Archive for the ‘People’ Category

Book Review: Glad Farm, by Catherine Marenghi

August 12, 2016
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Glad Farm Second Edition Front Cover

(Note: Glad Farm’s second edition is now available. The review that follows was done upon the first edition’s release in the summer of 2016.)

It’s tempting, and too easy, to describe Catherine Marenghi’s memoir, Glad Farm, as a great American success story.  It is that, to be sure. She lived her first 17 years with her parents and four siblings in a ramshackle home in Milford, Massachusetts.  The grinding poverty of her childhood reminds one of Jeannette Walls’s early years in her 2005 memoir Glass Castle.

Like Ms Walls, Ms Marenghi set herself free through her education.  She earned a full scholarship to Tufts and went on to a prosperous career in writing and public relations.  That’s the bare outline; that’s the American success story.  That’s not enough, however. It doesn’t do justice to this elegantly written but searingly honest tale.

The Glad Farm that gave the book its title was the plot of land where she was raised. Her parents had grown and sold gladiolus flowers. The business did well for a time but failed before Catherine, the fourth of their five children, was born.

The family remained on the land and barely eked out an existence.  The author is unsparingly frank in describing it all, including her inability to have school friends come to visit, her dealings with thoughtless peers and adults, and her often-contentious relations with mother and sisters.  We also read of her coming of age on the outskirts of hippiedom in college, of her happy junior year abroad in Italy, and of a unique job as one of America’s first telecommuters.

Biography and memoir are best writ small. How well we experience the fine details – the colors, the smells, the images – are usually the difference between an average read and a superior one. Glad Farm is the latter.

Catherine Marenghi has a delightful knack of painting pictures with her words, of crafting similes and metaphors and of employing all those rhetorical devices that we’ve heard about but never could do ourselves.

It’s impossible not to feel the chill in that unheated home in the woods of Milford, or the cold wind on the slushy, ash-strewn pathway to the outhouse.   We can see the streets, the artworks, and the people of Florence and Perugia, Italy. We can also feel her joy in motherhood and the swirling emotions that accompanied her divorce proceedings.

Author Catherine Marenghi

Author Catherine Marenghi

It takes the author almost a full lifetime to discover all that she, and we readers, need to know about her parents and about her extended family’s past.  Her discovery of family correspondence and clippings in an old cedar chest reveal the details of her parents’ dreams and ambitions.  She also learns of a betrayal, by relatives, that kept her family out of a much better house that was rightfully theirs.

Finally, she and we learn of another family tragedy that had proved too much for her father to overcome. It wasn’t just the failure of the gladiolus farm that crushed his spirit.

As she puts it, after first seeing a picture of her father in his younger days, “He was a good-looking man – not at all like the world-weary, gray haired father I remembered. I could see what my mother saw in him.”

To endure and prevail through the hardships and injustice that Catherine Marenghi experienced is remarkable enough.  To endure and prevail without allowing bitterness to take hold would be much, much harder for most human beings.

I don’t think I’m revealing too much to report that that’s not what happens here.  Catherine’s final words are a precise and eloquent summation, the essential message that readers should remember.

“Life, precious life, always wins over death. Life gets the last word.”

Yes, it does. And this wonderful book shows why.

 

Sporting Reflections – Farewell to Bud Collins

March 5, 2016
Bud Collins

Bud Collins

I once met the pope. Got his autograph. And he signed his name, not his official title.

 

The name he signed wasn’t his real name. And I didn’t meet him in the Vatican, but in the press box at Foxboro Stadium, where I worked for many years as a statistician.

 

Pope Alvin was Pete Rozelle, the infallible autocrat who ran the National Football League for almost 30 years. He was born Alvin Ray Rozelle, and he’d been dubbed Pope Alvin by Bud Collins.

I was tempted to ask Mr. Rozelle to sign my game program “Pope Alvin,” but I chickened out. Probably a good decision. He did sign the book, but he seemed just a little affronted at the request. I rather doubt he liked the moniker from Collins, the fun-loving, nonpareil sportswriter-turned-broadcaster, who died earlier this week at age 86.

I met Bud several times over the years and had brief conversations with him, but I can’t say that I knew him. That’s my loss. What a great mentor he would have been for me, as he was with many other writers too numerous to mention here.

For Bud Collins, it seemed, writing wasn’t work at all. I was play. It was joy. He had a joie de vivre that came through on the printed page. Even if he was needling or obliquely criticizing, as was probably the case with “Pope Alvin,” I can’t imagine people staying angry with him.

A major portion of Bud Collins’ professional career was taken up with tennis, first as a writer and then as a broadcaster. He knew everyone and was revered by everyone. I’m a little sorry that his sport happened to be tennis, because tennis and its people never caught my fancy. So I didn’t seek out Bud’s stories and deprived myself of regular reading of a truly superb craftsman.

