Sunday, July 31, 2005


The author at age 23
Photo credit: Dot Marder Posted by Picasa

Flashback: 1981-1982

I have a masters thesis to write. My classwork is finished; I must find another way to get out of the apartment....

I become an assistant to the administrator at Women Strike for Peace (WSP), in lower Manhattan. Each morning I walk down the hill, catch the bus to the ferry, the ferry to the subway, and the subway to Broadway, then walk past old majestic buildings of stone and brick.

WSP began in the early 1960s, when women across the country left their housework and marched in the streets to protest nuclear testing. The volunteers I supervise are old enough to be my grandmother; they have been protesting for a long time.

Away from the office I write my thesis on Evaluation of a Computer Based Human Factors Laboratory Course for Undergraduates, while at WSP I coordinate with groups like Physicians for Social Responsibility to get information on the effects of a nuclear bomb blast. I read publications from the American Friends Service Committee detailing how members of Congress voted on nuclear issues. I call the local police to secure a permit for our vigils by Rockefeller Center, across the street from St. Patrick's Cathedral.

There we set out tables with pamphlets, buttons. I hold up a sign illustrating the consequences of a one-megaton nuclear detonation in Manhattan: what it means at Ground Zero, in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Westchester. Where I am living is just off the map, where another, less obvious, domestic war is staged.

During one of our vigils, a priest, dressed in a black suit and clerical collar, is yelling at me. I don't remember what he says, only that his words are angry ones, delivered in high decibels.

When he is finished I say, calmly, "That sounds strange, coming from a man of the cloth."

He whirls around, stalks off.

Shortly he is back, apologizing to me. I nod, grateful that he has followed his conscience, wherever it is taking him, at least enough to realize that he has behaved badly.

I have learned to be calm in the face of anger. To channel it past me, save my energy for the battles at home.

Mural seen in the Bowery Posted by Picasa

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Friday, July 29, 2005

Word of Mouth

I'm in the middle of transcribing a roundtable discussion for an architectural client. Over the years I've been a "fly on the wall" -- listening in on tapes of conferences, focus groups, interviews, lectures, and radio programs. In addition to writing and editing, transcribing forms a large part of my business.

It's better than a free education. It's being paid to get an education -- in areas that have included architecture, education, environment, gardening, medicine, religion, and others. It's inspired some of my creative writing as well. People can tell wonderful stories on tape.

Before I got into the business I transcribed stories -- mine and others -- by hand, into my journal. I still do. The excerpt below is a non-taped architectural tale told around dinner at a convocation....

February 22, 1987

Steve lectures on occasion at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, trying to draw the students there away from theory and into practice. His child's school had once had a series of lectures given by fathers (Steve didn't mention mothers) on what they did.

He'd asked his son's teacher, "What amount of time do I have?"

"As much as you want," she told him. "The surgeon took 20 minutes."

"I'd like all day," he said.

First he'd gone out and gotten housepaint brushes. He attached those to long sticks and put up large pieces of paper in the classroom. "I wanted to get them away from the smallness of holding a pen and peering down into a book. I wanted them to work with something where they could stand back and see what they were doing. Where they had to hold the stick with both hands."

The children loved it, and spent all day designing their dream houses -- and, Steve said, teaching him. "One kid was there -- I swear, he could be a great architect some day. His house went straight up -- like one large chimney. He had a fireplace, and through the living room he had a river running. And I said, 'You know, that's great. Because see here -- you have this river gurgling away in the living room. And you can look beyond that to fire burning in the fireplace. And then, in the winter time, you can look through the fire in the fireplace and watch the snow falling.'"

Later on, Steve had actually found a fireplace with a window, which fueled itself on the cold air from outdoors rather than using the heated air in the house.

We talked around the dinner table about Christmas. Steve had grown up where there was a ritual: you could not open your presents until everyone in the house was up.

"That left Grandma," Steve said. "We'd all start pounding on the door -- us kids -- saying, "Wake up, Grandma, wake up!" Then we'd all line up on the stairs beside the living room, facing in, the youngest being the first in line which we all grumbled about." His sister, six years younger than he, stood in front.

"I must have been 9 or 10," he continued, "just getting to the point where I no longer believed in Santa Claus. In a very special way my father believed in Santa Claus, so we all did. But that year, all of us older kids were losing it."

His father had been working outside that Christmas morning, and no one really missed his absence. "My mother would raise her arm by the window, and that would be our cue to go into the living room. On this particular morning she raised her arm and we all trotted in -- but we saw a pair of black boots -- just a flash of them -- whooshing back up the chimney. And all the soot started coming down and forming black clouds in the living room: on the tree, soot on the presents, and the rug and the couch. We didn't realize until years later that my father had stood on the roof and lowered the boots on a rope, then got down outside and stood by the window. And when my mother raised her arm that was his signal to pull on the rope. I believed in Santa Claus until I was nineteen."

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Thursday, July 28, 2005

Before Babel

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The sky is a stimulus for creative thought and inquiry. It is a natural laboratory open to every student and teacher, regardless of age, location, or economic status. All of us are bottom dwellers in this laboratory- benthic creatures in this sea of air. The atmosphere begins at our feet, and engulfs us. It yields a legacy of history, religious [sic], literature, art, music, mystery, romance, feats of daring, political strife. It also yields a rich legacy for unified science, mathematics and technology education from the elementary level to the post graduate level. It is ageless. A child may use it. A professor of meteorology may use it. It is endlessly durable and in constant refurbishment. It will be there for next year’s children. In making the sky a window for education, we call into play for each student the first act of disciplined scientific inquiry: observation.
Adds fourth-grade teacher Laura Eliason:
The sky is like an orchestra. The orchestra just fills up the whole space. And to me, that's what watching the sky is. You appreciate the sights and the smells, and it fills up inside of you.
I needed no convincing; I usually walk around with my face tilted up. Up north I got my Big Sky fix in the open areas near the Alewife T-stop in Cambridge. Stand in Russell Field, look out across the baseball diamond toward a hulking subway station that marked the northwest end of the Red Line. Above that expanse I'd sometimes watch stupendous cloud banks uninterrupted by brick and steel.

I took a camera there once and shot picture after picture, then built my own cloud towers. I lived in Dorchester by then. Low tide at the bay had yielded up smooth, sea-worn glass, bottle-thick. A scavenging stroll the night before trash day gave me two pieces of beautiful, beveled plate glass that had once belonged to an entertainment center and now belonged to the curb.

I had one of the cloud photos enlarged and sandwiched it between the plate glass pieces. Then I used an X-Acto knife to cut my other photos to match the shapes of the glass found at Dorchester Bay. Gloss gel held everything together and dried transparent to let all the pictures show through.

Gloss gel is strong stuff; that thing was heavy. I had no idea what I was doing, just knew I was having fun, which by and large defines my whole foray into mixed-media art.

"Before Babel" was part of an exhibit at A Strong Cup of Coffee, for several years the social hub of my neighborhood. Strong Cup hosted art shows, poetry readings, concerts, and numerous community organization meetings; and sponsored civic events. The small, modest cafe came under new management right around the time of our move. For me it was an institution that its original owners, Daniel and Vince, nurtured into a paradise.

Thanks, guys.

"Before Babel" on display above the unoccupied lamplit table, along with other pieces of mine.
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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Fisherman in the Hospital Bed

I knew Helen for 14 years. She died in 1998 at age 50, beneath the double whammy of colon cancer and bipolar disorder. She was one of my best teachers.

She had about her an extraordinary simplicity. A staggering generosity. When the relative of a friend of a coworker fell ill, Helen spent her lunch money on a get well card. She dreamed of going to Paris but instead bought gifts for others at yard sales. No sooner had she thrown a July Fourth cookout than she fretted over whether enough people would come to her Halloween party, after which it was time to plan Christmas.

Once, when we met at an outdoor cafe, we found we'd each bought each other an iced coffee, and laughed at four tall cups dripping condensate on a hot summer's day.

One early December Helen taught me about Advent candles and I taught her about my menorah, but somehow the explanations became secondary to the magic. Weeks before either holiday we almost set her apartment ablaze, thrilling to the simple joys of candles and light -- enough for a dozen Christmases and Chanukas combined.

