Category Archives: Musings

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.

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.

 

We Have a Winner

Collegepalooza came down to two contenders — state schools, one in Massachusetts and one in New York. We drove to each one on consecutive weekends for accepted student day for a final look. We were nearly a 1/2 hour early for UMass — who knew driving on a Sunday morning cuts 30 minutes off the travel time? And we were about 1/2 hour late for SUNY. You can read about all those shenanigans here. Both had students cheering us on while we drove along the winding roads to the parking lot. I think they made us park far away from the main road to the school just for this purpose. Both had super geeky professors in their physics/astronomy departments, which seems about right.

After much hand-wringing and deer-in-the headlights looks from my teen, he finally picked one — class of 2021 at SUNY New Paltz. I was hoping 2021 would be one of those iconic Space Odyssey years, but alas, it’s not. He’s stuck with an odd graduation year like I was, although in retrospect 1987 had a lot of great 80s music. Maybe he’ll get good 20s music.

He’ll be a Bostonian in a school of nearly all New Yorkers, a fair number of those from NYC. And while I like to make fun of New Yorkers — it’s kind of a favorite Boston past time — I also have to admit I met a number of them when I went to college at BU, and they taught me a lot about confidence. That NYC attitude annoyed and impressed me, which is a great way to get interesting conversations started. And the ones not from NYC have attitude about explaining where they do come from in that state. That’s takes a certain amount of resilience. In the end, even if they are faking it ’til they make it, they generally have confidence to spare, and that is never a bad thing to learn.

And he’ll get to know a non-New England point of view that’s probably as different as if he’d gone to school farther way. New York is a state of mind after all. And that’s pretty much the main point of college, if you ask me. Well that and a bunch of other stuff that I certainly never did, nor did my siblings, for that matter. Right guys? Will I lose him to NY? It’s a 50/50 split in my family. One sister left our home state of Connecticut after high school to live around the Albany area and has been there ever since. The other sister went to Syracuse University in New York, and came back to Connecticut with her native New York state husband-to-be in tow.

Either way, just getting there is a pretty big deal in itself. Congrats to my kid and to all the kids who are finding their way, whether it be college, trade school, working, starting a business in a basement, tripping around Europe, or following the Grateful Dead around, if that’s even still a thing. Go find your thing.

 

Photo credit: Envisioning the American Dream

 

 

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.

 

 

Flashback

This week I had a flashback to when my kid was a baby. He is now an 18-year-old senior, and even with teenager shenanigans, I’d still rather have a teen than a baby. Babies turned out to be not so much my thing, and you won’t see me hanging creepily around families with babies, staring too long. If I’m hanging around, it will be for some other completely different creepy reason.

But that’s another blog post.

So there I was Friday afternoon, focused solely on my offspring, making sure he was packed for our overnight trip to visit a college for accepted student day. Yes, we’re on the home stretch of Collegepalooza, and I love the dean who said while polling the kids about the other colleges they were deciding on, “And how many of you can’t decide and are driving your parents crazy?” My kid raised his hand. See? Better than a baby.

I had already packed, so my stuff was in the car. I asked a few more “Did you bring your [fill in the blank]” questions and it seemed we were ready.  We were going to stop at my sister’s house for dinner as a driving break and then drive for another hour or so and head to a hotel near the college. This was my attempt to recover from the previous week’s accepted student day at a college closer to home. It turns out you can shave 30 minutes off the drive time in Boston if it’s a Sunday morning. Since I try never to be awake early Sunday morning, this is not something I would know. And now that I do know I don’t have to wake up at 6:30 am on Sunday, I was hell-bent on not doing that again. So, we were booked at a hotel well within roll-out-of-bed-grab-coffee-and-get-to-the-event distance.

So on Friday, I did a last check in on the kid, he grabbed his driving learner’s permit, I had my coffee in hand, glanced around the house for anything being obviously forgotten, and did the little mantra, “Well, whatever we forgot, we’ll just buy another one,” and off we went. As I was overly pleased with my cleverness, it wasn’t until we were two hours into the trip that I realized what I forgot.

My wallet.

I don’t carry a purse because I find them annoying. Also the name is stupid, second only to pocketbook. If the garment industry would actually make all women’s clothes with pockets, we wouldn’t even need the darn things. In the winter, I mostly use what my friend calls a coat purse. I put the three things I need — phone, keys and wallet — in the pockets of my coat. In summer, they go in my pants pockets, unless I’m wearing a cute sundress, and then I have compromised with a crossbody bag, which is absolutely not a purse. It fits only those three things, and if I’m feeling spatially up to it, I can squeeze in my sunglasses.

But on Friday, I had switched coats and as I was focused on my offspring, I’d left my own important thing in the old coat. This happened a lot to me when my kid was a baby. On trips I’d make sure he had everything he needed because the price for leaving behind the favorite toy, or the baby wipes, or the kid himself was rarely worth paying. The Department of family Services can be a real bitch about that kind of thing.

