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Ad Hoc Family Thanksgiving by
(26 Stories)

Prompted By Gratitude

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I barely remember my childhood Thanksgiving celebrations, which is odd since I have a good memory of those years. It’s probably because they weren’t all that different from any random Sunday night at my house, just with more food. I do have a vivid recollection of my mother getting up before dawn and prepping a huge tom turkey to get it in the oven early for the requisite all-day roasting. That was the best part—the scents of the bird and pumpkin pie filling the house. The anticipation as we lounged around all day watching the Detroit Lions lose (usually) to whomever they were playing that year. Maybe we’d throw the football around in the yard for awhile, and sometimes we’d visit the cousins, but mostly it was a day for sloth. Except for the women who did all the work. Snark.

One year the Native Americans even showed up.

Fast forward decades. In our thirties and across the country from our families, we hung out with an artsy crowd, many gay, single, or married with no or very young kids. We created our own family on Thanksgiving, consisting of anyone who didn’t have anywhere else to go—we all got together at someone’s home. We only needed an oven and a piano and we were good to go. All traditions welcome, just be ready for the friendly ridicule. Oysters in stuffing? Creamed onions? Fresh cranberry sauce? “But it’s not Thanksgiving without cranberry jelly out of a can with the rings around it,” according to someone. (You know who you are, Louis.) So of course we had both.

The best part? There was no football at these parties, unless of course the 49ers happened to be playing that year; we’d make an exception for that. The art was what brought us together, the singing and playing and poetry reading. The communal cooking and drinking and getting high. We became, for a night, an ad hoc family of friends and friends-of-friends—without all the fraught family baggage. We never went around the room offering what we individually were grateful for; it was obvious: We chose to be there. With Brahms and Bach, Cole Porter and Hoagy, Tom Lehrer, the Graceful Ghost, and no doubt the Hallelujah Chorus for good measure.

More decades later and traditions evolve, but karaoke at Thanksgiving? Not for me.

Getting Out the Vote by
(26 Stories)

Prompted By Politics

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Not all of us can be political activists. I am completely in awe of incredible women like Gloria Steinem and Hillary Clinton who can keep up the fight in the face of relentless attack. I don’t have the kind of temperament to suffer fools gladly. Besides, the political process needs an army of us to reframe the debate one attitude at a time.

Was it a lark; did I do it for class credit; was it some misguided show of patriotism? I have no idea.

So I’m still scratching my head wondering how in the spring of 1972, I found myself canvassing the city of East Boston for George McGovern’s presidential primary campaign. Was it a lark; did I do it for class credit; was it some misguided show of patriotism? I have no idea. I do know that it was a total bust.

My memory of the whole thing is sketchy. They bussed us to apartment buildings, (probably projects), and we were told to knock on doors and ask the occupants if they’d voted, and if not, tell them where the polling places were and even offer to accompany them. Right. It was dinnertime. Most of the people were polite but understandably confused by these long-haired hippy kids in bell bottoms, clearly “not from around here” bugging them about voting. Many had limited English.

But mostly what I remember was the screaming kids. Lots of them. One of the things we were told to do, and I swear this is true, was offer to babysit the kids while the adults went to vote. I still remember the look on the face of the first (and probably only) person to whom I asked this. She was in the middle of cooking dinner and declined my offer. I quickly sized-up the situation—no one was going to leave their kids with complete strangers, and I was just as horrified at the thought that someone might! Seriously, what could go wrong?

I’m guessing we bailed after a very short time of this and went back to the insularity of our dorms. Our intentions were noble, but it was not a sophisticated operation.

Phone banks, however impersonal, seemed like the modern way to go. Later, we gathered in local business offices, the only places at the time that had multiple phone lines, that would allow campaigns the use of their conference rooms. It seemed like such a comparatively high tech approach. In the early days before they’d become invasive and annoying—and before Caller ID allowed them not to answer—people used to enjoy getting election calls. Nah, just kidding.