It wasn't a manic episode -- just Helen's bubbly way-of-being between them.

Her vocabulary seemed to quadruple during her manic episodes (I had never seen her depressed), but what appeared a sudden boost in intelligence came at a terrible price. Helen had fought an ongoing war with her medications. Given their side effects, I could understand why. She had fainted once, in the middle of an event given at her assisted living complex, from the buildup to toxic levels of the chemicals in her system. Her boundless optimism and stubborn will chafed against a life of pharmacological trial and error. Friends and family formed a valiant support system that at times struggled to survive its own tensions.

One bout with mania in 1995 landed Helen at McLean Hospital -- whose patients had included Sylvia Plath -- for 6-1/2 weeks. During that time she suffered a "flu" that raised her temperature to 102. Her fever broke, then climbed to 104 degrees: the first outward sign of cancer. When it ticked up to 105 the nurses drenched Helen in ice water to bring her fever down.

Once, when interviewed at Cambridge Hospital, Helen was asked if she was ever suicidal. Never, she said. To her, suicide meant people slashing their wrists -- so whenever the thought came to her she dabbed perfume on her wrists instead.

This time cancer, not bipolar disorder, landed her there. She had gone from eating well to being unable to keep any food down.

My friend Michael had given me a copy of Christina Feldman and Jack Kornfield's Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart. One of the shorter, simpler tales (attributed in some places to Anthony deMello, in others to Leo Tolstoy) describes a bishop's visit to a remote island, centuries after missionaries have stopped by. The bishop comes upon three fishermen who proudly proclaim, "We are Christians!"

But they don't know the Lord's Prayer, have never heard of it. When they pray, they say, "We are three, you are three, have mercy on us."

The bishop is appalled at what he sees as both ignorance and heresy. He spends a day teaching the fishermen the Lord's Prayer, which -- after much drilling -- they can finally recite back to him before he departs.

Months later the bishop's ship returns to the island. As he recites his evening prayers on deck, he happens to notice a spot of light in the east.

The light kept approaching the ship and, as the bishop gazed in wonder, he saw three figures walking on the water. The captain stopped the boat and everyone leaned over the rails to see this sight.

When they were within speaking distance, the bishop recognized his three friends, the fishermen. "Bishop!" they exclaimed. "We hear your boat go past island and come hurry hurry meet you."

"What is it you want?" asked the awe-stricken bishop.

"Bishop," they said, "we so, so sorry. We forget lovely prayer. We say, 'Our Father in heaven, holy be your name, your kingdom come...' then we forget. Please tell us prayer again."

The bishop felt humbled. "Go back to your homes, my friends," he said, "and each time you pray, say, 'We are three, you are three, have mercy on us!'"
I thought of Helen's Advent candles and my menorah burning willy-nilly that December day and thought she might like the story. I brought the book to the hospital and read it to her.

She loved the story. To her it was about fishermen praying. Her face beamed. "That's wonderful!" she effused, as much as she could, gladdened in her physically weakened state.

The gentle irony, the walking on water, seemed to have bypassed her completely. But that, I realized, was perfect. Helen didn't have to know about the simple, "miraculous" abilities of the fishermen because she was one of them, herself.

For Helen
(written March 1, 1998)

In the heaven of my dreams
you sit with your cat
outside a Paris cafe.
Tinker Bell dines on chicken livers
culled from French hens.
Rich pastry melts in your mouth.
And you flirt with all the well-toned waiters,
your infectious laugh piercing gray Parisian clouds.

You could not leave Tinkie and left,
could not leave and left again.
Not to pursue the City of Light
but to be medicated, radiated,
hooked to an IV, rushed to the ICU.
Before, you'd save,
then sabotage your savings.
I watched you panic
if Tinkie so much as sneezed,
and understood
why Paris remained a dream.
Old dowager Persian
who followed you from house to studio,
apartment to apartment.
Unable to wait for you
during your third-to-last hospitalization.
And so, finally,
you followed her.

For thirty years
you fought the demons
that landed you in locked wards,
emerging back into the world triumphant.
Then the demons changed form.
Invaded your cells. Metastasized.
The time and strength others used
to climb the Eiffel Tower,
you used to open your Christmas presents --
waving away our offers of help.
Ten days before you died
you met us in a brown velvet dress,
tinted hair framing your heart-shaped face.
You thanked us for cooking dinner,
insisted on doing the dishes
attended by a frisky angora kitten
who, this time, took care of you.

In the hospice they said you were unresponsive.
But your blurts diminished
with a hand on your shoulder, or stroking your arm.
Your eyes unfocused and motionless, your breathing erratic,
your body still,
your one communication was sound pushed
from parted lips.
We watched, as the priest dropped enough wafer on your tongue
to guarantee salvation
to a soul that was giving always.

Transfigured by mortician's skill
you lay sleeping
but with a chest that never rose.
I looked upon you with a child's confusion: How
could you be so beautiful and never breathe?
After the funeral
your brother's lover handed a friend
the bag of clothes you had gathered
at yard sales for her daughter.
Those of us among the living
sobbed in each other's arms,
now that you were out of pain
that it was our turn to feel.

When the doctor could guarantee only
that more of you would be cut out,
you had him put his scalpel away.
Quality of life, you said,
not quantity.
Quality that came
at a cafe that tried to be Parisian
during the lunch hours when you were able to work.
Quality of joy,
singing when you could sing.
Your former choir director
singing back to you
on the last day of your life.

In the heaven of my dreams
the voices of angels rise
from a celestial Notre Dame.
They mingle with your laughter
that sparkles like the finest champagne,
like the Seine in summer sun.
And the body under your pretty dress is whole.
And the lover of your dreams buys you dinner
amidst Tinkie's inquiring mews.

And I receive your postcards
as they flutter to my heart.

Only now, they are postcards from home.
And I miss you.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Mysterious Beauties

"Dark-form females fly in steady streams along the Florida Coast and Keys, then venture out over open water, where they have little chance of reaching land."
-- description of the Great Southern White butterfly (Ascia monuste), from The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders
Suddenly I was looking at a massive flutter, the beating of so many tiny wings they made the wind pulse. A gauzy, undulating curtain weaving down the coastline, gray ribbons above white sands. Muting the sun's gold into pale yellow. Empty of so many eggs; gossamer-light.

Then, answering an instinctual whisper, they turn a perfectly-choreographed arc, ninety degrees, toward the waves. The ribbons widen, a shimmering blanket drawn out over rising tide. Virginia Woolf wades into the water, her pockets full of rocks. The butterflies exhaust themselves above a purpling sea, rain like bits of cloud from the air.

Audubon gives no hint as to why the dark-form females, those whose wings are brownish-gray, behave as they do -- especially since the white females (who look more like the males) "show no readiness to travel far." I honestly don't know if the dark-form females have laid eggs or not. Perhaps they are more like Amelia Earhart than Virginia Woolf, flying in a burst of confidence, straight on till morning only to vanish into legend. Maybe the tiny fraction that reaches land will in time breed a new robustness, an Ascia nautica that swoops beside flying fish, sucking nectar from floating flats of algae.

I haven't the foggiest idea.

I'd been looking in the book (and in the Audubon Field Guide to Florida, and on the Web) for a butterfly I'd seen in the yard -- a pair of them -- that kept seeking purchase on the tall weeds I was whacking. White-winged with round, dark orange spots, perhaps two spots to a wing. I haven't found anything that matched -- the Florida White (Appias drusilla) comes closest but doesn't really fit.

To my relief the butterflies finally abandoned the weeds I was after and settled on those flanking our volunteer saltbushes. Then it was just a question of waiting for the grasshopper to get out of the way, watching as it lumbered over tall blades that matched its neon green.

I like the weeds; they hold our soil in place in a yard of steep inclines and a gully that slowly fills with vegetation and no longer carves a hole beneath the driveway. We had first arrived here to broad wounds of sand that blasted us in the wind. Since then we've planted trees and shrubs; welcomed the non-invasive volunteers who've dropped by to stay; and learned that our new, beautiful ground cover is actually skunkvine, which will smother everything if not kept in check. We spent Saturday morning pulling up carpets of it.

