Learning to laugh in Maine

Sam Smith

Long before Bert & I, I started collecting Maine humor during my summer visits. One of my sources as a boy was Walter Stowe for whom I worked on various projects.

Mr. Stowe appreciated having someone to instruct and demonstrate his immunity to poison ivy by chewing on some its leaves. He had a stock of sayings of which he never tired. He could recite a blasphemous version of the Lord’s Prayer at breakneck speed and when you asked him how much something cost, he always replied, “25 cents, two bits, two dimes and a nickel, one quartah of a dollah.” When you picked up your end of a plank, the instructions also never varied: “Head her southeast!” When you said goodbye he said, “Keep her under 60 on the curves.” And he offered this assessment of a suddenly departed brother-in-law: “That fella never was any good. Now he’s upped and died right in the middle of hay season.”

On the other hand, his assessment of Clyde Johnson was more favorable: “He’s the only man who can shingle a barn, tell a dirty story and smoke a pipe all at the same time.”
When he needed to stall while thinking of a reply, the quite short Mr. Stowe would go into a brief shuffle, observe his feet intently, pick up his dirty baseball hat and scratch his bald head, finally declaring, “Well now!” with the occasional addendum “Ain’t that somethin?”
When I introduced my future wife to Mr. Stowe and told him we were engaged, he did his shuffle and his head scratching, glanced at Kathy and then looked up at me over his little round glasses and said, “Pretty good for a girl.”

“Er, Mr. Stowe, Kathy’s from Wisconsin.”

Shuffle. Hat back on.

“Glad to meet you anyway.”

John T. Mann recalls that Mr. Stowe had told his father: “If I die afore the end of mud season, just stick me in the gravel pit ’til the road dries out and the ground thaws.”
You never knew when a laugh would crop up. Once, as a teenager, I drove into a gas station, stepped out of my car into a puddle and heard someone say “How’s the watah?”
And John at R&D Automotive told me many years back that my brother had been in with his car. “He said he kept smelling gas . . . so I told him to stop it.”

Then there was the exchange at Ed Leighton’s department store:

“How ya doin?”
“You want the long story or the short one?”
“Oh hell, give me the long one.”
“Pretty good, I guess.”

And there was the time Bob Guillamette, the plumber, came to fix something. I asked him to also look at the tub he had recently installed because the water was slow to drain. He returned a couple of minutes later saying, “Christ, Sam, you’re one of the lucky ones. Most of them won’t hold water.”

Then he fixed it.

Weekend update

Sam Smith – During a trip last weekend to the coastal area north of Boston, my wife and I stayed at the Emerson Inn by the Sea in Rockport. It was neither its original name nor in its original location. It had once been a tavern nearby until in 1856 some 200 townswomen, as well as three men, began a destructive raid against alcoholic spirits. According to the inn’ s account, “Hiding their weapons beneath lacy shawls, the protestors set out to destroy every drop of alcohol. . .Five hours after the siege began, the weary but victorious women went home to fix supper for their families.”

In the wake of this chaos, the owner decided to turn the tavern into an inn since Pigeon Cove had begin attracting a growing number of summer visitors including Ralph Waldo Emerson, originally brought by his friend Henry David Thoreau

Emerson would spend several vacations here with his family and wrote about it in his diary with less than careful reserve:

Returned from Pigeon Cove, where we have made acquaintance with the sea, for seven days. Tis a noble, friendly power, and seemed to say to me, “Why so late and slow to come to me? Am I not here always, thy proper summer home? Is not my voice thy needful music; my breath, thy healthful climate in the heats; My touch, thy cure? Was ever a building like my terraces? Was ever a couch so magnificent as mine? Lie down on my warm ledges and learn that a very little but is all you need. I have made thy architecture superfluous, and it is paltry beside mine. Here are twenty Romes and Nineveho and Karnacs in ruin together, obelisk and pyramid and giant’s causeway here they all are prostrate or half piled.”

As It turned out, our room was just two down the hall from Emerson’s, which would have been heart warming were it not for the fact that his pre-Expedia assessment of the inn was in stunning contrast with some of his other comments on travel that I have regularly quoted, to wit:

Travelling is a fool’s paradise. . .I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. . .My giant goes with me wherever I go.

