Tuesday, November 18, 2008


It was raining. I wasn't well and was counting the minutes until I could take a nap in the chair in my office. My son Justin and his friend Nathan and I were traveling the twenty-five miles from Arlington to their school in Framingham, by way of a customer's house in Weston where I was picking up some work.

I didn't quite fall asleep at the wheel; but my concentration slipped badly and I veered just far enough off the road to smash a tire against a rock. In my muddled condition, with darkest suburbia spreading for miles all around us, I couldn't come up with any better way of getting to a telephone than to drive into the center of Weston on the flat tire, certain damage notwithstanding. Justin protested: "Mom, don't do that, you'll wreck the tire. Me and Nathan'll go ask if we can use somebody's phone."

I looked at these two fourteen-year-olds with the heightened awareness that strikes when one's belongings are in danger of scrutiny by the world: their intense eyes -- Nathan's a striking green, Justin's warm brown under a thick uni-eyebrow (his word) -- their shoulder-blade-length hair, and their clothing.

Nathan was wearing a trench coat of his father's, a desirable item in its day, his mother maintained, but by that rainy morning it was shapeless and tired, the pockets awry somehow, the lining draggling in back. It would have gone around this lanky six-foot kid at least a couple of times. He wore it hanging open with the belt dangling. He would, as usual, have been wearing one of his collection of wolf T-shirts. "Wolves are nifty," Nathan maintained.

I mercifully don't remember what Justin was wearing. His footgear, then and long after, would make strong persons weep. Nathan's appearance was a fashion statement, I suppose. The only statement Justin's clothing ever made was, as he once matter-of-factly told his grandmother: "I look as if I don't care -- and I don't."

Even though they had both been in the car and were as dry as I was, there was an indefinable ambience of drowned-rat about them. I pictured this team knocking on doors of some of the most expensive real estate in Massachusetts, and settled myself down for a long nap.

Maybe five minutes later they were back: "Uh, Mom, we found somebody who'll bring the cordless phone down to the garage." I followed them to the nearest house, probably the first one they had tried. The homeowner was pleasant and affable, willing to give the benefit of the doubt to this mother in distress with her scraggly kids (people who didn't know us, and some who did, were apt to assume that Justin and Nathan were brothers). We called AAA and took our leave of the homeowner, with many thanks.

The AAA guy arrived and, in the phlegmatic way of tow-truck guys, changed the tire in the rain and accepted our thanks and my signature. I've made the acquaintance of a lot of tow-truck guys, and one tow-truck lady, but that's a bunch of other stories.

We were all outside the car, of course, during the changing of the tire. When I turned to get back in, Justin planted himself between me and the door, telling me I was in no condition to drive and that he was going to take us home.

He knew how to drive. From lessons in the family field and in cemeteries as soon as he could manage the pedals, he graduated to piloting us home from astronomy club meetings on back-ish roads in the middle of the night. The route from Weston to Medford lay along city and suburban streets in broad, albeit rainy, daylight. I expostulated as best I could, but Justin was adamant and in some sense clearly right: I had demonstrated a certain incapacity to keep us on the road.

I let him drive as far as Nathan's in Arlington, where they continued their agenda of self-education in the ways of computers. I continued another two miles home to Medford and went to bed.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Halloween brings out the best in eleven-year-old boys. The year Justin turned eleven -- his birthday on November 1 has always heightened our awareness of Halloween -- we stopped in to a costume shop on Moody Street in Waltham. Of the extensive display of rubber heads, his heart's delight was one called Rotting Corpse, a new addition to the collection, we were assured. It was and remains the ugliest thing I have ever seen. It was also too expensive. Presumably I had already bought him a birthday present, probably also too expensive. But you can't fight love at first sight. From the moment he saw this hideous thing he had his heart set on it and was blind to everything else in the store. We cut a deal whereby he paid for some of it himself; even the magic phrase your own money didn't deter him.

On the way home we stopped at Friendly's. Before we left the car he insisted on laying my coat on the back seat, with the mask tucked into the collar, face up. The coat must have been stuffed with something: nobody would be impressed by a dead guy in the back seat that's as flat as Judge Doom (the paper-thin evil Toon who framed Roger Rabbit).