Better that we nurture our carpets of pusley, which according to our Oxford English Dictionary is related to spinach and was hailed for its nutritional value before some killjoys decided it was an undesirable weed instead. It has pretty white flowers, the bees love it, and it doesn't taste half bad. Better, I think, than purslaine, another "edible weed" and spinach cousin. The pusley gets to stay.

But we've got to keep the tall weeds in check. Usually -- like today -- I whack them before our civic association sends me a courteous reminder that I am in violation of the rules. I waited until the day cooled to 91 degrees (heat index of 96, much nicer than Sunday's 111) and actually enjoyed a slight breeze as I became increasingly dusted with plant parts. Sometimes I'm showered with insect parts, which is why I encouraged the lovely pair of butterflies to seek sustenance elsewhere. I apologized for ruining their browsing grounds, which in this tropical clime will be right back where they were in a few days anyway.

Then I will again be out with the weed-whacker, racing against the civic association's clock. A mower would be faster, but it would be less kind to what fragile soil we have. And, likely, to its denizens.

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Sunday, July 24, 2005

Why I Don't (Yet) Mind the Heat

February 2003: In front of our old Dorchester apartment (third floor of a Victorian off the right-hand side of the picture; our former landfolks' station wagon is in the foreground). Posted by Picasa

A week's journey from snowdrifts to cacti, shucking winter coats for T-shirts, eating way too much Taco Bell, and driving through the night in a rolling rental van with two elderly cats fascinated by all the "bright-eyed whales"....

2003: The Move

March 4. T Minus One Day. Rain is forecast for tomorrow. I have made a last PO Box check; gotten rope and locks at Dickson (which also sold me more paper bags for recycle papers); stopped at the ATM for travel cash; and now pay what is likely my last visit to Starbucks before heading South.

A screw embedded in the rear passenger wheel of Mary's Ranger was giving us the beginnings of a flat. Mary wondered if the screw had been placed there deliberately. She’d cleared glass earlier from beneath someone else's car, said it looked like it had been placed there to inflict maximum damage when that car pulled out.

Vandalism was not foreign to our old neighborhood, and the Ranger's window and others (including that of the station wagon, above) had already been smashed. Neither was it the first incidence of damage visited on Mary's parked truck in our 4-1/2 years on that block.

Her tire seemed fine with new air, enough to let us visit friends on Sunday. It was worse when we left to return home. We called AAA, whose mechanic was over in a minute - he couldn’t get the spare off due to rust under the carriage and directed us to the Mobil station,
picking a “shortcut” filled with bad potholes.

Yesterday Mary drove toward DirectTire in Watertown - a long drive but a reputable place - and flatted decisively on the way there. Another call to AAA - and, this time, a tow, after hours of waiting because the bitter cold and wind had prompted a flurry of service calls. I continued to pack up the apartment.

By the time we picked up our Penske rental van on March 5, we figured we had approximately one brain cell left between the two of us. Fortunately, we had the opportunity to meet with good friends over coffee, tea, takeout, and conversation before we left town.

I took packing/unpacking and loading/unloading detail; Mary would handle the driving. I'd grown up on the subway, owned no motor vehicle until I was 44, and rented a car once or twice a year after finally getting my driver's license at age 31. Mary, who grew up in southern California, built her first car from scratch, completing it at age 16.

To fill the van took hauling boxes and furniture down two flights of stairs, out the back door, and down several more stairs before traversing a 50-foot alleyway, continuing down several more feet of sidewalk, and finally bringing everything up the loading ramp.

Our van featured a sliding door between cab and cargo area. I made a cat cave by putting a desk directly behind the door, surrounding the desk with furniture, and placing a blanket on the floor of the knee hole. Daisy and Red, our 11-year-old cats, had access to the litter box placed between our seats in front and could move freely between their cave and the window seat.

March 5 featured rain through most of the day, which was just as well. Had we left when we intended to on March 6, we would likely have been part of a 100+ vehicle pile-up on I-95 in Attleboro, Mass. A blizzard that day forced me to stop loading early. A brisk west wind blew snow constantly into the van parked on our one-way street. The ramp iced up repeatedly and the cargo door became increasingly harder to close.

I had tried chipping the ice and snow from our four-wheelie only to have it freeze up again, before I discovered that its petrified wheels made it into an excellent sledge. From then on I pulled our belongings through deepening snow.
March 7, 11:36 PM. We are still in Boston. I loaded the van for almost 12 hrs, and at 10:45 suffered a sprained ankle, which is still swollen. On Wednesday I worked through the rain. Yesterday I worked through the blizzard, shoveling snow out of the van and off boxes and shoveling pathways. I took out garbage cans and returned them to the side of the house. I shoveled the porch and entrance to the house. It is too late for me to continue loading or I would, just to get something done. As it is, I am lying on the south room rug, now that there is floor space.

March 9, approx 7:30 AM. On the road at last, though only a mile or so from home, at the Ramada of Dorchester. But this is a good practice run for the cats, who have taken confinement in a single carry case in good stride (now that they know it’s not a vet visit) and have adapted to our room after initial timidity. Very little has shifted in the cargo area, and Mary has gotten a taste of driving the filled van. If we’ve forgotten anything, it’s a short walk home to retrieve it. Most important, we are getting a decent sleep and have the psychological boost of finally getting out of the house.

We picked up extra batteries for walkie-talkies and flashlights, picked up extra cat food and litter, returned the “smart cart” we’re not using to Penske, parked Mary's Ranger back in the neighborhood for her to drive down later. We did a final check around the apartment and drove off. We seem to have forgotten the cheese and maybe the road map for New York State - though we do have a road atlas and the TripTiks.

9:39 AM, doing laundry. Bills are paid, the cats are fed, we are fed, and I’ve retrieved Mary’s toiletries from the cargo area. Among the more orgasmic experiences last night was that of taking a shower, which I hadn’t done since I started loading the van. The only thing lacking in the laundry room is a chair. Since time is of the essence, I’m here and not in the lobby, so that I can transfer our wash to the dryer. Mary will be plotting out our next city/pet-friendly motel to stay at.

The lobby, where I now sit at 9:55, having put the clothes in the dryer, has a real, working fireplace lined in green marble. Mary has gotten around 10 hours of sleep, thank goodness; we've both suffered sleepless nights. Our neighbor, who was just stepping out of the house as we drove off, laughed at the fact that we were staying at the Ramada just down the road.

March 11, 4:08 PM, Woodbridge, VA (south of Arlington). The cats have learned to make themselves at home, both in the van and in our hotel rooms. We get to a room, Mary makes up the “cat caves” (bed comforters, jackets with our smells, etc., draped over upturned furniture), and we have a short initial sleep, followed by phone calls, followed by a longer nap. Today we tuned into the Weather Channel to see what the weather’s supposed to be like along our route the rest of the week (wet on Thursday. This morning we had flurries, which have since melted).

After procuring a 10-pack of tacos and burritos from Taco Bell, we scouted around for air and found it at a not-too-distant service station. Mary had taken her car tire gauge,which goes up to 40 psi, and left her bike gauge (up to 120 psi) behind, not remembering that the truck tires require 65 psi. She bought a new gauge at the Mobil station and proceeded to measure the tires: 51-52 psi. She had to fill the reachable tires (2 front plus passenger-side rear pair including the inner tire), then carefully maneuver the van around and back it toward the pump to reach the two rear driver-side tires. I kept watch on the cats. By the time she was done, the bitter chill had her ready for high heat and another meal. Total rest stop time was 2.5 hours, but for a very good cause.

We have an identity crisis with our van: is it considered a truck or not? Mike at Penske assured us that since we are a household and not commercial, we do not have to use the weigh stations as the Penske book advises. I knew that no trucks were allowed on the Garden State Parkway, but did that include us? We decided to try our luck with the Palisades Parkway - and it had been enough decades since my last trip on that road that I had forgotten it, too, was for “passenger cars only.”

Our TripTik marked out the Garden State, but Mary had ordered it when we envisioned a trip in the Ranger, not a rental van with 10'6" clearance and a GVW of 10 tons. Finding the Palisades Parkway had us maneuvering along roads off the beaten path and missing the small brown sign with a big leaf logo and small print, which I thought indicated a museum and not the parkway. Once we were on it, we became intimidated enough to get off it - the lovely stone overpasses (with no marked clearances) were high enough now, but what about later? - and take the slower, signal light-dotted, parallel 9W, to the Jersey Pike.

