All posts by swurster

WHAT’S YOUR STORY? DONNA JOHN’S KNEES

                                KNEES

By Donna Johna

The day of my second knee replacement, I arrived promptly at nine, swapped my clothing for a johnnie, and climbed up on the gurney.  I was not particularly nervous because I knew what to expect. The antiseptic smells mingled with the nervous murmurings of patients as the nurse expertly inserted my IV and taped it down. The IV was not bothersome, but I hated having to remove my earrings and hand them over to my daughter. A scant fifteen minutes later, an army of nurses, anesthesiologists, and orderlies wheeled me down the hall to execute the spinal block.

I do not love people poking around my spinal column in an effort to paralyze me from the waist down.  “Now, honey child,” the anesthesiologist crooned to the young woman standing behind me, “remember everything I showed you.”  Oh my god, a trainee is about to paralyze me! Then a rush of cold moved down my legs, and I watched my feet go limp.  Well, so far so good…unless it’s permanent.

The trip into the operating room was a blur as the knock-out drugs began to take hold.  Time for a nap, old girl, and a new knee. Some time later, my eyes fluttered open, and I heard hammering of metal on metal, like a blacksmith making horseshoes.  Holy crap, the doctor’s hammering my prosthetic into place, and I’m awake. My eyes instinctively moved to the end of the table to watch, but a surgical drape blocked my view. In my drug addled state, I decided that the only sensible thing to do was to sing.  I hummed to test the waters, and nobody seemed to mind; the steady hammering continued.

 So I belted out “Do You Hear the People Sing” from Les Misérables in perfect time with my surgeon’s hammer. It seemed to go over well…nobody complained, and nobody put me under. I sang the rest of the score, and when I ran out of songs, I moved on to Camelot. My surgeon must not have liked Lerner and Lowe because he abruptly left the room, and I got very sleepy again.

I woke as I was wheeled into recovery and transferred into another bed. I poked at a wadded up blanket next to my side until I realized it was my absolutely numb right hip. “OK, hon, can you wiggle your toes?” my nurse asked. Not likely, since an anesthesiologist trainee paralyzed me for life. She and I looked expectantly at my digits, but there was no movement.

“It’s early, yet,” the nurse said. “You can go back to your singing.” I had kind of hoped that my singing was a drug induced dream. Guess not.

“I really was singing? I asked her.

“Like a canary,” she replied.

BOLLI Matters writer Donna John
Donna Johns is a teacher/librarian, writer of unpublished romance novels, sometime director of community theater and new BOLLI member. She now has two fantastic faux knees which set off the metal detectors at Fenway Park.  (Watch for Donna’s upcoming BOLLI Matters feature on movies, videos, and more.  Welcome, Donna!)

LINES FROM LYDIA: CANCER AWARENESS MONTH

   CANCER AWARENESS MONTH

by Lydia Bogar

Here at BOLLI,  one thing that unites us even more than our age, unfortunately, is cancer.  I would bet the farm that everyone currently reading this has been touched directly by cancer.

My father died fifty-eight years ago of stomach and colon cancer. As a long time smoker, there were probably malignancies in his lungs as well. All three of my boy cousins have had gastrointestinal polyps surgically removed. As the only girl cousin, I had my first colonoscopy at age 50. Free and clear to date.

Being proactive is the only way to chase the fear away. Limit bad chemicals in your life: don’t use pesticides, filter your tap water, use organic cleaning products whenever possible, and don’t tuck your cell phone into your bra.

My best friend Betty died seven years ago. She had a lump behind her knee that she shrugged off for almost a year. The diagnosis of bone cancer was a true shock. Within a month, she lost most of her left leg. Within six months, she lost her life.

Fifteen minutes of sun exposure, especially in the morning, is the best way to increase the body’s production of Vitamin D.

Within four months of her second melanoma diagnosis, my daughter Joanne was in clinical trials at Dana Farber. It was too late for her, and the treatments made her viciously sick. She had worshipped the sun but slathered sunscreen on her little boys. Metastatic melanoma will take over your brain and kill your personality. Then it kills you.

