June 2011


Our backyard cottontail has discovered that if you sit absolutely still, neck-deep in greenery, the resident old dog will walk right past without even noticing you’re there.

Bruins goalie Tiny Thompson

Yesterday, in the happy aftermath of the Boston Bruins’ Wednesday night Stanley Cup victory, I took a moment to look through the Boston Public Library’s online collection of vintage hockey photos by Leslie Jones. Jones was a staff photographer for the Boston Herald-Traveler from 1917 to 1956, so his photos capture an era when “old time hockey” was simply the style of the day.

Bruins form the letter "B" on the ice, Boston Garden, 1930-31

Boston has a long history as a hockey town, and that is evident in Jones’ photos. There are team photos like the one at left, where Bruins players form the letter “B” on the Boston Garden ice, and there are posed portraits of old-time hockey heroes such as goalie Tiny Thompson (pictured above), a four-time Vezina Trophy winner who led the Bruins to a Stanley Cup victory in 1929. Just as interesting, though, are more casual images of players signing autographs, leading hockey clinics for local kids, or hanging out in the team locker room. Jones’ photos capture the news of his day, and now that news is history, a faded record of how things used to be.

Bruins team on the ice, Boston Garden

Throughout this past season, the National Hockey League has run a series of commercials encouraging fans to watch games because “history will be made.” Early in the playoffs, these commercials featured classic games such as the 1982 Miracle on Manchester, in which the Los Angeles Kings overcame a 5-0 deficit to beat Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers, or the 1987 Easter Epic, a playoff game between the New York Islanders and the Washington Capitals that went into four overtime periods. As the playoffs and Stanley Cup finals progressed, however, the commercials captured history-making moments from games that were merely days old, like the Canucks’ last minute win (“History goes down to the wire”) in Game 1, the Bruins’ 8-1 blowout (“History makes a statement”) in Game 3, or the Bruins’ 4-0 first period lead (“History works fast”) in Game 6. The message of these commercials was clear: keep your eyes open, because you never know when a lighting-fast play will make history.

Boston Bruins Clapper, Kamensky, and Barry, 1934-1935

And yet, the road to the Stanley Cup finals is filled with mundane moments that probably didn’t feel historic at the time. Today, I read an article about Bruins goalie Tim Thomas that explained how his working class parents in Flint, Michigan sold their wedding rings to send him to goalie camp as a kid. “They did it, likely, without even entertaining the idea that he’d one day make the NHL,” the article notes. “They did it, simply, because playing the game made him happy.” Thomas and his teammates won the Stanley Cup (“History returns to Boston”) because at each step along the way, they did the little things that add up to big wins. Some days, you know you’re making history by doing something monumental, like playing in a championship game. Most days, though, you’re just living your life: waking up, getting out of bed, and practicing (again) whatever job, sport, or craft you do. You send your kid to goalie camp, in other words, not because you think he’ll win the Stanley Cup decades later; you send your kid to goalie camp because you know it will make his day today.

Bruins goalie Tiny Thompson in locker room

I just started reading Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, and in its opening pages, Bryson says something interesting about history. Realizing that people have lived in the vicinity of his English home for “centuries and centuries…quietly going about their daily business,” Bryson realizes this sort of mundane activity is “really what history mostly is: masses of people doing ordinary things.” Although Bryson’s childhood schoolbooks were devoted to “historic” events such as battles and treaties, Bryson realizes as an adult that history is really the story of people “eating, sleeping, having sex, or endeavoring to be amused.”

When Leslie Jones took these now-archival photos, did he think he was making history? I suspect not. The commentary for the BPL Flickr collection of Jones’ work notes that Jones was “[m]odest about his abilities as a photographer…call[ing] himself a camera-man, not a photo-journalist.” Leslie Jones, in other words, made history simply by doing his job. Those NHL commercials were designed to inspire you to watch hockey games, but maybe the tagline “history will be made” should be a reminder for us to pay attention in our daily lives. Whether you realize it or not, the snapshot moments of your life today will automatically become the stuff of tomorrow’s history.

Save by Thomas!