On the highway, I realized the only ID we had between us was the driving learner’s permit, which clearly stated it could not be used as a form of ID.

Now the real fun began. Do hotels ask for ID when you check in? I could recollect handing over my driver’s license and my credit card at a counter, but I couldn’t tell you in what circumstances that had occurred — the airport? Renting a car? Buying Sudafed? Were hotels in that mix? Then of course was the paying part. Would they take Apple Pay on my phone? Did I even know how to use Apple Pay on my phone? Did my sister have a couple hundred bucks in cash lying around I could borrow?

I called my sister and gave her the heads up. She did have cash, but other than that there wasn’t much we could do until I got to her house. When I did I called the hotel. The front desk person said they did accept cash (rather snootily declining to even answer the question about Apply Pay, I may add). However, that was moot because they needed an ID to check me in. That’s when I wondered, what do people who are sneaking around having an affair do? Losing all the dark outdoor spaces for secret trysts is bad enough, and now you have to identify yourself if you take it indoors. What is this world coming to?

The hotel woman did say they’d accept a photo of my ID if someone was at my house and could take a picture and send it to me. Somehow, that seemed even more stupid than requiring one in the first place. How serious is this requirement if you’ll accept a photo of a photo ID?

So I sat in a small puddle of self-pity for a few minutes, but then within the next hour, my sister had procured an airbed so we could sleep over, she had cash to give me and coffee, and the hotel didn’t charge me for canceling late — clearly the right thing to do since I was physically unable to check in, but the “right thing to do” and “payment policies” rarely rub up against each other, so I was grateful for that.

All that was left was not attracting any police attention and the fact that I had to do all the driving. I was pretty sure I’d be able to talk my way out of not having a licence if I got pulled over, but if my son got pulled over, with only one form of unacceptable ID between us,  we were pretty much toast. But I drove the speed limit, a novelty for sure, and no one did anything stupid near me on the road, also a novelty.

Sending a big thanks to my sister and the universe for getting us to where we needed to go. My kid still doesn’t know where he wants to go to school, but at least I know that next time, I’m letting him forget something.

 

Cheeto Has Even Ruined Dating

So, I thought Republicans liked small government and to stay out of people’s lives, but maybe that only applies to rich white men or white women who look like Kellyanne Conway. All the rest of us got Cheeto flea and the Republicans peeking into our windows, trying to wrestle away our health care, and tweeting at us 24/7. To add insult to injury, Cheeto flea has even managed to make dating more chaotic than it already is. I am a frequent peruser of and an infrequent responder to the Craigslist dating ads. It’s really more entertainment than an actual dating site, but it doesn’t cost anything and doesn’t require understanding what swiping left or right means. Which really sounds more like a Mr. Clean ad than dating, but what do I know?

Anywho, there amongst the earnest souls looking very specifically for big women, fit and athletic women, or women open to “everything,” whatever that might mean, I saw an ad by a very sane-sounding, intelligent guy. We exchanged a couple of emails and seemed like we had enough in common to meet. About 5 minutes after agreeing on a day, time, and place, he emailed me back to say he had Googled me and found my website. He sort of apologized for doing it, but I’m a big fan of Googling strangers, so that didn’t bother me in the least.

But what he next said floored me. He read a lot of my posts (points for not making assumptions after 1 or 2 blogs), he said I was a really good writer (double points for stating the obvious), and that he also feared we disagreed on a number of issues that would make us incompatible. I’m pretty sure he was not talking about the blog I wrote against skinny suits. Even worse was I had asked him what made him interesting, and he said he always tries to do the right thing. So, here he was, actually doing the right thing by telling me we were not compatible in the most straightforward, respectful way.

According to my friends who date, this is unusual. Like unicorn unusual. Many people in that situation would have just stopped responding or stood me up. To quote Liz Lemon, “Blurgh.” No, wait, even more worse was he was so respectful and articulate about it, he made me rethink my attitude towards Cheeto supporters. So there was already a moment of introspection and growth with this person, and I hadn’t even met him yet. Double blurgh.

Would this have happened before Cheeto? Maybe, but I’m pretty sure I would have at least gotten a decent first date out of it, and it might not even be a deal breaker if we had enough other things in common. OK, who am I kidding, I could never seriously date a Republican. But I could totally have dinner and a make-out session, which would hold me over until the next unusual post by a sane-sounding, intelligent guy. But now, you can’t even get to first base without knowing someone’s political leanings. Fighting racism, sexism, and orangeism is really stressful enough and now there’s this.

But like everything else Cheeto flea has done in the past 73 days (only 1,387 left!), it only makes me more determined to carry on the fight: for social justice, health and reproductive rights, the environment, and our inalienable right to date.