Philip Pullman: His Dark Materials Trilogy (The Golden Compass; The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass)
Some children's stories are not children's stories. (****)
Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall: A Novel
Tough sledding to get through, but brilliant in spots.
Anthony Bourdain: Kitchen Confidential Updated Edition: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (P.S.)
If Hunter Thompson was a foodie. (*****)
Elizabeth Moon: Command Decision (Vatta's War, Book 4)
Good basic space opera (***)
Orson Scott Card: Ender in Exile
Boring in spots, but sprinkled with diamonds of writing. (***)
Timothy Ferriss: The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich
Tim's a little crazy, but there's lots to chew on here in the area of questioning your basic assumptions. Good for that if nothing else. (****)
James Ishmael Ford: Zen Master Who?: A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen
Middle section reminds me of Genesis (begat, begat, begat) but the best up-to-date (2001) explanation of how all those Zennies got here. (****)
Soko Morinaga: Novice to Master: An Ongoing Lesson in the Extent of My Own Stupidity
Delightful book about a Zen master's progression. (*****)
Linda Greenlaw: The Hungry Ocean: A Swordboat Captain's Journey
Nuts and bolts of swordfishing from the world's only female captain. More fish than polemic. (***)
Natalie Goldberg: Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
Best book on interior of writing I've read in quite some time. Great advice for we the writing afflicted. (*****)
I didn't know
There would be
This slight silver
That would connect
What a lovely
So, what do you say about a day where the only thing that sort of went wrong was that we over-estimated the amount of ice cream that we'd need?
Thanks to everyone for a wonderful and memorable day (we designed a group effort and everyone came through magnificently) and especially to Josh Bartok for holding the spirit of the occasion so firmly and brightly.
This is the approximate text of the short impromptu eulogy that I gave for Bill Wallace on April 27th. It's been difficult to write since the funeral, which is why this piece is so late. Even in the short amount of time that I knew him, I became very attached to Bill and his death was a blow to me as well as the whole family. Bill was quite the guy, as I hope the piece below shows.
For those of you that don't know me, my name is Tom Spriggs and, despite the white beard, I am probably the youngest of the Wallace clan - at least if measured by time in place. Most of you knew Bill for much longer than I did. It was only four years ago that I found Denise Wallace on a blind date, the woman who will soon become my wife, and when you found Denise, you also found Billy Wallace. The Wallace's all stuck together and Bill was the glue.
The fact that I am the most "outside" of the clan may give me some perspective on Bill that I would like to share with you. At least this is who Bill was to me.
I found from the beginning that I got along well with Bill, but then many most people did - this was one of Bill's particular gifts. It was very easy to become Bill Wallace's friend. In fact, anyone who knew Bill for more than ten minutes was probably considered a friend by Bill and he put great stock in friends - almost as much as he did in family.
Of course, that didn't mean that even if you were Bill's friend he wouldn't put you through some hoops, since he had a distinct trickster element to his personality. And as a prospective son-in-law the hoops could be somewhat high.
Case in point: Being somewhat old fashioned, when I decided to ask Denise to marry me last year, I went to Bill first to ask permission. So, I pulled him aside at a New Year's gathering of the family and told him that I was planning to ask Denise to marry me and asked if that was okay with him. He just sort of stopped and stared at me for what seemed to me to be a very long time with a blank expression. I, of course, panicked. Once he saw that he "had me", he then displayed the trademark twinkle in his eye and he put out his hand and welcomed me to the family. I had been "gotten" by Bill Wallace. It wouldn't be the last time.
Besides or maybe because of this devilish side to his nature, Bill was really a great teacher. And here are some of the lessons that I learned from Bill Wallace over the time that I was privileged to know him:
1) Do what you have to do and don't complain about it. Whining doesn't make for a fun environment and you're going to have to do a lot of things that aren't fun over the course of your life. Why make things worse for everyone including yourself?
2) Do the right thing, (it's really not that hard to figure out what that is).
3) Work hard - as we all know Bill held many jobs during this life, sometimes multiple jobs, in order to support his family. Hard work was a part of who Bill was and it resulted in good things for him and his family.