He was a master at the quick quip-in-print, the off-the-wall simile or metaphor that was just too clever for anyone else to dream up under pressure of a deadline. He was a master, and not just with his nicknames like “Bucharest Buffoon” for Ilie Nastase, and “Sisters Sledgehammer” for Venus and Serena Williams.
Once, when covering the handsome and rising tennis star Bjorn Borg, he described the Swede’s adoring female fans as experiencing “Borgasms.” If memory serves, that one got edited out before the Globe hit the streets. Of course, it would remain in the story today. Probably in the headline.

Bud loved what he did, and he loved the people he covered in their victories and their defeats. He knew that sports was the toy department of society. He enjoyed that department to the full, traveling around the world to cover it. One regular feature in the Globe was “Bud Collins: Anywhere.” And he could be reporting from just about anywhere, dressed in his trademark outlandishly patterned colored pants.

The first I met Bud Collins was back in the late 50’s or early 60’s. It was at the Corinthian Yacht Club during Marblehead Race Week. Bud was still working for the Boston Herald at the time. He came to Marblehead to find an intriguing subject for “The Collins View.” He got to talking with a bunch of us from Winthrop and told us he was a Herald sportswriter. I asked him if he was Tim Horgan. Nice try, but in any case he seemed favorably impressed that I knew somebody with a byline.

He decided to do his column on Winthrop’s own John “Mac” McDonald and his red-haired, freckle-faced Turnabout crewman, Peter “Red” Fenlon. He wrote of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, as I recall, and of girls wanting to go out in Mac’s boat, “Sea Note.” Mac and Red had their picture taken, shaking hands, to accompany the article. They had to go in to the Herald building in Boston for that, if memory serves.

The encomia for Bud Collins keep coming, as well they should. He was one of a kind. Rest in peace, Bud!

What Writers Live For

February 24, 2016

Cover front2Our book was published a little over a year ago. I just have to share the email (below) that I received from Shauna Sullivan McDonald. She is the daughter of Charlie Sullivan, Boston College Class of 1942.

This is why I love writing stories about people – whether they are athletes or not.

Charlie was the oldest former player whom I interviewed during the course of my research. He is, I am quite sure, the oldest living BC hockey alumnus. My co-author Reid Oslin interviewed Bill Hogan, Class of 1933, who lived to the age of 100 and who, unfortunately, did not live to see the book published.

Bill Hogan was the true founding father of Boston College hockey. He was class president in 1932-33. Hockey had been curtailed at the school due to the Great Depression. He persuaded the administration to revive the sport, and he recruited John “Snooks” Kelley to be the coach.

Charlie Sullivan came along a few years later. He was on a team that had three great players — Ray Chaisson, Fishy Dumond, and Johnny Pryor — and a bunch of scrubs including Charlie. In 1941, with World War II looming and knowing that he’d be called to service, Charlie didn’t come back to school in the fall. He waited around, but wasn’t drafted right away.

He happened to be on the campus one day when one of the priests saw him and asked why he was not in school. Charlie told him, and the good father promptly ordered him to report to the dean and to the athletic department.

Charlie played most of that 1941-42 season before the army came calling. His last game was on February 7 when the Eagles lost 7-2 to Dartmouth. Charlie wasn’t around at season’s end for BC’s first national championship. They won the George V. Brown Memorial Trophy as the top amateur hockey team in the country, besting the High Standard, Massena, and Saint Nick’s Hockey Clubs in the National AAU Tournament.

Charlie was just full of stories about his BC days. The team practiced only a few times a week, very early in the mornings at Boston Arena. Frequently, the practices were scrimmages against BU or Northeastern. The players would pitch a quarter each into a pot. The winners would use their money to buy breakfast at the White Tower restaurant on the way back to class.

The all had jobs on the side — usually at the Post Office or in supermarkets — while playing hockey and studying full time. For extra money, they’d sell pints of blood to the Red Cross.

Yes, times were different then. It was a privilege to be able to tell the stories after speaking with someone who lived through them.

Shauna Sullivan email

 

 

 

I’m Not Mike Carruthers, But This is Something You Should Know

December 28, 2015

It’s about actor Richard Dreyfuss. And good on him, for his work in education.

Smithsonian magazine for January-February interviews the 68-year-old Dreyfuss about his upcoming role as financial fraudster and uber-thief Bernie Madoff. Dreyfuss’s career has come a long way since his “I’ll get the cops” line in The Graduate back in 1968.

richard-dreyfuss-flagLooks like Dreyfuss is a great fit to play Madoff. They both are natives of Bayside, a section of Queens in New York City. Dreyfuss tells of his youth as a streetwise, smartass kid who grappled with the big questions of good and evil with the specters of communism, socialism, and fascism lurking in the background. His big breakthrough as an actor was a wise guy in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.

(Aside – that book was by Mordecai Richler, a Canadian who also wrote some superb stuff about professional hockey and the six-team NHL. Read his Dispatches from the Sporting Life, and you’ll agree.)

