For Halloween: The Great Pumpkin

great pumpkin

“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” was one of the first televised Peanuts specials, and one of the best. Here are a few selected scenes dealing with Linus’s misguided belief in the Great Pumpkin (who will only rise from the most sincere pumpkin patch in the world), and Sally’s reaction when she realized that she’s wasted her whole Halloween evening.


High-tech medicine

high tech medicine

My father’s radiation therapy in the mid-1970s was really brutal. It scorched his entire torso, and it did no good anyway, as his cancer was far too advanced.

My mother’s 1990s chemotherapy in the 1990s was much milder. She was only nauseous a few times. Taxol made her hair fall out, which really stunned her; I think it was the worst thing about the treatment for her. But the chemo extended her life considerably, without much affecting her quality of life.

And now it’s twenty years later, and I’m doing a tandem combination of radiation and chemotherapy. The radiation is directed straight at my left tonsil; after the first few treatments, I haven’t noticed many ill effects, apart from a little neck soreness/stiffness. The first few chemo treatments were similarly mild (apart from a little nausea and fatigue).

When I go in for radiation, I lie on the table and let the nurses fasten on my Radiation Mask:




They also give me a plastic hoop to grip with both hands, so I don’t flail my arms too much. The treatment is about ten minutes long; the machine makes all kinds of space-age humming and beeping noises. Then the attendant comes in and unbuckles me.

My mind wanders during the treatment. Early on, I found myself thinking about the plastic hoop. It’s ridged, and slightly flexible –

When the attendant came in to unbuckle me, I handed her the hoop and said: “This is a dog toy, isn’t it?”

She chuckled. “Yep. The medical version costs a hundred and fifty dollars. I bought that one at Petco for seven ninety-five.”

File this one under “health care costs,” and “high-tech medicine,” and probably under “human ingenuity.”

Pity the poor dog going without his toy. But it’s in the name of medicine, after all.

Woof woof!

Smoking, take two

smoking take  two

(Note: this is a rewrite of a blog I wrote back in 2011, with maybe a few updates, in the light of recent events.)



Both my parents smoked. I have distinct memories of sitting in the front seat of our family car, with my father in the driver’s seat on my left and my mother sitting to my right, both of them puffing away, the ashtray overflowing. I couldn’t breathe. I finally spoke up about it when I was about nine or ten years, and it actually inspired my mother to quit smoking.



This, however, didn’t stop me from taking up the habit myself. I got a free sample of Lucky Strikes at Fenway Park in 1983; I smoked one or two of them; soon after I was in Morocco, and smoking a pack a day; soon after that I was in Tunisia and smoking two packs a day.



I kept this up until 1998. Remembering the family proclivity for cancer, I resolved to quite when I was forty, and I managed it, just a few months shy of my forty-first birthday.



I have been reasonably healthy on and off since.



And now, fifteen years later, I discover that I have throat cancer, the main risk factor for which is – ahem – smoking.



Go figure.



I freely acknowledge that it’s my own fault. I knew there were bad genes on both sides of the family, and I knew that smoking could only be bad for me. But I kept it up for fourteen years.



Foolish, naturally. Most of those fourteen years between ’84 and ‘98, I was just smoking out of habit; I even (as do most smokers) kept it up while I was sick with colds and the flu. I even smoked at meals. I was smelly and utterly obnoxious, and probably nearly burned myself to death more than once. I realize that now.



But I remember one beautiful morning in Tunis, before I developed my two-pack-a-day habit. I left the house around 8am, bought a pack of local cigarettes, lit up, and –



That first puff was heaven.



So it wasn’t all bad.



But it probably wasn’t worth getting cancer for.


The Visigoth crowns in the Cluny Museum


For a long time I only knew the Visigoth crowns from a poem by Elinor Wylie, which a friend recently quoted to me:

I cannot give you the Metropolitan Tower;
I cannot give you heaven;
Nor the nine Visigoth crowns in the Cluny Museum;
Nor happiness, even.

When Partner and I were in Paris last October, I noticed that the Cluny Museum was very close to our hotel. We went there on our last full day in Paris. It’s an old building with a Roman foundation; there are lots of old relics from the days when Paris was called Lutetia. As you ascend through the building, you find all manner of other works of art: later Roman, Dark Ages, Holy Roman Empire, medieval France.

And among those works of art are the Visigoth crowns.

They are not big chunky Burger-King style crowns in the Halloween-costume sense. They are delicate circlets encrusted with sapphires and pearls and other polished stones, festooned with slender strands of gold. (I counted only eight of them, and was a little disappointed. Then I learned that the ninth, the crown of King Suinthila, was stolen in 1921 and has never been found again.)

