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Don't disturb the daffodils

I confess: I’d begun to doubt the 100,000 Marathon Daffodils volunteers planted between Hopkinton and Boston as an emblem of hope and renewal after last year’s bombings would bloom in time for this year’s race. New England winters are brutal, and this past winter felt longer and colder than most. Although last weekend was warm, this week has been cold, and we don’t have any buds (much less blooms) on our backyard tulips and daffodils.

Imagine, then, my surprise and delight when I drove to the grocery store today and saw the following emblems of hope and renewal blooming along Commonwealth Avenue, just in time for Monday’s Marathon:

Marathon daffodils

Daffodils, it turns out, are stronger than I thought. For months, these bulbs lay sleeping, quietly waiting for the snow to melt and the days to lengthen. Even though today was cold enough for a jacket, hat, and gloves, apparently nothing can stop a daffodil with a deadline.

Eventual winner (Jeptoo)

One year ago today was a beautiful day in the Boston suburbs. It was sunny and cool–perfect race weather–as J and I walked from our house to Commonwealth Avenue, were we watch the Boston Marathon every year. “Our” corner is situated between Miles 18 and 19 of the race, about a mile before Heartbreak Hill. Last year like every other, J and I arrived at the race in time to see the last of the wheelchair runners, the first of the front-runners, and the swarming throng of average Joes running, jogging, or limping their way toward Boston.

Calf sleeves

Folks who live within walking distance of the race route often make a day of watching the Marathon, arriving with picnics, kids, dogs, and sporting equipment in tow. On our way to watch last year’s Marathon, J and I saw two young boys—brothers, best friends, or both—taking turns pulling a red wagon heaped with soccer balls, Frisbees, and a baseball glove that tumbled to the sidewalk. “Hey, kids,” J and I cried. “You lost your glove!” The boys stopped, retrieved the glove, and carefully tucked it back into the wagon, fussing over the contents as solicitously as any new parent would swaddle a newborn.

Blind runner with guide

It looked like a scene straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, and I’ve thought of it occasionally over the past few weeks as updated security measures have been unveiled for this year’s Marathon. This year, backpacks and coolers are no longer allowed along the race route, and there will be no more military troops marching with laden rucksacks. One of the unfortunate but understandable effects of last year’s attack is a heightened suspicion toward anything large enough to hide a pressure cooker, whether that be a backpack, baby stroller, or red wagon heaped with soccer balls and baseball gloves. Officially gone are the days of watching the Marathon in blithe disregard of any danger.

Second sole

One of the still-unbelievable aspects of last year’s attack was the way it bisected an otherwise beautiful day into the irreconcilable categories of “Before” and “After.” J and I walked to the Marathon in the morning, watching and cheering runners for a few hours before heading toward home, stopping for lunch along the way. Seeing our cameras, the guy behind the counter asked if we were going to the Marathon, and we explained we’d already been and were heading home. Over lunch, J and I remembered the previous year’s Marathon, which had happened days after we’d put Reggie to sleep. That year, we remarked, had been a trying one, but this year promised to be better. “Unless disaster strikes,” I remarked without any sense of foreboding.

No stopping

One year ago today, disaster did strike, but it missed J and me. By the time the first Boylston Street bomb went off at 2:49 pm, we were already home, sorting through the pictures we’d taken and planning to spend the rest of the afternoon working. I was planning to blog a handful of photos and tried to access Boston.com to look up the names of the winning runners, only to find the site sluggish and unresponsive. Only after J and I got a voicemail from a concerned relative did we realized Boston had made the national news for all the wrong reasons.

Never give up

One year later, I’m still struggling to reconcile the two halves of that divided day. How could a bright and sunny morning so quickly turn into something dark and sorrowful? Today is a gray and drizzly day in the Boston suburbs, and that seems appropriate for a day of remembrance. Next Monday, we’ll show up in our usual spot to cheer on the runners, but we’ll be ever-mindful of the lives, limbs, and innocence that were lost one year ago today.

One year later, the post I eventually wrote about the 2013 Boston Marathon still feels spot-on.

