FIRE AND ICE – ROBERT FROST

By Heart

You’re asked to recite a poem (or song lyrics) from memory — what’s the first one that comes to mind? Does it have a special meaning, or is there another reason it has stayed, intact, in your mind?


From the first time I heard it, this stuck in my memory and has never left. That’s probably more than 40 years. I think the reasons why it stuck should be obvious. If they aren’t, let me suggest you read (among others) Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” If that doesn’t do it, let me know and I’ll give you a reading list.

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Weird Little Town

I live in the Blackstone Valley. We are part of the National Park system — what’s called a “National Historic Corridor.” Our quaint little towns and beautiful (slightly polluted) river has historic importance.

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In this valley was born the American Industrial revolution. Right around the corner. That’s where they built the first mills, using the power of the Blackstone River. Then they built a canal system and a railroad to carry those home-made American goods to markets around the world. Unfortunately, they also poisoned the river and it’s taken half a century to get it almost clean, but that was the price of industrialization. We should be doing better now. Are we?

My town has not accepted the new century. It never entirely accepted the last one either. It was dragged along, unwillingly through the mid-1950s. After that, the town dug its heels in and said “Hell no, we won’t go.” They weren’t kidding.

Little Dam

A World War I artillery pieces sits next to our Civil War memorial and just a few feet from the World War II bronze and stone grouping. Vietnam never made it, nor any war since. It’s all guns and churches. At various times of the year, there are events on the common, often called “the green.” The grass doesn’t care. It just hangs around, being lawn-like.

We have book sales, rummage sales and cake sales which usually coincide with a holiday. We have a Christmas Parade, our local version of First Night, but so early in December it always feels odd and out-of-place. I have no idea why they don’t hold it closer to the holidays. And there are porkettas and pancake breakfasts. All to raise money for something. We used to have great local fireworks on the high school’s athletic field, but one year, we ran out of money and that was the end. Other towns still have fireworks. We can see bits of them over the tops of our trees.

I miss the fireworks so we watch the Boston display on television every year.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

Other towns complain about Main Street being destroyed by big chains like Walmart. We do not complain. We don’t have a Walmart although we do have a CVS — for which for sacrificed a great ice cream shop. Well, we didn’t sacrifice it. The people who ran the ice cream shop sold to CVS and used the money to open a brand new place in another town, but I digress.

If you want to buy anything beyond hardware, lumber, groceries, medication or fast food, you’ll need to go elsewhere. If you want a decent meal, you will have to go to another town. If you want to see a movie, go bowling, see a play, hear a concert … well, you know, Boston’s not too far and Worcester is just up the road. You can get to Providence in about 45 minutes — not counting parking. Depending on traffic. Whatever you want, you probably won’t find it here.

We do have a beautiful if underfunded public library. It’s in an old, elegant building that has somehow managed to remain alive despite having its budget repeatedly cut until it can barely keep the doors open to maintain membership in the public library system. And progress is encroaching, despite all resistance.

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After 20 years of arguing about it — after allocating millions of dollars to upgrade the old high school and having those funds vanish without a trace and with no explanation and no upgrades — our little town was told by the Commonwealth we had to build a proper High School or lose accreditation. Lack of accreditation would have made it tricky for graduates to get into college. So we built a new high school and our taxes almost tripled. The town has been so fiscally swindled mismanaged for so long no one can remember it any other way.

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There is a myth surrounding small towns. We’ve seen the movie — starring Tom Hanks or someone like him. There’s a supporting cast of caring local citizens. Cue up “The Andy Griffith” theme. In the movies (and on television) everyone has the best interests of the town at heart. Really, underneath it all.

Not! Here it’s all about nepotism, threats, bullying, and a committment to making life unbearable for anyone who gets in the way. They are not particularly concerned with the best interests of the town except insofar as it advances their own business and financial interests. They take what they want, refuse to answer to anyone, hire relatives and personal friends, give out contracts to their buddies and live the good life. It’s worked well for them. They always win.

What can you do? It’s a small town and you can’t spend your life fighting.

The mill by Whitins Pond

Town meetings end in fistfights and horrific verbal brawls creating enough bad feeling to last into the next decade. I opposed the new High School. Not because we didn’t need one. We definitely needed a new high school but I was still waiting for an explanation of where the millions of dollars to upgrade the old high school went. Eventually, overcoming all objections, they built it anyway and the explanation never came.

They asked Garry to run for town council when we first moved here. He was easily recognized from all his years on television, so despite being (then but not now) the only non-white resident, fame beat out prejudice. Garry declined the honor, explaining to me it would destroy our lives. We’d have mobs in the driveway throwing rocks at our windows. I didn’t understand until years later when I worked for a local paper covering debates preceding town council elections.

