Archive for the ‘Childhood’ Category

Unflinching POW tale worth the angst

September 5th, 2015

MCPJreadNothing like being slugged in the mouth by your dad…unless it’s always quaking in his presence because he was volatile and your any word or action might make him roar or threaten you. Nothing is good enough or right.

The relentless tone and theme of Cathy Madison’s memoir The War Came Home With Him both fascinates and exhausts. Of course, Amazon has it and it’s well worth reading, so long as you know what you’re committing to do, think and feel.

As a disclaimer, the author and I were wee childhood buddies, as in nursery/kindergarten time. Our mothers kept regular contact until their deaths. She and I reacquainted casually in the past few years. The pic above from right to left has mutual friend Jackie, my sister Pat, Cathy and I reading. We were at the Arden Apartments (see chapter 2) where her mother awaited word on Korean POW Doc Boysen.

Note too that my father also fought in both Korea and WWII France and Germany. As nearly all such soldiers who saw a lot of action, he didn’t talk about it, much less glorify war. That was for desk jockeys to do.

This memoir is a hard read, but not because of length (only 239 smallish pages) or turgidity (she’s a real journalist). Rather, she sporadically describes from her memory and mostly from her father’s written recollections horrors of several types. In fact, the book alternates its 26 short chapters. One recounts the vicissitudes of Army family life and then the literal and figurative tortures of being a POW, and the next speaks to the title in her memories.

The primary subject, Alexander Boyson, MD, known both as Doc and Pete, was beyond prickly. In Vietnam and later parlance, he had PTSD and has clearly changed personality for the worse during three years of Korean and Chinese imprisonment. As the eldest of three children and by the text the most sensitive, Cathy got the intermittent physical punishment and regular verbal abuse. Rather than responding to the martinet with disdain and hate, she seems to have gone the cowering and trepidation route, the survival mode.

As a writer, I was very impressed by the elegant interweaving of the two parallel memoirs. The time periods are not contemporary, but the interplay works superbly. Her own tales, while they can be jarring, act as breathing space for the reconstructed vignettes of the prison camps, forced marches, prisoner disorders, and deaths.

I suspect many readers will think of Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini. While the latter book and movie do not deal with war tragedy and horror, the harsh and overly precise dad character comes to mind.

I found some parallels and coincidences with Cathy’s story. Fortunately, I did not have a verbally and physically abusive home life. My parents divorced when my father returned from Korea to the rest of us in Japan  He quickly remarried and became a deadbeat dad, refusing to pay child support as he was assigned to Germany and had two sons by his second wife. Yet, my mother (who would have been 91 today) supported my sister and me as exec in a series of Red Cross chapters. That meant we moved every couple of years, as Cathy did in the military. Amusingly enough, she also spent time at Fort Sill, where my parents married, my sister and were born, my parents divorced, and my mother and grandfather had to retrieve us via a military court when my father and stepmother announced they’d ignore my mother’s full custodial rights and take us to Europe.

A current meme has been that we boomers are evil, sucking the financial blood from the American body. Yet, many or even most of us didn’t have cushy lives.

Cathy certainly didn’t. She grew up not fully protected by her mother, under the control of a neurotic, very smart surgeon dad. Here again I got the better of it with a single mom, where being from that period piece clicché broken home also meant I didn’t get beaten or shamed. Having two parents isn’t necessarily the ideal.

Even if I didn’t know Cathy, I’d recommend the memoir. I won’t delve here into the images of POWs’ bootless feet leaving blood and skin on forced marches over ice nor Doc’s sudden outbursts that were both irrational and cruel. Just be warned that some, no many, chapters carry harsh jolts.

For those who want the long view be aware that when you finish The War Came Home With Him Cathy comes to terms with a mother who smoked too much, drank too much and shielded her daughter inadequately, and with her often insecure self, and even with her understandably traumatized father. She does not deeply analyze her mother or herself, rather provides reportage and lets the reader do that.

In addition to her memories, her father’s writings, and a few interviews, she also includes some research on the aftermath of POWs and collaboration. As a whole, a war queerly called a UN police action, comes into focus through the experiences of Doc and his fellow POWs. If war is hell, prison camps were a whole deeper level.

Cathy’s memoir is a short, intense trip, well worth it.