“You’ve come a long way, baby” by
(26 Stories)

Prompted By Good Riddance

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If you don’t remember that slogan, lucky you.

Growing up with smoking is the best deterrent.

Growing up, every adult I knew smoked. In the house, in the car, in restaurants, and remarkably, on planes. It astonished me that people were allowed to light fires in a contained space at 30,000 feet, but there wouldn’t have been any passengers otherwise. I can only imagine what we smelled like then. Years later, as smoking waned, we’d come home from an event where it was allowed and have to air out our clothes and wash our hair.

So, in perfect Madison Avenue fashion, smoking was marketed to women as being liberating and cool: “You have your own cigarette now, baby.” Wow, lucky us. And what distinguished this puppy: it was longer and slimmer than regular ones. Yup, because a woman could never be too slim or too sexy. That’s the progress we fought for!

Up the Rabbit Hole by
(26 Stories)

Prompted By Altered States

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5149891726_7fb41ca490_b-1I can’t do drugs. Except for the legal ones, alcohol, caffeine, and sugar. I’ve never smoked pot, am not on any prescription meds, and refused chemo when my oncologist tried to ram it down my veins for a stage one cancer. (I fired him.) Ever since they couldn’t wake me (for many hours) following a routine procedure, I’ve had to be extra vigilant about anesthetics too.

I wouldn’t have taken it if I hadn’t been sure of its provenance.

It’s not that I don’t want to, and it wasn’t always so. Back in the ‘80s we hung out with an artsy crowd, so there were drugs everywhere. Still, I had to be very selective. A friend-of-a-friend was a chemist, and he cooked up some MDMA and quaaludes in his basement. Street drugs with cred! I wouldn’t have taken it if I hadn’t been sure of its provenance.

So there we were one glorious summer afternoon tripping out with a few good friends. It was the third (and last) time I’d taken a half dose(!) of MDMA (or Ecstasy as it is also appropriately known), and instead of thoughts like: “the universe is magical, wow look at that tree, and, I just love everyone,” I had just the opposite reaction: “life sucks, your friends don’t really care about you, and, why are you clinging to old hurts?” Shit, a bad trip.

Except it was the best drug experience of my life. Something snapped in my head that day, I could almost physically feel it. I had been depressed for over a decade prior to that, but over the course of several hours (and the weeks following) my brain did a complete 180. Depression has been described as anger turned inward; well that day I turned the anger outward. The clarity of thought was liberating, I was able to reframe the problem. People really are assholes and the unfairness of the universe won’t be solved by my being miserable. Huh, who knew?

MDMA was not a Schedule I drug at that time, but the second the drug companies realized people were using it—and not paying them for it—it became one. We can’t have people self-medicating. A few years ago there was some promising research on its efficacy for depression and other mental illnesses. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, “yes, this works!” but who to yell to?



Here Today, Gone to Maui by
(26 Stories)

Prompted By Travel

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Haleakala crater. Photo credit: P. Zussman.

On Maui in the 1970s, the airport was an open-air shack much like the ones you can still encounter on small islands the world over. It sat in a valley between two dormant volcanoes, the ground covered with tall sugar cane, lush green, waving in the fierce trade winds that blow constantly. After five hours of nothing to see but clouds and water, it always took my breath away. We deplaned by walking down the ramp stairway, and were immediately enveloped by humidity and the powerful scent of tropical flowers and pineapple. Intoxicating. It felt like emerging from a time machine.

After five hours of nothing to see but clouds and water, it always took my breath away.

In comparison with the big city Honolulu on Oahu, the “neighbor island” of Maui was unsullied and pristine; some would have called it backward. Those of us who knew better called it paradise.

