the past is another country

I’ll be boarding a plane in a few hours to San Francisco. My company is sending me to a week-long conference that regularly draws over 20,000 attendees. I’ll be very busy, and it’s tremendously exciting of course, but it does feel a bit strange to be going to a conference and not be presenting anything — usually I’m involved in some form of public speaking or teaching, so I’m feeling a little at loose ends about it all.

I’m feeling a lot of things about it all. Especially the “flying to San Francisco” part of it all.

The last time I flew to San Francisco, I was 23 years old, and my heart was breaking apart.

It was a year since I had graduated from college, and I had spent the last 12 months getting ready to apply to grad school. My preference, if you had asked me, was to find a science writing program somewhere in California, and become the next John McPhee.

As it turns out, nobody did ask me my preference.

Sometime around May of that year, my college sweetheart and I broke up. We had been together for almost three years, which is practically forever in 23-year-old terms, and it was awful and painful and tremendously sad. We kept trying to make it work — I remember one evening of reading love poems to each other on a mountaintop near Northampton as a meteor shower blazed overhead, which really should have worked, right? — but it just ended.

My sweetheart flew out to San Francisco a week later. I mourned by falling immediately into a relationship with somebody I worked with.

Seemed to make sense at the time.

Three months later, I found that I was unable to stop the sound of weeping that seemed to be coming from somewhere inside my chest, which only I seemed to be able to hear. So I sold my car and bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco, ready to give it one more try.

I got bumped up to first class and was seated next to Lily Tomlin. We didn’t speak a word to one another the whole flight. They served us mahi mahi, and I felt inexpressably sophisticated.

My old flame was willing to give it a go as well, but we spent a very sad autumn together. Jesus Christ, did that autumn drag on. It didn’t help that it was my first autumn outside of New England, and I had been utterly unprepared for how much I would miss my home state.

Utterly unprepared.

I started listening to Car Talk episodes on NPR in secret, just to hear the accent.

I started cultivating a Boston accent of my own, although my mother and grandmothers were all teachers and had raised us to speak without such a distinctive regional accent.

I despised the palm trees in my front yard.

Sometime around Thanksgiving, the guy I had hooked up with at work — remember? back in Northampton? — showed up on my doorstep. He had driven across the country, with the same purpose in mind that I had had several months earlier — to patch things up. With me.

Now I was in an intolerable position. I needed to get out of there. Nothing good was going to be achieved by my staying.  I started applying to grad schools for early admittance in January, and Syracuse welcomed me with open arms and a full scholarship. It wasn’t science writing, it was a straight up master’s program in geology, which turned out to be not so great a fit for me, but it served its purpose.

It got me on a plane back to the east coast on January 4, 1995, and I have never been so relieved in my life.

I remember sitting on the tarmac, looking out the airplane window at those hateful, hateful palm trees swaying in the unnaturally warm January sunshine, and wondered when I would ever come back again to San Francisco.

Well, here I come.

I do not have any plans to reunite with the other two sides of my tragic little love triangle while I’m out there. I’m there to work, of course, and all that ridiculous business was so incredibly long ago that it seems like it happened to another person, or like I made it all up.

Me? Live in California in a cold, unfurnished attic apartment? Me? A central player in a hilariously badly written soap opera of young adult fiction? I must be remembering that wrong.

When I moved back to the town where I grew up on Cape Cod eight years ago, I felt constantly like I was going to run into myself at 12 years old, or 8, or 15.

And I wouldn’t know what to say.

Now, on my way back to San Francisco, I have that same feeling again. Like I’ll run into me, 23 years old, working in the Sun Valley Mall and living in an attic with just a futon and the old sea chest my Dad gave me. I’ll turn a corner and there I’ll be, broke and homesick and lonely.

If that happens, I think I know what I’ll say this time.

Get out. Go home. It will be better — unbelievably, much, much better — in snowy, cold, gothic old Syracuse.

Make friends. Keep them.

And don’t, for the love of God, ever stop writing.

Image by Michael Lokner

It runs in the family

I graduated from grad school yesterday, and was officially granted all the rights and privileges, as they say, of the degree of the Master of Business Administration.  It was a glorious day, all bright blue sky and golden sparkling water on the Boston waterfront.

A few days ago, when I was rummaging around for my old Mount Holyoke class ring so I could wear it to graduation, I came across a stash of Minnie and Eva’s old photos and books, and found these ladies staring right back at me:

Class of 1905

The caption on the back of the photo reads:

Tri-Deltas of the senior class B.U. 1905
Left to Right
Bess Brackett
Marion Haines
Ethelaryn (sp?) Thorne
Minnie Perry
Helen Stedman

Yep, that’s the same Minnie — my great grandmother — that you saw in this stunning portrait, taken at about the same time, when she graduated from college in 1905:

Minnie Baker

How much do I love these two photos? Words cannot express. Oh, Minnie.

