hearing-30097_1280.pngWhen I first began to wear my hearing aids I was amazed at how much I could hear. More people said hello to me in the street than I had realized, quiet murmurings with a friend around the edges of a concert became possible again, the rustle of dry leaves in the wind and underfoot, marking fall, returned. I was back in the world of friendship and warmth, quick jokes and laughter, love. This world also was bangy and clangy. The sounds of pans knocking together in the kitchen had a new ring, like the cymbals in an orchestra. The set of keys in my hand were noisier than I remembered, chattering away to each other while I searched for the right one. The grind of the garbage truck in the street had more layers – several different gears to grind away at paper, garbage, cans and bottles, each advertising itself individually. The little pieces of plastic-coated technology in my ears were bringing me both the beautiful and the ugly. Regaining this complex world of sound had involved a journey through denial, anger over the diminution of my world, and finally the charting of a new, and happier, path.


I had begun wondering about my hearing several years earlier when I found it difficult to hear the soft, light voices of my nieces and watched them contort their faces in the effort to speak to me more loudly. Or when I could not hear a piano playing in a distant room when asked what that piece of music was. I had brushed these lapses aside, thinking they were isolated events and my hearing was fine, for most purposes. Denial is a very convenient defense. But the experience of an evening meeting persuaded me that the time had come to acknowledge my hearing deficit, wrestle with what it was teaching me about the declines of aging, and do something about it.

It was a two-hour meeting; ten people sitting in a lush, comfortable living room, with wine and Brie, discussing how to raise money for a favorite charity. The light was elegantly dim, antiques gleamed, and the 19th century aristocrats on the wall, one by Sargent, seemed part of our group. I found it extremely difficult to hear what was said; words and phrases slid in and out of focus but didn’t add up to full sentences. Granted, the atmosphere encouraged quiet talk; curtains, rugs, and upholstery absorbed sound; and those particular people tended to speak softly, but still, they seemed to be able to hear each other. Later, minutes of the meeting were written and distributed, all agreeing that they were an accurate rendering of what had transpired. I learned the details of that meeting for the first time.

Missing an entire event terrified me. It had been like watching a TV movie with an erratic mute button on. Piecing together what was going on was work; participating, close to impossible. This was not the way I wanted to be in the social world. What else had I been missing? Finally being honest with myself, I recalled other hearing problems – being on edge before social events, wondering if I would be able to figure out what was going on; asking people to repeat or speak louder, which slowed conversation considerably, damping the joy of quick wit; pretending I had heard things, which always left a gaping hole in the conversation I was sure the other person could feel. Denial didn’t work any more. I really couldn’t hear well enough. I wanted my world of sound back.

While hearing loss is a normal part of aging, perhaps made more prevalent by our generation’s immersion in the high-decibel music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones when we were young, it seems to be particularly hard for many people to acknowledge and address. The number of people my age who need words repeated, or spoken more slowly and loudly, is so large as to have become a stereotype. New Yorker cartoonists have made careers poking fun at elderly couples in restaurants, older men standing at bus stops, and pedestrians in Central Park nearly clipped by skateboarders; all oblivious to important messages headed their way.

Members of my generation often look young – hair suspiciously near its original color, dressed in Spanx-enabled slim pants and jackets – and move along briskly thanks to regular exercise and physical therapy. Hearing aids are visible and unambiguous signs of aging, though acoustic engineers are getting better at making them close to invisible. Many of us would rather suffer the embarrassment of not knowing what is going on than wear these devices that shout, “Old. Old.”

The very practical family in which I grew up, and my reaction to it, shaped my process of accepting the need for hearing aids. In my family, issues were dealt with in a rational, practical way, with little attention to the emotional side of things. Our clamor for a cheeseburger at an exotic (for the early 1950’s) roadside stand was rejected in favor of sandwiches when we got home, on the grounds of affordability. Sibling arguments resulted in everyone being sent to their room, with little concern for who really started things. Of course, “little attention to the emotional side of things” left me vulnerable to different problems later, but that’s another story. My family’s orientation did have the advantage of getting on with life, with little muss and fuss. I still have the problem-solving skills I developed then.

As I grew away from my family’s focus on the efficient accomplishment of tasks and focused more on being comfortable in my own skin, I learned how to navigate the world in such way that an inner feeling of wellbeing, as well as the virtue of task-completion, was a state to aim for. I began to value things that made my life fulfilling – time spent writing and deep in good books; long conversations with friends and family; careful listening to music, tracing out the inner harmonies played by oboe and viola. I found ways to minimize time spent on things that did not contribute to my sense of wellbeing. Inconveniently, these included mundane household paperwork, and laundry.

Navigating to maximize a sense of wellbeing requires acknowledging when things are uncomfortable. Denial is not an asset here. When terror after that evening meeting brought to my full attention the unsatisfactory state of the world I was living in, anger at the decline of my hearing translated quickly into the search for improvement. I wanted my world back as quickly as possible and saw hearing aids as much like eye-glasses – one might not want to wear them, but they were useful. The trade-off seemed worth making – wearing a barely visible sign of aging in exchange for getting back my world of sound.

“Costco is the place to buy hearing aids,” advised a friend. It might be true. Unfortunately, the glories of the modern hearing aid are not equally available to all of us. Because of the sophisticated digital technology and miniaturization, prices can range from less than $2,000 a pair to more than $8,000 for a pair with all the bells and whistles. Unfortunately, they usually are not covered by insurance or Medicare, though organizations like AARP and the Veterans Administration offer special discounts. Hearing aids are considered medical devices and require a medical hearing assessment done by an audiologist, which functions like a prescription in customizing the hearing aids. Hearing amplifiers come with pre-set sound profiles rather than settings customized to individual hearing needs. These are very inexpensive and can be purchased over the counter, like reading glasses.

I went for the medium/high-end of hearing aids, on the theory that conversation with family and friends and the nuances of good music were basic for me and I wanted to hear them well. My Phonak hearing aids amplify sounds within about 10 feet, toning down background noise; great for dinners in restaurants, where the clinking of glasses and silverware and guffaws of laughter from two tables away would no longer overwhelm conversation with my friends. They also have special programs I can turn on with the flick of a finger – one for expanding the ten-foot perimeter to amplify live music without distortion, another for dealing with the telephone’s close-up electronic sound waves. The former also allows me to eavesdrop on conversations across the room, a feature I discovered quite by accident at a cocktail party a few months ago when I overheard two women discussing stocks from thirty feet and three conversations away, raising the ethical dilemma of when to use my wonder woman hearing. Being digital, my hearing aids have been programmed to amplify just the frequencies where I need help. If my hearing further deteriorates they can be reprogrammed. Mine also use Wi-Fi, allowing the two hearing aids to operate together as one system, mimicking the way two ears work with the brain to process sound. It is now possible to get hearing aids with Bluetooth wireless technology that streams music and calls from computers, Smartphones, and TVs directly through the hearing aid.

Different brands of hearing aids have slightly different qualities of sound. I chose Phonak because it captures the depth and overtones of sound – a rich mixture that is interesting to listen to. Other brands made sound thinner and sharper. The distinction is like the difference between analog music recordings on vinyl and digital recordings on CD’s. The sound of vinyl is fuller, with more depth. The sound of CD’s is crisp and the notes have sharp edges.

My hearing aids are close to invisible. Vanity has influenced the development of hearing aids for decades. The most primitive form of hearing aid, used for millennia, is the hand cupped around the ear, creating a larger area for catching the sound, and signaling to others that volume is an issue. In the early 17th century sailors held long trumpets to their ears to hear the calls of other sailors on distant vessels. Later, smaller versions of those “ear trumpets” were adapted to help ordinary citizens with hearing loss. Over time, increasingly extreme efforts were made to hide ear trumpets. Furniture makers went so far as to build chairs and couches with sound intake cavities hidden in ornate arms and output cavities hidden in the carving of the upper back, near the ear. This drive toward invisibility was more about hiding the individual’s disability than about helping him cope with his problem. It wasn’t until the 1970’s, with the invention of the microprocessor, that truly small hearing aids became possible and our vanity could be satisfyingly assuaged. In an age of wearable computation, hearing aids of the future might become part of our jewelry, jackets, scarves, or hats.

It turns out that mine was the most common cause of hearing loss – loss of hair follicles in the inner ear that convert sound waves into messages to the brain. This follicle loss first affects the higher frequencies of sound, which accounted for my ability to know that people were speaking but be fuzzier about exactly what they had said. Vowels, which I could hear, consist mainly of low frequencies and, for me, speech was a quiet rumble of largely undifferentiated sound. Consonants consist of high frequencies. It was the consonants giving shape to the words that I couldn’t hear well. In correcting for that my hearing aids were also bringing back to me the higher frequencies of pots and pans, keys, and garbage trucks that I had always heard when my hearing was normal. I have re-adjusted to this noisy world. When I am not wearing the hearing aids the sound of the world is quite muted and, I must say, a bit dull.


