Liz Soares, columnist


My wife, Liz Soares, writes a weekly column for one Maine newspaper and a twice-a-month column for two other papers here in Maine. I've posted a few of her older columns here. She has posted many others, as well as book reviews, on her blog. Here's a link: lizsoareswriter.blogspot.com

Several years ago, Windswept House, a now-defunct Maine publishing firm, released All for Maine, Liz's children's biography of the legendary and beloved Maine Gov. Percival Baxter, a colorful, independent-minded bachelor and animal-welfare advocate whose greatest legacy to the State of Maine is a wilderness park of more than 200,000 acres, Baxter State Park. The paperback is out of print, but Liz has a few copies that are available for sale. She is reachable at lsoares@gwi.net.
 

A Standard of Living That Is Measured by Happiness

I groaned when I heard a radio report decrying the decline in consumer debt.

This was a bad thing?

In my book, a stable economy is based on the stability of its taxpayers. Americans are finally scared enough to start limiting their spending. Good. We're all better off if people, by tightening their belts, manage to feed their families and hang on to their homes.

When the hoi polloi are fiscally responsible, they will demand the same from their bankers, financial advisers and government leaders.

The problem, of course, is that our economy has been based on debt. Average salaries haven't risen significantly in the past decade. In fact, with higher prices, many of us effectively have taken pay cuts.

Yet we "consumers" have fueled the economy with our purchases. We raised our standard of living without raising our net worth. It was all show.

Fancy kitchens and bathrooms are just one example. Everyone had to have them or they felt left out. Money that should have been going into the bank to create emergency savings accounts went down the drain -- in granite vessel basin sinks.

Perhaps my husband Paul and I grew up hearing more Depression stories than our contemporaries. We didn't replace our kitchen faucet (circa 1970) until it began to leak. I finally talked Paul into getting new faucets for the downstairs bathroom sink when we installed a new toilet (the originals were all of the same era). I remarked to the plumber, "I wanted a new sink, too, but I couldn't negotiate that."

He carefully eyed the sturdy porcelain sink and said, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Men, I thought. But I knew he was right.

I had recently overheard a couple of otherwise rational people talking about "managing" their line of credit as if it was a legacy from Great-Uncle Norman. I wondered if I was missing something. Didn't this money have to be paid back? With interest?

Sure, reduced consumer spending will be a problem in the short term. Stores will continue to close and people will lose their jobs, but does this really surprise anyone? The massive overbuilding of retail is obvious to any shopper with a sixth-grade education.

Once we get through these transitions, better times await us. We'll have to adapt to a new economy, one that will force us to live within our means. The credit-card companies, with their interest-raising games, will see to that. But I also think we'll develop a better understanding of what a quality standard of living is.

Instead of measuring our well-being only in economic terms, as the Gross Domestic Product does, why not look for alternative qualifiers?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is doing just that. According to Yes! magazine, Sarkozy has launched an initiative to revise the concept of measuring the standard of living.

Happiness might be one of the factors considered. Though emotions may seem too elusive to measure, at least one survey, conducted in 140 countries, did so, according to Psychology Today. It asked people whether they felt "dominated by positive experiences and feelings or negative ones." A report on this poll issued by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development noted that the United States was not even among the top 10 countries.

We nearly all have indoor plumbing, refrigerators and television sets, indicators of a comfortable life, but we aren't so happy. As the Yes! article states: "Material conditions are important to people, but they do not determine everything -- far more important are people's friends, their community, their health, their aspirations, how they use their time and whether they feel valued."

The United States has the highest rates of obesity and childhood poverty of the countries surveyed, the Psychology Today article notes. Some of our most desirable purchases, like computers, gaming systems and 50-inch flatscreen TVs, only serve to cocoon us from our real communities and encourage sloth.

Sarkozy's commission came up with 12 recommendations for an alternative GDP. Five are grouped under the heading "well-being is multi-dimensional." They include material living standards, but also levels of health, education, activities and work, political participation, relationships, the environment and security.

Were such standards popularized, we would be more willing to understand that we already have plenty. Instead of running up debt, we could be working to elect more responsive leaders, advocating for health-care reform and forming bowling teams.

Then we might be really justified in thinking we're better than everybody else.



Camouflage Will Set You Free

I once saw, in a book, a drawing of a costume that an 18th-century survivor of smallpox might have worn. The pockmarked victim was encased from head to toe in a sort of colonial version of the burqua. A muff concealed scarred hands.

