Option Two

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OK, team:  Here’s the second novel option!  Let me know your vote via FB or WordPress message.  Thanks so much for reading. I am really appreciative of your time and support.   My application deadline is Tuesday, August 9, fyi.

I, the Body is a young adult novel pitting a band of renegade teenagers against the global corporation controlling virtually all natural resources in the 2080 post-apocalyptic world of Telemerica. Perrin I, a sixteen year old linemate, grows up toiling in the sky-born tetherlines that discharge carbon dioxide into the outer atmosphere on a planet Earth largely denuded of trees. The energy conglomerate Teletual selects Perri to participate in its groundbreaking disembodiment training, touted as the last, best hope for humankind’s survival on a planet growing increasingly inhabitable for human life. In the course of her training, Perri and her fellow trainees discover an awful truth about the dark past of Teletual, setting an epic conflict in motion. The future of humanity hangs in the balance.

*****

01.01/80:5am

I don’t recognize my hands today. Yesterday, it was my forearms, although when I turned my palms up, the scars reminded me. But today, my fingers on the entryboard look like someone else’s. A girl’s? A girl who’s not me, anyway. And when I type, I don’t feel anything, no sensation, except in my brain. It’s as if the letters are thrown up onto a blank screen in the back of my mind, and they stick there. But my hands, my fingers, my tendons and blood, are not part of the process.

 I don’t know why I’m not elated.; I expected to be. I know will be. But when I began the training, I thought it would take longer. They said a full remapping would last about a year, that you might notice some foreshadowing at around six months. I only got here three weeks ago, and already I am demonstrating Phase One capacities. I guess I am an Adept. Self-loathing is a strong motivator.

 There’s the gong – I gotta go for training. Happy New Year.

***

 Dr. Renfrew leaned forward, sliding the paperwork across the steel desk with fingertips only, his right hand tented like a claw.

“You should be proud of Perrin, Mr. and Mrs. I,” he said. “The selection process for young adult remapping is extremely rigorous, particularly so for girls . We could fill the program ten times over with equally qualified applicants, and yet somehow, we must choose. Perrin’s excellent progress in her first month with us only confirms the efficacy of our standards.”

“Yes,” stammered Margade, “in fact, we wondering about that, sir.” She glanced cautiously at Ewan, who was staring at the random images projected on the windowscreen, one ankle crossed on the opposite knee, his free foot twitching like a small electrified mammal. “Just what is it about Perri that sets her apart, in your eyes?”

Renfrew smiled tightly, his eyes masked by the windowscreen’s reflection in his goggle-like lenses. “I am not familiar with individual files, Mrs. I. Even if I were, our selection algorithm is, of course, proprietary. While you are no doubt eager to know more about your daughter’s qualifications, I can only divulge that all successful applicants to Teletual possess a unique constellation of qualities–intellectual, perceptual, genetic, personality, and biographical–that make them particularly well-suited to our training.”

Ewan turned his gaze from the windowscreen. He leaned in towards the desk, tilting his head to the right to try to see around the glare on Renfrew’s lenses. “Biographical?” he asked.

Renfrew swung his shoulders towards Ewan, chin ticking upwards mechanically to meet the bigger man’s gaze. “Yes,” he responded. “Each candidate’s personal biography…life experiences, relationships, family and social history, major life events and so on comprise a certain pattern that is…useful…to Adepts in facing the rigors of training.”

Ewan recrossed his leg, free ankle and foot twitching again with renewed intensity. “Such as?” he asked stiffly.

Margade placed a restraining hand on Ewans’ knee to calm the restless tic. “It’s alright, Mr. Renfrew,” she murmured in as soothing a voice as she could muster, “my husband was only curious, is all it is. It being such an honor, and Perri always just, well, an ordinary girl…some might even say a bit of troublemaker. “ Her eyes darted nervously at her husband. “ We sure never expected one of us to be chosen for something like this; we’re just lineworkers, bottom grade after all, ”

Renfrew studied Ewan thoughtfully for a moment, taking in the rough-hewn hands, the coiled physical intensity, the thick, leathery neck and shoulders. Something about the lineworker’s set jaw gave him pause, and he opened the file folder marked “I, Perrin” and slowly leafed through the pages.

Renfrew considered the documents before him. “One sees that.   One sees…much of interest.” He closed the file and stacked his hands neatly on top, as if to say, “we’re finished here.”

“He’s not gonna tell us lineworkers nothing, Margade,” growled Ewan, reaching painfully for the chunky gray sweater slung across the back of his chair.

Although a pale, frail little woman, Margade was not easily deterred. She placed her two hands, palms up, on the edge of Renfrew’s desk in the gesture of supplication typical of her grade. “It’s just that we have other children, Mr. Renfrew, see?” she whispered. “If there was anything in our biography, anything we could know that would better the boys’ chances, anything we could improve—“

Renfrew cut her off with a dismissive wave. “As I said, Mrs. I, our algorithm is confidential. There is little one can do to alter one’s past, after all.” He rose stiffly and maneuvered past Ewan to the door, indicating the interview was now concluded. “Thank you for entrusting Perrin to us. You can look forward to bimonthly progress reports and of course, the visit at Festivaire.”

***

12:12/ 80:12am

First chance to journal. Two days here, and nothing but a parade of orientation activities, rules, handbooks, tours. You get your TeleCard in the morning and it takes you right through the day, leads you around, tells you where to stop and what to pay attention to, when to push a button to open an interactive lesson, or run to the next exhibit.   If you are late or skip something, you get a little electronic pulse in your ear that corrects you. It makes your teeth rattle for a second. Growing up on the lines, I’m used to pain, but this is stranger than a tetherburn. The handbook says we just get mild corrections, but that if a “significant correction becomes necessary, it can incapacitate the student.” Noted.

The training facility is like a space cruiser, which I guess is kind of the point. It’s all passageways with a million turns that bring you right back to where you started, although it’s hard to tell because the images on the windowscreens are constantly changing. You can walk around for an hour and not know where you’ve been, or even if you’ve been anywhere at all. Your GPS chip only lights up when you’re back on your home corridor.

 I haven’t seen another human soul, but I know they must be here somewhere. Weird. I expected there would be freshman class or something, some group of us going through the training together.

 So on to the thing I’ve been avoiding: We are supposed to record an “intake reflection;” I really don’t want to think about it, but if I don’t do the assignment, I’ll get one of those ear zingers. The scene with Mother and Dads was pretty gruesome. She couldn’t stop talking, fussing, tucking my hair behind my ears. “I love your hair,” she said. “Remember how we used to braid it every morning before school? And Dads would always tug it on his way out to the lines, for luck? Do you remember, Ewan?” Dads just grunted. His words are all used up these days, burned out of him. If he says five sentences in a day, it’s a theatrical event. Thank god they made Quarry and Niall go to school instead of coming along for the big goodbye. I don’t know if the boys understand quite what happens here; they’re still concrete-phase. But the windowscreens would have scared them.   Quarry would have picked a fight with some virtual kid on the screen. Niall would have cried, for sure, and I hate that.

 I am also supposed to record if I have any commitment regrets in my initial days, if I have felt homesickness, lassitude, or an overwhelming urge to repatriate. Nope. “Please record any emotions whatsoever,” my TeleCard further directs me. So: Anger, disgust, entrapment, despair. Not with TeleTual. With Perri I.

01:08/ 80:8p

So weird. TeleCard today guided me down this passage I’d never seen.   Then it just stopped signaling. No assignment, just left me standing in this bay with blank windowscreens all around. I held my palm up to the chip reader to activate the screens: nothing. Talk into Card: nothing. Figured I’d just wait for something to come on the screen. Mostly, it’s been remapping exercises: images of home, my family at breakfast, the water, the sky, just the stuff you do and see everyday. Lots of images of the lines, lineworkers hovering in the cables, the wind buffeting them into their tethers, the tethers searing through their gloves when they try to secure a line-mate who’s been blown loose. I refuse to give in to those. It feels like the screen wants me to remember Grandad, going up into the lines and never coming home again, just vaporizing. It wants me to remember Teddy on his first day, suited up and heading into the altitude chute, his eyes hard, determined, bitter at 13. I won’t remember him, though. They can incapacitate me with a hundred-thousand-million ear zingers, but I can’t remember Teddy. I know they are probably reading this anyway, but still, go ahead and zap me because I really don’t care.

 I just stand there in the bay, no impulses from the Card, no signals from my Chip, thinking, “What the fuck?” when the lights go out and the bay door buzzes and slides shut, and the whole room sort of rumbles. The screens crackle and light up. Huh. Service interruption. We had them all the time at home, but I thought TeleTual was immune – after all, they own it all: the lines, the transverters, generators, filtration plants, everything. Must be a pretty big event out there to mess with the grid. I shiver to think of Dads up in the lines.   At least I don’t have to worry about Quarry and Niall yet, but Quarry only has one more year. He’ll be just like Teddy: Going up with clenched fists and grinding teeth.

 So now I’m locked in, which doesn’t really matter since I don’t know how the hell to get back to my own bay until my Chip reboots anyway. The windowscreens are pure static. This is annoying the life out of me, when all of a sudden one of them snaps into focus. Only it’s not the usual memory screen or color image of Old Growth Landscape, it’s showing another bay. And there’s a guy in there, big shouldered like a lineworker, but also skinny, like a teenager who hasn’t grown into his frame yet. The image is murky and soundless because of the service interruption, but he’s moving around, bobbing and spinning in this rhythmic way. His back is to the windowscreen, and I step in for a closer look. He spins around towards the screen and even though the image is grainy, it’s easy to see the flash of white teeth stand out against his dark skin. His eyes are closed, and he’s smiling.

 Just then, his eyes fly open and he claps one hand up to his ear. My right ear starts ringing, too, the zing penetrating down the back of my throat and into my gut, more intense this time than the one or two others I’ve been corrected. I crumple down to the ground, my eyes still on the screen. The guy is holding his ear, his mouth a grimace, but he’s still moving, still dancing. The bay rumbles and the juice powers back up just as I pass out. When I come to, I’m back in my own bay, a bandage on my ear and a headache that makes a lineburn look like a papercut. My TeleCard is flashing. I pick it up and read, “Personal correction/Renfrew: 01.08/80:9am.”

