Just a Series of Blurs

stars Here is what I remember.

I got to town that January smarting hard from a breakup. College sweethearts who hadn’t managed the transition to real life, we’d split up in May. Then we ran. First one, then the other. Just dropped everything and ran off, to California, of course. Because this is where you go when you are from New England, and everything has gone right to hell. And it had.

But then whose first year after college isn’t awful?

California was awful. We were both ready to try, but it just wasn’t on. The romance was over, and now we were just very sad friends, made sadder still by the shocking bad luck of being stranded out west. As if we hadn’t been the ones who’d up and sold everything we owned and gone racing hell-bent out there to begin with.

I began to regret throwing away that full scholarship to grad school. This was slowly being revealed to me having been sort of a bad idea.

It had seemed like a good idea at the time. I’d only gone west with the very best of intentions. The Pursuit of True Love and My Destiny and possibly also a Fresh Start and all the other crap we think we’ll find when we get there. When what we actually find is just another boring apartment in some other boring neighborhood, surrounded by trees that look all wrong and hills that turn moldy in the fall. Also, the people out there are weirdly prone to hugging. It’s unsettling.

I called up the school I had spurned for all this. Miraculously, they said that they still had a place for me. I’m telling you, you’ve never seen a person buy a plane ticket so fast. And this was before the internet.

So I got there, as I said, in the middle of January. And how happy was I to see snow? Ice? Barns that looked moments away from toppling, with rooflines you could see the winter sun through? I wanted to hug every inch of Central New York. But of course I refrained, as we easterners are not given to such embarrassing displays.

Not like some I could name.

I loved it. I was so happy, I was rendered absolutely mute with it. Before I even got my own apartment, when I was still being put up by some gracious older grad student out in the frozen, silent hills outside of town, I took to bundling up inside all of the winter clothes I thought I’d put away forever. I’d go walking out into the night, gasping ecstatically into the perfect, cold air.

For hours, I would walk.

I’d been carrying around some excess belly fat that winter, from all the grief and the shock and the geographic cures, but my long midnight rambles were slowly whipping me back into shape. Even after I’d secured myself an apartment near school, sharing four walls with a nervous, spindly young woman who regularly accused me of trying to steal her ferrets’ love from her, I kept up the habit.

I’d sold my car to get my plane ticket west, so walking was pretty much where it was at for me.

I spent that first winter dating a nice, good-natured guy from my department. He was sweet, and shy, and he liked me more than I liked him, which was a relief. My bruised ego was so grateful for that. And by the time the Central New York spring finally staggered through our doors, I was feeling noticeably better about myself. More capable of taking on the rigors of love. Of, dare I say it, aiming higher.

I broke up with him as gently as I could, which wasn’t very. In fact, I was an ass.

He slammed the door on his way out and made his tires squeal all the way down the block. It didn’t really bother me. I was ready to move on. We hadn’t had that much in common, and I secretly thought I could do better.

Winter turned to spring. I’d lost twenty pounds, and to celebrate I spent a few bucks on a cute pair of jeans at the Salvation Army. A classmate said I swaggered when I wore them, which I mistakenly took as a compliment. So it was with a bit of a swagger that I sallied forth to the bookstore at the end of the semester, my newly thin thighs encased in denim that it would soon be too hot to wear. I was off to Vienna come July — on some important grad student business, you know — and I needed a few language tapes to help me overcome my hopelessness at German.

We used things called “language tapes” for such things in those days, if you can believe.

I found what I was looking for and brought them up to the register, where I also found you. And at first — I’ll be honest — it didn’t even occur to me to flirt. As a rule, I’m not the kind of girl who is found irresistible by attractive young men wearing glasses in bookstores. At least, I had never thought of myself as such. But I was pretty sure I sensed you flirting at me. That was unexpected. I assayed a few half-hearted flutters in return. You… didn’t recoil.

I can’t express my surprise. Oh, I’d lost some weight, sure. Gotten a little collarbone back along with my allegedly swaggering hips. But I was never thought pretty; never cute in any canonical sense of the word. Even on my best days I still felt a bit like a drag queen in a sundress, and I’d never once managed to wear a shawl with conviction.

