Friday, July 29, 2016


Strolling idly through YouTube the other day, I clicked on something purporting to be The Best Hippie Songs of All Time, “from this historic era of freedom, expression and rebellion.”  Included, of course, was Buffalo Springfield’s counterculture anthem For What It’s Worth.  I first heard that haunting “Stop, hey, what’s that sound” from the radio of a convertible parked on a curb in Berkeley. I lost track of it after that until Justin told me a few years ago what it was, adding that every movie that has anything to do with hippies or the Sixties uses it.

The images that accompany “For What It’s Worth”: begin with the 1970 photo of the girl at Kent State kneeling beside the body of a slain protester.  Do I remember correctly that at the time the powers that were congratulated themselves on having taught these protesters a lesson, maintaining that now that they know they can get killed they’ll stop demonstrating and otherwise making trouble?

Other familiar photographs follow: the Vietnamese villagers with the naked, badly burned 11-year-old girl in the center; young people facing National Guardsmen and spiking their guns with flowers; psychedelic buses and improbable pyramids of riders on trailers; and the obligatory naked young people with flowers in their hair smoking dope.

A minute and a quarter into the song a video shows a group of motorcycles leading off a crowd of demonstrators, followed by a view of a street packed with marchers ("A thousand people in the street/Singing songs and carrying signs"). A later photo showed a crowd of people outside a high chain link fence looking through it at a bare patch of ground littered with bits of paper; another featured young people in the street apparently replacing a piece of pavement with grass.  That, it occurred to me, had to be the People's Park March in Berkeley in 1969.  I gleefully emailed it to my son and his wife: "Natalie and I were there."  Amanda pronounced that to be cool.

As I remember it at this distance, the People's Park was a small lot south of campus.  It belonged to the University, but it may have been vacant and have functioned as an informal neighborhood playground, rather like the Junkyard in West Medford where Justin and other neighborhood kids had their adventures.  The University announced plans to use the space for a parking lot; but before the plan got started, people in the neighborhood took it over and built a park there.  The University fenced off and padlocked the lot, and bulldozed the park.  There was some kind of sit-in, and at least one demonstrator was killed.  (A professor commented that during the events leading up to and including the Free Speech Movement, a year or two before I came to Berkeley, the students kept doing these provocative things and the University invariably reacted in the worst possible way, perpetuating and deepening the crisis.)

The pro-park forces organized a mass demonstration.  For days beforehand, rumors flew: tear gas would be used, the National Guard would be posted on buildings with orders to shoot to kill, other scary things I don't remember.  Our intrepid group at Kip's and the Rathskeller declared that they would have nothing to do with the march  Natalie and I went by ourselves.  She told me that if we were gassed, to close my eyes and stay with her since, like Nydia, Bulwer-Lytton's blind flower-seller who guides her friends out of Pompeii through blinding and suffocating fumes and volcanic ash, she would have no difficulty finding her way home (Natalie also read Victorian fiction; she may also have had Nydia in mind).

The march was led off by a motley group of motorcycles and scooters: Hell's Angels, some news sources said.  My impression of those vehicles was that no self-respecting Angel would be caught dead on any of them.  One effect of my years in Berkeley was a firm sense that news sources aren't necessarily to be trusted.  Among the marchers, I remember seeing Vincent Duckles, the professor of musicology who taught the course in Music Reference and Research that I took in library school.  Natalie and I joined the parade somewhere toward the end.  I remember a great deal of standing around as all those people threaded themselves into the narrow city streets.

The march began west and perhaps a bit north of the university, as I remember, and made its way southward past the campus, where it turned east up the hill and ended at the chain link fence where the park had been.  It was a day of bright sunshine, hot and dry, and a festive air prevailed.  Along the route, people watched from windows and roofs, often wielding stereo systems:  "This Is the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius" poured from the rooftops of Berkeley in the blazing California sun.

Somewhere along the way I was startled to hear from behind me the trilling double-whistle that I associate with my father; turning around, I identified the whistler as a woman (somewhat, irrationally, to my relief).  Toward the end of the march a young man with a black beard and a decent  voice started to sing:  "Do-na  no-bis pa-cem, pacem/Do---na no-bis pa---cem."  Others in our vicinity picked it up and sang in harmony, and I joined in.  Natalie didn't; she said she felt as though she were in the midst of a bunch of religious fanatics.  I have since had a fondness for Dona Nobis Pacem because of the circumstances under which I learned it.