The book is at once detailed and yet leaves out much. Her two brothers are very minor characters until the end of her parents’ lives; we don’t learn whether Doc’s abuse extended to them or to her mother and to what extent if so. We don’t know whether she turned to her mother to protect her and if so whether Cathy held her guilty for not doing so. We don’t read about her marriage, which she writes that her husband left. Was he in any real way like her father or did her relationship with Doc color and poison the union? We have to wonder whether the Doc who could record his memories and thoughts of the Korean year so fully analyzed his own treatment of his daughter and others.

In my many moves, I got to know numerous families under the command of an ex-military dad, and in a few cases a dad and a mom. I knew quite a few others who had abusive fathers who were neither POWs or even ex-military. Getting slugged in the face and beaten with belts and such was part of their lives. It wasn’t part of mine, for which I am grateful, and more so after reading Cathy’s memoir.





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.

Very close sounds in the Village

August 7th, 2015

denhert2Without question, my favorite intimate NYC music venue is the 55 Bar. My Boston drinking buds and I visit when we go to the City. While it humbly advertises itself as a Prohibition Era dive bar, it really is a wee place that features jazz in the broadest sense, one where you can sit within touching distance of the musicians.

This Wednesday, the three of us went for KJ Denhert with guest, her long-term singing bud, Vicki Genfan. They have been singing together for decades since college (one at Ithaca and the other down the hill at Cornell. They both sing and play, with KJ specializing on vocals and Vicki on guitar. Each will occasionally guest on the other’s gig. They like each other and it shows in the music.

As always, we arrived 10 minutes before showtime and trotted to the barstools next to the band and johns. The early sets at the 55 don’t have a cover, just a two-drink minimum per very long set. Out stools were literally right there.

Genfan2Pix notes: Click a pic for a larger view. These are Creative Commons, so use ’em if you want; just credit Michael Ball once. I won’t apologize for the grain and such. The light inside the 55 is Dis as befits the underworld. The bulbs are in fact red, so these are even color corrected a bit. I won’t use flash when I’m close to musicians. I have some upbringing.

Back to the 55, if you go look carefully for the 55 street number to its down-the-stairs entry. It’s, if you pardon, cheek to jowl with the famous Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher. It seats maybe 60 at deuces and quads, with another 20 or so at the bar. There are no bad seats, you are all close to the music.

KJ likes to scramble her style(s). She sometimes is urban folk, but does real jazz licks and her own blues. She performed mostly originals for us, with beyond Genfan on some, the combo’s drums, guitar and bass guitar.

She and Genfan performed together on an off. Sometimes KJ sat next to me while her friend went solo. Again, they like each other.

To Vicki, I’d never heard or seen her signature style. After the break, she came over and I asked her if there was Denhert4a name for that spanking the frets just above the guitar body. She turns her guitar into more of a percussion instrument…think piano. It’s a hell of a lot more powerful than beating the body for a thump or 20. She creates a combination of rhythm and melody with the flourishes.

She was impish though. She could have told me that she’d named the style. I found that out by clicking around to read about her. She calls it slap-tap. Good stuff.

As every other time we’d gone to the 55, the music was superb, particularly because we were a few feet from it. I guess it also helps that it is such a small room that they don’t have to blast the audio to the point of making your ears bleed. (Don’t you hate that?)

This is kind of like the Lowell Folk Festival. I have some CDs to buy. I also chatted with both of the lead singers. Is it true that memories are free?

You should go out to their sites or YouTube or Amazon and listen. You’re allowed to buy their music even if you didn’t sit next to them.

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


Burned bucks

July 29th, 2015

BURNTBUCKYesterday, crossing the Slattery bridge over Boston’s Fairmount train line, I noticed this burned U.S. dollar on the sidewalk. Who knows the trivial tale here?

While my first thought was that some young person was showing off lighting a blunt. Yet, as the bill seemed to have been lit in the middle, that’s not likely.

Instead, perhaps someone who’d been drinking or was otherwise high decided it would be fun and funny to burn currency.

Regardless, it brought me to a flashback to a post here five years ago. That deserves a reprise.

abecentSkipping pennies was and remains a teen amusement. Yet when I was in high school a dear friend a little older than my mother wove an entirely different tapestry and forever changed my mind.

She was Evelyn Justice, my biscuit lady. We had known each other from my elementary-school days in Danville, Virginia. She worked for the dentist we used and became a family friend. She was surely the kindest and happiest person I have ever known. We were sad when she and her husband moved to Plainfield, New Jersey.

Jump to high school and my mother moved us to that same city. There, I would walk across a broad park and a few more blocks to her house. She was a master biscuit maker (look and feel; no measuring) and glad to oblige me.

