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.

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth*

I had every intention of letting the rejection just roll off my shoulders. But I thought about it again today, and I think I’m even angrier. So this is primarily a rant (which I promised I wouldn’t do in this new blog space. Gee, that didn’t take long.)

A couple days ago I reached out to the Schlesinger Library, a special collections library within the Harvard Library with what I considered a generous offer. I’d long known about their status as a research organization; in particular, they champion efforts to highlight the accomplishments of women. In their words, they stand apart as “the leading center for scholarship on the history of women in the United States.” I assumed that a copy of my mother’s World War II album would be a welcome addition to their holdings, useful to those doing scholarly work about women’s contributions at critical moments in our nation’s history. I personally do not gain by donating the book; in fact, I would incur the printing and shipping costs, but as someone who gives my time freely to a local historical society, I understand the value of firsthand accounts by people who played a part or were witness to pivotal events in history, whether those events were at the community level or much grander in scale.

Nagasaki after atomic bomb, August 1945

It may be that we all imbue treasured family artifacts with inflated value, but there are elements in my mother’s story that — through photos and notations — dramatically capture important subtleties, as well as complexities, in a war that likely will always hold our gravest lessons about the depravity of humankind. For example, my mother, in her military role as dietitian, was deployed to Namur, Belgium in February of 1945 (in a mission referred to by its acronym RAMP) to serve as part of the team that would intake and treat liberated and recovered Allied POW’s.** Incorporated also into the album are a few photos that were captured by one of the first photojournalists to arrive on the scene after the Americans dropped “Fat Man” on the city of Nagasaki, Japan August 9, 1945. The photojournalist who gave the pictures to my mother’s family was able to memorialize one of the most controversial actions of the war. To see these pictures — in stark and minute detail — simply leaves one without words.

In boldly bragging about “its traditional strengths in the history of feminisms, women’s health, and women’s activism,” the Schlesinger Library nevertheless is spurning a great opportunity to preserve a relevant first-person portrayal by a self-styled feminist. The final insult in the Library’s rejection letter, after offering the now-customary excuses about pandemic constraints and hurdles, is that if it had been a chronicling by someone who fit within their “strategic priorities”, for example, by a woman of color or a conservative woman, they would gladly accept it. They apparently don’t see the hypocrisy with their stated commitment to deepen their holdings by “women of all political philosophies” and to promote “a more complete story of human accomplishment.” As if it weren’t already fairly remarkable to be a female commissioned officer serving in France, Belgium, the Philippines, and Japan during World War II.

Unlike New England School of Law, which was thrilled recently to receive my aunt’s overstuffed scrapbook from her years at Portia Law (Cl. of 1939), the Schlesinger suffers by its hasty rejection. The word arrogant comes to mind. Perhaps I should be more sensitive to the organization’s efforts to level the playing field, whereby it gives more space to underrepresented groups. I would argue, however, that any primary source material that succeeds in deepening our understanding of complicated and consequential events in history would be inherently desirable.

It’s their loss.

And I’m sorry I even thought they were worthy.

For an account of “Hospitalization and Evacuation of Recovered Allied Military Personnel” (RAMP), click here to visit the WW2 US Medical Research Center.

*See how I found a way to connect with my earlier Greek mythology posts?

**There was an interesting distinction made inside the hospitals that were set up to treat our recovered POW’s. When the Allies opened up the concentration camps (or they were abandoned by the retreating Germans), some PW’s followed orders to remain in place until transported to the hospitals, while others responded to a primal urge to put distance between themselves and their misery. The first group’s members were designated “liberated” and were given priority over the second group of “displaced” PW’s, those who often just wandered staggering into the army hospital grounds.

Smoking is Bad for Your Health

Each day I get an alert from History.com’s “THIS DAY IN HISTORY”* and (nearly) always find something about it that fascinates me. A couple days ago it was about Christopher Columbus’ mistaking manatees for mermaids, and that sent me down a rabbit hole. I learned about the Steller’s sea cow (and of course that recalled for me the recent sightings of the wayward Steller’s sea eagle who is having trouble finding his way home to Eastern Russia), their namesake (George Wilhelm Steller – quite an amazing fellow in his own right; I’ll have to study this 18th century botanist/explorer further), manatees, and ending with a perusal of mermaid-centered 15th century art. I hardly need to point out that all of this took place in the comfort of my home via the internet. How would we otherwise manage COVID restrictions?