In a world without plastic surgery, laser treatments or Botox, the solution for thriving with less than perfect features was -- costume.

Very handy, I thought at the time. Such a getup -- had it been socially acceptable to wear -- might have eased me through my acned teenage years quite nicely.

I recalled the picture as I recently viewed an online video of an event in Newport, R.I. Horses and carriages transported elegantly dressed folk through the gates of the city's famous mansions, icons of the Gilded Age. Participants looked like characters from "The Age of Innocence," or "The Great Gatsby." Whatever era they chose, they looked fabulous.

No woman has a bad hair day while wearing a darling cloche. Loose-waisted silk dresses minimize hefty hips. Artfully arranged shawls camouflage that most annoying symbol of aging -- the crepe-y neck.

Needless to say, any man in a crisp shirt and tie looks better than a guy in a truck cap and ratty T-shirt. Add a fedora and ooh-la-la.

Anyone who has watched the pre-party scene in "Gone With the Wind" knows that dressing was an Olympic event for the Victorian woman. Yet, I wonder, was being wrestled into a corset any worse than undergoing liposuction?

Instead of perfection, maybe we should be pursuing camouflage. More is definitely more when it comes to making an attractive appearance, at least for those of us who are not Giselle Bundchen. Yet for decades we've been going in the other direction.

I'm a product of the 1960s, when women were literally freed from the bondage of their shirtwaist dresses. Pantyhose came onto the market a few years before I was allowed to wear nylons. I understood I was being spared the ordeal of squirming into a garter-strapped girdle. Now, of course, pantyhose is a trial to many of us. Bare legs -- now that's freedom.

Or is it? Stockings conceal a multitude of imperfections, like spider veins. Legs in need of a shave. Gams in need of a tan.

I feel a bit Orwellian in suggesting that constriction is liberty. But the rules of fashion under which we currently operate were established when I weighed 110 pounds. Mini-skirts. Hot pants. Halters. It was all good. If Lycra had been around, I could have worn it with aplomb.

Now I can see there comes a time in a woman's life when she should either work her triceps furiously several times a week or give up sleeveless shirts.

Oh, as my childhood proceeded into the 1970s, I learned all about sexism. And "OKism." Everyone is beautiful, yadda yadda yadda. Well, sorry. The truth is, no one -- man, woman or goat -- should wear stretchy materials unless they have a triathlon-ready body. Trotting down the Rail Trail behind a 250-pounder encased in Lycra is as distasteful to me as finding an unflushed toilet in a public restroom.

Our current fashion era could be summed up as "anything goes." As a result, few of us look good.

Instead of looking at what we are wearing, however, we focus on changing our bodies. For quite a while, breast implants were, uh, big. Now I hear the pseudo-buxom are looking to deflate themselves. Wouldn't a good old padded bra have been healthier, cheaper and marginally more honest?

The girdle of my mother's day was not comfortable, but allowed the middle-aged woman to eat a piece of chocolate cake now and then and still fit into her pencil-style capris.

I have a picture of my mom and her best friend taken in the 1950s. Wearing flirty shirtwaist dresses and sheer stockings, they posed languidly on a front lawn. It was just another Sunday afternoon, but they looked -- fabulous.

The last time I actually saw a shirtwaist dress was on a dummy outside a Hallowell antique store.

Ah, I'd be a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day in that thing. I would not worry for a second that my butt looked too big in it. I eyed it wistfully, but wondered: If I wore it would people think I was channeling June Cleaver?

Unsure, I went home and changed into my sweat pants.



Aprons: Iconic Symbols of Higher Priorities

I had donned the apron to protect my clothing during a messy task -- crushing raspberries to make freezer jam. The mysteries of pectin filled my mind until I took off the apron and hung it back on a kitchen hook. Then, I thought about Aunt Stella.

The apron -- one of those over-the-head models -- had been hers, as were the others hanging with it. I found them in the family homestead, five years ago, as my mother and I packed clothes for her 96-year-old sister, who had just been admitted to a nursing home.

They were vintage 1950s, and I brought them home to cherish. And display. And, yes, use. Aunt Stella was the ultimate housewife, though she never married.

According to family lore, she couldn't handle working in the cotton mill. (Who can blame her?) So my grandmother went to work and Stella stayed home to care for her younger siblings. She was 19 years older than the youngest.

After the kids had grown, and my grandmother had died, Stella continued to keep house for her father and older brother, a bachelor. A young nephew moved into the house and she saw him through the eighth-grade. My parents joined the crowd after they were married, and I spent my first year of life in this multi-generational household.

