Wednesday, December 7, 2011


On a Sunday evening in the late 1950s, Laurie and his father were sitting together at a meeting of the Men's Club of the Unitarian Church in Kingston, Massachusetts. The program was a concert by a barbershop quartet -- professionals or semi-professionals or at least very experienced amateurs. After a lively and enjoyable performance, they asked for four volunteers from the audience for the purpose of demonstrating that extemporaneous barbershop isn't as easy as it sounds.

The first volunteer was a bass from the choir, followed by a baritone, both excellent musicians. Then there was the question of tenors. (Tenors often are a question.) Laurie, a high school kid with an excellent ear inherited from the paternal side of the family -- his mother was severely musically challenged -- exchanged a glance with his father.

"Should we?" Laurie was always up for musical adventures.

His father shrugged his shoulders. "Why not?"

So Laurie and his father joined the church quartet as first and second tenor respectively.

The performers assigned the volunteer quartet a well-known song from the barbershop repertoire and started them off together in the four-part close and charmingly hokey harmony of the genre. Then they dropped out. Left to themselves, the church singers were supposed to become uncertain, wobble, flounder, and go down to ignominious defeat.

They didn't.They sailed right along as if they'd been doing exactly this all their lives.

The performers, as Laurie told the story decades later, "realized they'd been had" and joined back in again. "By the time we finished," Laurie said, "we were singing in eight-part harmony."

There must have been technical informalities, unplanned dissonances, and a few shaky moments. But they got away with it, everyone had a good time, and the church singers vindicated themselves. It is to be hoped that the performers learned a lesson about underestimating amateurs.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


The cat loved the butterfly chair. She -- by convention, cats seem to be "she" unless known to be otherwise -- would race into the room, leap high in the air, and do a graceful (as a friend of the family put it): curl herself into a doughnut in mid-air and drop into the lap of the butterfly chair, positioned for a nap.

One day she raced into the room as usual, leapt, did a graceful, and dropped; but no nap ensued.

Someone had left a pinecone in the butterfly chair.

The cat, with the agility and quick reflexes of her kind, rebounded as if from a trampoline and fled the field.

The following day she again raced into the room and toward the butterfly chair; remembered in time; and stopped. One pictures a Saturday-morning-cartoon-style screeching halt, cloud of dust behind, and four little furrows in the floor.

She crept up to the chair and sniffed each leg in turn. Then she pulled herself up on her hind legs and peered cautiously into the depths of the chair. Seeing no sign of her enemy of the previous day, she climbed with great deliberation into the chair, rolled herself up, and went to sleep.

It was a long time before she again allowed herself to race to the chair, do a graceful, and drop.

Friday, October 7, 2011


Viewed dispassionately, poison ivy is nice-looking stuff. All summer its shiny-leaved vines trail along roads, up trees, and through the underbrush, the picture of prosperity and well-being. In fall its dark green leaves shade into red and gold while retaining their characteristic thriving and healthy aspect. You rarely see poison ivy looking ragged and run-down. It doesn't, as you might expect, maintain its health and vigor by poisoning any creature that tries to eat or otherwise interfere with it. Only humans are bothered by it; birds perch on it, presumably looking for bugs, and deer eat it.

William Cullina, in Native Trees, Shrubs and Vines (to whom I am indebted for all the specific information in this piece) concedes, rather grudgingly, that poison ivy and its relatives are attractive in autumn. He goes on to relate with incredulous disgust that since 1640 poison ivy has actually been cultivated in some English gardens for its fall color. It's understandable that a naturalist, who comes into close and sometimes regrettable contact with his objects of study, might be no fan of the toxicodendron genus.

One summer I did see poison ivy that looked discouraged, yellowing in the August drought. I had to wonder if it had been sprayed to spare humans the dire consequences of messing with it -- and decided probably not. The yellowing vines extended too far along the road, across too many town lines. And anyway, killing poison ivy and leaving it in place doesn't stop its nefarious activities. You can get poison ivy in January from dead stems masquerading as random sticks. Cullina reports that "the toxin is extremely decay resistant, and a sensitive person came down with a rash after handling a 200-year-old herbarium specimen!"

But the stuff does make an impressive display. One has to admire, from a safe distance, the effect of those red and gold vines trailing along an old gray stone wall in bright sunlight under a blue October sky.

Monday, September 5, 2011


Among my father's many talents, teaching found small place. He could have taken someone who already knew a good bit about precision tool engineering and taught them a good bit more. Faced with a sixteen-year-old daughter who actively didn't want to know algebra, he was out of his element.

I wouldn't have asked for help until it was beyond doubt that there was something in the homework I couldn't figure out myself -- which would have happened sooner rather than later. I didn't so much hit a wall as fall into a Slough of Despond. I couldn't see how to do the work, or even get enough of a grip on it to it to ask specific questions. I'd try some approach that I vaguely thought might work, probably because it, or something enough like it to be indistinguishable to me, had worked before. When a problem turned out to be structured differently enough that the tried and true, applied mechanically, didn't work, my mind would go blank, its contents blurred and then obliterated by helpless panic.

