Friday, May 27, 2016

Urban Garden Front Yard Project Complete

Complete front yard.
It was a pretty simple project to complete once we figured out what we really wanted to do. Yesterday I picked up two barrels of organic soil at Thayer Nursery. The price of soil had gone up to $20 per barrel--no surprise there; I don't know too many things of which the price goes down--but it's still a great deal. It's $20, no matter the size of the barrel, so of course I bring the biggest barrels I have, and if a little more soil drops into the bed of the pickup when I back it into the pile, well, so be it. Thayer gets the material for its compost from, among other places, the dining halls at Harvard University, so we're looking at some really smart compost.

Two trays of pachysandra were the perfect number. Empty the barrels, plant the ground cover. Sue added a birth bath, which is a really sweet idea. We feed the birds in the winter, and we've noticed they seem to feel this is a safe haven for them. Some of the little sparrows are getting comfortable enough around us that they come within a few feet of us. You want to attract as much wildlife as you can to your garden including birds, bees, and insects (the good kind, like butterflies) and do your part in keeping the biosystem humming.

We decided to keep the dead trunk of the dogwood intact because it would leave a visible hole in the yard. Instead we're going to watch it for decay and rot and cross that bridge when we get there.

I think for my next post I'm going to address why even take on these projects? Why build a garden at your own expense on someone else's property? I think there are some very good reason.

Hot, smelly organic soil. The really good stuff. Thayer Nursery gets the material for its compost from, among other places, the dining halls at Harvard University. This is some really smart compost.

Twenty bucks a barrel.

Here's the bare spot we're going to fill with organic soil and grow ground cover.

A nice thick layer of organic material.

Pachysandra added in rows, spaced evenly apart.

The coup de resistance: a hanging bird bath.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Urban Garden Moves To The Front Yard

We have a little project going on in the front yard, too. Last year, because of the vegetable garden we put in the backyard, Steve felt comfortable handing over his front yard to us, too. It was basically a small overgrown postage stamp-sized yard filled with weeds. What you see on the left is after the work we've done so far. The row of paving stones in the rear originally set in a straight line and overgrown with weeds. We moved them forward and placed them in a more pleasing curve to where they are now, and we filled the space behind it with a lot of plants that like shade. And, there's a line of flowers along the right that is pretty good at handling strong sun. We've added organic soil along the right and back. We need to get some ground cover on there, because 1) what's the point of a grass lawn that size? and 2) grass won't grow there because when a wall was built along the sidewalk, which you can't see, the builder back-filled basically with sand. It's like the dirt you find on a baseball field.

Honestly, I would have loved to put in more vegetables. Here in Quincy, Asians plant vegetables in their front yards all of the time. Why not? What's the point of grass? Unless you're a horse, you can't eat it. But believe it not, what we've done with this front yard is really breaking from tradition in the neighborhood. All of the other yards are the typical grass lawns, no matter how small, with foundation plantings around the house. 

But before we tackle the rest of the front yard, let's see what's going on in the back.

We had two days of cold and drizzle. Not nearly enough rain, with no rain in sight; 50 percent on Friday, and then 60 percent the following Friday. And that's not enough in the rain barrels for the garden. We may have to spot water with the hose, which frankly, it's nice to have that net. Farmers out in the Midwest don't have that luxury.

The stripped hill is something our landlord does every year. Usually by this time it's just covered in weeds and by August natural grasses have taken a toehold that would continue to grow as the years passed. You just have to have a little faith and patience with Mother Nature sometimes. But, every spring Steve hires someone to just denude it. He thinks this looks better than a slope covered in natural grasses. He says if he doesn't do this it will look like a forest. I understand it's simply a difference in sensibilities, and people who are raised to see things traditionally have a hard time seeing otherwise. But now that it's had its summer haircut, I'm wondering if we want to plant raspberries? It's a lot of building rubble--mostly gravel--that's been dumped there, and it would take some work and expense to make it fertile for raspberries, which given the chance would cover that hill in a season. It really comes down to me deciding if I want to commit to the expense and labor.

But back to the front yard. That dogwood was planted by Steve's mother about 55 years ago. It's had a pretty good run. We started feeding it fall and spring, and it again was a gorgeous flowering tree this spring. The only thing is that trunk on the right is dead, and there's another dead branch that comes out higher up on the back of the trunk. At the base there's a hole where another trunk was removed a few years ago, that you can stick your hand in. Tomorrow or Friday I'll head over to Thayer's Nursery where there's a guy I know who I can ask what to do.

While I'm there I'll pick up some more organic soil. They sell it for $15 a barrel, if you fill the barrel yourself and haul it away. We keep our 1997 Ford pickup running for chores like that. I'll spread the organic soil on that bare spot in the front yard and we'll be planting a mix of pachysandra and some creeping ivy Steve has growing wild in the back. I'll also see what Thayer's has for mulch for the front plants and in the back to hold in the moisture. That's pretty much a necessity in all vegetable gardens, but it's looking more so this year.  I'm not a big fan of all of this shredded bark that has become popular, and we'll see what alternatives Thayer has. Long ago I used grass clippings, but now I don't have a source for clippings. I've thought about asking the neighbors for theirs when they mow, but most of our neighbors feed their lawn, so that won't work in an organic garden.

Hardly any water after two days of drizzling rain.
Do I want to plant raspberries just beyond that wall? That's mint taking hold just above the wall to the right.
Rose's dogwood tree. The right trunk is dead and it's probably wise to remove it. There's another dead branch around the back of the tree.
A hole a the base of the tree where another trunk had been removed. An entry point for insects and disease.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Water In The Urban Garden

Empty rain barrel.
Rain. It's probably the one thing that gardeners worry about the most. Not enough and your plants wither. Too much, and you fight fungus and no sunshine. There was a chance of rain Saturday night and then Sunday. Now they're saying there's a 60 percent chance of rain tonight. We'll see. Sixty percent isn't a guarantee by any stretch, and we do need the rain. The soil in our garden is made up of a high percentage of vegetable matter, but yesterday when I was planting I was noticing that it was kind of dusty. Even organic soil isn't going to hold moisture forever. So, while it's a beautiful day to hang the laundry outside, I'm looking at the sky expectantly. There's a mackerel sky and says the barometer is dropping, so that means the weather will change. 

