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Holiday Greetings, 2018!

December 29, 2018

When in 1984, Marion, James’ Mom, designed their family home in Corinth, Maine, a small rural bedroom community of about 2800 people currently, Marion had no doubt as to where the living room would be placed.  Marion believed in the long-game; she was planning for their retirement still some 25 years off.  She wanted peace.  When her husband, Robert, completed with his own hands the building, the room was located on the backside away from the road.  Marion knew from observing her mother-in-law and from personal experience what happens when the everyday traffic in a small town becomes the topic of too many conversations!  It is yet uncertain as to whether Robert’s second wife, Dianne, has contemplated the ramifications of Marion’s design wizardry on her current living situation.

On this similar line of thinking, Gregory grew up in Hancock, Wisconsin, an even smaller rural town with roughly 400 residents today, in a home dating back to the pre-Civil War era—the kind of 1853 structure which had the living room situated to view the road traffic, or at least the fields and forest nearby.  As such, hearing his parents commenting with “looks like Jim got a new truck” or “Rod is heading up to the cemetery to mow” were common conversations, decade after decade.  On a congested day, a tractor may go by.

We live with an intersection in front of our Madison home; Spaight St. and Paterson St. cross at the edge of our little world.  Since, just the same, this is a side street on the isthmus of Madison (another larger lake is only a few blocks away at the other end of Paterson), our corner is rather sedate when it comes to vehicular traffic.  (Well, at least it is most of the time.  That summer of road construction brought us quite a few more ‘tourists’ in the area, and a significant amount of dust.)  There are, however, always an ample number of people who pass our way on foot or bike.  Foot traffic is encouraged by the 13-mile bike trail leading around Lake Monona, the lake which comprises our view from the front lawn.  Since we spend time each day in the warm months reading or working out in our Adirondack chairs, we talk with a fair share of the neighborhood.  Moreover, because our home too is situated as to better see this intersection, and James is powerless to keep the incessant traffic reports from coming his way, we thought that this year we might introduce you to some of the special people who hurry about our home, but who stop by just long enough to enrich our lives.

Henry is three years old and wears the sharpest pair of dark green glass frames.  They are strapped to his head so his youthful hi-jinks will not send them flying.  He most often holds his grandmother’s hand and is always pointing out the wonders of the day.  During the raking of our fall leaves Henry approached, with his dad who wears very bight blue-framed lenses.  Henry grinned sheepishly up at Gregory; Henry made particular notice of the large pile of leaves.  His shiny white teeth shone bare and made it very clear what he desired.  He left his dad behind and lunged for a soft landing on the lawn.  Kerplop!  After a fair amount of kicking about, he rejoined his dad and they continued their afternoon stroll.  A short distance down the block, Henry leaves his dad behind, comes running back, giggling, and clearly needing one more tumble.  Climbing out from beneath the yellows and browns of the maple leaves, nodding at us knowingly, he composes his contented self, straightens his little jacket, and heads back to where his dad awaited.  (When out shopping we often see things that seem too perfect not to buy, even though we ourselves will not use them.  That is how we came to have a kite kit in our home.  There will always be the kid in the neighborhood that seems suited for our spontaneous purchases.  Henry was the kid and the sunny fall day when he tip-toed across the top of our rock retaining wall, the perfect time.  His grandmother said she had not flown a kite in years but that she was looking forward to the experience.  We apologized for being unable to conjure the wind.  The lesson is that it is never too old to be young.)

We also appreciate generosity in others.  When some boys passed our way with fishing poles, we shared in the typical conversations about what was caught.  They were too young to tell tall tales about ‘the fish that got away’.  Just good kids.  A few days later, a woman rings our doorbell and says one of the boys, her son, wanted us to have some of the previous day’s haul.  She handed over a freezer bag with fish chunks.  She told us of how much her son had enjoyed swapping stories with us—that we had made him feel like he was truly important.  We sure did enjoy the blue gill filets!

From fishing on the shores of Lake Monona, to climbing trees, our neighbors can do it all.  Eleven years ago this summer, we dug a truly impressive hole in the front yard to allow for the root ball on a tree.  A sugar maple, roughly 5 feet in height at the time, had been offered to us as a welcome gift by a neighbor, Gary, who lives on the next block—we could have the rather tall sapling as long as we could transport it home ourselves.  Up the street we carted the large container in a wheelbarrow of questionable strength.  That maple is today about 35 feet tall.  Late last fall, we returned from grocery shopping to find a note on our front door—a fan letter for the tree.

A young man–who is a forester and who is named Forrest–had strolled countless times by our home gazing up the tree and, while admiring it, also noted it needed to be structurally pruned and allowed to grow in a more healthy fashion.  In his letter to us, he offered to come and do the job as an expression of gratitude for sharing our gardens and trees with the neighborhood.  So, on a Sunday afternoon this spring before the vernal freshet opened up the Yahara River and Lake Monona, Forrest showed up with his equipment and set to scaling the tree.  He climbed effortlessly that tree to the top.  He wanted nothing for his time other than to shape the tree and be able to see it continue to grow in the years to come.  We were happy to oblige, and repaid his kindness with a good book—a tree in a different form.

Speaking of hard wood and trees, we were responsible this year for the transformation of a certain quantity of oak.  Elliott, who used to reside across the street from us, is a cabinet-maker of unquestionable skill.  A year ago, he helped us to create floor-to-ceiling bookshelves for the office.  We love the additional space that they allowed us, and don’t mind climbing a three-set ladder to get to those top shelves.  This fall, Elliott returned to construct for us bookcases and desks, filling the other side of the 8 X 10 office space that we have.  The work surface is considerably larger, the cabinets under the desk quite a bit broader, and the shelves allowed James to bring all of his ‘old friends’ out of basement storage (some 1500 novels that James had brought back from France in a football duffle bag).  The office is tiny, but so efficiently designed and built that we are both quite comfortable working in there.  Gregory has the window to his right, and James has for storage and files what passed for a closet in this old Victorian to the left.  The two work zones are separated by cabinetry that gives the impression of a reception desk.  We’re trying to decide now, though, which of us most closely resembles Carol Burnett’s Mrs. Wiggins, and who is Tim Conway’s Mr. Tudball.

The interesting and engaging people who crossed our way at times this year were not all ‘locals’.  James family made our summer brighter too.  In June, James’ father, Robert, and Robert’s second wife, Dianne, came to town in their motorhome, intent on driving all the way from Maine to Yellowstone National Park and back.  They spent a pair of days with us, taking in the sights of the city from the roof deck of the State Capitol, enjoying the farmer’s market, and setting sail aboard the Betty Lou Cruise, which proffers a view of our home from the water rather than by land.  It was a wonderful time.  Robert had not been to Madison to visit since he was here last in 2007 with Marion, James’ Mom.  We had only just moved in at that point, so we were glad he could see the improvements we had made to the house since then.

James’ twin sister, Melissa, her husband, Kermit, and a cousin of Kermit’s, Sue, came later in their motorhome, tracing the same journey west as Robert and Dianne.  They were here for the Fourth of July to watch the fireworks with us from the banks of the lake.  We visited a local museum dedicated to trains and attempted to see a living circus museum.  On the hottest day of summer, we all went to the local zoo to see the polar bears in their new enclosure.  The peace of watching the graceful beasts paddle around their refrigerated pool was only interrupted by the sounds of an overly amorous pair of tortoises.  We did discover something interesting about their truck’s onboard navigation system.  When we got the banks of the Wisconsin River in Merrimack, WI, and were ready to board a ferry to cross, the navigation system got a bit anxious and encouraged us to turn around and find an alternate route so that we wouldn’t end up in the drink!  We assured the system that we were going to be ok, got out of the truck and purchased some ice cream cones at the little shop at the ferry terminal, and continued merrily on our way.