We’d called and made reservations at the Conwell Inn, at Philly’s Temple U, and got one set of directions. Mary estimated arrival time at around 9 PM, which we revised to midnight, re-revised to around 3AM, and re-re-revised to “when we get there.” Our delays included checking the map near Exit 17 on the Jersey Pike to make sure we wouldn’t end up in the Lincoln Tunnel.

Following the second set of directions given to us by the folks at Conwell, we took exit 3 off the Pike to Camden and switched to Rt 168, then to 130, then to 30 over the Ben Franklin Bridge, then to 676. We were unaware that the sign for 168 had been turned, directing us onto Rt 155. Backtrack. Then we were uninformed that the sign to Broad Street in Philly really meant turning onto Vine Street, and ended up circling Penn Square at roughly 5:30 AM.

"On-site" parking proved nonexistent when we finally arrived at Conwell. Rather, it meant 2 spaces for an inn with significantly more units and whose other spaces now belong to surrounding businesses. The campus guard on duty told us to “park against the wall.”
In the predawn I didn't want to make noise opening the cargo doors to get the pet case; Mary and I each grabbed a traumatized cat before rushing through the cold night and up to our room.

minutes after we turned in we were roused from an exhausted sleep and told to move the van; parking against the wall is verboten. The officer, pissed at the guard who misinformed us, was very apologetic - said we could find a spot on the street now, but in a half hour the students would arrive and all bets would be off. At 6:30 AM we hustled as best we could under the effects of sleep deprivation, stress exhaustion, and half a brain cell.

Once back in our room, Mary smelled a faint whiff of mouse as we extricated Daisy, whose paw had become glued to a trap set out at the head of the bed. We didn't use the bathroom light, which was mated to a fan that sounded too much like a vacuum cleaner to give the cats much comfort. We got ourselves a second night to avoid having to check out at noon, and got a 10% discount for our parking troubles.

We were all much better after our second nap. Lisa, the manager, has 7 cats, and was impressed and grateful that we covered the upholstered chairs to protect them from stropping. She came up to visit the cats and graciously accepted Mary’s notes and my verbal suggestions about mice, the fan, driving directions, etc. By this time the cats had made themselves at home.

I’d gone in search of greenery and was directed to a Pathmark supermarket “4 blocks away,” which turned out to be 15 blocks away and reached through a depressed neighborhood filled with boarded up storefronts, check cashing outlets, and cars that doubled as boom boxes on wheels. I picked up much-needed vegetables, cheese, canned chicken, and tuna.

Denise, the receptionist on duty at Conwell, told me her story of driving cross-country with her son: wrong turns, weather and road conditions, sitting and sharing a good cry. “I know what you’re going through,” she said. Actually, we’ve held up quite well - snapping at each other occasionally but mostly getting punchy.

We left the Conwell Inn at 9 last night and arrived at the Potomac Mills Quality Inn in Woodbridge at 5 this morning. Mary wanted to drive the DC Beltway in the middle of the night - and we met with very little traffic, principally freight trucks that Mary flicked her high beams at, welcoming them to pass us. Most flashed their taillights back at us in thanks.

We stocked up on 3 Taco Bell 10-packs and waited in the parking lot after midnight, patiently and then with silent hilarity as Red attempted to dig a passage to China from the (cleaned) litterbox before he went potty. Daisy perched on the dashboard and did her impersonation of fuzzy dice, wide-eyed at the headlamped trucks - which Mary translated into Cat as “bright-eyed whales.”

This time our route was fairly straightforward. We’d initially set our sights on Richmond but took extra stops to get whole wheat bread and to give Daisy some water after she’d sampled some spicy taco beef.

We pulled off exit 166A and stopped in the Hunter Motel parking lot to get our bearings; Mary was ready to stop and sleep. The Hunter was not in the AAA book, so we checked around and found the Quality Inn off exit 161. We called around 4:30 AM; a room was available, and we could pay for only 1 night rather than 2 and sleep in. Soon we performed our ritual of unloading the cat carrier, litter box, food, overnight bags, jackets and blanket and other “cat cave” items, cat food and dishes, etc.

Mary procured a luggage cart, which she wheeled out to the van for the first of 2 trips. This time I put the cats into the carrier - they don’t like it, but it’s much better than the indignity of being hand-carried in, and the fact that this is not a vet visit adds to their sense of adventure.

During our overnight drive we speculated on the cause of a 3-trailer-truck accident in the opposite lanes - the first truck blocking all lanes and jacknifed; the second over the barrier; the third similarly askew, but not as severely, half-cab over the barrier.

March 13, 9:42 AM. Mary continues to sleep as rain pours outside in Turbeville, SC. A short drive last night; we checked in around 2 AM at the Knight’s Inn.Yesterday we arrived around 5 AM at the Super 8 Motel in Smithfield, NC, due east of Raleigh. Its sign proclaims that for 4 years in a row it’s been voted “the best place to stay in Johnston Co.”

In the room is a Focus on the Family publication whose cover story touts the end of Roe v Wade. I told Mary,“Welcome to the South.” The first, "nonsmoking" room smelled of smoke; Mary got us switched to a clean one while I waited in the hallway with cats, coats, and bags.

Mary had driven through pea soup fog in the Smoky Mountains, sometimes going 25 mph in a 70 mph speed zone. We weren’t the only ones going slow; some drivers tailed us for a while, our lights serving as a beacon, before they got bored and passed us. Usually we traveled around 40 mph.

At first Mary tried to follow the vehicles that passed us, speeding up to catch their light, but then decided it was too risky. They knew the roads; we didn’t, and it was the middle of the night. The fog cleared as we rose uphill into crests, then thickened again as we dipped down into the valleys.

I could still see the moon, which set during a rest stop. Jupiter was still up but descending as we checked in. Before we left the Super 8 I walked to Ruby Tuesdays and got us a sit-down dinner disguised as takeout: chicken Caesar salads and a full rack of barbecued ribs. A good departure from our steady diet of tacos and burritos. The ribs were splendid, though the chicken is peppered with a heavy hand.

Our room at the Knights Inn fortunately has a fridge. We are also getting a new rate, which comes in handy because we end up staying for 2 days. Check in during the predawn, check out the evening of the same day: a stay of less than 24 hours but straddling the typical checkout time. Were we to stay a third day here, our rate would more than double.

For the first time last night, we have not worn our coats during the overnight drive. For the first time we have passed flowering trees, and I heard spring peepers at a Burger King where we stopped for coffee after leaving the Super 8. Further on, at a McDonald’s closed for the night, Mary used the “people potty,” which we'd stashed in the back of the cargo area and wedged upright in an up-ended topless bar stool set atop a box. I held the cargo door down to hide anything above midcalf as she maneuvered herself among the hand truck, boxes, and bags surrounding what is, in effect, a plastic pail with a toilet seat and clumping kitty litter for its contents. She also changed into a T-shirt and dispensed with her thermals.

The cats both rode on my lap, sharing space with the Ruby Tuesday leftovers and either napping or checking out the view. I occasionally had to restrain them from climbing onto the dashboard.

March 14, Red Roof Inn, Jacksonville, FL, 5:55 PM. We left the Knights Inn at Turbeville at 5:40 PM yesterday, catching sight of some of the countryside before sundown. A large swamp and flowering trees gave way to palms and cacti. This time Mary drove in a T-shirt. We passed through Georgia, listening to a Savannah oldies station clear through to the border, and sent up a small cheer as we passed into Florida. We’d skirted the threatened severe thunderstorms, complete with tornado watch - had minimal fog and never lost sight of the moon or Jupiter.

We had a bit of confusion finding the Red Roof Inn, given that the AAA Florida tour book lists the exits off 295 with new numbers while the TripTik retains the old. It took several calls to the motel to figure out where we were going - and the need to switch rooms due to a broken A/C filter meant that we finally got to bed around 5AM.

For lunch, I picked up takeout from the Buffalo Cafe, which is heavy on Harley Davidson memorabilia and has an appalling game: instead of trying to capture a stuffed toy in metal claws that you operate from outside the box, you try to capture a live lobster whose claws have been taped shut. For $50 you can have your motorcycle immortalized in a poster.