My encounter with hearing aids leads me to wonder if I had inadvertently stumbled on a more generally useful strategy for dealing with aging. First, face the facts. Denial at this stage had only trapped me in a diminishing world that it took a dramatic event to shake me out of. Second, absorb the feelings of loss, anger, or fear of inevitable decline, but don’t get stuck. A sense of wellbeing does not lie here. Third, chart a new and happier path with all the inventiveness and energy I can muster.

I now live in a slightly more bangy and clangy world but one that also lets me hear my nieces’ jokes about the dorky guys their age on dating websites and appreciate the edgy music of Prokofiev and Miles Davis. It’s a trade-off, but if I can accept these little pieces of plastic in my ears and the minor inconveniences of managing them, rather than push them away, frightened that they mean “old,” they will bring me the ugly and unpleasant noises of pots and pans and garbage trucks as well as the nurturing sounds of my nieces’ jokes and good music. My hearing aids are bringing me more of both – more of life.

The Cabinetmaker’s Dance – Excerpts

planer-2546225_1920.pngOn a bleak February morning I drove north from Cambridge to Gloucester, MA, headed for John Cameron’s fine furniture workshop. For ten months each year John builds the furniture customers have ordered, on commission. But toward the end of winter, while spring is deciding whether to come to New England, he sets commission work aside and plunges into the annual “spec” piece, an originally designed piece of art furniture to be displayed in craft shows and galleries the following summer.

The rough feel of wood under his hand, and its response to chisel or plane, are always a pleasure to John, but the spec piece is uniquely gratifying. “It’s just so satisfying to see something you’ve conceived of brought to three dimensions. For each one, it’s the first time ever doing the piece, seeing what works. There’s an element of drama, partly because of potential failure, that seems real.” In designing and building the spec piece John pushes his art forward, year by year. His excitement about the artistic and technical challenges of the spec piece echoes that described by sculptors, jewelers, musicians, and others who use their hands as instruments to bring their ideas to life. With their hands and their technical skill they coax out the beauty, and deal with the limitations, of wood, clay, silver, or sound. John’s spec piece this year would be an elegant, contemporary sideboard made of narra, an Indonesian hardwood, with bronze legs. It would first be shown at the juried Smithsonian Craft Show, scheduled for May.

When I arrived at John’s workshop young dog, half husky and half shepherd, startled me with several very loud, but not hostile, barks. Bright and alert, she seemed conflicted, wanting to make friends but a little nervous. John beamed a greeting, his face crinkling upward in friendship. A small man, his hair was short and silver, large wire-rimmed glasses setting off thoughtful blue eyes. He wore sturdy work shoes that protected his feet from mishap, baggy jeans, a green plaid shirt with long sleeves rolled up, and his “glue outfit” – a carpenter’s apron reaching to his ankles and covered with thousands of brown smudges from frequent wipings of gluey fingers.

“This is Savanna,” he said. “She isn’t aggressive, she’s just noisy when people come in. She seems to want assurance that you’re ok to have in her territory.” Savanna provided companionship for John’s solitary work.

John led me into a large workshop where I would spend many hours in coming months observing his work. He pointed me to an orange Eames chair on wheels, positioned so that I could stay clear of his work but still see. He apologized that the room was dirty. I discovered this for myself later that night when I pulled my sweater over my head and a small cloud of wood dust flew into my Cambridge apartment. Lesson for the future – wear things that could be washed easily. And so began several months of sitting in the orange Eames chair two days a week, watching an elegant piece of furniture emerge from piles of boards, and listening to John talk about working with wood.


On the first day of work on the sideboard, John made a wooden model from which the sideboard’s bronze legs would be cast. Starting with a stick of butternut four feet long and several inches wide and deep, John worked for four hours with a variety of planes, reducing the baseball bat of butternut to the approximate shape of the leg. He then sculpted its curves in detail. “This is great wood,” he told me. “It’s hard enough to hold detail but soft enough to shape really easily. So it’s perfect for me. I hope it’s ok for the metal guy.”

He cinched the butternut in a pattern maker’s vise, which could rotate, pivot, and tilt, permitting work on irregularly shaped wood from many angles. Savanna lay closer to him than usual, snoozing beneath the vise. While many fine furniture makers might have used a band saw for the first stage of this work, John’s tool of choice was a large metal plane. In deciding whether to use power or hand tools, the furniture maker is choosing where to put his energy and his time. Many would use power at this point, working quickly, and saving their energy for later stages of the work when the precision of hand tools would be necessary. John liked working with planes.

Planing involves the entire body. “It starts in my legs; I set them before I start.” As he worked, his legs were set wide apart and he rocked from back foot to front, pushing the plane forward and pulling it back with his body weight, adding lots of shoulder and elbow action. When the plane hit a high point in the wood he could feel the resistance in the muscles and joints of his hands, and follow its ripple through his arms, shoulders and into his back. “To some extent every time I use a plane, the feedback from the tool tells me when to even start. I hold it on the wood and feel for it to be flat – that is, in plane with what I want to cut. Even though it looks like I’m working quickly, each push of the plane finds the footprint of the plane, pushes, and then finds the footprint of the plane again. It’s this little shearing action that could be done at any speed. When I teach I have students do it very slowly. I want them to feel the sole (bottom) of the plane solidly on the wood. I’m deliberately feeling the plane fully contacted with the surface. It can look fast, but it’s the same action.”

As he worked, the sound of plane on wood repeated, “whish, whish,” the forward push a slightly higher pitch than the return pull. At the beginning I heard rhythmic patterns of clunk and silence with each forward push, the plane noisily gripping higher places in the wood, then sliding over lower spots with a hush. I was surprised to discover the importance of sound, as well as touch, in this work. John confirmed this, saying, “If I go blind I could still do this work because you can tell so much by sound.”

Alternating with the push and pull of the plane, John continually ran his fingers over the wood’s surface, exploring its evenness. In boat builder’s lingo that has migrated to carpentry, he explained, “What’s important in a curve is that it’s fair – smooth, with no flat spots. I’m using the plane to fair the wood in two dimensions.” He planed, felt with fingers alert to the possibilities, and then sited along the wood to see if there were still flat spots. Then planed and felt again. “Then I’ll start sculpting, bringing it into round.”

After taking a substantial amount of material off the butternut, John switched to a wooden plane for finer work, “so I can feel it better.” He continued, “Handmade wooden planes are really sensitive. You start to feel the flexibility of the wooden planes as you get used to them and it’s wonderful – you can lean a little bit into them and get a slightly different result.” Tools speak to the craftsman’s hands.

John’s attachment to wooden planes came from woodworking school. In the 1990’s he went to the College of the Redwoods’ Fine Woodworking School in California, created and led by James Krenov. Krenov was a master woodworker whose contemporary furniture has been collected by museums in Sweden, Norway, Japan, and the US. At his woodworking school among the first exercises for students was making their own tools, including wooden planes. “The plane,” Krenov believed, “is the cabinetmaker’s violin.”

Hand planes are ancient, originating thousands of years ago. Early planes were made from rectangular blocks of wood with a V-shaped slot cut across the center of the body. The cutting blade was inserted in the slot and held in place with a wooden wedge that was tapped into the slot against the blade and adjusted with a small mallet. Planes of this type have been found in excavations of ancient sites as well as drawings of woodworking from medieval Europe and Asia. Today’s wooden planes are similar.

As he worked on the leg with the wooden planes, shifting from larger to smaller and now working more with hands and fingers than legs and arms, the work became carving, the careful removal of small bits of material to reveal the shape he had in mind. He used a set of spokeshaves for even finer work. Spokeshaves are planes about an inch wide with handles on each side, looking rather like razor blades with horns, used to shape wooden rods, wheel spokes and chair legs. “They have a really short sole, and therefore a tight radius, so you can get inside curves,” John explained.

He knelt under the vise, climbing over a recumbent Savanna, and looked up through the vise to his hands above. He carved the place where the leg suddenly, within a space of 2 -3 inches, became very narrow, tapering to the ground. He held the leg up. “It’s getting there. I want it to look visually supported but not fat. It’s pretty symmetrical right now. I need to do a little more but I don’t want to do too much.” With a pencil he drew a line down the outermost edge of the leg. “I’m putting a line along it to be sure that I don’t touch that rim, because the shape is good. Ah, that’s getting better. It’s losing its shoulder. It was too fat.” This carving was done by eye, feel, and heft. “Better, better. It feels thinner.”