Minnie went from BU to a faculty post at Athens College in Athens, Alabama, where she taught Greek and Latin. I have her Roll Book from those years:

Minnie's Roll Book

Athens College Latin and Greek

I didn’t know she taught college until last year, when I came across these things in my mother’s house. I was a little outraged that nobody ever bothered to tell me about this, not even when I mysteriously fell passionately in love with ancient Greek in college and ended up minoring in it. Not even when I decided I wanted to teach college (a goal that I am still secretly cherishing, despite my wandering and circuitous path through the fields of academia).

Not a word about Minnie, who had done all these things.

I guess they just forgot, because of what happened next.

A small class of Greek and Latin Scholars

Good Grades


Minnie taught at Athens College for just a couple of years. She was taking the train back home to Cape Cod at the end of term one year, heading home to West Dennis for the summer as always (God forbid a New England girl should be asked to withstand the heat of Alabama in the summertime). She was in the train station in St. Louis when she ran into Bill Baker — what an amazing coincidence!

Bill was part of the West Dennis gang. They had practically grown up together, had even stepped out with each other in their teens. They shared a compartment all the way back from St. Louis to the Cape. Very soon after that, they were engaged.

Minnie gave up her teaching post and moved back to West Dennis, to the house which my family has always called The Old House, on Perry Lane, way up at the top of the sledding hill, facing the main street with its battered Greek Revival facade. Almost 85 years later, I stood in her kitchen, brushing out her long, white hair with a silver brush and comb. I was maybe 5 years old.

Later, Eva Perry (whose house I grew up in after her death) used the same roll book when she taught fifth grade in a suburb of Boston.

Eva's Course List

Eva's 5th Grade Book List

By the time the book got to me, it was a recipe book.

Meat Loaf Recipe

What will I do to celebrate getting my MBA?

Well, I’m going to do some traveling, for one thing.

I’m going to Quilt Market with my best friend Melissa Averinos, whose book just came out:


Her first book, I should say. And yes, you should totally click on the photo to order the book. Dude. Seriously.

At Quilt Market, I hear there is going to be a Cake Party!  Perhaps I will bring Minnie’s Dark Chocolate Cake recipe along.

Dark Chocolate Cake

Dark Chocolate Cake Pt. II

Some people might find the different parts of my life a little… incongruous, shall we say.  I’m an antiquities fanatic who works in technology as a marketing and software consultant. A knitter of historical patterns with an MBA.

It’s just who I am.

Do I think it’s a little sad that Minnie gave up being a college professor to come back to Cape Cod and raise a family? A little bit, sure. But then none of this would have ever happened.

So I still regret not going right after that PhD in the classics, like I wanted to when I was an undergrad? A little bit, sure.  But then I would not be living this amazing life I have right now.

I’m going to Quilt Market to celebrate all the different pieces of my life that make up the whole piece of work. There’s an overworked metaphor in there, and I’m not going after it.

And then, I’m going on another trip, to really do something a little crazy and improbable, to celebrate my amazing, unbelievable, completely improbable life.

Here’s what I’m reading to get ready:

And I’m taking Melissa with me. You heard me.

Who knows what might happen?

SImmons SOM Class of 2010

ha! we’re back.

Member that time? That I said I was going to go back to school? Part-time?



I quit my job and went full-time instead. Because I’m a psychopath who can’t do anything halfway. Ever. I commute each day, five days a week, by bus.  Takes about oh say two-and-a-half to three hours each way. WHAT

So um, yes, busy is what I have been. It’s true.  Busy and happy and fulfilled and excited and kind of interested in accounting. Not like in a life-changing, career-path-forming sort of way! Just that way you feel when you totally expected to hate a subject and instead it ends up being moderately more interesting than you thought it would be, enough to keep you interested and engaged and determined to get a really good grade because you really like the professor.

Kidding. I always want a good grade.

So now it’s the winter break, and I have all this delicious time on my hands.  I’m thinking about starting a videoblog. I’m thinking about trying to get an internship doing web 2.0 marketing for a startup that’s all rockstar sustainable and fairly-traded and crap like that.  I’m thinking that I miss the old Dune Shack, where I could always let it all hang out.

Anyway, it’s darn nice to see you again.

the only thing you can't buy here is dignity

So it would seem that I am enrolled in graduate school again.  Who knew?

I spent the better part of the fall and winter filling out applications, calculating commuter hours to and from various neighborhoods in the Greater Boston Area (bit of an oxymoron, that), and seeking out all the grant money I could find.

At the end of it all, I got accepted to my first choice school.  And none of my grants came through.

Oh, sure, I could take out student loans.  But, see, the LAST time I went to grad school, they PAID me to go.  Seems I have to get over myself a bit.   Seems that ten years later, I’m not quite the hot draft pick I once was.

So the fact that I walked away from that free ride through grad school a decade ago, merely so that I could devote more of my valuable time to partying and loitering and carrying on, now this decision seems to have been perhaps the slightest bit rash.  Myopic, perhaps.  Idiotic and insane, sure.  I’ll buy that.

