To the Beach

sepiagull-r1In Florida last week, we took a couple of long beach walks. One was aborted because I was coming down with the nebulous virus that plagued each of us to varying degrees: one of those illnesses where you feel off for a few days, a little dizziness here, some fatigue there, a persistent feeling of nausea that never materializes into a full blown stomach bug but puts you off food for a spell. The day we cut our walk short, we stopped on a deserted stretch of beach to wait out a surge of queasiness. We sat on a sand shelf up above the tideline and watched some sandpipers, their matchstick legs a blur as they zipped back and forth through the spindrift, racing up to the water line with each receding wave, and scurrying back to safety as new breakers rolled up the beach.

They are such busy little creatures. If you only watch their bird bodies, they appear to move in a completely horizontal fashion, like miniature speedboats racing on the surface of a serene lake. Yet their legs are constantly churning, churning, churning. Aren’t so many of us like that, whirring as fast as we can, yet presenting the impression that all is smooth sailing? I imagine a sandpiper’s natural facial expression, if she had one, would be a slightly manic, frozen grin, like the emoticon with all the teeth. As we watched, a trio of birds all went after the same buried snail. They scuttled up to the waterline and pierced the sand with their long snouts. One lucky guy came up with the prize, but the other two gave him a run for his money, pecking at his beak to dislodge the morsel. He came away victorious, trotting off beak held high, looking for all the world like a proud little mutt who beat all the Labradors to the tennis ball.

Both John and Mia lead sandpiper lives of late. John’s chief-of-staff went on maternity leave a few months ago, and he’s been doing the company-running part of his job solo, whilst also attending to clients, making pitches, giving speeches and seminars, flying to Houston today, Chicago tomorrow, Amsterdam next week. At the same time, he is working to develop a systems-based approach to social issues that arise from inequities like race and poverty. It’s a hard, hard job emotionally, because he’s a white male in his fifties and in his field, that’s an uneasy demographic; because he sees so much complexity and confusion, so many people of good intentions working at cross purposes; because problems like inner city kids not getting a fair shake with their suckish school systems are not easily solved, no matter what the politicians tell us about their better way; because he sets such high standards for himself. (A wife might say unreasonably high, but that’s a post for another day.) It isn’t exactly easy strategically, either. If it were simple to solve social problems, we’d have done it. He comes home from work exhausted. Straight after dinner, he heads for his laptop to plow through all the emails and attachments that heap up while he’s in meetings during the day. He plays a little tennis or reads a book before going to sleep, but other than that, he is tearing back and forth, chasing and running from waves, coming up with enough juicy tidbits to make the grind worthwhile. Yet he often feels like he’s just racing the tide.  And Mia is the consummate multi-tasking high schooler: directing a play, editing a literary journal, singing in three a cappella groups, doing her schoolwork with exacting standards, spending time with her friends and her boyfriend, binge-watching “Parks and Rec”, or “Friends” for the umpteenth time, deciding where to go to college, trying to steer through the shoals of anxiety, excitement, loss and gain that come with graduating from a high school that has been her second home. She juggles more balls than Ringling Brothers circus.  She is always tired.

The toll is different for people than for little birds, I imagine. Birds have to feed themselves, and this is how it’s done. We humans have a choice.  We can cut back, pare away, simplify. Doing so is a challenge. It goes against our culturally embedded Calvinist strain of work harder, do more, achieve more. Perhaps a remedy for sandpiper syndrome is to be more, maybe to take a vacation, even just for a few minutes, while sitting in your car or at your desk, and in your mind’s eye, watch the shorebirds as the waves roll in and out, and do nothing else.

in Time

It’s cool that there’s WiFi on the plane. And also a little creepy. There are so few spaces left where we are unreachable. The TV channels on JetBlue’s Hub broadcast today’s news. I don’t have to miss a beat. I can get off a flight better informed than when I boarded, after a busy day, stuck in traffic, caught up in my own head space of packing, planning, preparing. We’ll be landing two hours late, having flown a circuitous route out over the Atlantic to avoid “heavy air” inland, but the longer than usual flight is a chance to catch up.

I am flying to Florida for our almost-annual week’s vacation with my mom. I’m especially excited this year because my younger brother will be there with two of his three small children. They live in LA and I don’t like the distance: I can’t follow them on a day-to-day basis – their likes and dislikes, which stories or games are their favorites, their signature bon mots…those peculiar phrasings so charming in little kids.

12240284_10207852347450325_1462665332224023989_oI remember when their dad, my brother Welles, was their age. He is seven years younger than I, which is a hiccup in time now, but when we were kids, it was a chasm. He used to say, with great conviction, “I amn’t” instead of “I’m not,” a sensible contraction, when you think about it.  Welles has such an interesting mind, with a keen spatial and mechanical intelligence that I utterly lack. He can take apart a car engine or a camera and the parts will be strewn all over the place, looking to me like techno carnage.   But it makes complete sense to him and he’ll repair and reassemble it all in a heartbeat. When he was three or four, he built a beautiful Lego structure that resembled a helicopter/eighteen wheeler hybrid. He was sitting on the floor of our parents’ room, totally absorbed in the act of creation. Mom and Dad were still married at the time, and one of them asked him what he was building. Without missing a beat, he said: “it’s a contraption.” Big word for a little guy.

