The patient had turned 50 and was in perfect health when she went for her first colonoscopy. There, at the very last segment of bowel to be examined, was a small cancer growing in the region of her appendix. Surgery to remove it was performed the next week. Seventeen months later, she was dead from metastases throughout her body.
At age 55, my father noted constipation. Within weeks, he was unable to have a bowel movement. As a physician who was well aware of his own body, he could recognize each wave of peristalsis curving in his abdomen and then stopping abruptly where his colon met his rectum. He told me these things the night he brought home the films from the barium enema he’d gone through that day. Without doubt, a cancer completely obstructed his bowel. The next day, he signed in to the local community hospital, spared the foreign intern by cavalierly writing his own history into the chart, and called upon his surgical buddy “Chippy” to do the operation. No need for a major medical center or a renowned surgeon to take care of things. And Chippy was pretty good at what he did.
My mother and I sat in the waiting room, she in her thoughts and I in mine. A third year medical student having just completed a three month exposure to surgery, I expected the worst. When Chippy finally came in, I saw him smile. “No lymph nodes,” he exclaimed, “it all grew in.” My father lived another 32 years with nary a bowel complaint.
“It all grew in.”
Just what signal from the interior of my father’s bowel had directed those cancer cells inward? And with such force as to not allow any to escape in the other direction. Was it anything akin to the earth’s magnetic field that directs each salmon to its personal spawning rivulet? Impossible. Swallows travel 6,000 miles to return to Capistrano to resettle in their cliff nests each year. Instinct, memory, wind currents, and who knows what else. Nothing that seems to pertain to a cancer cell.
More likely, my father’s cancer cells didn’t all home inward. Perhaps some escaped from his colon but could not thrive in the outer world. Possibly, they found the soil of whatever tissue they reached inhospitable, not letting them set up shop and multiply. Or perhaps his cancer cells, unlike those of my patient, were unable to secrete a fertilizing substance that would allow them to dig deep and flourish in foreign lands.
Questions begging for answers.
After a long career in medicine, Steve has been exploring his artistic side. At BOLLI, he has taken writing courses, been active in the Writers Guild, and even tried CAST (Creativity in Acting, Storytelling, and Theatre) where his imagination made him a singular player!
I have a special fondness for so-called “buddy-films”, and so, apparently, do lots of others. These movies depend on a special chemistry between the two protagonists, who are usually portrayed by exceptionally talented actors, and, of course, a brilliant script and strong supporting cast are also required. Some of my favorites include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The African Queen, The Odd Couple, Thelma and Louise, Some Like it Hot, Midnight Cowboy, and, more recently, Frankie and Grace. I have now added Good Omens to my list.
Amazon’s new series, Good Omens, is a six-hour feel-good delight created through the collaboration of two supremely talented writers–Sir Terry Pratchett (Discworld) and Neil Gaiman (American Gods). Their book, Good Omens—The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, was published in 1992. You can almost visualize the fun shared by these two then little-known writers, (who were to become recognized as masters of fantasy and comedy), as they communicated back and forth long distance thirty years ago to try and top one another with comic insights and visions. Gaiman, who excelled at creating elaborate worlds and portraying cosmic conflict, wrote the original draft of this biblical themed romp. It chronicled the development of the six thousand year relationship between Aziraphale, the angel who, since Creation, was God’s representative on earth and Crowley (formerly “Crawly”) the demon who, in the form of a snake, tempted Eve with the apple, and then served Satan as his representative on earth. Each was charged by their respective side (i.e. Heaven or Hell) with preparing earth for the arrival of the Antichrist and for the Apocalypse, when the war between Heaven and Hell is to commence and earth and its human inhabitants destroyed.
Pratchett, a friend of Gaiman’s and a genius at writing absurdist comedy featuring quirky characters, liked the story. He told Gaiman that he knew what should happen next and then made a proposal. Either Gaiman must sell Pratchett the rights to the story so Pratchett could finish it or Gaiman must agree that he and Pratchett would work together on it. Fortunately for us, Gaiman chose the latter. So Good Omens reflects two “buddy” stories, the fictional tale of Aziraphale and Crowley and the real-life friendship of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. In an interview, Gaiman offered the following example of their collaboration.
“I had written the following line spoken by a minor character: ‘When I was courting my wife, we would sometimes lay by that river and spooned.’
