The View from the Nest

Springtime, and we just finished our move back to Cambridge. Jake and I winter in the Blue Hills. We’re not migratory creatures, but we tell our friends we need serious hibernation, clean away from humans. Truth is, we leave just so we can make a splashy return. Fresh Pond folk make such a fuss. If we hung here 365, who would notice?

Last year we nested near the top of a tall tree, far from any trail. I like this year’s spot better. Lower down, less windy, where the trunk splits into a sturdy fork. It took Jake less than a day to form the nest. And we’re just a head turn off the main path. Might as well make viewing easy.

From my perch atop our hatchlings, I peer down the rutted ice. From dawn to dusk, citizens stand and watch, yellow parka sentinels, brilliant against spring’s gritty snow. They press flint black binoculars and cameras to their faces. They contemplate me in solemn awe, point my way and exclaim in hushed voices, “The owls have returned.” Their reverence is ridiculous in this noisy spot, what with the highway close at hand, and a pile driver drilling apartment building foundations only a few hundred feet away. As if city noise disappears the moment they step off the concrete sidewalk and merge with this parcel of curated nature; as if fixing us with their eyeballs and gear all day is not disturbance enough.

Fresh Pond is an easy place to live: no predators, easy prey. But mostly, we love the humans. All except that photographer with the zoom lens so powerful it singes my feathers. He hangs a ring of photos from his tripod; photos of me that he sells to people too rushed to give me any real time. Don’t I deserve a commission? If not currency, at least a rabbit, or a few rodents. I’m thinking of flying over to that lawyer’s office on Concord Avenue. Cambridge is full of lawyers. Surely one will see the justice in my cause.

Calm down Mildred, I tell myself when the photographer ruffles my feathers. That man can’t give you anything you need, and Jake already gives you everything you want. I fix a fierce gaze on the tripod man. I stare at his heart pumping excitement as he snaps close up after close up, clueless to the fact that I can hold still for minutes on end. One image will prove indecipherable from the next.

When I’m certain that his blood pressure’s raging and he’s clicked so many prize images that I’ve singed his soul, I make a finale move. I turn my head, quick, confident, ninety degrees to the west. The crowd gasps. Loud enough to drown out the pounding pile driver. Humans are so easily amused. Little wonder they consider me wise.

 

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Three Strikes Against Hillbilly Elegy

When I read Mitch Dunier’s Sidewalk I am filled with empathy for black men, often drug users, living on the street. When I read The New Jim Crow, I seethe over the injustice of systematically containing their imprisoned brothers. When I read Evicted, I ache for the poor women struggling to raise their children against all odds. When I read Rachel Aviv’s “How the Elderly Lose Their Rights, “I root for the victims. When I read Hillbilly Elegy, my heart turns cold.

When I absorb, second hand, the consequences of being black or brown, a woman, even an old person, the foundational source of his or her disadvantage is clear to see: skin color, gender, wrinkles. I’ve spent considerable time contemplating why, when I seek complementary sympathy for Appalachian folks, I fail.

First. I find is easier to be empathetic toward someone whose life circumstances are remote from mine. Since I have no perspective from which to judge their disadvantage, I take others’ struggle at face value. However, the more someone seems like me, the less empathy their plight evokes. The characters in Hillbilly Elegy look too much like the people in power—angry white males—and too much like me, to merit special consideration. The fact that these folks fail to create viable lives, whether measured by economic success or personal satisfaction, doesn’t move me because, frankly, blue collar Middletown Ohio is not all that different from blue collar Toms River, New Jersey. J.D. Vance’s family and neighbors are too much like the people I grew up with: loud, labile, and distrustful of anything beyond their circle; quick to damn a changing world, resistant to change with it. It’s difficult to feel sympathy for a narrow, gloomy worldview I’ve spent a lot of energy trying to escape.

Second. Hillbilly Elegy draws parallels between the people of Appalachia and other disenfranchised groups in our nation. However, there’s a big difference between a woman or person of color struggling against a system that oppresses them, and someone who is simply too tribal and fear-driven to act as his own change agent. Suggesting the equivalence piles undeserved credence on Appalachian complaints, and undermines the plight of those whose disadvantages are externally imposed.

Third. What is the author’s responsibility in all of this? We applaud people who rise above the difficulties of their youth, and we don’t expect everyone who moves up to return to his roots. My time in Haiti taught me not think ill of capable, educated Haitians who stay in the US rather than plough their talent back into the Magic Island. Each person gets to determine his own balance of personal opportunity and cultural reinvestment. But there’s something disingenuous about a man who escapes Appalachia, goes to Yale, becomes a West Coast lawyer, and then writes a book about how we’ve failed his people. That’s a level of guilt I refuse to shoulder, from a guy who’s pretty much shirking it himself.