In the interview, Dreyfuss compares the amoral Madoff to Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. The evil that Iago wrought goes beyond the merely personal to the cosmic. He wants to destroy everything in his path.

Dreyfuss also talks about his work in Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and about how his career spun out of control – literally – back in 1982 and nearly got him killed. He’d made it big, gone Hollywood, and was sleeping around and indulging heavily in recreational chemicals. One night he threw a tantrum, stormed out of a tryst, and flipped his Mercedes convertible off the road into a canyon.

Miraculously, he survived that accident and “turned his life around,” as the trite line goes. That’s why I say “Good on him.” He’s a former “red diaper baby,” a child of socialist/communist-leaning parents, and still serious about big-picture political discussions like those he heard growing up.

It’s not that all such discussions were about weighty issues. Once, when he asked his mother why she was a socialist instead of a communist, she replied “Better doughnuts.”

But that seriousness propelled him to study political philosophy at Oxford and, ultimately, to take the lead in the Dreyfuss Civics Initiative.

He also cites the important influence of his wife Svetlana, a most impressive lady whom I once had the pleasure of meeting. Svetlana is a Russian émigré and daughter of a KGB heavyweight. She let Richard know what it was like, even for those in the power elite, to live in a country where civics is non-existent.

The Smithsonian interview states that Dreyfuss believes “deeply in the brilliance of the Constitution, and that what’s really wrong with America, and the world for that matter, is that no one any longer teaches or studies the values of the Constitution.”

The article goes on to say that Dreyfuss seeks to “encourage civics education and Enlightenment values at a time when Enlightenment values – tolerance, free speech and the like – are under attack by sectarian values in the world.”

Sound familiar, boys and girls?

Let’s let Dreyfuss himself have the last word on the subject.

“You’ve got to protect the system of secular faith in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and Enlightenment values. That way you can protect all religions.”

And I’ll repeat my last word on Richard Dreyfuss: Good on him!

Eulogy for My Brother, Jackie Burke

October 16, 2014

Delivered by Thomas Burke at funeral mass, Saint John the Evangelist Church, October 16, 2014

John V. Burke

John V. Burke

On behalf of Jackie’s son Patrick and all of Jackie’s brothers and sisters, I thank you all for being with us this morning. Your presence here and your thoughtfulness during recent weeks has meant a great deal to everyone.

Our lives are but a brief moment in time between two vast eternities. Jackie’s moment is ended, and he has entered the eternity that follows. But however brief was his life, however brief is anyone’s life, that doesn’t mean it cannot be filled with wonderful and happy memories. And as Mr. Carson of Downton Abbey reminds us, “The business of life is the acquisition of memories. In the end, that’s all there is.”

So let’s share some of those memories of my brother. I’m sure you all have many favorite ones, as do I. Jackie is with us now in spirit, his pain is gone, and he wants us to smile when we think of him today.

Childhood. Jackie was born ten years after I was. That decade’s age difference let me be the big brother in ways that Peter and Jimmy weren’t able to. I delivered newspapers all through grammar school, and my bike was equipped with a special, extra-large, industrial strength wire basket on the front. It was ideal for carrying 75 Boston Globes or one two-year old boy.

When I was taking care of Jackie, I used to love riding about the town with him in that basket. We’d go to the parks, the playgrounds, the beaches. Every time down at Winthrop Beach, he would point out “the balls.” Those giant golf-ball domes atop the Fort Heath radar towers.

It’s so much fun showing new and wondrous things to little ones. And for me, on those rides around town, I got to show him off to all the friends I’d meet. Especially to the girls. How I loved to do that.

I was so proud of my baby brother.

Adolescence. That meant hockey memories. They begin with all those years of my mother and Catherine McDonald driving Jackie and the McDonald boys here, there and everywhere. They all became very good hockey players, and when they got to high school they played together on the “Irish Line.” Jackie was the right wing, Bobby the center and Joe the left wing. They were the highest scoring high school Division One line in the state in 75-76. They won the East Coast Aero Tech Trophy for that. They’re in the Winthrop High Hall of Fame.

Jackie did pick up one edgy little habit along the way. When he scored a goal, sometimes he’d rub it in by turning his stick around and pretending he was shooting the goalie with the Ugly Gun. The Danvers athletic director complained to Jim Evans, and he put a stop to it.

I was there for those state tournament games at the Garden. That third overtime against Norwood – after midnight – Jackie stealing the pass in the Winthrop zone and going in alone for the winning goal, 4-3. Then again in the Eastern Mass final against Braintree, he got the game winner.

I made it into the locker room after the Braintree game. Reporters were all over the place, and I happened to catch a glimpse of one guy’s notepad after he interviewed Jackie. By that time, word had gotten out that he was the nephew of the late Walter Brown, and Jackie told the reporter that he used to come in to the Garden and practice with the Bruins. Well, Jackie was five when Walter died in 1964. He never knew his uncle Walter, and he certainly never practiced with the Bruins. I tapped the reporter on the shoulder and asked him not to include that tall tale that Jackie concocted in the flush of victory.

