Perhaps the oldest method of communication over time and distance is the letter. Hand written and then in modern times typed, the letter became one of the most valued of all source materials for historians, scholars and investigators.

Until the advent of the computer and the internet, the hand written letter that was placed in an envelope and mailed or sent by courier was fundamental to communication throughout the world.

Certainly, the runner, the drum, the smoke signal all filled a need and purpose specially in aboriginal cultures but as writing developed, words were put down on the medium du jour, be it wood, clay, papyrus or paper and sent to a recipient at some distance.

I did not grow up in a writing family.  I remember sitting in an elementary classroom with my Big Chief tablet and pencil writing my name and wondering what else could go after that.  It wasn’t until my late 20’s when I was in college that writing letters became a regular part of my life.  As classmates moved on, the need to remain in touch spawned a period of letter writing for which I had no background at all but which I enthusiastically pursued.  I found that expressing my thoughts in a letter was keenly satisfying.  Alas, I had too few correspondents over the years who felt the same way.

My handwriting was minimally decipherable from the beginning.  A genetic defect, I’m sure. I have come to believe this was, at part, the reason for my limited correspondence.  How could you respond to something you couldn’t read?  It’s a fair question.

The thing about a handwritten letter is that it is handcrafted.  This seems too obvious to mention, but by that I mean it is something you can stand back and look at from all angles and re-evaluate and change or polish, and more importantly, leave to age appropriately before posting.  I have been known to tear a letter in two and throw it in the trash, thankful that I did not hastily post it when done.

The other thing about an actual letter is that you can hold it in your hand.  It is a thing, an object, a possession.  Receiving such a letter and holding it is a touchstone common to the sender and the recipient.  It is a shared “thing”.

I love email.  I love my computer with its spelling checker.  I love the speed with which I can communicate with someone and get a reply.  I love it, but it does not compare to the fundamental humanness of a physical letter.

I hardly ever hand write a letter anymore, but I wrote one today.  An old and treasured friend who, at last report, did not have a computer and wrote to me in perfectly legible printed pages.  Front and back.  Often with a line or two of poetry within.  I went on for three pages realizing how good it feels to write a letter and to hold it in my hand for proof reading, then folding it and putting it in an envelope.  

OK, I have to confess – I did not hand write it with a fountain pen.  I did it on my computer and printed it out.  I did, after all want her to be able to read it.  

I think there ought to be a national day of letter writing.  A physical letter that you write by hand with a fountain pen or type out and put in an envelope and mail.  The activity of manually producing a letter seems to me to be critical, not only for the appreciation of our humanity, but also to preserving that appreciation for succeeding generations.  

Teach your children to write letters. Revive the practice yourself.  Pass it on.

Go on and do it.  Write a letter.  Somebody is waiting.

“Write me a letter.  Send it by mail.  Send it in care of The Birmingham Jail.”

Be well and stay in touch  . . . 

Jerry Henderson

Another storm is coming. This one sounds messy. Ice, freezing rain and power outages. I don’t know where the plowman is going to put the snow and slush.

l have, just in case, made a couple of meals that should feed us for the duration of any power failures we may have – mac & cheese (the enhanced version) and a big pot of Border Chili. The latter is always enhanced. I’ll also make a pan of cornbread muffins which can be a meal in and of themselves. I have even considered a bowl of red potato salad but enough is enough. If I had only a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter for the next few days I would not starve and would feel moderately nourished as well. Any 12 year old boy knows this.

I also have the generator out and ready to bring online. I hope that’s not necessary. Other preparations include charging up all my electronic devices: iPod, iPhone, Laptop and my Nook that is full of enough reading material to get me through an entire week or more. It glows in the dark!

I have this library book that looked quite good right at the checkout counter and so I brought it home. It’s by a Maine author and it involves a mysterious plane crash decades ago, a suitcase of money, a puzzling list of names and numbers and a bunch of dark characters who seem to be up to no good and who turn out to be – are you ready for this? Fallen angels. Fallen angels? Give me a break. I’ve been tricked. I thought this was just a plain old mystery. Well I am a third into the thing and I will finish the thing. I mean, fallen angels?

You see, these two old codgers go into the woods hunting and stumble on this airplane half subsumed into the sod by this viscous black water pond. Inside they find nearly a quarter million dollars in cash and a strange list of names and numbers. Not only that but there are seats, including the pilot’s seat with handcuffs attached to an arm that has been torn loose. You see what I mean? And right at the center of all this are these characters who have been kicked out of heaven for some celestial infraction, probably smoking in the throne room of God, or whacking off behind the Dormitory of the Saints.

So, this investigator has been engaged to find out what’s up and that’s where I am. It is kind of fun reading about places I actually know from my own experience. Who knows, by the time the power comes back on and the chili is gone, I might be a fan of this guy. I’ll let you know.

OK, now to locate batteries and lamp oil. I see the wind has picked up but so far no precipitation to amount to much. Welcome to Maine in February. The way life should be.

