July 2011

Memorial lion

Last weekend, J and I sought respite from the heat by visiting the main branch of the Boston Public Library at Copley Square, where we toured Torn in Two, an exhibit of maps, photographs, and other items commemorating the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. The exhibit itself provided much to look at, and as did the library’s historic McKim Building.

Courtyard chairs

I spent a lot of time at the Boston Public Library during my first year of graduate studies at Boston College, when I had an academic scholarship and plenty of time to do research. Whereas the main library’s modern Johnson Building contains the circulating collection and is popular with general readers, families, and folks looking to borrow books, the half of the library I frequented was the non-circulating research library in the historic McKim Building.

During my first year at BC, the McKim Building was undergoing major renovations, so you couldn’t enter the building directly. Instead, you had to enter the Johnson Building then wind your way through several back rooms and corridors until you found yourself in a room with classical murals on the ceiling where you’d search the research library’s catalogue on microfilm: one bank of microfilm readers containing the first half of the alphabet, the other the second.


After you’d written the call numbers of the books you wanted on book request slips, you’d deliver these to a window in the Abbey Room, find a seat in the Bates Hall reading room, and then wait for your books to be delivered from the hidden stacks where only library staff could go.

Reference stacks

Now, everything is different from those “old days” when I was in grad school in the early 1990s. Now you can enter the McKim Building directly, where a grand staircase flanked by lions greets you.

Staircase lions

Now the research library is included in the main online catalogue, eliminating the need for microfilm searches and paper request slips since you can place a hold online. The Delivery Desk is no longer in the Abbey Room, both the Johnson and McKim Buildings offer free wifi, and even Bates Hall has Ethernet outlets for wired Internet access.

Reading room

Given all the hours I spent in Bates Hall surrounded by stacks of dusty books taking notes in a paper notebook, it still seems strange–almost sacrilegious–to see people with laptops surfing the Internet as if the McKim Building were just another wifi hotspot.


Although it would be infinitely easier to do research at the BPL these days–how much faster it is to type your searches into a computer rather than scrolling through microfilm!–I’m glad to have experienced the McKim Building back in the “old days” when it felt like a secret storehouse of dusty treasures available only to the patient few willing to do a little digging.


As much as I love my Kindle, laptop, and the ease of online database searches, I still hold a certain nostalgia for dusty stacks, card catalogues, and even microfilm machines. As much as I enjoy new technologies and new ways of doing research, the old ones had a deliberate slowness that forced you to appreciate them. I guess when it comes to libraries and technology, I (like the nation during the Civil War) am Torn in Two.

Click here for more photos from the Boston Public Library’s McKim building, or click here for photos from “Torn in Two: The 150th Anniversary of the Civil War,” which is on view at the Boston Public Library at Copley Square through December, 2011. Enjoy!

Bird's eye view

Yesterday I went to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts to see “Through the Looking Glass,” an exhibit of Dale Chihuly glass sculptures on view through August 8th. By far the largest of the sculptures on display is the 42-foot-tall “Lime Green Icicle Tower,” which looms in the enclosed Shapiro Family Courtyard between the MFA’s old and new wings: a spiky spire of neon-green goodness.


Before seeing the “Lime Green Icicle Tower” in person, I’d read about the MFA’s campaign to purchase the piece, which costs more than a million dollars. “Through the Looking Glass” has been an inordinately popular show, with weekend crowds queuing for hours for a turn inside the exhibit’s riotously colorful galleries. Now that so many museum-goers have seen Chiluly’s work–and now that so many museum-goers have seen how the “Lime Green Icicle Tower” perfectly decorates the Shapiro Family Courtyard’s otherwise bland, empty expanse–it’s only natural to ask those appreciative crowds to chip-in for the sculpture’s purchase.

Stairway photo op

Having snapped a handful of pictures of ol’ Limey when I first arrived at the MFA yesterday, I found myself photographing him again and again from every angle and seemingly at every turn. The “Lime Green Icicle Tower” is one of those monumental pieces that seems so at-home in its present location, I can’t imagine the space without it.

From below

On the MFA website, there’s a short, time-lapse video of the installation of the “Lime Green Icicle Tower”: like an artificial Christmas tree, “Lime Green” was assembled branch by branch, starting at the base and working upward. Now that “Through the Looking Glass” is entering its final week, I hate to imagine crews tearing down ol’ Limey branch by branch, sending his pieces packing. Like a neon-green tree or spiky glass cactus, the “Lime Green Icicle Tower” has set down roots here in Boston, and I for one want him to stay.

