Category Archives: Looking back

Paying It Forward

Another quick one, my chickadees. Yours truly had too much fun this weekend, and you know what that means. The facade I like to cultivate that I’m a dedicated, organized blogger gets blown to Cheeto land. I did get to see my best friend from childhood and her delightful, funny husband. They live in the desert, and I don’t get to see them very much, so that was completely awesome.

Back at work today, I got a text message from the kid to tell me his friends were over again and that they’d used my card to get food. I sighed heavily. They have been frequenting my house several times a week for the past few months. I get it, this is their last summer together before college changes everything. But today I got crabby. Where are the other parents? I muttered to myself. Why is my house where everyone gathers? No one offers to pay for anything. We end up driving everyone one home. Grumble, bitch. I checked my account for the food delivery damage. $60 bucks. Sigh.

But then I thought about my childhood friend. Her house was the gathering house. It had a yard all around it and had the advantage of not having a dad who yelled, like I had at my house. In the summers, we practically lived at her house, showing up before lunch and staying way past sunset to play hide and seek. And all day we inhaled immeasurable amounts of ice cream, Popsicles, sandwiches, snacks, and Kool-Aid. True, there were 7 kids who actually lived there, so what was a couple more, but still. I never heard her mom complain about us being there, sprawling all over the furniture, running around the yard, or consuming mass quantities of food.

So as I sit and listen to the kid and his friends laughing and talking trash (OK, it’s Dungeons & Dragons trash talking), I realize, I’m paying it forward for all those summers of freeloading as only kids can do — freely, without malice, and with gusto. Thank you summer second mom, I’m honored to carry on your tradition.

Keep Remembering

A few weeks ago, the kid and I were up at 5 am on a Sunday to go to the airport in Boston to send off a group of World War II veterans traveling to Washington, DC. An organization called Honor Flight Network makes this possible — they transport America’s veterans to visit those memorials dedicated to honor the service and sacrifices of themselves and their friends. Although I wasn’t sure what to expect and admit to a little grumbling about the early hour, it was quite a moving scene. More than 100 people lined the entrance to the Boston terminal to send the vets off — the kid and his fellow high school students, a military band, current military service men and women, a veterans motorcycle group carrying the colors, and just general well-wishers. As I waited, I realized that these guys would be around 90, even if they joined when they were 16. Given their age, I was prepared for something depressing, but it was quite the opposite. Some 25 vets came through, all in wheel chairs, each with an attendant from Honor Flight or a family member. They all looked alert, and one by one people stepped out from the group to look each one in the eye and thank them with a kind word and warm handshake. It was very moving.

This current administration seems receptive to creating more veterans of wars, so even as we fight that, we also need to remember to take care of the ones we have. The Honor Flight Network is one of the many ways we can do that. It’s a non-profit organization created solely to honor America’s veterans for all their sacrifices. While WWII vets are their priority, they are working on expanding to veterans of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

So thank you to Honor Flight, all veterans organizations, veterans, and all our service people. Let’s keep remembering and getting involved however and where ever we can, even if it’s a smile and warm handshake.

 

Birth, School, Work, Death

OK, so my reference to the Godfathers’ song from 1988, is a bit melodramatic, but what is teenage existence if not melodramatic? Plus, it’s my solemn duty to reference anything 80s, anytime I can.
My kid had a crash course in adult life this week. First he got yelled at by yours truly for not handing in assignments and a lecture about doing what you are supposed to, even if you don’t feel like it. Senioritis has reached an acute stage, and I can use that word because I work at the hospital.
A few days later, our beloved hamster, Marble, who has gotten me out of more than one blogging jam with his cuteness, decided on Wednesday that his allotted two years were up. As one friend said, Marble has moved on and will  forever be remembered with his cheeks stuffed with seeds and carrots. Even though this is hamster #3, the kid was still sad. I am too, truth be told. But we didn’t have too much time to mourn, because at the end of that day, we got word that the kid had received a local scholarship, and we’d find out details at a ceremony next week.