Aunt Stella was the hostess of every family Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas for 25 years. She organized our egg hunts and was an expert pie baker. Stella made a unique fudge that several of my cousins and I are determined to replicate. So far, we have been unsuccessful. Stella wore her aprons well.

Her bib overall featured splashy red flowers and red piping. The others all tied around the waist. One had a cabbage rose motif; another sported giant purple pockets. The final one was a fabulous tangerine and turquoise affair that would have looked most appropriate worn over a shirtwaist dress.

Heirloom aprons are cool. Collectible. They've had books written about them. In 2002, an exhibit called "Apron Strings: Ties to the Past," toured the country.

But how many women actually wear them? The apron-as-icon sums up for me the often schizophrenic attitude modern gals have toward the domestic arts. We like to create something out of "Martha Stewart's Cupcakes" to wow our friends, but consider scrubbing toilets beneath us. To wit: I just heard a report on NPR's "Marketplace" that described a trend among Gen Y-ers to hire maids.

With their job prospects in this economy, I'd be hiring myself out to wash windows, but I digress.

Wearing the apron is, for us, a luxury -- one my aunt never had. Even if we can't afford to hire household help, we can subsist (albeit not very healthfully) on microwaved dinners and takeout. We never have to iron, if we plan our wardrobes right. We can choose to merely collect kitschy aprons and put them on when we feel the urge, about once every five years, to prepare canard a l'orange according to Julia Child.

I came of age in the 1970s and learned that a life of domesticity was the worst thing that could happen to a woman. I knew my Aunt Stella had not chosen her fate. In fact, I found out a few years ago, after her death at age 98, that my grandmother hid letters from one of Stella's beaus. She was afraid of losing her housekeeper to marriage.

A younger, more callow, me pitied Aunt Stella for what I saw as her entrapment. But when it came time, in 2005, to write a eulogy for her, I had nothing but respect. "Aunt Stella cared for people," I began.

That, I had come to realize,was far more important than any spinning she might have done in the mill.

"People first" is a good rule to live by. But too often, we -- men and women -- put money first.

We must earn money to hire others to care for our children, or our elderly parents. We make down payments on houses instead of inviting newlyweds into our homes. We take our paychecks to the restaurant instead of preparing a meal for our loved ones.

Aprons are fraught with meaning. Stella did not choose to wear hers, and that is a wrong that was never righted. But she glowed as a warm light at the center of my family. When she died, her surviving siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews and their children gathered to celebrate her. I wear her aprons with pride, and remind myself my time in them is well-spent.



Vavo Would Be Proud 

The photograph shows my maternal grandfather standing in his garden in Tiverton, R.I., in 1960. "Vavo" is wearing a flat cap, overalls and a cardigan sweater, and proudly holding a box of strawberries.

Though Mount Hope Bay was just down the hill, the house was located in a densely packed neighborhood. My grandfather, Antone Fragosa Mello, had retired from the cotton mill, which also lay a few blocks away. His property was just a double city lot. Yet, Vavo raised a pig for slaughter each year, made his own wine and grew fruits and vegetables.

I had this photograph blown up a few years ago and framed it. Before the rise of Barack Obama, it was my way of reminding myself, "Yes We Can."

Yes, we can make gardens anywhere.

Now the Obama family is in the White House and the first lady has created a kitchen garden on the lawn. I learned from my grandfather that you don't need country acreage to be a farmer, but the Obamas are teaching the nation that lesson.

Keeping chickens and pigs was once commonplace in towns and cities. Fruit trees were routinely planted in backyards -- my 19th century house is shaded by a pear tree out back. Though my grandparents' generation wasn't self-sufficient, they could provide for themselves in times of need.

My uncle, my father's brother, recently sent me a marvelous DVD of old family photos. Included among them was a shot of his sister, circa 1940, in the family chicken coop, surrounded by seven hens. Another showed my grandfather under an apple tree in their suburban yard.

They were not an anomaly. When the Great Depression arrived and Americans lost jobs and savings, they didn't have to go to classes to bone up on carrot growing. Vegetables were already sprouting in their backyards.

Later, World War II created food shortages, and the government called on Americans to plant "Victory Gardens." For many, this simply meant expanding the plots they already tended.

But in times of relative peace (if measured by smaller wars) and prosperity, the kitchen garden fell out of favor. The emerald-green lawn became the middle-class ideal.