Right now we have two barrels under downspouts, but we'll need more than that. Last year was a hot dry summer, and a couple of times we ran out of water. This summer is predicted to be hot, too. I try to just use rainwater in the garden, simply because I try to keep the cost of our yield as low as I can. Remember the promise I made to our landlord: If his water bill picks up, I may lose a garden. If you're going to collect rainwater, pick a downspout that comes off a big section of roof to ensure that enough water comes down to fill the barrel.

Just think of how much of our modern world is paved over, from streets and parking lots, to building roofs. Water that falls on a city is almost virtually sealed off from entering as groundwater until sewers dump it somewhere far from where it fell. As civilization moves forward (God willing) I've wondered why urban planners don't incorporate cisterns, along with solar energy, in both developments and individual homes. Public water systems were a boon to public health, but why can't homes collect rainwater (it comes out of the sky for free, like the sunlight and air that's drying our clothes right now!) It doesn't have to be used for potable water, but could be used for things like watering gardens and flushing toilets. There's no reason to pay for water that's been purified for those reasons.

I did take advantage of yesterday's dry weather, though, to plant the zucchini and acorn squash. I noticed that something had already eaten one of the brussel sprouts and my neighbor, Tom, gave me an entire bucket of coffee grounds to spread around the plants, saying that squirrels don't like the smell. He goes to the local coffee shop and gets buckets of grounds (yesterday he had three bucketful) so we'll see if squirrels/rabbits/insects stay away. I figured it couldn't hurt. I know one animal that loves coffee grounds is the earthworm.

The paving stone at the bottom of the barrel anchors it in case of high winds.

A gorgeous day to dry clothes. We dry our clothes outside almost all year long. Why use a machine and energy when there's a perfectly good dryer that comes up in the east every morning?
Mackerel sky. Hope it brings a little rain.

Yellow squash seedlings.

Thirsty yellow squash seedlings.That's mint and Jerusalem artichokes in the background.
Coffee grounds spread around plants to deter squirrels. I'll let you know how it works.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

An urban garden takes shape

Planting lettuce in the spring between onions that were planted last fall.
I don't think there is anything more optimistic than a gardener. Every year we plant our babies with so much hope and vision. And then, it's all pretty much out of our hands. Oh, we can bring in water if it doesn't fall out of the sky. We can weed. But there isn't much we can do if Mother Nature decides to invoke her wrath in the form of insects, scorching heat, or even some other kind of voodoo. For a couple of years now, I haven't been able to grow peppers in the little plot I garden. I've talked to my neighbors who seem to have the same problem I have. Everything is lush, except for their peppers. This year I'm trying to grow them in a box on my porch. If that doesn't work, I'll try something else. Like most things, there's always so much to learn. Today at the garden center a woman and her young grandson were picking out plants, and I said to the woman, That's how I learned, from my grandmother in Indiana. I've been gardening since my parents started sending me to work on relatives farms during the summer, and it's something I've loved to do ever since. I think just about every place I've lived, I've left a garden behind. 

For a number of years, we've been working a backyard urban garden in Quincy, Massachusetts, just south of Boston, where we rent an apartment. It now takes up more than three-fourths of the backyard, but it started with the landlord letting us take a small corner for a couple of tomato plants. A few fresh tomatoes hung in a bag on his doorknob, and the corner grew to a little square. More tomatoes and zucchini and a handful of strawberries, and a couple of years ago Steve said to take the whole backyard. I sealed the deal when I persuaded him to let me put barrels under the downspouts, telling him he wouldn't even have to pay for water since in comes out of the sky for free. Herbs and smaller vegetables we grow in packing crates I found alongside the road and turned into garden boxes.

The garden has been a big part of our journey as we move, as best we can, to a more organic way of living. The garden is 100% organic; we compost all of our organic food scraps including coffee grounds and eggshells. As we like to say, we use even the smallest part of the buffalo. I am, though, worried about the quality of the runoff that comes down the downspouts, and I've put off having the soil checked for lead and other heavy metals the same way I put off a colonoscopy for ten years: I'm just afraid of what I'll find out. Our backyard garden has become a big source of our food, especially during the summer when we eat a lot of greens. Just last night we used up the last of the pesto made from basil we grew last year, and it was only a few weeks ago we finished the tomato sauce from last year that we froze.

It saves us money, makes up happy; an hour's work in the garden is equal to I don't know how many hours in the gym or with your therapist. I can't explain it but weeding gives me such satisfaction, not only because the end result is so pretty and the physical exercise so cathartic, but the simplicity of being outdoors makes me forget for that little bit of time the inanities of the modern world. Gardening puts me back in touch with nature. I follow the weather and seasons. I can feel myself taking that trip around the sun.

This year is going to be an experiment. A la Barbara Kingsolver and her incredible book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which leapfrogged us into trying to live more healthy lives as we increasingly began to mistrust just about every institution in society, but especially our food delivery system. This little backyard is us pushing back on what we feel is a system that has gone completely out of control.

Part of the backyard urban garden we make every year.