And….Here….We….Go!

For years, among various groups of my friends, the idea was broached, off and on, that a group of us should move into a compound-like setting and while living independently, take care of each other as the need arose. I think it instructive that not one substantive idea was ever floated among us. To me, there is something organic about multi-generational and multi-family communal style living. Perhaps it harkens back to some tribal gene that still floats around in the genetic soup.

I have outlived my ability to deny my extraordinary selfishness and need for personal space. However, the other side of that coin is the reality of my own growing dependence – not yet apparent but inevitable. That this seemingly good idea never got beyond the “what if” stage indicates a real lack of willingness to give up the “castle domain” to any idea that diluted privacy, control and even property.

I recently read an article in the Times about a movement by some builders to build houses that support extended family. These designs usually end up being self contained units that are in some way separated from the larger part of the house. They usually have private entrances and do not require crossing paths with others under the same roof unless intended.

There are zoning problems with this kind of housing in many areas, usually put in place to “protect” the area from what is supposed to be the evils of multi family dwellings and therefore the degrading of the neighborhood. I suppose if someone wanted to install 15 college students in a large house next door that would be a problem – the undisputed value of 15 college students notwithstanding. But to build a mother-in-law apartment in the house or cottage in the back yard is hardly the same thing. Yet zoning ordinances, where they exist, usually prohibit such additions. The thinking is that such a thing is just a foot in the door for those 15 rowdy college boys. Obviously.

The ugly truth is that not everybody is someone others want to live around. One young woman in the article I referred to said she would live in her car before living with any of her family. Such feelings come quickly to the surface when the suggestion of living in close proximity to others, and in particular the family of origin, is proposed.

The close knit village, the tribe, the family compound and the neighborhood have all disappeared into our dusty memories. Yet, the concepts live on as though some unseen hook won’t let go. The dedicated enclave for older people seems to be gaining some ground. The thinking I suppose is that a shared life cycle position would encourage community which would, in turn, become a safety net for all.

All the ideas that have been floated with the intent to bring families and like-minded friends together as they grow older and need support seem to be good ones. If there is money these ideas seem to work more easily, as with everything else in life. For the majority of Americans without such resources what is left is some form of being cared for or at least “monitored” by family, friends or the community, and possibly some combination of these resources.

As I have noted, if there is enough money one can buy into some security and care in one’s old age. What one can’t buy into is what I have been alluding to all along: compassion – to empathize with another’s situation – to suffer with. Compassion is the backbone of human love. Without it all the grand ideas mentioned above are just fluff.

But you need to be careful about compassion. If it gets out of hand, it can define your life. I’ve seen it happen. It’s scary. I’m working on it gently. A little here, a little there. So far, I have learned to spell it and use the word in a complete sentence. There’s hope.

Be well, and stay tuned.

From time to time I make a pot of chili. Chili is not something you want to eat every day. Not, of course, unless you are masochistic or need a de-worming treatment. I really do not understand anyone who can’t enjoy a bowl of red from time to time, and take it hot and spicy. I know – I know: this is New England and the palette is somewhat more refined and sensitive. Think: uneducated. Think: provincial. Think: unadventurous. OK, OK, I’m sorry. I couldn’t help myself. It won’t happen again.

As Nemo approached our little enclave of tranquility, I began to think of food. I mean why not? It needed to be something I could make ahead of time incase the lights went out, and I would have bet money on it with 50 MPH winds in he forecast.

I had just purchased a few red potatoes and felt that if there was a bowl of my famous red potato salad in the fridge I could survive as long as a full day on that alone. So I did that and stashed it in the bottom of the fridge – and forgot it. In the meantime CA became stranded in Auburn where she is a hospice nurse and couldn’t come home Saturday morning as scheduled and had to bunk up at the Hospice House in room # 7, and then do another shift Saturday night. This meant I am alone for supper on a Saturday night. Don’t worry – it’s not the first time.

So anyway, as I was getting a couple of cubes for my “first one tonight” I noticed a tub of frozen Border chili sitting there in the freezer. I say, “Wow, I believe that’s what’s for dinner!”  Well, if I am going to have chili – and I remembered that batch as being specially zippy – I felt that there should be a pan of jalapeño cornbread just to maintain a sense of harmony. And it could be made ahead of time. The chili could be heated on the wood stove if necessary. I’m all set.

Then I remembered the bowl of red potato salad in the bottom of the fridge and was suddenly struck with the realization that I was about to put on the table three of the world’s most valued foods. Border chili, ( any border will do ) Jalapeño Cornbread and red potato salad.

Now, folks, I can just hear the naysayers in chorus decrying such a combination but I can tell you that unless you have tried it keep quiet and dig in first. Obviously cornbread and chili are a natural pair, but cornbread and red potato salad go together well. So, if the cornbread and red potato salad go together and the cornbread and chili go together, wouldn’t it be logical that the chili and red potato salad are suited to each other as well? Of course. Any rational mind can see this. And besides, the potato salad serves to cool down the “bite” for the more sensitive tongue.