After reading the line, Terry called me and said, “I have just added a few words and made it 17% better.” The modified line read, ‘When I was courting my wife, we would sometimes lay by the river and spooned, and, on one memorable occasion, we forked.’
Terry had made the line 100% better.
Before his death in 2015, Pratchett made Gaiman promise to see that Good Omens was made into a film, and Gaiman carried out his friend’s wish. He wrote the screenplay for all six episodes, sticking closely to the book, and was involved every step of the way in order to honor “the gentle, sensitive incredibly articulate voice” of his friend which Gaiman felt presented “our best selves in the voice of the book”. I suspect Pratchett would say he was successful.
One reviewer noted that “At its best, Good Omens is a cosmic gay romantic-comedy, with bad boy Crowley tempting Aziraphale to get out of his comfort zone and enjoy life, while Aziraphale simultaneously lures Crowley into being a better, less selfish individual. The series is intelligent story-telling and certainly not for everyone. Fundamental Christians and others who think the Bible is “history” (i. e. true) rather than fiction may be offended. Others may be put off by hearing the voice of a woman, Francis McDormand, as God. But for the rest of us, the Good Omens series is a masterpiece. Mike Hale, in a review in The Times noted that Good Omens has the wit and good sense to mock The Sound of Music, and, for that alone, it deserves an Emmy. A soundtrack which features Freddy Mercury’s Bohemian Rhapsody is also notable. One reviewer called Good Omens “fluffy and fun, an antidote to The Game of Thrones”
After rushing through a brief collage of significant events in history, in which our two immortals act to promulgate their respective ends, the action moves to the ten days before Armagedden. We don’t know the exact date, but cell phones have been invented, and Pollution has replaced Pestilence as one of the Four Horsemen. (Pestilence was retired after penicillin was invented.) Our friend Crowley lists as one his evil accomplishments, the invention of the “selfie.”
After six thousand years on earth, both Aziraphale and Crowley have come to enjoy their lives here and have become friends. They recognize that, after the Apocalypse, there will no longer be sushi, crepes, Queen, Crowley’s classic Bentley or lunches at the Ritz. They don’t accept the inevitability of the Apocalypse or accept that God’s plan is “ineffable” and conspire to prevent Armageddon, if possible. This alchemic combination of good and evil drives the action while the future of humanity hangs in the balance. The show is a pitch perfect pairing of David Tennant and Michael Sheen
Sheen (Masters of Sex and The Good Wife) and Tennant ( the tenth Dr. Who , Hamlet) are two superb actors who bring this unlikely friendship to life and make it believable. But they don’t do it alone. There is an enormous cast of well-known actors who amplify the story. Among the faces you will recognize are Jon Hamm, Adria Ariona, Miranda Richardson, Michael McKean, and Derek Jacobi. And there are a number of supporting story lines which proceed at a rapid pace. One story involves the coming of age of “the Antichrist,” who, while a newborn under the care of Sister Loquacious, a Satanic Nun, was mistakenly switched with a very ordinary human baby and has become lost. This boy is essential to causing the Apocalypse and is now sought by the minions of both Heaven and Hell. Meanwhile, Adam, the eleven year old Antichrist, is living an ordinary eleven-year-old’s life in a small town with a small group of friends who are strikingly similar to the Stranger Things gang. Another story line involves the romance between Anathama Device, a descendant of Agnes Nutter, the only witch whose prophecies were always correct, and Newton Pulsifer, a decendant of Thou-Shall-Not-Commit-Adultery Pulsifer, the witch-hunter who burned Anathama’s ancestor Agnes. A third story involves a charming romance between an aging and slightly demented witch-hunter (portrayed by Michael McKean) and an attractive, mature psychic and brothel owner (played by Miranda Richardson). There is lots of over the top comedy and very little subtlety in this irreverent and sweetly amusing narrative.
One reviewer noted that Tennant and Sheen “are so emphatically into their roles that they make each hour-long episode fly by and the absolute need for a second season apparent, … if for no other reason than to keep this disparate duo meeting throughout history to enjoy each other’s company. In Good Omens, the alchemic bonding of Patchett’s and Gaiman’s world views have combined to produce a story that is pure gold. Of course, the combination of Aziraphale and Crowley to form the perfect counter to the Apocalypse also reeks of alchemic influence.
