Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

Refining Rubes…Maybe

April 20th, 2016

Odds are you don’t know farm life. Not only are few of us farmers or even from an ag background, but also time, mores, economics and politics have shifted considerably from the early 1900s. I straddle times and conditions. I have milked cows (manually and mechanically), collected eggs, scalded and plucked hens, and worked corn from seeding to weeding to harvesting to turning under.

On the other hand, I never was in a position to inherit a family farm. I grew, picked and sold vegetables but was never in effect indentured servant/slave to nasty father. I never even belonged to 4-H, while I knew many peers in WV, VA and SC who were all those.

Yet, The 4-H Harvest: Sensuality and the State in Rural America (Gabriel N. Rosenberg, U. Penn Press 2016) goes far beyond county and state fairs, farm kids with beloved pigs and cows, and FFA meetings.

One warning is that the book’s index sucks mightily. I’ve done large book indexing and am positive that the author had nothing to do with this one. Many complex and detailed citations are missing (homosexuality, venereal disease, and on and on); it lacks the ideas and uses only keywords. Boo. The other shortcoming is that Rosenberg is far more concerned with the political and economic relationships than the kids. We can infer about the social, intellectual and economic outcomes for the 4-H youth, but he tells us more about the political players individually.  A third note should be that this is an academic press property; at $55, it’s a good meal price; get it at the library.

As someone who visited relatives’ and friends’ farms, I did the work, but I never actually owned and raised cows, sheep or pigs for exhibition (and eventually slaughter). My chums who did that grew up knowing the true script for animals. They had no apparent problem assisting at the birth, naming the cow, raising her, exhibiting her, then either selling or killing and butchering her, and in the latter case eating her little one.

Fatalistic comes to mind.

The 4-H book recalls other intersections. The Y is one. As a child in several places I belonged to YMCAs. When we moved to Boston, I found myself a member in the original Y. I learned it was the Garden of Eden for Northeastern University.

That is, the nation’s first Y started to be a shield for Christian young men who had moved to the (relatively) big city from the farm to earn a living. The new institution offered wholesome residence, free from bars and prostitutes and the moral perils of rooming house life. This Y offered evening lectures to keep the young men wholesome and occupied. Those in turn led to the college and university — evening activities for the mind and soul rather than the crotch.

Likewise, the 4-H clubs were specifically to counter the immorality and amorality of rural life. In contrast to our idyllic bucolic images, country life was rife with lust, pregnancy, venereal disease, bestiality, homosexuality and.well, non-refined ways to spend an evening.

The clubs viewed, described and treated the youth involved much as they did the produce and animals (other than not eating the kids). The descriptions of the programs and contests are embarrassing in their paternalism. Then again, this was largely the range of the 20th Century, start to finish. There was rampant racism and sexism, with the asininity of stereotyping,  that continued well into the 1970s.

Oddly, the author keeps his academic distance and does not wonder specifically whether the good and bad balance on the 4-H scale.

As an aside, the book reminded me of a dinner about 1970 in Cape May, New Jersey. The hosts were the former mayor, Belford (Bucky) LeMunyon and his wife Ione. She was the aunt of the woman I kept company with in Manhattan. A guest (to my embarrassment I do not recall his name) was a retired local physician. He recalled performing seemingly unceasing Army physicals during the WWI draft in a field outside of town. There were stations of long tents and much longer lines of naked men, each wearing only a bag with personal effects. He remembered to that day one potential soldier after another with secondary or tertiary syphilis, sores and a fatal prognosis unknown to them. They were farm boys given to the amoral sexuality of rural life, young men who had no idea they were close to the insanity and death that end-stage disease brings.

The 4-H book refers to the raw and common sexuality of the farm life. We can sit at a distance and snicker at the self-righteousness of the clubs and Ys preaching about the risks to body and soul from city life, while farm kids were at least as likely to suffer…or more so.

