Tuesday, October 27, 2015

My Favorite Mug

I didn’t want to bother St. Anthony to help me look for my coffee mug. For two days it was lost and I thought I looked everywhere, but then I found it so obviously I hadn’t. It’s a “Big Apple” mug — red plastic with a black cover and it fits well in my hand. It also fits in the cup holders of both my truck and car and it’s an important part of my life. My hand knows right where to go for a sip without my brain having to instruct it.

“Big Apple” has nothing to do with New York City lest readers from places outside Maine get that impression. It’s the name given to a chain of convenience stores in Maine and New Hampshire begun by the CN Brown Heating Oil Company way back in the twentieth century. Carleton N. Brown, for whom the company is named, lived on Christian Hill Road where I live now and I knew his daughter, Susie. Her daughter and my three were playmates, but that association has little to do with my attachment to that coffee mug. Like I said, it fits in my hand nicely. It’s comfortable. There’s a place on the rim of its black cover that melted in the dishwasher drying cycle sometime in the 90s and my thumb goes there automatically when I drink from it. I don’t have that dishwasher anymore — brought it to the Lovell dump years ago — but I still have the mug.
Everyone knows LL Bean is a Maine-based store. Smaller, but also unique to Maine are Reny's Department Stores and Big Apple Stores. I have an even older Big Apple mug that I keep at our South Portland house. It’s also red and black, but has a more uniform shape — made in the days before vehicles came with cup holders. It’s shorter, without that narrow part moulded into the bottom to fit cup holders. It fit on the dashboard of three different pickup trucks I drove back then, but not in the cup holders of my present vehicles. I use it only for afternoon tea which I tend to drink in the house or out on the deck. I also have a newer-vintage Big Apple mug down there for morning coffee and for traveling. I used to have about ten of them, but now I'm down to three.
All of them fit under the new Keurig machines we have in both houses too. I like my coffee dark while my wife likes hers medium, and since I was always up first to make the coffee when we had one of those old coffeemakers, I brewed it dark. “You can put more cream in yours,” I’d suggest to her, but she went out and bought those Keurigs. Each cup tends to be more expensive, but we get it the way we like it: Green Mountain Dark Magic for me and Dunkin Donuts for her. They’re extravagant, I know, but coffee is important. I have three mugfuls in the morning. Then it’s one cup of tea in the afternoon, a glass of red wine with dinner and another for dessert. 
When getting my twice-a-year teeth cleaning, Amy, my hygienist asks me if I drink coffee, tea or red wine, which stain teeth. “Yes,” I respond, “All three, and I have no intention of stopping any, ever.”
But back to St. Anthony. My wife nearly always suggests a prayer to him when I lose something because he’s the patron saint of lost things, she says. I’m not a true believer in that stuff but I have to admit, two valuable items I thought were gone forever turned up after she prayed to him. One was my first pair of prescription glasses.
We were on our boat in Kezar Lake and we pulled up onto a remote beach for a swim. I took off my glasses with their red lanyard and put them on the bow before diving in, but didn’t put them back on when we left. Later, when I noticed they were missing, I remembered where I’d left them and figured they were at the bottom in upper bay, which is the deepest part — over 160 feet. I imagined they bounced off the bow as we raced back to the marina over choppy water. For the next two weeks I wore old drugstore glasses and made another appointment with the optometrist. Each time I complained about them, my wife offered up another prayer. Then I was out for a boat ride with a client/friend and asked him to go over close to that beach. There they were with their red lanyard on the sandy bottom in about three feet of water.
While loading a pile of brush into my truck last summer, I swatted a bug near my ear and knocked one of my tiny hearing aids into the brush pile I was standing in. I had paid $5600 for both a year before, so I carefully examined every limb I loaded, but couldn’t find it. My wife again suggested St. Anthony, but again I was skeptical. She went with me to unload at the dump, and together we examined each limb carefully as we offloaded — and suddenly there on the tailgate was my $2800 hearing aid.

Coincidence? Who knows? Thank you St. Anthony.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Rich and Poor

Our federal government classified me as poor when I moved to Maine in August, 1977. My family of four was “under the poverty line” according to their way of measuring things. I had just taken a job as Director of Special Education for Maine School Administrative District #72 in Fryeburg at an annual salary of $9200. With four individuals to feed, clothe, and house, our federal government said I was poor and eligible for lots of programs which we didn’t use. That our daughter, Annie, was still in utero portended deeper “poverty” when she was to be born in December. Then our son, Ryan, came along five years later when my salary was still about the same. As a family of six, we must have gone from poor to very poor in the eyes of government.
Rather than take assistance from taxpayers, I chose to take on additional work. For most of my teaching career, I carried two or three part-time jobs as a caretaker, a writer, and a ski instructor — working all four simultaneously during several of those years. After all the kids were in school, my wife took on various part time jobs as well. She waitressed, cleaned houses, and drove a school bus before going back to school herself to become a therapist. She’s been doing that for almost twenty years, the last five or so part time. Each of us now works the equivalent of a half time job — roughly twenty hours a week. Now our federal government considers me rich because our combined household income is in the top quintile according the census statistics. I don’t worry about bills because my wife and I made it a priority to pay them off some time ago.
Ours is a common story. The “poor” don’t remain poor unless they stay on government programs. If they work, they often become “rich.”
Angus Deaton

