Tuesday, May 29, 2018

In the Crossword Zone

Something odd has happened. I've become a whiz at crossword puzzles, having completed the New York Times Crossword thirty-one days in a row, without cheating. It's almost enough to make me believe in miracles. Or maybe the Times puzzles have gotten easier. More likely, though, my newfound skill is due to my sister, Janet, and my son, Alex.

Logically, my ability to solve puzzles should have become worse as I've aged. My word recall has deteriorated and I forget the plots of novels almost as soon as I've read them. Yet, I manage to dredge up long-forgotten names and words when I'm working on a puzzle.

An antique French etui
In part, I've improved because I've mastered certain crossword puzzle techniques. Like many frequent solvers, I now easily fill in words that are virtually only found in crosswords, never in actual speech, like etui or iambi. And when a cookie or a snack or a "sandwich often given a twist" is involved, I've learned to think of oreos.

I've also gotten much better at recognizing the different possible meanings of a clue. Take, for example, the seven-letter clue "big hits," which appeared in a recent Sunday puzzle. My first association was to successes in the arts, like a hit song or a hit film. When nothing along those lines seemed to fit, I thought maybe the hits referred to punches. Finally, I realized I should have been thinking about baseball hits — the answer was "triples". I used to become fixated on one definition of a word or phrase, which led to frustration and defeat. Now, I'm more attuned to different meanings.

The Times Crossword increases in difficulty as the week progresses, with Monday the easiest and Saturday the most difficult. In the past, I could usually complete the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday puzzles, but after that all bets were off. Thursday puzzles feature "tricks", which I used to find confounding. Sunday puzzles are longer, but at about a Thursday level of difficulty. Despite having learned the crossword techniques described above, I had never finished a Sunday puzzle without "cheating," which for me meant Googling to discover which Rhine tributary flows through Switzerland (Aare) or the name of a famous Verdi aria (Eri Tu). Then a casual conversation with my brother-in-law, Michael, changed all that.

The Aare River at Bern, Switzerland
We were discussing crosswords and I mentioned that I found the Times Sunday puzzles daunting.

"Really?" said Michael. "Janet always finishes them."

What? My little sister was better at crosswords than me? A competitive nerve I thought I'd long ago numbed began to twinge. I resolved to try harder at the Sunday crosswords. If Janet could do them then, by God, so could I.

And so it came to pass. My progress was slow at first, but I persisted and eventually I could almost always complete the Sunday puzzles, without cheating. And I got better at the Thursday puzzles, too. The Friday and Saturday offerings still eluded me, though. Enter my son, Alex.

When Alex was younger, he used to tell me he admired my vocabulary. Back then, he was impressed that I could finish a Monday puzzle. So imagine my surprise when, about a year ago, Alex sent me a text to let me know he had finished a Friday puzzle in under twenty minutes. I was filled with pride — my son, the genius! But wait, how had it come to this? My child, who only yesterday saw me as an accomplished puzzle solver, had surpassed me. I felt a sudden determination to master not only the Friday puzzle, but the Saturday, too.

Was I now competing with my son? Had I stooped so low? I preferred to regard myself as inspired by him, but let's call a spade a spade. Alex's accomplishment gave me the jolt I needed to go to the next level. Soon, I was solving Friday and Saturday puzzles with some regularity, and there's no doubt I was spurred on by my desire to perform at least as well as Alex.

Crossword puzzles may have brought out my latent competitiveness, but they've also awakened a couple of qualities I feel good about. The first is a can-do attitude. I used to approach every Friday puzzle convinced that I could never solve it. Now I assume the opposite. Add to that a newfound persistence, and my odds of success have vastly increased. I simply don't quit. I just stare the puzzle down and keep at it.

When I'm feeling totally stumped, I get up and do something else for a while. Often the answers to seemingly insoluble clues become obvious after a walk around the block. But if all else fails, I just think of Janet and Alex effortlessly conquering the worst that the Times Crossword can throw at them. That does the trick every time.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Bald Eagle

It happened in the unlikeliest of places, at the unlikeliest of moments. E. and I were driving home from New York after spending the weekend with our kids and grandkids. We decided to stop for gas and a bite to eat in Glastonbury, Connecticut, a pretty town along our route. It was early evening and the light was just starting to fade. As we pulled into the gas station, I glanced out the car's front window.