We may, some day, look back with incredulity at the amount of arable land we turned over to lawns. Even as hippies flocked back to the land in the 1970s, many inspired by Maine's own Scott and Helen Nearing, suburban tract houses were built by the millions. They came with two red maples stuck in the lawn and a couple of arborvitae framing the front steps. Homeowners planted a few marigolds and called it a garden.

They used extensive amounts of water and chemicals to keep these lawns looking perfect. And, of course, drove to the grocery store to buy all their produce.

In the 1980s, perennials became all the rage. Even precious lawn space was relinquished for flower beds. But the average home gardener still shunned edibles.

Then the price of gas hit $4 a gallon. So did home heating oil. Suddenly, growing a few potatoes in the backyard looked like a good way to save some money -- and perhaps gas. To some, lawns began looking a bit, well, frivolous.

Now, fuel prices are down, but only because the economy is in such a shambles. We Americans are worried about our future. Soaring vegetable-seed sales reflect our anxiety. Maine communities are revisiting their ordinances as more people want to keep chickens. Community gardens are sprouting everywhere, giving even renters a chance to provide for themselves. We have collectively decided that "yes, we can" grow wherever we're planted.

Check out the home and gardening section of any bookstore and you'll find a crop of books on making your own cheeses and building your own chicken coops. I recently purchased "Fresh Food from Small Spaces" by R.J. Ruppenthal. My husband and I have been growing fruit and veggies for 20 years on our 1/3 acre urban lot. But we now realize we can branch out to chickens and bees, and maybe even corn.

Even the characters in one of my favorite comic strips, "Cul de Sac," who live in the "Mother of all Suburbs," are getting into the act. When Alice's mother explains how they're planting a garden, the pre-schooler asks if her obsessive-compulsive brother knows "vegetables come from dirt." Mom replies, "We haven't told him, so please don't say anything."

We are all in for some surprises when what is as old as dirt becomes new again.
 



Mom's Treasures 

The clock is small, inexpensive -- a ceramic piece featuring a seashore scene. It's pretty, but banal, so why was I crying as I set it upon my bathroom shelf?

I'd bought it for my mother a few years ago. Sometimes, when I visited, the batteries had died. But before I could get exasperated with Mom, she'd say, blithely, "I was waiting for you to come to change them."

Now my mother is gone and the clock is in my house, reminding me daily of times gone by.

My paternal grandfather died when I was 12. I remember my father saying, "The worst part is that I keep thinking of things I want to tell him." I didn't understand what Dad meant, until he died.

Here I go again. Daily, I think, "I'll have to tell Mom that when I talk to her tonight." But the news of my latest bargain find, the puppy's antics, and, worst of all, the letter she received posthumously from her best friend of 55 years, announcing that she was coming back from Arizona in June and looking forward to seeing Mom, remains unspoken.

This is enough pain, I think. I miss her, the person. But then there are the objects that she left behind, many that I lovingly purchased for her, that jab me without remorse each time I pass them.

The Mom card may be the worst one. It's a Mary Engelbreit Mother's Day greeting, done in the artist's boxy, colorful style. "Good Old Mom" is wearing an apron that proclaims "Kiss the Cook" and waving a wooden spoon. Her words fill the cartoon balloon emanating from her mouth. My favorite part: "You are the prettiest, nicest girl in the entire school, not to mention the brightest..." Instead of just giving her the card, I framed it.

It hung for years on the knotty pine wall of the dining room in the house she and my father built in 1963, then over the stove in her in-law apartment in the home of my sister and her husband, and finally in the kitchenette of her assisted-living complex. I couldn't leave it behind, but where was I going to put it? I laid it against my own kitchen wall, shuddered, and put it away for awhile.

I'd already dealt with the disposition of much childhood baggage when Mom sold her house eight years ago. I hung her street number plaque reading "36" on my carriage house, and, slowly, it became a funky yard ornament, not a symbol of loss.

Her final move meant only a few more things to take. Notable among these was a nearly complete set of the works of Agatha Christie -- 64 books in all. They had originally belonged to my father's brother, a fellow fan. Then they filled a bookcase in the hall of Mom's home, ranged across a long, wide window sill in her apartment and lay in a box in the storage room of her assisted-living studio.

My husband, Paul, and I brought the books home in paper bags, a suitcase, a vinyl satchel. Paul took on the project of weeding out a batch of his own books and then set up the new arrivals in our living room.

I could only say, weakly, "That Agatha Christie sure wrote a lot of books."

