Monthly Archives: January 2015

A Tale of Two Authors

Last week, I reported that I hadn’t had heat for 11 days. I still don’t have heat, but I did cause a small panic among my friends who all offered me a place to stay. So thank you—I’m feeling very loved. It’s all good—my heat still hasn’t dipped below 60 degrees so I’m well within standard New England/Yankee parameters. But what is funny is how my landlord and I have begun to refer to this debacle. It started normally enough: A day of trying various remedies, leading to a professional and a series of misdiagnoses and a wrong part. That led us to ordering a part over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend.  The professional is actually a friend of my landlord’s, so our job is moonlighting and slotted for after 5, which would be fine except that the two different days he came to install the part, my upstairs neighbor  decided to lock the door to the furnace room—which has two entry points, one from the outside and from his apartment. It took a couple of days to straightened out the locked door situation—my neighbor works a lot and seems to be impervious to any other human condition save his own—and the repairman was supposed to come this weekend, but guess what? He has pneumonia. This is the part where the writing teacher, depending on their general disposition, would scribble in the margin, “Seems unrealistic; I think the main character’s frustration is clear with the obstacles you’ve described already,” or “This is utterly ridiculous. Rewrite.”

My landlord has made his frustration with the situation clear, in his thick Boston accent and penchant for talking sarcastically about how the ground is too frozen to dig shallow graves. He was born in the city we live in, on the northern border of Boston—think Southie, but Italian rather than Irish. On first acquaintance, you don’t think of him much past the rough, Boston neighborhood stereotype, but here’s the thing. He has a great vocabulary and has on occasion made literary references that I have a very dim memory of. So I thought I would have some fun when I said to him that the situation was becoming a Samuel Beckett play. I was not disappointed. He countered that he thought it was Kafkaesque. This tickled me to no end, and reveals a lot about our personalities. I’m more of a wait and see kind of person, where he tends to focus on the dark side of everything.

The repairman has pneumonia and sole possession of the replacement part. A blizzard is hurling itself towards the northeast, and there is a predicted two feet of snow. Other than hoping it will act as insulation, there is nothing left to do—pulling in a new repair person will still take a couple of days. So in the end literature is really all we really have to understand this situation. That and wine. Lots and lots of wine. I bet Beckett and Kafka could have written a great piece about it.


Top Ways to Stay Warm without Heat

It’s been exactly 11 days since I’ve had heat due to, to borrow the title from the Lemony Snicket book, A Series of Unfortunate Events. I never did get past the first few chapters of that book because the unfortunate events seemed pretty awfully unfortunate and they happened to kids, my Kryptonite. So I had to admit I’m a big softie weenie and stop reading. I seem to be handling the no heat thing better. For one thing, the temperature in my apartment hasn’t gone below 60, despite lows of 10 degrees off and on during the week. And really, any hard-core New Englander would laugh at me and consider 60 degrees a splurge. In fact, one friend already has laughed at me, and my Mainer brother and sister-in-law will too as soon as they read this. Also, we still have hot water and an electric stove, so from a Yankee standpoint, we’re pretty much living in the lap of luxury.

I have been managing with a space heater that will most likely double my electric bill and extra blankets on the beds and the couch, plus that old adage from every mother on the planet. “I’m cold, put on another sweater!” But I’m really just talking to myself because my son has yet to even put on a long-sleeve shirt, curse his teenage metabolism! The only natural heat source I have is my 2:30 am perimenopausal sweats. Alas, the resulting dampness and chill negates any heat benefit.

The other way we’ve been staying warm is to just go somewhere with heat. That actually works quite well. Also Lucas has found that playing a really intense online game with his friends keeps him warm. I’ve been baking cookies more than usual. Warming a kettle on the biggest burner also seems to help. In fact using all the electric appliances—the dishwasher, the dryer, and the oven—all seem to add a few critical extra degrees. As a result, my house has never been in such good order.

This is all good, but Saturday morning I found a really excellent, free way to stay warm. Because we’ve been wearing layers of clothes, laundry had reached critical. If we’d been on the Enterprise, your captain of choice would have ordered “Red alert!” I put the first batch in, and a short time later I couldn’t hear anything. I should have been hearing happy swishing sounds. I did not hear happy swishing sounds. Instead, an error code blinked silently at me. I grabbed the manual, and when I saw what it was, I swore. Drain hose problem. I’d just had one a few weeks earlier; the sink that the hose drains into got clogged. The super fun part is that the sink is in a utility room that is part of my upstairs neighbor’s apartment, and I don’t have access to it. I had to wait until he got home, and while I cleaned out the sink, I had listen to the same story about his life he’s been telling me since he moved in nearly a year ago. Awesome. However, I knew the blinking error message was not because of the sink. So what else?

