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August 6, 2018

Birth to Brighton

I was born on July 26, 1948 in Chicago. My parents told stories few about my early life and those are all I have to go on. Apparently (pun intended), shortly after my birth they moved to Manteno IL, where my father became one of the staff psychiatrists at the Manteno State Mental Hospital. My mother claims that I was the delight of all the patients some of whom were used as baby sitters.

But my memory is blank until a vague vision surfaces of driving a push-pedal firetruck around a large table with some people I didn't know looking down at me. Guesswork suggests that this may have been during the brief period that we lived in Jamaica Plain, MA. This was probably where I had my first unfortunate adventure.

My parents had these candies (or so I thought) that they ate and they wouldn't share. So one day I found the jar of those candies and hid with it behind the sofa. They were maroon and a little squishy. I squished one so hard that it popped and yellow stuff came out. It didn't smell like it would taste good, but I wiped my hands off and started to eat. I'm not sure how many I ate, I'd like to think that I was ambitious enough to eat the entire jarful, but I probably only ate a few. It was more multivitamins than my parents wanted me to consume and the next memory is of being in a room with a lot of people, a lot of machines, and a plastic tube up my nose.

In 1952 we moved from Jamaica Plain to a house in Brighton, MA, which was partly, stucco. I was bothered by the rough surface. Since it wasn't smooth, my brain was telling me that it was somehow flawed or incomplete.

It might be just as well for me to tell you now that, unlike those little boys made of snips and snails and puppy dog tails, I am made of ADD, OCD, with a touch of something else which, for want of a better term, I’ll call distance. Things that aren't right jump out at me. That's why I was such a good editor. I see patterns in things and anomalies, such as misspellings or inconsistent lists, become obvious. My brother Jonathan can do the same thing with code that I do with words.

I think that I adapted early to these quirks. I think that my lifelong difficulty retaining names and faces may be rooted in my habit of not looking closely at things that will distract or confuse me while trying to follow a conversation. It’s as if I cultivated my own version of Asperger’s Syndrome as a defensive strategy. As for OCD, I still struggle with whether to arrange the books on my shelves by height or subject matter and often default to height within subject. It takes a conscious effort for me to walk down a street without noticing all the stuff that's disordered. I don’t read a book until after I remove the price sticker. The feel of it on my fingertips is too distracting. I dislike my own handwriting because of its inconsistency. I take copious notes and never read them because they're not comfortable for me.

I’m also unusual when it comes to how I relate to other people. An early indication of this was my reaction to the damage left behind by Hurricane Carol in 1954. I was about to start 1st grade at the Alexander Hamilton public school (foreshadowing?) when the storm hit at the end of August 1954. On September 1st, I walked out of the house to see branches and trees down everywhere. Brighton, at the time, seemed to have lots of trees. I had made friends with Susie, a girl who lived across the street and a few doors down. She was going to be in the same class. What interested me most about the destruction was the fact that the large tree in front of Suzy's house had blown over and crashed through her roof. I remember asking if she was hurt or dead, and being oddly disappointed that she was neither.

The basement of our three story house was on two levels. You emerged from the stairs onto the higher level (which I think was about 10' square) with another set of about 3 or four steps to the lower level. This was pretty much my area. I would leap from the upper level into piles of pillows. I had a set of large cardboard blocks which were useful for fortifications and towers.

I once got a splinter in my foot. My father set me on the kitchen table and went to get something to extract it with. As he came back toward me he had a slightly manic grin on his face as he reached into his pocket and pulled out something. There was a click and a bright, shiny, length of dangerous-looking steel appeared. He had confiscated the switchblade from one of his students and decided that this was the time to use it.

The next time my father tried to kill me was when he made octopus soup for dinner. Unfortunately he thought it would be best if cut into large pieces. The panic that resulted from having to reach down my throat to try to extract a piece of tentacle that would neither come up nor go down, provided a spicy dash of adrenaline seasoning.

