Archive for the ‘Gardening’ Category

Granddad Broke His Leg

February 4th, 2017

A family horror story immediately came to mind when I saw the new object d’art in the main lobby of Boston’s South Station. If you loved trains growing up as I did and if you played with model-train sets, you’d recognize the coupling, even at 9 feet tall. It has special meeting to me.

My maternal grandfather, William Michael, worked the B&O for 48 years until they forced him to retire. He met one of these in a bad way in his early 50s.

Management lesson

As he told it, he knew better but was impatient. As he yard foreman in Cumberland, MD, he told his crew to climb up to the control wheels on top the cars to manually open the coupling when it would not connect two cars just by pushing them together. He didn’t wait when they couldn’t do it.

He took the little ladder up and was doing the work when he fell. As he did, the cars moved and the coupling linked…with him between, breaking his upper right leg in three or four places.

He found himself in his backyard for a couple of months with a cast from his waist down, on the broken side to his heel.


Meanwhile, my sister and I were kindergarten age and had recently returned from being part of the Occupation Army in Japan. Our parents had divorced and our father quickly remarried (a sordid tale for another time).

He and his new wife were stationed back in Fort Sill, OK, my sister and my birthplace. While our mother had full legal custody, she was trying to be a good scout and agreed when he requested that we spend the summer with them there.

That turned out to be a bad gesture. They decided at the end of the summer when he got orders to move to a base in Germany that they’d take my sister and me with them. So is the lesson never to trust an ex or that an officer is not necessarily an honorable gentleman?

They sent a telegram to my mother, who was then staying near her family in the Eastern panhandle of West Virginia. Locale became important. It was before Internet highways and it was a couple of days’ drive, which she immediately planned upon receiving the shocking wire.

Despite his immobile, plaster-cast condition, Granddad was ready to help his daughter. They got into his car and headed to Southern OK. He somehow managed to operate the pedals and they took turns driving.

On arrival, they went into court as a local lawyer they had contacted arranged. Despite my stepmother and father doing their best marketing effort, apparently my sister and I were not at all convinced that we’d be “better off” with them overseas. The judge quickly ruled that our mother had full custody and that meant what it said. Done and done.

Backyard satori

With the melodrama resolved, the four of us headed back to Romney, still an intact family. So, what’s a crippled, healing railroader to do?

Years later I got the answer to that directly from him. We’d l long been buddies, I much more than any of the other grands. My sister and I spent summers with these grandparents and I worked his massive (one-acre) gardens with him.

We talked of pesky rabbits, his evolution from pesticides to organic, family, railroading, town history and on and on. However, I think I figured I knew more about him than I really did, just from seeing and hearing over the years.

Eventually in my late teens, I got to a seminal question — how could he remain so placid with such a nasty wife? My grandmother was mean and insulting to me, my sister and mother, my maternal aunt, her own sister who also lived in Romney, and of course her husband. She made some of us fume and others cry.

It had taken me years to ask myself the related question, why did he work into the night on the B&O, run his tailor and dry cleaning shop and even do volunteer work, then spend the summer days laboring in these gardens? I knew he gave away most of what he grew to the less fortunate, but why work so hard? That answer finally revealed itself — that got him away from his unpleasant wife, keeping the peace.

His answer to my underlying question of his attitude started with his usual beatific smile and soft words.

When he was in the backyard, hobbled in the massive cast, he remained his usual impatient, doer self. He read every book in the house and those people brought him, then magazines like Reader’s Digest and Life, which the got, plus the Romney and Cumberland newspapers.

Then he thought.

He said that one sunny afternoon, more than a thought came to him suddenly. He realized with his essence what mattered. If his wife for whatever reason struck out at so many, including him, that truly wasn’t important. He instantly shifted from as irritated as others. He transcended her nastiness and was out of reach.

In other words, amid the rose bushes, within sight of the 4 foot square goldfish pond, across the yard from the picnic table, brick BBQ and massive maple, he was enlightened. It wasn’t that he would no longer pay attention to her nasty words. They were no longer triggers.

He was sure he never would have arrived there without his broken leg and forced meditation. In the end, not a bad way to spend the summer, eh? Rescue your grandchildren and come to peace. What did you do last summer?