But there you were, acting for all the world like you liked me. So I went with it. It was summer, and I felt up for a challenge.

We went out for dinner. I couldn’t eat, I was so nervous, which was a new thing for me. I waited for it to wear off, either the nervousness or my appeal. But stubbornly, you persisted. You stayed.

I started to feel better.

I mean, things were clearly shaping up. This last year, I decided, had been no more than a blip. An aberration. Because here I was, only recently back from a trip out west that ranked right up there with the Donner Party in terms of lack of forethought, and within six short months I’d found myself a fully funded graduate student, weeks away from taking a free trip to Europe, dating an attractive boy my age with poetical inclinations. Things were looking pretty good.

My roommate still thought I was after her ferrets’ sweet affection, but otherwise things were looking good.

I was still up to my walking-all-night tricks, only now it was to escape the heat of my room as much as to deal with the buckets of unspent energy only a freshly minted 23-year-old can sustain. It wasn’t like I was getting up to anything. No mischief was managed. All I ever did was walk. But it felt so important that I cover that ground. And man, did I ever. I racked up the mileage like it was my job.

Of course sometimes I’d circle around to your house. You only lived a few blocks away. But sometimes not. I tried to refrain. I knew I liked you more than you liked me and that things wouldn’t go on like this forever. There were all these legitimately cute girls around, for one thing. One or another of them would catch your eye eventually. But things were going well fairly well between us now, and I was slowly regaining the ability to nibble on things when you were around. I called it progress.

I went on my trip to Austria. I hadn’t learned much German after all, but it was okay. Everybody there spoke flawless English, and they all sounded adorably like Arnold Schwartzenegger whenever they spoke. Now, I have never found Arnold Schwartzenegger particularly adorable, but hearing his voice coming out of the mouths of young pensione owners in the lake country of Austria did me in. Both charming and vaguely sinister at the same time. All travel should have such frisson.

When we flew back home three weeks later I was tan from the mountains and bursting to see you.

The summer was still hot. You’d put a up a tent behind your house, since your apartment was even more air-starved than mine, and took to sleeping out there at night. Seriously, though, you had an awful apartment. Thick, flithy carpeting, and fake wood panels that were sweaty to the touch. A nice enough roommate, though, who didn’t seem to tax you with rodent-based conspiracy theories the way mine did. So, pros and cons.

I knew things had changed the minute I saw you. It wasn’t surprising. I had been away for three weeks. We were both still so young, and there is only so much you can ask of the young.

Soon the day came. I saw your car pull up outside my house, which was odd. You only lived down the street, after all, and I hadn’t been expecting you to come. But I waited, happily, for the doorbell to ring. Instead, you strolled up the steps of the house next door. And I knew my time had come.

I watched it all happen, of course. A few of the friendlier ferrets and I sat curled up next to each other by the window as we followed your progress from room to room through the unevenly hung blinds. I knew the girl who lived there. She was beautiful. Blond. Willowy. Effortless in a sundress. An absolute knockout in a shawl. It made sense, really. The ferrets — who had always liked me better, it’s true — wrapped themselves lovingly around my feet while we waited for you to leave.

You took a dreadful long time about it.

Then, for a few hot, uncomfortable days, we waited for you to call. Which you did.

We didn’t really have much in common, you explained. And secretly, I knew you thought you could do better.

It was almost fall now, and the students were coming back to the neighborhood. I walked past their houses on my post-midnight strolls, peering in through their windows as I wandered on by.

Such incredible optimism motivates the tricking out of one’s rooms in the fall of a new year. Exercise bikes we still think we’ll use. Books we’re still determined we’ll read.

It rubbed off on me, you know? I’d get by. There were all these new people around to soften the blow, a new forest of trees to wander through, their fluttering branches giving shade to my steps.

And it was okay, in the end. I went home to Cape Cod for a few days before classes resumed, and made out with a boy who liked me more than I liked him. I didn’t have much in common with him. But we both knew we would do better, in time.

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

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?