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Country Journal/March 19, 2016

We continue slowly to clean up and fix up this old farmhouse, health and money permitting. This month I took the bit in my teeth and decided that six years was a long enough period to be without a ceiling light fixture in the living room. My first thought was to move the big chandelier from the dining area to the living room. George mutinied and I don’t much blame him. It wasn’t a good idea. We had the devil’s own time hanging that monster the first time.

I began cruising the internet for something suitable. I tried Ebay and Etsy. I wanted a vintage piece. I turned up an “early Empire Russian birdcage chandelier in bronze doré and rock crystal” for sixty-four thousand dollars which is more than the house is worth. I did like it but it fit neither my budget nor this sorry little shack. I also turned up an enormous number of lighting fixture horrors from every period, most of them, in my view, overpriced. It was one of those I don’t quite know what I am looking for but I will know it when I see it shopping adventures.

I ended up with something very different from my usual style but it looked okay for a rustic farmhouse without being a country cliché. It was hand made wrought iron from Italy. The seller said he thought it was mid-twentieth century, undamaged, but it needed re-wiring. His price was very low, so low that even with the added costs of shipping a fifteen pound item from Italy to Arkansas it was still reasonable.

I ordered it and in due course it arrived. I do a lot of internet shopping so I get tons of packages. After having a couple of small boxes that were left under the carport stolen by the neighbor’s dogs, who chewed everything to pieces and scattered tiny bits all over the yard I made an arrangement with my local post office that they should leave anything small enough to stuff into the mailbox but that larger items should be held at the P.O. until I could drive over and pick them up.

The big box from Italy arrived. The postmistress, trying her best to be neighborly and to provide good service, did as I asked. She held the box and sent me the usual regulation pink slip. Ordinarily I would have retrieved the box the next day. But ours is a one car household and George needed the car to go to a medical appointment in Hot Springs. Thanks to the higher ups in the USPS our local post office is open only in the mornings. At the time the hours were shortened, a couple of years ago, the USPS representative justified this by saying that most people pay their bills on the internet nowadays. One neighbor remarked that this area is full of older folks who don’t use computers, regard them as satanic, and have never paid a bill on the internet and never will. George left before the post office opened and returned after it had closed for the day.

The next day he also took the car and set off to run errands. I was mildly annoyed, but there was no real urgency about the box so I did not stew overmuch. But, at one o’clock in the afternoon, our postmistress was knocking my front door down and, in addition,  she was one seriously upset woman.

“Please ride with me to the post office, sign for this box, and I will bring you and the box right back here. Also, if you don’t mind, open it and let me have the packaging. I am in a heck of a lot of trouble over this shipment from Italy.”

“Hang on.” I said. “Let me get my handbag and lock up the house.” Now at that point Paco and Polly, the two blue and gold macaws, were on T perches in the living room instead of being in their cages. I told them I had an emergency, that I would be right back, and to please sit tight and not destroy the living room, which they are perfectly capable of doing, either singly or in tandem. To my later amazement they did stay put and they did mind me–for once.

My agitated postmistress continued her disjointed explanation as we drove from my house to the P.O. “That box was shipped Express. When it was not delivered in the proper time frame my supervisor called me and chewed me out completely. To complicate matters I am required to scan a barcode when I receive a package. There should be only one barcode but in this case someone somewhere slipped up and there are two. That’s why I need the box. Tomorrow I must drive to Little Rock, with the box and with my union representative, to meet with my supervisor and try and explain what happened.”

I apologized profusely and told her that I had no idea our actions had caused her any grief. I explained about the one car and about George’s trip to Hot Springs. I also told her, truthfully, that she had always gone out of her way to be helpful and that, as far as the community was concerned, she was an exemplary postmistress. If the P.O. is scheduled to be open then it is open because if there is ever any bad weather in the forecast she sleeps there in order to open at the usual hour. I offered to go with her to Little Rock to speak on her behalf if that were necessary.

By this time we were at the back door of the P.O. She let us both inside. I signed the appropriate paperwork. She carried the box out and put it in the backseat. When we arrived back at my house George was also pulling into the driveway. I unpacked the light fixture and gave her the box. At this point I have heard nothing further about her meeting in Little Rock so do not know the final outcome.

To top off the postmistress’ tale of frustration, she said that she had been without money orders for three weeks despite numerous requests that they be sent to her. “I’ve lost track of the number of customers I have not been able to serve because I have no money orders.” she said.

There is so much wrong with our poor country right now that one does not know where to begin, but obviously one big thing that is wrong in the workplace (and in the public schools) is the insistence that everything must be done by the numbers. My postmistress found herself in hot water, not because she did not go above and beyond the call of duty, but because she did. But it threw the numbers off and her supervisor will be judged by “the numbers.” It’s all very well to talk about accountability, but this is ridiculous. Systems that make no allowance for the variability and flexibility needed in all human interactions do not work. Factor in the fact that the woman is trying to do her job without being supplied with the basic tools that she needs. Then add forty years of stagnant wages to the mix, not in the P.O. necessarily, but in the country in general. It is a wonder anyone finds the motivation to do excellent work.

The other thing that is wrong here is the simple injustice of a system in which those at the bottom of the totem pole are judged by the most draconian standards with no forgiveness whatever for mistakes while those higher in the chain of command get away with murder. Will anyone be dragged to a meeting in Little Rock (It’s a two hour drive.) and court martialed because of a failure to keep our post office supplied with money orders? Somehow I doubt it.

Now granted there has always been one set of rules for the rich and another for the poor, one standard for whites and another for blacks, but this difference is now so obvious and so large  and so brutal in its consequences that I do not wonder that the entire country is in a state of civil unrest. What amazes me is how long the people have been patient in the face of such monstrous oppression.