Sorry, Jack. I’ve never told anyone about that. But I think I saved you a little embarrassment. Not that your uncle wasn’t pleased to see what you’d done, watching from the Second Balcony. He coached the first American World championship hockey team, he ran the Garden from 1937 to 1964, he was president of the Bruins, and he never had a hockey thrill like that from any family member.
Those were great times. I knew that I’d never see a performance like that again.

I was so proud of my younger brother.

When the cancer came, it was horrible. It’s an angry, diabolical disease. Neither surgery nor intense radiation could slow it down. But Jackie fought it all the way. He got excellent support from his nurses, especially Colleen Kilbride, and from Patrick, a trooper during that battle just as he had been for his country, when he served in the US Marines in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Jackie’s friends rallied to put on a nice benefit evening for him – Charlotte Macrillo Flynn, Owen Gillis, Sharon McCarthy and their committee. Jackie was fighting a lonely battle but he wasn’t alone.

The last day I saw Jackie was on October 7. I was with him for a couple of hours at his apartment. He was in a lot of pain and had difficulty talking. We knew how hard it was for him to take care of himself. When he and I were alone together I asked him to consider going to hospice care. He wrote me a note on his note pad that said “No. If I go there, that means I’m giving up. I’m not giving up. I’m going to fight this.”

That wasn’t what I’d hoped to hear at the time. And eventually he relented. Patrick brought him to the hospice in Danvers to next day. The following morning, Jackie was asleep when Peter stopped by to visit. I was getting ready to leave and go up there later in the day when Peter called. Jackie had not awakened, but had died that afternoon.

So the last time I saw Jackie, he was still fighting, still battling against odds that had become impossible. But maybe that’s just what we should expect of a hockey player.

I was so proud – I am still so proud – of my brother.

Jackie, now it is time to say goodbye. You’re back with Mom and Dad. You’ve probably already been in on some pickup hockey games. And if they designed it properly, hockey players’ heaven is the old Boston Garden, that House of Magic where you had your greatest triumph. It’s jammed with 13,909 souls. And Mom, Dad, Uncle Walter, and all the rest are cheering you on from Section 34, Rows C and D.

Please give them our love. Your brothers and sisters, and all of us here today, will be along to join you by and by.

Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

And forever, brother, hail and farewell.

Autumn Leaves, and Ladies of Autumn: Two of My Favorite Things

September 8, 2014

reds2Maria von Trapp had cream colored ponies and girls in white dresses. I’ve got flame colored tree leaves and girls with grey tresses.

These are two of my favorite things: the reds and golds and yellows of autumn in New England, and the company of women of my generation. It’s almost that time of year when I encounter the former. Any time of the year will do for encountering the latter. They’re two of life’s greatest pleasures.

The blazing hues of fall carry along with them all that’s gone before: the snow blankets of winter, the grudging thaws of mud time, the hopeful green shoots and buds of early spring, the winds and showers and storms and happy days of summer…they’re all wrapped up and glowing through the glad symphony of September glory.

gold2The greying hairs and the crinkly countenances of the ladies bear with them all that’s gone before as well: the pangs of childbirth as they brought forth humanity’s next generation; the illness and distresses of their little ones; the ripening and blossoming of youths they nurtured; the kisses and embraces of loved ones; the laughter and the tears of shared joy and sorrow…they’re all wrapped up and retold in the whispers and smiles and sparkling eyes of mature womanhood.

I love to walk the woods and parkland trails, early of an autumn morning or in the full of day or in the cool of evening. I am grateful for all that the winter, spring, and summer stored up the beauty I see at this time of riotous color. Here in New England, in the season that is just about to begin, there’s magnificence that nowhere else on earth can match.

In like manner, I love to meet and talk with old friends. There’s no friend like a friend of my youth. Especially if that friend is a woman who, like me, is in the September of her years.

yellow2Her crown of hair might be full grey or just silver-streaked, but her life story is anything but grey. It rings forth with the color and variety of the autumn woods. Her laugh lines are like the tiny creases in the leaves that flutter down to my outstretched hands on breezy fall days. Those lines may have been born in times of merriment, like a warm and tranquil month of summer. Or they may have furrowed her brow in times of stress and care, as a blustery March blast once shook the strong green leaves.

Each woman’s life story is unique, but it’s always a story of love. I am grateful for that story, and I never tire of hearing it. Woman’s strength is God’s greatest gift to man.

I cannot understand men of my age who insist on the company of women who are fifteen or twenty or more years their junior. I feel sorry for them. It’s rather like he who, on the first cool night of fall, boards a plane for Florida and leaves New England’s harvest banquet hall right before the feast begins. All such men are missing out on the Lord’s plenty.

Give me New England in autumn. Give me women my own age. Two of my favorite things.