It was, shall we say, not my best moment.  For about seven years or so.

So now that I’m all settled down, liberated of those wild oats that were such an intolerably heavy burden to me back then, and ready to pursue a noble and reasonably remunerative career, it seems that the rules have changed ever so slightly.

They expect me to pay for it.

After I heard that I didn’t get that last grant, the big one, the one that I filled out so serenely to cover ALL of my tuition and book expenses for the year, after that fell through, I got a little piqued.  Sort of threw my hands up in the air and said OH WELL YOUR LOSS.

Am I not awesome?

Sometime last week I remembered that I had already sent in my tuition deposit, like, the DAY I got accepted, certain as I was that any minute now the heavens would commence to rain scholarships and grants on my humble, bowed little head. 

That would explain why I kept getting invited to these bizarre-sounding New Student Social Hours and such.  Didn’t they realize I wasn’t speaking to them?

So I realized that I should probably officially defer.  Just for one year, to give the grant-bestowing organizations one more chance to welcome me back into their loving bosoms.  I was sure they were already regretting not giving me the cash I needed, so I’d just apply again in the fall, and allow them to correct this egregious error.

Yesterday, I got an email from the registrar, asking me if I was going to register for a class or two.  Naturally, this made me feel pretty good — getting the old personal invitation, you know — so I looked into it.

Turns out, I could PROBABLY manage to scrape together enough of my OWN MONEY to take ONE LOUSY CLASS this fall.  It’s a stretch, but maybe if I spend a little bit less money on ego supplements and self-regard steroids I could make it work.

Turns out, I could probably maintain a pace of one class per semester indefinitely, until I piled up enough requirements and credits to get my degree.  Which is, incidentally, exactly how my mother got her masters degrees.  Both of them.  God, I hate it when she’s right. 

So last night, I enrolled in my first class.  I made my very first tuition payment online (things have changed in ten years!).  I got my confirmation email that I had, in fact, made a payment towards the class tuition, and I realized that that was the first time I had actually schecked out my own dough for my own damn higher education.

And then I realized what an entitled, pretentious, tedious snot I had been all this time.  And I made another online tuition payment. 

Maybe if it’s my own money, I won’t throw away the degree this time.

energy efficient

It is way too cold in my house. I am all wrapped up in two blankets with my fleece pullover pulled over my chin. I keep trying to convince my boycat to come sit on my feet to warm my toes but he is having none of it.

It’s that awkward time of year when I still want to have some fresh air in the bedroom at night but I also want several quilts on top of me. I can’t stand for there to be too much heated air in the bedroom. Fills me with puritanical guilt.

I grew up in a drafty old Victorian house that was lovely and well maintained when we inherited it from my Great Aunt E, but was rapidly and irrevocably trashed when we moved in with five Newfoundland dogs.

Aunt E had all this beautiful old mahogany furniture — claw footed secretaries, marble topped end tables, drop leaf tables with elaborate scroll work that was an utter bore to dust with pledge every year when company came over for the holidays…

Now all that furniture has deep claw marks at all the bases, broken handles, missing drawers. I’m always seeing similar items on Antiques Roadshow and saying yep, ours would be worth a lot of loot, too, if it weren’t for how we destroyed all that.

The house had no upstairs heating. Still doesn’t, and Mom still lives there. To go to bed in winter I used to put on two pairs of long underwear, a flannel nightgown, two pairs of socks, a hat, and mittens, then dive under as many of Aunt E’s gorgeous old quilts (trashed) as I could pile on me and run in place (you know? like, you run? On your side? tell me you’ve done this) under the blankets to burn up some frictive heat.

My nose was always cold. Always.

You would think that this chilly childhood would have turned me into a thermostat-cranker, but I’m actually pretty happy with the heat at a nice, moderate 70 degrees. It’s just times like this, when the heat was turned down all day because it was a lovely 60 degrees today while the sun was up, but now it is 39 degrees, so I came home to a bit of a frosty abode, that I start to feel the panic rise.

Fortunately, my house is the size of a small peanut, so it takes less time than than you can imagine to heat the place up. Three-room cottages rock that way.

So now it’s a bit more tolerable in here, and my nose is only a little cold. Let’s move on.

I’ve got an interview at one of my fancy schools tomorrow. The fanciest, as a matter of fact, unless I decide to really splurge and also apply to that kick-ass school in the Back Bay. That place is even fancier. All their photos have rooms with oriental rugs in them. It costs even more than Harvard.

This place costs almost as much as Harvard, but what the hell. That’s what grants and scholarships are for. Like I’ve always said: it’s only the fancy expensive schools that have the money to pay for you if they want you. I went to a top-notch private college and paid less than my friends who went to UMass did.

Show me the endowment. Show me!

Anyway who knows. All this is very theoretical. It’s best to not project to the future, to remain in the now, keep your head where your feet are.

And you know where my feet are?


Who needs grad school when you’ve got that?