As he worked, John told me about the distinction the British woodworker and designer, David Pye, had made between what he called the workmanship of risk and the workmanship of certainty. In the workmanship of risk, the quality of the product is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity and care that the maker exercises, again and again, as he works. The essential idea is that the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making. In the workmanship of certainty everything is automated, predetermined. The process of manufacture entails little risk. I imagined machines stamping out millions of yellow plastic Lego’s. As I watched John work on the leg, I held my breath any number of times as he carved off a layer that, miscalculated, could change the leg’s shape beyond redemption.

“A lot of the success of this piece depends on the legs,” John commented. “By success I mean whether or not, and to what degree, I create an object of beauty.   I’ve had this design in my head for several years. But I’ve never got it together to build it. These legs have the potential to be very sweet. The whole thing will be carried by the curve of the legs, so I have to get that right, right now.” He kept planing and sighting along the inner and outer sides of the curves.   All the while curls of wood shavings brushed Savanna’s ears as they headed for the floor, piling up on her coat, around her neck, and on the floor around her. There were hundreds of wood shavings on the floor and her by now, each about the thickness and color of an onionskin. Emerging from the blocky rectangle of butternut was an elegant leg. Long, lean, with a gentle curve from top to bottom on the outside, flat on the side that would abut the case, and tapering slightly inward as it reached the floor. The leg had taken shape gradually, as John subtracted the wood, one onionskin at a time.


When I arrived at the workshop one rainy afternoon in March, John had just begun putting veneer on the top of the sideboard. The most beautiful stretch of veneer would be selected and applied that day. This was a difficult glue-up because the piece was big, 55 x 16 inches, and important. The top always would be the center of attention – under soft candlelight at night, reflecting the gleam of silver and crystal; as a bar at a party, littered with bottles of booze, half-empty glasses, and crumpled napkins; or wiped clean and smelling of polish in the sunlight of the next day.

The date for photographing the sideboard for the Smithsonian exhibit had been moved up a month putting the project in a time bind. Shaking his head, John complained, “So, I’ve got to work day and night. This is my favorite part of the year, and here I am, having to rush. Deadlines do produce work, no doubt about it, but I was really hoping to savor this one.” John expected to work late that night so he could stay on schedule, getting the top into the veneer press where it would be under pressure overnight. “But,” he warned, “if something does not go well with the glue-up tonight, you might hear a lot of swearing.”

By 8:30 John was ready for the critical glue-up. “The simplicity in this glue-up is that it is only one piece. The difficulty in this glue-up is that it is big.” He filled his glue bottle in order to move quickly without the interruption of refilling, and opened the veneer press in readiness. “I have to glue the veneer onto both sides of the substrate, attach blue tape lightly around the edges to hold them together, and then get it in the veneer press as quickly as possible,” he explained. “If I go too fast it throws glue all over the place, if I go too slowly the glue will dry.” He stuck strips of blue tape to the side of the outfeed table for quick and easy access. “All right, here goes.”

Using a little roller, he spread a generous layer of glue on what would be the interior side of the top. “Oh, it’s already getting tacky. I can feel it.” He flipped the five-foot long top onto the veneer where it landed, glue-side down, with a thump. He nestled the top into place on the veneer and then spread glue on the exterior side of the top, saying, “This is a serious amount of glue,” and dropped another long piece of veneer onto it, again quickly adjusting its position. He lightly attached top and bottom veneers with strips of blue tape, not pulling them too tightly together. Picking up the five-foot long sandwich, he crossed the room and slid it into the veneer press.

The veneer press, which had been sitting tamely in the corner, was about to take center stage. At six feet long, four feet wide, and five feet high, it looked like a giant, cast iron insect. With four pairs of legs lifted to different heights, it seemed about to clank out of its corner. The “legs,” eight enormous upside down screws, were its most striking feature. The heads of the screws were six inches in diameter and three inches thick, the threaded shanks several inches in diameter and about two feet long. The end of each shank, opposite to the screw head, was shaped into a square. A four-point socket wrench attached to a wheel rested on top of the press, waiting for John to jump onto the top, halfway to the ceiling, and use it to tighten one giant screw after another. “It’s called, ‘Driving the bus.’ ” Each upside down screw head creates a cone of pressure on the wood below, extending out about 45 degrees. The cabinetmaker piles a collection of boards between the piece being veneered and the screws, distancing the tightened screws from the veneered piece and broadening the zone of pressure.

Still moving quickly, John centered the veneer sandwich in the press, layered on newspaper to absorb any extruding glue, and then inserted what looked like a giant aluminum cookie sheet. With effort, he heaved on a very large, flat board that covered the entire surface, and then a dozen or so heavy boards, together rising more than a foot above the veneer’s surface, to extend the pressure from the screws. He scrambled up onto the top of press, and “drove the bus,” partially tightening each screw, then tightening them all again. He gave each a third, hard tug, putting lots of body weight into the task. “I’ll come back and make it even tighter after I’ve cleaned up and before I leave, in case there is some migration of glue,” he said. As he began to climb down I imagined he must have been satisfied with a good day’s work but tired from the mental concentration of the past hours and the physical effort of operating the press at the end of a long day.

On his way down he saw something that shouldn’t have been there – a sliver of an underlying layer of cross- veneer. He dropped to the floor, dramatically slumping over the end of the press, and lay crumpled for several seconds, inert. Not even enough energy for the predicted swearing, just exhaustion and perhaps despair. I couldn’t gauge the degree of calamity or what it might mean for the future of the sideboard. After a few moments of collapse he collected himself and jumped up, grabbed a ruler, and measured. Less than 1/8 inch of cross-veneer was showing; very little, but too much. Pye’s workmanship of risk had just taken its toll.

There were no good choices. He could leave it to dry overnight in the veneer press, then cut back the size of the entire piece to eliminate the place where the cross-veneer showed, or he could open the press immediately and try to adjust the veneer while the glue was still “open.” That would likely cause the veneer to rip. He decided to let it dry overnight.

At 9:00, as I was preparing to leave, he began to clean up the workshop for the night. I offered to help but he said, “No, it will make me feel better to do the work.” Putting on my jacket in the office, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, that he had leapt back onto the press and was frantically loosening the eight screws with the wheel. Then, jumping down, he hastily pulled the dozen heavy boards out, clattering them onto the floor. Clearly he had changed his mind and decided to try to move the veneer before the glue dried. I slipped out without saying goodbye, not wanting to interrupt. It was a long drive home.

John later told me the veneer had slipped, because glue acts as a lubricant before it acts as an adhesive. The moments before glue becomes tacky and starts to adhere are critical. Sliding all those heavy boards into the press had moved the veneer. There are ways to keep veneer from moving in the press. “Sometimes I’ll build a little piece of sacrificial wood and glue it on and tack it with a brad. But I didn’t this time ‘cause I was working fast. I thought I had plenty of overhang so I cheated, and got caught, basically.” He was unable to move the veneer, and so cut 3/32nd of an inch off each end of the top, retaining its symmetry. The tiny amount lost would not affect the aesthetics of the piece or its structural integrity. But he worked all weekend to resize and re-edge all previously completed pieces, and earlier measurements for the doors on the joinery plan now were obsolete. He would have to work faster than ever.

The next time I saw him John had a scabby 2-inch gash on a swollen right temple. He had continued to plug away on the sideboard but, in weariness, had dropped a board on his head one night while working late. For the moment he was no longer the handsome cabinetmaker passionately engaged in his work but a lop-sided, dogged one. Even with a throbbing head he had high expectations for himself and the sideboard, saying, “I’m not building this to be OK, I’m building it to be unbelievable. My peers are really close judges of quality and I am happy beyond words to enjoy a really good reputation among these picky-assed peers I have. I am not going to build shit.”


The last time I visited the workshop, in June, a party was in full swing. A crowd had gathered for the annual open studio given by John and the other artists in his building. Each studio displayed an array of work, collectively including paintings, pottery, textiles, and furniture. Guests, who wandered from studio to studio, were typical Gloucester artists, in jeans or shorts, T-shirts of modest and immodest cut, and a few dramatic caftans. The conversation burbled in high and low tones, with the rhythms of jazz, punctuated by the clink of wine glasses.

John’s workshop was cleaned up for company, with several previous spec pieces on display. The Smithsonian show had been a success, attracting several commissions for new work. The sideboard, now named Neptune, was having its local debut, standing on a low, rectangular stage in a gallery-like corner. Its polished surface rippled red and brown with hints of gold under halogen lights. Bronze legs, echoing the darkest vertical grain on the side, curved their way to the ground, and the cool and elegant engraved brass escutcheon invited one to open the door to the delights within. It was a classy island in the barely tamed clutter of the workshop. To John’s delight, guests gravitated toward Neptune, asking, “May we touch it?” and then ran their fingers over its silken surface, opened doors with the gentle tug needed to release the catch, and eased out drawers, loosing the subtle root beer fragrance of the drawers’ sassafras wood into the workshop. Hidden in the glow of the wood, on the back of the small rim that trimmed the top of the sideboard, John had carved his initials and the year. JC 13. Neptune was finished and ready to greet the world.


