Thursday, December 20, 2007

Light Dawns in Winter

From an early age, I was, as my mother put it, "oblivious." I have spent my life on the pointy ends of bell curves, one of which must have to do with attention to certain kinds of external events. A childhood picture that always makes me smile shows me and Cousin Priscilla, both age four, dressed in identical yellow taffeta dresses as bridesmaids at Cousin Elizabeth's wedding. Priscilla is looking straight at the camera with intelligent attention; I am staring at the ceiling or the stratosphere or the sidereal ether, paying no attention to anything visible to anyone else.

When I was fourteen, a freshman in high school, we caught the bus at some godawful early hour necessitated by double shifts in the town's only excuse for a secondary school building, while they built the new regional high school. One winter morning, as the sunrise pinkened the new snow on the pine trees, I thought how pretty it was and wondered why I hadn't noticed before that the sun was coming up just at the moment we were waiting for the school bus.

I had lived in Massachusetts all my life. I knew Robert Louis Stevenson's poem about going to bed by candlelight in winter and being consigned to bed during the day in summer, but I thought that was some strange English custom. I think that morning, waiting for the bus at dawn, was the first time I really connected with the fact that the sun rises at different times of day, and that days are longer in summer than in winter.

Monday, November 19, 2007


The young guy in the surgical waiting room had one hand in an impressive bandage. Maybe this was tendon surgery follow-up day; my son and I were there to have three severed and stitched-up tendons looked at, in the wake of his fall through a glass door shortly before Christmas. The other man in the waiting room described how on Thanksgiving morning he got in the way of the electric knife his girlfriend was using to slice the turkey, and had to have some tendons on the back of his hand reconnected.

I didn't follow exactly how this injury was supposed to have occurred. His story struck me as just the tiniest bit fishy around the edges. I found myself remembering a case I had recently typed for a criminal defense attorney, involving a lovers' quarrel in an Italian restaurant, an extra-large pizza knife, a trip to the hospital for him, and criminal charges for her.

I didn't say so. If the guy with the bandaged hand wants to save face, protect his girlfriend, or whatever, I'm willing to let him. I hope his tendons heal appropriately and that he and his girlfriend find approaches to conflict resolution that don't involve things like electric knives.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


The cross-country bus from New York stopped for the evening meal in Elko, Nevada. As we stretched and stumbled into the nondescript beside-the-highway pit stop, I noted that the decor consisted mainly of slot machines.

After what might be called dinner, I stopped to use the ladies' room while my traveling companion went ahead and got back on the bus. On the way out, my attention was arrested by one of a group of one-armed bandits on the wall.

"Oh," I said to myself, "that's a slot machine. It takes dimes."

I fished a dime out of my purse, dropped it in, and pulled the handle. The machine whirred around, came up three lemons, and disgorged thirteen or fourteen dimes, which I scooped out and put in my pocket.

Back on the bus, several people proclaimed their winnings at similar activities.

"Everybody seems to have won," my friend observed.

"The ones who lost aren't talking about it," I answered.

As for me, I knew full well and then some that I would only spoil my record by putting any more money in slot machines or any other system for separating fools from etc. I kept my handful of dimes in my pocket and never even considered trying it again. From that day to this, my lifetime track record on gambling shows a profit of 1300%.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Road Service

Driving home to South San Francisco well after 10:00 one night in the mid-1970s, my 1971 BMW R50-5 started to slow down. A minute later I was sitting in the middle of the road, bike in gear, clutch all the way out, engine running, going nowhere. It all happened too suddenly and completely to be caused by stretching of the clutch cable, which had recently been replaced; but it doesn't cost anything to try tightening the cable, so I tried. It didn't work. Time to call my husband.

The secondary road I was on was dreary and desolate enough, but a better place to be stranded than the freeway. I tried pushing the bike toward home, judging that the road was level for a good distance. In fact, it was slightly uphill. The bike weighs upwards of four hundred pounds, and the horizontal pistons are inconvenient for female arms; I never could push that thing without repeatedly barking my shins on the left crash bar. I pulled up beside the road and looked around.

The only sign of sentient life on the long, dark street was a trailer park. Knocking on the door of the first trailer that seemed inhabited and awake, I was scrutinized by a woman who declined to open the door or let me use her telephone but suggested that I try the trailer next door. The guy there let me in.

I called my husband and explained the situation. He told m to tighten the clutch cable. I said I already had.

"You obviously didn't do it enough. Go tighten it some more."

I thanked the guy in the trailer, went back to the bike, and set about tightening some more.

You can tell when a control isn't affecting anything. This one certainly wasn't. I turned it many revolutions, and then many more, and then a few more, just to be really sure before bothering the guy in the trailer again.

My husband wasn't impressed. "You didn't do it enough. . . ."

I knew I had turned it enough and more than enough, and I didn't like the way the guy in the trailer was looking at me. Time to insist.

"Yes, I did, and I can't keep bothering this guy who's letting me use the phone. You've got to come out here."

"All right -- but if this turns out to be nothing, it's going to cost you." This really was a threat to charge his wife for road service. He'd have been capable of that.

Ten or fifteen minutes later, he pulled up in his ugly green panel truck, grinning from ear to ear. The best of this guy can be seen in an emergency; once he gets started, he actually enjoys this kind of thing. He turned the same control I had been turning, for some time. Then he ordered me off the motorcycle --obviously, I couldn't be trusted to try it myself, since I couldn't even tighten the cable adequately.