Given that state of mind, I'm not sure who could have helped me. Clinging to whatever I thought I knew and resisting all attempts to tell me anything different -- if I let go of the one thread in my possession, my feeble grasp on this alien, forbidding and profoundly uninteresting material might unravel altogether -- I must have come across to my father and teachers as perversely and willfully obtuse.

Competent teaching requires an ability to see, or anticipate, someone else's difficulty. My father could figure out and solve an algebra problem himself. He could suggest an approach that would have worked if I had followed it -- not exactly what I was being taught at school, sometimes not in the same universe as far as I could tell. He couldn't begin to identify and impart the one tidbit of information that would have broken up my log jam. Even less could he have relieved the terrified rigidity that kept me stuck on Square One.

He must have boosted me towards getting the right answers at least some of the time. I did pass algebra, if not by much. Since school is more about getting right answers than about understanding what you're doing or remembering it the day after graduation, let alone being able to apply it to any real world situation, getting enough right answers to pass was all I needed to do.

The worst of our tug of war that year was those accursed problem sheets. They weren't part of the regular curriculum; the teacher would distribute a mimeographed handout with ten or a dozen of them, saying "Just try one or two."

During that part of the year, he must have thought he was teaching a class of parents: my father, Carol's father, Eddie's mother. Only Ross, my boy friend at the time, whose father had quit high school during the Depression to help support his family, was tackling these things on his own. I don't know what anyone else in the class did -- probably folded the paper up in the textbook and thought no more about it.

I tried to explain to my father that the most minimal effort on behalf of the evil problem sheets would suffice. It didn't, as we now say, compute. From his point of view, if I was given the sheet of problems as homework, then that was my homework. Whenever one of these horrors came to his attention, he diligently set out to do damn all of them. At least once, he asked if I had a problem sheet to do that night. I suspected him of actually enjoying these things.

On one occasion, Ross happened to be at our house when Dad and I were wrestling with a set of them. He and Dad became so absorbed in some particularly thorny specimen that they apparently didn't notice when I quietly took myself off to the kitchen and baked a cake. Dad may have been as relieved at my departure as I was -- and he would have enjoyed the cake.

That may say something about 1950s gender stereotypes. To me, it mostly speaks to the personalities of the people involved. My head seems not to be wired for finding my way around either the countryside (see IT SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME: ROADS BETTER NOT TAKEN) or abstruse algebra problems. If more women than men share my mental configuration, I'm sure I apologize. I have felt that I ought to apologize for my preference for the verbal and logical over the spacial and quantitative ever since I found out about that fault line; but apologizing is all I can do. I can't make myself take to math or spacial relations. I've even wondered, heretically, why I should.

When Latin was the language of the Church, the law courts, and educated men throughout Europe, there was an imprecise feeling that students were improved simply by exposure to it, apart from whatever value the knowledge itself had. In my day -- the immediate post-Sputnik 1950s, when helping to beat the Russians was an almost religious obligation -- mathematics was the language of all worthy endeavor. It was also advocated, as Latin has been, for mental exercise, comparable to developing muscles by lifting weights.

For most of us, mathematics, like Latin, is something of a dead language, of no practical use whatever. Upon escaping from a chemistry course that I misguidedly wandered into in my freshman year in college, I forgot not only algebra and trigonometry but every scrap of arithmetic I had learned after fourth grade. The most complicated calculations I have ever had occasion to use have been in multiplying recipes.

But in the throes of Algebra II, I didn't know that; nor would it have helped me if I had. Applicability to life, or even to further study, wasn't the issue. I'm not sure anyone thought I would actually use in later life any of the things I was set to learning in high school. Algebra II was required for college. It never occurred to me to question that, or that college was the sine qua non of a good job and a valid life. Whether I have achieved this last is open to question; I certainly never managed the first, algebra notwithstanding; but all of that is another story.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


One of the maxims of my misspent youth was that you can carry anything on a motorcycle. From the 125 cc Lambretta I bought in 1964 to the 1971 BMW R50/55 and a couple of second-hand scooters between, two-wheeled transportation was the only kind I had. Much of that time the people around me didn't have cars either, and there wasn't an obvious alternative to using my scooter or cycle as a truck.

I brought cinderblocks home in the saddlebags of the BMW, four at a time. I tied several years of Christmas trees onto luggage racks, crosswise, and then tried to remember not to drive between lanes of traffic. I still design my recorder-carrying boxes with the motorcycle in the back of my mind somewhere, even though I don't drive it any more. My first husband and I carried camping gear "piled high" (his phrase: he said, "We're going to get stopped," but we didn't). On one memorable occasion, when he discovered that his Honda needed more fixing than he could do, we transported the engine to the motorcycle shop on my bike, me driving and him behind me with the engine in his lap.

