work is done, out in the open ocean, singing and drinking ale with Ishmael, Queequeg and Tashtego, under the stars. I wish, even more, that the crew could join me in the morning to help me prime the trim.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Battering-Ram Blues

These past two weeks I have been plowing through Moby Dick with an interest heightened by the uncanny parallel experiences in my life. Melville begins "The Battering-Ram" with, "Ere quitting, for the nonce, the Sperm Whale's head, I would have you, as a sensible physiologist, simply-particularly remark its front aspect, in all its compacted collectedness.  I would have you investigate it now with a sole view of forming to yourself some unexaggerated intelligent estimate of whatever battering-ram power may be lodged there."  The Sperm Whales massive head has side-set eyes and ears, a boom-like lower jaw and a formless flat front.  The head being nearly one third of the whale's length without a single bone until you get twenty feet from the forehead.  "Wherefore, you must now have perceived that the front of the Sperm Whale's head is a dead, blind wall, without a single organ or tender prominence of any sort whatsoever."  
TERRIFYING!  I could picture Moby's dead, blind wall coming straight toward the slow bulk of the whaling vessel and almost feel the forceful, jarring impact.  I could see the stunned sailors, in that still moment of realization that comes after a shocking event.  It must be something like being hit by a large pick-up truck while driving a small foreign car distractedly through a red light early one sunny Saturday morning.  At least, that's what I thought a few days after reading this chapter. Cruising through the calm streets of my small country town, I was wishing I'd finished my morning cup of coffee before leaving the house. In a fraction of a second, I became horrifyingly aware of the blind, unfeeling flat front of a battering-(Dodge) Ram pick-up, crashing through the driver side door and front end of the car, sending it spinning through the intersection, and yes my friends, the halter round my neck was painfully present.  There it was, just like Melville said it would be, with the realization that mortality is ever present, hidden by a thin veil of sophomoric security, and I didn't feel devil-may-care at all. 
Harvey, my loyal Golden Retriever, and I crawled out of the passenger door of what used to be my little Honda, now completely totalled.  Thankfull that no one was injured, we made our way to the sidewalk and stood in shocked silence, our six legs shaking.  In minutes, my handsome husband was at my side, giving me a hug, saying, "everything will be all right", and taking Harvey and me home.  Eventually, we picked out a sensible used Chevy Malibu, ironically the same dark, bluish-gray of a Right Whale.  I've named the car, Moby, to remind me to pay better attention while driving and to be on the look out for battering-rams on the road. 
Moby Dick, is right around the corner from the lonely Pequod, but Ahab won't have the luxury of contacting his insurance agent to replace his totalled ship or to cover the cost of any damage the men or the whale may suffer after the devastating impact.  Poor Ishmael, Queequeg, and Tashteego.  I wish I could tell them everything will be all right and whisk them home.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Ropes and Halters- Not A Horse Story

This hot July afternoon, after an aborted nap attempt, I decided to spend my time in bed with Moby.  Melville's chapter on the whale-line described the different types of ropes on whaling ships and then detailed the use of the whale-line itself.  (Great.)
While reading Melville's standard preface to a non-fiction chapter (my favorite), "With reference to the whaling scene shortly to be descibed (yah right), as well as for the better understanding of all similar scenes elsewhere presented, I have here to speak of the magical, sometimes horrible whale-line.", I thought that this just might be what my afternoon insomnia required. But before I knew it, he got me!  Leave it to Melville's beautiful use of word choice and phrase to make whale-lines profound and even interesting.  Instead of imagining hanging myself, like Archie Bunker, with the invisible whale-line, I was completely caught up in the image of the rope and its massive canvas cloaked American tub-line as a serpent inside a giant wedding cake being delivered to the whales.  And the rope posed a huge threat to the sailors!  It was coiled around the ship and could, at any moment, rip off one of the unsuspecting sailors arms, legs or pull their entire body under water!  After describing the danger sailors face when surrounded, quite literally, by the rope, Melville explains the only the rookie sailors are uneasy with the threat of being dismembered or killed.  The seasoned sailors take on the adventure and its danger with a stoicism only Puritan New Englanders could muster.  As Melville sees it, (Or is it Ishmael during these nonfiction chapters?) "All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life."  Cheerful.
With that in mind, I decided that if Herman is right and I am surrounded, right here in my bed, by silent, subtle perils of life, I might as well get up, have fun and go for a motorcycle ride with my handsome husband through the mountains.  Having adopted Melville's Devil-may-care attitude,  I wasn't once bothered by the halter round my neck, not even while sitting under a shady mountain tree, drinking an icy Coke and eating French fries and soft ice cream.  I wonder if Melville was afraid of heart disease.