© 2017 Barbara Scott Nelson

Note – This story was read at the Friends Meeting at Cambridge in May 2017. It is composed of excerpts from a longer story of the same title, written to be a chapter in a book about craftsmen and their work, with stories on fine furniture making, hairdressing, sculpture, jewelry making, violin making, and musicianship. Each chapter describes the artistic and technical challenges that face craftsmen who use their hands as instruments to coax out the beauty, and deal with the limitations, of wood, clay, silver, or sound.   BSN





Toward an Alert Democracy

trump-1843504_640“I just can’t do long rides on buses or sleep on church basement floors this time,” said one friend, as she ruefully assessed her capacity for political protest. She would march in Boston, not Washington, the day after Trump’s inauguration; no overnights required.

We, the generation of the Sixties, had protested about many social and political issues over the decades – against the social conformity of the 1950’s, for civil rights, for an end to the Vietnam War, for women’s rights and gay rights, for protection of the environment. In our day protests were often raucous and violent, with police in full regalia, wielding truncheons and shooting tear gas; protesters fighting as well, and often dragged off to prison. It took strength of soul and body to protest.

Now we are in our late 60’s, 70’s, even 80’s. We may look young – hair suspiciously near its original color, dressed in Spanx-enabled slim pants and jackets, moving along briskly thanks to physical therapy and regular exercise. But our joints ache when we get out of bed in the morning; we reach for the Advil. We have less energy; on some days naps are needed. We suffer the remains of various surgeries; muscle twinges and reduced range of motion. Some of us are ill. For years many have only sporadically been politically active.

Despite aches, many people my age went to the Women’s March in Boston for at least a while, and afterwards were exultant as they reported packed subway cars, shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, fields of pink cat-ear hats, an array of pithy signs. One favorite of many: “IF YOU THOUGHT I WAS A NASTY WOMAN BEFORE …. BUCKLE UP, BUTTERCUP, I’M NOT DONE YET.”

Helpful police. The joy of being with so many people who shared our values. No violence. It was the best of what demonstrations could be. This time we were grandmothers, there with our daughters and granddaughters, teaching the children the importance of having a voice. The younger generation turned out in force. “The great awakening of the millennials,” quipped one friend. Trump is such a powerful threat to our way of life, our democracy, that it seemed imperative to get active again. Age affects what we can do, but not what we care about.

While over the years many of us have demonstrated, written letters and checks, and marched for particular causes, the basic principles of our liberal democracy had seemed secure. We had taken the Constitution for granted as a social contract among us, limiting the authority of government. We had assumed a three-part government in which each part served as a check on the power of the others; the rule of law, not personal influence, in everyday life; equal protection of human and civil rights for all people; the power of reasoned argument based on evidence; tolerance and civility in public debate. Trump posed a fundamental threat to this system.


Anxiety wound its arms around me shortly after ten on election night, when Brian Williams and Rachel Maddow looked at the map, jaws dropping, as they realized what was happening. Their experts were stuttering. States that had been predicted to go for Clinton were still too close to call. This wasn’t supposed to happen. They called the election for Trump at 2:30 am. We all knew long before that.

A large red dragon, snorting steam, spewing obscenities, and smelling of pitch landed with a thump in the middle of my living room. The air became hot and acrid, burning my eyes, my throat, my lungs. Sparks flew. Claws shredded my skin. My entire being screamed as I dove under the bed. Once I found the courage to crawl out my head ached for days. I was emotionally raw and vaguely nauseous. I crept around my apartment; being quiet was all I could do. When I ventured outdoors the world was very still. I trembled with emotional exhaustion as I went about my errands, still moving slowly. Friends and neighbors greeted each other with a pale, “How are you?” and responded with faint shrugs and near-whispers, “Let’s not talk about it right now.”

Our world was about to be turned inside out, in a crude and cruel direction by someone ignorant, vulgar, vicious, bigoted, and out of control with his tweets. So much for civil discourse. To “Make America Great Again” he promised to throw out “the millions” of illegal immigrants who were “taking American jobs”, re-write regulations for corporate taxation to “bring jobs back home”, build a wall between the US and Mexico, and tear apart Obamacare. The “Great America” he evoked was the America of the 1950’s and earlier. While appealing to many, his promises would not solve the problems they faced and were a betrayal of the equal treatment for all and due process of law that we had worked for, for decades. Weeks later we still despair.

In addition to shock, there was loss. We had expected that the Obama agenda would continue, more or less, under Clinton’s leadership, albeit with less fluid intelligence and finesse. In any case we would have lost Obama, himself. That loose-limbed and graceful, oh, so cool, guy. Warm, authentic, with a great big smile; easily able to do commercials for toothpaste companies if he ever found himself out of political work. He represented the irrefutable fact that our nation could elect a black President. An iconic picture of Obama showed him in his office, bending down so that a young black boy could feel his hair. Later interviewed, the boy said, “I wanted to see if his hair felt like mine. It did.” But we also lost the general agreeableness of his policy stances, his respect for Constitutional order, and his balanced intelligence, to be replaced by chaos, bigotry, tweets by the thousands, and inhumane policies.

So we got angry. We must fight again. From our country’s origins it has been clear that Democracy must be worked for and not taken for granted – a fact more obvious in some times and places than others.

It’s a hard thing to say, but protest should be easier this time. Coming out of the ‘50s it was all ideals and passion. Now many of those ideals have been at least partially realized; we have very specific images of what our society can be, and millions of people have experienced it. Women can be treated equally in the workplace and even have high-level careers – we know what that looks like; gay couples can marry and raise families – we know what that looks like; people of color do have equal rights to live where they want, get an education, hold good jobs, and vote – we know what that looks like. While these rights have been emergent and some are not yet fully realized, two generations of women and men have grown up assuming the society they have experienced is the way life is. They don’t remember. They will experience the coming changes as the loss of what they have taken for granted. If Roe v Wade is threatened, millions of women, now with powerful megaphones, will object.

We also now know how to resist – how to set up carpools, rent fleets of busses, find inexpensive places to stay, plan sign-making parties, get permits, arrange for portable toilets, engage celebrity sponsors, print T-shirts and, if needed, organize non-violent civil disobedience workshops. We open our homes to marchers travelling from afar and buy stashes of metro passes for their use.

The Internet has transformed our methods. Swirling through the ether are notices about marches to attend, petitions to sign, donations to give, exhortations to show up quickly at crisis points like airports. This morning’s torrent applauds Lufthansa’s decision to allow all passengers with valid travel documents, no matter country of origin, to board flights to Boston where federal court orders prohibit detaining them and sending them back. These emails urge that we email or tweet the CEO’s of other major airlines, urging them to do the same, followed by instructions from millennials on how to tweet.

The last time the issues we fought for unfolded over decades. This time they are under assault simultaneously, in an overwhelming swirl of bizarre cabinet appointments, tweets, ineptly drafted executive orders, controversial statements during afternoon briefings, firings, and judicial findings. As I write this Trump has been president for 10 days; it seems like years, already. We have been plunged into a new universe created in the oval office with the speed of a signature, as from the mind of an impetuous 4-year old. The simultaneity with which the issues are being engaged is, itself, nauseating. One’s emotions simply can’t deal with threats to core values hour after hour.


“Steve Bannon is our President,” mourned one friend. “Think of me as Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors,” Bannon has said, authorizing us to look for his behind-the-scenes manipulations. Unlike Trump, and terrifyingly, Bannon has a coherent governing philosophy. Surfing YouTube one can find Bannon explaining himself. At this year’s CPAC meeting he described three streams of work currently underway in the Trump administration. Slightly elaborated, they are: 1) Sovereignty. In Bannon’s view, nations are the primary political unit and each is built around a core cultural identity that it must protect. According to him, America’s cultural identity is White and Christian. Immigrants threaten that identity. The need to protect a core cultural identity gets translated into an increased military and changes in immigration policies. “Build a wall.” “Kick the bad hombres out.” 2) Economic nationalism, in which America reorients priorities to the working class’s benefit. We would enter into trade agreements for our interests alone, with little regard for global implications, and would implement environmental deregulation, foreign policy, and tax programs that would encourage the rebuilding of a manufacturing-based export economy. “Put America First.” 3) The Deconstruction of the administrative state. The administrative state consists of entire agencies that have, since the New Deal, proliferated and gained broad governing authority by virtue of their technical expertise. Unelected bureaucrats, not elected representatives, are running the show. In deconstructing the administrative state, these agencies, the regulations they put in place, and the civil servants who administer them would be stripped away. “Drain the Swamp.”

