An early valentine to a good writer and a true friend

IMG_1154This is the typewriter that was used to write the best ending in all children’s literature:

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. 

Charlotte was both.”

E.B. White,  my creative hero, wrote those words in 1952.  His writing style is what I aspire to, every day: clear, concise, concrete.  I like him for his insistence on using the right word–which, often as not, isn’t the fanciest word. That works for me, since I come up a little short in the fancy words department.  I keep my copy of his classic text, Elements of Style, in the downstairs bathroom, for remembering bits of wisdom I may have forgotten.  I love that he concluded his classic children’s story, Charlotte’s Web, with those sentences, those words, simple and true.

True friends and good writers.  When you find them, you do your best to keep them.

I am lucky to tell you that, like Wilbur the pig of Charlotte’s Web fame, I have had a few people come along in my life who are true friends and good writers.  But the person most delightfully and unexpectedly in this collective category is my friend Julie Zickefoose.

Our friendship began, sort of, as we were just getting started in college, when she and my best first college friend and future roommate took a couple of courses together.  Truth be told, Julie and I remained in that “friends of friends” category until we each rediscovered one another decades later, through our 25th reunion class reports–those updates that can be anything from pure professional puffery to extended updates on the progeny, to, every now and then, little expository jewels.  Hers was the latter, a shining bit of prose.  I read it and was reminded of the country girl in Harvard Yard, the classmate with feathers in her cap, who camped out under the enormous yews by Memorial Church, just for the delight of sleeping under the stars.  I read her 25th report and I remembered my freshman year regret, that I hadn’t taken the courses she and my roomie-to-be took, during that formative first semester.

IMG_1169My friend JZ, circa 1977.

While I’ve been living down the street from my college haunts for nearly all my adult life, it turned out that Julie hadn’t been back since our graduation day, way back when.  After reading her heartfelt missive, I was hopeful that she might return for our reunion jubilee.  And when I spotted her at an opening event, up in the balcony as was her wont, with her tow-headed son and  red-headed daughter, I knew we needed to kindle our little connection, just then.

Which, lucky for me, we did.

Fast forward a decade (help!) and here we are, with our 35th reunion bearing down on us.  I know much more about this amazing woman now than I did back then–that her talents are so vast, her humor so infective, her way of making informed naturalists out of anyone she crosses paths with–she is, quite simply, one of the most gifted people I know.  Writer, artist, musician, wild animal rescuer, bluebird protector, NPR commentator, author of two glorious books of her perfect essays and her  extraordinary art (with another book being birthed as I type), blogger extraordinare, nature trip leader, old fashioned mile-high-pie aficionado–the list is seemingly endless.  She is a true renaissance woman.

IMG_1141The first of her amazing collections of essays and art. This book took my breath away.

That Julie finds me worth hearing from and paying attention to is beyond my ken, truth be told.  Most of what she’s amazing at, I weigh in at low-intermediate, at best.  But, lucky for me, she’s the kind of friend that  likes to nudge the people around her to expand their horizons, to redefine their realms.  I’ve been a lucky recipient of some JZ nudges.

IMG_1142I’m a decent noticer.  But Julie’s powers of observation make mine pale in comparison. Julie sees things like nobody’s business.  Then she puts pen and paintbrush to paper, and gives us things like this.  Just transcendent, what she can do.

IMG_1140This is what the home page of JZ’s blog looks like.  It’s a treasure, this blog.  You can find it at http://www.juliezickefoose.blogspot.com

Case in point: that I blog, at all.  I don’t think I would have embarked on this journey, had I not had JZ’s example of how it can be done. Somehow, I knew that once I’d decided to find a place in the cybersphere for my inner circle to check in and see how I was doing, back in the bad mammogram days, I knew this would be the format, and JZ’s example would provide me with my template.  Tell the story, add some visuals, share what needs sharing.

* * * * *

Two years later, it should not have surprised me that Julie had been reading my posts with an eye to snagging what might make good copy for her husband’s family’s collective labor of love: Bird Watcher’s Digest.  BWD truly is a home grown enterprise, filled with birding lore and birding tips and birding adoration.  You can’t pick up a copy and leaf through and not be mesmerized by the gifts of love that every page represents. That Julie’s art often graces the covers is a glorious bonus.

IMG_1138See those owls? They’re my Fresh Pond screech owls. Oh, and I own the original art.

Am I lucky, or what?

But really, who else would believe that a blog post of mine, titled “Note To Self: Be Less Snarky,” might make good BWD copy?  JZ was convinced it would, so that was that.  She not only nudged me to agree, but she got me to overcome my hatred of the sound of my own voice, as she walked me through some tricks that I never knew my phone had up its sleeve.  And with that, BWD offers up our little article in audio form, as well as in print.  She didn’t even mind that I talk too fast!  Well, that, or she and her clever tech elves at BWD know how to slow me down, if only digitally.

