Words to Live By…courtesy of Inventing Anna

My new favorite slogan for life comes from a deep binge of Netflix’ Inventing Anna. I watched the seven-hour dive into the world of New York City glamour, crime, and con-artistry back in March, when it topped so many must-view lists. One solitary line of moral virtue percolates within me ever since.

For the maybe six people in this country unfamiliar with this infectious Shonda Rhimes creation, a brief overview. Inventing Anna is the story of a self-designated German heiress with the fictious name Anna Delvey who, in actual fact, lived an extravagant life in New York City at other people’s expense for way too long, while she came ‘this close’ to pulling in $40 million in venture capital to create an illusory palace of the arts. Her only collateral was hutzpah, coupled with a teeter-totter of bitchiness and charm. The series is based on an article by journalist Jessica Pressler.

Inventing Anna is fabulous television, whiplashing between known fact, perceived fact, and blatant lie. Everyone is cruel and manipulative; everyone behaves as if they’re rich or would instantly kill to be so; everyone is out for number one. In short, Inventing Anna holds a precise mirror to the world we inhabit. Even as we love to hate Anna Delvey, we know that if only we could be more like her, we’d be further along in life.

So where, one must ask, within this tale of glittery deceit, is there a slogan for living for a crumpled Cambridge curmudgeon?

Enter my favorite character: Kacy Duke, physical trainer to the rich, portrayed by actor Laverne Cox. I spent the first few episodes trying to decide whether Kacy was a biological female, a trans, a drag queen, or simply such a formidable force of nature she could be whatever she chose, whenever she chose. Kacy is trainer to Anna and Anna’s adoring entourage. At one point, stressing and straining to a blaring beat within the skyline views of Kacy’s penthouse studio, one of the wealthy whiners complains to the point of belittlement, the hoi-polloi stuck to the pavement below. With the same sharp tongue used to sergeant skinny white girls into more and faster reps, Kacy commands, “When life gives you the opportunity to choose how to be: be kind.”

A mere moment of gentle wisdom tucked seven hours of grueling self-centeredness. But what a keeper! The simple motto: “Be kind” is all over the place these days. But to acknowledge whatever privilege you have, claim your agency, and then choose to be kind. That is a dagger in any narcissist’s chest. That is humanity in full.

In the end, the mirror that Inventing Anna shines on our culture, cracks. Anna Sorokin (her real name) goes to jail. The plot turn reminds me of Martha Stewart: able to get ahead on feminine wiles for a good long time, though in the end, the boys in the club get away with the big stuff while women who aim too high go to the clink for lesser crimes. For even as Martha—and today, Anna—serve their time, the vast majority of power liars, con artists, and shyster goons are still loose, making our world a morally corrupt and vulgar place.

Anna whatever-last-name-she-chose-to-use is a criminal. She embezzled. She cheated. A few people she took in were seriously harmed. But most of the chumps she took advantage of wagged eagerly at her get-rich Ponzi. Anna exemplifies so many values admired by our culture, until her scam ran dry. That’s where our empathy tanks. Damn she who gets caught.

Still, I feel sorry for Anna. And since life has given me the opportunity to choose how to be: in regards to Anna Sorokin, I choose to be kind.

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Trigger Warning: My Typing Finger is Itchy

Memorial Day Field of Flags on Boston Common

I have been to Jamestown. I have been to Plymouth Rock.

I have been to Lexington and Concord. I have been to Independence Hall. I have been to Yorktown.

I have been to Fort Sumter. I have been to Gettysburg. I have been to Appomattox.

I have been to Ellis Island. I have been to the Statue of Liberty. I have been to the Golden Gate.

I have been to Fort McHenry, inspiration for the Star-Spangled Banner. I have been to purple mountain’s majesty and amber waves of grain.

I have been from California to the New York Islands, from the redwood forests to the Gulf stream waters.

I have been way down upon the Suwanee River. I have stood on a corner in Winslow Arizona. I have been somewhere in the Black Mountain Hills of Dakota. I have seen the Berkshires dreamlike on account of that frosting. I have sent Greetings from Asbury Park.