Ruled by the vine

October 22nd, 2015

Way back in Boomer time, the Coasters used to sing Poison Ivy, as in

Poison iv-y-y-y-y, poison iv-y-y-y-y
Late at night while you’re sleepin’ poison ivy comes

Even now, many of us say we are sensibly terrified of the vine. Parents, Scouts and other taught us, “Leaves of three. Let it be.” Aaaaaaaaaah. Watch out!”

creeper3That came to mind, quickly and repeatedly a few days ago. After a neighborhood stroll, I noticed and shot some berried and colorful leaves, posting one pic on FB I identified as Virginia creeper. Several people corrected me. It was poison ivy.

Other than laziness and indifference, I don’t have an excuse. I’m a certified Master Gardener. I know lots about trees, veggies, herbs and flowers, about soils and propagation, blah, blah. I’m not a vine guy. More to the point, I got over poison ivy many decades ago.

A significance of that is in my childhood in Virginia and West Virginia, I was particularly sensitive to poison ivy. It seemed on every third of my countless trips hiking, playing or camping, I’d come back to get blisters and itching. Even working with my Granddad in his huge gardens, somehow I got the worst of it or the other way round.

I must have been 11 when that ended. We lived in Danville, VA, in an apartment above Dr. Samuel Newman and his wife Ida. They (really she) had a four-tier garden structure with the mansion that had belonged to the city’s first mayor.

That became important as they had a full-time gardener, a laconic black man, Nate. One afternoon, he was clearing the underbrush in the middle of the yards, burning the green and brown junk.I walked through the smoke. It turns out that among his trimmings were large amounts of poison ivy.

Think a shirtless upper body and bare legs covered with pustules. Think a blistered face and eyes shut with inflammation.

It was the next morning before the terrible itching, other torment and even fear of blindness started that Granddad picked my sister and me up to take us to West Virginia for the summer. My grandmother nursed me for a week or so through the anguish.

Poof! Since then, I seem to have an immunity to the oils that let poison ivy act out. After years of being easy prey, I simply don’t have any reaction. It’s to the point that I don’t even recognize the plant. We are indifferent to each other.

creepertreeThere’s the oddity. A pretty green to red leaf that I don’t plant or cultivate, I just enjoy for its color and veining. (By the bye, the actual creeper [right] is more visually appealing than poison ivy.)

However, I seem to be the only Boomer I know who isn’t somewhere between wary and terrified of poison ivy. That includes my wife, who sees it everywhere and sounds a figurative klaxon to keep us each and all aware and safe.

Thus, Scientology.

L. Ron Hubbard, science-fiction author turned huckster and founder of that maybe religion made his millions and billions off the engram. That irrational and emotional belief that if something bad happens to you it causes a permanent change in the brain, an engram, that you need galvanometers and tens of thousands of dollars of counseling to heal, a.k.a. go clear.

I call doo-doo on that. Yes, it makes perfect, very human, sense that we’ll avoid repeating bad experiences. No, every very bad experience does not permanently change your brain. You have to play drama queen and love being a victim to go with that.

As my mother used to say when she was annoyed or disgusted, “For crying out loud…in a bucket!”

So, there’s true and false incorporated in the assertions that permit the outsized profits and power of Scientology:

  • True: Humans avoid repeating painful and otherwise unpleasant experience (think the hand on the hot range burner; the proverbial once-burned-twice-shy cliché).
  • False: Our brains are permanently and physically altered by each bad experience. That is, without for-pay guidance, we can’t transcend such experiences.

One of the worst corollaries is that people don’t change. Of course they do. The least introspection or observation shows that. Research into psychological, sociological and even philosophical literature offers data and other proofs.

Each of us likely can provide our own evidence for another cliché — fall off the horse and get right back on. That can be difficult for some of us and each of us in particularly unpleasant experiences.

I climb in the WABAC machine decades ago around Scientology’s NYC HQ in Herald Square. A friend from out the country was visiting us as we tooled around. A Scientology type trolled and asked if we wanted a free audit (that’s holding the tin cans in hopes that one of us could be browbeaten into signing up for study. She had never heard of Scientology and wanted to try.