He still loves contraptions. He is a cinematographer by profession and rebuilds classic cars for fun. He taught himself welding so he could design a wrought iron gate for his house in Laurel Canyon. Now he has three children, seven years, three years, and seven months old. It pains me not to know their little eccentricities, their “amn’ts” and “contraptions.” His oldest child and only son, Sam, is a quirkster. Sam’s brain works on its own terms. He’s not the easiest child to parent, the kind of kid who keeps you up at night worrying – will he fit in, will his brain wire itself into something less contrarian, will he find friends and love outside the circle of family care? My kids are old enough now that I know the answer to these questions will be yes, ultimately. But there will be turbulence, no matter which route they fly.   I can’t wait to give Sam a big hug, and do my signature Donald Duck sneeze for him, which he loves. Or at least he used to love it, the last time I saw him. Now that he’s seven, he may have outgrown it.  That’s his sister Tess in the boots, in a photo Welles took.  She is more delicious than foie gras.  Also a classic bossypants, to hear her mom tell it.  I love a woman who knows her mind.

I’ll also see my niece Daisy in Florida. At 29, she’s the oldest of my nieces and nephews.   I was able to spend more time with her as she grew up, because my older brother Randy lives just under an hour away. I’ve seen her for scores of Thanksgivings, been to her youthful performances (a sequined, saccharin and epic Christmas review comes to mind) and her final high school viola recital. I attended her college graduation, when she was profoundly hung over but joyful, and have followed her career as a social worker with interest and awe. It’s hard work. She has a new guy in her life, and I hear from Randy that he’s good to her and they are happy. So I’m looking forward to meeting him.  My aunt-ly antenna are tuned: He’d better be good to her, because she is a pearl.

And then there is mom, who turned 80 in September. She feels fragile and vulnerable. Stuff goes wrong and she’s unused to it: a cataract here, a prolapsed this-or-that there, a skin lesion, a hernia, a virus that once would have been an annoying few days now is three weeks of bronchitis or worse.  I tell her she’ll never die, she’ll just keep shrinking until one day, she’s no bigger than Tinkerbell, all light.  And although she is more petite than ever, she is also more beautiful than ever. I somehow got watching the new Netflix series “Grace and Frankie” the other night and was struck by how much Jane Fonda reminds me of my mom. She doesn’t have mom’s sparkle though. Sorry Jane. Mom’s mind is sharp as it’s always been, which is saying something. She’s a thoroughbred, intellectually. I wish seeing her was easier.

But we all live a flight away. That’s how it is in this new millennium. So I’m up here at 35,000 feet, scribbling away, suspended in time. My seatback screen is tuned to CNN where the crawl informs me that the GOP conservatives are plotting to stop Trump with a “Unity Ticket”, Governor Snyder admits the state “messed up” in handling Flint’s water crises, and Bernie Sanders has conceded Missouri to Hillary Clinton. When we land, I won’t have missed anything important.

Love loss

I’m an optimist by nature. Some of that is personality, some life experience, and much of it, I’m learning from my neuroscience study, may stem from how my brain is wired. But I also believe in the power of spirit, of universal love, to overcome mean spiritedness, brutality, evil. And I don’t mean “believe” in a tooth-fairy or Santa Claus way, no matter what Bill Maher may say about faith. I’ve experienced miraculous redemptions, large and small, in my life, through love. Not rom-com style romance, or the easy-to-give devotion I feel for my children, my husband, my family, but the hard-won reconciliation that comes when I’ve sacrificed some of my precious ego-turf in the interest of repairing a rupture or healing a wound.   It’s happened many times in my marriage or family; it’s occurred with co-workers whom I was ready to throttle for mistreating me; it’s worked its magic in situations when I bit off way more than I could chew and doubted my abilities to handle a challenge, but stepped forward anyway because my help was needed. I can’t tell you the number of times love has delivered me from fear, rage, or despair.

I’m as susceptible to fear and loathing as anyone. I can be prone to self-righteous fantasies where I dress down some nincompoop I feel has abused me. I’ve day dreamed about having a conversation with the jerk who flipped me off in traffic: “Hey, who are you to do that to me? So you don’t like my driving, but for all you know, I might be the doctor who treats your elderly mom’s pneumonia. Or maybe I just got laid off, or had to put my seventeen year old cat ‘Miss Demeanor’ to sleep.   Who the f#%* are you to give me the finger?” It’s so easy to go that place, where righteous wrath roils, where we feel wronged and so surely it must be the case that we have been wronged, right?

Like so many of us, I’ve been trying to understand Donald Trump’s appeal. I hear Trump supporters interviewed who are angry. They like that he is a bull in a china shop. They often remark: “He says what we all are thinking but are afraid to say” – i.e. that other people are stupid, fat, losers, terrible, horrible; that Mexicans are rapists and all of Islam hates us and women are either hot, or dogs. These statements and the arrogant disregard for decency they represent are precisely what make people want to vote for him. So Donald Trump, in essence, is the untrammeled id of our nation. He is our worst, basest self. It makes sense that people are choosing him out of anger, because no one makes their best decision out of anger. Ever. That guy you slept with because you were so pissed at your ex? Not a good decision. The bender you went on after the client defecated all over your hard work, and then you called to give her a piece of your mind? Not such a swift idea.   The time you clicked send on a bellicose email to your child’s teacher and later found out that perhaps little Susie wasn’t so innocent after all?  Oops.  There are reasons why we can’t all walk around saying stuff like, “hey, yo, you fat, ugly moron, I hate your stupid, mean, sexist, racist ass,” even though we may be thinking it.