Before closing this letter, we did think we should mention at least some of our furry friends from the neighborhood.  Our property, and flower gardens located on the terrace (that area between the street and the sidewalk) are marked by the local dogs.  It is as though they all need to hit ‘reply all’ to the ‘pee mail’ that is left for them by every other critter who wanders by here.  How anything grows in that area is a mystery.  One dog, a large Newfoundland named Olive, will come and sit at the edge of our property and gaze out at the lake.  From the size of her, her owner is compelled to give her time and to wait patiently.  Olive does not budge if she doesn’t want to move!  Another of our friends, Callie, is a good old dog who lives with our neighbor, Linda, across the street.  Callie likes to come over and thoroughly wet our knees with affectionate kisses in summer.  She rather thinks that we are a ‘part of her pack’ and is not a fan of those days when Linda tries to rush her past our corner to get home more quickly.  Callie hasn’t been feeling so well as of late, so if you have some healing energy that you’d like to send out in to the universe for her, we sure would appreciate that too.

We hope in the coming year that if you should find your way to the Midwest that you will consider stopping by our home and visiting for a spell.  As Gregory forever tells people, the tea kettle is always on!  (Come when James isn’t trying to get paperwork done in our office, and he will offer you a glass of wine, like civilized people!)  Bring a suggestion for a good book along with you… we’re always on the lookout for a new title!

Merry Christmas to one and all!


The Sig Heil salute is Not a Joke

November 13, 2018

The world today watched twitter as photos of Baraboo High School seniors, in Baraboo, WI, raised their hands in a Sig Heil, the Nazi gesture that meant the destruction of so many lives in World War II Europe. There are unconfirmed reports that the photographer and some of the students apparently felt the photo was a joke, that it was somehow in good fun. One student is also seen with his fingers curled in a white nationalist symbol by his waist. One student did not participate, nor could he, in that salute, and I am writing this letter to him and to all the others like him across our country who will not stand for intolerance. I am writing to say that the Sig Heil absolutely is not a joke.

Baraboo High School
1201 Draper St.
Baraboo, WI 53913

November 12, 2018

Dear Mr. B.,
We are simply shocked and dismayed while watching the evening news tonight. There is hope though. My husband, Gregory, joins me in saluting you this evening for your bravery in not following the herd mentality that led your classmates to raise their hands in a Sig Heil and your courage today for speaking out against the behavior. We recognize how difficult it is not to do what everyone else is doing at times but we feel much gratitude for those, like you, who will not stand for intolerance. We appreciate those, like you, who will speak up for the rest of us. We value your decency. We send our munificent thanks.

Gregory and I both grew up gay in small towns, he in Wisconsin and I in rural Maine. We know first hand what it means to be mercilessly bullied and picked on for being different. We survived those high school years by believing that it would one day get better, that one day we could chart our own course. We were right, and we hope that you understand that as well. While bullying is terrible all in itself, what we hoped never to see happen was that a group of people such as your classmates would be so cavalier about the dangers of hatred that they would participate in the display we all witnessed on the evening news. The “it’s just a joke” rationale is not at all to be accepted. The behavior is dangerous and frightening.

My doctoral studies were in French and Spanish and I have worked my entire career to teach and educate young people just like you to think about themselves as a part of the global community. I have sought to help young people think about the world around them from other points of view. I have spoken in my courses about the Holocaust survivors whom I have met and been friends with over the years. I lived in France and knew many Jewish survivors; I have seen the numeric tattoos on their arms: I have heard their stores of hiding in attics and basements before being caught and sent to Auschwitz, lucky to have survived only because the Americans arrived only hours before the gas chambers were to be filled to capacity, just like every other day of their existence. I have spent time with Jehovah Witnesses who were tortured and beaten and sent to labor camps; they continue today to suffer physically as a result. I have met families whose homosexual sons were used by the Nazis in medical experiments from castration to frontal lobotomy to worse. Most, their families told me, would have preferred the gas. And, my time in Spain showed me the horrors of their Civil War and Fascism there. The doorman at my apartment building in Spain had no arms—his were amputated in the war as punishment for not having saluted with a Sig Heil like everyone else had when he dictator passed his troop. The Nazis sought to rid their world of not only the Jewish, but the homosexual, the Jehovah Witness, the Catholic, the Roma (gypsies), the mentally disabled… anyone who was different. These stories aren’t just made up to fill your history textbooks. I have met the survivors and I have wept openly with them.

In other words, thank you for not participating in that grotesque display we saw in photos, even if it was meant to be in jest. It simply is not something that can be explained away as a joke. It simply cannot.

Thank you for your strength and courage.

James R. Wilson

Elegy for First Lady Barbara Bush

April 18, 2018

1990 Barbara Bush and Millie

Barbara Bush, First Lady; James R. Wilson, soon-to-be student of Middlebury College.  She, resident of Kennebunkport, Maine; me, from a small town north of Bangor.  What could we possibly have had in common?

As a high school student, my sister and I were participants in the Upward Bound program, part of the Federal TRIO programs which encourage low-income, first generation students to not only complete high school but to obtain post-secondary degrees from universities across the country.  (Upward Bound proved to be life changing for me—no so much in helping me to advance my academic goals because I had always known I wanted to be a doctor.  Initially, of course, I thought I would be a doctor of medicine, but then Fluffy had her kittens under the headboard of my parent’s bed and cured me of that thought!  As luck would have it, a doctorate can be obtained in many disciplines.)  In my second, and final year, in the UB program, Alan Parks, the program’s director and my friend today, took all of the necessary steps for me to be trained and work for Literacy Volunteers which had offices in the basement of the Bangor Public Library.  I was seventeen at the time, certainly an unorthodox volunteer age for an organization which was generally run by retirees who had spare time on their hands.

Alan, a great teacher in his own right, first obtained their training manual for me, which I read assiduously and intently, and then arranged for transportation for me from the University of Maine campus in Orono to the Bangor office where I learned more about the methods that the Literacy Volunteers used to teach people how to read.  I was preoccupied at that stage in my life with the idea that better communication would lead to life being better for everyone—my Valedictory Address to my graduating class in 1991 was even on the topic.  I was also saddened to think that I could read in three languages by then and there were those who still couldn’t read in one.  I knew I could make a difference.  (I mention that I was just awarded the distinction of Faculty Emeritus recently after retiring from twenty-one years in the classroom.)  I was seventeen years old, ready to be helpful to someone, and I liked the ideas contained in the Literacy Volunteer’s handbook but did not agree with all of them.  I kept the good and banished the bad.

I met my first student, Tim, that summer.  Tim was about my age then.  He had some special learning challenges which had made it more than difficult to learn to read in the traditional high school classroom setting where he was a student.  His Mother, Anne, was looking for any additional support that she could get for him, hoping to break the log-jam in his progress.  He and I met a few times in the library and began to work on sight-reading basic words that Tim needed and, more importantly, wanted to know how to read.  My idea at the time, contrary to what my training had indicated, was not to force him to read silly text such as Dick and Jane, but to encourage him to read what interested him.  There had to be something which inspired him to want to read more.  As it turned out, he was as interested in cooking as I was, so we began with ingredient lists and words he might need in the kitchen.  He learned to read words that represented dangerous kitchen items, those under-the-sink products he needed to avoid, and those words which represented components of something delicious.  We swapped recipe ideas—I gave him some of mine to read, and he had me help him write one that he really wanted to know how to make better from his own Mom’s collection.