This program stands behind Trump’s campaign rhetoric, his executive orders, his legislative program, and his cabinet and court appointments. Steve Bannon, Steve Miller and Jeff Sessions began meeting several years before the Republican convention to develop their political philosophy and identify a candidate they could push forward. They chose Trump. His own interest in nationalism made him politically congenial. His extreme narcissism and need to blame anyone but himself for bad news made him easy to manipulate; excessive praise would do the job. We must be alert to the intentions of the emperor’s costumer and watch for his shadow behind Trump’s bluster and tweets.


My generation sighs. We thought we were finished, but now each of us must take a deep breath, roll up our sleeves again, and put our particular talents to work if we want a government that reflects our goals and values. I imagine each of us volunteering to help the causes we care about passionately. If we can write, we will write letters and columns. If we have artistic talents, we will volunteer to make signs, posters and logos. If we are good at management and organization, we will help get activities together. We will show up when needed.

I have chosen to focus on freedom of expression, including freedom of the press. As a writer, this is particularly important to me; it also affects our ability to make our democracy work. Today, the White House banned the NYT, CNN, and the LA Times from Sean Spicer’s daily news briefing. While that news briefing is not the most reliable of sources, if the press cannot obtain information about what the government is doing, what it is planning, it cannot tell us. We, in turn, cannot judge its importance. If writers cannot write what they see, what they feel, and express it in poetry, fiction, or essays, we are deprived of a perspective on what is happening in our world.

Of course, we must march. But if we don’t dig in and commit money, time, and work to particular issues, not letting anything slip by, we could lose it all. John Lewis’s words at a Martin Luther King Day event in Miami this year are to the point.

Stand up. Speak out. When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something, to say something, and not be quiet. You must have courage. You must be bold, and never, never, ever give up.

Along the way, we may invent a more alert democracy for the future.

© 2017 Barbara Scott Nelson

Yoga in the Garden

yoga-1694550_1920Winter has been surprisingly warm this year; the end of February is a balmy 60 degrees. In my neighborhood college students are wandering around in shorts, kids are out on scooters, and Canada Goose winter jackets with coyote fur trim have been temporarily put away. Some of us dream of gardening.

Planting my annuals starts on Memorial Day weekend when I traditionally put about 150 Impatiens in the garden immediately outside the windows of my little house near the sea. Because a fungus has attacked that species in recent years, last year it was Phlox of Sheep, an oddly named but quite attractive substitute. This planting is a long and arduous task, requiring much digging and bending which, at age seventy-three, is not as easy as it once was. I do it on Memorial Day weekend because, when I was still working, the three-day weekend provided sufficient expanse to interweave planting sessions with rest or social activities such as a movie or tea with a friend. It still does. And at our latitude, wise gardeners do not put tender plants in until late May, for fear of a cold night.

My gardening journal tells me that Memorial Day weekend has offered different conditions for this planting ritual in different years – sometimes cloudy and in the sixties, sometimes sunny and humid, in the eighties. Last year Memorial Day weekend was miserable for all the usual pastimes – cookouts, baseball games, walks among the lilacs. We had cold rain, drizzle, and fog for two days. Memorial Day, itself, felt like cloud-draped November, though the rain had stopped. The temperature was in the forties and it was quite windy. It would have been a labor of love to get out there that day. When I complained to my gardening guru he strongly advised that I “deal with it” and get my young plants in that weekend, in an effort to reduce the degree to which their roots would become pot-bound. Evidently plants like their roots to range freely, seeking water and nutrients.

Respecting this advice, and knowing how happy I would be when I had little plants growing, I collected my gear and went out. The job requires a trowel for easy digging in wonderfully wet soil; my blue-handled screwdriver, exactly eight inches long, the prescribed distance between these baby plants; and a bit of fertilizer to give them a good start in their new home. I used to be able to do this job on my hands and knees, but because of various orthopedic issues that is no longer possible. However, my version of the “forward fold” move (uttanasana) from my yoga class works well. Ideally one bends over from the hips, not the waist; legs straight; “sitting bones” lifted toward the sky; the entire top of one’s body folded over, neatly parallel to one’s legs; hands flat on the ground (elbows on the ground if one is especially flexible or under 40). While my version of the forward fold is not as elegant as the drawing in my yoga book, in this position one’s hands are conveniently where the work is, for digging a hole, inserting a plant, and pressing soil down with one’s fingers.

When I began that morning it was cloudy and the garden was wet from the previous day’s rain. The woman at the nursery had suggested wearing the pants from my foul weather gear, which I would have done had I been able to find them. An old pair of jeans would have to do. My gardening gloves quickly became sodden, as did my feet and the bottom four inches of my jeans. A gray wind whistled off the sea, rushed up the street, and swung around the corner of the fence. I wondered about frostbite.

By about the 30th plant my hamstring muscles were very stretched, but needed rest. I stopped for a while, then did another thirty plants, alternating rest and work through the day until most of the 150 were in their place. It was still cool, but the wind had died down and sun warmed my back as I folded forward. My clothes, along with the stone pathway and the street beyond, began to dry. Birds living in nearby trees decided that the warmth of the sun was sufficient for a chorus of their favorite songs. Everything around me was perking up, declaring that it would be a good day, after all.

As I finished, my garden promised future glory, with young Phlox of Sheep standing unsteadily in formation, drinking in the sun and stretching their roots in the damp soil. But I was very tired. Planting 150 plants was not something I could continue to do every year. My hamstrings simply were not up to the job, and spending that much time upside-down had an unpleasant, dizzying effect.

In consultation with my gardening guru I developed a new strategy for this garden. Instead of blanketing the area with Impatiens or Phlox of Sheep each year, I would change it to a largely green perennial garden and choose a few annuals to rotate, one kind at a time, through the season; perhaps pansies for spring, begonias for summer, chrysanthemums for fall; and plant just three or four of each. With my need for yoga’s forward fold reduced to just a few plants at a time, this seemed a practical possibility. While I would have to give up my beautiful blanket of pink, I surely would come to appreciate the new woodland look of my garden with a few spots of color strategically placed among the trees, rocks, and bushes – a look I will try this spring and will likely be able to sustain for a number of years.





Cell Phones in the City


“YOU STOLE MY CELL PHONE!” Harsh words bounce off the walls of the small basement room and tremble the air. Her weathered face twisted in anger, the middle-aged woman clutching a tangle of clothes to her body, plaids and stripes dangling around her legs, shouts again at the smaller, quieter woman across the room. “YOU STOLE MY CELL PHONE!” We volunteers shrink in our chairs.

Sandy, the clothing center’s young director, moves quickly to the center of the fray, soothing that the phone had not been stolen.


Sandy starts the classic back track for missing objects, “Where did you have it last?” Ten minutes later the lost is found in the ladies room where the client had gone to try on clothes.

“I apologize for yelling at you,” the client says to the victim of her earlier rage. “It was my fault, I left it there.” She then calmly turns away to resume the business of selecting clothes.


As tension seeped out of the clothing center, I wondered about this woman’s emotional volatility; bursting into the fire of rage, then subsiding quickly. Before the blaze of temper, and after, she functioned reasonably. She was not mentally disturbed. As was true of all of our clients, she had been referred by a social service agency that would have filtered out someone who could not make effective use of our services. The disturbed would be helped another way.

I imagined this woman’s conditions of life made theft expectable – sleeping fitfully on a ragged piece of cardboard on street or subway grate, all her possessions nearby, only loosely guarded as she dozed; in a shelter with security for only what could fit in a 12” x 12” locker; sharing a subsidized apartment with several equally needy strangers. Days of scratchy anxiety, always tensed against the world.

I live in a largely accepting and benign world. No one snitches my toothpaste from the medicine chest or my purse from its spot on the floor of the hall closet. Aside from an occasional wailing ambulance or amped-up motorcycle roaring away, the street outside my bedroom window is quiet and my building is secure, both conducive to sound sleep. I don’t look over my shoulder for sign of threats as I go about my daily tasks.

It was the urge to work again with people whose lives were different from my own, to have my life touch theirs no matter how superficially, and perhaps to help a bit, that had led me to the clothing center. I had discovered earlier that there was much to learn about other ways of living simply by feeling the stretch of my own boundaries to meet theirs. It was an empathic stretch; an attempt to touch the other’s life emotionally, making our work together effective and alive. I had encountered this when teaching high school in suburban Baltimore, and in the Peace Corps. Each time, I felt pulled by the distance my mind and, more importantly, my soul had to travel to comprehend the lives that touched mine.


In Baltimore in the mid-1960’s I lived in ill-fitting jeans, black sweaters, and sandals; explored rural Maryland from the back of my boyfriend’s motorcycle; and sat cross-legged on raggedly carpeted apartment floors or in dim jazz joints smoking hash with Peter and his friends. They were philosophy graduate students, darkly unshaven, ink on their fingers. We spent intoxicating hours arguing about the war in Vietnam, the arbitrariness of bourgeois conventions, the dignity of the oppressed.

