Sunday, August 11, 2013

                                                                                      Photo by Andie Williams

Why We Travel
The New York Times runs an occasional photo feature on the Sunday Travel page, filled with one-of-a-kind sights which make one’s heart beat faster. Most of us lack the quickness to capture a once-in-a-lifetime photo, so we try, instead, to capture it in words.

Michael Paterniti, author of The Telling Room, describes a particular kind of travel which focuses on the importance of the place itself and on one’s return to the place, over and over.  He describes a friend taking a ferry to an island off the coast of North Carolina and how he knew – he just knew – he’d come back to the same place each year, “to relive that feeling of leaving his old self behind. That annual renewal, the re-acquaintance with the person he felt himself to be on that island, was something he wanted to organize his life around.”

Dramatic words – organizing one’s life around a place.  Troubling words.  “Organizing one’s life” isn’t how I have come to think of travel. Certainly the moment of discovery is part of why we travel, but once we find the special place, can return trips still count? Won’t multiple visits lead to the inevitable collection of real estate guides and searches for a second home? This notion of return is at odds with my sense that discovery is inherent in the act of travel.

And yet. The hectic aspect of finding new destinations year after year; the inevitable disappointments; the frantic energy spent climbing the logistical learning curve; all are enough to make one crave a different kind of travel that offers comfort instead of surprise.  A century ago, people embraced the idea of estivating at resorts in which even the table at which they dined was unchanged, year after year.  That has its appeal.

I thought I found my place this summer in Maine. Perhaps it happened because I didn’t know I was looking for it. Like any relationship, it is in its tentative first weeks. I keep waiting for that sobering Monday morning to hit, forcing the experience to recede forever into a summer moment and nothing more.

We vacation as a large family which complicates my personal search somewhat.  We are encumbered with every age, from 5 to nearly 85, and a multiplicity of needs at every hour from all those in between.  We rented a house on the coast of Southern Maine, south of Ogunquit and north of York, where the sea stretched all the way to Ireland. We stayed in an old house with just enough modcons to avoid being annoyingly old without being annoyingly new.

The house had a beguiling charm.  The best way to explore was to take time to enter each room and get its measure before proceeding. We climbed up and down unexpected staircases and turned through awkward corridors tracing a layout closer to a children’s fantasy book than a traditional center hall colonial. The inhabitants had lovingly added on rooms over the years, with quirky but intriguing results.

The sense of culture was overwhelming. The furniture and fixtures came from all over the world. We recognized textiles from Guatemala and marveled at carpets from the Silk Road.  Original artwork hung everywhere, and sculptures, some frightfully fragile, graced tables. The house took on new life after dark.  Behind closet doors was an extensive classical music collection, and in every room, including the kitchen, were libraries.  

Outside, a walk across the lawn led to cliffs overlooking tidal pools and enough rock formations to satisfy a geologist. No placid Cape Cod, the waves truly did crash below us, sending up tangles of spray.  There were chairs with granite footrests, a thoughtfully left can of bug spray (not needed with the stiff winds) and long rock walls which served as a backdrop for a magazine-worthy show of perennials, best admired from a pergola that ran the length of the house. Those who know the charm of living alongside the sea need no further description. The sound of the foghorn, the smell of salt, and misty mornings gave the house an appropriately mystical setting.

Inside, the amenities bespoke wealth and elegance. A separate wine refrigerator, Waterford decanters, a butler’s pantry so well stocked one could find everything from fish forks to chop sticks, a gorgeous chess set in an octagonal alcove, a piano, and then, on top of all that  -- the books! Each room was shelved with a lifetime’s worth of books. We inventoried with increasing wonder.  One room had walls of books dedicated to theater, drama, and Italian art. Another room, complete with spiral staircase and loft apartment, featured English literature, poetry, and history.  Still another was filled with children’s first editions. Kenneth Graham, Philip Pullman, Brian Selznick. We speculated endlessly about the inhabitants, casting roles for them as retired Broadway directors, former college presidents, Booker prize winners living under assumed names.

The bookd were either ones we had read and treasured, or ones we had always wanted to read. No banal “summer reading” here.  I began leading two lives. In the daytime, I dealt with the joyful camaraderie and chaos of a multi-generational family. At night I greedily devoured a John Banville I had never heard of. Reading in a room with so many other books lent a heightened sense of literary atmosphere. If you doubt this, consider unpleasant venues where you have read – an airport lounge, perhaps. And then imagine your own personal Athenaeum.  I rest my case.  

There were annoying imperfections, of course.  A ridiculous step down into the dining room that everyone tripped on. A raised tile platform for a wood burning stove, another tripping hazard.  A kitchen wildly over-equipped – restaurant style warming shelf, professional meat slicer, deep fryer, three fridges,  and a wood burning pizza oven, along with sterling silver spoons.  And yes, sometimes there was a sense of it all being just too much.

But even the real cheetah, draped over the billiard table like someone’s private joke, could not spoil the sense of culture. It came from another time, when piano keys were made of ivory and fireplaces were topped with antlers. I found the five-year-old gently patting its head, whispering to it as though it were a stuffed tiger, which it more or less is.  

The place cast a spell. I would have been content to spend the week reading, but we had visitors, stimulating and insightful.  I watched our 17-year-old draw with a skill I never knew she had. We took field trips and did all those things that make a sojourn a vacation.  At night we had a full moon and seabirds shrieking above the fish. One evening was so magical that as we sat on the widow’s walk terrace, three storeys high, I fully expected to see a gryphon loping along the stone wall below.

Alas, we do not own the house and I doubt the experience can be repeated.  I can find other houses along the same coastline. I can spend a lifetime filling them with near-identical contents.  But I can never duplicate the personalities of the owners who created something extraordinary from an overgrown Maine coastal house.