Perhaps I'll sit myself down one rainy afternoon and reread "The Murder at the Vicarage," while sipping some tea from The Dog Mug. I was a teenager when I bought it. My trips to Boston on the Bonanza bus -- 40 miles from our home in southeastern Massachusetts -- with my friend Carol were my first stabs at independence. We haunted the Harvard Coop bookstore, and I suspect I bought it there.

It is a sturdy beige mug featuring a dog on one side and the words "Le Chien" (the dog, in French). On the other side, is a spotted dog, and the legend "Le Chien Tigre."

I always loved the cup, but never took it anywhere with me. Not to college, not to a post-college apartment, not to my married home. I don't know why, only that drinking out of it each time I returned home became a comforting ritual.

Of course, Le Chien made the journey from Rhode Island to Maine. I washed it carefully, hung it on a hook and felt grief rise within me.

I couldn't drink out of it for a few days. When I finally did, I first toasted my mother and my father and our travels through life together.

The clock, the ode to Mom and the mug were now in my hands.



You Can't Get There From Here in Rhode Island, Either

The motel, outside of Providence, R.I., was a fine place to stay except for one tiny problem: We couldn't get out of the parking lot.

We needed to make a left turn to get to our supper, but the traffic was too thick. Even turning right -- so we could go down the road and turn around -- was a lesson in frustration.

This was a surprise. My parents had frequented the motel dining room for years. A cousin held her wedding reception in the banquet facilities. After my father died, my sister and I ate breakfast with Mom there several times a week.

Never had we had trouble getting out of the parking lot.

But 23 years have passed since my husband, Paul, and I moved from southern New England to Maine. This neighborhood, once so familiar to me, had changed as much as I had.

I've evolved for the better. This place had not. It had become a spot on the map of what social critic James Howard Kunstler calls "The Geography of Nowhere."

In his book of that title, he writes, "The unwillingness to think about the public realm of the street in any other terms beside traffic, shows how little value Americans confer on the public realm in general."

We were in the midst of soulless suburbia, where the car was king and people an afterthought. The desk clerk had told us a Panera Bread was very close by. Probably within walking distance -- in theory, anyway. But only a fool would walk here. And driving was looking increasingly like a gamble as well.

All we wanted was a cup of soup and a hunk of baguette, which we would buy with the gift card in my pocket. I felt my stomach grumble as we finally turned right onto Route 114. We passed the exit to Interstate 195 and I realized cars were flying back and forth from there to the commercial Route 6, about an eighth of a mile away. That was the site of my Holy Grail. But surely the restaurant didn't account for all the traffic.

We reversed direction and reached the intersection with Route 6. As we idled at a traffic light, my eyes widened. Small family businesses and one lone modern shopping plaza had once lined this section of the highway. Now it was filled with strip malls and big box conglomerations. It had been a commercial area for decades, but a human-scale one. Now it was the kind of place I love to hate -- and the source of all the traffic.

Still, Panera Bread beckoned. Where was it? As I suggested that Paul go east, I felt my stomach clench, from a combination of hunger and stress. It's impossible to find what you're looking for in Strip Mall City unless you know exactly which ugly little collection of shops your destination is hidden in. Once I went looking for a futon shop on Auburn's Center Street, armed only with a street number. Silly me -- what I really needed to know was that it was located in the "Auburn Plaza," one of a dozen look-alike mini-malls.

At least there were two of us on this jaunt, one to drive and one to crane her neck vulture-like to spot the Panera Bread.

After we had gone about two miles without luck, I was inspired to call the Panera Bread and ask for directions.

"We're in the plaza where Dick's is," the perky gal who answered the phone said.

"Is that east or west of the intersection of 114?"

"What?"

Of course nobody knew where they were. They were Nowhere. We turned around and headed west. Just a few yards from the intersection of Route 114, the Dick's sign glared. The sporting goods store loomed at the back of the massive parking lot, but the Panera Bread sat snugly at the front, a warm, well-lighted place on this wintry evening.

Soup. Coffee. Chocolate chip cookie.

A maze of curbing surrounded the restaurant. Paul entered it, drove around, and headed right back out to Route 6.

I sobbed.

We motored to a traffic light, turned into a big box village, reversed direction, waited at the light to get back to Route 6 and stopped at the traffic light in front of Panera Bread. Finally, we were in the restaurant. I took a spoonful of soup and looked outside. A sign read "King's Philip's Crossing." I sighed. What would Metacomet, the legendary Wampanoag sachem who once ruled here, think about this mess?

He'd be sobbing, too.