I tried my hand at dying young by collaborating with my cousin Billy on a particularly stupid stunt. Billy was already in trouble for pilfering my Aunt Ruth's cigarettes; the punishment was to smoke the rest of the pack until he turned green and threw up. So I knew he was a wild and crazy guy. For some reason there was a box of empty coffee cans somewhere in the house. This was back when the cans were opened with a key (the only place you see them now is on those weirdly shaped tins of corned beef). As you turned the key a strip of metal was peeled off. It was extremely sharp, as was the lid of the can.

I'm not sure who first came up with the idea, but Billy and I decided that the best way for us to prove our 7-year-old manhood was to put the lids on the cans to hide the sharp edges, pile the cans onto my bed, stand on the windowsill and fall backwards onto them. This exercise in stupidity and masochism lasted only a couple of rounds until one of the lids popped off and the back of my right hand hit it perfectly. The lid sliced my hand down to the bone.

It was really cool to be able to look into my hand and I studied it carefully as we rushed to the hospital. Instead of stitches, the doctor patched me up with butterfly bandages. Still today there is a lip-print shaped scar there. The good stuff about the incident was that I got to see inside my hand and from then on I always had a way of remembering which way was right.

The backyard had a flat area near the house and a few yards back rose steeply to a stone wall that separated us from an enormous empty lot. The yard was dominated by two trees; a Black Cherry near the back door and a Catalpa catty corner up on the hill. I tried (and failed) to dye my face red with the cherries and use the Catalpa pods as rattles to do what I imagined was some kind of war dance. I was a kid in the 50s. What did I know about cultural appropriation?

Two regular visitors to the house were the milkman, who delivered all kinds of dairy products, and the Nissen man who delivered fresh baked bread. They both came to the backdoor (the kitchen door) with the basic delivery and some optional items like cottage cheese, raisin bread or cookies. I always pleaded for a package of Hermits, a soft and spicy cookie made with molasses and raisins.

Other visitors were my father’s students and collaborators, some of them were from other countries and would live with us for the duration of their stay. One of them was Jose del Castillo who lived in a room on the 3rd floor. My father’s method of waking him for breakfast and the commute to MIT was to stand in the hallway on the ground floor and sing at the top of his lungs, “Jose can you see, by the dawn’s early light.” It was funny once, but it became a daily irritant. My father never could resist a pun no matter what its quality or frequency.

Another thing about Jerry was that he was immensely strong but didn’t always think things through. One day he and my mother got into an argument and she decided to go stay with her mother for a couple of days to cool off. He didn’t want her to go. Instead of hiding the keys to the car or taking off the distributor, or pulling the spark plug wires like a normal, commonsensical person trying to prevent someone from leaving, he opened the hood and removed the spark plugs … with his bare hands.

I started reading very early, and by 1st grade I could read well enough to tackle Sherlock Holmes and I was working my way through “The Sign of the Four”. One night, I awoke in the middle of the night and saw what seemed to be a head silhoutted against the light from a streetlight. I was convinced that Tonga, the Andaman islander from the story was outside my window with his blowgun.

My tabby cat was named Zebra (with a short e as in Zebediah) had her kittens in my underwear drawer, a blond Steiff teddy bear named Randolph, an imaginary friend named Ommi-Ommi, an Irish setter named Moose (whose Milkbone dog biscuits I liked to share), a sister named Ruth, and a brother who, although I argued strongly for the name “Howard Johnson's," was named Jonathan. When we moved to Cambridge in 1955, Moose had been exiled to a farm (really! I visited him there) for protective custody. He had a habit of chasing cars and the cars had a habit of catching him.

September 17, 2015

Bat Photography

When I was in my teens, I worked for a while for Fred Webster, a scientist who studied bats. Fred's lab was a large Quonset hut in the back yard of his house (which was, appropriately, right next to the Mount Auburn Cemetery). His yard was large enough to also contain a huge, professional quality trampoline in its own building. Fred was proud of the fact that, at the time, it was the largest trampoline east of the the Mississippi. My job included helping to photograph bat flight patterns, develop and print the results and take care of the animals. I still have a small scar on my arm from the subcutaneous anti-rabies shots I had to have in order to work there.