The last time I blogged about the Boston Bruins was in November, when J and I saw the boys in black and gold lose to the LA Kings in a shootout. J and I went to roughly a dozen Bruins game this season, and nearly all of them ended like that November game: in losses. We saw the Bruins lose so many weekend home games, in fact, we started to joke about the players’ party habits. Obviously the boys in black and gold were spending too much time on Friday night ruining their reflexes for Saturday.

Shoot it like you mean it!

In other words, if you had told me in November that the Bruins would be playing for the Stanley Cup in June, I would have laughed, shrugged my shoulders, and felt your forehead for a fever. It wasn’t that the Bruins played badly in the games we went to; their play was simply inconsistent. For every laser-like shot-on-goal, there were a handful of missed opportunities. For every stunning save by goalie Tim Thomas, there were an awkward assortment of embarrassing lapses, many of them made by back-up goaltender Tuukka Rask. At many games, we weren’t sure whether we should cheer or wince, or whether we should hope for a rally or steel ourselves against the inevitable. We never doubted the Bruins could win the games we attended this season; we just witnessed too many instances when they didn’t.

Dropping the puck

The dozen or so Bruins games J and I went to this season, in other words, felt like a microcosm of what it used to be like to root for the Boston Red Sox, back when they were lovable losers who inspired seismic mood swings in their rabid fans. “At least we’ll able to get tickets next year,” became our resigned remark after every home loss, just as “Maybe next year” became a mantra among pre-2004 Red Sox fans. I’ve blogged before, in the context of the New England Patriots’ jaw-dropping 2008 Super Bowl loss, about the movie Still We Believe, a documentary chronicling the Red Sox’ disastrous 2003 seasons:

This resigned familiarity with heartbreak, after all, is what defines a true Boston sports fan. When I first watched Still We Believe when it debuted in the spring of 2004, before the Red Sox finally broke their infamous World Series curse, I couldn’t help but wonder what people outside New England would think about the insane mood swings of the die-hard fans featured in the film, which follows the Red Sox’ heartbreaking 2003 season. Could anyone but a long-suffering Sox fan understand that the fans in the film were extreme but not exaggerated?

One on one

Throughout the Bruins’ current playoffs run, they’ve reminded me a bit of the 2004 Red Sox. Those guys were a bunch of shaggy-haired idiots whose motivational slogan was “Why not us?” This year’s Bruins are unlikely enough: during much of the season, we weren’t sure they’d even make it into the playoffs, and at each stage of their climb toward the Cup, there have been plenty of moments when J and I found ourselves shaking our heads and shrugging our shoulders. “It’s OVAH,” we’d lament, sounding like the character of Angry Bill from Still We Believe, whose Sox-inspired mood swings almost give him a heart attack in one scene. On paper, the Bruins are the definite underdogs to the Vancouver Canucks, who have played consistently well all season. But still, given the blood, sweat, and sheer determination it took to get the Bruins to the Stanley Cup finals, why couldn’t they win? In the words of beloved Red Sox slugger David “Big Papi” Ortiz, “Why not?”

Setting up the shot

And so, it all comes down to this. Tonight the Bruins and Canucks will meet at the TD Garden for Game Six in their best-of-seven series. With the Canucks leading the series three games to two, the Bruins are indeed the underdogs…and yet, the three games the B’s have lost were decided by a single goal, and the two games they won were blow-outs. Tonight, the Canucks are playing for the Cup, which will be in attendance at the TD Garden in case they win, and the Bruins will be playing for their championship lives, lest their dreams for the Cup be crushed. The Bruins could win tonight, leading to an epic Game Seven in Vancouver, but the question is “Will they?”

Tim Thomas take a breather

In true mood-swinging fashion, I don’t know whether to hold out hope for a Boston Game Six win or to steel myself against the disappointment of “almost, but maybe next year.” All I’ll say for sure is I think this series will go to seven, as our experience attending a dozen losing home games this season taught J and me that these things always drag down to the bitter end. All I know for sure is that both J and I will be glued to the TV, watching every last shot and save.

Tiny pollinator

It’s a question I’ve been repeatedly asked by both my blogging and non-blogging friends. When you write a post, which comes first: the pictures or the post?