Walking and exercise is good for overall health, and walking with a friend is even better. Two years ago, I admitted to being old enough to go to exercise at the Senior Center. Yoga is much easier now, and the new friends are great too! Breathing and meditation are easy remedies for insomnia.

My friend Sally retired to a golf course in South Carolina. Last year, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. As a retired surgical nurse, she knows the questions to ask as well as the treatments that she will and won’t have. Surgery and radiation were sufficient, for now.  Her youngest daughter is having radiation for a rare carcinoma. I pray for them both every day.

Being aware of signs, symptoms, and signals is not enough. Fighting this enemy helps families and survivors in a hundred different ways.

This summer will be my fourth cycle of volunteering at the Pan Mass Challenge, the largest and longest running charity bike ride in the country. I help to register riders on Friday afternoon and bag trash at Mass Maritime on Saturday afternoon. On the way home, both days, I cry tears of fulfillment.

Cultivating happiness is not easy.

It is necessary.

BOLLI Co-Editor and Feature Writer, Lydia Bogar

Our own “Renaissance Woman,” Lydia has done everything from teaching English to doing volunteer emergency service.  She says she “hails from Woosta–educated at BOLLI.”

MEMOIR WRITING FROM MITCH FISCHMAN: HOME RUN!

HOME RUN!

by Mitch Fischman

“Did you get to second base last night?” my buddy Marty asked.  He motioned how he barely slid into third and hoped to round the bases next Saturday…maybe even hit a home run, if he was lucky. Sure I knew about the Red Sox, but I wondered why he was playing baseball on Saturday night.  He was talkative and was always the spokesman for our group of kids when events of the day needed interpretation.  So, when he took off his belt, leaving with his pants partially open, I wondered why anyone would play a game without a belt.  But Marty was a schemer, and he was so energized with the details of how he would steal home from third next week, it sounded possible.

Growing up, I knew that Marty behaved differently than our other friends. He always climbed trees or played tricks on us.  Mostly, they were harmless like trying to lock us out of our own homes or starting fires with his ever-present lighter.  He said he carried it to be able to light cigarettes he would bum from his older brother.  I never believed that.   I assumed he used it to play tricks or burn someone’s house down.  Whenever I heard sirens, I always thought that Marty had done it again.

I was particularly intrigued as to how Marty was going to hit a home run next Saturday, and he didn’t disappoint me with his answer.  “I will stand at the plate with a guitar,” he said, “and sing a love song while holding a dozen roses.”  I appreciated his care for detail but wondered how he could hit a home run out of the park while holding all that stuff and, I assumed, a bat. He was confident, though, that he would succeed.

A week later, when I asked whether or not he had hit a home run, he said, “No–only a triple.”  And he was disappointed that he was rejected at third after spending $250 on a limousine which didn’t make any friggin’ sense.  I told him that all I wanted to hit was a single and that I needed him to come help me to buy a good bat.

“You don’t need a bat,” he said.  “Just some good after-shave lotion and mouthwash.”  I was confused.  What the heck did any of that have to do with baseball?   So far, Marty hasn’t explained anything to me.  I guess it’s our little secret,  but maybe someday I will know more.

BOLLI Matters Memoir Writer, Mitch Fischman

Mitch Fischman is a baseball fan and a city planner, working for the Boston Redevelopment Authority for 15 years and for developers for 30 years. As a kid he went to Red Sox games with his Dad and always kept a running score of hits and outs by player. This blog entry grew out of that life experience.

 

 

CREATIVE NONFICTION FROM MARGIE ARONS-BARRON

“WITNESS TO A CENTURY”

George Seldes (photo obtained online)

by Margie Arons-Barron

He was slight, five-seven-ish, with a round, mottled face, watery eyes, wispy white hair, and a kind expression.  Dressed in draw-string pants, frayed shirt and sweater vest, he sat on a cushion in a straight-backed chair, eyeing a pile of newspapers on the coffee table. “Did you see today’s Times?  Mandela’s out.”