Base reflection

Am I willing to put my money where my mouth is on that point? You bet your lime green icicle tower. Although the MFA has a page online where you can donate toward the sculpture’s purchase, and although cell-phone users can donate $10 by texting the word TOWER to 50555, I chose to make my contribution the old-fashioned way by dropping some cold green cash into one of the courtyard’s donation boxes.

Like individual branches assembled to form a towering green spire, your donation plus my donation plus every other museum-goers’ donation adds up to something enormous.

Click here to view my complete photo-set of Dale Chihuly’s “Lime Green Icicle Tower.” I’ll share the rest of my photos from “Through the Looking Glass” over the next week, as I’m able to sort through them. In the meantime, this is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Enormous.

Japanese garden

This morning I found the following entry in an almost-empty notebook: an essay I’d written on a day I’d gone fishin’ at the Museum of Fine Arts back in August, 2009. This is one of the things I like about keeping a journal. At any given moment, you can turn the page to rediscover something sensational you wrote then subsequently forgot.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Japanese garden

The judge was nearly an hour late. I don’t remember much from the divorce hearing that ended a nearly 13-year marriage, just as I don’t remember much from the modest wedding–just immediate family and a handful of friends–that began it. But I remember the judge being late.

It was October: too early for weather delays, but old cars break down year-round. Presumably my judge–funny how spending five minutes with a man will make you feel possessive of him–drove an old, unreliable car, as the bailiff seemed nonplussed when he announced the delay.

On that October morning, my judge was late–nearly an hour late–to my divorce hearing, and I fretted in the plain, paneled courtroom with its lawyers and tense-looking couples, none sitting next to the other, that the judge wouldn’t show up, my court date would be postponed, and after almost 13 years of marriage, I might have to wait a few extra days or even several weeks to end it all officially.

Japanese garden

Marriage and divorces are both peculiar things. We place such value on the inexplicable power of brief, spoken sentences, as if words had the power to effect instantaneous and miraculous change. “I do” is the incantation that starts it all: so much tumult and transformation curled into two short syllables, an entire life–two entire lives–changing irrevocably in the space of a single breath.

My practiced line at my divorce hearing–my divorce hearing, not ours, the simple choice of pronouns saying everything–was much longer, but just as life-changing. When asked by the belated judge–my judge–what was the cause of this uncontested divorce–a dissolution so banal, my soon-to-be ex-husband didn’t even drive from out-of-state to be divorced in person–I was instructed by my lawyer not to tell the most dangerous of things: the truth. Instead, the magic incantation that would move my belated judge to sign the magical paper dissolving nearly 13 years of marriage was “irreconcilable differences have caused the irremediable breakdown of this marriage.”

Japanese garden

It’s a mellifluous-sounding statement, sufficiently grounded in legal terminology to sound official, “I quit” or “It’s over” sounding too impetuous. A line like the one I rehearsed was complicated enough that you did have to practice it to sound convincing. You didn’t just utter it in the heat of passion or on a whim; if you could say it with a straight face, presumably you meant it.

Reality, of course, is never as simple as even the complex lines we practice in advance.

Japanese garden

The real answer to my judge’s simple question of why would have been much messier had I allowed myself the dangerous luxury of truth. Why did my ex and I divorce? At the time, I’m not sure I could have explained something as simple as why. Who was to blame, he or I? Had we married too young? Had he starved me with emotional neglect, or had I choked him with unrealistic expectations? Did our marriage die under the inestimable weight of lingering resentments and reality-crushed dreams? Was either, both, or neither of us to blame?

“Irreconcilable differences” is a convenient shorthand for the most terrifying utterance of all: “I don’t know.” When I told my mother about my impending divorce, she told me, repeatedly, not to blame myself. “You can’t see yourself as being a failure,” she insisted again and again. “These things happen; you haven’t failed.” These weren’t the words I expected from my long-married, devoutly Catholic mother: surely someone had to have caused even a presumably no-fault divorce, and who better to blame than the only partner present in that blandly paneled courtroom?

Japanese garden

I’ve tried hard these past five years not to blame myself–not to blame my ex–not, in a word, to blame. It’s incredibly difficult, though. That question of why still lingers, and pointing to “irreconcilable differences” feels like a cop-out. What have I learned from the end of an almost-13-year marriage? What mistakes did I make then that I might avoid in the future? On the one hand, I mustn’t see either myself or my ex as having failed–I mustn’t stoop to the vindictive level of blame. And yet on the other hand, if I don’t study my mistakes, how can I avoid repeating them?