 

 

Hear Hair Talking

March 26th, 2016

I parrothairyadmit that I am one of the millions (or more) who snicker at Donald Trump’s hair weave or whatever artifice crawls around his skull. Most recently, I’ve enjoyed the parrot tulips pending outside and potted on the dining table. I’m simple enough to be amused at the idea that he could take one of my images, like the adjacent one, to his hairstylists. He could say, “Do me!”

I think if he’s going with the orange skin and hair-like-objects theme, he should display some panache.

This is a derivative theme for me. In the early 1980s, a friend and godmother of  one of our sons introduced the concept the phrase.

She is the artist who called herself Savannah, in lieu of her more painfully Southern name, Marion Francis Talmadge Etheredge. More painful was her nasty divorce. Throttled and dumped on by hubby, a few older relatives on her own side, and one of her daughters, she was poor and poorly, angry and alert.

Tall, blonde and striking, she outdid herself when she visited us. We’d moved to Boston with our first boy and she remained in our mutually beloved Manhattan. When she arrived, Boston was not ready for her in the early 1980s. She wore a black body suit and sported three colors of short hair. The not-too-worldly locals literally stopped and gawked.

She spoke about her appearance (we thought she looked great and powerful). She said after the terrible divorce proceedings she went to her SoHo stylist ripe for a real change and statement. She just told her, “Fix me!”

In this temporal reality, Trump is all bluster and theater. Does he have that much nerve?

 

Family Clipboards and Whistles

February 6th, 2016

Clipboards and lanyards with Acme Thunderer whistles were family tools for me. My true role model was Granddad, William Benjamin Michael, who worked on the B&O Railroad for 48 years until they forced him to retire. I had full train trappings, replete with cap and overalls and he let me drive a wood-burning engine around the yard. I never became a toot-toot engineer.

In a boomer lifestyle though, lifeguarding and water-safety instruction was a family biz. My mother ran Red Cross chapters in West Virginia, Virginia and New Jersey. She had been on her way to becoming a nurse when she married, was a Gray Lady in Japan when we were part of the Occupation Army there and came to her post-divorce career with many duties. Those included teaching home nursing, first aid, emergency first aid (bang, post-atomic-bomb stuff), and the range of swimming and lifeguard c0urses.

[By the bye, I took and taught those emergency first-aid courses too. I’m fine with having learned to delivery babies and less pleased with knowing how to treat radiation poisoning.]

Mom Wanda taught me to swim first in the South Branch of the Potomac by Romney, West Virginia. There were also pools, where I saw her in action —teaching, managing other instructors and generally being group mother.

As far as I recall, my sister and I never thought about it. Somehow organically, we also became lifeguards and water-safety instructors (WSIs). I also taught first aid and coached summer swim teams where I guarded. Back in the sensible days, my summer earnings from guarding, teaching and coaching paid for most of my college costs. The rest came from academic and athletic scholarships.

Thinking back, I remember Wanda with clipboards and whistles. Those became part of my life too, all and every summer. From beginner through senior life saver, my chargers were under my watch and subject to attendance checks and fill-in-the-boxes accomplishments. I would only guess how many class forms I completed, likely a thousand or two over many summers. Each form was on a clipboard, as much a part of the WSI uniform as a swimsuit.

Wanda also had a lanyard and whistle of dubious utility.

thudererWhen I became a lifeguard for summers and in college, the nasty-sounding Thunderer (pic from the Acme site [no coyotes]) became essential. Particularly when keeping a pool safe when it was rife with other teens, authority was in the whistle.

I was not the beloved laissez-faire lifeguard. No dunking on my watch. I’d throw people (almost always boys) out for running after being warned, diving when others were below, and again holding someone under water. Fortunately, I was large enough and athletic enough to pull it off. Plus, most young swimmers depended on me to pass their swimming courses.

My mother was often in a Red Cross uniform. Other times, I remember her in a bathing suit with a WSI path (I may still have one of mine), and always with the whistle and clipboard.

Those were badges of office in my family.

By the bye, none of my three sons had the slightest interest in being a team swimmer much less lifeguard or instructor.