If the evolving relationship between Aziraphale and Crowley intrigues you, and you enjoy fantasy and sweet-natured comic absurdity, with brief appearances by the Kraken and the Lost City of Atlantis, take a peek at this uplifting feel-good comedy.
Rumor has it that God has given it four and a half stars.
The junk drawer in my kitchen holds the tools that are not down cellar in my pink tool bag. Screwdrivers, both flat and Philips, a blue hammer, green florist tape, black electrical tape, twist ties, elastic bands. And then there are the Band-Aids, the razor blades, the box of matches from the Goat Island Grill in Georgetown SC, night light, broken night light, stapler, 3 boxes of staples, scissors, my Stanley tape measure and a carpenter’s pencil, a souvenir from my 2015 kitchen reno.
The junk drawer next to my bed holds pens and pencils, Sudoku puzzles, an extra pair of glasses, Chapstick, bookmarks, small pads of paper, more Band-Aids, Mass cards, hand cream, mechanical pencil refills, flashlight, 2015 Ellis Island Membership card, TV remote, Halls’ Lozenges, face cream, paperclips, and a miniature map of the Manhattan subway system.
What do these drawers have to say? That I’m a little OCD and that there’s an obvious difference between the private drawer in my room and the larger, public drawer in my kitchen. Strange and personal, but under control. After all, these contents are not on my bureau, kitchen counter, or the floor.
I think of my friend Theresa whose life resembles a junk drawer, one that she cannot unpack without professional support. So many trials. So much self-destruction. Not in the same ballpark as the items in my drawers that I call junk.
I have now consolidated the boxes of staples—some have been reunited with the staple gun while others have joined the stapler in my desk. The loose razor blades are back in the box. The twist ties and broken night light have been tossed. And the tape measure is back in the car, where I was compelled to purge the glove box and the console compartment.
I am thankful for my junk spaces–that I can unpack at will.
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.”
Liz David was my first SGL at BOLLI. Her warm words and easy smile welcomed me, an outsider, from west of 495.
Having studied many different cultures, Liz had worked in hospice for years and written extensively on the different stages of life. She taught us about digging deep and not being afraid to embrace words of wisdom from Rabbi Kushner, Oliver Sacks, and Dr. Seuss as we age.
“As your study group leader. I see us as partners and will take my lead from you as we get to know each other …”
I take frantic notes as many of these references are beyond the front burner in my brain. She openly discusses her physical activity including running, walking, and workouts with a trainer. I strain to hear every single word when she tells us her age. Really? OMG, you look marvelous.
“What does the sentence ‘home is where the love is’ mean to you?”
Liz has embraced Native American culture in her reading, writing, and lifestyle. A magnificent rug showing the cycles of life rests on the floor of her second-floor home office. Made for her 30 years ago, it features the phases of the moon, the owl, the eagle, and a woman.
To be invited into this place of refuge and strength silences me. And then there are the owls–hundreds, maybe more; many have even been sent home with friends and visitors. Her generosity goes beyond her teachings and her smile. She may be the most approachable teacher I have ever had.
“Have you ever felt that you were in a state of grace?”
Having raised five children in this large colonial deep in the woods of Sudbury, Liz and her husband Barry now enjoy the serenity of their flowers, trees, birdsong, and chimes. During lunch on their screened porch, we talked about BOLLI, particularly the evolution of classes and community in the ten plus years of the couple’s membership.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Liz has taught the art of legacy letters to friends and neighbors in her different communities, including BOLLI. Her approach is clear-eyed and joyful, a perspective that I am not ready to attempt during that first semester, from which the quotes above are taken. She tells us all that times change, and we change, that there is time to write and revise legacy letters.
“What about taking the measure of oneself? Fulfilled dreams/shattered dreams.”
I have learned so much in classes with Liz. And now, as someone she calls a friend, I am learning even more.
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.”
To understand what is meant by “literary alchemy,” a reader must first have a fundamental understanding of the term “alchemy” or “metallurgical alchemy.” Most American readers I have spoken to, including many well educated, serious readers, have little or no understanding of the term.
