Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Sick Water

It was a beautiful lake if you looked at it from a distance. There were fields sloping down to the water’s edge on the far shore and rolling hills visible beyond. Several nicely-built homes dotted other stretches of waterfront but the lake was dying.

This wasn’t what I expected to find. Exploring back roads on the other side of Lewiston last week, I’d picked up a sandwich and pulled over to a sandy beach on Sabattus Pond next to Route 126. It was a humid ninety degrees and one would expect the beach to be packed with cars, children and mothers on beach chairs; but it wasn’t. Mine was the only car and the only life in evidence was a couple of crows hopping along past the occasional soda can or discarded food wrapper. Further down was a boarded-up old bath house. This was mid-July, the height of Maine’s summer, and the beach looked like a moonscape. I got out, walked to the water’s edge, and looked down. The lake was almost opaque in a yellowish green haze, a kind of thinned-out pea soup. Depressing.

Sabattus Pond is a misnomer. It’s big enough to be a lake and that makes its impending death more tragic. I had questions - like when did the lake get sick, for instance, so I checked out my Maine Atlas and Gazetteer and found a boat landing along the western shore. Two guys were backing up a trailer to a floating bass boat and I asked one how long the water had been like this. He’d only been around about six years, he said, and the algae blooms occurred every year. He’d heard there was a chicken farm on a river flowing into the lake that had fouled it. “Killed it,” was more accurate I thought. Looking at the atlas again, I noticed one of the in-flowing rivers was aptly named - the Dead River. “The bass fishing is good,” he said, “but I wouldn’t dare eat any of them.”

Further along the Sawyer Road next to the eastern edge of Sabattus Pond, there were smaller roads leading to the shore. Exploring these, I noticed cottages with water frontage in fairly good repair, but on the inland side of the roads many were not maintained. Quite a few displayed overgrown lawns, rusty old “For Sale” signs, and generalized disrepair. Some appeared outright abandoned. It was depressing.

As I crossed the town line from Sabattus into Greene, the road moved away from the shore and properties were typical of rural Maine - some were kept up and others neglected. At the top of a hill was a beautiful farm with meticulously managed grounds. Next to it was a handsome stone building called the Sawyer Memorial, but its parking lot hadn’t been used for a while and I wondered why. There was grass growing up through cracks in the pavement. On the other side of the road I was surprised to see dozens of big old post-WWII army trucks parked in rows. I wondered what were they doing on a horse farm. A mile further on was a huge, fenced-in area containing several hundred old trucks painted in green camouflage. Researching online later, I learned they were M813, 5-ton, army vehicles manufactured in the 1980s. This compound looked deserted also. Tall grass growing up around them indicated the trucks hadn’t moved in a while. In my gloomy mood, the endless rows of metal and rubber seemed a huge waste.

Further along, I came to an old cemetery in the town of Wales. Gravestones dating back to the early 1800s had been pushed over and several were broken. Obelisks were toppled and though the grass had been mowed, no one had seen fit to repair the damage. The scene depressed me even further. Veterans of every conflict since the Civil War were buried there and I wondered who would wish to dishonor the graves of patriots. Was it an antiwar protest? Mindless vandalism by purposeless young men with nothing else to do? I couldn’t tell. Neither could I decide which would be worse.

A bit further on, the lake was back in view and I looked down across rolling hay fields to the sparkling water. Had I not stood on its shore, I wouldn’t have known it was dying. It was still beautiful from high up, reflecting the sun back to me, but its condition was critical. My circumnavigation showed not a single person swimming in it. Could the lake be flushed out and brought back to life? If so, what would it take? I thought of Kezar Lake in my own town. Its waters are still pure and I realized how important it is to keep them that way.

Sabattus Pond is dying. I strongly suspect, after my two-hour tour around it, that the economic and social health of the three communities on its shores is also suffering as a direct result.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Eyes Have It

“I care more and more about less and less,” said the old man.

He’d just recovered from two brushes with death, each requiring major surgery and I had asked him how he was feeling. That was his answer. He looked me in the eye and waited for me to respond. For several seconds I thought about it and then asked him what he meant. “The number of things that concern me has narrowed as I get older,” he explained, “but I care more about those things than I used to.”

I understood that. He’d chosen his words carefully. He continued to look at me and I could see in his eyes that he was okay. He’d accepted that he would die sooner or later and probably sooner, but he didn’t seem anxious about it. He was a religious man and he’d had many heartaches in his long life. He was no stranger to suffering - physical, emotional and spiritual. We were friends because he let me know him and I wondered if our friendship was one of the things he still cared about. I didn’t ask, but I believe it was. We had discussed much about what troubled us and what made us happy, but words were not the only way we communicated. Silent eye contact said a great deal. He didn’t look away when we talked or when we paused and I could see no guile in his eyes. There’s wisdom in that old Yiddish proverb: “The eyes are the mirrors of the soul,” and also in the quote from Emerson: “The eyes indicate the antiquity of the soul.” The old man had lived through a long life with many hills and valleys and swamps. He didn’t look forward to dying, but there was no fear in his eyes.