Thursday started with a visit to the vet for Marble’s cremation and ended with a 2-hour wait to get the kid fitted for a tux for the prom. Yes, my gaming, independent kid decided to go to the prom on his own to see what the fuss was all about. On the way to the fitting, he confessed he was nervous and wasn’t sure what he was doing. He also knew the ticket had been bought and the tux rented and there was no going back. If that’s not a “welcome to adulthood” situation, I don’t know what is.

The next day he got dressed up, looked awesome, and I drove him to the prom fashionably late. We agreed he could call me at anytime to come rescue him, and it took him a few minutes to get the courage to open the door after a brief strategy session. I then headed home and sat waiting though the next three hours like a firefighter waiting on the next call.

When I finally got the call at the end of the night, I was jubilant, or perhaps slightly delirious — it had, after all, been an intense week. I thought, “He stayed until the end, he must’ve had a good time!” Of, course, this is my kid we’re talking about, and he tends to lean more to the glass half empty way of viewing the world. I picked him up, and he proclaimed the experience, “Meh.” However, we did have a good discussion about his expectations, and that not everyone has a fabulous time at prom or in high school for that matter. I argued that the main takeaway should be him giving himself credit for facing his fear of going to prom on his own and going. He seemed to feel bad that he probably wasn’t going to have any nostalgia for his high school days, and he compared it to my nostalgia for 80s music. I explained that my love of 80s music and the memories I have of say, my friends and I hunkered down watching this new, amazing thing called MTV — 20 minutes of moon footage interspersed with the Buggles singing “Video Killed the Radio Star” — had really nothing to do with high school. Except that I was a high schooler during that time. I pointed out to him that his nostalgia would be around the video games he’s played with his friends. His spirits seemed to brightened at that idea.

Which is good — growing up means getting your own nostalgia and appropriating anyone else that’s interesting. Long live the 80s.

 

 

Guardian of Harlan Ellison’s Coat

Guardian of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is out — I’m so excited!. So in honor of that, I’m reposting a blog from a few years ago about another sci-fi franchise that has “Guardian” in it. You know, because I can.

In the 90s I worked at the Boston Center for Adult Education and we had an annual writing festival. It was always a difficult task trying to find a headliner big name writer who we could afford. One year we totally lucked out with John Irving, and had been having a hard time matching that success. Trying to think outside the box, we decided on Harlan Ellison. Some of you will know his name—if you’re a hard core fan of science fiction or of the original Star Trek. Harlan wrote one of Star Trek’s best episodes, “City on the Edge of Forever.” Non sci-fi fans may know that episode because a gorgeous young Joan Collins was the guest star.

Writers, like rock stars, can come in all kinds of temperaments, and so we weren’t sure what to expect. The year before I started working there, they had landed Kurt Vonnegut and I was still traumatized by the stories of how difficult he was. John Irving was much nicer, and just as detail oriented in person as he is in his fiction. We had a discussion about the very old, defunct alarms on the windows of the room he was waiting in before his talk. The center was housed in a former mansion built in the early 1900s. “Must have been one of the first home alarm systems,” he mused, eyeing it intently.

Harlan Ellison was no household name, so I expected a humble, nerdy, sci fi guy. What we got was a big ego who blew into the center unannounced on the afternoon of his talk and started issuing orders to us about what he wanted, where, and when. The phrase, “You’re not famous enough to be this bossy” came to mind. Then he thrust his jacket at me and told me to get it pressed for the talk at 7 pm. He instructed me to make sure the sleeves were “rolled,” not pressed, and before I could even scrape together my feminist dignity and regally refuse, he blew back out the door.