This hatred in our society stuns us all. I’ve tried to listen as impassively as I can, to be reasonable, to be curious about views that differ from mine.   I don’t want to meet hatred with hatred. It’s ineffective, for one thing. And it’s bad for my soul.  But I, too, am angry. I, too, feel that my country has been hijacked. I, too, despair that there is no relief in sight.

Today, the President did his job, as outlined by Article Two of our constitution, and named a nominee for Supreme Court justice.   Donald Trump, before he famously said “delay, delay, delay” about a potential Obama nominee, acknowledged that of course, he’d put a name forward if he were in Obama’s shoes.  Props to him for his candor on this particular point. And c’mon: What Republican President in the last six months of his tenure would sit back and say “not my job. Nope, I’ll leave it to the next guy-or-gal” ? It’s hypocrisy plain as the nose on your face when Mitch McConnell accuses Obama of politicizing the Supreme Court by naming a nominee. I ask you, in what universe is it not political to refuse even to hold a hearing on a nominee? You don’t have to confirm the guy, after all.  Mr. McConnell claims he wants the “voters to have a say” in the next Presidential election. The SIXTY FIVE MILLION Americans who voted for Obama (five million more than voted for Governor Romney) are no longer relevant, because it doesn’t serve Mr. McConnell’s politics, pure and simple. He certainly doesn’t care to give me a voice in this decision, since I voted for Obama and will most certainly vote for the Democrat this coming election, given the choice of Trump or Cruz. He is rolling the dice that we get a Trump presidency, I guess, and the Donald nominates Judge Judy or God only knows who. makes my blood boil.

And you know who loses in this scenario? Love loses.

I happened to be home this morning doing some paperwork, so I watched coverage of the President’s introduction of his nominee, Merrick Garland, while I was working. Judge Garland, of whom I never heard before this morning, has served our country–mine and yours, Democrats, Republicans, Trumpeters –with distinction, sacrifice and yes, love, for over twenty years. When he stepped to the podium to make his remarks, his voice cracked with emotion at the deep honor of being nominated to the Supreme Court. He teared up when thanking his wife for her support. This unassuming man presided over bodies being pulled from the Oklahoma City bombing site in order to better prosecute that case. He tutors inner city youth in DC. He is a brilliant legal mind, a moderate jurist, by all accounts a modest individual who is thoughtful and collaborative in style. NOT a kneejerk liberal. NOT an ideologue or an egotist bent on having his own way. NOT even a fifty year old with the prospect of thirty years on the bench.  News sources indicate many Republicans acknowledge him as a palatable choice, if they were inclined to uphold their constitutional duty of advice and consent by holding a vote.  He is the epitome of what it means to be a public servant.   Accepting this nomination, knowing that his considerable merits and his lifetime of service would be swept away on a tide of political posturing and bickering, may be his greatest sacrifice yet. Clearly, he has a profound belief in fairness (how ironic), or he would never subject himself to this process.  Seems to me like a pretty good qualification for a justice.

I feel gut-wrenching frustration over the vitriol and obstructionism to which we’ve sunk. It is heartbreaking. It’s childish, and as we are coming to understand, the unintended consequences (aka Mr. Trump) are dire.   We are wasting our time fighting the wrong battles, and the words of Lincoln, quoting Mark’s gospel,  come to mind: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” But I refuse hatred. I reject racism, sexism, name-calling, rudeness, pettiness. I will work to prune my own righteous indignation because it can blind me. I will cultivate a desire for reconciliation, knowing that if we continue on this path of recrimination and blame, we are lost. I may be angry, but I stand for love.

Spring Forward

Happy Eve-of-Daylight Savings, everyone!  In the spirit of seasonal renewal, I’m gonna lay a little poetry on you.  Have a great weekend.  Go play in the sun.

Spring Forward

Moss in the noon sunfuzzy-rock
On the rock
in the yard:
A particular shade of yellow-green
Clings loosely
to the gray boulder,
like a throw
tossed over the back
of my chair.
the same light will fall
an hour later
on moss, rock, yard, grass.
My rose heart will open
and spring forward
out to the garden,
away from the blanketed chair,
under the sun,
into life.
It’s only a matter
Of time.

Jeepers Creepers


2015_global_temp_recap_animation_620Westley’s barking has worsened since I’ve been writing regularly. He finds it hard to tolerate my long stretches at the keyboard and like a spoiled child clamoring for attention he scratches at the door to come in, then go out, then in, then barks, then chews up a toy, then barks some more. In dog training circles, these are called “nuisance behaviors.” The solution is more exercise, more training, more structure and consistency. He needs to know who’s boss. He and I have similar challenges, it seems.

It makes John and me crazy when he starts barking at us before we’ve even had our coffee. The mornings here are serene: birds at the feeders, soft light filtering in through the skylight onto the heart pine floors, coffee brewing and the promise of a whole day ahead. Even though John has so much stress at work that his breakfasts are often spent plowing through email and writing presentations, there is a still a peacefulness to our —BARK BARK BARK BARK. See what I mean?