The Worldly Wisdom and Wit of Judith Wax: Book Review and Personal Reflection

May 15, 2014

Altered Aspirations
I once wanted to grow up to be Grantland Rice. He was the classics-steeped dean of American sportswriters who came up with “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again…” To my young mind, that line was perfection itself. If only I could write like him!

Author Judith Wax

Author Judith Wax

That was until I read Judith Wax. She was my first professional crush. I wanted to write like Judith Wax. I still want to.

Grantland Rice wrote about sports. Judith Wax wrote, for the most part, about a much more interesting subject: women.

In 1973, she burst onto the journalistic/literary scene with “The Waterbury Tales,” subject of which was the Watergate scandal. It was a wonderfully creative, funny, and stylistically accurate parody of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.”

Judith was 42 years old at the time. Her poem was picked up by several national publications, and she quickly became a hot commodity as a magazine feature writer and interviewer.

Judith’s first book was “Starting in the Middle,” published in 1979. The prologue begins

“Whan that forty with his hot pursuite,
Play happy birthday to yow on his floote,
And even they who marathon hath wonne
Can no the moving calendar outronne,
When heads that hadde blacke hayr, and blondys,
Discovyr in ther midst some straunge strondes,
Whan dimplyn’ folks flesshe with cellulyte,
And troubyl creepin’ in on smal crow’s feete,
Whan Mothyr Bell hath print her book too smalle,
Whan movying hands writ HOT FLASSH on youre walle,
Than starts the pilgrimage thru middle ages,
A tryp the OLDE WYFE tel in these pagys.”

Is that not brilliant? This is what “The Waterbury Tales” was like. As soon as I heard she’d done a book, I bought it, devoured it, and eventually lent it to someone who never returned it. Just recently, I bought another copy via Amazon. I love it even more than I did 30 years ago.

Back then, I longed to be as clever and witty as Judith Wax was with her similes, metaphors, literary allusions, and observations. One of the worst shocks about middle age, she suggested, was finding out that no one is really in charge. I can’t disagree with that.

She titled a chapter about raising her children “Slouching Toward Bettelheim.” In a piece titled “The Latest Wrinkle,” she interviewed people who’d undergone cosmetic surgery. She wrote

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may is still advice for virgins
For this same flower that smiles today too soon seeks plastic surgeons.”

In that same article, Judith went on to surmise that people feel comfortable talking to her about having face-craft done was for the same reason she could draw them out on such sensitive subjects as child-rearing and marriage problems: that we are comfortable talking with those “…as least as far from perfection as we are…Would you ask Cybill Shepherd whether she thinks your laugh lines are all that bad?”

The chapter concluded with a personal anecdote. Near the end of a vacation trip, she and her husband had gotten up early to catch a flight out of Rome. Her makeup-less face was the “worst Roman ruin around” as her husband shoved her into a tiny hotel elevator where she came face-to-face with Catherine Deneuve.

“Has any middle-aged woman ever had a crueler confrontation at dawn’s early light?” Her spouse had arranged for himself, she said, “…a close-up comparative view, cheek-by-jowl, of Catherine and me – Beauty and the Creased.”

In an earlier chapter she wrote that she’d met her husband at college, went steady for two years, got “pinned” and then engaged, and married him only partly because, in the dark garage behind her freshman dorm, he had explained “Sex is an integral part of life. Nobody had ever said ‘integral’ to me before.’”

My First Impressions

Wax - book2When I first read this delightful work so long ago, I marveled at all that – Judith’s humor, artistry, and self-deprecating personality. Also, like any male who’s honest will admit to, I couldn’t get enough of her confidential talks with thoughtful, experienced women on such topics as beauty, sex, and marriage. Several of the chapters have material like the above that had originally run in magazines like Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair, and Vogue. None of them were on my subscription list.

Here’s just an example of such a discussion. In a chapter on women who’ve had, or are contemplating, an extramarital affair, she begins “…a lot of us didn’t discover the possibilities of the double life until we’d been hit by the possibilities of the double chin.”

She interviewed a woman named Norma, twenty-one years married, who admitted to fantasizing for years about “…an aging Prince Charming somewhere around who had the balls to break my spell.” In anticipation of such a liaison, Norma secretly built up a stash of “adultery underwear.” Pantyhose had not yet arrived on the scene, so she bought a flame-red latex girdle with black lace, so as to distract her lover-to-be from the ugly girdle grippers that held up her stockings.

As it turned out, Norma never did go through with her plans to cheat on her husband, and stated, “It’s too late for the red girdle. But maybe just as well. With my luck, I probably would have picked a man who would have asked to borrow it.”

Re-Visiting and Looking Deeper

Going back to Judith and re-reading her three decades later was even better. Much better. My appreciation for her work, when I was young, could never have matched what I felt and realized about her the second time around.

Why? Because I’ve been through middle age myself. Like Judith had, I’ve heard Time’s Winged Chariot at my back. I too have worried about my looks and my physical and mental capacities. More telling, I’ve lost dear friends to cancer, as Judith did. Some beautiful ladies I know would be worthy interviewees for her.

