Archive for the ‘Boomers’ 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.





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.

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.

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.

All Hail Mable

August 26th, 2014

mableSRBShe spelled her name Mable or Mabel on her caprice. No matter, my maternal grandmother was a hell of a baker.

Come to write that, I don’t believe I ever heard her use hell or damn, much  less the vulgarian terms we hear on TV or even from tots today. Still, she was well known in the little mountain town in the Potomac Highlands of eastern West Virginia for her pies, cobblers and particularly her breads.

Come a summer hot spell, as we have now in Boston, the visceral mnemonic, as relentless and insistent as Proust’s madeleine, differs among us. Some see themselves as lizards, warming their blood in the sun. Others hie and hide in bars with loud companions and cold drinks. It’s the beach or porch person to person.

To me, it’s Mable’s salt-rising bread.The misnamed loaf really requires sun and heat, 90° or so to make the starter, then raise the dough and loaves in two sessions of a two to three-day process. In my many summers in Romney, I knew what was up when I saw the jar with the starter, then the huge bowl covered with a towel on the back lawn.

For the misnomer, the bread has very little sat and the salt has nothing of moment to do with its rising. You might call it potato-rising bread or perhaps just another form of pain au levain. Its yeast comes from what’s in the air, a pinch of baking soda, the potato starch and just a little sugar as a catalyst.

It is a wonder and a delight — once you transcend the aroma of the starter and the baking bread. Mable’s recipe is from one of her handwritten cards in her yellow index-card recipe box. It starts “At noon, slice 2 potatoes into a jar…” and continues with understood steps (for example, she writes “make loaves” but doesn’t bother with the obvious grease loaf pans and coat with corn meal, which you should know), and inexact quantities (such as “fat the size of an egg). After all, her notes were for herself.

Regardless, I had my own issues with martinet Mable who was co-host to my sister and me for summers into our high-school years, along with Granddad, her husband. I never quibbled with her baking and loved seeing the big bowl on the lawn.

The yeast concoction produces a froth with what her recipe writes is “a peculiar odor.” It continues that after you’ve prepared the potato starter and waited for a day, “If it doesn’t have the foam and odor do not use it.”

The peculiar odor indicated what makes the yeast from next to nothing and what produces the splendid taste, particularly when sliced very thinly and toasted. The taste is intense and unique. Mable revisits whenever the hot days inspire me to open the yellow box.


Tito’s Turkey Power

May 24th, 2014

If you’re running for office in Boston or statewide, you’re smart to show for City Councilor Tito Jackson’s annual turkey fry. Most gubernatorial contenders showed, among others, for this sixth version.

For you left-brain types and other quibblers, yes, there’s a lot more than turkey, like burgers, dogs, BBQ, a few non-meat offerings, sodas and water (no alcohol), ice cream and ta da, a snow-cone machine. Oh, and while Tito is a big guy, he had four loudspeakers in the street, each of which was bigger than he. The music kept people dancing, swaying, eating to the beat, and shouting to be heard. Sweet.

Mostly, this is a street party for the Roxbury neighborhood above Seaver Street. Plus the pols get to mingle while they and their minions pitch planks and promises.  There are surprisingly few events so casual and low-key where pols can have several easy hours chatting up black and Latino voters outside a dais/chair venue.

I tried to behave well, not dominating time with pols nor even taking pix of all of them. Many have been guests on my Left Ahead show. I’d already met nearly all of them and it was a chance to touch hands again. In some cases, we swapped cards and agreed the candidate should come on the show or come on again.

The following are a few images with comments. Among other pols there were Don Berwick and Joe Avellone (governor), Leland Cheung (looey) and Maura Healey (AG). I was there for nearly three hours and saw nothing of a certain Martha Coakley nor any of her lackeys. (Sunday update: I see on Tito’s FB feed that she did show late, after I left.)

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.