I had various boxes and crates on my open-air vehicles, supplemented by bungee cords. I once dropped a (fortunately empty) gallon-size metal gasoline can off the back of some scooter, making an inconceivable racket. It does objects no good to hit the pavement from a moving vehicle, even at twenty miles an hour. I learned to fasten my freight down so it wouldn't fall off: cords both front-to-back and side-to-side (I once had a pile of books fall off because it didn't occur to me that they could slip sideways), pulled tight with all my strength -- taking care, of course, not to tip the bike over in the process.

I carried groceries around Back Bay on the Lambretta in a big wooden box attached to the carrier. I remember dusting snow off the seat before starting the scooter and heading off, wearing a woolen jumper and some kind of windbreaker. I didn't own pants of any kind in those days.

When I moved to Berkeley in the fall of 1965, the scooter came along. My friend Natalie and I shopped at the Berkeley Co-op on Telegraph Avenue near the Oakland line and drove to her apartment on Dwight Way or her brother's on Durant Avenue with our week's purchases and one or two other people's in the box on the back, the green onions waving behind us "bravely" (her word) and the overflow on her lap or on the floor. I may have tried once to hang a bag or two over my arm but left off when I found that it interfered with my steering.

One day, shopping by myself, I set a small frozen turkey on he rear seat -- the Lambretta had two separate seats -- with intent to fit it into the box after I did something else, and then forgot about it and drove off. Three or four blocks and some right-angle turns later I pulled into my back yard, dismounted, and was surprised and amused to find the turkey still on the seat. I tell that to people who are reluctant to accept a ride because they think they might fall off. They usually aren't impressed.

After Berkeley and a motorcycle-less hiatus of a couple of years, during which I lugged catfood, Kitty Litter, and groceries three blocks from the A&P to my apartment in Belmont, I bought the BMW. That bike carried groceries and musical instruments around the western suburbs until it came to the peninsula south of San Francisco with me and my then-husband in 1973. There it acquired an orange-type crate that strapped to the luggage rack. I had the grocery checkers trained: Everything goes into two bags, period, end of story. The BMW was an even poorer prospect than my various scooters for trying to drive while hand- or arm-carrying bags; and, of course, it had no floor.

There was a commercial on television for a while that showed a motorcycle pulling up to a group of young men, with a case of beer strapped on the back. Making appreciative noises, the guys help themselves, open the cans and enjoy their brew. The person driving the cycle turns out to be a girl. Fine -- but whoever put together that commercial clearly had never opened a beer that had just arrived on the back of a motorcycle.

Strawberries don't like motorcycles either -- one fifty-mile ride shook, compressed and bruised my berries enough that I had to make shortcake or jam immediately. Neither do cameras. The man in the camera store in Athol told me of one customer who had shown up on a bike with a bunch of screws rattling loose in the bottom of his camera bag.

Young people are always moving. In one Boston relocation, a friend and I drove the Lambretta between Beacon Street just below Hereford Street and somewhere in the Park Drive area over and over and over, carrying whatever we could. On one trip, he rode with a soup kettle over his head (this was in the wild and free days before laws about crash helmets).

Bleak House in Braille isn't as heavy as the OED but it is about as bulky. When Natalie wanted help getting Bleak House to the post office and thence back to the Library of Congress, we loaded most of the volumes into the box on the back of the Lambretta. She sat on the back seat, holding the stragglers.

In 1971, when I bought the BMW, I was living with Sherry, and she was building psalteries. A psaltery is a Medieval stringed instrument, trapezoidal in shape, a couple of feet long, less than a foot wide, and an inch and a half deep. One day when Sherry and one of her instruments needed to catch a bus from the station on St. James Street, we all piled onto the motorcycle and set off. As we zipped in and out through traffic between Belmont and downtown, I kept wondering if we would scrape the psaltery against a car or stab somebody with it -- the pointed ends were fairly pointy -- even though I knew the instrument was smaller than the width of the engine, with its horizontal pistons, and that she wouldn't be holding it crosswise anyway. We got to the bus station without incident and Sherry and the psaltery caught their bus.

Probably the least successful system for carrying things was a couple of metal boxes -- ammunition crates, I think the guy at the surplus store said they were -- not very big but thick and heavy. Sherry and I roared up Route 2 together one weekend so that she could use my father's potter's wheel, with her supplies in the two boxes. They couldn't be fastened to the carrier side by side; they had to stack one on top of the other. Usually this was all right, if a tad wobbly, but I discovered during that trip that at a certain speed on the highway they would cause the motorcycle to shake alarmingly. We kept our speed down and got there all right, and the threatened rain held off. I think the boxes stayed in Otter River and we carried our stuff back in something else.

When I worked at Stanford in the mid-1970s I had, due to some oversight on the part of the people who make rules, the same privilege of checking books out of the library that faculty enjoyed (presumably so that professors' pink-collar lackeys could check books out on their behalf; it probably wouldn't occur to the officialdom that such persons might check out books on their own account).