Judith Wax gets to the heart of the matter in her conversations with people. She captures them and tells their stories with grace, respect, good humor, and loving sympathy when it’s needed. That’s the kind of writer I try to be.

About friendship and her own life, she says “The best thing about the midyears, at least about mine. Is the depth of the friendships. The worst thing can be losing them. It’s to be expected that in middle age, mortality is not only intimated, but sometimes delivered, that pain and loss are birthday presents no one asks for.”

Bringing her own experience into the matter, she goes on about “The December day the wittiest friend I’ve ever had had come home from the hospital. I brought her homemade soup and instant lies. Both offerings were meant to comfort (me as well as her); neither could be swallowed with ease any more. I found her sitting at her living room window, watching the melting snow. ‘I’m sitting here in a blaze of optimism, planning my garden,’ she said. We both laughed, an astonished burst, and then stared at each other in shocked recognition of what had been unspeakable between us, that maybe she wouldn’t live to see the garden’s blossoming. She didn’t.”

That passage cut right through me. I’d been there too. It was just a few years ago that Bobby, beloved and admired companion of my youth, was fast losing his battle with cancer. Our lives had diverged and I hadn’t seen him for a long while. Knowing he wasn’t doing well, I temporized about going over to the old home town. Would he even be well enough to see me? Will he want to? When his reply to my query came back almost immediately, “would love to see you,” I promised to be there the next day.

I had him all to myself for about three hours – a lot of laughing and reminiscing, a few long-wondered-about questions asked and answered, and just a little reflecting on the rotten hand of failing health he’d been dealt. He wasn’t able to drink the half-quart bottle of Schaefer beer – one of our favorites – I’d bought him for the occasion. I left, feeling tremendously guilty at how healthy I still was but grateful that I’d had the chance to talk with him once more. That day was the very last time I could have done so. He was dead within a week.

I suppose I could go on and on with examples both funny and poignant, on topics like emptying-nest angst, Jewish-mother-guilt, psychiatrists and rebellious children, career versus stay-at-home, the instant and unwelcome change of social status that comes with widowhood, and coming of age sexually. But maybe, if this review/ reflection appeals to you, then you could go and find a copy of the book. It’s out of print, but can be found on line.

The Key to Happiness?

While Judith Wax doesn’t purport to dispense advice, much of what she wrote is wisdom to be heeded. I’d like to cite one more passage as an example because I, too, have known people who’ve done what she tells. I also know people who’ve gone the opposite way in their lives.

On the topic of aging gracefully and happily, she mentions two women. One is wealthy, the other nearly penniless. But they both “…share continuing engagement. What their newspapers tell them each day is infinitely more interesting to them that what their mirrors do (though both are strikingly, and painstakingly, attractive). ..And whatever sneak attacks fate has prepared for them, they have stayed participants in a larger sphere than self-concern.”

Haven’t you met them too? Some people who can’t get enough of life, or can’t give enough? And others who have already quit at age fifty?

This compact little book is both Judith Wax’s self-introduction to her reading public and her smiling embrace of her own life and her future. At the end, she returns to the style of Chaucer and writes,

“I telle you that ripeness is the beste.
I vow that midlyfe’s bettyr than the reste.
I swear young folk have naught on myddl-agyrs,
(I swear, also, I’m Far y-Fawcett-Majyrs.)”

A Tragic Ending

“Starting in the Middle” was the only book that Judith Wax wrote. She and her husband were passengers on American Airlines Flight 191. Leaving Chicago on May 25, 1979, the plane crashed on takeoff from O’Hare Airport, exploding into a roaring fireball that killed all 271 people on board instantly.

For me, who believes that there’s a story worth telling about everyone, Judith Wax will always be an inspiration, an interviewer and storyteller to emulate. Here, that word means to imitate with the hope of equaling or surpassing. I doubt I’ll ever get there. No one did it better than she.

History I Never Knew: From the Annals of Mixology and Medicine

February 28, 2014

The Monkey Gland

The Monkey Gland

Hey guys – looking for a “potent” cocktail to order the next time you’re out on the town?

Try the following: 2 ounces gin, 1 1/2 ounces orange juice, 2 dashes of grenadine, 2 dashes of Pernod or Bénédictine, and a twist of orange peel.

Tell the bartender to shake the gin, orange juice, grenadine, and Pernod with ice, then strain it into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish it with the orange peel.

And be sure to order it that way and not by its name, lest you provoke a snicker from a bartender who knows the drink’s history. This cocktail is a Monkey Gland. And its history is an interesting one indeed.

Harry MacElhone, owner of Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, mixed the first Monkey Gland in the 1920s. He did it in recognition of the work of French surgeon Serge Voronoff.