One afternoon though, Evelyn was still upset from what she had experienced walking home. She had been just behind three guys from school — my school. They gouged pennies from their jeans and with one in hand, they took turns skipping it along the sidewalk.

She was aghast and transported to earlier times and distant places. She had grown up in a tiny town in the mountains of Western North Carolina. The region, including her family, was among the hardest of the hardscrabble during the Great Depression. Few had much and no one had anything to spare.

To Evelyn, one U.S. cent, one one-hundredth of a dollar, was real money. A few pennies could make the difference of the family eating OK that week. Every cent was precious. The family coin jar was a shrine.

In Plainfield, nearly four decades later, she was riven by the puerile pleasures of those young men. A penny by itself didn’t count for much to them, so little in fact that they could use them as disposable toys. Those guys did not share in family fears of want and deprivation. They did not save, remake, repair and conserve.

She said that she followed behind them, picking up every penny they threw away. She didn’t care if they thought she was a crazy old lady. She knew what a cent had meant and still meant to her. She didn’t really need a palm of pennies, but she would be damned (a word she never would profane the air with herself) if she would let them literally throw away what had been so powerful to her.

She asked me and I was able to say that I never engaged in skipping pennies. Yet when she asked I realized that it would not have been out of the question for me. I had never been presented with the activity. Plus, I had never been wasteful. I had earned money selling vegetables, being a paperboy, life-guarding, and on and on. I made my own money and quite literally did not throw it on the street.

My mother said that she realized in college that she had been shielded from the Depression. Her father had a full-time job on the B&O Railroad for 48 years, including those when many were unemployed and hopeless. He also grew one or more one-acre vegetable and fruit gardens every summer for fresh and cannable food. He sold Chevys on the side.

He also had a tailor shop and made clothes for the family. That led to a story my mother told on herself. She was always embarrassed to be wearing clothes her father made rather than store-bought dresses, skirts and blouses. She was short but long-waisted and could hardly wait to be fashionable when she was away from home. She rushed with her spending money to buy off the rack and was flabbergasted. Nothing fit. She had lived her life in tailored clothes!

Even so, like many of the WWII generation, raised by those who navigated the Depression for their families, my mother carried that mindset. She taught us as she had been thought — respect objects, whether they be food, clothes or pennies.

So in Plainfield, Evelyn had me tearing up with her. Her tales of how a few pennies might mean subsistence or the rarest of the rare, a treat, brought me beyond my frugality. In our nation of plenty, even in these hard times, we toss much, thinking nothing of what it means to those who have nothing or what it might have meant to other Americans.

You’ll never catch me skipping pennies. That’s a lesson that went from Evelyn to me to my three sons and now to you.

Last Flap of Confederacy

July 6th, 2015

To me in elementary and junior high schools, it was my beloved library. To Civil War buffs, it is the site of the last capital of the Confederacy. To Danville, Virginia’s simultaneous pride and shame, the CSA headquarters for its final 13 days was in the mansion of William T. Sutherlin.Danvillelibrary

(Oddment: Sutherlin was not a real military officer, despite a rank of major in the Confederate army. He was too sickly to fight, but he was a wealthy and influential resident given that rank as nominal quartermaster of the city for the war.)

How do you suppose the locals are taking the CSA/Confederate battle flag controversies? As you might expect, as shown in this piece in the city paper, the Register and Bee, here.

Be sure to read the snarling leave-it-like-it-always-has-been comments from readers. The more measured gist of the article is that city officials checked with state ones to find that Danville has no authority to remove the flag without a change to state law.

The mansion was a gift to the city, became its library, and when a new library went up, the building became a Civil War museum owned by the city and run by a non-profit. With all the changes came a new flag pole that the city designated as a memorial to Civil War veterans. Per this commonwealth law, officials can’t remove veterans’ memorials.  ThinkProgress covers the whole mess well here.

Stars and Bars worshipers say if the law doesn’t change, the flag stays up. Others are not convinced and hold that the base and pole may be the monument, but the flag itself is run up and maintained by a private group and is not covered.

Blah, blah. They’ll resolve this, but it certainly is more difficult than it should be.


Mysteries of gym locker doors

July 1st, 2015
open gym locker

open gym locker

Two flavors of locker jerks:

  1. Door slammers
  2. Don’t close the door types

At my local Y, about one in three men are one of those two.  At another Boston Y we used to go to, there is a third variety. There, they hand out one small towel per visit. About half the men toss their wet towel near but not in the hamper by the exit door, on the floor, or on a bench.

From my Southern background, I have to wonder who their people are. That is, how were these guys raised that such inconsideration is automatic?