One of my all-time favorite tools for preparing the soil: A small pick mattock.
Swiss chard, brussel sprouts, lettuce, and peppers.
Planting lettuce between rows of onions. Good exercise: the stretching and reaching is worth a gym's membership.
We utilize every inch of the garden. We've learned that from seeing other gardens when we travel.
Compost. We have two bins that cook our yard and kitchen organic waste.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, and Loretta Lynn: Silver Thread and Golden Needles

I didn't know where else to post this. The energy and joy and confidence these three women possess just makes me smile, but I'm afraid if I posted it  on my Facebook page I'd lose even more followers and friends. Progressive Bostonians just can't handle country, in any of its forms, with their smarty pants, button-down shirts, and hipster stance.

But I just had to share this....somewhere.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Dying Garden

11:33 a.m.

There is beauty in death and decay. A vibrant life. Youth. Productive. And now it's at a different stage of its life. It's not just because I just turned 60. I've been thinking about this my entire life. And now, I've reached a stage of my life that when I hear of someone dying, rather than wondering what they died of, the first thing I want to know is, how old were they? An actress that just died this week was 71, and I immediately did the math: 11 years more. When she was my age, she only had 11 years more. That's not very much at all. It's a pffft of a life.

We value youth; so much in this city of Boston, it's like one enormous kindergarten. And in our society, it's all about youth and beauty. If you're not young (and pretty), you're a nobody. A young man who we met this past time in Paris had lived in Miami for awhile, and he suddenly became serious and said, in Miami, it was all about how much money you had and how pretty you were. So, he returned to Paris.

And we compare ourselves to celebrities and people who think and act like they're celebrities. We are as individual as raindrops (notice I didn't use the cliche, snowflakes?) in a rainstorm.

The beauty of a garden in the throes of autumn. Spent. Still trying to push out fruit, but the energy just isn't there anymore. But it still doesn't stop it from trying. This garden didn't produce as much as last year's. So what? This summer was hotter, and it rained less than last year. This year's garden was this year's, and you can't compare it to last year's. Any more than you can compare people.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Mainstream Media and Me

Sue and I do our best to stay out of the mainstream. We both learned long ago we don't fit in to normal society. We think a little differently, act a little differently, live our lives a little differently. We don't try to be this way, we just are. Sometimes we view our lives, vis-à-vis society, as having a free, front-row seat at the circus.

We haven't owned a television for maybe ten years now. I don't think Sue had a television when we met; she was backpacking around the world and didn't have room in her pack for a television; I got rid of my television long before it became hip to jettison it. When we moved in together we decided that, for us, most of the programming was pure drek. It wasn't worth the exorbitant amount of money Comcast was asking, and we'd rather put all of that money toward travel. So much of popular culture--movies, celebrities, TV shows--we just don't know who or what they are. Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, the Patriots football team--mean absolutely nothing to us. And we're ok with this.

We're not Luddites, mind you. We get all of our info through the laptop and Sue's in her car a lot and listens to NPR. She comes home from work and mentions something she heard on the radio, and we Google it. We peruse the New York Times, the Globe, the Guardian, RT, Al Jazeera, and we have a subscription to Neflix, although we don't watch any of the popular television series. Frankly, even though I don't want to spend my time watching a television show, I have to say hardly any of the content interests me. I think I watched one episode of Madmen and was bored to tears. A friend of mine once spent about twenty minutes telling me about The Wire. I have to admit the concept intrigued me, but not enough that I even checked out some clips on YouTube. I don't want to spend my time on earth watching television. I'd rather be the one creating.

And more importantly, I sense that all of popular culture, and here I'm lumping in the mainstream media, is extraordinarily and even dangerously manipulative. It wants us all to be like it, so we'll spend money on the all of the trappings to be like it.

Still, we are interested in the world, and it can be so hard to keep up. As I said, we peruse sites, but we're not immersed in them, and so we often do feel behind in current events. Things in the world are moving fast. China and its affect on the world's economy. The migrant issue in Europe, that's connected to the Middle East and ISIS. Crazy as it sounds, we would watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to pick up on what stories in the news to follow. (Don't even get me started about how Comedy Central became a legitimate news source, and what that says about society.) Now both of them are off the air, we're both working hard at our jobs which makes it hard to work at keeping up with the world, which all coincided with us deciding to dip our toes back into the pond. Interestingly, we turned back to the MSM. I guess it's just because it's an easy move, like reaching for a bowl of cereal when you're too tired to cook.

We've been getting the New York Times Sunday paper for a couple of weeks now that gives us unlimited access to its web site, and not just the ten free stories per month that we were doing. We subscribe to the Boston Globe online edition. And we're getting The Atlantic, which used to be my favorite monthly magazine, way back when. I'll also pick up The New Yorker occasionally. So that's a pretty fair sampling of the liberal press right there.

And it's extraordinary now, when you've been away from the MSM for so long, to see that no doubt, the NYT, The Atlantic, The New Yorker all have an agenda (they probably call it an editorial slant) no different than Fox News has its agenda. Everyone in the world wants to tell you what to think and how to act, don't they? And they think they are so right about things. Not a lot of room for a differing opinion, is there? Yeah, Donald Trump is a clown, and a racist and a mysogynist, but he's right about taxing hedge fund managers and bringing business back within US shores to protect our economy. Or at least that's what I think, but according to the liberal press, I can't think like that. I also think that if you think like I do, and believe that the president has very limited power and that the country and especially foreign policy is run by the military, that the presidential election ceases to have the importance that the mainstream media gives it, and therefore mainstream America believes it has, and suddenly, Trump becomes something the press could never see: That he is a very entertaining diversion, that he is bringing to the forefront a lot of nasty things about American society that we need to face and are afraid to admit about ourselves, and that he would make a very good character in a play, which might tell us more about our electoral process than a year's subscription to the MSM. Let's put it this way: He makes for very good dramaturgical/anthropological/political research about the United States. Instead of simply reporting on the election, including I might add, reporting that once again a women is running for president of the United States, the MSM is upset because Trump is screwing up their scripted programming. Seriously, they would rather have Mike Huckabee and Scott Walker put us through a snoozefest than report on Trump?