Even as my heart sings that I have found my place, my brain knows that this is most likely a love affair that cannot last the winter. Or can it? Some experiences are too intense to easily relinquish. And I saw enough whimsy in one week to make me wonder about what I can’t control. Who knows? Even if I say it can never be my place, it may say, oh yes it can.


Sunday, May 5, 2013

I have spent my life in search of Manderley, but am willing to settle for the more prosaic Netherfield or Pemberley. I rationalize that even Thrushcross Grange had plenty of open spaces, and the darkly gothic Thornfield Hall must have been grand enough for an attic of sufficient size (and soundproofing) to contain the mad Bertha. With a sense of architecture entirely informed by Victorian novels, I read at an impressionable age of balconied staircases, passages, corridors, basements, and ever-present fireplaces, all disappointingly lacking from our California stucco ranch house.   

Smitten with delusions of architectural grandeur, I had the fortune to be married to a man who wanted the same. We seemed perversely capable of finding remote counties and inaccessible places, which, while gifted with natural beauty, were bereft of any urban conveniences. Our current house has lovely river views, pine trees that fall down regularly, power which goes out at the merest zephyr, and a distance from Boston which makes our very infrequent guests wonder if they are still in Massachusetts.

I scorned city dwelling. The foreign service sent us to capitals full of sidewalks speckled with dog poop, horn honking, and awkwardly designed apartments whose rear windows looked out onto fire escapes and trash cans. On visits to the penthouse high rises of friends who live daringly, I stayed warily away from their floor to ceiling windows, sheltering in the corners for comfort.

Cars are a curse in the cities. In Madrid people routinely say “estoy malaparcado,” as a means of excusing themselves from any meeting, and in Prague friends of ours had their rental car booted faster than the country ended communist rule. Who needs city life, we’d say, gleefully heading off not for the suburbs, but for the ex-burbs, just to be sure.
So now I work, but do not live, in Boston. While winter prevented me from getting to know anything other than my beloved parking spot, I am now making up for lost time, heading anywhere I can walk in an hour or so. To my surprise, city blocks are not as long as country roads. Unencumbered with anything beyond a jacket with pockets, I have covered a wide swath of ground – the Back Bay, the Fenway, and Beacon Hill

And then I stumbled onto Marlborough Street! Enchanting brownstone, limestone, and brick buildings. Tiny but controllable gardens without acres of lawn to mow, nicely manicured, leading up wide steps to heavy wooden doors.

And what lies within? The architecture shouts New England writers!  In fact there is no need to pretend, there is one for sale which is the former home of Pulitzer Prize writer Edwin O’Connor.  

What goes on inside? The novel reader in me eagerly supplies the details. Crystal tinkling at supper parties. Low voices, muted laughter, ladies in shawls, vintage wines and string quartets. Civility above all. Walking distance to everything, but especially the museum, the symphony, the university.

Above all this bespeaks a style of living which brings one close to other people, some of whom might, over time, become friends. Sidewalks and tree-lined streets invite strolling in a way that muddy county ditches never could.

Marlborough Street comes with prices that suggest civility is only for the one percent. But seeing that we won’t be hosting a ball, a hunt, or looking for Heathcliff, perhaps it is time to relinquish the beloved architecture of my teenage novel reading years and aim for something less isolating. We may not be ready yet for Green Buildings, but perhaps it is time to leave the 18th century behind and enter the 19th.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013



One of the more unusual birthday presents I have ever received came from my son Gareth, who gave me the founding membership in a book club he wanted me to organize. In other words, I should found it, and he, and any others I invited, would become members.


I stalled for a few weeks, flattered to have been asked but disconcerted by the responsibility, and uncertain, in the vast world of fiction, of what book to choose.


Even more troubling was getting over my concept of reading as a solitary activity. I have often thought it is one of the most selfish acts. As a working mother of little ones, I remember locking myself in the bathroom to read. Even now I have to make an effort to put down the Sunday paper, look up and give the speaker my full attention, sternly willing myself not to look down at the tantalizing article from which I was so abruptly pulled.


The rules were the easy part: No book longer than 600 pages; each month brings a new book; members take turns selecting, from oldest to youngest. It’s best if the selector has already read the book, rather than waste a bad choice that no one has read. What’s less clear is what happens after everyone has read the book.


Is reading something I want to share? What if sharing somehow trivialized my one-on-one experience?  Would I be tolerant of the inevitable comparisons of books with the films that were based on them? How would I handle my impatience with interpretations that don’t comport with my own?  It is one thing to teach a class where I am the undisputed authority. It is quite another to do this socially, and worse still, with family.


The irony is that as a family we all love books and we all read. But do we all love to discuss what we’ve read?  What happens once we all agree that it was a marvelous book?  Will we be reduced to following some stupid outline of canned questions at the back of the book, designed for just such awkward situations? Or will we rise above it, and astound each other with the depths of our insights? Or will we end up shouting?

Of course one alternative would be to have no discussion, merely move on to the next month’s selection.


Very tentatively, I set off by choosing The Magus, by John Fowles. A book I have read, and one that usually makes the best hundred books lists, and one that would likely be a new discovery for the younger generation. I figured since Gareth dreamed up this idea, he was, in effect, asking me for a recommendation of book he should read, and I thought this would be worth his while.


I dutifully re-read it, surprised at how little I remembered, and at how differently I interpreted it this time around. At 19 I read it as a bildungs roman, envious of the adventures of Nicholas, wistful about his sojourn on a Greek island, entranced at the elaborate efforts to entice him into . . . well, what exactly? An adventure? A mystery? A trap? A psychological experiment?


I am aware that much hangs on this first meeting of the club. Its longevity will depend on how satisfying everyone finds this discussion phase. And to my surprise, I find I am actually impatient for the other members to finish this book so we can talk about it. I want to revisit some of the scenes that have multiple interpretations, about which I am still unclear. I want to know the impressions of my fellow members, and yes, probably argue with them.


