Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sun After Snow
Here in Boston we've waited nearly two years for this -- the joy of a Sunday morning with sun glinting on fresh snow. My camera skills don't do justice to the lacey detail of our Kausa dogwood. For as far as the eye can see, every twig, every marsh reed, every pine needle is encased in a coating of ice. Add to this blue skys and the sun at a very low horizontal angle -- and you have the makings of an art book.
The wind is picking up and the big old pines asre swaying. Every so often they shake free a load of ice which falls in little explosions, sparking as it settles.
It helps enormously that it is a Sunday. My only disagreeable chore is to pull on boots so I can make the journey to dig out the New York Times at the end of the driveway. Soon we are feasting on fresh chocolate croissants and Medaglia d'oro coffee, listening to Baroque music in the background. A perfect morning. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sixteen years ago today I left on a diplomatic voyage into hatred. I was headed to postwar Sarajevo, to be part of (so I thought) a diplomatic team trying to implement the newly signed Dayton Peace Accords. As often happens on short term postings, I came away with far more than I brought.
I had never thought much about hatred. Most Americans rarely encounter it. Now I regard hatred as an essential part of understanding foreign policy. It's hard to find good writing on it. Diplomatic texts are full of "constructive talks," and "dialogues based on partnerships."  Writers seem almost embarrassed to acknowledge this raw, least-understood emotion. 
As a society, we Americans are no strangers to violence. But much of it is random, from madmen with easy access to guns. After a shooting atrocity, all corners of American society unite to condemn the act. Not so with ethnic cleansing, which left entire villages of houses and barns systematically burned, hamlet by hamlet. This occured not in Asia; not in Africa. Not in Europe of 1944-45, but in Europe of the 1990s. Sarajevo.
I saw the results of ethnic cleansing first hand because, in that heavy winter of 1997, I could not get to my destination because of illegal roadblocks. I landed in Zagreb and then traveled overland, like most international staff going in and out of Sarajevo, in lightly-armored vehicles. The airport had never been an option, with its Swiss cheese-shelled runways that were years away from being serviceable. The overland route gave me a chance to see close-up what it looked like when a countryside had been emptied. At the time, some 4 million Bosnians and others from former Yugoslavia had fled to other parts of Europe. Empty villages were devoid of farm animals. The leafless trees of early January added to the lifeless feel. 
Even in downtown Sarajevo, local people were hard to find, overwhelmed as much by the many international security forces, rebuilders, and aid workers as by the heavy winter. Cars were scarce and all the trams had been blown up, so I walked nearly everywhere. As I ventured beyond the international corridor I began encountering people surviving in the ruins of Sniper Alley for another winter without heat, but smouldering in the knowledge of all they had lost.
Carl Bildt was in charge, and the U.S. enthusiastically endorsed Europe's effort to create a parliamentarian form of government. I joined Western diplomats in liaising with Bosnian MPs, booking them for trips to the U.S. to meet colleagues, and helping groups of visiting European Union parliamentarians connect during brief visits. Creating a parliament meant re-creating journalism as a means of carrying news of the parliament to the electorate, and herein I learned firsthand what hatred meant.
Joined by international colleagues, I met with some of the reporters who had worked in the newspaper building seen above, a much-reproduced iconic image of the toll of war in Sarajevo. Our mission was to bring Serb, Croat, and Bosniak reporters together to report on what we hoped would be an equally integrated parliament. Soros and other foundations had provided plenty of money.
"If a Serb comes here I will kill him," said one Croat television journalist. Her colleagues nodded grimly. No amount of international blandishments, trips to Vienna, Denmark, or Washington, would entice our colleagues to broaden their views.
We traveled to Pale, where our Bosnian staff would only accompany us on condition that we would never separate from them -- not even a meter. We traveled to Tuzla and to Banja Luka, and everywhere we heard the same resolute rejection. We let our E.U. colleagues speak of a brighter future for Bosnia, not excluding the possibility of E.U. membership, and we didn't have to wait for the translation to see how flat those offers fell.  
On the long drives back to Sarajevo, the grim words were reinforced by the empty villages we drove through. We returned utterly exhausted -- and defeated -- by the power of hatred. No amount of U.N., E.U., U.S., or "Western diplomacy" would influence people who could no longer hear anything but the reverberations of four long years of shelling.
Years later, I followed debates about the South African truth commission, a similar one in El Salvador, and many other permutations in other countries. What combination of exhaustion, goodwill, and positive outlook does it take for war-torn people to gamble on reconciliation? 
Each country finds its own answer in its own time. But it sure wasn't there that long winter of 1997 in Sarajevo.