We followed him into a classroom and got the spiel. He asked if we had had a terrible experience, like a car wreck. The point was to prove that we’d be forever scarred and scared (hence eager for classes). I told my story of being hit as a pedestrian a few years before and having my head go into the car through the windshield. He lit up and asked gleefully for me to confirm that I was still terrified of cars, maybe of crossing streets.

I said honestly that, no, the impact was so severe and damage to the brain sufficient that I had no recollection of the wreck. Moreover, I had lots of effects I was still healing from, but paralyzing fear that affected my actions, thoughts and feelings were not among them.

He immediately fell to script and changed the subject back to the general “truth” that after a bad experience, each of us remains permanently engrammed.

I admitted then and do now that I know people who have been so goofed up by one or a series of bad experiences that they can’t fully function. Even drama and literature are filled with emotionally crippled characters playing off this trait.

Yet, that isn’t the norm. The vast majority of us can shake it off, even if it takes some thought and effort.

It’s worth it.

Fall Sneaking at Tree Park

October 13th, 2013

Unreasonable expectations marked my journey to and through Boston’s Arnold Arboretum today.  I’ve been seeing the pictures of the fall-foliage color riots everywhere and figured that much of that joint would be screaming, “Autumn!”

Not so, there were a few smaller maples and a couple varieties of oaks in orange and red, but very few. Instead it was subtle again.

The trick before the garish displays is look down, not up. Every path has wee delights.

Pix clix: Click a thumbnail for a larger view. If it opens in the same window, use your browser’s back button or command to return.

License note: All pix are Creative Commons-Attribution. Do what you want with them. Just give Mike Ball credit once.

The purple beautyberries are petite drama queens. Head up Bussey Hill and look right next to the path to the Explorer’s Garden. purplebeautyberries
chinaberries The Chinaberries are in prolific clusters on Valley Road. There are deceptively similar berries on the red dogwood bushes in the Leventritt Gardens.
A one-off on Willow Path was a basketball-sized bees’ nest. It’s only a few feet off the trail. You can’t miss it because of several warning ACTIVE HIVE signs. The dwarf tree it’s in (long-thorned hawthorn) has it all decked out for the holidays. arnoldhive
euonymus Midway on the path up Bussey Hill on the opposite side from the beautyberries is a set of euonymus, with flower-like berry coverings.
In the Leventritt Gardens, the delicate looking winterberries are like holly’s sophisticated sibling. winterberries
milkweed Make sure to follow the Blackwell Footpath. It’s the former home of an urban wild and still has occasional foxes, hawks and turkeys. This is also the season to marvel at the down of milkweed.


Young, youngish, still too young corpses

September 5th, 2013

Noticing the box with half my mother’s ashes, I thought again of three good folk I knew who died unnaturally young — or maybe naturally if you consider invidious, insidious disease to be our shared fate. Certainly going before 60 doesn’t seem right to me.

Today would have been my mother’s 89th birthday. She was outside the too-young range. She died 9 years ago.

nycchumsAt 33, Paula Delancey went first. We went to high school together, dated, and in our early 20s ended up becoming really close friends. She went to the CIA (as in chef’s school up the Hudson) and spent weekends in my West Village apartment. Hyde Park NY was not theater central nor where her friends lived and played.

“Her ambition is to be happy,” was beside her HS-yearbook pic.She was terrifically bright and well read. I couldn’t believe what a vapid, inane thing to write. Now of course, the older I get, the wiser that aim is.

She was a lot of fun, constantly laughing and joking, even ridiculing her own blunders and shortcomings.She looked forward to being a fabulous old lady.

The pic is, right to left, Paula, Isabel Wolfe (now Frischman) and I in Isabel’s NYC apartment.

She never got there. After being the first woman ever to graduate at the head of her class at the CIA, she worked in several NYC restaurants and then was head chef at a couple of others. She ended up making great money, taking her mother on an extended luxury trip to Paris and heading toward those two goals of being a grande dame and staying happy. Then she got cancer of the spine.

Apparently there’s little to do. She gave NYU Medical its best shot at chemo, radiation and surgery. She faded, continuing to sicken, go bald and suffer. She died in 1981. That was my first eulogy, delivered to a chapel in Brick Township NJ filled with a few of her friends and many of her aged parents’.