But the book club is startng to feel like real birthday gift. I begin to see the possibilities of reading as a social, rather than solitary, act.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Winter’s End

The swans returned to the river today,
Stark against weak rays of afternoon light.
The only whiteness in a March landscape of gold and brown,
Reflected in winter-dark water.

They stood tall against the mat of broken reeds
Crushed under the weight of so much melted snow.

Necks stretching to the sky, then down seeking last year’s nest,

The old pines whisper “it begins again.”

Sunday, March 10, 2013


We often define heroism as embracing a cause larger than oneself, sensing what a group of people need and then, in an act of magnificent courage, speaking up for them against big power. These are stirring, emotional, game-changing moments, and often real people from real life are the inspiration for films that come later, such as “Norma Rae,” above.  

But what we’ve been seeing in the expanding debate on corporate women rising (or not) to the top is a far cry from any “Norma Rae” moment. It's more of a "me" moment, in which women who should know better become anecdotal. I’m saddened that so many highly educated and powerful women have decided to push aside the opportunity for a real conversation about work-life balance in order to perpetuate the story that corporations most want to propagate: They are saying, in effect, “There is no need for any change whatsoever in the corporate world. Corporations bear no responsibility for holding women back. The fault lies within women themselves.”   

This started a couple weeks ago when Marissa Mayer took some flak for ending telecommuting for her Yahoo workers. Much of the fallout was nasty and personal, and it provoked torrents of comments across the country.
Today, Erin Callan, former CFO of Lehman Brothers, asked rhetorically, in the Sunday New York Times Opinion section, if there is life after work. She recounts her time as Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, and the end of a meteoric career track that left her no time for her marriage, for friendships, or even to have children. She describes how work-a-holism crept into her life, and recounts the times when she might have said no at the office in order to have a fuller life outside. “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.” She ends on a sadder but wiser note. “Whatever valuable advice I have about managing a career, I am only now learning how to manage a life.” And that’s too bad, because her message is now being drowned out by Sheryl Sandberg.  

The COO of Facebook since 2008 got the cover of the NYT Book Review section for her new work, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, reviewed in the politest of tones by none other than Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of the Women Can’t Have it All article in The Atlantic.

Sandberg is bullish on work. She chides younger women for not leaning in, as she puts it, or going all out. “Don’t leave before you leave,” she warns. Her book is a sort of EST training for women who want to reach the top, full of helpful tips and upbeat slogans such as “Done is better than perfect.”

The fact that this debate has lasted through so many news cycles suggests something’s afoot. Callan and Slaughter are of one mind on the question of work/life balance for mothers – it’s impossible at the top. As long as corporations expect 60-80 hour weeks, leading cannot be combined with motherhood. They’ve taken some heat for being willing to say it, but they seem to think the question ends with their stories.  

Slaughter takes the gentlest of swipes at Lean In, calling it “a young woman’s book,” noting Sandberg’s balancing act was about children closer in age to the terrible twos than the terrible teens. Possibly true, but it’s an unhelpful distraction of “my kids are harder than yours” in a much more important debate. Slaughter is on more solid ground when she points out that Sandberg and Mayer are reassuring corporate America with their “no problem” message. No need to change or accommodate. The opportunity is out there, young women just have to take it. Look at us!

Indeed. Not one of these women exhibits a shred of social activism. None is calling for shorter work weeks, more available and affordable day care or elder care, longer maternity leaves, and/or flexible hours that make sense for families. The brightest of the bright are unable to think beyond their own stories.

None of them have become the Norma Raes of the 21st century, and they seem highly unlikely to climb up on a CEO’s desk and hold up a sign in these modern sweatshops that says: “Work-Life Balance!”

Readers are fickle, and there is limited airtime and interest in rehashing all the problems of all the women who work, even though they are very real. Every one of the women above missed a golden opportunity to expand an extremely limited debate about her own experience to bring forward the needs of the wider group. The New York Times, too, needs to get over its star-struck fascination for women CEOs and talk to rest of us. Everyone might be surprised to find that women are not nearly as desperate to reach the corner office as they are to just get to the office.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


I’ve been struggling with Marissa Mayer all week.  The CEO of Yahoo, who famously took a full two weeks of maternity leave and installed a nursery next to her office, pulled the plug on telecommuting for her employees.  Those defending the move are full of justifications: these were mostly underperforming and deadwood employees who needed this kind of shove to push them out the door; it’s important that everyone be together to work collaboratively; and Yahoo, Google and other high tech companies already provide free food and free gyms on their campus-like environments, so what’s the problem?
I’m reminded too, of the Atlantic Magazine piece by former State Department Policy Planning Director, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who wrote “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” She quit her dream job in Washington to return to Princeton, back into a tenured position, where she could be more of a mother to her two teenage sons. That article led to lots of hand wringing about work-life balance.

Neither woman speaks to me. Mayer is too draconian. I can almost buy in to her theories about needing to see colleagues face-to-face, but it's clear she has another agenda  when she won’t grant even one day a week for telecommuting. And Slaughter loses credibility when she drops name after name as illustrations of her points. Unfortunately Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Mary Maitalin and Michelle Flournoy don’t share the problems of most working mothers. Slaughter's solutions -- time your babies and freeze your eggs -- are too calculating by half, and while she focuses on the interesting shift between her generation and the next, she never questions underlying assumptions about how we organize our work.   
All my life I’ve railed against the inflexibility of the five day, 40 hour work week. I’ve fumed about it in traffic jams, plotted dentist appointments around it, and chafed at the insanity of trying to make the dynamic life of a family fit into this archaic and highly inconvenient framework.