We Are Boston

On Sunday night, J and I took the T into Boston to see legendary tabla player Zakir Hussain and his “Masters of Percussion” perform at Symphony Hall. Before the concert, J and I had dinner at the Prudential Center, where gold and blue banners hung in honor of this month’s Marathon. “We are Boston,” several proclaimed, while others promoted the Twitter hashtag #LoveBoston.

We Are Boston

After dinner, J and I had time to browse on Boylston Street, then we made a pilgrimage to 298 Beacon Street, the site of last month’s fatal fire. It was a mild and bright evening, with the sun angling low toward the horizon, and it seemed like half the city was outside sitting on park benches, cycling, pushing baby strollers, or walking dogs. A steady stream of passersby stopped to quietly consider the sad, burnt-out building on Beacon Street where two firemen lost their lives, and a line of passing cars slowed in deference to the blue police barricades and gold “Caution” tape that surround the site.

After the fire

At Symphony Hall, we watched a parade of Indian families arrive and take their seats, women of all ages dressed in elegant silk saris and colorful shawls. There were several surges of latecomers held up in Boston’s notorious traffic, and Hussain worked this into his act, explaining how one song’s intricately layered rhythms were inspired by Indian traffic jams, with lumbering trucks weaving down the center of the street; smaller vehicles like carts and rickshaws zipping around the trucks; pedestrians impulsively darting in front of trucks, carts, and rickshaws; and stray dogs and cats milling everywhere, in blithe disregard of all these human comings and goings.

Waiting for his master's takeout order

The piece Hussain played while describing this scene moved in its own unpredictable and syncopated time, slowing down then speeding up in hypnotic bursts. This is how both our lives and commutes are, Hussain explained. So much rushing to pile into our cars, then so much waiting in traffic. What kind of unpredictable and syncopated commutes had the latecomers weathered on their way to Symphony Hall, followed by the wait to claim their tickets, followed by a frantic scurry into the hall and toward their seats, only to finally arrive, breathless and ready to listen?

Love Boston

After the concert as J and I wended our way out of Symphony Hall and toward the T, I was filled with a surge of gratitude for this, my adopted city. I’ve never been swept up in an Indian traffic jam, nor have I experienced the shouting conductors and lumbering buses of Lagos, which Teju Cole had described so vividly at Friday night’s reading. But because I live in a city where the likes of Zakir Hussain and Teju Cole pause in the course of their own syncopated journeys, I can glimpse the world right here from Boston, one of the many places where many roads intersect. “We are Boston,” those gold and blue banners proclaimed, and on Sunday night, it felt like loving Boston was one and the same as loving the whole wide world.

Resigning himself to the paparazzi

The last time I saw Teju Cole was in February, 2013, when he gave a talk at Boston College, and I used that talk as an excuse to show you a picture of his hands signing my copy of Open City. Last night, Teju was in Cambridge signing copies of his new book, Every Day Is For the Thief, and at that event I found myself taking yet more photos of Teju’s hands, signing.

Hands

I’ve always been fascinated by people’s hands, as they say so much about a person’s life and livelihood. As I type these words, for instance, I have a green inkblot on the ring-finger of my left hand: proof that I wrote in my journal today, my fountain pen coloring the callus where my pen rests. Being Italian, I find it impossible to talk without using my hands, and part of the appeal of going to a book signing is watching a writer use his: does he gesture when he talks? Are his fingers long or short? Is his handwriting emphatic and bold or languid and serene?

Pen in hand

I realize that most writers (myself included) do the majority of their writing on a computer keyboard, their words being typed rather than handwritten. Still, there is something oddly intimate about seeing a writer with pen in hand: an artist in action wielding the tool of his trade. I’ve known Teju Cole for years now, so I’ve seen him sign book after book: when it comes to book signings, you might say I’m an old hand. Regardless, it’s inspiring to see a writer touch a book born from his own hand: a tangible thing he imagined, brought into being, and now sends out to the world.