I worked with the little brown bat (Myotis Lucifugus) and one of my favorite tasks was defrosting them. They hibernate well and if you keep them in the freezer compartment of the lab's refrigerator, all you have to do is take them out and let them thaw for a while. I'd go to the lab refrigerator and open the freezer to take out an ice crusted lump and place it in the bottom of a cage. A short while later with the frost melted into a pool around it you could see that it was furry, curled up on itself and small enough to fit in the palm of my hand.

Later in the day it would shake itself awake and climb the wires of the cage to hang upside-down. As I remember we gave them a couple of days to acclimate before flying them.

On one side of the hangar was an expanse of black velvet to provide a non-reflective surface to photograph against. Positioned in front of that backdrop was an electronic cannon that let us fire mealworms into the air to a relatively predictable height. High on the opposite wall was a "gun camera,” a repurposed piece of military hardware that was intended to track and confirm air combat hits. We used a Graflex 4x5 plate film back.

We'd release the bat and, as it flew circles around the hangar, we’d load the little mealworm cannon. Firing the cannon simultaneously started the camera. The bat would dive for the treat and the camera would fire about six sequential exposures in about a second. When the plate was developed we'd have a record of the swoop, loop and capture all on a single plate.

I used to have examples of the photos, but they are lost somewhere.

September 15, 2015

Jesse Fuller

Summer ~1964

When I was a teenager (just after the flood), I used to hang out in a musical intrument store in Harvard Square called Folk City USA. The owner put up with me by putting a chair out on the street and letting me practice there in hopes that it would bring in customers.

I liked to go there because I could not afford a 12-string guitar and had a serious lust for one. I never paid a lot of attention to who went into the shop.

One day the owner came out of the shop and asked me if I'd like to do someone a favor. I said I would and he took me back into the shop. A slender black man was standing at the counter.

"This guy knows all the music shops in the area," said the owner, waving at me. "I'm sure he can find you what you need."

The old man explained that he had arrived in Boston that morning and someone had stolen his guitar. "She was custom-built for me," he said. "I won't be able to replace her."

Then he told me that he didn't much care about sound quality, but that by that evening he needed a 12-string guitar. The primary criterion was that the tuning pegs had to be at right angles to the head.

"I've got me some arthritis," he told me, "and I can't twist my wrist around too much."

We must have hit at least 10 stores, and the best we could find was a Stella. Gaaahhh, talk about cheap. But it was okay with him. He was very grateful.

In the process of testing the various guitars, I had played a few of them. I played a lot of traditional blues back then. The old man complimented me on my skills and then offered me a job. "You come out to San Francisco," he said. "You can help at the shoeshine during the day, and we'll play some blues after-hours."

I was 15, shy and not very brave. I told him that I would think about it. "You just turn up there someday," he said. "We'll find you a place to stay."

But I never did.

It bubbles up from memory now and then. One of my handful of missed opportunities. I passed up a chance to learn blues from the composer of 'The San Francisco Bay Blues,' Jesse Fuller.

The Eleventh

It was a bright clear fall day as I drove over the Tobin Bridge and into Boston. I commuted in the early morning to avoid rush hour. I was in a good mood. I had some Doo-wop on the radio and a four-shot Americano in the cup holder. I drove through the maze of twisty downtown streets, pulled into my space in the parking garage, grabbed my coffee and my Land's End briefcase and took the elevator up to my office. I managed the documentation department for a large software company.

I booted my computers, adjusted the blinds against the glare of the early morning sun, turned on some music (Bela Fleck this time), sat down, and got to work. I answered the overnight crop of email and checked my schedule for meetings and approaching deadlines.

I was just settling into a rat's nest of verbosity disguised as a chapter of a software manual for automated backups on enterprise networks, when there was a knock on the door and Kate from Quality Assurance opened it and stuck her head in.

"Got a radio?" she asked.

"No just a CD player."

"Okay." It was an unusual request, so I called after her, "What's up?"

"Just wanted to listen to the news," she said turning back. "There's a weird story I heard on the car radio, something about a plane hitting a building in New York."

"One of those little private planes?"

"Must be."

"Let's find out."

She came back while I accessed a streaming news feed. As we listened, the door opened and someone else came in. I waved them to a seat without turning.

"Be with you in a minute," I said.

