Conglomerate Creek, Vic., Australia, January 3, 2015—By some measure, it's my mother's 104th birthday but in my now it's only January 2 in Brooklyn where she was born, a universe away in terms of terrain and technology, me sitting here in the Victorian High Country in the south of Australia a century later with an iPad, her family on the corner of Myrtle and Clinton with a Victrola.
Outstralia. The Outback for sure. My camping seat is just a few grassy feet from the river bank. Lake and Finn are playing with Magna-tiles in the camper trailer and Miranda and Jay are setting up for a two-night stay, as are the other seven groups comprising three couples, two fathers and sons, and three families including us. We're on a 4WD (four wheel
drive, dummies) tour sponsored by Great Divide Tours, the company through which my kids arranged to acquire their carefully kitted out Land Cruiser and camper trailer, both customized for their adventure of which these few days involve just one interesting side-trip in their probably year-long journey.
You do not see Australia this way from a car, going to the traditional attractions. You can't get here from there. Off road. Off line. Out Back in the bush.
We're camping again, five of us sleeping in the camper trailer, a roomy set-up with canvas sides that folds up into a steel box for travel but which also does a back bend to produce a queen bed with an equivalent amount of storage space underneath, two sets of drawers, and a hard-floor platform big enough for three people to sleep.
We joined the tour almost on a whim and certainly without a great deal of preparation. We thought about it for a day, then woke up the next morning, packed up, shopped for 75 meals (5 people times 5 days times 3 meals per day), and rushed off to “Talbotville”-- which sounds like it might be a town, right?, no, wrong—to meet the tour that had started two days earlier. Our aim was to be there with enough daylight to set up camp, meet the others, have dinner, and hit the sack.
And so we drove to the original campsite following the GPS (technically "Donna") to Mt. Hotham in the Australian Alps then peeled off the paved road for some 50 kilometers of various versions of dirt—rutted track, gravel, the reddest soil you’ve ever seen—itself a windy, barely one-lane wide curlicue up into Great Alpine National Forest. And by up, I mean a 30-degree pitch, a 40-degree pitch, a 50-degree pitch, and I’m not exaggerating.
At a certain elevation the trees turned white, without leaves, without branches, with harsh black scars on their barkless trunks. How odd, how odd, not like any vegetation I could identify until one of the boys said, “There was a forest fire.” Of course. Everything is so different that I'd forgotten to throw common sense into my backpack. Fire may be a natural part of the forest's cycle but it leaves a very bleak footprint.
On we drove, to a sign for Grant, suggesting that there might be a settlement there (no), another for Grant's Cemetery (ok, something is settled there but it’s a bit hard to converse), until we started our descent, down to the Crooked River valley, so named for its meandering spine, and to Talbotville. Originally a mining town of 10,000 or so, today not a trace remains. Once the gold was scooped out, the inhabitants packed up their belongings—including their houses and shops and churches and stables and storehouses—and moved their infrastructure on to the next site of eventual abandonment.
When we arrived, we found fifty or so tents and camper trailers scattered about the ghost town, one “pump out” toilet (don’t ask), and three camper trailers that matched the description we’d been given of the group we were to meet. But no people appeared to be with the camper trailers, nor were their cars anywhere to be seen.
We wandered over to a nearby family—George and Nicole from Melbourne, and their two children Callum (6) and Michaela (3), welcome specimens to our two five-year-olds—and asked if they knew where are fellow tour-ers might be. They’d left that morning, Nicole said, in a convoy across the river and up the hill. It was getting later and later and so we decided to make dinner. Out came the camp kitchen, supplies emerged from the refrigerators and drawers, and before long we were eating and sharing George and Nicole’s camp fire with Finny playing chef to introduce the Aussies to S’mores.
By now it was 9 PM and our group still had not appeared. Miranda called Vic Widman, Mr. Great Divide Tours, and asked if he might know anything. His tracking system had detected that they had been on the side of Pinnacle Point mountain for three hours or so earlier in the day and were now making their way back, implying that there could have been a breakdown with one of the cars or they found something interesting or…
My mind traveled over much territory landing on the possibility that the Outback might be where aliens pluck their next inductees. After all, it’s so sparsely populated that who would ever know—except Vic Widman and us and George and Nicole and eventually everyone—but there would be no eyewitnesses. Yikes. My first night in the Outback and flying saucers have abducted the people we’re supposed to be four-wheel-driving with for the next five days. Time turned to the next hour and just then, out of the darkness, a line of light appeared up the hill, one car with lights ablazing, then another and another and another, unmistakably our group.
“I’m free! I’m free!” yelled Michelle, leaping from her 4WD. She turned out to be the lynchpin of the group, taking pictures, befriending everyone, offering helpful advice, and telling stories that should be on The Moth.
Another day: It is hot hot hot, so hot that Miranda and I just waded into the muddy (squish, squich) river to cool off, so hot that we just sat down on the stones beyond the mud. It worked. We drove again all day—up and down, over the innocuously named “conservation mounds,” moguls, really, that break the pitch of roads that you would not in your right mind hike up, never mind drive. Steep is one word vaguely suggestive of the impression these climbs leave; straight up might be more accurate. If you were to walk it, well, would you? You'd—or at least I—would need cramp-ons, a pitchfork for a walking stick, preferably accompanied by a mountain goat who would know where to put a foot or four.
Every turn of the wheel in our creeping caravan—which could mean there were some thirty or more tires in front of us depending on our slot in line—kicked up the dust, so thick at times that rescue inhalers were necessary, so opaque that we couldn’t see twenty feet in front of us.
Our phalanx of heavy duty robots—for these vehicles are different from normal cars (they have twelve gears, for example, and some have hydraulics that raise and lower the chassis to accommodate the furrows and grooves)—inched along ten-foot-wide black diamond trails, sometimes even narrower couloirs, sometimes more, up up up, sheer snaking slopes, then down down down at 60 degree drops, crossing water after water—22 crossings of The Crooked River yesterday—and on again, now coated in red dust, crackling UHF messages from the front of the pack to the end: “There’s an oncoming vehicle, mate, so pull over;” “it’s a bit ordinary here so walk it down;” “There’s a stump in the middle of the track so it’s a bit tight.”
It sounded so innocuous until we were walking it down, the car having been shifted into 4WD’s “low 1,” which meant the engine did the braking not the foot. After twenty or thirty of these plus a string of hairpin turns that Jay executed perfectly, they began to feel like the only places on Earth as Route 93, EZ Pass, and Rest Areas Ahead receded to their historical niches like my grandparents’ Victrola.
When a vehicle did come in our direction, we had to swing off to the edge of a ravine or nestle under a chalky cliff. It always seemed as if the oncoming cars were driving very fast as we crawl along rarely exceeding 20 or 25kmh, sometimes much slower than that.
It was day after day of bumpy roller coaster rides without the whoop and sans the stomach drop. Much of the time the forest resembled our beloved Bear Island, thick woods with dirt paths--only these were gums and eucalyptus and tea trees not maples and oaks and birches—and then it didn’t look like Earth at all.
So long as we stayed in the euphemistic comfort of our air conditioned car—which came to an end on the last day of the trip due to the need to conserve fuel—everyone was down to their last few kilometers as we hadn’t been able to fuel up since our second day at Dargo, the one live town where we stopped—a pub! a gas station! Bitumen roads!—we could tolerate the heat but once we left the car, a requirement of camping for the night, the heat sweltered us in blankets, electric spreads in which the thermostat continued to be turned up.
That was this evening when we made camp at Conglomerate Creek, internal temperatures rising for everyone, bull ants biting, adults and kids arguing, one couple exploding into a fight heard round the camp. Even the sudden wind doesn't cool these tempers until night fell and the sun moved on to the moods of other families, other campsites.
Treetop Campsite, Ripples Creek, Vic, Australia (GMT+14, 22 December 2014)—A couple of hours north of Melbourne, certainly not more, sits this Boy Scout camp, where some 1100 pitched their tents just a few weeks back. It’s a campsite in transition, as Paul, the new manager, works to bring it back from extinction.