We’ve tried a bunch of different approaches to the barking.  All of them work, kind-of-sort-of, but then we get lazy, or he gets overexcited. You can’t let your guard down for one second with Westley. Our other dogs reached a point where they were trained, and it “held.” Not so with this guy. If you fail to reinforce a behavior you are working on even one time, fuhgeddaboutit. He has.

I’ve been trying to restructure our relationship. Dogs are sensitive and they know when you feel pissed at them, even though you’re doing your best not to let on. One solution I’ve been testing is to exhaust him early in the day by lengthening his morning walk.   Before I have coffee or look at the paper, when my vision is still blurry and my hair has that early-morning rumpled look that once was sexy but now is just unkempt, I yank on a pair of leggings and boots, and out we go on the trails behind the house, in the mist, in the mud, in the quiet.

But this morning, when we arrived at the little stream that feeds into an old cranberry bog, now a tangle of desiccated roots and vines, we heard the roaring chorus of spring peepers. Reep, reep, weep, chirrrrrup. Here’s what National Geographic has to say about our friend Pseudacris crucifer (Hyla crucifer):

 Found in wooded areas and grassy lowlands near ponds and swamps in the central and eastern parts of Canada and the United States, these tiny, well-camouflaged amphibians are rarely seen. But the mid-March crescendo of nighttime whistles from amorous males is for many a sign that winter is over.”

I am only somewhat heartened to read that this annual right of passage typically happens in mid-March. I associate their song with mid-April, when the snow has melted, the last frost is past. Yesterday it was nearly 80˚ in Boston. The sudden heat comes in the wake of a seesaw winter that saw some snow and cold, but mostly a weird soup of weather in the 40s and 50s. If I were disinclined to “believe in science” (that’s an entire post right there), then certainly the qualitative evidence of my daily walks would convince me: climate change is upon us, and accelerating quickly.   The NOAA reports that 2015 notched yet another “warmest year on record” – for the fourth time in this young century. In Australia, a molecular bioscientist and an economist have co-authored a study on personal energy consumption showing that disastrous levels of climate warming (the threshold of 2˚C) will be upon us much sooner than previously thought, possibly by 2020. In his book “Half Earth”, which I cannot read before bedtime or I won’t sleep a wink, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson draws a stark picture of species loss in the biosphere and reminds us of our interdependence with the natural world: we are, after all, just another species.

Yet here in the US, we blather on about whether climate change is some sort of ideological plot being foisted upon the public. Our congress fiddles while the climate burns. Conservatives rant about job losses, as if this will matter if Mother Nature decides to give us the heave-ho right out of the Anthropocene age. (Sidebar: creating entirely new, sustainable energy industries will create jobs.)  People whine: why should we give up our toys—our SUVS and AC and LEDs– if they won’t do it in India or China.   Last time I checked, it’s called “leadership,” and it usually entails sacrifice and role-modeling, qualities in short supply in our legislature.  I am proud that President Obama and Justin Trudeau, that hottie from north of the border, this morning announced a pledge for the US and Canada to cooperate in combatting climate change.

A few weeks ago I had a dream. I was walking down a long drive lined with tall pines, seventy and eighty footers, with trunks as wide as refridgerators. All of a sudden, the trees starting falling, kamikaze-like, first one, then three, then five massive trees slamming themselves to the ground, roots upturned. In the dream, I was scared for myself as the earth shook with each tree fall. But I was mesmerized, too: they were so angry with us.

So I do not welcome this morning’s symphony of whistling peepers, quacking ducks and honking Canada geese. To my ears, these are the stark BARK BARK BARK of nature, clamoring for our attention while we drink our coffee and drive off into our small, busy lives.


A Child’s Poem
Inspired by A Walk on the Trails in Early March

Reap-weep the peepers cheep.
Quack-quack, the ducks talk smack.
And goose’s honky tonk cries
Scratch across the young March skies.
“Do you think you’re not of me,”
Asks Mother Nature, wearily.
“Species come and species go;
You’re not the only game, y’know.
So child of man, do not blame me
If you should burn. You fail to see:
I don’t need you. You’re not the whole:
I’ve foxes, fishes, egrets, voles,
Bacteria and bugs galore.
These other life forms don’t ignore
My rule, but they evolve. Yet sure,
You humans just take more and more.

A Stitch In Time

I’ve begun knitting again, after a hiatus of over ten years. It’s a tonic, in these carnival times.  I don’t think I could tolerate another debate freak show or election return without yarn in my hands to pacify me. The green wool feathers as I handle the work, nubby stitches, knit one, purl one. And so it grows: one stitch, one row, one skein at a time. I’m making an infinity scarf in a deep vibrant green. I can wear it next year when we sing at the Celtics, or for the occasional excursion with John up to Hanover for a Dartmouth football game.   I’ve never had anything appropriately green for either of those gigs.