4) Try to have some fun while doing the previous three things.
Denise mildly upbraided him one day not long ago as he again tried to put yet another corny joke where it just wouldn't fit. His instant reply was, "Well, you have to keep trying." And try he did. Over the four years that I knew him, my initial admiration for him grew into a type of awe as I saw him battle Parkinson's disease everyday and work very, very hard to be as healthy as he could be, both for himself and for all of us. He didn't complain or make it a bit deal, he just did it. There was a lot of man behind that impish smile and the corny jokes.
Over time, I also came to admire his courage. Not just because of what he did in response to his Parkinson's, but in the way that he had lived his life. Bill Wallace was someone who had the courage to live an open and trusting life even though he knew that some people would eventually disappoint him or even take advantage of him at times. It wasn't that he wasn't cognizant of these possibilities for Bill was a very smart man, but rather he was courageous enough to not make his life smaller because of them. For me, this was Bill's great lesson.
So Bill lived by very simple principles. And, as those of us who have tried to also do so know, this is not easy to do. But Bill was a master at all these aspects of life and I, for one, am going to miss the lessons that he gave us every day.
All of my fans will want to check out my picture which appears in the fabulous Boston Globe (Page B4) today. I was making the scene at SOWA yesterday. They even got my best side.
"To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting." - e e cummings
I woke up this morning to a few soft taps from a paw on my back - taps that weren't really there, but were memories of my beloved cat Smudge waking me up two years ago on this date. He was very, very sick and I had decided after listening to his labored breathing all the previous day that for his own good, he needed to be put down. So, the night before, I sadly put his limp form in the bed next to me so that we could sleep together one last time and he didn't move all night. That is until it came time to eat in the morning and then he was up and poking me with a look on his face like "What's the matter with you? You're not feeding me?" One last assertion of who he was and a reminder that who he was was formidable even when terminally ill.
I am reminded of this not only because of the anniversary, but because my foster mother Lydia Bullock Touloumtzis passed away early this Sunday at the age of 88. It is no trivialization of either to say that she and Smudge had certain personality traits in common.
Lydia was the mom of my best friend in junior high and high school - Mike Touloumtzis. As has been recounted here before, this period was a perilous time for me. My own mom became sick with cancer and died during my high school years, my father went into a deep depression as a result, and I was pretty much left on my own. The Touloumtzis family was kind and generous enough to emotionally, if not physically, take me in as I tried to work through what had happened to me.
At the center of this was Lydia - who earned my infinite respect by not trying to be my mother. She was always there when I needed to talk or when I was upset about something - usually smoking a cigarette in the small kitchen in the big house and looking into a distance for things that only she seemed to be able to see. But it was clear to both of us that she wasn't my mother and that the one that I had lost could not be replaced. And, of course, she was right. Most of us only get one and when you lose her, she's unreplacable. This is the sad fact that the Touloumtzis family now must deal with.
She knew this was the case because she knew herself and her uniqueness very, very well and thereby knew the uniqueness of others. Like Smudge she had a firm grasp on who she was even if, at times, she couldn't find the room to express it. She certrainly expressed it at the end though - she refused to go to the hospital from the nursing home where she was trying to recover from multiple physicial insults even during a life-threatening crisis. She had had enough - a new great granddaughter had just arrived - that generation was now settled and thriving, the house where she had lived for 50 some odd years had been sold and handed off to another family who would raise their children there, and even I, the perpetual late bloomer, was finally getting married.
She was done. Staying alive was no longer worth the pain that she had to go through to maintain the state and there was little to look forward to. So, when the time came, she wrapped it up. Very cut and dried. Very Lydia.
So maybe it wasn't Smudge poking me this morning. Maybe it was Lydia reminding me that it was time to get up and fight the battle to be myself one more day - one more once - until it's time not to do it any more. It's the Yankee thing to do, and the Smudgy thing to do, and the Lydia thing to do. Thank you both for the reminder.
I've been radioactive for exactly one year today. One year of cnacer treatment down, four more to go before I'm considered clear.