*** 

 Renfrew navigates from the front offices through the maze of grates and hatches that lead into the training facility for Unprovens. Wordlessly, he commands the windowscreens to run him through the I file again, and images begin to flood the walls as he proceeds through the corridor: The open sky, the earth viewed from above—filmy, cirrus clouds giving way to occasional glimpses of brown landmasses swimming in vast blue oceans; lineworkers dangling on their tethers; the grip of two hands loosening, a glove slipping off, diagonal burns across a girl’s forearms and wrists. Renfrew adjusts his mind back further into the file, and the screen fills with more images: four children at play at the water’s edge; Ewan and Margade I exchanging rings in a wooden chapel, long abandoned; Ewan I sitting at his father’s bedside, holding the old man’s scarred hand, singing softly; Ewan’s father as a young man, wearing a foreman’s helmet, pouring over engineering plans for the initial pipeline, a few scruffy trees still visible through the window over his shoulder; Ewan’s great-grandfather, racing through an Old Landscape Forest, leaping through the fork of a pine trunk and disappearing from sight; roots of trees, branches, leafing out towards the sky, literally breathing oxygen into the atmosphere.

“Enough,” thinks Renfrew and the windowscreens revert to their usual fare: TeleTual facts, quotes from Leadership, images of sun, clouds, sky, water.

01.11/80:4am

So it happened pretty much the way it’s described in the Big Manual. Card woke me up around one o’clock this morning with the message: “Dress for download. Status: immediate.”   Luckily there’s no difference between the uniform for day and night here; except what’s clean. New intakes wear the same drab tan pants and tank tops until we clear the first level of training, when we graduate to white, or blue, or red. Each level has its own color, which would be useful information if I had ever seen anyone other than Dancer Boy on the Windowscreen during the service interruption the other day. I couldn’t tell what color his uni was anyway.   I don’t know where they keep us all hidden. I splashed some water on my face to wake myself up and caught my reflection in the silver blue light of the mirror. I am still embodied, still me, Perri, high cheekbones and freckles, cowlick curling over my forehead, haunted eyes. I pulled on a fresh uni and brushed my hair into the regulation pony tail.   My chip lit up – you know it’s booting when you get this tugging sensation in your sinus; at least, that’s how I know, maybe it feels different for everyone. My security door slid open, I followed a maze of right and left turns until I arrived at a set of dark glass doors at the end of the corridor. The windowscreens were tuned to a nighttime sky: stars, wispy clouds, moonlight, and I felt a pang. Of homesickness, I suppose, not for Mother or Dads, not for the boys, but for the cold embrace of dark air, the distant promise of sparkling stars. I haven’t been out of this building with its white walls, its stainless steel fixtures and poured slab floors, for over a month now. I hadn’t counted on missing the outside.

The black glass doors slid open as I arrived and Card instructed me to wait at the threshold. The light in the chamber ahead was soft and low, like in a home, not at all like the cold, blue tubes that light my cubicle or the passages of TeleTual’s training facility. I could make out an old-style upholstered couch, squishy and deep, like the one in my grandmother’s living room, a couple of overstuffed chairs, a big sturdy table with boxy wooden chairs. Where did they get this stuff? I thought all artifacts from the Last Era had been lost to flooding or fires.

 “Not all was lost,” a voice penetrated the gloom. “Of course, we have to preserve key artifacts that link us to the past.” A lanky man with shockingly pale skin and colorless eyes stepped forward from the darkness. He wore the bold red color of a Finalist, in a more formal and ceremonial style than my simple uni.   “Perrin, I am Director Doctor Renfrew. I have the privilege of conducting your first transfer session. Please come in.”

 Something in me balked, some primal instinct didn’t trust this wraithlike man in red. An image of blood on snow came unbidden to my mind, immediately followed by a light buzz in my left ear that made me shake my head in irritation.

  “Please, call me Director R,” he said, gesturing for me to enter the room. “I’m glad to see you are tolerating correction well. Many intakes have a much rougher time of it.”

 TeleChip insisted I walk forward. I stepped into the room. “It’s no so bad,” I said. “I’ve felt worse.”

 Dir. R’s loud cackle took me by surprise. “Touché, Perrin, touché. I daresay you have indeed, if the scars on your hands are any indication. Please select a chair. This interview should take approximately an hour, if you are able to cooperate.”

 “Why wouldn’t I be,” I asked, taking a seat in a large, boxy armchair covered in a soft, deep blue fabric.

“Much depends on you, my dear, and how deeply your identity has imprinted on the body. We’ve really no way of knowing that until we begin these transfer sessions.” He came and stood over me, looking down at my bowed head, my exposed shoulders. I was terrified. And thrilled. It was about to begin.

Feedback loop

Dear Readers:  I am applying to a yearlong program to help me complete a novel draft.  As part of the application, I will submit 10 pages of a novel in progress–of which I have three.  (Your best idea is always the one you are not currently working on….)  If you are willing to read 10 pages of two different stories and let me know which one you prefer, I’d get a kick out of your feedback.  I’ll post the first excerpt today, and the next excerpt (of novel #2) on Friday.  My application is due Aug. 9.  Just click on the comment icon on WordPress and type in the title of your preferred excerpt to send me your vote.

Here goes with candidate #1, a young adult novel with an environmentalist twist, called “The Other Side of Hopeless Hill.”

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Synopsis:  Thirteen year-old Hope Hill is hopelessly antisocial: introverted and brainy, she would rather spend time with the plants and trees of her family’s farm than take part in the Snapchatting social whirl of Eden Middle School. When a greedy real estate developer plots to swindle Hope’s family out of their property, Hope finds herself inexorably drawn to the forbidden forest of Otherside Woods that borders the farm. There, she unlocks the mystery of her father’s strange death, discovering a natural realm of powerful forces, one where “Hopeless” isn’t quite so helpless after all.

Prologue

A small girl emerges from the screen door onto the wraparound porch. She raises her nose towards the sun, like a cat, taking in the warmth of late May, the early morning’s quiet, the birdsong and distant crowing of the rooster over at the coop. Stretching, she whistles softly through her teeth. A click clack of claws on bare wood moves through the house, and a soft, golden head pushes open the screen door, followed by 80 pounds of tail-wagging fur. The dog comes to stand next to the little girl, and leans his head against her rib cage. She pats him absently, feeling only the pleasure of his softness under her hand, his calm breathing and gentle weight against her side. She pushes her feet into knee-high rubber boots and admires their smiling ducky pattern, skipping out into the morning. The coming storm is still hours away.

Wordless, she and the dog head across the barnyard, down a rutted path towards the pine forest at the far side of the cornfield. The sky is a clean bowl of clear blue. She can hear the tractor at work in one of the far fields, its engine humming distantly. Daddy. At the field’s edge, the girl retrieves a small tin pail hanging from a fencepost and crosses into the dark curtain of woods. There is a curling stream to ford, a little hill to ascend. She follows a wooded path strewn with needles the color of the dog’s fur. At last, they emerge into a clearing, ringed with low blueberry bushes and stately white pines. A vernal pool glistens in the sun.

The golden retriever happily paddles in the pool while the girl picks berries. A breeze ruffles her light-brown hair, and she looks up from her berry picking, as if expecting someone. She waits, smiles at the warm sun on her face, and resumes her picking.

When her little pail is full, the girl walks over to her favorite pine tree, the largest one, with a study split trunk, and fat low branches reaching out in a gesture that reminds her of Daddy, opening his arms for a hug. She sits at its base, her back against the bark, and nibbles berries. She can feel the earth’s vibrations pulsing up through her legs and buttocks: the thrum of bees and insects, the prodding of roots pushing infinitesimally through dirt, the chattering of small animals and birds. She feels the tree’s heart beating into her, of this, she is sure.

It makes her want to hug the world, to take it inside her, to fold herself into it. She kicks off her boots and digs her toes into the cool dirt. The sensation of earth on skin inspires her, and she stands and pulls down her pink shorts and underwear, pulls her daisy-print camisole over her head and walks naked into the clearing, arms outstretched. Slowly, she turns, sensing the air on her skin and tummy, the sun on her collarbones, the backs of her knees, her bottom. She is trying to become air, to merge her molecules with the breeze, and for a tiny second, she feels a thrill of freedom and release. She looks up at the sky, the small clouds drifting overhead, and images that she is vapor, wafting high above the earth. She can fly!

Crossing back to the tree, she places her palm against the trunk of the white pine to feel its quiet, sturdy pulse. She wishes she could become wood. She presses herself against the tree, hugging it, trying to permeate the bark, to draw its tree-ness into her body somehow.   She feels such love for it all: the tree, the dirt, the air, the animals.

A bell rings out across the field – Mama calling her to breakfast. She startles guiltily. Why does she feel wrong for standing naked in the breeze, like a little woodland fairy, drinking the pleasure of a May-morning into her pores? Quickly, she tugs on her shorts and top, shoves her feet into her boots.   She examines the contents of her pail, definitely enough to satisfy her family’s appetite for blueberry flapjacks. Daddy can eat about a hundred and ten, she reckons.

She whistles for the dog to follow; he gives a watery “shake”, and together they turn to head back down the hill through the woods. But her heart is too full of love to leave without a proper goodbye, so she runs back to the large white pine at the edge of the clearing and gently kisses the bark. “Goodbye, Big Tree,” she whispers. “Thank you for the air.” A rumbling of distant thunder replies.

CHAPTER ONE: Field Day

Field Day at Johnny Appleseed Memorial Middle School dawned with a raspberry sorbet sunrise that would later melt into a perfect late-September day: crisp blue skies, cartoon-puff clouds, and leaves hinting at the blaze of color to come. Yet another day begun in beauty, but sure to end in epic disaster as far as Hope Hill was concerned.

As usual, Hope and Ian were up at 5:00 a.m. for chores.   Sister and brother toiled wordlessly in the calm: mucking, feeding, picking, packing, opening gates and smacking the dusty haunches of this cow or that pig. Their boots were caked in dirt and manure long before most of their classmates hit the first snooze alert on their cellphones.   Hope loved the early mornings, when the air was still and she felt her oneness with life – the birds sang to her, plants grew with her, the breeze blew through her, the sun radiated around her.   Every dawn, she coached herself to savor it: the sense of knowing who she was, and that she was okay—better than okay, even–that came from simply being on a quiet morning. Because every day by 8:15, when the bus rolled into Johnny Appleseed Middle School, her identity as someone who made sense on this earth would be mushed to applesauce.