When we got to the park there was a movement in the direction of damaging the fence or digging up the street.  Some group had brought shovels and picks for the latter purpose and Natalie wanted to join in; but I had a plane ticket for Boston at home and wasn't up for getting arrested.  I'm not sure I remember seeing any armed gendarmerie, although I rather think that was the march where young women came up to some armed persons and put flowers into the muzzles of their guns.  There was no tear gas, and no one got shot.

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"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!"  I wasn’t quite young enough to be a hippie, and always was much too sensible.  I never expected that peace, love, sex, drugs and rock-n-roll would defeat the blue meanies, old Moneybags, and the military-industrial complex; but neither could I have imagined that, like Wordsworth’s French Revolution descending into the Terror, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius would disappear in the Gotterdammerung of Donald Trump.

Friday, May 6, 2016


If in my days as a struggling single mother I had been as destitute as I remember, I wouldn't have been buying apples at Lawson's farm on Route 2 in Lincoln in what must have been the fall of 1984. In addition to apples and cider and vegetables, Lawson's had on offer a row of glass knickknacks on a shelf in front of a south-facing window. The only one I paid attention to was a cobalt-glass apple about 3 inches in diameter. Cobalt glass with a light behind it is, in Sherry's phrase, one of the better ends of things.  Starved for self-indulgence and frivolity, I longed for and lusted after that dark blue glass object, thinking rebelliously, "If I collected apples I'd have an excuse to buy that." I decided on the spot that as of that moment I did collect apples.  I paid Lawson's $15 and triumphantly carried it off.

I have since acquired a number of apples and apple-related objects, most of them given to me. Katharine and especially Sherry frequent gift shops, yard sales and dusty little second-hand stores. Laurie kept an eye out for apples, producing over the years some quite nifty ones and a couple that are actually useful.

My favorite gift apple was from Justin the year he left home and accordingly patronized a lot of yard sales. He appeared bearing the only Mother's Day gift he has ever presented me with, for which he declared that he had paid 50¢: knowing how I feel about holidays that exist to feed the gift industry, he thought I would approve of a 50¢ apple.

It's 7 inches in diameter (a bit wider at the top than at the bottom) and 7 inches high, made of 1/16" red plastic-coated wire wound horizontally 3/4 of an inch apart, and a green plastic stem and leaf. I hung it in the window of my Medford office and gazed at it fondly while typing. Later, someone gave me a wind chime featuring five melodious brass birds. I hung that in the window with the birds caged inside the apple.

In Otter River, I had a perfectly good bracket in front of the window opposite the chair in my office; but I couldn't quite picture how to re-hang the apple and birds and probably had an intimation that it would be harder than it looked. The apple and birds and the strings that suspended it sat for some time in an unsatisfactory heap on a bookshelf.

When I did gather up my courage for the attempt, my first thought was to lift up the whole thing as one piece and just hook it over the bracket. This approach turned out to be like an attempt in the nineteenth century to right one of the standing stones at Avebury: with all the resources of the nearby railroad at their disposal -- and Victorian machinery isn't to be dismissed lightly -- the engineers couldn't manage it and ultimately put the stone back up with levers and wooden supports, the same way their Neolithic predecessors did it.

I separated my birds from the apple; hung up the apple; and slipped the birds into it, as I had in Medford. It now hangs nicely in front of the window, as good as when not quite new.

Thursday, April 28, 2016


"Omnia sol temperat," I remarked on Facebook on the first warm day of last year after a long, cold and snowy winter. I added in parentheses, "It's about time" -- to the bewilderment of at least one Facebook Friend, who tried to make "It's about time" into a translation of the Latin phrase.

Omnia sol temperat means "the sun warms everything." I thought that would be reasonably obvious to the audience in my head to which I direct such things (that would be my son and a couple of friends). It's the title of one of the songs in Carmina Burana, a 1935/1936 choral setting by Carl Orff of 11th-13th century poems written by students traveling between universities (admissions processes were a lot looser in the Middle Ages than at present); unfrocked clergy; and other more or less educated young men with, as a much later song has it, no particular place to go. Many of the Carmina Burana poems deal with the immemorial preoccupations of that demographic group -- drinking, gambling, and fornication -- but a good number, including Omnia Sol Temperat, celebrate the coming of spring.