In those days it was possible to explore the island feeling like you were among the first outsiders to discover it. The roads were empty and development was just beginning. The 2-hour drive up the Haleakala volcano, as moonscape-like a place as you’re likely to see on Earth, and the long, winding, 3-hour road trip to Hana through the only tropical rain forest in the US, were joyous journeys of discovery. As much as we savored the beach—and jumping into the ocean was the first thing we did after dropping our bags—we loved exploring the island next.

For a while we came back every year. Then twice a year, then as often as we could. To the point where we had to force ourselves to travel to other places. We weren’t done yet; there were other neighbor islands to discover!

Even learning about the geological history of the islands intrigued me. The chain sits over a hot spot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and the movement of the Pacific Plate over this spot created the islands. Maui is the second youngest. The Big Island of Hawai’i, which is still over the hot spot and therefore still forming, is the youngest (if you don’t count the seamount Lo’ihi, still submerged to the southeast). Where else can you go to see an island being created before your very eyes?

Maui has always been a magnet for artists, hippies, adventure seekers, and those just looking for something else. The farm (or should I say ocean?) to table movement arguably started here, out of necessity, and we were among its most passionate participants. Ono, opah, liliko’i, opakapaka, macadamia—the names are as melodic as the flavors. I swear we go back just for the apple bananas.

By the late ‘90s, a local friend saw us in a restaurant looking over the art for sale on the walls and remarked; “Uh oh, I’ve seen this before. Once they start looking at art, real estate is next.” And so it was.

We bought a condo, and then built a house. We wanted to share our love for this place with friends and family. Fast-forward 30 years: so too did many other people. By the time our visitors came, they encountered a very different Maui than the one we fell in love with decades earlier. The sugar cane is all but gone, a victim of globalization and development. Ditto the pineapple fields. Our own house was built on one. The final landing approach through the valley now passes over rows of houses. Life is certainly easier for the locals, but something has been lost.

While there is still much that is breathtaking—the beauty and the sunsets remain, and the humpback whales still spend the winter—getting around is more difficult and discovery means a new shop or restaurant. The tendency for many is to stay put at the beach or the pool with a drink in hand. There are packaged tours for everything, with the sense of wonder all but wrung out of them.

I want to scream at them: “You should have seen it back in the day. Before Disneyfication. Don’t you want to explore it for yourselves??” But I have to accept that others’ experience of the islands as they are today is just as valid as mine. Although the Maui I brought my niece to is not the one I fell in love with, she fell in love with Maui 2.0.

It is still one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I dare you to visit with an open heart and not be changed.

My Special, Special Day by
(26 Stories)

Prompted By Weddings

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This line from the TV show Bridezillas, was a mocking taunt from a wedding planner about her insufferable client, a bride of the selfie generation, who has the attitude that for one day (not to mention the many months run-up to it) she gets to have anything and everything revolve around her. You go, girl.

Princess Di, I can relate.

My girlfriend and I repeat it to each other as shorthand for cluelessness. But I’m just jealous. I wish I‘d had the maturity when I got married (young and still in college) to demand that the day be about me, but I have no idea what that would have looked like then.

I fell in love with my high school sweetheart, and we just celebrated our 43rd anniversary, more in love now than ever. I know, what a cliché. But in 1973, in certain places, getting hitched was still more about the families than the happy couple. And I was not the right choice for my in-laws—not the right religion and not of their social circle.

I get it now. I might have felt the same way if I’d been in their position. They’d raised their firstborn to be a certain person and live a certain life and I was a threat to that. He was just blinded, they thought, by my awesome breasts—I believe the word hussy was used out of my hearing. Maybe if they expressed their disapproval emphatically enough he’d come to his senses. But we had just been through the ‘60s and had absolutely nothing in common with their worldview. Ours was the textbook definition of a generation gap, one we were never able to bridge.

We moved away, in every way possible. But even with time, distance, and much for them to be proud of (especially in contrast with others in the family), we were never able to mend the rift.

I still feel cheated out of my fairytale wedding day. A parade of nieces and nephews has had gloriously happy events, but this history makes it hard for me to kvell. Maybe on our 50th we’ll do it again. Bets, will you please sing at it this time?