IMG_1139Here’s the list that begat my snark, that turned into JZ’s delight, that made me see the error of my sarcastic ways and reminded me to be grateful for all the teachers in this world, Julie and Bob Stymiest in particular.  They make the world a better place. I have much to learn from them.

* * * * *

So, folks, I’m there, on the pages of the current issue (Jan/Feb 2015) of Bird Watcher’s Digest.  It’s a sweet little publication, which I seriously doubt you’ll be able to find at your local newsstand.  I suggest you hop on over to the BWD website, http://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/bwdsite/  From there you can get to a free issue preview.  Better yet, from there you can order yourself a subscription to this little homegrown oeuvre of the publishing world.  And after you’ve got one for yourself, order one for everyone you love, even if they may be only vaguely aware of the pigeons and sparrows that we share our world with.  It will be a gift that keeps on giving, I promise.

And to the woman I’m delighted to call my friend, thank you, dear Zick.  You are the very, very best.

 IMG_1144Every one of us has a “spark” bird, the one we saw that stopped us in our tracks, that made us seek out the beauty in the avian world.  This one, the scarlet tanager, was mine.

 

 

 

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January perambulations. Or, how not to write a post.

IMG_0222Happy New Year, and goodbye to a blog draft whose time had come and gone, and whose subject matter was not worth resurrecting .

Spoiler alert for anyone who thinks I’m vaguely good at this writing/blogging thing.  What follows, I’m sad to say, is completely true.

Honest to goodness, I had a post ready to roll last week, and I was all ready to click on “Publish.” Then I decided to add a picture.  From there I ran into technical difficulties, and attempted to close everything down and start over (because, after all, that’s what works.) Then I saved my draft, or at least I thought I had.  Then my computer asked me, “Are you sure you want to do this?” (Note to self: check back to see what you’ve asked your computer to do next time this query pops up.)  Then I blithely clicked on “Yes,” and proceeded to power everything down.  Five minutes later,  fresh cup of coffee in hand, I turned my computer back on, and went to pop that photo into my post–argh!–only to discover that my draft had vanished.  Well, there was the sketch of an outline that I’d saved two days before, but the well crafted, honed, holding two thoughts in my head at the same time final draft?  Lost to the cybersphere.

Which I then tried to recreate.  The beginning was there, sort of.  I’d revised what followed enough times that I knew what went where, mostly.  I fumbled along, determined that I needed to breathe life into this ghost of a post.  Why?  Timing, and time was running out.  It was a Here We Are in January post, a Stopping and Taking Stock post, a Boy, Do I Ever Suck at New Year’s Resolutions post.  Then it veered into a Home Alone post, because that’s what I’ve been for the past two weeks.

Truth be told, I saved you all from an exercise in rationalization.  “No, really, these subjects belong together!” I was trying to convince myself.  Well, probably not.  So I did the really hard thing for writers to do: I killed my darling, that pretzel of a post.  It’s what I had to do, and I knew it.

Here’s one thing I know for sure: when I write, I tend to overload.  I often have multiple concepts that  seem to match up.  I always start out down the path of More is Better, and it always takes me awhile to get to More is Probably Just Unnecessarily Complicated.  Or, at the very least, More is really two subjects, and two posts.

So, I adjusted my hat and resumed my blog writing journey.  And  along the way, I’ve taken a whole bunch of walks around My Fair City.  Which is a good thing to do for many reasons, not the least of which is because my perambulations are often where I do my best editing.  It’s where I was when I knew I needed to head home, click on delete, and start over.

Here’s just a little bit of what else I saw and pondered, along the way:

IMG_0653Most of my walks begin by heading towards Harvard Square.  This past couple of weeks, I’ve been spending more time setting off towards Somerville.  First favorite graphic along the way is always this sign, just a few blocks from home.  I love the dress dancing with the tux. I love the body language in those two hangers.  Makes me smile every time I walk by.

IMG_0654How had I missed this season’s greetings ?  Fantastic!

IMG_0657Just beyond Kirkland Cleaners, Cambridge turns into Somerville, and Kirkland Street turns into Washington Street.  The Biscuit building has had many iterations in the three decades we’ve lived nearby. We still have two grad student-era wooden chairs that we bought there in about 1981.  Whatever goes on inside this storefront, the Italianate brackets keep lending their support.

And once you notice one…

IMG_0747They’re everywhere.

IMG_0660In all different shapes.

IMG_0725And all different colors.