Saturday, December 22, 2012


Winter has come to Brigantine and our project is now in hiatus until Spring. Earlier this month we took a break from the stonework to focus on the river, and we cleared out all the underbrush so we could have an unimpeded view of the marshgrasses and the water. I would like to remove a few more saplings and trim out some of the lower branches, but that will have to wait until the big project is complete.   
The stone above is the pride and joy of our architect who rapsodized over the indentation and dubbed this the "bird bath stone." It does indeed fill with water which gradually drains.  
The photo below represents one of the surprising elements of stonework -- the way it evokes other places. When I conceived the idea, I thought it would be very much in keeping with New England's traditional landscapes. But as I have watched the stone steps go up -- currently a staircase to nowhere -- it is reminiscent of nothing so much as the dry and dusty landscapes of Spain, with the imposing stone architecture of the paradores.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The mild autumn that saw us through our project is rapidly coming to an end. The temperature was in the low 40s today, but a biting wind made it feel much colder. The masons were out in force, and they took an elongated, indeterminate slab of granite and honed it into the fine steps you see above. The project manager chased all over the state to find this recycled granite, specially chosen to blend with the wall to the left. 
Tomorrow is likely to be the last day of the project for the year. The firm closes on Friday for the holidays, which is also the first day of winter. Given that Friday will be a day of freezing rain, tomorrow will mark the end of the season.
We are at a good stopping point. The driveway, although not permanent, is functional, and the stone that has been laid is now here forever. If there are unseasonably warm days in January, the masons might be back. They made a template of the serpentine stone wall and are now crafting the wall cap from the comfort of indoors. Still to come: lighting and irrigation. Last of all, of course, the plants.
But all that will have to wait until next spring.   
Tomorrow the blog will offer be a photo montage of where things stand at year's end.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Saying Goodbye to Endicott
This week I finish an 18-month stint at a lovely college on the North Shore. I will fondly remember Endicott as a safe harbor from which I weathered a major career change from diplomat to academic. I learned here (at least a little) about the mysteries of good teaching. I tried on a variety of roles: Professor of American Diplomacy; Professor of U.S. Higher Education; Professor of Modern European Studies. I taught undergraduates and doctoral students. I struggled to understand how technology could/should be incorporated into the classroom, worried about how to grade students' work, and pondered what to do when students simply would not read the magnificent Tony Judt book, Postwar. (OK, it was 945 pages).
In between the teaching, I oversaw international programs in Mexico and Madrid and experienced the difficulties of bridging the chasm between undergraduate and graduate programs. I created slide shows and syllabi. I saw organizational management theories unfold before my eyes, and I was dismayed to see that academia struggled with many of the same bad habits that proliferate in government: too many meetings; too many long meetings, and even meetings about meetings.
I created the kind of office that lives in every professor's mind. I brought in bookcases from home and spent my first autumn lugging in small parcels of books each day. I hung my degrees, added some maps, and tried to inhabit the role.
Alas, Endicott lies 57 miles from my home on the South Shore. While I could mitigate the effects of traffic on the drive in by leaving before dawn, I was often caught in going home traffic that would extend my commute to three hours. Harold's illness was a deciding factor -- I need to work closer to home. Thus I will "transfer" to Northeastern University at the start of the year, and meanwhile I have a few precious days of being between jobs.   

I leave with some small disappointments. Perhaps unrealistically, I had envisioned a new life in which the campus was not only my place of work, but also my playground. I imagined us attending concerts, lectures, dinner parties, and building, over time, an academic life. Subconsciously, I was clearly looking for a home.

But sadly, at this scenic school which boasts three beaches -- I was never once able to get to any of them. Reason enough for moving on.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


Yesterday we awoke to banging and a remarkably prolonged crash. The boulders were being delivered.
There are stones – refined things that sit sedately in their walls – and then there is Wild Rock. These are the elephants, the blue whales, the T-Rexes of the landscape world.  As big as small cars, traffic stopping, and sitting in my yard.

This collection – nearly a dozen – came from Western Massachusetts. They may as well have come from the moon, looking more like meteorites than anything from this world.
They were all chosen by the contractor, based on virtues specified by the architect. Size matters, but so does shape, proportion, and dimension. Color is important. Lichen is good. As are striations, fissures, and other geologic elements of interest. They pull me up out of my two dimensional world of often-unfurled landscape plans into the tangible third dimension in which everything has height and heft.

Suddenly we have left the tame, magazine-slick world of pretty lawns, manicured shrubbery, and carefully pruned specimen trees. Now we are in the realm of earth science with these artifacts of raw energy; matter at its most massive.  I think of Stonehenge, of Easter Island, of stellae personifying ancient gods. I think of these rocks as alive. 