Field Day promised to be ten times worse than every other disaster for “Hopeless” Hill. The tradition had begun at the turn of the last century, when Eden Falls was still a patchwork of working farms and every student’s school day was bracketed by fieldwork. A September festival celebrating the harvest with playful competition in apple picking, cider pressing and the like made sense back then. But now? Eden kids grew up in housing developments with names like Golden Acres and Millennium Ridge, their parents commuting to Springfield, Worcester, Pittsfield – even Boston – anywhere they could find work. Field Day had morphed over time into a rite of eighth grade ascension at JAMS, a festival of competition and Queen Bee clique-ery featuring races, exhibits, a talent show, and most mortifying of all to Hope, the crowning of “Miss Honeycrisp” and “Johnny Appleseed”. JAMS students looked forward to it from the first day they crossed the threshold of Johnny Appleseed in kindergarten. Hope dreaded it with the fear of 1,000 lifetimes.

This morning as she worked, that dread oozed over her brain like molasses, sticking to every thought. She tripped over a grain bucket Ian had just mixed, spilling it and leading her golden retriever Finny into a paroxysm of snuffling, munching, sneezing delight. “Damn it, Finny, leave it!” she snapped, earning a raised eyebrow from Ian, who was hefting drop-pick orders into the back of the old Ford to be delivered later in the day. Then she parked the mobile water tank too far from the chicken coop and had to get out maneuver the tractor closer two more times before the hose would reach. The chickens clucking eagerly around her feet while she tried to work usually made her laugh, but this morning, they drove her crazy. She kicked at the dust and grumped at the birds and was generally surly in her movements. So, of course, she’d kick over a pail of fresh milk.

“Jeez, Hopeless, can you not try quite so hard to be the clumsiest person ever born?” Her brother’s superior tone stuck between her shoulder blades like a dart.

“Shut up, Ian,” she muttered under her breath.

Ian looked at her appraisingly and in a rare moment of magnanimity, walked over and picked up the pail at her feet. Her older brother was everything Hope was not: superhero beautiful, straight A’s everywhere, well liked by everyone, captain of everything. As if that wasn’t enough, he was also effortlessly funny. She once overheard their mother say to a friend, “Ian is my golden child. It’s like his own personal sun shines down on him.”

“What’s the deal, Hope?” Ian asked. “You freakin’ out about Field Day? It’s not that big a deal.”

That was easy for him to say. Ian, of course, had been unanimously voted “Johnny Appleseed.” He came in first place in every event involving athleticism (including bobbing-for-apples), earned three blue ribbons (for woodworking, robotics, and an original short story), and then won the talent competition with a stand-up comedy routine about life in Eden that ended in a breakdance and a standing ovation. His prowess led his team, the Seeds, to a win of historic proportions over the rival Apples. People still talked about it, even though he was now a junior at Eden Valley Regional High. Hope, on the other hand, anticipated a string of humiliations.

“Not a big deal for you, Captain Appleseed,” she said, angry color rushing to her throat and cheeks. “But I’m not you.”

“Oh, yeah?” Ian said, his blue eyes taking on a mischievous gleam. “Go ahead, take a poke at these rock-hard, manly abs. Go on, give me your best shot.”

“No!”

“Get it out of your system, I can take it!” he teased.

“NO!”

He drew his arms back and stuck out his chin like a gorilla. “Come, one punch, right here,” he said, thumping his solar plexus. “You can do it, Hopeless.”

“Don’t call me that!” Hope didn’t even feel it coming on her before power surged down her arm and out her fist as she smacked him in the chest.

“Oww!” they both said, simultaneously, looking at each other in shock.

“I didn’t think you’d actually do it, Hope,” Ian said wonderingly. “You got some mustard in that right jab.”

“Sorry.”

“Maybe you should enter the pummeling-apples-to-a-pulp competition, I think you’d stand a chance at that one,” he laughed, rubbing his ribs.

“I’m not angry ‘cause I’m not going to win, hello? I’m angry because I have to even participate.”

“Listen, Hope, you may surprise yourself, you know? Remember what Dad used to call you? His little great-horned owl?”

“Well, he’s dead. And that helps me right now how?”

“You notice stuff. You’re not flashy or very fast—“

“Hey, thanks.”

“You’re welcome. But Dad always used to say you were the strong one.” He put his arm over her shoulders. “You entered your nature fairy Photoshop collages, right? Those are smokin’ hot.”

“I told Mr. Z. I wanted to withdraw those.”

“Are you kidding me? Those are cool.”

It was okay that Ian was trying to be nice. But Hopeless Hill, the gawky loner/farm girl who grew vegetables and would rather draw flower fairies than snap-chat her every move with a battalion of giggling friends? Even Ian knew: Her 8th grade year would be a middle school hell.

* * *

Clipboard in one hand and a wireless mic in the other, Mr. Zaloom faced the bleachers at JAMS in full Field Day regalia: red shirt and socks for the team color of the Apples, white shorts and baseball cap to represent the rival Seeds. Students and teachers from kindergarten to eighth grade were seated on the grass behind a cordon of colorful flags.

“Esteemed colleagues and guests, students of Johnny Appleseed Memorial, judges, and especially, to our rising eighth graders, the Class of 2016: Welcome to Field Day!”

A whoop of excitement went up from the assembled audience, the younger elementary students in particular cheering with delight.

“All right, now, settle down, settle down,” Mr. Z chortled. “I know we are all excited to re-enact this wonderful tradition, celebrating our students’ many talents, accomplishments, and good sportsmanship.”

Hope sat on the soccer field with her 35 eighth grade classmates, grouped by team. She considered the other kids from her grade who were Seeds: A handful of sports-y boys and girls who played on Eden’s club soccer or little league teams, like Ginger O’Brien and Armand Otero; their class vice-president, Kyle Collins, and Abby Diamond, number one in Girl Scout cookie sales for the entire valley every year since third grade. All pretty nice kids. As for the Apples, they had wrestler Justin Ferro, the entire track and field team, class president, Peter Wu-Boyle, and twins Suki and Didi Wilmerding, the uncontested stars of every JAMS class play since first grade. They had a lock on the talent competition. Last but not least, there was the ruling trinity of JAMS social scene: Melany Dunmore, Tiffany Rodriguez, and Bethany Bubak, or as Hope thought of them, the “‘Anys”. Melany was JAMS’ undisputed Queen Bee, complete with sting.

“What are you staring at, Hill?” demanded Tiffany, who at 5’1” and 92 pounds was the trio’s tiny enforcer. She could cut you down to size with a single glance of her piercing black eyes. Her favorite target was the cafeteria staff; she once threw a full-on hissy fit when Javier, one of the servers, inadvertently splashed gravy on her sleeve. She unleashed a stream of Spanish abuse on the blushing old man, then loudly translated into English for the benefit of her friends: “I told him he’s a moron, and he smells, and he needs to take a shower and then go home and practice ladling gravy on plates, if he owns any plates.” The ‘Anys collapsed into self-satisfied titters. Other students did their best to look away.

“Hopeless, I’m talking to you,” Tiffany hissed. A movement in the trees on the far side of the field caught Hope’s eye. A light breeze was picking up. Puffy clouds floated soundlessly. Hope liked the way most of the tree trunks grew crooked, tactfully leaning around each other towards the sun. She wished she were sitting over there in the shade, maybe reading, or just listening to the birds.

“I’m not sure if she can hear you, Tiff, she’s wack, remember?” said Bethany. “Hopeless, HOPELESS!” Bethany leaned over and snapped her fingers in Hope’s line of vision. Hope turned her gaze wordlessly to Bethany and quietly stared.

“Jeez, you’re so weird. You creep me out,” said Bethany, disconcerted. Hope smiled to herself. She loved how the wordless stare unnerved people.

“Nice one,” whispered Nolan Colón from Hope’s other side, a fellow loser by virtue of his unfortunate last name, which actually didn’t rhyme with Nolan, but what snarky elementary schooler could resist the obvious smear? The Colón family owned a working dairy farm on the far side of Eden; like Hope, Nolan was a kid who worked early mornings and late evenings, with the dirty fingernails and animal odors to prove it.

Hope widened her eyes at him in a deliberately spooky expression that made him laugh.

In the background, Mr. Z droned on about sportsmanship and community, about there being no winners or losers, about character building and equal opportunities for “all JAMmers to shine.” This was fine with Hope – the longer his pep talk, the safer she was from the inevitable moments of humiliation she knew lay ahead. An ant climbed a blade of grass near her foot, hefting a crumb twice its size. Hope was mesmerized by his trek. Where did he think he was going? He’d get to the top of one blade, scurry down, and then climb the next one. An exercise in facing insurmountable odds with endless effort, she thought to herself. Like me. Maybe an ant is my spirit animal, she thought grimly.

“HOPE HILL!” Mr. Z bellowed. Hope snapped to attention and realized that her classmates were standing, arranged in little groups of three to six students each. Everyone started giggling as she scrambled to her feet in confusion. “Glad you could join us,” Mr. Z said cheerily, and with some affection – when he was not coaching sports, Mr. Z was the life science teacher, and Hope was one of his star students.

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re in group five, with Nolan and Ruby Feingold,” he said patiently.

“Losers!” Justin Ferro, team captain for the Apples pretended to sneeze the word into his sleeve, to the great amusement of the ‘Anys.

Hope walked over and stood with Nolan and Ruby, the transfer student from LA. One of her dads was a famous Hollywood entertainment lawyer, and the other was a screenwriter doing research on rural New England.  Her outrageous fashion sense, ranging from stylish to downright wacky, was an endless source of amusement to the ‘Anys.   Ruby, however, could not have cared less about the opinions of a bunch of suburbanites who thought an afternoon at the mall was high culture.

Ruby smiled at Hope. “Welcome to the bottom of the barrel, sweetie. The bad apples nobody picked.” She hung her head, feigning dejection, then laughed. “High praise, coming from this crowd.”

Hope smiled back. She couldn’t help but like Ruby; she was a much-needed breath of fresh air, with her sarcasm and costumes-of-the-day. Today, Ruby had somehow managed to transform the Seeds’ uniform — all-white polo shirt and white shorts — into a fashion statement, with a cropped top, shorts high above her waist and cinched like a paper bag, and white soccer socks pulled up over her knees, in the manner of thigh-high stockings. “Take that, ‘Anys,” thought Hope.