I have been to Yosemite. I have been to Yellowstone. I have been to the Grand Canyon. I have been to Big Bend. I have been to the Everglades. I have been to Bar Harbor.

I have been to Pearl Harbor.

I have been to Tammany Hall. I have been to Carnegie Hall.

I have been to Wounded Knee. I have been to Mohegan Sun.

I have been to Black Wall Street in Durham, North Carolina. I have been to wealthy Wall Street in New York, New York.

I have been to Wall Drug. I have been to Wal-Mart.

I have been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago; the Kimbell and the Getty and the Broad; Crystal Bridges and Fallingwater.

I have been to the Museum of Magic, the Nutcracker Museum, the Russian Doll Museum. I have been to the Museum of Bad Art.

I have been to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Horseshoe Hall of Fame, and the Cowboy Hall of Fame.

I have been to every Presidential library.

I have been to the Utopian remnants of Hancock, Massachusetts and Oneida, New York; to Battle Creek, Michigan; and New Harmony, Indiana.

I have been to the company towns of Corning and Homestead; Hershey and Pullman.

I have been to Topeka, where separate was deemed unequal. I have been to Little Rock. I have been to Meridian.

I have been to Birmingham. I have been to Selma.

I have been to Watts. I have been to Newark. I have been to Detroit.

I have been to Los Angeles. I have been to Ferguson. I have been to Minneapolis.

I have been to migrant-festered fields in California. I have been to autonomously-trackered fields in Kansas. I have been to organic fields in Vermont.

I have been to copper mines. I have been to gypsum mines. I have been to strip mines.

I have been to millwork factories. I have been to candy factories. I have been to baseball bat factories. I have been to truck factories.

I have been to Fort Dix and Fort Bragg and Fort Pendleton.

I have been aboard the USS Constitution. I have been in an underground missile silo.

I have pedaled I-94. I have pedaled US 15. I have pedaled California 101.

I have stared, breathless, at the destruction of 9/11.

I have been to the Granary Burial Ground. I have been to Mount Auburn Cemetery. I have been to Bonaventure Cemetery. I have been to Arlington National Cemetery.

I have been to the Book Depository at Dallas. I have been to the tower at the University of Texas.

I have been to Littleton and Aurora. I have been to Las Vegas. I have been to Orlando. I have been to El Paso. I have been to Sandy Hook. I have been to Buffalo.

I have been to Uvalde.

On this Memorial Day, I am a well-travelled American, in despair for our nation.

United States citizens comprise 5% of the humans on this planet. Yet we lock up 20% of the world’s prisoners; we own a third of all private guns. More guns than people. Many more guns than people. Guns we use them to shoot ourselves, and our children. The correlation between access to guns and gun violence, whether measured among nations, among US states, within US localities; is clear direct, and indisputable. Yet, we do nothing.

I have a deep love for the founding principles of our nation. I am deeply ashamed of the nation we have become.

We have squandered the opportunity of equity for all. We vote into office politicians who pedal fear and division, whether through jingoistic heart-thumping or slivering us into narrow identities. It is so much easier to call out difference than celebrate commonality; to tear down rather than build up; to divide rather than unite.

We know what we have to do. We have to rededicate our shared ideals over individual pursuit. We have to take care of each other. All of us, caring for all of us.

One first step is to deny eighteen-year-old troubled boys’ access to AK-15’s. But that is mere preamble to creating a world where eighteen-year-old boys feel valued and loved within their community, so they don’t even contemplate rogue destruction.

We also have to love our children enough to protect them from danger. Which means we have to love them more than we love guns. We have to love them more than the profits that guns derive.

On this day of national mourning and remembrance, I have no confidence that we’ll do what needs to be done. What progress do we have to show in the decade since twenty innocent children were gunned down at Sandy Hook? We have Uvalde.

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How to Find Happiness: 3-2-1

The March 2022 edition of The Atlantic features of trio of articles that explore different angles of “How to Find Happiness.” After two plus years of pandemic, the issue is welcome, since its topic appears to be in such short supply.