Great. After a quick huddle with my coworkers about my best shot at getting this done, I set off to find a dry cleaners. There were easily half a dozen within walking distance of the center, so I wasn’t too worried. I was more annoyed than anything and wished he could have asked for a bowl of M&Ms with the green ones picked out. However, it soon became clear that I wasn’t getting that jacket pressed. One after another the dry cleaners looked at me blankly and said the presses were all shut down. Apparently it was common knowledge to all but me and my coworkers that one doesn’t get clothes pressed after 12 noon. How awkward and uncivilized of us to ask! Each dry cleaner sent me to the next: “Well, we don’t do it, but Charlie’s down the street might still have his press on.” They knew damn well Charlie was sitting there, presses off, scarfing up coffee and cookies, but they had some sort of code, and I was obliged to cover a six block square area with a crumpled jacket for naught.

Then I tried his hotel. Of course they use the same dry cleaners, so the answer was the same, with the additional tease of, “Well, one of the maids might be able to iron it by hand…” Briefly raised hopes “….but we couldn’t take responsibility if anything happened to the jacket…” were dramatically smashed. And what a jacket it was. Vintage cream linen with a psychedelic lining of brilliant swirling colors. I didn’t want to think what Harlan might do to me if that jacket came to harm.

But the hotel did give me one final option. Being an adult ed center, we had all manner of household items at our disposal, including an ironing board and an iron. So there I was at 5 pm, appropriately enough on the upper floors of the center which would have housed the servants, sweating over Harlan’s damn jacket. The sweat was due to both the unusual June heat and nervousness of accidentally marring the jacket—I mean there must be a fact-based reason why so many cartoons and comedies feature clothes with a burned hole in the shape of an iron. And did I mention I avoid buying clothes that need ironing? I ascertained that “rolled” sleeves meant no crease down the length, which is a lot harder to do than it sounds. Then at one point, the iron steam sputtered and made a small mark on the one of the sleeves. I panicked and tried to get it up with a wet cloth, but it stayed fast. Luckily, it was more on the bottom of the sleeve than the top. And then the clock struck the appointed hour and it was time to go.

I carried it as carefully as I could to avoid any additional wrinkles, which you know is impossible because linen wrinkles when you sneeze on it, but I managed to get it there and hand it to him. I waited for him to ask me who the hell had done such a shitty job pressing the thing and/or rip me a new one for the mark. He whipped it on without so much as a thank you or a fuck you and got ready for his talk.

So far, so good.

Honestly I can’t tell you what the hell he talked about. All my concentration was on that mark on the jacket and replaying the ghastly afternoon in my head. I was also trying to come up with smart retorts if he called me out.  And then it was time for Q & A, and after a few questions about I don’t know what, he called on a guy, who simply said, “I like your jacket.” The world stopped.

“This old thing?” Harlan answered nonchalantly. I was having trouble taking in breath. He rattled off something about getting it in the 70s and my life started passing before my eyes, much like the Guardian in the episode Harlan wrote that shows the passage of time. And then he slipped off the jacket in one fluid motion: “Here take it.”

Time stopped. I felt like it would have been the perfect time to jump into the Guardian so I could go back to that afternoon. When Harlan tried to hand me his coat, I could tell him to take his jacket and stuff it up his Jeffries tube. Actually I was more like McCoy who had just injected himself with cordrazine and was going crazy. My coworkers had to hold me back from lunging at both Harlan and new coat owner. But what was the point? Harlan left the stage with his big ego intact, perhaps even bigger for being so generous to a fan. The fan was happy to have landed the fabulous jacket. I had to be like the Guardian at the end of the episode. (Spoiler alert my ass, that episode is 48 years old, get a grip for god’s sake.) Kirk wrenchingly lets his lover die so that Hitler won’t win in World War II, and the Guardian says, “Time has resumed, all is as it was” (or some such, I’m a fan, not a mechanical recording device). But Kirk isn’t as he was and never would be. And neither was I.

Thank You, Mrs. Gerzanick

This week is national teacher appreciation week, and by a sad coincidence, my very favorite teacher passed away last week at the age of 90. She was one of those teachers who changed the lives of many kids, including mine, and I was lucky to have her for English my sophomore and senior years in high school. I sent her random thank yous well into my adulthood; the last one in 2007 included a copy of my just-published book, and I was so proud to send it to her and thank her again.

