Sunday, December 6, 2009


Once upon a time, largely under the tutelage of Adele Davis, the 1960s and 1970s guru of unrefined and otherwise natural foods, refined carbohydrates and especially white sugar were anathema to the nutritionally correct. Extrapolating from the body's rapid digestion and absorption of refined sugar and the increased incidence of diabetes in people who eat too much of it, Davis and others proclaimed white flour and bread, white rice, and particularly white sugar to be something like addictive drugs. Refined carbohydrates were supposed to be responsible for a dizzying variety of ailments and nutritional deficiencies; I don't even remember hearing that much about diabetes.

The faithful eschewed "poisonous white sugar" in favor of brown rice, brown bread and brown sugar. Some enthusiasts went so far as to favor brown eggs over white ones. (In point of fact, dark bread is usually produced with caramel coloring and often a minimum of whole-grain flour, if any; almost all brown sugar is white sugar with a bit of molasses added back into it; and the color of an egg is a function of the breed of chicken and has nothing to do with the nutrients inside. Debate continues, as far as I know, about the relative merits of whole and refined grains.)

In the days when the gourmet health food chain then called Bread and Circus still made a fetish of avoiding anything that had to be called "sugar," two women approached the bulk bins, surveying the selection of chocolate candies.

"It's all natural," one enthused to the other. "There's no sugar -- it's just all natural."

A third woman, apparently unknown to them, happened by and made her way into the conversation.

"Oh, there's sugar in it. It wouldn't be sweet if there wasn't. It's fructose, fruit sugar, which is a little easier on your teeth, but it's still sugar."

"Oh, no," the first woman persisted. "It's all natural. It's much better for you."

"Yes, but if you look at the list of ingredients, the second one listed is dates. Dates have a whole lot of sugar. That's why they're sweet. It's still sugar."

"Oh, but it's all natural."

"So," the interloper put in, "is deadly nightshade." End of conversation.

Bread and Circus eventually figured out that the case against refined carbohydrates had been overstated; acknowledged that all that ruckus about "poisonous white sugar" was never altogether defensible; and explained that the familiar yellow Domino bags would henceforth appear on the chain's hitherto pure shelves. Within the same time frame, curiously, Bread and Circus's stores were bought by and renamed Whole Foods -- ironically, just as more refined carbohydrates crept onto the shelves, whole grain pasta, e.g., retreated, and whole food was exactly what they weren't selling as much of.

Hype notwithstanding, those "all natural" date-sweetened candies were wonderful. Like all-fruit jams -- which cost more than their fruit-flavored-sugar-syrup counterparts, have almost as much sugar, and probably aren't any healthier -- the "all natural" chocolates aimed at a niche that required them to forswear not just sugar but also suspicious-sounding concoctions like the "sugar alcohol" that figures in sugar-free candies for diabetics. Health food store candy has to be made of ingredients recognizable as food.

Either because an excess of date purée would noticeably flavor the chocolate; because dates are no cheaper than the other ingredients; or for some other reason, the "all natural" chocolate was just a bit less sweet than those whose manufacturers feel free to add as much high fructose corn syrup as the traffic will bear. And while there was no detectable flavor of dates, one could imagine that the complex flavor of the chocolate carried the faintest fruity undertone.

I don't know what's in health food store candy now, but it isn't nearly as good as those date-sweetened chocolates. It's too bad that reason and common sense prevailed in the chocolate department.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


The summer before my son turned eleven, a total eclipse of the sun crossed our planet over an area that included Hawaii and Baja California. Our former downstairs neighbor, Peter, a freelance audiophile, reviewer and writer, had begun life as an astronomer and still followed things solar, planetary, stellar and universal. Knowing of Justin's interest in astronomy, he had given him a telescope when he moved to San Diego a year or so before. He now planned to take in the eclipse, traveling with a busload of scientists going south from Berkeley by way of San Diego, and offered to take Justin along. He even offered to make the travel arrangements.

Peter put off making Justin's reservation until, for some reason, he could only order a ticket for his own use. He explained to me matter-of-factly that Justin would have to fly under his, Peter's, name, and that we would explain to the airline that Justin was Peter's nephew and was named after him. It was my idea to add to the official story that young "Peter's" middle name was Justin, which was the name he went by. I knew that Justin wouldn't remember for five minutes that he was supposed to answer to "Peter," even if I remembered, which I wouldn't. In the event, as we stood in line at the airport, I found myself reciting our usual litany to my excited young traveler: "Justin, come here"; "Justin, please don't do that"; "Justin, get over here"; "Justin, quit climbing on that, it won't hold your weight"; Justin, I asked you not to do that"; "JUSTIN. . . .!!"