Arthur C. Brooks, Harvard Professor and generally contented soul, covers the usual happiness bases in “The Satisfaction Trap.” Money cannot buy happiness. Success is fleeting. You can’t get no satisfaction. The half-life of desire satisfaction is short, and escalating desire floods the void. There’s a Buddhist sensibility, espousing the way out of the trap through shedding desires, seeking contentment, tamping judgment, forsaking comparison. The article’s a bit odd in the end, as Mr. Brooks admits to fervent Catholicism, a religion that thrives on keeping people in sin and shame by external judgement. Still, in a world that constantly pushes us to want more, it’s always useful to revisit the reality that more actually delivers less.

Jennifer Senior’s article, “It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart,” is an intriguing exploration of long-term friendship, why it’s so important, and how devastating it can be when it ends. We have no customs, no rituals, for friendships that whither or snap. Perhaps we should. Most of the relationships Ms. Senior chronicles are female-female. I was struck by how completely different they were, both in health and in demise, from mine own. I’m not a particularly good long-term friend. I go years without connecting with someone important to me. Yet, when we do reconnect, I demand nothing beyond picking up where we left. No explanation or continuity required. Even if the falloff is triggered by a specific event, I’m disinclined to wade through the details. Rather, when wounded, I withdraw; or they do. I let time heal. I never ‘block’ anyone, or disown what we’ve had. I simply hang back until moved to reconnect. Considering my lassez-faire manner of friendship, I was fascinated by Ms. Senior’s descriptions of women who engage in rigorous accounting, text exchanges, even therapy.

Perhaps the most ambitious article was Olga Khazan’s “My Personality Transplant.” Once I suspended disbelief that this witty, insightful, attractive woman, with a steady boyfriend and a plum spot as a staff writer for The Atlantic, possessed an acid personality, I appreciated her journey to be ‘more’ like the person she desired. After months of gratitude journaling, improv classes, and consciously putting herself out there, I celebrated her elevated personality-test scores in extroversion and decreased neuroticism. I have no personal interest in being less introverted, and embrace my neuroses as the turmeric and garlic of my life. But if Olga wants to be noisier, go for it. Will her perceived improvements last? Perhaps we’ll get a follow-up article after the next pandemic.

The pandemic is what piqued my interest in these articles. Like so many, I’ve grown brittle and complainy these past two years. I keep my eyes down, as if avoiding others’ gaze will divert their breath. Yet my blood pressure is up. I am less tolerant of people who disagree with my positions about—well—everything. Don’t they realize they’re wrong?

I’ve fared better than most, in large part because the past two years presented no major life changes. Anyone in transition: graduating; getting married, having a baby; a new job; even retirement; navigated additional challenges during the pandemic. I suffered none of that. Being a home body wasn’t much of a chore, considering I have a nice home, with a pleasant housemate, who’s a phenomenal cook.

Still, these articles made me realize that I need to perk myself up, get out more, look people in the eye. And so I’ve devised a 3-2-1 plan to reconnect with friends, and the world. Every day: three acts of consideration to strangers, two substantive interactions with friends, one bit of self-indulgence. The requirements aren’t all that ambitious. Once I started meeting people’s eyes, granting them a smile, opening a door for them, it became habit; I do it more than three times a day. Once I put the notion of a walk or phone visit on the front burner, connecting with two friends every day became pleasure. As to self-indulgences, they’d already increased during the pandemic. I learned to bake—mostly sweets—so I daily enjoy homemade, frosted delights, and then work them off through yoga or a walk or the gym. A veritable cycle of indulgence.

Will my modest increased actions last? Will they yield desired results? Only time will tell. Already, I’ve noticed one thing true. When I keep my head down, avoid others, scamper through the door, I feel better in advance of brushing them by, but worse afterward. When I make myself engage, however fleetingly, I feel better after we have passed. Almost the opposite of the satisfaction trap: rewards unspool after the act. I can only hope their half-life will be long, and lasting.

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A Safe Place

Towards the end of yoga class, the teacher guided us into savasana. “Think of a safe place,” he prompted, to relax our mental and physical being.

Zing! Zang! Boom! My mind raced all over the place, scanning my history to retrieve a safe place. My childhood home? Not in a family that demonstrated love via the put-down. School? I was pudgy, bullied, and hypercompetitive. Marriage? Our mutual strength was pushing each other to excel. Parenting? Architecting? Pedaling? Each of these aspects of me provided benefits, none of which primarily ‘safe.’