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Good grief! The level of personal vindictiveness and venom was a wonder to behold. Where were the good guys? Each  candidate was worse than the other, ranging from merely venal, through clueless, to possibly psychotic.

It was closer to Shirley Jackson‘s “The Lottery” than Andy Griffith. And yet, I do love the valley. True, I try very hard to not even think about why they do what they do and how they do it. The less I know, the happier I am. If my town were unique, it would be encouraging on some level, but all the towns around here are pretty bad. This town may take top prize for most blatantly bad government, but the other towns are close behind. They have better manners in public … but small towns are not like the movies. Really. Not.

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So — life goes on. White picket fences and green lawns. Big shade trees, lots of room for children to play. Safe streets, plenty of open space. Only two traffic lights in town, one of which is probably redundant. It’s ever so pretty. Just … don’t get too involved. Things aren’t necessarily what they seem. Think Chevy Chase in “Funny Farm.” Yeah, that works.

The Best of the Best of Connie Willis

The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories
By Connie Willis, with an introduction by Connie Willis
496 pages — Publication Date: July 9, 2013

Available in hardcover and Kindle

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Reviewing this collection was a pleasure. I love Connie Willis’ writing. All of it. Short stories, novels, novellas, everything. In this volume, I especially enjoyed her introduction. I had already read the stories and loved them. Getting insight into how she came to write them was enormously interesting to me.

Equally interesting were her list of the authors who influenced her, especially since they are the same authors who influenced me, notably Shirley Jackson and Robert Heinlein.

My introduction to Connie Willis was The Doomsday Book. Not exactly one of her lighthearted humorous books, but it was written entirely for me. I have two huge literary passions: the 14th century and time travel. The Doomsday Book is about time travel back to the 14th century, so I was predestined to love it. After that, I worked my way through the rest of the Cambridge Time Travel series and then …

I discovered her shorter works. All Seated On the Ground (included in this anthology) had me laughing so hard it woke my husband from a dead sleep to ask me what in the world was going on. This has got to be the funniest alien invasion in all of science fiction. Yet it also has a message. Willis is one of the few authors who can include a message without making you feel like someone’s banging you over the head with it. It’s there, not hidden, not obscure, but gently put. For your consideration.

I love every story in this collection, though All Seated On the Ground is my favorite. The Last of the Winnebagos is a must-read for every science fiction fan. Honestly, every story in this collection is a must-read. These are fantastic, wonderful, elegantly written stories. Some of them are novellas long enough to sink into and stay a while.

A Letter From the Clearys is an example of perfect economy in writing. Every sentence is crafted, layered, purposeful. Every paragraph is important as the story slowly peels away layers to uncover a post apocalyptic world in which one family tries desperately to cope.

Connie Willis_portraitThe stories are, without exception, gems. At the Rialto is funny, weird, full of the bizarre contradictions of time travel and chaos theory. Connie Willis is obviously fascinated by chaos theory as am I.

I am obliged to admit at this point that short stories are not my favorite literary form. I prefer long books. Very long books. I like series of very long books. After I move into a world, I want to stay there, settle down, and get to know the neighbors. Connie Willis is the only author whose short stories I like as much as her longer works. Do not miss this collection. Even if you have read the stories elsewhere, having them together in one binding is special. I hate to sound like an advertisement, but this would make a great gift for anyone who loves science fiction.

The book includes:

And although I have all these stories in various books including a couple of them as standalone novellas, this is worth having for the wonderful introduction (don’t skip it!) and the delight of having such great stuff in one book.

I have it on Kindle, but this one? I ordered the hardcover too, because some books are worth the shelf space.

Prompts for the Promptless – Wu Wei: Letting Life Take Its Own Course

The law of unanticipated consequences is a predictable outcome of Wu Wei. Letting nature take her course assumes if one relaxes and lets life flow unimpeded, the Universe will balance. There is an elegance to this assumption. Yet the results may be unexpected.

Nature runs amok?
Nature runs amok?

What after all, is harmony? Is harmony neat and clean? Does the garden you don’t care for grow brighter flowers? Does harmony clean up dust bunnies, find places for the million of things that fill our lives, the things Shirley Jackson refers to as “The little wheels off things.”

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It’s such a lovely thought … but while nature running rampant may be beautiful, it also consists of weeds that choke the flowers …  and in our homes, as an endless accumulation of the little wheels off things … and some not so little wheels off things.