Most consider alchemy to have been a medieval pseudo-science by which the alchemist tried to isolate a catalyst (a so-called “Philosopher’s Stone”) that could turn base metals like lead or iron to pure gold and produce an elixir that would bestow immortality upon the alchemist. The popular belief is that alchemy was a misdirected practice used by mystics and sorcerers to make themselves rich and/or immortal. After our knowledge of chemistry and physics vastly improved during the Renaissance, alchemy was looked down upon and dismissed as simply “stupid” chemistry.
Because our American literary traditions developed post-enlightenment, our literature has been based on a firm belief in the physical sciences and naturalism, and we accepted this idea that alchemy was just “stupid science.” Scientific naturalism and materialism shaped our modern empirical worldview.
John Granger, an enthusiastic student of Literary Alchemy, describes alchemy in this way:
Alchemy is everything that scientific naturalism and materialism are not… Alchemy, in a nutshell, was the science of working toward the perfection of the alchemist’s soul. This heroic venture is all but impossible today, because the way we look at reality makes the concept itself almost an absurdity. Unlike the medieval alchemists, we post-moderns see things with a clear subject/object distinction; that is, we believe you and I and that table are entirely different things and there is no connection or relation between them. The knowing subject is one thing, and the observed object is completely “other.”
To the alchemist, that was not the case. His efforts in changing lead to gold were based on the premise that he, as the subject, would go through the same type of changes and purifications as the materials he was working with. In sympathy with these metallurgical transitions and resolutions, his soul would be purified in correspondence as long as he was working in a prayerful state within the mysteries (sacraments) of his revealed tradition.
Historically, there was an Arabic alchemy, a Chinese alchemy, a Kabbalistic alchemy as well as a Christian alchemy; each differed superficially with respect to their spiritual traditions. In each example, however, the alchemist was working with a sacred natural science or physic to advance his spiritual purification.
This was only possible because he looked at the metal he was working with as something with which he was not “other” but with which he was in a relationship. The alchemist and the lead becoming gold were imitating and accelerating the work of the Creator. The alchemist’s aim was to create a bridge so that, as lead changes to gold or material perfection, his soul would go through similar transformations and purifications.
Metallurgical alchemy was ancient history long before the pilgrims set sail to America, so it was never a part of our literary tradition. It is no surprise that American readers are almost unaware of it. This is probably no great loss, but it does have one consequence for Harry Potter fans. Alchemic references and imagery are near the heart of much great English fiction, from Chaucer to Rowling. To be ignorant of alchemic language, references, themes, symbols, and imagery is to miss out on the depths and heights of Shakespeare, Blake, Donne, Milton, C. S. Lewis, Dickens, Joyce and even J. K. Rowling. Ms. Rowling is very knowledgeable about alchemy, and her books are built on alchemic structures, written in alchemic language, and have alchemic themes at their core.
Sometimes the term literary alchemy is used in reference to the changes or transformations a reader or audience undergoes as he or she identifies with and experiences the same events as a character. Both Shakespeare and Ben Jonson understood Aristotle’s idea that the effect of theatre, in causing human transformation in the audience, is similar to the alchemic effect.
More commonly, literary alchemy refers to a writer’s deliberate use of alchemical subject matter, terminology, and processes as a useful organizing principle for his or her text, especially when writing about individuals undergoing trials and changes as they mature.
The basic structure of an alchemic transformation is well defined. We meet the subject character in his or her lowest or base state, with the soul and base material blackened with the taint of original sin and the fall from grace. During the first or “black” stage (the “nigredo”), the base material (and simultaneously the soul) must undergo dissolution or breaking down through a series of trials to be reduced to its respective original substance, so it and the sympathetic soul can be reborn in a new form. During the second or “white” stage (the “albedo”), the base material is cleansed or absolved until it transforms into a stone which briefly reflects all the colors of the rainbow before it turns a brilliant white. During the third “red” stage (the “rubedo”), the pure white stone is heated until a divine red tincture infuses the white stone to produce the Philosopher’s Stone which can transform base metal to gold but more importantly, can purify the soul and confer immortality.
The alchemic process requires subjecting the base metal to the action of two principal reagents, alchemical mercury (sometimes called quicksilver) and sulfur. These reagents represent the masculine and feminine polarity of existence. Together and separately, the two reagents advance the work of purifying the base metal. Ultimately, these polar opposite reagents must combine to enable a transcendence of the polarity to achieve a harmonious unity.