I know I’m not alone. I’ve heard plenty of water cooler conversations over the years from colleagues who had child care problems, elder care problems, their own health problems, commuting problems, and other difficulties that made the imposition of a 40 hour work week feel like a prison sentence with weekend furloughs.
As a younger woman I was certain that we would conquer this problem in my lifetime. When technology revolutionized just about everything in the workplace, I thought that telecommuting would go from a trickle to a torrent. I saw more pregnant women in the workplace, and I thought job-sharing would soon be commonplace. I believed that more part time jobs would open up – quality part time jobs, not clerical ones. I imagined that the reward for the technological revolution that took place in my lifetime would be lives richer in leisure, education, and connectedness, and the rat race known as a woman’s lot would ease up. 

That none of this has happened leaves me baffled. The fact that many of us are working harder and longer than our mothers leaves me stunned. The boundaries between work and home have been erased, and not to the benefit of the home.
There is no enlightened benevolence, no ethos that gives higher value to humans than to technology. Instead, the tools we are given have become electronic leashes to keep us near at hand on evenings and weekends.  As a girl, I remember my father shouting to me and my brothers when the phone rang, “I’m not home.” He was outraged that anyone would intrude upon his evening. No such boundaries are permissible today. I wonder what he would think, watching me cook with a phone in one hand, a laptop open on the table, texting while setting the table. Multitasking seemed like the mark of a highly productive person at one point in my life. Now I see it as the mark of a misguided fool.

A vacation no longer means that you are really away. There is an expectation in many fields, that at a minimum you will still check your emails, and it would be nice if you joined meetings via phone or Skype. We bow to the principle of collaborative work so loved by Marissa Mayer and spend entire days meeting with various teams. That leaves only the wee hours for the lonely individual side of the equation, which is when and how the real work gets done.

Despite fuming over Mayer's edict, the rationale side of me cannot wholeheartedly condemn the idea that people who miss meetings miss everything. They miss the "kremlinology" of people dynamics. Who sat where? Who talked too long? Who rolled his eyes? Who left early and who gave off the silent but unmistakable vibe that the person at the head of the table is an idiot? I've navigated my careers by reading the tea leaves and excelling at meetings. I'm not sure I would be able to do this as a telecommuter.

And must creation always be the act of a loner? Don't those teams Marissa loves actually make the
magic through which new ideas come forth? Sometimes, certainly. There is undisputed value when highly intelligent people bounce ideas off each other. 
But the dicussions swirling around Mayer, Slaughter and others miss another point altogether. What is it we call work? What do people actually do for 40 hours? The lucky few who create for a living can indeed do their work anywhere -- in the shower, in the car, in their nightgown. But much of what we do at work has nothing to do with the act of creation. We file, sort, fill out forms, serve clients, and keep records.   
No wonder most of us still feel like wage slaves. The promise that tehnology would not only shorten work, but remove the drugery from it is still unfulfilled. And how appalling that these tools and technology have not made us any more intelligent when it comes to policies about working. What would it take for Yahoo to reinstate telecommuting? What would it take for industry to offer more part time jobs and opportunities for job sharing? Would it kill us all to work a little less, and maybe a little better? What would it take for all of us—including those like me who complain the loudest – to turn off our phones, shut our laptops and set work aside?   

Until we are more courageous we will continue to plod along, as dumb as beasts. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013


INTRODUCTION – 16 Measures of Strings

In a bit of car radio serendipity, we happened to hear Mozart’s Concerto for Horn in E flat Major, k417, on the drive in this morning. The performer hit every note, but in my mind's ear this piece is haunted by all the mistakes I used to make. 

This was my piece. I played it for countless auditions, practiced it constantly, and staunchly defended the merits of the 1953 Dennis Brain version, which I grew up on, against later recordings by Barry Tuckwell and Hermann Baumann. There are few things in life I know so well.

The horn was more or less placed in my hands by a loving dad when I was not yet 9 years old. No one I knew had ever heard of a French horn, a fact that filled me with pride. No mundane violin or flute for me! The public school had to order one, and for some reason they picked a B-flat single horn. No one plays this anymore, and probably no one did back then. But until I got my own horn midway through junior high, this was what I knew.

Over time the horn became entwined with my own identity. I carried it to and from school, developing calluses from the bulky, uncomfortable shape. I knew exactly how to heft it in its case so the bell wouldn’t knock against my knee.

As I became a teen, I realized the horn was my ticket. Soon I was auditioning for every kind of youth orchestra, honor orchestra, and summer institute. Always with the Mozart.

My dad drove me to scores of rehearsals and auditions, and in the days before cds and iPods, we’d listen to classical music on KFAC, hoping for good symphonies with great horn parts, and please would they not play opera. 
FIRST MOVEMENT: Allegro Maestoso

As I change lanes, we are well into the first movement. God, this was hard to learn. I remember how I worked to play it by ear off the Dennis Brain record, on the phonograph in the corner of my bedroom.  It was a year before I got the sheet music. Trying to get the runs right, I lifted the needle over and over, eventually creating more skips than notes. But I got it, sort of.   
I loved everything about the horn. I carried a little notebook in which I recorded the names of all the orchestras in the U.S. and all of their principal horn players; all the brands of horns, and every other bit of horn trivia I could sweep up. Nowadays this would be accomplished in 30 minutes on the Internet, but at the time, the horn, the notebook, and orchestral music were my passions.

Because my instrument was unusual, and because my identity was so closely tied to the horn, I had the conceit that I too was unusual. No instrument could ever be as magical as the horn, and no one could play it with a sincere and pure heart, as I was certain I did, without having some of that magic rub off.

The horn took me places I was sure I never would have reached on my own: golden grass pastureland surrounding the still-new Cal Arts; a college band tour to Switzerland; my first gig at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank, where I earned $20 for playing third horn in Brahm’s "Nanie."