The odd human trait to believe that everyone—or no one—is doing precisely what you’re doing tips to the all-inclusive side for me. Thus everyone on my interminable flight here had packed their long johns and hiking boots for surely there is but one way to live Down Under. Data—my own personal history—reminds me that this is not in fact the only way people travel in Australia but it is the way I travel now. This is my third trip to Oz, the first two for work with perhaps the country’s best known brand—Qantas—one of the few words in English that gets away with following a Q with an A and autocorrect doesn’t even do its sorry-mate-but-you-really-still-don’t-know-how-to-spell.
But those experiences were not camping in the least, what with being housed in an Intercon (Ozzies abbreviate via the diminutive with abandon rellies--relatives; brekkie--breakfast; firies--fire fighters) and engaging in fine-dining crawls in search of the country’s most supreme crème brulee. (One Saturday during our first visit, our hosts hired a houseboat so that we could motor up the Boorowa toward the restaurant that Zagat’s deemed to have the finest burnt custards in the land).
This is not that.
We, now, are crossing the land in a different style, we being four of my family plus me (the sixth member having left just a few days before my arrival), who move via 4-wheel-drive kitted out for water crossings, steep declines on rutted tracks, and hauling that weird contraption known as a camper-trailer, steel box by day, spacious tent where all five of us comfortably sleep at night, with side drawers that slide out housing a sink, a camp stove, a broiler, several pantries, and a sizable refrigerator. And a faucet, and many more drawers, and an awning or two, a prep shelf, and a dozen other things that I can’t think of at the moment.
Windmill Holiday Park in Ballarat
These comforts do not include those of the 4WD with its fridge, four more pantry drawers, a snorkel (for those water crossings that go a little too deep, which one did in not precisely that way a few months before I arrived), a kangaroo bumper (absolutely not its name but alas, no Internet access, which means I write without aid of the world’s largest encyclopedia), two solar panels that generate the power we need for this three-night stop, and two gas tanks, which slurp up $150 AUD at each filling.
Solar panels on right at Treetops
Gas prices have been falling since this excursion began, a good thing for those using large quantities of it but a bad thing for those who believe consumption monitoring is a very good thing yet again an excellent thing for those who would like to see an end to fracking and tar sands and a dozen other evil outputs of the industry that has fueled a level of comfort for a percentage of the world’s inhabitants far superior to any known before.
But back to our topic or is this our topic? Having swapped Brooklyn for the Bush, my daughter, son-in-law, and grandsons, are now into their fifth month of camping, principally in the Outback. Which is largely what Australia with its handful of large cities (wherein 90% of the population resides) and land mass that exceeds that of the US minus Alaska comprises.
The Bush, where wildlife abounds—emus, ostriches, alpacas, kookaburras, wombats, koalas, and, yes, those odd hoppers with the prehensile front legs/arms/paws. Until I looked it up in the dictionary just this very moment, I did not know its basic facts: This marsupial only found here and in New Guinea; its name came from a never-again-to-be-spoken Aboriginal language of the north Queenslanders. My kids are doing The Big Lap, a driveabout the whole continent-country, which could be some 20,000 miles, though it will be considerably more by the time they’re done.
People put such adventures on their wish lists then erase them with a dozen reasons why they could never. But these two did. Not exactly Brooklyn hipsters—though they did shop almost exclusively at the Grand Army Plaza Farmers Market, suffer the indignities of the sometimes-not-running B and the Q to take them to their from-the-outside-fascinating jobs in the city, and give birth to twins who knew their way around the Met, they decided and undecided to take this trip for quite a long time. And then they decided again, gave up their apartment, quit their jobs, dis-enrolled their nearly five-year-old boys from impending kindergarten in an overcrowded public school, put their stuff in storage, reduced their necessities to fourteen suitcases, and departed on July 30 for Sydney.
There they picked up their 4WD, which had been considerably modified from its original factory-form, and their camper trailer, and set out on their journey. They are documenting their five-Ws on their blog with such detail that the Australian Broadcasting Company has run a story on them and a camping magazine has contracted with them to write a series. It helps that they are fine writers and photographers—and that they have guts.
Within a month or so of setting out, they crossed a known challenge for 4WDrivers, Nolans Creek on the 55-km long Old Tele Track, named for the route along which the telegraph was taken all to way north in the east of the country. In their case, they happened to make that particular crossing (one of a dozen or so) in the company of three young men who were able to lend a hand when all did not go as predicted. They crossed the desert, this time without others in their wake, in 110-degree heat. They endured a night of snakes, winds, and a rainstorm so fierce that they, plus my younger daughter, who was visiting at the time, all ended up sleeping in the car. The car. Not the camper-trailer but, picture it, three adults and two little boys sleeping sitting up in a vehicle so packed with stuff that you can’t even see out the rear-view mirror.
And on they traveled—south to Longreach and Innamincka to remote stations, to The Flinders, the Great Ocean Road, and now, with my arrival, a few days first on Melbourne’s Cape Cod equivalent, the Bellarine [sp?] Peninsula; then a few more in Ballarat, an old mining town with a Sturbridge Village-like reconstruction, complete with the New York Bakery (we ordered the Devonshire Tea option, served with two scones, pronounced skons) and the Mechanics Library.
The boys were able to pan for gold (sadly, pebbles instead), peek inside the reconstructed tents of the miners, watch the melting of gold (or is it smelting) and go down into the first level of mine where gold was found both by mining companies and by father-and-son teams who picked along the vein of quartz that pulses with tiny flecks of gold; and now this campsite just outside Ripples Creek, where we were greeted by a mob of jumps. Are there as many words for kangaroos as for snow?
There couldn't be too many words for these strange creatures, who wander close to our campsite, chewing and pooping and hopping and rolling on their backs and tucking their joeys into their pouches then letting them out. They prance quickly, mostly at the end of the day when the sun is dialing down its bake temperature. And 1245 words later this writing session ends with the return of the family from a trip to town.
Robin Schoenthaler is a radiation oncologist at a hospital outside Boston. We met in the way friends often do nowadays, online, through a women's writers group. She's a wise woman and a very good writer. This piece, "O Night Divine on the Cancer Unit," from Upstate Medical University's literary journal, The Healing Muse, which drifted by in my Facebook feed, caused me to stop, click, and read. Here's one lovely paragraph. If you are dealing with cancer either as a patient, relative, or friend, it must be read. And if you say today, not me, well, then bookmark it because you will be that person. We all are/will be.
The Greeks have a word for moments like this—kairos—a time in between, a sacred time, a moment shared with the divine. Walking into a hospital room late at night I feel as though I am walking into a temple, a sanctuary, a secret tunnel underneath the trenches. Voices are muted; the patient is spent. Family may be drawn and pale, worn down to the last nerve. Our encounter is one of many stops in a long battle that began months or years before and their faces show it.
Next Monday, November 24, the three young men murdered by the KKK in Mississippi on June 21, 1964, will receive the Medal of Freedom from President Obama at The White House. Members of the families of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner will be there to accept the award, including my friend from college days, David Goodman. See his ongoing work with the Andrew Goodman Foundation.
The poignant note: None of their parents lived to see this day. Andy's father was the first to die, just a few years after he was killed, then Mickey Schwerner's father, then Schwerner's mother, then James Chaney's mother in 2007 (unable to find reference to his father's death), followed just a few months later, by Carolyn Goodman (post on her memorial service here.) Imagine if you can (I can't) the horror of being those parents, their children's whereabouts unknown for six weeks until their bodies were discovered mutilated in a ditch.
None of the killers convicted in the first trial served longer than six years of their sentences; in 2005, Edgar Ray Killen (yes, that's his name--"You can't make this stuff up," David said on the phone during the trial), who was described as the mastermind of the executions, was convicted of three counts of manslaughter on the 41st anniversary of the crime and is serving three consecutive 20-year terms. Mickey Schwerner's widow, Rita Bender, who was in MIssissippi as a civil rights worker herself when the murders happened, had the poise to testify at Killen's trial.
I've written a number of posts about the Goodmans. I met David the year after Andy was killed and just a short time after my own father died suddenly. Grief can create indelible bonds and so we have remained friends all these years. I can't wait to see the pictures, David.
