Opinion: What’s the Matter With You, Charles Koch?

Charles G. Koch, the long-reigning CEO of Koch Industries, has shown his avaricious nature by publicly stating recently that — by continuing business operations in Russia amidst the barbaric war that their leader is waging against Ukraine — he is putting the welfare of 600+ employees ahead of the greater cause of democracy and the lives of thousands of innocent Ukrainians. (By the way, Mr. Koch, no one believes that that’s the fundamental reason for your inaction. Profit has always been your prime motivation. How else to explain that you’re the 18th richest person in the United States — right behind your brother’s wife, Julia Koch.) I’m taking specific aim at Koch Industries when I condemn the 162 companies that obstinately refuse to end or suspend operations in Russia.

Why does Charles Koch deserve particular scrutiny or scorn in this instance? While it’s convenient to begin with his self-delusional lie regarding his reasons not to suspend business in Russia, there are more worrisome signs, in my mind, that this individual is devoid of most of the characteristics that I associate with worthy, civic-minded Americans. And while he may be a decent human being — he looks like he is kindly, his ideologies are in perfect contrast with my own.

The list of sins is long:

  • Deems labor unions as harmful to workers.
  • Minimum wage, likewise, hurts workers.
  • believes public education has been contaminated by a culture of “protectionism”. I listened to a podcast in which he spoke with authority about the common practice of school districts to keep unqualified teachers, all harking back to the poisonous effect of teacher unions.
  • Public educators stifle creativity and promote liberal views.
  • Believes there should be broad environmental de-regulation.
  • Is skeptical about climate change, especially our species’ role in it.
  • A free market economy fosters a society where the rich will provide for the poor; we don’t need governmental assistance (or interference), thankyouverymuch.

Any one of his “truths” can easily be dismantled, and as a retired educator with years and years of both classroom and leadership experience, I’d love to go toe-to-toe with him — at least on the matter of public education; but at the end of the day, his bottomless wallet has vastly more influence on others’ thinking than my impassioned words. He can set up nonprofit organizations, and as part of his family’s “Youth Entrepreneur” program he can dangle tuition money and start-up money in front of (literally) hungry and directionless students; he can even transfer jaw-dropping amounts of money into Republican candidates’ coffers or lobby for de-regulation in all manner of industry.

With the bits that I’ve learned about one of our country’s richest individuals — and I admit a certain bias against ridiculously wealthy people; they can’t claim to have a genuine pulse on what’s best for the average man or woman— I can’t help but shake my head in pure disbelief when I contemplate Mr. Koch’s indefensible contention that he cares too deeply about his 600+ employees working in glass manufactories (operations for which Koch Industries receives tax credits) within the borders of one of our world’s most thuggish and megalomaniacal dictators. Charles Koch’s “philanthropic” reputation cannot help but be stained by his decision. It is to be hoped that he will see the light. . . before it’s too late.

Sources:

Am I Elderly or Still “of a Certain Age”?

I’m elderly. I’m elderly. If I say it enough times, will it be easier to accept? But, is 66 really elderly? Is this something that I should accept (right now)? Am I elderly? Or can I still claim that I am “of a certain age”?

These questions have been ricocheting around the insides of my brain since the end of last week when I had my annual physical exam. (Confession: my last “annual” exam was over four years ago.) Pre-registration was a mighty affair — there were about five pages of questions and fact sheets; even though I entered the clinic with a spring in my step because I’d been feeling pretty fine of late, the “me” who left forty-five minutes later did so with sagging shoulders and spirits and minus the spring in my step. More than anything, I’m curious to know if my contemporaries have recently faced this new line of interrogation. I’m told that the protocol shifts once someone reaches 65 years old.

I was prepared for the softball question — do I feel safe in my home? but beyond that, whoa!, things got real very quickly. I answered questions about whether I use a handrail when climbing or descending my staircases (sometimes), is there a “grab” rail in my shower (no, not the kind that would sustain my weight), do I have scatter rugs (no, but the edge of one of my area rugs is curled up in one corner), nightlights (yes, but they’re currently not plugged in), moveable objects between my bed and the bathroom (do dogs count?), do I have difficulty walking, getting up after sitting for any length of time (define “difficulty”), do I own a space heater (yes, but I lied and said I don’t), do I smoke (no, but this questionnaire is having me consider it), how much alcohol do I consume (when you say “glass of wine”, how big do you mean)? And, finally, the “mini-cog test”: I was asked to draw a clock showing “forty-five minutes after ten o’clock”. Wouldn’t it vex you that they didn’t ask it in the normal way: draw a clock showing “ten forty-five”? No one says, “Meet me at Loretta’s at forty-five minutes after ten o’clock”.

The “mini-cog” test

The mini-cog test, I learn, is to test for early signs of dementia. Dementia is obviously a big concern once someone surpasses the golden age of 65. I know this because the nurse practitioner dedicated a chunk of our time to discussing the importance of having a living will, in which I would make clear to my family whether or not I would want, for example, to be left on life support (long-term) if I were irredeemably suffering full-blown dementia. Better to have that mapped out before it becomes an emotionally-charged issue.

I was careful to appear hale and hearty, mainly because I had read that you don’t typically incur a co-pay for well-visits, but if a diagnosis should arise or medication is changed or newly-prescribed, you may have to pay a co-pay. Honestly, though, I was feeling hale and hearty. . . until the living will discussion.