One of the volumes I borrowed was a modern edition of fourteenth century Italian religious songs that I had come to covet after hearing a couple of them performed. To my delight, the book included facsimiles of the original manuscript pages with the transcriptions into modern notation. This is the kind of big, expensive volume that libraries prefer not to let out of their sight. The hole in the rules enabled me not only to take the book home and play through it -- a godsend to those of us who don't read music well enough to hear it in our heads while sitting at some back table -- but to carry it off to a place with real copy machines, such as they were at the time, instead of trusting to the coin-operated machines in the library: Remember those things that for 25 cents produced a copy on thin, slippery gray-ish paper that curled up and slipped off of music stands?

My husband and I used my copy of one of the facsimiles in a Christmas card we made, and it amused me to think that, at four removes or so, our card reproduced the pen-strokes of the scribe who made the original book six hundred years before. It also amused me to reflect that if the library powers at Stanford knew how I was transporting their book they would have fainted dead away in unison. (The book made it back to its home just fine.)

In my brief career as a music student at San Francisco State in 1978 and 1979, I was a voice major and thus didn't have to concern myself with transporting my instrument, although damaging it by singing into the wind became an issue at one point. The other biker in the music department at the time toted a flute around. We agreed that it was just as well that we weren't cellists.

One morning in the mid-1970s, the strap of my shoulder bag broke. I was carrying it, as I always did, over one shoulder and under the other arm, flapping behind me in the breeze. I stopped to investigate when the bike started to slow down, and discovered that the strap had caught in the rear hub and wound itself around and about, dragging the purse along a quarter of a mile of freeway. I walked along there a couple of times rescuing such of my possessions as could be found, acutely aware that this was unsafe and illegal. I bought another purse, replaced glasses, reconstructed check registers, exchanged a few torn and burned dollar bills for new ones at the bank, and took to wearing the purse strap around the back of my neck and cradling the purse in front of me on the gas tank.

Laurie and I, sometime after 1986, bought a heavy, unwieldy object in Fitchburg and then had to transport it the fifteen or twenty miles to Otter River. I vaguely remember that it was something in the furniture line -- possibly shelves to contain his ever-exploding population of radios, audio components and recording equipment. We were probably in our fifties at the time, and we had a car. I think we went for a ride, strolled into Staples, saw this thing, and were unable to resist buying it on the spot. Finding ourselves with the motorcycle and no bungee cords, we tried to buy some at a bicycle shop. They had none. They did have a bunch of old bicycle inner tubes and some S-hooks, which we accepted and made the best of. We crept back to Otter River on Route 2A, arriving safely with our cargo.

Once or twice I've ventured into what might be called live freight. I've written somewhere else about the time we tried to carry Natalie's guide dog. It didn't work (see DOG ABUSE). In my pre-BMW days in Belmont I used to take my cat to the vet in a carrier strapped to the back of a bicycle, to her great unhappiness.

Once in the summer of 1981, I needed to move the BMW from the bottom to the top of a short gravel driveway. With Justin, twenty-some months old, in a pack on my back, I surveyed the situation. The bike weighs 400-odd pounds. I never could push it without barking my shins on those horizontal pistons. Peter Beagle (I See By My Outfit, an account of a New York to California jaunt on a large motor scooter) has compared walking his vehicle -- presumably smaller and less awkward than my BMW -- to pushing a fully-armed knight on roller skates. Given the loose gravel underfoot, I decided that driving it would be safer: at the very least, with one foot on the ground on each side, I could keep it from falling over and landing on top of me with Justin at the bottom of the pile.

Although at a distance of nearly thirty years it's hard to think myself back into the reality of what Justin was like as a little kid, I remember that at no time was it advisable to leave him on his own recognizance beyond arm's reach. I don't, and probably didn't then, know what he'd have done if I had divested myself of him and the pack and set them on the ground somewhere while I moved the bike; but he'd have thought of something inconvenient and probably life-threatening, and put it into execution quicker than thought. He was safer in the pack on the motorcycle, where I knew what he was doing.

I vaulted onto the seat -- this bike was built for German men, something it reminded me of from time to time -- and pushed down the key (please don't ask me to describe the idiosyncratic ignition system on this machine). Justin, his small head glued to my right ear, watched with interest as the control panel lights went on. I stepped the bike into gear, let the clutch out, and crept up the driveway with both feet on the ground. When I stopped and pulled the key out, Justin uttered a small
whimper and said "Wide!" I gave him to understand that there would be no more ride of this kind today, climbed off, parked, and walked home.

Most of the expedients described above were adopted because any alternative would have cost money that I didn't have, or generated inconvenience I didn't want. In my youth I was inventive, resourceful and poor. That phase of my life went on for a long time, and the modes of thought and action it established persist to this day.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


Camping in Maine with my first husband, I settled into my down sleeping bag atop an inch-thick piece of closed-cell foam. He was big on closed-cell foam, a foam-rubber-ish substance somehow constructed so the air pockets are closed and it can't absorb water. An inch of it provides a surprisingly satisfying layer of padding, much preferable to trying to sleep with a hip joint burrowing into the ground, or roots or a pinecone digging into one's back. It also provides insulation -- but not always enough. Maine can be chilly even in July. Instead of drifting off to sleep, I lay awake trying not to notice that the foam wasn't entirely insulating my butt from the ground, and I was cold.