I joked that I wanted to be a “rich and famous horn player,” but I also thought that if I said it like a mantra, it might come to pass. An Alexander horn, made in Germany, topped every Christmas and birthday list for years. I never really thought I’d get one, but I wanted it on record that I had the good taste to want one. When I finally got a used Conn 8D I was enormously proud, spending hours rinsing it through the bathtub, greasing the pipes, and restringing the valves, over and over. To this day the smell of valve oil sends me back.  


Getting close to exit 15. This least favorite movement just doesn’t speak to me. It’s merely a bridge between the first and third. Lots of long tones and slow notes, going nowhere. Then it repeats. But wait … the Rondo is coming!

In those years, my life was all about music, and music was the only way anything significant ever happened to me.

My Uncle Bill sent me a check for $50 dollars for some occasion, and I recall spending it as carefully as a pensioner at Charles Music Store in Glendale, buying records of horn concerti – both Strausses and the Hindemith, and Benjamin Britten’s lovely Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings with Alan Civil on horn. I also pulled lots of orchestral excerpts out of the sheet music bins. I knew I’d wait years before having the chance to perform so many symphonies with fine horn parts, and I was in a great hurry.  

I spent a steamy summer practicing in my room in our un-airconditioned house, longing to open the window, but scared that our German neighbor, out by his pool, would instantly recognize the solo from Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, and what if I faltered on that high A?

I played through the repertoire with a frenzy that summer -- the horn solo form Dvorak’s New World, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet; Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, Brahms’s first, then his fourth, and more and more and more.  I had no context and had not yet heard all these excerpts in a full orchestral setting, but no matter, I was learning my craft.

My life was becoming ever-more layered with musical events. I saw movies such as Fiddler on the Roof and then Song of Norway downtown at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I heard concerts at the Wilshire Ebell, the Scottish Rite Auditorium, and of course the amazing Hollywood Bowl, which gave me magical summer nights, I was sure, because I played a magical instrument.


As I move into the left turn lane, I wondered why I fixated on that very difficult first movement, which opens with three successive long runs. Why did I not play the Rondo? It’s fast, fun, and friendly. Even if I cracked the high b flat, it gallops along at such a pace one would hardly notice.

And then one day my horn betrayed me.

The painful truth was that I was never really that good. I had some technique, thanks to starting so early, but once I was in my teens I was overtaken by all-too-frequent surplus trumpeters who got moved to horn, as if it was some nasty second-choice instrument. I hated them.  

It was not for lack of practice or dedication, not for lack of wanting it. It is simply a heartbreaking fact that we are not always good at what we love.  

The signs were there – losing my third horn seat to an upstart challenger. At another time and place, in the absence of the first chair, having the chance to hit the solo in Beethoven’s Pastorale and blowing it. Carefully counting 53 measures of rests and then – oh no! missed the cue!  I couldn’t believe my horn was letting me down. Surely I just needed more time to practice, or a better instrument, or …

The end came when I was least prepared.   

For a while all was fine. I spent much of my 17th year pregnant, and then one night, unable to stand the solitude and isolation of the apartment any longer, I appeared at Cal State Long Beach for the Wednesday open night rehearsals, hoping I would pass for merely fat. Nonetheless, I played well enough to get the offer of a seat in the band that would be making a trip to Europe in March, just a few months after the birth of Andrea. I went, played in Switzerland, and found a friend in Karen, who loved the horn as much as I did.

I thought my life was back on track, but then we moved to the Valley and I ended up auditioning six months later at Cal State Northridge. Again the Mozart, of course. I got through no more than four measures when the conductor decided to turn my audition into a lesson. I felt the stunning humiliation of having been unimpressive. How could it be that he felt the need to teach me the finer points of this piece, when I had played it for so many years?

I eventually made the drive home, put the horn in a closet from which, at least figuratively, it has never emerged. I put away too, a time in my life when all things still seemed possible, when something akin to magic was always around the corner, and when music was never absent. And I never again believed in anything as treacherous as the horn again.    


And here I am, a middle-aged woman, driving through tears, unable to explain to my husband why I snapped off the radio at the last note of the Rondo.


Sunday, February 17, 2013


This is the day that comes every year for New Englanders, in which we all know that winter has overstayed its welcome.

I can see the blue plastic-wrapped New York Times, tantalizingly poised at the end of the driveway.  Getting it would mean getting dressed, pulling on the wretched boots and then slip-sliding on treacherous ice, hidden by four inches of new snow. Gwynnie and I just cleaned the driveway yesterday – as best we could -- taking advantage of barely above freezing temps to chip away, with spade and shovel, like archeologists in search of black asphalt so we could stop slewing around the curves. So much for yesterday’s work.

Gareth, too, spent the better part of a morning digging out one of the cars that had slid across the stone barrier (now encased in ice) onto soft soil of a vague garden area that exists only as a twinkle in the eye of the landscape architect, no doubt off in some tropical clime. 

Indoors, even the cats are grumpy. They have abandoned the dignity of the elderly to scrap like a pair of toddlers, tired of being housebound and deprived on the sensory stimulation of a quick morning trip outside. I offer them an open door just in case and they look at me as if I’ve lost my mind.  I retaliate by noting they should have been replaced long ago with a nice retriever, who even now would be eagerly padding across the snow, fetching me my New York Times, insanely grateful for the chance to have been asked.

I’m tired of heating bills that go higher and higher. I am tired of a winter cold that will not end. I’m tired of power outages that seem to come with each new snowfall. I’m tired, too, of the ridiculous traffic on Mass Ave., only made worse by cops, which has occurred in part because there is nowhere to put the snow, and now there is no right lane. I’m tired of being a pedestrian, faced with climbing himalayas of snow mounds just to cross the street. Tired of having the edges of my pant legs caked with snow, ice and mud every day.

I’m tired of getting all those spring gardening catalogs, so welcome back in December, which merely taunt me now. I toss them with nary a look. The beautiful aquas of Florida, the apricot hues of Hawaii, these are not the New England colors of mid February.