I’m not known for my handyman skills, but I’m an English major so I can at least start to imagine what might be wrong. I felt along the hose which starts from my washer and goes about a foot then disappears tantalizingly into a hole in the wall that leads to the forbidden utility room. There was cold air coming from that hole, and when I followed the plastic kinked hose it made a crunching sound, like a  “I’m frozen with a bit of water” crunch. Hmmm. I remembered back to when I was a new, clueless homeowner how much I paid a plumber to run a hairdryer on a frozen pipe for a couple of hours, and I grabbed my hairdryer and went to work. My side of the hose got warmer and more flexible, but the error code persisted. Damn, I was going to have to see if I could get into the utility room. Naturally my neighbor wasn’t home.

I put on my heavy winter coat over my pajamas, pulled on my boots and walked around to the back of the house to the utility room. The good news: it was open! The bad news: it was wide open! And letting in the 20 degree wind into the room. I felt the hose—even more cold and icy crinkly. For the next 20 minutes or so I traipsed back and forth, taking boots off in the house to walk to the back of my apartment to check the error message, boots back on and back around the house. There were at least three round trips involving bringing the hairdryer to the utility room: I got frustrated when the dryer wouldn’t turn on and stood in the cold trying to think of a heat source that didn’t involve electricity or fire. You can’t prove that I tried to use the little flame from the candle lighter before realizing it would be spring before it worked or that I would set the hose on fire. I then trekked back to my apartment bathroom only to realize that the little dastardly blue reset button had been popped up. Being an English major only gets you so far in the handyman world. Once the hose was thawed, there were a couple of more trips to try to reset the washer, until I finally heard the gratifying swish of water into the sink. Cancel red alert.

By then I was sweating and the apartment felt quite comfortable. I felt like a boss for being able to figure it out myself, and the flush of pride easily contributed to an extra degree or two to the room temperature.

So there you have it. A foolproof way to get warm when your heat is off. If it doesn’t get fixed soon, I can only hope for another appliance malfunction.

Photo credit:

I’ve Been Around Some

My current job is as close to a corporate environment as I’ve ever had, but given that it’s at a nonprofit hospital, most corporate lifers would laugh me out of the cubicle farm. I’ve worked hard to avoid that farm, and Boston has provided me with interesting jobs housed in interesting buildings. My work spaces have been in two former homes, a four-story settlement house, a late 1800s converted warehouse, and a two-hundred-year-old hospital. In my career, I’ve helped celebrate the sesquicentennial at a college, the centennial at the settlement house, and the bicentennial at the hospital. That’s a total of 450 years. I have definitely been around some.

My first job out of college, I wrote for the internal newspaper of that college in a converted large, old house a little way off the main campus. It had a double winding staircase to the second floor gallery, the conference room was walnut paneling and there was a servants’ back staircase. Unfortunately, I worked in a basement room next to the furnace, but at least it was always warm in there. Because the furnace was always breaking down, we also got to know the buildings and grounds staff well, which isn’t a bad thing when you’re a reporter looking for campus news stories. The fact that my editor gave me assignments scribbled on paper with greasy food stains and cocktail napkins with coffee rings was mitigated by the fact that I’m still friends with two people who worked there—war and adverse work situations bond people for life. Plus, I got to walk into a grand home every day, so that was something. I also learned how to pronounce and spell sesquicentennial because of that anniversary (that’s 150 years for all you people who have only gotten to celebrate centennials).

A part-time job while I was getting my master’s degree in writing and publishing turned into my next full-time job at the settlement house. That job had very little to do with writing and publishing. Thus, I fulfilled one of the requirements for being a real writer. You have to have a lot of weird, non-writing-related jobs. I’ll let you know when I find out what the other requirements are. The settlement house was called the North End Union and was a fixture in the predominantly Italian North End neighborhood from its founding in 1892 to its closing in 1998. It was part of a movement begun in this country in Chicago by Jane Addams to help immigrants, the poor, and the generally downtrodden. The settlement houses offered education and programs for kids, parents, seniors that were meant, depending on your politics, to acclimate or assimilate newcomers into the county. The one I worked at had helped many of the parents and grandparents of the people still living in the neighborhood and you could cut their nostalgia with a pizza slicer. By the time I got there, it was struggling to reinvent itself. As one of only two full-time admin people working there, one of the many things I did that was not listed in my job description was letting people walk through the building and listen to their reminiscences of the crafts they did there as a kid, or the sports team they joined, or how they got to go to summer camp. I loved that. Things I had to do that weren’t so fun, but highly interesting, included re-lighting the pilot of the ancient furnace in the creepy part of the basement that I firmly believe had 100-year-old dirt in it. The brick walls had all these shadowy indents which made it look more like catacombs —for all I knew there probably were people buried there. I worked to keep my eyes on the flashlight beam and the pilot light.