He who travels to be amused, or to get something which he does not carry, travels away from himself and grows old even in youth among old things.

But it wasn’t the only historic clash of the weekend. Upon arriving in nearby Salem we were immediately reminded that Halloween was only a week away as it was already being cheerfully observed by an extraordinary number of people wearing odd costumes and pointed hats. The mood was mindlessly celebratory, at least until we joined a few other people in the town’s visitors’ center to see a documentary on where Salem’s interest in witches had begun, namely in 1692 during trials that resulted in the hanging of 19 women in nine months of hysteria about the subject. History.com describes it this way:

The infamous Salem witch trials began during the spring of 1692, after a group of young girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts, claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several local women of witchcraft. As a wave of hysteria spread throughout colonial Massachusetts, a special court convened in Salem to hear the cases; the first convicted witch, Bridget Bishop, was hanged that June. Eighteen others followed Bishop to Salem’s Gallows Hill, while some 150 more men, women and children were accused over the next several months. By September 1692, the hysteria had begun to abate and public opinion turned against the trials. Though the Massachusetts General Court later annulled guilty verdicts against accused witches and granted indemnities to their families, bitterness lingered in the community, and the painful legacy of the Salem witch trials would endure for centuries….

In January 1697, the Massachusetts General Court declared a day of fasting for the tragedy of the Salem witch trials; the court later deemed the trials unlawful, and the leading justice Samuel Sewall publicly apologized for his role in the process. The damage to the community lingered, however, even after Massachusetts Colony passed legislation restoring the good names of the condemned and providing financial restitution to their heirs in 1711. Indeed, the vivid and painful legacy of the Salem witch trials endured well into the 20th century, when Arthur Miller dramatized the events of 1692 in his play “The Crucible” (1953), using them as an allegory for the anti-Communist “witch hunts” led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.

To view a documentary on this subject in a nearly empty auditorium and then to step into a main street of Salem jammed with a contemporary celebration of sorcery was a troublesome reminder of how little we often learn from history

Switching channels

Sam Smith
 
We couldn’t take it any longer so last week my wife and I changed our family dinner time TV show from Chris Matthews to the PBS News Hour. For me the choice was driven by the fact that I would rather fall asleep of boredom than be hollered at one more time during an otherwise pleasant meal. Admittedly the News Hour is Prozac taken by ear instead by mouth and its staff is so robotic that, should the White House catch on fire, it would probably calmly announce that “we shall be shortly discussing with a panel of experts the effect of this event on the President’s schedule and his budgetary planning.”

I was long familiar with the problem. When my sons were in a DC  elementary school one of their classmates had appeared on the McNeil Lehrer Show with his father to discuss child finances. I asked the boy afterwards how it went. He said, “Well, they seemed kind of nervous. I don’t think they ever had a kid on the show before.”

But still, the News Hour would be better than the shouting, angry lectures, guests being interrupted in the midst of their first sentence, and the look-at-me-aren’t-I-wonderful style of Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow.

Given the similarity in viewer demographics, it is interesting to note that the first Downton Abbey of the season had over ten times as many viewers as did the various MSNBC news shows.

I admit I have a problem. I started out as a radio newsman and the difference between radio and TV talk is often the difference between a telephone and a pulpit or a stage. Radio talk shows favor conversations; too often on TV you have lectures or sermons.

I’ve done TV as well but I’ve never felt as comfortable with those cameras pointed at you like they were cops aiming their guns to keep you from connecting with the audience.

There are a few who manage to keep television human and friendly. Morning Joe is a positive MSNBC exception. And of course there’s Jon Stewart, but have you noticed how, like other late night hosts, he often he plays not to the screen but to the audience in the studio? People to people.

This isn’t about content. I generally agree with Stewart and often disagree with Joe and Mika. But then that was true when I used to listen occasionally to the leading radio talk guy in America, Paul Harvey, not for his usually over conservative politics but for items like this one:

Up in Binghamton New York last night. . . A Little League game. . .

12 year old Ronnie Mitchell hit a high fly ball to center field. Made it to first, rounded second and spun past third. . . .

(Pause)

He slid home

(Pause)

He was safe

(Long Pause)

And dead. No, don’t ask me. There’ll be an autopsy tomorrow. Now page 3. . . .