Click here to see more photos from Teju Cole’s book signing at the Harvard Book Store last night.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

There is something simultaneously fascinating and unsettling about the bottled specimens on display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, with so many creatures preserved in formaldehyde. Only a cruel victor exhibits the bodies of his slain enemies as a reminder of the sickening spoils of war, and even crueler is the conqueror who preserves those bodies for the ages: spoils that will never spoil.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

The natural history museum in Dublin is popularly called the “Dead Zoo” for its abundance of taxidermy animals, and the Harvard Museum of Natural History has plenty of those on display. But what caught my eye during J and my recent visit to the Harvard Museum of Natural History to see the glass flowers were all those other glass items: a veritable bottled zoo with fish, reptiles, and mollusks preserved in neatly organized glass containers.

There is an odd air of earnestness around these bottles and their display that calls to mind an industrious housewife showing off the preserves she’s canned for the winter. Given a rich harvest, it would be criminal to let your fruit die on the vine; better instead to can until your fingers bleed.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

The bottled specimens at the Harvard Museum of Natural History are remnants from a harvest that was never sustainable but once made a certain semblance of sense. If the earth is crawling with creatures, why not kill and study some of them rather than letting them die a natural but undocumented death, forever lost to science? The glass bottles at the Harvard Museum of Natural History are not just biological specimens; they are historical artifacts from a time when nature seemed fecund enough, you could afford to be extravagant, displaying a mosaic of beetle carapaces…

Harvard Museum of Natural History

…or an entire shelf of sparrows.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

We no longer dare be so wasteful; we are too mindful of what’s been lost and what we stand to lose. But at a time when we no longer discount the life of even one creature, it would be prodigal to reject the bottled bodies of those that have already been killed.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

Go see the bottled zoo at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, wear out your eyes (and your camera batteries) studying them, and then seek out these same creatures in the flesh, in their natural environment and alive. The bodies you see under glass at the Harvard Museum of Natural History died a sacrificial death, slain in the name of science, so they will have died in vain if we don’t learn from them. There’s no more need for specimens and study-skins–no more need to kill, capture, or collect–now that science has succeeded in collecting the whole set.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

Thank you for sharing

On Friday, J and I had tickets for an afternoon Boston Symphony Orchestra concert, so on our way to Symphony Hall, we stopped by the Engine 33 firehouse on Boylston Street to pay our respects at the makeshift memorial outside the firehouse that lost two of its members in last week’s fire.

Two crosses

The pile of flowers outside Engine 33 is eerily reminiscent of the outpouring of offerings left down the street at Copley Square in the aftermath of last April’s Marathon bombing: another pile marking another Boston tragedy. I’m beginning to understand why piles of flowers, ballcaps, handwritten notes, and other offerings spontaneously appear in the aftermath of tragedy. When you first hear that someone has died or been injured, your first human impulse is to wonder what you might do to help. When there’s not anything tangible you can do, you offer instead whatever is close at hand, whether that be flowers, a hug, or a handwritten sign.

Thank you

In Buddhist iconography, the bodhisattva of compassion–Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit, Kannon in Japanese, Kwan Yin in Chinese, or Kwan Seum Bosal in Korean–is sometimes shown having one thousand hands containing one thousand eyes. As soon as one of Kwan Seum Bosal’s eyes sees someone suffering, Kwan Seum Bosal has a hand right there to help.

Boston Strong

So, where are Kwan Seum Bosal’s one thousand hands and eyes? Well, I have two of each, and presumably so do you. Whenever or wherever there is a tragedy—a fallen firefighter, a lost plane, or a town buried in a mudslide—Kwan Seum Bosal’s thousand hands and eyes appear in a spontaneous outpouring of help and support, stranger reaching out to stranger.

Memorial wreath

In the immediate aftermath of Wednesday’s fatal fire, a fund was set up to help the families of Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy: an immediate and heartfelt response, as anyone with eyes in their head can see that families who have lost a breadwinner need financial assistance. But in the emotional aftermath of tragedy, some hands might want to do more than just write a check. A memorial gives people a place to visit, pay their respects, and deliver bouquets, handwritten notes, and other mementos: things a bit more (literally) touching than a donation submitted by mail or online.