I had no idea how old she was when I was in her class, but when you are 16 you have no idea how old anyone is nover the age of 20. Her hair was fairly gray by then, so I placed her age-wise somewhere between my mother and my grandmother, leaning more towards my grandmother. When I did the math today, though, I realized, it must have been all that teaching that had made her gray; she was only a few years older than I am now when I had her.

Remembering her in that lens makes her even more remarkable. She had this boundless, restless, passionate energy in the classroom that I can’t even come close to on my happiest, most well-rested, excited day. It kept her in constant motion during class, from one side to the other, front to back, to the blackboard and back around. She challenged, cajoled, gently chided, and encouraged us to be better, stretch further, think clearly. She inspired me to make her proud. The day she said, “What does this word mean? Who had the intellectual curiosity to look it up?” was the day I vowed to have the intellectual curiosity, and it’s remained with me to this day. Even now when I’m reading a book and curled up on the warm couch, maybe getting sleepy, I am occasionally tempted to steamroll past that word I don’t know. But I hear her voice, and I damn well look it up. Actually remembering it a few pages later is the greater challenge, but that’s not Mrs. Gerzanick’s fault.

She did give out praise when we earned it, and if we didn’t get it a lot, it was our fault for not working hard enough. Her bar was high, but it was not impossible. B’s were pretty standard. Dialing it in got you a C (and you never did again). And on a miraculous few occasions, you worked hard enough to get the A-. One friend remembered her statement of praise, “Very guuud” when you made an insightful comment or had the intellectual curiosity to look up a word. She’d draw out the “good,” and it felt like winning a gold medal.

She drilled good grammar and style into us, and the bible was required reading — the grammar bible that is: The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White (yes, the E.B. White who wrote Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little). I still have my second edition copy from that class. I haven’t used it as a reference for a long time because it’s a part of my writing DNA — she made sure of that. Her mantra, “be succinct” became mine, and the way she chirped, “If the letter C you spy, put the E before the I!” made you remember the rule.

But she was much more than a gray-haired grammarian. While she was pushing us to be more than we thought we could be, she also captivated us. Her constant movement dispersed the smell of her particular perfume and created a constant jangling of the 3 or 4 bracelets she wore every day. But the best days were when she wore what we dubbed the green leather biker dress. By today’s standards it would be a conservatively cut dress, but the fact that it was made of leather, green leather, stopped us pretty much in our tracks. We had never seen its like, and living in working class town, we generally associated leather clothing with bikers.

There are so many things I could say about how good a teacher she was, but the story that stands out most in my mind was the paper I wrote about Joseph Conrad. I could not get my head around Heart of Darkness. I hated that book and I hated him for writing it so that I was forced to read it. This was coming from a girl who loves to read and was willing to struggle though Shakespeare and wrestle with the Canterbury Tales without complaint. I dreaded having to write the paper on the book, usually something I looked forward to. Miserable, I went to the library for research on Conrad to see how I could possibly pull this off. This was the college-level English course offered in high school, and I knew better than to dial it in. She had drilled into us you couldn’t simply say you hated a book or didn’t like it. You had to say why and it better be good. Mostly I hated how he went on for pages describing a sunset or an afternoon sky. Strunk and White would definitely not approve. But how do I write a paper on that?

And there, amongst the stacks of reference books and my despair, I hit pay dirt.

I learned that his publisher paid him by the word and English was his second language. Ah-ha! I had him. I wrote in a fever, arguing that the payment had encouraged him to write more than was necessary. With gleeful detail I provided examples of how his awkward wordiness was due to writing in his non-native language. When we handed in our papers, everyone was groaning about how hard it had been — the book hadn’t won many of us over, and I regaled them with my tale of vanquishing this unpleasant writer with his own life story. My classmates were generally impressed, but the euphoria soon gave way to anxiety. I clearly had gone out-of-bounds of the assignment. It was less a critique of his work and more a justification for why I hated Heart of Darkness. Granted, a researched justification, but still. There was a general consensus that my gamble might not pay off.