At 40 , Neil Passariello was also far too young and far too vital to have died. This month he will have been dead 23 years.

He was the long-term partner of my friend from college, Jasper Lawson. He died of effects related to AIDS. He was finishing his doctorate in clinical psychology (Jasper already that one).  There is a regular colloquium in his honor.

I like to think I gave him a last bit of earthly pleasure. When he was in the bed where he died, I bought a bouquet of coriander I picked from my garden. He loved the herb and would say every meal needed a dish with cilantro and of course a pasta course. He no longer opened his eyes when we visited that last time, but he definitely smiled as I held the coriander close to him.

Surely all of his family and friends remember him as funny, dramatic, loud and passionate. An Italian-American, he referred to his heritage as he spoke intensely of food, of sex, of music. He could and did literally break out into song, generally an aria from an Italian opera.

His death did not seem right or timely or fair. He made others’ lives better and more fun, both personally and professionally.

Jasper and I have laughed more than once about how Neil made Jasper seem so WASPy, mannered and tame in contrast.

Jasper’s husband, Jay Landers, is remarkably patient when friends accidentally refer to him as Neil. On occasion, I make that faux pas. Supposedly that is expected with first “spouses,” although Neil died before same-sex marriage was legal. His intensity brings him to mind, quite understandably.

rehfieldAt 57.  John Rehfield still fits in the too-young category. He was remarkable in many ways. I can say for certain he was one of my two favorite managers (I married the other one).

John was a trade-magazine anomaly in being a civil engineer who was a good, no, a superb writer. He won every possible award in construction and trade journalism. He hired me to write for Construction Equipment knowing my only building experience was on carpentry crews during college summers. The day he hired me he said he could teach me anything I needed to know about construction but he couldn’t teach his engineers how to write.

He was very tall and light bulb shaped (his head at the screw end) and even laughed at his odd physique. He was an incessant punster. He came to work at dawn and completed his own before the rest of us arrived. He spent his day dealing with company matters and forever being there to help his writers, editors and art director. Oh, and he always wore a Mickey Mouse watch; he explained that he bought his children Disney stock when they were born, largely for the cartoon characters around the border of the certificates. They became surprisingly wealthy as the stock split repeatedly. He figured the watch was the least loyalty he could show.

He did wonderful motivational deeds too. Every so often and not related to the scheduled reviews, he’d come around to mention he was giving me a raise, just because I was doing a good job and writing good articles. I overheard him yelling at the publisher, telling him to keep his sales reps away from me; I ran the national directory of equipment and they all wanted favors for their customers.

Alas, Conover-Mast, across from the Daily News building in the literally heart of Manhattan, fell prey to Boston-based Cahners. The new parent sent the kids to Boston or Chicago. Moving to lower-tier towns was too much for those of us young and single. Most of us didn’t go.

Within 7 years, John died of cancer. Even though my sister and her kids were in Chicago, I would have felt stranded had I followed him there. I prefer to recall him as healthy and funny.

In fact, I remember each of these three for their virtue and joy they took in life.

Alas, Neponset Giants

July 20th, 2013

Since I last walked the banks of the Neponset from Boston’s Hyde Park into Milton, the parks maintenance folk have visited. Several huge as well as numerous smaller tries, evergreens and deciduous alike, have been removed or had surgery.


Two in particular were striking in their feebleness or injury, as well as size. They are huge in circumference and height. They are old. They looked hale, virtually immortal.

These are effects of aging and illness that leads us (OK, me) to strained metaphors of human life.

The American beech, here left, had clearly been rotting from the inside for a long time, perhaps a century. I have a fondness for these magnificent trees. Our previous house in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood shared the yard with a specimen at least 250 years old. It was coming to the end of its time and with sadness, we had arborists crown perhaps 30 feet off to prolong its life.

These sturdy gems are the stuff of carved lovers’ hearts, climbing, swings and treehouses. The only drawback I know is that when they produce nuts ever few years, those are multitudinous and damned hard on bare feet. They also would take forever to compost.