Nearly eight years ago, Daughter #1, Miranda Stamps, and her husband, Jay Albany, set off on a six-month trip to Asia. Although they were both gainfully employed in NY where they'd gone to college and met (she, Barnard, he, Columbia), they figured that this was a good time to chuck their 9-5s and have some fun before kids and grown-up responsibilities prevented exploring what might make them very happy. They chronicled their trip at the link above. I was lucky enough to join them for part of their New Zealand travels.
Nearly four months ago, they did it again, once more relinquishing gainful employment and a well-situated Brooklyn apartment. Instead of kindergarten, their five-year-old twin boys, Lake and Finn, are learning geography and botany and survival skills by doing as they travel through Australia, chronicled on their new blog and Instagram feed, Miles from Brooklyn.
Today Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Blythe Moore profiles their journey with the aptly titled "New York family trades urban jungle for outback adventure." Here's the pic, followed by some others from their blog that I love. Many dream of doing such things but few have the courage. They've barely met a single American so far--nor have they slept inside much! A very many Miles from Brooklyn and the life of the B and the Q (that phrase for the New Yorkers among us).
Finn, l, and Lake, r, inspecting the equipment
Poppa telling boys a story, which Mommy recorded as "Jay's Secret Parenting Sauce"
What it's like to live in the bush
Though sometimes you can run into a bit of a problem
But then you find yourself here, Miranda's photo
that's gotten 3200 likes on the Queensland Instagram feed
Seven years after Katrina, I traveled to New Orleans with a group of volunteers to put hammer to nail at a house on the aptly named Flood Street. Astonishingly, I never posted here about that trip but the death of Tom Magliozzi, the Click of the Tappet brothers, i.e. "the one with the laugh," allows me to rectify that error while quoting a favorite writer from a Facebook post I did at the time. Ah, vanity.
On the second day of our trip (I went with some 20 others affiliated with the Middlebury, VT, Congregational Church), I was moving some 2X4s when:
...This character jumped out of his car at the Habitat site, said exactly three words ("Hi, I'm Ray") to which yours truly blurted out, "I know who you are!" Within seconds, our whole crew surrounded him, all of us delighted. And he was as funny as he is on the air (look at this pic closely) and as hard a worker as any. This is his "7th or 8th" time here for Habitat. "It's just a good fun thing to do," he said. D'accord.
Bostonians unite! Ray and me
Ray made it an even more fun build than it already was. I'd never volunteered for Habitat before and didn't know what to expect. We stayed in the dormitory of a church that had had several hundred parishoners before Katrina but by the time we arrived two years ago only a dozen or so remained. We had the use of their kitchen, with each of us signing up to cook meals and clean-up. I made what's become a trademark dish (recipe here), Dan Brown, co-owner of Middlebury's Swift House Inn, made all the breakfasts...and there were other good meals too.
Ray was a delight. His photo-bombing me, which my cousin Bay Area Trail Aficionado Morris Older remembered, was in keeping with Ray's buoyant spirit. We all loved having him as part of our crew, or shall we say, krewe, since all of this took place during Mardi Gras, forever endearing him to me, who can't even remember what my own car looks like...speaking of which, why does the "check engine" light keep coming on?
Nice memories and my heart is aching for Ray and his family today. Even though every single one of us loses loved ones and even though every single one of us learns to live with immeasurable loss, each new death is a novelty, as if it's never happened to anyone before, and is singularly hard to bear.
A few more photos from that trip here, including our side trip to the Ninth Ward, where we snapped some shots of the houses that Brad Pitt's Make It Right foundation has built.
Map of where volunteers staying at church came from
Day 2 -- these things go up fast!
Rich at work
How it looked when we left
And now for a few of the houses that Brad built, the result of architectural competitions, designed to withstand anything like what Katrina wrought. The first is the sign in front of the spot where a new house has been built, where a family was devastated. I hope you can read the words.
Here, from seven years ago, a repost with the letter she left for her funeral.
And a just-discovered Pottstown Mercury news item from Oct 30, 1945, announcing that this 34-year-old Brooklyn transplant, who'd been in Pottstown less than a year and who had an 18-month-old child, would teach adult ed classes in introductory and advanced lipreading for three hours each Tues and Thurs night at the Y. My mom.
And now the blog repost from Sept 9, 2007:
Eighteen years ago today, my mother, Ethel A. Lipnack, died at the age of 78. This morning, I had the chance to stand on the doorstep where she had passed so many times--at the corner of Myrtle and Clinton Avenue, where she was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. A Connectict Muffin shop occupies the candy store that my grandparents ran at the edge of what was then a very posh neighborhood. I write this tonight from our daughter's apartment, just a few blocks from my mother's original home. In all the years since she died, this is the first time I've been nearby on this anniversary. Sad and happy, all at once.
My mother liked to say that she started working at age five, delivering newspapers along Clinton Avenue. She was just 20 years old when she graduated from Hunter College at the height of the Great Depression. With a German major and a French minor, there weren't many jobs available yet she managed to turn her love of language into a lifelong career. She was one of the first teachers of lipreading in Harlem, a skill that she took with her to Pennsylvania when my parents moved there in 1945, founding the first lipreading school in the Philadelphia area. Coincidence: I married a man with major congenital hearing loss (60% loss in the speech range). My mother called my husband one of the greatest natural lipreaders she'd ever met.
In her late forties, my mother turned her attention to teaching high school English, where she got to spend her days with the age group she loved most--teenagers. She taught for many years at Daniel Boone High School, in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania, where she eventually chaired the English department. After she retired, she continued teaching reading and English. She was leaving the business school class she'd just taught when she had a massive stroke on March 26, 1984; she lived for five-and-a-half more years, requiring round-the-clock care, but never losing her sense of humor and or her love affair with cigarettes.
I found a letter she'd written for her funeral in a drawer the day she died. About the young people she so admired, she wrote: "Teenagers are great sources of joy, but most people don't know that. They should take time out to discover this."
One paragraph from her letter stays present across the years, the last sentence so compelling that we made it the epitaph on her gravestone:
My big fight with our society has been against bigotry. It is unfortunately pandemic. I wish I had had a magic formula for eradicating it. I didn't, but I do think I raised people's consciousness about it. So we're different from each other. Good! Let's learn about the differences. They're fascinating. At least I've found them so. This is my legacy:
Love each other despite differences and because of them.
And now my mother's letter in full, which my cousin read at her funeral:
Dear Family & Friends,
I hope this is not a sad day for you. If I were with you, I would not shed one tear. I would, instead, say that I am glad for her. This is what she wanted and she finally got it. One can live too long and I think I did. When I could no longer work, I felt no need to go on. Life seemed pointless and endless, let alone empty.
My children and grandchildren have been a great source of joy to me. They are beautiful people and should be treated like fine crystal. These are the true values in life. The rest is all hogwash. Along with them were my students. I hope they knew how much I loved them and how I profited from knowing them. Teenagers are great sources of joy, but most people don’t know that. They should take time out to discover this.
Grieve appropriately but not too much. Just be glad we knew each other.
My big fight with our society has been against bigotry. It is unfortunately pandemic. I wish I had had a magic formula for eradicating it. I didn’t, but I do think I raised people’s consciousness about it. So we’re different from each other. Good! Let’s learn about the differences. They’re fascinating. At least I’ve found them so. This is my legacy. Love each other despite differences and because of them.
Let’s not have any more wars. They seem never to solve anything. All they do is make a shortage of men for our beautiful young ladies. O.K., I think I’ve said it all!! Make love, not war, grow and understand. Be happy today and in the future. I wish you all well. I’ve had the best of it—my children, my friends. I owe you all a great deal. I hope I’ve been a good friend to you—I wanted to be.
If I’m in Pottstown, I’m happy. It’s where I wanted to be. It’s not Paradise but it’s been home to me for over 40 years. Brooklyn is where my heart has been.
Your confidences were always safe with me as I’m sure mine were with you. OK—get it over with. Do not cry. I’m relieved—truly. Please respect my things, my books, my art, my collections. I enjoyed them. I hope you do too.
Ethel A. Lipnack
PS. Try to find an alternative to nursing homes. To do this, you’ll have to take the profit out of them. They’re horrors in their present state. People are segregated by age and they have very little in common. I have found them a terrible home. I’ve done the best I could but that’s not good enough. Had I been in this last mausoleum much longer, I would have gone mad.