I'm afraid if I keep reading a steady diet of this, I might actually lose my independence and ability to think independently.

Except for maybe the front section of the NYT that is actually reporting on news, the rest of the paper really is strongly opinionated, telling me how I'm supposed to feel and think about the likes of Stephen Colbert and the importance of him taking over a TV show from David Letterman. People's television shows are like a heroin addict's needle, aren't they? Or how a story about the AFC East is written in the same voice that the political writers take when talking about ISIS, that it is imperative for the the football teams in the AFC East to defeat the New England Patriots, as if the Patriots were forcing their opponents to play in burkas Just drumming up interest to keep that billion-dollar sports industry going, is all that seems that story is about. I read three pages about chambray shirts--a fancy name for blue collar shirts, according to the Times--and all that it means about people who wear them, when actually blue-collar people would never wear something called a chambray shirt. They would probably mistake it for cheese.

And finally, I don't know who Alton Brown is. As I said, celebs mean nothing to me. Mr. Brown could be sitting next to me on the subway tomorrow morning (doubtful) and I wouldn't know it. I would just hope, as always, that he would keep his elbows to himself. But I was reading the interview with him, where I'm supposed to pick up on what all new and trendy in the foodie world, and I found myself looking at his picture thinking, "Now, that's a nice suit. Oh, he's wearing a button-down white shirt with it--nice. Love the glasses. How does he keep his beard so neat? Probably a special electric razor. I could pull off this look--except for the shoes, of course." And that's what I'm talking about. Before I knew it I was sucked in. If I hadn't snapped out of it, I would have gone to Macy's and dropped a few hundred on a shiny suit and a beard trimmer.

There are always strings attached in society, and the strings are usually attached to your wallet.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sunday 3:45 p.m.

A lazy Sunday afternoon. The last weekend in August. Not really the end of the summer, but...close. So close.

Spaghetti sauce made from the last tomatoes of the garden, are simmering on the stove, seasoned with (lots of) basil, oregano, and two kinds of parsley from the garden.

And tomorrow is another work day, so a sunny couch and the Sunday New York Times is the definition of luxurious. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

It's Monday And I'm Late For Work...And I Don't Care

I’m late—way late—and I’m walking toward the T station and my train is pulling into the station and I think, “To heck with it. You’re going to be very late.” And I let it go. It’s the same feeling I get when I’m traveling by plane, and the second I feel the wheels leave the runway and if I’ve left the iron on, well, it’s out of my hands.  
After getting carted off to the hospital a couple of times with chest pains when I was an up-and-coming go-getter, I decided a while back I wasn’t ever going to risk a heart attack running for a train. I’ll get to work eventually, and, since I’m on an hourly contract, I won’t get paid like salaried employees dawdling this morning. My employer can dock me, though God forbid I should work a minute over my allotted 35 hours. Then this university with the winning football program would have to start handing out benefits to contractors.  This is the hiring agreement. When you give your all and you’re still not looked upon as deserving benefits, you start to view the workplace and the world in general with a jaundiced eye, with a lot less regard for a career and more watchful for well-paying contracts. 
Some mornings it just takes longer to get started, especially Mondays when the weekend teases you with the idea that you might be gaining just a little control of your life. I currently have a contract where I have to go, as it’s called, on-site. That means I actually have to go to an office and sit at a desk and in order to do that I have to be on a strict schedule. I know most people might say, so what? Isn’t that kind of the definition of a job? But when you’re a freelancer, when you’ve been working for yourself for most of the 21st century, when your name is associated with two successful theaters that you started in Boston, and yes, while I enjoy just about everything about the contract, the idea of preparing for the office is a bit old school. And at this point, I do have to make myself clear: I do enjoy this contract. It’s my fourth time in five years working at this site. It is a good gig. It pays relatively well, and it’s a polite, professional work environment, nothing close to the infamous Amazon workplace that just came out in the news this past week, with intelligent co-workers who respect one another’s talents and enjoy one another. 
No, it’s not the job, but the preparation, that gets to me. In order to get on-site, I have to get up at 6:15 and spend the next hour and fifteen minutes making myself presentable for being “on-site”— showering and shaving and putting on clothes that are inappropriate for summer weather before heading out the door for an hour-and-a-half commute courtesy of Boston’s limping public transportation system.  An hour-and-a-half commute one way translates into three hours per day times five days equaling 15 hours, or two full extra workdays that I’m not getting paid for. So what? a lot of people might say. This is what people do to make money; stop your complaining, at least you have a job. But when you’re working for yourself, you’re more wired to think like the person running the show and in this case, billable hours—wasted time, isn’t something the typical commuter thinks about. To them, it seems to me, the commute is just one more thing to endure, like a moody manager.

Lots of people like being on-site. The office is so much a part of them that they will whole-heartily admit they like coming to work. They like the office, its familiarity and structure. They like the clothes and the culture and the social aspect. They don’t see being on-site as a loss of their freedom; some I think see it exactly opposite. The last time I worked at this particular site, there was an executive there who decreed that all of the men should wear ties. This was a new arrangement since the last time I had worked there, and I actually had to go out and buy some ties. I bought two, both black and skinny, the least mainstream ties I could find. And even then I felt like I was dressed like an ice cream scooper at the local Dairy Queen. That executive is now gone, and I heard the no-tie rule took about a month to be instituted, but my biggest fear this time was that I would still be asked to cut my shoulder length hair. I still pull it back in a ponytail and wear a little less jewelry than I normally do, just to try to fit in. 
Many people do get self-satisfaction from the office—using their talents to do something they’re good at and sometimes it’s just fun to be good at something, they’re also furthering a cause or an organization that they can get behind. There are people who work for the same organization for thirty or forty years. Thirty or forty years! That’s how long you might get sent to prison for a really heinous crime. 
Different strokes. Organizations need people who are more structured, and also, thankfully for me, people who are less so. This contract will be up in four months, and when it’s over I’ll find something else. Hopefully something I don’t have to dress and shave to do. Some people like structure. Some of us don’t.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

#TBT 7.9.15

“John!!!  I got new shoes!”