Here’s the big metaphor. It is often the largest, strongest looking of us who are rotting away inside, by cancer or other disease. Either through obvious symptoms or accidental discovery, the seemingly invulnerable are enfeebled or felled.

We could worry this trope to death with comparisons of dealing with found illness, carrying on, giving up, blah blah. It’s enticing, but let’s not.

Around the corner, a huge evergreen apparently suffered from our huge winds. If you can apply intelligence to a tree, you’d have to wonder what it was doing putting out such a huge limb and so low. The injured limb had to go.


There’s a simpler metaphor for the amputation. Moreover, this obviously was not the first such operation for this tree.


These pine-family plants do not have the longevity or to me the beauty of the beech. Still the metaphors of blood and tears flow with the fluids. The running, hanging sap does in fact look like what a human might produce in such adversity.

No one knows now whether the pine will heal as well from this injury as the previous one. This will be a rough season for it, rife with nasty insects, viruses and bacteria that can invade an open wound much more easily than a sealed bark.

It will take a year or two to see how well the tree’s defenses worked.

It surely is sensible and safe for the park crews to cut and remove damaged limbs and living hazard trees. Yet it’s tough for us ambulatory tourists to take too. We can foresee the decline and demise of these grand lifeforms.

Caught at a weak moment, we can also fall into the poetic and even religious traps of comparing cellulose lifeforms to our own…particularly when they are weeping.

Even Bugs Die

August 31st, 2012

I’m at nature a gentle sort, so much so that in the frenzy of the Vietnam-war draft, my beloved grandfather unbidden handed me a conscientious-objector reference letter. While he had sneaked away from the farm to enlist in the WWI American Expeditionary Forces to fight the Hun, he knew that I would never be one to kill another person.

Yet at a much lower level, he and I had teamed for years to slay insect pests. He had long farmed “patches” as he called them. These one-acre farms, one or two every summer were wide, deep expanses of vegetables and fruits, 150 running feet each. He’d plant, and from my elementary school time, I’d weed, water, train to trellis, cull, harvest, and more. Inherent in this was the elimination of bugs.

Many years later in my master-gardener course, I learned nifty terms such as integrated pest management. I already knew that part of the curriculum.

Early on, he used nasty chemicals, like DDT. He’d strap big spraying drums to his shoulder and squirt the toxins. Yet, also early on he somehow ran across the Rodale pub, Organic Gardening and quickly converted. We were out there with the pyrethrum (fundamentally a natural, harmless-to-humans insecticide made from marigolds) and with our eyes and hands. Destructive bugs did not like and died in innocuous baths of soapy water, beer, or water that had soaked the juice from a nickel cigar. I’d knock the hornworms, Japanese beetles, potato beetles and their ilk into my coffee cans of to-them toxins. While time-consuming, it killed them, did not hurt me, and did not poison the veggies and fruits.

With that background, I was a bit amused when my wife called to look at this thing on the back deck plants. Asked, she agreed it might be a bug but she was not sure.

What we had, and what had been ruining my wee, grown-from-seed tomato fruits was a tomato hornworm. What it had was parasites. The white thingummies festooned on its back were the growing offspring of a parasitic moth. It was infested and near death with wasp babies eating it from the inside.

There’s a conflict for the gentle guy.

This dreadful caterpillar has been destroying my tomatoes, fruit and plant. These wasps were gnawing at it en masse. Shortly the hornworm will die, the wasps will grow and fly off to create more parasites.

Who should feel sorry for whom?

Truth be told, as a gardener from childhood and by avocation and certification, I have little use for insects that live to eat my crops. Yet a small part of me empathizes with the reality of being eaten alive from the inside by nasties.

I think we could well do without the hornworm. Some versions of it munch on tobacco, which distresses me far less. I don’t have tobacco salads and sandwiches. I also think we could do well without mosquitoes, even though many bats and birds consume them as main parts of their diets.

My wife is very unhappy at the sight and thought of of the besieged caterpillar. I had no problem clipping the leaf and tossing the mess aside. I know that the wasps will finish their business and thrive. I might even hum The Circle of Life.


Morbid Floral Fantasies

June 20th, 2012

Spurred by Facebook and Twitter truths, several hundred of us queued for Morticia this morning at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo. We came prepared for the sprawling visual glory of the titan arum, a.k.a. corpse flower, and a bit trepid over a promise of dreadful stench in the temporary greenhouse kept at 80-something humidity and temperature.