A rainy day in Montreal on our way elsewhere, a perusal of great things to do in this lovely ville, and we notice The Montreal World Film Festival, go through the guide, picking out films that fit our timetable, and agree on the first: "Is That You?", described thusly:
"Newly unemployed, Ronnie, a 60-year-old Israeli projectionist decides to travel to America to find Rachel, the love of his life, a retracing of 'the road not taken'."
Ever since my offspring departed for Australia a month ago under the rubric, "Miles from Brooklyn: Adventures Offroads Less Traveled," I've been thinking about that Robert Frost ponderable, which made me want to see the film. Plus who doesn't want to know what happens when someone goes after their unfulfilled childhood love?
Film stills taken from Dani Menkin's Facebook page -- thanks!
So with that much foresight and that little notice (an hour or two all told), we found ourselves at the festival in a mostly-full theatre watching what turns out to be an excellent film. How many movies cause one to laugh and to cry and to want to reach into the screen and help the characters? That's this film.
There's the brash brother of Ronnie, the main character, confidently played by Alon Aboutboul who's come to the US and now owns a used car lot, a tech-savvy son who although he barely speaks Hebrew wants to join the Israeli Army (possibly the elite Special Forces but the reference was over my head), a zany free-spirit filmmaker (the thoroughly engaging actor, Naruna Kaplan de Macedo), making a film about, guess what, "the road not taken," who joins Ronnie's search for his lost love, a cop who sings opera for the evolving documentary, a grandmother who smokes medicinal pot, and a retinue of cameos from regular folks, albeit colorful ones, who talk about their alternative roads.
Eventually, Ronnie finds Rachel (Suzanne Sadler), whose warmth and quiet charisma explain both why he was so taken with her initially and why we, watching the film, would want to know her. Her interview about other roads is profound. There are many untaken roads, she tells us, not one, and remaining alert to the ones we're on is the trick. Or something like that -- I need the script to be accurate here and it's worth seeing the film just to hear what she has to say.
Films within films, like novels within novels, are tricky and can be just one large heap of hoke but this one is not and an unexpected plot twist leads to double-take time: Is this a documentary after all? It's not but it's so well done that one could leave the theatre feeling as one (this one) did after reading Tomas Eloy Martinez's novel, Santa Evita, where he included so many footnotes that it was nearly impossible to tell whether it was fiction or fact.
OK, so all of that was great but then the kicker: The filmmaker, Dani Menkin, was there after the film to answer questions. Charming and forthcoming, he took questions from the audience, explained that the film was filmed principally in Syracuse (where an article appeared about the movie's production in 2012), and reinforced the mystery of distribution. How does such an excellent film go into wide release? Who knows what slender strands cause such things to happen but, as we left the theatre, I remembered that someone I went to high school with is now a producer and so I test the power of Google Alerts and mention Andy Scheinman, whose great sense of humor I recall, and whom I think would like this film very much.
From Miles from Brooklyn (see below)
What are you currently working on?
Edits for a novel, the first volume of a trilogy; inching along with the second volume, which I spend more time thinking about than adding words to; returning periodically to a memoir that is probably finished draft-wise but needs a thorough edit; and,, moving to the back of the line for the moment, a nonfiction book or article or essay or just a blog post (the ever-shrinking idea) that is an easier mark for me because I’ve done a number of such books in the past.
How does your work differ from others of its genre?
“Genre: a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.” Which means that I don’t fit one. I write different kinds of work with different voices and different intents dictated by the material. So a novel does not read like a memoir or a nonfiction book and yet my style is likely similar across the forms. (I use a lot of parens, --'s, and series of independent clauses.) I suspect that this question was generated by someone who ONLY writes in one form – mysteries for example or children’s books – but I plead genre-less.
Why do you write what you do?
Why do I write at all? It’s an impulse that’s been driving me for as long as I can remember, that never recedes. Sentences, phrases, word choices are always running through my head. I’m waiting for the neurotechnology that captures such things effortlessly. They always sound so great when you think them and then when it comes time to do this, actually record them, well, maybe I don’t want that device after all.
How does your process work?
I write for a bit, whatever that period of time might be – fifteen minutes, four hours, sometimes longer—then call it quits for a while. When I come back to it, which could be a few hours later or next day or …, I start from the beginning again. That return to the starting line is a warm-up and a good editing pass as I see awful things that cannot stay while I try to go on, almost as if the garbage needs to go out before starting to cook again. It may not be the most efficient way to do it but it’s the way I’ve always written even while mixing metaphors.
Now I throw the baton to Miles from Brooklyn, aka Miranda Stamps and Jay Albany, who are chronicling their Australian odyssey in a four-wheel drive vehicle towing a camper trailer with Lake and Finn, their five-year-old twins; cancer doctor, mother, and writer Robin Schoenthaler; and the indescribably eclectic techno-seer and writer Susan Scrupski (that link taking you to just one of her writing venues).
The fad to chart massive amounts of data often leaves me (and others) shrugging. Cool pictures but...
This one is original -- charting the migration of well-known people from their births to their deaths, principally in the general Europe-to-North-America neighborhoods. I need to spend more time with it to understand what it's really telling us -- same same problem again -- meanwhile, this is very worth spending time with.
From YouTube description:
This animation distils hundreds of years of culture into just five minutes. A team of historians and scientists wanted to map cultural mobility, so they tracked the births and deaths of notable individuals like David, King of Israel, and Leonardo da Vinci, from 600 BC to the present day. Using them as a proxy for skills and ideas, their map reveals intellectual hotspots and tracks how empires rise and crumble. The information comes from Freebase, a Google-owned database of well-known people and places, and other catalogues of notable individuals. The team is based at the University of Texas at Dallas.
I'm not surprised to see that Barabasi is involved.
Here's the link (embed not working).
Yesterday marked three years since Jeff died, which we spent together, indulging in massages, and eating his favorite meal.
"You're here because it's Dadpa's birthday," either Lake or Finn said when I arrived.
"It's not his birthday," the other said. "After you die, your birthday is called your anniversary."
It was so clever that it wasn't worth "correcting." Right. Forevermore, June 11 is Dadpa's anniversary.
A few hours later and quite out of the blue, I received an email from our neighbor Eleanor Rubin, an artist whose work we loved (we bought several pieces) and whom I only have seen occasionally over the years and not at all in the last three:
It is impulsive of me to send a note and say hello. I hope my note does not feel intrusive. I think of you often and miss seeing you both.
Today, reading a book called " The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge," I came across an image of an "OrgScope by Jeffrey Stamp." It made me remember a day, (must have been '11) when I met Jeffrey out walking his dog and he told me of his diagnosis. I'm sure my response was inadequate but the moment is etched in my memory. I wished then as I wish now that I'd known how to respond fully. Jeffrey seemed so much himself and yet I doubted that I'd ever see him again. And I never did...
And then I remembered that about two years ago, I received a permission request from Manuel Lima, asking for permission to include a picture of OrgScope in this book on "visualizing branches of knowledge." And that I'd blogged one of Manuel's very clear talks here.
Explain to me why my neighbor wrote yesterday. Explain, please.
But if you're a flexitarian, then I bet you like fried chicken as much as me. Love it.
And so when I stumbled into Boston's Back Bay Station a few years ago starving and about to hop on the train to NY, I was drawn by the redolence of fried chicken. At a food court. Delicious and since then I've tried to procure same again but without luck. I was always there at the wrong time.
However recently (i.e. earlier today) and in the same situation -- and although it was barely 11 AM -- I found myself in front of T.J. Enterprises, talking with T.J. himself, who, once he heard how much I love his fried chicken, was willing to put it on offer earlier than usual. And so I enjoyed an early lunch/late breakfast of fried chicken on the train and learned the following:
1. T.J. is from Laurel, Mississippi, where he learned how to make it.
2. He perfected it via trial and error, a little less of this and a little more of that.
3. He usually serves it from 11:30 on.
4. Much as I dislike nuked chicken, it was absolutely delicious.
5. I should have taken a picture of T.J. but instead have only this to show for it.
When people die, their good can inflate to fill the sky, fill the screens, and so they are everywhere for a few days. Which is how we've been learning so much about Maya Angelou this past week, how the glorious tribute from her son, Guy Johnson, also a writer, is in many links. He said the kind of thing you might hear from a child in a eulogy but in this case he said it while she could still hear it: How was it growing up in your mother's shadow, Oprah asked? I grew up in her light, he said.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki is in the news and it's not the first time he's been center stage.