“John, my Mom got a new car and we’re taking Alex to the doctor in it!”

“Hey John, my Mom gave us Fruit Loops for a snack!”  This is Laura, my  neighbor.  Laura tells me everything that’s happening in her life, usually at the top of her lungs and running towards me at full tilt.  She’ll skitter to a stop, still talking, ignoring the limits of personal space any other civilized person might acknowledge.  This is not to say she’s uncivilized; she’s five, and exuberant.

“Jjjjjooohn.  Wewewewe got Ffffruit Loops.”  says Alex, Laura’s little brother, stuttering in that curious way some three-year-olds have when they’re just learning to talk, and, also corroborating that Fruit Loops rumor.  These two little people comprise my fan club.

Emerson said one of the marks of success was winning the affection of children.  This is because children only include in their world the things that give them pleasure.  It’s certainly an ego boost to get ranked right up there with Fruit Loops.

For whatever reason, all of my life I’ve gotten along with small children and animals better than any of the larger examples of the population.  Even my closest adult friends can be characterized as play babies:  They would much rather garden, watch movies, and play musical instruments than have a productive day in the office.  It’s pretty clear I’m an over-aged kid who refuses to give up stuffed animals and the sandbox.

Still, I realize that some might think it questionable, or even suspicious that a grown man counts among his friends a five and a three-year-old.  We’ve grown paranoid in this last decade, and it’s a shame.  Sure there are kooks and nuts in the world.  There also are many men who enjoy children -- their enthusiasm, curiosity, viewpoint, even their tiny voices.   This is no cause for suspicion, but nonetheless, we are all suspicious.

Allison, my oldest, had a wonderful kindergarten teacher in the person of Mr. Leonard.   He left a successful career in the defense industry in his mid-forties to become a teacher.  I’m ashamed to say that, during the summer prior to kindergarten, I thought it odd that a man would teach children that young.  A man teaching the upper grades seemed perfectly normal to me, but why, I wondered, would a man choose to teach small children?  I have never been more wrong.  Mr. Leonard, now retired, was a warm, caring teacher who, for the 20-odd years that he taught completely understood the five-year-old mind.  He was a perfect match for Allison, and we were so lucky to have him teach our child.

I recently spent a productive afternoon putting covers on the windows of the chicken coop with Laura and Alex taking turns handing me screws, holding my hammer, or fetching things from my toolbox.  They’re a perfect age for this sort of thing.  My Kathryn, going on five, kept passing on her turn to help.  My kids have had plenty of chances at “helping” to the point where they now think of helping as work.  But Laura and Alex helped with intense concentration, and later I thanked their mom for the use of her kids.  “Sure, any time,” was all the harried mother could muster, never having seen that side of her children before.

An adult’s relationship with a small child has special dynamics which I can’t begin to fully understand.  When I look at Alex fully in the face, he grins at the attention, then suddenly turns embarrassed and retreats a few steps.  What is it he sees that makes him blush?  What does he feel that overwhelms him?  I wish I knew.  I suspect it has something to do with him being so small, and me being, to him, so big.  As a big, clumsy, oafish adult, I can only sense something is there through Alex’s reaction, the way scientists detect the smallest or most distant parts of the universe by their reaction to something else.  I wish he could tell me.  By the time Alex grows up, he may have it forgotten.  I know whatever I knew, I forgot. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

#TBT 7.2.15

Kathryn spit at a kid on the school bus today. She thought he had spit at her first, so she let loose with a shot of her own. Here’s one right back at ya.

Kathryn is six and loves ponytails and headbands, dresses and shoes, and other pretty clothes. She is small for her age, but she has a big heart. She is generous with her hugs and kisses, wrapping her arms around your neck so tightly that you think your head is going to pop off. She tends to skip instead of walk, and hums and sings to herself when she’s alone. She is all girl.

Kathryn also enjoys a nightly game of chess before she goes to bed. She derives glee from beating her dad at the game, which rarely happens, but I can see the day coming when her victories will be more common. Every so often she unleashes a move that takes you completely by surprise. She’s at her best when playing Uno; she almost never loses. She really is all girl.

When she and her friend, Christina, are together you might think you have Thelma and Louise on your hands, especially when they’re on their bikes. Chloe, her quiet friend, comes out of her shell when she’s with Kathryn. Chloe’s mother says Kathryn brings out Chloe’s wild side. Kathryn, (and Christina and Chloe) are all girl.

It turned out that the kid on the bus really didn’t spit at Kathryn; she only thought he had. “Shoot first and ask questions later” seems to be her motto. She didn’t want to talk about the incident when she got home. She said J and I were making “too big of a deal out of it.” But I told her I wanted to talk about it and she started to cry. Then I told her I wasn’t angry, that I thought what she had done had been a good thing. That even though she’s a little girl, I still want her to stand up for herself. If she makes a mistake like today’s, well, it’s only because she’s still learning. We even had a little laugh. “What did he do when you spit at him?” I asked her. “He was really surprised,” she said, and I said, “I bet he was,” and we laughed.

Pretty doesn’t mean weak. Being all girl doesn’t mean vulnerable. When Kathryn first saw Anastasia, she yelled out during the climactic scene, “Finally, the girl saves the boy!” I can happily say I’ll take credit for that.

I’ve tried to drum into both my two little girls that Ariel in The Little Mermaid gets into trouble because she disobeys her father, then needs that idiot, weak-kneed prince who can’t see past his nose to bail her out of trouble. I insist that Belle in Beauty and the Beast is my favorite because she is smart, pretty, and saves the prince all in one fell swoop. And that Snow White should cram the poison apple up the witch’s big nose, and that a better title for the movie would be Snow White and the Seven Black Belts.