All the way home he kept thinking of ways to improve the mask. I firmly vetoed any modifications. I know what happens if you compromise the integrity of substances like whatever kind of rubber these things are made of. I put my case as strongly as I knew how and hoped for the best.

An indeterminate while after we got home I was sitting at the computer in my office, focusing on work for a customer, when what should walk around the monitor but Justin in that grisly, overpriced mask with a steak knife protruding from one eye.

Several things were going on here. First, I was concentrating on something else and entirely unprepared. Second, the visual impact of one's child with a knife sticking out of his eye gets a parent's attention even if this can't possibly be for real. Third and perhaps most important, the mask is so distorted that it isn't obvious just where the eye holes are. I was sure he had put the knife through the fabric of the mask, in direct defiance of my firm and unambiguous orders. Not to mention that walking around with a knife in that position while wearing a mask that, as he had already told me, interferes with one's vision is a really, really bad idea. I blew my top.

To this day, Justin has a tendency to lead with the most dismaying aspect of whatever he has in mind, like the time he announced that he and Nathan were going to Connecticut for the weekend. Fine -- by then eighteen, he could go to Connecticut with Nathan with my permission or without it. But the night before they left, discussing his arrangements by telephone from Nathan's, he said nonchalantly, "Oh, by the way, we're taking your car." On that occasion, as on many others, once I stopped screaming and listened, what he was proposing wasn't as outrageous as it sounded. He and Nathan and my car went to Connecticut, after some tense after-midnight negotiation.

In re: the mask, we established (1) that the knife was in fact through a hole representing an eye that had fallen out or fallen in or whatever eyes do, i.e., there were no newly created holes; but that (2) walking around with a knife that close to your eye when you can't half see is as aforementioned very ill-advised, don't do it any more. He saw the force of my argument and didn't, nor did he mess up the mask in any other way.

He wore that ghastly thing that Halloween and from time to time since, in combination with various garments. I haven't seen it since he moved out; he must have taken with him.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


It was Rosh Hashanah and my son was about seven when he lost himself on the Brandeis campus and I had to have the University police find him. I didn't know it was Rosh Hashanah. Working at Brandeis on a flexible non-schedule, I had keys to the building and could come and go at will and bring Justin with me as necessary. On that lovely fall day we had his bicycle as well. A college campus is a marvelous place for a kid with a bicycle. Knowing he'd be at least as safe there as in our neighborhood in Medford, I focused on my work until I was ready to go home and Justin was nowhere in sight.

I drove around looking for him; but the very thing that makes the campus good for bicycles -- all those paved non-automotive roads -- makes it hard to cover in a car. I tried it on foot, asking from time to time if anyone had seen a seven-year-old with a bicycle. There seemed to be an unusual number of dressed-up older people strolling around the campus in the sunshine. One woman mentioned that she was there for the holiday. Holiday? She gave me that what-planet-are-you-on look that I'm so familiar with, and explained. She, like the others I inquired of, was sorry I had misplaced my child but couldn't tell me anything about him.

At a loss for what to do, I enlisted the campus police. The officer who subsequently appeared with Justin in the car and the bicycle in the trunk was not pleased at being troubled with a kid whose mother didn't know better than to turn him loose on his own recognizance. He had found him at the chapels, bicycle dropped nearby, playing in the pool in a wet and dirty and disreputable and thoroughly happy condition. I thanked the officer, trying not to picture the contrast between this goyische ragamuffin desecrating the chapel pool, and the nicely-dressed middle-aged parent-types celebrating the New Year.

Before our next trip to Brandeis, I bought him a watch and instructed him to report to me every hour. Thereafter, he turned up reliably enough that I didn't have to bother the police again.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Canyon was my favorite place in Contra Costa County, California, in the late 1960s. I don't know what Canyon is like now; probably I would rather not know. In those days it was a small settlement along a creek whose water supported a modest redwood forest. Fascinated since childhood with the West Coast's giant trees, I was delighted when I arrived in Berkeley in the fall of 1965 to find a redwood or two here and there on the campus. Redwoods need more water than they could get clinging to the semi-arid hillsides that make up much of the East Bay. My first redwoods in the wild -- doing their thing, as we used to say -- grew in Canyon.