They were never meant to be worn; they were to be hung above a church’s altar, as a symbol of royalty. With a little modification, however, they would look like something an Elf might have worn in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

I want lots of things from museums the world over. I want Suzanne Valadon’s portrait of Erik Satie, which hangs in the Modern Art Museum in Paris (though I’ve never seen it in person). I want the Salomon Ruysdael waterscape that hangs in the RISD Museum only a few blocks from our apartment here. I want Ilya Repin’s gorily tragic “Ivan the Terrible and His Son” from the Tretyakov in Moscow, which would look nice over the sofa. I want a Rembrandt here and a Koons there, and a couple of the Monets from the Metropolitan in New York. Also I might throw in a couple of the Unicorn tapestries from the Cloisters, and I wouldn’t mind the Bayeux Tapestry (if only I had a room big enough to display it in).

But I think I would trade all of the above for one – just one! – of the Visigoth crowns from the Cluny Museum.

Is that so much to ask?

For Sunday: Maria’s dance from “Metropolis” (1927)

marias dance metropolis

Metropolis” is one of my favorite movies. It’s a wild science-fiction romp from 1927; it’s silent, but you can now see it with its original musical score, which is very expressive.

Here’s the plot: the city of Metropolis is divided between the lofty towers of the rich and powerful and the dark underground cities of the workers. A woman named Maria (played luminously by Brigitte Helm) is preaching to the workers and telling them to expect a “mediator.” The dictator of Metropolis, in an attempt to stop Maria, asks crazy Doctor Rotwang to create a evil robot replica of Maria; the robot proceeds a) to stir up all kinds of discord in the underground cities, and b) to dance at Yoshiwara, the hippest nightclub in the tower city, and drive all the upscale men insane with lust.

This is the false Maria’s dance. It’s beyond amazing. (Just so you know: the young man in bed is the true Maria’s boyfriend (who also happens  to be the dictator’s son), having visions of the Apocalypse.)





Providence is full of ivy. Brown University is Ivy League, after all, and there’s English ivy (Hedera helix) growing all over the place. A friend of mine, freshly arrived in Providence from Montana, plucked some ivy leaves off the wall and mailed them to her family and friends in Billings, to underline the reality of where she was.

Ivy wants to go up, away from the ground, against gravity. There’s a nearby building with two ivy tendrils curling up its walls like arms outspread. And up up up they go!

I always think of my mother when I see ivy. When my father built our new house in the early 1960s, my mother decided that she liked ivy, and planted shoots of it all along the north side of the house and along the roadside.

Those shoots were stubborn. They didn’t die, but they didn’t grow. A few leaves stuck out of the ground, year after year. And then, after five years or so –

They exploded.

The entire north side of the house was engulfed with ivy. And do you know what ivy does to the side of a house, especially one with wooden shingles? It chews it up, om nom nom. If you try to pull the ivy down, you rip away half of the wooden shingles at the same time, and you reveal the dark mottling that the ivy has produced on its way up the wall.

Mom got her wish, and how! But she wasn’t happy that her plan had gone beyond expectations. She managed to get most of it off the shingles, and she repainted, but she couldn’t get the ivy off the brickwork. This picture, taken in May 1971, shows the ivy covering the exposed brickwork:


Moms house

It looks nice, doesn’t it? Nice rhododendrons in front of the house, and a nice ivy-covered chimney.

But Mom was watching that ivy every moment, to make sure it didn’t leap onto the wooden shingles again.

Ivy is aggressive.

And now, a song:

The power of getting away

power of getting away

“The Power of Getting Away” was the spectacular title of a blog written by my Australian blogmate Attila Ovari not long ago. The drift of his blog was: How often do you detach yourself from your regular routine – the office, the news, national politics – and just think about yourself and your family and your own needs and wants?

But, to me, the title suggests so much more than that.

Getting away. O dear. If only we were able to get away – to escape from our lives and “forget for a while” (in JRR Tolkien’s words) “the dreadful doom of life.”

To bury our heads in the covers and sleep for another hour, or two, or ten.

To call in sick to work for a day, or a week, or a couple of years.

In a word: when something which is (presumably) overpoweringly powerful requests your presence, to be able to say “no.”

Best of all, I think, was the late Rue McClanahan’s comment on the TV show “Maude” many years ago (I paraphrase, probably badly): “When it’s my time to die, I’m going to be somewhere else.”

I want to be elsewhere when it’s my time too, if that’s at all possible.

Young adult fiction

young adult

“How did you spend your weekend?” Apollonia asked. “Gambling? Moping?”

“Mostly moping,” I said. “Also reading young-adult fiction.”

She roared with laughter. She, of all people, knows what I mean. Apollonia is the world’s most tragically obsessed Twihard, and would happily pluck a leftover egg-salad sandwich out of the garbage and eat it, if there were any chance it had been gnawed on by Robert Pattinson. It goes without saying that she knows the Stephenie Meyer books by heart, the way Islamic clerics know the Koran.