When I was a young man, death was part of my job. My college classes were all in the morning and I worked a 3-11 shift every night at a geriatric hospital where people didn’t get better and go home. They went there to die and if they had their marbles, they knew it. As an orderly, I fed them, cleaned them up when they soiled themselves, put them to bed at night, and brought them down to the morgue when they died. During my two-and-a-half years there, many dozens died on my shift. I cleaned their bodies, tied on their toe tags, wrapped them in their shrouds, lifted them onto the stretcher and brought them down to the “cooler” from which the undertakers would pick them up. Most didn’t go gracefully, but some did and I’ll always remember those. Often I could tell how they would deal with their deaths by looking in their eyes.

Some people I’ve been acquainted with for years don’t let me know them. They guard their eyes in various ways, and they have a repertoire of personas they put on and take off like a set of clothes, only more quickly. Whatever is real under all that I never see. Maybe I wouldn’t want to if I could. G. K. Chesterton said, “There’s a road from eye to heart that does not go through the intellect,” but for these people, that road is blocked. Some block it on purpose; some aren’t even aware.

Other people let me know them. After we get friendly, a few will confide that I made them nervous by the way I looked at them when we first met. They were intimidated. That surprised me at first; then it started to bother me because I didn’t intend to make them uncomfortable. Lately though, I’m coming to accept it. I’m just not very good at small talk and I don’t often engage in it. If there’s nothing to say, I prefer to look and listen silently to people, and that makes some of them nervous. Sometimes my mind will wander while I’m trying to listen. That’s rude, I know, but I can’t help it. If I think of it, I’ll smile more when I’m looking at someone to try and soften whatever their impression might be, but only if it’s a real smile. I don’t want to fake it. Life is too short for pretense.

Familiarity with death isn’t morbid. Awareness of death can enrich life. One of life’s few certainties is that we all die. It’s just a matter of how and when. Though I can’t say for sure, I believe there are worse things than death and a meaningless life is probably one of them. We humans need to believe in something greater than ourselves. As the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. put it: “If a man has nothing he would die for, he isn’t fit to live.”

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Music, Politics and Culture

There were few if any country music stations where I grew up in suburban Boston. Nobody I knew wore cowboy hats. My musical tastes were heavily influenced by my peer group. It was rock and roll, folk music and protest songs we listened to in the car and at dances. Later, at college, it was more of the same.

My first exposure to country music was after my best friend Philip quit high school, joined the army, and went to Vietnam. When he returned, he had developed a taste for Johnny Cash and other country singers. He was almost embarrassed to tell me because it wasn’t considered cool to like that kind of music. I wasn’t confident enough to withstand criticism of my peer group in those days, so I resisted listening to country music if anyone else was around, but I kind of liked Johnny Cash too.

My college friends believed it really was possible to put an end to war for all time and their musical tastes reflected that. The lyrics condemned war and capitalism while extolling pacifism and socialism. Country music seemed its polar opposite, producing songs with lyrics like: “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee. We don’t take our trips on LSD.” Singer/songwriter Merle Haggard actually did smoke marijuana - maybe not in Muskogee, but certainly in several other venues. He said he wrote the song to describe how his long-dead father would have looked at the 1960s.

Country music celebrated patriotism, family, God, and other traditional American values. Aficionados understood that the necessity for a strong military defense was constant. The idea that there was anything shameful in our military heritage was completely foreign to them. Just as it would always be necessary to defend oneself against bullies on the playground, it would always be necessary to defend our country from threat of invasion or takeover. Such was the human condition. Views like that were horrifying to people at the colleges I went to.

The boy meets girl theme was also common in country music but it was always monogamous. As Haggard sang: “We don’t make a party out of lovin’.” It wasn’t Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” No. Country music fans saw that as cheating. If someone strayed, country singers wailed sadly over the heartbreak that always came with it.

A condescending view toward country music prevailed where I grew up and it’s still with us here in much of the northeast where people like to listen to NPR. they think country music fans are dumb rednecks. NPR listeners are intelligent and sophisticated. There’s a definite red-state/blue-state correlation also. David J. Firestein, career State Department diplomat (working on his own), analyzed the distribution of country music radio stations in areas that voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004. He concluded: “[I]f you were to overlay a map of the current country music fan base onto the iconic red-and-blue map of the United States, you would find that its contours coincide virtually identically with those of the red state region, probably right down to the county level.”

Would you want to bet that the NPR fan base would coincide pretty closely with the blue-state map? I would.

In his “Nashville Skyline” column, Chet Flippo describes country music fans thusly: “So Red pretty much means conservatives, upholders of traditional values, NRA members and beer drinkers. Blue is shorthand for liberals, tree-huggers, NPR listeners and wine sippers.” Flippo categorized James Taylor and Bruce Springsteen as country singers who appeal to blue state fans and Charlie Daniels and Toby Keith as country singers appealing to red state fans. Further distinctions between the two he describes this way: “It’s not geographic so much as it is mental. If it wears a cowboy hat, it’s Red. If it wears a beret, it’s Blue. Beer is Red. Merlot is so Blue. If your SUV is a Mercedes, BMW, Range Rover or Hummer, you’re Blue. If it’s a Jimmy or a Jeep, you’re Red. If your pickup truck is a Cadillac, you’re Blue. If it’s a Ford F-150, you’re Red. It’s snowmobiles vs. skis, power boats vs. sailboats; USA Today vs. the New York Times; Dunkin’ Donuts vs. Starbucks. Is your lawn mower a riding John Deere or a walking illegal alien? The first is obviously Red; the second, Blue.”