Photo by Kate Wellington
Above me soared a bird with an impressive wing-span, whose wings themselves appeared black against the blue sky, and whose head looked as white as Bill Clinton's hair. Clinton's hair comes to mind because the day before, while exploring the little village of Pleasantville, NY, we had encountered the former President at a local bookstore, where he was holding forth on politics to a couple of random customers. His hair looked very white.

But I digress. The moment I saw the bird, I knew it was a bald eagle — wild, free, and for some reason searching for prey above a gas station in the commercial district of a manicured suburb. I had last seen a bald eagle twenty years earlier, in Juneau, Alaska, where they are common. But I'd never seen one on the East Coast.

I felt joyful, as if I had achieved something special by my mere proximity to such a magnificent creature. I knew that bald eagles are part scavengers, an attribute not in keeping with their lofty reputation, but at that moment I saw nothing but the bird's noble countenance. The incongruity of the setting made the experience all the more thrilling.

By the time E. had filled the tank, the bird was gone. I checked my Cornell Ornithology Lab's Merlin app to see what else I might learn about the bald eagle and its presence in this quiet part of Connecticut. I discovered that the adult's wings are dark brown, though they had appeared black from my vantage point. Further, bald eagles inhabit areas near lakes, reservoirs, and rivers. The Connecticut River runs through Glastonbury and might explain the bird's presence nearby.

Photo by Saffron Blaze
The eagle had departed but the feeling of joy stayed with me for a long while. Worries big and small receded. Everything around me seemed more vivid and beautiful. Sort of like how Bill Clinton looked larger than life in that little bookstore, though I wouldn't go so far as to call him beautiful. 

I love birds and I enjoy watching them. Over the years, I've learned to identify quite a few species. However, I don't think of myself as a "bird watcher." I don't keep a life list, nor do I go hiking at ungodly hours in search of new sightings. But like many birders, I'm grateful that I share this world with bald eagles and all the other amazing bird species. With the possible exception of pigeons.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Where Am I?

I've been splitting my time between Boston and Miami since 2005. When I'm in Miami, though, I never fully leave Boston, and vice versa.

Years ago, while in Miami, I started listening on my iPhone apps to WBUR and WGBH, the Boston public radio stations. Sometimes, I'm listening to a Boston radio station and the announcer begins describing blizzard conditions. I feel confused. Where am I? It takes me a minute to realize that if I step onto my terrace it will be seventy degrees and sunny.

When I'm back up north, I keep part of my psyche in Miami by listening to WLRN, South Florida's public radio station. There, I get updates on the latest local news, plus notices about cultural happenings, all delivered by an incongruously British-accented announcer. And during football season, WQAM, a Miami AM radio station, keeps me dialed into the University of Miami Hurricanes games, complete with the two wackiest sportscasters I've ever heard.

In Miami, E. and I live in an apartment, while in Boston we share a house. The living spaces couldn't be more different. However, we've tried to replicate our belongings, so that one place feels as much like the other as possible. Our idea has been to create a seamless transition when we travel between our two homes.

We have the same sleep number mattresses in both places, the same desktop computers, the same television sets, even the same thermostats. We would have purchased the same flatware, but for some reason our stainless steel pattern (purchased in 1972) was no longer available. We did go wild with our dishes, though. Our set up north is solid white, but for our Miami condo we chose a pattern with a white background and black stripes around the rims.

I could go on, but you get the picture — E. and I don't do well with change. We're homebodies and we like our two homes to feel like one. If the winters weren't quite so severe up north, we would never have thought about spending the cold months elsewhere. Yet, despite our best efforts to set up identical lives in both places, I feel completely different when I'm in Miami than when I'm in Boston.

That's not so surprising, given how different the two cities are. Miami's vibe is exotic and flamboyant, while Boston feels more intellectual and grounded. But here's what does surprise me — I love both places! I especially love that they're different. That's a good thing, right? Of course it is, but it also makes leaving either place hard.