Evolution: Electronics Edition by
(26 Stories)

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My electronic journey:

But wait, there's more detritus; calculators, voice recorders, and an electronic dictionary.

Rotary dial, party-line phone; Touchtone Princess phone; cell phone; iPhone

Records, 45s & LPs; 8 track and cassette tapes; CDs; iTunes

Transistor radio; Walkman; portable CD player; iPod

B&W TV; color TV; remote control; 65” TV; Flat screen LED TV

Beta and VHS; DVDs, Blu-ray; Tivo; Netflix

Brownie camera; 35mm camera; Flip video recorder; digital camera

Call-waiting; answering machine; voice mail

Manual typewriter; IBM Selectric; IBM PC XT; Macintosh Plus; laptop; iMac

Books; Kobo; iPad

Ode to Title IX by
(26 Stories)

Prompted By Sports

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Stanford’s 1992 women’s basketball team wins the NCAA championship. Go Cardinal!

I grew up with two older brothers, providing me a front-row seat in the stadium of male privilege. And also a basement that rivaled the warehouse of a sporting goods store. Seriously, how many hockey sticks does one boy need? (And how many hours did I observe him taping them? Black tape wound around and around the business end for protection, and the handle for grip. I think each taping probably lasted one game.) Ditto: pads, guards, pucks, baseball bats and mitts; cleats and balls of every sort. Golf clubs, tennis racquets, bowling balls. We didn’t live near the ocean or I’m certain there would have been surfboards. Needless to say, not one of these items belonged to me, although I always had skates, both ice and roller.

Title IX's detractors said equality would be the death of college sports.

In those days girls didn’t DO sports, but because of my brothers I at least got some exposure to them. In winter, once there was enough snow they would flood the backyard into an ice rink and host neighborhood hockey games. I only occasionally got to play with the stick (which was much too big for me), but I could skate all I wanted. In the summer I’d borrow a glove and they would play catch with me.

Because I was the youngest, I got dragged to happily attended their many games. The baseball games were a favorite. The summer evenings were blissful, the field expansive, and it was mainly an opportunity to run around under the stands and eat junk from the concession stand. But my oldest brother was a really good pitcher, and sometimes when the games were close in the final innings it was very exciting.

Never once in all that time did I expect to play myself. I certainly chafed at all the gender restrictions in place at the time, but in truth, I was never going to play baseball, hockey, or football.

But basketball—now that was another thing entirely. All you need to play is a ball and a hoop, and the neighborhood school had many outdoor courts. There wasn’t much chance of getting hurt or (worse as far as my mother was concerned) disfigured. I practiced a lot and got pretty good at it, for a girl.

My one abbreviated experience with team sports happened in the 7th grade. We had a girls’ basketball team that played a half-court game. I loved it! I had a good free throw and, if I had position under the basket, a reliable hook shot. But my career was cut short when there was some kind of scandal in the league and most of the season was canceled. The next year I made the cheerleading squad, so once again I became a spectator. It didn’t matter since there was no girls’ basketball team at my high school anyway.

So imagine my surprise in 1972, when an act of congress leveled the um, playing field. Title IX states in part:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

Women's World Cup

When the US women’s soccer team won the World Cup in 1999, it silenced the Title IX detractors.

It was too late for me, but I watched with a mix of joy and envy as the next generation of girls got the support we didn’t. I’ve also watched with wonder and awe what they’ve been able to accomplish. I still love basketball, and women’s college ball is more enjoyable to me than the men’s game. And as this generation transitions into coaching roles, I expect the level to continue to improve.

But that’s not even the point. As we all know, team sports is about more than the game—the lessons learned there are just as valuable for girls as boys.

Besides, it’s just fun.

Fish Story by
(26 Stories)

Prompted By Pets

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Written in response to

My excuse is that I was five or six years old.