Vaulting into the seat, he plugged the key into the ignition (the old BMWs had that key that pushes down to make the connection and then turns to the "on" position), stomped on the starter, kicked the bike into gear, let the clutch out, and went, as I confidently expected, nowhere. He kicked around from gear to gear for a while, finally announcing with a broad grin,"That's what's left of second gear." (As it turned out, he was wrong. All that had happened was the bolts that connect the transmission to the drive shaft had worked their way loose. Possibly, they hadn't been tightened properly after the last flat tire. The clutch cable had nothing to do with it.)

We produced a long, sturdy plank that lived in the truck, and followed our drill for such emergencies. First, he pushed the bike as far up the plank as he could reach. Then I held it while he jumped into the truck. He pulled it the rest of the way, and I pushed from behind as best I could.

A previous owner of the truck -- I wonder how many previous owners that truck had? - had paneled the inside, so there was nothing to tie a rope to. We put the bike in gear and tied the foot brake firmly. Then I crouched beside the bike, clinging to the hand brake that stops the front wheel, thinking about Newton's laws of motion and hoping we wouldn't hit any potholes.

We got home all right. We always did. As we prepared for a well-deserved rest, my husband remarked: "You're lucky you called when you did. If I had been in bed, with my glass of wine and a book, you'd have been out of luck."

If he had actually left me stranded on the road, I'd have considered murder; but he wouldn't have done that. If he'd presented me with a bill and extorted the money from me -- he did things like that -- we'd have had one of our classic fights. But he didn't do that either. Part of the dynamic of our relationship was that as long as no harm was done, I was inclined to laugh at his nonsense. I have avenged myself for this instanceof churlishness by telling the story to anyone who would listen ever since.

Monday, August 13, 2007


My father was happy to teach me to operate the bandsaw but of course strictly forbade me to use it unless he was standing beside me. So I played with it by myself every chance I got. Every human tradition must have stories about children coming to grief after doing something strictly, and for good reason, forbidden.

One day when I was about twelve, I was in Dad's workshop in the cellar, cutting in half at the thinnest point some pieces of scrap wood -- thin in the middle and wider on the ends, curved, as though circles had been cut out of square boards. Having polished off all the ones within easy reach, I stretched for one of the ones farther off, my hand still resting on the platform of the saw. I heard a tzzzit and felt the breeze on the end of my thumb as the blade sawed off the tip of a long thumbnail I had recently taken to cultivating.

I could have cut off my thumb and a bunch of fingers about that fast, and I knew it. Feeling my face go white, I shut off the saw, made my way upstairs, and confessed to my mother what I had been up to. She didn't seem particularly impressed; after all, there was no harm done.

Mother has described me as "oblivious." In my late teens I put so many spoons into the electric mixer that I got really good and fast at repairing the damage to the blades. I have dropped many pieces of silverware and other objects into garbage disposals and failed to notice until somebody turned the disposal on. I usually have one or two minor cuts or burns on my hands from incautious cooking.

Since the day I nearly cut off my thumb, I have used no power tools. I am too careless and inattentive to manipulate at close range any tool designed to subdue material harder than cold butter.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007



Blueberrying: trudging through woods and pasture, bitten and scratched by the fauna and flora; watching one's bucket fill slowly and then empty suddenly after a false step into a juniper bush that looked like solid ground to a kid; whining at Mother and getting scant sympathy ("I told you to wear long pants!); all under a blazing July sun mitigated only by the haze of 80-odd-percent humidity. Who needs that? You can buy blueberries, right?

Maybe. Maybe those big things in the supermarket, or even from the organic fruit farm, really are as good as the little wild ones of my childhood and my mother's youth. Maybe, as with so many scientifically engineered designer fruits and vegetables, we have bigger ones and/or more of them per plant or acre, but the amount of essential oils and nutrients per berry or plant or acre hasn't necessarily increased in proportion. I buy and use the big berries but I'm prejudiced against them.

Anyway, when the earth offers blueberries, it makes sense to accept. So Saturday morning found me at the back of the field behind the house, sitting on a milk crate under a big straw hat, plastic lidded container in hand, batting ineffectively at mosquitoes and waiting for daylight to advance enough that I could distinguish color and thus find the berries. Lady, make a note of this: quarter to five is too early.

These were low- or ground-bushes, eight or nine inches high; hence the milk crate. As kids we squatted or sat on the ground and quickly got hot and bored. The high bushes in the pasture, on the edge of the woods, or under the high-tension electric wires enjoyed plenty of blazing sun, but crouching down in the open field in mid-afternoon was particularly cruel and unusual.

We also picked and ate what we called dewberries, tiny things of the blackberry kind, spare and sour and seedy; and checkerberries, bright red skin over a white interior with a texture like water chestnuts and a mild wintergreen flavor, and the characteristic X at one end. We ate dewberries and checker-berries a few at a time on the spot. It was only the blueberries that we made any attempt to bring home and do something with --probably put on cereal -- but most of those got eaten on-site as well.

Ground-bush berries are conspicuous in small clusters at the top of the bush, two or three ripe ones and a few more green. I discovered that there are more berries down the side of the plant, one or two together, smaller than the ones up there in the sun. I found that there are more berries within arm's reach than it looks as though there would be. The cup and a half of berries I returned with doesn't seem like a lot for an hour's work; but have you checked out the price of organic wild blueberries lately?

For my mother, blueberrying may have been a communing-with-nature experience, although I doubt that she'd have thought of it that way. I can't report any Emersonian epiphany from this weekend's blueberrying experience. I observed, as I fished for dropped berries, the dense mat of moss, checkerberries and other field underbrush, and the tall grass pushing through here and there, the seed-heads brushing my face like bugs. I heard birds chirping and rustling in the trees, and mosquitoes shrilling in my ear. In the heavy, soggy air of a day that promised, and in due course delivered, the kind of weather I associate with blueberrying, I smelled the hay from the part of the field that was cut and drying; the checkerberries disturbed by the mower; the pines in the woods nearby; and, faint and far away, organic gasses released by the dump in the next town.