Awe-inspiring they may be, but, as it turns out, they are here only on spec.  They sit like sprouted toadstools, awaiting the discerning eye of the architect, who will say which shall stay and which shall go. Talk about bringing the mountain to Mohammed.
He arrives. We exclaim over them in turn, giving each its due, and he pronounces his verdict. They shall all stay. He will incorporate them as found objects into the work.

So now I am now the bemused owner of a sculpture garden.   

Friday, December 7, 2012


Broken fences mark a time,
When men paced off the yards of pine.
Confident, they drew their lines,
Borderlands of hearts and minds.
Rusted wire strung by hand,
Casts a shadow on the land.
Cars of teens cross after dark,
To see the line and make their mark.
 Poorly lit and ill-defined,
Confusion over where’s the line?
Entire townships redefined,
Patriot Acts for the non-aligned.
The pointless flag, the unread sign,
A no man’s land of man’s design.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012



I can never think of the Hallelujah chorus without recalling one of the most unlikely performances it  ever inspired.  In 2005, Guatemala was the venue for my one and only foray across the invisible barrier from listener to performer as a true insider for Handel’s Messiah.
In the midst of a three-year tour, I was finding Guatemala a tough post. The crime took me by surprise. Every week brought news of appalling attacks against American citizens – and members of the Embassy community. In our first year, we left for a quick trip home at Christmas, only to learn our house had been burglarized. While we were away, a prison gang uprising deteriorated into scenes of decapitations and cannibalism. Our relatives were horrified and we returned with misgivings.

In the months that followed, the election campaign got ugly. General Efrain Rios Montt, perturbed by a court ruling that questioned his status as a candidate, trucked in thousands of partisans from rural communities.  He unleashed the infamous “Black Thursday” in which rabble shut down the country. Mobs went after journalists with particular vengeance, making the conflict very real to us inside the embassy, as reporters and contacts called in live descriptions of the scene in the streets. One reporter was doused with gasoline, another ran from a machete-wielding crowd only to drop dead of a heart attack before reaching safety.
The elections brought a better regime, but not before the former president fled to Mexico and several of his former cabinet were arrested. Everyone was staggered by the amount of money stolen. I found myself in danger of losing my respect for the country – something I’d not faced before as a foreign service officer, even in war-torn places such as Bosnia-Herzegovina. I’d always found ways to admire and appreciate things about the places in which I served. But this time I was struggling. 

I saw the ad for singers for The Messiah. I’m not much of a singer, but I can read music and hold a tune. I’m not much of a joiner, either,  but something about the preposterousness of the project appealed to me. Fortunately, auditions were not a prerequisite and I was soon folded into the altos. The group, more than half Guatemalan, rehearsed for months and suddenly I had a new place to be every Sunday afternoon.
The idea originated from an expat American woman from Alabama who missed hearing the familiar oratorio at Christmas and thought it could be a way to raise money for charity. She found a kindred spirit in a music teacher from one of the international schools, and they began a collaboration that continues to this day. The production builds slowly, Sunday by Sunday, as additional musicians come in, including Guatemala’s National Symphony, and finally the international soloists. 

I reveled in the language barrier. The Messiah is written in English, and there were more than a few smiles when we worked on “His Yoke is Easy,” which comes out “His Joke is Easy” when sung by Spanish-speakers. But it was the Guatemalans turn to gloat when the choir had to learn to roll the r in “Prince of Peace.”
We gave two performances. The first was in the overwhelmingly large National Theater, built during Guatemala’s long civil war and still bereft of a resident company. Mounting a program there must include the costs of cleaning and supplying toilet paper and soap for the restrooms, a down-to-earth reality I had never considered.  In the midst of the rainy season, the weather was terrible, but an undeterred crowd stood for hours waiting to purchase tickets. Like middle-schoolers, we kept peeking through holes in the huge velvet curtains in disbelief as people kept flowing in an hour after we were to have begun. We actually filled the hall.

The second performance, in gleaming contrast, was at a five star hotel in Antigua. The altar-stage glittered with masses of fairyland votive candles.  A posh venue, it lacked the warm connection with the audience we experienced the first night, but the colonial ruins made a romantic, if very un-Handel-like setting.
Anyone who has ever done any kind of theater can anticipate the end of this story. Through the magic of a live performance, I reconnected with the country. I met dozens of decent and talented Guatemalans from all walks of life, united by a love of choral music and the chance to do something really, really big.  The soloists sang brilliantly, the audience was bowled over, and after many curtain calls, abrazos, and tears, it was all over.