Through age ten, a child traveling alone is eligible for the airline's escort service. I'm sure some eleven-year-olds are level-headed and attentive enough to get themselves onto and off a plane and even to change planes in Chicago or wherever it was. Justin's capacity for sustained attention to anything not chosen by him was just this side of nonexistent. Fortunately, he qualified for the escort service by four months, and the airline agreed to keep an eye on him. They gave him a plastic bag on a strap to keep important things like his ticket in. That didn't mean he couldn't lose it, but it improved the odds.

A day or two before Justin was scheduled to leave, he developed a sore throat worthy of a throat culture. The next day I got a call from the doctor, invoking some magic words: strep, antibiotic, contagious, immediately. I called Justin's summer school in Framingham and suggested that they keep him away from everybody until I got there. The doctor gave him an antibiotic and told us it would be all right to send him to San Diego in a couple of days.

It may have been that same day that I got a call from Peter. It had come to his attention that the Mexican government takes a dim view of foreign children traveling with adults not related to them. To take Justin out of the country, Peter would need (1) a notarized affidavit stating that Justin had my permission to go to Mexico, and (2) either a similar affidavit from Justin's father, or a copy of the divorce decree giving me custody and thus the authority to grant permission.

My affidavit was easy: I borrowed some wording from a lawyer I worked for at the time, and he notarized it for me. An affidavit from Justin's father, however, was out of the question. He'd refuse to do it just because I asked. The box of papers relative to the divorce was not in Medford, where we lived, but in my mother's attic, sixty-three miles away. I dropped everything and drove up Route 2 that night, taking Justin and his antibiotic along. He slept in the passenger's seat most of the way.

Back in Medford, I extracted three documents from the box: the final Judgment of Divorce, dated February 24 of whatever year it was (my sister's birthday; her divorce was final on my birthday in a much earlier year); a second Judgment of Divorce dated June Something of the same year "as of February 24," having to do with a loophole in the original Judgment that Justin's father tried to drive a truck through; and the all-important judgment in the child custody action, dated three years later. On the advice of my lawyers at the time, I had obtained from the Court three official copies of the custody decree, all with gold seals. I still had at least two of them. Since sending Justin's documentation along with the most scattered ten-year-old in Middlesex County was not to be thought of, I packaged up everything and delivered it to the post office before the witching hour of 3:00 PM. The post office swore that Peter would have it by the time he had specified.

He didn't. He claimed the post office was incompetent. I reserved judgment on that point; Peter has been known to mess up. I put together a second set of documents, including the remaining gold-sealed custody decree and a second notarized affidavit, and then, against everyone's better judgment, shipped out this active and selectively oblivious child with his documents (like Miss Flite in Bleak House): the legal documents in one name, and his airline ticket and related form(s) in another. If he goes astray, I thought, I wonder what the authorities who find him will make of it all.

He didn't go astray. He had a wonderful time at the eclipse, totally focused and businesslike throughout, hopping to do Peter's bidding. After it was over -- maybe eighty seconds of eclipse, after all that preparation -- he let loose and ran around saying, "That was so awesome! That was so awesome!!"

Back in San Diego, he developed an ear infection and required yet another antibiotic ("The meaning of life is infections," he said when he developed an eye infection on another trip) and was instructed not to travel until the antibiotic had done its work; so he got to hang around Peter's swimming pool for an extra week. Swimming apparently was all right, at least with the doctor Peter took him to.

When I picked him up at the airport, wearing sunglasses and an Eclipse 1990 T-shirt, he reported having learned on the bus what a German scientist says when somebody upsets a gallon of water onto his newspaper. He says scheiss. He says it a lot. I hope Justin learned more than that. At the very least, he had a good time comparing notes on eclipse experiences with his fellow astronomers at the club he belonged to. He remembers the trip fondly and thinks it may have contributed to his present conviction that complicated and difficult things can be accomplished.

My sister, a mother of boys, says anyone but me would have abandoned the eclipse trip, if not at the first sign of trouble, at least two or three troubles down the road. My position was that the opportunity to travel to a total eclipse in a bus full of scientists wouldn't knock again, and come hell, high water, streptococcus, airline hassles, or the Mexican government, he was going.