When the work is long enough, I’ll give it a twist and seam the bound off edges. The stiches bubble into rows under my fingers as I go. Can it really be that I made each one? I am uninterested in each little loop-wrap-pull for its own sake. It amazes me how these modest seeds add up to a whole piece. Sometimes, I drop a stitch, or twist the wool, or make some other rookie mistake. A veteran knitter, like my kids’ handwork teacher in elementary school, could diagnose my messes in a snap, “Oh look, you picked up a stitch from the row below,” or “you purled twice here.” But it takes me many rows to notice the glitch in my pattern. It’s a drag to undo the work, the yarn squiggly like an old-fashioned landline telephone cord. There is an ever-present danger of unraveling more than I intended and being unable to thread the loops back onto my needles. Sometimes, you have to make a choice: pull five rows to get back to that one dropped stitch that now winks at you like a toothless gap in a child’s smile; or carry on, choosing to view the bare spot as beautiful, an inevitable part of the hand-made whole. You can always darn it later. But old perfectionists die hard, so I usually opt for the fix.

The other day on the train home from New York, I was knitting while also watching a video lecture for my neuroscience course. (By the way, I’ve learned that multi-tasking is kind of a myth. We are simply single tasking in slivers, rapidly switching from task to task. It feels as if we are doing many things at once, but in reality, we’re just micro tasking. It is less efficient, brain-wise, than doing each job on its own with full attention.) The lecture was the first in a series addressing the topic of plasticity: what happens to our neurons when our brain “rewires,” for example, when a stroke victim relearns how to talk by utilizing a different part of his brain?  What activities should we choose if we want to cultivate the “plastic” ability of our brains?

In the video, our professor announced that this week’s homework is to select a long-term project that retrains our brain. Learning to juggle is a classic brain training activity, but I assume this would edscf0493.jpgntail dropping a lot of balls, not a good choice when you live with a two year-old golden retriever. Since I was already knitting, I thought, why not teach myself to knit left-handed, right here and now? And I leapt in, connections in my brain as tangled as fingers and yarn. Not such a swift idea. Not only did I grasp next to nothing from the lecture, I made an unholy mess of my scarf.  I wound up pulling out about two inches of stitching. I felt infantilized by the task, which is actually good news from a neuroplasticity perspective. Challenge, even (or perhaps especially) to the brink of failure, is a critical element of brain rewiring.

Rather than ruin the scarf, which is two-thirds finished, I’ve decided to teach myself to crochet left-handed. I have never so much as a held a crochet needle before, so this should be interesting. It’s a little granny-like, I grant you, but in my minds’ eye, I’m creating lacily hipster tea cozies and darling stuffed animals for my wildly successful Etsy business (is there such a thing?) At the very least, a crocheted blanket for my baby niece seems like a project that can take me through Election Day. Before we get to that point, there will be much unraveling, I’m sure.








Beats the alternative

Today I turn 56. I am so grateful for my life. My stock phrase whenever someone I know grouses about turning another year older is: “it beats the alternative.”

I received news that my godmother died Thursday in London at age 80, after a long cancer battle. Her husband, my godfather Michael, died nearly 20 years ago when he was just 62, of a brain tumor. I was able to visit my godfather a few days before he died. The whole family was at their home in Wellesley at the time, a grand Victorian-era brick estate overlooking the lake, with a sweeping view of Wellesley College on the far shore. Michael was in bed and I went up and sat with him for a little while. He was a man of towering intellect with a commanding presence and a keen sense of mischief. You had to stay tuned for high frequencies around Michael. If he’d been anyone other than my godfather, I would have found him terrifying. He earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from Oxford University that he somehow parlayed into a career in international investment banking, playing a seminal role in the invention of Eurobonds and Euro currencies. He was also a leader in the development of London’s Canary Wharf, and he co-created the first restaurant in the UK to receive a three star Michelin rating. At the time of his death, he was President of Templeton College at Oxford University.  This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of his voracious appetite for intellectual challenge.

When I was 18, the summer before I began college, I went to work for him in London at the investment bank where he was a director. The bank was engaged in top secret merger negotiations that summer, and there were many hushed conversations in shadowy corners of the office. I lived with Michael and Lisa in their Kensington home, bunking down in one of their daughters’ rooms, eschewing a ride to work with Michael in his town car for the underground from Notting Hill Gate to Bank Street. I felt very young-professional.

My “job” at the bank consisted mostly of sitting in on meetings and writing summary notes that Michael would discuss with me at the end of day, to gauge how well  I understood the technicalities of investment banking, which was “not very”. I was also assigned the task of reading through major European and US financial newspapers and clipping the “tombstones”–-ads announcing bond issues underwritten by investment banks, in which the names of the underwriters appear in order of their financial participation, with the largest investors most prominently displayed in large type at the top, the small players crowded at the bottom, much like the billing on a movie poster. I had a desk of my own out on the trading floor, where I could absorb all the lingo of the traders on their phones, making deals, shouting out to each other in intriguing English or Swiss-German accents. Michael had a corner office, and when he was ready to scoop me up for a meeting, he would appear at his door and holler across the floor, “Holly Berry! Your presence is required.”   In our feminist age, this may strike you as horribly demeaning. But it made me feel like a rock star. “Off you go, then, Miss Berry,” the trader next to me would whisper impishly.