It wasn't always 105 F beyond the ridge of hills east of Berkeley, but I think of it that way, the grass scorched straw-hat-beige and rarely a tree to be seen. On open-air transportation -- first a Lambretta, later a Honda 90 -- the desert-quality wind sucked the moisture out of my skin and hair, compounding the sunburn I was getting if I hadn't thought to bring something with sleeves. But I never felt hot except at traffic lights. At 45 miles an hour you don't, and by the time you notice a burning sensation on your skin, you're already in for a bad night. I bought Noxema by the pound in those days. Under most circumstances my bikes and I have avoided the path of lawn sprinklers; in those desert conditions, the spray felt like dew from heaven. To my New England-bred eyes, the moist shade of Canyon was like a dip in the swimming hole.

As the road wound along the creek, deep shadows from the trees broke up the hot, dry glare. I was familiar with the light-and-shade effects on Claremont Avenue, my favorite ride in Berkeley, where the trunks and leaves of the eucalyptus trees threw long, variegated shadows across the road. The contrast between light levels could obscure real objects; bends in the road could come up startlingly quickly. Sadly, a year or two after I left Berkeley an unusually hard winter killed the eucalyptuses; native to Australia, they're not prepared foranything like frost. When I saw Claremont Avenue again, it looked like all the other roads that wind through the East Bay hills. The shade under the redwoods in Canyon had a different quality, darker and solider in places, freckled and speckled in others.

On one of my excursions looked ahead to where the road curved around and then back again and saw, for just a second or two, three hippies gathered beside the road as if waiting for a ride. They were at the end of the driveway in front of an undistinguished house that I remember as being rather large and set back from the road. One of the guys was wearing a striped shirt. The other had long, dark hair and was bending over a guitar, one foot on what might have been a rock (if, come to think of it,they have rocks in Contra Costa County; they don't have the large chunks of granite and quartz that I was used to). The girl was seated on something else. Another curve of the road and they were out of sight; another, and I was at the spot.

The house was there, and the driveway, but no hippies. In the few seconds that had passed since I spotted them from down the road, they couldn't possibly have gone anywhere. They had been an optical illusion suggested by the complicated patterns of light and shadow. I accepted this mini-hallucination as a curiosity. In the vicinity of Berkeley in the late 1960s, phantom hippies weren't alarmingly out of keeping with the order of things.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


They may not have been Hell's Angels. They could have been another, similar bike club, or an ad hoc group of scruffy and dangerous-looking guys on bikes. But at the time I thought they were Angels, and maybe they were. The Angels' colors were often seen in the East Bay in the late 1960s.

On the first warm, sunny day of spring, everybody who owned anything on two wheels with an engine was in the Berkeley Hills enjoying the absence of rain. I was piloting my 125cc Lambretta northward on Grizzly Peak Boulevard between ClaremontAvenue and Dwight Way, my hair braided against the wind, the California sun broiling my skin. (I never learned; I would come home from exploring the countryside with sun- and wind-burns covered with a fine film of greasy road grit. And in those days before crash helmet laws, my friend Natalie and I punished our hair with what she termed "combing parties.")

To my left, a ridge of brushy vegetation with an occasional small and wandering tree rose a few yards above the road. The hills of Contra Costa County rippled eastward on my right and lost themselves in the distance. Usually resembling tan suede(as columnist Herb Caen said of the landscape of Marin County, north of San Francisco), they were now green with the winter rain. Mount Diablo rose above them on the horizon, toward Stockton and Tracy. When I misplaced myself on one of my jaunts, I would make my way to high ground and survey the horizon. In that treeless landscape, Diablo or Mount Tam -- Tamalpais, in Marin County --were as visible as a lighthouse at sea. Between them, I could figure out where I was, more or less.

Chains of bikes going south leaned successively around the curves, straightened up, and leaned the other way, following the undulations of the road. One such group came up behind me, traveling faster than I was, but not by a lot. The Berkeley Hills were home to me. The Lambretta got 60 or 70 miles to the gallon. With gasoline going for 25 cents a gallon it would be hard to suggest a cheaper form of entertainment than driving around exploring. I was as familiar with the hilly and curvaceous terrain above Berkeley and beyond as I was with anything at the time, except maybe my recipe for nutritionally fortified white bread. I hopped right along, slowed down mainly by the limitations on leaning around corners imposed by the Lambretta's design.