The first event was a three-legged race, followed by a human wheelbarrow race, and a fireman’s drill (each team member had to scramble in an out of a fireman’s “uniform” – plastic boots, rain pants, raincoat and hat – and then run back and tag their next teammate). Hope, Nolan and Ruby were dead last in each competition coming into the obstacle course. Being in last place meant they had to run the course after all the other groups already finished and were seated on the grass to witness their mortification: Ruby barely able to scale the climbing wall, Nolan flopping unceremoniously off the rope ladder into the mud puddle below, and Hope getting wedged in the tunnel tube, requiring Mr. Z and a couple of other teachers to dislodge her.

As the three of them moved on from the obstacle course to the exhibit tables, Melany Dunmore approached Hope. “Are you okay?” she whispered breathlessly.

Hope and Nolan exchanged glances; sympathy from “Melanoma” Dunmore was not to be trusted.

“I’m fine, thanks,” Hope replied curtly.

“That’s a relief,” said Melany, stickily sweet, placing her arm around Hope’s shoulders. “Did they have to grease you up to pop you out?” Titters from her posse ensued. “You know, I have to watch my weight, too,” she purred. “If you ever want to shave off some of that extra poundage, just let me know. I’d be happy to share my secrets. Now smile.” Melany held up her phone and snapped a selfie that would later make the rounds of JAMmers’ Instagrams: Melany, dazzling and, slim as a rail, and Hope, big-boned, disheveled, glaring,

“On to the tug-of-war – you can anchor your team, Hope. Ooh, and then the exhibits,” Melany cooed to her friends. “I’m sure your Tumbler is going to get a blue ribbon, Tiff! And Bethany, your death-by-chocolate cookie bars, too. Of course, my Tumbler does have more followers, and my applesauce cheesecake is pretty on-point, but we’ll see. What did you enter, Hopeless? Maybe a prize egg from down on the farm?”

Hope felt like slapping the smug smile right off of Melany’s face. Or like kicking herself for even showing up today. She should have taken the demerit for cutting a mandatory activity. She could have served a workday on Saturday, happily weeding the landscaping at the school entrance, or cleaning blackboards, or picking up trash in the woods at the edge of the soccer field.

Hope breathed deeply and let her eyes focus on the distant tree line that framed Melany’s head. She imagined Melany was a tree, and that a great wind rose up and tore out her roots, tossing her aside like a rag doll, snapping her scrawny trunk. The image, cruel though it was, made her smile – not the effect Melany was trying for. Melany may not have been the sharpest tool in the shed, but she could sense Hope’s malevolence and was surprised by it. She stepped closer to Hope, breathing into her ear, “You don’t deserve to take up space on my earth. You. Are. Nobody.” And then she pivoted sharply away, leaving those words ringing in Hope’s mind.

Let’s Hear It For the Girls

glassWhether you are “with her,” a Bernie-or-buster, a grumpy Trumpy, or a disappointed idealist who plans to sit this one out because none of the candidates live up to your high standards: if you are a woman, there is something to celebrate in Hillary Clinton’s persistence through the same subtle sexism, gender inequality or outright misogyny that you have had to work against your entire life.

So my heart was full to bursting last night to see the first woman acclaimed as a major party nominee for president. I am proud of Hillary Clinton and all she has achieved in her lifetime: For 40 years, she has dedicated herself to bettering the lives of children and families. Her work ethic is relentless, her kindness and compassion tireless, her personal sacrifice of privacy and time selfless. I even appreciate those compromises she has had to make, the deals and handshakes that have unquestionably been the currency of politics in all of our lifetimes. We may want to be unyielding, to say “my way or the high way,” to insist upon righteous change. It would feel good to just stamp our feet, shake our fists and say “NO!” to money in politics, to the ever broadening equity gap in our country, to the anguished call and response of violence against people of color met with violence against police.

But I am a woman. I understand: that’s not how you get things done.

I suspect that like me, you may have found that being pretty mattered more to your clients than being smart, hard-working, or prepared. Perhaps your male client liked to make superfluous demands on you because it was fun, or funny, or unconsciously pleasurable to see you do his bidding. Perhaps your more sympathetic male colleagues looked away in embarrassment when they saw this dynamic, because they didn’t know what to say or do. Maybe your great idea in a meeting wasn’t heard until a guy repeated it and got the credit, EVEN WHEN HE PREFACED IT WITH SOMETHING LIKE: “I agree with Lauren that we should delay the rollout until 2nd quarter.” Perhaps, like me, you had a boss you respected and admired, and you liked and admired his wife who had always been welcoming to you, and still, he hit on you. Or a male trainee who you gave a negative performance review assaulted you. Perhaps a higher-up in your company made it clear your complaint about sexual harassment wasn’t welcome, even though they “value” you and you’re “a rising star.”

If such instances of sexism happened to little old you or me, imagine the indignities Hillary had to face down. But let’s not stop stirring the pot before the soup is ready:

I think of my sister-in-law, a talented and hard-working Hollywood director, and the time the van driver hired to get her to the set on time told her “sorry, hon, this van is for the director.” Men she works with on set, grips, gaffers and the like, continually second guess her.  Maybe you, too, have been told to sit in the back and be quiet.

Perhaps, like Gretchen Carlson and the women of the FOX network, your career success has been predicated on a succession of quid pro quos, the daily toleration of his hand on the small of your back, the comment on your dress, the insinuating banter, or the reductive assumptions about your menstrual cycle, your breast-feeding, your pregnancy, your home life.  Not to mention flagrant propositions you did nothing to invite.

Perhaps your boss regularly asks you to “grab lunch” or coffee for him, even though he’s a good guy and he doesn’t mean anything by it. (Still, you can’t help but notice: he doesn’t ask your male colleagues to bring him coffee.) Perhaps you returned from maternity leave to find that somehow, subtly, you fell behind by more than the six weeks or three months you were away. It wasn’t deliberate–that’s not legal–but it was no less real.

You’ve learned that when men boast about their kids’ little league games and swim meets, they are simply being great dads: proud and engaged. Women, however, must tread more carefully: too much talk about the kids, and you’re unable to keep your home and work life separate.

Most likely, you are paid less for doing the same work.  Hillary has vowed to change that.  (So has Ivanka Trump. Wait, is she running?)

Certainly, you have been ogled, cat-called, or groped. Or you have been called fat, a pig, a dog, a bitch, a witch, a cunt. I believe Mr. Trump and his deputies may have used all of the above to describe certain women.

Certainly, your hard work raising your family (which if you are married, directly benefits your spouse and provides significant economic benefit to him and to society) goes completely uncompensated.  And if you are a single mother, well, damn girl. I don’t know how you do it. You deserve a hell of a lot more than a glass of chardonnay or a girls’ night out, in and of themselves, rewards of the privileged. You deserve respect, understanding, and a policy that promotes affordable, quality childcare.  Another plank in the Democratic platform.

I am 100% sure you have been patronized, most probably at your local hardware store. You’ve entertained rambling mansplainations about areas in which you yourself are expert, been given overly-detailed driving directions, suffered through unsolicited tech support.

If you dare to dream big dreams, you are “impractical,” “naïve,” adorably delusional.

If you raise your voice in passionate belief, you are “screeching,” “shrieking,” scolding “just like mom.”

If you push your agenda with conviction and persistence, you are “aggressive.”

If you care too much about your appearance you are superficial, vapid, or “trading on your looks”; if you downplay it, you “aren’t trying,” or playing the game, you are missing out on a potential source of currency that can simultaneously help you and hurt you.

If you are a millennial woman and you think the culture is post-feminist and that these dynamics and subtle systemic barriers won’t affect you, think again. That outrage you feel over the way victims of sexual assault are patronized on campus? The Brock Turner wrist-slap verdict? The Owen Labrie predation of younger girls for sexual and ego gratification? The dismissal or diminishment of victim’s complaints at colleges too numerous to name; administrators who look the other way to protect athletes who assault women; lost rape kits; attackers who return to campus, leaving victims struggling to cope with shame and trauma? You think this all magically disappears after college? Sorry to burst your bubble, girls. Sexism is alive and well in America.

Bill Cosby. Roger Ailies. Clarence Thomas. Donald Trump. Bill Clinton. Woody Allen. Powerful men get away with shit. Don’t be fooled by the fact that they love their daughters or respect their sisters. Or have long marriages with loyal wives. (Well, I guess we have to let the Donald off the hook there…)

So when I saw the slideshow of American presidents on last night’s DNC broadcast, I felt more than moved, I felt validated, vindicated, liberated. 43 photographs of white men. 1 photograph, thank God, of a black man. And then, the screen shattering to reveal a woman’s face. Hillary Clinton has for over forty years faced down sexism and judgment. Her most intimate failures have played out in the most public of ways. She has been demonized and criticized for her politics and flawed judgments, to be sure (and fair enough), but also: her laugh, her voice, her pantsuits, her loyalty to an imperfect marriage and a philandering husband, and the fact that she has sometimes compromised her values. She has been “secretive” and self-protective; she seeks power; she makes money; she tells us lies we want to hear and truths we don’t. She is a politician: a woman playing a man’s game. How dare she?

No doubt, it would have been easier to sit at home enjoying the big bucks of Bubba’s post-White House consulting fees. And yet, we hold it against HRC as a particular offense that she went out and demanded her own gigs. Our culture expects and respects such ambition in men but derides it in women.

Whether you love her, cannot stand her, or are simply ambivalent, if you are a woman, you are the direct beneficiary of Hillary’s trail-blazing works. If you are a woman, you know that women in particular can bring to bear not only our keen intelligence, but our profound capacity for love, relationship, and compassion in solving the intractible problems that face our society.   The world needs both our moods and our ability to compromise.  The contrast between the RNC’s chest-thumping, hyper-masculine rhetoric and last night’s emphasis on the power of love, reconciliation, hope, healing, relationship, and restoration could not be more stark.

I, for one, am grateful to Hillary.  Warts and all.  And I’m with her.

 

We’re Jammin’

83I’m so lucky to live where I do. Lincoln, Massachusetts is just 20 miles west of Boston, but thanks to prescient planning by town elders in the 1950’s, a large percentage of the land here is preserved, either in conservation tracts, or working farms. So I can enjoy the quiet pleasures of living in nature, yet be in Boston for a shot of adrenaline and culture–my New York friends will scoff at that–in as little as half an hour, if the traffic gods are smiling. When we first moved here, there was only one stoplight between our house and downtown (now there are three), and John could drive to work in twenty minutes. Now, with the booming biotech industry along Route 128 corridor, the traffic from western suburbs like ours is much gummier.