Students of the Iraq War may recall that at the start of the war, Shinseki, a four-star general, was the Chief of Staff of the Army who got into a public row with then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld over troop strength. Shinseki said the US needed on the order of 250,000 troops in Iraq once the war wound down. In a clear rebuke, Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz made it known that they disagreed and Shinseki was forced out of his post.
Ultimately, Shinseki's view was vindicated and supported across the aisle and in The White House.
It was precisely when this was happening in the spring of 2003 that Jeff Stamps and I came into contact with General Shinseki, something we neither planned nor ever imagined. We pulled that story together for an unpublished book, "Leading Networks," and, given Shinseki's prominence at the moment, I think it's worth retelling here.
General Shinseki, right, with Admiral Vern Clark, left, also mentioned below,
and Marine General Michael Hagee; photo from NY Times, 1/12/07
On February 10, 2003, I answered the phone and found an unlikely caller. "I'm calling on behalf of (then-) Major General Jim Dubik," he said. "He'd like you to come to a wargame."
Unified Quest 03, the aide explained, would be the first Joint Forces-US Army Wargame, a weeklong simulation that would take place at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. We would be among a small group of outsiders; the other 700 people would be from military forces both in the U.S. and among American allies and from defense contracting firms.
I said that I'd never heard of General Dubik. "Well, he’s heard of you", the aide replied, explaining that Dubik had read and been interested in The Age of the Network, a book we’d written ten years earlier.
Lt. Gen. Jim Dubik, now retired, photo from Penn State Dickinson School of Law site,
where he holds the Gen. Omar N. Bradley Chair in Strategic Leadership
Jeff was as flabbergasted as I when I went into his study to tell him.
We had met as anti-Vietnam War activists in 1968 while students at Oxford University.
In contrast to some of our friends in 2003 who argued with us, we strongly opposed the then-looming Iraq War.
We decided to attend.
And then we told our friends what we were planning to do. Invariably we got the same reply: “You’re going to be doing what?” Then quickly, nearly all followed with, “Thank God. I’m so glad you’re going.”
Thus began our involvement with the American military, particularly the Army, where we’ve discovered that some of its ideas, particularly in regard to leadership, are ahead of those we've encountered as consultants in the commercial and non-profit sectors.
To attend a wargame was beyond our ken. So it was with apprehension, curiosity, and a little discomfort that we went to the Carlisle Barracks, reflected in a summary I wrote after the event:
"My coming-in-picture of a 'wargame?' I thought it would be fought in a space the size of at least a basketball court, maybe even as large as the hangar I once toured at Douglas Aircraft where the MD-11 was being built.
"And, I wasn’t sure precisely what would transpire on this 'battlefield.' I thought it was unlikely that we'd find people playing laser tag or paintball, but I wasn’t even certain of that. I was unprepared for the wargame to be 'fought' in crowded conference rooms, where it was hard to hear what people were saying and where the commander’s back was usually turned toward most of those in the room."
The wargame that (now-retired Lieutenant General) Dubik invited us to—in this case, a thinly disguised confrontation with a country called “Nair” (unscramble the letters)—included our attending the daily debriefings for the “flag officer” (read highest-ranking officers) at the end of each day. There, the senior military strategists, many retired, would deconstruct the day’s wargame results.
Following the opening session at the War College’s Bliss Hall, which I remember as being very loud and filled with promotional videos for various weapons and tanks, Bill Rittenhouse, then a career staffer for the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command and an organizer of the event, found us stumbling around, unsure of what to do next or where to go. He welcomed us, indicating that he wasn’t quite certain what we were supposed to be doing either, but immediately introduced us to Clint Ancker, a retired colonel doing research on the Army’s structure and director of the famed Center for Army Lessons Learned.
We knew who Ancker was because one of his aides had been corresponding with us over the prior few months on “echelonment.” The word, from the French, literally means rungs on a ladder, and is the term the military uses to describe its levels of hierarchy.
Ancker and his group had been tasked with responding to a “request” from the then-Secretary of Defense. Now that the forces were “joint,” meaning that they all had to play nice together, Rumsfeld wanted the Army to remove a level, an echelon, from its traditional command structure, a rung near the top. Over lunch, Ancker drew some pictures about options for the Army’s reorganization, which reassured us that our expertise in networks had some relevance to what they were working on.
From that informative lunch, Ancker moved us along to meet then-Brigadier General (later Lieutenant General) Mike Vane, a self-described California beach boy in his youth, and one of the conference co-chairs.
Lieutenant General Mike Vane, now retired, photo from US Army site
Vane, in turn, took us into a small room to wait for General Dubik. “Hi, I’m Jim Dubik,” said the informally dressed general, extending his hand as he walked in.
After the usual pleasantries, we asked the central questions: “Why are we here and what do you want us to do?” Dubik responded in a way that we’ve become accustomed to in working with senior executives.
“I don’t know precisely,” he said. “I read your book about networks. We’re fighting a networked enemy. We have a net-centric warfare strategy in place. And we’re responding to the SecDef’s request for material on echelonment.”
Dubik told us to “wander around” and to try to absorb as much as we could as quickly as possible, and to reflect back what we noticed. He asked that we pay attention to “jointness” (how the separate forces worked together) and “echelonment,” in particular, but cautioned us not to artificially limit our scope.
These intriguingly broad terms of reference allowed us to follow an unscripted flow. After a tour of the wargame premises by one of Vane’s aides, we were, for the most part, left on our own.
Over the following week, we talked with dozens of people both formally and informally. We sat in on sessions where specific maneuvers were debated in snatches and at length. We shared meals with generals and admirals, trading health tips and nutrition theories with a four-star. We exchanged references with analysts, media, and advisors.
And, we attended the highest-level meeting of our lives, an “out-brief,” military-speak for what business refers to as a post-mortem, with the Joint Chiefs.
On the last day of the wargame, General Shinseki arrived to hear the conclusions of the exercises. It was one of the rare events that we weren't invited to but when it was over, the ground crew involved with putting on the event—the schleppers, the logistics people, and the sponsoring senior military officers, including Dubik and Vane—stood in a line as Shinseki spoke to them, thanking each individually.
Everyone knew what was happening—indeed, Shinseki's disagreement with the Bush administration over troop strength required in Iraq, an estimate that later proved to be entirely accurate, had been broadcast on television—and sadness seeped across the floor just beneath the evident respect that seemed to pour from people's eyes. Shinseki then walked down the line, pressing a medal commemorating the wargame into the hand of each person who'd worked the event. After the meet-and-greet, Dubik pressed one into each of our hands.
The next day, we drove south from Carlisle to Fort McNair in Washington for the “Senior Leaders Seminar,” the last event of this historic wargame. There, the generals and admirals who orchestrated the wargame, along with a handful of participants from the Carlisle exercises, met with the military's top brass, including the Chief of Naval Operations, the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and the Supreme Allied Commander of Atlantic, along with their peers—as well as the then-Deputy Secretary of Defense, Wolfowitz. Of the ninety guests, as best we could determine we were the only true civilians, and I was the only woman. We were seated just behind Wolfowitz and the Army Chief of Staff.
This gathering at the National Defense University took place the very day after then-President Bush landed on the USS Lincoln to proclaim “Mission Accomplished."
General Shinseki led the proceedings. Seated to his left was Wolfowitz, who arrived late and left barely ten minutes later, just moments after the briefing began. (An aide came in, handed him a note, and he said that he had to leave because "the Secretary needs me.")
Surely Wolfowitz could not have wanted to hear the words of one retired four-star Air Force general who said plainly, “Preemption does not work.” Preemption, the Bush administration policy employed in the Iraq War, the general said, violated the principles of war, left the enemy no choice but to respond with unconventional methods (meaning weapons of mass destruction), and placed the preempting forces without any of their conventional means of applying pressure incrementally.
