Monthly Archives: February 2013

And the Winner is…..

For years I didn’t really know who my parents were talking about when they mentioned Whitey Bulger in phone conversations between our respective coasts. I’m sure I feigned my understanding of this fugitive who had captured their imagination. And on the day when he was finally apprehended, I got an excited earful.

This man with Alcatraz in his past, comparable in our day to Dillinger and Al Capone, rose to #1 on the FBI’s Most Wanted List after the capture of bin Laden. Millions had been spent on the manhunt for Whitey, and I don’t know why I hadn’t known about him except that I never watch the program “America’s Most Wanted” and obviously don’t pay attention to the posters in post offices.

Whitey’s folklore out here in New England, however, was astounding. Even as his gang activity specialized in loan sharking, extortion and drugs, Whitey at one time conned the FBI into hiring him as an informant. And while on the run he hid in plain sight in Santa Monica, California, renting an apartment, assuming another name, and strolling the boulevards. A mere four miles from the Los Angeles FBI headquarters.

And on what was to be a pleasant little visit with my parents in New England, what I didn’t know was that a gangster would run through it. And here I sit today, researching the dude.

Boston’s Irish-American mob boss, Whitey Bulger, was sixteen years on the lam. My mother fell on the stairs our first night at her home. Whitey was incarcerated in The Plymouth County House of Correction, and mom spent the night in the ER and the next five days in Jordan Hospital, through the woods and across the street from said prison in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Canadian geese fly back and forth, grazing and pooping on the grounds of both.

I might have left Whitey to his prison, and mom to her hospital, and never the twain shall meet, but for the fact that Whitey kept complaining of chest pains or irregular heartbeat from his high-security cell. By the time we arrived with mom in an ambulance, Whitey had made at least three trips to Jordan Hospital. As concerned as I was about my mother, I kept looking over my shoulder at white haired men on stretchers and in wheel chairs, wondering is that him? 

“Don’t believe it!” I wanted to implore the hospital staff. Once a con, always a con. And a hospital, it seems to me, is full of uniforms to slip into, hiding places and escape hatches. My mind was racing.

Meanwhile, my mother was concerned with other matters. You need to know that this obsession was entirely new. I’d never seen it in her before, and she had been sucked in grandly. Mom had been playing, and was led to believe that she was a final contestant in the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstake.

“Why, even the florist in town has been alerted!” she cried from her stretcher in the ER.

So I took it as an incentive to get her home, to “spring her,” as they say.

We kept bringing in the mail over those days, all those Publishers Clearing House envelopes, all the forms-to-fill-out. And it cheered her up so. I noticed too how they keep postponing the announcement date, much like Whitey’s trial is continually postponed….

Whitey faces nineteen murder counts. My mother is hoping to win anything: five hundred dollars, or five-thousand-dollars-a-week-for-life. But the fact is she is home.

While Whitey sits there, in that horribly gray building, hoping for what? I think he already had it.

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Benefits of Aging

Here’s how fast it goes: one moment you’re sliding down the banisters in life, and the next moment, it seems, holding onto the rail and being mindful not to wear socks on the stairs….

I think about aging a lot as I run a writing workshop every thursday with a dedicated group of writers at Queen Anne Manor, a retirement home in Seattle. And every week, I learn something about how best to age, and sometimes, why aging actually is best.

Not in every way, of course. No one wants to not remember names, or take half the day to walk to town. But what I have observed is that even as memory and speed decline, one’s life experience can make up for it.

“If what you are doing depends on knowledge, then you are going to do very well as you get older,” says psychology professor Neil Charness, PhD, of Florida State University. Consider the amygdala, the almond-sized and almond-shaped mass of gray matter deep in the temporal lobe of the brain, responsible for processing both memory and emotions. “Researchers have found that as we get older, our amygdala reacts less to negative things. It still responds when there’s a real threat but is less likely to get fired up every time a passerby frowns at you,” writes Barbara Strauch in The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain. “That seems to help us do a better job of maintaining emotional stability. And we all know that those who can calmly assess a situation generally have an advantage.”

As writers, accessing situations is what we do. Each week the participants in my workshop write their way through a specific incident in their lives with surgical precision, an uncanny objectivity, and perhaps more wisdom and understanding than they had ever known. “As we grow older,” finds American Aging Research, “we begin to look at things differently, in a better perspective…. A small bump on the road no longer seems like the end of the world.”

There’s a creative bonus in aging too. “The way our brains age may give us a broader perspective on the world, a capacity to see patterns, connect the dots, even be more creative,” cites Barbara Strauch. “And brain scanners show that the parts of the brain that specialize in daydreaming get more active as we age.”

I have the good fortune to work closely with my group and learn of their lives. And all the while, I am impressed with their calm, their stability and security, their positive outlook in life, open-mindedness and good spirits. Indeed, age seems to enhance the ability to laugh at one’s self, and to enjoy life as it is.

For what’s done is done, and for writers it’s all material.

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White Gloves

Following a visit to New England this winter, my daughter mentioned how dry her hands were there. How well I know, I thought. I remember living in a railroad flat apartment in NYC where the radiator heat dried my hands such that they would crack and bleed. I treated it by applying Vaseline to my hands at night and  wearing little white gloves to bed. The gloves must have been left over from the days of my dreaded ballroom dancing lessons in a large formal hall in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, where girls were made to dance with boys, and boys with girls–before we wanted to. Round and round the ballroom we’d go, and when one of the boys stepped all over a girl’s feet, the instructor, Mr. Ryder, would single him out to the center of the dance floor and make the boy dance with him. Oh, the look of devastation on the boy’s face–and the look of delight on Mr. Ryder’s.

The ballroom dancing lessons were scheduled on friday nights, the same time “The Twilight Zone” and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” aired on television. T.V.’s best night bar none, and there was no taping then. The only redeeming thing about the evening was the requisite stop at a Friendly’s Ice Cream shop following the lessons, which whatever mother was driving the carpool that week had to make. There, having missed our favorite television programs, we felt entitled to gorge on Friendly’s Big Beef hamburger and fries with a Friendly Cola, or their milkshake, the Fribble.

My bedroom at home was papered in a bright yellow with green leaves and stems and white flowers flying around on it, as if tossed into the air. It was always spring in that room. Not so in New England. Maybe I was meant for more temperate climates, as I insisted on open windows and fresh air no matter what time of year.

Our house was a big old colonial in which every room was heated by a radiator. An oil furnace the size of a Model T automobile churned away in the basement to keep it all going. I liked my corner bedroom for the cross currant of air I could create in it. At night I’d burrow under layers of blankets and read into early hours with a flashlight: Gone with the Wind, On the Beach, Bring Me a Unicorn, and all the journals of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, falling in love not so much with Charles Lindbergh, as with Anne. I loved the way she wrote.

One night–it must have been a Nor’easter outside–wind was whipping through my room so hard the radiator went into overdrive. Hissing its head off and spraying hot steaming water all around the room, I had more reason than ever to stay buried under blankets, head and all. What could I do but scream for help? It was my father that heard my cries and came in and shut it all off (how’d he do that without getting burned?), closing my windows too most likely. An old camper at heart, he understood my craving for fresh air and had no harsh words for me, not that I remember.

Years later, in that railroad flat apartment in NYC, the radiator heat was even worse. Well, everything was. I was trying to recover from a broken marriage and deal with a divorce at the time, and not doing particularly well with either. That might have had something to do with it. So I moved West, choosing California, to put my life into some sort of sunshine. And to get out of those damn white gloves.

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