Early Monday mornings I twisted my long, heavy blonde hair onto the top of my head, slipped on a slender suit, stockings, and civilized shoes, and drove my rattly, used Renault out the highway from downtown Baltimore to suburban Belt High School. Drivers on that route hurtled to work mindlessly; I was in a zombie chute from passionate political critique to middle class cultural reproduction.

My classroom smelled of disinfectant, chalk, and musky teenage sweat that seemed never to fade. At the bell my first class tumbled into the room, boys jousting, girls giggling with each other and snapping gum. Furniture rattled and scraped until all of the bodies settled, their energy temporarily dissipated. The day’s lesson could begin. Barely older than my students, having been trained as a philosopher, I was somewhat shaky on the American Literature I was to teach beyond the obvious Hawthorne, Melville, and Hemingway and, as a first-year teacher, had only a faint grasp of whatever passed for technique in those days.

In the ‘tracked’ classrooms of the time students were sorted into the college bound, average, and non-college-bound. For some of the college-bound students, as for me, ideas were alive. What was Hemingway doing in The Old Man and the Sea? These students were kindred spirits. Those who didn’t enjoy the play of ideas could be counted on to follow directions and do their best, working for a good grade. No empathic stretch needed here. They were me, just five years younger.

Students in the other two classes were more problematic. Some were more socially sophisticated than the teenaged me had ever been. Costumed in their parents’ achievements, they had better cars, better clothes and an air of entitlement far beyond what I had been able to achieve as a high school student. While intellectually I understood this as America’s class system at work, emotionally, they felt much better at the game of middle class success than I would ever be. As a teacher, I was too young and still too close to their age to use all the terrible things we remember about adolescence – – fear of not being with the right crowd, of not being asked to the football game, of not wearing the right clothes, that the zits would never clear up – – to find common ground and reach them. I was overwhelmed by my empathy rather than able to use it to teach them.

There were also the unruly, who viewed school as a waste of time, shoving large bodies against classroom furniture with a scrape, tossing spit balls around the room, preening grease-glued ducktails, refreshing makeup at odd moments, maintaining a ongoing banter of street talk at the back of the room. Tough girls spoke more roughly than I had heard before. This group could be counted on to need pencils, to have forgotten their textbooks, to have not done their homework, to need to go to the bathroom more often than was likely and in suspicious clusters. I found them totally unapproachable.

Teaching required me to deal with students who were not like me, and with whom I had not felt comfortable when I was in school. I needed to stretch myself through my discomfort and find a way to make the literature reach them. I was not successful. I had not grown enough past the emotional turmoil of my own high school years to make the stretch toward students different from me, and didn’t know that I should.


On my way to work every day in Isfahan, Iran I encountered loaded camels lumbering down the street, slobbering half-chewed hay and off-loading clumps of steamy, pungent dung as they went; men bent over the joob (a small irrigation stream running along major streets), washing their mouths, blowing their noses, and spitting into the water and, a block further, merchants throwing buckets of the same water onto their vegetable displays to keep them looking fresh; black-wrapped women scuttling down the shady side of the street, dry heat rippling around them. All fused together in oppressive heat and dust.

My husband, Peter, and I taught English to university students; largely mature family men – elementary school teachers who sought bachelor’s degrees in order to obtain better-paying high school jobs. The university building was of misguided modern construction – heat-radiating steel frame and concrete block rather than traditional cool, thick stone and beautiful tile. The mandated literature curriculum was bizarrely inappropriate, consisting largely of reading Lorna Doone, an English romance novel written in 1869 about a farmer who falls in love with the “queen” of the notorious Doone clan –a family he has sworn vengeance on.

Every day, middle-aged men in cheap dark suits and scuffed black shoes, heels crushed down to make sandals, bent over their books in the heat, earnestly struggling to decode Victorian expressions of romantic love and respond in halting English to comprehension questions about Lorna and her family. We didn’t see much connection between our students’ lives and the literature we assigned, and not much way to reach through their embarrassment and awkwardness in English to find the people underneath who might genuinely respond to the literature.

Under such circumstances, conversation class might have been more productive. But our students refused to discuss topics beyond the trite, like the weather or directions from here to there, declaring any other topics political. Did you enjoy the holiday? “Not to talk. Political,” accompanied by shaking heads and abrupt hand gestures. Have you seen a good movie recently? “Political!” Will your daughter get married this summer? “Political!” At least one of their classmates was a SAVAK informer, they swore. They didn’t know who. Anything they said that could be interpreted as controversial would be entered into the Shah’s dossier on them and their families. Apparently conversation with us could be dangerous.

Given this stilted state of affairs, opportunities for our lives to touch theirs, to ground our teaching in something real, had to occur outside of the university. We were learning about their domestic lives from our experiences with friendly neighbors, but how to learn about their hopes for the future and understand their concern about, and the likely reality of, the SAVAK informers? We took advantage of the Iranian pastime of weekend picnics in the countryside to invite a few students for picnics on a nearby mountainside. Jagged and red against a deep blue sky, and bare of vegetation, Kuh-e-Soffeh commanded views in all directions. The mountain seemed likely to be free of spies. Nonetheless our students peered around the rocks near our picnic spot to assure there were no lurkers.

Peter and I struggled with our elementary Farsi, which worked well enough in bargaining for rice, vegetables and chunks of lamb, but not so well in asking our students about the political and social realities of their lives. We struggled to understand their answers. Stripped of the romance of an exotic culture and the charm of ancient customs, their answers were shocking.   It was in Iran that my life first touched those whose prospects were threatened by political constraint and fear of punishment. The stakes were high for missteps – all of our students knew people who had been snatched off the street, gone forever. Perhaps tortured or executed. Our students’ caution in conversation class was completely reasonable.

It was difficult to comprehend lives so utterly different from ours and painful to accept that people we cared about faced the circumstances they described. Further, their worldviews were embedded in tribal traditions and beliefs, and largely bereft of modern ideas and practices. While Lorna Doone’s language would remain bizarre, her story of romantic love between girl and boy of warring clans began to seem both relevant to those with tribal roots and classic. And the effort we made to understand them brought our students closer. Between us, non-political conversation in the classroom could be crafted.


While teaching American adolescents and Iranian men had its satisfactions, after working in the field, so to speak, for a number of years, I began to think I could have more impact if I climbed the proverbial hierarchical ladder. Working directly with students, one classroom at a time, seemed inefficient. Surely I could affect more students if I were a school administrator charged with implementing new curricula school-wide, or training teachers in new methods. Later, I thought I could affect even more students if I conducted research on how they learned which could, in turn, affect educational practice on a broad scale. But eventually the purported link between research, policy, and student learning began to seem more tenuous than when I started. Each wobbly layer of implementation, from top to bottom, contributed its own interpretations and accommodations. I often sat in rooms with national policy-makers in the field of mathematics education who agreed that they had solved this problem, or that one, by making strategic sets of grants or new policies in those areas. What should they take up next? I heard Swiss mountaineers yodeling to each other from mountaintop to mountaintop while, in the valleys below, the trains chugged along much as usual.

Forty years later, retired and looking for worthwhile use of the gift of time, I realized how far I had drifted from the intellectually and personally challenging work of providing direct service to someone. It had been a long time since I had worked with people whose lives were different from mine and had to take them in on their own terms, stretching my boundaries to meet them, if I were to be of help.

In retirement, with the yearning to touch people directly again, I might have chosen to tutor students in mathematics or teach English to recent immigrants but, wanting a change from education, thought to volunteer at the materials assistance program associated with my Quaker meeting. At this time of life I didn’t want total emersion; my perch at the clothing center would be sufficient – a few hours a week, in a familiar place.


Clients arrive at the clothing center referred by a social service agency like Rosie’s Place or the Pine Street Inn. Referral forms gesture toward the shape of their lives:

      This client arrived in the Boston area [in November] without any furniture, household goods, clothing, or items for her children such as clothes, car seat, stroller, blankets, toys. She is hoping to receive assistance from your organization.
      This client is just starting to rebuild her life after experiencing a prolonged period of difficulty. She needs glasses, bowls, utensils, bedding, shirts, pants, and toiletries.
      This client needs warm clothing and boots.

One can only imagine that “prolonged period of difficulty.”