After my summer with Upward Bound concluded, I had suspected that I wouldn’t see him again, but his Mother felt that he was really connecting with me and that he was finally making some progress.  Anne would drive him twenty-five miles through the back roads of Maine to my house where we had lessons upstairs at my desk that Dad had built for me in the dormer of my bedroom.  Anne stayed downstairs and became fast friends with my Mom.  I love Anne.  I have never missed taking the opportunity to visit with her at her Hampden home whenever I am home in Vacationland.  We’ve been friends now almost thirty years.

At the same time, I was so bored with high school and had free time in my day, having taken most ever elective that I could get in to my schedule to replace study halls the other three years I was at Central, that I took a walk from the high school to my former elementary school to teach basic French to a group of fourth graders there.  When I graduated, one of my pupils gave me a copy of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a wonderful little text with a Messianic overtone.  In the cover of the book, she had taped a quarter.  She inscribed the book, letting me know that it was one of her favorites and that she hoped I would enjoy it too.  The quarter?  She said, “Take this.  I know you will need it to help pay for college next year.”  I never spent it.  The quarter is in my jewelry case next to all my cuff links and tie tacks.  (I got a letter from her years later as she was graduating and planning on becoming a teacher.  She says that her choice was all because of the work that I did to inspire her to see beauty in words.  I was honored to get her note.)

In looking for colleges, I was seeking academic and intellectual challenge.  I knew I wanted to study languages and be able to communicate with the French Canadians who landed on Old Orchard Beach, Maine in the summers.  I wanted to be able to converse and understand people from places I could never have dreamed of visiting.  I wanted to be among other ‘smart kids’ for once.  Most notably, I needed to be outside of my hometown.  I found that in Middlebury College and applied ‘early decision’.  It was the only school to which I had applied, and was accepted before Christmas that year, making any other applications unnecessary.  I wouldn’t decide to be a teacher for another number of years yet.

But how does any of this relate to the former First Lady Barbara Bush?

I wasn’t quite eighteen years old yet.  I was busy applying for scholarships and grants to fund my college experience.  Anne must have said something particularly glowing about me to the Literacy Volunteers people, or perhaps to Alan.  One day, in the mail when I got home from school was an unexpected surprise.   I was invited to have lunch at the Blaine House, the Governor’s mansion in Maine, at the behest of Governor John “Jock” McKernan, Jr. to celebrate the work I was doing as the State’s youngest literacy educator.  It was an odd invitation, though.  The Governor and his wife, Senator Olympia Snowe, stated that they were going to be unable to attend.  The Governor was mourning the loss of his son.  Peter had died only a few months earlier of a previously undetected heart problem. He had collapsed during baseball practice at Dartmouth College. He was 20 years old.  No, the luncheon invitation wasn’t for the Governor or his wife, the Senator.  He hoped that I wouldn’t mind having lunch with a friend of his.

I was forever participating in some activity which kept me out of school.  Perfect attendance was not an award I coveted in the slightest.  Mom agreed that no matter who would be at the luncheon, that we would enjoy a day in the State Capitol and nearby museum.  I dressed in the new blue J. C. Penney suit my grandmother had purchased for me to wear at graduation later that spring.  I put on an attractive blue striped tie which I bought special for the occasion, fastened to my lapel the Mickey Mouse pin that my Sunday School teacher, Lorraine Elliott, had given me for Christmas one year and my nicest shoes.  (The lapel pin is next to the quarter in my jewelry case.)  Mom and I drove and hour and a half to the Capital city in the big blue truck my Dad had.

The Blaine house is an elegant old mansion.  We were excited to be able to visit it, and dreamt of meeting the former Governor Brennan there and play a round of billiards with him.  I was a fairly good shot, though held no illusion that I would ever win against the famed billiard shark that the former Governor was.  We were instead, greeted by the Blaine House staff, given a tour of the Governor’s mansion and shown to a small private dining room.  We still had no idea as to whom we were to lunch with that day.

I had the distinct honor of sharing lunch with one of Maine’s most famous residents.  A gentleman in a nice tuxedo, white gloves, came in to the dining room and asked if I would mind rising to meet the First Lady of the United States, Barbara Bush.  Blue Dress.  Large pearl earrings and stunning string of pearls around her neck.  White gloves.  She embraced my Mother and me fondly and said that she was so pleased be able to meet me at long last, that she had heard much about me from the Governor and his wife.

We enjoyed a light lunch and delightful conversation.  She was genuinely very interested in my ideas for literacy, and was curious as to why someone my age, someone 48 years her junior, was so preoccupied about language education.  She listened intently as I shared my educational goals and plans for the future.  Barbara Bush, for a few short hours, genuinely made me feel very valued and cared for, that my goals were laudable and achievable.  She sincerely dedicated the few hours we spent together, Mom, Barbara and me, to making me feel like the most valued resident of the State of Maine.  She was warm, caring and very much a lovely conversationalist.  We parted ways when she said jokingly that she needed to get back to Kennebunkport to let Millie, her dog, out for a run!  (She was expected at a fundraising event later that day.)

Later that month, a letter arrived at the house, in a brown manila envelope with the simple marking “The White House” in the return address.  Mrs. Bush had sent me the following letter, which I framed and have kept with me all these years.

While I had differences with her husband politically and would prefer never to mention her son’s name again for as long as I live, First Lady Bush was nothing but grace, charm and warmth.  She left me feeling after our luncheon together that I was truly someone who was making a difference in the lives of others, and that she suspected that my life would be dedicated to such a pursuit.  She left me with the impression that she truly was my friend.  I thank her for that kindness and care.  I for one will mourn her loss, and hope that others will have had the opportunity to be made to feel as special by someone in their lives as Barbara Bush made my eighteen-year-old self appreciate.

Barbara Bush Letter 1991 closer


The Power of Friendship

March 10, 2018

“What first aid treatment is administered by the ear?”

“Words of comfort!”

–Abraham Verghese

Friendships are hard to form at any age.  Children’s authors have struggled with portraying positive and beneficial relationships, with how to model behavior that we want to see in our society.  School teachers work with kids every day to help them understand that one can’t pull Susie’s hair, or kick Jimmy out of frustration.  If you’ve been to university and lived in a dormitory, you know what all those late nights at the library were really training for establishing a lifelong relationship with people of influence.  As adults we often join clubs or organizations with which we share an interest or some value.  We choose life partners because of how they light up our world.  Imagine, though, for a moment how much harder it would be to form any of these relationships after the onset of dementia, after one has already begun to lose to the flow of time the sense of oneself, even.

I have for the last number of years been working as a legal guardian for elderly people, most notably those suffering with the effects of dementia.  My clients are referred to me by lawyers, social workers, judges and others who have contact with vulnerable populations.  My job generally entails making medical decisions and managing the person’s finances.  That is at least what the task looks like in the brochure that the Court hands you when you are given the job.  I spent more than twenty years as a classroom teacher, though, and have spent considerable time thinking about a student-centered approach to learning.  I have attempted at least to bring that level of concern to my work for my aging clients.  I see no reason why efforts should not be made to help the person with dementia maintain as many of the “little things” that they enjoyed in their more active years.  I have arranged for the County library service to bring the bookmobile to a nursing home to feed the need of a nearly blind avid reader who can’t remember a word of what she has just seen but who is obsessed with books.  I have hosted “tailgating parties” for the die-hard football fans, even though their team didn’t actually make it to the Superbowl.  I have bought gardening supplies so that the green-thumbed elderly can putter around in a raised garden plot the size of a kitchen stool, utterly destroying it each and every time she approached it, mangling it with such glee and joy.  I have even purchased extra large knitting needles with blunt ends and chunky yarn so that arthritic hands can produce the most horrific of scarves to be given as gifts over the holidays.