On anything like a straight and level road, those guys would have stomped down a gear or two and roared past me. Genuine Angels in a hurry might have done so even on Grizzly Peak Boulevard. But basking in the genial weather like everyone else, they pulled out of line and passed me one at a time like normal people. One or two even glanced my way and smiled. I may have looked as strange to them as they did to me: a college-y twenty-something, hair pulled tight and braided down my back, wearing a dress -- I didn't own any pants at the time -- driving this little thing with a floor, and the gearshift on the handlebar. Yes, Angels might take note of such details, even at thirty or forty miles an hour, especially if they'd ever bothered to steal a Lambretta.

For a few minutes I had the heady illusion of riding in a pack of Angels. Then the last one passed me and (with apologies to Walt Whitman) we took our separate diverse flight, I mine, they theirs, pursuing.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sleeping Through the Night

I woke up to a large orange glow at the window of our apartment in South San Francisco, probably because my light-sleeping then-husband was walking around and looking outside to see what was going on. He told me that the wooden tower loosely attached to the house next door was on fire, maybe forty feet away. "Get him dressed," he said, referring to Justin, then four months old. I was thus at least four months into serious sleep deprivation, which is why I didn't take one look at the flickering orange window and think, "Omigod, fire."

You don't put clothes on a baby before whisking him out of harm's way. I got dressed myself before I scooped him up in a blanket and followed Danny outside and down the stairs. The neighbors across the street offered me and Justin asylum in their living room, where she and I chatted pleasantly for the duration-- probably about babies, since she was expecting, and there I was with Exhibit A sound asleep in my lap.

Danny stayed outside to move some of our favorite possessions from the apartment to his famous ugly green van. He started with our musical instruments, making three or four trips down the stairs and half a long block to the street, and continued with other things. Even assuming the kind of lazy man's loads that Justin has since become famous for, that must have taken a while. I doubt that Danny minded. He always enjoyed coping energetically with some real-world crisis. He was best at physical emergencies, although he also excelled at retail stores that tried to cheat him. On this occasion, he contentedly hiked back and forth with armfuls of our belongings.

The flaming tower, an odd structure rather like a Dutch windmill without the blades, may have been a relic of the building's days as a farm. We later heard that someone had lived in the tower, a ne'er-do-well nephew of the owner, perhaps, who had somehow started the fire -- smoking in bed, maybe? We never found out any more than that.

The fire never came close to crossing the cement driveway between us and the tower. When after a couple of hours it became clear that the South San Francisco fire department had prevailed, I thanked the neighbors and went home to bed. Danny cheerfully trucked all that stuff back into the house.

Justin slept through the whole thing, and the rest of the night -- the first time he ever did such a thing, and the last for some years to come.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


A piece of wall extended into my childhood bedroom, creating a notch that concealed a chimney and the closet in the next room. It was right in front of you as you came into the room, maybe three feet from the door. A kid lying on her back with her shoulders to the wall and her feet braced against the door could stand off just about any kid or kids trying to get in.

I made use of this architectural oddity one summer day when my sister was hard on my heels with violence in her heart, probably for good and sufficient reason. I would have been about thirteen at the time. Paula was a couple of years younger, tall for her age, strong, athletic, and fearless; tangling with her could be dangerous. The day she and I and the two little girls next door picked a snowball fight with my father, three of us scattered at the first return of snowballs. Paula waded into the fray, flinging snowballs for all she was worth and taking hits from head to toe, in her face and down her neck, while we cowered around the corner of the barn. I did my share of foolhardy things, usually through ignorance or inattention (see Bandsaw 1, Kid 0), but I never had anything like Paula's physical courage.

In her differences with me, she wasn't above availing herself of any weapon that came to hand. Children living in two-story houses learn to descend a staircase in not-quite-freefall, dropping off the edge of each stair with just enough contact to keep from falling. I learned this technique with Paula hard behind me, brandishing a Girl Scout shoe with intent to chuck it at my head -- again, probably for cause.

I had barricaded myself in my bedroom often enough that Paula knew better than to keep flinging herself at the door once I got into position. She retreated to her room at the other end of the hall, keenly alert for any sound that would indicate that I had released my stranglehold on the door. Soon bored and uncomfortable, I could probably have quietly found a book or something -- but who wants to lie on their back on the floor all day?