That Kathryn sees women as strong and as fighters will make this dad sleep better at nights. Too often in the corporate world I see women who are treated more like geishas than professionals. What’s worse, some women even accept this as their lot in life. God I pity their kids. What a terrible thing to pass along. It makes me just want to spit.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014


I worry about perfection. Some people--usually people who work with me--tell me I'm never satisfied. It's true: I always think something can be improved, and things are never exactly the way I envision them in my head. And woe to the person who doesn't live up to my expectations. "That's good enough" are words that make my teeth actually grind.

I try to understand that not everyone has my standards. But then, when I talk to, for example, an artistic director who I admire and say, I can't expect people to have the same level of passion that I have, and he replies, yes, you can, I feel validated.

In grad school, I completed the program in one year, with a 3.96 GPA. That is really good, I know. But I always give my GPA with the added, one lousy A-. And that was with a really tough professor.


This might explain a few things:


And this. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Miracle of the Potatoes

I think I blogged about this years ago, but can't find it now. The Miracle of the Potatoes. How at this time of year you can plunge your hands into a mound of dirt, and miracle of miracles, you can pull food right out of the earth. How the potatoes have been hidden underground, each cell dividing and growing and maturing, silent and urgent like babies in their mothers' wombs, ignored by all of the other more flamboyant vegetables--the eye-catching tomatoes, the sophisticated cucumbers, dangling on the vine like circus royalty, or the militaristic lettuce, marching in straight rows, cut down in their prime in the line of duty.

The garden has been a miracle this year. Except for the onions, we had bumper crops of everything. The freezer is packed with containers of pasta sauce. There is a veritable wall of sauce in our freezer right now. This year we moved the tomatoes to the end of the garden where they would get the most sun, and planted some Early Birds, so we've had tomatoes since June. This year we learned about spaghetti made from squash and zucchini. We're going to blanch some zucchini for vegetable soup this winter. Maybe homemade Minestrone. And we've been able to share quite a bit of our bounty with our neighbors. The boys downstairs especially love my zucchini bread. I don't want to tell them how much sugar the recipe calls for, which is what probably makes their mouths water.

The garden, though, has been on its slow decline since about August. It is almost imperceptible, but if you're out there every day you can see it. Gardening, even in a small backyard plot like ours, puts you in tune with and makes you aware of the natural world around you. Even in the most simplistic way, you note the amount of rainfall, too much or too little. But as the earth beats its way around the sun, if you leave yourself open, you can sense not only the change in temperature or the dulling of leaves, but also the intensity of light as the earth moves further from the sun in its orbit. You can tune into the same subtle cues the birds use to begin migrating, or the animals to steel themselves for the winter. It's what our modern life numbs us to, what it steals from us, our place in nature, which, by the way, still won't be denied even if we're not paying attention.

It's not even the official end of summer yet, and the garden is already looking like it's October. Weird weather. If it weren't for the garden, I might not know this subtle change in the climate, and it makes me keep a weather eye out to see if winter might not come a month earlier too. People who work the land and the oceans know about such things. We each are cells in a larger organism; in nature's petri dish. Not only creatures whose lives pass before their eyes in a second, but at the same time keeping in step with the slow, patient drumbeat.

Decay is as much a part of life and birth, and a little garden is a constant reminder of that. I know we don't want to be reminded of our inevitable demise, but personally I've always like to hear the clock ticking, be reminded that my time on this planet is limited. If I have my mother's genes, there's a good chance I'll have only about ten years left on this earth. She, and a good percentage of her siblings, all succumbed to cancer at 68. You can't deny nature, and you can't deny genetics. Time--our lives--is not something we should be wasting. I stand in the middle of our garden and see it's not what it once was, yet still produces some of the most exquisite food one can imagine, and I can't help but draw a parallel to my own life. I can't run as fast or as far as I used to, though I still pass other runners, both young and old, who are also running along the bay.  But, anything physical is taxing for me. A few weeks ago while moving our daughter into her new second-floor apartment, I vainly hauled a too-heavy box up the stairs, only to stop at the landing where no one could see me catch my breath.

I now need less sleep at night, and a nap in the afternoon. This change came as slowly and as undeniably as the change of seasons, until one day there was no other possibility left: You're not sick or depressed, John, you're getting old. Older. But like I said, I like to hear the clock ticking. Like a metronome keeping time, I can pace myself to still live my life the way I want to live it, only at a different pace. I can still produce, I can still create as well as I did in the springtime and early summer of my life. Probably better, because after all, I'm not a plant. This is only an analogy I'm painting here, and I've learned and harvested wisdom through experience. This is me accepting my place in my life, accepting the phase that I'm in, not denying my age as the marketers would have me do, but embracing my life and celebrating it through little act I perform, whether it's a planting a garden or writing a play or simply giving a smile to a stranger on the subway, because through my life I've learned things that I can share, as honestly and cleanly, as unabashedly and openly, as a plant offers its fruit.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Empty Nest

Today, September 1, is the big moving day throughout Boston. Because of all of the universities in Boston, apartments typically are rented starting September 1. So you get this enormous migration of renters moving throughout the city, but primarily in the neighborhoods where younger people tend to live: Cambridge, Brighton, and Allston.

Kathryn moved out today, out of our apartment in Quincy and into her apartment in Brighton Center with two other friends. Of course she did. It's a rite of passage for so many young people in Boston. Some start in the student ghetto of Allston, and then move up in the pecking order to a nicer, airier, sunnier apartment in Brighton, Brighton Center, Oak Square, or even some combination thereof. Kathryn lived in the North End during her undergrad years, so she didn't experience Allston and its hordes of nocturnal cockroaches.