Here, the snow sucks the color out of the atmosphere until even the evergreens are reduced to a nondescript dark.  Our monochrome landscape is white and gray against various shades of “dark.”

I turn to astronomy in desperation. Sunrise comes a minute earlier each day now, sunset a minute later. Soon we will have 11 full hours of daylight. Time is on our side.

And, there is one more little thing which helps; a single sign of spring to which I am pinning all my hopes. My little indoor orange tree, all on its own, decided to put forth blossoms. We nearly lost it in the last power outage when the inside temperature fell to 40, so it had a week of vacation in Andie’s breakfast room.  It lost a few leaves to the frost, but it is stubbornly clinging to its blossoms, which seem to grow each day.

As I cough, blow my nose, and apply more lip balm, I look forward to the little plant gradually opening its blossoms, which may pull me through this interminable winter.  


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A few years ago, I had a colleague who was determined to learn horseback riding. She took lessons on weekday mornings and sometimes she arrived at the office looking the worse for the experience. I told her I admired her spirit, and she suggested I join her. I surprised myself when I told her that there were things in life I simply wasn't going to get around to doing, and horseback riding was probably going to be one of them. Not that I had anything against it, but simply because, with each passing year, life ceases to be the blank canvas with limitless possibilities we thought we saw in our youth.  With time, the limits just become easier to see. We realize the canvas was never really blank -- just smaller than it used to be.
So yes, this is a birthday column written by a former little girl who imagined that it was only a matter of time until her birthday, sandwiched between Lincoln's Birthday and Valentine's Day, would become a holiday in its own right, making a trifecta for a grateful world. By the time the little girl turned 13 on Friday the 13th, no other date for a birthday was conceivable. And so for years, boyfriends and then husbands have inwardly groaned as they shopped to find gifts not just for a birthday but for Valentine's too. And somehow the gifts were important, validating the uniqueness of the day.
I remember my 30th birthday for one detail -- I decided to have a martini. I had sensed the mystique of martinis early in my twenties, but I decided such a celebrated drink required gravitas on the part of the drinker and that perhaps by 30 I would have developed it. As with most things one puts off too long, the moment was lost. Martinis aren't really my drink and I remember that birthday chiefly for the disappointment of finding that out.
But sometimes finding a new limit brings freedom. I remember going along on a family skiing holiday in Canada. Many things about the hotel were charming, particularly the custom of wearing pajamas to breakfast, something all the guests did. Less charming was the frigid wind, icy slopes and my struggle to stay upright in a sport I suddenly realized I loathed. Finally, I had enough. I realized that I had the right not to ski any more, ever again. Henceforth I would bring stacks of Agatha Christies and read all day before the extraordinary stone fireplace. To this day, when anyone talks of skiing I feel positively gleeful that I am now free never, ever, to have to do it again. 
I know that skiing, horseback riding and many other sports fall into people's bucket lists -- the hundred or so things they want to do before they die. I have been very fortunate to have avoided those lists, if only because the foreign service and serendipity were far better providers of adventures than any I could conjure. But if there is such a thing as an non-bucket list -- things one tries once (or never) and resolves never to do again -- then I will confess that I have been building one for years.  And what better day than a birthday to add a new item, something else never to be done, to the growing list?

And let's face it, birthdays cannot retain their little girl character forever. There is something unbecoming about a grown woman worrying about presents, anyway. These days my husband is too ill to remember such frivolities. Any celebrations will have to be postponed to the weekend. One child is working, one has an evening class, and I have a terrible cold, so the day will pass unnoticed.  It's not that I am afraid of counting the years -- 56 this time -- or having the little heart sandwiches. I will be glad to use my day, whenever it comes, as an excuse to bring the family together.

And very quietly I will consign another activity -- mountaineering, perhaps, or learning Russian -- to my non-bucket list.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013


Although I didn’t know it at the time, I first came face to face with a thin place in a remote village in Castilla la Mancha, in a place called Atienza. The concept of thin places was new to me – or at least I never knew that there was a name for them.

Some thin place spotters imbue them with a mystical, religious quality, but I seem to discover thin spots that are encumbered more by history than by any sense of piety. Nonetheless, they give the eerie experience of being in a part of the earth very near the edge. Let me tell you about two of them.

Harold and I stumbled on Atienza the way we did most things in Spain – driving across the plains of Castilla with an openness to whatever might come next. We climbed over a broken castle that looked fine from a distance but was more than half rubble up close.

I stood in the crumbling keep of the tower on the hill and listened to the wind turn corners. The Spanish sky, which seemed to stretch all the way to France, grew darker with the burden of a storm front. Our little Renault cinco, parked far below, was the only modern object around. There was not a soul to be seen. We were utterly alone. Miraculously, there were no plastic bags fluttering by, no empty coffee cups, no man-made litter of any sort. Touching the broken rock walls seemed to connect us to a part of Spain we’d never felt before. The present moment fell away and the stillness of the place seemed to enter inside of us, making us quiet for a long time.

But not all thin places are so remote and austere.

Years later, we pulled into an historic hotel on the shores of Lake Atitlan, itself a mystical creation in its own right – one of the deepest lakes in the world, ringed by villages of Mayans who speak neither Spanish nor their neighbor’s indigenous dialects.

The hotel was built from the ruins of an old Guatemalan coffee finca, and it had a small museum of old farming implements, along with a leather carriage, in a corridor off the reception area. It also had preserved three sides of a wooden barn wall, and here was my second thin place.

The wall was filled with pencil signatures of all the people from the old coffee families from the turn of the century. With names like Smith, Hempstead, Koch, and Kleinschmidt, they told the story of the Germans, French, Brits and Americans who had a hand in crafting Guatemala’s export coffee industry. The pencil messages recalled the goings and comings of older children, off to college in Massachusetts, then home again for the holidays.