Monday, October 26, 2009


One August day some years ago a young man murdered his girl friend. Apparently this crime was committed on impulse, since he seems not to have considered the question of disposal of the body. Until something better turned up -- one has to assume that he didn't think of this as a permanent solution -- he stuffed her into the trunk of his car.

Either this young man was slow of thought and action, or he had other matters on his mind. He didn't come up with a better plan right away but drove around for a few days with the remains of his late inamorata in the trunk of his car.

Then the car developed some problem. He took it to his mechanic and left it there for repairs. By this time, the girl friend in the trunk was, you might say, making her presence felt. The mechanic checked it out and notified the police, and the young man's arrest, trial and conviction followed.

This tale comes from a textbook for police officers that I typed for the lawyer who compiled the book. You come across the damndest things in the typing business.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


It looks like the good old days at the Registry, with people lined up out the door and down the corridor of the Watertown Mall. I, like them, am waiting to take a number and then sit on a bench and listen to that computer-generated bedroom voice: "Now serving B-210 at Window Number Nine. . . ." Half a dozen different categories of Registry business are identified by
different letters, each with its series of numbers. I am number A-163.

At least the numbers go quickly. At least there is a take-a-number system, and benches. The air conditioning doesn't matter in this weather but would have been very material to me all the times I stood in line for an hour or two on some hazy-sunshine August day telling my unique story to a series of bureaucrats who were as hot as I was and had been there longer. Bureaucrats don't like unique stories. Mine usually involved some motorcycle. It seemed to me in those days that no motorcycle is ever more than about half legal.

Those were the days of the Woburn Registry. I remember a cartoon in the paper depicting that highly recognizable round building just off the highway in Woburn with "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here" inscribed over the door. That was about the size of it: people packed into a small space and stepping on each other, the line out the door and around the building from before 8:30 AM until closing time. It was a happy day for Massachusetts when they closed the Woburn Registry and set up all those systems for doing motor vehicle business on line and by mail.

The Watertown Registry's problem this morning is that bugbear of the modern world, the-computer-is-down. Only the driver's license function is affected, but that's enough to create a crowd of frustrated people and a feeling of hasslement among Registry personnel. A tense-looking forty-ish blond woman is trying from inside the office to make herself heard by the straggling and meandering line, over people talking and the Mall music system playing Come Softly to Me and other 1950s favorites.

Much of the line is in the corridor; the blond woman remains in the office. She doesn't know how to project her voice, and thus sounds tense and strident. After three or four repetitions, I gather that the driver's-license hopefuls are being offered some options. I'm registering my car. When I hear "license renewal" I tune out.

The bedroom-voiced computer -- was it Alien that had the computer with the sexy female voice, in parody, I'm told, of Star Trek's female but relentlessly chaste computer? -- the computer, that is, announces Number A-152 at Window Number Three. I am seated directly in front of Window Number Three. A young woman squeezes past me between the benches, weighed down with a purse, a black nylon bag, and a couple of coats. She trails a child of eight or so, the top of whose head is about level with the counter.

Boy or girl? I wonder idly. The red shirt and blue jeans and the collar-length blond-ish-brown hair, could belong to either. Then the child gives a little hop and lands, hands flat on the counter, arms straight, feet dangling above the floor, peering over the foot-high fence that runs parallel to the edge of the countertop between Window Number Three and Window Number Two. A boy then. My son would have done something like that. By the time he was at four, he could pull himself onto any counter he could get his fingertips over before I, in my slow way, caught on to what he was doing. This boy is pretty quiet, really. At his age Justin would have been doing Bruce Lee in the aisles.

At his age I would have thought about climbing the counter. I was strong in the hands and arms but too heavy to jump that high or pull myself up the way Justin did. My sister might have been light and agile enough, but she wouldn't have thought of it, or dared do it in public at her mother's elbow. That combination of strength, agility and audacity seems to be the property of slender, wiry males.

The boy lunges at the top of the divider but fumbles and descends to the floor. Mom tells him he can't get up there and instructs him not to try. I note, with a smile, that she doesn't tell him to abandon the counter-top as well. I so recognize this pattern. If you sit too heavily on one of these high-energy kids, the pressure builds until there is a noisy explosion. A child like that is a crash course in picking your battles.

The boy jumps to the counter again and walks from side to side on his hands. Mom turns to pick up the coats from the floor. I catch her eye, smile at the boy, and remark, "I used to have one of those."