The center is located in the basement of the Meeting House of Friends Meeting in Cambridge, MA. One’s initial impression is of high clutter – a herd of laundry trucks overloaded with black plastic bags bulging with clothing, jostling in a corner; large plastic bins stuffed with jumbled, colorful goods, haphazardly labeled and shoved onto metal shelves climbing to the ceiling; four-foot high stacks of clothes on work tables, pant legs and sleeves akimbo, resembling a pile of dancers. These are the staging areas. The rest of the room is neatly set up like a small clothing store – a dozen or so long metal racks stretch across the room, on which hang shirts, pants, dresses, jackets, and coats, all behaving normally, separated by white plastic size-dividers, (S, M, L). Edging the main event other items are on display – shoes parade on metal racks; belts, purses and ties dangle from hooks on rotating stands; underwear, socks, mittens, hats cluster cozily in bins; and a few house wares straggle their way across a set of shelves. All items are free. Many clients spend upwards of two hours selecting their clothes and relaxing on the cushy sofa with cookies and hot coffee. It’s a place to “settle themselves,” in winter warming chilled bones.

A constant stream of donations from local residents pours in as closets are periodically sorted or households downsized. The hidden recesses of closets may contain beloved, but worn or stained jackets, pants, sportswear. Volunteers inspect every donation; only clothes and house wares that are clean and in good repair – as we, ourselves, might use them – are accepted. Just because clients are poor does not mean that they must suffer the additional indignity of shabby clothing that shouts, “castoff.” Good clothes can become the love and pride of their next owner. Last week Sandy was greeted on the street by a good-looking and confident woman she didn’t recognize, who turned out to be wearing a well-cut grey suit from the center and reemployed as an accountant, though she still lived in a shelter.

My picture of the lives of those we serve fills in gradually. Their things teach me. One day I encountered 60 yoga mats, piled like logs fencing in the jostling laundry trucks, donated by a yoga instructor upgrading her studio. Yoga mats? Evidently they are much better than cardboard for sleeping on the street – they provide a bit of cushioning, can be rolled up and easily carried around during the day, they keep one’s sleeping bag from freezing to the sidewalk in the winter. Clients regularly tuck one into their bags as they leave, taking another for a friend.

Nearly half of our clients have cell phones provided by Lifeline, a federal program colloquially known as “Obamaphone.” These phones come supplied with 400 minutes of phone time monthly and unlimited texting. Our clients circle through the city each day searching for a hot meal, but any food will do; crouching on the sidewalk, back resting against a wind-protecting wall; settling down in a warm sunny spot to talk with friends; looking for a place to sleep that night. But they are not out of touch. They can be reached by family, friends, social service agencies dispersing benefits – referrals to our clothing center, shelters with an open space for the night, agencies that manage the movement from one form of housing to another or know of possible jobs. Clients can store in the phone all official identification numbers – case numbers, social security numbers, phone numbers of social service agencies. No wonder the possibility that hers had been stolen prompted our client to shriek.

I, too, have a cell phone but it stores very different data. Like theirs, it has the numbers of personal friends and family, but also the collection of folks who help me manage my life – the plumber, the electrician, the roofer, the cleaning service, financial advisor, lawyer, auto insurance company, doctors. I also have a landline, a U.S. mailbox, and an internet address. For one who has long been tethered to a landline phone, it is cool to talk to friends or conduct business from anywhere. For those without a home, it’s a necessity.

Cell phones, yoga mats, subway grates – all function very differently in our clients’ lives than in mine. Comprehending those differences forms the beginning of an empathic stretch toward their lives and the understanding of what might feel to them like friendship and help.


© 2016 Barbara Scott Nelson


The Purple Racing Stripe

“Like the purple stripe,” mumbled a hooded young man in baggy jeans as he and his leather jacketed, chain-jingling buddies jostled past me on the sidewalk. Every bit of their angular swagger shouted, “Make room, make room.”

“That’s so-oo cool,” chirped smiling young things behind cash registers, at the neighborhood café, even in the doctor’s office.

“Wow! I wish I’d thought of that,” said some women of my age, reaching out to touch it, their eyes alight with the fun. Others quickly averted their gaze, as though embarrassed by the sight.

The purple stripe has added unexpected richness to my experience of city life – connecting me to people I otherwise might simply have passed by.

Several months ago I dyed a 2-inch wide strip of my hair purple. I have a short, wash and wear hairstyle that used to be dark blonde, now mixed with streaks of silver and grey. The purple stripe stands out vividly; taking different shapes as my movements or the wind shift my hair. Sometimes it’s a Nike swoosh, sometimes the racing stripe on the side of a car. If I part my hair slightly differently a feathery fan flicks across the top of my head. The purple fades slightly with each washing, becoming subtler as months go by, eventually just a hint in the grey. I have it re-done about every four months, when it becomes electric again.

You may have seen the television advertisement for Walgreens, in which two grey-haired women, nice-looking but a bit on the drab side, approach a counter and spot a funky young woman in black, with short, jaggedly arranged, purple hair. With appreciation for her jazziness, and conspiratorial looks at each other, they decide to put purple in their own hair in anticipation of their 50th high school reunion. The ad closes with the two women, sleekly dressed and dancing exuberantly in the crowd, purple curls flying amid their grey. Walgreens titles the ad, “Carpe Diem,” seize the day. If Walgreens promotes non-natural hair colors as a vehicle of fun, such colors clearly have reached the mainstream; though judging from the reactions to my own purple stripe, not always among women of my generation, at least not in my neighborhood.

I had my purple stripe put in several months before I saw that ad, prompted by an equally funky young woman. We met in the middle of the street in front of my little house near the sea, she checking the state of her garden, I taking groceries from car to house. “Hi, I’m Abigail. My friends and I are renting that house for the coming year,” she said, pointing behind her. “We’re moving in today.” The house, a small, white cottage, once the parish house for a nearby church, is rented each school year by groups of female undergraduates who attend a nearby college. They add swing and energy to a neighborhood otherwise populated largely by little boys with harried parents. Abigail was lovely, with café au lait skin and a soft, light green Afro.

“What day does the trash pick-up come?” she asked. “And do you know a place to get good fish?” As I answered her questions I marveled at how strikingly mundane they were, to concern one with green hair. I would have expected questions about art galleries or rock concerts. This moment of incongruity, between her appearance and her concerns, caught my attention.

I have always loved the dissonance of contrasting elements and the tension that holds them together. Early modern music (the early Stravinsky or Prokofiev), art (Chagall, Matisse, Picasso), and fiction (Joyce or Woolf) push against the traditional but are not yet wholly modern. One can sense traces of both the old and the new in an edgy balance. Films that have cultural fractures at their core – Brokeback Mountain, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Mud – also carry an appealingly edgy tension. More prosaically, the disjunction between Abigail’s green hair and her concern about the trash pickup schedule; or the tension between a middle class senior’s apparently quotidian life and the zest of the purple stripe, which hints of something beyond.

Many women of all ages dress defensively; with the aim of masking some perceived imperfection in their bodies. For women of my age this may involve covering wrinkled, sagging necks with scarves or turtlenecks (see Nora Ephron’s essay, I Hate My Neck); loose tops to disguise sagging boobs (small-breasted women have the advantage); skirts and pants cut to disguise sprawling hips. I have done these things too. (Why women feel the need to do this is a long story, for another time.)

But I have found it more interesting to dress with an attitude of play, just for the fun of it, as at least Walgreens appreciates. For as long as I can remember I have felt the mischievous desire to adopt some minor oddity about my person, anticipating the dissonance between the relatively ordinary me and the appearance of eccentricity that it would create. (Have you seen Theresa May’s leopard-print heels? Evidently she’s into dramatic shoes.) Wearing black all the time was one of those ideas, hatched in my mid-twenties. It would have been eccentric then, but soon became a regular costume among the young, and then amongst all of us. This turned out to be something of a pattern. Each time I hit on an appealingly whimsical idea, by the time I got around to doing anything about it, the particular thing I had in mind was common practice and, therefore, no longer eccentric. So I did nothing.

But this time, I finally I did it.

An attitude of play is a larger feature of my life now than earlier – an irreverence toward established patterns, joy in the simple fun of disjunction with expectation. There is little to lose any more, as professional concerns recede. The stress of reaching a desired social or academic status is gone. Financial issues have resolved themselves to what they are likely to be from here on. This is a time for fun. And a time for the purple stripe. Those who appreciate my purple stripe do so because it is in the hair of someone my age. It would be unremarkable on a younger woman. It may be the very irreverence of the purple stripe that upsets some women of my age.

As I comb my purple stripe into a feathery cap to suit my mood today, I look forward to its opening even more doors than it already has. And its fun may be contagious. A lively friend had promised herself she would do something jazzy when she reached seventy. She recently asked for the brand and color of the dye that made my purple stripe. She had told her grandchildren of her thought to do this and they have been pleading, “Gamma, Gamma, when are you going to do it?” She said, with a wink, that she planned to color just the tips of her hair, but all around her head.