Years later, when I was living in Chicago and working in advertising, Michael was in town closing a deal, and I met him for breakfast at the Drake Hotel.   He probed me on my decision to take an advertising job, rather than to pursue work in academia or the arts. He wasn’t fooled by my assertion that the ad biz was a great fit for me because it combined creativity and business. He said, “well, it’s as good a place as any to start. Just don’t let the poet or the performer in you die. That would be a shame.”  I think this may have been the first time in my life that someone in a position of conventional authority suggested the arts might be a legitimate career path. I’ll never forget that gift. After breakfast, he gave me a ride to work in his limo. When the car pulled up to the curb, I saw that the president of our ad agency, whom I had never met, was chatting with a couple of high level mucky-mucks right by the main entrance to the building. Oy, how was this going to look, a young assistant account executive climbing out of a limo at eight in the morning? “Just hold your head high,” Michael suggested.  “Walk on past like this is how you get to work every day. That’ll keep them on their toes. “

Aunt Lisa was the perfect foil for him. An unpretentious auburn-haired beauty, she was impeccably educated, an erudite Bostonian who was no less strong-willed than he, just not as showy about it. Michael called her by her middle name, Bronson. She had that wonderfully flinty Yankee resolve that I’ve come to recognize from my twenty years living outside Boston, where established “Brahmin” families avoid ostentation like a Pamploma runner flees bulls.  Her opinions were strongly held.   Lisa immersed herself in the close-knit London community of bookbinders, a very different breed of people from the international jetsetters who abounded in Michael’s line of work. She loved the artisans’ crowded studios, their dusty shelves, the smell of leather and glue.  She told me once that she lived two lives;  the humble, bespectacled craftspeople of her bookbinding circle would be astonished by the glitter of the I-banking set. The summer I lived in London, she took me to an exhibition of art-bound books, bindings sculpted in leather, hand-tooled, many of them with beautiful gold leaf lettering. I remember one art book of M.C. Escher designs, bound by a flock of birds in contrasting leathers, creating an optical illusion reminiscent of the prints inside. A Grimm’s fairy tale volume depicted the witch’s candy house from “Hansel and Gretel” in a 3D sculpture of hand-dyed leathers and colored embroidery. These “books” were works of art, covers exquisitely complementing content.   Lisa loved it all: book, cover, craft and the bookbinding culture.

At the end of that summer, when I was packing for my flight back to the states, she came up to my room and handed me a small package. I unwrapped it to find a slim antique eternal calendar she had rebound for me in mossy, marbled green paper. She constructed the hard sleeve casing herself. I still have it, marked with important dates – our wedding, the kids’ births and christenings, the birthdays of my fourteen nieces and nephews, my in-laws and friends. Flowers are pressed in its pages, ivy from my bridal bouquet, iris John gave me when we discovered I was pregnant with Mia, a freesia from a floral arrangement at Michael’s memorial service on November 19, 1997. Now I shall have to press a blossom for my dear godmother Louisa Bronson Hunnewell von Clemm. It’s been too many years since I last saw her – perhaps five or even six–but her memory is indelible.


Lisa would have been about 43 that London summer I stayed with her, thirteen years younger than I am today.  She was in her early sixties when Michael died. They were such a unique and forceful pair, it was hard for me to imagine at that time how she made sense as a solo act. And look: she lived another nineteen years in England, close to her daughters and grandchildren, helping to run the Michael and Louisa von Clemm foundation, supporting artisans, book conservationists, students, education and much more, serving on boards in Boston and London.  I am reminded how very much living we all can do, at any age, if we choose to.


hamilton-01-800On the train to New York, woods, towns, water are all a blur. I am listening to the Hamilton soundtrack – we are going to see it tonight. It’s very difficult not to rock out to the music, even though I’m in the quiet car. Every so often, I start a little rhythmic shoulder-rolling or head-bobbing because I can’t help myself. I remember once when I was a teenager, my mom danced up the aisle at a movie theater. “Omigod, mom, please stop before I die,” I inwardly cringed. But John, seated with me as I pop and sway, seems nonplussed.

Listening to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s soundtrack (it’s not the first time; the girls are OBSESSED), I am awed, entertained, educated, thrilled. I think of Horace’s Ars Poetica, which I read as a college English major: the aim of poetry is to instruct and delight. By that standard, “Hamilton” is clearly poetry. You get it all: revolutionary war history, monetary policy, political philosophy, lessons on love and fatherhood, obsession and loss. All packaged in stick-with-you melodies, kickass raps, and sick beats that I dare you not to groove to, even though you’re on the Amtrak and there’s a tired-looking executive across the aisle giving you funny looks.

And did I mention that this amazing concoction of music, poetry, and history is also a moving piece of social commentary about insiders and outsiders, performed by a rainbow cast of predominantly brown actors who represent the America we have become, a country of immigrants, a kaleidoscope of races and creeds that within forty years (and perhaps sooner) is projected to see whites outnumbered by people of color? “Immigrants,” proclaims Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton. “They get the job done.” It’s thrilling because it’s so true to our evolution.

Speaking of evolution, we live in a time of great scientific genius, with groundbreaking discoveries coming at a breakneck pace, whether in sequencing genomes or detecting gravitational waves. While I’m awed by the extravagance of our human intelligence in these advances, they do not move me as does “Hamilton,” a Billy Collins poem, a day at the museum, or even Lady Gaga singing “Til it Happens to You” at the Oscars. I feel cracked open by Art, as if I have a small flock of doves in my chest; their beating wings make me breathless, a pain rises in my throat and my eyes sting. I’m embarrassed when this happens to me, as if it’s a flaw in my character that I am so affected by the soaring vision of a creative imagination.