I actually lived for a few years a few streets over from her new apartment, so I know what I'm talking about. I moved there (from Allston) when Kiki's was just opening her store. I mean, she just opened, as in I was maybe one of her first ten customers. Her shelves were pretty bare, with just a jar of peanut butter here, a loaf or two of bread, maybe a jar of pickles. Now her store with its big, red, neon KIKI sign commands the big intersection back on Faneuil Street, occupying a building that used to sell oriental rugs, and also runs the laundromat, that was next door to her original store. The Y was a one-story cinder building next to the funeral parlor on Washington Street with a overly chlorinated pool and two sweaty rooms with a combination of free weights and some crappy machines. It was in that Y where I would train for triathlons. Now the Y is a big affair in Oak Square, where a gas station used to stand that had been owned by the same Middle Eastern guy who owned the gas station across the street. I remember when I learned he owned both stations, in my young, budding career in business, that I thought there was something wrong about that because he wasn't loyal to his brand. Later I figured out that he was loyal to his brand; the almighty dollar was his brand, and you never saw a person more loyal.

But it's all newer and bigger there. I stood on Kathryn's back porch and surveyed the neighborhood, and it's all pretty and neat, with comfortable porches that don't look like they might plummet three stories under the weight of partiers, houses that don't look like fire traps, and tiny fenced in back yards and patios outfitted with the nicer stuff from Home Depot and Lowes. All of the twenty-somethings unloading the wide-screens out of their economy cars looked like they had been business majors (finance, not management) or something in health care, but not doctors.

I did say to Sue as I maneuvered the big F-150 through the side streets clogged on both sides with U-Hauls and cars stuffed to the gunwales like the truck was a super tanker getting eased through the Panama Canal that I was glad that, if it were actually necessary for Kathryn to embark on this new independence, post undergrad, that I'm glad she chose Brighton and not Somerville with all of its hipsters. (I'm talking to you, Porter and Davis Squares.) There's something real about Brighton. The working-class veneer is still apparent, there's still the 57 bus (the A train used to run out there, and the tracks were still there when I lived there, but there gone now) , the big Irish bakery on Washington Street hasn't been replaced with a Chinese restaurant, and, while Elizabeth Warren does reside in Porter Square, I'm assuming Joe Kennedy still owns a house in Oak Square; is it still his district? I don't know, I'm so far away from all that now, though Boston politics were once a favorite pastime of mine. Once all that meant something to me, as other things of no import will take on great importance for Kathryn now. I was talking to her landlord, an Irishman named Mark, about the old neighborhood, and later when Kathryn teased me about my new friend, as she called Mark, I said, that will be you in thirty years. Even Beyonce will be on the oldies station someday.

Just an aside, I was working on a novel called Action Bob Markle where Bob Markle worked as a copywriter at an ad agency and he came up with the line, Brighton Your Day, for a PSA about the neighborhood businesses.

But now, supper is over and Sue is taking a nap on the couch, and I'm writing this and it's quiet. Even the guest room is quiet where Kathryn stayed, I can feel its emptiness a room away. Somehow her presence was felt in the apartment even when she was at her job waitressing in the North End. Of course it was: When a person is active in your life, when your child's toothbrush is in the jar in the bathroom you know they're going to come home. But the toothbrush has been packed and is now in a bathroom in Brighton Center.

When the kids' mom and I separated, I used to sometimes wish that maybe I shouldn't see the kids, because it hurt so much when we parted. Of course I didn't mean it that way. Kathryn used to have a little bedroom at my apartment; Allison never once stayed there and only visited a few times in maybe seven years. But Kathryn had a little room, and more than once after she went back to her mother's house, I'd sleep in her bed, just to keep her close to me for a little while longer. Hugging her pillow for her smell. Her presence. The holidays are still like that for me now. The departure still leaves an emptiness that I find almost intolerable.

It makes me think of what it would be like without Sue. A couple of times she's traveled for two weeks or so, or just gone away for the weekend.  I joke with her and tell her that I have to go first, because I'm so pathetic I can't live without her. When she's gone for awhile, I manage. I can do the day to day--get up, make coffee, do things, whatever things need to be done. But that life lacks life. It's just not the same without her.  I'm afraid I'd become a recluse, rarely leaving the apartment.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


It's hard to describe what is going on. In my life. In Sue's. There are definitely cracks and fissures. Time is cracked like a busted windshield. Maybe there's been a wreck somewhere. Maybe I've been in a wreck, my head spidering the windshield upon impact and I haven't even woken up from it yet. I'm still in a coma. Shards of glass in my face. On life support.

Waking in the dark two nights ago, upstairs in our friends' house, I didn't know where I was, and suddenly I thought I was in a hospital bed. That's what it felt like. The assured breadth of the bed supporting me. Lying on my back. In the dark. Somewhere I felt there were nurses and I was safe.I sighed and I thought, I made it. I knew there has been some serious damage done, because our friends contacted us and said, come up, and they took care of us both. I was in a hospital bed, when you think about it.

Do you know when you can't breathe, how the doctors put an oxygen mask over your mouth and you breathe pure oxygen? No fumes. No pollutants. That's how this house was. No pollutants. Just creativity in its purest form, in everything. In the meals, in the food we ate and how it was prepared and consumed. In the conversation. Their friends came over one night, and on the porch we made music. More creativity. No judgement. Just sharing the gift of music we had, but no judgement. No snark. I hate snark. I hate the place where snark comes from: insecurity and cowardice. The cowardice to face your own self. To face your own insecurities. So they tear you down to build themselves up. I have someone like that in my life right now. She does snark, and I think people have told her its funny, that she's amusing and entertaining. I try to be patient, but only because she's popular, and I don't want to be unpopular.