J. K. Rowling intended for the Harry Potter books to incorporate literary alchemy. The evidence is unavoidable. The title of the first book was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; Dumbledore is famous for his skill in alchemy; Nicholas Flamel, a key character in the first book, has the name of a famous alchemist; key characters are named Sirius Black, Albus (white) Dumbledore, and Rubeus (red) Hagrid; and Hermione is the feminine form of Hermes (the Greek name for mercury or quicksilver).
The Harry Potter series incorporates a number of patterns identified with classic English literary tradition. Harry certainly embarks on a hero’s journey which eventually leads to death, resurrection, and victory over evil. The story is cast as a classic English schoolboy novel in the nature of Tom Brown’s School Days. Throughout the series, in the tradition of the great English sleuths, Harry and his friends face one mystery after another as they try to unravel the events of the past which led to the deaths of Harry’s parents and to the current epic battle in which Harry must play a major role. Ms. Rowling’s extensive planning of the entire series enables her to make frequent use of “narrative misdirection” to keep these young sleuths and their readers baffled and engaged. The insertion of numerous postmodern themes, Christian symbols, and gothic background all pay homage to classic patterns of English literature. Literary Alchemy is no less an element of the Harry Potter series than any of the forgoing.
K. Rowling has never said directly that she intentionally incorporated alchemic imagery or structure, but in one interview in 1998, she said:
I’ve never wanted to be a witch. But an alchemist, now that is a different matter. To invent the wizard world, I’ve learned a ridiculous amount of alchemy. Perhaps much of it I’ll never use in the books, but I have to know in detail what magic can and cannot do in order to set the parameters and establish the story’s internal logic.
Certainly some, and possibly a great deal, of the alchemy she learned did find its way into her books, in the great tradition of the literary greats who preceded her. Some familiarity with literary alchemy might enhance the fun of reading her story and perhaps give the reader some new insights when exploring other great works of English literature.
For those who just want to read a good tale that takes place in a fascinating imaginary world and features likable characters facing many of the problems of our own world, the Harry Potter books are just plain fun. And for those who desire to examine this extraordinary work more deeply, there is much to discover.
Dennis spent five years as an engineer, 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.
I took 12 weeks away from BOLLI (and the rest of my regular life) this spring and traveled all around the United States. If I were writing a detailed book about my journey, it’s working title would be:
America: the Beautiful, the Stolen, the Resourceful, and the Generous
Here is a brief summary of what I gathered from my trip.
This is a great-looking country, and I’m glad I got to see so much of it in person. The 48 contiguous states have land area similar to Europe, Canada, China, Brazil and Australia but, I suspect, more diverse terrain and features than all of them. The mountains, canyons, plains, deserts, lakes, rivers, and coastlines are amazing.
A couple of years ago, I read an op-ed that attributed a large portion of this country’s historically great economic production to two thefts: land from the indigenous peoples and over two centuries of labor from African slaves. I certainly saw much evidence of this in my travels. The latter, from a long list of civil rights sites I visited – in particular, the Underground Railroad Center for Justice in Cincinnati, which laid out in great detail the history of the slave trade in North America, going all the way back to the first group of slaves sold by Portuguese traders in Jamestown Virginia in 1619. The story of European and later United States appropriation of the ancestral lands of our first inhabitants also started in Jamestown. I followed this thread throughout my travels–the French and Indian Wars and conflicting loyalties during the Revolutionary War; the Trail of Tears as native tribes were sent west of the Mississippi once the new United States expanded beyond the Appalachians; the further relocation of most of the tribes to Oklahoma Territory when the Homestead Act made the land in the Great Plains valuable; and finally the discovery of gold in the only remaining sovereign native land (the Black Hills of South Dakota), which led to Little Big Horn, Wounded Knee, Indian reservations, and boarding schools for native children where their culture and language was forbidden.
THE RESOURCEFUL – NATURAL RESOURCES AND GREAT INVENTIVENESS
The land of the United States certainly was blessed with abundant natural resources–salt, coal, iron ore, natural gas, oil, the fertile soil of the Great Plains, abundant forests for timber, gold, silver, copper, uranium, borax, and all kinds of other minerals. And the American people quickly learned how to use all of these to their economic advantage.