"We've been here for an hour and a half already," she answers. She hands the boy a manila folder and a pen, and relocates the coats to a bench behind me.

The boy's way of amusing himself with the materials provided is to stab the pen into the folder and, clutching it with his fist, carve dark blue W-shaped trenches into the folder.

"Don't break it," admonishes Mom. "If you get ink on the floor . . . ."

I turn my attention to the book in my lap and don't notice Mom and the boy again until I slowly become aware that there is unhappiness at Window Number Three between Mom and the woman behind the counter. I can't hear what they are saying; but the forty-ish blond supervisor, as I now conclude that she is, is trying to handle the situation from Window Number One, speaking loudly to Mom across Window Number Two: "Ma'am, I'm sorry, I can't take your application, you'll have to go back to your insurance company, we have to follow certain rules, I'm sorry, Ma'am, it isn't our fault, you'll have to take it up with your insurance company. . . ." Mom is determined not to leave the Registry, drive to the insurance company, return to the Registry, and go through the whole shebang all over again.

I can absolutely relate to Mom's position. I went through one of those scenes once, between the Registry in Quincy and my insurance agent in Bedford. The gigantic difference between her situation and mine is that my son was a dozen years older than this woman's counter-climbing, folder-and-pen-destroying brown-eyed mop-head. Mine was happy to take a day off from school, the more so since our old car would descend to him if we managed to get the new car registered. Even dealing with a horrible hassle -- is there, this side of Kafka or the Soviet Union in the 1950s, any hassle more horrible than those generated by the insurance industry and the Registry? -- loses its edge if Justin is keeping me company and doing the driving.

I've been in the supervisor's shoes as well, trying to keep order in some paper-and-pixel record-keeping system. There have to be non-negotiable rules, even though any such system creates absurdities and hardships in some cases. Without procedures that are always the same, a big, complicated system like the Registry will crumble and nobody will know what's been done or what's going on.

Mom eventually collects her bags, coats, and son, and leaves. I wonder if she took the day off from work to get this done. It's mid-afternoon now. She can probably beard the insurance agent in his den, get whatever the Registry wants, and make her way to the head of the line at the Registry again before closing time, if her son doesn't absolutely melt down along the way. Silently sympathizing, I return to my book and wait for A-163 to come up.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


The picture seems to be called "Bliss" -- at least half of it blue sky tastefully decorated with white puffy clouds, most of the other half a gentle hill, brilliant green in the sunlight, dark in the shadow of a passing cloud. At the right edge a mountain can be seen in the distance; at the extreme left, what appears to be a bit of a faraway hill. It is, of course, the background to the desktop provided by Microsoft.

Why "Bliss"? It's a pleasant enough hillside and sky, but unremarkable. "Bliss," to my mind, would be more active, and somehow more pink or luminescent light peach than blue and green (don't ask me why). For this picture, I would go with something like "tranquility," maybe, if it strikes you that way.

It doesn't strike me that way. I may be the only person in Microsoft's sphere of influence (possibly the largest sphere of influence in the history of the human race, but that's beside the point) -- the only one of Microsoft's customers, that is, to see anything sinister in this peaceful, passive landscape.

I've never seen the English downs. I know of them only that they are uplands of some kind, inhabited by humans for a very long time. I assume that any open space in England is mostly green unless I'm told otherwise. The landscape depicted in "Bliss" makes me think of what little I know of the downs, all of it fictional.

Tolkein's barrow-downs are bare and bleak, and home to creatures quite as nasty, in their small but potentially lethal way, as Sauron's Ringwraiths or Saruman's new, improved orcs. Watership Down is a pleasant enough landscape; but the book depicts enough nature red and tooth in claw that, if it doesn't quite reinforce my impression that a down is the kind of place where you don't want to find yourself after dark, it does nothing to counteract it.

The first I heard of barrows and downs was in a story called The Long Barrow, which I read at twelve or thirteen. The downs bordering on moorland where that story is set became confused in my mind with the Welsh or Cornish setting of Arthur Machen's The Novel of the Black Seal, for no better reason than that they were in the same anthology. Even though I didn't fully understand Machen's Novel, I was hugely impressed -- overwhelmed, even -- with its atmosphere of horrid things lurking in out-of-the-way places, hinted at rather than described (Machen, a second- or third-rate writer of eerie horror stories, was a literary follower of H.P. Lovecraft). I may even, at about the same age, have confused the downs with Conan Doyle's moor and hound. At that time, Great Britain was as remote to me as Dr. Moreau's island, or Robinson Crusoe's. After reading Return of the Native in college, I may have added Egdon Heath to the mix, the moor where Eustacia Vye suffers for four hundred-odd pages before drowning herself.