Lincoln was an idyllic place to raise children, if you value lots of free play outside and aren’t too freaked out by removing ticks from your children’s beloved heads. (I cried the first time I noticed a tick lodged in under Nate’s thatch of blond hair. I think I broke the sucker in half trying to wrest it from his scalp. Now I know: a dab of olive oil and an easy twisting motion is the way to go.) Year round, I’d be out on trails with kids and a dog. Every day of the summer we’d visit one of the two local farms (Drumlin, the headquarters of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and Codman, a working community farm). Nate and Lucy would climb on tractors and follow famer Ray and his dog Boomer around Codman at feeding time, talking a blue streak as Ray silently went about his work. Mia was drawn to the quiet quarter of community gardens with their profusion of flowers and butterflies. There is still a “pick-your-own” garden every summer. It’s on the honor system: You borrow some scissors from a can nailed to the side of a gardening shed, and when you’re done, you leave a quarter for every stem you picked in a rough wooden box marked “PYO.”

In late June, the local strawberry crop is ready to pick. Verrill Farm, just over the town line in neighboring Concord, hosts a Strawberry Festival that draws people from all over Metrowest Boston. If you’re a local, you wouldn’t be caught dead in that zoo. We know to go to the fields a few days ahead of the festival, when the berries are just peaking, before the crop gets picked over or trampled by eager bands of weekenders who don’t know the ropes.

Strawberry plants are low massing and vine-like. To find the best fruit, you have to lift the leaves up off the ground and look underneath. It’s the perfect pastime for young kids who can spend long stretches hunkered down in the furrow between rows, gathering berries like seasoned field workers. You can tell a lot about a kid’s personality by his or her approach. Nate always took two quart baskets out to the field, even though we could never eat all his berries before they would start to purple and smush. He was a man with a mission: Fill the baskets with the biggest berries possible before anyone else could find them.   To outsmart the competition, he would head for a row where no one else was picking. One time when he was about six, he was working a row from one end and a golden haired boy of two or three was toddling along from the other end. They met in the middle, where the little boy was about to pluck the mother of all strawberries: tennis ball-sized, deep red, stunning. Nate reached down and snatched it off the vine. Instead of crying, the toddler looked up with a cherubic smile. The berry was that beautiful. Everything in Nate’s body and soul wanted to claim that perfection. But the toddler’s expression was sweeter than jam. I didn’t need to step in for a teachable moment: Nate squatted down and handed the little guy the berry, saying “Here you go. You found it first. It’s a really good one.”   Nate is a competitor down to his last cell. I knew this was very hard for him. But he shrugged it off.  “I bet I can find another one that’s even better.”   We wouldn’t be leaving until he did.StrawberryBen3-1024x683(pp_w639_h426)

Lucy, on the other hand, took an aesthetic and gustatory approach. She would plop down between rows with the basket in her lap. She’d sing songs and proudly show off the “good ones,” which were always the brightest red, and often had interesting shapes to them. She especially liked the cleaved berries that resembled hearts. One of her songs went something like this: Berry for the basket, berry for Lucy/Berry for my cat and a berry for me/Berry for mommy and a berry for the butterfly/Berry for the flowers/Berries for the trees.  And so on, till her chin and fingers were fire-engine red. Juice stains were the accepted price of a morning at Verrill during strawberry season. When Mia was old enough to clamber out of the backpack and join the picking, Lucy took up the role of berry-mentor, patiently accompanying Mia through the row and counseling her on her choices. Sometimes, Mia would bristle when Lucy told her to leave an unripe berry on the ground, or to reject one that was starting to go mushy on the underside. “But I LIKE that berry, Lucy!” she’d insist. “OK,” Lucy would shrug, moving on. When Lucy looked away, Mia would toss the berry in question back into the bush.

When Nate and Lucy got to middle school, the strawberry fields became Mia’s domain, and we made jam for the first time. We didn’t have a canner, so we used our lobster pot to seal the jars. The kitchen looked like we had filmed a medieval battle scene (“Game of Thrones” comes to mind): carnage everywhere, strawberry pulp and juice splattered the white cabinets and dripped on the floor, where our golden retriever Hobbes licked it up. I can’t think why we were so messy, except that we’d never done it before, so we had no idea how to pace the process and didn’t clean up as we went.   I have a great photo of Mia in about fourth grade on jam-making day: in braces and an apron, she’s grins at me.  Her hands, soaked and dripping from squishing the fruit to a pulp, are proudly held up to the camera. I’d post it here, but I suspect she’d kill me.

When you’re a novice jam-maker, you read up on the various techniques, or at least, that’s what we did. There are different schools of thought about whether or not you need to use pectin as a thickener, what size jars tend to give the best “set”, whether the berries should be slightly under-ripe or you should add lemon juice for the best flavor. Although we knew about the dietary evils of refined sugar, most classic recipes agreed: a good batch of jam requires a shitload of it. Don’t stint, or you’ll end up with 16 jars of useless strawberry juice.   We found persnickety instructions about candy thermometers and perfect temperatures for the berries, the jar lids, and/or the utensils. We either had beginner’s luck or the jammer’s touch, because we got beautifully set jars of ruby deliciousness on our first try, and we have ever since. I’ve also made grape jelly from my neighbor’s Concord grapevines, which was labor intensive: you have to separate out the skins and the seeds, then strain the juice from the pulp, which takes an eternity. But talk about “locally grown” – the jelly was divine. When my sister-in-law and I lost out on marmalade-making lessons at an auction last year, I was disproportionately disappointed.   My quaint heart takes joy at a pantry shelf of homemade preserves. What can I say? I’m a throwback.

Last week was peak strawberry season. Mia is home relaxing this summer before college, taking care of herself, doing CrossFit, pet-sitting, binge-watching, busily knitting these crazy-cute little stuffed sea or forest creatures to sell on a friend’s Etsy site. When I asked her if she was up for making jam, she was all-in.   One of her high school friends, Hamilton, was in town (he’s a boarding student at her high school) and he came along. They were coming from one of Mia’s dog-sitting jobs, so we met at noon in the parking lot at Verrill Farm, the two of them armed with lattes from Dunkin’ Donuts. As we were walking to the checkout shed to get baskets and a tray, Hamilton, who’s from Georgia, commented: “You New Englanders sure do have a thing about picking. Apples, strawberries, you’re always picking something.”

The kid working at the shed told us they were closing in five minutes, but we weren’t having it. How can you close a field?  “How about we pay inside so you don’t have to stick around,“ I asked. “We don’t have any toddlers so we’ll be fast.” He agreed, and we set off for the farthest rows, passing sticky-stained family groups on their way back, the little kids either whiny or sun-struck, their caregivers looking satisfied after a morning well worth the trouble of a cranky kid.

Picking with Mia and Hamilton was a paradigm shift. I went down to the far end of the row, but from 100 feet away, I could hear Hamilton singing a theme from Hamilton (the musical): Look around, look around/how lucky we are to be alive right now/in the greatest city in the world/ the greatest city in the wo-o-o-o-o-o-o-rld! He and Mia are musical theater buddies. They conversed animatedly about the new season of Ru Paul’s Drag Race.  Every so often, one of them held up a berry: “What do you think?” or “Dayum, girl! Look at this one.” We were the only souls left in the fields. It took us just 25 minutes to pick six quarts, more than enough. The impatient teenager working the picking shed hadn’t even left yet when we arrived to check out.

Mia and I made the jam the next morning. We know what we’re doing now: The Ball jars were already sterilized and set out on the counter, the lobster pot ready to do its part understudying the role of canner. We were a little overzealous on the picking, so we had more strawberries than usual, which led to a fleeting concern that we might not have enough sugar or Ball jars on hand. But it all worked out. Mia still loves to squish the soft fruit to a pulp in her hands. I offered to do it, but she quickly cut me off: “Oh, no! Me want!,” she laughed. I don’t blame her: It’s therapeutic. She stirred the strawberries and butter (to keep the pectin from foaming) in a cast iron pot on the stove, breathing in the deep ripeness. “Omigod, that smell is so good.” She smiled, snapchatting pictures of herself leaning over the boiling pot. It was good to see her relaxed; she’s been so anxious  this year.

On Saturday morning, Mia was at her boyfriend’s house, so John and I cracked open the first jar. All 18 jars set perfectly, and we didn’t lose any of the vacuum seals, which sometimes happens. I’m not eating sugar these days, so I watched John’s expression as he bit into his toast and jam.

He looked surprised, sighed an appreciative Ummm. “It’s so sweet,” he said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now and Then

The last time I posted was two months ago, and that post, like this one, had to do with my experience as a student at St. Paul’s School. Truly, I am not obsessed with the place, and it isn’t all I think about. So if you’re new to the blog, dip back into the archives for other topics, or stay tuned for something new and different in the coming weeks.

To be honest, I was a bit spooked by the warmth of response to the prior piece, which dealt with sexual misconduct at the school. Don’t get me wrong, I was so appreciative that people a.) read it and b.) took the time to reach out to me with such supportive thoughts.   Thank you, thank you, if you’re still reading and haven’t found a more gripping distraction over the past two months, like the Trump-Warren Twitter battle. I admit I was taken aback to suddenly find myself in conversation with readers, and the private side of my nature was a skootch overwhelmed. So I curled up for a little while to recharge and live my life, working on other projects and concerns. I never intended to reintroduce myself to posting with another prep school story. But whatcha gonna do? It’s the work that’s before me: I got an assignment from no less a personage than my lovely St. Paul’s friend, Els Collins.  (We also went to Princeton together, but we drifted.  Silly girls.)   This week, we spent an afternoon on the Cape together, along with our SPS/Princeton classmate Nora, and before leaving, we agreed we’d each write about it.   Here’s the link for Els’ reflection.