Naturally all of us read the Harry Potter books, though they were “too young for us.” Why? Because they were well-told stories, and entertaining, and full of conflict on every level. They ask questions like: why is my family (and Professor Snape, for that matter) so mean to me? Why won’t Hermione and Ron realize they love one another? Why is Lord Voldemort trying to kill me? Also, the novels funny and colorful and full of incident. (There are some dull patches – the middle third of “Deathly Hallows,” in which Ron and Harry and Hermione wander around in the wilderness and snipe at each other, was pretty deathly itself – but overall these books move pretty briskly. And who doesn’t like a six-hundred page book that moves along briskly?)

Also, some years ago, I discovered Diane Duane’s “So You Want to Be A Wizard” series, which is serious fun. Who doesn’t want to be a teenage wizard? You get to save the planet, and sometimes the entire galaxy, over and over again. You get to meet interesting people like the Archangel Michael and Satan. And Diane Duane can really write; she’s light-years ahead of Meyer, and I think she writes more fluently than Rowling. Naturally you really ought to read the books in order, but I didn’t, and I don’t think I missed out too much. I especially like “A Wizard Abroad,” in which a New York girl (and secret wizard) is sent off to Ireland to visit relatives, and ends up discovering an entire world of Celtic folklore, helps to reenact the Battle of Moytura, and (incidentally) saves the world one more time. (Diane Duane also maintains a great Tumblr in which she interacts with readers and fans – I don’t know how she finds the time – and is very obviously a funny and generous person. This makes me like her writing even more.)

And if you still find yourself with time on your hands, try Rick Riordan’s Greek-mythology series – the five novels of “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” and the three novels of “Heroes of Olympus” he’s published for far. (The fourth, “The House of Hades,” is due out around the time that this blog is to be published; the series is set to conclude a year from now.) These are reimaginings of Greek and Roman myths, set in modern America; they’re goofier than the “Wizard” books, and the humor can be juvenile, but the stories are gripping (let’s face it, Greek mythology is good source material), and there are some nice touches. (If you saw the first movie based on the series, “The Lightning Thief,” rest assured that the books are much better.)

I could go on. Do Tove Jansson’s Moomin books count as Young Adult? Parts of them skew a little young (even for me!), but I love them anyway.

J. R. R. Tolkien said it best, in his essay “On Fairy-Stories”:

In describing a fairy-story which they think adults might possibly read for their own entertainment, reviewers frequently indulge in such waggeries as: “this book is for children from the ages of six to sixty.” But I have never yet seen the puff of a new motor-model that began thus: “this toy will amuse infants from seventeen to seventy”; though that to my mind would be much more appropriate. Is there any essential connexion between children and fairy-stories? Is there any call for comment, if an adult reads them for himself? . . .



stinkhorn 1

Now and then, growing out of the mulch in front of my office building, there’s an outcropping of the most amazing mushrooms:


stinkhorn 2

“What in the hell are they?” Apollonia squealed when I pointed the latest batch, which (as you can see) are especially evil and healthy-looking. “They smell rotten. Can’t you smell them?”



“Not a thing,” I said. (To be fair, I have a terrible sense of smell.) “And they’re beautiful. What colors!”



I looked them up later. They are stinkhorns. (I always thought “stinkhorn” was Apollonia’s maiden name.) They stake out lawns and driveways, and keep coming back forever once they’ve established themselves. They are Phallaceae, and if you look at the above picture, the name will probably make sense to you. There are many horrifying variants, but ours are Mutinus caninus, the “dog stinkhorn,” and maybe the “dog” part will make sense to you too if you look at the picture again. Stinkhorns are gooey and disgusting on purpose. They attract bugs with their smell and nasty texture, and the flies and ants carry the spores around. They start as an egglike growth like a puffball, and then – in just a few hours – they manifest their adult form. Here’s a time-lapse film of twenty hours in the life of a dog stinkhorn:





Nature is trying to send us a message through organisms like these.



But what’s the message, do you suppose?


Sweet are the uses of adversity

uses of adversity

I am ailing. This is a shame. But there’s no reason I can’t get some benefit from it.

Once in a while, when talking to people, I just touch the side of my neck (where my tumor is) with people who know about my illness, and they become much more agreeable right away.

This is awful of me, I know. But what would a bad thing like cancer be without some positive side?

People are afraid of illness generally. A lot of people are unfamiliar with cancer altogether. One of my coworkers asked me the other day: “What would happen if you didn’t do any treatment at all?” (I had to explain to him that cancer is a death sentence if not treated; mine would probably metastasize to my jawbone and lungs, and I would die a very painful death within a few years at most. His jaw dropped, and his eyes were like saucers. He obviously had no idea it was that bad. Apparently he thought that cancer was like a bad cold – nasty, but you get over it eventually.)

People at work (who know about my condition) treat me with respect, for the most part. I don’t deserve it – I’m a horrible person in general – but then again, I’ve been in the office for over twenty-five years, and I deserve respect for my seniority if not for anything else. If it takes the realization that I’m seriously ill to make them pay attention, then so be it.

I love being treated seriously.

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