Only three of these associations have anything to do with the actual English downs. The rest represent confusion in the mind of an impressionable young adolescent eagerly soaking up atmosphere with a grand disregard for geography or any other kind of reality. I am sure I am doing both the downs and "Bliss" a great injustice when I look at that gentle hill with its tiny flowers at the base and clouds and mountain behind, and wonder what lives in the neighborhood that doesn't show and what happens there after dark.

Friday, July 10, 2009


Dad was a busy man; things around the old homestead often got done slowly. One early July in the late 1950s -- Paula and I had to have been fully grown to have brought this off -- we found ourselves unable to open our bedroom windows because the storm windows were still on. We may have considered together what we could do about this, but I seem to remember that, as usual, I figured it out and then proposed it to Paula. I'm sure we didn't trouble Mother with our plans; she could be deplorably narrow-minded about my brilliant ideas. As for Dad, if he'd been available we wouldn't have had this problem.

We're not, of course, talking about modern combination windows. An old-fashioned storm window was a rigid wood and glass object the size of the entire (large) window that it covered. I had long known that I could undo the hook at the bottom of the window and swing it outward. I think I had even lifted it off the brackets at the top, just to see if I could. I also managed to put it back. How to get it off the window entirely required some consideration.

Dad used to hold the window at arm's length parallel to the ground, rotate it 45 degrees, and gently draw it backward into the house. This method requires hands and wrists and forearms that few humans, and possibly no teenage girls, are blessed with. I knew better than to try it. I considered the relative dimensions of the window, my arms, Paula's arms and height, and the distance from the bottom of the second story windows to the ground. I may even have done some measuring.

This sounds hair-raising; but it was surprisingly easy to unhook a window and lower it between my hands to the point where Paula, basketball player and all-around athlete, could reach it, and then lower it together until I ran out of arm length, by which time she could easily control it and set it gently on the ground. We didn't have to carry them downstairs. We started with my bedroom window and worked our way, smoothly and without so much as an unsteady moment, around to the windows on the opposite side of the house.

When we confessed to the authorities what we'd been up to, it seemed to me that they weren't appropriately impressed. We may even have been allowed to repeat the procedure in subsequent years.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


This story was tucked away in a corner of a small publication for organ builders that appeared in our house when my father was building the organ. That makes my memory of it at least fifty years old.

It happened, if it did, at a performance of the 1812 Overture at Radio City Music Hall: large orchestra, the mighty Wurlitzer, something standing in for the cannon and Kremlin bells. According to the story, the mass of sound was too much for the leather thong attached to the center of the big cymbal. I would think that for the cymbal to land in a position to roll, its support must have given way when the percussionist whanged it. In any case, fall and roll it did.
The instrument in question is a couple of feet in diameter and most of an inch thick in the middle, tapering toward the edges -- solid, ringing metal, of course. There was no stopping it; the best anyone it its path could do was get out of the way. One fellow climbed halfway up the proscenium arch as the cymbal careened through the orchestra, scattering musicians, chairs, stands, and anything else in its path that couldn't get out of the way (not too many instruments, we have to hope). The roar of the mighty Wurlitzer fell to a whimper as the organist, turning to watch in horrified fascination, allowed his fingers to lift one by one from the keys.

The cymbal ran out of momentum, leaned, tipped, and fell in increasingly rapid, resounding clatters, like a silver dollar on the bar. That must have been the end of that concert.

If this yarn isn't an urban legend, it deserves to be. I wouldn't know how to verify it. I don't know what the publication was, or when the item appeared, or how long before that the alleged incident occurred. I do know that I didn't make it up. At no time in my life have I been familiar enough with orchestra instruments to invent a tale based on the physics of an escaped cymbal. Either this story really happened, or it was concocted by a bored percussionist waiting out many measures of rest in idle fantasy about how much damage this tool of his trade might do if it got loose.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

HOW WE CELEBRATED MOTHERS' DAY (with apologies to Stephen Leacock)

"Why are you turning around?" I asked.

"There's a little road back there we're going to look at,"Justin said. Idle curiosity has gotten people in trouble before this. As I explained later to the first tow truck guy, I have an unfortunate tendency to think that my son knows what he's doing. So down the road we went; I didn't even try to stop him.