I inched away from the door and wrote a large note: "Out the window I must go" -- suggesting, but not quite saying, that I had made my escape through the window. Implying without quite committing myself to a lie that I could be called on was one of my childhood specialties.

I opened the window very carefully. Then, leaving the note on the bed, I banged open the door and ducked into the closet an instant before Paula roared into the room like an avenging fury. From inside the closet, I heard her stop at the bed, then advance to the window; I pictured her leaning on the sill, looking out and down.

My room was the only one in the house with just one window,and one of the few on the second floor where the window didn't give onto the roof of a porch. We kids came and went through the windows about as readily as through the doors. But from my windowsill, the options were a fourteen-foot drop to the ground, or a sideways maneuver to the roof of a small porch a few feet away. Heavy and not agile, I had long known that an attempt at either would likely get me killed.

If Paula had thought about that, or looked into the closet, I'd have had to fight my way out. But she, like our mother, takes things at face value; and she hadn't given as much consideration as I had to alternative exits from that room. She receded, probably clattering downstairs to track me down. I exited the closet and went about my business, careful to stay out of Paula's way until she'd had time to forget the whole thing.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


... with apologies to Cardinal Newman and anyone else who really knows Latin

"I don't know who lives over there, or what they do, but they do it an awful lot of it" -- thus our neighbor in her dotage, looking across the lawns toward our house and the driveway that led to the barn.

My family did do a lot. My father maintained the house, an eight-room structure built during the Civil War with another eight-room house stuck onto the back shortly before 1900. A house of that age and size always needs something. Dad did most of it himself, only partly because of a constitutional disinclination to spend money. He was an engineer by profession and a jack of all trades by avocation. He once owned a machine shop. He knew, or could figure out, how to do carpentry, plumbing, bricklaying, wiring (subsequently checked by the electrician), and most of the other stuff that keeps a house together. On the whole, he enjoyed doing it.

His sister pointed out that no one he could hire would do the work as well as he did. His brother-in-law, a carpenter and general handyman, was impressed with Dad's workmanship on the baseboard heating he installed in my mothers' parents' house: every joint perfectly soldered, every drop of stray solder carefully cleaned up -- and this in the cellar where no one was likely to see it, or appreciate it if they did. A person who does things that way won't be in a hurry to trust the repairs on hishouse to anyone else.

Mother painted and wallpapered, cooked and canned, sewed, washed windows, and raised flowers and vegetables. She cleaned our share of the house (all the time, it seemed to us and probably to her) and the dormant back half once a year when Dad's family were due to come and use it. She mowed the lawns with a power mower, and the field around the house -- eight acres, they tell me -- with a tractor mower. In her spare time, she tried to raise us (I resisted raising, but that's another story).

Mother and Dad served on town and church committees. Mother taught Sunday school. Dad sang in the choir, and directed it for a while. He sang solos as well (if you want to be busy, be areally good tenor in a small town). He played string bass in a dance orchestra: one of my archetypal childhood memories is of Dad threading the bass carefully into the 1935 Chevrolet and its successors. Mother substituted in the local school system and later taught full time. We had a lot of relatives. There was much coming and going up and down that driveway.

Most of Dad's hobbies and projects aren't describable in a word or two. He and a friend moved organ pipes and other parts in and out of Dad's barn, and Dad eventually launched his own organ-building project in the house. He was always scooting up and down the driveway with his old green open trailer. The driveway is narrow, with a bank on one side and an unforgiving brick and cement porch on the other (he built the porch, too). Most of us have all we can do to back down that driveway at all. Dad did it with any of several trailers that he owned, including the one that carried the boat.

Dad's venture into pottery was typical of him. An interest in ceramics as most people understand it means buying greenware-- unpainted and unfired vases, sugar bowls, cream pitchers, whatever -- painting them artistically, and either firing them oneself or having the local ceramics studio do it. Dad began byreading everything he could find on ceramics in the library and in books that he bought. Then he built a potter's wheel, probably partly from objects that were lying around the premises or recycled from the local dump. When Dad took a trailer-load of unwanted objects to the dump, he could come back with more stuff than he left with.

For the kiln, he bought firebrick and wound the electrical wire into coils himself. Even the ordinary clay Dad was using is fired at some inconceivably high temperature. I hope the kiln was one of the projects he had the electrician look at before he plugged it in. However that may be, he used it for some years and never set fire to the house, or even blew a fuse that I know of.