I stood transfixed before this wooden barn wall, tracing the family lineages. The more I looked, the more names became visible, some badly faded and half invisible. I realized that the entire wall was filled with the penciled scrawlings of family members.

Occasionally I’d find the briefest of messages which had to do for narrative. “Tante Ellen here for the holidays. “John Smith, home from Boston.” Was Tante Ellen from Hamburg? Was John at Harvard? I felt a sort of desperation to know more and more. The need to leave behind a record seemed an important rite for the families – something they did compulsively, as I could see as I peered closer, finding scarcely any area that was blank.

The wall was well known among Guatemalan elites – the family names were as good as the best from DeBrett’s or an American Who’s Who. I asked Guatemalan friends for more details about the name wall, as I came to call it, and I heard second-hand stories of wild Christmas parties and New Year’s dances on the shores of the lake. I imagined elegant women and men, and could hear the music magnified across the water; lanterns sparkling against the black lake backdrop. I could see too, the indigenous servants of that era, resplendent in huipils woven on backstrap looms; padding silently from room to room.

While our own children cavorted in the hotel pool, I visited the children’s name wall over and over again, lacking the archival knowledge of what ought to be done to preserve all this; recording names, ages and years in a notebook; looking for the oldest entry, (1906) looking for surnames of people I knew in town. The children’s name wall pulled me back into a past that seemed far more meaningful than any touristic activities over that holiday weekend.

And that was how I came to utterly lose myself in this second thin place, where the seams that separated the past from the present seemed to have frayed, allowing me a glimpse from either direction.

Monday, January 28, 2013


Whenever our family speaks about foreign languages, it’s only a matter of time before someone recalls our oldest daughter’s Norwegian friends from Spain. Two sons of a diplomatic family had moved to Madrid after a previous posting in Brazil. When a group of 11th graders decided to go out on the town together, our daughter overhead them run through four successive languages. They began, with the rest of the students, in Spanish. They made a quick call home for permission, and the phone was answered  by their long-time maid. They spoke to her in Portuguese, then asked for their mother. They spoke to her in Norwegian. Elated, they told my daughter and her Irish friend (in English), that they could stay out until midnight.  

We’ve witnessed other impressive family combinations: Danish-Spanish-English; Dutch-Malay-Czech-English; Swedish-Farsi-English; and German-Swiss German-English. I am lost in admiration for the effortless talent on display as people switch languages as easily as turning the knob on a radio station.  And I am swept up in jealous frustration as I realize that such facility will never be mine.

Our children jokingly berate us: “Why did you marry each other? Two English-speaking Americans, what were you thinking, we didn't stand a chance!” And they are probably right, although they don’t realize the overwhelming dominance of English means that we’d not only have to marry foreigners, but then move to the ends of the earth to avoid hearing English.  

Trapped in English, they join us in our eternal ambivalence about language. They see the hard work that it takes to gain fluency, the so-so results, and the waste as we move from one country to the next, ever the dilettantes.

Harold, undoubtedly the most ardent student of languages, collects dictionaries as a hobby, the more obscure, the better. He introduced me to Ladino, or Sephardic Spanish; to Lunfardo, the Cockney of Buenos Aires; and to Quechua and Nahuatl, just two of the pre-Colombian languages of Latin America. He delves deeply into origins. How is Quebecois different from French? Where does Romanian fall on the Slavic vs Romance language continuum? The children are well aware of the shelves full of dictionaries, (a few of which are in the photo above) but if they need a quick word translated they whip out their iphones. 

I take a more pragmatic approach, learning successive languages as an adult for my next work assignment. Trying to anticipate the kind of words I’ll need, I slag off the chapter on auto repair, but hone in on political and economic terms. How do you say “fall of the government?”

I wish I had a triumphal story – a moment in which my Czech, Spanish, or French saved the day and did me proud. But the only example that comes to mind serves to echo the frustrations of learning too many languages as an adult.  

It fell to me to deliver the embassy’s Fourth of July address, a formal occasion with national anthems, Marine color guards, and the President of the Czech Republic at my side. If ever there was a moment for linguistic eloquence – this was it. I wrote the speech myself and had it translated by Czech staff, and then had them work with me, painstakingly, to get it letter-perfect. I rehearsed in the car, in the bathroom, and at my desk. This was a matter of pride and something I deeply cared about. 

“How good is her Czech?” my impudent son asked a Czech waiter when the great day came. He got the hand waggling, so-so reply. “Good enough,” the waiter said. 

All that work to get a lousy passing grade? Can it be possible my Czech was not exquisite? And therein lies the tale of my disappointing relationship with languages.

Fast forward a few years, and my Czech is all but forgotten. We are sitting in Norwell and our youngest is tussling with AP Spanish 5. This makes her an advanced student by Massachusetts standards, but seeing her struggle with the pasado del subjunctivo, I can see that taking high school Spanish in an Anglo town is a lousy way to learn. She gets bored. She wonders about Russian, Italian, anything but facing another worksheet drill. I feel like I’ve failed her. How could we have dragged her to so many countries, to end up having her learn language the hard way? How could we have spent so many rich years overseas to end up so poor in languages?

It’s too late for me, but she still has a chance. She’s young enough to go live abroad, to live with a family, to pick a small town where English is a rarity. She could end up speaking far, far better than I. But only at the high price of leaving. 

I chalk up her struggle as just another chapter in our tantalizing, but ultimately disappointing relationship with languages.  