We had originally intended a picnic for that Mothers' Day a couple of years ago. After it rained for seven days and seven nights and counting, we agreed instead to drive to Rockport and walk on the beach, wondering in passing if we should lay in a supply of doves against the day when the waters receded.

Either we didn't look in the right places, or the beaches were under water. At each stop, I got out of the car in my motorcycle rainsuit and watched the Atlantic slam itself against rocky promontories, breakwaters, or rock-lined bays that might have been beaches if there had been less water. After ordering me not to climb out on the rocks, Justin listened to the radio and took pictures out the windows of the car.

From Rockport we worked our way south, observing flooded roads, fields and lawns, and people pumping water out of cellars. We found and briefly explored a beach in Manchester (did I mention that the temperature was in the fifties with a gale-force wind roaring in from Greenland?), grabbed a couple of sandwiches in Salem, and made our way back to Medford.

We were having such a good time, that to prolong it I asked Justin if he would mind continuing from Medford to Winchester (which often floods) to make sure the town hadn't floated down the Mystic River and out to sea. That was when he spotted the mysterious little road, if it can be called that: a couple of muddy ruts in the grass along the top of an embankment leading to the river.

We drove along the embankment readily enough, bad spots being notoriously easy to get into, stopping a few yards from the bank of the river. The tow truck guys said later that the car was about a hundred yards from the road. I wouldn't have thought it was that far, but what do I know? We watched water pouring into the river from a structure that looked like a bulkhead. We noticed that the trees that usually mark the river bank were now up to their knees, with water extending far behind them. We watched a woman walking a dog. Then we decided to leave.

We were all right until Justin backed just a tad off the straight and narrow. When he tried to pull ahead and correct the problem, the wheels spun and the car stopped. In reverse it did likewise, and skidded sideways a bit. He tried a few things, first with a couple of wooden blocks that happened to be in the trunk and then with some pieces of carpet that weren't earning their keep on the floor. The car moved backwards a little and sideways more, leaving the right rear tire not quite in contact with terra infirma.

A large tree near the top of the embankment stood between the car and any real danger of sliding or flipping over and rolling down into what is usually a meadow but had become part of the river. But I didn't like the look of things and elected to stand in the rain at a safe distance. After a few more tries, I declared that it was time to summon help.

The guys at the liquor store, maybe a quarter of a mile away, let us use the phone and even found me a chair. The tow truck, when it came, couldn't back in far enough for the cable to reach the car without serious risk of joining us in the mud (the last time my son and I got stuck in the mud, the tow truck got stuck, too, but that's another story). The driver generously drove us home, another quarter mile past the liquor store, and suggested a couple of companies that might have the kind of industrial-strength tow truck we required.

An hour, one long telephone call, two more tow trucks, and $500 later, Justin returned the car to its home. I wasn't there when it was extracted from the wilderness, but he said that all proceeded smoothly. The episode, he commented, might have been worth $30 or $40 for the experience, but no way was it worth $500. My husband and I split the fee with him. It is, after all,my car. He wouldn't have persisted in exploring that forest track if I had told him not to. He made the phone call and got wet and muddy, more than once. If he pays half the expenses, that's plenty good enough.

The following Thursday, I took myself back to the scene of the crime, noting that water levels were near normal but that we and our tow trucks had left ruts most of a foot deep in places, some of them on the side of the embankment where a truck had gone around a particularly slimy spot. No permanent damage, I don't think -- ruts fill in, and grass grows back -- but one doesn't like to be responsible for that kind of carnage (not long afterwards, I noted in passing that the authorities had blocked off access to the area). Walking back to the main road, I saw a State Police officer placing on the windshield of my car what proved to be a $25 ticket for parking there.

Worse was to follow. Justin dropped by that night and mentioned that as of the previous day he exhibited -- probably literally, since he couldn't stand to put much on it -- the worst case of poison ivy of his extremely susceptible life. He had anticipated consequences from the poison ivy that grew lushly all around the hole we dug the car into, but the event exceeded expectations. It was better now, he said, but on Wednesday, before the doctor gave him steroids, his eye had been swollen shut and his arm more crippled than during the week in childhood when three of his limbs were solid itches and oozes and scabs. He showed me a selection of healing but still sore lesions, adding that "there's some more that I won't be showing you, Mom, but take my word for it, it's extremely unpleasant."

