Category Archives: work

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.

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?

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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.

 

 

Dammit

Don’t you hate it when life tries to teach you stuff?

Life, knocking at the door: “Hey, it’s me, here for your lesson. It’s time.”

Me:”Oh, hey, hi. No thanks, I’m good here with my glass of wine and Netflix. I think the people upstairs with the endlessly barking dog could use your help, though. Wow, that is seriously annoying. Go get ’em!”

Life:  “No, I’m here for you.”

Me: “Look, I get it. You’ve got a boss you have to answer to. I’m really fine. Oh, remember all that stuff we learned a few years ago? I was curled in a ball and cried a lot? Good times! So that counts, right? I learned stuff, I’m not curled in a ball anymore. It’s all good, right? I mean, seriously, that dog. He barks constantly when they aren’t home. Have a heart and think of him. His owners surely need to learn a few things.”

Life opens the door and walks in, looks at me with raised eyebrows. “Really?”

Me: “Awwww, dammit.”

Yeah, I really hate that shit. So, we had the election, and the inauguration (I can’t even capitalize it in good conscience), and whatever the hell this is now. I’ve felt angry, nauseous, adrift, overwhelmed, and I’ve been eating too much. And that’s the part that really hurts — especially after I worked so hard long to lose weight. And I would like to point out that my son recently got sick enough to stay home. That never happened during the Obama years. Just sayin’. The facts don’t lie. Oh, ow, see? You can’t even joke about that stuff now.

So, what?!? What exactly, Life, do you have to teach me right now? Can’t you see it’s hitting the fan, like the paint on Spin art? I had to work this weekend to meet a deadline, my son is having senioritis, two great coworkers are retiring soon, my siblings are meeting this week to sort out how to best help our parents who are in their late 80s — old age is a riot, isn’t it? — and my dating life is in the toilet. And this morning the piece de resistance was getting a familiar pain in my left eye, and seeing the telltale bloodshot eyeball. Of course, scleritis. Why wouldn’t I get scleritis right now? Don’t worry, folks, it’s not dangerous, just annoying and requires lots of ibuprofen for 10 days.

Life just looked at me with that “are you finished?” mom face for a few minutes without speaking. I hate when she does that.

And then I couldn’t help but recount all the recent encounters of my friends showing up in my life when I need them, and the fact that my siblings can meet and work together, the substantive conversation I had with my son about how he’s really doing. And on top of that, two things that are helping ground me in this new era. And that’s the life lesson, tucked into the gratitude. Until I can find how to ground myself, I’m a liberal fall leaf getting carried down the orange Cheeto River.

One thing was the workshop I just finished on bystander intervention. I will blog more details soon, but in the meantime, if you are upset that people are feeling more free to say hateful crap, it’s a great thing to have a few techniques and a plan in your back pocket. As a reserved person in public (dancing is totally different!), all my life I have thought if I only were more bold, I could be helpful in a situation where someone is being targeted with hateful, sexist, racist, or, heck, even drunken speech. Guess what? It’s all about knowing yourself and using your strengths.

Dammit–know myself!?! As all my half-assed attempts to meditate and center myself flash though my mind, Life starts to chuckle — she’s not the most empathetic person. So before she comes knocking on your door, too, if you are in the Boston area, check out Rona Fischman’s class. If you’re not, try to find one near you.

The second thing that helped was reading a book called, Just the Facts, by Davis T.Z. Mindich. Well, I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s still helping. The subtitle is: How “objectivity” came to define American journalism. Apparently it started in the 1830s, and that was a violent era under Andrew Jackson (“I was born for the storm and calm does not suit me.”) with mobs of middle class white men dueling and caning people and disrupting antislavery meetings as they tried to preserve their, um, privilege. It did make me twitch a bit, but it made me thankful dueling and mob violence is slightly less prevalent now. In this world of fake news and the prevalence of the perceived equality of everyone’s opinion on social media and blogs, it’s a good place to get grounded in.