Memorial plaque

In the weeks after we put MAD to sleep, I remembered that one natural part of grieving is the sorting of your world into two kinds of places: the places where you do and don’t feel safe to cry. In the weeks after we put MAD to sleep, I felt comfortable crying in my car, in the shower, or in front of a sink full of dishes; I did not feel comfortable crying in my classrooms, office, or any other public or professional space.

Eyeglass cases

A memorial is a safe place to cry, even if you didn’t personally know the deceased. A memorial is a place where strangers come together to share a moment of solemn sadness: the common experience that is the root of all compassion. A memorial like the one outside the Engine 33 firehouse isn’t built by any one person. Instead, it’s a communal offering, placed by a thousand hands and wept over by a thousand eyes.

Commonwealth Mall

When I heard yesterday afternoon that there was a nine-alarm fire in a brownstone on Beacon Street in Boston’s Back Bay, there were two things that immediately came to mind: a long-ago Halloween party, and the Hotel Vendome fire.

Vendome Fire Memorial

Years ago, my ex and I went to a Halloween party in a hip Back Bay penthouse overlooking the Charles River: a building on the same street as yesterday’s fire. The host was an engineer who worked at MIT’s Media Lab, so the party was attended by brilliant young people who designed computers and built robots. My ex went to the party as a dressed-to-kill vampire in a black suit, white face paint, and bloody vampire teeth, and I went as a sexy witch in a black dress and fishnet stockings, a witch’s hat, and two bite marks on my neck. The guest who took the cake at that long-ago party overlooking the Charles, however, was dressed as a (literal) flasher, clad in swim trunks, sneakers, and a trench coat wired to set off flashbulbs whenever he opened it.

Vendome Fire Memorial

The second and more serious thing that came to mind when I heard about yesterday’s Back Bay fire, however, was the Hotel Vendome fire. In June, 1972, nine firefighters died when the Hotel Vendome, which was undergoing renovations, collapsed after a four-alarm fire. The Hotel Vendome tragedy was the deadliest day ever for Boston firefighters, leaving eight women widowed and 25 children fatherless. The Hotel Vendome fire happened more than 40 years ago–long before I moved to New England–so I have no personal recollection of the tragedy, but there is a memorial to the fallen firefighters on the Commonwealth Mall, mere blocks from yesterday’s fire. Because of that memorial, when I heard about yesterday’s fire, I immediately thought of the Vendome tragedy and quietly prayed, “No more fallen firefighters, please.”

Vendome Fire Memorial

Despite everyone’s prayers and a valiant rescue effort, yesterday two firefighters died: Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy. Firefighter Kennedy was 33 years old and unmarried; Lieutenant Walsh was 43 years old and leaves a widow and three small children. The Hotel Vendome fire happened the day before Father’s Day, ruining that holiday for the children it left bereft, and I wonder how all those Easter stories about chocolate bunnies and rebirth will feel a month from now, as three children grapple with the fact that daddy, unlike Jesus, isn’t coming back from the dead this year.

Vendome Fire Memorial

Time is both treacherous and tenacious. It’s been years—a lifetime, it seems—since I wore fishnet stockings and sexy dresses, and these days the MIT Media Lab is designing prosthetic legs for Marathon bombing survivors. I never knew the nine men killed in the Hotel Vendome fire, just as I don’t know the two men killed yesterday, but I know their memories will linger long. Time slips away as fast as a building goes up in smoke—one veteran firefighter said he’d never in twenty years seen anything like yesterday’s fire, which was whipped to a frenzy by high winds. And yet for the families who lost fathers, sons, husbands, and brothers in the Hotel Vendome fire, does that fateful day before Father’s Day, 1972 feel like yesterday, not an entire generation ago?

Vendome Fire Memorial

The purpose of a memorial, of course, is to commemorate, but a good memorial can also educate, capturing the stories of people we never knew long enough to mourn. Forty years from now, will a memorial mark the site where two heroes perished on a day like any other? Forty years from now, will a writer who never knew Lieutenant Walsh and Firefighter Kennedy nevertheless remember them, touched by the tragedy of their sacrifice, finding theirs to be a story that must never be forgotten?