On balance, I was satisfied enough with my venture into hunting-and-gathering that I went out again on Sunday morning. It's rather like planting, tending and harvesting tomatoes and beans: Beans picked half an hour before dinner really do taste better even than beans from the local vegetable stand, and the tomatoes are cheaper. And they are unquestionably organic: I'll spring for $5 worth of fertilizer from the owners of the organic cows up the hill, but not for the pesticides, weed-killers and fertilizer the garden stores want you to buy. Even though seed and tomato plants and organic manure cost something and the self-watering planters rather a lot, and in spite of the labor-intensiveness of blueberrying, harvesting them gives me a heartwarming illusion of getting something for nothing.

Thursday, June 28, 2007


"A cat may looke on a King"
John Heywood, Proverbs (1546)

Trying to do something with one of the three cats that my
roommate and I harbored, I was getting, after the fashion of
cats, no respect. My then-boyfriend Danny was happy to explain
what I should be doing instead and to tell me how much better he
managed with the cats he lived with: "My cats obey me," he said.
His cats, indeed -- they belonged to the landlady. He doesn't
even like cats much.

A day or so later, one of "his" cats sat itself down under
the table in his room and showed no inclination to move. He
pointed at the door and ordered the cat to leave. The cat stayed
put. Danny doesn't, on principle, countenance opposition from his
natural inferiors (this, as I later found out, includes wives;
but that's a series of very long stories). He pointed and ordered
again. The cat, after the fashion of cats, sat still and looked
at him.

Danny, as someone once observed, never drops anything until
it's absolutely finished. He doesn't compromise with Error. He
probably wouldn't, for example, roll something out the door in
the hope that the cat would chase it, or go into the kitchen and
pick up the can opener. Having determined what should happen and
issued an order in accordance therewith, it would be weak and
possibly sinful to back off or change his tactics. If ever I saw
an irresistible force confronting an immovable object, it was
Danny giving orders to a cat. I laughed so hard I couldn't stand

The cat won the first round. As Danny was scrambling under
the table in the undignified fashion of a human negotiating with
a cat, I managed to choke out, "Danny, I'm glad your cats obey

Danny ultimately won, of course. Humans win most encounters
with animals, at least in the short run, and a small animal in a
confined space is at a great disadvantage. The cat was hauled out
from under the table and deposited ignominiously outside, leaving
Danny triumphantly in possession of the space under his table --
albeit with some sacrifice of face and dignity. I was inclined to
give the moral victory to the cat.

Thursday, June 7, 2007


Off and on for years, we have heard what sounded like
chirping and fluttering in the hose that vents the dryer. Once
we went so far as to look behind the dryer and, by shaking and
poking the hose, satisfy ourselves that at that time, at least,
no one was living there. This spring, however, the fluttering
and twittering were more pronounced than ever before. We had
many discussions entitled We Have to Do Something About the Birds
in the Dryer; but getting at the hose is nontrivial. We are
easily daunted by such projects.

The dryer is in the pantry, on a waist-high shelf. The hose
is vented out a window at nearly ceiling height. It is illegal
to vent a dryer out a window: the fire department thinks every
window should be available for egress in case of fire. This is
hysterically funny when applied to a condominium where all the
windows are blocked by potted plants, electronic equipment, a
seven-foot Steinway, and much other stuff, and particularly when
applied to the pantry window, which is a couple of feet high and
a foot wide and accessible only from that shelf.

The dryer, like all new-ish appliances, is huge -- much
bigger than we need. It's maybe three inches from the wall on one
side and five from the pantry shelves on the other, and that's a
generous estimate.

The interface between the hose and the window is one of my
famous jury-rigs. It works fine and even looks more coherent than
much of my handiwork, but it is next to impossible to remove or
work on it without taking it apart completely. When I put it
together, I didn't know that an unprotected dryer hose is prime
avian real estate.

This spring, after a month or so of declining performance,
the dryer substantially stopped drying. It got warm and tossed
stuff around, but the stuff didn't dry. There was nothing for it
but to relocate the boxes stacked from the top of the dryer to
the eight-foot ceiling, coax the dryer away from the wall, and
see what was going on.

We pulled and twisted the dryer forward and tipped it off
the shelf, resting it on the top of the step stool -- which
filled most of the pantry -- in what would have been a precarious
position if there had been any room for it to fall. I was able
to step onto the shelf and move gingerly around the dryer into a
position where I could reach the top of the window.

We found that we couldn't see even a glimmer of light
through the hose. There definitely had to be a nest in there.
Hoping there weren't any baby birds in the nursery, I amputated
the house several inches below the window and disconnected the
other end from the dryer. Several inches from the top was a neat
little nest, empty: no birds; not even any eggs. Greatly
relieved, I folded a piece of stout wire screening into a hollow
cube, crammed it into the entrance to the hose, and grafted a new
hose from there to the bottom of the dryer.

This all sounds straightforward enough; but it was rather
like building a ship in a bottle from inside the bottle, and then
trying to get out. Also, with the dryer and the step stool
effectively filling the pantry, we couldn't get at our main stash
of tools and were confined to the contents of a small tool box
that happened to be on the floor. Thus, for example, we had no
hammer and only a small pair of wire cutters.

Even before we finished, somebody came home, took one look,
and flew away. Before I finished connecting the hose to the
bottom of the dryer, the homeowner was back, first with a flutter
and an irate chirp, thereafter with clicks and scritches and
great persistence.