Suddenly, a snow bound Saturday night was alive and taking nourishment.

There was once a place on S Broadway in Bangor called Perry’s Famous For Clams. It was a biker, blue collar neighborhood “regulars” kind of place. On any given evening it was not unusual to have a cop swing through looking for someone and heading straight for the kitchen, or have the same three or four people sitting on the same stools nursing their light beers into the evening, each in his or her own private place. It was a comfortable place where everyone was comfortable with everyone else.

This was tested from time to time. One evening with the temperatures in the single numbers and three foot snow banks preempting most parking spaces we were there feasting on some of those famous clams with crumbs rather than batter – both were famous – and this rather portly woman, dressed in high heels, stockings, knee length dress, baubles of every kind and mink coat, sort of slithered off her stool and found an unoccupied booth in which to lay down and proceed to go to sleep. Nobody seemed to be that upset and clams were consumed in prodigious amounts along with enough beer to take the edge off a rather cold winter’s night.

After a while a taxi driver came in and the barman nodded toward the mink coat and all eyes turned temporarily toward a situation that promised, if nothing else, to be entertaining. With great amounts of prodding and levering and pleading in terms that led me to think this had happened before, the mink coat was coaxed out to the cab and hopefully to her warm bed somewhere in the Queen City. It was not unusual, as I looked around the room, to see smiles and lips moving in whispers, as was happening at my table as well. I mean TV couldn’t even get close to this.

Woefully, Perry’s Famous For Clams was bulldozed to make way for a huge parking lot and another Shaws High Priced grocery store. How much actual culture do we need to give up for more over priced, over packaged, over hyped processed food? And don’t forget the acres of smooth gray concrete.

Here’s my favorite Perry’s Famous For Clams story. Quite late one night after practicing for a play I was starring in ?, a few of us went out looking for a late night bite to eat. You know how it is. Nothing was open and then we thought of Perry’s. Of course, it was open. However, the kitchen was closed. No clams. We put on out best sorrowful faces and the guy shook his head falling for our little “act” saying that all he could do for us is a sandwich and all he had was bologna. And it’s white bread, he added. We all laughed. You ever had a bologna sandwich and a pint of ale? It could have been much worse, and in fact we enjoyed it. It was midnight in central Maine. We knew our options were limited.

When we called for the check the barman charged us only for the ale. We thanked him profusely and he smiled graciously and said for us to get out so he could close up.

Though it’s two hours away on a good night, It would be comforting to know Perry’s Famous For Clams was still there on a frosty winter’s night – with a bologna sandwich for back-up.

When I sit in my soft chair in the morning with my cup of darkroast, I look out two windows that are about eight feet apart. The one on the right presents a view of thick trees and a few patches of northeastern sky beyond. The left window gives onto the hillside that is immediately behind the house and to the north. 

These views are fundamentally different, yet are vitally connected. I am reminded of what it must be like for some animals with eyes on the sides of their heads. You have to wonder what their brains do with all that information. I think the idea is that they have a heightened awareness of their environment beyond 180? to as much as 350+ degrees. A kind of defense mechanism – and early warning system, you think?  You’d have to ask representatives of the prey family of critters – those who are more likely to be eaten – rabbits, song birds, squirrels and deer, for instance, all with eyes on the sides of their heads.

Unfortunately, I am able only to see what’s presented in one window at a time. In practice, I don’t spend much time thinking about the issue. I just look out one window and think, “That’s nice”, then I check out the other window and think, “Wow! That’s nice too”.

My mind hurts when I try to visualize what a 350? field of view would be like sitting here in this nice easy chair. I like being able to move my eyes and turn my head to pick up the edges of my field of vision. When I try to “see” both windows at the same time I end up seeing mostly the wall and mirror that is between the windows, and switching back and forth between the two. But that’s how we are made, isn’t it?

The best thing I have going is peripheral vision where one or the other eye becomes aware of something off to the side that the opposite eye can not see; then I can look more directly at it with both eyes. A side benefit, however, is depth perception. With eyes on the front – binocular vision – I can tell pretty much how far away an object is. Squirrels, and others of the prey family with monocular vision, jump at any movement since they do not know how near or far the danger really is,

Thinking about these things makes me wonder whether there is a profound life lesson lurking in all this. Something that would measure up to such eternal verities as, “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”, or, “a watched pot never boils”. The best I can come up with is, “Seeing is believing”. Then I am aware that often that what is seen is not much on which to base a belief. As in, “Now you see it – now you don’t”. Ask five people to describe what they have seen at the same instant and place and you get five different stories. I wonder what five rabbits or squirrels would describe in such a situation.

All I know is that I am happy not to have eyes on the sides of my head. How do you read with a set up like that? I guess one plus would be that I could see out of both of my windows at the same time.

Thought for the day: look both ways, maybe four if you count up and down. You never know what’s coming.