Long-term State Rep. Gloria Fox (since 1986) was a crowd please. She asked for support, noting, “I do not play. This is a diverse district (Suffolk 7) and I handle it well.'” GloriaFox
FDarroyo1 Another familiar face and voice was Felix D. Arroyo, former Councilor, father of a current councilor, and candidate for register of probate and family court. He’s always delightful and to us boomers sounds refreshingly like Ricky Ricardo. In fact, he noted that when he first ran for office many years ago, his accent was stronger.He asked one thing of the voters before him, on the Sept. 9th primary, his office will be down at the bottom of a long ballot, he wants to make sure people get all the way down there and finish the job.
Not everything was smiles and sandwiches. The Suffolk sheriff crew showed up with a police-dog demo. Adults a bit, but mostly the kids were impressed at the tenaciousness and training. Titodog
Falchuk Evan Falchuk (governor on the United Independent Party and sure to be on the November ballot) noted both in his remarks and to me that he considers it his job to discomfort the other candidates and raise key issues. In a deep nod to the Roxbury locale, he said that carried over, not so much to where the party was but to where he lives (Newton). He noted that his daughter and her classmates didn’t get the BPS-style warnings about how to behave when confronted by police. He said he regularly draws attention to the contradiction with urban communities of color.
Here’s a small subset of the several hundred at chez Jackson. (Right in the middle is Leland Cheung ([t. gov.] who didn’t want to give up his baby.) Titofront
Tolman Warren Tolman (lAG) pitched specific planks, like support for smart-gun technology.
 In a turnabout that borders on irony, gubernatorial candidate Steve Grossman immediately went to the ice cream table — but to server rather than eat. He loves ice cream but is willing to share.By the bye, he said he wasn’t disturbed ty the recent poll that showed rival Coakley well ahead of all contenders. He noted his campaign had not spent a dime on ads and when it started, the field would level. Moreover, the thought the poll was an outlier. Grossmandip


Wanda’s Day — I Won

May 11th, 2014

When my mother lived, I sent her or handed to her Mother’s Day and Father’s Day cards and gifts. She played both roles from her divorce before I was 5.

wandacollegeAlso, I initiated a running patter related to the era…about what the dull-witted still call broken homes.  As early boomers, my sister and I were among a large and growing cohort. Many of our parents had married in the passions following WWII, only to discover they had no business together. Many were like my mother, Wanda, with one, two or three kids but no basis for staying married.

In her case, her husband was the handsome war hero (Battle of the Bulge and so forth) and she had been the campus queen, theater star and scholar. They made each other swoon, wed and two years later produced first my sister then less than two years later me. It was only when we were part of the Occupation Army in Japan that both Wanda and Bob wondered what the devil they were doing married to that stranger. They were OK when he was off in Korea directing artillery shells, but face-to-face they wanted different things. She wanted a union of equals as her parents had and he a woman to order him around as his mother had his father. Incompatible.

Bob took up with a bossy woman, they divorced, he remarried, and Wanda asked only for us kids and minimal child support (no alimony request). Then Bob and his second wife became deadbeats. He got a transfer to Germany with his new family of two sons, my half-brothers. He stopped paying child support as soon as he left the country. Wanda asked the US Army for help. They replied that as an officer he was honorable and they trusted him to fulfill his obligations, and would do nothing.

The humor in all of this and character-revealing aspect, is that Wanda never, ever bad-mouthed Bob to my sister and me. She would note that he was smart and good looking and yes, a war hero. It was only on one our moves when I found both divorce proceedings and those from when my sister and I were visiting Bob and his second wife in OK when he decided they would keep us and take us to Germany that I learned of and asked about his chicanery.  Wanda drove to OK from eastern WV with her father, who was in a cast from his heel to his waist from a work accident to fight for and reclaim her children.

She truly loved us. She showed it in ways big and small.

Oddly and with brutal irony, I found that Bob’s second wife did not have my mother’s grace, honesty and compassion. I have never been in her presence or on the phone with her when she did not slander and lie about Wanda. For a few examples, she would say that it was Wanda who was in an adulterous relationship in Japan, not she and Bob in Korea, or that she and Bob did not even meet until they were back Stateside — both total lies. More amusing to me was defending their decision not to pay child support, because they, with two military salaries and Army subsidies just couldn’t afford support, with no consideration of a single mom with two kids, or even the court orders.