Danny, wrapped in his space blanket, was warm and toasty -- as he wasn't slow to point out. He swore by space blankets, as did one or two other campers I knew. On his advice, I had bought one that afternoon at L.L.Bean, even though I couldn't quite picture how this piece of stiff tinfoil could have the insulating power that everyone said it did.

However that might be, I was in the tent and the blanket was still in a saddlebag on the motorcycle. Feeling chillier and chillier, I pondered whether possession of the blanket would offset the shock of facing the night air, not to mention the risk of stepping on Danny's head on my way in and out of what he referred to as a two-man tent (I would have said one man and one woman, if they like each other and aren't too big).

Eventually, my benumbed consciousness absorbed and accepted that I certainly would not sleep successfully without that blanket. The dash through a few yards of Maine woods was at least as disagreeable as I expected. I crawled back into the tent and wrapped my blanket around, above and below me, and settled again into the bag, now enveloped in reflected warmth from the blanket. It felt almost like a heat source. The last thing I heard was Danny explaining that I had draped the blanket incorrectly and that it wouldn't work that way -- as I drifted off to dreamland.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Mom seriously loses face when someone points out her child-rearing lapses -- especially, perhaps, when that third party is her own mother.


Justin and I were in Otter River after a rousing nor'easter. Remembering the five- or six-foot mountain of snow that collects in the angle between the barn and the back porch, I asked him if he would like to jump off the roof. Justin, then two and a few months, was fine with jumping off the roof, as with most things. In August of the same year, the guy running the octopus at Whalom Park observed, "That little kid ain't afraid of nothin'." That wasn't quite the case; but he wasn't much into fear.

We climbed out a window and onto the roof of the side porch. My mother, at my request, closed the window behind us, with that my-daughter-has- lost-her-mind look that I know so well. Justin and I waded through a two-foot snowdrift overlooked by the windows of a couple of bedrooms, and turned the corner onto the roof of the back porch. I proposed to jump with him in my arms so as to land together.

There behind the back porch was the target snowdrift, all right, but a few feet farther away than I remembered. Also, the underpinnings of the roof had come to protrude by most of a foot, a row of metal things a foot or two apart on which, it seemed to me, I would certainly catch my clothing on the way past and thus fall short of the depths of the snowdrift.

Losing my courage, I voted for coming down some other way -- but how? Mother had shut the window behind us, and all the bedroom windows giving onto the roofs were locked in winter (they tended to drop open if not fastened). Near the side porch was Aunt Elizabeth's car, not close enough to climb down onto or padded with enough snow for jumping. We made our way back to the rear porch; nothing had changed. We may have wandered back and forth a couple more times, hoping something would occur to us. It was windy, and Justin declared that he was cold.

At that point -- I don't know why I didn't think of this sooner -- I tossed Justin off the roof into the highest point of the snowdrift, where he lay on his back in his snowsuit, tranquilly contemplating the sky. Then I gathered my coat tightly and jumped myself, taking care not to land on him, and together we made our way through voluminous snow around the barn and into the house. It was all rather anticlimactic.


That may have been the storm of April 6, 1982, the last volley of a particularly snowy winter. A few days after that storm dropped a foot or so of snow on us, the temperature had risen to about 70o; the snow was melting apace; and the asphalt in the driveway was warm to the touch. Walking around barefoot, Justin asked if he could slide down the bank beside the driveway, as he had been doing all winter.

Why not? Warm as it was, there was still plenty of snow. I produced the sled and plunked him into the box my father had attached to it. Instructing him to stay in the box, I pushed him down the hill. We did this a few times. Then my mother came to the door to talk to me about something, and my attention to Justin flagged. The next thing I knew she was expressing horror at something behind me. Sure enough, there was Justin nonchalantly walking around in the snow with his little bare feet. I put a stop to that, wondering, as I have since, if he had any nerve endings.


Impetigo is hard to miss, especially on a six-year-old's face -- but I was getting married at the end of the week, and my attention was fragmented. I did, on somebody's advice, buy a tube of some kind of goo and apply it to his lesions per the instructions. It didn't do much. On my last day of work before the wedding, I took Justin and his impetigo and tube of goo to day care, without much hope that they would buy into this program. I was right.

"Unclean!" said the day care center, refusing to accept him, tube of goo notwithstanding. So I took him to work, settling him as best I could while I tried to finish what I had to do. As seen above, Justin was never big on quietly staying in one place. I think one or more of my co-workers amused him from time to time. I did get the work done, and took Justin and his impetigo home.

After the wedding, my sister took charge of Justin for a week, as planned. She surveyed the impetigo with horror and at her earliest convenience took him to her doctor, commanding him to "Fix this!" The doctor prescribed an antibiotic, and by the next time I saw Justin his face was back to normal.


A few years after that, he developed poison ivy on the top of his foot. There was nothing much in that; Justin was always developing poison ivy. He said this one hurt and itched severely. I could believe it did. It looked awful; but Justin's poison ivys always looked like that and most were a lot larger than this one. I offered sympathy and calamine lotion.