Ridge runner philosophy

I often refer to drugstore psychology. It could ask easily be called lunch counter or barstool instead of drugstore.

For me though, as a youth, I philosophized often in the Romney Rexall drugstore in the small West Virginia town where I spent summers and holidays. Other local sages of various ages did too.

The drug store had a big magazine rack with window seating, a stand-up area near the coffee equipment, and maybe six round glass top tables with cafe chairs between the front and the pharmacy area. The tables each had a locking door under the top, which let employees put impulse-purchase goods, like eyeshadow or hair brushes, on display. It seemed to be good promotion, as girls would have their lime rickeys and buy cosmetics on the way out.

For my friends and me though, the magazine rack was it. We could clearly see and sneak peeks at comics and more sensational fare, like True Detective magazine.

Each group of philosophers solved various problems and mysteries in their own corners.

Locker logic

On occasion, I have said something to the locker slammers, like “Wow, that’s really loud.” I don’t expect that will change their behavior any more than their seeing me quietly close my locker will.

I do often wonder though if they are aware of what they are doing and whether there’s anything other than emotion behind their slamming lockers or leaving them open. For slammers, they are going to trouble to make a display and make noise. They are aware they are startling and annoying others…and don’t seem to care. Those who leave the doors open may be smart enough to know they are leaving sharp edges that can hurt the unalert. At the least, they have to know that someone more considerate and polite will have to close the doors they leave open.

My drugstore psychology has it for each:

Slammers — Simple male insecurity here. My wife verifies that she has never seen or heard a woman slam a locker door. On the men’s side, men often make big movements and loud displays as though they consider those manly. They’ll grunt and bellow when lifting even light weights. Some will make huge noises when tying shoes, like they were delivering a child. Some plop down on benches or chairs with loud exhalation, regardless of how it affects others nearby. They need attention and feign strain from the most ordinary activities. I figure they came from fathers and brothers who also had to prove their manliness with silly displays. Poor them, locked in a cycle of melodrama.

Open Door Types — I peg these as momma’s boys. Their mommies closed their doors and drawers for them. Their mommies picked up their socks and underpants and towels. Likely their wives do that now, as they’d marry someone very much like mommy. They leave the doors open because growing up they found that nothing was too good for mommy’s best boy. He didn’t have to do anything he didn’t want. It’s only right that someone else should clean up after them. They are special. Yawn.

There’s still a drugstore on Main Street in Romney, but it’s a Rite Aid and in a different place. The Rexall is gone. Philosophizing likely takes place in the cafes and little restaurants. Folk wisdom abides.

Pic note: Published under Creative Commons with attribution to I also enhanced the contrast and cropped the original.

Disease of the month

June 7th, 2015

When I was a tot and lad (I’m a Boomer), Reader’s Digest terrorized the nation. Within a week of the delivery of the latest monthly issue, GPs knew their regular patients would complain of identical symptoms.

The RDs had predictable ToC’s. There’d be an inspirational tale of overcoming seemingly insurmountable cirumstances. There’s be a damning example of government waste and overreach. There’d be that disease. There’d likely be a terrifying research snippet as well.

We’d learn from our grannies that virtually everything was fatal and caused cancer. I remember green beans and cranberries in the 50s. If you tunneled down into the findings, you found that you’d need to consume bushels of this or that to have the same effect as what the lab animals got, but never mind. The point was that string beans and cranberries each caused cancer.

We are so fortunate that the internet now delivers terror so much quicker and more efficiently.

greendragon1Today I walked about six miles from home down to the Fowl Meadow in neighboring Canton. There I braved the fatality of ticks and more on the overgrown nature trail.

Sure enough, I returned from a couple of hours of hiking and wading through the underbrush to play paranoid. I did go to the backyard to water the beds and pots to check, check, check.

I removed my shoes, socks and trousers. While I had left the house with both sunscreen and bug juice, I looked for ticks. Then, I put my clothes in the wash. Then I showered and scrubbed my body with the soapy brush. Finally, I washed my clothes.

Yes, it was silly. I did not see any ticks or other bugs, but as we simple-minded and literal sorts are prone to drone, “Better safe than sorry.”

Is it?


Newspaper Withdrawal

May 30th, 2015

From newspaper worshipers and collectors, we suddenly will get only one Sunday and no dailies on our sidewalk. That is big for us and comes as we felt forced into it.