The moral of the above sorry story was pronounced by the first tow truck guy as we rounded the corner toward home: "You can't go off-road with a Grand Am."

Monday, April 6, 2009


A year or two ago I found myself in a focus group discussing swimsuits, apparently as a result of inattention on someone's part. The invitation to participate in this event was sent to my husband, whose androgynous name produces confusion from time to time. When a year or so after our marriage some email server polled him about his interests, I suggested that he say "shopping for swimsuits" -- at least the pop-up ads would be pleasant to look at.

The market researchers re swimsuits required "homework": design an ad expressive of one's experience of shopping for a swimsuit. I produced an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet with images of Cathy Guisewhite's "Cathy" trying to buy a bathing suit that she can stand to look at herself in, arranged in a circle around a big "AACK!!" in the middle.

When I appeared, homework in hand, I found that I was the only participant from any such proletarian locale as the working-class city where I live. The rest of them lived in expensive suburbs like Lexington and Wayland. I was willing to drive to Lexington and talk about swimsuits for a couple of hours for the $100 they were paying; unlike the rest of them, I'm sure, I was motivated mainly by the money.

Waiting for the group to start, I tried to strike up conversation with one or two of the other participants. They wouldn't talk to me and sat on the other side of the room. I wasn't altogether surprised. These suburban ladies can determine at a glance who does and who does not belong to the club.

I didn't have much to share with the group. The fact is, I've never done much swimming, and I can't remember ever buying a swimsuit in my life. I don't understand the point of swimsuits. They afford no protection to whatever modesty one might have, and they don't look comfortable. From the nude beaches south of San Francisco to a bathtub-warm mountain pool in Oregon, I have done my favorite swimming wearing nothing.

Neither the market researchers nor the focus group ladies needed to know that. I listened with at least an appearance of interested attention; contributed to the proceedings when I had anything to say; and when we were done, grabbed my $100 and ran.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


On Ash Wednesday, Danny came home from Mass and informed me that the priest had reminded the assembled faithful that eating meat on Fridays during Lent was still contrary to the teachings of the Church.

"All right," I said, "since you go by the fish and poultry store on your way home, why don't you pick up a piece of fish?"

"No," he said, "we divided up the housework, and shopping is your job."

"Legalistic little . . . ," I thought, stopping short of any number of nouns that one doesn't quite want to apply to one's husband, even in the privacy of one's own head.

I pointed out that whatever purpose was served by requiring abstention from meat on Fridays, the idea wasn't to put fish on the menu for a Catholic husband who likes fish, and inconvenience his non-Catholic wife, who doesn't. Then I got out the vegetarian cookbook and started to read recipes for things like tofu with peanut butter sauce.

I didn't make that; but on the four Fridays of Lent that year, I concocted four different vegetarian entrees. They were all rather bland and not particularly good, confirming my impression that vegetarian food isn't worth the trouble. That's what I had bought the book to find out. From my point of view, the vegetarian Lenten meals were a learning experience and thus a success.

Danny was never shy about letting me or anyone else know when their activities didn't suit him. When he gave me trouble about something I thought was ridiculous, I wasn't above suggesting that he offer up his discomfort for the suffering souls in Purgatory, usually adding, "I don't think they'll be impressed."(That refers to a Roman Catholic system for dealing construc-tively with unpleasantness. It involves some kind of mental gymnastics that I never understood.)

Danny didn't think much of the vegetarian entrees, but for once he didn't dare give me trouble. He ate his penitential Friday dinners with a great air of brown-eyed martyrdom but didn't say a word.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


I'm sure it's perverse and wicked to enjoy ice and snow formations as much as I do -- but once all that frozen precipitation is there, it doesn't cost any more to admire it than to fulminate against it, even while concerning oneself appropriately about the ice dams on the roof that are encouraging water to get into the house.

I have nicknamed one of the bedrooms the Icicle Room, in honor of the prince among icicles that forms outside one of the windows at the corner where the two roofs come together. Four or five inches thick at its top, it spreads itself for most of a foot along the gutter and extends downward to the porch roof, where it stabs itself into whatever snow is there.

One moonlit midwinter night, on my way back to bed from the bathroom, I stopped in to have a look at the blue-white tree-laced landscape and, while I was at it, the icicle. There it was all right -- but what really caught my eye was the icicles lined up immediately in front of the window with the full moon directly behind them, silver-white and black, just tinged with blue.