The difference between this poison ivy and its predecessors was that, subject to friction with his chronically wet shoe and sock -- I never understood how he managed to be wearing wet footgear so much of the time -- it had become infected. When Mother pointed out the angry red streaks up his leg from the poison ivy site, I bundled him into the car and off to the doctor.

# # #

In spite of the instances of neglect confessed to above, Justin came to think of me as prone to unnecessary hovering and worriting, and in late childhood and early adolescence stopped mentioning his poison ivys and sprained ankles (a specialty he developed after taking up basketball; maybe white men really can't jump). He doesn't believe in dressing for winter, but wears T-shirts and shorts year-round. Any horror-stricken comments now are directed to him. If anyone says anything to me, I shrug my shoulders and point out that he's an adult and I can't help what he does.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

SOARING (with apologies to Robert Schumann)

A student reported to his college's health services office with multiple abrasions and contusions from capsizing his motorcycle, and a bee sting in his throat. The doctor cleaned and disinfected his injuries, washing out gravel as necessary and bandaging as appropriate, and did whatever is done for bee stings in the gullet. He also suggested that in the future the young man ride with his mouth closed.

"I was singing, Doc," his patient explained.

That's motorcycles for you. If you've ever dreamed about flying and wished you could, riding a bike is the nearest experience in real life (or parachuting, probably; I can't answer for that because I've never done it). Motorcycles are, in Marshall McLuhan's phrase, an involving medium. You roll along on a summer day, leaning with every bend in the road. Warm air flows through your clothing and caresses your skin. You feel a delicious chill when you pass a body of water, and the pleasant shock of an unexpected sprinkling of droplets from a lawn-watering system. A motorcyclist experiences a mystical sense of oneness with the world as it glides by.

Then in a second or two everything changes. Gravel or leaves or water on the road, a pothole, a piece of the underpinnings of a car not seen in time, or something unfamiliar in the respiratory tract -- not to mention the things other motorists do -- and the biker is sliding down the road leaving skin on the pavement and thinking about compound fractures.

As the saying goes, "You can always tell a happy bikey by the bugs on his teeth" -- but maybe not for long.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Does anyone but me remember the carnival atmosphere that used to prevail at the South Station Postal Annex in Boston on the night of April 15?

At least a couple of times I found myself dashing for the post office as midnight approached, promising myself never to put it off like this again. Lots of other people were no better than I. The streets and byways in the South Station area looked like the gas lines of 1973, choked with procrastinators' cars trying to get into the tiny parking lot. I seem to remember a band playing somewhere on the premises, balloons and confetti and food, and people sitting on the cement wall that bordered the parking lot -- young guys, mostly, with no particular business there, dangling their feet and watching people come and go.

Inside the post office would be a long line of taxpayers snaking between posts that divided the usually empty and echoing space into lanes. It didn't take long to get through -- the clerk just weighed the envelopes, stamped them, and took your money, and you were on your way. There was probably even a system for weighing and stamping it yourself. I wouldn't have used it. I never understand such things. The postmark machine kept stamping April 15 until everybody and their taxes had finished.

For a bunch of years I did in fact do better and wasn't a participant in the April 15 melee. Then a small business I worked for put off its tax return to the last minute, and I was commissioned to run it to South Station.

No longer did the channel area look like a late-night party -- no band, no gawkers, no balloons. I don't remember anyone outside at all except taxpayers coming and going, matter-of-fact and rather tired. The lines were in place inside; but the postmarking machinery had been updated and now chugged along automatically, changing the date promptly at midnight. If you failed to get to the head of the line by twelve, your postmark was late (anyway, do we believe that the IRS has time to scrutinize everybody's postmark and come after people for being a few hours late?). If your tax return will be dated the following day anyway, you might as well drop it in the mailbox down the street.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


March 21, 2011: It's snowing. That's one of the ways we celebrate spring in these latitudes. In Otter River we have similarly celebrated Palm Sunday, Easter, Mother's Day, and conceivably Memorial Day. I remember a snow shower on May 22, and concern about frost and the newly planted flowers at the cemetery in the last days in the month. I also remember my grandmother expressing concern that the marchers in the Memorial Day parade might faint from the heat -- it had happened, she said.

At the other end of the calendar, we have had frost before the end of August. My father didn't attempt to grow pumpkins, as much we kids wished he would, because, he said, the frost always got them. What kind of growing season is too short for pumpkins? New England pioneered in manufacturing for good reason. By contrast, the year I bought my motorcycle it was 100 degrees on Labor Day. At the family reunion I gave rides to anyone brave enough to accept.

My mother reports seeing snow in Otter River in every month of the year except July -- and frost in July, once. I remember as a child being impressed by a change of temperature of almost 100 degrees within a week or two.