Paul Harvey at his peak had close to fifty times more listeners than Chris Matthews. And his saving moment was that, with his son facing the draft, he suddenly turned against the Vietnam War, saying to Nixon on one show, “”Mr. President, I love you, but you’re wrong.” I have long suspected that Harvey was far more critical to the anti-war movement than he has been credited with. In any case, he sure knew how to tell a story.

Another problem with television news shows is that they create stars and, once you’ve done that, part of journalism is destroyed.

I once put it like this, “Journalism is to thought and understanding as the indictment is to the trial, the hypothesis to the truth, the estimate to the audit. It is the first cry for help, the hand groping for the light switch in the dark, the returns before the outlying precincts have been heard from.”

On another occasion, I wrote: “This writer proposes to serve not as an expert, but rather in the more modest and more constructive role of being the surrogate eyes and ears of the reader. Consider me simply someone who has traveled this trail several times before and thus might remember where the clean water is to be found, the names of some of the rarer plants and possibly even a shortcut home.”

That’s not a popular view on MSNBC, Fox or CNN. I suspect MSNBC developed its overblown style as a bad imitation of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.. It’s sort of the media version of what’s happened to liberals generally . Instead of offering an appealing and solid alternative to the right they just yell at it.

50 years behind the masthead

Sam Smith

A few years back, Mark Plotkin started an interview with me on WTOP this way: “How do you respond to those who say you’re just outrageous, off the wall, beyond normal?” Here’s part of what I told him: If you go back and read what I wrote ten, twenty or thirty years ago it’s hard to see what the problem was. The FBI, in a rare of moment of literary eloquence labeled those who fought in the Spanish Civil War as “premature anti-fascists.” In this town timing is everything. Phil Hart once described the Senate as place that does things 20 years after it should have. I think I was like a bad comedian; I got the punch lines right; I just delivered them too soon.

I had ended up much as I started: the kid they sent to right field because he couldn’t or wouldn’t play the game right.

I didn’t plan it this way. I didn’t want it this way. In truth, a large part of me still would have liked to have been one of the popular boys in the class, but things kept getting in the way – some addictive confluence of moral aggravation, periodic accident, undisciplined imagination, sporadic and unpremeditated courage randomly suppressing chronic shyness and cowardice, sloppy romanticism, episodic existentialism, recurrent hope, stultifying stubbornness and an abiding intolerance for the dull. A child’s dreams and an adult’s faith pounding tide after tide on the rock of reality, thinking that maybe this time I’ll float off.

Some people take it personally, as though I rebelled simply to annoy them. They make little jokes about the fact that I’m different, as if I had a moral obligation to be like them. When they see someone like me coming, they close the doors of their institutions, their imaginations, and their hearts. We are, after all, thieves who might abscond with their most precious possession: the tranquility of unexamined certainty.

But it’s really more like Vaclav Havel said long ago when he was still a rebel:
“You do not become a ‘dissident’ just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society . . .’ ”

Those dissidents who somehow remain connected to the normal find themselves alone in the crowd. Even in my home town, I often felt an exile – as though all had emigrated except for me, as though somehow I had missed the ship.

It’s often not easy. Albert Camus spoke of the tremendous energy some must expend “merely to be normal” and added:

The rebel can never find peace. He knows what is good and, despite himself, does evil. The value which supports him is never given to him once and for all – he must fight to uphold it, unceasingly.

Emerson also understood the problem:

You will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

Still, you can’t talk about such things because it would further confirm the belief that you are best ignored, dismissed, or considered absurd. So you become the charming stranger from a strange place, you tell the jokes first, and you change the subject when it starts to get too close to the real. Better yet, you fool them into thinking that you are one of them even though you really blend better with those the urban itinerant Joe Gould once described as the “cranks and misfits and the one-lungers and might-have-beens and the would-bes and the never-wills and the God-knows-whats.”

Still, among the illusions of my life has been that if I stuck it out long enough, time would provide the acceptance that my words and thoughts had prevented. I. F. Stone used to say that when you’re young you’re blamed for things you didn’t do and when you’re older you get credit for them. It hasn’t worked out like that, in part because just when I should have started coasting, the world around me took a nasty, greedy and dangerous turn. America began destroying itself. It was the wrong time to start fitting in .