About four years ago, two very unique ladies came in to my care.  One had almost no contact with family, her children having abandoned her years earlier, only showing interest in her care when her estate was seemingly up for grabs.  The other had family waiting in the wings but had long been isolated from all of them at the hands of an abusive caregiver.  When I needed to place them, each in their own time, in an appropriate living situation, I chose to have them in the same facility.  I knew that these two, cranky old Republican ladies would have a lot in common, if only someone could facilitate their friendship.

Assisted living facilities such as the one where my two wards, as they are officially designated by the Court, reside are supposed to provide activities to the residents and encourage them to join in the fun.  Most don’t, or only provide the bare minimum, and it is a real tragedy.  All available research points to the benefits of maintaining normal and productive interactions with others.  The activities, while useful to keeping the juices flowing, as it were, are really meant to be a pretext for forming friendships, for relearning how to be a part of a community.  New to a living environment, not understanding the world around them because of the dementia, both of my ladies struggled to make new friends, and I would have hoped that the poor, overworked staff of the facility would have been given the training necessary and the time in their work day for them to be friend-makers.  One of my ladies has terrible cataracts and can’t see the facial expressions that the rest of us rely on in our interactions with others.  This is frightening to her and she gets a little paranoid.  The other is hard of hearing and often has the impression that people are mocking her, laughing at her, or trying to exclude her from the conversation.  They have some real challenges to making friends, but they did… with each other.

In my role as guardian, I try to find caring and competent “companions” for my clients.  I have three gems in my employ:  Carmen is a professional pet sitter by her chosen profession; Sarah is a graphic artist with a caring heart and bit of spare time on her hands; and Nicole, well she is a jack of all administrative trades.  Each week for the past few years, they have visited with and accompanied my ladies on a number of adventures.  One of the ladies fancies her self a very threatening dog at times and enjoys barking at the passersby.  Nicole has joined her.  The two, and their barks, genuinely seem quite formidable, if you can get past the peals of laughter that follow.  The other enjoys working on her Ukranian egg painting skills, or other crafts, as well as keeping up with her exercises because “must we must, we must exercise our bust”!  She has relentlessly flirted with the Santa Claus I hired to visit the home at the holidays, and was upset when she learned that her dishy young doctor had a wife and children and that his warm hands were not exclusively for her.  Sarah joins her in laughter and fun with the staff, giggling at the noises of the whoopie cushion that her son brought her one holiday.  Carmen, who has been with me the longest, keeps the conversation flowing and reports back on the state of things so that I can keep track of more than just what the staff are telling me.  All three are invaluable to the care of my ladies.

Recently, though, one of the ladies had begun to show every bit of her ninety-four years.  She had two major medical incidents and that has left her quite impaired.  I have worried for her, and her family, quite a lot since.  But I have also been terribly concerned for how my other ward was feeling about the situation.  The other lost her husband a bit more than a decade ago, just as spring was starting to return.  Unable to express grief as you or I might, her behavior changes and she becomes a bit aggressive every year at this time of year.  How would losing her new friend affect her?

When they first moved in to the facility together, Carmen and the two ladies sat down for tea one afternoon.  The one who had been abandoned by her children said to Carmen, “I am the luckiest person in the world.  I don’t know who this James person is, but he is just wonderful and he makes magic happen here.”  (She later asked Nicole to get a photo of me so that she would know who was working on her behalf.)  The other lady, listening intently, had only recently been removed from a dreadfully abusive situation and didn’t understand fully what had truly gone on and why the change would ultimately be to her benefit.  She rather thought me an ogre for taking her away from her home.  She said to Carmen, “Really?  I have a guy named James too, and he is just god awful.  He has taken away my home, my independence and brought me here.  I sure wish I had someone like this James fellow the other lady describes.”  Carmen, who had been a student of mine, could hardly keep from laughing at the many different Jameses she was experiencing.

Time has passed, and to be honest, I have never seen the two ladies happier that they were this winter.  While neither is capable of asking for their companions by name, and wouldn’t recognize me if I walked in and started talking with them, they do know which people at the residence are friends, and who are (often imaginary) foes.  My two ladies did indeed become friends, and they looked out for each other.  The elder of the two, who was more functionally capable than the younger, prided herself on her self-reliance and would say of the other, “The poor dear, she needs help.”  The younger often sensed loneliness in the elder, and once instructed staff to give me a call so that she could say, “The other one.  The other lady who shares my name.  She is lonely.  Can’t you send her some flowers from me?”  And so I did.

As the elder’s time drew near, and it was apparent to everyone given the intense level of hospice care staff visits and family vigil, I asked Carmen, Nicole and Sarah to give a bit of extra care to the one who was likely to be left behind.  Nicole took the opportunity to share some time with my ward and asked her how she was feeling about her friend.  “She’s pretty sick, I guess.”  So Nicole asked if she thought they should go and visit her in her room.  Nicole took her to the other’s doorway and they peered inside.  Hospital bed.  Oxygen tanks. Commode.  My ward’s once peaceful oasis decorated with antique furniture and quilts that a favorite aunt had made had been transformed in to a veritable hospital room.  “Pretty scary stuff, isn’t it?” Nicole said.  “Do you want to go in and visit anyway?”  They did.

Despite all of the limitations that dementia has placed on the ladies, they were friends.  My moribund ward raised her head, smiled and was appreciative of the visit; the other was silent, taciturn even, but reflective.  The pair sat for a number of minutes in each other’s company.  The one held the other’s hand gently.  And they said nothing.  They just held each other’s hand and were friends.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

February 18, 2018

David Hogg

Alex Wind

Emma Gonzalez

Cameron Kasky

Jacqueline Coren

c/o Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

5901 NW Pine Island Road

Parkland, FL 33076


February 18, 2018


Dear David, Alex, Emma, Cameron and Jacqueline,

Under normal circumstances, I would never have had the occasion to learn your names.  I am delighted though to have watched your participation on Nancy Cordes’ Face the Nation this morning, and am joined by my partner, Gregory, in saluting you.  Thank you for working so hard to make this world a better place for all of us.  Your advocacy and straight talk to those in positions of power to affect change is laudable.  Our sincere gratitude is with you.

I recently retired from teaching.  I had been in front of a classroom for the last twenty-one years.  I have worked with scores of young people, just like yourselves, and have had countless conversations just like the one you had with Nancy Cordes this morning.  How can these shootings continue to happen unabated?  How can we continue to allow the senseless slaughter to occur?

Regrettably, our politicians have indeed let us down.  Bipartisan support exists for any number of life-saving measures, and yet the only thing we can muster in time of crisis is the apparent need for absolute silence on the issue and “thoughts and prayers”.  We, frankly, are done meditating on the problem.  We join David especially in being sickened by what we see coming out of the mouths of our political leaders, in desiring quite literally ANY piece of legislation to help stem the tide of violence!  We join you all in your anger, and more importantly, we applaud your temerity and chutzpah in speaking truth to power, in calling for action over inaction, and for pleading for our right to live in a civilized world.  We wish your group every success in its effort to organize a march on our Nation’s Capital.  We will be marching here locally in solidarity with you.