This morning was no different; I happily descended the rabbit hole; in fact, I haven’t fully re-emerged. On this day in history in 1964, the U.S. surgeon general Luther Terry reported the findings of a two-year commission: succinctly put, smoking was hazardous to your health. Its obviousness is laughable now, but you can’t help but time travel back to 1964 and re-experience — in your imagination — how prevalent smoking was, and how accepted its practice was. My parents were both smokers, and I’m sure nearly half of my readers can say the same thing. We can commiserate about all the joyless car rides in which our greatest challenge was how not to breath in the secondhand smoke. Meals were typically followed by a ritual lighting up of either a Kent or a Winston, and no project by Dad went unaccompanied by a smoldering cigarette notched into the rim of an ash tray. With just the merest effort, I can re-imagine the distinctive aroma of a filled ash tray. I was forever emptying the abalone and clam shells that we used as improvised ashtrays and washing them out, but of course the cycle was perpetual, therefore making my gesture pointless.

Surgeon General Terry’s 1964 report was a watershed moment. As the percentage of adult smokers had surpassed 40% and there was no sign of the upward trend reversing, he had done something quite courageous. Knowing that the pushback by the enormously powerful tobacco industry would be fierce and prolonged, and mindful of Wall Street ramifications, he nevertheless put his (unsurprising) findings in front of the public. While it took decades for legislation to subsequently be enacted, Terry’s principled stand serves as a heartening example of one influential person’s choice to prioritize the public good. In a world where profit, expediency, and self-interest on the one hand compete with public health, humanitarianism, and charity on the other, today’s leaders could use such a reminder.

Check out “THIS DAY IN HISTORY”: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history

A Thousand Ships

For those paying close attention (and I’m not suggesting that you should be paying close attention), you might have noticed a thematic repetition in some of my choices of books lately. It began with Circe, and having loved that book, I eagerly read The Song of Achilles by the same author, Madeline Miller. I just finished A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, and walked away from it with that same feeling of satisfaction. So, now I’m left puzzling over why I am just now being turned on by stories inspired by Greek mythology. Why now? Why not before?

One would think that there might have been a smidgen of curiosity way back when I was in high school. After all, our school mascot was a Trojan. Perhaps the turn-off was that everyone always considered the name’s other connotation much more naturally than any association with Odysseus, Helen, or Achilles, or just generally the whole Heroic Age. It’s possible that I quailed at the prospect of mispronouncing all those Greek names with a preponderance of vowels (and off-putting diphthongs). It is equally likely that the ancientness of it all failed to inspire me. I think I’m closer to understanding why I now can embrace these stories. The gradual shift within me has to do with a new acceptance of ambiguity, uncertainty. What I mean is, in the past I wouldn’t have been caught dead reading a story centered on the Trojan War, mostly because of archaeologists’ inability to say definitively where Troy was. While the accepted wisdom is that the walled city held an unassailable position at the southern approach to the Dardanelles (along the Turkish straits), I couldn’t imagine investing all that time into reading about an event that may or may not have taken place where the experts were in reasonable agreement that it did take place. Moreover, hedging their claims about the real names behind Homer’s characters only left me even more frustrated. If I were to read a book about war, I wanted a war from the last couple of hundred years. Everything about them seemed more conclusive.

The reason A Thousand Ships appealed to me is because Haynes freely admits (big surprise) that there are enormous gaps in our understanding of the role of women during that ten-year war (and the ten years that followed). With her imagination thus unfettered, she wove a vibrant, highly entertaining tale, one that portrays the female characters in ways that allow us readers to nod vigorously and say, “Yes, I can see how it might have played out that way.” There’s nothing high-brow in Haynes’ writing style; in fact, she very artfully transforms the unapproachable and fabled characters into flawed, mortal, touchable beings.

If you can get beyond the challenge of accurately pronouncing Greek names*, you’ll love this book. (I’m trying to ready myself to read The Odyssey, and maybe I should do the audio version to avoid my own mishandling of names.)