Today in my house, I have numerous leftover clipboards. I put them to use daily though. When most of us turn on the TV, I either read a book or engage in my preferred evening activity, cryptic puzzles. My favorites are from the Financial Times.

My wife says the British puzzles are impossible and illogical, but they are my recreation and pleasure. They also work best with a clipboard.

 

 

Everyone’s cousin leaves Haymarket

January 15th, 2016

pcampoSurely it’s good when changing of the guard does not involve an ambulance or hearse.  Yet the absence of my favorite Haymarket vendor has disturbed me. Today I got truth and knowledge.

I’d had an eye operation and was under surgeon’s orders to “putter around the house” and not do anything athletic, nor lift anything, nor expose my head to extreme weather.

When I returned after several weeks to my weekend ritual of 36 years, Pat (left in colder days) was not there. He and his father, Frank, had that stall back when my now huge number-one son was an infant in a Snugli on my chest. Now though instead of Pat, Ottavio Gallotto, President of the Haymarket Pushcart Association, had his crew there.

I didn’t ask about Pat, hoping he was hale and away to pick up a tan or the like. I was trepid. His father had died in 2007. Frank was a great role model for Pat, born Pasquale. Frank was one of those kind and gentle souls, who wasn’t ruffled by even the nastiest bargain hunter. Someone would be yelling, feigning indignation, but Frank let him vent and then explained how things were. Nice guy.

I noticed too that Pat’s mom, Jean, whom I’ve never met, died this past fall. So, somewhere I feared he might have fallen ill or worse as well. I know he was younger than I, but hey, 20-year-olds have heart attacks and strokes.

With mixed feelings, I finally asked Ottavio today. He paused and said, “He retired.” (pause) “He is only 60.” (pause) “Crazy, huh?”

Maybe not so crazy. His father worked much longer in their stall. Maybe Frank never tired of it and Pat wanted to spend weekends doing something other than setting up a stall before dawn, artfully arranging lemons and grapefruits, and in 100F or 0F standing there dealing with the likes of me until late afternoon every damned Friday and Saturday. Good on him. Bad for us.

Various Haymarket vendors develop their shticks. There was the relatively famous guy at the butcher shop catercorner from the Campo camp. He frightened some sensitive folk with his sudden “Want some meat, buddy?” query, invariably delivered less than a foot from your face. As I recall there was even a t-shirt with the saying and his raw-steak-like red/blue face.

Jimmy was another who has moved on. He hated the cold. That’s not a good fit for an area close to the waterfront. He was cheerful in spring and summer, but come the dreadful winter winds with sleet, snow and ice, he’d let everyone know how unhappy he was.

And Pat’s calling card was his calling. He’d greet everyone as “Hey, cuz,” or “What do you need, cousin.” Everyone was family to him. He got that attitude from Frank.

So, Haymarket now is without Pat. Clearly, I”ll have to deal.

I got used to the candy/nut man moving on. My sons considered it a right and rite to get a treat from him as a reward for shopping with me. I got used to the massive herb cart going away too.

Pat was the place for certain items. If you wanted the prettiest and most flavorful lemons, you’d head there. He kept his prices the lowest in the market for what he carried too. It was a pleasure doing business with them, father and son.

 

Boo for Holiday Booze

December 24th, 2015

mymable“Oh no, Bill, not the boys!”

My grandmother, Mable Michael, had particular, peculiar, nearly miracle hearing. Let’s go with selective. She didn’t respond to all that much and seemed to lose the lower tones as so many older women do. And yet…

I recall a specific Christmas holiday in my college days in her home in the Eastern panhandle of West Virginia. Several of my friends from the area has joined me in her living room, filling the couch and chairs.

She had a clear relationship with alcohol, as in it was sinful, shameful and to be avoided. She was like a Jew who speaks of alcoholism as the shegetz disease, without the quirk of ignoring Jewish vintners or the dominance of Jews in the whiskey distilling trade.