I celebrated by recreating February and sleeping until noon.
Even though they changed the dates for Day Light Savings Time this year, BB, the Queen of 35 Amherst Street, still seems to get me or Denise up in the pitch dark so that we can feed her. She may be an old cat (15 years) and impossible to find once she does get us up (black cat), but she knows that it's morning (or close enough for her) so we should get up and do something about this fact.
By the time that I manage to get to the commuter rail to wait with others in the windchill to see if the train is going to come, I can see the sun coming up over the hill and the spire of Sacred Heart Church over toward Mattapan — not quite the view that I used to have from the top of Spring Hill, but impressive in it's own way. A fireball rising in the cold. And by the time that I leave work at the Institute at the end of the day, it's dark again. It's Solstice time.
Of course, today, the Winter Solstice, marks the depth of this process that will take us through the long winter of January, Februrary and March only to finally deliver us to the usual wet and slightly warmer New England spring. So, today starts the process. It is the pivot point in the long cyclic renewal process and for me time to look back before I go forward into the year. And so, for the 16th time in as many years, I report to you here in the depth of the dark about the changes that the year has brought so that I can attempt to figure out what exactly happened:
The biggest and saddest change during the year was the passing of my friend, spiritual guide, and roommate for so many years: Smudgy the Cat. (http://mtspriggs.typepad.com/ncf/2010/03/smudge-spriggs-19922010.html) Looking over my journal for 2009 going into 2010, I'm reminded of just how sick a little guy he was last year at this time. The vet tried to tell me that maybe it was getting to the time to let him go, but I had a very hard time with the idea of living without him. So we both soldiered on through the fall and most of the winter. Denise made him a bed on top of a radiator and behind the couch in the living room and he took up residence there for five months - his head popping up when he heard something interesting and coming down occasionally from his perch for food and water and then going back up to go to sleep.
But he was running out of steam. By early March, he had gotten so bad that he couldn't move much and his breathing was forced and ragged. So, it was time for Dad to make the decision that was one of the toughest that he ever had to make. It was time to let him go for his own sake. Smudge was himself until the end — after not moving a muscle for 24 hours in my bed, he woke me up on his last morning by pushily poking me in the back with his paw — he was up and hungry and why wasn't I up to feed him?
I learned a lot from him over the years that we had together and he was great to talk to (and gave great advice for someone who didn't talk). And he especially had a wonderful spirit. And he made the little apartment that we shared for 10 years into a home. Not bad for an 8 pound ball of fuzz. I still miss him l lot. (http://mtspriggs.typepad.com/ncf/2010/04/missing-smudgy.html). Good night, sweet prince ...
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Last year at this time, I was just getting used to living back across the river in Boston with Denise after the bachelorism period of the previous 15 years. I am proud to report that I am starting to get to emptying the boxes that were moving into my room on the third floor, so the "settling in" process is still active and continuing. And It's only taken a year for me to get to this point.
Roslindale Village, where we live, is indeed a sort of urban village — a small commercial area where people come to know a lot of the other people of the neighborhood. The fish monger that we go to actually has a spiral notebook where they keep "tabs" for people that are regular customers - shades of the 1950's. Geographically, it's sort of wedged in between minority Mattapan and suburban West Roxbury and you get the feeling that it might slide off one way or the other, but it never does seem to do that. It's an interesting place to live — not without it's problems, but diverse and alive.
After a year as the CIO of the place, our new uber-boss is still trying to run the MIT IT department like it's an insurance company (from whence she came). She's smart, got a good heart, and she tries hard. And she was left a really brutal mess to deal with. But she's also drunk the corporate Koolaid and she doesn't really understand that attempting to move everyone to large centralized systems may not be in the best interests of her (and us) retaining our jobs. Or maybe she does understand and she just doesn't care. Or maybe she's under orders to do this and therefore it automatically becomes a virtue. Anyway, it seems to be a happening thing at the Institute.