You can’t simultaneously excuse yourself from blame and learn from your mistakes, although I’ve spent nearly five years trying to do both. These two ideas and the impulses they inspire, I’ve found, are simply irreconcilable.

Click here for more images of the Japanese garden, or here for images of the giant baby heads, or here for images from inside the Museum of Fine Arts, all of them taken the same day I wrote this subsequently-forgotten notebook entry in August, 2009. Enjoy!

Enjoying the view

It’s become something of an annual tradition. About once a year, J and I take the T to Revere Beach, where we have lunch then walk, people-watching and taking pictures while gulls and low-flying airplanes soar overhead. We’ve gone to Revere Beach in the off-season, and we’ve gone at the height of summer. This year, we timed our visit to coincide with the annual Sand Sculpting Festival, so there was plenty to look at.


I’m not much of a beach person: although J and I live about 10 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, I can count on one hand (with fingers to spare) the number of times I’ve gone swimming there. But even if you’re not much of a swimmer or sun-bather, occasionally it’s fun to be near the shore, to watch the tides and hear the crying gulls. This weekend was hot and sunny, but with low humidity, so it was lovely to sit in a shady, open-air pavilion eating seafood–clams for J, scallops for me–within sight of the chairs, umbrellas, and volleyball nets other beach-goers had set up.

Beach bathers

I like beaches because they are probably the only place it’s socially acceptable to read, take a nap, or pretty much do nothing in public. (Perhaps that’s why you’ll occasionally find Buddhas there.) J and I love to walk, and beaches are perfect for that pastime, as you can stroll without worry of getting lost: walking for walking’s sake. Nobody asks you where you’re going or what you’re doing on a beach; you’re just free to soak in the sights, smells, and sounds while the waters of the world ebb and surge at your feet.

This is my belated contribution to last week’s Photo Friday theme, Seashore. Click here for more photos from our outing, including images from this year’s National Sand Sculpting Festival. Enjoy!

Ever upward

Today I received an invitation to join Google+, a social networking site I’d heard various folks mention on Facebook recently. I’m not normally an early adopter of online (or any) technologies: a creature of habit, I typically prefer my old, familiar ways to something strange and newfangled. But since the friend who invited me is someone I know both online and face-to-face–and since this same friend is a “cool kid” who keeps up-to-date with the latest ways of interacting online–I accepted her invitation to join Facebook’s newest competition.

Upwardly mobile

As soon as I connected my Google profile to Google+, however, I had a pang of joiners’ remorse. Already, I feel spread too thin among the various “places” where I maintain an online presence. At any given moment, I share stuff on my blog, on Flickr, on Facebook, and on Twitter. How many more places can I possibly find cool news to post and share, and how many more places do I need to check to see what my cool friends are doing?

Way back in the old days, keeping a blog was all you needed to do to keep in touch with friends both near and far. In the days after my divorce, for instance, one friend used to check my blog every few days just to make sure I was still alive and posting, like keeping an eye on the house of an elderly neighbor for signs of life. Nowadays, though, my blogging friends and I can (and do) go days or even weeks without publishing a proper blog-post, leaving our online footprints on Facebook or Twitter instead.

Toward the clouds

On any given day, if I want to know how Friend X is doing, checking her or his blog isn’t enough; I also need to check for recent Facebook updates, Flickr photos, or Tweets. Now that Google+ offers another “room” where cool kids can congregate, it might be easier just to call and talk to Friend X to see how she or he is really doing rather than clicking a half different places where such information might be posted.

In this era of smart phones, texting, and Twitter, I feel like a dinosaur when I admit that sometimes I don’t want to “be in touch.” When I was in grad school, for instance, I’d sometimes do research at the public library, figuring no one would think to look for me there rather than the library on campus. The simple fact of leaving campus created the illusion of being out of reach, and I always got more done without the imagined threat of running into my students, colleagues, or friends.

All in a row

Last month when J and I went to Pittsburgh then Columbus to visit family, I didn’t announce our whereabouts on-blog, on Facebook, or elsewhere: we just went offline like any normal person might have done in the old days, letting our families know when we were arriving while keeping in touch via email with work and school. After we’d arrived in Columbus, however, I realized a high school friend with whom we’d made last-minute dinner plans had mentioned these plans on Facebook, spurring an innocuous but sad-sounding message from another friend whom I hadn’t notified of our trip: “You were in town?” In the age of Facebook and Twitter, simply visiting your family and making Saturday night dinner plans without notifying your entire network of friends can be perceived as a social snub. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, what will happen to the concept of a secret getaway?