Why tell you all this? Because it was announced last week that Princeton University’s Angus Deaton was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics, in part because of his work measuring poverty. I didn’t expect to agree with Deaton on much considering the Nobel committee awarded a previous economics prize to Paul Krugman, but I looked him up anyway and found his observations quite reasonable. The first thing I came to was a 2003 essay he wrote called “Measuring Poverty.” In it, Deaton writes:
“Everyone has some idea what poverty is, and most people have little difficulty answering the question, ‘Do you consider yourself poor?’ although some people need a moment or two to think about it. Nor do people find it hard to answer the same question about their neighbors or other people that they know. Yet these simple ideas turn out to be hard to extend to countries, and harder still to the world as a whole.”
International agencies like the United Nations and the World Bank work mainly to mitigate poverty rather than spur economic development. Doing so, they allow local people to self-identify according to Deaton and that’s a problem, he says: 
“…It is not possible to push this local poverty identification too far. If the sums to be distributed are large enough, they become worth misappropriating, and there is an incentive for people to identify their friends and relatives (or themselves) as poor. Similarly, some NGOs have discovered that, if they use the poverty identification to enroll people into employment or training schemes, then after a few visits everyone is reported to be poor.”
I would point out here that in local school districts there is a similar phenomenon — applications for free and reduced lunches sent to each family each September are not vetted. I’ve asked people in at least three Maine districts and none vet the applications. They don’t check to see if families fudge their income/assets because the district qualifies for lots of additional federal and state aid based on percentage “qualifying” for free or reduced lunch.
When I was teaching economics, we found it necessary to define poverty. Students and I agreed that one is poor if he lacks sufficient funds to purchase food, clothing, shelter, and medical care to sustain life. We also agreed that someone is rich if he has enough for those basic needs — and some left over. He’s a little rich if he has a little left, and very rich if he has a lot left.
There’s another definition on which my wife and I agree: We’re rich, not just because we have everything we need and some left over, but also because we have everything we want — everything that money can buy, at least. Some may say our wants are modest and maybe they are, but they’re ours. They were established during lean times when our family was young and they haven’t changed much. We learned to live on less and haven’t forgotten how. We learned to be happy with what we have, and that became the habit of a lifetime.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Roman Musings

Ah, Roma. That’s what natives call it. Others say it’s the Eternal City and we spent the whole week there. I got a good feel for the place, but I’ll need a lot more time to process my impressions.
Riley and Roseann at St. Peter's Square

Our Tuesday Colisseum tour was much better than the Vatican tour I mentioned last week. It was outside, not as crowded, and with better electronics between the guide’s microphone and my earphones. The Vatican had been, stuffy, crowded, and boring. It was too visual with all the paintings and marble inlay on floors, walls, and ceilings — and tapestries. Who likes them? There were lots of painted maps and those would have interested me if I had time to examine them, but we were moved along as if on an assembly line. The paintings showed people in togas or mostly nude, with lots of muscles, penises, beards and breasts. The guide told us Michelangelo was homosexual, as if she were giving us some inside information. I was glad when the tour was over.

 At left is God's butt by Michelangelo

Did I really care if Michelangelo resented the pope who hired him and so painted the Creator mooning us? No. Did I care that he resented a bishop so much that he painted him in hell with a snake consuming his family jewels for eternity?
Not really. I think everyone concerned had too much money and too much time. Yeah, Michaelangelo was a talented sculptor, painter, and architect, but likely high-maintenance as well.

The Colisseum made more sense. Those three Flavian emperors who built it spent lots of money to entertain the masses, and completed that impressive structure in only seven years. Remarkable. With an elaborate system of elevators and trap doors beneath the building’s floor, our guide said they pushed up gladiators to fight each other and wild animals to tear criminals apart in front of 50,000 spectators who all got in for nothing — but no Christians being eaten by lions, she insisted. This guide was a Sicilian archaeologist who spoke excellent English with very little accent. I understood everything. My 15-year-old grandson, Riley, was as fascinated by all this as he was bored by the paintings and sculptures at the Vatican.
Floor partially rebuilt to show what it was like

My Catholic education from second grade through high school emphasized Christian martyrs who died in the Colosseum, so I was surprised when she didn’t mention them. I asked why, and she said there was no evidence Christians were killed there and I didn’t challenge her. Later when I looked it up, I discovered different accounts — typical for history. Some said they were Christians martyred there and some said they were not. I guess the guide and others trusted only some accounts and distrusted others. That’s their right, of course, but to say there was no evidence? Certainly there are Catholic Church accounts, but our guide must have doubts about those. Whenever she mentioned the church or “the popes” as she described them, it was in a negative context. That was true for all three guides we hired during our one-week stay.
Entrance to old Church of St. Sebastian Palatine Hill