In sum, it was a lot to take in, even for someone who does every imaginable screening that is medically possible. (I was even apologetic for going nine months between my last two dental check-ups.) So, does anyone know if the protocol changes again when we reach 70 years old? What questions will they add then? As much as I appreciate my doctor wanting to understand me completely, as someone who worked for decades in the field of education, I also understand how questionnaires work — some of the questions exist simply to plant ideas; one might claim that there’s a certain degree of propaganda built into them. Call me cynical, but I can’t help but wonder how it helps my doctor to know that, at age 66, of sound mind, I own a space heater. (What, is she going to call me up nightly and ask if I remembered to turn it off?) It’s a really great little appliance, by the way, with a realistic flame that appears to lovingly lick the fake logs. Should I be worried, though? About forgetting to turn it off, I mean? This dementia thing has really gotten to me.

Happy Birthday Messages

(In order to protect the privacy of family I’m using initials for siblings and spouses.)

The author wins with an early (tactile) greeting!

The COVID-inspired group texts began as an affectionate reaching-out among the siblings, a way to acknowledge each other’s birthdays, a way — too — to preserve the threads that bind us together. I don’t remember when it started or who started it (probably it was “PM”; no, surely it was her), but it was a simple happy birthday message and because it included the group of siblings and spouses, it served as a reminder to those of us who might otherwise forget the birthday. As with most things in this family, the thoughtful gesture kindled the competitive spirit that often defines our special relationship. The birthday greeting soon became sport, today’s version of sport. . . which is to say, competition that must also entertain. The back-and-forth volleys continue all day long and sometimes resemble stream of consciousness, entering and exiting topics to the point where the message’s focus and clarity are often temporarily lost. No rules guide the conversation, but it all concludes with an acknowledgement of who the winner is, not that that’s ever in doubt; quite simply, whoever expressed happy birthday first is the winner.

At our age, and as we grapple with all the COVID-generated challenges that carry uncertain implications, the simple gesture of wishing each other a happy birthday takes on added value. It brings a little bit of joy and humor to our day. (I wonder if the others have come to depend on this new ritual as much as I have. I’m retired — I have plenty of time not to forget their birthdays.)

Our family’s interactions — even via text messages — illuminate who we really are and the powerful yet concealed dynamics that shape our hierarchy. It might be obvious who among the thirteen siblings and spouses enjoys great respect by virtue of birth order (the oldest) or who gets teased the most (the youngest), but we rarely dive deep to try and understand, say, why one sibling — always willing to try something new — eagerly (and optimistically) cartwheels right into the middle of things, why another is content to stand apart and simply observe what’s going on, why another converts a thing said or done into a joke, and yet another offers words that always pull us close together when we’ve unwittingly drifted onto potentially dangerous emotional minefields. We fall quickly and easily into our typical roles.

For many of us, deprived of the freedom to move easily among people (haven’t we all become more deliberate in our social contact?), we’ve been compelled to fill the void by instead connecting with each other through words, and this seems like a positive byproduct of social distancing. And words are never just words; they carry overt, as well as subtle and implied meaning. I never have bought into that saying about sticks and stones — it’s just a hollow attempt to excuse meanness. The messages, emails, face-time, and even cards and letters, do much to reduce the space between us; they serve as timely signposts that we’re being thought of, that we’re part of something essential.

Now, for your entertainment, I offer you a sample of one of our birthday exchanges; it just happens to be the most recent one.

Key to actors:

  • KM = brother #1 (oldest)
  • TM = brother #2
  • MGM = wife of brother #2
  • CM = brother #3
  • PM = wife of brother #3
  • JTM = middle child of 7 (and author)
  • MD = sister (5th child)
  • TD = husband of sister
  • M-nmn-M = brother #4 (6th child)
  • JM = wife of brother #4
  • RM = brother #5 (7th child, youngest)
  • MM = wife of brother #5

(KM): Let there be no equivocation, JTM is the winner of the birthday greeting sweepstakes. (text is accompanied by photo of opened birthday card.)

(MD): That is cheating! No early entries. But really she is the winner!

(JTM): (laughs at “That is cheating!…winner”)

(KM): I consider a card the highest form of fraternal affection so JTM wins not only relative to the timing of the occasion but also in the form of said expression.

(CM): I’ve been planning next year.

(KM): Clearly a capitulation to the stylistic and expertly conducted campaign by JTM.

(CM): no, this was in my plans all along due to the extensive nature of the preparation as well as the significant capital deployment.

(TD): . . . in other words, no card, no gift?

(CM): and no text

(KM) By your words you have obviously conceded that you could not compete with the emotional commitment and outlay of a simple but meaningful gesture.

(CM): Dah.

(TD): (laughs at “and no text”)

(KM): I offer the old but sage expression, “It’s the thought that counts”

(KM): As I plan my celebration of my entry on this orb, I plan to arise with the sun, walk the beach in deep contemplation of all the gifts and talents I have experienced over the course of a lifetime devoted to the pursuit of communing with my fellow man.

(KM): I then will repair to my humble abode and prepare a sumptuous petite dejeuner of crepes and imported mixed fruit compote with which to share with my devoted wife of 28 years.

(CM): Somebody break KM’s phone.

(TD): (submits an animated GIF of his wife MD looking either bewildered or “out of it” or perhaps long-suffering. It’s hard to tell.)