George Seldes, 99, investigative journalist, foreign correspondent, historian of the 20th century, author of 23 books, and press critic, still read four papers a day.  Stories of injustice or ineptitude rankled him.

We admired his 18th century brick house at Hartland-4-Corners near Dartmouth. “You know,” he said. “I bought this house for $4500. Sinclair Lewis put up the money and said I could live here as long as I want. The only condition was that his family could buy it back from my estate for the same price.”  One could imagine what the house would bring today.

“Sometimes I see Lewis’ granddaughter walk by en route to church. I imagine she’s impatient, waiting for my demise.” He chuckled, but his smile faded.  “It’s hard being 99.  The friends of my youth are gone. The friends of my middle age are gone. The friends of my old age are gone.”

And what friends he had. Isadora Duncan. Albert Einstein. Emma Goldman. George Bernard Shaw. Theodore Roosevelt.  He interviewed William Jennings Bryan, Lenin, Hindenberg. He covered the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy. He knew Mussolini when the future dictator was a reporter. Seldes got Trotsky to pose for pictures in Red Square. He was there for the Russian Revolution. He spent 18 months with Hemingway in a Madrid hotel during the Spanish Civil War.

Seldes believed that the American people, given the facts, could rise to any challenge. He started the nation’s first magazine of press criticism in 1940.  It was called In Fact, and it fell victim to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting. My husband had used Seldes’ press criticism in a college course he taught. When Jim learned that Seldes was still alive and 2 ½  hours away, he contacted Seldes, and we went for a visit.

It would not be our last. In 1990, we did a month of interviews in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. We brought Seldes memorabilia from the first elections in unified Germany and posters from Hungary, where he had covered Nazi collaborator Cardinal Mindszenty. We talked more than an hour.

He checked his watch, prompting concern about his fatigue.  “Cocktail time,” he said. It was only three thirty. But we were not about to decline his invitation.

He shuffled in his terry cloth slippers toward the kitchen. From the yellow wood cabinet, he took down three plastic glasses, the kind given away at gas stations, placed them on the counter and mixed martinis. I let the burning liquid slide down my throat, listening to him reminisce, privileged to share his daily ritual.

In 1995, George Seldes died at age 104.  A journalistic titan, barely remembered.

Margie Arons-Barron

After a long and successful career as an editorial and political news director, Margie shifted her focus to writing memoir and even fiction when arriving at BOLLI. In addition to Marjorie Roemer’s memoir course, she has taken Betsy Campbell’s fiction writing courses, and Sue Wurster’s “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up” course in creative nonfiction writing.  She has been an active participant in the BOLLI Writers Guild and is also a member of the BOLLI Journal staff.  Margie still keeps her hand in politics and issues of the day on her blog which you can reach by clicking here.

 

MAY BOOK NOOK WITH DENNIS GREENE: HARRY’S TREES

BOLLI Matters welcomes Dennis Greene as he joins Abby Pinard as a  “Book Nook” contributor.

                                 HARRY’S TREES                                            This Summer’s Must-Read Novel

Review by Dennis Greene

I just read an advance copy of Harry’s Trees by Jon Cohen, a novel which will become available in bookstores on June 12. By next winter, this uplifting tale will be the subject of discussion in book clubs across the country, and people will speculate about who will be cast in the movie. Opera may even get into the act. It’s that good. I encourage you to read it as soon as it is available, and before all the hype. Then tell all your friends about it. You will appear prescient to those who take your advice, and you will gain their gratitude and respect. Then, later, when that irritating know-it-all in your study group or book club recommends Harry’s Trees after it has become trendy, you can have the satisfaction of smiling smugly and announcing that you read it “months ago.” And even if none of the forgoing happens, you will still have enjoyed a fun read.