A partial list of the great ideas invented or further developed by the ingenious and entrepreneurial minds of our countrymen and women includes:
The steamship, the cotton gin, canals (like the Erie), the railroad, mechanical farming, mining, anesthesia (at Mass General), the telegraph, electricity, the telephone, the phonograph, automobiles, assembly lines, airplanes, radios, radar, nuclear power (for better or worse), television, space exploration (including, of course, that moon landing we’re commemorating this month), and just about everything related to computers, the world wide web, the internet, smart phones, and artificial intelligence.
In the last hundred years, as the most powerful nation on earth, the United States has been generous in supporting democracy around the world. Entering World War I helped end the stalemate on the Western Front. The United States supported Great Britain’s solo stand against Nazi Germany through the Lend-Lease program in 1940-1941 and then, of course, joined World War II after Pearl Harbor, helping to turn the tide in Europe with the D-Day invasion of 75 years ago. Then after the War, the Marshall Plan enabled war-ravaged Europe to rebuild itself, and NATO and the United Nations managed to end the first Cold War.
But I witnessed the benefits of great things that our government has done to improve our lives over our history. Again, here’s a list:
Public education (starting with my two alma maters, Boston Latin School and Harvard), land-grant colleges and universities, the Homestead Act (not so good for native peoples but good for settlers heading west for economic opportunity and independence), the transcontinental railroad, our national parks, canals and dams, and all the building done by the Civilian Conservation Corps as well as the WPA during the New Deal, Social Security and Medicare, the GI Bill for Education and low-cost housing loans after World War II, and the Interstate Highway System.
Individually and collectively, the people and government of the United States of America have done amazing things in the last nearly 250 years. I remain confident that we have many more wonders in our future.
Mark, a native of Boston, worked as an actuary for 35 years and retired in 2017. He immediately joined BOLLI with his wife Rachel and has thrown himself into classes, performing in the theatrical productions, and writing presentations.
It is the morning of my 86th birthday, and I open my eyes to a shower of sunshine. ‘Tis early. No need to rise yet. Sinking still deeper into my pillow, I close my eyes. I’m walking in a forest, down a path awash in light. Ahead of me is a giant oak. It is not until I approach that I notice that it’s bowed crown is draped in unseasonably yellowed leaves. Deep, letter-like gashes mark its trunk R-O-N. I wrap my arms around its bole and feel it pulsing.
Circling the venerable oak are four clusters of pines. At the center of each is a strong regal twosome overlooking less mature pines. Letters are etched into the base of each. I know their names. It is a heartwarming, comforting site, the four clusters jointly surrounding, guarding the elderly oak.
I hug each before I continue, almost skippingly, down the path. A bit further, to my right, stands an arch of trees reminiscent of a Temple. A powerful stream of light flows my way. More tree clusters, all shapes and manner, surround me. I peer more closely, stroking each trunk. Tall and firm stand my friends, a lifetime of playmates, companions, and soulmates.
Suddenly, a clearing appears. A large lake, its translucent water shimmering before me. I peer into its silvery blue surface. From its depth float figures, reaching almost to its surface. My mother rises, her large blue eyes shining, her laughter bubbling up. Beside her, his strong arm about her shoulders, my father waves to me with his free hand. He, too, is laughing. But how can that be? “No, no wait, don’t go,” I cry, my eyes locked to the spot as my parents sink back into the depths. Almost immediately, my dear sister Ellen appears, taken from me too soon, before I had a chance to tell how much I loved her. She , too, now laughs and reaches out to me. I lean forward to take her disappearing hand.
Within a breath, everything disappears. I lose everything–my family, my friends, the forest, the lake, all gone.
I pull myself up from the floor where I lay next to my bed. Unhurt, just a bit achy. Why, why had my mind concocted such a fantasy? What is my subconscious trying to tell me? That surely we would meet again? That there is time to change the things I want to change?
The sound of the phone cuts through my thoughts. Both phones, my cell and land line, calling to me simultaneously.
“Happy Birthday, Mom. We love you.” Repeated again. “Happy Birthday, Mom, we love you.”
All through the day, a bouquet of calls from grandchildren and sons. And I embrace them all.