This past week has been a vacation of sorts for me, a way cool road trip with the cats as co-conspirators. There is still the unloading, the unpacking, the bills, the home maintenance issues to address. Then it will become a question of community involvement and re-establishing work contacts. Part of me still does not believe we are actually doing this, while another part remembers life up north as a distant memory.

March 18, 5:10 PM. We arrived at the house at 5AM on Saturday 3/15. During that day I unloaded about 3/4 of the van, which we were able to park on our steeply-inclined driveway with chocks in place. On Sunday I unloaded the rest. On Monday we drove to the post office, whose staff was very happy to get 84 Media Mail boxes (mostly books) off their hands. (Postal worker: "You must have a ton of stuff here!" Me: "Actually, it's more like a ton and a quarter.")

At our new home I brought everything down the van ramp, into the garage, and then into the house in sunny, 70-degree weather, feeling blissfully "spoiled".

We’d left Jacksonville late. Our attempts to get a room proved futile; a national drag racing event had hotels and motels booked and no longer answering phones, particularly at 2AM. To keep sharp we sang camping songs, and songs from Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. We told elephant jokes. When we pulled into our driveway around 5 I directed Mary, as quietly as I could, up the incline, then placed the chocks under our wheels.

The cats were timid at first, more so than when we’d checked into motel rooms. They didn’t take long to adjust, and Red had a walk outside by the front hedge and its fragrant, dark pink azaleas.

Penske charged us only $50 for each extra day, rather than the $100/day we were expecting. Given our delay from the Boston blizzard, we'd called as soon as we knew we were running late.

Mary returned to Boston a month later, having loose ends to tie up and personal effects she hadn't wanted me to pack. She still had to pilot her Ranger to Florida. She set out for her second drive down at the end of May.

June 2, 9:19 AM. Mary now in Georgia, near Savannah - expects to arrive here midmorning tomorrow. Around 3 AM her Ranger was rear-ended by a tractor trailer that had jacknifed going downhill and hit her going uphill. No warning honk. When she looked in her rearview mirror she saw headlights and taillights closing in.
When she tested her accelerator she found that even had she more warning, she would not have been able to outrun them.

The cops faulted the trucker. Mary had been driving slowly but above minimum speed.

She, thank heavens, is okay, and the trucker is also uninjured. The Ranger needs its right rear light assembly replaced and needs bodywork on the tailgate and passenger side - but barring further mishaps, she can get it here.

1400 Miles
(a Sonnetella, published in Poets' Forum Magazine)

Two cats, two women drive the long road home,
Though home is anywhere, and any time.
The 18-wheelers slash the darkness, climb
Ahead, while we go tortoise-slow. No need
To jostle aged cats. They like this roam,
This week-long jungle trek at cheetah speed
(Though cheetahs run much faster). Where we live,
Though home is anywhere, and any time,
Is in a rolling rental van. We give
Some space, some time, much sensibility
To feline needs: soft blankets, momma smells.
We travel as a pride with cargo, free
Of ancient haunts, but caught up in the spells
Of keepsakes that enthrall our memory,
Our past our roots: the future's fertile loam.
Two cats, two women drive the long road home.

March 2003: Daisy (left) and Red settle in. Posted by Picasa

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Friday, July 22, 2005

Weaving Without A Loom

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On the magic of spiders and the wonders of obsession....

Mary called me out to the hedge a few days ago, where she discovered a black-and-yellow argiope. A big one. Simply gorgeous. Body resplendent in geometric black, white, and yellow markings, a Faberge egg in vivo. There's a good description of one here, with more photographic detail than what I was able to shoot.

As a child I was afraid of spiders; as an adult I grew to love them, and more. We haven't yet come across a brown recluse but a black widow lives in the laundry room. Both types are dangerous but they're also shy, so we leave each other alone. Spiders make great natural insecticides -- and, among the widows, only the adult females are poisonous.

The first spider creation myth I read was that of Arachne, thanks to The Greek Gods by Bernard Evslin, Dorothy Evslin, and Ned Hoopes (Scholastic Inc., 1966). Long before I heard of Bulfinch's Mythology, the books by Evslin, Evslin, & Hoopes had fired up my young brain with all sorts of fabulous supernatural fodder. As much as the text, William Hunter's illustrations lent an unforgettable psychedelic grandeur to the deities.

Arachne, young and talented, boasts that she is a better weaver than the goddess Athene (aka Minerva). Athene puts Arachne to the test in a contest. Arachne's work is judged flawless, but she has woven scenes of the gods' follies, which does not help her popularity among the powers that be. By the end of the tale Arachne hangs herself. Seeing the mortal woman dangling from a noose, the goddess Athene transforms Arachne into a spider dangling from its web.

Much as I liked Athene (who along with Artemis gave me strong female role models), I was convinced Arachne had gotten a raw deal. Here was a girl of low birth, who had raised her status through her natural talents and who dared to be impious, a free-thinker. Because of that, and despite the perfection of her craft, she dies. As an eight-year-old girl reading the tale I thought: Not fair!

Dr. Bruce R. Magee summarizes the injustice quite well in his essay, "Minerva's Arachnophobia in Ovid's Metamorphoses":

Arachne commits the unforgiveable sin of telling the truth. Rulers, be they gods or people, like to think that they rule for benevolent reasons and that they are doing the ruled a favor by bringing them civilization, pax, or, in this case, textiles. Confronted with dissidence, they can become quite dangerous. This danger is evident in Minerva's response to Arachne; Minerva is outraged at the success of Arachne, whose tapestry has come out flawless. Minerva lives down to Arachne's portrayal rather than up to her own self-portrayal, proving the truth of Arachne's accusations. She asserts her power at the price of her legitimacy. The reader comes away feeling sympathy for Arachne, not Minerva. Arachne becomes a spider, retaining her isotheistic weaving skills but losing her voice, her ability to narrate through her loom. However, while Minerva could silence the singer, she could not silence the song.

Twenty years after I first read the story of Arachne I got the chance to defend her, in the form of a sequel to the tale. Also titled "Arachne" (published in Aboriginal Science Fiction, December 1988), the story continues the rivalry between mortal and goddess. Pallas Athene brings Arachne -- an argiope in my story, an orb-weaver -- back into human existence but with a spider's sensibilities. This time Arachne must re-weave together an unraveling universe -- a task beyond the powers even of the gods themselves, yet ultimately within Arachne's hybrid grasp. I drafted the story in two days, after some rather unusual "preparation".

In a beautiful instance of serendipity, two articles, both published in November 1986, gave me my inspirational spark. The first was "Spider Madness," by Dava Sobel, in Omni. The second was “Everything’s Now Tied to Strings,” by Gary Taubes, in Discover.

Sometimes writing engages me in my own version of "spider madness." Synchronicities abound when I am obsessed with the work at hand. The universe weaves itself into place. Case in point: the Omni article profiles Peter N. Witt, who at that time had been studying spiders for almost 40 years. The researcher in the Discovery article, who postulated that the universe is made up of infinitesimal strings, is named Edward Witten. The coincidence in their names plastered a big grin on my face.

In addition, a New York Times article had just been published on the theory that the universe is made up of bubbles on a grand scale -- or, as some astronomers alternately put it, knots. I started relating the glue in spider silk to gluons.

As Mary Daly explains in her book Websters' First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language (with Jane Caputi, Harper San Francisco, 1987):

The word webster, according to Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, is derived from the Old English webbestre, meaning female weaver. The Oxford English Dictionary defines webster as "a weaver, as the designation of a woman." According to the Wickedary, Webster means "a woman whose occupation is to Weave, esp. a Weaver of Words and Word-Webs."

(Daly also weighs in on both Arachne and Athene (Athena). In Gyn/Ecology (Beacon Press, 1978), she points to the creative/aggressive component in spiders as beneficial to Spinsters (i.e., those who weave, create). Conversely, Athena is co-opted, swallowed by and then "born" from the head of Zeus, her own true mother forgotten. I was fascinated to read Daly's writings when I finally sat down with her books several years ago.)

Spiders have become totemic for me, and nowhere was that more apparent than during my writing of "Arachne". As a writer I weave stories, finding and working with different patterns. "Arachne" took that obsession to a joyous, quirky, exploratory extreme.