(KM): Having so sustained myself I will head over to the local St. Vincent DePaul thrift store where I will offer my services for the poor and indigent. Thus having restored both body and soul I will return home for a luxurious nap.

(PM): (laughs at “somebody break KM’s phone.”) Then, (laughs at “having so sustained myself. . . nap”)

(TM): This has been so much fun. Can we do this again tomorrow? Oops, it is tomorrow. So, Happy Birthday, KM.

(JM): Happy Birthday Kev! Enjoy the crepes & compote.

(MM): HAPPY BIRTHDAY (with party/celebration icon)

(KM): Thanks to all, love you

(MD): Happy birthday!!! (with party/celebration and cake icons)

(MGM): I am the late bird. Happy happy birthday, KM!! (with several celebration icons) Hope it’s a great day and year!

(CM): HB, KM

(And where’s RM, people?!)

*************************************

Alas, my feelings of victory are hollow ones because (I must confess) the card arrived earlier than KM’s birthday only because I can never remember the precise date!

Bridges

As everyone who knows me understands, I love to study the landscape when driving. It takes a real conscious effort to keep my eyes on the road, and there are several views that make such responsible behavior very difficult. As I’ve mentioned before, whenever I cross the Gillis Bridge on Rt. 1 between Salisbury and Newburyport — especially at either sunrise or sunset — my eyes veer from the path I’m traveling in order to drink in the beauty. What is it about bridges that stirs our sensibilities?

When I was teenager (and at the age where one would assume reason had begun to take hold), I often took long walks and even longer bike rides from my home high on Titicut Hill, a place that had amazing, long views in nearly every direction, but was envied by no one because of its proximity to a maximum security prison. For those wondering why on earth I would take long walks and bike rides in that setting, it comes down to this: you can live a cowed, circumscribed life behind locked doors, or you can shrug your shoulders and ask yourself, what are the odds — really — that an escaped prisoner will happen to be in the same space at the same moment as I? (Weirdly, and maybe inexplicably, I didn’t find it creepy, but rather reassuring when the patrol would follow slowly behind me on the service roads and field lanes.) As everyone who grew up around Alden Square knows, you did your best to assign the prison to a subordinate corner of your mind, and tried to have an ordinary childhood.

In my travels back then I would inevitably stop in the middle of whatever bridge I crossed. Living in Bridgewater implied that there was no paucity of bridges that spanned waterways. Most often, the water maundered lazily, affording my thoughts to likewise flow without hurry from one idea to another. Whether this habit translated into a lifelong fascination with bridges over water, or it was because of an innate fascination in the first place that led me — as if by magnetic force — to the middle spot of all those hometown bridges; it has been an enduring compulsion.

My dog Mona, however, does not share my affinity for bridges, and I trace it back to our first “journey” over a serious bridge. Soon after the completion of the new John Greenleaf Whittier Bridge over the Merrimack River in 2017, I was eager to walk the pedestrian trail connector that was included in the engineering plans for the replacement bridge. (The bike/pedestrian walkway had been proudly acclaimed as the first of its kind to be built into an interstate bridge.)

After parking the car, I set out with Mona from the Salisbury side of the William Lloyd Garrison Trail. We had gone barely fifty feet and she began sniffing around for a suitable place to “do her business”. Alas, her only option consisted of one thing — concrete. Soon her appraisal took on a desperate quality. I assumed (wrongly) as I coaxed her along that she would become less particular about bathroom accommodations. She tried to be a good sport about it, trotting along for a bit, then swiveling or zigzagging whenever her nose picked up a scent that only dogs can detect. Dissatisfied, she’d then continue on beside me. By now, we were about one-third of the way in our ascension of the bridge’s span. And, then, Mona’s relief was suddenly at hand (or paw). There, right there in her path, was the magic key to her deliverance. A single leaf. I watched — one can’t help but be interested when a dog is aiming for a single leaf. Mona skillfully arranged herself above the leaf and achieved a perfect dispatch. (Granted, the havanese — with those short legs — is already close to the ground.) I may have imagined it, but it did seem her eyes rolled toward heaven and she shuddered with (physical) relief.

Mona seemed, if not happy, at least willing to continue our journey. I, of course, felt the need to reach the pinnacle of the bridge’s span. (For those unfamiliar with the Whittier Bridge, it is a substantial one over a sizable river.) If I could get to the bridge’s midpoint, I knew I would be rewarded with an exquisite view of Deer Island, which sits in the middle of the Merrimack, suspended charmingly between two small bridges. To this point, I hadn’t noticed that the wind was picking up. But, by the time we reached my goal and turned to face Deer Island to the east, the wind was howling. I wanted to enjoy the moment. I tried to enjoy it. I just couldn’t, and in all fairness to my 12-pound little girl, the situation demanded that I — for once — accept that not every bridge is well-suited to reflective thought. We turned and headed back down the bridge, Mona in good spirits, but — no doubt — making a mental note to object with every one of her twelve pounds if I ever, ever tried to take her on the Whittier Bridge again.

Merrimack River looking west from RR Bridge trailhead at Old Eastern Marsh Trail (Salisbury MA)

Bowie’s Few Minutes of Freedom

Do you ever have those occasions when — after the horse has cantered gleefully out the barn door — you wish your “thinking fast” part of the brain had given way to the “thinking slow” area. . . but maybe at lightning speed? A fifteen minute ungraceful lurching through the still deep snow this morning was a result of one of those moments.