Before I end my letter today, please find enclosed a small gift.  It isn’t a lot, but being a political activist, and planning to march for one’s rights is hard work, and people get hungry.  As you and your friends work to plan your March 24th rally in Washington, DC, you might need a bit of extra cash to buy some pizza and keep your strength up.  We are always fans of extra cheese.

Thank you for what you are doing, and our wishes for your every success now and in to the future are with you.


Very sincerely,

James and Gregory


In the wake of last week’s deadly shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school that left 17 people dead, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have taken to the airwaves and social media to demand tighter gun laws. Their advocacy and anger serve as a stark new facet in the all-too-familiar routine following mass shootings in the U.S.

The students say they will organize and march to hold lawmakers who take money from the National Rifle Association accountable. David Hogg, Alex Wind, Emma Gonzalez, Cameron Kasky and Jacqueline Coren joined us to discuss the shooting, their plans for a march on Washington and what kind of legislation they want to see passed in the wake of the shooting.

The following is a transcript of the interview with the students that aired Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018, on “Face the Nation.”

NANCY CORDES: Joining me now are five students from Parkland, Florida who attend Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. They are David Hogg, Alex Wind and Emma Gonzalez, plus Cameron Kasky and Jacqueline Coren. Thanks so much to all of you for joining me and Cameron, I’ll start with you. You say the adults have let you down.

CAMERON KASKY: Well, the adults in office have let us down. Absolutely. And fortunately we have a lot of support from the older generations here, but what we’re trying to do here March for Our Lives is say, the adult politicians have been playing around while my generation has been losing our lives. If you see how they treat each other in the office, if you see the nasty, dirty things going on with them, it’s- it’s sad to think that that’s what they’re doing while seventeen people are being slaughtered, gunned down only yards away from where we’re sitting right now. And March for Our Lives has support from everybody. And at the end of the day this isn’t a red and blue thing. This isn’t Democrats or Republicans. This is about everybody and how we are begging for our lives and we are getting support. But we need to make real change here and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

NANCY CORDES: So, Emma, what is the plan? You say you want to spark a national movement. It’s one thing to talk about it. It’s another thing to actually make it happen. What are you going to do.

EMMA GONZALEZ: Well what we have set up right now we have a website, March for Our Lives. We’re going to be doing a march in March on Washington where we get students all over the country are going to be joining us. These kids are going to make this difference because the adults let us down. And at this point I don’t even know if the adults in power who are funded by the NRA I don’t even think we need them anymore because they’re going to be gone by midterm election. There’s– there’s barely any time for them to save their skins. And if they don’t turn around right now and state their open support for this movement they’re going to be left behind. Because you are either with us or against us at this point.

CAMERON KASKY: We are giving a lot of the politicians that we feel neglected by a clean slate because that’s the past and we understand that. But from here on, we are creating a badge of shame for any politicians who are accepting money from the NRA. It is a special interest group that has most certainly not our best interests in mind. And this cannot be the normal. This can be changed and it will be changed. And anybody who tells you that it can’t, is buying into the facade of this being created by the people who have our blood on their hands.

NANCY CORDES: David, a lot of people saw the reporting that you did from inside the school while the shooting was taking place and I’m truly sorry that that all of you had to live through that. But I want to read to you what President Trump said last night. He said that it’s actually the Democrats that have let you down because they didn’t pass legislation when they controlled Congress. Does he have a point?

DAVID HOGG: President Trump you control the House of Representatives. You control the Senate and you control the executive. You haven’t taken a single bill for mental health care or gun control and passed it. And that’s pathetic. We’ve seen a government shutdown. We’ve seen tax reform but nothing to save our children’s lives. Are you kidding me. You think now is the time to focus on the past and not the future to prevent the death of thousands of other children. You sicken me.

NANCY CORDES: So what kinds of laws do all of you think should be on the books that aren’t right now?

DAVID HOGG: Well what I think needs to be on the books right now that isn’t is literally any law that’s from either side of the political spectrum. If you’re a Republican that supports mental health care we want you out there making your voice heard because that’s just as important as gun control or gun safety laws at this point because Democrats also want gun safety rules and we can’t get into any more debates. We need discussion. We’ve had the debates and people have died as a result children have died and will continue to if we don’t stop now and look at both sides of this because we can’t wait around any longer. Children are dying as a result. And we need to take action. And I call on President Trump and the Republican controlled House and Senate and Executive Branch to work together, get some bills passed and stop taking money from the NRA because children are dying and so is the future of America as a result.

CAMERON KASKY: And I just want to say something I’ve heard a lot is the word gun rights and that has the connotation that we are trying to strip people of their rights. Well first of all, we have the right to live. And second of all here at March for Our Lives at least for me. We don’t want to take the guns away from Americans. My father is a police officer. He has guns and I understand that having concealed weapons is good for protecting yourself. But an AR 15 is not needed to protect your house from robbers. It’s not needed to hunt bears, an AR 15 is a weapon of war and a 19 year old who is mentally challenged and has problems was able to buy an AR 15 easily. We don’t want to disarm America. We want to make America have to work for their weapons. And we have to make sure that everybody who has this kind of power in their hands has been cleared to have it. Because if Nikolas Cruz had gone through five minutes with any medical professional they would have said this person does not need an AR 15. This person needs a counselor and 17 people would not have needed graves.

NANCY CORDES: Alex, your own Senator Marco Rubio says that more gun laws won’t do anything. That anyone who wants to commit violence is going to find a way to get a gun.

ALEX WIND: If you think that, Senator Rubio, then change the way it’s easier to get a gun. OK? If you think it’s too easy to get a gun to do something about it make it not easier to get a gun. March 24th on the March for our Lives is only the beginning. This is the first march. But I can guarantee it will not be the last. We will be marching for the 17 we lost at our school. We will be marching for everyone we lost at the Newtown Sandy Hook shooting, at Columbine, at Virginia Tech in San Bernardino, Orlando at the Pulse shooting and at Las Vegas. This is only the beginning and March 24th things are going to change.

CAMERON KASKY: It’s not our job to tell you, Senator Rubio, how to protect us. The fact that we even have to do this is appalling. Our job is to go to school, learn and not take a bullet. You need to figure this out. That’s why you were unfortunately elected. Your job is to protect us and our blood is on your hands.

NANCY CORDES: Well, I know that millions of people are watching to see where you take this movement. You’ve already got tens of thousands of followers online. And we’ll be watching to see if you’re able to change a pretty entrenched political dynamic here in Washington. Thank you so much, to the five of you, for joining us today.

DAVID HOGG: Thanks for having us.


NANCY CORDES: And we’ll be right back.

No Love Affair with Cars

February 16, 2018

I have never personally owed a vehicle.  (And to be honest, I also don’t have a cell phone.)  I, myself, drive a car on average less than twenty miles a year, and that only for two specific reasons: Gregory is too sick to get out of bed and I am making a run to the pharmacy; or, I am visiting my Dad in Maine where there is no sign of a public transportation system anywhere.  Even on those trips, Dad usually drives us where we need to go.  I am quite content to have a chauffeur.  Gregory has a car.  It is adorable.  Convertible top, racing stripes, heated seats, satellite radio, the works.  He isn’t fond of city traffic either, it turns out.  We drove the Green Rocket, as we have named his Mini, less than ten thousand miles in the eighteen months that we have owned it.  We won’t be going over the mileage limit on our lease at this rate.  (For the sake of disclosure, I have saved quite a lot of money in upkeep, insurance and fuel over the years, and in those lean years of the Recession, I was glad for it.)  Put differently, I am almost never behind the wheel of a car and am not often in the passenger’s seat either when I give it real thought.  I don’t enjoy the driving experience.  I never have.