My pickup truck is a Toyota T-100 and I’m a wine sipper. The radio buttons in my car and my truck are set on talk radio stations, an oldies station, the local Conway, NH station which plays a nice mix of stuff, and NPR. One button in each vehicle is also set on a country music station. When NPR gets too smug, it’s a welcome antidote.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Distress Signals

We’re in trouble. As evidence, I saved four related articles with a common thread. Three are from - a Canadian Catholic newsletter, and one from the Boston Herald.

The first is about Spain. Last winter, the new Socialist government banned use of the terms “mother” and “father” on birth certificates. The father was to be listed as “Parent (progenitor) A” and mother as “Parent (progenitor) B.” Lesbian groups objected immediately, complaining that “progenitor” is a masculine term. They wanted “progenitora” which is feminine.

The second is from Ontario, Canada. The provincial government there is banning use of the terms “man,” “woman,” “wife,” “husband,” “widow” and “widower” from all Ontario law. The changes are an outgrowth of legalizing homosexual “marriage.”

The third is from Prince Edward Island, which is also banning traditional terms referring to members of families the way Ontario did. In PEI, there will be no more references to “bride” or “groom” on legal documents either, only the generic “spouse.”

The fourth is from The Boston Herald which reported last month that: “A Quincy [Massachusetts] mother says she was humiliated when an employee of the [Victoria’s Secret] lingerie franchise’s Faneuil Hall store flatly refused to allow her to breast-feed her daughter, directing her to a public restroom outside.”

All four articles represent disturbing, deconstructionist efforts to separate western perceptions of heterosexuality from reproduction, and from marriage and family. The story of a breast-feeding woman being shooed from Victoria’s Secret is telling, and not an isolated incident according to the Herald: “Last year, a woman was told she couldn’t breast-feed her baby in a Victoria’s Secret in South Carolina” and “[last month], sales associates at a Wisconsin Victoria’s Secret told a mother her exposed breast might offend some customers.” Can you believe this? Exposed breasts considered offensive by Victoria’s Secret?

Victoria’s Secret profits from the sensual display of women’s anatomy, especially breasts. While some may think such display immoral, I’m not necessarily one of them. As a lifelong heterosexual male, I’ve always appreciated women’s breasts. Even as an aging one whose other faculties are in decline, that appreciation doesn’t seem to diminish. Attracting male attention is one of the functions of the female breast and not an unhealthy one. Victoria’s Secret’s lingerie business is based on this fundamental human fact. However, to suggest that the other function of the breast - the nurturing function - could be offensive, is a dangerous bellwether for our time.

First Amendment cases adjudicated over several decades claim the display of women’s breasts can be protected speech, but according to the Herald article: “Massachusetts is one of the few states that doesn’t have laws to protect breast-feeding women. Women who breast-feed in public in Massachusetts can be charged with indecent exposure or lewd and lascivious conduct. A bill that would prevent people from booting breast-feeding mothers from public places and police from charging them has been stalled at the State House.” Yet, ultra-liberal Massachusetts is the only state to have legalized homosexual “marriage.” Maddening.

The US Supreme Court in “Lawrence vs Texas” somehow found a Constitutional right to sodomy. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court somehow found a state constitutional right for homosexuals to “marry.” The Socialist government of Spain and the Liberal Party government of Canada established similar rights. The reader has figured out by now that I consider these developments preposterous. They’re part of a concerted effort by the left to dissociate sexuality from reproduction, and to uncouple heterosexuality from its natural role in reproduction, marriage and family. Such intrinsic connections are “offensive,” they claim, and “heterosexist.” Homosexual activists lead the charge, relentlessly pressuring governments across the western world to cave in to their petulant demands.

What about the rest of us? What if we’re offended when we can’t be referred to as husbands and wives on marriage documents or as mothers and fathers on birth certificates? Why do we give in so timidly to bizarre demands from radical sexual minorities? What’s next? Abolishing Fathers’ Day and Mothers’ Day? Will we instead be forced to celebrate “Progenitors’ Day”?

I shouldn’t have to spell this out, but listen up: Forget what they told you in college. Men and women are different and they’re supposed to be. Most men are aggressive. Most women are nurturing. Women attract men, get them to commit, and tame them. We call this marriage. Sex is a tool for this - heterosexual only. Homosexuality has no place here. When men see women use their breasts to nurse their children, it taps instincts in them to stick around, be fathers to their children - especially their sons - and to use their aggressiveness for the protection of their families and communities. This is an important part of our cultural glue. To the extent that we follow this plan, our culture is strengthened. To the extent we deviate from it, our culture is weakened. The last four decades are testament to this.

I’ve been watching with alarm as the left eats away at that glue and puts us all in trouble. I’ve had enough. Have you?