From my notes in 1986:

From Omni: a spider weaves daily,beginning at dawn. The weaving is an obsession; spiders fed will weave daily anyway, ignoring the vibrations of trapped insects in their nets.Vibration in a weave: I thought of the pictorial representation of gravity: a well of cross-strands (space) displaced by weight: stars and planets snared.

An orb-weaver knows beforehand how much silk to use, building her web from the outside-in. Predestination: one "knows" what the finished product will be before one begins. Each web is unique, each spider's pattern similar to and genetically tied to its parents, even though spiderlings have no chance to "learn" their parents' web structures. The knowing is instinctual.

A spider is self-sufficient. She builds her webs alone, living in solitude. If her silk glands are emptied (liquid silk becomes solid through a process yet unknown, before it emerges from spinnerets) while she is young, she will soon build adult-sized webs. Emptying of the glands stimulates them, facilitating web production.

I progressed to Discovery and the Theory of Everything. The researchers postulate that infinitesimal strings take up 9 dimensions of space and one of time. The theory is a marriage between theoretical physics and mainline mathematics, and utilizes the Planck scale (10 trillion times smaller than the atomic scale.) The 6 "unknown" dimensions "remained 10(-33) cm. across" when the universe expanded after the Big Bang, so say the theorists.

Here I have a problem. Theorists are looking at 4 dimensions and wish to reduce the 9 to 4. They cut off their perceptions. What they see as a compressed space may in fact be doorways rather than points. Changing modes of string vibration determine the particles (quarks, electrons, photons, etc.); those particles join or split apart to form the universe. One "nonsense particle," the tachyon, is massless and moves faster than light. Again: nonsense? Or in a different dimension, where the qualities of light/travel/speed are different as well?

Might the Big Bang have been the entrance of matter/web into this universe, from another? (A spinneret is also a portal.) Particles, the article continued, come in gauge fields as well, i.e., packets of energy (photons) that transmit forces (electromagnetism) between particles. Einstein said that gravity warps the universe. Gravity is the force exerted by mass. An insect's mass warps a spider's web.

When a spider spins a web from the outside-in, she knows the size it will take, the outcome. The knowledge, end to beginning, is a fait accompli.

I thought: What would it be like if you had to create the universe anew, knowing its finished form ahead of time? Knowing, instinctually, just how much matter and energy you had with which to weave?

I drew a spider, carved a stamp, played with it as my brain wove strands of story.

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I was overcome with the urge to weave and looked in the Yellow Pages. Found Batik & Weaving, located in Arlington, Massachusetts. I called them, got their hours.

I didn't know if I would get a loom, or a hoop, or what. I had no idea what was involved, but I knew to find out what I could. I caught a bus in Harvard Square, got off by Batik & Weaving. Its proprietor was infinitely patient with my incessant questions. Looms run between $100-200. Classes are given at the store/studio on Monday nights. I thumbed through one of the books on sale and found one entitled Weaving Without a Loom.

When I chose a small wooden comb with which to compact the weave, I was handed a needle to make the weaving process go faster.I surveyed the wood posts and boards, wondering how I would construct a loom for myself. I decided that it would wait until I found more information.

"Every so often I have an instinct to do something I've never done before and to wing it," I said with a shy grin. "This is one of those times."

My canvas tote filled with supplies. As I waited for the #77 bus back to Harvard I decided I wanted a hoop: I would weave a web, working from the outside in. I would choose my colors and weave on instinct. I flashed on Lynn Andrews' books, and realized that a circular web-tapestry could also be a shield. How would I get hoops, and work with them? Looms were rectangular. I wanted something where the hoop would remain part of the work. I thought of bicycle tires without the spokes, of hula hoops.

We were coming upon The Caning Shop, and then I knew. I debarked and went inside, where I found wood hoops arranged according to size on pegs.I chose four 12" hoops.

I strung a warp around the first hoop: a spiraling series of knotted lines drawn taut across the diameter. When ready, I gathered the intended wools and began to weave, continuing steadily until 2AM. I looked through the book on weaving and jotted more notes, including a reminder to pick up a copy of Ovid's Metamorphoses and any books I could find on spiders or, better, their webs.

During that sleepless night, November 17 into 18, I wrote the first 3,500 words of "Arachne." I headphoned myself into (and set to play repeatedly) John Adams' composition Shaker Loops, which gave me visions of furious weaving in its own madness of bowed strings.

On November 20 I found, in Time magazine, complementing the New York Times article, a story on superstrings and "bubbles". In early '86 Harvard researchers discovered bubble voids with galaxies on the surface. The universe was seen to be "lumpy" with "clusters of galaxies." At the time of the article, Witten and Ostricker found cosmic strings that are superconductors of electromagnetic radiation. The strings form loops; the loops push dense matter from exploding galactic clusters away, pushing matter into thin shells.

I was past ecstasy. My head was ready to explode.

That night I was at my Harvard job until 6:30 PM to complete a work-related draft. Then I all but ran home and wrote until 2 AM, finishing "Arachne". Hail collided with the window, sheets of freezing rain falling. The wind howled.

Between midnight and 12:30 AM, I stopped writing to gaze admiringly at a translucent yellow spider. It worked its way gracefully across my mirror, to disappear behind the curtains.

"Arachne!" I whispered, thrilled. "Hello."

I grinned at the ceiling.

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Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Old Men of Revere Beach

I was 28 years old and building a future for myself, when I stepped off the Blue Line subway north of Boston and into the past....

Journal excerpt, August 28, 1987

On the way to Revere Beach I had entered a crowded set of subway cars filled with men who wore plaid and seersucker suits and sported fedoras. Then I watched as the train literally emptied at Suffolk Downs: my first exposure to the "migration to the racetrack." Once at the shore I walked along the water's edge, picking through rocks and seashells, communing with the sea. I watched gulls, watched adults slather themselves with tanning oil while children built bucket-shaped sandcastles. After getting my quota of sun, I retreated to a cement-roofed shelter with benches and sat on a wall overlooking the sand, dangling my feet over a mound of rocks.

Someone played a trumpet.

I looked to my right, where a band began to rehearse in the gazebo. Swing tunes. Folding chairs were being set up around the bandstand, leaving ample room for dancing.

Some members of the younger set -- those pushing 65 or so -- began to take to the floor. I stashed my backpack by a chair and joined them.

A short, aged man stood off to the side and held his arms out to me. Dressed in a dark blue polyester suit long out of shape, over a white shirt with beige crosshatch patterns. And a wide blue tie with open white circles. Light blue cap, with a small visor in front and a stretch band in back. Glasses. An oval shaped face -- only, where most oval faces extend top to bottom, his did from side to side, tanned and wrinkled.

His name is Barney. He is in his 80s. We went tippy-tippy-toe as the band played.

"They should play Jewish music," he asserted. "They know Jewish music, they should play it." A tremulous Yiddish accent, thick as good schmaltz.

"Might be fun if we all made a hora circle," I mused.

Afterwards, he thanked me and I bowed graciously, then returned to my writing. A woman in a pink bikini let me know I'd inspired her and her friend to dance. A white-haired man, slim and ruddy, asked if I'd studied dancing.

"Taught myself in front of a mirror," I said.

"I liked your interpretation," he replied.

Soon I was face to face with Morris. One dance after another, he twirled me around, had me twirl him. We pressed close to each other for slow waltzes, becoming something of an "item" at the gazebo.

"You make me feel young again," Morris told me. "Of course, I've always been young."

"Then you are," I answered.

"You've made my day."

I told him the feeling was mutual.

"I'd take you out to dinner," he said. "But I'm going on vacation, and I have to go home and pack. I have a widow friend, we're going down to Florida." He smiled conspiratorially. "Would you like to come with me?"

I smiled a graceful decline. "No, thanks."

Morris knows Barney, and provided us a formal introduction. "I would have danced more," said Barney, tremulously, "but I am wearing my boots. I can't dance when I wear my boots." He slowly pulled up a blue polyester pants leg to reveal one of a pair of fancy brown leather boots, as incongruous as the rest of his outfit. "What is your name?"


"Henderson?" He mused, "Well, it could be Jewish...."

"Not Henderson," Morris corrected him. "Elissa. It's her first name."