Some people recollect with such fondness all of the vehicles that they have owned.  Mom and I put together a list of my parents’ fleet of vehicles over the years.  We had a ton of fun constructing the list, and Dad and I assiduously keep it updated.  Dad has owned lots of cars.  Old ones. New Ones.  Beaters.  Weekend cars.  He can tell you what make and year every car was.  He can describe for you the sort of engine each had and whether or not they gave him trouble.  I am at a loss to understand what most of what he recalls means; I am admittedly not well versed in the workings of the internal combustion engine.  (In high school, an idiot of a guidance counselor encouraged my parents to sign me up for the vocational program because she just couldn’t see me going anywhere with my education—I was the class Valedictorian, for Christ’s sake!  I defended myself, offering to answer any question she had about cars.  When I offered to spend five minutes under the hood of her own vehicle, with my obvious lack of knowledge of what I might find there, she relented and enrolled me in the AP English class instead.)  When it comes to the family fleet, though, I am only able tell you roughly what color the cars were.  That’s important information to have, right?

Were I to believe more in destiny and fate and other ways that we describe happenstance and coincidence, I would attribute my lack of affection for the motoring car to some of my earliest experiences.  I don’t though, but I will share the stories anyhow.  They are pretty good and make me laugh.

My mom’s first car, after my folks were married, was a 1970 Pontiac.  Noah’s Arc was likely smaller than that car was.  Good car though, in general.  Solid construction.  All metal.  No plastic or fiberglass in those fenders.  We had driven in it from Maine to Florida and back when I was not quite two years old.  Mom ran errands with it the rest of the time.  Dad tells me that it had a faulty two-barrel carburetor.  He was forever having to adjust it.  (In case you had to google what that is, like I just did, “The throttle (accelerator) linkage does not directly control the flow of liquid fuel.  Instead, it actuates carburetor mechanisms which meter the flow of air being pushed into the engine.  The speed of this flow, and therefore its pressure, determines the amount of fuel drawn into the airstream”.  What do I understand from that–if the carburetor isn’t working properly and well, then you had better pray for 1970s gas prices!)

One hot summer afternoon, Mom was in a bit of a rush and had stopped by her folks’ new place for a quick visit.  She was parked in my grandparents’ driveway and ran inside, leaving the car to idle in the yard.  The wonky carburetor overflowed, gas spilled on to the hot manifold (responsible for the even distribution of the air/fuel mixture to each cylinder and serves as a mount for the carburetor) when the darned thing suddenly combusted.  (This wouldn’t likely happen with todays’ fuel injectors.)  Smoke rose from under the hood of the car.  Flames were visible.  My apron-clad Grandmother, ever vigilant, spotted the nascent inferno and came bolting out of the house with a checkered dish rag in one hand, and a two-quart sauce pan of water in the other!   Whoosh!  Gram doused the hood of the car with the water she carried.  While she created a lovely amount of steam which contrasted nicely against the white smoke, her efforts to extinguish the blaze were regrettably quite unsuccessful.  It just so happens that two-quarts of water just isn’t enough to put out a vehicle fire.  The Corinth Volunteer Fire Department enjoyed more luck than Grammy and got there before the car burned too much.  Mom lost the gallon jug of VitaSun tropical juice frozen drink mix that she had purchased from the Schwans’ man only a few minutes earlier.  It was sitting on the front seat when its container melted in the fire’s heat.  The fire did not care how new the frozen juice was, or how much it had cost her.  What a mess.  The interior of the car was damaged beyond repair though and the insurance company totaled it; they refused to reimburse her the cost of the juice because it was not considered a part of the vehicle itself.  Mom resented that.  For years.  The burnt-out car was later hauled away to a junk yard.  (My Grandmother, we loved her, was able to hold on to a good stoic New England grudge better than most.  The heat of the blaze weakened two spots in the newly paved driveway at her ranch-style house—the driveway at the farm certainly was never blacktopped!  Every time we would walk by the holes, she would say to us, “You see what your Mother did!”  We were never more grateful to her second husband than we were the day he ordered new hot top for the driveway and forever covered the spots where the front Michelins had melted away from that 1970 Pontiac!)

With the money that the insurance company paid my mother for her loss, she purchased a 1969 Plymouth Fury.  It was Orange, in case you were wondering.  This car had a 3/8 engine (some sort of description of the power of the motor).  Some kids had previously decorated it with Road Runner (the cartoon figure, not the cool product logo) stickers, so that is what we named it.  The “Road Runner” was quite literally nearly the death of me—that may be a bit of an exaggeration but go with me here…  One day, in the center of Corinth Village, my sister who was irritated with me and had been fighting with me about something, opened the door wide and tried to heave me out.  There we were, on the main drag, in front of Ena Chapman’s old Victorian.  The rear passenger door (the one not aimed toward the oncoming traffic) swung wide before Mom could stop it.  There were no child safety seats in those days.  I grabbed onto the lap seat belt straps and held on tight.  I was only scratched up, from what I recall.  It is a good thing we weren’t going very fast as we turned hard to leave the Yankee Grocer!  Screeching to a halt, Mom lept in to action, gave both of our backsides a good warming, pitched us back in to our seats, shouted at us to be quiet, lest she give us something genuine to cry about, and flew off down the Hudson Road, brimming with embarrassment, horror, and a fair dose of anger.  We didn’t dare talk until dinner was on the table.

Mom didn’t have an easy time of it with us twins.  Mothers in general struggle with multiples, as they are known today.  My best friend from college has a pair of boys and wonders how mothers like mine managed to survive the experience with sanity intact.  Dad says that it is because Mom was a rock star.  He may be right.  In any case, it was in this over-sized orange boat of a car that Mom also attempted, at times in vain, to instruct us in the fine art of looking both ways in traffic.  “Melissa,” Mom wrote in an email to me when we were first putting together our list of cars, “scared the daylights out of me with regularity!  When asked if the coast was clear, [Missy] used to respond drolly, ‘All clear this way… after that car.’  By then, of course, we had nearly been hit.”  Serenity now.  Serenity now.

I could also claim that my aversion to the automobile was because of some deeply rooted sadness that I still feel because of an old Model A that sat on the rock wall, near a junk pile (in New England before towns had dumps, you made your own some place on the property) back in the woods behind out house.  I won’t though, because that would be a clear lie.  My childhood home sits on a small plot of land that used to belong to my Mother’s grandparents.  Well before Grammy Rowe, as we called her, had bought their farm on the crest of the hill, someone had disposed of the old car body and left it to rot away.  As our family pets, our beloved cats, died, we buried them with funeral honors there in front of the old wreck.  One by one, their little crosses lined up.  The old Model A stood guard over our grief.  (For the sake of closure on this story, my Dad just sent the remains of the old A to a scrap metal sale recently—they paid him by the pound for the rusted heap; he put the proceeds toward new automatic garage door openers for the barn.)