The criminal violence and political corruption were not over, of course. And they continue to plague a country that deserves better. But sometimes it is important to give music its due. Even, or perhaps especially, in the most unlikely places, it can bring people together like nothing else can.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Lessons in Progress and Patience
I keep thinking that I have learned the art of patience, and then I disappoint myself (and others) with some new evidence that I have yet to master it. Our stone wall is a case in point. Would that it were done, would that the driveway were paved. Despite our best efforts, the house is full of mud and dust, which sifts in the crevasses like gloom. I think to myself, with annoyance, that the masons have been building this wall forever.
I watched them add more courses, off and on, last Friday. They neither hurried nor stalled -- they kept at it steadily, no doubt glad for a day with a relatively high temperature, aware that the days are getting shorter, affording them less time in which to complete this project. 
I observed them selecting each stone from the massive pile, just out of range in the photo above. These stones are too big for hefting, but the masons run their hands and practiced eyes over them, and there is some trial and error in the selection. The process cannot be rushed.
I would like to have Harold's return home an accomplished fact. I would like to have the hills and mountain peaks of his recovery behind us, and I would dearly like our life to go back to normal.
It will take great patience for any of that to happen. It may never happen. We may find ourselves in "a new normal." His progress too, cannot be rushed.
Not only am I impatient by nature, but I hate change, I hate the chaos of illness -- the unpredictability, the underlying fright that comes at 3 am. What's going to happen next?
The damned wall answers me. We'll do it stone by stone. There are rainy days when the masons don't come at all, and days when I see no improvement in Harold. There are days when I work from dark to dark, and cannot evaluate the wall's progress, save for what is reflected in my headlights. But there are better days, too, when I am home at midday, the sun is out, and I am astonished at all that has happened while I've been at work all week.
The wall is fast becoming an irritating monument to patience. Despite my ill temper, I am starting to feel a kinship with it, as though, in due course, it will also be something friendly and welcoming. Something solid in a world of treacherous uncertainty.    

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

I see a lot of resumes and cv's in my job, and I've noticed that people are starting to list the number of countries they've been to as though it were a miscellaneous qualification.
I'm often nonplussed when I find the bullet point: Visited 33 countries. Is that a good thing? Is 33 a lot? How did he visit? Was it tourism or travel with a purpose? Did he learn the language? To see nothing but the phrase: "Visited 33 countries" seems like a provocation and leaves me with far too many unanswered questions. The higher the number, the more suspicious I become. Is this a succession of one night stands in someone else's land? Did he see anything besides an airport and  hotel? How much additional scenery would I consider enough? 
And no question is more likely to bring my children to blows than, "How many countries have you been to?" The problem is in the word "been." If the plane lands but you do not leave, have you been in the country? Literalists, like Gwyneth, would say absolutely. Or do you have to actually mill around in the airport, use the restroom, buy something? Eat at least one meal? Sleep overnight? Legalists like Gareth want to see a longer commitment. 
I sympathise with the desire to tally countries. I know full well that people collect countries the same way they collect stamps. Those of us who live in the U.S. have it especially rough -- it takes a long time just to get out of the U.S., let alone into any other country. Think how easily one can take on the Benelux -- a couple hours drive will give you three for your scorecard. 
Those scorecards come in many shapes. Some people put pins into maps. Gwyneth has a bracelet, (see above) with charms carrying the flag of every country she thinks she has ever been to. Every so often she's glad to add another link. Last summer it was Ecuador -- a full month of trekking, so no quarrels over whether she was really there; this year it will be Italy, with her Latin class, sizing up antiquities. 
As a middle schooler Gwyneth ran cross country in the Central and Eastern European Schools Association (CEESA) league. She ran through forests in the Ukraine as a 7th grader, and came in very respectable fourth, as I recall. And she is the only person I know who ran in meets in Albania not once but twice, so no one argues with her over those flags. But to get to Albania she had to travel through the airport in Bucharest. To get to Ecuador she had a layover in Costa Rica. Gwyneth sees them as part and parcel of the whole experience. Others (Gareth) sneer at their inclusion, seeing these stops as only a means to an end.
Who is right? As their mom, I stay out of this. What is certain is that Gwyneth's bracelet, begun many years go in Prague, is one of the her most cherished possessions.  She would tell you that it has 17 links, good enough for any resume. Gareth would tell you that Austria remains hotly disputed.   