In Italy, Spain, Greece, and locales with similarly benign climates, spring gets a poetic nod from time to time but isn't hailed with quite the joy it inspires farther north. These wandering scholars -- who sometimes lived by begging and/or thieving and didn't reliably know where their next night's lodging was coming from -- must have wandered through latitudes where spring would have been more than welcome.

I generally take the weather as it comes; but last year I was almost as glad as a Medieval ne'er-do-well to find the sun warming the world at last.

Friday, March 4, 2016


There's a blue bus in the woods beside one of the roads into Phillipston. (A vague memory of mention of a blue bus in a 1960s rock song, possibly by The Doors, proves not to have been a retrospective hallucination but part of "The End"; but that's neither here nor there since Jim Morrison's blue bus represents something in particular that has nothing to do with the blue bus in or near Phillipston.)

That blue bus is adjacent to a house belonging, to judge from the motor vehicles on the property, to a backyard mechanic. A Phillipston resident refers to the "blue bus route" as one of the ways between his house and the rest of the world -- a bit but not quite like ”Swann's Way" and ”The Germantes Way," the two directions of Proust's protagonist's walks from his childhood home. (I tried to read Remembrance of Things Past a while back. I didn't make much progress.)

The blue bus appears not to be functional. Week after week and year after year it sits in its place in the woods in exactly the same position. I would imagine that its owner got a once-in-a-lifetime bargain on it and drove (or more likely towed) it home -- and from that day to this, there it has sat in the woods, a useful landmark but rather a failure as a bus.

In places like Phillipston, a home mechanic can easily assemble a collection of derelict automobiles. Katharine once spent most of a week in Ackworth, New Hampshire, reducing her brother's collection of dead and dying vehicles to the three that the town had abruptly set as a limit to the number of dysfunctional vehicles permissible on one property.

My father had a derelict vehicle at one point, purchased for some purpose not clear to any of us, perhaps not even to him. When Mother questioned its status he indicated an intention, conceived at that moment I'm sure, to make it the nucleus of a collection. We kids played on the truck until it came to be home to a colony of wasps. The truck subsequently disappeared, unlamented, when we weren't looking.

There is visible in our woods in Otter River -- once a pasture but over my lifetime slowly reverting to its natural state -- some rusted auto parts, surrounded by trees and nearly buried in leaves and pine needles. On closer examination it would seem once to have been most of an automobile, conceivably deposited in the pasture and left to itself while the forces of nature had their way with it. Such, perhaps, will be the fate of the blue bus in Phillipston.

Friday, February 5, 2016


In college at the University of California at Berkeley in the late 1960s, I worked for a small publisher whose primary product was lecture notes.  Notetakers, by preference graduate students in the field, were dispatched to lecture courses at the University to take notes and write them up for sale by subscription.  The notes were produced on a tight schedule; if they weren't in the office by 8:00 the next morning, the notetaker lost money for every hour they were late.

In the afternoon, the notetaker would appear for an editorial conference and do penance for every unclear expression, dangling modifier, misplaced comma, misused relative pronoun -- the list went on and on, and was rigorously enforced.  If you could write lecture notes for Tom Winnett you could be a professional writer.  I wish someone had told me that at the time.

The photo offset printing process was much more sophisticated than the purple-ink mimeograph that we of a certain age remember, but it did require a stencil that couldn't be corrected.  The typist explained that she was able to produce error-free copy because she knew she had to.  It takes, as someone has observed, all kinds.  That woman's nervous system was wired differently from mine, that's for sure.

The notes for the six or eight courses covered in a semester were available three days after the lecture; students bought the current notes as the course progressed.

At the beginning of each semester, Tom would send his veteran notetakers to the first meetings of large classes to take notes and count potential enrollees; then he would decide whether or not to continue with the course.  Checking out a class in drama, I sat in the auditorium with my pen and notebook, diligently scribbling and keeping an ear open for topic sentences for the required outline form.

The lecture began straightforwardly enough; but a page or two into the proceedings, I found increasing difficulty snagging possible outline material, or making sense of the lecture at all.  I finally gave up and set my pen down and watched.

Two young women made their way onto the stage and took off the instructor's jacket and tie and, among other antics, roped his arms to his sides at the elbows.  He continued speaking without missing a beat, the lecture deteriorating into utter nonsense.  Finally, one of the girls led him off the stage; the other advised us, in the impassioned accents often heard at the time, to forget all this and "make theater in the streets."