I didn't fasten the cube in place with a couple of skewers,
as I thought I might, because I didn't have any skewers, I didn't
like to make holes in the hose, and I was tired of the whole
project. There's no knowing how long it took the little beasties
to get the wire cube out. By the time the dryer failed again,
about a week later, they had done so, rebuilt the nest, and laid
a couple of eggs. We found out about the eggs when Laurie put
his thumb in one and the other fell on the floor.

We broke down and bought a plastic bird guard from the
hardware store. It would have been a whole lot easier to adapt
the bird guard to my venting system from outside the window; but
we live on the second floor and don't own a ladder. My husband
doesn't do ladders and gets the blue willies if I threaten to do
so. Fortunately, I have achieved sufficient maturity not to do it
anyway just to prove that he can't tell me what to do. I probably
wouldn't have driven my motorcycle to the maternity ward either,
but it was great fun to tell my first husband that I planned to.

I was absorbed in trying to incorporate the bird guard into
my original jury-rig, with much difficulty and ill temper, a
scratched knuckle, and a couple of broken fingernails, when the
phone rang: my son, offering to move a potted plant that I had
asked him about the day before. "Good," I said, "you can finish
sticking this thing in the dryer." The dryer had come up in the
previous day's conversation as well.

Justin finished the job, not exactly easily, but more expe-
ditiously than my husband and I were managing to do. With it all
together and the dryer back in place, Justin noticed the screen
to the bird guard lying around somewhere. I had wondered about
that -- It had fallen off while I was working with it, much too
easily, it seemed to me.

He pulled the dryer out from its position yet again -- for
the fourth time counting the prior week's event -- and wired the
screen back onto the bird guard with paper clips, one of his
favorite building materials (have I mentioned that jury-rigs run
in my family?). We offered him anything he wanted as a reward for
his efforts. He settled for a burrito from Anna's for himself and
another for Amanda.

If the birds have tried to get in again, their efforts
haven't been audible from inside the house. I regret their
frustration and disappointed expectations -- but we need the

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


When my first husband and I lived in South San Francisco, our
road trips began with overstuffed burritos from El Gran Taco,
eaten en route. I nicknamed the restaurant El Dubious Taco
because the ambience wasn't welcoming, at least not to me: the
all-male clientele eyed me suspiciously, and the help knew barely
enough English to take an order. I had to explain to one of them
about California sales tax. But they made a dynamite burrito.

El Gran Taco's burritos were made with refried pinto beans. They
didn't use ground meat: a pork or beef burrito contained shreds
and pieces chopped from a chunk of stewed or pot-roasted meat.
I'd have given a good deal to know what they cooked the meat in,
and what was in the salsa and if you could buy it; but El Gran
Taco's staff and I didn't have nearly enough language in common
for culinary discussions.

In the spring of 1979, in the first months of pregnancy, I would
wake up early, feeling wonderful, and ride my motorcycle to an
8:00 AM class at San Francisco State University, where I was
studying music. As the morning and my back-to-back classes
advanced, the queasiness came on. By early afternoon, nauseated
and ferociously hungry, I often lunched on one of those huge pork
burritos with hot sauce, washed down with a beer. I sure did
enjoy those burritos. They were almost the only thing I missed
about California when we left in 1980.

At that time, no one on the East Coast seemed to have heard of
pork burritos, or beef burritos made from anything but hamburger.
But in the mid-1990s, a restaurant appeared in Davis Square,
Somerville, that produced the kind of pork burrito I was used to.
The restaurant didn't last, and was replaced by a day care

Differently conceptualized burritos became available in the late
1990s. The Blue Shirt Cafe in Davis Square offered grilled
chicken and beef as well as vegetarian burritos, with black or
refried beans and many exciting variants (still no pork). I
patronized the Blue Shirt frequently when I worked in Davis
Square, trying not to spill too much burrito juice into my
keyboard. (Why are so many of my favorite restaurant sandwiches
-- Reubens and meatball subs come to mind -- the kind you take a
bath in?) The Purple Cactus on Massachusetts Avenue in North
Cambridge also used grilled beef and chicken and a choice of
beans. I indulged myself in at least as many as I could afford
until the day I walked in, suspecting nothing, and found the
former Cactus presided over by a young man preparing to sell
pasta; the Cactus had been sold. I was heartbroken, in a small
sort of way.

About the same time, a client of one of the other people in my
office building sent in Tex-Mex food from their restaurant,
Anna's Taqueria. I don't remember pork, but their burritos were
constructed on the same lines as those of El Gran Taco. Where, I
asked, is Anna's? Boston, or somewhere equally inaccessible.
Alas. I continued to patronize the Cactus and pin my hopes on a
promise of an eventual Anna's nearer to me.

Anna's Taqueria did appear in Davis Square, and then in Porter
Square. The beef and/or chicken burritos were just what I had in
mind, and eventually I found out that chili verde in this context
means pork. Anna's chili verde burrito with refried beans and extra
hot sauce matches my memory, imperfect by this time, I'm sure,
of the pork burritos from El Gran Taco.

When I ask a purveyor of burritos for extra hot sauce I'm not
always taken seriously. They probably think, What does this old
gringa know from hot sauce? and go easy. I won't soon forget the
young man at Anna's who grinned from ear to ear and made three
passes along my burrito with the hot sauce bottle. That was a
wonderful burrito, even though I had to mollify my stomach with
ice cream.

The trouble with Anna's is the logistics. The space is large and
echo-y, and there is usually music playing. The people behind
the counter speak English about the way their counterparts at El
Gran Taco did, through all that ambient noise. Between my
elderly hearing and always-poor ability to pick auditory
information out of background noise, Anna's and I have serious
communication problems. In addition, there's often a long-ish
wait, and once you get to the beginning of the line you have to
step lively, order quickly, not hold up the works. I don't think
well on my feet; I get confused and flustered and my auditory
discrimination worsens. Furthermore, I don't stand up easily for
more than a minute or so. Maybe Anna's isn't for old people.