Nora is a reluctant writer, which has nothing to do with ability and everything to do with confidence.  I hope to share her “assignment” here some day soon.   Here goes with mine:

F0rest.beachMonday was a beautiful day, in every way. After a crap spring of cold and drear, we’ve emerged into a halcyon June, enjoying days of 70˚ sunshine, crisp blue skies and fruity sunsets. It was perfect beach weather, sunny, breezy, and comfortably warm.  Nora and I programmed “Chatham” into Waze and hit the highway for the Cape, excited to visit Els, here from LA. She’s vacationing for a week with her husband Jimmie, their 27 year old son Chris (instantly likeable), along with his fiancée and their six month old baby girl.   (Omigosh: So entrancing.) We endured–or relished, depending on which one of us you ask–our teens together in a unique and cloistered school, St. Paul’s. Now and then, it’s a place of light and shadows, and each of us stood at a different exposure on that spectrum.

In the ‘70s, we girls clonked to class in our Frye boots, worrying about our grades, our crushes, our happy-sadness, our vulnerabilities.   Not terribly different than my Frye-sporting daughters now, although sans social media, thank God. We binged on late night ice cream or pizza, we told risqué jokes about experiences few of us yet had, we gossiped. We sang, played flute, acted in plays, and competed in sports. (Well, Nora and Els may have competed in sports. I slipped off to daydream.) Our soundtrack was Fleetwood Mac, Earth, Wind & Fire, Boz Scaggs, The Boss.  Strains of “Born to Run” wafted out of our dorm windows across grassy expanses. The ponds were ice-cold and the autumn colors took your breath away, even when you were so homesick you wanted to puke, but home wasn’t a place you could go back to, because your parents were divorcing. Plenty of our classmates smoked: cigarettes, weed, hash. I was too much of a rule-follower for that, but the repressed rebel in me secretly delighted in the risk-seeking antics of some of my racier peers. In the evenings, before we had to check in to our dorms for the night, we’d trek through the starry cold to the “Community Center”, a rustic skating shack, to socialize and smoke. The CC, as we called it, was daily restocked with a selection of Dunkin’ Donuts, delivered by cab from downtown Concord. To this day, the sight and smell of a croeller immediately evokes a cocktail of ambivalence: anxiety, mischief, freedom, joy. Another era.

And now we find ourselves at 56. Between us, we share nearly ninety years of marriage. Each of us is still yoked to the same guy we started out with. Els cares for her husband of thirty-one years, Jimmie, with unfussy grace and deep affection. At 89, he is a man of extraordinary charm and vigor, with a mischievous cast to his wit that makes me wish I knew him when he was my age, with three decades of friendship ahead of us. He’s no slouch: he remembers Beckett’s plays with far more clarity than I do, and I’m thirty-three years younger and wrote my undergraduate thesis about them.  A lifelong character actor, he just finished a celebrated run of the playwright’s “Endgame” in LA; he worried that his memory would trip him up, but it didn’t. Sitting across the shady lunch table from his adorable baby granddaughter, Jimmie got misty-eyed. He recalled a role he played in his thirties that demanded he relive his vulnerability as a 17 year-old. Time folds, unfolds, recapitulates, and shuffles—or lurches—forward. Or backwards. It’s all the same, even as things “change.” Beckett understood.

After lunch, Nora, Els and I headed for the beach, leaving Jimmie and “the kids” at the house. It’s a quick stroll: a couple of turns down charming Cape lanes with names like “Tobey Turtle’s Way” and “Aunt Deborah’s Lane,” beautiful marsh views unfurling as you head downhill towards the beach. On the way, Els confided that given the thirty-three year difference in their ages, they didn’t count on Jimmie being here to meet a grandchild, although of course they hoped for it. We asked her how she is faring, caring for a spouse in such a different life stage. “I’m just thankful for every day we have,” she answered, and there was nothing put-upon or saccharine in her response. “We’ve always known it would be like this for us at this point. But I’ve gotten to spend thirty-one years with someone I loved so much. So every day is a gift.”

If you’d asked me, forty years ago, which of my prep school friends would make an unconventional but utterly authentic choice of spouse, I would have told you, “Els Collins.” Even then, Els had an easy self-possession that I admired. She was grounded and funny, original and independent. We didn’t become close friends until late junior year, when I was still coming into myself. My sophomore year (we called it “Fourth Form” at St. Paul’s), I felt like a square peg in a round place and time of life—I was sensitive and dramatic, lonely for genuine connection, non-confrontational, with an irreverent wit escaping in exaggerated bursts that took me by surprise, like a button popping off your shirt, exposing your bra.  In contrast, Els embodied natural calm and authenticity. It’s no wonder she has enjoyed a long and fulfilling career in theater as a stage manager, both in practice, and as a teacher.   Most importantly, she has always been kind. That was not a quality expressly cultivated by St. Paul’s. But boy, did you ever appreciate it when it crossed your path.

Nora, more like me, was a raw nerve in adolescence. She inhabited the difficult space of being both a student and the elder daughter of the stentorian classics teacher at the school, a campus personality of great uprightness. St. Paul’s was her childhood home and her high school community. Navigating the shoals between those two shores wasn’t easy.   Only my closest friends knew anything about my dysfunctional family back home—my mother’s recovery from alcoholism, my father’s anxiety, my brother’s expulsions and arrests. But Nora’s quirky clan could be observed up close in our shared habitat: her emphatic, ramrod-straight father and fragile mother, a boundary-testing younger sister, a tow-headed and beloved young brother, whom the family tragically lost to a cycling accident in his twenties. Nora wrestled with how she fit into the rarified milieu of St. Paul’s, with so many of us hailing from places like Greenwich, Lake Forest, or the posher zip codes of Manhattan. Yet she fit everywhere, with the other faculty kids, the local boarders from Concord, the preppier rowers, the highbrow academics.

Nora’s intensity of mind and temperament commingled with natural talent to make her equally adept at rowing and debate. She gave her whole heart to her passions. Her dad was both Shakespeare scholar and classicist, and like him, she was eloquent.  Then and now: You could blindfold me and I could pick her out of a crowd just by her distinctive, flute-like laugh. She still holds together our entire class with voluptuously written, newsy emails and a heartfelt urgency to bridge the gaps of time, geography and experience that come with one’s fifties. She corrals little gatherings of classmates in different venues—a small group of East Coast alumnae gathering annually in New York; or most recently, a collection of classmates who call LA home. It’s remarkable how eagerly people of all different stripes want to reconnect. Yet, minus Nora’s instinct and touch for reaching out, without being impelled by the sheer force of her desire, we might all carry on in our individual orbits, and miss sharing the textured richness of how we’ve grown. As Nora put it in the car on our way to Chatham, “I’ve encountered all these absolute gems; people in our class I didn’t know well then, and to see who they are now is incredible.”  We spent time Monday afternoon discussing some of them, Els and I tossing out names: “How’s Quinny?” or “Have you heard from Loring?”, with Nora updating us on their whereabouts and well-being. We didn’t stump her once. I felt myself missing other friends from that time: Kelley, or Barbie, and wishing they were there with us.

“Incredible” is the right word to describe the afternoon with Els and Nora in Chatham;, to feel the years fall away and be somehow girlish, steeped in the effortless familiarity of old friendships. We hunkered down on our beach towels as the wind whipped around us. We laughed that the last time we’d been to the beach together was thirty-eight years ago when our entire senior class chartered buses and “snuck” off campus for a day at Hampton Beach. I scaled the dune for an al fresco pee down by the marsh – something I haven’t done in years, I can assure you. There was an easy joyfulness to our visit. Since Hampton Beach in 1978, we’ve gotten our share of nicks and dents: We’ve had a few career highlights and the inevitable low points. We’ve struggled as mothers to do the best for our kids. We’ve lost parents, a sibling, pets, keys, memories, and once or twice, our sense of purpose. We are grayer, more wrinkled; we can’t eat the way we used to; we are newly myopic or find ourselves saying, “I’m sorry – what did you say?” The AARP cards come in the mail, and we are at first insulted, then disconcerted. Our health is pretty damn good. Our senses of humor are fully intact. Our vitality shines. We are grateful.

And we are each so beautifully wise.  I wish I’d known at seventeen that we’d have this new day on the beach, with the past and present of our affection interplaying, and our essential timelessness unveiled and deepening. But I probably couldn’t have understood or appreciated it then as I do now.

*******

18899-14CLOV: They said to me, That’s love, yes, yes, not a doubt, now you see how easy it is. They said to me, That’s friendship, yes, yes, no question, you’ve found it. They said to me, Here’s the place, stop, raise your head and look at all that beauty…

                   –Samuel Beckett, Endgame

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yin and Yang: A Prep School Story

2ddcc16e-b95b-483a-a6df-a4147377c0ceTwo Fridays ago, my friend Nora and I met for our bi-monthly coffee. She and I go all the way back to prep school, where we met on the debate team, as protégés of the charismatic, neurotic, predatory (and to some, beloved) coach and English teacher. We also went to Princeton together, although she was a varsity rower and I was into performing arts, so our university lives touched each other only tangentially. She hung out with a lot of intimidatingly tall, supercharged people, but I was always happy when we ran into each other. After graduation, we lost touch, reconnecting in our early thirties, when John and I relocated to Boston. She lives in nearby Wellesley with her husband Tim, who in that “small world” way, John knew a bit when they were undergrads at Dartmouth.

Nora and I have been meeting off and on for coffee since our kids were little. Our sons, my Nate, and her Jonathan, both now 23, are just six months apart in age. In very different ways, they’ve each been intense kids, so we’ve had plenty to discuss over the years.   Our daughters definitely have not gotten as much airtime. Usually our coffees are spent catching up on the kids’ news, each other’s work lives and volunteer pursuits. The husbands take a back seat. Only occasionally does the topic of our prep school years come up, although we are deeply bonded by our common experience. The fact that we shared those three years together in the rarified air of St. Paul’s School is a nearly umbilical connection, invisibly feeding our friendship as we’ve grown and changed. Even well into our 50’s, our sixteen year-old selves shadow us, sipping cappuccinos, nibbling around the edges of the scones.