The prevailing question I've been met with has been, "Are you Jewish?" For an afternoon, at least, Revere Beach seemed the North Shore's Borscht Belt.

"Do you know Yiddish?" Barney asked me.

"A bissel," I replied.

Barney let loose with a fast string of Yiddish.

"Not that much!" I laughed, holding up my hands.

"Vell, vhat do you want to learn? I'll teach you Yiddish. They should play Jewish songs; I don't know why they don't play any Jewish songs. They know them...."

I held my hand out to Barney while Morris took me on for yet another dance. For a moment it was the three of us in a circle. Then it was just Morris and me again. Afterwards I gave him a hug, in the center of the "dance floor."

"We'd better stop, they'll shine the searchlights on us. My widow friend says I'm the only man she sees. Sometimes it drives me crazy."

"Once upon a time, I knew someone who was very possessive."

Morris looked momentarily confused. Then he asked, "Is that good, or not good?"

"Not good."

"Yeah, I think so, too." He turned to Barney. "We should take her out to dinner. Do you have fifty dollars?"

"I only have forty-nine dollars," Barney answered pensively.

"This is much better, out here," I said. "And it's free." They agreed.

Another man approached, 70-ish. He said his name was Mensch. I took his word for it; I'd been dealing with Everyman all along. Mensch asked me, "Did I hear you say you were from Brooklyn?"


"I was in Brooklyn once," Mensch said thoughtfully. "I had a friend in Brooklyn. He lived on 86th Street. I visited him a few years ago. Then he got hit by a truck." In pensive deadpan. He continued, "Traffic moves fast down there."

I returned to where I'd kept my backpack, and a vacant-eyed young man offered to watch my belongings for me. A white-haired man who'd guarded them before shot me a look that said, Don't trust this one. I gave him a look back that said, I know.

The young man helped me on with my backpack and asked me for my number.

"Why do you want my number?" I asked.

"Want to take you out."

"Sorry." I smiled. "I already have someone who takes me out."


"Good luck, though."

He turned and walked away. I excused myself from Morris and Barney, saying I was going to walk along the beach. Mensch joined me. "I write poetry," he said. "In English and in Yiddish. Rhymed poetry, not free verse, you know what I'm talking about?"

I knew what he was talking about. We stood on the rocks.

"Have you ever been to Miami Beach?" he asked.


"Do you know where North Avenue is?"

"Off Collins Avenue?" Miami Beach's Main Street. If it's not off Collins Avenue, it's not worth mentioning.

"Yeah, yeah, that's the one," Mensch cried. "I go there and read poetry. About the old country, and the synagogues, and the lighting of the candles." Said one intense syllable at a time, with feeling. "And I get up there, and I read. And when I read everybody stops talking. And I read my poetry, and then I finish and they all clap."

"That's wonderful," I said.

"You go there, when you're in Miami Beach." He asked, "Do you know Yiddish?"

"Not really."

"You can't stop being Jewish," he said emphatically. "The world reminds you. The Holocaust. I have a son, he's a psychiatrist. He tries to forget he's Jewish, but every now and then a word slips out."

"An occasional schlep, you mean."

"Yes." Mensch continued, "He married a Norwegian girl. His nurse." Shaking his head. "But he can't forget that he's Jewish."

I thought, that poor shiksa.

I wished Mensch luck, and then it was just me and the ocean. The susurrus of waves, the gulls. I walked along the water's edge to the huge cement blocks and wooden planks, a construction project in mid-sentence. A counterpoint to gazebo and benches. There, Latinas bathed with young children, guiding them toward or away from the water. A few Hispanic men sat on the blocks, dangling their hands between their knees.

I climbed the cement blocks until I reached the sidewalk. I crossed the street, working my way to the T-stop, for the ride home.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Snake in the Butter Dish

Scenes from April 1999, Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts Posted by Picasa

Mary holds out a small, desiccated object nestled in her palm as we stand in the kitchen. "At first, I thought it was a worm."

"You're sure it's not a toy?" I ask.

"I'm sure. You don't get detail like this in a toy."

She points to tiny scales, silver and iridescent when one looks closely enough. I do. I get my linen tester, the magnifier I once used on a book production job to check for breaks in individual letters. Under the lens the tiny snake shows individual scalloped shapes. We can still bend it, carefully, along its vertebrae.

Mary points to unevenness, patches. "It might have been killed while it was shedding its skin." A young snake, smaller than her palm, caught unawares while adjusting to its own growth.

She points to the head, an angular skull that is really quite handsome, and says, "It could be a pit viper."

I take its body carefully in my hand. "Poor thing." Just a kid, really, as snakes go. Exposed on the asphalt next to the JFK/UMass subway station nearby. Mary was going to rescue it, then took it home with her when she realized what it was.

Near another subway station, the Alewife T-stop, closer to our workplace and with a duck pond, Mary squats after rain and coaxes a stranded worm onto her hand. It resists her, clenches from a straight line into a tight coil. Tries to become invisible. She is patient with it, easing its flesh onto hers before straightening up and tossing it onto the grass.

The sidewalk is littered with them.

She tries to save them all. I scout ahead, peering to distinguish worm from stick. "Another one here," I mumble.

One worm at a time. The rain has driven them out of the ground and onto the concrete, into the path of shoes.

We had been speaking with one another on the bridge over the train tracks when suddenly Mary was gone. I turned back to see her kneeling by the railing, head level with the wheels of passing traffic. She might have found a wheel weight or a battery to pluck from the road, removing lead or acid from the environment. She might have found Styrofoam or plastic to gather to her recycling bag. But this time she lingered longer than usual, and from a distance I saw her arm come up and out, repeatedly, tossing. Otherwise, she was crouched into a ball avoided deftly by bicycles and pedestrians. I knew, then, that she had found worms.

Near the subway station she rescues more of them. Two men chat idly by the pond, and Mary excuses herself as she squats by their feet.

"I'm not listening in," she tells them. "I'm just picking up worms."

"That's quite noble," one of the men says.

For a moment Mary frets as one of the worms lands on a nearby branch that lies behind a chainlink fence. Vulnerable to birds whose songs we already hear: robin, red-winged blackbird, mourning dove. She tries to dislodge it from the tree, poking a stick through the fence.

"Being food for the birds is still better than being smashed on the sidewalk," I offer.

The man at whose feet Mary crouched says, "Who is to say what happens to someone after they die?" The worms, we know, can answer this question. In the garden we watch as their larger cousins churn the soil, transforming dust into fertility.

At home, we find the desiccated viper on the floor, knocked from its shelf by one of the cats. Mary finds an unused butter dish and lines it with tissues. She puts the snake, now stiff and unbendable, into its improvised sarcophagus, made of diamond-patterned plastic, then tapes it shut. Recognizing delicacy in death, as in life.

Around the butter dish the shelf holds candles and matches, incense. A snufter to extinguish the flame.

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Monday, July 18, 2005

Book Orgy

Once or twice a year I log on to Alibris and go blissfully nuts -- sometimes with books, sometimes with music. Alibris offers new and used books at deep discounts (14 of the 20 items in my order cost under $5 each; 2 others cost less than $6 each), with free shipping if one selects enough of certain specially-marked volumes. After plugging in my basic order, I went scouting around to fulfill the free shipping requirement. My haul, this time:

Humberto Constantini's The Gods, The Little Guys & The Police: This is an old friend whom I loaned out and never saw again, and I finally found an old diary entry that gave the exact title and author name. "The Gods" are the Greek gods, who meddle in the lives of "The Little Guys" -- a group of poets, complete with their own little dramas -- and "The Police" are just that, in a state that views private gatherings (e.g., the poets' meetings) as acts of rebellion. Very funny in spots, very poignant in others. When I read it in '87 I pictured Constantini as a Latin Vonnegut.

Edward Conlon's Blue Blood, because (having borrowed it from the library) I want my own copy and Alibris has it for $4.44. I give some details of his memoir at the bottom of "Portrait".

Robinson Jeffers' Selected Poems, which were recommended to me.

Mary Oliver's New and Selected Poems, ditto.