My neophyte understanding of Google+ suggests it’s set up so you can sort your contacts into various circles of intimacy, sharing one set of updates with “Friends” and another version of your life with “Family.” This way, if you want to complain about your relatives, in-laws, or coworkers behind their backs, you can conveniently post those gripes in a space where said folks won’t (presumably) see them.

Above the trees

But having blogged under my real name for so long, my posts available for anyone and everyone to see, I’ve learned how to keep to myself any tidbits I don’t want any given relative, in-law, coworker, or friend to see. Instead of relying upon social network circles or online privacy settings to keep my venting rants hidden from those they might hurt, I try to keep most of my obnoxious opinions to myself.

When I was a kid, one oft-repeated saying advised “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” As cheesy and Pollyanna-like this advice might sound, it’s served as a decent blog philosophy all these years. Instead of rushing to Facebook or Twitter to vent my latest gripe or defend my side in a petty squabble, I keep those opinions to myself, allowing a cooler head to prevail.

Fast tracking

To some, this philosophy is tantamount to self-censorship; to me, it’s the making of good writing. Instead of broadcasting a first-draft version of the latest round of “here’s why I’m right,” I’m forced to digest said debate, figuring out a way to write about the issue at hand while preserving the privacy of all involved. This takes a good deal more crafting–and thus is far more artful–than the prevailing philosophy of “If you can’t say something nice, make sure you post your thoughts where only your closest, most like-minded contacts can read them.”

In my online World Literature class, we read a Rumi quatrain which nicely sums up my concerns about the dangers of over-sharing in our Instant-Information Age.

What I most want
is to spring out of this personality,
then to sit apart from that leaping.
I’ve lived too long where I can be reached.

Now that all the cool kids are connecting on Google+, where can an old dinosaur go to find a spot of solitude where she can keep her opinions to herself? Now that all the cool kids are connecting online, can we innovate an even more exotic concept: Google Unplugged?

Going up

Click here for more photos of Jonathan Borofsky’s “Walking to the Sky,” which I photographed when J and I were in Pittsburgh last month. If Borofsky’s figures look familiar, it might be because I’ve blogged his work before.

Red-tailed hawk

This morning’s shady dog-walk along part of the Cochituate Aqueduct here in Newton offered yet more proof that the suburbs are where the wild things are.

Click here for more images of this morning’s redtail, who wasn’t shy about posing for pictures.

Self-portrait with green mannequin

Time in summer is a fluid thing. As the temperature rises, humans and animals alike slow down, savoring spots of shade, while time itself seems to speed up, slipping by like an unwatched stream. Every schoolchild knows that summer days are shorter than winter ones, despite all those science lessons about planetary orbits and axis-tilts. Summer days are precious, so they slide by faster than the trudge of winter doldrums. One minute it’s spring and the snow is barely melted, then the next you’re rounding the corner toward August.

Hippie chick

This morning I knew it had been a while–about a week, I thought–since I’d last blogged…but when I checked, I was astonished to see it’s been nearly two weeks since my last entry, which I’d hurriedly posted from a cafe in Columbus, Ohio while visiting family. This is how my summer has been: first I moved out of my apartment, then I tended the house while J was away on a business trip, then the two of us traveled to Pittsburgh and Columbus to see family, and then it was Independence Day. I moved out of my apartment in May…so what exactly happened to the month of June?


Sometime while I was going then coming, spring slipped into summer: a transition I missed. This week has been warm, so Reggie and I putter even more slowly than usual on our morning walks, seeking shady spots as we round the block. A new online term started last week, and the usual tasks of getting two summer classes up and running have spread and attenuated, taking as much time as I give them. I’ve been working this week as slowly as Reggie and I have been walking, and when I’m not doing either, I’m doing lots of nothing: reading and resting and wiling my time with mundane chores and errands.

Cool shades

At the end of a day like today, what have I accomplished? I’ve crossed off a handful of online teaching tasks; I’ve done laundry. I’ve read and written in my journal; I’ve taken in the trash cans and done the dishes. In cosmic terms, this isn’t much; in homely terms, this is everything. Summer days are fluid because they give me the luxury of doing one thing at a time and taking my time while I do it. During the school year, there’s no time for puttering; during the school year, every minute is scheduled and accounted for. In summertime, seconds slip into minutes, minutes slide into hours, and hours drift into days. It’s a temporal relativity any schoolchild can vouch for, but one which science has yet to explain.