Meteorologists love New England weather for the challenge of trying to figure out what it will do next. The rest of us accept it more or less philosophically, and newcomers get used to it. I remember a woman from Poland taking exception to snowstorms through March and into April, after what had looked like the dawn of gentler weather: "In my country, yes, it is cold in the winter, but when spring comes, it's spring." What must a person from India think when they step out the door into one of those crystal-clear, still days with the thermometer below zero, especially if their car won't start? From Poland as well as India, our weather looks like some kind of mistake.

Today's snow doesn't bother me. How much harm can there be in an inch or two of soggy snow that melts on contact with blacktop? The crocuses and daffodils go about their business, snow notwithstanding. And for a day or two it'll whiten all those dirty snowbanks.

Monday, March 7, 2011


A television documentary about guide dogs some years ago showed a dog leading its blind owner through a field crossed with parallel ditches, jumping each ditch with its owner a second or two behind, to illustrate the training of dogs for their owners' specific needs. Presumably, if someone wanted a motorcycle-riding canine for a sensible reason, Seeing Eye could train one from puppyhood for the purpose. When Natalie and I lived in Berkeley, we joked about how convenient it would be if her Seeing Eye German Shepherd could be persuaded to ride my Lambretta so I could drive them home when we met unexpectedly.

At the time, I might or might not have seen You Are What You Eat, a hip and trendy movie circa 1968, which keeps showing a small dog -- one of those white curly things as I remember -- riding on the tank of a Harley-ish bike. I had seen, in a motorcycle parking lot on the Berkeley campus, a young man mount his scooter and gesture to his dog, which jumped onto the floor in front of his feet and happily rode off.

One idle afternoon behind Natalie's apartment on Dwight Way in Berkeley, we decided to try introducing the dog to two-wheeled travel. With the engine running and me in the driver's seat, Natalie lifted the dog in her arms and climbed aboard. I don't speak dog and couldn't see the animal -- it was behind me -- but I could tell that this was not, so to speak, a happy puppy.

I pulled in the clutch and shifted into gear. The dog had heard that clunk many times and knew as well as we did what came next. It shook free of Natalie's grasp, leapt to the ground, bolted up the stairs to the apartment, and betook itself to some favorite safe and comfortable corner. Natalie and I laughed long and loudly, and made no further attempts to make a biker of the poor beast.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011



The train sat in the old Harvard Square station, thinking about moving. Just as the bell rang, a young man with a large suitcase in each hand started down the stairs leading to the platform, in a very great hurry. He didn't even slow down as he approached the turnstiles. Holding the suitcases high enough to clear, he gave a mighty leap; cleared the turnstiles; landed still running; and flung himself into the train just as the doors were closing.


Justin was about fourteen. We were leaving for school, running late. This wasn't unusual. He hopped down the stairs, one shoe on his foot, the other in his hand. This, with variations, wasn't unheard-of either. It was sort of raining -- misting and dripping, and the front walk was damp. Not wanting to get his sock wet, Justin hopped down the walk to the gate.

The chain-link fence was about three feet high; the gate closed with a horseshoe-shaped latch that hinged down to embrace the fencepost. Justin usually, in one smooth, graceful, and noisy motion, kicked the latch up and the gate open. My position was, "Justin, do you have to do that?" Apparently, he did.

On that soggy morning, Justin hopped up to the fence and considered the available ways of opening the gate. He denies adapting the Crane Kick from one of the Karate Kid movies, much as it looked like it; he also says that he tried his method again a day or two later to establish that he really could do this, that it hadn't been a fluke. He jumped up and, in one smooth, graceful, and noisy motion, with the foot he had been standing on, kicked the gate open and came down on the same foot, crouching low, but without dropping the shoe, putting his foot down, or losing his balance. "I don't lose my balance," he commented.


And then there was a former associate of a friend of my first husband. Six feet eight inches tall, I think Ray said he was -- think of Michael Clarke Duncan as John Coffey in The Green Mile. The local junkyard stacked car engines against the back wall of the lot; Ray's friend would reach over the wall and literally and figuratively lift engines.


The consensus on the subway platform (I wasn't there but was told about it by someone who was) was that the traveler with the suitcases must have been a trained athlete -- track, presumably, a broad-jumper or hurdler, or possibly a pole vaulter. He must have been sure that he could clear the turnstiles, suitcases and all; he could have been badly hurt if he'd miscalculated. It's safe to conjecture that he really needed to catch that train.

Justin had had some martial arts training and watched Bruce Lee movies intently and analytically. He'd done a lot of kicking and punching at imaginary enemies, to the detriment of anything in his room that wasn't mounted on the ceiling.

Both Justin and the track star were applying skills from another context to a real-world problem. I know nothing about the engine thief's background. He could have been a weight-lifter. My guess, based on what I knew of Ray, was that his friend was just a big, strong guy testing himself against the world.

Could anyone really lift an engine over a fence? (Clearly, the possibility didn't occur to the junkyard.) According to Wikipedia, the Olympic weightlifting record is 436 kilograms, or nearly 1,000 pounds. My mechanic estimates the weight of an engine at 400 or 500 pounds. Of course, there is a great difference between an athlete doing, under controlled conditions, something he's trained to do, and a guy swiping engines in the dead of night under conditions with a lot of variables.