When she handed back our papers a week later, everyone was waiting to see what would happen. Would I get the C for dissing a writer and a lecture about going off the grid? Would I just get the B and call it a day? Every week when she handed back the papers, she called out one or two as examples — mostly good, but occasionally she used one as a cautionary tale. That week she called out my paper — I wonder if she knew she had us on the edge of our seats in anticipation. When she proclaimed it a good paper, very original, and worthy of the coveted A-, I was euphoric and felt like I had gotten away with something. It wasn’t until later that I realized she had accomplished her goal. I had still made a trip to the library and actually worked to learn more about him, even though it was more like a private eye trying to dig up dirt. Indeed, I probably worked harder than if I had just shoveled words to support a more basic “man vs. man” or “man vs. nature” theme. Even later I learned that Conrad was one of her favorite writers. So not only had I gone off the grid, I had uniformly dissed her favorite writer. And she gave me the A- anyway.

So here’s to you Mrs. Gerzanick and to all those like you out there, working to inspire us to be better human beings, to have the intellectual curiosity to look up the word we don’t know, and to show up and do our best. Thank you.

 

Unblinded by Science

This weekend was Earth Day and also the March for Science around the country. My friend Mike and I went to the march in Boston, which was transformed into a rally for safety reasons. That might sound suspect, as plenty of other big cities managed to have marches without mishap, but Boston is so chock full of hospitals, universities, and businesses engaged in scientific research of all kinds that marching around is probably fairly redundant. We just gathered at the Boston Common and swept our arms in a broad circle to call out the all the science going on around us.

You might ask, what is a one-time failed biology major doing at a science rally? A one-time bio major who eventually accepted herself and became a word girl, that is. Well, a funny thing happened on the way to mid-life. My ex is a nurse, I have science and math kid, and I work in communications at a hospital. And while my kid can render me inert by flashing his calculus notebook with derivatives, slopes, and tangents, I have come to appreciate the importance of science and math. I have also come to appreciate all the people who do it much better than I do and actually enjoy it, leaving me to play in my word sand box. So, thanks for that. Also, thanks for creating all of the vaccines that prevent small pox, chicken pox, and all the other poxes Shakespeare liked to insult people with. Not having to battle preventable, contagious, deadly diseases leaves more time for my writing and yoga and, you know, that crazy thing called living.

At the rally, school kids from across New England who had won an essay writing contest read their work, and they were all about cleaning the air and the water and needing science to find cures and look for other planets we could live on — clearly these kids aren’t betting on us to fix this in time. I can’t say I blame them; they are way savvier than we were at that age. When we were in school, we used stone tablets, ate bark off of trees, and called this Earth stuff ecology. Remember this symbol?

ecology

I have clear memories of coloring this on many purple-inked mimeographed handouts, oops, I mean stone tablets. I also remember the message being simpler; mostly it seemed to involve not littering. I drew a lot of pristine landscapes with full trash cans, and I picked up a fair amount of litter; although back then it was mostly soda cans and paper bags. But the general idea has stayed with me all these years, even though I didn’t even like science for a good number of them. That’s what education is supposed to do, so how come it hasn’t sunk in for some people? I’m talking to you, Cheeto Flea and your minions. Maybe a little more coloring in Cheeto’s youth might have helped us out here. Or we can just stick a Crayon in his eye now.

If science teaches us anything it’s that evolution is not always a progressive process, so here we are some 40 years later having to explain why science and the environment are worth protecting. I get that there is a lot more we should do — we need more social justice-informed funding; we need to figure out how to make the cures we do find more affordable to everyone who needs it; we need to make the information about science discoveries more accessible to everyone and be able to say why it matters. Science is a long game of patience and persistence, which is kind of a drag in our very impatient society. After discovering penicillin in a failed bacteria experiment, it took another 10 years before it was actually usable as a treatment. Many discoveries take longer than that.