Her hypocrisy was baser and plainer. Her husband (my beloved grandfather) might have two 3.2% beers (all that was legal in West Virginia) and he was on the road to hell. Yet, we all knew we had to bear our version of frankincense each Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas in form of Mogan Davis blackberry wine.

We never saw it. We never saw her or anyone drinking it. By the end of the vacation, somehow the bottles disappeared (and were concealed in bags or more in the trash). She arose about 5 every morning to spend time with The Upper Room devotional, her Bible, and likely a glass of the star of David.

I never saw my grandfather tipsy. Well, maybe once. He took my sister and me to the Burlington drive-in movie and tossed back a 3.2 or two. As we were leaving, he drove off with the speaker still attached to the front passenger window and the cord snapped. High or impatient? We’ll never know.

Anyway, he was no sot and no one ever likely got drunk on 3.2 beer. You’d pee yourself into fatigue first.

That particuar Christmas eve, we were in the living room. She as usual was laboring in the kitchen for her planned massive Christmas Day family feast. After all, her beloved only son would arrive with his brood of four, plus wife.

The ambient noise level was high. The TV was on, as they always were in the 1960s. Hell, they still are (why is that, writes the non-TV watcher?). Granddad came to me in the distant corner armchair. He bent down to my right ear (farthest from the kitchen and his vigilant wife) and whispered so I could barely make it out, “Would you and the boys like a little nog?”

In West Viginia terms of the time, that of course meant some store-bought sugary eggnog from a carton with a small splash of bourbon. I attended the University of Sourh Carolina, where bourbon was a sacrament and such splashes were better suited as aftershave than refreshment. Still it was a host-worthy query.

Immediately from the kitchen — how the hell could she even have the faintest sense of the query — Mable immediately bellowed, “Oh no, Bill, not the boys!”

To this day, I wonder whether she sussed the concept or exhibited some canine-level superpower. Though everyone in the living room was of legal drinking age, she’d have none of it.

Even then we laughed.

 

 

The Brassiere Jungle

December 12th, 2015

Woe was I (although I hardly knew or admitted it). Growing up, I was the token male in a mom-led with older sister household.

To my later benefit, I learned early to leave the toilet seat down. I also chose to become the best cook, with my maternal grandmother as the family star baker up to her death — another big plus come dating, single-life and marriage statuses.

Alas, there was 50s and 60s underwear.

After the questionable innovation of pantyhose — expensive, fragile necessity for working women and aggravation to lusty companions — the canopy in the bathroom was less lush. Yet I grew knowing a veritable orchard of lingerie.

In our various apartments and houses with shared bathrooms, I’d bushwack to the shower and sink. My fastidious mother and sister regularly washed multiple sets of what one neighbor, Mrs. Kidd in Danville, VA, still called unmentionables. Hanging from shower curtain tubes, towel racks and of course, the folding wooden Rid-Jid drying structure filling the tub/shower space were a Tarzan transit worthy set of vines comprising bras, girdles, stockings, garter belts, and underpants.

Certainly fighting this overgrowth to wash and shave was better than life with stinky mother and sister. Yet still…

Now as a long-term married, I remain pleased that my first and only uxorial unit does not try to make me relive my unmentionables past, the ghosts of brassieres that had been. Just today as I headed up after breakfast to brush my teeth, she hastened before me, saying she’d left a bra in the sink.

As it turned out she had in fact already rinsed it and hung it over a towel on her towel rack.

That got me thinking of how oddly proud so many are of what married types do in sight, hearing and smell of each other. Allegedly after a year of marriage, the couple are happy to defecate, pass wind (loudly and laughing), and do all manner of private business next to the spouse. Supposedly, that is intimacy.

I guess I’m too much of a prig. I don’t want her to perceive me as a flatulent, coarse, stinky animal. I think of Rose Sayer in The African Queen, when she said, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”

 

Romancing the Diseases

December 6th, 2015

Cristobal_Rojas_37aSeveral physicians have told me how they used to dread the day of the month the new Reader’s Digest appeared. When I grew up, that formulaic and wildly popular little maggy featured an article on a disease. Within two days, docs would get calls from those sure they had it. That was crazy talk, but it still required diagnosis and much reassurance.