MIT may produce all sorts of corporate spinoffs, but the main feature of the place is that it is able to attract brilliant faculty is that it leaves them alone to do what they want to do. Eccentricity is a big a part of the MIT culture and it is a the polar opposite of the standardization culture of most large corporations. Corporate IT works well because people don't have choices about what they can do with their machines - conformity makes for efficiency. The one thing that MIT doesn't have is much conformity to almost anything and therefore not much efficiency either. This tends to drive the bean-counters who increasingly run the place crazy.
So, as one of the persons who works directly with faculty and other clients, and whose job it is to explain IT's new corporate reasoning to powerful people who are dead-set against this sort of concept, this should prove to be a most interesting year.
I turned 60 this year and I am now officially "old" (at least my the standards that I grew up with during the Jurrasic) though, unfortunately, not old enough to retire (boo, hiss). To some degree, finally being this old is a relief. I've been "old" for a long time (an involuntary process, but a real one nonetheless) and now the body is finally catching up with the persona. I do notice that my contemporaries seem to be really getting old while I am, of course, remaining my radiant self - old, but not too old. I intend to milk this stage for all that it is worth for as long as I can. Then I'm going to start hitting people with my cane to get what I want.
The only major travel that we did this year was a trip to Washington and Baltimore for my birthday. Denise had noticed that there was a one-man show about Bucky Fuller's work happening in DC just before my birthday and she gave me the trip to see it. We also spent a fun afternoon in the new Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian which was a very impressive and quite beautiful.
I had also noted somewhere along the way that I always wanted to see a ball game in Camden Yards in Baltimore and never had, so we hit a Orioles/Red Sox game on the way back. Lots of fun, even in the rain and even with a mouthy woman directly in back of us who wouldn't shut up about how all the men in her life were inadequate in one way or another. I was a guest in Maryland, so I restrained myself from turning around and pointing out to her that this was a ball game and not Oprah, but I'm sorry that I didn't. (I still haven't gotten this cranky "getting old" thing right yet, but I'm working on it.)
Barak seems a little pissed off lately that no one seems to appreciate the fact that he saved the economy that Bush and the boys had dumped into the bin by his "Free Market" (money for the rich, crumbs for everyone else) policies. Can't say that I blame him. He pulls the system back from the brink and all he gets is crap for his trouble. And some people are so unappreciative that they want to go back to the policies that put us all in the soup to begin with. So much for American logic. As Churchill once said, "Americans always do the right thing, after they've tried everything else first."
Ever notice how the Tea Party people always want to go back to Time X when things were perfect? Back to when everyone lived in a snug little houses with white picket fences and Billy and Suzy went to a neighborhood school just down the street while Dad came home every evening to smoke his pipe and read the paper before the whole family had a delicious meal that Mom had cooked on her high tech Radar Range? Remember that? Well, if you do, then you're really quite delusional because this picture of the United States was post-WWII propaganda and never really existed.
These people want to pull us all back to a fictional version of the past. Beaver Cleaver was made up, guys. The 50's were not nirvana. They included McCarthyism, children hiding under their desks (in case of nuclear attack by the Russians), men dealing with "battle fatigue" from the war, and the lynching of uppity blacks in the South. This is not a good decade from which to measure ourselves or our dreams.
And you don't navigate a rapidly moving vehicle by having your eyes planted continually in the rear view mirror. Get your head out of the post-World War II American dream fiction and get a grip on reality. We're not the only power in the world anymore, things are moving quickly — maybe faster than you want or like — but we have to try to keep up because the alternative is disasterous, and giving money to people who already have more than they know what to do with is not going to make the world a better place for the other 98% of us.
Going back to a 1950's that never existed is not going to solve our problems nor will contorting the Constitution to try to get there. Get a grip.
Not much to report here for the year. I attempted to take a painting class during the summer, but didn't have the focus that I needed and only managed to produce a half-done portrait of Denise that still needs a lot of work. Martial Arts? A fair amount of looking, not much doing. Maybe this will change after cancer recovery, if I can rehab the back. Writing has been sparse and any minimal creativity seems to have been soaked up in the Thesis Process. Oh, yes, the Thesis ...