The gist of that is that I won the Mom Game.

I grew up moving every few years as Wanda took jobs in challenged Red Cross chapters to support us. Invariably, I meet other kids, particularly boys, who were being raised by divorced moms. Just as invariably, nearly every one of those sons heard constantly what cads men were (what kind of insulting message is that for a future man?). Meanwhile, Wanda never defamed her ex.

As I grew, I came to realize Wanda differed from many mothers and fathers. A defining trait was her rationality. Key was her posture that if my sister and I had better reasons for courses of action, we’d win. That was both a burden to us, but great freedom. She expected and demanded that we live rationally. As a result, many friends over the years said they so wished their parents were like Wanda. Their parents were arbitrary, often violent to them (abusers call that discipline), and as often alcohol infused. She neither hit us nor was ever drunk in my childhood.

I now recall so many motherly things she did for me, some of which I did not know about until many years later. For one, in eighth grade, she got a call from the principal asking for a conference with all of my teachers. The Red Cross chapter building adjoined the school’s athletic fields and she knew the principal from running first-aid, home-nursing and water-safety programs. She walked into an ambush of irate educators.

The core of it was that I asked questions in several classes that were not in the courses or assigned text books. We had many reference books, including three sets of encyclopedia, at home. From second grade, when I asked a question, Wanda would invariably reply, “Look it up.” I did and we’d discuss it.  I knew a lot and rather expected my teachers to have such curiosity.

As Wanda told me years later when she revealed the meeting during my college years, she was amused, not angry, at the teachers. She said she asked them whether the problem was that I asked them questions they could not answer. She said they replied, “Yes,” with the anticipation that she’d realize I was out of bounds. She said she replied, “Well, then don’t you think you’d better find out the answers and be ready for the next time someone asks?” That apparently was the end of the meeting and their chance to shame her.

I won the Mom Game and I didn’t even know I was playing.

Here’s an ethereal but sincere Happy Mother’s Day, Wanda.


Babies and veggies

March 31st, 2014

Come blizzards. Come scorchers. Boston’s Haymarket vendors sell vegetables, fruits, herbs and fish.

For our part, the tradition continued this weekend. I had visited during college days when I was living across the river in Cambridge, but only every month or so. It was 34 years ago when we moved to Boston with our six-month-old son that I went weekly…and still do. Back then, Aaron was in a Snugli carrier I had embroidered with his name and I walked from Beacon Hill.


This Saturday, a considerably larger Aaron, well beyond carrier size, wore his own six-month-old son there. Continuity, generations and yes, traditions come into play.

Among obvious differences were that we drove in from the Hyde Park neighborhood, that Aaron and Alasdair are visiting from California and won’t be regular visitors there, and that the carrier is the new version, an Ergobaby. Still, the symmetry ruled.

As Alasdair does, baby Aaron really enjoyed being toted, face to face, chest to chest. I always liked doing it as well. The only (minor) shock to me this time was that both Aaron and I wanted to carry the baby. I deferred, in part because he is the father and in part for the elegance of dad with his son in the sling.

In the middle of the longest strip of vendor stalls was Pat (in the pic below from last year) with his huge stall, two or three times the average. There are vendors who specialize in only brown or green produce, some who favor greens and herbs, some who go for salad and cooking greens (and reds), and a couple with mostly citrus. Pat’s stall always includes various potatoes, a range of citrus (including the absolute best lemons in the market), and various other veggies and fruits. You generally can get a full trip’s worth from him.


He has known for calling every customer, “Cousin” or “Cuz.” He was long twinned in my memory with his father, a short, thin, ever-smiling gentleman. His father deflected the impatient, pushy and rude customers with a kind word and gracious attitude. He was a delight. He died not long ago, but I half expect to see him beside Pat.

Saturday when the three of us appeared, we chatted up Pat for a couple of minutes. I mentioned that 34 years ago, I brought my six-month-old baby to the Haymarket and bought veggies and fruit from him and his father. That day, my son was wearing his own six-month-old to do the same. Pat was appropriately impressed and reminiscent.