I took the photos illustrating today’s post on Thanksgiving Day, 2012: a brilliant fall day whose golden light seemed to exist outside time. If you want to donate to the fund set up for the families of Lieutenant Walsh and Firefighter Kennedy, you can do so here.

Witch hazel

Last week was Spring Break at Framingham State, so today was the first time I’d been on campus in over a week. It’s been an unseasonably cold spring: in Newton, our tulips started to sprout leaves about a week ago and then promptly stopped, their growth stunted by a dismaying string of below-freezing nights. I’d hoped that the end of Spring Break would coincide with the arrival of spring weather, but instead, today is cold and gray, with the forecast calling for a nor’easter and overnight snow.

Given how slow spring is in arriving this year, you’d think that a sparse sprinkling of witch hazel blossoms next to the library at Framingham State–the first flowering thing I’ve seen all spring–would be enough to bring a hint of cheer, but any cheeriness was quashed when I checked my Flickr archives and found this:

Witch hazel

This is what this same witch hazel shrub looked like last March 7th, just before a storm brought sixteen inches of fresh snow. That wasn’t the final snowstorm we had last March–we got another eight inches on March 19th–but realizing that this time last year, we had snowdrops blooming under our eaves…

Snowdrops in snow - March 27 / Day 86

…was enough to drive me to despair, given that this same spot is still buried under a remnant of all the snow J has raked off our roof this year.

Cervantes said comparisons are odious, and Theodore Roosevelt said comparison is the thief of joy. Had I nothing to compare this weather with, I might be content that there is something blooming, somewhere. Instead, I look at that image of last year’s snowdrops–my calendar image for the month of March–and feel a bit like a child who’s been told there will be no Christmas this year. Yes, the spring will arrive, eventually, but how will it compare to the Photos of Springs Past?

Harvard Museum of Natural History

Last weekend, J and I took the T to Harvard Square, where we went to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Although we each had been to the HMNH before, neither one of us had been there in years, and we’d never been there together. We each were overdue, in other words, for a return visit.

Fragile

The last time I went to the HMNH, I’d traveled from New Hampshire with a busload of college students on a field trip, but I abandoned the group as soon as we disembarked, exploring the museum (and writing a pair of blog posts) on my own. When J and I went to the HMNH last weekend, we retraced the route I’d taken on that previous trip, making a beeline for the glass flowers, an eye-popping collection of botanical specimens crafted from glass during the period between 1887 and 1936 by the father and son team of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka.

Fragile

The Blaschkas were glassmakers in Dresden who were trained in the art of Bohemian glass making and ultimately found a niche creating amazingly lifelike glass models of invertebrates and plants that are showcased in natural history museums around the world. (The National Museum of Ireland’s natural history museum in Dublin, for instance, contains a collection of more than 500 Blaschka invertebrates.)

Fragile

In an era before plastic, the meticulously detailed plant models the Blaschkas crafted were a huge improvement over the wax and papier mache models botanists had previously relied upon to study plant anatomy. Because the glass flowers are intended as botanical teaching tools, they aren’t “just” flowers: one of the things that amazed me on this return trip to the HMNH was artistry with which the Blaschkas crafted entire plants out of glass. There are leaves of glass, stems of glass, and even tiny rootlets of glass. One case, for example, shows enormous glass bees pollinating enormous glass flowers…

Big bee

…while another case shows a cluster of disease-spotted apples and a branch of moldy apricots, a display designed to show the effects of plant diseases on fruit.

A few bad apples

A few bad apples might not be as pretty as the colorful vases and beads usually associated with Bohemian glassmaking, but understanding the effect that mold and blight can have on fruit crops is an important lesson for any budding botanist.

Rotten apricots

The Blaschkas were artists whose dedication to their craft is apparent in every glass model, but they also display the keen eyes of amateur scientists. Because the glass flowers are intended as botanical specimens, they need to be accurate, not just pretty.

Fragile

One of the things I love about the glass flowers is the way they bridge the realms of art and science. Flowers are inherently pretty, but there is something beautiful, too, about an anatomically accurate diagram of a living plant.