Monday, November 26, 2012

                                                         photo by Gwyneth Jones
I have long been an admirer of people who can do things really, really well. The artist who can toss off a sketch on the back of a napkin that you'd actually like to frame. Pianists who can play anything by ear. It's the kind of talent that leaves the rest of us wondering -- how do they do that?   
I find people who can do miraculous things with their hands especially impressive. The sound of John Williams' fingers audibly sliding on his guitar strings is achingly affecting. The music is beautiful, but the sound of his fingers reminds me that it is a mere human making all that sound.
So now the masons have entered my life. They hail from far-away places such as Scotland (where they know a bit about stone), Ireland, and Portugal,and they have been doing this work for years. Today they arrived in sub-freezing weather at dawn's first light to tackle the piles of stones that had been deposited earlier, awaiting their touch. Soon I heard the ping of the chisels, bringing them to life.
Alas, it is my bad fortune that this project occurs in the shortest days of the year. I can greet these craftsmen, but then I must scurry off to work. By the time I get home they are long gone and it is dark. But Gwyneth was able to snap photographic evidence of today's progress-- the stones nicely line the driveway's edges.
I do not know yet if they will prove to be artists or just skilled craftsmen. I await the little grace note --- some extra flourish or lagniappe, that will show me they are not working for me, they are working for themselves. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

                                                                                                             photo by Gwyneth Jones
I've spent some time over the past week learning how to be a caretaker. Harold's time at Spaulding (from where the photo above was taken on an extraordinarily clear and windless Thanksgiving morning) is coming to an end, and we hope to have him back with us next week. However, his recovery is still very much in progress, and somehow I will have to substitute for the many people who currently take care of him, in different capacities, throughout the day.
The training is simple enough, but it has given me lots to ponder. It seems nearly all of us are caretakers at one point in our lives. Parenthood, of course, is a prime example. But eldercare is increasingly a responsibility that families take on, and while America will never have the extended family structure common in many parts of the world, more and more families are opting to take relatives into their homes.
The therapists at Spaulding are very concerned that I won't be able to handle it. I think they are wrong. I am sure there will be moments of frustration, but there is also the joy of bringing home an absent spouse after two whole months, and the sure and certain knowledge that Harold wants more than anything to come home. And why should he not? It is true my life is about to change, but as a veteran of the foreign service, my life was always changing. I am lucky in my children and I think Harold will rally when he finds himself back in his own surroundings.  
At the moment my greatest frustration is mechanical. I wasted two hours trying to install a toilet bar for a toilet that is not designed for the model. I am ready to throw the wrench across the room! I'm trying to get up the nerve to change a shower faucet from stationary to sprayer, (The package said "simple installation" and like fool I believed it. And now I've discovered I need a new drill to install the grab bars that must go into studs, and the stud finder that I know we used to have is nowhere to be found. The hospital people did not train me for any of this!
The irony is that Harold is the best man for these jobs -- he was always amazingly handy, and I never needed to learn how to do all this. But clearly, mastering installation is just one more life skill that I am now called upon to master, so back to the garage to resume the search for the stupid stud finder.     

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Robert Frost may famously have said that "something there is that doesn’t love a wall," but my love affair with the walls of New England is in full swing. As a newcomer, the proliferation of walls is one of the first things I noticed. In fact, it is said that there are more than 250,000 miles of walls in our region, so they are not exactly hard to come by.
I’ve become a student of the architecture of walls. By far the oldest and most common are the farmers' walls – the ones Frost speaks of. The story line of his poem speaks of how he and his neighbor walk the length of the wall each spring, replacing stones that have mysteriously fallen.
There’s really no mystery to it – frost heaves can move even gigantic boulders. Woodland creatures hunker through New England winters, the heat of their bodies creating further contrast between the freeze and thaw extremes. These farmers' walls have an honored place in the landscape, but for my taste, too many of them look like piles of rubble.
Then we have the other extreme – fake walls. Commercial establishments are full of these. They start out with breeze block or cinder block – the lowest of the low in the world of stone. Once in place workers affixed an exterior veneer of actual rock. Such fakery is easily spotted miles off. They contribute nothing to the aesthetic of New England and ought to be banned.
Then they are the stylish walls – the current vogue is for dry stacked stone; thin stones placed atop each other. This requires a bit of the mason’s art to plan and balance. It raises the larger debate about dry or wet mortar. People come down hard either way. Purists claim mortar is a travesty; pragmatists point to Robert Frost’s problems with stones falling out each season. I sympathize with Frost – a stone wall ought to be a living thing, surrounded by fields and trees, and susceptible to subtle changes.  And it ought to be possible to be permanent without being so rigid about it.
At long last I am getting my own stone wall. It will be artistic rather than primly utilitarian in true New England fashion, but it will be honed and chiseled and pushed into shape by real masons using real granite. The first stage is the giant pile sitting in the middle of my yard.
I look at it each day in wonderment. What magic will turn this pile into the wall of my dreams?