I know what unsafe feels like: BMW drivers; extreme heights; police officers; Cambridge ladies; men in Roman collars. They all trigger my flight response. But as a person whose basic needs are well met, ‘unsafe’ is a transitory state: I steer clear and retreat.

I laid on my mat long after class, filtering the crannies of my existence, searching for a safe place. Nothing. And then I realized: I’ve never sought what’s traditionally considered ‘safe.’ Actually, the whole idea of being cuddled, cosseted cocooned—hygge, if you will—makes me feel smothered. I suppose I might be less anxious and neurotic if I had a mental or physical space into which I could retreat. I have no such place; have never sought one. Yet, I manage.

A few days later, the musings of my aborted meditation still needling my head, my boyfriend Dave said, apropos of nothing, “I feel safe with you.” Warmth flushed my body, I wrapped him tighter. Yet I did not parrot his words. Fortunately, our relationship is not saddled by mutual reciprocities. Dave makes me feel many, many good things. Safe is not one of them.

Contemplating a safe place—rather, my lack of it—persisted. It led to an old and cheesy image. I was thirteen when I first saw the movie-musical Oliver! Well past the age of the young urchin and his trials. Yet one scene in that movie infused me with a sense of security. One which, for over fifty years, I’ve recollected during stress. Young Oliver wakes in the mansion of his benefactor, Mr. Brownlow, and steps out onto the balcony of his London crescent mansion to the exuberant choreography of Who Will Buy?

Thinking about a safe place provided me insight as to why this scene always soothes my nerves. Oliver stands on a balcony. Security, warmth, safety has got his back, while a wild and wonderful world unfolds before him. He’s a participant, at a distance. In some ways, that’s the life I lead. I have no benefactor: I constructed my life myself. Yet my participation in the wild world, whether in Haiti or cross-country cycling, or ESOL tutoring, or advocating prison abolition; is cushioned by my physical and economic comfort. My safe place isn’t within a cocoon. It’s being out in the world, with the knowledge of certain refuge close at hand.

A movie image, no matter how consoling, is a mere surrogate for a safe place. I kept searching for a real place where I have felt safe. And finally circled full around to the start. The yoga studio. The next time the teacher prompts us to retreat to our safe place, I will meditate on Balancing Stick, a Bikram balancing pose I’ve struck hundreds of times. Once, ten or twelve years ago now, when I stood on my right leg, extended my left leg straight out behind, and my torso and arms straight in front, I came to a place of balance, stability, and calm. That was the first time I ever felt the flush of the present; overwhelmed with the euphoria of ‘being in the moment.’ I’ve experienced that state many times since, though I still cannot conjure it consciously. Perhaps it’s odd to envision a position of tension as a safe place. But it seems right for me.

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Picture Your Mural Here

At long last, the bike path from Fresh Pond to Watertown is usable. Two years after its scheduled completion date, signs and pylons still declare “Path Closed,” but the surface is paved and striped and many pedestrians and cyclists use it.

The stretch of pavement (less than half a mile) took years to plan, design, and build. Some features are elegant: the nice benches and split-rail fences, the retention ponds nestled along the edges.

Others are questionable: the long entry ramp from Mount Auburn Street at Holworthy, constructed of pre-cast concrete that deposits cyclists less than 300 feet from existing access at grade. How many trees, excavation, and concrete would have been saved by simple signage? Where we really could have used an actual path: to climb from the pavement up the Star Market parking lot, there’s nothing but muddy tracks.

The city took out dozens, maybe hundreds of trees, and planted almost as many new ones back. Some have already died and been replaced.

The walls of underpasses and immense back wall of same-said Star Market have been painted a neutral tone: a blank canvas irresistible to graffitists. The wall has already been defaced, painted a second time, and graffitied again.

I don’t know what the city’s planning process entailed for this project. I only know it was long, and never included any notifications I received, a property owner in the immediate neighborhood. What’s clear is that the city spent exorbitant money and a lot of time, yet still missed a few key elements. The most glaring being the giant blank wall that will be filled with graffiti again and again until someone wakes to the reality: a mural will look great here!