Fragile

The glass flowers are teaching tools, but they are also aesthetically amazing. The more you understand botany, the more you can appreciate the beauty of a well-designed flower, and the closer you examine a pretty posy, the more you appreciate the intricacies of design that hold that flower together. Because glass is a fragile but enduring medium, the Blaschkas left an enduring scientific and aesthetic legacy that continues to amaze and inspire.

Fragile

Click here for more photos from last weekend’s trip to the Harvard Museum of Natural History: enjoy!

Reaching

When J and I went to Wellesley College to visit the greenhouse several weekends ago, we made a point to see Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker,” which has garnered lots of attention since he was unveiled outside the Davis Museum last month. I refer to the sleepwalker as a “him” rather than an “it” because this statue has acquired an almost-celebrity status after controversy erupted over his presence at the all-women’s college.

Asleep

Critics of Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” argue he should be installed inside (or removed from campus entirely) because the sight of an eerily realistic half-naked man looming with arms outstretched might be triggering to survivors of sexual assault. I’m no expert on the subject of post-traumatic stress, but I can say this much: Matelli’s sleepwalker is unbelievably creepy. When J and I set out on foot to find him, we had only a vague sense of where he might be located…but the second J spotted him, there was no mistaking him. Matelli’s statue doesn’t look like a statue: he looks like a man standing on the side of the road in his underwear. Had we not known the sleepwalker was a statue, I’m sure we would have veered around him, doing anything in our power to avoid the creepy half-naked guy on the other side of the street.

Wandering

But once you know the sleepwalker isn’t real, does he still seem threatening? Art is full of nude and semi-nude figures. Would Michelangelo’s “David” be frightening to survivors of sexual assault, given he’s entirely nude and armed with a slingshot? Few would suggest Michelangelo’s “David” isn’t art because he is gorgeous, and eye-pleasing nudes have long been considered worthy subjects for a sculptor’s attention. But a flabby, pale-skinned guy with a paunch calls into question our notion of “art” because his form is obviously not idealized. This isn’t an Adonis or even an Everyman; instead, it’s some random guy with a sleep disorder.

Posing

Imagining myself as an undergraduate walking back to my dorm after dark, I’m guessing I’d startle the first time I saw a statue like the sleepwalker looming near my path…but I’d probably grow used to him, realizing this half-naked guy doesn’t pose the same threat as other half-naked guys. Seeing Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” in the light of day on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I was struck by how vulnerable he looked. Perhaps I was swayed by the slushy puddle he was standing in, but instead of seeing him as a potential sexual predator, I couldn’t help but see him as a poor schlub who’s going to catch his death of cold if someone doesn’t cover him with a sweater or shirt.

Perchance to dream

Up close, Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” is alarmingly realistic. His skin is blotchy and prickled with goosebumps, and you can see the veins in his hands and the dirt under his fingernails. This verisimilitude is exactly what makes the sleepwalker creepy. Why would anyone in their right mind cast a statue that looks exactly like an average, ordinary person, and why would any college agree to display such a piece out in the open, right alongside a major campus thoroughfare?

Needs a manicure

“He looks like something from the morgue,” one man remarked after having pulled his car to the side of the road to take pictures. In the brief time we spent looking at this man-in-briefs, J and I saw a half-dozen onlookers in cars or on foot stop to investigate (and take photos of) the statue. Nobody seemed frightened by him, but many seemed to be bemused, taking the requisite cell-phone shots, with or without themselves posed for a selfie. Whether or not his presence is welcome at Wellesley, the sleepwalker has proven to be popular with sightseers, dog-walkers, passing pedestrians, and at least one blogger, all of whom want to stop, stare, and figure out what all the fuss is about.

J with sleepwalker

Sometimes in my literature classes, I pose the question “What is art,” and Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” silently asks the same question. Is art limited to depictions of pretty people or figures so stylized, we’d never mistake them for an actual person? Can art replicate in almost exact verisimilitude the pockmarks and imperfects of an actual person, or must art necessarily be idealized? In debating these questions with my students, we’d often decide that intentionality is key: if an artist is trying to make a statement, even a fire extinguisher hanging on a wall can be “art.” If you believe art is anything that invites discussion and debate, Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” has certainly achieved that aim.

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