I reported my experience to Tom just as it happened.  "If he's going to do that sort of thing," he stated, "I don't think we'll do this course."  Understandable -- but disappointing.

Monday, January 25, 2016


It's surprising how many people, even locally, don't know about the molasses flood in the North End in 1919.  On Commercial Street in Boston, near the waterfront, a 50-foot-tall steel tank containing 2.3 million gallons of molasses had been leaking for some time; mothers in the neighborhood sent children with buckets to harvest the seepage.  Then on January 15, the tank burst apart, turning tons of the thick, sticky stuff loose on Commercial Street.

Water is heavy by itself and can absorb twice its volume of dissolved sugar.  According to King Arthur Flour's website, ¼ cup of molasses weighs 3 ounces; cookbooks tell us that the same amount of water weighs about 2 ounces.  That couple of million of gallons of sugar syrup oozed along at 35 miles an hour, breaking and crushing everything in its path.  People and animals drowned in it.  It wouldn't be possible to swim in any such substance, and at some depth, running through it would become impossible.  Getting out of it would be rather like escaping the Tar Baby.

With a clear, open road ahead and a good long start you might outrun it.  How many roads in the North End are open and runnable now?  How many were then?  If you saw this dark-brown mass surging toward you, how long would it take to figure out what it was and that it would be appropriate to run like hell in the opposite direction?

Twenty-one people died in that catastrophe.  Imagine going through life explaining that your husband or mother died in a molasses flood -- it sounds like a joke, horrible as it must have been.

It is said that in hot, wet weather some cellars in the North End still smell of molasses, the remnant of that dark tide.

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If you don't believe the above, you may consult:

Tuesday, December 8, 2015


Musing idly, as I often do, I have wondered if, in this age of subatomic beasties and particle accelerators, we could in theory turn lead into gold. One day last summer, having nothing better to do than send frivolous emails to people who are busier than I am, I asked a few acquaintances who might be interested -- including the only physicist I know -- what they thought about it.

The physicist said:

I looked up images of the periodic table.

The gold nucleus has 79 protons and an average of (197-79=118) neutrons.

The lead nucleus has 82 protons and an average of (207-82=125) neutrons.

I suppose the way to turn lead into gold is to knock 3 protons out of the lead nucleus, probably by bombarding lead with neutrons (which have no charge, so will not be repelled by the charged lead nucleus).

As you can see, this process requires a source that emits neutrons. Pretty expensive.

I am not a nuclear physicist, so that is the best I can do.

The most complete answer came from a software developer -- not a nuclear physicist either, but keenly interested in physics and possessed of a book that related to the subject. He explained how in theory lead could be converted to gold: You would take your lump of lead and bombard it with neutrons, and an atom here and there would trade its leaden identity for a second career as a different element.

The name of the new element began with B. A search of my mental file of elements turned up six of that description.  I know all the elements as of about 1960, thanks to Tom Lehrer's brilliant mnemonic  (  In 1962 I thought this was the cleverest thing I had ever seen or heard of.  I still think so.

Bromine is a gas; beryllium and boron sound like minerals; barium is an alkaline earth metal (whatever that is); and berkelium must be one of those temporary manufactured elements that last three quarters of a second before decaying into something else. Bismuth, like gold and lead, is a metal (with 83 protons and 126 neutrons); it's also a decay product of lead. Lets go with bismuth, and thank you, Wikipedia.

My son reminded me that converting one random atom at a time would produce a highly variegated lump of matter. With that in mind, you would bombard your piece of lead until you had a workable amount of bismuth with residual lead, assorted impurities, and presumably a bit of gold from atoms that got in the way twice.  You would then refine it so as to have bismuth and not much else.

The software developer's wife pointed out that the lump would be radioactive as hell. The gold, responded he, wouldn't be radioactive because gold doesn't do that; but, yes, the lead and bismuth and impurities would be dangerous to have around. Be that as it may - after refining your newly produced bismuth, you would bombard it again and refine it a second time. You would then have a small nugget of gold that you could display in a museum with a label explaining its origins.

I can't imagine who in this world would have the time and money to expend on any such piece of whimsy. I wonder how difficult it would be to explain to Paracelsus and the rest of them that we have at last achieved their age-old goal but that the process is so expensive it isn't worth doing. We might find ourselves, like Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee explaining basic economics to King Arthur's subjects, shouting across an insurmountable barrier of paradigm shifts.