One of his books cautioned the fledgling potter to forget about gathering clay from the wild: the process of extracting it from the surrounding soil is much too complicated for amateurs. But Dad did exactly that. He dug clay from a disused local brickyard and shooshed it around in an old washing machine to separate it from the soil. He poured the resulting slip, as it's called -- very thin, watery clay -- into a plaster of Paris basin which, over a period of some days, absorbed the excess water. Hemade two or three of these basins, as well as something called a wedging board: a box filled with plaster of Paris with a taut wire attached to one side. "Wedging" the clay to drive out air bubbles meant using the wire to cut a lump of clay in half and then throwing first one piece and then the other with some force onto the plaster board; gathering up both pieces into a reconstituted lump; and repeating the process many times. Dad's crockery wouldn't have made Crate & Barrel, but he kept at it for several years. Some of his creations are still on the premises, stored in closets or in use for one thing or another.

The room in which all this activity took place had been known as the "back kitchen" -- a summer kitchen, I think, in thedays of monumental cast-iron wood-burning stoves. I can'tremember what was there before it became the "pottery room," withshelves and the potter's wheel and other equipment and supplies. There was a piano out there for a while, an upright that Dad bought, presumably for little or no money, and brought home in the green trailer. He must have unloaded it and moved it into the house himself. He moved many, in my sister's phrase, unimaginably large and heavy objects, relying less on his size and strength than on his engineering techniques. However the piano got there and however it left, I can't picture it coexisting with the pottery. It must have come and gone before the pottery era.

When Dad decided the two-story woodshed behind the house wasn't earning its keep, he took it down by himself, having first moved the sleigh that had been stored on the second floor from time immemorial. I seem to remember that getting to the upper level of that structure was nontrivial -- can it be that there were no stairs? Taking the sleigh down without damaging it or himself must have required all his ingenuity.

When he got tired of hearing the hundred-year-old plaster in the house trickling down behind the walls when someone slammed a door, he took off the wallpaper, plaster, and lathe one room at atime, and replaced it with wallboard. The day he stripped the front hall and sent the debris down a chute from the window at the top of the stairs to the ubiquitous green trailer below, my sister, then eight or nine and famous for allergies, couldn't be kept out of the fray. Predictably, she filled her respiratory system with plaster dust, essence of rat's nest, and whatever else one finds in hundred-year-old walls. The resulting asthma attack is one of our family legends.

Dad's jury-rigs were likewise the stuff of legend. The carpenter brother-in-law, who came into possession of Dad's boat after he died, remarked on the repairs to the wirng that he found: as meticulously done as the grandparental baseboard heating but clearly cobbled together out of whatever wire was on hand. Dad hated to drop what he was doing, drive to the hardware store, and spend money. He knew to a nicety the condition and capabilities of whatever material was lying around, and made use of it accordingly. The boat wiring didn't catch fire either.

I once asked my son if his friends' parents enlist them in projects as I do him. He didn't think so: "My friends' parents don't seem to do much." Not much, that is, of the kind of activities my parents went in for and modeled to us. Justin's friends' families are an urban- and suburbanized group. My grandparents on both sides were farmers. Aldo Leopold observes in A Sand CountyAlmanac that farming is twenty percent agriculture and eighty percent fixing things that break. Farmers aren't big on waiting for some handyman to have a free afternoon and then paying him money.

In my family, that kind of thinking has outlived the farm by two or three generations. I don't have my father's tools or know-how; but when something needs addressing, I, and my son after me, think first of cobbling together a solution, preferably out of materials on hand, and second of doing without. Parting with serious money and/or hiring someone is a bad third choice. And like my parents and other down-home types of my acquaintance, my son and I can be shockingly indifferent to informalities that would send most Americans scurrying to the Yellow Pages. We don't all necessarily accept the same informalities; but that too is another story.

In my youth, I moved into in a third-floor apartment that had no doorbell. Worse still, it had two or three buttons that had been and still looked like doorbells but were, by that time, inert. My roommate and I were nervous about bothering the landlord and didn't know how to install a real doorbell. I attached a piece of twine to the light fixture at the top of the stairs and ran it over the top of the window (which we had to leave open a crack to accommodate it, until someone drilled a hole in the window casement for us; we weren't even equipped to do that). From outside the window, the twine led to a hook beside the back door that opened onto our staircase, in the vicinity of the defunct doorbells. I attached some bells to the upstairs end of the piece of twine, between the window and the light fixture. When someone at the back door pulled the other end, the bells rang. It took some trial and error to make it operate smoothly, but once we worked the bugs out of it, it was satisfactory enough that our successor in the apartment kept it.