So, yeah, science needs some defenders, and that’s why I was so excited to see another part of my childhood at the march, Beaker, from The Muppet Show who is the long-suffering assistant of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew. I know Beaker is a true man of science because only a scientist would have the patience to get waylaid by a grinning middle-aged women who busted in just after a kid got his picture with him. OK, maybe he was a little scared too, but the point is we all have something to contribute — as users of science, practitioners of science, or fictional characters based on science. Eyes wide open, we’re watching.

 

 

It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Today is Patriot’s Day in Boston, aka Boston Marathon Day. There will be an estimated 30,000 runners who have either a qualifying time, are part of a team running for charity, or are simply a handful of rogue folks who find registering and qualifying a bother, and good for them.

At 121 years, the Boston Marathon is the oldest, and is 26 miles and 385 yards, which reminds me of the Mass Ave Bridge’s measurement in Smoots — 364.4 and one ear to be exact. For some reason we Bostonians like our precision, even if it means adding yards or an ear. Oliver Smoot, by the way, was a 1962 graduate of MIT who stood 5 feet, 7 inches. You can well imagine how he was used as a measuring stick. Perhaps the 385 additional yards in the marathon came about in a similar way. We can only hope.

This year they are retiring the number of the first woman to officially register and run, Kathrine Switzer. In 1967 she registered with only her initials — there was this pesky thing where women weren’t officially allowed to run until 1972, so they gave her a number assuming she was a man. I guess that’s some progress. Mary Ann Evans had to take an entire man’s name of George Eliot to get published. Kathrine was inspired by the 1966 rogue run of Roberta Gibbs, who apparently jumped out of the bushes near the start and ran and finished the race. Wanting to run 26 miles is crazy and hard enough, without having to concoct a surprise way of joining in. A year later, Kathrine may have made more than 26,000 steps for herself, but also she made a giant leap for women athletes everywhere — at least the white ones. Marathon official Jack Sempe tried to take her bib, yelling, “Get the hell out of my race, and give me those numbers.” Her boyfriend, who was running with her, body checked Jack out of the way, but not before the whole thing was photographed and went the 1967 version of viral. There’s a well-done piece about the story in the Boston Herald.

Cool story, right? It made me wonder about other firsts, like the first African-American man and woman to run the Boston race. And that’s where that little ole thing called racism creeps in. Granted, Kathrine’s story was splashed all over the news this year because of the retired number thing. And there was that 1967 viral photo by a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, no less.

However, it should not have taken as many Google searches as it did for me to get to those other firsts. I mean isn’t that what Black History Month is all about? Digging up historical stuff that we’ve been covering up/not caring about for, like, ever?

I found two sources, and the second one, the National Black Marathoners Association history project gets credit for actually including a — — woman. Both sources say Aaron Morris was the first Black male runner in the Boston Marathon in 1919, 47 years before a white woman. The first and only reference I can find of the first Black woman to run in Boston is Marilyn Bevans in 1977; and she placed 2nd. That’s pretty amazing right? Where are the stories about her? Granted once I knew her name, more came up in the search, including that she is considered the first lady of marathon running. But doesn’t that warrant her coming up in the more general searches of first women/first Black woman to run the Boston Marathon?

Maybe in running circles this is common knowledge, but let’s face it, most of us think marathon running is crazy, unless it’s a big event in your city and you get the day off. Or you do it to celebrate a milestone birthday. I personally try not to be friends with people like that, but one tries to be open and flexible to others’ obvious lack of judgment.

So today, I salute you, Marilyn Bevans and Aaron Morris. I like you, too, Kathrine and Roberta, but you’ve been saluted enough. You all remind me that marathons take time, effort, and preparation. That sometimes people don’t want me to accomplish a goal, so I have to jump out of the bushes or avoid getting my bib grabbed. That sometimes remarkable accomplishments go unnoticed because of skin color or gender or both. That many times I need to remember that and be curious beyond the story of a white woman’s amazing accomplishment.

Happy running.