Harry’s Trees is not an easy book to categorize. My local bookstore checked its inventory listing and informed me that the book was designated as “a book about trees.” Harry’s Trees is no more “a book about trees” than The Maltese Falcon is “a book about falcons.” The computer’s one-word description confuses the backdrop with the story. Harry’s Trees is about the half-dozen loving relationships among a small group of well-drawn, genuinely decent people living in a small Pennsylvania town. Many of them are suffering from devastating losses, and several are burdened with crushing guilt, but as the action unfolds, they come together and end up saving one another. The story is uplifting rather than gloomy or depressing. As the narrative moves smoothly from scene to scene, with enough action and tension to keep the pages turning, and enough humor to mitigate the tension, the author weaves several dozen threads into an enchanting tale. There is a resourceful and strong willed nine-year-old girl named Oriana who rivals Mattie Ross, the heroine in True Grit, an ancient librarian named Olive who smokes a meerschaum pipe and seems as wise as Dumbledore, a hidden cache of $4,000,000 in gold bullion, a town where everyone knows your name, two bad guys who are too dimwitted to prevail, and one guilt-ridden bureaucrat named Harry who has fled his government office job to live in a treehouse near his beloved trees. At the center of the story is a mysterious leather book titled The Grum’s Ledger which changes hands several times during the narrative. The book influences Oriana and Harry to embark on a preposterous scheme which Oriana believes could fill the voids in each of their lives.

In a time of so much pessimism and general malaise, this beautifully written book reminds us that there are lots of decent people in the world; good things can happen; and a belief in magic can’t hurt. And as an added bonus for anyone interested, you will also learn quite a bit about trees.  Harry’s.

BOLLI Matters Writer Dennis Greene

Dennis spent five years as an engineer and then forty as a lawyer–and sixty as a pop culture geek and junkie.  He saw “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in 1951 when he was seven and has been hooked on speculative fiction ever since.  

Others who might like to contribute to “The Book Nook” should send material to susanlwurster@gmail.com.  We are happy to hear from you!

 

 

WHAT’S YOUR STORY? TOMATO PLANTS…by Maxine Weintraub

TOMATO PLANTS

by Maxine Weintraub

 

“Hey, Susan.–’tis I.  The usual used-to-be-grammatically-correct greeting.”

“Oh, Alice–hang on for sec while I check on Charlie.  Charlie?  Charlie?!”

Being put on hold at our age is a scary thing.  What looks like a small blip on the radar screen could end up being a rogue wave of epic proportions–a ship sinker, for god’s sake.

“Susan??  Is everything okay?”

“Oh, sorry.   Everything is fine except that I think Charlie has somehow flipped out.  Do you know what he has been doing in this heat?  Lugging the tomato plants around from shade to sun.  And he’s talking to them.  i really think he is getting dotty.”

Did I dare tell my friend what I had been doing before I called her?

I had been walking my tomato plants around the front courtyard, chatting with them as I moved them from full blistering sun to partial shade.  Chatting with tomato plants like a crazy old lady who lives alone with piles of outdated newspapers.  Well, I am a bit of a crazy old lady, and I live with my crazy old husband, and I am really into nurturing those tomato plants.  Believe me, I understand my friend’s husband Charlie.  Charlie–balding, rotund, and full of life in his eighties–lending a hand to those tomato plants, supplying that life force we once provided the children.

Now, I don’t talk to geraniums or day lilies, although I may whisper to them from time to time about their beauty and steadfastness.  A rose bush can be verbally scorched for a thorn-pricked bleeding finger.  But the tomato plants are different.  And I will give them all the help they need.  The real problem is the weight of the pot.  As the summer progresses, the pots get heavier and heavier.  If I let them stay in one place, i cannot go away for even a day–in that heat, they need water several times a day.  And that much water is not good for them either.  It tends to leach ]calcium from the soil in the pot, causing blossom end rot.  Now did you REALLY want to know all of that about those damned tomato plants?  And if not, think about the  black spots on the bottom of the tomatoes.  You caused that.  Bad nurturing.  Failure.  Wrong.

Tomato plants need to be raised, cared for, talked to, and moved out of harm’s way.  Be it too much sun, too much water, too much shade, tell them not to worry.  And drag them around.  You’ve got their back.

But oh, Charlie, don’t you sometimes get to the end of your rope?  Sometimes the plants can no longer be lugged around.  They are too heavy, or they don’t want to produce, or the blossom rot just breaks your heart.  Can’t you just look at the darned plant and say it’s time to sink or swim,  Early Bird or Big Boy.  You are on your own.  Leave it be.