No, my aversion to driving is not new, but does not stem from a childhood trauma.  It is entirely on me.  I am always thinking about something or several things at the same time, often to the point where I get distracted.  I hate having to focus on the one task of not meeting my demise, the real chore that is driving.  It just exhausts me.  Had it been feasible, I wouldn’t have bothered to get a driver’s permit at all.  To prove my point, I was fifteen years old when I first took a driver’s education class.  Learn the rules of the road and try to implement them without causing yourself or anyone else injury.  That was goal that I laid out for myself then.  Mr. Pineo, formerly our fifth-grade teacher turned Driver’s Ed Instructor, was a patient man.  During one of the classroom sessions, Mr. Pineo asked us each why we wanted to learn to drive.  Most of my classmates, including Missy, spoke of freedom, of wanting to be able to go and do things that were inaccessible at our age.  Me, I said that I thought it would be a good idea to know how to drive in case someone ever needed me to get them to a hospital.  Seriously.  No wonder the other kids hated me.

Of course, Mr. Pineo also asked us to check the oil one day, raised the hood of the driver’s ed car and proceeded to inquire of me how that would be done.  I pulled out the dipstick, wiped it clean of the residue, reinserted it, as I had read was supposed to be done, and removed it again to further inspect the levels.  (Any activity like this can be made an academic one if one enjoys reading as I always have.)  “This is a fun exercise, Mr. Pineo”, I told him, “but I don’t know how you anticipate getting a quart of oil down that little hole”.  Embarrassed FOR me, he slammed the hood down, and laughingly told me I was genuinely hopeless!  I still to this day wouldn’t know where the hell the oil should go.  I suppose I could YouTube it, if I really cared.  I forget who it was when I was learning to drive that told me that if ever I were to be involved in an accident that I should back up and make sure my victim were good and dead.  Saves on lawsuits, I was schooled.  That just seems unethical, though.  I wouldn’t likely do that.

Missy and I took our driving exam later that fall of 1988, on the same day as several of our classmates, in Dover-Foxcroft, which we thought would be an easier time than taking the exam in only somewhat closer Bangor.  I climbed in to the four-door 1985 Chevrolet pickup, blue, and rode to the exam in the neighboring community.  Dad bought this three-quarter ton truck in Hampden.  It had a 350 engine and needed a paint job and a new cap.  Parallel parking in a vehicle that length was a challenge, but we both passed the exam and came home with a plasticized license (relatively new “technology” at the time) with a brown stripe across the top (the blue stripe would later be given to us when we had had the license more than one calendar year, and were over the age of sixteen, which was when we were then eligible to drive out of state or in Canada).

Since then, I have rented a handful of cars and have made my way with those.  Mostly, though, I walk, always choosing housing near my place of employment.  Or, when I was living in Paris, Madrid, New York or Washington, DC, relied on public transit.  There are so many advantages to being an urban dweller in places where people see the value that taxation can have in a society rather than furiously attempt to cut it at every chance despite the ramifications.

The only other time in my life when I had to drive with any frequency was that year I returned to Maine after two years in New Jersey, affectionately known, at least politically in recent years, as one of the arm pits of our great nation.  Mom had a little beater of a car that she loaned me.  I was teaching in the high school in Milo, thirty-three miles through the forests of Maine from home to school.  My male students were quite interested in what kind car I drove.  They envied anyone who had one of their own.  “What kind of wheels do you drive?” one asked me.  “Blue”, I replied.  If the boys didn’t think me manly, they sure as heck didn’t with that response.  It is ok.  I am impervious to the taunts of the pubescent teenager.  I survived the bullying.  No, the car that Mom let me drive was, she reminded me some years later, a Spectrum and was at that point essentially a ‘parts car’.  Its individual components were worth more than the object as a whole.  It had a few “issues” and was constantly stopping.  One could be driving and the engine would just up and die.  The best insurance policy for it was a cell phone—to call for a tow truck.  Of course, driving through the woods alone, the cell phone likely would not have had any reception, so I was more than likely screwed.  One day, in fact, a long day, one in which the only thing that was challenged for me was my patience, I was on my way home from work, the car was behaving poorly.  I was stopped by the police for driving so erratically.  The car would accelerate and decelerate just as quickly no matter what I did to the gas pedal.  The arresting officer asked me if I had been drinking, to which I replied in a notably annoyed tone, “No!  But you can rest assured that when I get home I will!!”  I explained that I had had a bad day at school with the little monsters in my classroom, and that the car was giving me troubles on top of it all.  When asked to explain, I hopped out of the vehicle with my can of WD-40 in hand and commenced to spraying the engine liberally.  I had been told that if I were to put the spray on the distributer cap, it would clear up the water on the engine problem by itself.  I didn’t know anything about any cap or how water would get in there, and the officer nearly peed his pants at the sight of me practicing my ill-informed repair technique on that hunk of junk.  When he composed himself, he told me that for my safety in the future, I shouldn’t likely get out of the car during a traffic stop; he then agreed to follow me home and to speak with Dad about getting a more serious fix for the problem.  He may have been laughing in his cruiser; I was plotting what size cocktail I was going to need.  Mom eventually sold the Spectrum to a family friend and her two teenaged sons who drove it furiously around a hay field until they broke the frame.  Good riddance!

If I have anything to say about it, I will likely never purchase my own vehicle.  It is an inefficient way to transport a single person.  I will continue to advocate for trains, which my brother, who drives a large freight truck assures me could never work, to carry our goods from one coast to the next.  I am sure my brother is right, after all, everywhere else in the world which has trains is completely unable to get products to market and are in the third-world, right?  His opinion may be based on a need for job security more than reality.  More importantly than all of that, I just don’t like the things.  I never have.  It is personal.

An Ode to Trees, and Words

February 6, 2018

I inherited my home on the shores of Lake Monona in downtown Madison, Wisconsin a bit more than a decade ago.  Local historical records suggest that the timbers to build this home were in 1892 cut from a single White Pine from the forests of Northern Wisconsin.  Sturdy stuff.  The same year that I came to live here, a street-side ash tree was lost to disease.  A year or so later, an awkward leaning spruce had to be brought down in the yard so that it would not impact the house; the same was true for a hackberry over hanging the driveway.  Because I believe in the wonder of trees, I have replaced each in time with a new tree and have added several others to boot.  A Dolgo crab gives fruit in the fall for jelly; a sugar maple will in another decade or maybe two be ready to tap; pagoda dogwoods, native to the area, are playfully phototropic; and a red spruce helps us light up the holidays.  I shan’t talk much about the trees that I have added in my “guerilla gardening” efforts elsewhere in the neighborhood as well.

My life, it turns out, has always been deeply connected to trees and the products we derive from them.  Growing up in Corinth, Maine, my childhood home was surrounded at first glance by hay fields, but also acres and acres of trees.  We called the area “the Woods”.  Tamarack.  Oak.  Maple.  Pine.  Spruce.  Poplar.  Birch, both gray and white.  Hemlock.   There were serene paths carved out of the trees directly behind the house where I would wander on summer days and visualize planting a perennial wonderland along the way–a peaceable spot where daydreamers like me could escape to ponder and think.  There’s a small pet cemetery there too, where our childhood playmates were laid to rest over time.  It is quiet in the woods.  Restful.

My Dad is a carpenter and cabinet maker of great skill, so our family’s income was directly tied to lumber.  From those majestic arpents, we derived raw materials for heating against the nor’easters which chilled to the bone, timbers for construction and wood for the interior décor of the home that my parents built in 1984.  Family friend, Henry Hartwell, helped Dad to mill some of them.  Sugar maples provided the occasional springtime gold in those years my brother tapped them.  Apple trees dropped the contents of autumnal delights each and every year.  They shaded the rhubarb patch to extend its season; and our deciduous friends acted as a natural fence between us and the neighbors.

If one were to take a broader view of the trees which surrounded me in my youth, it would be hard not to mention the paper industry which busied itself in the northern reaches of our state.  And, it may be to those sacrificial arbors that I owe the greatest debt.

