Boston


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.

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.

New England Aquarium

Last semester I taught a student from a tropical climate who asked on our first 20-degree day whether the weather in New England would get any worse. “Oh, yes,” I replied, to my student’s immediate and obvious dismay. “There will be single-digit and below-zero days when 20 degrees feels warm.”

New England Aquarium

I don’t know how that student from a tropical climate is doing now that we’ve entered the frigid days of late January. When I drove to campus this morning, the temperature was in the single-digits, and my brief walk from car to classroom was razor-sharp, the wind cutting through me rather than blowing around. On some days, it’s so cold you can barely catch your breath, the cold knocking the wind out of your lungs like a fist to the chest, and this morning was one of those days.

New England Aquarium

This afternoon, I waited until the temperature rose to 20 degrees to take a short afternoon walk, and even then I only dared to walk around the block, nearly counting the steps back to my warm office. On a cold, brilliantly bright day, it almost hurts to look at the sharply monochromatic landscape, the streets and sidewalks blanched with salt and the snow lacerated with exaggeratedly contrasting shadows. On a cold and brilliantly bright day, everything seems too sharp, and you long for the warmth of bright color and the solace of softly blurred edges.

New England Aquarium

What an excellent opportunity, then, to revisit some of the photos I took when J and I went to the Aquarium on a November day that felt just as bleak and cold as today. “Can New England winters get any worse than this,” I might have wondered then, and my immediate and dismaying response must have been “Yes, they can, and that is why you should take plenty of pictures, saving up shots of warmth and color for a frigid late January day to come.”

Endlessly repeating, with legs

I did indeed go to the Museum of Fine Arts on my birthday, as planned, and I took the requisite shot of my legs reflected in the shiny base of Josiah McElheny’s “Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism,” a cube-shaped case containing rows of mirrored-glass bottles whose reflections repeat toward infinity. Given an endlessly repeating reflection, the temptation toward reflective photography is equally infinite, so it seems somehow fitting that I’ve revisited (and re-photographed) this same piece over and over and over.

Ad infinitum

Birthdays are a natural time for reflecting on the repetitive nature of our (sadly) finite lives: none of us, after all, is getting any younger. We might revisit (and re-photograph) the same artwork time and again, but we can’t step into the same proverbial river twice. The “me” who photographed this piece in 2014 is different—older, wider, but not necessarily wiser—than those earlier incarnations who photographed this piece in 2010, 2009, and 2008. Looking at those pictures, now, I can date them primarily by what I’m wearing: I no longer carry that purse; I still wear that skirt and boots; I no longer fit into those jeans; and I literally wore out those sandals, which the manufacturer sadly doesn’t make any more. “Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism” is part of the museum’s permanent collection, but everything around it (myself included) has done nothing but change since it was acquired.

Endlessly repeating, with legs

The illusion of McElheny’s piece, in other words, is that of objects endlessly repeating without changing: something that never happens outside the artificial realm of art. We humans repeat ourselves for a time, returning to the same scenes to do, think, and say roughly the same things over and over again…but our current selves don’t perfectly mirror our previous selves. Artworks, on the other hand, don’t have birthdays: they don’t gain weight, wrinkles, or gray hair, instead freeze-framing a particular moment in time that we changing and aging humans can never return to. Only in novels do portraits age instead of their subjects, Dorian Gray’s peculiar predicament being one that none of the rest of us share.

Bottled

I recently finished Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which tells the curious and convoluted story of Ursula Todd, a woman with endlessly repeating lives. Ursula has a seemingly infinite number of chances to live the life she was destined to lead: whenever her life takes a turn down a less-than-promising avenue, darkness falls and she is born again. Like the protagonist in the romantic comedy Groundhog Day, Ursula Todd has (and apparently needs) multiple chances to make the right choices in her life; the rest of us, it seems, are fated to botch and bungle our way without hope for an infinite number of re-tries.