More raindrops on hosta

The answer, of course, is “It depends.” In some cases, I have a specific topic or theme I want to write about–often, something on my mind that I’ve written about in my paper journal–so then I find pictures to accompany that theme. These pictures might go along with what I’m blogging, or they might simply be whatever pictures I have on hand. This latter scenario is why so many of my posts about Zen are illustrated with pictures of graffiti. Because I typically walk through Central Square before sitting at the Cambridge Zen Center, on any given day that I blog about Zen, I usually have lots of graffiti pictures close at hand.

Kousa dogwood

In other cases, though, I have pictures of a particular event that I plan to blog, so I start with those pictures and basically write an essay “around” them. Some examples of this kind of post would be the entries I’ve written about the Boston Marathon or pretty much any of my sports posts. Given a bunch of photos from a hockey or basketball game, I try to think of something to say that would go along with the pictures. These posts feel more like news articles than journal entries: I’m basically reporting on something I did, and I’m illustrating with pictures of what I saw. These posts feel different (neither better nor worse–just different) from the more “personal,” journal-inspired entries.

Orange beetle

And then there are days like today when I simply have a picture–in this case, a tiny bee pollinating a cluster of pink flowers, which I took in our backyard one morning this week–that I want to share because I like it. There’s no big story behind how I came to shoot a picture of a bee in the backyard, or how I shot any of today’s other photos on various dog-walks this week. I just had these pictures lying around, so after posting them on Flickr, I tried to think of a reason (excuse?) to use them on-blog.

The all-time classic unanswerable question is “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” For writers who both blog and take pictures, though, a close second in the unanswerable question department is “Which comes first, the pictures or the post?”

House fly on white peony

Sometime in the past week, the suburban landscape quietly stepped behind a leafy curtain to slip into something more comfortable, casting off the garish pinks and reds of spring in favor of the more muted hues of summer. June is the traditional month of weddings, and it’s the month I typically return to pleasure reading after having spent too much energy during the academic year reading piles of student papers. June, in other words, is a happy time when the green earth and its denizens settle down to the business of promise and renewal.


Right now I’m reading Diane Ackerman’s One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing. In 2003, after Ackerman had written a book about the brain, her husband, the novelist Paul West, suffered a severe stroke that left him unable to speak, write, or read. Global aphasia, as West’s official diagnosis was termed, is a devastating condition for anyone…but for a novelist married to an poet, the condition is particularly troubling. In telling the story of West’s sudden loss of both spoken and written language, Ackerman necessarily tells the story of their marriage, especially the ways they previously had used wordplay as a form of personal intimacy, creating (like twins) a language unto themselves.

Kousa dogwood

I’m a longtime fan of Ackerman’s prose; this past year, in fact, I’d re-read her classic Natural History of the Senses with my creative nonfiction students. Despite Ackerman’s occasional verbal excesses–lush metaphors that overspill her sentences and prose that tiptoes dangerously close to purple–I often find myself dumbstruck by individual lines that ring so true and with such melodic clarity, I wish I’d written them myself. “Couples are jigsaw puzzles that hang together by touching in just enough points,” Ackerman writes early in the book, and I’m hooked. “In time,” she continues, “a pair invents its own commonwealth, complete with anthems, rituals, and lingos–a cult of two with fallible gods.” Just as husband and wife create a shared intimacy of pet names, inside jokes, and ongoing allusions, Ackerman uses language to create a bridge with her readers, inviting us into a personal parlor where the story behind the stories is told.

Pink peonies

Almost immediately, One Hundred Names for Love reminds me of Joan Didion’s memoir of her husband’s death, The Year of Magical Thinking, which I’d reviewed on-blog in 2007. Both Ackerman and Didion recount their husband’s medical conditions with clinical specificity, and both Ackerman and Didion seem to use language–specifically, the discipline of writing about loss–as a kind of lifeline, a way of making sense out of the senseless. Ackerman’s husband, unlike Didion’s, doesn’t die; in fact, Ackerman’s book is the story of how West gradually regains language and how the couple forges a renewed bond in the process. Still, even a mild stroke is a kind of miniature death, and Ackerman herself finds solace in the immediate aftermath by reading C.S. Lewis’s classic memoir of loss, A Grief Observed.