I hunted up a recipe for chili verde on line and have success-
fully made burritos. I'll eventually figure out how to wrap them
so that they don't fall apart; so even if Anna's should fail me,
I have the final resource of making them myself.

But help with Anna's is at hand. Remember that 1979 pregnancy?
He also likes burritos, is good to his mother, and lives near
Porter Square. I wait in the car while he deals with Anna's.
Then we sit side by side, peeling back foil and working our way
through our burritos, me riding and him driving, much as his
father and I used to do.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


When my sister moved into the family house, which she and I
own and our mother lives in, we borrowed money for some repairs
and improvements. My share of the payment on the equity loan
came to a bit more than I was then paying UHaul to store my
books, so I commandeered a room for them in the house.

Redecorating that room was one of the improvements. By the
time I took possession, it had white, painted walls instead of
the ancient blue-flowered wallpaper with brown water stains from
the 1938 hurricane, and a reddish-brown neutral carpet instead of
deteriorating linoleum. It even had heat. My sister made me
some green and burgundy drapes. I adopted a white table lamp
that wasn't being used and bought it a burgundy shade.

Other than that, my approach to interior decoration was to
line the place with books. I covered all the available walls
with cinderblock and particleboard shelves and a few real
bookcases that I happened to own, and the bulk of my husband's
and my combined libraries moved in. A couple of years ago, I
replaced the 16-inch blocks in two of the units with 12-inch
blocks, significantly increasing the available shelf space.
There's one unit left with 16-inch blocks, but those may have to
stay: the holes in the blocks are perfect for pens and pencils,
Chap-Stick, dental floss, a nail clipper, and one or two other
small objects that I would have to find other homes for.

After the shelving upgrade, I achieved a long-cherished goal
of equipping my room with a recliner, by the clever expedient of
putting it on the charge card and promising myself that I would
figure out how to pay for it when the bill came. As Stark Munro
(one of Conan Doyle's other fictional doctors), trying to estab-
lish himself in practice, said of the gas bill due in a month or
so, "Any number of things may have happened by then."

The recliner rests in a corner within arm's reach of the
cinderblock pigeonholes. Also close by are a plant stand that
supports a mug of tea, a few books of poetry, and a box of
tissues; a small table comfortably littered with papers; a pile
of books on the floor that I plan to get back to soon; and a
wastebasket. What more could any rational creature want? Well,
yes, there's a bathroom at the end of the hall and a kitchen
downstairs. There's also a cordless phone when I remember to
bring it in from the front hall, half a mile away.

The back window looks over the field and the woods behind
the house. The window beside the recliner faces the house next
door, across the lawns and some trees. The view from the
recliner is mostly the second story of the barn, with sky and
treetops; but in the spring, I set morning glories in a large
planter directly under that window and provide them with strings
that lead to the top of the window. By the end of June I have
vines to look at, and flowers from July through September. Like
Charles Darwin, I admire climbing plants.

I wonder at odd moments what seven cinderblock-and-particle-
board shelves and the books on them weigh, what kind of shape the
hundred-year-old floor is in under the carpeting, and what might
be the first symptoms of an imminent, so to speak, breakthrough.
I especially think of this when reading in Little Dorrit or Bleak
House about the collapse of elderly houses in nineteenth-century
London. But as long as the ceiling under my library shows no
sign of cracking, I will continue to climb into my recliner and
tranquilly read myself crosseyed every weekend.

Monday, February 12, 2007


Choir rehearsal: we're taping the Welsh lullaby that most of
us know as All Through the Night, the arrangement that I got from
the Welsh choir that performed at the church earlier in the year.
The soprano part is just the melody, and I'm singing from memory.
I love this lullaby but have come to associate it with a particularly
dreadful moment in a custody war that ended about four years
before. If I'd lost I couldn't have listened to that song ever again;
but I won, if anyone can be said to win such a thing, so the
dreadful incident is almost a bittersweet memory, as I follow the
director, sing the tune, and get the words in the right places.

And there's the very child himself, walking around the periphery
of the room: I don't want to pay a sitter for a nine-year-old, or quite
want to leave him at home by himself. He's so cute, and a joy
generally. I watch him affectionately against the background of the
incident and the custody war, while continuing to follow the director,
sing the tune, and get the words in the right places.

Then the child's meanderings turn toward the front of the
room, where the long table with the tape recorder is. Some dippy
soprano has already spoiled one take by coming in late and
ruckling through the folders on the table. From the back of the
soprano section -- on risers, I think -- I watch with the helpless
horror known only to parents and pet owners as the boy,
whose approach to life has been characterized as "head first at a
hundred miles an hour," works his way toward the table -- watch,
and continue to follow the director, sing the tune, and get the
words in the right places.

The child is quick and observant, and knows about tape
recording. He notices the machine turning -- why do I picture
open reels? circa 1989, that's unlikely -- and pulls himself up
short in Michael Jackson's Moonwalk position, "Oops" in every
line of his expressive body (he has since become a dancer). To my
vast relief, he moonwalks himself backwards down the side of the
room and out the door. The side door leads to the sanctuary and
the parish hall downstairs. God knows what he'll find to do
there, but I can't help it. Probably nothing worse than
frightening someone by climbing pillars. I gratefully clear my
mind of everything but following the director, singing the tune,
and putting the words in the right places.

Monday, February 5, 2007


At the astronomy club on a back road in Groton,
members set up their telescopes on the lawn at the side of the
building, in full view of any headlights coming up or down the road.
Accordingly, use of headlights is forbidden between the building
and the main road. Anyone who comes by with headlights blazing
into the astronomers' carefully cultivated night vision is persona
very non grata indeed.