Self-portrait with endless reflections

It might be tempting to wish for endlessly repeating lives, but perhaps we should be careful what we wish for. A few days before Henry David Thoreau died, he was asked by a family friend what he thought about the afterlife, and Thoreau famously replied “One world at a time.” Even without the hope or threat of endlessly repeating lives, our days repeat themselves with startling regularity: another day, another dollar; another year, another birthday. Some mornings when I’m taking the dogs to and from our backyard dog pen, I marvel at the cyclic redundancy of such mundane chores: surely in a past life I was a farmer tending livestock, my entire world revolving around the in-goes and out-goes of animal care. We might not have infinite lifetimes to attain our destiny, but we do have a lengthy repetition of days. What is a life, after all, but a collection of moments, “yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow” repeating themselves, one after another, for a certain spell, a finite resource not to be wasted.

The birthday girl

It’s been a few years since I’ve kept my tradition of going to the Museum of Fine Arts on or around my birthday. (I took the above photo in 2010, when I celebrated my 41th birthday.) Today, though, is a perfect museum-going day. While much of the nation is in a deep-freeze, it’s unseasonably warm, rainy, and soupy-humid in Boston, with swirling wisps of snow-melt fog. What better day to celebrate one’s birthday inside where it’s warm and dry?

Giant baby head in snow

So today I have an afternoon date with John Singer Sargent, whose watercolors are on display at the MFA through January 20th. Water in the form of winter rains can leave you damp and shivering, or water in the form of watercolors can transport you to another time. On a gray and rainy January day, any influx of light and color is welcome.

Symphony Hall dressed up for the holidays

On Sunday, J and I went to Symphony Hall for a Holiday Pops concert. Whereas the mood for a typical Boston Symphony Orchestra concert is staid and serious, Sunday’s Pops concert was fun and festive, with a holiday sing-a-long, a “surprise” appearance from Santa Claus, and performances of fan favorites like “Sleigh Ride” and “The 12 Days of Christmas.” (If you’ve never heard the Boston Pops’ clever interpretation of the latter, this obviously amateur video will take you up to Day Seven and its strains of Swan Lake.)

Freezing rain on crabapples

It was fun, too, to see Symphony Hall decked out for the holidays with evergreen garlands, flaming lanterns, and colored lights. This past week has been largely gray, with sleeting rain and slush instead of snow, so we’ve had to take our color where we can get it, whether indoors or out. On gray and dim days, even the smallest pop of color is appreciated: more precious than even a partridge in a pear tree.

Penguins

As I mentioned in an earlier post, some of my favorite creatures at the New England Aquarium aren’t fish but birds. The New England Aquarium houses more than 80 penguins in an open (and noisy) habitat that visitors can view from the spiral walkway that surrounds the giant ocean tank. Whereas sea turtles are fascinating because they are creatures of the deep, penguins are enchanting because they seem so similar to ourselves. Bipedal and social, penguins really do seem to be like little people trapped in tuxedos.

Penguins

Penguins are cute, and therein lies part of their charm: the first time I saw the little blue penguins on exhibit at the Aquarium, I wanted to pop one into a pillowcase and take it home. (Needless to say, such behavior is frowned upon, so I didn’t act on the impulse.) But penguins aren’t simply cute: they are also amphibious, at home on both land and water. Clumsily cute on land, penguins become zooming torpedoes in the water, flying through the sea as fast as other birds fly in the sky. It’s as if a bumbling clown were to realize she is also a gravity defying acrobat.

Penguins

Penguins, in other words, represent a kind of “ugly duckling” realization, where something that seems clumsy is actually elegant. But whereas the cygnet in “The Ugly Duckling” becomes a swan and is never “ugly” again, penguins keep one flippered foot in both worlds, switching back and forth between their humorously clumsy terrestrial selves and their sleek and swift aquatic personae.

Penguins

Although I admire every ugly duckling who discovers herself to be a beautiful swan, I myself relate more to penguins, who are obviously in their element in the ocean but nevertheless live on land. Don’t we all have times when we feel out of our element, and don’t we all have places where our inner elegance comes alive? Surely we’ve all encountered stutterers who become self-assured when they sing or shuffling, bumbling types who transform into Fred Astaire when the music begins. As much as we’d like to become swans who never have to be awkward again, most of us are instead amphibious, moving between places where we are clumsy and places where we are self-assured.