Not long ago, we had three delivered — Boston Globe, all 7 days; New York Times, all 7 days, and Financial Times, all 6 days. We accepted that was too much, particularly when we also got such demanding weeklies as The Nation and New Yorker. We went down to the Globe at 7 days and the Sunday NYT.  Then yesterday, I cancelled the Globe.

The reasons are prosaic. Yet, we grieve. We’ll try the overpriced and hard to navigate facsimile Globe, but I don’t have high hopes of sustaining interest.

We were both newspaper reporters and magazine editors. I came out of J-school. Until macular degeneration blinded my mother at the end of her life, she got multiple papers daily. I grew up reading two or three she had delivered. It was always the local daily (two when we lived next to Manhattan) and the closest best one (like the Washington Post when we were in Virginia).

I offer a 15-minute rant on my disappointment and grief, and what led to this. Click the player below for that.

The short of it is that the greed of the Globe publisher, John Henry, piled on us and broke our will. He exceeded my chokepoint a couple of days ago. There are far better things I can do or buy with $750 a year than make a billionaire richer.

Alternate view

My wife dismissed the latest price hike to $14.34 a week by saying Henry seemed intent on going out of business. That probably is partially true. Globe management clearly likes the online model, publishing with no extra physical and human costs per copy.

Plus they charge top dollar, $3.99 a week for online. That’s more than any other daily, even a bit more than the NYT. Of course, the Times has tremendous expenses, like foreign bureaus and a still substantial reporting and editing staff. In  contrast, the Globe has slashed its staff for many years. Its local coverage is weak and not as granular as the hyperlocal Universal Hub site.

globTo start the sports analogy, I see the paper going for only the home run. Their reporters seem under an edict to produce potential Pulitzer features and series. The sports comes in as Henry is principal owner of both the paper and the Red Sox.

Until he revamped the Sox, locals would snort disdainfully in the direction of the Bronx. The Yankees, they’d say self-righteously, bought their championships by paying for overpriced players. Mirabile dictu. When Henry did the same and the Sox delivered a long-awaited World Series championship, I didn’t hear anyone slamming the local team for checkbook titles.

In fact, Henry’s attitude is to drain whatever he can from his various customers. The Sox ticket prices are MLB’s highest and his paper charges more for both delivered and online versions that comparable or higher quality papers. He seems determined to push costs as high as he can.

What’s a Subscriber?

Newspapers have long been cash rich and inventory sparse. The earn their profits from advertising, for which they get paid quickly or even in advance by those who want the discounted cost. Then unlike book publishers or grocers or most businesses, papers don’t carry large, costly amounts of perishable inventory.

Newspaper publishers long ago lost perspective on the value of their customers. In particular at a time when most cities have a single daily, they don’t have to care.

Yet, the size of the subscriber base gives them a way to price advertising. Most advertisers can’t prove their get their money’s worth from what the ad reps call “selling space” (ooo, space). Yet, defensively, many don’t want to be the only one in their field to pass on advertising…just in case.

You’d think paper publishers would treasure subscribers and do whatever it takes to keep them happy and renewing automatically. Yet many newspapers buy into two relatively modern ideas. First, they use that dreadful term monetize in erecting paywalls, lest hoi polloi read the paper for free. So if you get the paper delivered or pay a separate online fee, you can look. The second and more recent conceit is that physical newspapers are dead. Everyone will read news online on computer, phone or tablet.

Instead, driving away Boomers and their children is leaving subscribers, influence and money on the floor.

You can tell you’re dealing with the truly dumb when she or he says, “I wasn’t even born yet!” (always emphatically). That is to cover for ignorance of history, ideas or technology. That covers and excuses nothing. Bragging about what you don’t know and won’t think about is a major flaw.

Yes, some people skim news online and pretend they are informed. We saw that even with the WWII generation who began to get all their news from TV snippets. The dumb have always been with us.

Pushed away

The Globe‘s default customer support is, of course, now an online chat. I typed with Jill there, saying among other things that we wanted to cancel delivery. I allowed that we’d try the facsimile version for a bit, even though it was also overpriced. She said they had no mechanism to handle credit-card info in the chat (more tech failures, says I). She’d call me the next morning.

She did and we set it up. I didn’t berate her personally but did say that Henry’s crew was greedy and had pushed too far with the most recent of numerous price hikes. Like a good soldier she said she had no input into pricing, that they just got the memo and worked with the new reality. However, she did let slip that many callers were unhappy and cancelling.

By my long term habit as well as age, I should be the subscriber the Globe wants to keep. They certainly don’t understand how to do that.