Let it go.  You don’t have to care anymore.  Stop dragging them around.  It will kill you.  You will have a heart attack.  Too heavy a load.

They will either thrive, or they won’t . . .

Maxine Weintraub reading
BOLLI Member Maxine Weintraub

Maxine has been taking writing classes with both Betsy Campbell and Marjorie Roemer since joining BOLLI three years ago.  She has also been an active participant in the Writers Guild and serves as the editor of the BOLLI Journal.  In her spare time, she talks to tomatoes…

MAY SENIOR MOMENT WITH ELEANOR JAFFE: A GREAT UNEASE–CROWDS

     A GREAT UNEASE — CROWDS

By Eleanor Jaffe

I grew up in Brooklyn, so you’d think that I’d be totally comfortable with crowds of people.  After all, our apartment was crowded as were the schools I attended, likewise the streets—especially the shopping streets, and certainly the subways.  When we celebrated, it was to go into Manhattan  (crowded),  to attend Radio City Music Hall (huge and crowded), the circus  (a mob), shopping (cutthroat with crowds vying for bargains.)  Almost always, I’d have to wait my turn, wait for the long lines to slowly dwindle, and be prepared to be jostled or poked by people in the City, all kinds of people.

Now I live in the heart of Boston, the Marathon heart of Boston. Every year, from my living room window, one week ahead of the Marathon, city workers construct a small city of tents in Copley Square to accommodate the runners as well as the supports and services they require when they finish their 26 mile ordeals.  Soon after, the stadium seats on Boylston Street along the Boston Public Library are erected, and the metal barriers are put in place along the gutters.  Huge trailers park on the side streets.   Enormous television cameras are hung from corner buildings so that crowds of people—as many as 8-12-24 people deep— can  visualize the runners on television because  they can not possibly see the runners through the density of spectators.  Indeed, I recall not being able to walk at all on Exeter Street  on my way to Boylston Street to join the cheering spectators.

By Friday at the latest, thousands of tourists and runners have invaded Boston.  Every hotel room is full.  Crowd controlling barriers keep people in or out of these few blocks.  Mounted police patrol while police cars and, later, ambulances park all around.  Hawkers will soon be selling t-shirts, pennants, and souvenirs.  I may have to present identification to show the police that I do indeed live in “that building,” so please let me pass beyond the barricade.  Of course, all day and well into the evening on Marathon Monday, we are not  permitted to drive our car in or out of our garage or, for that matter, drive for at least one mile in any direction.  Although I live on the second floor, when I look down from my window overlooking Copley Square, I can relate to a princess isolated in her tower.  I cannot leave.  No one can enter.

All this before the Marathon Bombers cursed us with their explosives.  Now, my aversion to crowds is complete.  Not only do the crowds seem to suffocate me, but they may also be dangerous.  Someone among those thousands of spectators. might very well have malicious intent.  Someone might cause mayhem.  Some others might even die — which is not what those spectators bargained for.

Which is why, now, I leave Boston before Marathon Monday,  Patriots’ Day, a day designed for citizens to celebrate and come together.  But not with me…  Somehow, over the years, my comfort with crowds has dwindled and disappeared.  My urge to celebrate and shout encouragement is gone.  Many years ago, I would stand  on the sidelines in Newton near Heartbreak Hill and cheer on the valiant runners.  Now, I am awed from afar by their feats. 

I wonder, is this aversion to crowds age-related?  Or terrorist- related?  How much does my comfort enter into it?  It’s a whole lot different than just becoming blase or jaded.  Have I seen too many marathons?    I doubt that it’s just my “comfort.”  A great unease overcomes me, and I want to flee.  Fortunately, I can–and I do.

Senior Moment feature writers Eleanor Jaffe (left) and Liz David (right)

Eleanor says that, “as I grow older, I am more interested in the conditions, changes, services, culture, and even politics affecting me, my husband of over 50 years, my friends — and my over 100- year-old mother.  What does it mean to be growing older in today’s society? 