So I have some history to look back to, and I have learned I can dig around in my reserved bag of tricks to call out inappropriate remarks to help others both in work and in stranger situations. Rona emphasized anything you can do to prevent small incursions on civilized discourse helps it from becoming a bigger problem. And you have to know yourself to do it.

Me, holding the door open: “Thanks so much Life; you were right! I guess it’s good to be uncomfortable sometimes. It helps you grow.”

Life, settling comfortably into one of my chairs with a drink next to her, crosses her legs and squints dispassionately at me through the smoke of her recently lit cigarette.

Me: “Right. What do you want to watch on Netflix?”

 

Take a Right, Left, Then a Dogleg at the Dunkin’

This week I wanted to lighten things up, and the universe gave me what I wanted.

I was walking to the train after work last week, and as I waited at a light to cross the street, a young man sort of looked in my direction, looked away, and then looked back. He was cute, so I entertained myself by thinking he was going to flirt and turned my head, smiled, and looked full at him. He noticed, and asked, “Can you tell me how to get to the North End?”

The look on my face must have been that New England “can’t get there from here” look. Depending on where you are in Boston when the hapless, lost person asks you, giving directions can be almost cruel. “Follow Cambridge Street until you come to the third Dunkin’ Donuts on the left — the road curves and becomes Tremont Street, but don’t worry about that. Just ignore it and follow the road…” By this point, the person has that blank look on their face, and you both know they’re not going to even make it to the first Dunkin’.

I pondered which of the ways I could tell him that would be least likely to lead him astray. Then he said in a more pronounced New York accent, which I hadn’t caught before, “This place is worse than New York!”

I started laughing. Encouraged, he proceeded; “There’s no math, just old English names!”

This tickled me to no end. My work in hospital communications is the sole reason I even admit numbers exist, and over the past 9 years, I’ve come to appreciate the usefulness of numbers in the world. However, make no mistake. I’m a word girl through and through, and my world is rocked by letters and words. But I have never considered streets being math- or word-oriented. I was delighted to be in a word city.

I laughed even harder and added, “Yes, just old-ass roads with no logic.”

Now he was into it, laughing too, as he said with the perfect New York point of view: “Yeah, it’s like, fuck you, take a right!”

I got my laughter under control enough to point out the way that made the most visual sense–not the way that would have been shorter.

“Walk down this street, and at the light take a right (I skipped the ‘fuck you’). Follow that road, you’ll go under an overpass, and you’ll think I’m sending you to the devil, but just stay on it. Then you’ll see Faneuil Hall — ”

At that his face lit up. “I know that place!”

“Great!” I wished him well, and we both walked in opposite directions, laughing our asses off.

So, this is my new way of directing people in Boston: “Look, there’s no math, just old-ass English names. Fuck you, take a right.”

Image credit: From this delightful blog about Boston cartography. It’s how you have to drive to get from a point A to point B in Boston. You can see why we walk!

Week Two

It was kind of a rough week. I don’t recall the last time a president’s executive order increased my work load in hospital communications. So you can blame the Cheeto for this short post. His nonsense took up most of my energy this week having to write something to calm employees and patients about the immigration ban. Meanwhile, inside I felt like an old school journalist, sweating under deadline, in a cloud of cigarette smoke, and wishing for a Mad Men-like flask in my drawer. The week did end well, though, with a family gathering for my son’s birthday, and a Planned Parenthood meeting at a friend’s house. Some quality family time and political action does a girl good. I learned a number of things at the meeting:

  • Planned Parenthood provides Pap tests, breast exams, birth control, HIV testing, health care for men and women, and more.
  • In many communities, especially rural ones, Planned Parenthood is the only safety net provider of family planning.
  • I need a group, a glass of wine, and tasty snacks to help me write political letters. A while ago I had put in a reminder to myself to write to my US representative Katherine Clark about something. So, I thought I’d finally do that as well. When I pulled it up on my phone, it said “Thank Katherine Clark for not going to the inauguration.” Um, yeah, so clearly I can’t be trusted by myself to get the job done. In addition to asking her to keep funding Planned Parenthood, I was sure to thank her for all she was doing. Better late than never, I suppose.