Visually, she as the staff said, did not disappoint. As for bad smells, you’d do worse with durian fruit or happening across a decomposing mammal in the woods or maybe that camp outhouse. I eavesdropped to hear people apologizing to each other for their “failure” to get disgusting enough smells after all the anticipation and trepidation.

The zoo has a nice profile of botany of Morticia, here. Plus there’s info on the donor, who presented this one and four others to the facility.

They also realized what a winner they had here. Two of these monsters have bloomed in the same year. Fester, also named for a creepy  Addams Family character, recently finished its cycle. As these bloom on their own mysterious schedules only for about two days every five to 15 years, this mini-run was a delight to plant freaks.

The zoo intends to keep all five in a more permanent greenhouse elsewhere on the grounds after Morticia fades. Others in the quintet are in various stages of development. The staff told me they had no idea when the other three might bloom…a year, five, ten?

This time, the zoo really accommodated us curious types. They had pre- and post-zoo hours just for gawking and sniffing, and set up the greenhouse right inside one of the gates. They also did not charge admission for those special times (8 to 9:30 AM and 6 to 8 PM). Zoo members and paying visitors who came at regular hours could also visit the flowers.

In addition to self-appointed alerters, the zoo updated developments and included photos of each change over the past week of pre-blooming. Their FB page had it all and their Twitter handle carried abbreviated versions. Coupled with not charging for a peek, they clearly wanted to plug people into the zoo. Smart marketing, says I.

When I arrived this morning a little before 8, I sank like a butterfly in the rain. The cars in front of me on Blue Hill Avenue were turning maybe a third or more of them into the park. The two semi-circles of parking spaces by the zebra entrance were jammed and backed up. So was the huge lot by the golf course. Cars were parked all along the drive a quarter of a mile down. The auxiliary lot doesn’t open until 9 either. I went ahead and parked in the little lot by the other entrance and across from the golf course, a  lot I generally use in winter when I cross-country ski there.

Ah, but good news, as I returned to the zoo, I heard the loud speakers at the golf course. There was some sort of links tournament there. So not the entire world just had to see Morticia. In fact, as I entered, I estimated I was 150 or so people back in line. A similar number came behind me in the next 20 minutes. If this was Disney World, that line would be nothing for any attraction worth the trouble.

Pix notes: Click on an image for a closer view. These are Creative Commons. You’re welcome to use and abuse them. Just give Mike Ball credit the first go.

As it turns out, these flowers blow it all in preparation and blooming. Once they open up, they let off their smells to attract pollinating bugs and such. They they quickly fold up show. Fester was nearby and showed what happens as the exterior parts fold down back onto the corm. It looks very woody and extremely dormant.

They let us in double groups of 10, so 20 sweating camera bugs at a time would be around the two corpse plants, with the next batch of 10 replenishing as folk exited.  Certainly, they did not want to spend a lot of time inside. The air was hot and wet. You could pretty well see and photograph and smell from various sides in five or 10 minutes at most. By then, your camera lens was likely to fog and your shirt was wet from your own dew.

Yet, I think we were largely disappointed at not being disgusted by the aroma. That may well have been oversold. Perhaps Fester was more fetid?

On the other hand, Morticia was one big honking flower. She was nearly five feet tall at at least four feet across. The colors of the open blossom were splendidly rich and a bit lewd, looking very vulvar both in folds and hues. The outer green cup of the flower was gloriously fluted too. As fond and proud as I was of my giant parrot tulips, I bow before Morticia.

I can’t say I’ll keep close tabs for the next five to 15 years. I have seen and smelled a corpse flower in bloom. On the other hand, if I’m near one at the right time, I’ll make the effort. Who knows what grand colors…and repulsive smells….that one will produce.

Boston Mayor’s Spring Ritual

May 16th, 2012

Ah, it’s the annual series of Boston neighborhood coffees. Mayor Tom Menino truly loves these. He knows many in the crowds by both name and face. He gets to hand out pots of flowers to all comers. Dunkin’ provides coffee and Munchkins too.