The History Thesis at Harvard is almost done. I know; I know. I've been saying this for a long, long while now, but now it actually seems to be true. I've handed in the 100 page draft (26,000 words and the longest thing that I've ever written) to my Thesis Director last week who will, I hope, give me a passing grade or he at least decide that I have to make more edits and prolong the agony. Either way, the process is coming to an end and just in time. I can't see anything that's on the page anymore. I've gone over it so many times now that I only see what I intend to put on the page and not what's really there. I need a very long break from it. The best break would be to declare it finished and revisit it in a few years to see if it's worth anything.
And finally we come to what will probably prove to be the The Big Event of next year. On January 21st, 2011, I become radioactive.
Over the course of the year, I have continued to wrestle with the cancer in my prostate (everyone needs a hobby) and, toward the end of the year, I determined that it was finally getting the upper hand and something had to be done with it before it killed me. After three and a half years of stubbornly wanting to do nothing, this was a change. So, the relevant question then was, as always, "What do I do now?"
I had consciously ignored any data relevant to the treatment question, since any energy in this direction could only be a waste of time and I was better off spending my time trying to figure out how not to get treated. Not only that, but anything that I researched was bound to be old hat by the time that I finally got to the place where I needed to know what was best. Sort of Just-in-Time healthcare decisions. Well, after seeing a rising PSA count and an MRI showing a mysterious "bulge" in the gland, I determined that it was time.
So in November and December I systematically went through all the treatment options that were available to me. Ignoring it was out — I'd seen Prostate Cancer kill my friend Bill and it wasn't pretty. Treatments were divided into surgery, and two different forms of radiation. Oddly enough, at 60 years old, I've never been in a hospital for a stay in my entire life and the idea of a difficult surgery doesn't really appeal to me, even if in some circles it's considered the preferred way of dealing with my condition. In the radiation category, we have external beam (which takes 20 minutes a day, 5 days a week, for 7 weeks — better known as a part-time job) and then there's placement of radioactive seeds in the prostate (brachytherapy). The recent stats for brachy show it to be almost as good as surgery in terms of recurrence and the dreaded "side effects" that you're sure to get — urinary incontinence and impotence (or ED if you're watching those Cialis commercials).
So radioactive seeds it is. The doc says that the procedure takes about 20 minutes (they'll put me out for an hour or so to set me up and do it) and then I get to limp home the very same day if everything goes well. The part where I become one with the bathroom starts a couple of weeks after this and continues until it slowly stops sometime in the undetermined future.
So, It looks like I get to have lots of one-on-one time with the plumbing this winter before I come back to work. We'll see how it goes.
So, that's the way it is (as Uncle Walter used to say). At least, that's the way that it seems from here down in the valley looking for the sun to come back. As always, I am extremely grateful to all of you who have supported me in this adventure over so many years. The trip hasn't gotten any less interesting or, at times, any less weird, but that's what's made it enjoyable. And I couldn't have gotten this far without you. Thank you. Thank you, all.
As of today, the sun returns. We all start to move up toward the renewal together. Let us be hopeful and help each other along the way as we return to the light.
I have admit that as my thesis process slowly (very slowly) comes to a close at Harvard there is something that I will miss about the place — my carrel at the Widener Library, the main research library of the University. There's not much there - a comfortable (but not too comfortable) wooden chair, good lighting, and a place to stash your books. There is a window, but it looks out on the brick wall that is the back of the Houghton Library - just enough to contact with the outside world to realize that there is an outside world but not enough to distract you from your work.
And then there is a fact that the carrel is buried deep in the American Literature stacks not all that far from the American History stacks where I can look around to my heart's content. Widener is the flagship in a library system that is the third largest in the world (behind the Library of Congress and the State Library in Moscow) and is the only one of the three with open stacks. As a non-recovering bibliomaniac, I could get lost for days in certain parts of the Widener, and the nice thing was that, for a while, I had a home there.