As much as my two dogs Mona and Bowie enjoy our daily walks, the restrained pace is a poor substitute for the freedom to run unhindered. These days they rarely have such opportunity (especially with the amount of snow that keeps getting dumped on us), so today — because the surface is just hard enough for them to run across without breaking through — I tried to simulate the experience as best I could by placing each of them on a long lead and running beside them up our private road. If you have dogs, you can probably relate to this: as soon as I began running, they thought, oh, fun, let’s play chase. The first obstacle, literally, was a maple tree that they decided to encircle with their long leashes. My solution was to follow behind. . . and go round and round as they continued round and round. This moment was the first in which it would have been wise to pause for a moment, reflect on alternatives to chasing two dogs round and round a tree.

Having successfully liberated the maple tree, we returned to our backyard, where I was able to pry the gate open to our new, fenced-in garden area. After unclipping my two excited pups, I sat on my bench and watched them chase each other and wrestle with all the freedom they could wish for. Their joy made me smile.

When I decided playtime was over, I clipped the two pups back on their leashes and headed out through the gate. That move was a signal to resume the game of chase and wrestle, or rather, chase and wrestle-wrestle-wrestle, quickly converting two dogs and two leads into something resembling a tumbleweed. Seeing that one of the leashes was wrapped around one of Bowie’s back feet, I reflexively — and here’s where I would have enjoyed the benefits of slow (rational) thinking — unclipped his leash BEFORE grabbing his collar. Thus freed, he dashed off across the yard, the leash having miraculously fallen away from his foot and the rest of his body. As Mona strained to join her brother at the end of a now tangled skein of two leashes, I set off in pursuit of the wily Bowie. By now, he was nearly to my neighbor’s front door, but he suddenly had second thoughts. I used his indecision as an opportunity to flip the script. I’m not proud of it, but I essentially dangled Mona as bait.

Oh, Mona, aren’t you just the best little doggie?! Let’s go play! And I ran with her toward our house. She, of course, was thrilled, thinking she was about to have Mommie to herself. She bounded along and bounced up and down. Bowie streaked straight as an arrow right at us. I threw myself at him as soon as he was close enough. Collapsing in the snow, we were now our own contorted arrangement, and both of us were breathing hard. I had no back-up plan if I had failed — it’s doubtful you can pull that trick a second time. A subdued trio then climbed the front yard and re-entered the house. God, I hope all my neighbors didn’t just witness that.

So, I’ve signed up Bowie for boot camp. It can’t come soon enough.

an exhausted Bowie after his fleeting moments of freedom

A Post-Modern Era – Sure, Whatever

I told my older daughter yesterday that I had a real desire to want to drop the word “postmodernist” into a conversation — seamlessly, or as if I use it all the time. The result, of course, was that I had to go down the google rabbit hole to find out what it even means. I landed on a literary website that — no surprise — assumed a certain degree of prior knowledge. I don’t have that.

If I stated that in order to understand postmodernism — as an era or sensibility or cultural style — one needs to first consider modernism; then all of you (or, rather, I should say, all of us) would instantly lose our way. I made a valiant effort to make sense of it all, but after tripping over words such as metanarrative and philistinism, I became hopelessly lost in even the most general statements. Consider this premise: modernism, which flourished during our grandparents’ and parents’ time, was shaped by a suspicion of all things popular*. I just couldn’t get past the idea that what became popular was a rejection of that which was popular. (So, who was making it popular? A different set of people than the ones who were eschewing it?) I arrived at the end of one article being less clear than when I began.

Modernism, at its most negative, was characterized as puritanical and uptight, cleaving rigidly to historical truth and objective reality. That movement gave way to postmodernism right around the time that the civil rights movement was taking firm hold of the collective conscience. By the time I was graduating from high school, it was in full flower. To compare the two “movements”, all one really needs to do is examine how our parents’ lives (if they came of age just prior to WW2) were different from our own, and make generalizations. Looking at just one aspect — livelihood — tells us a lot. Manufacturing and constructing things with one’s hands no longer made sense (or cents, for that matter.) The Information Age was already under way, re-shaping not only work-related skills, but attitudes, as well.

Without getting all high-brow, I think I can safely say that postmodernism in some way claims that reality is relative, and nothing should be taken seriously. Your reality is different from mine. So, if I claim that gluten is a baker’s best friend, that reality may hold true for select bakers, but not others. (I like gluten.) It gets worse. There is no objective reality, so say the postmodernists. In this way, science and “historical truth” — according to britannica.com — are invalid measures. As such, they are merely dartboards for muzzy-headed Fox News pundits and guest personalities, the Fauci deniers, if you will. Even death loses its objective nature. If you have watched (and liked. . . as millions of viewers do) “Shaun of the Dead”, you will have a great appreciation for postmodernism.

I come away from my examination of cultural eras with these thoughts, questions, and conclusions:

  • A term like “postmodern” makes me reflexively think that it applies to a period that we’ve yet to enter or experience (because I can’t help but think that “modern” applies to now.)
  • Who gets to name the eras/movements?
  • Have they got our era wrong? I tend to think that it’s the loud minority — as always — that is paid attention to.
  • If we buy the notion that “reality is subjective” (and that maybe we all place too much emphasis on historical truth,) then the behavior of certain members of Congress and a certain past president vis-a-vis January 6 makes a lot of sense to me.
  • In a post-modern setting, irony rules.
  • We’ve exited the post-modern era and are now in what someone has decided to call “meta-modern”. If you’re willing to accept the defining features of this new movement, they are a reaction to all the chaos and cynicism of post-modernism. . . naturally.