© 2016 Barbara Scott Nelson

A Survivor

clock-419250__340.jpg       Every Sunday evening I wind the grandfather  clock. It has become a ritual, marking the delicious pause that Sunday evening provides before the beginning of the week. The clock reaches up about eight feet – made of walnut, with inlaid tracings of a lighter wood,topped by a curved crest and three wooden finials. Relatively plain as such clocks go. When I slowly turn the winding handle, metal gears rotate with a series of clicks and I can feel strain on the cord lifting heavy weights. The old wood of the case creaks.


One of the issues hovering in the back of my mind these days is the prospect of one day sorting my worldly goods in preparation for moving into smaller quarters. I plan to move to Kendal at Hanover, a continuous care community in the mountains of New Hampshire, just a mile from Dartmouth College – source of football games, interesting courses, art exhibits and, reassuringly, a good medical school. I’m at the top of the wait list for Kendal, which means I could move there any time. While my need for this move is several years off, I recently learned from a friend who is the admissions officer of such a place that, all things being equal, one should move in one’s mid-late seventies. “Some people come in their eighties and find that they don’t have the energy to make new friends and develop a strong social network once they get here. So they miss out on one of the strongest features of this kind of community.” Evidently, one should think of this as the next interesting phase in life and prepare to enjoy it, rather than viewing it as the last stop.

Even with a positive attitude, here I am, at 73, sensing a move on the horizon and dreading the disruption of sorting and packing. As I savor the details of life in my city apartment and my little house near the sea, I cast a more questioning eye than usual on the stuff that has accumulated there. While neither my family nor I were ever wealthy, there’s a lot of stuff; a bit that is old and valuable, most just old. Closets of linens, pots and pans, various appliances that trace the history of my culinary explorations, and lawn equipment.   Which would I actually use in a very nice, but much smaller apartment?


I think often of the clock, as I mull this over. The feel and sounds of the clock when I wind it are likely much the same as they were for the generations of my family that owned it earlier. Winding the clock ties me to them. Over my morning coffee, in a kind of reverie, I imagine the day the clock came into my family in the early 1800’s. I picture the family living in one of those severely rectangular Pennsylvania stone farmhouses, surrounded by fields, softened only by a few shade trees next to the house and a nearby kitchen garden for vegetables and herbs. Farmers, they were, and the work was constant and hard. But times had been good and their savings had accumulated nicely. Recently they had bought a few things each year to make life more comfortable – good rugs, the newest model of icebox with a spigot to drain off the water. This year it would be a tall clock that would tick through the day and chime on the hour.

The day the clock came would have been one of high excitement. The three children were likely out of bed at dawn, chores finished, and breakfast gulped down before daylight was firmly established. After forever they heard the horse and wagon stop in front of the house, with the clomp of horses’ hooves and creak of harnesses being pulled. The clock would have been taken apart in the store (take off the bonnet, unhook the pendulum, remove the works from the case, put all four in the back of the wagon, cushion well with padding) and bumped over unpaved country roads the ten miles to their house. Once inside the house, Dad would have set the case in place against the wall and, after reassembling the clock, started the pendulum going with a touch of his finger, bringing it to life. The tick and chime, which seemed so loud at first that conversation stopped while everyone listened, gradually slipped into the background. The clock probably liked being backed up against the cool stone wall. In time, the moisture in the clock’s wood would come into equilibrium with that in the cool air around it. The clock would settle in, ticking away comfortably, as long as it lived in stone houses like this one, heated by fireplaces or wood stoves.

While children running around the house, the occasional negligent owner who didn’t oil it regularly, and more wagon trips to new homes would have been threats, I imagine the most dangerous moment for the clock would have been when it first encountered a house with central heating. This would have been after several generations of downsizing decisions, when it ended up in the fancy city home of the couple’s great-grandchildren, in the latter part of the 19th century. Central heating, when it arrived, dried out the air and the by-then very old wood of the clock as well. The fragility one senses today may have come from that time, when the wood lost moisture to the drier surround, every piece became a bit smaller, and the joints were no longer so tight.


My city apartment has central heat, as will the apartment I will be moving to. I run a humidifier in the winter when the heat is on and the air is dry – partly for my skin, partly for the plants, but significantly for the health and well being of the clock. By now, caring for it is an act of stewardship. My role, in the story of this long-running family, is to keep the clock healthy and ticking for the next generation.

“It’s a survivor,” said the clock repair guy who came to look at it when it first came to live with me. And the clock has helped all of us survive. Like a mother’s heartbeat to her unborn baby, the background pulse of the clock’s steady tick and its regular chime mean home.

As I come out of my reverie I realize that the clock is not just one of many possessions about which decisions will need to be made. It is a member of the family, and certainly cannot be left behind. It will live with me at Kendal and then be loved and cared for by one of the next generation, who may also have grown up with an ancient clock ticking in the house.

© 2016, Barbara Scott Nelson

Pedicuris Interruptus

feet-799034_640 copy These days I get monthly pedicures. As a fairly straightforward Yankee type who buys clothes when necessary, not for entertainment, and the care of whose feet is a do it yourself operation, pedicures have not been a regular part of my adult life. However, now that I am in my seventies, orthopedic limitations prevent reaching my toes. To my chagrin, no matter how hard I try or how many contorted positions I experiment with, I can no longer fold my body tightly enough, bringing shoulders to knees, and stretch my arms far enough, to reach my toes, file and paint the nails.

Rose, a good pedicurist, works in a nearby salon. She has become one of the small army of helpers who now ease my way in life. Rose is a nice, young woman with brains and ambition. She’s on her way somewhere, and I enjoy talking with her about her visions for the future. I hope she beats the odds and makes it.

I have come to enjoy the routines of the pedicure. My feet, released from the confines of socks and shoes, shout with the freedom to stretch and wriggle. Jeans rolled above knees; I slip my feet into warm, blue water and sink deeply into a spacious leather chair with massage capabilities. Lying back with tea in hand, my feet and legs enjoy a long, relaxing soak; dry winter skin is sloughed off; and after the cutting and filing but before the painting, Rose gives a lengthy foot massage with delicious oils and lotions. I have learned to relax into the warmth and caress of the pedicure, quiet my mind, and drift off into clouds of indistinct sound and scent.

The last time I went to the salon, I took along a copy of Strad, a British magazine for the players and makers of bowed, stringed instruments. Reading articles about such things as Stradivari’s early instruments, and summer and winter rosins, is part of my research in preparation for writing a story about violin making. Total immersion in an elegant world. Carrying the magazine around to read while waiting for the dentist or the subway, people ask what it is, what it is about. It’s not a commonly known magazine in this country.

On this particular day, as my pedicure was ending with the painting of purple on my toenails, a rare male cautiously peeked around the corner, asking if this was the place for pedicures. He explained that he had never had a pedicure before but his wife had given him a gift certificate, so here he was. He was Harvard Square casual; slender, probably in his early forties, dark hair shot with grey, wearing rumpled jeans, a dark shirt, and very worn running shoes. A uniform that masks all social and intellectual distinctions. “I don’t know what to expect,” he said, “or what to do.” Rose invited him in saying, “Just relax and put your feet in the water.” He apologized for the state of his feet and repeated that he had never had a pedicure before. Rose reassured, saying, “That’s fine. I’ve seen everything.” As I took a look at the situation out of the corner of my eye, I could appreciate why his wife thought to give him that gift certificate.

As I picked up my stuff to go, he asked if my Strad magazine belonged to the shop. He started talking about the woman pictured on the front cover, Rachel Podger, a British baroque violinist who had won the 2015 Bach Prize awarded by the Royal Academy of Music in London. He has her Bach partitas, he said. “I am in the position to make recommendations to the Boston Celebrity Series and would like to get her to perform there.” Scrambling to turn my brain back on, I emerged from my hazy clouds enough to mention my writing project. “Are there good luthiers in Boston?” he asked, “There’s one in New York.” I asked if he was referring to Sam Zygmuntowicz, arguably the best luthier in the United States, who has a workshop in Brooklyn and has made violins for Isaac Stern and several members of the Emerson Quartet. I told him of one or two luthiers in the Boston area who were very good, if not quite of Sam’s renown. Hoping to shut down this conversation and return to my reverie, but interested in more talk another time, I gave him my email address, vowing to meet for coffee sometime.

As I left, I was ambivalent about this man’s questions. You never know whom you will meet in the salon. All sorts of people get pedicures, some of them quite interesting. However, I had become accustomed to the mindless drift of these monthly sessions. I had been enjoying the softening of my Yankee soul and now considered self-indulgent pleasure an amiable feature of life. Unexpectedly turning my mind back on was a jolt. Perhaps I should entertain the possibility that pedicures can contain mindful as well as mindless relaxation, and enjoy whatever comes my way in the salon. And newcomers should be prepared to learn that pedicures are about more than feet.


© 2016 Barbara Scott Nelson