Due to a flaw in the design of the universe, the most
exciting viewing of the heavens is to be had in January and
surrounding months. The astronomers come into the clubhouse and
thaw a bit now and then. For the benefit of non-astronomers and
of club members who have other things to do, the clubhouse has
light as well as heat, kept inside by heavy shades on the

My son and I usually arrived early enough in the day that
driving to the clubhouse wasn't an issue. He was the club
member. My interest in looking through lenses has always been
minimal. I relate to James Thurber's piece about trying to make
sense of what he was seeing in the microscope in biology class:
He diligently copies what he sees, only to be told by the
instructor that he had copied the reflection of his own eyeball.
The main difference is that I usually couldn't see even that
clearly. So I stayed inside in the light and warmth while Justin
looked through the telescopes.

Optimal viewing requires minimal or no moonlight. It could
be very dark when we left the clubhouse. Justin would literally
have to lead me from the edge of the porch to the car and hope I
didn't fall into any holes on the way. When it came to backing
the car out of its place in a couple of lines of vehicles, most
of which had come in after we did, it was obvious that at twelve
or so Justin was far more qualified to get us out of there than I

He would back out of the area where people parked (I
wouldn't quite dignify it with the term "parking lot") and drive
us out to the main road. As time went on, he would turn onto the
main road, and just keep going. Routes 119 and 2A through Groton
and points east, at the unheard-of hours when an astronomy club
is in full swing, are pretty deserted. By the time we got back
to our urban base it almost no cars were in sight.

No one drives more carefully and inconspicuously than an
otherwise conscientious under-age kid with a deep desire not to
get himself and his mother in trouble. The only time we got
stopped on that route, I was at the wheel. By the time Justin
was fourteen, he was a better driver than I am.

Monday, January 29, 2007


I fall out of bed and into contact with the exercise machine
on the back porch as soon as, in my muddled way, I can get there
with all the accountrements my routine seems to require -- tape
deck, timer, appropriate extra clothing, and the ChapStick that I
require at all times. It's important to start before I wake up
enough to realize how thoroughly I hate exercise. My idea of
physical activity is chewing and turning pages; but at my age if
I don't do something a little more vigorous than that, my joints
will set like plaster of Paris. So out I go.

My exercise companion is one professor or another as
recorded by The Teaching Company (you probably get their
catalogs; www.TEACH12.COM, if you don't and are curious). For
some weeks now I have been hearing about the history of science.
The first set of lectures covered science from antiquity to 1700.
We are now working on the years from 1700 to 1900; the next
series is twentieth century science. I will never understand
relativity, quantum mechanics and the rest of it, but I persist
in a vague faith that making the attempt will build character, or
at least keep the old brain cells from dying off quite so

While peddling and listening, I monitor the activities of
small birds and squirrels in the box maple and the number of
pigeons on the neighbors' roof. I watch clouds move across the
sky and sunlight along the table. I consider whether the shrub
that makes bay leaves will need a bigger pot next year. I note
that those big termite bees are back and making little piles of
sawdust, and wonder when we'll have to do something about them.
I remind myself that the row of glass bottles that hold water in
summer are empty and thus won't freeze and break. I wonder if
it's going to rain. I enjoy the rare treat of watching it snow.
I like snow, and it isn't often that it happens to be falling at
the moment that I'm out there.

Last fall I noticed that the plastic covering an attic
window in one of the houses behind ours had developed a rip that
flapped in the breeze. I dropped a note into the mailbox of that
house and was gratified the next time I looked to see that the
plastic had been replaced.

Even without snow, even in hot or otherwise loathsome
weather, I have come, if not quite to enjoy my morning pedal on
the back porch, to feel guardedly good while doing it and to miss
it when I skip a day. Between the lectures and the exercise I
start the day feeling so improved I can hardly stand myself.

Sunday, January 21, 2007


I was thirteen; my sister would have been ten and a half or
eleven. I had read somewhere that the appearance of food is
important to palatability -- most people won't drink a glass of
blue milk even though they know it's all right. I didn't quite
understand this. For no particular reason except a fascination
with food coloring, I sometimes dyed a glass of milk blue. I
never had a problem with drinking blue milk, but having a
scientific and inquiring mind, I devised an experiment to test
the proposition.

It's hard to come up with an experimental protocol that
includes a control group when you only have one subject (at the
time, that was all my parents had provided me with). I planned to
dye the milk blue, blindfold the subject and offer her the milk;
then remove the blindfold and offer it to her again. For some
reason, I ran this by our mother.

"Can I have a glass of milk to color blue and give to

"No. I don't want you wasting milk."

"But . . ." (some attempt at explanation).

"NO!" or words to that effect.

"All right, can I have a cracker?"

"Yes, you can have a cracker."

So I spread blue liquid food coloring on a Ritz cracker,
summoned Paula, and gave her some sort of account of what I meant
to do (this was long before laws about informed consent). She had
been victimized by schemes of mine before. I'm not sure why she
agreed, but she did. I blindfolded her and fed her the blue

I had used a lot of food coloring. Perhaps the cracker felt
cold and damp, or tasted funny. Maybe it was just the quality of
the silence as I watched her chew it. Suspecting that all was not
well, she ripped off the blindfold, leapt into the bathroom with
a single bound, and spit the cracker into the sink. The resulting
mess was very blue, and the mirror above the sink confirmed the
worst: her lips were blue, her teeth were blue, her tongue was
blue; presumably her tonsils were blue, and her gullet all the
way to the duodenum and beyond. With a roar, she seized and
moistened a washcloth and fell to scrubbing her tongue, howling
and lamenting.

Collapsed as I was against the dining room table, helpless
and almost speechless with laughter, I reassured her.