 

MAY CHEF’S CORNER WITH JOHN RUDY: CHOCOLATE POKE CAKE

CHOCOLATE POKE CAKE

by John Rudy

Soon after we got married, I started making an Angel Food Cake.  After it cooked and partially cooled, I made Orange Jello, poked holes into the cake and poured it in.  After some experimentation, I found that a similar strategy worked well with chocolate pudding, and I varied the type of cake.  Sometimes I baked the cakes from scratch, and sometimes I used the stuff from boxes.  Back in the ‘70s, the boxed cakes weren’t very good, but they tend to be quite good today.  Frequently, these cakes call for frosting, but with the pudding, that seems too sweet to me.

This recipe calls for a very thick frosting.  I halved the original as it is perfectly adequate.  Feel free to double the frosting recipe if you like it thick and calorific.

1 chocolate fudge cake, prepared and baked in a 9×13 inch pan.

CHOCOLATE FILLING

1 can sweetened condensed milk

¼ cup heavy cream

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

 

CHOCOLATE FROSTING

¾ cups butter, softened to room temperature

¼ cup cocoa

1½ cups powdered sugar

½ cup heavy cream

½ teaspoon vanilla

¼ teaspoon salt

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Bake cake as directed on box.
  2. While the cake is baking, add sweetened condensed milk, heavy cream, and chocolate chips to a medium sauce pan and cook, stirring, on medium heat until the chips are melted and the filling is smooth.
  3. When the cake comes out from the oven, using the end of a wooden spoon, poke holes into the cake to create deep pockets for the filling to go into.
  4. Pour filling evenly over warm cake.
  5. Cool cake completely before frosting.

CHOCOLATE FROSTING

  1. In a large mixing bowl, combine butter, cocoa, powdered sugar and beat on low until combined.
  2. Add heavy cream, vanilla, and salt. Beat until creamy and smooth.
  3. Frost cake and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Enjoy!

BOLLI Matters Feature Writer, John Rudy

John says that it was his mother who inspired his love of cooking and baking at an early age.  (She cooked vegetables in boil-able packages.)

MEMOIR WRITING FROM ABBY PINARD: MY REVOLUTION

MY REVOLUTION

 

A few days after my sixteenth birthday and before Christmas in 1958, my parents, my sister and I mounted the gangplank of the M.S Italia, anchored in the Hudson River. We were sailing on the Christmas-New Year’s cruise to the Caribbean, in the days before Caribbean cruises were affordable for middle-class families like mine. But we were guests of the cruise line, which regularly doled out freebies to travel agents like my father, the would-be bon vivant who happily left behind his egalitarian instincts and enjoyed the first-class rooms, the food, and the drink.

Sailing past the New York City skyline and the Statue of Liberty was awe-inspiring, the North Atlantic in mid-winter, less so. But by day three, we could enjoy the lavish dinners and by day four the water was like turquoise glass and the sun was shining. First stop, Nassau in the Bahamas – everybody ashore to buy straw hats. Next day, Port-au-Prince, colorful, French, and with the grinding poverty invisible to tourists. Then Kingston, Jamaica, where a group of us posturing teenagers hung around a beach bar that served anyone.

But these ports were the appetizers. The main course was to be New Year’s Eve in Havana. Havana! The decadent playground of the rich, famous, and disreputable, where for one glorious night the passengers from the M.S. Italia would drink and dance and gamble and gawk. That is, most of the passengers. Night life was not for my parents. Nor were they inclined to be a party to the corruption of the Batista regime. They were aware – and I was dimly aware – that there was unrest in Cuba. We knew the word “guerilla.” We knew the rebels were in the mountains, led by a patriot and workers’ champion named Fidel Castro. But that was far removed from New Year’s Eve in Havana. So while our fellow passengers, dressed to the nines, went ashore to celebrate, we had a quiet dinner at anchor in the harbor and went to bed.