(I promise you I will not return to this discussion. Honestly, learning about postmodernism was painful, and it is highly unlikely that I will ever slip the word “postmodernist” (or any of its related parts of speech) into a conversation. It was not a carefully considered idea, even if I wanted to sound smarter by using it.)

*from “Literary Theory and Criticism” (literariness.org)

My Introduction to Dough

I set out recently to learn a new skill. I’ve never been able to work with dough, not the gratifying kind that earns interest. . . well, maybe that, too, but rather the sticky goop that insists on shrinking when you manhandle it with a rolling pin and yell at it to expand. As if in a cruel twist of irony, all the other necessary ingredients and supplies that you remove from your cabinets do very much appear to swell to eventually consume the entire expanse of your kitchen island, as well as all remaining open counter space. (I never concern myself with the rogue bits of cheese and diced vegetables that descend to the floor, as the dogs will work conscientiously to address that issue.)

My husband George was the pizza expert in our house, having acquired mastery in the years he worked (as a high school senior and then while a student at North Shore Community College) at Monty’s Restaurant in Lynn (of the “Monty’s Monty’s by the sea, buy two pizzas get one free” renown.) Over the years he perfected his own recipe, very similar to the thin-crust sort that Monty’s sold. We were all big fans of his style of pizza. Sadly, he never wrote down the recipe, nor did he share it orally with any of us.

This past Christmas Eve, my older daughter and I joined our McKenna relations in Beverly and had a relaxed dinner featuring pizza with crust that very much resembled George’s, nice and thin and crispy. I consider it close enough to say that it is. . . well, close enough, so I have an acceptable contender for the crust. I’m still working on what goes on top of that, as well as my skills in making it look round and even.

Not content to satisfactorily make just pizza, I got it in my head that I wanted to learn how to make English muffins. I blame it on Judy, because she came to one of our “girls’ breakfasts out” with bags of homemade english muffins for each of us. Darn it, but weren’t they the most delicious?! That was at least a year ago, and now that I’m working on my dough skills with serious purpose, I decided this past weekend to make some myself. “So easy”, “the simplest recipe”, “a snap”, “a cinch” — such lies those culinary bloggers boldly (and cheerily) posted. Maybe my first mistake was consulting people who spend their days in their own home test kitchens. It would have been more helpful to land on a blog in which the blogger admitted frankly that they don’t know what the f**** they’re doing in the kitchen. It would serve as a vital object lesson for all other amateurs (and by “amateur” I mean a total ignoramus).

If you saw the resultant state of my kitchen (both days, since you are advised to “proof” it overnight and do a second proof on day 2), you would be struck by how uncannily similar it appeared to the Ardennes Forest in the Battle of the Bulge. Every surface staggered under the weight and chaos of bowls, skillets, whisk, sheet pans, spatulas, flour, cornmeal, more flour, more cornmeal, small bowl for milk (that I failed to warm up), additional bowls (because “medium-size” is such a relative term), melted butter (because I was too aggressive with the microwave), specks of yeast (because those packets are impossible to open neatly), cooling rack, and all manner of measuring utensils. But not, significantly, a metric weight scale. I won’t go into the specifics and tease out where I first went wrong (and where I subsequently went wrong), but I will say that despite sensing at nearly every stage that I should scrap the mission, I persevered. . . nevertheless.

Lacking the highly desirable nooks and crannies, and denser than the expected “light and fluffy” quality, and not so much round as asymmetrical and somewhat oval and of varying sizes, they have — in the end — a mild and satisfying flavor. I’ll take it! If George were here, I think he’d applaud my efforts. He’d probably gush — as he poured syrup all over them — about how delicious my pancakes are, and I wouldn’t feel the least need to disabuse him!

Learning About How Trees Talk to Each Other (Another Book Report)

Whenever I make the 90 minute drive from my house to my sister’s, I turn on NPR and thus convert what might be a stressful trip into one of enlightenment. The trick is to leave earlier than I need to or to never have a fixed arrival time. Having removed that stressor, I’m usually not bothered by stop-and-go traffic, which, let’s face it, through Boston and down to “The Split” is pretty much a given. I’m a fan of “Hidden Brain” hosted by the honey-voiced Shankar Vedantam and “Fresh Air” with the endearing Terry Gross.

On New Year’s Eve Day I was delighted to find myself with Ira Flatow and his “Science Friday” program. (For years I thought his name was Ira Plato — it was only in looking up the correct spelling for this post that I made the discovery that I’d had it wrong all these years.) His guests were two science editors, and the three of them had a congenial share session, rhapsodizing over their favorite books released in 2021. (That’s one of the things I love about Ira — he always conducts such cozy and benign interviews, never the “gotcha” kind. One imagines a coffee-house setting, with everyone ranging around a low table, sipping craft coffee while burrowed into deep, pillowy sofas.)