"Don't worry, Paula, every cell in your body replaces itself
every five years."

"Five years???!!!" -- loudly scrubbing her tongue.

At this point Mother appeared in the doorway from the living
room wanting to know what I was doing to my sister. Without
waiting for an answer, she withered me with a look and proceeded
to soothe and succor Paula.

The blue color must have subsided after a day or so at the
outside. Paula gets over things readily. I doubt that she
remembers the incident now. Forty-odd years after the blue
cracker incident, she redecorated that same dining room in blue;
so she clearly developed no permanent aversion to the color.

Monday, January 15, 2007


I got into the motherhood business at thirty-seven, knowing
nothing about babies or kids. When they handed me this little
thing in the hospital, I was inclined to think, "What am I
supposed to do with this?"

What I did was talk to it a lot, and later read to it. Something
we were reading or doing prompted my sister, a school speech
pathologist, to say, "You know, if you keep that up you're going
to wind up with a kid who can't function in public school." So
much the worse, it seemed to me, for public school. I'd read
John Holt and Summerhill in college and was comfortable
with the position that school as we know it isn't given in
the nature of the universe. But by the time Justin appeared in
the world, I hadn't thought about that issue for years. I took
it for granted that he would go to school like everybody else.

Justin's approach to life has been characterized as "head first
at a hundred miles an hour," although in fact he has always been
more controlled than he seemed to be to slow, old grownups. He
was Dennis the Menace, Calvin, Eloise, Tom Sawyer -- a kid who
may grow up to be Mark Twain or Liza Minelli but whose childhood
is hard on everyone concerned. A book I once read about the
Dakota Indians described the big boys' "dangerous games," things
like galloping their horses across the prairie, bareback of
course, and trying to push each other off. Justin would have
loved it. He'd have been tribe champion. He would have made a
great Dakota Indian. He'd have done well as a Shao-Lin warrior,
or a Spartan, or a Zulu. He did not make a good middle-American
school child.

His problem in school wasn't really his tearing energy and
nonstop activity, although that didn't help. It wasn't even that
he knew it all already, or thought he did, and was bored to
death, although there was some of that. He reminded me of Pigpen
in Peanuts, with the cloud of dust and dirt that follows him around.
Justin's cloud wasn't dust and dirt so much as a black hole of
disorder and a gleeful disinterest in adapting to the system. He left
trails of lost objects behind him. He played with his lunch like
Play-Doh instead of eating it.

Two high points of his career were losing his spelling book for
good and all -- apparently into a space warp in his desk since no
one could figure how it could have gotten out of the classroom --
and trailing grape juice across the floor from one of those
supposedly unspillable boxes that they make for kids' lunches.
He so mastered the art of losing papers that he could get to
school without his homework even when I picked him up from his
classroom after school and delivered him back there the next

By the end of third grade, he was saying things like, "I'm stupid
and everybody hates me." I understand that a lot of kids say
things like that, and parents and teachers take it with a grain
of salt, assuming they'll outgrow it. I did not so assume. I
don't think people do outgrow that kind of thinking, once it gets
built into their assumptions about themselves. I think they stop
talking about it and figure out how to make their way in the
world in spite of it, but working around something isn't the same
as getting over it. Nobody should know how to think "I'm stupid
and everybody hates me."

Three incidents sum up why I came to think that our struggle to
shoehorn Justin into public school wasn't working. First was a
conference with the principal. We agreed that in some sense
Justin was doing the best he could, and that continuing to rag
him about his ways wasn't likely to help. She also looked at his
life as I described it and commented that he had a lot of outside
activities, which he did. She suggested that he might be doing
too much, that it was confusing to him. I thought this over and
realized that I knew what he was getting out of the activities,
but I wasn't sure what he was getting out of school. Maybe
school was the thing we could do without.

Then there was a phone call from the school nurse: "Do you know
that Justin came to school this morning with his hair not
combed?" Give me a break. In January, a kid pulls off his
knitted cap and his whole head explodes into static electricity
-- particularly Justin's. He was prone to explosions, most of
them figurative. Likely enough he did go to school without
combing his hair. Since when is this a medical emergency? (My
mother was a public school teacher. Mother and I have had our
issues over the years, and still have a few. Being scolded by
school personnel doesn't bring out the best in me.)

The third incident was the last conference of many with the third
grade teacher: "What are we going to do about Justin?" She said
they thought he might have a neurological crossup of some kind,
and they'd like to do a workup on him. The occupational
therapist happened to be there that day and could take a quick,
informal look at him and check out his coordination.

Check out his what? This is Justin the Dakota Indian. He loved
to do three-point headstands on the back seat of a moving car, or
in a tub full of water. I'd once told his day care lady she
could put him in the gym and swim program if she'd promise
not to improve his coordination. The occupational
therapist had him scoot across the room on a skateboard, sitting
down, and that was that.

But on the way out of the building Justin asked me, "When she
said that, why did I feel like a retard?" That did it. Click,
as the feminists say. In his private universe in the back of the
room, he did his third-grade schoolwork creditably enough when he
bothered to do it. His other activities included melting crayons
on the radiator and reading Stephen Hawking's book about time.
I'm not sure a kid like that can be incorporated into an orderly
school system -- but that wasn't my problem. My job was to get
him out of there before they convinced him beyond repair that he
was stupid and obnoxious. I took him out of school, telling him,
"Someday you'll have your own reasons for keeping track of your
life, and then you'll figure out how to do it."

