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.