This “After Action Review,” the systematic method the Army developed for reviewing its “actions,” included a ten-minute video positioning the history and chronology of this particular wargame, emerging issues identified by the wargame teams, and feedback from those participating.
We were told that this meeting was historic: It was the first time the highest levels of US military had convened as a network of peers for a wargame debriefing. Hot on the heels of the initial and what then appeared to have been the stunningly successful invasion of Iraq—reportedly the most "joint" operation in history—was “a not-to-be-missed opportunity,” which is how Admiral Vern Clark, then the Chief Naval Officer, described it to us as we were leaving.
The meeting lasted for a few hours; our involvement with the military lasted for another five years until the last of the crop of senior officers whom we knew retired.
What we took away was that while the “joint” approach to military affairs as practiced at this wargame is still being worked out, it is evident that the complexity of global relations in the 21st century demands it.
The immediate, mind-boggling dilemma of security in a pre-emptive, time-warped world with unpredictable enemies who have access to unthinkable weapons no longer allows individual and separate hierarchies to march forward.
Photo via Paramount Theatre site with thanks
Of Vermont's many attributes, its theaters are venues for first-rate performers. So it was that on Saturday night we impulsively signed up for "AN EVENING WITH IRA GLASS" at the Paramount, Rutland's premier venue (we saw Joan Baez there last summer; Melissa Etheridge and Ziggy Marley are coming soon, but not together :).
I'm not a regular listener to "This American Life" but I hear it often enough to remember stories and to think that it's an interesting show, one that I learn from. Plus I worry about Ira's dog, Piney. Others do too, apparently, as when he opened the show up for questions, the first was about whether the little canine is still eating kangaroo meat. (No, they've run the gamut of mammal meat and are back to pork. For those who don't know, Piney develops allergies to his carnivorous offerings after a time. We won't talk about the bunnies.)
Ira Glass photo from TAL site (grazie, again)
It was a good show but, don't hate me, Ira, not the best he's capable of. A very clever opening. Ira enters in the dark, carrying an iPad, kitted out to look like a radio in the dark (at least that's what we can see from the balcony), and speaks about the power of radio, the power of voice, the power of just words.
After a few minutes the lights go up and there he is taller, older, and more slender than his voice would imply. And in a suit and tie. If one were to do a suit-and-tie survey of Vermont and compare it with other states, it would place near the bottom, I'd wager. Perhaps this is explained by Vermont having recently topped the charts for the state with the highest number of hippie indicators and, for the third year running, is number 1 in the Strolling of the Heifers Index, which measures a state on the locavore scale--number of CSAs, food coops, and the like. Not too many hippie heifers strolling around in suit and tie in the greenest of states (it means "green mountain," thanks to explorer Samual Champlain who so named it).
Still he looked good in it. And he did a nice job of weaving in appalling stories (one about a thirteen-year-old who'd been bitten by a shark and suffered not surprisingly dire consequences, another about a fourteen-year-old who had become a pedophile, which was horrifying not just because he was one but because the psychologist whom he saw said that she had no idea how or where to have him treated). So the tidbits, including a scatological one featuring David Sedaris (shocking, I know), were alternately funny and thought-shaking-upping.
The centerpiece was for me, finally as in I've been waiting to understand it for years, a decent explanation of semiotics. Perhaps you're different from me and, when you hear about something that sounds very sophisticated, you don't assume that the rest of the world knows about it and that you're the village dunce. Or that references to those associated with it (in this case Roland Barthes) are familiar to these hypothetical in-the-know other people and that they all probably studied with him. Or roomed with him.
Me, I had no idea what semiotics really was (or is as it still exists) until Ira explained it. He majored in it at Brown, in fact, a defeat for his parents who were hoping for a career with a more predictable revenue stream, viz. why the hell didn't he become a doctor? OK, semioticians, I leave it to you to explain properly but what I understood is that this field is more about meaning than style, more about meta-messages of text than whether the writer uses good analogies, so, out on a limb I climb, it's more about the undercurrents, the deep raison d'être of a piece, than its genre or literary/philosophical category. PS: I'm certain I have this wrong as proved by this definition:
But it helped me to understand a bit more about how Ira and Co. put their stories together, about which he offered the following formula: action-action-action, idea; action-action-action, idea. Listen to the program and see if you can make out the pattern. First this happens, then that, then that, then they throw in some kind of overarching statement explaining what they're talking about.
Ira is funny, self-effacing, and mumbles just a bit, which had my dear companion, who has perfect hearing so far as I can tell (he seems to know what I'm doing from a room or two away), asking, "What did he say?" several times. I didn't always know.
Ira's wrap focused around a clever theme, which I wish he'd used for the whole show. Having just listened to some tapes of the incomparable Studs Terkel interviewing Zero Mostel (as he said, you have to be of an age to get these references), Ira contrasted what he was doing with a genre that Mostel eschewed, what he called "mishpuchah" stories. Mostel disliked yarns about families (mishpuchah, in Yiddish means the WHOLE family, friends, hangers-on, you know, your network) where the same problems happen to the same kinds of people with the same kinds of outcomes. The example, if I remember correctly, was daughter gets pregnant, parents get upset, etc and so on.
Ira thrives on mishpuchah (although he pronounces it mishpAchah, which means he's from a different Yiddish background from mine, mine being right naturally). His stories are all mishpu-ah-chah and they reel us right in.
That to me is his theme and that could be his hook, line, and sinker, speaking of reeling us in. Who am I to tell Ira Glass how to tell a story? But if he asked, here's what I would say: Start with Zero, throw out your counter-intuitive hypothesis that challenges one of the greatest performers of all time, illustrate with a bunch of shark/pedophile/Piney stories, and then end with a clip from a show, going out with music, leaving the last words unsaid.
Still I loved it: We rated the show to each other: my he, the trained engineer, gave it a 6, I, untrained critic, gave it an 8, and I'm busily integrating what I learned even as I type. Thanks, Mr. Glass.
Real PS: The question about his use of music was perfectly illustrated. The iPad is his guitar, piano, and harmonica all in one, and he demonstrated how they use music in the show to show progression, how they fade to make points, and how they go silent to stun the audience with the big reveal.
The Samuel Wheat House
399 Waltham Street, West Newton, MA
In about two weeks' time, my house will look like this again. The peonies, which I transplanted from the far edge of the property to the front garden some years ago, always bloom around my birthday, the moment that may be Wheat House's most glorious.
Why Wheat House? Read on. But first: the house is on the market and Boston Globe reporter Eileen McEleney Woods gave it a very nice write-up in Sunday's Globe Magazine. Scroll about halfway down the article and you'll find this description:
PROS Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Samuel Wheat House, a pre-Revolutionary Georgian built in 1735, exudes warmth: Much of this gambrel, particularly the kitchen, is sunny, five rooms (including two bedrooms) have fireplaces, and the original wide-plank hardwood flooring is golden. Amid all of this history (the dining room was once used as a doctor’s office, and the original doorway, ornate and stately, still graces the front entrance) are modern conveniences, such as the stainless appliances in the kitchen and the sink in a mudroom closet. It’s a five-minute walk to the commuter rail. CONS Take care pulling out of the driveway.
Thank you, Ms. McEleney Woods. It's heartwarming to read such a glowing description of the abode that our family has loved so deeply for so many years.
There are houses that people live in and there are homes that even the one-time visitor remembers. Looking at comments on my Facebook page where I first posted about the house being on the market, I find a number of visitors who were there perhaps once or twice.
It's an instant nostalgia machine, a great place for gatherings, and a very easy house to live in. It's also in walking distance of the famed West Newton Cinema, one of Boston's premier movie houses; 10 places to eat including Lumiere, Blue Ribbon, The Local, Shogun, L'Aroma, Comella's, and West Newton Pizza; the commuter rail; the express bus; and at least 45 banks (a new development).
And further to two of the Globe reporter's points: 1. It is indeed sunny because, wisely, those pre-Revolutionary builders knew what solar advocates today seek--it's the only house on the street that faces south (all the rest face east and west); and 2. Yes, when a road is built around a house that went up nearly 200 years before there even were cars, then driveways can be a problem, which is solved by creating a turnaround so you're always facing out.
Having lived here for so many years, I know every nook and cranny, every detail, like these facts:
It's a treasure and it's hard to part with.