*As I read, I used online pronunciation guides, but even they were not in agreement. Sometimes, the British pronunciation deviated from the U.S. pronunciation, and other “guides” were just rubbish, contradicting rules of Greek phonetics (as I am beginning to understand them).

Spectator Par Excellence

From the moment I could toddle without great risk of thumping my head on objects in my path, Mom’s unvarying instructions to my older brothers before they hurtled out the door for all manner of improvised adventure was always, “Watch your little sister, please.”

“Sure, Mom,” was their standard reply, never breaking stride and never glancing back, but assuming — accurately — that I would tail them wherever they went. Whether I have a right to be, I am reassured in my belief that they took that responsibility seriously, and would never let harm come to me. At least that’s what I say now. As a child, I was pretty skeptical that they were in full accord with the mantra of “leave no soldier behind”.

Gildea cousins at the First Pond (Papa Joe’s birthday, 9-Feb 1965)

Behind our grandparents’ farmhouse at 1777 South Street were three small ponds tucked into a wooded area.  They were imaginatively named “The First Pond”, “The Second Pond”, and “The Third Pond”. Rarely were they ideal for skating because the surface would be covered with leaves, twigs and branches, or snow. For early efforts at learning to ice skate, however, they should have been perfect. There were frozen streams, too, that connected the three ponds, allowing you to conveniently skate from one to the next. I was forever pursuing my older brothers, who, without warning, would all race off to the next pond. I think I cried a lot when they did that; without their reassuring nearness, scary woodland creatures could easily pick me off. As I watched their receding figures cut a swift and serpentine path away from me, I couldn’t help but contrast their elegance with my own on-ice conduct. Where their movements were fluid — there’s undeniable and exquisite beauty in skating (especially on those long stretches of straight-away where the arms and legs form a harmony of sweeps and arcs as one’s stride lengthens) —all I managed to do was walk around gingerly, tentatively, objecting to the foreignness of my figure skates. With crooked ankles nearly grazing the ice and arms akimbo, mine was a style that forced my body to either do splits every eight feet or so, or go horizontal to land flat on my back, whereupon I lay motionless and studied the undulating tips of the trees stroking the sky directly above me.  One can only hold that position for a few minutes before the cold forces you back on your feet.

Whenever the command “move!” was issued as I crossed into areas where frenzied hockey action was taking place, I responded with a fresh startle reflex much like an infant who has been presented with a sudden loud noise or a bright light, my feet shooting out from under me and my arms splaying. I was better at locating logs to sit on. . . and even better at experiencing hypothermia, giving me yet another reason to cry. I should add that I did have an indispensable role; whenever the puck sailed into the surrounding woods, I was sent to retrieve it.  It was an honor to be serving in such an essential role. Consequently, my skates were regularly being taken to the shop for sharpening. (I can’t even say that with a straight face.) I grew up not very fond of skating. . . until I met David, and Johnson’s Pond in Raynham provided a new venue for that dance that teenage boys and girls do in large unsupervised groups.  My feet were just as cold then, too, but I didn’t mind. At least I didn’t cry.

Watching a high school game (possibly 1972)

All my brothers were groomed from an early age to be ice hockey players, and I was groomed to be spectator par excellence. Mom and Dad imagined themselves, at least in the beginning, as devoted hockey parents. Mom, for her part, was always there when called upon to shout at the refs or rattle the cow bell when a goal was scored. Easy to spot in her red quilted “car coat” among the fans in the bleachers, she was a little woman with a big voice. She did not need the cow bell. My grandfather, whose world revolved around music, had only ever foreseen for his oldest daughter one application for all that training in voice, that careful development of the diaphragm, and it wasn’t to give full and honeyed expression to the soprano section of dedicated fans. It was to skewer the referee with comments like, “Hennessy, you’re a dink!”