Before night falls, I drive to my favorite walking spot, Cutler Park, where a forest of trees surrounds a large fresh water lake. I smile. 86, like any age, new beginnings, new ending, choices.
Lois says, “I’ve been blessed with a marriage of 65 years. We raised four boys we are proud of and enjoy the reward of 9 grandchildren. Professionally, I taught public school for 25 years, published an instructional manual to aid teachers in teaching children who are high risk for learning to read, and conducted seminars on the teaching of reading. I have been active in my town of Needham as a Library Trustee and a Town Meeting member for 36 years. And now, I have the joy of being a member of BOLLI!
Here, Larry responds to the Writers Guild prompt, “Just Desserts,” in his own wry way.
by Larry Schwirian
Alfredo and Ambrosia Bacon were a fiftyish couple who fancied themselves food and wine aficionados. They lived in a high-rise condo in an upscale neighborhood in the heart of the city and frequently partied with friends and acquaintances. These gatherings were often an opportunity for all those gathered to share their recent happenings and boast a little about their latest exploits and discoveries. Exaggeration was typically the name of the game, but the Bacons were particularly noted for their hyperbole.
At one such get together, Alfredo was bragging about a dinner that he and Ambrosia had recently enjoyed in a new Japanese restaurant, Shogun, in another part of the city. He described in great detail just how delightfully the food was presented and how the aroma of the Kobe beef delicately tantalized his sense of smell and caused him to drool with intense anticipation. He swore that, after the meal, his taste buds were in such a state of existential bliss that he couldn’t conceive of having dessert even though it was included in the cost of this repast. Likewise, Ambrosia went into excruciating detail about her choice: Secret Garden Maki with salmon tempura and a cream cheese center with avocado…and so on, and so on, and so on… she, too, rejected the idea of having dessert. They both waxed longingly about how well the Sake went with the meal and then bored everyone to tears about what a great bargain it was; less than four-hundred-fifty dollars for a complete meal with wine, not including tax and tip. Alfredo raved that a meal of Kobe beef alone typically costs in excess of three-hundred fifty.
Needless to say, the rest of those gathered were somewhat skeptical of the Bacons’ accounting of this bodacious dinner but particularly about its being such a great deal. Trying to be polite, one of the women asked Alfredo about what other delicacies had been included. The men seemed to be quite interested in the list of desserts and asked Ambrosia how she could possibly have skipped hers. As the guests headed home, there was considerable banter about the tale, particularly about its cost.
Shortly after the gathering, the Sunday newspaper featured a review in the Arts and Leisure Section about the recently opened Shogun Restaurant. The food critic was fairly complimentary about the quality of the food but very skeptical about whether the Kobe steak was really what it was purported to be; very few Japanese restaurants in the United States actually import Kobe beef as it is exceedingly expensive. As, at this particular restaurant, the Kobe beef was priced at less than three hundred dollars, he doubted the claim that this item was genuine. The writer was also of the opinion that although the food was decent, it was terribly over-priced. To those who attended the gathering and read the article, it seemed to them that Alfredo and Ambrosia may well have skipped their after meal sweets but did in fact finally get their…Just Desserts.
Architect Larry and his fellow architect wife Caroline live in an historic preservation home in Newton and, together, lead BOLLI courses on architecture. Larry has been an active participant in and leader of the Writers Guild special interest group as well as serving on the BOLLI Journal staff.
Our BOLLI Matters blog provides opportunities for all BOLLI members to share thoughts on the issues of the day, memories of issues of other days, stand-out BOLLI moments, favorite Lunch & Learn speakers or programs. You can recommend books, television shows, movies, and more to your fellow BOLLI members. Just write about whatever is on your mind, in your own voice–the way you’d talk to your friends.
In addition, it offers “showcase” space in which to try your hand at writing–creative nonfiction, memoir, fiction, poetry. It gives you a gallery for sharing your photography, drawing, painting, print making, weaving, furniture making, glass, mosaics…or whatever your particular creative venue is.
You might be surprised to find out how much your fellow BOLLI members appreciate and enjoy your efforts. And, who knows? You might surprise yourself and find that you enjoy the process as well–there could be a regular feature or column in your future!
Send items to me, Sue Wurster, at email@example.com. I am happy to help by making suggestions for strengthening your work and doing some judicious editing.
And if you have ideas for features or columns that you might like to see in BOLLI Matters, please pass them along!