Serge Voronoff (1866 - 1951)

Serge Voronoff (1866 – 1951)

Voronoff was born to a Jewish family near Voronezh, Russia in 1866. He emigrated to France at the age of 18, where he studied medicine and learned surgical techniques of transplantation under tutelage of Nobel Prize recipient Alexis Carrel. Between 1896 and 1910, Voronoff worked in Egypt, studying the retarding effects that castration had on eunuchs. That experience led him to his later work that ultimately gave the world the Monkey Gland cocktail.

Voronoff perfected the technique of transplanting testicle tissue from various primates into men. This, he claimed, would increase both longevity and sex drive. His research was bankrolled by a daughter of Jabez Bostwick, first treasurer of the Standard Oil Company. He started off transplanting testicle tissue from younger animals into older ones – sheep, goats, and bulls – and claimed that that the older ones became stronger and more vigorous.

Eventually, Voronoff moved to human male patients and began grafting thin slices of baboon and ape testicles into them. He wrote a book titled “Rejuvenation by Grafting.” The poet e.e. cummings wrote of “a famous doctor who inserted monkey glands in millionaires.” Irving Berlin’s song “Monkey-Doodle-Doo,” featured in a Marx Brothers film “The Coconuts,” has a line, “If you’re too old for dancing/Get yourself a monkey gland.”

About 500 men underwent the procedure in France, and thousands more around the world did too. They included Harold McCormick, chairman of the board of International Harvester and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, military hero of World War I and president of Turkey.

The operation was in such high demand that Voronoff set up a monkey farm on the Italian Riviera. He gained fame and made a lot of money. The procedure was fashionable until the 1940s, when its ineffectiveness became known throughout the scientific and medical communities.

Voronoff was quickly discredited and became the butt of jokes. He died in 1951. His reputation did not recover any ground until the 1990s when discovery that the Sertoli cells of the testes constitute a barrier to the immune system. This makes the testes an immunologically privileged site for the transplantation of foreign tissue. So, in fact, the thin slices of monkey testicles implanted by Voronoff may have survived to produce some benefit.

More recently, there have been successful experiments in reducing insulin requirements in diabetics. The techniques involved implanting into the diabetic patients pancreatic islet cells from pigs. The pig cells were coated in Sertoli cells, which insulated the pig cells from attack by the patients’ immune systems. No immunosuppressive drugs were required.

So maybe we should raise a glass to the good Doctor Voronoff after all. Need I suggest what drink we quaff in his honor?

New Journeys with Old Friends

December 26, 2013

Rebecca Eaton

Rebecca Eaton

Emily Dickinson wrote “There is no frigate like a book/To take us lands away.”

Right you are, Belle of Amherst. Today I embarked aboard another frigate, Making Masterpiece, the memoirs of Rebecca Eaton, who spent 28 years as executive producer of Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!

I’m looking forward to the rest of my journey with Rebecca Eaton. But I’m not alone. My wife’s uncle Roger is there with me.

Alexandre Dumas

Alexandre Dumas

I’d also begun reading The Three Musketeers a week or so ago. I was eager to get to Ms Eaton’s book, but I’ll definitely finish the Alexandre Dumas classic too. My childhood bud Peter is accompanying me on that voyage.

Roger and Peter have both passed on from this life. But when I sit down and open the pages of these books, memories of those friends return to me like a gentle refrain from a favorite song of my youth. Marking my place, and the beginning and end of my day aboard the frigate, is the little remembrance card that I took home from the funeral home after attending their wakes. My old friends start on the book-journey with me, and they bid me adieu when the trip is done.

I have many of those remembrance cards. They’re in a little stack on the corner of a bookcase shelf. I began using them as bookmarks a year or two ago. And as I sit down to read the stories of other people and their lives on the printed pages, I can’t help but recall the little stories of these bookmark friends.

Roger was a bombardier in World War II. His B-17 was shot down over Germany. He had to kick open the jammed bomb bay door just in time to bail out. He broke his leg when hitting the ground, was captured by a farm family, and spent two years in a POW camp. I know few people who were as unfailingly cheerful and gregarious as Roger. Those wartime privations and near misses must have taught him what really matters.

Peter was a grade-school classmate, sandlot-ball companion, and fellow altar boy. He had a devilish sense of humor and an impish grin. I saw little of Peter as we grew to late adolescence and adulthood, so I never knew how good an athlete he’d become in college. I also found, after he’d departed, how seriously and how long he believed in the old-time religion that we were both force-fed as youngsters. The last chapter of Peter’s life was one of heroic sacrifice. He gave up his career and moved across the country to take care of a son who’d been injured and permanently incapacitated by a drunk driver.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Other old friends wait to rejoin me on future book voyages.

There’s Sam, a wonderful gentleman I got to know well when I was raising funds at Boston College. He ran an industrial-sized laundry plant for hospitals. It was stifling hot in that place all year-round, a miserable working environment. Or so you’d think. Sam was a demanding boss, but he was so hard-working and fair-minded that he had a long waiting list of prospective employees eager to come and work for him. Study management theory in my MBA classes? Nope. I just observed Sam at work.