Silly me.  I thought Cambridgeport, the section of My Fair City that lies between Central Square and the Charles River, was the capital of fantastic front porch brackets.  Since I’m far more often in my car than on foot, zipping along Somerville’s Beacon Street (which morphs into Hampshire Street), I’d been missing these beauties.  It’s amazing what you don’t see when you’re behind the wheel.

IMG_0679This I had noticed as I drove by.  It always made me think, “One of these days, I need to stop and take some pictures.”  It took a walk to a midday matinee of Into The Woods in Kendall Square to make this opportunity happen.  This is the sort of thing that I’m far more likely to do when I’m home alone, though I’m not sure why.

IMG_0682Once upon a time, this storefront offered great pottery and mosaics. Now it’s a yoga and art center.

IMG_0681It’s as if this little strip of front stoop mosaics jumped the sidewalk and crawled up that lightpost.

IMG_0683A gifted glass artist I follow on Instagram, @nutmegdesigns, commented to me that she likes to find “mosaics in the wild.”  Which is exactly what these are! Love that concept.

IMG_0731This is from the elegant Inman Square fire station.  You definitely have to be on foot to fully appreciate these bas-reliefs, as this is just one of three.  Together they provide a visual history of firefighting, and of the brave people who fight fires.  Along with their speedy horses.

IMG_0718Mayor Vellucci watches over the comings and goings of Inman Square.  He also has a spot at the table in the S&S Deli mural across the street.  He was famous, back in my college days, for wishing aloud that he could pave over Harvard Yard and use it for parking.  Or pahking, as the phrase goes.

IMG_0722Abandoned Christmas Trees were everywhere, during my post-holiday walks.  I couldn’t help but wonder what an individual dropped in from another culture might have thought these represented.  My college senior son says they’d probably have looked around to see where the stumps were, and wondered about that…

* * * * *

So, I’ve had time alone to wander the streets of my fair cities, and ponder what my 2015 plans might be.  I’ve delved into some of those moving boxes that I’d been putting off dealing with until later.  I’ve watched movies at odd times and woken up and read in bed in the middle of the night.  I’ve eaten Brussels sprouts and string beans for dinner, and I’ve made some sense of my grand Face the Music To-Do list.  After a year of things that I had to get through, as soon as, as soon as, as soon as, now I’m ready to forge ahead on my own agenda.  Until life interrupts, anyhow.  I’ll let you in on my objectives as they unfold.  If they unfold.  Stay tuned.

As for that post that got cyber-deep-sixed, here’s all you need to know: I’m doing reasonably well on my Go To Bed By 10:30PM New Year’s resolution, and  I’ve got a perfect score on my  Eat An Apple a Day effort.  Keeping it real, taking baby steps, hoping for other good behaviors to fall into place.  We’ll see how it goes.

IMG_0719Crossroads, here we come.

And tomorrow?  Welcome home, my beloved.

Boyhood to manhood, on the screen and in real life.

IMG_0288The first sunset of 2015, as observed driving south on I-95 from Maine.

Okay, here we are, first week of 2015, and back to something approaching normalcy.  Which in my case means being back at home, while my sweetie and the young men in my life (two sons, one nephew) have all returned to their regularly scheduled programming.  Well, Mr. College Senior is still around, but since his dorm is a short walk from home, and since both his sleeping venues are pretty much equidistant from most of his January break activities, he comes and goes at will.  And that works out just fine.  So, yes, this first week of January finds us all back to something approaching our ordinary, everyday lives.

And now, a confession: Upon returning home, whether it be from a weekend up north or a fortnight of holiday traveling hither and yon, I always like to carve out time for some a little audio/visual catching up.  Whatever I might have missed from The Daily Show or The Good Wife or Downton Abbey, whatever movie I meant to get to that’s about to disappear from the OnDemand stream, that’s my dirty little Monday re-entry habit.

But yesterday, on the first Monday back of the new year, two items competed for my online attention.  The first was Boyhood, a film which has been getting lots of Oscar buzz, and which I missed out on, back when it was in theaters. The second was a string of tragic news updates, about two ski racers who died in an avalanche in Austria. Much as I wanted to look away from those reports, I simply couldn’t.

The young men were US Ski Team hopefuls.  They were at TeamUSA’s  training base in Soelden, and they were enjoying a free ski day.  I’m guessing that the definition of  “free skiing” might be lost on anyone outside the ski racing realm, so here’s a simple explanation: free skiing is what ski racers do for fun, when they’re not racing or training.  Free skiing is pure delight.  Often, the most memorable free skiing happens when there’s simply too much snow to train or race. Which is exactly what a bunch of joyful American ski racers were up to, on a snowy day in the alps.