Of the twelve “favorites” being reviewed, I was most intrigued by Suzanne Simard’s memoir, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. Buying the book was a bold move for me, as I was acutely aware that three science minds were recommending it. I feared I would quickly become adrift in the technicalities. Well, yes, I did get rather lost in the weeds — no pun intended. But I congratulate myself that, for once, I persevered despite my ignorance in all things dendrological. I just finished the book this week and FedExed it across the country to my daughter, who lives in the Pacific Northwest, therefore ticking the relevancy box (as will quickly become apparent), and being further reassured that I was gifting it in the right direction because she’s someone who casually throws around words like ecosystem and nitrogen in the same way that I invoke terms associated with ice cream flavors and toppings.

Suzanne Simard grew up in the forests of British Colombia, descending from a family of loggers. Her close physical ties to the land inspired her educational and career choices, ultimately earning her a PhD in forest sciences from Oregon State University. Throughout her story we have a sense that, as convincing as the findings from her field studies were, she was forever seeking the blessing of the logging industry policy-makers, who for the longest time remained obtusely resistant to her peer-reviewed studies and her prescriptive solutions to the sickening forests that they were sanctioning. To her enduring frustration, she also was repeatedly and unfairly challenged simply because she was a woman doing serious work in a male-dominated industry. Despite the specious denials by the old guard, her work was meticulous and groundbreaking, flowing naturally from her own curiosity about the underground interactions between trees, both same species and different species. From the beginning, she suspected that trees communicated with each other through a network of mycorrhizal fungi, and that these conduits provided mutual aid when trees underwent stress. I must pause here to reassure you that “mycorrhizal” is as science-y as I dare to get, and I only use it because it is so essential to her work (and because I read that word about 5,000 times in the course of reading her memoir.)

As her story wended its way through decades-long studies and efforts to stimulate sustainable practices, I began to understand her sense of alarm over the fate of North America’s forests. Even though she shuns the spotlight, she has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to inform not just the science community, but the shapers of policy as well as the general public. Central to her mission is educating about the harm inflicted when clear cutting is followed by single-species restock protocols. I now understand, for example, how the “free to grow” practices that the logging industry swore by were failing to produce healthy forests; the strategy of single species cultivation, whereby any and all “competitors” are systematically removed, is an (expensive) exercise in wasteful depletion. Backed up by her own and others’ experiments, Simard has proven that diversity is essential. (Mineral exchanges, for instance, of nitrogen and carbon through the underground mycorrhizal network assure the health of “the neighborhood.”) I can’t help but think of her discoveries as magical. That there’s this whole underground world of tree communication — a mutual aid society, if you will — just blows my mind. It makes me want to dig around some of my trees to examine the mycorrhiza! (But I don’t want to hurt them.)

Later in the book, Simard turns her attention to the predatory crises posed by bark beetles (the mountain pine beetle and the Douglas fir beetle, in particular.) As forests are weakened by both logging practices (directly) and climate change (generally), the beetles have gained the upper hand. The scale of the invasions should have us worried.

Simard’s life’s work has been an effort to encourage conservation. She’s not a combative, in-your-face contrarian. Rather, she takes a nuanced approach, understanding that there’s a workable solution that acknowledges the goals of the logging industry, but remains sensitive to the critical needs of the environment. Her heart is so fully in the fight to get her message out there and, ultimately, to save the forests.

The book has given me a lot to reflect on, and I’ve been looking at my surroundings differently. The most visible evidence of this is that, more than once, someone on the rail trail, in trying to move around me, has had to interrupt my tree gazing as I stand still in the middle of the path with one dog sniffing on one side of the trail and the other (of course) stretching his leash to the other side while I study the crowns and understories of interesting trees (that I’ve made a mental note to learn the names of.)

I highly recommend this memoir, going so far as to say it is an “important” one. That it is relevant and the conclusions credible is a certainty. Don’t be deterred by its scientific bent — I wasn’t, and I’m a baby when it comes to technical reading. I’m much more mindful now (but maybe only slightly more knowledgeable) about ideas such as energy transfer (energy can neither be created nor destroyed) and the whole notion of ecological balance. It forces one to look more carefully at larger contexts when faced with natural (as well as man-induced) events, and to wonder — in the end — about how everything connects.

As my final reward I followed up with the author’s TED Talk, “How Trees Talk to Each Other“. It does a great job of synthesizing her work.

My Version of U.S. Route 1

My introduction to Route 1 was arranged by my new boyfriend in the spring of 1976. With a meticulously detailed, hand-drawn map, complete with images of cows in front of Hilltop Steak House (Saugus) and the impressively tall and long stone wall bordering Parkland Avenue (and Pine Grove Cemetery) in Lynn , I nervously set out one Saturday morning. It’s doubtful that I had ever driven further north than Randolph, Massachusetts, and the soundness of my 1963 Rambler was always a concern. Granted, it was a solid piece of machinery and would likely have plowed over most other vehicles on the road — that is, unless the engine seized or I blew a tire, my greatest worries of the day. I pretty much stuck fast to that same course whenever I visited George or his dad from parts both south and north of there. In all the intervening years — 1976 to now — whenever I travel that path I think about that map, especially the cows and that imposing wall. It might have been one of the earliest signs that this guy was really into me.