Each neighborhood has a session in a park. You get the glad hand, a big smile, and this year a pot of salvia from da Mare. Oh, there are handouts about summer activities, his health challenge and such as well. Plus, there’s a chance to ask about things you care about, as I did.

Today’s in his Hyde Park was maybe cozier than some. It’s his Readville area and he knows even more locals than in some spots, calling out many by name even before he gets to the plant-distribution table.

Boston Parks and Rec. Commissioner Antonia Pollack joined him in handing out the pots from the city greenhouses. Last year, they were marigolds or salvia. I used the former to help guard my tomatoes from bugs, but the uxorial unit loves red salvia, so it’s still a win.

There were a bunch of uniformed cops and a detective or two, along with District City Councilor Rob Consalvo. It’s as jolly as any government function in town at 9 AM.

As a cyclist, I’m always asking him about his own biking. He previously told me how much he loved his newish recumbent bike. Then he broke some bones and for the three months as been in a protective boot and limping about.

Today he said he hoped to get it off next week. Then he doesn’t know when they’ll certifie the bones have healed enough for him to saddle up again. I encouraged him with a personal vignette about how I finally got a checkup after my broken leg with a surgeon who biked, and who told me, sure, it may hurt a little, but cycling will only increase the blood circulation and speed the healing. He seemed to like the sound of my version.

He did have to sit several times, apparently to rest the left foot and ankle. He also told staff that “These things are too long,” which I took to refer to how much time he spent on his sore limb.

He endured a different kind of pain, in Munchkin form. There were boxes of them about, including on the plant table. He did not eat a one. However, he was quick to offer the box to the little kids who came with parents or daycare providers. He’d urge them to take another and seemed to enjoy their smiles as much as those of the flower-taking crowd. (By far, the 100-plus crowd were largely grey. They too liked both the Munchkins and the fresh-fruit salad.)

Pollak said Menino was dieting and was enjoying the Munchkins vicariously. Likewise Consalvo had a diet soda in hand and avoided the sugar. They both seem to have taken the Mayor’s challenge seriously to get moving and lose a million collective Boston pounds.

For my concerns, Pollak and I chatted up the replacement process for Nicole Freedman, the bike tzarina. The likely replacement, Kris Carter, still has to go through the open-hiring process, but has a leg or more up. He’s been working on bike programs. Moreover, we all agree that Freedman made amazing process as well as laying out detailed plans. The new person doesn’t have to pioneer, just do the hard work of implementation including finding adequate funding.


Cross-post: This originally appeared at Marry in Massachusetts.

Blessing and Curse of 54

December 11th, 2011

I’m not huge on magical numbers, good or bad. There are primes I simply like the look of, like 17, but I don’t ascribe power to any set of integers.

wandacollegeThat written, a few coincidences have been obvious in my family. There’s the space of 24 for one. My mother’s father was 24 when she was born, as she was 24 when I was born. That certainly came to mind when a women I was living with became pregnant when I was 23. Had she not had an abortion, over my objection, I would have been a dad at 24. I did not even think keeping the series running. Yet in retrospect, I was not mature enough to be a dad then, and maybe barely when my first son was born when I was just short of 31.

Now 54 wasn’t all that remarkable for me, but for both Granddad and Mother, it was intense…24 years apart.

Granddad found agony, tedium and enlightenment. Mother was physically, financially, emotionally and even geographically upended, with some permanent negative effects. For them, 54 was a very big deal.

Backyard satori

At 54, Granddad had forced prolonged meditation. He found enlightenment in the backyard on South Marsham Street in Romney, WV.

He was in a cast from one heel to his waist. Though a railroad yard foreman, he was impatient when his crew could not uncouple a pair of recalcitrant train cars. In the process he fell between them and found his leg and pelvis crunched, broken in three or four places (I forget the detail).

While healing and immobilized, he would hobble on crutches to the yard and read under the gigantic maple tree. He went through the perhaps 100 or more books in the house, all of the Reader’s Digest copies they’d kept for decades, and some public-library books that his wife brought home. He planned his vegetable and flower gardens and enjoyed the small plots in the back. Then he thought.