This year has been particularly difficult. We had said goodbye to our friends in Miami and had made plans back in Boston when the weather intervened, with a major nor'easter threatening. American Airlines even offered to waive our change fees. So, we postponed our departure for several days.

The storm has come and gone and I'm still in Miami, in limbo. It feels odd, but oddly comforting. My bags are packed and I'm not unpacking them. E. and I have made new plans with the friends to whom we already said goodbye. And I'm enjoying the gorgeous weather here, although it doesn't feel quite real, since I know I'll soon be back in chilly Boston.

So, where am I? I'm not home yet, but I'm home.

Monday, January 22, 2018

I Don't Like It, But Is It Good?

In the spring of 1968, when I was a freshman in college, I went to an Archie Shepp concert with my then-boyfriend, Peter. A bus picked us up in front of Converse Hall at Amherst College and took us to Springfield, Massachusetts for the performance.

Among the crowd waiting for the bus, I noticed E., whom I'd met earlier that year, when he was dating a girl in my dorm at Smith College. I remember saying hello to him before we got on the bus. I knew he was a musician, but not much else.

 Archie Shepp, Lecco, Italy, 1967
I didn't enjoy the concert. Shepp played in a style that combined avant-garde free jazz techniques with African rhythms. To me, the result sounded like a discordant mess. I could tell that Shepp was very skilled on his instrument, the saxophone, but I couldn't relate to what he was playing. Yet, I knew he was regarded as talented and innovative by jazz critics. I wondered what was wrong with me, that I didn't like him.

On the return bus trip, I got into an argument with Peter. He hadn't liked Shepp, either. But I insisted that just because we hadn't enjoyed the music, that didn't mean it wasn't good. Maybe it meant our taste wasn't developed enough to appreciate Shepp's talent.

I saw E. sitting a few rows ahead of me on the bus. Knowing he was a musician, I imagined that he had appreciated Shepp's skills at some higher level. I wished I had gone to the concert with him, so he could have explained the music to me.

By 1972, E. and I were living together. He had a large record collection and we wiled away many hours listening to all kinds of music. I hoped E. would help me develop good taste. I was still plagued by the worry that when I didn't enjoy music admired by critics, it was because I was too much of philistine to appreciate the finer things in life.

One afternoon, E. played a Miles Davis album from Davis' abstract period. Although I didn't know much about jazz at the time, I did know that Miles Davis was an icon of the genre. Yet, as with Archie Shepp, though I could tell Davis was a masterful musician, I didn't enjoy the music. Davis' cool improvisations kept veering away from anything melodic, which I yearned for. The album definitely put me in a groove, but it was a pretty depressed groove. And, once again, I blamed myself for failing to "get it."

"Is this good?" I asked E.

"Do you like it?" he replied.

"Not really," I acknowledged. "But that's probably because I'm too dense to understand what I'm hearing."

E. disagreed. He felt that what mattered was how I innately responded to the music.

"If you don't like it, why force yourself to listen to it?" he said.

Not long after this conversation, we moved to California, where E. got a job as a music critic for the Palo Alto Times. I accompanied him to many performances and heard everyone from Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, and Ella Fitzgerald to Cecil Taylor, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Vince Guaraldi. Between hours of listening and hours of talking about the performances with E., I finally got the musical education I'd longed for. I came to appreciate and even enjoy some types of jazz, particularly jazz-funk, with its strong rhythms and catchy riffs.

It took a while, but ultimately I stopped worrying about what other people might think of my musical taste and listened to the artists I enjoyed. Here are a few examples of jazz performances from the seventies that I loved the first time I heard them and still love today. You may not agree, but of course I'll understand — it's all about what sounds good to you.

Eumir Deodato's "Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)," from his album, Prelude:




Hampton Hawes' "Go Down Moses," from his album, Northern Windows, with the inimitable Carol Kaye on bass:


Keith Jarrett's "The Rich (And the Poor)," from his album, Treasure Island:





Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Keeping the Memories Fond



On a late summer weekend in September, I was a no-show at the 50th reunion of my South Side High School class. I had a bad cold and an unsightly stye, so I certainly wouldn't have looked or felt my best, but in fact I had already decided not to attend.