When we were visiting colleges with Mia this past year, it was all STEM, STEM, STEM. Every tour guide, every brochure and website seemed primarily devoted to sciences and tech. And why shouldn’t they be, since these fields offer the best job prospects for a generation of debt-laden graduates? Yet I am proud that Mia wants to embrace the “Arts” in “Liberal Arts,” as did Nate (an English major) and Lucy (a Drama major). These studies help us understand our humanity in ways that writing code or performing lab research do not. Through the arts, we plumb the depths of our hearts, our souls, our society.   Will engineering driverless cars deepen our sense of purpose and vitality?  They may move us around, they may even move us forward, but will they move us?



Super Tuesday

Election-Day1My friend Lisa arrived at the nine a.m. class this morning fresh from voting. “I did something I’ve never done before in my life,” she announced, one eyebrow cocked naughtily. “I voted in the Republican primary. My little stake in the ground for sanity,” she said.   She voted for John Kasich. More accurately, she voted against the Donald. In Massachusetts, “un-enrolled” independent voters like Lisa (and me) get to choose which party’s primary to vote in, on the spot. Some diehard Democrats even changed their party affiliation to un-enrolled just so they could cast a vote against Donald Trump.

Here in our nation’s birthplace, we are unapologetically progressive. But we are also sensible, pragmatic Yankees. We’ve elected any number of fine, moderate Republican governors: including our current governor, Charlie Baker, who has a statewide approval rating over 70% and is as practical and hard-working as his name suggests. So we’re not exclusively kneejerk liberal scum, is what I’m trying to say here. Yes, we gave you the Kennedys and Liz Warren (you’re welcome), but you may also thank us for Mitt Romney if you are  conservatively inclined. I’ll wager we are more capable of being fair and balanced than many states.

I was impressed that Lisa went for it and took the Republican ballot. Hamlet-like, I’ve been chewing on the question for a couple of weeks: Whether ‘tis nobler to suffer the cognitive dissonance of casting a vote for some Grumpy Old Patriarchy grouch, even if only as a protest vote against the Trumpeting tide; or to weigh in on the Democratic side, where I am reasonably confident my candidate of choice (I’m with her) will ultimately prevail.

In considering the possibility of being a Republican for a day, I’ve been paying closer attention to the GOP candidates’ visits here in Massachusetts.   I’m actually okay with this fellow John Kasich. I heard him interviewed yesterday by the local NPR station. He was thoughtful and unpretentious. The reporter asked if Mr. Kasich intends to go on the attack against Trump, playing the dependable labrador retriever to Rubio’s Jack Russell terrier-on-crack.   (In this analogy, Trump is a preening Afghan with flowing locks, and nose held high.)  Anyway, Governor Kasich responded to the question this way: “No. I am not interested in trading insults. At the end of the day, the ones I have to answer to, whether I win or lose, are the people who love and trust me, my friends and family. Will they say I conducted myself with integrity?”   I see why Lisa chose him for her protest vote.   If I have to be a Republican for a day, he’s my guy.

I love voting in the town where I live.  Lincoln, Massachusetts is wedged between her more famous neighbors, Lexington and Concord. Little known fact: Paul Revere was captured here. Half of Walden Pond (but not Thoreau’s cabin) is here, too. On the fourth of July, members of the local Minuteman militia don revolutionary garb and read the Declaration of Independence aloud, against a backdrop of stone walls and fields rolling away for acres. They fire their muskets in a volley of respect at the end of the reading. One year, the shots took an elderly lady by surprise, and she fainted and tipped off the stone wall she was sitting on, right into a lawn chair on the ground below.

We are a small town with a population of roughly six thousand. Since I’ve lived here for over twenty years, I know most of the people my age and older, and feel disconcerted not to recognize the young parents I see in the grocery market or post office. Our senior citizens’ community comprises folks who were social activists in the sixties and seventies. I’ve met people who marched on Selma, and some who picketed the Vietnam War. They may have protested against the government then, but now they are the backbone of the town, modeling engaged citizenship for the rest of us. They work the polls every election, Emily and Joanna, Barbara, Jeff, Sandy and Susie, to name a few.

The polls are set up in the elementary school. You walk past the kindergarten hallway and a first grade classroom to get to the polling place in the gym.  We have two precincts; I head straight for the welcome table for Precinct 1. Emily is working check-in today. She and her lovely husband Graham are members of our church, and in their retirement, they board dogs for a small circle of lucky friends and neighbors. I’ll be seeing her on Thursday when I drop Westley off at her house while John and I go to New York for a few nights. Emily is one-of-a-kind: vivacious, opinionated, sweet, and hilarious. I get to the front of the line and she checks the box next to my name with her red marker. The moment of decision has come for me. “Which ballot do we want, dearie,” she asks, her hand hovering meaningfully over the pile of ballots with red banners – ironically, these are the ballots for the Democratic ticket. “I’m thinking,” I tell her, as I consider the blue-labeled GOP ballot (who decided on this color coding, I wonder) with Kasich’s name on it. Emily raises a cautionary eyebrow, as if she knows that if I do this, if I vote as a Republican, even this once, even only in protest, some small part of me will wither and die.   I am aware that someone else is stepping up to the check-in desk, that we haven’t got all day.   “Democratic, I guess.” I am a little disappointed in myself. “Good girl!” says Emily briskly, like I’m one of her furry guests who’s just peed in the right part of the garden.