Cambridge has many beautiful murals, my favorite being the imagine2018 mural on Mass Ave in Central Square. Actually, most all the city’s murals are in Central Square. I suppose this correlates with  the prevailing notion that Central Square is cool and active, while Strawberry Hill is, well, beige. Did they think graffitists would not find a big, fresh painted wall in our tiny, quiet neighborhood? Do they actually plan to keep painting it over, providing fresh canvas again and again?

Strawberry Hill may not be as hip as Central Square, but we are not quite so boring as the blank wall of Star Market implies. And we would we certainly enjoy a mural.

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Bicycle for Fun…and More!

It is a glorious April Saturday morning in New England. Sixty degrees: bright sun; cotton candy clouds; light breeze. I hop on my bike to go to the gym and run errands. I travel easily along city streets, many of which have designated bicycle lanes. I divert onto dedicated bike trails to shortcut automobile routes. I lock my bike to a post right in front of the gym. If you consider time lost in searching for parking, I get from home to gym to store to supermarket as quickly as anyone. The only place I encounter traffic is in Danehy Park, where the bike path is full of casual riders and families with young children on this gorgeous day. But all those bikes disappear the moment I leave the park and pedal to Fresh Pond Shopping Center. The parking lot is full of cars, while mine is the only bike locked to the rack.

The vast majority of Americans own cars. Car sales peaked in 2016, above 17 million vehicles, dipped during the pandemic, and are climbing again. The vast majority of Americans also own bicycles. Coincidently, over 17 million bicycles are sold in the United States each year as well. During the pandemic, bicycles actually outsold cars, but we are quick-slip-sliding back to our old gas pedal ways.

Cambridge, MA is a benevolent place to be a cyclist. The city’s 2020 Bicycle Plan promotes the advantages of cycling from an economic, environmental, and personal health perspective. The document also outlines an ambitious plan to increase cycling for all types of trips. And yet, on an April Saturday in ideal cycling weather, I see folks on bicycles noodling around for fun, but not a single other cyclist pedaling through their daily activities.

A common refrain among bicycle advocates is, “build it and they will come.” If we only provide more designated bike lanes, or more protected bike lanes, or more dedicated bike routes, people will feel that cycling is safe; they’ll ditch their cars; they’ll start to pedal. The City has taken that mantra to heart. In 2021, Cambridge added 4.08 miles of new bike lanes. There are now over 101 miles of dedicated bicycle pavement in a city of only seven square miles in area. Yet many—most—people only use bicycles for recreation.

As a person whose primary means of transport has always been my bicycle, I truly appreciate what the city has done, and what it aspires to continue to do. Cycling throughout the Boston area is so much easier, and safer, than it was thirty, forty years ago. Still, I am the sole cyclist in a separated bike lane often enough to appreciate the frustration of vehicle drivers queued up beside me, pushed into a single traffic lane that, before the bike-lane-paint was applied and stanchions installed, used to be two.

Change comes hard. Four generations into cityscapes defined by automobiles, we have no reference for streets that accommodate a range of transit options. And when we need to do anything other than ‘play,’ our go-to mode of transport is the automobile.

Designated bike lanes are part of the solution to creating better balance between vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians. So is increased density, pedestrian-friendly development. So is phasing out the myth of ‘free’ parking. But none of these changes, individually or collectively, will make much difference unless we make a cultural shift and embrace bicycle riding beyond simply recreation. If we live in a city or town, we can do what we need to do and get where we need to be—on a bicycle!

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An Afternoon Stroll, a Facebook Post, a bit of Smoki Bacon

One serendipitous joy of my life is living three blocks from Mount Auburn Cemetery, my go-to destination for a walk any time of year. Our country’s first garden cemetery, consecrated 1831, is a national landmark of remarkable landscape brimming with intriguing monuments. The place reflects Boston’s history, both serious and novel, in a strikingly direct way: from the start Mount Auburn Cemetery accepted people of any race or creed: provided, of course, you had the entry fee. Thus it contains a wide-spectrum resting of Brahmins as well as successful immigrants. Lacking, as history so often does, only paupers and ne’er-do-wells.