My maternal grandmother, an otherwise bright and witty human, played at that several times a year. In her defense, she lived in a small town in the eastern mountains of West Virginia. Excitement did not seek Romney out. Adding a bit of drama to a humdrum life is understandable.

Well, my grandmother, Mable, did have a disease. Several doctors had diagnosed her with nervous asthma. That is, her wheezing and shortness of breath were as real as someone reacting to physical or airborne irritants. She refused to accept that she might do something other than squeeze her nebulizer bulb. She found one GP, as they were known in the days before FPs and PCPs, who humored her and agreed that she had no control over her condition.

Wasting Envy

Her foible was small beer compared to Romantic Era poets, opera composers, painters and novelists. Check here, here, here, and here, and relish La Miseria by Cristóbal Rojas  above.) Numerous artists sincerely desired to have and die from tuberculosis, for its effects of paleness and weakness. I fear we still see such effects in thigh gaps, anorexia, obsession with wearing size 0, and countless young women who have bodies better suited to 11-year-old boys.

Being too thin, too weak, too wan sound frightful to me, conditions you should avoid through exercise, sensible diet and being sure you have good levels of hormones chugging through your veins.

And yet, a small part of me senses the glamor my grandmother sought to liven her rise-work-eat-sleep quotidian existence. For one specific for Mable, she was big boned (I inherited my big, honking feet and too broad chest from her). She truly wanted to be slight like her sister. They shared a dad, but Mable was the eldest and Anna, from their widowed father’s second wife, the youngest. They were physically unalike and Mable envied her little sister’s build.

Years later I recalled them on my first real full-time job. I went from college to be the editor in chief of the black weekly newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina. The race was important, in part because most readers and all the board members were African Americans.

So were the two everyday office staff, Ida and Jackie. They had been friends from elementary school, through college and now on the job. They were each other’s bridesmaids even. They were intimate and much of the day included personal chitchat mixed with work.

They talked a lot about each other’s bodies. They had the two stereotypical African-American women’s bodies — one short with large bust and bottom, one very slender. They each claimed regularly to want the other’s body. They would embarrass me with such talk as Ida saying her hubby, Thomas, would love to have a wife with Jackie’s sizeable breasts. While I lived with a woman, such intimate talk was not my norm.

Poetry of Illness

While not a drama queen myself (as the French might say, j’ai du sang-froid), I don’t totally lack sympathy with the disease romantics. In fact for a mild example, I recall being maybe 8 when my sister brought home one her many disease gifts. This was German measles as I remember it.

I laid n the bed febrile and covered with itching sores. I projected to various movies and Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion (a TV show my sister and I watched). There were deserts and heat and suffering and heroism. Blah, blah.

As an adult though, I am only disappointed when my body fails me at any time. I long ago accepted that only in kiddy land can doctors fix you. They are good with acute and obvious conditions. Faced with chronic or nebulous adult disorders, they fail more often than not. “Live with it” is the too frequent prognosis.

Recently though I had minor pleasure at thinking I had rare disorders. I was not aware that desire existed at all in my brain.

Straight up, I had not heard of either polymyalgia rheumatica or macular pucker. I got diagnoses or each of those in turn. Because I have a broad general knowledge and knew of neither, with each I figured I was pretty damned special.

Wrong.

Instant Claudication

For polymyalgia, I went to bed feeling fine, but woke so sore I could hardly move my arms and struggled mightily to walk 25 feet to the john. I got slightly better over the week and decided to wait it out. A couple of weeks slithered by before I called my doc.

He knows my mild disdain for his profession and was positively chipper in being able to tell me that, “Come in for a diagnosis, but I’m sure that you have polymyalgia rheumatica.”

I had never heard of it but clicked around the tubes to see that I had the symptoms. He confirmed the initial call and hooked me up immediately with a rheumatologist. Before visiting the latter, we spoke and like my internist, he was sure right away.