More recently, Justin smiled with admiration at the tape dispenser in my office. It is perilously easy to discard the plastic hub, which is part of the dispenser, along with the empty cardboard spool that comes with the tape. The dispenser costs a couple of dollars, and I'm sure that normal Americans just throw away a widowed one and buy another. I substituted an empty ChapStick tube attached to the dispenser with Velcro. That was at least ten years ago, and that dispenser is still at my elbow.

Justin in turn pointed out to me a table that he and one of his housemates had built out of crates, a tabletop, and a curtain. He reports having made a toilet paper dispenser under a table in his room -- presumably because toilet paper is cheaperthan tissue -- using the strap from a luggage bag, a piece of string, and a length of PVC pipe that had previously been part of a sword (if you want to know about PVC-pipe swords, ask somebody who plays D&D).

He adopted a collection of bricks left behind in one of the houses his group has lived in, and has used them for a number of minor and ever-changing purposes (supporting the air conditioner and raising the bed, currently). I have watched him hold anobject in place with one hand while groping with the other to find something to prop it up with while he goes off to develop a more durable solution. That always makes me smile because it's so familiar from my own life and activities.

It can look as though our jury-rigs and projects are economically motivated. We would probably mention that first if asked; but if your goal is to save money, you would do better towork some extra hours at whatever it is you usually do, even if that's data entry or pumping gas, and spend the money to hire somebody. The human race invented division of labor a long time ago, for good reason.

Dad could have bought a potter's wheel and a kiln, but he liked making things and derived satisfaction from creating his projects from the ground up. I make bread and soup and grow herbs and vegetables, and come home from the slaughterhouse with bags of bones to boil down into stock for the freezer. I make fruitcake as Christmas gifts. The economics of all the above are unclear, except that fruitcake certainly saves no money. The process and the end result are the point.

When Justin first thought of visiting the Brazilian rainforest, he envisioned getting off some boat, hacking his way into the forest with a machete for a week, and back to the dock in another week. He gradually modified and ultimately abandoned that approach in favor of an organized eco-tour (to my relief); but for two or three years he had a marvelous time planning how he was going to manage. His projects and jury-rigs may be motivated partly by a desire to save money, but I'm not sure he doesn't sometimes create problems for the fun of solving them.

My father didn't blunder into things; my son is more a diver than a blunderer; but I can find myself up to here in some dubious process, largely because I didn't know about or think of the normal thing to do or way to do it. Unclear as my vision may be at the outset, I'm sure that if I set out in a certain direction and operate along certain lines, I'll wind up with what I want. I have found myself out money and time and in possession of a totally unworkable end product, but it doesn't happen often.

When I run into trouble with the original approach, I am quite ready to modify the plan. What I can't do is change visions. Once I start one of these activities, I'm committed to it unless I abandon the whole idea, which I am at all times profoundly reluctant to do. At one time, I tried long and hard to provide myself with a couch without actually buying a couch. At the outset, I probably was trying to save money -- but the couch took on a life of its own, and at every twist and turn of my relationship with it, it didn't quite occur to me that I could scrap the whole project and start over at the used furniture store. I can't answer for my father's or son's experience; but for me, doing my own thing, my own way, for my own reasons is like folding, or mis-folding, a piece of paper: an originally small deviation from what is wanted keeps getting larger, and at no point along the way does there seem to be a bridge back to what other people do.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


When we acquire a pet, we often find ourselves reading a
pamphlet explaining the care and feeding of same. Published by
companies that produce pet food, these works emphasize that you
must never feed people food to your animal. The chow offered in
pet stores is scientifically formulated to provide optimal
nutrition and fiber; tidbits from the garden or the table can
only injure your dog or cat or rabbit or parakeet. (This isn't
necessarily the same information you get from the vet, but that's
another story.)