In rinks all over the South Shore I watched my brothers on the ice, and I watched Mom watching them. As a teenager, I then expanded my spectating to include my younger brothers who began their training by pushing wooden boxes or kitchen chairs all over the ice. Organized youth hockey programs were just taking off in our region; their popularity quickly skyrocketed, propelling hordes of youngsters throughout my town to the area’s frozen bodies of water; there were several ponds and lakes — as one would expect in a town called Bridgewater — that provided great conditions for skating: Carver Pond, Skeeter Mill Pond, Sturtevant’s Corner, and the Ice Pond (aka State Farm Pond).  Unfortunately — but unsurprisingly — ice skating never struck me as especially fun; on those occasions when I did take to the ice myself, I would be the lone skater, trying over and over to perform a simple move such as stopping forward motion or resuming forward motion. . . artistically.  I never progressed, and as impressed as I was with Peggy Fleming, her moves just totally confounded me; how did she spin so fast and leap so high. . . all with such grace and beauty? I only knew it had something to do with physics. . . I think.

The 1960’s and 70’s were the sweet spot, I believe, for pick-up hockey games in which teams were naturally selected by blood ties.  The baby boom generation — lots of families with lots of kids — provided a ripe culture for casual team sports.  The Bruins’ success, too, in the early 70’s converted young spectators into NHL aspirants.  Although gear was optional, hockey gloves were one of the more prized pieces of equipment, given that rules of engagement were rather loose, and hands were constantly getting smashed.  It didn’t matter if they were mismatched, or had holes, or even fit properly; when two players squared off, as long as those gauntlets could be thrown down in a flash, they served their greatest purpose. On the other hand, a helmet, perhaps the most important appurtenance from a long-term health standpoint, was audaciously absent. Although randomly assembled teams were a perfectly suitable option, in many cases entire teams could be made up of a single family or a neighborhood combination of families.  Hence, there were rivalries that evolved rather organically; the Morrisseys and Maloneys, for example, nurtured a competitive relationship that regularly included family sponsored fighting.  Kevin, of course, in his typically zealous manner, nobly did his part for the Morrisseys.  As feared as he might have been by his foes, there was genuine admiration of his skill set, which extended even to ice surface management. Few kids, for example, would risk submerging their own vehicles in order to clear the ice of snow. As the shinny baton was later passed to younger brothers Marty and Bob, the family names changed; the Heslin brothers and the Blakelys brought greater finesse and skill to the pond hockey scene. At this point, kids could just generally boast a more expansive indoctrination. Organized hockey had truly arrived in Bridgewater.

Pick-up style hockey continued to enjoy popularity in subsequent decades, but, naturally, the game has experienced a metamorphosis. What we observe in the sport today is akin to a coming-of-age; rarely do we see genuine, improvised games on local ponds. It catches our eye when we do see a small clutch of kids with sticks in hand, movement back and forth between two makeshift goals on a suitably frozen pond. Even the length of the season has shortened; in earlier years it might have been possible, at least in coastal Massachusetts, to take to the ice in November; extended periods of cold are much rarer these days.  

Baby boomers never really left their passion behind, however. Pick-up games now more readily conjure ice rink settings, and schedules are firmly set, leaving one to wonder about the persistence of the name.  And if you live in cold winter states such as Minnesota or Colorado, outdoor pick-up tournaments, which draw thousands of participants and are often sponsored by big-name purveyors of beer, bring you that much closer to your unfulfilled dream of playing professionally. They’re highly organized programs, with perimeter boards and goalie nets that are the real deal, (one even boasts Zamboni service!), so prepare accordingly. Make sure you arrive with matching gloves, fashion forward attire and a mouthguard for your few remaining original teeth.  

As impressed as I am with the dedication and zeal displayed by players in the “well beyond their prime” age bracket, there is no other way to describe my own experiences on the ice than to say that they were fraught. My tenure as spectator — of the plein-air and local rink sort — provided more pleasurable memories, even if these days I now greatly prefer an experience that involves a large screen TV while sitting on a couch. . . with a cozy afghan. . .  and a beverage (cold or hot, it wouldn’t matter). My heart twists, though, whenever I inveigh against a controversial call by the ref; it’s as if I’ve been transported back to those state rinks throughout the South Shore, when several times in any given game my mom’s voice would boom across the ice, poetically goring an earnest ref whose only crime was wielding a whistle. Good memories, after all.

(This is a revision of a story that first appeared in my Scosche of Class Blog in March, 2019.)