From that paper produced in Maine, authors, writers, and casual wordsmiths found homes for their words.  So many words.  One of the teachers at the high school I attended, Anne Britting Oleson, is a poet and novelist.  She started there the year I graduated and I regret that I never had the opportunity to work with her.  Anne has for years said that she is in love with all the words.  She wants to marry all of them.  Well, she can’t.  There are so many that she is through her work forced to share with the rest of us.  Just in case, though, after I left high school, I went on to study a handful of other languages.  I will not be left alone without words, or books, if that Oleson woman ever achieves the success she desires!

I take responsibility for my actions.  While I was in college and studying languages, many a tree died in an effort to placate my ever growing addiction to reading.  I bought books.  So many books.  My office today is a veritable necropolis for trees.  Dad once asked Mom if she thought I really needed yet another dictionary.  Mom replied, “How many hammers do you have?”  The message was, of course, that the words that I found on the pages of my books were to be the tools which I would use to construct my world, just as Dad had used hammers of all sizes and shapes to mold his.  And, Mom pointed out, “He leaves his tools lying all around the house just like you!”

Dad’s garage, more like a barn, houses piles of lumber of all sorts.  Hardwoods.  Softwoods.  Imported and domestic.  Some of it went to create shelves to mask the addiction I have and make it more palatable to societies’ onlookers.  My bedroom at my parents’ home was lined with shelves, stained in a dark walnut color.  My home today has shelves and shelves of paper from all over the world too.  Are our collections really all that different, Dad and I?

Ask my brother, and he will tell you that I was so often seen with my nose buried deep in the spine of a book that I hardly had time to learn any “useful” skills.  He, like my father, became a contractor.  My brother is not wrong.  I like to tell people that when it comes to carpentry, I have much of the theory and little of the practice with which to be successful in that field.  But with books, I have reached over the years the pinnacle of my profession, helping young people to love and appreciate words as much as I have always done.  We’re like that, teachers.  And writers.  (If you haven’t read anything by Oleson yet, she is worth the detour.)

I have taught grammar, and literature, and wordsmithing for a number of years.  Trees and plenty of them, have suffered at my hands.  I have even given lessons on the idea of ‘duende’, a Spanish concept which at times attributes mythical powers to goblin-like creatures who inhabit trees of the Iberian Peninsula.  ‘Having Duende’ is an idea that the flamenco culture has elaborated over time to mean ‘having soul’, a heightened state of emotion, expression or authenticity.  Duende is then the spirit of evocation and it comes from inside.  It is that physical and emotional response to art.  It what gives you the chills, makes you smile, or cry in the face of beauty.  Author Federico Garcia Lorca spoke of this in 1933; he wrote, “The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.”  If it takes trees and plenty of them to create the paper upon which great ideas are published, then I am willing to plant a forest tomorrow and invite Duende to reside there.  Duende, perhaps it is just Words.  Feel their power.

All of this leads me to answer the question of a former student of mine who wrote recently, at my retirement from teaching, to share praise for my work.  “What books have influenced you over time?”, he asked.  Which ones indeed!


I used to spend a fair amount of time in summer at the Atkins Memorial Library in Corinth, Maine.  My grandmother, Marie, had been one of the first librarians there and had library card number one!  While the collection there was not nearly as extensive as the Bangor Public Library, where I would sometimes do research when I was in high school, you could find an array of the classics.  My favorites were Frances Eliza Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden; Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows; and, Richard Adams’ Watership Down.


Karen Girvan, my English teacher in high school, is entirely dedicated to helping others.  She undoubtedly got that from her Mother.  Every year she fundraises so that other families dealing with the presence of cancer in their world can cope a little easier.  Saintly work.  One summer, before I joined her AP English class, she gave us a list of her favorite books and told us to choose a few to read and report on before the session began.  I fell in love with the works of John Fowles—who offers a real challenge to one’s vocabulary, and experience in savoring the most delicious previously unknown words—The French Lieutenant’s Woman; The Collector; Daniel Martin; The Magus; The Ebony Tower… Karen introduced me to the works of Anne Tyler—just a good read, not complicated—Dinner at Homesick Restaurant; The Accidental Tourist; Breathing Lessons.


Nancy Oldershaw, a former teacher of mine who later got me one of my first jobs as a language instructor, was a deeply reflective soul.  I am sorry to have lost track of her over the years—if you know where she is, I hope you will tell her how to contact me.  She was gifted in making me feel like a valued young person, and recommended a number of texts:  A Separate Peace by John Knowles and other ‘carpe diem’ novels and films (Dead Poets Society) and poetry (To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time, by 17th century Robert Herrick as an example); and the works of Richard Bach:  Jonathan Livingston Seagull; Illusions, Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah; The Bridge Across Forever: A Love Story.


I stopped reading in English for a number of years when I got to Middlebury.  I dove head first into a magnificent pool of French authors: Andre Gide, Albert Camus, Le Clezio, Racine, St. Exupery.  Québécois authors, who I met later, joined me in my quest for new experiences:  Louis Caron, Anne Hebert, Louis Hemon, Michel Tremblay.  Spanish-language authors continue to fascinate me with their prose:  F. Garcia Lorca, Alejo Carpentier, Julio Cortazar.


The works of 20th century French author Michel del Castillo, especially his novel Tanguy or the Billsticker, would later be the subject of much of my research.  He helped me to see some of the beauty that surrounds us, despite the darkness which at times shrouded his life.


My re-entry into reading English after many years of distancing myself voluntarily from it has often included the works of Geraldine Brooks—well researched historical novels:  Year of Wonders; March; Caleb’s Crossing


If it be true that the trees today provide us with paper upon which to scribble our intimate thoughts; if it be the trees which allow us to make a record of those things which give the chills, make us smile, or cry in the face of beauty; if trees, unwittingly, provide a welcome home for Duende, for ability, for the true, living style, for spontaneous creation, then I must also pay homage to those who granted me the gift of knowing how to arrange all those wonderful words in patterns which make sense not only to me, but to those surrounding me.  While my father did not enjoy much success in getting me to understand how to wield a saw and screw driver with precision, he did give me the tools I needed to understand how things work.  But it was those teachers I’ve mentioned, and more, like Sandra Doody and Joan Blackwell, who taught scores of kids the rules of English grammar.  They explored the world through diagramed sentences and punctuation exercises.  They helped me to see that with a finite number of Words, we have infinite possibilities for creation.

It is thanks to those primary school teachers that I was led to Mary Perramond, a talented professor who continues to inspire me, and Pierre Patrick Haillet who introduced me to Grevisse’s Le Bon Usage (the French grammar Bible) and the use of the French conditional tense in journalistic discourse.  Mary encouraged me to dig deeper in to the structures of the language, and to question my professors who would best be able to help me find the answers I needed.  Pierre enjoyed precision in his work and expected it from the rest of us.  So did María Luz Gutiérrez, one of Spain’s preeminent grammarians, who helped me to see the even greater flexibility inherent to her language that my more rigid French structures could not accommodate.  I credit my eventual teaching style to lessons I learned in those grammar classes.  I found a friend in those professors and teachers.  I created a new nest for myself among all those French words.  Those Spanish words.  Those English ones.

There is an old saying:

‎”May our caskets be made from the wood of a hundred-year-old oak tree that I will plant tomorrow.”

If we don’t make it that long, may the words you breath and live today be recorded on some paper and stored on the shelves made from the mighty oak.  Ah, the power of trees!