Jackie’s there. She was the mom of one of my best friends from high school days. So pretty, so sweet, so exquisitely put together, and so tolerant of our mischief and antics. I adored Jackie. But I don’t think I realized how much I cared for her until she passed on a few years ago. We weren’t supposed to be in love with our friends’ mothers. I blush now when I think of the tremendous teenage crush I had on her, one that I was never able to admit to myself.

Fernie from the world of hockey is there. Most would remember him only as a genial college coach. I’m old enough to have seen him play. He was a ferocious defender; woe betide any opponent who ventured near the goal when Fernie was on duty. He showed me that it is possible to be a thoroughly nice man in one context and a carnivorous myrmidon in another. In hockey, there was no better friend and no worse foe than Fernie.

I also see Jack, the high-school classmate whose career as a social worker was made immensely more difficult by a succession of serious illnesses and health problems of his own; Bobby, the acid-tongued but good-hearted sportswriter whose techniques I observed and with whom I drank more than a few beers; Paul, World War II veteran, Iwo Jima survivor and leading citizen of my native town of Hopkinton, whose sister taught my older siblings in first grade; Daniel, a distant in-law I never knew personally but whose taking of his own life was heartbreaking and incomprehensible.

The list can go on. Oh yes, it will go on, and some day my name will be on it too. Until then, I’ll keep adding to my personal edition of the list. I’ll gladly re-visit and fondly remember its distinguished citizens.

In her first chapter, Rebecca Eaton reflects that Masterpiece Theatre is essentially “…stories about families. Family stories are sagas: love, betrayal, money, infatuation, infidelity, illness, family love, and family deception.”

As she went through old papers, pictures, and documents in preparing to write about her own life and her own family, Eaton said that she’d come to recognize “the really important thing – the stories, and the stories behind the family stories that we all have.”

Perhaps the stories of those I take along on my book-frigate journeys are not writ as large as those of the kings, queens, prelates, princes, and aristocrats of Masterpiece Theatre. But to me, they are that “really important thing” that Rebecca Eaton mentioned. In small ways, and sometimes in larger ones, their stories are bound up with the story of my own life. They helped make me who I am.

Frankly, My Dear, He Did Give a Damn

August 8, 2013

Major Gable

Major Gable

Today’s featured Greatest Generation member: Major Clark Gable. Frankly, my dear, he did give a damn. About his country.

Gable enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1942 after the death of his wife, Carole Lombard. He was 41 years old at the time and had already starred in “Gone with the Wind,” “Mutiny on the Bounty,” and “It Happened one Night.”

He wanted to become an aerial gunner on a bomber. He was sent to Florida and officer Candidate School, where he was an assistant potato peeler during training. He graduated 700th in his class of 2,600, and his fellow trainees chose him as their graduation speaker. He got a special assignment from General “Hap” Arnold: to make a recruiting film in combat with the Eighth Air Force. Arnold wanted to recruit more gunners for his bomber fleet.

Gable trained with and accompanied the 351st Bomb Group to England. He spent most of 1943 there as the head of a six-man motion picture unit. He’d been promoted to captain while in training so he would have a rank commensurate with his position as a unit commander.

He flew five combat missions, including one to Germany, as an observer-gunner in B-17 Flying Fortresses between May 4 and September 23, 1943. Gable earned the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. During one of the missions, his plane was damaged by flak and attacked by fighters, which knocked out one of the engines and shot up the stabilizer. In the raid on Germany, one crewman was killed and two others were wounded, and flak went through Gable’s boot and narrowly missed his head.

The lobbying of MGM got its top star reassigned to noncombat duty, and he returned to the States to edit his film. As it turned out, the service was able to recruit enough gunners, but he completed the film and hoped for another combat assignment. In May 1944 he was promoted to major but was not brought to Normandy for D-Day. He was relieved from active duty as a major on June 12, 1944 since he was over-age for combat. His discharge papers were signed by Captain Ronald Reagan.

Gable completed editing of the film “Combat America” in September 1944. He gave the narration himself and interviewed several enlisted gunners, making them the focus of the film. He resigned his commission on September 26, 1947, a week after the Air Force became an independent service branch.

Gable was Adolf Hitler’s favorite actor. The Führer had offered a big reward to anyone who could capture Gable and bring him to Berlin.

The scene that inspired Bugs Bunny's most famous line.

The scene that inspired Bugs Bunny’s most famous line.

Bugs Bunny’s “Eh…what’s up, doc?” carrot-chewing pose was inspired by a scene in “It Happened One Night.” Gable, leaning on a fence, was eating carrots and talking with his mouth full to Claudette Colbert.

But as Doris Day put it, “He was as masculine as any man I’ve ever known, and as much a little boy as a grown man could be – it was this combination that had such a devastating effect on women.”

And LIFE magazine said of Gable: “All man… and then some.”