 

Reading Hillbilly Elergy was like cycling down a long, unmarked, dead end road. These folks don’t have any good way to move forward, and an awful lot of backtracking just to get on the main road. It also brought me to my personal limits of empathy. Not a comfortable place to be. It also signifies another similarity between the titled hillbilly’s and me. We are imperfect human beings, every one of us.

 

 

 

 

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Tomorrow! Live! On Stage!

Everyone is invited to the first public reading of my new play…

Staged reading of How Will We Live Tomorrow?

7:30 p.m. on Thursday May 3, 2018

at Boston Playwright’s Theatre – 949 Commonwealth Ave – Boston, MA

Admission: FREE!

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Free! Stuff!

Do you know anyone who needs another tote bag? How about a coaster, or a click pen inscribed with an organizational logo, or pretty much any of the stuff that comes in the obligatory goodie bag we all receive at a conference, sometimes even at a luncheon?

A couple of years ago, I began giving the staff handing out these things a polite smile, “No thanks, I don’t need it.” In return I got baffled looks and uniform replies, “But it’s free!”

 

To quote my philosopher brother, “Free is a very good price.” And when I find something that I can actually use, discounted to the incomparable price of zero, I take what’s offered. Sometimes two. I’ve even been known to sort through the goodie bag, right on the spot, to see if perhaps the lip gloss has SPF 15, in which case I will fish it out and put it in my pocket. But I’m never tempted to take stuff I don’t need. Because even free stuff carries a cost: the societal cost of creation and the personal cost of possession, to carry, store and eventually throw away.

 

Note that I refer only to things I ‘need’ because, in truth, there is nothing that I want. I long ago realized that my existence resides an idiosyncratic limbo of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous poem: ‘How am I different from everyone else? Let me count the ways.’

I am a woefully deficient 21st century American, an economic mutant born without the consumption gene so essential to our consumer economy. I appreciate beautiful things, objects that reflect the imagination and skill of the maker. But I have no wish to own them. Macy’s Department Store, Mahoney’s Landscape & Garden, Museum of Fine Arts: all equally enjoyable places to stroll. Never do I see anything in them and think, “I want that.”

 

Thanks to my housemate, perhaps the most perfect person in the world, our house looks rather nice. His vintage prints, antique breakfronts, upholstered chairs, and silver candlesticks almost obscure the dining room table I scoffed from the curb.

Sidebar on that table: a non-consumer coup. Not only was it free, not only did I save it from the landfill, the timing was perfect. I had just completed renovating the dining room (I may not much like things that move, but I’m fastidious about permanent attachments). I dreaded having to shop for a table. Then I found this grand slab of solid oak, large enough to accommodate twelve, only a block away. Drag it home, Pledge it down, toss a cloth over it, and no one sees the cracked shellac or the ciggie burn in the corner.

Being practically perfect, my housemate is a pretty good consumer, which means he buys a good amount. He’s also a savvy purchaser, with some kind of credit card that yields many benefits. Alas, those benefits have expiration dates, and if he hasn’t claimed enough credit goodies, they offer him free magazines. Which he accepts.

First we got Time, then New York and People; followed by Southern Living, Food and Wine, and The Economist. Lately, Bloomsberg litters our breakfront. I understand the allure of free magazines, but my housemate only reads online. The magazines exist for no one, except maybe me. I used to get back issues of The New Yorker and The Atlantic from the library, now I have a dentist office’ worth of glossies in my own dining room.

The magazines are nice to have around, though when the subscriptions end I will return to my old habit of library journals. One day, when the pile was high and he wasn’t dipping into it, I asked my housemate why he subscribed to them. His answer echoed the voice of every conference staffer barking totes, “Because they’re free.”

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Sit Still

Is there any more gruesome punishment these days than having to sit still, and listen? I’m beginning to believe we simply can no longer do it.

I’m old school. When I go to a performance, I arrive on time, take off my coat in advance, turn off my phone, put my program down before curtain, even unwrap any cough drops if I anticipate a tickle. Then, I put my hands in my lap and sit quietly. If I must move, or remark to my neighbor, I do it during a break or applause.

I am a shrinking minority. Theaters now sell candy and wine that patrons can take to their seats. People arrive late, leave early, talk throughout. I take deep breaths and try not to be annoyed, though I am. This is not a ten-dollar ticket at the Cineplex, it’s five times that, or more, for a live performance. Beyond bothering me, these distractions disrespect the performers.

I am intrigued by theories that human evolution is speeding up, in response to a world that gallops ahead even faster than our ability to absorb it. Perhaps our ability to sit still, like opera, is antiquated. We denote no value to passive absorption.

I recently attended an event where I anticipated a high level of attention: a two-hour poetry reading by two talented poet/friends. There were perhaps sixteen people in attendance on a bitter cold day, all middle-aged acquaintances of the featured poets. Over the course of two hours people came in late, fiddled with their phones, shifted their coats, whispered to one another, put their coats back on, and left early.