Penguins

When I teach, I feel like an earthbound penguin, bumbling my way through a classroom, trying not to trip over my own tongue and wondering how, exactly, to keep my students entertained and occupied for an entire class session. But when I’m alone and writing, I feel as sleek and fleet as a penguin in water: here is my element, the place where I am at home. It would be tempting to hole ourselves away in the places we feel most comfortable, like a penguin who refused to set foot on land. But land is where penguins live and find love, despite their apparent clumsiness, so like penguins, we learn how to move between two worlds, it only seeming that we don’t belong in both.

This is my final contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Sea turtle and barn owl

Apparently I’m not the only one fascinated by sea turtles. On our way to the New England Aquarium on Sunday, J and I stopped to admire the carousel on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, which surprisingly was still in operation with a handful of hardy souls braving a merry-go-round ride on a bitterly cold and windy day.

Lobster

Instead of horses, the Greenway Carousel features native New England creatures like the sea turtle and barn owl pictured above or the lobster pictured at right. I took more than a dozen photos of these creatures the first time I visited the Greenway carousel this past summer, and I shot a couple videos as well, which you can view here and here.

Carousel horse

When I was a child, I loved merry-go-rounds because they were the closest a horse-crazy city girl could get to actually riding a horse. (The carousel horse at right has been retired from active duty and how lives at Kelly’s Roast Beef in Natick.) Now that I know that carousels can feature far more than horses, though, I’m at a loss to decide which of the Greenway carousel’s critters is my favorite. Whenever I try to pick just one favorite animal, I end up going round and round.

This is my Day 27 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Bill Russell statue

Yesterday on our way to the New England Aquarium, J and I stopped to take a few photos of the new statue honoring Celtics legend Bill Russell. I knew the statue was located somewhere on City Hall Plaza, so as J and I weathered the brutally cold wind on our walk from Government Center to Faneuil Hall, I told him to be on the lookout for a seven-foot statue, figuring it would be impossible to miss.

Bill Russell statue

Bill Russell is by far my all-time favorite Celtics player. He has the distinction of having won two NCAA championship titles, an Olympic gold medal, and more NBA championship rings than he has fingers to wear them on. Russell was the first African-American to coach an NBA team, serving as a player-coach for three of his thirteen professional seasons, and he revolutionized the way basketball is played by excelling at both defense and rebounding. Before Bill Russell, centers were instructed to play flat-footed, as if jumping were unseemly for a tall man. Bill Russell ignored this advice and became a shot-blocking and rebounding machine, his agility as impressive as his height.

Bill Russell statue

Boston has a fondness for erecting statues of sports heroes. There’s a statue of Bobby Orr flying through the air outside the TD Garden, a statue of Doug Flutie preparing to release his famous Hail Mary pass outside Boston College’s Alumni Stadium, and a statue of Red Auerbach–the Celtics coach with the foresight to acquire Bill Russell–sitting with a victory cigar at Quincy Market. But all of those statues focus exclusively on sports, showing their subject in a quintessential moment of victory. Bill Russell’s statue, on the other hand, focuses on his community work as much as his athletic ability: surrounding the bronze image of Russell in his #6 Celtics jersey are stone plinths with quotes from Russell’s stint as an outspoken advocate of civil rights and community mentoring.

Bill Russell statue

If “all” Bill Russel had done was win eleven championships as a member of the Boston Celtics, that might have been enough to earn him a statue. But it is his commitment to social justice and political activism that earned him a 2010 Medal of Freedom, and it is these same qualities that are commemorated in the stones that surround his likeness on City Hall Plaza. I’d like to think that long after Bill Russell’s exploits on the basketball court are forgotten, young people passing his statue will stop to consider the tall, lanky man who encourages them to reach higher than they ever thought possible.

Bill Russell statue

This is my Day 25 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

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