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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

All stamps, all the time

It doesn’t happen often that CSB suggests a blog topic. How about never? However he has frequently pointed out subjects that he thinks do not warrant attention on SQD. Anything hagiographic. I would like to point out that many months if not years have passed since I have alluded to any saints, martyrs, or medieval mystics on these (imaginary, cyber) pages.

But CSB just suggested that I write about the stamps. The very many stamps. Back at the Orchard, my sister and I always knew that my mother had a large stash of stamps in her desk drawers. We had no idea of just how large.

Let’s have some context: Stamp collecting used to be a very respectable pastime. Lots of people collected stamps, traded stamps, and pasted stamps into albums. People acquired stamps from shops, from post offices, and from letters, back when the sending and receiving of letters was considered normal. Bon Papa, who traveled everywhere and loved geography, collected stamps from the countries he lived in, specifically Egypt and Indochina. As a child, whenever I visited my father’s office on Essex Street in Boston, I was allowed to roam free in the sample room and snip foreign stamps from the hundreds of samples of cotton linters and combers that were sent in brown paper from all over the world. In my memory, the sample room is the size of a coffee beneficio, and dimly lit; there are rows upon rows of wooden shelves and the samples are stacked on the shelves from floor to ceiling. I am guessing that my spatial memory is affected by my relative puniness at the time. I would bring my treasures home, soak them in water, and then, using special tweezers, put them in my stamp album. I was a strange and geeky child, but this was not the strangest thing I did. My collection skewed heavily toward cotton-growing countries: Turkey, Pakistan, Ethiopia India, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Brazil, and Mexico.

No one knows if my mother collected stamps herself, back when. Now we will never know. But we have figured out that sometime in the 1970’s, or maybe earlier, she started buying US commemorative stamps. Lots of them. Whenever a new stamp was issued, she bought a sheet, or three, or ten if she found it appealing. My mother was an excellent correspondent. She famously sent out 350 Christmas cards every year, and wrote letters constantly. Even so, she could not use up her supply of stamps, and over the years, the stamps piled up.

I don’t know what CSB found more bizarre: my mother’s remarkable hoard of stamps, or the fact that I spent Saturday morning calculating the face value of all her stamps. (It wasn’t that hard. Most sheets have 20 stamps and even I can multiply single and double- digit numbers by 20. I also have a calculator app on my phone.) The total was $1001.68. That is not an insignificant amount.

The truth is that I enjoyed sorting through the stamps, witnessing what the postal service has deemed worthy of commemoration over the years. There were of course stamps honoring presidents, athletes, artists, cowboys, and scientists. Every Olympics got its own set of stamps. Flowers, flora and fauna, cuddly mammals, and American history get lots of attention. One of my favorite honorees was Dr. George Papanicolaou: he invented the eponymous Pap smear. Alas, the stamp does not show my show my least favorite medical device: the icy cold speculum. (The vaginal speculum we all know and love was invented Dr. Marion Sims, the so-called founder of modern gynecology, about whom the less said the better. He may have statues, but he does not appear on any stamps.)
Some old-time commemoratives, like these for “World Peace Through Law” (10¢, 1974) and “Energy and Conservation”(13¢, 1975), seem archaic,and innocently hopeful in our present political climate. Would a Trump-led Postal Service dare to extol "World Peace Through Law"? Must we prepare ourselves for a stamp suggesting "World Peace through Nuclear Armaments"? Or praising "Clean Coal"?
Some are just self-serving, honoring either the Postal Service itself, or extolling stamp collecting. Is a stamp featuring Stamp Collecting considered a meta -stamp?

So what do we do with them? More than half of the stamps, in denominations ranging from 6¢ to 39¢, require licking. Do we even know how to lick a stamp anymore? Who can conjure up that redolent taste of postage glue, sort of sweet and sort of toxic?

In the usual way of research, I looked on line to find out if there is a resale market for stamps. There is, after a fashion. There are a few sites that will buy unused stamps, at a deep discount: %50 of face value for complete sheets under 49¢, %40 for partial sheets. All of my mother’s stamps have a face value of less than 49¢, and remarkably few of the sheets are “complete and undamaged”. In other words, my face value calculation is somewhat meaningless.
The only way to get our ‘money’s worth’ from these stamps, is to actually use them for postage.

Let me know if you want me to send you a postcard. (My mother also has hundreds of postcards.)





Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Olympic torch, reimagined

It was a fairly ordinary Sunday morning. CSB took Mom to church while the household's resident heathen lolled by the fire and did the crossword. He brought Mom back here with him, and she happily ensconced herself in the red velvet overstuffed wing chair by the fireplace. She went through the motions of reading a newspaper. Regarding a photograph on the front page of the opening ceremonies for the Olympics, she questioned, "Why are they all wearing the same hats?"
She asked several times what the date was and then checked what I said with the date printed on the newspaper.

Then she tipped over the ottoman where she had been resting her feet and began counting the bees on the fabric. It is a lovely pink Scalamandré silk with gold bees patterned across it, quite Napoleonic.