Mountain laurel

Ackerman’s reference to Lewis is apt on several points. First, she mentions how West himself had corresponded with Lewis during the days that Lewis’ wife, the poet Joy Davidman, was dying of cancer. How did Lewis have the presence of mind, Ackerman wonders, to maintain anything but the most essential correspondence during a time when his thoughts and energies were necessarily elsewhere? Second, the marriage between Lewis and Davidman, who was 17 years younger than him, roughly mirrors the age gap between West and Ackerman…but while Ackerman finds herself facing the classic challenge of a middle-aged wife tending an elderly husband, Lewis found himself in the opposite situation, left a widower by a younger woman who left him two children from her previous marriage.

Blue columbines

One of the most emotionally powerful moments so far in One Hundred Names for Love is that point when West, initially limited to uttering the syllable “mem, mem, mem” in lieu of actual words, begins to recover a smattering of language with which he tries to articulate the experience of having become an invalid in an instant. Lying in his hospital bed after an exhausting afternoon of physical rehab and speech therapy, West tries to communicate his feelings to Ackerman, who recounts the conversation.

“Sc-sc-scared,” he sputtered.
“You’re scared?” I asked.
He nodded yes.
“What are you scared of?”
“Mem, mem, mem, you’ll, mem, mem, leave. Would. would. wouldn’t blame,” he garbled. It was the longest thing he’d said thus far.


It was the longest thing West had said thus fair, and perhaps the most telling. Isn’t this any coupled person’s worst nightmare, that in an instant they might be struck with a debilitating illness and their partner, exhausted with the demands of caretaking, will decide to leave?

It’s telling, I think, that traditional marriage vows insist that the bond be maintained not simply “in good times and in bad” but specifically “in sickness and in health.” It’s as if the authors of those time-tested promises knew (as perhaps only the mature and long-married do) that the true test of any couple doesn’t come when their vows are uttered but in those moments when debilitating illness takes those words away.

The Den of Solitude

Here is something I’ve never shown in all the years I’ve kept this blog: the front of the little pink house where I rented an apartment in Keene, NH for the past eight years.

Office, looking toward street

In the past, I’ve talked about the decisions any blogger makes about what is or isn’t appropriate to share online. Although I’ve occasionally shared parts of my apartment in Keene–the roses that bloomed in cascading torrents alongside the front porch, for instance, or random corners in the backyard–I never felt comfortable posting a picture of the entire facade. Posting an un-cropped picture of Where I Live felt too invasive of my privacy, too much like posting my address or phone number online for anyone to see. Knowing I was blogging from the imagined security of an “undisclosed location” made me more comfortable sharing those details I did choose to disclose. Setting boundaries isn’t about keeping everything a secret; it’s about choosing which secrets to share and which to hold close.

Living room with couch

When you blog about place, the scenes of your daily walks quickly become familiar to your readers, creating the impression that they could perhaps retrace your steps if they ever found themselves in your neighborhood. Since this blog has never been about inspiring the world to beat a path to my door, I quickly established the habit of not taking or posting too many pictures of my precise street. Partly I wanted to protect the privacy of my neighbors–nobody wants a photo-blogger living next door, posting pictures of one’s literal dirty laundry–but mostly I wanted to create the sensation of space in a neighborhood that’s otherwise densely packed.

Living room, looking into kitchen

When you share a dorm room or small apartment with a roommate, you quickly become protective of “your” space, protecting it from even imagined encroachments. I honed this ability to wrap a virtual shroud of privacy around myself when I lived in the Cambridge Zen Center. When you live in a meditation center that attracts a constant stream of daily practitioners, weekend retreatants, and short-term residents, you learn to create your own privacy wherever and however you can: this is my room, or my desk, or my meditation cushion. It’s no wonder, I think, that one of the Center’s revered Temple Rules reminds visitors and residents alike, “Do not use other people’s shoes and coats.” When you share the place you hang your hat, it can be very important to your sense of self and privacy simply to have your own hat.

Office corner

When you live within walking distance of the campus where you teach–and when you live on a street that is popular with student renters–you learn to pull a veil of privacy behind you when you enter your little pink house. J and I regularly referred to my apartment in Keene as my “Den of Solitude,” the place where I slept, graded papers, and quietly minded my own business on weekdays during the school year. Now that I’ve moved out of the Den of Solitude, my personal prohibition against showing pictures of it no longer applies. Now that I’ve broken the bonds of this particular place, there’s no need for the boundary I’d made to protect it.