So, that’s all I got this week. That and the photo from a long ago, far away vacation (back in September) with my sis and bro-in-law on Hilton Head island. That is my current happy place.

If you’d like to help keep Planned Parenthood funded, go to www.istandwithpp.org/call .

First Snow

I woke up this morning in a funk that carried over from last night–kind of from the whole weekend, actually. I’d had an OK weekend, really, so it wasn’t obvious where the funk was coming from. As I was trying to pin down what it was so I could kid myself that I could wrestle it to the ground, I looked outside and saw it was snowing. Great. I usually get excited for the first snow of the season, but all I could think of was having to brush off the car and slogging in it.

I walked along to the train, hood up, shoulders hunched as if it were blizzarding; if I’d been a cartoon character, I’d have had one of those storm clouds hovering over my head. My brain was busy reviewing all the things that could be causing the funk–every new Trump pick for an important office tears the day-old scab off a wound that hasn’t even begun to heal, I have friends and family members who are struggling with various difficult personal situations, and I ran around during the weekend, but didn’t get as much done as I would have liked. On and on the brain whirred, feeling very useful and important.

And then I finally saw it. I looked down at a little patch of grass and saw how the snow was covering it just enough to be pretty, but not enough to impede me. The sidewalk was wet, not snowy. And then I remembered how I had the exact same thought just a month ago while on a hike in the White Mountains. Snow, heck even cold, can be a dangerous thing in the Whites. Just because they aren’t 10,000 feet high doesn’t mean they can’t kill you. I was hiking through a forest around a pond that could have been the location for Lord of the Rings, and it started to snow lightly. I was warm enough and could see it wasn’t accumulating on the trail, so I was able to open up to the magic that any moment a hobbit could appear on the trail.

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I smiled at the memory, and then the whole world opened up. The city, in its gritty little concentrated way can be just as beautiful. And so I started taking pictures:

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The beautiful strength of sweet peas still blooming from the unseasonably warm fall, and now holding court in an abandoned patch of land.

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While this picture may not conjure up a hobbit poking his head out, a garden gnome certainly could.

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Yes, Virginia, even sidewalk weeds can get a little magic from the first snow.

 

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And, of course, there’s always cool man-made structures that can be made better with nature’s help.

Noticing the immediate world around me and taking the photos shut Busy Brain down, and I remembered that meditating on the train would be a good thing. Oh, Busy Brain put up a bit of fuss, “Hey what about our funk? We have to figure this out. You can’t just do nothing about this funk!” But by the end of the train ride, the funk was back where it belonged as a type of music to dance to. Brain was off pouting, and I walked the rest of the way to work feeling gratitude in the gentle little snow and keeping a sharp eye out for gnomes and hobbits.

 

 

Nice, My Ass

Before the election — I think this is going to be my new way to mark time — I declared to a friend, “I’m tired of being nice, screw that. I’m not going to be mean, but I’m not going out of my way to be nice. I’m done.” It was in the context of having spent my life being the “nice” person for the worst possible reason: to get people’s approval. Nothing soothes the old insecurities like the slightly superior stance of, “Everyone likes me better than you because I’m nicer and you’re a nasty piece of work.” Plus, being nice means you can never blame me for anything. Of course, there is a price to be paid; dysfunctional, manipulative people eat nice people for breakfast, and before you know it you’re waiting in the getaway car while said manipulator is shoplifting for fun. The other price is that being nice is tiring, and of course, complete bullshit.