Recently, I came upon a flat stone with a peculiar name. Took a photo and posted it on Facebook. “Spring comes to Mount Auburn Cemetery—plus we found a marker with smokin’ cool name!”

Ignorant me. I quickly received several comments from people better connected to the dithering height of Boston society. “Smoki Bacon! She and Dick interviewed me on their radio show way back in 1990.” “In 1970’s Boston, she was one of those people who was ‘famous for being famous.’” “She and Dick were always on the guests lists back in the day.”

I doubt the phrase ‘back in the day’ circa 1990 properly applies to a woman born in 1928, but I got the gist. However, rather than rely on Facebook friends alone, I did the twenty-first century thing, and Googled “Smoki Bacon Boston.” Up pops Bryan Marquard’s Boston Globe obit from December 30, 2019; a tribute many of us would love to leave as our legacy. You can read the whole thing here. Or, peruse the highlights that caught my own fancy.

Smoki Bacon, who went from child flower seller to Back Bay socialite, dies at 91

By Bryan Marquard Globe Staff, December 30, 2019, 7:39 p.m.

You might feel flattered if you were called a “legendary Back Bay socialite.” Smoki Bacon didn’t. She’d quickly set the record straight while holding you in place with a steady gaze made more intense by her trademark oversized glasses. “I’ve had my Social Security number since 1937,” she once told the Globe. “I’ve worked since I was 9 years old. I’m not schlepping around shopping for clothes out of a chauffeured limousine.”

Mrs. Bacon was 91 when she died Friday of Alzheimer’s disease, and nearly everything about her life was the stuff of oft-told legend — not least her ability to outlast everyone, everywhere, every time. “She was typically the person with the most energy in the room — when she was 45 and when she was 90,” said Joe O’Connor. They first met in 1974, when he was director of operations for the city’s celebration of the nation’s bicentennial and she ostensibly was his employee — though in practice he often took guidance from her.

A public relations consultant and fund-raiser for scores of events and organizations, and cohost with her husband, Richard Concannon, of the long-running TV show “The Literati Scene,” Mrs. Bacon also threw many of Boston’s most memorable parties and weddings (including her own). Her real calling was civic activism, though, and she compiled a list of jobs and volunteer work that could fill five resumes while helping shape Boston’s culture and character. Decades ago, she hid a pregnancy to keep her job and foil restrictions that excluded expectant mothers from working. She went on to stake a place on numerous boards that hadn’t welcomed women until she threw open the door.

Over more than a half-century, beginning in the 1950s, Mrs. Bacon served on more than 100 boards and committees, always finding a new way to squeeze 36 hours of work into a 24-hour day. Her causes ranged from eliminating all bigotry — on the basis gender or race, sexual orientation or socioeconomic background — to her ardent support of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra.

Rising from poverty to prominence, Mrs. Bacon transformed from Adelaide Ruth Ginepra — who lived on welfare with her mother and brother in Brookline — to Smoki Bacon, whose Back Bay home was an entryway into the ranks of Boston’s who’s who. An intellectual and cultural matchmaker, she fostered friendships across boundaries among those who never realized they needed to meet until Mrs. Bacon introduced them, typically at a party she hosted.

Born Jan. 29, 1928, Adelaide Ginepra was the daughter of Ruth Burns and Alfred Ginepra. She was 7 when her parents separated, and she hit the job market early, selling flowers along The Riverway as a girl. “She understood exactly what it meant to be poor and so she devoted her life to working for hundreds of nonprofit organizations that have made a huge difference to people in the community,” said her daughter Brooks Bacon of New York City.

Graduating from Brookline High School in 1945, she attended the School of Practical Art and switched to Jackson Von Ladau School of Design, graduating in 1951. Returning to Boston after a spell working in New York as a graphic artist, she married Edwin Bacon in 1957. They lived in the Back Bay and she was already a force in the community when he died…in 1974.

In 1979, she married Concannon, who had been a Harvard College classmate of her late husband. Their wedding at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard and the reception on the Boston Tea Party Ship drew an estimated 800 people. The two of them launched programs including “The Literati Scene,” on which they interviewed numerous authors, sometimes in their Beacon Hill home, on local cable channels.