A guy passed the hat right in the middle of a poem. Then he noshed on a brownie brittle, then another, then another. The woman in front of me reached over as if to bring attention to his noise, then thought better of it. I held no such constraint; I tapped him on the back and asked him to stop. Meanwhile, the woman started chatting with her neighbor, which induced another woman to shush her. Instead of a contemplative event, the poetry reading felt more like designated quiet time in a fidgety kindergarten; no one could quite keep his hands or voice to himself.

Throughout the distractions two thoughtful people continued to share wondrous images of telomere, grasshoppers daubed into Van Gogh, November light, and queried how I greeted each day: cross or star-crossed? They wove constructs that challenge an audience under the best conditions. I had to work very hard to imprint their ideas.

Am I just an old crank? Why can’t I just put these distractions aside? Part of it is cultural, in a Western European sort of way; I was taught to sit and listen. Last year I attended a performance of an African-American play at The Strand in Dorchester, where the audience shouted out to the actors: a sort of call and response. It took me some time to adjust, but then realized what was going on was pretty cool, even if I didn’t feel comfortable participating.

 

When I was in architecture school, my acoustics professor described why it’s important to design a concert hall to be silent below the level of 15 decibels. This seemed extreme, given that 20 dB is a common threshold for human hearing. “When Pablo Casals reaches the final strain of sustenato in a cello solo, the room must be absolutely silent. Everyone will be so rapt, not a sound will be heard.”

I wonder if that design criterion still holds. I’m pretty sure we’re all going to sit still less, listen with less focus, create more meaningless noise, and learn to accept (endure) more distractions. The beauty of Pablo Casals, and of poetry, will simply have to be more persuasive if it is to rise above the din.

 

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Half Hour Away from Being Old

Last week I was invited to a friend’s house for dinner: at 5:30 p.m.

I can still recall dinners at eight, though it’s been years since I attended one. Most of my friends invite guests at seven. Six-thirty is my preferred start time when I host. If there’s a movie or performance wrapped into the evening, people might gather at six. But 5:30? Never before.

Anyone who came of age in the 1970’s knows the measure of getting old. Janis Ian laid it out for us in ‘Tea and Sympathy:’

 

Lunch at Half-past noon,

Dinner prompt at five

The comfort of a few old friends long past their prime

When we’re twenty, we consider being old is a diminution, a litany of all we’ve lost. But on the far side of sixty, the list of all the things I’ll never do again liberating. With no further need to prove myself I can decline cocaine and cigarettes, shooting guns and tequila, arm wrestling, support groups, charity runs, company parties, lobster, candied apples, and cotton candy.

A few years ago I might have included marijuana on that list, as reefers only render made me withdrawn and bemused. But I retain the right to toke up again if pain kicks in.

I plan on being a great old person; it’s a period of life that plays to my strengths. The early bird special pairs two things I love: good value without a crowd; my personal attitude grows sunnier every year: just ask anyone who knew me back then; and I’ve always spoken my mind. It will be bliss when those nuggets get burnished as wisdom.

I’ve also prepared well for growing old. I cut ‘Over 60: A Healthy Obsession will Keep You Busy’ from the Boston Globe back in the day of print news. These days, it’s yellower and wrinklier than I am, but its advice still rings true. I am a man of many projects—borderline obsessions—most of them healthy.

Although I only have a half hour uptick in my evening meal to be officially old, I suspect it may take ten, twenty years to breach that gap in time. Just because I am looking forward to something doesn’t mean I need to rush it. I’ve got a great gig going: plenty of time, plenty of interests. If I’m lucky, getting old will simply shift active engagement into more passive pursuits. By then, dinner at five won’t be an absurd concept. It will be welcome nourishment before that long, long night.

 

 

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Tomorrow Finally Arrives at Amazon

After several months and many snafu’s, the full color, coffee table version of How Will We Live Tomorrow? is available to order through Amazon.

I apologize to all who ordered the book back in December, when Amazon named it a #1 seller and then cancelled all orders, for reasons I have never been able to determine. This time ‘round I ordered one myself and tracked it just to make sure.

Still – ordering it not for the feint of heart.

Here is how to proceed:

Go to Amazon and search How Will We Live Tomorrow?

You will encounter one of these unappealing messages.

  

ORDER ANYWAY!

This is a print on demand book; the only way to trigger an order is to place an order. I don’t know why Amazon doesn’t offer a message block that explains this, but there you have it.

Next – wait! It will take 4-6 weeks for your order to go from Amazon to the printer, get printed, and then get delivered to you.

Can’t wait? Order How Will We Live Tomorrow? – ebook edition in less than a minute. It includes all the same stories, without images, accessible on almost any mobile device.

Want both? Folks who purchase the hardcover can order the ebook at half price.

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