We did a year of home school. We had fun; but a ten-year-old boy
with no siblings needs to do more than hang around with old Mom
all day. The following year I sent him to Sudbury Valley School
in Framingham, Massachusetts (, which has its
own kind of order and focuses on requiring students to be
responsible for themselves. To this end, the school tries to keep
its tuition to what a teenager can earn in a year. Some of them do
just that; I remember watching ne kid proudly writing the check
on his own checking account. The real hurdle was getting Justin
to Framingham every school day for five years, including at least
three summers; but that's another story.

At fourteen, he decided that it would be easier to get into
college from a conventional high school. We agreed on Cambridge
School of Weston, and after that Brandeis University. Today at
twenty-seven, he works as a programmer (largely on the basis of
what he and his best friend from Sudbury Valley taught themselves
and each other about computers while everyone else was struggling
with middle school). He is a responsible, tax-paying, self-
supporting citizen. I'm not sure what more a conventional
education would have done for him.

On the first day of his sophomore year in high school, I came
across a list in his handwriting of items to bring to school with
him. Across the top was written: "Do not put this paper down
until everything is in the car." He'll go through life devising
systems to protect himself from his own absent-mindedness,
counting on intelligence and resourcefulness to get himself out
of predicaments he wouldn't have gotten into if he'd been paying
attention in the first place. This is all right with me, having
gone through life that way myself.

Our friends and relations wondered what would become of Justin as
a result of missing all those years of formal schooling. My
answer was that if you believe in yourself you can do anything.
If you don't, whatever else you have going for you almost doesn't
matter. Academic deficits can be made up; but it's frighteningly
easy to build negative images into a child's self system, and
once that really takes hold it can be impossible to eradicate it.

When, after a year of home school and half a year of Sudbury
Valley, Justin stopped saying, "I'm stupid and everybody hates
me," and got on with making a life for himself, I figured I'd
done my job.

Monday, January 8, 2007


If, as I remember it, I was twelve on the verge of turning
thirteen on that summer day, Cousin George would have been ten
and a half. I was sitting on the ground with pots and soil and
plants spread over a few square feet of the side lawn, re-potting
cacti. Cacti of the kind I had as a kid reproduce like alley
cats, and I couldn't bear to part with any of them. My mother and
I had some lively discussions when it came time to move them into
the house at the end of the summer.

George was mowing the lawn. George liked to mow lawns, as
did my mother, a taste I have never been able to fathom. George
also liked to tell other people what to do. As the mowing
advanced, my cacti and I came to be in the way. He threatened,
loudly and pugnaciously -- George was somewhere in the upper
percentiles of pugnaciousness, even for a ten-year-old boy -- to
run over my planting operation. I stepped over my stuff and
positioned myself between it and the lawnmower. George and I
faced off and shouted over the noise of the motor, neither of us
about to back down. He repeatedly gestured with the lawnmower as
if to run over my bare feet. I knew he wouldn't do that and stood
my ground, shouting and being shouted at.

My family is, in some literal sense, famous for shouting: as
reported in Ripley's Believe It Or Not, a nineteenth-century
ancestor drilling the militia on the town common was heard distinctly
in the next town, three or four miles away. Eventually the uproar
George and I were making attracted my mother's attention. She
gave me permission to finish my project and told George to go mow
somewhere else. Presumably he did and I did. My only memory of
the rest of that day is of retiring to bed with a monumental sick
headache, precipitated by stress, fumes, and allergens kicked up
by the lawnmower. I think I hated lawnmowers even before that
occasion. I have certainly hated them ever since.

Monday, January 1, 2007


A krummhorn is a sixteenth century instrument with a capped double reed.  For some reason not now remembered, it curves upward at the end; the name derives from a word meaning "crooked."  It sounds like a singing duck, or an oboe under a blanket.  Despite the instrument's comical appearance and sound, and its legendary intonation problems, a consort of them can have a velvety, reedy sound that I love. Many years ago, having more or less mastered the recorder, I wrote to Moeck in Germany, explaining that I wanted an alto krummhorn and enclosing what I had determined to be the purchase price, in Deutschmarks provided by the Bank of America.  The krummhorn arrived with a Grifftabelle fuer Krummhoerner (fingering chart for krummhorns) and 1 Rohr, which with the help of a dictionary I identified as a reed, all in the sturdiest cardboard box I have ever seen. I kept the box, partly because I keep everything that looks even remotely useful, but mainly because there was something unique and wonderful about it.  When I came to need a system for carrying recorders, music, and a stand, as well as the krummhorn, adapting the krummhorn box to the purpose was the obvious thing to do. I should explain that while it's possible to have a carrying case for recorders and other early instruments custom-made, those of us who play them typically devise our own systems.  A group of early music performers is second only to a rock group for the amount of stuff we haul around, and everyone's needs and set of instruments is different.  For many years I bungy-corded my box of instruments to the back of a motor scooter or motorcycle, or carried them on subways and buses.  I needed to have all of them in the same container, with a handle. The krummhorn box didn't have a handle, but it was easy to improvise one.  Operating on the box to make it larger was another matter.  Whatever German cardboard is made of, it is formidable stuff.  I had to cut it with a saw.  I fastened two pieces of it together with bolts, expecting that under pressure the holes would get larger over time.  They never did.  I covered the box with contact paper in case of rain, strapped it to my motor scooter, and drove about with it for years.  The bungy cords, which have to be tight to prevent a motorcycle's cargo from falling off sideways, ruckled up the contact paper some but never crimped the cardboard. The box went through another incarnation or two to accommodate different configurations of instruments.  My collection outgrew the krummhorn box when I bought first a bass recorder and then a great bass.  I built a different box for recorders, and another for krummhorns when I bought a couple more of them; but the German cardboard krummhorn box was too good not to use for something.  It now holds hand drums, tambourines, finger cymbals, and the like.  The cardboard shows no more sign of wear than it ever did: "the Dorian Gray of boxes," someone said of it.