A writer-worthy moment came in that job when one of the preschool kids with a hell of an arm, lobbed a rock that ended up dinging a car pretty far away. The teachers left the Union’s information on the car and before I even had time to call the insurance agency, the car’s owner stormed into the building with her boyfriend, the nephew of a known mobster. My attempt to explain to the young lady and gentleman about how insurance works fell on deaf ears, and she demanded $500 cash to repair her car. While I explained she would have to wait a day or two for an adjuster and she would get a check (I helpfully outlined a rectangle with my hands for emphasis), the boyfriend toppled over a supply cabinet onto the chair I had been sitting on and they ran out of the place. I promptly ran into the conference room and started to cry, which is why I can never use this story for that interview question, “Tell me about a difficult work situation and how you resolved it.” I’m sure crying is never what they want to hear. But that wasn’t the last of it. A short while later the mobster uncle came in, profusely apologizing for his nephew. He also wanted to apologize to me personally, but I was still sobbing in the other room. The director, a native North Ender, came in and explained to me gently, but pointedly, that it would be best if I could let him apologize. This is not stuff you ever can find in a business etiquette book, but I pulled my professional self together, prayed I wasn’t too blotchy looking, and accepted the mobster’s sincere apology for his nephew. I never found a way to work the rest of that story into an interview either.

My next job was at the Boston Center for Adult Education when it was housed in an old mansion in the fanciest residential neighborhood. The building has since been sold and returned to a residence.  A notch up from the first house I worked in, this one had four stories, a ballroom, and two walnut paneled rooms. One winding staircase led up to the second floor “office” I worked in with three other coworkers. It was the former master bedroom and we kept our office supplies in the master’s wooden, built-in sock and underwear drawer. My boss worked next door, in the anteroom between the master’s and mistress’s bedrooms. We were Downton Abbey cool before Downton. There was also a room called the “scary room” on the third floor, and at least a handful of people had seen the ghost who resided there. Because we dealt with 100s of interesting and creative teachers and 1000s of adult students, there was pretty much something funny and random happening every day. At one point we thought of pitching a show to the network about the place. Today we could totally have had our own reality show. Two stories that stand out for me: the teacher who called to say he had to cancel his classes because he was moving to a tropical island on the advice of his doctor. And the time the ex-hippy pottery teacher, who was trying a new firing technique, lit some dried leaves on fire … in the courtyard.

The move to a health publisher was something of novelty in my career. Up until that point, I’d had only ever sat at and used older, donated office furniture—stuff that predated the Mad Men era and definitely did not look cool. At the publishing company, I thought I died and gone to print. Not only was I in a retro 1800s warehouse close to the water, the office furniture was contemporary and the layout was  planned out. Who knew such a thing was possible? I did still kind of miss the built-in underwear- turned- supply-drawer. There was one other downside to the place. In order to get to the office I had to cross a historic and protected channel of water. In the summer is was a glorious thing where you could see cormorants, wood ducks, the occasional swan, and sea jellies floating in after a storm. In the winter… oh, dear god. I’m surprised we never lost a person over that thing. In a storm, the wind would whip mercilessly down the channel, and think of nothing of blowing hapless pedestrians into the chilly water should we lose our grip on the slippery, ice-coated metal railing. But I will say it made you feel alive and grateful to have made it into work and our crossing over war stories were told in Homeric epic fashion at the water cooler.

I now work in a hospital building constructed in 1818, seven years after the founding in 1811. We celebrated the 200th anniversary in 2011. I’m in an office suite in that building, which used to be a ward for patients. Among the cubicles, filing cabinets and printers it’s easy to forget that. Of course to remember, all I have to do is walk up three flights to a room called the Ether Dome, a former operating theater where ether was first used for surgery. Oh, and the room comes with glass cases of, depending on your perspective, the creepiest or coolest old surgical instruments. (I think creepy.) I can also go to the basement, which is much cleaner and tidier than the basement in the North End Union, but all the white paint can’t hide the small outcroppings of rough-hewn stone in the cement block walls. Scratch deep enough, and I know there is 200-year-old dirt there.

So what could be next? Let’s see Harvard University was founded in 1636, but I’d have to wait another 21 years to celebrate their 400th. Maybe I’ll get crazy and find a building that’s only 75 years old–some 1940s art deco perhaps. Seems so modern, but yeah, that could work.

Photo credit:

Best Lips on TV. Period.