Mom said, "But it's been nice, I've been in here, I've been in there, I've been on the other side."
I said, "The other side of what?"
Mom said, "Of what I was involved before."

Then it was time to pick up my brother and his wife at the train station. It was pouring rain and I didn't want them to get soaked. I banked the fire and put the screen in front, and said, "Mom, I'm going to pick up Carl and Sandra. Carl, your son, and his wife, Sandra. That is: Carl, your son, and his wife, Sandra."
She said, "Well we just had them a matter of a week and maybe a bit more and what happened to them. Nothing happened to them. They just all hung around. He just appeared and he was really nice." (I think this means she thinks fondly of Carl, whoever he is.)
"Okay," I said, "Just don't touch the fire. I'll be right back. Chucker is just in the kitchen."

I drove the .6 miles down the train station, picked up my brother and sister-in-law, and returned. We emerged from the car and my brother note the pleasant scent of a wood burning fire. Did I notice that the scent was stronger than it should have been? I wish I could say I did.
CSB met us at the door, looking somewhat startled. A minute after I had left for the station, he had come into the living room to check on Mom, and through the large front window he saw my mother standing on the front porch waving a blazing Olympic torch. In fact, it was the fireplace broom, and the straw was flaming. My guess is that she thought she could put it out that way. But I can only guess, and I certainly cannot ask her. She was sitting comfortably in the red wing chair when we walked in, unfazed.

So, one scorched broom, and the house still stands.


A day like many others. A day like no other. I have to admit, I am annoyed that CSB did not take a photo of my mother with the torching broom before he actually put out the fire. Also grateful.

Friday, February 2, 2018

My Love Affair with Roomba


I don't how to say this any other way: I think I have fallen in love with Roomba. CSB tells me I am simply infatuated and that the glamour will fade and soon Roomba will spend lonely days in a closet gathering the same dust he now so diligently gathers.
I disagree. I remind CSB that I have fallen in love before, and I remain so. Why should my enchantment with Roomba ever fade?

Roomba, as the world knows, is a robotic vacuum. But Roomba is so much more. Roomba scoots around the house brushing the floor and sucking up dirt. Roomba has cliff sensors, floor tracking sensors, debris extractors, a Dirt Detect Indicator, a side brush, a dust bin and so much more.

When Roomba first arrived, I decided to name it. In our never-ending effort to be politically correct - why should house cleaners always be female? - we named him Aloysius. Now I wonder if there may have been a deeper reason for giving Roomba a masculine identity. Maybe, deep down, I realized I was going to become attached to Roomba, very attached, and very fond. And I am someone who is very fond of men, or a few good men.

It was all so serendipitous! To think that had I not gone down a certain aisle in Costco, an aisle that I normally do not go down and I only did on that day because I was looking for ink cartridges for my printer (they were out of the right kind), I would never have found Roomba. There it was on the bottom shelf of aisle three, beckoning, and I put one in my shopping cart. A classic case of impulse buying.

I already have a vacuum cleaner, an Electrolux that is generally considered to be a first-class vacuum. But my vacuum requires a human being to push it around the house. Roomba requires only that he is recharged. And his dirt bag emptied.

Aloysius scoots along the floor, wood floors and carpets equally smoothly, and gathers into his belly the detritus of our lives: dust motes, feathers, lint, pine needles, dog hair even though the dog has been dead for months, pencil shavings, more pine needles, wood chips, Cheerios, and so much more that is unidentifiable, but generally grey and fluffy.
Aloysius has never yet returned to his dock without a load of grey and fluffy stuff. I have to ask: does my house have an infinite supply, an ever-renewing supply, of dust, dirt, lint, pine needles and chicken bedding? Or will there come a time when Aloysius travels the length and breadth of the floors and gathers nary a mote?

Daisy and Bruno, and then only Bruno, used to keep me company in the house. With the dogs, there was always another breathing presence, a companion and a witness to my indolence and obsessiveness. When Bruno died last year, I was bereft. And left alone. It is unclear whether we will get another dog or dogs. Actually, all that is required is for CSB to succumb to my persuasive entreaties. But now I have Aloysius. He wanders around the house, as Bruno did. He can get under beds and sofas, as only Bruno could. Bruno left a trail of dirt and dog hair behind him, while Aloysius sucks up dirt and hair.

I know that I can program Roomba to vacuum while I am out, but aside from the fact that I have never been adept at programming devices (viz. DVR, VCR, crockpot), it would feel like abandonment to leave Roomba suctioning away while I was elsewhere. When I am here I can silently cheer him on, and of course, I can get him out of predicaments. I can untangle the shoelaces that are wound around his debris extractors, and I can extract him from a too-tight place, or I can remove the fire screen that has fallen atop him and is now being carried on Aloysius' back, like a fallen branch atop a turtle.

Like the dogs, Roomba does not judge me or make demands. And nothing in my life collects so much detritus.