With my black Sharpie, I fill in the oval by Hillary Clinton’s name and I am unexpectedly filled with a rising sense of pride and hope, much as I felt when I voted for Barack Obama in the primary against Clinton, eight years ago. I just cast a vote for a woman for president, for the first time in my life. She has issues: she’s hawkish, she’s cozy with Wall Street, she’s status quo, she’s shady. But she’s also whip-smart, battle-tested and she works so damn hard. I identify with her path, the compromises she’s had to make, the scars in her psyche from bumping her head against the glass ceiling.  Like me, she’s probably sick-to-death of a parade of men who pass laws telling her what she can do with her body, while refusing to enact legislation that pays her equally for her work.

I cast my vote today in Lincoln, Massachusetts. I count myself lucky.

Day Twenty-Six: Imperfect

Today was a tough day. Nothing particular happened. Just everyone I encountered, everywhere, struggling. I had plans to write an uplifting “last call” post about how energizing and rewarding it’s been for me, taking on this goal of one post a day for a month. For now, I will simply say that I am so grateful to those of you have been reading along (hi, Mom!), who clicked a thumbs-up icon or sent me a note.   Thank you so much. Your encouragement buoyed me.

I wish I had more to offer in the way of pithy retrospection. But I’m played out tonight. So instead of blathering on about my blah day, I want to tell you about a concert I went to last night.

Broadway actress and singer Kelli O’Hara was in Cambridge for a night of song at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre, a gorgeous and stately wood-paneled performance hall, built in 1870 and used for Harvard’s commencements up until the 1920’s. Ms. O’Hara recently won her first Tony for her performance in the revival of “The King and I.” The word on the street, according to my two daughters in-the-know, is that she should have won on any number of other occasions, and this time around, her peers simply refused to deny her again.

Lucy joined us from Tufts, as did Mia and her high school advisor, who is a chorus teacher and  avowed Kelli devotee. Before Ms. O’Hara took the stage, the producer came out to make the usual announcements: Thanks for coming, cell phones are bad (he said exactly that), we’re grateful to our sponsors. And then he said this, “Ms. O’Hara has been battling with laryngitis all week, and in fact, bowed out of two prior performances. But she loves Boston and really did not want to disappoint you all, so she’s up for it if you are.” Well, yeah.

Then out toddled Kelli O’Hara on three inch stiletto heels, a high-cheekboned, thirty-something, slim blonde with sparkling eyes and an irresistibly down to earth demeanor. “I’m glad he mentioned something to you before the show,” she told the audience. “I love to sing, and I really wanted to be here to do this concert for you. If we cantumblr_n6vfhe0ANn1qbvc3po2_250 all just accept that there are going to be a few surprises, I think it’ll go okay.” She then opened up those glorious pipes and delivered every kind of amazing artistry you could imagine: country, yodeling, Broadway, lyric, opera, and standards. Her rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Always” was lump-in-your-throat simple and sincere. She raised the roof with the signature title ballad from “A Light in the Piazza.” An opera major in university who had her premiere at the Met last year, she flawlessly navigated a hilarious country-opera hybrid (“it’s like Oprey, with an ‘A’”, she twanged in one lyric),  soaring from hillbilly into an aria of incredible texture and precision.  As the evening wore on, she started to run aground more often, her voice refusing to show up in a certain range, or sometimes (and I think this was maybe more disconcerting to her) croaking out before she could steer it back onto solid ground. She would acknowledge these glitches with a wry tilt of her head, without missing a beat. Even though she was only able to perform at a fraction of her usual capacity, it was more than enough. As John said in summary, “60% of Kelli O’Hara is like 5,000% of anybody else.”

How true.

Most thrilling about the evening was the intimacy Ms. O’Hara created by acknowledging her vulnerability.   She came right out and said it: “This could be rough at times. I’m not sure when I’m going to hit some turbulence. But I’m going to give it my best, so if you can tolerate the suspense, I will, too.” And then this consummate artist, one the best vocalists of her generation, a master technician with a voice that has more colors and tones than Disneyland, shared an evening of exquisite imperfection with us.  She told us about her commitment to her craft and the toll it sometimes exacts, she sang Sondheim’s “Finishing a Hat,” she guzzled tea and soldiered on. It was so much better than flawless.

A fun aside: I realized in reading the program that I went to college with her drummer, Gene Lewin. He was in the pit band of a musical theatre group I performed with. I went up after the concert to say hi, and he was as warm and witty now as the last time I saw him, when he still had hair, and I was still a brunette.

Time passes. We are imperfect.  Our bodies sometimes stumble.  We do our best, and hopefully, our work touches someone. Those are a few of the themes that writing my post-a-day-for-a-month has enlivened for me. I’m three posts short of my goal, but like Ms. O’Hara, I’m not going to let a little thing like imperfection stop me from doing what I love.

So I’ll see you again, sometime soon.