I've long been conflicted about reunions. I'm never sure whether I'll feel uplifted, let down, or simply bored, so I usually take the path of least resistance and don't go. But my 50th seemed like a bigger deal than most, since it would almost certainly be the last time I'd have the chance to reunite with my classmates from long ago.

The only high school reunion I ever attended was my 20th. I brought E. along with me to Rockville Centre, on Long Island. I wanted him to meet the people I'd talked about for years. And, to be honest, I wanted him there for support and a reality check. I was afraid that without him to ground me I might quickly revert to my insecure teenage state.

When E. and I arrived at the hotel where my 20th was held, the first people I saw were Ronnie, Ellie,  and Andi — the popular girls of my youth. I had worked hard to make them my friends. They screamed. I screamed. We embraced, we giggled, we all talked at once. They looked me up and down, no doubt to see how I had turned out. I did the same to them.

Ronnie still had an adorable dimple in her cheek, but what was with all the makeup? I reminded myself that she lived in Texas now. Ellie seemed much as I remembered her, my favorite among them, still cute with her curly hair, still bubbly and affectionate. Andi, still single and still a redhead, had become a personal shopper and had beautifully curated her outfit for the occasion. My dress suddenly seemed dowdy. But, I told myself, she doesn't have a husband and I do.

Oh my God, had I really thought that? I had reacted like an insecure, snarky, mean girl. Even with E. standing stoically by my side, I'd fallen right back into that angst-ridden state that had marked and marred my teenage years.

Turning around, I saw Warren, sporting a deep tan. I'd had a crush on him in junior high school and we even dated for a little while. The high point of our relationship came when he took me to our 9th grade prom. The gardenia wrist corsage he gave me smelled heavenly, but the flower faded fast. Just like our relationship. I had nothing to say to him in junior high, which at the time I thought was my fault. When he greeted me at our 20th the same way he had in the 9th grade — Hey, Barbara baby — I realized that I still had nothing to say to him.

He did look handsome, though, despite having less hair. But I almost felt sad for him when a classmate told me he had taken the day before the reunion off from work so he could go to the beach and perfect his suntan. Who does that? I wondered. But, secretly, I knew — I did. Like Warren, I wanted to look perfect for the reunion, or at least as good as I had in high school. And I wanted to convince everyone that I had turned out well.

That's when having E. with me really helped. It reminded me that I actually had turned out okay and, furthermore, that I'd found someone I could talk to, someone who was smart, kind, and loving. He even had all his hair!

Despite my alarming regression into teenage angst, I was glad I'd attended my 20th. I had genuinely wanted to see Ronnie, Ellie, and Andi again. I'd been curious how they'd turned out. And I had enjoyed introducing E. to them and to many other classmates he'd heard about.

Vintage jacket at sported
at the South Side 50th.
Nevertheless, I skipped my next high school reunion, the 40th. I felt I'd satisfied my curiosity at my 20th and didn't feel the need to rekindle old relationships. But when the invite to my 50th arrived, I agonized about whether or not to go. If I did, it would be without E. We both agreed that he wouldn't enjoy it, so I'd be on my own.

It had been thirty years since I'd seen most of my classmates. It seemed like another life. Yet, I found myself wondering about them, just a little. How had they aged? What were they up to? Would they still seem like the people I once knew? I wasn't sure I wanted to find out.

One of my classmates emailed me and tried to convince me to attend. He even procured the list of those who had registered for the event — fewer than 60 people from a class of 300. Where were the others? They couldn't all have died, could they? Maybe they, like me, felt disconnected from that long-ago time. I decided that I preferred to remember my classmates, fondly, as they'd been back then, and elected not to go.

Just yesterday, the classmate who tried to persuade me to attend the reunion emailed me again. He sent photographs of the event and even included a "cheat sheet," so I could figure out who all those old people were. I didn't need it to recognize Ronnie, with her dimple still intact, Ellie, looking sweet as always, and Andi, in a glamorous black dress. It was great fun seeing the pictures and it almost made me wish I'd been there. But not with a runny nose and an ugly stye.