I pulled together a history of the house for use by the real estate agent (this link takes you to all the pictures). There are relatively few houses in the US with this kind of provenance that have survived intact.
The fine condition of the house is a testament to the quality of the materials and the skill of the original builders. In all the years that we owned it, we never had a major repair, just the typical things that householding brings: painting, replacing appliances, the occasional clogged sink. And so, herewith, culled from a variety of historical records, including the Massachusetts Historical Commission's superb compilation of multiple sources, and which I quote extensively here, though without the quote marks as I rewrote it somewhat extensively--thanks MHC!, I offer...
Wheat House, A History
The house at 399 Waltham Street, known as The Samuel Wheat House and named for its first owner, Dr. Samuel Wheat, has been owned by eight families since it was completed in 1735.
Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, this pre-Revolutionary Georgian retains architectural details typical of the period, including a steep gambrel roof and narrow side elevations. Evidence of alteration includes chimney additions and a six-over-six window sash in the 19th century and such 20th-century additions as the garage and library in the 1930s, and the sunroom in 1985. Even with these changes, the house remains remarkably intact and is considered to be of major historical significance.
Samuel Wheat and his wife, Hannah, whose gravestone lists her as a “professor of religion,” were reported to have had 17 children. Dr. Wheat, who came to West Newton in 1713, was the village doctor. First one of their sons, Samuel Jr, and also a doctor, and later their daughter, Catherine, who married Capt. Thomas Eustis, owned the house, which eventually was sold at the turn of the 19th century to the Davis family, perhaps the same people for whom nearby Davis Avenue is named.
Briefly owned by the Woodford family (he was treasurer of Second Church), the house then became the home of Samuel S. Kilburn (a designer and an engraver) and his family, who lived here until the turn of the 20th century. In 1898, Mrs. Edward Augustus Holyoke Allen, moved into the house with her children, following the death of her husband, who was a first cousin of Nathaniel Allen, who taught at the Allen School on Webster Street, where the educator Horace Mann also taught.
In 1929, the house was sold to the Baker family, who made a number of renovations, including turning the woodshed into the library, adding the mudroom, the garage, and the sun porch, removing the side door on Waltham Street, which is now where the shelves are between the dining room and the den, and planting the gardens, many of which specimens still survive. The Bakers owned the house until 1955, when they sold it to Dr. Nick and Joyce Stahl, who were married in the garden.
Mary and Richard Burack (who was also a doctor) bought the house in 1959, raising their five children here. During their tenure, they removed the old bake oven in the den, built the fireplace and paneling that now surround it, replaced the front sill, replaced clapboards on the front of the house, and built a bomb shelter in the backyard.
They sold the house to authors Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps on April 18, 1972, three months after they were married, and who renewed their vows in the garden in 1986. While previous owners had previously used the current dining room as a doctor’s office (an electrical plug remains in the middle of the room for the former examination table), the new owners converted several bedrooms to studies where they wrote many books, bringing the first computers into the house when they moved in.
They added storm windows and doors, enclosed the sun porch making it a four-season room, opened an interior window between the kitchen and the den, added 220 wiring throughout, removed all the peeling wallpaper, installed first a woodstove and then a fireplace insert in the den, stripped, stained and polished the mantel around the den fireplace, lined the chimney, replaced the roof, added wood flooring to the kitchen, planted the decorative flower and herb garden in the front yard, added the 1868 bell to the front door, installed brass and porcelain locks on the first floor windows, converted one bathroom to a laundry room, converted a half-bath in the mudroom area to a utility sink for gardening, added Italian glass tiles to the half-bath off the dining room, and returned the house to its original color—red.
They raised two daughters here, Miranda, born in 1977, and Eliza, who was born in the house in 1980; held many birthday parties, meetings, and gatherings; hosted many weddings and wedding receptions for friends; and celebrated the publication of many books of their own and for those of friends.
The house is being sold for the first time in 42 years.
June Holley, whose insights and methods for establishing and growing networks are in a class of their own, points today to Phanish Puranam's post on the INSEAD blog, "What Bossless Firms Can Teach Us."
Puranam's round-up of companies that have eschewed traditional hierarchy and bureaucracy for more intelligent self-management points to some popular and successful examples: Valve, the Seattle software company where employees vote with their seats for projects they want to work on (no votes, no project); the California tomato processor, Morning Star, that, as Puranam writes "bases its organisation on a sort of mission statement that is negotiated peer-to-peer rather than imposed by a boss, laying out each employee’s tasks and organisational affiliations;" and, the grandparent of them all, W.L. Gore and Associates, which I mentioned here.
We (Jeff Stamps and I) stumbled upon W.L. Gore when we were doing research for The TeamNet Factor, our 1993 book. Given all the hoopla about self-governance and jettisoning old authoritarian structures, I'm offering this excerpt which details how Gore has done it all these years. It's simple, sensible, and worth a try, C-Suiters. Good sense can prevail when the agreements, policies, and governance are in place throughout an organization, top-to-bottom. Gore's approach reflects both good organizational design, mutual respect, and a mature approach to how people come to work.
Take a look and see if this makes sense to you, noting Bill Gore's realistic caveats, typically overlooked in the idealistic vision of "leaderless" organizations espoused by people who haven't carefully considered what it takes to make people-working-together work.
From The TeamNet Factor, Chapter 4:
Meet the Lattice: The Free Form Organization That Makes Gore-Tex
Gore-Tex is" a miracle weave in the fabric of the world’s outdoor life." It evaporates sweat while protecting its wearer from the drench of rain. Gore-Tex is a visible, distinctive partner with producers of ski gloves, tents, and clothing of all descriptions. Like Dolby sound, Gore-Tex is known for the special contribution it makes to a wide range of products.
If ever there were a company whose product mirrored its culture, it is W L. Gore & Associates. This lattice textile is made by a lattice organization, a company designed for horizontal interactions where employees are known as “associates.”
In 1982, Inc. magazine runs a cover story on the Newark, Delaware, company best known for its popular product Gore-Tex. Headlined “The Un-manager: Without Ranks and Titles,” the story describes Bill Gore’s “not your average” almost-billion- dollar company. By 1991, the company is among the “400 largest private U.S. Companies.”2
The name “W. L. Gore & Associates” captures the essence of this remarkable enterprise. The design of the company is that of a network. Its core glue is the philosophy of its husband-and-wife founders, Wilbert (“Bill”), who died in 1986, and Genevieve, who remains involved in the company. Business Week features their son Robert in 1990 in an article titled “No Bosses. And Even Leaders Can’t Give Orders.”
The 1982 Inc. story so excites us that we call its author, Lucien Rhodes, who in turn forwards us a poorly typed document with a few handwritten notes on it that Bill Gore has sent him. “The Lattice Organization—A Philosophy of Enterprise” describes the Gore “bureaucracy”:
People group around projects undertaken on the basis of commitment.
The firm’s 5,600 associates (not employees)—now in 46 plants in six countries— have sponsors (not bosses), who serve as their mentors and advocates.
Gore’s projects are boundary crossing teams. “The mathematician, engineer, accountant, machinist, chemist and so on provide a combination of capabilities of a much broader scope than the mere sum of their number. This synergism . . . impels us to join together for mutual benefit.”
STUMP SPEECH TO THE TRIBES
Bill Gore’s paper, written in 1976, was the basis for many talks that he gave over the years to the company’s associates.4 (Which brings us back to the name: everyone who works at W. L. Gore & Associates is an associate.)
It’s not your typical corporate speech. With his ponderous, sometimes mystical tone, Gore sounds more like a 19th-century transcendentalist than the late-2Oth- century entrepreneur that he is. He begins with the “Nature of Man,” the starting point, usually unstated, of every corporate culture. One part of our heritage, he says, comes from hunters and predators with the urge to attack, destroy, loot, vanquish, and overcome competitors. Fortunately, humans evolved new social capabilities that carried the species far beyond this endowment. ‘A further great evolutionary invention is the cooperation of groups made possible by friendship and love.... The tribal group ... combines aggressive capability welded together by emotional interactions.” To Gore, the essence of human nature is co-opetition.