He said, “34 years,” several times. He even reckoned that he might have a vague memory of me with baby Aaron from back then, when he’d have been in his teen or early 20s. It’s not all that relevant whether he does nor does not remember. It’s enough that the connection is real and continuing.

Mummifying Christmas packages

December 23rd, 2013

Among changes and missing items now our parents are dead are:

  • The sacred cookie rites moved from my mother to my sister
  • We no longer get packages encapsulated, neigh smothered, in tape


My mother made superb Scottish shortbread and remarkable bourbon balls. Until her end, she would send us tins of each. The cookie baton immediately passed to my sister. She’s even been tweaking the bourbon ball’s recipe (like Wild Turkey 101 this year) and seems to have improved on it.

For the other, what the devil cultural phenomenon made the WWII generation tape wacky? Many boomers say their parents did the same. Packages large or small, no matter how sturdy the box, no matter who handled the shipment were smothered in tape, sometimes several varieties of clear and opaque, formal packing tape, duct tape, Scotch tape, masking tape…

Oddly their parents did not do this. We don’t do it. Our kids don’t. This fetish is like a secret handshake of what’s let’s call in this instance the Goofiest Generation.

When parcels arrived from any of our parents, we knew to get out the knives. I tended to use my big French chef’s knife. I knew that the carbon steel blade I kept sharp could puncture and cut open the worst they had done. It was precise enough not to slice into presents captured inside.

When I would ask my mother about the tape extravaganza, she’d say she just wanted to make sure everything got there, as though the box might disintegrate in the  delivery truck.That our more relaxed packages arrived whole made no impression on this otherwise extremely rational person.

It was a small, amusing foible, made more remarkable by its widespread, generation-specific nature. I don’t miss it.


Thumb-thing Silly

October 7th, 2013

What this neat pop-science Boston Globe article does not address is why so many of us believe, no, know, that we are splendid multitaskers. If we were anywhere as bright and observant as we pretend, we’d see frightening reflections galore that suggest otherwise.walking thumb

Adults, teens, even wee ones stumble and career into shelves, each other, closed doors and worse while punching into a (insert irony symbol, traditionally ironymark) smartphone. More poignantly than the clown bumps and pratfalls, one aspect of device-distracted humans is texting while driving, too often, killing while doing so.

The article does deal extensively with another key aspect, how iPhones and their like are great programming tools. That is, they program their ostensible owners. In fact, they are the owner in the relationship.

I’ve dealt with and even obsessed on the whole mess here numerous times. Samples are in links to posts using multitask.

A current cliché is how smart the millennials and young folk are. Aren’t they masters of technology?

That would be a resounding, “No!” for them as a group. In fact knowing how to use the icons, menus and keys on a cellphone, being comfortable with numerous social-media and their keywords, do not translate into broader intelligence or even technology skills. Instead, as many of us note, we as a populace are being dumbed down, just as we are increasingly under the control of our devices.

By cracky, Mable, it isn’t just the kids either. In a supermarket, on the street and well, everywhere, the seemingly ubiquitous Androids, iPhones and such make humans hop. 60-year-olds as well as middle-schoolers largely cannot control themselves when their device tones or jiggles. They, the nominal owners, are dancing to the notes.

A few years ago, Boomer and older folk lamented the rudeness of folk putting their phones on the restaurant table, constantly scanning them, and unhesitatingly answering them should they command so. Of course that’s ill mannered and speaks poorly of whoever raised them. And, an alter kaker like I am tells people not to bring their phone out. I, perhaps self-righteously, tell them that in my house, if we’re having a family dinner when a cell or other phone rings, that call just goes to voice. We’re busy and in the moment.

Still, for all those people who believe they are smart enough to multitask, I wish awareness. When they respond like birds or other lower animals conditioned to push a button for food or perform some other stupid pet trick, will they please see that? Will they get a grip and realize they are in thrall to their $500 gadget?

My hope would be if a 17-year-old gains that level of awareness, it would be a teachable moment. Each enlightened lad or lass would show peers how to be in charge of the device, instead of the other way around.

That smarter lifestyle might even spread to their parents and grandparents. Honestly, humans can decide what’s really urgent.