Jim Corbett's Man-Eaters of Kumaon and The Temple Tiger and More Man-Eaters of Kumaon, after reading the following in Hart and Sussman's Man The Hunted:

Jim Corbett, a post-World War I big-game hunter, dispatched the "Champawat Tigress" (436 human casualties -- ranked as the premier man-eater in history) and the "Panar Leopard" (400 victims). Corbett subsequently wrote two volumes about his exploits with tigers hooked on human flesh. The books, Man-Eaters of Kumaon and The Temple Tiger and More Man-Eaters of Kumaon, are chock full of gory deaths and daring exploits. But his respectful admiration for the tiger is also apparent; he was likely one of the first Westerners to realize a need for conservation of Indian wildlife. To give him his due, he also stresses the quiet courage of Indian villagers who lose family and friends to the big cats; by the simple act of looking for a child who has not come home from an errand, a mother risks becoming another meal for a tiger.

(The story I'm writing -- sequel to the trilogy I'm trying to sell, because the characters aren't through with me yet -- deals with predator-prey relationships. The initial impetus for what became the trilogy was Joseph Payne Brennan's poem, "When Tigers Pass." Also on my reading list is Richard Ellis's No Turning Back: The Life and Death of Animal Species and Armand Marie Leroi's Mutants.)

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus, which I have never read! It's high time I got with the program.

John McPhee's Basin and Range and Assembling California, because I can't go wrong with McPhee. I've read his Encounters With the Archdruid, Pieces of the Frame, and (most recently) Rising From the Plains.

Bruce Chatwin's What Am I Doing Here?, because I loved his book The Songlines.

Margaret Atwood's Bodily Harm, because I can't go wrong with Atwood, either, and that goes for both her poetry and her fiction. I've read several of her books as well, most recently Oryx and Crake.

James Tiptree, Jr.'s (aka Alice Sheldon) Meet Me at Infinity, because I can't go wrong with Tiptree, either. Most recent book read: Brightness Falls From the Air, many years ago.

Ursula Hegi's Intrusions, because I loved her Stones From the River.

H. Rider Haggard's She, a science fiction classic, which Mary recommended.

John Jakes' The Bastard, The Seekers, and The Warriors, because Mary's been devouring the other volumes of the Kent Family Chronicles (which my mother had bought decades ago) and those three volumes are missing from the set.

Mary also wanted the Boy Scout Handbook -- not the 1990 edition but the 1970 edition.

And -- to surprise her, because her birthday is coming up -- I've ordered Robert Hermann's Energy Momentum Tensors. Mary's taken calculus but not tensor calculus, and she's decided it's probably not as intimidating as she thought lo those many years ago. (She's got degrees in biochemistry and immunology; when she explains things to me my eyes bug out. Years ago we were up through the night talking about Lynn Margulis' and Dorion Sagan's extraordinary book Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution -- that book sparked a novel whose draft is currently in "the deep freeze" awaiting a major rewrite.)

The big-ticket item is a CD of Wayne Shorter's Phantom Navigator. My cassette tape of the album is about 20 years old and nothing I can do makes it sound any closer to me than dragged along the ocean floor. I finally broke down and splurged because music fuels my writing 90 percent of the time. ("Another Place" (Amazing, May 1988) takes its title from a piece by the fusion jazz group Hiroshima, which I played repeatedly as I drafted the story. "Variations for Four Hands" (Yellow Silk, Spring 1985) pays homage to Witold Lutoslawski's "Paganini Variations for Two Pianos.")

Carpe Diem. Carpe more bookshelves....

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Saturday, July 16, 2005

Bodies of Work

Bill Varian reports in today's St. Petersburg Times ("Under Our Skin") that Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) is trying to acquire the controversial show "Bodies Revealed." Varian describes the exhibit as, "a display of cadavers and body parts that provides an inside-out view of what powered them in life.... dissected to reveal what's inside and preserved through a process known as plastination, or polymer preservation."

The photo gallery accompanying the article shows blood vessels in lungs pink and fuzzy as cherry blossoms. When I see the cadaver showing layering and attachment of muscles to the skeleton I think of a mystical tree. I draw a clear distinction between this -- truly a look at what makes us tick -- and the work of German doctor Gunther von Hagens, who has used plastination to place cadavers in "artful" poses.

Andrew Stuttaford, in The National Review ("I See Dead People," May 2, 2002), gave an inkling of that distinction when he wrote:

The clearest evidence of von Hagens's artistic pretensions can be seen in his most "aesthetically" displayed specimens. The Chess Player contemplates the board, his exposed brain a reminder that this is someone long past checkmate. Nearby, a pregnant woman reclines in a ghastly parody of a provocative pose, womb cut open to reveal the eight-month fetus within. The skeleton of The Runner is suspended in motion, tendon and sinew flowing out behind him in an impression of speed. Rearing Horse With Rider features the husk of a stallion mounted by the remains of his rider, a man with a brain in each hand, one human, and the other equine. Art? No, just a savage form of carney kitsch.

I first heard of von Hagens's work through a story on BBC radio. My journal from January 22, 1998, reads:

Ths morning on the BBC -- a story concerning an art exhibit in Mannheim, Germany, scheduled to continue on to Tokyo and worldwide to any museum brave enough to display it. Essentially, a showing of corpses and body parts, plasticized with a technology that arrests decay. In fact, argue opponents, one can just as well show the same thing with plastic models; in fact the procedure makes the real thing look like plastic.

Arguments about real human beings being robbed of their dignity, on display as objects. A man in mid-running stride. A woman sitting at a desk about to answer the phone. "A chamber of horrors," others call it. Some find it fascinating. A doctor is the conceptual artist here.

He said these people requested specifically in their wills to be put on display after death, which leaves me to wonder how specific the wording was. Was it, "Use me for scientific research?" or, "Use me in an art display, intact or dissected, and in whatever artful pose you like"? Did he go around offering money to the desperate and poverty-stricken, who agreed to sell their bodies if not their souls? Are the corpses the remains of people of low station in life, who saw in this display a chance for reincarnation-in-death into a more noble image? In fact, some museum-goers have, after seeing the corpses, offered their own bodies up portmortem. An offering upon the altar of -- what?

And the dual image does not escape me of the German doctor and displayed corpses in Mannheim 1998, and the German doctors and displayed corpses in Auschwitz 1941, etc. They did it all "for science," too, divorcing emotion (save for their enthusiasm) and the soul from objects that once were animate. A human taxidermy.

Second story: that of the birth rate in the U.S. of cloned calves, and the prospect of introducing DNA markers into them to get "nutraceuticals" (the word already coined now), pharmaceuticals carried in such things as cow's milk. So, a dose of drugs and of bovine growth hormone and who knows what other artificially-introduced chemicals? If this becomes the cheaper standard for drug delivery, what does that do for folks who are lactose-intolerant or vegans?

And, of course, the use of living animals as delivery systems, just as human beings are used in Mannheim as art. Usage in death as in life, which might lead to one or the other extreme: either a complete abdication of the soul as one loses individuality and spirit, using and used -- or a transcendance beyond the mechanics of use and of outside stimuli. A spiritual renaissance in tandem with spiritual and material decay.

I have no desire to see "Body Worlds" -- the von Hagen exhibit -- but I might go to see "Bodies Revealed" if it comes to MOSI. I see exploitation in the former, scientific and humanistic relevance in the latter. "Body Worlds" with its "inventive" poses is considered "art", which could just as well be done with "real plastic" instead of plasticized human remains. In contrast, "Bodies Revealed" garners the interest of a museum of science.

When I underwent laparoscopic sterilization in 1983 I was given the opportunity to look inside. I jumped at the chance (not literally; I was in stirrups) and was enthralled. My womb was a great red-purplish planet with two ovarian moons. The delicate fluting of my Fallopian tubes were milky-pale ballet dancers in a dark void. Truly I took an excursion into "inner space," and I view "Bodies Revealed" as an extension of that, a trip through the body-as-temple.

I see "Body Worlds" as a desecration of that temple. The von Hagen reminds me of graffiti I encountered while riding the New York City subway to school. Frequently, ads showing close-ups of women's faces were defaced, ejaculating penises drawn on their mouths. Clearly the graffiti were acts of disrespect in their manipulation of an image.

I see no respect in what von Hagen does. I do see respect in "Bodies Revealed." And that's where I draw the line.

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