In the morning, the quiet was shattered. Loudspeakers blared in two languages. We could hear the boom of cannon fire. We ran on deck to learn that in the early morning hours Batista had fled to the Dominican Republic. Castro’s forces were marching toward the capital to take control of the government. The rebels had won! Viva la revolución! We hung over the deck rails cheering and waving to the Cuban sailors on the warship anchored alongside.

I looked at my parents. They were political activists of the far-left-wing variety but they weren’t cheering or waving. Hadn’t they been working for this all their lives? They looked worried. The United States had backed Batista until the end. Maybe this wasn’t a good time to be Americans in Havana, whatever your political leanings. The loudspeakers confirmed it. We were leaving. Immediately. Members of the crew were dispatched to round up the passengers still in the casinos and hotels and within the hour we steamed out of Havana harbor, leaving the revolution behind and leaving Cuba behind for almost sixty years.

Abby Pinard

A native New Yorker, Abby moved to Boston to be among her people:  family and Red Sox fans.  She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.

 

 

FROM THE SCI-FI, SWORDS, AND SORCERY SHELF: Dennis Greene

SCI-FI OR FANTASY?

by Dennis Green

Miriam Allen deFord

Miriam Allen deFord, an American writer of mysteries and science fiction in the early 1900’s, is credited with saying “Science fiction deals with improbable possibilities, fantasy with plausible impossibilities.”  The line is sometimes attributed to Rod Sterling, the screenwriter, producer, and narrator of The Twilight Zone.  He may have been the first to recite it on TV, but I’m guessing he stole it from Miriam.  Lots of other well-respected writers–including Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and H. G. Wells–have tried to distinguish science fiction from fantasy, but none of their efforts have been fully successful. Therefore, the characterization of any given work is not clear cut.

The reason it is so difficult to distinguish among the genre of “speculative fiction” ( the term now used to include science fiction, fantasy, sword and sorcery and horror), is because they have many “tropes” in common.  Tropes like space travel, time travel, alternate universes, alternate history, new worlds, aliens, epic scientific or social changes, telepathy, telekinesis, resurrection, artificial intelligence, artificial life, and human evolution are just a few that come to mind. The effort to distinguish between science fiction and fantasy goes on, causing much confusion and discussion, though I don’t understand why anyone cares. Maybe it serves some marketing purpose.  If a work of fiction is entertaining, engrossing, and stimulating, people will tend to read and enjoy it no matter how it is labeled. Is Harry Potter science fiction or fantasy? How about Game of Thrones? Or A Princess of Mars? Let’s try to label some well-known examples.’

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The central trope of Twain’s novel is time travel, and astronomy is also important. The protagonist is placed in an alternate world similar to mythical medieval England. Though it might certainly be classified as science fiction, it rarely is thought of as such.

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings certainly involves an alternate world with its own plausible geography, environment, political history, and characters, but since it also involves magic, elves, and imaginary beasts, it most probably should be classified as fantasy.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth is an alternate history story, but it doesn’t occur to most readers that they are reading science fiction.

Dune involves space travel, imaginary worlds, terraformIng, genetics, futuristic weapons, and many other science fiction tropes. The story is grounded in science, and the advances are plausible. I would classify it as science fiction, though there are strong threads of sword and sorcery appearing throughout.

Kurt Vonnegut’s books Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse Five contain sci-fi tropes such as time travel, aliens, and space travel, but many readers who deny reading or liking science fiction, admittedly read and enjoy these novels.

Frankenstein is well known as classic literature and is even included in many high school curricula without a science fiction label. But in science fiction circles, it is often identified as the first science fiction novel.  Certainly the story’s central theme, the reanimation of life based on Galvin’s electricity experiments, clearly fits the definition of science fiction.

The list could go on, but it’s not worth the effort. If the description of a work is intriguing, or the author is someone you enjoy, or a literate friend suggests a book, read it and decide for yourself if it is entertaining. Don’t worry about how it is classified.

Our BOLLI Matters Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Swords, and Sorcery Aficionado, Dennis Greene

Dennis spent five years as an engineer and then forty as a lawyer–and sixty as a pop culture geek and junkie.  He saw “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in 1951 when he was seven and has been hooked on speculative fiction ever since.