Monday, November 19, 2012

No meal is harder than Thanksgiving. It lacks the sparkle of New Year's Eve, the elegance of Christmas dinner, or the casual spontaneity of a summer grilled feast. Thanksgiving is burdened with too many uninspired ingredients -- the pterodactyl-sized turkey; gravy, always difficult to do well; cranberries; assorted root vegetables; and the culinary oddity of pumpkin pie.
Many of these foods are eaten only once a year, and Thanksgiving brings them on with abundance. Thus it is no surprise I began hearing signs of insurrection two weeks before the big event.
"What, turkey again?"
"Can we have steak instead?"
"I hate pumpkin pie."
"I hate mashed potatoes."
"What are yams and why do we have them?"
"Couldn't we just get Chinese?"
"Can we get a really, really big turkey?"
"Could we have no turkey?"
"You should definitely brine the turkey."
"This is the year for tur-duck-en."
"Let's deep fry it this time."
"Let's have ham instead."
So, we agreed to have a nice dinner and not worry about what we are "supposed" to have. But tradition has a way of sneaking up one you. First it was C.J. and Ellie's art classes. They produced quantities of cute little turkey objects designed to serve as centerpieces for the table. They sing turkey songs at school. They expect to see a turkey.
Then it was the additional guests -- one who is a victim of Hurricane Sandy. I'm sorry, but someone whose home has been without power deserves better than Chinese takeout.
Then it was all those side dishes. It turns out people like them.
"I hate turkey but I really love the stuffing you made last time."
"We can still have the wild rice dish, right?
"You're going to make homemade rolls, aren't you?"
Thus tradition wins. The photo above, which has absolutely nothing to do with turkey, shows HOME, amidst the long shadows of late autumn, which is where everyone wants to be.  Home with an almost-completed driveway.
Although Harold will not yet be with us, his time at Spaulding is coming to an end, and we are  hoping very much that he will be home -- the best place in all the world -- for the next big holiday, Christmas. All of us will be so very glad to see him at the head of the table we would gladly eat McDonald's just for the pleasure of his company once again. With any luck, all the turkey leftovers will be gone!      

Saturday, November 17, 2012


In an age of too many kindles, it is a relief to attend something as well-worn as the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair. I went last night with our daughter Andie, and we knew where we were long before we got to the door. We found ourselves in a sea of middle-aged men in tweeds of every hue. One even sported a monocle.

Exhibitors came from many of the world’s corners. There was an overabundance from Maine, several from east coast states, and one from Santa Monica. European booksellers came in droves from the U.K., but also from Denmark, The Netherlands, Spain, Germany, and France.
No matter their origin, they all arrived slightly rumbled, professorial, and owlish. Never have I seen a group of people inhabit their role more fully than these booksellers, who skirted as close to the edge of self-parody as is possible. When I tired (if that is possible) of the books, I began eavesdropping on their conversations. They spoke knowingly of provenance, frowned in troubled ways over bindings, and proudly pulled out their very best selections under the tablecloths for their friends. They sipped wine (where did they get it?) and in one or two cases, sherry. It was clear they all knew each other, clubbable men from another era.  
It was laughably clear that we were amateurs. Sellers courteously asked us if were were looking for anything special. How to reply? "Just looking" is what you say in a clothing store."Just drooling," was more like it. We examined signed first editions by Aldous Huxley, Julian Barnes, and Charles Bukowski. We read a letter from Henry James to his publisher. And held in our hands a signed volume from Winston Churchill, in an odd fountain pen script, to a his dear friend.

It was easy to gravitate toward the "pretty" books, bound in red Moroccan leather with gold leaf and ribbed spines with familiar names. We saw Jane Austen titles, over and over. And in between all the books, scores of antique maps, incunabula, artist’s books, and even a Nobel prize medal from 1959.

Clearly, many of these books are art objects, skillfully hand-crafted, sometimes with hand-made paper and hand-sewn bindings. Many of them carried lush illustrations that drew the reader further into the story. It made me realize that books from our era never carry illustrations, a factor that may be more of a loss than I realized.

These books raise a disturbing question -- are they actually meant to be read? Over and over I had to resist a life long habit of pulling down books and reading in them. Then, with a start, I'd realize that this was not Barnes and Noble. As collectibles, these books had an entirely different role.

Or do they? Some would argue that they are no different from coins, stamps, or fine china. But their dual purpose suggests otherwise. No one would be so stupid as to use a rare stamp to mail a letter, but one could, as least theoretically, read these books. It might take white gloves and a "clean room,"  but it would be a qualitatively different experience than reading the words on a Kindle, while riding the subway to work in the morning.