Ray recounted his friend's activities as something he definitely knew about and, I think, had witnessed. But maybe he'd just been told about it; maybe the guy was lying, or contemplating engine-snatching as a nifty idea that he meant to try someday. Maybe he did it once when the engines were piled particularly high, and out of respect for his back didn't try it again. Anyway, like so many good stories, if it isn't true it deserves to be.

Friday, January 7, 2011


Who among us hasn't succumbed to the temptation to see if there's a better way from A to B than the obvious; or been sucked up by a malevolent on- or off-ramp; or simply taken a wrong turn, and wound up somewhere between east of Eden and the dark side of the moon, desperate to get back to civilization?

Should you find yourself leaving the Twin City Mall on the Leominster/ Fitchburg line in search of Route 2 East, you will come immediately upon a sign offering you Route 2 West - Athol - Greenfield, and nary an indication of where Route 2 East might be. Directly to your right you will see an apparently well-traveled piece of asphalt that looks to be a frontage road for Route 2. It isn't. If you follow it you will drive past untold suburban bungalows and then into open country -- woods and fields, stone walls and narrowing pavement. It can easily be an hour before, in accordance with directions from whatever persons you come upon, you find yourself backtracking on that same road, muttering an impolite opinion of the futility of human affairs when you pass the Mall on the left. A few hundred yards past the sign for Athol and Greenfield is another sign, directing you to Route 2 East - Boston. Make a large mental note not ever again to turn right at the exit from that mall.

Similarly, when you come out of the Leominster train station and turn right, you soon fetch up against the light just below the railroad bridge. It must have happened that that light was green when I approached it; as with the light at Route 60 coming off Route 2 East in Arlington, that's a rare event. Usually, you have abundant leisure to look down the hill to your left and contemplate a traffic snarl of the kind to be found in small cities that haven't quite adjusted to the automobile. The road straight ahead leads approximately west, the direction in which you want to go. If you yield to the urge to see if that road could provide an alternative to the snail's pace visible on the left, you will wind through what seems to be a huge suburban cul-de-sac: plenty of roads, but none that go anywhere. In the end, you creep ignominiously back on the same road and come to the same light, where there's nothing for it but a right turn onto the overburdened bridge you were trying to avoid.

Another what-if-we-go-straight-at-the-light occurs on Route 2A coming out of Fitchburg (or trying to -- nobody should ever go to Fitchburg if there's any decent alternative). I investigated that road once, about twenty years ago. Like the non-frontage road from the Mall, but longer, it winds through the countryside and eventually leads to some part of north central Worcester County that I had never heard of and didn't want to visit. I had warned my husband and son that this might happen when I asked their permission to undertake a potential wild-goose event. That didn't stop them from ragging me about my choice of routes at every turn unproductive of anything but more countryside.

Then there's that chain of what I think Boston calls "parkways" -- Fenway, Riverway, Jamaicaway, Arborway. Attractively designed and landscaped, these roads curve gracefully around and about from Back Bay to the Arnold Arboretum or thereabouts. Side streets are few, signs and markings all but nonexistent. There's no place to pull over and squint at a map, and even if there was it wouldn't help because you can't figure out where you are. On one attempt to get to Jamaica Plain I wound up at a pay phone in Dorchester explaining to my friend that we weren't going to get to the event we were aiming for because I would be lucky if I was ever seen again. Do not ever set wheel on that necklace of parkways without a GPS or a native guide, or both.

Possibly the worst road to get kidnapped onto is the ramp that separates itself from the Central Artery just north of what I think of as the Wishbone Bridge, with its blue lights and many cables. If you don't resist the magnetic pull of that left-hand exit, you find yourself on a bold sweep of elevated highway that swings around 360o to see you under the bridge and on your way to the airport. The word airport sends me into fight-or-flight mode. When I found myself, about midnight, in the clutches of the airport ramp, I bailed out at the first exit I came to.

Bad mistake. Precipitated into what I think was Chelsea, I crawled along streets of multi-family houses, many boarded up, all dark and silent, punctuated by commercial buildings that might have been warehouses. Occasionally a corner would be faintly illuminated by a dismal-looking bar with an Irish name; then back to the streets of bombed-out dwellings and warehouses. Seldom have I been as glad to see anything as I was to come upon a sign for Suffolk Downs, which I knew was in the same universe as Route 60. I got home to Medford very late and very tired and with a wholesome and enduring horror of that left exit to the airport.

Sometimes "lets see where this goes" reveals a superior route. West of the Meadow Glen Mall, I once went straight instead of keeping to the right on Route 16 in the Medford/Arlington direction. To my surprise, the road went straight as could be desired, at right angles to its cross streets (if you take that for granted you come from some place other than Boston), until it dropped me tidily into Powderhouse Square, Somerville. I haven't had occasion to go that way often, but once or twice it has saved me.

But mostly these explorations leave one lost in space, vowing by all one holds sacred never to go that way again.