When we last met, we talked at length about St. Paul’s. Unless you’ve been living under a media rock, in which case I commend you, you will be aware of a shameful rape case that took place at the school two years ago: a senior boy was accused of sexually assaulting a freshman girl, possibly as part of an alleged tradition in which seniors targeted younger students for hook-ups. The case famously went to trial, sordid details emerged about secret keys to a clandestine room, tallies of conquests shared online and painted on utility room walls, body parts, bite marks, panties, pain and shame. St. Paul’s alums have gotten their dander up on all sides of this sad story.   The trial concluded with guilty verdicts for statutory rape (the girl was 15, the boy 18 at the time of the assault), and lifetime sex offender status because the young man used the Internet (in this case, Facebook) to compel the girl to meet with him. The jury fell short, however, of convicting the defendant of straight-up rape: The victim did consent to go with the boy to an isolated spot; her social media messages afterwards gave mixed messages; her “no” must have been understood by the jury to have come too late, or with insufficient clarity for Mr. Labrie, who had gotten up a pretty good head of steam. I don’t intend to argue the merits of the case here, although I will go on record stating that I absolutely believe in the authenticity of the victim’s experience that she was assaulted. I don’t care when a woman says “no,” whatever the circumstances, whether with a giggle or a scream, or how she later parses it. So much of the victim’s description rings true.

Nora and I got round to talking about it because our friend and classmate, the journalist Todd Purdum, had recently written a Vanity Fair article about the case. His piece raised questions about inadequacies in the school’s response, in particular, an inability to properly protect the victim. Nora and Todd are in close contact, and I asked her how he was doing in the wake of the article’s publication. The alumni community can be a wolf pack, with some ardently feeling wronged by the media coverage and baring their teeth. I haven’t seen Todd since college, but from what I knew of him in youth, he is decent and ethical down to his bones. There’s no question in my mind that when writing about our alma mater, his integrity was impeccable. His article got us onto the topic of our high school years. What’s interesting is where it took us.

I first read about the rape case in August 2014, when the Boston Globe reported the arrest of the senior in question, Owen Labrie. The Globe published a mug shot of a tan, athletic-looking young man with a thick cowlick of reddish hair and a sleepy, arrogant expression. He looked like what my daughters would call (politely) a “lax bro” or (less politely) a “fuckboy.” It’s a type: hyper-masculine, athletic, smart, the big-man-on-campus. He rolls with a posse of other guys like him–the Duke lacrosse team, the Milton Academy ice hockey team; the NFL; certain members of Congress—men who believe their power and status privileges them to your adulation and sexual submission.  If you asked me to describe him in one word, that word would be “entitled.” Entitled to your attention, your admiration, and a blow job. In fact, HE is doing YOU a favor letting you suck his dick. Ask any woman: she’s known at least one or two of his ilk. She’ll also tell you that the majority of men are not like him. Far from it. My response to the photo of Mr. Labrie, was visceral, pre-verbal, swimming up from the depths of a lifetime of having known such alpha-males: I shivered.  Yet I acknowledge it’s possible he is as much a victim of a broken system as the young woman in this case.

I had an experience with a St. Paul’s fuckboy in my day, and while it was pale in comparison to the Labrie case, it’s of a theme. It happened in 1976, when I was new “fourth former,” which means that I was one of sixty or so students who matriculated in tenth grade, rather than starting in ninth grade, as a freshman.   New girls (in any grade) at the time were immediately evaluated for our sex appeal and distributed into groups of varying desirability, kind of like the sorting hat at Hogwarts. The sorting ritual, rarely spoken of, but widely acknowledged, took place in the common area after school-wide dinners, when certain guys would slouch against the far wall and check out the girls as we left the dining hall. Apparently, we were rated on a scale of one to ten.   The fit, self-assured athletic girls, and the sexy sophisticates from Manhattan and its close-in suburbs fared the “best.” A pretty wide swath of us didn’t even rank. Believe me, you knew where you stood.  The pecking order affected your relationships with girls and guys alike.

One night during the winter of my first year, I went out into the hallway of my dormitory to make a phone call. Like many other lonely Hufflepuffs, I was calling the local cab company to pick up some ice cream from the Friendly’s in downtown Concord for me and some friends. My dorm was one of the newer ones on campus, a contemporary brick structure that housed two boys’ dorms and one girls’ dorm, all connected by a long, wide corridor with shared common rooms. If you left your actual dorm and went out into the hall, you were in co-ed territory. As I was gathering my coins to make the call, an upperclassman from one of the boys’ dorms, a popular, good-looking ice hockey player, pushed his way into the phone booth with me, felt my breasts, agressively kissed me, and left. He smelled a little boozy, although I was inexperienced with alcohol, so I couldn’t be sure.   He never spoke a word to me, not before, not then, not since. Here’s what I thought:

Maybe he likes me.

For the next week or so, I kept looking for him, waiting for him to seek me out and declare himself. Before the phone booth encounter, I had noticed him around, but he had just been one of a clutch of icy cool, sought-after athletes, not my type, then or ever. We were galaxies away in the prep school hierarchy of who matters, for one thing. He was a little scary, for another. One evening, about a week later, we passed each other alone on the secluded path that connected our dorm to the dining hall. I saw him coming towards me from twenty feet away and I thought, “Oh, now he’ll say something to me.” But he didn’t. He looked right at me with a smirk and passed on by. Humiliation overcame me. Obviously, I was nothing to him. I was just a pudgily pretty, studious and insecure new girl.

Now I can say it: What a prick.

So this guy was no Owen Labrie, a phone booth feel-up was not a “senior salute.” But it was coerced. It hadn’t dawned on me until the Labrie case that this relatively minor incident in my own experience oozed with era-appropriate male entitlement: naïve younger girl, unsure and eager to please, meets popular and studly upperclassman jock, misinterpreting his interest as something romantic. Who’s to say that the player-not-to-be-named didn’t push his way into the phone booth on a dare, or that he didn’t later draw a black line on the wall behind a washing machine, adding me to his tally of phone booth “conquests.”

It’s small story, so resonant of experiences we had, or friends of ours did, at St. Paul’s. My story led to one from Nora, something she had recently learned about a classmate she couldn’t name who had reportedly been raped by an upperclassman. Which reminded us both of a different classmate we thought had perhaps been sexually assaulted, and that maybe we did know, but it was shrouded in mystery at the time, and further obscured by the fog of memory now. Nora said her name, and the hairs stood up on my forearms. My eyes teared up.  Of course I remembered her, of course. Something had happened to her, something bad. I never quite knew what. I had forgotten. Driving home after coffee, yet another memory rose up from the murky depths, of a third classmate, a socially vulnerable girl who’d gotten into something over her head, and money needed for an abortion.

How can it be that Nora and I, over twenty years of coffee dates, had never discussed these things? Not with each other, or with anyone else? Did we, as she recently wondered in an email, somehow sympathetically “group-think” these experiences into being? This self-doubt, I propose to you, is exactly what happens to women who have been systemically marginalized.

Here’s my theory: the institutional ethos of St. Paul’s is hyper-masculine, an identity that has constrained the well-being of not only five decades of girls, but also countless young men who don’t fit the alpha mold. This is a 150 year-old boys school, after all.   The accrual of fifty years of co-education does not mean that the deep yang of St. Paul’s culture has been erased.   It’s been overlaid with decades of girls and women on campus, like powdered sugar sprinkled on a flourless chocolate cake. But has the school fully integrated feminine values, female ways of thinking and feeling? Are these modes of being baked in?

Here’s another St. Paul’s story: my junior year, I was a volunteer admissions tour guide. One morning when I was scheduled for a tour, I awoke with pelvis-cracking menstrual cramps. (In the era before ibuprofen, I often got cramps so intense they caused vomiting, and on two occasions, I passed out from the pain, including once on a crowded Long Island commuter train.)  I went to the infirmary. The nurse there gave me some useless Midol and told me I should report for my tour and see if they’d give me a pass. Or I could just take a “cut,” go back to the dorm and sleep, accepting a detention as the consequence. Gingerly, I minced to the admissions office, where I asked the male teacher on duty if I could please not give my tour because I was feeling sick.  The answer was no. The touring family was from my hometown and had specifically requested me (ironically, the parents and younger brother of my ninth grade boyfriend.) He was sure my ailment would pass.  I told him it wouldn’t, and why. His response: “You’ll be fine.”

I wasn’t. Touring the science building, I fainted, going down like a ton of bricks in the chem lab. I remember the teacher, crew-cutted, ex-military “Rock” Gillespie, looking down on me with concern as I swam back to consciousness. Somebody escorted me to the infirmary, where I slept off the worst of the cramps. And two days later, in my post office box, I got a notice that I had to report for work duty for failing to complete my tour.

So these were early days in St. Paul’s history of co-education, and of course, the institution has made great strides since then. But what, they couldn’t have put in a call to someone at Miss Porter’s or Ethel Walker or some other all-girl’s school for a few tips on the basics, like menstruation? I’m sure they weren’t willfully opposed to meeting the needs of girls, just clueless. I can only imagine how students of color must have felt at that time, if I, a privileged white girl, was so poorly served in my core identity.

Fast-forward forty years. I like the current Rector (that’s WASP for “principal.”)  He is earnestly trying to steer a very large ship through extremely rocky shoals with as much sensitivity to diversity and equity as one white man can muster. Yet in spite of the best efforts of St. Paul’s leadership, I often see the cultural myopia of my youth borne out now in the school’s communications. One small but telling example: the accomplishments of St. Paul’s alumnae are insufficiently recognized and celebrated. The 80’s actress Catherine Oxenberg is the woman most often cited among the school’s notable alumni, even in Todd’s article.

Really?

I was in a French class with Catherine for two years. She was intelligent, gracious and funny. I always liked her, and I wasn’t at all surprised when she went on to Hollywood success. But also in that French class? Alexandra Wettlaufer, now a Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Texas.  Sarah Chubb Sauvayre, executive VP of marketing for Gilt.com and the former CEO of Condé Nast digital. Lisa Hughes, the publisher of the freakin’ New Yorker, for Chrissake. The school’s Wiki page (which cites only four women in its notable alumni list) names writer Rick Moody, but not his classmate Rosemary Mahoney, equally honored, deeply thoughtful, and less controversially reviewed. There are a lot of kickass women alums, is my point. I realize Wikipedia is user-edited, but I was a school communications director for years, and if the person in that position at St. Paul’s is not generating content for sites like Wikipedia, then he or she needs either more staff or a stiffer performance review. It’s the same story all over, by the way: I checked out a couple of prep schools, Groton and Middlesex, and only a handful of females make their lists of notable alumni.