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Nothing tells the story of travel quite like an old passport. The one above was issued 52 years ago. It’s a green-covered booklet, thick with accordion-folded extension pages. It belongs to my husband Harold, who traveled his way through the sixties as a foreign correspondent in Latin America and South East Asia.
The ink stamps are a collage of colors ranging from vivid purple to faded hues of red, blue, and black. They take on every shape: circles for El Salvador; squares for Bolivia; triangles for Bangkok and octagons for Hong Kong. Although they all look important, their size varies, often disproportionately to the political heft of the issuing country. While Madrid and London are nondescript, Paraguay takes up a full page and comes with a decorative orange postage-type stamp.
For students of foreign policy, the passport is an artifact of how the world worked 50 years ago. This one carries the signature of Christian Herter, then-Secretary of State. Page four sternly warns the bearer that the passport is not valid for travel to Cuba, and that anyone who travels there (or to Vietnam, North Korea, China, “or to or in” Albania) may be liable for prosecution under Section 1185, Title 8; and Section 1544, Title 18 of the U.S. Code.  But international diplomacy is as riven with contradictions as any other field, and page five carries a typewritten addendum stating that “this passport is valid for one round trip to Cuba,” signed by the U.S. Consul in 1964 at the American Embassy in Mexico City. There is also evidence of several trips to Saigon.
Viet-Nam (sometimes, but not consistently, appearing hyphenated) may have been prohibited, but the full page visa suggests the country was set up to receive the scores of American reporters, contractors, and advisers who were associated in some way with the war effort. The big red stamp authorized twelve days in April 1968, just after the Tet Offensive. The elegant blue fountain pen annotations of a Vietnamese official hint at years of meticulous French training of colonial bureaucrats, layered like a veneer over a distinct culture suggested by those strange diacritical marks.
Entry stamps are a good barometer of a country’s stance on tourists. Some are matter-of-fact like the U.K., other countries see tourists as a Very Big Deal. The full page taken by the “Union of Burma” emblazoned with a purple coat of arms, carries an unfriendly looking 72-hour visa, with a foreboding stamp in red: “Landroute Not Permissible.” A cautionary blue stamp runs vertically alongside with the unfathomable warning: “Undertaking No. 2 Issued.”  
The passport carries ample evidence of global inefficiencies and pointless regulations. As a foreigner living for a few years in Buenos Aires, Harold had to leave the country every 90 days for the sole purpose of re-entering. Thus, several accordion fold-put pages bear a ridiculous succession of Argentine-Uruguayan stamps. There is no indication that the Uruguayan official felt put-upon by visitors who came for no reason other than to leave.
Many of the stamps were issued in airports with names that would challenge all but the most seasoned travelers to match to the correct country:  Ilopango (El Salvador), Toncontin, (Honduras); Tocumen (Panama); and La Aurora (Guatemala). The stamp for El Coco (Costa Rica) offers proof that not even airport names are permanent. By 1960 El Coco had replaced the earlier, all grass runways of La Sabana, but El Coco was itself renamed Juan Santamaria.
In some cases, entire countries have been renamed. The passport stamp for British Honduras is defunct for the country that is now Belize. The Portuguese visa for the “Provincia de Macau,” is a historical relic of a colony that was returned to China in 1999.
Land routes were a favored mode of travel for Harold, whose blue Chevrolet Impala was itself the object of still more stamps, annotations, and in one case, an entire letter typed on a manual typewriter, affixed to the passport and allowing him to enter the country, in this case Honduras, by vehicle. It did not go well.
He drove along increasingly broken roads until he came to a washed out bridge. Having no real choice he decided to drive across what appeared to be a shallow stream. This started out fine, but as is often the case with rivers, the waters were deceptively deep. Soon the car lost contact with the river bed and Harold watched the rising waters swirling up to the door. He scrambled out in the nick of time, leaving the poor Chevy stranded. 
But lengthy sojourns in Latin America had taught him nothing if not that life rarely throws a problem at you without also offering a solution. Out of nowhere, a posse of 12-year-old boys appeared. With much shouting and initially ineffective effort, they finally marshaled the organizational skills necessary to get the car to the other side.
There he sat, doors wide open, watching the water slowly draining away in the Honduran sun. The gang spread his suitcases on the grass and festooned the bushes with his clothing, while he hoped against hope the car would start. It did, and there were a few hours of triumph before the inevitable growth of mildew, mold, and rot. But time solves all. The mold blossomed, smelled appalling, and then slowly died off, leaving him a car slightly more used than when he bought it, and the passport chronicles his procession through a dozen more Latin American land border crossings in El Florido, Chiquimula, El Amatillo, Esquipulas, Huehuetenango, Cuahtemoc, and Tecun Uman.
Nothing beats the permanent fiesta of a Latin American land border crossing. All friendliness and free enterprise on the outside; all surliness and officiousness within.  Strolling musicians, women fanning elote grills with palm fronds, vendors hawking unlikely wares, and children running everywhere offered considerable entertainment value. But their presence also testified to the countless lost hours waiting in line, accommodating arbitrary rules no one could explain, waiting for staff to come back from Latin-American length lunch breaks, and arguing fruitlessly with guards whose sole purpose was to keep people out. Cynics point out that the old green passports were precisely long enough to accommodate U.S. greenbacks between the pages.
Indeed, the stamps bear silent witness to the army of officials whose job it was to issue them (or not).  For those who have ever sneered at TSA, welcome to the rest of the world, where computers and English break down and signs mean absolutely nothing. There are no rules. There are too many rules.
This is travel from another era, when international phone calls had to be booked, operators had trunk lines, and people dressed up for their flights. The very small percentage of Americans who held a passport in the sixties contributed a sense of awe to this symbol of exotic undertaking. 
No one travels like that anymore. Trips are well-researched, and every possible problem and inconvenience is anticipated and resolved in advance. There is no room left for serendipity, adventure, or chance. In an era of biometric passports, iPhones, and Twitter, seldom are travelers far from home. 
            This well-worn passport has a hard-earned authenticity. Its filled-up pages suggest the bearer may or may not have “passed without delay or hindrance,” as the front page message from the Secretary of State requests on his behalf, but every stamp on every page proves that the bearer is in every sense, a true traveler.