I know someone else, she has to prove how good she is. It's a competition for her. It gets so dull and boring. I don't know why she does it. Probably for the same reason most people do it: to compensate for some inadequacy. To prove to themselves something. So prove it to yourself, I want to say, but leave me out of it. But we're not that close, to have that conversation. So I treat her like I would someone on the subway, who has a cold and can't stop sniffling.

Sue too. People in our lives who seem to have some real problems and we're in their splatter zone. We both try to sympathize. Be patient. But sometimes it seems the more patient you are with people, the more they stay where they are. Why should they change? Why should they work on their own shit when you're being patient? A long walk down an empty lane helps. The combination of quiet and vigor, the yin and the yang, for balance. The sound of conversation painted on a canvas of stillness.

And there's always the question of my role in things. What are others writing on their blogs tonight about me? How am I impacting others? How can I adjust to make someone else's life just a bit easier? Or even a lot easier? But I've done that. For a long time I concerned myself with the needs and desires and especially the opinions of others. Why give anyone that much control over your life? The test is, if you offer that kind of control, and the person takes it, you know it's the wrong person to give it to. Only the person who rejects it should be given power over your life.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Bountiful Gardens

Weekends make it hard to write. The thoughts still swirl around my head, but Sue's not working and we get caught up in weekend chores and events, and just reveling in the time we can spend together. She's my best friend, pure and simple, and I love that I can write those words. Just like I always sign my email to her or to Allison and Kathryn with the word, love, because for me, it's such a gift that I have people who I deeply love and can say that.

Maybe that's what's on my mind this weekend. Gifts, and things that we should be thankful for.

Tomatoes from our garden becoming pasta sauce. 
Kathryn and I were talking about food and cooking yesterday. I was making sauce from the tons of tomatoes our garden has been yielding this summer. Enough for big batches of sauce, while at the same time we can give some more away. Amazing what the earth will give you. But at the same time I thought what a privilege it is that we can talk about food in the way we do, what we like, how we like to cook it, and the intricacies of cooking and eating. Like Eskimos have all those names for snow, which I don't know if that's true or not, but it's like that. That is the privilege of a privileged society, and while I don't have any money, I do have that in my life. I have food and plenty of it; so much of it, in fact, that it is no longer simply sustenance, but it's some higher thing. I was telling Kathryn about a professor I had at Ohio University. The university, when I was there, had a program where the students could vote for their favorite professor, and that professor could teach a course in whatever they wanted. David Hostetler, who probably has no idea the impact he had on me or my growth, taught a course called, Art And Your Life. All it was about was making art everyday in your life. We studied motorcycle gas tanks and bread, and he said that in everything we do we should think about elevating it to art. Yes, if you think I'm crazy, you have David to thank for it. I mentioned how much I love grocery shopping, and that when I do, I consider every food item closely (another extraordinary privilege that we should all be aware of) to the point where I will pick up an onion, look at it, and think, this is going inside Sue or Kathryn, and does it measure up. Trust me, when you view ingredients in this way, you will look at them differently.

I wasn't around much when Kathryn and Allison were little. Their mother and I divorced when they were little, and I wasn't around to pass down things like the wisdom of David Hostetler to them. That happens to a lot of men in our society. Now, when I can sit with Kathryn and talk, talk about making everything in the world a work of art, or talk about our individual paths, comparing and contrasting them, she being gracious and listening to and taking in what I pass along as wisdom, is another great gift in my life. It's a second chance and while I don't have the memories of a traditional family life with them, I have this life with them now, and to me it is as bountiful as any garden.

Friday, August 22, 2014

What To Write About

I want to write something but I can't think what I should write.

I want to write about Jon Mouradian, and how I drove all the way to Winchester today to go to his shop, getting lost along the way, of course, because I always get lost when I drive anywhere but in the actual city. How I sat in traffic--and sitting in Boston traffic is the worst; it goes for miles and just creeps along--with Alice, one of our guitars in the back seat. I was going to sell her on Craigslist, but something stopped me. I knew she could sound better than she did, all it would take is Jon laying his healing hands on her. And it worked. Don't sell this guitar, he said. He lowered the bridge, taking out a shim he himself had put in a couple of years ago. And she suddenly did sound so much better.

I want to write about all the people in my neighborhood, but that will take way more space and time than I have here. And I've been wanting to do this for awhile, but what stopped me was that I kept thinking of the story in the form of a play, but I thought, that would be so futile, because nowhere in the American theater could you cast the multitude of races who live around me. The American theater, and especially here in Boston, is too white. So, I felt blocked, when I should have just written it, and see how it evolved, whether a short story or anything else. A song.

For starters, there's Lisa, the Chinese owner of the farang Chinese restaurant, Great Chow, who speaks with an English accent. There's Jimmy Abdon, the mechanic who is Syrian and who keeps all the poor people's cars running, and Steve and John, who are also Syrian. Tom and Neddy are two of my neighbors, but one is Mandarin and the other is Cantonese, but I can't remember which is which, but I know the difference means a lot to them. There is Bill and Lorena, a young couple who we are friends with who are American and Columbian, with their little baby, Athena. Debbie used to live across the street. She was pure South Shore, calling you hon and offering you a beerah, while she sunbathed in her front yard. She was out there frying herself under the sun so much, for that requisite South Shore crispy tan, that she was on Google view for awhile. She had to move away. There's Wayne across the street, and his four kids, and his wife who you never see because she stays inside the house. Bly and Judy just moved to Switzerland with their two kids, but they used to live next door. Judy was from Nigeria and Bly was bi-racial from California.
This is what came out of our garden today.
Just about every day is like this.
Sheer joy to pick this.

I think that's part of the what I was saying in a previous post about making a mistake by focusing on the theater. Just the theater. Not every story can be told in the theater, like a story about the people in my neighborhood. And I was limiting myself, and I was really feeling it. Limiting myself by the art form, and also by some of the people who I've been hanging out with.

I wanted to write about this and so much more. And I guess I sort of did.

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