To that end, one could wear tweed, sip a sherry, sit in a library in an over-stuffed leather chair in front of a crackling fire.

 I know which I would prefer. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


This photo of Harold was taken late last summer. He's sitting sideways, for some reason, in his favorite chair, surrounded by his books, his cat, and NPR playing in the background. The photo is a reminder of all the good times we had last summer: on the Cape, with family, and on the deck overlooking the river.

It occurs to me that it is increasingly possible that Harold's story will have a happy ending. Or, like the proverbial cat, he still has many of those nine lives left. He is patiently and steadfastly recuperating from the stroke he suffered. His determination impresses all those who work with him at the rehab hospital, and he is lucky to have a remarkably resilient body.

Today I visited toward the end of his physical therapy hour and was surprised to learn that he had already walked three laps around the 9th floor. I watched him walk a fourth lap and saw that there was no difference in gait with his left and right legs. His speed has not quite reached the level of "strolling" yet, but he had a good, easy rhythm. He is finding it easier to chat, and the islands of fluency his speech and language therapist mentioned are more and more apparent.

Strokes are mean, insidious things, but Harold's surprising progress reminds me of the old half-empty glass. I can focus on how unfortunate it is that he suffered this stoke, or I can focus on his amazing courage and adaptability as he fights his way back to what he calls "normal" once more.

Obviously, he's the one calling the shots and, eternal optimist that he is, it is newly clear to me that he wants me to focus on how far he's come in six weeks, not on how much he lost. I will try to remember to take another photo of him in that same chair a year from now, in the hope that he will look every bit as good.  

Comeback stories are inspirational at any age, and Harold deserves all the credit in the world for his own remarkable journey. 

Monday, November 12, 2012


Ellie and C.J. arrived Friday afternoon, just after the workers had parked all the big rigs for the day.  The late afternoon sunlight on an unseasonably warm autumnal day made this work-in-progress a perfect place to try out all the equipment.

Children always contribute a valuable perspective. While I stress about completion dates, styles of masonry, and above all, how much this is going to cost, Ellie and C.J. delight in discovering each new stage when they come on Fridays. They check out the tractors right after the chocolate milk but before the heart waffles. 

Children love routines, and doing something unusual once is often sufficient to establish it as customary. Since I took their pictures one Friday afternoon, I am told that I "always" take their pictures on Friday afternoons. This is now an important part of the ritual. Shameless hams, they eagerly bound from one tractor to the next and vie for the most outlandish poses. 

We part company, however, on our attitudes toward completion. While C.J. and Ellie will be heartbroken when the tractor finally goes back to whatever construction yard it came from, I will be cheering because at long last, our project will be at an end!

But I fear we have many more Fridays before that happy days arrives.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

In Between Two Storms

My 57-mile daily commute is testimony to the reality of microclimates.

I left this morning amidst limb-cracking winds and temperatures in the low 40s. As I made my way north, I ran through the entire wintry mix repertoire: freezing rain, sleet, slush, snow, and back to wintry mix, and finally rain.

Some people will tell you that we got the first snow of the year today, but it did not snow at Brigantine. The storm did, however, rain, howl, and wreak havoc all night long. The workers picked up the pace on Monday and Tuesday to compensate for the impending hiatus. As a result we've lost the wild look of a Jurassic Park with gigantic two-storey pine roots upended into the air -- they're all gone.

Now we look like a highway project. At least three differnt kinds of gravel, substrata, aggregate, and other road building materials are being poured over and into the new driveway. Thanks to the time change I am never home in the daylight, but Gwynnie was good enough to conribute this photo of a dump truck.

We should have a spate of good weather and deliveries next week of the long-awaited stones with romantic place names like Cape Ann, Old York, Ashlar, and Belgian Cobbles.
Yet to come -- the breaking up of the old driveway.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Please to remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason, and plot.
I see no reason that gunpowder treason,
Should ever be forgot.

Thirty years ago today, Harold and I were married by Winslow Christian, a state Appellate Court Judge, in his San Fransisco office. We had met him earlier that year on a USIA-sponsored U. S. Speakers tour in Peru and Chile. He and Harold served on panels explaining how reporters, lawyers, and judges interact in newsworthy court cases.

Over the years we've had a lot of fun associating our anniversary with Guy Fawkes Day, a holiday nearly unknown in the U.S., but one associated with very un-anniversary like images of fireworks, bonfires, and "burning the guy" in effigy. 