Monday, November 20, 2017

The (Very) Dark Side of Technology

Just when I thought I'd captured the market on worrying, E. sent me a video that makes my anxieties seem trivial. The video was created by Stuart Russell, a professor at UC Berkeley, in collaboration with the Future of Life Institute. It was shown earlier this month in Geneva, Switzerland at a United Nations meeting of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. The video presents a grim fantasy about the unintended consequences of developing weaponized drones that use artificial intelligence. It's meant to scare the sh*t out of us and, for me at least, it worked.

Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, even nuclear war pale in comparison to the dystopian future pictured in the video. Okay, nuclear war can't really pale in comparison to anything, but this scenario is about as close as it gets.

The first drone I saw up close, during the innocent 
days when small drones were only used for things 
like real estate photography.
While technology has increased our ability to do good, some people inevitably seek to exploit it for evil ends. E. and I often speculate about the coming rise of machines and we wonder whether artificial intelligence will take over the world. Sometimes I even imagine that, given the destructive history of our species, machines would do a better job.

The video, though, pictures a world where humans are still in charge, one in which terrorists appropriate technology originally intended for fighting criminals and use it to further their malevolent goals. Professor Russell hopes the video will galvanize the world into action to prevent the scenario it depicts. But he cautions that time is running out.

Watch the video if you dare. And on Thanksgiving day, be thankful that the murderous drones depicted in it haven't been unleashed, yet.


Monday, November 13, 2017

Coconuts

Long before I ever imagined living in a place called Coconut Grove, I heard an unfortunate story about a coconut. It was told to me by Herb, a family friend, and it came to mind recently, as I gazed at the coconut palms still standing on my hurricane-ravaged island.

I was visiting my parents, who lived in Boca Raton. I had arrived a few days earlier from mid-winter Boston after a nasty bout with the flu. Herb, who lived nearby, had come over to say hello. I told him how wonderful Florida's warm, humid air felt and mentioned that I had been especially enjoying evening strolls under the palm trees in my parents' neighborhood.

"Be careful about the coconut palms," said Herb. "A friend of mine was taking a walk and a coconut fell on his head and killed him."

Not a reassuring story for a worrier like me. It had never occurred to me to fret about walking under palm trees. But Herb's cautionary tale stayed with me. His friend's death seemed like a particularly embarrassing way to go — one minute you're living in an earthly paradise, the next you're done in by a coconut.

*   *   *

The island where I live has many coconut palms. As I detailed in my last post, virtually all of them survived Hurricane Irma. So did the bunches of coconuts hanging from each tree, and they have continued to grow and ripen during the weeks since the hurricane. Normally, the landscape crew that takes care of the island removes the ripening fruit before it can reach the stage where a gust of wind or its own weight could bring it down, but with so much cleanup needed after the storm, coconut removal apparently hasn't been a priority. Individual coconuts have begun falling to the ground, causing me to worry that even a gentle breeze might send one flying in my direction.

At first, during my daily walks, when I approached a stand of coconut palms overhanging the path, I would lean my head back to see if anything was about to fall on me. Not a brilliant approach, since anything that did fall would then smash me in the face, an even worse fate than being beaned on the top of my head. So, for the past few days, when in the vicinity of hanging coconuts, I've taken to walking with both hands on my head. This detracts from the impression I'd like to give my fellow residents — that I'm a laidback sophisticate from up north — but I'm hoping it will diminish the impact of a fallen fruit on my skull.

A few days ago, attempting nonchalance, I mentioned the coconut situation to a neighbor and was relieved to learn that I wasn't the only one who had noticed the coconuts and worried about them. According to my neighbor, the condo's landscape committee had asked the landscape crew to remove them as soon as possible.

This morning, the crew arrived with two bucket trucks and began working on the palm trees. Inexplicably, they've chosen to start by removing dead fronds from the palm trees that line the road through the community even though those are not coconut palms and pose no threat to walkers. Still, I'm not complaining — only a few more days of walking with my hands on my head and I should be able to relax.

Note: Click on the photos to enlarge them.