True, the best period for a revolution of the good is when one is young. To be twenty or thirty and part of an uprising of the collective soul is a rare gift of life. It does spoil you, though, for you go through the rest of your time wondering why that moment went away and why nothing seems able to bring it back.

What was unexpected, both in timing and intensity, was that I would not only live through one of America’s great revivals but during a subsequent era when my country — without debate, consideration, or struggle — decided it really didn’t want to be America any more.

Few even talked about it, but, as a writer and as a child of segregation, I knew that in the silence could be something as telling and evil as words. After all, the language of the old south was most descriptive in what it didn’t say – and what wasn’t allowed to be said.

Shortly before his death in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz says:

What was it all about? When did it begin? . . . Couldn’t we just stay put? . . . We’ve done nothing wrong! We didn’t harm anyone. Did we? . . . There must have been a moment, at the beginning, when we could have said — no. But somehow we missed it.. . . Well, we’ll know better next time.

I didn’t want to miss the moment. This wasn’t an act of nobility; it came more from fear of shame. Consequences can’t be wholly unintentional once you’ve imagined them. Successfully deny or ignore them and you’ll die happy. Open your eyes and you become irrevocably responsible, with all the pain, doubt, and fear that goes with it.

And now the stakes are even higher than just for better or for worse. This time the stupid things we have done to this planet may not be forgiven. This time democracy may be not only staggering, but gone.

Still, this is not something you talk about over dinner and get invited back. And so, “you wait for one shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow.”

But it doesn’t happen and you know it’s not happening and you don’t have the slightest idea of what to do about it except to use the archaic tools of your trade and the stores of your mind as best you can, not permit the hostility towards the effort depress you too much, and try to enjoy the countervailing virtues and strengths of the struggle, as Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of Hester Prynne in the Scarlet Letter:

“She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness, as vast, as intricate, and shadowy as the untamed forest. . . Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places. . . The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free.”

I have tried to help keep alive the beleaguered tradition of plain speaking and truth-seeking that I understood to be at the heart of good journalism. But in a time when much of the media prefers perceptions to facts, bullet quotes to understanding and spin over reality, such efforts are seen as eccentric at best, apostasy at worst. The proper journalist has become, wittingly or not, the accomplice of a system in which news, advertising and agitprop are hopelessly mingled and the facts fatally adulterated. Truth has little to do with it anymore. It is as if we are living in a new Middle Ages, only with the myth being driven by cable TV rather than by the church.

Further, where once saying unconventional things was regarded as hip, it is now considered ‘inappropriate.’ Hipness has become a fashion statement – a consumer selection carefully synchronized with corporate intent rather than outward evidence of a state of mind free of the corporatized state. And so it is easy to feel ostracized, alone and ineffectual. Such feelings are bad enough at 26, but far harder at 66 if for no other reason than that you have less time to recover from them.

I know because I’ve had the feelings at both ages. And at both ages the despair has often been exaggerated, self-defeating, and self-fulfilling. Which isn’t to say unnecessary, for wrestling with the pain of living is one of the surest signs that you are still alive. The problem is that you never know when you’re exaggerating and when you’ve got it right.

Part of my love of the craft of journalism has been the simple joy of possessing the license to go wherever curiosity leads, to consider no place in the planet alien to my inquiry, to use words as a child uses little plastic blocks. Part of it has been the pleasure of deliberately learning more about something than any reasonable person would want to know.

Tina Hobson once said of her husband, the civil rights activist, “The trouble with Julius is that he takes the Constitution personally.” I suffer from a similar debility. But sometimes people credit me with a sense of justice when in fact I am just titillated, fascinated or surprised. In such ways I have also disappointed some of my more didactic allies who expected me to stick to business and not be distracted by the noise of news and the search for better words with which to describe it.

George Orwell faced something similar and wrote:

Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself.

I also want to walk away from it at will. Back in the 60s, I was sitting in an office on 8th Street SE in Washington talking with one of the sergeants of the War on Poverty. It was shortly after the riots of April 1968 and our conversation drifted in the shadows of those smoky and charred days. Then the community organizer stopped in mid-sentence and said, “Look, Sam, all I really want to do is to sit on my front stoop in the sun, drink beer, and shoot craps.”