Until I later moved with this boyfriend-cum-husband-cum-father-of-my-children to Salisbury in 1985, my feelings about Route 1 were clear and, frankly, immutable — I hated it. Drivers were the worst! None of the three lanes was safer or saner than the others. It wasn’t until I had a few travel experiences on Route 128 that I would cease to announce (to anyone who cared), “Route 1 is the worst road ever!” It’s even worse today, hardly shocking news.

U.S. Route 1 in Byfield, MA

But there’s another stretch of Route 1 that I came to know after we moved to Salisbury, and it’s a much friendlier, more soothing segment for the motorist. In fact, the section between Danvers and Salisbury — where it’s a single lane in either direction — in no way resembles the nightmarish part between Boston and Danvers. For those who reach that part alive, you’re graced with bucolic roadside scenery. The traffic lights in that stretch, given as gentle reminders to keep your speed moderate, have the added advantage of coaxing a pleasant examination of the surroundings. You can, as well, more easily contemplate the road’s origins.

If you’ve ever wondered about the naming of our roadways, your curiosity should begin with, why U.S. Route 1? Of all the numbered roads, being #1 is bound to be important. It may not be necessary to begin at the very beginning, when it was a mere trail system for travelers on foot, then horse-drawn cart, then stage coach. My own curiosity forms a halo around the persistence of the “Newburyport Turnpike” name. The turnpike era began in the final years of the 18th century, coinciding with a blossoming national sentience. With our struggles for independence a settled matter (by and large), our confidence as a new nation permitted us to turn our efforts toward long-term projects. With products being zipped all over and between the states, a tipping point had been reached; municipalities were finding it difficult to make improvements and regular repairs to public roadways. It does seem hard to fathom that once upon a time, road maintenance was 100% a local responsibility. (Think about that every time you pay a toll going over the Tobin Bridge or use the Mass. Turnpike.) Public charters, arrangements made between municipalities and private companies, acquired a decided appeal. And, even though their margin of profit ebbed and flowed in season with the rise and fall of other modes of popular transport, they can be credited with our roads’ finest hour in terms of maintenance. (Again, think about that each time your car hits a pothole.)

Returning to the naming of our roadways, before a consistent numbering convention was drafted in 1925, all the major roads bore names that reflected their uniqueness, as it were. But the states were suffocating beneath the ever-growing confusion of road names, not to mention the increasing traffic as Americans indulged their new passion. At that time, road names were much more evocative: the Dixie Highway, The Yellowstone Trail, and — of course — our own East Coast Highway, to which everyone along The Atlantic seaboard wanted to belong.

The really interesting piece in all of this is how the U.S. Department of Agriculture — in particular, its Bureau of Public Roads division — formalized the exact trajectory of the course that came to be called U.S. Route 1. I’d always assumed that the pathway that bears the name Route 1 was an obvious delineation, easily traced in red on an early 20th century Rand McNally road atlas, but with the clamoring interest up and down the Atlantic coast to be included, a definitive means of codifying needed to be established. There was instant approval of the idea advanced by E.W. James, chief of design for the BPR, that they use the historic “Falls Line” roadway network as a template. In the early days of our nation when cargo was moved by boat, communities were established as far upriver from The Atlantic as boats could safely reach, usually at the point where they encountered falls or rapids. To meet overland cargo transportation needs, a network of inter-city roads was established. Anomalies, inconsistencies and political outmaneuvering notwithstanding, that’s exactly the pathway that U.S. Route 1 followed, beginning in 1926.

Parker River at Rt. 1 (looking west), Newbury MA

For all the years that I traveled back and forth to my teaching job at Triton High School in Byfield, Massachusetts, I never took for granted my commute along Rt. 1. I always rhapsodized about how easy and relaxing it was. Even though it would have been faster to take Route 95, I nearly always opted to go the slower road. For those of you thinking, Gawd, who would choose willingly that nightmare of a road? I point out that Rt. 1 between Danvers and Salisbury is a delightful departure from parts both south and north of there. In Topsfield, the way is bordered by old stone walls, behind which can be seen rolling meadows and antique farmhouses. Postcard worthy images, for sure. Further north (and part of my daily path), the marshland through which the Parker River flows was a constant source of pleasure, especially early in the morning. Each day, by the time I crested the hill above the Parker, I opened my mind to the anticipated landscape. Often, the mist was just beginning to dissipate, exposing the salt marsh hay stacks above a fleecy blanket of white-gray. Other times the mist traced a serpentine path directly above the river. And there were plenty of mornings, too, when the long shadows cast by the rising sun distorted all the features before me, creating a surreal canvas of darks melting into lights. No matter the season, there was joy in the scenery. With only three traffic lights between my house and school, and few cars on the road so early, I was pretty much alone with my thoughts for the twelve minute ride to work. Given how easily I was distracted by the landscape, it’s remarkable that I never crashed into anything. I was probably most at risk when I knew the sun would just be edging above the horizon as I crossed the Merrimack — I could never resist craning my neck at precisely the mid-point of the bridge. And I always always remarked — to no one other than myself — about how beautiful it was.

early morning, crossing the Merrimack River, October 2015

Inasmuch as I might entertain a sentimental wish that we could return to a more intimate era when our major roadways sported names that reflected regional character, such an invocation to revisit the past can provoke unpleasant consequences. Who, really, would think it wise — or sensitive — to reintroduce and perpetuate, for example, a highway that contains the word “dixie”, given the word’s association with a romanticized antebellum era? My wistful thinking is modulated further when I consider that the earliest (successful) efforts to name our “trails” were outcomes of merely the noisiest promoters of road names. It wasn’t any governmental body that affixed the names to our major roads up through the early decades of the 20th century. It was trail associations (with very defined motivations) who often competed for naming rights, and who — in fits of pique — might change the course of their routes and completely snub offending cities, making it all be known by slapping up new signage on barns, rocks, trees, or other visible objects. Say what you will about governmental interference, but the national systematizing of our roadways was an inarguable giant step forward. The fact that anyone can reasonably navigate from one part of the country to another is largely due to the imposition of a systematic and simple strategy — north-south routes were given odd numbers, east-west even numbers (with the more substantial transcontinental routes being further categorized: east-west were two-digits ending in zero, and north-south ending in either one or five.) Think of any numbered route and apply this formula — it works!

