Apr 26, 2014
This year was the sixth straight year J and I watched the Boston Marathon from a vantage point between Miles 18 and 19, and this year was the third time in those six years we saw the same sign encouraging a runner named Rhonda to reach “Boston or bust.”
I have no idea who Rhonda is, but it’s encouraging to know she’s still running and she still has at least one loyal fan rooting her on, recycling the same sign with different balloons year after year.
Apr 21, 2014
Today J and I joined more than a million other spectators in taking the final step of purification after last year’s Boston Marathon bombings: we took back the Marathon. Last year I wrote about the sense of outrage I felt after Marathon Monday—Massachusetts’ high holy day of hospitality—was hijacked by cowards with pressure cookers. Today, one of those cowards is dead and the other is behind bars, awaiting trial. In the meantime, a record number of spectators showed up along the 26.2 mile route between Hopkinton and Boston today to make one simple statement: we won’t be bombed into hiding.
Cowards with pressure cookers can kill and maim, but nearly a year and a week later, surging crowds of enthusiastic spectators came outside on a gorgeous spring day to clap, cheer, ring cowbells, wave signs, and remember. To paraphrase David “Big Papi” Ortiz, this is our fucking marathon, and nobody’s going to dictate our freedom.
Today’s act of reclamation was a long time coming. Last April, less than a week after bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, J and I went to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park: a way of reassuring ourselves that it still was safe to congregate with strangers in a crowd. A week after that, A (not her real initial) and I went for a walk and dinner in Watertown: a conscious attempt to reclaim the sleepy little town that became the site of Breaking News during the manhunt for the bombing suspects. And a few weeks after that, J and I visited the massive makeshift memorial at Copley Square: an act of purification in which we visited the very spot where people were killed and maimed, taking back Boylston Street as a peaceful place where remembrance happens.
There was an increased and very visible police presence at today’s Marathon, which J and I watched from our usual vantage point between miles 18 and 19 in Newton. But this presence felt more reassuring than oppressive: the more eyes watching, the better. Given changes in official policies about what spectators could bring to the race route, I wondered whether families with small children would stay away from the race, uncertain whether strollers, wagons, picnic baskets, and coolers were allowed. I needn’t have worried, however, since families showed up with the normal accoutrements of a day at the Marathon, willing to submit those items to random searches but otherwise behaving no differently than they would any other year.
If anything, there were more people lining the race route in Newton this year, not less. I think that others felt as J and I did: that showing up to the race today more than any other year represented a kind of civic duty. If we stop going to the Marathon—if we stop celebrating Patriots’ Day by holding a huge 26.2-long block party that happens to have a race running through it—then the terrorists will have won. Today wasn’t a day to cede victory to terror; today was a day to assert the fact that love, inclusion, and good neighborliness is stronger than any bomb.
After spending a couple hours clapping and cheering ourselves hoarse between Miles 18 and 19, J and I headed home while even more spectators streamed toward the Marathon route, many of them wearing Boston Strong shirts and carrying an assortment of signs and noisemakers. J summed up my sentiments exactly as he watched the surge of happy, enthusiastic people and remarked, “I guess you lost, bomber guys.” On a beautifully sunny spring day in New England, how could the bad guys ever prevail?
Click here for more photos of this year’s bright and sunny Boston Marathon. Enjoy!
Apr 18, 2014
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:
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.
Apr 15, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Apr 9, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Apr 5, 2014
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.
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?
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.
Apr 3, 2014
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.
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.
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…
…or an entire shelf of sparrows.
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.
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.