Their online subscription model seems unlikely to work well to increase revenue. Perhaps their margins will fatten, but higher percentages of fewer dollars is a poor business model. Plus the fickle 20-somethings and younger are unlikely to play.

A mess of beans

April 20th, 2015

Praise muscle memory and felt sense. Let us not get into the emotion-driven impulse decisions that so taint our lives. Instead, marvel in how our senses take note in background.

From infancy, we learn the likes of how to push food into our mouths without stabbing our lips with tines. We pour liquids. Heck, we know seemingly instinctively what a cup of this or that means in a glass.

I experience this magic personally and at the weekly Haymarket trip. Tell the vendor you want three pounds of grapes and see him (or much more rarely her) grab bunches of various sizes, plop them on the scale, and poof, three pounds almost every time.

They appreciate their skill and are invariably happy when I praise them with a low-key compliment, like, “I guess you’ve done this before.”

I don’t get smug about it, but this is a skill I have too. Sometimes, I display it when forced. I’ll point to the tomatoes or Persian cukes and ask for two pounds. If the vendor tells me to pick what I want and he’ll weigh it, I almost always nail the amount. They are likewise impressed, but invariably put it down to coincidence.

In fact, this is a grandfather-related ability. The dozen summers I spent with him in his massive gardens came with unremarkable and remarkable skills. For the former, put rototilling and hand weeding. Among the latter is picking a mess of string beans.

Yes, I know that almost all modern green bean varieties are stringless hybrids, but we old-school boomers remember when you had to unzip them to make them edible.

The standard quantity of green beans was that mess. In country talk, that translates into two pounds. Granddad has a box of small brown paper bags for such orders. Whether it was for home or a relative or a customer, I picked a mess thousands of times. I just knew when I had two pounds in the bag by the feel. My body remembered and still does.

We each likely have a dozen or more such acts of magic we perform daily, without being aware.

Farewell to our Spock and to mine

March 2nd, 2015

llapIt’s not a stretch to say I was raised by Spock, or at least a Spock. As so many of us note the passing and mourn the death of Leonard Nimoy, I felt particular twinges remembering my mother, Wanda.

We see that Science Officer Spock’s live-long-and-prosper hand is ubiquitous lately. That’s as it should, or rather that is logical.

When the Star Trek original series started, I immediately recognized Spock as Wanda. That as not at all bad, merely entertaining and even assuring.

Wanda was unlike other mothers, other fathers, and other parental pairs. Like Spock, she was a cooly logical as a Vulcan, yet with a very human half.

For one specific, when she was raising my sister and me by herself, she did not betray reason with the extreme stupidity of, “Because I said so.” Wanda has reasons for every decision, every pronouncement, every argument.

Awanda1nd for arguments…my friends were astonished to hear her policy. If my sister or I could provide better reasons to do something than what she proposed, we prevailed. If not, she held sway. Not only did that make us feel invested in decisions, but it also inspired (me particularly) us to analyze what was going on or proposed, to pay attention, and to present our own positions.

Yes, Wanda was a single parent, an awkward status for the boomer generation just coming to terms with the flood of post-WWII marriages and almost as large flood of divorces. The term broken home was muttered like a diagnosis of leprosy. My sister and I found much humor in the expressions of pity as we moved every few years while  Wanda slowly advanced to support us, getting to see and know many families of friends and relatives. We had no doubt we were far better off than kids raised in homes with one or both married parents were drunks, where the children were regularly beaten, where mom, dad or both yelled at each other and the kids, and where the parental units were, well, illogical.

Wanda was an omnivorous reader. We had several thousand books, including multiple sets of encyclopedia and other reference texts. Wanda knew tremendous amounts on many subjects. That was a precursor to Wikipedia when I was very young. I’d ask a why, what or how question and she almost invariably knew. When we didn’t, she’d hit the books and tell me.

Tuen when I was in elementary school, she’d say, “Look it up.” We had to references. I did look it up. It drove me to read random volumes of our various encyclopedia, random pages of our unabridged dictionary, random entries in the world almanac and book of facts or pages in one of several atlases. “Look it up” served me well throughout school and beyond. I still do.

Wanda did not stay Spock to her death. Yet, she was while I was growing up. Toward the end, cancer, chemo, hormonal changes, financial reverses and love disaster all changed her. Most of her massive pressures came in a short period and I can’t think less of her for changing.

On the other hand, for all those years, she was my Vulcan mentor. When other kids lived under the arbitrary and emotional rule of a Kirk-like parent(s), I had the better of it.