The effect was so wonderful that I had to share it. I crept down the hall and woke up my poor old husband, and dragged him a room or two down the hall to look at the moonlit icicles. He tried to be properly impressed, even though, as he reminded me, he couldn't see any color involved. I assured him that snow and ice and tree-branches in moonlight are all but colorless.

He admired the icicles for a few minutes before respectfully requesting permission to go back to bed. He did; I followed.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


My great-grandfather, Ephraim Wyman, lost a leg in the Civil War. I accepted for years, having been told as much by someone who I thought would know, that the wicker box under the canopy bed in one of the back bedrooms contained his wooden leg --possibly both of them. He had two, even though he was only missing one leg. Maybe he had one for everyday and one for best? He also left behind a pair of crutches. My father, in need of large, sturdy crutches after a skiing mishap some decades ago, retrieved his grandfather's from whatever closet they had come to live in. Sometimes the family accumulated stuff comes in handy, although I haven't heard of anyone wanting to borrow Ephraim Wyman's leg.

I never bothered to look in the wicker basket, not being particularly interested in wooden legs. The basket migrated around that back bedroom: under the bed, in the closet, in a corner. I'm not sure it wasn't downstairs in the living room for a while. When my sister lived there she sprinkled her rooms with"anti-queues" (her pronunciation) that I understand were supposedto be decorative. The large basket containing half a dozen small organ pipes has been retired. The rectangular thing on wheels at one end of the living room, covered with little cutesy objects of which I have no distinct individual memory, remains.

For a while, I muttered threats to pack Paula's bric-a-brac in a box and consign it and its anti-queue to the attic. While Iwas getting around to doing so, I discovered that my son approves of the whatever-it-is and its cutesy objects and votes to leave it alone. Since I can't move it myself, it will have to stay until I need the space for something else, which may never happen.

At one time I had an impression that that Paula called the object in the living room a "corn chopper." I never could see how it would go about chopping anything, but what do I know? It has since come to my attention that the "corn chopper" is a different family artifact -- the one that sits on a structure at the side of the house that I think of as a porch but my mother, for reasons too complicated to recite here, calls a "stoop." So the conversation piece in the living room must be something else.

When my son came upon Ephraim Wyman's leg-holding basket and I related to him my understanding of it, he, of course, opened the basket and looked inside. It proved to contain, not the leg, but the leather apparatus for strapping in on. "There ain't no leg in there," Justin said in disgust. Scratch one family heirloom. I put the basket with the leather strapping under the bed in the back bedroom. It goes without saying that such things should never be discarded; but I don't see the need to put this one on display.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Dear Santa --

I know this is late -- I was distracted by the ice storm and subsequent snow -- but since I'm asking for miracles, not package delivery, maybe that's all right.

If you have up your sleeve for me a line on the Matthews-Berkeley edition of the Diary of Samuel Pepys, offered at a knockdown price by an academic widow who can't wait to get rid of all those books so she can have a sewing room for her quilting club -- if you really have arranged this, please disregard the rest of this letter. I promise I'll give more money than I can afford to Rosie's Place, or that shelter in Cambridge for homeless women and children that our church activists have been beating the drums for.

If not -- I'm afraid this will sound ungrateful. I don't mean it that way. It's just that from principle and long habit, I'm not big on wanting things. Sure, I could use a food mill, even though the large ones don't seem to exist any more and the small ones cost $100. I'll probably get around to springing for one one of these weeks, hopefully before all those apples in the woodshed begin to soften and develop spots. But the food mill can easily retreat to the back burner where such things live in my life. I certainly don't need for you to provide it.

What I would like you to do for me is this: Please take whatever you have in mind for me and apply it to someone else's account. Find a single mother in failing health with a little kid or two and an ex-husband who's making all the trouble for her that he can. Give her a lead on a job that she can live on, that won't demand her whole life in exchange. A lead on an affordable but decent place to live would be nice, too. A single mothers' commune would be ideal -- I stumbled on one or two such things in the early 1980s, so they may still exist. (While you're at it, you might provide a high-paying job for the ex, in Alaska, maybe, unless he's really seeing the kids when he's supposed to. If he's being even that much use, distract him with the girl of his dreams instead.)

Please don't try to solve this mother's problems by sending her romance and a second husband, unless there's no alternative. Romance fed by desperation so often winds up out of the frying pan back into the divorce court, with another set of kids in tow.

That's all for now. I'll go back to looking around on line for that Diary. I hope you had a very merry Christmas yourself.

Your old friend,

Aunt Stanbury