Taking the pamphlets at face value, one wonders: If people
food isn't good for animals, how good is it for people? If we
can provide our feathered and furry and finny friends with one
food that delivers ideal nutrition, uniform in quality and
available in convenient packages in pet stores and supermarkets,
why can't we do the same for ourselves? Think of the fat, salt,
sugar, carbohydrates, and other detrimental substances that could
be reduced or eliminated from the human diet by the development
and consumption of chow for humans. Imagine the work and
decision-making, not to say agonizing, that would be saved if we
didn't have to figure out, every day, what to buy or make for
dinner that we could stand to eat and that wouldn't poison us.

Some day we will find, from Foodmaster and Market Basket to
Whole Foods, bagged or boxed or in large columns in the bulk
bins, People Chow. The first aisle as we come in will display a
dizzying variety of flavor packets, all ecstatically tasty and
guaranteed to contain no harmful additives like salt or butter.
The tiresome and bewildering array of fruits and vegetables, meat
and dairy products, grains, and Other that now assaults us on
entering a supermarket will vanish into historical obscurity
(except that the availability of Other will continue to be
limited only by the imagination of marketing departments).

The Chow will come in a variety of formulas tailored to
particular diets -- Cholesterol Lowering Chow, Celiac Chow,
Diabetic Chow, Weight Watchers Chow -- and in Standard, Vegetar-
ian and Vegan forms. There will be Kosher Chow, Halal Chow, and
Chow made in accordance with the teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism,
and any other religion, diet, or system that comes to the
attention of the food industry. People who enjoy food prepara-
tion could bake their Chow (in loaves, or rolled flat and cut
into intriguing shapes); boil or stew or steam it to produce a
smooth or chunky texture; or shape it into patties and char it on
the grill.

All Chow will be produced by unimpeachably hygienic and
sustainable methods. Organic will continue to be optional,
possibly supplemented by another category having to do with
humane treatment of any animals involved. Sustainable will not
be optional (it isn't now, but that also is another story).

Dinner guests would then explain to their host: "We eat
Cholesterol Lowering Chow; we like Flavoring Packets #346AA,
#16 Mild, and #999 Sweet/Sour." We would be invited to explore
the competing brands of chow and flavors screaming from the
shelves about their superior texture, exciting patented flavor,
responsible methods of production (the higher-priced brands, for
example, might make a selling point of treating their employees
better, whether they actually do or not), and anything else the
advertising industry can think of to differentiate products that
are in fact identical or nearly so.

But we would know, when it's time to produce dinner, that
the differences needn't concern us very much. In the dawning
golden age of People Chow, Fido will have his dinner and we will
have ours and no one will ever again have to think about food for
more than five minutes at a time.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Pella's Windows

Mother's sister and brother-in-law were driving her home at the end of one winter's stay in Florida. So they wouldn't have to drive the extra forty-five minutes each way on Route 2, my sister offered to meet them at a mutually convenient point, claim Mother, and take her home.

The arrangements were made on the telephone. Paula doesn't always listen optimally. Uncle George was on the hard-of-hearing side. And the telephone, at best, is a prime instrument for generating miscommunication.

Paula understood that they were to meet at Pella's Windows, which may be in Newton or Waltham, or may be somewhere else.Prior to that time she knew nothing of Pella or his windows. Paula's ability to get herself to places she has never heard of is legendary. How she came to be part of the same family with me and Mother isn't clear, but that's another story.

The appointed day and time found her in the parking lot of Pella's Windows. It did not so find Uncle George and Aunt Dottie and Mother. Paula waited a while and then retraced her steps on Route 2 to Mother's, where she found them all waiting.

It seems that Pella's Windows had been mentioned simply as a landmark, not as a rendezvous point. What Uncle George meant was that they should meet at the intersection of Routes 2 and 495. They may even have been there when Paula came through --but in that sprawling cloverleaf they could easily have missed each other.

Only a carpenter from New Hampshire would think of using Pella's Windows to identify one of the largest intersections in Massachusetts. He may have said that she should take the exit from Route 495 that one would take to get to Pella's Windows, presumably from New Hampshire. I'm not sure how this would apply to someone approaching the intersection, as Paula was, from the eastbound side of Route 2.

I have a friend who will go to just about any inconvenience rather than agree to a "Meet me in St. Louis, Louis" rendezvous. In light of Paula's experience with Pella's Windows, I have to say I see what she means.