“I used to say that Auntie Mame could have taken a lesson from her. She was larger than life,” said Mrs. Bacon’s daughter Hilary Bacon Gabrieli of Boston.

Among the lessons Mrs. Bacon imparted was how to remain self-assured, regardless of adversity. According to filmmaker Yule Caise, “She never had to alter who she was. That’s how secure she was in the world.”

Part of Mrs. Bacon’s self-confidence was there for all to see and hear: her name itself. When she was a girl, teasing classmates had called her Smokey — a nickname she initially hated. One-upping them, she embraced the sobriquet, changed the spelling, and made it unforgettable. “I substituted an ‘i’ for the ‘ey,’” she confided with a smile.

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No Overdue Fees!

Last October the Cambridge Public Library joined a trend among libraries nation-wide. They abolished overdue fees on materials past due.

I always knew the point of charging ten cents per day per overdue book (a dollar for a CD!) was not to generate real income for the library. It thought it was a mild incentive to be a good library user; to return items borrowed on time. Therefore, I couldn’t understand the point of eliminating them.

After the policy was in force a few months, I asked my local librarian about the fallout of eliminating overdue fines. Her response revealed a completely different logic than the one trapped within me.

“It has been a huge success. We’ve received hundreds of items that people did not bring back because their fines were so high. Books and CD’s that people had held on to for years.”

This provided one of those moments when I stand in awe at the spectrum of human behavior, while simultaneously acknowledging that I occupy a lonely niche more than two standard deviations beyond the norm. What was for me: incentive; was to others: punishment. Ten cents per day is not a lot of money for the guy who gets his books in within the basic timeframe of ‘due date.’ But for the person harboring library materials for years, it adds up to serious money. And though criminal it may be to withhold library books, no one lies in fear that the sheriff will come a-knockin’ in search of that long missing copy of Pride and Prejudice.

The trend continues: New York Public Library, Chicago Public Library, Boston Public Library, even the library in beautiful downtown Burbank. And so far, the results are exactly what libraries were seeking: people are returning long, long overdue books.

Nowadays, when I push to finish a book in time to get it back to the library, a voice in my head says, “It doesn’t matter. There are no fines.” I am nothing if not disciplined, and so far, the lack of fines has not loosened my punctuality habit. I override the louche voice by internally proclaiming the fundamental library contract–knowledge for all; shared among all—and get materials back so they can used by another patron. But that logic is not nearly as compelling as the vision of dimes spilling out of my pocket which has haunted me since I was seven, and dimes were real money. I’m pretty sure it’s just a matter of time before I fall off my high horse and return something: overdue.

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Slip Sliding Away

I stand in front of the gym locker and stare at my combination lock. Let’s see… Is it 6-29-34? Or maybe 29-6-34? It can’t be 34-29-6: combo locks are always high/low/high. I know the three numbers involved. I recall the basic algorithm of a padlock. But what order? I have no clue. My gym lock is over twenty years old; I’ve unlocked its combination at least a thousand times. But today, the order of numbers required to open the lock eludes me.

Thus is the world this sixty-seven-year-old man inhabits. Capable in many ways, certainly not feeble, nor dementiaed. Yet every so often the synapses in my brain simply refuse to fire. And so I stand, towel wrapped, in the locker room, baffled by a task I performed admirably yesterday, and will likely manipulate well tomorrow.

Or perchance I’m having a conversation and a simple image—say ‘envelope’—floats in my mind, but the actual word refuses to escape my lips.

Or I come upon someone. I know I know and their name…darn it, what is their name?

Slip sliding away is not all that awful. Sometimes, lost in a moment of dysfunction, I feel a release, a head-lightening, as if I’m unburdening my noggin’s accumulated detritus. And the function always returns—at least it has so far—usually within a few seconds. Still, in a world of time measured in nanos, a few untethered seconds feels awfully long. But I do not despair. For when the time finally arrives when my mind vacations for minutes, hours, and eventually eternity; there’ll be a lengthy digital trail of its demise.