My excuse is that I was five or six years old.

My memory is that we had goldfish for a long time, although after reading about the short shelf-lfe of an (admittedly) small sample here on Retrospect, probably not the same ones. I remember the tank-cleaning ritual vividly, because it was my first experience with death, or at least the threat of it. Each time we scooped the fish out of the bowl, and they squirmed and flopped and sometimes escaped the net, I was convinced they were going to die. I don’t ever remember that happening.

Instead, I was the unwitting agent of their demise. I used to wake up very early in the morning before anyone else and pass some time watching the fish swimming around aimlessly. I felt sorry for them, decided they were bored, and lobbied for enriching their environment. (See, a tendency for home decorating is innate.) We acquired some seaweed (very pretty, and they could nibble it), a treasure chest, and a bridge that they could swim under. Much better.

One morning they seemed to be poking at the top of the bowl more than usual. I recognized this behavior from when we’d sprinkle the food into the bowl and they’d swim up to get it. I decided they were hungry. I couldn’t find their food, so I got what seemed like the next best thing–a piece of bread. I floated an entire slice (of probably Wonder Bread) on the surface of the water. I watched them nibble it for a while, then got sleepy and went back to bed.

When I got up I could sense something was going on but no one was saying what. My mother asked me if I’d done anything to the fish. “Yes,” I proudly told her. “They were hungry so I fed them.” Thankfully I never saw the bowl, It was whisked away and flushed at first sight. I can only imagine what it looked liked like with several dead fish and a disintegrated piece of bread clouding the water. I was told they had eaten themselves to death, but thinking about it now, I’m sure they suffocated first.

It wasn’t long after that we got a dog. She lived a long life and died a natural death, despite enduring indignities like rolling up her ears with rubber curlers.

Breaking the Spell by
(26 Stories)

Prompted By Faith

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I can still remember clearly the moment I “lost” my faith—if one can be said to have lost something at age 10 or 12 that was never fully realized in the first place.

I appreciate the value of a good story, but you have to meet me halfway.

I attended a parochial grade school, so in addition to Mass on Sunday, for years I also went to Mass every day before school. I actually loved it. Nobody did theatre like the Catholic Church: the sets, the music, the candles and incense, and the costumes! I would stare at the opulent embroidery on the elaborate vestments and wonder who made such things and where did you go to buy them? I didn’t even think it was odd that the priests swished around in otherwordly outfits. That was the point after all–everything was meant to transport you to another realm.

There’s plenty of down time in a church full of little kids, and if Sister wasn’t watching, to keep from going crazy we would read the equivalent of the back of a cereal box: our school books, novels, or whatever was left in the pews. One day, during the long wait for my row to receive communion, I found a book of biblical stories to read. Catholics don’t often read the Bible and, except for the New Testament gospels, I was only vaguely familiar with the rest of it.

Now I appreciate the value of a good story, but you have to meet me halfway. Not that it matters, but I wish I could remember now which story it was. Noah and the flood? Adam and Eve? The virgin birth? At any rate, during the walk up to the altar I suddenly realized that the story I’d just read didn’t make any sense. By the time I knelt down at the communion railing, a series of thoughts ran through my head. What if that’s just a story someone made up? Could that be? Then it wasn’t true! Then none of it was true, it’s all just stories! In a flash I knew I could never suspend disbelief again. Whatever uplifting experience I had been having in church was just so much theatre.

Of course it took some time to abandon the behavior of going to church. I couldn’t tell anyone that I’d seen behind the curtain. In the ‘60s, not being a believer was on par with being gay; one simply didn’t come out. But in college I discovered science, specifically evolutionary biology and later quantum physics. I started reading popular science books. I read them voraciously, like I imagine believers read the Bible over and over.

I still do. In the natural world, I find all the majesty and wonder that I need to make sense of life. I believe that the universe is quite random—and yet here we are. I find that both awesome and comforting.

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