And then my perimenopause came along, and Anger swaggered in and kicked Nice to the curb and dumped a drink on her head. At first I thought it was a common symptom of perimenopause, but when I started to talk to my peri friends, I began to get a certain arched eyebrow look when I described how I wanted to pummel a woman for wearing a coat with an odd graphic design. Doesn’t everyone? They’d nod with sympathy and a splash of alarm and confess only to moodiness. Hmmmmm. Now let’s see, a lifetime of being “nice,” and my peri takes a wrong turn onto a rickety wooden bridge across a canyon and catches on fire. While it might take a literature professor to make sense of that whacky metaphor, it doesn’t take a postdoc in clinical psychology to figure out the anger part. It’s that annoying, yet necessary human tendency to make sure we never miss a developmental stage. If you were a teen having to take on adult responsibilities and you haven’t worked that out, your brain will encourage you to run around during midlife acting like a clubbing and drinking teenager. I admit there’s no hard data on this, but trust me, there’s no escaping. Sooner or later skipped stages come back to bite you in the ass.

At first the anger freaked me out because it was so random and seemed to come out of nowhere. Ha ha ha, that’s a good one, isn’t it? “Nowhere,” aka a lifetime of working too hard to be nice. Slowly I learned to notice it, let it be, and not let it get me booked for assault with a deadly coat. As my self-confidence took root, though, I felt something else: a profound sense of relief as I realized I didn’t need to be nice. I was cool just being me. Even better, I didn’t give a flip if people liked me or not.

And that’s how I came to tell my friend I was done with being nice. It felt good, it felt right. Except for my friends who are grandfathered in, if you want to gain access to my good graces, you’re going to have to earn it.

Then the election happened.

After the shock, fear, and desire to knock over a liquor store peaked and ebbed, I was left with the hard truth. Dammit, I have to be nice again. The angry haters are having a field day, and I want no part of that. Plus, I have a kid, so I have to be a good role model — it’s a real drag sometimes. But I slowly realized I don’t need to be nice, which would be useless anyway. What I need to be is kind.

Definitions: Nice  = pleasant, agreeable, satisfactory . What could be more useless and annoying? Kind = having or showing a friendly, generous, and considerate nature. As the guard at Emerald City of Oz said, “That’s a horse of a different color!”

I’m done being pleasant and agreeable. Being generous and considerate is where it’s at for me now. So as the news of Trump’s transition team threatened to overwhelm me because I started to add up all the protests I was going to have to attend, I realized the true antidote was to be kind, right now. Rather than go home from work in my usual state of taking refuge in the anonymous urban environment and not notice anything or anyone, I could be kind. As it often seems to do for me, the universe gave me three encounters to practice.

The first was at Whole Foods. I put my package of stroopwaffles on the counter, divine thin waffle wafers hugging a filling of thin cinnamon caramel. The cashier was a woman of color, and she playfully put them behind her back, and said, “Ooooh these are so good! I’m keeping them for myself!” Usually, I just smile and nod, nicely, but it was much better this time to laugh and say sincerely, “I know, they are so good!” And I prevented myself from adding, they are even better warm from a street vendor in Amsterdam — she probably already knew that.

I left the store, crossed the street, and was approached by a slightly disheveled man of color carrying a small bag of possessions. He started talking in a soft voice, and I caught a few phrases, “new to the neighborhood” and “having a hard time.” Usually I walk by with a quick, “Sorry,” as I continue on my way. But I stopped, looked at him, and since he hadn’t yet articulated what he wanted, I asked, “Do you need help?”

“I need to eat!” I said “OK,” and handed him the first bill in my wallet, a $5. He thanked me and pulled me in for a hug. I believe I hugged him harder than he hugged me. We pulled away, and then we pressed our heads together.

He said, “God bless you. If you need anything, I can help you.” Ah, but you already have, mister.

I got off the train and as I was walking to my car, a brown-skinned boy, maybe 10 or 11 called to me, “Do you have the time?”

“It’s almost six,” I said, and then I remembered how my son and the younguns prefer the exact digital time, so I corrected myself. “It’s 5:55.”

“Good!” he said, “I have to be home by 6!”

“Can you make it?”

“Yes!” he said as he ran off in the direction of his house. And I stood and watched him and appreciated in that moment that he wasn’t afraid to ask a stranger for the time, nor was he afraid to make his way home in the dark.

So far, so good. only 1,489 days to go.