His words keep coming back, a reminder that even the best politics are a pretty poor substitute for life and that the worst politics compound their felony by forcing us to leave the front stoop to do something about them. Our quarrel with the abuse of power should be not only be that it is cruel and stupid but that it takes so much time way from other things — like loving and being loved, and music, and a good meal and the sunset of a gentle day. In a nation ablaze with struggles for power, we are too often forced to choose between being a co-conspirator in the arson or a member of the volunteer fire department. And, too often, as we immerse ourselves in the terrible relevance of our times, beauty and happiness seem to drift away.

That community organizer in the dingy office on 8th Street understood that the proper end of politics was not a policy, not a budget, not an ideology, not even worthy abstractions like peace and justice, but rather good places, and good days and healthy and happy people — the collective little republics of our individual hopes and dreams.In the melancholy that descends from time to time, in the loneliness that lies like a desert between myself and my imagination, I think about opportunities and offers that have come my way that I brazenly – wantonly, some might say – rejected. I think I knew in my heart that if I had accepted such things, I would have ended up broken or fired. And probably a drunk as well.

And as best as I can tell, my real impetus was not masochism but a truly manic, grandiose, and cockeyed optimism – the faith that even in late 20th century America I could do something on my own that would be even better than what I could if I just did what was expected of me.

Saul Alinsky was once asked by a seminarian how he could retain his values as he made his way through the church, “That’s easy,” replied Alinsky. “Just decide now whether you wish to be a cardinal or a priest.” It was a choice I made early.

As far back as high school, when I first read of Thoreau’s preference for sitting on a pumpkin and having it all to himself to being crowded on a velvet stool, I had rated freedom ahead of power. Raised in dysfunctional luxury, I have placed an abnormal emphasis on things I could do without benefit of social standing, money, or power, such as writing, playing the piano, . . and imagining. I would come to suspect that I had spent a lifetime trying to finish the script of a radio show first concocted under the covers as a child – a lifelong broadcast in which I was the stumbling protagonist. I have tried to live a daydream – one that began because I didn’t like what was going on downstairs. And still don’t.

I can’t recommend such a way; I can’t even justify having tried it. A lot of it doesn’t make sense. I spurned the normal icons of ambition, yet was so ambitious that I sought the unattainable. I gave the outward impression of a radical but in my heart was just a moderate of a time that had yet to arrive. I constantly sought change but was most happy enjoying the changeless virtues of music and conversation and returning to the mooring after a long, happy day on the bay.

Sometimes I would think of myself as a reluctant draftee, called up to serve in the struggle that Albert Camus described: “It is those who know how to rebel, at the appropriate moment, against history who really advance its interests.” I didn’t really want to do it. I just had to. What I wanted most was that the struggle be won so I could live in a land where people laughed and made new friends and were gentle with one another. So I could return to that place where the sun hit the front stoop just right on a quiet morning, reminding me that this was how good everything else could be as well.

The war on terror before 9/11

With US Airways going out the door, we thought we would revive one of our fond memories, as reported in 1999:

 The Progressive Review’s editor, Sam Smith, was detained at Washington National Airport for a half hour as five US Airways security officials, 3 police officers, and one bomb-sniffing dog attempted to determine if he was, as they suspected, a terrorist. Total evidence for the suspicion came from a defective high tech security machine. In the end, the bomb-sniffing dog nosed about the computer, licked the hard drive and quickly returned without complaint to K-9 officer Jim Cox.

Before departure, Cox boarded the plane to get my Social Security number for his report and apologized for the incident saying that it was US Air’s security force and not National Airport police that had instigated it. After writing to US Air I got an actual apology from a vice president, perhaps the last American to do so in the history of the war on terror.

When I went to the Kansas City airport for my return flight, I explained to the security woman that my computer had set off warnings in the machine in Washington. She waved me on, saying, “Oh they probably just don’t feed their dogs.”

One of the interesting things about this is that what we think of as anti-terrorist air security began not following 9/11 but after the 1996 crash of TWA 800. Yet two years after the FBI had declared there was no terrorist involvement, the TWA 800 security measures remained unaltered and would expand with time.

If you believe the official story, therefore, the airport aspect of the war on terror really got underway thanks to an incident that never happened. Of course, as we would learn with increasing frequency during the years that followed, what the government told you about such matters was not always true.