Sincere efforts have been made and are being made to do better by girls at St. Paul’s. But it is difficult to see your blind spots, and few institutions are adept at achieving bone-deep systemic change. Feminine values aren’t very well integrated into any power structure in our society, so it’s not like St. Paul’s is beyond the pale. But I’m not willing to let it off the hook either. I’m not gonna cry me a river because the school is trying so hard and being misunderstood. I have always felt ambivalent about my years there. I was well-prepared for college, and also for a career in a male-dominated workplace. But St. Paul’s did nothing to help me understand and prize my female-ness, and the particular skills and mindset that pertain. Moreover, the school had no sense that co-education might require instructing boys about the importance of internalizing feminist values.  I spent years reconstructing this essential piece of my identity. Maybe that’s every woman’s path in our culture, and it has nothing to do with St. Paul’s. But for me, there’s no untangling the personal and the institutional.

I’m a solutions-oriented person, so let me tell you what I believe would be helpful to St. Paul’s. Their response to the Labrie debacle thus far has been a good deal of bottom-up/outside-in oriented activity, working with current students on their attitudes and beliefs, both from within the community, and by bringing in outside consultants and experts. This is worthwhile, and necessary, but incomplete. Current students, having grown up in a far more diverse social culture than I (although still not an equitable one), are more likely to be keyed in to third-wave feminist values. As well, they are more exposed than prior generations to the notion of the systemic sway of white privilege.

What’s also required is top-down change. To start, more females and people of color are needed in leadership, to legitimize and deepen perspectives other than those representing 150 years of white dudes. Whenever the current Rector moves on, the Board needs to bring in a woman or a non-white individual as its next Rector. In the last Rector search, the finalists included both a woman and an African-American, but the Board didn’t pull the trigger on either of them.   I was deeply disappointed and completely unsurprised. Likewise, the Trustees need to aggressively pursue diversity and equity in their own membership, as well as on the faculty. A good goal would be to seek a balance where white men only comprise a fraction of these groups, say 25%. LOLZ, that’ll never happen.  As we’ve seen (code word: “Trump”), white guys don’t much like to give up their toys. That’s understandable – no one in our culture is good at renouncing personal power to advance the greater good. But I’d like to see it.

Lastly, women alumni have a role to play. There are five decades worth of us now. We’ve run companies and written books. We are highly placed in media, in medicine, in education, in the arts. We are mothers of sons and daughters, wives of husbands, wives of wives, and single working women. We’ve had to push back on many fronts in our lives. Perhaps, like me, some of us have opted for spaces where our yin doesn’t have to compromise quite so much, like parenting, freelancing, dancing. Together, we might flush out the secrets of how we were underserved, or belittled, or harmed, and in so doing, help the institution that formed us see itself through a new lens. We can bring “inside-in” perspective to bear, if we care to.

I don’t know that I do: I’ve kept St. Paul’s at emotional arms length for much of my life, perhaps carrying forward not only the hurts of the male culture, but also the divisions among different groups of women that resulted from it.   The school may not be worth it to me, quite frankly. But the young people who attend it are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Trails

My days begin out on the trails behind our house.   I could easily sleep until seven, but the dogs are raring to go by 6:30 a.m. I pull on yoga pants and boots, pour coffee into a travel mug, and stuff treats into the pocket of whatever jacket seems best suited to meet the crazy grab bag of spring weather that comes with these days of climate change.

This morning, I woke up mid-dream. My sleeping self had been in a strange, anonymous apartment with John and the kids when they were little. In the dream, John and I knew that the world would end that day at 4:12 p.m.   This wasn’t some crackpot Rapture or Mayan calendar scenario. It was a cold hard fact. A climate catastrophe was on the way; we all knew with certainty when it would hit, in that way you do in dreams. I felt sadness that my kids wouldn’t get to grow up, and that so much work was left undone – humankind hadn’t solved poverty or racism; we hadn’t overcome our greed, our egotism, our petty grievances.  There was still so much good in us: love to be made, cookies to be baked, poems to be written, songs to sing. Forgiveness and reconciliation could yet occur. And now, time had run out. I was happy that we were all together, that the kids were safe with John and me. Right before I woke up, I remember thinking that I needed to set aside some time to pray, to thank God for giving me this earthly life, to re-align myself, away from the corporeal, back to the ether, the spirit, star dust, whatever home I came from and will return to.

And then I awaken to Cordelia licking my face, her scratchy whiskers tickling my cheek, her butt wriggling in the excitement of a new day.   Westley’s chin rests on the other side of the bed, his big, brown, longing eyes trained on me, tail thumping on the floor. There’s nothing to pull you out of a disconcerting dream like two dogs ready for breakfast.

After they eat, we are off to the trail: through the pool gates, front and back, down the hill to the stream, over the rattling bridge of loose boards to the woods. Cordelia is on the scent of a critter and off like a shot. Westley rumbles along, tail high. He stops up ahead of me and looks back, waiting for me to find a good stick to toss him. The birds are out in full force this morning, tweeting, whistling, trilling. Rain is supposed to move in around noon today, and the wind occasionally swirls and gusts, as if practicing for a good blow later on. We can hear the horn of the commuter rail sounding at the crossing, about a mile away, ear-budded men and women in business attire, chugging towards North Station and another Tuesday.

I have walked this trail almost daily for nearly twenty-five years, and I know its twists, rolls, and straightaways like I know a loved one’s voice on the phone–John, or one of my parents. After crossing the stream, we turn left, heading out towards the parcel we’ve dubbed “the blueberries,” an open bluff overlooking a pine forest to the south and a swath of farmed fields to the northwest. It’s hard to believe we live just seventeen miles west of Boston.

When the kids were little, we’d come out here two or three times a day with woven baskets to collect acorns, brightly colored leaves, or marvelous, perfectly round, marbled balls that Nate called “extraordinary berries;” these turned out to be acorn plum galls, created by a particular genus of tiny wasp. The trail has four distinct neighborhoods. The first narrow run is banked to the right by a high wooded hill and to the left by wetlands that used to be a cranberry bog. About five years ago, a neighbor gave permission to a local deer hunter to set up a stand just above the old bog. During deer hunting season, we put an orange vest on the dog and talk or sing loudly while passing through this area. I’ve never known precisely where he sets up shop, but today, I spy the hunter’s stand for the first time. He has strapped an office chair to a tree trunk about 20 feet off the ground. I’ve met the guy who hunts out there. He’s a pretty big dude for such a flimsy apparatus. This fall, he killed an impressive stag, according to one neighbor, “an eight-pointer.”

The next stretch of trail takes you over a rise and down again into a broad valley dotted with large, old growth trees. Two PVC pipes, each about three feet high, poke up from the forest floor, off-gassing lead trapped when this land served, decades ago, as the town’s shooting range. No one remembered anything about the range until the 1990’s, when the land’s prior owner tried to get zoning approval for a high-end residential development. All of us whose properties abutted the trail were trying to raise funds to buy the land and place it in conservation, but we were more than a few dollars short of the seller’s sky-high asking price. The situation looked grim for local tree-huggers. The Town Planning Board scheduled a hearing to review the seller’s development proposal. John went, along with a number of other folks from our neighborhood, including an old codger we’d never met who sat in the back of the room, protectively cradling a muslin sack like a homeless person hanging on to all his worldly goods. The abutters looked downtrodden as the seller’s shiny-suited attorney made his glitzy presentation. If the abutters and the town’s land trust could offer 12 million dollars – a 50% discount versus the market price – the seller would be willing to accept it. This offer was a straw dog; there was little chance the people in our relatively modest neighborhood could pony up such a whopping sum.  All of a sudden, however, the old codger raised his hand and was recognized by the Board chairperson. With visible effort, he rose, hefting his sack, and shuffled to the front of the room where, with a flourish, he upended the thing on the table. Hundreds of old bullets and casings spilled out, rattling across the table and rolling onto the floor. “Lead!” he shouted triumphantly. “I dug this up from that land just a week ago. It’s LEAD!”   As John recounts it, the entire room erupted in cheers. It turns out you can’t build homes on the lead-contaminated site of an old firing range. The trail ultimately became conservation land. Nowadays, we’d end this story with a mic drop. Boom.

Down in the old firing range, the trail widens to about six feet across. There’s almost no understory on this section of the path, just a carpet of pine needles. The first time I ever had an allergic reaction to a bee sting was out here. It was about twelve years ago on a humid summer afternoon, the threat of thunderstorms hanging heavily in the air. I felt the sting on the back of my neck and walked a few more yards before a bizarre burning sensation spread to my eyes, the palms of my hands and soles of my feet, my genitals, and throat. I turned tail and ran all the way back to the house. When I stumbled into the kitchen, Nate, then about eleven, was at the computer. “Whoa, Mom, you look weird,” he said. “I need you to call 911,” I told him thickly. “I think I may be going into shock.”   A few days later, back on the trail newly armed with an epipen, I looked up and saw a bee’s nest the size of a beach ball suspended from an oak bough.

The trail narrows again and follows along a lovely, winding run through pines. We used to call this branch of the path “the nursery” because the ground is blankpinus-strobus-le-dcameron-b.jpgeted with hundreds of white pine saplings. Their spindle-needled fingers dance greenly on the breeze. This morning, Westley finds the thigh bone of a small mammal out here, licked clean, pristinely white. I’m guessing it once belonged to a house cat, or maybe a fisher cat. Coyotes and foxes live in this part of the woods.   If you walk through here at night, it must be like one of those old cartoons on TV: canine eyes blinking watchfully in the blackness.

Just past the nursery, we head gently uphill into my favorite portion of trail, a hilly glade dotted with towering white pines and fallen logs. The forest floor here is a layer of pine needles as deep as a duvet. Fallen trunks form bridges and tunnels that the kids used to like to climb on. This morning, Cordelia jumps up on one felled trunk and sticks her nose down a knothole, sniffing for squirrel. The trees are majestic. You sense their eyes on you, their rooted wisdom. You are just a hiccup in time.

At the top of this hill are “the blueberries,”  nooks and crannies of exposed granite boulders and low-blooming wild blueberry bushes. The birds always get the berries before we do. I like to stand in the clearing and drink in the height of this spot, taking a few deep breaths before turning back, feeling at one with the air and sky.  Sometimes I’ll do a sun salutation out here.

When we turn back, Westley runs all the way home. Cordelia loops around me in circles, trotting off into the woods and back to my side. My coffee is long since finished, and I itchily start to wonder how bad the deer ticks will be this year.

I’m grateful for the new day.

I’ll be back again tomorrow morning.