Known in some circles as “Wurster, the Wily Word Woman,” I have happily worked on all things word related–public speaking, acting, writing, working on newsletters and newspapers, editing literary/visual art journals–since creating “The Maple Street Gazette” at age 8…
At BOLLI, our membership includes those from all proverbial walks of life, and yet, we all seem to be very much on the same path—the one leading to personal enrichment. Betty Brudnick is no exception. I asked Betty what brought her to BOLLI, and this is what she said.
“My husband Irv and I had been members at HILR (Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement), and at lunch one day, a friend said to us, ‘You know, there’s someone at Brandeis I think you two should meet. His name is Bernie Reisman. He is thinking of starting a similar program and would really benefit from any help you could give him.’ So, we met with Bernie, and it wasn’t long before BALI (Brandeis Adult Learning Institute as it was called then) was born. With the help of other seekers, we built the foundation of BALI, reached out to other retired people, and attracted over 300 to our first informational meeting. It was an exceedingly hot day, the air conditioning quit, and the power went out—and yet, our overflow audience stayed. We began courses, twice a week, at the Gosman Athletic Facility taught by friends and other knowledgeable volunteers.
Discovering that she is truly a BOLLI “original” was pretty exciting–particularly with our 20th anniversary approaching. But what about your art work? I asked.
In addition to Betty’s career as a social worker, community activist, political junkie, and member of several boards, much of her time and energy has also revolved, of course, around being a wife, a mother, and a daughter to ailing parents. Art had never really been part of the picture.
“Except for starting to study piano when I was 7 (which continued through my college years,” she says, “I would say that the left side of my brain was dominant.” She goes on to add that, “My interest in the arts didn’t become apparent until middle age when an accident incapacitated me for several months. At that point, I began to examine my life. And I had an epiphany.”
“I realized that I had spent my life focused on others’ needs, and now, it was time to focus on my own.” She had always liked creating with her hands—knitting, doing macramé, weaving—but, other than doodling in her notebooks when bored at school, she had never considered drawing or painting. So, she decided to see if she might have any artistic talent of that sort and enrolled in a drawing class at the MFA. She loved it, and soon moved on to a watercolor class, then art lessons in Gloucester, and, finally, working with a watercolor atelier at the Radcliffe Seminars. “Those were such wonderful years,” she muses. “Learning, painting, showing work with inspirational artists.”
While she did a good deal of watercolor painting over those years, she continued, of course, to focus on others. After developing a job bank and doing other projects at the Council on Aging in Malden, Betty says she found herself wanting to explore other forms of creativity as well.
“It seems that nature hates a vacuum,” she indicates, “and so, while I was shopping at the farmers’ market in Sarasota, I stopped at a booth that had some interesting pieces of glass.” Her conversation with the artist led to an invitation to try her hand at fusing glass herself, and “I found my new avocation.” Her tutor was a young Greek minister who was also pursuing an advanced degree in theology which, she says, led to “lots of interesting discussions while I learned to cut, shape, and fuse glass.” She soon discovered and joined the Southwest Florida Glass Alliance, a large community of ardent glass collectors in the area, and began to explore both the history of the glass art movement and its artists in this country. “I was even invited to the homes of many collectors. How could I resist?” Ultimately, in addition to doing her own glass work, she began collecting pieces by Italian, Japanese, and American glass artists.
“As far as I know, there were no artists in my family,” Betty says. “Architects and musicians, yes, but no painters. My children’s talents lie in other directions—not visual art. It’s too soon to tell, but one of my granddaughters is an art history major!”
Personally, I can add that, having taught two of those granddaughters, I know that one is a highly accomplished pianist herself. So, clearly, the piano lessons Betty embarked on when she was 7 tapped into her artistic side–and remain firmly ensconced in the family gene pool.
Overall, Betty indicates, “It’s been rewarding to watch BOLLI’s growth to a year-round community. Irv would have been so pleased.” It’s been equally as rewarding to dive into painting and glass work, and she looks forward to whatever avocation comes next.
There’s nothing I like more than getting to know the people around me even better! I hope you’ll leave a comment for Betty in the box below. It means a lot to each of our profiled members to hear from others. And I’d love to hear from you about you or other BOLLI members we can all get to know better.
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