The good rheumatologist Bates has a lollipop face and is young enough to have a daughter the age of my grandson. He was both very compassionate and a regular pro with polymyalgia. He squashed my romantic, special image quickly by noting that old white women frequently get a mild form of it but typically Caucasian men from 55 to 70 get it hard as I did. It is kind of like sickle-cell disease for African Americans or any of that dozen or more Ashkenazim blood disorders, a curse specifically on old white people. Fair enough.

Dr. Bates said simply, “It’s not rare. If you know a bunch of white men in their 50s and 60s, you know someone who had it.” Sure enough, I have found several peers with the condition. They don’t brag about, but deal with it.

By the bye, it used to be that just had to be crippled for one to seven years and it went away. Nowadays, steroids, typically prednisone, fix it. It requires months of dosing and one to three years of tapering off. You can relapse, often worse.

Well, it’s neither romantic nor glamorous.

Eye Trouble

My recent chance at drama and uniqueness was macular pucker, a.k.a wrinkled retina. I had blurred vision in one eye and went for my regular eye exam with my self-diagnosis of cataracts. I’m that age.

My optometrist wasn’t playing. He didn’t have all the eye diagnostic gear the surgeons do, but he knew it wasn’t cataracts.

I wanted cataracts. They are a known status and the surgery is nearly 100% effective and immediate.

Instead after a couple of visits to one set of eye specialists and surgeons, and then a second opinion by one of the super doctors, I got the pucker punch. It’s built-up scar tissue from unknown origin on top the macular and retina. It has no relation to macular degeneration. There are no drug, vitamin or exercise fix. Queue the operating room. Moreover, unlike cataract surgery, going into the eyeball to clear out the cells may or may not improve the vision.

Lord, I miss the long gone days when Dr. Newman could poke my butt with penicillin and fix my swollen tonsils.

Regardless, it turns out that my ignorance of macular pucker did not make the condition unique or even that unusual. It’s not as common as polymyalgia, but it’s not rare or romantic or dramatic.

I’m not likely as many to long for the exotic and romantic diseases. Yet, I do have a sense of what that’s about.  I think medical stasis and boredom are better.

 

Alter kakers, moms to the polls

November 8th, 2015

Last week’s Boston election was a flapping wrinkle at least, while not a revolution. No ballot questions or major offices (mayor, governor, legislature, Congress or POTUS) lured the curious or civic-minded. However, we did revisit the 13 City Councilors.

Lackaday, only 13.63% of the city’s registered voters showed, according to the posted results. I could lament the lack of participation. Yet, it was right in the narrow range the MA Secretary of the Commonwealth predicted. I could also feel a barely justifiable pride that my precinct (18-16 in Hyde Park) more that doubled the city rate, at 28.08%. We had 1572 in our book and 442 cast ballots.

I’m the warden there, the minor official in this big pond with many inlets, as in 254 other precincts.

Instead, I noticed a few trends in my nearly 15 hours there. Election workers get to the polling place at least an hour before the 7 AM opening. We leave after breaking down, putting away, checking each ballot for write-ins, and accounting for each civically-sacred ballot.

It is no exaggeration that we are accountable for each ballot — received, cast, spoiled, or provisionally marked. We count them all day long, cross-reference the check-in and check-out books, and go a final great bookkeeping of them after polls close at 8 PM.

We’re on Fairmount Hill, a sub-neighborhood of Hyde Park rife with oldsters (including me) and breeders. Those are the sets that always vote and seemed to dominate again on Tuesday last.

Years ago, I was first inspector, then clerk (effectively middle management), then warden at the Woodbourne Apartments in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood, 19-12. There are many disabled residents of that building, and many of those said that voting is a highlight each election day…solid participation, coupled with the rest of the precinct.

The seniors in 18-16 really believe in voting. Like I, they surely had both civics classes in school and expectations from parents that they had to participate in democracy.