I am a sucker for data and measures. I guinea pig myself for any research study that doesn’t require shots or pills. Every Survey Monkey that climbs into my Inbox gets filled out with relish. Several years ago, I was invited to participate in two different, long-term studies about aging brains.

I joined Brain Health Registry, out of UCSF, in 2014. Every year, they send me tests that measure my cognitive ability, and surveys that track my own dimming perceptions.

I also participate in the APT (Alzheimer’s Prevention Treatment) Webstudy, a cognitive assessment research tool that identifies individuals at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease with the goal of providing them the opportunity to participate in clinical trials aimed at preventing dementia. I have no reason to believe I am at higher risk for Alzheimer’s than the next geezer, but I rather enjoy doing the cognate tests that arrive every three months, and timed reflex exercises that address such world-critical questions as: Have you seen this card before? Is the card red or black? Is the card the same as the previous card? The tests also come with a slew of questionnaires that usually make me feel good about myself. Yes, I have social interactions with others; I can follow the plot of a movie; I can find my bicycle in a parking lot. No, I am not a hoarder.

I hope that that data my brain waves contribute to science are useful, and I encourage others to join these long-term studies.

For the last eight years, my markers have been pretty consistent. I’ve charted a solid baseline. But as my inability to find the right word, remember a name, and release my gym locker become more common, my cognate scores and self-assessment are beginning to slip. That’s fine by me, as I have no desire to live forever. I rather hope that my mind and my body dwindle in accord; but over that I have no control. Yet I’m glad that, even as I may not remember it, I’ll leave a data trail that tracks how one particular human slipped away.

In the meantime, I am keen on coping mechanisms. A few years ago, I wrote the combination of my gym locker on a sticker affixed to the back of the padlock. Not very secure, but what thief goes around peeking the backside of gym locks? There it was, in clear order. 34-6-29. I spun the dial, the door swung open, and my street clothes appeared.

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Let Us Give Blood!

In January, the American Red Cross proclaimed its first ever “blood crisis.” Boston-area hospitals have established priority protocols should available blood become scarce. My response to this humanitarian challenge: Tough Nuggies to the homophobic Red Cross.

Forty-five years ago, as a dutiful college undergraduate, I received a gallon-pin from the Red Cross. Then another. My college held blood drives every eight weeks. I laid on a cot and held out my arm every time.

Thirty-seven years ago, at the height of AIDS-mongering fear, the Red Cross stopped taking blood donations from any man who had sex with another man.

Twenty-eight years ago was the first time that my wish to donate blood clashed with this prohibition. I answered ‘yes’ to the man-on-man sex question on my intake form at a blood donation site, and was declined. I got angry, charged the reception desk, argued that this was 1994, that means of transmission were well established. The grey-haired volunteer clutched her pearls as I denounced the Red Cross’ blanket policy that ignored levels of sexual risk. I stomped away in disgust. I daresay the intake lady was glad to see me go.

When the Red Cross stopped wanting my blood, I stopped giving them my greenbacks as well.

Occasionally, over the next decades, I’d go into a Red Cross Blood Drive, fill out the forms, and make a scene when I was denied. Neither an organized nor effective form of protest, yet it allowed me to vent my frustration. Over time, Red Cross policy changed. They’d take a gay man’s blood if he hadn’t had sex in a year. Then they reduced the time to ninety days. We have known (for a long, long time) that not all gay men have HIV in their blood, while all sorts of other people do have HIV in their blood. The Red Cross tests every donor’s pint for hepatitis, HIV syphilis, and a slew of other infections, regardless what identities the donors’ claim. So why, in 2022, are gay men the only demographic asked to refrain from sex for ninety days before doing a good civic deed? The restriction on gay men are nothing more than parochial prejudice; nothing less than good ol’ fashioned homophobia.

The latest blood shortage has clarioned new calls for the Red Cross to loosen their prohibition on blood donations by sexually-active gay men. If they do, I promise that my memory of Red Cross’s misguided discrimination will be short with regards to donating blood: I will give it because people need it. But my heart will be hard to opening my wallet to a supposedly philanthropic institution that has promulgated prejudice beyond thirty years of scientific reason.

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