Besides being capable of friendship and love, he says, people are also dreamers. He asks what would happen if people doubled their brain capacity. “If the norm in our society is the utilization of say 10% of our inherent human capabilities, what would be the result if we were able to restructure . . . this to double to 20%?”
People participate in groups because together they can accomplish more than alone, he says. Gore believes accomplishment peaks with about 150 people in the same group. After that, results decline, and it’s time to form another group, a principle that the company puts into practice. Gore breaks plants apart when they exceed 150 to 200 people. This is, roughly, a tribal size, the upper-limit size of groups that people lived in after the invention of language but before the development of agriculture and cities.
When groups pass out of the realm in which everyone knows everyone else, Gore believes “we" quickly translates into “they.” This tiny language signal announces the beginning of turf wars, the identification of enemies, and win-lose maneuvers that eventually bring down even great companies.
THE LATTICE BEHIND THE FACADE
There’s another downside to groups of more than 150 to 200, Gore says. “Beyond some such level, it becomes necessary to impose rules, regulations, procedures and the like that dictate how the cooperation shall be done. Special teams evolve within the lattice structure usually led by someone particularly competent in the discipline or activity of the team. One individual may participate on several such teams and have a leadership role in them. These multi-participant people serve an important liaison function and are often involved ina number of different teams,” Gore says.
To avoid bureaucracy and to reach for that doubling of human capabilities, the company uses the lattice, which has these characteristics:
Leadership “evolves” at the company, according to Daniel D. Johnson, who eventually followed in his former co-worker’s footsteps, leaving Du Pont to join Gore. “You look behind you, and you’ve got people following you.”
In Gore’s view, “Every [successful] organization has a lattice organization that underlies the facade of authoritarian hierarchy. It is through these lattice organizations that things get done. Most of us delight in ‘going around’ the formal procedures and doing things the straightforward and easy way. The legendary subversion of official military procedures by the ‘non-coins’ is an example of this. All astute military leaders utilize this sub rosa lattice.”
For all his unusual ideas, Gore is not a romantic. He doesn’t propose replacing every aspect of hierarchy with lattices because of what he calls obvious difficulties:
VOW TO AVOID BUREAUCRACY
“The rest of Corporate America is only beginning to think about how to motivate employees now that there’s a shrinking hierarchy to slot people into,” Joseph Weber says in the 1990 Business Week article. “But Gore, a quirky, family-held plastics company, has never had much of one: It has been experimenting with an almost free-form management structure for 32 years.... Gore isn’t some little countercultural outfit, mind you. By turning a flexible form of DuPont’s Teflon into Gore-Tex, used in fabrics and assorted medical, electronic, and industrial products, the company has grown into a nearly $700 million a year outfit, whose return on assets and equity puts it in the top 5%, whose sales quintupled in 8 years.”
As irony would have it, of course, Gore started his own company because “as a DuPont chemist, he couldn’t get his innovation—Teflon coating for electrical wires—marketed by the big company. When he left, he vowed to avoid stifling bureaucracies, so he tossed out the traditional chain of command for a ‘lattice’ system. In it, any staffer may take an idea or complaint to any other: A machine operator can talk directly with plant leaders.”
In his lattice organization paper, Gore gives DuPont credit for inspiring his “ahead of the time” ideas. “The concept of the lattice originated from my consideration of the operation of ‘Task Forces’ created during the 1950s to carry out research and development within the Du Pont Company. The original ideas have been refined and extended over the past 18 years. The record supports the belief that a lattice organization releases and promotes the creativity of human beings.”
Task forces at DuPont and lattices at Gore are just two expressions of the worldwide, simultaneous, uncoordinated “experiment” with boundary crossing teamnets in the past few decades.
So apparently there's a movement of sorts, passing the blogging baton from poster to poster, under the rubric "World Blogging Tour." The runner who's just come up on me is BlarneyCrone herself, Liz Barron, who's shown up here before. And here. And elsewhere but alas not the point of this post. My job is to reply to the following queries, one of scores, hundreds, thousands, well, at least four bloggers, including Liz (who answered here) participating:
What am I working on?
While I've been blogging less in the past few months, I've been writing more, finishing up some old pieces, including short stories, revising a novel, rough drafting a memoir, and applying to contests and residencies. I'm at the start of a year-long self-imposed writing intensive, which I've been waiting to begin since I was, say, 16.
I got the idea for the novel/trilogy I'm working on walking past the North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts, site of one of the early battles of the American Revolution. The novel has nothing to do with that but the nearby visitor center (it's now a national park site) has a bookstore that sells the work of famous Concord writers, yup, those pesky Transcendentalists, among them Ms Margaret Fuller, who was not of Concord but spent much time in it. There, on Patriots Day, in 2004, a Massachusetts-only holiday that the rest of the world knows as Boston Marathon Day, I found a small booklet written by Carolyn Wells Healy Dall, containing her recollections of the famous "Conversations" that Margaret convened in Boston in the late 1830s-early 1840s. By the time we were back in the parking lot, I'd conceived the idea for a story, which turned into the first volume of the novel, which has spawned a second...
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
This question raises so many others that I can barely answer it. Genre? Having written business books, articles, humor, poetry, children's stories, literary fiction, satire, and whatever this blogging thing (now in its 9th year) is, I'll go with "completely."
Why do I write what I do?
Phrases and sentences are always running through my head. Before a thought is complete, I'm often rewriting it. Titles appear as I'm trying to park the car, choose an item from the grocery shelf, click on a website. I write out of compulsion and desire, often with someone in mind whom I imagine is interested. (Are you? Only you know for sure.)
Much more wants to be written than is and I spend a good amount of time castigating myself for not writing more.
So why do I write what I do? Because this configuration of molecules, born of New York parents in a small Pennsylvania Dutch town not far from Philadelphia, is passing through its unique spacetime, absorbing, shedding, observing, ignoring, and desperately trying to make sense of this confusing wonder called life. That's why.
How does my writing process work?
I write very quickly, typing as fast as I can, then stop due to time constraints, hunger, an interruption, or because I'm suddenly pleased to see that I've gotten 1000 words out. Then I go back before going on, retreading the same words. A "final first draft" for me could have 30 or 40 passes before the end. This is probably not the best way to write but it's the only way I've ever written. It's as if starting at the beginning gives me the momentum I need to leap ahead. Although I want to get everything out as quickly as possible, I hold on to material for eons, which means I have cartons and cartons of unfinished stuff. My hope is to get a lot of that material into circulation in the months to come.
Now, according to Liz, I'm supposed to pass the baton to four other bloggers. Here goes, Bill Ives, whose blogging helped get me started, the inimitable Alex Bain, Myfanwy Collins, to whom very good writing things are happening, and to Jon Keller, author of Of Sea and Cloud, who's just started blogging.
If they'd been awarding Pulitzers during her lifetime, Margaret Fuller surely would have been deserving -- first in nonfiction for the ground-breaking books she wrote (including Woman in the Nineteenth Century) and in journalism for her insightful and daring reporting that she did on the Roman Revolution of 1848 for the New York Tribune. Well, let's be honest: given where woman was in the 19th century, she probably wouldn't have received the highest writing honors but thanks to the talented Megan Marshall, her name is in big lights these days.
For any of us who know her, happiness abounds for Megan Marshall's having won this year's Pulitzer in biography for Margaret Fuller: A New American Life. It took chuztpah to write a biography of Fuller after so many others -- I don't know the full count of the body of bios but it's got to be at least 50, some superb, some not so superb. Megan's falls into the former category, with her having chosen and faithfully executed her desire to have history read like a novel. Many a biographer has tried this but not all succeed where Megan has.
I am so happy for her. Megan and I met as a result of her having written her Pulitzer-finalist biography of The Peabody Sisters. I told this story here seven years ago. Shortly after she began work on the Fuller book, we arranged to meet again (also at Whole Foods -- you have to click the link to understand). Megan was asking questions of people like me, people for whom Fuller has served as an inspiration. It was an interesting way for her to be gathering insight into Fuller because there are so many people like us.
Forty years after I first discovered her in the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women, Margaret Fuller is with me still as I progress with the second volume of a novel-trilogy that I'm writing about her and her contemporary counterparts, "Woman in the 21st-Century." I am grateful to Megan for this too as she's provided many new windows into this eternal soul.