But of course it wasn't a minute ... it was September 11th.

We sat quietly listening as things progressed getting worse and worse.

Finally over-saturated I turned down the volume and turned from my computer.

My office was full of people, and there were more people grouped outside the door in the corridor. Friends and rivals among my co-workers were sitting on the floor or had pulled chairs from neighboring offices. Many were crying, some were hugging each other for support, but all of them wanted the volume back up.

For a couple of hours we listened in silence, until security came and told us that the office building was closing and we had to leave. We were in a tall office building in downtown Boston, and paranoia had begun to emerge.

The streets were jammed. I called my wife to let her know what was going on and that it would take me some time to get home. She was shaken and asked me to detour to Mission Hill to pick up my daughter and bring her home.

On the way up Huntington Avenue. I watched crowds of students, brightly-plumed, or raven-moody Massachusetts College of Art students, somewhat more preppily garbed Northeastern students, piling off the trolleys and flowing across the street. None of them seemed to notice the increased traffic around them. None of them noticed as a plane flew overhead and drivers ducked.

My daughter wasn't at home, so I drove to where she worked to pick her up. It took hours to get through the clogged streets and back up to the North Shore. We didn't talk much during the ride. Just listened to the news on the radio, switching back and forth between WBUR's NPR coverage, and WBZ's CBS feed.

At some point during the drive something occurred to me. Among the people sitting in and around my office, aghast and horrified and frightened and angry, had been a veritable UN. There were people from every corner of the earth ... people of every religion; Moslems, Sikhs, Coptic Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Wiccans, Atheists, Agnostics, even an eccentric who claimed to be a Jedi practitioner.

And there we all were, sitting side by side in shared disbelief, horror, and communal sympathy, rivalries forgotten, failures unimportant, and, in my microcosm of an office, peace reigned. It's an image that I keep with me, an image that lets me hope.

All these years later, I still feel deep affection and a surge of pride in my fellow geeks and nerds who, in a work environment that prized logic and scientific thought, spontaneously formed an emotional community that ignored differences of culture and spirituality.

And I guess what makes me proudest is that I wasn't surprised, that I knew that there was a commonality, that respect for others' work, understanding of common goals, can lead to an environment where differences are less important than humanity.

May 1, 2015

The Best School & The Biggest Idiot

     When my family moved from Brighton to Cambridge, I was plucked out of 2nd grade at the Alexander Hamilton Public School (of which I remember nothing) and put into the Shady Hill School, a private school with a unique method of instruction.
     My short time there spoiled me for every other school I ever attended. Never since then have I had so much fun learning.
     Each grade concentrated on a different culture. IIRC 2nd grade concentrated on Native Americans, 3rd was vikings and Norse mythology, and 4th was ancient Greece. The last one is the one I remember best. 
     Nearly every activity centered on that year's culture. In 4th grade, we worked to dramatize Robert Graves' book "The Wrath of Achilles" which we performed. In shop class we made wooden shields and swords and painted them. 
     In art class we learned how to make potato prints and used them to print geometric border on the chitons we wore in the production and made clay pots, our individual and adorably clunky Grecian urns. Mine was shiny black with wavy green stripes and my mother may have it still. 
     We studied Greek mythology from the enormous and enormously entertaining "Gods and Heroes" by Gustav Schwab. I still have my copy of it on my shelves. Even our sports and exercise periods were special. We learned to throw the javelin and discus, ran foot races, did long jumps and high jumps to practice for the school Olympics. We did not take the verisimilitude too far, I cannot remember ever competing naked.
     I often walked the 16 blocks to and from school. I preferred to walk and save my bus fare so I could stop in every few days at the Red & White Market and buy my secret pleasure which was, I swear, anchovy paste which I would hide in my jacket pocket and suck directly out of the tube. I still like anchovies. 
     It was on the way home in the fall that we really lucked out. Some of the other walkers and I would take a short cut through somebody's yard to Mt. Auburn Street. At the back of the yard and, to us at least, not really someones property was a mass of Concord grape vines. I wonder if the owner knew or cared that every day we diminished the potential harvest.
     One of the walkers was Lenore Gessner. She lived a few blocks from the school (on the corner of Traill and Mt.  Auburn I think), and she is the reason that I'm posting these memories today.  close to the school
     I remember her as vivacious, dark-haired and amazingly pretty with a glorious smile. I probably had a bit of a crush on her, every time we were paired in some activity, I quietly rejoiced. (High fives were unknown at the time. 
     One day, I was invited to lunch at her house. The story I told myself for many years was that I'd let her copy my answers on a quiz, but it was far more likely that I helped her with a single answer or on a project. Nevertheless, I duly turned up for lunch only to be taken aback by the magnificence of her home. Dear God! There was a grand piano in the living room and there was so much glass. 
     To make matters even more complex it was a sit down lunch in the dining room. My family lived in an apartment and we didn't even have a dining room. Then came the ultimate shock. There was something weird on my plate, something that I'd never seen before. My father had already nearly killed me with octopus soup so I was suspicious of anything strange at the time. Lenore and her mother recognized my cluelessness and kindly taught me how to deal with the scary artichoke.
     I have heard several reasons why my parents took me out of Shady Hill. One story is that the school psychologist's interest in my particular learning quirks irritated them, but it's more likely that I was breaking their budget. I ended up in the Cambridge public school system and immediately began my new career as an underachiever. 
     A few decades ago I started getting mail from Shady Hill. It seems that they somehow felt that I was an alumnus. At the time, I assumed that either they were either mixed up or desperate for contributions. But then the stalking started. Every year I'd start getting letters and notes and emails from someone who wanted me to send details of my life to her so that she could publish them.
     I tried to tell Lenore that I wasn't really an alumnus, but she refused to let me go. Being a shy and retiring sort, I resisted (I'm a Marxist by nature, never joining clubs that would accept me as a member) but she never gave up. 
     Now it's too late. Yesterday I went to her funeral service. I know that other people from my class were there, but it had been so long and I had insulated myself so well that there was no way to achieve mutual recognition. 
     It was a beautiful day at Mt. Auburn Cemetery; bright sunshine, some trees budding, others in full bloom. I sat near the fountain for a while before going into the chapel. My pad, a spiral notebook and some history books were in my backpack so that I could use my time on the train efficiently, but I left them untouched.
     I went in, amazed to see how many people were there. That wonder only lasted until the eulogies when I realized the chance that I'd squandered by clinging to my outsider status. 
     The bus ride back to Harvard Square took me past Traill Street, past Longfellow Park, past the Red & White where Mrs. Sahagian took advantage of my craving for salted fish, past our old apartment on Hilliard Street then into the "warm dark inside cupboards" of the T. After nearly three hours of bus, subway, train and foot, I walked up the driveway of my hermitage, poured myself a glass of wine and wondered, as I had for the entire trip, why I'm such an idiot.
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April 16, 2015

Culling the Library

      You might think that I am a bibliomaniac, but that is far from the truth. I am not manic about books. I buy them, sell them, trade them and lend them. I certainly will admit to being a bibliophile, a lover of books. I have always been a voracious reader, ready to be immersed in the new worlds or alternate visions that books provide. As a writer, I understand that words are a form of power that can be used and abused. So when I find a book that I like, I feel that it imparts some of its power to me. My shelves of books are like my armor, Quixotic armor, rusty and dented, but protective nonetheless.

     So disposing of a large part of my library is like stripping away a protective shell, laying myself bare to a world that is not as neatly ordered as my volumes. Like a hermit crab abandoning its shell and trailing its soft abdomen as it searches for another, I feel vulnerable. Unlike J. Alfred Prufrock, I don't particularly want to be a pair of ragged claws, Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

     I will also admit to being a collector. The books that I collect are old, but not necessarily expensive. The most I have ever paid for the books that I collect is about $50, and that one was special since it had the bookplate of its previous owner in it; the previous owner being Harpo Marx. Which reminds me that his brother Groucho once said that, "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark too read." Some that I own I bought for a few dollars at second-hand bookshops only to find later that they were worth hundreds of dollars. Many of these, although dear to me, will be finding new homes.

     The core of my collection consists of quarto-sized books primarily published by The Bodley Head at Oxford, England or Dodd Meade in the US. They are beautifully illustrated fantasies by Cabell, Anatole France and others. They are staying with me, as are the complete sets of Sir Richard Burton's translation of "A Thousand Nights and A Night" and Fraser's "The Golden Bough".

What, then, shall go?
  • Most of the poetry. 
  • All of the books on technical writing, semiotics, linguistics,
  • Most of the math, except for puzzles and Euclid. (I love my wife but oh Euclid.)
  • A lot of the science, excluding the natural history.
  • Most of the novels except for those that would be nearly impossible to replace. 
  • Probably half the books on design.
These will descend into the cardboard purgatory with most of the religion and philosophy.

     Ah me ... I know that I am doing the logical thing, but my heart disagrees with my head. Logic is like the the curate and the barber in Don Quixote, sorting and consigning the mad knight's books to the fire as he lies sleeping.

    That night the housekeeper burned to ashes all the books that were in the yard and in the whole house; and some must have been consumed that deserved preservation in everlasting archives, but their fate and the laziness of the examiner did not permit it, and so in them was verified the proverb that the innocent suffer for the guilty.

    One of the remedies which the curate and the barber immediately applied to their friend's disorder was to wall up and plaster the room where the books were, so that when he got up he should not find them (possibly the cause being removed the effect might cease), and they might say that a magician had carried them off, room and all; and this was done with all despatch. 
     Two days later Don Quixote got up, and the first thing he did was to go and look at his books, and not finding the room where he had left it, he wandered from side to side looking for it. He came to the place where the door used to be, and tried it with his hands, and turned and twisted his eyes in every direction without saying a word; but after a good while he asked his housekeeper whereabouts was the room that held his books.
    The housekeeper, who had been already well instructed in what she was to answer, said, "What room or what nothing is it that your worship is looking for? There are neither room nor books in this house now, for the devil himself has carried all away."

     The reference books stay. So what if I have three rhyming dictionaries ... they stay. The books on colonial history, agriculture and architecture stay.

     Sadly, the easiest to dispose of and the first to be packed will be the collection of books that I have written. It's not as horrifying as it sounds. I spent many years as a technical writer and wrote hundreds of software manuals, marketing guides, reference books, and contributed papers to many periodicals and proceedings. All of them are outdated and although I am proud of the work, they are now meaningless. This will be my responsibility. My housekeeper has no kindling at hand. There will be no garden conflagration. If some of my work must be destroyed, it will be by my hand. I will not make a Lady Burton out of my wife; putting her husband's manuscripts to the torch.

And the orphan books, crammed into their shipping containers, shall immigrate to good homes to be adopted by bibliophiles more settled and secure than I. 

I bid them farewell with a quote from Richard LeGallienne:

    "Thus shall you live upon warm shelves again,
    And 'neath an evening lamp your pages glow."

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Ten Random Things About Me 01

I was once challenged to provide a list of things that people might find unusual or amusing about me.
  1. My study contains shelves and boxes containing more than 750 books, in spite of the fact that I have reduced my personal library by more than 80%.
  2. I have visited Diego Garcia, a small island in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
  3. I am currently ghost-writing the autobiography of a nasty (and dead) man (it's complicated).
  4. My first reaction to being told that I was going to climb Bald Mountain, near Boulder CO, was to ask if it would be at night.
  5. I've had my entire paycheck stolen by a beautiful gypsy girl.
  6. No matter how diligently I try, I cannot get further than page 20 of Finnegan's Wake.
  7. Although I'm vegan now, I used to pride myself that there were very few foods that I could not or would not eat. The most prominent of these are brains, boiled okra, and baluts (look it up if you must, but be warned.) Yes, I have had snake, alligator, thousand-year eggs, ant eggs, cobra blood wine, goat head, etc. etc.
  8. In a similar vein, I used to be much fatter than I am now.
  9. In Israel, I was once kidnapped by a yeshiva looking for fresh students and spent three hours discussing the ways that ice cream could fail the test for kosher.
  10. I can sing some of Donald Swann's musical setting for the songs in The Hobbit. 
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