It’s all very well to point to, say, an Oprah Winfrey and talk about this being a land of opportunity, but, if you want to play by “the numbers,” then plain statistics tell another story. Wages have not risen, at least not when adjusted for buying power. Women are not paid equally. Every broad based opportunity for upward mobility has been curtailed. That gateway has narrowed remarkably over my lifetime and it continues to allow fewer and fewer to pass through.

The danger is not that people are angry. They have every reason to be angry. The danger is that so much of that justifiable anger is so terribly misplaced. Anger is the hardest of all human feelings to deal with and the often the most difficult part, which most never master, is to learn to ask oneself clearly and answer accurately, “Who am I angry with and why?” If we cannot answer that question logically then it is not only likely that we will shortly find ourselves in a far greater quagmire it is a certainty.




The Tale of My Chandelier


The Tale of My Chandelier

February 20, 2015

First the backstory: In 2005 I spent three months traveling and camping out in the northwest. I visited a number of national parks and a number of places associated with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. I had no RV; I slept in a tent. I was by myself and I had a grand time. But it was in Grand Teton that I met a young woman who had a very large impact on my life even though I only exchanged a a few words with her. On the edge of that park a family has a horseback riding concession that they have operated during the summer months for years. I wanted to ride and, after going down a few wrong trails, I found the place. They had no other customers but they greeted me and I explained what I wanted. The first person who spoke to me to inquire what I needed was a girl in her late teens. I wanted to ride, I said. Yes, I knew how to ride. I had experience owning horses. I was not a beginner. What she said next was, “Oh, you remind me of my grandmother. I lost her a year ago. I miss her so very much.” It was simple and it was commonplace but I was struck by the openness and intimacy with which she spoke to a complete stranger. I had lived in large cities all my life and that was not something one would often encounter in a chance meeting in an urban setting. Years later I realized how very frequent such a response is among country people who grow up in communities where everyone knows everyone, either personally or at least by sight, and where it is still quite safe to treat everyone as a potential friend. “My brother can take you out for an hour, if you like.” she said. Brother was delighted. He would much rather go for a ride than help other family members vet mules which was his assigned task that day; he did not much like mules. It was not a quiet ride as he was one of the most garrulous people I have ever met. I heard his life story and answered innumerable questions as to where I was from, what I was doing traveling alone, my family, and on and on.  Beautiful trail, gorgeous scenery, slow pace on one of the most placid horses I have ever bestrode, but that was okay. There was not much room for a gallop anyway on a steep and winding trail through the lower wooded slopes of the Tetons.

Fast forward a few years: George retired and we moved to the Ouachita Mountains in southern Arkansas. We bought a tumble down house on two acres in Montgomery County. At one point I wandered into a business in Mena that did repairs and remodeling simply to inquire as to prices and the availability of help. The woman in the office, who was, together with her husband, the owner of the business, offered coffee and coffeecake, and visited with me in a friendly manner. As it transpired their services were beyond my budget, but she clearly wanted to be helpful and offered the names and phone numbers of several local carpenters and handymen who might be able to serve me. In country communities one still meets with a strong tradition of helping one’s neighbor and this lady was obviously distressed that she could not do more on my behalf. Suddenly she asked, “Do you need a light fixture?” Now how on earth does one answer that one? The phrase “light fixture” covers a very broad territory and what one person thinks beautiful and another thinks hideous is nowhere more apparent than in the area of lighting. In addition there is the problem of what will fit the style of the interior and the space. However, as she so very much wanted to be useful, and I thought that if the offered piece didn’t suit I could always pass it on to someone who could use it, I said, politely, “Why, yes, that would be lovely.” She disappeared into a back room and presently re-emerged pushing a very large cardboard box along the floor, labeled “Schonbek.” Now those in the know will recognize that name. They make, and have for years, a very expensive line of light fixtures, chiefly chandeliers, most of them hung with cut glass. A bit startled I said, “Surely you aren’t offering me a Shonbek.” She beamed at me and said, “Oh, I knew you were the very person for this; you know the name and what it is.” She opened the top of the box and I was staggered to see a huge, solid brass, traditional chandelier, with a dozen lights. It was also brand new and would have carried a hefty price tag in any lighting showroom.Later I measured it. It is 23 inches wide and has a total drop of 33 inches. That’s huge and ridiculously oversized for any room in my house. Nonetheless I accepted happily and graciously. Together we wrestled the unwieldy and heavy box out to my car and got it loaded.

I couldn’t bear to give it away, firstly, because it is beautiful and, secondly, because it was such an incredible gesture from someone I only met once. Obviously it was not designed for a small country cottage with eight foot ceilings. I hung it over the table in the dining room, which is a misleading description of the small semi-enclosed area off my kitchen where we eat, simply to put it in a place where there would be no likelihood of anyone running into it. Bang your head on that thing and you will be laid out cold on the floor. It’s super heavy and we had the devil’s own time hanging it. George worked for hours reinforcing the supporting ceiling structure to take the weight and getting it up involved both of us, two ladders, and some strong language. It’s completely out of place in my tiny rustic house but it certainly is very elegant. It is partnered in elegance in the dining room by my mother’s gold framed mirror, also large, formal, and out of place in a farmhouse. She bought the frame for a song in NYC during WWII and I can’t remember a time it did not hang wherever we lived. Frame is in the Victorian High Renaissance style and when my Fort Worth framer repaired it he commented, “Looks like it should be holding an Alma Tadema, not a mirror.” Over the past seventy years the mirror has acquired some marvellous vertical streaking as the silvered backing has aged and begun to deteriorate adding to the entire decayed chateau ambiance. Present owner is likewise falling apart but we won’t go there.