I don’t know what happened, beyond the fact that a slide was triggered and two individuals were caught in it. I do know that they were world-class athletes–strong, gifted, and exceedingly talented.  I know for certain they were doing what they love to do. Beyond that, I cannot account for how or why such horrific bad luck visited upon these young men.

I first learned from an Instagram post that a 19-year-old  ski racer from Utah had lost his life, and that he was one of two who had died.  I did a quick Google news search to find out who the other might be. A name popped up. My heart stopped.

The second young man was a young classmate of my older son.  His father and mother ski raced with my beloved and me, back before we all became ski racing parents.  His dad and I served together on our kids’ ski academy board of trustees. His son was recent graduate, a bright and rising star, hard working and well liked.  He loved his sport, and he put his all into it.  He delighted the people around him with his infectious humor, and with his genuine appreciation for the life he led.  He was looking forward to forerunning the speed events at the World Championships in Colorado, next month.

It hit me hard, this tragic news.  You don’t want it to happen to anyone, ever, for starters. Then you don’t want it to happen to someone you know, or someone your kids might know.  When it does happen, and the name jumps off the screen at you, it knocks you for a loop.  Like an avalanche, I suspect.  It took my breath away.

* * * * *

I ended up watching Boyhood in fits and starts over the course of last evening, and finished it up before breakfast this morning.  For any of you who aren’t familiar with it, Boyhood is, to say the least, a work of extreme film making.  The movie’s epic tale takes place over twelve years, and the scenes were shot over the same decade-plus time frame.  Twelve years of scenes and dialogue, filmed in annual snatches.  Twelve years of growing up and growing older, for the characters and actors alike.  The movie is an homage to the inexorable passage of time, framed within a screenplay fiction.

While all the characters emerge older and wiser by the movie’s end, it was the young actor, Ellar Coltrane, who most mesmerizingly evolved before my eyes.  Watching him morph from a sweet, red-cheeked grade school boy to a lanky, soulful college man, without older actors standing in for him as the story’s fictional time passes, was a source of fascination, all on its own.  In truth, the act of observing Ellar, the actor, and Madison, his character, unfurling through their co-joined adolescence made me a little uncomfortable. It’s hard not to feel like a peeping Tom, hard to not be vividly reminded that the boy on the screen really is a year older now than he was, just one scene ago.

By Boyhood’s end, our hero has learned many lessons, recovered from aching losses and survived senseless trials.  Thankfully, he’s also made it to a place where he just might thrive, just might finally make his own breakthroughs.  Boyhood ends with this boy-turned-man at the brink of adulthood, with much to look forward to.  As the credits roll, I couldn’t help but wonder: What next?  Both for the character, and for the young man who so nobly played him?

And from there, I couldn’t help but wonder what happens next, for parents of the skiers who have vanished from this world, at such a similar juncture in their young lives.  They raised their boys and launched young men, imbued with talents and hopes and dreams. I’m guessing both moms and both dads thought they’d made it through what has to be the hardest part–the adolescent, bad-judgement, peer-pressure-laden scary parenting phase. I imagine them wondering what might happen next for their talented sons, just two days ago, confident that their young men had so much more living to do.  I suspect they must have been expecting that there would be much more to cheer for, in their sons’ lives.

It’s what we all do, after all.  We raise our children from diapers to sippy cups to college apps and beyond. Then we stand by as they go out on their own, knowing that even if we wanted, our hands-on nurturing days are over.  We presume their growing up was prologue, that what they will be, who they are turning into, is still very much to come.  It’s almost impossible to imagine that it could end, so abruptly, so much too soon.

I probably would have gotten teary, watching Boyhood, whether I’d watched it today, or yesterday, or the even day before.  But watching last night and early this morning, I couldn’t help but ache for the parents of those bright alpine stars, their lives ended just as they were so full of hope and expectations, so ready to discover the answer to the “What next?” question.  My heart will long ache for those parents, those families.

As for my own twentysomething sons, I realize that I have been restricted to cheering from the sidelines for a number of years, and that I have to trust that my sons will blaze their own routes to meaningful lives.  But after yesterday, I find myself carrying a little extra bit of extra hopefulness, something approaching prayerfulness, on my sons’ behalf.  My fervent wish, to whoever or whatever might be running the show, is, simply, this:  Please keep my sons safe from circumstances beyond anyone’s control, from perfect storms that veer to the tragic, and from rotten bad luck.  Keep them safe, and let them live long enough to find out who they are meant to become.  And please, never let me forget to savor the joy in the ordinary, everyday gift of the time I get to spend with them, with its promise, if not its guarantee, of more to come.