I’ve mentioned that I’m an old-school nerd, from a time when watching the original Star Trek and knowing all the episodes was the main requirement for entry into that exclusive club. And by “exclusive” I mean a lot of people pretended not to like the show so as not to be lumped in with the likes of people like me. When Star Trek Next Generation (STNG) came along, it was suddenly OK to like this show—dare I say cool, even, with a Shakespearian actor taking the captain’s role and the money and technical advancements to make it look a little more realistic than kids putting on a show in the back yard. Oh, sure there was a lot of casual fans still pointing and giggling at the rest of us, and Trekkies and Trekkers were taking pains to distinguish themselves from others, but Paramount was happy to take all our money for all things Star Trek, including wearing out the franchise with two additional so-so series. We hard core fans watched anyway because it’s in the nerd contract. Good or not, though, the shows still left big sci-fi hole when they were finally cancelled.

And then, like the answer to the collective sci-fi yearning, X-Files appeared in 1993, a new show on a new network. We nerds rejoiced and sweated every week waiting for it to be cancelled because that’s what happens when we like a TV show. But it kept going and went on for nine seasons. It was science fictiony, but based in reality and involved FBI agents, who are much cooler and less scary than CIA agents. They hunted down unexplained phenomena that were sometimes otherworldly, sometimes explainable, but nearly always interesting. And as if that wasn’t cool enough, the main characters, Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) were two smart, beautiful people. But they weren’t beautiful in a glam Hollywood way. Scully wasn’t prancing around in blouses with plunging necklines and skin tight “suit” pants. Mulder wasn’t ripping his shirt open while wrestling with creatures or FBI agents trying to divert him from the Truth. No, they always wore straight up serious FBI business suits. All of which, to my expert eye, framed their pièce de résistance—the best lips on TV. Ever. Period. They are perfectly matched. Full and shapely. Oh, and the lip pursing! It’s like art. The way they’d purse their lips at each other while engaged in an intelligent debate of the overly scintillating, but often scant evidence of whatever it was they were investigating. God, I miss those lips to this day.

And then Netflix evolved to the point where I knew I could rewatch all the episodes, but that seemed like a daunting task even for a hard care fan like me. This isn’t A Netflix “season” with 14 episodes. This is hard core TV season episodes, 24 or so a year, with a total of 202. This wasn’t a weekend binge watch.  So as I was pondering what to do, I happened to see a post on Twitter by the nerd sage George Takei recommending a podcast called “The X-Files Files” by Kumail Nanjiani. It got me to achieve two goals at once: a way to watch X-Files and get onboard with the podcasting thing, so when people told me what podcasts they were listening to, I had something to say other than, “What’s a podcast?”

In preparation for the podcast, I watched the first two episodes with some trepidation—I’d first seen it more than 20 years ago—would it hold up? Would the lips still be captivating? Would I wonder what the hell I’d been thinking all that time ago when some episodes would leave me frozen on the couch, too afraid to put my feet down on the floor? I watched and fell in love all over again. Right out of the gate the first episode was so good. Great dialogue, fully formed characters, and the conspiracy plot is established right in the first episode. The podcast was great too, like sitting with a friend to gush about our favorite show.  I was 28 in 1993, but Kumail was only about 10, so it’s been interesting to get his perspective. He points out things I took for granted, like how the show straddled the internet—starting when it was still in its infancy, so there’s no Googling things or running computer searches. By the end of the show, they introduced some renegade hackers to incorporate that piece. Kumail and his guest, often a friend who is also a fan, talk about how you had to tape the show or never see it again. And there was no way to know the name of the episode except on message boards. Apparently hard core fans managed to get their hands on it somehow and post it.

What also struck me is how Kumail says it took him a number of years before he found people who loved the show as much as he did. So his podcast is partly to hang out with these folks and partly to introduce the show to a new generation. When he said that, I thought, wait—there were movies, merchandise, and it’s a show that’s often cited as the beginning of the CSI-type procedural. Plus, nerds of all kinds are out in force, we’re lousy with them for cryin’ out loud. How can that possibly be?

But as soon as I excitedly told people what podcast I’d found, I’d get blank stares. “Did you ever watch X-Files?” No, no, no. Except for my ex who I watched it with all those years ago, I’d be hard pressed to think of one other friend who liked it. I do know someone who was good friends with one of the shows writers, so that was fun, but I don’t remember if she was a fan herself. And if so, that’s only one other person. What the hell?

From Star Trek to X-Files, apparently I’m still a nerd among nerds.  But I’ve got Kumail and his friends, only 191 episodes and 27 podcasts to go, and most importantly, quality time with the best lips on TV.

Image credit: