Thursday, December 30, 2004


I got an email a few weeks ago from our office manager. I'd seen a patient with pinkeye in her left eye, and on the charge sheet, under "diagnosis," I'd written "Conjunctivitis, O.S."

The email reminded me that O.S. -- short for Oculus Sinister, meaning left eye -- was on the official list of forbidden abbreviations. And word's out that next time the JCAHO inspection team shows up to determine whether the hospital remains up to accredidation standards, sniffing out usage of the forbidden abbreviations will be high on their agenda. So I'd better watch it. And that goes for Oculus Dexter,

and Auriculus Sinister and Auriculus Dexter, as well. No Latin. No abbreviations. It's Left Eye and Right Eye from now on. Got it ?

And why ? The abbreviations are "confusing." Confusing ? CONFUSING ?

A beautiful and evocative bit of historical medical terminology is being jettisoned because of, oh, the RAMPANT ILLITERACY OF MEDICAL PROVIDERS ?????

Oh, dear. Had I become some Mel-Gibson-like, ultra-orthodox, Latin-spouting traditionalist freak ?

Qui tollis peccata mundi, anyhow ?

I calmed down.

Medicine has already ruined the whole left/right thing for me, anyhow. I look at people face to face all day. That's Mr Jones' right eye over there, on the same side as his liver and his right atrium, and that's his left eye over there, along with his spleen and his sigmoid colon. So when I think of my own right hand it feels like it's on on the same side as Mr Jones' left hand, so is it my right or left hand ? And when I'm hugging DK and he says "oh, scratch my back" and then "more to the right !" what the HELL does he mean by that ? My right ? His right ? Which is really my left, isn't it ? But it's his BACK, so doesn't that reverse it ?

Where am I ?

Don't even get me started about the brain's diabolically crisscrossed wiring and confrontational visual field testing.

A med school professor claimed that we habitually chose to sit on either the right or the left side of the amphitheater for neurological reasons. I was a right sider. As I am today, at the movies. My right, that is. Facing forward. Toward the professor. Who was looking back at me sitting on the left side of the hall. Or was he ? Would you turn around for a sec, professor ? And raise your right, no, your left hand ?

It's all a sinister plot.

As a corollary, I realized that, whenever I've shared a bed, I've always slept on the left side. Which, as you face the bed from its foot and point at it, is the right side. But when I lie on my back, my left hand dangles over what must be the left side of the bed. QED ? (Can I still write that ?)

And how does bed side relate to auditorium seating ?

So let's see if I've got this straight: I'm left-of-bed, right-of-hall. Assuming the foot of the bed is where the professor is standing. Assuming he is facing us...

I give up.

So the boys from the JCAHO can scour my charts for OS and OD. I'll show them. I can reform, modernize, get with the program. Bring them on, I say.But if the inspector, deeply impressed by my dextrous avoidance of the forbidden abbreviations, were to give me a congratulatory hug and ask me to scratch his back, a little more to the left please, I, and my hospital would be sunk.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Waiting Room

When our clinic got renovated a few years ago two things happened to the waiting room. It shrunk, and it got a TV, one of those institutional wall-mounted jobs that's perpetually blaring overhead. I don't think it has an off button. Every morning I must pass by Regis and Cathy -- gatekeepers of my workaday hell -- to get to my office. I find myself wincing, quickening my pace, nearly closing my eyes against the stream of cheerful banality. It's not a good way to start the day.

Yesterday morning, as DK had the second of two carpal tunnel surgeries, I found myself in a hospital waiting room. The obligatory TV was doing its full-throated number in the corner. It was, unpleasantly enough, the same hospital in whose ER I'd found myself a year and a half ago, which, at that time, I'd dubbed, acronymously, GICHOTOON -- Grossly Inconvenient Community Hospital On The Outskirts Of Nowehere. Their ER waiting room boasted not one but two TVs, tuned to different channels. So things could be worse. But it was not good. No. Not good.

As I tried to read Thomas Merton on the "Philosophy of Solitude" --

The solitary is one who is called to make one of the most terrible decisions possible to man: the decision to disagree completely with those who imagine that the call to diversion and self-deception is the voice of truth and who can summon the full authority of their own prejudice to prove it.

-- I found my attention, already mildly addled by anxiety, pulled time after time to the loud, bright box .

In an absurdist, even illustrative counterpoint, George Foreman hovered overhead selling his grill, towering amidst a stream of remarkably non-descript, slender, and uniformly smiling young women selling other things. Selling weight loss. Selling food. Selling all species of Human Interest. Selling The Weather. Even selling "Tragedy," their perky smiles briefly dialed down to mawkish looks of concern as they gave 22,000 dead less airtime than our surprise day-after-Christmas storm's eight inches of snow. The smiles seemed to detach themselves, Cheshire-like, from the women. The smiles had minds of their own. They buzzed about like gadflies. I braced Merton open in my lap and plugged my ears.

And soon found myself thinking back to a more harrowing wait of almost 10 years ago. That time I was at a bigger, more imposing urban hospital, Boston's famous Brigham and Women's. Their surgical waiting room was enormous, quiet; its walls were curved and womb-like, and the waiting room was called, in a wierd hybrid of social-work and military speak, "Family Liaison." DK was having bigger, more imposing surgery by a cheerful neuro-otolaryngologist taken to wearing Mickey Mouse neckties. DK had nicknamed him "Dr Maniac." Who, after all, but a maniac could be bold enough to drill into skulls ? A few months prior DK's middle ear had filled with fluid, a common enough affliction, but DK's turned out to be spinal fluid , leaking in through a little congenital hole in his temporal bone. It had taken 42 years for the dura mater to wear through. So this was not-quite-but-almost brain surgery: Dr. Maniac went in through the skull above the ear to do his patch job. (And, it turns out, had to snip off a nubbin of brain "the size of a ballpoint pen clicker" that had herniated through the little hole. DK claims his ability to spell was in that bit of brain.)

And in "Family Liaison" -- perhaps someone had taken a cue from Raymond Carver's "A Small, Good Thing" -- there were muffins. An endless stream of large, warm, fresh muffins, presided over by a kindly, quiet, solicitous man named Tom.

This is the poem I wrote about that wait.

OR Waiting Room

Do you know the muffin man
who lives in Drury Lane ?

-- child’s song

There may be a few angles here
in Family Liaison, but we
are mostly sunk in womby curves
while our loved ones are off elsewhere.
Mercifully, there’s no TV,

but just discrete high end Muzak,
the minor masters of Baroque --
G. Sammartini, Telemann --
and a few Christmas Carols, yes,
but of the not-too-jolly kind,
sprinkled in for seasoning.

Help yourself to muffins, ma’am.

says Tom, our host in Liaison.
The hospital white noise and med-
lies from the sweet Nutcracker Suite
sursurrate so soothingly

I could forget the wedding band
deep in my backpack’s black abyss,
a guest beneath the loosened clasp
of my old change purse, and ignore
bone saws poised above their swift

descent, all whirring too, and in
fact, I slip into a cat

nap dream of spinal fluid, cold
and lucid on the petrous ridge
of temporal bone, bubbling and spry
as water sprung from rock, holy,
numinous, cascading through --

then jolt awake, kinked and adrool
on plump earthtones, between a pair
of Danish Modern arms that, blond,
curve around me, barely touch.

Want a muffin ? queries Tom,

as the 4th Brandenburg comes on,
the dark andante, surely a
programmatic accident,
tactless as a surgeon’s Oops! ,

two flauti dolci falling side
by side through a vast space where just
three red beacons cast the light --

pointsettia, EXIT, fire alarm --
toward three closed doors marked CONSULT that
are clustered in one inlet. That’s
where they keep it, the bad news.

Take a muffin, insists Tom,

and swipes a red scrap from his lip.

Me, I like the cherry kind.

Below this room the dreary lanes
of Boston’s Mission Hill darken
in the tenth straight day of rain

as sirens sluice down them toward
the sodden hospital, but our
window’s just a snaking slit.

It’s cut below the curved roofline,
onto a view of scaffolding,
and airshaft sheets of concrete, glass.
We ask: has the sun risen yet ?
Will it ?
Eat, he says. Eat.


And here I was, nearly ten years later, in a waiting room again -- another Tom, no muffins, same husband. Eventually a woman with a clipboard arrived. To liaison with me. The surgery was finished. DK was awake. She could bring me to the day surgery recovery room now. I followed her down a yellow, dingy corridor.

There sat DK, goofy from anaesthesia, wolfing down saltines, his right hand swaddled in an impossibly large, club-like dressing. The long room was nearly empty. As I watched my husband eat, an idle nurse reached up and switched on -- you guessed it -- a TV.

"Have a cracker," said DK above the din. He was swaddled in yards of faded hospital gown. Cracker pulp flecked his lower lip. Without his glasses he seemed a stranger.

"No, thanks," I winced.

Where was Tom, any Tom, when I needed him ?

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Musica Medica

For two weeks we had a guest in the clinic. A radio. Set to an All-Christmas AM station. It was not enough that the Hospital's Department of Telephony had installed a new on-hold music tape consisting of an extraordinarily chipper version of "The 12 Days Of Christmas" played allegro vivace, the last thing one wants to hear when calling Radiology for the third time for the stat reading that one should have had hours ago -- don't you realize Mrs Jones is totally pissed off and about to hobble out against medical advice on her possibly broken foot to finish her Christmas shopping ?!?! It was even more ill-considered than the on-hold music that had dominated ordinary time: the sturm-und-drangish opening movement of Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata. You thought you were desperate for an Xray reading ? Wait until you've listened to those crashing chords for five minutes. It's enough to propel a deranged walk-in physician (cue The Ride Of The Valkyries) into "The Department" hell bent on exacting a pound of flesh, or at least a preliminary reading of Mrs Smith's stat chest xray.

The urologists -- a practice with a phone menu so unnavigably and fiendishly byzantine that it once actually reduced me to tears -- took their cue from the Hospital and installed a slightly less manic rendition of "The 12 Days" as their seasonal on-hold music. Theirs was customized with a soothing voice-over describing their services. Just imagine the French Hens and Calling Birds and Lords-a-Leaping and Swans-a-Milking with a superimposed narration about incontinence. Then you will understand why I was found screaming into the phone:

Ceci n'est pas un pipe ! Ceci n'est pas un pipe !

The clinic radio, between boisterous commercials, was pumping out mainly the most secular and jolly shopping-and-partying-down bits of the Christmas repertoire. No Coventry Carol or Adeste Fideles or Personent Hodie or Wassail Wassail All Over The Town. Nope. Nary a Good King Wenceslas nor an Undismayed and Well-Rested Merry Gentleman among them. Their playlist seemed to consist of "Jingle Bell Rock," "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," "It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year," a particularly icky C&W version of "O Holy Night," the Alvin and the Chipmunks' Christmas Album, and, the tune that seemed to recur the most frequently in their jangling rotation -- could it have been every other selection ? -- "Here Comes Santa Claus !"

Which, after the fortieth or fiftieth repetition, caused me to break forth into song:

Here come hummingbirds, here come hummingbirds -- pecking at my eyes !

That's when they hung the decoration on my office door. A large, gaily painted wooden arrow pointing straight at me, which read:


Saturday, December 18, 2004

Ice Flowers

I've never seen anything quite like them.

I'd wandered down a path toward the river's edge. It ended at a small cove where the water is slow and shallow and floods when the river is full. A stubble of small twigs rose from the bronze surface just beyond the bank, and on each twig, an inch or so off the surface was a bauble -- a graceful collar -- of glittering ice. They looked like ice bubbles, not spherical though; some were ovoid, some discoid, others conical, all eccentric variations on the torus. The twigs ran through them like axles. The water, from time to time, would swell and touch the bottom of one, but then would recede and leave the bright bubbles suspended there just above the surface. There were dozens of them. They looked like flowers, the ultimate abstraction of flowers, just stem and swelling. They glistened in the low morning sunlight.

How had they come to be, these night-blooming ice flowers ? What vagaries of flow and cold and darkness had nourished them ?

And what species of night-blooming ice flower -- strange, abstract and doomed -- am I, on this darkening way, becoming ?

Friday, December 10, 2004


I came circuitously to Samuel Barber's "Hermit Songs," as if to the end of a long pilgrimage whose goal was both inarticulated and somehow inevitable.

Some years ago my brilliant husband, the jazz composer Darrell Katz, wrote a beautiful song, "Like A Wind." It's a setting of a short passage from Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. He loves that book, and rereads it continuously. I can think of only one other book that he lobbied more tirelessly for: John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor. Lobbied, I say ? Harangued me to read, is what I mean. Until I grew weary of harangue and picked up his dog-eared, annotated copy and sulked off to do my beloved's bidding.

After multiple attempts spanning several years that all foundered on a tedious and long-winded early expository chapter about Maryland history, I finally finished it. Oh, the sacrifices we make in marriage. The harangues stopped. I will say no more. Although still, today, he shakes his head and gazes at me sadly when I admit that I have yet to read Barth's Chimera. Which inspired another of his brilliant pieces.

Anyway, DK has been mulling a more extended work using more of Winesburg. He was discussing the task of setting an extended prose text to music with a colleague who insisted he must drop everything and listen to Samuel Barber's "Knoxville, Summer of 1915." DK came home wildly enthused, obtained Dawn Upshaw's performance of it, and a few days later told me I must listen to it right away.

I was intrigued. "Knoxville" is the prologue to James Agee's A Death in the Family. "Knoxville" was originally written as a separate, short prose poem and, posthumously I believe, included as the introduction to the novel. I read the novel years ago. So long ago I could remember very little about it. So I dug out my copy, a small, dun, 1960's paperback, the pages yellowing and smelling pleasantly of mold and put it on the things to read pile by my bed.

Then I sat down with the CD liner notes and listened to Barber's setting.

The piece is a child's-eyes view of a summer night spent in the midst of an extended loving family. It moves from homely, cozy close-up of family gathered for small talk on quilts set out on the lawn to the awesome and frightening array of cosmos arched above them ; from the child's comfort in his mother "who is good to me" and his father "who is good to me" to his pained wonderment at the simple, astonishing fact of being there alive on earth on that summer night, and of being loved by beings larger than him who, however, "cannot tell me who I am."

The music is gorgeously lyrical, heartbreakingly sweet, a full expression of the contentments and urgently inquisitive longings of childhood. It's an amazing setting of a beautiful text.

Those of you familiar with my various obsessions and proclivities can imagine how excited I was when I learned Barber wrote a song cycle called "Hermit Songs". I immediately obtained a CD of Leontyne Price's performing them, and have been listening to them this week.

These are ten songs based on "anonymous Irish texts," translated by WH Auden, Chester Kallman, Sean O'Faolin and H. Mumford Jones. They range from the brief and mildly bawdy "Promiscuity"

I do not know with whom Edan will sleep,
but I do know that fair Edan will not sleep alone,"

an acerbic and strange little song with a beautifully sour melody,

through the merry monkish drinking song "The Heavenly Banquet,"

I would like to have the men of heaven in my own house
with vats of good cheer laid out for them.
I would like to have a great lake of beer for the King of Kings...

and the gentle, sweet "The Monk And His Cat,"

Pangur, white Pangur,
How happy we are
Alone together, Scholar and cat.

to the absolutely ravishing "The Crucifixion"

At the cry of the first bird
They began to crucify Thee, O Swan !

which, I must warn you, may make you weep for the grief and simplicity embodied in Price's gorgeous performance,

and the final song: "The Desire for Hermitage,"

Ah ! To be all alone in a little cell
with nobody near me;
beloved that pilgrimage before the last pilgrimage to death.
Singing the passing hours to cloudy heaven;
feeding upon dry bread and water from the cold spring.
There will be an end to evil when I am alone
in a lovely little corner among tombs
far from the houses of the great...
Alone I came into the world
alone I shall go from it.

which rises from a quiet, prayerful beginning into a passionate colloquoy of piano and voice, then falls back into quietness, a graceful arc of music.

Such literary and musical pilgrimages do, thank Heaven and its vats of good cheer, transport us "far from the houses of the great."

Sunday, December 05, 2004

The Resistance

Of course, the Charles River does have its champions -- the intrepid swimmer Christopher Swain, and the olfactory prodigy Roger Frymire, to cite two recent, breathtaking examples.

Then there's Mary T. Early. She apparantly lobbied for the restoring the pretty little footbridge, and got a bronze plastic plaque -- regrettably tacky but well-intentioned -- for her efforts.

Saturday, December 04, 2004


It was the first time I'd walked by the river after dark and I didn't know what to expect. It was a mild, windy, late-autumn night that promised rain, then cold. I'd been walking for an hour and didn't want to go back inside. There seemed to be some fin-de-saison urgency afoot. Something restless, transitional, inevitable. I felt it in the wind and I wanted to be there when it happened.

I crossed the footbridge. The river streamed, more oily and opaque than usual, a few yards below. A few fat drops of rain hit my cheeks. A harsh light burned on a pole on the other side. I turned onto the path and stopped short, in the grip of a mild horror: the horror one feels at the transmogrification of the familiar. Mother, when she becomes a witch. Father, roaring like an ogre.

Through the bare trees, the floodlit back wall of the grocery store glared from the far shore. Only a narrow service road and a chain link fence separated it from the sheer rock wall drop off to the river. The glare backlit the narrow woods on this side of the river, too, and spilled onto the pathside meadow. And on the other side of the footpath, beyond a narrower strip of grass and a row of smallish pines, big industrial garages -- a taxi company, the power company -- incandesced even more brightly.

Under the lights, the meadow was a nauseous, sludgy gray, studded with pale clumps of switchgrass rising from the sod like dead, phosphorescent bones. What had seemed beautiful by day -- the open, airy seedheads swaying in the wind, the gracefully curling, golden leaves -- now seemed like dead, bleached-out, wraith-like beings, victims of some terrible, toxic event.

It was like chancing upon an old friend at a vulnerable, private moment -- sick, grieving, depressed, disheveled -- when they least expect or want to be seen. I wanted to look away but, transfixed by horror, could not.

In the dreadfully misilluminated night, the meagerness and fragility of the meadow was apparant. Peering closely at little weed worlds -- otherworlds -- through my macro lens, I'd missed it. Daylight, so friendly to retina and flora, kept the buildings at bay. At night, under the monstrous kliegs, brick and concrete facades, barbed wire, and armies of scuttling hackneys and bucket trucks ruled.

The beautiful meadow is just a scrap of nature, a remnant, little more than a vacant lot. A sop to the human need for green. Ugliness and industry encroaches relentlessly. The river reeks of oil and waste as it moves over its bed of shopping carts, tires, bicycles, bedsprings. It's a trash ditch, a midden, a clogged gutter. Wierd, stiff froth, dingy white and tinged with brown, gathers in its coves. Good-hearted conservationists have rallied to its banks, but they are no match for the bullying incursions of civilization -- from the shit-filled disposable diaper beside the path, the Pringles box in the buttonbush, the Budweiser cans rusting in the sedges, the squashed Poland Springs bottles in the bayberry hedge, and the Colgate toothpaste box improbably suspended in the bittersweet, to the rusted culverts on the riverbank with their midnight discharges of secret, poison effluents. The bottom line always trumps the riverbottom.

The bully bides his time. He, as usual, has the upper hand. He seems to be savoring the sight of his victim choking, gagging, squirming, retreating. Questioned, he'll claim good-will, claiming, like any abuser, It's for her own good. He'll insist that private industry can and does self-regulate, and maintains fruitful partnerships with conservationists. Why just look at Philip Morris -- oops, he means The Altria Group -- on the cutting edge of nutrition and health education !

From Fallujah to the Arctic Circle to outerspace, he pilots his murderous juggernaut, announcing: We must kill to save ! We must destroy to build up ! More and more dollars surge upwards toward him and his pals, like a cloud of desperate doves, green at the gills. One or two will, might, trickle down, he promises. Someday.

Just look at his face. The little cocksure motherfucker.

So certain he'll keep on winning.

Still Life With Off Rhymes

This is, I swear, a fortuitous juxtaposition.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Two Confessions

I met Grace again on the river walk yesterday. She stopped and smiled. A little sheepishly, I thought.

"I've been bad," she said, and held out her hand.

She was holding this

and a twig with a single red berry.

It was the very same milkweed pod that's in my photo. I'm sure of it.

"Oh," I said, startled. "I took a picture of that ! I called it Septum, because of that graceful partition !"

Grace, I think, will be a good custodian of the milkweed pod. She has a keen eye. She looks closely at the world. She pays attention. She can discourse at length on the enormous palette concealed in the word "brown." She knows the hawks and the herons who frequent this bend in the river. She quilts and paints and told me she loves her most recent painting -- trees -- because of its purples and yellows. Trees are her usual subject, but the colors surprised her.

"Purple," I said, "like those alder catkins."


Grace is not much of a criminal. At worst, a petty thief or a grave robber. Certainly not a murderer. I thought of the beautiful stand of Jerusalem Artichoke that had bloomed a few hundred yards down the path last summer. How, returning along the path one day, I found they'd been beheaded. Every last one of them. I inspected the truncated stems as if I were a forensic botanist. They were cleanly cut, maybe by a very sharp knife, or good scissors.

It was a case of mass murder.

So what species of criminal am I, pointing and shooting as I do, stealing light and freezing time ? One takes pictures, after all. An act of appropriation. Of framing, as in, Hey, I was framed !

I am voyeur, kidnapper Collector of images.

And there's places for people like Grace and me: incorrigibles, career criminals, living devil-may-care lives way beyond the allowable three strikes.

Thursday, November 25, 2004


I went out walking late this afternoon to shake off my Thanksgiving postprandial torpor and to enjoy the last moments of a strangely balmy day. The weatherman had promised an abrupt shift toward evening: high winds, rain, thunder possible, temperatures plunging from the sixties to the thirties. Already clouds were gathering -- low, gray agitated clouds, darkest in the west.

I decided to walk through the little cemetary around the corner. As I passed through the gate I noticed a small, white rectangular sign: You must leave by dusk. Or you shall be deemed a trespasser. This is not a playground. I looked around nervously. It could well be construed as dusk. But it was not really that late, just cloudy ! Plus I was certainly not playing. Or was I ? What is play, anyway ? Skateboarding ? Strolling ? Communing with the dead ? I headed up a small rise, graves on either side, imagining the cemetary gates swinging shut behind me, imagining being trapped in the graveyard overnight, imagining being cuffed and hauled off by the cemetary police. Or at least by some deputized gravedigger wielding a dangerous, sod-encrusted shovel:

Dinchoo see da sign, lady ?

I could lie ! It's a very small sign. One could even call it inconspicuous ! But would he believe me ? What if he'd seen me read it ? And why is he talking like a character in a Raymond Chandler novel ?

Suddenly something disturbed my noirish revery: sinuous against the grim granite block of a headstone, flagrant in the gathering darkness, bloomed a hot pink lawn flamingo -- right from the sod of a grave.

I relaxed. The sign was just kidding. It was a playground after all. And I was welcome. I was more than welcome.

I was right at home.

Sunday, November 21, 2004


The narrow depth of field of the macro lens creates the illusion of little self-contained worlds, each complete with its own light, its own atmosphere, its own mood. Looking at the little weed worlds in my photos, I'm reminded of the feeling I'd get in path lab in med school: that the palisades of pink and blue cells under the oil immersion lens seemed like alien geographies and landscapes into which I'd been dropped. They were as beautiful and queer as dreamscapes, new cosmos for which no language yet existed.

Joseph Cornell's boxes are little universes, each with its own private semantic. Universes whose grammar is one of juxtaposition, like the famous and fortuitous dissection table rendezvous of sewing machine and umbrella that engendered Surrealism.

Today, fishing for a lost button among the random objets that lead a quiet, subterranean life at the bottom of my pen basket, I came up with these evocative items:

Make what you will of eraser, faceless Christ, old chestnut and Audubon bird whistle.

Or of the marble, screw and thimble beside the forty year old nubbin of bread (keep this and you'll never go hungry) I got as a child in some cathedral in Quebec.

The world of these honey locust pods is dark and grave -- forest green going to black. They seem like elders, stiff, severe, spondylitic; they glisten, as if laminated, or coated in brittle ice. Dead already, or very nearly so.

These alder catkins, on the other hand, hang in luminous space, still, serene, balanced. They are gently curved, nubbly, embryonic, promising life and transformation.

The wild cucmber is its own universe -- tendril, flower, leaf, fruit, all magically deployed like a Rube Goldberg machine.

This world -- dusty green dendritic lichen world -- feels both ancient and child- like to me; it's a dense, dissolving scribble; it's veins and smoke; it's submarine. Things float and rise.

These bedstraws, silhouetted against deep, luminous green, remind me of creation itself -- stars being born; tracings in a bubble chamber.

I could look at these images all day. I could lose myself in them. As I lost myself as a child in blue willow landscapes and comic book panels.

The ways of lenses are beyond me. Medically, I embarrass myself around diopters. It took me months to understand how a macro lens sees the world -- what the backgound light will be like, what part of the subject will be infocus. I had a cheat sheet taped to the back of my old camera, an ancient, reliable Minolta 7s I inherited from my in-laws.

And then, of course, there's digital.

Its greedy little eye takes in everything, from nosetip to infinity, the forest, the trees, the bark, the beetle on the bark, the spots on the back of the beetle on the bark. It's got more resolution than our grim little president has resolve. Hairsplitting resolution. Hyper-real, like an Andrew Wyeth painting: hit "100%" and each hair on the kitty makes its claim on the eye.

One can go from a panorama of my study

to the shingles on the neighbors roof

with a few mouseclicks.

The digital eye is democratic, giving equal importance to the kitties asleep on the comforter, the flamingo night light on the bureau, and the athlete's foot spray on the bedside table.

Plummeting down and rising up through resolutions, one feels a little like Alice in a pixilated wonderland --

Croquet, anyone ?

Monday, November 15, 2004

Public Service Announcement

To those of you who have ever considered substituting laundry detergent for dishwasher soap, I have three little words.


-- This home ec moment brought to you by Paula's House of Suds.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Vegan Culpa

The first snow, which fell overnight Friday in an unexpected amount, was a serious snow. The small trees by the river were bent under the weight of it, more than one would think, as if they, too, had been taken by surprise and had been unable to brace themselves.

I was braced, though. Double socks, long underwear, and even my old leather-and-rubber felt-lined lace-up boots, a gift from my ex husband a quarter century ago. (My description makes them sound vaguely erotic. Believe me, they are not. They are industrial. Although, I admit, there is a certain eros to the industrial.) They're one of my two non-vegan articles of clothing. The other is a red, woolen scarf my Lithuanian Bubbi knit even longer ago and which I still wear.

I've been a bad vegan lately.

Two packets of non-vegan veggie burgers, one containing egg white and the other cheese, had been languishing in my freezer for months. I bought them both by accident, since their boxes resembled the vegan kinds I'm used to getting. The first surprised me. I opened the oven and found that little nubbins of strange cheese-like substance had burbled up out of my dinner. I went back and read the box. Cheese indeed.

I ate them anyway.

And, last night, I cooked and ate the other kind, fully aware of the egg whites they contained. It was a kind I used to eat when I was just a vegetarian. A kind I used to really, really like. A heavy, greasy, fattening kind. Mmmmmmm, fattening.

They were tasty.

So there's my list of transgressions against vegan orthodoxy. Each has its accompanying rationalization.

The boots ? The cow's long dead. I contemplated the cow with reverance, and gratitude for keeping my feet warm. I asked its forgiveness. Tossing the boots out would be a waste. I'm a cheapskate. My other, vegan boots -- synthetic Payless Shoe Source specials, probably made in a third world sweat shop -- are too small to accommodate two pairs of socks. I tried. They hurt.

The scarf ? We're talking my dead grandmother for Christ's sake ! Family values, sentimental value, some kind of "value" must pertain here that transcends the discomfort a sheep, long gone to mutton, endured getting shorn circa 1965.

And those cheesy veggie burgers ? It was a double accident ! First I bought them and then I cooked them through inattention. Isn't it a sin to waste food ? Think of all the hungry people in the world ! How could I possibly throw away food just for a "belief" ? Preposterous. It would be a sin NOT to eat them.

But then there's the matter of the greasy, delicious ones. The ones I might have bought by accident, but cooked intentionally, even though I had plenty of the vegan kind. The ones I wanted. Because I knew they would taste good. So I ate them. Those veggie burgers.

The ones I desired.

Little venial sins are one thing -- sins fostered by accident, inattention, expediency, competing values. But pure desire is something else. It's mortal. And dangerous. Pure trangression. Revolt, in fact. Next thing you know, I'll be clubbing baby seals and eating veal marsala three times a day. On my leather sofa. In my silk pajamas. Drinking wine clarified through isinglass.

A sybarite, a voluptuary, doomed to vegan hell.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Wheee !

Nothing in civic life from the largest scale to the smallest scale seems to be making sense these days.

It took us, oh, maybe ten or eleven years to finally take the plunge and buy a house in 1998. It's not that we didn't look. I grew perversely fond of the mild voyeurism of attending real estate open houses. Of spying on people's wierd stuff. We went to a million of 'em. To this day, DK and I can cruise the local neighborhoods and reminisce about seeing this house or that house. "Our houses," we call them, as if we were real estate magnates. It took getting our apartment of 13 years sold out from under us to get us to budge. Which was an excellent piece of serendipity, given that the real estate market went acutely berserk shortly thereafter and as a result we probably could not afford to buy this big, old, dilapidated house today.


During one of our more intense house searches we briefly entertained the notion of buying a duplex with another couple, a pair of very blond Scandinavian musicians, colleagues of my husband, younger than us, who were looking for a house in which to start their family. We actually found a big old joint, rather perfect we thought, in Newton, the town where we were living at the time. "Great schools" goes the conventional wisdom about Newton, though, like all conventional wisdom, it virtually cries out for a snarky, debunking blog entry.

Now, Newton's a pretty hoity toity town. Way upscale. Our apartment was right next to Boston College on a little cross street of modest duplexes, an island of real estate sanity amidst broad avenues and winding tree-lined side streets of ridiculously big and breathtakingly beautiful Victorian and tudor-style mansions.

"Who lives in these joints," DK and I would speculate on our long evening walks down these dark, deserted lanes, "and what third world country did they exploit to afford them ?"

Anyway, our friends ultimately decided against moving to Newton.

"It's not diverse enough," they explained, invoking the cultural education of their eventual babies. OK. We could dig that. No problemo. We could picture them -- and us for that matter -- in Jamaica Plain or Cambridge or Roslindale, in a city that more resembled the world-at-large than Newton.

Except for one thing. They immediately moved to Lexington. Possibly one of the most WASPy towns on the face of the planet. Real John Updike territory. As in a town where the influx of two Swedes probably up-ticked the "diversity" scale into the red zone.

Which brings me to the "small scale civic life not making sense" thing that is the destination of this ramble through the whackily undiverse landscapes of suburban Boston.

Massachusetts has a new statute that designates police and fire stations as "safe havens" for unwanted newborns that desparate parents might otherwise be abandon to the elements and certain death. It seems that although the head of Lexington's "historical commission" is all for the concept, the idea of actually placing signs on these municipal buildings indicating exactly where to bring the infants is prohibitively "inappropriate to history"

Lexington's Baby Haven advocate is a fellow named Michael Morrissey. He apparantly worked tirelessy to get the statute passed, and was eager to facilitate its implementation. According to the Globe,

This month, he proposed a black-and-white, 9-inch-by-12-inch sign that says ''Safe Baby Site" in English and Spanish, and shows a drawing of a baby. Knowing that his local fire and police stations are located in the town's historic district, near Lexington Green, Morrisey appealed a week ago for the commission's approval. To his surprise, they said no.

Joann Gschwendtner, head of the nine-member commission, said she did not object to the appearance of the signs, but worried that if the commission approved Morrisey's signs, it would have to do so for every advocacy group.

"Pretty soon the front door will be like the bulletin board of a grocery store," she said.

Huh ? (Cue sounds of mind boggling.)

Is she setting up a straw man or simply taking the "slippery slope" argument to disingenuous, NIMBYesque extreme ? Or both ? How does allowing a sign on the door of a municipal building anouncing one of its new, important functions necessarily lead to an unstoppable flood of signs for "every advocacy group" ?

The local paper quotes Mr Morrissey:

     "It's not as though we want to do something that hasn't been done before. The reason the signs are there is to literally direct somebody to the right door or the right place rather than have a baby left in the cold, or the heat for that matter, which can be extremely dangerous," said Morrissey, noting that the standard signs are generally 9-by-12 inches. "Visually, these signs attract somebody when they're in a panic situation and aren't always thinking clearly. These will provide some very simply instructions."
     The Lexington advocate has no problem adhering to the HDC's potential size and color demands for signs because he doesn't want to be "inappropriate to history," but he made it clear that he does still plan on putting them up at the Police Station and the fire stations on Bedford Street and Massachusetts Avenue.
     "We're going to push to do this anyway," said Morrissey. "We're not trying to be inappropriate to history, but sometimes you have to look at what history you are making. We don't want history to show that somebody left a baby outside a doorway and something disastrous happened."

I happen to know that Waltham's Willow Street Hysterical Commission (cue picture of ME waving wildly and pointing at my chest) absolutely adores our sagging, snow-covered Kerry sign, our flamingo garden and our scrofulous weedlawn.

And today I declare this old house a certified Baby Blue State Safe Haven for anyone who has been abandoned by history and seeks refuge from civic nonsense from the smallest to the largest scale.

And just wait until you see my sign.

Sunday, November 07, 2004


It was the Friday before Halloween, overcast and raw. I took the day off and drove to Arlington's Great Meadows, a nature preserve whose main trail begins behind a small, private school. It was midmorning, and the loud, excited cries of children rang out from the field. I had stumbled, to my mild, misanthropic disappointment, upon an elaborate Halloween mummery that had appropriated the woods behind the school as its mise en scene. I was annoyed at my annoyance. What kind of unnatural beast of a woman is annoyed by the joyful cries of children ? Some kind of wicked witch ? I stifled the urge to turn back in search of a more deserted forest and headed toward the trail.

It began at a small pond --

-- that was completely covered with a uniform film of dusty-green vegetation. Ducks floated back and forth, trailing black slits of water that closed almost as quickly as they opened. It was creepy and silent. On a small rise I could see groups of ornately costumed adults scattered through the woods. A lady-in-waiting crouched by a stone noodling on a recorder. A tall, ghostly storyteller entranced a group of children perched on a semicircle of stones. A fairy godmother was decking a tree in bright silk banners. A group of gnomes -- one with her cell phone hidden behind her back --

-- even posed for me as I headed over a low hill toward the sere, flat, wood-rimmed meadows. By then even I was charmed. My mood lightened. I was in a Tolkein landscape, complete with hobbits, in the full, endlessly interesting dilapidation of fall. The clouds were breaking, and the morning was warming up. What could be better ?

Within moments I was alone. Children's voices still came through the trees, but from a distance, like the voices of the ethereal children in Eliot's rose garden. I soon realized my map was useless; there were far more trails opening out underfoot than it depicted, and I felt mildly anxious about getting lost. I had no breadcrumbs to trail behind me, and there were twa corbies --

-- hunkering on the topmost branches of an oak, watching and waiting.

I was getting into the spirit of things.

As was the vegetation -- dun, spindly, bedraggled, tangled, skeletal --

-- a post-copulative beauty, all sacrifice and attenuation, everything dying in each others' arms --

Overdressed, warm by now, I removed my hat and unzipped my jacket. The wind blew gray strands of hair into my face. I tried to fling them off with a shake of my head and heard the faithful little scritch my neck makes now, cute little memento mori right in tune with the hiss of the wind through the leathery oak leaves.

Suddenly, there they were, Rilke's ripening barberries growing red --

-- not succulent like some berries, but chitinous and hard as little beetles. Do birds find the fruits delicious whose pits they transport and drop ?

Everything's going to seed . It's the year's fulfillment, its ripening, its bright scatter and its long, combustive fall.

The trail ended at a stand of phragmites.

Swaying in the wind, their green, feathery seedheads filled with light, they seemed ecstatic. I felt ecstatic, too, a little bit. I was a witch of this wonderful, autumnal place. Not the good witch, a brood of children huddled under her protective cape, nor the wicked witch in her sweets-encrusted hermitage luring children toward the fiery oven within, but just an ordinary, seedy weed-witch on a walk, mild, benign, little more than a hag, really, out enjoying the company of her spindly sisters before the winter takes them and takes her down.