Years later, I asked him about his calmness confronted with difficult people (often my grandmother, his wife).  As it turns out, he was dying when I brought that up when he was in the VA hospital for a double hernia operation. I had no inkling that the post-operative effects included some floating blood clots that did him in shortly after.

For many reasons, I’m glad we had the conversation. He first smiled the gentle, beatific grin I associated with him — all kindness and humility. He said that his calmness was relatively recent. It turns out that it happened when he was 54 and confined to the yard. After exhausting the reading material and his desire to divert himself through print, he mused. He would think and feel with open or closed eyes. He said those years later that it just came to him one day, both intellectually and emotionally. Somethings mattered and other things did not. If his wife or someone on his crew or another in a story said or did something nasty, it did not affect him, not in anger or spite or sorrow or any other negative way. He said it really wasn’t a mental decision so much as an awareness. Since that moment, he lived that.

So there was my 70-something Granddad saying (in my words) that he had an enlightenment at 54.

For me, struggling with my own adulthood and not so calm in the presence and actions and words of difficult people, I had a sense of relief as I digested this lawn magic. I had long emulated and admired him, but did not see a path to his equanimity. That was particularly important as he played the father role for me. My parents had divorced and my father and his almost immediate second wife went off to Germany, had a couple of sons, skipped on required support payments (the Army would not enforce the court ruling) and did not contact me for 20 years.

So Granddad was it and he did a fine job…other than being an impossible role model. After our conversation about the backyard awareness, I came to see that he was not only 48 years more mature but that he had also arrived at a place most of us never do. So, I could relax a bit and stumble (with some of my own meditation) along finding my own manhood, husband role, fatherhood and work interactions. Whew.

Far too much to handle

Alas though, my mother Wanda had a 54 harder than broken bones. Among her year were:

  • She and a lover were very happy with each other in every sense. Then his ex-wife started a new court action, wanting double alimony and child support. He flipped and fled to someplace like Singapore to wash that wife out of his hair. Wanda was suddenly solo, from joy to loneliness.
  • Her pharmaceutical employer sold itself to pharma giant Schering-Plough, which in effect said, “Love your gynecological products, but we have a sales force.”  They gave each rep a bag of money and a bum’s rush. She found herself unemployed, with six months to invest that money or lose much of it to taxes, and in effect forced to activate her eventual plan to move to Santa Fe to retire with her sister (head nurse at the Indian hospital) over a decade before she wanted to do so.
  • She found a lump in a breast, which turned out to be malignant and affecting lymph nodes as well. She was likely to die shortly.
  • She flew to Santa Fe, where a trusted surgeon friend of her sister Peg did a radical mastectomy/lymphectomy. Then she returned home with half a concave chest and a course of toxic chemo and radiation in the works. She was supposed to die within five years, in the spin-the-wheel medical odds game.
  • As medical wisdom (oxymoron) had it at the time, cancer for a middle-aged woman meant stopping all hormones immediately. She had experienced a strong menopause, and as a result other medical wisdom had her taking lots of hormones. The sudden halt brought a personality change, a negative one, in which my ever objective and patient mom became, to hear my chums and coworkers tell it, just like their moms — short-tempered, sharp-tongued, fault-finding, and even politically conservative.
  • She (rather we, as my 7-month pregnant wife and I loaded up her physical world in Pittsburgh into a U-Haul truck and led her in her car to Santa Fe, to the house she bought with the money for the two of them) went in great distress to a future seemingly out of her control.
  • As she settled in, my sister and her daughter figured this was a great time to leave her bad marriage. She showed up with two young kids. And baby makes five.

Granddad had a much better 54 than Mother did.

Tomato Fit for, Well, Me

August 9th, 2011


Up front, I’ll never have the acreage and variety of vegetables my grandfather grew (with me as his willing peon), but even in my tiny scale, I am aware of the sensual grandeur of fresh produce. The scent and sneaked taste of our tomatoes are a full flavored antidote to the permanent, rot-before-ripen tomato-like-objects in the groceries.

Sure, there are splendors as grander or grander — the pacific joy of your own baby collapsed in sleep on your chest immediately comes to memory. Yet right up there are the many senses delighted by truly ripe garden goodies gathered moments before preparing and consuming.