Then there was the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill next door to the Colosseum. Nearly everything was in ruin, but our guide had images of what parts of it looked like in their prime — very impressive. We cannot know everything about how it looked because records are incomplete and images are scarce as well.
Interesting face in old Jewish Ghetto

For the last three days we hired a tour guide named Christian. With him, we walked around the city seeing the Spanish Steps, Jewish Ghetto, the Pantheon, as well as countless piazzas and fountains full of naked and half-dressed muscular guys, lots of women with breasts exposed, and boys next to fish squirting water. I liked walking up and down narrow streets with centuries-old buildings interspersed with millennia-old ruins. Throughout nearly the entire city was decades-old graffiti, never a good sign. Maybe what’s left of the empire will decline as well. Though it annoys my wife when I focus on graffiti wherever I see it, its presence or absence is, respectively, a sign of decline or of progress. It’s a barometer — a canary in the coal mine, so to speak.
Shrine to Mary above graffiti on old passageway

We returned Sunday after traveling for twenty hours, and I was very glad to get back to Maine, to my own bed, my own shower, my old routine. It’s marvelous that we can fly sitting in a chair seven miles high and cross continents and oceans in a day, but it’s still tiring. I don’t want to get back on one for a long while if I can help it. The older I get, the more I appreciate home. I’ll write more about the trip, but two columns in a row about Rome are enough for the time being. Don’t want to bore my readers.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

When In Rome...

Me and Riley at St. Peter's Square

It’s a long way from Lovell, Maine to Rome, Italy. After traveling for thirty hours, we arrived exhausted at our rented condominium outside the Eternal City Saturday afternoon about 3:00 pm local time. We dropped our fifteen-year-old grandson, Riley, for nap, while my wife and I shopped for groceries. We cooked, ate, and all went to bed early. Sunday morning, we took the Metro (subway) into the city and learned how to get the Colisseum and the Vatican. I didn’t expect to run into anyone I knew, but I recognized a guy just outside the colonnade around St. Peter’s Square and called to him.
That's Michael Voris in the middle

His name is Michael Voris, but he didn’t know me. I knew him because does an online show called “The Vortex” out of Detroit on Church Militant TV, a web-based subscription video service for conservative Catholics and I’d seen several episodes sent to me by a fan of my column. He is a hard-hitting, Emmy Award winning journalist who ruffles feathers in the American Catholic Church and he’s in Rome covering the Synod on the Family. He told me he would be posting his first report Monday and he did, calling it the “Sodomy Synod.” He believes there is a cabal within the Catholic Church that wants to bring it around to approving homosexuality and is using the synod as its vehicle to accomplish that. It’s going to be an interesting month watching his coverage and comparing it with what is shown in American Mainstream Media.
Carly Fiorina

I had a telephone interview with Carly Fiorina scheduled for Friday morning, just before we left on the first leg of the trip. My plan was to transcribe it on the red eye flight but the recording equipment I brought to our South Portland, Maine house failed and I had to postpone until after I return to Lovell. I’m glad to see my fellow Americans are responding positively to Fiorina’s campaign and she’s moved up to second in the polls. Italy is nice, but the longer I’m here, the more American I feel, and I still keep an eye on what’s happening back home.
Inside St. Peter's Basilica

Sunday’s commute in and out of Rome was easy, but Monday’s wasn’t. Rush hour here is worse than Boston, but we arrived in time for our pre-paid tour of the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. All were impressive, especially St. Peter’s. We had to be silent in the Sistine Chapel and couldn’t take pictures, but prior to going in our guide told us much about Botticelli, Michelangelo, and others hired by various popes to decorate. Although I paid for a small-group, skip-the-line tour, we all felt like cattle being moved along through narrow passageways competing for space and oxygen with other groups speaking different languages. It was noisy, and we were given receivers with ear plugs ostensibly to overcome ambient noise and hear our English-speaking guide, but they didn’t work well for me. I could understand only 5-10% of what she said because of her Italian accent and the static. It didn’t help that I had to take the hearing aid out of my left ear to insert her earpiece. I felt claustrophobic and oxygen-deprived throughout - even in the huge St. Peter’s Basilica.
Still, I’m very glad we went. It was the best I could afford, and now we’ve seen it. I came away with many impressions, not the least of which was that it’s all way too ostentatious and decadent. I admire Pope Francis for rejecting the palatial quarters traditional for popes and taking a simple room elsewhere. I admire him for using a small Fiat during his recent American visit. I don’t admire his comments about capitalism, climate change, air conditioning, and other things but I like that he is toning down the opulence. It’s way over the top and has been for centuries.
Taking the Metro home on a business day was more than a trip. After being moved through the Vatican like sheep, we experienced the anarchy of the Roman subway system. Many of the cars arrived covered in graffiti inside and out. Getting on and off required some muscle to hold our own against those who would elbow us aside trying to squeeze into a car before the doors closed and I had to make sure all three of us were inside. Then we rode like sardines holding on to the supports as the cars accelerated and slowed down between stops.
 Next to me in Metro subway car

It all reminded me why I don’t like big cities, but we’ll do it all again tomorrow for the Colisseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill Tour. More about that next week.