In addition, we had a steady beat of babies and toddlers all day in 18-16. Actually that’s not precise. The moms (almost no dads voting with wee ones) were not queued up before 7 with their charges. Nor did they rush in before 8 and closing.

However, many 20-, 30- and 40-somethings came in with one to up to five kids on food, in carriers, in strollers (up to triplet). There were some grandmothers with several kids as well.

As my three did as little ones, most kids seemed to love the event, perhaps for its rarity and newness. Surely adults could say it was a joy disproportionate to the actual task. I did my nefarious part as well, keeping a steady supply of Halloween treats in bowls by both check-in and check-out tables for the taking. While adults grabbed the Reese’s Cups and 3 Musketeers bars, the kids who were allowed to pick almost invariably chose lollipops. I kept the handles within view and those went fast.

Some of the preschoolers also favored the other extra, the I VOTED stickers. As odd as the power of a parent counting down, stickers have their own magic.

Keep the kids coming. They are another reason for some to get to the polls. They are are spots of pleasure for the poll workers, with cuter and less dour, New England faces from the youngsters.

 

 

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
a’creepin
Arou-ou-ou-ou-ou-ound

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.

God’s TinkerToys

August 22nd, 2015

Five of us from Boston, Brookline and Worcester joined several thousand at Crane Beach in Ipswich today to jostle each other for glimpses of the Strandbeest. The plastic framed, wind-powered walking thingummy from Dutchman Theo Jansen was hard to get close to and difficult to see. You’ll have many more chances, some to observe the bigger, badder versions.

Rain or shine, wind or not, one or more will be at the Peabody Essex Museum from 9/19 through 1/3/16. On Friday, August 28th, they’ll be at Boston City Hall Plaza from 11AM-1PM and the Kennedy Greenway from 4:30-7PM.

If you look at the stills and vids at the Strnndbeest and museum sites, you’d expect titanic critters of major motion picture proportions. The pair of them that hit the beach today were more scaled-down traveling models…maybe 7 or so feet tall, plus some wind-catching sails.

strandsoloWhile you might expect something like Imperial AT-AT Walkers from Star Wars, these were more in the super-sized TinkerToy or Erector Set models. They are still way cool, just not either as big or animated as fantasy would have it.

Boomers, particularly boys from that era of gender-specified playthings, should feel very comfortable with Jansen’s updated models.

We concurred that real beast in the Strandbeest show at Crane’s today was the crowd. Either Saturday mornings on the North Shore are slow or the PR efforts worked. The roads to the beach crawled, the lots were full, and the beach was jammed.

strandincrowdEveryone seemed to feel entitled to an intimate experience with Strandbeest(s). The poor yellow-shirted volunteers really did try to get folk to stand back. The concepts seemed to be not to hurt the moving sculptures, to stay out of the way of the art, and to let people see the damned things.

People weren’t having any of it. There were several loud women telling off quiet men and women, saying they’d been there for over two hours and were not about to let anyone sit down in front of them. That was just rude and they knew it. So there.

As a couple of hours passed though, everyone interested kind of got a view. A few had parents or friend hoist them on their shoulders. Many wormed their way close enough to see the action. Others held out hope that the promise of the Strandbeest waddling down the beach would bring one or both of them within sight.

strandsailThe yellow shirts first walked the frames down the beach to a clear area for repeated promenades. The crew would attach, then unfurl the gauzy sails. The wind from the ocean would then propel a Standbeest a couple of hundred feet. Then the crew would walk it back to the starting point to repeat.

The large crowd never got rowdy and stayed pretty calm. Again, everyone got to see something, even if the script for Strandbeests lumbering along the beach repeatedly really didn’t happen.

These very large toys are clearly well designed and even better constructed. They stood up to hours of being lugged and led and reassembled. They did in fact walk on the beach, largely under wind power on their plastic stumps.

We decided we’ll have to visit them next week in downtown Boston. I rather doubt they can count on the ocean breeze as they did today. We’re curious to see these in various environments.

Pix note: Published under Creative Commons . You are welcome to use them. Just credit Michael Ball once.