Like any marriage, our has had its share of fireworks, but the years sneak by and suddenly here we are, celebrating 30 years together. I honestly don't remember how we celebrated the previous 29. A few are memorable, a few were probably marred by forgettable skirmishes. But this year is tough, because we are not exactly together, physically, as Harold continues to recover at a rehabilitation hospital. But as it turns out we were both very mindful of the day.

I started out thinking the best way through was to "forget" it was our anniversary and treat it as a normal day. I had plenty of work to keep me busy and it would have been relatively easy to have gotten lost in all the demands of meetings, reports, and classes.

But, in a wonderful tribute, our children wouldn't let either of us forget. "Happy Anniversary," was the first thing Gwyneth said to me this morning. Then she sent me a valentine's text, fearing I would be sad. And Gareth visited his dad, since I could not, and strolled into his room reciting, "Please to remember the fifth of November." He reported that Harold instantly grasped the significance of the phrase, looked utterly panic-stricken, and said the only possible word under the circumstances: "Flowers?"

To hear that my dear husband recognized the rhyme, still knows the meaning it has for us, and is desperate to buy me flowers is the only anniversary present I need. 


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Welcome to Jurassic Park!

It's hard to capture in a single photo all the mayhem of our front yard. In addition to the big piles of dirt, we have massive tree roots -- the remains of six behemoths -- strewn about. Wires, cords and small trenches make this treacherous. But of course, the machinery makes it more fun than a playground. Our grandchildren C.J.and Ellie are happily dwarfed by the big shovel, above.

The Norwell Board of Selectmen postponed Halloween because of the hurricane -- at one point 80% of the town was without power. We had our Halloween on Saturday and despite, or perhaps because of all the upheaval, we had just as many treat-or-treaters as ever. One of Gwyneth's friends took an appreciative look at all the destruction, and said, "it looks like you've got Jurassic Park here."

All in all, we managed to create a yard scene for Halloween far scarier than anything as conventional as skeletons or witches. And indeed, we are a big attraction. Although I am away at work all day, I hear that the neighbors set out lawn chairs and cold drinks cases for their front row seats at the proceedings. So I guess we can be proud of our big mess.

Once again we are racing the weather. A Nor'easter comes in on Wednesday, so Monday and Tuesday are supposed to be big progress days. The idea is to truck in masonry and truck out all the lumber in a tactical tour de force.

I"ll keep you posted.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Our Newest Vehicle

The thing about starting a project is that you end up acquiring so much more than you bargained for. This is the first of two pieces of heavy machinery which now live in our driveway. I was equally  surprised to learn that our landscaping project comes with a lovely new bathroom addition -- otherwise known as an outhouse!

The contractors have planted more flags on the lawn than you'd see at a touch football game. Blue for water, orange for gas, pink for Comcast cable, yellow for electrical, and I'm not even sure what the white ones are for.  Next to be delivered: septic system D-box with leader line.

This is what comes of reading those lovely gardening magazines. All I wanted was a few flowers. Really.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


We have some truly magnificent white pines. Some of them have been on the land for more than two centuries. They have the massive size that goes with all those years, and they are truly part of the charm of the place. But trees and hurricanes do not mix, and at the height of yesterday's storm our son Gareth heard an almightly crack and felt the ground shake as the tree, seen above, came down. Our daughter Andie had parked opposite the orange cone and had just pulled away minutes earlier. 

The tree fell on power lines and that, in turn, led to the inevitable power outage -- along with 15 seconds of unexpected fame. The downed tree in front of our house brought out the Boston Globe, and while watching the work crews, I was interviewed briefly for a video segment.

Here's the link:  The Metrodesk story has a side bar with the video interview under the heading: "Trees Down in Norwell."

The irony is, we are about to undertake a major project to install a semi-circular driveway and some of the trees were going to come out anyway. In addition to power trucks in the front yard, the contractors just parked, if that is the right word, a giant caterpillar tractor in the side yard.  Our own little version of the Big Dig is about to begin.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Today we are watching the drama of Hurricane Sandy strip the lovely autumn leaves from the trees, but just a day ago, at dawn, the mist rose up from the North River, softening the landscape edges. Although the marsh grass had already turned golden red, the predominant color was still green.

Not so today, as successive waves of rain and wind blow across the river.  Pine cones are bouncing off the roof and there is a constant, almost motorized sound of wind grinding in the background.

As the storm moves closer, the pine cones are the least of it -- entire branches are now flying across the yard. These are followed by period of stillness. But then, almost like contractions, the space between the gusts shortens and more dead and weak wood is ripped from the trees. The power cannot last, but Gwyneth's brownies in the kitchen smell as if they are done.