When I was ten years old, I got a library card at the Attleboro Public Library and this brought on the first sense that I had that there might be something beyond the narrow, conservative place where I grew up. There was a whole world out there and I could find out about it from books. I've been reverential about books ever since (one of my friends once remarked that this trait was probably the closest that I would ever get to being Jewish) and as far as temples of the book go, Widener is right up there.
Harvard can be a real pain in the butt (I've been associated with Harvard for 16 years now in many different capacities, so I have some expertise in this matter), but occasionally they do something right. My carrel in the Widener was one of the things that they did right and I'm going to miss it.
He's been gone for a little more than a month and a half now -- a victim of old age and a bad heart. I've put away his collar and his litter box and his food dishes. His ubiquitous long soft silky hair is found on my clothes and everything else I own much less than it used to be. And I don't see the shadow of him out of the corner of my eye on the floor like I did right after he passed. But, oddly enough, I seem to miss him more than ever these days.
Hard to say why. Maybe it's because of this very lack of objects that symbolize him being with me, I feel the hole more than I did right after he passed. But it probably has something to do with nature of the relationship that I had with the boy over those ten years that we lived together.
Lots of folks told me after he died that I was a good dad to the boy over those years, but the truth is that I was just trying to pay him back for all that he did for me during our life together. I picked him up off of the street not far from our Somerville apartment where we were to spend the next decade. He was a mess -- infections in both ears and one big matt of fur -- the victim of neglect that would have probably made him a very miserable guy if it had gone on much longer. After some asking around, I found that the people who had him didn't want him and so I took him in, or so I thought. Of course, if you've had a cat in your life, you know that if you think that you're running the show you're only fooling yourself. We butted heads for a while (no, he wasn't going to be an outdoor cat anymore), but we finally came to an accommodation (yes, he pretty much ran the apartment) and, from then on, things smoothed out.
In fact, things did a lot better than "smoothed out." During this period of my life, I was working a particularly difficult and isolating job. I saw my friends about once a week, but I didn't have a significant other or much in the way of biological family to lean on and so Smudge became the one relationship that I could always rely on day after day. And he never failed me. Not once.
Every night when I came home he would meet me at the top of the stairs with an excited look in his huge yellow eyes (this may have had something to do the fact that he was about to be fed) and then we'd go through our small nightly ritual. I'd give him his supper and then sit down on the couch to take off my shoes while I turned on the television to watch the news. After he'd finished demolishing whatever I had given him, he'd then jump up on the couch (and me) so that I could scratch him and tell him how beautiful he was. After about five minutes of this, he'd decide that what I had done was sufficient and he'd get down and position himself on the couch under the lamp and up against my side and go to sleep with a hugely satisfied look on his face for at least as long as I was on the couch.
We did this night after night and it became a highlight of my day for years. These were years in which there were few highlights to be had. I was taking care of him, but he was taking care of me as well. And so, the relationship just got deeper as time went on. The wonderful thing about this type of relationship with a cat or a dog is that you can count on it. Every day if you're good to them they're going to love you. They're not going to decide one day that someone has better cat food and you can be left. They're not going to have some sort of internal crisis and decide that they can't live with you anymore. You love them and they love you. It's profoundly simple and very, very rare.
Over these past few months Smudge quickly got very old. I almost lost him to a massive infection 18 months ago and from then on we both seemed to know that, at the age of 18 or so, the two of us didn't have much time left. So I made as many accommodations as I could to make his physical life easier. But even as his physical infirmities got in the way, the emotional bonds between still held and he continued to give me as much as he ever did as a younger and spryer cat.
So life if different now. Work can still be a pain, but I now live in a different place with someone who I love and who loves me. She's now the one who provides me with the sense that who I am matters in the world when I come how at night after a discouraging day. But I still miss Smudgy meeting me at the door every night. I was a good dad to him, but he was the little fuzzy cat who kept me going on a constant basis for a long period of time. Maybe that's what I miss. Or maybe it's the fact that he used to instantly purr when I picked him up or how he would wrap his paw around me when I would hold him or how he would stick out his long pink tongue when he got really happy.
I don't know what it is. I just know that I continue to miss it and him. And the missing isn't getting any better.