It is my great hope that you — loyal readers — don’t get overly mired in the nomenclature, and instead aim your car for destinations that provide ample roadside distractions. Even before I was retired and traveled the same 12 miles to work each day, I never ceased to be surprised by the landscape along Route 1. I’d like to think that roads aren’t empty, colorless lanes between point A and point B, but rather conduits to experience nature’s ever-shifting kaleidoscope of images. It’s worth it to leave for work just a few minutes earlier in order to luxuriate in the details that we’re forced to overlook when it’s a frenzied commute down the interstate. I’d like to think that for over twenty years I took a Sunday drive — every work day — so that I wouldn’t miss out on the blanketing mist that hovered over the Parker River flood plain or the occasional Northern Harrier who glided above it or the sun rising over the Merrimack, all images that bolstered me, centered me, imbuing each day with meaning and purpose. Such memories I hope to always hold dear.

The Mona Lisa is Non-Fungible*

I learned today that the Mona Lisa is non-fungible. It only took me three articles and two You-Tube videos to learn that. Don’t get me wrong — I learned a lot today, all having to do with virtual reality and things like “NFT’s” and blockchain and bitcoin (although I have to admit there’s a certain quality about all these things that my brain just naturally rebels against, and, consequently, I’ll probably forget by tomorrow everything I learned today.) If you’re wondering why I would waste “valuable time” on things that don’t really exist or only exist digitally or intangibly, it’s because I wanted to understand why the hosts of Good Morning America were behaving this morning as if they’d all just glanced out the studio window at 44th and Broadway and seen a flying saucer. Gobsmacked, they were.

I can only take so much of GMA’s reporting, as it tends to see-saw between alarming, ohmygodwe’reallgoingtodie delivery and overly ebullient, ilovepuppies feel good stories. I understand that if they reported that Grady McGrady (not a real person, by the way), an average person working in a typical job was having an average day, it wouldn’t capture and hold anyone’s attention, even the average American who would — and should — be inclined to sympathize with Mr. McGrady. I always feel as if they’re masterfully manipulating my emotions. I’m up, I’m down. I’m up again (because heaven forbid I be left in a puddle of my own despair at the end of the show.

The news that apparently left the GMA hosts dumbstruck was the disclosure of Walmart’s recent forays into the metaverse and their plans to create their own cryptocurrency, as well as begin making and selling virtual goods. That’s right; pretty soon you’ll be able to buy personal care items and toys — the not real kind — if you have approved levels of NFT’s (non-fungible tokens). If you pause for just a moment to reflect on why they’re muscling into this realm, well, why not? In their own words, they’re “continuously exploring how emerging technologies may shape future shopping experiences.” (It’s perhaps cynical of me to suspect that this big-box giant has within its mission statement some language about garnering a bigger percentage of consumer spending than the competition.)

You might be surprised to hear that I don’t believe the lines between our physical and virtual lives are becoming blurred. I’m more apt to reframe it all by pointing out that our virtual behaviors are claiming more of our time, time being something that will always have finite value. If I ever have occasion to look back on something I either did or had and can’t remember if I did it or had it virtually or physically, then I might concede that the lines are blurred. The argument really has to do with how realistic-seeming these virtual elements have become, how effectively they mimic the real world.

This all brings me to my larger point. I’ll offer an example here: RTFKT is a sneaker brand; they design virtual sneakers that are then auctioned off, one pair per month. They’ve sold out every month, and the highest bids consistently come in at $15,000 or higher. I can’t speak for other consumers, but even if I had that kind of money to spend on anything virtual, I question the authenticity of emotion that that type of purchase (and possession) would generate. I spend more money on boots than I ought to, but when I physically wear them, they make me feel good. Could I feel the same if I dressed up my avatar in one of my pairs? Mmmm. . . doubtful.

So, why have we become a virtually acquisitive society? Washington, D.C. filmmaker/journalist Johnny Harris explains this phenomenon from a psychological standpoint, “As soon as humans have enough abundance to have their basic needs met — food, shelter, warmth, etc. — the next frontier is to create value in things that have no inherent value.” Cyclically, perhaps, and often tied to periods of plenty, we’ve been doing this for a long, long time. All it takes is a persuasive salesperson to proclaim that such-and-such has great inherent value, and it provokes a human response to want to acquire it. Hence, you’ll have people willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, er. . . NFT’s to “own” a few seconds of video of NBA Top Shots.

For Johnny Harris’ clear and very understandable explanation on YouTube, click here.

*”non-fungible” – A term used in economics, for all intents and purposes it means unique and irreplaceable.